copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 2 (The sources of justified belief in Buddhism) part d

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The trouble with gurus


An important part of the entire Buddhist tradition is the high status and authority given to teachers as sources of knowledge. In Tibetan Buddhism, particularly, the guru is venerated and can be an object of devotion in himself, standing in for the Buddha. The Protestant tradition of egalitarianism, the number of guru scare stories surrounding Indian gurus who have abused their power, and the monotheist suspicion of idol worship all perhaps combine to sometimes make Western Buddhists especially defensive about this aspect of their tradition. However, the fact that it may have been misunderstood and that many negative non-Buddhist reactions to it are unreflective are no reason for not making a more balanced critical appraisal of it.


The strength of the guru tradition is the power of the personal. Instead of a distant revelation from a Buddha figure, Tibetan Buddhists are more likely to venerate a living person who, for them, embodies spiritual qualities. This teacher can instruct them in a way that is geared specifically to their needs, and provide a strong model and example in practice. In this way a sense of a personís virtues and trustworthiness can be genuinely based on experience.


However, the role of guru goes beyond that merely of teacher or of role model. The guru is given superior social status, for example by sitting on a throne whilst teaching. Disciples are encouraged to cultivate gratitude to the guru. Traditionally, the guru is given the absolute role of the Buddha, representing the enlightened perspective. The only way the disciple can get out of his/her ignorance is by absolute adherence to the instructions of the guru. The guru is also revered in his absence: his photograph may be put on a shrine, his image may be visualised in meditation and prostrated before, and he may even have his own mantra chanted in his honour.


This goes much further than a relationship of trust built up through experience. Not only may the guru in practice actually be quite a distant figure, revered by the disciple rather than personally known, but this human figure is also given a metaphysical attachment: the absolute revelatory status of the Buddha.


Scare stories about the misdeeds of gurus, particularly financial and sexual, should not really be needed to alert us to the fact that gurus are human and fallible. Nevertheless, disciples who believe that they have found a crucial figure who will help them reach enlightenment are not likely to be in the kind of mood to learn from history. They may say that the figure of the guru simply represents what is highest and best in themselves, and that revering the guru simply helps to bring this out. In order to do this, however, they have to idealise a living, fallible person. There is a subtle line to be crossed somewhere between being inspired by a person whom one knows personally, and worshipping a person whom one either does not know personally, or idealises, or both. The former might help one follow the Middle Way by providing a source of challenging friendship and objective guidance, but the latter is much more likely to lead one away from it, by feeding delusions about the guru and by forestalling any of the critical perspective that is needed to help one develop a more objective response to his words.


Unfortunately Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, frequently crosses that subtle line, and explicitly encourages the idealisation of the guru, for example through teaching the practice of guru yoga, where a lineage of gurus is visualised. To deliberately idealise the guru and yet not expect any confusion between the idealisation and the flawed person is to overestimate human rationality. If other Buddhist practices aim to positively recondition the human mind, for example into a positive emotional response towards a former enemy, why should a regular practice of idealising a person not condition the mind into an idealised response to them face-to-face?


One does not need a knee-jerk Western egalitarianism, or an irrational Protestant fear of idol worship, to disapprove of the guru tradition as it has developed in Buddhism. As often, here, the Buddhist tradition has taken something insightful (a powerful appreciation of the personal role of the spiritual teacher) and betrayed those insights by imposing metaphysical assumptions on them. Again, the difficulties emerge when Buddhism does not actually base its knowledge on experience. When the guru becomes an absolute source of knowledge, whether due to his traditional role or due to his personal charisma, oneís own experience is deliberately set aside, and abrogated if it conflicts with the guruís instructions. Forgetting that the guruís instructions are still interpreted through oneís own experience, and that one needs to build up oneís own sustainable picture rather than imposing an unsustainable higher command on oneself, the disciple fails to gain the objectivity that he/she could have gained with a more circumspect and less idealised approach to the guru.


If that is not enough, one should also consider the effects on the guru himself. Even a guru who starts off sincere and modest, when subjected to endless idealisation and veneration, never challenged and treated as an infallible fount of authority, is likely to end up with an inflated idea of himself. It is not good for anyone, and certainly not good for the objectivity of the guru (or of those he teaches) to be treated like that. Again, it would be odd for Buddhists to expect that positive conditioning works on people but negative does not, or that gurus are not as subject to conditioning as other people, however many spiritual strengths they may begin with.


Continue to next section of chapter 2: 'The trouble with scriptures'

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