A god is dead
Okay, god is a bit much. But still, one of the people I most admired has turned out not be the Saint I took him to be.
So, what’s going on? As some of you already know, it has recently come to light that Culadasa, my meditation teacher, has engaged in misconduct. He has therefore been judged inapt to teach by Dharma Treasure, the organisation he had been teaching under. To summarize, Culadasa has been accused of adultery with about ten different women (not students) over the last four years, including sex workers, whom he may have paid using money from the organisation. You can read the full release from Dharma Treasure here.
This news came to me as quite a shock. Now, facing circumstances like this, it’s easy to jump to simplistic conclusions. Some see this situation as evidence that Culadasa was a fraud, while others bury their heads in the sand and take the accusations to be ill-motivated lies. Yet, reflecting on this situation with wisdom, honesty and an open heart reveals something more nuanced, and perhaps revelatory, about meditation, and its relation to our all-too-human strengths and weaknesses.
Meditation is the most potent tool for reliable and lasting mind transformation. Yet, it is not a magic pill or a panacea for all things psychological. Practicing meditation will not turn you into a saint, nor will it make you permanently “nice” or even-tempered. Meditation may provide you with the clarity and resilience necessary for profound mental reconditioning. A serious meditation practice will bring phenomenal improvements to the fluidity with which your mind functions, but at the end of the day, your dirty mental laundry will still be yours to clean.
I encourage you to be wary of those who claim that meditation can “eliminate desire” or make you “permanently happy”. Accomplished and awake meditators get angry, they experience sexual lust and some even drink too much.
“But”, you might ask, “if they are as awake and free as they pretend to be, then why do advanced meditators engage in harmful behavior?” I frankly don’t know. I’d love to ask Chögyam Trungpa, who was often so drunk he had to be carried around, how a mind so wise could oversee and justify such reckless actions. If I get to the point where I can speak about these things from a place of experience, trust me, I will.
The fact that Culadasa’s behavior surprised and disappointed me is revealing. I had elevated Culadasa and his teachings on a pedestal. I had turned him into an “idol”. It so happens that my “idol” is actually a man called John Yates, also known as Culadasa. John is not a saint, he’s a Homo sapiens, and a pretty unskilled one at marital relationships. But he’s a damn good meditation teacher, as anyone who’s read The Mind Illuminated knows.
Somehow, the mind can’t grasp that someone can simultaneously be a meditation master, with decades of experience, and a lewd sex-addict. Yet the evidence tells a different story. How many times do we need to witness the same pattern before we accept that moral perfection does not exist in humans? We are complex organisms with multi-layered and deep-rooted motivations, habits and instincts. Meditation will not free us from biological and psychological reality.
In a situation like this, we are faced with two alternatives. Either (1) we pretend that Awakening isn’t a thing, that it’s unattainable, or that everyone claiming to be awake is lying or (2) we grow up, get real clear about what we mean by Awakening and Insights, and have a honest discussion about the profoundly strange effects of solid, committed meditation practice.
I believe that we have much more to gain from exploring the second alternative.
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I am so glad that you wrote this post Gabriel as it’s been something I’ve been thinking about too (as I’m sure many of Culadasa’s followers/students/fans have been.) The fact that these kind of unwise/hurtful actions have been exposed in the lives of spiritual teachers from many faiths and lineages does seem to point to the idea “awakening” isn’t a fix for all that could ail a person, even someone “enlightened.”
I am very interested in this from the standpoint of exploring and getting clear about my own expectations of the impact meditation, personal insights, and studying/applying Buddha-Dharma in my life. I look forward to more of this conversation from you in the future!
Hey Greg. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, I’m happy that you found value in this post. I’m in a similar process myself, reflecting on what my expectations are with regards to meditation. I plan on posting something related next week 🙂
My study and practice began in 1965 in the post-World War II Kongō Zen school where I found direction for my practice in advice from seventeenth-century Japanese poet and haiku master, Matsuo Bashō: “Do not seek the footsteps of the wise, seek what they sought.” Among other benefits, this teaching has prevented me from projecting more importance on my wise teachers than that of simply being conveyors of their experience in a shared journey. We each travel a different path to a common destination – liberation from the afflictive influences of greed, hatred, and delusion. Like the rest of us, our teachers wrestle with their unwholesome desires and from time to time lose sight of the need to bring along Virtue Ethics with every step of our practice. Our failures are ours and ours alone. John Yates has provided valuable insights into the evolutionary understanding of meditation – the last three factors of the Eightfold Path. His failures with the first Five are unfortunate and therein is yet another lesson for all of us to take in. May he and those he’s harmed fully recover… may he they be happy … may he and they be well … may he and they be comfortable and at peace.
