In this episode, I will discuss my personal views about having a Guru/teacher. In order to learn something new or to develop a new skill, it can be helpful and wise to have the guidance and advice of a teacher but it can also become detrimental when we create a dependency on that teacher. The Buddha compared his own teachings to a raft that when no longer needed, should be left behind.
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Transcription of the podcast episode:
Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 70. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the guru mind, that is to say, the mind that seeks a guru.
A quick note before jumping into this topic: If you’re listening to this podcast, it’s probably safe for me to assume that you are also interested in the essential concepts of Buddhism and how they relate to your daily life. One of the goals of the podcast is to take Buddhist concepts and teachings and then explain them in a way that’s easy to understand and practical for everyday life.
In addition to the podcast, I’ve also written a book to help with this process, and with the book, No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners, you’ll gain a fundamental understanding of Buddhism and how to apply the philosophies in your everyday life. The book consists of a simple four-part structure addressing the different aspects of Buddhism: The Buddha, key Buddhist concepts, the Buddhist teachings, and current Buddhist practices. It’s written in a straightforward, questions-and-answers format that simplifies the vital concepts of Buddhism into easy-to-understand ideas. It also includes what I call Everyday Buddhism Sidebars. These are little anecdotes that make Buddhism a little less abstract by offering down-to-earth examples from my own everyday life. Presented in a simple conversational style, the information and guidance in No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners provides the groundwork that is necessary for building or continuing your own Buddhist practice. You can learn more about the book by visiting everydaybuddhism.com.
A secondary note that I haven’t mentioned in a while is the quote … Remember the Dalai Lama’s advice. “Do not use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” And I want to emphasize this. The world doesn’t need more Buddhists. The world just needs more people who are awake and aware of things, people who are striving to have more understanding, people who want to strive to make the world a better place by being more conscious, more kind, more compassionate, more willing to listen and see more deeply, and, ultimately, to see the impermanent and interdependent nature of all things.
We’re all in the same boat here, the boat Planet Earth, and given that today is Earth Day, and I’m recording this on Earth Day, I wish we could see ourselves as just Earthlings and not be so divided by our isms. You know, I’m reminded of a quote by Dr. Mark Epstein, who asked, “What is the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist?” He goes on to answer, “The non-Buddhist thinks there’s a difference.” Unfortunately, I know a lot of Buddhists, or practitioners of Buddhism, who don’t quite understand what this means. In a way, this is implying that even if you see yourself as a Buddhist, you still don’t get it because you see yourself as separate from being a non-Buddhist.
It’s just a fun thing to consider today. What are the labels that separate me from others? What are your isms? And again, this isn’t to say that we need to get rid of all of our isms. I don’t know that that’s possible, but the attachment that we have to them … I like to view Buddhism as something that I practice. It’s something that I teach. It’s something that I really enjoy, but it’s not something that I am, because I’m just me. While today I follow this path, five years ago, I didn’t. 10 years ago I had no clue what any of this stuff, any of these topics were, and I would have identified as something else. Whatever the ism is, hold loosely to it. Hold it, but hold it without the death grip.
So enough about labels. The topic I’ve prepared for today is called Beware of the Guru Mind. What I’m trying to get at with this topic … All of this started because there was a lot of hoopla about a show that came out on Netflix called Wild Country. It’s the story of the Rajneeshees, a group that came from India following their leader, now known as Osho. At the time his name was, I think, Rajneesh. But anyway, it’s a group of kind of … I don’t know if Buddhist is the right word. They followed a lot of tenets of various religions. A lot of people would say that they were a cult. At the end of the day, what happened is you had an influx of a specific group into a small community, and it really disrupts the community. This documentary paints the picture on both sides what was happening to this small community that was being absorbed by this larger group, an influx of people who believe very differently than you.
I can see this playing out, how difficult it would be, because I live in a very small community, and we deal with the influx of people coming in from the city and building developments and homes. I hear people in the town that are frustrated with that. Their way of life is changing because of this influx of people moving in. This also resonated with me with my past, being raised Mormon. There’s a story with the Mormon community that when Mormonism was growing and spreading, they were running into this problem. They were like the Rajneeshees. They were moving into communities and then overtaking these communities because of their population growth, and the community would resent them and then want to kick them out. They were always battling this process of infiltrating communities until they finally headed west, you know, the big pioneer trek. They headed west and they established themselves in Utah.
