Spiritual power carries an effective potential for good or for bad. First the good: the work and example of spiritual masters, great teachers and leaders who often single handedly went against the tide is a beacon of light in the human ocean. In this case, I think of Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho because I associated with them, but I hope you have your own, because the world is a tough place without that light.
But it can get even tougher when the guiding light has been seen to cast deep shadows: witness the recent upheavals at Shambhala and Rigpa where the holders of truth for their global communities have been removed on account of their abusive sexual and physical activities. Grim and very sad – but not unusual. Gurus, prelates and even presidents are seen, rightly or not, as bearers of qualities that enable them to support the collective. How they are seen depends not just on a rational assessment but on the energy of their presence, verbal delivery or deportment – an immaterial 'substance' called 'charisma' - ‘grace’. On account of this, followers grant effective power to the leader. It’s quite a transference; human collectives orient themselves around it. In fact it's difficult for a collective to arise, as a body that can move beyond individual self-interest, without the charismatic embodiment of the greater good. And although the source of that goodness may be couched in terms of a national myth, or a god, or a god-given destiny, the terrestrial agent of that good embodies that through their personal charisma: kings and queens are sacred. Yet, given the fallible nature of all human beings, and considering the damage caused by charismatic leaders of spiritual communities (let alone of political institutions), along with the resultant loss of faith, meaning and orientation for millions of people, this is a major issue. Its ramifications extend beyond the flaws of particular individuals.
The Buddha was evidently richly endowed, and thus a source of charisma and authority. His five former ascetic associates, having just made a pact to not acknowledge him, found themselves involuntarily rising up and offering him a seat and homage as soon as he, then newly-awakened, came into their presence. 'Bhagava' they and multitudes of disciples called him - 'the Blessed One, the one rich in grace' – and the honorific had been passed down to seers and sages in India ever since. The Buddha lived up to that on account of his authentic realization and through passing on a wealth of teachings. But, sidestepping a purely personal attainment, he referred to himself in the third person, as Tathāgatā - 'the One who has gone into Truth', the Transcendent One. His insistence was that he had rightly seen the Dhamma, the Way leading to liberation, and that Way was the proper focus to attend to. However the teacher-disciple relationship was a vital part of that Way. So for those who had committed to his Dhamma and yet were deviating from it, his instructions took on the qualities of command:
... for a faithful disciple ... it is proper that he conduct himself thus: 'The Blessed One in the Teacher, I am a disciple; the Blessed One knows, I do not know.'... 'Willingly, let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and let the flesh and blood dry up on my body, but my energy shall not be relaxed so long as I have not attained what can be attained ...' (M.70:27)
It's a different tune from the 'trust your own wisdom' trope that gets spun out of the Kālāma sutta. In the teaching quoted above the innate wisdom that the listeners were missing out on was the understanding that they hadn't completed the Way, and hence should listen to someone who had – and through whom they had taken up discipleship.
Yet although the Buddha was authoritarian at times, he never abused his power. Wanting no part of material gain, he is also recollected as 'vijjācaranasampanno'– perfected in understanding and conduct. Creating codes of moral and relational integrity –'Vinaya'– was a major part of his life's work. Vinaya covers protocols around gaining, possessing and sharing material requisites, around topics such as relationships between householders and samanas (especially with reference to sexuality) and between teachers and disciples. Accordingly, the Sangha still sees the Buddha and the teachings he laid down as the highest authority, followed in descending order by the entire Sangha as a spiritual entity, then by a group of elders, and for local and circumstantial matters, a single elder. In practical terms, this arrangement weighs against the abuse of charismatic power – the highest levels of authority are either dead or absent, and thus incapable of abusing anyone. And every genuine Buddhist teacher shoulddefer to the Buddha's ethical standards.
They should also understand power. To summarize: power as authority is based on the past, on being the bearer of the knowledge or grace that has issued from the source; power as influence is based on personal charisma in the present; and the power to command is the use of any of these to influence the future. A wise follower should therefore check the validity of the authority, internalize the charismatic effect, and thereby take personal responsibility with regard to following the command. The hinge point then is how charisma is referred to and used. Because in spiritual matters, when faced with either scripture or legal structure on one hand, and relationship to someone's radiant presence on the other, most people will follow the living being.
For sure. Dead texts aren't going to respond, sympathize, cheer or advise. And the nature of the heart-mind is such that spiritual practice brings forth its potency in terms of 'indriya' - spiritual faculties that open as faith (saddhā), application energy (viriya), mindfulness (sati) unification (samādhi) and discernment (paññā), until they ripen into bala, strengths. The effect is palpable: one feature of his awakened disciples of the Buddha that was remarked upon was that their faculties were clear and bright, and they conducted themselves as if rejoicing, with minds as sensitive and agile as the wild deer. When such people spoke words that went to the heart and resonated with truth, the effect was bound to be awesome. Just as they did, all teachers and exemplars need to cultivate personal restraint, modesty and awareness of influence.
