Surrender – Through the Lens of Religious Genius

Sources 19, 43, 50, 35

Time and again we discover that surrender of the self is foundational to the experience and being of the religious genius or saint. Would you consider this a mark of all saints/ religious geniuses of an advanced degree? Can it serve as a means of identifying those great geniuses who stand out beyond the common wise teacher? Is this awareness of surrender of the self universal, to be found in all religions?

Source 19: Buddha

Ananda Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 44:10

“If, Ananda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ this would have been siding with those ascetics and brahmins who are eternalists. And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ this would have been siding with those ascetics and brahmins who are annhilationists.

“If, Ananda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagota, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ would this have been consistent on my part with the arising of the knowledge that all phenomena are nonself?”

“No, venerable sir.”

“And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ the wanderer Vacchagotta, already confused, would have fallen into even greater confusion, thinking, ‘It seems that the self I formerly had does not exist now.’”

Commentary by Vanessa Sasson: In the Buddha’s case, humility is not at first obvious. He calls himself “the awakened one,” which is what “Buddha” means in Sanskrit. He also speaks of himself as the “Thatagata,” which is not as easily translated, but means something like, “he who has gone beyond,” along with many other epithets no less grandiose. Upon first glance, the Buddha seems to be anything but humble.

But humility is not about performance. It is not something that one acts out for the purposes of proper etiquette. Real humility is, rather, the inevitable outcome of the decentering of the self. When the self has been dislodged and the ego uprooted, self-centeredness disappears and humility is the result – not because it is polite, but because there is no self left to call attention to. As many suttas explain, conceit is a defilement of the mind. Humility is its opposite.

In the Ananda Sutta, the Buddha’s sense of non-self is presented. The subject of the text is whether or not there is a self, and the Buddha refuses to provide an answer. I have chosen this passage because it demonstrates (rather than simply assumes) that the Buddha is not tied to providing an answer simply in order to act like the all-knowing teacher. He cannot answer the question of whether or not there is a self with words or clear-cut categories. The self does not exist nor does it not exist in any clearly demarcated way. The Buddha therefore chooses to remain silent, demonstrating his comfort with the nuance of reality. This, to me, is the Buddha’s real genius – as well as evidence of humility in the real sense of the term.

Source 43 (Jewish): Rav Kook, Shemoneh Kevatzim 3:67 [vol. 2, pp. 38-39]

Guide for reading: This text speaks of ‘humility’ as a deeper realization of one’s place in creation. Why does this humility make prayer difficult?

For the great righteous ones, prayer is very difficult, for they have no will of their own, and their greatest perception is connected to their pristine faith, the light of divine lovingkindness, which ameliorates everything for them. How will they pray to be saved from any distress, since they have no distress in reality? After the profound contemplation that follows [self-]elevation – for, in the final analysis, man and his needs, the world, life, and all their connections, all the emotions, all the inclinations, and all the natural demands, life and the love thereof, their possessions and their value, all these are the stratagems of the [divine] light, of the great lovingkindness of which He said the world will be built {see Psalms 89:3], and prayer itself, its utterance, its directions, and the very nature of the desire to order everything in the world according to their nature and character, life, honor, wealth, children, peace, joy, satiety and repose, and above them, wisdom and the sanctity of will and delight, all these are manifestations of the supreme lovingkindness, whose full worth is accentuated by prayer at any time, and especially in time of distress; and the outer will that is revealed by the light of inner will of the righteous, who are the foundation of the world, whose soul is continuously revived by the supernal divine manifestation, is in itself one of the foundations of life and the construction of the reality, as breathing air, as eating and drinking, as building and sowing, as healing and bathing – by this the spirit of prayer will once again stir the righteous, the upright of heart, and they will abandon the supernal [strict] judgment that infuses all the treasures of life, facing which [human] will is negated, and they will remain servants of their Maker, who pour out their hearts like water, seeking will [God’s lovingkindness], life, physical health, and the supernal light.

