On the turning point in Martin Buber’s life and philosophy - and the questions it opens up in relation to ‘gurus’ and ‘yoga’

Part 1 - three stories of the turning point
“Martin Buber, the towering giant of modern Jewish philosophy, had just finished his morning studies and was still absorbed in his own thoughts when a young man knocked on the door of his study.  He listened politely to Mehe, but Buber’s mind and heart were very far from the conversation.  Buber failed to sense the urgency of Mehe’s visit. Two months later, one of Mehe’s friends came to see Buber and told him of Mehe’s death and what the young man had hoped his talk with Buber would be.  Mehe had come to Buber not casually, not for a chat but for a decision.  The decision was one of life and death. Buber was devastated by this revelation.  This young man had come to him out of burning need, but Buber was too absorbed in his own thoughts and in his own world to truly notice.  Buber’s life was changed forever by this encounter.  Buber’s life and philosophy were permanently redirected because of how he had failed to respond.  He wrote his new philosophy of religious living in a book called I and Thou.”  

Richard Jacobs

He [Martin Buber] had been a professor of religion and philosophy and had both taught and written books about religious experience and mysticism. And then sometime in the middle decades of his life he had an experience that had an enormous impact on him. The experience was this: He had been upstairs in his rooms meditating and praying one morning, fully engaged in deeply religious intensity, when there was a knock at his front door downstairs … It was a young man who had been a student and a friend, and who had come specifically to speak with Buber. Buber was polite with the young man, even friendly, but was also hoping to soon get back to his meditations … Later, Buber learned from a mutual friend that the young man had come to him that day ... with a need to understand his life and what it was asking of him. Buber had not recognized the young man's need at the time … He had been polite and friendly, he says … but had not been fully present. He had not been present in the way that one person can be present with another, in such a way that you sense the questions and concerns of the other even before they themselves are aware of what their questions are.  Dr Tom Kerns

“After a morning of religious intensity I had a visit from a young man … I conversed attentively and openly with him - but I failed to sense the questions he did not put, Later, not long after, I learned ...he was no longer alive...the essential content of these questions.”   

Martin Buber

"Ever since then," Buber said, "I now know now no fullness but each mortal hour's fullness", meaning a fullness in which in every event and encounter that we experience in our everyday lives, even the smallest, something or someone SPEAKS to us, even in wordless silence, and speaks to us in a way that calls to and addresses US specifically call upon us and no one else to respond: “in the present moment with the present person, in the present world.”

Part 2 - the questions that Buber’s story opens up

What if Buber had NOT  “...conversed attentively and openly with the young man..”?    

What, for example, if Buber had just received a letter or e-mail from him?

What if the young man HAD been very open and honest in sharing his most intimate LIFE problems and questions - or  if Buber HAD sensed or known about them?

What if Buber - who was seen as a type of religious ‘guru’ - had said to the young man, in speech or writing, that the young man’s personal life problems and questions were of no interest and had absolutely no meaning and importance in ‘true’ spiritual life?

What if Buber - or any ‘guru’ - had told the young man that his problems only existed because he wasn’t doing what the guru told him to do - for example, that he wasn’t concentrating enough on his religious or meditational practices?    

What if the guru has said that all the young man needed to do was to become a detached and dissociated ‘observer’ of his problems?

What if the guru himself believed strongly that being the observer or ‘awareness’ of our feelings and questions means that the feelings and questions themselves have NO MEANING.

What if the guru himself had totally failed to understand that being an ‘observing’ or ‘witnessing’ awareness of our feelings is what allows us to enter and explore our feelings more deeply and yet without fear or danger of losing ourselves in them?

What if this guru believed that the only important relationship in life is our relationship to God, and that this has no connection with the way we relate to other human beings?

What if the guru was was really unable to listen with deep empathic sensitivity and empathic RESONANCE to  other human beings?

What if, as a result of this, he had NOT really listened deeply to the young man openly and attentively at all, but instead - and in contrast to any true therapist - given him an endless stream of instructions telling him with absolute authority and certainty what he ‘must’ or ‘must not’ DO, forgetting that if the young man could just simply follow these instructions he wouldn’t be asking for help in the first place!

What if this, among these instructions, the guru had told the young man that he must let all his most important LIFE questions DIE, or that the young man himself must DIE ‘to’ them.

What if both the guru and the young man believed, Indian-style, that a student’s relationship to Guru is identical to their relationship to God?

What if the young man, feeling unable to follow the instructions or meet the expectations of his Guru-God - committed suicide?

THEN we would see the danger of age-old religious traditions, both Eastern and Christian, in which all LOVE is reserved for God and for God alone, and in which God also has no place in the most important area of human LIFE - the area which Buber then came to call ‘The Inter-Human’ or ‘The Between’.

