Today's Saying: The one who speaks the truth cannot fully live the truth. If one could fully live the truth, it would not be the truth.
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He complained to the Sage, "I'm fed up with false teachers. I don't know whom to trust anymore." "Remember," returned the Sage, "a jewel is a jewel, even if you find it in a trash can."
*Brian K. Wilcox. "Meetings with an Anonymous Sage."
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Living truth is like living vows. I learned, after receiving vows, vows are lived approximately. In fact, to focus on perfectly keeping the vows becomes a hindrance to living the vows. Truth is not something we can fulfill in the letter, but we can live the spirit of the truth. We maintain a humble openness to the aspiration to live the truth.
The living of truth leads us to consider, "How do we relate with spiritual teachers, pastors, priests, bishops, gurus, and other persons of spiritual guidance and care who fail to live what they say for others to do?" [I will use "teacher(s)" for any spiritual guidance or care role.]
First, there is a contrast between someone who observes the spirit of the truth, while she shows human foibles, and one who does not intend to live the teaching. Also, there is a disparity between persons who fail to live what they teach and abusers of followers, such as by sexual exploitation or emotional manipulation. When relating with a teacher, consider, "Does this person manifest humbleness of heart?" We should not give any teacher a pass on essential human qualities such as respect for others, compassion, and kindness. Finally, it is up to you to decide whether to follow a teacher or not. Do not give your discernment in this matter over to anyone else? Trust your intutition. Trust common sense. Remember, so-called teachers can be good actors - do not fall for appearance, even as you do not judge a book by its cover.
Does this mean we cannot learn from teachers who have failed markedly by betraying their teaching? We can. There is a difference, however, between someone being your teacher and benefitting from her teaching. One denotes a commitment to a relationship with her, the other a relationship only with the teaching. I will give an example below.
Twenty-five years ago, a Buddhist teacher much influenced me through his writings. Also, two of my spiritual teachers had studied under his guidance. Later, I learned of his sexual exploitation of followers - this entailing betraying his marriage. Also, I learned, later, the sexual exploitation of followers by other leaders in the organization was known and allowed to continue. No one was being held accountable. I concluded I would not read or refer to this leader in my life or work. I chose a cut-off. In time, I could discern how his teachings, including his way of teaching, were an inspirational means for me. Reading this teacher inspired me greatly. I returned to include him in my readings and writings. How did I come to this turnaround? I will look to the Buddhist teaching of the Four Reliances to clarify.
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The first of the Four Reliances is to rely on the teaching, not the teacher. In The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of two of his early school teachers. His fifth-grade teacher, a Miss Liên, often wore high-heeled shoes. One day, she wrote on the blackboard, "Never wear high-heeled shoes. You might twist your ankle." Hanh could not understand why she did not apply the teaching to herself. Another teacher was a heavy smoker. He taught on the health hazards of smoking. The class laughed, and he said, "Do as I say, not as I do." Hanh concludes, "Later, when I attended the Institute of Buddhist Studies, we were told that if a precious jewel is in a garbage can, you have to dirty your hands." Hence, we might shortchange ourselves by cutting off learning from a teacher whom we see to veer much from the keeping of the teaching.
The Catholic Church faced this same dilemma long ago. The question arose, "Is the efficacy of the Sacraments reliant on the character of the officiant?" The decision became, "No, the Sacrament is not hindered by the officiant's lack of holiness." Simply, a dirty priest cannot dirty the beauty and power of Grace.
We can rightly disagree with a teacher's person and lifestyle and glean inspiration from her teaching. In fact, we are accountable to ourselves to be discerning regarding teachers. Gullibility is not a virtue in this matter anymore than generally.
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Last, the above guidance highlights the priority of teaching over teacher. The teacher is only a means. Whether we esteem a teacher fitting or not, we do not give our ultimate devotion to the teacher. We are to be cautious of any teacher who expects unquestioning compliance with her person or what she says. Our final devotion is to truth and, finally, the Truth - source of all truths.
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*© Brian K. Wilcox, 2021
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse. The book consists of poems based on wisdom traditions, predominantly Christian, Buddhist, and Sufi, with extensive notes on the poetry's teachings and imagery.