Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 3: Relax and Retreat > Chapter 4: Retreat Centres
Those who live in this world, must accept its pains with its gains--they cannot have one without the other. And this applies just as much to those who live in the quiet of monasteries or ashrams as to those who live in the turmoil of large cities. But the men and women who have withdrawn do have this advantage: that they give themselves some time to look at the spectacle and study the words of prophets or teachers who understand it, and reflect on how they ought to act in it. Consequently, they are in a better position to forestall avoidable suffering and self-caused trouble. Nevertheless, if their pains are less, their gains in a worldly sense are less too. The inward gain of mental peace will compensate for that, if they find it.
The divine power is not less present in the home or the office than in the church or the monastery. If we do not find this so, it is because we are more ready and more willing to give attention to it in the one than in the other.
If a spiritual centre--be it ashram, church, or temple--be established, its purpose should be to receive pilgrims doing reverence and students seeking knowledge.
The notion that spiritual life must be sought only in the cloisters is a wrong one.
Monasteries and ashrams really exist for the sake of spiritual novices who are struggling to attain the life of meditation. When, however, they become spiritually mature they would do well to leave these places of gregarious retreat which have now become hindrances rather than helps just as they left the busy world itself when the latter became a hindrance.
The monk has the advantage of living in an external atmosphere which does not draw out his lower nature by its emphasis on lower things. He has the benefits of an environment which is friendly to his higher aspirations.
Whether we prefer communal life or solitary life is not the essence of the matter, for both become expressions of what we feel at the time.
It is not by renouncing the world like a monk that he fulfils himself but by refinding the world like a philosopher. For the new meanings that he sees in it and the new light by which he looks at it, render flight from it quite unnecessary.
The world must be fully understood before it can be fully deserted. Whoever makes a premature renunciation will be subject to tormenting inner conflict.
Most mystical creeds say that we must leave the world if we want spiritual fulfilment. Philosophy says we may live in it or leave it--that is not the point, not the issue. Understand what you are and what the world is; then only will fulfilment come.
Nearly sixty years ago Pierre Lotz predicted that the contemplative life would vanish before long. It almost did--in the onrush of modern "progress"--but the wars and other activities, especially the personal efforts of seers, saved it.
Some enlightened souls are to be found inside the walls of cloistered monasteries but others are to be found outside them.
Most men and women are engaged in the world's activities: those who retreat and withdraw from such activities are comparatively few. Generally circumstances render it impossible to do so, nor is the desire to abandon them sufficiently strong to materialize in action.
Monastic life quells sensual activity, reduces the area of sensual temptation.
Since there are not many who are fitted for the life of renunciation, it would be vain and imprudent for many to enter upon such a life.
It is not a refuge for escapists, although such refuges have a proper title to exist. It is a deepening of the inner life.
The girdled robe remains a constant reminder to the monk of two things: the aspiration to which he is dedicated and of the self-discipline needed to realize it.
Man can find spiritual life inside an ashram, if he prefers such a place, or inside a city, if he wants to remain there. God does not only dwell in ashrams but also in busy towns.
On balance there are likely to be more good men in monasteries and ashrams, than in the large cities. But this is the very reason why the good men should come out from time to time and help the others.
To renounce the world is merely to exchange one kind of residence and one form of activity for another. We live in the consciousness, experience all happenings in it, and cannot renounce it whatever form or appearance it takes. There is in fact a hierarchy of worlds to be passed through.
The ideal ashram or centre should be a sanctuary favouring mental quiet and emotional harmony, goodwill and tranquil study.
The great religions, with the exception of Islam and Judaism, have found their support and drawn their strength from monastic and conventual institutions. They should be placed in the quiet countryside not too far from a city, so that access to them for visits by those compelled to live in the cities should be possible. They should have pleasant walks in old-world gardens and stone-flagged paths with benches here and there. They should have libraries, meditation halls, and lecture rooms. They need not be bare and ugly, it is good if they are pleasantly ascetic. Instruction should be available there, not only for the few permanent residents, but for the many visitors who come there seeking repose and spiritual knowledge. For the sake of those who find it difficult or impossible to get away from city life, some should be built within a city, preferably on a side street, away from traffic with high thick walls around.
If the rooms are kept spotlessly clean, if the decorations are cheerful and not gloomy, if there is some simple comfort there, if the discipline is gentle and not like that of an army barrack's, if there is a measure of individual freedom, it will be possible to get away from the harshly ascetic, prisonlike atmosphere which has too often been associated in the past with such institutions. Much also depends on the management, whether it be tyrannical or humane, cultured or illiterate.
Let it not be thought that we would deny all place to monastic retreats in modern existence. On the contrary, we regard them--if well managed and competently instructed, which is seldom--as excellent institutions which are needed in the rush and tumult of such existence. Our objection is only when they claim to afford the sole path to salvation and when they degenerate into permanent escape-mechanisms to avoid facing the realities of human life today.
He is indeed a strong man who can willingly, at the height of his worldly achievement, relinquish it.
The sadhu who has to live by the traditional rule of keeping only what he needs to live from day to day may be envied for his freedom or pitied for his poverty, but he cannot provide us with a model. Yet he may provide a mental attitude--detachment.
What they do not see, what they cannot see, is that the ashram is only a means to achieve a certain end. It is not the end itself. For that is entirely an inward affair, leaving the man entirely free to live in or out of ashrams. If a monk says that the spiritual attainment is possible only in a monastery, this proves that--however reputed or revered he may be--his own attainment is a limited one.
The true meaning of such a place is hidden in the quiet seclusion it affords.
I mentioned in The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga my admiration for the Japanese method of returning some monks back to the World's life. Those who do not want to go back, who fail to accept the training period as a preparatory one and the monastery as a school for life, are regarded as stuck in a cave and unwilling, or unable, to get out of it and progress further.
What is needed today?
The modern spirit does not favour monasticism, does not approve the relinquishment of outward occupations for constant contemplation. And modern mysticism endorses this attitude. It says stay in the world, but preserve a half hour daily as a refuge from the world. Hold on to worldly relations but regard them in a new and nobler light. Only the foolish ascetic will despise the senses. They are natural and necessary. A wiser man will despise their being allowed to run away with reason. The ascetic will rail as he has railed since history began at comfort, ease, and luxury. The wiser man will accept them all and rail only at the weakness which would make them essential to his existence.
