Questioning Authority
by Mariana Caplan

Author of "Halfway Up The Mountain" and "Do You Need A Guru"

This piece, an extract from "Do You Need a Guru," appeared first as "Questioning Authority," in Parabola Magazine in 2000 

Few arenas in the field of contemporary spirituality create as much challenge, confusion, and provocation as that of the spiritual teacher. As a result of charismatic charlatans roaming the spiritual circuit, making their way into conventional households through the nation's most popular magazines and television shows, terms such as "guru" and "spiritual teacher" have become part of our colloquial English vocabulary. Yet in spite of the New Age publicity campaign, we remain largely shrouded in confusion and ignorance concerning the value and function of the spiritual teacher. Whereas in earlier times we rightfully trod the waters of spiritual mastery with due caution, nowadays everybody thinks they know exactly what a guru or spiritual master is and how to relate to him or her. 

The field of so-called spiritual mastery is vast. At one extreme are individuals like Charles and Caroline Muir, also known as the "Ken and Barbie of tantra," who average $50,000 in revenues in a weekend for teaching 4,000 year-old tantric sexual practices to couples, and on the other are great masters and spiritual leaders of unquestionable integrity such as the Karmapa, the Dalai Lama, and lesser known Eastern and Western saints. Yet neophyte spiritual seekers label them all "gurus," and regard them either with naïve adulation or grave suspicion – judgments largely dependent upon a very superficial body of data collected from their social surroundings, the media, or the church.

Making Distinctions 

One of our primary jobs as spiritual aspirants is to learn the task of discrimination and making distinctions. Whereas we might like to think our first task is to empty our minds, relax into ever-present bliss, and dwell within the True Self, if we are serious about the spiritual path, we quickly realize that we are faced with more immediate priorities. In slogging through the marshes of ego, one of our greatest assets involves learning to make distinctions between the real and unreal.

When learning to discriminate between true and false teachers, it is both helpful and necessary to know what it is we want from a teacher. If we want to learn to relax our minds, or to improve our relationship with our spouse or children, any number of spiritual psychotherapists will probably do. If we want to pursue a traditional spiritual path with some degree of rigor and seriousness, then we will need a guide or teacher of some substantial training and integrity. If what we want is to fulfill our highest possibility as human beings, then it is not only necessary for us to find a teacher, but to find someone who we know, to the best of our capacity, will be able and willing to help us realize our full potential.

Undeniably, many people turn to the spiritual master in an unconscious attempt to resolve unfinished psychological issues with their parents. The male or female guru represents the ultimate "spiritual parent"
the one who will finally provide us with the unconditional love we so craved as children. However, if we approach the teacher with the attitude of a child, even if our motivation is unconscious, we are begging to be shown any latent desires for power and recognition that remain in the teacher. We also tend to have a very distorted view of their manifestations, as we will interpret everything they say and do from the perspective of our unfulfilled childish desires. "There is no sin, there is only childishness," according to French spiritual master Arnaud Desjardins. Recognizing our childish relationship to the spiritual path and the spiritual master is essential in order to be able to take full advantage of the opportunity we are offered. When approaching the spiritual marketplace, it is essential that we be aware of the vast qualitative differences between the masses of teachers available. The field of spiritual mastery is not as it appears to be at first glance, and a preliminary and thorough study of the merchandise is a must before making any impulsive purchases.

East to West

The process of transitioning the function of the spiritual teacher from East to West is yet another significant factor to be considered. Whereas some precedence for the teacher-student relationship existed in the popular Western traditions (Native American elders, Jewish rabbis, Catholic priests), contemporary mainstream culture is largely influenced by dogmatic, if not mechanical, religion, and little precedence for relating to a spiritual master remains. 

We have found that it simply does not work to import Eastern traditions into Western culture without taking into account the significant cultural and psychological differences that exist. On one hand, we have seen celibate masters from Asian monastic traditions come to the West and crumble under the seductions of wealth, power, and sexuality; on the other we have seen all too many Western wannabe teachers with Sanskrit names dressing up in fancy robes and hopelessly trying to create traditional monasteries in a culture that is unprepared for it. At still another extreme are those who say we must take the best from all the traditions and create our own eclectic brand of spirituality, with everyone and everything – including trees, mountains, and stars – serving as our teachers. Like the painter who mixes all the primary colors on one pallet and ends up with gray, when we mix traditions on our own ego's terms the result is a very muddy brand of New Age spirituality.

