I have a high regard for those souls who have made it their purpose to serve the rest of humanity, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, whether they be nuns, monks, crusaders, martyrs, soldiers, or heroes. It’s not easy to resist the temptations of the world for more selfless pursuits. It takes a principled character and extraordinary compassion to forgo marriage, material possessions, and sensory pleasures to lead an austere and solitary life pursuing one’s mission. (Or you can just be poor and single because you’re really bad at entrepreneurship AND relationships, but I’ll save that story for my memoir.)
I’ve often wondered if these charitable and enlightened souls had access to some kind of wisdom or celestial connection that the rest of us haven’t experienced. Many spiritual leaders give off that impression via their unusually peaceful and detached demeanors and singular devotion to their faith. When I was younger, I used to believe that these icons were infallible and divine, that they had some kind of mysterious, otherworldly relationship with the universe that enabled them to be so brave and exemplary. Like Superman, but . . . in saffron robes. They were Saffronman!
Or like in a Bollywood movie where there would be only angelic heroes or devilish villains. The world was more binary to me back then. I believed that there were already liberated souls temporarily here on earth to impart to us mere mortals as much as they could of their own knowledge and perfection before they left for their final heavenly abode. And then there was the rest of us, fallible and ordinary.
However I’ve since realized that many, if not all of these idols are quite human as well, with at least a few vulnerabilities nestled amongst their many sterling virtues. I’m not referring to pedophile priests hiding their perversions from the world under the guise of charity, or those forced to renounce the world for reasons other than their faith. I’m referring to the flaws in those genuine role models who truly feel that service and renunciation is or was their calling — from the Dalai Lama to Mother Theresa to other noble figures.
The current Dalai Lama was supposed to have been chosen by divine guidance. And he has certainly pursued a selfless and philanthropic lifestyle from birth to his current age of 80 plus. But though he is kind, intelligent, open-minded, and a visionary in so many ways, he does seem to have a few shortcomings that caught me by surprise when I learned of them.
His past comments on the necessity for any future female Dalai Lama to be attractive in order to be taken seriously, and some of his anti-immigrant sentiments have offended quite a few people who have heard them. His team has claimed that the misunderstandings were due to cultural or language differences and he was simply being humorous. I can’t seem to swallow that explanation based on the videos I’ve seen of the incidents, and neither could many others — there was alot of Lama drama around all this. But I believe these faux pas can be forgiven since we know the Dalai Lama to be a humane and service minded soul in the greater context of his life. Nevertheless, his questionable statements made me change my perception of him from a spirit that was divinely handed to us by the universe to, instead, an ordinary but well-intentioned human simply doing his best with the remarkable role given to him.
What further caused my opinions to change was learning of the Dalai Lama’s diet as a non-vegetarian. (Before I go further, I’ll first admit that this is a case of do as I say, and not as I do. Like parents who sneak in cheeseburgers while telling their kids to eat veggies.) I have tried numerous times but have not managed to stop eating meat myself, for health and convenience reasons, although I greatly admire and hope to be a vegan, and am slowly trying to reduce my consumption. I continue to feel guilty about it every single day. I try my best not to wear or buy animal products when I can. Yet I do not fully abstain from consuming animal products overall.
So it might seem hypocritical of me to point fingers. But I like my monks immaculate. For someone with the Dalai Lama’s resources and devotion to alleviating suffering in the world, I just cannot fathom how he — and apparently many other Tibetan monks — can eat meat. I thought he was supposed to be a role model for the rest of us. What’s worse is he doesn’t seem to be very apologetic about it, nor does he seem to aspire to reduce his non-vegetarian consumption. I don’t buy the excuse that they must beg for their food and can’t inconvenience their benefactors, or that they don’t eat animals specifically killed in their name. Cruelty is cruelty, and this criticism applies as equally to me as it does the monks.
Again, I don’t dismiss the Dalai Lama’s many other strengths and good deeds, there are more of those than the few cracks that surface here and there. The Dalai Lama leads an ascetic life where he could easily live a life of plenty — he follows most of his own teachings. But these revelations about him did startle me into the dawning realization that many of my revered spiritual idols may be mere mortals with their own flaws.
