Krishnamurti was faced with an unsolvable dilemma not unfamiliar to spiritual teachers. He often implored his audience to not take anything he says as truth, but to find it for themselves, which begs the question: What, then, is the value of any spiritual leader?
Different disciplines require varying advice. New York City-based yoga instructor Dharma Mittra often tells his students that he simply has more years of practice and doesn't hold any unattainable knowledge, extending a hand without forcefully pulling. Not all teachers are so humble. Some believe they have, as Alan Watts used to call it, the ‘inside dope.’ This sets up a dangerous situation for both the teacher and whatever audience he or she musters.
I began reflecting on this after commenters on two previous posts—on taxing churches and Christian hunting—accused me of being anti-Christian. The ability to criticize a religious idea or practice, whether of your own faith or another, is a crucial component of personal and social growth. This has unfortunately been misconstrued due to two common themes:
- You cannot criticize the religion of another, as you must honor everyone’s beliefs.
- You cannot criticize your own spiritual practice, as that indicates a lack of faith.
I would argue against the first by saying, as Sam Harris does, that we’ve evolved enough to decipher what is morally responsible and what reprehensible. As Harris puts it, what ‘maximizes well-being, our own and that of others,’ should be considered extremely valuable in the modern age. As he writes in The Moral Landscape, our brains deal with facts and beliefs similarly:
For if, from the point of view of the brain, believing ‘the sun is a star’ is importantly similar to believing ‘cruelty is wrong,’ how can we say that scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?
Religion, in his view, can be evaluated scientifically. In terms of my two above ideas, that assumption leads to these questions:
- Will taxing churches, which could bring in an estimated revenue of $71 billion a year, help or harm the greater number of citizens?
- Is hunting in the name of God harmful or beneficial to our environment and its creatures, as well as our social well-being and psychological relationship to weapons?
These are not metaphysical questions about the nature of the cosmos. While there is no easy answer to either, there is an answer. But if we sidestep questions because we think we’ll hurt someone’s feelings, we’re engaging in what Pema Chodron calls idiot compassion—not facing painful realities that foster growth because we’re afraid of offending someone’s beliefs.
As Harris shows, certain beliefs are indistinguishable from semantic memory. Our brains sometimes treat actual facts that we’ve learned and what we believe as equally valid, which leads to the second type of questioning: self-criticism.
That one ‘just needs to have faith’ points to intellectual laziness. This is not to say that we understand everything about the universe; our cognitive faculties simply do not have the bandwidth. Defaulting to blind faith does not, however, answer the questions Harris proposes. Because we don’t know certain answers does not mean those answers don’t exist, just like doing things today because our ancestors did does not imply that it serves the greatest number of people.
If we constantly attribute the functions of reality to a supernatural force instead of asking ourselves why our brains require a supernatural force in the first place, it will remain hard for us to assume responsibility for how we treat our planet as well as each other. We need to question what our respective religion or discipline teaches us, discarding what is no longer of use while nurturing what is. That is, break apart the metaphysics, focus on the ethics, and move forward charitably.
Spiritual teachers and religious officiants often do not help (though some do). In both the Sufi and Yoga traditions, for example, an adept was to take his teacher’s word as absolute law until reaching enlightenment, when he recognized that he was on equal footing with his teacher. This comes from a trickster mentality, in which the teacher offers lessons appropriate to the student’s capacity to help him or her ‘break through’ their previous understanding of how reality functions. They were reorienting the student's neural patterns to perceive the world in a different, and hopefully more compassionate, manner.
The other type of teacher—one who believes they have a direct connection to an ineffable source, that they are mouthpieces of a divine substance—is perhaps more dangerous. These leaders offer no solace to followers; it is they who are in contact, the best you can do is follow along. This slippery slope has been tripping up earnest seekers for millenniums.
What we must ask of all of our teachers—of our faiths as well—is exactly what Harris puts forth: Is what we believe, and more importantly, are our actions in accord with the greatest well-being of everyone? As stated, this leads to complex (and healthy) discussions. If we can push aside the metaphysics of belief and empathetically consider the greatest number of people, we can progress in a peaceful, humane fashion. But if we refuse to criticize the at-times insane beliefs and actions we think our faith demands of us, we are doomed to repeat patterns we unfortunately know all too well.