In Paths to God, Ram Dass speaks of satgurus and upagurus. A satguru is the true teacher. The upaguru is anyone who teaches us something, which, when we are truly open to recognizing the good in all, is literally every one.
The satguru may refer to that within us that is the power, or the essential pulsation, or the light, or the illuminative wisdom, or the heart unbound by space and time that leads us to know the true Self. As such, the satguru unfolds the means to experience the love that the satguru is/experiences. The very rarest of individuals do not have to make any effort either through the various yoga practices (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, etc.) or practices in another spiritual tradition to experience the fullness of consciousness unbound by self, or time, or space. The rest of us must engage in shifting our lives to align better with nature to experience the highest bliss of being. For this, we need teachers and we receive, if we are paying attention, teachings.
Sometimes a person will will recognize the satguru embodied in a particular human form, as Ram Dass has with Neem Karoli Baba. Sometimes, the teachers illuminating our journey are acharyas, great spiritual teachers who illuminate pathways and practices for finding the satguru within ourselves and in others. They are important teachers for many and a profound influence, but except to the extent that we are all the satguru, they are not “gurus,” nor do they hold themselves out as such. I think of my primary teachers–those I have studied with personally and a couple, like Ram Dass and J. Krishnamurti, whose writings have deeply shifted me–as acharyas. That they may have human foibles does not diminish the power of what I have learned from them and the joy I have experienced and shared from studying with them.
Other people we meet — all of them — are upagurus; we can learn from everyone and anyone. That is what Quakers are taught and seek to practice; that is what Ram Dass is offering for us to consider in both Paths to God and in more detail in Be Love Now. Sometimes we meet a stranger just for a moment, but the stranger in that moment exhibits such grace, that the stranger is one of our teachers for life. It is by being open and spacious that we get the opportunity to recognize those who have just one perfect teaching for us. When we are closed off, we can miss both teachers and teachings.
If we are open enough to seeing the light in everyone, we will also find that even those that trouble us can help us better respond in the highest. Those are the ones Ram Dass calls “teachings” instead of “teachers.” And those who will trouble us will come. We will meet someone and that person will push our buttons. Perhaps the person demonstrates too strongly some behavior or trait we don’t like in ourselves. What a great teaching that can be. When I see such a reflection of myself, I know that when I respond or act in similar ways, I am out of alignment, and it is a great motivator to release the behavior or trait.
Perhaps someone shows up to help us reenact an old emotional pattern that has not served. That someone is the laboratory upaguru who has arrived to give us the opportunity to discover whether this time around we are able better able to embody the principles that we are studying. In being faced with our old stuff, we are given an opportunity, by changing how we respond, to dissolve the old patterns (samskaras) that, if not dissolved by practice, commit us to perpetuate the suffering resulting from our past actions (karma).
Sometimes the upagurus come from the past. They are seeing you through the filter of their own past and have reappeared for something on their own journey. In such people, we perhaps get a teaching that reminds us why we are seeking to better align, why we have sought to shift and change old patterns. We might also meet in an upaguru who has been part of our past someone who has shifted and grown and inspires us to go further on the path, sharing it for a while. Those who are parts of our life for a long time, I think generally serve as both teachers and teachings, and we are the same for them.
With regard to everyone we meet, from an embodied satguru to the most troublesome, the more we are open, the more we hold all that we encounter in what John Friend calls “luminous spaciousness,” the more able we will be both to recognize the true teachers and to learn from the teachings.
These are not in any particular order. Nor have I attempted to make a list of round numbers, such as “top 10,” though I could have found 10 to be “top” if I had really tried. The emphasis here, with the exception of the new edition of the Yoga Sutras is my continuing contemplation and study of the intertwining of east and west and how it has created, informed, and shaped my studies and teaching over the years. There is an emerging body of scholarship on this topic, and this list has the highlights I have read. I have put one book of older fiction on the list. I have consistently made it a practice to read modern Indian literature to gain another perspective on Indian society other than the westernized yoga we practice. Here’s the list.
