I’ve had some bad experiences with spiritual masters.
In the late eighties and early nineties, there were very public scandals at Buddhist centers all over the country. Teachers had fondled students, favored lovers, played fast and easy with members’ land and money, were unconfessed and unrecovered alcoholics – and those were just the actionable misdeeds. In each case the devastation was proportional to the teacher’s “charisma.” True believers defended their besmirched teachers while victims and journalists wagged fingers.
As Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Ever the showman, and privately worrying my own teacher-inflicted wounds, I took to pasting stickers to the posters in bookstores and coffeehouses, wherever a teacher was touted more prominently than the teaching. Over those omnisciently smiling faces, I advertised:
The public is alerted that this poster bears internal evidence of one or more of the following mental health hazards: poisonous self-infatuated guruism, infectious delusion, narcissism, spiritual hucksterism, general demagoguery, and/or non-specific bumfuzzlement. Possible deleterious mental health effects include neurotic dependency, blind sycophancy, chronic true believerism, entrenched infantilism, compulsive yes-manosis, and bald compensatory proselytizing, any of which can lead to serious spiritual retardation and other complications.
With those posters, all dimples and blue sky – “Buy me and be saved!” – compare the website of Zen Center San Diego, where the names of the teachers (Ezra Bayda and his wife and co-teacher, Elizabeth) are unaccompanied by splashy photos. It is sans resumes and testimonials: just the facts.
Scratch a guru, get a narcissist: that’s the general rule. How many teachers are there who have not sought their positions, and who could have become teachers without a dose of self-infatuation? The position itself evokes narcissism. The doctrine of divine right is very much alive in Buddhist circles, with “enlightenment” or spiritual lineage in the place of “God.”
In ecstasies of self-love, I once spent a summer pasting names on a huge chart that showed the succession of masters of all the Zen lineages from the Buddha down to, well, me. A teacher had told me that he would make me his heir. He measured me for robes, and I caught the horrible virus. I imagined my own reflection in an infinity of mirrors.
Then there’s Ezra. He certainly has his share of charm. He’s trim and olive-skinned, with a ready laugh, deep intellectual curiosity, and what the military might call the ability to command. When I first worked on a crew that Ezra managed, I remember being jarred by his terse directives; unlike me, Ezra would not lubricate his remarks with smiles. Before he became a teacher, he spent many years as a contractor, managing, mediating, and policing construction sites. He did well enough to provide for his family, retire on the earnings, and devote himself to practice. Some of the palatial estates he built can be seen high on the hills of Sonoma County.
As a student, Ezra was hardly a smiley yes-man. (In fact, Robert de Ropp’s Gurdjieff group dubbed him “the Prince of Negative Emotions.”) By and large, as a teacher, Ezra doesn’t elicit the yes-man response in his students, either. “Students certainly project a lot on me,” he says, “telling me I’m always kind, or never angry – but I have enough of a bullshit detector to know what’s true and what’s not. The emphasis needs to stay on the point of practice, not on the personality of those presenting it. When we meditate long enough, hopefully we’ll see through the self-delusion of being special, being elevated, thinking that I’m the one who knows best – which disconnects us not only from others, but from our true heart.”
So how did Ezra escape the trap into which so many masters have fallen?
“All I wanted was to become free of anxiety and fear,” says Ezra. “So, even though my agenda was quite narrow, it was strong enough that I managed to bypass a lot of the magical thinking and the true believer mode that are often characteristic of the early phases of spiritual practice.”
At the age of eleven or twelve, Ezra started to doubt the God who, he had been taught, would punish him for eating the wrong candy on Passover. Learning of the Holocaust, he remembers, “my belief in God completely crumbled. But my belief in God had given me a sense of meaning. When I lost that meaning, there was a big hole.”
