Disciples, Fools and Enlightenment

Meet the patriarch, kill the patriarch! Meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha! — Rinzai Master Lin Chi

Strong, fiery words, to say the least. So strong that Western aspirants have conveniently misinterpreted them. Lin Chi’s paradoxical admonition is a koan — a mind-stopping utterance delivered to confound Ch’an (or Zen) students, shaking them loose of attachments to conventional knowledge and experience. The intended result was satori — a breakthrough of insight, leading to enlightenment.

With this koan, Lin Chi was warning against dependency on any supports (including a teacher) that do not promote true insight, psychological depth and self-responsibility. No Zen student would casually interpret his koan as a disavowal of the master (and the master’s indispensable role in spiritual awakening). Koans are inherently about shock value–this one a defiant contradiction of the central principle underlying all Buddhist sects: “take refuge in the Buddha.”

In the West, however, Lin Chi’s statement is often invoked to justify independence from the teacher or master within any tradition–as if the teacher, not the student, were the obstruction to spiritual growth. We overlook the fact that all great esoteric wisdom-traditions affirm the sacred authority of the master above all else.

It is not surprising that Westerners readily interpret the wisdom-traditions of the East in a manner that validates our preferred self-reliance–even when it comes to the real requirements for higher spiritual awakening. But there is another timely adage coming out of the collective wisdom-traditions, both East and West: “He who has himself for a master has a fool for a disciple.” Like it or not, authentic practice (leading to spiritual awakening) demands conscious, deliberate submission to the adept-teacher, and to all the necessary offenses inherent in the teacher-disciple relationship. To the dismay of many Western aspirants, such a relationship is patently not a democratic institution. And though it may be a hard pill to swallow, it is the master, not the aspirant, who provides effective spiritual guidance. Therefore, always choose a master wisely, but by all means, be wise and choose a master. As my own living master, Adi Da expresses it:

“It wasn’t presumed in the ancient days that it was up to each individual to find out–by his or her own most extraordinary effort–what the structure of Reality is and how to function within it. That seems these days to be a commonplace presumption. Anciently it was presumed that in any age, if you have any interest in realizing anything more than the mayhem of your own suffering, you must go and find a true Realizer. Try very hard to find such a one. And when you have found such a one, throw yourself at that one’s feet and take his or her instruction–because that one enjoys the capability to lead others through the ordeal of Divine Spiritual Realization. Indeed, Spiritually Realized Adepts (or Transmission-Masters, or true Gurus and Sat-Gurus) are the principal Sources, Resources, and Means of the esoteric (or Spiritual) Way. This fact is not (and never has been) a matter of controversy among real Spiritual practitioners.”

When I first came to Adi Da some three decades ago, I was a brash adolescent, full of illusions about higher “spiritual” things. I certainly did come to Adi Da for enlightenment, and, of course, for his acknowledgement of my own worthy preparedness. But I was soon to learn that, contrary to my naiveté and presumptuousness, true spiritual practice is a profoundly serious matter and lifelong endeavor.

Perhaps the primary lesson I learned in the earliest years of my involvement with him is that an authentic master cannot be approached with anything like the mind-set of a Western consumer. True humility and surrender are required from the outset, and remain absolutely essential throughout the spiritual course. Let me give a telling example from my own experience.

It occurred at a small gathering of students late one night in 1995. At one point Adi Da turned to me and asked about my practice of celibacy, which I had recently disavowed in favor of an intimate relationship with a beautiful young woman. He wanted me to consider how I could so casually abandon a discipline of this kind without first considering its full implications for my spiritual practice. Wasn’t it true that I was being driven only by my emotional-sexual impulses? Had I given any consideration to whether such a choice was compatible with my more fundamental impulse to spiritual maturity and divine self-realization?

Confronted so directly by Adi Da left me befuddled and defensive. I managed to mumble a half-hearted justification, but in mid-sentence, he sat bolt upright and glared at me with fire in his eyes. He extended an arm full-length, pointed a finger at me, and roared, "COSTABILE, YOU ARE A LIARRRRRRRRR!” Everyone in the room was stunned at the enormity of his shout. A devotee sitting next to me, a former Israeli soldier, likened the impact to getting hit in the chest with a Howitzer!

I bowed my head in respectful humility, but I was utterly stunned and quivering from the force of it all. I hastily left the gathering, fearing I would vomit. With the help of a friend, I returned an hour later, still reeling and confused by the entire exchange, and took a seat–this time against a supporting wall. (Others later reported that I literally looked green.) Adi Da acknowledged my return with an approving nod and smile, "So you've decided to rejoin us, have you, Costabile?" Adi Da teaches from within his own uniquely self-revealed tradition of Adidam. But like the Zen masters of old, he offered no explanation for his sudden “koan” to me–delivered as it was with such force and intensity.

As the days passed, I could feel myself withdrawing from him in indignation and self-defense. I indulged feelings of resentment and a host of other bitter emotions. But eventually it became clear that he had given me the opportunity to understand and transcend a deep and uninspected emotional pattern. I saw how conveniently I would hide or bend the truth, or even lie outright, rather than lose face. Difficult as this realization was to accept, Adi Da had brought it to consciousness for me, and I knew that to become responsible for this pattern was absolutely essential for my own integrity as a man. Using the skillful means of a true master, he was enabling me to observe, understand, and overcome a limitation in myself, so that I might move on in the spiritual course with clarity and integrity. Knowing this restored my devotion and faith in him.

Several nights later, I approached him at his chair and offered him a poem I had written in praise of him. He smiled at me as I knelt before him and watched him slowly read every word. When he finished he reached out his immense arms to me. I embraced him with all my heart and strength, exclaiming my love for him and receiving his love and blessing in return.

I really don’t think he gave a damn about the poem. It was my understanding of the lesson and my willingness to express our mutual love and understanding that he was responding to. We were bonded together at a feeling depth more profound than ordinary human love could ever touch. After that I fully accepted the conditions of our relationship, including Adi Da’s explicit right to be my master. I was grateful that he presumed the right to deal with me as he saw fit, and, a passage from his teaching became comprehensible to me as never before:

The compassionate Master does not do for others everything He can do within the bounds of propriety. The compassionate Master will do everything, whether in the realm of propriety or not, for the sake of Awakening others.

The issue of spiritual authority, especially as it is vested in gurus and masters by their disciples, is a complicated one in our time. Much has been made of the pitfalls and abuses of this relationship, and clearly there have been faults on both sides. Nevertheless, the cornerstone of spiritual wisdom is the humble acknowledgement that an adept-master is indispensable to our awakening to enlightenment and truth.

I can only hope that all earnest seekers are graced to find a master who embodies such reckless compassion and regard for their enlightenment.

Michael Anthony Costabile has been a devotee of Adi Da since 1975 and is a freelance writer. For more information about Adi Da contact 508-650-0136 or visit http://www.adidam.org