Understanding the difference between one's innate behaviour and the practice to conform to a particular culture is essential when following a guru.
Jason Gregory is an author, philosopher, and teacher specializing in Eastern and Western philosophy, comparative religion, psychology, cognitive science, metaphysics, and ancient cultures. He is the author of Fasting the Mind, Enlightenment Now, and The Science and Practice of Humility. For several years he has lived in Asia studying the classical spiritual traditions of the East.
Jason lived in India studying the Hindu schools of Vedanta and classical Yoga, and the Buddhist schools of Mahayana and Zen. While living in Nepal he studied Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism. He lived in South Korea studying Korean Buddhism, Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism, and Taoism. In South East Asia Jason lived in Thailand studying Theravada Buddhism and its monastic Forest Tradition, while taking numerous research trips into the monasteries and temples of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Jason has traveled extensively to over 15 countries.
We fear nothing more than being truly independent. True independence does not mean in the social context in regards to individual job titles, nor does it mean in the collective sphere of nationalistic independence, though both may be derivatives. Real independence is spiritual sovereignty, meaning the individual truly lives psychologically from the Heart with no agenda and is free from the attachment to social, cultural, and religious programs which imprison our mind. Some may argue that we all need a philosophical framework psychologically to navigate our way through this life to give us a sense of meaning. And others may say that we need to eliminate all philosophical frameworks from our mind, whether it is social, cultural, or religious, because then we can move freely in the world and have a mind that Zen Buddhism would say “is a mind of no deliberation,” meaning that it doesn’t stick to any type of formula to understand life. From the opposing perspective, this still may be thought of as a type of framework as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out in his work by explaining that formulating and taking on frameworks may be inescapable for the mind. But this could also be viewed as just being extremely clever in an attempt to be victorious in this ongoing game of spiritual and philosophical one-upmanship, while also not taking into account the actual experience of the individual which is hard for anyone to judge from an external point of reference.
How you view both perspectives on an individual level is not the point. The real emphasis is about how we depend on philosophical frameworks that we were once naturally drawn to but have over time become a crutch that obscures our ability to perceive reality without names, labels, or a prior agenda. This conditioned habit is carried over into the spiritual and religious philosophies we turn to when we yearn for liberation. Paradoxically the spiritual and religious philosophies we convert to originate from different environments than our own. Essentially they are built on an archetype diametrically opposed to the one embedded within our psychosomatic organism.
This is evident more visibly when we find Western people interested in Eastern philosophy and other esoteric wisdom traditions. In our search for enlightenment, or real independence in other words, from social, cultural, and religious mental concepts, we discover the eternal depth of the East and its ability to reveal our underlying true nature beyond the claustrophobic walls of our ego. Yet the dependence we seek to transcend is projected onto the spiritual temperaments of the East.
For example, the Eastern character and temperament of devotion and surrender to God or guru/master becomes a crutch for both Eastern and Western seeker if their dependence on either eclipses their real faith and union with the irreducible essence of the universe. Again this is more visible when we observe a Westerner trying to embrace and mimic the Eastern archetypal structure. None more so than when we witness Western spiritually inclined people diving at the feet of a guru to kiss their feet or put their forehead on the guru’s feet in a so-called gesture of respect through the action of wiping the dust from the guru’s feet with the forehead. Deep down in the sacred intelligence of the gut, which is not connected to the ego, we know this is not genuine and is basically spiritual materialism because it is based on how we should appear to look towards others in the outside world and also to fulfill an image of ourselves that we have in our head. Though some may argue that this external behavior has an internal effect, and it does to some degree, considering we have to completely humble our ego to kiss someone else’s feet who we acknowledge has more wisdom than us, but the problem is the attitude of devotion and surrender to either God or guru is based on the imitation of the archetypal temperaments of the East. (Note that in Oriental iconography, a common image is the two footprints that symbolise divinity. They represent the feet of the divine that we kiss and touch with our hands as this action symbolises that we are reaching in and kissing God in our heart). The Westerner will take on Eastern philosophical thinking and dress sense, for example, to hide and suppress the psychological habits and latent tendencies that cause us suffering. We imitate in the hope that these habits and tendencies will be transcended. The Easterner, in turn, does the same form of imitation when they try to take on the Western archetypal framework of social and materialistic success, but that topic is not of importance here.
A sincere spiritually inclined individual has no need to imitate nor to the contrary do they have to uphold their social, cultural, and religious programming. We can appreciate that kissing the feet of a guru is primarily an Indian archetype and is a sacredly beautiful aspect of India when we observe the people of India in their childlike innocence practicing such devotion and humility to God and guru. But this is not practiced anywhere else in the Far East, whether that be China, Korea, Japan, or even South East Asia. And astonishingly the Far East and South-East Asian spiritual and cultural traditions are heavily influenced by India where Hinduism gave birth to aspects of Buddhism and Buddhism which travelled over the Himalayas to Tibet and then China to mix with Taoism which eventually became Zen Buddhism in Japan.
