in Gurus & Disciples

The teachings and techniques of enlightened masters contain many paradoxes or contradictions. For instance:

Paradoxes of Eastern Enlightenment — contradictions:

“Be desireless.” — Desire to be desireless. Desiring to be desireless is desire.

“Be non-attached.” — Attach to be non-attached. Attaching to enlightened1 masters, techniques and practices is attachment.

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Be humble”. — When the disciple tries to be humble, she is not because trying to be humble (seeking some kind of personal reward or accumulating merit) is contradictory to the ideal of humility.

“Be selfless”. — Self-absorb to be selfless. Absorbing oneself “within” or practicing meditation techniques is being self-absorbed. Seeking to gain enlightenment or spiritual advancement is self-centered, self-absorbed. Labeling goals or techniques (e.g. meditation) as “spiritual” doesn’t somehow make them selfless (remove self seeking, desire for gain, etc.)

“The enlightened master is selfless (egoless).” — The master lives lavishly (e.g. drives cadillacs, lives in expensive apartments, and has many servants). How would master (or students) know the master doesn’t harbor unconscious (hidden) selfish desires or motives?2

“The master’s (God’s) love is unconditional.” — “If you leave (stop following) him you will be lost (damned) for seven lifetimes, eternity, or go to hell/be lost in delusion (maya).”

“The enlightened master is ‘One’ (united) with everything.” Or, “The One is the many.” — If the master and everything is One (united) how is any individual part superior or inferior than any other?

“Seek your higher Self (or God) by following the enlightened master’s teaching and techniques.” — Seeking enlightenment or God is instilled in you from an external authority (a teacher or tradition). An external authority, not yourself, along with that authority’s particular teachings and techniques are required to validate yourself, your thoughts, feelings and experiences.

paradoxes of eastern enlightenment

Enlightenment by Marketa, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Failure to question paradox undermines reason

Most disciples learn to gloss over (think nothing of) the paradoxes or contradictions in the Eastern enlightened traditions or teachings. Students assume the authority of an enlightened master is perfect or infallible. Followers seldom, if ever, question the paradoxes and contradictions within their own particular master’s teachings or tradition.

It is fairly easy for disciples to find fault and contradictions in other outside teachings or techniques.3 Yet, seekers after enlightenment fail to use the same outsider scrutiny and skepticism towards their particular master, authority, or tradition. Failing to question paradoxes and logical contradictions in one’s own path undermines reason and suppresses analytical thinking.

Response from master or disciple — What they are really saying:

The enlightened masters (and their students) will often pooh-pooh (dismiss lightly or contemptuously) anyone who points out the problems with their paradoxes by responding:

“You cannot possibly understand from your limited human consciousness.” — The implication is only an enlightened master or advanced student can really know (because the paradox is beyond reason). You just have to trust the authority of the master or tradition.

“If you were enlightened, you would see my master/teacher/guru is enlightened and his teaching/tradition is infallible, perfect.” — It’s your ego or intellect that is getting in the way of your understanding and believing in the master, teaching, or tradition. If you entertain doubts or uncertainty you need to meditate or practice more, or surrender and have faith, and it will all work out in the end because you can trust the authority who is perfect and understands you better than you understand yourself.

“Your ego (intellect) is preventing you from knowing the Truth (master, god, or ultimate reality)”. — Anyone who has not attained superconsciousness or who is inferior (not enlightened or fully illuminated) must take the claims on faith. Even though the claims are hearsay (second-hand) from some supposed enlightened master or tradition who can only offer personal claims of first-hand experience or superior knowledge.

Paradox invoked to end inquiry

Paradoxes are invoked to end inquiry. Used to undermine reason, paradox lends itself to psychological manipulation4. Reason has its limits. But degrading reasoning–and reifying certain feelings and intuitions–is an assault on student’s thinking for themselves. Integrating reason and emotion are requirements for self-trust and for interpreting personal, first-hand experience.5

Paradoxes are invoked to confuse, undermine reason, and to manipulate followers:

Confuse, disorient — Paradoxes are designed to confuse and disorient followers, to dismantle critical, analytical thinking. Indeed, some students may have “breakthroughs” from past patterns of thinking. However, the credit for “good” experiences is given to the master or his teachings. While the blame for “bad” is attributed to failings of the student.6

Manipulate, control — The contradictions and paradoxes are positioned as descriptions of ultimate reality. If students don’t experience the “reality” described then it is purported to be the failings of the student, not the teacher or tradition.

Invoke surrender, obedience to authority —  After getting confused it is fairly easy for student to be manipulated and to follow the prescribed “path” as laid out by the authority, tradition, or group. Disciples seek comfort in the promises and certainty of the authoritative and charismatic teacher, teaching, or tradition. It’s fairly easy then to surrender for gain of the promised for happiness, love, or enlightenment that supposedly result from obeying and following the teaching and techniques as laid out by the external authority.

Question enlightenment and its paradoxes

Seeking to be desireless is desire, to be selfless is self-absorbed, and to be non-attached is attachment to subtle, “spiritualized” desires and attachments.

Disciples who fail to question the paradoxes are convinced the authority, teacher, or teaching is perfect, infallible. When anyone points out contradictions or paradoxes with the authority, teacher, or tradition responses often include: “You cannot understand from your limited human consciousness.” Paradoxes are used to undermine reason.

