|FACE TO FACE
BY IHLA F. NATION
CONFRONTING THE GURU - DISCIPLE RELATIONSHIP
Working with a guru can be one of the most sublime experiences of your life. It can also be one of the most destructive. How to winnow out the good from the bad.
The East - exotic, sensuous, colorful. The West - solitary, rugged, practical. Eastern philosophy is Oneness expressed in multiplicity and transcendence through surrender.
Western thought is an immovable foundation of scientific inquiry, duality, and domination. How do such diverse world views meet?
East and West meet face to face in the guru-disciple relationship. Guru literally means "one who dispels darkness" or one who is "heavy" with the weight of vast knowledge. Through devotion and meditation, the guru has experienced oneness with Divine Reality. Ideally such a being can awaken the divine within a student, transmit knowledge, offer guidance, and help integrate these experiences. The guru helps build "the raft of knowledge" which "will cross over all evil" (1) of samsara (cycles of birth, death, and rebirth) to moksha (liberation). Hence the guru symbolizes going beyond the boundary of control to which many Americans adhere. But many people in this culture are not comfortable with spiritual exploration into an unknown or irrational realm.
There is another reason for Americans' discomfort with gurus. Harvard professor Diana L. Eck claims that the anticult movement has presented a distorted view of Hinduism, reflecting not just a fear of deviant cults but "America's first hometown encounter with a truly `other' world view." This encounter, according to Eck, has brought to the fore Americans' "deepest fears and imaginings." Fears of mind control, a negation of reality, and allegiance to a human being rather than to God are examples of interpretations that result from a partial understanding. Some worry that such ideas may undermine the family and promote ethical relativism, weakening our cultural foundation. Only genuine understanding of this relationship, can address those fears and perhaps alleviate them. (2)
The relationship between the guru and the disciple in America has many of the same dimensions as it has in modern India, featuring such elements as lineage and initiation as well as the necessity of such practices as meditation, yoga, chanting, surrender to the guru, seva (selfless service to the guru), devotion, knowledge of philosophical teachings, and, in some traditions, the guru's grace. But significant differences arise, not only in acculturation but in the gap between the ideal and what actually occurs.
Evaluating this relationship from an American perspective presents challenges. Criticisms may be seen as reflecting personal bias or a lack of understanding, while expressing only positive views for the sake of political correctness may ignore legitimate concerns.
Another challenge is that the information available cannot be regarded as entirely impartial. Most material on gurus is autobiographical or written by disciples, making it subject to the writer's own biases. We get a sense of this in the writings of the twentieth-century yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. In Yogananda's words, his guru Sri Yukteswar's samadhi was accompanied by "stupendous snores." One wonders if in this case samadhi was actually "deep yogic joy, as Yogananda declared, or great catnaps. (3)
On the other hand, outside observers may be unfamiliar with the essence of Eastern religion and philosophy while being subject to biases of their own. Although I want to present a balanced perspective, I need to state at the outset that I have two personal beliefs that have affected my conclusions.
In the first place I do not believe a being who is still embodied in human form can be fully divine and transcend all human frailties and foibles. Souls incarnated in bodily form are not completely perfect. They may be enlightened, loving, compassionate, and filled with divine power, but they are still influenced by desires of the body and by psychological and emotional states. As Ken Wilber says, "A good master might indeed be fully enlightened and divine, but he or she is also human....The Perfect Master cannot manifest worldly perfection until the humanity in which he or she is grounded - indeed, all manifestation - has evolved to its own highest and perfect estate. Until that time, perfection lies only in conscious transcendence, not in concrete manifestation, so beware the concretely 'perfect' master. (4)
Secondly, I do not believe we should turn over control of our lives, hearts, or minds to another person for any reason, no matter how compelling. Can anyone have greater power than an omnipotent parent over a dependent child or God over a devoted worshiper? Yet this is the kind of power some gurus exercise over their disciples. Authority of this magnitude is a potent force.
