LM Discovers Advaita
Leon MacLaren’s (LM) journey to Advaita began with a youthful inspiration “that there was such a thing as Truth and there was such a thing as Justice and that they could be found and being found, could be taught.” His first intense interest was in the economic philosophy of the American Henry George, who advocated the primary importance of land value as a basis for taxation. With the help of his father and other like-minded students, he founded the the School of Economic Science (SES) in 1937. This movement survived the exigencies of the Second World War, but the popularity of economics waned and the School was deeply in debt. A variety of new courses were then offered to stave off default, including introductory philosophy courses in 1951, and with the slow growth of enrollments and the generous help of a few students the School survived.
LM met Dr Roles, the head of the Study Society, in 1953, and through attending his groups became aware for the first time of the teachings of Ouspensky. He was struck by the similarity of Ouspensky’s formulations of an esoteric truth and his own economic and philosophic formulations. The hundred or so students with him then were taken by these ideas, and in 1954, the first “Part One” course was offered by the SES in a format that remained substantially the same through the late 1980’s. This course and those that followed were reasonably straightforward expositions of the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky esoteric tradition, and prominently featured such topics as work on one’s self, the 3 story model of Man, the law of 3, the octave and the ray of creation.
The Faber edition of Shri Purohit’s translation of The Ten Principal Upanishads was published in 1954, and rapidly found its way into LM’s hands. This first experience with Advaita appears to have had little immediate impact on the teaching within SES. However, after several years, LM began to feel the need of some means by which he and his students could “penetrate inwardly in themselves.” This opportunity presented itself in 1959 when the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi first came to London. Dr Roles met Maharishi during this visit, and soon thereafter introduced him to LM. Dr Roles, LM and many of their followers were initiated into meditation by Maharishi, and thus by the early 1960’s Transcendental Meditation (TM) became a key practice in both the Study Society and the School of Economic Science (SES), and was held to be the missing teaching described by Ouspensky.
However, discord was not long in coming. Maharishi had urged both Dr Roles and LM to subsume their groups into his growing TM organisation, but they both refused, and by 1965, all these movements had separated acrimoniously. The TM movement alleged that the Study Society, SES and the School of Meditation had “stolen” the meditation, and for years thereafter sent threatening letters to these groups regarding the TM movement’s “trademarked products”. Similar charges were made against the Maharishi who had been the secretary to an Indian sage Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati (or “Guru Dev”), the Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, who had died of poisoning in 1951. While Maharishi had presented himself as an authorized “meditation guru”, Guru Dev’s followers alleged that Maharishi had poisoned Guru Dev to death and was a poseur who had neither the authority to transmit the Teaching nor to initiate anyone into meditation.
(For more of this sideshow, see for example
- www.minet.org/Documents/shank-3 ,
The key outcome of these events was Dr Roles’ invitation to meet with Shri Shantananda Sarasvati, the successor to Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati as the Shankaracharya of the Jyotir Math. This trip was partially funded by LM, and the translator (Mr Jaiswal) was one of LM’s students. Thereafter, LM was presented with a transcript of Shantananda’s discourses and immediately recognized the power and importance of these words.
For LM, this move was his first substantial introduction to Advaita from a fully qualified teacher. He was a quick study, and prior to his first visit to Shri Shantananda they corresponded at length. For example, he wrote in 1964 regarding his experience of meditation, the 4 stages on the path to realization (Gita 7.16), his experience “disappearing” when tutoring leaving only a sense of watching, and several observations from his students.
Shri Shantananda responded in the Spring of 1965:
“In the Gita (16th stanza,7th chapter) the reference is made of 4 stages, suffering, search for knowledge, thirst for truth and wisdom in relation to the way to self realisation. You had asked about thirst for Truth and referred the instance of the girl’s desire. In fact, only Truth can quench such a thirst. Other things might temporarily assuage this appetite in some degree, but complete satisfaction is only possible when such a person finds one who is satisfied and realised. If one hasn’t been able to find one, the only effort needed is to be contented with the available knowledge of Truth and keep alive the thirst.
“Truth about anything can be judged very simply. Truth is that which is always the same, never-changing, indestructible, neither improves nor decays. If these maxims are not found in the subject in question, then it couldn’t be True.
