How to tell the true truths from the false truths.
By Rick Fields
Guru means teacher. A guru teaches you your own true nature, which all gurus agree cannot be expressed in words. Lao Tsu said, “Those who know don’t say.” However, that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying, including Lao Tsu.
A guru can act in many ways: as friend, mirror, guide, God or psychic martial arts master. There is also always the possibility that a guru is even crazier than thou. More than one perfect master has turned out to be a perfect con man. Only you can tell, and when dealing with the mercury of your own mind, it ain’t easy.
Gurus, like everybody else, seldom agree with each other. If they did, everything would be simpler, but less interesting. This guide is a line-up of the major-league gurus whose philosophies have become national issues. We’ve omitted a lot of one-horse, 12-apostle gurus on the assumption that people will always go to the advertised brand.
Choosing a guru is a lot like voting for president. It is an act that requires a leap of faith, not to mention Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical. What you are about to read may shock you. Look within before you look without. Beware. And be aware.
Bio: Born India, 1931. Entered an ashram at 12, spent the next 20 years meditating, came to New York in 1964. Director, United Nations Meditation Group. Author, 302 books. He is also painter, composer and musician—his latest disc being “Music for Meditation” on the Folkways label.
Philosophy: Emphasizes love, devotion, meditation through the heart and surrender to the guru. Meditates with disciples once or twice a week. “I enter into each individual soul and see what the soul wants from me: peace, light, bliss. Whatever the soul wants I offer in utmost silence.”
Lifestyle: Purity and cleanliness are prerequisites for Sri Chinmoy’s student. Alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and so on, verboten. “Drug addicts, alcoholics or hippies” need not apply. Male disciples wear short hair. “It is my inner feeling,” says Sri Chinmoy, “that when men have short hair they look smarter, more handsome and more charming.” Disciples live in their own homes, but must attend center meetings, unless they have a good excuse.
Drawbacks: His poetry, for one thing. Sri Chinmoy once wrote 843 poems in 24 hours. The quality of the poetry, pious doggerel, shows it. Painting and music, ditto. Disconcerting habit of signaling his entrance into the highest level of samadhi by rolling his eyes halfway up into his skull.
Quote: “To illumine our life we need pure thoughts. Each pure thought is more precious than all the diamonds of the world, for God’s breath abides only in man’s pure thoughts.”
Access: Sri Chinmoy, P.O. Box 32433, Jamaica, N.Y. 11431.
Bio: Born 1931, La Paz, Bolivia. Experienced paralyzing cataleptic attacks at six and a half. Studied martial arts, cabala, Gurdjieff, Buddhism, Confucianism, Zen and got high with Andes Indians. In 1969 in Arica, Chile, he began instructing John Lilly, Claudio Naranjo and others in “a mixture of ashram, monastery and boot camp.”
Philosophy: Arica identifies nine “hypergnostic” systems that manifest on physical, psychological and spiritual levels. The 40-day training clarifies these systems by using “psychocalisthenics”—movement, breathing, diet, “yantras” (mandalic op-art diagrams) mantras and more. The two penultimate steps—said to lead to complete enlightenment—must be taken within the protected space of a monastery.
Lifestyle: Aricans tend to live together, usually sharing apartments or houses. When there are disagreements, or if deeper group harmony is sought, they practice “trespaso,” gazing into the left eye of your partner in order to contact essential being. If it seems that no agreement or unity is possible, a person might find his ego “reduced” (told where they are stuck in no uncertain terms) or “circulated,” asked to move on till they can get it together. Sex, eating, drugs—LSD excepted—cigarettes, alcohol and sickness are permitted most of the time. Aricans tend to live, dress and party in high style.
Drawbacks: You cannot recognize another person’s level until you are there yourself, and you can’t get there yourself without taking the training. The 40-day training—including room and board in lovely rural settings—can cost as much as $1,400.
Quote: “A human being is more than anyone believes.”
