Archive for July, 2013

Facing Up To the Truly Difficult

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

This post is part of a series, beginning here.

“I have a question regarding Schuon’s claim that Vajrayana (or Kashmir Shaivism) is incompatible with the Western psyche. Isn’t it the case that Tibetan Buddhism ultimately derives from an Indo-Aryan spiritual current, mixed though this is with some of Tibet’s own Bon tradition? Such a tradition thus finds itself within the range of Indo-European religiosity and understanding of reality, like the Hinduism it is very similar to, and it is by extension related to archaic Greco-Roman traditions and to the Druids among the Celts, who as I’m sure you know are the equivalent of the Brahmins, shared a similar cosmology, and—according to Caesar—professed belief in the indestructibility of the soul (Atman) and transmigration.

“The various Indo-European pagan religions seem to all stem from a common Proto-Indo-European tradition, of which the Vedas are the earliest record but likely represent an oral tradition extending much further into pre-history, possibly as far back as 8000 BC, according to certain theorists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Whether we accept such a notion or not we are still left with a very archaic spiritual tradition. Of course Tantra is a much later development, but leaving aside the heterodox left-handed forms, Tantra is still quite similar to preceding forms of Indian metaphysics, seeing itself as an adaptation to the needs of the men of the Kali Yuga, who in their spiritual constitution are quite different from the men of earlier ages.”

“All this being so, why should the Eastern survivals of this form of spirituality be incompatible with the Western psyche when such traditions were once theirs as well and for a much longer time than the devotional Semitic faiths that have since replaced them? Christianity and, especially, Islam deny cyclical time, ignorance or avidya as the cause of the ‘fall’, and transmigration, while professing a doctrine of eternal heaven or hell, all of which doctrines are incompatible with the Indo-European view. Why should these traditions be too ‘heavy’ or ‘complex’ when the West has produced its own difficult metaphysics, as one finds for example in the Enneads of Plotinus, which went on to influence both Christian and Islamic mysticism? Is Schuon suggesting that only the more simplistic, devotional, or ‘bhaktic’ paths that place an emphasis on a heaven or ‘Pure Land’ are suitable for Westerners? If this is truly the case, are there no exceptions to this rule?”

The inquirer speaks of the “heaviness” or “complexity” of certain Eastern traditions. It’s important to clarify whether this is in reference to doctrinal teaching or spiritual practice. As he rightly points out, the Platonic tradition, which flowered perhaps most fully in Plotinus, is in a very real sense the Western doctrinal parallel to such Eastern metaphysical schools as Vedanta and Madhyamaka—and it’s certainly no less difficult and demanding. When it comes to practice, the question of simplicity can be misleading, for the simplest of practices can have transformative depths unknown to the aspirant until these have been personally plumbed. The Hesychast Jesus Prayer is a case in point. What could be simpler on its face? And yet this “easy” practice has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to produce illumined and deified saints, as can be seen in such works as the anonymous Way of a Pilgrim or Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos’s A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain. It’s very shortsighted to underestimate such a practice and to go in search of more “interesting” and exotic spiritual fare; even an “Indo-Aryan” spiritual authority of the stature of Ramana Maharshi considered the simple practice of japa, performed with devotion, to be one of the most valuable supports to the practice of self-inquiry. The Ramayana makes the same point:

“In the first age of the world men crossed the ocean of existence by their spirit alone. In the second age sacrifice and ritual began, and then Rama lived, and by giving their every act to him men lived well their ways. Now in our age what is there to do but worship Rama’s feet? But my friend, the last age of this world shall be the best. For then no act has any worth, all is useless … except only to say Rama. The future will read this. Therefore I tell them, when all is in ruin around you, just say Rama. We have gone from the spiritual to the passionate. Next will come ignorance. Universal war. Say Rama and win! Time cannot touch you!”

