"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without." ~ Buddha
Discipleship When the Guru Has Gone
Posted on August 1, 2012
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about my teachers. All of them….from my parents, to my monastic teachers, yoga teachers, people I encounter in life who may challenge me……they are all teachers but I have a select few who are or have been guru for me on my path. It’s an interesting thought and a unique journey to find someone you trust so implicitly, you are willing to bow at their feet.
An ancient axiom holds that when the disciple is ready, the guru will appear. Much less is said about what happens when the guru disappears…..and for this, disciples are rarely ready. It is often a more traumatic event than the death of a parent or spouse or child, because the relationship between disciple and guru is of a different nature than relationships with parents, lovers, friends, or one’s own children. While all these relationships can involve deep and selfless love, the love of the guru (in both the genitive and objective sense) becomes the lens through which the disciple understands the self, the other, and the world. And at least initially, the locus of this love is the bodily presence of the guru.
The guru not only shows the way, but is that very way. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” is how Jesus’ disciples remembered him. Abhishikt nanda, a modern Roman Catholic monk initiated into Indian advaita by his guru, Gnanananda, writes that “Guru and disciple form a dyad, a pair, whose two components call for each other and belong together. No more than the two poles (of a magnet) can they exist without being related to each other. On the way towards unity they are a dyad. In the ultimate realization they are a nondual reciprocity.”
What happens, then, when the guru dies or goes away or has decided to move on? How do disciples cope with the absence of the one whose living and loving presence has opened for them the door to their own heart, the one through whom all reality has been filtered, and their own self understood? The disciples of Jesus, Palestinian Jews living at the beginning of the Common Era, and the disciples of the Indian Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, Indians and Americans in 1970s India, were both forced to negotiate the absence of the guru. These two groups of devotees, separated by almost 2,000 years and more than 2,500 miles, inhabited very different cultures. They told stories about their gurus that help us understand the evolving meaning of the body of the guru…..both in its presence and its absence.
In looking at what devotees chose to recount we come to see what the disciple community finds destabilizing in the guru’s physical/emotional absence as well as how that absence can be transcended; how the pain of loss of the “non-dual reciprocity” of guru and disciple is eventually transcended through a new understanding of the body of the guru.
Gospel scholars talk about the “messianic secret” that describes how Jesus in the Gospels tells his disciples not to talk about his deeds of power or identity as the Christ, but to keep these things silent. Scholars often interpret this “secret” as a literary device (especially in Mark) employed to explain why, if Jesus was working all the wonders reported in the narrative, all of Israel did not come to believe in him, or at least know of him in his lifetime.
In collecting the early stories of Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass encountered a modern corollary of the messianic secret. He writes that it took a number of years for Neem Karoli Baba’s Indian disciples to openly share their stories of Maharajji (as Neem Karoli Baba was known) due to his own directive that he should not be spoken about to others. There are stories of Maharajji ordering the burning of a collection of stories about him and of his tearing up a manuscript of an article on him. Neem Karoli, much like Jesus, ordered those who witnessed miracles effected by or through him never to speak of them. In the case of Neem Karoli Baba, this reticence is certainly not a literary device. Can it be that for Jesus, too, the “messianic secret” was real…..and not a device of the Gospel authors?
We have similar instances of both teachers rebuking those who would compliment or draw attention to them. When his contemporary, Deoria Baba, said that Neem Karoli was an incarnation of love, Maharajji responded, “Why, that wicked man! What does he know? Who does he think he is?” Jesus, when called “good teacher” by an inquiring outsider, answered, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Both of them were opposed to having their deeds recorded, and yet their disciples felt the need to do so when they were gone.
