On Teachers

"Learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire of him with respect, and render him your service. Such an enlightened saint can impart knowledge to you because he has realized the truth."
                           -Bhagavad Gita 4.34

Throughout our lives we have many teachers. Our first teachers are our parents, who teach us how to speak, how to walk, how to eat, how to bathe, how to dress, etc. Throughout our childhood, and into our teen years, if our parents are healthy and conscientious, they are providing lessons for us that will help us in material life. When we reach school age, we have many teachers who teach us academic subjects which help prepare us for productive material life. In spiritual life, we will likely have many teachers as well. Friends, girlfriends/boyfriends, coworkers-the whole host of people we encounter  in life-each can be a teacher in some sense. Sometimes they teach us lessons about human behavior, both positive and negative. Other times they teach us lessons about our own character and psychology. Even animals, nature and the elements can be teachers. All of these provide both material and spiritual lessons, since the body and mind are part of the overall issue of the human condition that makes spiritual life so complex. Those who find themselves drawn to spiritual life, due to dissatisfaction with the material world and its empty answers will encounter many teachers on their path. Some will be good, some will be somewhat helpful, and some will be bad. It is an unfortunate fact of material existence that there are people who will take advantage of our spiritual desires, using our sincerity to satisfy their own immersion in maya. Let's first look at the marks of a bad or mediocre teacher, so you can avoid the pitfalls of the search for authoritative guidance.

1. The false or mediocre teacher is a person of ego, even while teaching others not to be egocentric. They respond to challenges to their teachings with either passive aggression, or outright aggression. We're not talking about passionately stating the case for truth here, but when they're challenged with difficult information or questions, they become angry and defensive. Often they ban people from their community, silence them in some fashion, or belittle them in the presence of others. Of course, they will do so using their best spiritual language, so as to make the undiscerning think that his/her defensive ego is actually spiritual authority being asserted. They will make subtle snide comments about other teachers rather than addressing themselves to the truths those other teachers offer. These types also tend to talk about themselves whenever they can, drawing attention to themselves in a near self-praising manner. They may speak of themselves in a neo-messianic way, claiming to have been foreseen by an oracle as being a great guru.

2. They might have an undue interest in making money. While there is nothing wrong with a teacher wanting to generate funds for the advancement of the teachings, if that desire shows itself in frivolous purchases, lavish lifestyles, etc., that is a warning sign. Certainly, the guru should be provided with physical comfort and not have to worry about food and shelter, but luxury isn't in order. Be aware of those teachers who pay special attention to wealthy seekers. 

3. They claim special insight, but upon careful examination one finds that they either ask leading questions, which provide them information, or the insights they give are just vague enough to be applicable to most people. Parler tricks aren't spirituality, nor are they signs of wisdom or spiritual power. 

4. They claim to provide a quick method to realization or enlightenment. They say they can quickly open your Third Eye, release your Prana, etc. with their special touch or some psychic ability they possess. Or they may tell you that you don't need to study the deeper philosophy, but just trust their simple method. These sorts usually refer to study of Sacred Wisdom as "too intellectual", "being in your head", or "useless words". This belief that knowledge is an obstacle to spiritual life, is always a sign of fraud. Spiritual life requires personal dedication, practice and study. The fact of the matter is, spiritual life flows from the collective wisdom of the sages of the past, and to ignore that is to disconnect from vastly important guidance.

5. They lack a knowledge of the specifics of spiritual wisdom. Often these types fly by the seat of their pants, as they say. They make it up as they go along, with little reference to authentic sacred literature, or an incorrect knowledge of those writings. 

Now, let's take a look at the authentic teacher, so we can contrast and compare the two.

1. The true teacher isn't angered or challenged by sincere questions, but rather invites them. Because his ego isn't involved in the exchange, he can answer difficult questions with passion, but without anger or defensiveness. He/she will not ban or silence people without very, very good reason, as he/she wants to see everyone, even the person being rude, come to the spiritual platform. He/she doesn't speak from ego, but from compassion. He/she may challenge the questioner's claims, but never with the intention of belittling or silencing them. He/she will want to force them to think deeper than they have. They will also not make snide comments about other teachers, but simply allow the truth of their own teachings to speak for itself. This doesn't mean they will ignore frauds who abuse the spiritual inclinations of seekers, nor that they won't call out the bad behavior patterns of the fraud, but that their motivation for doing so will be the highest good of those who fall prey to such frauds. However, he/she realizes that everyone is on a spiritual journey, and even a bad teacher or neophyte teacher can contribute something of value to the spiritual life of the seeker, and that if the seeker is sincere, they will eventually understand the limitation of that teacher and find one who can actually assist them in advancement. A true teacher will rarely talk about themselves, and when praised for some aspect of their teaching or person, will simply respond with a humble thank you and nothing more. They don't take credit for anything good that comes from their efforts, but recognize the Supreme Absolute as the origin of all good things. The praise is always given to Kami-sama. 