Reading Nietzsche as a graduate student at New York University confirmed Ezra’s atheism and was crucial to his spiritual development. Like Nietzsche, Ezra had a grave, indrawn temperament, which he worked on through the practice of Jasagen (“Yes-saying”). One must be free from doctrine and dogma and embrace life, said Nietzsche: amor fati – love your fate.
However, Ezra found the profusion of words and the paucity of practice among the university’s professional philosophers disappointing. So, in 1967, he joined the flower child migration to the sunset coast, but not as a flower child. Although he had a girlfriend, a sports car, and basketball pals, he spent months alone in his San Francisco apartment, sitting in a Murphy bed closet and trying to understand what his life was about. “I lived in a tunnel of anxiety,” says Ezra, “and I didn’t know if it was ever possible to get out.”
Eventually, Ezra left the Murphy bed closet and sought teachers. The first (after Nietzsche, whom Ezra considers his original teacher) made him work against his conditioning by doing what was most difficult for him. Ezra, who was disdainful of hippies and “petrified of public exposure,” had to make up a Dylanesque song, put on a bowler hat, and sing on San Francisco street corners, begging for change.
Ezra then found his way to a Gurdjieff group led by Robert de Ropp (author of The Master Game), where they practiced Zen-style sitting meditation. During his first session, after fifty minutes of shikantaza[literally, “just sitting”], “my body disappeared.” One of de Ropp’s senior students told Ezra, “Some people sit for ten years to achieve that.” Ezra responded, “Why would anybody want to achieve that?“
Though he had his share of special experiences early in his practice, and continues to have them now and then, Ezra says he is unimpressed by these “free rides.” “Now, when I meet new students who are seeking enlightenment experiences, I pretty much leave them alone. I figure that disappointment and disillusionment are the best teachers, and if, in the meantime, it motivates them to practice, then it’s all for the good. But I have nothing against joyful or transcendent experiences. I just feel that for most people, seeking such experiences is a detour away from the life we don’t like very much. A deeper equanimity comes when we learn how to be with our life as it is, not as we would like it to be.”
Enlightenment? If that word doesn’t mean this actual experience of ours, unmediated by concepts and partiality, asks Ezra, what could it mean? “I wonder what people think – that ’emptiness’ means not having to deal with your family any more? The crux of the human problem is that we don’t want to have any problems.”
In the world of spiritual seeking, a strong emphasis on personal enlightenment as the goal of practice tends to come with two corollaries: charismatic teachers and status-driven religious hierarchy. The higher-ups have more enlightenment, and the teacher has the most of anybody. That’s a game in which Ezra has no interest. As Lao Tzu said, “Regarding teacher and student, whichever forgets the lesson is as far behind as the other.”
“Charismatic teachers,” says Ezra, “can draw people who are really needy because they don’t have to feel that painful hole of neediness.” If my life is a bubbling swamp, at least I can take refuge in the existence of souls who have achievedsomething, seems to be the idea. My ex-wife, while a student at Shasta Abbey, saw a monk return from an initiation. “Teijo,” she said, “something about you looks really different. You look luminous!”
The monk’s response: “Noelle, they shaved my eyebrows.”
“Even though I found the Gurdjieff work very helpful,” says Ezra, “after around seven or eight years I became dissatisfied with what seemed like an emphasis on self-perfection, on struggling against oneself. I found that whenever we see ourselves as the enemy, we are not only solidifying the persona, we also make practice too serious and almost grim. It was at this point that I was drawn to the seeming simplicity of Zen, with the implicit promise that if I sat long enough and hard enough, that my fears and other persona issues would resolve on their own, without the need to struggle against them.”
Fat chance. Despite “many wonderful experiences,” Ezra found that shikantaza and Samadhi practice – i.e., simply staying with the breath – shut out too much of life and excluded other practices. The practice had the counterproductive effect of encouraging people to try to achieve special states of mind. “All we have to do is look at the recent history of Zen and other traditions to see the folly of ignoring our psychology,” remarks Ezra. “Whatever comes up [must be] included in practice, rather than trying to feel – or be – a particular way.”
