Foundations & Fundamentals, Part VII: The Question

With the possible exception of people interested in comparative spirituality or the Hindu-Christian dialogue, most Westerners are not aware of Ramana Maharshi.  Yet he is perhaps India’s and Hinduism’s most luminous holy man of the modern era.  We will not go over the details of his life here, but simply point to a very important aspect of his “way.”  What makes him striking is that he never had a guru, never took formal sannyasa, and ended up with a very simple teaching that downplayed the role of asceticism and meditation—though he himself had practiced that arduously when he was a young man.  His mature teaching and what he focused on with laser-like attention was simply this question:  Who am I?  He did not recommend that anyone should go on pilgrimages, become renunciants, practice long hours of meditation, etc.; but simply that they raise this question in everything they do, feel, think, see, etc.  And the answer, of course, is not going to be some conceptual thing, a collection of words in one’s  head, still less notions or images in one’s consciousness;  but what one is looking for is a kind of realization.   Not easy at all!  In fact he did not even insist on this teaching to many who came to him for instruction, but only if they were ready for the “royal way.”


Now lets think about this for a while.  We have been visiting this point in one way or another in several postings already.  In modern society identity is at a premium because you become initimately involved in establishing it.  In traditional societies it is more of a “given,” like membership in a tribe, one’s role in a structure, one’s place in that social matrix, etc.  Now you work at it, so there is more anxiety about it.  Then there is a whole psychological element—your feelings about your identity in this modern society, your image, and here is where the modern world really gets you.  “Image” is almost everything.  This is what sells a lot of things!  And it can get you in religious life even more because it is so subtle.  Religious self-images are as problematical as any other, leading to a false sense of self in a most pernicious way.  So Ramana’s “way” leads to a kind of stripping of all these “identity answers.”  So then, what is left.  Ah, precisely, WHO is left?  THAT is the real question—after all else vanishes…..


Now for many Christians they will say, ok, but what does this have to do with Christianity?  You are advocating a spiritual path from Hinduism that seems to be totally alien to Christianity.  Actually it is my contention that not only is this question and its “methodology” if you will not alien to Christianity, but it is one of the foundational elements of Christian mysticism.  Can’t prove this in a short blog posting, but we can point to some such indicators.  The first thing to say, however, is that Christianity (like Hinduism) is an enormously complex and varied phenomenon, and there are many expressions, schools and “ways” manifested by its adherents.  I know this will sound arrogant a bit, but there is a “top of the mountain” in all this, and many folk simply for one reason or another do not strive for that top.  Usually it is because no one shows them the “way.” They become stuck, enamored of their personal piety and good works, and that is ok, even praiseworthy, for there are so many decent, good people who strive to be true followers of Jesus.  It is sad, however, that no one seems to be saying to them, “Friend, go up higher!”   The voices who speak for this “peak” expression are people like Eckhart, Tauler, John of the Cross and quite a few others.  In our own time I would easily put Abhishiktananda on that same level.  Anyway, what we will turn to are folk who come at the very beginnings of Christian monasticism and mysticism: the Desert Fathers.


Like I have said before, the language of the Desert Fathers is not particularly attractive to us moderns.  It is not effusive in its expressions; and almost banal in its claims; and at times shockingly exaggerated and seemingly unreal.  There is very little of what moderns would consider “mystical language” there!  Yet I would claim that this fundamental question, “Who am I?”, is present implicitly in so many of their stories and sayings.  And the evidence that many of them reached “that realization” at the end of  that process is also evident in many stories. Their language needs deciphering and decoding, but once you get the sense of what they are pointing at, their language becomes less objectionable. This is not to imply that there is some “secret teaching” there, but only that their Semitic and Greek cultural context only allowed them certain conceptual frameworks for expressing their experience.  I would contend that at least for some of them this experience was akin to that of Ramana Maharshi, but in a language that is barely discernible from our perspective.   One has to dig underneath.  Actually that would also be true of Ramana’s language if we were going to examine it also.  Let us now consider a few of the Desert sayings and stories.



Consider this one:  “Abba Poemen said to Abba Joseph, ‘Tell me how to become a monk.’  He said, ‘If you want to find rest here below, and hereafter, in ALL [my emphasis] circumstances say, Who am I? and do not judge anyone.’”

