Self-reliance is the best guru

The guru question is a tricky one and is fraught with controversy. But it does not have to be too confusing. For most of us, a guru—in the popular sense of an absolute spiritual authority or God man, demanding complete obedience, submission and devotion—is unnecessary and is not conducive to liberation.

Contrary to popular belief, the major Eastern wisdom traditions do not say otherwise. Guru is a Sanskrit word, from India, meaning “teacher.” In India, the word guru is used for almost any kind of teacher. If you study music, you have a music guru. If you study astrology, you have a jyotish guru. And so on. The word guru in common parlance in India does not necessarily imply complete obedience and submission.

In the tradition of Advaita Vedanta, the guru is the one who gives you self-knowledge. While it would be natural to treat your guru with respect and gratitude, there is no requirement that you absolutely obey and submit to the guru’s authority. On the contrary, inquiry and questioning are a necessary part of the path of self-knowledge.

In the early Buddhist sutras, the word guru is never used. The Buddha is referred to with respect, as a teacher or a kalyanamitra, spiritual friend, but never as a guru. The same is true in the later Mahayana teachings. The exception is in the Vajrayana or tantric Buddhist teachings. In tantra, the latest form and a very specialized kind of Buddhist practice, absolute submission to a guru is required, due to the esoteric, complex and dangerous methods used. Some people may choose to engage in these kinds of secret practices, and if they do, they will be required to submit to a guru. The analogy is undergoing surgery—you don’t get off the operating table in the middle of a dangerous operation, or start arguing with your surgeon in the middle of surgery. But Vajrayana practices are neither necessary nor probably appropriate for most people. Finally, Zen is a special case, where obedience and submission to the master is often traditionally taught. But I think that is a product of the hierarchical cultures in which Zen flourished, rather than a necessity for enlightenment. In the West, that sort of hierarchical relationship is unnatural and often counter-productive. Many Zen teachers in the West are accordingly moderating the hierarchical nature of the Zen student-teacher relationship.

Buddha, when approaching his death, urged his followers to be “islands unto yourselves.” He always stressed that his words should not be believed based upon his authority, but should always be investigated and tested for yourself. In the end, a teacher can only point the way. Each individual must walk it on his own. Each person must discover her own true self within herself.  The true self is the ultimate guru. A teacher can help point you there, but in the end liberation is a condition of complete self-reliance.

3 practices for knowing your true nature

Although liberation is the natural state, in most of us it  is covered by ignorance and obscured by false concepts of who we are and what is real. That is why the wisdom lineages prescribe practices to re-awaken us to our natural freedom.

The fundamental sadhana, or spiritual discipline, for awakening to our natural freedom are the 3 practices: listening, contemplating and meditating.

Listening is hearing the teachings that point to our original freedom, and that remind us there is nothing to attain. This can include book study. But the liberation of the wisdom lineage is primarily an oral tradition and transmission. It is most  helpful to hear the teachings in person from someone who genuinely understands them. A qualified teacher of a wisdom lineage can turn language into a mirror that will reveal your original face, your face of unobstructed freedom.

Once you have heard the teachings, it is necessary for most of us to think about them and to clarify any doubts. This is contemplation. Contemplation includes wrestling with doubts, and bringing them to the teacher for clarification. Any genuine teacher will welcome the voicing of sincere questions and doubts as a sign of your intention to be free.

When doubts have been clarified, meditation on what has been understood helps the gaining of firmness in the understanding of your true nature. Even after understanding the natural condition of liberation, the mood or habit of imprisonment, the habitual feeling of lack and confusion may persist. By meditating on the truth over and over, you will become established in it so that the winds of habitual ignorance and desire can not uproot you.

These 3 practices are the primary sadhana of one who wants to be free. They are the dharma, in the sense of the path, and, as is said, they are delightful in the beginning, in the middle and in the end. Please enjoy these practices as often as you can, but remember that you are already intrinsically free, so there is absolutely nothing to gain except clarity and confidence in this truth.

The good news of the wisdom lineage

The good news of the wisdom lineage is that we are all intrinsically free.

Perhaps you have never heard that before. More likely, you’ve heard it a million times and you are tired of hearing it or don’t know what to do with it. But I am suggesting that you take a moment to reflect on your inherent liberation, your inner ecstatic freedom, the radiant beauty of your original face. Please don’t let another day go by without at least taking a moment to pause and reflect on this.

If you understand it, you may rejoice. If you don’t get it yet, look to see if there is really anything holding you back from its realization. I think you’ll find that, except for the things you’ve been told and the illusory fabrications of your mind, there is nothing holding you back at all.

When you get it—and if you really want to, you will get it—you might dance and sing and shout, “Hallelujah!” Or if you are more comfortable with Tibetan style, shout “E Ma Ho!”

When you see your true nature for yourself, you’ll be sure. You’ll know it, and you won’t be beholden to anyone. You’ll have “entered the stream”  and the path of seeing. Then you can start to travel a path of freedom, a path that unfolds forever, and never ends.

May all beings see their true nature and walk that freedom path.

Easy meditation, natural liberation

Meditation leading to liberation can be easy and natural. As the Buddha recounted:

“I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’—Majjhima Nikaya 36

The Buddha had engaged in yoga and in self-mortification, but his desire for liberation from suffering was not satisfied. Then he recalled how, as a young man, he had spontaneously entered a natural state of meditative contemplation while resting in the shade of a rose-apple tree. It occurred to him that such natural meditation might be more conducive to liberation than the yogic trances or self-denial he had previously pursued. As a result, he took some food, and proceeded to the Bodhi tree where he sat naturally and easefully, with the strong intention to sit still until he penetrated the matter of suffering. The sutras recount that the next morning, upon seeing Venus rising, Gotama became the Awakened One.

The most fruitful meditation is like that of the Buddha—natural, relaxed, awake and with the intention of liberation, but at ease. The great teachers of Dzogchen, such as Longchenpa and Jigme Lingpa, also taught natural meditation. In meditation, as in life, too much force, concentration or fancy technique is counter-productive. Since one’s true nature is the natural state-the default state of rest when craving is relaxed-it is not hard to understand how meditation that is natural and full of ease is the most direct path to its realization.


As a kind of beginning, some words from Hafiz:

Tiny Gods

Some gods say, the tiny ones,
“I am not here in your vibrant moist lips
That need to beach themselves upon
The golden shore of a
Naked body.

Some gods say, “I am not
The scarred yearning in the unrequited soul;
I am not the blushing cheek
Of every star and

I am not the applauding Chef
Of those precious secretions that can distill
The whole mind into a perfect wincing jewel, if only
For a moment;
Nor do I reside in every pile of sweet warm dung
Born of the earth’s

Some gods say, the ones we need to hang,
“Your mouth is not designed to know His,
Love was not born to consume
The luminous

Dear ones,
Beware of the tiny gods frightened men
To bring an anesthetic relief to their sad

–“Tiny Gods,” Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky in The Gift

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