‘Spiritual Obedience’ (1979)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

11 minutes

The February 1979 issue of Harper’s contained a lengthy article by Peter Marin: ‘Spiritual Obedience: The Transcendental Game of Follow the Leader.’ Marin taught at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado during the summer of 1977—two years after the American poet William S. Merwin and his partner Dana Naone were assaulted, molested and forcibly undressed during a so-called ‘Vajradhatu Seminary’ on the orders of Trungpa.

Marin writes about Naropa Institute:

“Of course, one must not forget this is Vajrayana Buddhism, a particular tradition—an aristocratic Tibetan line set free of moral constraint, in which all action is seen as play, and in which the traditional (if somewhat hazy) questions at work in Buddhism about moral responsibilities to sentient creatures are largely set aside. For the most part, moral and social questions disappear from all discourse, even from idle conversation, save when they are raised by outsiders. Then they are dealt with, a bit grudgingly, and always briefly.

The Naropa Institute embodies a feudal, priestly tradition transplanted to a capitalistic setting. The attraction it has for its adherents is oddly reminiscent of the attraction the aristocracy had for the rising middle class in the early days of capitalistic expansion. These middle-class children seem drawn, irresistibly not only to the discipline involved but also to the trappings of hierarchy. Stepping out from their limousines, hours late for their talks, surrounded by satraps, the masters seem alternately like Arab chieftains or caliphs.

Allegiance to the discipline means allegiance to the lineage, to the present Vajra, as clearly as if it were allegiance to a king. If there is a compassion at work here, as some insist, it is so distant, so diminished, so divorced from concrete changes in social structure, that it makes no difference at all. Periodically someone will talk about how meditation will lead inevitably to compassion or generosity. But that, even according to other Buddhists, is nonsense. Certainly here. it is nonsense. Behind the public face lies the intrigue and attitude of a medieval court, and that shows up in the peculiar and ‘playful’ way in which Buddhists enter the world of hip capitalism. It is no accident that they are in Boulder, where such businesses flourish. America is what it is, and business is play, and so the Buddhists happily take part in the moneymaking, unconstrained by any notion of a common good, and certainly unconcerned about the relation of individual conscience and the dominant attitudes toward the entrepreneurial self and the primacy of property. …

When Trungpa does touch upon politics, as he sometimes will in \his lectures, it is always to devalue it, to set it aside. And when one raises with his disciples various questions about moral reciprocity, human responsibility, moral value, or political action, they dismiss such inquiries, muttering about “all sentient creatures” or confused attachment to the world. But one must not make the mistake of thinking that they are otherworldly. Far from it. Trungpa and his students are very much of the world, and enter it in terms of business enterprises, the expansion of their institute, and so on. Trungpa seems to have no trouble with the structure of American capitalism, the idea of property, the underlying relations between castes and classes of persons. These, I believe, appear to him divinely ordered—a kind of spiritual hierarchy hardened into human norms. The notion that individual well-being hinges on change does not occur to him any more than it seems to have occurred to his predecessors in feudal Tibet.

The fact that this notion is taught by a privileged class of priests to their followers ought to make it somewhat suspect, of course. But one can also understand its appeal to middle-class Americans, whose nervousness is such that they would like to believe that spiritual progress is possible without further upheavals in history and the loss of their privileged estate.

Trungpa’s implicit conservatism seems, then, both appealing to his followers and also destructive to qualities in them still feebly struggling to stay alive. And that is to say nothing of its real consequences in the concrete world—those that will show up not in the fates or destinies of these middleclass Americans, but in those of the poor and black and disenfranchised, those who invariably find themselves suffering the results of reactionary American politics. For those whose well-being rests upon either the structural transformation of society or changes in dominant American notions about justice, moral philosophies like Trungpa’s, and the encapsulated moral world in which they are taught, can only spell further pain, if they are widely taken seriously, or remain unleavened by moral ideas rooted in a vision other than that offered at Naropa.

