Sunday, December 12, 2010

Heaven and Hell in the Guru-Devotee Relationship

Continuing the debate on the esoteric and exoteric dimensions of the Guru-devotee relationship from my last post, Elias makes a reply that sidesteps the basic issues I tried to discuss by creating an either/or dichotomy. To hear him tell it, one has either the option of "mere adherence to traditional obligations and devotional submission to scripture and culture" or "the freedom and wildness of God-as-Guru." Nowhere does he seem to comprehend the notion that these two might go together, that the freedom of both the Guru and the devotee is expressed through discipline, devotion, and submission, and surrender to the instruction of both Guru and scriptural and cultural tradition, and that this is seen as the path of freedom, not enslavement to some sort of fascist totalitarian system aimed at crushing the spirit or imposing mental concepts upon the liberated consciousness.

In many respects, this is just a replay of a debate that has been going on among westerners since the 1960s, when eastern religion and Gurus first entered into the western mind en masse, and westerners began trying to develop actual spiritual practices based on eastern traditions. A whole lot of experimentation went on there, and Adi Da's community was a small but significant aspect of that. Fifty years later we are still try to iron out the mess that resulted, not just in Adidam, but throughout the east-west spiritual confluence. A large part of that mess is the result of precisely the kind of either/or thinking that Elias is arguing from in his post, this notion that because liberation is the goal, discipline and adherence to traditional instruction is actually an obstacle to be overcome, and those who value these things are somehow opposed to the true "spirit" of enlightenment. 

I think most people who have stuck with the koan of spiritual practice and instruction have come to see that there is no easy or simplistic answer, and that "freedom" does not mean the trashing of traditional instruction in favor of the "wildness of the living God". The living God, it turns out, is a very disciplined and conservative dude. Discipline is freedom's best friend, and submission goes hand in hand with enlightenment. There is of course no single course of instruction or discipline for everyone, we all have to find out for ourselves what works, and choose our "Ishta Devatma" to submit to, but without submission to instruction, there is also no maturity and growth. We can see that in many people who refuse to surrender or submit, but instead create their own world of spiritual truth, largely in their own minds, and submit only to that. They show the signs of unfortunate immaturity, petulance, even outrage at those who remind us that things are no so simple as they think. They have the wrong idea of what maturity is - some kind of brazen standing up against authority, rather than the bowing down to the heart-truth.

There's a great old Zen story about this, in which a Samurai warrior approaches a Zen master because he wants to know what heaven and hell are. The Zen master just sits in silence as the Samurai rages on for a very long time, demanding answers to his questions, until finally he becomes so angry at the Zen Master's  non-response that he takes out his sword, raises it above the Zen master's head, and yells out, "Show me heaven and show me hell, or I'll cut your head off!" The Zen master looks up at him calmly, pointing to the Samurai's contorted facial expression, and says, "That is hell." The Samurai is instantly stopped in his tracks, and horrified at his own state, he falls at the Zen master's feet begging his forgiveness. The Zen master than softly continues, "And this is heaven."

Anyone remotely familiar with early Buddhist practice, in Buddha's own lifetime, is aware of the tremendous numbers of rules and regulations governing virtually everything a bhikkhu might do. Similar sets of rules and obligations can be found in Sanatana Dharma, in Taoism, Christianity, Islam, you name it. I'm not about to defend all of these things, as many are certainly just rote obligations that can be enacted without genuine inner submission or understanding, but it's not as if they had no enlightened purpose from the outset. Buddha was certainly not motivated to suppress the spirit of his disciples with the heavy burden of empty tradition. There was a real purpose behind these disciplines, and it was an esoteric one, not to be engaged merely by beginners, it was to be engaged even by the most enlightened, as a sign of their freedom, of their real transcendence of the limitations of this world, and as sign of their awakened life.

Western non-dualists are rather famous for their lack of interest in formal discipline (and I count myself among these), but then we have some rather extraordinary counter-examples. Nisargadatta, for example, is one of the most popular of Advaitic teachers who taught westerners, to whom he made no formal demands for discipline or practice. And yet, Nisargadatta himself did puja every day on an image of his own Guru. He was often asked why he did this, and he said it was not at all necessary, it didn't change his enlightenment in any way, it was just that his Guru had asked him to do puja to him every day, and so he continued the practice throughout the whole of his life. It never crossed his mind, after his enlightenment, to stop doing the puja because he didn't need it anymore. He did it freely and happily, simply because his Guru had asked him to do it. And he continued that practice until the day he died.

