I’ve written a few articles about modern issues with spiritual teachers. Students often see enlightenment as a superhuman perfection. We see the teacher as beyond mistakes. If a teacher buys into such ideas, they can create a large blind spot. Unresolved identity or unconscious needs are bound to be acted out with students. Expecting perfection, students may excuse the behaviour as “crazy wisdom” or similar.
The Westernization of spiritual teaching has meant that most teachers are now independent, sometimes affiliated with a lineage and sometimes not. They’re often outside of any peer-support structure and often lack understanding of relationship power dynamics. It’s a recipe for trouble.
One simple principle is that if someone has a human body, it’s because there is still karma unfolding. After they become enlightened, they’re still working out their sprouted karma from before enlightenment. And enlightenment itself takes time to integrate and mature. How long did you take to become an adult?
The karma that is unfolding now doesn’t reflect their current state. But how they respond to it does.
Recently a reader shared one of Jerry Freeman’s essays, “Why There are No Perfect Teachers.” Jerry is a prior BATGAP interviewee that writes occasional insightful essays. He makes many excellent points on this topic I’ll explore below. He also gave me permission to share his essay. Quotes are from his text, linked below.
“Those who come closest to a true, mature enlightenment do not hide their humanity. They do not cover themselves with an “enlightened” persona. They are at peace with themselves exactly as they are. They present themselves exactly as they are: human, fallible, flawed and still a work in progress even though some of them, the best of them, may already be deeply enlightened.”
Much as we may love to think otherwise, “…enlightenment does not confer perfection.” It is a major and progressive upgrade but we remain human with all that entails. That is how enlightenment is lived – in our humanity.
Initial enlightenment just takes a moment, a brief recognition of the Self by itself. Pop! But for that to be embodied in a life takes time. Each progressive level of our expression is more dense and slower to change. We have a lot of habits that take time to wind down.
There are a range of spiritual sources that point to statements that suggest perfection. Jerry mentions the Brahma Sutra of Vedanta. Shankara’s commentary says “It therefore is an established conclusion that on attaining Brahman there results the extinction of all sin [karma].” The Bhagavad Gita makes similar statements about right action.
We’re supposed to be perfected in Brahman* then, right?
This is qualified 2 verses later. Only those karmas from our backlog that have not yet begun to unfold are destroyed by knowledge. That is considerable. However, we also brought in a “suitcase” of seeds to this lifetime. Many of them have sprouted. Those parts of our past continue to unfold after enlightenment. We have a new relationship with our life but the blueprint or script continues.
Shankara says “Former karmas, i.e. actions, whether virtuous or sinful, which have been accumulated in previous forms of existence as well as in the current form of existence before the origination of knowledge, are destroyed by the attainment of knowledge only if their fruit has not yet begun to operate.
“Those actions, on the other hand, whose effects have begun and whose results have been half enjoyed are not destroyed by that knowledge. They are those very karmas to which there is due the present state of existence in which the knowledge of Brahman arises.”
It’s another paradox. It is the karmas that lead us into another life which allows enlightenment to flower. That brings the knowledge that roasts karma. However, this cannot roast the karma that gave us the enlightened life or the life would end. Then there would be no enlightened life. Similarly, Shankara uses the analogy of a potters wheel having momentum. It takes time to wind down the past habits and impressions, as I mentioned above.
Framed another way, the unsprouted seeds remain potential energy and are roasted when our identification with them ends. The sprouted seeds have become kinetic energy expressed into the world so have to be resolved in that forum.
We have the soup of clear knowledge, flavoured with the faint remains of ignorance (leshavidya) that allow us to live our life out.
Jerry quotes Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on this point: “What leshavidya does is create a separation in the state of Unity, and it is this separation that is responsible for the emergence of Brahman – Brahman being the whole which is more than the collection of parts. So, unless Unity is in parts, that wholeness of Brahman will not be created.”
The Brahma Sutra refers to this collection as the “aggregate” or totality. It is a oneness with many perspectives of itself, the whole aware of itself at every point.
There has to be some value of a person, a kernel of individuality, for enlightenment to be lived as a human. That value of Ahamkara (“I-sense”) is no longer the center but still has an “operational function.” If there was only spacious awareness, we could not function in the world. In fact, I’ve observed that people in well-developed enlightenment become more unique, unfettered by the former constraints on their individuality.
We still experience from this default point as human, still have to take care of the body-mind, and still experience pain if we stub our toe.
The key becomes how we respond to our unfolding karma. If we’re acting out because of ignorance (willful or otherwise), we can create new karmas rather than settle things down.
Yet if we notice our reactive points and see events arising in our life as reflecting something within us to resolve, we can gradually pierce our shadows and resolve our karma. Life becomes simpler, smoother, and less eventful.