For these reasons, I believe, we need to maintain autonomy of thought and action. Great masters and teachers have also displayed human tendencies that have hindered, and even harmed, some of their students. As the Dalai Lama has said, I recommend never adopting the attitude toward one's spiritual teacher of seeing his or her every action as divine or noble. This may seem a little bit bold, but if one has a teacher who is not qualified, who is engaging in unsuitable or wrong behavior, then it is appropriate for the student to criticize that behavior. (5)
In India the prime source of religious authority is the Veda, an oral tradition originally heard" by seven sages (or rishis) in remote antiquity and since then passed along from teacher to student. The identity of the teacher's teacher (paramguru) is of great importance: the guru whose lineage can be traced back to the seven sages has the greatest claim to authority. The guru is the thread of continuity and the source of revelation, interpreting and influencing the tradition's development. Indeed true knowledge of Veda can only be obtained through a teacher (acarya). As the Chandogya Upanishad states, "The knowledge which has been learned from a teacher best helps one to attain his end." (6)
In India the role of the guru has developed through an interactive process, integrating aspects of the Vedic priest, the Brahman teacher, and the sramanas (wandering ascetics) of the Buddhist and Jain traditions. Initially the guru was the main source of spiritual knowledge, teaching Veda, mantras, ritual, correct behavior, yoga, and meditation. Eventually the guru became a spiritual guide who helped lead the disciple through the haze of illusory experience to Absolute Reality, the nature of which is Being, Consciousness, and Bliss (Saccidananda).
In post-Vedic times, Indian sacred writings such as the Mahabharata (particularly the Bhagavad Gita), the Ramayana, and the Puranic and Tantric texts popularized the way of bhakti (devotion).Through devotion to Vishnu and Shiva, the way to liberation was now open to everyone, not just the Brahman class, as it had been earlier. The guru was seen as a saint, "a model whose daily habits pointed the way to spiritual liberation. (7) In some cases he was considered an avatar, an incarnation of God.
Veneration was necessary because the guru embodied divine power and was capable of bestowing grace (prasada). Through grace, the student, who may not yet have earned the merit required by earlier ritual Hinduism, has love and favor freely transmitted to him or her from the guru. In some sects, the guru's grace is necessary to achieve liberation.
Tantric practice, for example, is complex and shrouded in secrecy. Ritual techniques such as mantras, yantras, and yogic discipline incorporate esoteric and magical elements; instruction from a qualified guru is essential for imparting the knowledge necessary for liberation.
When the student is ready, diksa (initiation) is performed. Diksa "confers a divine (holy) state and wipes off all sins, thereby freeing a man from the bondage of samsara." (8) Initiation can be simple, requiring only the touch of the guru or transmission of the mantra, or it can be a complex ceremony with elaborate rules. The disciple's spiritual practice (sadhana) begins with diksa.
In such traditions, selection of a guru is a serious matter. If transformation and enlightenment are to be accomplished, the guru must be a genuinely enlightened individual with a divine nature and conduct characteristic of a deity. A guru "must be a competent teacher, who is selfless and guided by wisdom, love, and compassion. (9) If the guru is "an unbalanced, moody, capricious person, the resulting forms of religious life are grotesque and edify little. (10) However, the guru's temper tantrums and whims are often interpreted as lila, the Lord's play, or as opportunities for the follower to overcome ego attachments.
Hindu philosophy began to influence American thought with the Transcendentalist movement of the early and mid-nineteenth century. But it was not until Swami Vivekananda, the celebrated disciple of Ramakrishna, attended the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago that many Americans began to experience Hinduism personally. After the conference, Vivekananda traveled throughout America and Europe, spreading Vedanta philosophy. Initially he only intended to teach individuals, but after a series of lectures in New York City in late 1894, an organization was established that came to be known as the Vedanta Society. Several disciples were chosen to continue the swami's teachings in ashrams and teaching centers. The American Hindu movement had officially begun.
