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Grace as Spiritual Transmission: The "Outside Force" that Liberates Man the Machine

by Chris Tong, Ph.D.
Dr. Chris Tong

Thomas HobbesFor seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within; why may we not say, that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the Artificer?

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

Are we machines?Are we machines? If not altogether mechanical, to what degree are we "machine", and to what degree, are we "free being", and possessors of "free will"? To what degree are we in control of our own destiny, and to what degree are we "predestined"?

Certainly the signs of "man as machine" are everywhere. We see "man as machine" on the individual level in our habits, our addictions, our oedipal (and other archetypal) patterns; much of our therapy is devoted to purchasing freedom from such past-regimented patterns. We see "man as machine" on the global level in centuries-old conflicts that are endlessly re-ignited by the automatic reactivity of "an eye for an eye". It would take a saint to be able to forgive the enemy who has just killed his family foregoing the impulse to vengeance, for the sake of a greater purpose.

Indeed, many traditions suggest that as reflected by saints, sages, and other realizers increasing spiritual maturity is what moves us along the spectrum from the "machine" end toward the "free being" end.

But how does one mature spiritually? To what degree can self-improvement result in spiritual maturity? Or is applying the metaphor of self-improvement to spiritual growth like trying to lift oneself up by the bootstraps? Is help necessary? What kind of help is required? The old maxim, "There but for the Grace of God go I", provides a clue: perhaps apart from circumstance, the only difference between myself and my less fortunate brother who is a murderer is Grace: help from the Greater Reality.

"A body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force". We often learn Newton's first law of motion in the context of billiard balls on pool tables. But the same law is readily observed in "man as machine". I tend to react to men in the same, limited manner in which I tended to react to my own father. I will continue to do so until something awakens me to what I am doing, enables me to see alternatives, and assists me in establishing those alternatives as part of a new, less restrictive pattern.

But human beings are rather more complex than billiard balls;
much is required to overcome the force of habit or the trend of history. Consider dieting as one example of attempting to overcome an addiction (or any other deep pattern) via self-improvement. The mind idealistically embraces the idea of losing weight, usually rallying itself around some new technique for doing that; but the body remains a distinct voice and force all the while. The mind may rule for a period; but, come that moment in front of the chocolate shop, when the delicious smell comes wafting out the body instantly initiates a coup d'etat, seizing the throne and commencing a food binge that may last days, weeks, or months. When the mind "comes to", it generally is perplexed about the failure of its program. It vastly underestimated (and never was actually in a position to overcome) the force and depth of the pattern it was attempting to address.

A more apt metaphor for "man as machine" than the passive billiard ball is "man as homeostatic system": a pattern of activity which, even when acted on by an outside force, will exert a counter-force, in order to perpetuate the present pattern. It's as though the billiard ball had developed little "legs" that dug into the pool table surface when it sees another pool ball coming, in order to resist the oncoming "hit"; or as though the ball could dodge the oncoming ball. Not so easy to knock that ball in a desired direction any longer, even with an outside force!

Thermostats are examples of systems consciously designed to be homeostatic. They are built to keep the house at a certain temperature homeostatically; a fall below that temperature turns the heater on, while a restoration to the status quo temperature turns the heater off. Just so, upon persisting at a certain weight for a sufficient length of time, the human body establishes that weight as a "set point" which it vigorously works to restore should body weight go lower (or higher).

On the basis of similar observations, thinkers as diverse as Montaigne, Pavlov, Gurdjieff, and Hubert Benoit, concluded that what is possible through self-improvement, or even improvement with the help of other human beings more or less like ourselves, is severely limited.

Necessarily, the help we need for radical change or spiritual maturity, on the one hand must overwhelm our homeostatic system in the manner of a great "Outside Force"; and yet, on the other hand, it must also pull the rug out from beneath deep patterns in the manner of Something at an even greater depth (in accord with the principles of depth psychology). The "Grace of God" is a good name for help which both overwhelms from without and undermines from within.

