If a guru can demonstrate time and time that he is capable of helping the disciple overcome his limitations, offering remedies specific to the condition, then even though this too is not an exact confirmation of enlightenment, it is a sign that it is highly plausible that there is genuine experience at work.
Amir Mourad talks about the approach of negation in understanding the Absolute, how trust in one’s guru must be earned, and the difficulties of confronting the darkness that exists in human nature.
Q: In speaking of the Absolute, the sages of Vedanta have expressed “Neti Neti” (not this, not this). Many modern spiritual teachers, especially in Neo-Advaita, have the same attitude – negate everything until you reach something in you which cannot be negated. But sometimes I also get confused when I hear such teachers speaking about this approach of negation. It sounds too vague and unclear. I know it’s intended to help drop the clinging of the mind, but what about when the confusion only helps the clinging ?
It is a valid approach because of the wisdom of the sages of Vedanta. But when it comes to many modern teachers, it is all too easy to simply negate everything and decorate these negations with spiritual sounding cliches. Any fool can negate things for the sake of negation, all in the name of the “unfathomable Absolute”. No self, no doer, no effort, no dualism, no non-dualism, “you’re already perfect with no thinker and nowhere to go” – these are the kind of truthful lies that can take place when such a disorder has settled in. It only takes a sensitive eye to see that there is no substance or weight of illuminating authority to these words. It’s less because of a problem with the words and more with the inexperience of the speaker. This may, at the most, enrich the intellect. But existentially, truthful words spoken with the power of falsehood become false truths.
The truth is that there is a great value to discourse and expounding ideas in positive detail. Granted, even expounding knowledge can also be a mechanical, lifeless repetition. But it needs a spontaneous inquiry to reveal something of what lies behind the scenes. Are these just mechanical negations of tradition or is there some living luminosity behind it ? Only when a sage is asked to dig deeper with the hard questions can it be more likely for a greater depth of understanding to be revealed. A genuine person of understanding will surprise you again and again with valuable insights as you enter deeper into such questions, almost as though he were possessed by a Pandora’s box of truth.
All this and still the speakers “enlightenment” cannot be confirmed. It is my understanding that the nearest thing to confirmation of enlightenment of another would need to take a step further. One must set intellectualism and even presence aside as secondary. Presence alone also cannot be an indicator, as it is possible to have charisma and magnetism but without the living wisdom. Enter the master-student relationship, where often neither words nor presence alone are sufficient. I say master-student relationship, not master-disciple relationship, because it could take years, perhaps decades before a student empties the mind of unwholesome qualities and become receptive to the deeper aspects of the spiritual process. To reach a glimpse into a beginners mind, much unlearning and deconstruction often needs to take place, and only when one more fully acknowledges one’s own ignorance can one be a disciple, not a disciple of some guru or master. That is an exploitative scheme. By disciple, I mean a disciple of existence, of truth alone which is the only authority which one should allow to occupy one’s life.
The realm of spiritual practice will reveal much more about the truth of the inner conditions of both the student and the guru. If a guru can demonstrate time and time that he is capable of helping the student overcome his limitations, offering remedies specific to the condition, then even though this too is not an exact confirmation of enlightenment, it is a sign that it is highly plausible that there is genuine experience at work. How far reaching such experience may be will become clearer as the path unfolds for the student. With each breakthrough, a gem of trust towards the guru is earned, not senselessly given because somebody simply plays the role and appearance of a guru. It is indeed a most unfortunate epidemic in spiritual circles, how complete faith and trust in the guru is given without any greater consideration or inquiry. Like some people who approach a Tarot card reader or some other act of divination, most such individuals are only seeking a confirmation of their own belief systems. They do not want to challenge their beliefs, open the mind to new horizons, and weaken the influence of their own self-importance. So being a student of a revered guru is a kind of license for being a revered, qualified student. In the name of spirituality, the misguided student seeks to improve his own social status both in his own eyes and the eyes of others. He is therefore quick to cling to the guru as a way to nourish his own self-image. So for the student of the kind of path that I encourage, a guru only becomes a “guru” until his insight has proven to be valuable, not once, but time and time again through many trials and tribulations. Until then, he is only a “candidate guru”. The prescription in the East of absolute surrender to the guru must be put in proper context, knowing very well the problem of exploitation of authority that has found to pervade every other field of life.
Q: Some teachers also equate happiness to awakening in some of their talks, which is an imbalanced view in my opinion.
There is a misleading trend among many teachers, which is that they simply do not state the truth about the stages that are involved towards awakening. Either they are ignorant of them, or if they are not ignorant of them then they may be afraid that the mere mention of such realities will terrify and scare off potential disciples. Another possibility is that even if they are aware of them, they consciously choose to omit such things which they do not fully understand the value of due to lack of experience.
The process of purification, in the lighter phases of the path, is stable enough to handle for most. But once there is some progress and the student comes closer to addressing the crux of many problems, then one has to deal with another side of the coin – a confrontation with hell. What is the meaning of this hell? The sheer horror, anguish and pain of letting go of many things which one may hold very dear to one’s heart. This aside, once you see yourself more clearly as you are – you will be aware of just how much darkness exists in human nature. Then follows the sheer shock of seeing how much such darkness is in direct contradiction to the self image one has come to believe. Within yourself, you find an entire fabricated world of lies. Having seen a fuller perspective of how one has been lost in cycles of self deception and suffering, a feeling of cosmic meaninglessness settles in and takes over. This gives rise to samvega, the intense urgency to dig beneath the surface and find if there can be another way of being, knowing very well that the time available to do so in a single lifetime is short. It can be such a profound sense, that in the past it has led kings and princes to abandon entire kingdoms for self-knowledge. Time is no longer taken for granted, it becomes a resource of utmost importance. As a purging takes place which cleanses thoroughly the poisons of the heart and mind, you will have to temporarily pass through a period of great turbulence, and although one is indeed traveling in the right direction – the suffering and pain that arises in the meantime will make it appear as though it were otherwise.
Q: I am starting to realize real spirituality can be nightmarish. It just seems like losses over and over, there is nothing to gain and everything to lose all the time. I don’t know if people are ready for that kind of thing. To be honest I don’t even want to encourage people to even go there.
Remember that “nature abhors a vacuum.” Whatever will be killed and sacrificed will leave behind a space to be filled with positive, life affirmative qualities that only enhance one’s well being. So there is enough room for heaven and hell in the spiritual process. Often before one can reach to the bliss of enduring samadhi, one must first pass through one’s private hell to confront the darkness that exists in human nature. But no storm ever lasts forever, there is also the calm that follows the storm. And taking the entire journey into account, what is it which will carry you both through and beyond heaven and hell, until you transcend the dualism of both ? Equanimity. The yogi does not seek to enter into heaven, for there is a hidden freedom which spreads through every thought, emotion, and mental impression – a constant Nirvana that is imminent within the so called dualities themselves. Therefore, deny the appearance of duality and you also deny the indivisible reality. What else is the equanimity of a Buddha but an unconditional and conscious letting go in every moment ?
Q: Thank you, these teachings have helped alot.
I’m glad. I am simply trying to offer a holistic expression to the teaching, both its positive and negative aspects. But it cannot be done when speaking from any one particular point of view, one must take all of the knowledge together as one in order to have a more well rounded understanding.