The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha

A 40 Year Editorial That Still Rings True

Alert: Sophisticated Illusions


It is now a few decades since the infusion of Eastern religions into the West became something of a popular phenomenon. For many people, the years of mere fascination and naive experimenting have passed. Those who have seriously taken up paths of esoteric spiritual transformation, whether Eastern or Western in origin, have begun to understand that there are no romantic consolations in such a way of life. There are no guarantees except practice, and practice is forever.

We have also soberly begun to see that we have a hard task ahead, and in the present, as servants of humanity. It is evident that mature spiritual practitioners must take primary responsibility for the purification and readjustment of the culture, or non-culture, from which we ourselves have come. We have no choice. The dire state of our overcrowded, supertechnologized world has eliminated the traditional option of escape into the wilderness for the sake of private practice. There is no wilderness anymore. To preserve the very possibility of practice and realization of Truth, we are obliged to cooperate in the spiritual revitalizing of human society. Our growth in service, love, and transcendent wisdom has social and political as well as personal implications.

In this light, we should be aware of certain persistent habits of self-delusion that may undermine our capacity for practice, despite our best intentions and even formal vows. It is also good for nonpractitioners to consider these things—not only in case you ever do enter into spiritual discipline, but also to be aware of the nuances of self-deception and manipulation of others that your practicing friends may dramatize.

Years ago Alan Watts warned of the incredulity with which Westerners typically approach Oriental spiritual practices, naively fascinated with psychic powers and the notion that meditative techniques are as exportable as tea or bales of cotton. He and many others cautioned us about the escapism that motivates so many people’s attraction to spiritual experience. Our lives were failing, and the prospect of “enlightenment” seemed a shiny, safe alternative to our suffering. Underneath our initial practice and the flurry of mystic experience that swept the West in the late ’60s and early ’70s was a severe emotional problem, a crippled capacity for ordinary human presence and action.

Now, years later, most of us who are practitioners would consider ourselves well beyond that level of gross disturbance. Our lives have become harmonized and grounded. Many have entered professions, started families, found authentic spiritual teachers and companions, and committed ourselves to lifelong practice of our chosen paths. We have even enjoyed being relieved (though it no doubt hurt at the time) of our more foolish, naive illusions about sudden enlightenment and starry-eyed immunity from human pain and frustration. Individuals are seeing signs in their practice of stable entry into the esoteric dimension of the human evolutionary process.

We have begun to show signs of success, in other words—and accompanying signs of self-possessed enjoyment of success. And we tend to dramatize our egoic error through at least two sophisticated illusions.

The first is a kind of Oriental spiritual agility. Practice a subtle yogic, magical, or meditative path long and hard enough and you will certainly become proficient, even adept at exploiting the hidden domains of the nervous system and the world. If, in the process, you also learn to manipulate money, food, sex, and relationships to your own satisfaction, you can become invulnerable to the real human beings and moral obligations that confront you every day. Thus, those of us who have become practitioners can tend to develop an armor of righteous spiritual superiority. We may seem the epitome of grace, reserve, mindfulness, peace, detachment, clarity, and gentle compassion. But are we alive and radiant with free energy and attention? Do we give life to others? Are we felt as a radiant, vulnerable, serving presence in all our relationships? Or have we merely perfected the game that we at first played so awkwardly— being terrified of life, relationship, and death, and therefore desperate to achieve immunity from all that through some inner enlightenment? To what degree are our yogic, mystic, and intuitive flights based in persisting anxiety, depression, and sorrow about being alive in this world? To what degree, in other words, is our esoteric experience founded in ordinary neurosis?
The second sophisticated illusion is a kind of Western businesslike agility. If at some point you despaired of the game of inner adventure and began to rediscover your original aggressive desire for money, success, fame, or mere control of your earthly circumstance, then you may have begun to develop a hard-edged, exoteric resistance to the spiritual process. Thus, those of us who become institutional workers and leaders in the religious new age tend to develop a facade of serious busy-ness, a spiritualized version of modern corporate hyperactivity. We probably seem to be very dedicated, responsible practitioners, forced to sacrifice meditation and devotions to urgent practical needs, attempting to be good karma yogis in the midst of a hectic life of service.

But the yoga of action described in the Bhagavad Gita (and in the New Testament, for that matter) requires us to go beyond egoic motivations before we pick up the hammer or the pen. It requires extreme spiritual sensitivity and devotion to the Real. So, here again, what are we practicing underneath all our activity? Are we just busy being seen? What are our actual (if subliminal) desires and motivations? Have we cleverly transplanted our addiction to a hyped-up nervous system into the exotic arena of “the spiritual transformation of humanity”? Does our daily lifestyle actually guarantee that we will never have to deal seriously with our professed ideals?

There is no need here for self-mortification. Unpleasant self-knowledge is a necessary form of Grace. But that knowledge must become purifying; there is need for insight. There is need for emotional vulnerability and honesty, effective action in the real human world, and depth of self-transcending spiritual discipline—all at once and altogether, and no matter what our tradition of practice. Most of all, there is need for the humorous distance from our own pretensions and resistance that only critical self-inspection and intuition of Truth can grant.

The real difficulty here is that such insight, vulnerability, humor, and transformed action almost never appear except in the context of a whole sacred culture of “good company.” People can privately take up techniques that seem to serve their aspiration for ego-transcendence. But, to use an ancient analogy, all of that is “like a thief trying to catch himself.” Only the God-absorbed Adepts, saints, or Masters are capable of helping others to actually transcend themselves, and of establishing a culture wherein the ego really is undone by potent spiritual grace. The questions we put forward above, as an example, have been addressed to us often and in many ways by our own Spiritual Master, Da Free John; we never would have seriously considered them if left to ourselves.

Thus, since ancient times the most enlightened beings have urged that the best thing anyone can possibly do is resort to an awakened teacher, his or her teaching, and the community of real practitioners he or she creates. Once a sincere aspirant becomes sensitive to how deadly his or her “sophisticated illusions” really are, then a living relationship to such a teacher, teaching, and community (in Buddhism, the “triple gem” of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) becomes attractive as the only mature and sanely responsible way to live.

-The Editors of the Laughing Man Magazine, 1981