When setting out on a quest of spiritual discovery, it’s often assumed the first step involves finding a spiritual master. But few people take the time to ask themselves what a spiritual master actually is, if they really need one, or what the upside and downside might be. Without knowing the answers to these questions, we can easily be side-tracked or become discouraged.

Let’s begin with the difference between a teacher and a master.  This is not to say that we can’t learn something from teachers as well as masters, but there is a distinct difference between the two. A master’s words are based on their own direct, personal experience of Ultimate Reality and their continued one-on-one relationship with the Divine. As Eknath Easwaran explained:

The spiritual master must know every inch of the way, every danger and pitfall, and not from books or maps or hearsay. He must have traveled it himself from the foothills to the higher peaks. And he must have managed to get back down again, to be able to relate to students with humility and compassion.

Teachers have learned what they teach on an intellectual level, but they have not had the direct experience.  It’s rather like learning to play the piano from someone who has never touched a piano themselves. They may have an excellent understanding of the theory, but they can’t be a model or give a demonstration of skill. But the master serves as a model of oneness with the Divine and a living reflection of your own true identity. This point is made in a gnostic text called the Pseudo-Cyprian, where Jesus says, “Thus you see me in yourselves, as one of you sees yourself in water or in a mirror.”

Since the seeker has not yet experienced the Divine, it can be difficult to discern who is teaching from direct experience and who isn’t. One important clue can help. Masters know through their own experience that the Divine can be known, and wants to be known, but they also realize that this connection is made by each of us through inward exploration that can only be carried out on a personal basis.

Masters understand that awakening inevitably includes letting go of the outer self, teachers generally concentrate on the outside. Although they may speak in spiritual terms, their focus is on improving this life (health, relationships, abundance, personality, career etc.) and the world we live in. There are times when self-improvement may be necessary for each one of us, but it has nothing to do with spiritual awakening, which can happen regardless of our personal conditions.

Teachers almost always have a plan or method their students are taught to follow. Teachers are generally attached to the plan and students are expected to conform to the plan rather than the plan conforming to their needs. The plan worked for the teacher, so they assume it will also work for others. This can become very problematic when the plan or method doesn’t work for the student. The teacher may insist that it’s the student’s fault and pressure them to keep trying. Masters are aware of a few principles, but have no one-size-fits-all plan that’s applied to every student. For instance, a master may share the principle that you can’t put anything more into a full bucket, but it’s up to the student to discover what it means and how to apply it.

It’s a logical step to conclude that all teachers want students, but all masters do not necessarily want followers. Why? Masters understand that they have gained mastery only over the self, not mastery over others.  Some masters choose to lead a quiet life, others choose the course Jesus took, “For the physician hurries to the place in which there is sickness, because that is the desire he has.” (Gospel of Truth) However, masters realize the best they can do is point toward the Divine. In the gnostic Gospel of Thomas Jesus said, “I am not you master.” He didn’t set himself apart but encouraged his followers to reach his level of awareness. This is evident in the gnostic Secret Book of James where Jesus said, “…be fervent on your own and, if possible, outdo even me.”

The master knows if someone follows them they will have to give up their own path and they will end up at the master’s destination, not their own. This is like getting on a train to Chicago because someone else did, when you really needed to go to Orlando. Masters understand that the Divine speaks directly to each one, telling them exactly what they need to hear. In the gnostic Dialogue of the Savior, Jesus tells his followers to “Light the lamp within you…Knock on yourself as upon a door and walk upon yourself as on a straight road.”  And Rumi adds, “Make everything in you an ear, each atom of your being, and you will hear at every moment what the Source is whispering to you, just to you and for you, without any need for my words or anyone else’s.”

Masters are concerned about their inner connection with the Divine, not their outer appearance. Instead of living up to a set of rules, they become love and act accordingly. As a result, their behavior or their speech may appear shocking to those who mistake spiritual maturity with a serious demeanor, asceticism or living up to a moral code or religious rules.  Remember Jesus was chided as a drunkard, a glutton, a rabble rouser and law breaker. The words saint and master are often confused, but they are extremely different.  Saints are known for their piety, virtue and devotion to a particular religious code. Saints are interested in attaining perfection and approval; masters are rebels who understand the illusionary nature of this world and care nothing for society’s approval.

Do you need a master? It can help, but it can also hinder. It’s important to ask ourselves why we want a master. Is it so we can hand over responsibility to someone else? Do we want the prestige of a close relationship with a known master? Are we afraid?  No one, teacher or master, can take you where to will eventually want to go. For that reason, it’s as important to know when to walk away from a teacher or master as it is to know whether or not you want one. Masters agree that awakening is far more dependent on a student’s attitude than anything the master does or says. If we’re willing to lay aside our preconceived notions, attachments and aversions and open our heart to hear whatever the Divine wants to tell us, we will wake up with or without a master.  

Masters in the flesh are few and far between. It would be easy to spend years searching only to be disappointed.  But remember, masters are readily available to us since they don’t have to be in the body to help us. When we approach the words of masters who have gone before us with a willing and open heart, those words can help us as we walk our own path. Or better yet, go straight to the Divine, it’s where you wanted to be anyway.

Lee and Steven Hager are the authors of The Beginning of Fearlessness: Quantum Prodigal Son, a spiritual quest and scientific adventure.

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