Enlightened Teachers?

A final note, for now, on the subject of enlightenment and the spiritual journey’s destination. I’ve blogged about this aspect before, however, in light of recent controversies involving Buddhist teachers, I think it’s something that can’t be repeated too often.

Believe me, this is a great piece of free advice:

If you meet a teacher on the road who claims to be a Buddha, don’t kill him (that wouldn’t be nice) but definitely run for the hills. If you meet a teacher who claims that he or she has a process, a system or a secret teaching that will guarantee enlightenment for you, avoid that teacher like the plague.

Assuming that there is such a thing as Enlightenment, a person who has attained such a state would never make any claims about it. How do I know? Am I enlightened? Not by a long shot. It’s really just common sense. This is also a core understanding of Mahayana Buddhism.

Again, the Diamond Sutra:

“What do you think, Subhuti, has the Thus-Gone One realized the highest, most perfect, awakened mind . . . ?

Subhuti replied, “As far as I have understood what the Thus-Gone One has said, there is no independently existing object  called the highest, most perfect, awakened mind . . . And why? Because what the Thus-Gone One has revealed is beyond all conceptual thinking and cannot be seized; it is neither existent nor non-existent, neither real nor unreal, neither dharma nor non-dharma . . . The teachings that the Thus-Gone One has realized and spoken of cannot be conceived of as separate, independent dharmas and therefore cannot be described. The Thus-Gone One’s dharma is not self-existent nor is it non-self-existent. Why? Because the noble teachers are distinguished from others only in terms of the unconditioned.”

In The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, Thich Nhat Hanh has this to say about the last sentence in that passage:

Asamskrita dharmas are unconditioned. They transcend all concepts. The noble teachers are liberated. They are distinguished from others because they are in touch with and realize the unconditioned dharmas. They are no longer imprisoned by forms and concepts.

They may be liberated but they don’t go around proclaiming it. Since they are not caught up with forms and concepts, and because ultimately enlightenment is just a concept (see yesterday’s post) they are certainly not going to cling to something that has no substantive existence or tangible reality, something that is of the nature of emptiness.

In 1997 Andrew Rawlinson published a work entitled The Book of Enlightened Masters. He came up with a model in which he placed teachers, their teachings, practices, lineages and so on within four general categories (that could be combined and also overlap): Hot, Cool, Structured, and Unstructured.

Hot is that which is other than oneself; that which has its own life, it is not something that one has access to as of right. It is powerful and breath-taking, and is associated with revelation and grace. It is very similar to Otto’s numinous.

Cool is the very essence of oneself; one need not go to another to find it. Hence one does have access to it as of right. It is quiet and still, and is associated with self-realization.

The meaning of Structured is that there is an inherent order in the cosmos and therefore in the human conditions. There is something to be discovered and there is a way of discovering it. A map is required to find the destination.

By contrast, Unstructured teachings say that there is no gap between the starting point and the finishing post. Method and goal are identical. We are not separate from reality/truth/God and so no map is required. Everything is available now and always has been.

My feeling is that although Buddhism has some elements of each, it is essentially Cool Unstructured, which is the most accessible. Rawlinson notes that “Cool Unstructured traditions and teachers . . . say there is nowhere to go.” That’s because you are already there. There is no separation, no duality between the journey and the destination.

Rawlinson also points out that teachers “have to be true to their own ‘position’ – but not to anybody else’s.” In this way, Cool Unstructured teachers have to play it straight, whereas Hot Structured teachers do not.

The most pertinent comment that I have seen regarding the recent scandal with the Zen teacher named Genpo, came from a blogger who wrote something to the effect that as disturbing as the fact this teacher had sex with some of his students may be, even more disturbing is that he charges $50, 000 to attain enlightenment. Also makes you wonder about people who would fork over that kind of money. Know the old saying about a fool and his money?

The bulk of Rawlinson’s book contains biographies of various teachers, and while he focus was on Western teachers (in Eastern traditions), I think his model applies to purely Eastern traditions and teachers, too. Dennis “Genpo” Merzel has a short biography there. Not a hint that he might be up to anything untoward. Rawlinson mentions that he “emphasizes Zen’s traditional down-to-earthness.” I guess things have changed.

