Friday, December 10, 2010

Understanding Adi Da: Exoteric and Esoteric Approaches to Reality

Over at Lightmind Forums there's been some controversial discussion of Adi Da's legacy, sparked in part by some things I wrote here on my blog about Adi Da's relationship to the Advaitic teachings. It begins harmlessly enough with the observation by Elias that Da's teachings are based on his own realization and experience, and not derived from Advaita or Buddhism. He makes the point that one can't teach about spirituality and non-dualism without invoking the same truths one finds in these traditions, simply because those traditions are the hard-boiled expressions of basic truth, honed over many centuries of tradition and culture, and anyone who tries to describe these truths will end up sounding a lot like an Advaitin or Buddhist. This has some merit, but one can't ignore the fact that Da doesn't merely teach using concepts that arise directly from whatever realization he has, but openly borrows from the very concepts and language used by these traditions for thousands of years.

Elias goes on to try to score some personal points against me, which really aren't worth defending against, in that I have no problem with Da borrowing from these traditions, only with the claim to which I was originally responding, made by a commentater, that I could only speak about non-dual reality as I do on this blog because of my familiarity with Adi Da's teachings. As I point out, this isn't even true on a scholastic level, in that Da's own teachings are derived in large part from Advaita and Buddhist teachings, even at the level of language and formal concept. Neither is it true on an intuitive level, in that any of us can access the spiritual reality from which these concepts and language and tradition are derived, and thus speak from our own experience about them, even me, because that is our own reality as well. Spiritual reality doesn't belong to Da or the Sanatana Dharma or Buddhism, and we don't become intelligent about these matters merely by reading what they have to say, we have to resort to our own reality, which is the same reality all of these traditions have been derived from as well. Similarities and correspondence are of course going to exist because they all have the same Source. And differences are going to exist as well because we all have a different reference point from which we see these matters, culturally, psychologically, spiritually, sensually, and so forth. But we do have to acknowledge that we are dependent on those who came before us, and that Adi Da's teachings as they are presented in all his books and talks simply could not exist as they do without the long tradition of Sanatana Dharma, whereas the reverse is not true. One can speak in all the language and concepts I have used without any knowledge of Adi Da, if one were merely well versed in Sanatana Dharma.

Even so, it's clearly evident that Adi Da's teachings have a particularly close relationship to the Advaitic tradition, as well as to the whole of the Sanatana Dharma, which even he acknowledges. It's also obvious that Adi Da himself read and reviewed and has been deeply influenced by huge amounts of traditional Sanatana Dharma literature and scripture and tradition. So when we speak about Adi Da's influence on people like me, at the level of verbal instruction and cultural practice, we are really talking about the influence of Sanatana Dharma, not Adi Da per se. If we are to speak of Da's “unique” influence on others, myself included, we have to speak of what in his teaching is unique to him, and not present in Sanatana Dharma. And that is a fairly small portion of even his own teachings. Or, at the very least, we need to speak of what emphasis Da placed on the same matters spoken of in Sanatana Dharma, and how his emphasis was different or shaded by a different fundamental understanding.

Probably the principal area of concern in Da's teaching is the relationship between exoteric and esoteric spirituality, focusing as this does on the true relationship to the Guru. This has been the subject of considerable debate and controversy not only within Adidam, but it rears its head from time to time in the Lightmind forum debates among former devotees, and with present devotees, and especially with those who consider themselves to be true devotees, but who don't practice within the formal relationship to Da offered by the Adidam community, institution, culture, and mission. Elias himself offers sympathy for those who claim to relate to Adi Da esoterically, which I gather means to him “not through the outer forms of community and culture and even dharma, but through an inner, psychic, living, conscious relationship in spiritual truth”. Likewise, he tends to condemn those, like myself, who insist that we actually pay attention to what Adi Da himself taught, wrote, said, and practiced in relation to these matters, and not just make up our own “inner truth” about Da based upon our subjective feelings and intuitions, not matter how “esoteric” we think these things are.

