The Traditional Teacher

The Traditional Teacher

The Western idea of a teacher tends to be that he is one who is paid to give such instruction as may be required. In the East, the teacher’s position vis-à-vis the pupil is different. He is one who has given his life to mastering a subject, and who may be willing to transmit that mastery to a qualified aspirant. The pupil is primarily regarded as one who wishes to learn, not as a source of money payments. The pupil very often goes to live in the teacher’s house, and is fed, clothed and taught by him. In return he acts as servant and attends on the teacher. The question of fees is quite secondary. Confucius describes the teacher in these words : ”This is the character of the man : so intent upon enlightening the eager that he forgets his hunger, and so happy in doing so, that he forgets the bitterness of his lot and does not realise that old age is at hand.”

The purpose is to make the subject enter the whole life of the pupil, and so the teacher’s supervision extends to everything the pupil does. Stress is laid on moral training, so that the student will not be enfeebled by drink or a life of pleasure, nor be unfaithful to his art from love of money, nor abuse the knowledge he gains from pride or anger. ”Without virtue,” said the Chinese sage, ”one cannot even become a good witch-doctor.” There is an inner core to all subjects, partly technical and partly what is called the “spirit” of it. To some extent we recognize this in certain arts in the West also. There are schools of piano technique which go back to Liszt, through his pupils ; besides technical secrets, such as special fingerings for certain cadenzas composed by the master, we can readily understand that particular styles and interpretation can be passed on in this way from master to pupil and so form a tradition.

But the Eastern traditions cover much wider ground. In training a student in Chinese calligraphy, it is not enough to tell the pupil to hold the brush firmly – he must feel it is part of him. The teacher will sometimes steal up behind the pupil when the latter is writing a letter, for example, and suddenly snatch at the brush. Only if the pupil still retains his grip on it, even against such an unexpected attack, can he be said to have mastered that instruction. In the same way the Japanese fencing teachers will suddenly pull at one end of a bamboo mat on which the pupil is standing, to teach balance; or will, without warning, throw a stick, to teach constant alertness. The pupil also learns by watching his own teacher. To a trained observer every gesture of the teacher shows his mastery. A master of self-defence or Judo, even when performing the aesthetic rite called the Tea Ceremony, never weakens his balance or gives an opening for attack.

In the company of his teacher, the pupil also meets other high professors of his subject, and hears his own master’s comments on them afterwards. Finally the master, when the student is ready, teaches him the fundamental secrets, and the special spiritual realization, for which he has been trained – perhaps unconsciously – for a long time. There is a Japanese story of the tenth century illustrating the relation of master and disciple, which tells of a great musician, a nobleman named Hakuga. He heard of a certain retired master, who lived alone with no companion but his lute and who possessed the secret of a certain melody which was known to him alone. Hakuga went every evening for three years to listen at the gate of this master’s house, but in vain. At last, one autumn night, when the wind was sighing through the sedges and the moon was half-hidden by a cloud, Hakuga heard the magic strains begin. When they ceased, he heard the player exclaim : “Alas that there should be none fitted to receive this precious possession.” Hakuga took courage, entered the hermitage, prostrated himself, and declaring his name and rank humbly begged to be received as a disciple. This the master agreed to, and gradually revealed to him all the innermost recesses of his art.

In Adhyatma Yoga, the qualifications of a traditional teacher are three : He must himself have learned from a traditional teacher ; He must have personal experience of what he teaches ; He must be able to read the heart of the pupil and communicate the truth to him. This he can do if he has received a mandate to teach from his own teacher. In addition, the teacher may or may not excel in other lines, such as learning.  For instance, the renowned Swami Mangalnathji, a great teacher of modern times, was a very famous scholar and philosopher, whose works on the Advaita philosophy are regarded as authoritative. His fellow-disciple, Shri Dadaji, a great saint of recent times, made no claim to erudition at all. Again, to teach Vedanta philosophy in the universities of China and Japan, as Dr. Shastri has done, it is necessary to know not only the languages but also the philosophies of those countries, to answer the questions which will be from the standpoint of Chinese philosophy.

This is a great academic feat, but such a feat is not absolutely essential for a spiritual teacher, whose qualifications are as given previously. Then again, Swami Mangalnathji was a monk, whereas Shri Dadaji was a married householder who held a small official post in the Indian Railways. We know also that some of the traditional teachers of Adhyatma Yoga have been women. The would-be student has to find a traditional teacher who satisfies him, and then study under him, and finally be accepted by him. It is hard to elaborate the first point. Anselm, the great Archbishop in this country in the early twelfth century, found his teacher in Lanfranc who was Archbishop before him and one of the most cultured men of the age. But Lanfranc had found his own guru, or spiritual teacher, in an almost illiterate monk named Herlwin.

Each of these men was ”satisfied” in his teacher. It can be said that the teacher is a good man, and that is always found in him. But aside from this, the aspirant must not form preconceptions founded on ignorance, as to what a spiritual teacher should be. It would be a mistake, to take a different example, to suppose that because boxing includes the art of defence against blows, a man with a broken nose who gives lessons in it is ipso facto unqualified. Again, wrestling can be pursued by an amateur as a means of building up a perfect physique, but a professional wrestler rarely has four sound limbs, and sometimes not one. And many of his injuries are caused by his own pupils, who injure him when he deliberately lays himself open for them in the course of the training. It is, in fact, just because he is a teacher that he gets injured. Still, if an untrained man tests him, he can do more with his four broken limbs than the former with his sound ones. The teacher has already realized the aim of his life, which is to know Truth. He has therefore no personal aims or desires, and only remains in the world for the purpose of teaching others. The finding of a true teacher is said to be the result of the merit acquired in many past lives, and if the opportunity is not used it may not recur.

