The guru business is good and getting better. Almost
 any teacher or would-be teacher from India, Tibet, China, or Japan can come to the United States wearing robes and immediately acquire a coterie of followers, ready
to kiss their feet and gift them with fruit and flowers in the traditional fashion. It makes no difference that these
instant disciples have no proof of the authenticity of the teaching or of the teacher’s own merit. The newly appeared
teacher does not have to be an enlightened Master carrying
out his Bodhisattva role of saving all beings. The only
necessities are that they wear robes, have an Eastern-sounding
name, and have something spiritual to sell or give away.

Many Europeans have adopted Eastern names, making
it possible to get in on yoga instruction (actually, Hatha
Yoga, one-eighth of the total Raja Yoga, is generally all that
is taught), Tibetan Tantra discourses, guidance in Zen
sitting, more esoteric Eastern
disciplines, and bogus dietary fads.

Some Americans have been voyaging to India and Japan to get
quick credentials. The fact that they have been in an
ashram or temple — and can use a few Sanskrit, Chinese or
Japanese words — is enough to give authenticity to their claims. And pretty soon they have Roshi, Swami, or Baba in front of
what were originally prosaic western names. This in no way
reflects on many wonderful disciplines in South and Southeast Asia. It
simply speaks of the gullibility of those here, desperately seeking something to believe in and some direction.

Someone such as Krishnamurti, who said “I am not a teacher; don’t
believe anything because I tell it to you,” is rare. He wore
prosaic business suits and obviously didn’t want to capitalize
on the guru business. But neither he (nor anyone else) can
stem the tide.

Some teachers in India, learning of the bonanza,
arrange support from businesspeople and come here to assess the situation. They immediately find their own little group. Others leave jobs in South or Southeast Asia to devote themselves full-time to the pursuit. Mixed in with the onrushing horde are, undoubtedly, some authentic teachers.

What makes the guru business prosper?

There are several logical reasons for its prosperity, I believe. Young people have been conned by their parents, schools, churches, government, and the media, and they are hungry for some “truth.” They want to find some meaning to life beyond consumerism, and they want to travel economically with neither the hounds nor the hares. Early in life, they have been told not to lie, and then, two minutes later when the phone rings, have seen their parent put a finger to their lips and whisper, “I’m not here.” Government propaganda has manipulated them, and they have been told by the church that playing bingo is the way to heaven. Is it any wonder they are desperately seeking some truth, any truth?

Moreover, there is the urge to join to not be alone. The young people pride themselves on being nonconformists, so they rush to a group with others of the same bent. We might soon have a new bumper sticker saying, “Be a Nonconformist. Everybody’s Doing It.”

This rush to identify, to find some warmth in the company of others, leads them to groups that chant unintelligible sounds, sit in uncomfortable positions, and urge renunciation of the most cherished activities. These actions aren’t harmful in themselves. Deep in the background, there is usually a legitimate reason for them, if properly understood.

This urge to identify eventually leads to proselytizing. The guru finds it easy to persuade followers to bring others to the true teaching. And they become unpaid salesmen, missionaries of hope, taking on the anxieties that such activity brings. To do this, the initiate must lie a little about his own experiences, and exaggerate to make the teaching or discipline more attractive. Then, they must believe that the true teacher has been found. This is an outgrowth of the “My Dad can beat your Dad” of early childhood.

Why should we give gifts to the guru, support them, or give them planes to bring the teaching to others? Because it is God’s will. (Somebody in the group has a pipeline to divinity.) Don’t we want others to share our bliss? It is not enough that we meditate or practice, as originally urged. We must become a part of the organization to bring tranquility to others. This is how churches and cults evolve.

There is a very descriptive story that takes place in hell. A junior devil, second class, has been sent to earth to look around and see how things are progressing. They quickly return to hell, horrified, and obtain an interview with the devil himself.

“Sir,” they sputter, “Something awful has happened. There is a man with a beard walking around on earth speaking Truth, and people are beginning to listen to him.” The devil smiles pleasantly, puffing on his pipe but making no comment.

“Sir, you don’t realize the seriousness of the situation,” continues the distraught junior devil, “Pretty soon all may be lost.” The devil removes his pipe slowly and sits back in his swivel chair, hands behind his head.