Ezra’s experience deepened as the result of sickness brought on by prolonged chemical exposure: ironically, DDT permeated the soil of a farm where he had been pursuing what he thought was a healthful natural lifestyle. “In 1991, it hit me like a tidal wave, and there was no getting around it.” One day after washing his hair, Ezra realized he didn’t have the strength to get out of the tub, let alone dry himself off. At that moment, he felt that his life was over. All the things he had thought he was – contractor, Zen man, husband, father – crumbled.
Bedridden for days on end, Ezra found that the Zen practice he had been following became “deeper and more real,” but also that that traditional samadhi-centered practice was not enough. He read books by teacher Stephen Levine, who writes on death and illness, and practiced meditations on forgiveness, healing, and lovingkindness. Before then he had thought that that kind of thing was “not real practice: bullshit, airy-fairy stuff.”
“Some people think I’m not really a Zen teacher because I do these things,” Ezra explains, “but I find them to be central.” Ezra has his own lights. His focus is not on the preservation of a tradition or the dissemination of a doctrine, but on whatever best addresses the central problem.
He even incorporates some Gurdjieff practices in his teaching, daily “tasks” in which the practitioner consciously goes against her grain. For example, a student may be asked to undertake to speak when she doesn’t want to, or to wear unflattering clothes. The object is to enable one to observe and experience things that challenge the ego image. “I think [Gurdjieff] has an understanding which Zen has somewhat underestimated: the magnitude and depth of sleep.”
The weakness Ezra experienced, and the surrender to groundlessness that his illness necessitated, led him to his way of practice. He learned to see through thoughts and identities by attending to them, to abstain from believing in them, and to say yes to his fears – to be willing to experience them unfiltered, undefended, along with all the other phenomena of life.
After so much arduous preparation, Ezra’s actual career as a teacher began almost peripherally, as an afterthought. In 1991, expressly “to get away from being a big fish” in the Zen community where he was then practicing, Ezra attended sesshin at Zen Center San Diego. Elizabeth, who would become his second wife, was already teaching there. The following year, he started volunteering at a hospice in Santa Rosa, California, and he subsequently set up a much-needed eight-week course for nurses and counselors there:Burnout as Spiritual Practice. At its end, people wanted more, and so he set up a meditation group, which ultimately drew people from outside hospice programs. He liked the practice approach at ZCSD – and he liked Elizabeth. So when he was asked to formally teach there, he moved to San Diego, although he continues to fly up once a month to teach and give daisan (private interviews with students) at the Santa Rosa group.
“I struggled with the role for several years – going back and forth between knowing I had something to offer and ‘who am I kidding?’ Even now, as a teacher, I see how very easy it is to buy my own act, to fall into the narrow identity of teacher. Complacency is what will most undermine my own continued learning. I feel fortunate that my wife is also a teacher – our fifteen years together have had a very strong influence on how I see practice and what I teach, and it also helps expose my blind spots to me in ways that few other things can. The other countermeasure to complacency is to keep pushing at my own edge, to keep going to the places where I’m still stuck, or where I know I don’t yet have clarity. That’s one reason why working on heart practices, like lovingkindness practice, is so important for me, because it’s obvious I still have so much to learn.”
It’s a vital and ceaseless mission. I remember attending discussions at Ezra’s Santa Rosa meditation group when students challenged things that he had said. Ezra never stiffened his back or forced a smile. He listened, he reasoned, and so he encouraged us to be lamps unto ourselves.
We must stay awake. Like the rest of us, Ezra has to keep monitoring the bullshit meter. “It’s hardly ‘awake’ to have a big spiritual experience and then shortly thereafter speak contemptuously to someone because you don’t really know your own anger or fear,” he says.
A few months ago, on a tour of Auschwitz with Elizabeth, he pocketed a pebble – memento mori: there is suffering. He passed it on to me; I keep it taped to a scrap of paper on my desk. I’m looking at it right now.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.