Q: There is an ongoing debate as to whether spiritual seekers need teachers to reach enlightenment, or whether they can find the way on their own. What do you think?
I’ll give the short answer first and then go into a more full explanation. The answer is no; you can’t reach enlightenment without a teacher. Absolutely, all people who have reached full permanent enlightenment had a teacher of some kind. Whether that teacher was a stranger they met on the road, a book they read, or a spiritually like-minded community of other seekers or a formal teacher, enlightenment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There has to be a catalyst or trigger.
That’s a pretty bold statement to make, so let me back up and explain.
First, enlightenment is a term with many different meanings depending on the context and tradition it’s used in. For our purposes, we’ll define enlightenment as a state of full spiritual awakening.
In some traditions, such as Buddhism, a physically present guru or spiritual teacher may be seen as helpful in guiding a person towards enlightenment. However, in other traditions, enlightenment may be seen as something that can be achieved through individual effort or practice. So it largely depends on the belief system the seeker is operating from.
In the West, it seems popular these days to reject gurus and teachers. Especially in light of all the news that so many teachers turn out to be scammers of one kind or another. So the preference of many seems to be to read and study on their own.
Can you have an enlightenment experience without a physical teacher? Yes, you can be spontaneously dropped into enlightenment. Usually, in these instances, the use of drugs or some life-threatening trauma are present and trigger an enlightenment experience. Full permanent enlightenment though is so rare as to almost not be worth talking about. Even if you have that experience, it doesn’t guarantee that you will stay in that fully awakened state. It’s much more likely that you won’t be able to sustain it and you’ll fall back into “normal reality” almost as quickly and then spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how to get back to a permanent awakened state.
You could make the counterargument that the same would likely happen, even with a teacher. And I’d agree. The difference is that most seekers don’t have enough discipline to do all that it takes on their own. It’s far more likely that a teacher will hold the seeker accountable to follow consistent practices and provide methods to help them develop the stamina to stay in that state once they experience it. Or, at least find it easier to return to.
The error many seekers make with teachers/gurus is to focus on the pointing finger rather than to look at what the finger is pointing to. Of course, you’ll want to do your best to find someone who is knowledgeable and consistently living what they preach. But beware, we often want to get attached to the teacher. We want to have a guru to follow. We want to hold the teacher or guru accountable for our growth and progress.
And sometimes, that’s where trouble starts. As soon as you hold on tight to a teacher, you hold on to the pointing finger. You can’t help it. That’s what “holding onto” does.
It feels comfortable and safe because we want something tangible. We want proof. We can’t hold onto the moon, which the finger points at. So it’s natural to grab onto the pointing finger to help us feel connected to the moon. Then we want to hold the finger emotionally responsible for what happens to us. In order to feel okay doing that, we let ourselves get deeply attached and start using words like trust, giving yourself over, etc.
For those who have been unfortunate enough to have unknowingly fallen in with a cult, I don’t for a second make light of how much damage can be done to someone who’s been through that. There is no question that there are some bad eggs out there. But, by and large, most spiritual teachers don’t fall into that category. So, the cautionary tale is to proceed with a great degree of due diligence.
The question I think may be more important to ask is: Do you look for a spiritual guide or scout? Because they’re not the same. Read on to learn the difference.