The modern age has less use for the institution of monasticism than the medieval age, and in this matter the modern age is right. Let it not be led astray by those who have committed themselves to an ancient tradition merely because it is ancient. Let them set up the monk as the perfect type if they wish. Let them adopt the holier-than-thou attitude. But the generality of modern men should not imitate them. Who administered and carried out the work of the Inquisition? It was a monastic order, the Dominicans. They practised ferocity and denied charity, all in the name of God. And they did it with a terrible earnestness. Mercy was unknown to their shrivelled hearts. Today's need is not a narrow-minded and unfeeling monasticism, but a broad-headed and large-hearted practical spirituality.
It is useless to ignore the fact that something separates most of us from these monks and nuns of today, whether they are found in the exotic Orient or in the prosaic Occident. But it would be just as useless to ignore the fact that they have found more contentment, more peace, and more faith in life than we have. Can we not bring together--nay! ought we not to do so?--the two dissevered halves of inward spiritual seeking and outward practical comfort? Then only would we be able to use both of our eyes and see existence as it really is.
The ancient medieval and traditional hermit's life, monk's life, contemplative's life, or ascetic's life cannot be usefully offered as a universal example to twentieth-century men, nor regarded as tolerable to their temperament, nor advocated as practicable for more than one person in a thousand. The modern outlook is too broad to find such limited, one-sided existence acceptable.
The modern society's general attitude is hostile to renunciation--whether it be renunciation of position or possession, the world or the ego. Therefore it does not provide as many recruits for monastic life as the medieval society did.
The Indian yogi can beg his food or find support from a patron but here in Euramerica begging and vagrancy are offenses against the law. The higher life in these Western civilized lands, it seems, is open only to those who have accumulated some wealth, if such a life requires withdrawal from the world without attaching oneself to a monastic institution. For money alone will give a seeker the freedom and mobility required for the inner life. This is why young men with spiritual aspirations ought to be ambitious enough to make enough of it as quickly as they can and then retire to live on their savings, devoting the rest of their life to the study and meditation needed.
Where is the modern Euro-American who is lucky enough to be able to withdraw from the game, unless he withdraws into a monastery? An expedient like this may be practical enough for an Indian, but not so for him.
It seemingly would be futile and irrelevant to indulge in controversy against the upholders of mysticism and asceticism. These are not live problems for modern man. But the spread of Hindu cults in the West advocating them may make them so before long.
The old methods of segregating a special class into ashrams and monasteries is unsuited to twentieth-century conditions.
The need today is for Christ militant, for the spiritualization of life in the world and not for flight from the world.
Those who seriously suggest that we should return to the ways of the desert fathers of antiquity and copy the outer lives of medieval ascetics are not doing what is best for us.
The monastic solution is not congenial to the modern temperament, which is unwilling to endure the associated hardship and discomfort. Then why is it that more new monasteries and convents are being built in the United States and England to accommodate applicants whereas existing ones in Mount Athos and the Greek mainland are becoming emptier and emptier as new recruits fail to appear?
The new age demands new methods. The day of monasteries is over but the training which men received in them is not over. Institutions must arise where men can receive a monastic discipline, a spiritual training which may last three weeks at a stretch or even three years but which will end. Then they will return to the world, but they will work with clear eyes, lofty ideals, and clean hands.
If, in those centuries when life was simpler and environments more religious, men found it necessary to desert the world, how much more are they likely to do so in this century, when life is complicated and environments more materialistic!
What is needed in the West today are houses of retreat, quiet places in the country, free from the noises of a city, where persons who are mentally and temperamentally ready and who are prepared to live with some measure of ascetic restraint may pass a short or long time in study and meditation without entering a monastic order and without submitting to old dogmatic religions. In these retreats men can work at cleansing themselves from the stains, and healing themselves from the wounds, with which existence in the world has marked them. In these protective nests they can nurture ideals whose height and ethereality would seem impossible to the manacled denizens of that world. Any wealthy person who devotes some part of his fortune to founding such establishments will certainly make some favourable destiny for himself.
These houses of retreat ought to be of a semi-monastic character, and used only for spiritual purposes.
Retreats should exist as places of temporary refuge for the mentally distressed seeking peace, as places of temporary refreshment for the spiritually aspiring in need of fellowship, and as places of temporary instruction for the students of mysticism in need of a master.
Modern civilization renders it harder and harder to find a quiet locale in any city. And, now, the invasion of countryside regions is bringing about the same condition there. The noise-lovers are well-served: the silence-seekers are ignored. Whoever wants contact with inner stillness must be either a millionaire, who can surround himself with plenty of space, or a monk, who can hide himself in a monastery. Is there no solution to this problem for the non-millionaire and non-monk? I know of none that is complete; but a partial one is offered by the Retreat-Plan. If this is to be independent, involved in no creed, cult, dogma, or organization, even this would need financial support for its creation, but could keep itself thereafter by charges to those who use it.
In this wide cultural approach which philosophy recommends, there is no room for prejudice, bias, fanaticism. Places of spiritual retreat are beginning to appear in ordinary lay society, and they are very much needed and can perform a useful service; but the less they are linked with traditional or untraditional religions, organizations, or movements, the more useful will be that service. There are enough places for those who wish to attach themselves to organizations. Let there be places for those who wish to remain uncommitted but who seek silence in a noisy world, high knowledge in an ignorant world, and inner peace in a tense world.
The modern world rushes on with its work and pleasure, with its mere existence. Where is the time in all this tension for inner stillness? It suffers from spiritual malnutrition: and it is living only half a life. But an equally bad result of this is the spread of mental sickness, which is filling hospitals and institutions with patients and creating intractable social problems. A beginning must be made with providing quiet places where a change of atmosphere can be had, where the world can be let go for a few minutes, where a person can meditate on higher concerns. Churches ought, of course, be the first to offer such retreats, but other places, non-denominational in character, will still be needed.
What is needed by the West is an institution to supplement, co-operate with, churches, chapels, synagogues, where people could go into creative retreat, into stillness, for short periods.
We need such sanitariums to restore us to true sanity.
Places are needed where aspirants can visit for periods of study and meditation, free from distractions, interferences, and oppositions.
