"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, June 13, 2011

On Yoga, Religion and the Ground of Being

The word for religion in the East is "yoga." It refers not just to the outward form of hatha yoga that we are all familiar with from the proliferation of yoga studios here in the West - which is just one of the "six limbs" of yoga - but, more fundamentally, it refers to the inner, esoteric path of religion. Derived from the same Sanskrit word as the English "yoke," it means to "tie" or "unite." In this instance, to unite one's being (the atman) with the Ground of Being (Brahman, or God).

Similarly, the word "religion" has an inner, esoteric aspect as well as an outer, exoteric one; albeit, when we talk of religion in the West, we refer almost exclusively to this latter meaning, denoting the various creeds, rites, rituals and observances that characterize the Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In practice, and common usage, the word "religion" has lost the "inner" aspect of its meaning.

The word "religion" - like "yoga" - also means to "tie" or "unite" (or, more accurately, to "retie" or reunite"). It is derived from the Latin root ligare, which means to tie, just as a 'ligature' is a stitch that ties up a wound, or 'ligament' is the tissue that ties the muscle to a bone. Thus, the inner meaning of "religion" is also to "retie" or "reunite" one's inner being (the soul, or spirit) with the Ground of Being (God). Unfortunately, the concept of "religion" no longer seems to refer to this inner, esoteric process of reunification, and is almost exclusively used to denote outer, exoteric forms.

In the West, at least, as Aldous Huxley points out in his classic work "The Perennial Philosophy," this loss of meaning demeans religious practice and obscures the inner path to spiritual awakening.
"Nobody," writes Huxley, "has yet invented a Spiritual Calculus in terms of which we may talk coherently about the Divine Ground and of the world conceived of its manifestation. For the present, therefore, we must be patient with the linguistic eccentricities of those who are compelled to describe one order of experience in therms of a symbol-system, who relevance is to the facts of another and quite different order."
[Huxley, "The Perennial Philosophy," Perennial Classics: 2004, p. 35.]
One of the most respected modern theologians, Paul Tillich, in his memorable sermon "The Depths of Existence," notes that a true spiritual seeker may be prejudiced by what he knows of "God" and may, in fact, have to forget all that he knows about that term in order to find the Ground of Being within him or herself.
"The wisdom of all ages and of all continents speaks about the road to our depth," Tillich notes.  "It has been described in innumerably different ways. But all those who have been concerned - mystics and priests, poets and philosophers, simple people and educated - with that road through confession, lonely self-scrutiny, internal or external catastrophes, prayer, contemplation, have witnessed to the same experience. They have found they are not what what they  believed themselves to be, even after a deeper level had appeared to them below the vanishing surface. That deeper level itself became surface, when a still deeper level was discovered, this happening again and again, as long as their lives, as long as they kept on the road to their depth." 
"The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being," he continues, "is God. That depth is what the word God means. . . . For if you know that God means depth, you know much about him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or an unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God."
[Paul Tillich, "Shaking The Foundations," Scribners, New York: 1948, pp. 56-57.]
 This misunderstanding of what the words "religion" and "yoga" originally referred to is illustrated by the misunderstanding I initially had about one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. (Although I am not Christian, per se, the only fully enlightened man I have ever met, once urged me to study all religions until I could see "the sameness" in them all.)

In Matthew 11:28-30, we read:
"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest upon your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."
 Originally, this passage invoked in me an image of Jesus shouldering the cross, much like Atlas struggling with the whole world upon his shoulders. I assumed that the burden Jesus was talking about was in actuality, a literal burden. When I re-examined this passage, however, having learned that the "yoke" he talks about is his esoteric, inner religious teachings (i.e., his "yoga"), I got a wholly new meaning.

Here he first says he is "meek" meaning he is free of the small, egoic "self" which is the common burden of duality that virtually all men and women labour under. Then he notes that he is "lowly in heart," also signifying he is free of the ego and exists wholly within the Ground of Being alone.

Next, he notes that his "yoke" is easy, meaning that the process of his religion (his yoga) is simple and consists of the prayer and meditation that will free one from the bondage of the egoic "self" and its duality. Then, he describes what the fruit of his esoteric religious practice is - i.e. what the essence of his teaching consists of - and that is "light." And, of course, light - the clear light of Being - is what all inner religious practices refer to, in one form or another, as the source of our Being.

Indeed, perhaps one of the most famous passage from the Holy Quran, is the "Light Sura" Chapter 24, Verse 35 which reads:
"Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things."
Thus, when one begins to look to the inner, esoteric core of all Eastern and Western religions - to the yoking of one's depth of being with the the ultimate depth which is the Ground of Being - one begins to find the lightness of being free from the ego and the small sense of "self." This realization, it seems, is at the heart of all yogas and all religions.


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