The Guru’s New Clothes: A Brief History of Enlightenment Traditions

This is a guest post by Sindre Aaspas

Read Time: 7 minutes

The previous time I wrote here, I went into some detail about why I believe a daily meditation practice is important. Today, we will continue along the topic with a brief look at the history of enlightenment traditions. We will examine some of the problems with fitting these traditions into a world of 7 billion people (and counting). Finally, we will look at some potential ways to update them to better fit in that world.


In the west, the word “guru” is often associated only with the worst sorts of fraudulent activity. For decades, cult leaders, scam artists and other predators have frequently styled themselves as gurus.

While these are good reasons to be wary of these creatures, is important to realize that the term originally comes from a very ancient tradition, which could be easiest thought of as directly analogous to the apprenticeship model that developed in Europe in the middle ages.

The idea is that the student submits themselves to the authority of the guru, at which point the guru will begin the transference of their knowledge to the student — much like a master craftsman in ages past. If the fit is good and the guru is a real master (or, for our purposes, is really enlightened), then the student may eventually become as accomplished as the guru. If they are fit for teaching, they will then take on their own students to continue the lineage. Theoretically, anyway.

In practice, there are several problems with this model. We mentioned the problem of scams. If the guru is not genuine, then the student is wasting their time. What’s worse, genuine gurus often subsist on financial aid from their students, so these scam artists demand the same kind of support —while amping it up to extreme degrees. “Give me all your earthly possessions and I will lead you to heaven”, is a common cliche with these kinds of people.

Luckily, many prospective students are smart enough to see through this kind of bullshit. The phenomenon is so well-publicized that most know to run the moment the guru starts making these demands.

“And that is why you must all sell your houses and pass the proceeds to me…”

Further on is the problem of culture. A guru may be truly enlightened and benevolent, but many modern people — westerners in particular —find the idea of submitting to authority offensive. This undermines the trust required for the guru to do their job effectively.

Finally there is the problem of scale. If we accept that the attainment of enlightenment is a long process (similar to learning a craft well), then we must also accept that not all students will make it. The number of genuine gurus is limited, particularly in the west, so the number of successful students will be very limited indeed.

So what good can we take from the guru model? Perhaps the most valuable concept is that of lineage. While it’s doubtful that all traditions can trace a direct line to their creators, there is still tremendous value in the transference of functioning techniques from one generation to the next. This is, after all, how our cultures developed.

To examine the idea of lineage more closely, we will seek help from a dead man— the French philosopher and esoterist René Guénon, also known as Abd al-Wāḥid Yaḥyá.

The Dead Masters

On the contrary, imitations of initiation can be detected without fail by the absence of that condition we have just alluded to, and which is nothing other than attachment to a regular, traditional organization. — René Guénon, Perspectives on Initiation

We are in the west at the turn of the 20th century. Scientific literacy has just began to infiltrate the rapidly developing societies of Europe and America. World fairs in Paris, Chicago and many other cities have celebrated the great accomplishments of engineering technique. The Eiffel Tower, the Ferris Wheel and the skyscraper all stand as testament that these advances are real, authentic and useful.

“You know, ma, on second thought, maybe those “men of science” really are on to something…”

As in most eras of rapid social change, fraudsters and scam artists flourish. Self-styled sages and esoterists, many claiming to come from the mysterious Orient, are found everywhere teaching the most curious of ideas. Mediums exploit obsessions with the afterlife, using parlour tricks and cold reading to convince their audiences they can talk to the dead. Madam Blavatsky is just the tip of the iceberg.

A number of scientific investigators and professional debunkers also emerge, eager to challenge the fraudsters (and, perhaps, profit from some sleight of hand of their own). But there are those who go the other way. Instead of challenging the sages and mediums on their inauthentic methods, they challenge them on their inauthentic origins. René Guénon is one such character.

In 1910, Guénon is initiated into Sufism. This is the beginning of a long career of describing various initiatic (read: enlightenment) traditions to a western audience. In a flurry of writing, Guénon expostulates on the follies of mysticism and ‘psychics’; proselytizes on the value of genuine traditions; describes and critiques a number of traditions in detail.

René Guénon claims that we are going through the Kali Yuga — a spiritual dark age Click To Tweet

While his life work is a valuable insert in the ongoing battle between humbug, tradition and science, Guénon asserts that initiation — and thus enlightenment — is strictly for the few. Like his later, darker fellow traveler, the Italian aristocrat Julius Evola, Guénon claims that we are going through the Kali Yuga — a spiritual dark age, when mankind is at its most degenerate and truth and enlightenment are far from reach.

