This video represents an allegation—not proven fact—by the speaker, not elephant, and is passed along as important news for mindful, heartfelt consideration. That said, among the Buddhist community, it is well known that young monks are too-frequently subject to inappropriate physical “relationships” with their superiors. ~ ed.
Who Wants to Live Forever?
(or, There Will Be Blood..)
The body will one day die.
It is born in blood, born in the messiness of sexual congress. It needs air and food and water. It shits, it pees, it grows hair. It exudes smelly fluids. It needs others, it feels emotions. It loves sex, it ages, gets sick and dies.
The body is home, and a rich tapestry of sensation, emotion, thought, creativity, love, longing, sexual ecstasy, contemplative bliss, intellectual delight, awe and wonder in the face of nature and the eyes of another.
Here’s what we have to wake up to: there is a strong theme in the history of spirituality that attempts to overcome these undeniable truths of the body. This impossible but ubiquitous quest is the root of spiritual pathology, religious toxicity and the fragmented cultures and selves it creates.
This theme is as present in the East and as in the West, both ancient and modern, fundamentalist and mystic. It is an expression of something deep inside us that is universal.
It is at the heart of the powerful and ubiquitous self-hating idea of sexuality being other than or in the way of spirituality, and of the body as an obstacle to spiritual liberation or realization – as well as the inevitable psychological effects of this, seen most starkly in the tragic revelations of priestly pedophilia in the Catholic Church.
The organized cover-ups of these dynamics go to the highest levels of power and have perpetuated this grotesque mockery of spirituality by favoring and protecting not the victims, but the perpetrators. In what can only be described as a pact with the Devil, children are sacrificed to keep up the appearance of purity and trustworthiness.
As the Penn. State case of Larry Sandusky’s apparently long term tenure as a prolific child rapist unfolds and similar stories emerge from the shadows I am reminded again of the important role that critical thinking, fiercely compassionate protection of innocents and appropriate challenges to authority must play in healthy organizations.
Give me Superpowers or Give Me Death!
Of course, most of us Western spiritual seekers have let go of our Christian roots, we don’t really believe that Jesus is coming back to save the world anytime soon, or that we’ll roast in Hell for eternity if we don’t pledge allegiance to him in our hearts.
We dig on some enlightened masters, we swoon at claims of magical powers, and we pay heavy and profoundly-intoned lip service to the idea that yoga and meditation might enable superhuman feats and glimpses into transcendent realms.
Witness recently deceased super-guru Sai Baba and his pedophiliac legacy built on the platform of cheap magic tricks meant to demonstrate his divine nature. Witness the tragic tale of magical-thinking “power of intention” teacher from The Secret, James Arthur Ray now incarcerated for manslaughter.
Witness prolific and otherwise brilliant author Ken Wilber’s two big guru endorsements, Adi Da – perhaps the most viciously psychotic and dangerous “god-man” ever, and Andrew Cohen – a teacher of “enlightenment” who by all accounts (including those of his own mother in an exposé book) humiliates, browbeats and swindles his disciples out of their self-esteem and their cash in the name of roasting their egos.
We are similarly impressed by Tibetan Buddhist claims of reincarnated beings or “tulkus” returning again and again to work tirelessly to end human suffering. Surely they are onto something that us spiritually impoverished Americans don’t know about! Surely their methodology for recognizing little boys as enlightened masters cannot be dismissed with mere appeals to reason and scientific evidence. How gauche!
If there is a spirit realm and a soul distinct from the body – surely it is the Tibetan Buddhists that can teach us about it, right?
The Two-Year-Old Enlightened Master
Last night I was introduced to this shocking yet poignant and frank Youtube video recently made by Kalu Rinpoche in which he talks about his molestation at the hands of Buddhist monks and an attempt on his life by his own teacher.
He also acknowledges that he has no memory of his supposed past lives as the tulku of whom is supposed to be an incarnation. In case you are not familiar, Kalu Rinpoche is a widely venerated 21 year old lineage holder in Tibetan Buddhism. He was “identified” as the reincarnation of the previous Kalu Rinpoche and enthroned as a spiritual master 5 months after his 2nd birthday. Poor kid, he never had a chance.
Watch the video please:
It turns out that Tibetan Buddhist monasteries may be as plagued by the symptoms and manifestations of the fragmenting religious conflict I described above. Turns out that in addition to the current Kalu Rinpoche breaking the code of silence about molestation and behind the scenes power struggles and violence in this institution, the previous Kalu was publicly exposed by his female translator as having forced her into an abusive sexual relationship.
So here is my claim regarding the universal nature of this central idea: Both Catholic and Tibetan Buddhist traditions are rooted in the idea that a priestly caste – through celibacy, renouncing of the world and engaging in spiritual practices, attain to a special state of communion with an invisible realm not accessible to those of us still in thrall to the urges, needs and desires of the body.
