A Better Master

October 11, 2009
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


There is a man at my gym who fascinates me, but not in a good way. No matter what time of the day or night that I go, and no matter what day of the week, he is there. I call him Muscle Man in my mind, and I am both impressed and horrified by the way he has over-developed the muscles in his upper body. His biceps are like this, and his torso is huge and bulging. His neck is the circumference of a slim person's thigh.  He doesn't so much walk as lope like an ape. He is quite short -- maybe five feet tall, and I am guessing that he is overcompensating for his lack of height by building such huge musculature. 

Part of me admires his discipline in working so hard to develop the body I assume he wants to have, but I also feel sorry for him because I think he looks freaky and unhappy. I believe, because I have seen him working with one, that Muscle Man has been working with a trainer to get this physique. And I think to myself, "He needs a new trainer." It seems to me that someone isn't doing right by this man. Someone -- and some ideal --  is receiving his money, his respect and his daily discipline and allegiance, and --forgive me for judging from a distance --  but it doesn't look like it's to his benefit. 

Of all the ills in the world, some over-pumped up guy in Hanover, Massachusetts is not at the top of anyone's list of concerns.  It's what Muscle Man represents that keeps me wondering about him; and I'm still trying to figure out what I think he represents.  Part of it is his loyalty to an abusive master of a kind.  Part of it is probably my frustration with our culture that is so obsessed with the development of our physical selves that we often fail to acknowledge the equal need to develop our inner lives and spiritual selves.   (But that's a sermon for another time.)

Another person who fascinated me in a similarly negative way was Michael Jackson, who repeatedly put himself in the hands and under the knives of plastic surgeons in an effort to craft the face he thought he wanted. With all his money, I'm sure Jackson could afford the very best doctors.  He trusted their expertise. And yet they butchered him. He wound up a grotesque -- a sad man with a plastic visage, a nose tip so pointed and tiny it hurt just to look at it, eyes and eyebrows pulled back so tight and up so high that he seemed permanently shocked.  And maybe he was. Maybe that was the face that matched his inner condition.  I don't know.  Michael Jackson served a cruel internal master (one that was instilled in him from a very young age by a perfectionist father and by the entertainment industry). It seems to me that he compounded that painful servitude by willfully doing to his external self the same injury that was done to his emotional self.

We often have no idea what masters us. Such influences begin early and run deep, and often unconsciously, within us (and within families and communities).

Such claims the masters and experts make -- both the old and the contemporary gurus:

"Read my book to learn The 7 Steps to Success."

"Watch my television show and learn how to live."

"Follow me, and you will know peace."

"Give Jesus your life, and you can be saved."

"Become a devotee of Guru Mai and experience utter bliss."

"Practice the way of the Buddha, and achieve enlightenment."

One time, a young man asked Jesus this question: "Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"  And Jesus responded, "Take everything you have and give it to the poor." That didn't go over so well, the Bible reports. 

We may look for masters, but when we find them, we are torn about whether or not to follow them.  How far? How much? Should I pay for the whole year program, or just spring for the weekend seminar? Thanks for the advice, the guidance, the teaching, but I think I'll try it my own way for now.

"What a piece of work is man." What a project this life is. We are given a body and a character and set of genes and circumstances at our birth, and  because we don't always know what we're doing, it is very typical for us to seek the advice of experts.   Some of do it openly, some of us do it covertly, sneaking books into the house, covertly listening to tapes in the car, sitting with a combination of awe and suspicion before the television guru who both attracts and repels us, thumbing through the pages of sacred texts with both yearning and defensive hearts to see if there is anything in there for us.  We yearn, we yearn for wisdom.  We want a fix, and why not? Fashioning a meaningful and whole life is difficult!  We want a direction.  We want operating instructions.  There is no shame in that. 

The shame is that we get so little guidance that helps us determine which path to trust, and which- - if any -- master to apprentice ourselves to.

Experts, masters, gurus, coaches -- some people who claim that title have honorably earned it and some have not.  Another question that came to Jesus another time was this one, asked him by the chief priests and scribes.  "By whose authority do you do these things?" they asked.  Good question. By whose authority does anyone deserve our trust as a teacher of wisdom or spiritual development? I suppose if Oprah had been around to give Jesus her endorsement in the first century, that question might never have come to him.

What I want to ask you is this:  if we are covenanted here to engage in the work of spiritual growth together, how is that going for you?  Who helps you with it? What group, what individual, what institution?  I hope that the church helps, certainly. I hope that, as your pastor, you consider me a resource.  But out there in the marketplace of gurus and gods competing for your attention and allegiance, are you called to follow any? 

Has anyone ever suggested to you that to do so might be a good thing?

I have been a Unitarian Universalist all my life; we are a religious tradition that prides itself on freedom of conscience and a certain kind of rugged individualism.  All of my life in our congregations I learned how to be a critical thinker, and to regard all authority with a degree of suspicion.  What I did not learn was how to give myself wholly to any spiritual path or belief system -- to have an ecstatic union with God, to trust mystical experiences that I have been fortunate enough to have, or to be obedient to any tradition, teacher or divinity.

