This writing has generated a fair amount of healthy controversy. I wrote it very much with the intention to bring unspoken conversations to the surface, but also with the aim to resolve them over the course of many posts in the series that will follow — all of which will be constructive, positive, generative and full of the optimism I myself feel about this very subject. Anyway, please keep in mind that my blog writing tends to be dialectical and not very linear — I start with ideas I myself may not even fully condone, and then seek to explore and resolve them by the end of the post, or in this case, the series. Thanks for your patience. – Jeff Forrester (2011)
“In any tradition, as soon as a local Realizer dies, the tradition tends to systematically redefine that Realizer or source-individual as a mere institutional and tribally objectified symbol and icon. In that case, the collective force of social egoity controls and redefines the Realizer as a subordinate extension of the collective ego-culture and as a kind of magical source of consolation and identity reinforcement for the personal and collective ego-I itself.”
– Adi Da Samraj
y guru talked about a process that humanity as a collective should engage in order to set itself on a course of unity and leave behind our history of limited and provincial views.
He called this process a ‘truth forum’ – a gathering among people where truth was the only subject, and also the only measure of discourse. This ‘truth forum’ would oblige people to not only abandon their cherished illusions, but also help them to embrace difficult, but empirically and perceptually evident truths, or facts about reality, on every level in which reality can be understood.
This essay will attempt to unravel and address the many issues that confront an esoteric school in its attempt to survive in the global West. I’d like to start by painting a picture of the history of esoteric schools, particularly of how they decline, and we can explore to what degree it is true or not in our experience.
The Four Departures
The Body – The Heart (feeling) – The Mind (attention) – The Breath
In the year before my guru took his mahasamadhi (2007) he expressed deep concern over whether or not his Way – a true esoteric school – would survive beyond his bodily death. During his own lifetime, in almost every instance in which he pointed us to an authentic historical esoteric school, he also pointed out how the school had ended directly or shortly after the realizer, or guru, at its source died.
There are many ways to look at how this ‘ending’ happens – how an esoteric school becomes ritualized, structured on a shared language game, overrun by its own institution, and eventually made wholly exoteric. I’ve watched this process happen in my own lifetime to at least three once-esoteric schools, and I’ve come to understand it as a process of ‘departures’ – or ‘losses’ of the critical human faculties which were active when the guru was bodily alive, and which are absolutely vital to the sangha maintaining its spiritual depth.
I believe these ‘departures’ unfold in an order, as predictable as the hand of a clock. Being turned into an exoteric school is not unavoidable, but it is more than likely; so far it seems to have been historically guaranteed. The challenge is for members of an esoteric school to keep a wakeful vigilance and to never lose their critical faculties or heart-intelligence. This also requires that practitioners always speak up about what they see as error – in the moment it arises – as the good-willed religious ego, now ‘unleashed’, so to speak, begins to make its customary demands.
The loss of the body of the realizer, or root-teacher, is the sangha’s first and most crushing blow. The space that body inhabited becomes a void that must be filled. In the absence of a lineage holder or guiding voice of equal spiritual realization, this void is always quickly encroached upon by a new ‘body’: the priestly class. In Christianity, the priest; in Islam, the mullah; in Judaism, the rabbi; in Buddhism, the monk; in Hinduism, the sannyassin. This new priestly class will ensure and carry out each of the next three departures. But the body first must no longer be an impediment.
Without the living body of the realizer, there often and historically ceases to be a radically intervening force in the esoteric school. The great shout of the heart is replaced by a quieter and more reasoned, though insistent, voice. It is the voice of law. Law, dharma, canon, dogma, precept, and covenant replace what was once a spontaneously revealed truth and human wisdom. Because the priestly class is not a bearer of truth, it must rely on what has been passed on in the form of teaching-language and behavior that can be modeled.
Language and behavior – scripture and conformity to it – become the standard of truth itself. Language and behavior – now objectified or taken from the source and possessed – become the measure of reality itself, as the effortless word and deed of the living realizer no longer move in the sangha as a fire that forces the religious ego into confrontation with its own shadow
With the loss of the body also comes an ever-increasing insensitivity to the realizer’s human person. At the root of all esoteric practice is a subtle sensitivity and a deep, or truly intimate, relationship to the living guru. Those who lived with and directly related to the guru during his or her lifetime have known this recondite, vulnerable mode of perception. It is this sensitivity that caused them to feel and know the guru at a human depth, and which also moved the guru to bring them into regular proximity and feeling-intimacy.
This sensitivity – often forged through decades of trial in relationship – carries within it the power to continue to know, see, and discriminate the esoteric pattern of the guru apart from the social mind and its religious codes. It is not unlike the way a man who’s been married for twenty years knows how to approach and most intimately relate to his partner. It is a subtle knowledge, not easily acquired, and it makes the difference between a superficial and a deep relationship. The realizer, while alive, typically cultivated and exercised this sensitivity or discriminative feeling among his or her closest students.
