16 June 2021

David Godman on Ramana Maharshi

Listened to a couple of talks by David Godman, one of the foremost scholars on the life and teachings of Ramana Maharshi, as well as some videos by a Canadian filmmaker who filmed many of the talks with him - see the channel on YouTube).

In one video, the same filmmaker contrasts those who are "truly enlightened" and those he calls merely “pointers”, i.e., those who are not enlightened, but can, to a certain degree point us in the right direction.

Actually I think the differentiation is unimportant. Those of us who are not enlightened are (according to traditional sources) unqualified to discriminate between an enlightened sage and one who isn't, and anyway, I cannot accept solely on faith the words of gurus and spiritual masters, however popular or distinguished they may be.

For me, as for others, it is more a question of what is helpful to our understanding, at a given time. In the last couple of years I've been reevaluating what I've learned from Brahmanic teachings. Buddhist teachings I take mainly as a point of reference.

People with greater intellectual gifts and spiritual sensitivity than I have analysed these traditions innumerable times and reached multiple and conflicting conclusions. I feel closer to the Vedantic tradition (not so much the Adwaita Vedanta system of Sankara). Ramana, is one of the greats, but practically, I feel that his teachings lead me to a cul-de-sac. Focusing on the "I" and looking for its source does nothing to abate my egoism.

Yet plainly our mistaken worldview has led us into the crisis now facing us. I'm quite convinced of the need to shake up our wrong perception and wrong conceptions. The inner conviction that we are independent separate entities, rather than equal members of the vast, intertwined network of the universe has led to the problems we desperately need to confront.

When we look at the world through the prism of our egoism, we think in terms of what we can extract from it, or consider how to protect ourselves from it, etc. But as long as we are objectifying the world, and subjectifying ourselves, our vision is incomplete, and therefore mistaken. This is why the eastern religions say that the world is illusion or appearance.

It isn't that we should identify with what we see. The kinship between us, that which binds us, is not something we can perceive through the senses. At a scientific level, we can understand (more and more) the connections within the biosphere. But it is not even that. The network, the matrix, is, itself the result of a deeper substratum of unity; a unity in consciousness. That is what the Vedantins are speaking of when they tell us that what we perceive as our limited self is actually the “big self”, the Brahman.

I think as I grow older, I want, more and more, to become absorbed into this “big self”, until one day I will kiss the little self goodbye, without the least regret. But for now there are dishes to wash, laundry to clean, and responsibilities that require a greater degree of concentration than either of those.

Research on a song

There's an amazing, gorgeous bit of piyyut (Jewish liturgical poetry) at the beginning of one of the Cafe de Anatolia albums, Ethno World Tarlabasa. I was clever enough to recognize it as piyyut but had no idea where it came from.

One commenter to the YouTube channel led me to a Syrian composer of piyyut, Raphael Antebi Tabbush, and said that the song is Ata El Kabir ("You're a great God"), but I found and looked at the words and couldn't see any resemblance there. This was clearly a wrong lead. Eventually, I found the composer and the lyrics to the song.

This is a poem by a 16th-17th century Rabbi Israel Najara, who was born in Safed. lived in Damascus and Hebron, and became the rabbi of the Jewish community in Gaza. The singer is Israeli, born in Tiberius, Lior Almaleh. He has an amazing voice, and it's a lovely, mystical song. The first part is in Hebrew, from the 3rd chapter of the Song of Songs. The second in Aramaic (which I don't understand, and Google Translate cannot help with that). The words quoted from the Song of Songs (trans. World English Bible) are:

I will get up now, and go about the city;
in the streets and in the squares I will seek him whom my soul loves.
I sought him, but I didn’t find him.
The watchmen who go about the city found me;
"Have you seen him whom my soul loves?"
I had scarcely passed from them,
when I found him whom my soul loves.

(The above section has been updated, thanks to D)

קַמְתִּי בְּאִישׁוֹן לַיְלָה לִסְבֹּב אֶת הָעִיר
לִרְאוֹת פְּנֵי דוֹדִי יְפֵה קוֹמָה
מְצָאוּנִי הַשּׁוֹמְרִים הַסּוֹבְבִים בָּעִיר שְׁאָלוּנִי
מַה לָךְ בַּלַּיִל תְבַקֵּשׁ מָה
עוֹדָם מְדַבְּרִים עִמִּי וְהִנֵּה אוֹר פְּנֵי דוֹדִי זָרְחָה כְאַחְלָמָה
יָהּ רִבּוֹן עָלַם וְעַלְמַיָּא
אַנְתְּ הוּא מַלְכָּא מֶלֶךְ מַלְכַיָּא
עוֹבָדֵי גְבוּרְתָּךְ וְתִמְהַיָּא
שְׁפַר קֳדָמַי לְהַחֲוַיָּא
שְׁבָחִין אֲסַדֵּר צַפְרָא וְרַמְשָׁא
לָךְ אֱלָהָא קַדִּישָׁא בְּרָא כָל נַפְשָׁא
עִירִין קַדִּישִׁין וּבְנֵי אֱנָשָׁא
חֵיוַת בָּרָא וְעוֹף שְׁמַיָּא
רַבְרְבִין עוֹבָדָךְ וְתַקִּיפִין
מַכִּיךְ רָמַיָּא זַקִּיף כְּפִיפִין
לוּ יְחִי גְבַר שְׁנִין אַלְפִין
לָא יֵעוּל גְּבוּרְתָּךְ בְּחוּשְׁבְּנַיָּא
אֱלָהָא דִּי לֵיהּ יְקָר וּרְבוּתָא
פְּרוֹק יַת עָנָךְ מִפֻּם אַרְיָוָתָא
וְאַפֵּיק יַת עַמָּךְ מִגּוֹ גָּלוּתָא
עַמָּךְ דִּי בְחַרְתְּ מִכָּל אֻמַּיָּא
לְמִקְדָּשָׁךְ תּוּב וּלְקֹדֶשׁ קֻדְשִׁין
אֲתַר דִּי בֵיהּ יֶחֱדוּן רוּחִין וְנַפְשִׁין
וִיזַמְּרוּן לָךְ שִׁירִין וְרֲחֲשִׁין
בִּירוּשְׁלֵם קַרְתָּא דְשֻׁפְרַיָּא

