Open Practice: Can Psychopaths Be Enlightened?

I’m a big fan of “Dexter” and “Criminal Minds.” I’ve always been fascinated with the subjective world of psychopaths. There are times when I feel appalled by their monstrous actions and lack of empathy, but there are times when I feel compassion for them for being victims of bad genes, neurological disorders and abusive upbringings. Some psychologists have a theory that many of the world’s ills can be blamed on psychopaths in high places. I share that theory.

While the stereotypical psychopath is a serial killer, I believe that psychopaths of varying degrees are all around us, with some of them even exerting great influence on our lives through their high positions in politics, business, military, religion, and spiritual circles. So I’m glad that Jon Ronson wrote the book, How to Spot a Psychopath, so that I don’t have to do the research myself.

When it comes to spirituality and psychopathy, I have another pet theory. Although psychopaths can fake their way into spiritual circles and mimic the speech and bodily movements of stereotypical spiritual teachers, I believe that they too are capable of cultivating and experiencing classical enlightenment.

To gauge whether my geeky Buddhist buddies share my pet theory on psychopathy, I tweeted this question: “so, is it possible for a psychopath to be enlightened?” I received mixed responses: “Absolutely not“; “yes, I suppose so…“; “enlightenment without genuine responsiveness to others is not enlightenment“; “no correlation between enlightenment and behavior“; “Is it possible? Sure. Is it likely. I don’t think so…

I guess it boils down to one’s definition of enlightenment. I define “classical enlightenment” as stream-entry as described in the classic Buddhist texts. However, I’m willing to stretch my theory all the way. After all, Angulimala, a serial killer who took fingers for trophies, became an Arhant after changing his ways and following the Buddha.

In any case, while this topic is still fresh in my head, I’ve decided to bounce off this idea with my teacher, Shinzen Young. So I sent him an email to get his opinion on this matter. Below is our email conversation.

from: ~C4Chaos
to: Shinzen Young
date: Mon, May 23, 2011 at 9:10 PM
subject: Question: Can psychopaths be enlightened?

Hi Shinzen,

I hope you're doing well as you read this.

I'm writing to ask you a question that has nothing to do with practice whatsoever but has everything to do with my curiosity. So I hope you entertain my musings in your free time :)

I posted the question "Can psychopaths be enlightened?" on my Twitter stream and I got mixed reactions. Some say that it's plausible though unlikely, while some say that enlightenment is not enlightenment without genuine responsiveness to others. The latter suggests that morality and empathy are requisite qualities of enlightenment. However, my understanding of the Buddhist precepts is that they are not specifically intended as moral guidelines. They're more of injunctions to facilitate one's practice.

For example, a psychopath, who has no sense of empathy and guilt, can continue to perform meditation practices even without adhering to the precepts. So in theory a psychopath would have more equanimity and could focus more on the practices. (Well, at least that's my projection on how a psychopath thinks :)) Therefore, I would assume that psychopaths can attain classical enlightenment (aka stream-entry) or even go all the way to Fourth path. However, the way they would express their enlightenment experience in the real world is another story. Maybe this is one explanation why some so-called enlightened teachers still end up behaving as jerks without regard for their fellow human beings. Then they justify their actions as "crazy wisdom". That sounds psychopathic to me :) As the computer lingo goes "garbage in, garbage out", a psychopath who achieves enlightenment is still a psychopath and would likely do more harm than good.

So, can psychopaths be enlightened? I would love to hear your thoughts about this based on your understanding of enlightenment and your own experience.

Take care and keep it flowing.

from: Shinzen Young
to: ~C4Chaos
date: Tue, May 24, 2011 at 7:48 AM
subject: Re: Question: Can psychopaths be enlightened?

Hi Rommel,

Of course, the issue is how do we define enlightenment? If I were constrained to shoot from the hip and give a grossly oversimplified definition, it would be something like seeing beyond the Self plus improving the Self. By that definition, a psychopath would have difficulty being enlightened unless they really wanted to work on their psychopathicness. But here's where the rub comes. It's possible to have deep, deep experiences of No Self, i.e., transcending the Self in certain ways without working much on the issue of improving the Self. So from that perspective, there can be a strong link between No Self and psychopathicness. I suggest you look up a book by William Hamilton called Saints and Psychopaths. Hamilton is one of the great unrecognized heros of the dharma in the West. He was one of my best friends, and influenced my pratice strongly when I was shifting from Zen to Vipassana. I'm pretty sure that he was also a teacher of Dan Ingram and Kenneth Folk.

All the best,

from: ~C4Chaos
to: Shinzen Young
date: Tue, May 24, 2011 at 8:58 AM
subject: Re: Question: Can psychopaths be enlightened?