Well said James. Matsuo Bashō’s advice strikes right at the core of these issues. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experience.
People who read the misconduct accusations and are judging it as negative don’t understand that once you have gone through the stages of awakening words like “adultery” “marriage” and other Christian based systems are completely meaningless. When you lost your “attachment to rites and rituals” you see that most people in the world are blindly following The so-called morals we follow need not follow everybody. What happens between Culadasa and his wife is their business. Culadasa also resigned his directorship before all this came out and the board of directors decided to try to shame him anyway.
The people who chose to put Culadasa on a pedestal are the only ones to blame since he has never claimed to be anything but a meditation teacher, a PhD, and perhaps a Buddhist scholar. Anyone lucky enough to have retreated at Cochise Stronghold knows that the email sent out changes nothing about their opinion of Culadasa.
How about words like “deception,” or “honesty?” Do they mean anything outside of the Judeo-Christian ethos? And if one chooses to observe those rituals and marries and then comes to eschew that ritual or “transcend” them,, do they have any duty to openly discuss their change of mind about them? It’s not the adultery but the dishonesty, including about the idea of “awakening” and “enlightening” that I find problematic. The lusts, the struggle, all fine, all human. The deception and double life and most important, the failure to openly own the deception in good faith, also human, disappointing, and not trivial, IMO.
How do we know how advanced Culadasa really was? My thinking on this has been that before we answer the question of how an awakened person can do bad things, we need better evidence that someone really is awakened. Right now it’s done on the basis of advertising – people make claims and write books/give talks, etc. But how do we know what their meditation is really like?
What if before we really look up to anyone as a teacher, we require them to demonstrate that they can indeed sit for long periods without distraction? That can be done through EEG machines. Set someone up with a 6-hour video and an EEG, and we can see if their brain-waves are alpha or lower and there’s no movement for all those 6-hours. Then we would know if they actually can remain sitting and free from distraction.
This isn’t a perfect measure, it doesn’t prove they’re not going to then do something harmful. But it least shows they can reach deep meditative states. Right now we really don’t know how good a meditator these people are.
I’m currently looking for a mediation teacher to guide me with my developing practice. I found someone local at the Dharma Treasure website- though I’ve not yet reached out – who is currently “in training” in the “TMI” method…..then I came across this story about John Yates. At the end of the day, he aggressively violated Sila and knowingly deceived a lot of sincere people, let alone his own family, over and over again. Though I’m a forgiving person, how can I look in the general direction of John Yates for guidance, when he himself needs so much of it. What a sad situation.
One cant reach enlightenment if one does not practice moral behavior in body, speech and mind. Otherwise, why would the Buddha follow the eightfold noble path? I do not believe that becoming enlightened means you’re beyond integrity!
Very pleased to have found these posts. As with many others who believed “The mind illuminated” was the guide they had been looking for all these years, I too was disappointed to hear of Culadasa’s fall from grace. I guess like many others we are looking for spiritual guidance and can put our faith in those who seem to provide it. Many of the comments are reassuring, confirming that our quest for actualisation is of itself still a valid approach to life’s difficulties.
Very well said
10 As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
I was put off several years ago by the controversy over his work history and the cagey way he responded to questions on the subject. Has your view on this issue changed since the newer scandals broke or is there information I am missing that clarified the mystery of where exactly he taught?
Perhaps it is necessary to reassess certain assumptions about morality which stem from the traditions which are the bedrock of meditation practice. The methodology may be effective and the results profound, but it could be separated from moralistic dogma which might even be simply dated.
I think it is entirely possible, hypothetically, for someone to achieve awakening and all practical outcomes associated with Buddha but also live a highly immoral life, whatever that is. This may be uncommon because meditation practice tends to go hand in hand with at least some degree of prescriptive moralising due to it’s typically inextricable link to theology; and also because it works to diminish the impact of egotistical and selfish intentions, among other factors. It is taken for granted then that a moral life is both a necessity and product of meditation practice. Perhaps the next stage in the evolution of such practices is the boldness to recognise that there are still some extraneous elements and that there might yet be an even purer truth which can be awakened to.