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Intellect and Rationality in Spiritual Practice

The subject of this satsang is the role of intellect on the spiritual path, and the rationality behind practising meditation. Probably there is nobody amongst us here who does not know that meditation according to the instruction of the masters is the core of Sant Mat – “the teachings of the saints.” As Maharaj Charan Singh says in Die to Live:

The approach of the mystics has been different in different times according to the people to whom they were explaining the teachings. But the main theme of every saint is that we should attend to our meditation.1

Explaining the teachings is what the saints and mystics have done throughout the centuries, always appealing to different aspects of the human mind, which – especially in these times – is primarily intellectual. In Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, Hazur Maharaj Ji says:

As long as the intellect is there, it has to be satisfied. ‘Why’ and ‘how’ are kings of this age. We call it the scientific age. ‘Why’ is the first thing: Why should I do? How should I do? Because the intellect is there, we must try to satisfy the intellect, at least to some extent; otherwise, it will not let us try to meditate. Intellect is a great barrier in our way and we have to pierce this barrier with the intellect itself.2

The intellect can be an obstacle on the spiritual path, and many times it is. On the other hand, if we lack faith and devotion – if at certain times we are not able to just surrender to what Hazur Maharaj Ji and Baba Ji (Baba Gurinder Singh) told us to do – our intellect can help us to understand or remember why meditation should be a priority in our life. And with the help of our intellect we might see why we must listen to and continue to listen to, and act upon, the instructions we got during the initiation we so much longed for. As Hazur says in Die to Live, “If you satisfy your intellect with reasoning, then faith will come and practice will come, which will take you to your destination.”3

The importance of joining practice with understanding is illustrated in Chinese Buddhism by the following story:

A blind man and a cripple lived together in a family compound. There were several other people living with them and helping them out. One day, however, everyone else went out – fishing, shopping, doing the sorts of things people like to do. The blind man and the cripple were the only ones left at home. On that particular day a fire broke out in the house. The blind man couldn’t see and had no way to get out. The cripple could see, but he didn’t have any legs. What a predicament they were in! Both of them were certainly going to burn to death.

At that time a Good and Wise Advisor gave them some advice. “You two can avoid dying. You can get out of this burning house. How? Cripple, let the blind man use your eyes. Blind man, let the cripple use your legs.” They followed his advice. … The cripple climbed onto the blind man’s back and told the blind man where to walk. “Go left, go right, go straight ahead.” The blind man had legs and, although he couldn’t see, he could hear the cripple’s instructions. Thanks to the timely advice, the two managed to save themselves.4

And they also experienced the wisdom of the advice only when they followed it. This story illustrates how understanding supports practice, and how practice supports understanding. Even more, they are mutually beneficial to each other. And as the fifteenth-century Korean Zen Master Kihwa (1376–1433) points out:

An understanding that does not have practice is empty. And a practice that does not have understanding will be obstructed.5

So there are good reasons for ensuring that there is rational thinking behind our practice.

Further investigating the rationality behind meditation, however, we read a seemingly different perspective from Great Master (Maharaj Sawan Singh) in Philosophy of the Masters:

The teachings of the saints relate to the knowledge of reality, which is acquired without reading and writing.6

This is just a short sentence, but important for us to consider. If the teachings of the saints relate to the knowledge of reality, which is acquired without reading and writing, then where is the place for rationality in relation to meditation?

We could argue that living – in the sense of feeling, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, considering, etc. – is also a process of acquiring knowledge without reading and writing. A process of experience, in other words. And for a moment we might conclude that Sant Mat is like life. If so, we would have a point. We familiarize ourselves with what we experience via the senses all day, and in this way we acquire knowledge without reading and writing, indeed. However, according to the saints and mystics we do not acquire knowledge of reality through this type of experience.

Baba Jaimal Singh speaks about experiencing our life as different from reality in one of his letters to his student Babu Sawan Singh Ji, later to become the Great Master:

So regard the world as false; believe firmly that the world and its relationships are like a dream. Carry on with your worldly business knowing within your heart that it is unreal.7

And in the Sikh scriptures we can read:

O Nanak, nothing is lasting in this world of dream. Know this world to be a dream.8

For those who doubt this, Hazur Maharaj Ji simply asks the rhetorical question: “How can we say anything is real when it is not permanent – here today and gone tomorrow?”9 Nothing we experience in this world is lasting.