“Don’t worry,” he counsels, “We’ll let it go on a little longer, and when it has progressed far enough, we’ll step in and help them to organize.”

It is easy to see why the young person joins, accepts initiation, willingly suffers painful disciplines, and volunteers in the name of nonconformity and freedom, helping build an organization where one must conform and take orders. They are looking for some truth, for some meaning to living, and for some group to glorify so they can identify with the best. Strangely, such urges are constructive — far better than the terrible economic competitiveness they have been taught or status-seeking at the expense of others with whom they have been brainwashed. The sad part is that it so often leads to the competitiveness of spiritual groups and a desire for affirmation of spiritual status.

The older person usually comes to the guru for different reasons. They have long since lost the idealism and the youthful confidence that they were meant to do great things. Instead, they look for relief from the everyday tensions and release from the constant need to memorize numbers — bank numbers, telephone numbers, social security numbers, credit card numbers — the very numbers that have come to spell out their identity to the world.

Hearing that a particular discipline is a tranquilizer, or that it will give them energy and help them to sleep, they are prepared to follow the guru as a psychotherapist. So, the guru, who came to save their soul, changes their approach and promises to bring rest while making them more efficient (with higher grades, more money, and better coping skills). The tranquilizing approach is a better box office. And very often the older person does find relief in their new practice, even occasionally remaking their life. There are many ways, but they all lead in one direction.

It is, thus, not hard to account for the success of gurus. Tradition is the awesome strength they have behind them, and usually, the traditions themselves are old and proven. So, the guru takes on the coloration of the discipline, whether they have personally succeeded in it or not. As in every walk of life, we often have bogus salesmen successfully selling authentic merchandise.

Perhaps the most publicized guru to come to America is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, teaching Transcendental Meditation (TM). It is unclear how he received the title Maharishi, as Mahesh was his family name. Actually, in India, the term Maha Rishi (Great Sage) might be taken as referring to Yogi Vasistha of antiquity, the teacher of the Avatar Rama (teacher of an incarnation of God), or to present-day Ramana Maharshi, the great Advaitist of Southern India. No one in India would dispute his right to this most prestigious appellation.

Maharishi’s Guru Dev, his beloved teacher, was Shankaracharya (almost a Pope-like title greatly respected by Indians of all faiths) of Northern India. Maharishi, upon his master’s death, was not chosen to be his successor and subsequently went out on his own, heading west unheralded, without followers, and devoid of financial means. His mission was to spread the teaching of the meditation known as manasika japa in India to ten percent of the people of the world, a most ambitious project.

Sathya Sai Baba of India has been quoted as calling Maharishi “the $50 Yogi” and saying “that Mahesh fellow has set true Yoga back 100 years in America.” The original notoriety concerning the Beatles and various actors and actresses attracted quite a few people who had an affinity with notoriety, and probably repelled many more who did not look at Yoga (the Science of Divine Union) as part of show business.

For a long time after the inevitable defection of the Beatles, Maharishi was looked upon as a comic figure, riding in a Rolls Royce, sojourning only with the famous, and selling meditation with a giggle on television whenever the opportunity presented itself. This unfortunate turn was more the result of inappropriate advice than the fault of the teacher. In 1962, when plans were being made to raise money by approaching “important people” (as though anyone was unimportant), this writer stood up in a public meeting and suggested that “You had better examine your motives first.” The reception was mixed at best.

My own feeling, from having spent a good deal of time with Maharishi in the early years, is that he is a genuinely enlightened teacher. His verbosity perhaps turns off many who listen to hours of repetitive talk, some wanting a more succinct and disciplined approach. (This was the reaction of a great Chinese teacher I took to hear him.) But I believe Maharishi has a legitimate, well-defined mission in the world. While it now seems hardly likely he will bring ten percent of the world’s population to Transcendental Meditation, I do feel he has imbedded the possibility of meditating in the consciousness of many. And what he is teaching is very valid, though somewhat incomplete (from a Yogic standpoint) in its present form.

Unlike the true Zen master, who aims to bring complete enlightenment to a few, Maharishi’s mission seems to be to start much of the suffering humanity on the road to spiritual progress, through meditation, so that in some future life they will take up the task and progress further along the way to self-realization. This is a laudable aim, to make a beginning with many rather than bringing a few to fruition.