As a result of World War I and the anti-foreign sentiment it encouraged, the Immigration Act of 1917 was passed, restricting the flow of Asian Immigration. The spread of Hinduism slowed for decades. Few teachers were allowed to come to America. Two who did and successfully propagated Hindu teachings were Paramahansa Yogananda, who established the Yogoda Satsang movement (later the Self-Realization Fellowship) in 1925, and Swami Prabhavananda of the Vedanta Society in California.
In 1965, with the repeal of the Immigration Act of 1917, American Hinduism began a new phase. An influx of Hindu gurus entered the United States. Open-minded young people sought alternative answers to personal and social problems. Social unrest encouraged unconventional ideas and
The guru's temper tantrums are often interpreted as lila, the Lord's play,
or as opportunities for the follower to overcome ego attachments.
lifestyles. Spiritual hunger formed the soil in which the seeds of Hinduism, as well as other philosophies, could rapidly grow and bear fruit. The most visible of these was the Hare Krishna movement, now known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
As of the late 1980s, there were approximately 73 active Hindu groups specifically aimed at Western converts. Some are small, with only five or ten members in one ashram. Others have several large ashrams across the United States and Canada and are affiliated with international groups. Most current groups were started by swamis from India rather than by American followers, but there are exceptions, such as the Rudrananda Foundation, which runs the Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram outside of Boulder, Colorado. Its American founder was Albert Rudolph, a former New York art dealer and a dissatisfied disciple of Swami Muktananda's Siddha Yoga Dham of America (SYDA).
Some of these groups are based on the monistic Vedanta philosophy of traditional Hinduism. Some focus on achieving a personal sense of the divine. Several are led by women. Almost all have some form of yoga as well as specific rules of self-discipline such as celibacy and dietary restrictions. All regard some form of guru-disciple relationship as essential. Some practice this relationship in its traditional Indian form, but many Americans experience a relationship significantly different from what is customary in India.
In the first place, the intensity of the discipline or asceticism practiced here is much lower than in India. The Vedanta Society, for example, has strict precepts governing behavior. As far back as 1943, concern about the lack of monastic discipline among American followers caused the Belur Math, the home order of the Vedanta Society in Calcutta, to send regulations for the American centers to follow. Swami Prabhavananda responded that these "Indian rules could not possibly apply to the American centers."(11)
Moreover, unlike their Indian counterparts, most American disciples live apart from the guru. Devotees meditate, attend satsang and darshan (seeing or being in the presence of a revered person), perform seva, and chant, but they generally continue to live in the larger community, working, marrying, and having children. In America today it is uncommon for the student to live with the teacher for years in an intimate relationship of mutual caretaking.
In fact followers can be so numerous that many of them have little personal interaction with the guru. The strong one-on-one education and guidance traditionally provided by the guru is now often reserved for a privileged few. Most devotees make occasional pilgrimages to the ashram, where interaction may be limited to darshan in a room with hundreds of other people. The guru may not even be physically present, appearing only through videotape or photographs.
How does one develop a life-changing bond of love and, trust in a few moments of exchange?
SYDA has dealt with this issue of long-distance guruing" through its own understanding of the guru's grace. Its members regard the true guru ultimately as a blissful loving power that is activated by the human guru through kundalini energy. This bond of love results in a transformation of the disciple. If the disciple's relationship with the guru is a right one, the goal of oneness with Absolute Reality will be reached no matter what.
A serious Catch-22 arises here. How does a disciple reach this internal power of "blissful love" and achieve a "right" relationship to the guru when there is little or no personal contact with the guru to begin with? If the student can do this without personal interaction, doesn't that make the guru unnecessary? Disciples respond by saying that simply meditating on the guru enables one to interact with and receive guidance from him or her.
In practice this concept of the guru may represent a healthy blend of East and West. The disciple has a teacher to provide the necessary philosophical and practical guidance, yet is still responsible for his or her own practice and development, thus avoiding some possible difficulties.
