Spiritual Guide

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SPIRITUAL GUIDE . Since ancient times, the figure of the spiritual guide has stood at the center of contemplative and esoteric traditions. It would appear that all such traditions stress the necessity of a spiritual preceptor who has immediate knowledge of the laws of spiritual development and who can glean from the adept's actions and attitudes his respective station on the spiritual path as well as the impediments that lie ahead. Furthermore, the guide is responsible for preserving and advancing the precise understanding of the teaching and spiritual discipline to which he is heir, including both a written tradition and an oral tradition "outside the scriptures," which at its highest level is passed on from master to succeeding master and to certain disciples according to their level of insight. The precarious nature of this transfer has been recognized by all traditions, but no one has described the situation more succinctly than the fifth Chan patriarch, who warned that from "ancient times the transmission of the Dharma has been as tenuous as a dangling thread" (Yampolsky, 1967, p. 133).

Hinduism is not alone in its insistence that the spiritual bond (vidyāsambandha ) that exists between the spiritual preceptor (guru ) and his disciple (śiya ) is no less real than a blood relationship. Taking Socrates as the model preceptor, Kierkegaard maintained that the maieutic relationship between teacher and disciple was the highest possible relationship between man and man. Socrates, writes Kierkegaard, entered into the role of midwife, not because his thought lacked "positive content," but because he "perceived that this relationship is the highest that one human being can sustain to another" (Kierkegaard, 1962, p. 12; cf. Plato, Theaetetus 150).

Whether he is regarded as a midwife, daimōn, or bodhisattva, the paradigmatic feature of the spiritual guide is always his intermediate status; in a hierarchically ordered cosmos, the guide is situated in an intermediary world of subtle possibilities, between the realms of pure matter and pure spirit, between earth and heaven, or, one might say, between the exoteric and esoteric. The mythological paradigm for this idea finds expression in a variety of forms: Eros is the half-mortal, half-immortal daimōn of special significance to Socrates (See Plato, Symposium 202); in Twelver Shiism the guide is the Hidden Imām who lives unseen in the third world of the esoteric Church, a Paradise in potentia, between the physical and spiritual cosmos; and as Hermes, he is both the messenger of the gods and their interpreter (hermeneutēs ), an intermediary between the terrestrial and celestial worlds who has an additional function as the "guide of the souls of the dead."

The legitimacy of the unearthly, inner guide has been vouchsafed by all traditions; but the "masterless master" who has been initiated and guided by the inner spiritual guide without first having been counseled by an outer, human guide (as in the case of Ibn al-ʿArabī, the "disciple of Khir"; see Corbin, 1969) is especially rare. Hui-neng, the sixth Chan patriarch, said that if a man cannot gain awakening on his own

he must obtain a good teacher to show him how to see into his own self-nature. But if you awaken by yourself, do not rely on teachers outside. If you try to seek a teacher outside and hope to obtain deliverance, you will find it impossible. If you have recognized the good teacher within your own mind, you have already obtained deliverance. (Yampolsky, 1967, p. 152)

On the other hand, the Indian guru Maharaj has suggested that it is the inner guru who leads the disciple to the outer guru, and it is the outer guru who reveals the inner guru (Maharaj, 1973).

Ancient Greece

Pythagoras and Socrates remind us that the worthy figure of the spiritual guide is not confined to the strict forms of religion but can also be identified in various fraternities, orders, and academies whose primary concern is the self-transformation and spiritual enlightenment of their members. As is often the case with founders of religions and lineages, there are no writings that have been attributed to Pythagoras or Socrates. The first written material on the "master" or founder of these traditions emerges often only after a long gap, so that in the instance of Pythagoras we find many of the earliest accounts idolizing and mythologizing him, attributing numerous miracles to him but remaining silent as to the essentials of his teaching.

According to Aristotle, the Pythagoreans taught that among rational beings there is that which is God, that which is man, and "that which is like Pythagoras" (Arist., frag. 192). The spiritual guide, as in the case of Pythagoras, stands between the human and the suprahuman worlds, between the mundane and the sacred; the guide is the intermediate par excellence, mediating energies from above and attracting disciples from below. The idea is further exemplifed by the tradition quoted by Diogenes Laertius that Pythagoras was the son of Hermes in a previous incarnation and that he received from his father a memory of all things that had happened to him (Diogenes Laertius 8.4).