If it had not been for the ill-conceived publicity and misguided advice, Maharishi might have progressed more rapidly toward his goal. Instead of small groups of followers here and there, there might have been a mass movement toward meditation in many parts of the world.

Nevertheless, progress is being made, particularly in universities. It is true that there are grave questions about selling a mantra (a name of God) and about initiation and profit-sharing by traveling instructors who are not enlightened teachers. (Often, they fail to check meditations after the money has been paid and initiation given, resulting in some initiates having had bad experiences with no one to help them.) The logical response would be that it is necessary to reach a far wider worldwide group than Maharishi could personally do. Perhaps this is somewhat analogous to Jesus sending out his disciples on their ministry of healing. Time will tell.

It is my personal feeling that Maharishi really wants nothing for himself — neither personal aggrandizement nor riches. So, while we may quarrel with the method (in spiritual exercises the means is the end, and the wrong means to an end is not permissible), Maharishi’s purpose and the practice he is offering are both laudable.

Other gurus, some admirable and some looking for fame and fortune, will continue to turn up in the future. And along with some foreign church teachings infiltrating America, they probably represent a turn away from stifling materialism. Those who come from India will all be called swami, despite the fact that only an initiate into the order of sanyasi is truly a swami. It is not merely a term of respect. A sanyasi is a renunciate, one who has forsaken home, family, and financial means. So, when we hear of a teacher who is accumulating presents, buying cars and planes, and living in luxurious homes, called swami, it is ludicrous.

Almost all great teachers in India’s long history have been renunciates, usually wandering mendicants. The Buddha, who was a prince of a kingdom in Northeast India, left his family and inheritance to become a wandering ascetic, almost starving to death on the way to his enlightenment. Neither Yogi Vasistha, Ramana Maharshi, Sankara, nor Ramakrishna was a householder. The idea of a rich sanyasi, or of a perfect master rolling in wealth (and perhaps suffering from the psychosomatic disorders that go with it) is unthinkable to the Indian — but apparently not to the seeking public in the U.S. “The son of God hath not where to lay his head” has made little impression on the laity or the custom-tailored clergy.

Most of the abuse in the guru business has come from India, or from those who have changed their names and become pseudo-Indian teachers. This is only natural, as the Indian practices are far more esoteric than those of China and Japan.

There has been a macrobiotic diet from Japan, with its reliance on the wondrous powers of genmai brown rice. I knew and liked George Ohsawa, the founder of macrobiotics, though I do not feel that he believed all he claimed. For instance, he said that he could teach anyone to speak Japanese (a most difficult language) in four hours. He also said he could cure leprosy by removing sugar from the diet and claimed to have done so during a stay with Schweitzer in Africa. Such fantastic claims are easy to make if we don’t have to substantiate them. What is strange? There are people ready to believe them. When the kind head of the American contingent died at an early age, this posed a thorny problem solved by saying that he would have died earlier if he hadn’t lived on the macrobiotic diet.

Nonetheless, Ohsawa was a magnetic person with some interest in Chinese Taoist beliefs (not well understood in Japan). He adapted the yin-yang principle to the theory of eating and persuaded an Irish chemist to come to Japan to find out what actually happened when certain foods were ingested (perhaps indicating that Ohsawa also had doubts). Results were inconclusive before the chemist went away.

Nobody would argue with the principle of simple eating, but I have seen young Americans try the extreme diet (eating nothing but brown rice) and lose twenty or thirty pounds in a month and become glassy-eyed and almost incoherent. Reluctantly, we might have to conclude that dietary fads fit into our description of the guru business.

There have been many highly respected teachers from Asia who have visited this country, such as Charan Singh and Ramamurti Mishra. And I fail to see how they materially profited from their visits. It is not so much what a master teaches that affects us as what he is. This might be a point of guidance for those caught up in the vortex of guru claims.

Zen, by its iconoclastic nature — no worship, no foot kissing, nothing but a painful facing of the self — does not lend itself to exploitation. It is a difficult discipline, concerned with ultimates. And it demands long hours of silent, painful sitting instead of metaphysical fireworks.

