The Four Kinds of Spiritual Teachers

(C) Copyright 2005 by Timothy Conway

[The following is a fairly widely-read post on determining authentic spiritual teachers. It was uploaded to various websites devoted to the subject of Nondual Spirituality. Sometimes this essay went untitled, sometimes it was titled "Advaita (Nonduality) and Ethics," or else "Four Kinds of Spiritual Teachers." I have given it the following title and subtitle for this webpage:]

Four Kinds of Spiritual Teachers:
Nonduality (Advaita), Ethics, Authentic and Inauthentic Sages

Sunday Feb. 27, 2005

Within the life-dream nondually conjured up by Consciousness, made of nothing but Consciousness, we can consider the “relative reality,” the conventional world of “rights and wrongs,” “justices and injustices,” “wellness/ease and unwellness/dis-ease(s).”

To heal the various forms of dis-ease and injustice, we have three kinds of genuine spiritual teachers and (sigh) also the inauthentic pretender.

The three types of authentic spiritual figures are as follows:

1) The truly free beings who conduct themselves in the traditional manner of a sage, saint or adept, that is to say, exemplars of genuine disidentification from the bodymind and freedom from attachments and aversions (the samskaras or vasanas, as Hindu and Buddhist sages term them). These are the shining exemplars of peace, bliss, loving-kindness, compassion, empathy, generosity, courage, equanimity, and selfless sacrifice, functioning as a Guru-Lama-Shihfu-Roshi-Staretz-Tzaddik (as such a one is termed in various sacred traditions) on behalf of apparent sentient beings. (And recall here the wonderful paradox given by the Buddha in the Vajracchedika [Diamond] Sutra: “one must liberate all sentient beings” / “there are no sentient beings.”) These exemplary free beings communicate a traditional wisdom emphasizing the transcendence-immanence of the Absolute, as well as the impermanence, insubstantiality and unreliability of all phenomena, the need for awakening from the constricted egocentric dream, various ways or methods for awakening, the need for great earnestness in “striving” toward this Divine freedom and also the always freely available divine Grace.

Then there are: 2) The wild men/women or holy fools (avadhutas, majdhubs, masts, saloi, yurodivye, idiota, yu jen, mahasiddhas, et al.), within what is sometimes called the “crazy wisdom tradition.” These rather mysterious folks have spontaneously or deliberately gone beyond all societal conventions, sometimes simply because God-realization and liberation came for them in such an unusually powerful way that it blew out the circuits of normal psychological and social functioning. These wild ones, who usually display no regard for their own comforts and even many basic bodily needs (food, liquids, sleep, shelter, basic hygiene), are not usually known for any conspicuous "loving-kindness" on the conventional interpersonal level. They have been known to grunt at, scream at, punch, push, piss on, completely ignore and in various ways “abuse” those whom they encounter—yet with an unexpectedly quite positive, beautifully transformational affect on the recipients of such “holy abuse.” In other words, just as with the free beings of category #1, so also there can be a palpable, edifying sense of divine blessing (saktipat, kripa, baraka, wang, descent of the Holy Spirit, etc.) that is experienced by the recipient during or after the bizarre encounter with a “wild fool” of category #2. This blessing force brings with it an amazing sense of freedom, peace, equanimity, bliss, love, and nondual identity with the One and all beings.

There is 3) a third type of genuine spiritual figure: the “good friend” (kalyana mitra in Buddhism) or spiritual teacher-mentor-counselor who may not be 100% established in spiritual freedom, fully awake and always lucid within the dream, yet such a one is nevertheless a very helpful, enlightening figure who empowers those s/he encounters. This person does not try to “role-play Guru” by presuming to be fully awake or take full responsibility for the welfare and direction of disciples. This friend-teacher just serves as much as possible, sharing from the heart the clear wisdom, caring compassion and gratitude for Divine grace that has served him/her thus far on the pathless journey HOME to full, free Awareness. Such a person may actually be quite a gifted teacher, healer or catalyst for fellow sentient beings, truly empowering them with certain wonderful breakthroughs, strengths and gifts. Some persons may even become fully awake through their association with this type of teacher-healer who is not yet 100% free and awake.