An interesting aspect of many contemporary addiction treatment programs (particularly twelve-step programs) are the steps in which the addict acknowledges the powerlessness of "man as machine" to relieve himself of his addiction, and accepts the need for Grace, or the intervention of a Higher Power, in his life. Just so, all the spiritual traditions of humankind are oriented around the need for Grace, and the establishment of a genuine connection with It, in order to grow not only humanly, but spiritually. But once one intuits the need for Grace: Where to find It? How to link up with It? How to benefit from It?

In Western religious traditions, Grace often is viewed as a theological problem: we can readily identify those who got "It" in a big way
from Jesus to Teresa of Avila to Moses to Mohammed. We even have stories providing some details of how "It" came to them. But, so far as we know, only a rare few among us are genuine saints, sages, or Spiritual Masters. Up between the lines of these stories sneaks our suspicion that, not only are we not able to help or improve ourselves in any kind of truly radical way; but maybe even the choice of linking up with that which could make the difference is not in our hands either. Hence the thorny theological conundrums about predestination: if some are chosen by God to be recipients of Grace, are all the rest of us simply spiritually damned, with not a thing we can do about it (even though we spend a lifetime at spiritual practice)?

Curiously, the traditions of the East communicate an entirely different picture: Grace is readily available! Here Grace is not merely a synonym for "luck" or "good fortune", or available only to the predestined. Rather, Grace is a tangible Spiritual Transmission from the Greater Reality, accessible to anybody who is interested, and willing to live the kind of life that supports its steady reception. The living Spiritual Master (or Guru) is the means by which one contacts that Spiritual Transmission. Unlike miraculous visitations, which, by their nature, can only come and go, the human Spiritual Master serves as a stable bridge between the material world and the Greater Reality.

In studying these Eastern traditions, one senses that the traditional Western religious view may be hampered by its lack of a living Spiritual Master who can provide a present-time demonstration of Spiritual Transmission. The Spiritual Master with whom the West is most familiar ceased to be available "in the flesh" two thousand years ago. Furthermore, the religion founded in the name of that Spiritual Master also made the decision (to quash the competing Arian view about Jesus) to make a fundamental tenet of its creed be the declaration that that Spiritual Master was the one and only Spiritual Master or "Son of God" in all of human history; no other could be his spiritual equal or better. In sharp contrast, the Indian tradition holds that India has never experienced a time without either a living Spiritual Master or a saint capable of serving as a Spiritual Transmitter to those devotees who were ready to receive his or her Transmission. The Indian culture has always been one in which the view of the Spiritual Master as the source of Grace is common knowledge, grounded in somewhat less common experience. Those "in the know" are able to point newcomers to the Spiritual Transmitters alive in their time.

The Calling of the Disciples
detail from "The Calling of the Disciples"
Domenico Ghirlandaio (c. 1480)
What does that less common experience look like? It certainly has the characteristic, necessary for transformation, of being an overwhelming "outside force". When Jesus of Nazareth approached Peter and Andrew and said simply, "Come, follow me", they dropped everything work, family, possessions to do just that. Granted, the story may have been recast in a simplified, mythic form, and its real, historical details may have included painful goodbyes, financial re-arrangements, and what not. But the essence of the response to Jesus' Spiritual Transmission is captured well by: "they straightaway left their nets and followed him." They were overwhelmed by his Transmission. Everything their lives had been about before seemed profoundly superficial in this revelation of a Greater Reality, communicated by the Grace of the Spiritual Master.

Krishna and the Gopis
detail from "Krishna Flutes Under a Tree"
Rajasthan, Kishangarh, opaque watercolor and gold on paper (c. 1690)
Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990:747
The Hindu tradition communicates a similar message through the story of Krishna and the gopi cowherd women. Upon hearing Krishna's flute, the gopis simply left their cattle to follow him. Like the disciples of Jesus, they dropped everything to follow their Spiritual Master because of something transmitted by his presence which completely overwhelmed them, and changed their sense of reality. Krishna's Spiritual Transmission (symbolized by his flute) made these women ecstatic.

St. Teresa of Avila
detail of sculpture,
"The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila"
Giovanni Bernini (1652)
While ecstasy per se is less emphasized in the stories of Jesus, the Christian mystical tradition in toto is filled with it. Bernini's statue of St. Teresa of Avila in Divine Communion is a beautiful rendering of her experience of ecstasy. Ecstasy as a result of Grace likewise is a common theme in the reports from the Sufi and Hassidic traditions.

