BOOK REVIEW: The Mind of the Guru by Rajiv Mehrotra

The Mind of the Guru: Conversations with Spiritual MastersThe Mind of the Guru: Conversations with Spiritual Masters by Rajiv Mehrotra

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Mind of the Guru is a compilation of 20 interviews with various teachers and spiritual leaders. While most of the individuals are from Indian spiritual traditions or offshoots thereof, the author makes concerted efforts to represent a range of religious and spiritual traditions.

The list of interview subjects is impressive and includes: The Dalai Lama (Tibetan Buddhism), Thich Nhat Hanh (Zen), S.N. Goenka (Vipassana), BKS Iyengar (yoga), Deepak Chopra (medical doctor and spiritual pundit), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (Art of Living founder), Desmond Tutu (Christianity), and The Aga Khan (Islam.)

The book is at its best when these gurus are discussing their thoughts on development of the mind and spirit. Obviously, there is a lot of this type of discussion as that is the expertise of most all of the assembled teachers.

A brief forward by The Dalai Lama sets the theme of the discussion. His Holiness states that in Buddhist tradition one becomes a teacher because one has students. Consider this in contrast to traditions that fallaciously believe the title of teacher is granted from above. A master teacher may grant a teaching licence, but that’s just a piece of paper unless someone shows up to one’s lessons. He then goes on to say that one should abandon teachers who act in an unwholesome manner. This, too, is an important point. Having invested oneself in loyalty, it can feel like betrayal to leave a teacher who no longer suits one.

His Holiness is the lead chapter interviewee. In the early part of the chapter, he presents many thoughts on Tibetan mind science. “Mind science” may seem like a strange term, but there’s an important part of Tibetan Buddhism that deals not with deities and conceptions of morality, but with understanding and improving how the mind operates.

If one comes from a tradition in which science and religion are in tension, this may seem unusual, but there is a definite scientific approach (observing the mind and playing out experiments with it.) One doesn’t see a rift between science and religion in Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, His Holiness says that if certain parts of the religious tradition were proved not to exist, they would have to be abandoned. (For those beginning to raise objections, shown to be unlikely and disproven are two different things.)

A second Tibetan Buddhist, Sogyal Rinpoche, addresses the topic of death, and lends the book one of my favorite quotes: “If you are worried about dying, don’t worry, you will all die successfully.”

The first part of this five part book also includes interviews with Thich Nhat Hanh and S.N. Goenka. The former talks about mindfulness and the “interbeing,” and the latter describes the Vipassana approach to meditation and its development. Interbeing is a term coined by Hanh to address a being who is connected to all things. For those unfamiliar with Vipassana, it’s a meditation practice that emphasizes 10-day intensive meditation retreats. There are many retreat centers where this is practiced around the world, including one in the city in which I currently live, Bangalore.

The second part deals with the unity of mind and body. BKS Igenyar, head of a self-named branch of Hatha yoga, opens the chapter with discussion of his background and approach to yoga. Deepak Chopra talks about the intersection of science and spirituality. David Frawley talks about Ayurvedic medicine as well as some more “out there” subjects, such as astrology.

I hadn’t heard of two of the three interviewees in part three, Swami Ranganathananda and Mata Amritanandamayi. However the third interview was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a guru well-known internationally for his soft-spoken teachings that combine yoga with a secular spiritualism rooted in Hinduism but not explicitly advocating it. Swami Ranganathananda is from Ramakrishna’s order, which was a secular spiritualism movement rooted in Vedantic traditions but embracing diversity of belief. Mata Amritanandamayi is one of only two women interviewed for the book, indicating women haven’t achieved equality in guru-hood just yet–for all the talk of enlightened thinking. (This is not a dig at the author, who probably went out of his way to include these two to have diversity in gender as well as diversity of tradition.)

