The Emperor’s New Clothes




A Path With Heart


By Jack Kornfield










No discussion of the perils and promises of spiritual life can ignore the problems with teachers and cults. The misuse of religious roles and institutions by TV evangelists, ministers, healers, and spiritual teachers, both foreign-born and Western, is a common story. As a leader of a spiritual community, I have encountered many students who were painfully affected by the misdeeds of their teachers. I have heard such stories about Zen masters, swamis, lamas, meditation-teachers, Christian priests, nuns, and everybody in between.


William James called religion a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism. Mark Twain saw religion as what people try to believe and wish were true. The idealistic belief of students combined with the personal problems of teachers can create the phenomenon depicted in the old tale of the emperor’s invisible new clothes. Because no one wants to speak about what is really going on, the misdeeds of teachers are perpetuated. Just as spiritual practice requires us to work with areas of unconsciousness in our personal lives, we must also become aware of the unconsciousness in spiritual communities as a whole and in the teachers who lead them. Otherwise we will be following ideals instead of a path with heart, and we may well end up with spiritual pain, personal wreckage, and a broken heart.


When Soto Zen founder Dogen said, “A Zen master’s life is one continuous mistake,” he was pointing out how mistakes and open-hearted learning from them are central to spiritual life. An unintended meaning of Dogen’s statement is that many large and painful mistakes have been made when teachers have at times misled their communities. Great sadness and pain have come from these mistakes, because the role of spiritual teachers is to protect the welfare and hearts of their students and guide their awakening with compassion.


The problems of teachers cannot be easily separated from the communities around them. A spiritual community will reflect the values and behavior of its teachers and will participate in the problems as well. Because spiritual community is so important, only when our community life is made a conscious part of our practice can our own heart and spiritual life become integrated and whole.


Unaddressed community problems are often such a painful area that we will need all our spiritual skills, sensitivity, compassion, and deep commitment to the truth in order to face them and deal with them. We will need to apply the same principles as we have in our personal practice: naming the demons, healing attention, ending compartmentalization, examining insistent repetitions, and finding the seeds of transformation in our own heart of understanding.


Not all communities suffer from abuse. Wise, integrated dharma teaching can become the way of our practice if teachers and students are truly committed to conscious living. In order to discover how to do this, let us truthfully look at the problems that do arise. We can begin by naming them clearly.





There are four major areas where teachers and communities most often get into difficulties. The first centers around the misuse of power. This happens most often in communities where all the power is centered around one teacher whose wishes are followed no matter what the consequence to students. Ultimately power replaces love in the teachings. Sometimes teachers manipulate the lives of students for their own ends, decreeing marriages, divorces, life-styles, and even abusing students who will not follow their teacher’s wishes. The abuse of power can be coupled with a teacher’s self-aggrandizement and self-inflation and with the establishment of whole hierarchies in which there are students who are in and out of favor, those who will be “saved” and those who will not, secret cliques, intimidation, fear, and the creation of dependence and spiritual dictatorship.


When sectarianism is mixed with this misuse of power, false pride, a cult mentality, and paranoia can grow into an “us against them” isolationism. At its worst, this can end up with weapons, spies, and survivalist scenarios. In one community where such power abuses developed, I visited friends who had brought their children there to live. The teacher was famous for his spiritual powers, and thousands of students admired him, loved him, and were in awe of him. As an older, celibate yogi who had lived a life of renunciation, his virtue went unquestioned. So did his authority. Around him grew several large ashrams and an unquestioning hierarchy. Closer to the teacher were in-groups, lots of money, and spiritual glamour. After some years stories started to surface of young girls procured for the teacher and select members of his entourage, of secret bank accounts, drugs, and guns. My friends, like most of the students, were true believers who dismissed these tales out of hand. With such a teacher how could they be true? Only later, when their teenage daughter gave them first-hand accounts of many of the rumors did they see how painfully entrapped they had been. The family immediately left the community for good. To this day, however, even after lots of publicity, many members of the community remain with the teacher, and as if nothing had ever happened, they never bring up these issues. While this story combines elements of many areas of abuse, the misuse of power was at the center of the problem.


Like misuse of power, money is a second difficult area. Encountering spiritual teachings can have such a powerful impact on people’s lives that they want to give generously. This can bring a great deal of money into spiritual communities.


If the teachers have led simple lives and are unused to great abundance, or if their desires become inflated, this can lead to either naive or conscious misuse of money. I have met teachers from Asia who became overwhelmed by American wealth and began soliciting money and expecting only the best cars and the finest of accommodations. Certain teachers of Eastern spiritual communities have over-valued their own importance and misused their community’s funds and its trust, although rarely to the extent that some TV ministers have. In extreme cases, both Eastern and Western spiritual teachings have been used to make large profits, accompanied by secret bank accounts, high living, and fraudulent use of student money.


A third major area of difficulty is harm through sexuality. Sexual abuse is prevalent throughout our culture, and spiritual communities are not exempt. The teacher’s role can be misused in hypocritical or clandestine sex that contradicts the vows or tenets of the teachings, in forms of exploitation, adultery, and abuse, or other behavior that endangers the physical and emotional well-being of students. I have encountered this in many ways, from Zen masters who solicit sexual favors as part of their meditation instruction sessions (“Come sit on my lap”), to swamis who have created a secret harem. One Indian teacher I knew who came from the very strictest sect, where celibacy was unquestioned, ended up having secret affairs with many of his married students. Many other lamas, Zen masters, swamis, and gurus have done the same, eventually wreaking havoc on the lives of students and their community.


