True Guru or True Disciple

Swami Om Saraswati, Belfast

"If you can put a few people in touch with yoga you are doing them a great service, because man must know his own self. Without this he cannot extricate himself from the tragedies of life. Happiness is within, and that, one has to know by practical experience."
Swami Satyananda Saraswati

As the quotation implies, an important prerequisite for progress in yoga, or indeed along any spiritual path, is to know oneself. Whether this is interpreted as knowledge of the superficial personality and thinking mind or knowledge of the greater self beyond the mind, it makes no difference. In order to know the latter, one must come face to face with the former. But this is no easy task and for most people an experienced guide is essential. For some, guidance has to be taken and discriminately chosen from a host of sources. It is only the fortunate few, who due to no apparent virtue of their own, find one whom they can call guru. To be a disciple is a privilege difficult to describe. The guru/disciple relationship is a unique, subtle, indescribable and constantly changing experience. Just as the disciple is constantly learning and changing, so, also, is his experience with and interpretation of his guru.

The guru is above all else a friend - but a very extraordinary friend in that he undertakes to guide his disciple without any hope of personal benefit. Why he has the good fortune to be accepted is for the disciple a source of bewilderment. Perhaps the guru sees disciples as a karmic responsibility, or perhaps he accepts them because he himself is a perfect instrument of the cosmic will, and thus selflessly helps others who also aspire to become instruments of that will.

Because the guru/disciple relationship is a unique, intangible and very personal thing, it has frequently been misunderstood. To some, the disciple's behaviour may seem unnecessarily ingratiating - at times he appears to be treating his guru as a God to be served and venerated. These people have failed to understand the sound psychological basis of the guru/disciple tradition. By surrendering one's work, old habits of thinking and acting and one's very life to the guru one learns and really experiences that life is not our own to play with and happiness can never be a result of trying to manage life or please oneself only. The source of much unhappiness is the mistaken notion that we own and can manage life; to free them of such notions is one of the guru's aims for his disciples. By accepting whatever treatment the guru gives and striving to fulfil the guru's wishes instead of one's own, one develops a happy adaptability and the ability to accept and make the most of all circumstances. The guru may not follow any regular or expected pattern of behaviour - giving what we least expect and even what we definitely don't want. But how often does life follow an expected and what we consider a desirable pattern?

For a time the guru becomes life itself for the disciple. At first, the disciple seems totally dependent but the guru's aim is that he should eventually become strong, independent, and ready to cope with all of life's vicissitudes. This is one of the purposes of surrendering and by encouraging the disciple to surrender, the guru has no self-interest. He merely wants to be able to play the part of life in training his disciple to cope.

The guru may at times appear harsh, demanding and detached; at times he will be indulgent and intimate. Sometimes he will praise every effort and at other times seem unreasonably critical and impossible to please. These are not mere personal whims, but the guru's untiring way of teaching the disciple not to expect any regular pattern of treatment from life. The disciple learns that approval and disapproval do not necessarily come when we think we deserve them and he learns to look on his every word and action as a risk, worthy of his full thought and attention. What was acceptable yesterday may today earn bitter chastisement, so the disciple comes to realize that there is no final word on what is right and wrong.

At times the guru may bring the disciple to a point of intense anger and frustration. He will watch the disciple struggling to understand his own mind, sometimes making progress, sometimes stumbling and falling. He may feel and want to express sympathy and compassion but will not necessarily do so. Although he understands human fragility, he is not there to encourage it. His purpose is to help the disciple see and get beyond his conditioning and limitations- to take on a new humility, new strength and new confidence through which his true potential can blossom.

While one can always expect love, forgiveness and protection from the guru, one should not always expect tender words of consolation. These will come only from ordinary friends who are not concerned with change and who cannot bear to watch a temporary struggle. Unlike the guru, they cannot see beyond to the new strength and happiness which will emerge. In a way, the guru is like a mirror; he relentlessly forces the disciple to face his own nature and mind, never allowing him to be distracted or side tracked from the issue in question.

However, the disciple understands, and if he has faith, he can accept everything. He realizes that the guru's behaviour is not due to personal whims and eccentricities, but part of a system of training which is totally disinterested and compassionate. The guru does not need disciples, their work or their devotion. To work for the guru is the disciple's greatest privilege and the love and devotion which he feels for his guru is a wonderful, seemingly magical gift. It is what gives meaning to the disciple's life and will be his shelter in every storm. One often hears discussion about true gurus and what makes a guru 'true'. But seldom do we hear of 'true' disciples. A true disciple is one who sincerely wants to learn, and this disciple will interpret everything about his guru in a positive way. Every moment spent in the guru's presence or in doing the guru's work is seen as an opportunity to learn and evolve. Gradually, one learns to extend this attitude to every event, every circumstance, every person with whom one is in contact. Eventually a beautiful paradox emerges; the disciple comes to realize that there is no such thing as a true or untrue guru - the question is whether the disciple is true. When the disciple finally starts to realize this fact and tries to act accordingly, he can then indeed be sure that he is under the guidance of a true guru.

If you are committed to the guru
Rather than your own transformation,
You will always do what is appropriate.