When the teacher is found, the practices he prescribes are to be followed faithfully and without any doubts. The actions of the teacher are not to be criticised by an untrained man, still less by one who has accepted his instructions. The great Sufi, Jelal-ud-din Rumi, says : ”If the scales come to weigh the mountain, the scales will be shattered by the mountain. The novice applies the scales of his own judgment and puts the man of God in the scales. But since the Shaykh, the teacher, is not contained by the scales of the intellect, consequently he shatters the scales of the intellect.” As each teacher learns from his teacher, and the latter again from his, the tradition is handed down in an unbroken line.  These lines of teachers are found in many mystical schools, of East and West.

Plotinus learned from Ammonius Saccas at Alexandria, and from him there was an unbroken succession of teachers, the ”Hermaic chain” as they themselves called it, for two hundred and fifty years, up to Proclus and his academy in Athens. The Christian Emperor Justinian closed this academy after the death of Proclus, and the seven philosophers, his pupils, took their books and started out for Persia to seek refuge there. Their doctrines, however, entered the heart of Christian doctrine through the works of Dionysius, a pupil of a disciple of Proclus. To take a Buddhist line, the present abbot of the Zen monastery called Sojiji, at Tsurumi, Japan, traces his spiritual lineage through Dogen (1,200 A.D.), back to China where the sect was founded by Bodhidharma in the sixth century. Bodhidharma was in fact an Indian who received his initiations from the line of Buddhist patriarchs going back to Kasyapa and Buddha, 600 B.C., or as the Chinese Buddhists prefer, 1,000 B.C.

The tradition of the Adhyatma Yoga, which comes to us through the saint Shri Dada, derives from the great philosopher-sage Shankaracharya, whose works are authoritative on the subject. His date is given traditionally as 200 B.C. Many famous names among the saints and scholars of India have belonged to this line, among them Sayana, the great commentator on the Vedas who lived an active life as Prime Minister of a large kingdom and then retired to become the brilliant philosopher Vidyaranya. We know the names of the teacher of Shankaracharya, and of the teacher before that, who wrote an important commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad. Further back still, there is the sage Vasishtha, and Vyasa, who compiled the Vedas themselves. Tradition says that before Shankaracharya began teaching, Vyasa appeared to him and asked him forty difficult points connected with the philosophy. Shankaracharya was able to answer these, and also forty more connected with them, and Vyasa then gave him his blessing and the mandate to teach.

The very early pedigree of the Adhyatma Yoga is given in the Gita, in the first verses of Chapter IV.  In fact the lines of teachers of each mystical school stretch back to an incarnation of God, or a great saint who had achieved union with God. In both cases, therefore, the line is considered to end in God, as the first teacher. The teacher stands for his subject, and the same reverence is given to the teacher as to the subject. In the case of a spiritual teacher the reverence is unlimited. The teacher stands for all the previous teachers of that line who have gone before him, ending in the incarnation or God-realized saint who founded the line. In reverencing the seen teacher, all the others are reverenced also. It is like a chain of men holding hands, pulling each other up and over a ridge of ice. One teacher is seen outlined at the top of the ridge ; the others are invisible, but they are on the other side of the ridge and still pulling, so that their strength is transmitted through the teacher who is seen. He in turn disappears when he has pulled another to the top, but he is still pulling in the chain out of sight.

In the Sufi mysticism of Islam, the relationship is first established with the visible teacher, who on his part must be of great piety and virtue and who has himself passed through the four degrees of mystical practice. Next, through his practices under the direction of the teacher, the aspirant comes into contact with the Pir, the saint who is the original founder of the particular tariq or path to which they belong. The third degree leads him, still through the spiritual aid of his teacher, up to the Prophet himself. And the fourth degree leads him even to God.

Here are a few quotations on the subject:

St. Thomas Aquinas:

”In this is blessedness, that we be subject to God. You may say, are we not subject to God ? It is true, we are, but only indirectly. That is, by means of angels, prelates and teachers, who keep us in the way we ought to come to blessedness.”


(To one who complained of his teacher) ” When I was at the school of Lao-Shang, I served my master. Three years went by and I had not dared to weigh the true and the false, not to speak of what is useful and what harmful. (He kept secret his likes and aversions). The master gave me a sidelong glance and that was all. After five years, I began to consider what is true and what false, and discuss what is useful and what harmful. The master smiled. After seven years, I practised meditation, following the thoughts which arose in my heart without rejecting or accepting them. Then the master made me come forward and sit beside him, to practise meditation. You, who have only lived near your master less than one season, are already impatient . . .”


”To him who comes in reverent awe,
With spirit calm and unhasting,
With mind duly brought under control

To him the wise teacher can give true knowledge,
The knowledge by which he may know that unchanging being,

Who is living truth.
He only is holy and wise,
Who knows that deeds breed impermanence
And that peace comes not by feverish action ;
In humble submission of soul
He must sit at the feet of a teacher of truth
Who, knowing the best that the scriptures can give,

Has fastened his mind upon God.”


Shri Dada

”Some say you have come into the world for the sake of knowledge ; Others that the purpose of life is to be good and wise. O Dada know that you are here to find your Guru, And having found and accepted him, to become one with him. It is better to cease from breathing than to desert the Guru.”

© Trevor Leggett

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