Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Experience" is ambiguous and it implies two senses of the term

Da on Talking School from Gaia Community: kelamuni's Blog

The discourses of contemporary Western appropriations of Indian spirituality can be said to be characterized by a series of rhetorical dichotomies. These oppositions or "dualities" (dvandvas) define these "new" expressions of Indian spirituality by rhetorically demarcating appropriate and "authentic" forms of spirituality from inappropriate and "inauthentic" forms. The duality between the "pundit" and the "sage," and between "talking school" and "practising school" are among two of the most important of these dichotomies. Also important in this regard is the rhetoric involving the category of "experience," which in its own way implies whole a series opposing categories. Although these polarities are presented in ways that are supposed to reflect actual Indian pedagogical categories, they can also be understood as, and perhaps more accurately reflect, extensions of modern Western interests.

The polarity between "talking school" and "practising school" in particular can be said to reflect the modern European obsession with the problematic relation between "theory" and "practice." These polarities characterizing the new Indian spirituality, I contend, are for the most part taken over, almost entirely, from the polemical categories of the Neo-Vedanta. This makes the Neo-Vedanta, in itself, worthy of study. That the Neo-Vedanta is an Indian phenomenon does not contradict the thesis that these dichotomies in fact reflect modern Western concerns, since the Neo-Vedanta itself is a kind of fusion of Western interests with Indian forms of thought and spirituality.

While "Neo-Vedanta" as a phenomenon can, in a real sense, be said to be the appearance of something new, and modern expressions of the "new" Indian spirituality can be said to reflect modern interests, both draw upon the classical traditions of India in significant ways that cannot be ignored. Thus, one tack might be to unravel the various interwoven strands that feed into the rhetorical discourse of the Neo-Vedanta and contemporary Western expressions of "Indian" spirituality. But first, it might be of benefit to examine various aspects of the semantic range of the above polarities.

The three are, in their own way, interwoven with each other, and one of the initial tasks here will be to show how the three are inter-related. As already noted, the dichotomy between "talking school" and "practising school" is, in one sense, clearly related to the problem of the relation between theory and practice. One implication that can be drawn from this is that the "talking school" does a lot of "talking," but does not "act" upon its subject of discourse. Thus, there is a potential element of hypocrisy involved in the charge of "talking school."

In other words, it does not practice what it preaches. Also implied is a notion of authenticity, by which I mean being committed to the spiritual life. According to this line of thought, "true" spirituality is not merely a discourse about spirituality; it is the "inner struggle," the dedication to "personal transformation" that the practice of spirituality actually demands. Here another distinction is implied: that between discourse about spirituality and the practice of spirituality itself. And so someone who merely engages in discourse about spirituality is "talking school" whereas someone who is actually engaged in the spiritual life itself, in an existentially committed way, is "practising school."

There is another context to be examined, that in which the related expression "mere talk" may arise. In this case, someone may make the charge of someone else that their "talk" is describing something that they themselves have not "experienced." The implication here is the rhetorical charge that it is "mere talk" to discourse about spirituality when one has not "experienced" it. It is worth noting that this application of the term "experience" is ambiguous and that it implies two senses of the term "experience."

  • In the first case, it implies "experience" in the sense of some form of particular experience (like dreaming or doing LSD, or a mystical experience or "realization").
  • In the second case, it implies "experience" in the sense of the "life experience" of someone who is "spiritual": going on retreats, doing one's "sadhana", interacting with other "spiritual" types" -- the general experience of being a "spiritual" person and living the life of spiritual "practitioner."

In both cases, vis a vis experience, there is an implied charge that only those with "experience" may legitimately "discourse" about "spirituality" (whatever "experience" may mean, and regardless of the fact that someone can live his entire life consumed by "spirituality" without ever actually having undergone a genuine mystical experience).

This kind of charge finds its particular use in the polemical context wherein there is an attempt to authorize only a certain kind of discourse: that of the "qualified" people who are "experienced." This kind of move can be interpreted as an attempt to wrest control of spiritual discourse from those in positions authority, usually, the traditional "pundits." A rather clear application of the "talking school" and "practising school" dichotomy can be found in some of the writings of Adi Da.

In his essay, Ad Da describes "talking school" as represented by those proponents of Advaitism whose, "contact with disciples is primarily one of conversation, and the process in which they engage their listeners is basically a matter of attendance to verbal argumentation." Over against this mere "talking" and "listening," he contrasts, "the real practising ordeal and deep meditative process," the "self- transcending ordeal of sadhana," the "great practice and Great Realization," and "Yogic discipline and deep meditation..." etc.

