The Path of the RoninWe can look to the teachings themselves as a means of shedding light on our exploration of spiritual practice for a new generation. Certain standards or measures exist to insure fidelity of transmission from one person to another. Most teachings employ a means of discriminating one’s level of understanding and delineating one’s role within a teaching. A seeker is one who wishes to know, who enters a teaching and still remains on the outer edges, perhaps without a commitment or with a provisional devotion to a teaching. An initiate is one who traversed through the first gate, shows an evident commitment, and begins to practice and follow the demands of the teaching. A guide is one who has traveled the path for a degree of time and has earned the right to help transmit the teaching to a younger generation of seekers and initiates. A teacher is one who can begin to see without illusion, who has attained a higher level of being and begins to embody the teaching in their life and times. A master fully embodies a teaching; they become a source from which a teaching arises or adapts; they teach through their presence as much as through words and deeds, and they are a fountainhead, a spiritual emissary of the work of the gods on earth. They formulate teachings for their times (Christ, Buddha, Mohammed), or adapt teachings for a present day (Trungpa, Gurdjieff, Yogananda). Gurdjieff claimed that one’s level of being dictates the breadth of ones influence and that fully realized beings can influence all of humanity.
Recently I came across a beautiful story that has been a part of Japanese history and legend for centuries: the tale of the 47 Ronin. A Ronin is a Samurai without a master. In this tale, a Samurai is compelled to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) for assaulting a prideful, envious official. The Samurai’s students are left without the master, bide their time and work together as limbs of the same body, and later exact their revenge. Together, after killing the official, they commit ritual suicide rather than face the wrath of the authorities and the modernizing legal system of the 18th century that ignores the Samurai code of loyalty and fealty to the master.
In spiritual practice today we are like the Ronin. There is no living Christ or Buddha to show our way, no Trungpa or Gurdjieff to enliven ancient teachings, and no realized master who brings new light to our planetary existence. The Dalai Lama has done a remarkable job in bringing the core tenants of Buddhism to the masses, but for most of us, he remains an inaccessible public figure. We cannot sit at his feet except within large stadiums where he strives tirelessly to engender responsibility for each other through empathy and compassion. We have no masters and few real teachers with whom we can reliably follow and take as our own guru.
As Ronin on the spiritual path, can we take our condition to heart as we search for and follow our chosen teaching? The Ronin serve something greater than themselves, a master within or without. Masters teach implicitly; through their very being something is energetically transmitted to others — in addition to the clarity and depth of understanding found in their words. Without a master, how do we proceed on the spiritual path? All hope is not lost. Like the 47 Ronin, we have each other, and like the Samurai of Japan, we have teachers and guides who may not yet be masters but have something substantial — a living light — to offer through their wisdom and experience.
Except for rare spontaneous awakenings, most guides are not solitary and are found within a teaching. They arise through long-term (often decades-long) practice with their teachers and guides, and they distinguish themselves through their living words and deeds. Even those that can be called teachers can be found today within all real traditions. All of the legitimate teachings — Buddhism, Yoga, Gurdjieff Work, Sufism and others — take place through a sangha, a community of seekers. One does not work alone. The challenges and discoveries of others become one’s own and visa versa. Within those traditions, there are those with more and those with less experience. In a well functioning group, there is a collective intelligence that arises in the space of working together. While this is mysterious, in my experience, it’s actually a common phenomenon. The group itself functions as a teacher and as a gatekeeper to a teaching — and certain members take on a greater responsibility for the teaching. But never alone. The elders lead groups together. In the Gurdjieff work, of which I am a part, rarely does someone sit alone in front of a group; it is always in partnership with other guides and teachers.
Teachers cannot self-identify. They are vetted within a teaching. In this age where books and workshops abound on meditation, personal growth, and opening to higher realities, we can share our experience with others, but by always keeping one rigorous guideline in mind: to stay within the bounds of our real, verifiable experience and to not pretend we are something we are not. Integrity is paramount. It is other people we are affecting through our words and deeds. Personal speculation cannot help others, nor can dominance by the ego or residual childhood wounds. In working with others, we have one basic responsibility: to be sincere and tell the truth. Do no harm.
Attention Begets Attention
When we work together, a mysterious synchronization arises. We are connected on a deep underlying level, beyond the mind, into the realm of consciousness. My efforts towards awareness — or lack thereof — influence you, and visa versa. We can help bring each other up, towards the path of inner evolution, or if we stay within the bounds of our ego and conditioned personality, we can bring each other down, into an involving path, where attention and awareness degrade rather than uplift. In a very real sense, we are responsible to and for each other. In a group sitting, for example, when everyone is genuinely striving towards a broader awareness, a silent, vibrating energy can descend into the room touching all members of the group. You can feel it. The quiet energy is palpable and overspreads the room. This phenomenon brings new meaning to Christ’s words: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.”
