forest devotional shrine

This entry comes from the book, Awake in This Life.


So why is it that so many seemingly enlightened masters get into so much trouble? If someone Awakens, we might imagine that he or she is beyond all of the bad stuff. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. I guess the answers to these and other questions about harmful choices made by teachers depend on what we mean by “enlightened.” On the one hand, if particular individuals no longer identify with anything other than the spaciousness of the present moment and they act from this space, then they might be considered enlightened by many people. After all, they can talk the talk and seduce the masses with the beautiful ways in which they reflect the sacred back toward everything and everyone. In order to accomplish this seduction, these “teachers” probably had an experience of a still and silent unity pointing out that there is no self, no body, no time, and no mind, but then they mistakenly chose to reconfigure this new perspective into some method of teaching reflective of a kind of personal attachment. Their insights into the nature of Emptiness may have been profound, but their integration of them into the world of form was only partial. This lack of integration is what gets the teachers, the teaching, and entire communities into trouble, and this problem always comes from a deluded view that sees itself as an embodiment of Truth.

Years before I showed up, a situation like this happened at my home temple. Zentatsu Richard Baker was the charismatic and brilliant heir to Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center. Under Baker’s direction, the Zen Center grew to own properties and businesses throughout the Bay Area. As a center of spiritual activity it thrived as well, offering the first Soto Zen monastic training program outside of Japan beginning in the late 1960s. For all that the Zen Center offered, deep dysfunction began to surface in its leadership. In the early 1980s, Richard Baker was forced to leave his position for several reasons, not the least of which involved sleeping with some of his students. It’s taken years to undo the damage that Baker caused. His insights as well as his ability to convey their meaning may have been deep and profound, but his lack of integration led his ego to see itself as Enlightened.

Baker by no means stands alone. Many people from many different spiritual communities have had to live with the collateral damage that their leaders’ missteps have caused. Any teacher from any tradition may have a profound teaching to offer, but just because they assume the mantle of teacher doesn’t mean that they won’t get caught by an inability to integrate the Ultimate with the all-important conventional versions of Truth. This is because teachers can only offer us partial applications of realization if they personalize their understanding of Truth. Once they do this, their teaching is something that is held tightly in their grip.

Just think of all of the books written on the subject of religion. Differing views abound, with many different teachers suggesting that their view is the right one. This isn’t true for every one of them, but many teachers of nonattachment are attached to their own view. And as we know, if any realization becomes personal, it becomes one-sided and out of balance. In the natural world, anything that is out of balance and perpetuates itself is called “disease.” So an out-of-balance teacher, teaching, or community can get sick pretty quickly if an open environment of questioning isn’t integrated into everyone’s practice. This open questioning maintains a conscious fusion of form with Formlessness; it also keeps the teacher, the teaching, and the group from getting hooked on anything. This integration of Ultimate Truth with conventional reality becomes critically important to offering and supporting mature expressions of an Enlightened perspective. Once this integration happens, we see that both the Ultimate and the conventional aspects of existence hold equal weight. Without a balanced representation of these two sides of the equation, there is no authentic or wholesome teaching of Awakening that any teacher can reveal.

No matter where we are on the Mountain of Spirit, it is critical for us to use our common sense. Be careful to affiliate only with those practitioners and teachers who inspire confidence and trust. Look at the most senior students of a particular teacher to get an idea as to where the teacher is guiding his or her group, and choose in accordance with all that rings true to your deepest sense of what is good and authentic. And always be aware that attachment, including attachment to nonattachment, is at the root of bad teaching and compromised Awakening. The unintegrated teacher is one that is caught by some personal view of the world or by his or her view of the impersonal Truth. Maybe it’s even some combination of the two. Any way we look at it, whenever a teacher is caught, his or her commitment to generous intentionality is compromised and this derails the process of Awakening. No matter where any clinging occurs, even if it is to the enlightened perspective itself, there will be trouble. If, on the other hand, the teacher lets go of all arising perspectives without denying any of them and then meets everything that shows up in Awareness with his or her full grace and unselfish attention, enlightened activity will naturally unfold as the teacher’s moment-to-moment response to living.

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