Howard and I are kindred souls. We’re of a similar well-aged Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) vintage, each of us having been initiated into this mystical meditation-based spiritual path over a third of a century ago.
We’ve also both come to view RSSB in a manner that seems heretical to true believers, but which seems eminently sensible to Howard and me.
Howard, who lives in Berkeley, and I have been carrying on an email conversation the past few days. He said it’d be fine if I shared his thoughts on the Church of the Churchless. I’ve mildly edited them, taking out only a few extraneous personal references and correcting some typos.
The two of us are alike in another way, as Howard pointed out:
Maybe you can use some of the things I have written to good use. Don't worry about editing it in any way you like. I am like you. I just write things out to get them clear in my own head.
While most readers of this blog aren’t associated with RSSB, many are. So I decided to share almost all of what Howard had to say in his email messages, even though it's lengthy.
I realize that his thoughts will be of most interest to fellow RSSB initiates, but his evolving take on spirituality and religious authority has its universal side as well.
The first part of Howard’s message is below. To read the rest, click on the post extension link. I've added some explanations of RSSB-specific terms in [brackets].
Funny finding you here [at the Church of the Churchless blog]. I’m a satsangi [RSSB initiate] of thirty-five years and just now beginning to see I have been deceiving myself for most of them.
I was at the Dera [headquarters of RSSB in India] two years ago and someone at my table said "Brian Hines [me, the blogger] is having difficulty on the path right now." I always want to talk to such people because I figure they are at least being real. I have had it with fundamentalist satsangis. Really, I just can't listen to them anymore, kind of makes me want to gag.
Looks to me like you are just starting to understand the path. I still am quite fond of Gurinder [Singh, current RSSB guru], but primarily because the last time he came to Petaluma [RSSB center in California] and spoke I came to the conclusion that if a tape of his satsang [spiritual talk] had been sent to the satsang reviewing panel he would never be invited back again.
He is not a party liner, even though everyone tries to make him into one. Very few are willing to accept that most of what they hold on to is a fragile belief system that does not give them what they need. Gurinder calls them on this and it is refreshing. Not that anyone does anything about it, but at least it appears he is doing his job.
There definitely has been a shift to 2.0 Sant Mat. I can tell you about a personal exchange I had with Gurinder that you may like.
A few years ago at Dera I got up and said "I just don't believe any of it anymore. None of it makes any sense to me. It used to feel so good when I knew all the answers and I could just look in my Sant Mat Recipes for Life book whenever I needed an answer. Now if someone asks me a question about the path I tell them to go talk to a seeker [someone interested in RSSB but not yet initiated]. They seem to have it all figured out while I have no idea!"
He told me that was real progress. That the people who seem to have it all together and look like they know what is going on are all faking it. He further said being in this state allows you to be open minded like a child. He said this is very important in order to be open to God. He also said that as soon as we adopt a rigid belief system we are cutting ourselves off from the spiritual world because now we can only see what our belief system filters and validates.
He also said spirituality has nothing to do with your beliefs but that it was more a matter of the heart and sincerity. He said it is the sincerity that counts and not the belief system. It does not really matter what you believe because beliefs are ultimately meaningless. God does not look at your beliefs. At the end he joked and said "When you meet someone like that who has all the answers, you really don't know if you should be happy for him or feel sorry for him!"
For me it showed Gurinder as being more like a Socrates than a God-man. He also put responsibility for our spiritual growth on us rather than on a flimsy belief system. I also asked him about the four lifetime guarantee [that an initiate will only be reincarnated for a maximum of four more times before reaching God permanently].
He said there is no four lifetime guarantee and just to forget about that. Kind of blew a much comforting thought we all had right out of the water. He said this, I was at the microphone, he said it directly to me. He also said we need to take responsibility for our spiritual life in this lifetime because as far we know this is the only life we have.
Most of us are still in the 1.0 belief system and I admit I still think in those terms. I just spent too much time being willingly indoctrinated for the last thirty years. As one friend of mine noted, B.S. stands for Belief System and any of us who believe the Sant Mat fairy tale that was given to us in the early days and in the books are following a bunch of B.S.