Ironically, now, here, where the Mormon Church has a strong population, there’s also this same resentment of outside influence coming in, and if the population gets too big, then the ideas of the non-Mormons overtake the ideas of the Mormons, and then there’s this same feeling of, “Oh, no. Let’s not change things.” It’s just kind of funny.
Anyway, all of this resonated with me as I was watching this documentary on Netflix, but it really got me thinking about the concept of a guru in general. I wanted to address this on a couple of different levels. First of all, what is a guru? It’s a Sanskrit term, and it connotes someone who is a teacher, a guide, an expert, or a master of a certain field of knowledge. The word guru has all these connotations. Let’s just replace it with the word teacher, and then some of these things might make a little bit more sense. First of all, is it bad to have a teacher? Is it bad to have a guru? See, if I say the word guru … Is it bad to have a guru? Some people are probably thinking, “Uh-oh. This is cult-like language. I don’t need a guru.” But let’s replace that with teacher for a moment. Is it bad to have a teacher? No, absolutely not.
I want to give you an example of this. Some of you know, one of my favorite pastimes, one of my hobbies is paragliding and paramotoring, specifically paramotoring. Paramotoring is paragliding but with a motor on your back, a propeller on your back, that pushes you through the air. The difference is, paragliding, you have to go to the top of a mountain, a big hill, and you start up there and then you float your way down, unless you can ride thermals and stay up. If you go with a motor on your back, you don’t need to start up high. You can just find a field, a parking lot, take off from their, and you’re powering yourself. That’s one of the main differences between paramotoring and paragliding. I do much more paramotoring than I do paragliding.
When you’re learning to paramotor, if you want to go about it safely, you’re going to find a teacher, somebody to teach you how to do this. One of the first things that they do in the process of learning to paraglide or paramotor, at least with my teacher … What he did is he’ll connect you with a line to a winch, a pulley winch system that tows you. They’ll set this up maybe 500 feet away from you, or 1,000 feet away from you. I don’t know how far. I don’t remember, but you’ve got this line tied to your harness, and then there’s the parachute … the wing, actually, because it’s not quite a parachute. It’s a wing, and it’s a wing in the sense that if it has enough speed it will develop lift, so you can fly with it. A parachute is intended to control the fall. A wing is intended to actually fly.
So you’ve got this wing behind you that looks like a parachute, and then this towline starts to pull you. As it pulls you, you start running, the wing inflates behind you, it comes up over your head, and the faster that you go, you start to gain lift. So now you’ve got this rope that’s pulling you. You’ve got the parachute-looking wing … I’m just going to say wing from now on … the wing over your head, and it’s lifting you up in the sky. For all intents and purposes, you’re essentially a kite. You look like a kite. You’re being pulled, and your flying because there’s tension on this rope that’s pulling you. That forward motion gives you lift, and there you fly, and at some point, you cut the towline. You have a little pin there on your harness, you pull that lever, or you push the button, depending on the setup, line cuts from you, and now you’re just soaring, and you’re soaring on the way down.
So you come down, and that’s how you practice, right? You have a big field that tows you up, you get the feeling of what that’s like to fly, and then you cut that line, and then you soar down and then you land. You practice this over and over and over, and what you’re trying to get used to is the feeling of running and inflating the wing behind you to the point where it’s over your head, gain enough speed, and then you take off.
In this process of learning, applying this to the idea of a guru or a teacher, it was absolutely important for me to have a teacher who understood the dynamics of where I am with my skill level, and at what point is it safe to say you no longer need that towline? Now you put the motor on your back, and power yourself. I want to draw this correlation with this, because it takes skill on the part of both the teacher and also the student. When the student feels ready, the student can say, “I’m not sure I need this towline anymore. Let’s go strap the motor on my back.” The teacher needs to have the skill to say, “Yeah, I think you’re right. I think you’re ready to try this,” or, “No, let’s tow you a couple more times because I’ve been noticing you’re pulling really strong on this line, or you’re doing this or that that could be dangerous. You could get yourself into trouble.”
