When I was twenty years old, in 1985, on a steamy summer afternoon, I visited a Buddhist center—a farmhouse to be more accurate—in rural Wisconsin. I stood waiting in the living room to see the lama, who also happened to be a professor. A lama-professor,
I thought, must have an answer to my question.
That question had dawned in my mind one evening while curled up in the stacks of the UW library, reading Robert Aiken’s Taking the Path of Zen. My eyes froze on one sentence: “In true Zen practice, our eyebrows are entangled with those of our ancestral teachers.” Our ancestral teachers?
My eyebrows were at that moment entangled with so many other things, primarily with my college studies, boy problems, and books. But not with ancestral teachers. What was an ancestral teacher? Were these teachers alive or dead?
Sometimes the teacher is not outside the self at all, but rather is the deepest part of you, the part that sees beyond the veil of separateness.
And one burning question rose to the top: How do I find an ancestral teacher? Not just an ancestral teacher, but my ancestral teacher?
Back in the farmhouse, the lama, draped in burgundy robes, emerged from a back room and beckoned me inside.
As we walked through the doorway, I found myself in a room painted floor to ceiling in tones of yellow and orange, and smelling of sandalwood. We each took a seat on a meditation cushion as I wondered to myself, “Is this an ancestral teacher?”
We sat facing one another as his attendant withdrew to the kitchen to make tea. The lama’s face was kind. After some greetings and polite inquiries, I got down to business.
“I have a question for you. I know it sounds strange…but…how do you find a teacher?”
I could feel my face flushing red with embarrassment. What a stupid question! After all, he must be a teacher. Does he wonder if I’m blind and don’t see him sitting there drinking tea? But he did not look offended. He seemed to be suppressing a smile. There was a long silence as we sipped our tea.
He suddenly put his cup down, looked me in the eye, and said, “When you are ready, the teacher will appear.”
This moment with the lama-professor stayed with me as a kind of koan, especially the words when you are ready. What does it mean to be ready? Isn’t the teacher out there waiting to be discovered? Can’t I travel the world to find them?
His answer surprised me because it turned the spotlight back on me, the one asking. Finding a teacher, he seemed to say, does not require scouring the world searching for someone or finding the right conditions. Rather, it comes out of preparing oneself, and from a certain kind of receptivity and discernment, a kind of relaxation.
But I was not sure then how to take his response, or how to fully enact it, so I tucked it away. It was only many years later that I would come to understand that the lama knew something I did not. He knew what “teacher” meant in his Buddhist tradition. He knew that “teacher” does not necessarily mean a human being with a physical body. It is not necessarily someone you can find by searching the world over. The teacher might not be who or what we imagined, an individual in robes, smelling of sandalwood and myrrh and preaching the dharma.
The Heavy One
Guru is the Sanskrit word for teacher.In our current context, this word is sadly occluded by a history of abuses. But its etymological roots hint at a meaning that might help us in this time and place.
The root is far from the later meaning of “teacher” as an individual. Etymologically, guru is a noun meaning “that which is weighty or heavy” and is a cognate of the Latin gravis (as in “gravity”). In light of its origins, it implies that which is close to the earth, that which is grounding and grounded. Guru moves in the direction of the deep.
Tibetans, when first translating the Buddhist scriptures into their native language, translated guru as lama, a pre-Buddhist word applied to indigenous shamans. Lama’s etymology bears no resemblance to the meaning, “heavy.” La means “soul” or “life force” (also “uppermost”), and ma means “mother.” Perhaps it could be translated as “the compassionate life force,” or “soul mother.”
These etymologies encourage me to lean into the idea that “teacher” extends beyond persons to a set of qualities or principles. To find the “teacher” is to find a relationship with what is deep, what grounds, what is earth-bound (guru). Perhaps finding the “teacher” is to befriend one’s own life-force and soul (la). Perhaps it is to reconnect with the mother-essence, the heart of compassion (ma) in oneself.
If “guru” is not an individual (or not only, or even primarily, that), what can we say about it? If not a he, she, or they, is the guru an “it”?
There is, it happens, a notion in Indic religion of a guru that instructs but is not a teacher per se. Such a guru arises spontaneously from the interaction between a seeker of truth and the world they live in. That guru is called—in pre-Buddhist Indian scriptures of the Samkya school—the guru tattva, or guru-principle. While this specific term did not gain traction in Buddhist scriptures, the concept exists widely in Buddhist commentaries as the notion that “spiritual teacher” extends beyond an object (or person) to being an epistemology, a way of knowing.
I first came across the idea of the guru-principle while attending a monthlong meditation course at a Buddhist monastery in the early ’90s. We had our noses in a five-hundred-year-old meditation handbook, which stated that training in meditation practice required cultivating a relationship with spiritual teachers, but not the kind I expected.
While humans are sometimes teachers, it said, so are books. And so is the natural world: fire, water, earth, wind, and sky are spiritual teachers. The teacher, the handbook continued, is everywhere, arising symbolically through everything. Sometimes the teacher is not outside the self at all, but rather is the deepest part of you, the part that sees beyond the veil of separateness.
The idea of guru tattva is that we cannot wake up by relying on human teachers alone. To awaken, we must become a student of reality itself. Spiritual maturity manifests in the understanding that the dharma winds its way through every moment of our lives. If we are receptive and curious, we can begin to notice deep teachings blossoming all around us. Being a student does not mean surrendering our agency. We can shape our enlightenment narrative by choosing how we perceive our entire world, and by redirecting the “weight” of our attention.