Today's Links

World's first wooden satellite to be launched from New Zealand - The Hindu

The satellite, designed and built in Finland will orbit at around 500-600 km altitude in a roughly polar Sun-synchronous orbit. WISA Woodsat is a 10x10x10 cm nano satellite built up from standardised boxes and surface panels made from plywood, the same material that is found in a hardware store or to make furniture.


Google is using AI to design chipsets in just six hours - The Hindu
The new chips are said to be superior or comparable to those produced by humans in all key metrics including power consumption, performance and chip area.


You Can Still Upgrade to Windows 10 For Free, Here's How - The Bleeping Computer


Covid Survivors Smell Foods Differently - The New York Times

Long after some people have recovered from the virus, they find certain foods off-putting.

4 January, 2021

Stargazing

Went with my granddaughter to the top of the hill to look at the stars, just after sunset. I was no longer able to find Saturn next to Jupiter; either because of clouds, or because the stars were still too faint, or because Saturn had moved (the name for planets in Hebrew translates to "stars that walk/move"). She was most excited by the sight of Orion's belt.

Ubuntu Media PC

The Ubuntu system on the computer we use as a Media PC (I think it was 16.4 or even 14.4) expired a long time ago and wouldn't upgrade, so I decided to install a new version. I thought this would be easy (as in, something I've done dozens of times). But this time all kinds of obstacles presented themselves. First, it somehow got stuck on formatting a partition. Then it got stuck right at the end of the install and wouldn't re-boot. Then, just at the last stage of the install, when it asks you to remove removable media, I accidentally unplugged the computer when I was reaching for the usb stick (which wrecked the install). On the next install, I tried installing without erasing the previous install. It painstakingly copied all the existing programs, which took much longer than downloading them. But again it failed. The next install worked fine, but I made a dumb mistake afterwards and I deleted an essential directory (thought I was deleting something in a previous Ubuntu installation on another disk). Installed again. Now it all works. But, my Firefox won't run Netflix; even after allowing it to work with DRM. I'm tired of Chrome and refuse to sign in, so I tried to download Vivaldi. It downloaded, but Ubuntu refused to install it. Another gripe is that Vivaldi isn't in Ubuntu's Appstore. Why? And the Appstore itself doesn't seem well thought out. Under what category is one supposed to find browsers? There isn't one, at least not a category that makes any sense.

I chose Ubuntu for the media PC only because that's what my wife has on her PC, and I wanted it to be familiar to her. Otherwise I would install my favourite, which remains MX.

Image/photo

Complexity

We are forced to deal with ever more complex systems that are beyond our natural abilities. I fear what will happen in old age. It isn't just Linux (which actually works very well most of the time). I mean, we recently bought 7 new Lenovo Thinkpads with Windows 10 installed. On every one of them there's a problem with the speakers. A Windows update makes the driver stop working. The first time, after not being able to fix the issue, I called in the company repair guy. He showed me what to do, but said also that sometimes the fix works other times not - just the previous week he'd had to send a computer back for re-formatting and reinstallation. The next time, I managed myself, but the problem came back after a new Windows Update.

These sorts of problems are beyond what ordinary users can solve. We are at the mercy of complex systems, wherever we look, while using technology is no longer a choice. During the pandemic, it's been the only way many of us could communicate with family members, order food, obtain the stopover grants provided by the government, obtain health services, interact with the bank, and so many other things.

Reading and spiritual life

Reading is an activity that brings one in contact with a writer's consciousness, and the experience is sometimes unpleasant, in that it involves you in their issues; their paranoia, their violence, their appetites, their obsessions. A spiritual seeker isn't supposed to read novels, watch movies, etc. But it isn't just because the mind gets wrapped up in stories, and you end up populating your consciousness with ghosts, rather than attempting to look into the essential nature of reality (or contemplate the divine, understand the meaning of ahankara, calm the vrittis, perform zikr, intuit the meaning of the koan, or whatever). It is also due to this communion with the lower consciousness of the writers and producers of fiction, and their "demons".