It's important to recognize that the traditional Advaitic path is not some hippie anarchism in which all one does is go around singing about Oneness or saying "neti neti". Sankara created an entire system of highly disciplined practice involving intensive study of the scriptures, meditation, devotional practice, all kinds of instruction from the Guru, and of course very strict living conditions and disciplines suited for a monastic life. There were further disciplines for householders and those of every caste. And that's pretty much how the whole of Sanatana Dharma is. Elias like to call India "permissive", but again, this is just a westerner's misunderstanding. The modern west is a permissive culture, but India is not. India is very diverse and very tolerant of differences, but it is not permissive. It's actually rather strict and rule-based, with everyone's role in life very much defined and restricted. That has changed somewhat in modern times now that the caste system is breaking down, but the general character of Sanatana Dharma is never one of permissiveness. It's one of a great many disciplines and regulations that are rooted of course in religious purposes.

Not all of that is about esoteric purposes, of course, but the principle tends to be held even more closely when it comes to esoteric practice regardless of what sect of Sanatana Dharma one practices in. Esoteric practice in India under a Guru has a huge number of rules and regulations, and of course there is latitude given, at least for the Guru and the sect to set those rules as they see fit, but not for the disciple to pick and choose as he would like once he has been given diksha (initiation) or taken sannyas (renunciation).

Of course, so much of this is simply second nature to Indians that a lot of it doesn't need to be said. Reading the accounts of the life of Sri Ramakrishna or Yogananda or Ramana Maharshi one doesn't encounter a lot of discussion of these kinds of things because so much of it is merely taken for granted. There's just an understanding in India of how one lives and approaches a Guru and how one relates to a Guru that is simply part of the culture. The problem with westerners is that it isn't part of their culture and they don't think it matters, when it actually does. They think they can just be loosey-goosey hippies, get some pithy sayings, some shaktipat, some blissful meditation, and then groove their way to the Living God. They don't understand that what is keeping them unenlightened isn't some superficial mental misunderstanding, it's the whole course of their life and attention that has created deep vasanas and samskaras in their consciousness at every level, and that this has to be purified and undone, or there is no real spiritual growth and maturity. This requires real submission, real discipline, and real surrender of these vasanas and samskaras. What ends up happening with a lot of westerners is that they merely put a spiritual face on their vasanas and samskaras, and end up hardly changing or growing at all. Especially those who see discipline and submission to rules and obligations as somehow anti-spiritual in nature.

Someone like Ramana Maharshi represents something of a break from tradition, at least in some respects, and yet he is looked upon by some as the purest representative of the Advaitic tradition. Elias quotes Jung in praising Ramana in this manner, without mentioning that in some respects this is duplicitous praise, in that Jung uses that very rational to dismiss Ramana and his teachings as unsuited for westerners, as somehow representing a "foreign" influence that is even dangerous to us. Adi Da made similarly "dismissive praise" of Ramana by equating him with some kind of "ancient tradition of spirituality", which of course is not suited for modern times and modern people, for whom something new and of course requiring a new kind of Sat-Guru was required, and lucky for us Adi Da himself just happened to fit the bill.

The truth is that Ramana didn't consider himself an Advaitist, and didn't even consider himself a Hindu for that matter. He didn't have much religious education before his awakening, and he didn't associate it with Sanatana Dharma. His Guru was Arunachula Siva, the form of Shiva that was embodied, to him at least, in the sacred hill near Tiruvanamalai, where he spent the rest of his life. Ramana did get some education in the Sanatana tradition over the years, and came to love many aspects of it, but he always reminded his devotees that he was from "outside the tradition", and that he was "atiashrama", meaning belonging to none of the traditional Hindu castes or social regulations. He didn't honor the traditional Guru system, and refused to give formal diksha to any of his devotees. Nor did he even advocate the kind of disciplined practiced one would find in a traditional Advaitic math. He wouldn't let his ashram be run in the usual manner, with strict schedules and rules of service and so forth. That doesn't mean his devotees weren't disciplined, but he prefered a more natural kind of life. By western standards it was certainly rather austere, but by Indian standards it was something many found hard to take seriously. Many of the other sadhus who lived in the area referred to Ramanashram jokingly as "that bunch of householders on the hill", because they didn't live by the standards expected of traditional sadhus.

