Mirrors and Leaky Boats (Part 2)

“Does the end justify the means?” is a question that has challenged philosophers for centuries. In the case of the fake guru Kumare, does the fact that many of his followers experienced significant spiritual self-transformation justify his unethical behaviour in lying to them about who he was, by claiming to be a guru from India rather than a film-maker from New Jersey? In other words, he used an unethical method that achieved positive results for the duped participants, but does that make it right?

When discussing the methods of achieving awakening, Buddhism uses the analogy of the boat crossing the river. The boat is the method that helps you to cross over the river of delusion and life’s vicissitudes so that you can reach the other shore, which is wisdom. However, once you have reached this destination, you don’t need to continue on the path carrying the boat with you. This is a caution not to hold onto spiritual doctrines and ideas in the mistake that they in themselves are the Truth. Rather, spiritual methods are merely a tool for getting you across the river, that is, tools to help you deal with the obstacles that obstruct your journey towards self-transformation. However, you do need to have a good strong boat, made of sturdy materials and made by an experienced craftsman to weather the storms and currents of a swift and mighty river, with plenty of obstacles, rocks and dangerous animals that might hinder progress. This is such a good metaphor for the chaos of our journey through life!

Now, as for Vikram Gandhi’s experiment in proving that you don’t need a  “real” spiritual teacher to achieve self-transformation, my feeling is that he started to cross the river with a very leaky boat! He was responsible for a group of people who thought that he was an experienced sailor in a well-crafted vessel that they could trust. But his boat was merely a movie prop made of flimsy materials disguising the leaky raft! Luckily for him, as he continued on his journey he was able to keep putting patches on the leaks and in the end no one drowned… Or so his documentary made out. Whilst a number of the participants forgave Gandhi’s deceit because they had in fact benefited from the exercise, on the other hand, I think there may have been considerable harm done to the participants who chose not to tell their story in the end and abruptly left when he revealed who he really was. We don’t get to hear about their experience.

My conclusion is that this was a very dangerous and irresponsible experiment that may have had profoundly injurious consequences for the vulnerable people who followed him. Each individual is a precious spiritual being and making an experiment like this is not skilful in its actions, words or thoughts; it is not relating to other beings in a compassionate and wise and respectful manner.

One positive outcome is to raise awareness that we need to take a responsible approach in seeking a spiritual teacher: make sure that you look very carefully at the credentials of your teacher in an open and honest way. If the teacher is genuine, they will welcome your questions. And if you have any intuitive feelings that perhaps something is not quite right, then you must trust this deeper wisdom that is speaking to you. If it doesn’t feel right but you  can’t quite put your finger on what is wrong, talk to your teacher about your doubts – a skilful teacher will be able to help you distinguish between doubt that arises as a natural consequence of stretching your practice and doubt that arises in response to a deeper wisdom that something is not right and needs to be changed. Spiritual practice is about learning to open your eyes, so look with gentle compassion and wisdom at your teacher as well – a genuine teacher will welcome your scrutiny.

Mirrors and Leaky Boats (Part 1)

Lecture by Vikram Gandhi on his documentary “Kumare”

I watched a very provocative documentary last night on ABC2 called “Kumare”, which I highly recommend that you see (you can view it online on ABC’s iView). It is a film by Indian-American Vikram Gandhi, who posed as a guru in order to prove his hypothesis that you don’t need a spiritual teacher for self-realisation, and that people are too easily duped by gurus. He calls himself Kumare and gathers a small group of disciples in Phoenix, Arizona, teaching them made-up mantras, scriptures and yoga, whilst all the time telling them that he is an illusion and they can find their own guru within, before finally “coming out” and declaring his ruse at the end of the film, to very mixed reactions from his hitherto followers.

