Magazine: PARABOLA; FALL 2000
Playing the role of teacher, playing the role of disciple
THE TRADITIONAL ROLE of the guru, or spiritual teacher, is not widely understood in the West, even by those professing to practice Yoga or other Eastern traditions entailing discipleship. In considering the guru, we inevitably look upon him from the outside, which we can do through the eyes of a disciple or an impartial onlooker. In the latter case, the question is necessarily: How impartial are we--or, more fundamentally, how impartial can we be? What cultural and personal blinders color our view? To state the obvious, conventional people have always had problems with spiritual teachers. The neglect or oppression of Hebrew prophets and Christian mystics is well known to historians. Muhammad, founder of Islam, was treated badly by his own people, as was Baha'Ullah, founder of the Baha'i faith. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, and Gautama the Buddha survived a murderous plot against him by one of his cousins. His older contemporary Vardhamana Mahavira, founder of Jainism, was subjected to scorn and physical abuse. Socrates, an early European guru, was forced to drink the poison cup, as his philosophical wisdom was said to corrupt the youth and thus threaten the very fabric of Athenean society.
Yoga is an initiatory tradition, which means it revolves around the communication of esoteric or spiritual knowledge from a qualified teacher to an initiated disciple. The transmitted knowledge is not merely intellectual, but has the special quality of liberating or illuminating wisdom (vidya or jnana). As the Kularnava-Tantra (14.3), a tenth-century Sanskrit text, states categorically, "There can be no liberation without initiation."
Through initiation (diksha), the seeker is transformed into a disciple. A major function of the guru is to serve as a vehicle for this process. As initiator, the guru voluntarily assumes the tremendous responsibility of assisting the disciple's birth into the spiritual dimension. Hence Sanskrit texts compare the gum to a mother and a father. Like one's parents, the initiatory gum makes a deep spiritual connection with the initiate, which is thought to endure beyond the present lifetime.
Initiation occurs at various levels and through various means. In most instances, it consists of a formal ritual in which the guru transmits spiritual power (shakti) through a mantra that is whispered into the disciple's left ear. But great adepts can initiate by a touch or glance or even simply by visualizing the disciple. Sri Ramakrishna, the great nineteenth-century master, placed his foot on Swami Vivekananda's chest and promptly plunged his young disciple into a deep state of formless ecstasy (nirvikalpa-samadhi).
ACCORDING TO Indic Yoga, the guru is a teacher who does not merely instruct or communicate information, as does the preceptor (acarya). Rather, the guru transmits wisdom and, by her very nature, reveals the spiritual Reality. If the guru is fully Self-realized or liberated, every word, gesture, and even the teacher's presence are held to express and manifest the Spirit. The guru is a veritable beacon of Reality. Transmission in such a case is spontaneous and continuous. Like the sun, to which the sad-guru or teacher of the Real is often compared, the guru constantly radiates the liberating energy of the higher Self.
For adepts who are not yet fully liberated, transmission is largely but not exclusively based on their will and effort. Many schools also admit to an element of divine grace entering into the configuration, for which the teacher serves ag a temporal vehicle. Thus the traditional teacher plays a crucial role in the life of the disciple. As the Sanskrit word guru, literally meaning "weighty," suggests, the teacher is a true "heavyweight" in spiritual matters.
Tradition explains the term guru as being composed of the two syllables gu and ru; the former is taken to represent darkness, while the latter is said to stand for removal. Thus the guru is a dispeller of spiritual darkness; that is, she restores sight to those who are blind to their true nature, the higher Self. If we compare the ego to a black hole from which no light can escape, the guru is like the radiant sun: an ever-lustrous being that illumines every dark niche in the disciple's mind and character.
Apart from triggering and constantly reinvigorating the spiritual process in a disciple, the guru also serves as a guide. This occurs primarily through verbal instruction but also by being a living example. According to the Mahabharata (11.5), life is a jungle, a treacherous place abounding in dangerous animals and plants. Facing such formidable obstacles, a disciple is clearly in need of guidance. Written teachings, which form the heritage of a given lineage of adepts, are a powerful aid, but typically require explanations, or an oral commentary, to yield their deeper meaning. By virtue of the oral transmission received from his own teachers and his own realization, the gum is able to make the written teachings come alive for the disciple--a priceless gift.
This illuminating function depends on the degree of the guru's own realization. To quote the Kularnava-Tantra (13.108) again: "Many are the gurus who rob disciples of their wealth, but rare is the gum who removes a disciple's afflictions."
