Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for June 7th, 2009

Spiritual power warps

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For a couple of decades I gravitated toward organizations that had a feature I wished could be eliminated and replaced with something closer to my idea of how organizations ought to be. The feature I wished to eliminate was a warp in power, an exercise of authority that was usually presented as spiritual wisdom but was more often than not just a manifestation of what Nietzsche called the Will to Power. The idea I had of how religious organizations ought to be run was forged by my experience in early adulthood with The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I kept wanting to find something like a Buddhist group run along Quaker lines. What I repeatedly found was Buddhist groups run by megalomaniacs surrounded by fawning sycophants.

There is no point in naming names or dragging reputations through the mud. Nothing of value can be gained from that exercise. Let it suffice to speak in generalities about the sort of thing one can find in the several traditional religious organizations coming from Asia.

There are teachers to be found whose life experiences consist mostly of being taken care of by adoring disciples. There are teachers who spend the last forty years of their lives never so much as cooking a noodle, washing a dish, laundering an undershirt, ironing a robe, planting a seed, pulling a weed, lifting a burden, carrying a load or pushing a cart. They are surrounded by people who do all those things, and to those people who do the work the teachers offer what they call spiritual advice. But of what use to a person who must toil like a slave is the spiritual insight of a master whose only work is to tell slaves what they should do to keep him happy?

There are teachers who have immunized themselves from all forms of criticism and feedback. They do not have conversations. They deliver monologues. They do not listen. They speak, often at great length and with little regard or consideration for the time of those who must listen to them. Ironically, a favorite theme of such teachers is that worldly time is an illusion and that being aware of time is a sign of attachment and ego. Anyone who feels that his time is being wasted is immediately made to feel ashamed for being worldly and small-minded.

The Quaker William Penn once observed how much time is lost if one rises to speak in a Quaker meeting and says more than is necessary. Suppose sixty people are present in the meeting. If the speaker continues speaking for one minute more than was necessary to say what needed to be said, then one human hour is wasted. If a minister delivers a dry and lifeless twenty-four-minute sermon to a congregation of sixty people, he wastes one entire human day. (Not long ago, I calculated that a very repetitious and uninspiring talk I was listening to had wasted about two and a half human days. By giving ten ninety-minute talks to forty-five hearers, this teacher could waste almost exactly a human month.)

There is no doubt that a good deal of time can be consumed by a group of thirty or sixty equals trying to arrive at a decision. What is the difference between a group of equals consuming time by trying to arrive at consensus (or Quaker unity), and a minister consuming time by delivering a monologue to which his congregation is a captive audience? There are several differences, but the principal one is that there is very little of the master-slave dynamic in a society of equals, whereas in the authoritarian monologue there is very little else going on but the domination of a group by an individual bent on exercising his will to power.

George Fox and other early Quakers used to walk into Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and Puritan church services and challenge the preachers. The Quakers were often repaid for this kind service by terms in prison. Drawing attention to the imbalance in power between clergy and congregation in this dramatic way was no doubt as excessive as it was effective. That notwithstanding, I do find myself wondering why it is that people allow themselves to be held captive. After all, all one need do when a preacher goes on beyond his light is to stand up and walk out.

Slaves, get up on your feet and walk away from your masters in whatever form they take: swami, guru, lama, priest, bishop, cardinal, presbyter. I recommend it. I predict you will not regret being without an all-too-human lord and master. You will, to be sure, make a few mistakes. But they will be your own, and they will be a small price to pay for the freedom of finding your own light in your own way.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 18:52