MeetingtheShadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature

MeetingtheShadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature
Published: 1991
ISBN: 0-87477-618-X
Format: Paprback

Chapter 29 pp. 137-147
1990 essay by Katy Butler

Selected excerpts:

“As a member of San Francisco Zen Center in the 1980s, I was mystified by my own failure – and the failure of my friends – to challenge the behavior of our teacher, Richard Baker-roshi, when it seemed to defy common sense. Since then, friends from alcoholic families have told me that our community reproduced patterns of denial and enablement similar to those in their families. When our teacher kept us waiting, failed to meditate and was extravagant with money, we ignored it or explained it away as a teaching. A cadre of well-organized subordinates picked up the pieces behind him, just as the wife of an alcoholic might cover her husband’s bounced check or bail him out of jail. This “enabling”, as alcoholism counselors call it, allowed damaging behavior to continue to grow. It insulated our teacher from the consequences of his actions and deprived him of the chance to learn from his mistakes. The process damaged us as well: We habitually denied what was in front of our faces, felt powerless and lost touch with our inner experience.”
“Similar patterns were acknowledged at Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1983, when their teacher, the respected Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi-roshi, entered a treatment program and acknowledged his alcoholism. “We were all co-alcoholics,” one of Maezumi’s students told Buddhist historian Sandy Boucher. “We in subtle ways encouraged his alcoholism [because when he was drunk] he would become piercingly honest.”
“A similar process may have taken place at Vajradhatu in the 1970s, as students attempted to come to terms with their teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, a maverick, Oxford-educated Tibetan exile who was brilliant, compassionate and alcoholic.” (p. 140)

“…drunk and speeding, he once crashed a sports car into the side of a joke shop and was left partly paralyzed. He openly slept with students. In Boulder, he lectured brilliantly, yet sometimes so drunk that he had to be carried off-stage or held upright in his chair… When Trungpa Rinpoche lay dying in 1986 at the age of 47, only an inner circle knew the symptoms of his final illness. Few could bear to acknowledge that their beloved and brilliant teacher was dying of terminal alcoholism…” (pp. 141-142)

© 1990 Katy Butler

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Reviews posted:

Paul –

A friend of ours in New Zealand, Dharmadhara, read the Sarpashana Sourcebook references after this site was initially launched, and drew our attention to this article. We don’t normally deal with articles, as this would enlarge the scope of the literature review beyond our resources, but we have made an exception is this case, as it is very relevant to the topic of Buddhism and alcoholism. This essay by US journalist and Buddhist Katy Butler examines some infamous cases of alcoholism and sexual indiscretion in US Buddhist sanghas. It is real eye-opener for those of us who were not close to these events, focusing on well documented cases rather than rumour-mongering. For example, in 1985 the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, wrote in the Foreword to the Sarpashana Sourcebook “In Eastern mythology, the peacock is an animal that can turn poison into medicine. In terms of relating to alcoholism, before the poison can be transmuted, first one has to give it up. At a later, advanced, stage, it is possible that the poison could become medicine.” This last line, and other parts of the Sarpashana Sourcebook worried me, as is clear from my critique. The potential for advice like this to lead to dysfunctional outcomes is always very high. It was only by reading Katy Butler’s article I discovered that in 1986, only a year or so after writing this Foreword, he died of alcoholism. Butler isn’t looking to demonise individuals, but get to root causes of how such behaviour can get out of control within a Sangha. She focuses on what a complex (and dangerous) brew is created by coupling Eastern respect and hierarchy with Western individualism, and the way that devotion can lead to a repression of critical intelligence. She draws an interesting parallel between the way sanghas close ranks, exhibiting denial, shame, and secrecy, and the way some alcohol affected families adopt the same strategy. Ignorance of the nature of alcoholism also contributes to these circumstances. This essay is a fascinating read, not as juicy gossip, but because it highlights the need to have the courage to speak up when we see influential Order members behave in ways that we consider unacceptable. We need to stand for (constructive) openness and honesty, not silence and complicity. [NB This title has some cross-over with the book Street Zen, where Katy Butler is mentioned].

Michael –

From a purely personal recovery standpoint, this short essay will be of little interest to those who want to shed direct light onto their own addiction and recovery. However, as a very balanced and unbiased essay that sheds light on some of the darker shadows that have befallen some US Buddhist sanghas, including issues of alcoholism as well as sexual indiscretion, I believe that this short account provides a nonetheless entirely relevant read to all of us who may be engaging in spiritual community, be they Buddhist or not. I found it interesting, if not a little saddening, that the communities in which this kind of behaviour happened often exhibited patterns of behaviour that enabled the abuse, in no matter what form, to continue. Much as might happen, for example, in alcoholic families. Denial, shame, secrecy, and even outright complicity or enabling. Paul also touched on the point that ignorance of the nature of alcoholism within Buddhist communities often contributes to such circumstances. An important reminder I think that strength of spiritual practice and understanding does not automatically mean an understanding of issues relating to addiction. The fact of the matter is that true understanding of addiction is rare even in the wider community, and so it should come as no surprise that this is still the case within many spiritual communities. For those of us in recovery wanting to engage with a sangha, it would be wise to properly investigate how well they understand such matters before blindly trusting their judgements in this area of our lives. This would not necessarily mean that would need to leave the community, but if understanding in that area of our lives cannot be property illuminated and understood there then it would be wise to also continue to engage with others who do understand such issues. Most importantly for me, though, the essay is a reminder that we should be somewhat careful in giving our teachers so much deference and blind faith, that it blinds us to ever feeling comfortable in challenging them if required. They too, after all, are only human. The fact of the matter is that no matter how engaging or otherwise positive either individuals or communities may be, we should never be afraid to speak out against unacceptable behaviour of any kind. We owe it to ourselves, to our spiritual community, and indeed even to the person or persons who are displaying the inappropriate behaviour.