Sometimes a secret sexual encounter is carried out in the name of “tantra,” or in the name of special teachings. At its worst, there have been cases involving underage boys or girls or the transmission of AIDS to students. All too easily, unconscious sexuality can be mixed up with sincere teachings. One Insight Meditation teacher who recently died used to give naked meditation interviews throughout some retreats and combined his very real gift for teaching with a very confused sexuality.


A fourth area of problems with teachers and communities involves addiction to alcohol or drugs. Sometimes this is clandestine, sometimes public. (The Zen tradition has a history of famous drunken poets and masters.) Public encouragement for drinking in several communities, where the teacher was an alcoholic, has led many students to follow suit, and certain Buddhist and Hindu communities have needed to start AA groups to begin to deal with their addiction problems. Drug addiction, though less frequent, is also an occasional problem among teachers or in communities. At its worst, clandestine addiction to alcohol and drugs is combined with misuse of sexuality and power.


Students who enter spiritual communities do not imagine they will encounter these kinds of difficulties. Idealism, fantasies, and hopes fail to include these shadow areas as part of their work. However, recent newspaper stories, articles in Eastern journals, and the tenor of our times have made students more aware of these problems, and they are beginning to address them. Power, money, sex, alcohol, and inflated egos are difficulties for humanity at large. Should spiritual teachers be exempt from them? Of course, many spiritual teachers do not abuse their role and are exemplars of virtue and compassion. But because the problems are widespread, it is important to consider how and why these problems arise in order to create more conscious communities in the future.





In general these problems arise when spirituality ignores or denies our own humanity. The training of most teachers and gurus in monasteries and ashrams in Asia or the United States is a mystical and inner training that almost never touches upon the difficult issues of power and its potential abuse. Teachers are thrown into the role of administrator, minister, guide, and confidant, in which they have tremendous responsibility and power. Yet, many of their spiritual systems and practices explicitly exclude the human areas of sexuality, money, and power from what is considered spiritual. This compartmentalization can produce teachers who are awakened and skillful in certain areas (meditation skills, koan practice, prayers, studies, blessings, and even powerful loving-kindness) but are underdeveloped in great areas of their personal lives.


Students also have to remember what we have discussed before, that there are many degrees of awakening and the mystical visions and revelations that come with it. Awakening is a process marked by both profound experiences and periods of integration. However powerful an initial opening is, it inevitably leaves many aspects of our personal life unaffected. A mystical vision or a taste of “enlightenment,” an experience of satori, or awakening, is just the beginning of deep spiritual practice, but these initial experiences can be so powerful that many people begin teaching based on them alone. These unintegrated experiences can easily lead to grandiosity and inflation. Most teachers (whether they acknowledge it or not) are only partially enlightened, only partially awake. Buddhist teachings name distinct stages of awakening, in which understanding changes first and character much later.  So, after our first experiences, we can give inspiring and genuine lectures on awakening, but only much later on the path, will we have transformed the roots of our deepest desires, aggressions, fears, and self-centeredness.


Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of sexuality. The power of sexuality is enormous — it produces all of humanity; it is that creative force that dances through all of life. Yet its exclusion from much of spiritual life has been disastrous.


Hoping to bring greater openness and awareness to this area of community life, some years ago I wrote an article for Yoga Journal called “The Sex Lives of Gurus.” I interviewed fifty-three Zen masters, lamas, swamis, and/or their senior students about their sex lives and the sexual relations of the teachers. What I discovered was quite simple. The birds do it, the bees do it, and most gurus do it too. Like any group of people in our culture, their sexual practices varied. There were heterosexuals, bisexuals, homosexuals, fetishists, exhibitionists, monogamists, and polygamists. There were teachers who were celibate and happy, and those who were celibate and miserable; there were those who were married and monogamous, and those who had many clandestine affairs; there were teachers who were promiscuous and hid it; and there were those who were promiscuous and open about it; there were teachers who made conscious and committed sexual relationships an aspect of their spiritual lives; and there were many more teachers who were no more enlightened or conscious about their sexuality than everyone else around them. For the most part the “enlightenment” of many of these teachers did not touch their sexuality.


Traditionally, in Asia, vows and moral precepts have protected teachers and students from sexual and other forms of misconduct. In Japan, Tibet, India, and Thailand, the precepts against harm by stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, or abuse of intoxicants are understood and followed by all members of the religious community. Even where certain precepts have been relaxed or modified (such as allowable drinking in China or Japan), everyone understands certain strict cultural norms for the behavior of teachers. Whole communities support this, for example, by dressing modestly to protect the teacher and student from sexual interest, by jointly knowing the appropriate limits concerning the use of intoxicants or power.


In modern America these rules are often dispensed with, and neither TV preachers nor Eastern spiritual teachers have clear rules of behavior regarding money, power, and sex. Our society brings money to teachers or offers them enormous power without any clear guidelines. Alcohol and drugs are freely used in the West without any great moral compunction; lacking a clear commitment to traditional monastic guidelines, who is to say how much a teacher should drink.


 Spiritual practice without any common commitment to traditional precepts and vows can lead both teachers and students astray. Communities need to clarify their vows for the long-term benefit of teachers and students alike.

The temptations of sexuality, power, money, and intoxicants are great. One forty-five-year-old Burmese master whom we brought to a large Buddhist retreat in the Southern California desert was shocked by the way Americans dressed. It was his first retreat in the West, and a heat wave led most students to wear T-shirts and shorts. For this teacher, who had only seen women dressed in long skirts and long-sleeved blouses since his ordination at age fourteen, it was like attending a burlesque show. For several days he wouldn’t even look up in the meditation hall or during interviews. Though shaky, he finally adjusted somewhat, but it was still a challenge to his equanimity.





