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Monday, September 5, 2011

Religion, philosophy and me (pt 3): mysticism and dogma

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I wrote this for an Indian journal, Gurukulam, many years ago. I decided to include it here because it carries on the theme I was talking about in the previous part.

From human history's beginning, the activities and teachings of certain people have been recorded for posterity, usually by disciples and adherents who wish to ensure that the words of the teacher will not pass into oblivion.
  The recording of this wisdom has the potential both for good and for harm. The positive value of the teachings as recorded is that they usually contain the core or essence of truth; they give a guide to humanity for living in harmony with one's self and one's fellow creatures, and engender a sense of responsibility towards one's descendants.
  The potential for harm arises when the words of the teachers, or their recorded actions, are misinterpreted by their followers, or when their adherents believe that their particular source of inspiration is the sole reservoir of truth.
  In casting about for an introduction to this theme, I was particularly struck by a paragraph of Nitya's column in the second edition of Gurukulam, which brought this problem into focus. Speaking of his record of Narayana Guru's guidance, he gave this piece of advice:
  Everything Guru said was not doctrine. There are pleasantries given in a light‑hearted mood. My only request to the reader is not to hang on the literal sense of whatever comes into this column, but to take it as a general suggestion to look into a certain direction of mystical profundity and be benefited by the grace of the Guru which goes with the words he spoke for the welfare of mankind.
  It seems to me that these words of caution, even though the context is different, could very well be applied to the record of the teachings of other great men and women, such as the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Jesus and Muhammad. All of these, and a host of lesser known illuminates, possessed that faculty of mystical insight, which cannot be transmitted literally.
  Conflicts between their followers have arisen when the attempt to interpret mystical awareness becomes doctrine; where that which is unexplainable in finite terms becomes limited by fixed categories which respond to sensory‑intellectual consciousness alone.
  There are many examples in history of how this confusion has caused great schisms in organised religion, and where dogmatism has imposed much suffering upon mankind. The Sufis, for example, who followed an esoteric interpretation of the Qur'an (Koran), were persecuted by Islamic orthodoxy throughout history. Christian mystics such as St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross were regarded by the orthodoxy of their day as dangerous eccentrics — if not heretics. The mysticism of Tantrism and Taoism degenerated into practices unworthy of the brilliance of the original mystical insight.
  But where the orthodox of one religion confronted the orthodox of another, the conflict has been even more terrible. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs have all committed crimes against humanity in the name of their religion.
  If we look at the teachings of the Bible, the Koran, the Gita, or the Tao te Ching as the products of mystical insight, then the problems of interpretation diminish substantially. Jesus taught love, compassion and charity towards others as the way to serve God. But did not Muhammad also enjoin these practices? Are they not, among others of course, the ethical principles enshrined in the Dhammapada, or the Gita, or the Tao te Ching?
  Certainly, each source expresses them in its own way, in accordance with the values and needs of the society from which it came. Is it not a dangerous practice to assume that the precise form they took at the time (if, indeed, their form was ever precise) applies equally to other societies and other times? It is fair to assume that the translations upon which the present‑day disciple so often depends are exactly what the original teacher intended? Or that, even if they are exact, they were always meant to be taken literally?
  Too much is left to the frailty and imperfect minds of the many through whom the teacher's words have passed. The result all too often is that the interpretations of the words of the teacher are coded like symbols carved into prayer wheels to be turned five times a day. The wisdom of the teacher must live in the present and not be the mummified remains paraded mercilessly before an uncomprehending gallery of bored spectators.