In addition, the brother explained last Friday in satsang that the life we live is a dream, even though the suffering we experience is real to us. And the cause of the suffering we experience is simply that we do not see life as the dream it is.

And to what purpose this suffering? The sixth-century Master Bodhidharma (440–528), who is traditionally considered to have brought Buddhism to China, said:

Life and death are important. Don’t suffer them in vain. There’s no advantage in deceiving yourself. Even if you have mountains of jewels and as many servants as the sand along the Ganges, you see them when your eyes are open. But what about when your eyes are shut? You should realize then that everything you see is like a dream, an illusion.10

So when we ask ourselves what is the rational foundation for meditation, the teachings of the saints and mystics answer that a good starting point is to realize that our life as we normally experience it is not real. What we experience is an illusion we suffer from – and an illusion to no purpose.

Now this might be true, but it is difficult to grasp. Especially since all that we experience seems so real.

Also saying that life is a dream raises questions. For instance, if we are dreaming this life, does this mean we do not exist? To understand the rationality behind meditation, at least we should be able to understand our situation, the context in which we are meditating. So how should we understand the situation? What is meant by living in a dream, living an illusion?

We can illustrate our situation in different ways, for instance by the Zen teaching of the full moon in the water, and by the Tibetan teaching of the elephant in a dream.

In Zen Buddhism (in Chinese ‘Chan’; in Korean ‘Son’) the reality that Great Master refers to is symbolized by the full moon. There is the possibility for us to perceive the full moon directly. But in our present state we cannot directly experience reality. It is possible to see the reflection of the full moon in the water of a pond in which the water is calm like a mirror. In this image, the pond is our mind and we can only perceive the reflection of reality.

But this does not completely describe our situation.

We perceive reality via our senses, and with a restless mind. In Zen this is symbolized by the reflection of the moon in the pond, which is then projected onto a wall next to it. Zen teaches that the actual experience we have is caused by reality; but because we experience this reality via our senses with a restless mind, we only see a mere reflection of a reflection of that reality. And because of this, we also perceive only a mere reflection of a reflection of our own true nature.

Tibetan Buddhist oral teachings help us to look to our situation from a slightly different angle:

Let’s say that a Tibetan Lama is asked to elaborate on the fact that, according to the teachings, all is a dream. Yet we feel that what we experience is real, that we are real, that we exist as individuals. He might answer: We all agree that dreams exist. There is no question about the fact that this phenomenon exists. We can talk about our dreams. We all know dreams. So in that sense, dreams are part of our reality. Me saying to you that dreams do not exist would not make sense to you. But, at the same time we all agree that the elephant in the dream is not real.

Saying that the elephant in a dream is real would be crazy. Yet, without the elephant there would be no dream. The reality of the existence of a dream is only possible through the illusion of the elephant. Now, who is experiencing the elephant? It is our mind. And how does the elephant appear? By the same mind. So how do you appear? How do I appear? I am just an elephant talking in your dream. End of teaching.

In addition we also might consider that our life, as we live it, takes time. Precious time. In this context there is a nice story about a young monk named Samiddhi. The story is almost 2,500 years old and can be found in written form in the Pali sutras, the early Buddhist texts:

Thus I have heard. On one occasion Buddha was dwelling at a park with hot springs when one of his students, the Venerable Samiddhi, woke up at the first flush of dawn and went to the springs to bathe. Having bathed in the hot springs and come back out, he stood in his robe drying his limbs when a female spiritual being, a devata of stunning beauty illuminating the entire hot springs, approached him. Floating in the air she said to Samiddhi: “Why waste your time on a spiritual life? First enjoy yourself. Don’t let the time pass you by!”

Hearing what she said, Samiddhi answered, referring to the time of his death: “I do not know what the time might be. The time is hidden and cannot be seen. Hence, I live a spiritual life without first enjoying a worldly life. Don't let the time pass me by, indeed!”

But the devata did not buy that answer.

She alighted on the earth and said: “You became a monk while young, bhikkhu, a lad with black hair, endowed with the blessing of youth, in the prime of life, without having dallied with sensual pleasures. Enjoy human sensual pleasures, bhikkhu; do not abandon what is directly visible in order to pursue what takes time.”