To further understand the difficulties of teachers and communities, we must acknowledge the intense forces of idealism and projection that operate in spiritual relationships. “Transference,” as it is called in Western psychology, is the unconscious and very powerful process in which we transfer or project on to some authority figure, a man or a woman, the attributes of someone significant in our past, often our parents. Like young children, we tend to see them as all good or all bad, as we did before we could understand how complex human beings can be. We hope they will take care of all of our problems, or fear they will judge us the way our parents did, or look to them for what we wanted to get from our parents.


People project a great deal on to their teachers. A good image for understanding this is that of falling in love. We “fall in love” with spiritual teachers. We seek a place for love, perfect goodness, and perfect justice, and in longing for it so deeply, we project it on to another person. In spiritual romanticism, we imagine that our teachers are what we want them to be, instead of seeing their humanness. For students whose families and schooling taught them never to question, but to hand over their power to authorities, this tendency is particularly strong.


Transference is rarely addressed in spiritual communities, whereas in psychological, therapeutic relationships it is purposely discussed so that clients can eventually come to relate realistically to the therapist and the world around them.

Transference and idealization have a powerful effect on teachers as well as students. They create a climate of unreality, and often feed the teacher’s isolation. When the teacher is insecure or lonely, student projections increase these feelings. When students see a teacher as perfect, the teacher may become similarly deluded.


A teacher may be surrounded by adoring devotees and yet have no peers, no one with whom he or she can have an open and honest conversation. They may have little private life and always be on duty for the spiritual needs of the community. They will often be mother, father, confessor, healer, administrator, master, and camp counselor all rolled into one. Few people realize the extent to which teachers can be isolated in their role, especially in communities where they are the sole acknowledged leader. The process of transference increases this isolation and is one of the key reasons for teacher misconduct. After some time, the unmet needs and unfinished business in a teacher will arise and be drawn into the fire of the community.


One mild-mannered, middle-aged married man I knew was suddenly catapulted into the role of teacher after his guru in India told students to follow him. At first he taught them with admirable strength and humility, but as many more students came to see him, he got swept away in the role, and his insecurities led him to try to demonstrate psychic powers he didn’t have, and to seek comfort through sexual contact with his women devotees. He justified both of these behaviors as part of his “higher teaching.” He had become caught in the transference.


The problem of transference is sometimes made even greater by the nature of the students who come to spiritual communities. We have already noted how often spiritual centers draw lonely and wounded people. People come to spiritual practice looking for family, looking for love, for the good mother or father they never had. They look for healing, for friendship and support, in the difficult task of living in our society. They hope their spiritual community will provide the wonderful family they never had. But if the practice of the community doesn’t address the unfinished family issues and pain of its members, then these deficiencies will continue to intensify. When a number of unconscious and needy community members live and practice together, they can easily re-create their old painful family system in the spiritual center. In an unconscious way, they may live out their fear, anger, or depression in a new “spiritual” version. Margaret Mead put it this way: “No matter how many communes anybody invents, the family always creeps back.


Even when students become aware of community problems, they may be afraid to confront them or leave because they don’t want to lose their “family” again, just as abused children choose to go back to their abusive parent because the feeling of belonging is so important.


But if members of a community are unable to deal with their dependence, insecurity, and other threatening issues, further dependence, hypocrisy, and isolation will result. Genuine spiritual communities must acknowledge and make conscious these difficulties. Almost every community will inevitably have some difficulties and problems. Some will be ordinary, some will involve teacher misconduct. Although the great majority of teachers are not unscrupulous, whenever idealism, inflation, compartmentalization, and confusion of teacher roles and needs exist, abuse and exploitation can still result.








Both teachers and communities contribute to areas of misconduct, and both must be part of the solution. The key to understanding these difficulties is awareness. As a first step, this involves an honest questioning. Here are some questions you can use to cut through the delusions of grandeur and spiritual romanticism when they cover serious problems.


In the spiritual community, are you asked to violate your own sense of ethical conduct or integrity? Is there a dual standard for the community versus the guru and a few people around him? Are there secrets and rumors of difficulty? Do key members misuse sexuality, money, or power? Are they mostly asking for your money? Are they asking for your body? Are you not allowed to hang out with your old friends? Do you feel dependent? Addicted? Is the practice humorless? (This is an important sign.) Does the community have a heaviness and an anti-life feeling about it? Are you asked to believe blindly without being able to see for yourself? Is there something powerful going on that may not really be loving? Is there more focus on the institution and membership than on practices that lead to liberation? Is there a sense of intolerance? When you look at the oldest and most senior students, are they happy and mature? Do they have a place to graduate to, to teach, to express their own dharma, or are people always kept in the role of students and children?


Look to see if the community is based on sectarianism or separation or has a fundamentalist quality to it. This may be difficult to do if we have fallen in love with a community or a teacher.

We may feel intoxicated that we are the chosen, the elected ones, the ones who really see better than all the rest of those on earth. Yet this belief inevitably brings isolation, addiction, and a loss of genuine wisdom and compassion.


The vehemence with which students proclaim the “one true way” is usually a sign of unacknowledged insecurity; there is often great unconscious or hidden fear or doubt that underlies it. There is a story told of the Persian St. Rabia.  One day Rabia was sick, and her friends came to visit. They began denigrating all the things of the world, to show how holy they truly were. She laughed at them. “You must be pretty interested in this world,” she said. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t talk about it so much. Whoever breaks the merchandise has to have bought it first.” The claim that only some small chosen set of people will awaken or will be liberated on this earth is never true. Awakening is the birthright of every human being, every creature. There is no one right way.


Each of us must learn to become our own authority. This and this alone will liberate us. Remember the Buddha’s advice to the confused villagers of Kalamas. We must look for ourselves at our own lives, regardless of the views of others, and only when that practice is clearly beneficial should we follow it. With a loving heart we must ask: Am I becoming more isolated, obnoxious, lost, or addicted? Am I increasing my suffering? Are clarity and freedom growing in me? Is there a greater capacity to know what is true for myself, to be compassionate and tolerant?