Reason has limits. But degrading reasoning–as inferior to feeling or obeying authority–is an assault on follower’s thinking and feeling for themselves. It undermines self-trust. It fills followers with mistrust of self, reason, and personal experience. The integration of reason and emotion are necessary for self-trust and to interpret one’s own first-hand experience. Paradoxes are used to undermine self-trust.

In Eastern enlightenment tradition finding fault with oneself, blaming failings on self (ego) is often used to manipulate and control followers. It fills followers with self-doubt and fear of self while handing over responsibility to external authority. The Eastern tradition of enlightenment, based on the master-disciple relationship, without integration of reasoning and feeling and development of analytical thinking, is infantile and immature.

A mature approach (integrating reason and feeling) is to acknowledge your personal, first-hand experience–as you see it–not as some external authority tells you you should. On the path of Eastern enlightenment it is the external authority that defines the path, the goal and the reality. Follow foremost your reasoning and feeling, not some external authority. We grow by taking responsibility for our thoughts and feelings, not by surrendering them to some external authority who claims to know what is best for us.

What do you think of the paradoxes or contradictions of Eastern enlightenment traditions? Share your comments below.

Photo Credit: Feature photo Quanyin sculpture by Dean Hochman, Flickr CC BY 2.0

1 In this post by “enlightened” we mean some purported state of superconsciousness or attainment of a supposed superior, higher, or supernatural state of awareness, sometimes called Nirvana, Samadhi, Satori depending on tradition.

2 “For gurus and spiritual teachers to admit that unconscious factors are at play within oneself would mean that no one can be certain that any person can ever be completely self-aware or can be totally selfless and egoless. It is debatable that so-called advanced masters, mystics, and saints are what they say they are: totally self-aware, in complete self-control, and perfected in selflessness or egolessness; and that the teacher knows what is best for disciples who strive to follow in her footsteps.” Read Masters, frauds, and the uncontrollable self in my post Meditation techniques offer illusion of control.

3 John Loftus makes a convincing case that believers are willing to honestly apply the outsider test but fail to see the irrationality of their own tradition or spiritual authority. Google “outsider test” or see Loftus’ book The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True.

4 “The Eastern view of enlightenment as beyond reason allows gurus to undermine reason.” “Paradox lends itself easily to mental manipulation.” See Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power.

5 For story of former monk, Ernest, undermining of self-trust, read my post Double Bind of Eastern Enlightenment.

6 For examples of finding fault with yourself, not with teacher, teaching, or tradition, read my post Double Bind of Eastern Enlightenment.

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  1. Hey, great article… i found this amazing and complete… In fact, i lead a lot of others post and is a great site. I’d glad to help you to translate all this great information to spanish, if you wish

    Greetings from a Paraguayan ex-buddhist

  2. @Ibrahinm: From Paraguay. Fantastic! Thanks for your message and sharing this information with others. Yes, I’m interested in your offer to help translate into Spanish. What do you recommend we do with the Spanish translations of the information? Scott

  3. @Scott
    I sugest to open a new section in this blog, a section in Spanish were all the translated articles can be available. I don’t know much about programming websites, so i don’t know if this thing i’m sugesting you is easy or difficult. Wanna know your opinion about it

  4. Might paradox be intended to show the limitations of reason/logic/dualism? In other words, if you are confused, frustrated or critical after encountering paradox, it has achieved half it’s goal. And the remaining half doen’t Lead to a goal.

  5. @David: I think you get my point, though you didn’t include steps that I do.
    1. Paradox is meant to show limitations of reason or thinking.
    2. Goal of paradox is to confuse or frustrate critical thinking.
    3. If one and two above are achieved then, according to you, that is the goal of paradox. No other.

    I agree with you on steps 1-2. But #3, if there’s no goal what’s the point of using paradox? The goal is to supposedly take the disciple “beyond” their own reason. Paradox is used to lead followers/disciples to mistrust their own reason and logic. And, instead to follow the guru’s or teacher’s “logic” (which is when you are outside that bind of the tradition is illogical, confusing) unless the student/disciple surrenders and trusts in the teacher or tradition the paradoxes are non-sensical and manipulative.

  6. Very insightful points. So from personal experience the Guru who ive been following Swami Chinmayananda has stated not to accept what he says as blind faith. If you have a personal question he will answer it. It is up to the seeker to either accept or reject what he says. It is a personal quest. He didnt look for any converts.
    Also just to try and explain the “Be desireless.” — Desire to be desireless. Desiring to be desireless is desire”.

    Not all desires are bad. Even desires fall into aspects of the 3 guna’s (Satva, Rajas, Tamas) as described in the Bhagavad Gita. The desire to be “desireless” in and of itself is a satvic desire. However, upon reaching that state even that satvic desire is given up. To take a simple example, the desire for sleep is gone once you are sleeping.

    Also if you dont mind if you can find “Satsang with Swami Chinmayananda” or his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita and do find these paradoxes please let me know. I will accept what i can make sense of, reject which seems false and keep moving

  7. @Jay: It’s been my observation of these so-called spiritual teachers, masters, or gurus that they all claim their students are free to choose to follow them or to heed their advice or not. Hogwash. Yes, those who choose spin off (ego takes them away, no?). Those who choose to follow, surrender their ego and thinking to the system.

    In the “double bind”, which I discuss in two posts linked here, traps students (teachers and gurus). Who is really free to choose in the system based on external authority? If students (or teachers) reject the premises of the teaching they will be punished in some way, is spoken or unspoken. There’s no freedom to choose in a system where the external authority is dictating what is true or not true.