If we look at those proposing new models for spirituality, such as many of those in the Integral or related “new” spiritual movements (Ken Wilber, David Deida, Saniel Bonder, Adi Da, Andrew Cohen) we find a great deal of cultism surrounding them, even when they position themselves as stauch anti-cultists. Likewise, if we look at any number of more traditional spiritual movements, from the latest generation of popular India Gurus, such as Ammachi, Karunaguru, Sri Sri whateverhisnameis, Nityananda, etc., we find all kinds of deep problems with cultism and exploitation. Even within the neo-Advaitin Satsang movement we see cultic problems, and sheer silliness, which is of a lesser level of disturbance, but nonetheless not a good model for spirituality. And then of course there is the whole range of new-age, channeled, and occult spirituality, where almost anything goes, and one must constantly remind oneself that “buyer beware” is the standard for all interactions.
The very notion that “new is better” needs to be called into question. In many respects it is not. There's certainly much that is corrupt and cultic about old systems of spirituality, but one has to appreciate how well-oiled many of them were within the context of their cultures, and that removing them from that context often leaves behind many of the safety mechanisms that actually protected people from being exploited by cults. There are a great many traditional maxims in Hinduism, for example, that can help identify genuine Gurus and discriminate them from those who are of suspect morality and ethics and lack real qualifications to teach. Very few modern spiritual teachers could pass the tests those cultures create for spiritual teachers. And likewise, those cultures also created qualifications and tests for spiritual aspirants, which weeded out those not well suited to the seriousness of the spiritual path, and kept people from straying beyond their real aspirations into esoteric practices they were not suited for.
Among those guidelines for both teacher and student were some very specific rules for living that might seem to us to be rather ascetical and hard to live up to, but if we look at them more closely we can see the wisdom of them. The first and in some ways the most obvious rule was that money and sex should not be involved in spiritual pursuits. Ramakrishna famously warned that “women and gold” were the great dangers that all spiritual aspirants should stay clear of. Most modern spiritual teachers and seekers tend to ignore this injunction, referring to it as antiquated, not in keeping with the times, and ignoring the necessity and centrality of both money and sex to human life, and especially modern human culture. It turns out that they do so at great peril and risk, and few of them are able to navigate thought these waters successfully.
If there's a lesson in the experience of modern cultism it is that Ramarkishna was basically correct. Wherever we see commerce introduced into the world of spirituality, we find corruption, exploitation, degradation of morality and ethics, and spiritual teachings and practices become so corroded by the needs of commerce as to become indistinguishable from any other sales category of modern economic life. The notion that spirituality should be set apart from such things is treated with contempt and derision. The notion that sacred relationship should actually be cultivated is considered an anachronism unsuited to the needs and qualities of our age. And yet, if we look at the evidence dispassionately, and without constantly deferring to the commercial needs of the marketplace, I think we can see that this influence has had a deadly and deadening influence upon everything it has touched.
I am not merely referring to the most exploitive of Gurus who attempt to drain off the fiaancial resources of their devotees. I refer just as much to the whole range of commercial enterprises, most of them quite legitimate in many respects, that surrounds spirituality in our time. I refer to the endless number of spiritual teachers who charge money for their services, for their “coaching” of others, for their seminars, programs, books, audio and videotapes, for “readings”, for channeled services, for ashrams and centers and retreat facilities. The list goes on. Many of these enterprises are, on the face of it, even justifiable. Certainly we cannot expect books and tapes to be free. Certainly if someone gives a public lecture, there will be expenses that have to be paid for. And such people have to make a living somehow, and if they have to work an ordinary job, they won't have much time left to teach.
All these explanations make a certain amount of practical sense. And yet, in the course of making these spiritual pursuits into a career, a business, a machine that is dependent first and foremost on a cash-flow machine, the spirituality becomes corrupted by the entire process. This is why the traditional admonition for those who become spiritual teachers is to take vows of poverty, and not to profit from their teachings. They are permitted to accept small donations that are enough to give them the bare basics of life, but not much more. Nor is it expected that they would need more than that. In this way, a basic degree of integrity is maintained for these teachers, and most of all, for their relationship to those they teach, which is relieved of the whole obligation to act as businessmen serving their clients, but as the living embodiment of spiritual wisdom itself.
