For the last several days, I’ve been in email contact with someone named John Forth, a devotee of the new religious movement leader Adi Da. It began when I received an email from him, possibly related to an earlier Row Boat post, that was clearly an anonymous form letter. It was filled with links to Adi Da sites that might be of interest, especially those related to his recent “monumental” photographic art. For instance, this and that.
I first encountered Adi Da a few years ago in the library at Brown University when, during the course of my research on creationism, my eye was caught by a book titled Scientific Proof for the Existence of God Soon to Be Announced by the White House! Its author was Da Free John, one of Adi Da’s several previous names. It had an enthusiastic introduction by the New Age philosopher Ken Wilber (who has since distanced himself from Adi Da) followed by a number of peculiar, fascinating essays. With amazing lucidity, they pronounced on spiritual subjects with loads of Capitalized Terms. A little like Mike Meyers’s new character Guru Pitka, Adi Da is an American (from Queens, educated at Columbia and Stanford) who got his spiritual education in India and became a Hindu-style guru. Now he lives in quasi-exile in Fiji.
John Forth, it seems, has a history of his own. A Google search actually turned up an essay by one Mark Fischer in a book about the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner that started with a similar mass-email encounter with Forth. Since the essay made it sound like Forth was willing to talk, I decided to write back to him, and doing so started a bit of an exchange. He asked that I not publish what he wrote in full, so I will try to summarize the gist of the conversation.
In my first email, I made a remark that caught his eye:
From an anthropological rather than theological point of view, I agree with Fischer that people like Adi Da tell us a lot about Jesus.
Forth answered with some links to writings by Adi Da about “Saint Jesus of Galilee.” He then went on to suggest that my remark was “typically Christian of course, with the usual prejudices,” and that Western religious traditions had left people like me in a “perceptual strait-jacket” to which Adi Da offers an hope for the “Divinization of Humankind.”
With a certain arrogance, I went a bit on the offensive in my next message. I tried to be polite, but I also tried to be honest about how my encounters with Adi Da and his movement have struck me.
Forgive me for thinking I know your story before really knowing it, but you sound like you’ve given yourself to a teaching that limits you as much as any other orthodoxy, including Christian ones. I’m sure you’ve had some tremendous experiences with Adi Da, undoubtedly genuinely transformational ones. I would love to learn about them. But so have many people, thinking in many different ways.
To me, at least, depending on a person (even one so extraordinary as Adi Da certainly seems) feels like an unsatisfyingly narrow way to go about life. Certainly all of us depend on others and on our worlds. But in my experience I have found it far more satisfying to hear as many voices as I can, particularly those that I at first disagree with. No one voice speaks authoritatively on everything, but we can live in networks of perspectives quite happily. No divinization necessary.
He continued to be extremely gracious and forthcoming with links to Adi Da writings. In a way that is common in New Age circles, he spoke of the real Jesus, removed from the apparatus of church and tradition (“All the death and resurrection stuff is garbage”). He spoke, as Adi Da has, about the tendency in the West to marginalize and persecute saints and spiritual masters. Again, the “perceptual strait-jacket.” He warned me away from the “meat-body perspective” of Western thought, which would probably encompass all the perspectives I am learning from. It was the final sentence of this letter, though, that struck me the most: “There is nothing narrow about the way of life lived in Adi Da’s company.”
I love how you say that “there is nothing narrow about the way of life lived in Adi Da’s company.” I believe it. The “paradox” that you speak of—the simultaneous submission and liberation—is one of those odd mysteries of human experience. We are able to call what is clearly a contradiction a paradox because we don’t happen to be the logical creatures certain ways of thinking expect us to be. We find liberation in submission, oddly. I think there are pretty persuasive evolutionary psychological explanations for this tendency. Whatever the explanation, though, it makes for irreducibly rich experiences.
However, despite the beauty of your words, I am not terribly tempted to jump on the Adi Da train. The reason is that I feel like I could say the same thing in reverse: There is nothing narrow about the way of life lived outside of Adi Da’s company. Many possibilities exist. Many missions, submissions, meanings, and joys. Also sadnesses, addictions, fears, and the rest: things which I’m sure find their way into Adi Da’s company as well. The circumstances in which everything falls are neither fair nor otherwise well-suited to the best laid plans of people. I don’t think the fact of unusual people like Adi Da particularly changes that, though they might have an extraordinary meaning-giving power. Meaning is a wonderful gift, but I have lost my appetite for giving such people the title of God or avatar. But perhaps, so dependent are we on meaning and inspiration and compelling personalities, that we have no choice but to do so.
After that I went on to make some jabs about orientalism and how so often the desire to escape Western traditions for Eastern ones is really nothing other than an old habit of Western tradition itself.
I myself was brought up in this tradition, visiting Indian gurus in California, objecting to certain Christian doctrines (like the “garbage” you mention), while finding space in our hearts, here or there, for what is believed to be the real, original person of Jesus. This kind of “orientalism” is part of a cultural inheritance in North Atlantic lands—Christianity itself was an eastern religion. Now so many of us head to India for wisdom thinking that we are escaping the narrowness of our tradition, while in many respects we are bringing it with us. Take Theosophist Annie Besant, for instance, who got into the habit of telling Indian Buddhists what “real” Buddhism was: to her mind, evidently a combination of European esotericism with the ideas she encountered in India. The point is, it seems easier to think one is departing from “Western” traditions than to actually do so.
Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Dialog is better than departure.
The last letter I got from Forth dealt mainly with this final concern. Adi Da, he insisted, doesn’t claim to be an “Eastern Teacher,” though of course many of his own teachers were Indian. He also talked some more about “life in Adi Da’s company” and the need always to confront the “pit of snakes” that is life as an ego.
I took on the exchange as an experiment in communication. How much could we say to each other, how much could we understand? Both of us, I think, tried hard at two things: (1) to be polite, patient, and respectful; (2) to have no intention of being convinced by the other, but rather to convince. Of course conversations like this, rightfully, can take forever—years of long walks through the woods, perhaps (I think of J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, for instance). We both succeeded in our aims.
As I attempted to craft my messages, I kept running into this dilemma, which I’ve encountered before: the more patient and attentive one is, the more difficult it becomes to make a persuasive point, to prove one’s case. The more one listens to another human being, even one of a vastly different point of view, the more the hinges of one’s own point of few begin to corrode alongside theirs. It is not a final corrosion; in fact, it makes me feel even less capable of being convinced by the other. But one is forced to listen to the human truth at work in the other, and notice the strangeness of the tendrils that hold together all of our convictions, however strong they may seem. Even as I write these words, I can feel their meaning dissolving, quite beautifully in fact, into the ether of our limitations.