Many things in life are meant to be experienced rather than explained or understood. By logical analysis, we will only miss the point. It is impossible to understand the master-disciple relationship by listening to others or reading books because it is a very mysterious romance… a love story to be lived.
Masters and their disciples do not establish a relationship. What happened between the Baal Shem Tov and his Hassidim, Buddha and his sangha, Shankara and his sishyas, was not a relationship but a encounter between darkness and light, between questions and the answer. The disciple is fertile soil; the master, a rain-laden cloud. In this union, duality disappears in the Absolute, the river merges into the sea, the drop vanishes in the ocean, wisdom clears ignorance, light dissipates darkness, and the human becomes the Divine.
The Sanskrit word guru is translated as “one who helps to dissipate darkness”:
gukāras tvandhakāraś ca
rukāras teja ucyate
ajnāna grāsakaṁ brahma
gurur eva na saṁśayaḥ
The syllable gu is the darkness, and it is said that the syllable ru is the light. There is no doubt that the guru is, in effect, the supreme knowledge that destroys the darkness of ignorance. (Śrī Guru Gītā, 23)
We find in the Vaiṣṇava-Kaṇṭḥ-Hāra a very similar explanation:
gu śabdas tv andha-kāraḥ
ru śabdas tu nirodhakaḥ
gurur ity abhidhyate
The word gu means “darkness” and ru means “that which disperses.” According to his or her ability to disperse the darkness of ignorance, such a transcendent being is called guru. (Vaiṣṇava-Kaṇṭḥ-Hāra)
On the dual platform, relationships are between egos: parents and children, sellers and buyers, managers and employees, siblings, lovers, friends, neighbors, and so on. By definition, a relationship needs two. Ignorance compels disciples conceive the guru as different from themselves; however, it is not so from the perspective of the master. The encounter between master and disciple eliminates all separation; everything that disperses and divides fades away, revealing the underlying unity. In this relationship, disciples meet with themselves because the master is not someone, but no-one… an emptiness, a presence, nothingness.
Arjuna addresses Krishna in the following manner:
sakheti matvā prasabhaṁ yad uktaṁ
he kṛṣṇa he yādava he sakheti
ajānatā mahimānaṁ tavedaṁ
mayā pramādāt praṇayena vāpi
yac cāvahāsārtham asat-kṛto ’si
eko ’tha vāpy acyuta tat-samakṣaṁ
tat kṣāmaye tvām aham aprameyam
Thinking of you as my friend, I have rashly addressed you “O Kṛṣṇa,” “O Yādava,” “O my friend,” not knowing your glories. Please forgive whatever I may have done in madness or in love. I have dishonored You many times, jesting as we relaxed, laid on the same bed, or sat or ate together, sometimes alone and sometimes in front of many friends. O infallible one, please excuse me for all those offenses. (Bhagavad Gita, 11.41-42)
Ordinary friendship is often a mutual nourishment of the ego. Most people choose as their friends whomever feeds their self-image. As Lion Daudi said: “Do you want an advice for success in your relationships? Help others to keep up their masks.” In general, this is what friendship is about: helping each other to hold the masks. In that sense, masters cannot be considered friends. However, they are the only true friends because they help the disciples to transcend themselves, to go beyond the “I.”
Masters act as enemies of the egoic phenomenon. Their words and actions are like acid for disciple’s ego. The guru’s behavior is relentless, devastating, and destructive. Their work consists in eliminating dreams, illusions, and fantasies. Masters are a real disruption aimed to disturb the disciple’s sleep.
Society and the media bombard us with offers of comfort, security, and consolation. If you start a company that can offer such services, surely your business will be successful. However, the association with the guru is not for seekers of safety or relief, but only for those who aspire for liberation.
