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In February of 2011, Genpo Roshi stepped down as a teacher of Zen Buddhism after admitting to numerous extra-marital affairs. His admission of guilt and subsequent disrobing sent a shockwave through the Zen community — yet another in a long line of spiritual teachers who had fallen from grace after following their own lowest and least enlightened temptations.
But let’s be honest here: it ain’t easy being a spiritual teacher. It’s hard to think of any other occupation (if you can call it that) that places as much scrutiny upon every aspect of one’s personal life. After all, no one really cares if their surgeon cheated on their spouse, as long as he can still hold the scalpel with a steady hand. Even our politicians, people who make decisions that affect all of our lives and who have their hands wrapped around the levers of war, are rarely held accountable for their personal failings — and when they are, they are often absolved by their constituencies after taking a carefully calculated stretch of time away from the public eye and returning with a properly focus-tested statement of contrition.
We are, after all, a tremendously forgiving (and forgetful) people. But not when it comes to our spiritual teachers. Why is that?
We don’t just look to our spiritual teachers to help us invoke enlightened states of consciousness. We also look to them as sources of goodness, virtue, and moral valiance.
We are, after all, only human. And humans mess up. A lot. Hopefully we learn from our mistakes, and we become better people because of those mistakes, not in spite of them. Shouldn’t we allow our spiritual teachers the same freedom to live, stumble, and learn from their own failings?
Well, yes and no.
It makes perfect sense that we set such a high bar for our most awakened spiritual teachers. Because when it comes to spirituality in the 21st century, waking up is simply not enough.
In fact, waking up is often the easy part. After all, our teachers remind us that enlightenment is “not difficult to reach, but impossible to avoid” and is “closer to us than our own skin.” These states of consciousness are ever-present, and can be experienced by any of us at any time. Our spiritual teachers are instrumental in helping us discover and pursue this path of awakening, yes. But their work does not end there. They are also supposed to help show us how to live it.
We don’t just look to our spiritual teachers to help us invoke enlightened states of consciousness. We also look to them as sources of goodness, virtue, and moral valiance. We expect them not to abuse their positions of authority or to take advantage of those who look to them for guidance. We insist that they actually walk their talk, that they become familiar with their own psychological blind spots, and that they work every moment of every day to fully and consistently embody their teaching — in their hearts, in their minds, and in their deeds.
But here’s the thing: none of that can be found in the path of Waking Up.
Our moral algorithms — the interior calculations that determine what the right thing to do is in any given situation — change dramatically as we evolve through the numerous stages of psychological maturity. From egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric, each wave brings with it a dramatic widening of our circles of care, compassion, and concern. This is the path of Growing Up. And there are no shortcuts.
Our psychological and interpersonal hygiene is undermined by our various shadows — undigested experiences and disowned identities that lurk in the basement of our consciousness. At best these shadows sabotage our health, happiness, and well-being. At worst they cause us to inflict a massive amount of harm upon others, often unconsciously, and prevent us from taking responsibility for the pain we create. These shadows cannot be seen from the meditation cushion, and can only be identified and dispelled through the perilous and booby-trapped path of Cleaning Up.
This is why “waking up” is not enough. It is one path along the journey, not the only one. This is also why, if you have the ambition to become a spiritual teacher (talk about a paradox!) then you must also do the work to Grow Up and Clean Up, or else your capacity to fully enact your realization and to authentically Show Up in the world and for your students is greatly compromised.
Genpo’s story offers a fascinating case study in the importance of bringing together the paths of Waking Up, Growing Up, Cleaning Up, and Showing Up, all of which are necessary to be an effective spiritual teacher in today’s world.
So this is what we should expect from our teachers — that they are not only emphasizing the path of Waking Up, but also doing the work of Growing Up, Cleaning Up, and Showing Up in their own lives and in their own practice. Anything less runs the risk of producing pain, bitterness, and disappointment. We will continue to project our very highest ideals and aspirations onto our teachers, and become invariably disappointed when those ideals and aspirations are reflected back to us through a broken and blurry mirror.
And it makes perfect sense why so few live up to that bar. Again, we are fully human, even those of us who see ourselves as fully divine.
So the question becomes, what do we do when a teacher makes serious mistakes?
This is a deeply personal question, and we are each likely to answer it in a different way, depending upon our own dispositions, experiences, and traumas, as well as our own progress along the respective paths of Waking Up, Growing Up, and Cleaning Up.
For some, it’s “one strike, you’re out,” and a single egregious mistake is enough to forever dissolve the student’s trust. Others might try to compartmentalize their relationship with the teacher, valuing the teacher for his or her strengths (e.g. state transmission) while disregarding his or her faults. There is no one-size-fits-all resolution here.
We can hold our spiritual teachers to the highest possible standards, while also allowing them enough space to mess up and to learn from their mess ups — so long as they do so with genuine humility, remorse, and an unwavering commitment to make things right.