One comes away with the impression that this inquirer may be attracted by complexity and difficulty for their own sake and may have therefore developed somewhat skewed priorities. It’s certainly understandable that the methods of Vajrayana—its visualizations, pranayamic exercises, use of mudras, etc.—might be attractive to someone who finds himself bored, as it were, by the simplicity of bhaktic faith and who wishes to submit himself to a more “technical” discipline. To such a person two things may be said in response: First, Christian and Islamic mystical traditions are far from lacking their own “technical” aspects; second, a sincere and attentive trust in “other Power”, as embodied for example in the Name of Jesus, may seem something simple … until one tries it! As for what I’ve called skewed priorities, I can imagine Schuon saying something to this effect upon reading this inquiry: “The first concern of every man should be to avoid Hell and seek Heaven’s mercy”—”Hell” here meaning simply the loss of a central state, however prolonged and whatever the samsaric imponderables. The first and by far the most important motive any serious seeker should have is a desire for salvation after death. Only when he has taken all the sacramentally necessary steps to ensure that he is in a state of grace—regardless of how merely “exoteric” these steps may seem to him—should he concern himself with seeking integral spiritual realization in this life, supposing this to be his vocation.

One more point, and this should be emphasized: The tantric teachings and practices of Tibetan Buddhism would have been taught traditionally only to monks who had taken monastic refuge vows; who were well established in the practice of the moral and ethical precepts of Buddhism, particularly those aimed at loosening the grip of the ego (bodhicitta); who were well grounded in the sutra tradition, especially with regard to understanding the emptiness and dependent co-arising of all things; and who were in a position to receive direct instruction and guidance from a rinpoche, or spiritual guide. A fine overview of such prerequisites is given in Pabongka Rinpoche’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand. In other words, Vajrayana tantric practices were only taught to and practiced by a “spiritual elite” under highly controlled conditions. The point to stress is that these reservations applied to Tibetans themselves, people already steeped in Buddhist culture and civilization from birth. Think how great would be the additional demands placed upon a Westerner seeking admission into so select a circle. It’s surely for this reason, among others already mentioned, that Schuon chose to write (in a letter):

“I would not advise a Western Buddhist any other path than that of the invocation of Amit槆ha, whether in its Japanese or Tibetan form, assuming of course that he has a valid reason—valid in the eyes of God—for being a Buddhist and for entering upon a path so foreign to our traditional climate in the West.”

Discerning the West

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

This post is part of a series, beginning here.

“I have a question regarding Schuon’s claim that Vajrayana (or Kashmir Shaivism) is incompatible with the Western psyche. Isn’t it the case that Tibetan Buddhism ultimately derives from an Indo-Aryan spiritual current, mixed though this is with some of Tibet’s own Bon tradition? Such a tradition thus finds itself within the range of Indo-European religiosity and understanding of reality, like the Hinduism it is very similar to, and it is by extension related to archaic Greco-Roman traditions and to the Druids among the Celts, who as I’m sure you know are the equivalent of the Brahmins, shared a similar cosmology, and—according to Caesar—professed belief in the indestructibility of the soul (Atman) and transmigration.

“The various Indo-European pagan religions seem to all stem from a common Proto-Indo-European tradition, of which the Vedas are the earliest record but likely represent an oral tradition extending much further into pre-history, possibly as far back as 8000 B.C., according to certain theorists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Whether we accept such a notion or not we are still left with a very archaic spiritual tradition. Of course tantra is a much later development, but leaving aside the heterodox left-handed forms, tantra is still quite similar to preceding forms of Indian metaphysics, seeing itself as an adaptation to the needs of the men of the Kali Yuga, who in their spiritual constitution are quite different from the men of earlier ages.

“All this being so, why should the Eastern survivals of this form of spirituality be incompatible with the Western psyche when such traditions were once theirs as well and for a much longer time than the devotional Semitic faiths that have since replaced them? Christianity and, especially, Islam deny cyclical time, ignorance or avidya as the cause of the ‘fall’, and transmigration, while professing a doctrine of eternal heaven or hell, all of which doctrines are incompatible with the Indo-European view. Why should these traditions be too ‘heavy’ or ‘complex’ when the West has produced its own difficult metaphysics, as one finds for example in the Enneads of Plotinus, which went on to influence both Christian and Islamic mysticism? Is Schuon suggesting that only the more simplistic, devotional, or ‘bhaktic’ paths that place an emphasis on a heaven or ‘Pure Land’ are suitable for Westerners? If this is truly the case, are there no exceptions to this rule?”

