Are gurus made up by people because of their need to follow?

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

Prostrating to the guru and other guru yoga practices explained

If you come to Tibetan Buddhism after having read one of the easily accessible books by the Dalai Lama you may be in for a shock: there are a LOT of rituals involved in Tibetan Buddhism. For Westerners the first responses will be alienation and curiosity.

To help you deal, here are some common practices. The main thing to remember is that this is about respect, not servility. A real spiritual teacher will help you develop your own wisdom and this includes your ability to think for yourself. (more about guru yoga)


When we prostrate to the guru, we’re really prostrating to the teacher as a vessel for the dharma.

Prostrating before teachers is about respect for that teacher. This does not imply listening without critical thought. In fact, my teacher stresses thinking for yourself every opportunity he gets.

Standing up when the guru comes into a room, passes by or leaves the room

Again: a mark of respect.

The guru sits on a throne

The oral tradition around my teacher has it that he didn’t want a throne to teach from. It was explained to him that the students would be sitting on chairs and would feel uncomfortable towering over him sitting on the floor.

That’s one explanation, but the fact is that in Tibetan Buddhism it is usual for the teacher to sit on a throne or pedestal. This is not as alien to Western culture as it might seem: in some classrooms at my old high school there were still pedestals for the teacher’s desk. The advantage is that the teacher can see the students better and they can see him or her better as well.

Incense and so on

All of the above is about respect. Respect for authority is a suspect attitude in Western culture these days. When a guru literally had incense burned in front of him as he walked into the room to teach, I felt a bit overwhelmed. However, for those with a Catholic background it is probably not at all offensive. In a Buddhist context it’s important to realize that it’s not so much the person of the teacher that is being honored, it’s the dharma, the teachings. That guru sat on a normal chair and wore normal clothes when he simply wanted to welcome everybody without giving any teachings. On that evening there wasn’t incense either.

How to do Guru Yoga in Tibetan Buddhism – guru yoga practice

For Westerners Guru yoga is difficult. It’s so difficult for us that the Dalai Lama teaches Guru Yoga at the end of the Lam Rim, even though it’s right at the beginning in every Lam Rim text.

Basically guru yoga can be translated as guru devotion. That is: devotion to your spiritual teacher.

On the most fundamental level this is natural. Of course you will be devoted to the person who guides you along the path, helps you become a happier and more balanced person and so on. Since most spiritual teachers have charisma, devotion to them is in some ways a matter of course.

However, as you read this you are probably conjuring up all kinds of images of guru’s misusing their disciples. The advice given in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is very simple: if your teacher behaves in a way that you cannot reconcile with his (or her) role as a spiritual teacher, keep your distance. Treat specific outrageous requests, like giving up all your money to him, as jokes.(*)

Of course the main way to prevent trouble is much simpler: only take on someone as your spiritual teacher if you feel you can trust them.

Summer 2012 I attended Lam Rim teachings on Lama Tsong Khapa’s Short Lam Rim text. During the course of those teachings he gave clear instructions on the levels of Guru Yoga in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Since these levels make sense in a general Buddhist setting I think it’s useful to share them here.

  1. When you take refuge or pratimoksa vows, like the lay vows, the teacher who gives you those vows becomes a guru for you on a very basic level. You’re only required to see him or her as a teacher, nothing more. This makes sense as those vows are common to all of Buddhism, including Theravada Buddhism. Since guru yoga plays no part in Theravada Buddhism it would be a break with tradition if it were necessary to see the vow preceptor as a guru in a higher sense.
  2. When you take the Bodhisattva vows, you are expected to see the person who gives them to you as an emanation of the Buddha. This is still doable, because faults and mistakes come with the territory of emanations of the Buddha.
  3. When you take a tantric initiation, you are required to see the person who gives those vows as an actual Buddha. Any limitations you see in them will have to be seen as necessary for the development of the students.
There are all kinds of issues with devotion to the spiritual teacher that I won’t go into here, because Alex Berzin has created a whole book (available as a free ebook) on the topic. What it boils down to is simple, I think:
  • Don’t move too quickly. Some people who pose as spiritual teachers do misuse their position in all the ways that people in power tend to do. It’s better not to have a spiritual teacher at all than to have to break the relationship.
  • Keep as much distance as you need in order to be able to see that person as a Buddha. Seeing them brush their teeth may not be conducive to the relationship.
Dr. Berzin’s book is great to set the mind at ease on all the issues that may come up in trying to deal with guru yoga in a Western context. However, amid all the good advice one thing seemed missing to me: how to do the actual devotion part. I think for many people it’s not hard to feel thankful to the teacher. It’s also useful to remember that what we are doing is generally speaking not so much tantra as training for tantra, even if we have taken vows.
When  Kay Cooper and Gordon McDougall came to Amsterdam to teach the Tantra module of Discovering Buddhism I asked them about this and they shared what their teacher Geshe Tashi had said: the main thing is to stay present in the relationship with the master and practice what they teach.
The main thing about spiritual teachers is that they will teach what their students need to hear at that point in time. So if the teacher tells you something opposite to the above, as long as they’re not asking you for something unreasonable, take their advice as teachings and ignore the above.
If a spiritual teacher asks you to do something you can’t do: it’s perfectly alright to just not do it.


(*) My own teacher, Geshe Sonam Gyaltsen, literally gave the advice to treat outrageous requests as jokes. I’ve heard several other teachers in the FPMT advise to just stay away from a teacher whose behavior you can no longer live with up close. Most of this post is condensed from my notes on the summer 2012 Lam Rim teachings he gave on the short Lam Rim by Lama Tsong Khapa, using the 3rd Dalai Lama’s Essence of Refined Gold and Trijang Rinpoche’s Lam Rim outlines. I did not check these notes against the audio files, nor did I check with the translator to see if I understood everything correctly. Mistakes are entirely my own responsibility.