It is impossible to avoid this without mystical experience. Gurinder calls mystical experience "understanding" and opposes this to "concepts." As soon as you talk about or conceptualize a mystical experience it automatically sounds like bullshit unless you have actually had that experience yourself.
Even if you have had the experience it is impossible to describe with words something that is beyond words. Gurinder has also many times said "My experience cannot be the basis of your faith, you need to have your own experience" I am reminded of a wonderful Rumi poem that you may be familiar with.
"All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that, and I intend to end up there.
This drunkenness began in some other tavern. When I get back around to that place, I'll be completely sober. Meanwhile, I'm like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary. The day is coming when I fly off, but who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth? Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul? I cannot stop asking. If I could taste one sip of an answer, I could break out of this prison for drunks. I didn't come here of my own accord, and I can't leave that way. Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.
This poetry. I never know what I'm going to say. I don't plan it. When I'm outside the saying of it, I get very quiet and rarely speak at all."
Gurinder really is the number one heretic in the organization, very much like Kabir and other masters. I just think the organization is way beyond what one person can control no matter how enlightened. He has to delegate and people who accept the authority are by default usually the least loving.
They drive everybody crazy, themselves most of all. I was there at the inception of Petaluma when all of the millionaires were taking over and bickering with everyone. The atmosphere was the exact opposite of love and harmony. I still don't go out there because for me it is the loneliest coldest place in the world. Early on I was getting upset because the old harmony we had felt in my then home Santa Rosa sangat had disappeared with the advent of Petaluma.
During this time an old 85 year old satsangi told me "If it stinks, don't put your nose in it" and that is what I started to do. Just stay away from those people if you can, they have probably succeeded in driving you away anyway. I admit it is a bit disheartening to see so many close disciples behave worse than the average slaughterhouse worker.
Concerning talking about inner mystical experiences, I heard Gurinder speak about this once saying it was not a big deal to talk about inner experiences but that it wouldn't do others or yourself much good to do so. There was none of that "You'll burn in hell if you do!" that I hear from disciples. He was quite matter of fact and did not seem to be all that against it if you got something out of it.
I am not quite at zero [mystical experiences], but not too far away either. The mystical experiences have been so minor and so seldom. Seems like everyone is at zero, certainly everyone acts that way. I remember looking at the satsangis and wondering why all of the initiates are such failures. Then I looked at myself and saw that I am also a huge failure. I either had to blame the practice or the disciples.
I am not sure where I land on that one. My very best friend told me about hearing the bell sound and seeing the inner star while we were roommates at Dera. I know he was telling the truth. He said it took a tremendous amount of hard work in meditation and he has never been able to work that hard again. Somehow he could not hold onto it though and is now struggling like the rest of us.
I remember Gurinder once saying "The reason a school such as Harvard is so renowned and considered so good is because of the quality of its graduates. It is the same with Sant Mat." I don't know where that puts us. I sometimes wonder if this practice is an anachronism. Living within the discomfort of being uncertain is the only honest place to be. Did you hear about the time Gurinder called everyone a bunch of Moonies?
It is a very awkward situation if you happen to be a mystic in charge of a multinational corporation that is supposed to promulgate an inward mystic practice. Gurinder definitely has the Greek understanding of philosophy and encourages open mindedness and direct experience. He has emphasized over and over again that you only know what you have experienced.
When he says "How do you know I am not a fraud?" he means it. He does his best to call us on our hypocrisy and ignorance because without realizing this we can go nowhere. I know what he told you about not molding Plotinus into the image of RSSB is what he really wanted.
Did you know that there is a publication in India that succinctly explains to people why they should not follow RSSB and that this is a recommended book for seekers in India? He really wants people to be open minded and from what I have seen the times he becomes the most animated and engaged is when somehow talks to him outside of party lines.