The Earth as Teacher
The climate is warming, species are dying, ecosystems are collapsing. Some of the reason for this disintegration is connected to how we have understood the more-than-human world. We have understood it to be ours, something to be consumed and used. We certainly have not understood it to be our teacher.
But an extractive, consumerist relationship to wild spaces is not necessarily the historic default mode of humanity. In premodern indigenous cultures the world over, what counted as sacred and what counted as the teacher were entwined with the natural world.
In many conclaves of Asia and other developing countries, these impulses are alive and well, taking the form of worship of sacred beings (sometimes buddhas, sometimes local guardians and nature spirits) that are inextricably connected to natural features in the landscape: mountains, valleys, rocks, springs, streams, trees.
We can reclaim this intimate nature-based spirituality, the way of our ancestors. We can remember that our landscape is populated with teachers. The stream down the hill from your home might teach you how to stay with the flow of experience, moving around the rocks, unimpeded. The ocean might teach you how to find connection to the slow deep, even while the waves of thought are churning.
As you listen deeply, you might notice that the trees in your backyard are teaching the dharma. The fungi under your feet have been teaching the dharma. The animals in your house have been teaching the dharma.
These wild entities are all fully “guru,” pulling us down to a more earth-based wisdom. These wild ones turn our attention toward the deep.
The Community as Teacher
Buddhist communities generally refer to themselves as sangha. Sangha (Sanskrit) literally means “community,” but it refers to spiritual family, people walking a contemplative path together. One’s own spiritual community is deeply cherished in Buddhist understanding as a source of refuge, the third of the three jewels: Buddha, dharma, and sangha.
The Buddha was famously once asked by his closest disciple, Ananda, whether sangha was a part of the holy life. The Buddha replied, “No Ananda, the sangha is not a part of the holy life. The sangha is the whole of the holy life.” To the Buddha, being part of a community was a pillar of spiritual evolution.
This is easy to forget sometimes when we are embedded in community; say, when the toast is burned or when someone rubs us the wrong way. Communities are complex, and made up of complex individuals. They are home to relational challenges, latent trauma, habitual patterns, and tension. They are also home to love, compassion, care, and kindness. Community provides us with rich opportunities to become more graceful in relationship.
To stay in a field of relationship for an extended time requires that we get out of our own bubble and evolve. It requires that we learn to minimize judgment. Community life seeds in us a more magnanimous stance, as we notice that sacrificing some of our own needs for the good of others, and practicing generosity in service of others, are their own rewards. When you love your community, not just with your mind, but also with your heart and your hands, it loves you back.
The Body as Teacher
Another “heavy” in our life is the body. The body reminds us that we are grounded. Even when our thoughts are swirling all around, taking us for a rough ride, the body is solid, anchored to this planet.
You can feel its teaching at the base of your body, right now, as the physical sensation of groundedness that is always present. You can turn your attention toward that. You can take refuge in it. When you do, the body begins to teach the mind how to be steady and earthbound.
The body is also a deep guru of presence. While the mind spends most of its time ruminating on the past or anticipating the future, the body is very much living in the moment. The breath is breathing. The ears are hearing. The skin is sensing the temperature. The body is always here, now. If you listen to the body’s nowness, the mind comes along in this vast field of presence.
This is important, because these times need us to become radically present. It is the only way we are ever going to come to terms with what is happening to our planet.
The Primordial Teacher
Now, eventually my eyebrows did entangle with those of an ancestral teacher. Not just one, but a whole lineage of them. They were human beings with personalities, eccentricities, and character. They cooked soup, made tea, and took out the trash. They were deeply human, and they held up a mirror.
Being human, ancestral teachers share with us the trait of being both fallible and mortal. Eventually the mortal falls apart. Even our own bodies, as grounding and stabilizing as they are, will eventually die. What do we do when everything disintegrates? Where do we turn?
For that, my ancestral teachers had an answer, and perhaps that is why we need them. They told me to slow down and turn my gaze within. They told me to stop grasping for straws out there in a rough world. They told me to trust my inner experience.
Maybe you, too, have tried this slowing down and looking within. If you have, you may have noticed that, underneath the turbulence of your mind, underneath the endless chatter, underneath the struggle, there is some part of you that is simply and nakedly aware.
One of my human teachers, when I finally did happen upon one, was an old Tibetan cave dweller with a face like a roadmap. He used to point to the tip of his nose and say “like this.” Very near, yet hard to see.
Nameless, yet not a stranger. Primordial and intimate, like your own face. Awake like a lamp on a dark night. Sane and necessary, like an old home you had forgotten. Seeing this home might move you so deeply, tears spring from your eyes.
But even so, you will remember this for the rest of your life as the moment you found the ultimate refuge, the moment you became ready. You are ready because you understand that your spiritual teacher was never out there. She has been here all along, a radically present awareness. So you approach, turn the knob, and step over the threshold.
You are in an old farmhouse. There she stands, your nameless soul mother, with the whole world in her hands. She says,
How can you find what you already are?
You’ve had your head in the clouds.
Oh this ego is an old trickster.
Let your hair down and come home.
And even though your eyebrows may have finally entangled with the ancestral teachers, even though you bowed to them and drank from their stream, you now know beyond a doubt, she is the one you’ve been waiting for.