Access: Arica, 24 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
Bio: Born Massachusetts, 1936, as Richard Alpert. Ph.D. in psychology. Harvard. In 1961, fellow psych prof Timothy Leary gave him his first hit of psilocybin. Experienced ego death, panic and the calm center behind and beyond it all before he and Leary were fired from Harvard. Lectured around the country about the wonders of psychedelics. Then discovered that no matter what he took or how often he took it, he always came down. Went to India and met an old man wrapped in a blanket, Nirmkaroli Baba, or just plain Maharaji. Maharaji swallowed a whole handful of LSD with no more effect than a slight twinkling of his eyes—he was already “there.” He christened Alpert Ram Dass (servant of Rama) and put him on a strict yogic training program, then sent him back to America, where Ram Dass began lecturing, this time about the spiritual journey. Be Here Now, a book Ram Dass produced with New Mexico’s Lama Foundation, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Other books include The Only Dance There Is and Grist for the Mill. His brother has called him Baba Rammed Ass.
Philosophy: Ram Dass teaches Ashtanga, or eight-limbed, yoga including bhakti-devotional song and dance, hatha yoga, meditation and doing good deeds daily. Dass’s main interest, however, is not to teach one form of yoga, but to help people understand the spiritual path. His lectures tend to emphasize the common experience of that journey, often using himself as a humorous example of what not to do. He has been called the stand-up comedian of the karma circuit.
Lifestyle: Ram Dass does not have a center or hold classes, and he claims not to have students. Until recently, he personally answered mail from anyone with a spiritual question. Last year he slipped out of sight—rumor has him back in India, supervising a statue of Hanuman he is building as a memorial to his guru—and all mail is being returned unopened. Everybody is pretty much on their own.
Drawbacks: Whereabouts unknown.
Quote: “Will [life] ever be The Big Ice Cream Cone in the sky?”
Access: Hanuman Foundation, Franklin, New Hampshire 03235.
Bio: Born India, 1931. Obtained realization at 21, while meditating in a tree. Taught philosophy at Indian universities and traveled around India lecturing, debating and generally causing trouble among the more orthodox Indian guru followers. Left academia and set up ashram in Poona, India, in 1966.
Philosophy: Before you can reach the deeper stages of meditation, says Rajneesh, you have to break through your psychological blocks. For this reason, encounter groups, primal therapy and rolfing are all part of ashram life. Rajneesh’s unique contribution to meditation technique is “chaotic” meditation, which begins with ten minutes of rapid exhalations, followed by “catharsis” or freaking-out, followed by jumping up and down shouting the mantra Huuu! This unblocks the sexual energy in the lower cakras. Then there is a period of silent meditation and finally, dancing to sitar music.
Lifestyle: Rajneesh is more concerned with totality than with perfection. There is an understanding that as you progress, impure habits like smoking cigarettes and eating meat dissolve. Sex is viewed more as a plus than a minus. Disciples—called neo-sannyasans—wear orange clothing and malas (rosaries) with a photo of Rajneesh.
Drawbacks: Poona is a long way off, and you find that Rajneesh is so sensitive now that people who arrive to see him for personal interviews are checked at the door for offending odors. Even the scent of shampoo is considered too much.
Quote: “One should live spontaneously, naturally and not try to follow any right or any wrong.”
Access: Shree Rajneesh Ashram. 17 Koregaen Park, Poona 411 011 India. Also: Ananda, 29 East 28th Street, New York, N.Y. 10016.
Bio: Born London, 1916, son of Pir-O-Murshid Hazrat Khan, who founded the Sufi Order in the West, an adaptation of Sufi Islam as it is practiced in the Middle East. Named as father’s successor at the age of ten. Raised in England and France. Holds degree in psychology from Paris University, studied music at L’Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris and comparative religion at Oxford. Spiritual schooling in India and the Middle East with Sufi masters and other esoteric teachers.