Commentary by Dov Schwartz: Rabbi Kook did not forgo the dimension of the saint’s negation of his self and will. Due both to his unique personality and the weighty responsibility and tasks imposed on him, the saint retreats from any expression of egoism. At times, the faculty of containing is anchored in this withdrawal from personality. Rabbi Kook expressed this self-abnegation and total reliance on God (quietism) when he spoke of the perfect man’s prayer. The perfect man’s divorce from his will and any personal interests voids prayer of its meaning. Rabbi Kook undoubtedly meant the institutionalized structure of prayer, that includes the supplicatory blessings in the Amidah prayer, which relate to a person’s physical and mental needs. Additionally, not only does the righteous one ignore material needs that are meaningless to him, he also disregards troubles. The latter make no impression on him, even though, physically, he might experience suffering and pain; to the contrary: the saint reaches a state of equanimity.

Source 50 (Muslim): Rumi, Talking Through The Door

You said, “Who’s at the door?”
I said, “Your slave.”
You said, “What do you want?”
“To see you and bow.”
“How long will you wait?”
“Until you call.”
“How long will you cook?”
“Till the Resurrection.”
We talked through the door. I claimed
a great love and that I had given up
what the world gives to be in that love.
You said, “Such claims require a witness.”
I said, “This longing, these tears.”
You said, “Discredited witnesses.”
I said, “Surely not!”
You said, “Who did you come with?”
“The majestic imagination you gave me.”
Why did you come?”
“The musk of your wine was in the air.”
“What is your intention?”
“What do you want from me?”
Then you asked, “Where have you been
most comfortable?”
“In the palace.”
“What did you see there?”
“Amazing things.”
“Then why is it so desolate?”
“Because all that can be taken away in a second.”
“Who can do that?”
“This clear discernment.”
“Where can you live safely then?”
“In surrender.”
“What is this giving up?”
“A peace that saves us.”
“Is there no threat of disaster?”
“Only what comes in your street,
inside your love.”
“How do you walk there?”
“in perfection.”
Now silence. If I told more of this conversation,
those listening would leave themselves.
There would be no door,
no roof or window either!

(Source: Ghazal 436, trans. Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi, p. 78)

Commentary by Carl W Ernst: In this dialogical lyric, Rumi displays the logic of surrender with a terse and witty style. The divine beloved is typically portrayed in Persian convention as aloof and indifferent to the tortured lover, but here the voice of the poet performs credibly to demonstrate his bona fides as a lover. The “cooking” referred to at the beginning of the poem is the process that leads to what the Sufis call “annihilation” (fana’), the effacement of the self in the irresistible reality of God. The poem ends with the invocation of silence (as indeed over 1000 of Rumi’s 3200 lyrics conclude), leaving the powerful suggestion that this surrender is beyond description and would overwhelm anyone who even hears about it.

Source 35 (Hindu):Ramana

“Renunciation does not imply apparent divesting of costumes, family ties, home, etc., but renunciation of desires, affection and attachment. There is no need to resign your job, only resign yourself to God, the bearer of the burden of all. One who renounces desires actually merges in the world and expands his love to the whole universe. Expansion of love and affection would be a far better term for a true devotee of God than renunciation, for one who renounces the immediate ties actually extends the bonds of affection and love to a wider world beyond the borders of caste, creed and race. When this expansion comes one does not feel that one is running away from home; instead one drops from it like a ripe fruit from a tree.” (David Goldman, The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (133-134).

“All talk of surrender is like stealing sugar from a sugar image of Ganesha and then offering it to the same Ganesha. You say that you offer up your body and soul and all your possessions to God, but were they yours to offer? At best you can say: “I wrongly imagined till now that all these, which are Yours, were mine. Now I realize that they are Yours, and shall no longer act as though they were mine.” And this knowledge that there is nothing but God or Self, that “I” and “mine” do not exist and that only the Self exists is spiritual knowledge (jnana).”

Commentary by Anantanand Rambachan: In this one, Ramana cautions that that one should not think of surrender as giving anything to God. There is ego-expression in the belief that one has something to give to the divine. One cannot give even oneself to God, since the self is already one with God. Ramana was a creative teacher in the manner of his interpretation of core doctrines. He enabled us to see old teachings in a new light.

Ramana’s consciousness of life’s unity was not anthropocentric. It extended to all beings since the self to which he was awake existed in every being. His consciousness of a unity with all beings was exemplary and rarely seen among religious teachers.