The Zoo Fence
a commentary on the spiritual life

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Guru Who?
The Righteous Teacher
Do we need a Guru?
If so, Who? How?

One of the most important, and probably among the first issues every spiritual seeker will consider, concerns the need for a teacher or a guru. Do we need one? If so, how do we find one? And, once found, how will we recognize him or her? And if we do not need one, does that mean we must proceed alone, without guidance or encouragement?

Unfortunately, or perhaps happily, this is a question upon which there is available an incalculable wealth of conflicting advice. One might think that over the countless thousands of years during which the millions, now billions, of us have been struggling through endless deserts and up countless mountains, real and metaphorical, in search of the elusive burning bush, there would have evolved a simple, single, universal answer to the obvious question, What’s the best way to do this? Instead, there are, it seems, as many best ways as there are those who have accomplished it, and likewise, the question whether we need to be led or whether we need to find our own way, is just as slippery.

Perhaps no Teacher has spoken more forcefully to this point than Jiddu Krishnamurti. Throughout his life, Krishnamurti argued repeatedly and, for many, convincingly, against the traditional guru-disciple relationship, and indeed, against all relationships in which one abandons his or her authority to an other, be it another person, a church, a group, or even simply an idea. “All gurus are phony,” he insisted, whoever and wherever they are, whatever their religion or culture or nationality, and regardless of whether they are people or belief systems or institutions; therefore, “distrust them, because it is you yourself who have to find out [the Truth], not according to somebody else.”

In 1929 at Ommen, Holland, in what is surely his best known talk, and in which he rejected the status of World Teacher, or superguru, during the very ceremony in which he was to have been so elevated, Krishnamurti said, “I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect … You think and hope that another [person] can, by his extraordinary power – a miracle – transport you to this realm of eternal freedom which is Happiness,” but no such thing is possible. Indeed, accepting as our own someone else’s definition or experience of Truth, or someone else’s determination of how to find it, however valid, even divine, their position may seem to be, can be no more liberating than a photograph of an apple is nourishing. We must find it, and ingest it, ourselves, firsthand and on our own, if it is to be truly enlightening and not merely informing. At least, so teaches Krishnamurti.

But then, consider Da Free John (please see note), as articulate a Teacher as has ever walked among us, who argues just as forcefully, just as convincingly, and with the same undeniable conviction of one who has been there himself, that the traditional guru-disciple relationship is not only valid, but it is the only vehicle in which to reach Self-Realization, and that those who seek to accomplish it on their own mislead themselves grievously. Only by entering into a genuine and living relationship with a guru, one who is himself or herself a Realizer, to use Da Free John’s term, and ultimately surrendering to him or her, can we hope to transcend the phenomenon which we call ourselves, the limited and limiting egoic personality, which is itself the obstacle to Realization, the very thing which blinds us from seeing What Is. In sum, trusting in ourselves to discover and traverse the path to Truth is akin to asking the fox to design a security system for a henhouse, or in a metaphor perhaps more apt, to asking Hamlet to rewrite the play.

So, on the one hand, we have Kirshnamurti, and the many others who argue like him, saying, “No, absolutely,” and on the other, we have Da Free John, and the equally many others who argue like him, saying, “Yes, absolutely.” Is it possible to resolve the difference between these two positions, both of which seem to make such good sense but which seem to be so hopelessly at odds? In fact, it is not only possible, but inevitable that they should be reconciled, if we will but remember the True Nature of the Universe.

Thus, consider these words of still another Teacher, Sri Ramakrishna. To the question, “Is spiritual knowledge impossible without a guru?” Ramakrishna responded, “God alone is the Guru. If a man [or a woman] in the form of a guru awakens spiritual consciousness in you, then know for certain that it is God the Absolute who has assumed that human form for your sake.” And, again, on another occasion, speaking to a disciple who reported that the Teacher had appeared to him in his dreams, Ramakrishna said, “If you ever see me instructing you, then know that it is God Himself that does so.”