In lauding the antiquity of the “Indo-Aryan spiritual current”, this inquirer seems to lose sight of the fact that age alone is no guarantee of truth, let alone spiritual practicality. The relative youth of the Christian and Islamic revelations, far from being a limitation, is a proof precisely of their cyclical providence, since the entire reason for these revelations was to provide the optimum spiritual means for mankind’s needs and problems in the current phase of the Kali Yuga.

It’s true, of course, that there is a certain Aryan inheritance in the Western psyche, but one shouldn’t confuse the “intellectual hypertrophy” typical of the modern Western mind with the metaphysical contemplativity characteristic of the traditional Brahmanical mentality; although neither is Semitic, they’re nonetheless worlds apart. This “Aryan inheritance” is something Schuon himself was certainly sensitive to, as he expressed in a letter:

“My insistence on my Aryan character means in fact that I feel that I share a visceral solidarity, from an intellectual point of view, with the Vedantists and the Neoplatonists and that I feel the monotheistic theologians to be very foreign; I say theologians, not men of prayer as such. As for India, my affinity does not end with the Vedantic doctrine, of course; it encompasses all the aesthetic symbolism and transformative contemplativity that are specific to the Brahmanical universe, whence my fundamental esoterism and my refusal to betray it.”

At the same time, whatever the ancient “Indo-European” roots of the Western psyche might be, one must not forget that this psyche has now been irrevocably shaped by two millennia of Christian civilization. When Jesus told His disciples to “teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19), was He not in effect proclaiming the providential abrogation by Christianity of the decadent Greco-Roman branches of the Indo-Aryan tradition? A similar point could be made in the case of Persia, a civilization with even deeper Indo-Aryan “roots” than Europe, but one which has been shaped far more by the growth, over the course of twelve centuries, of an Islamic “trunk” and “branches”, to the point that today Zoroastrianism—its ancient civilizational inheritance—has become thoroughly marginal in the psyche of the Persian people.

As for their eschatological doctrines, if Christianity and Islam do not detail eschatological realities in the same way one finds expounded in the doctrines of samsara and karma, this is for upayic reasons having as much to do with the individualism of modern Westerners, for whom these revelations were destined, as with the passional literalness of the Semites, to whom they were initially given. When modern men of the West are confronted with such ideas as transmigration, it’s all too easy for their delight in novelty and desire for adventure to blind them to the terrible fate of enduring perhaps eons of deaths and rebirths; instead they begin to fantasize about reincarnation in ways that enhance, rather than deflate, their egos’ desires and pretensions. In any case it’s a mistake to suppose there’s a contradiction between Eastern and Western eschatologies. As Schuon has shown, the doctrines of Hell, Purgatory, the two Limbos, and Heaven in fact set forth—no doubt in a highly elliptical, but nonetheless theologically sufficient, way—the full range of transmigrational possibilities (see the chapter “Universal Eschatology” in his Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism; also included in Splendor of the True: A Frithjof Schuon Reader). The differences between the Eastern and Western points of view on this subject are a matter of “saving stratagem”; indeed, there can be no intrinsic contradictions between the great revelations since they’re all God-ordained.

Why Can’t I Just Go It Alone?

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

This post is part of a series, beginning here.

“I’m puzzled by the emphasis placed on exoteric, collective religion by the Traditionalist authors. Is formal membership in an exoteric tradition really necessary for all men? Didn’t the Vedic rishis, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu discover Truth by themselves and within themselves? Pythagoras went and studied the doctrines of many different nations and traditions and worked without the support of an exoteric religion. Plotinus learned from the existing Platonic corpus; his teacher, Ammonius Saccas, was without the support of an exoteric religion (as far I’m aware) and yet was more metaphysically astute than most. The Desert Fathers, as hermits in the wilderness, lived far away from the exoteric organized religious structures, and yet their contributions to Christian mysticism are invaluable. Buddha says in the Dhammapada that, if you cannot find someone with whom to walk the spiritual path, then walk alone. Was his advice unwarranted? You once told me that many Orthodox may not be aware of the depths of their own tradition. This seems to be the case for many religions today, perhaps because of the Kali Yuga. If a person is unable to find men who know more than he does or, more ideally, men who are awakened or liberated to follow as gurus, what value can he gain from association with lesser individuals? Are the rites of exoteric religions alone enough to lead man toward Truth, or is it not the case that a man must strive to look inward on his own, as the figures I mentioned previously seem to prove? I pose these questions with a sincere humility. I don’t think I’m some advanced yogi and metaphysician with no need for exoteric religion. Far from it. Nevertheless, I still feel these questions are worth exploring and was wondering what the Traditionalist response would be.”

