Moral Compass

One of the common themes of religions is the importance placed on the role of clergy or religious leaders. This varies from high regard for priests to ‘leaderless’ traditions with a place for respected elders. It seems there is a fundamental need for some kind of spiritual guidance— similar to the importance of learning map and compass skills by someone who hikes in the wilderness. We progress along a spiritual path by being able to skillfully read the signs and negotiate the pitfalls. But we usually need some instruction.

Unfortunately, due to egos being involved, spiritual leadership is not immune to the potential abuse of power. We are seeing the negative consequences of this manifesting as sexual abuse by Christian ministers, Buddhist lamas, and many other clergy in traditions with so-called indispensable priesthoods. Spiritual guidance should never become a power play over religious community members at any level. Ignorance about personal ego structure by many clergy (and political leaders) can lead to a distorted sense of power.

Of course, ignorance is what it is: avidya (Skt.) or “not seeing clearly.” So priests, ministers, and lamas may truly be blind to what they are doing. This is no excuse, but does point to a problem with giving too much authority to clergy. I think it is better in today’s spiritual climate to develop models of ‘dispensable’ priesthoods. This is what Buddha originally had in mind by teaching we all have a Buddha nature from the beginning. No one is more holy than another.

In Vajrayana Buddhism we are taught to see the spiritual teacher as ourselves, a kind of mirror to our natural enlightened state. I see it more as an agreement between student and teacher to be mutual mirrors so neither party creates inappropriate projection. Rather than the teacher standing above the student, it seems more beneficial to walk side by side. Otherwise, the spiritual guide may adopt an inflated role and the student becomes inferior. Not a good situation.

It is best to walk beside our teacher while they share their expertise about the spiritual path. Carrying a trusted map and compass, student and teacher engage in dialog as both become more skillful exploring the wilderness of mind. We remain mindful that gaining skill requires determined work because the ego is lazy. Our imagined self may rely on false signals or expect GPS to save us even when the battery is dead. 

At some point, the outer teacher is dispensable and we carry them in our heart no matter where we roam. We begin to share our knowledge with others we meet along the path. Even if we lose our bearings, we have the strength of ‘selfless-reliance.’ The spacious wisdom of our inner teacher accurately points the way