Transcript of a talk given to Chapter at the Trappist Monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky in 1982.
Beloved Brothers, I greet you in the name of the most ancient lineage of monks in the world, the sannyasins of Vedic India. The particular order to which I belong was founded as a kind of reform in about 1886. It comprises less than two thousand monks, has fourteen foundation centers in America in eight houses, and is called the Ramakrishna Order. I have lived in most of these houses in the past thirty-five or so years and am now stationed in Atlanta, Georgia. There are forty or more monastics in the Order, in the U.S.A. My pilgrimage to Gethsemani was made in the expectation of exchanging with all of you the gold of silence in the communion of what Father Louis has called the post-verbal level. If today we are dealing in the silver of speech, this is at your request and I can only hope that in these thoughts there may be found something useful to you.
Let me identify myself further by paraphrasing certain observation made in the Asian Journal, and I know you will recognize their context. I speak as a Westerner who found his spiritual home in Eastern monasticism transplanted. This has led to special problems in monastic and spiritual life, and I have often felt like a man trying to stand in two canoes at once. But it has also made me a navigator of sorts and put me in position to see thing from many points of view, as a result of which I, too, believe with Father Louis that communication in depth across lines of faith and order is essential for twentieth century monasticism. He is right, I am sure, in promising us that one can be perfectly faithful to one’ own monastic commitment and still learn in depth from the discipline and experience and the fellowship of silence of similar communities in other faiths. On that deeper level, we come together not really as representatives of any institution or organization, but as status-less men. Otherwise we cannot be those “marginal persons” he calls us marginal, and in a sense irrelevant, to society. Reading that passage in the Journal with great joy, I turned at once to a parallel utterance by our founder, Swami Vivekananda: “A sannyasin (the Sanskrit word for monk)”, he says, “cannot belong to any religion, for his life is a life of independent thought which draws from all religions. His is a life of realization, not merely of theory or belief, much less of dogma.”
I should like to share with you some remarks on the general subject of Obedience, for monks all over the world, to whatever faith they belong, take in some form the same three vows. I will use the word “obedience” here to comprise the ideas of monastic authority and hierarchy and their relation to the young men who are coming as entrants into our respective orders. I have heard this day that you are not now receiving many applicants. The same is true of us. Nevertheless, I expect these remarks to be applicable in the future, if not today.
To bring this into focus, let us take our first look at those who are expected to obey, our second look at those expected to command and lead, and finally see how better to relate the two. Let me now speak as of to the monks of my own monastery in the vocabulary and patterns of Asian monastic systems. The guru, the Zen master, the tulku, the rimpoche, the Russian staretz, I do not know how much of this you will be able to translate into terms of your own comparable institutions of authority. The Order, the novice master, the spiritual director, confessor, the Church itself or the Holy Father: all that I must leave to you to interpret.
It was, I believe, the Cistercian, Adam of Perseigne, who looked upon the whole of the novitiate period as a convalescent one. We have a similar declaration which goes like this: Just as a man with his head on fire rushes to a lake and plunges in, so goes the monastic candidate to a spiritual guide, learned in the scriptural tradition and “ever living in God,” and serves him. The spiritual ills of the candidate of today take a different pattern from those of his predecessors, perhaps, and require a special type of approach. It demands of the physician the ingenious and unexpected in the way of treatment. The symptoms are serious. The candidate is often unprepared even in his own tongue, what to speak of the classics, or of history; he is likely not to measure up to the customary expectation of his superiors in discipline, reverence or even courtesy. But I submit to you that this does not mean that the disease is necessarily virulent. Perhaps in making our standards of preparedness there are qualities we have not taken fully into account. There is, in this generation, a directness which cuts through spiritual materialism; there is an air of undeception, of candor and guilelessness, a healthy appetite for spiritual experience and a large capacity for loving. In a close community, these young men of today are operating more smoothly than we did; they have more of shared communal consciousness, very often, and this seems to be true whether they have had military training or not, although one must admit that when it comes to adaption to monastic life, a bit of military service often plays an enabling role. Truly are we called an Army of the Lord.
The impression of softness in these young men is belied by their capacity, and even demand for, certain types of austerity. But what has been disconcerting, perhaps, is this: it is well known in the Asian traditions that this therapy of the novitiate is going to be a kind of fencing-match. The guru or Zen master is the expert, and the learner expects nay, asks to be bested. The ego is not going to win ever; not if the treatment is what it purports to be. How is it, then, that so many postulants come having already attempted to formulate their own rules of the game? I will return to this point later.
