Wednesday, January 5, 2011
I've been reading a lot lately about "crazy wisdom" teachers. Primarily, I read The Buddha from Brooklyn by Martha Sherrill, Holy Madness by Georg Feuerstein and Stripping the Gurus by Geoffrey D. Falk. I'm interested in this subject, at least in part, because I've often wondered if the fellow who introduced me to Daoism, Moy Lin Shin, was some sort of "crazy wise" teacher. If he was, perhaps his behaviour wasn't simply weird and dysfunctional, but instead a tremendous opportunity to learn that I passed up when I left his organization.
For those readers who haven't heard of "crazy wisdom" before, the idea is that some religious teachers choose to teach their students by stressing them to the breaking point in the hope that this will force them reassess their basic assumptions about what it is to be a human being. The stress can take many forms, but primarily, it consists of expecting far, far too much from the student, either in the form of simple effort or in the form of breaking very important social taboos. Religious literature abounds with this sort of thing---Zen masters who beat their students, Lamas that force students to do heroic tasks of labour, Taiji Chuan masters who work their students so hard that they attempt suicide, and so on. In a more modern context, it involves gurus deliberately ignoring the boundaries that usually exist between a religious teacher and a student---such as forcing them to engage in abusive or embarrassing sex acts.
How could this possibly be justified?
The best illustration that I've ever seen comes from the delightfully complex movie "I Heart Huckabees". (If you have or haven't seen the movie, I'd recommend this essay on it.) The scene involves two men sitting at a picnic table bouncing a beach ball off each other's face. The idea is that the minor pain that results distracts them away from whatever thoughts are filling their minds and gives them a chance to experience "pure consciousness". (I suspect that this experience might have at one time been behind the Zen "keisaku" stick.) The two men are so enamored with the experience that they ignore their teacher's warning that this taste of empty consciousness can only be nothing more than just a fleeting event that invariably becomes overwhelmed by the complexities of life.
In order to force them to listen to her, she illustrates her point by caressing the crotch of one of the men with her foot, which immediately focuses his mind on her. As they walk off into the bushes to have wild, crazy sex, the other man is overwhelmed with jealousy. This, of course, completely makes the teacher's point that no matter how hard people try to take refuge in the "suchness" of life, they will invariably become distracted by the world around them. As such, their teacher is breaking social convention in order to teach them an important truth---i.e. in a "crazy-wise" way.
The problem with this style of teaching, unfortunately, is that the knife cuts both ways. Just as the two guys in the movie were quickly distracted from their beach-ball illumination, so can even the most enlightened master who gains a similar awareness from years of meditation. It isn't just the student who gets distracted when he gets "boinked" by the teacher, but the teacher too! The sad truth is that people with some significant insight can find their store of wisdom exhausted by the grind of attempting to help other people. I happen to believe that this is the reason why people who appear to have genuine insight at one point in their life can end up becoming abusive tyrants later on. Moreover, I think that this problem can become magnified within organizations as people who once had genuine insight but then lose it go on to make decisions about the abilities of other people, who then get promoted to positions of authority that they may either never have been capable of filling adequately, or, once did but since lost their ability to do so.
Underlying this issue is the fallacious assumption that "enlightenment" is an "all or nothing" or "once you've got it, it can't be taken away" sort of thing. If you believe that this is the case, then once someone "gets it", then they can never ever be wrong again---"backsliding" is simply impossible.
Well, IMHO, things just aren't that simple. In fact, I think that every moment of everyone's life we are in the same situation that confronted Neo when he first met Morpheus in "The Matrix". That is, we have a significant test of our courage and integrity. Do we take the "blue pill" and wake up safe and secure in the bed of comfortable illusions that sustain us in our present existence? Or do we take the "red pill" that may expose us to an uncomfortable truth that may shatter those illusions even though it might give us significant new insight? Those pills aren't just offered as a test for introduction to the spiritual life---they come along all the time. The failures we find in spiritual authority figures come up to their having decided to choose the blue pill.
So what does this mean for the serious student of the Dao (or Christ within, Buddha mind, etc)? Well, I'm not about to give up on the entire enterprise of spiritual practice. I think that there still is value. (I hope that by making this decision, I'm not just grabbing at a blue pill myself.) But it does get me thinking about a couple practical issues. First of all, I think that people should change the emphasis on enlightenment, realization, etc, away from the individual to the experience. Men (and women) cannot become "enlightened" or "realized". Instead, they can experience moments of realization. Obviously, some more than others. But the emphasis in teaching needs to be the contents of the vessel, not the vessel itself.
Secondly, I think that we should accept that if no one is "enlightened", then no one, ultimately can take on the mantle of "Mastery". This means that people have to accept that while there are people out there with insights who can offer us suggestions in our search for wisdom, we are always going to end up sitting in that chair having to decide on the red or blue pills all by ourselves. And if we decide to live in institutions, we are going to have to give up on any illusion about there being someone to tell us what to do. Instead, we are going to have to accept that any sort of authentic collective religious life is ultimately going to have to involve the "give and take" of people trying to figure out the right thing to do through the messy activity of consensus building and democracy.
Some people might complain that I've robbed the spiritual path of any goal. What is the point of it if no one ever becomes enlightened? Agreed, this is a big change. Without the ideal of the enlightened Master, the goal ceases to be personal and instead becomes collective. We go through our life attempting to gain insight through our glimpses of realization and try to hand them on to future generations---by personal interaction with others, through writings (like this blog), works of art, and, the institutions we create as collections of people. If some people think that this is not enough, I would suggest that it is all that sustains people who devote their lives to art, science, public service, etc.
Why should religion be any different?