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Scandals, Apologies, and Excuses: Why we disarm our discernment

Buddhists, nondual folks, and people engaged in the work of awakening are generally the nicest people one could ever hope to meet. They are warm-hearted, earnest to a fault, and sincerely interested in improving the world. They tend to avoid conflict like ebola. This is the beautiful side of the spiritual life. Seeing the Dalai Lama refer to the Chinese government as “my friends, the enemy” warms the heart. One way spiritual teachers and seekers avoid anger and accomplish this level of compassion is through self-examination whenever pain and anger arises. This is smart and effective. But while this level of forgiveness and self-examination is generally a good thing, I also believe it can become a problem. A much bigger one than we may be willing to acknowledge. Why? Because this is the kind of habit that keeps abusive people in power.

This thought occurred to me while following what has occurred with the famous nondual teacher Andrew Cohen, who recently released a letter of apology. Why the letter of apology? I don’t want to go into the details here, as his behavior has been written about extensively. For more information on the scandal read Enlightenment Blues by Andre Van der Braak, American Guru by William Yenner (former students), or the book written by his own mother The Mother of GodThere is also an entire website devoted to cataloguing the allegations.

While this kind of scandal is concerning, there is something else about it that is beginning to concern me more, and that is how people in spiritual communities are reacting to Andrew’s apology. In my own honest opinion, the apology was disappointing. I felt that the apology was inauthentic and did not fit the magnitude of the abuses, and a close friend pointed out that the admission of wrongdoing was sandwiched in between layers of self-aggrandizement. I believe that this is plain to anyone who reads it. Many people commented on Cohen’s blog to this effect and people who follow such things have noted it in social media. However, there were a significant number of people on social media and in the comment section of the apology itself who responded to criticisms by pointing out that critics should examine their own “shadow sides” and engage in more self-reflection. As chatter about Cohen’s apology spread on social media, this meme began making the rounds:

While I agree with the sentiment in principle, and even find it beautiful, these reactions gave me chills. As a family psychologist who has worked with many victims of abuse, and abusers themselves, what I was seeing was disturbingly familiar. This is how abusers stay in authority. I realized that the same family dynamics that are well-understood in psychology are at play in spiritual communities. People are downplaying the magnitude of what happened, blaming those who bring it up, and trying to make everything OK when it isn’t. As I read the comments I kept asking myself if this is what the Buddha really meant in that instruction to examine ourselves.

What is really happening when people who express their appropriate skepticism of an abuser’s mea culpa are told, essentially, to be quiet? What does “skillful” really mean in this context?

When faced with the crimes of spiritual teachers, spiritual seekers tend to perform a strange kind of psychological judo on themselves and others by disarming anger and judgement with spiritual techniques. With intense self-investigation we avoid investigating the crimes committed. When abuses happen and we turn inward, we should ask ourselves if we are using spiritual practice to avoid the hard work of confronting abuse or crying out for justice when others don’t want to hear it. We should consider if the “shadow side” in these situations is not our own anger but the avoidance of it. We should ask ourselves if we are excusing misdeeds by omission of an appropriate emotional response. Perhaps in these situations it is important to understand that there are many kinds of anger – not all of them are unskillful in certain contexts. In my work with children of abuse one of the phases of therapy children often go through is what I call “permission to be angry.” I think the same can be said for spiritual communities.

People like Cohen seem well aware of the habit spiritual seekers have of turning indignation into navel-gazing, and he has a history of using it to his advantage. In the books linked to above there are many instances in which people attempt to criticize, or merely question, Cohen but are shut down by being told to look at their own issues first. Over and over again he accused people who questioned him, or had his inner circle accuse people, of giving in to ego trips, underlying narcissism, and of being consumed with jealousy for his realization and enlightenment. By doing so he fostered a sense of chronic self doubt and mistrust in those who followed him, leading to a deeper dependence on his certainty. Essentially, he used people’s habit of self examination and forgiveness to disarm their wise discernment.  This isn’t something that only happened with Cohen, or only in neoadvaita communities. In his Atlantic article “The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side” Mark Oppenheimer points out that the kind of western Buddhists who fell victim to Eido Shimano “…proved extremely, perhaps uniquely, willing to forgive.” In response to the sexual predations of Jashu Sasaki Roshi, Joan Halifax wrote:

There is something about our religions… that disallows us facing the shame associated with sexual violations…

I would take her statement farther, and say that in spiritual communities, especially Buddhist ones focused on kind speech and avoiding division, people are particularly vulnerable to abuse because confronting others runs counter to the way we are trying to live. As Buddhists we excel at ethical self-inquiry but are ill equipped to confront violations when they arise in our own communities.

I am not claiming to know how to determine what an appropriate expression of anger is for abuses such as sexual harassment, beatings, death threats, or financial ruin. But I do believe that some expression of anger, even for those on the path to awakening, is appropriate. Finding how to balance the expression of authentic anger with liberating insight into it may be one of the most mature of spiritual practices. It may also be one of the only sustainable solutions to the constant reoccurrence of abuse that seems to happen in our spiritual communities.