And yet, it's not as if Ramana didn't require discipline and maturity from his devotees, or the real transcendence of their vasanas and samskaras. He just had his own understanding of how that process worked that wasn't like a giant cookie-cutter churning out batches of the enlightened. One of the best accounts of how Ramana actually taught his devotees is contained in the biography of Annamalai Swami, Living By the Words of Bhagavan, written by David Godman and available through his website (currently out of print, but I think about to come back into print within a few weeks, I've heard). In this account, Annamalai makes it clear that his sadhana was primarily about doing whatever Ramana told him to do, submitting to him so fully that Ramana's grace was able to work its magic and relieve him of all his vasanas and samskaras, and awaken to the Self. Annamalai performed a very demanding sadhana, building all kinds of structures under Ramana's direct instruction, and having to transcend himself in all kinds of ways he'd never have undertaken on his own.

The point to understand here goes back to what I was trying to get across in my earlier post - that the esoteric relationship to the Guru is not something that takes place only on some inner plane. There's certainly a profound inner process going on, to be sure, and without that inner process nothing fruitful will come of outer practices. But the same is true of outer practice. Without it, nothing fruitful will ever come from inner work either. The two go together, and one must strive to see the unbroken linkage between them. The word "tantra" for example, means "continuity". Most westerners think tantra means getting to play around with the sexy, abandoning discipline and regulation and being wild and crazy spiritual guys who get to squeeze those big American breasts at the disco (Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd being the model practitioners here). But tantra actually means the opposite. It means recognizing that the inner and outer worlds are continuous, unbroken, and that what we do inwardly and outwardly affect one another directly, because they are simply not separate. It's not even a causal thing, it's a continuous fabric of spiritual reality. So without outward discipline there is no inner freedom, and vice-versa.

The problem with western Gurus like Adi Da is that they understand something about this, and try to incarnate this approach by demanding obedience and submission from their devotees, but they don't really understand how this works, and how they are required to submit to the process as well. Elias asks:

Who is he to say what the Guru can or cannot do relative to his or her relationships? You can lay down statements that may have general application, especially for those who are just approaching a Guru. But once the Guru is recognized by the devotee as the living instrument of God, all bets are off. 

Yes, it's not for me personally to say, but the whole of the Sanatana tradition does say what the Guru is able lawfully to do, and what he is not to do. There's a lot of scripture and tradition which spells all this out really well, and it serves a purpose. It's not as if it's utterly rigid and unyielding, it does recognize the inherently free nature of the genuine Sat-Guru, but nonetheless it also understands that there are natural limits to what any human Sat-Guru can do, and what is appropriate, and what is not appropriate, and how the process unfolds. Everything in Sanatana dharma, even the behavior of Sat-Gurus, has to have some kind of scriptural precedent and justification, or it is looked upon skeptically and considered adharmic. This is one of the reasons that no India Guru has ever acknowledged Adi Da as being a genuine Sat-Guru. It doesn't take much of an assessment to see that regardless of his spiritual capacities, Da is simply not qualified to be a Guru, and his methods and practices are simply not capable of producing enlightened devotees.

This is not the case with those like Ramana Maharshi, Sri Ramakrishna, or Anandamayi Ma, each of whom simply appeared out of nowhere so to speak and became famous teachers without benefit of a course of instruction in traditional approaches and practices. In each of their cases, qualified practitioners and Gurus were able to verify that both their realizations and their teachings were sound, even if they sprang up simply out of their own nature in a spontaneous fashion.

In Anandamayi Ma's case, there arose a controversy at one point because during her period of youthful wandering she began hanging out with the strictly practicing sadhu community of Northern India, who were dedicated to all kinds of very ascetical practices, one of which forbid them from keeping the company of an unattached woman. Anandamayi Ma, for those unfamiliar, was a strikingly beautiful young woman, I mean we're talking world-class beauty-contest babe here, so it's quite understandable that a traditional community of celibates would have some obvious problems with her being around. It became such a point of contention that the sadhus held a convention to discuss the matter and to decide how they should handle their relationship to Anandamayi Ma. And by the end of the convention, they had come to the conclusion that whatever their traditional rules might proscribe for them, Anandamayi Ma was the whole reason for their existence, she represented the very Divinity that had led them to become sadhus in the first place, and that took precedence over any rule they might have to live by.

