I’ve always had a complicated relationship with spiritual teachers.
I’ve never liked going a prescribed path, and even as a nerdy teenager, I loved asking anyone in authority to go deeper, to answer tough questions, to shake the foundation of their presumptions and core beliefs. It was never to insult people, nor prove how smart I was, nor was it to just be a jerk. Being disrespectful to another person’s path has always been one of my biggest fears. I’m mostly curious how people have come to believe what they believe. I like to see if it resonates with my own experience and– if not– figure out where the disconnect is.
When I was living at the ashram, I struggled a lot with the idea of Guru. Like many, I thought Guru was a person– and a specific person at that. I tried really hard to believe. I tried to put my mind away, and just be obedient, hoping there was some truth to “fake it til you make it.” But the blind, inauthentic faith wore me down, and soon I was a little shell of myself. It wasn’t pretty.
One night, about halfway through my tenure, I sat at the feet of (yet another) spiritual teacher. Some claimed her as their Guru. They brought her flowers, fruit, and all sorts of gifts. They touched her feet, kissed her, and asked her to bless them. During a pause in the ceremony, our eyes met. I quickly looked away and glued my eyes to my off-white ashram-issued pants. I smiled respectfully as she suddenly turned to address me, whispering somewhat playfully:
“I know what you’re thinking. But my dear, you must understand, Guru is not a person.
Guru is the teaching. Though we have this idea that Guru is a person, the actual meaning of “Guru” is “that which dispels darkness”. Guru is the light in the dark. The person is just the vessel.”
Then she patted my cheek and continued singing.
This concept of Guru was groundbreaking and has stuck with me ever since. The image that comes to mind for me is the idea of a cup that holds water. There are so many different cups, different shapes and colors, styles, and attitudes. The cup may have funny words printed on it or be in the shape of a dinosaur. The cup may be super punk rock or really sweet and demure. Different cups will attract different people. But at the end of the day, the shape/color/style of the cup doesn’t matter much. What matters is what it holds: the water. The cup will not quench our thirst. The water will. And although the water will take the form of the cup, it never actually becomes the cup, nor does the cup become the water. The water is all that matters.
Similarly, the teaching may take the form and shape of a particular person, a teacher, but each maintains its integrity. This is important, and it’s something all of us– teachers and students alike– tend to forget. We get so wrapped up in how lovely and cooling the water is, how great its benefits, how it brings us life, that we– in perhaps our zealous gratitude– begin to associate the cup with the water. We start to believe that the cup is the important part, the cup is what sustains us. We begin to worship cup. We create religions and traditions and lineages and factions around the cup, rather than the water itself. The cup starts charging lots of money to taste the water. And we gratefully shell it out, believing that if there is no cup, there is no water. We forget that water literally falls freely from the sky. (As does wisdom, if we know how to listen for it.)
Though the human teacher may be pure at heart, this delusion of power can corrupt anyone. This delusion is the very veil (mara, maya, sin, whatever you want to call it) that keeps all of us in darkness. It happens over and over again, in every spiritual path that I’ve witnessed. This pattern is certainly disconcerting, but it also speaks to the consistent struggle of the human condition. Teachers must continue to ask themselves “How do we remain a conduit and not attach ourselves to the wisdom that occasionally graces us? How do we not lose our balance?” Their path is no different from our own.
For someone who doesn’t like spiritual teachers very much, I always seem to end up being in service to them.
I get to see them up close and personal. I get to see their humanity and all their imperfections. And it’s what I love about them; though it’s probably the thing they despise the most. They’ve got cracks and flaws. They’re made out of simple materials, just like the rest of us.
I remember reading a critique written by J. Krishnamurti, who saw Swami Sivananda eating a jar of pickled plums– an item forbidden from ashrams because they are intoxicating to the senses and much too sweet for those on the path of sacredness. Krishnamurti saw Sivananda eating these plums, and he thought “What a hypocrite!” He threw out the water because the cup had a chip. (And then, after many years, he himself became a cup, much to his dismay. Oh, the irony!)
I find Krishnamurti an interesting character and I align with him on many things, but I disagree with his conclusion about his experience with Swami Sivananda. I find his story of Sivananda lovely and hopeful. In a way, seeing a teacher’s crude humanity is even more powerful than believing they’re a celestial and otherworldly being. For example, one of my favorite images of Christ, (another great embodiment of the light) is from Matthew 26:39 “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” His humanity shines through, as does his staggering love and devotion. It is not disappointing. It is incredible.
These little glimpses of a teacher’s humanity are incredible precisely because they indicate a level playing field. They abolish the illusion of a spiritual hierarchy. Teachers are human– they are made of dirt and clay and other gross matter, just like the rest us. They walked this earth, just as we do. As sacred and sattvic as they might be (some more than others) they still experience the mundane elements that we all struggle with.
And yet they can manage somehow to hold the light. They can become a cup for the water. They can be the vessel for Guru.