A mystical ivory tower into which one can retreat when the world's burdens become too nerve-wracking is not a luxury in these times but a necessity.
Motives for entering
What motives draw men to bury themselves in retreats, caves, and hermitages? The longing for a peaceful atmosphere after the world's turmoil and materialism must be a frequent cause. The aspiration to make something of themselves spiritually and morally must be another motive. The state of surfeit following pleasures, passions, and desires may turn them toward asceticism. The death of wife, child, a beloved, creates real loneliness for others and the old familiar social circles become uncongenial in the need of a new scene. And then there are those who look at the international scene darkly, gloomily, with forebodings, and withdraw from it in hopelessness. There are the misfits who simply cannot cope with the difficulties of living in organized society as it is outside the monasteries and so retire inside them. Lastly, many a flight arises from a guilt complex.
If the hardships and difficulties of existence drive some into renouncing the world, true devotion toward the spiritual goal drives others. If some seek a carefree calm, others seek more time for meditation, prayer, and study.
If some shut themselves up in a monastery out of disgust with the world, a few do so out of disgust with themselves. They hope a new way of life related to God may change them, may bring them farther from themselves and nearer to God.
There are two classes of men who withdraw from the world: those who seek to escape personal problems and those who seek to confront themselves. And the latter know that they can do this better in the solitude or privacy of retirement. They are well justified. But the first class are not, for they do not want to face themselves.
Those who regard the struggle of civilized life as not worthwhile, sound the bugle of retreat and go backwards to the comfort of inertia.
Monasteries offer an easy escape from the harshness of life's difficulties for fragile personalities, ashrams a convenient alibi for those who can find neither place nor pleasure in it.
He will be called an egoist who runs away from problems and hides from the world. But is he any more egoistic than those who stay in the world either because they are chained to it, powerless to escape, or because they have personal ambitions to satisfy?
Whether a man renounces the world for a monastic life is sometimes a matter of expediency, of what is most convenient to him at the time. If he has spent many years already in busy activity, he will naturally find it more helpful to withdraw from it for study and meditation. But if his obligations and responsibilities are such that he cannot desert them without the question of right and wrong arising, then it is not a matter of expediency. He must then consider well the ethical view of his situation.
The medieval Chinese system did not allow anyone and everyone who felt so inclined to enter and dwell in Buddhist monasteries. That was a privilege granted only to learned scholars, who were first examined and certificated to show their competence. Such eager seekers after knowledge could be trusted to use solitude and quietude for their proper purposes of study and meditation, whereas others were likely to use them for improper purposes, for indolence and parasitism. When the system lapsed, the general deterioration of the monks proved the need of such precautionary measures.
The man who has never been tempted to rise above himself, never yearned for more rays of light to penetrate the dark room of his life, will not be able to understand why other men and women have forsaken themselves or fled the world in search of God.
If the purpose of shutting himself in a monastic ivory tower is self-training in meditating, self-improvement in character, study, and reflection, only that he might emerge later to apply and test and give what he has gained to the world, then it is a right purpose. If he takes to retirement not only for its own sake, but also that he may exhibit its results in activity, then none can blame him.
The retreat into the personal solitude of desert or mountain and the retirement into the fraternal monastery of a holy order are outstanding social features of an asceticism which frowns upon the world as Satan's haunt. India has not had a monopoly of them nor was she needed to teach other countries how to practise them. The first years of Christianity witnessed the arisal of hundreds of thousands of hermits or monks in the land of the Nile, on the rocks of the Thebaid, and among the deserts of Libya. In the fifth century, the social dissolution and economic miseries which preceded, accompanied, and followed the break-up of the Roman Empire spread millions of Christian monks and nuns throughout Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor. For it is pre-eminently during times of earthly despair that men turn most away to celestial hope, as it is during periods of social disintegration that they seek solace in ascetic peace. They feel the futility of human undertakings or disgust with human sins. The reaction is natural and pardonable. But it may also be an attempt to reject the heavy problems of life by running away from them altogether.
Renouncing the world in an endeavour to rule the self, forgetting the world in a search for memoryless peace, this is the correct basis for hermit or monkish life.
Wherever he goes, he will find that he cannot really leave his old self behind. It insistently pursues, or accompanies him. If he goes into an ashram to escape from personal problems, he is entitled to do so. But he will find that the same search for peace which led him into the ashram may one day lead him out of it again. That man alone can successfully give up the world who no longer wants the world, not he who is disappointed in what he wants from it.
It is possible to perform the same act for two very different reasons. One may withdraw from the world because he finds its situations unendurable and its goals unrealizable--in short, because he is a failure. If he then takes an escapist path, he has the right to do so. The retreat will certainly comfort him and may refresh his energies for a further and later attempt. But it still leaves his central problem unsolved. The deficiencies or weaknesses within himself which led to his defeat are still there. Another man may retire because he is well on the way to fulfilling ambitions and satisfying desires--in short, because he is a success. But he is not deceived by all this. He has taken a proper measure of earthly values, and found them wanting. Both men had the right to withdraw into a life of meditation. But the first one did so prematurely.
They come to these ashrams and convents either in embittered contempt as refugees from the world, or else in naïve expectation as aspirants desiring mystical ecstasies.
There seems, in the eyes of a certain mentality, both intellectual safety and emotional security in withdrawing to an ashram or monastery.
There are two kinds of passivity and escapism. The wrong one arises from a lack of the energy, knowledge, or courage wherewith to cope with life or from a sense of defeatism after a series of failures or from the inertia of a dreamy temperament.
It is ironic that the emotion of pessimism and disillusionment which drives so many persons into monasteries drives others out of monasteries!
The corruption and iniquity of the world may lead a man by reaction to philosophy, but the latter need not remove him from the world.
The meditative life may encourage laziness and discourage service in some temperaments, but it cannot do so in those who have understood, accepted, and guided themselves by the principles of Philosophy.
Observations in these monasteries and ashrams showed that although most of the members came there out of their spiritual need, some came hoping to find a kind of insurance and security for the rest of their lives, while a few came to find an easier way of life than struggling in and with the world.
