The Spiritual Teacher
The last essay finished with the words:
Now I can direct my attention to the one and only thing I really lack, namely the knowledge of what I am anyway already. And how do I do this? I turn to those, who do not seem to lack this knowledge any more. Only a teacher who knows about our true non-duality can help me to attain the knowledge. Why? Because I myself can interpret my experiences only from the perspective of my ignorance and thereby always come to wrong conclusions. If I could bump into the truth all by myself, I would have already found it. I necessarily need a corrective. Only someone who has overcome his ignorance can guide me to gain the perspective of the knowledge that I lack.
But could I not simply study spiritual texts? No, because in my ignorance I am not able to properly interpret even real sources of knowledge. Unfortunately, this is how it is. Of course I can and will go on reading spiritual books and listen to spiritual teachers, as long as I have not found ‘my’ teacher. But it is better to find him/her.
Every seeker has different ideas and different expectations with regard to a spiritual teacher. Some may look for a saviour who fixes up their world for them. Others want a strict master who confirms their conviction that the observance of rules and rituals will result in enlightenment at some point. Again others seek out someone who provides them with special ‘spiritual’ experiences by his methods; they assume that every special experience is, so to speak, a sort of mini-enlightenment and that from all these mini-enlightenments eventually the ‘real, big’ enlightenment will arise. Some seekers simply fall in love with a teacher and ‘follow their hearts’, no matter what the teacher asks them to do. Others reject the idea of a disciple-master or student-teacher relationship, either in principle or because they have had bad experiences.
Some seekers envisage the teacher to be someone for whom they put their mind aside, give up will and self-determination and to whom they devote body and soul. I consider this idea first of all to be outdated and secondly redundant – not to mention the fact that this concept can cause extensive damage to the seeker in cases where the ‘master’ abuses his power.
Whoever has to give up his freedom, has to submit to rules that intervene in his personal life, whoever feels restricted, controlled, treated as someone under-age or reprimanded, in a word, whoever cannot be his own self, can be considered to be subject to abuse of power.
There are even more subtle methods of abuse of power. A common one is using big promises to motivate the disciple to invest more and more money, energy and devotion. Thus the seeker, in the vain attempt to scale the spiritual career ladder successfully, remains forever on the way instead of coming closer to the knowledge of who he truly is.
Even regarding abuse of power it takes two to tango – on the one hand the disciple with his fear, greed, dreams or ambition, on the other hand the so-called master with his craving for power (behind which fear, greed, dreams or ambition may hide). However, one cannot deny the vulnerable position of the seeker. Because how should he, who does not yet really know what it is he searches and definitely does not yet know what could take him to his goal, how should be know who could be the right one for him? Those who reject any disciple-teacher-relationship have an easy answer – as a reader wrote: No external teacher, master, enlightened being, healer, or therapist can help you – only observance and developing the witness, your internal master, will help. And relaxing and not following.
I nevertheless assume that it is worthwhile finding a teacher. The reasons for this I have presented at the end of the last essay (see above). ‘Developing the witness’, as mentioned by the reader, is a good idea although I would phrase it differently. Indeed, only someone who already knows the witness can do this. And we do not come to know witnessing consciousness all by ourselves but because those who know about it open up the possibility to discover it. These are the teachers.
The entire topic of abuse is alleviated if, as in Vedanta, it is about recognition and not about action. The teacher teaches, the student learns. The teacher does not say that this is to be done or not to be done but answers the questions of the student comprehensibly and logically. Besides, it is not about rules and laws but about explanatory models for what the student perceives. Reading in the Vedanta scriptures ‘The Self is everything that is’ does not correspond to what the student perceives. It requires an explanation. The teacher can give it to the student. But the student is asked neither to believe him, nor to act on the explanations of the teacher. The student is only to go on enquiring until those words make sense to him. It is solely about the understanding.
The very moment the mind of the disciple grasps hundred percent what IS (the non-dual reality), the alleged separation between I and not-I dissolves for good. How come? Because this separation (i.e. duality) is nothing but the missing knowledge of non-duality. (Please read these two sentences until they truly make sense, because I can show this here only in a very abridged way; it is a part of the teaching – and the learning process of the student can take many years. Questions via email are welcome).
By the way, in the teaching tradition of Advaita Vedanta there is no payment for the teacher. The teacher lives on donations.
How do I find my teacher?
First of all one must say farewell to the idea that it is possible to find the right teacher with absolute certainty. One can find only that which is right and true at the moment. From then on one must pay attention to just two things:
whether one feels unconditionally accepted by the teacher and
whether one has the feeling that the talks and teachings help.
One must be able to affirm both, otherwise it is better to look around for another teacher.
Why is it so important that one feels unconditionally accepted? Because one will not be involved wholeheartedly if some parts of the personality have to remain concealed. This leads to an internal split on account of which the knowledge one gains will never be total, a part of the mind remains untouched.
Indeed, it is not enough to feel accepted unconditionally by the teacher. Even your own grandmother may have accepted you unconditionally. If the feeling of being unconditionally accepted is not accompanied by the feeling that the talks and teachings of the teacher help you to progress towards the knowledge of who you truly are, you should also question your relationship with the teacher.