Still it appears the American disciple depends upon the psychic abilities and extraordinary powers of the guru. It is this aspect of the relationship that is most fraught with difficulties. If a student does not have close interaction with the guru, how can he or she be certain the guru's abilities are authentic? How does one develop a life-changing bond of love and trust in an occasional few moments of exchange? The student's psychological health may even be suspect if he or she can establish a trusting, dependent relationship with someone more or less unknown. Even considering the tremendous spiritual power of some gurus, this can reflect a questionable practice of suspending one's judgment in favor of hearsay, public relations, or one's own personal projections.
By this view, a student must have faith in the guru no matter what action the guru takes. In turn the guru will reveal the disciple's remaining ego attachments. This requires surrender. Surrender need not mean giving up autonomous thinking, but rather rising above the ego, releasing ego-based desires, and allowing the guru (from his or her enlightened perspective) to guide and mold the student. Listening to the guru's instructions, contemplating the guru's words, must be integrated into one's whole life.
A SYDA follower has used the analogy of making pottery. The student is the clay spinning on the wheel; the guru within, the inner teacher, is the hand inside pushing hard to mold the clay, while all the time the other hand (the human guru) offers support outside the pot so the clay does not break or collapse. The guru must have some power over the devotee if this molding is to take place. This analogy, however enlightening, still leaves the question of how the guru can provide this support "outside the pot" while remaining so inaccessible.
Unfortunately the level of codependence and dysfunction in our society creates a tremendous possibility for abuse in the authoritarian nature of this relationship. (See Janet Jacobs' Divine Disenchantment: Deconverting from New Religions, Indiana University Press, 1989, for an excellent discussion of this subject.) According to psychologist and author Alan Roland, Americans seem to "commit rapidly and completely, or not at all." (12) Followers' devotion to the guru appears to start very soon after, if not at the time of, their initial introduction. They tend to relate any doubts that arise, not to the authenticity or ability of the guru, but to themselves as disciples.
Some gurus have abused, sexually exploited, and financially profited from their followers. Behavior many would find unacceptable from friends, lovers, or family members is rationalized when it comes from the guru. Why does this happen? Practices Americans might call erratic or abusive are sometimes used by Eastern masters to stop the rational mind and allow enlightenment to enter. Moreover disciples are frequently well-entrenched in the relationship before discrepancies in the guru's behavior may arise. This begins what Katy Butler terms "a mutual dance of delusion," (13) leading to denial of one's own feelings and perceptions and ultimately distorting one's sense of reality.
Gurus are sometimes believed to be above ethical laws that apply to everyone else. Swami Muktananda provides one of the best-known cases. Introduced to the U.S. by Ram Dass in 1970, Muktananda claimed to have inherited the mantle of Nityananda, a guru of the Siddha lineage
The Dalai Lama has said, "If one has a teacher who is not qualified, who is engaging in unsuitable or wrong behavior, then it is appropriate for the student to criticize that behavior."
who died in 1960. (Some of Nityananda's Indian disciples have disputed this claim.) By the time of his death in 1982, Muktananda was presiding over an empire of 31 ashrams worldwide.
During his lifetime, Muktananda managed to maintain an aura of rectitude. But eventually guns and violence, sex with miners and other unwilling victims, and an alleged $5 million in Swiss accounts (by Muktananda's own claim to one follower) could no longer be justified, and several of his closest devotees left the movement.
One long-time follower, Richard Grimes, explains how this situation could have gone on so long: "For years, we thought every discrepancy was because he lived outside the laws of morality. He could do anything he wanted. (14) Devastated, former disciples spent a long time picking up the pieces of their experience. Though some of them believe Muktananda's great power helped them make spiritual progress, others wonder how far a person can "really grow under a master who doesn't himself live the truth." Stan Trout, one of Muktananda's former swamis, makes an important point here. When the truth about Muktananda's sex life came into the open, there was absolutely no means available to present the evidence for a fair hearing or judgment. There was no recourse but to leave, for the guru was the sole appeal." (15)
The Dalai Lama explains such situations by saying that while "part of the blame lies with the student, because too much obedience, devotion, and blind acceptance spoils a teacher, part also lies with the spiritual master because he lacks the integrity to be immune to that kind of vulnerability. (16)
On the other hand, a relationship with an authentic guru can heal dysfunction and promote genuine spiritual experience. Such a relationship should create equality as the guru uses divine power to help lift the devotee to an independent level of spiritual awareness.