This sensitivity is a living intelligence that can remain either active or dormant, but it cannot be entirely obliterated, as it is patterned into the body through long experience. It cannot fully disappear from the sangha until a new generation comes finally to replace it.
This sensitivity to the realizer’s body, cultivated and transmitted to a new generation, person to person, is truly the only force that can prevent takeover by the religious ego in an esoteric school. Why is this? It’s because the root of an esoteric school is the relationship to the realizer, and not the relationship to a religious structure or system of rules, belief, and behavior. To be esoteric means to be deep. There is no abstraction about it. It means to be deep spiritually and humanly; they are inextricably intertwined.
It is impossible to become spiritually profound and yet remain in a dissociated, casual, aloof, or abstracted relationship to the realizer. Real practice can always be measured, and is always made humanly visible, by this deep sensitivity. It is also true that those who would create an exoteric way are those typically with the least sensitivity to the realizer-body. And this insensitivity propels them, by default, to choose all the ‘religious’ substitutes which are most accessible to them: word and dharma, will and discipline, the thrill of certainty, and pious behavior. And these substitutes themselves create further abstraction: a cultural exclusivity, a focus on ritual, exoteric hierarchies of apparent seniority, and a more cleansed and abstract view of what was once the ‘offensive’ bodily living guru.
The priestly class is a class of ordinary ascetics. And religious ‘substitutes’ serve to fill a hole that lies hidden within the religious ego itself: the absence of true and esoteric, or deeply felt and subtly vulnerable, relationship to the incarnate spiritual source.
The departure of the realizer’s bodily form becomes the basis and rationale for its own substitute: the newly governing priestly or renunciate class. In every case, without a single exception, in which a historical realizer appeared, lived, died, and then saw his or her Way turned into an exoteric revision, the revision was accomplished – not by wayward or indulgent laypeople, but by those very people sworn to protect the esoteric source: the not-yet-realized renunciates.
What characterizes an esoteric school during the realizer’s lifetime is an explosion of the power of the heart in the human domain. This is the ineffable, attractive power that draws people, quite beyond themselves, to an authentic guru in the first place. Think of the great spiritual lights: Gautama, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, Rumi, Rinzai, Dogen, Nityananda, Milarepa, Hakuin, Yogananda, Trungpa, Maharshi.
These names should not bring to mind images of stiff-necked clerics. The realizer is evident liberty. A transgressive freedom that changes life. A freedom that cannot be imitated or replaced by any structure whatsoever. This intense force of the guru’s spiritual freedom is the first ‘energy’ to die in a truly esoteric sangha.
In fact, after the priestly class replace the bodily position of the realizer as sacred authority, there emerges the first warning sign of this great energy’s departure from the sangha’s ‘house’: it is the visibly diminished exercise and expression of the ecstasy of the heart within the walls of the sangha, or within its own membership. The heart of the realizer is a virulent, chaotic, radical, all-undermining, and even frightening spiritual force. It is many times more threatening to the ego than it is alluring. And it is utterly incompatible with exoteric religious practice.
That is why this power of the heart is unconsciously repressed by the priestly class. It is a power that threatens to overturn and roust the authority of that class, and so to whatever degree this energy is left in the sangha, it tends to be ignored and disenfranchised until it is no longer culturally active or a threat. When this ‘taming’ of the heart occurs, when the heart becomes subordinate to law, this marks the unofficial end of the esoteric school.
Because the ecstatic heart of the realizer is the most stalwart impediment to exoteric rule, it becomes a reason for the often unconventional history of the realizer to be made taboo, and buried with him or her as quickly as can be done. I will not even bother to mention names on this count, as it is all too disturbingly easy. Simply look at how many traditions today repress or deny the unconventional behavior or sexual histories of their authentic esoteric masters, even centuries after their deaths.
What is the motive? Even in traditions where this anarchic history is given a token nod, its life-force, its power to open the fist and remove the social mask, is not allowed to integrate deeply into the culture.
The facts of the teacher’s life are repressed because the ecstasy of the heart, the ecstasy of the body, the ecstasy in life, wantonly destroy exoteric religious convention. Ecstasy by nature brings forward a vastly more liberal disposition of the being. Not an indulgent disposition, but a more feeling-based, inclusive, and heart-intelligent one.
Ecstasy also tends to put perceptually evident truth in a senior position to the borrowed and objectified new ‘word’. It will tend to put truth as it is perceived in the moment even over what guru X ‘said’, which is often just another mechanism for the ego to propose what it, in its fearful or controlling disposition, wants someone else to ‘do’.
The ecstasy of the heart is antithetical to a class whose aim is control of narrative, form, sacred doctrine, social management, normative culture, and the future development of new religious orders. And the sangha member tends to bury his or her own heart in response to this cultural change, seeing that the heart is no longer cherished or heard.