At first I thought it was going to be a kind of candid-camera expose on the gullibility of folk, and perhaps this was Gandhi’s original intention, but the film unfolds in a quite unexpected way that raises many questions not only about the ethics of duping vulnerable people in this way, but also of the fundamental question of what a spiritual teacher actually is and what are the responsibilities of that teacher. Even though Gandhi starts out cynically, he himself becomes transformed by his own social experiment. I came away from the film with many vexing and unanswerable questions that linked into what I discussed on my “What is a Buddhist priest?” blog entry.

Gandhi, teaching as Kumare, insists that he is just a “mirror” in which the students can see their true selves. He even holds up a mirror so that his followers can practice seeing themselves, as one of his bogus spiritual practices. This really struck me because one of the principle images in Wabi’an is Mirror of Wisdom Kannon – the Bodhisattva who holds a mirror in her hand as a symbol that spiritual teachings are merely a method for all beings to see their own reflected wisdom. Although it seems to be something obvious, I also believe that all the great truths are in fact staring us right in the face but somehow we all need help to open our eyes so that we can see this wisdom for ourselves.

This is one reason why I have continued to trust my own teacher because I have always felt that when he looks at me, he sees something deep inside me that I cannot yet see but is just waiting for me to open my eyes. In fact, this is one expression often used in reference to the enlightened Buddha – the One Who is Awake. It seems so simple to say, “We only have to open our eyes”, yet it is so difficult to do! This is why a compassionate spiritual teacher is necessary because they can help us to open our eyes and see the world with new vision. In that new world nothing has changed, but we experience it in a totally different way that gives us joy and fulfilment even in the midst of everyday chaos and pain.

So whilst Vikram Gandhi was merely offering the ancient wisdom of the “mirror of wisdom”, which is an inspiring teaching, does that justify his lying to a group of vulnerable spiritual seekers? This leads me to the “leaky boat” which I’ll tackle tomorrow…

Sharing a cuppa

my hands
warmed by the cup
become the potter’s 

It’s a beautiful sunny winter morning here at Wabi’an, so I decided to sit out in the garden with a cup of fragrant soba-cha (buckwheat tea) and listen to the thousands of bees busily collecting nectar from the flowers in the grevillea bushes. They made me feel deliciously lazy!

As I sat there listening to the bees, I enjoyed feeling the warmth of the tea heating up the cup and traveling into my fingers which were really cold from the brisk winter air. I took a moment to imbibe not just the warm smoky taste of the buckwheat tea, but its popcorn-like fragrance, as well as the visual pleasure of the green-brown glaze of the teacup through the clear straw-coloured tea. And, in this way, all my senses seemed to be absorbed in this moment of tea-ness which was ‘delicious’ on so many levels.

I also enjoyed the texture, shape and feel of the cup as I wrapped my hands around it. This cup is one of my favourites – it was made by a Japanese artist who lives in an artist’s community in a small village in the mountains near Koyasan, where I was ordained. The cup was a special gift from a fellow nun from my home temple, Muryoko’in, and although Buddhists are not supposed to be “attached” to the material world, I treasure this cup.

Then, in my moment of tea-ness, I suddenly felt that my hands were holding this cup in exactly the way that the potter had intended when he made it, and I felt too that his own hands were held in just such a way when he fashioned the cup. At that moment, with the warmth of tea coming through the cup, I felt the warmth of the potter’s own hands as he had so carefully caressed and shaped this cup from its raw state that had come out of the earth. The unknown potter had gifted me this moment of profound awareness that engaged all my senses and connected me with his creative spirit and with the earth herself. I was deeply grateful to him and said a prayer of thanks for our connection.

Do you have a favourite cup? What is its story? Next time you make yourself a cuppa, take a moment to feel the connection to the creator of the cup and, through that person’s hands, connect to the earth. I can assure you it is at the same time a very grounding as well as uplifting experience – and it’s right there for us to experience at any time of the day!


I wrote the little introductory poem as a ‘haiku’ – a very brief form of traditional Japanese poetry in which the experience of a single moment is encapsulated in three brief lines. Try it!

Soba-cha is a delicious tea made from roasted buckwheat – I don’t know if its available outside of Japan, but if you can find it it’s very healthy and tasty.