The practice of bestowing great spiritual power on disciples whom the guru barely knows is also a source of concern. Some spiritual work is necessary before enlightenment can be achieved and incorporated into our being. Premature power can harm an unenlightened person. How can the guru be assured that the devotee is prepared for such intensity?
Some former followers of Maharaj Ji of the Divine Light Mission have said that they were ill-prepared for the guru's blessing of spiritual power; in retrospect they feel it hindered rather than helped their long-term spiritual progress. (We should note that Maharaj Ji no longer participates in this practice.) It is important that the guru be familiar with the student's psychological state and progress along the spiritual path. But in our fast-food, Superdomesized religious encounters, even enlightened gurus may not always be aware of an individual student's readiness.
Devotion to the guru is important to American followers. Worship is not for the guru's sake, but for one's own. Devotion opens one to what the guru has to offer. The greater one's devotion, the more one receives. Seva, loving service to the guru, is part of devotion; through it the devotee can even become like the guru. Author Peter Hayes, a SYDA devotee, says seva "purifies our inner being so that we may be able to fully imbibe the teachings.... While it may appear on the surface that the service we perform helps the Guru, it is really the other way around. (17) During seva, blockages are cleared and the path is opened to understanding, transformation, and liberation. This selfless service generally takes the form of helping with the upkeep of the ashram: cleaning, cooking, planting trees and flowers, public speaking, or a whole spectrum of duties.
Americans' major concern about Hinduism has to do with the aspect of devotion in this relationship, As Diana Eck says, "Human beings are honored, even worshipped as divine, and are given virtually divine authority by their followers. (18) From a Christian-oriented standpoint, the worship of the guru is idolatrous.
In response, the Hindu sect of Gaudiya Vaisnavism (from which ISKCON sprang) contends that God really has "name, form, qualities, relations, and activities" but that "all of these are 'transcendental' - of quite a different nature from the names, forms, qualities, relations and activities of the material world. Variety in God's manifestation does not have to imply duality. What Westerners would see as an idol is actually a form which serves "as an instance of God's presence." It presents the divine in a manner people can relate to rather than offering an impersonal god that cannot be conceptualized. (19)
Katy Butler explains the difficulties of applying Eastern practices in a cross-cultural setting. In the native tradition, discernment accompanies reverence. Devotional practices are circumscribed by community standards and a sense of self we do not have in the United States. "Asian students may display deference, but withhold veneration, until they have studied with a teacher for years. They seem to have a `private self ' unknown to many Americans, which is capable of reserving judgment even while scrupulously following the forms. (20)
In America, however, devotional traditions have been imported "without importing the corresponding ...social controls. (21) Here the deference afforded a spiritual teacher often goes far beyond what would be allowed in his or her own society. American students act initially by personal choice and desire, without a communal ethic involving the guru or other followers. Instead it's up to the individual to regulate the degree and amount of contact with the guru. Such a relationship must be entered into with the traditional caveat "let the buyer beware."
But this is an extremely simplistic response to a complex problem. Considering the multitude of needs (both healthy and neurotic) one may want to fulfill by religious participation, the student seeking a guru may be the person least equipped to determine the guru's authenticity. By the time a teacher's exploitative tendencies become evident, the damage may already be done.
