An Examination of Ethics and Spiritual Teaching

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By Rick Archer, with Jac O’Keeffe, Craig Holliday, and Caverly Morgan. Significant contributions by Timothy Conway.

It’s a safe bet that everyone reading this article has read accounts of spiritual teachers engaging in questionable behavior. Many of you may have been on the receiving end of such behavior. It seems that almost every week, the transgressions of some prominent spiritual leader are exposed.

This has caused confusion, pain, and disillusionment among spiritual aspirants. We don’t expect movie moguls or politicians to be paragons of virtue, but the spiritual traditions tell us their saints and sages were. We’ve all been inspired by stories of their lives. Were these stories hyperbolic? Is there a correlation between spiritual advancement and ethical behavior? Should teachers be expected to embody the time-honored principles of Ahimsa, Loving-Kindness, and the Golden Rule? If they appear not to, have they assumed the mantle of teacherhood prematurely? Can one be an enlightened scoundrel?

Are Ethics Relative?

Some argue that moral standards are cultural fabrications with no absolute or universal validity, but some values are universally agreed upon.

No one considers rape and pedophilia acceptable, except perhaps those guilty of them. Many consider working on the Sabbath, eating meat, and polygamy sinful, but they are acceptable or even the norm in many cultures.

Some cultures practice things that most of us would consider barbaric, such as female genital mutilation. Hopefully everyone reading this would agree that this should be universally unacceptable and forbidden. The fact that many people consider it part of their tradition doesn’t mean it deserves our respect or tolerance in the world we hope to create.

So perhaps we can agree that although ethical standards may vary from culture to culture and age to age, they are not mere personal preferences, all being equally valid. As human beings, there are baseline standards on which we should insist, and ideals to which we might aspire.

Ethical Behavior is Good For You

Most spiritual traditions regard ethical behavior not only as a reflection of spiritual development, but as conducive to it. Most have some notion of karma and say that if we hurt others we will reap the consequences and impede our own spiritual evolution. Both Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism teach that practicing ethical behavior makes the mind more open and subtle and thus more capable of deep nondual insight.

Modern neurophysiology, with its discovery of neuroplasticity, may eventually corroborate this teaching. The body is the temple of the soul, the vehicle through which the Ultimate may become a living reality. We handicap ourselves by coarsening or damaging it, as unethical behaviors tend to do.

In Buddhism, students are encouraged to develop deep compassion even before beginning with teachings on emptiness. In “The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World”, the Dalai Lama is quoted saying, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion”.

Reality is Different in Different States of Consciousness

People often fixate on one or another of three different perspectives, the transcendent, the Divine, and the material. But these perspectives, even though they may seem opposed to one another, are paradoxically yet simultaneously true, each in its own domain. For the sake of argument, let’s define Enlightenment as a state in which one has learned to coexist simultaneously in all three.

Failing to do so, if one fixates on the transcendent, one might say, “Only unity is real and important. The world is unreal, and there is no personal self.” Some Nondual teachers have acted unethically, and then claimed that no one was doing it and that it didn’t matter anyway because the world is unreal.

Others might say that there is a world, but it is perfect just as it is. All is well and wisely put; it’s all Divinely orchestrated. If you adopt this perspective exclusively, you may feel that you can do whatever you like. You’re not doing it. God is.

If we focus exclusively on the material plane, for instance, on the countless injustices and forms of cruelty to living beings, we can become angry political fanatics, vindictive zealots always finding evil-doers somewhere and throwing them out of our heart with the constricted mind of scornful anger and venomous disgust over what “those evil persons” are doing.

The transcendent, divine, and material perspectives all have their relevance, but none can be taken to the exclusion of the others without creating imbalance. The spiritual luminaries we most admire seem to have integrated all three.

For more on this, see Timothy Conway’s article, “The Three Simultaneously True Levels of Nondual Reality”.

Are Higher Consciousness and Ethical Behavior Correlated?