Seems like an easy one to understand, but it is incredibly subtle.  Here we seem to connect with Ramana’s words directly  I won’t claim that these words are exactly equivalent to Ramana’s words—that is not likely—but that Abba Joseph’s experience is akin to  that spiritual dynamic which Ramana is teaching as the way to a great realization.  And even when the words are very different, it is precisely that question which lurks underneath so many of those stories and sayings.  And very often what the Desert monks emphasize more than Ramana did is what happens if you ignore that question or if you actually “get it all wrong.”  In old photography language, they often provide you with a negative which you can develop into a positive “photo” by applying the right ingredients.    Here the “negative” is this mechanism of judging which is intrinsic to the phenomenal ego self, but which impedes one’s ability to “become who you are.”  The phenomenal ego exerts all this effort and energy in making comparisons and “judging” because it is a precarious, transient reality and this is one way to seemingly ensure existence.  “I judge; therefore I am!”  When you stop this process, it seems from the standpoint of this phenomenal ego as if you had gone out of existence!  Of course The Question is a fundamental spiritual method of undermining the judging process because it gradually cuts off all the ways the phenomenal ego identifies itself and uses these identities by judging to prop itself up—a kind of lifting yourself up by your bootstraps approach!  Hard, tedious, actually impossible to do!  This is the “heavy burden” that Jesus speaks of in the Gospels—he says to lay down our heavy burdens and yokes and take up his, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  To put on the “yoke of Christ” is to be liberated from all the pseudo-identities that our ego strives to maintain, and that IS hard work!  Our true identity lies on the other side of The Question, and for us Christians it is “in Christ.”  Or in another tradition we would say that being “no-self” is truly a light burden—compared to all the selves which we carry around!!

Incidentally, note that the origin of this Desert story centers on the question of monastic identity!  How do I become a monk?  This is really also a question of “who is a monk?”  Very important point for Western monks who spend so much energy on “being Benedictines, Trappists, Camaldolese, etc.”  Needless to say that historically and empirically speaking one has to be “something”, and that is perfectly ok and normal –one does not live in mid-air as it were but immersed in a certain historical time and place which gives one certain credentials–but the point is that one’s true identity as a monk is founded on The Question—the one that empties out all empirical and phenomenal answers.  So you would think that a monk would of all people be the one who is most free of all these external identities and credentials even as he carries the garments of one identity or another ever so lightly.   So you would think…..


Now consider this Saying from the Desert Monks:  “Abba Bessarion, at the point of death, said, ‘The monk ought to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim: all eye.’”  Note again how the origin of this saying is in that pervasive concern of the Desert Fathers: what is the meaning of monastic life? who is a monk?  how does one become a monk? etc.  And here we have again a very subtle point being made.  To be “all eye” is to be pure awareness, pure consciousness….  Note the connection with the angelic beings who are pure spirits of awareness and consciousness, who judge nothing, who make no evaluations and see all as God sees them.  The eye is not an instrument of judging, comparing, evaluating, condemning, rather it is pure awareness.  And somehow this is the core meaning of being a monk.  To be “all eye” will be at the end of that road that begins with The Question:  Who am I?  Again, we see this is the fundamental monastic practice and goal, which can also be termed as “purity of heart.”  “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”  Indeed.  And recall Eckhart’s  remarkable dictum: “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”  But for this to be realized we need to engage The Question—at every point of our life.

(By the way, to illustrate how The Question can be buried in the most mundane of Desert sayings, here is an illustration:  “Whenever Agathon’s thoughts urged him to pass judgment on something which he saw, he would say to himself, ‘Agathon, it is not your business to do that.’  Thus his spirit was always recollected.” Agathon in effect is saying “Who am I?” as various thoughts about evaluating other people arise, which slowly turns that mechanism off, and he stays “recollected,” meaning his awareness of the Presence of God is not diverted into an identity “fortification,” which really all that those kind of thoughts are. )



