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Was Dogen PC?
Everyone has a few favorite sayings. One of mine, attributed to the famous Zen master Dogen, is “Next to good manners enlightenment is the most important thing in the world.” Another one I particularly like is “Hate the sin, not the sinner” which, we are led to believe, was uttered by Christ. Even though there is not much of a dialogue between Christians and Vedantins, I continually try to start one whenever I meet a Christian. It usually does not end up with deep epiphanies on either side. It need not be that way because some of the sayings of Christ suggest that he was a non-dualist, although it is a little hard to swallow if you take the incident where he is meant to have used a whip to drive the moneychangers from the temple into account. Maybe it was just tough love.
When the Church got going, somewhere along the line his non-dual pronouncements seem to have got lost in the shuffle and I have yet to meet a Christian who grasps the concept. One day I met a lady who was very much into Jesus. We had a nice conversation at the beginning because I have learned Christian-speak. I translate non-duality into words that do not upset them and, ocean of mercy that I am, I pussyfoot around the most glaring inconsistencies in their thinking.
In any case, when things were going well I asked her if she believed that God was omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. She said she did. So I said, “If God is omnipresent, he is present everywhere, so there is nothing other than God.” She seemed a little confused since this was a new idea for her, although the logic had her; she was still listening. Then I said that “if God was everything that is, then she and I were both God.” She was enlightened for approximately one second, which is not bad for a dualist, and then the conditioning kicked in and she told me in no uncertain terms that I was a heretic and a sinner and needed saving by Jesus. I had the feeling that if I persisted in my non-dual logic her irritation might become a stronger emotion.
Whether or not Christ said it, “Hate the sin, not the sinner” is a provocative statement. I like it. I am a teacher of traditional Vedanta and a teaching, among other things, should be provocative to be effective. Ignorance is a sleepy, obdurate fellow and one needs a loud alarm to wake him up. As some of you may know, I am an outspoken critic of Neo-Advaita. But for those who don’t, Neo-Advaita is an attempt in the last twenty years by certain Westerners who picked up a little spiritual knowledge in India and took it upon themselves to bring the idea of non-duality to the Western world, more or less like tourists bringing home souvenirs. The modern “ satsang” movement is Neo-Advaitin. Advaita means “non-dual.” The idea is that reality is only one thing, non-dual awareness, and I-me-we-you are it. What that means in terms of tying one’s shoes and bringing home the bacon is a big topic beyond the scope of this blog but when you boil it down it means that we are all free. We need not depend on anything for our happiness.
Hate is a strong emotion. The jury is out on whether or not it is good to express negative emotions. Sometimes it is good, sometimes not so good. But it is definitely not politically correct (PC) to hate. In the worldly world, people tend to be conservative or liberal in their general orientation to life. Most everyone in the spiritual world, which is more or less the worldly world dressed up in fancy clothing, is liberal. I meet a lot of spiritual people and I can’t recall one that voted for George Bush. Liberals love multiculturalism and they invented political correctness. They picture conservatives as hardhearted meanies who attack everything they do not like. On balance, their idea, which is not all bad, is that we should all love each other and show it in the way we communicate.
I agree, but in the apparent duality in which we find ourselves there is an upside and a downside to everything, including ideas. The upside is obvious – the world would be a more harmonious place if people loved rather than hated. People would cooperate and things would roll along smoothly as if on greased wheels. It is a nice ideal but reality is not an ideal. What is the downside of the idea that we should all only love each other and speak loving words?
The downside is that the human mind is not a non-dual bundle of love. It is a conflicted dualist. It has light, lovely elements and not-so-light, lovely, dark elements. And insofar as repressing one’s feelings is not good for one’s health, what is inside comes out. The idea with political correctness is that the dark side should not come out in public. It is a good idea. This is what manners are all about. Was Dogen PC? Did he mean that we should all run around hugging and kissing each other in the name of non-duality and keep our dark impulses in check? I don’t think so. I think what he meant was that unless you are relatively free of the conflict that comes from injuring others, you are not qualified for enlightenment.