Gautama Buddha
Gautama Buddha

Spiritual Transmission appears in the stories surrounding Gautama the Buddha. On one occasion, the Buddha said no word, but simply held up a flower. Most of his disciples were puzzled. But Kasyapa smiled in response, "enlightened" on the spot; the Buddha acknowledged that Kasyapa had indeed received his Transmission. The point of the story is not the visible flower, but rather, the invisible Transmission passing from Gautama to Kasyapa, translating him (in that moment, or perhaps henceforth) into the "enlightened state". That Transmission is said to have initiated the Zen Buddhist tradition. The Zen teaching has been passed on from Master to disciple by direct Transmission ever since. The overt acts by which the Zen Master interacts with the disciple even unconventional ones such as hitting the disciple over the head with a stick, throwing a rock at the disciple, and the like can be more deeply understood in the manner of Gautama's flower. They are simply pointers or aids to the Spiritual Transmission that is occurring.

Avatar Adi Da Samraj
Avatar Adi Da Samraj

Jesus, Krishna, and Gautama are no longer present "in the flesh". Nonetheless, tangible Spiritual Transmission continues as a living reality. When I found my Spiritual Master, Adi Da Samraj, I was a university professor, living one of the conventional lives of my time, even as Peter and Andrew or the gopi women cowherds had been doing in their time. But when I sat before my Master for the first time, his Transmission literally opened up my heart waves of love for him and for all beings came pouring from me spontaneously, in response to the enormous love I tangibly felt flowing from him to me.

By taking up a way of life devoted to "tuning in" on that Transmission, my entire sense of reality gradually has been transformed. On such a Grace-full basis (rather than on the basis of self-conscious effort with my old sense of "material-only" reality still intact), over time, the force of all the varieties of machine-like patterning (emotional, mental, physical, psychic) that have placed limits on my happiness has gradually diminished, through their non-use.

Like the disciples of Jesus, or Krishna's gopi devotees, the secret of transformation in my case has been overwhelming distraction by the Grace of the Spiritual Master. As my Spiritual Master once humorously put it, while his devotee is "away", distracted by the ecstasy of his Transmission, the Master enters the devotee spiritually, and cleans up the place "like a little old lady cleaning out a bird cage." This cleansing, or release of old patterns, is not something the devotee does by effort; rather, the devotee allows the Master (who, unlike the devotee, is in a position to know what he or she is doing) to do the work.

descent of the Holy Spirit
woodcut: "The Descent of the Holy Spirit"
Albrecht Durer (c. 1510)

In like manner, the stories of Jesus's disciples communicate a graceful transformation or "second birth" of weak, even cowardly men, into extraordinary men "filled with the Spirit", able to endure incredible hardships (and even horrific deaths) through their reception of their Master's Spiritual Transmission (symbolized by the "Holy Spirit").

I have been writing from the viewpoint of Grace as a means for Spiritual growth and, ultimately, for Spiritual Liberation. But Grace is often sought for purely material help. Some of this is due simply to the influence of our currently materialistic culture, and a Western religious tradition that has placed more emphasis on the visible here and now, then on the "hereafter" (or more accurately, the invisible "here and now"). But equally important is Maslow's hierarchy of needs: how can we invest any serious energy or attention on Spiritual Realization, when we are hungry, poor, sick, or at war? The "lower" needs must be handled, if not before the higher needs, then at the same time, in order for the spiritual practitioner to be freed from having to invest too much time, energy, and attention in caring for them.

Interestingly, the Grace of the Spiritual Master has always been understood to not only serve the Spiritual liberation of individuals, but also to have a beneficial effect on the world in ordinary terms. The Christian tradition of caring for the sick, clothing the poor, and feeding the hungry originated in the miraculous displays of Grace by Jesus: healings, feeding the multitudes, etc. That these too were the result of Spiritual Transmission is clear. For instance, in one incident, when a woman touches Jesus's robe and is healed, it is reported that "Jesus felt the power go out from him", indicating that a spontaneous Spiritual Transmission had caused her cure.