In addition to the above two types of authentically free or fully liberated spiritual adepts (the Guru-Sage and the Holy Fool) and the not-quite-fully-realized but nevertheless very helpful "good spiritual friend-teacher," there is 4) another figure, a tragic figure, within the Divine dream of manifestation: the inauthentic pretender. This is someone who is, at best, no more spiritually accomplished or free than the teacher-friend mentioned above in category #3, but is pretending to be someone in category #1 or #2. In other words, here there are flashes (even frequent flashes) of brilliance but there still occur occasional or perhaps many lapses of lucidity into egocentric states of attachment-aversion toward dream phenomena. These attachments-aversions, the all-too binding likes and dislikes, what Hindu Vedanta-Yoga terms “raga-dvesha” and Theravada Buddhism calls “lobha-dosa,” are also generally known as one’s samskaras or vasanas. The inauthentic pretender, bless his heart, cannot admit to others and probably not even to himself that he is still samskara-driven and bound, i.e., not totally free, and so the pretender must rationalize (in a classic Freudian defense mechanism against anxiety) that his lack of freedom is somehow “okay,” “Divinely ordained,” “part of the perfect manifestation,” “not really a problem because whatever happens is perfect.”

Rather than earnestly endeavor to realize the insubstantiality of the deluded ego-sense with its attachments-aversions, and actually live from FREEDOM, the pretender tries to convince others and himself that he is, in fact, free, while still dragging around his samskaric chains. Freedom, for these pretenders, is INSIDIOUSLY RE-DEFINED to include states of being bound (e.g., a misinterpretation of the old Mahayana idea: “Nirvana is Samsara”).

In a competitive marketplace of “spirituality,” whether in India, Japan, China, Europe, the USA, etc., we see quite a lot of this last figure, the pretender. Such persons chronically present themselves as higher and freer than they actually are, in order to draw attention and recognition, lure followings of students/disciples, make money, attain fame, and get high (psychically inflated) on the subtle or not-so-subtle adrenaline rush that comes with being granted power, influence and concomitant comforts by a social group that fawns over them and defers to them as a “spiritual authority.”

And now we must look at a very specific phenomenon: what happens when such pretenders, such not-quite-free teachers (or not-very-free-at-all charlatans), are exposed for certain exploitative behavior, usually around the old issues of “lust and greed”—inappropriate sexual or financial behavior.

At this point of being exposed, the spiritual pretender and those among his followers who identify and align with the pretender rather than with the Dharma (authentic spirituality) usually fall into deeper trouble. The pretender and his lackeys (peace and divine blessings be upon them!), rather than act with authentic courage, sincerity and remorse—which would include humbly admitting their own lack of freedom and also include issuing heartfelt APOLOGIES and making some kind of meaningful AMENDS toward the parties exploited—instead thicken their samskaric web of complications. Problematic defense mechanisms against anxiety (as studied by Sigmund Freud) are hastily deployed, not just passionate narrow identification with “our righteous cause” (a major samskaric attachment!) but also rationalization that nothing terribly wrong has happened, denial of either the claims of injury or severity of the situation (this denial often involves blatant forms of lying and aggressive cover-ups), and, of course, projection in the form of blaming the victims and also any sympathizers who try to bring further light to the dark situation and remedy the injustice by enacting forms of justice and healing (including clarifying what is true Dharma and what is not).

One of the classic rationalizations, remember, that the pretender and the cronies chronically deploy, especially when the flaws of the pretender are being exposed, is the idea that “nothing is really wrong,” that his lack of freedom, as reflected in the exploitative behavior, is somehow “perfect,” “Divinely willed,” “part of the Divine dream,” therefore “not a problem.” Unfortunately, this rationalization is easily available to pretenders who labor in the field of mystical nondual spirituality, because nondual traditions usually articulate quite clearly this Absolute level of truth, the paramarthika satya, over the conventional or relative level of phenomenal truth, the samvriti or vyavaharika satya.

It needs to be stated in no uncertain terms that these pretenders are actually anarchists, for they attempt to destroy any rational or intuitive basis for morality and ethics. In this pseudo-nondual realm, “anything goes”—at least for themselves and their accomplices. There are no ethical standards by which to determine appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.

The discerning reader will notice that the type of “wild holy fool” of the crazy wisdom tradition, briefly discussed above as an authentic spiritual figure in category #2, also doesn’t abide by the conventional-looking ethics of human societies. Clothed in rags, sometimes virtually or completely naked, usually ungroomed or even unwashed, often abnormally silent or using language in bizarre forms, frequently maintaining strange postures or movements, such wild free ones, as mentioned, have been known to roundly “abuse” their visitors and would-be “disciples” (such holy fools often do not let anyone stay around them for long in the conventional apprentice relationship found in the traditional lineages of gurus-disciples, masters-novices, or teachers-students). Again, one hears tales of folks being hit, struck, yelled at, utterly ignored, and in other ways treated rather shockingly by these crazy wisdom characters.

But there are huge DIFFERENCES between the pretenders and the authentic holy fools.

