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Do You Need a Guru?: Understanding the Student--Teacher Relationship in an Era of False Prophets Hardcover – September 25, 2002
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About the Author
Caplan is a trained cultural anthrolopologist and therapist. She is a student of the Western Baul (Hindu-based tradition) but is widely versed in other forms of spirituality. Her books have been published by a small press in the US to date; Hohm Press. Her latest book, Halfway Up the Mountain, has been extremely influential and fostered widespread debate. US sales figures are modest because Hohm Press is not a major publisher. Her work has only been distributed in the UK. She is based in California.
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In other words, it appears to be easy to presume that someone is an authority on something because they've managed to get a book published about it. But on closer examination, Caplan's authority seems pretty thin to me. She is basically a woman who has been involved in various alternative religion scenes for a few years (mostly Hindu-derived, Lee Lozowick in particular), has conducted some interviews, and has a lot of opinions on the subject that she wants to share. Many that I happen to agree with. Nonetheless, I was forced to conclude that she hasn't earned the stature to sell me a book full of her opinions, and consequently the book isn't very good.
The author's bio in the book states that "she was educated at the University of Michigan, California Institute of Integral Studies, and the Union Institute and Unviersity in Cincinnati," and that "her degrees are in Anthropology, Counseling Psychology and Contemporary Spirituality." So in other words, it appears that she got a bachelor's degree in Anthropology, got certified to be a counselor, and also got an unspecified degree in a nonsense field from a bogus institution.
Perhaps none of this would matter if Caplan was a better writer, but unfortunately her prose is muddled and scattershot. She launches into a defense of the validity of "enlightenment" as a goal and the "guru" as a paradigm without taking the time to define either one. She characterizes alternative models of teacher-student relationship such as the "spiritual friend" and the "mentor/guide" model as Western attempts to water down uncomfortable foreign traditions, as if the guru-disciple relationship was the only normative traditional one, appearing not even to recognize that in some traditions (Theravada Buddhism comes to mind) the former model is the norm and there are no "gurus" per se. I suppose she cannot afford to acknowledge the counterexample, as it invalidates her argument that gurus are necessary.
Speaking of which, Caplan's answer to the rhetorical question of the title is, yes you need a guru if you are serious about the spiritual path, although there are a lot of charlatans and abuse out there. But she tends to extrapolate unreflectively from her own experience in the Vedanta context as if there was some big undifferentiated "Eastern Spirituality + various shaman traditions" about which one can generalize. In fact, she actually says a number of times, "the Eastern teachings say . . ." as if there was any such singular thing.
The author states "the contents of this study come from masters and disciples of numerous traditions, spiritual academicians (sic), scriptures, and over 15 years of my own contact and personal involvement with just about every kind of guru, shmuru, tulku, sensei, sheik, shaman, rabbi, therapist, sage, mentor, "no teacher", healer, psychic, and divine mother you can imagine and not imagine." That about tells you what you need to know. Somehow she managed to land interviews with some notable names, but otherwise the book is as glib, flakey, and unworthy of serious consideration as the passage above suggests. Which is unfortunate, because the topic is an urgent one.
Weaving together her personal journey, extensive knowledge of psychological projection and power dynamics from her years as a psychotherapist, and interviews with teachers and students alike, Caplan makes the case for having a guru, emphasizing that the greatest benefits come from engaging the relationship as a conscious disciple. Her finely tuned discrimination continues to feed me as it did with her Halfway up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment. She tends to pose questions for the reader to consider, rather than revealing black and white or even gray answers. I was initially concerned that her anecdotes about her early encounters with New Age shamans, wannabe gurus, etc., would be distracting. Ultimately, however, I found these sections of the book to be refreshingly honest, poignant, funny and all too familiar!
While she never lets spiritual teachers off the hook with respect to their own integrity and their immense responsibility in shepherding their students through the labyrinths of the path, she insists that the more responsibility we as students take in selecting and relating, committing and surrendering to our teachers, the greater and richer our spiritual progress. Reading this book gave me a whole new embodied sense of how conscious surrender to the teacher could be an act of maturity, integrity and great strength, rather than a replay of childhood patterning around authority figures. At the same time, she never suggests that this path is easy or without its dangers, but for me she also fueled a yearning that makes a "safe" life feel like a death sentence! Warning: Read this book at your own risk-it's hot!
Her point is to offer a model of a mature, responsible approach to the guru-disciple relationship, that she names "Conscious Discipleship". Her position is that if both the teacher and the student approach the relationship with careful, responsible, mature attention, then it can be a deeply rewarding and important one.
Dr. Caplan's writing style is excellent. She writes with depth, and warmth, and just the right touch of humor to avoid taking the topic too seriously.
This is an intriguing and thought provoking contribution to a difficult topic. It is very well worth reading. I highly recommend it.