If you flip over any half dozen rocks out there in the spiritual world, you'll find a scandal. Yes, the Catholic Church has been the major player in recent years, but no one seems immune, and clearly the plethora of problems shows just how challenging it is for humans to handle power in a healthy way.
Over at Integral Options Cafe this morning was a reprinted article that is in process for an upcoming issue of Tikkun magazine. (Tikkun is an excellent mag by the way for those interested in reading articles spanning across religious traditions.) The post this morning had to do with the on-going, unresolved abuse allegations which center around Andrew Cohen and the Integral/Evolutionary Enlightenment crowd. Among those linked with this group are well known teachers Genpo Roshi and Ken Wilber, which is why there seems to be a fair amount of attention (in the blogosphere anyway) being paid to this scandal.
What's so interesting in my view is how the same kinds of issues keep getting played out in such diverse spiritual communities. Money, sex, and power abuses almost always seem to be linked in some form or another - it's almost as if these three are the holy trinity of a spiritual community gone bad. We've seen it in the Catholic Church, in evangelical mega churches, in New Age groups, and even in Buddhist communities.
My own sangha got a taste of all this several years ago, and it's still, in some ways, recovering. Just as you can see with the scandals in these other communities, our sangha split into factions. There were ardent supporters of the former teacher who left the community to join him. There were those who were stunned by the whole thing and dropped out of Zen all together. Others strongly condemned the teacher's actions, but wanted reconciliation. And still others condemned the teacher completely, and wanted nothing to do with him again.
Much of it was left unresolved. There were efforts on both ends towards some kind of reconciliation, but ultimately the sangha moved on, and the former teacher moved on. It was kind of like the way a cracked romantic relationship ends: neither side has owned completely their part in the destruction yet, but both realize it's time to stop adding to the misery. Often, this comes after false departures and returns, or demands of departure from one party that are agreed to by the other party.
One of the challenges I have seen, not only in my own sanghas' case, but also in reading accounts of what has happened in other places, is knowing what actually has happened. Emotions get so riled up, and stories spill from the actual truth to a felt truth which has some validity, but makes sorting out what happened really challenging. This sadly makes it that much harder to pin down abusers because they can easily speak to the over-inflated parts of people's stories, and minimize and deny the rest.
Furthermore, many of us, whether in the middle of such situations, or outside of them, fail to see how the distorted social environment itself plays into both the actual abuse, as well as our perceptions of abuse. You know something isn't right, and because of that awareness your radar is heightened to the point where most everything feels like a mechanism of abuse. To this day, I honestly don't know for sure how much of what I heard in my community was a true account of events, and how much was colored by the pressure of the environment we had been practicing in together. Whatever happened though, what is clear to me is that the social environment of our sangha had spun off center, making healthy spiritual practice impossible.
I'm really trying to refrain from simply pointing the finger at our former teacher and calling him out as a bad guy. Why? Because that's what we humans always do. We point at those with the most power, say they're "evil" or "responsible," and then dig in our heels. And either these people go on abusing their power, like former U.S. President Bush and his buddies did, or we get rid of them, and another comes along at some point to replace them.
I firmly believe that those in power positions have a heightened sense of responsibility in situations. When things go wrong, and they have been at the center of those things, it's theirs to own, no matter what others involved contributed.
At the same time, if we simply stop at holding the leaders accountable, we never get at the roots of power abuse in the first place. And if the work of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo taught us anything, the social environment in any given situation has as much, and probably more, power than any individual within that situation.
In Zimbardo's famous experiment, which was originally designed to be a simulated prison situation, the following occurred:
The experiment quickly grew out of hand. Prisoners suffered — and accepted — sadistic and humiliating treatment from the guards. The high level of stress progressively led them from rebellion to inhibition.
This sounds a bit like what Andrew Cohen and others are being accused of. However, the prison experiment, and the allegations against Cohen, for example, are extreme cases. And I'm convinced much less actual abuse can occur in a given situation, and still lead lots of distorted behavior and emotional states coming from those involved. Once the line between healthy use of power and unhealthy use of power is crossed enough times, the perceived possibility of more abuse often is the most powerful element in the situation.
If we are really serious about diminishing the amount of abuse in spiritual communities, and actually developing and/or maintaining healthy power structures and dynamics, then we must move beyond blaming leaders and seeing their removal and/or downfall as the end of the problem. Even if we could hold every last abusive leader, spiritual, political, financial, etc. responsible for their actions, we wouldn't be rid of the roots that will bring the next power scandal. I'm all for holding people accountable, but until we come to grips with the power of social environments, and group dynamics, there will continue to be plenty more miserable abuse stories in the future.