For the disciple, the master is God; for the master, everyone is God. The guru’s vision is that the underlying nature of all beings is divine. According to the sacred scriptures, the original guru, or caitya-guru, lies in our innermost depths:
sarvasya caham hrdi sannivisto
mattah smrtir jnanam apohanam ca
vedais ca sarvair aham eva vedyo
vedanta-krd veda-vid eva caham
I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas, I am to be known. Indeed, I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas. (Bhagavad-gītā, 15.15)
The caitya-guru is the inner spiritual master who lies in the heart and is one with the Self; the two external aspects are the dīkṣā-guru and the śikṣā-gurus. The dīkṣā-guru guides our soul forever. Śikṣā-gurus are those who instruct us on specific aspects of the spiritual life. Both are manifestations that the
caitya-guru adopts to make communication possible; they are essential because communication requires external agents as long as we have not achieved the level needed to connect with the caitya-guru directly. If our attitude is appropriate, we will gradually be able to reconnect with our inner spiritual master.
The presence of the guru inspires and elevates us; it is a flower, a sunset, a full moon. Only our identification with the mind separates us from the master. Masters do not offer a path to a distant goal neither do they teach a theory or doctrine that gives us a certain understanding. Gurus do not preach a particular religion but they themselves are their disciples’ religion. True disciples do not choose a master within their own religion, but follow the religion through which their gurus choose to express themselves.
Generally, people confuse the relation student-teacher with the encounter master-disciple. Despite some similarities, the difference is enormous. Students know that they are searching for information and knowledge. Disciples, on the other hand, while experiencing a strong urge, do not know the object of their longing; they seek the Truth or God without knowing what these words symbolize. They aspire for the mystery; they long get lost in the unknown. Students desire to “know about”; disciples want to “be.” Students have clear goals because their impetus is born from the mind. But the disciples’ motivation ignores words because it emerges from a dimension prior to the mental plane.
The relationship between a teacher and student is intellectual in nature and develops at the mental level; it is a transmission of information intended to bestow knowledge. On the other hand, the encounter between master and disciples is of existential nature; it is not about studying or learning, but about being. In the scripture Pirkei Abot, it is said that Moses received the Torah from Mount Sinai. The master is not only a person, but can be the place where our encounter with consciousness took place. This encounter is not limited to the physical or mental plane, but occurs at the level of souls.
While the student seeks information, the disciple goes after a complete transformation. Disciples have realized their ignorance and seek the realization of their true nature. Teachers convey subjects, while masters convey themselves. True disciples want to learn their masters, who are the essence of the Self.
The teacher imparts knowledge but the guru is committed to a complete epistemological liberation. Pedagogues try to expand the student’s storehouse of information, but masters guide toward a total emancipation from any theory, idea, concept, and conclusion.
When disciples find their master, they have to embark on a transformative process of liberation from the past and the known. Like dust on a mirror, the known does not allow to reflect reality. Covered by theologies, philosophies, and scriptures, we cannot reflect the Divine. Being part of a certain “ism,” we project ideas and concepts upon reality instead of seeing it. Adoration for God is replaced by adoration for ideas about God. Idols of stone and bronze do not pose a real danger. True idolatry is when we worship thought-made mental idols. Logically, the search for our own ideas cannot lead us to unveil something real. Ideas and words are symbols, but they are not the thing itself. Although symbols can be bridges to the un-manifested plane, the danger is to remain trapped in them. In order to access Truth, reality, God, it is imperative to destroy our idols of thought and empty ourselves completely of any ideas, concepts, or conclusions.
The window allows us to see the landscape. But the trees and hills do not belong to the window, which is only a hole that exposes the exterior. Similarly, the master is a void through which we can glimpse freedom. The guru is not a person but an absence that exposes the mountains and will never allow the disciples to attribute the beauty of the landscape to them. Disciples often get attached to the individual that they consider as their savior or messiah. However, the master will not accept this harmful attitude. Disciples must relate to the master as an open door to the Truth that encourages them to go out.
