The Evolution of Abuse

by | Meditation

It’s happened again, most recently in the Shambhala community. And it is heartbreaking. Scandals in spiritual organizations will never end until we understand the processes that give rise to them. The wisdom traditions maintain that if we can relate to them properly, obstacles are opportunities in disguise, and the greater the obstacle the greater the opportunity. What are the tenets that create the crucible for this alchemical transformation? What do we need to know to bring these wrenching experiences onto our path? And how can we possibly do this without rushing past the raw pain and hiding in tidy conceptual sanctuaries? Without feeling the betrayal and hurt, there can be no openness to the opportunity.

Like the ingredients tossed into a boiling cauldron that creates a magic potion, the following principles can facilitate this transformation and healing. But the ultimate vessel for transformation is not intellectual. It is this feeling body, the right to our experience, and our courage to stay with it that bring about change. Concerning matters of such intensity, the counsel of the Dalai Lama applies: “If you find what I say useful, take it to heart. If you do not, throw it out the window.”
In Buddhism, right view is the first and most important factor of the Eightfold Path. Right view in this case means complete view, or a deeper understanding of what contributes to misconduct. Traleg Rinpoche writes:

If we are going to practice Buddhist meditation we need to have a comprehensive view of our human nature, our place in the scheme of things, and our relationship to the world in which we live and to our fellow sentient beings. Instead of thinking that all concepts are defiling in their nature and thus need to be overcome, we have to realize that it is only by developing an understanding of certain truths that we can gain insight. . . . Correct view is in fact our spiritual vehicle, the transport we use to journey from the bondage of samsara to the liberation of nirvana. Conversely, incorrect views have the potential to lead us off course and, like a poorly constructed raft, will cast us adrift and deposit us on the shores of misery. There is no separation between the vehicle that transports us to our spiritual destination and the views that we hold in our mind.

Dependent origination

The first aspect of right view is to raise our gaze and see the bigger picture. The ego, which is an arrested form of development, has a propensity to lower its gaze, to reify and reduce, because it is itself the archetype of reification and reductionism. Instead of honoring the complex and systemic nature of the processes that conspire to give rise to an event, ego defaults into a simplistic view of reality. It shrink-wraps. The Buddha taught (and many modern sciences confirm) that everything arises within a vast nexus of causes and conditions. As author Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel says, “Everything leans.”

With spiritual scandals, it’s easy to single out a culprit and “drive all blames into one.” Pema Chödrön, in her teachings on the Lojong (mind training) slogans, says, “Everyone is looking for someone to blame and therefore aggression and neurosis keep expanding. Instead, pause and look at what’s happening with you. When you hold on so tightly to your view of what they did, you get hooked. Your own self-righteousness causes you to get all worked up and to suffer. So work on cooling that reactivity rather than escalating it.”

The single-minded ego believes that one has only to remove the cause célèbre, and all will be well. But troublemakers are more like symptoms than causes. They indicate systemic issues. It’s more difficult, but much more accurate, to raise one’s gaze and examine the collective matrix that gives birth to things. In other words, spread the blame to include ourselves.

This does not mean that there are no victims, which is another facile view that exposes an Eastern version of reductionism — that everything can be reduced to karma. Karma cannot explain everything, something the Buddha understood when he taught on the five niyamas. Zen author Barbara O’Brien writes:

Many people believed — and still do believe — that everything about their present life was caused by actions in the past. In this view, everything that happens to us happened because of something we did in the past. But the Buddha disagreed. He taught there are five types of factors at work in the cosmos that cause things to happen, called the Five Niyamas. Karma is only one of these factors. Present circumstances are the result of countless factors that are always in flux. There is no single cause that makes everything to be the way it is.

Thus there is no single solution. Karmic reductionism is based on this faulty logic: everything that arises does so because of causes and conditions; karma is based on causes and conditions; so it’s easy to conflate (and reduce) everything that arises with karma. It’s beyond our scope to explore the niyamas, but briefly: utu niyama refers to inorganic laws as described in physics, chemistry, geology etc.; bija niyama refers to organic laws as described by genetics, biology etc.; chitta niyama refers to the laws of mental activity as described by psychology, cognitive science etc.; dharma niyama refers to natural spiritual laws, as described in tenets like the three marks of existence, emptiness etc.; and finally karma niyama, refers to the laws of moral causation.