Philosophy: “Any person who has a knowledge of life outside and within is a Sufi. Therefore, there has not been, in any period of the world’s history, a founder or an exponent of Sufism, but Sufism has been all along.” Sufism emphasizes the unity of the mystical core within all religions. Thus, in Khankas—Sufi ashrams—Buddhist meditation may be practiced on Monday, Hinduism on Tuesday, Zoroastrianism on Wednesday, Sufism Thursday, Islam Friday, Judaism Saturday and Christianity on Sunday. The most commonly recognized Sufi practice is dancing, including the fast whirling made famous by the dervish school. Other Sufi dances are circular and slow, stressing the opening-up of the heart.
Lifestyle: Sufis are traditionally “hidden.” There is a New Age Community, Abode of the Message, in New Lebanon, New York. They run a VW repair shop, bakery, school and Aquarian Systems Computer Designs.
Drawbacks: The dancing is great for opening heart centers, but it’s easy to get very dizzy. No dope allowed.
Quote: “If you do not see God in man, you will not see him anywhere.”
Access: Sufi Order Secretariat, P.O. Box 396, New Lebanon, N.Y. 12125.
Bio: Born Tibet, 1939. Recognized in infancy as a tulku, or reincarnation of the Eleventh Trungpa, one of a succession of enlightened Buddhist teachers. Trained in the Kargvu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Abbot of a large group of monasteries until the Red Chinese invasion’ of 1959, when he led a large group of followers by foot across the Himalayas into India, where he learned English. Attended Oxford, founded Samye-Ling Monastery in a remote part of Scotland and married an English girl. Some of his conservative students did not approve, and in 1970 he came to the states, where he found more fertile ground for his seemingly radical, unorthodox approach.
Philosophy: Buddhism begins not with the vision or promise of heaven, bliss or even enlightenment, but with the First Noble Truth, which is the truth of suffering. The root of suffering is impermanence, which leads to the Second Noble Truth, the truth of the origin of suffering. This is found through the practice of sitting meditation, which leads to the Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering. This leads to the Fourth Noble Truth, the truth that there is a path—a path based on facing the experience of your life, both positive and negative, directly. Buddhism also points to the transciency of all we think of as the self.
Lifestyle: Intensive practice is mixed in with a worldly lifestyle that might shock some more traditional meditators. Suits and ties are de rigueur for formal ceremonial occasions: Tibetan or Indian dress is discouraged. Trungpa’s major contribution to the American spiritual scene has been his introduction of the idea of “spiritual materialism,” in which the ego uses spirituality for its own gratification.
Drawbacks: Elusive, except when teaching at seminars and retreats. Sitting meditation is designed to bring you down, and not to get you high.
Quote: “Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss or tranquility, nor is it attempting to become a better person. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes.”
Access: Vajradhatu, 1345 Spruce Street, Boulder, Colorado 80302.
Bio: Born Jack Rosenberg, Pennsylvania, 1935. Left his wife to build an encyclopedia-sales empire in California where he suddenly “got it,” while sitting in his car—a natural setting for enlightenment in California. Through word of mouth and media coverage, est (Erhard Seminar Training) spread rapidly.
Philosophy: People are stuck in their conditioning like rats in a maze of their own making, for which they habitually blame everyone else. Once people “get” that, they can create their own experience and control their own lives.
Lifestyle: For people who make est their path there are ongoing workshops in relationships, communications, etc. You also volunteer to work in est offices, assist at events and start the process toward becoming a staff member or a trainer. This kind of work demands great efficiency and attention to detail, plus a casually expensive, razor-cut, sweater-and-slacks look. It’s OK to smoke or drink, though there’s usually not time for anything more than “getting the job done.”
Drawbacks: Training costs $300 for which the trainers insult you through a three-day spiritual blitzkrieg. Graduates of est can share a rather glazed good-German, just-following-orders air.
Quote: “You and I possess within ourselves, at every moment of our lives, under all circumstances, the power to transform the quality of our lives.”