“Now, looking for truth, one finds that only Atman is Truth for it is always the same, never-changing, indestructible, neither improves nor decays. To get near the truth one has to get near the Atman. The way is to go inwards. When one’s meditation goes deeper, one is going near the Atman. Ultimately the journey ends in complete unity of bliss, consciousness and truth. Then and then only one will be the same in personal and impersonal situations, one would see truth of everything…
“Your observations on yourself when someone comes for help, ‘I seem to disappear and then there remains only the watchman who controls everything’: When one is attentive and still, one finds that pure ahamkara (I) merges out of the mass of impure ahamkara (many I’s). This will facilitate proper action in the presence of pure ahamkara acting naturally in everyday work. This is a manifestation of meditation in action. This is good.”
LM asked in May of 1965 regarding meditation:
“A number of us have found that meditation has passed beyond sound into what I take to be vibration. Experiences differ, but all speak of a line on which they have to stay, having the sense of staying just where they are. Some speak of the line as running down, some up, some straight ahead and some of it turning in a circle. One man says that he experiences sitting in the middle while the line of the meditation turns round him and with each turn grows larger. May I ask for Your Holiness’ guidance on this development?
“Three people have asked about inner rooms. Two of them spoke of entering what they described as a crystal sphere containing all the people and situations directly connected with themselves. One who was meditating at the time experienced a corridor passing right through the sphere which meant the meditation for her, and after she passed out of it she was aware of another room but could say no more than that. For her it was a happy experience and a great release. For the man, the experience came as a great shock for it showed him throughout his life a pattern of resistance and pressure in relation to everyone and everything directly connected with him which he found most undesirable. I have barely seen anyone more shocked. Could Your Holiness tell us about these inner rooms?”
To which Shri Shantananda replied two months later:
“The varied experiences in Question One emanate from the heart and move towards the head. With the accumulation of sattva and lessening of rajas and tamas, one would find such movements arising from muladhara to ajñacakra. The vibration could initiate from any centre. The form could be varied. All lines of movement originate from one of the six centres, muladhara, svadhisthana, manipuraka, anahata, vishuddha and ajña. These centres differ in form, type, movement, force and manifestation. These are fully described in eightfold Yoga which is a strenuous system. Experiences like these which express the level are easy to come by in meditation. All these simply denote gradual progress.
“Regarding next question it seems that the woman at that moment had transcended the fourth centre and couldn’t enter the vishuddha, but all the same did experience happiness. This is good and continuous effort would help. The man who experienced the shock seems to have come against his inner odds which cling in him. During meditation all these forces stand as obstacles against the sattvika condition created by the discipline. Their withdrawal would result in jerk or shock. One shouldn’t be disturbed by such happenings because they are part of the natural process of development.
“For example when the tube carrying the petrol to the carburettor is clogged with dirt or dust then one needs a pump to blow them back. In the life of a disciple, the evil elements which come in the way have also to be blown out with the pump of discipline (meditation). This clears the way.”
In another response regarding the feeling of existence, and Shri Shantananda replied:
“You have asked about the feeling of “I am”. This needs explanation. The following is just a short answer.
“Pure feeling of “I am” (aham in Samskrta) is the form of the Atman. When this feeling clings to the body, senses, manas, buddhi, name, species, possessions, land and knowledge etc. then it becomes limited and ends up in misery and tension. Through discipline this can be made to recognise its true form and experience the Atman which is omnipresent, complete, pure and eternal. Deriving force from this, the buddhi, senses and body all work natural. This pure “I am” is neither the actor nor the experiencer but it is always detached. It derives force only from the Atman and is related to five sheaths which are called annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijñanamaya and anandamaya and also to seven steps according to purity which one experiences through discipline and meditation. As much as the citta is made subtle, it results in purity of “I am”. Ultimately when the Atman is realised and feeling of “I am” corresponds only to Atman then the whole creation looks like a play. Then there is no pain, no pleasure but only Truth, consciousness and bliss.”
These excerpts show that LM had considerable understanding of certain key principles of Advaita Vedanta and substantial experience with meditation prior to his first audience with Shri Shantananda late in 1965.