THE ROLE OF THE SPIRITUAL MASTER
by René Guénon
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WE HAVE RECENTLY had occasion to note such misapprehensions and exaggerations concerning the role of the spiritual master that we feel obliged to return to the question in order to somewhat rectify matters. In the presence of some of these assertions we are almost tempted to regret having emphasized this role as much as we have so frequently done; and while it is true that many people tend to deprecate the importance of the spiritual master, if not to misunderstand it entirely (which is what justified our emphasis), it is now a matter of the opposite error.
There are those, then, who go so far as to claim that no one can attain Deliverance without the help of a spiritual leader, by which they naturally mean a human spiritual master, to which we immediately respond that these people would assuredly do much better to concern themselves with matters less remote from them than the ultimate goal of spiritual realization, and to rest content with considering the question in reference to the first steps toward this realization, for which in fact the presence of a spiritual master is especially necessary.
As we have said before, it must not be forgotten that the human spiritual master is in reality only an outer representative and a 'substitute', as it were, of the true inner spiritual leader, and that he is necessary only due to the fact that the initiate has not yet reached a certain degree of spiritual development and so is still incapable of entering directly into conscious communication with the latter. That, in any case, is what limits the necessity for a human spiritual master to the first stages, and we say 'first stages' because the communication in question obviously becomes possible for a being well before the point of attaining Deliverance.
Now with this qualification in mind, must one consider this necessity absolute, or, in other words, is the presence of a human spiritual master strictly indispensable in all cases at the beginning of realization, that is, indispensable not only to confer a valid initiation (for to deny this would be too obviously absurd) but to render effective an initiation which, without it, would remain merely virtual?
As important as the role of the spiritual master may really be - and it is not we who would dream of disputing it - we are obliged to say that such an assertion is altogether false for several reasons, the first of which is that there are exceptional cases of beings for whom a pure and simple initiatic transmission, without any intervention whatsoever by a spiritual master, suffices to immediately 'awaken' the spiritual acquisitions obtained in other states of existence; as rare as these cases may be, they prove at the very least that this is in no way a necessity of principle.
But here we have something more important to consider since it is no longer a question of exceptions that one could reasonably say need not be taken into account practically, but rather perfectly normal paths: there exist forms of initiation that by their very constitution do not require that anyone fulfill the function of spiritual master in the strict sense of the word, and this is especially true of certain forms where collective work takes a preponderant place, the role of the spiritual master then being played not by a human individual but by a spiritual influence that is effectively present in the course of this work.[fn1]
No doubt this has a certain disadvantage, in the sense that such a path is obviously less sure and more difficult to follow than that where the initiate benefits from the constant supervision of a spiritual master; but this is a different question altogether, and what is important from our present point of view is that the very existence of these initiatic forms, which necessarily offer the same goal as the others, and which consequently must offer their adherents means sufficient to reach it, provided only that they are fully qualified, amply proves that the presence of a spiritual master need not be regarded as constituting an indispensable condition in all cases. And of course, whether or not there is a human spiritual master, the inner spiritual master is always present, since it is one with the very 'Self'; whether, in order to manifest itself to those who are not yet capable of having an immediate consciousness of it, it takes as support a human being or a 'non-incarnated' spiritual influence which is, in the final analysis, only a difference of modality that changes nothing essential.
We have just said that where it exists, the role of spiritual master is especially important at the beginning of the effective initiation, which might seem perfectly obvious since it is natural that an initiate should have more need of guidance the less he is advanced on the path; and this remark already implicitly refutes another error we have noticed, which consists in the claim that there is no true spiritual master but the one who has already reached the goal of spiritual realization, that is, Deliverance.
If this were really so it would be rather discouraging for those seeking to obtain the help of a spiritual master, for it is quite clear that their chances of meeting one would be extremely slim; but in order to fulfill the role of a spiritual master effectively at the beginning, it is in fact enough to be able to lead the disciple to a certain degree of effective initiation, which is possible even if the one fulfilling this role has not himself gone beyond that degree.[fn2] This is why the ambition of a true spiritual master, if one may put it so, must be above all to bring his disciple as soon as possible to a position where he can do without him, whether by sending the disciple, when he can no longer lead him any further, to another spiritual master whose competence exceeds his own[fn3] or, if he is able, by leading him to the point where a direct and conscious communication with the inner spiritual leader will be established; and in the latter case, this will be equally true whether the human spiritual master truly has reached a full spiritual realization or possesses only a lesser degree of it.
