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The Failure of Antinomianism

November 9, 2004

By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2004 all rights reserved)

The American Heritage dictionary says an antinomianist is one who is "opposed to or denies the fixed meaning or universal applicability of morality." While I am willing to acknowledge that aspects of morality are too often culturally biased, I do believe there are fundamental aspects of morality (what Buddhists call sila) that apply across cultural boundaries. Those aspects of human behavior that we call essential moral behavior seem to correspond to an avoidance of harm, such as the 10 Commandments and the Buddhist 8 Fold Path and their 5 Precepts, or the Hindu concept of Ahimsa. I believe these concepts are intended to inspire one to avoid harm whenever possible. Harmlessness is most often interpreted as to not only avoiding harm to other humans, but other creatures, as well as to oneself.

Even though the American Heritage dictionary didn't mention it, antinomianists seem to typically reject discipline as well.  Discipline is another aspect of the spiritual journey that is common to most spiritual traditions, although again that discipline is highly variable across cultural boundaries.  I do not believe we should be uncritical in our spiritual journeys.  Therefore, I believe it is reasonable to consider debating what constitutes "functional" discipline, or that which truly leads to liberation, and what is just a cultural contrivance. 

A classic example of what we now accept as a cultural contrivance is the pre-Buddhist and Christian practice of animal sacrifice that almost every religion and culture practiced intensively prior to the emergence and dominance of Buddhism and Christianity.  In the classics, such as the Ramayana, Old Testament, Homer's Odyssey, and Virgil's Aeneid, we find animal sacrifice was considered by the early Hindus, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans to be essential religious, moral and ethical behavior.  Now many of us, especially those following a Christian, Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu based spiritual model today, consider animal sacrifice amoral behavior, even though the American barbecue is a common enough and highly regarded cultural past-time in the USA. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that Sidharta Gotama and Jesus of Nazareth were antinomian in their rejection of animal sacrifice.

Since antinomianist tend to reject discipline and morality we could say that Rajneesh was clearly an Antinomianist, because he chose to consume intoxicants, accumulate wealth for personal gain, pursue the appetites of all of his senses (including his sexual appetites), and to otherwise promote no discipline whatsoever among his students. Central to his teaching was a so-called "chaotic" meditation practice. 

Chaotic meditation is arguably the antithesis of what meditation is supposed to be about, that is the pursuit of a calm and tranquil mind and body, not chaos (dukkha).  All of this pursuit of selfishness and chaos was in the name of a "spiritual" practice. Rajneesh even promoted his completely undisciplined "regime" within the theological construct of the Samkya tradition, which is a highly respected monastic tradition of India that is based upon discipline.

Rajneesh arrived in the USA early in the first year of my spiritual practice (early 70's). I recall many spiritual "seekers" following his teachings. But, when I heard Rajneesh's use of the term 'chaotic meditation' I right away knew this man had to be a charlatan, because of the obvious contradiction. How can chaos lead to equanimity, one of the 7 factors of enlightenment?

Needless to say, many, many "seekers" followed Rajneesh. I believe they followed him because he gave them "permission" to be as irresponsible as they wanted to be. The consequence was he acquired great wealth, but his followers also suffered from diseases, and eventually his whole program collapsed.  There was even an attempt on his life by his own disciples. And, it seems, not one teacher with any repute has emerged from Rajneesh's teaching and philosophy in the intervening 30 or so years.

Now there seems to be a growing interest in his teachings. The problem is, are his teachings any more valid today than they were 20 or 30 years ago? Antinomianism and nihilism have been coming and going in human culture as long as there has been a written record, and no doubt a lot longer than that. No, in my opinion, antinomianism, or the rejection of morality and discipline, will never lead to freedom from suffering (dukkha), liberation, enlightenment, cessation, (nibbana). How can it? 

