Friday, February 5, 2010


Samba Queen
Samba Queen, Helsinki, 2005

Note: This posting has been updated on Feb 6, 2010, to include a bit more information I dug up about the Christian church with which Gurudas claims to be associated. These are murky waters, so take anything here with a grain of salt, and, if possible, check for yourself.

I had a short net.conversation with an interesting character the other day. His name is Gurudas Sunyatananda, born Gianmichael Salvato. He's a Catholic Archbishop and Maronite Franciscan Exarch (retired from active duty), and Khenpo, not to mention Doctor. He also uses "Dharmacharya," although I'm not sure if it's a name or a title -- it's a Sanskrit word that means something like "Life dedicated to the Dharma." (The title would be "Dharmachari.")

He's also had a career in network and Internet marketing.

No, seriously. He is. (Er, I think. I didn't actually check. Read further to find out why.)

Thing is, when he says "Catholic," he doesn't actually mean "Roman Catholic," like you would probably assume. Instead, he means "Old Catholic," which is a group that split off from the Roman Catholic one back in 1870, when the doctrine of Papal infallibility on matters of faith became official Church dogma.

On closer examination, it seems that when he says "Old Catholic," he doesn't actually mean what you'd naively expect either, i.e., the relatively small and obscure but still well-established group of churches operating under the Union of Utrecht. He actually means "North American Old Catholic," which is a church founded in 2007, and operates out of a hospital chapel in Washington, DC. It appears their only connection to the any Catholic Church, or any other major Christian church, for that matter, is via a claim of apostolic succession.

When he says "Archbishop," "Franciscan," and "Exarch," he doesn't mean what you'd naively expect him to mean either. The Franciscan order he's talking about isn't the Order of Friars Minor (which is part of the Roman Catholic Church), but rather a contemplative order that took the Franciscan vows that he and a few of his friends founded and got put under the Old Catholic Church. And while the question didn't come up, I would assume that something similar applies to his use of the term "Khenpo" -- i.e., it's probably not a title bestowed on him by one of the main Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Look up what he's written, and what's been written about him, and make up your own mind, if you can. He's sending out so many mixed messages that I honestly haven't a clue what he's really about, other than a highly interesting read. But this isn't really about him.

Credentials and titles are like robes and rituals: they have no meaning beyond what we, collectively, give them. Yet they do have this meaning. A title means whatever the people who recognize that title recognize it means. So, for example, a doctorate in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology means something, because MIT has a pretty stringent set of criteria that you need to meet to get one, and a wide variety of people consider MIT a serious organization. Religious titles have similar meanings, although different groups see them in different ways: a devout Roman Catholic would probably have pretty serious respect for, say, a Roman Catholic Archbishop or Franciscan Exarch, whereas the same titles would carry a whole different set of baggage for a fundamentalist Protestant or a Hindu.

This is why what Gurudas is doing is subversive, whatever his reasons for doing it. It's a bit like someone stating that he has a degree from MIT, without mentioning that actually the degree is from the Manukau Institute of Technology, a vocational school in New Zealand. He's not lying in the strict sense of the word, but he might as well be: until he mentions that little detail, he's assuming the mantle of authority that comes with a degree from the school in Massachusetts. (This isn't a knock on the NZ MIT, I've no doubt that it's a fine vocational school. The degrees just mean different things.)

I've written here previously about the difficulties related to finding and choosing teachers of Buddhism or meditation. Credentials do serve a purpose in resolving these difficulties. While obviously the title doesn't do the teaching any more than a degree from a law school wins cases, it can provide useful information about a teacher. However, the potential for confusion is a lot greater because the social mechanisms that give meaning to "spiritual" titles are a lot weaker than in many other realms.

In other words, the mere title of "sensei" or "roshi" or "khenpo" or, for that matter, "Exarch," "Franciscan," or "Archbishop" doesn't mean anything at all without knowing who has bestowed that title and who recognizes it. Being bestowed the title of khenpo by the Nyingma lineage is one thing; being declared Exarch of a brand new contemplative order with a half-dozen members is something else. In my book, titles that are not bestowed and recognized by some relatively large and relatively well-regarded communities count as net negatives: at least some of the reasons for seeking such titles indicate character traits that you might not necessarily want in a teacher. Vanity, for example.

