Shambhavi’s Path to Teaching and the Special Circumstance of the Guru-Disciple Relationship

March 1, 2023

Shambhavi and the Jaya Kula community gather for satsang and get real about all the questions we humans want answered. Intimate, courageous, heartfelt spiritual talk about pretty much everything. So happy you are here! A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

Welcome, everybody. So somebody asked a question in a different forum. So the question is: "Shambhavi, I know you still consider yourself a student slash disciple. When did you feel yourself going from being a student to being a teacher? I think it's like you're both, but I imagine at one time you mostly just felt like a student, or have you always felt like a teacher. Curious about this process."

I guess the answer to the teacher part is that, although I didn't start teaching anything to do with spiritual practice until I'd already been doing sadhana for nearly twenty years. So I was in my early forties when I first started teaching spiritual practice.

My whole life, I just felt like somehow I was trying to encourage people [laughs]. And particularly trying to encourage people to be more expressive and be more free and not be so hemmed in by constraints and constrictions and conventions.

And I also was teaching from a very early age, like just in an ordinary sense. Doing tutoring when I was in high school and college, and then doing community education when I was a tenant organizer, and teaching all kinds of things when I was in grad school.

So this is just a very strong part of how I showed up. And it's very much indicated in my astrology chart that this was kind of an inescapable fate that I would be teaching something or other.

I don't know that I particularly feel like a student anymore, like, of a particular teacher who's teaching me stuff. I don't feel like I need to learn more practices or read more books or anything like that.

But I feel even more strongly that I'm a follower. I'm following that, which I've been following since I was a little kid. But now I have a much richer understanding of it, a much richer contact with it.

When I was a little kid, there was something there that was just like what I thought of then, sort of inarticulately as sweetness or goodness. It was something that I was feeling in myself that felt wholesome. That's the best word I can say for it.

And when I wasn't following that, I didn't feel right with myself or the world. And when I was following that, everything sort of fell into place. Even if people around me were objecting, I felt right with myself.

So I had this very strong feeling of right with myself or wrong with myself. And it felt bigger than just this one person. It felt like something I was following.

And now I have a much richer experience of that, you know, of wisdom, of wisdom embodied by my guru Anandamayi Ma. Or just wisdom, or wisdom embodied by any of the teachers who have revealed more of that to me.

So in a sense, student doesn't seem like quite the right word, because I don't feel like I'm learning new things. I feel like I'm deepening and becoming more immersed in whatever that is and following that to the best of my ability.

So I feel very much like a disciple. Feels a little different than a student to me.

The first students I ever had outside of when I was assisting other teachers was when I was in Chicago, teaching at Northwestern University.

And my then teacher had told me to start a little weekly class. He didn't really tell me what it should be about, but basically it was at a yoga studio, an Ashtanga studio, and it was a weekly gathering of just people doing a little bit of practice and talking about view.

So that was the first time I ever taught, on my own, spiritual stuff. And then I came back to California and broke up with my teacher. And there was another weekly little class that was happening, more like a satsang, and also doing some practice together.

But it wasn't under the name of anything, like, Jaya Kula didn't exist. Some of those people are still in our lives as Jaya Kula, but Jaya Kula didn't happen until I decided that I had to leave the Bay Area.

So I had to find a place and Portland was the place that I found. And I knew that there had to be some kind of organization. I wanted it to be a nonprofit. And I was meditating and contemplating Ma, and I asked her for a name. And the name Jaya Kula popped into my head.

So that was before I ever moved to Portland. And then I moved to Portland and some funny things transpired, which many of you know about, one of which was that I wanted to have a weekly reading of Anandamayi Ma's words. Like, it gathered to read her words.

And I thought it was going to be huge because I thought everyone knew who Ma was and they would just flock to hear her words. But this actually didn't happen. And what I ended up with was five hundred hot cups and a hundred cup tea maker. Which eventually went to the Tibetan community center here.

So that was a big lesson that no one actually knew who she was and there was no flocking. And then I was living with some Tibetans, and they have a community center which was up on Northeast Sandy at the time, it's not there anymore.

