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.

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17 Responses to Teachers and Masters

  1. Happy Day, dear Swami!

    To all readers:
    Please see the whole lecture. It is most worthwhile.

  2. This lecture blew my mind, so many wonderful insights into the master/disciple relationship!!!!

    I would appreciate any comments on the two quotes below by Huston Smith. I find them interesting because they seem to almost in one sense indirectly minimize the theoretical emphasis on sat sanga and cooperation in our vaisnava lineages emphasized by some of our previous acaryas and their mandates. I have been writing something about this topic that I hope to share at some point but in thinking about Aesop’s parable about the bundle of sticks which Srila Prabhupada used many times makes me curious about the actual practicality in these times of such instructions and the artificial nature of it. Of course, the teachings are very nuanced in this regard as well, sat sanga exists on various levels of depth and like-mindedness. Just interested in any comments or input.

    Discipleship is different. Being one of a group of disciples is no
    basis for mutual love and rivalries flare at the slightest provocation—we think immediately of Jesus’ disciples jockeying for who will sit at his right hand in the coming kingdom—for it seems impossible that someone else should have a part in the relationship that ties the disciple to his master, the lifeblood of which is incomparability and uniqueness on both sides. This leaves no path that leads from one disciple to another. The disciple’s conviction that he is devoted and open to the master as no other disciple is leads the disciple to expect this singularity to be reciprocated. Such assumptions are foreign to scholarly activity, which (a point I keep returning to) centers in something that exists objectively outside both teacher and student, the knowledge or skill they are united in trying to convey, or master as the case may be. Related here is the issue of betrayal. The impersonality of the bonding subject matter makes the betrayal of a teacher virtually inconceivable, whereas Judas Iscariot stands as an enduring example of the fact that in the master-disciple relationship that shattering act not only does occur but is understandable. That Rumi’s master, Shams of Tabriz, was murdered by disciples who were jealous of his special bond with Rumi is probably not the case (see below), but it is understandable that the rumor arose.

    • One of the reasons we didn’t include that section in the adapted version was because we did not really think it was an accurate depiction of any mature relationship between disciples.

  3. Here is the other Huston Smith quote:

    “When students and disciples are deprived of their head, the issue of bonding is almost reversed. Students dispute, often bitterly, over what the teacher was driving at and rival schools arise. (One thinks of Mencius and Hsun Tzu as rival interpreters of what Confucius taught, which is another reason for classifying Confucius as a teacher rather than a master.) As for disciples, though they were rivals while their master was living, they now find themselves drawn together by the image of their master which is sacred to them all. Their personal distress, common loneliness, and concern for the future produce a great unity—one thinks of the disciples of Jesus gathering in the Upper Room where tongues of fire descended on them and the Christian Church was born. Such comings-together generate huge spiritual momentums, which time must inevitably erode to some extent. Where some of its original strength is recovered a new master has arisen who creates a distinctive order.”

    • I think this is more complicated than what he says here. Firstly, I dont think its always the case that disciples are rivals beforehand, and they shouldn’t be. But the idea of a momentous unity after the departure of the master seems like it is not always the case, or at least not in the same way. If we look at Iskcon there was some unity, but it was not deeply-rooted as there was plenty of strife even between the original 11 acaryas. They stayed together for some time on the basis of their love for Prabhupada, but the unity seems like it was at least partially rooted in sentiment and not siddhanta.

      At the same time, what Smith says is on the money in the example of iskcon in that a huge movement did form, then erode, and some of its original strength is recovered in various leaders who have made missions of their own, both within and without of Iskcon.

  4. Aesop’s parable was a discussion between a father and his sons. The father foreseeing his inevitable absence from their lives he wanted to demonstrate to his sons that there is strength in numbers. I imagine that was at least part of what SP was getting at when he used this example.

    • Could you explain this in more detail, please?

      “makes me curious about the actual practicality in these times of such instructions and the artificial nature of it.”

      • Madhu-mangala,

        I think Nitaisundara gets to the essence of what I was trying to express with his statement below.

