Book Review: European Masters – John David

Blueprints for Awakening: European Masters: Unique Dialogues with 14 European Masters on the Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi Who am I?

Premananda, Open Sky Press Ltd, Nov 2010, ISBN 978-0956607003. (350 pages).

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Note that, when I originally reviewed this book, it also included a free DVD of extracts from the interviews. This is no longer the case.

Premananda is the author of a number of books, including ‘Indian Masters: Blueprints for Awakening’, which I have reviewed at http://www.advaita.org.uk/reading/read_general.htm#blueprints. He spent 15 years with Osho, followed by another 5 with H. W. L. Poonja (Papaji) and much of his teaching now is influenced by Ramana Maharshi. He runs the Open Sky Satsang Community in Germany (between Cologne and Düsseldorf) and periodic meetings are organized throughout Europe.

(Extended biographical details may be found at his website – http://www.premanandasatsang.org/.)  

Note that, sometime during the elapsed time since I wrote this review (around 2011), he has reverted to his (presumed) birth name of John David. All reference to the name ‘Premananda’ appears to have been removed from his website and books (although the URL remains the same). I have left the words of the review itself, and the images, as they were in the original review.

Review:

This book is effectively a continuation of ‘Blueprints For Awakening: Indian Masters’, which was published in 2008. And the idea is an excellent one, namely to interview teachers of Nonduality, using as the basis the questions addressed by Ramana Maharshi in the book ‘Nan Yar – Who Am I?’ This book follows the same pattern, with interviews of 14 European ‘Masters’ (including himself), although it must be said at the outset that the appellation is debatable (and its meaning in any case not defined)!

As with the previous book, the production standards are superb, with quality paper and binding, and with each chapter being prefaced by color photographs of the teacher in question.

The teachers who were interviewed are as follows: Christopher Titmuss, Deva Premal & Miten, Dolano, Mooji, Francis Lucille, Karl Renz, Michael Barnett, Om C. Parkin, Padma & Torsten, Premananda, Rupert Spira and Tony Parsons.

A naive reader, encountering this book, might understandably expect to find much of value in its pages. After all, if these are the best teachers in Europe, and they are answering some of the most important questions that can be addressed by a seeker, one might expect some enlightening responses. Alas, in the main, this is not the case and the reader is likely to be disappointed or, which is far worse, misled. Without being melodramatic, one has to conclude that, if this is the best that Europe can offer, the serious seeker would have to consider moving to India!

If, however, one approaches this book not with the expectation of discovering the truth about oneself but in order to find out the sort of ideas that are being passed off as spiritual teaching these days, then it is an interesting read. And, to be fair, some of what is said is not so bad. Francis Lucille invariably has something interesting to say, as does Rupert Spira (although he does tend to over intellectualize). I was also impressed by Mooji, whose material I had not previously encountered.

But, overall, it has to be said that the answering of random questions from an audience of mixed ability can never be considered to constitute ‘teaching’. Even here, where the questions are ostensibly structured, the answers are very variable in quality and it is clear that most of these ‘Masters’ do not have any genuine understanding. Even Ken Wilber, a highly respected writer if ever there was one, misrepresents Shankara in his foreword to the book by claiming that the world is illusory! (It is actually mithyA – and that is quite different.)

The criteria for choosing the interviewees in this book are not obvious. Christopher Titmuss, for example is primarily a Buddhist (although he doesn’t call himself one). Deva Premal & Miten appear to be musicians and the interview does not really touch on anything of a spiritual nature at all, although there is much ‘(Laughter)’ (sic).

Dolano explains about the qualifications for enlightenment: “What is needed for enlightenment is that you can value ‘what is’, that you do not want anything else other than ‘what is’. If you cannot yet value ‘what is’, then at least have the desire to value that. As long as the desire is for what is possible and natural, like for Truth, for awakening and liberation, this desire is not in the way.” (Clear?) And later: “To know ‘who am I’ is the ground for liberation of this mind.

