If not altogether mechanical, to what degree are we "machine",
and to what degree, are we "free being", and possessors of "free
will"? To what degree are we in control of our own destiny, and to
what degree are we "predestined"?
the signs of "man as machine" are everywhere. We see "man
as machine" on the individual level in our habits, our addictions,
our oedipal (and other archetypal) patterns; much of our therapy is devoted
to purchasing freedom from such past-regimented patterns. We see "man
as machine" on the global level in centuries-old conflicts that are
endlessly re-ignited by the automatic reactivity of "an eye for an
eye". It would take a saint to be able to forgive the enemy who has
just killed his family
foregoing the impulse to vengeance, for the sake of a greater purpose.
traditions suggest that
as reflected by saints, sages, and other realizers
is what moves us along
the spectrum from the "machine" end toward the "free being"
But how does one mature spiritually? To what degree can self-improvement
result in spiritual maturity? Or is
applying the metaphor of self-improvement to spiritual growth like trying
to lift oneself up by the bootstraps? Is help necessary? What kind of
help is required? The old maxim, "There but for the Grace of God
go I", provides a clue: perhaps apart from circumstance, the only
difference between myself and my less fortunate brother who is a murderer
is Grace: help from the Greater Reality.
"A body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted on by an outside
force". We often learn Newton's first law of motion in
the context of billiard balls on pool tables. But the same law is readily
observed in "man as machine". I tend to react to men in the
same, limited manner in which I tended to react to my own father. I will
continue to do so until something awakens me to what I am doing, enables
me to see alternatives, and assists me in establishing those alternatives
as part of a new, less restrictive pattern.
But human beings are rather more complex than billiard balls;
much is required to overcome the force
of habit or the trend of history. Consider dieting as one example of attempting
to overcome an addiction (or any other deep pattern) via self-improvement.
The mind idealistically embraces the idea of losing weight, usually rallying
itself around some new technique for doing that; but the body remains
a distinct voice and force all the while. The mind may rule for a period;
but, come that moment in front of the chocolate shop, when the delicious
smell comes wafting out
the body instantly initiates a coup d'etat, seizing the throne
and commencing a food binge that may last days, weeks, or months. When
the mind "comes to", it generally is perplexed about the failure
of its program. It vastly underestimated (and never was actually in a
position to overcome) the force and depth of the pattern it was attempting
A more apt metaphor for "man as machine" than the passive billiard
ball is "man as homeostatic system":
a pattern of activity which, even when acted on by an outside force, will
exert a counter-force, in order to
perpetuate the present pattern. It's as though the billiard ball had developed
little "legs" that dug into the pool table surface when it sees
another pool ball coming, in order to resist the oncoming "hit";
or as though the ball could dodge the oncoming ball. Not so easy to knock
that ball in a desired direction any longer, even with an outside force!
Thermostats are examples
of systems consciously designed to be homeostatic. They are built to keep
the house at a certain temperature homeostatically; a fall below that
temperature turns the heater on, while a restoration to the status
quo temperature turns the heater off. Just so, upon persisting at
a certain weight for a sufficient length of time, the human body establishes
that weight as a "set point" which it vigorously works to restore
should body weight go lower (or higher).
On the basis of similar observations, thinkers as diverse as Montaigne,
Pavlov, Gurdjieff, and Hubert Benoit, concluded that what is possible
through self-improvement, or even improvement with the help of other human
beings more or less like ourselves, is severely limited.
the help we need for radical change or spiritual maturity, on the one
hand must overwhelm our homeostatic system in the manner of a great "Outside
Force"; and yet, on the other hand, it must also pull the rug out
from beneath deep patterns in the manner of Something at an even greater
depth (in accord with the principles of depth psychology). The "Grace
of God" is a good name for help which both overwhelms from without
undermines from within.
An interesting aspect of many contemporary addiction treatment programs
(particularly twelve-step programs) are the steps in which the addict
acknowledges the powerlessness of "man as machine" to relieve
himself of his addiction, and accepts the need for Grace, or the intervention
of a Higher Power, in his life. Just so, all the spiritual traditions
of humankind are oriented around the need for Grace, and the establishment
of a genuine connection with It, in order to grow not only humanly, but
spiritually. But once one intuits the need for Grace: Where to find It?
