As the years pass by, I hear more frequently from the Sangha, the language of Guru-ji. It is said to me, as far as I can tell, as a term of endearment. It might be said to try to wind me up!
As friends know, I am not a fan of the Guru concept since it easily increases the gap between the individual (the Guru) and the followers/disciples/devotees.
Permit me first to add another point. I do not believe in the notion of equality – a secular concept often soaked in demands, anger and intensification of differences. I cannot see the evidence for equality at home, at work, between people or under the law. Equality exposes another example of romantic idealism showing itself to be as problematic as beliefs and support for superiority and inferiority in personal, social, religious and political life.
Beliefs in claims of equality, superiority and inferiority support and reinforce each other. Relationships between human beings require an exploration outside the impossible dream of equality.
Tradition of Guru Purnima
Every July on the full moon billions of people in India celebrate Guru Purnima, an annual tradition to pay respect two one’s spiritual teacher(s).
The word Guru derives from two words, Gu and ru. The Sanskrit root Gu means Darkness or Ignorance, and Ru refers to the Remover of Darkness.
Hindus dedicate Guru Purnima (Poornima – Full Moon) to spiritual Gurus regarded as highly evolved or enlightened human beings who share their wisdom.
The tradition also includes much loved teachers of the arts, music, academic teachers, schoolteachers, parents and respected elders. The gurus, religious, secular or in the arts, might hear kind words, listen to chants, poems and receive offerings from their loyal devotees. Students of Indian classical music and Indian classical songs might celebrate their teacher on Guru Purnima with artist expression.
The Buddha also recognised the importance of the Guru figure, as well as its limitations. Following on from his enlightenment, the Buddha walked from Bodhgaya in Bihar to Sarnath outside of Varanasi, to offer teachings to five yogi friends with whom he had engaged in intensive and austere spiritual practises in a dedicated effort to realise liberation.
He explained to them the importance of the middle way between self-obsession and self-rejection. He shifted to development of each link in the Noble Eightfold Path rather than sitting in the cross-legged posture trying to meditate their way to enlightenment.
In the last period of his life, the Buddha endorsed the making of the Yatra (pilgrimage) to Lumbini, his birthplace; Bodh Gaya, his liberation under the Bodhi tree, Sarnath where he gave his first teachings and Kushinagara, where he died. Ever since, numerous people worldwide who deeply appreciate the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha have gone on pilgrimage to these four locations. It is an expression of Guru Purnima.
Mahayana Buddhists will often chant
Buddham Saranam Gacchami – I go for refuge in the Buddha
Dhammam Saranam Gacchami – I go for refuge in the Dharma
Sangham Saranam Gacchami – I go for refuge in the Sangha
Guru Saranam Gacchami – I go for refuge in the Guru.
The Buddha preferred to dissolve the Guru-disciple relationship as it easily increased dependency on the Guru like a child shows towards a father or mother. The mind of the disciple can engage in transference of ultimate authority onto the Guru reducing their own authority. This kind of dualistic relationship can feed dependency, attachment and inhibit freedom from exploration.
He switched from Guru language to the language of the Good Friend (kalyana mitta) while acknowledging the difference between the noble and wise people in the Sangha and the ones early in training.
The Buddha trained men and women in the Sangha and then sent some out to teach the way to end suffering. He needed to recognise their inner authority. Naturally, his teachers experienced much gratitude to the Buddha, as well as devotion and dedication to awakening, teachings/practices and those engaged in practice. The Buddha never encouraged anyone to surrender to him.
Dharma teachers/seniors in the Sangha certainly have authority to speak on issues of suffering and the way to its resolution but not for the purpose of gaining personal attention. The ego of the Guru or Teacher remains vulnerable to inflated self-importance due to worship, devotion and surrender to the Guru/Teacher, especially with charisma. Jesus commented, You shall know them by their deeds…..Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. Mathew 7: 15-20).
I have met gurus with immense kindness and dedication to support their followers. They teach with love rather than trying to build a spiritual empire or to gain personal attention or both. We need to separate the wheat from the chaff, as Jesus said.
Guru Purnima in the Thai Monastery
During my time as a Buddhist monk in the Vipassana monastery of Wat Chai Na, Nakornsridhammaraj, Thailand, where I spent three years, the Thai monks offered Guru Purnima once a year to Venerable Ajahn Dhammadharo, our teacher. I remember witnessing the start of the ritual in the central grounds where we did our practise. The monks placed a chair under a tree with an invitation to the Ajahn to take a seat.
One by one the monks poured a small jug of water onto the hands of the Ajahn enabling the water to pass through the robes onto the feet sitting in a bowl. The monks and nuns showed their respect and gratitude for his teachings. He certainly worked hard on a daily basis to teach the way to liberation.
He gave a talk in the Dharma hall, seven nights a week, lasting anything from 30 minutes to two hours or more. Every day, small groups of monks and nuns came to him to have their practise checked. Householders staying in the short term in the monastery, as well as many visitors, also met with him, morning noon and night. The Ajahn also made numerous administrative decisions regarding dana (donations), building work, yatras and more.
We had much to be grateful for. Staying seven days a week, week after week, I experienced a depth of gratitude to my teacher with occasional frustrations, such as listening to a talk lasting three hours. (I could not speak Thai. A monk gave me a summary of the talk in English in his hut) and his views about monks who don’t practice.
