Dr. Arvind Vasavada, my guru and friend, my gentle, generous mentor from my seminary days, used to advise me and his analysands (counseling clients), “Be…
I once got to meet The Blind Saint of Vrindivan, India. He was the guru of my guru, Dr. Vasavada. Dr. Vasavada, of Bombay, India, was fresh in Chicago from having been trained with Carl Jung as an analyst. I was at the University of Chicago in seminary and took to helping Dr. Vasavada get around town while learning about Jungian psychology and eastern religion from him. When the chance to meet his guru in India came up in the summer of 1972, I went. Let me share that meeting and his teachings with you towards our asking whether and how this saint’s call fits our lives.
As soon as I landed in Bombay (now called Mumbai) Vasavada eagerly told me his guru saint happed to be near. We hopped on a plane and went to Gujarat State in western India. Two blind gurus were holding forth with a small group of spiritual seekers in an unostentatious room, “the blind leading the blind,” I joked in my mind.
Swami Sharananad, the Blind Saint, was a big, bearded, long haired, bronze-colored man with a big belly (even though he ate only one meal a day). He walked with a staff and kept his eyes closed except sometime when he’d open them and roll them down, as if looking at you. Unprepared to ask questions, I was asked to anyway, so came up with this: “What is the Self? How can I recognize it as the guide and the goal? [and later] What’s it like to be a saint? How do I know it’s any different than what we have?” The interpreters were embarrassed by this latter question and were reluctant to ask it. But they did and he laughed and replied: “A saint is a member of the universal family.” At first I thought he was evading the question, but now, thirty six years later, I’m beginning to get it. You will too by the time I’ve finished this talk. A saint is not so different than you or me, especially if we open our inner hearts and deeper minds to his call.
I had hoped there was some shortcut to self realization, some sort of natural LSD to awaken my inner sainthood, the direct and quick path. All these years later I finally read the larger of his books, “A Saint’s Call to Mankind” and find the demands on my character are as exacting and total as ever. Perhaps you will recognize the wisdom of his system by having avoided and fulfilled it in your lives.
For years all I remembered of his lessons were a few rudimentary ideas: A spiritual seeker, a sadhaka, tries to bring the spiritual learning and improvement of sadhana into his or her life. Gradually, the inner innate light of viveka is heeded as it shines on the accumulated ignorance of aviveka. By trusting the inner light and renouncing the not-real the spiritual real comes more and more to life. In other words, you give up what you really know isn’t you or true, and by doing that, the true you emerges.
In the east, desire and aversion are viewed as distractions from our real selves. An endless supply of persons, objects, or circumstances attracts our involvement or makes us want to get away from them. Neither grasping nor fleeing serves our inner freedom. Totally renouncing both impulses awakens our real self. No longer steered by wanting or avoiding, our real self moves in a new sort if freedom. In the east, the real self is a spark of the divine Self, also called Source or God.
Greed and fear block us from our pure mind and our God. Swami jokes we want God to supply our earthly desires and would quickly drop God if we could get desires satisfied without Him. We tend to take our sadhana as a part of our life, like going to church on Sunday, but the real sadhaka takes her or his entire life as sadhana. Any circumstance or situation can be a proving ground for the sadhaka. Prior to self-surrender, our “I” is a bundle of desires and aversions. Our ego tries to serve itself. It doesn’t notice that desire isn’t really satisfied by pleasure or satisfaction, for these lead to hoarding or more desire. Desire begins and ends in pain. The temporary relief we take refuge in – of getting or avoiding – doesn’t benefit our inner ongoing nature. The ups and downs of ego divert us from an inner freedom capable of loving beyond our little needs.
We try to hoard the waters of love. But like water, the love we really are can’t be confined to our private pool, for the water turns stagnant and breeds germs. Love has to flow to stay fresh and pure. It has to flow to be renewed. Living by desire and aversion tries to keep our own water. Living by renunciation and service opens an ever-flowing spring.
Swami teaches that identifying ourselves as our bodies tends to limit what we do with them. He doesn’t have a hatred for them, but rather sees them as on loan to us to be used as tools of our sadhana. He also notes a lot of what supports us in life and culture deserves a return of our service to nature, society, and those around us. We are raised by parents and relatives, schooled by institutions we didn’t create, walk on roads we didn’t build. We are dependent and owe our part of a return. We do our best to be the ideal son, the loving wife, the responsible father, the dutiful citizen.
By surrendering our own demands and serving the needs of others we get out of ourselves. We don’t organize our lives around our own indulgence. We let our big point go. We put our pressing need aside. We don’t dwell on other’s faults but work on our own. We look to be of service to that one in front of us. Swami says we “hear for the pleasure of the speaker” and “speak for the pleasure of the listener.” By trying to take away another’s sorrow and supplying them with happiness, we uproot our own little needs and begin to be free of them. The sadhaka should not then take pride in serving, for the server is served by becoming more unlimited and less needy. Nor does he or she question the progress thus gained any more than a gardener keeps digging up the seeds to see how they’re sprouting.
