I’ve followed just two masters in my life. Of course, if “master” is taken in the broader biblical sense (“No man can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and wealth”) then I’ve had lots of masters. Everything that has led me in a direction in which I didn’t really want to go has mastered me. If I started to list all those things, this post would go on…and on…and on.
So I’m not talking about those masters of me, just the two spiritual “gurus” that I pledged allegiance to sequentially several years apart. I believe that one was much more true than the other. But in the end, all spiritual masters but one are false.
By “false” I mean not truly true. I know, that’s a high standard: truly true truth. Yet if the spiritual quest is to know God, ultimate reality, then this is the only acceptable endpoint. Such is unchanging. Or, if ultimate reality does change, it is the least changeable entity in the cosmos. For there must be something that brings about the changes we see happening all around us and within us, a primal root from which the branches of the laws of nature sprout.
The theory of everything. God. Buddha-nature. Tao. Allah. Whatever we call it, virtually every spiritual tradition teaches that this is the One source of multiplicity. That’s the only true master: rock-bottom unitary reality. If something stands between us and that One, it’s another aspect of the Many that has to be removed if we’re to know the unity behind appearances.
I’m attracted to masters who recognize this. Nisargadatta, an Indian sage, was one. He said, “Believe me, a true disciple is very rare, for in no time he goes beyond the need for a Guru, by finding his own self…It is very important to understand that it is the teaching that matters, not the person of the Guru. You get a letter that makes you laugh or cry. It is not the postman who does it. The Guru only tells you the good news about the real Self and shows you the way back to it…There will be many messengers, but the message is one: be what you are.”
I like Nisargadatta’s advice about what to do if you start to have doubts about a spiritual teacher: “Trust your heart to warn you if anything goes wrong. If doubt sets in, don’t fight it. Cling to what is doubtless and leave the doubtful alone.”
So, what is doubtless? That’s the big question. If you throw everything out of your mind that might not be true, what remains? Why, the doubter. And the real self of the doubter which is said by countless mystics to be identical with the Self of the cosmos: universal consciousness.
Ramana, another Indian sage, put it this way: “You must exist in order that you may think. You may think these thoughts or other thoughts. The thoughts change, but not you. Let go of the passing thoughts and hold onto the unchanging Self. The thoughts form your bondage. If they are given up, there is release. The bondage is not external. So no external remedy need be sought for release.”
However, most people don’t want to be told that the cure for their existential afflictions is in their own hands, not in anyone else’s. Just as people want a doctor to make them healthy so they won’t have to make those oh-so-difficult lifestyle changes on their own, so do spiritual seekers want a guru, a master, a prophet, a saint, a savior, somebody, to do the heavy lifting for them.
This has been one of my criticisms of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), the spiritual path that I’ve been associated with since 1970. Gradually over the years it seems that personal experience of the divine gained through meditation has been downplayed in favor of fawning guru-worship. Disciples are urged to surrender to the master, who is expected to take them back to God if they simply have faith and believe. Well, if that’s what I wanted I would have remained a Christian.
Things may be looking up with RSSB, though. I’ve been enjoying a new book by Hector Esponda Dubin, “Living Meditation,” that was published recently by Radha Soami Satsang Beas. I haven’t read the entire book yet, but I like what I’ve thumbed through. It is refreshingly clear of the sanctimonious tone that many other RSSB books are full of (excepting my own, naturally; in 1998 RSSB published a book I wrote, “Life is Fair”).
Here’s an excerpt from “Living Meditation” that is a pretty good reflection of how I’ve come to view spiritual masters or gurus. They are desirable up to a point. Beyond that point, it is necessary to discard what previously seemed so essential.
“In the introduction to the book Nobody, Son of Nobody, a story is told of a young disciple whose Master has turned cold towards him and finally has him thrown out of his presence. Bereft and in anguish, with no one else to go to, he turns to the Lord and throws himself on his mercy. Suddenly an indescribable peace descends upon him and he tastes that which he was seeking. At that moment his Master comes to him, and still confounded, the disciple asks him how he could treat him that way. The Master answers, ‘You had given up all and everyone, but there was still someone between you and your Lord; me! I was the only idol left in the temple of your hopes, wants and fears and that had to be taken from you for your ego to surrender and take refuge in the Beloved. Rise now, let’s relish this victory.’”
This story is a bit anthropomorphic for my taste—I don’t think of God as “Lord,” or as a “he” that you can throw yourself on and get mercy. Still, the advice to give up everything that stands between yourself and ultimate truth is sound.
For yourself, “your self,” is what you, me, and all of us are looking for, even if we don’t realize it. Ramana says it clearly, as always:
“Grace is the Self. Because of false identification of the Self with the body, the Guru is considered to be with body. But from the Guru’s point of view, the Guru is only the Self. The Self is one only….Is not then the Self your Guru? Where else would Grace come from? It is from the Self alone. Manifestation of the Self is a manifestation of Grace and vice versa. All these doubts arise because of the wrong outlook and consequent expectation of things external to the Self. Nothing is external to the Self.”
Which is why all masters but one—the Self—are false. The self is what we are seeking. Not the self of someone else. Our own self. When we expect that looking outward to another person or being will put us in touch with the truth that mystics say is within, clearly we’re misguided.
To every image of your imagination you say, “Oh, my spirit, my world!”
Were these images to disappear, you yourself would be the spirit and the world.