I find the notion that reality is non-dual appealing. I used to be much more of a dualist, or transcendentalist, believing that something above and beyond the physical universe is where ultimate truth, beauty, and wisdom lie.
But increasingly I resonate with Wikipedia's description of non-duality (though I don't agree that Plotinus is a non-dualist):
Nondualism may be viewed as the belief that dualism or dichotomy are illusory phenomena. Examples of dualisms include self/other, mind/body, male/female, good/evil, active/passive, dualism/nondualism and many others.
To the Nondualist, reality is ultimately neither physical nor mental. Instead, it is an ineffable state or realization. This ultimate reality can be called "Spirit" (Aurobindo), "Brahman" (Shankara), "God", "Shunyata" (Emptiness), "The All" (Plotinus), "The Self" (Ramana Maharshi), "The Dao" (Lao Zi), "The Absolute" (Schelling) or simply "The Nondual" (F. H. Bradley).
Recently I got an email from Mike, who shared some interesting thoughts about Sant Mat in general and the Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) branch of this religious philosophy in particular. I've included his message as a continuation to this post.
I was struck by Mike's assumption that Sant Mat is a non-dual spiritual practice. Having been initiated into RSSB about the same time Mike was (1971), and being familiar with the teachings of decidedly non-dual mystics such as Ramana and Nisargadatta, I've never thought of Sant Mat in this fashion.
Ken Wilber is a modern non-dualist. In his magnum opus, "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality," Wilber sums up his philosophy as: (1) the Many are illusory, (2) the One alone is real, and (3) the One is the Many. Thus reality is illusion, and illusion is reality.
Could be. Unity is what most of us are looking for in one way or another, and non-duality is even more of a piece than monism—which ends with a One that transcends the maya of Manyness. I like the non-dual wrinkle that ultimate reality is right here and now, not only far off in some other realm.
I just don't see Sant Mat as being authentically non-dual. To the extent that it is, non-dualism is very much de-emphasized in comparison to the thoroughly dualistic aspects of the meditational and devotional practices I was taught.
For example: body, mind, and soul are considered to be separate and distinct. The goal is to leave body and mind behind, and become pure soul. "Heaven" (a.k.a. Sach Khand) is an actual place, another dimension of being, not a modification of present consciousness.
The guru is to be worshipped and obeyed. He isn't merely an exemplar of what the disciple can become, but rather is thought to be a son of God who has been sent by the Creator to retrieve lost souls. While the highest manifestation of "God" in Sant Mat is formless, the disciple is supposed to rely on the guru's various forms (physical, astral, causal) during a long spiritual journey from many to the One.
So there's a lot of duality to be discarded in Sant Mat before attaining the nondual. Other practices such as Zen, Advaita, and Taoism take a much more direct route to non-duality.
Still, Mike correctly points out that if the overtly ritualistic and religious aspects of Sant Mat are discarded, you're left with a spiritual practice that could indeed be viewed as falling into the non-dual camp. Of course, this could be said of anything: if you take away the fluff, you're left with the essence.
What I wonder is, "Why not dive right into the essence, rather than spending time and energy wading through the fluff?" But that's a matter of personal preference, as Mike says. For some people, during some periods of their lives, dualistic supports—authority figures, congregations, holy books, worship services—are needed.
Here's Mike's message:
I am fascinated to discover this site, and to read the rationales and musings of former Satsangis. I am fascinated by the arguments arising and the range of points of view, the lonely ramblings of lost seekers. Here's my take on it:
It seems to me that the current guru at Beas would be the first to agree that he is merely human, and no more special than anyone else.
Nevertheless, in the socio-linguistic nexus in which he finds himself, he must discharge the duties of a guru, or teacher. The role is quite tight, and he has very little latitude for changing the structure. Yes, it is a religion, but a very stripped-down one with ritual kept to a minimum and a constant exhortation to followers to be good and to meditate.
So what? The entire movement suggested by Sant Mat teachings is of a change of consciousness, from one in which we are driven by an anxious and illusory 'self', to a non-dual awareness, where concepts of 'self' and 'other' drop away.
So, there are three questions:
(1) Does the meditation technique offered by these gurus work or not? Which is to say, if pursued on its own terms, can it result in non-dual awareness?
This is difficult to assess – and the injunction for Satsangis not to discuss their meditation experiences does not help – but from my experience of Sant Mat, (since 1970) I would offer a provisional yes – it seems to work for some people sometimes.
I know several people who are passionate, devoted meditators, and whose consciousness has indeed been transformed in a positive way by this. I know others who sit but whose sitting seems to have no positive effect on their behaviour and demeanour.
(2) Is the guru one for whom the technique has worked – who has manifested non-dual consciousness?
This is not possible to assess, but to judge by the assertions that Gurinder Singh makes, he is keen to minimise the cult and religious aspects of RSSB, and to deflect followers back onto their own resources. He invites us to try the meditation technique and make our own assessment.
