For three days now I’ve been stalked by a saddhu. Wherever I stop to drink chai or pause to circumvent a cow, he’s there. Tiny and persistent, with standard issue trident, topknot, and road safety orange robes. Our exchange is always the same.
“I can be your guru. I can teach you many things,” he says.
“But I don’t really want a guru,” I reply.
I’m not sure he even hears me. His eyes are glassy. Even looking right at me, he doesn’t seem to see me. He is on the street, peddling liberation. Just like the postcard seller at the Laxman Jhula bridge, or the ear cleaner with his questionable guarantee of rejuvenated aural faculties.
“I can help you, teach you many things.”
“I’m fine,” I insist.
His stride is shorter than mine and I can speed up imperceptibly and slip into a café where I know he won’t follow. Westerners are batting off gurus in Rishikesh like wasps at a picnic. Every day saddhus attach themselves to foreigners (almost always women) usually on their way to yoga classes. They speak to them intently, with body language broadcasting neediness more than serenity. The women look unmoved, tolerating the intrusion like a local condition of weather or terrain, to be patiently endured. There is almost a hint of sympathy in their expressions; as if somehow they know that the end of the time of the Guru is nigh.
Guru. The word evokes such different reactions in us. From some it elicits devotion, for others suspicion, skepticism, even mockery. In the 2012 documentary, Kumaré, Indian-American filmmaker and lapsed Hindu, Vikram Gandhi, becomes a temporary guru, enticing Western students with a philosophy hobbled together from Vedic teachings and slogans from Nike and US Army recruitment ads (he even translates ‘Just do It’ and ‘Be All You Can Be’ into Sanskrit*). His stated intention for this rather elaborate project is to teach that gurus are unnecessary for inner development and happiness after personally becoming convinced that most gurus are self-deluded charlatans. His insistence upon spiritual self-reliance, however, only seems to endear him more to his students, and further convince them of his authenticity as a ‘real’ master. At times the film is painful to watch. While Vikram repeatedly maintains that he is a fake guru and that no one can lead his students to inner peace but themselves, their eyes grow wider with devotion. It is all strangely reminiscent of a certain scene in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’.
Regardless of your opinion about the ethics of this social experiment, the film is a fascinating exposure of the power of spiritual projection. In fact, Vikram uses the metaphor of a mirror throughout, always claiming that what his followers are seeing in him is only a reflection of their own potential. And what is fascinating to watch is that although they are following someone who is merely acting a part, their lives actually start changing for the better. Even when Vikram reveals that he has made the whole thing up, the majority of his students accept it as another teaching with no hard feelings.
I watched Kumaré (at the time of writing it is still findable on Youtube) during a period of reflection on the guru/disciple relationship. I sense that the desperation of the Rishikesh saddhus is a sign of a new Zeitgeist. We’ve heard of post-feminism; post-modernism, post-capitalism, even post-idealism. I believe than in order to evolve and fully claim our spiritual heritage, we need to embrace post-gurusim.
For eighteen years until his death in 2009, I was the student of a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. His name was Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen. More than any other branch of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the guru-disciple relationship in the context of “guru devotion”—an attitude to one’s spiritual teacher that is radically receptive (or submissive depending upon the disposition of the student). This involves complex meditations where the student mentally engages with the teacher as a template for enlightenment – the ‘mirror’ idea that Vikram toyed with in his experiment – along with receiving teachings on classical Buddhist texts appropriate to the lineage to which the teacher belongs. The essential idea is that the guru, if followed perfectly, will lead you to the realization of your inner guru. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had a teacher like Geshe Gyeltsen. I took the process so seriously, that I studied under him for seven years before I even accepted him as my guru. (When I asked him after this time if he would be my teacher, he just laughed). He always encouraged me to be more confident, and never seemed especially happy when I prostrated to him. He himself was intensely devoted to his own teachers, particularly to the Dalai Lama, but he always remained firm with me when I felt tempted to unquestionably surrender my own judgment to his.
On a number of occasions over the years, I had the opportunity to spend many precious hours with him going over the drafts of the books I had edited from his teachings. During these times, he would often ask me what I thought of a particular change here or there. I was so in awe of him, I found it hard to articulate any disagreement with his opinion. But during these sessions, I learned that voicing a different point of view is not a sign of disrespect, as long as that point of view is genuine and mindfully asserted. In fact, to comply with spiritual authority merely out of faith is an abdication of responsibility. Perhaps this is why Geshe la so often brought up the Buddha’s counsel to his disciples to never accept what he said merely on faith but to always test the value of his teachings the way a goldsmith would test for the quality of gold.
