A disenchanted world for spiritual masters in the information era

When it comes to following gurus and spiritual masters, “[w]e have come to know too much to worship unconditionally,” says Bernhard Pörksen, a German media scholar and professor of media studies at the University of Tübingen, in an interview with Ursula Richard published in Buddhismus Aktuell, a German Buddhist quarterly (1st Quarter). He attributes this development primarily to the impact of media, which makes the apparently unquestionable power of spiritual masters and gurus more vulnerable than ever before. Any follower can launch petitions or report about negative experiences. According to Pörksen, in Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism, in many yoga schools, and in various communities around the world we are currently witnessing “a subterranean implosion of spiritual authority.” (In its review of 2018 trends in the January 2019 issue, RW reported on the spread of abuse scandals across Tibetan Buddhist groups.)

Every minor and major instance of misconduct can be disclosed at lightning speed in an overexposed world. There are no longer remote monasteries or ashrams out of reach when we can easily access online all kinds of critical information and images that sharply contrast with the elevated image projected by spiritual masters. Pörksen quotes examples such as the Shimano Archive, a website documenting decades of abuse by a Zen monk. Once this material became available online, the reputation of the monk was destroyed very rapidly. However, Pörksen observes defensive strategies at work with communities and individual followers confronted with scandals. There are both material and spiritual interests at stake. If the spiritual master is disclosed as fallible, questions about the validity of his teachings arise. The otherwise legitimate desire to avoid gossiping in a spiritual environment can also be used for attempting to block disclosure. The refusal to be judgmental can turn counterproductive. Even if there will remain people looking for new master figures after disappointments, Pörksen sees the coming together of the longing for perfection, the will to unmask and radical transparency as leading to a pulverization of charisma and authority.

(Buddhismus Aktuell, https://buddhismus-aktue