A Rare and Precious Thing: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Working with a Spiritual Teacher

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9780307335920: A Rare and Precious Thing: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Working with a Spiritual Teacher

Never have there been so many spiritual seekers and so much readily available information about paths to self-fulfillment. Yet this book is the first in-depth exploration of how to evaluate spiritual teachers, what to expect from them, and what to be wary of, as well as whether it is necessary to study and practice with a guru or possible to achieve the same thing on your own.

John Kain introduces us to teachers (and their students) from a wide range of traditions:

Murat Yagan, a ninety-year-old Circassian teacher of Sufism and Kebzeh in a rural community in British Columbia; Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the nineteenth-generation keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Nation; Joan Chittister, OSB, a sister at a Benedictine monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania, an ardent advocate for peace and justice, a feminist, and a questioner of institutional thinking; Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, enthusiastic teacher of Hasidism, and past holder of the World Wisdom chair at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado; Gehlek Rimpoche, a renegade but beloved Tibetan Buddhist teacher whose aim is to dispense with superficial traditions and integrate the essence of Buddhist teaching into Western culture; Sudha Puri, the American-born head of Ananda Ashram north of Los Angeles and the Vedanta Centre in Massachusetts, in the lineage of the Indian sage Ramakrishna; John Daido Loori, the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in New York’s Catskill Mountains, who is known for using photography and the arts as bridges to awareness; and Adyashanti, a charismatic American teacher in Los Gatos, California, who has broken away from all established traditions.

Woven throughout Kain’s detailed profiles of the teachers themselves is information on finding a teacher, life in a spiritual community, dealing with problems like disillusionment and abuse of power, and the meeting (or lack thereof) between Western psychology and religion.

A teacher's job is not actually to give us anything but to take away the unnecessary baggage we accumulate in our minds that obscures the truth. It is a rare and precious thing to work with someone whose purpose is to cajole us into opening our eyes and experiencing a saner reality. Kain offers would-be pilgrims an inside look at this relationship and what extraordinary things can result from it.

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About the Author:

John Kain has been associate publisher of Tricycle magazine and his articles on Buddhist teachers and teachings as well as his poetry have appeared in Tricycle, Shambhala Sun, Yoga Journal, and Terra Nova and on Beliefnet.com. This is his first nonfiction book. He lives in Ashland, Oregon.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

