How do we know there is a spiritual aspect to nature, and teachers to convey its condition and laws? If we look at human history, we find great spiritual teachers standing as testaments to a tradition of ageless wisdom concerning the universe and man. The Greeks referred to the Great Chain of Hermes, and Sanskrit literature refers to guruparampara ("teachers uninterrupted or in succession"), indicating the living chain of being stretching from the spiritual heart of the cosmos through mankind and the rest of nature. Viewed as a hierarchy of compassion, one great teacher passes on the light to the next, from level to level and sphere to sphere. The receivers of this light on earth are the great adepts and masters of every tradition, who in turn pass it on to all those who are receptive. Various schools also refer to a spiritual succession of teachers through time, one coming after the other serially, such as the living buddhas or the Jain tirthankaras.
Once we find a philosophical or spiritual basis for the universe, it is only a matter of time before we decide upon a further focus for our thoughts and actions. A spiritual teacher may play an important role in this. What is a teacher? The answer in part may be: one who imparts information or skill through precept or example. Yet when we think back on our formal education, the one or two teachers who stand out are those with whom we had an affinity; those who, though knowledgeable, not so much told us truths as allowed us, under their guidance, to experience something from within ourselves that impressed us very deeply. Turning to the word spiritual, at first we may think of places, rituals, or a divine being. But spirit is an impersonal, all-pervasive, and eternal aspect of reality. The process of spiritual awakening does not necessarily involve going somewhere, getting something, or other acts limited by time and space; rather, it is becoming aware of what is already within and around us. In this light we could say that a spiritual teacher is one who, through mutual recognition, encourages and assists us in experiencing universal reality.
Many people feel that spiritual progress requires allying ourselves with a divine being outside of us in order to be saved or to escape the consequences of our actions. In this view, the issue of personal salvation colors all we do, and teachers may try to hold us by threatening to separate us from the divine being. However, we come to radically different choices in our search if we see a universe of continuing spiritual evolution impelled by the divine essence, of which all are unfolding expressions. In this second view, all entities, as aspects of divinity, are evolving spiritually through an infinite process: one lifetime cannot lead to eternal damnation or eternal heaven. Life may appear as an ongoing series of rebirths, the causes and effects of which become the means not only for dealing with our transgressions but also for building upon our strengths. Here no personal devil or god is whipping us about; rather, the events in our lives unfold from tendencies within ourselves for which we are responsible because they originate in our past acts and thoughts. Given the complexity of human nature and the minute progress made in any one life, many rebirths are needed before we complete the process of spiritual gestation. The teacher then acts as a midwife bringing to birth the pure inner nature of the student, and a number of lives may follow before the human soul blossoms into full maturity.
We each come into existence with a reservoir of unique talents and imbalances from previous lives. Spiritual training often emphasizes rituals and established courses of action, but such practices may not take into account these unique qualities of each person. Any particular system for achieving spiritual awakening, while benefiting some, may work against what others need. A spiritual teacher recognizes this and works with each pupil accordingly. Rather than stipulating a single method for mass enlightenment, he or she may see that for one person daily duty is a sufficient training ground, while another pupil may benefit from the addition of a more formalized regimen. Still, we should not forget that our greatest teacher lies within: our higher self or inner god. It is our own self-becoming that brings about the events of each day, which are, in actuality, the foundations for inner awakening prescribed for us by our inner teacher. In this way our friends and family, our co-workers, our fellow beings — indeed all of nature — are providing the experiences necessary for our spiritual growth.
In our personal evolution, when not prevented, the divine forces of our true self spiritualize the human soul, and through it our physical self. Nevertheless, many people are attracted to corporeal means of spiritual development: posturing the body, entering the astral world, manipulating life energies through breath control, or developing the chakras. While these techniques may be helpful for a few, they require the guidance of an authentic teacher, one who can help protect against the dangers inherent in these methods. Perhaps the greatest dangers arise from the subtlety of our desire-nature and our being so deeply sunken into matter.