Now, the word which Ramakrishna used to identify the Guru in both of those quotations was not God but Satchidananda, a Sanskrit term which is usually translated into English as Existence-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute, the very Nature of Being, or Ultimate Reality. (Another rendition of Satchidananda that we like is, The Absolute Bliss of Consciousness Being.) We may choose to use the English word God to translate Satchidananda if we like, and many do, but the trouble with the word God is that for most of us it signifies an other, suggesting an environment of two entities, God and us, Creator and creation, while the word Satchidananda presumes a reality of only one, the One and Only Indivisible Unity which is all there is, and which includes ourselves, and other than which there is nothing.

The distinction between the words God and something like Satchidananda is more than just a matter of semantics or language, for whichever we choose to use, and how we choose to use it, tells a lot about what we consider to be our nature and the nature of the Universe. If we recognize, even if only conceptually, that there is only One Thing in the Universe, or only One Thing being the Universe, or appearing as the Universe, call it Satchidananda or by any other name, then we will eventually come to recognize that everything we perceive in or as our lives, including ourselves, is that One Thing. And, of course, we will more likely be open to someone like Ramakrishna when he tells us that that One Thing (which, of course, is not really a “thing” at all) will manifest or appear in our lives as a Teacher when, how, and where it is appropriate that it should do so. And here it bears mention that the perception of God as the true Teacher or Guru is not limited to Ramakrishna as a Teacher or to Hinduism as a tradition. In Islam, for example, one of Allah’s most beautiful names is Ar-Rashid, or the Righteous Teacher, who is “the ultimate teacher who leads one to the straight path and salvation.” Similarly, in the Old Testament we read, “Your children will all be instructed by the Lord,” (Isaiah 54.13 REB) a promise which Jesus (Issa) repeated in his time (John 6.45).

Thus, God is the Teacher, who may appear to some in the form of a specific man or woman, perhaps living and in the flesh, or perhaps as an historical personality, or even a metaphorical figure, but in any case a specifically identifiable guru with whom we may establish a clearly defined master-devotee, teacher-disciple relationship in the traditional sense; while for others, God as Teacher may manifest as an inner determination and aspiration, a driving, relentless, evidently self-generating force which preempts and informs our lives, and keeps us thoroughly committed to the process and fundamentally honest to the purpose. In either case, in every case (and there will be as many, with as many permutations, as there are us), and whatever the circumstances or the appearances, the Guru is always and will always be the very same Satchidananda, or God.

So, both Krishnamurti and Da Free John are right, and do not in Truth contradict one another. Indeed, extraordinary as it may sound, each is saying exactly the same thing to us. And we will know we have glimpsed the Truth when we are able to hear them speaking in harmony. In effect, the question “Do we need a teacher?” is moot. We will have one, we already have one, whether we want one or not, and he or she or it (however “It” may appear to us at any given moment) will be and always is the Infinite One which is God.

”When the student is ready,” an ancient wisdom offers, “the Teacher will appear.” In this context, what that seems to mean is not so much that at some appropriate time we can expect a teacher to drive up to the house in a minivan, although do not for an instant discount the possibility of that occurring, but that at the appropriate time (when we “are ready”), we will recognize our lives or some aspect or element of our lives or some person in our lives, as the Teacher. He or she or it may have been there before, certainly our lives have always been there!, but because we were not ready to see it, we did not notice. Now we will, and it will be wonderful, and neither we nor our lives will ever be the same again.

How will we know that this one, whoever or whatever it is, is our Teacher? “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7.16 RSV) Precisely so, we measure them by their fruit, which in this instance is us. If we come upon some one (or some thing) which seems to be a Teacher to us, we must observe his or her effect on us, the change in ourselves, what we experience in his or her presence, how we feel on hearing or reading his or her voice, on visualizing or otherwise considering him or her. Here, the question is not so much how he or she may behave or perform or dress, or to what religion, if any, he or she may subscribe, although all of that may enter into the equation, at least initially, but rather, what does being with him or her, or reflecting upon him or her, do to us? Every True Teacher who has seen the Truth, who is a Realizer, knows that he or she is the One and that you and I and everything else are the very same One. Therefore, when he or she looks upon us, he or she sees not the limited, separate, frightened, lonely self which we see when we look into the mirror, but the One Itself, Eternally and Priorly Free and Happy and Infinite. And when we are in the presence of such a one, and we are looked upon in such a way, something within us, our True Identity, awakens and stirs, and we feel it. This is why it is said in some traditions that no more than a look from one of these is sufficient! In the final analysis, the only real function of a Teacher is to awaken us to Who or What we already are by seeing us as That with such determination and consistency that we come to look at ourselves similarly and then to see ourselves likewise.

