The Spiritual Guide: Perspectives and Traditions, Volume Two
Edited by Beverly Chapman
Publisher: Delhi: Science of the Soul Research Centre, 2017.
This book, in two volumes, seeks to shed light on the nature of the master-disciple relationship across eight different “spiritual, religious or philosophical traditions.” Volume Two explores the traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, Sufism, and Sikhism. (Volume One, reviewed in last month’s issue, covers Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, and Graeco-Roman philosophy.)
The reader will note vast divergences among the traditions, inevitable only because of the immense cultural differences among traditions so widely separated in time and geography. For example, even the way the living spiritual guide is understood or defined varies widely. As the editor notes in her Introduction:
In one tradition, the guide may be thought of as a mentor, a teacher, or a stern taskmaster; in another as a friend, a kindly elder, a beloved father or mother. In one tradition, the master may be thought of as some one who has advanced just a few steps further along the way than the disciple, while in another the guide may be seen as a person who has become one with the goal itself, whether that spiritual goal is called God, the Tao, God’s Holy Name, the One, the Real, or any other name.
Yet, despite all the diversity, certain patterns emerge. As the editor observes:
Again and again, we see that what is being taught by the spiritual guide is something that cannot be expressed in words and cannot be explained in concepts: it is a reality that must be experienced, and this experience comes through practice…. The guide helps the disciples to find that reality, but cannot do the work for them…. Above all else, we see that across the many cultural differences, the relationship between mentor and disciple is one of love.
The Buddhism chapter begins with the story of how the Prince Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the enlightened one. His example as a teacher became the model for all Buddhist “wisdom teachers” to follow. He insisted that words could never describe enlightenment; that teaching should be practical, addressing students at their own level of development; and that teachers should use whatever means are appropriate for reaching the people of their own time and place. Ironically, this explains the extraordinary diversity of Buddhism. The chapter goes on to show how teachers in the various traditions within Buddhism – whether a Zen roshi, a Tibetan lama, or a Theravada senior monk – use remarkably different teaching methods, while all still following the model of the Buddha.
The pragmatic approach of Buddhist teachers is well illustrated by an incident with a twentieth-century teacher in the ancient Thai Forest Tradition, Ajahn Chah. He was asked why he sometimes says one thing to a particular student, and then the opposite thing to another student. Ajahn Chah explained:
It is as though I see people walking down a road I know well. To them the way may be unclear. I look up and see someone about to fall in a ditch on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out, ‘Go left, go left!’ Similarly, if I see another person about to fall in a ditch on the left, I call out, ‘Go right, go right!’ That is the extent of my teaching.
The chapter gives numerous examples and stories about Buddhist teachers and their disciples throughout all the branches of Buddhism, highlighting not only the importance of the spiritual guide in the Buddhist tradition, but also the role of the student. An important contemporary Buddhist teacher explained that there are two basic elements necessary for liberation: “finding a spiritual teacher and cultivating an effective relationship with him.”
The chapter on Christianity begins with the humble and loving example of Jesus Christ as a teacher, who got down on the floor and washed the feet of his disciples, saying to them: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” With quotes and anecdotes from the early church down through modern times, this chapter explores the Christian concept of “spiritual friendship – the bond of brotherly or sisterly love that unites those seeking nearness to God with those who provide them with guidance.” The person charged with giving spiritual guidance has been called abbot or abbess, elder, spiritual director, pastor, and many other names. Regardless of the title, the fundamental principle which Christ had modelled is that those who give spiritual guidance to others must do so in a spirit of humility and loving service.
The section on the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt and Syria (third through fifth century CE) includes many powerful anecdotes. In one, an elder inspires aspirants with new zeal for spiritual practice:
Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?
Throughout the chapter recurs the theme of friendship. As Saint Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan, put it:
What is a friend, if not a companion in love, to whom you can unite and devote your soul and entwine it in such a way that … two become one. You can entrust yourself to the friend as to your second self, from whom you fear nothing and from whom you demand nothing dishonourable for the sake of your own advantage.
The chapter on Sufism is organized thematically, in three sections. The first section, titled “The Quest of the Seeker,” discusses the seeker’s attempts to find his guide (murshid or pir); the second section, titled “The Commitment of the Disciple,” discusses discipleship; the third section, titled “The Power, Humility, and Grace of the Murshid,” discusses the qualities of the murshid. Throughout the chapter, many reasons are given by various Sufis about why it is absolutely essential for the spiritual seeker to find a guide. Perhaps Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak al-Jerrahi (1916–1985) explains it with the most colourful analogy:
Let us join the flock belonging to a saint. A flock is sold as a single lot, including odd specimens that happen to be underweight, sickly, mangy or scabby. The owner‘s name is mentioned, and a deal is made for the lot. If we join a flock belonging to a saint, we shall undoubtedly benefit from the good bargain that will be driven on account of our betters.
Rumi warns not to “surrender your hand except to the hand of the pir, for God is the helper of his hand.” Discipleship – metaphorically, holding on to the hand of the master – requires the commitment to stay alert to his ever-present guidance. The eleventh-century Sufi al-Qushayri urges the spiritual wayfarer to find a “master from whom he can learn his path, one breath at a time.”
The Sikhism chapter is unique in that it uses quotes exclusively from the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth, to explain the nature of the guru in the Sikh understanding. The guru is such a central concept for Sikhism that the word “guru” appears many times on every page of the scripture. The author observes that the word “guru” can refer to a human teacher or to Nam, the Creative Power that creates and sustains the universe; it can even mean God. “Guru” literally means that which leads from darkness to light, and each of these possible meanings has the characteristic of dispelling the darkness of ignorance, giving guidance toward Truth. As is said in the Adi Granth, “If a hundred moons were to rise, and a thousand suns appeared, even with such light, there would still be pitch darkness without the Guru.”
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