If we look deeply, with the eyes of a bodhisattva, we will see that each of us, the culture at large, gave rise to Sogyal Rinpoche. Each of us wittingly or unwittingly contributed to the behavior of Sasaki Roshi, Lama Norlha, the Vajra Regent, Baker Roshi, or countless other individuals who themselves might forget that they lean on the collective. Sociologists talk about single action bias, which is essentially our tendency to throw all our eggs into one basket (strictly speaking: relying on only one action to reduce a threat). Thich Nhat Hanh writes about the folly of this view with his teachings on interbeing, or the deep ecological principles that underlie any act:

It would not be correct to say that a young man in prison bears the whole responsibility for his crime. He is the product of his family, his schooling, and society. If we look deeply, we may find that when he was younger, his parents often fought and caused each other and their child to suffer. Perhaps he was abused. Lacking love, lacking education, he tried to forget himself in drugs. With drugs, his ability to make good choices diminished even further. Committing a crime was the result. Looking deeply, we see that the conditions for this young man’s actions did not arise only from his own mind and experiences. All of us bear some responsibility for creating the conditions that led him into the cycle of crime and addiction. If we only condemn or punish him, it will not help. . . There has to be love and understanding, some means of bringing him back into life, offering him joy, clarity, and purpose.

Drugs come in many forms. Perhaps it’s the narcotic of power, fame, or money. Any mind-altering or ego-inflating situation can affect one’s ability to make good choices. As a spiritual practice of looking deeply, it’s helpful to “story their existence,” as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests. Practice empathy, and imagine how you might have behaved given similar story lines or life circumstances. Could you have done any better? I heard one young woman say, “See that the Sakyong is you.” This does not exonerate the culprit in question, but it does contextualize their behavior and invite compassion.

Finally, there are proper and improper forms of “leaning.” The improper variety gives rise to pathologies like enabling or co-dependent behavior. A guru and their flock might think that they are propping each other up, but when the whole organization crumbles it becomes painfully obvious that they were unconsciously taking each other down. The philosopher and Zen practitioner David Loy writes: “If a spiritual teacher is surrounded by a coterie of devotees who look upon him or her as god-like, that is transference. When that teacher begins to agree with them, that is countertransference . . . Buddhist teachings do not identify such mechanisms because the focus has been different.”

This often happens when the organization isolates itself and tries to stand alone (e.g., members can’t receive teachings from other teachers; the guru extracts themselves from other leaders etc.), forgetting that the community also leans on a larger social matrix. If you’re leaning on a lie, or just leaning on extensions of yourself (your “yes” people), it’s only a matter of time before you’re going to fall.

States of consciousness

When it comes to personal development, a major contribution from the East is the evolution to more and more refined states of consciousness. In the simplest terms, this evolution is from gross to subtle to very subtle states, from fully manifest form into the formless, from the material to the spiritual. In Buddhist language, it’s the path from exclusive identification with the nirmanakaya to a more inclusive identification with the sambhogakaya and then the dharmakaya. The psychologist John Welwood refers to this as the path of waking up, or in terms of Integral Theory, the journey of horizontal enlightenment. It’s called “horizontal” because anybody at any vertical level of development has access to all these states, as we’ll see below. For many people on the spiritual path, this horizontal journey is the only path.

Within this path is a kind of sub-path, that is essentially the path of stability. One can have a high-level state experience — an authentic glimpse of the dharmakaya, for example — but then slip back into a lower state due to the force of habit, or karma. (The lower state becomes “lower” only when you exclusively identify with it; when seen properly, the nirmanakaya is equally as awake as the dharmakaya.) Experience (nyam in Tibetan), by definition, always has a beginning and an end. It is set in contrast to realization (tokpa), which is stable. This sub-path is about transforming experience into realization, or what neuroscientist Richard Davidson and psychologist Daniel Goleman refer to as the evolution of transient states into enduring traits. It’s about transforming flashes of illumination into abiding light, as Huston Smith put it.

A spiritual master can have a genuine high state experience, which often occurs in deep meditation, but still exhibit lower-level trait behavior in everyday life. Many such “masters,” especially impatient ones from the West, get stuck right here. They think they have attained enlightenment (and we’re still at the level of horizontal enlightenment), when they’ve merely glimpsed it.

