Uncovering the Cancel Mind

After writing last week’s blog post I decided to do a little research into Seung Sahn, the Zen teacher who I quoted a conversation between himself and a student. He certainly seemed to have a few unusual elements in his biography, such as spending five years in the army after his ordination (even monks were conscripted during the Korean war), and him moving to America and working as a repair man in a laundromat while he was building a sangha. He had a reputation as a troublemaker apparently, and it came as little surprise really when I read that he too – like so many other prominent Buddhist teachers – had an allegation of a sex scandal attached to his name. Sigh.

After writing about Don’t Know mind last week, I was struck by how certain my mind was when I read about his scandals: oh, so he’s not so enlightened after all, his teachings are rubbish. But after going through the process of examining Don’t Know mind, and thinking about how opposites are not reality, they are just the work of the conceptual mind, I stopped and pondered this reaction for a while.

I could think of other teachers, who have done worse than Seung Sahn. I have a copy of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism sitting next to me as I am writing; Chogyam Trungpa clearly did some very unskillful and damaging things, and yet I still make reference to that particular book at times.

I’m certainly not condoning what any of the scandal hit teachers have done, I think the five precepts make it very clear that having sexual relationships with anyone you have a position of power over is not correct; and reading the accounts of the victims it is very clear that these kinds of actions create a huge amount of harm, this is totally contradictory to anything the Buddha teaches.

Sex scandals are nothing new in Buddhism, a look at the pattimoka rules illustrates clearly that some monks and nuns had to be told in very specific detail what was and wasn’t allowed. Unenlightened teachers using the Dhamma as a way to become famous and powerful also isn’t new. In his lifetime the Buddha had to deal with his own cousin Devadatta using the psychic powers he had attained through practice to become famous, and then using his power and influence to create a schism in the sangha and take many followers away from the Buddha. There’s really nothing new under the sun.

While I had no doubts about the lack of integrity of Seung Sahn, I was interested in was quickness of my mind to make a judgement and cancel him and everything he said, all in a split second. That isn’t to say this isn’t ultimately the right thing to do, but our practice asks us to leave nothing unexplored – we need to not take anything for granted as being ‘right, and that’s all there is to it’. I was also interested in how my mind didn’t cancel other teachers or situations when they were proven to be not perfect.

When I started practicing with the Forest Sangha, I didn’t know much about their history, but after a while I learned about the inequality between the monks and the nuns. The nuns in the Forest Sangha tradition (and in almost all Theravadan lineages) cannot receive a full bhikkhuni ordination. When I found this out I was horrified to be involved with an organisation that upheld such inequalities, but when I looked around for an alternative I found that the teachings and practice of the Forest Sangha were the only ones that rung true for me at that point. I needed to find a way to let the discord sit with me.

I found out that Ajahn Chah had very much gone against the grain to allow women to take any kind of monastic training, and while he recognised that it wasn’t full ordination he strove to create conditions for the women that were ‘good enough’. This was one of the key tenets of his teachings, nothing ever had to be perfect, it just had to be good enough, good enough to do the job. Are the conditions for the siladharas good enough to reach enlightenment? Yes, they probably are, so in that respect Ajahn Chah made the best of a bad lot.

I’m still uncomfortable with the position of the female monastics, but I saw that the Forest Sangha still created ‘good enough’ conditions for me to practice with, and I got the bonus practice of learning to sit with something I don’t agree with. My initial urge was to cancel the Forest Sangha, but when I looked at what other schools were around I realised that despite its faults it was still the best one for me.

It took the ability for me to allow both kinds of feelings to be present together for me to make something useful out of it. Because I didn’t cancel the Forest Sangha, I kept going along to pujas and retreats, and I had ample opportunity to see that although the nuns were technically not equal to the monks they were frequently treated as such. Senior nuns would take the Dhamma seat and deliver a talk to the whole assembly, they would lead retreats and often were among the most in demand, senior nuns were held in high regard by the lay people. All around me I saw that while they weren’t equal on paper, they were very much regarded and treated as equal by the majority of people.

