Enlightenment: The Guru's Trap

John Smith—09/2002
Any teacher who declares his or her enlightenment, using it to attract a following, is greatly harmful to spiritual progress.

SPIRITUALITY, for many people, has become a quest for that elusive state called enlightenment, when the confines of the ego are permanently burst, leaving a state of everlasting bliss, inner emptiness and unity with All That Is. This enlightening process is usually believed to be gradual, taking many lifetimes of rebirth and effort to complete before the individual is able to strip away all the layers of ignorance and illusion to reveal the open heart of truth. With its roots in Buddhism and Hinduism, this system of spiritual development has gained huge popularity in the West (especially in New Age circles) because it is so much more sophisticated than the fairy stories of heaven and hell after a single lifetime preached by the Semitic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

As Hinduism is the religion of the caste system in India, it mixes the elitism of strict hierarchy and a multitude of gods with this gradual awakening of the individual, which is often influenced by divine intervention. This can make it quite confusing to Westerners, for much of its practice is in ceremonies to different deities and the devotion to a particular spiritual master or guru. Buddhism, on the other hand, is essentially Hinduism stripped of its gods, superstitions and hierarchical structure, with the emphasis on the perfection of the individual through his or her own actions (under the guidance of a master who is not a god or divine, just someone like ourselves who is more experienced on this path to liberation). In fact, Buddhism is more a system of psychology than a religion, for you don't have to believe in this or that god to develop spiritually. This is why it is so attractive to the agnostic (and atheistic) Western mind.

Most of us know the story about the Buddha and how he cut through the illusions and suffering of this world to find a state that was real — the state of enlightenment. If you have ever seen the film Little Buddha you will see the wonderful depiction of this process: Gautama sits under the Bodhi tree and fearlessly faced the armies of Mara — the Lord of Desire and Death — and he defeats Mara to become a Buddha — an Awakened One. When he reached this state, that was it… he was home; he had reached his destination. There was no more spiritual work to do because there were no more layers of illusion for him to strip away (although this was just the start of his teaching work, showing others this path to liberation).

Many of us love this story because it depicts an ordinary human, like you and me, struggling against all odds to heroically reach the ultimate goal of unity with All That Is. We can identify with the Buddha's suffering on realizing that death and separation will be experienced by all of us at some stage, which is why suffering is recognized by Buddhism as an integral part of life. But instead of avoiding the issue, as many of us do, the Buddha faced it head on and found within himself that which was immortal. It wasn't his body; it wasn't his mind; it wasn't even his spirit; it was his basic consciousness. And by identifying only with that which is immortal, he broke the cycle of death and reached a state of absolute truth. He became enlightened.

What the Buddha did to reach this state, and what countless masters before and after him have done too, can also be done by us. This was the Buddha's message: all of us can awaken from this illusion because he awoke, and he was just an ordinary human being. However, the delusion is so strong that we usually need the guidance of a master in order to work our way to realization. (This is similar to the film Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves lives in a world of delusion without realizing it until he is liberated by those outside the illusion.) Those guides are called masters, gurus or simply teachers.

Throughout history, there have been many fine and upstanding gurus who have taught the path to enlightenment and have demonstrated a great kindness and love for humanity. Usually (but not always), they have been from Eastern cultures which has a culture and a mythology which encourages such development. These cultures are also deep enough to prevent any particular guru from hijacking ancient wisdom and using it to his or her own end, although they have, of course, produced some charlatans — individuals who have feigned enlightenment for individual glory, attention and through expectation. Fortunately, the damage of their masquerade is somewhat limited by a system that pretty much defines a guru's general behaviour, and offers many alternatives teachers.

Problems arose when gurus started moving out of their original cultural context and set up ashrams and spiritual centres in Western societies. Suddenly, he found himself (and it usually was a he) in a situation far different from that which he was used to, one which challenged his "enlightenment" in ways that it had never been challenged before. Most coped with the challenge admirably, seeding Western spirituality with genuine paths to awakening. However, a string of shameful abuses (sex, alcohol, drugs, power and general excess) were perpetrated by a few high profile gurus, despite their brilliance as teachers. Many of their students, who had opened their hearts and minds (and wallets) to these "masters", were used and abused. (Tibetan Buddhism — with the exception of a few brilliant rogues like Trungpa — tends to be the least abusive because the training a monk goes through is institutionalized in universities of spiritual learning and involves many different teachers. This system is therefore far less open to abuse than one operated by a single despotic guru lineage.)

Discipline plays a prominent role in the training of most Eastern spiritual teachers, and so such abuses were and are fortunately uncommon. The real problems arose when Westerners, who had spent time with Easter gurus and learned to model their enlightened behaviour, set themselves up as enlightened masters without having done the necessary work. Many have had genuine spiritual awakenings, but without the realization that the path to true awakening is littered with many minor and major awakenings before one could even suggest full enlightenment. So these Westerners have publicly proclaimed their enlightenment and collected together their own band of disciples on the strength of that proclamation (in the East by contrast there is a whole tradition to recognizing whether somebody is enlightened… and it is usually third party).

