Saturday, January 2, 2010


Morning Light and Shadow
Morning Light and Shadow, 2010

"What's the most important thing you have to know about a machine?"
"I don't know, what?"
"How to switch it off."
-- Dialog between my grandfather and me, perhaps thirty years ago.
Being new to this whole religion/spirituality/whatever business, I've been spending a quite a bit of time looking into ways things can go wrong, because I know, and know of, a great many seriously fucked-up religious people. Some of them would probably be more or less fucked-up even without their practice; for others, I believe the practice actually contributes to their fucked-upness.

Take Genpo Roshi, for example. He's been practicing Zen for 38 years. He's the abbot of one of the biggest Zen centers in the USA. He's studied under some of the most eminent Zen teachers in Japan and elsewhere.

And during the past few years, he's gone into business with some of the shadiest characters in the New Age self-help scene, started to sell the Big Mind (tm) Process he has spent 38 years perfecting, and started to offer $50k retreats with him. He even renamed the Zen center he heads the Big Mind Zen Center. It used to be named after Kanzeon, the Japanese name for Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Figures, I guess. Read all about it on Gniz's blog; he's doing a thorough job deconstructing it.

But what the hell happened? How did someone who's been sitting nearly four decades suddenly turn into a huckster? What about Chögyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher with impeccable lineage, highly respected teachings, and some excellent books, who ended up drinking and fucking himself to death? Clearly something went off the rails somewhere. And I think Genpo Roshi himself says exactly what it was, in his recent interview for Buddhist Geeks:
I became spiritual February 6th, 1971 with my first awakening, the first thing I did was cut off all the things I considered not spiritual. So I became not competitive, not aggressive, not angry, not harmful, stopped eating meat, stopped drinking alcohol. Became pure and now I realize that some point I had disowned all these aspects. So they came out in a covert way in all my life.
-- Genpo Roshi, in his interview for Buddhist Geeks
There's a name for that, given by a little Austrian guy with a pointy beard: "repression." Yeah, it doesn't work, and it does come out in covert ways. So now those aspects -- shadows, voices, whatever -- have all bubbled up, and the good roshi is flailing away madly in all directions. Here, I think, the real failure was with Genpo Roshi's teachers in 1971, who didn't recognize that he started to go off the rails and point him toward the tools available to deal with stuff like that. Now it's far more difficult to fix the damage -- and having been proclaimed "the highest-ranking Zen Master outside Japan," who would he listen to, anyway?

Repression, in general, appears to be a huge problem with spiritual practices. Not just sexual repression, but repression of everything that's considered "impure." Seems like you can't swing a cat without hitting a repressed "spiritual" person out there -- and in every single tradition, from all flavors of Buddhism to the Abrahamic religions via Hinduism, without omitting the various Wiccan new-age granolas or Norwegian black-metal types. The only difference is in what specific desire they're repressing. That ain't the way to go: you have to face this stuff and deal with it somehow, not shut it up in a box somewhere, nail it shut, bury it away, and imagine it stays there.

I also think that just about any spiritual practice worth its salt has ways to genuinely deal with this kind of stuff, even if they're tucked away in a dusty corner somewhere, ignored by most. Buddhism certainly does, but I'll leave those more qualified to elaborate on them.

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