Masters, teachers, paths

Should solitaries have or consult masters, teachers, guides, gurus — or anybody?

The question is always relevant to religious-minded solitaries, but opinion is not at all one-sided. After reviewing a little book by Pinions several years ago — a woman who had became an anchoress and consulted closely with a spiritual adviser — a friend of Hermitary (who counted herself a religious person) wrote to dismiss this dependence on spiritual directors as a vestige of authority that misunderstands the motive of the solitary.

And yet there are solitaries who are deeply committed to spiritual masters and who find a place or community (religious or secular) that seems to approximate their needs for depth as well as autonomy. Is the solitude of the solitary ever absolute?

The solitary is already disposed to follow a certain path due to personality or experience, but often needs encouragement and insight, being the object of the negative pressures of the world and of social peers who reject the core of the solitary’s personality and values. The solitary is told to live “fully,” meaning live a life that is externally-driven and interdependent. The solitary understands that a degree of interdependence on others is a fact of life. Only the mountain or forest hermit may be able to sustain thorough-going independence, but even that is nearly non-existent, and perhaps unwise for the average solitary to even consider.

Yet many solitaries will be unwilling to give up this ideal, even if they live in a city or town. The attraction of this ideal is that it sustains, like a beacon, the necessary frame of mind to resist or properly disengage from the world and society. The ideal sustains the deeply-held conviction that the human society is flawed to the point that we need not have an active place in it, that we are “thrown” into it and must make our way alone, even if others surround us and we share their physical needs.

A master or guide is supposed to “jump-start” the process of insight for someone who comes to them seeking to confirm this deep-seated conviction or strong inclination.

But how trustworthy is such a figure, placing themselves in a position of authority? In contrast, how mature is the solitary’s subjective sense of direction and need for input? Is there no other way than a direct master-disciple relationship? What personal or psychological traits do we have that are vulnerabilities susceptible to exploitation by an authority figure? Is the solitary too cynical or simply too experienced to entrust the pearl of self to others?

Some people form a pearl from life’s vicissitudes. Others concentrate on the hard outer shell as protection and never cultivate the pearl. Solitaries differ as much as anyone in the populace, and have the hard task of addressing their own emotional issues before going out in search of an authority figure.

The best master is merely sharing an experience and pointing out a path and the expectations when on that path. In that process the master must function like a teacher or instructor who presents the consensus of the past and the critical tools for thinking and progressing on a path — nothing else. The cultural variations on how these expectations are expressed will vary widely, but they must be marked by the same psychological characteristics in looking at the presumed master — humility, self-effacement, courage, equanimity, patience, a certain ruthless honesty when confronting hypocrisy. These are just a few traits.

Ironically, these are the sorts of characteristics that lead the best masters to abandon the pretensions of being a “master.” Invariably, this is the spiritual parallel of the secular recluse. In ancient China, the best officials who could have served the state were those who, in fact, had reclused themselves, abandoned public office. Their experience would convince them that to be an official in the service of others was the equivalent of trying to be a master. Thus, to be a master required many traits that a student or disciple lacked and could profit from. The best student would be so lacking in some things that they would not chafe under the master-disciple relationship.

A familiar Zen story points to the function of the master and its self-contained goal. A certain master was presenting basic introductory methods to a group of prospective disciples. “On this path,” he concluded, “you may begin to reach understanding in ten years.” One eager student burst out: “But, master, if I increase my hours of study, and meditate twice as long, and work many hours a day, how long would it take then?” The master smiled. “Twenty years, ” he replied.

Skepticism is bound to flow when one’s experience in seeing and hearing authorities constantly falls short. They don’t know this or that, they emphasize the wrong things, or they are compromised by a wealthy patron or by the flattery of rich students, or they get lethargic and repeat formulas of convenience without enthusiasm or dedication. Anyone who has gone through formal schooling will recognize the same pattern.

