A long and deep study of the history and the texts of spiritual and religious traditions, and observing things altogether, helped me realize that our most treasured mental imagery and notions regarding the nature of existence and reality do not have a solid, lasting, and intrinsic status in reality. All of that is part of the ongoing creative play of sentient beings, and we can easily imagine how incredible the variation in stories, shapes, forms, and colors this type of playing must be in the countless corners of this universe.
Our human play in this creative arena of spirituality can calm and console. It can inspire us to turn our lives in more positive directions. And at its most radical level, it can bring us to a liberating realization based on a direct recognition of the nature and heart of existence, that leaves us both raw and vulnerable in feeling, yet free of the conditioning and ways that bring unnecessary suffering.
This book provides an introduction to traditions that first began impacting European and American cultures in the late 18th Century. Traditions with teachings and practices creatively focused at the most radical level, on liberation and enlightenment.
The sudden eruption of the counter cultural movement on the west coast of America in the mid to late 1960s seemed to be the moment when the door had opened up just wide enough for non dualistic wisdom traditions from South, Central, and East Asian to become (eventually) a part of our western cultures in a significant way.
Fifty years later, we can see what has really taken root here:
This is everywhere, literally. Starting in the 60s, young westerners began studying under Southeastern Asian Buddhist meditation teachers who were passing on the Buddha’s original instructions in calm abiding and clear seeing meditation practices. Decades after the return of these students turned teachers to their western home settings, the “mindfulness revolution” is found in all corners of our culture.
2): Advaita Vedanta
The literature is everywhere, Ramana Maharishi’s beaming face there in photos to give a clue, and a whole bunch of people setting up their Satsang shops and creating a mini-Ramana scene. But, if looking for more traditional type settings, there are the many centers of the Vedanta Society where the wisdom of Advaita Vedanta is taught and celebrated.
Following World War 2 and the Allied victory over the Japanese, Zen rapidly became a popular “import” through the writings of D.T. Suzuki, the works of bohemian and beatnik writers, and popularizing introductions by Alan Watts. Today, Zen communities still thrive with “Zen” itself a more integral part of our culture.
The 1500 year old Tantric movements in Hinduism and Buddhism, like Zen, have become somewhat an integral part of western cultures. Tantra can be especially seen expressed in the traditional vehicles of Vajrayana Buddhism existing all over the world now, as well as in the western New Age movements where the focus is often times similar as Tantra movements, i.e. developing “tools” to effect a transformation of one’s personal conditions.
The lineages providing teaching and practice communities for this radical spiritual practices are developing deep roots worldwide.
While the old bhakti cults have died, with their pathological soap opera stories finally having woken everyone up, the MUSIC has not died and the dance continues. Krishna Das inspires so many to sing their hearts out and Caru Das has taken color fest dancing now to so many communities across America.
7): Kashmir Shaivism
While some of the literature like the Bhairava Tantra will continue to inspire and instruct, the medieval Shaivite tradition originating from voices in the Kashmir Valley now faces an uncertain future in the western context with strong public rejection of the medieval model from India of the deification of the Guru.
Shaivism provided the context for many western born teachers to launch their careers as “Siddha-Guru” during the 70s and 80s but the last Master in the formal lineage of Kashmir Shaivism has been gone now a couple of decades. The late Swami Laksmanjoo’s body of teaching work has been archived in textual, audio and video form, and many swamis and academics associated with him have done much to translate and preserve key Kashmir Shaivite texts.
8): Bhakti Cults
The exposure of information related to Ammachi, Satya Sai Baba, and other iconically worshipped figures has been an eyeopener. Massive charity operations surround someof these figures, so they will live on for now. but this is likely no longer a viable model going into the future.
9): Independent teaching and practice scenes
While the transmission of teachings and practices continues in many types of settings associated with traditional systems, there are a lot of people now creating their own freelance vehicles and becoming independent agents in passing on the “dharma”. Over the past couple of decades, individuals who have had some extensive background as students in Dzogchen or Advaita Vedanta became teachers independent of any formal lineage or institution. The movements are called “radical dzogchen” and “neo-advaita”.
Of course these two traditions themselves were born from the iconoclastic voices of people 2700 years ago (Advaita) and 1200 years ago (Dzogchen).
10): Culture and the Arts
Where we are seeing the deepest roots from the planting of non dualistic wisdom traditions in our western cultures are in the wide range of creative mediums, from books, to movies to music to poetry to visual arts and more. This is a line of transmission for this wisdom that this book will also note with some examples.
