In the past, when the topic of spiritual teachers would come up in a conversation, and the person I was speaking with told me their teacher had died long ago but they learned from his or her books, I'd sort of smirk internally. I never really considered a dead teacher a genuine one because I know the mind's tendency to self-deceit: if our guru is only known to us through books, we can easily read anything we want into what he or she says and ignore anything that doesn't suit us. A real guru, in the flesh, on the other hand, can give us the individual attention that points us to the ways we deceive ourselves and defend our ego. How can the ego itself see its own deceptions?
So this is the way I always thought. And now I've had reason to change my mind.
My first spiritual teacher was wonderful but he belonged to a spiritual community I had lived in when I was young that I could not abide. He kept begging me to come back there and I knew I never would. Finally, he cut me off. It was horrible for me -- the worst thing that had ever happened in my life -- and I didn't recover until I met my second teacher sixteen years later. I thought at that time that the problem with my first teacher was resolved and that I could just love him for what he did give me, which was much. Not long after, I learned second hand that he had died, so the possibility of seeing him again in the flesh had vanished.
Recently, I've gone back (psychologically, not actually) to try to resolve my issues with his spiritual community, and found myself thinking about him much more than I expected. In the end, a whole new understanding of what he is to me emerged. In fact, I finally understand why Christ had to die to become the true savior for his disciples.
I suffered a lot from separation from my teacher. When I was with him, it was great, but I wasn't with him often. And recently, I mourned the loss so greatly, mourned especially that I could never share with him what has happened to me since I lost contact with him -- never, because he has left this earth.
And then it shifted one day recently. I saw that the one I loved and believed in was not really the one in the flesh. What I loved of him was beyond flesh, was what he and I both were and are, because it is eternal. He is always with me because spirit doesn't die.