John Friend, Genpo Roshi, Katagiri Roshi, Swami Muktananda, Adi Da.
These are all teachers that I or my teachers have studied with, and who have been involved in scandals involving sex, money and power.
These teachers have all wielded tremendous influence in spirituality in the West. Through their transgressions they have left many of their students a legacy of confusion, cynicism and despair. They have also allowed society’s skeptics, cynics and materialists to puff with self-righteousness as they tear down the silly spiritualists, the guru cults and the spiritual endeavor itself.
As a personality type, each of these teachers shares a particular quality: profound, unflappable self-confidence.
This quality appears to have predated their respective moments of spiritual realization (which are certainly not equal), and to have been part of their inherent nature as humans. They are the kind of people who could have (or did) succeed “in the world,” competing as world-class athletes, building successful multi-national businesses, or becoming globally renowned polymathic intellectuals or artists, but/and chose to bring their gifts into the psychologically, ethically fraught world of Western spirituality.
In this spiritual world, they are the fierce practitioners and realizers that many of us have aspired to be. I have always assumed that it was their unique hubris that propelled them through the long hours of practice, the grueling dark nights of the soul, the moments of self-confronting crisis that seem to be necessary for spiritual breakthrough.
That same hubris apparently allowed each to develop enormous psychological blind spots, gaping holes large enough to facilitate moral self-contradictions of confounding magnitude.
These teachers have each embodied exceptional self-confidence, charisma, and had access to gushing currents of subtle energy and transformative spiritual insight. Their western students have commonly been possessed of some level of postmodern angst and self-doubt, aching spiritual hunger, access to abundant material resources, lots of book smarts, and familial and cultural histories of deep sexual repression. To bring these forces together in the crucible of authentic spiritual practice created a recipe not only for profound opening and transformation, but for abuse, manipulation, and bitter disappointment for both teachers and students.
What’s a spiritual student to do?
It’s all been hashed out a million times: we can use the opportunity to wrestle with our own daddy issues, we can take more responsibility for our own paths, we can create a sangha that will take on the function of the Buddha. It’s all true, and blah, blah, blah.
The one thing I can say with reasonable certainty is that the world, and my life, is better off because of each of these men. I, too, participated in the small, blissful yoga workshops with John Friend at a retreat center atop the spine of a Utah mountain range.
One moment stands out: I stood in padangusthasana, one foot outstretched in front of me. John stepped in front, held my foot, looked me in the eye, and asked, “James, have I ever let you down?” The answer was no, of course not. Though I’d met him a scant two years earlier, he’d helped me through physical challenges, opened my head and heart to experiences I never thought possible. He gave me a window into authentic spiritual life that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Even now, that John Friend never has let me down. The bright, committed, teacher-in-service continues to cleave to the light to this day. What I didn’t understand, and still find hard to swallow, is that there are many Johns, including some that are incredibly dark, irresponsible, unconscious, and would appear to act without conscience.
Genpo Roshi made a career out of, and invented an incredible practice based on working with the energy of shadow. I love Big Mind, and consider it a tremendous boon for my own spiritual development. Yet as the now-disrobed Dennis Merzel has shown us, even being a master in working with shadow cannot protect us from moral failure.
Adi Da Samraj, Swami Muktananda, Katagiri Roshi—how many hearts were broken open, how many beings awakened with the help of these men! How many confused, hurt, stupefied students did they leave in their wake?
We humans are so innocent, bumbling like infants in our crawls and steps toward the light of consciousness. It is only natural we would think there is a perfect parent-like person out there, someone who wouldn’t ever let us down, who has transformed their shadow into a free source of powerful, radiant love available for all—but especially for us personally.
It hurts so much when our much projected-upon teachers fall, sending us back into the muddling, painful confusion of our own unresolved relationships with sex, money, power, family, love, spirit.
Must great light always cast deep shadow? Can we hold the paradox of simultaneous human imperfection and spiritual perfection?
Can we assess a teacher on moral grounds established by civilization’s consensus, even when we know we must transcend that consensus?
Our rigid morals hold the fabric of civilization together, and yet they hold us back. Can we transcend conventional morals without capitulating to self-serving rationalization—the kind that leads to everything from adultery to genocide?
I appreciate more than ever Chogyam Trungpa’s approach: be honest. Drink, womanize, whatever—just tell us about it, so we can know what the hell we are getting into (or know that we have no idea what we are getting into).
Of course our projections are our own responsibility, but I appreciate a teacher that respects me enough to trust that I can handle some contradiction, some humanity, some weird sh*t.
In contemplating the path of my fallen teachers, I find that I just don’t know. I am thrown back into the mystery of it all, the open-ended not-knowing that is the natural culmination of any contemplation. I just don’t know, and I am so sad, and so grateful.
Editor: Brianna Bemel
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