What is a Spiritual Teaching in Two Words?

Mon, 17 Aug 2015
By Dave O.


Enlightened Beings don’t teach Enlightenment, they exude It.

So then why did I become a spiritual teacher? What do spiritual teachers offer if it isn’t spiritual teaching? Something is off here and as ever, I must get to the bottom of it.

Recently I asked a group of spiritual seekers to describe the necessary and sufficient conditions for spiritual teaching to happen in two words. These seekers had paid good money to attend my Summer Island Retreat in Finland, yet their answers left much to be desired. Not content to simply give the answer, I let the question roll over the whole day. In desperation, they used poetry, flattery, humour, scripture and quotes from previous Retreats – all to no avail – until someone chanced upon the answer.

I asked the same question on a handful of spiritual forums and the answer still didn’t arrive until after many days of hinting and cajoling. I praised the answerer but apparently (I am told) it was not enough to tip off the readers, hence my reason for writing now.

The first thing you have to understand is that a spiritual teaching is not literal or factual but a response to a present, unique situation. It’s a one-time, take it or leave it event. The evidence for that is the existence of inherent and apparent contradictions in all spiritual teachings. The second thing is that a spiritual teaching is cryptic because the mind is full of virtually impenetrable self-ideation, which creates the Identity, often called the Ego. The human mind is not rational, therefore no rational teaching could ever extract the Ego from the non-linear mind. The mind is like the Minotaur’s Labyrinth, easy to enter, impossible to leave. Yet the spiritual seeker must somehow liberate their localised awareness from the maze of the mind.

After a spiritual teacher dies, the assumed tool that will pick the mind’s lock is the spiritual teacher’s anthologised words. It’s a wrong assumption but it’s easy to see how it happens. Intellectuals tends to be good at memorising, debating, hair-splitting and promoting concepts. Since they could never actually grasp the weight of a spiritual teacher’s balls, they at least manage to grab a few ‘short and curlies’, enough to parade themselves at a spiritual mardi gras. Those who really understand tend to be quietly meditative and rarely get any airtime. Consequently the general public tend to presume that spiritual teachings are intellectual machinations, beliefs, credos and more concepts… This suits academics of various shades (anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists) very nicely because it gives them something to get their teeth into. Hairball of Buddha anyone?

What intellectuals miss, deliberately so and very conveniently for the Ego, is that a spiritual teaching involves a mystical aspect that takes a lifetime for the mind to grasp, let alone define. A spiritual teacher who has time to split the pubic hairs of the Buddha in public is no spiritual teacher at all. A real spiritual teacher has to get an anxious seeker over the sea of samsara (illusion) in this lifetime – and that won’t happen in a classroom.

A real spiritual teaching does not have the luxury of being conceptual. Concepts lead to apparent agreement, wherein a group of like-minds rest on their collectively smug laurels, achieving internal pseudo-coherence but in fact contradicting external reality. It is evident that most religions are like that.

A spiritual teaching in contrast has to be functional.

So spoiler alert! Don’t read further if you want to figure the answer out for yourself.

So if a spiritual teaching isn’t a collection of concepts then what is it? To understand the answer we have to look at the purpose of a spiritual teaching, which is to awaken, to Enlighten. Enlightenment does not happen by conceptualising; it does not start in the mind. Enlightenment happens when there is self-remembrance. In fact, it is self-recovery, wherein the awareness of your Self, which is always on the edge of your awareness, fully enters into your localised awareness. It is a sudden and striking revelation, stronger and more earth-shattering than the sun brightly reappearing after a solar eclipse.

If a spiritual teaching today is the dead bones of some departed Buddha then a living spiritual teaching is a living relationship with the source of that teaching – an actual living Buddha, an Enlightened Being. A spiritual teaching is a ‘personal relationship’ – not a relationship with a book, video or faraway character but rather a real, flesh-and-blood, in-your-face relationship that gives the Ego no room to manoeuvre and every chance for your true Self to shine.

One online commentator gave an even better answer than my one, stating that a spiritual teaching is a “trusting relationship”. Without unbreakable trust, the Ego will ruin any significant relationship. No doubt this will be a topic in my future spiritual teaching…