Saturday, January 05, 2008

"Actually, I prefer nonduality,"

SAID PRASAD, ALOUD, in response to -- nothing.

We were in the midst of silent meditation, and he just suddenly decided to say that. The other yoga students sitting cross-legged in the room, including my brother, laughed good-naturedly, as if they were in on the joke. But, to whom was Prasad responding? No one had said anything. At least, I hadn’t said anything aloud -- I had only thought it.

Mind-reading? Perhaps.

Are psychic powers proof of enlightenment? Not necessarily.

See, I was there at the meditation/worship session, let’s say, less than willingly. My brother, a devout member, had invited me to what I thought would be a New Year’s party. A “celebration,” he'd called it. It wasn’t at all what I had envisioned. I had told him I might come to a party but I wouldn’t get involved in the religion stuff. However, as it turned out, it was all religion stuff: meditating, chanting to various deities I don’t believe in, venerating statues and pictures. It all made me queasy: I didn’t like the spirit in that place. I consider the statues and pictures to be idols. And because of that, I was silently praying -- for  protection, not only for myself but for my brother’s two little boys who were also there and who did not understand what they were doing. Because, you know, you have to test the spirits -- many are up to no good.

Did Prasad sense my silent prayers about all this? In Eastern thought praying to a separate, personal, transcendent God, or believing in discrete, personal demonic spirits,  would be “dualistic” -- i.e., backward and unenlightened.

Except, curiously enough, when it comes to certain dualistic practices these guys  favor, such as arranging dozens of idols, vessels, censers, pictures of their guru, and other items of worship or ceremony on the altar. And bowing down to those idols (or as I like to call them, “non-action figures” – from the biblical observation that they have eyes but cannot see; ears, but cannot hear, and mouths, but cannot speak). It's puzzling that these ones who are going to teach me and other benighted Westerners to transcend the evils of dualism, the attachment to material reality, are here literally worshiping material things.

Religions that worship images and relics and other objects tend to deny that they do so. Each has some rhetorical way to finesse the fact. Roman Catholics bow to statues and graves of saints, pray to them, and petition them for supernatural intervention. But relax: this is not worship, it's "veneration." (Orthodox folk would say the same thing, plus add that they are better since they venerate icons but not statues; but if "veneration" is not worship, what's it matter? They could've saved themselves a schism, seems to me.)

According to my brother, he and his fellow believers do not view the statues as gods; they are “deities.” They “represent various aspects of the divine.” For the time being I'll lay aside the parsing and simply ask: Why do people need a visual representation of the divine?

How enlightened are you, really, if you need pictures? When you grow up, you are expected to be able to read books without pictures. How much more should that be true in spirituality? Wasn’t this exactly the point of the second of the Ten Commandments?

If we’re striving for complete unity and devotion to the Source of all things alone, why then would we fragment our attention upon things, the creation – and some of the lowest, crudest things at that : mere pictures and objects made by human hands? It’s a great example of how a very lofty-sounding principle is negated in practice.

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