School teaches us how to making a living, but not how to live. The innate urge to discover our truth usually arises in adulthood after formal schooling ends. At some point in the journey of self-discovery, a thought naturally arises: we have teachers to help us discover our hidden artistic talents, to understand the natural laws governing our material world and to figure out complex mathematical theories, so why not take on a teacher to help us work through such cryptic questions as “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” The path of truth can lead us down a winding road of confusion with many ego traps waiting along the way, bends to disorient and forks in the road to broaden our choice and trigger doubt.
Though it’s a natural desire to seek help when help is needed, many seekers go off track by reaching out to a teacher too quickly rather than taking the sage advice to let the teacher find you. And that haste is magnified when not taking the time to properly assess the teacher.
It’s no wonder people get jaded when it comes to spiritual teachers—stories of pupils donating large sums of money to charlatan gurus only to have their “donations” frittered away on luxuries and stories of emotional or sexual abuse, though in the minority, are not uncommon. Unlike getting duped by some random guy on the street, getting screwed over by a spiritual teacher is of a whole different dimension because that person was chosen to guide us towards realization. By entrusting one person with something so important we can set ourselves up for disillusionment if we get taken advantage of, or even if we hear of others suffering from their wrongdoing.
But there’s risk in everything, and without being open to finding a teacher, we would miss the benefits that come from having one.
Since enlightenment is a process of uncovering true knowledge, the teacher helps keep the student on track, ever focused on the truth and not getting hooked by ego traps. As subtle layer after subtle layer gets peeled away from the ego it becomes ever more difficult to recognize the hang-ups and traps that we get caught on. Through years of experience and acute observation, a true teacher can pick out where a student is stuck and can point out what needs to be done to get unstuck, keeping us on track and not getting fixated on an end goal, but continually uncovering knowledge until we have greater and greater clarity.
Something similar can be said for a spiritual community. Though a number of spiritual seekers can pool their insights together to provide helpful wisdom, the inherent danger is in receiving wrong knowledge that can lead us astray. Where a spiritual community really shines, however, is in being a source of support.
Community is considered so important to Buddhists that the sangha (spiritual community) is one of three jewels along with the Buddha and the Dharma (teachings). Looking more closely at the three jewels, the Buddha is considered the root teacher. He has passed in his bodily form, as have many other great teachers throughout history. So a teacher need not be alive to pass on their teachings. A book can transmit teachings. What a book cannot do is look back and talk to you. Video teachings can talk to you, and in some ways are a step above books, but also lack the interaction so many find useful.
Unlike picking up a book or pulling up a video on YouTube, finding a real teacher can take some time. “Most seekers don’t have the good karma of meeting a real teacher at the beginning,” writes Karl Krumins in “Purification of Intent,” “So what to do? Without a real teacher the seeker must refine one’s own discrimination through readings of biographies (not necessarily Dharmic texts), or through visiting with acknowledged teachers.” Luckily, there are several living or not long deceased masters for whom there’s much documentation, including the Dalai Lama, Ramana Maharshi, Shirdi Sai Baba, G.I. Gurdjieff and Thich Nhat Hanh.
Krumins, who has spent years living among the many gurus of Tiruvannamalai, India, doesn’t believe that having a teacher is necessary, though he feels that for most people it is. In his case he attracted himself to three teachers and needed all three. “The likelihood of ego co-opting and using the search and any awakening event, big or small, for its own substantiation is almost guaranteed,” he writes, reinforcing his need for a guru to keep him on the right path.
Most teachers are simply practitioners themselves, working on their own practice, but have enough knowledge and presence to deliver what they have learned in a way that can greatly benefit others. How deeply most teachers can be of assistance or whether their help may confuse and disorient is another story, and one that’s up to the seeker to figure out and work through.
With easy access to information via the Internet it has never been easier to access knowledge in one form or another. Whether it’s a book, video lecture, audio recording or a personal connection to a teacher, we have so many options to choose from and so many ways to gather knowledge.
It’s best not to be fixated on finding a teacher. In our world of seven billion more spiritual seekers exist than ever before, yet with the tendency towards materialism, the odds are against finding a true teacher. And those true teachers are often swarmed by throngs of followers, which limits access to them while many others remain tucked away in caves and forests with little chance of ever finding them.
By keeping our eyes open to the path unveiled before us, we’re free to follow our intuition. And through non-attachment to finding a guide, the right help is more likely to appear along the way. It’s when we fixate on end goals or needing to find a teacher to get us to that end goal that we develop tunnel vision and lose sight of what is most important: our own ability to uncover the truth that lies within.
image: Joydeep Dasgupta (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)