The editorial staff at What Is Enlightenment? magazine ask:
These days there is a wary climate regarding people who hold themselves out as spiritual authorities. There is a tendency to be very skeptical about the possibility that someone could be a genuine authority. Yet traditionally it’s been fairly common for people to seek out a spiritual teacher for guidance, and to commit themselves to that teacher. What are your thoughts on this?
Brother David replies: Some twenty years ago, there was a much greater openness to making anybody who came along and seemed to have some great credentials for teaching your guru. Nowadays many people have been burnt and they will look twice. That is skepticism, and it can easily become cynicism, which isn’t very healthy. But it also has its healthy aspect because people are less gullible and teachers have to prove themselves. On the other hand, our time is so frightening, there are so many things going on that frighten us, that many people want security at any price. They will let themselves be put down, be abused and become dependent on a teacher just in order to have a sense of security, to feel that they know everything. No questions asked, you just do what you’re told, this sort of thing. That is always a great danger in times of fear. And our time is a fear-inspiring time. I understand when you say that many people are more skeptical, but there are also many people who want just this kind of security at any price, and are willing to be put down and pay that price.
There is just one great spiritual teacher, and that is the Divine Spirit in your heart. What any spiritual teacher on the outside can do, at best, is to always lead you back to that teacher in your heart. But the key word here is “authority.” We have a very impoverished and actually strongly warped notion of authority nowadays, and we think that authority is the power to command. Well, that’s wrong. That’s a derived meaning of authority. Originally authority means: a firm basis for knowing and acting. If you want to know what to do in a given case you will go to a book that is an authoritative book, or you will go to a person who is an authority in his or her field, and so forth. So that’s the original meaning of authority. However, because people who provide a firm basis for knowing and acting for others are few and far between, you put them in a position of authority, which means you give them power to command. But the more power somebody has, the greater the danger of corruption. This is where some spiritual teachers then go off the deep end. This is where the question of the proper use of authority comes in.
Jesus Christ brought a complete revolution of the understanding of authority. This is, I think, the Christian tradition’s most central insight and potentially its greatest contribution to spirituality in the world. It occurred in two ways. First, Jesus placed the authority of God, which was always seen as external, in the very hearts of his hearers. The core teaching of Jesus is not, “I am going to tell you all,” or anything like that. No, he presupposes you know it all. “Don’t you know it? I’ll remind you of it. You know it all.” This is his typical voice. This question opens many of the parables, “Who of you doesn’t know this already?” It’s not sufficiently emphasized nowadays in Christian teaching, but the moment you are alerted to it you see it.
So, one of the really dramatic events that happened in history – and that’s why the world is still reeling with what happened in the life of Jesus – is that with Jesus, the Divine authority was squarely placed in the hearts of every human being. That was a tremendous revolution. The immanence of God and the Divine in the human heart was stressed. And it was probably necessary that this should happen in a setting in which duality was stronger than anywhere else: “Holy” in the Hebrew Bible means “the altogether other.” So God was the absolutely other. Then Jesus comes and maintains that, doesn’t deny it in any way, but also says that the absolutely other is closer to you than you are to yourself. So that was the first part of the revolution of authority, that the Divine authority is placed in the heart of the earth.
This gives us a pretty good test for seeing which spiritual teachers are authentic and which ones are not: Do they use their power to empower others?
The second aspect is best expressed in the image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and saying, essentially, “You call me Lord and Master. In other words, you call me an authority. You are right, that’s what I am. But in the world, those who have power lord it over others. With you it should be different. The greatest among you, the one who has the most power, should be the servant of all. And that is what I show you because I am washing your feet.” So that is the answer to the question, what is authority good for? Authority must be used, but there is only one legitimate use for it, and that is to empower those who are under authority. One of the most important things about Jesus is that he apparently had great authority but did not fall prey to its power. He even emphatically told his followers that that’s not what you do – you turn this upside down and become the servant of all. First divine authority was placed in the hearts of everyone. Then human authority was given a task, namely, not to put those down that are under authority, but to build them up and empower them.
This also gives us a pretty good test for looking at spiritual teachers, and seeing which ones are authentic and which ones are not. Do they use their power to empower others? There may be a phase where a person has to be carried like a child. There may be a phase of dependency that one may have to go through. But you have to look at the whole picture. With any teacher you will see, by looking at that teacher’s accomplished students, what it is leading to. When you see that this teacher makes them stand on their own feet, then that’s authentic. When you see that this teacher makes them more and more dependent, then that’s hands off, that’s dangerous.
Reprinted from What Is Enlightenment? (WIE) Spring/Summer 1996, Vol. 5, #1, pp. 26-27
Brother David’s Journey
DAVID STEINDL-RAST was born July 12, 1926, in Vienna, Austria, where he studied art, anthropology, and psychology, receiving an MA from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and a PhD from the University of Vienna. In 1952 he followed his family who had emigrated to the United States. In 1953 he joined a newly founded Benedictine community in Elmira, NY, Mount Saviour Monastery, of which he is now a senior member. In 1958/59 Brother David was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Cornell University, where he also became the first Roman Catholic to hold the Thorpe Lectureship, following Bishop J.D.R. Robinson and Paul Tillich.
