From my point of view the importance of having someone to talk about Dharma with can’t be stressed enough. I never have someone to talk about Dharma with but as far as I am concerned talking about Dharma with someone and sharing it with a friend is more valuable than most things. It is more nourishing and beneficial in my experience and stays with you longer.
If you have someone to talk about Dharma with you are so lucky, it is so rare and one of the most fortunate things ever. When I die I wont be happy about how much money I earned, my reputation or how much I talked to people about stuff I will be happy about each and every Dharma talk be it few of them and treasure all of them as the best of my life because they are meaningful. They are meaningful because they mean something to me but money is not meaningful because it does not mean anything to me when I die.
I came across a fascinating essay today by John Crook, entitled: Dangers in Devotion: Buddhist Cults and the Tasks of a Guru, which was a paper presented at the conference ‘The Psychology of Awakening II’ at Dartington Hall, October 1998. The essay is available at: http://www.westernchanfellowship.org/lib/wcf////dangers-in-devotion-buddhist-cults-and-the-tasks-of-a-guru/
It is a long essay, deeply erudite and thoughtful, and one well worthy of concentrated study from start to finish. In it he talks about the emerging danger of some Buddhist organisations in the West descending into ‘cults’, and looks at ways in which this process can be avoided. In particular, he says:
These Buddhist cults resemble the guru-based institutions of Hinduism more than they do their Buddhist origins. In Hinduism, gifted and charismatic gurus become the focus of a personal cult of devotional practice and at any one time there are many of these for potential devotees to choose from. The loose framework of Hindu belief and practice allows a high level of personal choice in such matters but not all gurus are free from the many forms of ethical corruption. How do such ‘cults’ arise? The psychology of such processes has become clear in recent years. Individual identity requires the formation of key values for which social approval is given and without which an individual experiences painful alienation. Traditionally these were given by the society in which a person lived, and we had monolithic religions dominating large areas of the world. Since in contemporary society the philosophical basis for values has become culturally relative and science has for many removed the belief in supernatural forces, individuals are forced to choose between a range of equally valid interpretations of the cosmos and of the way to personal salvation. Once a ‘way’ is chosen it becomes an area of profound psychological investment so that anything that threatens it also threatens the self. On accepting an institutionalised value system personal identity is largely replaced by social identity – that is the individual identifies with the social norms of the group.
Value systems are based in what Muscovici has called social representations. These are ideas and attitudes that are seen to represent the “real” and which are believed to be the truth. Social identity is rooted in the adoption of representations of “truth” and anything that threatens their credibility thus comes also to threaten the person. When the fount of wisdom is a particular individual, an unthinking devotion may develop which in worst-case scenarios leads to the establishment of an accepted tyranny. When an individual finally rumbles what is happening and attempts to break away into independence and an acceptance of his or her existential aloneness the reaction of other believers is apt to be intense. The question must therefore be asked whether cults of this kind and with this psychological causation are compatible with traditional Buddhist understanding in which freedom from suffering remains the goal. This question is vital not only in relation to the institutions which we have been discussing but for all attempts to form an organisation in which ‘enlightenment ‘ is sought and within which teachers and their shadows operate.
Open Buddhism in the Context of Practice
On his deathbed the Buddha told his followers to use the Dharma as a guide not the teacher. His profound advice throws the individual back into himself and his questioning appraisal of what Dharma can be. It does not lie in the views of a teacher, however helpful these can be and however fine an exemplar he or she is, but in the heart where the meaning of selfhood resides. The path to such understanding is essentially a lone quest, just as it was for the Buddha. Guidance lies in the teachings not in a teacher. Essentially the Four Noble Truths, the principles of impermanence, emptiness and the law of interdependent causation lie at the heart of the matter and require experiential realisation not mere intellectual assent. While vehicles for the transmission of the Dharma are essential, realisation is essentially an individual matter in which clinging to identity and all forms of representation is abandoned.
What then is the role of the teacher? The vehicles (Theravada, Mahayana, Zen etc.) are perspectives on the Dharma with the power to induce realisation. The teacher is a facilitator of this individual process. Any attempt to be an authority on the scriptures, a paragon of virtue, or a defender of a faith misses the point. A great lama or a solitary yogin consulted in some remote cave only have Buddhist validity if they facilitate the insight of others. There are many skilful means, as the Lotus Sutra makes clear. There is no absolute truth which has to be believed. All views disappear in absurdity. Attachment to any representation is thus an error. Krishnamurti was right in arguing that any institutionalisation of religion becomes divisive and yet a vehicle for the Dharma needs a structure.
All schools of Buddhism hinge upon and return to the understanding of emptiness. This insight is conveyed in a variety of ways and nothing can be picked or chosen as more relevant than anything else. That which is relevant is that which works. As Wittgenstein advised – look for the use and not the meaning. If a device or an idea works that is enough, for there is no ultimately discoverable meaning. This means that when a great Zen master and a fine lama meet there are no barriers between them. Although one may be riding a horse and the other a camel they both survey the same view. If this is not the case, understanding of the Dharma has at some point been lost.