Nor can masters, teachers, guides, or others who set themselves up as sharers of insight be disengaged from the society and culture in which they live, as already mentioned. Since all societies impart irrelevancies, shortcomings, biases, contrivances, false values, and contradictions, those who observe and escape them are few. As Rudolph Steiner suggested:

A healthy social life is found only when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community the virtue of each one is living.

In such an ideal, there is no room for master versus disciple, only friends and colleagues on the path. Will such an ideal ever become a reality in the life of a seeker?

From the outside, the community of disciples or students may well reflect the depth of wholeness imparted by the master, but who knows? To join such a group is a wager, as much as Pascal’s, and the solitary will never know. The solitary will probably not dare to risk the “capital” already assembled by his or her own solitude.

Here is a version of an apropo Sufi story:

A man seeking truth and happiness all of his life comes to a village and encounters a man who is clearly a great master — from his bearing, his eyes, perhaps his posture. The man tells the master that he has spent his life seeking truth and may at last found it. The master says nothing but beckons him to come with him. They enter a place where many sit in quiet contemplation. One of those inside looks up and, anticipating the visitor’s question, tells him that they have sought the truth their entire lives and never found it, in the process renouncing all happiness. The master and the seeker move on to another place where people are all laughing and talking, sharing great conviviality. Again, one looks up from his cup at the visitor and anticipates his question. “We have spend our entire lives seeking happiness and have never found it, for we mistook it for truth, and now have neither one.” At this the visitor looks perplexedly at the master, who simply says, “And now you know what to seek on the path is neither truth nor happiness,” and he departs.

We must neither despair nor foster skepticism of the path. A master may point this out, and that should be all we need to get clear. We must explore within ourselves the reservation about finding that assembly of seekers who have in great honesty sought but never found.

Our path must simply be what we are capable of in this short span of life, taking from nature and great minds of the past (whose ways are captured in traditions, practices, and books) what will compliment us, will ripen us, will make us whole. Even if what we come to find we hesitate to call “truth” because we don’t want to presume more than anyone else’s knowledge. Even if what we come to find we hesitate to call “happiness” because we don’t want to presume that the path is finished. Because it isn’t finished, is it?


Stoicism arises in periods of social crisis but not revolutionary periods. An example is the era transitioning to empire in ancient Rome, which saw the leading thinkers from Cicero and Cato to first-century Epictetus and Seneca dominate the little original creative thought of the era. Marcus Aurelius represents the Stoicism of an empire conscious of its own forthcoming demise, so that his Meditations carry a stronger sense of pathos. What is dying is a known world, like ourselves.

In each case, Stoicism is an expression of a disillusioned intelligentsia, of those hemmed in by power and authority who recognize the absolute intransigence or immobility of institutions and structures. Within the realization is the paradox or folly of complicity. Epictetus was once a slave and rings more honestly than do the lines of Seneca, tutor to the murderous Nero and his dangerous family, but who writes with a stolid sense of duty, decorum, and obligation. The ultimate complicity comes from the emperor himself, Marcus Aurelius, who must reconcile his duty to his conscience, aware that to abdicate brings greater chaos to the innocent than to continue the evil that his complicity and station in life already bring.

Thus Stoicism became a vehicle for the well-born to assuage their contradiction, to be forever wedded to the world in identity and duty. Christianity inherited a good deal of this dilemma, formed by ambition mingled with fate, the inextricable dilemma of obligation to society and to others at the sacrifice of self. Boethius composed the Stoic Consolation of Philosophy in a prison cell awaiting execution.

Another era of Stoicism is post-Reformation Europe, where interminable wars of religion dragged the continent into continued miseries. It was an era of growing absolutism, and the rigidity of institutions and structures suggested to the intelligent — again, necessarily the well-born — that nothing would change for the better. They fled decision and action for the balm of necessity and reflection. Thus Montaigne, during the wars of religion in 16th-century France, rather than choose between religious sects or rivals for the throne, threw up his hands and said that it was all up to God or fate. Which was true, in a clever sort of way. The dramatists of the era — Corneille, Racine, Moliere — are entirely focused on versions of the classics of Greek and Roman theater, and present tragedies as Stoicism, daring not to identify them with the contemporary world which they are nevertheless depicting.

