I may take the liberty of beginning by saying something about myself and my role in talking to you about philosophical matters, because I wanted to be understood perfectly clearly that I’m not a guru. In other words, I talk about what we call these things and that comprises a multitude of interests concerning oriental philosophy, psychotherapy, religion, mysticism, et cetera. I talk about these things because I’m interested in them and because I enjoy talking about them. And every sensible person makes his living by doing what he enjoys doing, and that explains me.
Now in saying, therefore, that I am not a guru, that means also that I’m not trying to help you or improve you. I accept you as you are. I am not out there to save the world. Of course, when a stream, a bubbling spring flows out from the mountains it’s doing it’s thing. And if a thirsty traveler helps himself, well that’s fine. When a bird sings, it doesn’t sing for the advancement of music. But if somebody stops to listen and is delighted, that’s fine.
And so I talk in the same spirit. I don’t have a group of followers. I’m not trying to make disciples, because I work on the principle of a physician rather than a clergyman. A physician is always trying to get rid of his patients and send them away healthy to stand on their own feet, whereas a clergyman is trying to get them as members of a religious organization so that they will continue to pay their pledges, pay off the mortgage on an expensive building, and generally belong to the church, boost its membership, and thereby prove by sheer weight of numbers the veracity of it’s tenants. And my objective is really to get rid of you so that you won’t need me or any other teacher. I’m afraid some of my colleagues would not approve of that attitude, because it is widely believed and said that in order to advance in the spiritual life, whatever that is, it is essential that you have a guru, and that you accord to that guru perfect obedience.
And so I’m often asked the question, is it really necessary to have a guru? I can answer that only by saying, yes, it is necessary if you think so. In the same spirit as it is said that anybody who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined. Of course, there is more in that saying than meets the ear, because if you really are sincerely concerned with yourself and are in such confusion that you feel you have to go to a psychiatrist to talk over your state, then of course you need to go. Likewise, if you are in need of someone to tell you what to do to practice meditation of to attain a state of liberation, nirvana, moksha, or whatever it may be called, and you feel that necessity very strongly, then you must have it, because as the poet William Blake said, “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”
However, I do want to point this out. What is the source of a guru’s authority? He can tell you that he can speak from experience. That he has experienced states of consciousness which have made him profoundly blissful or understanding or compassionate or whatever it may be. And you have his word for it. You have the word of other people who likewise agree with him. But each one of them and you in turn, agree with him out of your own opinion and by your own judgment. And so it is you that are the source of the teacher’s authority. And that is true whether he speaks as an individual or whether he speaks as the representative of a tradition or a church. You may say that you take the Bible as your authority or the Roman Catholic Church. And the Roman Catholic following very often says that the individual mystical experience is not to be trusted because of it’s liability to be interpreted in a whimsical and purely personal way, and that it has to be guarded against excess by the substantial and objective traditions of the church. But those traditions are held to be substantial and objective, only because those who follow believe it to be so. They say so. And if you follow it, you say so.
So the question comes back to you. Why do you believe, why do you form this opinion? Upon what basis does all this rest? Well of course, almost everybody is looking for help, and thus when I was younger, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way. But there is this feeling of a certain helplessness of being alone and somewhat confused in an unpredictable wayward external world of happenings. And this world of happenings includes an enormous amount of suffering, tragedy, and we wonder why we’re here, how we got here, and in short, what to do about the capital “P” Problem of capital “L” Life, to which should be added death. Because it seems to be certain that we are all going to die and that death may be a painful process. That those we love are going to die and so what about it? Is there anyway in which we can become masters of the situation?
Well there are all sorts of ways of trying to escape from the human predicament of being a lonely, isolated consciousness in the midst of this enormous and wayward not-self. We can of course, try to beat the game on a material basis by becoming very wealthy or very powerful. We may resort to all kinds of technology to get rid of our sufferings, hunger, pain, sickness, and so forth. But it will be noticed that as we succeed in these enterprises, we’re not satisfied. In other words, if you feel at this moment that an increase in income would solve your problems, and you got an increase in income, this would give you a pleasant feeling for a few weeks.
But then, as you well know if that’s ever happened to you, the feeling wears off and you may stop worrying about paying your debts and start worrying about whether you will get sick. There is always something to worry about. And if you are very rich indeed, you’ve still got the anxiety about sickness and death and also anxieties about revolution and about whether the Internal Revenue Service will take it all away from you or catch you for cheating on your taxes, or put you in prison for no good reason. Now there is always this worry. And so you realize that the problem of life does not really consist in your external circumstances, because you worry whatever they are. The problem consists rather in what you call your mind.
