Friday, August 30, 2013

Toni Packer's Passing: Her Contribution

Toni Packer passed away a few days ago.  She was an important figure in Westernizing the wisdom we have received from the East.  In 1981, she and a group of others established a meditation center in Springwater, New York, an hour south of Rochester.

Significantly, although Toni's meditation teacher was the director of the Rochester Zen Center, Phillip Kapleau, this new center did not bear the label, "Zen," but was simply called "Springwater Center."  A number of changes from the traditional Zen forms were instituted, the most important of which, from my point of view, was the elimination of hierarchy.  They didn't even use the term "teacher" (although looking now at the Springwater website, I see that they do, probably because, after all, one has to call someone who leads a retreat something, and "facilitator" doesn't quite capture nature of the role).

In 2007 I spent two weeks at Springwater.  My teacher was Adyashanti at the time, and I was not looking for another path, but I was really interested whether and how it might be possible to have a spiritual community based in the Eastern wisdom without hierarchy.  I had a wonderful time there and was pleased with what I saw.  There are regular meetings of all of the residents and decision-making is consensual.  I think this is a model of a good direction for meditation-based spirituality to go in the West. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Central Question of "KUMARE" -- Can an Unrealized "Guru" Lead One to Truth?

I've been meaning to write about the film Kumare but there is so much to explore that I haven't been able to find a focus.  Today, what is coming to me concerns core issue of the film:  whether one needs a guru in seeking Truth.

For those who haven't seen the movie, a brief description:  an American filmmaker with family roots in India decides that he will become a fake guru and see whether he can deceive people into following him.  An East Coast resident, he goes to Arizona, where he is not known, dons robes, a beard, and a fake Indian accent modeled on his grandmother's speech, and invents yoga poses and doctrine.  He does indeed convince quite a lot of people that he is a real guru.

After I saw the film, I watched a couple of interviews with the filmmaker on-line.  He says at one point that he wanted to show people that the truth was in themselves.  I don't know this person, but judging only from the narrative in the film itself, this seems a rationalization to justify, after the fact, his deception.  In the film, his reason is simply that he wants to see if he can get away with it -- if people will be gullible.  He finds that they are.

I may come back another time to the question of whether it can ever be ethically justified to pull this kind of ruse, but I want to focus on something more important here.  I was turned on to this film by someone I met only on-line who said that it was an example of how a fake guru can produce real effects.  I'm glad this person turned me on a fascinating movie, but now that I've seen it, I find that I don't agree with her view.

(Note: A bit of a spoiler is coming here.)  It is true that all of Kumare's main disciples wanted to make changes in their lives, and they first relied on him to help them but most later found that they had the inner strength to pursue these changes without him.  But what kind of changes were they?  All, without exception, were self-improvement projects -- losing weight, dealing with personal difficulties, etc.  They were all within the realm of personality.  And here is the crux of it:  no one who is not awakened can lead someone who is also not awakened to awakening.  There are no exceptions to this that I know of.  Re-arranging the personality has nothing to do with awakening because awakening is seeing that, although the True Self reveals itself through the personality, it is not, in essence, the personality.

It is true, though, is that we are also drawn to teachers who reflect where we ourselves are in our life's journey.  If we choose a teacher -- fake or real -- who is operating at the psychological level, that is because something in us needs to deal with psychological issues before going deeper.  There's nothing wrong with this -- the only error is in assuming that there is something of the nature of absolute truth in it.

The assumption in the end of the film is that, since most of the disciples found what they needed in themselves, they didn't need a teacher in the first place.  This may or may not be true when addressing psychological issues.  But the role of a true guru is not to help one have a better marriage, or address body image issues, or find a satisfying career.  There are lots of experts who do have a role to play in this but their title should not be "spiritual teacher."  A spiritual teacher in the deepest sense is someone who helps us see that we are not simply this temporal being struggling to improve but rather that we are not separate selves at all.  Since there is absolutely nothing in the culture around us to point us back to this truth, a spiritual teacher is often needed to do that.  But s/he has to have realized this before being able to teach it.