In answering these questions, we must do something even more difficult than posing them. We must tell the truth to ourselves, and we must speak the truth in our communities. To tell the truth in a community is to make the community itself conscious. In these situations, it becomes a great practice to name the demons and to learn to speak out loud with both compassion and clarity. We must speak with the teacher to see if they understand and will be part of righting the difficulty. We must insist that exploitative behavior be stopped. In this spirit, many years ago I had to fly to Asia on behalf of our board of directors, to directly question one of our senior teachers when he was unwilling to respond to the accusations of his sexual misconduct in America. We insisted that he speak truthfully to our community and teachers, explaining, apologizing, and reaffirming his ethical standards in order to be included again in our community. In some communities, to question the guru or lama, the master or priest, is considered nonspiritual or ungrateful; and to question the direction of the community is considered a sign of delusion and immaturity. Yet we must be willing to ask our community, “How are we lost, attached, and addicted, and how are we benefiting, awakening, and opening?


Each troubling area of belief, any illusions about the practice and teacher, exploitative behavior, or unclear moral code must be addressed. Speaking openly and honestly with the well-being of the community in our heart is extraordinarily beneficial. It is healing and transforming. Naming the demons with honesty and kindness has the power to dispel illusion.


Addressing these problems can be so painful and explosive that often they are poorly handled.  Angry or secret meetings filled with blame, fear, and paranoia benefit no one. The spirit of mercy and concern for all is critical. It may take a while for a community to learn this. Getting the support of wise elders from outside the community to create a safe container for meeting is often necessary if understanding and restitution are to follow. Still, if the teacher is somewhat open-minded, the teacher and community will gradually mature together.


To do this, teachers have to be able to deal with the underlying roots of problems in themselves, whether old wounds, cultural and family history, isolation, addiction, or their own grandiosity. In some communities masters have ended up attending AA meetings or seeking counseling. In others, decision-making councils were formed to end the isolation of the teacher.


As we have said, practicing with the difficulties of teachers and communities calls on the same fundamental principles that we have learned in our meditation. We must repeatedly name the difficulties, discover the roots of insistent problems, and acknowledge the fears operating in everyone. We must bring awareness and honesty, coupled with a deep compassion for ourselves and all concerned, in order that we may learn from these situations as our practice.





When dealing with the humanness and the complexity of teachers, it is helpful to keep a few other principles in mind. One is called take what’s good.

After studying with my first teacher, Achaan Chah, who was impeccable in conduct, in many ways a model guru, gracious, insightful, and loving, I went to study with a famous old Burmese master for a year-long retreat. He was a grouchy old slob who threw rocks at the dogs, smoked Burmese cigars, and spent the morning reading the paper and talking with the loveliest of the young nuns. In private interviews he was a very fine teacher. After training thousands of students, he truly was a skillful guide to inner meditation. But when I saw him in other situations, I became filled with doubts, thinking “He couldn’t be enlightened.”


It took weeks of inner struggle before it dawned on me that he was a great meditation teacher, but otherwise a poor role model. I realized that I could take what was beneficial and not buy the whole package. I didn’t have to imitate this man. Then I became rather fond of him. I think of him now with affection and gratitude. I wouldn’t want to be like him, but I’m grateful for the many wonderful things he taught me.





In order to take what’s good, we need to recognize a second principle of wise relationship and disentangle ourselves from the halo effect. The halo effect is the unexamined assumption that if a meditation master or spiritual teacher is good in one area, they must be good in all areas; that if they know about inner vision, they will equally know about child-rearing and car mechanics. It is easy to see this fantasy enacted repeatedly in spiritual communities.


One starry-eyed couple asked their teacher, a famous Tibetan lama, about childbirth. This lama was a celibate, raised in a monastery, who really knew nothing about it. But he gave them some advice he had heard from Tibetan mountain folklore. Based on this, they tried a home delivery up in the mountains with disastrous results — both mother and child nearly died.


Another student followed a charismatic Indian guru whose powerful love and teachings brought great joy and peace into his life. The student was a gay man, who had lived in a caring and committed partnership for more than ten years, and when the guru later stated that all homosexuality was a terrible sin that leads to hell, the student’s life was nearly destroyed. His relationship was torn apart, and the secret guilt and self-loathing that had plagued this man throughout his childhood returned. Finally, with outside help, the student came to see that while his guru might bring him visions and wonderful meditation teachings, he was really quite ignorant about homosexuality. Only when the student realized this, was he able to hold both the teachings he so valued and his own life with equal loving-kindness.


We can see over and over again how one dimension of life does not automatically bring wisdom in other dimensions. Every teacher and every practice has its strong points and its weaknesses.





To further sort out the gold from the dross in spiritual life we must distinguish between wisdom and power. Powers can include psychic ability, special spiritual energy, creating visions for students, or just plain charisma. There are many powerful people who are not wise at all. There are many wise people who have no special powers other than their love and openness. Don’t be fooled. Sometimes these two qualities come together in a wise, powerful teacher, but often they are confused. A powerful teacher may be wise and loving or not: the powers prove nothing. When the teacher serves the dharma, the divine, the truth, then things go well for everyone, but when the powers are used to serve the teacher, this is a formula for problems.




The most obvious principle in the maintenance of a wise spiritual community is the establishment of clear ethical guidelines that are followed by all. Each great spiritual tradition has some version of these. The question is: Are these precepts acknowledged, valued, and followed? One Zen master told me that the moral precepts were very important for students to follow, but, of course, Zen masters didn’t need to bother with them since they were “free.” You can imagine what troubles later visited that community.


