Meditation’s Five Percenters and Guruhood as a Way of Earning a Living

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 11 of 19 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: The mindfulness traditions claim they’ll take you all the way to enlightenment. And we certainly have historical examples of people who are considered Buddhas or saints or something like that, who supposedly went all the way and became remarkable human beings. What we don’t have, from a Western perspective, is sort of a “percent of students who succeed” figure.

We hear about the outstanding successes, but what percentage of people who follow those paths actually get somewhere significant? 90 percent? 10 percent? We don’t know.

Student: Why don’t they have some kind of way of tracking it?

CTT: That’s a very good question. I was having a variation of this conversation with Shinzen Young, my meditation teacher friend, some years ago, about how well does this meditation work for people. He shocked me because he said, “When I teach people meditation, just about everybody will say this is good and I’m going to make it part of my life”. You know, if they’ve had a weekend or a class or something like that, they really feel like they’ve picked up an important psychological tool.

If he comes back a year later and 5 percent of them are still actually doing meditation, he feels he’s been very successful. I was shocked, because my comparison was from a Western educational point of view. If I ran a higher education school and I had a 95 percent flunk out rate after the first year…. I mean, come on. You know? A few percent, you can understand. Some people came and they really shouldn’t have been here and all that, but 95 percent?

I’d feel like there was something badly wrong with the educational system.

And I thought, this is really odd, because I think Shinzen is a really good meditation teacher. He told me no, this is not 5 percent for him, this is 5 percent for all meditation teachers he knows, including the traditional, lineage-ordained meditation teachers in Eastern settings. About 5 percent.

And not only that, it’s not worried about in the East at any rate.

The view there is that it’s karma. If it’s your karma to come around for instruction, you’ll come around. If it’s your karma to stay, you’ll stick around, but if it’s not your karma to stay, you won’t stick around. Maybe 10 lifetimes down the road you’ll come around again. Well maybe, but I found this a very convenient excuse to not look into the efficiency of your teaching.

Now, you know, is it my bias as a Westerner? If 95% of my students fail, there’s something very badly wrong with the way I’m teaching! The moral I take from that is not that various meditation teachers are bad, but that we don’t understand how to effectively teach meditation very well, and/or that lots of people get attracted to meditation who really aren’t suitable for it. But I’m more interested in how do you teach more effectively.

You were next.

Student: Yeah. I think one of the problems with those systems is that they don’t have any… When you come here, ITP, you know in five or six years you’ll have a Ph.D.; whereas if you go and you learn that practice, you don’t know how long it’s going to take. There are no guarantees and there’s no time line and there’s no sort of measurement of how far you’ve come. I think if there was a way of saying it’s going to take you three years – If you do this, it will be three years – then people would do it and you’d have a lot of graduates.


CTT: And if they graduated, they wouldn’t be paying tuition anymore…

Student: I’m sure Shinzen Young is not motivated by getting more tuition, right? He would prefer to have a lot of his students really progress with meditation, become enlightened or something?

CTT: That’s right. And he has devoted enormous effort to try to figure out ways to make the whole teaching process more effective. When we look at these spiritual systems, we have these romantic pictures of the guru, right? It’s a he, usually. He’s got a white beard. He sits on a little throne or wears a turban or something, and he looks so saintly because it’s very important that gurus fit our pictures of what saints should look like.

And the devotees surround the guru and that just lets you know that, “Wow, man, this is really something to have all these devotees.” It’s such a privilege to serve him tea. If somebody really is a fantastic teacher, teaching you spiritual things that you need to know, serving him or her tea nicely, or whatever is asked, is a tiny price to pay for that.

But I think we also have to look at the larger social situation in which it’s embedded. For some people, being a guru is making a living. And when you start making a living, you usually might like to make a nice living. Well, if your students graduate too fast and are not necessarily replaced, that’s not so good. So sometimes I feel as if there’s a deliberate attempt to hold the student back.

Now I should reveal my personal experience bias here. A few years ago I started taking a Tai Chi course, my wife and I did, because I felt it was time for me to learn some Tai Chi. The instructor was very good at his verbal explanation as to what to do, as well as personally correcting moves. But he went kind of fast.

By the third class, I was still trying to work out my mistakes on the first three steps and he was into teaching the fifteenth step. So I asked him, “Would you mind if I make a tape recording of you giving the instructions, and then I’ll have that to practice with and I won’t be practicing my mistakes?” He wouldn’t allow me to do that. Well, it’s not like I was going to sell the tape or set myself up as a Tai Chi teacher or something like that. I wanted to learn and he was preventing me from effective learning. So I stopped taking the class, because there was no point practicing my mistakes more and more thoroughly while I got more and more behind.

But sometimes I wonder about that dynamic, you know? So you do have this whole social situation and it’s complex and there’s a real spiritual element in there most of the time and then there are actual human being playing social games, making a living, etc.. Things to be aware of.

Yes. Arms and legs. I lost mine for a minute there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *