Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What tangled webs we weave!

"Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!"

The famous lines are from Sir Walter Scott's Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17 http://tinyurl.com/583udf.

There is, I'm told, a seldom quoted follow-up to this famous quote. I could not find it in the poem. I found it mentioned at http://tinyurl.com/5kz7tr:

"But my – how we improve the score,
as we practice more and more.

The Dorothy Parker take-off (also attributed to "J. R. Pope") http://tinyurl.com/5n3j7h reads:

"Oh what tangled webs we weave
When first we practice to deceive.
And when we've practiced for awhile,
How we do improve our style!"

Marmion is a story of treachery and deceit, greed and lust, an almost worthy parallel to the contemporary morality tale I have been following on the Internet with mixed feelings. Not that it personally concerns me. But a dear friend, a trusting and sincere acolyte of a "spiritual teacher", is one of the unsuspecting "flies" in the tangled web that has been woven.

If one were to employ the traditional Christian ecclesiastical terminology (with trepidation, no doubt, born out of diffidence due to unfamiliarity), one of the major trespasses in the story could be termed a sin akin to 'simony', i.e., "the deliberate intention and act of selling and/or buying spiritual goods or material things so connected with the spiritual that they cannot be separated from it. Simony is a violation of the virtue of religion, and a sacrilege, because it wrongfully puts a material price on spiritual things, which can be neither bought nor sold. The term is derived from the name Simon Magus who, in The Acts of the Apostles, tried to buy the power to confirm people in the Holy Spirit." http://tinyurl.com/5kz7tr.

In the late fifties or early sixties, I used to be quite an acolyte (or 'fan') of Leslie Charteris's The Saint (aka Simon Templar, so called most likely after the Knights Templar whose chief raison d’ĂȘtre was the protection of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem after the first Holy Crusade of 1096). Many of his adventures I then followed harked back to the twenties. He was a burglar par excellence who robbed, like Robin Hood, the "ungodly". The Saint's targets included corrupt politicians, warmongers, Nazi scientists, vanity publishers and similar consumer ripoff artists, greedy bosses exploiting workers, con men and similar scums of the earth. He used to often charge a "ten percent collection fee" to cover expenses when he extracted large sums of money from his victims, the remainder being returned to the rightful owners, given away to charity, shared amongst his business associates. I also fondly remember his habit of peppering his conversation with such irreverent asides as "As the actress said to the bishop".

I was reminded of The Saint because the story I have been following concerns a modern-day "Sage" (henceforth S for short). From all available indicators, he possesses business acumen of the highest order. In his career, he used it to build the business enterprise he ended up heading at the time of his retirement. In his later life, he seems to have been employing it to set himself in a lucrative "profession". Those in the know consider the spirituality business a very competitive and challenging field of endeavour worldwide. Our protagonist astutely decided to test the waters before plunging in. The late seventies or early eighties saw him serving as a translator/interpreter to an Advaita teacher with impeccable credentials and international repute who could not speak English. It was probably during his apprenticeship there, also S's golden opportunity to do in situ market research, that he might have stumbled on the ideal target audience for the new guru persona he was soon to let loose on the unsuspecting manifestation. He would formulate his teaching to appeal to the Western psyche impatiently looking for quick fixes.

According to the experts, what S cleverly did was to oversimplify the Advaita teaching into neo-Advaita or pseudo-Advaita malarkey (as detractors claim). He achieved this feat by blurring the distinction between three simultaneously existing levels of the one non-dual Reality and latching on to the absolute level ("Nothing is really happenng") as the only view. He also selectively presented absolute level concepts such as "Nobody is the doer", "Everything is a happening", "Everything happens by God's will" and so forth as the ultimate truth under the authority of such venerable sources as the Buddha and Wei Wu Wei (the Irishman Thomas Gray) rather than the guru whose mantle he claimed to wear.

By so doing, goes the argument, S offered what could be called "the lazy seeker's way to instant nirvana" with the "feel free to do anything without feeling guilt or shame" adjunct. Boys and girls, meet Kick-ass Advaita – just what you've been looking for! Canned wisdom you can store on your shelves as unconscionably high priced books, tapes, CDs, DVDs for instant referral. The daily talk at home is free but generous donations (guru dakshina) are always welcome. If you wanted to hear S at a luxury resort after paying a Western price for the priivilege, you were welcome to the annual retreat away from home.

S also gathered around him, goes the story, a coterie of cronies to help him package and market his products for a cut from the pie in the sky. He even authorised one of them, a wily Westerner, as his spiritual successor. When a few years back, there was a scandal at an annual retreat with charges of financial impropriety and serial adultery, the cronies rushed in to do instant damage control. The stigma continues to exist, though.

But, then, as the actress said to the bishop: "Who cares?"