After the Disillusionment, the Spiritual Path

After the Disillusionment, the Spiritual Path

By Robert K.C. Forman, Ph.D.

Many millions of seekers have been disillusioned by spiritual teachers who don’t live up to their lofty self-portraits:  from the east Muktananda, Rimpoche, Eido-Roshi; and in the West men like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Colorado Evangelist Ted Haggard and countless Catholic Priests.  How do we make sense of their failure and what lessons can we draw from it? 

Mostly it happened because of sex.  Or money.  And gurus.

It wasn’t supposed to happen.  When the phalanx of white robed Indian gurus and soft spoken Zen Roshis came to the west, we heard they were “brahmchari,” celibate monks. Enlightened beings, we thought they had gone beyond their egos and their sex drives.

But then the rumors and accusations started flying.  One of the first was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was, reported to have slept openly with female disciples. San Francisco Zen Center roshi, Richard Baker Roshi, lost his job over repeated affairs with female disciples. Swami Muktananda had a taste for pre-pubescent disciples.

Out of 54 Bud­dhist, Hindu and Jain teachers in the United States, according to Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, only 15 had lived up to their tradition’s proscriptions of celibacy.[i]  Of the sexually active 39, some 34 had affairs with current students!

Western ministers didn’t didn’t talk about enlightenment, but did emphasize chastity and the sanctity of marriage.  But then Evangelical preacher Jimmy Swaggart was discovered frequenting prostitutes. Colorado anti-homosexual Evangelist Ted Haggard turned to to be in a three year relationship with a gay prostitute.  And Rabbi Mordechai Gafni had to resign his position in Israel’s Bayit Chadash in disgrace.

And we cannot forget the 4,392 men, some 4% of American Catholic priests, who were accused of being pedophiles.[ii]

What’s going on here?

While all these sexual mis-adventures are the fault of a few bad apples, the failure here is deeper.  It’s time to say so.

Spiritual enlightenment, religious transformation, being twice born just may be, with reference to personal issues like sexuality, incomplete.

Enlightenment or being saved by God is important.  It is the great clarifying, the revelation of our connection with the Divine or with an underlying, ultimate energy.  There’s a good reason our traditions have been celebrating it.  But for us, in our highly sexualized, post feminine liberation world, enlightenment is no longer enough.

After all, gurus, rabbis and ministers in 1150 or 1850 or even 1950 didn’t face what we must on a daily basis.  They had to confront their own sexual urges, for sure. But opportunities for sexual relationships  were relatively limited.  The sexual urges of monks and nuns were probably more repressed, or encountered largely in the privacy of their own cells and single-gender monasteries.

But of those of us today who are serious about our spiritual lives, few of us are monks, nuns or cloistered.  And, with miniskirts and washboard abs on every glossy magazine page we simply cannot duck the issue of sexuality.

Frankly I think that the spiritual challenge of today is greater than it was in traditional times.  We have to confront sex overtly and publically on the streets, on the TV, in the theatres and on the internet.

And for spiritual teachers today sexual encounters are both more readily available and much more dangerous.  In ancient times a guru’s disciples would no doubt try to try to keep a sexual indiscretion under wraps, either because that was the tradition, or because they believed it to have a deeper spiritual logic (as in, “he did it to raise our spiritual consciousness” excuse).

But today, in an era of gotcha journalism, wayward priests and roshis are more likely to be outted and humiliated.   Sexual peccadillos now are dangerous for your neighborhood guru.

I like to believe that most of our spiritual teachers and ministers have indeed undergone the shift into enlightenment. But clearly such shifts do not lead to transparent and healthy enough personal lives.

What then should we be after today?

The complete life, the good human life, must, to be enough for us, include both a transformed inner life and a transformed personal, and yes sexual, life.  To be complete our spiritual journey must develop both a deep inner freedom and everyday self-awareness to stop our corrupt behavior.  It must include the courage to actually change.

We must invite in our individual histories, especially where they have been painful, and untangle our personal confusions in order to become free, effortless human beings.  With all the psychology we read these days, we know this now.  The deepest spiritual awareness or the encounter with the divine do not by themselves salve our personal wounds, resolve our sexual fixations or cure our inappropriate behaviors.

Silence alone, Christ Consciousness alone, addresses none of this.  Silence and shadows, grace and grit, dwell in different domains of reality.

It was only in bringing the pain of our forbidden memories to the light of consciousness and changing our patterns that we can begin the long process of welcoming and becoming larger than them.  Only then, when we see and say and weep it all out again and again does the toxicity of our fixations begin to melt and our sexuality becomes just another part of who we are, and stay within the bounds we choose.

Our spiritual work must include the messiness of the everyday.  Both our spirits  and our psyches, our addictions and our purity must be part of it.  The unconditioned infinite is not the same as the personal and conditioned:

Spiritual practice, especially mysticism, points toward a timeless trans-human reality, while psychological work addresses the evolving human realm, with all its issues of personal meaning and interpersonal relationship.[iii]

If we are to live a full, sane, complete life, we will have to heal both today.

This article is an excerpt from Enlightenment Ain’t What it Is Cracked Up To Be:  A Journey of Discovery, Snow and Jazz in the Soul by Robert K.C. Forman, Ph.D.  Join the conversation about your own disillusionment or buy the book at Like  us at


[i] Jack Kornfield, “Sex Lives of the Gurus,” Yoga Journal. 63  (July-August1985), 26-28 and 66.

[ii] Karen Terry et al, “The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests and Deacons, prepared by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (Washington DC: USCCB, 2004).

[iii] John Welwood “The Psychology of Awakening,” Tricycle Magazine, 2000, pp. 43 ff.

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