Remake/remodel: four points on the reinvention of the guru-disciple relationship in the West

This post is continuation of the reflection in my last post and a response to Matthew Remski's critical appraisal of the same. 

Positional statement: I write as a practitioner of Asian spiritual disciplines for 27 years, who has studied and taught the subject here under consideration for the last 15 years, and who has experienced both formal discipleship with an Indian guru and informal studentship with Western meditation & yoga masters.

ONE. No one who has examined the issue in depth can doubt that the attempt to transpose the traditional Indian guru-disciple model to the West has, for the most part, been an unmitigated disaster with much pain and trauma for many concerned. I agree with Remski’s implicit argument that in general it doesn’t work for Westerners to enter into discipleship to Indian gurus (or to other Westerners who position themselves as gurus), since they usually don't understand what safeguards made the institution work in its original cultural context.* If such Western disciples are lucky enough to escape actual harm (and frequently the harm is unintentional on the part of the Indian guru, who often doesn’t realize how large the cultural gap really is), the guru-disciple paradigm is still not often successful in empowering the disciple to achieve equality with the guru, nor does it tend to create conditions in which spiritual awakening is substantially more likely. 

And we should remember that the express purpose of the guru-disciple relationship, traditionally, is precisely to empower and equip the student to become (with practice and the cultivation of insight) the guru’s equal. So if that’s not happening in either modern Indian or Western contexts, we must ask what has gone wrong. 

This is one thing that has gone wrong: the traditional view of the teacher as a vehicle for transmitting the wisdom of a whole lineage has been replaced (in some quarters) by a view of the teacher him- or herself as a paragon — as someone whose personhood somehow instantiates the nebulous idea of ‘enlightenment’. This inevitably leads to the pedestalizing, and even deifying, of the teacher/guru. As the greatest living scholar of classical Tantra (Alexis Sanderson) has perspicaciously said, Westerners do not easily grasp the principle that “The practice of seeing your teacher as an embodiment of Lord Shiva (i.e., God) does not require you to believe that he actually IS Shiva.” In other words, the teacher is not in fact any more divine than anyone else is, though it's true that traditionally, s/he is venerated by the student as the conduit through which that student receives the tradition. But such veneration isn’t personal, is certainly not for the teacher’s benefit, and should never be distorted into elevating the teacher above oneself (in terms of intrinsic personhood, anyway), since that makes it less likely that the disciple will attain the very self-realization that the teacher is pointing toward.

Here I’m only addressing some basic misunderstandings around the traditional model, not proposing that we should retain the traditional model intact (see below). 

Guru-bashing on the basis of high-profile examples of fraudulence being fashionable today, few people bother to point out that the traditional model is effective in at least one important regard: when a student has enormous respect for his teacher, and venerates her as a conduit for lineage-transmission, it has the benefit of making him receive the practices she offers with much more gratitude and reverence, and of therefore committing to them more fully. Such was my case exactly: the veneration I had for my root-guru inspired me to actually do the practices she gave me, for which I thank heaven, since I am probably far too lazy to have committed to them otherwise. But again, I do not suggest that the traditional model is a good one for most Westerners: I am exceedingly lucky to have had teachers who didn’t abuse their authority.

TWO. In his response, Remski states: “Wallis suggests the problem can be addressed through improved teaching content; I argue that it also to has be addressed through a change in form.” Actually, I argue that the problem (of the all-too-common disempowering student-teacher relationship) can be addressed through BOTH education (‘improved teaching content’) AND a change in form. Specifically, in my own teaching work, I present myself not as a guru but a deshika, which literally means ‘guide’ in Sanskrit. I consistently place the weight of authority on the collective wisdom of lineage, not on myself. Furthermore, my expertise in yoga traditions and my ability to read primary sources is placed in service of the student’s goals, without normative discourse on my part of what those goals should be, and without imperative instructions. (In other words, I offer the student tools and possible insights, I don’t tell them what to do.) Finally, I hold a therapeutic space in a limited way by listening, empathizing, and reflecting back to the student what I hear as important to them, validating their values while providing nuance or gentle critique from the perspective of the traditional Tantrik view, again without a normative slant (such as the implication that they ‘should’ hold the same view). Whether I succeed in all this, or to what degree, is best articulated by my students. 

This ‘deshika’ model, is, I think, a more effective and less dangerous model for 21st-century Westerners. It attempts to correct for the “basic power imbalance in the economy of spiritual transformation” that Remski is concerned about, since it seeks to educate and empower the student, places reverence on the teachings rather than the teacher, and is wholly non-coercive and as non-normative as possible. The “basic power imbalance”, in this model, is no different from that between a respected university professor and his student, or between a doctor and her patient. Though there are important issues around the difficulty of establishing 'informed consent' in those cases as well (since the student or the patient cannot wholly understand what they are consenting to), no one proposes that the model itself should be junked. A good doctor won’t tell you what to do, but rather explains your diagnosis as thoroughly as possible and then gives you options, among which you decide. Clearly, that analogy is flawed, but the point is that in your spiritual life, you are the final authority, and any 'teacher' who says otherwise disqualifies himself from the post. 

Remski claims that in the traditional model, “The practice is said to have literal power felt to be held in literal hands that can bestow it upon you, always in a downwards direction.” There is some truth to this statement with reference to the traditional model, but in the ‘deshika’ model teachers give teachings and practice, not power — students empower themselves through their relationship with the practice and through wrestling with the teachings while always asking “how can I verify the truth-value of this teaching for myself?”

