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Neo-Buddhism with significant errors,
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This review is from: A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose (Oprah's Book Club, Selection 61) (Audio CD)People do become spiritually liberated. I have met such people as best I can tell and encountered charlatans, too. There are many, also, who achieve some relief from suffering by encapsulating that suffering in a well-defended belief system. It is my impression that such is the case with Mr. Tolle. Tolle's flat emotional delivery of the audiobook further suggests that he has encapsulated rather than resolved his inner struggles (this is known as "spiritual bypass"). In contrast, the liberated and advanced people I encountered were not afraid to have a personality but came across as lively and vibrant.
When I started listening, I was at first pleased that someone was explaining the distortions of ego in simple language. But I found myself with the growing impression that Tolle demonizes the ego and the thinking mind and thus creates a false enemy within. I don't want to demonize him, however. He offers many useful insights. Chief among them, he suggests many ways to recognize the illusion of identifying with one's thoughts and feelings and thus not being fully present. But there are important errors in this book, and its stance overall seems distorted. I came across several statements he made authoritatively that are untrue. Here are two of them.
The most important error is Tolle's statement that one cannot prepare for awakening, which can only be realized as an act of Grace. Yes, sometimes awakening seems to emerge from Grace. But such a statement unnecessarily quashes hope. Consider Jesus' admonition to "knock, and the door shall be opened." Also, consider the detailed instructions in meditative traditions about how to build concentration and insight (in Buddhism, shamata and vipasyana), as well as what issues to contemplate to realize the immanent divinity in all of us (see the Tibetan Buddhist Lojong or mind-training slogans).
Although much of Tolle's book comes from the Buddhist tradition, he gets his history wrong. He sees the Buddha as the first to achieve full awakening 2600 years ago. However, Buddhism was a response to the ancient wisdom teachings of India that go back at least 7000 years. A review of those ancient teachings (which are called Sanatana Dharma) reveals that its seers were obviously liberated in a similar way to the Buddha. That is the historical and archeological record, but one can't thus conclude that people didn't fully awaken before that time.
Tolle's and other New Age teachings typically lack the depth and safeguards of mature spiritual traditions that have an extensive scriptural basis, well-developed practices, and which all require a qualified teacher to help the aspirant achieve that which cannot be captured in words. If Tolle relied on such a teacher and tradition, he would not make such errors.
I am told that the Catholic tradition embodies such teaching in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. These require an experienced confessor. Tibetan Buddhism is beautifully explained by many. A good place to start is the two-CD set by H. H. Dalai Lama 14th, Tenzin Gyatso, on The Four Noble Truths. You will find there a subtlety of understanding and an admonition that moksha or liberation is developed through long, patient, and determined practice. Meditation with the help of an advanced teacher, a qualified lama, is essential in that tradition -- and I can tell you from experience this is effective beyond what one could imagine. In the Kundalini Yoga tradition, Layayoga by Goswami is a definitive source book for readers with the patience for a detailed explanation by someone who obviously knew what he was writing about. Here, too, one gets an outline of what may be required, extracted from 280 scriptural sources. But there's no replacement for an adept yogi who is connected with a living, oral lineage guiding one's practices. If you are fortunate enough to find such a teacher, you are carefully assessed before being guided in practice. Then the results are dramatic and unmistakable, and one finds oneself not at the peak, but at the foot of the mountain of the spiritual journey.
If you are interested in Tolle's book, then you are already spiritually curious. You can set foot on the path of return. To do so, find a tradition that speaks truth to you, that produces spiritually advanced people who are kind, have integrity, are not on some power trip, that don't require all of your money or claim that no other tradition can lead you home. Find a tradition that does not make you discard your own sense of truth to adopt its beliefs. Spiritual truth holds up to the test of lived experience. Work directly with an advanced practitioner after you have carefully examined and tested whether you can deeply trust them. Anyway, you must ultimately walk your own path with the teacher's help. Find a tradition that points out the opportunities for realization in everyday life, and that has a well-developed scriptural base. The scriptures are a safeguard against the kinds of errors found in Tolle's book. Lived experience and scientific findings are safeguards against culturally-bound dogma. Scriptures of spiritual depth also contain profound meaning that can only be hinted at in words and may only be realized through lived experience. The teacher's role is to safely guide you in having such experiences yourself.
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Showing 1-10 of 24 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 24, 2008 10:57:24 PM PDT
You present a fairly perceptive analysis for a "correct" prescription to one either currently following a spiritual bath or someone considering such. However(and this points to Tolle's comment about the value of "Grace" in Awakening), Tolle himself and a number of spiritual guides/gurus(Adyashanti, Byron Katie, et al) were seemingly blessed with the kind of Grace which fully transformed their lives and in some cases they hadn't followed any sort of spiritual prescription or path to attain this.
