Another scandal is making the rounds in Western Buddhist circles. There’s no point in dredging up the details; they can be summed up as: a widely respected meditation teacher had a sex scandal and his response has been a mix of “so what?” and victim blaming.
The community response has taken three forms:
- He wasn’t a real meditation teacher if he did this things. The years he was put on a pedestal and his teachings respected were all a sham.
- His teachings are still sound, we should follow the good parts and admit he had personal failings.
- You can’t judge the behavior of enlightened beings. He did nothing wrong.
The third argument is how cults form. It’s obviously bonkers, so let’s ignore it for now.
The first argument is a rehashing of the no true Scotsman fallacy. It’s rather convenient to ex post facto declare that someone’s not a true meditator. The fact that so many are quick to go to this argument shows how deep of an influence Protestantism and Calvinism in particular have in Anglo-American culture — these debates about whether someone was really saved are a favorite pastime in some circles.
The second argument eventually comes to this same point. If you practice, teach and by all outward signs have made progress along the path, how can your basic moral compass be worse than many of those who don’t practice at all? If anything, these events (and there are many) should give us pause at just how effective a meditation practice is at building lasting positive changes.
Many Westerners come to Buddhist practice as way to induce dissociation. Depending on how you practice, meditation can be pacifying, bliss inducing and a spiritual bypass from real life. Here’s a quick guide and some red flags:
If you feel the need to actively avoid uncomfortable experiences, possibly see them as “negative energy,” especially anger — you might be by-passing or dissociating.
If you often feel ungrounded and spacey, that’s a telltale sign of dissociation. Bringing awareness back into your body will benefit.
If you go into a haze during your sit-down meditation time, that’s dissociation. Try to return to the point of focus and bring yourself back into embodiment.
In other words, if you’re using meditation to self-medicate the same way someone would use drugs or alcohol, that’s not a healthy practice. And that’s the rub: even things that have great potential for good like meditation and psychedelics can become numbing agents.
I fear I’m coming close to the Scotsman fallacy myself, but true Buddhist practice is about waking up, becoming aware to the world around you and dealing with its shortcomings in a constructive way. It isn’t supposed to be about zoning out.
Practice that Awakens
Some of the most popular forms of practice in the West are those that easily tend to zoning and blissng out (samatha) or those actively aimed at dissociation (the Vipassana movement). Both of these can be part of a healthy practice, but it’s easy to get sidetracked.
There are traditions though that are much more attuned to being present in reality:
- Suan Mokkh (where I’ve done three retreats) focuses on a more active approach to meditation and engagement with the real word.
- Ajaan Jeff’s meditation instructions on mindfulness of breathing are almost like an analytical exercise or reflection than a zoned out state. There’s a strong case to be made that this is what early Buddhism had in mind rather than zoning out.
- Engaged Buddhism is a Zen tradition grounded in bring the benefits of practice to the outside world.
Any practice system that doesn’t focus on the fundamentals of Buddhist ethics, non-harm to self and others, is likely more about zoning out than spiritual development.
The core Buddhist texts and practices were designed for monastics, with most lay practice becoming merely devotional over the centuries. Because of this, traditions with a strong lay involvement (Stoicism, Quakerism) might be a better approach for developing spiritual and emotional maturity for most lay people.
In any case, by their fruits ye shall know them.