Discipleship – an idea worth ressurecting?

The dictionary says that a disciple is ‘the follower of the doctrines of a teacher or school of thought’. But this doesn’t really convey the experiential flavour of that ancient institution. In days gone by, when you took up a trade or a course of study in guild, church or university, you were apprenticed to a master. You followed their teaching in craft, curriculum or philosophy closely. No doubt you were aware that as a human being they were far from perfect, but you knew that your future success in life depended on learning as much from the master as possible in a very broad sense. This aspect of education and human development is something we have largely lost in the modern world. In the Buddhist movement I am part of we are taking some steps to reinstate this ancient tradition, in ways that suit these times. I think we have a long way to go. Not everyone likes the idea. This may be because the second, religious, meaning of the word ‘a follower of Christ’ has been widely used by analogy in our times to apply to the often gullible devotees of eastern or new age gurus. This usage tends to imply a complete self surrender to the teacher on the part of the disciple. The result is that the more ‘secular’ meaning, of being a follower of someone’s teaching, which only implies a reasonable human respect for the teacher, has been drowned in the colourful, melodramatic history of religious and esoteric cults over the last hundred years or so. Think of the Golden Dawn, Madam Blavatsky, Rajneesh – all had their so called disciples – but how much did these followers really learn?

However, turning back much further we can remember that Socrates had disciples who learned nothing more than how little they truly knew. Plotinus, in careful, measured discourses, unlocked the secrets of the ascent of the soul to the absolute to his disciples in ancient Rome.This is true discipleship, much closer to the original pre-biblical meaning of the Latin term discipulus, which simply means a student of someone’s teaching. It can be used in the context of a particular discipline, or more broadly with regard to a teacher of the ‘art of life’. For if you realize you have more to learn, that your heart is not fully matured, then surely you will be a disciple of something or someone? In the sphere of the arts the term also gets used in that traditional but non-religious manner. For example: in saying that Yeats was a disciple of Pound I mean that he learned from him poetically (as did many poets of that generation) not that Yeats slavishly followed everything Pound did. Which is just as well in the circumstances. Yeats flirted a bit with far right fascist views but never joined up.In fact, the free thinking Yeats could never have been a disciple in the strongly religious sense – he didn’t last long as a follower of Madam Blavatsky – but there was much discipleship in his life, towards Plato and Plotinus, Keats and Shelley and, in an  esoteric/imaginative sense, towards the ‘sages in god’s holy fire’ of Byzantium itself.

Another important consideration is that discipleship is a heart-process of different levels. As a Buddhist my fundamental discipleship is towards the Buddha. But I may have a human Buddhist teacher, less fundamental but still important, who is my guide and interpreter of the Buddhist path. Likewise, in the field of poetry, I may look up to powerful exemplars like Yeats who embody the path of the poet, and then in my local class with the Poetry Society, have teachers who are closer to my level but still have much to teach.

Not that discipleship of any kind is likely to be plain sailing these days. Powerful forces of self defining individualism going back to the Reformation refuse to fit in with the idea of discipleship. So one becomes more aware of these forces if one tries to think in that way. Perhaps it would helpful to think in terms of a ‘spiritual apprenticeship’ to one’s chosen teacher. In any case, discipleship for us has to be an ongoing process, not a once for all signing up. And here again one can learn from the example of poetry. If I read a poet and find their vision of the world is compelling, well I am that poet’s disciple. I have learned something, modified who I am in some small but significant way.

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