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What Happened to Silence?
I haven’t heard much about teaching in “silence” these days. At one time, after Papaji died, the Neo-Advaita crowd showed up in Tiruvannamalai. A lot of them had been on the spiritual path a long time, starting out with Osho and moving on to Papaji when Osho died. When Papaji shuffled off the mortal coil, they wanted to keep the satsang party going so they migrated to Tiruvannamalai more or less out of sentiment, I suppose, to be closer to the Papaji’s spiritual papa, Ramana – or at least his legend insofar as he was long gone.
In those days I used to hang out in a restaurant near the Ramanashram and, being curious by nature and satsang-hungry, I struck up interesting conversations with scores of Papaji people – and others. Most were fairly knowledgeable about Ramana. I had my views and was not shy about expressing them – to the consternation of some – and I had many interesting and sometimes heated discussions.
I say “heated” because my views about teaching in silence were not always excessively popular. The prevailing view at the time was that silence was the greatest thing since sliced bread and anyone who thought otherwise was a word-obsessed, heartless intellectual and just didn’t have a clue. I said that sitting in silence was great as a kind of experience but that it was not well suited for liberation, the reason being that silence does not have a problem with self-ignorance because it is in harmony with everything. My idea, which is Vedanta’s idea, is that ignorance of the nature of the self, not lack of self-experience, is bondage, the reason being that reality is non-dual. If it is non-dual then everything we are experiencing all the time is the self and there is no need to seek a special enlightenment experience, “in silence.”
I tend to be contrarian by nature, as are perhaps the majority of spiritual types, but not a mindless contrarian. Just arguing against something to argue against something is hopelessly vain and I have a hard and fast agreement with myself not to do it. I need to have my intellectual ducks in line before I engage in debate. No view is worth its salt unless it is backed by reason. In my frequent debates I suggested the Vedantic view that knowledge is opposed to ignorance and that the right kind of words appearing in the right kind of mind could bring about liberation.
The modern aversion to words is understandable on several accounts, not the least of which is that most of the surfeit of supposedly enlightened Western people babbling about enlightenment these days only “teach” what they have picked up from the great soup of ill-considered beliefs and opinions that swirl around endlessly in the ocean of words that make up the modern spiritual world. Because Western civilization, drowning as it is in a sea of materialism, seems to have lost touch with its spiritual roots, it is forced to seek elsewhere and in the last thirty years has rushed frantically around the world pirating bits and pieces of wisdom from many and diverse sources – the shamans of South America whose visions seem to be inspired by the juice of vines wrapped around trees native to the Amazonian jungles, the terse and apparently profound and provocative comments of “great” roshis marching seriously among rows of disciplined meditators in austere Japanese zendos, their eyes peeled for infractions of meditation dharma which they are happy to correct with a nasty whack from a bamboo stick, the homey organic wisdom of big-mama, earth-mother Wiccans who famously propitiate the moon goddess in extravagant rituals as they dance around bonfires on full moon nights – and other sources too numerous to mention. These pirated bits of wisdom are then cobbled together according to principles that defy even the basic rules of logic and dished up with the mindless certainty of true believers everywhere. No wonder confusion rules the day.
Maybe I am being a bit too hard on Westerners. Even in India, which can legitimately can lay claim to the title of the world’s spiritual superpower, the use of words of wisdom is often seriously unwise. I am thinking now of what I like to call the language of devotional – should we say promotional – hyperbole. By that I mean presenting the knowledge of simple, ordinary, everyday, actionless awareness in an endless barrage of extravagant hyperbole like Apple Corporation presents the iPad to its adoring acolytes. Why anyone would have the temerity to seek it after such a surfeit of superlatives, I cannot imagine. Enlightenment, it seems, is meant to be the most incredible, fantastic, amazing, etc., etc. mind-blowing experience ever! No wonder we turn off to words.
In any case, several years passed and Tiruvannamalai changed. At any given day in December or January there are now two or three thousand foreigners – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt – seeking enlightenment. One morning I went to visit a friend and there were one-hundred-plus Russians listening to a South American guru. Mooji, the reigning superstar of the Neos, working hard developing the next big cult of personality, drew in excess of three hundred. Huge gleaming tour buses clog the already clogged road in front of the Ramanashram. Even poor geriatric little me, an irascible curmudgeonly type if there ever was one – and small guru potatoes at that – got mildly famous, probably off the rejects from the satsangs of the luminaries. In any case, instead of the usual eight or ten attendees, last year my satsang grew to between twenty and thirty, and this year – wonder of wonders – it averaged about forty a day, jumping into the fifties on Mooji’s day off! Grateful I am indeed for small crumbs from the king’s table.
Things are often conspicuous by their absence. One day I had a few minutes to reflect and I realized that in spite of the scores of satsangs I had with new people this year in Tiruvannamalai, only one or two mentioned Ramana. At one point, the whole point of Tiruvannamalai was Ramana, Ramana, Ramana and more Ramana. Now, sadly, it seems Ramana has been more or less lost in the shuffle. Ramana was a great man and in spite of the view that he taught in silence, he said a lot of valuable words which should give any sincere seeker pleasure to contemplate.
