The Religious Life
A talk given by Phiroz Mehta at Dilkusha, Forest Hill, London on 16th June 1972
In the old days in India there was no writing, no books. Therefore people learned only through personal contact with the teacher, by listening to the spoken word. In those days, where the religious life was concerned, the teacher had to be a true teacher, that is to say, one who had realized for himself that which was given out by word of mouth. As far as the religious life was concerned, this realization by the teacher excluded any speculative thinking. This is very important to bear in mind. As and when someone produced a system of philosophy, speculative thought had its place, but where the religious life was concerned, there was no speculative thinking involved, because the teaching concerning the religious life is a practical teaching. It is a doing, it is not just wondering and imagining what is the truth, what is the right or whatever the question at issue might be. It was not an intellectual exercise. That was for the philosophers. But for the religious teachers it had to be a case of personal inward realization before they could honestly be regarded as religious teachers, and as having for their part the inner honesty and integrity, the truthfulness to be willing to teach. When such people taught, they were people who had profound insight into human nature. If they met somebody who wanted to live the religious life they knew him, they did not merely size him up, as we would say in modern times, but they knew him, just by his being in their presence.
This has a tremendous significance as to the nature of the religious teacher. It gives us some idea of the sort of person who can be a true religious teacher, one who knows you when he sees you, when he meets you. Because he knew the person whom he met, who came to him in that way, he gave the person what was essential for him, for his welfare and his real spiritual growth, like a skilled gardener who knows what to do for the plants because he has all the knowledge as well as the physical skill and technique. So too these teachers gave to the particular person what was essential for them.
You will see one of the important points at issue here. The spiritual life is the spiritual LIFE, a living process, a growing process dealing with an organism, not with a mechanism, and therefore the teaching regarding the living of the religious life was not a mere technique, not a mere laid-down routine. “Do this, that and the other and such and such results ought to come.” That belongs much more to the realm of the machine, not to the realm of the organism. The machine one controls exactly according to one’s will, and it will do the needful because it is the machine you need. The organism you do not control, you interplay with it and in the interplay if the teacher is truly wise, truly a teacher, truly capable, that living person grows from within. This is very important.
So you see the extraordinary part therefore that was played in this relationship between teacher and disciple, the extraordinary part played by what we call the spiritual values — love, wisdom, purity and so on, in their transcendence and perfection. The whole relationship and the process of growth of the disciple was a thing of beauty which perfectly fitted into the life of the total environment, into the life of nature itself.
We must bear this in mind carefully and note the contrast with our own times. That day and age has practically disappeared. The modern world is a very different world. No longer is it a case of teaching by word of mouth, from the realized being. There are hundreds, literally thousands of books. There is no discriminatory process taking place. A person may just have a very superficial interest, he just wants some intellectual excitement maybe, or some relief from personal sorrow or the satisfaction of his own inner urges and views as regards the spiritual life, etc. etc. So many things come in. He has all these and he approaches, he takes a book, he goes to lectures, he joins societies and so forth. This wonderful discriminatory process is absent on the whole. It takes place up to a point but nowhere near comparable to the degree in which it took place in the old days when there was no writing, no books available. By wholesale dissemination of knowledge there is inevitably a lowering of standards. The level of mediocrity, so to say, rises. This does not mean that knowledge should not be made available to anybody and everybody. But this is fact, this is what has happened. Those who are in positions of authority or conducting groups of people or dealing with individuals have not got quite the same, usually nowhere near the same, expertise, personal realization, this discriminatory perception which can see clearly, precisely, what are the needs of the living person in front of them.
We have not got that today.
So, bearing all that in mind we must realize that our personal responsibility is greater than ever therefore. It rests with each one of us to be completely honest with ourselves, to be serious-minded, not in the sense of being glum or solemn, but serious-minded in the real sense. In this context, one of the implications will necessarily be the absence of any sort of personal vested interest in the attempt to live the religious life, to gain some result for oneself, to solve one’s own problems and so forth. One lives the religious life because that is at the very heart of all living as a human being. Human beings live religiously. But the moment we attach any sort of personal desire in relation to the living of the religious life, it becomes the irreligious life.