This doesn’t look very promising…

This all sounds quite dramatic, but it has no more obvious basis in reality than, say, the Book of Mormon. Like many other aspects of the ancient traditions, it is simply mythology — unprovable and unfalsifiable. There is probably some truth, however, to the notion that enlightenment practice is not for everyone — just like being a master craftsman is not for everyone.

But this does not mean that access to the techniques should be limited to the few and privileged. Like university, it should be in the hands of the student to succeed and fail — not to the gatekeeper who determines if they fit some more or less arbitrary criteria.

Esoteric traditions suffer from similar limitations as gurus — being restricted to the few, being discredited by scoundrels, lacking recourse to outside validation — and are increasingly in decline in a secularized world. Take for example the membership count for the Freemasons in the US. They are passé, whether they are useful or not.

This is how we come to the present — out of sorts and looking for a way to forward.

New Clothes, Same Nothing

Instead of finding a voice that speaks to the unique contingencies of our own situation, we repeat the clichés and dogmas of other epochs. Instead of creatively participating in a contemporary culture of awakening, we confine ourself to preserving those cultures of a vanishing past. — Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs

Over the past century, many people in the west have found themselves in a similar position as René Guénon — that of understanding that the techniques of the old traditions often work, but that in our culture they are regarded with some suspicion. Where does one go from here? There are two obvious paths: that of scientific analysis and that of demonstrative reasoning.

For the first part, scientists are slowly coming around to studying meditation techniques and other enlightenment practices. The principal problem here is that the nature of consciousness is a hard problem — one philosophers and scientists have been banging their heads against for centuries — and enlightenment is fundamentally a phenomenon of consciousness.

Studying enlightenment is difficult because in science, consciousness is a hard problem Click To Tweet

Don’t expect immediate answers from this quarter. Good science is supposed to be rigorous, and, while paradigm shifts can be brutally sudden, it takes a lot of work to develop an actual, working scientific theory. Just ask Darwin. It took him 20 years from conceiving his theory of natural selection before he had refined it enough to publish On the Origin of Species— and he had a substantial body of concrete evidence available to him.

Scientists have yet to determine if it is essential to meditate on a sunny beach, or if it’s sufficient to photoshop yourself onto a peaceful-looking backdrop after the fact.

For those of us who are not scientists, we have to limit ourselves to a policy of show, don’t tell. We cannot tell people to believe what we cannot prove. It would be dishonest to claim any more prior credibility than other non-scientific disciplines, so we have to demonstrate the value of what we are doing.

This is, however, more straightforward than ever. We live in a time when a single teacher can distribute their message to thousands or even millions of students through the means of the internet. The method proves its usefulness in due course.

In my previous post, I mentioned the Vinay Gupta/Future Thinkers meditation app. My own experiences with the app so far have been positive. While I won’t tell anyone they have to buy anything in order to practice meditation, I do think there are a number of good content and design decisions at work here.

The app focuses on the bare essentials. There is a how-to guide, an explanation of the method and its lineage, some advice for what to do when your practice stalls and a few other goodies, such as a progress tracker. At no point does it overwhelm the user with a barrage of mythology, imputations and instructions. The approach is fundamentally non-intrusive and non-obstructive.

The same principle could be extended to any number of other techniques. By integrating such methods into mobile technology and explaining them in a no-nonsense way, their intended purpose and function can be made clear to a tremendous amount of students. Thus they can take a credible step away from the world of cults, pseudo-religions and mythology and towards the world of scientific inquiry — if purely in a theoretical, experimental capacity.

Thus the guru has his new clothes — the same nothingness he was striving to teach us about all along.

  1. zac braciszewicz 5 months ago

    I think the easiest ( and least metaphysical/mythological) way of understand a thesis like Guenon’s is to point out that enlightenment is a inner experience, and it’s much easier to mimic the outward signs of enlightenment than to actually do the practice to be enlightened. Even legitimate teachers can be fooled by a student who has learned to do and say the right things. As traditions expand and gain cultural currency there is more and more incentive to simply copy the outward signifiers, as this is much easier than doing the practice, and gets you cultural currency with much less work. Eventually people only know about enlightenment from people who are simply copying the outward signifiers and no one has the slightest idea of what actual enlightenment would even mean.

