Religion, Faith, and Dharma: A Meditation

There is a plot tucked in this entry, describing a Jain meditation camp I attended for four days. But this entry is also a meditation of its own. It is threaded together from the distractions I encountered while attempting and failing to be focused on atman.

The birth of a Tirthankara is foretold by auspicious dreams. This is a Digambara shrine, because there are sixteen visible. The Shvetambaras say there are fourteen.

The word dharma is usually translated directly into English as “religion.” But scholars of religion, ever keen to expand their own vocabulary, and thus their own descriptive power, have since teased the two words out into something of a dichotomy. Religion, they argue, describes a code of praxis, a series of beliefs, rituals, practices, and ethics that will lead one to the ultimate goal of the tradition. Dharma, on the other hand, describes the ultimate aim, the final goal around which the adherent should configure their will. The pathway to that goal is unprescribed or indescribable, and indeed, there may be as many pathways as there are individual souls in the universe.

You can start to infer a sort of T-chart comparing and contrasting these two, as you think about them. This notion of religion presupposes a sort of community, a real and material body of people which collectively espouses a common set of practices. Dharma, on the other hand, seems to be something quite a bit more abstract and philosophical, almost separate from and inaccessible to material rituals and religious communities. Religious ethics tend to operate in the form of prescribed and universal rules, such as the Ten Commandments or 613 Mitzvot. Dharmic ethics, on the other hand, have to operate in the form of optional and individualized vows, relative decisions to restrict attitudes and actions in a certain way. This sort of thing.

The king is stoked. Tirthankaras are always born into warrior-caste families, which seems to be a Jain way of making a hilarious jab at the elitist Brahmins.

A silly thing that has come of this dichotomy is the notion that the Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) are religious traditions, while the traditions of the Indian subcontinent (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism) are dharmic traditions. This is often wielded as some sort of critique, that the Abrahamic traditions have lost their way by getting lost in the prescriptions of religious texts and in the conflicts between religious communities, while the Indian traditions maintain some sort of integrity to the ancient purpose of their faith. But, of course, we know that all dichotomies are pretty bogus. Every Abrahamic tradition has elements of religion and dharma, as does every tradition of the Indian subcontinent, and probably in equal measure. It’s unfair to claim that Abrahamic devotees lack a sense of the deeper truth and purpose at the end of their tradition, and its idealistic to claim that Indian devotees don’t often get lost in religious incantations that no participants understand the meaning of.

So, in the case of Jainism, we can talk in terms of Jain Dharma, or we can talk in terms of the religion of the Jains. The first is a philosophical, theological, and cosmological conversation about the tradition as it is in principle. The second is a sociological, anthropological, and psychological conversation about the tradition as it is in practice. Often, the distance between the two is very great. But in exploring the territory between religion and dharma, between the Jains and Jainism, we can learn a great deal.

No miracle surrounded the birth of Mahavir. It was crucial that he be born just as any other human.

The program of the International Summer School for Jain Studies, through which I have been traveling from city to city, mostly consists of academic-style lectures and discussions, intermingled with visits to monks and nuns, historical sites, and holy places. It’s an academic program, and though we certainly experience Jainism internally to some extent, there is no presumption that the students in the program will ever be interested in practicing the Jain religion or accepting the Jain dharma. We are encouraged to be critical as well as open, exclamatory as well as inquisitive, and most of us felt the liberty to wander in and out of Jainism as we placed, bowing at temples but taking photos as well, eating Jain food but ordering a pizza later. Throughout the program, all of us spent much of our free time traveling, exploring, and building powerful relationships with the people around us, and with each other, as fellow students in the program.

However, unexpectedly, a four-day meditation camp was added to the end of this program, free of charge. I was excited about this, initially. It was an opportunity to experience the practice of Jainism very internally, a different experience from academic study of the religion, or even from pilgrimage tours. But the camp was, perhaps, not the most timely experience. For many students in the program, these were their last few days in India. It was their first time here, and they may never come back again. To spend it in a meditation camp, with the inability to travel or leave the building, was rather unappealing. Moreover, we were all to take a vow of silence, a vipaasana. This Jain mode of introspection is a harsh one. Forbidden also are writing, reading, gesticulations, and even eye contact. It is a period of enforced solipsism, even so much so that sometimes, practitioners are confined to a cell for as long as a week at a time. This was not to be our fate. But nonetheless, to spend the last few days with new friends in total silence was an incredibly depressing notion to many of the students.

Mahavir was born around 599 BC. He was a contemporary of the Buddha, and both preached in Bihar. Some say they were the same person, but don’t tell that to a Jain.