The historical Pythagoras, however, remains a mystery; we have inherited a fragmentary picture of his ascetic practices, taboos, sumbola, and orally transmitted maxims, but nowhere does the man Pythagoras emerge.

The problem with Socrates is somewhat different. Whereas Pythagoras had no single student to organize his teaching into a "system," Socrates was followed by his disciple Plato. But the problem here is trying to separate the real Socrates, whose stature as an exemplary guide emerges even in the dialogues, from Plato's literary achievement "Socrates." Jacob Needleman's study of the Symposium (in The Heart of Philosophy, New York, 1982) reminds us of certain aspects of Socrates' personality and energy as a guide, aspects that have been long overlooked by philosophers. Socrates, as in the other dialogues, is allowed to speak for himself to the extent that he alone among Athenians admits that he does not know; he is a man who is questioning. The state of questioning once again reflects the idea of the intermediate; it represents an intermediate state of unknowing, free at least from false and unexamined views. Similarly, Alcibiades, as the "authentic" pupil of Socrates, is also alone in that, unlike the other Athenians, he is neither for nor against Socrates; many times he wishes Socrates were dead, and yet he realizes that his death should make him more sorry than glad. Alcibiades is, alas, at his "wit's end" when he enters the symposium. A glimpse of Alcibiades' estimation of Socrates is given after the former recounts his failed amorous advances:

What do you suppose to have been my state of mind after that? On the one hand I realized that I had been slighted, but on the other I felt a reverence for Socrates' character, his self-control and courage; I had met a man whose like for fortitude I could never have expected to encounter. The result was that I could neither bring myself to be angry with him and tear myself away from his society, nor find a way of subduing him to my will. I was utterly disconcerted, and wandered about in a state of enslavement to the man the like of which has never been known. (Plato, Symposium 219, trans. Hamilton)

Many other of Socrates' extraordinary attributes are described by Alcibiades in the dialogue, including Socrates' ridiculous and yet perfect choice of words (221), so that one might finally agree with Alicibiades that Socrates' "absolute unlikeness to any human being that is or ever has been is perfectly astonishing" (221).


Although it is difficult to speculate on the figure of the spiritual guide as he might have existed in ancient Judaism, as, for example, suggested in the texts of Psalms and Ecclesiastes, the dominant figure of later times became the rabbi. The title is derived from rav ("master" or "teacher") and a suffix of possession; hence its literal meaning is "my master" or "my teacher." In modern times the Western world has come to regard the rabbi as a congregation leader, but his original function as a "master" is indicated in the New Testament where Jesus is frequently referred to as rabbi. Similarly John the Baptist is indicated by the title in a singular instance (Jn. 3:26). Jesus, when he warned his disciples not to call themselves rabbis, surely meant that this title was not to be taken lightly.

In Talmudic times the rabbi was an interpreter and teacher of the Bible and the oral law (Mishnah ). Like many teachers in the nonmonastic traditions of the East, the rabbi derived no income from these activities but had an additional occupation that produced private income; most often he was a simple artisan or craftsman. According to doctrine, all rabbis are mutually equal, while reserving their individual freedom to give ordination to suitable disciples. However, the rabbinical mysticism of the medieval period emphasized hierarchy in other ways; to belong to the inner circle of discipleship presupposed an extraordinary degree of self-discipline. Furthermore, the most esoteric level of exegesis and transmission of teaching was reserved for the most select: "It is forbidden to explain the first chapters of Genesis to more than one person at a time. It is forbidden to explain the first chapter of Ezekiel even to one person unless he be a sage and of original turn of mind" (Hag. 2.1).

The title was adopted and altered to rebe by Hasidism in the eighteenth century. The didactic and often humorous stories told by the rebeyim of Poland and East Europe were passed on by tradition, so that collections exist today that faithfully reflect the scope and activity of these remarkable guides (see Buber, 19471948 and 1974).