This is the key dualism, and we must understand it and learn to see through its lie: spirit and flesh are different.
Spirit is deathless, flesh dies.
Flesh is sexual, spirit is above all that…
By mastering the flesh and renouncing it’s needs we can become more identified with the deathless spirit within. This will allow us to live forever, or go to heaven, or reincarnate until our work is done here, or attain freedom from the cycle of rebirth by overcoming the desire to take birth in a body that will die.
Close To Home Too
This powerfully destructive and self-fragmenting idea is at the heart of classical yoga as well. Like other traditions that idealize the disciplined and austere life choices of the monk, the nun, the priest – here the saddhu, the sanyassin, the one who renounces the world and lives above it all, beyond possessions, beyond sexual urges, beyond attachments to other people is the one who will come to knowledge of the Divine.
Some saddhus (amongst other acts of self-mutilation and mortifications of the flesh) perform a ritual activity designed to break the nerves in their penis so as to make those nasty and persistent erections impossible. They cover themselves in ashes from funeral pyres and do not wash, brush or cut their hair – all to show their lack of regard for the body.
Are all yogis saddhus? Are all Christians priests? Are all Tibetan Buddhists monks?
Of course not, but these figures are traditionally idealized as being closest to the spiritual realizations to which we – by dint of our worldly lives, especially our lack of celibacy, are denied access.
Think about it – holy people are cloistered, sexless beings who know something beyond the body and have turned their energies away from personal relationships and other worldly concerns. Supposedly – and that’s where the dangerous shadow rears it’s head: we can’t pretend to not be what we are, and institutions based in this pretense often become havens and breeding grounds for those who are already sick, and minefields for those entrusted to their care.
While we Westerners have participated in softening the tone of the famous Patanajli Yoga Sutras, make no mistake (as with the Bible) whatever reasonable and insightful observations they may also contain – they are essentially a hymn to this project of self-overcoming, withdrawl from the senses, the material world, and life of the body, into communion with an otherworldly God.
But where does all of this come from?
Brain Spandrels, Anyone?
We humans have evolved magnificently complex brains. Brains that allowed us to outwit prey animals that are faster, stronger and have sharper teeth and claws. For better or for worse we have dominated the planet and the animal kingdom because of one thing – our uniquely complex brains.
We can remember the past and compare it to the present, we can imagine the future – and even more powerfully, we can learn rapidly and plan in ways that master future events based on past experience with great efficacy. Renowned neurologist and psychology professor V.S. Ramachandran suggests that it was the development of “mirror neurons” that may have given us an edge.
In addition to being key to emotional empathy, these brain cells create an internal simulation of the actions of others that may be how we are able to learn so quickly. In his TED talk, “The Neurons that Shaped Civilization” Rama (as his friends call him) uses the example of a bear taking millions of years to evolve it’s fur coat, but of a human child just needing to watch it’s mother kill and skin the bear to be able to learn how to obtain a fur coat and survive the cold Winter. He describes this as a massive exponential leap in evolutionary efficiency.
But our evolving brains also have what theorists call “spandrels” – these are side-effects if you will, that go-with evolutionary developments in addition to the direct benefits. I suggest the most powerful evolutionary spandrel we have is this: human beings can contemplate our own deaths.
We know we will die one day, and we dread it. Because this knowledge confounds the survival imperative that drives the innovative learning process of mastering the world around us, it puts our complex brains into an unresolvable conflict: we must do everything we can to survive – but we know we will one day die anyway.
Now, you may have noticed that you felt a twinge of sadness or disgust at the bear hunting example above – well, early humans felt this too. The earliest examples we have of ritual activity go back about 120,000 years to the Drachenloch caves in the Swiss Alps. Here we find bear skulls ritually arranged in special chests, snouts facing the opening of the ceremonial cave.
We find on an altar a bear skull with a bear thighbone intentionally pushed through beneath the eye socket. Mythology scholar Joseph Campbell suggests that we felt guilty about killing animals, yet we needed them to survive – so we attempt to resolve this inner conflict, born of empathy, with ritual activity. No doubt these “empathy” neurons allow us to recognize pain and fear in the animal face, not so different from ours – and the desire (just like our own) not to die.
In our early abstract reasoning, we considered that all humans are born into the world from parents, so there must be an overarching uber parent – a category we create for “gods” who no doubt create and control the world and everything in it. So too, their must be a Great Bear Spirit who perhaps is angry at us for killing his children.
If we perform rituals that honor the bears we kill, atone for our guilt, and ask that the Great Bear Spirit continue to send us the animals we rely on for food and warm clothing, perhaps we will be OK.
So begins myth and ritual. We personify the invisible forces we imagine must exist behind the natural world and attempt to both appease and control them so as to ensure our own survival. This activity is as central to evolving human cultures as is our anxiety about death.
