The Holy Trinity of Spiritual Traditions
In our previous post the five key elements for a spiritual tradition and its transmission were laid out. These are: 1. Teacher; 2. Teachings; 3. Students; 4. Place; and 5. Time. Initially I was going to skip over discussing the first three, believing them to be self-evident, and jump right into a detailed discussion of items four and five. However, apparently whenever anything is believed to be self-evident, more often than not it isn't. No clearer example can be given than the very nature of this blog—sustainable spirituality. It is easy to think the definition and practice of sustainable spirituality is clear and obvious. Apparently it is not; otherwise, I would not be writing about it, and you would not be reading about it.
As a result of earlier posts, I received an email asking me to define sustainable spirituality—the email's author suggested that spirituality “by definition” was sustainable. Below is my reply:
There are a great deal of spiritual practices that are not sustainable. We often forget, as John Michael Greer pointed out in a recent email to me, that Buddhism in India and Japan experienced certain cycles wherein the large monastic and temple complexes collapsed when their financial support was withdrawn. If we look at many Masonic lodges, (and more will be published on this as well as presented to several Masonic bodies), they are essentially unsustainable as they currently exist—the numbers and cash do not warrant the number of members served. Sustainable is a matter of maintenance and functioning in the material world—the only place spirituality really matters—and that is the difficult point to get across. You certainly do not need weekly instruction or monthly rituals when you are dead. So, sustainable can be summed up as ‘resources needed to support the practice of the members in the present AND to provide for a lineage into the future.’ If the resources are not present for the PRESENT, and some degree of linkage into the FUTURE, then it is unsustainable. I hope this is clear.
Re-read the above paragraph one more time. Pay special attention to the section in bold font.
Back to our five points. Students of Vajrayana Buddhism will find them familiar. They are neither specific to a tradition, nor belong to anyone, as they are simple common sense. Again, something that is not so “common,” as, if it were, there would be no need for this blog—and I say this not in sarcasm, but in all seriousness. When things have always been in front of us, we find it difficult to imagine a time when they will not be present. We do this with family, friends, jobs, and even spiritual teachers and traditions.
According to Tibetan Vajrayana there was a time when the Buddhas, those who are Awake and Fully Enlightened, did not teach. They did this we are told because there were no suitable students for the teachings they had to offer. As such, traditions ceased to exist on the human level—the only level we are concerned with for these posts—and teachings instead were given where they could be understood and applied. Now pay attention here: understood and applied. It does no good to give a teaching on calculus to the average Elementary School student, nor does it do any good to give a teaching on auto mechanics to someone who, while capable of understanding, does not have the tools, time, or place to apply the teachings—all that does is create frustration for both the teacher and the student.
So, then, what is the role of a spiritual teacher?
In addition to being a reliable living example of the teachings, they also function as the focal point for a group or organization, its spiritual and administrative head, and, finally, an embodiment of the teachings.
Point One: As the focal point of the organization it is important that the teacher be charismatic and inspirational. If they are not charismatic to some degree, then no one will pay any attention to them. If they are not inspirational, then no one will act on what they have heard. Charisma and inspiration are twins of memorable leadership.
Point Two: The role of spiritual and administrative head are often combined and confused in many organizations. Particularly in larger groups wherein the teacher is believed to be in communion with either higher intelligences, unknown masters, or God itself. As the spiritual head, the teacher functions as a living example, friend, and guide on the Path. However, as a material, day-to-day administrator, the real test is often made: here is where organizations, no matter how large or small, either succeed or fail. One need only look at the stunning success of the Rosicrucian Order (AMORC) under the dynamic, creative, and practical leadership of its founder Harvey Spencer Lewis, continued expansion under his son Ralph Lewis…and sudden and lightning-fast collapse under the leadership that has followed.