All along the way the environment, especially in the Far East, never deviated unnecessarily from their archetypal temperament to show honour and respect to a master and each other with a humble bow instead of the Indian version of kissing the guru’s feet. We would think it is extremely strange if a disciple of Japanese or Korean Zen Buddhism kissed their master's feet because it is not a spontaneously genuine response of the unconscious which is the archaic part of the mind before the later developing ego within our prefrontal cortex. It is this later developing part of the brain that we are intellectually making a decision as Westerners to kiss the feet of the guru or master, it is not naturally spontaneous. This is not an authentic sign of humility, surrender, or devotion, as the Western equivalent for showing gratitude and reverence to a teacher and each other is a hug of loving embrace.
Westerners, and also Easterners for that matter, make the critical mistake of intellectually associating devotion to an image of God or with kissing the feet of the guru or staring at an image of who one believes is the supreme intelligence of the universe. This is an error because the habit and tendency to follow and depend on an external structural framework is the same egotistic conditioning we learn from our society, culture, and religion. Westerners who imitate Eastern temperaments, especially those who submit to the guru’s will, parade their so-called freedom or enlightenment around as authentic surrender and devotion. In doing so, people believe they have destroyed the ego, yet they still follow. Those who seek to follow a guru/master and kiss their feet become blind to the fact that one of the primary characteristics of the illusory ego is to follow. We need to keep in mind that the ego is a social and cultural product. Society and culture are what builds our personality (ego) and separates our Consciousness from the real unified Consciousness that we are. Our absurd belief that we need to depend on society and culture puts us in a double-bind that we are free but we must conform to what is socially acceptable, thus not truly free. As a result, we develop this following tendency which cuts us off from being and feeling one with the universe and so ultimately it is a trait of the ego. To truly have that sense of unity within means that the dualism of following, whether guru or society, is to not attach or conform to any external limitation because this separates us from the awareness that the universe is the real you, deep down.
Blindly following, cuts this awareness off. To follow and submit is what our society, culture, and religion teach us from birth which builds the foundation of our isolated ego and coincidently the last spiritual flaw we need to transmute. Even in India, following in the form of devotion to a physical or mental image of God or guru without understanding the real you as the undifferentiated Self (Atman in Sanskrit) as identical to the irreducible essence of the universe (Brahman in Sanskrit) is thought of as the lowest temperament of yoga (bhakti-yoga in Sanskrit), because of the social and cultural habit of depending on a separate “higher” power, either in family, society, or religion. This usually makes the individual think of themselves in terms of a low subject to the higher king and this builds our hypnosis that God is a monarchical being lording it over “his” humanly subjects. To perceive reality in this way is purely dualistic and not related at all to the mystery of the universe that is the source of all being. (Real bhakti-yoga can only be sincerely lived when we know and understand “what” we love. We can only have devotional love to God, or whatever name you choose, when we know God through the light of knowledge that breaks through our ignorance that the individual and the universe are separate. This known as jnana yoga in Sanskrit and is thought to be the highest temperament of yoga. From the jnana yoga perspective, how can we love anything without knowing it and understanding it first?)
Westerners interested in the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta become lost in believing the numerous gods are actual monarchical and hierarchical entities without realising that they are in reality images that are supposed to ignite our imagination about the universe and our place in it. Not our place in it as an isolated ego, but as “it” doing and being “it.” Even Ishvara, the highest of the Hindu gods, is purely a mental concept that people gave anthropomorphic form, which suits the narrow understanding of those individuals with a materialistic or extroverted view of the world. Ishvara is thought of completely different when we consider the deeper understanding that the Hindu gods represent images of the archetypal unconscious. (Keep in mind that the former representation of Ishvara is the highest Hindu personal god from the medieval era texts and is to not be confused at all with Brahman - the Ultimate Reality).
All genuine masters should have realised that for people to follow them unquestionably as a servant to a king is still dualism and not the non-duality they profess. A genuine master realises that we are all ultimately one through their evolved perception, and the only thing that differs between them and the common man or woman is they have realised this underlying unity as the nature of reality and act accordingly. They have completely surrendered to the mystery of life that we all sense within when we have the spiritual courage to not simply move to the gravitational pull of our conditioning in the mental plane which keeps us following the beat of somebody else’s drum that our ego hypnotically dances to. The real egoless state has no need to depend upon a philosophy, God or guru because their psychological independence (enlightenment) is a mirror of the enduring quality of change in the universe as one is not drowning in regression but instead moving freely with it in the same way water moves freely down a mountain stream and eventually to the greater ocean.
The difference between water and us is water follows no one else’s nature because its nature is pure when it moves with the contours of the path that has been laid out before it and only becomes stagnant and toxic when it resists this path and its own nature. This relates to our spirituality as we become stagnant and toxic when we cling and depend on external agencies because our internal nature is independently free and devoid of psychological conditions. We are scared to move and surrender in unison with our own path that spontaneously reveals itself every day without conceptual response, spiritual or otherwise, because all concepts, including the one of God, will be destroyed as we truly surrender and devote our life to that unnamable mystery which we are. Surrender your life to life and devotion will be the life you live in correspondence to the entire universe which you are.