We pray to gods of the hunt and gods of the harvest, we create myths about how to live forever and imaginary beings who are able to transcend the limitations of our human existence.
The I That Does Not See Itself
There’s another piece of this puzzle that could be an article of it’s own, but for the sake of space will have to be limited to these few sentences. The brain does not know itself as a brain – it knows only the objects of it’s awareness, and it’s a damn good thing too!
Imagine being aware of the immensely complex neurochemical processes behind every thought, feeling, sensation etc… We’d be totally paralyzed and ineffective.
Think about it though – this fact of the brain not knowing itself directly as an organ of the body, has an interesting spandrel-like side effect, that along with
a) our “theory of mind” abilities that enable us to fairly accurately imagine the minds of others without direct evidence of them,
b) our evolutionarily advantageous default setting to “the intentional stance” which makes us imagine ( for example) the rustling we hear in the bushes might be a predator coming to eat us,
is perhaps what sets us up for mind-body dualism, or the belief that the mind or the soul is something distinct from the body.
This idea has of course been widely discredited and is no longer adhered to by the vast majority of scientists and philosophers, but it remains central to popular belief in ghosts, demons, immortal souls, gods and things like reincarnation.
Interesting, you may say – but what does all this have to do with the Confessions of Kalu Rinpoche and revolutionary spirituality?
Conclusion (The Beginning…)
Because we have this core anxiety about death, we do two things: First, we create stories about living forever, about realms of rewarding eternal bliss and realms of punishing eternal suffering. Second, we imagine the sacred as something deathless and therefore disembodied, sexless and beyond human limitation.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Jesus Christ, born of course of a virgin – and literally thought of as the figure who can resolve the problem of death by giving us eternal life if we live in accordance with God’s laws.
Jesus is one of many mythic figures said to do this for us, and he does it by becoming a kind of uber sacrificial offering to the jealous and judging invisible parent in the sky. Through his blood we are saved. This is merely the next logical step in thousands of years of animal and human sacrifice as a way to appease the gods and atone for our guilt.
We shed the blood of virgins onto the earth to ensure the harvest, we sacrificed pigs, goats and lambs in the temples to ensure victory in war, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, only to let him off the hook (knife in mid-air, trembling boy on the altar) at the last moment.
I call Jesus an “uber sacrifice” because “God so loved the world that he gave his only son to suffer and die that we may not perish but may have eternal life.” says John 3:16.
This is a logical-seeming move in the abstract reasoning of religious man to try and once and for all solve the anxiety of knowing we will die and feeling guilty for our “sins.”
But here’s the thing we really have to face: There are two key aspects of spirituality: one has to do with personal growth, cultivating compassion, mindfulness, embodied awareness, emotional honesty and other worthwhile qualities.
All traditions pay lip-service to this, some even have highly effective practices that can be shown to facilitate it.
What if this is really what spiritual practice is best at – helping us to develop full-hearted embodied awareness, to heal, to life our lives more honestly and compassionately?
What if central to a genuine spiritual ethos is grounded critical thinking that is able to see through magical claims and to let go of mythic contortions to try and avoid existential realities?
What if embracing our real lives, the world we live in, the realities of being human, and facing the world without the distortions of delusional beliefs is the real awakening?
The second aspect has to do with the evolutionary forces I describe above – and lead to hatred of the body, repression of sexuality, and preoccupation with magical powers, immortal souls and finding a way not to have to die.
So in certain key ways I am suggesting that our spiritual sickness is unintentionally written into the DNA of our evolutionary process – and it is only through becoming aware of it and using spirituality itself to turn and face our fear of death and disgust for the body that will die, the body that eats and shits and fucks, the body that loves and desires, no needs, closeness with others that we can begin to write a new code.
This is the awakening – and it flies in the face of popular and well-meaning notion that we should respect these traditions, that all beliefs are sacred, that there is no way to really know what is true, that it would be arrogant to say that these mythic and magic ideas are simply not based in any fact and perpetuate a fragmenting, deluded, anti-life spiritual meme that is best stopped dead in it’s tracks and turned on it’s head by a life-affirming embrace of our messy and mortal humanity.
No more sacrificing of children.
No more sacrificing our own bodies.
No more sacrificing our sexual nature.
No more sacrificing existential honesty.
We die at the end, it’s OK. No-one has magical powers, get over it. Mythology is symbolic, don’t interpret it literally. Remember that we are masters of self-delusion. Meditate, practice yoga, do the inner work in whatever way speaks to you – but please let part of that be the clear intention to face reality as it is, to accept the limitations of being human as the canvas upon which we paint our magnificence.
Compassion and wisdom are born in the blood of openly and honestly facing our lives and the human condition without the very deluded distortions that are commonly labelled as “spiritual” or “religious.”
Beyond these dismembering delusions we can re-member our bodies as being themselves inherently sacred.
Wanna wake up, wanna join the revolution?
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