It gets more slippery because experiences sell. They’re highly marketable. Everybody wants to have a spiritual experience on the path; why else would we bother? But not everybody wants to do the work to stabilize those experiences into realization, which often means many years of practice. A “master” can get attached to their experience, start to talk about it, and overtly or covertly convert others into wanting to replicate it. These “masters” often exude an aura of the nyam in which they are stuck, which magnetizes others like sweet perfume. I recall one such master floating into a packed auditorium on clouds of adulation, just oozing the nyam of bliss. Tai Situ Rinpoche said that getting stuck in spiritual experiences are the most dangerous of all traps, because they feel so good. But it’s like licking honey from a razor blade. The path is not necessarily about feeling good. It’s about getting real.

Many practitioners become “state junkies,” always searching for the high of spiritual experience, and forget that coming back to earth fully incorporating those high states — as stabilized and embodied traits — is the “low” (but final) point. It’s not about what you experience. It’s about who you become. And that becoming is not so much about what you say; it’s about what you do.

Actions really do speak louder than words, because actions are more embodied, and therefore more representative. This principle adheres to the Buddhist pedagogical template of “hearing, contemplating, and meditating,” or how one works on the path to ingest, digest, and metabolize the teachings until they quite literally become you. Stability occurs in the body-mind, not just the mind, which is why you can feel it in the presence of a truly realized being. (Some teachings say you can even “smell” the merit, or lack thereof, in a practitioner.) In the Fifth Remembrance, from the Upajjhatthana Sutra (“Subjects for Contemplation”), it is taught: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”

The rationalization that outrageous acts are an expression of “crazy wisdom” doesn’t have much traction. It’s often just crazy. As Mingyur Rinpoche says, if the net result of any activity is harmful, then by definition it is not crazy wisdom. The wisdom is judged by the skillful and compassionate effect, and only by that. And the claim that guru-disciple relationships are consensual also doesn’t hold. There is no consensual sex in a fiduciary relationship. Try abuse of power.

Evolution at this horizontal level is therefore two-fold: evolving from fully formed (ego is exclusive identification with form) to formless (egoless) levels of identity, and evolving from unstable experiences into stable realization of that identity. Once we’re fully stabilized in all states of consciousness, we have completely woken up.

As lofty as this is, waking up is only half the story. If you think it’s the full story it’s easy to slip into traps like spiritual bypassing, meditative elitism, cosmological dualism, and a host of other blind spots that feed into bad behavior. You’re still asleep to other lines of development. One way to summarize state-level development is that emptiness, the specialty of the spiritual path, does not evolve, but stabilizing our recognition of it does. Forms or structures of consciousness, however, most certainly evolve, which leads to a form of development not well known in spiritual circles.

Structures of consciousness

In understanding human development, a major contribution from the West is the evolution to higher and more inclusive structures (or stages) of consciousness. Over the past century or so, hundreds of developmental psychologists, anthropologists, and structuralists from Baldwin to Piaget to Kohlberg to Kegan to Graves to Loevinger have incontrovertibly shown that there are stages of human development. The philosopher Jean Gebser summarized them into five general stages: archaic, magic, mythic, rational, and integral. Welwood refers to this form of evolution through structures as the process of growing up, or, in terms of Integral Theory, the journey to vertical enlightenment.

Structures or stages of consciousness point to the center of gravity of the relative self, the developmental level from which one tends to operate. Integral theorist Dustin DiPerna writes, “Each progressive structure-stage can be understood as a shift in context as well as a change in the lens through which one views reality.” The relative self does not operate out of a single bandwidth of identity (another reductionist tendency), but is spread across a spectrum from “infrared” to “ultraviolet,” from the very bad to the very good. We each have a little devil and a little angel within us, a frequency (in both senses) of bad and good behavior that coexist in our spectrum of consciousness. In the process of growing up, part of the practice is to refrain from lower frequencies, and cultivate higher ones — or to frequent more of the angel and less of the devil.

Structure-stages of consciousness were only discovered in the last hundred years, because the scientific methods for articulating them were previously unavailable. Structures are discovered with third-person (scientific) means; states are discovered with first-person (introspective) methods. The critical point for meditators is that unlike states of consciousness, which can be discerned through meditation, structures of consciousness are invisible through meditative means. You simply cannot see these structure-stages using meditation, introspection, or phenomenology. In other words, you don’t look at structures, you look through them. They can be perfect blind spots. David Loy writes:

We do not see our stories as stories because we see through them: the world we experience as reality is constructed with them. . . . Like the proverbial fish that cannot see the water they swim in, we do not notice the medium we dwell within. Unaware that our stories are stories, we experience them as the world. . . The limits of my stories are the limits of my world.

