“Be a light unto yourself;
betake yourselves to no external refuge.
Hold fast to the Truth.
Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.”
~ Buddha Shakyamuni
It knew better. This thing, so dense, so light, that took me into its lap, that invited me for a dance with eternity, with infinity, would not leave me alone, unattended. Not even two days after encountering this mystery, after dipping into this bath of love and beauty, I was being shown a way. I believe it is inevitable when there is an opening. In a burst of synchronicity, a friend materialised and handed me a copy of Newsweek magazine where there was an article about a spiritual teacher who had died a couple of weeks earlier. I was immediately drawn to him. It was the beginning of a ten year journey into his teaching. I wasn’t the easiest friend though, nor the most faithful. Just a couple of weeks before, among the temples of Khajuraho, I was explaining to a German lady guru who invited me to her meetings, how little I felt about spiritual authority, how important it was to find out by myself, not to be influenced in these matters. My new spiritual teacher wasn’t the friendliest towards the figure of the guru either, but nevertheless he was my first help and pointer, my first pathway towards understanding. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”, it is traditionally said.
There is no doubt, India has dived like no other into the personage of the spiritual teacher, maybe invented it, surely gave it its most famous name: ‘guru’. Even India’s ancient canons of the non dual truth, the Upanishads, bear testimony of this primacy: According to Eknath Easwaran, “Etymologically the word [Upanishad] suggests ‘sitting down near’: that is, at the feet of an illumined teacher in an intimate session of spiritual instruction.” The accepted etymology of the word ‘guru’ denotes weight, something heavy with spiritual knowledge. One of these ancient Upanishads goes further and establishes, in its own eloquent way, the supremacy of the guru:
“He who is equipped with devotion to [his own] teacher,
who is especially a knower of the Self —
he who possesses these virtues is designated as a teacher (guru).
The syllable gu [signifies] darkness.
The syllable ru [signifies] the destroyer of that darkness.
By reason of the ability to destroy darkness, he is called a guru.
The teacher alone is the supreme Absolute.
The teacher alone is the supreme way.
The teacher alone is supreme knowledge.
The teacher alone is the supreme resort.
The teacher alone is the supreme limit.
The teacher alone is supreme wealth.
Because he is the teacher of that nondual Reality,
he is the teacher greater than any other teacher.”
~ Advayataraka Upanishad, [Verses 15 to 18]
So let’s trust India on this, let’s give some credit to the source of its immemorial wisdom. It cannot be stupid. It has good reasons to bring forth such an avalanche of superlatives to what appears to be just a person, a simple, physical entity. There are surely some subtleties that have been forgotten or overlooked. Let’s find them out. Why has this country, this culture, given such importance, such love and devotion to its spiritual teachers? There is a beautiful story from the Puranas that sweetly emphasises this primordial place, in this case using the tutelary figures of the parents: “Shiva, the supreme god, and his wife Parvati were sitting on Mount Kailash with their two children, Ganesha, the elephant god, and Kartikeya, the lord of war. The sage Narada came and presented them with the fruit of knowledge. Shiva said to the two children: ‘It will be for the one who returns first after going around the three realms’. Kartikeya ran to his peacock and started his flight in search of these around the world, while Ganesha merely circled around his parents, and consequently won the fruit.”
What is the role of a teacher? In India, emphasis is given to what is called ‘darshan’, which means to see, to behold, in other words to have the ‘vision’ of an enlightened one. But it is more a question of presence, to be in the presence of, and to feel the Presence. We are eager to listen, follow a line of reasoning, understand, but above all, feel. Feel something that we have never felt before and that would relieve us from the pain of living. This is our supreme expectation when we come to a teacher. We want to ‘see’ something, to be relieved of the burden of being somebody. We want to be reminded of something hidden, forgotten, and that the teacher would reveal, through his words, his being, his presence, his silence. “What is the role of a flower?“, Krishnamurti once asked. We are drawn to it, to share its beauty and perfume. In this invitation, in the attending of the simple, unassuming presence of the flower, we do not get anything, but rather get lost, feel our own absence for a second, bath in the beauty and love that is at the centre of experience, and taste a simple but unfathomable peace. Even for a split second, this feast of eternity will leave an indelible trace in ourselves. This is the seeing, the true ‘darshan’. In the so precise words of Jean Klein, “[The role of the ‘human guru’ is] to help the passage of the self, which is looking for itself, to find itself.”
