The very sad news of the tragic death of Buddhist teacher Michael Stone has stirred a flurry of comments on various Buddhist internet sites that range from the expected grief and – sadly – the expected lack of awareness of the suffering that mental illness can bring on us. The latter set of comments includes and exposes a deep misapprehension of what a Buddhist practice can do for its practitioners.
The quick answer, if asked, is that a Buddhist practice has little to do with effortlessly conferring happiness, calm, serenity, and peace. Sadly, the practice also does not confer invulnerability to slings and arrows of outrageous inner and outer judgments, exorcise self-generated demons, or make one beloved by all. Buddhist practice is also not going to cure or remove whatever neurological process involved in profound depression, extreme anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, or many other ways of being that require a more focused approach. In a word (or six), Buddhist practice does nothing for you – except one thing.
To practice the Dharma is to examine the topography of places where we fail ourselves over and over. It is to turn towards that suffering, relentlessly; that incongruity between who we thought we were and who showed up at the family dinner, the date night, the wedding, the job interview. And in that turning towards, we find a way, through practice, to be steady in the face of the whole blessed mess – even when we aren’t. Buddhist practice is a how-to lesson in cultivating humility, skillfulness in failing, and loving with a heart broken open wide.
I understand the defensive posture of superiority in the comments when any Buddhist teacher has not lived up to our expectations. Been there, sacrificed my dignity. It’s frightening to think that someone in an elevated status can be so fragile, even if we were the ones to lionize them. It’s more frightening to think that this practice does not protect even those who have such an obvious commitment and fierce devotion to it. What does that say about us mere mortals who struggle with taking seconds on dessert, feel impotent rage at the state of our world, or whose lives had to be rebuilt because we followed in a very human teachers’ footsteps? What hope is there for us?
The reality is that there is no one who can satisfy our craving for security. There is no one who can single-handedly lift us out of our messy morass and make it all better. Sorry. There is actually one who can – but that requires teaching the eye to see itself, the hand to hold itself, the heart to feel its own beat. But we’re not ready for that and won’t be as long as we think salvation is in someone else.
These incidents of teachers who show their utter humanness are themselves our teacher. It opens us to be brutally honest about who we become in the face of our desire that the teacher should be our source of safety and support. It should open us to discern between an authentic teaching that is grounded in Buddhism and aspects of our own Western culture (read: knowledge of mental illness). I have listened too long and too often to the damage caused to practitioners by Buddhist teachers who say, “Just sit with it. It will pass.” Or, “meditate more.” Or, imply that somehow it’s some past life transgression that totally explains and justifies one’s current pain and suffering. It’s a long road back from this level of hurt. And more often than not, it ends up in a conversation that necessarily deconstructs the person’s belief that they are not a “good Buddhist” but also that they may have to surrender their clinging to the belief that they are “Buddhist”. Understanding this collision of our desires and what is promised as “freedom” is crucial to understanding the core of Buddhist practice: taking responsibility for our own development.
However, in the process of taking responsibility for our own delusions about teachers and about being “Buddhists”, we also need to see how the teacher’s own frailties serve us in some way. I have sat in front of teachers who are blissfully blind to their own mental illness and – here’s the rub – whose illness is useful to their community. This collusion likely contributes to stigmatizing mental illness and seals it in silence. It is time we ask ourselves how we impart subtle judgments and demands for perfection onto to each other. It is time we examine how we uphold each other’s frailties so that ours can be further served.
I do love the story Woody Allen tells voice-over at the end of Annie Hall (at least that’s my memory of the story): A psychiatrist’s patient says he has a brother who believes he’s a chicken and wants the psychiatrist to tell him what to do. The psychiatrist suggests the brother may benefit from treatment to rid him of the delusion that he’s a chicken. The patient is horrified: But, doc, then what would I do for eggs?
Once we cure ourselves of the delusion that Buddhism will make us happy and free from pain, what would we do for eggs?
The post by Justin Whitaker, On the Death of a Teacher: A Buddhist Teaching, is a recommended companion piece to this post.
A beautiful and wise piece of writing, Lynette — deeply bowing to you.
I remember earlier in my practice feeling vexed by a similar question — after my own painful relationship breakup, I headed into the refuge of San Francisco Zen Center to try to put myself back together. Not long into that period, news came out that one of the senior teachers was going through his own messy and painful divorce. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that one, and felt extremely disillusioned. If years of practice didn’t prevent that situation for him, what the heck was I doing getting up early every morning to sit on the cushion? I mean, where was the guarantee is this practice?!
I brought that question to my teacher. I actually don’t remember her exact response, but she was (and is) skillful enough to lead me out of my this-for-that thinking and to guide me back to the heart of practice, to simply show up for what was going on in my own heart/mind/body and be open to what would happen. Your words here beautifully articulate the discovery that eventually unfolded….
Oh yes. These are what fuel our practice…and sometimes burns them to the ground.
Much love to you too, dear dharma sister!
