Religious Blindness, Part 2
Sufi Saying: When a pickpocket looks at a saint, all he sees is pockets.
There is an amazing but depressing book entitled Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center. It should be depressing for anyone who is on a spiritual path because it shows the deep vulnerability of “spiritual practitioners” to a form of blindness. It is already an old story but worth revisiting. This is not to pick on Zen or Buddhism because every religious tradition has had its troubles of late–for example the average Catholic has no clue how really bad the sexual problems are that pervade the Church’s priesthood. And all the other traditions have had their troubled situations also.
In the 1970s the Zen Center in San Francisco was one of the “in” places for Buddhism in the U.S. All kinds of important people gravitated to it and gave it their approval. Thousands became students, disciples, lay monks, Buddhist practitioners at the Zen Center and its two main satellites: Tassajara, the monastery; and Green Gulch, the farm-commune. It seemed to be a model for “how to do it.” But a cancer was growing underneath it all. Once the Japanese leader of the community died, the American who was designated abbot and zen master became engaged in problematical behavior. By the early 1980s this could no longer be ignored. It turns out he was sexually exploiting a number of his women students. He was also living a lavish life-style at the expense of the community and acting more and more unhinged from the community.
The amazing thing is that Buddhism, among all the great spiritual traditions, makes a most emphatic point about “awareness.” Whatever deeper ramifications that awareness contains, one would think that it would also include seeing what is right in front of one’s nose. Yet the senior members of the Zen Center were in a state of denial for years at what their leader was doing. The book makes this point concretely:
“To practice zazen, Suzuki-roshi often reminded his students, is to study the self. By 1983, the senior priests at Zen Center had logged a lot of hours in the study hall. The work and meditation schedule they kept was famous for its rigor. Typically, they sat for almost two hours every morning, beginning at five, attended a midday service, and sat again for an hour or two in the evening until nine. During the two annual Practice Periods, the daily meditation periods were extended…. At the end of each Practice Period, they sat a seven-day sesshin–twelve to fourteen hours a day for seven straight days…. In fifteen years, Reb, Yvonne, Lew and the other senior students who kept the daily schedule had each sat zazen for at least 10,000 to 15,000 hours…
“And yet, by any common-sense standard, the most seasoned meditators at Zen Center repeatedly flunked simple tests of self-awareness…”
This is a sobering fact and a warning to all spiritual practitioners. No matter what your tradition is; no matter what spiritual practices you engage in or how “intense” you are or they are; there is a vulnerability to a certain kind of religious blindness that is especially pernicious because it wraps itself in the accouterments of religion. To shift focus for a moment, think of Jesus in the New Testament–he was most hard on people who were “religious.” In fact, he did call them “blind guides” or something like that. Getting back to the Zen Center, one of the members hit a bullseye in analyzing what happened there:
“In fact, we were not blind,” he says. “Many people in the community knew troubling things long before 1983. Some had witnessed sexual harm. Some were aware of the financial problems all along. Some claim to have seen nothing. Every bit was playing out under our noises. And we all stayed, so what does that tell you?”
“I can see that I wanted to be conned. I wanted not to see the inconsistencies.”
“If you were confused or worried about something that Richard did, and you asked Reb or Blanche or one of the senior priests about it, they fell back on the mystery of Transmission. The answer was, Richard has Transmission. Suzuki-roshi had invested his spirit, somehow, mystically into Richard Baker, and attached his spiritual standing to Richard Baker through a mysterious ceremony.”
“They weren’t kidding. And this is what people wanted to be told, because Transmission is what these people wanted. They were ambitious, and only Richard could give it to them, because he was the only one who had it.”
In other word, the senior members of the community were like the pickpocket mentioned by the Sufis–they saw only what was in their interest–actually in the interest of their ego self. No matter how much they meditated. What it takes to overcome/get beyond and be free of this ego self and all its interests is an extensive subject that we will touch on in other postings. Suffice it to say that the only real, existential criteria of real spiritual growth are freedom and compassion (and perhaps one can say “humility”–but that can be tricky). More about that later also.
Lets return to a more global overview. Buddhism has had its problems all over the place just as bad as any other tradition. What makes this so troubling is that Buddhism makes such a big point about awareness, about being awake, about “seeing things in their reality”–yet socially they flounder just as badly as anyone else. Consider this from the book:
“And isn’t it weird, wonders one of Richard’s former students, that the very people who condemned Richard for his acquisitiveness and attachment to material things are still living in the kingdom he created? Yes, says Lew, but what’s even weirder is that Zen Center replicated in one generation the problem that has corrupted every Buddhist institution on the planet. When the Communists took over in China in the 1940s, who were the biggest landowners? The Buddhist monks. The monasteries had become fiefdoms over the centuries. The same is true largely in Tibet, though no one wants to say so. The Chinese cannot justify one killing in Tibet, but their sociopolitical analysis is not all wrong. Buddhism has always suffered with the fact that the Buddha was a world-renouncing monk. The Buddha knew his palace was nothing, so he moved out. Zen Center amassed palaces, and everybody moved in. Is that not a little weird?”
And the Zen Center was not the only Buddhist place in the U.S. that experienced serious problems. A number of teachers and roshis were afflicted with alcoholism and problematic sexual behavior. The most famous (or notorious) one was the famous Tibetan teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche. Again, from the book:
“If Trungpa wanted to have a sexual affair with someone, he didn’t pretend to fall in love. He told the person he wanted to screw her. If the person agreed, that was her karma.”
“Tibetans follow in the Indian style that you must have absolute faith in the guru,” says Gary Snyder, “you must obey the guru and accept whatever the guru tells you. People spoke that way about Trungpa. I was scolded by one of his disciples for laughing at Trungpa. He was a nut. But they were very offended.”
“Trungpa chose as his Vajra Regent–his American teaching heir–a man named Osel Tendzin. Osel continued Trungpa’s wild ways for a few years,
but he failed to tell the disciples with whom he had sexual relations that he had contracted HIV. Osel died of Aids-related complications in 1990, having communicated the virus along with the teaching.”
“Trungpa,” says Gary Snyder, “Talk about cultic. He had women bodyguards in black dresses and high heels packing automatics standing in a circle around him while they served sake and invited me over for a chat. It was bizarre.”
In conclusion, let us listen to a Sufi account as rendered by Thomas Merton in one of his prose poems–the great Sufi mystic, Ibn Al Arabi is speaking:
“When the body of Averroes was brought once more to Spain, and when the people of Cordova were gathered to watch its return to the city of burial,
The coffin containing his remains was mounted on one side of a beast of burden. And on the other side, for counterweight, what did they hang but all the books Averroes had written!
I too was watching, in the company of the scholar Benchobair, and of my disciple, Benazzarach.
Turning to us, the young one said: ‘Do you not observe what it is that hangs as counterweight to the Master Averroes as he rides by? On one side goes the Master, and on the other side his works, that is to say the books he composed!’
Then Benchobair explained, ‘No need to point it out, my son, for it is clearly evident! Blessed be thy tongue that has spoken it!’
I took careful note of this word of my disciple, and I set it apart for future meditation, as a reminder of this event.
For this was the word that held the secret of the occasion…”
Important to see “the event” in its totality and not just “pockets”; important to observe what is going on in front of one’s nose; important to ponder the meaning contained within that event; important finally to “bring it home” to the heart in order to realize its true connections to one’s self–because it is never simply “someone else’s problem.”