Saturday 18 March 2023

The Guru Figure

Bruce Charlton recently sent me a link to a Youtube video about Seraphim Rose and Alan Watts. 

For those who don't know Seraphim Rose was an American Russian Orthodox priest and definitely someone who was called to holiness. Alan Watts was a populariser of Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, in the 1950s at a time when the appeal of Eastern religion was strong among a certain spiritually deracinated intellectual class. I first came across one of his books around 1980 but had an instinctive dislike of the showmanship element I felt I saw in him so only read a few pages before putting the book away. It was well-written and even insightful up to a point but it was also obvious that here was someone who had the words off pat but didn't live the teachings at all, except superficially, and reading that actually does more spiritual harm than good. The video more or less confirms that this was, or became, Seraphim Rose's opinion too. He was attracted to Watts at first but soon saw through him. Bruce Charlton pointed out that Watts seems manipulative and selfish with a cold heart and that you can see this if you watch the video with the sound off. He appears to be trying to intoxicate, entrance, impress and cast a spell on his audience. 

I quote this insight of Bruce's here because this is just what so many guru figures of recent decades have done and no doubt still do, though I am not familiar with what goes in that world nowadays. The potent glamour of being seen as the spiritually enlightened master is very strong, and charismatic figures are drawn to it as a way to feed their egos and dominate lesser mortals who give them energy through their adoration. I once asked my teachers about this because it was something that troubled me in my younger days. They told me that these people were not all evil and some did good at their level. However, that implies that some are evil which does indeed seem to be the case. Such teachers use spirituality to advance themselves and they don't care about their disciples other than as satellites revolving around their sun. The following remarks about Watts from the video can be applied to others of his ilk, and that would be a significant number of prominent gurus and spiritual teachers of the last 100 years.

  • His version of mysticism promised him spiritual benefits while allowing him to do whatever he wanted.
  • He streamlined Zen to cater to the modern mentality of self-worship.
  • He destroyed souls including his own.

This is the kind of thing that happens when you take God and the idea of sin out of the equation. Then you use spirituality as a consumer product which means as something to boost the self. I once believed these people were just in error but now I see many of them are badly motivated, predators on the spiritually naive.

In my estimation the change in human consciousness over the last 200 years, with greater individualism and freedom, means that the age of the guru is past. Of course, there is still a place for spiritual teachers of various sorts but not for the guru as the supreme dispenser of wisdom and enlightenment who must be looked up to almost as though he were God or, at least, a god. That was never a Western concept anyway but the guru became a very romantic figure in the West in the 20th century and many unscrupulous spiritual salesmen jumped on board that train. Alan Watts was by no means the worst but he was a definite type.


Chris said...

I can't say that I'm a Watts devotee, but I do appreciate his writing style.
IMO, Alan Watts can be helpful to the typical naturalist/modernist who experiences spiritual longing .

William Wildblood said...

I believe he is a good writer but you can probably get the information he gives from more reputable sources these days, ie ones without the what you might call spiritual contamination.

Anonymous said...

Interesting …. I don’t share the same antagonism to Watts as you do . I grant that his views can easily be interpreted as simply loving nihilism , but I’m inclined to say that would be an over simplification of his position . Overall, I think his contribution was a net positive, despite his personal failings and the confusion of some of his ideas . A charitable reading of Watts can be a stepping stone out of crass materialism and into a space of spiritual possibility .

Bruce Charlton said...

Seraphim Rose, in some of his letters, expressed his conviction that the era of 'gurus' had passed, even in Orthodox Christianity. Before 1917 in Russia, a monk was made child of a spiritual father, and was expected to obey him uncritically, as a young child his parent. Faith in the spiritual father was supposed to be like faith in God.

Rose said that this was right and proper for as long as there was an unbroken tradition and transmitted between generations; but that this had been broken by the Russian Revolution - and from then, it was necessary for the aspirant to regard his spiritual father as a teacher, not as a parent - i.e. using spiritual discernment, rather than unquestioning obedience.

(I have, of course, also heard it said that this kind of blind and complete obedience is necessary for Sufism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Whether or not this is still possible or desirable in the East I doubt, but it is certainly impossible and undesirable in the West. Somebody like Watts would have been regarded as incompetent in the traditional East, and for him to assume a 'guru status would have been seen as outrageous! Watts 'solved' this by speaking acting as a guru while claiming not to - and washing his hands of responsibility for consequences.)

For Rose; this meant that the fullness of faith was no longer possible; also because there were no Orthodox nations any more, the End Times had commenced; so modern Orthodox had to endure patiently this severely suboptimal - indeed tragic - situation.

On reflection I found that I agreed with Rose, but that this fact also subverted the claim that Orthodoxy was the One True Church, or that the Church was essential to Christian life - and began the development of the Romantic Christian type of perspective.

William Wildblood said...

Seraphim Rose's opinion about gurus sounds just right to me. All traditions, in both East and West, have been broken and we are in new territory now.