Teachers and Masters
By Huston Smith, adapted from a lecture given in 2003 in honor of Victor Danner, a colleague, friend, and guide of Smith’s.
I would like to etch the master-disciple relationship—in Sanskrit the guru-chela relationship and in Arabic the sheikh-murid relationship—by contrasting it with the relationship between teachers and students. To keep from rambling, I will itemize the contrasts, but as there is no logical sequence in the order in which I will be discussing them, I shall not number them but demarcate them by placing a bullet before each point. Having now announced my trajectory, I am ready to set out.
What brings students to their teachers is a body of knowledge or a skill that the teacher has mastered and to which the student aspires. Feelings, positive and negative, naturally enter, but they are byproducts of this central objective that brings them together. It is not primarily the teacher as a person who is respected, but what he possesses and can deliver to the student. Comparably, it is not who the student is as a complete person that interests the teacher, but his willingness and ability to learn—other sides of his selfhood are beside the point. The entire relationship is born from, and lives by, shared interest in the object of study. This means that both parties in the relationship are replaceable. Students can shop around for teachers and drift from one to another, and teachers will welcome new generations of students. The situation in the master-disciple relationship is otherwise. Here the personhood of both parties is central. (It would be less precise to say the personalities of both parties, for “personality” tends to suggest the public image that the party in question presents to the world.) The master does not enjoy the disciple’s esteem because he conveys something that is useful in any utilitarian respect. Nor is it a distinguishable attribute of his total self that he seeks to transfer to the disciple—to repeat, a specifiable skill or body of knowledge. What is significant for the disciple is the master’s total self, whose character and activity are unique and irreplaceable. In this crucial respect it is like love. More accurately, it is love in the purest sense of that word, though it is risky to use that word which has been rendered almost useless through its preemption by commercialism (hot dogs “made with a little bit of love”), sex (“making love”), sentimentality (racks of Valentine cards), and innumerable other debasing inroads. Like the master/disciple relationship, authentic love is focused on a unique, irreplaceable person. With the exception of St. Paul in his classic description in First Corinthians, I know of no one who describes authentic love better than Thomas Aquinas, and as his description almost says in nunce what I am using this lecture to spell out, I shall summarize it here.
Love is more unitive than knowledge in seeking the thing, not the thing’s reason; its bent is toward a real union. Other effects of love are: a reciprocal abiding of lover and beloved together as one; a transport out of the self to the other; an ardent cherishing of another; a melting so the heart is unfrozen and open to be entered; a longing in absence, heat in pursuit and enjoyment in presence. In delight, too, there is an all-at-once wholeness and timelessness that reflects the total simultaneity of eternity; an edge of sadness; an expansion of spirit; a complete fulfillment of activity without satiety, for “they that drink shall yet thirst.”
Students make up their minds and intend to study, whereas disciples are called to discipleship. One thinks immediately of the tax collector Zachaeus who, perched in a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus in the passing throng, heard Jesus tell him to come down, and when he obeyed found himself transformed into an entirely different being. Or again, we think of the beautiful story of the flower scavenger Sunita, who became a renowned member of the Buddha’s sangha when the Buddha, “seeing the marks of arhatship shining in his heart like a lamp in a jar,” said to him, “Sunita, what to you is this wretched mode of living? Can you endure to leave the world?” Callings such as these bring disciples to their master because in some mysterious, not fully explicable way, they seem to emanate from the master’s completeness. Through this completeness, the master enters and becomes an essential part of the disciple’s existence.
Continuing with the contrasts, the teacher and student, united as they are through a bond of work on a common task, form a series of links in which the student in his own proper time will himself become a teacher with talents that might surpass those of his own teacher, but this is unlikely in the case of the disciple. I cannot think of a single case in which a disciple who on becoming a master thought that his bond with his disciples fully equaled the master-disciple cosmos that his own master forged. The teacher heads a school which can gather strength through the work of his successors, whereas the master forms a circle around himself which authentic disciples do not dream of fully replicating. They can radiate some of the charisma they receive from their master, and may attract disciples of their own, becoming thereby masters in their own right. But it will not be the same universe they shared with their own master, and they see it as imitating, not rivaling, the original universe they inhabited.