The foundation for guidance and discipleship in the Christian tradition is naturally found in the reported actions of Christ: he called his disciples to him; they lived with him and were taught by his actions, words, and gestures.

For Christianity in general, Christ has remained the unequaled teacher, rabbi, a transcendent inner guide through whom man seeks salvation. Over and beyond this tendency toward reliance on a transcendent guide, Eastern Orthodox Christianity has stressed the importance of the startsy, or elders, who guide one's spiritual and practical work. The primary texts of this tradition (called hesychasm) are contained in the Philokalia. They represent an unbroken tradition of practical guidance based on the teachings and disciplines of the Desert Fathers, having been written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries by spiritual masters of the Orthodox tradition. The texts show the way to awaken and develop attention and consciousness, and they describe the conditions that are most effective.

Many of the writings indicate the difficulty of accepting the vocation of spiritual guidance and attempt to discourage the false guide from destructive actions and consequences. Nilus the Ascetic (d. around 430) writes:

But what if someone, not from any choice of his own, is obliged to accept one or two disciples, and so to become the spiritual director of others as well? First, let him examine himself carefully, to see whether he can teach them through his actions rather than his words, setting his own life before them. He should also realize that he ought to work as hard for his disciples' salvation as he does for his own; for, having once accepted responsibility for them, he will be accountable to God for them as well as for himself. That is why the saints tried to leave behind disciples whose holiness was no less than their own, and to change these disciples from their original condition to a better state. (Philokalia, vol. l, p. 223)

Not only is there a great temptation for the more advanced monks to consider themselves as highly evolved spiritual guides or directors, but the novice must face the temptation of relying merely on himself and trusting his own judgment when he has as yet insufficient material to understand the guile and cunning of the "enemy." The monk should bring his thoughts and confessions to an elder so that he might learn the gift of true discrimination. John Cassian (d. c. 435) relates: "The devil brings monks to the brink of destruction more effectively through persuading him to disregard the admonitions of the fathers and follow his own judgment and desire, than he does through any other fault" (ibid., p. 104).

But in confessing one's thoughts and concerns there is still the pitfall of following the pseudoguide. John Cassian further encourages monks to seek out spiritual masters who truly possess discrimination and not those whose hair has simply "grown white with age." He relates: "Many who have looked to age as a guide, and then revealed their thoughts, have not only remained unhealed but have been driven to despair because of the inexperience of those to whom they confessed." Unseen Warfare, a text with roots in both the Western and Eastern traditions of Christianity, echoes the necessity of a qualified teacher: "A man who follows their guidance and verifies all his actions, both inner and outer, by the good judgments of his teacherspriests in the case of laymen, experienced startzi in monasteriescannot be approached by the enemy" (Kadloubovsky and Palmer, 1952, p. 165).


It has been suggested that much of the wit, humor, and fullness of the image of the spiritual guide in the writings of the Desert Fathers and subsequent accounts of spiritual fathers in early Christianity has been gradually diluted and extracted through generations in an attempt to make the writings more generally palatable. The ūfī master remains, as in the case with various Buddhist guides, a robust and vigorous man, full of life, paradox, and humor.

Shaykh or pīr

The sharīʿah, or divine law, is meant for all Muslims, but beyond that lies the arīqah, or spiritual path, for the murīd (literally "he who has made up his will," i.e., to enter the path). In order to enter the path, it is essential that the adept find and be accepted by a spiritual master, a shaykh (Arabic) or pīr (Persian); as a adīth (tradition) says: "When someone has no shaykh, Satan becomes his shaykh."

Many accounts are given of adepts who have undergone seeming rejection and Abūse by the master who must test the resolve and serious intent of the murīd. After this testing (sometimes the adept is made to wait for years), the murīd will only then actually begin on the path under the guidance of his master.

