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Spectrum Of Teachers

How do we avoid putting people on a pedestal? Devotion has its merits, but Guru-disciple dichotomy can also be quite problematic?

I tend to think in terms of spectrums. There's a Gurus with capital G, teachers, mentors, historical heroes, momentary inspirations, and so on.

Personally, in my teen years, I read a lot of J. Krishnamurti, so I think I'm quite disillusioned by capital-G Guru. For those who don't know JK, he was seen as a messiah since age 4, and then in his first talk as the formal leader, he disbanded the organization in his now-famous speech: Truth is a Pathless Land. His point, which made a lot of sense to me, was that you can only have a path between two static points. And truth is dynamic, so there can be no path -- and hence, no teacher can take you "there". He told everyone to be free and go home.

Given that, we are also constantly learning. To say that we don't need any teachers sounds foolish. From kindergarten onwards, we are at the mercy of many who teach us how to engage the world in more creative, more skillful, more compassionate ways.

What's dangerous, I feel, is when we conflate a quality with a person. It makes no sense to admire my music teacher so much that I expect her to be just as great a tennis coach as well. But this is what we often do, in the capital-G world. We take a certain virtue, and then expand it to obscene proportions and then project it onto all other virtues. With music and tennis, there is a tangible criteria that immediately reflects its absurdity; with spirituality, though, the criteria is often too subtle for our awareness, so we gloss over it and club it all into one. It's much more convenient to say, "Hero of all my virtues is right here, and she's better than everyone else." That's just a cumbersome way to hold larger-than-life or everyday heroes.

What I've found helpful is to dis-intermediate a person into qualities. If you need a hand with deepening in service, joy, or skilfulness, sure, you can call on me. If you want to know about devotion to the undefinable, talk to Guri. If you want to dive deeper into meditation, Viral is a great resource. Or if you want practice Satyagraha, Pancho is the man. Cultivate untiring mind? Audrey. Music? Sing with Arun Dada. Business + transformation? Birju. Art of pilgrimage? Zilong. Prayer? Masami. And so on. Of course, it never maps one to one. I'm sure Pancho could do music, just as Guri might have insights into business. :) It's many qualities, in various different moments, supporting each other as a giant movement.

In the top-down hero model of the world we currently live in, we want to believe in a one-hero catches all -- but that doesn't map so well into reality. As Rev. Heng Sure tells me, even profoundly awakened and big-hearted Boddhisattvas have their areas of specialty. :) Even with the Buddha, there are many anecdotes about how he would send a particular disciple with a particular strength for a particular moment. (See Zilong's post about one example.)

There's a challenge the other way too, though. Many folks these days champion "everyone a teacher" approach. If that is coming from a learning mindset, that's wonderful. But all too often, we democratize teachers not to humble ourselves as a student of everyone but rather elevate ourselves to be on par with all teachers. It's a subversive way to build our ego -- "I'm just as good as anyone else." That's a foolhardy way to build confidence. We may have the potential to be as loving as Jesus Christ was on the cross, but that doesn't mean we are. :) If we start thinking we're just as good as everyone else, that we're as able teachers as anyone else, we'll probably end up creating a lot more suffering for ourselves and others. That's why I prefer "everyone a student" mindset, that even the greatest of sages seem to champion.

A good metric for holding that edge is gratitude that pays it forward. If we project too little onto mentors, we are likely projecting too much on our ego ("I am as good as anyone else") and have very little gratitude; we won't last long on the spiritual path, with this approach. For instance, we might project a lot on Gandhi -- some of it could be helpful, if it gives us the strength of aspiration to cultivate those values. If we project too much on mentors, though, we are likely engaged in "blind devotion" and will lose our own agency in the process. We'll be left with a clingy attachment, and while that may pay-back in the name of gratitude, but it is not authentic gratitude unless it is forward bound.

In a many-to-many ecology that life is, the best defense against projection is to keep highlighting virtuous qualities instead of people. Each person has a different assortment of noble qualities, in different moments. And when we highlight those virtues, it is done with a mindfulness of impermanence -- because it's changing. So a person is never this or that; it is that, in this moment, certain parts of their mind are activated. Or if they haven't been activated in its fullness, there is still the seed. And everyone has that innate seed of goodness.

The difficulty lies in differentiating between seeing virtue and projecting virtue. One of the many problems with projecting virtue is that it is directly proportional to how much we reject vice. That is, to the degree I am likely to say, "My mom is the best mom ever," is the degree to which I'm likely to say, "This criminal is the worst person ever." Or more commonly, "I hate this person because he is always manipulative." Actually, no person is like this or that. If we aren't oscillating between projection and rejection, we would say to ourselves, "This inappropriate action arose from a confused mindset; I don't support that action. But fortunately, it's a fleeting mindset. It changes. While it may take a fair amount of time for this person's mind to stop spinning in those grooves, there is still untapped potential for goodness. I'm going to do my best to offer my strengths to activate that part of their mind in this moment." The less we project and reject (virtue and vice), the greater our skillfulness in serving others in this way.

So, personally, I approach that spectrum of teachers with the heart of a student. Everyone can teach me something, because I am a willing learner. And if, at all, I can pay-forward some of that gratitude by helping someone grow in a particular virtue, I'm surely happy to. And if others project unwarranted virtue onto me, I happily bow down and remind them (and myself) that virtues are decentralized traits bound by affinities of generosity. I'm just one, but together, we're more than two. Projecting all virtue into one entity seems like a play of ego that is wont to centralization, when actually its properties seem to be a fluid, dynamic, emergent phenomena -- and point to a pathless land.

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