The fourth part adds to the diversity by opening with an interview with Sufi Muslim, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. Sufi is the mystical branch of Islam. (Mysticism meaning a belief structure in which God is considered to be part of one and is accessed by mindfulness and introspection. This in contrast to the largest strands of the world’s major religions in which God is conceptually something distinct from the self and is an entity to be worshiped. Most major religions have mystical elements or a mystical branch, including Christianity and Islam.) This interview eases us away from the traditions that are either of India or have their roots in India. (By that I mean that Buddhism has its roots in India, though, for example, Zen is different from Buddhism as practiced in India today.)I say “eases us away” because the mystical nature of Sufi would not create much cognitive dissonance in yoga practitioners, Hindu spiritualists, or Zen monks, but, instead, shares much common ground.

The second chapter in part 4 is that by the other female guru, Radha Burnier, who is a practitioner of Theosophy, which means “divine wisdom.” This modern development is secular in that it doesn’t advocate a particular religion, but rather engagement to fix societal problems and eliminate biases and divisions. In the interview we get a hint of the divides that plagued this organization.

Part four is rounded out by interviews with Swami Parthasarathy and U.G. Krishnamurti (not to be confused with Jiddu Krishnamurti, who probably would have been included in this book if he hadn’t died in the 1980’s.)The former speaks about the end of knowledge and the latter about his role as an anti-guru, rejecting traditional approaches to thinking about spirituality.

The fifth part of the book is entitled “The Ethics of Engagement” and I’m afraid it’s where the wheels roll off. It has six excellent authorities, Desmond Tutu, Baba Amte, Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa, Swami Agnivesh, The Aga Khan, and Karan Singh.I don’t criticize the selection of interviewees, but what happens here is that the chapters predominantly become about politics and policy. Some of this discussion is present throughout the earlier chapters, it’s a point that the author/interviewer finds either intriguing or salable. For example, he asks The Dalai Lama about the politics of Tibet and China, but only after much wisdom is shared.

Here is my–sure to be highly controversial–view on the subject. Wise people show the least wisdom when they’re speaking of politics and policy. I understand why readers may want to hear their thoughts, and I know that as leaders they shape movements in these domains. However, their thoughts on such subjects rarely pack the wallop of value they do when they are talking about subjects like improving one’s mind or living a moral life–subjects on which they have great authority.

What happens when the wise talk about policy is the same thing that happens when most people do, they fail to understand the complexity of the issues and they end up making a lot of “have our cake and eat it too” statements. The most common of these is that we need to: a.) raise all the poor to a certain standard of living (a noble cause), b.) eliminate attachment to materialism and consumerism (also a fine cause, no one should be addicted to “stuff.”)

As one trained as an economist, however, when I see these statements issued by the same person in the same interview, I laugh. We have no idea how to achieve these two things simultaneously; anybody who tells you they do is living in a dream world or is deceiving you. If everybody decided tomorrow that they didn’t need a bunch of new gadgets and widgets, this wouldn’t help pull the poor out of poverty. On the contrary, it would lessen their opportunities to raise their quality of life. Conversely, if you want to pull people out of poverty, they have to produce and sell things that other people want. Rising incomes result from rising productivity, and rising productivity comes with rising production–but someone has to buy that increased production. If you have a way to truly get around this dilemma and it’s one that economist haven’t thought of before and which hasn’t either been proved wrong or internally inconsistent, I will personally lobby for you to be nominated for next year’s Nobel Prize in Economics, and would place a bet on you to win.

I will say that some of the authors seem more savvy of the political and societal domain than others. For example, Mata Amritanandamayi says, “Even if we remove all nuclear weapons from our armories and transfer the to a museum [that last bit is, admittedly, a really bad idea], it wouldn’t bring an end to war. The real nuclear weapons, the negative thoughts in our mind, should be eliminated.” In other words, you can’t fix society’s problems through dictates, particularly when those dictates are in contradiction.

One of my lesser complaints with the book is that the author sometimes asks leading questions (i.e. he subsumes a conclusion in the way he forms the question.) However, almost invariably the speaker sets the record straight, but it makes one wonder about how the message is shaped by the interviewer.