Mind you, I am not disparaging silence. The first time I came, in 1976, Ramana had been more or less forgotten by the world. It took me almost a half an hour to find the manager who asked for ten rupees and told me to take a room across the street. I was with a friend who was not happy. He had “problems” and I thought that a trip to India might jog him out of his head. We pilgrimaged all over India but nothing happened. Even when something should have happened, nothing happened. For instance, one day we were walking down the street in Trivandrum near the bus stand and suddenly out of the swarm of bodies a lovely Indian woman came right up to us. It was such a strange occurrence – completely unbelievable – because a well-dressed upper-caste woman would never communicate with a foreigner in the street. For a moment I thought it was my mind playing tricks. She was terribly beautiful, radiant as the sun, a goddess really. But she was real. She came right up to my friend and said, “Why are you weeping when the Lord is laughing in your Heart?” And then she vanished. “What was she talking about?” he said. “India. I just don’t get it.”
In any case, we got our room, dropped off our luggage, showered and went back to the ashram. As we stepped into the mother’s side of the temple the silence was palpable. We stopped in front of a black granite statue of Ramana sitting on a bench on the right and offered our prayers. And – you may find this hard to believe – the stone slowly morphed into flesh and a living Ramana transmitted the vision of non-duality into our minds through eyes that were the essence of kindness! And then, smiling, he slowly morphed back into stone!
In those days my mind was quite mystical and I often experienced the pratibhasika level of reality. It is like a waking dream. The mind presents its vision in such a way that what you see is as real – sometimes more real – than everyday reality. But this was not my own private vision. This was God’s vision because my friend saw it too with his physical eyes. And he was not in a mystical state. In fact, he was sad and lonely and frustrated and very much caught up in samsara. From that day forward his life moved in a different direction and, although he died before his time, he attained peace.
So silence is good. Things happen in silence. But words are equally good if they come out of silence – like Ramana came out of that stone. Vedanta is words. It is a shabda pramana, a word-mirror that reveals your true nature. A couple of years ago I met a lovely man in his fifties who had been seeking all of his adult life. He was very intelligent and intellectual. He had received a classical education and had studied religion and philosophy. We had many long satsangs and somehow the words of Vedanta affected him profoundly. He sent me an email, which I lightly edited, that I think explains the value of words. Here it is:
“There is a world of difference between beliefs, assumptions, conclusions, evaluations and judgments that arise from self-ignorance and the discernment that arises from the faculty of discrimination. What we think and experience ourselves to be, and what we think and experience objects to be, arises from self-ignorance. Discernment is the discrimination that arises when we realize the truth of who and what we really are. In light of this truth the nature of objects becomes evident. Discernment does not come from our beliefs, assumptions, conclusions, evaluations and judgments. It comes from clearly knowing the difference between what is changing and what is eternal, between what comes and goes and what is ever present – that in which life’s comings and goings appear.
“Because the discernment that Vedanta recommends as a means of enlightenment is articulated with words, it is easy to conclude that Vedanta is merely an intellectual discipline and is therefore useless as a means of enlightenment. This confusion is based on the fact that language can express both ignorance of who we are and the truth of who we are. Language is generally used to express our uninformed experience of objects. But it will not express the reality of objects if the one using the words does not understand the insubstantiality and transparency of objects. However, someone who knows the truth can express in words the reality of objects and the nature of the awareness in which the experience of objects takes place.
“Because language mainly serves ignorance is not a good reason to confuse ignorance with language and dismiss them both. Truth can take the form of words. It is true that what we normally think and say is not true to the nature of our experience, but because a hammer can be used to kill does not mean is has no other uses. Thinking and language need not be a problem on the way to enlightenment unless they are born of ignorance of the nature of reality. Thought and language that arise from knowledge of reality become a means of enlightenment.
“Vedanta is unique in that Truth lives in words as the active understanding of the teacher. Its revelation can be discerned by anyone listening with an open mind, a mind devoid of personal beliefs, assumptions, conclusions, evaluations and judgments. When exposure to the Truth occurs, the understanding in the teacher simultaneously becomes active in the student. When this happens the student finds his or herself being the Truth. The student does not do anything other than expose his or her mind to the living understanding of the teacher. If the teacher is transferring information, parroting doctrine or exhorting the seeker to engage in spiritual practice no transformation will take place.
“The exposure to the Truth of what already is sets us free, not the teacher, the teaching or the student; they are simply the means. When the Truth becomes evident, it simultaneously becomes active in our daily living as a way of thinking, feeling and acting. It manifests as a way of being which is not of the world, but very much within it.