These ideas were just not part of my upbringing.  If anything, I was given the opposite message all of my life, which was "Smart people don't need such things." Or "rational people don't have such experiences." And finally, "Strong people don't need any master to follow."

Yes,  but what if strong people decide of their own free will, voluntarily, that they would like to become a disciple or follower of a spiritual master? What if a smart person wants, even if he or she does not need, to be obedient to tradition?

Is that okay?

I hope it is.  It had better be! If one of our UU Principles is to support each other in the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning," it stands to reason that that search may lead some of us to embrace a particular path and even to disciple ourselves to a spiritual master.  My colleague James Ford of Providence, Rhode Island is a Zen master, for instance. Barbara Merritt of Worcester has a guru whose name I have never learned. I call myself follower of  Master Jesus, with a strong secondary reliance on the teachings and insights of Carl Jung.  Stuart Twite, in addition to being a Christian, is a devoted disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other 19th century Unitarians.

Why not just call these people teachers or mentors?

I'll tell you why, for me:

I have been fortunate to have many wonderful teachers and mentors in my life.  A master, however, is singular because it is only the master whom I would trust and respect enough to radically transform my inner life by following his or her example.  My life has been influenced by many teachers whose ideas have inspired and benefited me.  I am grateful to them.  A master, however, is a person or ideal whose wisdom resonates so deeply within me that I know it to be a worthy instructor of my soul.

I have found that when I consciously choose my master, I am less unconsciously mastered by forces that choose me.  I learned this from Dr. Jung, actually – that there are powerful unconscious energies and charged symbols at work in the universe – what he called archetypes – that activate our psychological complexes and cause us to, for lack of a better term, "act out."

Here is how Ralph Waldo Emerson described what I am trying to say:

"A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming."

Think about that for yourself. Think about that for your children. Think about that for your community. Think about that for our nation.  What are we really worshiping?? What are we therefore, becoming? What is mastering us? Is this the master we would choose, or has it chosen us?

I came across a quote awhile ago in a book by Eugene Peterson called A Long Obedience In the Same Direction: Discipleship In An Instant Age.  He writes, "The Christian is a person who recognizes that our real problem is not in achieving freedom but in learning service under a better master."   I think this quote is really inspiring whether one is a Christian or not.  First of all, it says "better master," not "perfect master." We are humans, and our knowledge and perspective are always imperfect.  There is no sense in seeking a perfect master, for no such thing exists.  But what a radical thought, what a beautiful thing, to realize that we can freely choose, and freely apprentice ourselves to better masters so that the lesser ones have less power to unconsciously dominate our lives and to impede our progress on the way to becoming the more whole and loving people we seek to be.

I will close with a story about a master and a lesson. I hope it won't offend you.  It exemplifies for me the qualities I seek in a master: a combination of enlightenment, humor and the ability to directly puncturing my ego when necessary.  Here is the story (source, internet):

Su Shi (1036-1101), also known as Su Dongpo was an avid student of Buddhist teachings. He was quick-witted and humorous; as a Zen Buddhism follower he was very serious and self-disciplined. He often discussed Buddhism with his [master], Zen Master Foyin. The two lived across the river from one another.

Following is an interesting and famous story about him and Zen Master Foyin.

One day, Su Dongpo felt inspired and wrote the following poem:

I bow my head to the heaven within heaven
Hairline rays illuminating the universe
The eight winds cannot move me
Sitting still upon the purple golden lotus

The "eight winds" in the poem referred to praise, ridicule, honor, disgrace, gain, loss, pleasure and misery – interpersonal forces of the material world that drive and influence the hearts of men. Su Dongpo was saying that he has attained a higher level of spirituality, where these forces no longer affect him.

Impressed by himself, Su Dongpo sent a servant to hand-carry this poem to Foyin. He was sure that [the master] would be equally impressed. When Foyin read the poem, he immediately saw that it was both a tribute to the Buddha and a declaration of spiritual refinement. Smiling, the Zen Master wrote "fart" on the manuscript and had it returned to Su Dongpo.

Su Dongpo was expecting compliments and a seal of approval. When he saw "fart" written on the manuscript, he was shocked . He burst into anger: "How dare he insult me like this? Why that lousy old monk! He's got a lot of explaining to do!"

Full of indignation, he rushed out of his house and ordered a boat to ferry him to the other shore as quickly as possible. He wanted to find Foyin and demand an apology. However, Foyin's door closed. On the door was a piece of paper, for Su Dongpo. The paper had following two lines:

The eight winds cannot move me
One fart blows me across the river.

One of the signs of the good master is this: even when teaching us the hard lessons, they make us feel held in an embrace of an immense affection for even the most ridiculous parts of ourselves.