In the first place, it’s essential to distinguish religious founders—who are necessarily “innovators”, “mavericks”, and “trailblazers”, at least in a certain sense—from sages or other spiritual masters. In this regard one should read Schuon’s article “The Nature and Function of the Spiritual Master” in his Logic and Transcendence (also included in Splendor of the True: A Frithjof Schuon Reader, pp. 177-79). Those in the first category, such as the Buddha or Lao Tzu, are precisely those who establish a new form, path, or way; the second, though they are indeed “realizers”, are such only in the context of the religious tradition in which destiny has placed them. This is the universal human pattern, with respect to which there are precious few, if any, exceptions. Thus, the Vedic rishis were certainly seers, but their “seeing” was specifically in the context of Brahmanical Hinduism. Similar examples may be readily identified in other traditions. As for the Desert Fathers, it’s true they spent long periods of time geographically isolated from the main body of the Church, though not without regular recourse to the sacraments; but they were no less fully Christian for that. On the contrary, they were noted for their fierce defense of the exoteric tradition.

Regarding Pythagoras, Plato, Ammonius Saccas, and Plotinus, it’s somewhat misleading to picture them as independent of all formal tradition. They were in fact major figures in what might be termed the “Hellenic” religious tradition. Here one might recommend Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s “Philosophia as One of the Religious Traditions of Humankind” in Jean-Claude Gaely (ed.), Differences Valeurs et Hierarchy and Huston Smith’s “Western Philosophy as a Great Religion” in his Essays on World Religion, as well as the writings of Pierre Hadot, most notably his What is Ancient Philosophy? and Philosophy as a Way of Life. This Hellenic tradition effectively died out with the closing of the Platonic Academy in A.D. 529, but it gained a kind of second life by being absorbed into the intellectual schools of the Abrahamic monotheisms.

The inquirer speaks of “looking inwardly on one’s own”. It’s true of course that, in the final analysis, each of us must find the guru within and that we alone are responsible for making the necessary efforts to do so; there’s no spirituality as it were by osmosis. It’s also true that there’s never been an abundance of spiritual directors, let alone spiritual masters, and this is all the more the case in contemporary circumstances—a fact that may lead a serious seeker to suppose that a solitary path is his only alternative. One needs to remember, however, that while a true director, let alone a master, may be difficult to find, an elder spiritual friend, someone who simply has greater experience than ourselves, is by no means an unworthy substitute—”lesser” [sic] individual though he may be! True enough, no one can do our spiritual work for us, but attempting to undertake such work without even companionship, let alone guidance, is at once fatuous and dangerous. All the traditions agree: “He who chooses himself for a master has chosen a fool.”

Why Can’t I Be Hindu Too?

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

This post is part of a series, beginning here.

“I wish to ask why certain traditions are restricted, according to Traditionalist authors. Just for example, let’s say I read the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the Tantric literature of Kashmir Shaivism, and I conclude (despite their differences): ‘This is what I believe in; the path outlined by these texts speaks to me, and it is through this, I believe, that I will find Truth/Liberation.’ The Traditionalists, however, respond by saying, ‘No, you can’t follow this path because you can’t convert to Hinduism.’ True enough, I can never become part of the caste system or mainstream Hinduism—not that I’d want to since I am a Westerner after all. But does this mean the teachings, the path, the dharma, and the practices are something forbidden me? Why should this be so? The usual Traditionalist response is to say, ‘Join another tradition and keep in mind what you’ve gained from Hindu spirituality.’ But isn’t joining another tradition with a different theology, different path, and different practices—despite believing in something else—being dishonest, both to myself and to the tradition I’m joining?”

If certain traditions are restricted, this is according to the traditions themselves, a point on which Traditionalist authors are, as it were, simply reporting the facts. There are indeed distinct “sectors” of humanity—not water-tight compartments, to be sure, but sectors sufficiently delineated by history, as guided by the Hand of Providence, for us to see that it wasn’t Guénon or Schuon who invented the notion; they merely took cognizance of what is self-evident. “For each We have ordained a Path and a Law” (Qur’an 5:48).