Many people are afraid of spiritual teachers, and the word ‘guru’ is charged with so many negative connotations. Being bullied from all parts in the external world, most people do not want to hand over what they feel is their innermost core, their private, inside being, to any kind of authority. They are not willing to give up this freedom that they have, feel, and cherish in themselves. Rightly so. This, deep down, is the recognition of the sacredness of the self. This we don’t hand over to anybody, and never will. We can’t. The good teachers won’t take anything from us. On the contrary, she or he is here to expand this precious sense of being, and show us that it is what we are, not only deep inside, concealed in some opinion or belief that we so fervently take refuge in or defend, but as the very totality of experience. The reason why some people are afraid of the guru, is the very same reason why others give themselves to his or her presence. In other words, they both love the feeling ‘I am’.
Now comes the question of choosing, or finding the right teacher. Remember: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” But it is not a readiness in time, at the end of a long process. It can be true with just a few seconds of presence. It is more than enough for something whose very being is draped in eternity. In this timeless moment, presence gathers the conditions for the guru to appear, not as a person that you choose according to your likes or dislikes, but as the very energy, the very opening, the very innermost self. Jean Klein makes it very clear: “It is only alert waiting without waiting for anything that brings you to the openness. The guru is the openness. So whoever goes looking for a guru can never find him because he is not objective and cannot be sought. As long as you look you are not open and unless you are completely open he cannot find you.”
A teacher doesn’t have to be human. Jacques Vigne gives here a good reminder: “The Indian tradition is [not] rigidly attached to the presence of a flesh-and-blood guru as the sole source of instruction. Dattatreya is famous for having received the teaching of 24 gurus including the bee, the raven, the ocean, the prostitute and the weaver. One of the first expressions of the openness of Indian spirit in its reception of the teachings of different origins is this verse of the Rig-Veda: ‘May noble thoughts come to us from all directions.’” A teacher is only the expression of truth. It means that ultimately, there is no teacher, only teaching. And every thing teaches. Presence is the only teaching, and the true guru is a servant of presence. You may like a particular teacher because he looks good, his explanations are precise, and impressive, but in the end you will choose him or her for the love you feel in his or her presence. Love is the very expression of presence, and the bare bones and spinal chord of the teacher. Since the true guru is the self, at the end, it is always, in all cases, this inner teacher that will lead you to presence.
“The guru is a help allowing the disciple to recall his true nature.
He is like the king’s minister who finds the trace of the prince
who had been kidnapped as a child by the inhabitants of the forest.
In order not to frighten him, he begins to visit him personally in the forest,
then invites him from time to time to the palace,
then hires him as a helper in the kitchens,
then as the king’s valet de chambre,
until the King himself reveals to him his true nature as a prince.”
~ Jacques Vigne
What exactly takes place between a teacher and his student? How does it unfold as a teaching? And how does it come to be so efficient? In Rupert Spira’s words, the attitude is determinant: “The teacher wants absolutely nothing either for or from the student. He or she has no agenda. The so-called teacher sees the so-called student as him or herself, that is, as presence. It is this attitude that is primarily, in my experience, the effective agent in the apparent relationship between the teacher and the student.” And it is, indeed, effective. Many people feel uplifted in the teacher’s presence, in this so particular and potent meeting called ‘satsang‘. The sanskrit etymology of ‘satsang‘ teaches us something meaningful. The usual definition is the ‘company of truth’, and by extension, the ‘company of the wise’. But another one is ‘association with good men’, which was the favourite of Krishnamurti. In this instance, he showed how this etymology puts the primacy of love over wisdom: “Being good you are wise. Not, being wise you are good.” Nothing hierarchical is suggested. We are together, breathing the same air of presence. Love is first, and it pervades everybody. Friendship seems to be the word that suitably describes the nature of this ‘assembly’, as is suggested by Rupert Spira: “Sometimes, friendship is the only form in which the teaching takes place. There is little or no need for much talk or explanation. There is just being together. In this way the ease and freedom of the teacher permeates us, as it were, and we find ourselves catching it just like one catches a cold by infection! However, it is not the ease and freedom of a person but rather that which is inherent in our true nature, in which the body and mind of the human teacher are completely dissolved, that permeates us.”