1. Ram Das, Be Love Now. Be Love Now is a beautiful expanding spiral of reflection from what started in Be Here Now. I got my first copy of Be Here Now when I was 13 or 14, not long after it was first published. I learned about it from friends at Quaker Youth camp, and it was a not insignificant part of my youthful spiritual thought and growth. Be Love Now is full of love and sweetness and a wonderful reflection on the relationship of a spiritual leader to his guru. For those of us for whom Be Here Now was an important book early on, I think it is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on our own spiritual path and studies. When I was reading it, I wondered whether Be Love Now, which seems to assume a certain basic level of understanding of yoga philosophy terms and readings and familiarity with a group of modern teachers and practitioners, would feel less accessible to someone who was moved by Be Here Now in their younger days, but never really followed up with the practices or studies advocated except on a most ethereal level.
2. Robert Love, The Great Oom. I found this biography of Pierre Bernard absolutely fascinating. I have long been interested in the interrelationship between colonialism and Western practice of eastern spirituality and religion. This book highlights a previously unexplored aspect of the relationship between east and west. Of note for me, was that Pierre Bernard, though clearly an important influence on the practice of hatha yoga in America, did not himself travel to India.
3. Louis Bromfeld, The Rains Came. This is the only book on my list that was not published in 2009 or 2010. It is also not a yoga book. Although dated in some respects, it is a deeply engaging exploration of how Westerners (both religiously inspired do-gooders and colonial profiteers) and Indians (Hindus, Muslims, and Christians) collectively react to, respond, and in part cause the extremes of catastrophe in the wake of monsoon flooding. All too timely in its own way as we watched what happened with the flooding in Pakistan. I think of it as yoga-related because it provides perspective on the intertwining of religion, community, and society with colonization, which I think is an essential part of our understanding of our own western practice of hatha yoga and eastern styles of meditation.
4. Mark Singleton, The Yoga Body: Origins of Modern Posture Practice. My friend Jane — fellow yogini and ever intelligent conversationalist on yoga philosophy and practice, and frequent commenter on this blog — lent me this book to read after we had been talking about our reactions to The Great Oom. It’s a bit of a tough read, as is common for dissertations turned into books, but it provides fresh perspective and interesting research and insights on our modern physical practice of yoga and, yes, still more information on the dance between east and west.
5. Edwin Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary. I haven’t read this through cover to cover, as that is not the point for books like this, but I have been dipping in and out of this translation and commentary from the moment I got it and expect to be doing so for years to come. The scholarship and perspective is an excellent supplement the many translations and interpretations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that I already have in my library.
6. Stephen Phillips, Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy. I bought this book several months ago after having overheard Dave Kennedy mentioning it to John Friend. I am still working my way through it. Like Singleton’s book, it is another slow read, but useful in its tying together and giving perspective on the relationship between traditional eastern thought and western practice and understanding.
As I have discussed with a few of you, I have been contemplating deeply and for a long time the questions of what is a guru and who is a guru. In the context of this contemplation, I read to enhance my background and understanding, deepen my contemplation, and give myself food for thought or additional exploration. Here are some books that I have in my library about gurus or those who have been labeled gurus (in no particular order). Some are written with loving devotion by disciples. Some question or comment on the interrelationship between the status of guru and the sometimes all too human foibles of the guru and his disciples. Some are of the guru’s own experience of practice and his relationship with his own guru.
Be Love Now, Ram Dass, HarperOne (New York, NY 2010)
Miracle of Love — Stories About Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass, E.P. Dutton (New York, NY 1979)
Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship (13th Ed., reprinted 2001)
The Golden Guru — The Strange Journey of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, James S. Gordon, The Stephen Green Press (Lexington, Mass. 1987)
My Guru and His Disciple, Christoper Isherwood, Penguin Books (New York, NY 1981)
Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Christopher Isherwood, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY 1970)
Great Swan — Meetings with Ramakrishna, Lex Hixon, Shambhala Dragon Editions (Boston, Mass. 1992)
Bhagawan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa, SYDA Foundation (South Fallsburg, NY 1996)
The Buddha from Brooklyn — A Tale of Spiritual Seduction, Martha Sherrill, Vintage Books (New York, NY 2001)
Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Stephen Cope, Bantam (New York, NY 1999)
At the Eleventh Hour — The Biography of Swami Rama, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Himalayan Institute Press (Honesdale, Pa. 2001)
Play of Consciousness, Swami Muktananda Paramahansa, SYDA Foundation (Oakland Ca. 1974)
The Great Oom — the Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, Robert Love, Viking Press (New York, NY 2010)
ps Jess–Yes, the widget for Library Thing is coming for the website. I just need to add more books, so that it is a decent start at a representation of at least the yoga-related portion of my library.