For one thing, disciples of the holy fools feel blessed, not exploited, after their contact with the holy fool, the opposite of what happens when trusting disciples are exploited by the pretenders. The disciples of the pretenders either immediately or eventually feel, not empowered, but exploited for the gain of the pretender. The pretender, in short, functions as a taker, not a giver.

Secondly, the authentic holy fools are quite unattached to whatever happens in the dream of life, especially concerning their own bodily welfare, whereas the pretenders are usually quite interested in making sure they are properly fed, clothed, sheltered, honored and, yes, remunerated. Rather than rely on spontaneous Divine Grace for whatever happens, these pretenders and their partners make definite plans, arrange things to insure the most pleasing and lucrative outcomes, and so on. They are clearly operating from the mental level, not the transmental/transpersonal Identity, in their strategic planning and calculating of revenues and expenditures, marketing strategies, schedules, meeting site set-up and configurations, writing and publishing ventures, etc. Obviously, some of the pretenders aren’t so much involved in this side of things—they have their willing cronies manage everything or nearly everything for them, and so the pretender can easily “flow with situations” and trust that their acolytes (not God) will take care of everything while the pretenders can appear to be serene and “above it all.”

Thus, for such pretenders and their “true believer” slavish followers to make the claim that they are part of the crazy wisdom tradition is utterly bogus. They are not utterly “abandoned unto Divine Providence,” they are not thoroughly surrendered. No, they are to some extent or another quite attached to outcomes and are rather busily engaged to make sure those outcomes serve themselves. In short, they still labor under the sense of “doership,” i.e., being egocentric agents of action.

Such persons, I would also submit, are trying to have it both ways: they want to be seen and valued as lineage-holders of a tradition—this obviously adds to their status and influence as “an authority.” And yet they have the audacity to ignore and/or distort their tradition’s teachings about morality and ethics, and the need for staying as free as possible from samskaric attachments and aversions. And when anyone tries to raise the issue of traditional moral requirements for disciples and gurus, they immediately will say that “they are not bound by tradition,” that “this is a living tradition that must shock people out of their hypnotic trance state,” and other such malarkey.

This might seem persuasive to those who chronically defer to them, but anyone with any discernment can see that these pretenders are trying to have the best of two opposing worlds: traditional authority and anarchistic “anything goes” license to act out their samskaras. To put it in still more words, they exploit, for their own recognition and aggrandizement, the concept and social institution of the Guru and the lineage of Gurus, but they do not want any accountability within the criteria set by that tradition’s previous Gurus for who is and who is not an authentic spiritual master.

Hence, one finds here a major violation of “Truth in advertising”: the pretenders are passing themselves off as “Gurus” in a “lineage” within a “sacred tradition”—and then, whenever it suits them, these anarchists depart from what that tradition values as authenticity and they proceed to engage in rogue behavior.

These pretenders (may the God-Self spare them from their karmuppance) are claiming special immunity in putting themselves above society’s rules on basic decency and fairness, and also putting themselves beyond the conventions of their own sacred traditions from which they try to draw their high status.

May all be fully awake and free in their intrinsic Divine Awakeness and Freedom, by the Grace of this One God-Self, the transcendent-immanent Self of all selves....


***[NOTE: The following is excerpted from a related essay about Advaita, ethics, and spiritual teachers, authentic and inauthentic. Originally this essay and the prior one reproduced above were written in February 2005 to address issues that arose over the problematic behavior of a certain neo-advaita teacher, Ramesh Balsekar. These two essays here can be found embedded in my very long webpage discussion of dear Ramesh. But i have uploaded the relevant parts of both essays to this webpage because they can stand alone as commentaries on authentic and inauthentic spiritual leadership.]

We see in our era many spiritual "counterfeiters" pretending to be fully liberated and yet abusing their students in various ways. Such abuse can take several forms, but the most common are exploiting people financially and sexually and using students-disciples-visitors' needs (and, sometimes, needy-ness) to puff themselves up in pride and psychic inflation (see the warnings on this inflation by the famous psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung).

