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Duty is a tough nut. Most of us are not such big fans of responsibility. As a result, there’s a common discussion in contemporary spiritual and occult circles about so-called “spiritual bypassing”. The conversation is a useful one, and everyone should at various points do a bit of introspection in relation to it. But it is not a brand new topic! The mystics of every age have had to wrestle with the specter of Quietism: Just how much should a practitioner be involved in the events of the world? What is the yogi’s responsibility to family, community, and nation? Does the saint need to do more than be saintly? I brought this topic up recently, but wanted to explore it in a bit more detail and hopefully make it a little more practical.

The great Chan teacher Hongzhi Zhengjue was accused by his friend and fellow Dharma Teacher Dahui Zonggao of encouraging quietism and laziness (“playing dead”) among his students due to Hongzhi’s emphasis on Silent Illumination (or “just sitting”, to translate Japan’s terse but poetic term for the practice). Silent Illumination is simply the meditative practice of reversing the lantern of awareness to face inward toward its own source rather than outward toward thoughts and sense objects. Dahui preferred koan practice because it was active and could be taken into daily life by anyone, monk or layperson alike; koan, argued Dahui, relies on the reflection of old canonical stories within the experience of the individual disciple. By contrast, the private meditation of Silent Illumination forced one “outside” of the world — something not everyone is equipped for, for lack of training and/or time, and something which makes performing one’s responsibilities for society at large difficult.

Dahui’s argument was not actually directed at his friend Hongzhi, however, but at those among his students and successors who failed to enact Hongzhi’s full instruction. Hongzhi emphasized the Sōtō teaching of “Harmony” which, in philosophical terms, is the dialectic between the universal and the particular. For him, the full flowering of Silent Illumination came only after the practitioner not only experienced the Illumination itself but maintained that awareness and enacted it compassionately in daily life. In other words, one must still do one’s business (whatever that is) but will do it with greater depth and humanity once the vertical and horizontal axes have been fully integrated. While this accomplishment may require times of withdrawal, there cannot and should never be a complete separation.

Dahui’s accusations, however exaggerated they may be, are still worthy — evidenced by the fact that people are still making them today — and required Hongzhi to clarify his teachings so that hopefully his students would understand that the Dharma necessarily included every part of life, not only what was done in the meditation hall.

Sri Ramana Maharshi ran into this problem quite a bit himself. India, after all, has a long tradition of sanyasa — spiritual devotees and yogis taking vows never to own property, never to marry, renouncing family life and earning a living, etc. Sanyasa is, in theory, a complete refusal of the demands of the world in favor of a perfectly spiritual life. For some few, this works out well: they may devote themselves to spiritual goals and provide spiritual benefit to those who must lead a normal life, in return for which they are given food and occasional temporary shelter and great freedom to move about besides. More often than not, though, it is simply the transference of attachment from one set of expectations to another. For this reason and others, my own lineage dissolved its tradition of sanyasa some decades ago when moving to the West; Western needs are simply different, and sanyasa is not the freedom here that it can be in India.

Even in India, however, sanyasa has been abused by many as a means of simply avoiding responsibility. For this reason, Sri Ramana Maharshi actively discouraged his own disciples from taking sanyasa vows. Many would come to him and say, “I wish to renounce. My many responsibilities at work and at home will not allow me time enough for spiritual practice.” Ramana would invariably respond to the effect that one’s responsibilities were part of one’s spiritual practice, and that real renunciation was an inner reversal not dependent upon external conditions; he would say that if one is in the world and longs for the peace of the wilderness, once one got out to the wilderness one would long for the conveniences of the world, and so outward renunciation was just moving one’s obsessive mind to new objects. True renunciation is then just turning attention to the nature of the Self, allowing one the freedom to flexibly engage with whatever events arose from a more expansive inner standpoint. Very pointedly, Ramana would often tell people to simply surrender the sense of doership; let the Self perform necessary actions through you.