Access: est, 765 California Street, San Francisco, California 94108.
Bio: Born India, 1914. Worked in agriculture, mechanics, electronics, cinematography and business. Met Guru Sri Swami Sivananda in the Himalayas and received the sannyasi (monk’s) vows in 1949. Came to New York in 1966 for a two-day visit and stayed for five months, founding the first of his Integral Yoga Institutes.
Philosophy: Integral Yoga’s goal “is a body of perfect health and strength, mind with all clarity and control, intellect as sharp as a razor, will of steel, heart full of mercy, a life dedicated to the common welfare and realization of the True Self.” The main emphasis is on hatha yoga asanas (postures), but the Integral Yoga path also goes on to include pranayama (breathing exercises), selfless action, chanting of holy names, mantra repetition, prayer, meditation, study and reflection.
Lifestyle: The hatha yoga classes are open to anyone for a modest fee, and they are one of the best bargains in the spiritual marketplace. Advanced students become disciples, taking sannyasi vows of celibacy, vegetarianism.
Drawbacks: Swamiji has met twice with the pope, opened the Woodstock Festival, and along with a Zen monk, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi, heads the Center for Spiritual Studies. By including everyone and everything, he has developed a style so broad and inoffensive that nothing very meaningful gets said. Fine for hatha yoga, but his answers to more complicated problems can get a little platitudinous (an English word meaning dull).
Quote: “We teach undoism, not Hinduism.”
Access: Integral Yoga Institute, 227 West 13th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011, phone (212) 929-0585.
Bio: Born South India, 1908. At the age of 15 Muktananda met the renowned Guru Swami Nityananda. In 1961 Nityananda left his body and passed along the power of the Siddha lineage to Muktananda.
Philosophy: Muktananda transmits kundalini energy, which awakens a corresponding energy lying dormant in the disciple. Once kundalini is awakened, consciousness automatically expands. Some people experience visions, strong rushes of energy, spontaneous physical movements.
Lifestyle: The ashram Muktananda runs in India is strict and disciplined. Celibacy and purity are the norm for people who go all the way to become monks or nuns, although this step is not counted necessary. Men and women sit separately during chanting and meditation.
Drawbacks: Demands total surrender to the will. Forget it if you can’t surrender to the Guru Muktananda. If you like sex more than spiritual bliss, stay away.
Quote: “Kundalini is the supreme energy, the supreme intoxicating drug.”
Access: Siddha Yoga Dham, 324 West 86th Street, New York, N.Y. 10024, phone (212) 873-8030.
Bio: Born Calcutta, 1896. Retired from married life at 54 to become a sannyasi. Charged by his master with the responsibility for bringing the Vedic teachings to the English-speaking world, Bhaktivedanta took a freighter to New York in 1965. Opened the first International Center for Krishna Consciousness in a Second Avenue storefront a year later, teaching the mantra Hare Krishna.
Philosophy: Hindu fundamentalism. There is a God, whose name this time around is Krishna, the eternal, all-knowing, omnipresent, all-powerful, all-attractive personality of Godhead. We are not our bodies, as we might think, but eternal pure souls, parts and parcels of Krishna. All actions should be performed for Krishna rather than for our own sense gratifications. Devotees chant “hare Krishna, hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, hare hare, hare Rama, hare Rama. Rama Rama.”
Lifestyle: Devotees are encouraged to “extinguish” their senses—no sex unless for purposes of procreation, no meat, alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. Devotees wear orange robes, men shave their heads—except for a knot of hair—and generally follow the traditions of orthodox Hindu monks.
Drawbacks: Swallowing India whole often leads to a bad case of acne as well as spiritual indigestion. Members of the public generally consider Krishnites cross-cultural casualties who block traffic with their blissed-out incense-peddling on main streets of large cities.
Quote: “The name of Krishna is as powerful as Lord Krishna himself.”
Access: ISKON, 340 West 55th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019. (212) 765-8610.
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