Maharaj Ji [Charan Singh, Gurinder’s predecessor] used to say that once a saint leaves this world his lofty teachings are taken up by lesser minds who then turn their teachings of universal love and the fatherhood of God into something rigid and intolerant. This is happening to RSSB right now, this is happening in spite of a living master. Visit any corporate satsang center and you will see what I mean.
It is hard to differentiate between what is coming from the master and what is coming from the management because the management is supposed to reflect what the master wants. In reality this rarely happens. At Dera the management fights and bickers all the time over the very smallest matters. No one will cooperate unless the master steps in and makes the final decision.
One of the big issues is whether or not the basic tenet of the path which claims the need for a living master has completely broken down because of the sheer weight of the organization. We are told that we need a master so that we have someone to go to with questions and with whom we can develop a loving relationship on this plane which leads to a loving relationship on the spiritual planes.
Maharaj Ji used to say that a dead master cannot help us because a dead master is as far away from us and as inaccessible as the lord himself. Now, you can't even write the master a letter, let alone have any type of meaningful relationship. In the present environment access to the master is a practical impossibility and to my mind this nullifies the basic tenet that the living master is the main difference between Sant Mat and a dead religion.
In other words, what is the difference between looking up what a dead master said in a book and hearing what a living master says in a two hour question and answer session every six years, especially when you don't even have a chance to ask one of the questions? I don't see much of a difference except that the book will probably have had meaningless extraneous material edited while the question and answer session does not.
I noticed something interesting about the claims that guru is god. In earlier days when disciples actually had a lot of physical contact with the master most of the writings emphasized that the guru was not like you and me. There is an old Sawan Singh initiate in Petaluma who told me when he was a young man the master used to chase the disciples around rather than the way it is now.
Everyone knew him and felt like he was their friend. People had to be reminded of his spiritual attainments because while interacting with him on a daily basis they noticed that the guru for the most part acted just like any normal human being. There was therefore a tendency to forget the spiritual nature of the master and people needed to be reminded that the guru was a messenger from God.
I believe this is why the earlier writings often emphasize the spiritual attainments of the guru in such exaggerated grandiose terms. Gurinder has often said "familiarity breeds contempt" when asked about having more contact with the master. I imagine there is a lot of truth to this. On the other hand, according to earlier writings of mystics it should also breed a lot of love and affection if the master is indeed a loving spiritual being that leads us to our spiritual home.
Now that practically no one has any contact with the master and the books have already taught the disciples to deify him, the master strongly emphasizes the human side of the master. One of his most common sayings is "Look at the master as your friend, walking beside you. Don't put him on a pedestal where you cannot reach him."
The fact of the matter is that he is not a friend and we cannot reach him. This is a fact and there is no getting around it unless you simply identify the master as a spiritual presence in your life.
No one appears to have a monopoly on this presence whether you call it Jesus, the master, the Holy Ghost, Allah, or whatever. Gurinder would be the first one to agree with this.
So the modern disciple has neither a relationship with the master nor an understanding of his spiritual greatness except conceptually. In other words, most of us have no relationship with the master at all. Now we have to ask ourselves if those who do have closer contact with the master have an advantage. I have seen none based on their behavior, in fact someone once told me, "A representative [of the guru] represents what we should not be like. If you want to see the wrong way to behave, just watch your rep."
My relationship to the Sant Mat path is changing and it seems like it is always changing. I try not to hold onto it very tightly. I know it will change again.
I gave a home satsang the other day and I came right out and said we know the master will come and get us at death just as surely as the Christians know Jesus will come down from heaven on a cloud. Unless we have some kind of mystical understanding to confirm our beliefs it is just another empty concept which Baba Ji [Gurinder] has been hammering on us about for years.
I think people took it just fine, though I was a little worried they wouldn't. I simply had to tell the truth like I saw it. People liked hearing something real and heartfelt for a change rather than the same old broken record. I think you should continue to give satsang but call people on their B.S. and hypocrisy.
Gurinder would like this. The worst they will do is excommunicate you just as the church did to Tolstoy. Now that would be an honor!