The delicate task we are faced with is maintaining the essence and context of the traditional teacher-student relationship while making the necessary adjustments required by our Western psychology and culture. Although the task is unquestionably difficult, and errors are inevitable, this must remain our objective. 

One of the main difficulties we encounter in our attempt to embrace the Eastern notion of the spiritual teacher is the expectation that the teacher be perfect. Translations of the Eastern scriptures hail the teacher as "transcendent," "the perfect being," "angelic," and "beyond the beyond." From our Western tradition of rigid perfectionism, combined with our own spiritual naiveté, we interpret these teachings to mean that the teacher should be a kind of cosmic Superman or Wonderwoman. We fail to recognize that the laws of human incarnation necessitate that all human beings be just that – human. Even if they have transcended their attachment to their human form, they have still incarnated in a body that is subject to illness, with a mind that may or may not be free of psychological dysfunction or aberrations. 

Many a student has become disillusioned with a teacher who, in the face of tremendous physical pain, has not been able to "transcend the body" in the way the student imagines that should look. Desjardins tells the story of a time in which his master, Swami Prajnanpad, was suffering a grave disease. At one point Swami Prajnanpad called a student who was a well-known medical doctor and asked him for painkillers. This event caused enormous turmoil in several of Swami Prajnanpad's students. "If he is a true master," they pondered, "why couldn't he transcend bodily pain?" "If he is beyond the body, how could he get so ill?" Yet perhaps what this incident really points to is our misunderstanding about what a true master really is. We may need to consider that our Western concept of perfection is not equivalent to that suggested by the ancient scriptures.

A still murkier arena, particularly among Western spiritual teachers, is the issue of psychological imperfections. As Westerners, there are many advantages to pursuing spiritual life with Western teachers. Not only do they speak the same language but, more important, they are likely to have an understanding of Western psychology that many Eastern teachers understandably do not. However, given the present state of Western culture – a culture in which almost no one escapes childhood without developing some degree of psychological dysfunction – it is unlikely that even the best part of Western teachers are going to be free of neurosis, in spite of their level of spiritual attainment. If we as Westerners cannot accept this, or if in our initial naïve projections onto the teacher we fail to see it, at the first sign of any behavior that defies our expectations of how the teacher should be – an extramarital affair, yelling at his or her child, taking fancy vacations, etc. – we are immediately disillusioned not only with the teacher, but often with all teachers, as well as with the body of spiritual teachings. 

If we understand the complexity of the process, we realize that we are faced with a great deal of personal responsibility not only in choosing a spiritual master, but also in creating a satisfying and productive relationship with him or her. We must not be scared away from the teachings because of a teacher's minor psychological neuroses, but at the same time we should not overlook obvious abusive tendencies. Similarly, we must learn (often over many years) to distinguish between the psychology of our teacher and the teachings which he or she is able to effectively transmit in spite of that psychology. Regardless of the teacher's mastery, we must be honest with ourselves regarding what about the teacher we can learn to live with and what we cannot, whatever the reason. 

Criteria for Evaluating Spiritual Masters

Concrete, fixed criteria for attempting to evaluate the mastery of any given teacher are limited in value but still can be very useful. The obvious limitation is that using criteria created in mundane consciousness to evaluate one who by definition is outside of that consciousness is never foolproof. It is like asking a baseball umpire who has never seen a soccer game to referee the World Cup. While numerous respectable spiritual institutions have attempted to draw up lists of criteria for evaluating spiritual teachers, if we rigidly stick to any set of criteria, however refined, we may miss out on identifying some of the greatest masters of our time, as these masters often fall outside the domain of set parameters.

Nonetheless, many spiritual authorities have suggested criteria to provide direction for seeking a teacher. If considered wisely, they can be extremely useful.

 – Lee Lozowick: 1) If you aren't very serious about your desire to progress on the path, don't look for a teacher in the first place; 2) don't be impulsive in signing up; 3) study the teacher's body of students.

 – Frances Vaughan: In order to choose a teacher or group with some degree of self-awareness, one could begin by asking oneself some questions… What attracts me to this person? Am I attracted to his or her power, showmanship, cleverness, achievements, glamour, ideas? Am I motivated by fear or love? Is my response primarily physical excitement, emotional activation, intellectual stimulation, or intuitive resonance?… Am I looking for a parent figure to relieve me of the responsibility of my life?…Am I moving towards something I am drawn to, or am I running away from my life as it is? 

