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Not all that long ago people were prepared to suffer extreme torture rather than renounce their spiritual beliefs. Spirituality has always been intensely provocative and confrontational. Think also of the people who tortured their fellow men. And if you are bewildered by that, consider this: they both had the same stated motivations: to save the souls of, respectively, the tortured, mutilated, martyred heretic and themselves.
Today we live in superficial times. If someone approached you a la an Eddie Izzard sketch and proposed to hack you to death unless you agreed with something you thought silly, you would be hard put to see the point in disagreeing. After all, you’d reason, it’s only words and this guy wants to take my life.
But isn’t there a deeper point here? Have we lost the spiritual sense totally? Today it seems that spirituality is synonymous with pleasure, personal fulfillment, being the best you you can be, helping people, being kind. It’s sentimental, idealistic, unreal and unchallenging. What’s happened to the kind of spirituality where the spiritual teacher loved you so much that he was willing to lose your admiration just to teach you a spiritual lesson, where the spiritual friend approached you to tell you something revealing, difficult and potentially hurtful about yourself, because he loved you more than he needed your friendship to survive the confrontation? Where is the modern day couple, married or otherwise, who will are willing to live on the edge of revelation, risk and true love by consistently challenging their partner to awaken, remain open-hearted and be courageous, even more than kind sometimes, or at least to understand that kindness like beauty and compassion is not always a romantic vision in soft focus, because sometimes it must have teeth to really teach and be genuinely human, effective and real?
Two stories come to mind. The first is the monk and the samurai; perhaps you know it? The samurai comes to see the little monk. He’s sitting quietly on the floor meditating naturally and the samurai, huge and intimidating, towers over him and demands, “Teach me about heaven and hell!” The diminutive monk looks up and replies, “Tell you about heaven and hell! I couldn’t teach you anything! You’re dirty! You’ve got a rusty sword! You’re unkempt! You’re a disgrace to the samurai class!” The samurai becomes furious and draws his sword. He is about to chop off the monk’s head when the little monk looks up and quietly says, “That’s hell.”
The samurai is stunned and amazed by the monk’s extraordinary compassion. Realizing that this little man risked his life to teach him a spiritual lesson, he is so affected he bursts into tears of gratitude and wonder and he sheaths his sword. Just then the monk looks up and says, “And that’s heaven.”
The second is a somewhat peculiar story. It has personal significance to me, because my own spiritual teacher hated it. I don’t think he really understood it like I did, partly because he wasn’t as literary or intellectual as I was. This is something I often point out to my own clients, students and seekers: because I am a would-be-scholar, i.e. not really a scholar at all, I have the tendency sometimes to dazzle the less-learned with volleys of impromptu literary religious or spiritual references, provoking the complaint that since I know so much and they can never know as much as me, they will never make it spiritually. This of course is rubbish. The lists of Zen, Sufi, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu etc. spiritual masters and adepts include many illiterate Self-realizers. This is because wisdom is not knowledge. Knowledge is acquired, whereas wisdom is innate.
The story is about a beautiful Buddhist nun who provokes the prurient attention of the monks in the monastery and threatens the stability of spiritual practice for the male monks and herself in the process. She selflessly disfigures her face, making herself ugly, so that the members of the community are not distracted and she can apply herself to her Buddhist practices.
My teacher thought this a horrible story and taken literally it is life-negating, likely misogynistic, and very nasty. But surely it is symbolic of a spiritual truth. That truth is that we must turn away from the outward appearances, the dazzling play of consciousness, to become fully aware, engulfed and overtaken by consciousness and incorporated into the divine. This is not to say that the world of appearances and pleasure and so on are evil (we don’t have to fall for that dichotomy), but simply that in the process of awakening and liberation we must turn from the outward life of appearance to enable us to see clearly with inner sight both the inner and the outer, which turn out to be one anyway, although we don’t know that (in the wisdom sense) until we have gone beyond the stage of the spiritual process.
Spiritual practice takes us to our edge. There’s always an edge, a dichotomy in spiritual practice, because you arrive in time at a meeting of worlds, at the border of time and eternity in a moment. Inner and outer, earthly and heavenly, actual and ideal, human and divine—spirituality looks different from here in the world of time, space and relativity, than it does from there in the world of purity, love, wisdom, satchitananda and reality.
We may not have to suffer extreme torture for our spiritual beliefs anymore, but for those of us who experience the divine call, the invitation to unity, and respond passionately it is like being painfully parted from our loved one. We ache, agonize, yearn and long for and pray for unity with the Divinity.
This article was published in Spiritual Guidance on Servingyourjourney.com in August 2012.