Once upon a time I hit bottom with spiritual teachers. So many of them captured my mind and broke my heart — Krishnamurti, Chgoyam Trungpa, Alan Watts, Osho, and others.
But above all there was Bubba.
That one hurt the most.
Bubba was Bubba Free John. He was born Franklin Jones in New York, 1939. Later he was also known as Heart Master Da, Da Love Ananda, Adi Da, and other honorific titles.
I just stick with Bubba.
I still get a kick out of the titles of his books, such as:
- Love of the Two-Armed Form
- The Knee of Listening
- Compulsory Dancing
- Scientific Proof of the Existence of God Will Soon Be Announced By The White House!
- The Bodily Location of Happiness
- Crazy Da Must Sing, Inclined To His Weaker Side
But what turned me on most about Bubba was his speaking.
That guy gave the greatest dharma talks. They convinced me that Bubba really knew something.
I wasn’t alone. David Lane — philosophy professor and author of The Paradox of Da Free John — gave voice to my initial enthusiasm:
There are very few spiritual teachers in the 20th century who could be termed religious geniuses. Da Free John is one of them. Since the beginning of his formal ministry in 1972 in southern California, Da Free John has produced a body of work that is unparalleled amongst new religious thinkers for its radical insight, comparative depth, and force of expression. He has won wide critical acclaim for his writings, eliciting praises from sociologists, psychologists, and theologians.
That’s exactly how I felt about Bubba back in the 1970s.
Then came the 1980s.
In April 1985, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of articles describing Bubba as the leader of a coercive cult.
One month later, the Today Show aired its own exposé (transcript here).
The accusations were the same that we’ve seen them leveled at so many gurus since then: sex with disciples. Drug abuse. Physical abuse. Rampant narcissism. Entrapment of people who tried to leave his community, and more.
How do we make sense of all this? Lane offers one possibility:
…it may well be that much of Da’s deep psychological insight into the human condition didn’t stem from his self-proclaimed “enlightenment” but from observing day to day his own neurotic behavior and his own self-centered interactions with those closest to him.
Eventually I accepted the credibility of the charges against Bubba. My illusion turned into disillusionment — and then into a healing insight that I retain to this day: Never confuse the messenger with the message.
Three propositions for spiritual seekers
Reviewing Bubba’s body of work, I still think there are gems to be had there. But after all these years and all the sordid revelations, how do I relate the message to the man?
Based on my experience with Bubba, what lessons about spiritual teachers can I carry forward into the future? Following are my current answers:
1: Move beyond total acceptance versus total rejection. I’ve always seen myself as a flexible thinker. But far too often my thinking about Bubba — and about spiritual teachers in general — has been exactly the opposite.
The trap is the “do it my way or hit the highway” fallacy. It’s the assumption that when someone gives a brilliant talk, I’m thereby obligated to believe everything that person says and buy into the teacher’s whole organization.
That kind of binary, “either-or” thinking is a big red flag.
2: Remember that enlightenment involves a continuum of experiences that vary in depth and breadth. The process of “waking up,” however you define it, is exactly that — a process. It is not a unitary state of being that is achieved once and for all. Nor is it synonymous with total transformation.
In fact, it’s possible for spiritual teachers to possess a lot of insight while drinking to excess, having sex with multiple partners, and otherwise creating wreckage in their personal lives. (For examples, see Sex and the Spiritual Teacher by my friend Scott Edelstein.)
Spiritual evolution is not a straight path where all the elements of a person change at the same pace. The path takes time. And, people stumble along the way.
Michael Taft, a meditation teacher, says it well:
Awakening and psychological growth are largely orthogonal. While one can definitely help the other, they are entirely different things. You can be very awake and still be a total asshole (as well as anxious, depressed, conflicted, avoidant, etc.). From my viewpoint, awakening is just the beginning of the path, and nothing like the end.
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous make this point when they describe recovery from addiction as a matter of “progress — not perfection.”
3: Look for alignment between teachings and behavior. I’ll never forget something that Shinzen Young said: The true test of a spiritual teacher is how he or she behaves while driving in rush-hour traffic.
The idea is to check for alignment between words and deeds. If you see disconnects between a person’s teachings and their behavior, then proceed with caution. Stay open-minded, but also keep your crap-detector handy.
If you can’t trust teachers to guide you ethically through this material world, then why assume that they can guide you through any other plane of reality?
David Lane offers a suggestion that’s reasonable and easy to remember:
Perhaps the best way to keep one’s critical faculties in tact when dealing with a so-called Master’s questionable behavior is to ask one simple question: Would we accept the same conduct from an elementary school teacher interacting with our 8 year old child? Simply put, it is the disciple’s responsibility to have a very high standard when it comes to his/her chosen guru or master. Otherwise, we become easy prey for charlatans and madmen who use spiritual entitlements for their own personal gain. [Boldface added.]
More fuel for thinking critically about spiritual teachers
- Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts — Monica Furlong’s biography presents a round picture of Watts, from his brilliant books and lectures to his heavy drinking and sexual infidelities.
- Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center — Michael Downing’s book tells the story of Richard Baker Roshi, founder and guiding teacher, who was forced to resign after several members of the Center confessed to affairs with him.
- Wild, Wild Country — This six-part Netflix documentary about Rajneesh (Osho) takes us from the guru’s early work in India to his ashram in Oregon and eventual deportation after charges of attempted assassination, mass food poisoning, and other crimes.