I highly recommend a book called “The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty” by Soetsu Yanagi, which explores the value and essence of art by craftsmen who remain unknown, and how “objects are born, not made”. Wonderful book!

What is a Buddhist priest?

Recently, I thought about giving up being a Buddhist priest because I felt overwhelmingly inadequate. After all, what did I “know” that was any different to anyone else who was following a spiritual path? What did I have to share with others that could help them? How could I know whether what I shared was going to be helpful or actually, because of my unskillfulness, might even be harmful? What does it mean to be a Buddhist priest, when I see all the harm that has been done in the world in the name of some kind of religious dogma? These questions troubled me deeply.

On the other hand, I am so grateful to have been greatly blessed by encountering many wonderful people who are the very embodiment of pure spiritual ideals and who live their practice with such compassion, integrity, grace, and honesty. These people have been so generous in teaching me, by their very presence, so many rich spiritual lessons that have helped me enormously in my own life. And so I wanted others to also experience something of the joy these lessons have brought to my own life, but I struggled to find a way to pass that on when I didn’t feel I had the necessary skills to do a good job.

After all, I’m an ordinary housewife, living a pretty typical Australian lifestyle – well, doesn’t everyone have a Buddhist shrine built beside the barbie in their backyard? Okay, so maybe I’m not exactly typical, but I do have three grown up kids who I still worry about even though they are all doing great, and a wonderful husband who is just the best, and a couple of dogs who I swear at vigorously when they dig up the yard, and I worry too much about just about everything and feel guilty when I suggest we get pizza because I can’t be bothered cooking –  just like a regular Aussie middle-aged Mum! However, I don’t live a celibate life retired in a religious community, I don’t shave my head or wear robes or exhibit all the other trappings that seem to go with the title “Reverend”. So, how can I be a “priest”?

As for my own beliefs, the more I explored Buddhism as a religion, rather than the simple philosophy of life which it has always been for me, the more discouraged I became when I saw how Buddhism could be just as dogmatic and narrow-minded and corrupt as any other religion or ‘ism’. There are many conflicting factions all claiming the “Truth” that seem so far away from the Buddha’s simplicity. This disheartened me greatly and I thought I no longer wanted to be a part of it, but at the same time I felt that my teachers had entrusted me with an important role of sharing their teachings with others who might also benefit like I had.

Then last week, out of the blue, I received a letter from my teacher in my home temple of Muryokoin in Koyasan in Japan. He wrote to explain to me that one of the phrases in the morning prayers that we recite every day says that we must never blindly accept the teachings of any one tradition. Instead, we must always be learning from all spiritual traditions because the root of life and all ways of being in the world come from the same great spring of Truth. And even if we never fully apprehend that Truth, if we carefully observe we can find evidence of its existence in all paths and in all beings. Here was an answer for my doubts and the encouragement I needed to continue to have faith in following my own path, even if it seemed to sometimes wander all over the place! Yet my teacher wrote this to me even though I had never expressed to him about any of my doubts!

So being a Buddhist priest is not about how that looks on the outside, or espousing certain doctrines, or what I wear, or even how others might perceive me. With a teacher who I can see by his actions embodies this Truth that is ever elusive, I have taken vows to live an honest life of personal integrity and to share what lessons I learn along the way with others for whom it might be helpful. In Buddhism it is not the case that “practice makes perfect”, but rather than “practice makes more practice” and so my role is to continually practice in every action, word and thought and learn from all living beings (oh yes, my dogs are great teachers!).

This letter from my teacher is a small yet, for me, significant miracle and so I wanted to share this with you. It is so important to have support and not feel that we are alone in having doubts and apprehensions about where this life’s path is going, so even though I am just a simple housewife and I don’t have any “answers”, in this blog I can share with you the lessons that are offered to me each day, as well as other treasures I find along my path that might inspire you (and me!) to continue together on our spiritual journey.