At some point in this process, if both parties realize the time has come, then you detach from the towline, you put the motor on your back, and you’re liberated. In a very literal way, you’re liberated. You’re free to go fly. You go fly, and you explore on your own. I think that’s one of the greatest accomplishments for the teacher at that moment is now the teacher says, “Let’s go fly. Let’s go explore. Let’s go up that mountain. Let’s fly around this lake.” Some of the most enjoyable aspects of flying for me have been in the companionship of my former instructor as a friend. Now we’re co-exploring. We go explore and fly, or whatever it is, but there’s complete liberation now. There may still be some guidance in those first months and years, where it’s like, “Hey, you’ve gotten really good, but I notice you have this tendency or that tendency.” But at some point, you become equals. You both are just pilots, and you fly.
I’ve thought about this in the spiritual sense, like with Buddhism, for example … That’s very much how it should be. The job of the teacher is to know when to cut the towline, liberating the student. I like the analogy of going from kite to bird. I’ve heard it said before that sometimes the guru … The guru can be a person. The guru can be a system. It can be an ism. It could be your belief system. It could be a lot of things, but when we create a dependency on it, that towline, so to speak, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but just imagine this as a visual. There’s nothing more sad than taking a kite that’s flying perfectly, and then cutting that rope, because the moment that you cut that rope, what happens to the poor kite? It flips and flops and comes down and lands and crashes and it’s no longer flying. It’s detrimental to the kite to not have that line.
It’s also detrimental to a bird to have the line. Let’s say you have a bird, now, and it’s up there soaring. There’s nothing more sad than the picture of a bird with a string tied to it, and it can’t escape the distance of that string. Some would say … I’ve heard it said before. “Hey, your religion, your belief system, it’s like this towline, and you are the kite. This is what allows you to fly and gain altitude and to soar there in the wind. But the moment that you detach yourself from your religion, you’re going to come crashing.”
And it’s like, okay, that’s a good analogy, in a sense, but the false assumption, for me, in my personal opinion, is this takes some skill and knowing. Am I a kite, or am I a bird? Was I a kite that just figured out, “Oh my gosh, I have wings and they flap. Okay, now I’m a bird. Now I don’t need that line.” Or the flip side, right? Maybe it’s thinking, “I’m a bird.” And realizing, “I just keep coming, crashing down. Maybe I’m not a bird. I’m more of a kite. I better find the right towline that keeps me in the wind, and keeps me soaring.”
It’s not to say that you need to be one or the other. It’s more along the lines of figuring out which one are you. Because if you’re a kite, you may want a towline. You may need that rope. If you’re not, then you may not need the towline. I encounter this all the time, because I think sometimes there’s this assumption that the concepts that I’m teaching with Buddhism, especially secular Buddhism, are an indication that the right direction is to go from kite to bird. I don’t think that that’s true. If we’re being completely honest, we all know that some people are kites. They need the line. They need the rope that helps them know what to do, what not to do, who to be like, who not to be like. Some people are birds, and the towline becomes a hindrance. Treating everybody like birds is wrong, and treating everybody like kites is also wrong.
I want to clarify that. For me, growing up, I had a towline. A very efficient towline, a belief system that was rigid. It helped me to know, go this way, don’t go that way. Do this, don’t do that. I think perhaps one of the most important aspects is it gave me a model to follow. Anyone who was raised Christian knows the expression, “What would Jesus do?” For most intents and purposes, that’s a safe bet. That’s a good example of what you should and shouldn’t do that’s going to minimize suffering for yourself and others. But it’s not always the case, and for me, this is why.
The truth of the question, “What would Jesus do?” … or apply this to Buddhism, or any other system, right. “What would the Buddha do?” … is that the answer to that question is, “I don’t know.” That’s the true answer. But the answer that most of us get, we’re getting from a guru, the guru who says, “Well, I’ll tell you what he would do. This is what he would do.” So when I am answering the question, “What would the Buddha do,” really, I am inserting the answer of what you’re telling me the Buddha would do, whoever my guru is, right? Whoever your teacher is, your priest, your prophet, your Zen master. Whoever your guru is, that’s the real answer to the question. “What would so-and-so do? What so-and-so tells me so-and-so would do.” That’s the truth, right? Because the real answer, “What would so-and-so do,” I don’t know. I didn’t know so-and-so. I don’t live in that time.