As for being attracted to Hinduism through its spiritual literature, this of course is very understandable. It’s worth noting, however, that this inquirer’s awareness of such literature is due to the highly exceptional circumstances pertaining to the modern world. Traditionally, such texts as the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras, or Shaivite Tantras would be taught only to—and known only by—Hindus of the proper caste who’d been initiated into a spiritual lineage and only in the context of direct oral instruction under a guru. That Westerners like us have access to such texts may be seen as a kind of spiritual compensation, given the spiritual situation of modernity, but the texts themselves, while extremely precious, can’t on their own serve as sufficient guides.

But what of those who desire to go further than simply reading the books? Admittedly, it’s not impossible for a Westerner to follow a Hindu path in certain exceptional cases. One example that has come to my attention just recently is that of Swami Vijayananda, a French disciple of Anandamayi Ma. Anyone wishing to follow this Swami’s example, however, needs to ask himself three questions: First, what difficulties might I face in trying to find an authentic Hindu spiritual lineage and guru amid the welter of confusion, and no doubt charlatanism, characterizing the contemporary Hindu spiritual scene? Second, supposing I found such a guru, could he be persuaded to accept me, a Westerner, for initiation and guidance, either with or without conversion and admission into a caste? Third, supposing he did accept me, what might I be missing if I were to enter into his teaching lineage while living, effectively, in a religious “vacuum”, that is, without the supports supplied to those who are fully integrated into the larger tradition? It’s true that from a strictly advaitic perspective the larger tradition is irrelevant, but very few people have the strength, intellectual or otherwise, to base their spiritual lives exclusively on this perspective. An instructive study in how easy it is for those who try to do so to deviate from the Truth is provided in Dennis Waite’s Enlightenment: The Path Through the Jungle, which details the limitations of the popular Western neo-advaita or satsang movement, a classic case of Westerners going to India, studying at the feet of a guru—H. W. L. Poonja—then coming back to the West and proceeding to distort the teaching and method, to the point it bore little relation to traditional methods of instruction.

It should be noted, finally, that both René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon—deeply perceptive spiritual individuals—were profoundly attracted to Hinduism and thoroughly familiar with its central scriptures; and yet both of them adopted Islamic Sufism as their path and practice, and not the least of their reasons was that Sufism as a living path was (and still is) far more accessible to Europeans than Hinduism. Needless to say, neither Guénon nor Schuon considered himself “dishonest” in regarding Advaita Vedanta as the pre-eminent expression of traditional metaphysics while nonetheless practicing within the framework of Islam, for they understood both of the traditions in question in the larger context of the philosophia perennis. There’s no “dishonesty” in practicing a non-Hindu religion while meditating on the metaphysical and spiritual principles contained in the Upanishads and other sacred texts mentioned by this inquirer, and this is because equivalent formulations of these same principles can be found, mutatis mutandis, in all orthodox traditions. What matters is not the formulation but the sapiential content, which in the case of pure metaphysics is always the same, whether we’re speaking of Atma and Maya, Nirvana and Samsara, or the Principle and manifestation.

Questions in the Air

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

The questions you raise appear to be “in the air” at the moment, prompted in part by this recent post of mine.

I’ve had two other inquiries besides your own in just the last week or so on more or less the same subjects: why Guénon, Schuon, and other Traditionalist authors regard the Eastern religions, notably Hinduism, as “off limits” (your phrase) for Western seekers; and why these same authors insist so strongly on membership in a revealed (exoteric) tradition. Are there no exceptions to these rules?

These are profoundly important questions. Rather than trying simply to answer them myself, I decided to share them with some learned friends, each of whom was kind enough to write back with a variety of helpful insights. I’ve compiled, conflated, and condensed these friends’ observations, taking certain of their formulations whole cloth while adding occasional clarifications, elaborations, and examples of my own. I’m going to present the results in four subsequent posts on this weblog:

Why Can’t I Be Hindu Too?“, “Why Can’t I Just Go It Alone?“, “Discerning the West“, and “Facing Up To the Truly Difficult“. The first two of these are intended to answer two different (though related) questions, included at the start of the respective posts; the second two are intended to answer a single, multifaceted query, quoted in full at the start of both the third and fourth posts.