This we must understand very clearly. It is not easy to understand it — one may follow the words, the thoughts and say, “Of course that is obvious, that is logically so.” But when I say, “Of course that is obvious,” simply because I have an intellect which is trained to a certain degree, it will see the logic of it and give its assent to it. But that does not mean that I have really understood the point, understood its inner significance as well as all its implications and what it means in terms of practical living. So we must be quite honest with ourselves all the time, seriously but not unhappily. This is important. Try and remain awake all the time so that we see the living process emerge in every sense, not only, as we commonly say, physically or intellectually or aesthetically, but also spiritually, religiously, without ever trying to pin down the meaning of the words ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ according to our somewhat confused perceptions. We have to let it happen.
Life lives us — this is such a profound point that it is really difficult for the intellect even to begin to see it clearly. Life lives us, and if life lives us, our desires, our ambitions, our plans, our schemes, everything, are an obstruction to life living us.
Let’s come again to this business of hearing, of listening. In modern times this will include reading, studying and all the rest of it, in the ordinary modern sense of the word, because there is no option to that. That is a fact of our existence today. It has to be there — so we must take that fact in our stride, be even more self-responsible, serious-minded and watchful so that we do not make mistakes. Granted that, then let us look into the business of listening.
It is associated with two other aspects, reflection, reflecting about it, about what one hears or reads and then meditating upon what one hears or reads, meditating not in the sense of musing. We have talked about this matter before but we can never talk too much, consider this matter too much, because it is the whole thing, the whole process. The first point that we must bear in mind is that whilst we talk of it as hearing, reflecting and meditating, all three are part and parcel of a single whole living process. It is a single process. According to the time and the place and one’s own situation, mood or whatever it is, one or other of these three aspects predominates.
So it is convenient to talk of three aspects like that, hearing, reflecting, meditating, ṡrvana, manana, nididhyāsana. This belongs not only to the Upaniṣadic teaching. In the opening of the Tibetan Bardo, for example, the six Bardos as they are called, in the Book of the Dead, you will find in the introductory verses to the disciple, “Be willing to listen, to reflect and to meditate.” These three are of fundamental importance. This listening is obviously not just restricted to listening with one’s ears to so many words and then letting the brain just construct the thought. That is not all. One listens with faith, that is, not with preconceived beliefs or ideas but with one’s whole heart, with an open heart ready to examine, to receive, which is quite different from listening with the preconceived attitude that “whatsoever is said is true.” When one listens that way one remembers the words and just repeats the words parrot-like and nothing happens as far as the living process, which is the spiritual life, is concerned. So one listens with an open heart and one cannot listen with an open heart unless to start with there is a fundamental vital interest in the reality of the religious life and its meaning. There has to be that interest there, and secondly there has to be real attention. In fact if the interest is there you cannot help but attend simply because you are interested, therefore you listen, therefore you attend.
Listening with one’s whole heart, with an open mind, is a very difficult task altogether. The faculty to hear with an open heart grows through the years. It is impossible to listen with an open heart straightaway. When one approaches the religious life in the serious sense there are so many forces which have perhaps impelled one to turn to religion. But all those forces, if one examines them carefully, are obstructions to listening with one’s whole heart and with an open mind, because that which has impelled one to turn to the religious life has introduced so many personal desires. “I want to get this, that or the other out of living the religious life.” The whole heap of those desires must be out, otherwise one cannot listen with an open mind, One listens with a conditioned mind, with a closed mind, with a mind that is driven by passion, not the pure passion which is pure love of reality, of truth, but with this frustrated, distorted passion which is in us.
So you see how easy it is, for example when one reads books on the religious life and religious truth, to miss the import of what one reads. A month after, a year later, ten years later, one re-reads, and re-reads and re-reads, and one says to oneself, “How extraordinary, I never saw that before.” Why didn’t I see it before? Because I was unable to look before. If I could have really looked at what I was reading I would have taken in the full import. My mind was not open, therefore I could not read. My mind was conditioned by desire, by personal gain, this, that or the other.