Once a young man leapt on the train which was carrying me out of Singapore and insisted on travelling with me all the way to Penang. He was somewhat excited and declared that he felt a strong urge to renounce the world and that he wanted to attach himself to my service forthwith as the inauguration of such a new life of retreat and meditation. I gave him what good counsel I could but, being defeated in his purpose with me, he ignored it and emigrated to South India where he joined a certain monastic Ashram. A year later he was home again in Singapore, disappointed in his expectations of it and still far from the peace he sought. In chastened mood, he wrote me a letter belatedly promising to follow the counsel I had originally given him--to do some necessary preparatory work on himself while in the world before he tried to leave the world.
Non-cooperative escapism is empty, a refuge for the indolent.
What is a hard way for one man, retiring from the world to seek God, and incurring greater suffering than remaining in it, is an easier way for another man. Some find the world's troubles and struggles too much to cope with, others find the monastic regimes too harsh to endure. But whether an individual stays in the world, rightly performing his human spiritual duties while learning inward detachment, or whether he renounces it altogether, each path can contribute to his development and lead him farther on the road to the Goal.
If the cloister becomes a seeding-ground which yields its fruits later in the productive life of the world, it justifies itself.
It is easy to turn to asceticism when one lacks the means of satisfying the senses and has little prospect of ever obtaining them. It is natural to renounce the world's struggles and enter a monastic retreat when one has failed to cope with those struggles. If ineffective persons prefer the comparative peace of an ashram to the miseries and frustrations of society, why should they not do so?
Those who are unable to meet the responsibilities, afraid to tackle the difficulties of ordinary living may find a transient peace in retreating from it.
Those who practise contemplation for its own sake are entitled to do so, but those who practise it for the inspiring and enriching of their outside active life are equally justified.
Is it necessary to forsake the world, withdraw from its struggles, cease to grapple with its problems and abstain from its affairs? For most men in the West the answer is already preordained by compulsive circumstances: they cannot even if they want to. But for a few men, who may well have endured their share in earlier lives on earth, the way may open out to become monks or hermits.
The beginnings of this inner life require him to be alone and to keep them secret. It is best to have only a spiritual guide who is understanding and sympathetic around. He needs protection against those whose violence, materialism, or scepticism would thwart, obstruct, or stifle the tender growth. It is because such conditions are hard to secure in the world's ordinary life that convents, ashrams, and monasteries were established.
Those who have been forced by circumstances, and especially by the necessity of earning a livelihood, to spend their whole life in materialistic surroundings, to fall in with the excessively extroverted attitudes of today, will naturally desire to take advantage of the first opportunity to reverse this trend and give themselves up to an interlude of solitude, meditation, study, and spiritual companionship. For such, the monastic retreat has a justified existence and a definite value.
Some withdraw from society as the only way to preserve their individuality and protect their independence in a search for truth.
The deeply bereaved, the sorely afflicted, and the emotionally exhausted need this monastic escape from the world as much as the religiously aspiring and the innately ascetic. And if they choose to remain in after the original pressure has faded out of mind or heart, rather than return to the world, that is their freedom of choice. If only as a symbol, as a reminder, there is a definite place for the monastery, convent, and ashram.
To withdraw from the community of worldly society into the community of monastic society, or into the solitude of one's own society, may be an act of progress or an act of retrogression. But to most men at some time it is, for a limited period, an act of necessity if they are to find themselves.
There are some who, by reason of circumstances, by their inability to endure the harsh competition or incapacity to cope with the great stresses of modern existence would find relief, hope, and home in a monastery. They belong inside such a sheltered community and nothing said here should deter them for it does not apply to them.
It is right, natural, and pardonable for a young man to be ambitious, to make a successful career for himself in his chosen field. But it is equally right and pardonable, if he finds himself to be one of the few who feel a call to higher things, who are more attracted to and admire the life of meditation, study, and self-mastery, to withdraw from the struggle of worldly life.
The call for total withdrawal from the world into monastery or ashram, convent or nunnery comes very definitely to some persons and they must respect it to the point of full obedience. But let them not seek to impose their own response upon others who have not heard this call.
It is true that personal contact with the world brings salutary instruction and enforced facing of facts. It is also true that deliberately to ensconce oneself in an ashram or monastery brings another kind of equally needed instruction and other kinds of facts to be regarded.
The values of a monk's robe include the one which announces to others that here is a man who is seeking from them no profit-making trade, no paid position or honoured office, no sex: in short, no personal advantage. It is also a protective emblem for himself.
Any criticism I have made in the past of monastic institutions and ashrams is not to be taken as a refusal to see their positive value. Of course they fill a needed place in the religious scheme. They suit those who need to be guided and led in all details of thought and deed--who appreciate rules and regulations to which they can give unquestioning obedience. I am by temperament unsuited or unable to adjust to such institutions, an independent needing freedom, unfitted for community life, unwilling to stop thinking for myself. But most persons are not like that and should certainly follow their way.
Without inner strength the temptations of the world may prove too much for him, or at least for his thoughts. Without outer kindness his life in the world may prove too abrasive. The withdrawn way may seem more practical and prudent. But it is so only for a time.
If the world's activity is too strenuous for them, if they are not capable of participating in its fierce competitiveness without suffering the shame of inferiority or the misery of defeat, why should they not withdraw from it into the sheltering walls of a cloistral retreat? Those who say this is a backward movement must first prove whether the assumed going-forward of the world's activity is a reality: it may equally be an illusion.
Earnest monks and brown-robed ascetics should not become angry with our candid examination of their claim, but rather should try to understand another point of view which does not accept unreal antimonies. We honour and respect those who, through deep sincerity, are faithful to their renunciatory ideals, but we ask them not to be intolerant of a different road to self-discipline and not to lose their sense of proportion by making monkish prejudice an obsession.
There are other ways of life than our own and we ought to be large enough in mind and heart to allow for them. There is, for instance, the monastic way. It is more charitable to accept it for others as a vocation if they want it. But the monks and nuns should practise an equal tolerance and not seek to impose theirs on ours. They have good reasons for not being willing to get embroiled in the family life but we laymen have equally valid reasons for remaining what we are. But these statements are true only on the philosophic level. For those who cannot rise to it, then withdrawal--whether into the religious community or the hermit's solitude--is still the superior way.
Why should he not be free to withdraw from all other preoccupations so as to be free to devote his whole time to the inner life?
It can lead in the end only to chaos if rules intended for those living the withdrawn life are imposed on those who are not.
