Ex-Morninglanders

Critically about Donato

I believe that the uncritical acceptance of spiritual authority can perpetuate unhealthy relationships and contribute to a lot of suffering. My critique about Daniel Sperato aka Master Donato is based on published testimonies and stories I was told by those who met him personally. My view can offend those who still hold Donato in the highest esteem as an enlightened teacher and who continue to justify his actions. It is not my intention to challenge someone’s belief about this man but to encourage critical thinking. For some people this view may feel like an attack on their cherished ideal, and I suggest that those readers refrain from reading this article.

I never met Daniel Sperato or developed an emotional attachment to him or to the idea of him. I came to Morningland many years after his passing. The Gopis (Chokru, Saravati, Ona-Ali) promoted the idealized image of Donato, and I accepted it. There was power and comfort in sharing a group conviction or belief about the group’s founder. The stories I heard had some loose ends, and I had questions, but there were no answers. The Gopis never shared Morningland’s full history with us, which resulted in more loose ends. I tried to be a good disciple and put those thoughts aside until I left and was free to process every loose end and red flag I swept under the rug.

Morningland’s current and former members who met Donato speak of him as a kind, and unassuming man. He was a short, average-looking guy that made people feel at ease. Despite being the central figure in Morningland with a status of an enlightened teacher, people say he never acted outwardly as one. He liked to stay in the background, do his day job as a director of the Long Beach Boys Club, and in the evening, he did spiritual readings in Morningland. Some of his former disciples say that he drew the best out of people and inspired them. Some of his former disciples say he never said he was a Christ and was upset when his wife Sri Donato called him that way in public. It is unclear whether he believed he was that or not.

My critical five cents regarding Donato

Donato passed away in 1976, three years after the grand opening. Those who knew him did so only for a short time, with many only meeting him a handful of times at best. Three years is arguably still the honeymoon phase for a spiritual leader, when the idealization among the devotees is still running high. In just three years, Donato achieved a lot: with his wife Patricia, he established Morningland, a metaphysical church, with a culty structure (hierarchical). Despite his humble appearance, Donato was the central person with the alleged connection to “the Upstairs, the ascended masters.” He surrounded himself with 11 Gopis, including his wife, Patricia, to run the programs and increase membership. These were young, beautiful women in their 20s (except his middle-aged wife) who were receptive to his leadership. Despite the great power given to the Gopis, he was the one who pulled all the strings.

Based on the published testimonies, Donato allegedly liked the sensory enjoyments (food, drink, sex, drugs) and slept with the Gopis. How did his wife, Sri Patricia (later Sri Donato), feel about this arrangement? Did she help create this power structure to ensure Donato remains in control of the business, or did she suffer from jealousy when her husband slept with ten gorgeous young women? There are some accounts in the stories of her being very concerned with how the Gopis felt toward him and whether they loved or were in love with him. Additionally, there are accounts of Sri’s intense jealousy problems. We may never know for sure.

Based on one personal testimony, Donato ceremonially slept with the Gopis to ensure they would “carry his energy and heal people.” The Gopis allegedly consented to it, believing they acted of free will. They were consenting adults, but the free will aspect can be argued. According to some views, free will is: “The power or capacity to choose among alternatives or to act in certain situations independently of natural, social, or divine restraints.” Would they have ever slept with this much older man without the spiritual narrative, knowing he was married and that he also slept with many other women?

I do not believe that the Gopis’ choice was free from social or divine restraints. Donato was their teacher, their guru, and likely twice their age. He was seen as God’s emissary with the keys to everyone’s spiritual salvation! The power dynamic in this situation was greatly tilted in his direction and he used it to the fullest by establishing a sense of emotional intimacy and trust. With that he gained access to their minds, spiritual belief, life’s purpose, and their bodies! I believe that wrapping sexual act in a spiritual narrative justified his actions and bonded these women more closely to him. Steve Hasan, Ph.D. calls this kind of influence undue influence (not a legal definition of this term): “Any act of persuasion that overcomes the free will and judgment of another person. People can be unduly influenced by deception, flattery, trickery, coercion, hypnosis, and other techniques.”

He was not the first or last man to sleep with his consort in the name of personal or group salvation. If having sex with an enlightened teacher was so crucial to one’s enlightenment, why did the rest of the community receive kundalini awakening (Shaktipat) without having sex? Why didn’t he include men or older women in his Tantra ceremony? Why only young, beautiful women? This is the classical scenario that happened in so many guru-run ashrams. Just recently, a leader of the NXIVM cult K. Reniere was imprisoned for sex trafficking women. He created a secret group that consisted only of women. The group was hierarchical, and he was the top and central figure. He used narratives focusing on the greater good and self-help to obtain sexual submission. Women in this secret group were deceived. They believed they were being empowered and did not recognize that they were abused. It does not surprise me that he did not work in the same “special” way with his male disciples. Similarly, a guru from a former Buddhafield cult was gay and only “helped” his male disciples raise their kundalini with his penis. The list of male teachers doing the same acts goes on. What would Morningland be like if Donato had not died in 1976, three years after the grand opening? How would his use of power have evolved over a longer period of time?

Considering what I have heard of him, it is possible that Donato believed the narrative he created and justified his actions as spiritual work, and good intentions. However, good intentions do not automatically mean one will always use ethical means to achieve goals. It is not uncommon for those who experienced some altered states of consciousness to develop a god complex and believe they are above social norms. It is also not uncommon for such individuals to get reinforcement from their followers that feed that belief. Allegedly Sri Patricia, his wife, was very passionate about assigning many spiritual things to him. Whether these things happened because of his or the group’s energy/expectation/belief is not unique or uncommon and it certainly isn’t a free pass for unethical behavior. I do not believe Donato was a saint but a man who created a world where he had just enough power and influence to have his cake and eat it too.

Mantika, June 2023