Once in a while you come across people like this. A few years ago when I was still spending time in Marin, I was invited by a friend to a small gathering for Prem Avadhoot, a close disciple and attendant to Rang Avadhut, who was known to me through the lore of Adidam as one of the most interesting saints of 20th century India. Rang Avadhoot is not well known even in India, yet was a very impressive figure in the area around Ganeshpuri, and occasionally visited with Swami Muktananda where he by chance met young Franklin Jones (Adi Da) on his first visit to India. According to Jones, it was actually Rang Avadhoot whose penetrating glance sent him into Nirvikalpa Samadhi near the end of that first trip, and he thus occupies a high place in the Adidam pantheon. I knew little about him other than what I'd learned through Adidam.
Meeting Prem Avadhoot was a very different experience than the kind of thing one finds in Adidam, however. Prem Avadhoot was a very unassuming, rather frail old man at this point, in his seventies, but still very lively and extremely friendly. In fact, when he introduced himself to the gathering of about 50 people in a large private living room in Mill Valley, his first words were, “Don't think of me as a guru or a teacher, relate to me as a family friend”. He proceeded to describe his relationship to Rang Avadhoot, who lived a life of great simplicity and integrity, as one of loving and ordinary intimacy. He made no claims about himself, and he explained that he didn't even have much of a spiritual teaching. His God, he said, was humanity itself, and his practice was to love and worship human beings as God, as a servant to God. In accord with this, he would accept no financial donations. His travel expenses had been paid for by a wealthy Marinite (the host of the gathering), but beyond that, he had taken vows of poverty and lived in ordinary simplicity. In his home village he was known as “the loving saint” who spent all his time simply being with people, loving then, acting literally as a family friend, spending time with children and animals, and not really trying to make anything more of himself than that. To him, this was his teaching – how he actually lived and related to others. In appreciation of this, he gave everyone at the gathering a small gift, personally, as they come up to his chair and were embraced by him. I received a small cloth, which I used on my meditation altar still, and a laminated card that had a number of brief aphorisms from Rang Avadhoot, which were touching in their simplicity and loving attitude. I got to spend some time with him after the gathering, and he invited anyone who was there to simply sit with him in his room.
I didn't get the sense from Prem Avadhoot that he was a great non-dual realizer, but he didn't pretend to be either. He was a simple bhakti, a lover of God who understood that to love God meant to love others unconditionally. This is what his Guru Rang Avadhoot had taught him to do. He was living what to him was a simple, traditional life of renunciation, but it was immensely full and happy and loving, and he didn't need anything more than that. He didn't need to make money, he didn't need to travel to the US, it just worked out that way through the generosity of a patron. He didn't need to create a following or a movement or an organization around any of this. He kept it all very human and small and intimate. No money exchanged hands. There was no fee at the door, not even a bowl for “donations”. You could see from his body and clothing that he simply had no use for money or luxuries. He was spiritually alive, awake, and full of love, and he just lived in a natural manner, keeping that love pure and untouched by the commercial life.
As he describes his life:
"I eat when I feel hunger. I sleep when I feel to sleep. An unhappy happening makes me weep too. When occasion demands, I laugh aloud and freely.At the time of silence, I go into deep silence.Whatever I do, I do it as a worship to and of God."Anyway, if there's a “model” for the un-cult, Prem Avadhut is one of the best examples I could offer. Unfortunately, he's not easy to find, since he doesn't promote himself. I don't think he even has a website. It was sheer chance that I happened to know the right people to be invited to meet him. But that also is part of the un-cult model It works off of basic human intimacies, and the notion that God will find a way to touch you through people like Prem Avadhut if you simply allow Grace to guide you.
~ Prem Avadhoot Bapuji
Of course, one can say that Prem Avadhoot is the product of an long Indian tradition that we don't have here. That is hardly an excuse, however, in that if the west is in the process of creating new spiritual traditions - “cutting edge” as some claim – why not create a genuine tradition, rather than a commercialized one? Why not, if we are to be inspired by eastern philosophical traditions like Advaita, also be inspired by the living traditions of loving saints like Premananda? Why adopt the modern commercial model for virtually every spiritual teacher, teaching, path or tradition? I think we all know the real answer to that, and it isn't a pretty one. People want to get theirs. They don't value God and human love above commerce. In some sense, we can't even say that most of these spiritual teachers have been corrupted by money, because they never achieved any real degree of spiritual integrity in the first place. One simply can't do that when one's teachers are in business for themselves as well. People tend to model themselves on those who teach them. It's no wonder that all the teachers who came in touch with Adi Da in some way adopted a commercial model. It's certainly not unique to Adidam of course, it's present in almost every spiritual path one can find these days.
