Lets face it—religion has its problem people. Lots and lots of them. I don’t think we know what to make of this phenomenon. It is so prevalent that it is shocking if looked at closely. Many would rather not talk about it; even ignore it. Recent disclosures about child sexual abuse at Penn State and Syracuse has some religious people breathing easier–“At least it’s not us!”–but that’s an unfortunate view. One lesson from these scandals is the need not to hide the reality; not to cover it up in order to “protect the institution” or the image at stake. Nor, and this is really the worst, to think that the problem is really a small thing, a “wrinkle on the surface of religion,” a few “rotten apples” in the bushel.
No, really the problem is quite enormous and puzzling and disturbing for a number of reasons. In a posting a long time ago I had addressed a bit of this by way of looking at a particular scandal at the Zen Center in San Francisco. This was just one incident, but it opens a window on a whole range of issues. It’s time to revisit this whole mess just a bit. And not only because there’s so many issues to be aware of, but especially since I have started this series on “Fundamentals & Foundations” with all that “spiritual talk”—it’s necessary to keep one’s feet on the ground and deal with the actual messy religious situation of our time.
Now the first interesting thing to emphasize is that every major religious tradition is afflicted. There is no one immune from these problems. And the second thing is that “the problem” can be broken down into perhaps three parts:
1. There is the problem simply of the fake or fraudulent spiritual person–the one who acts a role that is traditionally identifiable, like pastor or guru, and who is actually a fake, living a lie, etc. Like raising money for a worthy cause and then siphoning off a good chunk of that for a cushy lifestyle. TV evangelists in the US and Catholic priests have been notorious in that regard.
2. There is the problem of a segment of a whole tradition being vitiated because of its compromises with the culture in which it lives. Zen in Japan, for example—how many of its “enlightened” teachers either looked the other way or even approved of the Japanese massacre of the Chinese people in the 1930s. They performed the tea ceremony impeccably as others were being butchered. Some even called for the killing of Chinese. Frauds, everyone of them!
3. Finally, we have the simple, straightforward sexual predator, and a real lot of these have turned up over the years and these are the ones who have been getting the headlines and rightly so! As a matter of fact, all three parts of the above can be and usually are wrapped up in one individual. It is not often that they actually separate out as distinct parts. Let us consider just three major traditions and see how this has unfolded in recent years:
In Catholicism, the stereotype of the priest who lives a lavish lifestyle at the expense of his people is almost age-old. I guess this is something that will never go away, but there is something about the way the priest is looked at that almost creates the conditions for such behavior, a kind of veneration of “specialness” that needs to be questioned. And today you have a new variant of that–not just the parish priest siphoning off a bit from the Sunday collection for his own luxuries, but priests who champion religious causes, like anti-abortion movements, raising a lot of money then siphoning off millions perhaps. Protestant TV evangelists have been bilking people for years with their pseudo-miracles and their impassioned rhetoric and their turning of Christianity into a “gospel of success.” But it is not just money that is at stake here, but misleading people about the very nature of Christianity and religion itself.
Then, of course, there are the sex problems, and there certainly have been a lot of those. Not just your standard sex problems, again age-old, of a priest having a mistress or a minister visiting a prostitute, but much worse in child predation, in the sexual abuse of young people. In the Catholic community, where this hit like the proverbial ton of bricks, the official line is that yes, this was really bad and “we are very sorry” and so on, but really “it involved a very, very small number of priests.” The actual number of priests involved in sexual abuse of all kinds in the last few decades probably is not too large, maybe somewhere around 5% of the total priest population. A large number, indeed too large a number everyone will say, but alas, that still leaves the overwhelming majority as basically sound. Only if that were true!! Because, as horrific as this abuse was, as evil and sick as it was, it actually was NOT the final worst thing about this whole episode so that now we can “move on.” The whole institution of the church has been revealed as wrapped in darkness and sickness. Yes, I do mean exactly what I am saying! From the get-go the Catholic Church has been: • A. first denying the charges; • B. then covering-up the problems, trying to “sweep them under the ecclesial rug; • C. fighting real compensation to the victims.
