This essay was originally published in The Essential Alan Watts and was titled “The Trickster Guru”.
With so many gurus emerging in the modern world to help you embrace change in your life, this is essential reading to help you spot “fake gurus”.
I have often thought of writing a novel, similar to Thomas Mann’s “Confessions of Felix Krull,” which would be the life story of a charlatan making out as a master guru – either initiated in Tibet or appearing as the reincarnation of Nagarjuna, Padmasambhava, or some other great historical sage of the Orient. It would be a romantic and glamorous tale, flavored with the scent of pines in Himalayan valleys, with garden courtyards in obscure parts of Alexandria, with mountain temples in Japan, and with secretive meetings and initiations in country houses adjoining Paris, New York, and Los Angeles. It would also raise some rather unexpected philosophical questions as to the relations between genuine mysticism and stage magic. But I have neither the patience nor the skill to be a novelist, and thus can do no more than sketch the idea for some more gifted author.
The attractions of being a trickster guru are many. There is power and there is wealth, and still more the satisfactions of being an actor without need for a stage, who turns “real life” into a drama. It is not, furthermore, an illegal undertaking such as selling shares in non-existent corporations, impersonating a doctor, or falsifying checks. There are no recognized and official qualifications for being a guru, though now that some universities are offering courses in meditation and Kundalini Yoga it may soon be necessary to be a member of the U.S. Fraternity of Gurus. But a really fine trickster would get around all that by the one-upmanship of inventing an entirely new discipline outside and beyond all known forms of esoteric teaching.
It must be understood from the start that the trickster guru fills a real need and performs a genuine public service. Millions of people are searching desperately for a true father-Magician, especially at a time when the clergy and the psychiatrists are making rather a poor show, and do not seem to have the courage of their convictions or of their fantasies. Perhaps they have lost nerve through too high a valuation of the virtue of honesty – as if a painter felt bound to give his landscapes the fidelity of photographs. To fulfil his compassionate vocation, the trickster guru must above all have nerve. He must also be quite well-read in mystical and occult literature, both that which is historically authentic and sound in scholarship, and that which is somewhat questionable – such as the writings of H.P. Blavatsky, P.D. Ouspensky, and Aleister Crowley. It doesn’t do to be caught out on details now known to a wide public.
After such preparatory studies, the first step is to frequent those circles where gurus are especially sought, such as the various cult groups which pursue oriental religions or peculiar forms of psychotherapy, or simply the intellectual and artistic milieux of any great city. Be somewhat quiet and solitary. Never ask questions, but occasionally add a point – quite briefly – to what some speaker has said. Volunteer no information about your personal life, but occasionally indulge in a little absent-minded name-dropping to suggest that you have travelled widely and spent time in Turkestan. Evade close questioning by giving the impression that mere travel is a small matter hardly worth discussing, and that your real interests lie on much deeper levels.
Such behavior will soon provoke people into asking your advice. Don’t come right out with it, but suggest that the question is rather deep and ought to be discussed at length in some quiet place. Make an appointment at a congenial restaurant or cafe – not at your home, unless you have an impressive library and no evidence of being tied down with a family. At first, answer nothing, but without direct questioning, draw the person out to enlarge on his problem and listen with your eyes closed – not as if sleeping, but as if attending to the deep inner vibrations of his thoughts. Conclude the interview with a slightly veiled command to perform some rather odd exercise, such as humming a sound and then suddenly stopping. Carefully instruct the person to be aware of the slightest decision to stop before actually stopping, and indicate that the point is to be able to stop without any prior decision. Make a further appointment for a report on progress.
To carry this through, you must work out a whole series of unusual exercises, both psychological and physical. Some must be rather difficult tricks which can actually be accomplished, to give your student the sense of real progress.
Others must be virtually impossible – such as to think of the words yes and no at the same instant, repeatedly for five minutes, or with a pencil in each hand, to try to hit the opposite hand – which is equally trying to defend itself and hit the other. Don’t give all your students the same exercises but, because people love to be types, sort them into groups according to their astrological sun signs or according to your own private classifications, which must be given such odd names as grubers, jongers, milers, and trovers.
A judidous use of hypnosis – avoiding all the common tricks of hand-raising, staring at lights, or saying “Relax. Relax, while I count up to ten” will produce pleasant changes of feeling and the impression of attaining higher states of consciousness.
First, describe such a stage quite vividly – say, the sense of walking on air – and then have your students walk around barefooted trying not to make the slightest sound and yet giving their whole weight to the floor. Imply that the floor will soon feel like a cushion, then like water, and finally like air. Indicate a little later that there is reason to believe that something of this kind is the initial stage of levitation.
Next, be sure to have about thirty or forty different stages of progress worked out, giving them numbers, and suggest that there are still some extremely high stages beyond those numbered which can only be understood by those who have reached twenty-eight – so no point in discussing them now. After the walking-on-air gambit, try for instance having them push out hard with their arms as if some overwhelming force were pulling them. Reverse the procedure. This leads quickly to the feeling that one is not doing what one is doing and doing what one is not doing. Tell them to stay in this state while going about everyday business.