Some say that ethical teachings aren’t needed because having realized one’s true nature, one will inevitably and spontaneously act in the best interest of all beings in every situation—something we might call “spontaneous right action.” Some scriptures speak of this possibility, and there’s a spiritual logic to it, but it’s hard to find examples of it. Even if it’s a possibility, it would only apply to realized beings. Everyone else would still need ethical moorings.

Ken Wilber mentions “waking up”, “growing up”, and “cleaning up”, and says that the development of consciousness and behavior are not tightly correlated. We may have been taught that our spiritual practice will produce holistic development. To some extent it may, but the actual experience of most spiritual practitioners seems to indicate that all aspects of life still need individual culturing.

Free Will

Some people say the whole consideration of ethics is moot because we have absolutely no free will. Ramesh Balsekar contended that we are governed entirely by our genetics and conditioning. This has been used by some as an alibi for misbehavior.

People act according to their level of consciousness, their degree of purity or impurity, their conditioning. Someone who is rather stunted by those measures can’t simply decide to act like a saint. Ethical guidelines give people something to adhere to within their capacity to do so, like traffic laws.

Walk Your Talk

The Upanishads state, “Aham Brahmasmi” – “I am Brahman,” and “Tat Twam Asi”—“Thou art That.” If we’re really living Nonduality, then chairs, people, and everything are just as much a part of us as our arm is. As Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you have done it to me”. If someone is claiming Realization, yet behaving harmfully, maybe we should question their realization: “You shall know them by their fruits”.

If a spiritual teacher is using people to fulfill lustful, greedy, and ambitious desires, chances are they do not perceive “the Self in all beings, and all beings in the Self” (Bhagavad Gita: VI, 28). They still regard persons as objects and lack authentic empathy.

If we claim or imply that we have realized our true nature and are offering to help others do the same, is it consistent for us to behave deceitfully, perversely, selfishly or cruelly? Deceit might include lying about one’s level of spiritual attainment, one’s lifestyle or adherence to vows – such as claiming to be a celibate renunciate, when that is not really the case.

Most traditions contain accounts of saints performing miracles. Maybe they have, but some famous gurus have been excellent stage magicians and have used their “miracles” to fool naïve villagers and even many Westerners.

And then we get into grey areas, people claiming to be channeling beings from other star systems or parallel universes or other times or dimensions. Should there be any ethical standards for such performances?

Ayahuasca and Psychedelics

Should people administering them be trained and certified? By whom? Should people be interviewed before they are given such substances to find out if they are psychologically strong enough to cope with the experiences they may have? What if there is a latent psychosis? What if someone admits beforehand that they have a history of schizophrenia? Should they be given large doses of such hallucinogens? There isn’t much regulation or oversight.

Financial Issues

Churches routinely ask their members to tithe, therapists charge for their time, seminars and courses nearly always have a fee, most retreat centers have to charge in order to keep functioning, and spiritual teachers have to pay the rent, just like any others. The most popular spiritual teachers have become quite wealthy. Is that an ethical concern?

We’re All Works in Progress

Shortly before his death, Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “Forget ‘I Am That’. I’ve realized so much more since then, it’s so much deeper.”

Perhaps we’re all works in progress and that to believe that there’s an ultimate, static terminus point that we will eventually reach, or that a particular teacher has reached, will result in disappointment and confusion. If we think that a teacher has reached the pinnacle of spiritual attainment, then by implication, he can do no wrong. If he appears to be doing wrong, we may doubt our “lying eyes” before we doubt him.

There are numerous stories of Vedic sages who were tripped up by some latent tendency or subtle remnants of ego they didn’t know they had. There are many degrees of awakening prior to the final enlightenment, if there even is such a thing. If harmful, selfish behavior is displayed, it shouldn’t be rationalized away; it indicates some lack of development that should be addressed.

Sri Nisargadatta’s teacher Sri Siddharameshvar Maharaj was always strict about the comportment of anyone claiming “enlightenment.” He used to pithily say, “Realize the Self and behave accordingly!”.

Crazy Wisdom

One point of confusion is that teachers who behave unethically often seem spiritually advanced and their teachings beneficial. They may be eloquent, charismatic, and knowledgeable; their presence or “transmission” palpable. If their questionable behavior is exposed, they or their followers may use these redeeming qualities to rationalize their behavior as a “crazy wisdom” teaching tool.