True Zen study requires close and continuous contact with the teacher — the master’s role cannot be delegated to others so as to spread the teaching more widely. Nevertheless, we have had the phenomena of those who have never practiced, writing books explaining the satori experience, interpreting koans (Zen problems), introducing the meaning of Zen to eager newcomers, and forming Buddhist societies in well-meaning but misleading gestures.

A great Zen teacher once asked me to write a book refuting the work of the most conspicuous of the Zen imitators, a task I quickly turned down. These writers, who often sell well (people mistake glibness for profundity) have usually read books by the respected D.T. Suzuki (who was himself a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, not a Zenist) and have paraphrased them into near-best sellers. Most people would prefer to read clever books about Zen rather than the few works that stem from the Zen experience itself. For very good reason. The pseudo-works are more logical, better written, and highly conceptual, so more satisfying to the lukewarm reader, the one reluctant to get his own feet wet. It must be remembered that a roshi — a true Zen master — is a spiritual descendant of the Buddha himself, having participated in the direct transmission and not merely one who happens to be bright or number one in some group.

Two authentic Zen masters who came to this country and stayed to offer traditional training — Roshi Shunryu Suzuki and Rinzai Master Joshu Sasaki — cannot be included in the guru parade. Roshi Suzuki worked quietly and without obvious reward to establish the Zen Center in San Francisco and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, near Monterey, both unusual projects at the time they were begun.

He was a lovely man, with a warm, sympathetic presence, and yet there was an element of steel in his makeup, apparent to anyone who met him. We can use more such invaders. One time, when I remarked that I had better leave Tassajara before the sun went down to begin the tortuous ride home in my old car, he merely commented that “the moon gives light, too.”

My teacher, Roshi Joshu Sasaki, is a lion who gives of himself profusely. I see no way in which he has profited from his efforts, nor does he seem interested in converting others to Buddhism. His frequent trips to Catholic monasteries and other Christian retreats, to bring the seven-day meditation known as sesshin to the sincere seekers there, find him putting on the habit of the order he is visiting, blending in with the background. One story might illustrate this non-assertiveness, the willingness to help and to save without making any demands, except that the student tries to manifest his own nature.

I had been living at Roshi’s zendo, following the life of the monks while also working in the outside world. A young Zen student, about nineteen years old, had come to Roshi direct from college and was maturing rapidly in the demanding spiritual atmosphere of the zendo. His parents, probably regretting his defection from school, came to visit him before leaving for a foreign country to set up a library for the American government. It seemed to be a rather glamorous assignment, and one could detect that they would like their son to leave the religious life and go with them. It undoubtedly promised to be a broadening experience for a young man.

The matter was discussed around a large table, with a translator, Roshi, and myself complementing the earnest parents and their son. At no time during the long interview did Roshi interfere as the parents tried to persuade the son to leave with them. He could easily have reassured them with: “Your son is a fine boy. Leave him with me a few years and you’ll see great results.” Roshi offered no easy way. Only his dynamic presence was felt during the interview and, finally, when the parents indicated it was time to leave and looked to their son for an answer, the latter merely said, “I think I’ll stay here with Roshi.”

I have never heard Roshi cajole anybody. He tells it like it is, even when this means pulling the rug out from under someone. Strict compassion might be the best description of his efforts.

So there seems to be no way Roshi can personally profit from the strenuous efforts slowly draining his strength. (He is a strong man.) Those who want to be fooled for their own good and remain in the realms of illusion should not come to such a teacher. They would be better off with one of the kindly gurus. I have often heard Roshi say, “Outside, you are a social human being, but here you must see with religious eyes.” The traditional master’s stick pounding the ground emphasizes such points, and it can bring terror to the faint-hearted. We are richer for such teachers, the more the better.

Have I been too harsh on the parade of the gurus? I hope not because I feel it is well worth exploring by the many to receive the teaching — and inspiration — of the few. The 1970s were a time of spiritual renaissance in this country, and we can certainly profit by the ancient wisdom. So, welcome guru. If you profit unduly from your missionary work, that is a matter between you and your conscience. In the meantime, I bring my palms together, bow, and welcome you with “Peace to all beings.”

This article is published in Abandon Hope

Published On: March 1st, 2023Categories: Abandon Hope

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