If a relatively peaceful mind is a prerequisite for enlightenment, then what am I going to do with my unloving impulses? I don’t get what I want and I get angry. Should I lash out at the world? I think I’m right on certain topics – the war and the environment, for example. Should I write nasty notes about my neighbor’s masculinity and stick them under the windshield wiper of his obscenely huge RV? Express or repress, that is the question.
The modern spiritual world seems to favor repression because, I think, they do not understand the meaning of Christ’s statement. One of its most infuriating beliefs is the idea that, irrespective of what you are feeling, you need to prove your spirituality by being hopelessly loving. I think it is a good idea to love the people who come into the field of your awareness but if you are in a bad mood it is probably better to take a walk in the park than put on a smarmy smile and pretend that you are happy.
As I said above, hate is a strong word. I don’t hate anybody and I don’t really hate anything but I have strong negative feeling about certain kinds of ignorance. I don’t think Christ meant that you should actively and consciously hate things. I think it realistically acknowledges the fact that human beings have likes and dislikes and that there is a reasonable way to express your dislikes without harming others. In my case, I dislike ideas that do not stack up with truth, common sense and reason. But ideas are always expressed by people. Whether or not human beings are authors of the ideas they express is another topic. But assuming that they are, how do you separate the idea from the person who espouses it?
Being a kind of public figure has its upside and its downside. You get to “make a difference,” as they say. You get to vent and rant, inspire and uplift and generally work out your stuff in front of others and this is always good because we are social animals. The downside is that because you are putting energy into the field of existence, energy is going to come back. So if you say something that someone does not like, you will likely hear about it. Some of what you hear is based on what you actually said and some of it isn’t. People project. They read into your words what they want to. Others listen to what you say and respond consciously.
In the newspaper business they say that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The fact that people are paying attention is all that matters. This is not the case with me although I like to be criticized. I like it because it means that my ideas are making people think. I don’t say what I say to irritate people. I say what I say because I think it is helpful. It may be and it may not be – that is for others to decide. In my case, I teach Vedanta. Although I do not identify myself as a teacher – it is just a role I play when someone wants to know something about enlightenment – I follow the tradition. It so happens that Vedanta does not have the same take on how to attain enlightenment as Neo-Advaita. It says that ignorance of the nature of the self is the cause of suffering and that if you can get rid of your ignorance, you can stop suffering. It has ways of doing this – called prakriyas, or teachings – that are very effective. The tradition has been producing enlightened people for thousands of years.
The tradition is neither negative nor positive. It uses both negative and positive statements to remove ignorance. Ignorance shows up in people’s beliefs and opinions, so Vedanta is forced to address them. It can show you how, based on your own experience and the logic of enlightenment, a certain belief or opinion is curtailing your freedom. So there is a long tradition of criticism in Vedanta. The Brahma Sutras, for example, patiently dismiss all manner of erroneous views about enlightenment – according to the revealed words of the Upanishads. In a much later text, Panchadasi, Vidyaranya Swami dismisses a number of incorrect views. Even Swami Dayananda, as mild mannered a sage as you can hope to encounter, makes no bones about exposing ill-considered teachings. The Vaishnava bhaktas attack Shankara as a “Mayavadi.” For them it is a bad word. In modern times in the Neo-Advaita world, the “you are not the doer” teaching is most frequently associated with Ramesh Balsekar.
These attacks are usually not personal yet it can seem as if they are because certain ideas are associated with certain names. This is where Christ’s statement is useful. He is saying that when you are feeling unhappy with someone’s behavior or their ideas you need to discriminate the behavior, the “sin,” from the “sinner.” I take this to mean that the sinner is the self, awareness, under the spell of ignorance and that you are free to engage the person’s ideas if they do not stand up to common sense and reason – and in our case, the source scriptures – but you should not attack the person. This is a tricky business because people are very identified with “their” ideas. I do not have this problem because the ideas belong to Vedanta. Not one of them is mine. Vedanta did its job on me and it did not leave me with one idea that I can call my own. So when you do not like what I say you do not attack me, you attack what I say. This is good. I believe I can defeat your ideas using the teachings of Vedanta if your ideas are ill-considered – but there is nothing personal in it. Truth does not take care of itself. People have to defend it or it will get overwhelmed by ignorance.
