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Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

Culadasa Redux

I received an email from Culadasa, as did many who used to study and practice his meditation methods. To qualify, two years ago, after TMI* was published, I became interested in his meditation methods. A member of his sangha, Dharma Treasure, was my personal mentor who taught me this method. So this is not a ‘cheap shot’ by some random outsider. No, I was actually following this man’s teachings. I’m entitled to an opinion about how this all went down.

A year ago, I posted on Engage! my initial reactions to the revelation that Culadasa had multiple affairs with women that his wife and the Board of Dharma Treasure knew little about, including that he was paying support for some of them. It was shocking news at the time, but then, nothing is really shocking in Western Buddhism anymore. Culadasa stepped down from his teaching position in Dharma Treasure in 2019; we’ve heard little from him since then. 

I received the email from Culadasa and read his apology/story/excuse for why he did what he did and what has become of his private life and public teaching since then. He has divorced his third wife, Nancy. I encourage you to read the letter yourself and see for yourself what you think of his mentality and behavior. The letter, obsessively long as it is, is part of a 33-page document that explains this sordid affair in even more detail. I’m not going bother to read the document; it’s a waste of my precious time.

I’m not interested in a blow-by-blow account of who did what when and why. Instead I want to talk about the broader implications of this ‘confession’ and what it means for dharma practitioners. I want to ask some very serious questions.

  1. First, any teacher who tells you that their meditation method is a fast-track to enlightenment is, to be blunt, FULL OF SHIT. No one has such a method, and no one has ever been able to offer substantiated empirical proof that such a feat is possible. The promise that if you practice their method exactly and diligently that you too will attain full enlightenment in this lifetime (whatever that means) is a bogus LIE. If you read or hear a Buddhist teacher (or any cult leader) make such a promise—don’t go there; run in the opposite direction. Such claims are nothing but a marketing scam, although they may believe it sincerely themselves.
  2. I was fooled by Culadasa’s claims because he presented his meditation method with an almost medical precision, couched in established research on the neuroscience of the brain and consciousness. That’s still very useful information, but the claim that his method can bring about enlightenment in a year (or two or three) is utter bullshit.
  3. Read the email yourself. After getting caught having affairs with multiple women, he processed the whole ordeal with a therapist. That’s the bulk of what this email describes. It’s an in-depth description of his therapeutic process, how he came to realize that he lied to avoid conflict, lied in order to tell people what they wanted to hear and to make people happy, took responsibility for other people’s emotional states, had poor relationship boundaries (yeah, no kidding!). While lying to avoid conflict, he simultaneously failed to recognize the depth of his wife’s pain and suffering. (How does that work?) Furthermore, he failed to make an honest account of his behavior which the Board demanded at the time, blaming his failure to do so on his practice of ‘living in the present’ without a ‘self story’ that could make sense of past events. In other words, spiritual bypassing to avoid responsibility for his narcissistic behviour.

Ok, now let’s take a broader view of this situation.

  1. Culadasa is in his late 70s. This is (if I remember correctly) his third wife, or third major relationship. (If I’m wrong about any of these facts, please correct me in comments below). But his email confession sounds like the psychic travails of a 30-year old man who just went through the breakup of his first major relationship and had a lot of “what the fuck just happened?” reckoning to do. Why is he just learning this about himself now, after his third relationship, that he should have learned after his first or second?
  2. Culadasa has been practicing and teaching Buddhist meditation since he was ordained in 1976: that’s almost fifty years of training, practice and teaching. Why the hell is a 75-year old man with nearly 50 years of Buddhist practice suddenly learning the lessons of a 30 year-old man who doesn’t have a clue about his own neuroses and psychic machinations? What has this guy been doing for the last 50 years?
  3. How can a teacher claim to be enlightened, or to know the method or path to enlightenment, when he doesn’t understand the most rudimentary aspects of his own psychic process? Why is he even considered qualified to practice as a Buddhist teacher? 
  4. If you find out that your esteemed Buddhist teacher has had a lifetime of multiple affairs, breakups and bad relationships, that’s a clue that said teacher really doesn’t know his ass from his elbow and should be avoided like the plague. Same goes if said teacher has a history of untreated substance abuse or using funds from dharma donations to secure an extravagant lifestyle. In this case, Culadasa was using funds from his business, co-owned with his wife, to pay support for some of his mistresses. He wears robes, but he lives large. 
  5. Finally, I encourage you to seriously ask yourself the following questions: do these Buddhist teachers–bhikkhus, lamas, gurus, roshis, acharyas, etc. whatever—really know any more about how to live your life than you do? What do you think they know that you don’t know, or that you couldn’t figure out on your own? Over and over again, I’ve found out the hard way that many Buddhist teachers are world-class fuck-ups when it comes to intimate relationships. These are the aspects of our lives that undoubtedly cause us the most pain and suffering. If they don’t understand that, they don’t know much about ‘real life’ suffering and thus have no business making claims to knowing the path to liberation. 