The Sheikh would teach him how to behave in each mental state and prescribe periods of seclusion, if he deemed it necessary. It was well known that the methods could not be alike for everybody, and the genuine mystical leader had to have a great deal of psychological understanding in order to recognize the different talents and characters of his murīds and train them accordingly. (Schimmel, 1975, p. 104)

The keen attention paid by the guide to the daily activities of the adept gradually developed in the course of time to the image of the shaykh "who acutely supervised every breath of the murīd." The problem of finding and dwelling in the presence of an authentic shaykh is particularly acute, for the adept must choose a guide (or be chosen by a guide) who possesses the qualifications for guiding that particular disciple. "Not every sheikh is a master for every disciple. The disciple must seek and find the master who conquers his soul and dominates him as an eagle or falcon pounces upon a sparrow in the air" (Nasr, 1970, p. 144).

The absolute necessity of a spiritual guide is so central to the credo of Sufism that at least one biography of the ūfī master Abū Saʿīd ibn Abī al-Khayr (d. 1049 ce) reports the maxim that "if any one by means of asceticism and self-mortification shall have risen to an exalted degree of mystical experience, without having a Pīr to whose authority and example he submits himself, the ūfīs do not regard him as belonging to their community" (Nicholson, [1921] 1976, p. 10).

In this way the transmission of doctrine, method, and exercises is secured in a continuous lineage traced back through a series of dead pirs or shaykhs to the Prophet. The appearance of Muammad and his son-in-law, ʿAlī, at the head of a list fits in more with necessary fiction than strict historicity; the ūfīs maintained they were the legitimate heirs of the esoteric teachings of the Prophet. Abū Saʿīd's lineage is traced by his biographer through ten pīrs to Muammad; the twentieth-century ūfī saint Shaykh Amad al-ʿAlawī (d. 1934) is credited with a "tree of spiritual mastery" including scores of generations as well as sectarian connections complex enough to require a navigator (see Lings, 1973, appendix B).

Although the shaykh has certainly undergone the ascetic and meditative training through which he guides his pupilsdhikr ("remembrance" [of God]), fasting, deprivation of sleep, intense physical labors, and so onhe abides in the fullness of life, active and yet detached from his actions. "The true saint," states Abū Saʿīd, "goes in and out amongst the people and eats and sleeps with them and buys and sells in the market and marries and takes part in social intercourse, and never forgets God for a single moment" (Nicholson, 1921, p. 55). For this reason the shaykh's actions often appear paradoxical or inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. Nicholson relates yet another story of Shaykh Abū Saʿīd from the Asrār : when the shaykh was holding one of his lavish feasts and entertainments, an arrogant asceticignorant of the shaykh's novitiate and forty years' austeritieschallenged him to a forty-day fast, hoping to humiliate the shaykh before his pupils and thereby earn their respect. The shaykh accepted and ate nothing while the ascetic continued to eat the small amounts of food allowed by the practice. Throughout the forty days the ūfīs continued by order of Abū Saʿīd to be served delicious food while the two looked on. Finally the ascetic, no longer strong enough to perform his obligatory prayers, confessed his presumption and ignorance.

The Perfect Human Being

The idea of the Perfect Human Being (insān-i kāmil) seems first to have been employed by the ūfī theosophist Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240) and somewhat later in a more technical sense when al-Jīlī (d. between 1408 and 1417) systematized his predecessor's work. Although the idea of the Perfect Human Being has received several different treatments, a general definition might describe him as "a man who has fully realised his essential oneness with the Divine Being in whose likeness he is made" (Nicholson, 1921, p. 78). The saint (walī) is the highest knower of God, and consequently he occupies the highest of all human degrees, saintship (walāyah ), as the Perfect Human Being par excellence. Al-Jīlī maintained that the Perfect Human Being of any period was the outward manifestation of the Prophet Muammad's essence, claiming that his own spiritual guide was just such an appearance. According to the system of Ibn al-ʿArabī and al-Jīlī, the ūfī shaykhs are "vicegerents" of Muammad, invested with the "prophecy of saintship" and brought back by God from the state of fanāʾ ("annihilation") so that they might guide the people to God. Something of this idea is reflected in the definition by Mamūd Shabistarī (d. 1320) of the Perfect Human Being as he who follows a twofold movement: down into the phenomenal world and upward to the divine world of light.