If a man wants to try the monkish way of life there ought to exist the material and social possibilities allowing him to make the experiment.
The traditional view in India especially, and in sections of the Christian world, has been that taking monastic vows or renouncing the world to become a celibate recluse, a praying and meditating monk is actually to apply the higher phase and doctrine of the religion. It is regarded as the next step for anyone who is really serious about his quest for God, and deeply earnest about his faith. It is practised religion on the highest level.
Has he not the right to give up the endless struggle against the world, which keeps everyone down to his lowest levels?
It is not likely to be easy in this harsh yet tempting world, so they may be excused for moving into monasteries if they are men, into convents if they are women, or into communes if they prefer to mix the sexes.
On the positive side a monastery will not only shelter him against the materialistic world but also support him in his endeavours. This is the theory. What happens in practice is another matter sometimes.
Despite all the theorizing in Zen Buddhism about its resentment of regulations imposed from outside and its rebellion against forms which hamper freedom, in the practical needs of everyday living every inhabitant of a Zen monastery has to submit to disciplinary regulations to conform his conduct to set patterns and to shape his activities to specified patterns.
Communal life attracts beginners but to say that it is necessary is to reject the lessons recorded in history and biography. A community is good or helpful to those who like it, who feel helped by its useful features, but it is not so good for the more advanced persons. After spending seven years in monastic life Thomas Merton called out silently but vehemently to God for solitude.
If the return to nature and the simple life means nothing better than living as savages live--a primitive animal existence, uncivilized, uncultured, unaesthetic--then its denial of intellect, art, and comfort is mere retrogression. When the spiritual forces overwhelmed the young lad of seventeen who later became Ramana Maharshi of South India, he fled his village and eventually finished up in a cave on a mountainside. People today admire this spirituality. But he himself once remarked to me: "Had I then known what I knew in later years I would not have left home!"
In the Tibetan records of the Buddha, it is expressly mentioned that he sent out apostles "to spread the doctrine that would help all creation." Thus, even Gautama, the founder of monasteries, did not intend them to become places wholly given over to self-centered spiritual development alone. He knew that the truth is really for all, because it can benefit all; it is not merely for hermits and monks. Even where he turned numbers of men into monks, he did not wholly withdraw them from society but laid down a rule that they should serve the useful purpose of being spiritual teachers.
Father Theocletos, secretary of the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mount Athos, shrewdly observed that the communal monasteries are suited to spiritual children, where the preliminary work of instruction and purification enabled novices to get rid of bad thoughts and passions to an extent sufficient to enable them to pass on to the higher stage of recluses living alone or in pairs in cottages or huts and enjoying mystical experiences.
Terese, the Saint of Lisieux, confessed on her deathbed: "What I have most suffered from in my religious life, physically, is the cold. I suffered from it till I thought I should die." What need did this poor girl have of such torments, when her sole longing was for the divine, non-physical, union? How unnecessary and how cruel the regime to which she was subjected.
I recently visited a convent in Spain where the structure was much the same as it had been when built in the medieval period, except perhaps for the addition of electric light, where the nuns still wore the same heavy, coarse, and ugly dress which was prescribed at the time, and where the daily program of services, prayers, contemplation, and work was still much the same as then. They were a very poor Order, and lived in strict seclusion, so that I had to speak to them through a special grille. When I asked, "Are you happy?" all thirty-six of them exclaimed as with one voice, "YES!" and laughed and giggled among themselves.
Homage to the greatness of the Contemplative Orders, especially the Enclosed Orders within the Catholic Church, including nuns and monks. This is not to be confused with appraisal of the Catholic faith and dogma. I find that in meditation practice and in personal holiness some of their members have touched levels not less high than those touched by Hindu and Buddhist monks, nuns, and hermits.
Shankaracharya laid down a three-day maximum period for visits to his ashram.
When one remembers the long stretches of practice in the Carmelite monastery at Roquebrun or the Lendo hall at Kamadura, where hour slips into hour but the monks remain persistent in their meditation, the few minutes that most Western beginners manage to find for their own endeavours seem ridiculous.
It is true that there are many escapists who live in a dream world of their own who have taken refuge in mysticism, but it is also true that there are some spiritual realists who have found in mysticism inspiration and encouragement for their struggling activities in the world. The celebrated Spanish mystic, Saint Theresa, was one example of this. She understood this technique of divinized work thoroughly. She did not become a futile dreamer or a pious imbecile. On the contrary, she established foundations in a manner that testified to her practical ability and executive capacity.
Mixing two castes together may put both ill at ease. Father Maurus told the story of a monk at a Scottish monastery who one suppertime suddenly rose to his feet and smashed his platter over the head of the monk next to him. "He'd reached the breaking point. For twenty years he put up with the sound his neighbor made by sucking his soup."
Monasteries began to appear throughout the European and Near Eastern world as a result of the crumbling of civilization, of the disgust with conditions in the world, and of the feeling that the only way to a modicum of happiness was through the inner life.
The conventual life, though usually providing only for the bare necessities of nuns, was sometimes managed with more humane consideration and shrewder understanding. In the new seventeenth century convent of Anacapri the recruits came from well-born families so they were thoughtfully provided with suites of rooms each with its own servant.
When monasticism conquered those who took their spiritual aspiration seriously, it drew the inner life away from the outer one, made it seem an entirely separate and unconnected thing. This error was disastrous for those left behind in the world's life and activity. It cut men off from their best source of wisdom and strength.
The more secluded, less active, and above all highly introspective life which the would-be mystic leads in monastery, ashram, or private retreat may tend to turn him into an ill-balanced dreamer. It is useful for him to descend into the cities at times and take his place among their varied dwellers and doings. For his inner world will have a chance of being examined and brought to the test by hard contact with the outer world. Such experience will expose futile dreams and shatter wishful thinking just as it will endorse imaginings that do correspond to realities.
It is just as much after he returns from a retreat to the society of his own kind that its results will show themselves, as during the retreat itself. In his outward acts, deeds, and speech he will reveal whether the retreat was only a spiritual narcotic or whether it was a spiritual stimulant.
When there are temptations to be overcome by will and trials to be met by fortitude, character has a chance to test itself and thus develop itself. The secluded monk misses this chance.
