Western Buddhist guru

Posted by on Nov 27, 2013 in Buddhism | 24 Comments

Tomorrow night I will host the first Dharma Hangout in Brighton. I’ll lead some meditation and then discuss an aspect of meditation or Buddhism. This is going to be a regular thing.

Not surprisingly, this has got me thinking about what an appropriate role is for Buddhist teachers in the contemporary west.

In most traditional Buddhist contexts, the teacher is given a great deal of weight. The word ‘guru’ is even etymologically connected to the term ‘weight’.

In Tibetan Buddhism, they’ve even made the guru one of the ‘true refuges’ – a safe place to trust in this ever-changing world of suffering. Your guru should be regarded as a manifestation of the Buddha. If they have faults, these aren’t really faults but should instead be regarded as ways in which he or she is using ‘skilful means’ to help guide you towards awakening.

In other contexts, giving money or robes to the sangha is believed to give you a great deal of merit. Buy them a whole monastery and you’re pretty much guaranteed an excellent rebirth! Perhaps even as a monk!

As Buddhism has found its way to the west, we’ve imported these alien models. This has caused us a few problems.

As with all religions where humans are involved, Buddhists in most major schools have from time to time acted appallingly, taking advantage of (and/or getting confused by) the way they are regarded by disciples, with sometimes life-shattering results.

In the west, I don’t think we’re ready for the kind of teacher that Buddhism has traditionally provided. That’s not to say we one day will be or even that it’s a desirable aim for us. We need something that works for us. Who we are. Coming out of our culture. Now.

Why things get messed up with gurus

I think there are a few aspects to this.

1. When you arrive in a Buddhist context, you tend to be looking for something that you hope someone there can provide. That someone is probably the teacher. You’re immediately in a potentially vulnerable or weak position. You want something and you think they might have it. Better be nice to them and do what they say.

2. Enlightenment sounds awesome. And if you have a bit of experience of meditation, you may well see it as a real possibility, based on your own experiences of what can happen in meditation. Maybe the teacher is enlightened? Other people are saying all kinds of amazing things about this person. Wouldn’t it be great if they were right.

3. One of the key positions of Buddhism is that you don’t know what you think you know. You’re fundamentally ignorant. In a big way. About all the important stuff. And when you start really exploring Buddhism and experiencing meditation, you start to realise that this is indeed the case. Maybe the teacher knows better? Perhaps you should trust them? If they say you need to leave your family just like the Buddha did and give all your money to the sangha because it will help you go beyond craving, perhaps you’ll do it. Once you’ve done something like that, it’s hard to undo it.

4. A Buddha has no personal interests or drives. They act absolutely ethically, for the benefit of all beings. If your teacher is telling you stuff, asking you to do stuff, and ‘challenging’ what you consider to be ordinary, decent behaviour, maybe they’re just doing it for your own benefit? You know, to break down all that conditioning that’s causing you all that suffering. If you’re a straight man and your male teacher is telling you to get into bed with him, perhaps that’s to help you shake loose all that ‘sexuality’ conditioning you’re so caught up on because you think you have a self?

5. Everybody wants a guru. It’s kind of like the perfect mum. Imagine it. You have direct access to someone who can tell you what to do. You can trust them completely and they’ll guide you along the right path. All that confusion, doubt, fear and difficulty that comes with being a grown-up is gone. Trust the guru, stop taking responsibility for your own life. After all, making your own decisions is ‘just ego’ isn’t it. Let go. That’s what we’re told is required if we’re to go beyond suffering.

6. We don’t know any better. Because the UK, Canada, the United States and so on aren’t Buddhist cultures, we don’t have a lot of experience of gurus and monks and so on. They all seem pretty weird compared with the average Joe or Jane. How are we supposed to spot the dodgy ones? A Tibetan person might role up and immediately see that the guru swinging from the lampshades has forgotten to take their medication. But you might think they’re just being tantric.