Who has succeeded at antinomianism? Please don't tell me Rajneesh was enlightened, because he manifested none of the conditions of enlightenment. He was not generous, he accumulated wealth; there is no evidence that he was compassionate, patient or tolerant, because he was drugging his followers, and he even poisoned the people of Antelope, Oregon to influence their local elections.  He also didn't have equanimity, because he taught 'chaotic meditation.' Therefore, there can only be one conclusion regarding Mr. Rajneesh, he was a suffering being, like everyone else, but he made a lot of money, and got quite a reputation. He did however give people permission to be as irresponsible as they wanted to be and to believe, through a lack of discipline, they were on a spiritual journey.  But, did he relieve any one's suffering (dukkha)? Not apparently.

While I am at it though, Rajneesh was by no means the only antinomian "spiritual" teacher in the West in the last 50 years.  Da Free-John claims to be enlightened, and yet he was sued by a half dozen of his "inner-most disciples" in the mid-80s for committing "bazaar and demeaning sexual practices" upon his disciples.  What makes someone even put up with this kind of inappropriate behavior in the name of "enlightenment?"  Free-John claims "crazy wisdom."  I call it crazy and na•ve disciples.  He has since changed his name to Adida, but I doubt seriously if he has changed his ways.

I often hear people saying that various "spiritual" teachers. who lead greedy and unethical lives, such as Free-John or Rajneesh, wrote books of "great wisdom."  To me it is only proof any fool can write a book and get it published. Personally, the world is full of valuable literature written by truly great mystics and enlightened beings, such as the Pali canon and the Bible. I think life is too short for reading the "spiritual" literature of someone who is addicted to drugs and sex.

Of course people like to quote Choigum Trungpa Rinpoche as a great Tibetan "enlightened" teacher.  But, he was a notorious alcoholic and sex addict, who apparently either died of AIDS or alcoholism, or both.

There is an up side to antinomianism though.  One can be called antinomian if one rejects the dogma of one's religion. For instance when the historic Buddha and Jesus rejected animal sacrifice, they could have been considered antinomian, because they rejected some of the accepted religious practices of their day.  The 17th century messiah, Sabbatai Zevi of the Donmeh, chanted out loud the Tetragrammaton (Jehovah).  He was accused of the worst kind of blasphemy in the Jewish religion. But, for Sabbatai Zevi and his students the Tetragrammaton was their mantra.

Since Sidharta Gotama, Jesus of Nazareth, Sabbatai Zevi and others rejected some of the biases of their respective cultures, I believe it is therefore reasonable to reevaluate what constitutes morality and discipline.  But, I believe the central valid point that is too often taken to an extreme by the antinomianist is, "At what point is our practice just a manifestation of grasping and aversion?"  Basically, if we are suffering beings, enmeshed in dukkha, then pretty much every thing we do has grasping and aversion in it. So, even our spiritual aspirations and practices are also based upon grasping and aversion.

There is an ancient Hindu metaphor that I believe Sri Ramakrishna often used, and that is of "extracting the thorn imbedded in the flesh." In the days before tweezers people removed a thorn from their body by taking two thorns and using them as tweezers to remove a thorn in the flesh. This metaphor is commonly interpreted as saying, the way out of dukkha is to use it.  That is to either enlist or subvert our habit of grasping and aversion, and redirect it toward the spiritual venture. I believe this concept is actually at the basis of many devotional and Tantric practices, where the practitioner simply transforms the world of concepts and form (nama-rupa) into an arena or stage, or alter of devotion.

Eventually, when one is very close to cessation, the aspirant will recognize his or her spiritual practice and aspiration as another aspect of grasping and aversion. The letting go of one's aspiration is letting go of the "last rope."  The letting go of the longing or aspiration for liberation is typically (and should be) at the last layer of the self. If one lets go of one's aspiration too early, then one wont succeed. Instead one will end up as a nihilist or antinomian practitioner, who either denies the possibility of liberation or rejects ethics, and is thus never released from suffering (dukkha).

I can only hope that I have been of some small benefit to you and others. I seek not to cause harm, but only to benefit all beings with every thought word and action. And, if I have inadvertently caused harm, then I only seek your forgiveness and the forgiveness of the others I may have harmed.

If you engage in the contemplative life diligently you will become enlightened in this very life-time,

Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)


Originally posted October 25, 2003, this version (updated 02-14-05) may be retrieved at this URL:


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