I do not suggest that Trungpa actually means that kind of harm to anyone, or is an incipient fascist. Certainly the obvious eclecticism at work in the summer institute, and the plethora of views expressed, and the relative freedom of their expression, leave intact at least a minimal sense of the free play of thought and a willingness to subject Buddhist views to all sorts of challenge and criticism. But to claim for it—as is often done—a supremacy of vision, or to demand, in its name, a singular allegiance, or to denounce in its name all other devotions, attachments, or obligations as confusion (as is also done) is a violence done to those present. It becomes, in that instance, not the healing that it might be, but a still further cause of pain. …

Sometimes the entire institute seems like an immense joke played by Trungpa on the world, the attempt of a grown child to reconstruct for himself a simple world. It is no accident that he should construct it here, in Boulder, through the agency of yearning Americans whose ache for a larger world is easily reduced to a passion for aristocratic form. He makes easy use of the voracious elitism by which American members of the middle class increasingly justify their wealth or rationalize their sense of separation from the world. But what makes it painful to see is that there exists in many of these young students a pain and shame and unused power that issues from the deepest and best parts of themselves and that they must learn to live and speak of. But there is no way for them to do that through Buddhism, no teacher to help them, no rhetoric to reveal to them what they feel. Instead, their human yearning, the ache of conscience, the inner feel of justice, the felt sense of freedom are passed off as illusions, as Western childishness. These impulses, ironically, are destroyed in the name of a spiritual wisdom perhaps necessary to complete them. But that destruction is not in any way inherent in wisdom or even in the tradition of meditation. It is inherent in the priestly class. Aristocrats of any sort, after all, especially those given to pomp and hierarchy, are not the best sages to consult about political frustration or moral pain.

As is true of people in almost any contemporary institution, these students are better than what they are taught. Just as, in the Sixties, the truths of their rebellion, garbled as it was, exceeded the institutional truths of their teachers, so, too, the yearning of these students unused is abused by the institution that defines reality and truth for them. Troubled not only by their separation from a felt connection to the world, these students also experience the pain of a vision of self or human nature that allows no room for what they feel about the world, and offers no way to express it. Their pain is not spiritual; it is moral. Their problem is to regain their moral lives in the way that we have recently struggled to regain our sexual lives. But just as we looked mistakenly to sexuality for certain political or moral satisfactions, thereby corrupting that realm, now we mistakenly search in the spirit’s world for the same satisfactions; just as Columbus, sailing among the American isles, thought himself to be in the Indies and called everything by the wrong name, so, too, we drift in a landscape that we do not understand, and we have the wrong names for things. …

Today, when a student asked me what I thought of all this, I filtered through my mind all the polite or witty things I might say, and then responded with what I really meant: “I think it is beneath contempt.” And that is true. Beyond the reasonableness of my controlled responses, all of this seems worse than absurd, mainly because at the heart of its senselessness lies a smug self-congratulation beyond all belief. Things here are closed, small, careful, secure. I remember, as a child, hating my obligatory visits to the synagogue, hating them with the passion of a secularized Jew, as if still stirring in my blood were the currents of the impulses that took a whole people out of their tiny towns and shtetls, and into the larger world—as if gasping for air. If there is a god, it is a god of the open world, oceans and deserts, of great distances and beasts. How he must shudder at these shuttered truths, these betrayals of the world.” (pp. 47-50).

Peter Marin writes extensively about the incident involving William Merwin and Dana Naone, whose real names he references with P. and W. He comments:

“But what concerns me here is less the event itself, or Trungpa’s behavior, than the reactions of his followers and the way they now try to explain away what happened. To someone who sees Trungpa as I do—as simply an ordinary man dressed in the chimerical robes of a mystical king, his behavior is not particularly surprising. Power and alcohol go to most men’s heads, and if you raise a man from childhood to believe in his own power, it is not surprising that he sometimes abuses it. Nor am I surprised by the behavior of his followers—the students—in the midst of the event and afterward when talking about it. Most of them, looking on, were frozen into immobility. Though that is sad, it is not at all startling; people have an immense capacity for passivity and obedience, and it takes more ego and courage than most of them have to speak out forcefully in a situation where what they believe to be genuine mystical powers stand over and against them. Whether it is a savage with a shaman,a private with the Fuehrer, or even an ordinary teacher, most people are too timid, too unsure of themselves, and (at times) too sensibly scared to oppose authority in a situation where it has been vested in a single man or a few individuals. No doubt many of the onlookers felt the stirring in themselves of a desire to intervene or refuse, but they were conscious after the fact of a kind of paralysis of will, the impossibility of movement, which is not so much the failure of will or nerve but the immobilizing conflict between those things and a learned obedience to authority, a submission to those in whom one has vested immense amounts of psychological and institutional power. No, the real problem lies in what happened before the incident, in how the disciples had been taught to accept authority, and in what followed after, in their inability even after the fact to see that Trungpa might have made a mistake, or that he was merely human.