In an interesting rhetorical gambit, Adi Da associates what he calls the "practising school" (of which, he is, of course, a proponent and principle exponent) with what he calls, "the original tradition of Advaita Vedanta" and "the original tradition." Now, by the "original tradition" he does not necessarily mean the traditional Advaita Vedanta of the Shankaracharya Maths, for he speaks of both "traditional" and "modern" exponents of "talking school." By speaking of "the original tradition" he is clearly invoking the authority of Shankara, and in the process, associating his own position with that of the Acharya. He is, in other words, giving his own position a form of legitimacy, and he is doing so in a very archaic manner.

In his essay, Ad Da then draws three significant differences between "talking school" and "practising school." First, "talking school" does not require the "great preparations and real qualifications" that the "original tradition" requires, qualifications such as renunciation and the indirect means (see my chapter on Shankara at blogspot for a discussion of the "qualifications for enquiry"). Adi Da's characterization here cannot be said to apply to the "traditional" talking school, whoever that may be, as traditional Advaita Vedanta, in all its forms, does indeed make such qualifications necessary for all. As for modern Advaitins, such a lack of qualification is, to a significant degree, quite normal and to be expected, given that many of the traditional qualifications are derivative of brahmanic culture, and by definition, Westerners are not, and cannot be, brahmins.

In other words, the problems that Adi Da describes here are, in general, endemic to Western appropriations of Advaita in general, in so far as such appropriations tend to be abstractions drawn from what is originally a lived process involving the traditional brahmanic movement toward the renunciatory ideal.

As a second charge, Adi Da says that the "talking school" -- and here Adi Da refers to both traditional and modern proponents of "talking school" -- tends to isolate "listening" and make it the "only method" when it is actually only the initial stage of an incremental process involving hearing, enquiry, and meditation. It is not entirely clear who Adi Da has in mind here, though he does mention the names of a few moderns. As applied to traditional Advaitins such as Sureshvara - if, indeed, this is who he has in mind -- such a characterization is but a caricature. Sureshvara no where says that listening is the "only method." At various times, Sureshvara, like his master, says that shravana can be sufficient. This is because for both Shankara and his closest disciple, Sureshvara, shravana, listening, is the most essential and primary means.

Third, and significantly, Adi Da makes a distinction between two forms of "rational enquiry" (manana). The first, he says, is characterized by mere "attendance to verbal argumentation" on the part of those who are "habituated to constantly talk, listen and think," and whose discipline is "superficial... and merely mental (or intellectual)." The second form of manana is characterized as the "profound examination of the Teaching arguments," and "right (and most profound) enquiry into... the Inherent and Transcendental Nature." It is not at all clear here how these two forms of manana differ from each other, besides the flowery language and vague designations like "profound," whatever that means, that apply to the latter. This kind of language, it should be noted, is purely rhetorical. It is also typical of the "new" spirituality in general, wherein we find that the "intellect" becomes a kind of "great satan," and any allusions to "mere thinking" must be either avoided or dressed up with adjectives like "profound enquiry" so as to not sound like "mere thinking."

It is perhaps worth pointing out that the distinction between manana1 and manana2, as suggested by Adi Da, has little to no basis in tradition. Shankara himself says that manana is no more than "attendance to verbal argumentation." The difference for him is that reasoning is not argumentation for the sake of mere argumentation -- sushukta-tarka, or independant (svatantra) argumentation, as the Madhyamika call it. Argumentation always stays close to scriptural revelation, for that is what authenticates it (as opposed to the whimsical personal experience of the "guru"). But any qualification that invokes scripture smacks of dogmatism to the modernist, and dogma tends to subvert the modern interest in so-called "free" enquiry. And so the one who champions the bastard form of enquiry that makes use of "manana2" must do his best to find some other way to dress up this second form of manana -- perhaps through the use of Capital Letters, or perhaps through the use of showy, but ultimately vacuous, adjectives like "profound."

1 comment:

  1. I do not agree with you equating spirituality as being mere experiences.

    Take music as a very crude analogy. A casual listener can 'experience' music and be a great fan of certain musics or artists. A music fan can use all sorts of flowery language to describe what he/she experienced in music.

    But for the virtuoso itself it is a completely different matter. It entails years or even decades of concentrated training. It is not just about learning some techniques, but involves apprenticeship under a master and the transformation of the being to coincide with the subtle realm where music originates.

    Such is the different between a talking school music fan and a practicing school musician. It is true of most human endeavors that requires years of dedications. It is definitely true about spiritual endeavors.