There’s one more developmental strand we need to know before putting everything together. Countless researchers have shown that there isn’t just one line of development that goes through all these stages, but at least a dozen: a cognitive line, emotional line, moral, values, interpersonal, kinesthetic, needs etc. And if you tease out the many definitions of “spiritual,” there’s also a spiritual line, which in this context can be summarized as, “What is of ultimate concern?”

It’s tempting to reify and reduce structure-stages into rigid lines and solid structures, but they are more like fluid streams and waves. The point for us is that these multiple lines develop in relatively independent ways. A person can be highly evolved in a cognitive line, but very low in a moral line — which helps explain the behavior of Nazi doctors. Another person might be very evolved in a spiritual line, but less evolved in a values line, an interpersonal line, or a moral line — which helps explain the confusing behavior of some spiritual teachers.

Even when they become aware of these other strands of development, I have heard many spiritual practitioners dismiss the need to study and use them. This is a spiritual version of scientism, which is the ideology of science, or an extreme belief in the power of scientific knowledge and its methods to describe everything. Scientism, or its analog “spiritual absolutism,” is yet another form of putting all your eggs in one explanatory basket. The philosopher Evan Thompson further warns of the booby trap that is “Buddhist exceptionalism”:

. . . the belief that Buddhism is superior to other religions in being inherently rational and empirical, or that Buddhism isn’t really a religion but rather is a kind of “mind science,” therapy, philosophy, or way of life based on meditation. These beliefs, as well as the assumptions about religion and science on which they rest, are mistaken. They need to be discarded if Buddhism is to take its rightful place as a valuable contributor to a modern cosmopolitan community.

In my extensive travels over the past twenty years, many spiritual practitioners have approached me complaining about exactly the same issues they griped about decades ago. They share that they’re often told to meditate harder, when the real prescription is to look broader. Many spiritual masters, after they are exposed, tell their communities that they’re going into retreat. As valuable as that may be, perhaps they should tell them that they’re going into therapy. Psychologist and Buddhist meditator John Welwood warns, “Although we may be practicing diligently, our spiritual practice can be used in the service of denial and defense.” Raise your gaze, and realize that your intractable problem might be resolved through other lines of development. Meditation teacher and psychotherapist Jack Engler points out other common traps:

Teachings on no-self can be used to rationalize a lack of integration or cohesive self; teachings on nonattachment can rationalize an inability to form relationships; enlightenment can be used as some type of idealized grandiose self; and devotion to a teacher can allow one to feel special in mirroring the idealized other and masking internal feelings of inferiority.

Another psychotherapist and long-time meditator, Jeffrey Rubin, talks about the trap of Orientocentrism: “The idealizing and privileging of Asian thought – treating it as sacred – and the neglect if not dismissal of the value of Western psychological perspectives.” In his book, Psychotherapy and Buddhism: Toward an Integration, Rubin writes:

Embracing the theories of the school to which one identifies offers a sense of intellectual and emotional comfort . . . It also gives one a stable identity and sense of belonging. But it fosters unrealistic ideals and expectations of self-knowledge, self-mastery, and selfless service.”

Finally, Harvey Aronson, author of Buddhist Practice on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology, shares, “There are a host of problems that individuals have that Buddhism was never designed to address, including the whole spectrum of mental illness, from anxiety to depression to psychosis, and to the nuts and bolts of couples’ issues.”

Uniting states and stages

Let’s say you just had a profound spiritual state experience, a true encounter of your formless nature, the dharmakaya. Unless you remain in silence and do nothing, the experience will eventually be structured. In other words, the minute you open your mouth or move, you will be expressing your experience through your stage of development. A person at any stage can have a peak experience of a nondual state, but they will interpret that state according to their stage of development. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this — unless you’re blind to the limitations of your interpretive stories and mistake them for reality.

Our reality is an interpretation, even at physical levels of perception. The psychologist Sue Blackmore writes: “The process of perception is not a passive process of observing the world ‘as it really is.’ After all, there is no world ‘as it really is.’” Buddhism agrees. We don’t passively represent reality: we actively co-construct it. We don’t see things the way they are; we see things the way we are. Everything is laced with our projections and interpretations.