You will read in the newspapers about bishops and pope saying how sorry they are for what happened to the victims, but at the same time they have hired high-priced lawyers to make it as difficult as possible for victims to get compensation for their suffering AND to keep all knowledge of these incidents locked up and in secret–so that people would not know how really bad it was. Fortunately some of the victims got good lawyers of their own, and the Church has to begin to pay at least something; and fortunately there has been some good investigative journalism done. But the church fought it every step of the way. So this “We are sorry” stuff is so hypocritical it staggers the imagination. So many bishops and the last two popes at the very least have been trying to hide the problem in order to “protect the Church” from looking bad. One more thing: the culture of secrecy within the church is part of the problem. One reason why the child predators were often hidden within the church is that there was already an antecedent culture of secrecy, and it has to do with the very large number of gay clergy and religious. Now, let me be very clear about this: Gay people are NOT a problem or even close to being part of this problem. But the fact is that such a large number and such a large proportion of clergy are gay that a kind of secrecy culture developed—after all the church’s official policy was and is very negative about gays. Then a priest who openly admitted he was a gay risked problem with his bishop (who probably by the way was himself gay) and with his parishioners. So a culture of secrecy of gays, by gays, for gays developed within the church. Then on top of that, only a small proportion of priests, gay or straight, lived out a life of celibacy as called for. This created the need for more secrecy. So the child predators could hide in the midst of all this and feel quite secure in that secrecy. In addition they had “authority,” image, status, etc. If you want to get a more complete picture of this, don’t read the official documents, which are the instruments of a cover-up, but read an authority like Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine priest and licensed psychologist who has been studying the sex problems of priests for decades:
Onward to another very sad story. India is rightly seen as a culture rich in religious traditions and spirituality. From the legendary rishis of old who gave us the Upanishads to contemporary holy men who still dwell within that fast-changing culture. Usually when you mention “problem people” in Hinduism this refers to a number of fake gurus who came to the United States and Europe and made a big splash. The interesting thing here is how so many so-called sophisticated modern Americans and Europeans got taken by these people–both money-wise and sexually and as so-called “teachers.” Even today you will see all kinds of ads in “spiritual” magazines where “Asian teachers” of all kinds are hustling this or that. In a materialistic, superficial culture as ours, where Christianity itself seems to live on a superficial level also, these fake gurus and swamis appeared to fill a need. What made them seem “spiritual” and with “authority” was that they very cleverly brought the trappings of India with them. Then their top disciples took up the mantle as it were and took on an Asian appearance. “Look like a guru,” well, you just might be a guru then! “Sound like a guru,” and heck yes, you really are a guru! (Actually some of the lamas and Zen masters, speaking of another tradition, were quite knowledgeable about Buddhism and could impart some real knowledge of its spirituality, but they were still fakes and frauds in the end–just like some priests who had a serious and deep theological education but who were sexual predators.)
What enabled this fakery to flourish is something that was in the culture of India itself. It’s not that just “some bad apples” came over here, but that the Mother Country has a real problem with lots and lots of these people and some of them have migrated here. This is only speculation, but it may have something to do with the confluence of modernity and India’s rich religious culture because the problem seems to be growing in India. Beginning in the 19th Century and exploding with an amazing force and rapidity in recent decades modernity continues to have deeper and deeper influence on Indian society and its effects are truly mixed to say the least. Something for someone to investigate. In any case, Indians themselves have begun to realize they have a problem in their own backyard.