But at the very least, there are a few qualities that can help reassure us that a fallen teacher is working to redeem themselves. Is the teacher brave enough to “sit in the fire” and face their mistakes head-on, taking direct responsibility for the harm they caused? Or are they trying to evade responsibility by posturing themselves as victims and hiding behind shallow justifications and hollow platitudes? Do they show genuine vulnerability, remorse, and regret for how their behavior affected others, or are they blaming others for not understanding or appreciating their self-purported enlightened ways? Was there an observable cessation of their bad behavior, or are the patterns still repeating themselves? Are they doing the necessary work to heal their own inner wounds, as well as those they’ve inflicted, or are they doubling down on their own darkest shadows? Is their sincerity real or counterfeit? Are they working to uncover the deeper and difficult wisdom hiding behind their shadows, or are they just “spiritual bypassing” their way to unearned absolution?
Everybody loves a redemption story. We are constitutionally predisposed to support the underdog, even if that underdog was previously the king of the hill. Life is forever a work-in-progress, and our journey along the paths of Waking Up, Growing Up, Cleaning Up, and Showing Up are never complete. There is no finish line, no single achievement after which we can say we have fully “arrived”. An enormous channel of compassion flows from this very simple understanding.
Which is why we can hold our spiritual teachers to the highest possible standards, while also allowing them enough space to mess up and to learn from their mess ups — so long as they do so with genuine humility, remorse, and an unwavering commitment to make things right. There is tremendous wisdom waiting in the wounds, and our failings can lead us to far greater realization if we are willing to do the hard work of owning our mistakes, identifying our blind spots, and bringing conscious awareness to our lowest impulses and ambitions.
Which brings us back to the story of Genpo Merzel Roshi. Since his public disrobing in 2011, Genpo has been taking a long, hard look at his own culpability and his own personal demons, while trying to find his own way forward on the path of redemption. These efforts culminated in his latest book, Spitting Out the Bones, which chronicles his life as a spiritual teacher and draws upon his own personal peaks and pathologies to illuminate the wisdom he has gained through this painful chapter of his journey. Genpo’s apparent willingness to come to terms with his own weaknesses and take responsibility for the damage he created is praiseworthy — but of course, whether he has done enough to fully redeem his teaching in your own heart and mind is completely up to you.
Either way, Genpo’s story offers a fascinating case study in the importance of bringing together the paths of Waking Up, Growing Up, Cleaning Up, and Showing Up, all of which are necessary to be an effective spiritual teacher in today’s world. In other words, state transmission (i.e. “waking up”) alone is no longer enough to qualify as a bona fide spiritual teacher. And his story offers a precious reminder that, while we need to hold our teachers to the highest possible standards of growth, awakening, and self-understanding, we can also allow them enough space to make all-too-human mistakes, and even offer them some degree of forgiveness if their attempts at healing prove genuine.
“The next buddha is the sangha,” we often say. Which does not mean we need to lower the dais or collapse the natural hierarchy of expertise or flatten our spirals into circles. Some people are better than us at certain things, including spiritual realization, and there is no problem whatsoever with holding those people up as role models for the rest of us to learn from, insofar as they continue to prove themselves mature enough and “clean” enough to meet some basic standards of ethical behavior.
What “the next buddha is the sangha” does mean is that our teachers only have as much authority as we are willing to give them, which requires each of us to cultivate our own healthy discernment, to keep track of our own projections, and to practice skillful loving compassion from moment to moment while never hesitating to challenge ethical inconsistencies. There is no longer any need to “swallow the whole fish” and hand absolute authority over to a teacher or tradition. Rather, each of us has the freedom to “spit out the bones” whenever we encounter something too difficult or too dangerous to swallow.
Written by Corey deVos
About Spitting Out the Bones:
‘You have to swallow the whole fish,’ Zen Master Taizan Maezumi told his students, ‘and then spit out the bones.’ First absorb the tradition, endure the hardships of Zen training, then you can spend the rest of your life separating the real treasure from the baggage it came in, learning what you can let go of and what is truly yours. Spitting Out the Bones is American Zen Master Genpo Merzel’s story of his exhilarating and humbling journey, including the last five years rising from the ashes of his very public fall from grace, and a candid exploration of the challenge of bringing the essence of the great tradition he inherited to life in the West.Purchase on Amazon
About Genpo Merzel Roshi
Dennis Paul Merzel, also known as Genpo Roshi, is a Zen teacher and Priest in both the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen Buddhism, Abbot of Kanzeon Inc. since 1988, and creator of the Big Mind Process in 1999. From his initial awakening in 1971 his purpose and his passion have remained the same: to assist others to realize their true nature and to continuously deepen his own practice as well as assisting others in carefully reflecting on this life and clarifying the Way.
About Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.