The Hucksters

Victor Albee Norman: I want a very sincere necktie.

Clerk: I beg your pardon?

Victor Albee Norman: I want something that makes me seem sincere. You know, honest; genuine; upright; trustworthy.

Clerk: Well… um, here’s a handpainted one in four colors; at thirty-five dollars. Is that sincere enough?

Victor Albee Norman: I think, my friend, any more sincerity would be downright foolhardy.

Dialogue from the 1947 film version of The Hucksters

You would think that hucksters are not born at the same rate ascribed to suckers by P. T. Barnum, but you would be wrong, because we are all hucksters. We peddle and sell ourselves in myriad ways each and every day.

We expect and to some extent tolerate rampant hucksterism in business, politics and entertainment, but when it comes to spirituality, we find it  extremely repugnant, because what is being hawked is considered sacred.

But, spiritual teachers, too, are hucksters. If you have a message you want to share, you have to communicate it and that means a certain amount of promotion. So even the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are hucksters. Most of us believe that they are sincere, so we’re willing to overlook a bit of hype now and then.

Since spiritual teachers are human beings, they have faults. I learned a long time ago that there are no saints. Except on paper. Truly, no one in his or her right mind should want to follow a saint anyway. If you have to follow anyone, human beings with all their faults are much better. It’s very difficult to better than a saint, and any good teacher wants his or her students to surpass them.

When a teacher is affected by too much avarice or misbehaves, that does not necessarily mean they lack sincerity or that their teachings do not have some value. We must always look at these situations one by one and evaluate them accordingly. It also does no good to lay everything on the teacher’s doorstep. We should be willing to see how our expectations or participation or whatever the case may be played its part in creating the situation. It’s delusional to think these things are a one way street.

We have to recognize that nearly all teachers are driven by some amount of ego, for without ego, it would unlikely they would put themselves out as a center of attention. Obviously, you want to associate with teachers who have their egos in check and who are motivated by something more than just the lure of a money making opportunity.

I don’t know how it is for women, but based on my own experience, I can tell you that if a man is the center of attention, reasonably good looking and reasonably eloquent, it is inevitable that at some point he will become the object of someone’s sexual attention. One of the few things I have ever done right as a dharma teacher has been to maintain some integrity in this regard. I began leading Buddhist groups some 27 years ago, and during that time, I have never taken advantage of any female’s sexual interest, and there have been opportunities, nor have I flagrantly pursued anyone who aroused my interest. To be honest, though, I have to admit that there are times, late at night, when I am by myself, when I kinda wished I had. Not that it would do me much good now.

Here is something Ram Dass wrote in his book Journey to Awakening. He’s talking about how some people fear any sort of involvement with a teacher:

They fear the possible impurities in the teacher, fear being exploited, used, or entrapped. In truth we are only ever entrapped by our own desires and clingings. If you want only liberation, then all teachers will be useful vehicles for you. They cannot hurt you at all. If, on the other hand, you want power, a teacher may come along who talks about liberation but subtly attracts you by your desire for power. If you get caught and become a disciple of such a teacher, you may feel angry when this teacher turns out to be on a power-trip, not leading you to enlightenment. But remember: At some level inside yourself you already knew. Your attraction to this teacher was your desire for power. Your anger is nothing more than anger toward yourself.

Some say that you should do nothing without the teacher . . . Others say that a teacher is not necessary, that you can only do it yourself . . . most people at some point along the path need teachers. For example, if your seek to quiet your mind, at first learning to meditate is enough. Later you might need a teacher to show you how you have misused even the simplest meditation in the service of your ego rather than having used it for your liberation.

Whether teachings experienced along the way are beautiful and pleasant, or unpleasant and harsh, or even bland, all are grist for the mill of awakening . . .

During his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, the Dalai Lama offered some excellent guidance regarding both teachers and practitioners that readers may find useful. You can find it here and here.


3 thoughts on “The Hucksters

    1. I have little regard for any of the Abrahamic religions, yet I thought the Koran burning was reprehensible. This pastor says that he opposes Islam because it is a religion of hate, while he does nothing else but spew hate himself. As the Buddha said, you can’t fight hate with hate. It also presses home the point that in an open society, free speech must be coupled with a sense of responsibility. Irresponsible speech is dangerous.

      At the same time, it seems to me that the Taliban/al-Qaeda used the book burning to as a way to recapture the spotlight so to speak. There is a revolution going on but it’s not their revolution and they must be grasping at straws now, trying to figure out how to co-op it.

      1. From the Dalai Lama’s teachings on Nagarjuna: “It is vitally important for the practitioner to always examine whether what is being taught really accords with the cardinal line set in the basic teachings of Buddhism. If it does not accord with that cardinal line, then it is something to be rejected. This is always the bottom line to be constantly checked against the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.” What puzzles me is that those who follow the Koran-burning “pastor” can’t or won’t do that with their own faith. Is burning a Koran a Christian act in any conceivable way? Is it Christian to deliberately provoke people who are already angry?

        I did a lot of years in a conservative Christian congregation, and nothing I can think of in Christianity as I understand it can justify this. The guy is a classic spiritual huckster.

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