Now, despite the way it was written, do not let the preceding paragraph get away with implying that it is necessary to be in the physical presence of a living human being in order to receive the gift of Awakening from the Teacher. The very same phenomenon can and does occur regardless of the form or formlessness Satchidananda chooses to take. It might very well be as a person in the flesh, so to speak, but it might also be as a book, or a statue, or a chant, or an image. Or an event. Or a dream. Or an angel. Or a combination of these and untold others. Remember, to an Infinite God, the possibilities are infinite; let us not make the mistake of limiting God even as we have limited ourselves.

So, once again, the issue is not whether we have a teacher, or even who or what our teacher is, for all of that is apparently determined for us by God, or Satchidananda. Rather, the issue is, how are we relating to the Teacher that is already, and is always, before us. Because if you think it through, what Ramakrishna’s response, “Satchidananda alone is the Guru,” really means is that the entire Universe is an Ashram, a sacred environment or community, in which the Guru or Teacher is everyone and everything everywhere, constantly appearing to each of us, perfectly manifesting precisely according to our needs of the moment.

In a word, as we said earlier, our lives are our Teacher. And yet, most of us treat our lives abominably, as if they were the enemy. “I hate my life,” we say, as we struggle endlessly against whatever unfolds, constantly envying others what seem to be their more perfect lives. But if we cannot relate to our lives, by which is meant be open to them, and willing to learn from them, and to trust them regardless of how they unfold, and to stop resisting them, then we cannot relate properly to anyone or anything, much less to God. It is not enough to protest “I love God” so long as there remains anything we hate, for God, being Infinite, is everything. Remember, it is inescapably true that if we hate anything, we are hating God. Sobering thought, and precisely the lesson our lives are intended to teach us. And our lives will continue to be there, right in front of our noses, day and night, until we learn it, if not in this reality, then in another, here and now or later wherever.

Happily, Satchidananda is a very persistent Teacher, one that will go to whatever lengths are necessary to get our attention. Also, fortunately, Satchidananda is infinitely graceful and patient and understanding and merciful, and One Who loves us dearly. But for all the Teacher’s persistence, until we are ready to listen, we will not hear. Still, there is no forcing the issue, and no one knows that better than the Teacher. Eventually, each of us will come to that moment in our own way, in our own time, and when we do, we will come across someone or something which awakens within us an extraordinary sense of our True Nature, even if only for a microinstant. Suddenly, unexpectedly, we will Remember. In some otherwise ordinary aspect of our lives, we will recognize the One, and know that It is us, that I Am That. Of course, it will almost certainly not anchor the first time, or perhaps even the thousandth time, but it will change everything. The Teacher will have spoken, and we will have heard. The rest will follow.

(1) Since we originally wrote this article for the hard copy version of The Zoo Fence, we have come across disquieting reports about Da Free John (also known as Adi Da and Franklin Jones) and his community. Here is a link about some of that. A Google search of “Adi Da” and “Adi Da controversies” will yield others. While Da Free John’s books remain a brilliant source of spiritual wisdom, the reported practices and behavior, if true (and we have not seen convincing denials), raise serious doubts about himself. We urge interested readers of this article to consider his writings as well as the reported accusations, and decide for themselves. (Return to TEXT)
(2) Regrettably, the spiritual process is subject to the same human failures that grace all of life. Accordingly, there are — and there have always been — gurus, teachers, leaders, groups, sects, and cults that claim much and offer little. Here, the rule is to ask yourself, what is the effect of the teacher or guru or group on you? If it is not truly uplifting, just simply titillating, and you will know the difference, then walk on.

