Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Guru is Not the Answer A Note on Gurupurnima, Celebrating the Fullness of the Teacher

I had known Appa quite some time when we came upon our first Gurupurnima, the full moon day of the Sanskrit lunar month of Ashada, usually July. We had met about half a year before this first occasion for celebration of the Guru's moon, the full moon, the symbol of fullness itself.

What could that possibly mean when there is always more? There's no doubt that I went to India looking for something better. Different ways to think about life and more examples of how people have lived, loved, lost, and found their greatness. I wanted answers.

I was, of course, looking for a guru, not only someone who could teach me the material---the languages, the content, the subjects---but someone who could give me those answers. I had only the vaguest notion that the guru stood for greatness. But what is that?

By the time of our first celebration of the teacher's fullness (literally, purnima in Sanskrit), I had been turned inside out.  I had come to see "fullness" not as perfection or finality but as a willingness to test, to experiment, and to learn by spreading out in all directions, with every difficult question.

I had been shown in the humility and decency and seriousness of my teacher that there is such a thing as truth, good character, integrity and gravity. Gravity is another cognate word to guru. The guru is the heavy in the room. And of these things I never needed persuasion or dissuasion---because he _tried_ to live this way all the time. That means, as far as he could. Humanity is no impediment when admitting success is admitting limitations. It wasn't perfection. It wasn't success in every instance. It was character building an edifice with provenance and progress as its guide posts.

Appa taught me from our very first days together that the best among us will insist on admitting their moral failures and ask how they can learn from them. That we are never, ever finished learning and that learning to learn is among the most difficult things to learn in life. Other matters come naturally, like love. But those too will invite the companions of learning. We don't learn to love or grieve because we will. Both will come. We learn that to love is to grieve and that when we learn to grieve we can learn how to love more deeply.

The test of truth is always a test of character. Words matter. Intentions matter. Actions matter. How do we decide what matters? How do we trust? When should we? The guru is not the answer. The guru resides in the questions, the best kinds of questions we ask. And those questions lead us to still better questions. That is the guru, Appa said, who "fills" (purnima) life by inviting us to mean what we feel in our hearts to be true. That is no small task, it is not only instinctive.

It means teaching us how to take the questions that live inside us as human beings all the way to heart, how to bring them with us as we journey home to the depths of soul---Who are we? How are we made? Who do we want to be? How can we make ourselves? Who can we be? What could we be? The guru is the word we use to tell us that this is a serious and daunting task, bringing these life questions into every breath, every instance of life. That's why the word meaning "weighty." We're going to need stories, myths, rituals, celebrations, trials, experiments that succeed and fail, conversations and arguments, and it's all going to take time.

We will surely grieve our failures and losses but will we learn to love more deeply for it all? We will accept too that life tests our character, invites us to questions that invite us to celebrate such a fullness? A fullness that is never finished? Such fullness is made of light and shadow, of success and failure, and of the values that insist we create value for more than selfish interests. Today we celebrate those efforts, rededicate to those inquiries, make the experiment to love a standard of goodness. That is why we celebrate this weighty task, this fullness of heart that we never stop seeking.

By that time of our first Gurupurnima Appa had made it clear the heart of his teaching about teachers. We need to learn when it is wise to defer to a teacher but only when that teacher insists we refuse submission. We are not sheep, the guru is no shepherd. Defer but never submit. Never abdicate your own responsibilities to question, to doubt, and to hold to all to fair and honest accounts. Learning how to learn is the principle task of the teacher. Ask every question, not just ones that are "acceptable". Follow the evidence wherever it takes you, even if that upsets your every "truth." The guru is not the answer. It is in the nobility of the honest question and the gifts we must accept to learn.

Remember always, he would say, that truth is unfinished, provisional, incomplete but that it is no less worthy of our deference when it serves to explain natural efficacies and leads us to greater social justice. Be keen to look for the seam, evolve the serpent's vision (sarpadrsti) he called it, because that is the opening, the sliver of in-between, the fullness of possibilities, the moonlight of awareness peering into value, it looks for the exception, admits the possibility of movement, change, and growth. We'll need some luck. We'll need more courage and persistence that we have yet imagined. We'll need our wits, our imagination, and our heart creating more, together.