“It’s not. About. This.”
-Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, pounding his chest with every word.
Tonight’s full moon concludes the celebration of Guru Purnima, an auspicious day spanning from Buddhism to Jainism to Hinduism, each with their own origin story and unique rituals. But the essence for each remains the same: honoring the teacher. “Guru” is a moniker given to a special kind of guide that brings their student to ultimate self-understanding and mastery of their lives. The translation of guru as “remover of darkness” may have a spooky moralistic ring to it, but the “darkness” only ever refers to an internal one – that delusion and suffering we subject ourselves to on a daily basis.
However, as David Frawley asserts in his wonderful summary of the Hindu Guru Purnima, no Guru worth their salt would seek such worship. None would even consider themselves a “guru” that apparently has a day reserved for them. Someone who has truly self-cultivated will discover that they are not special, but what they have tapped into certainly is. And if they are teaching with integrity, they will simply offer a roadmap to this place rather than a congratulatory party for their ego. The celebrations of ritual and offering around Guru Purnima might at first seem like a strange thing to do: praise for someone that by definition would reject it. Tonight I’d like to discuss how this seeming paradox harmonizes.
It’s important to note that so much of Guru Purnima is celebrated outside of the “spiritual” realm. Academic and domestic institutions are probably the most pervasive sites for this event since it is also a day where classroom teachers and parents are honored as well. What I like best about this day is not just that all these people get a shout-out (and they get them much less than they deserve), but that the importance of the teacher role is so joyously punctuated.
However, the teacher is one role that requires scrutiny in equal proportion to celebration.
Anyone in a pedagogical role may fall into a place of authority, which can easily be leveraged for their own self-indulgence. And as an informed culture, we are all too aware of the corrupting nature of power. As a society, we are discovering a waning need for authority, hierarchy, or even community for that matter. If someone is offended by Guru Purnima’s suggestion of honoring their teachers or parents, they are displaying a symptom of modernity that is probably historically pretty novel. Although conflict between these echelons has certainly happened throughout past millennia, today’s world looks decidedly individualistic. For better or for worse, it’s a tough time for anyone offering any life-oriented instruction. The “for worse” is not some sort of conservative sociopolitical idea about a “threat to the social order”, but simply the deprivation we might experience when we compromise our ability to learn from others. The “for better” means freedom from the coercion of corrupt leaders, charlatans, oppressive cultural norms, and anything else that stands in opposition to our own inner sense of what is right. And any “guru” of integrity will insist that this is the very locus of the truest guru, and whatever their little vessel offers should serve simply as a reminder of your own inner capacity for revelatory truth.
But for today, it is important to emphasize the “for worse” of this matter, since Guru Purnima should serve as an antidote to levels of individualism that stifle us even though such independence may first appear to emancipate. It’s important to be especially aware of this as a spiritual practitioner in the West, where endless modalities are sold first and foremost as techniques for personal freedom. And they do legitimately cultivate that, but it is not so simple as some state of independence from external authority. This freedom that is spoken of is not some liberation from anything external, but our own inner misdirection away from our deeper living reality.
There is nothing wrong with the outside world, it’s just that some of its more seductive elements tend to fishhook to our delusions, pulling us away from fulfillment and into avenues that leave inner vacuums. It’s not that we retreat from this surrounding reality as we grow, but simply notice what aspects of it aren’t serving our growth. So freedom here is not escapism, but discrimination. It does not mean “freedom from having to learn anything from anyone” or “freedom from acknowledging that someone has a considerably larger corral of wisdom than we do”. This is bondage to the ego masquerading as freedom.
As we clear our self-inflicted delusion, we become capable (and obliged) to listen to our reality and its populace in greater, not smaller, helpings. Everyone becomes our teacher, because we now we have the discrimination to hear their real lessons. The cashier at the Seven-Eleven, the stranger on the bus, the cantankerous neighbor, all have something to teach. They are not imposing their worldview on us, indoctrinating us into their way of life. They probably aren’t even intentionally instructing us. They are simply offering up the summation of their lived experience (in whatever form that takes), and we absorb whatever we need to evolve our self-understanding (and by “self” I also mean “life in general”).
And yet we are the ultimate source for truth, right? Can’t we just say “hey self, tell me everything I need to know”?
Confusing, yes? One spiritual teaching says we are the source of truth, and another one says that it’s good to listen to your guru (et al) since our individual sense of the world is not the be all end all – which is it then? Is truth found within me or that sweet older fella over here? Let’s ask the guru. In response, the Guru simply points upwards. A good sign of legitimacy. As soon as self-knowledge achieves a certain depth, and the seeker begins to understand their very essence, they realize that who they are is more than just their individuality. They identify more with totality, and the very everywhere-ishness of this self-knowledge implies that they cannot lay claim to it. The guru is within you, deep in your essence, and I guess within me as well…but that which is within us is everywhere.
So what is the guru doing when they enthusiastically receive praise that they are apparently indifferent to? Are they humoring their student? Just playing a game? Not quite. They’re deferring it. Deferring it to the source. To their guru, and their guru’s guru and the great ocean of intelligence that we all draw our wisdom from. That ocean that is this universe.
On this day I like to honor not only my teachers (in the proper sense), but anyone I’ve taught meditation to since they never cease to teach me something utterly essential – how to teach better. They provide not only that, but a better understanding of what I know and, sometimes, the complete re-evaluation of it. Essentially, this makes Guru Purnima a day of honoring everyone, and the process by which we connect and elevate each other with our unique perspectives. We’re all just figuring it out, doing the lab work, and sharing findings. I wish you happy seeking and look forward to our next encounter.