Mirrors and Leaky Boats (Part 1)

Lecture by Vikram Gandhi on his documentary “Kumare”

I watched a very provocative documentary last night on ABC2 called “Kumare”, which I highly recommend that you see (you can view it online on ABC’s iView). It is a film by Indian-American Vikram Gandhi, who posed as a guru in order to prove his hypothesis that you don’t need a spiritual teacher for self-realisation, and that people are too easily duped by gurus. He calls himself Kumare and gathers a small group of disciples in Phoenix, Arizona, teaching them made-up mantras, scriptures and yoga, whilst all the time telling them that he is an illusion and they can find their own guru within, before finally “coming out” and declaring his ruse at the end of the film, to very mixed reactions from his hitherto followers.

At first I thought it was going to be a kind of candid-camera expose on the gullibility of folk, and perhaps this was Gandhi’s original intention, but the film unfolds in a quite unexpected way that raises many questions not only about the ethics of duping vulnerable people in this way, but also of the fundamental question of what a spiritual teacher actually is and what are the responsibilities of that teacher. Even though Gandhi starts out cynically, he himself becomes transformed by his own social experiment. I came away from the film with many vexing and unanswerable questions that linked into what I discussed on my “What is a Buddhist priest?” blog entry.

Gandhi, teaching as Kumare, insists that he is just a “mirror” in which the students can see their true selves. He even holds up a mirror so that his followers can practice seeing themselves, as one of his bogus spiritual practices. This really struck me because one of the principle images in Wabi’an is Mirror of Wisdom Kannon – the Bodhisattva who holds a mirror in her hand as a symbol that spiritual teachings are merely a method for all beings to see their own reflected wisdom. Although it seems to be something obvious, I also believe that all the great truths are in fact staring us right in the face but somehow we all need help to open our eyes so that we can see this wisdom for ourselves.

This is one reason why I have continued to trust my own teacher because I have always felt that when he looks at me, he sees something deep inside me that I cannot yet see but is just waiting for me to open my eyes. In fact, this is one expression often used in reference to the enlightened Buddha – the One Who is Awake. It seems so simple to say, “We only have to open our eyes”, yet it is so difficult to do! This is why a compassionate spiritual teacher is necessary because they can help us to open our eyes and see the world with new vision. In that new world nothing has changed, but we experience it in a totally different way that gives us joy and fulfilment even in the midst of everyday chaos and pain.

So whilst Vikram Gandhi was merely offering the ancient wisdom of the “mirror of wisdom”, which is an inspiring teaching, does that justify his lying to a group of vulnerable spiritual seekers? This leads me to the “leaky boat” which I’ll tackle tomorrow…

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