In the west, individuality is king. Forging our own path, beating the competition, and success. However, this approach does not serve us as well on a spiritual path. There, we surrender individuality to discover our universal, cosmic nature. And yet, we often see the usual western elements mixed in to spiritual teachings.
Traditions the world over point to a trinity of support for the best spiritual progress. In Buddhism, this trinity is known as The Three Jewels. They are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; the teacher, the teaching, and the spiritual community.
In Judaism, they are similarly God, the Rabbi, the Torah, and the congregation.
In Hinduism, they are the Guru, study of the texts, and satsang.
The sage Vasishtha in the Ramayana prescribed knowledge of the scriptures, guidance of the wise, and ones own effort (right action).
And of course, this is on top of our spiritual practice.
Often, traditions lapse into conservatism or fundamentalism. But when life is restored by lived reality, they can be revived.
Yet it is said without these, we cannot awaken. I would not say that is universally true, but they are a great help for most.
The teacher gives us a living example of the divine in form, or at least clarity of consciousness. They offer darshan and an example we can resonate with. They help make it real for us as long as they don’t place themselves above us.
They steer us away from self-deception and help us interpret our studies with right understanding.
They steer us to right practice.
Ideally, a teacher will support us throughout our path, even if we become a teacher ourselves. But often, teachers are less accessible and more of a pilgrimage. They may take more dominant roles for periods of time and then fade in prominence while life takes us more into the world.
It’s also very common to have a teacher for awhile and then find we outgrow them or circumstances change and a different arrangement is needed.
There can be value in lineage – a depth of teaching can bring great power that a solo teacher doesn’t have. But that isn’t always perfect. For example, Adyashanti came from a long Zen lineage but the line was broken circumstantially. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was of the wrong caste to receive the higher teachings of the Shankaracharya line but was called to bring them to the world anyway. In both cases, being one step outside the form brought life into it and led to a fuller flowering.
A good study of the path and process brings a foundation of understanding to support us. At some points, we will have to cast the ideas aside so we can come to recognize their deeper truth from experience.
Again, a lineage has a greater depth than a teacher with just their own experience. This is less significant for awakening but becomes more important as we progress. There is unfortunately many people somewhat sidelined by ideas of being “done” when they’re barely through the door. Many have no clue of the full potential of our unfolding. That lack of understanding impedes progress.
Ultimately, true understanding comes from direct experience. But the map can be useful for the journey.
Spiritual communities can be like a second teacher. They can support us and help keep us on track. But a true sangha is a community that is led by a teacher.
While many modern groups are open forums that are no longer restricted by teachings, too many are just dueling concepts, like the “non-duality manscape”. Competing for who’s right is just mind, not community. Community unites.
Relationships can also be a powerful mirror for our baggage and progress.
All of this is nothing to strain over. Life will bring us what we need. But it can be a useful guideline to ensure we have our bases covered as best we can for the journey.
On the retreats I go on – the main approach is darshan and sangha, with a little understanding thrown in.