Adi Da's teachings about the exoteric and esoteric practice of spirituality, especially in relationship to the Guru, are very interesting and subtle, and I don't want to make simplistic generalizations about this matter. I was obviously deeply involved with Adi Da and Daism for many years, and throughout that time this was probably the most important issue to me, as it was I think for most devotees. However, it's important to note that it's also the central issue in the actual practice of traditional Sanatana Dharma, whether of the Advaitic or any other branch. The whole of Sanatana Dharma is based on the notion that only a Guru can reveal the truths contained in its scriptures, that one might read about its concepts and entertain these ideas in the mind in the manner of a pandit or scholar for a very long time, but only the Guru can show the inner understanding that is necessary to make them come alive and be spiritually effective.

And yet, the Sanatana Dharma nevertheless maintains that all genuine realization comes about through the study of these scriptures and through the fulfillment of all its precepts and instructions, which stretch through the full length of personal, cultural, and religious practice. The esoteric relationship to the Guru is not intended to bypass these, but to enlighten them and reveal their inner truth and necessity. The traditional Guru does not tell his esoteric disciples that these practices are unnecessary and that they can do whatever they wish. Instead, he reveals that their basis in esoteric understanding is sound and thus increases their devotional adherence to traditional practices and norms, rather than decreasing them. This is of course not something most people these days want to hear. They want to develop an “esoteric” relationship to spiritual reality that is free of any such traditional obligations or devotional submission to scripture and culture.

I can certainly understand this personally, in that having left Adidam I am essentially a person “without culture”, who is not an adherent of either the Adidam cultural and religious way of life, nor have I adopted any of the Sanatana Dharma traditions either. As most know, I am very drawn to Ramana Maharshi and others in the modern Advaitic tradition who have taught westerners who not part of the Sanatana tradition, but I have not become a Hindu or a member of any sect, and I don't practice any of those traditional approaches. But that doesn't mean I don't understand the traditional approaches, or that I confuse Adi Da's teachings with some grand departure from those traditions. They are not. Quite the contrary, Adi Da has tried to create a cultural and religious tradition of esotericism that is largely derived from the Sanatana Dharma model, modified of course to fit his own version of that, but not at all some form of “spiritual individualist anarchism” as some would like to think.

Many people get the wrong impression about Adi Da's spiritual orientation, based on his early years of wild partying, breaking of taboos, wide-ranging conceptual criticism of various traditions, including the Sanatana tradition itself, and general claims to the establishment of a new and unprecedented tradition. One might get the impression that Da is a new-age anarchist, a demolisher of old traditions, a liberal and libertine in the modernist sense, who is not afraid to dismantle all the ancient traditions and start over from scratch. In particular, there's the impression some have that Da has aimed to liberate the realm of spirituality from the grip of the exoteric, “religion business” model that crushes the spirit under the weight of orthodox tradition and seeks to undermine the ability of the individual to relate directly to the esoteric truth of the non-dual Reality and Person. And of course they get that impression from Da himself, who often talks this way in an effort to differentiate himself from all other spiritual teachers and to make the case for himself as the One True Realizer who has never before appeared, and whose mission it is to purify these traditions of egoity and for the first time ever establish the esoteric basis for all religion and spirituality around Himself, the Divine Person.

Whether or not one buys into that claim, it's important to notice that in the process of “purifying” the traditions of egoity, there are many important things that Da does not eliminate, but instead emphasizes, strengthens, and makes fundamental. One of these is the notion that esotericism and exoterism are not at war with one another, and that they not only complement one another, but that their relationship is essential and indivisible. There's a lot of literature in which Adi Da criticizes exotericism openly, and one might get the false impression from this that Adi Da rejects exotericism entirely, and that if one does find exoteric instructions and practices in Adidam, they are merely compromises for the sake of immature devotees, which can be disregarded by those who are “esoterically mature”. But this is simply not borne out by the actual practicing tradition of Adidam, which does not merely demand outer devotional adherence to its instructions from those at the beginning “exoteric” level of approach to the Guru, but expects an even greater outer devotional adherence to instruction from those at the most advanced stages of esoteric practice.

Elias tries to explain this away by resorting to Da's basic instruction about turning to the Guru and practicing Satsang:
I would suggest that Da collected a grab bag of practices from various places (including Scientology), mainly to keep people occupied while they did the main practice -- putting their attention on him.

In that sense he was like the program director of a camp for juvenile delinquents. He knows that having these kids endlessly "paint fences" and learn karate is not going to change them.