He suggests a good question: “Should one fear that it is not possible to retain one’s so-called life without things, let him reflect if it is possible to retain it with things!” What we tend to hold to holds us in their mystique and promise, veiling the larger possession and fuller freedom we really already are.
There in Vrindivan, the village Krishna lived in, I had wanted Swami to touch me mystically, to awaken my infinite Self by his saintly presence. But Swami teaches we cannot be magically lifted out of ourselves by the guru. We have to actually do what the guru advises. Meditation doesn’t fix us by itself. We have to actually love.
“Being is dying by loving,” another holy one taught. The shortcut to self realization goes right through one’s own ego as if it weren’t there in order to be of total service. We renounce pursuing our own desires and instead serve all those we can. We die to self to live in love. “The peace of God,” writes Swami, “is a state not of the individual mind, but of a mind freed of individuality.”
All of this makes sense to my nature, experience, and hope. I constrict in pursuing pleasure or avoiding pain. I expand when accepting obstacles to pleasure or when I relinquish to pain. An inner duty urges me on if I but heed it. All is sadhana. Like me, all others are the Self in their forms. If I give up my ego in those difficult moments to be with them in truth and love as best I can, or if I bravely go with my self as it innerly impels me to do, doing the right thing for that moment, it turns out well. The Tao, or Thy Will, appears, undemanding, yet spiritually real. It is beyond explaining or rationalizing. Followed, it is usually the loving thing to do.
Metaphysically, I do not know what Swami means when he writes that “viveka makes it plain to the thinking man that he is not his body.” He makes it clearer: “desire is born of aviveka, by man identifying himself with the body.” He is even more explicit: “All that springs from one’s identifying oneself with the body and the world is sin, while all that emanates from transcending the body-consciousness is virtue.” Finally, “the dissolution of the ego is the supreme virtue, while ego-consciousness is sin.”
These challenge me deeply, for I believe we are this flame that burns on the wick of our bodies. I ride in this body gratefully. I value this manifest material earth. I have not seen that we exist independent of either. I notice that those who speak of the Self being beyond form and limit do so from a body, their particular form and limit. Saying we are not the body while using the body seems to dismiss and denigrate this marvelous incarnation countless generations of effort in the making. Without all our ancestors, the forces of nature, and society, we couldn’t even consider an infinite Self. What value is the freedom and love of Self if it does not freely love this precious, precarious earthly existence?
Some say you cannot know Self until you give up believing you’re the body, and all else you might believe, rationally or wrongly. Meher Baba “said” asking to know God with the mind is like trying to see with your ears. Give up all you’ve ever learned or wondered in favor of their explanation. It could be what we think we know is really an impediment to what we really are.
There are times to give up all we know or think we know in favor of the unmanifested, even when we don’t know what that will be. But I don’t think we should dance any guru’s expected performance to fit their formula. It has to be spontaneous and genuine.
And truthful. When I once tried to express this metaphysical question to a guru he claimed it was evidence I’ve never known what it is to be Self, or to sacrifice ego in service of truth or love. This seemed presumptuous and offensive, for I have spent much of my life trying to do these things while staying vigilant to the truth as I know it. I am loathe to agree to a formula just because a person and a community agree to it and expect me to do likewise. I value our bodies and our material universe. Not valuing them seems insulting and wasteful.
I like the distinction Swami provides. He says, “Whatever things – including one’s mind and body – are dedicated to God become purified and turn into tools of worship.” He says that desirelessness “does not mean hatred or contempt for the body or the world, but only equanimity by giving them their right place. Like sewage, it irrigates the world and leaves it more prosperous.”
I know this sewage. Having been an embalmer I know the eventual outcome for these bodies. The dust on my piano is mostly my own dead skin cells. I see no harm in celebrating these bodies, keeping them lithe and healthy, and using them to return to nature and society a bit of what they have afforded us. Love is not limited by our bodies; we use them as the place to know and give it far beyond our bodies.
My resolution comes from the archetype of the Buddhist Bodhisattva, the one who could go beyond the gates of enlightenment into eternal Samadhi only to return to our earthly realm to help liberate all still-bound souls. To me, this doesn’t have to be a one-time event at the apex of lifetimes of saddhana and final realization, it is any time we manage to go beyond our little needs, beyond our desires and fears, to share the benefits of our love with others.
Whether Self is independent of the body or rooted in it, we have choice within moments to satisfy our little self or serve that “something” that calls from within or appears as need before us. This isn’t exceptional life, it is ordinary life that can be exceptionally difficult, then silently rewarding.
Part of being a Unitarian Universalist is accepting the limited units we are only to transcend them and instead serve the precious “I am” that appears in the form of another before us. Just as God is said to love all, so can we. If you’re like me, you don’t always do it right, and yet sometimes you do. I don’t claim to be an enlightened saint and I don’t require that you be either. The saint’s call is to something we inwardly know and already are. We are Sadhakas in the human family and the family of life, and our life is our Saddhana. Live up to yourself by going beyond your self to the universal love awakening in the human family.
(Rev) Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
December 7, 2008