We Need To Talk About Abuses Of Power In The Spiritual Community
The dark side of devotion
As someone who likes to think of himself as a rational person, spiritual practices like meditation are sometimes difficult for me. Meditation is by its very nature, mysterious. By which I mean it forces you to ask questions which don’t have clear-cut or scientifically verifiable answers.
As you begin to explore the nature of your mind, you bump up against questions like “Who am I?” or “How should I relate to others?”, or “What am I supposed to do?”, and you see that these questions don’t have clear-cut answers. We’ll have our own feelings about the answers of course. We might believe passionately that we know what our purpose is, or that we’ve figured out the true nature of existence, but in the end, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that these intuitions are nothing more than our best guesses.
The problem is, we’re often not honest with ourselves. Worse, the teachers and gurus that we turn to for answers are often not honest either. A quick YouTube search of the word “consciousness” for example, will surface hundreds of videos featuring men and women (usually men) speaking with absolute conviction about what happens after death or about the nature of reality or the origins of the universe. All things, in case there’s any doubt whatsoever, which they can’t possibly be certain about.
Despite this, their position as spiritual gurus leads their audiences to take their intuitions seriously, instead of as interesting (or not so interesting) models for teaching a concept. Seekers invest time, money and energy trying to integrate these ideas into their understanding of the world or of their relationship to other people, all in the hopes of freeing themselves from unhappiness. And the strength of their desire to be freed from unhappiness makes them ever more susceptible the words of their guru.
I’m not trying to disparage the search for happiness. In one way or another, it’s what we’re all searching for. But I’d like to ask whether the spiritual community shouldn’t be more alert to the potential for vulnerable, credulous people to be horribly taken advantage of, abused and mistreated because they’ve been convinced that the only path to liberation is blind devotion.
We certainly don’t have to look far for evidence of these abuses of power. In just the last few years, Thailand’s Agama yoga school was forced to close down after charges of rape and sexual abuse against its leader came to light. Similar charges were brought against the founder of Bikram Yoga, Bikram Choudhury, although he was able to continue to profit from his empire after fleeing the United States. Even legendary spiritual teachers like Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, a man believed to be the incarnation of the great Tibetan master and visionary Tertön Sogyal Lerab Lingpa, was accused of multiple counts of sexual, physical and psychological abuse. These aren’t the only cases, they’re just the high profile ones.
So how can we reduce the risk of these abuses taking place? The answer to this lies in questiioning the belief that these ordinary people have answers that can only be understood through devotion. That the often impenetrable, paradoxical nature of their teaching is a sign of wisdom rather than a sign of incompetence.
I’m not saying that a true teacher should be able to lay bare the secrets of the universe in a way that would be easily understood by all, I’m saying that there is a serious problem in the instinct to follow those we believe to be wise without question.
To be a seeker is to recognise that there are things you don’t understand. It is to be humble enough to doubt, curious enough to question, and brave enough to sit with uncertainty. But that isn’t to say tha we should abandon the search for clarity altogether. Rather than being seduced by vague answers that appear wise, we should push each other to be as precise as possible. Because a culture of precision allows us to challenge everybody with the same confidence, no matter who they’re the reincarnation of.