Why Open a Pan-Traditional Spiritual Center?
By Sasha Chapin
At the Alembic, you might notice that we offer an abundance of practices. On a typical weekday, in different rooms, you will find local seekers balancing their qi, painting deities, and chatting about psychedelic literature. Now, this isn’t just dilettantism: it’s all administered by respected teachers and scholars, not a bunch of yahoos. But, still, this eclectic, non-denominational approach might register as a little scattered. So why would you do it?
Perhaps this is not the right framing. Perhaps the right framing is—what could go wrong if you built a single-tradition spiritual center? They’ve been doing it for thousands of years. You may have heard of monasteries. Surely they know what they’re doing.
And, yes, they do. Usually, they are skillful at teaching their central practices, and the interior decoration is often spectacular.
But, unfortunately, human beings have varying needs. While it would be wonderful if everyone could reach spiritual fulfillment through one series of movements, or visualizations, or prostrations, or texts, that is not, apparently, the case. From observing the spiritual aspirants in my midst, I notice that there is a huge variance in what works––variance that is perhaps impossible to predict at the outset.
I’ve experienced this personally. In my early 20s, in the hopes of becoming an enlightened superhuman, I dived deep into Zen tradition. But sitting and staring at a wall didn’t do much for me except provide ass pain. In retrospect, it was a great strategy for continuing to dissociate from my emotions. Much time could’ve been saved if I’d been introduced to the techniques that eventually helped me break my inner ice floe––specifically, non-traditional shadow work, a la Existential Kink. (Interestingly, I’ve come home to Zen-influenced practice, but it was only after a series of explorations that few mainstream Zen teachers would advise.)
So, a center where one brand of technique is taught very well will cater quite efficiently to those who need that particular thing at that particular time, but won’t do as well for others. Those who are not doing well may be told that they should try harder, or try differently—it’s unlikely that they’ll be referred to another set of teachings. Very few teachers have the guts to say, “Okay, it turns out I’m useless to you, here’s where else you can go.”
That, however, is not nearly the worst failure mode of being mono-traditional. There is a dramatically less groovy one that is far too common.
People who come to places like the Alembic are typically searching for answers. Sometimes, in the search for answers, spiritual seekers encounter charismatic teachers who say: “Ah, you are in luck! It just so happens that you have stumbled upon The Answer. Unlike all of those other teachers, I know what meditation the Buddha really taught. Look nowhere else, take nobody else seriously.” These claims, issued in the right tone of voice, can be highly credible to a searcher in need. Especially if, perhaps, they are made in the middle of a meditation retreat, when everyone is fasting and mentally altered.
This attitude eliminates curiosity—the student is immediately taught to disregard other potential sources of wisdom. Worse yet, it creates the potential for abuse. If you’ve bought into the story that the abbot is the arbiter of all that is true and holy, you might put up with some serious bullshit. Perhaps you would accept claims that destructive behavior is part of the teaching, some kind of “crazy wisdom,” or the sort of lapses that one must forgive in an otherwise perfected being.
Of course, it’s not the case that dogmatic teachers are always abusive, or even mostly. However, the dynamic is inherently failure-prone. The dogmatic teacher says to the student, explicitly or implicitly: your journey is represented by my system. My understanding of your mind is greater than yours. This has been a huge problem in America. For example, Vajrayana teaching experienced a major setback when its foremost US ambassador, the unquestionably brilliant Chögyam Trungpa, committed some serious misdeeds, like physically forcing poet W.S. Merwin and his girlfriend, Dana Naone, to doff their clothing after they refused to join a nude gathering.
Now, sometimes, subservience to authority can create a beautiful relationship. When the guru connection goes well, it’s surpassingly wonderful. Even crazy wisdom probably has its place, at least for certain students. However, when these relationships go badly, the results can be shattering. It’s painful to make the discovery that what you’ve accepted as universal truth is, in fact, another flawed framework, like every other framework. It’s even more painful if this is discovered in the course of your guru behaving badly—like, for example, when Tara Brach’s guru ridiculed her in front of a crowd of other students, claiming that she was to blame for her miscarriage. Brach tells the story in her book Radical Acceptance:
Breaking the silence [of a public gathering], he called out my name, the Sanskrit name he had given me years before when I committed myself to following his teachings. The sound of his voice rang in my ears as he asked me to stand up … without any prelude, he declared in a harsh tone that I had caused my baby’s death by being so professionally ambitious and ego centered. I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach—the shock of pain twisted my insides. I stood frozen and numb as he continued, telling me in crude language that I had been willing to have sex but did not really want a child …
As the world closed in around me, an old and familiar despair took hold. Not only had his words flung me into a pit of my own ugliness, now the voices inside me were confirming that I was fundamentally flawed.
In the end, this event was positive for Brach, in that it drove her out of a dysfunctional spiritual community. But one suspects she would’ve been spared some needless pain if she simply hadn’t come across this particular teacher.
In an eclectic or non-denominational center, nobody is declared the perfect being, so nobody is allowed to act that way. Implicitly, every teacher knows that they’re in the company of other teachers from other traditions, people who may well call them out if they put on airs or play guru. From the student’s perspective, this multiplicity makes it obvious that there are always other truths, other methods, other understandings. Which course you pursue isn’t the choice of a charismatic figurehead. It’s instead a property of your attractions, tastes, and sensibilities—criteria that may be as good as any other. If, on Sunday, there’s a teacher at the Alembic who says they have the purest distillation of yoga, but your soul says you want to paint demons, well, aren’t you glad that also happens to be on offer?
This mode of doing things can go south, of course. Open pluralism can become a kind of mushy-headed vagueness, like different conversations at a cocktail party dissolving into background noise. This is a failure mode that’s befallen lots of attempts at syncretic, New Age, “universal” spirituality. On the other hand, it’s possible to achieve a “strong pluralism” that can tolerate genuine differences, one where individual voices balance and compliment each other. It’s a delicate balance that can never be perfectly achieved. But here at the Alembic, we believe it’s worth the imperfect attempt.
Another potential issue: this individual approach to spirituality can become individualist in a bad way. Students face the temptation to swap out their “brand” of practice or path once they hit the hard stuff—obstructions that faith in a single teacher or teaching can sometimes more directly overcome. Lone practitioners can also end up in mutually indecipherable loneliness. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be more like a quilt of individual perspectives, shared among non-biological family—the sort of family who enjoy debate and even disagreement as they break bread.
Ultimately, every seeker develops their own tradition, a mutated batch of remnants and resonances, the words, gestures, and moments that take root, unpredictably, in the heart. Even in rigid orthodox movements, this is true—you may have noticed that fundamentalists cannot even agree with themselves reliably.
What a pluralistic, pan-traditional center can aim for is providing the richest inputs possible, the weirdest and most precious nutrients. Nobody is the final authority, so we can all join each other in the leaky boat of non-finality. Multiple perspectives keep the inquiry going, and create a more interesting social environment, where peer-to-peer exchange is as important as teacher-student relationships. The end goal is a strong, multidimensional sangha, free of the brittleness of false authority.
Transmutations is a biweekly publication from the Berkeley Alembic, a post-denominational spiritual center that offers classes, workshops, retreats, and warm cups of tea.