I remember with great nostalgia the early days of my own spiritual quest, when I threw over a conventional life as a lecturer in a provincial English art school and travelled overland to India. Those were the days of the Hippie Trail, and in the freewheeling spirit of the moment I ranged through the subcontinent for some months. At the outset I’d expected to find a great guru, but I wasn’t impressed by the ingratiating swamis, sadhus and “saints” who loudly proclaimed their spiritual accomplishments to me in the various ashrams and holy places I visited. I wasn’t let down, however. I received my teaching—but from an unexpected source. Mother India herself, that deeply spiritual land, tore away my English middle class defenses and threw me into full confrontation with this miraculous and mysterious business of life. Wonderful experiences and insights came, not earned or the result of long study or meditation, but pure gifts.
What has since impressed me strongly is the difference between religion and spirit. Spirit, as Krishnamurti has made clear, thrives on freedom. It is anarchic; it won’t be pinned down, used or exploited; it moves according to its own mysterious lights. Religion is something else. It is the packaging and marketing of the insights of the great spiritual innovators. It establishes worldly infrastructures. Spirit knows truth directly. Religion is usually more a matter of taking truth at secondhand, as belief or blind faith, or else of submitting to spiritual authority in exchange for emotional comforts.
In many ways we who have come to Buddhism in the last twenty years have been very lucky, for a lot of the true spirit resurfaces in any tradition when it undergoes a new transmission or phase of development. Already, however, some of that spirit is being lost. For one thing, back in my Indian days, there was a wonderful democracy among those of us who were exploring and experimenting with Buddhism at the time. It wasn’t going to make us rich or famous; it wasn’t going to give us security or a place in the world; we just did it for the love—and because, for some strange reason we could never quite explain, it got a grip of us and affected our lives in very positive ways.
Now, however, Buddhism is becoming fashionable. There’s a lot of wealth and power in it, and competition to control that wealth and power is growing. We see at the same time the infrastructure of organized religion beginning to emerge: temples, monasteries and centers, and professional functionaries of various sorts. A great deal of sectarianism has also meanwhile crept in by the back door. Most disturbingly of all, I have seen at first hand the liberal spirit, which I feel is axiomatic to Buddhism, undermined in Western Buddhist institutions. Ambition asserts itself in people who no doubt started out with very sincere motivation, and with ambition comes the urge to direct and control. Soon, in the interests of protecting the “True Dharma,” only the authorized views of a few accredited authorities are allowed expression, other views being suppressed. In this way, totalitarianism and the power complex function precisely where freedom and openness should hold sway. It repeats an all too familiar pattern. We Westerners have been through this movie before—with Christianity.
Many, no doubt sincerely, welcome the quite amazing mushroom-growth of Buddhism as religion in the West and would argue that it can only lead to the general good. I too can see areas where good has certainly been done and I have been helped myself, yet I still have misgivings, for at heart I remain a devotee of that anarchic spiritual vitality that organized religion seems to stifle. I therefore do not really want to see a Western Buddhist “church” set up. I would much rather see something more informal and unstructured, with fewer paid professionals—or none at all.
The Quakers long ago saw the dangers of priesthood—that is, of a class of professional religious functionaries who interpose themselves between the people and the spiritual (however that is conceived). In Buddhism such a class is now developing, with its own hierarchy and career structure. At the apex is the teacher, whether authorized by tradition or self-proclaimed or claiming authority by some other virtue, who is in fact a quasi-priest. Of course we don’t all possess the same amount of wisdom; certainly we need advice and instruction at times, particularly when we first set out on the path; it would be foolish not to avail ourselves of any help that is on offer. But what bothers me about the teacher-student paradigm that is currently establishing itself in the West is the potentially damaging dichotomy it tends to set up. When someone takes on the special status of being the teacher, “the one who knows”, his or her students may at the same time be correspondingly disempowered: they become “the ones who don’t know.” There is a power relation that is open to abuse.
The idea that a few people possess all the knowledge and that the mass are ignorant or deluded is obviously flawed. There can be no end to learning and development. In Zen Buddhism, the Buddha is said to be still training with us. So a teacher who has closed him- or herself to further learning is an ossified person—but one with special interests to promote and protect. The eternal student, on the other hand, is locked in a regressive stance, unwilling or unable to take on the responsibility of sharing with others what life has taught him.
What I would suggest, therefore, is that we attempt to break down this dichotomy by setting up a more open forum in which we all see ourselves as fellow students. This means that we are all potentially both teachers and students.
I once heard a story about a lady who, by cosmetic surgery, had a formidable beak transformed into a cute retroussé nose. But in time, apparently, much to the good lady’s chagrin, the old beak began to reassert itself . . . . A few centuries ago we in the West got hold of some very good spiritual ideas first propagated in the Middle East by one Jesus Christ. We built a massive church around those ideas—and somehow the original message got distorted and largely lost. Will we do the same with Buddhism?
I do not have a blueprint for how Buddhism could be without infrastructures and professionals. I do believe, however, that the energy presently locked up in those, once freed, could work in marvelous new creative ways. We could, I believe, see Buddhism doing what it is surely meant to do: help people to come of age, able to stand on their own feet as fully mature beings. No longer would they clutch at external props and sources of direction but would instead be more self-reliant, confident in their own inner source of wisdom—the Buddha within. There could then be real sangha, the friendly association of spiritual equals, rather than the divisions, dependency and exploitation that we are beginning to see more and more.
This may sound utopian, but we must have a vision to work with—and what better one could we have?