You take an ordinary life for instance, in school. If one is being taught at that particular period, and if you just read the book on it, your eyes will be reading it but your mind just will not take it in. And you say, “Oh, this is so hard, so difficult, so boring, I don’t understand it. I don’t like it,” and so forth. But if you are gifted in that direction, be it mathematics, or geography, or history or whatever it is, at the very first reading almost you have sopped up the whole thing — it’s there, your mind is open, wholly open, unobstructed. This is the important point. But where the religious life is concerned, the key fact that we wake up to the fact that we have not taken in the import of this, that and the other, is a pointer as to what we ourselves really are. It is our great opportunity to learn. We learn through our mistakes all the time if we care to learn, through our misdemeanours, through our so-called failures. Those are the great teachers. When we do something which later on we see is not right or when we omit to do something which later on we see we ought to have done, we are filled with depression, with remorse and all kinds of things. You know how the Buddha says over and over again to the monks, “Here are trees, sit down and meditate, don’t give yourselves cause for remorse afterwards.” But the wise one, in the experiencing of the depression and the remorse, sees it as an opportunity to learn and if he learns out of that, which is the karmic result of what he did wrong or of what he omitted to do which was right, then he is indeed growing, he has learnt the lesson, he is learning the lesson. And indirectly he has heard.
If one understands this, really understands it, it is a pillar of strength to us in the process of our living everyday life and especially that aspect of it which we term the religious life. In that case the Buddha’s last words are not so difficult to carry out, “Keep going without flagging.” So you keep going without flagging. This is where learning in the context of the religious life, (the hearing part, the ṡrvana) is different from learning in any other context, where you have to acquire a skill, a know-how, a piece of knowledge. If you do not acquire or learn it, then that’s that, it is separated out, it’s a failure and you have to do something else, and so forth. But in the religious life whatever happens one way or another you can utilise it to grow religiously.
If one understands this, it will help us to be remarkably free of depression. “Oh, I’m not getting along, I have failed” and all that sort of thing. It will also help us to be free of false elation. “Oh, I did that well, I am doing marvellously, my mind is so clear, and I am going like a house on fire!” Soon there will be no house, but only the fire! Then we come back with a bump to square one! But understand this, everything can be turned to advantage to learn where the religious life is concerned.
Hearing, then, with one’s whole heart and an open mind. Now this is associated with the reflection part. Let us say that we do have a teacher present and that he is speaking. Do not think that when that is taking place, or when you are reading a book, as in modern times we do, about it all, that we are only hearing or reading. There is reflection and meditation taking place simultaneously but in a considerably minor degree. This is what stands out, the listening or the reading. But reflection must of necessity accompany it, otherwise there is no thought attached to the words. You do not get the mental pattern which is involved with the words. So reflection is going on at the same time. As and when one sees this or that point fully lit up, meditation in the deep sense is taking place simultaneously. Meditation and enlightenment are identical. Enlightenment, meditation both belong to the state of communion, and the state of communion is one where there is no separation. It is the One-ness. It is the state of realization. It is the state of being that which is happening, that which you are seeing. So necessarily all three are present. But with me as I am, in the imperfect state, it is the act of hearing, or the act of reading that is predominant. Then I say I reflect about it, which means I start musing about it, I start talking about it in my mind, trying to compare it with this, that and the other, what I have learnt before, what I already know, what somebody else has said which is contrary to this, and so forth.
This is where we must be on our guard. This process is suitable in the ordinary intellectual sphere where debate takes place, debate between different viewpoints, attitudes, methods, propositions, and so forth. But in the religious sphere there is no debate going on. It is not a question of proving a point and disproving another point, somebody else’s point. The issue is whole understanding of the total reality present, and what we call the opposites, where views and ideas are concerned, the opposites are both involved in the total reality. Only insofar as we reflect in such a manner that we never lose sight of the total reality is our reflection of real value to us from the religious point of view. Because you see, when one reflects that way one takes no sides, there is no enmity, there is no destructive conflict involved in it, there is the tension of activity releasing understanding, but that tension flowers out ultimately into whole understanding. Therefore there is no hate involved in it, and if there is no hate involved in it, illusions and delusions will also be out of the situation — that is to say that whatever illusions and delusions are actually present will all be seen as they are, for what they are, how they originate, and what is their dissolution as illusions and their transformation into understanding and true vision.
You see what is implied in religious study, in religious investigation. We have often and often talked of mindfulness, but we have rarely considered investigation, one of the limbs of enlightenment as the Buddha said, or one of the links in awakening — investigation of the Truth, the kind of investigation so that there is the wholeness all the time, which implies again investigating with your whole heart and an open mind.