Likewise, I've been personally acquainted with a fair number of spiritual seekers(which includes myself)who have followed a tradition and yet in certain critical respects they have maintained certain reactive habits or patterns in their character which indicate anything but an enlightened perspective. Hence, the role that "Spontaneous Awakening" has in transforming certain individuals more than simply engaging in a routine meditative practice can accomplish.
In reply to an earlier post on May 25, 2008 11:05:50 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 25, 2008 1:19:24 PM PDT
I agree with you that sometimes Grace appears to happen spontaneously and said so in my review. However, I am also saying that Grace and transformation are not an end point. I know of but am not familiar with the teachings of Byron Katie or Adyanshanti. I am saying that Tolle has good insights but appears to be stuck. One can cling to certain spiritual truths and shut out other experience. Then the spiritual truths become another possession of the ego, which strives to defend itself. This is spiritual bypass. Thus you have someone who speaks with authority but is incorrect in some of his teachings and insightful in others. Does it mean one can't learn from him? No. But as with any teacher, test what you learn by your own experience.
The main point I'm making about working with a living oral lineage is that one can realistically hope to open oneself up to Grace by doing well-developed practices that quiet the thinking mind, that purify negative emotions and thought scripts, and that beseech The Source for help. I've found that the "prescribed" path of working with an accomplished and qualified teacher is not a dry one but is frequently transforming. You're probably familiar with the saying that after enlightenment, one washes one's bowl. From the transformed level of realization, if you take care of what comes your way, over time you relinquish personality habits because a new intensity of seeing cuts through their previous thrall.
When you write that many spiritual seekers following known traditions "have maintained certain reactive habits or patterns in their character which indicate anything but an enlightened perspective," you are pointing to something that is not necessarily a flaw in those traditions. Has the aspirant found a qualified teacher who has transcended the reactive habits they struggle with? If not, they need to seek such a teacher. If they can't find a qualified teacher in that tradition, they may need the help of someone else who has transcended such flaws, even if this is a qualified psychotherapist who is open to spiritual transformation as the primary, moving force.
When I say that Grace is not a cure for personality shortcomings but is just a beginning, let me offer some reference points. I once spent 12 days with an apparently liberated yoga master. He's extraordinary. When he assessed me and then suggested slight adjustments to traditional yoga postures, this precipitated an intense transformation and a healing process which has been going on for years. His meditation is so deep that he only needs to sleep one hour a night. His knowledge of Sanatana Dharma and of brain function are encyclopedic. Yet he is also guided by the adepts of his lineage on a subtle plane. He is jivanmukti, liberated in the body, but is still learning. Another example is the Dalai Lama. He is very humble about his own spiritual status. But if he hasn't experienced Grace over many lifetimes, who has? How many people do you know who, like him, can tell you who their next parents will be and where to find them, and then a search party goes out and the young child knows his prior possessions and shows special abilities? The Dalai Lama doesn't see the spiritual path as an end point but as something that proceeds for eons. This says something about developing patience and a resolve to address one's personality flaws for oneself, without waiting for a complete transformation to heal them for you. Awakening to a new level happens. Then one integrates that transformation into one's daily life. This struggle with one's own shortcomings is the soil out of which compassion and wisdom grow.
In a way, aren't we we're talking about a dialectic in which the opposites are: 1) tapping into the Source and experiencing one's own transformation and one's own truth, versus; 2) following the path laid out in traditional teachings that are often culture-bound and may be rigid in some respects? In a way, this is the friction of the Divine immanent in form. The opposites are only relative to a synthesis where self-realization can't be achieved unless one finds one's own truth and Grace. But why not work with someone who knows the Way and can guide you along a well-marked trail?
In reply to an earlier post on May 25, 2008 5:18:09 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 25, 2008 6:04:07 PM PDT
In full agreement with your statement that there isn't "necessarily a flaw in the traditions" despite the followers' maintaining certain reactive habits or patterns as I have observed. But this instead to me simply points to the limitations of spiritually based traditions or paths in achieving full transformation. In my own case for instance having attending many retreats having different Buddhist based traditions or practices(i.e., Vipassana, Dzogchen) and becoming fairly adept in meditative practice, I still found myself "unliberated" from certain issues(the reactive patterns I make reference to) which came up in response to certain interpersonal situations. Interestingly enough, when this happened fairly recently, it was after reading Tolle's book that one such issue with another person became resolved quite effectively and to our mutual benefit and I evolved to a higher state in the process. In that sense, the book became a "frosting for the cake." Along these lines I'd disagree with your comment about Tolle having "spiritual bypass" as evidenced by his delivery in the CD. I think it's a matter of personality or personal style which influences how any particular spiritual guide or teacher comes across(and they come across every which way across the spectrum).