Links blog

✭ Librera Reader: an All-Format eBook Reader for Android
https://librera.mobi/
All-Format eBook Reader for Android. Interestingly, purportedly supports RTL languages
#technology
✭ The Julian Assange extradition ruling: right result, wrong reason | Julian Assange | The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/04/julian-assange-extradition-ruling-us
"The US war machine depends on being able to airbrush out of existence the brutal human realities. If innocent civilians can be silently killed without consequences, then there is nothing to stop even more suffering the same fate. The US military cannot be allowed to operate with impunity: that’s what this case is really about. And while Assange’s freedom may be saved – though this is not certain – the argument for revealing the truth about wars conducted in the name of the American people must be made more stridently than ever."
#Assange #US #press-freedom

✭ Julian Assange cannot be extradited to US, British judge rules | Julian Assange | The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/jan/04/julian-assange-cannot-be-extradited-to-us-br
Judge says it would be ‘oppressive’ to extradite WikiLeaks founder to US, citing concerns for his mental health
#Assange #freedom-of-speech

✭ Australian women’s rights activist faces charges in Tanzania | Australia news | The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jan/03/australian-womens-rights-activist-f
An Australian ex-Muslim women’s rights activist faces “politically motivated” charges in Tanzania, including for a tweet allegedly critical of the country’s president, according to her supporters.

I read almost to the end of the article thinking this was Tazmania

✭ Palestinians excluded from Israeli Covid vaccine rollout as jabs go to settlers | Israel | The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/03/palestinians-excluded-from-israeli-covid-vac
Israeli, Palestinian and international rights groups have accused Israel of dodging moral, humanitarian and legal obligations as an occupying power during the pandemic.
#palestine

✭ Israeli soldier shoots and paralyzes Palestinian man in dispute over power generator - CNN
https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/02/middleeast/israeli-soldier-shoots-palestinian/index.htm
"An Israeli soldier shot a Palestinian man, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, after an altercation over a portable electric generator, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health."

"Video of the incident, which occurred on Friday near Hebron in the south of the West Bank, appears to show Haroun Abu Aram, 24, along with three other men, attempting to hold on to the generator while Israeli soldiers seek to take it away."
(At-Tuwani)

June 30, 2020

Flight to Tel Aviv: I have been reading Sapiens, and reached almost the of the book now. I have just finished reading his discussion of happiness; in which he writes particularly of the Buddhist understanding of the concept. It is close to the one I find in Yoga philosophy, though I would phrase it differently. I think that happiness is the state normally found when consciousness rests in the present moment and is not in a condition of resistance to it. In other words, the mind is at peace. In a moment that we are caught off-guard by beauty, such as when one opens the curtains to behold a golden sunrise, the mind is "enraptured", if only for a moment, perhaps. Something comes between our thoughts of the past, our memories, regrets; and our plans hopes and desires for the future, so that we know peace, for a fleeting moment.

Similarly, when we satisfy a desire or fulfill a dream, we touch on our peace by being focused on the pleasure, rather than thinking of the past or the future. Conversely, if the present moment is full of pain, and we resist the pain, we amplify it. But if, on the other hand, we are able to feel pain but also accept it, then we can still be at peace. Buddhists would say that we should simply observe the comings and goings of painful and pleasurable thoughts. The issue I have with this is that it then becomes a mental process, and is based on the division of subject and object. But here there is a problem. Except through an analytical process, it is not possible to achieve true equanimity while there is this rational discrimination.

July 1, 2020

Well, it is subtle. I'm not sure that the Buddhist attitude is so different. There is a slight difference in attitude between saying that the self (or anything) is "empty of a separate existence" and saying that "the (individual) self (atman) is the self of everything (brahman)". My axe to grind is that our observation is flawed, because it fails to take into account that there is a substratum in which the existence of one "thing" is the existence of the whole, so that the objects or separate selves are only superficially separate. And so our observation of the universe is flawed at the most fundamental level: it does not take into account the most important factor. So even Sapiens, as a book, though it speaks of our speciesism and our failure to take into account the environmental concerns, does not see as a basic truth that it is simply impossible not to take into account the connection between the self and the other.

It is not exactly that the self (me) and the table are "connected" or (heaven forbid) one and the same, but that we share a common basis, a common existence, that gives "life" to both of us. The table is "illusory", so long as I do not take into account the observational fallacy and the underlying common existence; because otherwise what I see is only part of the truth, and part of the truth equals a total lie. Not practically, because I am in fact using the table in order to rest this notebook on and write these words, but philosophically, existentially. Existentially, it changes everything: my stance, my attitute, but also, something much more fundamental and beyond our subjectivity. It is the way in which the universe functions. A universe of separate objects would never actually work, could not exist.

Harari speaks, for example, of the absence of an intelligent designer.He speaks of a lack of purpose behind the universe. This is inaccurate. There is no designer who stands outside of it - that's true, but there is, absolutely, intelligence and good design in the universe. The universe is a manifestation of intelligence. A human who tries to design a better variety of corn, or an automobile, will fail miserably if he is unable to take into account the natural "laws" of physics, chemistry, or biology, which are his palette. And, anyway, to the extent that he fails to take into account the full environmental impact of his "creation", he will cast a fly in the ointment, a spanner in the works, of the total design.