        “They stayed together for some time on the basis of their love for Prabhupada, but the unity seems like it was at least partially rooted in sentiment and not siddhanta.”

        Artificial in the sense that it is just based on some sentiment.

        There is so much more information available now on Gaudiya Vaisnava siddhanta and so many missions. Unity needs to be rooted in siddhanta.

        • “[J]ust . . . some sentiment”? The “sentiment” is love. Without that, siddhanta is just dogma.

          Staying together on the basis of love for Srila Prabhupada was no small thing, especially when you figure how hard it was for a good many of us to get along with each other. Elsewhere I have suggested that “some sentiment” is the catalyst that gives bhakti its substance. Just saying . . .

  5. Govinda Ram Dasa

    Jai Srila Praphupada he was a pure devotee no doubt,he was the glue that kept ISKCON together.We now have his sucessor Swami Tripurari a devotee so pure….

  6. Pranams Babhruji,

    Thank you for your comments.

    I agree sentiment gives bhakti substance. It wasn’t my intention to minimize the importance of bhakti or any sentiment of love for sri guru. All good intentions may well be rooted in sentiment. I sympathize with the hardships of staying together and yes, it is no small thing.

    The point I was attempting to make is that sentiment needs to be anchored in siddhanta in order for it to actually have real meaning and substance. Siddhanta is the foundation by which mature sentiment develops, genuine bhakti. Genuine affection.

    In the short term sentiment may accomplish a lot, in the long term when not cultured properly in good association it can become a catalyst for fanaticism, apasiddhanta and aparadha.

  7. Hare Krishna. Dandavat pranams.
    Please accept my humble greetings.

    My questions are:
    is it correct to give the definition of Siksha guru as that of teacher and whether the definition of Diksha guru would match that of Master as per the above article text by Huston Smith?

    Does the situational context influence a disciple to accept a Master or is it only a psychological?

    The master may not need the esteem of His disciples but is it also the other way round? Is it only a one way traffic?

    Is the article claiming in a way that the ritviks are wrong in a way since Srila Prabhupada role is more of Siksha now that He is present only in His books and it is not possible to take diksha from Him now?

    Thanking You in anticipations.

    Yours faithfully
    rasbihari das.

    • Actually quite a tragedy, today I learn about the author Huston Smith and today itself I learn that He is already late Huston Smith.

    • 1. A siksa guru and diska guru are on in their dvinity and differ on on function. So “No” to your first question. And sometimes the siksa guru can play a more prominent role than the diksa guru. The most important guru is the one that helps you the most.
      2. One may be influenced by any number of factors in accepting a guru, but one should be driven by the inner necessity for a comprehensive solution to the world of problems. One should also have preliminary knowledge as to what the qualifications of a guru are. If these are in place, other factors will determine the detail which guru one chooses.
      3. I don’t understand your question.
      4. It is not about ritvikvada, which is very wrong.

      • Dandavat Pranams to Your Holiness.
        All glories to Your great service of answering queries.

        I liked the sentence “The most important guru is the one that helps you the most.” Thanking Your Holiness for Your Kind response.

        Otherwise there is this sentence in the text: “It is not primarily the teacher as a person who is respected, but what he possesses and can deliver to the student”; My question is as follows: Is this not what a siksha guru is about because we tend to take knowledge from him but not instructions? or Is my notion of siksha guru flawed, i.e. the siksha guru can also give instructions and should hold equal status with the diksha guru?
        If Yes,
        will it be correct to say that the concept of teacher as per the above text will always carry the nuance from the concept of mastership if the former concept is investigated in light of the vedic culture? i.e. we will not find the pure concept of teacher as per the given text in vedic culture.

        In the text it is also mentioned that ”The master does not enjoy the disciple’s esteem because he conveys something that is useful in any utilitarian respect.” ; It is quite a paradox that the master does not enjoy the esteem of the disciple, yet the latter sentences in the text equate the situation of a pure love; this is why I was asking whether it is only a one sided love of only the disciple to the master and whether the reverse was not true. Also I wanted to ask if this should be the contemporary norm practice in the guru disciple relationship.

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