If in your own community the guidelines for teachers and students are not yet clear, ask about them, figure them out. If you need to, get outside help from respected elders of your tradition or wise friends of the community. In the Insight Meditation community, we have formal guidelines, for students and teachers alike, that follow the five Buddhist precepts. They explicitly address the common areas of teacher misconduct and include commitment to refrain from harm to others through misuse of money, sexuality, or intoxicants. They also establish an ethics council and method for addressing difficulties that involve students or teachers. For a sample of such guidelines see the Appendix.


In the traditional rules for Buddhist monasteries, the resolution of ethics violations is seen as a healing process, one of seeking restitution and reconciliation. Sometimes confessions and apologies to the community are needed, sometimes vows must be taken again, sometimes a period of penance and reflection is called for. In creating guidelines, include a clear process for how to address misconduct, a place for honest words, for compassionate and ongoing support for ethical standards.


Create regular community meetings, ethics ombudsmen, and the channels and skills of useful communication. If in trying to bring form to the emperor’s new clothes I’ve made these issues sound straightforward or easily dealt with, I assure you they’re not! These can be the most painful and stormy areas of a community’s life, and they ask for enormous perseverance and wisdom of everyone involved. Only with this spirit will healing prevail.





Inevitably in working with the mixed difficulties of communities, teachers, and ourselves, we will be asked for a certain measure of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not condone the behavior of students, community members, or teachers who have caused suffering; nor does it mean that we will not openly tell the truth and take strong action to prevent future abuse. In the end, forgiveness simply says that we will not put someone out of our hearts. From the perspective of forgiveness, we recognize that we have all been wronged and we have all caused suffering to others. No one is exempt. When we look into our hearts and see what we cannot forgive, we also see how we believe the person who was wrong is different from us. But is their confusion, fear, pain really different from our own?


Years ago, as our Buddhist community was going through a painful period, dealing with a teacher who had gotten sexually involved with a student during a celibate retreat, we had a series of confused and angry meetings. We were trying to understand how this had happened, and what we needed to do about it. But these important questions were often asked with a tone of outrage and indignation. Then in the middle of one of the most difficult community meetings, one man stood up and asked a question of the group in a tone of great kindness. “Who among us in this room,” he asked, “has not made an idiot of himself or herself in relation to sexuality?” The room broke into smiles as everyone realized we were all in it together. It was at that point that we began to let go of some blame and look for a wise and compassionate response to everyone concerned in this painful circumstance.





Even while attempting to bring understanding and forgiveness to these problems, sometimes the situations we encounter are so bad, our best response is to leave. Some teachers and some communities become so grandiose, so unconsciously duplicitous and fearful, that they are unwilling or unable to face their difficulties. Some unhealthy systems are exploitative and abusive beyond repair. Sometimes we sense the danger signals just after we join. Sometimes only later, in the face of real problems and persistent denial by the teachers and community, do we know we must move on.


As Thomas Merton warns us:


The most dangerous man in the world is the contemplative

who is guided by nobody. He trusts his own visions. He

obeys the attractions of an inner voice, but will not listen

to other men. He identifies the will of God with his own

heart . . .  And if the sheer force of his own self-confidence

communicates itself to other people and gives them the

impression that he really is a saint, such a man can wreck

a whole city or a religious order or even a nation. The world

is covered with scars that have been left in its flesh by

visionaries like these.


When we leave a spiritual community in the midst of difficulties, or when the teacher and community are unwilling to deal with their problems, we will experience extraordinary pain. In the course of our spiritual practice, our hearts are likely to be broken in a number of ways, but this betrayal is one of the most challenging. When a teacher we have trusted or a community we love proves to be hypocritical and harmful, it touches the deepest sense of loss and rage in many students. We feel as if we are young children again, re-experiencing divorce or the death of a parent, or our first experience of injustice or betrayal. For those of us who have felt the intensity of such failure by a teacher or a community, we might ask ourselves, “How old do I feel inside when I react to this loss?”  Often we feel very young, and we will see that our intense feelings are not just about the current situation but point to what is unresolved in our own past. Perhaps this feeling is even part of a pattern of abuse or abandonment we have repeated many times in our life. Perhaps we have given ourselves away before or at other times hoped to be saved. If so, we must ask ourselves some hard questions. What attracted me to this system? Didn’t I suspect what was going on? How did I participate in the unconsciousness?


Disillusionment is an important part of the spiritual path.


It is a powerful and fiery gate, one of the purest teachers of awakening, independence and letting go, that we will ever encounter. To be disillusioned is to be stripped of our hopes, imaginings, and expectations. But while it opens our eyes, the resulting pain all too often closes our hearts. The great challenge of disillusionment is to keep our eyes open and still remain connected with the great heart of compassion. Whether our heart is torn open in the dark night of our inner practice or the dark night of community difficulties, we can use this experience to learn a deeper consciousness and a wiser love.


The process of healing from spiritual betrayal and loss can take a very long time. After the rage and grief, there comes a tremendous emptiness in the heart, as if something has been wrenched out of us. However, this emptiness is not just the result of betrayal by the teacher or the group. It has been there all along in the ways we may have betrayed ourselves. Finally, we have to come back to face ourselves and feel the holes we have tried to fill up from the outside. We have to find our own Buddha nature and discover in these difficulties the lesson that we really needed to learn.


For some people, disillusionment and difficulty, though very hard, are what they most needed before they could come back to themselves. I do not mean that we should seek to be abused, but sometimes it takes a misguided or a false teacher to create a wise student. Even if students feel they have lost their faith, the truth is we can never lose our faith — we just give it away for a while. “I lost my heart,” we say. We gave our heart away for a while, but our heart, like our faith and the eternal truth, is always here with us.