After a while let it be known that you have a rather special and peculiar background – as when some student asks, “Where did you get all this?” Well, you just picked up a thing or two in Turkestan, or “I’m quite a bit older than I look,” or say that “Reincarnation is entirely unlike what people suppose it to be.” Later, let on that you are in some way connected with an extremely select in-group. Don’t brashly claim anything. Your students will soon do that for you, and, when one hits on the fantasy that pleases you most, say, “I see you are just touching stage eighteen.”
There are two schools of thought about asking for money for your services. One is to have fees just like a doctor, because people are embarrassed if they do not know just what is expected of them. The other, used by the real high-powered tricksters, is to do everything free with, however, the understanding that each student has been personally selected for his or her innate capacity for the work (call it that), and thus be careful not to admit anyone without first putting them through some sort of hazing. Monetary contributions will soon be offered. Otherwise, charge rather heavily, making it dear that the work is worth infinitely more to oneself and to others than, say, expensive surgery or a new home. Imply that you give most of it away to mysterious beneficiaries.
As soon as you can afford to wangle it, get hold of a country house as an ashram or spiritual retreat, and put students to work on all the menial tasks. Insist on some special diet, but do not follow it yourself. Indeed, you should cultivate small vices, such as smoking, mild boozing, or, if you are very careful, sleeping with the ladies, to suggest that your stage of evolution is so high that such things do not affect you, or that only by such means can you remain in contact with ordinary mundane consciousness.
On the one hand, you yourself must be utterly free from any form of religious or parapsychological superstition, lest some other trickster should outplay you. On the other hand, you must eventually come to believe in your own hoax, because this will give you ten times more nerve. This can be done through religionizing total skepticism to the point of basic incredulity about everything – even science. After all, this is in line with the Hindu-Buddhist position that the whole universe is an illusion, and you need not worry about whether the Absolute is real or unreal, eternal or non-eternal, because every idea of it that you could form would, in comparison with living it up in the present, be horribly boring. Furthermore, you should convince yourself that the Absolute is precisely the same as illusion, and thus not be in the least ashamed of being greedy or anxious or depressed. Make it dear that we are ultimately God, but that you know it. If you are challenged to perform wonders, point out that everything is already a fabulous wonder, and to do something bizarre would be to go against your own most perfect scheme of things. On the other hand, when funny coincidences turn up, look knowing and show no surprise, especially when any student has good fortune or recovers from sickness. It will promptly be attributed to your powers, and you may be astonished to find that your very touch becomes healing, because people really believe in you. When it doesn’t work, you should sigh gently about lack of faith, or explain that this particular sickness is a very important working out of Karma which will have to be reckoned with some day, so why not now.
The reputation for supernormal powers is self-reinforcing, and as it builds up you can get more daring, such that you will have the whole power of mass self-deception working for you. But always remember that a good guru plays it cool and maintains a certain aloofness, especially from those sharpies of the press and TV whose game is to expose just about everyone as a fraud. Always insist, like the finest restaurants, that your clientele is exclusive. The very highest “society” does not deign to be listed in the Social Register.
As time goes on, allow it more and more to be understood that you are in constant touch with other centers of work. Disappear from time to time by taking trips abroad, and come back looking more mysterious than ever. You can easily find someone in India or Syria to do duty as your colleague, and take a small and select group of students on a journey which includes a brief interview with this Personage. He can talk any kind of nonsense, while you do the “translating.” When travelling with students, avoid any obvious assistance from regular agencies, and let it appear that your secret fraternity has arranged everything in advance.
Now a trickster guru is certainly an illusionist, but one might ask “What else is art?” If the universe is nothing but a vast Rorschach blot upon which we project our collective measures and interpretations, and if past and future has no real existence, an illusionist is simply a creative artist who changes the collective interpretation of life, and even improves on it. Reality is mostly what a people or a culture conceives it to be. Money, worthless in itself, depends entirely on collective faith for its value. The past is held against you only because others believe in it, and the future seems important only because we have conned ourselves into the notion that surviving for a long time, with painstaking care, is preferable to surviving for a short time with no responsibility and lots of thrills. It is really a matter of changing fashion.
Perhaps, then, a trickster may be one who actually liberates people from their more masochistic participations in the collective illusion, on the homeopathic principle of “The hair of the dog that bit you. ” Even genuine gurus set their disciples impossible psychological exercises to demonstrate the unreality of the ego, and it could be argued that they too, are unwitting tricksters, raised as they have been in cultures without disillusioning benefits of “scientific knowledge,” which, as ecologists note, isn’t working out too well. Perhaps it all boils down to the ancient belief that God himself is a trickster, eternally fooling himself by the power of maya into the sensation that he is a human being, a cat, or an insect, since no art can be accomplished which does not set itself certain rules and limitations. A fully infinite and boundless God would have no limitations, and thus no way of manifesting power or love. Omnipotence must therefore include the power of self-restriction – to the point of forgetting that it is restricting itself and thus making limitations seem real. It could be that genuine students and gurus are on the side of being fooled, whereas the phony gurus are the foolers – and one must make one’s choice.
I am proposing this problem as a kind of Zen koan, like “Beyond positive and negative, what is reality?” How will you avoid being either a fool or a fooler? How will you get rid of the ego-illusion without either trying or not trying? If you need God’s grace to be saved, how will you get the grace to get grace? Who will answer these questions if yourself is itself an illusion? Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.