I was rather impressed with how Tolle comes across in the DVD's that go with another of this books, "The Findhorn Retreat." It's a very lucid, well paced style but then this is my own take on this.
Also in reference to the comment about the need to find
a qualified psychotherapist whom one could follow if on the path toward greater self transformation, the emerging field of non-dual therapy is geared for that.
And a good sourcebook on that is "The Sacred Mirror" which is a collection of articles by psychologists with that as their practice and objective.
In reply to an earlier post on May 25, 2008 6:43:46 PM PDT
Interesting comments. I wonder if you would clarify about the limitations of spiritually-based traditions. Is it the "tradition" to which you object? With a Tibetan Buddhist teacher's help from the Kagyu lineage, doing Mahamudra practice, I was one of several able to experience mystical union or non-duality. After that event, simple meditation helps such personal limitations simply dissolve. I've had similar experience with a teacher of Kundalini Yoga, where personal limitations have been progressively dissolving in a renovation and restoration process. Both of these are spiritual traditions that I've found to work. For other people, these traditions don't seem like spiritual "home." The Kundalini Yoga teacher said that at a certain point along the spiritual path, one is drawn to one's home lineage. He usually is able to help them get to the point in their Kundalini process where the R&R process starts and where they will soon find their home lineage. I don't believe that one can't have significant experiences before that, however, even from "imperfect" teachers, even people who don't consider themselves "spiritual," such as a wise and loving grandfather or a mentor. If that person has embodied something you're ready to learn, you easily do so under their influence.
In reply to an earlier post on May 25, 2008 10:46:23 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 25, 2008 11:00:29 PM PDT
My notion of "limitation" is specifically directed not so much at any tradition as such but only in the sense that
achieving personal transformation would entail more than only following a path for this. And admittedly, this was my own experience along with certain practitioners I've known over the years. So in that sense, any "legitimate" tradition cannot be faulted because it can offer an effective means for enough people to attain at least some semblance of a transformation or evolution.
It may then very well be my perspective which informs me that an "extra-traditional" practice is supplemental to what a tradition does. So, in that capacity, someone like Tolle may serve just that function(as I had written about in my previous post).
Here's an analogy that comes to mind though I don't know how suitable this is. I've done acting as an avocation for just about twenty years now. During this time, I've read extensively about it, taken many classes, and been in a number of student and independent films. Through it all, I've "evolved" into what I'd say is at least a reasonably OK actor. But then I contrast that with some actors who never had a lesson in their life(or perhaps minimal coaching when on the set of a film)but their natural feel for it and experience on stage or in film showed they were highly talented "born" actors. My process of scene study in class along with the extensive reading provided knowledge of course but parallels someone who follows a spiritual tradition with the real limitation being you're gonna wind up in danger of becoming an "intellectual" actor who knows too much for his or her own good and hence subject to the limitations on creativity that that causes.
If you check out Adyashanti(whose website you can check out at adyashanti.org), he "cautions" that mystical experiences aren't to be devalued but that they're simply transient as such and not in the same category as one actually being Enlightened or Awakened. And for some the danger might be in becoming too hooked on them by mistaking them for the "real deal." And then they may wind up becoming spiritual materialists(a term coined by the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche).
Does that make it clearer?
In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2008 2:00:10 AM PDT
I agree that achieving transformation isn't done by just following a path. I also agree with your cautions that intellectualizing and attachment to mystical experiences a.k.a. spiritual materialism are distractions. Unlike you, I don't see traditional paths as necessarily having limitations if they produce spiritual adepts. Perhaps we differ in what we define as transformation. I believe one encounters the Absolute and then brings one's personality into line with the love and perceptivity thus awakened.
You state pretty clearly that spiritual traditions have not led you to sufficient transformation. Tolle attracts you because when his lessons are applied, you have had some success. All I am saying is continue to test what he says in your own experience, because from what I can tell, he is not reliable because he teaches some things that I know to be untrue, and his personal presentation seems emotionally flat. I'm attuned to the latter through experience as a psychotherapist. What I've conveyed is a subjective impression, no more.
I believe that if a traditional path actually produces awakened or liberated people, it does so by leading them to the Source, the Absolute. The Living Source is just that, It's beyond description, definition or ownership by any path or tradition. In my experience, an encounter with The Source is unmediated and transformational.
Some of my prior discussion may seem intellectual to you because I named many traditions. I did so not to flaunt knowledge but to suggest that they are looking at the same underlying Reality.