And they let me use their temple, which was a converted church, and I put signs up. That was when posters were still a thing. So I put posters up, and I think they had a picture of Ganesha on them.

And I don't know, maybe six or seven people showed up and we would sit in between the pews and this giant gold buddha. That was the only space, there was some teachings happening weekly there.

And then I moved to Northeast 78th, and that was pretty much the first place where Jaya Kula started to coalesce. I just feel I'm doing what is ultimately fulfilling and I'm grateful that all these people want to practice and support Jaya Kula and come and sweep floors and pour water for me.

And I'm very grateful about all that and kind of amazed. I'm always still surprised. And I think some people are surprised that I'm surprised.

I'm very tentative when new people come around because I'm always surprised that people want to do this. And I think that's kind of an unusual thing to express, that kind of tentativeness with people.

But in any case, I still feel a sense of wonder all the time, really, that all this is happening and that there was really no visible or recognizable support for this.

For me, growing up, it's completely antithetical to how I grew up in every possible way, and that somehow I just followed what seemed best to me, what felt best to me, and this happened.

So I'm really grateful that people can practice. I'm really grateful that Jaya Kula is a wholesome place. I'm really grateful for that. Anybody who actually wants to practice can practice here.

There's a through line that I've noticed in the way that you've presented the teachings and your particular flavor of the teachings. You are trying to have the kind of integrity and hold, the kind of container that a lot of people who call themselves spiritual teachers in the United States really aren't doing very well. When did that start coming up for you? It's like, one of your priorities.

I don't know that that was my first priority. I think it really gets back to my childhood or however I came in. I just had utter confidence that there's something to be discovered here that's worth trying to discover, that's more than meets the eye.

I had utter confidence that human beings could be more than we think we can be. That we had more capacity than we think we have. That life is more magical and nuanced than most of us experience. I just had utter confidence in that.

And I think whatever I've done is to try to make it possible for other people to have confidence in that too. So having that kind of sobriety about my role or your role, that students and teachers are just part of nature, there's not any big brouhaha to be made about it, right?

That we're just embodying something. We're embodying a process that's just like grass growing, but it happens to be really fun grass. [laughs] I don't mean that as a double entendre.

I just feel like there's magic here. And there's also way more love and way more compassion, way more expressiveness, way more creativity, way more boldness, way more courage, way more humor, way more everything than most people are experiencing.

And I don't want people to miss out. So even though I didn't really have these words when I was five, I just feel like my whole life has been trying to shake people and say 'look, there's more here.'

And it's not something you can buy in a store. Then when I found this tradition, I was like, okay, this is going to get me there. This is what I've been looking for.

So the form of Jaya Kula is all in the service of people actually discovering. I'm not that interested in sitting around passing self brand spiritual philosophy between people. I'm not interested in anything other than 'let's get to it.'

So I think everything comes out of that. Everything. The shape of Jaya Kula, the way that I teach, the way that I talk about teachers and students, everything comes out of just like that Japanese movie I love, Eijanaika, Why Not. Why not do this? Why not find out?

One of the learning curves for me as a teacher, and I think I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago that I was reading in the Enlightened Vagabond, which is a wonderful, wonderful book about the life and teachings of Patrul Rinpoche.

I hugely recommend it. It's also an audiobook, so you can listen to it in your car. It's just such a wonderful book. But Patrul Rinpoche's teacher is talking to him and he says the biggest obstacle you have as a teacher, that you think everything's going to be as easy for your students as it's been for you.

And I just was like, pow, that has definitely been one of my biggest obstacles. Thinking everything's going to be a lot easier for people than it actually has been. And so when I say, like, there's magic here and we can all be more this and more that, I'm very aware now that whatever anybody's more is, it could be a little more, it could be a lot more.

But the thing is that we all can be more free. We all can be more free. And that's what I want. Maybe I just want people to play with I don't know, maybe it's selfish.

I was wondering if you had anything to say about the specific role of guru and when you noticed yourself taking that role.

I don't know that I have taken that role or that anyone can take that role, except for charlatans. Guru and disciple are a phenomenon. There's no such thing as a person becoming a guru.

