Sam Harris conducted an interesting interview with Buddhist heretic Stephen Batchelor (I consider that word to be a compliment) and shared it on his Waking Up iPhone app.
Here's my transcription of a part of the interview where Batchelor talks about abuses of power in religious or spiritual organizations. I think he's correct that hierarchical institutions make it easier for wrongdoing to take place by those at the top.
And I also agree that claims to knowledge of ultimate truth by a religious leader also lead to abuses of power. This is what Batchelor said. There may be a few small errors in my transcription, but I've got it almost entirely correct.
Well, there's many different ways we could approach this. And one way I'd like to approach it off the top of my head is to think of it as really a function of a different kind of human institution. Let me just restrict myself to Buddhism.
Institutions in which you find, in a way, the greatest number of incidents are the institutions that are the most feudal and hierarchical. And as you said yourself, you have it more in the Zen and Tibetan and less in the Theraveda.
Well, the kinds of societies that these particular three traditions come from rather make my point.
If you have a society that honors a kind of absolute relation of power between a feudal lord and underlings, or a king and the subjects, and you model your monastic institutions, probably quite unconsciously, on that structure of power, then you give people, individual men almost entirely, extraordinary power over others.
And when you have a theocratic tradition like in Tibet, with notions of enlightenment that are, frankly, superhuman, and these are projected onto these men who have all this power, you have a very unbalanced relationship between the teacher and the student.
I'm not trying to explain this away by saying it's all about the institutions and the individuals have no responsibility. Of course the individuals have responsibility for their acts. But I cannot fail to see that part of the problem lies in the structures of power in which people operate.
And the Roman Catholic church might strike us as slightly similar in its organization.
You see, any claim to absolute truth, which many Tibetan and other Zen Buddhists will claim, is a claim to absolute power. To me the split into the relative truth and the ultimate truth, which is so widespread in Buddhism, also is a doctrine that underpins and legitimizes a particular structure of power.
The lama or the roshi or the monk who has gained insight into these deep spiritual traditions and so forth, that person has access to God, essentially, and thereby carries the authority and the power in the eyes of their followers, to God himself. I find that to be a situation where, almost invariably, abuses of power are going to take place.