The Underbelly of Enlightenment

“I have got a story the likes of which you have never heard…”

Until I read Eyes Wide Open by Mariana Caplan and Cave in the Snow by Vicki Mackenzie, I was completely ignorant of the pervasivenesss of the so-called “spiritual gossip”.

To Caplan, however, it is relatively common for her to hear about how “X” teacher manipulates his or her students into illicit relationships of all varieties, abusing their students on the physical, psychological/emotional, or spiritual level and further damage them with blame. She acknowledges the importance of life-threatening instances and that they do occur, but “most of the infringements are milder — and therefore less visible — including psychological, financial, and sexual coercion. Even more common is the phenomenon of spiritual mediocrity.”

I have stayed in monasteries where I am weighed over. How much am I worth? What jobs am I good for? Who are my family connections and how much money do they have? I have been threatened with having to pay for monastery stays in either menial labor or rent.

I recall both my teacher and His Holiness the Dalai Lama pleading that repeat offenders of the serious sort must be brought to light. I continue to wrestle over this, as there is a small voice in me that says wait until I have the opportunity to tell the story in total; meanwhile, adhere to the intent of the Bodhisattva Precepts and do my best to protect Buddhism and its serious aspirants.

I also recall that both my teacher and His Holiness the Dalai Lama never asked anybody to respect them. They only model respect for others so that their students would emulate in turn. Spiritual mediocrity is too often expressed in idiotic demands such as, “Show me respect, you underling! You are to be abused and ridiculed in this insular realm where I have more power! This form of obedience is very good for you (and certainly for me)!”

It is only too obvious, of course, that manipulative and sometimes more covert stances such as this only further make clear that these people must be so afraid of what little spiritual attainment they possess, to have to swagger about their only claim to hierarchical authority, “I am senior! I am your teacher! And that’s an order, damn it!”

When there is a large enough number of such individuals gathered, groupthink spreads like an insidious virus. “A spiritual group makes subtle and unconscious agreements regarding the correct ways to think, talk, dress, and act. Shared intentions with respect to practice and protocol become invisible, and institutionalized agreements homogenize the group, offering a level of psychological safety that has little to do with the shared task of spiritual development. Individuals and groups infected with group mind reject individuals, attitudes, and circumstances that do not conform to the often unwritten rules of the group.” (Caplan, 2009)

There’s no group, no matter how developed, that does not embody some aspect of unhealthy cultic dynamics as part of its structure — and the denial of such dynamics, or lack of awareness of them, is one of the most common indicators of this disease.

The cure for this disease in the underbelly, then, is not in denying or defending. Instead, peace is made in acknowledging the gnawing games played, in offering an explanation, an expression of remorse and reparation, and in investing patience, open communication and large doses of the Dharma into long-term healing.

We’ll know when we have touched enlightenment with these:

The 12 Symptoms of Inner Peace – by Saskia Davis

1. A tendency to think and act deliberately, rather than from fears based on past experiences.
2. An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment.
3. A loss of interest in judging others.
4. A loss of interest in judging self.
5. A loss of interest in conflict.
6. A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others.
7. A loss of ability to worry.
8. Frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciation.
9. Contented feelings of connectedness with others and nature.
10. Frequent attacks of smiling through the heart.
11. Increased susceptibility to kindness offered, and the uncontrollable urge to reciprocate.
12. An increasing tendency to allow things to unfold , rather than resisting and manipulating.

4 thoughts on “The Underbelly of Enlightenment

  1. Saskia! How wonderful to have you in our midst. . .

    It is extremely sad and frightening to be confronted with these revelations. Since my days as an idealistic seeker in the western world more than 12 years ago, I have learned some hard lesson. Yet, I am continually shocked at what men and women do with the teachings of the Buddha, which are meant to help people, not hurt them.

    I understand even the Dalai Lama openly declared himself shocked at the revelations he has heard, "When you really examine it, such shameful behavior is due to a lack of inner strength and shows that in actuality there is a discrepancy between Buddhsim and their life, that the Dharma has not been properly internalized."

    Thank you for the 12 Symptoms of Peace. More than the outcome of peace, they are also the path to peace. So we continue our journey. . .


  2. Mahalo Gina,

    Yes, Ani Tenzin Palmo's frank and straightforward observations about her experience as a nun are worth reading again indeed. I can't help but crack up over these lines of hers, for example:

    "Women were dangerous and wiling men away from sanctity and salvation by their seductivenss and rampant sexuality, was as old as the fable of Eve herself. Tenzin was haivng none of it: 'Really! It's not the woman who's creating the problem, it's the man's mental defilements. If the man didnt' have desire and passion, nothing the woman could do would cause him any problem at all,' she said. 'Once a lama accused me of being seductive and causing him difficulty. I was aghast. "I'm not doing anything to you, it's your own mind," I protested. He laughed and admitted it was true.

    It's the man's problem and he blames it all on her!' she continued. 'Women are supposed to be these lustful, seductive creatures but when you look at it, it's absurd. who has the harems? Do women have courts of men on hand to satisfy their sexual needs? Are men afraid to walk in the streets at night in case women will jump on them and rape them? Look at men in prison and the army, how they behave together! And how many male prostitutes are there? Even the male prostitutes that do exist are there to satisfy other men.'

    "It's all unbelievalble projection. Men have this big problem and they put it all onto women because females happen to have a shape which is sexually arousing to them. Women don't even have to wear seductive clothing for men to be turned on. When I was young and going through the phase of pulling my hair back and wearing big sweaters and no makeup I had just as many boyfrineds and admirers as when I dressed up."

    May we all wear the 12 symptoms of peace in our hearts and minds at all times. Aloha~

  3. Thank you, Guo Cheen, for this post.

    I am saddened to learn of the abuses you acknowledge here, though, long ago, I gave up expectation that spiritual masters be as perfected as my expectations would have dictated. Some teachers who are revered and who, indeed, do shed light on the path and may even be able to smooth it's way, have not reached such a stable state where they can live it, themselves, consistently uncontaminated by worldly or ego drives. It may be that even bhodisattvas experience enlightenment as a continuing process.

    I agree that groups who form of individuals seeking enlightenment do, in fact, establish norms, and are comprised of people whose egos are still active in various degrees. Choices that arise from embracing, as part of the learning path, all that results can contribute to healing of the collective while enhancing liberation of individuals.

    I am delighted to see the symptoms of inner peace recognized as symptoms of having "touched into enlightenment" It leaves room for enlightenment to be attained, progressively, therefore making it more accessible to us all.

    And Gina, learning that you have had SYMPTOMS OF INNER PEACE hanging in your shop for 10 years is wonderful. In case you would prefer a poster (correctly attributed), please visit

    Saskia Davis,

  4. I am so happy to finally know the author of the 12 symptoms. I had them hanging (a laminated copy from a magazine and attributed to anonymous)in my shop for 10 years!
    Excellent post and I am reminded to reread Cave in the Snow. Mahalo nui loa!
    Aloha~ Gina

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