A much more prominent example (than myself) of reinventing the traditional model through a shift from guru to deshika (spiritual guide) is Ādyashānti, who declaims the title of guru and strongly discourages devotion to himself, and by doing so, functions more effectively as a teacher. His public one-on-one coaching with students is exemplary as a model of how to offer support without aggrandizing himself, or undermining the student’s autonomy in any way. Ādya teaches his students to “never abdicate [their] authority” and jokes that he’s “always trying to put [himself] out of a job”. He is an rare exemplar of deep integrity that I look to for inspiration.

THREE. But this is perhaps the most important point — Remski implicitly claims that the whole orientation of traditional yoga is inimical to the principle of consent, prone to abuse, and dangerous to our Western sense of personhood and personal autonomy because the “fundamental agency of the person to be transformed is exactly what the process says it is bypassing, changing . . . or even annihilating.”

Now, this misunderstanding points up exactly why is it non-beneficial in the extreme to cling to the old New Age saw that “all the great paths and teachers are saying the same thing.” They AREN’T. In classical Pātañjala-style Yoga, personal agency is indeed negated by the teaching that our fundamental self is a wholly inactive/passive witness-consciousness. But in Tantrik Yoga we find the opposite teaching — that our fundamental being is pure awareness AND agency (bodha and kartṛtva; see, e.g., the Īśvara-pratyabhijñā-kārikā). In Tantrik Yoga, nothing is more central to the process than increasingly accessing your innate power of autonomy (svātantrya-śakti).  The most basic presuppositions of the path are different from classical Yoga, with radically different social and psychological consequences. 

Remski makes the exaggerated claim that “there is no more [possibility of] consent in the spiritual teacher-student relationship rooted in the transformational model than there is in the parent-child relationship.” But this is exactly the point — the perception of yoga as a science of personal growth and transformation is a Western perception, deriving almost entirely from the lamentable conflation of yoga with the American self-help industry. A teacher who says or implies “I will help you transform yourself into the best version of you, the person you were always meant to be” is NOT conveying traditional yogic values. In all forms of yoga, the concern is (first of all) not to transform oneself but to become fully connected to the intrinsic value of your innate being. Subsequent transformation of one’s behavior comes about organically (and slowly) as a result of integrating the implications of this self-realization into every aspect of everyday life — not out of an inherently problematic desire to be “better.”

So my attempts to critique the transformational model are intimately linked to a more empowering and accountable model of teacher-student dynamics. Remski thinks that I put too much onus on the student to be discerning, and not enough on the teacher to be moral, but I find this naïve; there will always be unethical charlatans posing as teachers, gurus, or self-help coaches, and no amount of pontificating about it is going to make them disappear. Therefore, for the student’s own safety, they must take on the responsibility of discernment and critical thinking. The premodern tradition tells us that one should examine a guru for a full year before accepting him or her and trusting his or her guidance. 

FOUR. Lastly, looking at the teacher’s motivations for teaching are important, since all too often someone becomes a teacher so that they can hide their insecurity under a mantle of authority (whether earned or not) and engage in hierarchical relationships where they automatically have the upper hand from the get-go. Such teachers are often profoundly uncomfortable in environments where their authority is not recognized and what they teach is not valued. I know, because I was once one of them. Teaching initially allowed me to find a voice and a self-confidence which was otherwise lacking. As I matured, however, I grew out of the sense that expertise in any area, even spirituality, conferred specialness or superiority. This allowed me to move into a new phase of teaching (about six years ago) in which I no longer held students at arm’s length, but forged more personal connections with them — connections in which I can allow myself to be human, and admit when I don't know.

Such relationships, I’ve found, are more beneficial to the student than the traditional model in which the teacher tacitly enables the unstated assumption that he knows everything worth knowing about spirituality, and/or is ‘better’ than the student by virtue of that knowledge. In reality, the teacher might be more awake than the student to his own fundamental being (s/he better be, if s/he wants to facilitate the student’s access to the same), but this confers neither superiority nor hegemony, as anyone who is actually awake knows.** (The conflation of the Indian idea of being ‘awake’ or 'awakened' [bodha, prabuddha] and the Western idea of sainthood is another reason for the shit-show of guru-disciple relations in the West. Someone might be both awakened and saintly, but the first does not necessarily imply the second.)

What motive, then, does an authentic teacher have?  Even the motive of 'helping people' is suspect in a spiritual teacher, because it can imply a subtle stance of superiority and condescension, and connect to a false view that there's something wrong with people as they are. The purest motive a teacher can have for teaching, I think, is funThat is, s/he simply enjoys sharing about the spiritual path, and enjoys the company of those walking it. S/he teaches because there's nothing s/he would rather be doing than talking about the spiritual life, and teaching is literally the only way to get paid for that. This, it seems to me, is the motive least prone to corruption. 

In closing: we cannot, I think, simply dispense with the institution of spiritual teachers as some suggest, however problematic it has been in modern times. Finding your way to full awakeness and liberation on your own, as some people seem to think they can do, is about as easy as finding your way to a specific location across the country without GPS or smartphones or maps. A spiritual guide is someone who points out dead ends, pitfalls, and shortcuts in territory s/he knows well -- not someone who tells you where to go or what to think. 

The sequel to this post is HERE.

* Its "original cultural context" is premodern India -- people in modern India also aren't well educated in those safeguards, and as a result have been taken in by fraudulent gurus by the millions. 

** The next post will attempt to define 'awake' and 'awakening' more clearly and thoroughly than has yet been done -- a fun challenge to myself.