The Integrity of the Teacher, Part II: Power & Authority
In part 1 of this series of articles, I brought up the key question of whether one can "separate the teaching from the teacher": a phrase I heard from former students of gurus involved in scandals.
The issue of Truth being true regardless of who said it, but being "tainted" as far as shedding doubt on the truth of a wisdom teaching, given a source we've come to mistrust, comes into greater relevance and sharper focus when there are alleged ethical violations by a teacher or leader.
On the one hand it is a logical fallacy to suggest that because a spiritual teacher did something we didn't like or approve of, impugning their character, that their argument or utterance about something else is therefore prima facie invalid. This is known as the ad hominem logical fallacy.
Even assholes say true things.
—A friend from college
On the other hand, the flip side is also false: it is also a fallacy to think that because a "teacher" is supposedly "enlightened" or "liberated" (or whatever special status or state we believe they are in), and are held in high esteem by many, and we like or love them, that what they say has extra inherent authority automatically.
Seeing the two sides of this coins helps us realize how readily the mind jumps to conclusions based on inadequate information, and a paucity of facts. It's some kind of survival mechanism of bodyminds and animals to conclude "shadow moving – predator - watch out! Move!" from very little input. The inherent difficulties humans have in evaluating truth and knowing things is further amplified by social media, and historically exacerbated by society in general, given the kinds of biases the mind is subject to. And, there are many other kinds of logical fallacies and rhetorical mechanisms politicians, journalist, lawyers, spiritual teachers and others use to persuade us of good and bad arguments.
My aim however is not to teach critical thinking and logical arguments, but to examine some interrelated issues, and to try and break the spell of how we may see teachers, raise questions about implicit attitudes or projections of authority, and perhaps help break the spell of certain words and concepts, beliefs and attitudes we have as a result of things said – such as in the oratory (the art and practice of formal speaking in public) of spiritual teachers and others.
I'll examine some ins and out of how power is seen and handled by spiritual, religious and political figures, the implications for how they use the power of their position in the context of spirituality and enlightenment in general, and end with considerations about how to actually evaluate a real-world situation — most critically by establishing facts. The rhetoric of spiritual teachers and the outlook of students can muddy the waters about the significance and reality of the facts – of the actions, the players, the objects, and everything else. This can happen regardless of whether any actions are called into question, but seems to be inherent in the field of spirituality and non-duality in particular. And when there are motives by those in power or seeming power, or those wanting to protect something, then the spiritual and non-dual rhetoric, maneuvers and political "spin" – the "party line" – put out by teachers and those trying to protect them, can serve to support lies and egos.
Notes on Democracy, and the Power of Gurus
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
History his shown us again and again — in Europe with kings & queens, with American gurus, Asian despots, Islamic mullahs or imams, Catholic priests and popes, and on and on... — that someone being given, or giving themselves divine (or quasi-divine) authority, or assuming they have it, can be problematic. Since they supposedly “serve as intermediaries between mankind and God”, or are being given this magic touch of an invisible power wand by how they are seen by the people, or by political assignment, it is a recipe for misbehavior, temptations, ethical transgressions, abuse, trouble, tyranny and fascism.
The situation is that the power is dualistic: if one is assuming that anyone — including supposedly divinely inspired artists, inventors, physicists, musicians, spiritual teachers and gurus or whomever — are serving as intermediaries between mankind and God (or Consciousness – whatever word one uses), then there is a separate God, and that God or Consciousness is separate from me; and, therefore I need, if I feel I am not in touch with that God, or am missing something, can go through, or feel a need to go through, that intermediary.
He who says, "I have consciousness," or "I am conscious," is separating consciousness from himself; this is surprising.
—Atmananda Krishna Menon (see entire section quoted at the end of this article, for more clarification)
Do we need the intermediary of the guru, teacher, priests, imam, or rabbi, or other spiritual leader to know what we call God — to know Consciousness, Life, universal intelligence, awareness? It’s all here now, so why would we, unless we feel a need to be given permission, to be allowed to open ourselves, surrender. And therein lies the potential for misalignment between reality and mind.
It seems to me, in my experience, that spiritual seekers and students make the same mistake as religious people, and attribute a kind of power to teachers that religious folk attribute to an object in awareness, like a priest or Pope or a symbol. There’s a word that is used in the Bible, and it is “idolatry” (I’m no Bible scholar and never read it except in small parts, but these things come to me through the cultural mind). Idolatry was considered a sin, yet ironically, the Bible’s words (and the words of religious leaders) are idolized, as well as the personal figures of leaders and “prophets” (mystics, sages) themselves.