This stuff might sound extreme, but all of it has happened, and is no doubt happening right now. The dharma is difficult to grasp and dangerous to grasp wrongly. You have to be prepared to get a few battle scars in life, but there’s no need to let a genuine desire to practice Buddhism leave you open to all the crazy stuff humans get up to when they’re being ‘wise’.

A better psychological model of the guru

Clearly, we need a different model. Or even a bunch of different models.

I’d suggest we start with models we understand.

For example, the schoolteacher can teach you about their subject. That doesn’t mean they’re a better or wiser person than you are. It just means they’re read more books than you have.

A therapist is practised at listening. They too have read a bunch and gone through a process of discovery themselves. So they can spot patterns and assumptions in you that you may not have noticed. But there’s a clear ethical framework and if they cross boundaries, it’s (hopefully) pretty obvious that something weird is going on.

A fitness coach is stronger and fitter than you are. Or maybe they aren’t, but they were once. Or they know the kinds of strategies that can get you where you want to get to. There’s no need to be in awe of them. You just need to grant them permission to push you to a certain extent. But at the end of the day it’s your body. If you’re in agony and throwing up and the coach is telling you to run and calling you their grandmother, maybe you need a different coach.

A board of directors is tasked with steering a company in the right direction. The CEO takes advice and may have the deciding vote, but they rely on the special knowledge of each director. The same goes for a government’s cabinet. The same goes for a charity’s board of trustees.

There’s no reason why we should trust one charismatic despot. That’s not what we’re used to so why start as soon as we get into Buddhism? Checks and balances, compare and contrast. These are useful models that emerged in our culture for very good reasons.

None of these models are exactly right for a Buddhist set-up. Buddhism *is* a mystic religion and life *is* weird. You’re dealing with the mind and the heart. You’re dealing with reality itself. You’re not trying to increase your market share or raise funds to build a new cattery. You’re not trying to lose weight.

At the same time, these are tried and tested models that our culture understands. We shouldn’t just throw the whole thing out and start bowing at the feet of some dude we just met just because they wear a daft costume and have a funny name. No matter how amazing they are (and there are genuinely amazing people in the world) they are, in the end, just people. And the path, in the end, is for you to walk.

What to look for in a Buddhist teacher and how to treat them

They should be able to help you along the path. Or at least along the next bit of it. They don’t need to be able to get you all the way, and in fact the only person who can get you all the way is you. Always.

Buddhist teachings are traditionally given freely. In the capitalist west, that spins everyone’s head out – both the disciple (‘consumer’) and the teacher (‘supplier’).

We don’t believe in gaining merit by giving the guru a Mercedes. And we can’t help but equate cost with value. It’s free? It mustn’t be worth taking seriously! It costs a fortune? It must be great!

This ‘mutual generosity’ approach to the teacher-student relationship makes the whole thing weird. It means as a student you can’t complain if you’re getting poor service, and as a teacher you can’t just get on with your job knowing that you’re rent’s paid for the month.

A side effect is it puts Buddhist teachers under pressure to live up to the ‘branding’. Charismatic gurus get bigger donations than everyday blokes. The only teachers who can afford to be themselves are the ones who are independently wealthy or doing it part time outside of their day job (like me).

So I think that’s something else we need to look at. You pay all of the character types I mentioned above for teaching you stuff – the coach, the school teacher, etc. Sometimes you pay them a hell of a lot.

I’d say the Buddhist teacher can get you further in life than any of the above. So really, you should pay them more.

But people get weird around money and religion. I guess that’s for another post.

For now, let’s just leave it at this:

A Buddhist teacher is a *person* (even if they’re a Buddha they’re still just a person and you’ll still have to do all the work) who can tell you about Buddhism and help you to practice it. They may seem wild and mysterious. They may seem like your average person. You can’t tell from what people seem like how well they can get you from A to B.

So try them out and see how they work out for you. If they help you, make sure you pay them properly. They’re kind of like music. You can download them for free and spend your money in Starbucks instead. But try to remember their value in your life compared with, say, a big cookie and a latte. Show them respect and demand they respect you. Respect yourself too. You then have a good basis for a healthy, functional student-teacher relationship.


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