The bottom line is I feel that any teacher who claims to be enlightened, a Buddha, an Arahant, Kwan Yin, or the Virgin Mary is deluded. Even so, to be fair, that does not necessarily negate the value of teachings they give, but it does call them into question, and as well, begs questions about their motivation to teach.

I used to follow one of those guys myself, so I know a little about the subject. He was smart. He never said he was enlightened, he had his minions do it for him. Every chance they got. When I started hearing that he almost single-handedly ended the Cold War (a notion which I think a few Reagan supporters might have some issues with), then I knew I was in trouble.

We made a mistake. We thought there was more to him than there was. He’s human. We thought at first that he wasn’t.

– Paul McCartney

Sexy Sadie you’ll get yours yet
However big you think you are
However big you think you are
Sexy Sadie oooh you’ll get yours yet.

We gave her everything we owned just to sit at her table
Just a smile would lighten everything
Sexy Sadie she’s the latest and the greatest of them all.

Have a nice weekend, everyone.


2 thoughts on “Enlightened Teachers?

  1. Dear David,

    Having studied Andrew Rawlinson’s model in depth and written a 100 page paper on Tibetan Buddhism and the quadrant model, I suggest it is far too simplistic to suggest that Buddhism is Cool Unstructured. I would also question ease of accessibility. Allow me to address these two points consecutively. For the first problem, there are many schools of Buddhism as I am sure you are aware, and Tibetan Buddhism for instance is quintessentially Hot Structured. Yes, it becomes non-dualistic (Unstructured) at the point which the deity descends,or the mandala is integrated into the whole, however, Rawlinson’s cleverness is in the fact that he does not speak of this non-dual experience or attempt to plot it on his model. I can say this with great certainty having experienced in depth dialogue with him in person in Canterbury, England in 2008 / 9.

    Pure Land, which is a slightly cooler version of Sufism and Hindu Bhakti is Hot Unstructured and sees that everything on the path must in the end be surrendered to the undifferentiated OTHER power; this is not the same as using the power of contradiction, not-knowing or doubt as a tool to ‘pop’ the ego, as in the Cool Unstructured traditions.

    Then we have the Theravadan tradition which is a completely open path that is gradualist right up to the point of ‘enlightenment’ which, as you rightly say, cannot be spoken of, and Rawlinson does not. He simply intends the model to be a lens which can not only be used to converse with the traditions on the macro level, but can also look at lesser details such as initiation or ritual for example. In the end, what defines a path is, I feel, the perceived hurdle to liberation. So if the hurdle is delusion, or knowing, then the remedy is doubt as in Zen (Cool Unstructured), if the hurdle is absence of other power / love / god, then one must empty the vessel of the human crucible to allow grace / love to enter, (Hot Unstructured).

    Further to this, a tradition cannot always be easily defined by the model, take Sufism, although it is essentially Hot Unstructured, it contains the ‘Stages of the Heart’ a typically cosmological, symbolic and therefore Hot Structured element. This is the point of the model, not to define, but to remain in open conversation with the multifarious strata of every path. What this does, is to perpetuate a pluralistic and therefore respectful perspective and bypasses the typical scholarly preoccupation with attempting to reduce these inconceivable paths to a single definition.

    As for the second problem, the statement that Cool Unstructured traditions are more accessible? I would strongly disagree. Entering the Zen tradition is impossible, think about it, it can’t possibly be entered. In this quadrant, there is no tradition! In actuality, it is the COOL STRUCTURED element of Zen traditions that enables entering at all. In this sense, even the most Cool Unstructured Buddhist tradition (Zen) is not completey Cool Unstrutured, in reality, it sits somewhere on the bottom axis, between the two ‘Cools’.

    Although it is heartening to see the model being used, I felt that it was necessary to give you what I feel is a more authentic representation of the model’s purpose. In truth, and I am certain that Rawlinson would agree with this, the model is not a model, but a lens. It does not reduce the world to itself, that would be making the same claim as these enlightened charismatic personalities you speak of, instead it remains open as a tool for infinite dialogue with mystical paths.


    1. I suppose it depends on what you means by “accessibility.” This is an old post. I don’t remember quite what my thinking was at the time. But thanks for you interesting comment.

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