Friday, September 9, 2016

Secret versus Open Spiritual Teachings

I've been thinking about secret versus open paths. In some traditions, especially those with roots in Asia, the path is secret -- that is, outsiders are not permitted to know the details of how one progresses spiritually. The knowledge is considered esoteric, and it is thought that preparation is needed to understand the teachings. If people are not prepared spiritually, they will misunderstand what is being taught and perhaps even be injured by what they hear. They may also speak in a misinformed way to others about the teachings, which could therefore be corrupted.

Others seem to believe that having a secret teaching gives it a special power. For example, my mother, a follower of Yogananda, had a secret mantra. It was supposed to have been given to her specifically to address her unique spiritual needs.

In Rinzai Zen, where koans are employed, it is considered unwise to comment on the solutions to koans, as the answers are not to come out of discursive reasoning but out of one's deeper being. I remember once seeing a book of solutions to koans. A friend who read this book was sure that he now knew the meaning of all those koans. But in the Zen tradition, only the Zen master is capable of seeing whether the student has grasped the teaching embodied in the koan. Publishing the answers violates the premise that a koan is not an intellectual puzzle but a way of breaking through discursive reasoning to a deeper truth. Therefore, a Western student who does not agree to keep material confidential can run into trouble. It is said, for example, that Yasutani Roshi, dismayed that when his student, Philip Kapleau, included transcripts of Yasutani's interviews with his students in the back of his seminal book, The Three Pillars of Zen, cut him off. (I remember reading those interviews when I was young, with tears in my eyes, because I too wanted what was being pointed to.) The interviews, Yasutani had thought, were only for Kapleau's research purposes. The argument against such publication is that every student is different, and what the Roshi said to each is therefore different. Such conversations cannot be taken as a map of how to proceed, or as a statement of what is ultimately true.

But Westerners have trouble with secrecy. There are many sanghas in the West that have "Open" as part of their name. The American teacher, Adyashanti, for example, calls his sangha "Open Gate." The invitation is to everyone, and while seriousness is encouraged, no commitment is required. Anyone can come, anyone can listen to what he has to say, and anyone can pass on to others any or part of what he or she hears. And, simply due to sheer numbers, Adya no longer meets with students privately but only at satsang, so every student hears what he says to every other student. Some might apply to you; some not. Adya apparently trusts that things will sort themselves out: people will take what applies to them, and discard the rest.

As Westerners, we have been brought up in the tradition of openness, in the belief that if all views are aired, that which is true will ultimately prevail. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," is a quotation widely attributed to Voltaire. Whether or not Voltaire actually said this, the spirit of this freedom is certainly alive in Western world, and one definitely not shared with other all cultures. The culture clashes with Muslims in Europe, which sometimes have turned violent, are a case in point. 

To Westerners, secrecy means you have something to hide. So when Eastern paths are transported to the West, they often have to adapt to the West's openness. I have never been a part of a secret spiritual tradition, and maybe there is virtue in that approach of which I am unaware, but, whatever the virtue, I don't think such traditions can stay secret in the age of the internet. 

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