I touched on it briefly at the end of last week’s blog when I said that holding contradictions together is a way to cultivate metta and compassion. When we put our attention on accepting people and things as they are, this opens the heart, and the heart can hold contradiction much more easily than the mind can. By using metta I was able to see all the good and kind elements that were present in the Forest Sangha, and that allowed me to have something to counter balance the disappointment of the inequality of the nuns.

Similarly some people think that some elements of Ajahn Sumedho’s teachings are incorrect, and while I’m not well versed enough in the suttas to make an informed decision of my own I can certainly understand the point they are making. But I don’t dismiss the rest of his teachings because of this, he has made many wise and insightful points that have helped my practice to develop. In fact it is through his openness to talk about how he learned through trials and errors that I have probably learned the most, and perhaps picked up some of that approach in my own practice.

There is a story that Ajahn Amaro recounted of a time when Ajahn Sumedho was starting to see faults in his teacher Ajahn Chah and decided to confront him about it. Ajahn Chah was putting on weight (he had diabetes so this was a particular concern), still smoking even though he promised he would quit, spending a lot of time chatting with the lay people who would come to visit him, and generally not living up to Sumedho’s ideas of how a teacher should be. Speaking to him one day Sumedho reeled off his list of issues, then Ajahn Chah who had listened carefully, replied calmly:

“Well, I’m grateful to you Sumedho for bringing these things up to me. I’ll really consider what you’ve said and see what can be done. But also you should bear in mind that perhaps it’s a good things that I’m not perfect. Otherwise you might be looking for the Buddha somewhere outside your own mind.”

p108 Small Boat Great Mountain by Amaro Bhikkhu

Ajahn Sumedho was suitably chastened by his reply, and understood the lesson that was in it for him. Ajahn Chah was pointing out the dangers of idolising teachers and becoming attached to them, and how it ultimately distracts you from the real focus of the practice – yourself. In the same vein when Ajahn Chah was asked if he was enlightened, apparently his reply would be “instead of asking me if I’m enlightened, asked yourself why you are not”.

This is a teaching that cuts right to the heart of the issue of why we can be so quick to cancel teachers for both small and large indiscretions. Expecting anything outside of ourselves to be the source of our enlightenment is a mistake, expecting someone to ‘teach’ us is also a mistake. The practice can only be done by doing, and it can only be done by you.

Ajahn Sumedho often says that he isn’t a teacher, because he considers that he can’t teach you anything, he can only tell you things that might help you to learn for yourself through direct experience. So even if he isn’t always completely correct, I can still respect so much of what he says and does because he has demonstrated time and time again that he is a dedicated and diligent practitioner who has had many insights over the years.

But while this kind of well practiced morality is to be respected, when it is such a common quality in your tradition it can make it easier to dismiss teachers from other traditions – “well obviously if they followed the Theravadin vinaya then these things wouldn’t happen…” It makes it really easy to take a moral high ground and push the stink away from you without engaging with it. These things do happen within Theravada, it’s just much harder for it to happen and when it does it is clearly defined as a disrobing offence. After all, let’s not forget that the original (not the current) Ajahn Anando of the Forests Sangha jumped over the fence in the middle of the night and ran away to marry a woman.

That part of our mind that upholds systemic biases like racism and xenophobic lurks in this shadowy area, the part of our mind that just waves a hand and says “well obviously they’re not like us…” As Buddhists, our practice directs us to find the root of all of our responses to things, there can be no dark corners where prejudice and othering can happen unchallenged.

It can be easy to just think “oh they’re Tibetans/Korean/Zen/Mahayana/Theravada/etc they do things differently there”, but that can be just lazy othering if you don’t look at why your mind says that. Recognising how a tradition actually works, and understanding the contexts that are created by that is a much more open minded, and open hearted, approach to take. Understanding the centrality of the teacher-student relationship to learning within Tibetan and Zen traditions can explain why it perhaps appears that these schools have more of these scandals than, say, the Forest Sangha does. So instead of waving it away as a problem of “those people”, you can see it is a problem that would happen with any group of people if those same conditions were present.

