By Dawai Gocha
In the West we often hear bits and pieces of the Guru-Yoga teachings, such as, “find a teacher and devote your life to them” or “have complete faith in the teacher.” But actually the teachings go much deeper.
For example, many people don’t know that it could take over a decade just to get to know a teacher and vice versa. Taking the time to get to know someone sounds more reasonable to me. Many people also don’t understand that the Guru represents your own Buddha nature and that’s what we surrender to.
What I can’t get on-board with is this immediate devotion and unrestricted reverence for a complete stranger. In my opinion, this is generally contrary to the western psyche.
When I look around, I see many people who only meet with their teachers a few times a year and then it’s in groups or short interviews. So you might say that we don’t need a physical connection to benefit, but the logic of this falls apart when we consider the fact that devotion to a stranger ends up being devotion to our contrived idea about someone. Often there is also a circle of people trying to get closer to the teachers, which adds a competitive, uncomfortable nature to something that should be—at least sometimes—intimate.
There are many unhealthy qualities I’ve come to recognize in this environment. In the West but also abroad, I’ve seen people’s minds continuously be taken advantage of, especially those who are longing for deeper understanding of life or may have experienced deep suffering. I do understand the expansive experience of Guru devotion: the opening of the heart, the trust in the unknown. It can be very useful but I don’t think we need to be unskillful about that or put ourselves in harm’s way.
We live in a democracy; this is the place of leaderless movements and anti-cult mentalities, religious skepticism and materialism. This is the place where people follow Jim Morrison, Justin Bieber and Tupac—not because someone told them to have unprecedented devotion but because they’re cool. I’ve been told over and over again to give my heart and mind to the Guru and now that I reflect, I believe this is totally harmful advice actually.
In the West, many people don’t even know these Gurus, yet we’re expected to follow them aimlessly or follow them because everybody else is doing it. Then it becomes another check box cleared. “Yup, I have a teacher.” But do you? How much do you really know this person and how often do you interact with them? And this reasoning that the Guru can do no wrong, or that it’s all “enlightened activity” does not resonate with me, mainly because it sounds like the exact same mentality people use to justify why they are in abusive relationships.
If your teacher acts like a jerk, then maybe that’s what it is. Unless you have highly developed insight, you don’t really know if it’s enlightened activity or not and at some point, everything we experience is “meant to be” so the logic doesn’t really hold up.
If I were to meet Chatral Rinpoche and spend five years with him in the mountains, then yes of course, I might develop a strong bond. I see many stories in Buddhism of the student spending intimate time with the teacher and learning directly from them on a daily basis. We can see this in many fields or even job trades, the master and student bond, they work together. But as it stands, many times we are expected to give the same love and devotion to a complete stranger that we are giving our family or best friends.
This is crazy to me.
Many of us in the west are decolonizing and deconditioning our minds and that means we’re washing the stains of patriarchy, hierarchy and many other qualities of degenerate societies. I’ve seen it personally how this Guru worship just clashes with the mind-state of so many people. On the surface we might act like we have all this love and devotion but many times, underneath, it just doesn’t feel right.
And many times, the nature of the environment makes us afraid to even speak up.
Dawai Gocha is practitioner and monk in a Nyingma Dzogchen lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He first took refuge with His Holiness Penor Rinpoche when he was a boy and has continued to practice Buddhism for over 20 years. He has received teachings from H.H. Dalai Lama, H.H. Penor Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche and others; receiving empowerments and instructions on many different Buddhist practices.
Editor: Dana Gornall