Searching for the Esoteric

Posted: 12/02/2016 in Buddhadasa, Insight, Zen
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The word “esoteric” I met long ago with the theosophists, I came across esoteric Catholicism. What this meant to me was that beyond the catholic dogma there was a deeper spiritual meaning. At that time I had only recently started on the Path, had grown from rejecting the church of Catholicism, so it was a bit of a jump for me to accept Catholicism of any form. However with theosophy I had started on a spiritual path and because they accepted esoteric Catholicism it was something I could consider.

Over the years I dabbled with spirituality until eventually I came to Buddhism when I was 50. Whilst the spiritual search was continuous in my life, it had not been studious nor had I taken retreats but it was central. When I reached Buddhism it was a spiritual search. I read a few books but had a “conversion” at Wat Phra Kaew, and then I met British monks in a British monastery based on the Thai tradition of Forest Sangha and they appeared to be trying to get understanding.

I found that this Buddhism began answering my questions. The books these monks were interested in, what they taught me, all seemed to fit in with the spiritual journey I had been on. I have begun to question this now, and the issue revolves around the word esoteric.

If one is in the UK and has reached a level of spiritual awakening – whatever sort, then you don’t look to the church and its congregation. Maybe there are Christians who are on a journey, when I met my niece she was one, and they look at soul and grace and a more “esoteric” interpretation of the scriptures, bible etc. I never got that myself but in discussion with people like my niece I have no problem with there being an esoteric core.

With westerners and Buddhism I never saw the need to differentiate because westerners usually had been on a spiritual journey before reaching Buddhism. I had a kind of unwritten assumption of an “esoteric” nature in their journey. There is another factor to this. Western education is deeply intellectual, and at the same time as I rejected that conditioning I started spirituality – my Path, finding my soul. There was also a pre-judged assumption that the journey for others was anti-intellectual, seeking to find the esoteric beyond the intellect. There is a difficulty with being anti-intellectual, it is one’s own intellect that expresses that anti-intellectualism. So when I have been in discussions about such matters my own intellect engages with other intellects to determine what is the esoteric – non-intellect.

A key word for me in this is insight, in this situation I could almost say the esoteric and insight were synonymous. And Buddhism discusses insight much. I was lulled into a feeling that discussing Buddhism was discussing the esoteric – insight.

This was reinforced by living in Thailand. This is a Buddhist country, it is more Buddhist than the UK is Christian. Observing a little what Buddhism meant to the Thais I could see an institution that had grown around the wats (cf churches). These wats are community centres involving institutional practices connected with life such as births, deaths, marriage and others specifically Buddhist. However these temples are not places where people are searching for the esoteric – searching for insight.

Throughout Thailand however there are Buddhist intellectuals studying even having a word for this intellectualism – Buddhasasana. I do not understand what they do because of my limited language so I cannot know whether this intellectualism ever moves beyond dogma to the esoteric. However insight is discussed much, and I cannot evaluate that (because of language).

I have another confusion with regards to Buddhism and the esoteric, Buddhism appears to discuss the esoteric far more than Christianity. This is a personal judgement, and I have no way of assessing how true it is. As a child I was “sort of” immersed in Catholicism but I rejected this. Catholicism was church, morality – 10 commandments, and the anecdotes of the bible. I have since vaguely seen the esoteric discussions about esoteric Catholicism where the hidden spirituality of the anecdotes were explained but because I never met this in the mainstream it was not the religion I grew up with. By comparison Buddhism appeared to go deeper, the dogma of Buddhism appeared to go deeper.

With this background I can clarify my questioning. Are the Buddhists I have contact with any more than intellectuals? Is the Buddhism they discuss just an intellectual construct albeit a sophisticated intellectual structure of mind? For some this is certainly the case.

Intellectuals accept a set of dogma – ideals, whilst they might play with these ideals, examine by intellect and other analytical approaches they end up accepting these ideals. With Christianity accepting the dogma is usually accompanied by a belief in God, for Buddhist intellectuals they can accept the dogma without the need for any belief – perhaps for them that is the attraction of Buddhism. Buddhism for some can simply be the acceptance of dogma.

One of the indicators of how Buddhism is fraught with intellectualism is the deep divisions between the traditions of Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. I felt they were fundamentally going the same way. One intellectual rejected my idea out of hand, as opposed to this Buddhadasa described this unity in all Buddhisms as trying “to remove the I and mine from the 5 khandas” [here].

Esoterically they are the same, and my problem has been that I have allowed the intellectual tradition that intellectually examines an excellent study of mind to deflect from the esoteric. Stephen Batchelor wants to dissociate himself from the battle of the traditions, and sees stricter adherence to what the Buddha taught as a way forward. But this is what Theravada says, and joining Theravada is not what he means.

In a sense I agree with Stephen, except that because I immersed myself more in Theravada I see the same divisive intellectualism. I haven’t made my mind up about Stephen, but the root he is seeking is not the teaching root but the esoteric root in my view.

I don’t like the word “esoteric”, it implies some form of magic or “Dr Strange”. The word does suggest hidden, in a sense it is hidden but it is only hidden to the intellect. Yet even that is not true, it is not hidden to deep questioning – an intellectual method, it is hidden only to intellectual ego – an ego which wants all to be explained by intellect.

The Buddha talks of jhanas (SN45.8). “And what, bhikkhus, is right concentration? Here, bhikkhus, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called right concentration.” This is experience and not intellect. Questioning would require a search until there is such an experience, the intellectual ego cannot allow that.

My recent contact with intellectualism also indicates this lack of total questioning. The intellect concerned had supported Buddhadasa. I then quoted from Buddhism Now blog “Now intuitive insight, or what we call ‘seeing Dhamma’, is not by any means the same thing as rational thinking. One will never come to see Dhamma by means of rational thinking. Intuitive insight can be gained only by means of a true inner realisation.” The intellectual did not accept this. How much could he have gained by truly investigating why Buddhadasa, who he liked, could accept this and he couldn’t?

In this blog (not posted yet) I discussed rapture. I liked the movie, and mostly I like what Openhands do. Their Ascension is focussed on experience. The esoteric is about experience, Buddhism is about experience, the esoteric is about experience, the journey is about experience, Openhands is about experience. This experience is not hidden except to the intellect or the dogma literalists. Dogen says “Consequently, those who sit in meditation will, beyond doubt, drop off body and mind, and cut themselves free from their previous confused and defiling thoughts and opinions in order to personally realize what the innate Dharma of the Buddha is” [Shobogenzo p35]. .

Those intellectuals who are happy with dogma don’t always meditate, and some have argued that the Buddha did not say meditate – he didn’t literally, apparently. But he meditated on the night of the 4 Noble Truths, is it esoteric to meditate?

Total questioning can see what is needed, as Brad says “Sit down and shut up”, and feel the experience. Searching for the esoteric just means going beyond the dogma that intellect traps you to.

Books:- Treatise, Wai Zandtao Scifi, Matriellez Education.

Blogs:- Ginsukapaapdee, Matriellez.

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