Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On the Subject of Gurus

My friend Marianne recently wrote and asked if I was going to Varanasi...actually, she asked if I was going to Benares, which is the old name of Varanasi.  I said "Yes", and wondered why she asked.

She said,  "The city has always caught my imagination as being the mystical center of that spiritual universe."

Well, everything about that sentence hits me like a gentle punch in the gut and makes me want to yell, "YES, YES, YES. Me too.  That's the way I see it too..."

Long before the Beatles went to meet Ravi Shanker India has drawn spiritual seekers like bees to honey.  People don't call India "Mother" for nuthin'.  She's the bosom, heart, soul for billions of folk.  After all, she birthed two of the oldest religions we've got: Hinduism and Buddhism.

I have been wooed at different times in my life by Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as, Sufism, Catholicism, Judaism, Quaker-ism.....

The problem, not really a problem, more like a conundrum, really, with all those "isms" is that I'm not particularly down with the idea of gurus, wether they are called "guru", "sensei", "Pope", 'Rinpoche', "Rabbi."

On the other hand, call someone a "Teacher" and my hesitation goes away.  I love teachers.  I've had some fantastic teachers...both in school and out.  I see teachers everywhere.  I try to value each being I encounter as both a teacher and a student, each relationship, no matter how brief or how long, as an opportunity to learn, to grow.  This is a huge daily practice for me, as I like to do things my own way.

But when a teacher is elevated, or elevates themselves, to the realm of "Guru" I get squeamish, especially when they purport to have the only lesson plan for my personal enlightenment.

It's not the knowledge and wisdom that Spiritual leaders impart that I object to.  I'm just not big on the idea of putting the picture of some famous guy or gal like the Pope or the Dalai Lama on my wall or alter and praying or meditating or self-flaggelating myself "to" or "for" or "in the name of" these other mortal humans who have, lets face it, been coddled and cocooned and isolated from many of the kinds of relationships and interractions (marriage, parenthood, knocking up their girlfriend when they were teenagers, living openly as a homosexual.....) that try us ordinary mortals.

I know, I know...they study their whole lives (or over several lives in the case of the Dalai Lama), they dedicate themselves to the betterment of humanity.  I get it.  I do.  I admire that immensely, deep down into my boots, I admire that, I do.  I think the Dalai Lama is an incredible human being, like Ammachi, the Karmapa, Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle.....

I've been blessed to be in the same room with Ammachi and Pema Chodron, though not at the same time.  (Wouldn't that be something?)  Each time there were hundreds of other people in the room, most of them between me and each of these Bodhisattvas, but their calm, their grace, their infinite emotional space and open hearts were astounding, humbling, jaw-droppingly beautiful.  Each of these tiny women filled every nook of the cavernous auditoriums that they sat in with love and, even from so far away,  I felt washed clean by their powerful light and energy.

Each of these teachers/gurus/women have their own distinct style.  Ammachi, a Hindu who is also known as The Hugging Saint, makes you feel warm and safe, the way a small child feels cradled in the arms of their mother and, like a mother would, she feels the pain and heartache and frailty of all of her children and she loves you anyway.  Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, loves without attachment and holds within her emotional embrace the secrets that might help each of us release our own attachments to things that bring us pain and, as it turns out, from things that bring us joy.

I would like to know what each of these women know.  No doubt about it.  But I cannot imagine asking one of them to be my guru or, more likely, one of their disciples to be my guru.  I cannot see putting their picture on my wall as if they were a member of my presumptuous that would feel to me.  I could, actually, go to Ammachi's ashram when I am in India.  It's possible.  I will be right up the road.  I have looked into it, thought about it, wondered if I'm so resistant to the idea of a guru because I really really need one to evolve spiritually.  It could be argued, I'm sure.

But my gut has always said, "no."  "YES," to India. "No" to gurus and ashrams.  Though I think I would like ashram life, that's the funny thing.  I'd love to live for a few weeks or months chanting with hundreds or thousands of other people, meditating our way into our higher minds.  I love the idea of everyone chipping in, doing the dishes, cleaning the floors, making food.  I would welcome the idea of living for a while in community like that.  And I think the discipline of that kind of devotional practice would be good for me.  But when I ponder further, it also makes me feel a little bit like I'd be drinking the kool-aid.

An intuitive woman once told me that, unlike many people who walk a path that was cleared long ago by someone else, I would always feel like I am chopping my way through uncleared jungle with a scythe creating my roadmap one step at a time.  As I am writing this post and "listening" to myself talk about gurus and teachers, I wonder if the method of exploration and discovery that I've chosen is made unnecessarily difficult by my refusal to humble myself in some important way to a guru who has already cleared a path that I could follow.