Ramana Maharshi
Ramana Maharshi

The twentieth-century Indian Master, Ramana Maharshi, often was asked, "Why don't you help the world?", apparently in response to the fact that he simply stayed in or near his room all the time. Maharshi's answer was, "How do you know I do not? A self-realized being cannot help benefitting the world. His very existence is the highest good." He thus reflected the questioner's limited understanding of Spiritual Transmission; the one who asked the question presumed that benefitting the world requires physical proximity and visible action.

Many traditions suggest that the material world is arising in a Greater-Than-Material Reality. Realize that Greater Reality (even only partially), and one will be able to help the material world from the greater vantage point of its Source (or at least closer to It). Asking a Spiritual Master why he or she is not out feeding the hungry is a little like asking the staff of a cancer research institute why they are not out treating the folks in their neighborhood for colds. Other doctors are already doing just that! The opportunity represented by the Spiritual Master and his or her Spiritual Transmission is rare.

Narayan Maharaj
Narayan Maharaj

The beneficial effect of Spiritual Transmission on the world can take many forms. The devotees of the Spiritual Master, Narayan Maharaj, believed his Spiritual Transmission was instrumental in the final resolution of World War II. The Master would read a detailed report every day on the war's progress. As the war continued, leaving large numbers of soldiers wounded and dying, mysterious wounds would appear on the Master's body, with no visible cause. As a result, he could neither walk nor eat. Finally, on September 3, 1945, Maharaj was told that the British had landed in Japan. He responded, "The war is over. My work is finished." He died later that same day.

But positive benefits on the material level are of limited spiritual value, because they pass, and because we die. Every one of the people that Jesus healed died later (even Lazarus). So obviously the eradication of physical death was not the point of these miracles. Thus Spiritual Masters have always sought to re-educate their disciples into valuing more greatly that which is eternal (or at least greater-than-material). For this reason, Masters warn disciples away from the fascinations of miraculous powers in and of themselves, because they represent a diversion from the true but narrow course leading to genuine, spiritual growth. To the extent that Spiritual Transmission leads to a more peaceful world and better life conditions, and thus, an environment more greatly conducive to Spiritual life, its use is truly spiritually valuable. But Grace invoked solely for the sake of material gain has always been criticized by the human sources of that Grace.

If the Spiritual Master is the means by which Grace enters tangibly and stably into the world, what happens to that source of Grace when the Spiritual Master dies? The answer depends completely upon the Realization of the Spiritual Master's disciples. A tradition remains Spiritually empowered because the Spiritual Realizer of one generation transmits his or her Realization to the disciple (or to an entire group of disciples), to the point where the disciple (or group of disciples) attains the same Realization, and learns how to function, in turn, as a Spiritual Transmitter for the next generation. If the Realization "lessens" over the generations, the tradition can eventually reach a point where it continues to be socially viable (as an authoritative source of social morality or charity) but has become spiritually bankrupt; or it may splinter into genuine but small spiritual flames here and there.

The Christian mystical tradition is a representative example
in sheer numbers of acknowledged saints, the tradition reached its zenith between 1200 and 1700 AD; it has been diminishing ever since. The dwindling numbers coincide with a general sense that the Christian mystical tradition and many other such traditions are dwindling, particularly with the global spread of a strongly materialistic world view. Even the deeply spiritual culture of India has been strongly affected by its newfound lust for technology and material power, purposed toward eradicating the poverty and political powerlessness it has suffered for ages. India's surviving esoteric traditions are now mostly scattered pockets of spirituality.

In some sense, then, the greatest gift for the world that a Spiritual Master (past, present, or future) could leave
now or in the future is the establishment of a community of disciples capable of preserving and even magnifying the Spiritual Master's Transmission down through the ages. In this context, we can read the symbol of the Boddhisattva in terms larger than the individual. A true Boddhisattva for this new millenium would be just such a living Spiritual community, but materially established on a global scale capable of countering the global sweep of materialism. Such a community would communicate the existence and availability of Grace to the world at large; and it would persist in keeping Grace available in the world, until the last "separate being" was Awakened out of the dream.


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