You are your own best teacher. Your life is the path. Don’t practice Buddhism as a substitute for living your own life. Do your life. It’s the only path to liberation that’s readily available to you.

*The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Using Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science (2015). 

A Message from Culadasa

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

I am finally able to break my silence! I sincerely apologize for not being able to respond to all of you following the letter the Board of Dharma Treasure made public on August 19th, 2019. I realize how much my silence may have contributed to the hurt, anger, doubt, disappointment, and even sense of betrayal many of you have felt as a result of those accusations.

Every day that has gone by I’ve wanted to make a proper response but haven’t been able to. I filed for divorce from Nancy after all this happened, and couldn’t make any statement until the divorce was final. We chose to enter into to a collaborative divorce process, and it took much longer than expected. My hope and purpose in responding now, almost a year and a half later, is to bring clarity to what happened so that a true healing might begin for all of us.

I’m aware that one unfortunate effect of my silence is that people may have taken that silence as a withdrawal from teaching and an admission of guilt with regard to the accusations in that letter. I want you to know the situation is quite the opposite. That is what this message is all about, so please do read it in its entirety, including the document attached to this email.

I also want to be clear, while I respect that some may wish to discuss and speculate on the particulars of what I will be sharing with you, my intention – with, perhaps a very few exceptions – is to put this whole matter behind me. Thoughtfully discuss and even debate as you see fit, but I will be redirecting my energies to teaching and writing. I hope that you understand this boundary I am setting for myself.

Almost six years ago (and almost four and a half years before the Board’s letter) both Nancy and I recognized and accepted that we needed to sell our home and business and would not be living together afterwards. From that time forward, we began making choices and taking action based on our mutual decision. It wasn’t until weeks after that letter went out that I realized the Dharma Treasure Board didn’t seem to know this, and I’d never raised it as an issue when confronted by them. Nor had I communicated it to any of you. The enormous relevance of this simple fact had completely eluded me at the time I was being confronted.

Likewise, the Board’s focus, both when confronting me and in their letter to you, was a highly distorted version of events that had happened over a very short period four years earlier, and many months after Nancy and I had made that decision. Nancy had been fully aware of those events (my relationships with other women) at the time they happened, and they weren’t a problem for her. Once again, not until after they’d released their letter did it strike me that the long past events the Board had focused on had nothing to do with anything that had happened since, or to the real issues between Nancy and myself. I now seriously question whether the Board was ever made aware of those real issues. More likely, this distorted information was all they ever had to go on. Failing to recognize how much information was missing, I tried to respond to those long past issues without ever asking why they were being raised so many years later. Then, when the letter came out, I saw those events were being misconstrued as having continued throughout the next 4 years. On reflection, I realized this had been the Board’s operating assumption all along, but I hadn’t recognized that when they were confronting me.

Because I couldn’t fully understand what had happened and why, I wasn’t able to respond effectively, either to the Board when confronted, or to you after the Board published their letter. Nevertheless, as is often the case in situations like this, my first response on reddit, to “not take this letter as fact. It includes false information, and distortions and misrepresentations of fact,” was by far the most accurate thing I said at the time.

My later apology where I said, “I engaged in adultery and wrong speech…” wasn’t accurate. The mutually agreed upon status of our marriage, long before any extra-marital encounter, was such that my behavior was not adulterous. Nor should I have ever said I’d engaged in wrong speech. Some of the things I told Nancy years three years later were not true, but the intent was to protect another from harm, not to hide adulterous relationships from her as implied by the letter.

How could I have overlooked such obviously important facts as those described above? Why would I have ever made such an ill-considered apology?

