Bruce Charlton recently sent me a link to a Youtube video about Seraphim Rose and Alan Watts.
For those who don't know Seraphim Rose was an American Russian Orthodox priest and definitely someone who was called to holiness. Alan Watts was a populariser of Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, in the 1950s at a time when the appeal of Eastern religion was strong among a certain spiritually deracinated intellectual class. I first came across one of his books around 1980 but had an instinctive dislike of the showmanship element I felt I saw in him so only read a few pages before putting the book away. It was well-written and even insightful up to a point but it was also obvious that here was someone who had the words off pat but didn't live the teachings at all, except superficially, and reading that actually does more spiritual harm than good. The video more or less confirms that this was, or became, Seraphim Rose's opinion too. He was attracted to Watts at first but soon saw through him. Bruce Charlton pointed out that Watts seems manipulative and selfish with a cold heart and that you can see this if you watch the video with the sound off. He appears to be trying to intoxicate, entrance, impress and cast a spell on his audience.
I quote this insight of Bruce's here because this is just what so many guru figures of recent decades have done and no doubt still do, though I am not familiar with what goes in that world nowadays. The potent glamour of being seen as the spiritually enlightened master is very strong, and charismatic figures are drawn to it as a way to feed their egos and dominate lesser mortals who give them energy through their adoration. I once asked my teachers about this because it was something that troubled me in my younger days. They told me that these people were not all evil and some did good at their level. However, that implies that some are evil which does indeed seem to be the case. Such teachers use spirituality to advance themselves and they don't care about their disciples other than as satellites revolving around their sun. The following remarks about Watts from the video can be applied to others of his ilk, and that would be a significant number of prominent gurus and spiritual teachers of the last 100 years.
- His version of mysticism promised him spiritual benefits while allowing him to do whatever he wanted.
- He streamlined Zen to cater to the modern mentality of self-worship.
- He destroyed souls including his own.
This is the kind of thing that happens when you take God and the idea of sin out of the equation. Then you use spirituality as a consumer product which means as something to boost the self. I once believed these people were just in error but now I see many of them are badly motivated, predators on the spiritually naive.
In my estimation the change in human consciousness over the last 200 years, with greater individualism and freedom, means that the age of the guru is past. Of course, there is still a place for spiritual teachers of various sorts but not for the guru as the supreme dispenser of wisdom and enlightenment who must be looked up to almost as though he were God or, at least, a god. That was never a Western concept anyway but the guru became a very romantic figure in the West in the 20th century and many unscrupulous spiritual salesmen jumped on board that train. Alan Watts was by no means the worst but he was a definite type.