 – Arnaud Desjardins: In order to teach, one should be free of the four main areas of attachment: money, sex, power, glory. To be free of sex or money does not mean that you do not have sex or do not touch money, but that you are no longer liable to be carried away by those things – there is no risk that they will pollute one's ability to serve, or interfere with their capacity to transmit the teachings.

 – Georg Feuerstein: Does the teacher genuinely promote disciples' personal and spiritual growth, or does he or she obviously or ever so subtly undermine their maturation?

 – Andrew Cohen: The individual would have to have convinced you that they are a living example of what it is that you want to become. After scrutinizing them very closely, you would conclude that they are not struggling anymore in themselves to overcome impure motivation, and that they are resting naturally in a state of pure motivation. 

 – Gilles Farcet: Who was the teacher's teacher? What sadhana did the teacher in question do? Does he or she belong to a tradition, a lineage? How is he or she viewed by his or her peers? What do his or her students demonstrate as far as basic human qualities and sensitivity are concerned? 

Many people suggest that it is unnecessary to be "enlightened" to be an effective spiritual teacher, and also that a good student can learn from even a very bad teacher. When one contemporary Zen teacher was studying with his master in Japan, he discovered that there was a far better roshi teaching in the area. When he left his weaker teacher for a stronger one, he was highly criticized by the Japanese, who said that it is the obligation of a strong student to stay with a weak master in order to help raise the master's capacity.

Am I a Disciple? 

Although criteria for evaluating spiritual mastery can be useful, it is very easy – too easy in fact – to criticize popular teachers and highlight their failings. Far more difficult is to evaluate ourselves as disciples. "Gurus are not so common, but disciples aren't either," suggests Desjardins. The late Swami Muktananda said that the market for false teachers is growing because the market for false and ignorant disciples is growing. When we begin to consider false teachers from the perspective of our own weak discipleship, we challenge ourselves to embrace a perspective far wider than that of the common spiritual critic. 

All of the ancient scriptures say that when the disciple is ready, the master appears. Many spiritual students like to complain, "For me this isn't true. The master hasn't appeared." Yet most likely they are not ready for the master, and instead must persist with their spiritual discipline until the master appears. Author and teacher Gilles Farcet suggests that instead of asking, "Is this master fit for me?" we might rather ask, "What are my qualifications as a disciple?" What do we have to offer to our spiritual path and spiritual teacher? As Westerners, we are conditioned to believe that everything should be given to us on a spiritual platter at a discount price. Yet the laws of mastery and discipleship evolved long before our own demanding psychology, and even though we are living in a new the millennium, the "price" for spiritual fulfillment and a genuine master is no less than it ever was or will be. 

"You get what you deserve," comments transpersonal psychologist Charles Tart. This is an unpopular perspective, but the fact remains that if we find ourselves with a teacher who is abusive or a charlatan, or who "brainwashes" us, it is we who put ourselves there. We can blame the teacher all we want for his or her shortcomings, and all of what we say may well be true, but still it is we who bought the bait. Yet in our spiritual naiveté it is likely that we will at times find ourselves in the hands of such charlatans, and we should not judge ourselves "bad" or "wrong" because of it. The natural process of developing spiritual discrimination will often take us through a series of encounters with false teachers as we work our way through our own illusions about the spiritual path.

Against All Odds

In the contemporary spiritual scene, false teachers clearly outnumber real ones by a daunting ratio. "Why bother with a teacher at all?" we may ask, when any number of New Age texts will gladly assure us that the master dwells within us as our true self, and we need no other source of help. The answer is that while the inner guru is alive and well within us, so is the ego with its infinite variety of forms, costumes, and masquerades. Though in the end the master proves to be no other than our true self, we in no way have realized this truth, and we need the help of the external guide to provide the mirror for that which we resist seeing but which is absolutely necessary that we know. Ego will never orchestrate its own undoing – it is unlawful and impossible for it to do so. Therefore, against all odds, we turn, open-eyed and with our faculties of discrimination intact, toward the qualified spiritual teacher in order help us to discover what we came to spiritual life for. 

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