There have been legitimate examples of crazy-wise adepts, holy fools, rascal gurus, but for every genuine one there have been many who use crazy wisdom as an alibi for bad behavior. Traditionally, these holy fools were humble, meek, and self-abnegating. They went to extremes to avoid adulation or appearing special. In contrast to this, recent or contemporary teachers whose behavior is excused as crazy-wisdom have often been self-indulgent, ostentatious, and grandiose.

Timothy Conway writes, “It may be argued by some ill-behaving teachers that the abusive-looking behavior they enact toward students is part of a ‘venerable Crazy Wisdom tradition’ going back to illustrious spiritual adepts. Rigorous historical scholarship has shown this to have been a literary invention by later writers 100-300 years after the periods in which the supposed early Crazy Wisdom adepts lived. In China, stories of Crazy Wisdom behaviors were invented and elaborated as a literary device to make certain Tang-dynasty Chan teachers look more interesting and authoritative.

After the literary invention of the Crazy Wisdom trope, later generations witnessed numerous spiritual teachers behaving abusively – shouting at students; kicking, beating, humiliating them; and otherwise ‘testing them’ in extreme ways. Today we know that such ‘bad boy’ behaviors imitating the literary trope were scathingly critiqued by numerous esteemed spiritual masters as an unfortunate, inauthentic development, an aberrant style of spiritual instruction.”

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?

Papaji warned, “This is the kali Yuga. Even rakshasas, demons, will incarnate as teachers to mislead you.”

Timothy Conway further writes, “Buddhists and Hindus refer to the “asura titan” or demon types of consciousness which can seem very powerful, very bright, very charismatic and enlightened, but are more insidiously a syndrome afflicting someone who might think he is enlightened but is not, because he/she is still fueled by greed, aversion, delusion. It is especially alluring and misleading when some lovely deva karmas are mixed in – certain talents or virtues. Such a combination of powerful light and dark entities can be very confusing to those lacking discernment.”

Another perspective on the issue is that of Kundalini Vidya, according to which there can be a “deflected rising”, in which kundalini has risen to a certain point then gotten deflected or stuck. Such a person can display the symptoms of enlightenment such as intellectual brilliance and powerful transmission, without actually being enlightened. Something is “off”, and their ego is fed by adoring followers, that “offness” can become extreme.

Discrimination and Discernment

It is often suggested that an enlightened being’s behavior is beyond our capacity to understand and that we should accept on faith that he is acting in accordance with Divine Will. If this is so, then it seems the Divine has a fondness for Rolls Royce’s or young women or young boys. Those are obvious allusions to actual situations in which people said, “This behavior concerns me, but I’m just going to go along with it because I’m too unenlightened to understand an enlightened being.”

Discrimination and discernment are critical on the spiritual path. Jesus said, “Judge not that ye be not judged,” and, “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?, and yet Jesus often railed against those whom he considered hypocritical. To exercise judgement is not necessarily to be judgmental.

We’ve all seen examples of people adopting holier than thou attitudes, laying trips on people, and perhaps even we’ve done it ourselves, so we don’t want to be judgmental, but we must be discriminating.

In evaluating a teacher perhaps we should ask ourselves, “Do I want to become like this person?”

We have a right and an obligation to evaluate a potential teacher, to call them on their stuff if necessary and to leave if they are not receptive. At a symposium of Western Buddhist teachers, the Dalai Lama had strong words for teachers who abuse their power and students who give theirs away: “A teacher who behaves unethically or asks students to do so can be judged as lacking in ultimate insight,” His Holiness said.

“As far as my own understanding goes, the two claims – that you are not subject to precepts and you are free – are the result of incorrect understanding. No behavior is free from consequences. For this reason, true wisdom always includes compassion, the understanding that all things and beings are interconnected with and vulnerable to each other.”

