Friday, November 27, 2009

The Dark Side Of Buddhism

I've been reading up a bit on the seamy side of the history of Buddhism lately. Ugly stuff. You've got the full pageant of human iniquity in all of its glory, both East and West. You have Tibetan monasteries running slave plantations, blood-soaked conquerors riding in from the steppe to rape, pillage, burn, and erect magnificent pagodas, great masters cosying up to feudal lords for protection and funding. You have the Burmese junta spending lavishly on pagodas to buy off the bad karma they've accumulated by torture, oppression, and murder.

Bodhnath Stupa, Kathmandu, 1987

Then you have a whole panoply of penny-ante charismatic gurus extracting money and/or sex from their adoring students, and sometimes worse; from Shoko Asahara at one end of the scale and Genpo Roshi and his $25k Big Mind(tm) retreats at the other, with characters like Andrew Cohen, Zen Master Rama, and Ken Wilber somewhere between the two. Even more or less legit Buddhist teachers have a suspicious amount of tawdry scandal associated with them; if you look up Chögyam Trungpa and Eido Tai Shimano, you'll come across all kinds of interesting stuff.

And then, of course, there's idiocy like the "excommunication" of a Theravada abbot for ordaining women as monks.

Nasty. If anyone thinks that Buddhism is a guaranteed ticket to perfection... well, that clearly ain't the case.

That's still clearly not the beginning and the end of it, though. While I obviously don't yet have much personal experience with this stuff, I have gained a little window on the international Buddhist scene. I like most of what I see there. There's very little dogmatism, a lot of lively discussion, debate, and dispute, and while teachers get a quite a bit of respect, they're also regularly challenged, especially by students. There's plenty of irreverent humor, starting from the name of the major Zen Usenet discussion group, alt.buddha.short.fat.guy, and a general feeling of intellectual and spiritual freedom.

However, I do think that -- especially among many teachers and more experienced practitioners -- there's a tendency to ignore the nasty side of things, and thereby enable it. Fortunately this tendency is being challenged as well, so it's not like it's become a conspiracy of silence. Yet. But many teachers do seem to think that, despite the evidence to the contrary, the traditional safeguard of dharma lineage is sufficient to prevent abusive teachers and groups from arising and gaining prominence.

In my opinion, the greatest intellectual contribution of Western culture to the world is the scientific method -- you know, all that shit about empiricism, argument, peer review, and continuous revision of theories and technologies. I think we could apply something very like it to critiquing Buddhist teachers -- not the dharma itself, perhaps, because I'll be damned if I can think of a way to objectively and unambiguously measure how well it's working -- but the teachers. We could use more senior practitioners calling foul on things when it's clearly needed. Ultimately, a "cult checklist" isn't that complicated, and if some teacher or group flags some items on one, it calls for scrutiny. 'Cuz all it really boils down to is money, sex, and power:

  • Where does it come from? Where does it go?
  • Is there a corporate structure in place? If so, how transparently is it run?
  • Is there evidence of coercion for "gifts?"
  • Does the teacher regularly bang his students?
  • If so, are we talking long-term monogamous relationships, wild orgies, or something in between?
  • Is manipulation or coercion involved?
  • Does the teacher claim to have some special, unique insight or spiritual status?
  • Does the teacher claim to have invented some radically new teaching that promises huge short cuts to enlightenment/spiritual growth/whatever?
  • How would the students feel about studying with some other teacher?
  • How do the students feel about the teacher -- respect and affection, or awe and reverence?
In my opinion, a legit teacher should get a mostly clean bill of health on this kind of questionnaire -- no obviously unethical financial practices, no regular sex parties with students, let alone coercion or manipulation, no irreplaceable demigod status, that sort of thing. Nobody's perfect, of course, but there's a big and relatively easy-to-see difference between regular, minor human failings and systematic abuse of power, which is what we're talking about here.

Personally, I wouldn't want to study with anyone who doesn't come up green on all of these points -- I'd rather risk missing out on some really great teaching because I'm overly careful than risk having my head messed with in abusive ways. But then I am risk-averse.


  1. Moikka moi, Petteri!

    Nice to find your blog through Brad's blog.

    Yeah, Buddhism is full of bullshit but so is our own lifes. And it's really important to meet a teacher in real life, to sit with him and. But I think we also sometimes are acting in a too idealistic way; we're searching some kind of perfection but I'm afraid that's only an illusion - there's no perfect teacher, everybody are human beings, everybody make mistakes. And students don't have to agree with everything his/her teacher is saying. But violence, mental and physical behaviour is bullshit and no one don't have to deal with that.

  2. Absolutely; in fact, IMO one of the biggest potential problems with teachers is just that -- the tendency to idolize them, put them on a pedestal, and treat them with awe and reverence rather than affection and respect.

    However, IMO my list of questions isn't really all that onerous -- it's pretty much how I'd expect any decent person to behave, lapses of judgment notwithstanding. There has to be room for interpretation, which is why I put in the followup questions -- a corporate structure isn't automatically bad, if it's ethically run; a teacher who gets into a relationship with a student isn't automatically wrong, if it's genuinely consensual. However, if there is a corporate structure, or if the teacher does get into such relationships, I for one would think it worthwhile to peek under the hood a bit to see what's going on.

    Teachers wield a great deal of influence over students, which can be for good or for ill, and I think the downside of being too trusting is bigger than the downside of not being trusting enough. "Trust but verify" is a pretty good rule of thumb for most things IMO.

  3. it would be unwise to say any religion bullshit

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Sorry, I noticed a spelling mistake. Here's the corrected reply:

      If you're referring to Uku's comment above. Notice that he didn't say Buddhism was bullshit. He said that Buddhism was full of bullshit. There is a difference. He's talking about human elements within the religion.

      Look up the definition of "Hyperbole" and you will understand that he means no disrespect.

      People are commenting specifically regarding the topic of the blog, which is about the dark side of Buddhist history.

      It is convenient to be ignorant or to deny this side of history.

      To be aware of failings in the past enables one to seek to correct these failings in the present or future.

      Can one truly enjoy the fruits of enlightenment in one hand, while the other hand holds a bloody dagger?