Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hot or Not?

Often after sesshin at Mountain Lamp I crash with my friends Chris (below) and Rebecca in Shoreline, WA. Last year we got to discussing the issue of charismatic teachers in Zen, and the hazards and rewards of practicing with people who have an almost shamanic power in manifesting the Dharma. Rebecca said she once met a teacher like that, and said "I didn't quite trust him. There was something too hypnotic about it, even if he was amazing to be around." I asked Rebecca, who has handed me many a tissue to wipe away sesshin tears, "Do you think that would be an issue for me if I ever became a Zen teacher?"

Without missing a beat, she said "No." So much for my fantasies of becoming a Yoda-like master, with gnomic utterances dripping from my lips while my awestruck students gazed admiringly on.

After I recovered from the blow to my ego (Rebecca said to me, "what is it with men and their egos anyway?"), I wondered if that were a good thing, or, in more zen terms, a useful thing. Was it skillful to not be flashy, to not be particularly sparkling in presentation, but rather to be less theatrical so as not to manifest a barrier that could lead students into further alienation from their own deepest Buddha nature.

This seemed at odds with a lot - though not all, by any means - of what I'd seen in 20 plus years of practice in American Zen groups and the Buddhist Himalaya. The dramatic, and sometimes petulant, Lamas of the Mustang region inspired me less than the villagers in Kagbeni, who toiled away without complaint. In America I was inspired by the oratory of dramatic teachers, and the seeming resemblance of their exhortations to the Masters of the T'ang. But it didn't last, and it seemed that the more luminous the speaker, the deeper their woundedness, at least as shown in what Jung called "shadow" behaviors, deeds at odds with the stated aspirations of the actor. Jung called this propensity to behave in ways contrary to the ego self "Enantiodromia", the superabundance of a force that produces its opposite.

More on how this seems to appear in spiritual communities tomorrow. In the meantime, I would encourage y'all to look at Stuart Lachs' fascinating essay on demystifying a couple of modern teachers. It's here:


  1. I agree with your friend. There's something untrustworthy, something very "trying too hard" about people who are in positions of power and are extremely charismatic. I feel the same way about some therapists.

  2. Very interesting way of looking at it. I think in politics it is changed from "men and their egos" to "men and their private parts."

  3. Carolyn - Alas, this is often true in Zen as well! And Vajrayana....

  4. Erin - it's even worse, if that's possible, in the therapy field. We're now approaching politicians and reality TV stars as Axis II poster children.

  5. Great post, Scott. Thanks for bringing up this topic.

    If we're calling charisma a combination of eloquence and personal magnetism, I'm not sure that charisma by itself is the problem. The work of shifting our consciousness is often difficult, and boring, and painful, and if the teacher has some quality that makes them attractive, then that can keep us coming back to the work when instincts pull us away. Many a time I've been simmering in my own suffering during sesshin, and been very grateful for the lift provided by a rousing, inspirational exhortation.

    I think your friend's implied point though is that there is the suspicion that a charismatic teacher might use that power to further a personal agenda, one which is not in the student's best interest. Sadly, discerning ethics is much harder than charisma. But, as you point out (and echo Jung), I think the truth is that every teacher has some level of personal agenda, some measure of shadow. So if part of the teacher's shadow involves their ability to influence others, the important question is how bad is it? Bright light, dark shadow...brilliant light, engulfing shadow. Does the fire warm, or burn?

    Our shadow here is also key to this equation. We have to ask ourselves why a charismatic teacher gives us the willies. "I don't like feeling hypnotized by someone" or "it isn't healthy for someone to have that kind of sway over me" is another way of saying "I don't trust myself" (not to become a groupie, not to take bad advice and make poor decisions, etc).

    I think it comes down to an honest assessment of our strengths and wounds, and how they match or don't match those of the teacher. Perhaps it's useful to look at how we fall in love. If we have a tendency to get swept away and hand over power to another, then that's probably how we'll approach our relationship with a sprititual teacher. If so, then best to stay away from the stronger magnets. But, if we're naturally resistant to others' influence (which has equal drawbacks), then blacksmithing next to the forge might turn out ok. :)