Then there’s several different stories involving monks and robbers!  Mostly there is a kind of humor about them as the robbers are usually bewildered, thrown off their program of robbing, and usually converted to a good way of life.  And there are versions of such stories among the Zen monks of China and Japan also.  Almost invariably the story shows the monk in question helping the robbers in, perhaps even to rob him.  Like maybe the robbers forgot to take something, as the robbers are leaving to run after them with the forgotten item!  These stories have several layers and levels, and one of them turns these kind of stories into parables about this whole identity thing.  We have this automatic mechanism going on inside us, which gives us a sense of “I am this,” or “I am that.”  No matter how lowly or insignificant these may be, they still give us a feeling that we are “this” or “that”.  No matter how transient or ephemeral or fragile these things are, they begin to constitute who we are in our own mind’s eye.  Thus we become very protective and anxious about these things.  But life is full of “robbers” who come after these things.  A sickness takes away good health; somebody’s hurtful word diminishes our self-esteem; somebody slanders our good name; we get fired; we get a Ph.D. but the early promise of a great career vanishes in mediocre work; no one appreciates our efforts; we are rejected by a spouse or a parent or a friend;  we don’t get a promotion;  somebody literally robs us, etc., etc., etc.  When in all such circumstances we raise The Question, Who am I?, we become the monk who holds the ladder for these robbers, who feeds them because they are probably hungry, and who runs after them when they are leaving because they forgot to take something valuable.

 Recall this saying: “Abba Isaiah said, ‘Nothing is so useful to the beginner as insults.  The beginner who bears insults is like a tree that is watered every day.’”  The Question abides within this saying – “insults” are the “thieves” who come to take something of what one considers one’s identity away.  There are only several options after you experience something like this: you either become hard and brittle in suppressing your emotions in the face of such an onslaught, or you give in to your emotions, or you begin to question the very nature of who you are in the face of this experience.  To be clear—this is not about stopping the flow of emotions, which is how too often these Desert sayings get interpreted.  The suppression of feelings is not a solution to anything and it does not work.  If you are cut, you will bleed.  But by raising The Question, we begin to become more free from identifying with these feelings and the circumstances around them.  That freedom allows us to push The Question deeper until we realize who we REALLY are.  And Who we really are cannot be touched by any such robbers, and until we realize that we will always be living in a state of fear, anxiety, tension, “armed to the teeth” at times in order to protect our reputation, our name, our supposed identity.  And yes even prone to various kinds of violence, like hatred and revenge—under the guise of seeking justice of course.  Does this all sound unreal?  Perhaps.  Like I said several times, I wouldn’t want to preach this in the usual parish setting!!  But the Gospel is also clear about this—Jesus points us in the direction of a “treasure” that neither moth nor rust can eat away nor any robbers steal away.  That treasure is our real identity of which his life is an unconcealment.


“It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet.  But they were filled with confusion, and began to do penance.”  First of all, Abba John knew WHO he was!  Secondly, “doing penance” means a change of heart, a conversion, a turning away from one’s false identity, etc.


Now consider these two closely related stories:

“Abba Matoes said, ‘The nearer a man draws to God, the more he sees himself a sinner.  It was when Isaiah the Prophet saw God that he declared himself ‘a man of unclean lips.’”

“He also said, ‘When I was young, I would say to myself: perhaps one day I shall do something good; but now that I am old, I see that there is nothing good about me.’”

Here again we have to fight against a misinterpretation which simply leads to the replacement of one image for another.  What the sayings are pointing to is that the deeper one’s realization of one’s closeness to God becomes actualized, the more sensitive one becomes to the automatic stirrings of the phenomenal ego self which invariably always chooses everything in relation to that self-identity. In a very real sense every real “sinful act,” to use traditional Christian language, stems from that fundamental orientation toward self-affirmation, self-aggrandizement, self-expansion, etc.  This dynamic is the result of, again using traditional Christian language, the Fall.  But the ego self is not the source of goodness.  As even Jesus said to someone, “Why do you call me good?  Only God is good.” In a very real sense, as we have already pointed out in previous postings, the ego self is practically a “nothing” anyway.  It is part of the psychology of being human, but it is not our true and deepest identity which manifests itself in humility, poverty, forgiveness, peace, self-sacrifice, etc.  Modern people mistakenly believing that their ego self is their true identity work very hard at the enhancement of this ego which becomes all-important because they confuse that with the true well-being of the human being as person in total and continual communion with God.  That’s why the personalism of Christian mysticism (and others also) can seem so “inhuman” to modern people—because of that fundamental mix-up.



