There is an Indian folktale, in the tradition of “foolish wisdom,” about a guru who was approached by a young fool. The fool asked the guru, “How do I get to heaven?” and the guru who was in a bad mood replied, “Going to heaven is easy. All you have to do is stand right where you are, lift your hands to the sky and you will go to heaven.” After these words, the guru continued walking but the fool stood very still and lifted his hands to the sky. 40 years later the guru walked by the same spot again and saw the same fool standing in the same place with his hands lifted up but now the fool wasn’t so young anymore. The fool had shaggy white hair and a beard, wrinkled skin, his fingernails were long and curled and his clothes were just rags. And yet all of a sudden the fool began to ascend upward into heaven. Thinking quickly the guru grabbed the fool by the leg and traveled upward to heaven with him, which is a good thing because the guru probably would never have gotten into heaven any other way.
The folktale reminds us that sometimes the fool is the guru and the guru is the fool. I am reminded of the words of Max Ehrmann from his poem Desiderata.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
The title for today’s sermon is “Help Wanted: No Gurus or Disciples Need Apply.” This week I was visiting with Viren Lalka who is of Indian heritage and he said paradoxically, “Sometimes we need a guru to teach us that we do not need a guru.” Jiddu Krishnamurti might be considered a good example of such a guru.
“I do not want followers,” he declared, “The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not…I am concerning myself with only one essential thing; to set (everyone) free.” On another occasion he said, “I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect…Truth being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do it becomes dead, crystallized, it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion to be imposed on others.”
So according to Krishnamurti we do not need any religions or priests or clergy or religious education teachers or youth group leaders. We need no hierarchy of any kind. We don’t need guidance. We need awakening. However, paradoxically, the more Krishnamurti said, “You do not need a teacher” the more people adopted him as their teacher. The more he said, “You don’t need a guru” the more people made him into a guru.
This is significant because Krishnamurti had been groomed since birth to be something of Messiah. He was raised in a religious community where he was considered foreordained to be the next great world teacher who would usher in a new era of enlightenment. However, Krishnamurti decided to abdicate that particular throne. Abdicate the role of guru in order to teach everyone that there was no need for gurus. And yet in many ways his abdication was a form of teaching By refusing to be a guru he also lived into the role of guru. The Quakers described this paradox by saying, “Sometimes we need an outward teacher to introduce us to the inward teacher.” Or as the Greeks might say, “Sometimes we need a sage to introduce us to our own inner wisdom.”
Unitarian Universalism is full of examples of gurus who teach us that we do not need gurus. Possibly the most famous being Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson resigned from the Unitarian ministry and by doing so became a minister who taught others that they don’t need ministers. In many ways Emerson was the anti-guru. Emerson took pride that over many years of preaching and teaching he had yet to accumulate “a single disciple.” He did not seek to bring people closer to Emerson. Emerson sought to bring people closer to themselves. He wrote,
“Every mind has a new compass, a new north, a new direction of its own, differing its genius and aim from every other mind..And none of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when we listen to this whisper which is heard by ourselves alone.” Emerson was willing to be a mentor but not a model, an educator but not an exemplar. He sought to offer inspiration but did not want to encourage imitation. Of course, there is a paradox here. As one woman observed one of the things that made Emerson charming was he treated everyone as an equal, even as others recognized as a cut above others. Or as the mystics teach us, “The light shines in everyone but it shines brighter in some than others.” By most accounts the light that shone through Emerson was intense.
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody played an incredibly influential role in the history of Unitarianism because she is the one who wrote down William Ellery Channing’s sermons, Channing being the Founder of American Unitarianism. In her early days she was prone to hero-the worship of Great Men like Channing and Emerson but she gradually came to the conclusion that what she admired was not the Great Men but “the divine in them’ which helped her to discover the divine within herself.
Speaking through the lens of the patriarchal language of the 19th century while also pointing beyond that language she wrote, “There is something within the individual me, which is One with the Father (Ultimate Reality, The Ground of All Being)…above all things (one must) discriminate the traditional God from the real God that is within our own deepest me.” Elizabeth Palmer Peabody lived in close proximity to the first struggles of the American Revolution, the site of the Boston Tea Party and Bunker Hill. And she described this spiritual realization as a “more interior revolution.”
This spiritual awareness was the foundation for social change because she became the educator most responsible for starting the kindergarten movement in America. She also ran a bookstore which she opened up to Margaret Fuller’s discussions with women which became part of the genesis for American feminism. Her philosophy of education was grounded in helping to get the outward life of human beings aligned with the inner light. In other words she was the closest thing the field of education has to a guru, who taught people that they don’t need a guru.
In my time here as a minister at TVUUC we have had at least one such guru, Tom Innes, the facilitator of our Personal Beliefs and Commitments class of blessed memory. He was not a minister. He was not clergy. He was wise. Tom Innes often told us that he opposed “the Big Jug/little mug” theory of education and religion. The idea that the teacher is “the Big Jug” full to the brim with wisdom and the students “empty mugs” waiting to be filled. That is why the members of Personal Beliefs and Commitments sit in a circle, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner, and this is the philosophy that informs Unitarian Universalism in every form including Sunday services, where the seating arrangement is different. I often say the secret to being a good preacher is to be a good listener, to listen to those all around you, to listen for stories and wisdom and insight. Listening is the secret to wise speaking.
Whenever someone says a minister does not need a theological education, my friend the Reverend Johnny Skinner says, “The Spirit gave you life but you better put something in your head if you want to preach.” This is another paradox. I value my theological education. I do believe that my ministry is wisely informed from all that I learned from the books I’ve read and the lectures I’ve attended. However, what I value even more is the wisdom I get from listening to others in my day to day life which reminds me to also listen to the still small voice within.
Authoritarian leadership is popular these days. Authoritarian leadership is infiltrating both church and state. Governments are trying to micromanage what books are available in schools and what books should be banned, so much so that now teachers have to inventory the books in their classroom and provide that information to the state to make sure that the books meet state approval. We have a Supreme Court with 5 men and only three women, a state legislature that is over 80% male dictating what women can do, trying to micromanage the inner workings of the body. We have governments trying to impose one religion on every citizen, trying to micromanage the inner workings of the soul. We have governments obstructing public health ideas and sabotaging best practices by law. Since most teachers are women and most healthcare providers are women and most actively religious people are women we can presume that this is what Susan B. Anthony called “Government of men, by men, for men and against women.”
So in the Unitarian Universalist Church we reject authoritarian leadership but we do respect the gurus who teach us we do not need gurus. In India it is common for a guru to command you to do something one day and then demand you do the opposite thing the next day. Overwhelming a person with contradictory requests and demands is meant to help break down the ego and foster humility. In this spirit, I have decided to start approaching my email inbox as my guru. Because many days I get a strongly worded email suggesting I do one thing and the next day a strongly worded email suggesting I do the opposite. Recently, our church board of directors has been invited into this dynamic which can be very disorienting and even disheartening. Church leaders are not the only ones facing this dilemma so here is my spiritual advice for anyone checking their email in contentious times, “Center yourself, stay grounded, say a prayer before opening your email and once you open your email be prepared to meet your guru.”
So I will leave you with this closing thought, which contains my hope for the whole human race. It is not our job to determine who is wise and who is a fool. It is not our job to determine who is right or wrong. Our only job is to grab hold of the leg of anyone who seems to be ascending into heaven and hope we get carried along with them. For this may be the only way any of us get into heaven.
(This sermon was delivered at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, August 28, 2022 by the Reverend Chris Buice)