In the sphere of action, he will find tests of his will or motive, useful exercises which he can practise to draw out latent resources. For this sphere will present him with problems from which he cannot run away or with temptations which will show him as he really is. The intervals of retirement are good and helpful, but the stretches of active existence are no less helpful to his development.
The world is there; it cannot be ignored. It may be side-stepped for a time, but in the end it reinserts its claim to be noticed, dealt with, and understood. He must come to recognize its place in the Divine World-Idea--that it must have such a place. He cannot do otherwise.
It is one thing to feel spiritually minded or even spiritually aware only under the special conditions of a monastery, a retreat, rural quiet, or mountain top but quite another to do so under the everyday living conditions of a city, a factory, a hotel, or an inharmonious home.
The world gives him a chance to apply what he has learnt in retreat. If the new values which manifested themselves as the fruits of his meditation can endure the searching tests of society and activity, then they are truly his. If not, then he will know that he has still to strive more fully for them.
He who can find the divine presence only in a monastery, an ashram, or a cave, has still to finish his quest. If he does this, he will discover the monastery to be no better than the world, activity no worse than contemplation.
There is a danger that the atmosphere of goodness evoked and cultivated in monastic institutions may become artificial and studied. Goodness becomes more natural when it is lived out and tested in the busy haunts of men.
The peace which depends on taking refuge in monastery or cave is questionable, for it may not be peace but escapism. The peace which remains adamantine in busy towns and unshattered by constant work is unquestionably the true peace. It will have this advantage over the other kind, that it will be so strong and stable that it can neither be shaken by unexpected attack nor overthrown by unexpected temptation.
It is open to question as to who gains a better perspective on life and a truer proportion of its experiences--the man who takes flight and surveys it from a distance or the man who remains active and breathes with its pulsations.
Philosophy is against monasticism as a general path, because it is against separating people from the tests of this world. If the monastic path may give peace, it may also give delusions.
Thus what we develop mentally in solitude we must work out physically in society. What we achieve quietly in the heart's stillness must be expressed and tested in external activities. What we learn in peaceful rural retreat must be appraised for its soundness by bustling city work and pleasure. This integral approach must be the twentieth-century way, not the permanent indulgence in escape which was the way of antique and medieval monasticism.
The consequence of the monk's misinterpretation of his own position as being the highest is a natural but deplorable one. For having turned away on principle from active participation in the worldly life, he turns away also from the realities of particular situations within that life.
They cannot spend all their time in formal meditation or in prayer because they need to be reminded of the higher existence when they leave those sacred sessions behind, when they leave their precious peace behind, to find themselves again among selfishness and ignorance, materialism and brutishness.
These noble feelings, these lofty thoughts, these grand intuitions are welcome testimonies of the change that is happening. But until they--and we--are brought to the test of everyday living, their correct measure and ours will not really be known.
Mysticism thrives better in isolation from practical life but philosophy can stand up to it. The mystic is shielded by conventual or ashram life.
The monastery, the nunnery, and the ashram may be helpful to begin spiritual progress but they will not prove so helpful to advance or complete it. That can best be done in the world outside, where alone moral virtue or mystical attainment can be thoroughly tested down to their last foundations.
Those who flee the world do not thereby flee from the intellect's working. They merely change its field. Thought's wheel continues to rotate whether they live in forest hermitages or in cities as crowded as beehives.
In the apparently safe seclusion of Eastern ashram or Western monastery, he may console himself with a superiority complex for the inferiority complex which the world gave him.
It might be useful for him to ask from what is he escaping: certainly not from his own ego. He cannot change his individuality or cut himself off from his past entirely, nor isolate himself from his ego.
In these retreats men are protected from outward temptation. This has a certain value. But they are not protected from the inward temptations by memory, imagination, and personal tendency.
Egos thrive in ashrams just as they do in the world beyond their borders. This is inevitable because they are hot-houses where each inhabitant is as busy thinking of his own development as the worldling outside, who is engrossed in his material fortunes. The insulation is only physical: Self is still the constant preoccupation of both groups of human beings.
Even when he withdraws from the world and gives up its work and rewards, its activities and pleasures, it is the ego which leaves them and the ego which hopes to gain something as a result. Whatever he accomplishes will in the end still be inside its enclosure, however "spiritual" a form it assumes.
The petty feuds which mar mystic and ashram society also reveal the sad fact that egos are carried into these institutions, live and thrive there just as they do in the outer world.
Whether he shall separate himself from the world or, remaining, bring a holier influence into the world, is not really the essence of the matter. He may isolate himself from other men's affairs but that does not isolate him at all from his own ego. Or he may meddle with them, compelled by destiny or willed by choice, and be captive to this same ego in every transaction.
Whenever men and women are brought together in frequent contact for a length of time, whether in established institution or organized group, frictions often appear, envies are felt, and complaints are made. This is true even of ashrams and monasteries. The egos rear their heads.
There is of course some danger of the growth of spiritual pride when a small group isolates itself from the rest of society for the purpose of spiritual development.
It is not so easy to escape from oneself by the mere act of becoming a monk. Said Kaisarios Daponte in the eighteenth century: "I changed my clothes and my situation, but not my character." He had been a well-educated diplomat but became world-weary.
The petty fault-finding, destructive gossip, and biting criticism which so many worldly people practise among themselves is also found in professedly spiritual people. It is also directed towards those who teach or espouse doctrines unacceptable to them. The faults in character which lead to these sins in speech are poisoned arrows shot at the good and bad alike.
Misdirected idealism sets traps for the young, the naïve, the inexperienced, and the ill-informed in political circles as much as for the aspirants or the seekers in spiritual circles, takes pleasant sounding, attractively suggestive words like "harmony" and "unity" or phrases like the "brotherhood of man" and uses them as if they could become realities. This is just not possible in human relations, not in any full, adequate, or lasting sense. Not only so, but it has never been possible in the past--despite the myth of an imagined golden age--nor clearly is it possible in the present. Everywhere we see that even where such idealism seems to be successfully realized, it is only on the surface and vanishes as soon as we probe beneath the surface. We see religions, old and new, well-known and hardly known, divided into sects, groups, or factions which oppose each other. Nor are the ashrams and monasteries very much better, as they are supposed to be. In the world at large, where little wars and rebellions are being fought with savage ferocity, where political success is achieved by attacking, denigrating, or besmirching others, a semantic analysis of present conditions shows up the self-deception of the idealists and utopians. The lesson has not been learned that because egoism rules men, brotherhood is not possible, and that because no two minds are alike, unity is not possible. Harmony can be found only inside man himself, not in his relations with other men, and then only if insight is developed enough to track the ego down to its lair, expose it for what it is, and live in the peace of the Overself. But other men will continue to live in and from egoism.