In higher education here teaching typically goes hand in hand with research and publication, teachers can pursue that side of their careers without students, whereas disciples are indispensable for masters to be such. I break in to insert a parenthesis here. To prevent my thesis from suffering death by a thousand qualifications, I am trying to keep the line between master and teacher clear, but obviously there are overlaps—the two do not constitute watertight compartments. Even professors who are chiefly invested in research can find graduate seminars stimulating, and students sometimes cathect to their teachers as if they were masters, as I did in my undergraduate years when for several years one of my professors served as a father figure and role model for me. But having acknowledged such overlaps, I revert to the difference at issue here, which is that the master-disciple relationship centers in mutuality in principle, where the teacher-student relationship does not. The master only becomes a master in his relationship to his disciples, and only through perceptive and comprehending disciples does he become fully aware of his mastership. We find an example of this in the Bhagavad-gita which revolves around the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna on the eve of the battle on the Kuruksetra plains that was scheduled to begin the next morning. At the start of their discussion, Arjuna (the prince of the forces of righteousness) is in the superior position, and Krishna is his charioteer. Their standings are reversed, however, when Arjuna, overcome by the thought of killing his kinfolk, is brought to a state of paralyzing existential bewilderment. When he asks Krishna what he should do, he begins his move toward discipleship, questioning being the first duty of discipleship in Hinduism. Given this opening, Krishna seizes the opportunity and immediately takes control of the situation. Not wasting a word, he tells Arjuna that he is a fool. His bewilderment is caused by false premises and phony arguments. Hearing these blunt words, Arjuna very quickly takes on Hinduism’s second requirement of discipleship—submission—and acknowledges that he had been careless in regarding Krishna as no more than his friend and kinsman, oblivious of the fact that he was God incarnate. Here again we see the disciple ordaining the master to mastership. The master reads the confirmation of his calling in the eye of his disciple at the same time that the disciple hears destiny calling him through the master.
Pulling together much of what has been said thus far, we can say that the teacher gives of his knowledge and ability, whereas the master gives—not of himself as we are likely to say, as if his gift could be isolated from the wholeness of his being, but himself, period. What he is to the disciple he is through the presence of his total selfhood in his every word and deed, right down to what is seemingly trivial. (One thinks of the disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch who traveled a great distance simply to observe how the rebbe tied his shoelaces.) The master has become who he is through his own efforts (as inseparably infused with God’s grace) and the result, as I say, is always deployed in its completeness. Disciples never perceive that completeness; to do so would require being the master. Disciples are able to see, moment by moment, only a facet of the totality as vectored by their respective points of view. Nevertheless, at some level of their being, they sense the presence of the wholeness, as when Jesus’ words are heard as being spoken by “one having authority.”
The teacher as researcher and writer survives in his published work; it is this that constitutes his visible legacy. The master survives only in those who have experienced his impact and bear witness to it. Others can only surmise the full extent of that impact. The disciple testifies to what the master was to him; as he has seen the master, so he paints his portrait to imprint it on his memory and report it to others. But he alone knows the full force of what produced the portrait; others can only glean from it what they can. The other disciples do likewise, for the desire to share what they have known burns in them all and they are eager to tell others of their firsthand experiences. But, as I have noted, though the master’s selfhood is single, it imprints itself on his disciples in dissimilar ways, thereby playing out of the adage that beauty is (in part) in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the clearest example of the multiplicity of portraits that result is the four Gospel accounts of Jesus which have recently been supplemented by apocryphal accounts such as the Gospel of Thomas—Mark presenting Jesus as wonderworker, John as transparently divine from the start of his mission, Thomas as an Essene, and so on. Each story becomes a legend, and once in place takes on a life of its own which is progressively trimmed to the generic archetype of the master to make it more easily apprehended. In reaching out thus to future generations, the stories become traditions that weave their way into the fabric of history.
The master must live in the constant awareness of time’s ephemerality. Only this moment, these circumstances, can disclose this aspect of his total self. The Greek word kairos, which carries connotations of the fullness of time, is decisive here, for no eternity can bring back what was missed in the moment of transmittal. Only the sacred hour begets the sacred impact, and many hours will be needed to try to piece together retrospectively as much of it as possible. This makes timing crucial in the work of the master. It does not require that he carefully calculate what he will do or say; in each moment, at his ease, he gives what the moment calls for. All of the sweetness of moment, with its contextual requirements that are set within horizons that include the apprehension of approaching death, loosen his heart and tongue, and it is as though nothing had been before and nothing will ever be again, and through the frailty of the moment there shines the light of the eternal. A mundane corollary of this is that teachers, when absorbed in their work, tend to resent interruptions, whereas the master’s mission consists of nothing but interruptions. It is not hyperbolic to say that dedicated teachers are consumed by projects that they set for themselves, whereas masters consume themselves in simply doing what is at hand, and in so doing they fill the world with light.
Read the entire address, here.