On financial exploitation: Every authentic sage I've ever met charges no fees for his/her work. Donations might be allowed, but no charging of fees. There is a kind of universal Divine support for anyone who has truly surrendered to the Dharma, clearly promised by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. I can tell you from direct experience that this is so. I've never had to charge a dime for any advaita understanding I've ever shared in satsangs (which I've been holding on and off since 1990), even when there were times of great financial challenges due to my wife's health and disability issues. Everything has worked out okay, by Divine Grace. On rare occasions I've allowed donations to be made to help pay for a rental space (if i didn't just pay for it myself), but there's never been any pressure on students for money, as with so many pseudo-teachers who (or via their organization) chronically have the hand extended seeking some kind of compensation. Even charging anyone $10-$15 for a 2 hour satsang is outlandish. Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta, Ramakrishna, Anandamayi Ma, Anasuya Devi and other spiritual giants of nondual Realization didn't do this. The present "Hugging Mother" Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi) doesn't do this. The stories of various pseudo-gurus and their cronies charging outlandish sums for workshops in India and in the west indicate to me that such persons don't really trust Divine Grace to provide support for their teaching work.

As for sexual exploitation: anyone working in the helping professions in the civilized world, be this a doctor, schoolteacher, therapeutic counselor, lawyer, etc., has very clear and strict ethical guidelines, especially male professionals, about not mixing sexual activity with clients-patients-students. Even for situations wherein there is a mutual attraction, the professional is required in no uncertain terms by the ethics of the profession NOT to engage in any sexual behavior with the client-patient-student until the nature of that relationship has been formally changed and transcended—i.e., there is no longer the student-teacher, patient-healer relationship. Mature professionals know that, if there is to be any kind of sexual relationship with their former student-client-patient, one does well to wait at least several months if not a year or two so that the relationship has a better chance of being transformed into a more egalitarian one of adults on equal standing. These caveats help guard against the natural human tendency for someone in a position of perceived power to abuse that power by seducing those who are naturally deferential to a person holding that power.

When someone presumes to play the role of Guru, he is adopting a "one-up" power position, and that power, if it is to be held and maintained (and not relinquished in an egalitarian way, as the best teachers know how to do) must be honored in the most sacred, careful way. Soliciting more-or-less vulnerable female students with requests for sexual favors is a highly unethical abuse of power. If such a pseudo-guru is lonely or needs sexual companionship, he ought to be mature and straight about it and try to cultivate an egalitarian, committed relationship with a romantic partner. If he is incapable of that and is so identified with the bodymind that he needs sexual experience (and can't just adeptly let go or "see off" the arising-passing sensations associated with the sexual impulse), he could visit a state or country where it is legal to consort with a prostitute or call girl. Or he could simply get his kicks with videos or the internet. But messing around with the bodies and psyches of his female (or male) students indicates a lack of ethics and appropriate psychological boundaries.

So many of the sages have made it clear that appropriate behavior is a “given.” Sri Siddharameshvar, Nisargadatta’s Guru, would frequently state: “Realize the Self and behave accordingly.”

Yes, on the absolute level, everyone is nothing but Atman/Brahman, pure Saccidananda Being-Awareness-Bliss, and everything that happens is, on the highest level of understanding, nothing but Lila, Divine play or sport (Lord Krishna to Arjuna: "No one slays, no one is slain."). But on the relative or conventional level there needs to be ethical behavior and accountability. To say otherwise is to make a travesty of all our "engaged spirituality" traditions endeavoring to enact social, racial, gender, economic, political and environmental justice. DO NOT CONFUSE the absolute truth level of Dharma teaching (Paramarthika Satya) with the relative truth level (Vyavaharika or Samvriti Satya), which is the level of our humanity and decency, the commonweal or public good. It is has become quite common for persons identified with and invested in their particular guru (pseudo-guru) to rationalize their guru's indecent, unethical, abusive behavior by pathetically confusing the Absolute level with the conventional level. Many naive folks are misled by this.

Anyone wanting more clarity on this can read this essay, wherein I clearly distinguished between the three levels of nondual reality (all simultaneously true, paradoxical though this might seem): 3) the conventional level of the appropriate and inappropriate, right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice; 2) the "Divine Comedy" subtle-level of the soul wherein "everything's perfect," everything's happening for the good of all souls in their "soul-ular" evolution and journey HOME; and 1) the Absolute Truth: no-thing is really happening, it's all a dream in the one, nondual Awareness; only God IS (no world, no souls).

The essential point here is that one can honor and does well to honor all three levels, otherwise one's spirituality becomes quite imbalanced.

All authentic traditions of nondual spirituality—the Advaita Vedanta and Kashmir Saiva traditions of India, the Ch'an/Zen/Son traditions of China/Japan/Korea, the Shingon and Vajrayana tantric traditions of Japan and Tibet, the nondual Sufi traditions in regions of Islam, and the western nondual mystic traditions within Christianity and Kabbalah/Hasidim Judaism—are rooted in and express themselves in ethical, moral behavior. Yes, one can find a relative few "holy fools" in various traditions (the avadhutas, majdhubs, yurodivye, et al.) who are quite beyond conventions of "gentlemanly" or "ladylike" behavior. But these wild adepts don't play the conventional guru role, either, with formal satsangs, charging money for their teaching, writing and selling books of teachings, etc., the way so many pretenders are trying to do.