The “sin”, or mistake really, in idolatry, in real spiritual, nondual terms, is that of attaching to, projecting on, believing in, having faith in them as the source (of happiness, love, peace, life, knowledge, beauty, insight…), an object within Consciousness or Source — content — a created thing, rather that That which creates and holds and is all objects: one’s Self, Reality. We give authority and develop dependence on, obedience to an outward thing, in mind or world, as opposed to the objectless Consciousness we Are, always. We give our power to it – and gladly will they take it – and thus implicitly downgrade our own power.
This too is all despite the ideal of the “Philosopher King” which Socrates and Plato talked of in The Republic — which sounds great in theory. But human nature being what it is, there must be limitations to power — what they call in the United States of America “checks and balances” — and that is one of the most important things the American founding fathers realized. They had their feet soaked in the tragedy and hard-won wisdom of the European Enlightenment, where the overthrow of kings and monarchs in assumed roles of absolute power was a ruthless lesson by Life concerning freedom and democracy. The founding fathers saw the despotism of the philosophical self-justifying divine rule. They saw the practical wisdom, the intelligence, the truth of needing to establish things in an empirical and democratic way, rather than a completely subjective absolutist way.
It’s always the application of the philosophy where the issue lies, because even the greatest talking guru, king or philosopher, if they use the rhetoric and ideas in a self-serving way, in the moment — despite the beauty of the ideas — the actions and its effects are what matter. So even if they say exactly what I’m saying, and talk about freedom, love, beauty, peace, and universal actions, if their actions lead to harm others and themselves, then the words don’t really mean much — or are tainted, sowing seeds of mistrust and loss of fatih — in the overall picture, except to try to excuse their own actions, or justify them, or give them a free pass in the minds of believers (politicians take advantage of this of course, and are masters at verbal rhetoric). Our friends help to keep us in check. And, it's no surprise that a despot, or a slippery leader that lacks integrity, either becomes more isolated, or causes division within the community.
So for example, if they see the truth of the fact that every ethical rule is contextual, and there are no rules in reality, in absolute freedom, and it’s all about freedom and happiness and enjoying the moment, and furthermore that it’s only the ignorant that need all the laws and rules — and if they feel they are not ignorant, and therefore the rules don’t apply to them (because they are special in that way); and yet in fact, unconsciously they still have some growing to do, they still have some residues of ignorance ... you can begin to see where the trouble lies. At minimum they may act rude or arrogant, and at worse they will seize on power, or money, or sex, and find ways to justify it, even when it’s done in an unjust, unfair, or harmful way. We have seen this countless examples of this in the culture… and there inevitably will be secrecy and claims to special privilege. And, unfortunately it drives the popular journalistic and social sport of guru-smashing, guru-hating, and mistrust of anything “spiritual” or “woo woo”, and the cynicism and general materialistic drive of the culture.
There are indeed privileges of privacy, but at some point needs of the community trump claims of privacy, and determining where it leaves off is not up to the one who might be causing harm and wanting secrecy, given their self interest. Thus the practice of what is called transparency and openness, such as in corporations or other organizations, and in their finances.
To illustrate this, let’s say someone enjoys the hobby of experimenting with uranium in their home laboratory, in their freedom (and there is actually a case of a young man who extracted and concentrated a radioactive element in his backyard shed, to the alarm of his neighbors). However, they are leaking the waste products into the soil and the water, and it eventually could cause health issues such cancer in the community. It becomes the community’s business at that point, despite claims about libertarian freedom and privacy.
So you can begin to see the built-in problem with divine power: if you set up a system beforehand, such as a monarchy, that gives you divine power, who the hell would judge or evaluate or measure that power? How would then the community judge it and its application fairly and with "justice for all"? Since the power is supposedly within someone else (or God) and is completely subjective, both for them and for us, it is therefore beyond measurement or knowledge from the outside. How do you determine evaluate someone’s divine power or enlightenment as being higher or better or more established? Would they no in fact, by all reason be expected to be more ethical and loving, not less, if they were so blessed? They would not get a free pass. With greater power comes greater responsibility, in proportion to it.