People believe that Buddhist Practice can beat all the demons of mental illness, such as the bi-polar disease in Michael’s case. It simply is not true, any more than meditation can cure cancer or even the common cold. What it might do is make one less aware of, and beholden to, wild thoughts and emotions with a bit more power to control the same in many cases. For that reason, I personally found that Zazen was one important part of my escape from years of depression back in my twenties, as I learned not to buy into the cycle of black overthinking and hopelessness in the form of depression I suffered. However, it is not a cure for everything that can plague a human being and mind. This example, as well as the other priests who suffered and which they and those around them tried to keep hidden, show that this is a subject that should be discussed honestly, not hidden. (such as Soen Nakagawa, who suffered years of seeming depression and periods of isolation after a brain injury from a fall in a tree, although there may have been other causes LINK, Maezumi Roshi with his alcoholism LINK, Trungpa with his alcoholism and other extreme behavior, Joko Beck and our own Nishijima Roshi with age related confusion and some changes in personally in their last few years)
I wonder how many Buddhist teachers and priests suffered such things in centuries past, all of which was probably written off a spirit possessions or the like!
This is what I say when the topic comes up:
Zazen is -NOT- a cure for many things … it will not fix a bad tooth (just allow you to be present with the toothache … you had better see a dentist, not a Zen teacher), cure cancer (although it may have some healthful effects and make one more attune to the process of chemotherapy and/or dying), etc. Zen practice will not cure your acne on your face, or fix your flat tire. All it will do is let one “be at one, and whole” … TRULY ONE … with one’s pimples and punctured wheel, accepting and embracing of each, WHOLLY WHOLE with/as each one. There are many psychological problems or psycho/medical problems such as alcoholism that may require other therapies, although Zen can be part of a 12-Step program or such (a few Zen teachers in America with a drinking problem had to seek outside help). My feeling is that some things are probably best handled by medical, psychological or psychiatric treatment, not Zen teachers.
My feeling is that receiving outside treatment, medication AND “just sitting” can all work together.
It is vital to be under the care of medical professionals expert in the disease, and to follow their recommendations. If they recommend Zazen, then it can be a good part of any other regime.
This is something that we need to be more open about in the modern Buddhist world.
Yes, much gratitude to all the mental health professionals who help deal with this pain on the front lines.
Gassho, Jundo Cohen
Thank you for this very thoughtful comment. Yes, it takes a community to hold all forms of our suffering. When the Buddha taught “mindfulness of the body in the body”, the teaching pointed directly to what you have written here. “Just sitting” is always in partnership with the reality of life and that includes the clear comprehension of knowing when the other partners of our health care need to be brought on board.
Thank you as well for naming all the teachers who have struggled with their mental health. I recall feeling devastated watching one of my teachers, suffering their own depression and in an emotional relationship with a sangha member; how the community reframed it to keep them secure in the co-dependency was painful. We also have examples of teachers who have courageously met their demons and by doing so, given us a great teaching.
I hope you are well and your sangha continues in good health.
Thank you Lynette for your sensitive post.
I spent a day in training with Michael Stone in 2014 and found him beautiful, brilliant and inspiring. I was deeply affected by that experience. I also thought that his personal and intimate knowledge of mental health issues gave him a sensitivity that no doubt informed and enriched his practice both as dharma teacher and as psychotherapist.
How sad that to this day it remains so difficult to acknowledge and treat mental illness through a focused appropriate approach as you mention. Recognizing that it is not simply a matter of will and sustained practice but a treatable illness and as such should not entail the stigmatization that it unfortunately still carries. No amount of meditation can cure us of our vulnerabilities and humanness. No amount of meditation will cure us of the marks of existence.
Michael’s death is a sad reminder of this.
10 000 joys, 10 000 sorrows.
Manuela Pires Martins, M.Éd.
Psychologue et coach certifiée
Gatineau QC J8Y 2V5
T : 819.319.2829
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Thank you for your important words, Manuela.
Disagree, with the proviso that Buddhist practice in conjunction with psychiatric help & medication all together, and not without all these factors, enabled me to overcome bipolar disorder, being pronounced, by medical team, in complete remission.
I wish you well, David.
So grateful for this and other pieces that have been written since Michael Stone’s passing. It has shone a very bright light on some expectations I had of myself, my practice and my own teachers that I didn’t know I had ❤️🙏
Same here. As with any loss, it invites a deep reflection of our own afflictions.
Thank you for this eloquent, profound post. I have a long history of projecting an aura of perfection onto teachers, professors, supervisors, trainers, therapists, coaches – anyone at all in a position where I had something to learn from them. I brought this same unskillful tendency to my dharma practice when I began studying Buddhism some ten years ago – and of course I was continually disappointed in one teacher after another. But in the last four years, it has been my very good fortune to find a teacher so fully comfortable in his own human skin that he has no need for his sangha to place him on a pedestal, and consequently I’ve had much less need to project my perfection aura onto him – which has freed me up to see for myself how unskillful was my past behavior. Reading your wise words reminds me of what it has taken me most of a lifetime to learn, and of what I need to spend the rest of my life remembering.
Hi Tom, I’m so sorry I didn’t reply. Fully intended to!
Your words are greatly appreciated and I’m sure your experience is a common one. How wonderful that you found a true-natured teacher!I will remember to keep searching!
Thanks, Genju! Indeed, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have found my “true-natured” teacher. I love your descriptive phrase, “true-natured” – completely captures my teacher’s essence. May you – and all those who read your blog – be as fortunate in your search as I have been in mine.