But it wasn’t just an issue of timing. The deeper issue had to do with the nature of this particular form of Jain meditation, created and propagated by the Acharya of the Shtanakvasi sect of Shvetambara Jainism, Acharya Shivmuni. According to Jain theology, there are two main substances in the world. Ajiva is the lifeless, visible matter that makes up the material world and our bodies, emotions, and intellect. Jiva is life, consciousness, knowledge, and infinite bliss. Jains believe that all living beings, even plants and microscopic creatures, have a soul, or atman, made of jiva. This soul is bound to a body, and thus to the cycle of rebirths, by karmic matter, the materia of actions, of attachments to this world of ajiva. So long as karma obscures our soul, our true Self in Jainism, we will not be able to know the infinite qualities of jiva, and we will be forever bound to this world, to have our soul transmigrate from body to body, suffering and dying over and over again. The Jains believe that by coming to know the Self, by shedding karmas and by preventing the inflow of more karmas by avoiding violence and by detaching ourselves from the material fruits of our actions, we can attain enlightenment, nirvana, when the light of our soul shines forth through our body, and when we gain infinite knowledge, power, and bliss. And by detaching our soul from ajiva, we can attain liberation, moksha, where our jiva is freed forever from the painful cycle of rebirths.

All of the students in the program would agree that they find this system of beliefs fascinating, and indeed, this is what they have come to India to study. But the self-meditation of Acharya Shivmuni effectively requires that its practitioners believe in these truths. It carries a certain prerequisite of faith, which is easily fulfilled when ones chooses to attend the program, but which was not fulfilled in this case, when a number of non-Jains were made to attend the program without much of a choice. We were told to meditation upon the separation of body and Self. We were told that our relationships were transitory, that our experiences were meaningless, that all would die with us as the soul left our body for another cycle of birth and death. Insofar as these preachings denied the relationships and experiences we had just built over the past month, they were painful to hear. And insofar as most students did not believe in a soul that could offer some solace after this condemnation of material life, there was nothing to redeem us from what we had lost.

Mahavir witnesses the pleasures and pains of the world, developing his intellect and comprehension. And, of course, he interrogates the universe.

In Islam, the Qur’an is taken to be the word of Allah. However, all interpretations made upon the Qur’an are said to be fallible, insofar they have some distance from the Word. However, in a religion like Jainism, there is not even such a Qur’an. The words of Mahavir are as fallible as those of any other human being, not because Mahavir was fallible–indeed, he was omniscient–but rather, precisely because he used words. Any such use of language immediately presents the truth only in a partial way, at best. Sentences must have an order, and that order biases certain concepts before others, prioritizes certain things, leaves other things unsaid. Words are imprecise and ambiguous. In every sense, we can only regard the words of Mahavir as having partially expressed the absolute Truth. This observation leads quite naturally to the doctrine of anekantvad, described earlier in the entry, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” But it also means that Mahavir himself preached that his followers should not follow his words in blind faith, but should rather seek out their own path, and make their own efforts. Only through direct experience and internal knowledge can Truth be gained.

Yet Acharya Shivmuni asserted that this way, this method of meditation, was the only way to liberation. The difference between the body and Self had to be understood, and this was the only way to do so. This contradicted our understanding of Jainism, and the firebrand rhetoric left a smoky taste in our mouths. What right did the Acharya have, after all, to claim dominance over Truth? To claim the pre-eminence of his own chosen path? To be angry and frustrated with us if the path did not work for us? Jains rarely trust their fellow man, for no matter how wise, they too are still waiting for nirvana. It didn’t help that our vipaasana prevented us from voicing our frustrations and questions openly. There was no place to have an open dialogue, no setting in which to try to help each other frame the meditation in a way that could be useful to us. And so instead, the frustration, bottled up in the vacuum of silence, simply exploded in rebellion. People were late to meditation sessions, or simply absent. Silence was repeatedly broken. Effectively, the validity of the entire method was called into question.

Like the Buddha, Mahavir grows weary of the comforts of nobility. It is interesting that those who renounce the world in Jainism are those with the greatest wealth.

It should be said that we learned a few fascinating new meditative techniques. We attempted yoganidra, the sleep of the yogi, where the mind is to remain conscious even as the body rests. It can be likened to an experiment in lucid dreaming, where the dreams consist of the soul wandering through the memories of its past lives. We even attempted a sort of self-inflicted penance. We would stand on scalding hot stones out in the sun, barefoot, and listen to a narrative about how Jain monks travel miles and miles barefoot, every week. We were instructed to sit on the stone, to lie down on the stone, to experience the heat and the pain, but to separate our Self from it, so that only the lifeless body was in pain. Even without believing in Jain dualism, many of us found it valuable, if only as an experiment to empathize with the monks.

But the meditation took its toll. I tried to keep my silence for at least a full day, but my own integrity was mediocre at best. I gave short verbal responses to important queries, wrote frequently, and gesticulated without any restraint. The silence was valuable for gaining some insight. It’s rare and helpful to be trapped in oneself for some time, to explore and synthesize and wander the caverns of one’s own mind. But it’s also valuable to be able to connect and communicate with others, to share in intellectual and spiritual transactions while engaging in a practice that is so new and unusual. Indeed, perhaps the most powerful part each day was the half-hour of bhakti, or devotional, that we had each day. One of the nuns would begin singing a song, and her voice was so sweet that it softened our disgruntled faces. We were told to sing, too, to raise any song we liked, from any religion, or simply a melody which conveyed a message of love. Those moments of connection and music were beautiful and precious to us. Because for many of us, our religion was our relationships, our experiences. That was our self.

