Issue 166 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


Several recent letters to The Sun were critical of Stephen Butterfield’s article about the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Osel Tendzin [“When the Teacher Fails,” Issue 162], who had unprotected sex with some of his students though he knew he had AIDS.

I felt deeply touched by Stephen’s story of his own suffering and his obvious compassion for the suffering of others, which seem to have helped him transcend ordinary ego judgements and let go of moralism toward Tendzin. Yet in Stephen’s attempt to cope with Tendzin’s behavior, he misses something important, which I would call the distinction between transcendence and transformation.

Most spiritual paths are paths of transcendence. Transcendence is essentially a vertical journey to the center of life, to the Self behind all the roles and games of ego. It is a journey right past the flawed human personality, which manifests as flawed human experience — in this life as in past lives. Transcendence in fact takes us right past even the tendency to identify with the human form and melodrama.

I remember how [the spiritual teacher] Ram Dass used to talk about hanging out in his “heart cave,” his place of universal loving consciousness, perfectly aware that he still existed as Richard Alpert, with all his problems, on other levels of consciousness. And so it is. Touching the source within more and more deeply does not guarantee any change in the unredeemed or unevolved aspects of one’s personality.

For that, the process of transformation is necessary. If the transcendent path is that of the Buddha, a vertical journey into the heart and center of life, then the transformative path is that of the bodhisattva, a horizontal journey outward to bring back home all the aspects of ourselves that as yet do not realize their true identity, and hence are attached to various illusions, self-limiting attitudes, and negative emotions.

Ram Dass seems to have recognized his own need for something like this. He has become Richard Alpert again, accepting his own personal karma, and doing the work of meeting his life’s curriculum — the teachings offered by his life experiences — which will inevitably point back to the unloved and unevolved aspects of the self.

So it must be for all of us. Even as a part of us is plunging deeply downward to our center, we must stop along the way to reach out to other aspects of ourselves with love, to bring the unaware parts along with us. We must meet the inner darkness and distortions, and not sugar-coat them as something other than the limitations and human frailties that they are.

I think of the many spiritual teachers from India who have acted out their sexual desires inappropriately with their students. These men were often celibate as adolescents in a terribly sexually repressive culture. How perfectly human and natural, then, that when they came to the sexual candy store of America, they reverted to early adolescent behavior. Their sexual nature never grew up, even as their spiritual nature was becoming deeply refined.

Let’s not lose our clear thinking about the human and inevitably flawed aspects of a person just because he or she happens to be a spiritual teacher. Just as the temptation of the teacher is to be arrogant and feel special, the temptation of the student is to be subservient and dependent. I understand the human desire to find and surrender to the perfect master, the perfect parent, the one who can at last show the way. But, as Krishnamurti so insistently taught us, the way is within, and you must ultimately become your own authority, must sooner or later “kill the Buddha” you meet on the road in order to become the Buddha.

But that doesn’t mean spiritual teachers are unnecessary. We just have to keep perspective. Your spiritual teacher is like your plumber or your electrician, except that he or she is helping you clean out your psychic sewers and hook up your own spiritual power current. We need the services of the plumber and the electrician, but we don’t expect them to be perfect. The spiritual teacher’s vocation doesn’t make him or her perfect either.

Nor do our own transcendent meditations automatically take care of our own shadow side. The work of transformation of the shadow is a different kind of work from that of transcendence. In transcendence we see through the games of ego and error; we do not take them seriously. In transformation, we take our errors very seriously. We need to face and identify them honestly, stripping away the blinders of denial and self-delusion to face nakedly our places of shame, darkness, and fear, with courage and with self-respect. As we do the work of self-facing, identifying our flaws without identifying with them, we see where we have become attached to certain misconceptions and where we take pleasure in certain negative feelings. With hard work and good will, we can unearth and transform these attachments and replace them with positive intentions and positive life energy.

On the spiritual path we know that the good and bad in us are ultimately one energy current, and that the bad is only a temporary constriction or distortion of the universal energy. Thus we can often do the transformative work more quickly and efficiently than in conventional psychotherapy or counseling, both of which hold a more limited view of the human being. But the spiritual path does not free us from the hard work of facing and releasing the negative, cramped, distorted places in our souls, or from the need to accept the flawed, imperfect, and inevitable limitations of our humanity. Such work will make us human and keep us humble, thereby reducing the temptation and risk of spiritual arrogance, to which we are all so prone.

Susan Thesenga Madison, Virginia

Even though I agree that there are significant differences between the genders, I was disturbed by some of Meade’s ideas [“On Being a Man: An Interview with Michael Meade,” Issue 161]. I could almost smell his fear of women. I watched him avoid speaking about mothers when he discussed children. I watched him dance away from the question about shared parenting.

I think this culture already suffers from a major case of MOTHER DREAD, alongside the vision of woman as sexual object. Just contemplate our goddess, Marilyn: her lovely, milkless breasts, her beauty, and her infertility. She is the ultimate courtesan, sleeping with the President, the Father of the country, but producing no progeny. Her predecessor and counterpoint, of course, is the Virgin Mary — fertile but not sexual. What is wanted is for these two archetypes to merge. We want a fertile goddess, and we want her pictured with her consort. Notice how absent from the iconography of world religions is the couple, the linked pair producing god-babies. There is much work for the poets and painters to do!

I think Meade’s point of view bothers me because I’m suspicious of sexually segregated consciousness-raising. It precipitates too much hugging the wound, too much fear and anger, too much repression. Monks in the monastery; nuns in the convent. Wild men drumming in the jungle? Drumming up what? I’ll tell you what: potency. But what good will these erections do them — or women, for that matter? I see them going limp before the lush velvet folds of labia that open, that bloom, even in the jungle where they drum. The women are there, in the flowers, in the trees. How will the men penetrate that mystery at the center of Being unless they locate the place in the greenwood where the wild men and the wild women meet?

Isabella Russell-Ides Austin, Texas

I am very much enjoying my new subscription to The Sun. Once again, however, I am puzzled by your choice of photographs for the cover. I’m speaking of the children. The little girl with the dark lipstick [Issue 163] seemed unnatural. The photo of the boy by Hella Hammid [Issue 164] strikes everyone who sees it as disturbing or strange. Why would you choose to show an apparently disturbed child? He looks so apprehensive, and even fearful. Considering that your magazine is full of hope, this photograph seems to lack any redeeming quality. Maybe you are trying to tell us not to judge a book by its cover?

Fran Abbott St. Paul, Minnesota
The Sun responds:

I regret that the cover photo caused you distress. That certainly wasn’t the intention. But I don’t merely select images that are uplifting and full of hope. I think it’s important that The Sun’s covers reflect the many different (and valid) expressions of our experience — including a little girl who tries on lipstick and a little boy who feels painfully awkward and shy.

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