Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Guru Bhakti-Devotion - Revered in the East, Resisted in the West

When I travelled around India during 1996-97, I was amazed at the depth of devotion that the people there have to the different Hindu Gods, i.e., Krishna, Ganesha, etc. This level of devotion was alien to my Western mind. Although I studied and practiced Mahayana Buddhism for almost ten years before my trip to India, my devotion was geared to cognitive interpretation and the mental gymnastics I used to figure out what the Buddhist Sutras meant — particularly the Heart Sutra, the one I spent the most time on.

I trace back this "indoctrination of understanding the mind as being most important tenet in Buddhism" to the first retreat I did. On entering the meditation room, I immediately prostrated myself, which I had always done when I sat down to meditate in front of my own Buddha statue at home. It was only when I looked up that I realized that there was no Buddha statue there. I had prostrated myself out of habit, not out of any genuine devotion, and this was a shocking revelation. Where I had expected a life size statue of the Buddha to be, there was an enormous green flowering plant. Later on, the teacher asked us if we were surprised not to see a statue of the Buddha in a Buddhist meditation room. A few of us nodded our heads.

He went on to explain that meditation is not about worshiping an external symbol but about discovering our own Buddha nature by understanding the nature of mind. That's why there was no Buddha statue there.

In the months and years that followed, this experience had a profound effect on my approach to Buddhism. Knowledge and understanding became much more important than devotion, and yet, whenever I looked at the statue of the Buddha that I had at home, I felt a pull I couldn't describe. I would never have called it devotion, but looking back now I was devoted. And now I see how devotion goes hand in hand with knowledge and understanding. It is a balance to knowledge and understanding. The One without the Other is too one-sided.

In the East, the focus is very much on devotion at the expense of knowledge, discernment, and understanding whilst in the west it is the opposite. Nevertheless, both are one-sided. Devotion is necessary because the ego mind is ready to take any spiritual insight and/or experience and convert it into a ploy for its survival.

Without devotion to a Guru, the ego mind is in charge. This results in students following Gurus who turned out to have feet of clay. How so? These students have no frame of reference outside of their own minds. On the other hand, in those teachers/gurus who have achieved a measure of realization, I have noticed  that devotion to a Guru played a significant part in their process. I am particularly thinking about Mooji's devotion to Papaji, who was a devotee of Ramana Maharshi. I have often written that relying on mind alone, i.e., knowledge and understanding to bring about spiritual awakening is like the thief turning detective to catch itself, the thief. It's never going to happen. Devotion and surrender to a Guru is anathema to the ego mind which is why it is so greatly resisted in the West. In the West, spiritual awakening is all about control and "doing it my way." Relinquishing control to somebody else is the ultimate no-no to the ego mind.

How do I know this? I have seen it in myself. Many years ago, I was a part of a Buddhist group and when its leader turned out to have feet of clay, I vowed to myself that I would never give away my power to anyone which is why I have never formally taken a teacher. Everything I have been graced with up to now has been the result of my own intuition. I have taken courses from Landmark Training and others led by temporary teachers, but have always relied on myself. But I have never been a formal devotee of any teacher, which, for many years, was how I liked it.

Now I am changing. I recognize the all pervasiveness of the ego. As human beings we not only have an ego but we are ego, every thought, feeling, emotion is egoic, and this is hard to accept. This realization has come from deep within me and it has been echoed in the prolific writings of a particular sage who has written that the only way to be free of egoic bondage is to "turn" to him and not to get hung up on trying to understand the contents of the egoic mind. I am now at a stage on this path where this line of thinking makes a lot of sense.

The ego's refusal to die on its own is the reason there's so much emphasis on ego death on the spiritual path. A  sage, like Ramana Maharshi, who put himself through a conscious death, had to surrender to the death process in order for his ego to die and for him to emerge from the ashes of the ego as the Phoenix of Enlightenment — inherently egoless.


  1. If we just expand our view a bit, we can see our real situation. There are 7 billion people on Earth. There are billions of suns amid billions of galaxies. We have no idea where his universe came from or why it is here.

    The mystery of our lives exists within the mystery of the Universe. How can anyone think that they are as a single individual important? Our puny little human mind cannot possibly grasp this world that we live in.

    Yes, the ego mind always seek to see the world with itself at the center. In a subjective sense, fair enough. We only know anything from our own perspective. But the innate humility that comes with seeing the world as it is ought to be enough to overcome egocentricity.

    Only a fool or a crazy person would perpetuate the idea of self-importance after understanding our true role in life. Yet we dance as is our individual mandate - to live our lives as best as possible anyway. It is like Shiva.

