Douglas Brooks, talking about his own teacher:
I wanted to make him a hero.
He would have none of it, no singular guru.
I said, Appa, how many gods are there?
He replied, “There are 330 million, and they are all you.”
Are all the gods really One or is there One God?
Appa said, “There’s not one of anything.”
I’m so glad you talked at length about the notion of guru. To me, having grown up in a wonderful Buddhist tradition that nevertheless had two major scandals, and knowing other communities and teachers who’ve been through similar difficulties, the root cause that keeps causing these painful episodes is theism—our human tendency to fall for charisma and power. In the student’s case, we worship fame, charm and wisdom, and in the teacher’s case, too often, they get drunk off the power of community and the teachings.
Why did your guru say he didn’t want to be worshipped?
Douglas Brooks: My teacher saw “god” or the gods as reflections and refractions of our human experience: the process of “worship” is yet another way to experience ourselves, nature, culture, the universe through the lens of human experience. We mean to become more human—that was divine enough for him. When he invited me to live in his house I am certain that it was because he wanted me to see his humanity; his flaws and doubts, his trials and joys, the whole of our experience. That was the point he was always trying to make: that to delve more deeply into our humanity is the divine.
Waylon Lewis: That’s great. Trungpa Rinpoche talked a lot about “kitchen sink dharma.” He always tried to undermine his students’ projections of what spirituality looked like, and talked constantly about the notion of “non-theism”—how this path isn’t about worship or faith but rather that we’re all fundamentally decent and have dignity and we don’t need to be rock star groupies—that groupie-ism is in some way a dangerous, unhealthy and unnecessary entertainment.
So it seems like you’re the man for this hour.
We put folks up on pedestals and of course they’re never perfect. And if they think they’re perfect, then quickly like Icarus they burn themselves up and, in this case, burn others as they do so. So how can we in yoga or spiritual communities stop falling into hero worship?
Douglas Brooks: We all need community, because to realize our potential as human beings we need the love, the support, and the evolution of valuable conversation. As yogis we mean to engage deeply, to yoke ourselves. To what? To each other, to the things we understand to be of worth and value, to the possibilities a universe so vast offers. But to create deeper engagement we must nurture a conversation of peers. We must learn the difference between deference and submission. We defer to allow others to do their job well, express their gifts, and make an offering to the community—but we don’t submit, we don’t abdicate the responsibility to conscience. We become better, greater when we realize that we can accomplish more together, far more, than we could ever achieve alone. Enlightenment is a collective experience.
Waylon Lewis: Beautiful. So if we are vigilant, all of us reading this, from now on, about never abdicating our critical intelligence as Trungpa called it or “the responsibility to conscience,” as you say, then we can help to prevent future such sad, painful episodes? Because otherwise it seems like all we’re doing is dealing with this situation—which is vital.
But we’ll keep repeating history if we don’t learn from this. It’s important, for all of us in positions of responsibility and leadership in our own lives and jobs, to listen to criticism from those who offer it with love.
Douglas Brooks: We need more than the vigilant efforts of good conscience. We need models of collective authority, communities that work to create models of shared power. My teacher always said, the guru is the kula, the community. We acknowledge the importance of credentials, achievement, talent, experience, and great heart but we must delegate the seat of authority, the seat of the teacher, each to their gifts and for the benefit of the community. No one would want me teaching a hatha yoga class! But you might want me around for other things. It’s a sometimes messy business, but when power is decentralized from a single authority, then we have a chance. In the past week we saw a community rally to conversation and collective support. When some learned that an “elite” group was in conversation they wanted to be included, that’s natural, or questioned the group’s membership. I urged folks to rally their own friends and colleagues and start conversations of their own, trust in processes of collaboration, know that we take care of each other when we are transparent and accountable.
Waylon Lewis: Fantastic. This sounds a little like a debate about monarchy vs. communism!
So, on the other hand, how can we keep such episodes from making us all too fear-based—making up rules that don’t even really work except to stifle the magic of practice and community? Seems to me many such liberal communities, having been through scandal, become incredibly rigid and humorless and uptight…understandably trying to prevent future inappropriate behavior. But the PC-ness becomes another sort of problem.
For instance, at Naropa University, which “Crazy Wisdom” Trungpa Rinpoche founded, they’re now so afraid of controversy that they have a rule against serving alcohol at faculty parties. How can we walk the Middle Way here?
Douglas Brooks: We need to learn how to affirm the fullness of our human experience.
Fear can be a constructive experience when we learn not to deny or repress, and understand its role in empowering experience. There is no courage without some important element of fear to empower the heroic act. My teacher called this process “radical affirmation.” When we create inclusive conversation about every human possibility, then community can understand that everything we humans were born with can become an asset to our understanding.