The implication of this is that the Buddha Dharma must be ‘open’. Even though individuals may subscribe to contrasting traditions of practice and viewpoint if there is openness to the underlying empty vision then understanding can arise. We need therefore to cultivate a tradition of ‘open Buddhism’ and only if we manage to do so will the Buddha Dharma find a place in the West free from cultic factionalism and argument.
Crook goes on to provide tentative suggestions for a ‘Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors’, which makes fascinating reading in the context of recurrent scandals and problems in the West regarding Buddhist teachers who allow the dark side of their personalities to be projected onto their students and their dharma centres. I really recommend a study of this code and its possible applications to the needs of dharma centres in our time.
Crook goes on to say that:
Democracy in Buddhist Institutions
There remains one final point. The problems of many Buddhist organisations have rested on the unlimited authority of the guru. This has often extended to matters of belief, practice, financial control and property. It is hardly surprising that mistakes have been made which have usually been as much a result of devotees’ lack of responsibility as it is due to the leader’s failure in self control and insight.
Cults can be profitably undone by democracy. All that is needed is proper attention to the creation of an institutional structure in which the power relations between guru and followers is balanced, in which problems and disputes can be raised and discussed and in which the formation of appropriate committees allows decision making processes reflecting the wishes of the membership. Many Buddhist institutions lack proper constitutional organisation and a prime recommendation may be that this issue be immediately addressed.
This task is not simple. The teacher is often the bearer of a lineage of teaching going back many centuries, maybe even to the Buddha himself. The teacher has received some form of transmission from his own guru to pass the way on to others. Those who have not received such transmission are hardly in a position to criticise the essential message. Too much democracy could mean that anybody’s version of what the Buddha may or may not have said could gain equal credence with an inevitable regression to an ill-prepared salad. It is rather the manner in which teachers present themselves, their attitude to others, their ethical stance and correctness in relationship and in financial concerns that become the legitimate focus of committees set up to monitor an institution’s well-being. It is to this concern that an institutional constitution should be directed.
Given the nature of the psychological process active in cults such a change may not be easy. It will often require grassroots action within the institution. Indeed, if these institutions are to survive, this will become essential. Further publication of destructive arguments such as those we have discussed here will be to the detriment of all Buddhist institutions in the West. It is time to set our houses in order.
The need for a truly ‘open Buddhism’ and a truly democratic and accountable constitutional structure within Western Buddhist organisations is, I feel, very urgent now if Western Buddhism, certainly in the UK, is ever to truly flourish and become harmoniously integrated within a liberal Western culture. Chieftains of the tribe of the Enkaytees would do well to take note.
I was very struck by an article in the Guardian newspaper this morning (see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/01/rupert-murdoch-dangerous-blindness). It fits in very well with what I and my colleagues have been experiencing over the last few months, and also with what an awful lot of people I know have also been experiencing over many years:
We are all susceptible to wilful blindness, ignoring truths about ourselves, each other and the way we live, that threaten our sense of identity and security. If phone hacking were endemic in News Corporation, what did that say about its founder? Murdoch wasn’t the first to believe himself incapable of running a corrupt organisation; to his dying day, Enron‘s chief executive did likewise.
We all succumb to the human tendency to prefer people like ourselves, to readily accept information that confirms our sense of ourselves, and discredit data that doesn’t fit our dominant ideologies. And when people are tired, busy or distracted, it’s clear the human mind falls back on stereotypes and received wisdom.
But this human flaw takes on vastly different proportions inside organisations and the people who lead them. The human instinct to obey authority – so robustly demonstrated in the 1960s by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram – means that most people, asked to commit unethical acts, do so blindly. Research into conformity shows that most of us would rather give a wrong answer than jeopardise belonging to a group. News Corp’s corporate culture contributed to Murdoch’s blindness. And perhaps the greatest blinder of all is power. People in positions of great power inhabit a bubble. This can acquire a physical reality: Murdoch doesn’t travel on public planes or inhabit public spaces – and, from his parliamentary and Leveson performances, clearly isn’t accustomed to unprompted questions or unexpected challenges.
In this cocoon a sense of both physical and intellectual safety develops that is, of course, immensely dangerous. These people are surrounded by others who wish to please them and who hope, themselves, to acquire power by doing so. To advance their own case, they readily proffer the best news while minimising, trivialising or normalising provocative questions. The powerful corporate culture that characterised News Corp was fundamentally one of compliance. Many employees I know who worked there described it as a cult. Just as in totalitarian states, no censor is needed because everyone has internalised what must not be said.
But did Murdoch choose to be blind? He chose to surround himself with loyalists, not critics – with executives who were politically and financially dependent – while losing the more robust stalwarts who could stand up to him. Murdoch designed his corporate governance to make any kind of challenge difficult and ineffectual – while the shareholders themselves chose to ignore the danger of this, blinded themselves by high returns.
And Murdoch won’t be the first parent to be blinded by love. But in choosing to hand control over a substantial part of his empire to his son, he guaranteed that neither critical thinking nor unfettered debate would characterise the management of his key assets.
If you removed the words ‘Rupert Murdoch’ and ‘Enron’s chief executive’ with the bureaucratic chiefs of a tribe known as the Enkaytees, who live in the ‘bubble’ that is the ‘corporate culture’ of the city of Enkiti, then the above article is pretty much still spot on, in my ever so very humble opinion.