Blog · Buddhism · Commentary

Struggling with the Guru

I feel yet again that I’m finally starting to understand how to do spit ritual practice.  The various varied teachings I’ve received over the many years, the various teachers who have attempted to guide me, none of that can be said to be superfluous, although clarity has not been a result of all my studies.

In Geluk Buddhism, the latest of four schools of Buddhism to develop in Tibet, an ancient yogi by the name of Naropa is highly revered.  The crux of Naropa’s story is that he was a well educated and  extraordinarily gifted scholar of spirituality, and at the hight of his career as a high-ranking administrator of the world’s greatest university, he realized that he didn’t understand any of his decades of academic research and debate. In spite of his talent, discipline, and ability to out-smart everyone, he hadn’t developed any of the profound transformative insights into the nature of consciousness and reality that he (and all spiritual practitioners) expect to develop when they dedicate their entire lives to practice.

So he leaves the university without warning to his colleagues, and seeks out a mysterious Guru who has the ability to illuminate his understanding.  Most of his story is a series of misadventures in which he misses seeing his superhuman Guru right in front of him because of his selfishness in his haste to find his Guru.  Naropa’s despair grows and grows, and increasingly he believes he’s on a fool’s errand, and that not only will he not find his guru, his faith in all the teachings he had mastered is shaken.  Eventually Naropa gives up altogether and takes a razor to his wrist to end his life. It’s at this point that the Guru Naropa had been desperately seeking wanders up and says blandly, “Now why would you go and try to kill a Buddha?”

Naropa had reached a point where life just wasn’t worth living without a deep and meaningful connection between himself and the cosmos.  His education, skill, resources, and even a few superpowers he had developed along the way were all useless to him; just more possessions that will vanish at his death.  In Buddhist terminology, this is called renunciation; the recognition that all the material world could possibly offer is of no value without the spiritual insights to give life true meaning.

It was only with renunciation that Naropa’s Guru could really help him. Up until that point, Naropa was struggling to reach material goals, not spiritual ones, regardless of what he thought of himself as a high practitioner.

Naropa was a historical person, and much of his heiography is based in fact, to whatever degree that’s possible when viewing history. Nowadays it’s not so simple to be a spiritual seeker like Naropa was.  The modern cultural lust for scientific materialism disables most everyone from having the kind of faith that Naropa had; every last thing must be quantifiable and observed before given any credence of truth.  Personal experience is secondary (at best) to that which is observed, measured, and documented.

In Naropa’s time, the purpose of university was to pursue deep truths, and people of all cultures and religious faiths would debate existential philosophy until everyone had found a satisfactory resolution.  Today, fundamentalism is the norm, and philosophical worldviews compete in a marketplace to recruit members (hopefully paying ones).  This is just as true for science and BestBuy as it is for Scientology and Buddhism.

Seekers  can dabble endlessly with spiritualized entertainment, channel surfing gurus and practices, flipping to a new one when the current one gets uncomfortable or worse: boring.  It’s quite a simple thing to adopt the dress and mannerisms of a spiritual person – there’s no shortage of shops to sell you special clothes and ritual implements.  One can get quite a mighty self identity as a spiritual person – and of course that mighty self identity is precisely the problem your Guru will help you to resolve.

When Naropa finally does meet his Guru, the man blows him off repeatedly, and Naropa makes increasingly harrowing attempts to gain his teacher’s fortune, such as crashing a wedding to steal booze.  With each screw up (often including brutal injuries to himself), the nature of existential reality – and his Guru – is revealed to Naropa in some subtle way. Naropa heals, now with greater faith, and he carries on.

Nowadays and back then, spiritual teachers had to face a mine field of potential psychological problems in their students.  There are more screwed up ways of thinking than there are thinkers to think them.  We have the luxury reinventing ourselves repeatedly, with new and exciting neurosis to nurture.  And the Guru’s job is to reveal to you how your mind is creating all of your problems, out of thin air, using the power of thought and language.  This will necessarily be a painful process, as the stupid dim-witted selfish self we believe in fully is ripped away by some guy in weird clothes when you went to his workshop as he passed through town, and you thought “maybe this is the path that will really help me”.

But there’s no getting process for spiritual teachers, no way at all to determine if they are qualified to guide you, or dedicated to their students, or have time for your bullshit.  No way to know if they are illuminated and trying to save the world, or if they are just trying to secure the next book deal and build a fan base.  No way to know if they have the insights into your spirit to guide you along the path skillfully.

Naropa got to the point that he was ready to slit his wrists rather than live in a world without his guru.  Today, renunciation looks a lot like chronic depression, and your spiritual teacher might just refer you to a psychiatrist if they don’t have the time or skill or insight to actually guide you. And you have no way to know.