“Even though one’s realization may be higher than the high beings,” His Holiness said, “one’s behavior should conform to the human way of life. When teachers break the precepts, behaving in ways that are clearly damaging to themselves and others, students must face the situation even though this can be challenging. Criticize openly,” His Holiness declared, “that is the only way.”

“If there is incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing, teachers should be confronted with it. They should be allowed to admit their wrongs, make amends, and undergo a rehabilitation process. If a teacher won’t respond, students should publish the situation in a newspaper, not omitting the teacher’s name,” His Holiness said. “The fact that the teacher may have done many other good things should not keep us silent.”

Who Should Evaluate Spiritual Teachers?

Should evaluation of teachers’ behavior should be the sole responsibility of their followers? P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Some people are going to excuse their teacher’s behavior no matter how egregious.

Spiritual seekers are often rather naïve and innocent, ungrounded and easily taken advantage of. If they’ve been around for a while they may have learned the hard way – if they survive the disillusionment that entails.

Prospective students should feel entitled and even obligated to evaluate teachers. One question to ask is, “Do I want to become like this person? If he is an alcoholic, a sexual predator, etc., are those qualities I wish to embody?” One might argue that one can learn a lot from a person without mirroring his personality. That may be true of a mathematics professor but is less so of a spiritual teacher. The spiritual aspirant entrains with the personality and consciousness of the teacher. The scenes around some teachers have reflected their personalities – lots of drinking and sexual promiscuity. Spirituality is all about attaining inner clarity. Our behavior reflects our inner state. What inner state does debauchery reflect?

Premature Emmaculation?

Some feel that many spiritual teachers have been in too much of a hurry to take up the profession.

On the issue of readiness to teach, there is almost always a lag between realization and its full embodiment. Assuming the role of a spiritual teacher will confront you with challenges you wouldn’t otherwise face. The very act of teaching channels some sort of higher energy. You tend to become brighter, more eloquent, more charismatic. People are attracted to you, sometimes sexually. They may start thinking you are special, that you know something they don’t know. It can easily go to your head.

We need teachers. We’re not saying that everybody should wait ten years after realization before beginning to teach, although some traditions advise doing so.

After his awakening, Ramana marinated in a cave for years. Swami Atmananda never gave satsang until he and his master agreed he was ready – years after his awakening. Thich Nhat Hanh was always diligent in his own actions and motivations. He felt that if he ever slipped in some way he would immediately stop teaching. He felt that his life was his teaching.

A Code of Ethics and “The Association of Professional Spiritual Teachers”

The times are such that there’s no longer much tolerance or acceptance in the spiritual community for abusive, immoral behavior. Many people are maturing and raising their standards. Many sanghas are trying to clean house, ousting misbehaving teachers, drafting codes of ethics and policies to try to prevent future abuses, etc.

To help meet this need, the authors of this article have been working together since the last SAND conference to draft a code of ethics and to form an “Association of Professional Spiritual Teachers”. This organization is being registered as a non-profit 501(c)3. We do not presume any moral superiority. We possess neither the wisdom, the desire, nor the administrative authority to “police” spiritual teachers as organizations governing doctors, lawyers and other professionals are empowered to do. Our intention is to articulate a set of standards to which spiritual teachers, ourselves included, might aspire, and to raise awareness among students as to the behavior they might expect in a teacher, thus emboldening them to exercise their own judgement and discrimination. This should enrich the partnership between teachers and students, enabling each to help the other progress quickly and safely on the spiritual path.

Rick-Archer-SpeakerRick is the creator and host of the interview show Buddha at the Gas Pump. Since the Fall of 2009, he has since interviewed over 380 “spiritually awakening” people, from the well-known to the unknown, from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. He conducts a new interview each week. Rick learned Transcendental Meditation when he was 18, was trained by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as a TM teacher in 1970, and served in that capacity for 25 years, teaching hundreds of people, lecturing around the world, helping to train TM teachers, and serving at the international headquarters of the TM organization in Switzerland. He earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Vedic Studies from Maharishi International University. Rick is no longer associated with the TM organization, having become too eclectic and independent in his perspective to affiliate exclusively with any organization.


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