But Da's underlying faith was that satsang would heal the spiritual malaise of the world.

I think it had already been proved, over thousands of years, that such was not the case.
This is certainly the sort of explanation Da himself offered in the earliest years, and it probably applied to many of the kinds of outer activities that went on during that time. However, over the years Da clearly evolved a more nuanced understanding and intention. The outer, exoteric practices of Adidam became not merely some arbitrary way of keeping devotees' attention on Da, they were to him a well-tested and proven series of practices meant to align the whole person to him, so that the orientation of Satsang was made comprehensive and compatible with every area of one's life, and no “bypassing” could be accomplished. To Da, all the disciplines and practices were a way to “rope in” the wandering ego and give it no room to escape. Thus, these were not arbitrary practices at all, but practical methods for making Satsang pervasive and effective in the transcendence of egoic consciousness. In this way, the exoteric was designed in such a way as to complement and feed the esoteric relationship, and each was an essential part of the whole.

Adi Da's teachings made this principle fundamental to the entire life of practice he recommended, which of course included all kinds of very ordinary disciplines and requirements at every level, from the financial demands of tithing and other contributions, to complete participation in the community, institution, mission, and so forth. And the overriding directive in all these areas was very simple: do whatever Adi Da tells you to do, no matter how mundane, because all of it is part of the esoteric relationship to him. Adi Da for year and years in countless formal and informal instructions would emphasize this principle: that fulfillment of his instruction in every part was the necessary requirement for all esoteric forms of relationship to him, and for the effective reception of his spiritual transmission.

Those like Elias and others who argue for what they think is an “esoteric” relationship to Adi Da are ignoring what Da's actual instructions in regard to esotericism are. One can certainly disagree with Adi Da's instructions in this matter, but I think it's pretty difficult to make the case that Da himself was simply creating a smoke-screen of instruction meant only for the spiritually immature, whereas his “real” instruction is for those, like themselves of course, who are above that sort of beginner's understanding. There's a certain vanity in that viewpoint that Da himself had no stomach for, and constantly criticized and rejected in every detail over many years. To Adi Da, true esotericism meant complete obedience to his every word of instruction, no matter how outwardly trivial it might seem to some. To him, there was no esoteric relationship to him without this disposition of total obedience, expressed not merely by one's inner disposition, but by one's outer behavior and action. That was what surrender to the Guru meant. Of course, he wasn't advocating merely outward forms of obedience that tried to mimic an orthodox lifestyle, but neither was he at all willing to compromise on orthodoxy.

While Da might seem to some to be some sort of radical spiritual revolutionary, he saw himself as an immensely conservative upholder of tradition. And the creation of the entire edifice of Adidam's dharma, community, culture, institution, mission, and so on, with all its outer practices and requirements, was to Adi Da part of a gigantic “conservative” project to restore what he considered to be true integrity to the spiritual process, which of course meant the relationship of devotees to him. It was not meant to be a monolithic tradition unable to adapt and change, but its principles were meant to be unchanging and constantly oriented towards the esoteric relationship to Da through obedience and submission, and not just on some inner plane, but on the outer plane of ordinary life.

That was what the entire “Adidam Project” was about. It's what I was personally and deeply involved with for all the years I was in Adidam. It's what kept me actively involved with Adidam through thick and thin. It was a project that captivated my imagination, as well as my own spiritual life, both inwardly and outwardly. The ideal of it was something I tried to give my life over to, up to the point where I came to see what a travesty it had become. I can't really say that I regret that. I'm sorry it didn't end up working out, and I've been open in my criticism of how it failed to materialize. And I'm sure some in Adidam would say that I'm mistaken about that, that despite outer appearances Adi Da really did succeed, and that future generations will see the fruits of it, and I can only say, that would be great, but I really don't think so. But one thing I'm pretty certain of is that this is what Adi Da's life's work was all about, and what his view of esotericism was about, and that those who try to define it otherwise to suit their own spiritual viewpoint and inclination are engaged in what Adi Da used to call “revisionism”. By which I mean that they are fantasizing an esoteric relationship to Adi Da that he himself did not see as “esoteric” at all, but falling far short of that.