For me this becomes a really important thing when it comes to introspection. I want to know what would I do? What would I do, and why would I do it? Why would I do it, why would I not do it? Buddhism is an invitation to look inward. It’s an invitation to discover for yourself that you are the greatest guru. This is something that I really enjoy about Buddhist concepts and Buddhist teachings. When you study the life of the Buddha, and I’ve alluded to this before in the podcast, but I think it makes a lot of sense to bring this up in this specific episode, in this specific context … The journey of the Buddha as a seeker, let’s call him that … Siddhārtha Gautama, the seeker … He was seeking wisdom and advice, and he was like the kite with the string. He went from one guru, one teacher, to another, and then to another, but what was happening in this process is that he was realizing, “This can only get me so far. Having this line can only get me so high. It can only get me to this certain place.” That wasn’t enough. He wanted to understand things, to see the world differently.
I imagine, going back to my analogy as a student learning to paraglide, that the truth is the towrope phase of learning is a lot of fun. It’s like, “Wow, I’m getting towed up in the air, and I can look around. Then I come down, and I do it again and again and again.” At some point up there, you may look around and say, “Hey, this is all great, but I want to see what’s over that next hill. I want to see what’s up higher. I want to follow that river.” In the moment I decide, “That’s me,” the curious me that wants to see more, now this very line becomes my hindrance. It’s like, “Oh, now this is the thing that’s in the way.”
I think that this is what was happening for Siddhārtha. He would learn what he could, and then that was it. He needed to find more. His process, his spiritual path, takes him on this journey to the point where he finally cuts that line. In my opinion, this is the understanding of his moment of liberation. He was that paraglider pilot who said, “Okay, let’s cut the line, turn on the engine, and here I go. I’ve actually got my own propeller now, and it’s going to propel me from here.” That was really the key of his transformation, was his liberation. That’s why we call it liberation.
From that moment on, he realizes several key things. First is, “Oh my gosh. I am the source of all of it. The good deeds that make me want to be kind and compassionate, that’s me. That’s my own mind. The thoughts that make me feel anger, or hatred, or wanting to hurt someone, well, that’s also me. It’s not some external agent acting upon me. It’s internal processes that are steering me to do and feel certain things.”
Just imagine the feeling of anger, and then realizing, “Oh my gosh. This anger is fueled by fear.” That’s a radical realization that you can have about yourself. “What am I feeling, what do I say, what do I think, what do I do, and where, and why?” That leads back to further insight: “Oh, this is why I think what I think. This is why I say what I say.” I imagine that’s what that moment was like for him. The moment of liberation was this radical realization that he was the source of it all. This is what Buddhist teachings have been for me in my own life, this radical transformation of realizing, “Oh my gosh. I am at the helm, here. It’s my own mind.” Often, the detrimental things that I would say or do, they stem from my own mind.
The more I’ve learned to understand myself, the more I’ve learned to minimize that self-inflicted suffering, and the suffering that often carries over to other people. This has been a profound change for me in my own relationship with my wife, and my dynamic as a parent with kids. That’s what this has all been for me. The invitation of this episode is to look at what are the towlines? What are the lines that I’m attached to? Again, not from the perspective of, “I need to get rid of all my towlines.” That’s not what it is. Buddhism itself is a towline.
If you’ll recall, in the parable of the raft … I think this is, to me, one of the most profound teachings that the Buddha gave. He invited his monks, towards the end of his life, to understand that Buddhism itself is the raft. If you’re on one side of the shore, and you’re trying to get to the other side of the shore, he asks them, “If there’s no other way to do it, and you spend all that time and energy to build a raft, once you get to the other side, what is the wise thing to do? Keep the raft, or leave it behind?” I think anybody would have answered the same. “Well, common sense tells me I should leave it behind. If I need another one, I’ll build another one. For now, I’m headed up that mountain. This is a big, heavy raft. I don’t need it.”
Shockingly, that’s what he tells them. Essentially, these teachings, the dharma, that’s the raft. You can make the raft your obstacle. I think this carries over in our day. It’s like saying, “Hey, Buddhism teaches all these incredible things, but be careful, because Buddhism can also be the obstacle. It can be the very raft, the thing you attached to, and now that’s the thing that you carry around.” When I’m thinking of these towlines, what are the towlines that I have, again, it’s not from the perspective of, “I need to cut everything off everywhere! Drop all my isms! Leave my religion!” Don’t be drastic. Look at everything. Look at your life from the perspective of, is this a skillful line? Yes. Then stay on it. Is it skillful to cut it? Maybe, or yes. Okay, well then cut it. The answer may be no. Nobody can answer that for you. That’s the thing, here.