There may be a little too much cultural self-congratulation going on throughout the book for some. There’s a primacy fallacy theme throughout the book that India had everything perfect until it was infected by Western ideas. This isn’t to imply there aren’t fantastic ideas and cultural developments that have come out of India. I wouldn’t have read the book if I didn’t believe there were, but there was also the caste system and some other fairly giant issues of institutionalized injustice like women essentially being sold off into marriage.

An example of this bias can be seen in the talk of Swami Ranganathananda. He says of Socrates, “Had he been in India, he would have been honored and worshipped.” Yeah, if he were of the right caste, maybe, but he also might have been bludgeoned to death in a fashion far more brutal than having to drink hemlock.

Overall, I would recommend the book. It is an impressive collection of teachers and all of them have something intriguing to offer in food for thought. One just needs to go back to The Dalai Lama’s Forward and not be so awe-inspired that you fail to look critically at the message of each.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton

A Search in Secret IndiaA Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A Search in Secret India is a travelogue by Paul Brunton as he wondered through India in search of sages. In the process, he found a number of masters of body, mind, and both. However, he finds these individuals as rare nuggets in a sea of frauds.

Brunton states up front that he won’t waste time with any of the blatant frauds or suspected frauds, but he does devote space to a number of the more impressive ones. Impressive either by way of a large following or artfulness of technique. He also finds individuals he doesn’t know what to make of. These individuals appear to have impressive otherworldly skills, but skills that he can neither reconcile with known scientific understanding nor uncover as hoaxes despite his best skeptical inquiry. Given Occam’s Razor, he seems to be left suspecting that these are masters of illusion, but he maintains skepticism of his skepticism. A prime example of this is a Yogi who seems to be able to conjure any scent upon request.

Brunton also runs across individuals who are able to do amazing things that are inconsistent with his knowledge of the world, but which his exhaustive investigations leave little room to dispute. For example, there is one yogi who can completely cease his respiration for a seemingly impossible length of time, and who resumed breathing not with a gasp but with a slow, calm series of breaths.

As suggested above, this book is really an attempt to analyze India’s spirituality through the lens of Western logical and scientific approaches. The author is a Brit and the book was first published in the 1930’s. His worldview is consistent with that status. While Brunton would like to master his own mind, he is unwilling to let himself be duped.

There is another side to this juxtaposition of East and West. The yogis and gurus with which Brunton comes into contact often have trouble grasping the Western mindset (there is one notable exception.) What these wise-men have difficulty understanding is why a people, like the British, devote so much time to mastering the external world (and with a great measure of success it must be added), but put so little effort into mastering or understanding the self. Most of the gurus appreciate that a Brit is taking an interest in the spiritual and yogic ways of India, but with their own skepticism. They find Westerners materially rich, but bankrupt of the mind. They find the Brits strong, but lacking the supple power that yoga introduces.

After completing his travels, it seems the book is set to draw to an end. However, Brunton realizes that while there were a number of skilled individuals that he came across in his travels,there is one that stands out as someone he should not miss an opportunity to learn more from. Therefore, instead of getting on a steamer back to England, he returns to South India to a man called the Maharishee in order to find out if the guru will take him as a student. The last couple chapters describe his time under the Maharishee’s tutelage as well as under one of the guru’s most advanced students. The Maharishee is a sage the likes of which Brunton has not seen in all his travels. The guru has the humility to say that he cannot teach Brunton anything, but instead can only show him some things that he learned on his own journey.

If there is a lesson for those who would like to follow in Brunton’s footsteps, it seems to be that there is an inverse relationship between how easy a guru is to find(/how eager a guru is to talk to one) and the level of skill of that teacher. In almost all cases, Brunton had to take great initiative and steer off the beaten path to find the true masters. On the other hand, most of the individuals who were easily found, and eager to talk, were just con men.

I recommend this book for those interested in development of the mind and body.

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