Wednesday, March 13, 2013
So, there's a new Pope at the Vatican. Pretty exciting for a lot of folks. Depressing for many others. And for the majority of the world, it's news that has little or no importance for them at all. I long had a fascination with Popes and papal history. There's something quite different about their place in the world from other religious figures. Perhaps it has to do with the hordes of money and political influence they've had for nearly 2000 years now.
Anyway, fellow Buddhist blogger Justin Whitaker seems to have won the race for the first Buddhist blogosphere Pope post. He suggests that Pope Francis might be a shift for the better, given some elements of his track record. Maybe. Hell if I know. The guy is also linked to some fiercely anti-gay rhetoric (more so even than the average conservative Catholic), aided the Argentinian dictatorship during the 1970s, and generally seems to hold the standard Vatican line on all things sex and reproductive rights.
But honestly, I don't care much anymore about parsing Papal biographies. It seems to me that instead of hoping for something of a savior figure, it's time for something more radical: institutional collapse and regeneration.
Why such bold words? Because the whole relationship between religious leadership and everyday members needs to be deconstructed and re-imagined.
I write this not just about the Vatican, but about organized religion in general, including Buddhism. The seemingly endless number of power abuse scandals amongst North American Buddhist communities speaks to one side of the issue: namely that when people place spiritual leaders on too high of a pedestal, at the expense of their own agency and wisdom, all hell breaks loose. On the other side of the coin is the fact that all over the "Buddhist" world, younger folks (and some older folks as well) are either turning away from, or simply uninterested from the start, in organized Buddhism. In Buddhist sanghas. In traditional forms. Longtime readers may remember this post about a Japanese monk opening a bar in order to try and connect with more young folks and teach the dharma. It may not be as bad here in North America, where Buddhism and meditation in particular is still fairly fashionable in a certain sense. However, anyone involved in sangha leadership would probably concur with my feelings on the issue. Plenty of people come through the doors. Some of those people stay for awhile. But it's a fairly small percentage that actually stick around and become rooted in the community.
The problems of the Vatican and the Catholic church are in many ways different and probably greater than what Buddhists face. And yet, it's hard for me to not see some similarities, beginning with patriarchy. How leadership is constructed, what it means to be a "follower" or student, and how the organizations are built and run: these things seem marked by patriarchy. Even often with women in leadership positions. You may see fewer power abuse scandals with women leaders, but I don't think it's a great shift when an all powerful and knowing father figure is replaced by an all knowing and powerful mother figure. For years, I watched issues come up in my own sangha around our head teacher, who wouldn't fully step into that powerful mother figure role some of the students seemed to desire. Whenever she attempted to move in that direction, there was backlash. And, often at the same time, there was suggestions that she wasn't a "strong enough leader." Seems to me that this back and forth was about much more than a conflicted teacher and her conflicted students. It represents the binary set up by patriarchal leadership models. You either have a powerful top dog or someone who's always facing questions about their strength and leadership skills. And you either have an obedient, mostly passive flock of students/community members, or you have a rebellious bunch filled with conflicting desires.
Several members of the staff of my former workplace were nuns of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, one of the groups under constant watch during Benedict's years as Pope for their progressiveness. When I look back on conversations I had with my co-workers about the church and their position within it, it wasn't all that different from what I described above about my own Zen sangha. Like us, they were decidedly in the "rebellious" camp, fighting against what they felt was crappy leadership while continuing to have some lingering sense of loyalty to the institution and spiritual teachings as a whole. Obviously, what they faced was - and continues to be - much more troubling and serious than anything I and my fellow sangha members have been dealing with over the past half decade or so. But at the root of it, in my view, are the very notions we've had about what a priest's "job" is, what it means to be a spiritual student, and how it is that we construct and maintain community containers to support these two interdependent roles.
Instead of spending a lot of energy on parsing Papal biographies, and hoping for change like so many did when Obama was elected (both bloody times), it's time to inspire reorganization and renewal. To uphold groups that have broken new ground without abandoning most - if not all - of the past in process (like the secular meditation folks, or ex-Catholics who have adopted science as their new savior). Note: there's nothing wrong with either of these diverse groups of people, but I don't find their conclusions particularly inspiring. Much of the New Age community feels equally uninspiring for different reasons - although all of these groups seem to be variations of the theme. Either made up of rebellious individuals who have rejected the whole notion of spiritual leadership and communities, or who have simply recreated the father/mother dynamic in a new form (plenty of New Age guru scandals to go around, to cite one example of that).
I think humanity is longing for something beyond the patriarchal binary. And I think there are examples out there on a smaller scale of "communities" that exemplify that something beyond. Something more holistic that incorporates the best of the past with the creative spirit of today. The Pope is a ghost leadership figure in my opinion, as is the "traditional" Buddhist priest and teacher. They're dead, but haunting us because we haven't figured out what to do now in this modern, changed world of ours.
Some of us cling and defend, and others rebel and hope. But none of that will put the ghosts to rest.