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, or 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 counter argument 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’re holding 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 is pointing 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 a spiritual scout? Because they’re not the same.
Spiritual scouts don’t make good guides because they don’t really want to be with people. They don’t want to be held back by slow people and they’re not interested in staying with the group. They want to go on ahead and experience the experience. They’ll come back and relay that experience, but they don’t want to teach. Then it won’t be long before they want to run off again and have more experiences and then come back and relay that. But eventually, they’ll go so far ahead that they will stop coming back to report because they will have reached their destination.
Spiritual guides are people who have both knowledge of what’s ahead and how to prepare for it because they have done the whole journey before. In the old west, in the days of wagon trains, there would be the wagon master or trail boss who would take people across the country. An eastern version might be sherpas.
Guides have already made enough trips to know that they can safely take somebody across the whole distance they want to go. They are able to explain what’s ahead and they can help people feel safe and assured, because they know how to get across raging rivers and tall mountains, as well as where the best passes and worst traps are.
To some extent they’re also teachers, because they teach skills and share important information. But more often than not they are just helping people move steadily across the terrain they want to travel.
It’s the spiritual guide’s job to say, yep, that’s up ahead. Been there several times. We can approach it a bunch of different ways, and here’s the part that’s a little scary, but this is how we’re going to work through that so that it’s not scary. A spiritual guide is a combination of coach, cheerleader, teacher, and counselor.
Their primary job is to help you remember what’s “spiritually normal.” Even if you think you haven’t done this before or you don’t remember that you’ve had these experiences, a good spiritual guide can show you and help you remember exactly where and when and how you’ve had these experiences and memories and that they feel good.
When you’ve done the right preliminary work, there’s nothing scary about it. It is a self rewarding process. The student can then be on their own, produce their own excitement and results, and keep pulling themselves forward.