Harari is right that environmental "destruction" is a misnomer. It is actually "change", but, in so far as this species is concerned, destruction of the biosphere will be the end of the road. Some other species may come along, perhaps, to take our place, and the place of countless other species that we have made extinct. Or not. The real universe, that which exists behind this one, is like a child's magnetic toy that constantly recombines in new ways. You knock down the cathedral you have so carefully constructed, and the pieces recombine to make a spaceship. Nothing is destroyed, but conditions are changed. Does it matter? It matters greatly to homo sapiens. The species can only function within a certain habitat.

Our failure is in not understanding how to coexist within our habitat in a sustainable way. We don't have to worry about the universe not being able to put right any mistakes that we make. It will, but not necessarily in a way that is favourable to our species. Since, despite our bluster and self-importance, the universe will go on anyway without us. Not entirely without us, because we will continue. Just not in a form that is recognisable to us.

The question is whether or not our progress towards self-destruction (or change) is inevitable? It may be inevitable according to our nature as human beings. But Harari points out that civilization is cultural. The culture can be changed. The energies that drive us can be harnessed in completely different ways. We can change the way in which we live on the planet if we want to, so the apocalpyse is not inevitable.

Dealing with others

I knew two persons in the Sivananda Centers, perhaps more, who related to others quite differently to most people I have known.

They related to other human beings with an unusual manner of superiority. They were aware that they were wiser than others, because they were more practiced and had attainments on the spiritual path. In the case of Swami S., this may have been delusional. In the case of Swami B., there was greater surety, perhaps due to his age; there was also more honesty, and even a kind of humility. His attitude also towards Swami S. was one of confident superiority. Swami B. had the assurance, and the feeling of responsibility that goes with being a teacher; specifically, a spiritual teacher.

I have always admired such confidence, but at no stage have had any inclination to emulate it.

There are other kinds of superiority that humans adopt; usually from privilege of some form. The attitude of spiritual superiority is different, though it can also be accompanied by the other kind, due to a person's background. Many teachers happen to be Brahmins, upper class, academically qualified, etc.

And there is that other kind of superiority that manifests itself from not wanting anything that the world has to offer, and similarly being indifferent towards the consequences of one's actions. There is the famous example of Diogenes and his meeting with Alexander. (On being asked by the emperor if there was anything that he might do for him, Diogenes hesitated and said there was indeed one thing, that Alexander would move a little to the side, so as not to deprive him of the warmth of the sun's rays.) And there is the story of the martyrdom of Sarmad, who could not recite the full kalima even to save his own life.

If there is any kind of confident superiority that I would aspire to, it is the latter kind, since it is the cultivation of a kind of confidence that becomes unshakeable, making one indifferent towards whatever the world can throw. It is also the most attainable; it does not depend upon any material worth, learning, or any other form of privilege. It requires only that one remains confident of the way, come what may. It depends upon not contending, not promoting oneself; treating everyone with respect and no one with any special respect on account of position, influence or status. One can keep one's own council and act with equanimity in the face of praise and blame, favorable circumstances or adversity.

All this is Vasudeva.

June 23, 2020

What I have to admit, from the beginning, is that I know nothing, and yet I know too much. I know nothing, on the basis that I'm poorly read. I have read neither Das Kapital nor Mein Kampf, and little of the great western philosophers. But also because the state of our knowledge, in the first quarter of the 21st century, is also very poor, compared to what it will be fifty or a hundred years later. On the basis of what we knew, in the 20th century, we have committed terrible errors and vicious crimes against humanity. On the basis of what we currently know, it is clear that we are destroying our biosphere.

I know too much because my knowledge interferes with my ability to see the world afresh. I have adopted biases that determine how I relate to my world. The prejudices that we acquire are far ranging and pervasive. Knowing this is not necessarily the answer to the problem. Sometimes knowing more can expose one to different ideas that can knock down our suppositions. A person with a narrow grasp of the underlying philosphical bases behind the mechanisms that drive our society is less likely to question them than a scientist who knows them better. Knowledge can be dislodged or challenged by new knowledge. On the grand scale of things this is what happens.

Either are in the playing field or the market of ideas, or one attempts gradually to deconstruct what one thinks one knows, without taking the route of adding new knowledge to challenge the old knowledge. These are opposite tracks. My tendency is towards the former, reduction by reduction, rather than through accumulation. But it is a path where one must forever be admitting one's own weaknesses and deficiencies; a path of humility and humiliation. A Taoist path.

