We conclude our discussion on the traditional monastic vows from a tantric perspective by exploring obedience. I’m going to hazard a guess and suggest that of the three vows, obedience is the hardest one around which to wrap our minds. Perhaps it is not a stretch to understand poverty as detachment or chastity as purity of heart; those concepts can be translated from one tradition to another. But obedience? Not many in our culture are willing to follow another person’s will or instructions, especially if it calls for sublimating their own. After all, our country was founded on disobedience and in sweeping terms, we, as Americans, have an uneasy relationship with obedience.
I could elaborate on the numerous incidents of social and political acts of disobedience that have shaped and continue to shape our nation, but that is really beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that a cautious regard of obedience is part of the American ethos. This is perhaps one reason why the guru-shishya relationship has been historically problematic here in the States. So how can we even discuss obedience in tantric terms when it is so culturally-loaded?
I knew that I had to return to the basics and strip the word to its root. I was surprised to discover that the root word behind obedience is “to perceive.” Once I learned that “audible” and “aesthetic” share a common ancestry with obedience, I wondered how perception and obedience fit together.
To further my understanding, I turned to Joseph Dispenza, from whom I drew inspiration for this three-part discussion. Dispenza posits that obedience is “personal responsibility.” Of course, I agree that you should be accountable for your actions and words but I feel that Dispenza is off-track a bit. The potential problem with personal responsibility is the trap of making everything about you. How many times have I used “personal responsibility” to get what I want as if the very act of ownership of my words or feelings trump those of others? I would have less of issue with this idea if Dispenza defined obedience as “Personal responsibility” which is inclusive of ourselves, of our community, and of the Divine. Gender queer and Gregorian monk, Br. Karekin M. Yarian’s take on obedience nicely articulates this (substitute tantric ideals for the Christian ones where needed):
Obedience is not intended to diminish our capacity for reasonable engagement of questions of conscience or belief. It is instead a witness to the role of community in the ongoing search for and appropriation of the Gospel way of life and its center in God. (“The Vow of Obedience” – punkmonksf.com)
The key element in the above passage is “witness.” We are called to witness, to perceive, the role of community in developing and maintaining a God/dess-centered life. We accomplish this by realizing our own role in community and using that knowledge to strengthen the community as a whole. Thus, obedience in tantric terms is the ability to perceive and act from your mahavratam, your life’s work/purpose. When you understand your “great vow” and order your life around it (not you around it), you generate enormous transformative energy, benefitting all – you, your community, your planet. That is why the work that we do through and in SHARANYA is (r)evolutionary.
“That’s nice, ” you may say, “It sounds so grandiose and almost unobtainable. I don’t have a clue what my life’s purpose is!” I would wager that you do, indeed, have a clue, otherwise you would not be where you are right now. You may not consciously know that you have an idea, an inkling of your mahavratam, but you are doing, being, and living it right now – you only have to perceive it.
Like so many of our spiritual pursuits, perceiving our mahavratam is simple in theory and difficult in practice. Maintaining a daily spiritual practice will give you strength; harmonizing your physical and subtle bodies through tattva shuddhi and other similar practices will provide clarity; and regularly performing prana pratistha will help better attune you to the Divine. These are all tools at your disposal; utilize them. This is one of the beautiful things about Tantra; all of creation is there to aid you on your journey. Yet, as we have seen time and time again in our explorations, your spiritual journey is not necessarily about you. To return to Br. Karekin:
Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience are our way of seeking God, centered not around autonomy but around participation in and
with community. We must never be satisfied that living the vows is the success of our journey – but rather that they are the pointers to an objective truth that lies beyond them. They are markers on the journey to God, and we must bear witness in our lives that to seek God and God’s Truth are not only necessary, but that these goals are worthy of pursuit.
Taken together, these three vows are not just for cloistered monastics but for each of us to live our lives from compassionate detachment, with a full and pure heart, as we perceive our greater purpose and live accordingly, in harmony with ourselves, each other, and the world. If that still sounds “grandiose,” then perhaps it is time to change the definition of that word as well. Jai Maa!
Well, what a trip this has been as we navigated what we thought was well-charted territory! I hope that you have enjoyed this three-part installment and even if you did not comment publicly, it is my wish that this series provided some food for thought. Your comments, questions, and experiences on any one or all of the vows is most welcomed.
Deep gratitudes to each one of you.
Jai Kali Mata Ki Jai!
Offered in Her Service by Balipriya