When Ramana Maharshi went to Arunachula, he renounced everything, and survived only by the help of some local sadhus. Slowly, over the years, an ashram grew up around him, but Ramana would never allow it to be commercialized in the least. He forbid anyone to solicit donations, and he and his fellow renunciates lived on the spontaneous kindness of local people, who would donate food or supplies as needed. Ramana said repeatedly that they should simply rely on Grace to bring them sustenance, and this occurred, not in any great avalanche of support, but enough to keep the ashram alive, and slowly growing in a simple way over the years through patronage. Ramana felt that if what he was doing was genuinely worthwhile, the support would appear, and if not, so be it.
The same ought to be true for the modern western spiritual movements and teachings. There should simply be no commercial enterprises associated with spirituality, aside from the very basic needs of publications and occasional places of worship or meditation. The basis for any spiritual “movement” should simply be human intimacy and love, people sharing with one another the fruits of their own spiritual practice, without money changing hands. There should be no charge for “satsang” or teachings of any kind – except, as needed, some books and publications. But even these should not be heavily promoted as some kind of commercial enterprise, hawked like late-night infomercial products advertising salvation. Genuine spiritual teachers should inspire private patronage for the most part, and if they do not, they shouldn't expect to be supported by “consumers” of spirituality.
It's not merely the cult-model of spiritual organization which needs to be done away with, it's the entire commercial model of salesmen and consumers. Tony Robbins is not what we want the future of spirituality to be about. These people and their emulators (I'm talking to you, Ken Wilber) have no genuine spiritual teachings to offer, they only have something to sell to people who are bereft of the spiritual. But like fast-food, these things do not satisfy. They don't provide the human intimacy and love that are the real signs of genuine un-cultic spirituality. They are trying to sell something which can't be sold, which can't be bought, but which is only excluded by the effort to create such an enterprise.
I have nothing against business, money, commerce (or sex for that matter), but it simply is not part of spirituality. If anything, spirituality is a way of disciplining and guiding our use of money and the ethical participation in commerce, which is difficult enough within its own world. But there's a natural hierarchy here, and it only goes one way. Money should not dictate our spirituality, or shape it in any way. Spirituality should, if anything, dictate how we earn and use money. If we find ourselves shaping our spirituality into a money-making enterprise, we are turning it upside down and in effect reversing its power, turning it into something which degrades us rather than elevates us. This happens even on the smallest of levels, when we ask for $5 at the door for some spiritual “talk”. Most spiritual teachings can, like Prem Avadhoot's, be delivered for free in someone's living room. If it requires a giant hall, it's probably gotten out of hand and will no longer serve anyone's genuine spiritual interests.
So I would suggest a series of informal “rules” for un-cultic spirituality, which basically revolves around the idea of spirituality always remaining small, human, intimate, and personal, and never large, impersonal, and oriented towards a mass audience. And of course, always free. If it can't be free, it simply shouldn't be done. If patronage is required, it should be unsolicited. One must have faith that if something is worthy of patronage, it will appear at the appropriate time and place. In this way, whatever spiritual teachings do thrive and survive, will do so with their integrity intact. And the people associated with them at every level with strive to protect them from the corruptions that occur in commercial enterprises or large organizational platforms.
For many current spiritual paths, this would amount to bringing them to an end. Which I heartily endorse, even if I have few expectations that they will do so willingly. The best we can hope for, then, is that these kinds of ideas gain ground the spiritual underground the world over, slowly, one person at a time, through human intimacies, to the point where people simply don't participate in the old cultic commercial models. If people simply don't join groups like Adidam or Wilber's Integral Institute or pay for seminars and lectures and so on, those things will simply die out. That doesn't mean that such teachings have to come to an end. They will simply be forced to become human and intimate and genuine, rather than corrupted by business enterprises and all the aspirations of worldly empire their leaders have become infatuated with. If they can't survive without their commercial apparatus, then they don't deserve to survive.