I mean, the whole idea is ludicrous that someone sort of would step into that role as an individual. This only happens when someone with some kind of realization meets someone for whom that style of arising is able to reveal their real nature to them.

That's the function of guru is to reveal your real nature to you. We call that transmission, right? That's the function of guru. So if anyone has that experience where their real nature is revealed to them, whether it's by a human or a tree or a circumstance or a cup of water, whatever, is revealed to you by that is guru.

When we're talking about students and teachers, it's a very special circumstance to be in that relationship with anybody else.

Because, for instance, transmission happens many, many times. But that doesn't mean that everybody who's experiencing it is a disciple to another person as guru.

So, the only way that your real nature can be revealed to you in such a way that that relationship could be called guru and disciple or student and guru, is if you then assented to being in that relationship in a way that indicated you had an innate understanding of what it is.

The thing is that most people, even though they can read a lot of stuff about guru, they don't have an innate understanding of what it means to be a disciple to a guru. They just don't.

We have many instances of people receiving transmission, either formally or informally, experiencing different things about your real nature and teachings, feeling more relaxed or whatever is happening.

But it's a very, very rare person who really comes in with the understanding of being a disciple. And that is not anything you can read in a book or anybody can tell you to do.

The better question isn't about my self conception as a guru. I don't have any such self conception. I don't actually care about it, having that label or not having that label.

If someone relates to me that way, that is not up to me. And if they did, I would have grave responsibility toward that person. Unavoidable grave responsibility.

I don't mean that in a horrible sense, but you just can't imagine, most of us, what that really means. So that is a cosmic event and it can't be assumed, controlled, defined or manufactured in any way.

But what it would mean for me, what it does mean to me is that everything that I am capable of would be called on.

And that's what it means for a disciple also. So it'd be best to ask yourself about being a disciple more than to ask me about being a guru.

And maybe the answer is 'I'm not a disciple, I'm just a student,' which is wonderful also. I have no problem with that. I'm happy anybody does anything.

But the circumstance of being an actual disciple is so rare. And people in the United States who get into spiritual traditions from this part of the world—sometimes, not always, but sometimes—kind of think of having a guru as like a spiritual accoutrement. They have to have one.

But they're not disciples, they're just people acquiring this self brand of having a guru. So and so is my guru. The real guru-disciple relationship is the most thoroughgoing, nuanced, all encompassing, love, fascinating, magical, grueling, terrifying. It's just so many different things you couldn't possibly say.

But if you feel that and you know that, then you can move into that. I would say that I always had an innate sense of following in a discipleship.

And that when I met teachers, I treated them all as guru, even though some of them on the outer side might not have been that, but I related to all my teachers as guru. Not as, like, the one guru, but just as something to do with that.

But at the same time, I was also afraid, because I knew already what it meant to be a disciple, I was afraid. So I was not giving my all at first because I knew what it meant.

Can you speak to what you were holding back?

Obedience. My little portion of the pie that I wanted to keep for me. One time I had a dream, or Ma came in the dream, she was sitting in the kitchen at a table, and she just looked at me and she said, 'You're late.'

It was just like this emblem of having held something back. I've been here waiting. You're late. I've told you about that time she came in my dream and yelled at me. She said, 'I am Guru. You are shisha. Your only job is to obey instantly.'

But in order to do that, it can't just be like, I want to be obedient, so I get a pat on the head. You have to feel and know that if you were completely obedient, everything would be given to you. And even just being partially obedient, I feel incredible things have been given to me [laughs].

But you have to know what it means. It can't be like some decision you make or some concept you have of obedience or some idea of being a good girl and getting approval.

If anything, the more obedient you are, the more that's going to be asked of you, and the more chance there is that your teacher is going to yell at you like, I've been yelled at.

But it's not a career path. It's not a choice. We're very competitive. So when I talk about this stuff, I just feel like there's a subset of people that are, like, trying to manufacture some feeling, and that's not like that.

So everyone just continue on as you are, please. I think it's the best thing ever. But that's because that's how I was made. But I'm sixty-six, and I'm still working on being completely obedient. So, there's that.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.