Spiritual teachers, by their very nature, swim against the stream of conventional values and pursuits. They are not interested in acquiring material wealth or in pleasing egos. They are not even concerned with ordinary morality. Typically, their message is of a radical nature, asking that we live consciously, inspect our motives, transcend our egoic passions, overcome our intellectual blindness, live peacefully with our fellow humans and nonhumans, and, finally, realize the deepest core of human nature, the Spirit. For those wishing to devote their time and energy to the pursuit of conventional life, this message is revolutionary, subversive, and profoundly disturbing.
IN ORDER TO benefit from the guru's transmission of liberating wisdom, one must enter into the intense relationship known as discipleship. This involves deep commitment to self-transformation, submission to a course of discipline by which the mind is tricked out of conventional habit patterns, and a loving regard for the guru, who must be viewed not as an individual but as a cosmic function designed to obliterate the very illusion of discipleship. Thus the spiritual process between gum and disciple is highly paradoxical: in order to open to the guru's transmission, we must assume the role of disciple and hence deem the guru as external to ourselves. Yet the guru's transmission stems from the Self, which is not separate from us, since it is our own ultimate identity.
The whole spiritual path shares in this paradox. The reason, Yoga tells us, is that while we are inherently free, we do not at present realize this in every moment. Instead we consider ourselves conditioned by all kinds of limiting factors. This tums us into seekers. The search ends when we fully and in every moment live in and as the Self, which is a truly indivisible whole, whereas the so-called individual is in fact a fragmented being conjured by the illusory ego.
The guru is the ultimate ego buster. Even while having immense sympathy for the disciple, who still thinks of himself as a finite island unto himself--an illusion that is fraught with suffering (duhkha)--the guru constantly and patiently attempts to draw the disciple out of himself and into the supra-individual and universal Self. In this task the guru is governed by wisdom (prajna) and compassion (karuna), which are themselves supra-individual or "transpersonal" capacities that are oriented toward the Self rather than the finite human personality.
These two capacities--wisdom and compassion--come alive in the gum by virtue of his own spiritual realization. They give the guru the necessary authority in his labor of love. If a guru were merely compassionate, he would not be able to guide the disciple out of illusion, for the disciple would inevitably interpret the guru's compassion as love for her individuality or personalits. However, the guru loves the disciple in her true nature--as the Self, which at present is obscured by all sorts of misconceptions. If the guru were merely wise but lacking in compassion, most likely the disciple would be crushed under the demand for self-transformation. So long as a teacher is not fully Self-realized, an imbalanced approach in transmission is always possible. Many problems between contemporary teachers and disciples can be explained as inadequate integration of wisdom and compassion on the part of the teacher. Disciples by their nature are prone to misconceptions, projections, illusions, and delusions that prevent or delay a constructive relationship with the guru.
It is thus part of the disciple's self-discovery that he must transcend the external guru and discover the guru as an inner principle. In the hurry for enlightenment, however, Western disciples all too often discard the external gum prematurely, leading them to the risk of further self-delusion. They too readily make the claim of being their own guru. However, short of Self-realization, the only inner guru accessible to the average individual is the ego. Since Yoga recognizes the ego-self as the cause of unenlightenment, the guidance of the ego cannot lead to Self-realization. Instead of being a dispeller of spiritual ignorance, the ego as guru merely pushes the disciple into deeper ignorance, confusion, and ultimately despair.
It is evident that the guru is primarily not an individual but a function. Much of the confusion and emotional pain typically experienced by Western seekers vis-a-vis Eastern gurus can be prevented when this essential truth is recognized. By focusing on their teachers as charismatic personalities, students are apt to succumb to the temptation to create a cult around them. A more useful approach is to understand teachers as embodying a spiritual function that must be held separate from one's emotional responses to any given teacher, which may vary according to what is happening in one's discipleship. Seekers ought to be as wary of mindless, childish love and adoration as of rebellious, adolescent reactivity. Instead they should endeavor to make each interaction with the guru count in terms of their transformative work on themselves. "Be lamps unto yourselves," was Gautama the Buddha's last admonition to his disciples. Whether or not one has a guru, this applies universally. We must internalize the guru function, even when we have an external teacher. Nothing would please a genuine gum more than that--and certainly nothing would serve our own personal growth more. For when we have internalized the guru function, we encounter all of life in a new way, and everyone and everything becomes a teacher.
©Copyright 2000, Parabola