Following those unfortunate events of August 2019, and during the last year and a half of forced silence imposed by the divorce process, I set out to understand what had happened and why. In addition to sorting truth from fiction, I had to go beyond the “red herring” that had been presented by (and perhaps to) the Board, delving into the real issues that led up to this situation. I began with the premise that I am the one who was ultimately responsible for what had happened, regardless of circumstances and any role played by others. I wanted and needed to clearly understand where my responsibility lay, so that I could overcome the causes for my failings, make amends, and hopefully bring about some healing.

During the past year and a half, I’ve had an opportunity to learn a lot about myself that I didn’t know before. Working with a therapist and a life coach, I discovered deeply embedded automatic patterns of responding in fundamentally unhealthy ways to certain situations. For all my life I’ve had almost no ability to establish and maintain clear personal boundaries in interpersonal interactions. If someone was upset, angry, hurt, disappointed, afraid or whatever, I took personal responsibility for their mental state, regardless of the cause or whether or not I had anything to do with their being upset. I’ve also been extremely conflict avoidant. When confronted with anger and/or aggression, I would do almost anything to placate. I tended to avoid conflict by being excessively compliant, acquiescing too quickly, and engaging in various conflict avoidance strategies. I too readily accepted the views of others, or tried to find ways to side-step issues of conflict, to relieve another’s anger while disregarding the cost to myself or future consequences. If attempts to placate failed, and full-blown conflict seemed inevitable, I would often disengage, withdraw, surrender, and even take a beating if necessary.

Conflict avoidance and lack of personal boundaries overlapped in their effects on my behavior, such that I would do almost anything to make things OK. It has been difficult for me to say no, so I committed to things I didn’t really want or agree with. Until recently, I’d never been conscious of reacting out of these conditioned patterns. Now that I am much more aware of these tendencies, I no longer fall so easily into these conditioned patterns.

During the past year and a half, I’ve also learned to appreciate and experience certain profound depths to this Dharma that I’d known about, but hadn’t fully understood and applied before.
For years I’d been living mostly in the present moment, more in the ongoing awareness of suchness and emptiness than narrative and form. As part of this radical shift in perspective, I’d stopped “thinking about myself,” creating the “story of me.” I now realize that, while freed of the burdens of “if only” and “what if,” I’d also lost another kind of perspective those narratives provide. By embracing the now as I had, I’d let that other world of linear time and narrative fall away. Thus I found myself unable to counter what the Board confronted me with by providing my own perspective, “my story” about what had happened so many years before. Having lost the perspective and context that comes from longer term and larger scale autobiographical narratives, I failed to recognize how out of context those long-ago events were with the present.

While all narratives may ultimately be empty constructs, they are also indispensable to our ability to function effectively in the realm of conventional reality and interpersonal relationships. When trying to respond to the Board, all I had were the pieces from which those narratives are usually constructed. I was hopelessly unsuccessful in my attempts to put them together on the spur of the moment to provide a more accurate counterpart to the unrecognizable narrative I was being confronted with.

And that is how I overlooked such obviously important facts as those described above, and why I apologized so inaccurately.

In sum, at a time when every aspect of my life was shifting, the effects of unhealthy conditioned response patterns, driven by residues of psycho-emotional trauma, and a radical shift in perspective converged in an unfortunate way. As a result, I failed to respond appropriately to the situations I found myself in over a period of four years. This culminated in the events of July and August 2019 that have caused so much pain and disruption for so many. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not offering unskillfulness due to the effects of my conditioning and/or my practice as an excuse for anything. Rather, I’m acknowledging and accepting my unskillfulness as a serious and harmful shortcoming that I have a responsibility to do something about!

Out of all this, there has emerged for me a clear picture, far more complete and consistent with my lived experience than what the Dharma Treasure Board had confronted me with or presented to you. Having done this work, I now have a much clearer understanding of how and why this happened. Indeed I am responsible, and I was at fault – just not for the things that have been alleged and used to undermine my reputation.

Where my chief responsibility lies, and what I feel tremendous regret for is having at first failed to recognize the intensity of Nancy’s emotional distress for too long; and then when I did recognize it, my inability to respond appropriately. I understand that, and will always be deeply sorry for the suffering Nancy has experienced. I am likewise deeply sorry for the subsequent suffering that affected first the Board members and then yourselves.