  It is the quality of mystical insight in the teachings of the sages above all that is worthy of preservation. Much of the remainder is but the trappings of faith.
  Mysticism is an experience of reality unfettered by words or symbols. It transcends our everyday consciousness but is not totally divorced from it; indeed, in the extroverted form, the senses and the intellect are the agencies of mystical awareness.
  In the introverted form, the sensory‑intellectual consciousness loses its immediacy. Yet both forms of experience are of the same essence. Mystical awareness is a state of bliss beyond the capacity of the experiencer to conceptualise. It is total consciousness in which the self disappears in the totality of all things.
  The 'problem' arises when the mystics attempts to explain the experience and to relate it to how one should conduct one's mundane existence. To do so, they have to use words and symbols. They have to conceptualise. They have to rely upon a present memory of that past experience, which is quite a different thing to the actual experience of mystical consciousness.
  In their description, they are not only bound by limited forms of expression, but interpret experience according to their own past and preconceptions.
  To the Christian, the state of mystical awareness is equated to the presence of God. To the Buddhist, it is an experience of Nirvana. To the Taoist, it is to be in accordance with the Tao, and to the Hindu, it may be described in terms of Brahman, the ultimate reality.
  And yet the experience is not limited to the 'religious' person alone. Arthur Koestler, in The Invisible Writing, describes a great power and clarity how he, an avowed atheist, experienced a state of mystical awareness during the time of his imprisonment during the Spanish Civil War, an experience which dramatically affected the course of his subsequent life.
  His description is not that of a 'religious' experience as it is normally understood but it was of the same essence. Several modern scientists, too, particularly nuclear physicists, have become aware through their study of matter, energy, time and space just how deceptive to the senses and the intellect the reality of the universe is. But how explainable is this state of total consciousness to ordinary people? How applicable is it to everyday life?
  The best known teachers, and many who are less well known, all realised the dangers inherent in trying to pass on the knowledge of what they had discovered. The Upanishadic sages hid themselves in the forest, where all but the most devoted of disciples had no contact with them. The Buddha was almost overwhelmed by the realisation of how nearly impossible was the task of communicating what he had discovered. Lao Tzu, if we can believe the story, was persuaded only at the last moment to attempt an explanation, and the beautiful verses of the Tao te Ching were the result. Confucius refused to speak of afterlife, believing that any such discussion would only lead to confusion.
  Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu and the Sufis spoke in parables, which were designed simply to point the way. The koan of the Zen masters was the ultimate parable, explainable only in intuitively grasped terms. All realised that the best way to point the searcher in the direction of ultimate truth was to create a set of conditions in which truth might become apparent to the still and open mind.
  They offered a discipline rather than a recipe. And that discipline was expressed in terms that suited their time and environment. Whether it was in the various forms of yoga, or meditation, or prayer, it accorded with the capacity and predisposition of the people who came to the teachers for guidance.
  It is in this light that the teachings of the mystics ought to be viewed. To place too much emphasis on the written word is likely to lead to dogmatism and confusion. The teachers of the paths of self‑awareness try to point us in the right direction. Some have greater capacity than others to teach, just as some have greater receptivity to the teachings than others. 'To a few, a mere sign is enough.'
  To most of us, the discipline still has to be absorbed, so that the conditions for discovering true awareness can be created. To confuse the path with the goal is illusion. All we can do is to seek the guidance of those who can set us on the path, and to develop our awareness from there.
  If this at least is understood, then the conflict and jealousy between religions and sects disappears. Sadly, we’re only on the first faltering step of that journey - if anyone is prepared to take the step at all. Not too many are.