You can see that it’s self-justifying, self-perpetuating, closed or dogmatic, if it can't be questioned, given it's divine in origin. If the power is given to them by the projections of the community, does that invalidate their responsibility? It depends: how much do they take advantage of that projection, while denying it verbally? Or implicitly, by allowing bad behavior (like Osho did in his community of followers, allowing bad stuff to happen which he knew was happening, though it was others doing it).
People fall for the mystique and the myth of enlightenment or “establishment” or whatever concept and word is used, over and over and over again. They are gullible and vulnerable because of their needs and wants and laziness and ignoring of their own true power. One has to really grow up to shed the habit of going to a “teacher” to solve one's life problems.
The Myth of Transmission
Some will argue that such things as divine power should be non-democratic, since they know and you don’t, the teacher or guru has it: the transmission from their teacher, their lineage, and there is a “transmission” that happens. The claim is, it works better that way, that one may need this transmission, to bypass ego, and besides there are natural differences between the "enlightened" and the unenlightened. I would ask them to carefully inquire about this supposed “transmission”, and where it ultimately comes from. Even when one experiences exalted states, or pure awareness, the Absolute (as I have experienced, both alone and with a meditation group, with or without a teacher present somewhere) it still does not mean it’s coming from a transmitter, a separate entity. That’s the whole point of the teachings: it’s "non-duality", no other, in Reality. Only One. It’s not dependent on anything or any illusion of a separate entity like a “teacher” or a God. It stands alOne. You are It. I am It. ... This may be felt as blasphemy in some quarters, but it is true.
Spiritual power, if seen as out there somewhere, should be self-canceling, but instead we want a drug or a parent, and go again and again and again... sure we need "reminders" (of our true nature), but is this an excuse for unexamined assumptions and misunderstandings, for dependency, and how many times do we need reminding, and can we "do it" on our own? Yes, we can.
The Golden Dick (or Pussy) Syndrome
Similar to the belief about transmission, there is the belief, conscious or unconscious, that one can become enlightened, or have some enlightenment rub off on one, by having sex with a teacher, or be touched by them, or owning an object they touched, etc.
This misunderstanding is exploited by spiritual teachers, such as for having sex with the young, naive and vulnerable, in the name of "Shaktipat initiation" for example. There are many documented cases of this.
While it’s true that science for example, is not a democracy in the sense that nature dictates what’s true on Her own, and while in the experience of the Absolute, or pure awareness, it’s not amenable to objective analysis, nevertheless, we do not want to mix “realms” here. So things are different in the realm of the human, the relative, where the attribution and establishment of human power is subject to human mores and laws, weaknesses and strengths. Even your guru will say "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God’s”. The question is, do they live that way?
The following story illustrates how in his daily life Atmananda showed that each of the levels (the Absolute and the relative) requires its own approach, and that consequently, one does not apply the non-dualistic approach to the relative level of being. At the beginning of his career as a station inspector of the Police Department, Atmananda once interrogated a man he suspected of having stolen something. The man had constantly denied it.. Then Atmananda told him: “If you have really committed the theft, as I believe you have, it will be better that you confess it and admit your mistake. If, on the other hand, you want to hide the truth from me, you may be able to do so for the time being, but that Principle in you which is watching all your actions will make you suffer throughout the rest of your life for having lied once. You will never be able to hide the Truth from that Principle in you.” This shows the sensitivity required to live the truth, and not peremptorily claim that untruth is simply Consciousness as well.
(from Sat Sangha Salon: An Inquiry in Being – Atmananda (Krishna Menon))
Is Nothing Sacred?
I was puzzled by a recent comment from a friend about the "sacredness of the teacher-student relationship" as the reason they gave for not communicating with me what was happening with a certain teacher who they somehow inferred was my teacher. I wondered what they meant by "sacred". I think that's part of the problem from the beginning with people in a "spiritual" community or "sangha" (no matter how loosely that is defined), is that very attitude of sacredness. When it's transposed into a different culture, it is especially ripe for abuse – we saw the whole Indian and Asian guru trip in the 60's and 70s in the West, and those that fashioned themselves on this absolutist model – but also in general, as far as projected specialness or some supposed God-given authority. This is the purview and scent of religion, and not what I'm interested in. I never have been religious.
And as I've said countless times in my online meeting group, and in my writing, and in dialogues with "teachers", I've never identified with the whole "my teacher" thing. I can like them as friends though, so there's some feeling, certainly. And we can have intense dialogues that affect the mind and outlook on live, as perhaps my dialogues and writings affect others.