Here are just a couple of examples: The first is from a blog by a former member of the controversial and now notorious Sai Baba community: http://robertpriddy.wordpress.com/2010/03/06/sex-scandal-in-indian-media-nityananda-and-forerunners/
The next one is from an IBN(India’s CNN) program: http://ibnlive.in.com/videos/111129/ftn–indias-blind-faith-in-godmen.html?from=tn
Or take a look at this strange story of an Indian swami who had great success in the US:
And this is only a very small sample. Google “fake godmen” and you will get a ton of websites from India lamenting the presence of fake spiritual figures. What’s almost funny is that a few sites are actually by frauds themselves who pretend that they are against “fake godmen”! The situation is that bad. In India itself, the various media (print, TV and internet) no longer ignore or hide the problem the culture has. As an IBN newsman put it: “The fundamental question is why has there been such a huge increase in cases related to the holy men in our country.” Then he begins to question the whole mythology of the guru. In this case perhaps modernity is shedding a bit of light on the situation. Now whether modernity itself is also an enabler of the problem is something that needs to be investigated.
Finally, let us consider Buddhism.
I won’t go over ground that I covered in reflecting on the SF Zen Center scandal and on the scandals of so, so many so-called zen masters and Tibetan lamas in the US. Some of them were/are very knowledgeable about the contents of their tradition and lineage, but there was/is a tremendous disconnect between that and their actual lives. At the risk of sounding very arrogant, one can only say that they missed the essence of Buddhism by the width of the universe!
At this time let us take a brief focus on what is probably the most Buddhist country in the world today: Thailand. Buddhism is the state religion, and there are thousands of monasteries and temples and thousands upon thousands of monks and nuns. Oddly enough, it is also one of the most corrupt places on earth. Granted, such a statement smacks of rhetoric more than hard fact—because how can you measure “most corrupt”—but I do mean to point to a “tiny problem,” if you will. So for a starter, Thailand has a flourishing, thriving, bustling sex trade. Whole plane loads of men fly in from all kinds of countries, like Japan for example, paying group rates, cheaper that way, for a week or weekend of unlimited sex, no questions asked. But that’s just a starter. If someone wants to have sex with an underage girl OR boy, hey come on over to Thailand—it is all-available, no questions asked. Oh, yes, it is officially “not allowed,” against the law, etc. but business is business and it’s really big in Thailand. Also if you got the money and the resources, if you want to buy a boy or girl and take them home, well, that can be worked out also. I remember reading about one of the predator priests, that he would take vacations in Thailand….verrrrrry interesting as they say….. Somehow I don’t think he was going to study meditation over there.
So what do all those Buddhists in Thailand say about all this. Well, not very much. In fact, a few of them, alas, participate in “the trade.” To end this depressing account, here are two websites. The first one is from a blogger who has collected a sampling of news stories about the problems in Thai Buddhism from Pacific Rim sources:
And the next one is from someone who has lived and worked in Thailand, and has written sympathetic articles and books about Buddhism in Thailand:
So what’s the point of all that depressing stuff above? Human weakness is human weakness, and perhaps one just wants to say that this is simply the human condition–we should not be surprised. That is true. But we still should seek to deal with these problems, and that doesn’t mean ignoring them or pretending they are minor. Also, those of us “in religion” want to avoid being judgmental at all costs. However, to allow fraudulent religiosity to flourish and to look the other way is not only naïve and simplistic, but it leads to people getting really hurt. Let us recall that the only people Jesus was unrelentingly tough with, the only people he was really hard on were those who had abused religion for their own gain, whatever that gain consisted in. For his own disciples he called for a completely different mode of presence. No need to tell me it hasn’t worked out quite that way!!
In a real sense there is no actual solution except the practice of authentic religion in the truest way possible. But we can point to some things that might help in “disarming” false religiosity. For one thing, we should consider “deconstructing” spiritual/religious leadership. By that I don’t mean getting rid of it. It simply needs to be “re-visioned”—actually Jesus does that in the Gospels. Various kinds of leadership roles in any religious community or tradition are real and necessary, but they have been endowed with such specialness that this opens up a world of problems and gives power to people who become entangled with it in unhealthy ways.