The spiritual master is not only a guide, but is the way, as indicated by Maitrī Upaniṣad:
uddhartum arhasi andhodapānastho bheka ivāham asmin saṁsāre bhagavan no gatis tvaṁ no gatiḥ
Please agree to liberate me. In this cycle of repeated births and deaths I am like a frog in a dry pond. Your Divine Grace, you are our path, you are our path. (Maitrī Upaniṣad, 1.4).
A very similar concept is presented in the New Testament (John, 14: 6): “I am the way, the Truth and the Life”—replied Jesus. Nobody reaches the Father except through me.”
Masters fulfill the functions of spiritual parents. Just as we receive the physical body from our biological parents, through the master we are born to the spirit. Our mother is the door to the world and the master is an entrance to the plane of consciousness. However, no one can pass through the gateway on behalf of you, not even the master… only you can cross it.
Democracy might be the most suitable system for modern society, but in certain situations we need to choose other alternatives. An airplane must be driven by a pilot and not piloted based on the democratic vote of the passengers. Doctors should often ignore the preferences of their patients. Likewise, a transformative process cannot be developed on a democratic basis. The disciple should not expect it in the work with the master. Obviously, a sleeping person is not able to choose whether to wake up or continue sleeping.
A real master is a finger pointing toward freedom. Hence, the master will never meet the expectations of the disciples. Business people try to satisfy their clients. Politicians will do their best to keep voters happy. But only false masters will fulfill the expectations of their followers. A real one will continuously disillusion them. That is why so few disciples remain with the master. Real gurus often have their own “Judas” as well as a wake of disappointed people that could not give up their own expectations.
An authentic disciple will find a real master; likewise, a mediocre one will surrender to a questionable guru; and a false disciple most likely will be drawn to a false guru. Nowadays, many people talk about impostor masters. However, it is not only the gurus’ fault, but mainly of the people who are attracted to whomever tells them what they want to hear.
It is very important for the disciple to understand the function of the master. The sadhaka must take responsibility. The master can indicate where the water is, but cannot quench the thirst of the disciples unless they drink. The guru can bring you to the tallest tree, but the disciple is the one who must open the wings and fly. The master supports and motivates but cannot become self-realized on behalf of the disciple. Just like traffic officers, masters can indicate the direction, but it is not their job to bring you to your destination.
The attitude of the disciple must be of service and inquiry. Krishna says:
tad viddhi praṇipātena
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ
Learn the Truth only by approaching a spiritual master, inquiring from him submissively and serving him. The self-realized soul can impart wisdom to you because he has seen the Truth. (Bhagavad Gita, 4.34)
If you approach a guru, it should be in order to serve and not be served, to give and not to receive. The guru cannot give you anything that you do not already have. You only need the Self, but you are already the Self; hence, only you can give it to yourself. The guru teaches you the art of giving, so you can
give the Self to yourself.
Disciples do not approach a spiritual master in search of knowledge but only when they are weary of information and their hearts have become a big question. They should put aside everything known and become receptive. They ask, examine, and explore, but not through intellectual questioning. The spiritual process of learning is not only intellectual but transcendental as well.
It is an unconditional encounter where the disciple, thirsty for Truth, asks for nothing. On the other hand, the master does not promise paradises after death. Disciples do not demand anything because they ignore what they seek. Masters do not promise anything because what they offer is included in their silence, in their presence.
The master is a masculine phenomenon even if it is expressed through a female guru. Likewise, even male disciples manifest a female attitude. They approach the master with vulnerability and receptivity. Their attitude is passive and free from defenses. The surrender of a soul in love is of a feminine nature. Their openness allows them to be penetrated by the presence of the master.
The cultivation of receptivity and vulnerability prepare us to be ready for unconditional surrender, which is an essential step toward total transformation. Surrender comes from the heart of the disciple and is never imposed by the master. If it were forced, one should question the veracity of such guru.
