Gurus, spiritual teachers, therapists, life coaches: I used to follow them with devotion. I devoured their books, attended their seminars and sat at their feet. For years, I enjoyed the loving embrace of mother Amma, the sharp tongue of Eckhart Tolle, the inspiration of Krishnamurti. I listened to the lectures of Neale Donald Walsch, Deepak Chopra and Andrew Cohen.
I travelled year after year to India, without a doubt the country with the densest population of gurus. Every teacher I came across promised some type of enlightenment or freedom: one by sharing knowledge, another through meditation, yoga or mantra-chanting. Some held lengthy sermons; others kept their mouths tightly shut. Some were the embodiment of love; others were blunt and continued to batter followers until their egos were broken. Many of these gurus were extraordinarily wise and greatly enriched my life.
Yet I began increasingly to doubt whether the relationship between gurus, as well as other powerful figures, and their followers is the best way to achieve enlightenment or freedom. After all, in all the ashrams I visited, I rarely encountered an enlightened follower—someone who appeared to be just as wise, radiant and independent as the master himself. To be sure, most followers were devout and full of praise for their gurus, but they strongly doubted themselves. I noticed in myself as well that I sometimes seemed to shrink in the presence of an awe-inspiring guru. Was it a mark of honour and respect or in fact fear of standing on my own two feet?
More than 1,000 years ago, the Chinese Zen master Lin Chi underlined the danger of gurus. He saw that many of his contemporaries in the 9th century transferred responsibility for their spiritual well-being to others. He said this meant they gave away their power and authenticity. This inspired Lin Chi’s oft-quoted statement: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” In other words, if you think you can find enlightenment outside yourself, you’re on the wrong track. After all, the essence of Buddha’s teachings is that everyone carries the Buddha nature inside, or—put another way—we are all Buddha. Lin Chi’s warning is still relevant today. Despite the far-reaching individualization in the modern Western world, people continue to seek handholds. Nowadays, there are more gurus than ever, despite the change in titles: mental coach, therapist, social worker.
The American social scientist John McKnight, who has been studying the effect of professional helpers on society for more than 40 years, is a modern Lin Chi. “Every time we call in an expert, we lose a piece of ourselves. As a result, the social workers have eroded the very soul of community,” he writes in The Careless Society. “The enemy is not poverty, sickness and disease, but a set of interests that need dependency, masked by service.”
Gurus and professional helpers aren’t the only ones who tend to make people dependent and keep them down; parents and educators often do the same. How many parents and teachers see the “Buddha” in children? Instead of encouraging kids to trust their innate wisdom, they cram them full of facts and figures. Most kids are never asked about who they are, but what they want to be. The underlying message is, You’re nothing now, but if you do what we say, you can become someone later. As a result, it’s instilled in us at a young age that we must somehow get to the bottom of the wisdom of others instead of exploring the wisdom within ourselves.
The idea that you must become something in order to be successful, enlightened, delivered or happy is a huge misconception. The conviction that a path outside ourselves leads to something better is the reason why virtually no one ever arrives at their destination. After all, if you’re perpetually on your way, you’ll never get there. There’s a sign hanging in my local pub that reads, “Free beer tomorrow.” Of course tomorrow never comes.
Gurus, too, promise enlightenment later, thus condemning their followers to eternal dependence. It works both ways: After all, what would a guru be without followers?
Naturally, some influential figures haven’t become trapped in this mutual dependence. These are the radical masters who will not tolerate followers or hangers-on because they know spiritual freedom is only attainable for those who dare to stand naked before the truth—i.e., without pre-established loyalty to a doctrine or guru. Jesus would never have become a Christian, nor Buddha a Buddhist. These masters were rebels who primarily followed themselves (or God?). Psychiatrist Carl Jung was another example. He once said: “Thank God I’m not a Jungian.”
Jung was referring to what he saw as the problem of unequal relationships in every form of therapy. Healing, he believed, can only take place if space is given to the whole person—and the therapist can disrupt that whole. The American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, who conceived a model known as “non-violent communication,” is extremely outspoken about the importance of complete equality. “When the therapist presents himself as a therapist, the therapy is doomed to fail.”
An unequal relationship means there is a glass ceiling the follower can barely penetrate. To grow beyond the master is difficult, particularly when you are taught not to trust your own wisdom. Is that the reason why the Tibetan word for guru, lama, is translated as “unsurpassed”? A follower doesn’t walk his own path, but that of another. Because that path is already worn, he doesn’t have to work as hard to walk it, nor does he learn the same lessons. The conclusions the master reached—as an end result of the original spiritual work—are not the same for the follower. The master has experienced both path and destination; the follower only knows the destination as described by the master he has so diligently studied.
This is why followers are often holier than the pope and more extreme in their viewpoints than the master. And these viewpoints can often be reduced to easily digestible bits. After all, the more insecure people are, the more they cling to “the truth” and the more they try to convince others. Moreover, most followers miss the full concept of the master’s teachings, so subtle and complex insights are reduced to easily understood and absorbed notions.
The paradox many people encounter in their search for enlightenment or deliverance is that this state of higher consciousness doesn’t correspond to holding onto “truths” and “facts.” Many truths and facts are only assumptions or ways of dealing with reality. It is no coincidence that the word “fact” is derived from the Latin word “facere”, which means “to make.” A fact is not truth, but a creation.
So we don’t really lose our “Buddha nature” because of what we don’t know, but because of what we are convinced we know because others have told us so—by clinging to borrowed, unshakable “truths.” As soon as we establish something as fact or pass judgment on it (“This is the way it is”), we lose contact with reality, with the greater whole. We reduce the truth—inasmuch as it exists—to a word, a document or a method and close ourselves to learning and growing.
Maybe gurus aren’t so much masters we can imitate but examples we can look to for inspiration. They show us that it is possible to achieve a higher state of consciousness. But it’s up to us to get there.
So it’s time to fire our gurus (facts, truths, religious persuasions, principles, dogmas) so the guru in ourselves can emerge. It’s time to become as great as the gurus we followed—just as authentic, unique and obstinate. This is not an act of aggression or disrespect. On the contrary, it is an act of love and gratitude. The greatest compliment we can pay our gurus, coaches and therapists is to make clear that we no longer need them. The treatment was successful; the guru died.