Mahavir renounces the world, shedding his clothing, possessions, family, relationships, kingdom, and past. He pulls out his hair with five plucks of his hand.

What was going on, here? The Acharya was doing precisely what he was asked to do, and indeed, this approach seems to have been helpful for thousands of other people that have come to him as disciples in the past, monks, nuns, and laity alike. In my view, the problem was a conflation of religion and dharma. The Acharya claims self-meditation as the best possible pathway, if not the only one, to the final aim of Jainism. That is a mistake, in my view. It may be a good path for some, a poor path for others, and a premature or belated path for yet others. But the fact is that if disciples are rebelling, if the path is inviting more resistance than openness, if it is clearly working against its desired goal, then it is not the disciples that should be changed, but the path. A different method–a different religion–should be designed or selected, one that better fits the needs and aptitudes of the seekers of dharma.

The students, for their part, were a patient, open-minded, and intelligent bunch. Why the frustration and rebellion? To dig a little deeper than the reasons already given, in my view, the problem here was a problem of faith. Indeed, the order of events in Jainism is Right Faith, Right Knowledge, and finally Right Conduct. To gain the true knowledge buried within the Self, one needs to first have faith that the knowledge can be found there. And with Right Knowledge, Right Conduct emerges naturally, and dharma is achieved. But we students could not have had Right Faith unless we had willingly invested ourselves in this meditation camp by choosing to attend it. We didn’t have psychological ownership over the vows. It became impossible, effectively, to perform the meditation, without faking that faith, without presuming a truth we did not believe. And that would feel dishonest.

Jain monks live as beggars. Vowing to never perform the violence of preparing food , they instead only eat what leftovers are willingly offered by householders.

It is interesting that in this camp, there was a ban on the voice. In the West, I have grown accustomed to thinking of the voice as a sort of a symptom of consciousness, a sign that there is something real and deep buried within another’s flesh. Silence is death, lifelessness, senselessness a sort of torturous confinement. Here, it is the opposite. The voice is a thing that binds the the Self to a body, that can only express partial truths, that is locked within the world, that requires matter to resonate off simply to exist and be heard. The voice cannot be heard inside the Self. Silence is a renunciation, a symbol of faith, of trust in something greater than the ego.

That is an important contrast, and I think hits at the crux of this issue. Religion is what lives and exist materially in the world, and dharma is the ideal. Because dharma is invisible, it can only be known if one has faith in its existence, “out there,” or “in here.” Religion, from Latin, literally means “to reconnect.” Dharma, from Sanskrit, literally means “to make firm or steady.” Isn’t it possible to play with those metaphors, to make them two sides of the same coin? Isn’t this the case with all knowledge? That if we approach a teacher or a friend or a book with skepticism first, with doubt, how can we ever hope to gain any knowledge from it? It feels like integrity, to make sure we approach knowledge cautiously, to not accept truths blindly. We are trained to be critical, and indeed, the people I know with the greatest integrity make careers out of critique in academia. But ultimately we have to offer something. We have to posit something, or we will never be able to act. That positioning is an act of faith, a prerequisite to action, by way of knowledge. Knowledge itself is invisible, and only with faith–as opposed to reason–can we accept it. We can buffer it with reasons, of course, and we can choose where to place our faith by employing reasons. But there is no knowledge without faith. This is what I think Jainism means, when it offers that process.

While meditating under a Bodhi tree upon the nature of the Self, Mahavir achieved Enlightment. This is what Acharya Shivmuni wanted for us, ultimately.

Our final meditation session was something of a surprise–a fierce and almost firebrand Pratikramana. We were walked through all of the various karmas of soul, our anger, our pride, our deceit, our envy, our sorrow. We were made to contemplate upon the things we carried with us, the things that clouded our vision, that clung us to this world. We were guilted into confession, yelled at in Hindi and English, and a few of us were brought to tears. But when we opened our eyes, we turned to each other, and, as the isolating walls of gender broke down, we were free to greet one another, hug one another, friends and strangers alike, to apologize for any pain we might have caused one another, and say, michhami dukkadam: May all evil be fruitless. At that moment, all frustrations about the past four days could be forgotten. We could shed that anger, and as the silence of vipaasana broke, move forward into the rest of our respective journeys.

I have faith in that, at least. But as for the rest…does faith rely more on guidance, or inertia? Does it require the psychological ownership of vow-taking, or can laws be imposed rather than chosen? Is it better facilitated by monologue or dialogue? Is it better placed in a community or an individual? These are things that I don’t know, and the questions may well be meaningless. I do believe, though, that faith requires at once some degree of humility, and some degree of liberty. The precise balance, I suppose, is what mediates the form of a religion.


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