Yesterday Ilan sent in an article that debates the matter of what constitutes truth in an era of fake news; he looked at the matter of truth through the prism of various historical thinkers, eventually concluding before a matter can be admitted as truth, it must be open to wide discussion, that no authority could have the ultimate say. Instead the truth of a matter would be determined after being debated by the best minds. In such a process, my opinion counts for very little. I cannot "compete" in an arena where the qualifications depend on knowing the history of philosophical thinking and I would not contest the opinions of others in such an arena. It is true that I know a fair bit about the philosophical thinking of Eastern philosophical systems, perhaps, but there too I do not think it is worthwhile to contend. The area that is more interesting is that of learning and knowing from observation; discovering through silent communion with the universe, meditation. I have always thought that the keys to understanding are there to be discovered directly and must not depend upon academic learning. There are scriptures and holy books that claim to hold the keys to salvation and enlightenment. There are philosophers who have pursued truth through reason. There are scientists who have tried to discover the physical laws upon which our universe is constructed. All of these have their value and their place in our human civilization. But, without much basis other than belief or intuition, I continue to hold that the truth of our existence is there to be discovered by every denizen of the cosmos directly, without recourse to scripture, philosophy or science. Not every kind of knowledge, of course, but the particular knowledge of the identity of the self in relation to the universal. I think that the basis of this belief is present in the scriptures themselves. And it does not contradict reason. It cannot be negated by science, as far as I know.

This thinking is very democratic, because it extends the possibility to every one of us to understand, independently, our position in the universe, if we put into it enough effort. It only depends on our willingness to give all we have to the project, and not be afraid.

The knowledge of the self in relation to the cosmos, the nature of the self, our true identity, the nature of the other, the meaning of our lives, the inner purpose and the relation of this purpose to that of the universe, the act of observation, what constitutes happiness, the reason for our restlessness, the ability to confront and understand suffering, the movement of thoughts, moods, desires, attraction and repulsion, emotion, indifference, and the relation and mutual influence between our minds and our bodies, the ways in which we affect the world and interact with it and with others; our dreams and the subconscious, the obvious and the latent, the sources of our inspiration and energy, the ability to tap into the energy of the universe; the question of our mortality, the observation of time and its subjective velocity; the nature of experience, the various states of consciousness, the integrity of our knowledge or its partiality, the understanding of what is truly important and what is of less importance, the question of what is real and what illusion; the question of self-mastery or subservience to basic instincts, the question of belief in God or the supernatural, the matter of empathy, the ways in which egoism manifests, our aesthetic sense, the ways in which we lie to ourselves; attachments, the nature of peace, and many more questions, qualities, understandings, are all matters that we can resolve for ourselves without any necessity to go to a book or consult with a teacher. They are matters that can be understood through direct experience, aparoksha anubhuti.

Reality versus our vision of it

So I was thinking that spiritual teachers so often see a version of reality that corresponds with their natures. Describing reality in one manner inevitably leads to the disparagement of alternative ways of describing it, which seem to have a different or opposite vision. It is not so different from the flaw in our everyday vision, according to which we define objects by their function or usefulness to us. In many languages gold or silver have come to mean “money”, while our word “salary” indicates a measure of salt.

In Islam, God has 99 names or attributes. But it would be an error to define God by any single one of them. In order to be able to see reality, we must discard all limiting notions and theories about it. Understanding can come only through a spirit of openness.

They always say in Hinduism that if we want to describe a faint star in the sky to a friend, we point instead to a brighter star and say that the star we mean is just to the left of that one. But in reality the attributes we use are not very helpful and bring us no nearer to understanding. To say that God is peace, or harmony or love inevitably conjures up notions that have little to do with what is actually meant. These are simply impositions from our egoistic human experience.

False views

The universe was never created.
Matter, energy and consciousness are one.
There is no center, no periphery, no end to time and space.
Seeing is interpretation.
All statements about ultimate truth, including this one, are a lie.
There are multiple ways to apprehend reality
But not taking into account the error of our seeing,
and not glimpsing the unity in the diversity,
Leads us astray.

The problem is that almost everything that is written, fiction or non-fiction, philosophical or scientific is based on fallacy. It either assumes a reality that is incomplete and prejudiced, or it tries to speculate absurdities. It isn't necessary to understand everything, or grasp the whole truth, but only to be deeply humble; with a reserve that permeates our consciousness and the way we express. I find it painful to read books that are based on wrong assumptions, or presume to express truth. Gurus and writers of “spiritual” books are usually the worst offenders, because they cast aside all humility.  Without humility, we will never understand anything.  There is absolutely no guarantee that we ever will, in any case, but a full guarantee that  false understanding closes the door to new learning.

Spiritual Teachers

I like to think of myself these days as being without a teacher. I've decided to find my own way, during the years ahead, to draw my own conclusions, etc. And I realise I have grown a little dull, not just to the lure of teachers, but also somewhat to the magic of life itself. And I think that this dullness set in a long time ago, and was preceded by confusion. When I look back on life I don't see things with much clarity, but as a confused sequence of events, though the outline is perhaps becoming clearer.

Be that as it may, there have been a few times that I have sensed the magic emanations that we associate with more enlightened beings. The first time was with Swami Vishnudevananda. Though there was always a parallel sense that there was some flaw - maybe ambition, perhaps anger, as well as considerable gullibility. But there was also a sense of purity, deep sincerity, inner strength, devotion to his own teacher, the ability to look at the world from a different perspective than the rest of us, a sense of mission, a sense of his being in and coming from another place. At the time I knew him, I and most of the people who were involved with him were very young. Immature. Deferent. Cult material. It probably irritated him beyond measure to be around people like us, and one could sometimes feel his exasperation, just as we were occasionally exasperated with him.