In general, then, we need to find a way to cultivate and value genuine forms of spiritual teaching, based on the model of renunciation rather than of commercial success. By renunciation I don't necessarily mean living a life of dismal poverty and asceticism. The model of ancient rishis was not one of poverty and the life of the sadhu. The ancient rishis were householders, with wives, children, families, and businesses – usually farmers given the economies o the ancient world, but frequently participants in all kinds of trades. The Tibetan Buddhist Mahasiddhas were ordinary people – cobblers, farmers, blacksmiths, tradesmen – who nonetheless realized the highest spiritual truths. They did not leave those trades in order to become spiritual careerists making a living off their students and devotees. And yet, of course, over the years Tibetan Buddhism became corrupted by those trappings, and that commercialization. Nonetheless, the real spirituality of Buddhism lives on outside the monasteries and the trappings of powerful lineages. The scattering of these Buddhists to the winds, however brutal it may have been, has been of benefit in many ways. And yet, coming to the west they find the temptations of commercialization even greater than before.
I can't be lecturing these traditionalists who have long ago become wedded to power and money and prestige to let it all go. Mainstream religion in whatever place it has taken hold has tended to become corrupted by power and money, and that isn't going to change soon. It just doesn't need to be supported by commercial enterprises of any kind. The selling of empowerments and blessings is an old business that every religious culture has indulged in at one time or another. It of course leads to institutionalized cults in which the worst kinds of abuses can be not only tolerated, but even praised. Ending that pattern isn't going to happen overnight. And fighting it won't change it either. It's only by not support, and the encouragement of a different approach to spirituality altogether, that this pattern will change.
About seven years ago I went to see Ammachi at her San Ramon ashram. It was an interesting experience. She's a genuine spiritual figure, with much shakti and presence, and I'm sure she does a lot of good. But merely entering the hall where she gives her hugs was quite a jarring experience. Arranged on all the sides of the hall were innumerable stalls selling this item or that, and worst of all, a man on a loudspeaker talking endlessly about this or that way of donating to this or that cause by buying various things. I found it amusing, but also bizarre. What exactly was the point of this group? It's wonderful that Ammachi gives hugs to people, but the whole setting is not one of personal love, but of mass commercial enterprise and vast organizational goals. Rather than giving attention to the love of God within the context of intimate human relationships, all attention was on Ammachi herself, who hardly anyone could actually have an intimate relationship with. The pattern was similar to that of Adidam. In a sense, this diminished Ammachi's spiritual power and influence, rather than enhancing it. And it made even those who were close and intimate with her, as with Adi Da, into cultic devotees rather than genuine intimates. The sheer size of her organization made the many “renunciates” in her organization into the usual human sacrifices to God, the cannon fodder for some greater purpose that never quite materializes, but is always justified because she is taken to be God Incarnate, and devotion to her becomes devotion to God. Those of us who were in Adidam know the drill. What is lost in all this is the kind of actual God-loving that one finds around much humbler spiritual teachers like Prem Avadhut, whose claims are much smaller but whose actual effect is much more meaningful.
I guess I've hardly touched upon the topic of sex. Perhaps another time. In brief, however, the same principle applies. Despite all the fancy talk about sexual tantra, sex and spiritual teaching are best kept apart, just as with money. There certainly is a spiritual dimension to sexuality that must be honored and cultivated, but it's really just about the intimate love one has with one's partner, and it has no particular place outside that sacred space. Again, when we mix sex with spiritual teachers, it only corrupts both. We can see that in spades in Adidam, but also everywhere else, including traditional religion, new age groups, sexual-spiritual therapy groups, Tibetan lamas getting off on their students, and all the various hokey-pokey that goes on at all levels of the spiritual enterprise. It tends to be the case that money and sex end up in the same mix, when there's a strong commercializing force at work. The games of money and power inevitably lead to sex games getting played out, and this tends to demean all of them
I'll probably keep coming back to this whole issue a number of times. I just want to make clear that I'm not suggesting some kind of puritanical ethic that is either anti-money or anti-sex. Quite the opposite. I'd simply like to see the process of spirituality made sacred, set apart, and not debased by financial or sexual desiring. That actually frees us up to find the right guidance and guidelines for engaging in business and sexual relations with spiritual force, because our spirituality is not bound up in them. In other words, it's the route to becoming genuinely non-puritanical. When sex gets mixed up with spiritual teachers, it generally becomes weird, secretive, and exploitive. So it's best to keep them apart, if merely as a healthy discipline, just as it is with money.