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.”