The truth doesn’t belong to the Buddha or to any master. As Achaan Chah used to say, “The dharma, the True Path, is like underground water. Any time we dig we will find it there.”


The crucible of our relationship with spiritual communities and teachers can transform our initial idealism into wisdom and compassion. We will shift from seeking perfection to expressing our wisdom and love. Then we may come to understand the remarkable statement of Suzuki Roshi when he said, “Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as an enlightened person. There is only enlightened activity.” Because liberation can never be possessed, for anyone to think, “I am enlightened,” is a contradiction in terms. Wisdom, compassion, and awakening are never an attainment, a thing of the past. If they are not alive here in ourselves and our communities, then our task is obvious. Take whatever is in front of us, here and now, and in our hearts: transform that too into Wisdom and compassion.






Just as every community has a shadow, every set of teachings will also have areas of shadow, aspects of life that they do not illuminate wisely. Every style of teaching will also produce its near enemy, the way that particular teaching can be most easily misused or misunderstood. It can be useful to take some time to reflect on the strengths and limitations of the practice you have chosen to follow. You can then consider to what extent these are issues in your own spiritual life. The following examples hint at the possible shadows you may encounter.


Insight Meditation and similar Buddhist practices can lead to quietude, to withdrawal from and fear of the world. The emptiness taught in Zen and non-dualist Vedanta can lead to a related problem, to being disconnected and ungrounded. Any form of idealistic, otherworldly teaching that sees life on earth as a dream or focuses on higher realms can lead one to live with complacency, amorality, and indifference. Physical practices such as hatha yoga can lead to bodily perfection instead of awakening of the heart. Kundalini yoga can lead students to become experience junkies in search of exciting sensations of body and mind rather than liberation. Those such as Krishnamurti and others who teach against any discipline or method of practice can lead people to remain intellectual about spiritual life without providing any deep inner experience. Practices that involve a great deal of study can do the same. Moralistic practices with strong rules about what is pure and what is not can reinforce low self-esteem or lead to rigidity and self-righteousness. Practices of tantra can become an excuse to act out desires as a pseudo form of spiritual practice. Devotional practices can leave clarity and discriminating wisdom undeveloped. Powerful gurus can make us think we can’t do it ourselves. Practices of joy and celebration such as Sufi dancing may leave students lacking an understanding of the inevitable loss and sorrows of life. Practices that emphasize suffering can miss the joy of life.


As you reflect on these shadows, consider your own spiritual path and tradition. Let yourself sense its strengths and weaknesses, its gifts and the ways it can be misused. Notice where you may be caught and what more you might need. Remember that there is nothing wrong with any of these practices per se. They are simply tools for opening and awakening. Each can be used skillfully or unknowingly misused. As you mature in your own spiritual life, you can take responsibility for your own practice and reflect wisely on where you are entangled and what can awaken you to freedom in every realm.



A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield was first published in 1993 and today the book (which has been reprinted numerous times) is widely regarded as a classic and timeless guide to meditation and living an authentic spiritual life.


buddhist book



HIS OWN SUFFERING* Tales of the Hasidim

Whenever the rabbi of Sassov saw anyone’s suffering, either of spirit or of body, he shared it so earnestly that the other’s suffering became his own. Once someone expressed his astonishment at this capacity to share in another’s troubles.

“What do you mean ‘share’?” said the rabbi. “It is my own sorrow; how can I help but suffer it?”    Martin Buber


PRAYER* Learning How to Learn

Khawaja Muinuddin Gharib Nawaz Chisti actually equates prayer with right thought and right action on the ordinary human level: ‘Prayer consists,’ he said, ‘in hearing the complaints of the aggrieved and to assist them; to help the needy and the oppressed; to free the people and to free the captives from captivity.’ All these things, Gharib-Nawaz emphasized, are of great importance.    Idries Shah




I have never yet met an abused child (at whatever age) who was not crying to be heard…believed…validated.


Emotional abuse is as painful as physical assault, with a pain that can last a lifetime. It leaves no visible marks, but it scars the heart and damages the soul.

When your self-concept has been shredded – when you have been deeply injured and made to feel that the injury was all your fault – when you look for approval from those who cannot or will not provide it – you play the role assigned to you by your abusers.

It’s time to stop playing that role.


For victims with an idealized notion of ‘family,’ the task of refusing to accept the blame for their own victimization is even more difficult. For such searchers, the key to freedom is always truth – the real truth – not the distorted, self-serving version served up by the abuser.


From “Emotional Abuse: A Plea for The Wounded” by Andrew Vachss, Parade Magazine, Aug. 28, 1994 here.




A poet went to see a doctor. He said to him: ‘I have all kinds of terrible symptoms. I am unhappy and uncomfortable, my hair and my arms and legs are as if tortured.’


The doctor answered: ‘Is it not true that you have not yet given out your latest poetic composition?’


‘That is true,’ said the poet.


‘Very well,’ said the physician, ‘be good enough to recite. ‘


He did so, and, at the doctor’s orders, said his lines again and again.


Then the doctor said: ‘Stand up, for you are now cured. What you had inside had affected your outside. Now that it is released, you are well again.   Jami




As kids we played the same games children always play,
My brothers and sisters and me;
Runnin’, skatin’, hide-and-seekin’ all the live-long day,
For all the world, one happy family.
We didn’t understand the shadows or the whispers down the hall,
We were kids and they were grown-ups, that was all.
Now I’m tryin’ to fit the pieces to the puzzle of that lie,
While I try my best to show the world a smile,
But sometimes when I’m alone, and please don’t ask me why,
The sadness overtakes me, and I cry.