Buddhists create the strategy of the Middle Way, while in our south Indian Tantra we talk about how we learn to expand with boundaries, but not exceed them.
The community needs to begin with the notion that we are already free beings: what lies before us is how we yoke ourselves. What’s valuable enough that you would yoke yourself, commit yourself so that there is more at stake than merely your own narrow interests? When we have clear boundaries, then we have no limits.
Waylon Lewis: But not boundaries based on fear alone. Fear yes is a good and necessary instinct or constructive force as you say if we understand its role in allowing us to live life fully.
One last question: I know you and John have been close for many years, but clearly you regard your friendship not as blind support but as caring enough to be kindly but clearly critical. How should we all regard John, right now? Clearly there is a lot of understandable anger. He is human and obviously flawed, but just as clearly has great gifts.
Will he take a meaningful retreat to work on himself? If he does so, can we welcome him back within clear boundaries, as you say?
Douglas Brooks: We all acknowledge and respect John’s great gifts as a hatha yoga teacher. I hope he pursues the challenges ahead for him to create a healthier and richer self-understanding. However we, his friends and community, choose to express our support for his process, it is up to him to step into new possibilities.
I love John as a brother and want him to know that I will always offer him my friendship, compassion, and counsel anytime he reaches out to me.
As for his relationship to the Anusara community, he will need to rebuild the trust that yokes words to actions…and the rest will evolve.
Waylon Lewis: Thank you, Dr. Brooks! Great to reconnect. You’re my favorite Tantra Godfather. Respect!
~ Statement from Douglas Brooks ~
My relationship to Anusara Yoga began on the day John Friend and I collaborated to create the name. We’d met a few years before that when we had each been invited without conditions to offer our work in the context of Siddha Yoga.
I like to joke that I am Anusara’s godfather, though we all know that I know next to nothing about teaching methods of contemporary hatha yoga. I write today to comment on my role in the recent disclosures and the controversy that continues to unfold.
Let me begin by saying how my heart is heavy and that I am truly sad for the community of Anusara…so, so many friends and folks who might call me “teacher” or “scholar,” and for my old friend, John who I know is suffering. I feel compassion for him, but I chose not to stand beside him during the current Anusara event in Miami. I wanted to support the Anusara community who gathered from around the world. And my colleague, the brilliant and compassionate Dr. William K. Mahony, I know did everything he could to bring dignity, honesty, and beauty to the subject under discussion. I was personally invited to teach in Miami, but declined. Allow me to explain why.
Last week I was involved in hours upon hours of conversation in which my counsel was requested. I presented vigorous and sometimes blunt argument and commentary. I never intended to be incendiary, indulge in vitriol, or create an agenda. I have no desire or intention to bring down John Friend. Quite the contrary, I attempted to offer a beginning to the remodeling of Anusara in a dramatic, perhaps drastic way—one that would allow John to be re-admitted into the conversation of his peers as a teacher, perhaps even as a leader.
I argue with passion, as anyone who knows me knows, and I tried and will continue to make my points with transparent revelation of any personal interest. I love my friends. My friends asked me for my help. I am sure not everyone in that circle of deep conversation either knows me or appreciates my style. Some may suspect my motives, so all I can do is let the record of words speak as the best evidence of my honest intentions.
To be clear, John called me with real pain in his voice to ask me with humility if I would “stand with him” because he felt the need to speak at the Miami event. He wanted me as a teacher of yoga students to teach in some capacity with him and others, to share the stage. But it was primarily because my advice was so contrary to the notion that John should sit in the seat of the teacher and that my primary suggestion involved creating an entirely new model of leadership that I declined to participate.
(Bill Mahony was spared this long week of private conversation and entered the room in Miami without any ties to the current situation. Bill acted out of pure generosity, integrity, and decency. We spoke very little before he made his decision due to our mutual obligations, and since the invitation to him came at the 11th hour, such as it was. I am not going to presume to speak for Bill except to offer my unqualified support for his great effort and admiration for his scholarship and his amazing heart.)
John—during the period after these serious allegations were made—argued for his participation in the seat of the teacher. That, I believe, was a mistake, because as a practical matter I believed a number of teachers would take umbrage at this decision. It is impossible to say if the alternative(s) proposed–and I don’t mean only “mine” but rather that I only speak for myself here by saying that it begins with John choosing not to teach—would have produced a better result than the current situation.
Let me summarize my practical counsel, for which I take complete responsibility, which was not in agreement with other views. I presented an argument in the way an academic or a counselor would, and I believe that the august members of this circle are each perfectly capable of making up their own minds. To suggest that I persuaded them or in any way cajoled them, I believe, would insult their great gifts. These are all smart, dedicated, and good people, many of whom have been true friends to me and, I am privileged to say, have studied with me as a teacher. I have only admiration for all involved in the conversations and honestly respect those who supported John’s conclusion that he should teach as their own good sense of what was best for all.