Vinaya helps with this in ethical and judicial ways. As an obvious example, a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni can only speak a few words of Dhamma to a member of the opposite sex unless they are in a public place or accompanied by another male or female respectively. But still, minor inclinations, such as around choice of food can get translated into imperatives by devotees. ('Bhante has to have marmalade on his toast!') More important is to put boundaries around what a teacher can influence – which means that others have to grow into responsibility. Thus any abbot or senior nun in our monasteries has to work within the structures supervised by the Wat Pah Pong sangha, by the local group of elders and by the lay trusts and committees that manage the monasteries, as well as in accordance with their community. Hardly free-license. But still, occupying a leadership position is one factor through which charisma can arise – whether one wishes for it or is even aware of this happening. Personally speaking, since I resigned from abbotship, I incline to taking a back seat. But still, as a teacher, although from my point of view, I muddle along with a wish to serve and the energy of commitment, from another's viewpoint I may seem to be intruding and taking over. Some people are grateful and express that; while to others, these followers seem to be attached and jockeying for access to the Master.
Living with Ajahn Sumedho for over a decade gave me a precious view of how these forms of influence and power arise and with what care they need to be managed. He effortlessly carried a huge sense of presence, just by sitting still. It was a natural result of his own mental depth and stillness. When addressing people, he spoke from his own conviction a Dhamma that went to the heart; this, coupled with the authority that any speaker is given had profound effects. He manifested concern for people's welfare along with good humour and an accessible manner. Especially in the bleak pioneering days when the community was young and fragile, his ease and unstoppable vitality held things together. All these have been priceless blessings – made even more remarkable given the apparent austerity of the monastic background and the dry approach of Theravada scriptures that are his source. (It's not a jubilant or bhakti- soaked lineage.) In brief, I don't think that it would be an over-estimation to say that at least nine monastic communities, and thousands of lay people's practice, have been largely founded on Luang Por Sumedho's teaching, example and sheer presence.
But then there's the management. In terms of the daily life of the community, Luang Por never concerned himself with the details of work, but focused on the meditations, the pujas and the protocols. Working out details was never his forte. Consequently, over a couple of decades, there was a careful, slow and at times faltering separation between him as director of 'spiritual' affairs and overseer of management; faltering because some decisions – such as who enters the community, and how to train newcomers; or whether to create a new monastery and who was to be its senior incumbent – cross these boundaries. And at times people found it easier to circumvent the management and go directly to the spiritual director – who would give a go-ahead without considering all the details. So the development of a painstaking and non-charismatic power base, out of necessity, through discussions, trials and a range of views was at times a taxing matter. To question and even disagree with the spiritual director's opinion, and with those of one's fellow samanas, without losing faith or harmony is a delicate and educational process. It was a matter of basing decision-making on Vinaya principles of consensus, respect for elders and for the tradition – even when neither the business at hand, nor the opinions of others, nor the actions of some elders nor even aspects of the tradition were interesting or agreeable. But this is what makes management a spiritual practice. To work with the tedious, the opinionated, the quirky and the antiquated brings forth skills and strengths that few people get to realize. And it is through such patience, dispassion and relinquishment that there is growth in terms of liberation and a cooperative community. It's a process that brings deep and resilient awareness into how we operate; and that's more precious than having a fixed management plan, or even one talented individual. This Dhamma-Vinaya is the Refuge, the resource and the guide when the Teacher passes away; properly lived, it is capable of handling the world of success and failure, acclaim and disrepute.
Yes, success and accomplishment need to be managed; otherwise there is the grandiosity and inflation of unbridled charisma. That energy arises out of what happens between people anyway: when heart-minds are in resonance, energy transfers and there is a corresponding glow – the 'love' effect. It's an energy that can arise at the sight of gone-forth people living a life focused on liberation; the sight of samanas is heart-warming. We also naturally feel grateful to those who help us. And when Dhamma is shared, the heart-mind can light up with a steady radiance – for good reason.
When … a noble disciple listens to the Dhamma with eager ears, attending to it as a matter of vital concern, directing his whole mind to it, on that occasion the five hindrances are not present...[and] the seven factors of enlightenment go to fulfilment...(S.46:38)
All the more reason then, to internalize the potency that has been thus aroused. Accordingly the Buddha questioned Visākhā, the devout matriarch of Savatthi, when she asked to make offerings to the Sangha: 'What benefits do you see for yourself ...?' Notice her impeccable reply:
'When I remember it, I shall be glad. When I am glad, I shall be happy. When my mind is happy, my body will be tranquil. When my body is tranquil, I shall feel pleasure. When I feel pleasure, my mind will become concentrated. That will maintain the spiritual faculties in me and also the strengths and also the enlightenment factors.' (Vinaya, Mahavagga, 8)
Wisely managed, inspiration and gratitude result in liberation.
But don't take any of it personally. So the duty of the teacher, lay or in robes, is to recognize that their position and Dhamma will give them power – whether they wish for it or not. Thus my advice to disciples: check as to whether a teacher is in touch with a source outside his/her own mind; whether they operate within conventions that are widely held to be virtuous; and whether they are accountable to a group of peers or elders. And to teachers: ward off titles and empowerments; while occupying the teacher's seat, pay homage to the source of those teachings; and finally when one has completed a teaching, get off that sacred seat and walk away.