The sun comes up each morning, that’s the way that most dreams end.
And children grow up learnin’ to survive.
But dreams turn into nightmares for those who must defend
Themselves from the grown-ups in their lives.
And I can’t recall the details now or all the words he said,
But my childhood ended in my father’s bed.
Well, the pain and shame and anger became something I had to hide,
And I tried my best to keep the world away.
So sometimes when a friend of mine would look me in the eye,
The fear would overtake me, and I’d fly.


A twig is bent, the tree grows on; scars are hidden deep,
And sunshine warms the places it can find.
But the visions and the voices that find you as you sleep,
Disturb the haunted seeds they’ve left behind.
And the hollow, bitter fruit they bear is nothing like the taste
Of the sweet and simple dreams they have replaced.
And I’ve spoke the words “I love you” but I could not tell you why.
Guess it’s something that I wanted to be true.
So sometimes when she’d look at me with a question in her eyes,
The shame would overtake me and I’d lie.


As evening slowly falls upon our days and years and lives,
We seek and take some refuge on our own.
Protected from the world at large by the weapons we contrive,
We keep ourselves alert, aloof, alone.
And the safety of our solitude is the price we have to pay
To survive the night and face another day.
Well I’d like to make it different, every now and then I try,
But it seems the same no matter what I do.
And some day, no doubt still alone, when life has passed me by,
My years will overtake me and I’ll die.


Although the shadows of the past can hide the sun today
And cloud our view of what is yet to be,
I feel a spark deep in my soul that will not fade away,
A fiery voice, dying to be free,
To speak the truth of who I am, out loud and without fear,
To sing my song for all the world to hear.
So raise your voices with me now, we will not be denied.
The treasure’s not impossible to find.
Summon up your courage, your passion and your pride,
Feel the power and the strength: “We have survived!”
Wield your power and your strength will thrive.
Find your power and the joy to be alive.    J. M.




Touch a family deeply and you will find a secret—kept from the welfare department, the therapist, the boss, the neighbors, the children, the husband, or even from the secret-bearer him or herself.  There are secrets the whole family keeps from the outside world out of blurred feelings of self-protection and fear of stigmatization that a daughter was born seven months after the wedding; that a supposedly English grandfather was a light-skinned Creole from the West Indies.  There are secrets kept from children out of an illusory hope that they can be protected from pain: that a son is adopted or that a father was imprisoned from drug-dealing.  There are secrets everyone knows, like alcoholism, that keep a family from reaching beyond its rigidly defended borders for help.  There are secrets like AIDS or sexual orientation kept out of fear of losing a job, an apartment, a friendship.  There are secrets the powerless keep from the powerful, and others, like incest and wife-beating, that the powerful use to keep the powerless isolated.

Secrets are systemic.  They are kept by nations, by families, and by individuals.  We keep secret the things we are ashamed of, and the things we fear we cannot face.  We also keep secrets when we are intimidated into silence.  Within the family, secrets define who is in and who is out, drawing some members into hidden alliances and leaving others out in the cold.  When secret-keeping becomes a way of life, secrets and betrayals ricochet like pinballs from one family member to the next, triangulating each in turn.


Secrets can grow like weeds through the generations, sending unexpected tendrils into every corner of a family’s life.  Secrets require at least avoidance, at worst outright lies that can become a habit, branching into seemingly innocuous areas until whole dimensions of life are off-limits to spontaneous talk.  Secrets shape not only relationships, but inner lives. “If you knew, you would not accept me,” think the secret keepers, while those kept in the dark grow worried and confused. “Something’s wrong.  I’m not supposed to notice, and it must be my fault.”

When a family with a secret walks into a therapy session, the heaviness is palpable.  The secret haunts the room like a ghost, looking over everyone’s shoulder, a tense and hovering presence.  Everyone waits for the other shoe to drop. When secrets are skillfully uncovered, the truth can make people free. And yet for years the subject of secrets was almost a secret within family therapy itself. 


From “Ghosts in the Therapy Room” by Evan Imber-Black, The Family Therapy NETWORKER, May-June 1993: Cries and Whispers – The Haunting Legacy of Family Secrets



From Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation by Sissela Bok (1983), pp. 4-5


    The question whether to leave evil secrets alone or try to defeat them by draining them of their destructive power recurs in many of the therapeutic and investigative practices that I shall discuss in this book. A separate question concerns secrets not in themselves linked with evil, but necessary, rather, to preserve something precious – love, friendship, even life itself – and sometimes endowed with the power to transform those who approach. Thus tales of initiation into mysteries recount how those who follow the prescribed steps of cleansing and devotion are granted access to illumination, whereas those who approach the mystery by wrongful means are changed, corrupted, even destroyed.
    The Faust-legend warns of what can befall those who lose all caution in approaching forbidden secrets. Charlatan, magician, seeker after cures for every disease, Faust probed all the secrets of nature. He desired to know how to ride the clouds, change metals into gold, stave off death, and even create new life – a homunculus – and thus attain the innermost core of knowledge. In exchange for twenty-four years of access to such knowledge and power, he surrendered his soul to Lucifer. Marlowe portrays his ensuing corruption and ruin in Doctor Faustus; at the end, the chorus comments:


Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits.


    Awareness of the allure and the dangers of secrecy that these and so many other stories convey is central to human experience of what is hidden and set apart.  Rooted in encounters with the powerful, the sacred, and the forbidden, this experience goes far deeper than the partaking of any one secret.  Efforts to guard secrets, probe them, or share them often aim for this deeper and more pervasive experience.  If we do not take this into account in considering particular forms of concealment, such as clandestine scientific research, underground political groups, or long-buried family mysteries, then we shall but skim the surface; and the secrets, once revealed, will seem paltry and out of proportion to all that went into guarding them. Similar care is needed in approaching and defining the concept of secrecy itself.