At the time, I was aware that he was the only teacher that could somehow captivate my attention. His talks, though he would repeat things a thousand times, were full of life, enthusiasm, interest. His voice and its tonality were full of passion and feeling, his facial expressions were animated and rich in their variety and expressivity. He was a real showman, he but also hit you with his sincerity. His laughter was infectious, and his compassion was palpable. Other teachers would be dry and boring. They would speak about spiritual ideas or values but could not bring them home to me.

His behaviour would be unpredictable. I remember one time we managed to get him a valuable slot of a few minutes on Israeli live radio, and instead of using every minute wisely with a focused message that might pull in hard-nosed Israelis, he began with long minutes of vedic chanting. The radio announcer must have been stunned or nonplussed. It wasn't something you could interrupt, you couldn't shut him up or just pull away the mic.

When he did speak to the press, I would feel annoyed that often what he said would feel logically inconsistent or misplaced. But then I would find that he had been able to get through to people anyway. His message would reach them in a way that I didn't anticipate or expect.

When you would say something to him or ask him a question, you might try to predict or imagine his response, but you could be completely off. There was an oracular quality, sometimes, about what he would say.

In a different way, I have been similarly able to respect Thich Nhat Hanh as a teacher. I was never privileged to meet him personally. Only to see him on stages, usually from afar, and, since he would divide his talks between English, French and Vietnamese, sometimes in translation. But if ever a sage expressed his sagacity in every movement, every gesture, every glance - even without any word or movement whatsoever, you feel that that he is expressing wisdom and truth. But when he does speak, his words are brimming with intelligence and compassion.

A senior student of Swami Vishnu who I knew quite well, and who himself seemed to possess almost supernatural power, would say that one of the marks of a sage was that they would be multi-dimensional. They would have somehow that extra dimension that we cannot grasp but can sense. That's sort of how it is, I guess.

Swami Vishnu, and some others that I have known would say - and I think this has a scriptural source that one of the marks of a true teacher is compassion. The presence of it is usually felt. If this quality is absent, then one should not approach that person for guidance.

Dharma as a spiritual practice that can maybe save the planet

Dharma as a spiritual practice that can maybe save the planet

I. Separation and underlying unity

The world, the universe, reality, can be said to exist both in diversity and in unity. In diversity it exists as a conglomeration of separate semi-autonomous parts. These semi-autonomous parts are governed by laws of self-preservation. But ultimately they depend upon and are absorbed back into the underlying unity from which they have arisen. The universe of things is intimately connected – no thing exists independently. It is joined not only by what we think of as physical “laws” that govern the way in which the parts interact with each other (gravity, magnetism, etc.) but also at a deeper level, in that all of these “things” are manifestations of the same underlying field of existence/consciousness. Each “thing” is not a partial but, in its essence, a full expression of the underlying field.1 This underlying field is what gives rise to the universe of things in the first place; the universe depends upon it for its existence.

Wrong vision

As members of this universe of parts we cannot directly comprehend the underlying unity while simultaneously seeing ourselves and the world as autonomous independent beings. We either see the forest or the trees. However, seeing the one without seeing the other makes our vision of the world incomplete and therefore mistaken, and this has consequences for the way that we relate to our fellow beings, for our behaviour in and towards the world.

Our wrong vision of the world is based on:

a. The basic semi-autonomy of every member of the universe, and the inherent instinct of every individual for self-preservation. In humans, as in other creatures, this manifests as basic drives to satisfy hunger, protect oneself from danger, reproduce, etc.2

b. Extensions based on this semi-autonomy. Thinking of ourselves as existing independently, as separate entities, we adhere to responsibilities towards children, parents, our community, etc. and find a necessity to compete against others for our survival. For our survival and well being, we try to gather around us persons and things, which we must then defend.

Our wrong vision of the world leads to:

a. The inability to see the underlying unity (because we are duped by our conception of the world in terms of division and separation).

b. Seeing the world through a filter and prioritizing action. For the sake of convenience we draw a separation between ourselves and the universe, and distinguish the universe into separate parts. Conceptually we draw distinctions between what is important and less important, what is real and what is false, etc. Out of the myriad objects, the myriad interactions between them, and the events and causalities in space and time, we identify what is important to us in terms of our limited world view and the need to defend ourselves and compete. Our wrong vision is therefore self-supporting and self-confirming; our egoistic vision builds upon itself and further conditions us. Our conditioning further blinds us to underlying harmony, unifying love and laws of cooperation upon which the holistic systems of our biosphere depend.

c. Rivalry, conflict, warfare. Whereas the universe actually depends upon an underlying unity and the symbiosis and mutual cooperation of everything that manifests within this unity, an inability to see this unity leads us into competition, rivalry and conflict.

d. Increasing levels of destruction of our biosphere. Whereas the universe depends on the underlying unity and coexistence of everything in it, a world-view that insists on self-autonomy and perceived separation, eventually brings about the destruction of the elements that it needs for its own existence. Whereas a vision of underlying unity enables a self-sustaining harmony, a vision of separation leads to ultimate destruction. Although in an earlier age it was possible to continue without seeing this, in our Anthropocene age, in which the world is becoming unlivable for the creatures that live within it, in which a tenth of all species in currently facing imminent extinction, it is now possible to see the final consequences of our wrong vision and resultant wrong action. We can now understand that without a radical revision of our actions, based on correct vision, we will be unable to continue.

