Spiritual Teachers With Penetrating Smiles

The pictures we have of spiritual teachers are of gentle, smiley, ethereal creatures and of wanton charlatans. The latter have, when the traditional media catches wind of something, been news fodder (Rajneeshpuram, anyone?) whereas the former appear only as caricatures of saints and sages, those who levitate and love and laugh. We both know the famous photo of Ramana Maharshi, don’t we?, the one in which he looks intent and sweet and peaceful and loving. (I do love this photo, but I wonder whether it’s beside the point, at least as far as this blog post goes.)


Ramana Maharshi in his 60s. Credit: Wikipedia

Far more difficult for us to understand, let alone accept, are “crazy wisdom adepts” of the kind described by Georg Feuerstein in his book Holy Madness: The Shock Tactics and Radical Teachings of Crazy-wise Adepts, Holy Fools, and Rascal Gurus (HT Bryce). If I may simplify to an extreme, then I would say that the supreme point of crazy wisdom teachers is to do whatever is necessary (and whatever is necessary may be incredibly shocking) to bring students to a “spiritual crisis.” The spiritual crisis of the ego may be the penultimate step just before the student realizes his or her true nature as That.

I’m not sure where I stand right now with respect to the shock tactics of crazy wisdom teachers. On the one hand, a good spiritual teacher must push the student farther than she would go on her own. For the ego is very sticky and the student often complacent. On the other hand, Feuerstein describes incidents in considerable detail that suggest that going past the point of “consensus reality” may entail great harm to students and to sanghas.

At the present moment, I certainly wonder whether “gentle shocks”–to coin an oxymoron–may be what’s in order. One must gently press, prod, push, and twist the aspirant yet with a view to only going so far and only so quickly. It is rather like slowly “turning the screw” (to quote Henry James out of context). Too tight, too fierce and the student might squirm and be harmed. Not tight enough and one might continue on one’s infelicitous, and therefore deluded, way.

Perhaps we should make room for the generous smile that, at the same time, penetrates our entire being. The spiritual teacher Francis Lucille remarked somewhere that the teaching should “hit you like a 2 x 4 across the head.” Yet it is the profundity–or, what is the same thing, the immediacy, pungency, and simplicity–of the teaching that works its magic. And, in working its magic, it fucking smarts–while planting a seed that may change almost everything.

(Let the above be considered first, hence fresh thoughts on the matter. The case is not yet, and thus is far from, closed.)