These are strange days that we are living in. Recently, well-known Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield was interviewed on public radio in San Francisco. The interviewer, Michael Krasny, asked him, "Is it sometimes burdensome to be put in the role, as you often are, of a kind of guru
? And I know that word is hated and loathed and despised, but notwithstanding all the negative emotions that it does generate, it seems to fit the way many people view you."
Kornfield responded, "I tend to be pretty self-revealing in the way that I teach, and talk about the things that I struggle with a lot, so there's less of that kind of idealization. When I come in and tell a story at Spirit Rock [a meditation center in northern California] on Monday night and say, 'Well, here I was being a jerk again,' and people laugh . . ."
Interrupting, Krasny said admiringly, "You lead with your humanity."
Kornfield continued, "It dispels that some. And I need to do it, because it's true, it's accurate. So, it's not too bad."
A moment later Kornfield related how Ram Dass, a popular spiritual teacher since the 1960s, says that after many years of spiritual practice he has become "a connoisseur of his neuroses."
Poet and author Andrew Harvey has become another respected leader for many spiritual seekers. Having left his guru Mother Meera, whom he had only recently proclaimed to be the avatar who would save the world, he now has this to say about spiritual teachers and the nature of enlightenment: "I think that the true spiritual guide admits that he or she is still in process, that they are always aware of their own shadow and of the limitations of their upbringing, their cultural conditioning, their particular religious views. The true spiritual guide never claims to be unified with the divine." Although the author of a trilogy of books about remarkable gurus—including Mother Meera, his deceased lama Thuksey Rinpoche and Jalaluddin Rumi—Harvey now sees himself as the bringer of a "new paradigm" that seems to reject the possibility of unqualified wholeness and purity, and therefore also the possibility of a realized teacher who can fully embody these qualities.
Kornfield, Ram Dass and Harvey are among the most influential voices of modern spirituality in the West. But what are they telling us? They appear to be casting doubt on the possibility of anyone going beyond a limited, divided and neurotic condition. Yet isn't the very aspiration to transcend these aspects of ourselves that cause so much suffering the reason we became interested in spirituality in the first place?
What exactly is going on here? Surely one would expect more from the pioneers of Eastern spirituality come West, especially from those pioneers who are teaching others the wisdom of the East. It is as if those who first set off to the top of the mountain have returned and now urge the seeker after the pure heights of the Himalayas to forsake their quest in favor of the more comfortable climes of a littered base camp, or worse, the congenial squalor of the tourist section of Kathmandu. Have these men genuinely climbed the heights, and, like Gertrude Stein after visiting Oakland, California, discovered that "There's no there
there"? From their vantage point, can they be certain that our hopes of extraordinary spiritual achievement are a myth? Or are they merely undergoing the equivalent of a spiritual midlife crisis, having lost faith in the quest for the ultimate in light of their own failings?
Those who are aligned with the "new paradigm" of spirituality see themselves as the bringers of a revolutionary egalitarianism and antiauthoritarianism to the spiritual world. And if their conclusions are correct, perhaps we owe them the same gratitude that we feel towards the bringers of democracy in the political arena. But if they are wrong, their seeming rejection of the possibility of a pure and selfless awakening may not only discourage countless sincere seekers, but also runs the risk of imposing a new kind of authoritarianism, one of mediocrity and compromise.
Because of the centrality of this issue to the spiritual life, and the urgency of coming to a clear understanding about it, Andrew Cohen, spiritual teacher and the founder of What Is Enlightenment?
, responded with great passion to a recent interview of Harvey in Yoga Journal
, in which Harvey condemns the entire concept of spiritual authority. In a published letter to the editor, Andrew Cohen wrote:
If we are to believe these antiauthoritarian authorities who imply that a state of incorruptible purity is a mythical and seemingly unattainable ideal, then are we to rejoice in the fact that being human is a metaphor for duality? The meaning and significance of Enlightenment in my teaching I define as coming to that point in one's own evolution when one no longer causes suffering to others through acting out of ignorance. If such a goal is unattainable, then not only does profound spiritual attainment become almost meaningless, but it would even lead us to believe that ultimately there really is no way out of the human predicament. The message of the greatest Masters throughout history to us all has been that it is possible to become the living expression of that which is truly undivided as a fully human Enlightened being. That's always been the whole point!
It is because of the potentially devastating effect of the ideas underlying the current rejection of spiritual authority that What Is Enlightenment?
has dedicated this issue to exploring the role of purity and authority in spiritual life.
While the failures of so many modern spiritual teachers have undoubtedly contributed to the current mood of cynicism about purity and spiritual authority, we feel that the real root of this cynicism lies deeper in the human soul. Interestingly enough, Thuksey Rinpoche said it all to Andrew Harvey in A Journey in Ladakh
"As long as there is Samsara, there will be an evasion of the inner perfection that is man's essence. This is perhaps the saddest of all the tragedies of Samsara, and the most painful. . . . Often when men say they are helpless, trapped, imperfect, they are really saying, 'I do not want to endure my own perfection, I do not want to bear my own reality.' Imperfection is more comforting, more human than perfection. Many men want to believe that man is imperfect because it makes it easier to live with their own imperfection, more forgiving towards themselves. And who can blame them? . . . To discover an inner power that is completely good and gentle is frightening; it robs us of every comfort, every safety in resignation or irony. Who can live naked to his own perfection? And yet who, once seeing and acknowledging his own perfection, could bear not to try to realize it in living? To see it is hard; to realize it within life is the hardest thing."