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Of Gurus and Godmen

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Of Gurus and Godmen

by Eric S. Fallick

“Although no real teacher exists, for one who knows is at once emancipated, yet no contradiction finds place here, because knowledge can arise through an imagined teacher.”

The Vedanta Siddhantamuktavali of Prakasananda, tr. by

Arthur Venis, p. 142

Many spiritual and contemplative systems include the institution and idea of the guru, lama, Chan/Zen master, sheik, tzaddik and the like. This idea comprehends the notion of a spiritual teacher who is supposed to be fully accomplished, realized, “enlightened”, knowing everything about how things are and guiding students and to whom students or disciples are supposed to submit, follow, obey, serve, idolize, imitate and even worship. They are supposed to regard the guru (this term will henceforth be used as an umbrella term for all the different names and variations on the theme) as a god, God incarnate, a Buddha, having special direct access to God, etc. In these systems, it is considered that the student can't proceed or accomplish the goal of the system without the guru and is dependent on the guru for spiritual progress, and the guru often performs rituals of initiation, ordination, etc., and is even supposed to supply necessary blessings, protection and so forth, along with detailed instructions (often secret and revealed only to the sufficiently submissive and obedient initiate). This institution continues as present in many, if not most, of the meditation/mystical oriented spiritual systems extant in the modern world, including the modern West, however attenuated, diluted, degenerated, confused, ersatz and vestigial the extant traditions may be. Even in those systems that don't actually include the guru idea and institution, the masses of starry-eyed silly people regularly exalt spiritual teachers and clergy to this status, with or without the encouragement of the objects of their glorification, and altogether regardless of their actual spiritual development, of the whole notion of which the people are generally without a clue. Of course, the founders and early figures of the various systems are usually deified. This whole idea and institution is, I think, highly problematic, to say the least, and erroneous, both pragmatically and on fundamental spiritual and metaphysical principles and facts. Here, I would like to briefly consider some of these problems and errors.

First of all, the whole guru business is, to use Abrahamic terminology, a form of idolatry. The whole purpose and goal of contemplative spiritual practice is to attain realization of and re-union with the Absolute, the One, the Good, the Unconditioned, or, if you like, God. This is our Source and our End, the only thing that is truly real and perfect, the very Ground of our and all Being, the only thing worth pursuing, loving and being concerned with. This Alone requires, demands, and deserves our attention, allegiance, love, esteem and devotion. This Alone should be our only concern and the only thing we have in view, are concerned with and consider important and worth striving for and exerting ourselves about. To raise any teacher or person, living or dead, to the status of guru and, effectively or overtly, spiritual intercessor is to give to a sensory phenomenon in space-time the consideration, attention, devotion, etc. that is due only to the One. It is a crime against Reality and the nature of things, a dangerous distraction and diversion from the Path. Of course, one will be told in such systems that the guru is necessary for attaining the Absolute, but this is not true, as will be discussed further below. Though it is outside the scope of this essay, it may be mentioned in passing that the same charge of idolatry applies to religious institutions and churches in general, ordinations, credentials, robes, costumes, rituals, ceremonies, etc. It is also another reminder that, contrary to the trend of the modern world and contemporary allegedly spiritual movements, renunciation, celibate asceticism, and whole-hearted world-denyingness are absolutely essential to and part and parcel of any real contemplative practice and higher spiritual life.

For many of the masses of people, the guru institution may serve as a convenient excuse for not actually doing the hard work of the Path oneself. They seem to think that devotion to the guru can substitute for actual spiritual practice and that the guru's alleged spiritual accomplishment will somehow rub off on them and they can become sort of parasitic on the guru's supposed condition. Of course, at any given time, very few people will ever actually tread the Path, which is so difficult, and even fewer attain, especially now when almost no one is willing to renounce the world or even understands the necessity of doing so, but there is no use in pretending that things are other than they are or looking for shortcuts. It is most important to understand what the Path actually is and entails, and if one is not doing it, to frankly acknowledge it and assess what one can and should do.