How to link up with It? How to benefit from It?
In Western religious traditions, Grace often is viewed as a theological
problem: we can readily identify those who got "It" in a big
from Jesus to Teresa of Avila to Moses to Mohammed. We even have stories
providing some details of how "It" came to them. But, so far
as we know, only a rare few among us are genuine saints, sages, or Spiritual
Masters. Up between the lines of these stories sneaks our suspicion that,
not only are we not able to help or
improve ourselves in any kind of truly radical way; but maybe even the
choice of linking up with that which could make the difference is not
in our hands either. Hence the thorny theological conundrums about predestination:
if some are chosen by God to be recipients of Grace, are all the rest
of us simply spiritually damned, with not a thing we can do about it (even
though we spend a lifetime at spiritual practice)?
Curiously, the traditions of the East communicate an entirely different
picture: Grace is readily available! Here Grace is not merely a synonym
for "luck" or "good fortune", or available only to
the predestined. Rather, Grace is a tangible Spiritual
Transmission from the Greater Reality, accessible to anybody
who is interested, and willing to live the kind of life that supports
its steady reception. The living Spiritual Master (or Guru) is the means
by which one contacts that Spiritual Transmission. Unlike miraculous visitations,
which, by their nature, can only come and go, the human
Spiritual Master serves as a stable
bridge between the material world and the Greater Reality.
In studying these Eastern traditions, one senses that the traditional
Western religious view may be hampered by its lack of a living Spiritual
Master who can provide a present-time demonstration of Spiritual Transmission.
The Spiritual Master with whom the West is most familiar ceased to be
available "in the flesh" two thousand years ago. Furthermore,
the religion founded in the name of that Spiritual Master also made the
decision (to quash the competing Arian view about Jesus) to make a fundamental
tenet of its creed be the declaration that that Spiritual Master
was the one and only Spiritual Master or "Son of God" in all
of human history; no other could be his spiritual equal or better. In
sharp contrast, the Indian tradition holds that India has never experienced
a time without either a living Spiritual Master or a saint capable of
serving as a Spiritual Transmitter to those devotees who were ready to
receive his or her Transmission. The Indian culture has always been one
in which the view of the Spiritual Master as the source of Grace is common
knowledge, grounded in somewhat less common experience. Those "in
the know" are able to point newcomers to the Spiritual Transmitters
alive in their time.
What does that less common
experience look like? It certainly has the characteristic, necessary for
transformation, of being an overwhelming "outside force". When
Jesus of Nazareth approached Peter and Andrew and said simply, "Come,
follow me", they dropped everything
work, family, possessions
to do just that. Granted, the story may have been recast in a simplified,
mythic form, and its real, historical details may have included painful
goodbyes, financial re-arrangements, and what not. But the
essence of the response to Jesus' Spiritual Transmission is
captured well by: "they straightaway left their nets and followed him."
They were overwhelmed by his Transmission.
Everything their lives had been about before seemed profoundly superficial
in this revelation of a Greater Reality, communicated by the Grace of the
from "The Calling of the Disciples"
Domenico Ghirlandaio (c. 1480)
The Hindu tradition communicates
a similar message through the story of Krishna and the gopi cowherd women.
Upon hearing Krishna's flute, the gopis simply left their cattle to follow
him. Like the disciples of Jesus, they dropped everything to follow their
Spiritual Master because of something transmitted by his presence which
completely overwhelmed them, and changed their sense of reality. Krishna's
Spiritual Transmission (symbolized by his flute) made these women ecstatic.
Flutes Under a Tree"
Kishangarh, opaque watercolor and gold on paper (c. 1690)
Binney 3rd Collection, 1990:747
While ecstasy per
se is less emphasized in the stories of Jesus, the Christian mystical
tradition in toto is filled with it. Bernini's statue of St.
Teresa of Avila in Divine Communion is a beautiful rendering of
her experience of ecstasy. Ecstasy as a result of Grace likewise is a common
theme in the reports from the Sufi and Hassidic traditions.
