March 7, 2012

In Praise of Imperfect Teachers. ~ Raia Manjula Devi

What is the role of the guru in our lives?

“In the beginning, we rely entirely on the guru to bring us to ourselves. Through our relationship, through the informal interactions, the teachings, and the rituals, the guru acts as midwife of our own rebirth. The guru’s mediation brings us to the practice itself, through which we begin to make our own relationship with our deeper selves and with the cosmos. In the beginning, the human guru must give voice to these realities beyond ego, because we are unable to hear them in any other way. But through our practice, it comes to be that our inner nature and the world beyond thought begin to speak for themselves. Through this process, we begin to discover that the voice of the human guru can be heard not just in his human speech and actions, but in and through our practice, and in and through our experience altogether. “

~ Dr. Reginald Ray from Secret of the Vajra World

Today, in various spiritual communities, there is a lot of conversation and inquiry around the role of the guru in our lives as modern practitioners of yoga and meditation. In a traditional path, particularly in Tantric traditions of Yoga and Buddhism, the guru is considered indispensable to receiving the transmission of the teachings.

However, after the famous shortcomings of so many spiritual teachers in the last two decades, practitioners are skeptical of cultivating genuine trust and devotion towards somebody outside themselves. Using the word guru loosely, as the one that sheds light on darkness, in my life and path over the last decade, the guru has manifested as lover, teacher, and friend.

The first person that I really considered a spiritual teacher a man who privately taught me yogic practice beyond what was available in studios at the time was also my lover. Recently, the eyes of spiritual communities have turned once again to the question of sexuality within the teacher-student relationship.

While there are some clear conclusions that can be made based on the professional ethics of our various certifications and professional organizations, I feel that the inner inquiry is far more nuanced. I knew what the world saw, a man with a grey beard and a woman half his age, a teacher and a student, something “wrong.”

One time, we went to meet another local teacher who taught non-dual meditation and inquiry. Hanging out after practice, this teacher, who was supposed to be enlightened, points to me and bluntly says, “I want a young girl like this to travel around with.” Essentially, rather than seeing the ways that this relationship worked for us and deepened both of our practices, he saw only the cliché of it and looked no further. More than a decade later, I can look at the ways that this relationship brought pain and conflict to my life, to my relationship with my boyfriend at the time, distance with my family and friends.

The problems in this kind of relationship are not minor and there is a lot written about them.

I want to speak to the other part. First, he taught me with a depth, intelligence and personal commitment that is rare in this culture. He saw in my eyes and my soul, a potential for a spiritual path and nurtured that. Our union was a practice both of healing and transcendence. We were not a couple. We did not have conventional feelings towards each other. For me, the sexual rituals served to deepen our meditation. When I looked at him, I saw my lover as an expression of the divine in a body. We entered the intimate relationship and the teaching one in the same weekend.

The two were never separate.

We can say that it is not okay to enter a relationship with these kinds of power dynamics, but I can also speak to what I gained, how I grew and the very genuine love that was there and to some degree still is.

In my Tibetan Buddhist lineage, we learn about how the dharma was brought to Tibet by Yeshe Tsogyal and Padmasambhava. Their relationship is said to have included consort practices and later, as her practice evolved, she was instructed to find a consort who turned out to be a seventeen year old boy. The secret rituals that were part of these relationships were considered indispensable to the spiritual paths of both practitioners.

While I could have studied with this man without becoming lovers, we were called to become lovers. Some of the spiritual intimacy and even transmission came through this relationship. To his credit, he knew that he was not perfected enough in his own spiritual path to guide me fully and actually took significant time to introduce me to some of the best teachers of traditional yoga and meditation that he knew. Out of sheer rebellion, I found a teacher that he had never heard of, packed my bags and moved to the residential community where my new teacher lived.

 A spirit of pure service and dedication

The second teacher I met, who I studied and taught under for many years is the rare yogi who practiced for most of his life in caves in the Himalayas and came to America in a spirit of service and dedication. This man, who I still call my guru, is the closest thing to a perfected teacher I have encountered and I am in awe that I was able to spend time with him.

He was eighty years old when I met him and had been practicing yoga since age seven. His life was the kind of story that I had read about in the history of yogic saints. I was blessed to spend most of my twenties studying with this amazing man and beginning to teach in his community and in his lineage. I was blessed with a teacher who is the most unconditionally loving and ethical man I have ever known.

My grandfather and my guru, both born in 1923, share this same selfless, honest, and pure heart, expressed through different cultural paradigms but from a similar source.

I could write volumes about the experience of studying with somebody who I could trust so completely, whose yogic wisdom seemed to come directly from Lord Shiva and who simultaneously embodied the profound humility and service of Hanuman. While he could have become famous, he chose to honor the yogic tradition by holding students to a level of practice and discipline that only a small group truly was able to commit to.

I feel a continual awe and gratitude that I was able to study with this man as much as I did and grateful that even my young, rebellious body and mind found the discipline and stamina to learn some of the traditional yogic methods he offered.

This kind of profound guru and student relationship is one that few people in the western yoga communities understand and for good reason. It is a rare teacher today who has the kind of ethical and humble heart who can guide a student this way without even a trace of selfishness.

With this man, I could let go fully into a very pure and devotional love because this is the kind of person who would not take anything from me. Any financial contributions I made went directly into charitable work, the brilliance of which I have directly witnessed while traveling in India.

The devotion I felt for this teacher did nothing for his ego, but instead served to purify my own heart. I entered yoga teaching in this spirit of devotion and it anchored me in a flow of teaching where I profoundly understood from the beginning the right relationship to my own seat as a teacher.

Through shifts in my own spiritual longings, I began to learn from new teachers as well as step into my own expression of teaching more. My teachers today are not perfect. They are messy and make mistakes. When they take the teacher’s seat, I trust, and they trust, that the lineage of wisdom flows through them.

Basically, they are human.

At other times, they may be led by their own impulses and can help create interpersonal messiness. Basically, they are human. They are beautiful spiritual beings who are in process. They have mirrored to me my own capacity to teach what I know while being fully authentic about my own humanity. My teachers today are mentors and spiritual friends, who serve in the role of teacher in one moment and remove that role as soon as a teaching session is over.

I want to stand up for the possibility that we can learn and teach and share with each other, and we can mess up and we can hurt each other and we can heal.

As my own spiritual path shifts through an immersion into teachings of Classical Tantra, there has been an invitation and call to see all of life as an expression of the divine. This internal shift has matched the outer shift, where I recognized that I can learn and grow in community with teachers who are not perfected and pure with a community that reflects darkness and light, where anything I am afraid to look at will meet me in the practitioner on the cushion next to me.

Even as a modern practitioner, my path reflects some timeless archetypes, that of the yogi returning to the village after being in the mountains and recognizing that the sacred was always present in the mundane, only it took new insight to see it.


Prepared by Aminda Courtwright/Editor: Kate Bartolotta

Raia Manjula is a yogini living in the Bay Area and a student of Tantric Shaivism and Buddhism. She is a yoga teacher and somatic therapist and in her free time is working on her first novel, called “Diary of a Spiritual Party Girl.” For more articles, visit her website!
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