After twelve years of monastic training and studies in philosophy and theology, Brother David was sent by his abbot to participate in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, for which he received Vatican approval in 1967. His Zen teachers were Hakkuun Yasutani Roshi, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, and Eido Shimano Roshi. He co-founded the Center for Spiritual Studies in 1968 and received the 1975 Martin Buber Award for his achievements in building bridges between religious traditions.
Together with Thomas Merton, Brother David helped launch a renewal of religious life. From 1970 on, he became a leading figure in the House of Prayer movement, which affected some 200,000 members of religious orders in the United States and Canada. Since the 1970s Brother David has been a member of cultural historian William Irwin Thompson‘s Lindisfarne Association.”
For decades, Brother David divided his time between periods of hermit’s life and extensive lecture tours on five continents. On a two-month lecture tour in Australia, for example, he gave 140 lectures and traveled 12,000 miles within Australia without backtracking. His wide spectrum of audiences has included starving students in Zaire and faculty at Harvard and Columbia Universities, Buddhist monks and Sufi retreatants, Papago Indians and German intellectuals, New Age communes and Naval Cadets at Annapolis, missionaries on Polynesian islands and gatherings at the United Nations, Green Berets and participants at international peace conferences. Brother David has brought spiritual depth into the lives of countless people whom he touches through his lectures, his workshops, and his writings.
He has contributed to a wide range of books and periodicals from the Encyclopedia Americana and The New Catholic Encyclopedia, to the New Age Journal and Parabola Magazine. His books have been translated into many languages. Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer and A Listening Heart have been reprinted and anthologized for more than two decades. Brother David co-authored Belonging to the Universe (winner of the 1992 American Book Award), a dialogue on new paradigm thinking in science and theology with physicist, Fritjof Capra. His dialogue with Buddhists produced The Ground We Share: Buddhist and Christian Practice, co-authored with Robert Aitken Roshi. His most recent books are Words of Common Sense, Deeper than Words: Living the Apostles’ Creed, 99 Blessings: An Invitation to Life, and the upcoming The Way of Silence: Engaging the Sacred in Daily Life, and Faith beyond Belief: Spirituality for our Times.
Brother David contributed chapters or interviews to well over 30 books. An article by Brother David was included in The Best Spiritual Writing, 1998. His many audio and videotapes are widely distributed.
At present, Brother David serves a worldwide Network for Grateful Living, through Gratefulness.org, an interactive website with several thousand participants daily from more than 240 countries and territories.
You do what’s right, not because it’s easy or because it’s hard. You do it because you are alert to the guidance that comes to you.
When we speak about the path, we should keep in mind that there is only one path, and everyone who is going is on that one path. It may look as if people were going in different directions; but as long as they are going, they are just on the path.
I have tried to find the simplest characteristics of the path, and I come up with two. One is inclusiveness and the other is narrowness. If your notion of the path is inclusive enough – I don’t mean just a mental notion, I mean your whole approach – if your approach is inclusive enough to include every other path, then you are on the one path.
That’s really all that needs to be said about it. Wherever you come across anything that is exclusive in your path, well, that doesn’t mean that the path is wrong, it just means that to that extent you still haven’t completely discovered your own path.
The Narrowness is the Path
As for narrowness, when we are really alert to the guidance that leads us on the path, we find ourselves again and again confronted with what we call straits. It is tough; it is difficult. In the Christian context we say it is the Cross. “The one who takes up my Cross and follows Me is my disciple.” That is what is meant by narrowness.
You see immediately that this narrowness is by no means a contradiction to inclusiveness. It is not one of those paradoxes that sometimes you find in the spiritual way. These two really come from two different directions. The narrowness of the path means that if it is truly your path – the one meant for you – you will have to find it narrow sooner or later.
That is very important, because if we are not alert to the fact that the very narrowness is the path, we are apt to say, “Oh well, this is getting too tough; this must not be my path. I’d better try something else.” The more difficult it gets – in the right sense – the more truly you can be sure you are on the path.
Of course, there is also a danger of turning this into some sort of idol and saying, “I always do the more difficult thing.” That would be just as wrong as saying, “I always do the easier thing.” There’s no difference between the two. You do what’s right, not because it’s easy or because it’s hard. You do it because you are alert to the guidance that comes to you.
Now I come to something which may at first sight seem specifically Christian – or Biblical, I should rather say. But when you listen very carefully, you will see that we speak about a reality which is quite universal: faith. Faith and the path are inseparable from one another. Faith is that dynamism of going on the path. Faith is what makes it possible for you to go on.