Karl Renz does not know who he is: “I have no idea; I have simply no idea of what I am or what I am not. There is simply a total absence of idea of what I am or what I am not. That I am. But this is not an answer to anything.” But he does have something interesting to say about consciousness: “So consciousness is dependent on consciousness, formless form, or whatever consciousness is, but the Self is not dependent on whatever consciousness is doing or not doing. The Self, as consciousness already in this imperfection, is striving for perfection to go back to that which is the Source. So whatever is done in consciousness is done for this reason, for the longing to again become that which one is.

It is incredible that, in a book such as this, such fundamental aspects as enlightenment being the removal of ignorance by self-knowledge are not being made clear time and again during the interviews. Om C. Parkin, for example, states in one paragraph that “The mind has to be removed,” and in the next: “There is definitely a misunderstanding about the destruction of mind,” clarified in the next paragraph by: “It is the thinking mind that can be destroyed; it has to be destroyed.” And Mooji says that, through grace and Satsang “the Self comes to realize that it is timeless, that it is not a phenomenon…

Perhaps Torsten’s explanation is typical of the lack of clarity so often seen with modern Western Satsang teachers: “We don’t use this word ‘enlightenment’ much because it is so associated with special experiences that we want to have, but in the core, I would say it is experience seeing the experiencer. As Padma said, there is often the expectation that there is something to be found: an entity limited, separated, existing in space and time. But if the ground of ‘experience’ is really experienced, there is just opening into the vastness of our true nature, if we want to call it this.” Even Premananda was “totally shocked when I realized that there was no such thing as personal enlightenment” and that “this thing that I could achieve called ‘enlightenment’ was already there, had always been there.

Rupert Spira explicitly contradicts the truth about enlightenment: “We could say that enlightenment is the experiential understanding that what we are is Unlimited, located Presence, Consciousness or Awareness. What is it that knows that? Unlimited, unlocated Presence is all that is present ‘there’ to know its own unlimited being, so this recognition of our own being is the Self-recognition that takes place prior to and independent of the mind.” (My underlining. Of course, you could say that a teacher can define enlightenment to mean whatever he wants it to mean – and you would be right – but this is scarcely helpful to the seeker wanting to understand the nature of reality.) And what do you make of this: “The idea that there is a mind is itself a simply a thought. In other words, the mind is a concept that is created with the thought that thinks it.” I’m sure I don’t know what it means!

What hope is there for seekers, if the teachers themselves cannot use the terms with which they communicate in a way that is meaningful? Sloppy terminology is one of the key problems with Western teachers, such that many of the things that are said, when analyzed, making no sense even in relation to other statements from the same teacher. There seems to be a general acceptance amongst many seekers that books and live teachings about spirituality have to be couched in ambiguous terms, using ‘New Agey’ words that ‘appeal to the heart rather than the mind’. It would be instructive to all who think like that to read this book and then read the previous one that I reviewed – the commentary on Mundaka Upanishad by Swami Dayananda. That book carries the opposite and equally erroneous belief of being unapproachable, with its use of ‘impenetrable Sanskrit terms’ and ‘outdated ideas from ancient scriptures’. Read it first and then make the comparison!

Perhaps the teaching of Tony Parsons, outrageous though it is, is the least misleading. At least, he openly admits that “there is no agenda and there is nothing for sale,” “people come with a batch of questions, and after hearing perhaps the introduction or a little of the meeting the question simply collapse.” (Presumably because they realize that they’re not going to get any sensible answers!) And he acknowledges that “yes, they come and pay money to hear that there is no one.

Good teaching is clear, reasonable and authoritative and brings immediate recognition and understanding. And it has to be said that most Western satsang teachers fall far short of this, as this book clearly demonstrates.

It is difficult to award a star rating to this book. As I hope this review has made clear, if its purpose was to appraise seekers of the dire state of the teaching of Nonduality in Europe today, then it serves that purpose well. Unfortunately, one presumably has to pay attention to the statement in the introduction: “European Masters – Blueprint for Awakening is for everyone who has an inner passion to know who they are and what they are doing here as a human being. It is for all who ask the question ‘Who am I?’ And for those who are looking for guidance on the teaching of shrI Ramana to ‘be as you are’.” Since the implication here is that the book should answer these questions, one has to acknowledge that it fails miserably.