Unconditional surrender is the path toward the deep communion of the disciple with his or her master. Whoever has not yet found a master can surrender to life, existence, or totality. The important thing is the awakening of this unconditional surrender in the heart. The disciple does not surrender to someone but to divinity; not to a person but at the feet of Truth. Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita:
sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śharaṇaṁ vraja
ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣhayiṣhyāmi mā śhuchaḥ
Abandon all varieties of dharmas and simply surrender unto me alone. I shall liberate you from all sinful reactions; do not fear. (Bhagavad Gita, 18.66)
The evolutionary process that takes place within the master-disciple frame flourishes from trust, love, and loyalty. The development of the disciple is not the result of a certain activity. The aspirant does not evolve due to some practice. Every practice is a preparation, but it does not produces the development itself.
True masters shine but never dazzle. Disciples are a quest for the dissipation of darkness. They long to see clearly what is, as it is. Human beings do not perceive the world as it is, but as it appears to them. Instead of observing, they project their mental content on the observed. Disciples realize this and seek for clarity. The master does not give them anything concrete, but the possibility of observing what already is. The guru is light that offers its clarity to the disciple who lives in the dark.
om ajnana-timirandhasya jnananjana-salakaya
caksur unmilitam yena tasmai sri-gurave namah
I was born in the darkest ignorance, and my spiritual master opened my eyes with the torch of knowledge. I offer my respectful obeisances unto him.
Both the disciple and the master are on a search. The former seeks to open up to an unlimited receiving. Such a wide and unconditional opening that will allow the acceptance of the entire universe. The latter, on the other hand, seeks an appropriate recipient to entrust the infinite secret.
At a superficial look it would seem that the disciple gives everything to the guru in exchange for spiritual elevation. However, the encounter between the two is not a giving and receiving relationship. The real intention is to awaken the dormant divine potential that lies in the disciple. In Śrī Guru-gītā it is said:
yajno vrataṁ tapo dānaṁ
japastīrthaṁ tathaiva ca
mūḍhāste carate janāḥ
The practice of japa, the rituals of sacrifice, vows, penance, charity, and pilgrimages are all a waste of time without a proper understanding of the guru principle. (Śrī Guru-gītā, 24)
Disciples desire to be close to their master. However, despite living very near physically, they never manage to feel close to “someone.” The distance they feel is the distance from themselves. The phenomenon of the master is more about presence than about substance, a simultaneous presence and absence. As a presence, the master is totality here and now. As substance, the master is the absence of someone or something objectivized in space and time, and lacks the apparent mass and substantiality of the limited egoic phenomena. The guru is an embodied emptiness… the shadow of no-oneness, the reflection of emptiness on the lake of the relativity.
By trying to get closer to where the guru is, we will discover where we are actually situated. In the presence of the master, disciples recognize themselves… In fact, this is the idea behind the word satsaṅga, which means “to sit with the Truth.” Satsaṅga is the deep and intimate communion of two presences, two silences, emerging as one… what happens between them is a love story, but not as we know it. It is not a relationship between two, but a duet of one.
While contemplating a beautiful piece of art, we might feel embraced by tender peace and refreshing happiness. However, if we analyze the components of that painting in a laboratory, we will not find peace. Happiness does not come from a picture but from our inner depths. In other words, that colorful canvas connects us to the source of bliss that always abides within our intimate depths. Similarly, what we experience in the presence of the master is our true nature or God.
The disciple is a potentiality and the master a manifestation. The former is a seed, the latter a tree. The guru represents the possibilities of the disciple; the disciple represents what the guru was. The master is the future of the disciple, while the disciple is the past of the guru. In front of the master, disciples are faced with their possibilities, with what existence dreams for them.
The spiritual master is the most loyal expression of the Absolute within the relative; the Self expresses itself in the silence, the glances, and the gestures of the master. Before the master, we feel less mind, less body, and more being… This presence emanates from the totality of someone who is established here and now. Learning from masters requires to sit close and perceive the melody flowing from their soul. In tune with their silence, we will recognize our own peace in the depths of the soul.