Monday, February 23, 2009

The Soul of Merton 2-23-09

Inspired by my readings of "Contemplative Prayer" and "Contemplation In A World Of Action" by Thomas Merton

The need for a spiritual guide, a spiritual master, in our lives as aspiring devotees and human beings is of the utmost importance. Of course, I don't need to tell you this, but it is always good to reflect on our sublime relationship with the acarya, whom, by their mercy, is giving us everything we need to know to transcend our mundane selves.

From Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton echoes to us that the acarya is there to keep us firmly on the straight and narrow:

"Hence the traditional importance...of the spiritual father, who may be the abbot or another experienced monk capable of guiding the beginner in ways of prayer, and of immediately detecting any sign of misguided zeal and wrong-headed effort. Such a one should be listened to and obeyed, especially when he cautions against the use of certain methods and practices, which he sees to be out of place and harmful in a particular case, or when he declines to accept certain experiences as evidence of progress."

We may have the tendency to think we can advance quicker that we are capable of i.e taking on extra austerities or trying to read pastimes beyond our comprehension. Recently in the ashram here we discussed whether we could take on small austerities such as chanting extra rounds on certain days such on Ekadasi without being ordered to by any particular authority.

We came to the obvious conclusion that it certainly depends on the individual's ability in time, place, and circumstance, and above all, that pride must never come into the equation. A few extra rounds doesn't make one the jagad-guru.

Our own guru or authority may or may not have time to give us direct instructions on such matters, so we have to use our best and most sincere judgment.

Our spiritual master, through his personal example and instructions, is the lifeline we hold onto to become mature and steady in our realizations. As Merton writes, the duty of our teacher\s is practical and heart-rending:

"The work of the spiritual father consists not so much in teaching us a secret and infallible method for attaining to esoteric experiences, but in showing us how to recognize God's grace and his will, how to be humble and patient, how to develop insight into our own difficulties, and how to remove the main obstacles keeping us from becoming men of prayer."

Merton's main point here is that one must always keep himself with the understanding that he is a spiritual "beginner", and through this humble and submissive attitude before the teacher, one will not fall into the various traps of insincerity that line the razor's edge. Merton writes:

"One cannot begin to face the real difficulties of the life of prayer and meditation unless one is first perfectly content to be a beginner and really experience himself as one who knows little or nothing, and has a desperate need to learn the bare rudiments. Those who think they know from the beginning will never, in fact, come to know anything...We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!"

In this way, we can lay ourselves as atoms at the lotus feet of our guru, Prabhupada, and Krsna, and beg simply for causeless devotional service life after life. Whatever ability we recieve is Krsna's mercy, and we must never think we are the ones who "know" how to do anything. We are simply instruments.

Here is Prabhupada fully crystallizing this sublime sentiment in his purport to BG 4:34

"Satisfaction of the self-realized spiritual master is the secret of advancement in spiritual life. Inquiries and submission constitute the proper combination for spiritual understanding. Unless there is submission and service, inquiries from the learned spiritual master will not be effective. One must be able to pass the test of the spiritual master, and when he sees the genuine desire of the disciple, he automatically blesses the disciple with genuine spiritual understanding. In this verse, both blind following and absurd inquiries are condemned. Not only should one hear submissively from the spiritual master, but one must also get a clear understanding from him, in submission and service and inquiries. A bona fide spiritual master is by nature very kind toward the disciple. Therefore when the student is submissive and is always ready to render service, the reciprocation of knowledge and inquiries becomes perfect."

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