Could you by some method control your mind so that you won’t worry, and how on Earth would you do that? Well, there are those people who tell you that the best answer is to think positive thoughts, to be peaceful, to breathe slowly, and hum gently, and get yourself into a peaceful state of mind by repeating affirmations such as all is light, all is God, all is good, or whatever it may be. But unfortunately, it doesn’t always work because you have a nagging suspicion in the back of your mind that you’re simply hypnotizing yourself and whistling in the dark. What the Germans call a “hintergedachte”, which is the thought concealed way, way back behind your intellect, but has annoying persistence. What if?
And so you realize that this matter of controlling the mind is no superficial undertaking, because although you may be able to smooth the ruffles of your consciousness, there is beneath that a vast area of unconsciousness which erupts as unpredictably as events in the external world. And so you consider seriously the possibilities of psychoanalysis, to go down and get into those depths and see if oil can be put on those troubled waters. And then of course, you get into the guru business. You have to go to someone against who’s mirror you can reflect those aspects of yourself of which you are not directly aware.
So as the process goes on, you find there is something awkward about all this, and this awkwardness can be expressed in many different ways. One of them is this. How on Earth are you to get at yourself to do something about yourself? Because it’s a project not unlike trying to pierce the point of the pen with the point of the same pen. In other words, if you feel that you could do with some sort of psychological or spiritual improvement, obviously you are the character who’s going to have to bring this about. But if you are the one who needs to be improved, how are you going to accomplish the improvement? You’re in the predicament of trying to lift yourself up off the floor by pulling at your own boot straps, and as you all know, that cannot be done. And if you attempt to do so, you are likely to land with a bang on your fanny and be lower down than you were in the first place.
So that problem continually arises and it has arisen historically in all the great religious traditions. We find it in Christianity, in the debate between St. Augustine and Pelagius. And Pelagius said that if God had given us a commandment to love him and to love our neighbors, he would not have done so unless we could obey it. St. Augustine countered and said, “Yes, but the commandment was not given in order for it to be obeyed, God never expected that it would be obeyed, because we were incapable of loving anyone but ourselves. The commandment was therefore given to convince us of our sinfulness from which we could be rescued only by divine grace, that is to say by the infusion of our souls with a power beyond them.” And that was more or less the doctrine of which the judge settled.
The puzzle has always been therefore, how to get grace, because grace is apparently freely offered to all, but some people seem to get it and some don’t. With some the medicine takes, and with others it doesn’t. Why? Well, apparently you have the power to resist grace, but if you do, you also have the power not to resist it. We would like therefore to know how not to resist it and to be open. And there you see we are back at exactly the same problem with which we began. It’s like saying you must relax damn you. Let go. Give in. And I know I ought give in. I know I ought to let go and abandoned my will to the divine will, but his son Paul put it so well, “The will is present with me. But how to do that which is good, I find hard, for the good that I would I do not and the evil that I would not, that I do.”
In other words, we all come down to a basis in ourselves which we will call, so first of all since we are in a Jewish Temple, the Yetzer HaRah, or the wayward spirit which God is supposed to have put into the soul of Adam or in my translation, our element of the irreducible rascality, where we’re all basically scamps. And if you haven’t found that, you’re very unconscious. I know all sorts of people who are full of outward love, but of course, it always turns out that they need money. And when it comes to money, virtue flies out of the window. So we do have the element in ourselves. We know it very well. And the question is therefore once again, how can it be transformed.
But if the transformer is the one who’s inflicted, who transforms the transformer, it’s the old problem of who guards the guards, who polices the policeman, who governs the governor? And it seems perfectly insoluble for the reason alone that it is a vicious circle.
There’s a great deal of talk about two-selves. We love ourselves (called ego), the higher self called the spirit or the atman, and the duty of the atman seems to be to transform the wretched little ego. Well sometimes it does, but a lot of times it doesn’t. So we ask why doesn’t so and so’s atman succeed in getting through? Is his ego too strong? If so, who will weaken it? Is his atman too weak? And if so, why for surely aren’t all atmans the same? The puzzle remains.