Mention must also be made of the ūfī master's relationship to the role of the twelfth imām, who is the Hidden Imām in both Shiism and Sufism. The Hidden Imām is the pole (qub ) with whom all ūfī masters are inwardly connected.

As Annemarie Schimmel writes:

The veneration shown to the imām and the qub, as manifested in the mystical preceptor, is common to Sufism and Shiism. The Shia teaches: "who dies without knowing the imām of his time, dies an infidel," and Jalāluddīn Rūmī (d. 1273), though a relatively moderate ūfī, said: "He who does not know the true sheikh i.e., the Perfect Man and qub of his timeis a kāfir, an infidel." (Schimmel, 1975, p. 200)


The idea of a spiritual preceptor to guide one's study of religion and philosophy has been a constant influence on the religion of India since the most ancient times. Already in the gveda we see him referred to as the i ("seer") or muni (a sage, or "silent one"); as such, he is the possesser of deep spiritual insights (often resulting from performing austerities) and is considered to be the "author" of the sacred hymns. In later times we find him referred to as ācārya, brahmāa, and svāmi (swami), but he has most dramatically captured the attention of the West as the guru.

Only knowledge that was gained from a teacher was capable of successfully leading one to one's aim (Chāndogya Upaniad 4.9.3). And from Chāndogya Upaniad 6.4.1f., it appears that the spiritual guide is also necessary in order to cut through and disperse mundane, empirical knowledge and to become conscious of true spiritual knowledge.

There is also the prevalent concern for the secret transmission of esoteric knowledge. Hence, Chāndogya Upaniad 3.11.5 states that a father can teach the esoteric doctrine to "his eldest son or to a worthy pupil, and to no one else, even if one should offer him the whole earth"; see also Aitareya Ārayaka "Let no one tell these sahitā s to one who is not a resident pupil, who has not been with the teacher for at least a year, and who is not himself to become a teacher." That the pupil is often tested by the guru and admitted only sometimes after a novitiate or probation is attested to in several sources (e.g., Chāndogya Upaniad 8.7.3; Praśna Upaniad 1.2).

It would seem that the word guru is used in the sense of "teacher" or "spiritual guide" for the first time in Chāndogya Upaniad, but one should also point out that its original adjectival sense ("heavy one" or "weighty") is illustrative of the widespread belief that holy persons are characterized by uncommon weight, not necessarily in the outer, physical sense. Hendrik Wagenvoort and Jan Gonda have both commented on this (Gonda, 1947, 1965; Wagenvoort, 1941). Wagenvoort has shown that guru is etymologically related to Latin gravis, which is remarkable only because its derivative, gravitas, was frequently used in connection with the nouns auctor and auctoritas. The Latin expression gravis auctor ("the important or true authority") also carries the same general sense of a guru as a man of influence who takes the initiative, in other words, a man who can "do" and have an effect on others.

Although the tendency to deify the guru only gradually gained a doctrinal position, the idea can already be seen in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniad 6.23, which speaks of a man who has the highest love and devotion for God and for his guru as for God. In later times this distinction is erased so that the guru is identified with the gods. The great poet and mystic Kabīr (d. c. 1518) taught that the guru should be recognized as the Lord himself; a view echoed by Caitanya (d. 1533) and his followers. This process of deification (no doubt aided by the conception of avatāra s) went to such extremes that the guru might be said to have usurped and displaced the gods in importance. Thus, the Śaiva texts teach that if Śiva becomes angry, "then the guru can pacify him, but if the guru becomes angry, no one can pacify him."

It is in relation to this theme that the idea of the "guru's grace" arose, a concept of particular force even today. Many Indian seekers feel that the mere presence of the guru (as in satsang, or keeping spiritual company) can somehow lead the pupil to liberation. This view, however, is not held universally. One can easily find numerous exceptions that suggest that the intensity of the disciple's wish for knowledge and his earnest striving are all that is necessary; the guru 's only true function then is to act as a messenger. Seen in this light, one can easily understand the statements that contend there is no lack of guru s, only of qualified and true disciples.