Ever Aspiring!

Sez who?

Remember Who you are!

Whose Darshan?

Darshan or darsan, sometimes darshana, is a Sanskrit term meaning vision or sight. In many traditions, it is commonly believed that merely being in the presence or view of a holy person or a sacred place confers blessings upon a seeker. But is it the presence, or the seeker’s belief in the presence? That is, is the active ingredient the holy person or site, or is it the aspiration of the seeker?

There was a woman who believed that touching the garment of Issa (Jesus) would heal her of a longtime, discomfiting illness. And so, she overcame her fear and braved the crowds just to come up behind him, and touch. In the report, Issa’s response seems clear: It was neither he nor the garment, but the woman’s faith that healed her. (Mark 5:25)

Or consider this story concerning Sri Ramana Maharshi. Climbing a hill one morning, he was met by a seeker who prostrated himself before the Teacher, then stood up, and said, “All right, I have had darsan.” The Teacher replied, “Whose darsan? Why don’t you say that you gave darsan to me?” [See also here.]


Jesus & A Woman of Canaan (Matthew 15.22)
by Rembrandt
from “Life of Christ” (Nelson)

Let me tell you a story. A disciple was crossing a river when he found he was being swept away by the strong current. Thinking about the omnipotence and divinity of his guru, he repeated the guru’s name several times, and was saved. The next day, he told the guru about his wonderful power and how he had saved his life. The guru was pleased, and went to the river to test his own power for himself. But he did not know how to swim. Finding himself about to be drowned by the strong current, he began to repeat “I,” “I,” but was drowned.

Sri Sarada Devi

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Right is radical.
The teacher must know the truth himself.
He must live it,
or he cannot impart it to others.

Mary Baker Eddy

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I want to tell you, do not accept me as your guru. God is in you. Do not seek a guide or instrument. No mortal being can ever be a guru. All these God-men, all, each and every one are bluff, full of bluff. Their only interest is to collect money and make institutions. God alone is the Guru. Don’t bother running after gurus, yogis or priests. No person can initiate or guide you to God. Look within.


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Samuel Kim
Rooster by Samuel Kim

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Each student must be encouraged to take responsible measures to confront teachers with unethical aspects of their conduct. If the teacher shows no sign of reform, students should not hesitate to publicize any unethical behavior of which there is irrefutable evidence. This should be done irrespective of other beneficial aspects of his or her work and of one’s spiritual commitment to that teacher.

From “An Open Letter of The Network for Western Buddhist Teachers”
(among whom is the Dalai Lama)

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Question: Must I not examine the teacher before I put myself entirely into his hands?
Answer: By all means, examine! But what can you find out? Only as he appears to you on your own level.
Q: I shall watch whether he is consistent, whether there is harmony between his life and his teaching.
A: You may find plenty of disharmony – so what? It proves nothing. Only motives matter. How will you know his motives?
Q: I should at least expect him to be a man of self-control who lives a righteous life.
A: Such you will find many – and of no use to you. A Guru can show the way back home, to your real self. What has this to do with the character or temperament of the person he appears to be? Does he not clearly tell you that he is not the person? The only way you can judge is by the change in yourself when you are in his company. If you feel more at peace and happy, if you understand yourself with more than usual clarity and depth, it means you have met the right man.


Question: Is a Guru inevitable?
Answer: It is like asking ‘Is a mother inevitable? ’ To rise in consciousness from one dimension to another, you need help. The help may not always be in the shape of a human person. It may be a subtle presence, or a spark or intuition, but help must come. The inner Self is watching and waiting for the son to return to his father. At the right time he arranges everything affectionately and effectively. Where a messenger is needed, or a guide, he sends the Guru to do the needful.


The innermost light, shining peacefully and timelessly in the heart, is the real Guru. All others show the way.

Sri Nisargadatta

Going up!

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