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3<<you are here
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  1. Any "spiritual" text is compromised by the political and social circumstances which allowed it to be created, making it difficult to disentangle the politics from the spiritual message. The Christian Bible was written down hundreds of years after the death of the main character, as were the Buddhist texts. The Koran may have been written to accompany the march of Arabian armies through the known world; the Tao Te Ching was written in response to political and social issues and conditions at the time of writing, as was the Bhagavad Gita. No doubt there is some kernel of spiritual truth, as they say, in all these texts, but I wonder if one doesn't recognise it until one has the experience oneself. Or can I go as far as to say that we see a reflection of our own experience, however exalted or mundane, rather than any "truth", when we read religious/spiritual texts? Hence the confusion in interpretation. Perhaps every truth declaring text should come with the warning, "This book is a mirror not a lens." My experience with such texts is that they are more like onions. Read, peel back the layers, reveal, and weep. :)

  2. What a pity Joan, you said everything I wanted to say, only more and better.

    We humans always seek certainty and would rather follow an emphatic path laid down in scriptures, physics, computer modelling, whatever, rather than face the uncertainty of saying 'I simply don't know'. Chaos theory makes nonsense of most things just a short way down the track, particularly in computer modelling.

    I was once present at a meeting where economists produced a model showing a seven percent return. The principal said "I can't sell seven percent; feed 12 percent in at the end and work backwards to tweak the assumptions." I was astonished at how little tweaking was needed, in a 20 year model, to achieve this result.

    What should have been a fuzzy logic model of possibilities became an absolutely inarguable fact (which lost a lot of people a lot of money).

    To connect this to Denis' blog on spiritual dogma. As far as I can understand, most, if not all formal religions were constructed from hearsay, assembled by a committee with political and social agendas, and then interpreted, altered and adapted over time to suit changing circumstances and different countries or cultures. How many inaccurate assumptions and statements creep in here?

    And fundamentalists base their lives, judgements and societies on the printed word of God!

    Also, Denis, I hope I am not guilty of misreading the Koran, but I missed out on the love and compassion stuff. It seemed to me to be Old Testament flavoured with the harshness of the desert.


  3. The only bit I found in the Koran so far that really strikes me as having spiritual depth is the phrase, "It's closer than your jugular vein." But that's me, looking into the mirror of my own preoccupation with the mystery of consciousness. I'm sure there are as many interpretations of that saying as there are people who read it.

    If we regard spiritual texts as literature, then we don't have to defend them on the "word of god" grounds and accept them as literal truth. Hamlet was a fictional character, and yet we find subtle truths in his dilemma and soliloquies. We would never reject the "spiritual" value and truths of Hamlet, and yet we don't expect the play to be a faithful account of a real person and a real incident. It is as absurd to argue for the historical truth of the Bible/Koran/Pentateuch/Tao Te Ching/Bhagavad Gita/Buddha's story as it would be to argue for the historical truth of Hamlet.

  4. I agree Joan, we don't have to accept spiritual texts as the literal truth - if only others were more like us.

  5. Accepting that your sacred text might not be the word of god requires an immense psychological shift -- a dangerous leap over the loss-of-faith, dark night of the soul abyss to another side where meanings are not so certain. Why would anyone want to take such a leap into ambiguity, paradox, discomfort, and self reliance when one can remain safe in the arms of god and the certainties of faith? I can't imagine that anyone would do this willingly, so it must take some kind of crisis to shake one loose from one's religious moorings.

  6. Again, I have to say that you are both exactly on the turf I am trying to kick the old horse along, and I thank you for these words. That we might miss out on the compassionate side of the Qur'anic texts as relayed to us only confounds things, especially when I think of the incredible generosity and kindness of the Muslims who call me a friend. Dogma is a product of insecurity. Actions have always spoken louder than words.

  7. In my early 20s, I decided to acquaint myself with some of the stories underlying my own culture, to be exact, what we call the Old Testament. I was horrified at the violence. My experience at Sunday School as a child was equally disturbing. I was told to pray each night with an image in my mind: either Jesus hanging on a cross or a lamb burning on an altar. As a child, I found the image of the dead lamb particularly distressing.

    Recently I have been arguing with devotees of the Bhagavad Gita over the implications of Krishna's accusing Arjuna of being a coward and prompting him to kill his cousins. After all, there is no such thing as death. I'm on Arjuna's side.

    So the Koran is not alone in its ambiguity about violence. Like those other texts, it was written by human beings with human issues in mind. A mirror of our own desires. I'd be worried if they were written by any God. Then we'd really be in trouble :).


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