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Neem Karoli Baba reading Ram Dass’ Be Here Now

I’ve come back from India after an interesting three weeks. I went there with the vague intention to find a guru and take my spiritual practice to the next level. I say ‘vague’ because I wasn’t quite sure how one went about finding a guru.

I was inspired by the story of Ram Dass, or Richard Alpert as he was known when he was a psychology professor at Harvard. After he was thrown out of Harvard for giving psychedelic drugs to his students, Alpert went to India in 1967. He’d been taking vast amounts of LSD and psilocybin, and would reach these states of bliss and ego-transcendence. But he always came down. How to stay up there?

While travelling in India, he met an Indian holy man,  Neem Karoli Baba, and eventually became his disciple, taking the name Ram Dass.  Of all the Eastern gurus one could have followed in the 60s and 70s, Neem Karoli Baba seems to have been a pretty good one.

His followers took him to be an enlightened being, even the avatar of Hanuman, possessed of incredible spiritual powers like clairvoyance and translocation, and with an unrivalled capacity for unconditional love. But that’s what most devotees think of their gurus. Unlike most gurus, Neem Karoli Baba didn’t turn out to be utterly corrupted by money, power or sex – at least, not as far as I can tell, although there are some stories of him fondling his female followers.

Ram Dass came back to the US, and wrote a book called Be Here Now, which came out in 1971. It was a massive success, and was a sort of DIY book of Western and Eastern spiritual techniques for the hippy movement. It did a lot to introduce the idea of the guru to Western spirituality.

He wrote:

At certain stages in the spiritual journey, there is a quickening of the spirit which is brought about through the grace of the guru. When you are at one of the stages where you need this catalyst, it will be forthcoming… If you go looking for a guru and are not ready to find one, you will not find what you are looking for….All you can do is purify yourself in body and mind. Everyone already has a guru. However you may or may not meet your guru on the physical plane in this lifetime. 

The stories of Ram Dass and other westerners interacting with Neem Karoli Baba were so far out, so full of wonder and magic and love, that naturally everyone who read Be Here Now thought, I gotta get me a guru!

So the idea was introduced into Western culture of teachers who were in fact enlightened beings, omniscient and infallible, whom one should treat as God. As another great Indian sage of the early 20th century, Ramana Maharshi, taught: ‘God, the guru and the Self are the same’.

The same idea was introduced into western culture in the 50s, 60s and 70s by Buddhist teachers like Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche (pictured on the left). One should utterly surrender to the guru, even if they behave weirdly or abusively –  that’s just what Chogram Rinpoche called ‘crazy wisdom‘. Their erratic behaviour will break down your ego-defences and lead you to the divine spark within you – just as Tilopa brought Naropa to enlightenment by hitting him in the face with his sandal. 

The idea of the divine guru was something new in Western spirituality. Yes, Catholicism has the idea of Papal infallibility, and Roman emperors had been worshipped as gods, but in both cases this was more about political authority over countries than mystical authority over individuals. There were always charismatic Christian preachers who inspired great devotion among their followers – some good, some bad. But they never claimed to be mouthpieces of the divine (rarely, anyway, although this occurs more often in Pentecostalism, where it often lead to spiritual abuse).

In general, Christians believe that only Christ is divine, and to suggest you or your teacher is also perfect is idolatrous. And it’s setting yourself up for a fall – all humans in this realm are imperfect and flawed, even Christ’s closest followers are shown to be imperfect creatures, again and again. Jesus is the only Guru – you surrender to Christ. 

I wonder, has the idea of the guru done more harm than good in western spirituality over the last 50 years? Of the various people who have either proclaimed themselves as gurus, or who have been followed as gurus – including Ram Dass – how many of them turned out to be genuinely enlightened, and how many turned out to be bad ‘uns? I’d say about 95% turned out to be corrupt in some way – you can read the long sad litany in this book ‘Stripping the Gurus’. [Edit – I think I’ve probably way over-estimated this figure. And for a critique of that book, see Don’s comment below]. 

If you surrender to a guru and they turn out to be corrupt and abusive, that must be utterly crushing. And what bad karma for the teachers! ‘Their actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into their stomachs’, wrote the Dalai Lama. 

So many Eastern celebrity teachers turned out to be frauds, sex abusers, alcoholics, violent, or greedy. And the Eastern idea of the guru also inspired many western charlatans to declare themselves divine avatars in the last few decades, almost always with disastrous consequences.

Being highly articulate and insightful does not mean you’re enlightened. Being incredibly charismatic and able to provoke ecstasy in your devotees does not mean you’re enlightened. Being able to perform wonders does not mean you’re enlightened. But the craze for guru-worship has led people to take all these things as surefire signs.

It’s even got Ram Dass in trouble. Although he’s always been pretty honest about his failings, it’s failed to put off devotees who still sometimes worship him as God.  And he himself was bamboozled by a New Jersey housewife who claimed to be an enlightened being, and who successfully demanded sex, money, and complete surrender from Ram Dass and her other followers.

Anyway, I wanted to find a guru, or at least, a teacher who could help me progress. I went to a Zen retreat in the south, where I thought I’d start off my journey. It has a nice old teacher who is admirably un-guru-like – his favourite phrase is ‘I don’t know!’ But I had to move on after a few days, because all the places at the retreat had been taken by Germans. Typical.

So I flew to Varanasi, one of the most sacred sites in India. I watched the candles float out onto the foggy Ganges at dusk. I observed the bodies being burnt on the ghats – being cremated in Varanasi supposedly grants you instant liberation. I saw people dipping themselves into the incredibly polluted river in the belief it will wash away their sins.

It’s an impressive place, but I didn’t find my guru (I didn’t look very hard to be honest). Instead, I took a bus to Sarnath, about half an hour outside Varanasi.

This was where the Buddha first taught the dharma. He became enlightened at Bodhgaya, then walked around for a bit, before turning up 250km away in Sarnath, where he met some of his old ascetic chums. He taught them the essence of Buddhism in about 30 minutes: all life is suffering, suffering is caused by attachment, we can overcome attachment, by following the eight-fold path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Simple! 

The deer-park at Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught the dharma

And it’s interesting, the Buddha didn’t mention anything about the importance of gurus. On the contrary, he seemed to insist that we have to take responsibility for our enlightenment. We can’t expect the the guru, or the Ganges, or God, to do the work for us.

It’s quite a stark message.

The Dalai Lama has written, clearly in response to the teachings of Chogram Rinpoche and other Buddhist rock-stars:

It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, “Every action of the guru is seen as perfect.” However, this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words: “Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith in me.”..The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple…It is an extremely dangerous teaching, especially for beginners.The disciple must always keep reason and knowledge of Dharma as principal guidelines.

Today, as old certainties and institutions break down, we’re once again seeing a rise in charismatic authority. There are so many confusing complex issues to work out, people want to find someone who can do all their thinking for them. YouTube has made this basic human tendency even easier – we can just watch talk after talk by Ram Dass, or Jordan Peterson, or Russell Brand, or Christopher Hitchens, or Zakir Naik, or whoever. Just hand over our minds to the Perfect One.

Well, I didn’t find my guru, and I started to miss my friends and family, so I came back to the UK early. Evidently, I have not purified myself sufficiently. But I still hope to find teachers who can help me go forward. They don’t have to be perfect omniscient beings, just more advanced than me.