Mother Theresa is another iconic and compassionate leader whom I greatly admire, even years after her passing. No one can deny that she spent a lifetime in benevolent servitude of others. She also seemed to live a rather simple and pious life.
However there are many accounts of how she would allow her patients to experience pain, in the belief that suffering was virtuous, even when there were painkillers or other means to lessen it. She was also accused of having attempted the conversion of many of her wards to her brand of Catholicism. Though perhaps this can be dismissed as her misguided conviction of there being only one true way to reach God, even so, I can’t help but think that a truly enlightened soul would be open to any path to heaven.
In addition, the infamous doubts that Mother Theresa conveyed in her letters to peers — letters which she did not want public and had wanted destroyed — revealed that she was not sure there was a God, that she had never spoken to him on her own. She greatly struggled with constant internal turmoil in this regard. I have no issues with this, it’s completely understandable and, in fact, relatable that she had no secret mystical connections. But where I do feel confused is her desire to hide this from the public and display a different front in terms of her beliefs. Why put on such a staunch devotional show on the outside — to the point of wanting others to convert to a specific religion — if one is so unsure of it on the inside? For these reasons I have issues with her, or anyone, being officially accepted as a saint, since that term implies an angelic, and otherworldly persona that I have come to understand that no one really has. It can be misleading. She was as close to a saint as we might get, no doubt, but she was not without her faults as well.
While growing up I was affiliated with an international religious organization where I attended occasional summer camps and Sunday school classes. I met many of the swamis from that organization who would visit our ashram in Chicago as they made their way around the world on their tours. Many of these swamis, akin to monks, had renounced worldly ties and relationships from a very early age, and were leading a spartan, celibate, and service-based life. But when passing through our locality, a few of them would exhibit typical human qualities — albeit somewhat diluted — of anger, bias, intolerance, or pettiness.
On one occasion I remember my Mom had cooked lunch for a swamiji at our home, since it was our community’s responsibility to feed the swamis who did not cook themselves. (I pretended to help by fluttering about here and there while importantly waving around various kitchen implements.) This particular swamiji had a solid reputation in the community but nevertheless he exhibited alot of idiosyncrasies and fussy preferences that were at odds with someone supposed to be so removed from the material world. He was a good and kind soul overall and practicing a much more charitable life than the rest of us, but he did have his share of shortcomings.
Note: Another swamiji — who was the founder of this same organization — has since passed away, but from what little I knew of him when he was alive, and from his remaining videos and publishings, he did seem to be someone who was unflinchingly principled and noble in every aspect. But sadly I didn’t have a chance to meet him as often as I would have liked and make a determination either way.
So is it possible that I am mistaken and there breathe unblemished, divine godmen who have reached the pinnacle of consciousness and are only here for a brief stay on their way out? Is it possible that there exist creatures in our world who have some kind of special access to the secrets of the universe which we everyday mortals have yet to glimpse? Is there somewhere, out there, a Mork to our Mindy?
Perhaps — I have barely connected with a handful of spiritual teachers in my lifetime and have not interacted with a huge sample size. But increasingly I believe it is not likely. From the clues that I have gleaned from some of the most respected leaders in this regard, there exist souls who have evolved and reached some of the highest peaks of self-realization, but they appear to be flawed and human in the end, just like the rest of us.
In some ways, however, that may make these beings worthy of even MORE admiration. The fact that they are vulnerable to doubts or weaknesses yet still manage to live such exemplary lives is the part that is extraordinary. Having imperfections and still being able to inspire impressions of divinity or sainthood is not easily accomplished by just anyone. How many of us are willing to do what they do? Credit must be given where it is due.
Still, there is a part of me that would have loved the comfort and hope that would have come from knowing there were souls that had managed to reach absolute and complete enlightenment. It would have offered more certainty as to what lies ahead and the path that I might take to get there. But as reassuring as that would have been, just like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, I would venture a guess that — on this planet at least — the perfect soul does not exist.