Overcoming wrong vision

Because we see the world as a subject – object reality, in which we, as subject, exist in a world of other beings or things, we are unable to see the unitary whole upon which the perceived world depends. However, not being able to see the unitary whole does not imply that this does not exist. It also does not mean that we are unable to sense its existence, based on all that we see. In the same way, astronomers can predict the existence of an unseen celestial body by measuring its effects upon other bodies that can be seen. Some scientists, based on their observations, have come to the conclusion that the universe is conscious, or constructed of consciousness. Ordinary perception of the world can lead to the understanding that it is controlled by laws that spring from an underlying unity. The more that we learn about nature and our biosphere, the more we understand that it expresses an inherent harmony and equilibrium. Without this, the world would not be able to exist or continue. The biosphere is threatened when these laws are not respected.

The role of mysticism

In an earlier age, it was more difficult to identify the cause of our misery as a consequence of wrong vision. It was less easy to grasp this rationally because the end result, which we can now see clearly, was not so obvious. Such a conclusion was however reached through the intuition of mystics and sages, through meditation and samadhi. Intuited understanding is difficult to conceptualize intellectually or express verbally and, when it is expressed, often leads to contradictory expressions in various theories and schools of thought. This has resulted in the various darshanas of Indian philosophy, various schools of Buddhism, and similarly contradictory expressions among Islamic, Christian and other mystics, etc. There is no consensus on whether reality consists solely of pure consciousness, the void, is in a relationship of subservience to divine will, etc. However, there is an underlying agreement that our everyday perception of the world is in error and that selfish, unprincipled, egoistic behaviour is destructive. There is further consensus that action should be non-selfish, as expressed in the injunction to “love thy neighbour/companion as our self”.

The mystic vision of sages and the founders of the our religions has been expressed variously through scriptures that carry the injunction towards virtuous and altruistic action. If our actions were truly based on these agreements, we would exist in a state of harmony between each other and our world. However, this is not the case.

The mystics who gave expression to these scriptures had an intuited, integral vision. An integral vision, i.e, one that is not simply rational or intellectual, transforms one’s world in such a way as to produce a harmony at all levels of one’s being. It governs our behaviour and informs one’s actions in a way that a merely rational or intellectual understanding fails to do. There is no question of being at odds with one’s vision because any will to act in a way that contradicts it disappears.

From integral vision to religion

When we comprehend a thing rationally or intellectually, or try to obey religious injunctions out of belief, we introduce the possibility of inner conflict. Our conscience may tell us one thing, but our desires and cravings have a life of their own. So either our actions will be imperfect, or we will fail totally. Our actions may result in partial compliance, non-compliance, hypocrisy, lip-service or repressive behaviour that results in mental aberrations or maladies.

Religions, ethical codes, human laws, have largely failed in their mission to keep egoistic behaviour at bay, create peaceful societies, prevent wars, or create a sustainable future for humankind and our fellow creatures.

Self realisation as a way to effect change

Because of the failure of religions to effect real change, some thinkers have come to the conclusion that there will be no real transformation unless individuals can attain to the same integral and intuitive realization as that of the saints and sages and founders of the religions.

There are several problems with this aspiration.

a. It is impractical to hope that, in the conceivable future, a large mass of people will attain an integral vision that comprehends the underlying unity. The obstacles are great, as is proved by the small number of people who have been able to attain this throughout history. Even with good intentions and diligence, it seems that such a true realization is exceedingly uncommon.

b. There appear to be issues with the attainment of the unitary vision itself. Some who have been able to comprehend the underlying unity have afterwards been unable to function in the real world. Traditional brahmanic scriptures themselves have proclaimed that those who attain to the state of nirvikalpa samadhi die quickly.3 Those who do go on living may embrace a monist vision that upholds the underlying unity, while declaring the “world of things” to be unreal and invalid. Whereas previously they were unable to see the forest for the trees, they are now unable to see the trees for the forest. A real transformation of the human condition requires the ability to see the world in its diversity as well as in its underlying unity.4

c. The unitary vision is not a communicable experience at all. This is reflected in the contradictions in the way that the various sages have described or extrapolated from their experience. It is also reflected in the refusal by many sages to discuss their experience. It is therefore not practical to expect that any individual realisation will lead to real change at the level that is required to transform our plight.

d. There is real urgency to our problem. We are creating untenable conditions for our continued existence on the planet. We are destroying our biosphere. We are setting the ground for multiple disasters as competition over basic resources like water, land, food and air will grow acute to the point of open warfare. We are not even aware of the multiple ways in which pollution, destruction of habitat, climate change, depletion of resources, overpopulation, etc. will interact. Although we know that disaster is looming, we are unable to reverse or even mitigate the practices that lead to it. Our failure to act is a result of our wrong vision.