Priests, monks, ministers, spiritual practitioners, have a strong inclination to attach themselves to this “specialness” label. And this gets really big if the person is a spiritual father/abbot/ guru/ master/teacher/spiritual director, etc. That “specialness” can be very intoxicating and particularly hypnotic. One can almost begin to believe that one is “special.” And the person coming to spirituality perhaps for the first time becomes mesmerized by this “specialness aura.” As I suggested when I discussed the SF Zen Center problem, why not put a moratorium on all these “special labels and titles.” I realize that this presents peculiar difficulties for those in the Hindu tradition because the guru and one’s relationship to the guru is such an integral part of that tradition. Don’t quite know how to address that one, but I think as modernity goes deeper and deeper into the Indian psyche and heart, this thing will evolve to where the guru will become more like a spiritual friend—which is really all we ever need. Not an object of veneration, but a friend who may have more experience on the journey we are on, but still someone to whom we listen to without sacrificing our critical faculties. Even within Christianity the real “Father Zosimas” of the world are truly rare and so it would be more real and sane and more healthy if you called no one your master, your teacher, your father, but every one is your brother, your sister—no more, no less. Incidentally, the Desert Fathers are a perfect lesson in this. Among those who are eager for mysticism and the deep things of God, these figures seem to hold little interest—they are dry as dust and ordinary as dirt. In fact they seem to speak very little of God or ultimate reality or anything of that sort–more likely about humility, anger, poverty, silence, patience, how to treat others, etc. That’s what makes them our paradigmatic teachers, our very best teachers. They did have a title, “Abba,” father, but this was merely a place marker and distributed widely, primarily an indicator and a sign of experience in the desert. If anyone attempted to “cash in” that title for prestige or gain, he would immediately be recognized as a fraud.
As a further step in “disarming” the spiritual way, why not dress in utter simplicity—ordinary clothes. Do away with “special clothes” no matter what your tradition has used in the past. Everyone just wears simple ordinary clothes–nothing special about your appearance. I think you would be amazed how effective that would be in emptying out that “special image” people carry within themselves once they start being “spiritual.” In other words, don’t try to stand out as someone special. The special clothes work as a kind of gimmick at first. I mean when you begin you put on these different clothes, and it’s a sign of a new life, a new way, etc. It kind of reinforces the feeling that you are up to something different! Ok, but how quickly this goes haywire! It becomes another uniform and maybe soon you are thanking God that you are not like those other folk!! A small point perhaps, but every little bit helps!
There are two principles which underlie the dynamic I am pointing to. They are in an intense paradoxical relationship to each other, seemingly almost canceling each other out. The first principle is that the spiritual life is utterly and radically simple. Its simplicity is beyond description. You have everything you need in your heart for the whole journey. Doing the dishes is as holy a moment and as close to God as hours of meditation in the solitude of a cave or as the most sacred of rites. You need not go to any special place or any special person or find some special conditions. It is all there in your heart and in front of your nose. Waiting for you as it were. The “treasure buried in the field.” If you accept that, then no “spiritual teacher” will be able to mislead you or abuse you or gain power over you. You have treasure that no thief can steal; no rust or moth can eat away. On the other hand, the second principle is that the spiritual life is truly very, very hard. Very simple; but also exceedingly hard. After all Jesus spoke about some kind of “death” and “dying”–very vexing metaphors for some process within oneself indeed! Doesn’t sound like fun! Doesn’t sound like something you can buy. A true Sufi teacher said that of all the people that come to him who are on the spiritual journey maybe only one in a thousand “go all the way.” But that’s ok because however far you go, it will be much better for you and benefit you more than not having taken the journey. As a matter of fact we all finally “go all the way,” except then it’s called death! Maybe this is where we begin to want some guidance. Maybe a wise word from a spiritual friend; maybe a bit of “handholding” during a crisis; maybe all we should be are spiritual friends to each other. In an environment like that the one who wants to wield power over us will be readily manifest for what he is. A radical education reformer used to say that the main purpose of education should be to develop within the student a finely tuned “crap detector.” In other words he can recognize BS no matter how “authoritatively” it comes dressed. Such I would say is also the key to a healthy religious/spiritual culture. In such a culture, the spiritual seeker will become empowered with a “spiritual crap detector.” It’s obvious that we are not quite there yet!