I am sharing in detail what I have learned in the hopes that it may help you to understand and make sense of what was happened as well. To read my perspective of these last years, please open the document attached to this email. There you will find my frank and detailed description of the last 6 years. My perspective is presented in considerable detail, because I know of no other way to counter the misinformation in that letter and in subsequent communications from the Board. I will also share with you what I’ve learned over the last year and a half about myself; the dharma I practice and teach; and what I see as its implications for all of us as lay practitioners, teachers and students alike.

I have included this email in the attachment so you will have it all in one document.

Love and best wishes,
Culadasa

7 comments on “Culadasa Redux

  1. David Weiskopf
    2021/01/16

    I got Culadasa’s email, started reading it, and quickly determined it was moving in a pathetic direction. I felt a little guilty that I might be pre-judging it, but at the same time I figured the odds were so great of its being pathetically self-serving that I concluded there was no reason to subject myself to it. I quickly trashed it. I remain an admirer of the book The Mind Illuminated.

  2. David Jodrey
    2021/01/16

    Shaun, you have asked for factual corrections. Here are a few – and by “fact” I mean what Culadasa says about himself:

    1)His marriage to Nancy was not his fourth, it was his third. It lasted 30 years. The way in which it ended and the way the board of Dharma Treasure dealt with the issues involved are are the main topics dealt with in his statement. People have opinions about him, on the basis of what they have heard; Culadasa asserts, in a way that I find convincing, that they have heard rather less than the whole story, and that a more complete account casts a different light on various matters.

    2)He is not “in his eighties” – he says, in this statement issued earlier this month, that he is 75.

    3)You encourage people to read Culadasa’s letter themselves, and have appended it here. You describe this letter as “accompanied by a 33-page document.” But that is an exaggeration – the letter is PART of a 33 page document – the letter itself occupies three pages, the additional material is another 30 pages. This material can be found at http://www.tinyurl.com/CuladasaJan2021

    Whether to read those additional 30 pages is a personal decision. As someone who was much impressed with the TMI book, and rather dismayed to hear of Culadasa’s dismissal from Dharma Treasure in 2019, I thought it was worth my time to do so. I’m glad I did, and I think doing so has expanded my mind. There’s a book* a couple of professors of mine wrote, in which the first chapter is titled “Life IS a Soap Opera.” Or, as entertainer/activist Wavy Gravy has put it, “As I told my mirror this morning, it’s all done with people.”

    *Principles of Community Psychology: Perspectives and Applications. 3rd edition, 2004

    • Shaun Bartone
      2021/01/16

      David: thanks for the corrections. I will make corrections in the article where necessary. However, it doesn’t essentially change my argument.

    • Shaun Bartone
      2021/01/19

      I’ve never dismissed TMI. In fact, in this article I said that the scientific information presented in TMI was very beneficial. But his claim that you can use his method to attain ‘enlightenment’ in a year or two has no empirical proof.

  3. Mira
    2021/02/15

    I came upon the information concerning sexual misconduct a few weeks after I started reading the book. I was disappointed and discouraged from reading it further but I also was conflicted because of how detailed and comprehensive the book is and how it helped me answer questions I was struggling with for years.
    Although culadasa may not be enlightened at the very least it can be said that he is an expert in meditation and the book still is brilliant.
    Although one thing I might address is that would we know what enlightenment looks like? we have this mindset of a saintly person that we are expecting that someone enlightened.
    One other thing that makes me wonder is that somewhere I read that in thervada, it’s said that there are different stages of enlightenment and I am no expert but maybe he’s still not fully enlightened but somewhere along he way? maybe?

    • Shaun Bartone
      2021/02/15

      I think TMI is incredibly useful, based on the current science of the brain. And yes, ‘enlightenment’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect.’ Culadasa’s actions were an abuse of power, and that’s something that I won’t abide in a spiritual leader. It’s very damaging and dangerous.

  4. jwala
    2021/02/24

    I have learned meditation from Culadasa and sat with him in person many, many times. I am acquainted with him AND Nancy and was surprised when all this came out. I am glad I didn’t gossip with anyone about it and sent them both love from my heart. That showed me I have grown since becoming a Buddhist Yogi so long ago. I appreciated hearing his journey as a man and will take what i; a woman experience from it FOR myself. I happily take responsibility for my perceptions and appreciate his honesty and openness in the letter. As the Buddha has been known to have said “You should never judge another, for if you do, you will surely fall”.

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