In a way, I have followed the teachings of a non-traditional path by studying Jung, who was determined to find his own way through lived experience. He was onto profound truth, I believe, when he described the psychoid nature of the Collective Unconscious, where he was sensing the activity of the Living Spirit in synchronicity and allowing his inner experience, his dreams, for instance, to guide him to truth. He did respect and learn from spiritual traditions. But my dissertation research (posted on my website, drgaryseeman.com) -- and I'm not referencing that to flaunt intellect but directing you toward it if you're interested -- and later personal experiences proved he fell short by not allowing himself to meet the liberated masters of India and explore their path to non-duality, even though he had the opportunity. He thought accounts of mystical union indicated a dissolution into unconsciousness, although it is actually a superconscious experience beyond individuality.
I spent years in the New Age movement and encountered many lesser teachers than Jung and found them all shallow compared to more established traditions. For example, the Dalai Lama knows how to be present in the moment beyond mind or ego and also has access to teachings and methods developed over thousands of years for recognizing when someone is doing effective inner work. I'm talking about such simple and practical instructions as knowing not to fall into somnolence in meditation and also not to focus too tightly, but to have an intermediate level of concentration. But the Dalai Lama's approach to spirituality is not restricted by even his own tradition. He has said that if science were to prove that reincarnation is not real, he would have to revise his belief.
All great religions started as extra-traditional approaches to spirituality. Is Tolle doing that? I don't think so. His writing mostly reads like a presentation of Zen Buddhism in Western language. But I've found other Western Buddhist teachers more on target, for instance, Pema Chodron.
My equivalent of your seeking a non-traditional teacher is the teaching of life, itself, including its synchronicities, the opportunities to build character or indulge in selfishness and the results of the choice, and the frequent evidence we are all interconnected. Also, when following any teaching, I believe in being true to one's own sense of truth. If someone is teaching you something useful, then learn, as you are doing from Tolle and Adyashanti. The teachers who have helped me the most in this life were not the extra-traditional ones but those who helped me explore spiritual experience in an open way with lots of well-tested and practical methods.
Finally, for perspective, I would not have sought out Tolle. I am not a seeker but have found the spiritual groundedness I need and am now continuing with inner work guided by qualified teachers. Tolle's teaching was mentioned on the listserv of the American Psychological Association's Division of Religion, and he was also mentioned by some clients. Thus I thought I should become familiar with him. The review you read was the result.
In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2008 9:00:03 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 26, 2008 9:03:25 AM PDT
As I had said before, Tolle's "function" for me was essentially as "frosting for the cake". Though I'd read an interview with him in "The Awakening West"(by a married couple of therapists from Oakland, Ca. so you might even know them), and once skimmed through "The Power of Now"(and in both instances would describe my reaction as "mild interest") it was when a friend sent "A New Earth" that Tolle's message most resonated. So in THAT sense it was "extra traditional" or beyond what I've gleaned from my immersion in the Vipassana/Dzogchen paths and practices I've followed.
Posted on Jul 14, 2008 6:54:12 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 15, 2008 6:31:01 AM PDT
Great review. I especially like that you have put into words the feeling I had about something that seemed lacking in Tolle's "enlightened persona".
"Tolle's flat emotional delivery of the audiobook further suggests that he has encapsulated rather than resolved his inner struggles (this is known as "spiritual bypass"). In contrast, the liberated and advanced people I encountered were not afraid to have a personality but came across as lively and vibrant."
That is so very true!
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 5, 2008 1:06:22 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 5, 2008 1:07:30 PM PDT
Thanks for your kind words. I enjoyed your review, too, and may you find that enlightened housewife with an ADHD kid! I believe Pema Chodron is that kind of writer, especially with her best-seller, When Things Fall Apart. Do you think so?
Posted on Sep 13, 2009 7:06:16 PM PDT
Curious Puppy says:
Gary: I was very impressed with your insights! I sense your rich resources of both genuine intellectual knowledge and your direct spiritual experience. I believe you have read many spiritual books and truly understood the deep messages. I was born and grew up in Buddhism country, moved to North America and did schooling in spirituality. The depth and nuance of Buddhism is very hard to convey in English. I feel you have the real understanding of Buddhism, more than E.T. He might be considering Hinduism as Buddhism? But, maybe it doesn't matter. Anyway, I see your deep spiritual understanding, knowledge, and experience. I feel yours are matured and universal beyond cultures and religions. Also, I like your spirituality being sounded and balanced -psychologically healthy, not heavy in theories in words or dreamy and airy that many people easily fall into at their beginning stages of spiritual seeking. I hope many spiritual seekers find your comment and read. (But many may have difficulties in really understand what you mean until they have enough spiritual reading and experience.) I guess your comment is to reach whenever and whoever need it, and that's the most important thing. Thank you for posting your comments and information!