The field of transpersonal psychology is addressing this concern by developing means of making informed decisions when searching for a spiritual teacher or group (see "Choosing a Teacher page 28). Yet these tools are only useful if one applies them, and one who is attracted to a guru may not be willing or able to apply rational criteria to the choice. In fact some who turn to Eastern philosophy are trying to escape the exclusively rational, intellectual approach to life that has made them feel so alienated. While retaining one's "individual sovereignty" is the best and safest way to avoid exploitation on the spiritual path (or any path for that matter), other safeguards might be in order.
Although more stringent financial monitoring of all religious entities may be wise, political regulation of religious groups is not desirable. So how can this lack of cultural controls be addressed without undermining the guru-disciple relationship itself?
Butler offers an alternative. Groups can regulate themselves by applying standards of ethical conduct, thus dispersing some of the guru's power throughout the community. The guru and community can ritually recite these standards and confess violations. They can make amends to individuals through acknowledgment and restitution overseen by an internal board. While community regulation is still subject to human imperfection, it may make it possible to derive the greatest benefit from a religious group while minimizing the possibility of exploitation.
Despite these difficulties, the guru-disciple relationship can apparently enable one to integrate nondualistic ideas and spirituality into everyday life. It offers the possibility of tremendous spiritual growth, healing, and a powerful change in outlook.
How do the diverse views of East and West meet? In synergy. The intuitive experience of Oneness can elevate rational thought. Western rationalism and autonomy, on the other hand, provide safeguards so the student can travel greater spiritual distances with the guru. In this context autonomy is not simply a reductionistic attitude blocking spiritual development, but a useful tool. Even in the process of surrender one must use it, along with enlightenment and knowledge, to determine a right course of action.
Many disciples say they have benefited from their involvement with a guru. But experience shows a seemingly evolved being may not be in a state of transcendence and love all the time. Or perhaps it is an instance of the saying "Absolute power corrupts absolutely. We cannot know for sure. Ultimately our spiritual path is between each of us and God, the Divine, All That Is, Saccidananda. The sooner we accept personal responsibility for it, the greater our progress will be. Until we do, we need to be open, accepting, and cautious - using hearts, souls, and minds in our journey of religious experience.
Ihia E Nation has an M.A, in religious studies, and a B.A., with several years' experience, in social work. Her professional interests focus on incorporating the spiritual and practical in everyday life.
Choosing a Teacher
Teachers and groups come in many forms and differ wildly in quality. At the same time a student's reasons for seeking spiritual fulfillment may be either healthy or unhealthy, or both. How can we evaluate teachers and groups - and ourselves - to make sure we are on the path, not to abuse, emotional trauma, and disenchantment, but to genuine growth and enlightenment?
Many experts agree that external criteria can't entirely override the subjectivity involved in choosing a guide. But there are means we can use to make the process somewhat safer. In their book Spiritual Choices, Dick Anthony, Bruce Ecker, and Ken Wilber provide a framework for classifying four levels of spiritual authority:
Clearly the chances of abuse are much reduced with teachers in the more advance categories. Unfortunately, as the authors add, the beginning student can't determine with certainty which of these categories a teacher falls into. Does that leave us stranded? No. By looking at the group surrounding the teacher, a seeker can at least glimpse the health and genuine transcendence of the master. As the old adage says, By their fruits shall ye know them.
In an article published in Spiritual Choices, transpersonal
psychologist Frances Vaughan suggests considering these questions about spiritual groups:
But the scrutiny can't stop there. As Vaughan says, students must also evaluate their own motives. Ask yourself: What attracts me to this person or group? Am I seeking a parental figure to relieve me of responsibility? What am I giving up to participate?
Entering into a relationship with a teacher or group can hold out the promise of transcendence or end up in disillusion and trauma. Students must continue to evaluate their own motives, as well as their interactions with the teacher, to assure movement toward higher consciousness and transformation. - I.F.N.
For more information, see Dick Anthony, Bruce Ecker, and Ken Wilber, eds. Spiritual Choices: The Problems of Recognizing Paths to Inner Transformation. New York: Paragon House, 1987.
From the Gnosis Magazine / Spring 1996