Now let us look at the spiritual authority. The guru is a lighted torch. Ours is unlit, but tinder, and fully capable of bearing fire. So we come close, but an illumined teacher does not always blaze forth, and some may even hide their light for reasons best known to them. I must tell you, I was a little disturbed by Father Louis’ frequent use of the word “impressive” in the Asian Journal as he went about meeting the various teachers of the East. For I am certain of having known several illumined, God-united masters in the course of my monastic life, and not all of them were what one would call impressive. Some appeared most ordinary, at least on short acquaintance. The syndrome of prominence can all too often obscure the true state of the soul. The greatness of a qualified teacher of spirituality, the perfected soul, lies not in his intellectual acumen, or his psychic powers, or his scintillating, powerful and impressive personality, not even in his pedagogic expertise. It lies solely in his renunciation and his illumination. It is important for us to remember this.
We must somehow convey to the novice that through the power of the Divine in the teacher which is awake, he brings to wakefulness the same divinity in us. His power comes from a long line of gurus, which he can perhaps trace back to a cosmic figure, a Divine Incarnation. Into us he infuses that power, or better still, he calls it up in us from its sleeping state. If he is a proper master, what he teaches is not his own individual doctrine or method, and should not be treated as such. He leads us along an established path, something which has been practiced by thousands of aspirants through the centuries, and which has carried them to realization, or freedom, or salvation, or whatever your term happens to be. The true master is a transmitter, and transfer takes place of something quite tangible from guru to disciple. According to our tradition, he often does this through something called a mantra, through the assigning of an ishta, a Chosen Ideal, a particular relationship with the Divine. Often, it seems, our candidate is vaguely aware of all this, but somehow his prefigured mentality of an independent being and childhood of decades of American democracy and egalitarianism brings with it that he will be allowed to “do his own thing”, as the phrase goes today.
Now, a sound novitiate therapy will value this and even promise him that God-realization is indeed true freedom, echoing that phrase from the Anglican prayer book: “Whose service is perfect freedom”. “Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.” We shall have to help him see that the teacher is in truth his own true Self, that service to him is something performed inside of us, not something outside. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Lord Krishna is explaining to Arjuna what are His special manifestations on earth. He says “of mountains, I am the Himalayas; of purifiers, I am the wind,” and so on. And with these things, He says “Among the Pandavas, I am Arjuna”; i.e., “I am thyself.”
How does the teacher help the novice to discover his own freedom? Let us see. First of all, a free man wants to set others free. He would not wish to become dependent himself by entering a master-slave relationship. But, someone may object, the teacher often appears to exploit his disciples. Well, has he, being free and illumined, anything to gain by the activity he enjoins upon his students? This is not closed-circuit activity; it is open-end. It is true that the guru may ask the disciple to take up disinterested activity, even force it upon him, thus drawing into himself the student’s egoism as a salve draws the infection from a wound. He becomes the absorber for the many ills the disciple is subject to. So it can even be said, and it often has been, that the greater the teacher, the harder he appears to be on his students. But why does he want us to obey him? Because he knows the way he has travelled and it is that, precisely, which he is most capable of showing to the learner. Of course, the wise teacher demands obedience in central, essential matters, allowing individual variation in the nonessentials. Then, too, hard experience has taught him to regret those occasions on which he failed to obey his guru. I remember in my own life several occasions when my teachers told me about times when lapses on their part made them fail to comply with the smaller requests their masters had made of them and how, in later life, they regretted it.
The student must, of course, believe that the guru has something to give. Like the calf, he wants milk from the udder. He has the right to butt his head against it and demand. If a man is not getting something for his services to the spiritual authority, will he go on giving it year after year? Here he must expect no milk but spiritual milk: the nectar of spirituality. Again, without affection, will the cow feel like giving down the milk? Ideally, then, where true love develops in this relationship, no bondage is felt. Love is always painless, Swami Vivekananda, assures us, and in love the lover becomes like the object of love; i.e. free. So every relationship of this kind appears, when it is first entered into, as a kind of bondage, whether it be a college or a job or a marriage. We can travel by ship, by train or by airplane, and here we have increasing degrees of restriction on our movements. In the ship I can move quite a lot; in the train, down the aisle, and in the plane, only on signal. The last is the most restrictive, but it is the one that takes us most quickly to our destination. Such is the guru relationship, the master-disciple relationship. Our physical and mental freedom, which were false, have been replaced by our spiritual freedom, which is the true freedom. When we understand who and what we are, the true teacher can only reduce our bondage. He is indeed our own true Higher Self. No education takes place without guidelines from persons or from books. In fact, the realization of the Divine is one of the most democratic processes, in the best modern tradition, in this sense: it tells us we must think for ourselves, we must discover for ourselves, we must come into direct contact with God; no one can do it for us. “Work out you own salvation”, said the Buddha. Vedanta says that everyone can do it and must do it, and this is not to deny the doctrine of grace. It simply says to read the book of your own mind, enter the inner laboratory of spiritual experience, and work there in self-help style, so far as you can. But if you mean that self-education implies that no one will lead and no one will follow, that is never true. Westerners attempt to ignore the vast difference between an enlightened soul and an ordinary one. That difference is tremendous. If democracy in learning means that all are on the same level, then it is no better than the blind men leading each other around.