There is also the issue of pinning your hopes on someone else’s practice to prove to you that the teachings were true to consider. You hear these renowned teachers talking about rarefied states of attainments, and boundless compassion, and it convinces you that it must be possible, if only you could be as good as them. But when you find out that they aren’t any better than you, in fact sometimes they are much worse, you want to cancel the teachings. Chogyam Trungpa and Seung Sahn both had the idea that they were enlightened attached to them, but I think it is safe to say that they weren’t. As Ajahn Amaro quipped of some teachers, “if everything is so empty, why have you got nine wives?”

But in the Theravadan way of understanding the stages of spiritual development, it takes a long time to get past sexual desire. Of the four levels of spiritual attainment, it isn’t until the third that the craving for sensual desire finally wanes. A person on the first and second levels would still have had a lot of insights, and to someone new to the practice could seem very wise, but they still get angry, they still have greed, they still experience desire. In this context it is possible to understand how a person could have a lot of wisdom, but still have the capability to make mistakes.

A lot of the discussion around the sex scandals points to the role that the newness of these traditions in the West meant that students didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t know that you could sound very wise and still be quite flawed. They just heard their teachers talking about things beyond their experience and assumed it must be legit. If you know that insight alone doesn’t indicate a person’s moral fibre, then you would know to take their teachings as something that may or may not be true – it’s up to you to investigate and find out.

Each of these disgraced teachers still seems to leave behind some well practiced students, and that can feel like a paradox. But remember that in reality this is perfectly possible, and you can see very clearly that it has happened. It is only the conceptual mind that can’t understand it, it wants everything to be all of one or all of the other.

When our knee jerk response is to cancel something it is sometimes our conceptual mind that is trying to hide from the complexity of reality, and trying to tidy away any mess that is spoiling its simple view of the world. Stopping and understanding where that reaction comes from is important, not just for knowing why we are doing the things we do, but also for developing a picture of the world that is more complete, one that contains both dung and roses as the real world does. That doesn’t mean accepting all kinds of behaviours as ok, that too is another one-sided view of the world. It means seeing that there is good and bad in everything, and being able to tolerate the discomfort that creates.

We can still say their behaviour wasn’t right, Seung Sahn’s behaviour wasn’t right, Chogyam Trungpa’s behaviour wasn’t right, and all the (sadly) numerous other Buddhist teachers who have been found to have had sexual relations with their students weren’t right either. How do we square this circle?

Seung Sahn and Chogyam Trungpa were able to say some wise things, and they also were able to carry out very unwise behaviours, that is the truth in all its complexity. When I read the teachings of both I keep in mind the ways that they behaved, I don’t brush it under the carpet, it is the messy reality of life. And I can still learn a lot from both of them, not only from the teachings they gave but also about why it is so important to uphold the precepts, and why we practice so much to let go of sensual desires, because I can see how much trouble and hurt it causes, not just to other people but to you yourself too.

I can see that there is no opportunity to rest on your laurels in the practice, no matter how much wisdom or insight you have – if you haven’t made it to enlightenment then you are always still at risk of getting yourself into all kinds of trouble. In fact with a bit of insight, some mindfulness, and a lack of a moral foundation you can create more trouble than you ever could before you started practicing.

The practices used in Buddhism aren’t inherently good, they are all neutral. Mindfulness isn’t good on its own, it is only good when you use it for good purposes. Some armies train their snipers in mindfulness, to prove the point in case. Likewise for all the practices, they are only good when they are performed with good intention and for good purposes. This is why it is so important to have your moral compass well established when you undertake practice, and why the Buddha puts so much emphasis on developing sila (virtue) as the first step of the path.

Nothing about this was about trying to be alright with what these disgraced teachers have done, or trying to find a way to still hold them and their teachings up despite their clear faults. It was only ever about that movement of the mind to throw something straight in the bin without looking at it like junk mail, and understanding how that worked.

So while I can see that my mind wants to cancel anything that doesn’t meet its standards or makes the world more complicated than it wants it to be, when I actually look into the issue more closely I can see that there are lots of elements at play. The more I look, the more there is to learn, and I can now better appreciate the usefulness of tolerating the discomfort of disapproving of something. Someone may have done something wrong, and many people have, but in Buddhist practice that doesn’t give you a free pass to lazy, biased, prejudiced, or hateful thoughts about it, you must always investigate what is behind the workings of your mind.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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