A Five-Part Series on Sexual Exploitation in Buddhist Communities
Part 4: What a Shame!: The Social Psychology of Convert Buddhist Communities
Research on guilt and shame among religious groups show two strong trends: 1) Monotheistic religions tend to provoke guilt, caused by “sin”, a sense of the individual having done something wrong that is “between me and God.” The individual expiates guilt by performing a ritual and accepting forgiveness for sin. However, 2) Non-theistic and poly-theistic religions tend to provoke shame. Shame is a group level phenomenon in which the person feels inadequate or unworthy to be a member of the group. It cannot be expiated through personal rituals or forgiveness, but only by receiving empathy and affirmation from the group. Buddhist churches, especially white convert Buddhist churches, are shame-driven communities. In these churches, one must continuously exhibit the right kind of manners, social status, and spiritual achievement that allows one to feel worthy enough to be a member of the group.
What I’m seeing in convert Buddhist churches looks very much like an non-theistic version of Calvinism: 1) predestination as the religious justification for wealth and privilege, i.e. I was meant to be wealthy so I can fly all over the world and pay big bucks for the dharma; 2) predestination as being “the chosen ones.” In Calvinism, one must assume that one has been chosen to be saved, and so one must act as though one is saved. One must demonstrate righteousness as proof of being saved. In Buddhist predestination, one must demonstrate “enlightened mind” as proof of being enlightened—act cheery, confident, calm, never upset or angry about anything. Buddhism teaches us to focus on the present, but enlightenment is always a future state: One hopes that someday one will attain full enlightenment; perhaps many lifetimes from now. Meanwhile, one must continuously strive to act enlightened in order to prove that one is predestined to be enlightened.
The failure to demonstrate enlightenment, or the threat of failure, especially in a way that others can see, causes tremendous anxiety and shame. So practitioners are in a constant state of anxiety to look and act enlightened to others. Practitioners strive to move up the practice hierarchy to attain the highest levels of practice, like Vajra and Dzogchen, in order to achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible. Lacking complete enlightenment, at least climbing higher on the practice ladder makes one look as though one has the capacity for enlightenment. This puts one on an endless treadmill to get the next thing; the next retreat, the next course, the next empowerment, the next level of practice, etc.
This situation is extremely anxiety provoking and shaming, because enlightenment is a future state that one can never be certain of. There is no way to verify whether a practitioner is enlightened or approaching enlightenment, either to oneself or to anyone else. By contrast, “Jesus died for our sins”; so as long as I accept Jesus as my saviour, I’m saved. In AA, as long as I don’t drink Im sober—it’s done. But in Buddhism, you are forever chasing after some ideal state of mind that never arrives, chasing after proof of your own enlightenment that is never fully realized. It can never be exactly what you are right now—that seems too ordinary. It must be some other state of mind that is different from what one normally experiences. But such mental states are fleeting and elusive and can never be demonstrated or proven to anyone, not even to oneself. One is never certain whether any particular state of mind actually is enlightenment. Thus one is a state of constant uncertainty and anxiety, or “groundlessness” as they call it.
The result is that even senior practitioners are in a state of continuous anxiety and shame. They project and offload that anxiety and shame onto each other, and especially on newer members of the church. Thus Buddhist predestination turns into a form of ritualized verbal, emotional and sometimes physical abuse. It is ritualized in the form of repeated patterns of behaviour provoked by tension and stress, which become a cycle of shame. This projection, offloading and abuse temporarily relieves the tension and stress, as acts of incest relieve tension and stress in an incestuous family. But it doesn’t last and the cycle of anxiety and shame begins again.
Moreover, it leads to a continuous state of suffering in the practitioner that proves exactly the opposite: that one still suffers and therefore one is not enlightened. So above all, one must hide and repress one’s anxiety and shame. One must never let anyone (or oneself) see the truth: that the practitioner feels shameful and anxiety-ridden. The result is communities that exhibit characteristics similar to the “shame-ridden incestuous family” syndrome. (See companion post: Why Convert Buddhist Churches Are Like Incestuous Families.)
It’s no surprise that Jack Kornfield’s study of 54 Buddhist teachers (male and female) showed that 65 % to 85% of teachers have sexually exploited their students. Sexual abuse, as well as verbal, emotional and physical abuse, are rampant in Buddhist churches. The convert Buddhist church syndrome is a toxic soup of anxiety, shame and abuse that is insidious and very damaging. The only way to avoid it is to stay out of convert Buddhist churches.