Does Meditation Change Behavior?

In 2008, the Zen Studies Society in New York reeled with a revelation: Eido Shimano, the community’s abbott (head teacher) had sex with various students and other women over a period of 40 years. (See the New York Times article here.)

In 2002, Michael Downing published his classic Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center. It’s a spiritual page-turner—the story of Richard Baker Roshi, a visionary and charismatic abbott who had sex with students and staff members at the Center.

For years, I devoured the books of J. Krishnamurti—only to find that he had a decades-long affair with Rosalind Williams Rajagopal, a married woman. Radha Rajagopal Sloss (Rajagopal’s daughter) reveals the details in Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti.

I also admired Trungpa Tulku Chogyam Trungpa, author of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and a major teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. In Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment, however, Geoffrey D. Falk makes the case that Trungpa was an alcoholic.

If meditation is such a powerful practice, then how are these stories possible?

Downing credibly estimates that Baker logged over 10,000 hours of sitting meditation. And still Baker violated numerous boundaries.

I’m getting some useful answers from Scott Edelstein’s book, Sex and the Spiritual Teacher: Why It Happens, When It’s a Problem, and What We All Can Do.

For now, I conclude that:

  • Genuine insight, decades of meditation experience, and unethical behavior can coexist in the same person. Students need to be discerning. Don’t put any teacher on a pedestal.
  • There’s more to the spiritual life than meditation. Ethical behavior is not necessarily the fruit of meditation. Rather, it’s a pre-requisite.

5 thoughts on “Does Meditation Change Behavior?

  1. Thank you for reminding me of that Fitzgerald quote!

    I agree — the artists I admire (Chekhov comes to mind) put the best of themselves into their art. Probably so much so that there was little left over to put into their lives. I’m thankful I have their art to enjoy.

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  2. Hi Mike. Thanks for your perceptive comment. F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” That’s how I approach spiritual teachers. So many of them taught so well and lived so strangely. I can still get value from their teachings while remembering that they didn’t always walk the walk.

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  3. This reminds me of (I think) Toulous-Lautrec’s saying that no one should meet an artist whose work one admires, as the artist is always so much less than the art. (As a fan of Fred Astaire, some of the stories about him and his behavior are sadly offputting.)

    And I think likewise with our spiritual teachers. Krishnamurti’s books have great thoughts and ideas — are they still worthwhile knowing what we know about his behavior? I can keep Picasso’s dickish behavior to one side while appreciating his art, but when a spiritual teacher’s behavior disappoints — I am now reading between the lines of his previous work to look for clues to the real man (and it seems to be all men, yes?).

    Thanks for this.

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