In terms of the spiritual world and our interpretation of it, Traleg Rinpoche writes:

“Without a conceptual framework, meditative experience would be totally incomprehensible. What we experience in meditation has to be properly interpreted, and its significance — or lack thereof – has to be understood. This interpretative act requires appropriate conceptual categories and the correct use of those categories.”

If you have a dharmakaya experience, and your developmental center of gravity is at a rational stage, you really have no choice but to interpret and express your experience (which is often misinterpreted as realization) through a rational lens. The systems theorist Allan Combs, working with integralist Ken Wilber, devised the Wilber-Combs Lattice, an innovative approach that unites states and stages. Take a coordinate grid and place developmental stages on the y-axis, and states on the x-axis. The result is a framework with tremendous explanatory power. This lattice, a comprehensive view of both horizontal and vertical development, helps explain how meditative masters can sometimes act like materialistic monsters. Their stage level of development will structure their spiritual experience the instant they speak or act. The state master may be a stage apprentice – and never even know it. If you can’t see the stages, you can’t detect the sickness.

How else can you explain spiritual masters who express homophobia, xenophobia, patriarchy, gender discrimination, cultural insensitivities, and a glut of other developmental viruses? These are growth-related infections that spiritual masters have no idea they’re afflicted with. When it comes to the granddaddy of them all, abuse of power and sexual predation, DiPerna writes:

Some spiritual practitioners “lose” their vantage point [vantage points represent shifts in state identity as they move from gross to very subtle identity] in sexual situations. . . . this might mean that even if one normally lives from a nondual vantage point, a sexual situation may arise that activates identity at the level of personality [ego]. In these situations rather than remaining anchored in a nondual vantage point, the obscuration of personality causes one to “lose” their level of realization. All of a sudden, the person who is normally awake to nondual reality is functioning from their egoic identity. Worse even still, because loss of vantage point can sometimes go unnoticed until after the fact the person may be under the conceptual delusion that he or she is still living from the deepest vantage point!

As if this weren’t bad enough, an authentic high-level state experience can be misused to support a low-level stage of development. In other words, abuse often starts by abusing the high-level state experience itself. It’s another example of improper “leaning.” Wilber writes:

The entire meditative corpus can be used to support and prop up [lower-level structures]. . . [High] teachings and meditative-states training crash down into a [low-level] self that is home to a cultural narcissism it cannot spot but only embody. And so it is that a system virus has entered the contemplative traditions and is eating its way through practitioners. . . a silent virus in the operating system that can and often does crash the entire system.
It’s classic spiritual materialism.


When I first came across these teachings on states and stages over a decade ago, I was skeptical. How can any conceptual model, no matter how subtle or comprehensive, begin to capture the messiness of human existence? It felt too intellectually neat. The near enemy of articulation is reification, freezing clear thinking into rigid forms, taking the map too seriously and losing the territory, which results in ivory tower insensitivity. I also maintained that the absolute trumped the relative, that emptiness could handle any form – that my Buddhism didn’t need therapy. But then the scandals kept piling up. And traditional explanations no longer added up. The relationship of waking up to growing up started to make more sense.

In the silence of the night, when conceptual mind finally comes to rest, it often feels more authentic to breathe a sigh of relief and whisper, “I don’t know.” But something causes these scandals. They don’t arise out of thin air. They are multifactorial, which is why everybody has their favorite causative factor or view, and defends it tooth and nail. The factors are there, we just need to identify them. My bias is to look as far and as deep as possible. And to continually ask myself, “What am I not seeing?” Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

We should never be absolutely certain of our knowledge. We need to be ready to give it up at a moment’s notice for a higher truth. This is called nonattachment to views, and it is one of the most important elements of our practice. Any view, no matter how noble or beautiful, even our belief in Buddhism, can be a trap. . . . If you are caught by the knowledge you presently possess, that is the end of your progress.

By struggling to understand these indignities — and accepting their challenge to our established views — we can better prevent them. The Buddha himself warned us about setting up his dharma as the only truth; in the Canki Sutta he says, “It is not proper for a wise man . . . to come to the conclusion ‘this alone is truth, and everything else is false.’” When the heart breaks, even with the tragedy of these scandals, it can get bigger. And the mind (chitta) is no different than the heart. We can break open and expand both.