For some it works, for others it does not. Some never give it more than a cursory try before abandoning it. Which brings us to the third question:
(3) Do we wish to (attempt to) transform our own consciousness into the non-dual state by means of the technique offered?
The rest – 'is the guru really god?' 'he has come down' and so on and on, is all metaphor. It's not, at heart, about some 'other' God 'up there' and us down here or any other essentialist nonsense, nor is the inner journey spatial (through spatial 'regions').
The entire RSSB cosmology and inner energy body is just a way that Hindu culture expressed its understanding of the change in consciousness from the illusory 'self' to the non-dual, from the self-obsessed to the open and compassionate. The 'journey' has no features or milestones, but we mark it, wherever the mind is present, according to our cultural predispositions.
In the inner silence we may learn…
(a) That the entire world is the production of the mind (rather obviously – it assembles the 'world' from feeling-drenched sensations and presents it as on a screen;)
(b) That there is only one mind (yours) doing the presenting;
(c) That one can unify the 'world' and the 'mind' if we can relax the tight grasp that we have on an illusory selfhood. This entails ditching all clinging and grasping towards any 'part' of the 'world' we have constructed, including the false 'self' at the centre.
(d) That only the unified mind can merge with the great One.
It seems that some people are able to close their eyes and drop through the lattice of phosphenes (the glowing thingies you see with closed eyes) into the vast-seeming dark space beyond. There one meets an inner guide – a projection of one's own inner wisdom. This guide's form has been built up in visualization practice, and with time becomes more and more 'real'. (The analogous process happens with 'sound', though meditation is neither visual nor auditory.)
As Baba Faqir Chand, a Radhasoami guru from Hoshiarpur said: "What I have realized after a long search is that one must not think ill or do any harm to anybody for personal gain. Secondly, one must have faith in only one form, it may be of any god, goddess or teacher. Without form one cannot reach the goal."
So, the meditation is not conferred by the guru, but is something built into the mind and accessible via technique and attitude. The guru is the anchor into a socio-linguistic context (all the apparatus of the sangat) – a means of 'explaining' and containing the inner movement.
Studies of the Radhasoami books give content as well as philosophical and ethical underpinning to this hypostatized production of the mind. A powerful emotional context directs the feelings into certain channels. The inner guru is the production of one's mind – by the system's own logic, everything up to the 'third region' is the mind's production.
As Faqir further states: "You are not helped by any saint or guru, but by your own faith and belief." There is really no need to impute god-like powers to some chap in India, which he would be the first to deny.
Does this mean we should abandon the path and the sangat? Not necessarily. For those who want to practice this meditation system, the surrounding apparatus of books, satsangis, the guru and the support of fellow meditators may be helpful. For some others it may not. If one is not engaged in this path of self-transcendence, one ought to gracefully bow out and say "that's not for me."
There is also the attraction of learning the rules, codes and terminology of the system and the satisfaction of using them correctly, which we may mistake for holy fervour. The Radhasoami teachings, aside from the meditation practice, do not explain the world. They are a codification of a 19th-century Northern Hindu world-view.
But it is tempting to see them as absolute Truth, and to attempt to cobble together a Total System based on them, a process doomed to failure as many of the entries on this blog show.
Why be surprised if some Satsangis behave like an in-group, or regard themselves as superior, or better than others? I imagine that this is the case with all religions, political parties etc. etc.
We should be able to forgive, as in-group behaviour is hardwired into all the higher primate species. Fundamentalism happens in any religious grouping, and there is the likelihood that people of fundamentalist habit will transfer their habit to Sant Mat. It is certainly contrary to the spirit of what Gurinder Singh Dhillon seems to be teaching.
So, if you came to RSSB for any other reason than the meditation practice, I am not surprised to find you here. If you came for the meditation, and it didn't work for you, I am also not surprised – it seems to work for about 10% of those who attempt it, though the hit-rate increases with persistence.
I have found no evidence of abusive or cult-like behavior, beyond what one might expect from any mild and well-intentioned religion, in all my years of association with RSSB. I have never witnessed coercion, apart from a mild atmosphere of mutual encouragement.
I have certainly encountered the entire range of behaviours, from criminal to saintly, among Satsangis, as with all other groups that I have associated with. If some of the crazier Satsangis give a weird flavour to the sangat, or if it becomes too fundamentalist one can:
--complain to the guru
--vote for different officials
--stop going to satsang and continue the meditation practice on one's own, or among like-minded friends.
If you are not interested in the meditation practice or, if after a genuine trial it does not work for you, then RSSB is not for you. You have the option of quietly putting it down and moving on, or carrying it as baggage. Even if you are a meditator, you will eventually have to release your grasp on RSSB, as on everything else.