My teacher never claimed to be clairvoyant (although I have reason to believe he was) and he was humble about what he did not know. People would come to him for all kinds of reasons: from requests for prayers for dying loved ones and questions about their spiritual practice, to whether to ditch their boyfriend or buy a new sofa. Although he tolerated the trivia, Geshe la kept focused on his job description; to teach the path to enlightenment as it had been taught to him. The temple politics and jostling for position among his students was sometimes hard to stomach. Shortly after he passed away, I had a dream where he showed me up a long path to his temple. Inside, there were a number of rooms. In one room, some of my fellow students were arguing, in another, one was crying, and in the puja hall, another was being enthroned as the new guru.
“Where is your room, Geshe la?” I asked.
He pointed to a tiny windowless room in the basement that was little more than a cellar.
After the passing of my teacher in 2009, I imagined that sooner or later I would find a new one. I remained open to the possibility, attending Buddhist teachings here and there, observing the guru-disciple dynamic with a certain fresh distance. But I was not in a hurry to re-enter that relationship. At one teaching by a Tibetan lama who had become especially popular with Western women of a ‘certain age’, it was clear that I was fast becoming uninterested in formal Buddhism with its traditional teaching methodologies. Although I had no issue with what this guru was saying, I was less and less able to relate to the hierarchical architecture of instruction through which he was saying it and the strange atmosphere of pride and elitism around his students.
I then spent two years organizing international Buddhist conferences. At the first one there were over 900 delegates that included some of the the most prominent figures in the Buddhist world. This gave me the opportunity to study gurus up close and personal. Though many of them were sincere, I witnessed first hand a disheartening amount of posturing and spiritual competition. Some of the behaviour was so shocking that one of my volunteers felt like quitting. “I thought Buddhists were supposed to be nice!” she moaned. I’ll always remember the comment of a lovely gentleman who to me embodied the best of Buddhist wisdom and compassion. “No matter how big the stage, it is never big enough for more than one saint.”
After this experience, I began to study Buddhism from an academic perspective, through a Masters degree in Buddhist Studies from the University of Wales. Over the next three years, I became exposed to the sutras for the very first time—the texts purporting to be the actual words of the Buddha to his followers while he was alive. In all the years of studying Tibetan Buddhism I had never read a single sutra since the tradition is to teach from the commentaries on these sutras by Indian and later, Tibetan, masters. The authenticity of some of the sutras is up for debate, but these texts, faithfully transcribed, translated and transported from culture to culture throughout Asia, are the closest we have to a record of what the Buddha actually said.
Studying these texts gave me pause in my identity as a ‘Buddhist’. Nowhere did the Buddha suggest that his realizations were beyond the reach of ordinary men and women, and he always insisted that his realizations were not unique, that he had merely discovered an ancient pathway walked by humans who came before him (SN 12:65). Apart from setting the ground rules for a harmonious community of ascetic monks, it didn’t seem to me that he was intentionally trying to found a religion. For one thing he refused to appoint a successor. ‘You are your own protector,” he told his devoted attendant, Ananda, in the days close to his death, when asked who the monks could turn to for direction without him. These are not the actions of someone wanting to create an institutional legacy.
In 2010, I visited key places of Buddhist worship, such as Bodhgaya in Bihar, widely considered the Mecca of Buddhism, where it is said the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. For the first week after his awakening, it is written that the Buddha sat under the Bodhi (awakening) tree in a state of bliss. The second week, he moved to a hill about 20 metres away and gazed at the tree in gratitude. There is a little temple there now, and this is where I seemed to spend a lot of my time gazing at the extraordinary Mahabodhi temple. It looked like a spaceship built by an ancient race of god men and at night was lit from below in a way that gave the impression that the whole structure was about to lift off from the earth and head out into space at any moment.
Bodhgaya, especially the inner temple-city of Mahabodhi, is a truly other-worldly place. It was so overwhelming that it took me an entire day before I felt able to walk around the inner circuit. At one point I saw this huge tree and noticed that it seemed to be emanating waves of love. It had this vast generous presence that was extraordinarily powerful and gentle at the same time. It hadn’t dawned on me yet that this was the famous Bodhi tree since there were many trees of this species—the peepal—growing around the temple. I just knew that I wanted to be near it. It was only when I looked for somewhere to settle myself that I noticed about 25 people seated in silence beneath its branches, one of which was so massive and low that it had been propped up by a large plank of wood with a U-shaped support, giving the impression of a venerable old person leaning on a cane. I sat there for three hours beneath a statue of the Buddha staring at a candle flame while waves of chants rose and fell from every direction. Upheld by the collective wisdom of those past present and future pilgrims, I experienced a level of single pointed concentration far beyond anything I had previously known. By the time I stood up, I knew I was no longer a Buddhist. When I walked away from that Buddha statue I was not walking away from the Buddha’s teachings, but from the idea of the teacher as an object of worship with a backstage pass to enlightenment. Pure devotion is a beautiful and inspiring attitude when it is aimed at a genuine teacher (the alternative is a soul-level violence from which it is not easy to recover), but at that moment the whole thing began to look like a circus. A profound circus, no doubt, but a circus nonetheless. The ringmaster was the Buddha himself, one finger pointed at the sequined acrobats and lion-tamers, another at an empty ring of sawdust on the ground.