Thank you so much for entertaining my musings. I was thinking along the same lines as you've expressed below. Good to know that I wasn't that far off the mark :)

Basically my reasoning is this: If cultivation of enlightenment (I'll define it as stream-entry, or enlightenment-lite) require skills in concentration, clarity and equanimity, then it can be compared to cultivating one's skill in science or mathematics. I don't doubt that even psychopaths could master science and mathematics. We have historical examples of this. So by the same token, the skills required to cultivate enlightenment can also be mastered by psychopaths. However, a psychopath would fall short on the other facet of enlightenment which is "Improving Self and World".

One of the reasons I ask the question is to tie it with the phenomena of supposedly enlightened teachers/guru who continue to act like psychopaths. One explanation (or justification) for such acts even has a cool-sounding name, like “crazy wisdom” (e.g. they are beyond conventional morality or what not). Another one is that they’ve lost their minds during the Dark Night and got stuck in a psychotic state. Another plausible explanation I’d like to throw in is that, maybe they were psychopaths in the first place who just happen to achieve enlightenment just by following the instructions diligently. And since there is no cure for psychopathy (at least according to the experts) then their expression of enlightenment is one of a psychopath — before enlightenment, psychopathy; after enlightenment, still psychopathy. Ergo the dark side of enlightenment.

So what's your take on supposedly enlightened teachers (e.g. the late Adi Da - who still act like they are psychopaths/sociopaths? Any theories you want to share?

Yes, I know that Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk speak very highly of Bill Hamilton. Per their recommendation I read the book "Saints and Psychopaths" sometime ago. It was a good read and an excellent reminder along the path.

Are you ok if I publish this email exchange to my blog? Thanks again for engaging me in this conversation.


from: Shinzen Young
to: ~C4Chaos
date: Wed, May 25, 2011 at 1:14 PM
subject: Re: Question: Can psychopaths be enlightened?

Hi Rommel,

I think my theory on inappropriate conduct of gurus is probably pretty similar to yours. Uneven growth in the various dimensions. Enlightenment seems to be a vector-valued function. Some people overly emphasize the dimensions of No Self that are not related to improving the Self.

Here's my general theory. Practitioners in general and teachers in specific are in danger of going off the deep end if they don't have robust feedback structures, either from people around them or from other teachers and so forth. Most of the cases of teachers who I think have been inappropriate arise in that circumstance. In many cases, they either never had a teacher or they left their teacher and went off on their own too early. I don't like to name names but it's not hard to imagine who I'm talking about.

As far as sharing our emails with the world, absolutely, feel free. You're doing a great service by facilitating inner connectivity, transparency, and modernity within the ancient traditions.

All the best,

Comments (7)

  1. David wrote::

    Interesting, also to read Bill Hamilton and Shinzen were friends.

    Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 12:40 am #
  2. Turil wrote::

    The problem with this question is that there is no such thing as “a psychopath”. It it really more of an attachment to an intensely negative projection of oneself, as seen by an unenlightened ego. No human being is without guilt or compassion. It’s just not possible given the structure of the human brain. Those who are labeled with the “psychopath” projection are merely individuals who have not ever been shown healthy compassion and love for any length of time, and thus learned that to function in this world, one has to actively protect oneself, doing whatever it takes to survive. They don’t let their feelings of sadness and suffering show, because they were trained that if they did, they’d be harmed. So you don’t ever get to see the real, core Buddha nature of them, unless you are willing to consistently show them yours.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 2:55 pm #
  3. Tom Yeshe wrote::

    Shinzen writes: “I suggest you look up a book by William Hamilton called Saints and Psychopaths. Hamilton is one of the great unrecognized heros of the dharma in the West. He was one of my best friends, and influenced my pratice strongly when I was shifting from Zen to Vipassana. I’m pretty sure that he was also a teacher of Dan Ingram and Kenneth Folk.”

    Dan Ingram dedicated a book to Hamilton, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, available as a free PDF:

    Friday, June 17, 2011 at 1:14 am #
  4. intheknow wrote::

    Psychopaths can be enlightened- they may have great power but a lack of empathy.There are different levels of enlightenment, they are at the lower levels. Gurus are well known for there bad behavior. People have to be careful Who they associate with and trust. One way to spot someone who is not good is through their ego and the way they treat you.

    ps Totally dont agree with the comment that Psychopaths do not exist. There are people out there who can inflict immense cruelty on others and not feel guilt, they lack a normal humans conscience!

    Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 4:39 am #
  5. David wrote::

    Turil, “there is no such thing as a psychopath” is a pretty big statement–have you looked at any of the science behind psychopathy? There’s quite a bit out there now and it suggests that there is a such thing as a genetic psychopath–as in, they are missing the physical brain bits associated with empathy, guilt, etc.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2012 at 1:22 pm #
  6. wrote::

    You say
    “Some psychologists have a theory that many of the world’s ills can be blamed on psychopaths in high places. I share that theory”
    I say : Me too.

    I’d be interested to know sources of that theory. Thanks in advance


    Thursday, April 17, 2014 at 8:54 am #
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