That the prestige and influence enjoyed by guru s has persisted to modern times is attested to by certain teachers of our century who possess the force and unmistakable ring of authenticity. One need only mention by way of example the writings by and about Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramana Maharshi, and Shri Anirvan. Although in modern times there has been a great deal of speculation and criticism about the claims made by many spiritual guides of India, especially those offering their services to the West, it would be difficult and perhaps a mistake to attempt to judge those teachers on the basis of their outward actions. For no one, as Maharaj has said, could know the motives behind the actions of a truly realized guru. To illustrate this point, Maharaj tells the story of a sanyāsin (world-renouncing ascetic) who was told by his guru to marry. He obeyed and suffered bitterly. But all four of his children became the greatest saints and i s of Maharashtra.


Accounts of the Buddha's early life indicate that he retired to the forest in order to receive the teaching and guidance of various celebrated hermits and teachers. However, after practicing a series of austere yogic exercises for several years, the Buddha determined that their guidance was insufficient and set out on his own to attain enlightenment. Once the Buddha attained his enlightenment he remained in a blissful state of meditation for several days and contemplated the trouble he would cause himself should he attempt to share his vision and offer guidance to a deeply deluded and ignorant mankind. He overcame this final temptation of remaining secluded and private in his vision, resolving to share his knowledge with other seekers and to guide them towards a similar transformation. It is upon this fundamental attitude that the Buddhist tradition of spiritual guidance takes its precedence.

Unlike some Indian traditions that tend to view the guru as an incarnation of divinity or as an intermediary to the sacred, early Buddhism emphasized the humanity of the guide and his own attainment of spiritual knowledge. The term designated by the texts for the guide or teacher is "good or virtuous friend" (Pali, kalyāamitta ; Skt., kalyāamitra ). The kalyāamitra provides guidance based entirely on the insight he has gained from personal experience. In one instance the Sayutta Nikāya reports that when Ānanda suggested to the Buddha that reliance on "virtuous friends" was half the holy life, the Buddha corrected him by declaring it the whole of the holy life. The same text (1:88) relates an episode in which the Buddha describes himself as the "virtuous friend" par excellence, as a spiritual guide who leads sentient beings to freedom from birth, old age, suffering, and death.


At the core of the development of Mahāyāna Buddhism was the role to be performed by the bodhisattva ("enlightenment being"). Mahāyāna doctrine argues that the old order was decidedly individualistic and that the emphasis on desiring a personal liberation, or nirvāa, was actually a hindrance to the full development of one's spiritual potentialities, stopping the larger movement toward "complete enlightment." The bodhisattva relinquishes his personal enlightenment and vows to work for the enlightenment of all sentient beings. After attaining the requisite insight (prajñā ), the final stage of the bodhisattva 's career is devoted to the welfare of others as practiced via skillful means (upaya ). The doctrine maintains that prajña without upaya leads to the incomplete quietistic enlightenment, while possession of upaya without prajña results in continued bondage to samsara. Therefore, the skillful guidance of others toward enlightenment, as an expression of compassion, becomes paramount to the spiritual progress of the bodhisattva ; through this process of guidance something "more" is gained by him.

The employment of skillful means or technique is essentially intended for use by those spiritual guides or masters who possess a complete and perfect knowledge of the teachings and the methods of practice and who are themselves free from the delusions of the mind and emotions. The bodhisattva perceives through spiritual insight (prajña ) the inner barriers and the potentialities of the pupil and can respond to each accordingly. Candrakīrti (fl. 600650 ce) argued that contradictory teachings would naturally arise because the Buddhas were physicians rather than teachers; in considering the mental and spiritual stations of their disciples, the Buddhas would vary their teachings accordingly. The idea that the master could teach people by playing various roles while remaining inwardly free was presented in its ultimate form by the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, which declared that even the Māras are all bodhisattva s dwelling in an "inconceivable liberation" and "playing the devil in order to develop beings through their skillful means."