Can you see The Question working within these stories and sayings?:

“Abba Poement said that a brother who lived with some other brothers asked Abba Bessarion, ‘What ought I to do?’  The old man said to him, ‘Keep silence and do not be always comparing yourself with others.’”

“He also said, ‘If you take little account of yourself, you will have peace wherever you live.’”

“A brother came to Abba Theodore and spent three days begging him to say a word to him without getting any reply.  So he went away grieved.  Then the old man’s disciple said to him, ‘Abba, why did you not say a word to him?  See, he has gone away grieved.’  The old man said to him, ‘I did not speak to him, for he is a trafficker who seeks to glorify himself through the words of others.’”

“Abba Poemen said to Abba Isaac, ‘Let go of a small part of your righteousness and in a few days you will be at peace.’”

“A brother went to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘What ought I to do?  The old man said to him, ‘Go, and join one who says, ‘What do I want?’ and you will have peace.’”


Then there is this fascinating account:

“Abba Macarius said this about himself: ‘When I was young and was living in a cell in Egypt, they took me to make me a priest in the village.  Because I did not wish to receive this dignity, I fled to another place.  Then a devout layman joined me; he sold my manual work for me and served me.  Now it happened that a virgin in the village, under the weight of temptation, committed sin.  When she became pregnant, they asked her who was to blame.  She said, ‘The anchorite.’  Then they came to seize me, led me to the village and hung pots black with soot and various other things round my neck, and led me through the village in all directions, beating me and saying, ‘This monk has defiled our virgin, catch him, catch him,’ and they beat me almost to death.  Then one of the old men came and said, ‘What are you doing, how long will you go on beating this strange monk?’  The man who served me was walking behind me, full of shame, for they covered him with insults too, saying, ‘Look at his anchorite, for whom you stood surety; what has he done?’  The girl’s parents said, ‘Do not let him go till he has given a pledge that he will keep her.’  I spoke to my servant and he vouched for me.  Going to my cell, I gave him all the baskets I had, saying, ‘Sell them, and give my wife something to eat.’  Then I said to myself, ‘Macarius, you have found yourself a wife; you must work a little more in order to keep her.’  So I worked night and day and sent my work to her.  But when the time came for the wretch to give birth, she remained in labor many days with bringing forth, and they said to her, ‘What is the matter?’  She said, ‘I know what it is, it is because I slandered the anchorite, and accused him unjustly; it is not he who is to blame, but such and such a young man.’  Then the man who served me came to me full of joy saying, ‘The virgin could not give birth until she had said ‘The anchorite had nothing to do with it, but I have lied about him.’  The whole village wants to come here solemnly and do penance before you.’  But when I heard this…I got up and fled here to Scetis….”


And there is an almost exact equivalent of this story among the Zen monk stories!  Here we see the true and mature monk who has gone a “long way” on the road of The Question, and so he is able to respond to various  attacks on that superficial identity of “anchorite,” “monk,” “holy man,” etc. with great equanimity and peace—without indulging in some kind of fantasy that the girl is not guilty of doing something wrong.  It is simply that her “wrong” does not take away one iota of his true identity, only the images are affected.


One last story: “Once Paesios, the brother of Abba Poemen, made friends with someone outside his cell.  Now Abba Poemen did not want that.  So he got up and fled to Abba Ammonas and said to him, ‘Paesios, my brother, holds converse with someone, so I have no peace.’  Abba Ammonas said to him, ‘Poemen, are you still alive?  Go, sit down in your cell, engrave it on your heart that you have been in the tomb for a year already.’”

In death we lose all the superficial identities that we have accumulated, that we value so much, that causes us so much unrest, etc.  So in a sense Ammonas is inviting to Poemen to consider the same situation that Ramana did when he was a youngster: exactly who am I when I die? What is left after all is taken away?  Note also that in the Desert no feeling or thought was too trivial to open up the door to The Great Question!


One last thought:  Father Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov teaches that everywhere we are and at every moment it is Paradise if only we had eyes to see it.  Indeed.  The entrance to that Paradise is with The Question: Who am I?  Because no ego self can enter there!




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