Wake Up and Roar

Mark Epstein

Satsang with H.W.L. Poonja
Volume 1
Pacific Center Press: Maui, 1992.
171 pp., $12.00 (paper).
Wake Up and Roar
Satsang with H.W.L. Poonja
Volume 2
Pacific Center Press: Maui, 1993.
175 pp., $12.00 (paper).

Once, in the midst of a particularly poignant time in her psychotherapy, a patient of mine asked if she could tape-record her therapy sessions to listen to on her own. She did this faithfully for many weeks but then stopped abruptly, admitting rather sheepishly that the recordings seemed to lack whatever it was that she was trying to recapture from the sessions. The feelings evoked by this two-volume set of tape-recorded and transcribed questions and answers with H.W.L. Poonja, an eighty-three-year-old Indian teacher in the tradition of Ramana Maharshi, are much the same. There is a sense that something important has taken place, but readers are left with the impression that "you just had to be there."

A retired mining engineer who in his youth as an army officer was so intoxicated with the Hindu god Krishna that he would dress in women's clothes to better beseech him, Poonja-ji retired in 1966 and has been traveling and teaching ever since. His teachings have, of late, been of particular interest to Western Buddhists, particularly those from the vipassana community, although there is now reported to be a large gathering of renegade Rajneesh followers surrounding "Papa-ji" in his hometown of Lucknow, India. Poonja teaches a kind of radical verbal self-inquiry, in the style of Ramana Maharshi, that is very appealing to Buddhist practitioners.

"Freedom is standing in front of you, smiling at you, as you do your sadhana," says Poonja. "Your old tendencies, which you grasp, are an imaginary wall. This wall is the thought, 'I am bound and suffering.'"

For those feeling frustrated with their meditation practice, who, despite sincere effort or desire, have not achieved a much-yearned-for breakthrough, Poonja seems to be a powerful force.

What do you need to do? Only give up your effort. Look behind the I. Look underneath the I. Look for the source of I. Now, tell me where the I arises from; who is trying? Look at the source of the I that is trying.

When combined with the intense devotional current that his presence inspires, this kind of tracing the mind back to its source can yield profound insights that at times, at least in these transcripts, have a somewhat hysterical flavor. "Master, by your grace," reads a typical passage, "I've noticed all desires are gone. I didn't do anything. They just left."

"Desires don't exist," replies Poonja. "If you touch that point of who you are, you are fullness itself. What can you desire?"

"Only to come back to see you," replies the unnamed disciple.

The line between surrender and submission is constantly being skirted in these exchanges. In search of the kind of "authentic transmission" that Poonja himself is said to have received from Ramana Maharshi, the questioners in these volumes seem extraordinarly eager for instant enlightenment. At times, Poonja makes it seem all too easy:

This teaching doesn't need any words. JUST QUIET MIND. And since nobody is quiet, the teachings aren't working. There are millions of books, but nothing is working because the mind behind the writing is not quiet....For freedom you don't need a word. Freedom is transmitted in silence.

If quiet mind alone were sufficient, the Buddha need never have sat beneath the Bodhi Tree. He was accomplished already in quiet mind. However compelling Poonja's teachings are, and however useful they have been to many, they give the impression in these volumes of all too often reinforcing a naive view of what self-inquiry actually means. Just stop your mind and you are home free! This may not be Poonja's actual message, but it is an unfortunate impression, nonetheless.

The voices that resonated most resoundingly for me after I finished these volumes were those of the disciples seeking after their master. Poonja's message, while delivered with authority, is repetitive and ultimately predictable, but the students' awkward and eager questions are a constant source of fascination. As a window onto western naiveté, Wake Up and Roar might be of genuine interest; as an inspirational vehicle, though, it does not deliver on the promise of its title. Essentially, it is a sermon for the already converted.

 

Mark Epstein, a Buddhist practitioner and psychiatrist in New York City, is a Consulting Editor to Tricycle.

Image: H.W.L. Poonja

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