To some, this last part further sounds like trouble, a sort of Quietism which perhaps empowers those who would be oppressors. It is worth noting first that Sri Ramana Maharshi was himself an advocate for Indian independence during the days of British occupation; while he was not really political active, he nevertheless understood the necessity of Indian self-rule for social advancement. But a specific story which makes clear Ramana’s advice when it came to living up to one’s responsibilities is worth the telling.

The spiritual teacher Papaji, according to his biographer David Godman, had a number of life-changing encounters with his Guru Sri Ramana Maharshi. At one point, Papaji had entirely relocated himself to Ramana’s ashram at the foot Arunachala near the town Tiruvannamalai. He spent all his days in carefree contemplation of the form of his Guru. But he had entirely abandoned his family to their own fates: as he was not working, he was sending them no money, and being physically distant (they were in the north, he in the south) he was doing them no good in any other way. Then came the beginning phase of Indian independence and the event which still casts a shadow over modern southeast Asia: Partition.

This was a chaotic time when the British, as a parting gift, sliced off portions of India to become Pakistan and, eventually, Bangladesh. As often happens when such political moves are made to draw attention to ethnic and religious differences, conflicts broke out. Muslims and Hindus murdered one another on trains moving across newly-formulated borders. Just as Partition was kicking off, Papaji was asked by another devotee at the ashram if he was going to do anything to help his family who were just north of the new boundary in Muslim Pakistan. Papaji’s reply was that he was here with his Guru and his Guru was his only family. This concerned Sri Ramana Maharshi who, on a walk with Papaji on a day soon thereafter, turned to him and said in no uncertain terms, “Go save your family.”

Papaji asserted that, “Having knowledge of the Self, I know also that this is all a dream.” Ramana said firmly, “Do not fear the dream! Go, do your duty.” And so he did; Papaji left Ramanashramam, found his family up north, and relocated them, housed them, began working three jobs to support them while they got on their own feet, found jobs, married, took up their own homes, and so forth. This process of course took years, as Papaji had some 30+ family members, mostly women who at that time were difficult to get work for. But he took the lesson of his Guru quite seriously.

That phrase, “Do not fear the dream!,” is a powerful one. While acknowledging that our perceptions and priorities do change due to our experiences on the spiritual path, it also acknowledges that our circumstances do not vanish for our convenience. For Ramana, it’s all God’s doing, so we must continue to play our part even though we attain to the awareness that God is really the one acting through us. For the Natha, as for the Chan master, all events are an upwelling of the Absolute. We may at times experience it all as “dreamlike”, as unreal, or as a grand dynamic unity, but we must still deal with health concerns, physical dangers, political unrest, economic shifts and drops, and belligerent people. Most of us still have family, friends, jobs, positions in our local communities, and responsibilities to larger civic bodies like nations.

As I’ve emphasized again and again, no mere observer can dictate to us what our duties really are. A serious responsibility for one person may be a minor detail for another. For instance, “household” means something different for me than it ought to for someone who has children depending upon them. I still must care for my household, but it’s a very different thing when the household consists of two adults and not one or more adults and dependent children! Similarly, I couldn’t tell someone else how to behave toward their abusive family when I have a good relationship with my own parents. That person might uncover through their spiritual work a very constructive way of interacting with their family, while another may find that for a variety of reasons these relatives are not family in any sense that demands responsibility from them. These are not easy questions to answer and require Hongzhi’s Harmony to find healthy solutions.

Though often misunderstood, this all comes down ultimately to karma. The actions we take have consequences. This is an obvious enough observation, but how often do we really think through what it means for us? Consequences snake through many lifetimes — our own and those of many others. The causes of our own circumstances are the results of someone’s past actions, often many “someones” all together! Cause and effect is more a web than a single thread. For as long as we are here, we have some level of investment in the integrity of this web and in the direction in which we cast our own lines to link up with those of others. While there ultimately are no “others” with whom to interact, yet the Self is revealed in many forms — and those forms matter, even if only momentarily.

Cut the knot
The yoke drops away
Only now
Is the real union seen