There are some good reasons to seek such titles too, of course -- for example, a principled dislike for all of them, in which case you might want to have yourself declared Grand High Über-Pope to subvert the whole concept of religious titles. The Discordians do that with panache, as does the Universal Life Church. But you can't know beforehand whether that is the case or not.

It pays to be careful. A title and robe mean nothing. The path that led to receiving the title and carrying the robe mean everything. Things are rarely quite as they appear. Not everyone with a title is an authority, nor do all authorities carry titles -- and some who carry weird and wonky titles may turn out to be worth listening to anyway.

And nobody deserves worship, however lofty the titles and fancy the robes.


  1. Petteri, when you get a chance send me an email at

  2. Don't want to sound like I have an easy answer to a difficult question but in the search of spiritual awakening anyone with something to sell is not to be trusted (specially if his website screams 'pyramid scheme'), credentials or not. Of course this idea is not original (save for the part in brackets); got it fromo sources allegedly more experienced in mystic quests.

    If true, that propbably rules out any organized religion or professional teacher but, hey, I don't make the rules.

  3. You might want to be cautious when engaging in libel, regardless of your spiritual or religious affiliation. You may also want to do a little more thorough job of your alleged "investigation", since it is so filled with misrepresentations, you might find yourself embarrassed.

    For starters, the Old Catholic Church was granted autonomy by Pope Leo X, and according to the lineage tradition of all Catholic sects (of which Roman Catholic is one one many), all bishops ordained in unbroken apostolic succession are recognised without prejudice as being as valid as their Roman Catholic brothers.

    Second, I was never part of the North American Old Catholic Church, which is a sect that was formed by one of the bishops I ordained, and which operates parishes in about ten or fifteen states. Again, you attempt to malign these people, by pointing out that the Archbishop of their communion happens to work (as a volunteer) head of the chaplaincy department at a hospital chain in D.C.

    The Franciscan community who raised me to the episcopate and later to the office of exarch did not do so for any other purpose than to maintain their tradition. As members of Franciscans International (an NGO working with the United Nations) and co-participant in a number of national and international Franciscan conferences, our Order was not unlike any other non-Roman Catholic Franciscan community. (You fail to mention that the Order WAS originally a Roman Catholic Order, which left the Roman Communion in 2001, but then that wouldn't suit your agenda, would it?)

    You also attempt to disparage the group and me because I supported six monastic houses and just over fifty members in the community for almost 18 years, working with a legitimate direct marketing company. Your claims that this was a pyramid scheme would likewise land your ass in court, since pyramid schemes are illegal, and neither company (both of which are publicly traded companies in existence for more than 15 years) operates as a pyramid scheme.

    I make to qualms about my work there, teaching their sales people to use Dharma principles, rather than sharky sales techniques to build a business, while positively impacting the lives of others. In fact, as a result of that, I went on to partner with three other associates, and owned a firm that was one of the first in the field of virtual office technology, and helped that group grow its membership to 358,000 men and women in 39 countries. But again, that wouldn't suit your agenda, would it?

    (continued below)

  4. (continued)
    Then you fail to mention that as a result of that work, the clergy and monastics in our Order were able to feed hundreds of people on the streets of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Orlando, and Miami for 18+ years (with some of those programs still in operation today). Or that during that time, we provided respite care, so that 108 men and women died in my arms personally, most of whom were shut out by their families and friends, due to the stigma of AIDS.

    My lineage is clearly represented on our website, and is intact. The title of Khenpo is simply recognition of one's role as abbot -- since I have continuously fought for my Order to drop the use of more "lofty" titles. Take time to read the 600 or so articles you can find online, or any of my books, and you will find that your insinuations that I seek honourific titles will fall flat.