                                               CAN WE TALK?


Healing requires words. There is no way around a tragedy or trauma. The only way over is through, and the way you get through is by talking. Shakespeare understood this in Macbeth when he wrote:


Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak

Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.


I would not have gone down like a kamikaze pilot in my own life if I had started talking years before. Friends help, but therapists are essential for anyone who has been profoundly traumatized. I could not have survived without the professionals at Johns Hopkins. My past was a minefield. Without them to guide me through it, I would have exploded.


The sad thing is that no one could have convinced me to start talking. I had no idea — and could not have been persuaded — that something from so long ago suddenly could take over my life. I want others to know what I learned — if you have been traumatized by abuse, you must find a way to understand and resolve it. Even if your life seems fine at the moment, unresolved trauma neither goes away nor diminishes over time. It can erupt at any time.


Even if the trauma never recurs, its initial impact can have long-term effects. Depression, alcoholism and other addictions, rage, insomnia, nightmares, and low self-esteem are some of the common shoals for people who carry too much emotional cargo. They should lighten the load by finding a supportive therapeutic environment and safe place to feel terrible.


From Come Here by Richard Berendzen and Laura Palmer



                                    REPRESSION* For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence


Loving parents in particular should want to find out what they are unconsciously doing to their children. If they simply point to their parental love, then they are not really concerned about their children’s well-being, but rather are painstakingly trying to keep a clear conscience. This effort, which they have been making ever since they were little, prevents them from letting their love for their children flow freely and from learning something from this love.


 As I have repeatedly stressed, it is not the trauma itself that is the source of illness but the unconscious, repressed, hopeless despair over not being allowed to give expression to what one has suffered, and the fact that one is not allowed to show and is unable to experience feelings of outrage, humiliation, despair, helplessness and sadness.  This causes many people to commit suicide because life no longer seems worth living if they are totally unable to acknowledge all these strong feelings that are part of their true self. 


Pain over the frustration one has suffered is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is it harmful. It is a natural human reaction. However, if it is verbally or nonverbally forbidden or even stamped out by force and by beatings, as it is in “poisonous pedagogy,” then natural development is impeded, and the conditions for pathological development are created.   Dr. Alice Miller



                       FACING FACTS


‘Face the simple fact before it becomes involved.
Solve the small problem before it becomes big.’
The most involved fact in the world
Could have been faced when it was simple,
The biggest problem in the world
Could have been solved when it was small.  Lao-Tzu



                               SOLVING PROBLEMS* Reflections


No problem can really be solved merely by assuming that it can be solved and that its solution lies in hard work – any more than that its solution lies in inaction. Yet so much the reverse do the facts appear, that rabble-rousers and pretended mystics use the problem-solving argument to keep people busy.


Solutions come through knowledge: so much so that where there is real knowledge, there is no real problem.  Idries Shah



                                      THIS WORLD* The Mathnavi


This world of illusions, fancies, desires, and fears

Is a mighty obstacle in the Traveler’s path.

Thousands of ships, in all their majesty and pomp,

Have gone to pieces in the Sea of Illusion.  Rumi



                      TRUTH and ILLUSION


Funny thing about truth and illusion…  If you hear a story enough times you’ll start to believe it, whether it makes any sense, or has any truth in it, or not. I have noticed that the human mind–given enough time without proper attention and correctives–tends to accept the absurd without question, regardless of the consequences.


Rule No. 5 in The Private Investigator’s Handbook clearly states:




Magnum P.I.



                                       THE TRUTH


I remember arguing with them

how righteously I stood my ground


They laughed and shook their heads

their eyes hardened and wise

with third grade worldliness

and during class I could hear their whispers

behind me


I feared for them really

surely they would rise to taste the bitter

disappointment of coal, or rotten potatoes

in their stockings


After all, the evidence

was overwhelming

I had personally, on two occasions

almost spotted him flying in the distance

in the dim light of dusk over the valley


And my brother

sneaking out of bed early

had seen his boot go around the corner

in the twinkling lights

he had told me so


And when I arose

the cookies and milk were always gone

and even the celery I had left for the reindeer

had been nibbled on


And of course there were the presents

oh, the presents

spreading out, overlapping around the tree

the blinking lights dancing on the paper

the splayed bounty of my wildest dreams

there could be but one explanation

for such magic


So I held my ground

with the strength that comes from knowing


And one day

a family trip

together we went to the harbor

and somehow, who knows

it came up

and again I defended

this time to my older brother and sister

the truth I carried with me


My mother watching

she must have thought

he’s eight years old

it’s time

and maybe I’ve waited too long


She took me into the car

to be alone

just the two of us

as my brother and sister laughed

and the men working on their boats ignored us


And she spoke

gently, so as not to bruise

the sweet fruit of my childhood

the truth


I sat numbly

as her words took meaning

her eyes full of my pain

mine full of tortured images

my classmates

my siblings

mocking, laughing

my father’s wry smile

as I held up the empty cookie plate

to prove he had been here

while we slept


I looked at my mother

and my eyes filled with tears

of embarrassment

and betrayal

and disappointment

she held me

wishing it could be different


And I knew then

in her arms as I cried

that things would never be quite the same


I looked out the car window

at my dad

my brother and sister

the world

and I knew I would have to go out there

but I wasn’t ready

and I stayed in the car for a long time.


 Poem by Jim BrummeNVee Newsletter, Napa CA, Dec. 1991



   It is only to be expected, of course, that if we have been wrong for so very long, we shall be less inclined to admit the truth than if we did not already have a vested interest in error.   Dr. Saleh Hamareh  



(Click on* asterisks to see book titles.)