Erik Davis:

It’s a complex gotcha. On the one hand, he proves the sceptical core of Kumaré’s message: the guru they knew was nothing more than their own projections (albeit onto his own crafty dissimulation). The disenchantment, however, comes coupled with the palliative, even self-empowering message that they are therefore responsible for their own insights and transformations. But this only begs the question that Gandhi — in the film’s greatest conceptual error — refuses to ask: is the guru’s theatre of transformation sometimes necessary, even if it is a ruse?

A pragmatic look at spiritual leadership through the ages — of shamans with their legerdemain, tribal leaders with their initiation dramas, Zen masters with their anarchist tricks — would answer yes. One might invoke the placebo effect, but to identify the placebo as the ‘cause’ of transformation does not end the discussion. Or the spiritual tutelage. While the history of religions is of course dominated by an often pernicious authoritarianism, not to mention tremendous earnestness, there is also an undercurrent of crazy wisdom that understands enlightenment or transformation to occur in a zone of compassionate pranks, iconoclastic mirroring, and sacred irony.

…The chain-smoking 20th-century Hindu master Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj claimed, for example, that the true guru ‘will constantly bring you back to the fact of your inherent perfection and encourage you to seek within. He knows you need nothing, not even him, and is never tired of reminding you.’ Nisargadatta taught radical nondualism, which means that he took that ‘all is one’ stuff seriously enough to revel in the inevitable paradoxes rather that sweeping them under the feel-good carpet. Like many non-dual teachers — and Gandhi himself was raised partly with the nondual Vedanta — Nisargadatta also proclaimed that spiritual seeking itself is part of the problem, because searching outside yourself is ultimately alienating. So what does the spiritual teacher do in such a situation? Ironically, the ideal spiritual teacher must frustrate the operation of seeking itself, and somehow help dissolve the whole relationship into liberation.

In other words, how do you teach someone to outgrow their need to depend on a teacher? On what authority do you urge people to stop looking to authority figures for justification? Alan Watts addressed this topic, too:

There is a saying that “anyone who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.” In exactly the same way, in the Buddhist culture, anybody who goes to a guru, a spiritual teacher, a Zen master, or whatever, ought to have his head examined. As the old Chinese master Tokusan put it, “If you ask any question, you get thirty blows from my stick. If you don’t ask any question, you get thirty blows just the same.” In other words, “What the hell are you doing here defining yourself as a student and me as a teacher?” You raise a problem when you do that, and in the Zen way of training, this problem is very clearly emphasized.

…This is the situation of everyone who feels that life is a problem to be solved. Whether you seek to solve that problem through psychoanalysis, integration, salvation, or buddhahood, you define yourself in a certain way when you see life as a problem to be solved.

The real desire that everybody brings to these teachers can be stated this way: “Teacher, I want to get one up on the universe. I feel I am a stranger in this world and that life is a problem. Having a body means that I am subject to disease and change and death. Having emotions and passions means that I am tormented by feelings I cannot help having, and yet it is not possible to act on those feelings without creating trouble. I feel trapped by this world and so I want to get the better of it. Is there some wise man around who is a master of life and who can teach me to cope with all this?” That is what everybody is looking for in a teacher: a savior who can show you how to cope with life. But the Zen teacher says, “I don’t have any answers.” Nobody believes that because he seems to be so confident when you look at him. You cannot believe that he has no answers, and yet the consistent teaching of Zen is that it has nothing to say and nothing to teach.

Rather than combining different materials to create something new, a sculptor sees the potential finished form contained within the raw material and chisels away all the excess that prevents it from being seen. Similarly, some forms of teaching involve removing the perceptual and conceptual excess rather than adding more layers of it.