L.A. Times, Saturday, August 15, 1998


Teachers or Tyrants?



  • Faith: Some find spiritual mentors vital to gaining transcendence. Others say they are inherently authoritarian and therefore prone to abusing their power.

When they committed their lives to spiritual teachers, Luna Tarlo and Dennis White both sought the same thing: bliss. Tarlo found horror instead -her own beloved son transformed into an arrogant and power -mad guru who used fear, threats and insults to control followers, she says in a scathing new book, "Mother of God."

But White says his guru, the late Paramahansa Yogananda, gave him the lessons and yoga techniques to help him uncover his own spiritual nature. He says he obtained the bliss he had been furiously searching for in a quest that cut a heavy intellectual swath through tomes on subjects from Western existentialism to St. Francis and other saints.

Thirty years later, White is still a devotee of Yoganda, as Brother Satyananda since joining the monastic order in 1976, he speaks joyfully of his guru's overwhelming love, humility and gentleness, his deep respect for others and his boundless desire to serve.

That two seekers could end up with such radically different experiences illustrates the timeless dilemma involving spiritual teachers. Whether Hindu guru, Jewish rabbi, Zen priest or Christian preacher, are teachers necessary for spiritual growth? How do you tell the mad from the magnificent? Are gurus, as some analysts argue, inherently authoritarian in their insistence on obedience and surrender? Or, in helping guide people to realize deep spiritual truths and directly experience transcendence or God, do they offer liberation and empowerment?

The questions yield emphatic answers-of every stripe.

Although Americans love experts-- and flock to them for guidance in everything from picking mutual funds to developing "thighs of steel" -spiritual gurus tend to have a bad name. Some analysts say gurus or spiritual masters may be more apt to abuse power in America. Some cite the culture's materialism or moral decay or what the noted Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman called our "long -term Western patriarchal structure deeply embedded with an omnipotent monotheism figure seen as all-controlling and all-powerful."

Or, as he puts it more colloquially, "Despite our self-image of independence . . . there is a general problem in this society of seeking father figures and saviors-of looking for Big Daddy."

In their 1993 book, "The Guru Papers," Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer argue that the guru-disciple relationship-and all religious systems, East and West-are inherently authoritarian because they require absolute surrender and obedience to a person or ideology deemed unchallengeable and infallible. "There is a social virus in our religion and morality and culture that conditions people to give power away," Alstad said.

  In the public mind, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is probably remembered less for his spiritual philosophy than for his 93 Rolls - Royces, tax evasion and free -sex practices. The tragedies involving Jim Jones of the 1978 Guyana suicide -murders, David Koresh of the 1993 Waco, Texas, inferno and Marshall Applewhite of the 1997 Heaven's Gate millennialist, suicides have all reinforced the image of gurus as deluded, sometimes dangerously disturbed people.

"I don't think anyone becomes a guru unless they want power," said Tarlo, whose son, Andrew Cohen, was transformed from what she described as a sensitive young man enamored of music into an internationally recognized guru today. "A lot of them start out OK, but the more power they get, the crazier they get."

During the three years she spent with him in New York, India and elsewhere, Tarlo says Cohen was arrogant in the certainty of his own infallibility and demolished the self-esteem of followers to gain control publicly calling one a "hypocrite, liar and prostitute," for instance. Tarlo said Cohen offered no particular spiritual techniques or extraordinary philosophical insights, but exuded a magnetic confidence that captured people's allegiance.

Tarlo says she was vulnerable to his lure partly because she had just suffered through the deaths of her parents and husband and because he was her son.

"I was open to it because I really wanted to believe he was the most amazing man in the world," she said in a phone interview from New York. "I loved him so, like a foolish mother." Cohen's organization did not respond to requests for interviews.

Alstad and Kramer argue that religious authoritarianism must give way in today's climate of accelerated change and open itself to questions, challenges and feedback.

Some spiritual teachers would agree-and the Rev. Wendy Egyoku Nakao of the Zen Center of Los Angeles is one who is making such changes.

The center had been plagued by charges of abuse of power, sexual misconduct and 'alcoholism among the leadership in the past, but Nakao says she has already started "flattening the hierarchy" to help heal her community since taking the helm last year.

Among other things, she is instituting a formal- process and supplementing the traditionally hierarchical teacher-student relationship with regular "councils" -open forums of all Zen community members to discuss issues and share information on equal footing. An outside "witness" is invited to give feedback on the discussions.

We need to change by really opening up," Nakao said. "Buddhism is about all -inclusiveness, and the question is, 'What forms can we use to make it more inclusive?"'

