The Spiritual Guide: Perspectives and Traditions, Volume One
Edited by Beverly Chapman
Publisher: Delhi: Science of the Soul Research Centre, 2017.
This book, in two volumes, seeks to shed light on the nature of the master-disciple relationship across different spiritual, religious or philosophical traditions. Volume One covers four such traditions: Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, and Graeco-Roman philosophy. The focus of the book is on spiritual teachers and disciples and not on the doctrines, history, or teachings of any religion. The questions that are explored include: Why should one seek a spiritual teacher? What are the characteristics of such a teacher? How do those who have contact with these mentors understand their relationship with them?
Written by a team of contributors, each with a background in a particular tradition, the chapters all have their own style and approach. Each chapter illustrates the master-disciple relationship with quotes from scripture, various sacred texts, and poems and sayings from mystics, giving the reader a glimpse of each tradition’s rich imagery, vivid depictions and revealing anecdotes.
The Hinduism chapter begins with a story from a section of the Skanda Purana known as the Guru Gita. Lord Shiva is seated while many great beings are bowing before him. However, his consort Parvati sees Lord Shiva bow to show respect to a human guru. She asks why the great Shiva would bow to a human, when the entire universe bows to Shiva. Shiva proceeds to explain the “Supreme Truth” which is the “greatest of all secrets.” He tells her, “By constant meditation on the guru, the individual soul becomes God and is set free.”
The Hinduism chapter describes the Hindu view of the guru-disciple relationship, with particular emphasis on bhakti (devotion). The nature of discipleship is illustrated through incidents from great epics, such as the Ramayana, where we meet Hanuman, the monkey god whose devotion to Ram was so intense that once he tore open his chest and there, inside, was Ram. Similarly, we meet Shabari, a very poor, simple woman. “Every day she would lovingly clean the path to her house and sprinkle water to settle the dust, expecting Ram to visit her that very day.” Though her social status was very low, her devotion was so pure that Ram did visit. He ate the food she offered and explained the “nine-fold path of devotion” to her.
The twentieth-century teacher Swami Vivekananda explains the importance of a living guru in more modern terms. He explains that intellectual knowledge will not help us evolve spiritually because “the soul can only receive impulses from another soul, and from nothing else.” He says that when this contact is made with a spiritual guide, “spiritual life is awakened, growth is animated, and man becomes holy and perfect in the end.”
The Taoism chapter is organized thematically, divided in three parts: What Is a Sage?, Discipleship, and How Does the Sage Teach the Disciple? In the first part, we read that a sage is someone who has attained oneness with the Tao, the eternal and unchanging power that is the cause behind all ever-changing phenomena. The sage “embodies” the Tao. Having all the same qualities as the Tao, the sage is a model of balance and harmony. Chuang Tzu, an ancient Taoist sage, describes this state of balance and harmony: “The sage’s heart is stilled! Heaven and Earth are reflected in it, the mirror of all life. Empty, still, calm, plain, quiet, silent, non-active, this is the centredness of Heaven and Earth and of the Tao and of Virtue.”
The second part of the chapter, Discipleship, begins with the importance of recognizing that one needs a teacher who has attained the Tao. Until that recognition comes, even the most earnest seeker will wander along byways, missing the great Way of the Tao. Finding a true teacher, however, is difficult. A true sage is so subtle, with manners so natural and unassuming, that seekers often have trouble recognizing his wisdom. And even after finding a sage, one must also become teachable. The point is explained, as so often in Taoism, by a teaching story: A disciple named Yang Chu had been brought up to be well-mannered. However, when he approached the great sage Lao Tzu, carefully observing every formal way of showing respect, Lao Tzu declared that he was unteachable and sent him away. He said, “You are so unnatural. Who can live with one like you?” Yang Chu went away and took the lesson to heart, freeing himself from his affected manners and learned behaviours. Lao Tzu then found that he was teachable.
The third section of the chapter, How Does the Sage Teach the Disciple?, shows that the teaching is not primarily through words.
Yeh Ch’ueh was questioning his teacher, Wang Ni. Yeh Ch’ueh asked Wang Ni four questions, who did not answer any of them. In silence, the truth would be expressed to him; so Wang Ni remained quiet but answered with the integralness of his spiritual nature. This response made Yeh Ch’ueh jump with joy.
Similarly, the eighteenth-century Taoist master Liu I-Ming describes the subtle way in which sages are able to guide others: “Like the wind getting into everything, they can open up people’s knowledge and wisdom; like the earth nurturing everything, they can save people from calamities.”
The chapter on the spiritual guide in Judaism is organized chronologically, discussing specific spiritual teachers in each historical period: the prophets of the biblical period, the great sages of the ancient rabbinic period, the kabbalists of the medieval period, and the hasidic tsadiks of the modern period. For example, we learn about several of the revered rabbis of the rabbinic period (first through fifth century CE) who were believed to be endowed with extraordinary powers and were often compared with the biblical prophets like Abraham and Moses. As one scholar of Jewish mysticism, Jacob Neusner, describes the relationship between students and these sages of the rabbinic period:
Disciples were not students who came to a master only to learn facts or holy traditions. They came to study the master as well as what the master said… The master would sculpt the soul. Entry into the rabbinic circle, like initiation into a mystery cult, marked the end of an old existence, the beginning of a new life, a new being.
The chapter’s title, Ladder to the Divine, refers to a biblical story in which Jacob in a dream sees a ladder, on which angels descend from and ascend to heaven. In the eighteenth century the Hasidic master, Ya’akov Yosef, wrote that the spiritual mentor, then called “tsadik” (righteous person), is that ladder:
And this is what was revealed to our father Jacob (in his dream in the Bible), a ladder fixed in the earth whose head reached the heavens, which means – even when the tsadik is fixed in the earth, with the lowly, common people of the earth, among scoffers and gossips and the like, nevertheless his head, his thoughts, reach the heavens, joining his thoughts to his Creator. For the Divine Name is before him.
The Graeco-Roman chapter introduces us to such philosophers as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, and Plotinus. It was Pythagoras who, in the sixth century BCE, established the model of spiritual guidance that was followed by philosophers for the next twelve hundred years. In this model, the key element was friendship. The master was the “friend” of the student, just as students shared a deep friendship with fellow seekers after wisdom. Friendship was conceived as a life-long commitment to support one another in the pursuit of truth.
The chapter describes how philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome met with their students and helped them “turn their gaze inward to purify their minds through a variety of exercises.” Daily practice was essential. Socrates used dialogues with his students to help them see their own ignorance, indeed that everything they thought they knew was only arrogance. When they reached the point of total and utter confusion, they were ready to learn. Socrates described these dialogues as a “soul-to-soul” communion that used words: “You and I are conversing with each other soul to soul while making use of words.” As one scholar, Charles Kahn, puts it, “Socrates plays a role among his followers like that of a Zen master or an Indian guru.”
The review of Volume Two, which covers Buddhism, Christianity, Sufism, and Sikhism, will appear in next month’s issue of Spiritual Link.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.