Monastic life brings its monks into continual contact with one another, keeps them always in one another's company. It gets on the nerves of some and fosters petty intrigue among others.
Should he shut himself up in a monastery, or in a room, or in a cave, the problem of his ego-centered thoughts remains the same.
A change of scene may prove helpful, or it may merely prove that he has transferred the ego, with all its troubles, from one place to another.
To shift the centre of interest from worldly to spiritual affairs but to magnify the ego as a consequence of doing so, is something that happens just as readily to dwellers in ashrams as to those outside them.
The monastic cloister and the mystical ashram are not necessarily the homes of spirituality. They may be the homes of a disguised or unconscious worldliness.
Jealousy and fault-finding exist inside these ashrams just as they exist outside them. The seeker after noble-mindedness will be forced in the end to look for it amid the solitudes of Nature.
I remembered the words and marked the truth of a conversation I had once with Yogi Pranavananda, himself an advanced ascetic, amid the solitudes of the Himalaya mountains on the Indo-Tibetan border. He said: "My master does not favour ashrams. He has not established one and does not want to do so. We disciples visit him at intervals according to our degree of development and to our needs, and follow the path in which he has instructed us. He even regards ashrams as likely to be deleterious both to his own work and to our self-reliant progress."
If people wish to practise philosophical ethics and apply philosophical ideals, they need not and ought not live together in little colonies or congregate in little monasteries to do so. They can and should do it just where they happen to be. Such colonies always disintegrate in the end, such monasteries always deteriorate. It is a common misconception amongst many mystically minded persons that they have externally to separate themselves from society to live by themselves in a fenced-in community or in a contemplative ashram. The actual experience of these places shows how foolish is the notion that they really promote the spiritual advancement of their members. This is where the vital difference between philosophy and mysticism shows itself. Philosophy is a teaching which can be applied to any and every situation in life. It is not something which can endure only in artificial hothouses.
We find in these ashrams that what should be retreat is actually mere non-cooperative idleness, just as in the world outside them we find that what should be work is actually sheer neurotic overstrain.
The ascetic character easily becomes a self-righteous one. The monastic character easily falls into depreciation of those who live in the world whilst praising itself as following a higher way of life. All this is not necessarily true.
No handful of dreamers hiding themselves in an abode away from the world and fearful of its common everyday existence is likely to affect or elevate the world.
Another danger of these monastic retreats is the danger of falling into a pious lethargy of supposed renunciation which is as futile for the mystic as it is sterile for mankind.
If one could buy spiritual self-realization for the price of a ticket from any Euramerican city to any Oriental ashram, it would not be worth having. The fact is that a man carries himself about wherever he goes, that the real work to be done must be done inside his own heart and mind, not inside an ashram, and that no such geographical transplantation has even half the value admirers believe it has. Going to live in an ashram to get inner peace is like taking drugs to help one sleep. The longer you take them the harder will it be to regain natural sleep. The petty squabbles and ignoble jealousies of ashram life bore the intelligent travelled man.
Environment alone does not give spiritual enlightenment. You may squat in an ashram till Doomsday and emerge as much in the dark as when you entered it. Unless the proper inner conditions have been established, unless the mentality and character have been prepared and purified, travelling to the East or sitting at the feet of the gurus can lead only to the hallucination of enlightenment.
An ashram should be a place where one could go to get the benefits of a spiritual atmosphere, metaphysical discussion, mystical meditation, and exemplary living; but the gap between what should be and what is, is often unfortunately too wide to be ignored. Those who look for little utopias in little ashrams may find them. But it will be only at the price of substituting imagination for reality. Unfortunately, wishful thinking finds this easy. Cozily huddled, half-asleep, or fully a-dream in their ashrams, what did the war mean to them? It meant nothing where its thunder did not actually break in upon their complacent lives.
A mind that is continually turned inward upon itself tends in time to exaggerate its own importance. This is why ascetics and monks are often mildly unbalanced or unduly self-obsessed.
The failure to produce moral uplift in the world outside their retreat is paralleled by the failure of moral striving in the smaller world inside the retreats.
The law of compensation is everywhere operative. If the disciple smirks complacently about his residence in a holy retreat or his connection with a holy master, the danger is that he may fall into the delusion of rapid progress where in fact there is none. For in the emotional stimulation provided by such retreat or such master, he may naturally feel that he is now at levels of character, spirituality, and even consciousness which are far superior to those he formerly possessed. And in a sense there is some truth in his feeling. What he overlooks, however, is that the stimulation will one day be withdrawn (it is not necessary to go into the how or why of this here), that his condition is only a temporary one, and that he is really like a man basking in warm sunshine who imagines that the warmth and light are radiating from himself instead of from an outside source.
The recluses who segregate their sympathies along with their bodies, develop a view of human life which is as narrow as the door of the ashrams in which they dwell.
It fulfils a great function for those who are tired of the world and who need rest: they would be happy there indeed. But those who have to press forward on the path to Truth or those who have to do real service to mankind, may lose precious years if they settle permanently in an ashram, for they will be drugged by the relative peace, which will be delusive because temporary. Permanent peace must be worked for and there is no complete work possible without the complete discipline of the Quest.
The European recluses in their monasteries, the Indian monks in their ashrams, easily lose themselves in the most fanciful or most futile beliefs, the most hallucinatory, mystic experiences, suggested to them by the institution. The oppositions of the hard world and the tests of practical experience are lacking.
The belief that the mere cessation of external activity is an avenue to holiness is another of those curious superstitions which have fastened themselves on the human mind since the earliest times. And the related belief that if a number of such persons who have adopted a do-nothing existence segregate themselves from the world and live together in a communal institution such as an ashram or a monastery, they will become wiser better and holier than those they have left behind, is likewise a superstition.
Those who lead outwardly unproductive lives because they lead inwardly vigorous ones are within their rights. We must respect their choice. But they do not represent the philosophic ideal.