5* for the unintentional purpose
1* for the intended purpose
Average – 3*

6 thoughts on “Book Review: European Masters – John David

  1. Dennis, many (if not all) of those who read this Review will feel to be indebted to you for a masterful exposition of the many ways in which so-called ‘Modern Masters’ fall dismally short of that title. As you note, there are no more than one or two (perhaps three) exceptions to that assessment. It is a sad conclusion and an example of the dictum, (those) ‘blind being led by the blind’. Anyone who does not follow a traditional authority – prime examples being Shankara and the Upanishads – does so at his/her own peril.

  2. Martin, I’m not familiar with the teachings of any of the individuals mentioned in Dennis’ review, but instead of judging them from an external and somewhat unsympathetic point of view and bemoaning the allegedly “many ways in which so-called ‘Modern Masters’ fall dismally short of that title”, suppose one were to interview the most established and committed of their students – the blind as you call them – to discover how they view the teaching they follow and in what ways that teaching may have borne fruit in their own lives. It seems to me that unless these students are all deluded or lacking in candor, this approach ‘from within’ would yield a more accurate assessment of the value of these teachings, in the spirit of the dictum “by their fruits you shall know them”. What sayest thou?

  3. Excellent idea in theory, Rick, but how could one possibly arrange a meaningful comparison which could produce any statistically significant conclusions?

    Presumably you have not yourself attended any satsangs given by any of these teachers? The backgrounds of the seekers varies enormously. Some follow a particular teacher; some go to any that happens to turn up at their town; many probably read a bit of Nissargadatta/Ramana or Liquorman/Mooji but many probably don’t. Some will have been ‘active’ for years; others their first time. Some just go for a laugh! Practically none of them will have read any prasthAna traya; some may not even have heard of Shankara.

    What questions would you ask and how would you rate the responses? X would claim that teacher A was ‘great’; Y would tell you that B was ‘rubbish’. So what? Z would insist that their life was ‘so much more meaningful’ than before they started attending C’s satsangs. Really?

    I agree that such an ‘accurate assessment’ could be genuinely instructive but…

  4. Hi Dennis,

    I confess I am not really interested in obtaining statistically significant conclusions. It’s true that most of the satsangs I’ve attended have been given by more or less traditional teachers of Vedanta, not ‘modern masters’. I have, however, over the past 40 odd years known and befriended Hindus (theistic and non-theistic), Jains, Buddhists, Christians of different denominations, and Jews, many of whom, despite our occasional disagreements, have impressed me in various ways with their insights and thoughtful manner of living. My posting to Martin was motivated by his response to your review. I’m not sure what Martin is getting at when he writes “Anyone who does not follow a traditional authority – prime examples being Shankara and the Upanishads – does so at his/her own peril”, but it sounds uncomfortably close to “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; he that does not believeth is damned”, which I do not believeth for one second.

    Cheers

  5. Hi Rick,

    We are just talking about Advaita here and you are in the special, favorable position of someone who already understands the correct teaching. Most seekers are not so lucky. Look at the selection of (just 519 so far) confusions so far at https://www.advaita-vision.org/questions-and-answers/. These are some of the misunderstandings that arise from NOT following a sampradya teaching.

    Yes, of course many peope who follow other religions or ways of living have ‘insights’ etc. but how many end up realizing the non-dual nature of reality? This is what Martin was talking about (correct me if I am wrong, Martin!)

    Best wishes,
    Dennis

  6. Yes, Dennis, having a grip on ‘what the nature of non-duality’ is was the intention of what I wrote.

    You: ‘… it has to be said that most Western satsang teachers fall far short of this, as this book clearly demonstrates.’

    It could be said that I was just parroting what you (Dennis) said, were it not for the fact that I have studied (or read) some of the authors mentioned – definitely Francis Lucille, Nisargadatta, R. Maharshi, and, to a lesser extent, Rupert Spira. I was also impressed at some time by Mooji.

    Excluding more traditional authors while being occupied with non-traditional ones is what I meant by suggesting that by doing that ‘you do it at your own peril’ (obviously a rhetorical turn of phrase – but with a sting!).

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