“I never intended any of this” he whispered. “You are your own protector.”
An old Nepali monk sidled up to me and asked me for my phone number through a set of rotting teeth as two decades of identity as a ‘follower of Buddhism’ slipped away like a silk cape from my shoulders.
There is a beautiful passage in the Uppadha Sutta (SN 45.2) involving a conversation between the Buddha and Ananda. Ananda praises ‘admirable’ friendship, companionship and camaraderie as being “half of the holy life.” To this the Buddha replies.
“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”
The Buddha goes on to explain that when a disciple has admirable people as friends, companions and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue path to liberation.
Here it is. The new paradigm of post-guruism, spoken by one of the most influential gurus of all, two and a half millennia ago.
“It’s not like there aren’t any realized beings in Rishikesh,” says Mark, who has lived here for twenty years. “There are. But you won’t see them running after foreigners. They rarely even come into town.” He pointed his chai glass in the direction of the hills. “They’re out there in the forest. Getting busy with enlightenment.”
The next day I met Peter, a fifty-five year old Dutch hippy. He told me a troubling story. He had fallen asleep drunk in a Delhi train station. In the morning his wallet was missing along with 50,000 rupees. I was less than sympathetic.
“You broke every rule in the book. Why on earth were you carrying that much cash with you? You got drunk and fell asleep in a train station!??? Would you do that in Holland? Did you want to get mugged?”
He looked down sheepishly at his battered trainers.
“I thought this was a spiritual country.”
I burst out laughing.
“Then I came to Rishikesh. A saddhu took me to his cave and asked to use my laptop. We got stoned together and I fell asleep. When I woke up, the saddhu and my laptop were gone. I feel so angry. He said he was going to give me teachings.”
“He did,” I replied. “He taught you not to fall asleep and leave your laptop with strangers!”
Although my heart went out to him, I sensed he wanted some tough love.
“What do you think I should do?” he asked.
“Either go home or stop being so naïve.”
There it is again. A glimpse of the recalibration of the politics between the knower, the known and the as yet unknower/unknown. I see Liberation Camaraderies replacing Mystical Theocracies. The shapes in my mind are not pyramidal, but spiraling. Here, the number of pathways to liberation are infinitely diverse but with a common ground of deep interdependence and common concern. Seekers tune in to what they need to hear like radio signals, sometimes getting a hug, other times a loving kick up the backside. I see a lively jumbly caravan of jijñāsus – the “inquisitive ones” – off to sea in a sieve, hell bent on wringing at least one drop of beauty and humour from even the darkest shadows of the world and returning with tales from the Chankly Bore. Somehow those passing over one line of latitude find themselves sitting next to someone who passed it last month – even if only to hear ‘yes, I crossed over and I didn’t die’. On these journeys, travelers leave notes, clues and spare pairs of socks, admire each others compasses, compare scars, and swap old maps and new yarns. There are experts among them to be sure. Some are renowned sailors or mountaineers. They give the occasional lessons and then themselves attend lessons for the gaps in their knowledge. None of them are a one-stop-shop sage. Wisdom is horizontal not vertical. But I still can’t seem to quite get the measure of it…
It is my last day in Rishikesh and I want some time alone, on the banks of the Ganga. With its gluttonous swarms of humanity that can bully the social animal right out of a person, the urge to be alone in India can become almost an obsession. No surprise that this land has spawned so many hermits and solitary seekers. Behind me I hear a squeaky, “Madam ji!” and know with an inexorable sigh that it’s the voice of the tiny saddhu. Somehow, he has found and foiled my quest for solitude. As I walk back to my hotel, he skips up alongside me with his well-rehearsed salesman’s pitch.
“Come to my cave,” he entices. “You can be my student, I can teach you many things.”
As I look into his eyes, my irritation dissolves. There it is again, and this time it takes shape completely. A gentle but inevitable reciprocal adjustment of the classical didactic posture of spiritual education. I see a world where admirable friends and companions support, share and laugh with, advise, love, comfort and hold one another; tolerate each others phases of grandiosity, crudeness and stubbornness, and never give up on the fundamental belief that we are all in this together, that just as in outer space there is no ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ – only galaxies spinning stories into the void. In this world, my guru can be the man who hands me my roti in the morning, the young girl who makes it, or the monkey who tries to steal it. In this world, liberation is not a destination, but a natural condition of life itself, as wet is to water or hot is to fire. Where symbiocracies replace mystocracies. Where radical friendship replaces guru devotion. And where ‘awake’ can mean many, many things.
*Karam Yaivah Dikaarastha – Just Do It; Sarvau Bhaav – ‘Be all you can be’