Like most bloggers, I love getting email. Making connections with like-minded (or unlike-minded) people from anywhere in the world is a wonderful reward for the time and effort that goes into a weblog.
Recently I got a message from another member of the spiritual group, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), that I’ve been involved with for thirty-five years. This is how my correspondent ended his email:
I do not know whether you will feel the following questions too personal to answer, but if you do not mind , will you mind answering them?: Are you or were you ever a satsangi? What is your spiritual philosophy these days? Can you comment at all on the Sant Mat Gurus, especially Maharaj Gurinder Singh? How do you recommend one seeks the Ultimate Truth?
By “satsangi” he meant specifically an initiate of the mystical path known variously as Sant Mat, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Science of the Soul, Surat Shabd Yoga, or Radha Soami. Satsangi is a generic word that literally means “one who associates with truth (sat).” Since many spiritual groups in India and elsewhere consider that they are on the path to knowing truth, you can be a “satsangi” of various denominations—to use a rather ill-fitting Christian term. “Satsang” is a meeting of satsangis, a service if you will.
I was asked good questions, some obviously much easier to answer than others. Though personal, I didn’t mind making a stab at answering them and have shared my response below. I realize my language will seem foreign to many people. But substitute, for example, “Pope” for “Master” and “Catholic Church” for “Radha Soami Satsang Beas” if my message seems too distant from your own experience.
My basic point is universal: after you’ve belonged to a religious or spiritual organization for more than a few years, it’s natural to be more critical of it. The more knowledgeable you become about a church, faith, philosophy, or theology, the more flaws you’ll find.
The ultimate reality we call “God” can’t be confined within any manmade system. Religions try to put bounds around boundlessness, but this is a futile exercise. Truth always finds a way to express itself. So I encourage people to trust their direct experience over abstract concepts.
When something seems wrong about the spiritual path you’re following, likely it is. If it appears that you can drop some inessential ritualistic practice, almost certainly you should. Keep what works for you; discard what doesn’t.
Here’s my mildly edited response to the questions I was asked:
I am indeed a Sant Mat (RSSB) initiate, dating way back from the class of 1971. I now am inclined to shy away from labels such as “satsangi.” My wife is a non-initiate and I have found that this satsangi/non-satsangi distinction is unproductive, just as the Christian/non-Christian distinction is.
Sometimes a satsangi will phone us; my wife answers and hears the greeting, “Radha soami.” She then says, “Hello.” The caller again says, “Radha soami.” She refuses to go further with the conversation until the person communicates like a normal human being rather than a cult member.
I’ve become a bit of a Sant Mat “heretic,” just as you seem to be. Maybe more than “a bit of” in fact. My quest these days is to discern the essential in spirituality. The rest seems to be in the realm of religion, not mysticism or what I like to call spiritual science. There is a lot of religiosity in RSSB even though this path supposedly isn’t a religion. When blind belief and faith are elevated over direct experience and questioning, I call that a religion.
I still feel a lot of fondness for RSSB/Sant Mat and continue to attend satsang most Sundays. But I’ll admit that I go more for the socializing than for the satsang. Our post-satsang coffee shop conversations go on for considerably longer, and with considerably more enthusiasm, than the 45 minute satsang.
My spiritual philosophy keeps evolving in the direction of Advaita and non-religious Buddhism, assuming those terms really mean anything, which I suspect they don’t. Immersing myself in the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plotinus exacerbated my existing tendencies in that direction. I think you would enjoy my book “Return to the One,” though since I’m the author, I’m obviously horribly biased. Plotinus’ philosophy is remarkably close to that of Sant Mat, with the notable exception of not mentioning the need for a living “guru.” Or, for that matter, a dead guru.
I’ve been reading several books by Steven Hagen, who I like a lot. His “Buddhism Plain and Simple” reverberates with me, as does “Buddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs.” I don’t agree with everything Hagen says, but I very much appreciate his attempt to get beyond the religiosity of Buddhism and reach the essential core, which he says is simply seeing.
I empathize with your frustration with Sant Mat meditation, and RSSB in general. We’re different people, so my experience may have no relevance to your own. All I can say is that I’ve been energized by taking a fresh look at what seems to work for me in meditation, and what doesn’t, regardless of whether it is 100% Sant Mat certified. The goal in Sant Mat meditation, after all, is to do nothing. No mantra, no visualization. Just being there as soul, pure consciousness, and experiencing whatever is there.
This is perfectly compatible with Hagen’s plain and simple Buddhism, and also with Ramana’s plain and simple Advaita. Ramana is another teacher whom I’ve enjoyed reading, finding in him the core of mystic practice without the distractions of complex concepts and suppositions.
Re. Master Gurinder Singh, since I don’t know who I am, I certainly would make no claim to understanding anyone else. Only Master Gurinder Singh knows who Master Gurinder Singh is. Since he doesn’t make any claims of godliness for himself, one can either surmise (1) that he is a humble god-man, or (2) that he isn’t a god-man. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter which is true. It’s my own experience that I’m concerned about, not the Master’s.
That is, my current approach to spirituality is basically this: I’ll do my best to meditate and discover what lies beyond appearances. I believe that if the cosmos is One, and I’m part of it, that whatever the essence of me is, also is the essence of the cosmos. Wherever this journey leads, I’ll believe in what I see and experience directly. Everything else is just a hypothesis: Guru is God, spirit creates and sustains the universe, soul can unite with spirit, and so on.
I muse about this stuff on my Church of the Churchless weblog. I haven’t arrived at any real answers yet, but I’m enjoying the questioning. Trust yourself. If I have faith in anything, it is that the Truth with a capital “T” is able to burst through any and all barriers, and it makes its presence known in all sorts of highly individualistic ways.
My guess is that you already know what spiritual path attracts you, and you are just looking for validation. I could be wrong, but I do this all the time myself, so the process is familiar to me. I look for books and people to affirm what I already am quite sure of, deep down. If I didn’t already know what I was looking for, I wouldn’t be attracted to it when I saw it.
Warm greetings, Brian