Good leadership, be it charismatic and inspirational as is often the case with the founder, (or pragmatic and “grandfatherly,” as was the case with H. S. Lewis’s successor), is very hard to follow as a leader. The number of magical, gnostic, and initiatic groups that have come and gone because of failure of leadership is staggering. Even some of the most well-led and instructed of them, such the Coven of the Cat, founded by Dr. Frederick LaMotte Santee, fragmented into several competing groups after his death. While it managed to weather the storm and continue on, this is in no small part due to the fact that the surviving group's leader was part of the original Santee-led coven, and thereby is a direct student of the founder. The true test will come after the third and fourth generation of leaders who have no direct connection to the founder and must lead solely on their own merit.
However, not all teachers have both the inspirational presence and administrative skills required to do the job. To this end, the duties are either split and acknowledged openly—which is the best way—or split and handled more privately. In esoteric orders, this means that there may be an acknowledged “Outer Head,” or public and administrative face for the organization, while an “Inner Head,” undistracted by mundane duties, focuses on the spiritual connections and needs of the organization. This Inner Head is often unknown to the general membership, or, if known, functions in a sort of “emeritus” fashion. As such, teachers need to know their limits and be good delegators so that needed activities can be identified and related goals achieved—be it building maintenance or organizing the annual holiday party.
Point Three: The teacher is a living example of the teachings. This can be tricky, as it does not mean that they are all-knowing, wise, and perfect. It simply means that they are someone that the student can look to as an example. We hear the question today, “What would Jesus do?”—and this also applies to our teacher: “What would Yoda do?” We try to understand them so as to better understand ourselves. Here is the pedestal upon which many teachers rise and fall. While much has been written about the problems of student-teacher relationships, we can easily sum it up in a single word: TRUST.
No matter how charismatic, inspirational, and administratively effective a teacher is—and no matter how well they understand the teachings—if they are not someone we trust, then a healthy relationship cannot be established. If we trust our teacher—for better or worse—then their failings, (actual or perceived), we can more easily overlook. Now, re-read the above word—TRUST—write it out, and ask yourself, “Do I trust my spiritual teacher(s) as much as I trust my plumber?”
TRUST is the single most important quality a spiritual teacher must be endowed with. Is this someone we are willing to trust with our mind, soul, family, material support? If the answer is “no” to any one of these, then we need to find a teacher for whom we can say yes to all of these.
The teachings must be something for which we know what the results will be; something we can apply, which provides us with a deeper connection to where they have come from, those who are practicing them now, and a glimpse of the future they will provide.
Point One: Teachings must have a clear purpose in mind, be it enlightenment, healing, lucid dreaming, divination, increased sense of happiness, etc. Again, this may sound obvious, but how often have we not been attending a seminar or workshop and asked ourselves, What is the purpose of this? What is enlightenment? How will I know it when I experience it? Good teachings will be able to answer these questions when they arise, and provide enough information prior to practice to give confidence in their effectiveness.
Point Two: Teachings need to be something we can apply. If we cannot apply it in daily life then it might as well not exist. Western Buddhism runs into this repeatedly when there is discussion of the Preliminary Practices in Vajrayana. Here, it is often required that a student perform 100,000 repetitions of a particular prayer, mantra, physical prostration, and ritual offering. This number is staggering, and few people in the West have actually fulfilled this requirement—and even traditional Eastern Buddhist teachers are questioning the value of such a high number given the daily demands of life in the West.
The same is true with laboratory alchemy, as discussed previously, or ritual magic, wherein the requirements can be extensive and demanding. In addition, teachers and reliable teachings will have several consistent and reliable variations of the same practice to accommodate the different levels of practitioners. Someone who is dedicated but lacking in certain skills, someone who is of average intelligence and skill, and someone who is a superior practitioner and possesses superior skills will each need a slightly different practice to assist them in getting to the same level of understanding. This is something easily found in Oriental teachings, but not always easily apparent in Western esoteric movements.
Keep in mind that underlying this is the fact that we will only undertake the extreme requirements of any discipline if we TRUST that they will give us the promised benefit, and, in particular, a benefit demonstrated in the daily life of the Teacher as the living example.
