By Robert K. C. Forman
Mostly it happened because of sex. And gurus.
It wasn’t supposed to happen. When the phalanx of white-robed Indian gurus and softspoken Zen Roshis came to the west, we heard they were brahmchari, celibate monks. Enlightened beings, we thought they had gone beyond their egos and their sex drives.
But then the rumors and accusations started flying. One of the first was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was reported to have slept openly with female disciples. San Francisco Zen Center roshi, Richard Baker Roshi, lost his job over repeated affairs with female disciples. Swami Muktananda had a taste for prepubescent disciples.
Out of 54 Buddhist, Hindu and Jain teachers in the United States, according to Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, only 15 had lived up to their tradition’s proscriptions of celibacy. Of the sexually active 39, some 34 had affairs with current students!
Western ministers didn’t didn’t talk about enlightenment, but did emphasize chastity and the sanctity of marriage. But then Evangelical preacher Jimmy Swaggart was discovered frequenting prostitutes. Colorado anti-homosexual evangelist Ted Haggard turned to to be in a three-year relationship with a gay prostitute. And Rabbi Mordechai Gafni had to resign his position in Israel’s Bayit Chadash in disgrace.
And we cannot forget the 4,392 men, some 4 percent of Catholic priests in America alone, who have been accused of being pedophiles.
What’s going on here?
While all these sexual misadventures are the fault of a few bad apples, the failure here is deeper. It’s time to say so.
Spiritual enlightenment, religious transformation, being twice born just may be, with reference to personal issues like sexuality, incomplete.
Enlightenment, or being saved by God, is important. It is the great clarifying, the revelation of our connection with the Divine or with an underlying, ultimate energy. There’s a good reason our traditions have been celebrating it. But for us, in our highly sexualized, post-feminine liberation world, enlightenment is no longer enough.
After all, gurus, rabbis and ministers in 1150 or 1850 or even 1950 didn’t face what we must on a daily basis. They had to confront their own sexual urges, for sure. But their sexual urges were encountered largely in the privacy of their own cells and single-gender monasteries. Although sexuality was probably always an issue, for most of history such personal issues probably weren’t the dominant life issue. Most traditions focused primarily on universal love and transcending the personal.
But of those of us today who are serious about our spiritual lives, few of us are monks or cloistered. And, with miniskirts and washboard abs on every glossy magazine page, sexuality is constantly stressed. We simply cannot duck the issue of sexuality, and in our post-Freud era, deny our conscious and unconscious drives. If indeed we ever could, we can no longer transcend the personal.
Frankly, I think that the spiritual challenge of today is greater than it was in traditional times. We have to confront our own and other people’s sexuality every day. We see it overtly and publically on the streets, on the TV, in the theatres and on the internet.
And for spiritual teachers today, sexual encounters are both more readily available and much more dangerous. In ancient times if a spiritual leader committed a sexual or some other peccadillo, their disciples would no doubt try to try to keep it under wraps, either because that was the tradition or because they believed it to have a deeper spiritual logic (as in, “he did it to raise our spiritual consciousness,” as in the wonderfully slippery crazy wisdom excuse) or to protect their masters’ reputation, or all of the above.
But today we are less cowed by authority. In our era of the suspicion of power, gotcha journalism and (one hopes) greater sensitivity to sexual harassment, wayward priests and roshis are more likely to be outted, humiliated and even arrested. Sexual peccadillos today are dangerous for your neighborhood guru.
I like to believe that most of our spiritual teachers and ministers have indeed undergone the shift into enlightenment. But if so, it is obvious that such shifts do not lead to transparent and healthy enough lives, especially sexual lives.
This is confirmed by Jeffry A. Martin. In the first study of its kind, Martin is assembling a database of subjects who report enlightenment. According to Martin’s psychometric tests, very little (if anything) about their self is out of the ordinary. They seem to maintain their addictions, mental disorders, racial and gender biases, and so on. Those who know them often report no differences in their personalities.
So if it’s not this form of inner enlightenment, what should we be after today?
The complete life, the good human life, must, it seems to me us, include both a transformed inner life and a transformed outer life. To be complete enough for us, our spiritual journey must develop both a deep inner freedom and enough everyday self-awareness to recognize when we’re feeling or acting in ways that are stuck, neurotic or corrupt. And it must include the courage to actually change.
Our spiritual work must include the messiness of the everyday: both our spirits and our psyches, our addictions and our purity. For spirit and psyche point to different aspects of the truly complete life: the unconditioned infinite is not the same as the personal and conditioned.
Spiritual practice, especially mysticism, points toward a timeless trans-human reality, while psychological work addresses the evolving human realm, with all its issues of personal meaning and interpersonal relationship.
If we are to live a full, sane, complete life, we will have to heal both.
Excerpted from Enlightenment Ain’t What it Is Cracked Up To Be: A Journey of Discovery, Snow and Jazz in the Soul by Robert K.C. Forman, PhDcelibacy, enlightenment, fallen, guru, sex, spiritual teacher