"The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila"
Giovanni Bernini (1652)
appears in the stories surrounding Gautama the Buddha. On one occasion,
the Buddha said no word, but simply held up a flower. Most of his disciples
were puzzled. But Kasyapa smiled in response, "enlightened"
on the spot; the Buddha acknowledged that Kasyapa had indeed received
his Transmission. The point of the story is not the visible flower, but
rather, the invisible Transmission passing from Gautama to Kasyapa, translating
him (in that moment, or perhaps henceforth) into the "enlightened
state". That Transmission is said to have initiated the Zen Buddhist
tradition. The Zen teaching has been passed on from Master to disciple
by direct Transmission ever since. The overt acts by which the Zen Master
interacts with the disciple
even unconventional ones such as hitting the disciple over the head with
a stick, throwing a rock at the disciple, and the like
can be more deeply understood in the manner of Gautama's flower. They
are simply pointers or aids to the Spiritual Transmission that is occurring.
Jesus, Krishna, and
Gautama are no longer present "in the flesh". Nonetheless, tangible
Spiritual Transmission continues as a living reality. When I found my
Spiritual Master, Adi
Da Samraj, I was a university professor, living one of
the conventional lives of my time, even as Peter and Andrew or the gopi
women cowherds had been doing in their time. But when I sat before my
Master for the first time, his Transmission literally opened up my heart
waves of love for him and for all beings came pouring from me spontaneously,
in response to the enormous love I tangibly felt flowing from him to me.
By taking up a way
of life devoted to "tuning in" on that Transmission, my entire
sense of reality gradually has been transformed. On such a Grace-full
basis (rather than on the basis of self-conscious effort with my old sense
of "material-only" reality still intact), over time, the force
of all the varieties of machine-like patterning (emotional, mental, physical,
psychic) that have placed limits on my happiness has gradually diminished,
through their non-use.
Like the disciples of Jesus, or Krishna's gopi devotees, the secret of
transformation in my case has been overwhelming
distraction by the Grace of the Spiritual Master. As my Spiritual
Master once humorously put it, while his devotee is "away",
distracted by the ecstasy of his Transmission, the Master enters the devotee
spiritually, and cleans up the place "like a little old lady cleaning
out a bird cage." This cleansing, or release of old patterns, is
not something the devotee does by effort; rather, the devotee allows the
Master (who, unlike the devotee, is in a position to know what he or she
is doing) to do the work.
"The Descent of the Holy Spirit"
Albrecht Durer (c. 1510)
In like manner, the
stories of Jesus's disciples communicate a graceful transformation or
"second birth" of weak, even cowardly men, into extraordinary
men "filled with the Spirit", able to endure incredible hardships
(and even horrific deaths) through their reception of their Master's Spiritual
Transmission (symbolized by the "Holy Spirit").
I have been writing from the viewpoint of Grace as a means for Spiritual
growth and, ultimately, for Spiritual Liberation. But Grace is often sought
for purely material help. Some of this is due simply to the influence
of our currently materialistic culture, and a Western religious tradition
that has placed more emphasis on the visible here and now, then on the
"hereafter" (or more accurately, the invisible "here and
now"). But equally important is Maslow's hierarchy of needs: how
can we invest any serious energy or attention on Spiritual Realization,
when we are hungry, poor, sick, or at war? The "lower" needs
must be handled, if not before the higher needs, then at the same time,
in order for the spiritual practitioner to be freed from having to invest
too much time, energy, and attention in caring for them.
Interestingly, the Grace of the Spiritual Master has always been understood
to not only serve the Spiritual liberation of individuals, but also to
have a beneficial effect on the world in ordinary terms. The Christian
tradition of caring for the sick, clothing the poor, and feeding the hungry
originated in the miraculous displays of Grace by Jesus: healings, feeding
the multitudes, etc. That these too were the result of Spiritual Transmission
is clear. For instance, in one incident, when a woman touches Jesus's
robe and is healed, it is reported that "Jesus felt the power go
out from him", indicating that a spontaneous Spiritual Transmission
had caused her cure.