And Samiddhi replied: "I have not abandoned what is directly visible, friend, in order to pursue what takes time. I have abandoned what takes time in order to pursue what is directly visible.”11

The words of this young monk can be inspiring when we have difficulties turning from the world and focusing on our practice. Like Samiddhi, as we focus on our meditation we begin to ‘abandon what takes time’ – to abandon the world of the senses, the world in which time exists. And we do this in order to ‘pursue what is directly visible’ – in order to have the direct experience of reality. This is the highest objective of human life.

Conclusion: Awakening to reality
The approach of the mystics has been different in different times according to the people to whom they were explaining the teachings. But the main theme of every saint is that we should attend to our meditation. The rationality behind this is that we do not see reality as it is, and therefore do not see who we really are – what the true nature of our mind is. We are caught up in a dream created by our own mind which, as we all know, is not a nice dream.

Great Master explains in Spiritual Gems that even when we are not sleeping and consider ourselves to be awake, like at this very moment, that there is a state beyond this physical to which we can awaken:

Dream is real when one is dreaming. Only when he awakens or comes into the other (conscious) state and compares the two states, he calls the conscious the real, and the dream the unreal or an illusion. When the attention leaves the physical plane, enters the astral, and compares the two, only then the physical world becomes unreal, and the astral the real.12

So what is the way out of here? It is impossible to find this out for ourselves.

The thirteenth-century Japanese Master Dōgen Zenji (1200–1253) says in his text Points to Watch in Practicing the Way:

Practioners! You must understand that the Way lies beyond thinking, discrimination, viewing, contemplation, perception and intellectualization. If the Way were contained within these mental functions, why haven’t you yet awakened, since you have always been living and playing within that domain?…

If you look at yourself, who is always influenced by such things as thinking, this will be as clear as looking into a bright mirror. The gate through which you can enter the Way can be pointed out only by a master who has attained the Dharma.13

Fortunately we have such a master. Without him we would be helpless. To acquire knowledge about reality without reading and writing we have to put ourselves under his influence and following his instructions.

And if the intellect doesn’t help us while we are actually doing our practice, let us remember the story of the cripple and the blind man. Understanding and practice go hand in hand. But if our understanding is too limited, we discover that just continuing the practice helps us gradually come to understand why we are doing it. Or as Baba Ji says: Just do it. Don’t analyze.

I would like to end this satang with a poem by the seventeenth-century Indian mystic Mankoji Bodhla, because this poem – to be honest – says it all, regardless of any other teaching.

Listen, O innocent devotees,
  repeat your simran without a break
  and all your bad deeds will be burnt.
If you can serve the guru
  this age of darkness won’t harm you
  and you’ll come to know liberation.
The guru –
  treasure-house of knowledge,
  mountain of courage –
  he will ferry your boat to freedom
  if you practise his simran.
He is the force of life at the core of creation.
Where he is, there is liberation.
If you practise his simran
  all the gods and goddesses will be yours.
Glory to my guru – my father and mother –
  who helps me quit this coming and going,
  this living and dying in countless forms.
Concentrating in the innermost heart,
  Bodhla has come to see his own Being.14


  1. Maharaj Charan Singh, Die to Live, #10
  2. Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, #55
  3. Die to Live, #27
  4. The Surangama Sutra, Volume One; with Commentary by the Ven. Master Hsuan Hua, tr. Buddhist Text Translation Society, p.18
  5. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment: Korean Buddhism’s Guide to Meditation; with commentary by the Sŏn Monk Kihwa, tr. A. Charles Muller, p.86
  6. Maharaj Sawan Singh, Philosophy of the Masters, Vol. IV, 4th ed., p.lix
  7. Baba Jaimal Singh, Spiritual Letters, letter 111
  8. Adi Granth, p.1429, couplet 15
  9. Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I, #288
  10. Bodhidarma, The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma, tr. Red Pine, pp.13–14
  11. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, tr. Bikkhu Bodhi, pp.97–98
  12. Maharaj Sawan Singh, Spiritual Gems, #106
  13. Dōgen Zen, tr. Shohaku Okumura, p.25
  14. Mankoji Bodhla in Many Voices, One Song: The Poet Mystics of Maharashtra, p.136