I can certainly understand why many people would like to think that they have an esoteric relationship to Da. In the ordinary sense of the word, they do. If by “esoteric”, they merely mean some kind of spiritual, psychic connection that goes beyond the gross physical sense of separation, that allows them to “feel” Adi Da spiritually or have some kind of spiritual connection to him, of course they do. I do, did, and always will. Virtually everyone who ever had a devotional or spiritual relationship to Adi Da did and still does. Even people who just read his books can often feel something spiritual active in his words. People who see his picture or videos have “esoteric” experiences of him. These things are a dime a dozen. Everyone in Adidam has had thousands of these kinds of experiences. It would be sheer foolishness to deny this. But it would also be sheer foolishness to assume that this is what Adi Da meant by an esoteric relationship to him.

Adi Da often talked about the difference between the exoteric and esoteric relationship to him, and he even defined these distinctions in his instruction. The exoteric relationship to him was not merely about “outer” forms of practice, what one does bodily, socially, culturally, institutionally, etc. It also included the nominally “esoteric” practices of feeling-relationship to him, meaning “Satsang”, meditation, devotion, service, and so on that had not progressed to the point of full and true “recognition” of him that would make complete obediance to his instruction natural, necessary, and unavoidable. In almost all cases, those approaching him as Guru were practicing from an “exoteric” point of view regardless of how psychically or spiritually sensitive they were. True “esotericism” was something much more than mere psychic sensitivity. It required a disposition of total surrender at every level of the being. It meant, in his phrase “entering his house”, and the only way through the door was total submission. Not just some kind of inward submission, but also outer submission. This is why the exoteric practices of submission came first. They were the testing grounds to see who was genuinely submitted to the esoteric viewpoint. No one who failed to submit outwardly could possibly be genuinely submitted esoterically. And so only those who approached exoterically first, and demonstrated their submission and obedience through actual adherence to all the disciplines expected in those areas would even be considered for esoteric practice. Da himself constantly criticized those who approached him or claimed to have some special relationship to him without fulfilling those requirements. He didn't simply put such people down, but he did require that they submit to him by abiding by all those disciplines and practices if they wanted a real esoteric relationship to him.

Naturally, many people didn't want to submit to Da's disciplines and practices because they felt he exploited and abused people, and not for purely spiritual purposes, but because Da himself was not entirely free of ego, or even at all. And so that's where his esoteric ideals meet the hard reality of life in Adidam and become corrupted. The widespread corruption of these principles in Adidam are hardly unique, however. The Guru system in Sanatana Dharma is not immune to corruption either, and often by the same route. There are plenty of Gurus in India who take advantage of the principles of submission and obedience to exploit their devotees. One could almost say it's so common as to be an accepted part of the system. A certain amount of exploitation and corruption is almost expected and a part of the process. But there are also safeguards within the system that help devotees recognize these limitations and hopefully go beyond them. In Adidam, not so much. \

That's part of the problem with lifting huge elements of the Sanatana Dharma system out of its natural cultural ecosystem and trying to recreate it in a modern western environment with no cross-cultural controls. When all authority is invested in only one man, and the scriptures written by that one man, a lot of exploitation and misadventure is virtually guaranteed. In Sanatana Dharma authority is spread widely across the whole cultural spectrum, and even a Sat-Guru is seen as only one element within the whole system of checks and balances. This doesn't prevent exploitation and abuse, but it does mean that when it appears there are ways of addressing it, or leaving it behind, without leaving the entire system. In Adidam, there is no such option. So when one finds some fault in Adi Da, and feels that he is not entirely trustworthy or entirely free of ego, there is nowhere to go except to leave entirely, which would not be the case in Sanatana Dharma.

