Friday, July 4, 2008

Polishing the Rough Diamond

Guru has said that there are grades of spiritual masters, just as there are different grades of doctors.

In his analogy, the third grade of doctor merely makes a diagnosis and writes the appropriate prescription. One step up is the second grade of doctor, who goes a step further and will check up on the patient from time to time and, if necessary, encourage the patient to take his or her medicine.

Finally, there is the first grade of doctor. According to Guru's analogy, the first grade of doctor will go beyond mere encouragement. If necessary, the first grade of doctor will put his or her knee on the patient's chest and force the medicine down. According to Guru, the same is true for spiritual masters.

For spiritual masters, however, neither the diagnosis nor the medicine is physical. In the most generic and general sense, the diagnosis typically involves the disciple's ego and personal qualities associated with the ego. The spiritual master's prescription for such problems oftentimes appears unorthodox.

I love the example given by Swami Vivekananda. A seeker once asked him what he should do to progress in the spiritual life. Swamiji replied: "Start telling lies." He then explained that if the seeker started telling lies, then eventually others would discover his lies and challenge him. As a result of being challenged, the seeker would then begin developing a personality, some individuality. Only with a strong personality -- a strong sense of individuality -- would the seeker be ready for the spiritual life.

Pretty counter intuitive and, when you think about it, pretty harsh. One gathers that Swamiji, however, was a doctor of the first grade -- that he was going to give the seeker the best medicine, whether the seeker liked it or not. Similarly, Guru could be harsh on those who could handle it.

Guru only upbraided me once. Vinaya and I had arrived at a concert venue not far from Queens with the wrong cello bow. Honestly, up to that point I had never really taken much notice of such things. Instead, whatever instruments Vinaya told me to load in the car, I loaded. But when we got to the concert hall and Guru discovered our mistake, he really laid into us both. I quickly drove back to Guru's house and retrieved the proper cello bow while Vinaya continued the concert set-up.

That experience, however, washed right over me. I had been kind of spaced out in my duties, had made a mistake, and Guru ripped me a new one. From that point forward, I didn't make that mistake again. It wasn't personal.

No so, however, with his warning to me about Jayanti and then the sense of personal disappointment that he communicated to me about not having lost enough weight. Unlike the upbraiding Guru gave me about the cello bow -- which was richly deserved -- these other incidents were not deserved. They cut me deep.

For some reason, I was very sensitive to such things. I had a strong sense of honor and a lot of associated pride. Pride, of course, is a big fat target for the spiritual master, so perhaps that alone is the answer. Guru was simply pushing the buttons I was presenting him. While from my personal point of view back at that time, it didn't make sense to me why Guru would unnecessarily chastise me about girls or my weight, the fact that he did so had the effect of pushing me away from Guru and made me begin to stand on my own two feet. Perhaps, that was his intent.

Spiritual masters can be very unorthodox. For example, there's a great story about the wife of one of Sri Ramakrishna's prominent disciples. She was very fastidious -- what we would now call a germaphobe. Thakur advised her to smear a small amount of human feces on her forehead and leave it there all day. Guess what ... no more germaphobe. (That story always makes me belly laugh.)

I'm not sure how Guru dealt with germaphobes, but he could be unorthodox, too (or at least politically incorrect), particularly when it came to weight issues. While he had been a champion athlete at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram before coming to America in 1964, by the early 1970s, Guru had put on a lot of weight himself. Then, in his late 40s, he took up long distance running with a vengeance.

By the time I came around the Center, Guru was pretty hardcore in his treatment of disciples -- typically the women disciples -- who were overweight. He was merciless, really. Locally, he even started a special Center for such women: the Kohinoor Center, after the large diamond of that name. These weren't morbidly obese women, just typical middle-aged women who I think it's safe to say weren't jocks by nature. But Guru pushed them constantly to exercise and lose weight. In terms of pure physical fitness, the Kohinoor women were better for it, but it must have been embarrassing for many of them to be called out in front of the other disciples.

That's not to say that Guru wasn't also nice to them -- he wasn't all stick and no carrot. Guru certainly showed the women of the Kohinoor Center lots of kindness and positive attention. But make no mistake, like the doctor of the first grade, Guru could be harsh when he thought the patient needed it. I couldn't have taken that kind of treatment.

And that's the final point -- the guruvada is a voluntary path. If the patient doesn't like the doctor or the treatment, the patient can leave.

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