My arguments cut deeply into the history of yoga traditions, the transmission and invention of contemporary hatha yoga, and my understandings gathered from personal experience and from the wisdom of my teacher. (In a word: my own teacher was by any measure an authentic proponent of a particular tradition of south Indian Tantra, whose views I readily acknowledge are in some variance–often with dramatic differences—from so-called “traditional” or we might say “purist” views. There are as many “Tantras” as there are authentic proponents and I make it clear when I am representing my teacher’s tradition or that of the academic study of religions. The latter attempts a fair and deeply empathetic effort to explain all views with honesty and clarity. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, but as a scholar-practitioner I see no basic conflict between these projects. In fact, I see academic and spiritual studies as entirely complementary.)
Last week, I argued there was another way to Occupy Anusara, to provide the space to bring John the help he needs for his eventual re-admission to his community gracefully as a peer among his students.
My premise was simple: if John did not assume the seat of the teacher in any respect for a decisive period of transformation, then Anusara Yoga stood a better chance of preventing fracture and confusion in the community.
Here’s my take on larger matters. The allegations of misconduct directed at John are matters the gravity of which cannot be diminished. Whether he is guilty of any criminal behavior is entirely beyond the purview of this conversation. What we must consider are community standards and expectations of leadership within a model of authority created by Anusara’s sole proprietorship and the model that involves the de facto recognition of a guru, the teacher of extraordinary gifts and value.
I believe a fundamental issue here involves the relationship of authority and power within the history of yoga, even the history of contemporary hatha yoga. In sum, I oppose in principle the notion that any one voice can claim authority to speak for others and represent them without mechanisms of accountability to those represented. In sum, I oppose tyranny of any kind, any model in which one person is the superior over all other “equals.”
In practical terms, another way to describe this despotism is through the model of the “guru,” by which I mean nothing more than only one person in community, the Kula, possessing an authority of inordinate determinative powers, worldly and spiritual.
In my own tradition, which my teacher called Rajanaka Tantra, no single human being could maintain the seat of the guru. The guru is a plural, never a singular. When I advised John years ago—when he chose not to associate with my teacher’s tradition—that was the right thing for him to do. He wanted to be a “big tent” and to permit individuals to create their own spiritual identities under a “Tantric-inspired” teaching. I told him that was great, that I would be happy to explain different traditions as an educator. No one need subscribe, “align,” or agree with the advocacy of my own tradition, which would be presented alongside all others as a peer. Further, I advised him not to attempt to create any “new” Tantra of his own. In 2005 or so, which is when these conversations occurred, he agreed that Anusara Yoga was a style of hatha yoga, and to his credit he has always maintained that he is not a guru much less an “enlightened being.” Without engaging in any further discourse here about the lofty and sublime notions of the guru, the guru-principle, etc., my concerns were practical as well as ideological. Any guru situation that implies or manifests a position of spiritual superiority is, as I see it, deeply vulnerable to corruption.
This points to our next conversation.
I argued in 2005 that with me or without me: John must define Anusara by gathering an increasing number of “senior” teachers, acknowledge their gifts and the authority they possess, and so create a growing circle of peers in which he sees himself as only another peer. He would then be held accountable, diffuse power from himself, effectively dissolve the innately corrupt model of the one guru that claims equality for all but actually vests power in only one person. Again, I am not interested here in a lofty examination of the “guru-principle.” I am instead explaining how my own teacher taught that the “one guru” model is an inadequate model for human organization. We, as human beings, may claim divine or spiritual experiences of all sorts but we always answer to each other, we never relinquish our human responsibilities to anything less than collaborative authorities.
John refused my suggestion, claiming that all of his teachers were equal and that my idea was “hierarchy” and his “equality.” Rather, I explained that my idea, which was my own teacher’s understanding of the guru, was an acknowledgment of deference to those who have earned their credentials under critical scrutiny in a model that means only to increase the number of peers, insists on inclusion in all decision-making, works the messy business of authority by making sure that no one person holds the reins. Rather, the “seat of the teacher” moves with all the members of the Kula, the community. Many have heard me lecture about this concept: we in Rajanaka Tantra do not believe in the oneness of authority. We believe that the divine is only discovered as and through our vulnerable, flawed, and human nature. If this means that “God” is just as incomplete, unfinished, and uncertain as we humans are, then so be it. The difficult and sometimes flawed business of using our minds and hearts to the best of our abilities together is the Rajanaka notion of a spiritual life of community.