Through sharing our work, and expressing our discoveries and challenges, the understanding of everyone in a group is enlarged. We are not alone. We are one body, one mind. The vision of one can become the vision of many. American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of the potential of this form of seeing: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.” In moments when we find the pure awareness of sight, we see ourselves in the moment, without judgment. We see what is. We also see each other. To be the recipient of the silent gaze of awareness is an uplifting experience. It helps us have an awareness of onself, others, and the life surrounding us. This form of seeing carries love and compassion in its gaze.
Isn’t this what we want from others, from our teachers and guides: to be seen, really seen? One young seeker reflects on the difficulty her generation faces in finding a teacher: “Someone needs to pick up the torch to be a teacher for us. We desire being witnessed — being seen by a teacher. Before we can see ourselves we need to know we are seen by our teachers. We hope that they see something of who we are, so we can get to know that in ourselves and so we get to know our place in the world.”
On Finding a Teacher
Towards the close of the unfinished novel Mount Analogue, René Daumal outlines one of the lawful conditions of the spiritual quest. Those who have traveled the path need to offer the fruits of their understanding to others. “At the end, I want to speak at length of one of the basic laws of Mount Analogue. To reach the summit, one must proceed from encampment to encampment. But before setting out for the next refuge, one must prepare those coming after to occupy the place one is leaving. Only after having prepared them, can one go on up”
Students need the help of a teacher and most teachers feel a definite responsibility to transmit their understanding faithfully to other seekers. In finding a path or a guide, discrimination is essential. Does the path feel right? Does it speak to me, where I am? Does it offer the means and methods of genuine transformation of being. Does the teacher have real knowledge, integrity, and seriousness of purpose? Can I learn from them? Will they help challenge me with suitable exercises and assist in transcending my conditioned personality? The teacher/ student relationship is one of great vulnerability. A spiritual friendship is a sacred contract. Can I trust this person? Can I open to them without hesitation? Obviously, the answer to these questions may need time to unfold.
In my own experience, I hold a lifelong debt — one that I cannot repay — to several guides and teachers in the Gurdjieff work that helped me find my way. Something came through them of a very high quality and with a purity; they were conduits for a teaching. Yet they were fully human. I knew them as people and I knew them as teachers. They had their flaws and their shortcomings. Yet, they could be trusted and I came to know their personality as well as their gifted moments of transmission — and learned to tell the difference.
This may seem obvious, but deserves stating. Teachers are found within a teaching. They do not place a shingle outside their door or function as independent agents. They are part of a larger whole that constitutes the teaching of which they are a part. They have peers and teachers themselves. We become part of a tradition or teaching that extends through time and generations: past, present, and future. We take our place in an evolving, organic system. We cannot do it alone. Not really.
The Dance of Generations
Spiritual work remains timeless; the entry point shifts in light of cultural conditions in a changing world. One of the questions that we face today is how to maintain an authentic teaching while adapting to rapid cultural changes.
Weeks or month-long retreats; high fees; extreme levels of commitment; devotion based on faith alone; these conditions took place in spiritual work of past generations. My teacher Mrs. Dooling, when our commitment to the work wavered, would often say: “You cannot make an omelet without first breaking the eggs.” She was right, and remains so today. However, times have changed. We need to apply different standards as to what constitutes an inner commitment to spiritual work. People are struggling to make ends meet, have young families, and have little spare time. Many people have also been burned or exploited through faith-based devotion and misplaced trust.
Generally, many people today are at sea without firm grounding on a spiritual path. In ancient Japanese culture, Ronin’s were often socially adrift, belonging to no master, with no allegiance to place or established communities. Today’s generation are spiritual iconoclasts. Many are wary, cynical, and have resistance to groups. They’ve witnessed the fall from grace of many gurus and teachers and seen the idealism of the previous generation become mired in consumerism and spiritual materialism. Not seeing a way to achieve the lofty aims of an earlier generation of seekers, some have opted to perform the Ronin’s obligatory sepukku (ritual suicide) — leaving behind a spiritual life altogether. One such person responded to the initial question of “what defines your spiritual practice or how do you define your spiritual practice?” by stating that he didn’t see how it was relevant to his life and the pressing practical needs of day-to-day living.
We need to help new generations regain trust and confidence in teachers and teachings. We need to be sincere and authentic and be mindful of the many traps of ego and illusion. They, in turn, need to make a provisional commitment to a path and empty themselves of false knowing and reliance on an imaginary self-image. We all need humility in the face of the spiritual quest. Like Ronin, we are all limbs of the same body working toward an integrated movement—a movement not only physical in nature but social, cultural and most importantly spiritual. Work must happen together cross-generationally to move beyond the debasement of teachings into media distortions and mere self help. A true Ronin has training and dignity. While we are not yet masters, we can learn from each other and from the teachers and guides we encounter.
I am dead because I lack desire;
I lack desire because I think I possess;
I think I possess because I do not try to give;
In trying to give, you see that you have nothing;
Seeing that you have nothing, you try to give of yourself;
Trying to give of yourself, you see that you are nothing;
Seeing you are nothing, you desire to become;
In desiring to become, you begin to live.
— Réne Daumal, Mount Analogue:
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