Pascal, too, is a Stoic, hedging his theological bets and wondering where to turn when one sees through the world and its pretensions. Pascal dabbles with fideism (faith because it is duty), as does Montaigne. Fideism is the inevitable mask of living in a harsh and absolutist world. Fideist mask are everywhere in fundamentalist countries, to be sure, and will have to do. In the end, polite acquiescence and not a new philosophical argument is all that the world demands.

In Spain, nothing tops the Stoicism of Baltasar Gracian, full of wit, irony, and solace for the intelligent and well-born who will never succeed in budging the institutions and structures of their day. In Gracian, there is too much mirth and too many inside jests to be moralistic or melancholic. Melancholy would not do in the triumphalist state of empire. Sober duty is to be presented to the sovereign monarch and the equally sovereign and humorless ecclesiastical system. Gracian is a proper Jesuit who wrote under a pseudonym when he could, narrowly escaping undue attention.

But Stoicism works: duty carried out, with a knowing glance and a stiff upper lip. Writes Gracian:

We climb the ladder of life, and the rungs — the days — disappear one after another, the moment we move our feet. There is no way to climb down, nothing to do but go forward.

Galileo, too, represents the dilemma in the early modern era. His confrontation with an intransigent institution and structure destroyed any sensible arguments he could present for science, reason, and empiricism — except the most practical argument for himself: survival. As Brecht presents the drama of the same title, a student asks the elderly Galileo why he recanted, then answers himself that ah! Galileo sacrificed himself to safeguard his students. Galileo answers no, it was that he did not like pain. A Stoic’s reply, perhaps Brecht’s own in the world of East Germany where he lived.

But revolutionary eras cannot entertain Stoicism. If Seneca or Galileo were seen as true revolutionaries, they would not have been able to opt out, so to speak. During the earliest persecution of Christians in Roman arenas, during the French Revolution, the Resistance against Nazism, Gandhi’s activism against the British Empire — there was no room for Stoicism but a forcible dichotomy between institution and individual, between power and authority versus the individual, wherein the individual perceived no duty, only a conflict between absolutes, with nothing to lose.

In 17th century England, with the upheaval of a monarch’s execution, Cromwellian dictatorship and overthrow, and a coup representing continental absolutism, most English intelligentsia were content to foster an outward fideism in the form of patriotism, a mild skepticism or Stoicism, while the true revolutionaries who were spawned by the Cromwellian era, were crushed. An unspoken compromise allowed for autonomy, as long as it did not challenge the existing institutions. Stoicism is the most opportune philosophy for such times.

Stoicism is not a measure of desperation but an exhaustion of possibility. Stoicism is a disillusionment with the world that must still continue to wear the mask of being in the world.

Nor is Stoicism a philosophy of disengagement. The Stoic responds, often in pain, to a mad world, regretting loss and ruing folly but determined to make a moral statement by remaining within society. Perhaps it is fear that motivates the Stoic from disengagement, a vacillation that is nevertheless fatal to the soul, even while the body lives. The intelligent may not be so well-born to put up with folly because they find themselves at the bottom of the rung and cannot really move forward.

Stoicism is a few paces from the insight of the solitary life. It wrestles with the world as shaped by human vice and clearly sees through it. But the Stoic stays engaged, through hypocrisy or dissembling or by keeping a low profile, never sure whether tomorrow will bring redemption after all, the chance to be happy and self-fulfilled.

There is much nobility in Stoicism, and reading Stoic writers is rewarding, but the solitary may already know the Stoics’ logic and already anticipated the shortcomings. Above all, the solitary may not maintain the patience or high expectations in the notion that we must persevere in tolerating the world.

Kerouac’s Buddha & Jesus

Robert Thurman, the Columbia University scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, remarks in his introduction to Jack Kerouac’s book Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha that Kerouac’s Catholicism was a decisive factor in whether Kerouac sided with the Beat Generation’s Zen or with the orientation of Tibetan Mahayana and its closer analogies to Christianity.