The antipathies and frictions of group, institutional, monastic, or ashram life are inevitable. If one is not to withdraw from the association, acceptance and tolerance are necessary. If he feels called upon to improve the others, it is better to do so in silence, by intercessory prayer or benedictory meditation.
It is true that being removed from worldly temptations does help; but the battle is either simply transferred to the imaginative plane or a truce is called for a time, or a new defect, that of hypocrisy, will be added.
Those who live in ashrams or monasteries, whether outer or inner, and who despise the ordinary concerns of ordinary people as vulgar, materialistic, and worldly, are extremists or fanatics.
The notion that life in the world is necessarily worse for the aspirant than life in the monastery is not a correct one. It might be but it need not be. If it is beset by dangers, so is the other. If it has vices and struggles, so has the other. Ambition, sensuality, pride, covetousness, envy, cruelty, and intrigue are weeds to be found in both gardens.
The monks who drop the selfishness of worldly desire, adopt the selfishness of worldly desertion.
But the atmosphere of an ashram is rather a special one, something like that of a hothouse where tropical plants are reared in a northern clime--just slightly artificial. How will an inmate behave if he has to come out and pass the remainder of his years in the ordinary world, in an actual situation like earning his daily bread, his livelihood?
The temptations of monastic life are different from those of the outside world, but they are just as present and exigent. The weak disposition which yields to the one may just as easily yield to the other. The constant inner battle against oneself can only change its form, not its necessity.
These ashrams and monasteries are communities where the individual is submerged, where he is supposed to abandon his own will in favour of God's will, or rather, and actually, in favour of God's representative--the guru of the ashram, the abbot of the monastery.
If they imagine that renunciation of the world and flight to an ashram will take them out of the world, they will have to undergo the actual experience itself before passing into the scepticism which is founded on disillusionment. For in ashram or monastery, in East or West, the preoccupation with finance and the quest for power enters into the administration and brings in a worldliness of a special kind.
It is easy enough from the safe distance in space of an ashram to talk about the vanity of all things, or in time from the safe distance of old age. But it is unfair to leave it at that. For many of the things in the actual world have been, and are to be, enjoyed.
There may come a time when the ashram's usefulness will be limited to supplying his physical and, sometimes, his intellectual needs, when instead of leading him to the Overself's freedom it becomes a prison.
We like to believe that Oriental ashrams and Western monasteries are havens of refuge from the evils and sins of worldly life. But we find in actuality that even in such sacred and dedicated precincts, human beings are still weak, petty, mean, selfish, envious, and hostile. The embodied nobility and goodness we would like to meet are met only in single occasional individuals, who may be met in the world just as likely as in these places.
"May our studies be fruitful. May we not quarrel," says the Keno Upanishad. So even in those days, and even in the forest ashrams, the dissensions which mar modern communal retreats also existed!
It is unlikely that new ideas can penetrate such cloistral fortresses as these ashrams.
Undisciplined or intriguing members of the ashram soon make trouble appear; jealous or ambitious ones drive away the more independent, less tractable, more advanced seekers.
A man should continue his work in the world and not use his spiritual aspiration as an excuse for idleness that corrupts. He will find peace not by joining the ill-mannered squabbling bickering self-centered inmates of an ashram but by keeping out of it!
We hear of those who find the world too much for them and flee to the shelter of ashram or monastery. But what of those--doubtless a much smaller number--who find the cloistered communal life too much for them and flee to the freedom of the world?
Those who have sojourned in ashram or monastery, Eastern or Western, with open eyes and hearing ears, will know that tensions and frictions exist here, too, but they will be mainly petty ones.
It is not enough to surround ourselves with possessions that human skill, taste, and invention have made if we are to become truly human beings, and not fractional ones. But it is equally insufficient and certainly unhelpful to sit in a monastic corner and decry them.
The yogi who looks out upon the world from his sheltered retreat often cannot see the world at all.
The surrender of personal freedom and the submergence of personal individuality are the cost to them of whatever relief and peace the ashram gives them.
I have seen too much time dawdled away in monasteries by their inhabitants to overvalue these institutions. But neither do I want to undervalue them.
Rabelais held up to ridicule the inner emptiness of so many monks who were his contemporaries. Yet Rabelais was not a layman criticizing from the outside: he was himself a monk and knew from the inside what he was writing about.
It is men who are suffering and toiling in the world who have a heavier burden to carry than the monks in the ashrams. And it is the depth of suffering which in the end measures the extent of aspiration to be liberated from it.
The man who keeps his eyes open will not find any spiritual community, monastery, retreat, or ashram that is absolutely good. Romantic Utopianism, whether of the mystic or the Marxist type, belongs to the world of dreams, not realities. "I do not believe in perfectability," remarked Keats, and because he was thinking of our earthly existence at the time, he was right. The absolutely good community does not exist simply because absolute goodness must be wrought within our own spirit and can be found only there. Both the logic of a true metaphysical world-view and the experience of a widespread search will confirm this.
They begin by making the mistake of seeking, or of expecting to find, an ideal community. It does not exist here and consequently cannot be found. It would be better to limit their search, or their expectation, to a congenial community.
The belief that paradise is to be found among the monastic retreats of the West and the ashram communities of India is a romantic fallacy that sustained contact from inside will expose. There is as much nobility of character to be found outside them as among the inhabitants of these retreats and the members of these communities. The excessive attention which is too often given to the inner condition of their own egos almost amounts to an unhealthy and unbalanced obsession. This does not tend to paradisaic conditions.
Always these utopias exist either in the far past, as with religious myth, or around the future's corner, as with materialistic economics.
If his experiences are sufficiently numerous and sufficiently varied, this rosy-coloured optimism about human nature will be drained out of him. He will slowly lose the naïve belief in the possibility of creating a social kingdom of heaven on earth, in the utility of organizing an association of spiritually-minded people, in the dream of achieving unity and harmony amongst them, let alone amongst humanity in general. He will see that innate psychic attractions and repulsions are implanted in us by Nature, that uncrossable differences of mentality and outlook are fashioned in us by development and that although misunderstanding, friction, and hostility may be kept out in the beginning, they cannot be kept out in the end. He will decide that heaven can only be internal and that the quest can only be individual.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.