One Person’s Saint is Another Person’s Sinner

What is it about us human beings that we often want to follow someone who is very un-human? I think it may be a part of the egoic structure. The ego so loathes the human condition that the only person some egos feel they can follow is someone who is not human. Someone who does not have sex does not eat the food we like, and who can do things we can’t do like walk on water or cure people with a touch. That person deserves respect! 

Do such people exist? Perhaps. But I would argue that many of the people who are revered as such are not. I would say that many are the product of whitewashing on the part of their followers and religious institutions. 

Is Gandhi a ‘great’ person? A “saintly” person? Referred to as Mahatma (maha=great, atma=soul), is he? I don’t know. Indeed, many people think so. However, above is a link to an article accusing him of being racist and harboring violent intent toward non-Indian people of color. That doesn’t sound very great to me. 

I suspect that if Gandhi had lived in an earlier age, his myth would have grown with time and all his flaws and faults would fade or be explained away as virtues. However, unfortunately for Gandhi, perhaps he was born too late for such treatment? Or maybe we know too much about him, and there are too many first-hand accounts because he was such a public figure? And perhaps, as the gentleman in the article points out, Gandhi left too much of his thought process behind in the form of a personal journal?

I am not taking a position here either way. I am not saying he is significant or not. I am assuming he is human, like the rest of us. And like the rest of us, he is a mix of what the mind and culture would see as “good” and “bad.” I am not trying to explain anything away here or apologize for his thoughts or behavior. Maybe all Gandhi statues should be taken down? Perhaps we should erect more? I don’t know. I am merely using him as an example. Why? Because he tends to be someone who many see as almost ‘saint-like,’ and this article is pointing out some pretty unsaintly thoughts and behavior. Does that diminish the power of his message or his accomplishments? Not necessarily. But it might seem to in the eyes of some. 

This situation can lead us to ask the question, does the fact that someone has personal flaws diminish their work or other good deeds? If we think it does, why? Is not a good deed merely a good deed, regardless of what someone says or does at another place and time? Now maybe some feel that Gandhi did not do anything noteworthy, but I am not going to debate that point here. The question remains. If someone does something that we see as great, and then later we find out a character flaw of theirs, does that diminish that deed or somehow take away from it? If so, why?

IMHO myths of past saints, or even moderns ones for that matter, likely only exist because people did or do not have access to adequate information. It is easy to project all our hopes, dreams, and inspiration on someone distant, either in time or in space. 

Now, if we find inspiration from this, or are better versions of ourselves because of this, then I would say their myths, however factually true or untrue, serve a useful purpose. This purpose, among others, is likely the reason people created the legends in the first place. 

However, as a modern spiritual teacher, this is not what I feel happens most of the time today. Instead, I find that these myths can very often discourage people because the gap between these perfect saintly people and ourselves seem so insurmountable. 

I think this may be the result of the modern scientific method on human thought and what we believe is possible. Perhaps the ancient pre-scientific mind found these fantastical accounts inspiring where we either see them as impossible, so not inspiring, or possible but not for us, and again uninspiring.

Additionally, there are some inherent dangers in the belief that some of us are “perfect” and the rest of us need to emulate them or worship them. This fact is especially important for the spiritual teacher and student. 

One such danger is that students project their ideal of these figures onto their current teacher, who, in all likelihood, is very, very human. I am not saying that at their best, our teachers cannot touch the heights of these myths, I think they can, and this is likely where some of these legends come from. However, believing that your teacher is “perfect,” meaning not subject to human weakness and limitation, is fertile ground for abuse of power. 

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If I give my “guru” total control and power, then I am laying the groundwork for problems, not just for me but for them. Now I am not saying that there may not be teachers who are free of human weakness or temptation. However, the countless stories accusing spiritual teachers of abuse of power probably mean that most are still subject to what we are calling ‘human weakness.’ 

Instead of naively thinking that our “guru” is not subject to temptation, wouldn’t it be wiser to assume they are and treat them appropriately? That way, we keep ourselves from being the victim of someone trying to take advantage of us, and we save our teacher, guru, saint the temptation. 

Now when we discover that our guru was human, often the narrative becomes that since they are human, they are not a real guru. However, this is not how I see it. In Zen Master Muso Kokushi’s collection of letters to the Emperor of Japan, he wrote (emphasis mine):

There are various mental phenomena and mental postures that obstruct the potential for real understanding. Because of their harmful and destructive nature, they are called demons or devils. These demons include greed, hatred, conceit, opinionated views, addiction to meditation states, pride in knowledge, desire for personal liberation for one’s own sake alone, sentimental compassion, anxious haste to attain enlightenment, idolizing teachers, rejecting the teaching because of finding fault with teachers’ external behavior, indulging in passions, and fearing passion. Anyone who wants to realize Buddhist enlightenment is obliged to examine his or her mind and heart for these devils.

-Kokushi, Muso. Dream Conversations: On Buddhism and Zen. Shambhala Publications. 

You can see that idolizing teachers is the problem I highlighted above. If we think our teachers are infallible, godlike, saintly, without flaw, we are creating what Kokushi calls a “demonic state” that will “obstruct the potential for true understanding.” 

However, if we reject the teaching because we find fault with our teacher’s external behavior, we are again in a different “demonic state.” In other words, just because our teachers are human, does not mean they are not a “real” spiritual teacher. This point is important. Why? Because while I believe that you don’t have to have a spiritual teacher to walk this path, I think it is infinitely more accessible with a good teacher. 

In Zen, we say that Zen is a non-verbal transmission from teacher to student. Does our teacher need to be perfect to give us this transmission? In my experience, no. It certainly helps if they are a decent human being, whatever that means, but I am not even sure that is a requirement. However, I do know to have unrealistic expectations of what our teachers should be and how they should behave can get in the way of our development spiritually. On the other hand, rejecting teachers because we can’t find perfect ones will also create problems for us. 

As spiritual practitioners, I think we need to be more realistic about the people who can help us on this path. Why? Because, as I said above, they can make the difference between success and failure. In addition to this, we find that all the same ego ugliness shows up in this significant relationship. Everything I highlighted above is ways that we “go to sleep” concerning our teachers. Spirituality is about being awake to everything, and this includes our teachers and their behavior. 

-Douglas Johnson E-RYT 500, YACEP

P.S. Here is a link to another article about Gandhi’s current fall from public grace.

Sounds of Summer - A Yoga Retreat

July 19th-21st