A Teacher’s Death and the Tao of Imperfection

Until last week, I had never heard of Michael Stone.  He was a respected Buddhist teacher, author, mental health advocate.  He died July 13.  He was 42 years old and left behind a wife, family, and evidently, legions of admirers in Canada.

Over the weekend, it was revealed that Stone likely died from an opioid overdose.  Naturally, there are some who find this shocking, disillusioning, feeling that yet another Buddhist teacher has let them down.  But actually this is a fairly common story.  It’s just another Buddhist who wasn’t perfect.  There are many such Buddhists.  I know because I’m one of them.

Dharma folk looking to following saints are in the wrong religion.  They should be hanging out with the Catholics.  They have lots of saints.  Most holy ones.  But the truth is, as American writer and salesman for the Larkin Soap Company, Elbert Hubbard pointed out, “Every saint has a bee in his halo.”

Sometimes you see a painting of Buddha with a sort of halo around his head but someone painted that.  Buddhism is a living philosophy.  The Buddha’s teachings centered on the human condition and the most salient characteristic of human existence, suffering.  We may read about how the Buddha was “The Perfect One,” but we have to understand that if he were an actual historical figure, at one time a living human being, he must have experienced suffering even, after he awakened.  There is no possibility that he was truly perfect.

At Lion’s Roar I read something Stone wrote that I thought was worth sharing:

“You’d think that given all this inner work, an incredible network of support, strong friendships, a loving partner and kids, and lastly, a life dedicated to embodying the dharma (literally every single day includes practice and study), that I’d be immune to extreme mental states…

It can be hard to admit even to ourselves that there are times when the stability of awareness that we discover in [meditation] just isn’t there.  When this started happening I’d say my practice needs to get deeper.  But the truth is, there was a chemical change in my brain.”

That chemical change was probably bipolar disorder, which Stone lived with all his life.  In the above quote, Stone is more or less acknowledging his own faults and failures.  I think he is also suggesting that it is a mistake to think that meditation is the magic pill that will cure all our ills.  From what I understand, Stone was a non-traditional Buddhist teacher.  It is certainly refreshing to hear a teacher address his or her own imperfections.  I would much rather listen to a ‘guru’ who says, “You know, sometimes I’m a jerk,” than someone with an attitude of “Gather around children and listen to my perfect words.”

Four words in Stone’s statement stand out for me: “immune to extreme mental states.”  That’s where many of us make our mistake.  We shouldn’t be looking for immunity but rather self-restraint, discipline, balance.  No one is immune.  Even the Dalai Lama gets angry and admits it.

To relieve the sufferings of others, the bodhisattva must suffer his or her own.  If we don’t have sufferings and face them, then how can we help others use dharma to cope with theirs?  And suffering is largely self created, it is unrealistic to expect monks and nuns and dharma teachers to be without faults and problems.

If you follow the link above, you can read the family statement that describes Michael Stone’s manic last day.

In the end, Michael Stone was defeated by the bipolar condition.  But he was undefeated in many other areas.  From what I have read, it seems obvious that he worked on himself as he struggled though the onslaught of extreme mental states, and I have no doubt that this own struggle gave him the insight and wisdom to help others learn to do the same thing.

To win over oneself does not mean to become “perfect.”  I’d say it means to become more human.  A huge part of the struggle is to simply admit that we are not perfect, that we have faults, and then we find the real success lies simply trying to change.  By the same measure, the practice is not perfect either.  So when faced with situations like this, we cannot say, well, Buddhism and meditation do not work.  Yhey only work as well as we do.

I will not defeat cancer.  Does that mean I have failed as a Buddhist?  I am not perfect.  Does that disqualify me as a teacher?  I can only answer those two questions with a third:  How do we judge inner transformation and its results?

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says

Greater the conquest of oneself
than subjugating others,
that one who’s always self-restrained,
that one who’s tamed of self .

Neither deva nor minstrel divine,
nor Mara together with Brahma,
can overthrow the victory
of such a one as this.

Month by month for a hundred years
a thousand one might sacrifice,
but if for only a moment one
might honor the self-developed,
such honor were better by far
than centuries of sacrifice.

I reccommend you read Lynette Monteiro’s take on this story at 108zenbooks.