In the third aspect, the meditation aspect, for oneself as one is in the imperfect state, perhaps flashes of illumination come. If that meditation can be carried out with one’s whole heart and with an open mind, the whole process is an illuminating process. What is one of its essential features? This illuminating of the whole mind, of the whole consciousness, keeps one free from acquiring any particular ideas or concepts. Do be very careful about this, do pay attention to this. In the illuminating of the mind it is not that a wonderful new thought has come into being. It is not that. It is that the mind remains wholly empty of all that obstructs the light of Transcendence. It remains wholly empty but this continuous experiencing, realizing of illumination, makes the faculty grow all the time, that faculty which the mind possesses innately of there being unerring insight into whatever is happening.
In the exercise of that faculty, when the necessity arises of communicating something, then the right thought, the right idea and the right verbal expression will come along. The unfortunate thing is that the listener clings to the verbal expression, the thought, and says, “Ah, the teacher has given me the truth.” The Truth is the absence of the idea, the doctrine, the dogma, the formulation. It is the absence of it. The formulation is there only as a stimulus for the listener to enter into the empty state of the mind. If that is done then one has realized for oneself that sentence of the Heart Sutra, “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form.”
So you see, these three aspects, hearing or listening, or reading, reflecting and meditating all play the dominant role in our religious life and growth. What obstructs us is the collection of images and impressions which we have accumulated through the activity of our senses and the discursive mind. Those are the obstructions all along the line. These are responsible for our clinging to a self-concept. They are responsible in the first instance for the emergence of a self-concept, and thereafter for our clinging to the self-concept, the separate, isolated, immortal entity, the self. To this we relate everything that we receive. Where the sense life is concerned and the sense impressions are concerned, there is no way out of that in the ordinary sense. That must of necessity happen because you yourself use your eyes to see, your ears to hear, this sight or that sound, etc. etc. So that of necessity happens there. But the way it interferes with the religious life and the emergence of the religious consciousness is this, that is produces in us an almost ineradicable illusion that I have to come to fruition through this, the individual person. So that when the individual person turns to the religious life he has to become free of himself. Then he realizes that what he sees and understands and clings to as himself is an opaque dark obstacle in the way of the Truth, the light of the Truth. When he sees that his whole energy directed to the living of the religious life is quite free of all selfness. So you see, practically all the task is done when that happens. When that happens he finds himself continually in tune with the Totality of life. He finds in his own personal consciousness process that the disjunction between chronological time, and all that takes place in chronological time, and psychological time and all that takes place in terms of his emotional and intellectual reactions and responses, all that is out and there is the perfect rhythm of the two times, The psychological time is in perfect harmony with all that happens in chronological time as such, which means that all his personal desires, his wishing it otherwise is completely out of the picture. Then he is in the state of peace, and he is in the state of what the Buddha called rapture, tranquillity, energy, concentration and zest.
Do think about this. The religious life is the happy life in this Transcendent sense of happiness — you see its implications? Once you have really understood the nature of the task you have done the task, because the full understanding of the nature of the task cannot be separated from the actual fulfilment in action.
When one lives the moral life in the true sense because morality is action, morality means customary action, customary action. When customary action, morality, is no longer conditioned by the conflict of duals, good, bad, pleasant, painful, right, wrong, and all that sort of thing, all of which emerge from my own split consciousness, then only Transcendent morality is there. One lives in terms of absolute Love, Wisdom, Beauty, Truth, Goodness and so forth, not because one strives to do it. There is no striving now. It just happens naturally, because that which prevented it happening naturally, which is the same as saying happening physically, is now out of the picture.
So you see what the great teachers really taught, however much their teachings may have got distorted through the ages and in verbal form. What they really taught was that you do not strive to acquire Goodness or Truth or anything, strive in the sense of being in conflict with opposites. You let your whole energy flow into it, which will involve the tension of interaction between complementaries composing the duality. But that is the healthy state, the living state. Life cannot manifest unless there is that element present, the tension which is necessary there because of the complementary duals in interaction. They are complementary not conflicting against each other. You let you whole energy flow naturally, and that is a living process.
Lovely inspiring talk!
Contains everything you need to know.
Shall re-read many times. Thank you.
Tom, 7th September 2020