Saturday, April 24, 2010

How High Should We Aspire?

This topic is based on a reading from the book by Swami Kriyananda, "Rays of the Same Light." (We use these readings at the Ananda Sunday Services around the world.) This particular reading begins with Jesus Christ counseling his disciples that their spirituality ought to be something greater than that of his (self-styled) enemies, the Pharisees, who were religious leaders in Israel in his time. Kriyananda comments that surely surpassing the superficial sanctity of these hypocrites could not have been the yardstick of spirituality Jesus was offering his disciples! It is their self-righteousness that Jesus was warning his disciples concerning, Kriyananda explains.

There are many approaches to this topic but one certainly has to do with the "holier-than-thou" spirituality that masquerades throughout religion everywhere. It is all too common the tendency of religionists to condemn others, sadly those of other religions more adamantly than unbelievers! Or, to preen themselves on the regularity of their church attendance, the size of their gifts to the church, or, closer to home (at Ananda), the length of time they sit in meditation (in full view of others, of course!).

These are the most obvious, almost comical, examples of what is simply religious hypocrisy. More subtly and presumably more useful to most of us is the value in understanding what true spirituality means. One could even take this in the direction of "What is right action?" Or, "What is good (vs. bad) karma?"

Paramhansa Yogananda tells the story of a man who was bothered by a demon and who was given a mantra to say in blessing upon a special powder that he was then instructed to throw upon the demon. When he tried it the demon laughed derisively saying that before the man could intone the mantra he, the demon, entered into the powder! Yogananda explained that the meaning of the story was that we are infected with the very disease we are attempting to rid ourselves of: the ego!

A joke one hears from time to time (with variations) goes something like this: one afternoon in the synagogue the rabbi and his assistant were praying while the janitor quietly went about his work in the room. Suddenly, the rabbi, infused with spiritual zeal, leapt to his feet, ran to the altar, and prostrated himself crying aloud, "I am nothing, I am nothing!" His assistant, suitably impressed and feeling similarly inspired, then leapt to his feet and ran to the altar with the same cry. As they both lay prostrate, the janitor then came rushing to the altar and prostrated himself next to them, saying "I am nothing, I am nothing." In the quiet that followed, the rabbi turns to his assistant and says, "So, look who thinks he's nothing?"

Swami Kriyananda tells the story on himself (in his autobiography, "The New Path") that after working to develop humility he woke up one day to find himself proud of his (new-found) humility!

We caught in the bondage of ego and it is impossible to lift ourselves up, to redeem ourselves by our power alone. This is what St. Paul meant when he famously wrote that "For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast." He did not mean that we should not strive, indeed, with heart, mind, soul and strength, to do that which is right, and to love and seek God. For, in the sentences that followed that more famous quotation, he writes that we are God's handiwork, created to devote ourselves to the good deed which God has designed for us.

In the centuries from which we have come most orthodox faith traditions portrayed the goal of a God-fearing life to enshrine the ego for eternity in heavenly realms, strumming harps, praising the Lord, or enjoying all manner of heavenly delights (which sometimes bore a curious resemblance to sensory indulges here on earth).

Religion in the past, and to a large degree today still, emphasized carrying one's cross, of giving up pleasures and eschewing an ordinary worldly life. How often one hears how this sect forbids smoking, another drinking, another eating meat, another dancing, and on and on. It is the ego, not the soul, that sees the giving up as a burden. The soul thrives on freedom. It seems that making the distinction between our outward acts and our inward consciousness (intention) has been perhaps just too subtle a point to make to the masses. Yet saintly souls have been known to live in palaces or ruled kingdoms both in the East and the West. Some religious leaders, by contrast, have lived in luxury and self-indulgence, contemptuous of others and arrogantly asserting their authority and demanding obedience of others.

The same Sunday reading from "Rays of the Same Light" ends with a stanza from the Bhagavad Gita in which Krishna extols that rare, wise sage who achieves the realization that "All is Vasudev!" The goal of religion is to find God; to achieve union with the Divine by love for God and by love for God through selfless service to all. Union with God is achieved through our efforts and God's grace applied to the inextricably linked processes of ego-transcendence and devotion.

Blessings to you from Ananda,