I learn from teachers. I refuse to follow gurus. Modern history is replete with accounts of gurus and spiritual communities that are rife with sexual abuse; drug and alcohol abuse; extreme coercion for financial support; deference to “advanced practitioners”; and devaluation of the devotee so that they become emotionally dependent on the community and the guru. Read Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment by Geoffrey D. Falk. which is accessible as a free e-book at The Zen Site.
I’m finding that often it’s not the guru who is the problem. It’s the dynamics of the sangha that play out around the guru: the competition, the hierarchy, jockeying for position within the sangha in order to get closer to the guru and the people (men) at the top who run everything. Sanghas that organize around a guru get warped by these powerful dynamics and become heteropatriarchal, elitist, dismissive and abusive to their members.
The first mistake that new Buddhist practitioners make is the assumption that they do not have the capacity to awaken on their own without the direction of a community and a guru. The way to freedom on this path is to realize that you are already enlightened, and that you don’t need anyone’s authority or special instruction to realize your own enlightenment. Teachers, however, can be of great help to us spiritually, when those relationships are based on friendship and mutual respect.
The key is to remember that the sangha that we take refuge in may not be the particular community that you currently associate with. We take refuge in the noble sangha of teachers from whom we learn the dharma, those who inspire us, and fellow practitioners, spiritual friends, with whom we provide mutual support on the journey. These teachers and friends can come from many places.
Teachers I follow:
The following are the many teachers that inspire me that are on the prayer alter of my heart; (listed here not necessarily in order of importance). Many of them are not Buddhists, or are teachers who combine Buddhism with other traditions. Some of them are completely unknown except to me, and those are the teachers for whom I have the highest regard.
Joanna Macy (Theravaden Buddhist; co-emergent systems theory; deep ecology)
Vandana Shiva (Hindu, feminist, anti-capitalist, rural and social justice, deep ecology)
B. R. Ambedkar (Hindu-Buddhist, social justice, racial equality, religious freedom)
Sulak Sivaraksa (Theravaden Buddhist, justice in social systems)
Payam Akhavan (B’hai, human rights jurist, empathy, interdependence)
Gandhi (Hindu, the four pillars: swaraj, sarvodaya, swadeshi, satyagraha)
Divya Prabha (Yogi, bhakti, kirtan, bhajan)
Pema Chodron (Shambhala, self-liberation, compassion)
Theresa Cox (12 Step recovery, Christian, my personal teacher)
Alma Brooks (Maliseet Medicine woman, Native spirituality, warrior)
Dzogchen Ponlop (Indo-Tibetan Lama, populist Buddhist education, ‘Rebel Buddha’)
Dilgo Khyentse (Tibetan Lama, Dzogchen practice in everyday life)
Dalai Lama (Tibetan Lama, compassion, Buddhism and science)
Tich Nhat Hanh (Zen Buddhist, engaged Buddhism, inter-being)
Yeshe Matthews (Witch, feminine divine in tantric Buddhism)
Alan Ginsberg (secular Jew, Buddhist, poet, queer tantra)
Patti Smith (catholic, poet, feminist, punk ethics)
Jai Uttal (Yogi, bhakti, kirtan, recovery)
Krishna Das (Yogi, Dzogchen, bkakti, kirtan)
Jesus of Nazareth (Jew, bodhisattva, forgiveness, supreme Love)
Bill Wilson (Christian, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, recovery)
Noah Levine (Theravaden, Dharma Punk, Refuge Recovery)
Ethan Nichtern, (Interdependence Project, Shambhala, interdependence)
Vimilasara Mason-John (Triratna Buddhist, racial and social justice, recovery)
Leslie Feinberg (secular Jew, revolutionary communist, transgender warrior, human rights)
Harry Hay (founder of Radical Faeries, queer liberation and spirituality)