I have always yearned for a spiritual home, a place that I could hang my hat and settle in.  As I get closer and closer to setting down in India for a few months, I wonder if that home might be in the place, India itself....if "that spiritual universe" populated with galaxies of gurus will hold enough power taken on its own to help me clear my path and get closer to my personal "mystical center", even if I don't choose to cross the threshold of an ashram.  Can I learn how to stop working so hard and settle into the core of myself while reaching out in genuine connection with the divine without explicit guidance from one clear voiced human guide?

Or, might I discover that all my hesitation about elevating one teacher over all the others, about taking a guru, as it were, melts in the heat of India?  Might something about the culture of India crack through my resistance and show me that there is a path already marked out for me and that walking beside me, or slightly ahead is someone far wiser than me into whose hands I can completely and willingly put my spiritual education?

I am trying to hold these questions lovingly, giving myself permission to change my mind as my heart opens and India teaches me, well, whatever it is I'm meant to learn from her.  It would seem, it occurs to me just now, that maybe, just maybe, India is all the guru I will need.  At least for now.


SM said...

What a great post. I know exactly what you mean about yearning for a spiritual path but feeling like you're always going to be clearing your own way- that the other paths don't seem to lead quite where you want to go. In my life, I feel like discovering the machete in my own hand was the start of something big.

I hope you'll post updates from the road. Bon Voyage!

Morganna said...

Thanks, SM!

What a compliment...especially from you! I will be posting from the road...taking my laptop...

Sending you love and gratitude for your shining light...


Christopher said...

Agh! Just lost my comment - that's a lesson of some sort!

I get what you mean about being reluctant to follow; I'm pretty much that way myself. Not that others don't have valuable lessons we all can learn from, but I think you're right about instinctively shying away from walking someone else's path. Regardless of how positive their experience may be, it's still THEIR experience, not yours. The whole notion that, "if you just follow the footsteps I've laid down before you, then you will reach the same destination" just seems, well, "incongruous" is the only word that really comes to mind, because it presupposes that: A.) that's the destination YOU want to get to in the first place, and; B.) that following is in your nature.

It's the dilemma Frost examines in "The Road Not Taken", but the truth is, some of us are naturally inclined to follow well-trod paths, planting our footsteps where so many have gone before and will go after; and some of us are simply born bushwhackers, inclined to make our own path (or certainly to take the one less traveled) through whatever spiritual or physical undergrowth stands in front of us. It's much more scary, much less secure, the destination unknown and the path itself often fraught with unforeseen complications.

But, I think you've really answered your own question in the title of this blog: people who follow well-worn paths are focussed on the destination and on reaching it with the minimum of time and toil; people who take the lesser path are more focussed on the journey itself and whatever new discoveries they may make along the way, regardless of where it all leads in the end.

I think you're one of the latter...

Sunrise said...

Sorry I missed your call. It was nice to hear your voice -- so clear!

Just read this post. So you know, "Guru," "Sensei," "Rabbi," and "Lama" all simply mean "teacher." ("Rinpoche" is an honorific that means "precious jewel," the teacher representing one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism -- the Buddha [teacher], the Dharma [the teachings], and the Sangha [the community of fellow practitioners/students traveling the path].)

As a friend of mine said to me once, "You fall in love with the guru so that you can fall in love with yourself." It's not about the guru; it's about you. It's not about following someone else's footsteps or path -- it's your own path, and only you can walk it. No one else has your heart and mind. Even if the destination is the same, your starting point is different from mine or Pema's or the Karmapa's or whoever's -- so your path is unique and personal. The teacher can give you advice and guidance and encouragement, but she or he can't do it for you. Pema Chodron wouldn't be where she is without her devotion to her teachers, but she walked (is walking) her own path, not theirs. The idea, in Tibetan Buddhism anyway, is that you identify with the guru to begin with, but eventually the whole world itself becomes your teacher, so you that find, in the words of WS,

". . . tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing."

I want to shout, "I love you!" loud enough that you can hear me in India. Glad you're there and having a great, rich time.


Ton frère

Morganna said...

Mon Frere!

I know that Guru means teacher, silly. Sadly, I think there are a lot of gurus out there that forget that, ultimately, we are all teachers and they try to set themselves apart from their own humanity, thus giving guru's a bad name.

So, I suppose it's about semantics....I like the people who are happy enough to just stick with humble old "teacher"~maybe someday I'll change my mind. If anyplace can do it, India can!

I love you all the way back to your side of the world and then some!