Back to the sages

An earlier entry suggested that part of the modern philosophical and belief dilemma in the West is the discovery of a plethora of philosophical and religious traditions existing in history and other cultures, coupled with the exhaustion of traditional systems in the West.

This exhaustion is not simply out of boredom or chasing after novelty. It has been coming rapidly, since the 19th century especially. The crucial human questions have remained unanswered; solace has not provided by the traditional institutions. The disintegration of the West throughout the 20th century confirmed the lack of an exit. Yet, few have wanted to go back to the sages of antiquity through the world, instead either rejecting the existing historic structures without a replacement, or propping up the existing modern structures because they still serve the powerful and give a little comfort to the lowly.

Existentialism confirmed isolation, the alienation, without distinguishing from where it arose. While isolation is an alienation from institutions and culture, it is false to distinguish institutions and culture from actual human beings. This painful realization is, however, one that the solitary understands, and makes. It is the first step to liberation.

The solitary returns to the original strength of self. The solitary looks at those other selves or individuals in history who have faced similar cultural crises, and attempts to learn from them. One cannot look to structures, schools, and ossified traditions. Where were they when the sages began their quest? Their contemporary culture was in crisis, their contemporary institutions were crumbling, or were rigid structures without solace or advice. The sages, too, were solitaries.

Gautama Shakyamuni was not teaching “Buddhism” but sharing personal insights that he considered useful and commendable to others. Similarly, Jesus of Nazareth was not teaching “Christianity” but identifying where his contemporaries needed to go in order to rescue themselves from an ossified and exhausted culture. In the same sense, the sages of Advaita did not teach “Hinduism,” and Lao-tzu did not teach Taoism. A spiritual experience, an insight, an “enlightenment” took place in their lives, and their narratives shared the experience, that’s all.

The experience of the sages, it can be seen reflecting on a past tradition, moves us to a new place, to a new perspective, from which everything subsequent must begin, in effect leaving the past, however dutifully acknowledged the influence of its cultural milieu. We do not escape the past or try to; we merely begin from where we are. It is in this sense that Jesus says that anyone who follows the new path (new to us, at any rate) cannot look back.

Historically, new structures of religious and philosophical schools rose quickly to fill the vacuum that society and authority insists must be filled. The social and collective context of each new thought, each new insight, demands a rationalization, demands a justification. Sagacity must not float about, available to aspirants — such notions must be disciplined, brought under control, codified. So would authority argue. No sooner do sages pass away than their words, thoughts, examples, are sealed into an approved package that justifies a social and group entity.

Within such a stricture, the spirit of the sage suffocates and dies, so that what is transmitted is only what can be traded in the marketplace and subordinated to the ends of authority. However sincere, the practitioners then follow a regime that is second-hand, and without the impetus to listen to their own hearts, the sage’s teaching is absent. What to do? Quit the marketplace, go back to one’s room, practice and experiment, confirm that the spirit of the sage is still alive and vibrant and lives within us because it has bypassed the suffocating structures and speaks directly to us, heart to heart. This is very much a solitary process.

A solitary process does not mean self-assurance, less arrogance. The very nature of the search is a solitary process because consciousness resides in one person at a time. Of course there are pitfalls, as Shunryu Suzuki notes, referring to Buddhism. There is the danger of ignoring the totality of a sage’s teaching because, as Suzuki puts it, “if we take pride in our own understanding, we will lose the original characteristics of Buddha’s teaching, which includes all the various teachings.”

It is not the wariness of successors and structures but the realization that an attitude of pride will prevent us from understanding even the original teaching, let alone all of the nuances of a sage’s teachings that do reverberate through succeeding generations. We are obliged to acknowledge the human effort at retaining and imitating and explicating both the original teaching and the successors’ teachings, while at the same time understanding how the successors fall short, how they may distort and misconstrue those teachings, sometimes intentionally but also simply as local and subjective adaptations.

Historical circumstances arise organically from the specifics of time, space, events, and environments. The schools and heresies over centuries are engagements with the original thought that manifest human society and culture in their many turns of fate. One school arises because of the need to address a physical requirement in a specific location, a psychological characteristic in a given era, or a change in material conditions giving rise to a specific view of the original. It is a fascinating scholarly project, however frustrating it is to the search, however diverting, confusing, exasperating to clarity.

Over the centuries, and on a global scale, the cacophony of versions and sects leads to skepticism and despair. But this reaction is itself a way of responding and engaging the sages’ original thought. The obvious analogy is to plants arising and thriving chaotically as they will, in a given habitat or niche, and other plants adapting only slowly and cautiously to the same circumstances of soil and water and air and sunlight. While just a bit further over, a slightly different or even radically different environment may exist, a micro-climate of different circumstances, and therefore different responses by the plants that arise there.

Given this inevitability of circumstance, the unfruitful tangle of scholarship not merely in identifying the mind and heart of the sage but in making their insights resonate within a given observer. We necessarily become our own teacher and our own student or disciple. We learn by experimenting, by heeding the experiences and practices we undertake, by constantly testing, always with the sages at our side. Truly this is a solitary task. But integrity comes from one conscience at a time, not secondhand from a group wherein the minds of each individual are subordinated to a contrived presentation of what is neither here nor there, neither living nor dead, neither self nor other selves, a mere shell or husk, without fruit within. The safest path, the wisest one, is to place ourselves, our questions, our aspirations, before the archetype of original teachings, to go back to the sages.