Some people can learn vairagya through experience of disappointment5 min read

Some people can learn vairagya through experience of disappointment. This is a path of agony, and no one should deliberately take it. And there are those who never learn even from bitter disappointment, but persuade themselves that all will be different next time. People of sincere feeling can come to yoga through distress, and what the world calls disaster is an opening, if it can be taken. At such times the conviction that nothing in the world is worthwhile produces a release of power. It generally dissipates itself in futile regrets and remorse, or sometimes in anger, but if the energy can be re-directed into yogic practice, it leads to progress in a short time. It should be expected, however, that when after a little yogic practice the keen edge of grief disappears, there is a danger of forgetting, and again taking up the pursuit of false aims. This can happen again and again.

A partial vairagya can be attained by cultivating a master sentiment (a phrase of William James which Dr Shastri often used). A keen musician, for instance, who must practise several hours a day, is immune from the habit of watching television for long periods. He feels restless if he has to do so, and the programmes seem to him waste of time. If the master sentiment is study of yoga philosophy, or the practice of singing devotional songs, it can be an important step on the path, and frees the yogi from many inner and outer adhesions. But the detachment so produced is still only partial – there may be pride of learning, or self-complacency in devotion. In such cases the vairagya is what Shankara calls the second stage, where some binding desires have been transcended but not others.

However, except in cases where a yogi from a temporary timidity deliberately holds back and takes refuge in his existing state, the concentration does bring a new insight, which will modify the master sentiment. Ultimately the quest for truth takes possession. When this happens, irrelevant attitudes and irrational compulsions begin to lose their force. To organize the master sentiment, Dr Shastri recommended that at the beginning at least one hour a day must be given to yogic practice and study, and some yogic unselfish benevolence must be performed to release the cramp of individuality. After some time, at least three hours a day must be given to yoga. Those who do this are able to live without the internal whirlpools which overwhelm action and judgment, there may be eddies, but in general their actions are well balanced and effective.

Expansion of selfish desires into universal sympathy, and creativity in art and science and benevolence, is an allied process. Desire cannot be suppressed by a mere order of the will; it may seem to disappear but it comes up in another form, often obvious to a third party but hidden from oneself. To transform desire there must be active pursuit of a great ideal, without a sense of possessiveness. There are those who make sacrifices for a cause, but require that their sacrifices be known and appreciated. This is not transformation of selfish desire but a re-direction of it, and often no improvement. The true virtue is what the Chinese yogis call ‘hidden virtue’, which no one knows about, in the end the man himself is to become unaware of his own virtue, and this is the true virtue which has the power to transform the environment.

In the Middle Ages in Japan, there was a movement for reciting the name of the Buddha of Light in groups. One of the leaders of this movement was Honen, who chanted the name of Buddha in all the towns and villages. In one small town, when the party came and chanted in the streets, among the bystanders was a local thief and one of his henchmen. The junior was impressed and said so to his chief. ‘I don’t like it,’ replied the other, ‘after all it’s just a circus. They say their purpose is to adore the Buddha, but it isn’t is it? Their purpose is to let us see them adoring the Buddha, and that isn’t an adoration at all. After all, if I fell in love with a woman I might tell her how much I cared for her, but it would be whispered into her ear. If I shouted her name in public and said all those things in the street, it wouldn’t be affection at all, would it?’

As it happened, Honen put up at the same cheap inn where the thief happened to be staying. The latter got up in the middle of the night and crept round the verandah to peep into Honen’s room. He saw him sitting in front of a tiny light, and repeating the name of the Buddha of Light in a whisper. The thief watched for some time but Honen continued doing the same thing. Then the thief sneezed, and Honen immediately blew out the light and lay down.

The thief crept back to his own room. Next day he spoke to Honen and told him all that had happened. Honen said, ‘You are right that our recitation in public is not the real adoration of Buddha. We do it so that people may be attracted to do it themselves, that is a holy purpose, but it is not real adoration. Real adoration is done when no one knows about it. When you sneezed, I knew someone was watching me, and from that moment my adoration would have had no spiritual value. So I stopped, and waited till I should be alone again.’

The thief became one of Honen’s followers.

Samadhi practice is to touch directly the latent desires which dwell in the causal layer, the seed-bed so to say of thoughts and feelings which are available to our inspection. We do not know what desires may be dormant there. A commentator gives the example of Maitra who is in love with one woman, other women however beautiful seem uninteresting to him. This does not mean his desire for them is extinct , it is merely dormant, temporarily over-ruled, so that he does not feel it. In the same way a rich man may fancy himself honest – in fact he may be honest, having no need to be otherwise. But when circumstances change, he may find out whether his honesty was from conviction, or whether it was simply a habit like any other habit, liable to be modified under stress.

© Trevor Leggett