And yet, both dharmically and in practice, Sanatana Dharma shares with Adi Da the same conservative orientation towards obediance and submission. It just has such a complex association of many sects and practices and teachers and teachings that it remains highly flexible, whereas Adidam is so rigid in orientation that it cannot allow much give and take. Like traditional orthodox, pre-schismatic Christianity, there is only one acknowledged source of wisdom in Adidam, and only one set of scriptures, and only one authoritative Church. To step outside those orthodoxies is to become a heretic, plain and simple. And so it is with those who differ with Adi Da on these very issues of esotericism and exotericism. They are generally branded as heretics and kept outside the fold of accepted devotees. Of course, in Sanatana Dharma they would also be criticized for not understanding the dynamic of the Guru-devotee relationship, but they would not be forced into isolation, they would be a part of the general spiritual scene and not kept out of the ashram or the community of spirituality. So I feel for such people who are trying to have a spiritual relationship to Adi Da without actually being a “formal member” of Adidam. The whole concept of being a “formal member” of anything has no meaning in Sanatana Dharma at any level. Caste issues aside, every Hindu in India is considered a “member” of the Sanatana Dharma, regardless of their viewpoint. Even atheists have a place. But in Adidam, any serious deviation from accepted teaching is regarded as unacceptable and the refusal to approach Adi Da through the institutional and cultural forms and practices he has given means that there is no place for such a person in the Adidam community.

The problem with complaining about this, or calling it delusional, is that this system was put in place by Adi Da himself, and created for the very purpose of fostering what he would consider a true, esoteric relationship to him. So to reject it and to create an alternative “esoteric” relationship to him is, unfortunately, just delusional. Yes, one can reject it and still have a psychic relationship to Da, and make that the basis of some kind of devotional practice. I did that for any number of years when I was younger and outside of Adidam for financial or personal reasons, and I certainly still felt a powerful psychic bond of devotion to him. And even now that I have rejected not just the formal relationship to him, but even the whole Guru-devotee relationship to him altogether, I feel that kind of psychic relationship to him. It's not that I never had one, and only had some bookish understanding as some devotees would like to think. In fact, I'm one of the few people who Adi Da ever actually acknowledged as practicing the esoteric relationship to him. Back in 1996, after going on retreat with him for six weeks and then becoming deeply involved in my strange astrological “patterning” service, he said that I was at that time the only person in the whole of Adidam who was relating to him directly. No big deal, really, but it's just to say that I do know something about this whole matter directly, and not just from reading books. And Da certainly made many efforts to invite me into his esoteric fold, including when I was leaving Adidam, when he sent personal representatives to meet with me and try to get me to come back, offering to forgive and forget and restore me to my former position as his patterning advisor. On the personal and spiritual level, we had a very intense devotional relationship, and I certainly loved him as God Himself for many, many years. I understood what the esoteric relationship to him was really about, and I considered it deeply before declining the invitation. Even after I left, from time to time I would feel Da asking about me, and asking me to come back, and my having to tell him that this simply wasn't going to happen. It's not as if he wasn't persistent or caring. He just didn't seem to grasp how badly he had screwed things up.

I would have to say that on a certain level, Adi Da wasn't terribly “self-aware” of his own faults or their consequences. He didn't realize that he'd created a monster both in himself and in his community. But I do think by the end of his life he came to see how unworkable it had all become, and that he was not surrounded by the kind of people who could make a real go of it. So his death was hardly unexpected. In fact, years before in my astrological service I had said that if his devotees didn't genuinely progress into the esoteric relationship with him, he would have to give up the body. At the time, I expected that things would work out differently than they did and that he would go on to live a long life, but I think in recent years he realized that there wasn't much reason to go on with this lifetime, that the rest of it would be largely fruitless. So it was just time to go.

Who can really blame him? And who can really blame even his most loyal devotees for not actually submitting to him through the kind of obedience he demanded? It was an impossible situation in many respects. In some respects, it was all quite unnecessary. The kind of esoteric submission that he wanted to establish in Adidam actually does exist in the Sanatana Dharma system. It's far from perfect, but in some cases and places, it becomes real and active and effective, and produces genuine realizers and Sat-Gurus and devotees. One can see this around people like Ramana Maharshi. One can see long lines of such figures spontaneously appearing from the framework of Sanatana Dharma and making this process come alive generation after generation. It occurs in Buddhism as well, and in other religions and places.