Lacking genuine wisdom and the understanding of the subtle complexity of the inner realms and the way that we are entangled in illusion, these teachers tend to be more direct and simplistic, presenting their own enlightenment as the solution to others' spiritual quest, in the hope that their realization will rub off on their students. Of course, techniques of meditation and spiritual contemplation are taught, but not usually with much skill or experience. The message is primarily one of "worship me and feel free". Enlightenment becomes a gift in return for worship. And in the material West we just love the idea of spirituality being reduced to a thing which can not only be bought in the spiritual market place, but one which can never be taken away from us!

This is not to say that Western masters are all fakes. Most are highly developed individuals with the wisdom never to present themselves as enlightened masters. But the ones who do present themselves in that way set themselves and their students up for disaster. And there is little point us reasoning that they must be enlightened because we feel enlightened around them because we all underestimate the immense power of projection and expectation that is innate to human psychology. We pride ourselves on our ability to "feel someone out" when in fact we are relying on subtle micro-cues that are starting to be identified in psychology and which can be mimicked by the less scrupulous and conscious.

Most false teachers are probably not even aware that they are not what they think they are. When we try to awake from a dream, it is all too easy to dream that we are awake. The illusion is insidious. Human beings are masters at deluding themselves and others for which there are a myriad of psychological reasons — most of them unconscious. Often groups of people will get together in a shared deception, like individuals acting in a play which seems real. One plays the enlightened master whilst the others play his disciples. But illusions can be psychologically and spiritually painful when the curtain eventually falls and the actors rediscover their unbearably ordinary lives.

The context in which we meet a guru also determines our reaction to them. Unfortunately, we invariably meet a guru or teacher on their own turf, where they are king. We find ourselves right in the middle of the reverence with which the followers hold the master and in that context it is naturally very easy for us to project our concept of an enlightened master onto the individual. (If, on the other hand, we met them in the street wearing normal clothes, not knowing who they are and without seeing their followers, we would be a lot less likely to feel that buzz.)

Deciding whether a person is a realized master is both a leap of faith and a waste of time. There is a misconception that only an enlightened master is useful to us. If that were the case, there wouldn't be many teachers or students! A teacher can be a fantastic guide without being enlightened. He or she only has to be a little further down the path from us, and to interact with us personally for us to receive great benefit. Seeing imperfection in that teacher is actually a benefit for in doing so we are less likely to put them on a pedestal and give away our own power and responsibility. This is the origin of the saying: "If you meet the Buddha along the road, kill him!" We must use our spiritual fire to find the Buddha within, not to worship him without. (When a Buddhist bows in front of a statue of the Buddha or in front of a living master, she is not worshiping a god; instead, she is bowing to the representation or embodiment of the Buddha inside herself. She is honouring her own potential to awaken.)

Central to the process of awakening is detaching ourselves from the illusion that we are a special individual and that we deserve or need this or that. As it is our desires that attract us to this illusion — the desire to be special, the desire to make money, the desire to have sex, the desire to be spiritual — central to spiritual progress must be the detachment from desire. This is done through a formal process called meditation which is an exercise of sitting still and practicing observing what is going on in our heads without being pulled into our thoughts, feelings and fantasies.

Many people mistakenly believe that in meditation we are trying to empty our minds. Whilst, with years of practice, this will eventually happen, trying to do this in any way is completely counterproductive. Meditation is like a mini journey to awakening: we learn to see what is in front of us and accept it 100% without becoming attached to it; we do not try to control the process because control is just another form of attachment (to a certain outcome). In the same way, if we hold any attachment or desire for enlightenment, it will elude us. That is the paradox of spiritual development, and is why true spiritual masters are extremely unlikely to announce their state of enlightenment: it is unhelpful to both themselves and to their students or followers, and is used primarily by unscrupulous characters to attract followers. (The Buddha claimed he was awake 2.5 thousand years ago, but that was at a time when the concept of enlightenment was in its infancy and as yet untainted by expectation.)

But as in meditation, reaching that state of emptiness in no way guarantees that we are there for good. The state of awakeness is not an identity, but mindfulness consciously maintained in each and every moment. There are many examples of awakened teachers who, for one reason or another, slipped back into delusion. As Suzuki Roshi said, "…there are no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity." If we hold this in mind, we are far less likely to be duped by false teachers trying to hook us with their exalted context-dependent identities. It is unfortunately second nature for human beings to view others as things (un-divide-uals) and not simply a process of consciousness. If we could change our perception of what a person is, we would be a lot closer to realization ourselves. That can only be done by introspection — going inside and seeing the process of consciousness and identity in ourselves. We ask, "Who am I?", and we learn for ourselves the the ephemeral nature of identity. Only then are we free from being manipulated by "who" or "what" somebody claims to "be"; we are free from the Guru's trap.