Not Questioning a Spiritual Authority Can Lead to Fanaticism and Failure
“O monks, even if you have insight that is pure and clear but you cling to it, fondle it and treasure it, depend on it and are attached to it, then you do not understand that the teaching is like a raft that carries you across the water to the farther shore but is then to be put down and not clung to.”
~ The Buddha
A psychological trait that can be found in every spiritual tradition is a tendency to accept the words of the spiritual authority of that tradition as being always right. Of course, not all followers of such authorities do that, but it seems that the majority does. In some traditions this problem is emphasized and encouraged to work upon, whereas in others not much (or at all) is spoken about it. Not being aware of this psychological trait, or not being willing to work upon it when observed, can lead to harmful development of egos that lead to hardening of the personality, fanaticism, and can ultimately lead to spiritual failure.
Usually a person in charge of a spiritual school or organization is looked upon as someone who is in the know, as someone more advanced than others in that school. Regardless if that person is a teacher or a coordinator (or both), many will see him or her in a way that is different from how they see others in that school. When someone just enters such a school, they may be cautious at first about it, but once they start practicing the teachings and find comfort in them, they will probably also begin to look at the teacher or the coordinator in a similar way. It is often assumed that such teachers are of a high degree of spiritual development; it is assumed that they are masters or even incarnations of divinity. It is not uncommon for many of such teachers to actually state publically that they are of a high spiritual ranks, sometimes also naming themselves by some well-known names from the spiritual history of humanity. In a lot of cases, their rank is accepted by people from their school, just because a lot of people have accepted it, and thus they enjoy veneration from their followers, even though they could be of less development than the latter.
There also were and are cases of genuine spiritual masters behind spiritual schools, whose word is valued for the fact that they have reached the degree of spiritual mastery. Their role is an important one in guiding people towards the same place where they are, through teaching their students how to get in touch with their inner Being. However, the problem arises when people begin to look upon such teachers as infallible and without faults, because when that happens, every single thing they say is taken as a rule that should not be questioned, regardless of what the subject matter is. It is generally taken as normal that if a person A is on level 2 spiritually, and a person B on level 10, the person B will not be questioned because the person A has no knowledge of what the person B is talking about, and it is assumed that, due to him being on level 10, the person B is always right. This is a dangerous road that leads to fanaticism and disability to gain true spiritual knowledge.
A living spiritual master could be on the 2nd Mountain or even on the 3rd Mountain, and yet he doesn’t have to be so much in the know as it is commonly believed that he or she is. They would have their Being incarnated and would develop a sense for feeling what is true, but that doesn’t mean that a great deal of knowledge would be revealed to them; at that stage they still don’t necessarily have the ability to consciously travel in the higher dimensions at will, nor do they necessarily have psychic faculty that would enable them to telepathically or clairaudiently receive information from a higher source, nor would they be always conscious in the astral plane during sleep state. What they do have, however, is the Being within, the guiding divine principle, the Spirit expressing itself through them, the awakened consciousness, the ability to receive and develop knowledge in a more objective way (if they apply an effort in that direction), dreams that are of a higher type, etc. All of this is a good enough reason for someone who wants to awaken to listen to spiritual masters, because they are guided by something that is real and tangible within them, which makes them qualified to help those who also wish to climb the Mountains of Ascension. However, it is very important to develop a sense of discernment regarding what the masters are saying, because they are not always speaking from their Being. Masters also have opinions, and because sometimes they don’t formulate their sentences to make it clear that they are giving their opinion and not what they know is true, it is not uncommon for their followers to mistake those opinions for facts.
For example, a few masters have said that a person is a fanatic if he cannot accept a glass of beer or wine when offered one at a social gathering. According to one of them, it is better to take the offered glass and drink it slowly, than to reject it and risk being seen as strange or rude, so that our strangeness doesn’t extend to the school we belong to. Now, if someone is to follow this advice, then where would be the end to complying to the social norms and customs, just so that we avoid the possibility of putting our school in a bad light? Thus, it is important to be able to discern between different things that masters say or write, between what is an opinion, what is true knowledge, between words that come from their personality, upbringing and culture, and the words that come from their Being, etc.
I have seen people reacting negatively upon hearing that a particular incongruity in a master’s writing could indicate a mistake, which shows that their belief in that person is not far from being absolute. I have also seen many people trying to discredit statements of a spiritual character simply because they don’t coincide with what they read in a book of the masters they trust. There is obviously nothing wrong to disagree with different views, but when we look at everything through the prism of the teachings that we follow, seeing that teachings as the highest of all truths, then it is clear that our spiritual journey has arrived to a block, and that we are no longer threading the path to knowledge but are comfortable sitting still in the bubble of belief. Many of such people would justify their absolute faith in a master by saying that they have had some inner experiences that showed them that the teachings are real and that the master is genuine. And that’s fine. Having conscious faith is a great thing, but it is not conducive for spiritual development that the faculties of the mind are put in the backseat, regardless of experiences that we might have.
A master has achieved a wonderful thing and is capable of guiding others along the way; he might have even reached the stage where he becomes divine, but that doesn’t mean that he is always right, nor that everything he says is the best choice of action for everyone. The Being acts through the master, it shows eternal truth and the path to awakening, but it does so through the master’s human vehicle, and the latter is tainted with the personality and other disadvantages. Nonetheless, the Being is still very prominent inside the master, he does what he can, and it is important that he is being heard. It is equally important for the student to listen, to question, to feel, and to do. A master has not invented the path, he does not hold a patent over it, but rather he points the way and inspires others with his high nature. Unfortunately, there are many students of esoteric and Gnostic teachings who have confused the persona of a master for the Path, thinking that the more they are faithful to a master, the better will their progress be, forgetting that what matters the most is the inner work.
As indicated in the words of the Buddha with which I started this article, even the spiritual teachings itself is something not to be attached to, but is used to carry us to a farther shore than where we stand now, and in order to go even further it might at certain point be necessary to let go of it, to build upon it, to transform it. The eternal principles from it remain eternal, but the form can change, different parts from it might be emphasised more at different ages, and new things about the Path can be revealed to us that are not known to others.
A similar thing was stated in Franz Hartman’s book With the Adepts:
“We still use our books and have a library, and study the opinions of thinkers; but we never accept such books or opinions–even if they came from Buddha himself–as our infallible guides, unless they receive the seal from our reason and understanding. We venerate them and make use of them; they serve us, but we do not serve them.”
It is important to work intensely within oneself in order to reach the stage in which we can begin to get the sense for the truth. We all have this sense, in various degrees, but at a certain point on the path it becomes unmistakable. The descriptions of the teachings and of the Path should serve us, and not the other way around. Why would someone want to become bound by a description the reality of which he never experienced? Isn’t this equivalent to a self-imposed slavery? Is it not much better to put the teachings to practice, and see how it changes us or doesn’t change us, without jumping to conclusions until we actually experience the Path properly?
Holding to views, opinions and beliefs, simply because it is said so by a spiritual master whom we trust, closes our mind to the wisdom of the Being, we not only stop the higher learning for ourselves, but we stop it for our Being as well. Therefore, it is much better to be like a little child in front of the mysteries, in wonderment, with an open mind and with the heart filled with love. Like this we can arrive to profound understandings, and can move along the Path that expands and IS so much more than our beliefs prevent us from seeing.
HDP, May 2021.