In what historians have termed the "second diffusion of the teaching" in Tibet, the Buddhist masters emphasized the necessity of an authoritative tradition of teaching, the validity of which was assured by direct transmission from master to disciple. The first two schools of Buddhism to appear in Tibet were the Bka'rgyudpa (Kagyüpa) and Bka'gdamspa (kadampa), founded by Marpa (d. 1096 or 1097) and Atīśa (d. 1054) respectively. With regard to the esoteric tradition of initiation and oral transmission, both schools recognize the same Indian teachers. It is also clear that the first objective of both Marpa and Atīśa was to gather around them tested disciples who would be capable of transmitting the tradition. When asked by a disciple whether scripture or one's teacher's instructions were more important, Atīśa replied that direct instruction from one's teacher was more important; if the chain of instruction and transmission is broken, the text becomes like a corpse, and no power can bring it new life. Marpa's Indian teacher, Nāropa (d. 1100), gave him similar instruction when he declared:

Before any guru existed
Even the name of Buddha was not heard.
All the buddhas of a thousand kalpas
Only came about because of the guru.
(Nalanda Translation Committee, 1982, p. 92)

There is, perhaps, nowhere in world literature a more dramatic and haunting portrayal of the kind of guidance provided by a great master than is found in the Life of Milarepa, an account of Marpa's most famous disciple, Milaraspa (d. 1123). Milaraspa came to Marpa filled with remorse for the evil he had done by sorcery in his youth; he sought instruction that could free him from the karmic consequences in his future lives. But, as Lobsang P. Lhalungpa has pointed out, Marpa clearly perceived that, as a result of his previous actions, Milaraspa could not gain the desired transformation by means of any normal training. "Thus, as the condition of receiving the Dharma, Mila was required to fulfill a series of bitterly demanding and dispiriting tasks. In enforcing the great ordeals, Marpa used shifting tactics and seemingly deceitful ways" (Lhalungpa, 1977, p. x). During the so-called ordeal of the towers Milaraspa was commanded by Marpa to build single-handedly a tower. But each time Milaraspa had completed a tower, Marpa ordered him to tear it down, claiming he had not paid enough attention to the plans or that he had been drunk when he gave the "Great Magician" directions. Finally, having constructed a ten-story tower (which is still said to exist today) and at the brink of suicide, Milaraspa at last received from Marpa the secret teaching. Not just Milaraspa but Marpa's wife and several of his disciples were baffled by the apparent cruelty and irrationality of the lama Marpa, of the verbal and physical abuse he showered on Milaraspa and his seeming lack of compassion. Marpa countered the doubts of the uninitiated by saying that he merely tested Milaraspa in order to purify him of his sins.

After these trials, Marpa led his disciple through initiations and offered instruction and consultation on meditation. It is said that Milaraspa became "even greater than his teacher" and he is today remembered in Tibet as the greatest of Buddhist "saints." Later, when Milaraspa took on his own pupils, one disciple suggested that he must have been the incarnation of a Buddha or great bodhisattva owing to the extent of the trials and ascetic practises he had undergone and based on his great devotion to his lama. Milaraspa replied tersely that he had never heard whose incarnation he was.

Zen patriarchs and Zen masters

It has been observed that every tradition emphasizes the importance of an oral tradition of instruction for the guidance of adepts. The foundation of Chan (Jpn., Zen) Buddhism is based squarely upon this premise, as is indicated in the following verses attributed to the "founder" and first Chan patriarch in China, Bodhidharma (d. before 534):

A special tradition outside the scriptures;
No dependence upon words or letters;
Direct pointing at the soul of man;
Seeing into one's own nature, and the attainment of Buddhahood.
(Dumoulin, 1963)

Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, was said to have been illiterate, and it is reported in a story that is most probably apocryphal that he ordered all of the sūtra s of his monastery thrown into a heap and burned in order to teach his disciples not to rely on word and texts but direct experience only.

The golden age of Chan in China (the period from Hui-neng's death until the persecution of Buddhism in the ninth century) was a time in which Chan masters of the most remarkable originality won the day. These were vigorous and effusive men who sought to bring their disciples to new levels of insight by demonstrating their own inexpressible experiences of enlightenment by shocking and often violent methods.