Both Maharajji and Jesus often complained that their disciples did not truly understand their message, or even who they were. Yet, in spite of the guru’s admonitions, the community of disciples feels responsible for interpreting him to one another after his disappearance, and for preserving/creating a body of material through which the guru will become known by others. The gathering together of such stories offers those who experienced them a way to process the events of the past and gives new generations the possibility of experiencing an awakening similar to that of those who lived in the presence of the guru. In theological language this is called anamnesis, a remembering that makes real in the present the being or event that is being recalled. Anamnesis is one attempt at making the disappeared body of the guru present again.
The study of what is remembered and later written about the guru’s presence and body helps us map the development undergone by “abandoned” disciples. Several themes come strongly forward if we consider the remembrances by their disciples of both Jesus and Neem Karoli Baba: themes of sacredness, fluidity, and identification.
The body of the guru is an object of veneration. In Eastern cultures, this is often localized at the feet; feet are where we connect with the earth, and feet are always in need of care and cleaning in bare-footed or sandaled cultures. The “lotus feet” of the guru mark where “heaven” (the guru’s body) meets the earth. Disciples of Neem Karoli Baba recall vying with one another to rub their guru’s feet, an experience of communing with the Divine. Even the bare touch of the body of the guru can bring about lasting effects. When such a revered guru’s body is no longer tangible, remembrances can continue to fortify the community of disciples because it remains a source of healing.
In addition to a vessel of healing, the body of the guru is also remembered as a source of profound and dramatic theophany. These remembrances can sharpen the pain of absence. And if what was offered and available through the body of the guru were only and finally bound to that body, there would be nothing but grief upon his or her departure or death. A true anamnetic event would not be possible. Instead, however, the body of the guru becomes fluid and not bound even to itself.
The absent body of the guru is not only sacred, but is also remembered as fluid. The dissolution/disappearance of the body of the guru creates an opportunity. It allows what was earlier channeled through the sacred body to be present elsewhere and everywhere, offering accessible power to the abandoned disciple. The guru’s body becomes remembered as being unbound by space and time.
Such fluidity of form carries the promise that any body could potentially be utilized by the guru. And with the promise of an unexpected encounter comes a moral challenge as well: If all bodies could potentially be the guru, all bodies must be treated with the reverence one has lovingly lavished upon the guru. Maharajji enjoined his disciples to “Treat every being that you come across as if it were me…..it may well be.”
The absence of the guru’s body initially catapults the community of disciples into the unknown. The body through which they have come to experience the Divine, and by which they have been magnetically drawn together, is at some point withdrawn through death or absence. This withdrawal represents a crisis. Yet this crisis has a resolution. Anamnesis, only necessary when the guru’s body is no longer present, allows for a growth in their understanding of that body. From “sacred space” to “fluid reality,” the body of the guru eventually comes to be understood as present within the body of the disciple or among the gathering of disciples. Neem Karoli Baba, asked his devotees to “Keep me in your heart.”
This experience of identification or interpenetration, of knowing the guru’s body to reside within oneself, is the final healing of the wound of the bodily absence of the guru: the “non-dual reciprocity” can be fully alive within a single heart. Kirtan chanting is a good example often used by Maharajji’s disciples to facilitate this experience.
So this brings me back to my original thoughts….those of my teachers and gurus…..I often wonder my path without them. The loss, confusion, and grief experienced by devotees when the guru disappears is perhaps a necessary part of the path of discipleship; if the guru were present always, the non-ultimate duality of guru-and-disciple would never need to be transcended; only in the pain of the guru’s absence is the community of disciples forced to work toward identification and interpenetration through anamnesis. The power of the guru’s body in life is mirrored by the depth of initial despair at the loss of that sacred body. Continued reflection by the community of devotees brings remembrances of the sacred and fluid nature of the guru’s body. Finally, the discovery of the guru present in the heart of the devotee brings the indivisible dyad into a single non-dual reality. The “otherness” of the guru, necessary at first for the love and play between guru and disciple, the “otherness” that can cause such despair in the devotee upon the death or disappearance of the guru, is eventually transcended because we eventually learn that the true guru always resides within our own heart.