I watched the ceremony for the Ajahn without any intention of engaging in the ritual myself. One of the monks spotted me and invited me to show my devotion to the Ajahn. I hesitated, “I am not the devotional type,” I thought. I agreed and walked over. It only took 30 seconds away from practise while being happy to say khop khun kahp (thank you, respectfully) in such a manner.
Photo shows Guru Purnima Day in monastery in Thailand. Offering water for cleansing the feet.
A householder took a photograph of the Ajahn with his feet in the bowl and myself engaged in the ritual. The photograph shows the Ajahn and I smiling. This ceremony seemed out of character for both of us.
The Ajahn did not concern himself with rituals. He only allowed chanting in the Dharma Hall once a week, instead of twice a day, as in most monasteries. This irritated a few monks and nuns who loved chanting. He invited novices, nuns, young monks, including myself, aged 26, via the interpreter, to give talks in the hall to around 150 monks, nuns and laypeople. He used the concept of practice and encouraged us to share our experiences in small groups to hear his responses.
I had no appetite for such acts as on Guru Purnima, as well as offering flowers, bowing before Buddha images and chanting. I loved bowing before the Buddha when something he taught touched a deep place. Decades later, I began reading, slowly and mindfully, the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which convey the core message of Jesus of love and liberation. As I read the texts, I kept noticing the parallels in the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of the Buddha
The Christian tradition has often speculated about the missing years of Jesus. Where was Jesus during his 20s before starting teaching at the age of 30? I found more than 60 parallel statements in the Gospels parallel to the words of the Buddha. Although there is no archaeological evidence, I believe Jesus took the road used by traders from Palestine to India. Jesus surely spent time in Buddhist monasteries in India with the Dharma teachings emphasis on non-violence, mindfulness, love and finding the foundation of all things in his teachings.
I had the opportunity to listen to and meet with the Somdet Phra Sangharaja (head monk of Thailand’s 200,000 monks), a brief meeting with beloved King Bhumibol of Thailand, Venerable Ajhan Buddhadasa, Venerable Ajahn Dhammadharo, Ajahn Mahabuwa, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Khantipalo, Ajahn Por, Tahn Maha Ghosananda and others.
After years in Thailand, I returned to India during the 1970s, this time as a Buddhist monk, with the opportunity to meet many Gurus/Masters/Teachers in India. I listened to and spoke with Anandamayima, Bhagwan Rajneesh (Osho), Krishnamurti, Mother Teresa, Munindra-ji, S.N. Goenka, Sri Nisargadatta, Swami Chinmayananda, Swami Dayananda, Swami Parthasarthy and Swami Prabupadha. (I wrote about most of these meetings in Thailand and India in the 1970s in a memoir, TEN YEARS AND TEN DAYS)
Guru Purnima and Jesus
Jesus also referred to Guru Purnima in his teachings to Jews and Gentiles in Palestine. In a true offering of utter selflessness, Jesus adopted a different view from the traditional form of washing the guru’s feet. Instead, Jesus washed the feet of his dedicated students, who had joined him in a homeless way of life. Jesus is the true Servant of Love. They knew full well the risks that Jesus, their teacher, took upon himself in proclaiming the Kingdom of God rather than a religious or political kingdom on Earth.
His refused to compromise his compassion and integrity by following the values of the political, religious and secular authorities. It cost him his life.
At home, I have a photograph of my few moments of washing the feet of the Ajahn on Buddhist monastic version of Guru Purnima Day. Jesus used the Aramaic word Abba with its meaning of Father or Foundation of all things. The Buddha taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, namely body, feelings, state of mind and the teachings. We then we realise the Foundations of all things- timeless, infinite and all embracing. We know the Kingdom of God.
Jesus washed the feet of the disciples (John 13:1–17) just before the Last Supper. He spent a night in prayer before his arrest, suffered brutal torture from the Roman interrogators and a painful crucifixion.
Peter, who loved Jesus deeply, said to him, You shall never wash my feet.
In his usual forthright manner, Peter’s Guru replied, Unless I wash part of you, you have no part of me.”
There is the humility to give and there is the humility to receive.
In Matthew 20:28, Jesus said he came not to be served but to serve.
Before entering the Dharma hall for teachings and the communal meal, monks and nuns place their feet into a concrete tray of water outside the hall to wash off dirt and sand. The same act of cleanliness took place for centuries including the times when Buddha and Jesus lived. The washing of the feet of the Guru or another person symbolises a deep act of reverential respect for the life of another.
The Buddha showed the same dedication. He offered the cleansing of the heart as the preparation to realise Brahma Vihara (the Kingdom of God). So did Jesus.
Both agreed the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Do not act like an impressionable teenager in front of a rock star.
Choose your Guru wisely. Recognise the benefits and limitations of your teacher(s).
Know the difference between devotion/gratitude and surrender.
Then liberation is closer than you imagine.
MAY ALL BEINGS LISTEN TO THOSE WHO SUPPORT OUR WAKING UP
MAY ALL BEINGS KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE WHEAT AND THE CHAFF
MAY ALL BEINGS REALISE THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WISDOM.
Christopher Titmuss is a senior Dharma teacher in the West.
He is the author of The Buddha of Love,
The Explicit Buddha and other books.