Anusara as John created it, in my opinion, created “equality” among his students but averred implicitly to the notion that the sole proprietor (in this case, John) is the singular source of all authority. John need not consult or he might consult, but Anusara is his business and in the most mundane and utterly practical way this not only a Western business model—but also another example of a guru model. And if it is not really a presentation of the guru, it is the perception of gurus as authorities that is too real to ignore.
I am not rejecting the concept of a great teacher to which one defers with commitment, devotion, and love. Rather, I am insisting that gurus are accountable to their students for the entirety of their actions. No one gets a pass. This understanding may be considered anathema to some traditions of the guru that speak to the abilities of a human being to become “Shiva in human flesh” or whomever is the manifest form of perfection (whatever might be meant by that). Now, in our society, the sole proprietor of a business has total control, which means one must submit to the control of the given product (in this case, “Anusara”) to that principal.
The worst justification of despotic rule invariably comes from a model that vests too much power in one person, because these are the makings of a “cult.” My teacher taught me that as we learn together, truth is a collective and collaborative experience that must include the possibilities of doubt and error. To hold the seat of teacher is also to give it up and share it, that our jobs followed the old adage: “to surpass the master is to repay the debt” in such a way that no one individual would ever be regarded as the one in power.
Now to the present. Last week I argued that Anusara could begin with a revolution that displaces this practical model of the de facto guru who has singular control over the teachings and identity of the organization. Occupy Anusara could have been “led” by John if he declined to take the seat of the teacher, realizing that he had violated the community’s trust (no matter the truth of allegations) and that his style and form of leadership had made Anusara yet another cliché of the fallen guru cult that so easily identifies yoga and/or of the powerful man who has fallen and asks for forgiveness. I argued to spare John any public humiliation but demonstrate through his actions rather than words that he is serious about his personal issues and that Anusara belongs to the community he has fostered. It neither meant to protect nor spare him a comeuppance, because he will face his own issues as time unfolds.
From the outside, Anusara may look like another guru cult, like it or not, even if that is a “false” understanding. Let’s keep it real. The idea was to give John a better option by removing himself entirely from the teacher’s seat, to change the model of what it means to practice Yoga. My argument maintained that Anusara could actually revolutionize the narrative of yoga itself if the styles of contemporary hatha yoga are to be spared the cultic accusations that are naturally leveled against “fallen gurus.”
It matters not whether John claimed to be a guru; it matters not whether this perception is a misunderstanding of the guru-principle. What does matter is that human communities need to organize with accountability that creates mechanisms and standards of behavior that apply to all. Further, it could be that Anusara Yoga becomes an example rather than the cliché or the cult.
The details of how such a new model of shared authority and credible voice were not further pursued, because John insisted that he present at his Miami event.
The Miami event was long planned and his self-disqualification would have all sorts of practical and business consequences. My idea may have been too idealistic or impractical. But somehow if John were to disqualify himself from teaching and make sure not to allow this event to become a premature foray into forgiveness and redemption, he could at some time in the future be re-admitted to the community as a teacher of stature. I argued last week that John had, at least temporarily, lost authority to speak for his community and to teach in his community. The damage to Anusara would be made worse, I suggested, if he took the seat of the teacher because some would surely take an ethical stand to dissociate from the organization because he had not sufficiently separated the man from the message. I thought this the better strategy, and anyone inside our conversations knows I made this argument repeatedly.
Just as importantly, the yoga world needs an example now of a new model of the teacher who leads a large organization. I suggested that John himself could provide that model by reframing the narrative of the “guru” in truly democratic terms. The community would rally to John’s healing rather than forgive him before the serious matters of the allegations are better understood.
John argued for his role, for the need to speak, and I argued perhaps too vociferously that he had lost that prerogative to make that decision for the community. As I see it, that’s how it went down. I’m sure there will be different versions of this understanding, just like there are those who believe John had every right to speak, and needed to. I respect all of these differences of opinion. It was not my job, as I see it, to do more than offer an understanding, because I was asked to be involved.
I am deeply sad for all of the yogis and teachers who have suffered and are suffering now in the Anusara community. I am so very sad for my friend John. I wish him every good thing, health, and prosperity. I have not commented here on the substance of the allegations, or any admissions of behavior. Adults have relationships, all sorts of things happen in life, and these situations are not all the same. Everyone’s private life deserves our respect.
It is our public life to which we are held especially accountable and, as leaders of communities, we must meet the standards of conduct established by community.
Professor of Religion
Douglas Brooks is a scholar of Hinduism, south Asian languages, and the comparative study of religions. He lived in India with his teacher, Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy, studying and practicing Srividya, Auspicious Wisdom, and the modern traditions of goddess-centered Rajanaka Tantra. A graduate of Harvard University, he has been Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester in New York for the past 25 years.