Now, teachers who do justice to both criteria to the full extent are rare. Still it is worthwhile to keep an eye on these criteria. At the same time there is a dimension to the seeker-teacher relationship that cannot be captured with a sober ‘cost-benefit analysis’, the dimension of the heart. One of my disciples wrote to me
How does one really know whether one has found the right teacher? Today I would answer this question like this: some people wonder: ‘Do I love this person or do I not love this person?’ How do I know whether I love a person? I have found this answer for myself: I think that you only wonder about it if you do not love yet or no more. Since if one loves, one knows it, one is certain, and does not ask this question.
Likewise with a teacher: one knows if one has found one’s teacher - that he/she is the right one.
In a way she is right. Indeed, the conclusion drawn is not quite consistent. It is correct that wondering whether one loves somebody will only happen if one does not yet love or not any more. From this question one can conclude about one’s love: is it there or not? But not about the quality of the goal of that love, whether one loves the right person or not. So not wondering whether one loves may indicate that love is there, but it is not an indication about whether the aim of the love is worth it.
Likewise we may not wonder whether somebody is the right teacher for us. This means that one has found the one who one needs now. It does not mean that the teacher is good, competent, enlightened, mature and wise. And it also does not mean that he may not try to abuse his power. There is not a guarantee for a true teacher (or lover) in this sense.
So it is better to be clear about this fact from the start. As much as this will not negate the love in a love relationship, it will also not question the relationship with the teacher. But it means that we do not sacrifice our sober mind (in any case, not completely...) to the dimension of the heart. And this precisely is Advaita Vedanta’s concern – since without a clear, logically operating mind we cannot walk this way at all.
Now back to the question: How do I find my teacher? Most seekers have already visited many teachers, have been enthusiastic about one or the other but it never really clicked. As indicated in the last essay, there is no lack of offers, meaning there are enough teachers. But how does one recognise one’s own teacher, what criteria does he/she need to fulfil? One reader wrote: How does the disciple recognise the teacher/master?
To go about the subject a little more systematic, I suggest the following:
First of all one should determine as accurately as possible what kind of a teacher one actually wants. Then visit the possible teachers, study their statements and have a close look at the people who call themselves his/her students/disciples. Even after few meetings one can already judge whether the first of the above mentioned criteria is met: Do I feel free here? Or are there rules and regulations with which I do not agree or do I dislike the way, how observance of rules is called for? Is there a code of conduct that evokes a feeling of narrowness or makes me feel treated as if I was under-age? Do I feel judged by the teacher and/or his disciples?
If you feel doubtful, however, you need to verify your doubts (note: if the very thought of verifying them frightens you, this could be another indication that you need to examine the situation again). In any case you need to check whether your doubts are based on facts or if you allow your own fears to bully you. In practise this means to say or do something that you suspect will be disapproved by the group or the teacher. If the reaction is as feared, it is probably better to take to your heels as soon as possible.
Whoever has found a teacher should let go of other teachers and directions for a while because the teaching of a teacher can unfold its efficacy only if one completely gets involved in it. However, it is good to put a time frame from the start, I suggest half a year, and then decide anew whether one would like go on. If the decision is in the affirmative, another time frame of 3 years helps. It is important even after three years to seriously consider: Do I want to keep to it because it helps me and because I feel free here, or do I want to keep to it just because I am cosy with the circumstances even though they are not what I actually want or need for my spiritual development?
One reader asks: Is it important that the teacher is enlightened or is it entirely about my trust or devotion?
As said, it is about much more than trust and devotion. However, trust and devotion are indispensable – indeed, not as a blind trust and blind devotion. Trust and devotion are important so that the teacher can work with the disciple/student. But the mind of the student must be sharp and remain alert, he must feel free to address and seek clarification on all his doubts, without exception.
Regarding the question of enlightenment of the teacher I ask you a counter question: Who judges whether a teacher is enlightened? I assume that first of all no seeker can ever judge whether a teacher is enlightened or not and secondly that there are so many definitions of enlightenment that it is better to let the whole subject rest. Instead of agonizing over whether a teacher is enlightened or not, the seeker should rather watch out for the above criteria. If he feels fine with a teacher, maybe even loves him/her, and in addition benefits from him, it is more than enough. The main thing is that the teacher should be ahead of him. Should he turn out to be not ahead of him any more sometime, the seeker can still look around for another teacher.
Are there people who do not need a teacher?
Yes, there are. People who already have done much work in their past lives, as for example Ramana Maharshi, need no teacher. However, this is tremendously rare. Besides, there are people who need no teacher any more. They have gone through one or several disciple-teacher schools and have realized who they truly are. With this recognition the journey is not complete, but the beginning of the completion is reached.
Those people, I call them awake, are possibly able to dispense with a teacher. Indeed only if , before awakening, they were prepared very well. All others who lack a stable foundation continue to need someone with whom they can reflect their experience, because without stable foundation their knowledge will be apparently veiled over and over again by mental and behavioural habits. Only a teacher can help them to see through these habits and realize again and again that one’s true nature is not affected by them in any way.