Types of Spiritual Discipline

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Just what kind of preceptor the disciple follows and what type of relationship exists between the two varies from tradition to tradition, and within each tradition itself. So any typological classification of spiritual disciplines runs the risk of oversimplification. Classed very generally, the different kinds of spiritual discipline may be understood as heteronymous, autonomous or interactive in nature. These three are only ideal types. Analysis of different examples of actual spiritual endeavors will show that individual disciples and specific traditions practice a combination of all three, though in varied proportion.

Heteronymous discipline

In heteronymous discipline, the disciple submits, in his search for realization, completion or genuine understanding, to the guidelines presented by an external authority. This authority may be personal or impersonal in nature. The structure of the relationship between guide and disciple is often represented as objective, and depicted in oppositional images such as creator and creature, lord and subject, teacher and apprentice, parent and child, shepherd and sheep, wise one and foolish one, judge and the judged. In obeying the commands, or by imitating the actions of the central authority, the seeker finds his or her way to fulfillment and meaning.

One sees the ideals of heteronymous discipline in any account of a disciple who serves a master. For example, the Ch'an Buddhist sweeps the floor and washes the vessels for his teacher. The orthodox Hindu obeys the social regulations / injunctions prescribed by the Dharmasastras. Heteronomy is found in those cases where people find meaning and validity in their actions as defined by an external authority of some kind.

Sometimes the teacher is very far, either in time or in space, and the disciple learns from a fellow disciple who is wiser and who knows the teachings, if not the teacher, and who, having realized the teachings himself, can illumine the difficult passage for the disciple.

A good example of heteronymous discipline appears in Islamic spiritual traditions. Muslims repeatedly hear in the Quran the notion that a person's sole purpose in life is to serve the will of God (Allah) by cultivating his or her potential in accordance with God's ‘command' (amr). This submission (Islaam) to God is the purpose for which God sends, through prophets and revealed literatures, the divine ‘guidance' (hidayah). The central revelation, the Quran, describes itself as an invitation to come to the right path (hudan li-al-naas) and is the source of the Islamic sacred law (shariah, literally, ‘the way to the water hole', an appropriate image for spiritual travelers in a desert region). Islamic tradition notes that examples of such guiding laws include what is known as fard or waajib - those duties and actions all Muslims must obey such as daily prayer (salat), alms-giving (sakat), and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan (sawm).

According to Islamic mystical traditions, primarily those influenced by Sufi ideologies and practices, a person intent on gaining a direct experience of God's presence and power first seeks out a preceptor who guides the disciple through the stages of the spiritual journey. The preceptor then watches over the murid carefully, for the path (tariqah) is a long and difficult one.

The preceptor comes to know the disciple at the most intimate of levels. He reads the disciple's mind and sees into his dreams so that he can advise the disciple as he moves through the anxiety and doubt inherent in the spiritual transformation.

He may make the murid practice ascetic meditation for periods of forty days at a time, and demand that the pupil direct all of his attention to God; or he may require the pupil to live in a community of fellow seekers in order to benefit from the support a group can give.

The master is careful to keep the disciple attentive to his spiritual duties as he progresses through the ‘stations' on the path such as repentance (tawbah), abstinence (wara), renunciation (zuhd), fasting (sawm), surrender to God (tawakkul), poverty (faqr), patience (sabr), gratitude (shukr), the cultivation of ecstatic joy (bast) through constraint of the ego (qabd), and finally love (mahabbah) and mystic annihilation (mafifah) into the being of God. Bringing the disciple through these stages, the Sufi master shows him the way to fanaa, in which the seeker rids himself of all human imperfections, and takes on the qualities of the Divine.

K. R. Paramahamsa is an author of book Living in Spirit.

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