The idea of creating a single, tightly run organization built upon this principle was ambitious and even laudable, but perhaps not such a good idea after all is said and done. The failure of Adidam is perhaps a good lesson for those who would like to fulfill those ideals through a centralized process and a single, dominating figure. It doesn't mean that true esotericism doesn't involve submission to outer form and exoteric practices, however. It merely means that these things have to develop organically and not by fiat. In the end, the Sat-Guru is not as important as Adi Da would have us believe. The Sat-Guru is merely one aspect of a comprehensive process of submission that has no controlling central force or figure. That process evolves naturally, and it makes its appearance through all kinds of signs, including the sign of the Sat-Guru. True esotericism does indeed involve a profound submission, not merely some kind of psychic relationship to things, but submission at every level of the being. Merely feeling spiritual energy and having subtle experiences doesn't make one “esoteric”. That requires a profound and intimate devotional love which devours the heart and makes one entirely vulnerable even at the outer level of ordinary life.

In a basic sense, what Adidam wanted and needed to create was a real and vibrant spiritual culture within which genuine esotericism could grow and flourish. What it actually created was a cult, however, not a culture. Everyone involved, including Adi Da, was at fault for this in their own way, myself included. Adi Da had a lot of the basic ideas right, but enough wrong that in practice it never came together. He didn't really know how to achieve the exoteric devotional relationship in life that really could form the basis for an esoteric submission to the Divine. This wasn't just the fault of his devotees, but it showed a lack on his own part as well. It shouldn't be surprising. Adi Da was never able to submit to his own Gurus in life either. Neither Rudi nor Muktananda, his only living spiritual teachers, were able to get him to submit to them fully. He tried to go “over their heads” and form subtle relationships with Nityananda and others, such as Ramana Maharshi, even the Goddess directly, but even there he was unable to submit to them. Instead, he expected them to submit to him. Outwardly, he was simply incapable of the kind of submission he demanded from others. And so this naturally kept coming back to hit him from behind when he tried to get his own devotees to submit to him. Da was an instance of his own criticism. He simply couldn't admit that to himself, much less to anyone else. And that is why the whole esoteric process in Adidam never really got anywhere, and why some of those who jumped ship, even just partially, have tried to create their own form of esoteric relationship to him, one that doesn't require any real submission on their part, either outwardly or inwardly. A lot of these people don't even understand what real esotericism is about in any case. At least Da had a grasp on the principles, even if he couldn't quite bring it to fruition, even in his own case.

I'm not sure where this leaves us. One has to pick up the pieces somehow and try to make something of one's spiritual life regardless of how often things don't work out. I certainly have tried. I wish I had been able to see these problems more clearly long ago, but I didn't. The need for genuine esotericism remains, regardless of whether there's a supporting cultural process available for us. As much as I wanted it to be, I don't think Adidam was a good supporting process for esotericism, so I can understand why people would try to make it work through some other route. Obviously those still in Adidam are trying to make it work, and I wish them all the help and blessing in the world. Just as I do for all the Hindus and Christians and Buddhists and Jews out there trying to do the same. Culture is a bitch. And true submission to the esoteric process of moving beyond the ego is not at all easy, even when a supporting culture is in place. What is necessary, of course, is not any particular cultural model or system, but the surrender of one's own vasanas and samskaras, the patterns of attention, and the devotion to the inner person of reality, the living Self who dwells at the heart of our own consciousness. May that One guide us in all that we do.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, he certainly was "conservative" in his own way when it comes to how he interpreted the traditions and his own point of view. Clearly, he did not understand his own teaching so much as a revolution but more as a kind of evolution. See for instance this essay on

"Thus, my work involves a critical overview of everything that is taking place around me, everything that people bring to me, and all traditions. My teaching work is like that of the Lankavatara Sutra, like that of Gautama. On one level it seems to be a repudiation. On another level it is a criticism or a reinterpretation, even a positive interpretation. On another level it offers an alternative course or Way. But this entire process, this cultural process, this Teaching process that I have engaged both with you who have come to me and relative to the traditions, is expressed on the basis of prior Realization." Frank

Finally, one should not forget that even prior to Frank's own awakening experiences as well as meeting Rudi he was - at least to a certain degree - familiar with some of the traditional teachings. Clearly, a lot if not most of his teachings are simply based on already existing stuff.
Even in the case of Ramana Maharshi I doubt that he had absolutely no knowledge of the traditional Vedic teachings. Some of them are just "common knowledge" in India (e.g. terms like "Atman" - most Europeans probably have no idea about such a concept). There's always an existing cultural framework going into which a spiritual realizer is born and educated.