This is why some traditions recommend we mature for a decade or so before we start to teach. This reduces the tendency for the role to bring out unfinished business. I’ve been surprised by how much acting out I’ve seen in people well-along the stages. Also by some fundamentalism.
It is very common to feel complete and done at certain points on the journey. This can incline some to drop all practices and feel they have “the truth.” But as one reader mentioned, they were feeling done for the third time.
“Paradoxically, enlightenment is both all-at-once and incremental. Enlightenment is simultaneously infinite but ever-expanding, complete but never-finished, an accomplished reality but simultaneously an endless work-in-progress.”
If instead, you recognize there is still a process and we all have blind spots, we can remain a little more humble and more alert to shadows. The key with shadows is the light of awareness. They will not be seen if we think we’re beyond our humanity.
I would also note that perfection is a great deal more than sinless. Take the Yoga Sutra, for example. It lists the siddhis or abilities we should be able to perform as a perfected siddha. I’ve met some very enlightened people but I’ve never met anyone perfected. The current time simply doesn’t support it. (The Yoga Sutra is from Treta Yuga.)
Another thing that can bring trouble is fancy experiences or gifts that arise from progress. If we are blind to our ego, we can make the mistake of thinking they’re mine, accomplishments, or something that makes us special or perfect. This can be quite subtle.
If our uncle gives us a rare book, do we see this as an expression of his love or because of our importance?
Similarly, if we share these fancy things, will others make us special or put us on a pedestal? Will we buy into that?
“When the celestial beings beckon, we should not respond with pleasure or pride, because this will obstruct progress, and it is always possible to fall.”
– Yoga Sutra 3.51
“No one, it seems, covers the total spectrum of possible subtle experience. No one is without blind spots. People can be highly attuned to the things that fall in their own range of perception but completely miss something that does not. What is accessible to one may be invisible to another. All of this is just aspects of expression.”
We all have a different mix of the emphasis of laws of nature leading to a different expression and different styles of experience. As consciousness wants to know itself in every detail, our very purpose revolves around these differences. Even if your perception seems to cover the entire range of creation, it’s still just one perspective. And it’s still just perception.
The most important part is source itself, pure consciousness. This is the foundation of all experience but is not an experience itself. There are people attuned to source with no fancy experiences but who have a profound influence on the collective. And there are people with advanced styles of experience that don’t have fancy word skills. Only a few of the awake talk about it much. Charisma and the gift of gab don’t make a person a sage.
“With all our variations in perception, our different bandwidths and our different blind spots, each individual is unique. No one is better or higher than another. All teachers, all humans, will be attuned to some things and blind to others. Knowing this can protect us from getting carried away.”
Being enlightened also doesn’t mean we become Vulcans with detached, emotionless intellects. Enlightenment isn’t an escape from feeling. In fact, if we’re avoiding our emotions, we’re impeding opening.
“The pairs of opposites persist: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, joy and sorrow. They persist. What changes is one’s relation to them. And what changes is the infinite silence that comes to abide with them.”
Often, the process can liberate our emotions. Feelings become bigger, richer, and more satisfying when we drop all the control. This brightens the entire range.
“Some look to awakening for a way to bypass difficulties without addressing them: a ‘get out of jail free’ card.” Yet it is in fact the opposite. Becoming more conscious means more conscious of everything.
As we notice points of contraction or reactivity and are willing to engage them and resolve them, we also gradually clear our blind spots and resolve some remains of ignorance.
As Jerry observes, this is how enlightenment deepens and matures.
One related topic Jerry didn’t explore is where sin or wrong action come from. From the perspective we’ve been describing, it is ignorance of our true nature. Not knowing who we are, we grasp at what we want and resist what we don’t want, trying to control life. This impedes natural flow and creates friction and unresolved experiences that shadow our perspective.
But why do we behave this way when animals don’t? Humans have a perception of free will or choice. We’re given the option to choose how we respond to life events. If knowledge is clear, we make good choices. But if we’re in shadow and in the grip of our repressions, we’re likely to grasp and resist. This leads to problems and suffering.
Yet choice also gives us the option of pursuing a spiritual path and developing enlightenment. Nature will naturally move us slowly in that direction. But free will opens the door to more rapid progress – in either direction. In a sense, heaven and hell are choices; options that result from many, many smaller choices.
A major benefit of enlightenment is a bigger picture of life. Then we naturally favour the highest good.
If you’d like to read Jerry’s entire essay, download it here:
No Perfect Teachers essay (for personal use only) (pdf, 1MB)
* I define Brahman Consciousness a bit differently than Jerry.
[Update:] See Jerry’s comment on this topic below.