Indian Master, Ramana Maharshi, often was asked, "Why don't you help
the world?", apparently in response to the fact that he simply stayed
in or near his room all the time. Maharshi's answer was, "How do
you know I do not? A self-realized being cannot help benefitting the world.
His very existence is the highest good." He thus reflected the questioner's
limited understanding of Spiritual Transmission; the one who asked the
question presumed that benefitting the world requires physical proximity
and visible action.
Many traditions suggest
that the material world is arising in a Greater-Than-Material Reality.
Realize that Greater Reality (even only partially), and one will be able
to help the material world from the greater vantage point of its Source
(or at least closer to It). Asking a Spiritual Master why he or she is
not out feeding the hungry is a little like asking the staff of a cancer
research institute why they are not out treating the folks in their neighborhood
for colds. Other doctors are already doing just that! The opportunity
represented by the Spiritual Master and his or her Spiritual Transmission
The beneficial effect
of Spiritual Transmission on the world can take many forms. The devotees
of the Spiritual Master, Narayan Maharaj, believed his Spiritual Transmission
was instrumental in the final resolution of World War II. The Master would
read a detailed report every day on the war's progress. As the war continued,
leaving large numbers of soldiers wounded and dying, mysterious wounds
would appear on the Master's body, with no visible cause. As a result,
he could neither walk nor eat. Finally, on September 3, 1945, Maharaj
was told that the British had landed in Japan. He responded, "The
war is over. My work is finished." He died later that same day.
But positive benefits
on the material level are of limited spiritual value, because they pass,
and because we die. Every one of the people that Jesus healed died later
(even Lazarus). So obviously the eradication of physical death was not
the point of these miracles. Thus Spiritual Masters have always sought
to re-educate their disciples into valuing more greatly that which is
eternal (or at least greater-than-material). For this reason, Masters
warn disciples away from the fascinations of miraculous powers in and
of themselves, because they represent a diversion from the true but narrow
course leading to genuine, spiritual growth. To the extent that Spiritual
Transmission leads to a more peaceful world and better life conditions,
and thus, an environment more greatly conducive
to Spiritual life, its use is truly spiritually valuable. But
Grace invoked solely for the sake of material gain has always been criticized
by the human sources of that Grace.
If the Spiritual Master is the means by which Grace enters tangibly and
stably into the world, what happens to that source of Grace when the Spiritual
Master dies? The answer depends completely upon the Realization of the
Spiritual Master's disciples. A tradition remains Spiritually empowered
because the Spiritual Realizer of one generation transmits his or her
Realization to the disciple (or to an entire group of disciples), to the
point where the disciple (or group of disciples) attains the same Realization,
and learns how to function, in turn, as a Spiritual Transmitter for the
next generation. If the Realization "lessens" over the generations,
the tradition can eventually reach a point where it continues to be socially
viable (as an authoritative source of social morality or charity) but
has become spiritually bankrupt; or it may splinter into genuine but small
spiritual flames here and there.
The Christian mystical tradition is a representative example
in sheer numbers of acknowledged saints, the tradition reached its zenith
between 1200 and 1700 AD; it has been diminishing ever since. The dwindling
numbers coincide with a general sense that the Christian mystical tradition
and many other such traditions are dwindling, particularly with the global
spread of a strongly materialistic world view. Even the deeply spiritual
culture of India has been strongly affected by its newfound lust for technology
and material power, purposed toward eradicating the poverty and political
powerlessness it has suffered for ages. India's surviving esoteric traditions
are now mostly scattered pockets of spirituality.
In some sense, then, the greatest gift for the world that a Spiritual
Master (past, present, or future) could leave
now or in the future
is the establishment of a community of disciples capable of preserving
and even magnifying the Spiritual Master's Transmission down through the
ages. In this context, we can read the symbol of the Boddhisattva
in terms larger than the individual. A true Boddhisattva for this new
millenium would be just such a living Spiritual community, but materially
established on a global scale capable of countering the global sweep of
materialism. Such a community would communicate the existence and availability
of Grace to the world at large; and it would persist in keeping Grace
available in the world, until the last "separate being" was
Awakened out of the dream.