So there's an example of a Sat-Guru breaking rules or creating new ones. But keep in mind that this didn't change anything else about their formal rules as sadhus. They didn't just go, hey, all this rule stuff is a bunch of jazz, we should just hang with Anandamayi Ma and do as we please, since she's the living God. To the contrary, Anandamayi Ma blessed their rules and disciplines, and invited them to be with her wherever she went. And so throughout Ma's lifetime, many of these strange-looking ascetic sadhus were to be found at her ashrams, and traveled with her, living their traditional rules and disciplines.

Adherance to discipline and tradition is something that virtually all Gurus expect from their disciples, and they also expect if from themselves. Even Ramana adhered to many traditional Hindu customs and rules out of simple respect. He did not recognize caste as having any genuine spiritual or even human basis, but he didn't want to offend either, and so he tended to obey caste rules in food preparation for those who lived the traditional life, and otherwise didn't. At big public celebrations at the ashram he would allow for traditional caste seating rules, and again, abandoned them otherwise. In many cases, there was simply a natural coincidence with a fair amount of traditional practice, since it had been established on some kind of esoteric basis long ago, and was thus compatible with esoteric practice in Ramana's ashram.

Elias seems to have become fascinated with a certain kind of approach to esotericism which thinks that authority is the enemy of spirit. I would certainly say that authoritarianism is anti-thetical to spirit, but mere authority is not. Virtually all effective spiritual practices defer to some form of authority, whether it be Buddhist or Hindu or Christian or whatever you can name. It's merely the case that authority must know its limits and be directed towards a real spiritual purpose, and not merely invoked for its own sake or for worldly purposes.

One good bit of wisdom Adi Da once said was that "whatever is limited must have a limit placed upon it, and whatever is unlimited must have no limits placed upon it". By this he meant that in all areas of life, inner and outer, that are conditional, there must be some form of discipline that limits them, whereas in the areas of unlimited, unconditional reality, there must be no limits placed. Many westerners confuse these two, and think that the whole point of "non-dual" spirituality is to have no limits on anything, no dualism whatsoever, and to somehow see all dualistic things as non-dual and treat them accordingly. But this way lies madness, and not of the unlimited variety. They want to have their cake and eat it. They want what is limited to become unlimited, and they think that the realms of limitation can be made unlimited by non-dual practice, non-dual awakening, and non-dual liberation. They think that is what freedom means. But they have it all quite backwards. What is limited must have limits placed on it, in order that what is unlimited can gain its freedom. If we don't limit our limited mind and life, we don't allow the unlimited spirit its true place as the final "authority" over us. We just become crazy, self-indulgent, full of ourselves, and convinced that we are great beings of unlimited intelligence and spirituality, whereas that is never true of any "one", it is only true of the One Self. To know that, we must bow down, which means surrendering all that is limited, all that is conditional, to the authority of the unconditional Divine.

That does mean submission to the Guru, even in human form, but that human Guru must also be utterly submitted and without that submission the process is interrupted. That is why Gurus like Adi Da could not produce enlightened devotees. They had broken the link to the Divine through their lack of full submission. Yes, he could fulfill some part of it to some degree, as many lesser teachers and spirits can, but he could not bring about full realization because he had not accomplished this in his own case. Sad but I think the evidence bears this out. Even at his death there were no realizers in Adidam. The chances that they will appear following his death seems rather slim. Unless, of course, they find a more genuine source of spiritual grace not corrupted by egoity as his was.

One thing I guess I should mention is that Elias' personal criticism of me as someone who has an "authoritarian take" on spirituality is rather hilarious. In life I'm about the least authoritarian practitioner around. In fact, I'm "an instance of my own criticism" as I said about Da. I don't have ANY cultural or spiritual disciplines that I follow, neither Daist nor Hindu nor Buddhist nor new-age. I mean nothing. I live a relatively simple and healthy life, but I have no human Guru who tells me what to do, and no culture that proscribes by behavior. Nor am I looking for such a thing. I'm not sure if that means I have little chance of enlightenment in this lifetime, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did. But I'm really not in the least convinced that the traditional approach is genuinely necessary. When Elias says that my sympathies are clear on this matter, he's confusing my clear understanding of the Sanatana Dharma with my own choices, which are quite different. I have no problem seeing the spiritual traditions and Adidam and even the spiritual process as clearly as I can without being swayed by whether or not I personally agree with them or adhere to them.  I don't feel I have to create some kind of conceptual understanding of spirituality that allows me to rationalize my personal choices, or even feel guilty if there's a discrepancy. In fact, I see it as a sign of my own slight spiritual maturity that I can simply observe these things and not insert myself into the equation. I'm well aware that my own arguments here about spirituality make me look pretty bad. But I'm used to that, and don't even mind.

