The Via Negativa: Wandering Towards Redemption


The practice of retreating to the wilderness to free oneself from the distractions and entanglements of settled social life, in order to focus on an esoteric but more authentic reality, found ultimately in an inner or “higher” nature has offered an alternative to more orthodox, communal or congregational worship both for laity and ordained monks in most religious traditions – Christian mysticism, Islamic Sufiism and Hindu asceticism. Buddha as has often been pointed out, was born under a tree, gained enlightenment under a tree and achieved parinirvana (non-existence) under a tree and was himself a sramana, an itinerant “seeker after truth.” Wandering mendicants or sadhus (practitioners of a sadhana or religious discipline) who have taken vows of asceticism, renouncing secular pleasures to focus exclusively on soteriological (salvationist objectives) have long been venerated in Hindu society. A Hindu’s life was conventionally divided into four ashramas or stages: study, fatherhood, pilgrimage and renunciation – sannyana or vairagya. Most people did not live long enough or were not committed enough to detach themselves from their family and possessions in old age to embark on a solitary journey to non-being accompanied by nothing but their quest for the ultimate. Nonetheless, itinerant hermits, some naked or "sky-clothed," as it was poetically termed, others with matted hair, their skin covered in the ashes of the dead, reminders of life's ephemerality, still others clad in distinctive orange, draped with talismans, rosaries, skull and snakes, were and are familiar figures on the roads of India –  honored, nourished and sometimes credited with shamanic powers by the local population. Nor have such austerities been restricted to the east; Diogenes the Cynic, (412 - 323 B.C.E.,) “looking for an honest man,” with his lantern in daylight, cast aside his begging bowl in shame, when he saw a poor man drinking water from his cupped hands. St. Simeon Stylites (390 - 459 C.E.) lived 37 years on top of a pillar near Aleppo, Syria.

"Forest monks" or "renouncers" should not be confused with today's "greens" who advocate, if not a return to nature, at least greater respect for it. Instead, they sought to escape their physicality by shunning all temptations of conditioned (finite, categorical, pragmatic) consciousness, preoccupied with the details of social life and in thrall (“enthralled” or a slave) of the illusion of a "self-arising" or “independently-generated”  “natural” world. Hindu sadhus or rishis sought moksha or release from the samsaric cycle of reincarnation by regaining oneness with atman, the universal self, purusha," or Brashman, the “world soul” of which every individual consciousness was a part. Buddhist bhikkus or monks could be thought of as pursuing the opposite goal, nirvana, the "extinguishing" of self and consciousness by attaining sunyata, an awareness of the non-being of mind and its seductive creations - not least itself. They would then become “non-returners" or anagamis, liberated from the suffering they equated with rebirth and living. 

These distinctions are, of course, too neat, and it could be argued the two faiths aspired to much the same thing, that is, the annihilation of the individual ego. Some scholars believe that a third path, Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, was adapted from wandering Hindu hermits, specifically, Saivite sadhus, for those who were unable or unwilling to abandon social like entirely. Shiva Bhikshatana, one aspect or murti of that multi-faceted deity, is depicted as an emaciated ascetic wandering the forests and caves of Mt. Kailasa, practicing the austerities which will allow him to accumulate the power to destroy the universe at the end of each maya yuga. (These distinctions are pursued at greater length in Appendix IV: “The Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma,” to this introduction.) 

Christian mystics pursued a parallel via negativa or “way of self-negation,” mental quietude and "de-creation" or self-extinction, so they could be reunified with their creator. The latter term is modern, coined by the mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943,) who starved herself  to death during World War II out of solidarity with the victims of concentrations camps. It could, however, be, equally ascribed to the Counter-Reformation, Spanish Carmelite, St. John of the Cross’s (1542-1591) and his ten steps through “the dark night of the soul,” the 14th Century, English anchorite, Dame Julian of Norwich (1343-1516,) walled up for life beside a church so she could receive communion, or the German Dominican and Neo-Platonist Meister Eckhart (1260-1328,) accused of heresy for his criticism of the church’s wealth. In particular, like Buddha, they emphasized "extinguishing" the light of the mind as a precondition for returning to oneness with an apophatic (nirguna, niskala, non-manifest, inconceivable) deity through, what one of the most popular medieval devotional manuals, summed up as "The Cloud of Unknowing." 

Traditionalists or Heretics? 