RETURNING TO THE CIRCLE

You have noticed that everything an Indian does  is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the  World always works in circles, and everything tries  to be round.1 —Black Elk
There are an infinite number of reasons for wanting a spiritual teacher, some as clear as an alpine stream, others as blurred and haunting as an inscription on an ancient tombstone. We might come to our desire through suffering—the piercing loss of a loved one, or the all-too-pervasive sense of numbing isolation in the modern world, for instance. Perhaps, though, we’ve experienced ecstatic and fleeting moments of insight, where in a quick flash we see it, the extraordinary beauty of the world, the absolute miracle in the most daily occurrence—Haze breaking over fir and bamboo, / Clears and concentrates / The mind and spirit, said the Chinese poet Chien Chang.2 In the first circumstance we want a teacher to show us the way out, in the second the way back in. Underlying both is a yearning for the clarification of who we really are and the palpable ache for connection, for contact, for merging. We, in our secular consumer society (having divorced ourselves from wildness), have lost touch with the ancient but living tissue that connects us to the mystery of creation.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James surmised, by way of his examination of a multiplex of experiences (the first study of its kind, published in 1902, and still a classic), “that the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance; that union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end; that prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof—be that spirit ‘God’ or ‘law’—is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.”3 James’s statements, though a tad starched for modern ears, are still valid, not so much for what they say—you can find the same themes in any number of popular magazines—but for the emphasis of his study. The true radicalism of James (at least to the Western world of the day) was his recognition of personal spiritual awakening as the nadir of religiosity—beyond ritual, beyond tradition, beyond race or standing or “expertise.” We didn’t need an intermediary, James proclaimed.
His assertion was nothing new: the mystics had been saying such things for thousands of years, be they from East or West or from the luminous circles of indigenous tribes. Yet James was offering a broader invitation to the Western public. It was the beginning of the paradigm shift that melded the external with the internal, science with religion. Solitude, and by this I do not mean being alone but that primary place in each of us where we meet spirit, was for James the truest state. The spiritual teacher-student relationship is of this realm, a primary connection nourished in intimacy, which is at once most private and most universal.
This relationship, however, presents its own set of problems. If the visible world is indeed a part of a more spiritual universe, then we are all, in every second of existence, swimming in spirit. Unfortunately (and this is the devil’s bargain), we’ve entered a truncated dreamscape of division and separation, believing, more often than not, that God, spirit, presence, or whatever you want to call it, is over there and we are over here. Spiritual teachers and many non-teachers alike have simply seen through, or at least glimpsed, this dream loop and do not take it at collective face value. How, then, do you teach a person to swim when that person is already swimming? Animals know what to do; a loon sings its loon song. How do you teach a human how to be human?
In simple terms, no one can teach us these things. It’s impossible, and all of the “teachers” in this book add a disclaimer to that title. But “keepers,” “guides,” “whistleblowers,” “friends,” as they call themselves, can model for us a saner and more connected way to be. Each teacher in these pages believes in the direct connection with spirit: they feel it; they carry forward (and back) the mystical path. “Authority” and “obedience” are not simply external abstractions, but palpable connections and a balance between inside and out. The Hasidic master Rabbi Zusya told his disciples that had gathered around his deathbed, “When I get to the world to come, they will not ask me ‘Why were you not Moses?,’ they will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ ”4 Yet Zusya’s cry is not for more isolation or self-centeredness—the elevation of the “I.”
The cry—through all of the teachers and students herein—is for communion, intimacy, service, and faithfulness. The individual is necessary to spiritual growth, but individualism is not. Each of these teachers helps us, through their call and to reinhabit a realm that has its anchor in nature, in wildness with all its complexity, not in the enervating sham of materialism and ego-centered motives. Nothing exists in a vacuum and neither does spirituality—it is always relational. In this sense, spiritual practice is revolutionary. But this path is not tidy. We continually wish life to be controllable and sanitary, but it’s not. The world, even in its present debilitated state, is essentially wild, and much of what lies beneath our skin responds to that essence. We are sensitive to the weight and pull of other forces—the energy behind wind, the magnetism of the moon, or someone’s warm breath upon our neck.
Accordingly, life is painful, and it’s hard to find a stable purchase or peace of mind in our perennial yearnings—spiritual or otherwise. Celestial orphans, all. Quite naturally we look for someone, something, or some system to help us navigate through our tangled interior (at present such inner disarray is catastrophically reflected in the “external” world), a territory where our busy minds no longer speak the local language. “We’ve become marvelous at self-delusion,”5 said Thomas Merton, that most eloquent and literary Cistercian monk.
As we moved from the mysterious and sacred to the scientific scaffolding of secular humanism, psychology (and by extension social science) rushed in to pick up the slack. It gave us a new map to our interior, and for many made religion obsolete. Yet psychology (and likewise Western science) lives, for the most part, in the realm of the knowable and can never subsume the mystery of spirit, which incidentally includes the nonhuman world.
This does not by any means suggest that psychology and science (i.e., ecology, systems theory, neurobiology, and so on) cannot complement religion or vice versa. Happily, much has been done in the last few decades to bring the jilted lovers closer together, and each has been enriched by the other’s embrace. If we are to evolve, both spiritually and materially (or for that matter if we are to survive), we must come to recognize the interdependence of all sentient and nonsentient beings—the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, rocks and trees. Mitakuye Oyasin, say the members of the Lakota-Dakota-Nakota Nation, “all our relations.”
The unfortunate return to fundamentalism (and here I refer to its most recent incarnation of ethnic and/or ideological extremism) is ironically a violent reaction against this untamable complexity, this infinite spirit. Fundamentalism, it would seem, reduces God to definable and ego-centered concepts, based in fear and the desire to control. “Conceptual idolatry” is what Robert Thurman (Tibetan Buddhist scholar, author, and cofounder of Tibet House in New York) calls these fundamentalist tendencies—a rabid attachment to ideas that become “etched in stone,” immovable, unquestionable. “Holy” wars are fought, global consumerism is unleashed, fascist doctrine is pounded down citizens’ throats, patriarchy held as the standard of Godhood—all based on malformed concepts of human nature and our proper place in the landscape. Each of us has some portion of fundamentalism within us—stale ideas, ingrained patterns—and spiritual teachers can help us discover their contours.
Still there always exists the resurgent spirit pulsing in the ligaments of our lives. As Gary Synder, the poet, Buddhist, and eco-activist points out, “The world is our consciousness, and it surrounds us. There are more things in mind, in the imagination, than ‘you’ can keep track of—thoughts, memories, images, angers, delights, rise unbidden. The depths of mind, the unconscious, are our inner wilderness areas.”6 When we turn to a spiritual teacher we look for a guide, not one who is familiar with well-worn paths, but one who knows, as Snyder puts it, the “etiquette of freedom.”
Yet in wanting a teacher to illuminate the lush and tangled undergrowth of our interior, we inevitably step into a paradox. As the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (gifted Tibetan teacher, author, and founder of the Shambhala organization, who introduced thousands of Westerners to Tibetan practice, said, “When you hear of someone that possesses remarkable qualities, you regard them as significant beings and yourself as insignificant.”7 In other words, our perceived inadequacy—that feeling which often got us looking for a teacher in the first place—is reinforced when we look upon someone or something as “more advanced,” “wiser,” “more enlightened,” and so forth. We want what we think they “have.” I’ve been studying Zen for more than twenty years and have been a student of Zen master John Daido Loori for seven...

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