Joseph Campbell on the Guru

Last week I was out walking along the ocean, wondering about this whole guru business, and came across a woman cleaning out her car. We struck up a conversation, and she showed me this quotation, from a conversation between Michael Toms and Joseph Campbell:

TOMS: What about the desire to follow a guru? We see religions
and cults based on the teacher-disciple relationship flourishing

CAMPBELL: I think that is bad news. I really do think you can take clues from teachers – I know you can. But, you see, the traditional Oriental idea is that the student should submit absolutely to the teacher. The guru actually assumes responsibility for the student’s moral life, and this is total giving. I don’t think that’s quite proper for a Western person. One of the big spiritual truths for the West is that each of us is a unique creature, and consequently has a unique path.

There’s one quotation I ran into in La Queste del Saint Graal which hit me as being the essence of what I’d call the European or Western spirituality. The knights of King Arthur’s court were seated at table and Arthur would not let the meal be served until an adventure had occurred. And, indeed, an adventure did occur. The Grail itself appeared, carried by angelic miracle, covered, however, by a cloth. Everyone was in rapture and then it withdrew. Arthur’s nephew Gawain stood up and said, "I propose a vow. I propose that we should all go in pursuit of this Grail to behold it unveiled." And it was determined that that was what they would do. And then occur these lines which seem to me so wonderful: "They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the forest that he had chosen where there was no path and where it was darkest." Now, if there’s a way or path, it’s someone else’s way; and the guru has a path for you. He knows where you are on it. He knows where he is on it, namely, way ahead. And all you can do is get to be as great as he is. This is a continuation of the dependency of childhood; maturity consists in outgrowing that and becoming your own authority for your life. And this quest for the unknown seems so romantic to Oriental people. What is unknown is the fulfillment of your own unique life, the likes of which has never existed on the earth. And you are the only one who can do it. People can give you clues how to fall down and how to stand up; but when to fall and when to stand, and when you are falling, and when you are standing, this only you can know. And in the way of your own talents is the only way to do it.

TOMS: Isn’t it important to respect our own uniqueness?

CAMPBELL: I think that’s the most important thing of all. That’s why, as l said, you really can’t follow a guru. You can’t ask somebody to give The Reason, but you can find one for yourself; you decide what the meaning of your life is to be. People talk about the meaning of life; there is no meaning of life – there are lots of meanings of
different lives, and you must decide what you want your own to be.

And don't get me wrong – I love gurus. I am in relationship with several gurus from a lineage in India, and have been for 40 years. My job is to adapt the teachings and techniques of meditation to fit the needs of modern Americans. I think it is a betrayal of the essence of meditation, to ask Americans to convert to Hinduism or Buddhism in order to meditate. That is not what Buddha would have done.

It is extremely strange that the idea of gurus is associated with meditation because they are usually opposite. The guru is an outer authority to obey. Over time, as you become more and more dependent upon the guru, your basic individuality and ego strength are damaged and weakened, perhaps permanently. Meditation is process of getting in touch with your inner authority and learning to sense the electricity of your own soul. This is the opposite of following a herd.

If you meditate in a way that is unnatural to you, then you may find that your inner and outer life are reshaped to be more distant, disconnected and detached from heart's desire. You may wind up, as the Dalai Lama says, "homeless inside yourself."

One of the strangest ideas we have from India, and one that is sometimes associated with meditation, is that of the guru.This is a beautiful notion within the context of the culture of ancient India. But the very definition of a guru– a human being who is greater than God – does not compute in the Western cultural system. By this definition, gurus are grandiose and pompous beyond belief. Even Bono would never be this grand. It is as if the local minister of the church in the center of your town started to say, "I AM Jesus. You can worship me as the living embodiment of Jesus. Drink my bath water, it is sacrament." And the main qualification is that you never tire of having people grovel in supplication at your feet. And quote some Hindu scripture from time to time. That's about it as far as qualifications go. We have no way of telling if a given person is a narcissist or a world servant. If you think about what enlightenment is, you realize that an enlightened person would probably never allow people to worship him or her.

At best you could say that the guru is a Santa Claus figure for adults – he knows when you have been naughty, and he knows when you have been nice, and it is sort of comforting to think that there is this person who flies around and bestows spiritual presents on the good children. It seems to work fine from within the culture of India, for many reasons. And it probably works OK for whatever percentage f the American population are freshly reincarnated Hindus (I'm one). Over the last 40 years, I have lost a lot of friends and even girlfriends to the guru. They just disappear into the ashram, and once there, they only speak to others who are true believers. Many, but not all, of the Americans I know tend to get weaker and weaker over the years from their association with the guru, and I do not really know why. Whereas the Hindus I know, especially those born in India, get stronger and more radiant from their contact with their guru. It's part of their tradition.