At the end of the day, the guru can give you advice, but, like if you were ever to take lessons paramotoring, that line that’s up on your harness? It’s you that hits the button and detaches from the line. It can be done down at the bottom, but then the line dangles, right? That’s for safety purposes, they do that. What I’m trying to get at is working with a teacher can be very powerful, but if that teacher sets you up in a position to where you become dependent on him or her, then now it’s detrimental. Maybe it won’t be, but at some point it will be, because the nature of this path, of Buddhism, is a path of liberation. If you find a teacher on this path, a guru … I like the word teacher better, but just somebody who guides you, and their intent is saying, “Now you need to depend on me, because I am the source of interpreting all this stuff for you,” then beware.
When I say beware, I truly want to make this pointed towards yourself. It’s not beware of that teacher. It’s beware of yourself thinking, “Do I really need this? Do I need a teacher?” I think I mentioned it before, but the invitation here to beware of the guru mind, it’s an invitation to look inwards. Who is the one looking for the guru? I’m less concerned about the guru than I am about the me that thinks I need the guru. Who’s that? Who’s the one looking for the guru? Buddhism always tries to point things back towards you.
At some point in Siddhārtha’s quest, he was confronted with this very question. “Who’s the one looking for the guru?” He found that one. When he found the one looking for the guru, he didn’t need the guru. He became his own guru, his own teacher. I cannot stress this enough. This is one of the potential consequences of studying this stuff is, you’ll discover that you are your greatest enemy and your own best friend. It’s you. That’s the moment of liberation.
That was the topic I wanted to share today: Beware of the Guru Mind. The mind that seeks the guru. Again, I’m not alluding to gurus are bad, teachers are bad, isms are all bad, whatever your religious system is, it’s bad. I’m not saying that. I’m saying there’s a careful balance between that realization of, “I am a kite, and I need this line,” and “I am a bird, and this line is hindering me.” Extending this same wisdom to your family and friends … I see this all the time in the world where I am, the community where I live. People will leave a religion and then say, “You need to leave it, too.” Or people who are in the religion will talk to someone who’s left their religion and say, “You need to be in it.” What you’ve got is kites talking to birds, and birds talking to kites. It’s not helping. That’s not going to do anything.
This is not about deciding what’s best for you. It’s about me, as the student, saying, “What I’m learning here, I still need this towrope. Maybe I always will. I don’t care to see what’s on the other side of that hill. I don’t want to follow this river. I just want to be towed here and soar in the air. I love this towline.” That’s a legitimate place to be. But it’s also legitimate for the one with the personality to explore that says, “Well, this towrope … I don’t like it. I want to be cut loose, and I want to fly a little bit and see what’s over there.” You may fly over there and decide, “You know what, I don’t like this exploring stuff. This is kind of scary. I’m going to come back, and let’s just attach to that towline, and I’ll stay here and soar like a kite. That could happen.
There’s not a right or a wrong way to be. There’s a skillful and a non-skillful way to be. The only way to know which was is skillful for you is to have a greater understanding of yourself. Again, this is the quest. Who is the one seeking the guru? That’s who you should be seeking, the one that’s doing the seeking, because that points everything back to you.
That’s the topic I had prepared for today. Hopefully, some of that makes sense. I know sometimes these concepts get a little … I don’t know. I don’t know what the right word is, but they can be hard to understand, because people will listen and say, “Well, I just want to know, do I do this, or do I do that? Do I follow someone? Do I not follow someone? Should I believe? Should I not believe? Should I have a teacher? Should I not have a teacher?” There’s not an answer to any of those questions. Again, point it inwards. Who’s the one who’s looking? Seek the one who’s seeking. There you will find all the insight you’re looking for. When you seek the one that’s seeking, you look inward.
That’s my invitation for today, following on my invitation of being Earth Day. Try to see yourself for a little bit as just an Earthling. You and every other creature on this planet, we share that in common. This is our home. This is our pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan would say. This is our home. What can we do to be more skillful in how we deal with each other with our ideologies, our beliefs, our opinions, our political views? Whatever it is, at the end of the day, we’re just Earthlings, and we’re all here. We’re all trying to figure it out. We’re all just trying to make this work. How can I be more skillful in that process from my little corner of the world? That’s my invitation to you.
That’s the topic I have for today. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, please feel free to share it with others. You can always write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. If you’d like to join our online community, you can visit secularbuddhism.com/community. If you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, please visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the donate button. That is all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you. Until next time.