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There are basically two approaches to the ‘guru’ question. The first is that people simply need help on the spiritual path, which is why there are gurus. The second is that people create gurus by their need to follow someone. This second view leads to the conclusion that all gurus should just stop being gurus and let the people get back to their own devices.

This second view is roughly what the teachings of 20th century anti-guru Jiddu Krishnamurti amounted to. For instance he said:

If someone has helped you and you make of him your authority, then are you not preventing all further help, not only from him, but from everything about you? Does not help lie about you everywhere? Why look in only one direction? And when you are so enclosed so bound, can any help reach you? But when you are open, there is unending help in all things, from the song of a bird to the call of a human being, from the blade of grass to the immensity of the heavens. The poison and corruption begin when you look to one person as your authority, your guide, your saviour.

[Commentaries on Living, Commentaries On Living Series II, Chapter 45 ‘Help’]

The anti-guru as a guru

I wonder though: are people really so stupid that they stop listening to other people just because they listen to this one person?

Krishnamurti’s life makes it clear that just because a guru tells people to follow their own insight, that doesn’t mean he is no longer followed. He was followed. Several organizations did grow around his ‘teachings’. There were of course people who learned something from what he had to say and left. But there were also many who were addicted to his message and followed him around the globe.

It seems the guru phenomenon is simply a given. And it’s not all that different from people going to every Michael Jackson concert.

Some gurus and anti-gurus

Education and the Significance of Life, Jiddu Krishnamurti

Jiddu Krishnamurti to teachers and students at his schools. He was much concerned that education would not add to the conditioning of the students.
U.G. Krishnamurti (no relation) was even more radical than Jiddu Krishnamurti. If you want to think through the anti-guru position to it’s conclusion, U.G. is your man. For one thing: he did stop teaching when it became clear he was turning into a guru.
Eckhart Tolle, a modern guru. Would anybody think he meant you to stop listening to everybody else? But why should that stop him from teaching what he knows? A fun book to get you to enjoy the moment.

Learning devotion etc.

The traditional perspective on gurus is that they teach by example and the learning is partly due to the devotion the student feels for the guru.

One can wonder if one really gets to the depth of any spiritual tradition without the devotion to some teacher. Whether he (or she) be called guru, minister, rabbi or priest.

I wonder sometimes whether, especially for us individualistic Westerners, learning devotion isn’t an essential part of spiritual growth.

The guru In Tibetan Buddhism

In Tibetan Buddhism it is very explicit that it’s the students who create the guru. It’s up to the students to see the guru as an emanation of the Buddha or even a physical Buddha him (or her-) self. When they do, the teacher becomes a guru – no longer merely someone who teaches facts about the tradition and inspires, but someone who embodies the divine for us and will help us reach enlightenment.

Though, of course, we still have to get there ourselves… This is a given. No guru can protect us from our mistakes, or make us meditate more, or give us realizations. What they can do is inspire us and guide us.

The real ones, the good ones, will know what we are ready for, won’t ask us more than we can give and will stimulate thinking for ourselves. Or, as teachers in my tradition have stressed, ‘if a teacher asks for money, run in the other direction’.

In my experience it can make a lot of difference to have a guru. Without a teacher it’s real tough to work on your own blind side.

So, how about it: do we create our own gurus?

From a sociological perspective the answer to that question is simply… yes. We do create our own gurus. The likes of Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Oz, presidents Obama and Bush, Stephen Hawking and more: all are created as authorities by their audiences.

There’s no help for it. Were one of those to fall in public estimation, another would be found to take their place. I think it’s partly that having authorities helps us organize our world. It helps us in filtering information. After all, there is really too much information out there these days. Having authorities also helps us to not have to know about every topic there is. We’ll leave the fine art of physics to the scientists, the knowledge of how to improve our health to the doctors etc.

Television has of course changed that game. Oprah seems part of the family. Obama, his wife and children are too. Does that mean we agree with everything these people do? For most of us: of course not. But in each of these cases there are those who will justify everything these celebrities do, because it’s easier. Because they have ‘charisma’. Because there’s no harm in it.

In fact, even in Tibetan Buddhism – where guru yoga becomes a central part of the spiritual path – the answer to that last question is yes: we create our own guru. A teacher is YOUR GURU when you SEE him or her as such. Of course it’s wise to observe that person a while, ask around etc before taking them on AS your guru. It’s also important, once you’ve chosen someone to be your guru, to continue observing the relationship. Guru yoga is not about becoming a slave or anything like that. It’s still YOUR PATH. But those are two whole other topics.

More about Guru Yoga

About the author: Having studied Buddhism and other religions and spiritual traditions since 1995, Katinka Hesselink became a Buddhist formally in 2011. She has studied world religions at Leiden University where she focused on religious anthropology, philosophy and psychology. She has written online since 1999 and started this blog to share her Buddhist knowledge, insight and opinions. Katinka is best known for her common sense approach to Buddhism.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Nicolas van Gelder September 29, 2014, 5:43 pm

    While it is sensible to listen to those obviously wiser than yourself, it is foolhardy to regard them as omniscient. The Prajñāpāramitā Literature makes it clear that it is necessary, at some point, to abandon all leanings on people and ideologies in order to discover the Truth (paramārtha). Thus: There is only one mark (lakshana), that is no mark.

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