Dharma

The failure of human laws to create a peaceful world and sustainable future

The laws that govern the universe of things are themselves the manifestation of the unitary existence-consciousness that underlies reality. These laws govern the way the manifest universe interacts with itself. They are based both on the need and tendency of the individual for self-preservation and upon the underlying cooperation and bonding between individual and individual within the universal whole. In eastern philosophies there is the view that the universe functions according to an overarching law of dharma, and within it each individual operates according to his own prescribed dharma within this macrocosmic reality.

Our understanding of the laws that govern the universe is imperfect and this imperfect understanding, often first expressed in religious scriptures, lies at the basis of our human laws. In codifying the laws that govern us, we have tried to mimic cosmic laws, both in the attempt to safeguard the rights of the individual and in the attempt to create harmony between individuals, in society and in the world.

Though the law books are the outward expression of our original attempt to mimic laws that govern the universe, we are also guided by a personal moral compass. This is based on learned behaviour with regard to societal norms, codes of morality received through education and an inner voice which we call conscience. Our behaviour is therefore affected by the fear of punishment through our legal systems, by the wish not to transgress societal norms learned through education, and by our inner voice. Yet none of these have been enough to create peace with our neighbours and fellow beings nor a sustainable future for humankind.

Dharma as a training and a sadhana

We cannot, with the best intentions, create a sustainable future while viewing the world through the lens of our egoism. If we obey laws because we fear punishment, or obey unwritten rules based on the fear of being ostracized from our society, or act according to a wish not to feel ashamed of ourselves, we are still acting within the field of our egoism. We cannot transform our relationship with the world unless we are able to transform our wrong vision. Transformation won’t come about through the fear of punishment but only through a positive sense of participation, cooperation, empathy and love. As seen in Buddhism, and sometimes in other paths like yoga, the practice of dharma is a training or a teaching, towards an intuitive and integral understanding of oneness, rather than a cultivation of obedience to ethical prescriptions and injunctions. Practiced in this way, dharma, such as the five precepts (pañcasila) noble eightfold path of the Buddha, or the yamas and niyamas at the basis of Patanjali’s system of raja yoga, becomes a form of sadhana (spiritual discipline).

Dharma as a tool for transformation

The practice of dharmic sadhana gives us the opportunity to change our relationship with our fellow beings and the world from a state of competition to a state of cooperation and equal participation. This depends not only upon good intentions but the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Interaction with our fellow beings is not simply a matter of following what is lawful, socially acceptable or even unconscionable, but a matter of acquiring skills such as nonviolent communication, the ability to listen and interpret the subtle signs expressed by others, as well as empathy. Environmentally sustainable practices requires a knowledge of how to choose the least damaging or most beneficial course of action, based on science, economics, mechanics, and whatever else is relevant to the case. Living as a good citizen of the 21st century requires awareness and knowledge.

The value of following a practice of dharma as a sadhana is that it provides the only response that can be helpful in the critical stage that we have reached. The situation in the world requires immediate action that is based on the acknowledgment of the underlying unity of all things, because our wrong vision of division has created the problem we now face. Dharma means, among other things, the performance of effective action that is based on correct vision. This is exactly what we need, and basically the only thing that can save us.

Conclusion

This article reasons that our view of the universe as divided into separate objects is flawed in that it fails to acknowledge a fundamental unity. It states that it is this wrong vision that has led to the current crisis we are facing. It casts doubt on claims that the situation can be be changed through solely personal transformation and suggests the practice of dharma as a more practical method of tackling our problems and transforming the world. It claims that the practice of dharma is also a sadhana, i.e. a means to gaining an integral understanding that the “world of things” depends upon underlying unity.


  1. purnam adah, purnam idam purnat purnam udachyate; purnasya purnam adaya purnam evavasisyate (Brihadaranyaka Upanisad 5.1.1) ↩︎
  2. It is sometimes stated that our basic instincts themselves correspond to our threefold inner nature (described in philosophies that derive from the Upanisads as existence (sat), knowledge (chit), bliss (ananda): That our desire for self-preservation and long life is an expression of sat. That our unquenchable thirst for knowledge is an expression of chit, and that our unsatisfiable lust for enjoyment is an expression of ananda. ↩︎
  3. Sri Ramakrishna said the one who attains to this state leaves his body after 21 days. (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna). ↩︎
  4. See “The Eternal and the Individual”, Chapter 3, The Life Divine, by Sri Aurobindo and elsewhere. ↩︎

 

Among the devotees

I think I will stay about another week here in Tiruvannamalai. I arrived on May 13 to stay with an octogenarian friend in his home close to the ashram. I spend about four hours a day there, in a self-imposed schedule of meditation. The ashram imposes no strict rules upon visitors, or even guests who stay there. But there is a faithful community of devotees, Indian and foreign, who spend a good part of their day in its halls and grounds. Hebrew readers can see Tomer Persico's article about it, or look at the pictures.

It's my fifth visit to Tiru, but I know less about the town than most others where I've spent this amount of time. I've visited the grand old temple of course (once), climbed up Arunachala as far as the caves, and circumambulated around the hill (13 km) a couple of times, though not barefoot like a true believer.