Beware of Gurus: Power, Sex, and Spiritual Authority

"Independent investigation confirms “physical, sexual, emotional abuse” by Sogyal Rinpoche"

Thus reads the article headline on Lion's Roar, a regular source of Buddhist thought, information, and news on September 10, 2018. (Publication date September 6).

I'm extremely saddened to see this headline. Sogyal Rinpoche wrote "The Tibetan Art of Living and Dying" one of my favorite and most valued books.

When people we admire, or whose works we admire, turn out to be terrible people or even evil,  this doesn't necessarily negate the value of their positive work. Does it call for them to be called out without apology, taken to task, and prosecuted when necessary? Absolutely. Especially when that person is/was in a position of power - particularly spiritual power.

Spiritual circles are rife with sexual abuse - look no further than the Roman Catholic Church which continues to deal with a decades long child abuse crisis - and that’s just when allegations came to the surface in a spiritual and political power that has held sway for almost two millennia.

Westerners often idealize the East, to the point of fetishism, as a land of pure spiritual enlightenment; not so idyllic is the reality.

The foibles of guru devotion, of giving over one's worship and admiration to a human being, are many. The most blatantly obvious of which is that human beings are human beings - anyone who markets their particular favorite human being (or themselves) as a saint or as a god is probably selling something not worth buying. If what they're selling you looks to be free, beware of a hidden cost.

One of the parts of "The Tibetan Art of Living and Dying" and Tibetan spirituality (and Dharmic religion generally) that I find most problematic is the emphasis on devotion to guru. It is exactly instances like this that illustrate the problem of following gurus.

In wading through the murk and mire of mysticism one of the most important things to retain is one's skepticism. How else would one expect to cut through the snags? Without that psycho-spiritual sword the temptation to fall for gurus can be strong. It would be so easy if a human being had all the answers or if a human being could do it for you. It's the classic projection of the child to parent, or the adult to a Judeo-Islamic-Christian anthropomorphized God. But propping up a human being, as though any human could have more of a direct line to the meaning of the universe than you yourself do already is not only nonsensical - it's dangerous.

There is no excuse for predators like Sogyal Rinpoche, just as there is no excuse for predators like Bill Cosby, or any of the predators called out in the #MeToo movement. Ultimately a spiritual predator like Sogyal Rinpoche is much more dangerous that a celebrity. Both are in positions of power and exploiting others for self-gratification; the spiritual predator not only jeopardizes his entire teaching, but he is exploiting people who are looking for answers, for truth, for hope, and for comfort.

Will I throw out "The Tibetan Art of Living and Dying"? No. Will I stop recommending it to friends and fellow travelers? No, but I may have more pause than I did before. The book is still solid, even if the author is not. After all the author is, like every one of his teachers and gurus before him, only human - a mixed bag of insights and errors, good and evil.

Can we divorce an artist from his or her work is a different question than can we divorce a spiritual teacher from his or her work; but like the answer to the former question, the answer to the later is up to each person. I myself think that we can, though it is dependent on the circumstance and on a case by case basis. I can't enjoy anything Bill Cosby has done ever again for instance, but I can still extract value from Sogyal Rinpoche's writing while holding him to be a reprehensible human being and a traitor to the living Dharma. Some people may not find that to be a viable option.

As Terrence McKenna once said, "Avoid gurus, follow plants." And as 1st century Zen Master Linji Yixuan is reputed to have said: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."