Just looking at Hindu Advaita Vedanta, the teachings of Sankara (founder of the formal Advaita tradition) clearly enjoin impeccable behavior for both the aspirant and for the jnani, the realized sage. The classic "fourfold pre-requisites" for any aspirant are viveka (the ability to discern Absolute Awareness from the phenomenal events), vairagya (utter dispassion and equanimity over the phenomenal world), mumuksatva (great yearning and earnestness over Truth), and shatkasampatti, the six great virtues (inner control of the mind, sense-control, fulfillment of one's duties, patient endurance of all opposites, spiritual faith, and concentration on Truth). If this is to apply to the novice, how much more so does it apply to the authentic sage or Guru! Upon realization of Brahman, Absolute Spiritual Reality or Being-Awareness-Bliss, the sage is not suddenly given license to act out old samskaric patterns. No, these patterns have been largely if not completely burnt out by the fire of Realization. Any residual arising samskaric tendencies of likes and dislikes (raga and dvesha) are simply noticed, "seen off" and not acted upon, especially when acting out these tendencies might harm a student, if only by confusing the student with what is appropriate and inappropriate. (And anyone who seriously tries to argue that there is no distinction between appropriate and inappropriate behavior is utterly deluded and probably psychopathic.)

Endeavoring to seduce women or bring in piles of money from students or audiences are clearly signs of someone who is being pulled and pushed around by their samskaras, treating others as objects to be exploited, and lacking empathy. As I have written before, one of my favorite definitions of liberation comes from our dear Annamalai Swami, one of Sri Ramana Maharshi's most faithful spiritual sons; the Swami in 1980 clearly defined enlightenment (when I asked him to do so): "It's like zero-gravity. Nothing is pulling you anymore."

Notice that this teaching from Annamalai Swami pertains more to the motivational, behavioral level rather than merely the cognitive/mental level of "understanding." The good Swami's expression of enlightenment comes from someone who is authentically FREE, not a pretender who has cleverly rationalized a lack of freedom as some kind of true "freedom," the way so many neo-advaitins like to do.

I can also tell you that the behavior of true sages like Ramana Maharshi, Annamalai Swami, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramakrishna, Anandamayi Ma, Anasuya Devi, Amma Amritanandamayi, et al. toward their visitors and students expressed true impeccability. One never gets the least impression that these venerable men and women were exploiting anyone for their own benefit. No, this was all about empowering people, not disempowering them. These are real GIVERS, not takers.

It is terribly important to distinguish "the Understanding" on a mere cognitive level (one of neo-advaitin's favorite terms to describe the "final state") as distinct from authentic liberation-moksha-nirvana. It's pretty easy for anyone to come to the former, a clear mental-intuitive understanding of nondual teachings, which brings a certain clarity, confidence and mellow state, rather like what Alan Watts once joked would provide most people with a "mystic experience": walk around for a week with two-pound weights in your shoes and then take the weights out and walk around... (The neo-advaitin emphasis on certain classic Advaita teachings of "no doer," "no karma," "no purpose," etc., have the same "weightless" effect for most people long burdened by their concepts of self, responsibility, and so on!)

Yet it's quite another thing to be authentically free or liberated from the samskara-forces fueling an ego sense and pulling and pushing it around via the binding likes and dislikes. Just to have "the understanding of freedom" without genuine freedom is a colossal illusion, and easily degenerates into the kind of narcissism, lack of empathy, and tendency to exploit other sentient beings that we have witnessed among so many half-baked teachers. This is why, incidentally, the great Ch'an/Zen masters distinguish between the preliminary, temporary "enlightenments," what the Japanese Zen masters term "satori" or "kensho," and the final, real freedom of total liberation: anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.

Yes, there is only the nondual One Awareness, right HERE, right NOW. Yes, ultimately "nothing matters." Yes, there is no need to fabricate and carry around any baggage of egoic striving, regrets, loathing, or self-loathing. But there needs to be accountability. One must genuinely LIVE the liberated state. Not just talk about "the Understanding."

Jesus is alleged to have said, "By their fruits ye shall know them: a good tree produces good fruits, a rotten tree gives rotten fruit." That pretty much sums it up.

All the best (and authentic, total FREEDOM!) to anyone who reads this...

In Love and Grace
Your Own Self

Santa Barbara, CA