Kerouac was attracted to the close parallels between the life of Jesus and of Gautama. He found the hierarchy of spiritual beings in Tibetan Buddhism compatible with his Catholic familiarity with angels, saints, and demons. He was comforted by the high status afforded to the mother of Jesus as a figure of compassion and mercy. He found the analogy between “Church” and sangha reassuring. Writes Thurman:

In spite of the insistence by Christians that their teachings are sui generis and come down only from God and have no connection with any other movement on the planet, Mahayana Buddhism and Christianity have very strong “family resemblances.” It is likely that Kerouac understood the deeper, broader dimensions of Mahayana Buddhism better than his peers, either those like myself, who were strongly motivated to break away from their Christian background, or those who were receiving their knowledge through the prism of East Asian Chinese and Japanese culture, and especially through the Chan/Zen connection, where meditation and samurai-like hardball “no-thought” are emphasized.

This weighty paragraph by Thurman refers to the ultimate complex of intellectual ferment in first-century Asia and the Middle East, which we can see evolving in gnostic Christianity especially. The possibility that interrelations between Christians and larger religious and spiritual movements in the era from Jesus through the next centuries suggests a spiritual world richer than what is left today as doctrine and style. But the sentiment of the open heart in Christian and Mahayana Buddhist thinking immediately launches both on a similar trajectory.

Personal experience can play into this identification of religious or psychological style. Kerouac was close to his mother, and that opened him to identification with other persons with whom one relates through emotions, not only to the other potential “Dharma bums” but spiritually to Jesus, Buddha, Mary, saints, Bodhisattvas, human-like and spiritual beings and hierarchies of all sorts in both religious traditions.

Indeed, the core of religious sentiment may well be in the degrees of identification with personifications. This would be so because this identification is a profound expression of the conditions of nurture. The person who has received close affection in the crucial formative years of life will more readily identify with the ying, female, and the compassionate side of a given religion. Many years of work alone can bring a person with a harsh upbringing to express affection for others — but towards spiritual beings it may be easier.

Thurman contrasts the Tibetan Buddhism that attracted Kerouac with “meditation and samurai-like hardball ‘no-thought'” characterizing Zen. Historically in Japan, many former samurai came to Zen in order to change their lives, and a discipline as strong as their former one was virtually a necessity to gain their respect and transformation.

But the evolution of Zen is foreshadowed in Taoism and in Chinese culture, which greatly contrasts with the sensual imagery of the rich culture of Indian Hinduism. The tradition of meditation is too universal in the East to apply as a difference between traditions, although one senses that meditation is a tool in the West and not integral to psychology as it is in the East.

The diverse cultural manifestations of Christianity in different parts of the West were likewise reflected in the different cultural manifestations of Buddhism in the East. Just as the pomp and pageantry of a Mediterranean Holy Week differs from the austerity of a Scandinavian Lutheran counterpart, so to does the Hindu or Tibetan Buddhist festival contrast with the austerity of the Taoist or Zen temple, regardless of doctrinal differences. Indeed, the doctrinal differences may themselves have been engendered by the climate, geography, and cultural environment.

The picture is further complicated by the intermediate expressions of both religions. Where does Theravada Buddhism or Pure Land Buddhism fall, or Orthodox or evangelical Christianity? All are eventually to be measured by their proximity to the “founder” or their authenticity in capturing the spiritual quest.

Kerouac calls Gautama “the blessed hermit.” Like Jesus, one cannot simultaneously understand the spiritual person, the human being, and extrapolate that core experience into that of a “founder.” Ultimately, the actions of the “founders” are the immediate source of spiritual inspiration, and the concentric circles rippling from them represent the various contexts wherein their message, flowing outward, is diluted.

One must return to the center, to the font, to the source, however much we enjoy the embellishments of culture, history, and creativity. For Kerouac, both Jesus and the Buddha have the same message: “Wake up!”