    • Mike Gilliland 5 months ago

      So true. In my experience, if you watch them long enough you’ll find cracks. I think it might require enlightenment to be perfect at faking enlightenment 24/7. Irony is many people claiming enlightenment seem to have vices; addiction, compulsive behaviour, or “save the world” tendencies. Watch long enough and the real ones shine through.

  2. Author
    Sindre 5 months ago

    Hi Zac, thanks for sharing.

    I think yours is a more refined reading of Guenon than mine. It doesn’t help that the translation I got a hold of is particularly dense – or perhaps that’s just an accurate reflection of his prose style.

    For me, the standout issue with Guenon’s thesis is that genuine, initiatic (in the Guenonian sense) organizations will also be susceptible to internal rot, divergence from their origins etc.
    For example, Guenon’s claim that the Freemasons are an initiatic organization seems highly dubious today, even if he was right at the time.

    As far as I can tell, however, every single useful, initiatic or formerly initiatic tradition – whether it’s a religion too large to retain its proper core or a small mystery cult – will include practices that work whether you subscribe to the aesthetics, ethics and so on of the tradition or not. It might be more efficacious to pursue yoga or buddhism with a guru or mentor, while taking certain vows, but it’s certainly not necessary in order to get somewhere.

    That’s why I’m pushing meditation; because it’s efficacious whether you’re an atheist, a christian, a buddhist, a nihilist or a pseudo-empirical epiphenomenalist – or, through some profound form of confusion, all of those things at once.

    Of course, you can argue that people will not fully understand the point of what they’re doing without being attached to some tradition – or they might fumble around in the dark and make progress only by accident – but as far as I can tell that’s a normal occurence for those that become initiated through proper traditions as well.

    Mike: I would argue that real enlightened people seem to develop “save the world” tendencies quite often as well. 😛

  3. zac braciszewicz 5 months ago

    Mike: well, the degree to which you think enlightened people should have overcome their vices depends on what you mean by enlightenment. the currently fashionable forms of dry insight ‘hardcore’ buddhism or advaita vedanta don’t seem especially concerned with upgrading your morality at all as a precondition to fundamental insight. My tradition is/was pretty classic therevada so it requires actually eradicating the hindrances. personally i think it’s a dimmer switch, but certainly any ‘enlightened’ person who is helplessly in the grip of compulsive behaviours is clearly lacking insight into *that*, at least.
    My overall point was that you could learn to say and do and make the gestures even if you’d never even tried to get any real insight. you could read something like daniel Ingram, for example and learn to say exactly the right things and even start a class if you wanted, without ever spending a minute on practice.
    re: save the world tendencies– this is complicated. On a long enough timeline everything is destroyed. stars collapse and the universe goes to heat death. you can save it today and still lose it all tomorrow. In unfolding time everything is impermanent–that’s a fundamental truth. I guess the issue is how much compassion you develop on the way to becoming enlightened. I would say there is a certain kind of ‘evolutionary’ imperative built into the enlightenment experience, if only because you’d like to see others stop smashing their faces into ignorance like flies bouncing off a window, but context changes what that means. I think Vinay mentioned that for most of history you could sit back and watch shit work itself out and trust that the world wouldn’t end. That’s not as viable as it used to be, so any robust enlightenment is going to illuminate the fact that the house is significantly on fire. However there are still some who will allow it to blink out of existence like all other phenomena, content in the knowledge that all manifestations arise and pass and arise again.

  4. Ian Welsh 4 months ago

    The sage of Calcutta smoked. Students would sometimes get on his case, and he would say “when you’re enlightened, get back to me and tell me if you still think it’s important that I quit.”

    Enlightenment /= sainthood (Sainthood doesn’t equal sainthood, but that’s another comment). You can be totally enlightened, and totally an asshole because enlightenment includes the realization that your personality doesn’t matter, it doesn’t affect your self (or not self).

    Whether, after you get certain insights, you decide to keep working to remove points of stickiness or to make behaviour kinder, doesn’t affect if you’re enlightened. It’s legitimate to say “who cares?”

    That said, of course, who wants to hang with an asshole? Enlightenment isn’t license, either.

    Personally, so far (leaving aside the question of whether I’m “enlightened”) I’m continuing to work on points of stickiness. But if they didn’t bother my personality, I wouldn’t and there may be a day where I just stop caring enough to bother.

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