    After 30 years of public service as a Buddhist monk and Franciscan contemplative, there are literally thousands of men and women whose lives I have touched and with whom I have worked, so those interested in the truth could easily do REAL diligence, and discover who I am is nothing like your mean-spirited and hateful attempt to discredit someone who has never taken a dime for his work, lived in conditions far less luxurious than any cleric I've known, and whose teaching withstands scrutiny.

    In fact, it strikes me as telling that you failed to include my responses to the "interrogation" you and your pals attempted... which I copied here:

    Or examples of my on-going work to warn people about dubious spiritual teachers (

    You betray your real intentions, Petteri -- duplicitous, divisive and attempting to create scandal in the absence of intelligent inquiry.

    I find that reprehensible and cowardly. But not at all surprising.

    Namaste, Khenpo Gurudas Sunyatananda

  5. It appears that I've upset the good Archbishop/Exarch/Lama/Khenpo. He wrote a quite a long rant about my little piece on one of his blogs. (HT: John Pappas)

    Looks like I've been promoted to honorary Republican and pillar of the Zen community -- and that, barely more than six months since joining a sangha. Why, at this rate I'm sure to reach full enlightenment before the winter's out!

    Read it yourself and make up your own mind, as always.

    (It's a shame he yanked is bio, by the way -- among other sources, he claimed Buddhist lineage from Morihei Ueshiba through his aikido instructor. I thought that was kinda cool, because I've practiced aikido in Morihei Ueshiba's lineage too, but I don't recall any dharma transmissions being handed out...)

  6. Robert Danza Sensei (the first American to study with and receive a black belt from O'Sensei himself) and Marianne Donoghue Sensei also studied the Dharma (Omoto-kyo School of Dharma) which was transmitted to O'Sensei from Onisaburu Deguchi-san (Zen Master). The lineage was never pulled from the site. It's still there.

    You may have studied Aikido, but you likely didn't study zen meditation there. So grow up, and knock off the shit.

    I am simply shocked that someone who claims to study the Dharma would be so sectarian, closed-minded and frankly illiterate as to not be able to comprehend that it is not only possible, but well-documented that a Franciscan monk would be able to be ordained in two traditions. (I suppose you'll discredit the work of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue too, which was formed by the Benedictines, and which includes many other teachers who were dual-ordained.)

    Your behaviour is utterly disgraceful. Mine continues to speak for itself.

  7. @Gurudas -- I failed to mention all that because I was either unaware of it, or I was unable to independently verify it.

    I honestly bear you no ill-will, and the posting wasn't even primarily about you -- it was about religious titles, their relevance, and where this relevance comes from. You featured in it simply because you're an interesting character I came across, and your titles are ... unusual. "Not what [I'd] naively expect [you] to mean," as I put it in the original posting.

    I'm a bit surprised at the vehemence of your reaction, though. You've repeatedly said that your titles mean nothing to you. What's more, I'm a nobody -- the only formal credentials I have for anything are a high school diploma and military passport, and I've practiced Zen less than a year. What's it to you if I'm not all that impressed by your titles?

    PS. By the way, it's autocephalOUS, not autocephalIC. Nitpick, but something I would have expected a doctor of theology and churchman to know... and, you're welcome.

  8. Actually autocephalous and autocephalic are both correct, and commonly used. And Dharmacharya is a title that has been used to identify a dharma teacher in India for about 3000 years (also used by some of the zen schools, including Thich Nhat Hanh's school, which I was informed of today).

    Take the time to read through the corpus of my work, and you will readily see that I have no personal use for titles or sectarian labels, but recognise that I have a responsibility to adhere to decisions of my sangha. I don't "play bishop" or exercise the kind of manipulative authority that Roman Catholic bishops pull.

    (Of course, since we are non-theistic, it wouldn't make sense, since we can't pretend some imaginary God "speaks" through me!) LOL!

    My response was to the misinformation your article contained, and the fact that you disparaged good and hard working people like the folks of the North American Old Catholic Church, with inaccurate misrepresentations as well.

    I wish you peace, and welcome your questions in the future. Perhaps you will dig into the documentation of my Apostolic Succession and Dharma lineage, and then look at what I have done over the past thirty years before casting further aspersions.

    It would be better use of your time.