The point where our physical aspects come into contact with our higher nature is the human soul, and spiritual growth in every case depends upon the state of our heart and mind. Mind plays a pivotal role: by our purposeful misdirection or inattentiveness, it may become preoccupied mainly with the restricted or material side of nature. Through wise thought and understanding, however, the mind can be purified and ally itself with the spiritual forces that form the gateway to the hidden potentials within us. This is not easy, to be sure; a mere touch of selfish consideration, if unchecked, creates veils between the divine potential and the soul.
As his inner growth continues, the aspirant finds himself becoming one of two types of beings: what Buddhists refer to as either a pratyeka buddha or a buddha of compassion. The goal of the pratyeka path is enlightenment and nirvana for oneself. The buddha of compassion, upon earning the right to nirvana, vows not to enter it until all other beings have achieved spiritual liberation. This is the Great Vow of the bodhisattva. Though Buddhist literature recognizes both buddhas as Awakened Ones, the pratyeka is acknowledged to be the less evolved. We see these two paths in action all the time, and most of us realize that our own search is often tinged by selfishness. Consequently, in our quest for enlightenment any appeal to the teacher's or student's ego is a danger sign. Caution is called for with those who claim the uniqueness of their authority and system, particularly if their ideas are not universal and cannot be found in the world's great spiritual traditions. If the teacher bases his or her method solely upon the physical, psychic, or desire aspects of our being, we would do well to question the direction of teaching. If, on the other hand, the teacher emphasizes altruistic service, spiritual discrimination, and universal principles, we can at least proceed cautiously.
Once we make the commitment to serve humanity and participate self-consciously in the golden chain of Hermes, everything in our nature may become stirred up. The greater the sincerity and the deeper the commitment, the greater is the challenge. In some cases everyone seems wrong but ourselves; little things become major obstacles. Mentally and emotionally we may be on a hair-trigger, blowing off steam for no apparent reason. This "pledge fever" is often the first challenge for the earnest student who ardently desires to enter the spiritual path. At no time in our journey are we ever "out of the woods," free of error or the danger of falling. And when failure comes, as it will to one degree or another, we should never look back, never regret, but pick ourselves up and try again.
We know great teachers have existed in the past, and we may feel they exist today and will exist in the future. There are rare individuals whose deep sincerity, devotion, and commitment to the bodhisattva ideal places them karmically under the tutelage of highly evolved instructors. To us they are adepts, for their spiritual nature has been awakened by lifetimes of effort. The stories of such teachers and their disciples stir our own yearnings, and it may seem natural to wish for such fortunate circumstances. We must, however, be honest with ourselves and ask why we want to study under a teacher. Personal gain, increased spiritual stature, or an enhanced ego is no valid reason, and positive results will not follow. Yet in reality we are never really separated from our true teacher, for a magnetic sympathy is always there. The teacher wants us to grow, is looking for us to open our hearts, discipline our natures, and bring light out from ourselves. It is a matter of worthiness and perception, of actualizing our inner potentials. Because so few are able to reach within themselves with sufficient purity, genuine teachers immediately fan the inner fire when the slightest spark appears in the sincere aspirant — but we must do the work. It is not by fortune, but by will, courage, compassion, and a selfless heart exercised over great periods of time that we become worthy.
In the beginning we are our own spiritual teacher, and so it is at the end, while we each are also teacher and pupil to one another. We may come across one with whom we are so very much in tune that for a time we accept him or her as a teacher. We recognize inwardly that this one comes closer to understanding things as they are than any other we have met. Although in any particular lifetime we may never meet such a teacher, this should never hinder us; a teacher does exist and is not far from us. The first lesson of any spiritual teacher is "learn to live to benefit others before yourself." Enormous liberating forces are activated when this precept is practiced in everyday living. Being pledged to work for the "great orphan humanity" means obeying the highest within ourselves until we have earned the right to more direct teaching. Such instruction, however, is no more profound or clear than what we can learn from our own daily lives.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)