Let me start by saying I had no guru or teacher (living or dead) that gave me, lead me, or otherwise helped me to awaken. I just read a whole lot of books on various spiritual topics and did many different kinds of practices, only to spontaneously wake up one day and realize something totally different from what I had read previously. So based on my experience, I would have to say – no…a guru is not required to awaken.
Could a guru help? That is a totally different question. The answer is possibly.
Let us say you are trying to get to the top of a mountain. There are many ways to get to the top. You could even attempt to get there on your own and may very well succeed. However, if you had a guide who knew the terrain and the dangerous ground, the guide could take you around possible pit falls and dangers and help you up the mountain more quickly and safely.
The value of the guide is that the guide is familiar with the destination (top of the mountain), you current location on the mountain, what are best paths up the mountain from where you are, and what dangers lie on each path. A truly exceptional guide may even get an understanding of your current condition and preferences, and then suggest the best path for you to the destination. A less exceptional guide will simply take you up the mountain by the path the guide knows best.
So a living guru (i.e. person) is one who has already awakened and points the way for others. If they are not awakened, then following their advice may be more harm than good. You would not hire a guide to take you up a mountain that the guide has never climbed. They would not know what they are really doing and may mistakenly lead you into pit falls and dangerous ground.
Awakening is a more difficult “destination.” You can not be led there, but only pointed in the right direction…at best. Furthermore, there really isn’t a need to take a journey to get there. Everything needed is already here. Like a bird that has been caged too long, and now that the door is wide open…refuses to fly free. You are already free, but you just don’t know it yet. Instead, you remain “trapped” within the cage of your own thoughts, beliefs, and ignorance.
I can think of ways that a guru or teacher could indirectly help a seeker. However, the danger of giving any guidance is that it then becomes a spiritual practice that the seeker performs. Often, the best pointers involve asking the seekers to inquire within or just be still. Exercises or doings of any kind create paths and journeys that could take decades to complete. I know of people who have been meditating for decades and still wonder why they haven’t awakened. Any doing or exercise has this pit fall…it could become something to do and that doing (in the end) delays waking up. In the end, it is not what you do that brings awakening…it is what you cease to do.
Being in the presence of a guru or teacher may be of help because we are subtly affected by our environments and people around us. Have you ever entered a room where the stress was so thick it you could feel it? Ever notice how you to become tight and start stressing being in that environment?
Likewise, being in the presence of someone who is silent and still could bring you into a state of silence and stillness. Once you leave, your state will likely be lost as you start doing and seeking again. Sometimes people go to satsangs (i.e. sit with gurus and teachers) and later say that when they are in satsang they feel peace and joy…and the next day it seems to be gone. That peace and joy was likely conveyed via the environment you were in. When you leave this environment, you fall back into normal awareness.
It is like how tuning forks of the same musical key will start vibrating if one is struck with a mallet. The vibration in one tuning fork causes the others to vibrate due to resonance. This is why our environments and the kind of people we hang around with are so important.
Sitting with a guru or teacher who is silent and still has value because being silent and still is an environment in which it is easier for awakening to occur. There is a pit fall with this too, because some people become “satsang junkies.” They need to go so they feel good (joy and peace). It is their fix. Such dependence is not good, because the guru’s role is to show you that the peace and joy is ever within you. The guru’s role is to show you that you do not need him or her. You don’t need to come to satsang to feel it.
Lastly, it is because of this resonance (being silent and still) that some gurus and teachers do not speak at all. It is all conveyed through silence and stillness. Often, words just get in the way (of silence and stillness).