The best I can say in my own defense is that my own Gurus, Ramana Maharshi and Arunachula Shiva, are much more lax in their demands for discipline than the traditions associated with them. Ramana's only definitive discipline was the practice of "being still", and self-enquiry when that was not possible. And so I've been living a rather "experimental" life of my own in the years since leaving Adidam, of simply practicing in that manner, with a simple natural devotional orientation, and seeing what it leads me to both in outer life and in "inner" practice. My days in Adidam are over, and I'm not about to embark on some similar venture of a Hindu flavoring - unless of course I do. You never know where these things lead.

From this position, I find myself able to understand both Adidam and Sanatana Dharma more clearly than I did when I was inside their realms. And I appreciate them, and their limitations, all the more for it. My own relationship to the Guru has moved to a more direct position. And that requires a more direct submission and surrender to its authority and power. And there are indeed demands made upon my outward life by this, demands for discipline that strain my own meager resources whether I want them or not. Such is the nature of grace. It comes to us in all the forms of this world, not just some guy sitting on a sofa making up lists of things for us to do. We have no choice whatsoever in the matter, except in whether we submit, or refuse to submit. Heaven or hell, those are our choices.


thereal said...

Clear understanding.

Some spend a lifetime investing in guys like Da and his "way" because it suits their interests. Then, after all that time they simply have far too much to lose to let him go. Then they start making up reasons for why Da is a good guy despite the blatant reality of the opposite. They do this in hope that their life has not been in vain with the amount of time they put into following this guy.

Only a real devotee of truth is willing to drop everything they previously thought to be true for a greater truth when presented. That's real freedom. Not some adolescent hope that there are no rules in reality, like what Da tried to enforce. But then, having no rules only applied to him. Everyone else better listen and do as he says, or else be relegated to insignificant slug status.

Freedom from "hell" comes from seeing discipline and rules as goodness. Like Nisargadatta obeying his Guru. It's the discipline to not be a wild raging, free to let your instinctive emotions rule, adolescent. Like the change in the Samurai from spoiled child to humble mature adult. What did he realize? He learned to recognize what heaven was and what it wasn't. He realized that to be free to rage, etc., was ignorance and harmful to others, or of the hell realm.

Authoritarian types like Da only end up fucking with your head for their own egotistical reasons. Like when Freud couldn't bare to look at what Jung presented due to the fact that it would deconstruct Freud's life long effort of constructing his world view.

Authoritarians want freedom from rules for themselves, but in truth they want the power to take any side anytime in an attempt to defeat others. Their erroneous reasoning behind this is that there is no way you can realize something that they don't, so they have the right to go to any means to defeat your position. All the while denying they might simply be wrong.

Guys like Da have many people discussing insights and ideas with them, some which go completely over their heads. They sluff them off as lack of understanding. Then later, when they finally get it, they forget where it came from and claim it to be theirs. They believe it is inspiration from the great spiritual genius that they are a manifestation of. It would be funny if it wasn't such a bad joke. Rules fuck with the imaginary authority that they deceive others into believing they have.

Y. Y. Browne said...

Very pleased to have found this essay. I know it's been around a few years+ but I've now come across it at the exact right time in my studies. Re-reading for the who-know-how-many-th time the journals/biography of Anandamayi Ma's devotee, Atmananda (nee Blanca Schlamm), and still trying to grasp her shifting and maturing understanding of the guru-disciple relationship over time. Your discussion in this essay and explanation of her and Her contemporaries has really been helpful to me. Thanks for the knowledge shared that I didn't have before and for the insights -- I've taken the liberty of posting a couple of your quotations (properly cited, of course!) to my Facebook page for my blog "The Accidental Hindu".

Thanks again