If we TRUST the teachings to deliver as promised we will practice them as we received them, without augmentation or modification.
Point Three: Spiritual practice is by ourselves, for ourselves, but not by and for ourselves alone. There is no such thing as collective enlightenment, but we still give and receive help on the Path along the way. This help comes to us from the past as traditions, lineages, philosophies, and practices that existed even without our involvement with them. Help comes to us in the present from teachers and fellow students.
In turn, we assist those around us and those who will come after us by building strong lineages, traditions, and organizations—strong vehicles for the continuation of the teachings as living and vital practices.
Students and Fellow Travelers
To build these strong associations—and if our practice is to be successful—will require working with others to varying degrees. Some of these “others” will be our teachers, some our fellow students, and some friends and strangers we encounter in daily life. Each of these is a fellow traveler through life.
Point One: “Teacher as Traveler” is where we recognize the words of the teachings as the living voice of God to our soul, as well as the teacher as a fellow traveler who is “like us, and not like us” simultaneously. The teacher is like us in that they are working on the Path as well, unless we are fortunate enough to have a fully illumined being as our teacher—and if that is the case, I doubt you would need to be reading this blog. The teacher is also Other, in that they have special and unique gifts to offer as a result of the success of their Work, and are passing that on to us.
How we come to grips with their “human-divine” status is a direct reflection of how we understand our own. Several years ago over lunch I said to a young lama about a teacher, “I do no need him to be perfect for me. By that I mean all knowing. He does not need to be able to intuit the answers to physics out of thin air, or speak every language ever known. All I need to know is that his transmission of the teachings is perfect, and by that I mean whole and complete. I trust that he has my best interests at heart, and that of everyone really. He practices the teachings in every breath.” I trust him, even if his journey is not yet complete.
Point Two: “Fellow students as Traveler.” Here we come to realize the idiosyncratic uniqueness of each of our fellow travelers. We accept them and, using the methods we have learned, learn to successfully work with them in accomplishing the common goals of the organization. I trust them and can rely on them in good times and bad.
Point Three: “Friends and Strangers as Traveler.” Here is one of the most difficult areas of practice, and that is, while undertaking our path, seeing others as partners with us on the journey—learning how to include friends, enemies, and strangers in our work, and not just people we like. Here, practical relationships can be formed wherein two or more small groups are able to pool resources and obtain needed meeting space, sponsor a conference or event, and accomplish things that we could not do on our own. But to do this requires TRUST.
Trust is the basis for all healthy relationships. Not love, respect, or any extreme emotion, for we can love and respect people whom we do not trust—but we cannot work with such people in a healthy manner towards individual or common goals…that is a different matter. Trust is the glue of healthy societies regardless of size, time, or place.
All esoteric, spiritual, religious, and self-help movements where people come together for a similar purpose with common ideals or philosophical principals is a society. In recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, trust is what allows people to speak freely of their addictions. In team-building seminars, trust building exercises that can be seemingly nonsensical can be a vehicle for helping people learn to work together for a common goal that otherwise they have little combined investment in regarding the outcome. In esoteric, initiatic, and occult groups, members trust that their participation will remain a confidential matter and not become public knowledge. Trust is the basis for all effective, healthy, and stable human interactions.
Spiritual groups fail when trust is either not established or is broken and not repaired. This is important, because without trust, it is impossible to move on to the fifth and critical point of “Place.” We live in a time wherein trust is at a premium. Media of all sorts, mainstream or alternative, is aimed at breaking our trust in authority figures, employers, laws, religious heads, and even our neighbors and people we will never meet. Without trust there is only fear and anxiety, and, ultimately, paranoia, the opposite of altruism, generosity, wisdom, and compassion, the expressions of a truly healthy and spiritual personality.
Take time until our next discussion to reflect on the above points, and explore how much trust you allow in yourself and others. If you do not trust your teachers, fellow travelers, or people in general, why is that? What can be done to repair that trust? What value do you place on trust in general and in your spiritual practice in particular?
Until next time—Happy Holidays!