It often comes as a surprise to see how potent is this simple act of being in the presence of the teacher. Everything seems to resonate in a deeper way: the understanding, the love, the sense of time, the ease towards others. The flavour of truth is tangible, and you seem to be, for a time, the best version of yourself. All this leaves an impression in you that can last for days or weeks. And this is not given by the content of the teaching alone, by the words, the intellectual understanding. This presence seems to pervade you and everyone simply through engaging in activities and relationships. This is the place where you can enact and express the qualities inherent to presence which, in Rupert Spira’s words, are “enjoyment, enthusiasm, creativity, friendship and humour.” As a result, one can feel great love and devotion towards the teacher, which is good as long as it is the natural expression, or consequence of a deepening of presence, as long as it is a celebration in which you, as a separate person or entity, have no part. Beware of the trap of objectifying the teacher through excessive devotion, through thinking that he or she will bring you the satisfaction that you need. Rupert Spira is very clear: “The purpose of a teacher is to liberate us from the dependence on objects or people for peace and happiness. … How do you think that devotion to a person can lead you to liberation from the dependence on objects for happiness? … A true teacher will take your devotion and gently, but swiftly and efficiently, turn it around, and redirect it to its source.”
“The heart is yearning to be open.
When a heart meets an open heart,
when a match approaches a lighted match,
it rejoices in unity, in the flame;
There is no longer a match.
This is called transmission.
But nothing is transmitted.
No one transmits, no one receives;
There is heart-to-heart transmission.
There is only one heart.”
~ Éric Baret
Another important thing to understand is that the true teacher will let you down, which means that all your hopes and projections, that came from the separate entity who wants to secure something for itself, will finally have to be crushed. To continue on this pathless path, all your expectations – which are in fact often what you take as being you -, even the more subtle ones, will be let down by the teacher. You will be let down. Anything objective in your search will have to be given up for you to be raised. Even the desire to be raised. In other words, you will have to give everything to the guru. Then, maybe, like the phoenix, you will be born again, out of the ashes of all that is false within you, or rather, of all that is not true, all that is not the truth itself.
Telling about the truth is always a compromise. This is the ultimate paradox of the teacher. Truth cannot be taught, at least not directly. That’s why Ramana Maharshi said that “Silence is the best and the most potent initiation.” That’s why Krishnamurti used to tell the story of this guru surrounded by his disciples, who was just about to speak one morning when a small bird came along, sat on the window-sill, and began to sing. The teacher remained silent all the while and, when the bird flew away after five minutes, resumed the meeting by saying that today’s sermon is over. Teaching the truth is love using dual words to point to non-duality, pronouncing time bound words to make us feel eternity, accepting conceptual words to tell of something that is simpler, lighter than air. It is as if to convey silence, you had to use noise. But this flaw is a beautiful and meaningful one. It means that you have to walk the path alone. Truth can never be given, it comes through experiential understanding only. This alone should immune ourselves against placing the guru on a pedestal, or making him into an authority to follow or believe.
Text by Alain Joly
Head painting is by Sanjay Lokhande
Guests on this page:
– Buddha Shakyamuni
– Eknath Easwaran
– J. Krishnamurti
– Jean Klein
– Jacques Vigne
– Rupert Spira
– Éric Baret
– Ramana Maharishi
– ‘Presence‘, Vol. I & II – by Rupert Spira – (Non-Duality Press)
– ‘Who Am I‘ – by Jean Klein – (Non-Duality Press)
– ‘Freedom from the Known’ – by J. Krishnamurti – (Rider Books)
– ‘The Indian Teaching Tradition’ – by Jacques Vigne – (BR Publishing Corporation)
– Back to Pages