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.


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.


Practical advice regarding teachers and leaders

Just as in any other religion or spiritual practice, Buddhism has its share of questionable teachers and leaders.  Following such a person can be very dangerous. People have been exploited and abused financially, sexually and otherwise.

The first clue in spotting a questionable teacher is this: An enlightened person will never tell you that they are enlightened. As soon as you hear someone claim to be enlightened, or that they have attained a high level of realization, or you suspect that they believe themselves to be enlightened, run for the hills.

Someone who is “enlightened” understands that there is no end game, only the Endless Further. There is no enlightenment, only enlightening – the continuing process of becoming awakened.  There is no state of being that one arrives at and can say, “This is it. I’ve arrived. I’ve got it.” In this sense there is no such thing as an enlightened person, only individuals who are further along than the rest of us.

An “enlightened” person understands that it doesn’t matter if you think they are enlightened or not. You are either going to get what they are teaching or you won’t. It has more to do with your progress along the path, than theirs.

An “enlightened” person understands holding the belief that he or she is enlightened may be an impediment to grasping the teachings. When you look upon teachers in that way it is very easy to put them on a pedestal, to idolize or worship them. You might be tempted to want to build monuments to them or name places after them. “Enlightened” people do not care about stuff like that.

Enlightened people have no ego. Or, perhaps it’s better to say that their ego is in check. They don’t have to tell how great they are because they don’t see themselves as great.

It is very easy to be led astray by a charismatic teacher. They usually have an agenda. They believe that the end justifies the means. Since they are a living Buddha, they may expect you to ignore your own sense of ethics and integrity in order to help promote them and their teachings.  It’s okay if you engage in unethical behavior, you’re serving a greater cause – them.

The Dalai Lama was once asked about the difficulty of maintaining faith when so many teachers misbehave. He answered by saying,

If one is able to cultivate a faith that is grounded in a personal understanding, then there is no possibility of developing such a faith towards a lama or teacher who misbehaves.

It is very important when you relate to someone  who is a dharma-teacher to use your critical faculty to subject that person to close scrutiny, so that you are aware that if not all the qualifications that are commented on in the scriptures are not found in that person, at least most of them are found in that individual.

Sometimes people select a dharma-teacher or choose a particular tradition during a very low period in their personal life. When that happens, when someone chooses a person or a tradition because they have a need to lean on someone or they lack confidence or self-esteem, then there is a real vulnerability for abuse and when that dependence is placed on someone, given that you are not really able to use the critical facility, then there is scope for abuse and disappointment.

Often when it comes to choosing a spiritual path or a teacher, our tendency is to be hasty and take on anything that comes near you, like a dog who will eat any food that comes its way and that is not how we should approach the question of choosing the dharma or a teacher.

As I say to members of the media, that they should have as long noses as possible, sort of sniffing around and also this is true for the students-you should be able to sniff around so that you can see from both the front and the back. Sometimes what happens is that things may look very impressive from the front, but from the back they may be sort of empty, just hollow.

If a teacher is able to maintain a good kind of integrity, then, of course, that person is worthy of your admiration and trust.

Judging the integrity of a teacher should be approached in the context of the three higher trainings on morality, meditation and wisdom or insight. That is what the Buddha taught in the Tripitaka, the Three Spiritual Collections . . . So, this means that since I am also a teacher, you should subject me to such investigation as well.

Never suspend your own good judgment. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it very likely is. Don’t follow people who claim to be enlightened, or who seem enamored of their own achievements. They are phonies. Fakes. Charlatans. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that the end justifies the means. It doesn’t. The Buddha never taught such a thing and it has no place in Buddhism.