Of the traditions mentioned above, an in depth introduction to four will be provided: Advaita Vedanta, Vipassana, Kashmir Shaivism, and Dzogchen. The Tantra and Bhakti movements will be introduced in the course of the chapters on Advaita Vedanta, Vipassana, Kashmir Shaivism, and Dzogchen while Zen’s background will be given some attention in the chapter on Dzogchen, a tradition many see as a close cousin to Zen.
Alan Watts in that paperback was providing something of a “pillow book” that would give the reader a “lowdown on the astounding scheme of things, something that never gets through the usual channels…..”
[Reference Note: page 4, “inside Information”, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are]
This lowdown “has been said again and again, but in such a fashion that we, today, in this particular civilization do not hear it. We do not realize that it is utterly subversive, not so much in the political and moral sense, as in that it turns our ordinary view of things, our common sense, inside out and upside down….Hitherto this inner revolution of the mind has been confined to rather isolated individuals; it has never, to my knowledge, been widely characteristic of communities or societies. It has often been thought too dangerous for that. Hence the taboo.” [page 5]
Then a few pages later, Alan Watts begins imparting the lowdown:
“Therefore The Book that I would like to slip to my children would itself be slippery. It would slip them into a new domain, not of ideas alone, but of experience and feeling.
It would be a temporary medicine, not a diet; a point of departure, not a perpetual point of reference. They would read it and be done with it for if it were well and clearly written they would not have to go back to it again….
We do not need a new religion or a new bible. We need a new experience——a new feeling of what it is to be “I”. The lowdown (which is, of course, the secret and profound view) on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing—with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego…..”
Later, to begin his Chapter 3, “How to Be a Genuine Fake”, Watts lays down the point of his offering, and many were listening and ready to begin the exploration into this new territory:
“The cat has already been let out of the bag. The inside information is that yourself as ‘just little me’ who ‘came into this world’ and lives temporarily in a bag of skin is a hoax and a fake. The fact is that because no one thing or feature of this universe is separable from the whole, the only real You, or Self, is the whole. The rest of this book will attempt to make this so clear that you will not only understand the words but feel the fact. The first step is to understand, as vividly as possible, how the hoax begins.”
Today, the cat is really out of the bag. In so many ways.
For example, a noteworthy new branch in behavioral and cognitive science (known as ACT for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) references the illusory separate self sense as the “conceptualized self” and our most essential self as “the self as context”. This so called primary and true self is the same, they say, as the so called “Transcendental Self” referenced in the eastern non dual spiritual systems.
“The self as context” used to be called “the observing self” in that psychological system, which has openly noted adopting eastern meditation practices. The primary Self in the eastern systems is bare consciousness or awareness, and the simple sense of being. All that we are experiencing are transitory events in flux manifesting within the prior and always existing Condition (with this Condition of Consciousness-Being not impacted or affected by anything arising and going away). But, “It” (or “Consciousness Itself”) is seamlessly threaded with all energetic happenings (i.e. absolutely everything manifesting), not a “something” set aside from all that is. Normally, most of us habitually live entranced by our subjective arisings and perceptions, not recognizing and feeling the always existing condition of That which we are most essentially.
The sense of being a separate “I” is simply a matter of staying entangled with the flow of thoughts, imagery, memories, imagination, and feelings. From that contracted activity of fusing with subjective arisings, we fashion a central character that we identify with, and come to feel is a set apart “someone” from all that is.
The sage Ramana Maharshi suggested just feeling into the sense of “I” that we normally feel. In doing so, one may come to recognize something quite revealing. This “I” sense is based on the arising of thoughts, or in particular the “I” thought, and when examined in a lucid and thought free state, it’s seen for the ephemeral and insubstantial “nothing” that it is! What IS there can then simply become strongly evident in awareness and feeling, the condition of Consciousness Itself, free of a sense of “I” and “other”.
Realization of this non dual nature of reality is said to be the type of a turnaround that can mature into an end to unnecessary suffering, liberation from the ways ofconditioned living, and enjoyment of the enlightened condition beyond body-mind-self sense identification.
Decades after Alan Watts words above (written several years prior to his passing in 1973), we can see that this realization is perhaps no longer “confined to rather isolated individuals”.
Since, as he noted, “pointing to” and realizing our true non dual nature is quite subversive in a basic way, that means we really do have an important story and history to study and we should take a look at what has happened up this point.
Watts used the framework of the Advaita Vedanta tradition for his book The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, rather than “framing” through his usual Zen focus. The next Chapter examines Advaita Vedanta.