Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Crazy Wisdom is still Crazy.

In a recent facebook comment thread, a friend seemed to be attempting to invalidate psychological notions of maturity based on the idea that the "self" is, according to eastern philosophy, an illusory and impermanent process. This was connected to a discussion on unethical, immoral, or immature behavior on the part of spiritual teachers. I'm not quite sure I understood my friend's point accurately, but I have heard this argument being made before as a means to excuse bad behavior on the part of spiritual teachers. Many make appeals to "crazy wisdom" and how the teachers are just so far beyond us that we can't judge. In a nutshell, my response is "Bullocks!".

Issues of maturity are by definition features of this illusory process. They are relative questions about this relative world - not about the absolute. Relative knowledge is still important for living in the world. After all, a bomb is a fundamental illusion that will end your suffering pretty darn quick. Ethical considerations are not to be obviated by appeals to the empty illusory nature of existence. This is just fundamental compassion. In my book, an unethical teacher is expressing a profound lack of compassion and therefore is disproving their own spiritual realization. Yes, there can be crazy wisdom that escapes our relative ethics. At the same time, if a teacher consistently excuses unethical behavior as crazy wisdom, then someone else can roll the dice by studying with them. I dare to judge them as not worth my attention other than to warn others away.

Similarly, I believe that individuals could have very deep spiritual experiences and insights, and even be skilled at teaching others to reach this same point, and yet also be an untrustworthy jerk who will empty your bank account, abuse you emotionally and physically, and perhaps even place you in physical and psychological danger. I am a crazy wisdom skeptic. Crazy wisdom is still crazy.

As The Ken has said, "When you're on your own, you're on your own.". If a teacher chooses to step across the moral boundaries of their culture, then they are truly on their own. Maybe they are right and are breaking taboos that need to be broken. Or maybe they are just acting out their shadows and immaturity. In either case, I'm not inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. History will ultimately judge if their transgressions were worth it - or perhaps more to the point, their students and the families of their students will ultimately judge.


  1. John, I have already responded to your blog on facebook, but I had another thought if you would like to hear it.

    I was asked eight weeks ago to help teach a midday meditation class at the very large medical clinic here in Marshfield. It ended on Tuesday. It was a great big lesson for me and I am very grateful for it. In fact, I have been asked to teach two classes by myself next session.

    One of the big lessons was the realization that, although meditation is the practice of suspending expectations and judgments while cultivating the capacity for radical acceptance of things as they are, people are coming to this class and to others like it, with some very (VERY) firm expectations and judgments. As a result, class attendance dropped from 13 at the beginning to 1 on the last day. The biggest drop took place before I was asked to take over, so I don't claim much responsibility for the crash.

    But the question remains. How do you ask people to examine their ego-self in meditation in the context of a consumer-driven setting? In other words, when the going gets tough (which it is supposed to in meditation), what keeps the average consumer on the cushion? In every other setting, we as consumers retain the right to walk out of a movie or complain to the manager, and we even have a responsibility to warn subsequent customers of an unpleasant experience.

    I would add that the problem definitely applies to one of the most narcissistic, self-absorbed settings around, the liberal Protestant church. I have a dear friend who is an ex-pastor who would gladly say that if you tighten down on the nut too hard, you will have a lot of empty pews long before any of them crack open.

    Jon Kabat-Zinn is well-known for bringing meditation practice into the mainstream of medical practice. He touts the physical and psychological health benefits of meditation and has some well-received studies to prove it. I have just started reading "Full Catastrophe Living". It starts out with a room full of new meditators, each of which has a horrible story of ruin that has brought them to the cushion. I am anxious to see if he admits that life must be seen as a full catastrophe before meditation can even appear on the radar.

    The Buddha didn't make suffering the first of his noble truths by accident. The recognition of suffering is none other than the awakening of the Bodhi mind. It makes me wonder if the problem of these toxic teachers is exacerbated by the fact that we as a society habitually deny our suffering or try to bury it with pleasures and possessions until it is unavoidable. By that time, maybe, a lethal sweat lodge starts to look good.

  2. Wish I could disagree with you, but I just can't. Le boring.

    However, I think your clarity on this is really coming along. Our first whack at it was not this well done.

    What say you about the need for rationality in a non-rational state or situation? Seems like this situation of guru/student is a lot like being in love.


Please keep it civil, folks.