What is the source of a guru’s authority? He can tell you that he speaks from experience, that he has experienced states of consciousness that have made him profoundly blissful, understanding, compassionate, or whatever. You have his word for it and you may have the word of other people who likewise agree with him. But each one of them, and you in turn, agrees with him from out of your own opinion, and by your own judgment. So it is you who are the source of the teacher’s authority. That is true whether he speaks as an individual or as the representative of a tradition or a church.
– Alan Watts
Wild-eyed prophets, drunk on the Word, and infused with the power of the Book. Channeling the Holy Spirit in solitude, their experiences are displaced with each new revelation. With appeals to intelligences greater than our own, and their own realizations, they come bearing a new Law and standard for all humanity. A group crystallizes around the promise of the divine. The teacher’s mask of sanity begins to slip as the group’s utopian dream begins to devolve into a nightmare. Bearing witness to the leader’s fragmentation, the aspirants begin to question the authority they had invested in their former master.
In seeking the circumference of truth through practices such as meditation, we are thrust back upon ourselves. We may come to discover that we are the very expression of this truth. New coordinates are always being created, shifting in their configurations. Each development is a frontier. Possibilities loom, beckon, and threaten as we run deep into the unknown. Everyone must create their own path, seeking connection to this deeply personal yet universal source within us all. In this process of mutual co-creation we support each other as we explore our own potential.
Through practices such as Zazen or other types of self-inquiry, we may begin to develop a nascent sense of our own authority. This involves exploring questions that have relevance to us, how they resonate, and seeing how these concepts forge diverse connections. Through fear, many of us cling to outmoded worldviews or devalue our own unique contributions in thrall of a teacher or tradition. In this pursuit of our own truths we may not be able to rely on the opinions of others.
As humans, it is natural to look to others during the process of inquiry. It also makes sense to defer to teachers in certain situations and in certain contexts. However, this does not mean giving up on our root moral convictions. The teacher’s own authority is given back by the students, and they could not survive without the students’ continued belief. The body of their tradition is maintained by its constituents continued enacting of their precepts. Unquestioning acceptance of dogma merely perpetuates these flawed systems. This is especially true in spiritual and religious traditions, as the guru needs others to maintain their own internal dynamics of power. In some cases, this becomes parasitic as the teacher begins to feed on the vitality of its members without recourse to their well being.
However, it may begin to dawn on us, the more we reflect, that there is no firm basis on which this authority can rest. It must always be pushed back an extra step, whether in some experience that confers it, a book that delineates it, or a conceptual system that valorizes it, to name a few. We can begin to move beyond and outgrow our beliefs as we realize that the authority that we seek, and the forms of life that we value, rest within ourselves.
The more we test these teachers, examining their own expanses, the more we may get a sense of their unique limits and contradictions. Rather than the shattering loss that we had feared it to be, we are given a chance to discover what we really value. The student begins to move on their own initiative. With time and reflection, we get used to bearing the increasing responsibility for our own growth and development.
Many concepts in Buddhism are experiential and meant to be understood in an engaged, embodied way. We must move past interpretations that are imposed upon us by the external, and check the veracity of Buddhism’s claims against our own experience and in light of our own explorations. We are then capable of moving out of of our safe enclaves of rote habit and thought. In the process, we become authorities unto ourselves, communicating the light of our truth to others.
Anything that is accepted for any reason apart from its being consistent with one’s firsthand experience will eventually become an obstacle.
– Ngakpa Chogyam, Khandro Dechen
We also may discover that the freedom that this entails is inherently painful. It is much easier to accept a pre-packaged or commodified meaning of life than to create one for ourselves, or to admit our fundamental unknowing. It is much simpler to be told what to do, and to pass on this awesome responsibility, than to continually learn, develop, and change. It is all too easy to retreat behind the veil that others throw out to obscure their own deep mysteries. We are riven open by this freedom which asks everything of us.
Intertwined with this pain lies expansion, moving us through our comfort zone. The void of possibility prevents any one perspective or interpretation from becoming absolute, and we no longer fold under the weight of our own intellectualizations. This would confine the potentials of life and its infinite scope. Understanding this intuitively, without recourse to doctrine, is one possible facet of Zen practice. Without an apparent foundation or direction to life, we can grow in new dimensions at any time. This lack of finality applies to the opinions and perspectives of others, and changes how we confer authority on all that we encounter. We reclaim our natural spontaneity, a liquid intelligence that is sensitive and responsive to situations as they develop.
We no longer have to look to others as the ultimate arbiters in our search for truth. The question then becomes: how we can not only delve into and create our own values, but how we can bring them into our own lives? How will we express this? As Eihei Dogen says in the Shobogenzo, “investigate this thoroughly.” We enter into our own participation. A moral sense begins to dawn anew.
Find the seat from which your authority issues forth. This is to drink from the same boundless waters as the matriarchs and patriarchs.