Now, you see immediately that faith in this sense must mean something other than believing something. Faith includes believing in something, because life includes believing something. But the emphasis on believing something, which we have connected with faith in recent Christian tradition, is lopsided, even dangerous, because in the full concept, faith is not primarily believing something, but is primarily trusting someone. Faith is not giving your signature to a list of beliefs and dogmas. That will come in eventually – but what faith is, from the very start, is courageous trust. It may start simply with trust in life, and eventually open its way toward trust in the Source of all life.
Complexity and Simplicity
All of you, I’m sure, are struggling for simplicity of life. But there’s a way of settling for simplicity that is simplistic, a kind of childish oversimplification. You haven’t really dared to face the complexity of life. That’s the danger. And that’s where my recent experience started.
External life is tremendously complex. The more you become alert to things, the more you realize how complex they are. And I’m not even talking about natural things – just about something like switching on the light. If you ever switch on a light, with a minimum degree of awareness, you would just be staggered by the complexity with which you are in touch. Not only the people who work in the generators but the people who built the switch. Those who did the wiring in the building. Those who mined the metal. And this is just the thinnest crust of complexity on this incredibly complex universe.
I have been aware for a long time of this outer complexity. But you become aware, one day, of your inner complexity – of what has to happen when you take a piece of bread, what has to happen in your body so that you don’t die from that little piece of bread. A hundred thousand little processes have to go on within your body to digest that piece of bread, over which you have absolutely no control and which you have never understood and which you never will understand. And that’s supposedly you!
I haven’t even spoken about the psyche and the unconscious and all the complexities we find there. In other words, what I call “me” and what I experience in living is somehow at the crossroads of that external and that internal complexity in which I am immersed. And somehow I can find simplicity there. I can find a still point there.
I’m not quite clear how this happens, but it’s much more important that it happens than that I understand how it happens. I do understand that it has something to do with finding order, finding harmony in your world.
The Courage to Let Go
It’s a tremendous thing that every time we venture out, we find more and more complex order. When we investigate that complexity – in biology or in chemistry or even in psychology – we find that it is a structured complexity. It is harmony. It is something like music, which includes discords, but the discords are somehow part of a greater harmony and make the harmony more interesting, complex, and beautiful.
Every time we look out, we find order. And then comes the moment when something new is thrown at us. For instance, in science, new findings. Or in life, new experiences. They suddenly seem to shatter the order we have established, to put the order we are familiar with into crisis. And then comes the point where all spiritual life begins, where you begin to move on the path or not. That’s the moment of decision. Because that is the moment where either we hang on for dear life (which is death) to that order we have already found, or we let go in the courageous trust that we will find a greater order. And that letting go is possible only through faith. That is what faith is: the courage to let go.
We practice that from the beginning in our spiritual life in little things. But it gets more and more difficult as we go on, and that is the narrowness of the path; that difficulty, those straits in which we get because we have to let go and let go and let go. And the further we go, the more everything seems to be chaos. Yet we trust that through this chaos we will find order.
The Courage to Be Yourself
Nobody can give you a guarantee. Nobody can say, “Yes, you will pull through. Yes, there is order there.” No, the only thing you have to fall back on is your courage and also your memory – your memory that every time you did that in the past, every time you died, you were born to a greater, more comprehensive order.
So the path is really this going on from harmony to greater harmony, always through periods of disharmony and discord, or from life to life, always through periods of death. That is the path; and the dynamism of that is faith, is courage.
So you need faith. You need faith in yourself, in that inner voice, the voice of circumstance that tells you what is the right thing for you and the courage to do it, to really enter into it. And in the last analysis, really, the courage to be yourself.
Question by a retreatant: When you are on the part of the path which is inclusive, and you hear a voice, but you are not completely sure – is there some way to tell?
That’s a very important question and it is really the question of self-deception. “How can I be sure I am not deceiving myself?” The answer is, you can’t.
That is what faith is all about – that you trust and you go on even though you are not absolutely sure that you are not deceiving yourself; you trust that it will fall in place eventually if you go on trying not to deceive yourself. The wrong answer would be, “Well, since I can’t be sure that I’m not deceiving myself, let’s go on deceiving myself.” No, that’s not the answer. The answer is, “I can’t ever really be sure.” Only when you feel, “Now I’m sure that I’m not deceiving myself” – that’s the one moment you can be sure that you are deceiving yourself.
At any other time, you are suspended precisely in that vacuum that is necessary for the path. Otherwise there wouldn’t be anywhere to go. You’d just be stuck. It’s the space that makes room for doubt and only in that space of doubt can faith move.
There is no other way. There is no other space for faith, except doubt. Doubt is the vacuum into which faith moves. And the doubt, “Am I not deceiving myself?” is the vacuum into which my total dedication not to deceive myself – trusting that God will help me and teach me – moves.
That’s as much of an answer as I can give, because the question is an existential one. It is not a matter of answering it so that you can write it down and take it home with you. The answer must be something that challenges you to live it out.
Originally given as a talk at a yoga retreat during the summer of 1974. Reprinted from Integral Yoga, Vol. VII, No. 1, 1975, pp.9-12.