Both Hindu rishis or sramanas and Buddhist yogi or siddhi were by definition and choice outside the mainstream of their religions and often looked upon with suspicion by their more orthodox brethren, scandalized by rumors of their transgressive practices and distrustful of the magic powers, independent of theological sanction, which made them venerated by the less sophisticated laity. Today in Theravada Myanmar, "forest monks" or lok thudang still perform certain rituals outside the context of organized Buddhism, which may derive from a substrate of earlier animist or folk religion, present in the wide-spread and sanctioned belief in nats or nature spirits. In Thailand, the Kammatthana movement of "forest monks" founded in the early 20th Century, has flourished to the present, actively cultivated (and carefully monitored) by the revered royal family. Similarly, Sufi orders in the Ottoman Empire and Central Asia, were often patronized by sultans, in part because their renunciation of the world included any opposition to the political status quo. Sectarian tensions may also have motivated Jayavarman VII's creation of Ta Nei and Ta Som as "forest monasteries," a term which appears to try to reconcile opposites: a solitary, peripatetic mendicant, pursuing his individual path to salvation in the wilderness, and a monk, resident in a wealthy institution, like Preah Khan, governed by a strict vinyana or code of conduct, strictly accountable to the sangha or monastic community. This would, nonetheless, have been consistent with that monarch's apparent tendency to see doctrinal difference as complementary rather than antagonistic. 

An analogous, but much more overt and consequential, schism runs through the history of Christian monasticism. The earliest Christian mystics or eremites (Gr. > erimets of the desert) followed Christ's example of a life of poverty and chastity in the wilderness; St. Jerome (347-420,) for example, abandoned the luxuries of life in Rome and Alexandria to translate the Bible into Latin, the spoken language or vulgate, in the cave where Christ was supposed to have been born in Bethlehem. St. Benedict (480-543) wrote the first "monastic rule" in another cave outside Rome during the chaos following the fall of the Roman Empire. The first Franciscans were bitterly divided between the Observants or Spirituals who wanted to continue their founder, St. Francis' (1181-1226,) life of poverty among the wild beasts of Umbria, and the Conventuals, who built not one but a double pilgrimage church at Assisi, frescoed by Giotto, Cimabue and the Lorenzetti, which helped the order become wealthy. Their dispute was continued into the next century pitting the Fratricelli against the Papacy, whose authority they condemned as illegitimate because of the church's accumulation of wealth and secular power. Like later papal critics, the Cathars, Michaelites and Waldensians, they were vilified as heretics and burned at the stake but, nonetheless, prefigured the permanent schism to come — the Protestant Reformation. 

Parampara: A "Forest Monk's" Lineage

The life of a sadhu or siddha could be as strictly regimented as that of a bhikku except their vows and rituals were carefully guarded secrets. Vajrayana adepts, for example, needed to be initiated into a particular "lineage," parampara" or guru-shishya, before they could be taught the sadhanas which promised a direct experience of  “the world beyond thought” or sunyata This was because these occult practices were held to have been passed down in an unbroken chain of transmission from an "unimpeachable" original source. In Hinduism and Jainism, these vamsa or genealogies begin with a "patriarch," a semi-legendary sage; in Theravada Buddhism, they could only descend from one of Buddha's disciples, as written down in the Pali Canon. In Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, their progenitors were the reputed discoverers of sutras hidden by Buddha before his death until a guru appeared sufficiently “evolved” to receive and explain these more ”subtle” understandings of dharma. The two were therefore dubbed the “second” and “third turnings of the wheel of the law." These "advanced" techniques were imparted only to initiates who had completed the arduous "preparatory exercises" necessary to appreciate these teachings, not as revisions but a higher interpretation of prior Buddhist doctrine. Their instruction was directed by a "guru master” from that lineage who required the unquestioning devotion and obedience of initiates, even assigning them a new name, mantra and personal yidam for visualization from that lineage’s n-house roster of bodhisattvas. These rigorous propaedeutics or “preparatory phase” could include reciting the guru’s mantra and making offerings to him 100,000 times.

Great importance was attached to the secret transmission of these sadhanas, ostensibly to protect the uninitiated from rites so powerful, if exercised unprepared, they might to harm to themselves. At the same time, this clandestinity insulated the lineage from censure for some of its apparently transgressive practices which would scandalize the larger sangha, insufficiently spiritually developed to understand them. The novice was inducted into a parampara or lineage at an abhisheka or “empowerment ritual,” after which he could commence the “development stage” of his occult powers.  Lineages differed on important points of doctrine, for example, the extent to which moksha, nirvana and sunyata could be achieved or experienced in this lifetime, as well as the duality (dvaita) or non-duality (advaita) between the absolute (Brahman or Buddha nature, tathagata) and manifest reality, most immediately the sadhu or siddha himself. Just as a “forest monastery” can, on its face, appear an oxymoron, a lineage of individual truth-seekers linked unquestioningly to a tradition of esoteric practices could be regarded as contradictory.