THEN we would see the absurdity of thinking that someone with no capacity for empathic RESONANCE and identification with OTHERS - the true meaning of LOVE - could possibly want or accept the title of “fully SELF-realised Guru”: as if being or realising the SELF had no connection at all with the way we relate to OTHERS!

This is why I totally reject the very concept of a “FULLY SELF-REALISED GURU”. For this concept falsely implies that the process of ‘realisation’ of self can have some full or final end. The concept also hides a most basic truth. This is the truth that we only 'realise' more of our 'SELF by finding ever more faces of it in the world and in OTHERS - in all that we falsely think of as ‘NOT-SELF’.

Gurus who can only answer to a student’s questions by prescribing meditational practices are like psychiatrists who only prescribe drugs - and, if their problems continue, blame this on the student or patient, firmly believing it is “Their problem, not mine - and certainly not a problem that has anything to do with me, the practice or the drug”. And how can they be wrong if they are seen as gods - or even as God?

The problem is made worse if, as is the case with gurus following neo-Indian traditions, everything they teach is based on the religious ‘holy cow’ of ‘dissolving’ what they call the ‘ego’ - a word whose meaning is never explained, but is the equivalent of ‘original sin’ in Christian dogma - sin against God. For all their talk of ‘non-duality’, an ABSOLUTE DUALISM of good and evil in the form of ‘self’  and ‘ego’ seems to be the bedrock - the foundational dogma - of all Indian or neo-Indian cults and philosophies.  

Yet certainly in English, another way of saying that someone is ‘egotistic’ is to say that they are totally SELF-centred - interested only in themselves and not in others, interested only in ‘their’ self.
Paradoxically, extreme self-interest and lack of interest in the others goes against the root meaning of the word ‘interest’, which is INTER-ESSE or ‘Inter-Being’ - exactly the type of deep interconnection between the core or ‘essence’  of beings that Buber meant when he spoke of ‘the Interhuman’.

The word ‘ego’ is Latin, and means nothing more than ‘I’ (as in the Latin EGO SUM, meaning ‘I AM’.

From where then, does the spiritual dogma come that says that the absolute ‘transcendence’, dissolution’ or ‘death’ of what is called ‘ego’ is the most basic or highest purpose of spiritual or religious practices? And if students are instructed that ‘YOU’ must transcend your ego’ - or that ‘YOU’ must do X, Y or Z in order to ‘transcend’ the ego (for example ‘YOU must observe your experience’ or ‘YOU must practice more intensely) then surely there is an obviously paradoxical question here. The question is: what or who is meant by this ‘YOU’. If it is what is called the ‘ego’, then the instruction can only strengthen this ‘ego’ - the very same ego that the instruction is designed to transcend. But if this YOU is not what is called ‘ego’ but is what is called ‘self’, then this automatically implies that the student has already found this ‘self’ - and so has no need of instruction at all!  

This is not deep philosophy. This is philosophy for absolute beginners - elementary logic. But there is a second paradox in any ‘spiritual’ philosophy or practice that seeks to totally transcend or even annihilate the ‘ego’ - the ‘I’. This paradox is that such philosophies are essentially both totally EGOTISTIC and totally NIHILISTIC. For they are either about using the ego to MASTER and CONTROL the body, the senses, and all human emotions - like a charioteer masters his horses. Or, in the extreme, they are about ANNIHILATING awareness of the human body, the human senses, our human world, and all human thoughts, feelings and emotions - everything that makes us human beings and everything that makes us individuals - human beings with a unique SELF. Such NIHILISM has deep historic roots in the tradition known as ‘yoga’, which actually began as a cult of ritual SUICIDE whose only purpose was to escape from the world. (See ‘WHY YOGA? A Cultural History of Yoga’ by Borge Madsen)

But the WORD ‘yoga’ also has its own meaning - in fact two distinct meanings. One meaning is other is to unify or JOIN together, as by a cord or rope. The second meaning is to harness or ‘yoke’ - as horses are ‘yoked’ to a chariot and to a controlling charioteer - or as a poor, landless peasant is yoked by a controlling landlord, temple or king. This second meaning was derived from the first. It reflects what  some psychic historians see as the age-long struggle of the Indian soul, from the era of the Vedas, to give birth to and maintain a masterfully controlling ‘ego’ or ‘I’. It is this ‘ego’ (Atman) that in translation is CALLED ‘the self’ - and was also later identified with Brahman as a supreme being - as God.

These meanings find their reflection in the Indian student-guru relationship, a relationship in which the guru is seen as Lord and Master of the student - as God - and in which all authentic unity through human relating and BONDING is replaced by feudal submission and servitude - by BONDAGE.

Peter Wilberg, Prague, March 2016

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