So let’s take a look at what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to get better. We are out after that type of experience which we will call the positive, the good, the light, the living, and to get away from the negative, the evil, the dark, and the dead. Unfortunately, however, human experience, human consciousness knows by contrast– we are equipped with a nervous system where the neurons either fire or don’t fire. All that we are aware of, is made up of an extremely complicated arrangement of yes and no. And by a recording on magnetic tape it impulses there are areas where there is a pulse and there are areas where there’s not a pulse. And by so doing, we can tape almost any form of human experience.
In other words, we can put colored television on the tape so that it is all reduced to a matter of yes and no. And you will understand of course, that that is the philosophy of the Chinese book of changes, the I-Ching, which represents all the situations of life in terms of combinations of the yang, or positive principle, and the yin, or the negative principle. Interestingly enough, a Latin translation of the I-Ching was read by the philosopher Leibniz and from this he invented binary arithmetic wherein all numbers can be represented by zero and one. And that is the number system used by the digital computers, which lies behind all our electronic ingenuity. This great extension of the number system which is based on the same principle.
But you see what we are trying to do. We are trying to have yang without yin. We are trying to arrange a life game in which there is winning without losing. Now how can you arrange such a state of affairs? A game in which everybody wins would end up as W.S. Gilbert put it, “When everybody’s somebody, then no one’s anybody.” If we are all equally happy, it is impossible to know that we are happy because a certain flatness comes over everything. If we lifted up all valleys and lowered all mountains, we should have the sort of thing they’re attempting to do with bulldozers in the Hollywood Hills to the destruction of the ecology, in ghastly fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy that every – every valley should be exhalted and every mountain laid low and the rough places made plain.
And I’m sorry to say it was Isaiah whom was tempted – was dedicated – who made that remark. But the same Isaiah also said something that at least Christians do not often quote, which is this following sentence, “I am the Lord and there is none others. I form the light and create the darkness. I make peace and I create evil. I the Lord, do all these things.” In spite of which everybody is busy trying to be good, not realizing that we would not recognize saints unless there were sinners, or saviors unless there were fools.
And there is no way out of that dilemma. That is why Buddhism represents existence in terms of a wheel called the Bhavacakra, the wheel of becoming, of birth and death. And on the top of that wheel, there are deva people whom we would call angels. And at the bottom of the wheel, there are Naraka or tormented people in purgatory. And you go round and round, now this way, now that way. It’s really like a squirrel cage where you’re running and running and running to get to the top and yet you have to run faster and faster to stay where you are. And that’s why there is always the sense of the more you succeed in any scale of either worldly or spiritual progress, the more you have the haunting feeling that you’re still in the same place.
So you think now, there must be some way out of that. Perhaps there’s something ambitious and proud and wrong in aspiring to be enlightened or compassionate. Perhaps there’s a great dose of spiritual pride in that I, by my efforts, could make myself into a Buddha or a saint. And therefore, perhaps the thing to do is to try to eliminate all desire, not only the desire for worldly success, but likewise the desire for spiritual success. For the Buddha proposed that desire was the root of suffering and therefore suggested to his arhats that if they eliminated desire or clinging, they might cease from suffering. But you must realize that the so-called teachings of the Buddha are not doctrines in the sense that the Jews and Christians and the Muslims have doctrines. They are proposals. They are the opening steps in a dialogue and if you go away and try not to desire in any way, you will very quickly discover that you are desiring not to desire.
And so we very rapidly come to a situation where you discover that with regard to your own transformation, everything you try to do about it doesn’t work. It may have some sort of temporary success to make you feel better, but again and again we come back to the same old gnawing problem and that is why people interested in spiritual things tend to move from one sect to another, from one teacher to another, always hoping that they will meet one who has the answer. Of course, then there are many teachers who say, indeed, there is nothing you can do and therefore you have to practice non-doing as the Taoist call it wu wei, non-striving.
But then you find in turn that it’s extraordinarily difficult not to strive. It’s like trying not to think of a green elephant and immediately you think of it. And so you come to the dismal conclusion that you can neither achieve what you want to achieve, that is to say liberation from the alternation of the opposites by striving, nor can you achieve it by not striving. And thereby you have learned that you cannot concentrate on purpose. It’s like trying to be unselfconscious on purpose or to be genuine on purpose or to love on purpose, when you say I ought to love, well that puts you in a double bind. And we say to the person, well he’s trained himself to be deliberately unselfconscious or he has very disciplined spontaneity. What we were looking for was somebody whose spontaneity was genuine, so that the scaffolding didn’t show. And we believe that there are such people like children, but they don’t know how interesting they are. And when they find out, they become brats.