“It is not that we have daily life on one hand and the Truth on the other. Notions of a spiritual freedom separate from daily life are delusional and based on self-deception. Our daily life reveals clearly whether we are living from ignorance or whether we are living from the self. Living from the self is qualitatively different from living from ignorance. For one thing, it is not determined by fear, hatred and desire. On an honest examination of our daily life, it will be found that these three factors normally motivate us. They are not suitable motivators because they are caused by ignorance of our real nature. They are the dynamic force from which daily human life with all its stupidity, violence and delusions of goodness arise.
“Our personal mind, which consists of all of our beliefs, assumptions, conclusions, evaluations and judgments, can never become a means of knowing the truth of what we really are. This kind of thinking is based on inadequate interpretation of experiences generated by ignorance of the self. The same goes for the senses. The senses only inform us of the appearance of things. Like the mind they are an inadequate means of self-knowledge.
“Feelings or emotions can be helpful to inform us of how others are feeling and push us to do what is necessary when we are confronted with unpleasant existential situations. But when they are ignorance-based and personal and stand without reference to objective facts, they drive us to act in destructive ways and destroy the clarity of mind we need to live happily. They leave no place for dispassion, a necessary means for self-inquiry. But whether they are helpful or unhelpful, they can never be an adequate means of self-knowledge. The belief ‘If I can’t feel it, it is not true’ is not true because awareness, the self, is never an object of feeling.
“Our psychological makeup stands without reference to self-knowledge. Any actions originating from our thoughts, feelings or senses will not bring us to self-knowledge. All such efforts are futile. Hence we have to expose ourselves to a means of knowledge which transcends our psychology and yet carries us to the realization of our identity as awareness.
“What awareness? The ordinary awareness that is right here, right where we are. The simple awareness that registers all apparent sensory, emotional and mental activities. Vedanta as a means of self-knowledge does not take us to some faraway, mystical knowledge; rather it brings us to the realization of the fact of what we really are. It is peculiar in that what we really are is not an object within awareness, but rather we are that in which all objects appear and disappear.
“This knowledge is not the knowing of the words. It is the transforming understanding which obtains in the mind after hearing, reflecting and contemplating the meanings that come from the words of scripture. These meanings, which come alive and active through the teacher and the teaching, are the means to reveal who and what we really are. Vedanta does not sanction an understanding that does not transform our daily life to the point where it aligns with truth. We are not going to become a personal doer living a virtuous life as a result of our knowledge of who we are, although it may seem so. It is simpler than that: we cannot help but act out what we are. If I am angry, I have an angry life. I do not have to push myself to live this way; it lives itself out. Similarly, when I am being myself in the fullest sense of that word, I cannot help but live it out. No effort is involved.
“Practically, this means that if I am confused, hostile, sad or worried and acting in destructive ways toward myself or others, I am ignorant that I am the self. But all these uncomfortable expressions of my self-ignorance are useful if they motivate me to inquire into my nature as they arise. So I do not try to improve myself, or change myself because such efforts are based on the assumption that I am the person I experience myself to be and not on the knowledge of who I am. Rather, I pause and begin to reflect on a meaning that comes from scripture that is relevant to my present suffering. How extraordinary that as the truth of that meaning becomes apparent and active in me, I find myself lifted beyond the present suffering! My external situation may remain the same but the suffering it engendered dissolves and I find myself thinking and feeling and doing things in a non-personal, dispassionate way. All my thinking, feeling and actions become a function of the understanding embracing me. It is extraordinarily ordinary.
“If this existential shift does not occur, recollect an idea that has been elucidated by the teaching. Quietly ponder it. It is not your job to understand it, it is your job to expose your mind to it and let it do its work. The idea ‘I am awareness’ is scripture’s most fundamental meaning. If you do not expose your mind to it by reflecting on it and contemplating the reality of it as it exists in your life, no existential shift will happen. When you examine its meaning wholeheartedly, the reality it points to will become as clear as the existential shift it causes. Without the use of language these transformative meanings would not be available to us. We would have no way to expose our minds to the truth of what we really are. We would be left with minds filled with spiritual culture’s accumulated junk verbiage.
“When we are confronted with existential problems, the tendency to become anti-intellectual and “spiritual” often causes us to believe that we can just feel our way to reality. But this is like trying to see with our ears. If we have no means of knowledge to arrive at the already-existing truth that sets us free, we live in a spiritual wilderness. In service of self-ignorance, the intellect can never know the self but it becomes wise when it serves the teachings of a valid means of self-knowledge like Vedanta. A tool used for the wrong purpose is not a defective tool. It comes into its own when it is used as it was intended to be used. The intellect is designed for self-inquiry, not for making ignorance work.
“The anti-intellectualism that sounds so loudly in the spiritual world is understandable because most spiritual teachers are self-deluded and claim that the ignorance they speak is actually truth. This makes seekers turn to feelings or intuition or the laughable belief in ego-loss or the fantasy that some kind of incredible experience will set them free. This anti-intellectual stance imprisons them within the confines of their senses, emotions and thoughts and makes them unavailable for the transforming action of a legitimate means of knowledge.”