by Dr. Alfred Bloom, Emeritus Professor, University of Hawaii

The Zen master I-hsuan of the Lin-chi (Rinzai sschool) in China made a very perceptive statement concerning the relation of religious faith and authority. He stated that the term Patriarch is one of praise and reverence but also bondage. Along the same line the Zen master Hui-neng said that if one practices the Lotus Sutra (or Sacred Text) with one’s mind, one turns the Lotus Sutra, while if one does not practice with one’s mind, the Lotus Sutra turns him.

These statements open up a major issue whether religion frees the human spirit or dominates it. When we encounter a leader or teacher who impacts our lives deeply, we naturally praise and revere him/her. Will the leader use that opportunity to liberate or dominate the disciple?

In the history of religion there have been many great luminaries who have been elevated as manifestations of the divine or channels of divine light or revelation in our world. The founders of the great religions have generally been viewed in this way and exalted above the life of ordinary people. From this we can understand I-hsuan’s comment that the term Patriarch is one of praise.

Yet, he follows that comment by noting that it is also a term of bondage. This aspect is more subtle and yet also an aspect of religious history which is replete with spiritual exploitation and intimidation. His point is that to the extent we exalt a teacher or leader above us, to that extent we are diminishing ourselves. The higher the elevation of the teacher, the lower we become. Similarly Hui-neng declares that if we have a servile, unquestioning mind, the Lotus Sutra or Sacred Text dominates us. In the modern religious context we have heard frequently of the guru complex or the cult leader who takes over and subjugates the life of the follower, often ending with bizarre and damaging results.

In Buddhism, the issue is always the mind. It is with our minds that we create, negotiate our world and tread our path to Enlightenment. What is important is whether one’s mind is awakened to its own potentiality to apprehend truth and experience freedom, nurtured through study and contemplation. The awakened mind is the means to overcome domination and to follow the path to spiritual freedom and independence, realizing the ancient principle that you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.

Gautama Buddha offered us a guideline when encountering varieties of viewpoints and teachings which claim authority. He advised: “Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; … nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher’. …When you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not valueless; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, enter on and abide in them.’” A true spiritual leader awakens the inquiring mind, and empowers the seeker to realize their full personal potential and spiritual independence by realizing the truth for themselves.