One such figure was Mazu (d. 786). A robust and unflinching presence, Mazu is described in a Chan chronicle of the period as a man of remarkable appearance: "He strode along like a bull and glared about him like a tiger." He was the first to use shouting (especially the famous cry "ho!" [Jpn., "katsu"]) as a means to shock the disciple out of his habitually duality-conscious mind. In one famous story it is related that after a typically paradoxical dialogue with one of his disciples, Mazu grabbed him by the nose and twisted it so violently that the pupil cried out in painand attained enlightenment.

For Mazu the important thing was not a deluded attachment to quiet sitting in meditation but enlightenment, which could express itself in everything. This was impressed upon Mazu by his own master, Huairang (d. 744). While still a student, Mazu was "continuously absorbed in mediation." On one occasion Huairang came across Mazu while the disciple was engaged in meditation and asked, "For what purpose are you sitting in meditation?" Mazu answered, "I want to become a Buddha." Thereupon the master picked up a tile and started rubbing it on a stone. Mazu asked, "What are you doing, Master?" "I am polishing this tile to make a mirror," Huairang replied. "How can you make a mirror by rubbing a tile?" exclaimed Mazu. "How can one become a Buddha by sitting in meditation?" countered the master (Dumoulin, 1963, p. 97f.).

Linji (d. 866) led his numerous disciples toward enlightenment by continuing and enlarging the use of shouting, adding to that his own favorite method of beating disciples. The "shouting and beating" Chan of Linji was not intended as punishment or random mischief. Experience had taught Linji that harsh and unexpected encounters with "reality" could lead more quickly and certainly to enlightenment than endless lectures and discourses.

An unrelenting giant among Japanese Zen masters was Hakuin (d. 1769). Born in a "degenerate" period of Buddhism in Japan, Hakuin revived the Rinzai form of Zen begun by Linji, particularly emphasizing the investigation of kōan s and "sitting in the midst of activity." Throughout Hakuin's life he attacked forms of "silent-illumination Zen," which he consistently referred to as "dead-sitting." In his youth, Hakuin tells us, his kōan meditation was poor, and as a result he engaged in dead-sitting until his Zen-sickness was cured by the instruction of an insightful teacher, the hermit Hakuyu. As a result, Hakuin was totally uncompromising in his insistence of a right understanding of meditation; his ironic and acerbic tone seems to have been inherited from the harsh patriarchs and Zen masters of the past:

How sad it is that the teaching in this degenerate age gives indications of the time when the Dharma will be completely destroyed. Monks and teachers of eminent virtue, surrounded by hosts of disciples and eminent worthies, foolishly take the dead teachings of no-thought and no-mind, where the mind is like dead ashes with wisdom obliterated, and make these into the essential doctrines of Zen. They practice silent, dead sitting as though they were incense burners in some old mausoleum and take this to be the treasure place of the true practice of the patriarchs. They make rigid emptiness, indifference, and black stupidity the ultimate essence for accomplishing the Great Matter. (Yampolsky, 1971, p. 170)

It has been argued that the ultimate purpose of the Zen master is one thing alone: to produce a disciple who can carry on the teaching and preserve the transmission of the Dharma. The lineages of many famous monks became extinct after a generation or two because they had no disciples to hand down their teachings.

The biography of Bozhang (d. 814) states: "He whose view is equal to that of his teacher diminishes by half his teacher's power. He whose view exceeds that of his teacher is qualified to transmit the teaching." Hakuin was keenly aware of the necessity of producing a worthy disciple and in fact sanctioned several of his own pupils to carry on his teaching. Armed with spiritual powers and techniques for guiding others in their quest for enlightenment, the Zen master "smashes the brains of monks everywhere, and pulls out the nails and knocks out the wedges." With typical Zen irony Hakuin describes the worthy successor he has produced who is qualified to transmit the teaching: "Without the least human feeling he produces an unsurpassedly evil, stupid, blind oaf, be it one person or merely half a person, with teeth sharp as the sword-trees of hell, and a gaping mouth like a tray of blood. Thus will he recompense his deep obligation to the Buddhas and the Patriarchs" (Yampolsky, 1971, p. 39).

See Also

Authority; Leadership.


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