Friday, February 5, 2010
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.