    Shiva is the Lord of the Dance, surrounded by a ring of flame, wrapped in serpents and cloth. But look carefully beneath Shiva's foot planted on the earth. It rests on a dwarf on its belly with a dagger in its hand. That dwarf is the ego, and the message is: life can be a dance if we keep the ego underfoot.

  2. Hello Neil, thank you for your comment. You say: ' But the innate humility that comes with seeing the world as it is ought to be enough to overcome egocentricity' - I agree with you that it 'ought' but if you are really honest you would have to admit that it's not. The 'seeing' that you refer to requires that 'something' 'sees' - the ego cannot see itself!, it has no pattern for its own recognition. This is why a Guru is necessary. In the past Gurus have tried to get their devotees to see their egos and they have done this using a variety of methods that has often been called 'crazy wisdom' none have succeeded. All that has resulted in is the Guru in question getting a bad reputation that is never fully redeemed. Einstein said 'that an object will continue moving in the same direction unless another object comes to stop it (it may not be compeletely accurate, but that is the gist of the quote)'. When it comes to the movement of ego, I assert (my experience) that the object that comes to change its direction is the Guru, whether the ego will be subservient to the Guru depends on many factors but without the Guru the journey is a fantasy because that which is doing the seeking i.e. the ego, is the price so why would it have any interest in the spiritual path when it gets beyond a certain point...the point beyond which there is a serious threat to its survival..

    1. Is it not possible to give the same measure of devotion to one's own work as it would be to give it to a guru? Corollary to this: How do you choose a guru? If Gopi Krishna couldn't find one in India, no less, how does the average, or the exceptional, individual find one?

      Instead of endless search outside himself, with little chance of a success, Gopi Krishna's devotion to truth led him to research (in the laboratory of his body), understand, and write about new perspectives on consciousness. Was his work egoic in nature? Did writing and working on his own, without a guru make translate to egoism? When I met him, he seemed to be leading a pretty sane and purposeful life. He inspired thousands to pursue a greater interest in and understanding of higher consciousness.

      Was he striving for "enlightenment?" Battling with his ego? We never discussed it, nor did I ask him about it. He had enough preoccupations, dealing with the triggers and effects for raising and living with Kundalini. Pretty selfless work, if you ask me.

      And by the way, what is enlightenment? Whatever it is, it's a waste of time for me to think or talk about. If it does happen, I will probably recognize it and act accordingly, but to strive for it — to make it my only goal — dilutes my purpose, which is to reflect and act on my own experience..

      Take Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha or Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, two books that chronicle "frontal assaults" on enlightenment. Both are novels. Fiction. Both resonated with the post-WWII generation just beginning to discover Eastern religion and philosophy. Enjoyable reading, but if enlightenment does exist, I think backing into it is more likely than a frontal assault. In other words, if it happens in the course of experience, so be it.

      My personal take: Don't go looking for it. Don't believe it can be transferred by Shaktipat. Don't bounce around from one guru to another. But what do I know; it's all a lot of conjecture. And personal preference. Choices emerging from rationalizations, founded on buried layers of conditioning.

      Did Gopi Krishna spend time examining the reasons behind his choices? Do I? Does anyone? Does Kundalini help in this?

  3. The goal is enlightenment, at least in the Buddhist tradition. Even these conversations are steps on that path. A guru is a step on that path. But no one can be enlightened for you. It is a process that must occur within the self.

    1. "No one can be enlightened for you." Are you saying that no one can enlighten you? That you must do it yourself?

  4. Enlightenment is insight at a profound level, right?. Yes, we are all running on "programs". The foundational software is our basic belief about ourselves and the world. Enlightenment comes when we finally see truth that liberates us. Jesus said, "know the truth and it shall set you free."

    I don't think enlightenment is arrived at through a linear rational approach. It is chaotically indirect, yet perfectly ordered if we were infinitely wise. Zen Buddhism is very directly oriented toward enlightenment, but the ways to become enlightened are innumerable. Old Zen saying," Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water."

    I can't imagine anyone rejecting the idea that enlightenment is a good thing. I could see some not believing in it, or rejecting the whole conceptual context. I don't think it matters how one gets there, guru, painting, listening to music, because the enlightenment itself requires the effort of the individual inside.

    1. As you say, the proper way to approach it is: "Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water."

      With this attitude you can't go wrong: no ego inflation, no "lording it over the monkeys." Gopi Krishna struck me as a "chopping wood and carrying water" type of person. Down to earth.

  5. Consider religious institutions today, so many centuries after they were founded. Christianity went through its Inquisiitons, its manipulation of nations through war and colonialism. Look at what Islam has become, with its interfactious battles and its wars with its neighbors, the skirmishes between Sikhs and Hindus. Look at the leaders, some of them gurus, who encourage adulation under the guise of worshipping the creator through them.

    Without humility, it all means nothing.