“I was wrong,” Trungpa might have said. “He was wrong,” his disciples might have said. But they cannot say such things. And what that means
is that they then must further skew the world, deny their own sensibilities, twist things out of focus, assigning virtue to Trungpa’s action, and seeing P’s resistance as “mere” ego, or ignorance, or the denial of truth. It is there, then, that the whole event begins to take on its full significance, echoing after the fact in a way that shrinks the world to something intolerably small, and less than human, as the disciples struggle endlessly to rationalize and explain the facts that call their faith into question. I have heard the same thing over and over from cultists of all sorts. In the face of the immense complexities of experience, they must deny whatever truths call their faith into question, projecting outward, onto the world, the paper-thin trompe |’oeil “realities” with which they have comforted themselves. One sees, called into the play, the immense human capacity for self-securing self-delusion, Plato’s cave-dwellers shutting their eyes as the cave explodes, pretending that they are still safely protected from truth. …

The issue is not merely the unquestioning acceptance of authority, though wetend to teach that everywhere in America. It is the inability to hear the still, small, quiet human voice that says no, that speaks for nothing but itself, that makes no claim to any authority other than the heart, and asserts no power other than its own. It is to this voice, fragile but binding, that one owes allegiance, to this that he must listen, rather than to the whisperings of secret powers, the thunderings of authority, or even the promise of salvation itself. It is the truly human, the “merely” human, that is, in the end, significant and the source of truth. Only those who believe it, only those whose home is in the flesh, and among equal others, will be able to comprehend fully the absurdities of power when they first see them, and to perceive what is wrong, long before the final drama occurs, in the first requests for submission, in the first assault on independent thought. The only real alternative to hierarchy, submission, and unquestioning obedience is a passion for freedom and a belief in the true community of equals, one in which every member is acknowledged as a possible source for truth or meaning, and in which truth and meaning are forever being formed, never fully given—always opening up, ahead, in the future, never fully attained. …

Perhaps Naropa and its students make sense only when seen in the light of the Sixties, for many of those who follow Trungpa are survivors of those years, and many of the younger students here for the summer are the unknowing heirs of that decade’s lessons. Trungpa and his teachers never seem to tire of insisting upon the futility of politics in general, or, more specifically, the infantilism of Americans during the Sixties. There is some point, of course, in what they say. The forms of rebellion in the Sixties were raw and often childish, but that childishness, we must remember, was often not generated from within, but was itself called forth by the behavior of their elders, who forced the young—through their unresponsiveness and brutality—into forms of behavior we see, in retrospect, as adolescent. And of course there was, undeniably, something adolescent in those forms, but it was something that might have deepened and ripened into a richer kind of rebellion, into more powerful forms of communal action and social change. For what moved beneath them was not adolescent, it was an inward yearning as old as the human heart, close to the bone of Western history, as if the culture itself—in shame and self-disgust—rose up to demand that the values essential to its forward progress be more fully established in the corrupt social world. What spoke in those days was simultaneously a fuzzy dream of the future and a dim remembrance of the values to which the culture was ostensibly committed, values that had been lost along the way. …

Trungpa’s devoted disciples, emerging from the Sixties wounded and in pain, seem to have found a way to keep themselves intact and to create lives, but at the expense of something else. That some thing else might not have lived in any case, but it does live in the temporary and younger summer students to whom Naropa now opens its doors, and the uneasiness one feels at the institute is that what move the young but have never been named in our modern psychologies—the appetence toward cooperation and the common good, the promptings of reason and conscience, the relation of class and consciousness—are no more explored here than they are at the traditional university.” (pp. 53-57)

Marin - Spiritual Obedience-The Transcendental Game of Follow the Leader (Harper's (258) February 1979 pp. 43-58)

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.