If a psychologist, lawyer, medical doctor, or school teacher were caught doing any of the things Cohen is alleged to have done they would not only have to write a letter of apology, but state licensing boards would revoke their ability practice, civil penalties would be leveled against them, and criminal investigations would begin. In our society we recognize that no one, no matter how well-trained or accomplished, is invulnerable to behaving recklessly. But when it comes to spiritual leaders we seem to throw out the rules and expect people to be something greater than ordinary. This is a problem. The most disturbed people seem to know this, and gravitate toward the role of spiritual leader, as the late great meditation teacher Bill Hamilton pointed out in his book Saints and Psychopaths.

Changing this problem is worth the discomfort, and even anger, of speaking up. It can be done. I am an optimist about this. We can have spiritual communities in the west that are free of these kinds of abuses, but it requires that we all agree on basic rights for meditation students, and that we stop telling those who are offended by the violation of those rights to point their attention back at their own failings. Things can get better, but first we need to change our relationship to anger, and understand that in some situations expressing it is an appropriate response. Once expressed, we can get on with business of insight and healing. At that time, it may be useful to point others to examine their own “shadow sides.” Until then, allow responses to be what they are. Allow people to call for justice. Allow the process of wise discernment to take its first uncertain steps.

Reflections on Right Speech

Recently I was following a debate between two meditators (yes, we do debate). It ended with one of the debaters, whose views had been soundly taken to task, accusing the other of “wrong speech.”George Orwell, I thought, could not have imagined a more ironic outcome.

For those who are not familiar, “right speech” is a Buddhist concept, and is one of the steps in the Buddha’s eightfold path. Although the intent behind right speech is to help people behave skillfully by being truthful and not hurting others with words, in practice it can be anything but useful. In fact, it can be used to squash dissent, shut out alternative views, and put the brakes on important and revolutionary ideas. Wrong thinking about right speech can be a hindrance to innovation and authentic sharing.

The Wrong Speech Accusation

Few things stop a person in their tracks faster than accusing them of wrong speech. For those protecting their attachment to a deeply held view, such an accusation can be a trump card, a way to hold off challenges to beliefs that have become an identity. This is especially true when the person accused of wrong speech is persistent, critical and direct. This is often when the wrong speech card gets played in Buddhist circles, and staying with right speech actually takes some guts.

Sometimes a person can be rough, or even harsh, but still be engaging in right speech. To some folks this might sound crazy, but it is totally true. In reality right speech can be both gentle and kind or strong and challenging. It can be encouraging or dissuading. It can comfort and it can push others out of their comfort zone. It can make you feel great and give you a boost, or it can challenge who you think you really are. The Buddha himself was extremely compassionate, but he also jumped into many heated debates to give his two cents, and even called people “stupid” when they made ridiculous assertions (MN 4.8).

How can this be so? Right speech is not determined by how it looks to others. It is determined by the intent of the speaker and the context in which it is spoken. It can look divisive, harsh and anything but compassionate. But if it nudges the listener and the speaker in the direction of honesty, self-examination and awakening, then it is skillful.

(One caveat: if you’re reading this you’re not likely a Buddha (harsh, I know). So, be cautious with the name-calling and attitude when debating others. If the mythology around the guy was any indication, he was likely perceived as being compassionate even when calling a person “stupid.”)

The Wrong Speech Cop-Out

Some people use right speech as a cop-out, as an excuse for not confronting bone-headed superstitious thinking or even injustice when it presents itself. For example, deciding not to tell a person that they are hurting others, when they clearly are, is an example of wrong speech. This is not at all academic. Consider for a moment the many scandals in Sanghas that began with a teacher verbally harassing and belittling students. The most common question after such scandals is: why didn’t anybody say anything? In such instances right speech would be considered harsh and divisive if it were done at the appropriate time.

Another example is not confronting a person when they are speaking or behaving in a bigoted manner, or staying silent while public figures espouse hateful views. We have all too many instances of this in our recent history.  Not openly disagreeing with these views when you have an opportunity to do so is not skillful. People who are genuinely on the fence about racism, homophobia, sexism and other social ills hear your silence as agreement – and that is absolutely wrong speech.

The point is that silence is likely the most common form of wrong speech.

How Do I Engage Socially, Politically, and Still Use Right Speech?

If you want to engage in right speech you need to think before you speak. In particular you need to consider a few things before you say something:

Is this false?

Am I trying to hurt this person?

Am I trying to serve my ego? To boost myself up in some way, to make myself look important, smart, or cool?

Is saying this just serving a favored identity of mine?

Am I confused and trying to hide it?

If you answered yes to any of these, then it’s best not to say anything. In other words, check your motivations for speaking. If it is selfish, hurtful, or comes from a place of confusion, then abstain. However, I would add one caveat. Before abstaining ask yourself this question:

Am I simply avoiding speaking up because it will be uncomfortable?

If you answered yes to this, then reconsider. Don’t let misguided ideas of right speech get in the way of doing the right thing.