Asked if she requires surrender from followers, she laughed. "Never, It gives me chills just to think about it.
  "I teach by questions," she added. "Inquiry is very, very important. I can guide you, be your companion, maybe interpret the dharma [teachings] in a way you haven't thought of. But ultimately, it's you who has to confirm them yourself. I can't do it for you. In that way, it's very empowering."

Indeed, followers of many religious traditions dispute the notion that all forms of spiritual authority are inherently authoritarian.

Lively inquiry and debate- not coercion or force- characterize the relationship between teachers and students in many faiths, and the spiritual bond between a student and a gifted teacher can be of immeasurable value, they say.

"A rabbi helps deepen the student's knowledge of Torah and through that knowledge create his or her own path to God," said Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

But, he added, the learning relationship is reciprocal-- a point he said was underscored in the following Talmudic statements:
"I have learned much from my teacher. I have learned more from my colleagues. I have learned most from my disciples."

Although the rabbi - a word that means teacher - is presumed to possess superior knowledge and understanding. Rembaum recalled times when his students have given him new insights. One student, he said, pointed out a structure of storytelling in Genesis that he had never before noticed. It underscored God's simultaneous existence as a universal god and as the particular god of the Israelites.

Thurman, a follower of the Dalai Lama, said he is constantly debating with his esteemed teacher and even once got the better of him, sort of. In one passionate, hour-long debate over whether the concept of reincarnation was absolutely valid or only partly so, Thurman said the Dalai Lama ended the discussion with a laugh and agreed that Thurman's view of partial validity might be right, "but not to let it out."
  He also publicly told a crowd to follow what he said-"unless it was stupid." Thurman recalled.

Followers of Yogananda-an Indian swami who came to the United States in 1920 and eventually established today's organization of 500 temples in 54 countries before his death in 1952- emphasize that free will and the constant testing of the guru's teachings an critical elements in their relationship.

"He doesn't ask you to take anything on blind faith. He says try the [meditation] techniques, and if you like the results, stick with them," said Jeff McDowell, 38, at a recent annual gathering of Yogananda's organization, the Self Realization Fellowship, in Los Angeles

McDowell was born into the tradition-his father discovered Yogananda after unfulfilling experiences with Pentecostal and Baptist traditions-and says the guru's techniques of yoga and meditation have enriched his life with a deepening sense of joy, calm and well -being.

Followers say Yogananda's prolific writings have also given them sage, down-to-earth advice for specific challenges involving relationships, work and health, as well as answers to the kinds of timeless questions that burned in Brother Satyananda's soul: "Why are we here? Why are we seemingly born unequal? How do you explain abortion? Why do I have this great sense of unknowing? Why don't I know where I'm going?"

The Yogananda devotee said those seeking a teacher can recognize a genuine one by his or her "loving, encouraging qualities."

"In the highest sense, a guru is one with a tremendous, loving, joyful state of consciousness that he or she very much wants to share, based upon a deep sense of giving or serving or loving," Brother Satyananda said. "So there is no evidence of trying to control, coerce or manipulate."

Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University, says he tells students who ask that they should look for a teacher who is reluctant to be one and who tries to accelerate the process of spiritual self-reliance.

"The really great teachers will not try to be your teacher. The bad ones will try to keep you and exploit you." said Thurman, whose insights on finding contentment though Eastern philosophy are expressed in his new book, "Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness."

He also said vigorous research- the hungry exploration of various religious traditions, philosophies and thought now animating the American cultural landscape-will help people make the right choices. "One thing wrong with the guru thing is that too many people jump into these things blindly. If people were really well-informed, they would be immune to bad gurus."

Various religious traditions disagree even on whether a formal teacher-student relationship is necessary. In Tibetan Buddhism, says Thurman, only a small group of people desiring very advanced spiritual practices initiate a relationship with a lama in which they basically pledge to see him or her as their personal icon of the Buddha.

By contrast, Rembaum said a teacher is indispensable in the Jewish tradition. "The Torah is not in heaven; it has been given to human beings," he said. "You need to have the knowledge of Torah refracted through the intelligence, spirit and experience of the master teacher. You've got to have at least two minds interacting so that questions can be asked."

Such debates leave Tarlo cold. She is still mourning the loss of her son, with whom she has not spoken for three years, and no longer trusts anyone who purports to hold a position of spiritual authority.

"It's terribly sad-this was a child I loved," she said.

Now, she said, "I don't believe you need anybody. I feel that anything that will happen to you will come from you and not from outside of you."