We have not yet finished with all the erroneous conceptions current in certain circles, among which is one that seems to us especially dangerous: there are those who imagine that they can consider themselves affiliated with some traditional form by the mere fact that their spiritual master, or at least the one they feel justified in regarding as such, belongs to it, and without having to do anything else, or accomplish any rite whatsoever.
It should be quite obvious that this claimed affiliation can have no real value, and that it does not even have the slightest reality; indeed, it would be too easy to attach oneself to a tradition if there were no other condition than this, and such an error can only be the effect of a complete failure to recognize the necessity of the practice of an exoterism, which, in the case of an initiation arising from a definite tradition that is not exclusively esoteric, must naturally belong to the same tradition as the initiation.[fn4]
Those who hold such a view doubtless believe that they have passed beyond forms, but then their error is all the greater, for the very need they feel to resort to a spiritual master sufficiently proves that they have not yet reached that point;[fn5] whether or not the spiritual master himself has arrived there changes nothing regarding his disciples and in no way concerns them. It must be said that what is most astonishing is that there could be a spiritual master who would accept disciples under such conditions and without first having rectified their error; even this alone would be of a nature to cause serious doubts as to the reality of his spiritual quality.
Indeed, every true spiritual master must necessarily exercise his function in conformity with a definite tradition. When it is not so, this is one mark by which we may most easily recognize a false spiritual master, who in some cases may not indeed be acting in bad faith, but only deluding himself through ignorance of the real conditions of initiation, something we have already explained sufficiently[fn6] so that we need not dwell further on it.
To forestall all objections, it is important to make a clear distinction between this case and that in which a spiritual master may, accidentally as it were and outside his traditional function, give to persons not of his own tradition not only doctrinal clarifications, which would raise no difficulties, but also more practical counsels; and it must be well understood that what is involved in such a case are only simple counsels, which, like those given by anyone else, take their value solely from the knowledge that the one who gives them possesses as a human individual and not as the representative of a certain tradition, and can never make the one who receives them a disciple of his in the initiatic sense of the word.
This obviously has nothing in common with the claim to be able to confer an initiation on persons who do not fulfill the required conditions for receiving it validly, conditions among which are always and necessarily the regular and effective affiliation with the tradition to which the initiatic form in question belongs, with all the ritual observances that are essentially implied; and we must clearly state that without this affiliation the relationship uniting the so-called disciples to their spiritual master is, as an initiatic bond, an illusion pure and simple.
fn1. It is to be noted here that even in certain initiatic forms where the function of spiritual master normally exists, it is nonetheless not always strictly indispensable in fact; thus, in Islamic initiation, certain turūq, especially under present-day conditions, are no longer directed by a true Shaykh capable of effectively fulfilling the role of spiritual master, but only by Khulafā', who can scarcely do more than validly transmit the initiatic influence; it is nonetheless true that in such a case the barakah of the Shaykh - who founded the tarīqah can, at least for particularly well-endowed individuals, and simply by virtue of affiliation with the silsilah, make up for the absence of a presently living Shaykh, this case then becoming quite comparable to that we have just recalled.
fn2. In addition to the spiritual development corresponding to this degree, this capacity also presupposes certain special qualifications, just as, among those possessing the same degree of any kind of knowledge, all are not equally able to teach it to others.
fn3. Such a change is of course never regular and legitimate except with the authorizition of the first spiritual master, and even at his initiative - for he alone - and not the disciple - can judge whether his role vis-à-vis the latter is at an end, and also whether some other particular spiritual master will really be capable of leading him further than he himself was able to do. Let us add that such a change can also sometimes have a very different motive, and be due simply to the fact that the spiritual master sees that the disciple, by virtue of certain particularities of his individual nature, can be guided more effectively by someone else.
fn4. Here we take the word 'exoterisin' in its broadest meaning, as designating the part of a tradition that addresses itself to everyone without distinction, and that constitutes the normal and necessary basis for every corresponding initiation.
fn5. There is even something contradictory here, for if they could really have reached this point before having a spiritual master, that would certainiy be the best proof that the latter is not indispensable, as they on the other hand assert him to be.
fn6. see: 'True and False spiritual teachers' and spiritual leaders
freedom of thought
his personal traits
role of spiritual master
The Source - the Supreme Center
True and False spiritual teachers
the end of time
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