“To know the Absolute Truth, approach a guru who both knows the scriptures and is situated on the platform of Divine-realization.”-Muṇḍakopaniṣhad 1.2.12

2. The true teacher recognizes the utility of money to help advance the spiritual truths and employs it for that purpose. He/she doesn't seek opulence, luxury, or frivolous purchases. He/she is equally happy in the most simple shelter, eating simple foods, as he is in the most beautiful shelter, eating gourmet foods. He/she is aware of the illusions of material existence no matter what the surroundings. He pays equal attention to all of his students, regardless of their financial condition or status in life. He views the homeless person and the banker with equal compassion and respect. 

3. The true teacher may possess spiritual powers (most don't), but doesn't manifest them openly. He/she doesn't gather crowds around and perform miracles, nor will he claim such abilities. If he/she possesses them, he will use them quietly and without others knowing, and always for the benefit of others. Rarely will such abilities be openly displayed.

4. He/she will never tell you they have a quick method for Self-Realization or enlightenment. In fact, they may discourage you at times with the details of the work ahead. Any special spiritual ability, such as opening chakras or using Prana, will be taught in a slow process, requiring dedication and study over a prolonged period of time. There are no shortcuts. They will also never tell you to ignore the study of sacred literature, but firmly demonstrate from those writings the authentic nature of what they teach. They don't invent their own school of philosophy, but teach only what has been taught by the sages for thousands of years. To be sure, they may teach it according to modern sensibilities and with an understanding of various cultural differences, etc., but this doesn't mean they compromise the core of the sacred literature. How that ancient wisdom is lived out may look different according to time, place and circumstance, but nothing essential is ever abandoned and nothing novel is ever created. For example, Gaudiya Vaishnavas adopted Brahminical threads as a way to demonstrate that their priesthood authority was in accord with the Vedas. That wasn't the Vaishnava tradition before this, but was adopted for a cultural purpose. In the West, such observances are unnecessary, as we are not raised in that culture. Study of the philosophy is absolutely essential to successful spiritual life. Without the knowledge that informs the practice, you're like a boat without a rudder. You may float, but you float aimlessly. This knowledge isn't ego driven, nor is it "being in your head". Such knowledge is transcendental, and is considered to be of divine origin. You wouldn't trust someone to do heart surgery who rejected the study of medicine, so why would you trust a teacher who rejects the study of the wisdom? The true teacher will be honest with you that spiritual life isn't always easy and simple, but requires a firm resolve and total engagement of the will. He won't hold the torch for you, but he'll light it.

5. They will have a very obvious command of spiritual literature and philosophical concepts pertaining to spiritual life. They can point to specific sacred writings, accurately define and explain the concepts and practices of spiritual life, and never fly by the seat of their pants. This is precisely because they are part of an authentic spiritual lineage, and not doing their own thing. They're very conversant with Sastra, which isn't understood independently any more than surgery is understood independently. These things are passed on only from guru to disciple. The responsibility of every spiritual student is to follow in the footsteps of those who have demonstrated advanced spiritual consciousness, and study the sacred literature under the guidance of someone in that line of authentic wisdom. This is called "sadhu sastra guru vakya". The true teacher will never attempt to take shortcuts or ignore this authentic lineage.

“Seekers of the Truth should surrender themselves to a spiritual master who has understood the conclusion of the scriptures and taken complete shelter of the Divine, leaving aside all material considerations.”-Srimad Bhāgavatam 11.3.21

It is important that you observe a prospective teacher carefully. Your spiritual life is as important as your medical health, so treat it with the gravity it deserves. Don't allow maya to blind you to the signs of the false teacher, simply because they say what you want to hear. Remember: we get the teachers we deserve, whether good, mediocre or bad.


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