Now shifting our weight back to the other foot, let us reach a conclusion. Swami Vivekananda, our founder, said “if you want to reform a man go and live with him. Don’t try to reform him. If you have any divine fire he will catch it”. Let me then, for this moment, not only live with the entrant, but speak with his voice, in the words it seems to me he is using to us.
“I am about to renounce the world and come and live in the brotherhood. Will you make me feel that I am dearer to you even than a younger brother? Will you make me feel that you have my best interests at heart, that you know the pangs and problems of my young life? Will you make me feel that you have no axe to grind in taking over and channelling the directions of my energies? Will you make me know that you look upon me as potentially your equal, or that secretly you are hoping that perhaps one day I will surpass you as a jewel in the Kingdom? Will I clearly see that for you, hierarchy is an open gateway or stairway and not an ornamental monument, and yours is an aristocracy prepared to dig its own grave? If so, you are indeed my teacher and my guide; you are God’s instrument for my liberation, for you are my higher Self.”
Sons of St. Bernard, I know that for you I need not dwell longer on this; few have ever played the elder brother so well as Bernard. Is this not the purport of his advice to the Pope Eugenius: “Demanding everything, but giving everything too.” There is a beautiful Zen story about a Japanese monastery in which petty thievery broke out. When the offending brother was found out, the community fully expected the abbot to expel him. The abbot did nothing. When the offender was again caught in the act and it was again disregarded, the brothers submitted a petition saying that they would all leave the monastery if proper action was not taken at once. The abbot then called an assembly of everyone in the place. “You are wise brothers,” he said to them. “You know what is right and what is not right. You may go anywhere else to study if you like, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave”. The guilty brother dissolved in a torrent of tears and converted his life.
In the history of the Ramakrishna Order, to which I belong, several such events have taken place within living memory and they are among the treasured of our traditions. This order is still operating under the rule of love, to a considerable extent happily, but I do not know how much longer it will prevail; things change quickly today. I hope I don’t live to see its demise, for — and this is my message to you — a house or an Order or a faith will live so long as its rule of obedience is in reality a rule of love.
Transcript of Some Questions and Answers Following the Talk
Q: How do you prepare yourselves for meditation?
A: The only preparation for meditation, as Brother Lawrence says, is never to get very far away from God. You can get close to Him in meditation if you never get very far away from Him in all the hours of the day; that’s the rule of thumb. Some of us like to put a period of holy reading between the manual work and meditation; others go into it straight from work.
Q: Is there a definite method to your meditation?
A: Oh, yes. It’s structured. Yes, that comes directly from the teacher. Each monk has an initiation, a “laying on of hands” from a specific teacher, a master who is appointed to do this. So he is given his own formula for meditation, his own object of meditation, and is given instructions. When difficulties arise, so long as he can go back to that teacher, he does; if he can’t he finds what is called an upaguru, a subsidiary teacher.
Q: Would you say something about the use of silence?
A: Yes, that’s interesting, and I often compare that with the Trappist pattern. Of course, your pattern has changed considerably, but the old pattern we used to know has been compared to ours in this way: we make no official observation of silence, but expect it to develop naturally with the inwardness of one’s mind. We don’t feel that we lose anything thereby. Our only real silence is in the periods of meditation, but since they are so long, you can say there are extended periods of silence. On the other hand, we don’t have any rule of silence. I expect that may also someday come, but so far, it hasn’t. We have reading at the main meal at noon, as you do, readings form the scriptures of the world.
Q: How long does it take to become a monk in America?
A: Well, our programming is as follows: the first year a man comes to us, he is a probationer, and the second year he is a probationer and remains one for another four years; after that five year period he can take his novitiate vows. Then he remains a novice for at least five years before he can be professed a full monk or sannyasin, so it’s an eleven year process at least.
Q: Yoga has a very elaborate system of asceticism, with postures, breathing, etc. To what extent does your group appropriate them?
A: Yes. This is up to the individual monk. We have no rule amout it, but our founder did not greatly encourage what is called hatha yoga, the physical side, with all the postures and breathing exercises. He said if you do a lot of that it will only increase your body-consciousness, rather than decrease it, and so we as a group do not, as a rule, practice them. But each monk is free to take that measure of which suits his purposes, so long as his superior doesn’t find it excessive. They are useful, good for monastic life, especially where you do not have physical, manual work. I think they’re pretty much superfluous when a monk has a lot of hard work to do; whey add yoga to the burden?
Q: Here in the West we can see the growing interrest in the Eastern tradition, is there a corresponding interest in the East in the Western tradition?
A: Oh yes, indeed; certainly there is. We publish an English language magazine called ‘Awakened India’, and I have noticed over that last 35 years that there are more and more articles dealing with Christianity, and in later years, much more dealing with West and Western religions than there used to be. And of course, those of us who live in the West and are Westerners have always had that interest, but coming here is fulfilling one of my longstanding desires, to see this place. So many of my associates will envy me this, very much.