In the days before political correctness when consumer society had not reduced the general population to quivering blobs of hypersensitive, emotional ectoplasm with ego shells as thin as hummingbird wings and you could speak your mind without a terrifying visit from the custodians of spiritual correctness, people could actually take the heat without getting upset. There are virtually no Buddhists in India because the society put on great debates and Shankara, using the logic of the scriptures, defeated them. They either saw the light and accepted the truth or they went off content with their idea of truth.
Shankara did not think that non-duality was “his” idea. He said he was a link in the tradition and that is all. It did not start with him. The truth does not start with people. It is revealed to people. But people identify with it. I am always amused when I meet Western people in Tiruvannamalai, where I maintain a residence, who think that Ramana Maharshi invented self-inquiry. Experience, scripture, logic and reason establishes non-duality and nothing else. So when I attack Neo-Advaita, there is nothing personal in it.
In my book How to Attain Enlightenment I devote a whole chapter to a critique of Neo-Advaita. You could call it an attack. Some say I have a Vedanta vendetta going but it is not true. There are attacks and there are attacks. When a person is suffering and needs to relieve it, he or she does not sit down and develop a well-constructed argument outlining his or her grievances. The words just explode out of the mouth without any rhyme or reason. Most attacks are not about what they are about. They are just about getting rid of pain.
But my arguments, for which I have occasionally been chastised by friends, are not caused by some deep-seated psychological problem. They could not actually be called attacks because they are completely reasonable. Given the idea of liberation, given the fact that reality is non-dual and not the duality, plurality or multiplicity it seems, given the statements in the Vedanta scriptures, Neo-Advaita’s idea of non-duality does not add up. It is fine in theory. It states the ultimate truth and then it leaves you hanging.
Here is an email that I received this week:
“I have been in the Neo-Advaita world and all I was ever told was that there was no methodology (because methodology implies the existence of a person! Argh!). My former teacher writes and speaks very clearly about the non-conceptual awareness that we are and he never allows one to get into a story about fixing things in the appearance but when backed into a corner, he would regularly say, ‘Just get real clear about who you are,’ which would prompt me to say, ‘HOW? Get real clear how?,’ to which he had no answer but repeated what he already said. I was extremely frustrated. In one of my last emails to him, I told him, ‘They didn’t write the Upanishads for nothing.’ After that he dropped me like a hot potato.”
He dropped her like a hot potato because he had no way to show her how to clear her ignorance. I told her that she should have asked him – in what has become a big joke in the spiritual world about the satsang teachers – “WHO is going to get clear?” and “WHO is telling me to get clear?”
You can’t get clear yourself. Clarity is not something you do. Most seekers take ignorance for knowledge. Ignorance needs to be removed by a third party. Once you have a means of knowledge, then you can clear yourself. Vedanta is a means of self-knowledge. It needs to be taught. So when I point out that Neo-Advaita has no road map to take the seeker from where he or she is to where he or she wants to be, is that an attack? When I say – along with the tradition – that being enlightened does not qualify you to enlighten others, that you need a valid means of knowledge and the temperament of a teacher, and a qualified mind, is that an attack? It is just common sense. In the second chapter of my book I patiently demolish ten or so enlightenment myths – sacred cows in the spiritual world – in light of the fact that reality is non-dual. There is nothing personal about it. It is completely logical and it needs to be done because a lot of people have swallowed half-truths as truth and suffered considerably. I am overwhelmed by the positive response to criticisms. Where I was languishing in obscurity before I began pointing out the limitation of the modern instant enlightenment teachings, I can now barely keep up with the interest in Vedanta.
But these days logic and reason – even thinking itself – is the bad guy in the modern spiritual drama. It is all “intellectual” and therefore evil. I am not in the dark about what the spiritual police need from us. People tell me all the time. They need us to hug each other and say only nice things and hold hands in an Om circle so that nobody feels bad about himself or herself. This is all very fine, but bad ideas should not allowed to thrive in an atmosphere of uncritical thought.