But I've seen from the very beginning there is only One Teacher, one Sage, and that is Life or Universal Intelligence, the One, Reality, whatever you want to call It, This, coming through different forms that appear in Life. The diversity of the One.
You have to ask good questions, always, and trust your own intelligence, critical thinking ability, experience, intuition, reason, etc. Even when a teacher helped me connect the dots, it was I that connected them, not him. I as the I.
Not being very religious, I always want openness, and let the cards fall where they may. We are all one and all at the same level. We're adults. We are not children. I can handle truth – facts – that's been my approach since the beginning, in asking questions no matter what the teacher or students think. I'm there for truth, not for people.
I have friends and former friends that have "surrendered", or want to "surrender" to the guru – the guru meaning in the form of a person, a teacher out there – and are absolute that I should do this also – that it is somehow necessary, and tell me one must "trust" absolutely one's teacher, blah blah blah, on and on they talk, in their absolute certainty, knowing, justifying this view from what they have heard or read or thought. And furthermore, they don't like me talking about their nonduality teacher as if they were a human! This uncritical attitude is unwise, and is a big mistake – what some call "ego" in the spiritual sense. It often has psychological roots, in wanting a father or mother figure, from an unloving upbringing, and a sense of emotional lack that's unconscious. Yes, surrender is a real experience, yet it's misunderstood and leads to difficulties when it's time to uncover the hidden assumptions and beliefs, when life runs into them (as it inevitable will).
The real surrender is to the One, to Reality, Intelligence, what you already Are, and giving up the ghost of the unreal, not holding on anymore, out of old, old habit, the illusory separate entity you took as you, and all the encumbered beliefs and feelings attached to "you". It's not surrendering to a teacher or guru out there or a God up there. This is the Direct Path.
But we are adults – why do all these folks need another adult, an authority figure to tell them how to live their lives? Why the need for some incarnate god to worship out there? I wrote about idolatry in an essay about "meaning" here:
In summary, the bad news is that "sages" are humans too. The good news is that they are human too – it means we are both as well: human and sages.
Practical Steps for Examining an Ethical Situation
In deciding anything about a situation where there is an alleged transgression by a spiritual teacher or other figure seen as a leader or teacher, no matter the role (or a spiritual community and its members), things need to be looked at and inquired into in a practical common sense way, step by step, and these questions or areas that need to be looked at and sorted out, are outlined below.
Also, it is important to see that it is actions that count, not words and concepts. (Of course, words are actions and therefore themselves facts, and they should be seen as be part of the world of facts, and be taken into consideration, and be consistent with other facts and truth).
1. What are the actual facts in a particular situation.
This often takes some work to determine, and distill out of gossip, rumors, interpretations, fancy, imagination, personal reactions, judgements, cultural differences, misperceptions, hearsay, conjecture, miscommunications and lack of communication (which itself is part of ethics: transparency and open communications, especially in a spiritual community).
2. What is the ethical responsibility, the guidelines (not rules) that apply in the particular situation, looked at as a whole?
This can be of a "spiritual teacher", with regards both to individuals, and the communities they serve or are served by.
a. Is the transgression amplified by them being perceived as being in power or lacking in power, or actually in power or not (by social arrangement)?
b. Is the power inherently different, or seen as different from anyone else, or anyone else in power? If it is perceived that way, why, and does it have a solid basis?
c. Was anyone or anything harmed? Was the harm merely subjective, alleged (e.g., personal disapproval and offense/insult, disagreement, etc), or hearsay, or actually real, factual and unavoidable, in the sense that someone was victimized psychologically, physically, financially, etc?
3. How does #2 apply to #1?
We have seen from this and the previous essay on the integrity of the teacher, that no one, no matter their status, "spiritual" or otherwise, is exempt from ethics, just as no one is above the law.
from Atma-Nirvriti, by Sri Atmananda (Krishna Menon):
2. A Fundamental Doubt about Consciousness Removed
He who says that consciousness is never experienced without its objects speaks from a superficial level.
If he is asked the question, "Are you a conscious being?" he will spontaneously give the answer "Yes". This answer springs from the deepmost level.
Here he doesn't even silently refer to anything as the object of that consciousness. This proves that the consciousness he refers to is objectless consciousness.
He who says, "I have consciousness," or "I am conscious," is separating consciousness from himself; this is surprising.
What is not consciousness comes under the category of the known. The "I" is always the knower and can never be the known. Therefore consciousness and the "I" are one and the same.