9 weeks ago I began this series, “A New Way to Teach Meditation”. Please see at least one or two of the earlier posts for more background. (The archive of earlier posts can be found on the lower right hand corner of the home page).
As I begin to wrap up this series, I want to add these additional remarks.
There is a great deal of benefit to be gained by studying meditation in any one of the traditional cultures such as Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Taoist, Native American,, Quaker, Buddhist, or New Age. The general problem is that in all of these traditions as you go more deeply into any one of them you will find yourself exposed to the more conservative aspects of those traditions. The most dedicated and experienced teachers will also be the ones most likely to be the guardians and defenders of the most conservative aspects of that particular culture. Despite all the good they have to offer they will also tend to be the ones to most actively repress dissent and refuse to deal with any troubling questions that raise serious challenges to the established order.
This is especially true of the monasteries and the most established retreat centers of those cultures. The people most dedicated to those cultures will be the only ones strong enough to maintain the that culture over the long haul. They will also tend to be among the most narrow minded and chauvinistic defenders of the teachings of that culture.
Also, the rank and file members of a monastic group or retreat center will tend to be the people most likely to have strong needs to submit to authority. Consequently they will be the least likely to ask any serious questions about dysfunction or error of the teachers. They certainly will almost never be the ones to “blow the whistle” on any of the true scandals that may come up such as the sex scandals that rocked the Catholic Church over the past few decades. It is worth remembering that it was, with rare exception, only the victims and outside lawyers, judges, and journalists who brought the depth of the Catholic scandal into public view. Even the current popular Pope Francis actively participated in the cover up of some of the worst examples of sex abuse by conservative priests (see the case of Father Maciel)
So, between the authoritarian personalities that lead monastic cultures, and the submissive tendencies of the members you have a general recipe for a hardening of the arteries of those cultures. This is a problem. Each of even the best of the world’s monastic centers and retreat houses will have their own quirks, errors, and levels of cultural dysfunction embedded in the priceless truths they also have to offer. Yet there are very few ways to reform the old order without losing the essential power of the older traditions.
One of the great witnesses to the truth of what I am saying is the Catholic writer and monk Thomas Merton. In his journals he levelled similar, even more trenchant, criticisms against the culture of the monastery he, so ironically, helped make famous as a center for meditation.
Conversely those who are renegades or reformers will have a very hard time keeping a meditation group together let alone to maintain a monastery over many centuries. Due to the strongly divergent and egotistical personalities there will tend to never be a strong enough sense of agreement among renegades and reformers about how to manage the community decisions, or what constitutes valid teachings versus invalid teachings that are clearly outside the norm of what the group is trying to promulgate. In short, the older cultures are too narrow and conservative, and the many reformers are to undisciplined and contentious to last for any length of time.
I am not sure what the answer is to this dilemma, but I know the questions raised are good question for serious thought.
Have you been a member of a monastery or an administrator of a well known retreat center? What has been your experience of both the best of your tradition as well as the dysfunction that folks tend to keep carefully hidden from the view of the faithful?
will at meditation practice dot com ( spelled out to limit spam)