Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
The following article by Jody Radzik explains how a particular form of yogic non-dualism—that Self is God-All—contributes to the corruption of gurus and spiritual teachers. But it leaves aside the other theory of non-dualism that is essentially Buddhist–non-self, Self is nothing or does not exist–and how that contributes to guru corruption. I have observed that just as Self-as-All believers empower a guru to help them realize that they are God-All, Non-Self believers empower gurus and spiritual teachers to help them “disappear”, to help them reach a state of total, permanent non-self-ness, what some have called ‘nibanna.’ But the Buddha said that everything is conditioned, everything is impermanent, including ‘non-self’. I have read several Theravada scholars who warn not to turn ‘non-self’ into an absolute. There are no absolutes in Buddhism (and that is the only absolute).
Some practitioners tend to believe that it is only extraordinary states of permanent and total non-being that amount to ‘enlightenment.’ I disagree; I believe that what we have to understand is the Middle Way: you are just an ordinary human being with an ordinary personality, which is entirely dependent on biological causes and social conditions, which changes continuously with its conditions and is impermanent. There is nothing to strive for, nothing to cling to. We create our own ‘selves’; we narrate our experience in the form of a ‘self-story.’ The narration of experience, or ‘self-story’ helps us make sense of our experience and gives it coherence. The ‘self-story’ is necessary for attributing one’s actions to one’s own being, for taking responsibility for one’s actions, for making ethical choices to avoid harming others, for developing compassion for others. The ‘self-story’ allows us to check our experience with others to see if it is culturally syntonic. You do not need a guru to understand ‘non-self’ in those ways.
Let go of the ‘realness’ of the story. See ‘self-story’ as empty of any substantial or unchanging elements. See ‘self-story’ as arising in a given situation as a necessary function of relating to others and one’s own being. The adept knows the “magic” that a particular ‘self’ appears under particular conditions. It arises out of ’emptiness’, the field of possibilities, under particular conditions and dissipates back into emptiness when conditions change. When ‘self-story’ or personality is not needed to relate to one’s own being or others, such as in meditation, let go of ‘self-story’ and enjoy the spaciousness of blissful emptiness.
. . . the actual phenomenology of nondual realization, which is rather simply a combination of the development of the attentional skill of discerning awareness apart from its contents along with the recognition of that contentless awareness as the basis of the experience of personal identity. . .
But the truth is that in order to develop the attentional skill that will aid in the development of nondual realization, you pretty much have to meditate. Not the kind of meditation that you learn at fancy retreats, but the easiest kind there is, just moving your attention to a simple cognitive object like the sensation of your breath or a simple phrase repeated internally. It’s that action, attention going to your object, that is the “work” getting done. You don’t ever have to get “good” at meditation, you just need to put in the work.
More and more, we are exposed to the psychological drama of a cult which has constellated around a charismatic personality who turns out to be acutely sociopathic, self-deluded, abusive and sometimes violent, and yet they are still able to retain a sizable proportion of their following after a major scandal like the one that has recently befallen Bentinho Massaro and his Trifinity Academy with the publication of Be Scofield’s spectacular exposé, “Tech Bro Guru.”
The same thing occurred three years ago when Gail Tredwell bravely published her equally spectacular cult escape memoir “Holy Hell,” exposing the cunningly quaint “Hugging Saint” Mata Amritanandamayi as both an abusive sociopath and hoarder of riches. The book created a frenzy in India, with many critical of Amritanandamayi in her home state of Kerala finally finding the voice to speak out. The result was a paroxysm of Indian government interference, along with local groups of thugs who “visited” bookstores who were selling Gail’s book. And when the dust finally settled, Amritanandamayi was as established as ever as India’s brightest spiritual luminary/deity.
There is quite a difference between these two cult leaders, beginning with the size and global scope of their following along with just about anything else. However, they have one thing absolutely in common, and that is they both exploit the folk theory of nondual enlightenment to establish themselves as magical beings who can wield a direct, magical influence over the lives of their followers (and their enemies, so it is believed.)
The folk theory of nondual enlightenment is a system of ideas that arise from a set of notions about the ultimate truth of human consciousness, these being that we as conscious beings are ultimately one with God, and/or one with the universe, or simply nothing, an empty void. Pretty much any traditional mystical spiritual ideology carries some version of the FToNE as an attempt to describe the phenomenology of the ultimate state of spiritual development. These descriptions are commonly hyperbolic when compared to the actual phenomenology of nondual realization, which is rather simply a combination of the development of the attentional skill of discerning awareness apart from its contents along with the recognition of that contentless awareness as the basis of the experience of personal identity.
While the idea of being “empty” has it’s own adjacent garden of entailments, it is the entailments of the idea of being one with God that form the broadest scope of the landscape of the folk theory. This is what generates the magic lasso used by cult leaders to attract and control their followers, the idea that they exist as powerfully magical beings whose control of the forces of reality will benefit anyone who comes into their orbit. The idea is often accompanied by the notion that only special people are “chosen” to be in the presence of “God,” and that they must not squander that opportunity. If they do, or somehow try to interfere with the activities of the “guru” and their org, they will find themselves punished swiftly, severely, and supernaturally.
From this idea alone, if you are sociopathic, narcissistic and/or deluded enough, you too can form a cult around yourself. With the idea you possess a privileged view of reality and the power to magically change the lives of others for the better, those seeking the approval of their spiritual betters (a very popular pasttime in the world of nonduality gurudom) will find their unconscious minds drafted to create experiences that immediately confirm the “truth” of the guru’s divinity. All you really need do is spout the right platitudes and look “holy” in the case of Amritanandamayi, or “powerful” in the case of Massaro.
But now there is an excellent article that exposes Massaro as a blow-hard party boy who really has nothing except his willingness to make ridiculous claims about being bigger than Jesus and controlling the weather, so we can witness firsthand how a deluded cult leader’s followers close ranks and protect what they believe about their guru above all else. The fact Massaro was able to develop a sizable following, along with a good deal of income in a relatively short few years, shows how little understanding there is about the simple neurophenomenology of nondual realization within his org’s community. And that’s all good for the “guru.” These businesses are built on extraordinary claims about the leader and the promise of becoming an extraordinary person oneself. To know the actual reality of what they believe they are seeking — while probably very helpful in their own search — would utterly devastate the guru’s business. When you know there ain’t no “there,” there, it’s suddenly not so urgent that you get there.
But the truth is that in order to develop the attentional skill that will aid in the development of nondual realization, you pretty much have to meditate. Not the kind of meditation that you learn at fancy retreats, but the easiest kind there is, just moving your attention to a simple cognitive object like the sensation of your breath or a simple phrase repeated internally. It’s that action, attention going to your object, that is the “work” getting done. You don’t ever have to get “good” at meditation, you just need to put in the work. And you don’t have to have a special time for meditation, anytime you can watch the sensation of your breath or say a simple phrase internally will be the right time.
Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, folks feel entitled to something that is even easier, which is having a “guru” do all your spiritual work for you, magically, which is how we get the likes of a Bentinho Massaro claiming he is beyond anything that has ever been encountered in human history, and folks like Amritanandamayi who enjoy being prayed to as a living deity as she secretly runs her business like a mafia don.
So ultimately, it’s the marketing of modern convenience that aids the success of the cult gurus who are exploiting the folk theory of nondual enlightenment. It’s sad to say yet perhaps ultimately true that as long as folks believe there is an instant and complete way to transform their lives for the better, there will always be an opportunity for a patently false guru to be mistaken to be the highest example of humanity that humanity has yet to come offer itself.
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