One of the important spiritual facts that the institution of gurus ignores is that it is not possible to mechanically reproduce great spiritual attainment (and, as will be discussed below, the finished person is no longer actually around to serve as a guru) generation after generation on a routine basis. (In fact, nothing in the spiritual Path can really ever be routinely produced mechanically guaranteed within a certain time frame by the simple application of spiritual technology.) True realization and the attaining of liberation is a rare and difficult thing not often met with and not always publicly announced, and it strains credulity to suppose so many lineages so readily and successfully replicating themselves over centuries. (There seems, however, to be a great overabundance of credulity at present when there are so many gurus continually arising and replicating themselves with great ease—much easier, in fact, than ever in the past even in their own traditions, when gurus are readily accepted as such even when their conduct and understanding indicates their falsity even to any even moderately informed spiritual understanding, and when certification as a spiritual teacher doesn't seem to require much more than sending in the requisite number of boxtops.)

The guru institution forms part of the authority obsession that characterizes the institutionalized religions and even their contemplative systems and traditions. The guru embodies the idea that one cannot find Truth oneself, that the Absolute is the possession of certain phenomenal, institutional, economic structures in the world complete with lineages, regalia, rituals, costumes, certifications, procedures, etc. who act as gatekeepers controlling access to the very Absolute within one's own soul as only available on their terms, that every understanding must conform to a body of lore and statements in the world, and that holiness itself is subject to approval by phenomenal institutions.

This is indicative of an even more fundamental spiritual and metaphysical error. It is absurd to maintain that realization of the transcendent Absolute is dependent upon certain institutionalized sensory phenomena in space-time, including a guru in a specific historical lineage, and that such realization can and must be certified and approved by specific sensory phenomena, i.e., the guru and tradition. (It is most important, however, to understand that realization of the Absolute does require, absolutely and without exception, full and true renunciation, asceticism, otherworldliness and complete purity of conduct and character. These are not phenomenal sensory institutes like those mentioned above, but the very fact and process of turning to the Good from the world. To realize the Good one must become like the Good. Contemplative asceticism and renunciation is the very manifestation and reflection of the Absolute in this world.)

There is yet a further fundamental metaphysical/spiritual flaw in the whole guru idea, which is based on more misunderstanding of the nature of Reality and the spiritual Path and on an erroneous realist metaphysic. When someone attains full realization of and union with the Absolute, when someone is finished, the world (including themselves) entirely ceases to exist for that person. Only the Absolute remains, and That is all that is known and experienced. No actual phenomenal interaction is possible between “a fully enlightened person” (to the extent that that phrase has actual meaning) as such and deluded souls remaining here in the lowest and least real level of Reality of individuated sensory existence in space-time. Thus, the very idea of an “enlightenedguru, Chan master, avatar, godman, Buddha, siddha, etc., etc. appearing and teaching in the world is an inherent contradiction and impossibility.

But how then are we to proceed? What about the wonderful spiritual texts that we use and rely on in our practice and that guide and awaken us? What about the other souls that we do learn from and interact with so valuably on the Path? Here it is important to remember the Platonic teaching that learning is really recollection. As we proceed on the Path and our karma lightens to a certain degree, the Absolute dimly manifests to us and certain texts and teachings appear in our experiential field according to our karma that remind us, to whatever extent, of how things really are and who we really are. For practical purposes it is necessary to consider these as having a certain supposedly historical origin, but in ultimate reality this is not the case. Each soul really has its own experiential field, but our experiential fields are modified by those of others and by that of the world soul according to our mutual karmas, and so beneficial interaction can occur and people and texts and teachings can appear as our karma requires it for advancing on the Path. Leaving gurus and godmen to themselves and their foolish devotees, let us renounce the world entirely as best as we can and continuously earnestly strive forward for union with the Absolute and release from the cycle of birth and death with our whole hearts, minds and souls!