The mind or discriminative power of the adept or guru is the other half of what keeps a school esoteric while he or she is physically alive. ‘What you are doing is absolute bullshit!’ ‘Go deeper!’ ‘Turn this way!’ ‘Stop that offensive mockery!’ Even masters who are soft-spoken have been famous for their ‘shout’. A raised eyebrow can be as deafening as a bullhorn. The corrective language, cognition, and discriminative voice of the realizer ultimately gets replaced – not by the words of the priestly class, but by the realizer’s own words.
This is absolutely critical to see. The priestly class takes the realizer’s own word or instruction and transforms it – into a self-contained language game. The renunciate class becomes its own ‘interpretive community’, impervious to outside influence. It becomes the sole measure, owner and defender of all ‘truth’.
This transformation of the realizer’s word is rarely done with malice. In fact, the entire progression from esoteric to exoteric school is done only with the best intentions. It is done to preserve the Way! Why does the priestly class always fail to accomplish their monumental vision and task? Because esoteric heart-intelligence or true discrimination is an organic, unmediated, and real phenomenon. It is not an ‘object’ captured in language. Language is not spiritual revelation. Language only points to what is.
No matter how mantrically empowered, egoless, or perfect the dharmic source – when the ego takes the guru’s own word to be a thing, to be the truth itself, unlinked from realization, that is the death of wisdom. The monkey clasps his hand, desperate to own what can’t be owned. If you look at any formerly esoteric school today, you will see one thing common to all of them: a renunciate class engaged in a sophisticated language game using the words of the realizer as its closed interpretive framework and cultural false idol. True discrimination is the third departure.
Ironically, it is the realizer’s breath that is the hardest to destroy and the last to depart. The realizer’s spirit, or presence, or esoteric breath, is transcendental and beyond conditions. The meddling hands of priests cannot touch it. Nevertheless it may disappear – from holy sites, empowered objects, and living spiritual temples – through the insidious power of neglect. And a hundred ceremonies a day is still neglect. The generations of those alive in the realizer’s company remember how to attend to, magnify, and protect the realizer’s spiritual presence or breath. They have been taught how to do this directly by the guru, face to face, with no religious barrier.
New generations do not inherently possess this knowledge. They often do not even know why this unique trait is of value – as it is not yet their sensitivity to lose or see degraded. And the new religion they are now drinking in does not even require it for its functioning. Yet, if this new generation is not directly instructed in this sensitivity, or imparted the wisdom of how to attend to that rare spiritual power, the breath of the realizer will slowly wane, and then it will vanish.
Often the guru’s spiritual power is only ever preserved or contactable at their burial site, where the holy body itself maintains a degree of siddhi and transcendental conductivity. Particular motions and formal rituals do not preserve or magnify spirit. When the temples are bursting with activity, yet barren of spiritual force, that is the official end of the esoteric school. The breath has departed. At that juncture, only a new realizer can reform the institution of renunciates and regenerate the true spiritual ‘breath’ and the esoteric Way again.
If you are in an esoteric school, you may want to look around you and consider these four departures. They happen so quickly, they almost always go unnoticed. As a matter of history, within five years, the esoteric school is typically gone. The realizer becomes a poignant memory to those who recall the passion, the love, the cutting discrimination, the humor, the spiritual magnitude, and the sheer delight of his or her living person. And the newly forming sangha plods obediently along, mute in the chain of history, a procession of mockery and betrayal, until the Light appears again.
I hope you have not felt this to be a dark contemplation. It is simply a necessary one for any esoteric culture that wishes to preserve itself against orthodoxy, the suppression of the feeling-heart, and the dominion of well-meaning ascetics.
No individuals are truly to blame for the loss of an esoteric school. The pattern of this ego-revision lies within us all, and it is only through an embrace of one another at a true depth and with great compassion that the pattern can be let go of happily and with ease.
The single antidote is spiritual realization, there is no substitute for that true yoga. But there are many practical, life-level gestures that can and really should be made in an intelligent and discriminating sangha. Some of these are:
1. Require and help facilitate transparency, emotional disclosure, and accountability in the not-yet-realized renunciate class.
2. Foster and value in the community an always active and vocal critique of what is not ‘of the heart’, or what is not of true ‘depth’, or of what is not compatible with feeling-sensitivity to the bodily person of the living guru.
3. Grant governing force to truth – by putting the heart’s discrimination above any protection of the religious ego, and above any cultic ideology, no matter how authoritative it may appear to be within the current culture.
4. Embrace, be honest about, and truly accept the ego-affronting and unconventional ‘body’ of the realizer, as he or she radically lived, and continues to live, as the ecstatic force of the heart in all relations.
The challenge of an esoteric school’s survival in this world is stupendous, but it is not hopeless. It is never too late to put religion in its place. And it is always an authentic guru’s wish that the human community can and will preserve its esoteric roots. To elevate the egoless heart above all else, and let its purity and vulnerability flower beyond all expectation – this is the work of an esoteric sangha that wishes to survive.
Note to Reader: Have you seen or felt any of these qualities in your own sangha? What is your feeling about how the movement away from depth may best be addressed and not allowed to simply become the ego-mandated future?
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