franciscan - September 2000
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2000
by Brother Christopher John SSF
The Principles of the First Order of SSF have their origins in the Rule of an Indian Christian ashram, Christa Seva Sangha, and then later Christa Prema Seva Sangha. Through the English branch of CPSS, this Rule formed the basis for the Principles of SSF and so the earlier versions give an interesting comparison with their later, anglicized SSF form.
‘The Brethren seek to serve their Master by the life of devotion, by sacred study and by works, these corresponding in some measure with the three ways long known to India as bhaktimarga, dnyanamarga and karmamarga.’ These words from the Rule of Christa Prema Seva Sangha are familiar enough (if we remove the Indian bits) from our SSF Principles. We all know ‘prayer, study and work’- and can easily rattle them off as a description of what we do. I believe these words go far deeper than that and so from an Asian context will very briefly explore the resonances conveyed by the addition of those three Sanskrit words, bhaktimarga, dnyanamarga, and karmamarga.
These terms are found in the Bhagavad-Gita which contains Krishna’s teaching to the warrior, Arjuna, on the ‘way of salvation’. First he speaks of karma, the path of action or the fulfilment of one’s allotted duties with an attitude of detachment as a way of gaining freedom from the bondage of doing work for the sake of its fruits. Next he speaks of dnyana, the path of knowledge. This is not a process of study, of gaining knowledge or even wisdom (although it may include these). Rather, it is the gaining of the truth which comes through meditation. It is the way in which the mind is trained to be as steady as a flame in a windless place. The third way he describes is that of bhakti, the path of devotion. In this context it is to Krishna as Supreme Lord beholding him in ecstatic vision.
According to the original text of the SSF Principles then, our ‘three ways’ correspond to some degree with these terms as they would have been understood in an Indian context.
In Buddhism the essentials of teaching and practice can also be summarized in three aspects as: ethical conduct (Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood) which provides the basis of a moral life necessary for further spiritual development; as mental discipline (Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration) which trains the mind in awareness and the ability to perceive spiritual truths; and as wisdom (Right Thought and Right Understanding) which leads to the deep understanding which sees things in their true nature.
These two different religious viewpoints, Hindu and Buddhist, offer interesting parallels to – and differences from – a Christian perspective. Can we think of ‘Work’ as part of our spiritual training? Can we cultivate an attitude of detachment from the fruits of that work? Can we seek to do our work on a foundation of right morals? As for ‘Study’ - can we unleash this word from all it conveys of ‘being a student’, ‘reading books’, ‘learning things’, ‘passing exams’? Can we look at this rather as being where the activities of study are directed to the goal of mindfulness and the true knowledge of God? And ‘Prayer’ - is it possible to unshackle this from the notion that ‘prayer’ is the same as ‘saying one’s prayers’. Doesn’t the word ‘devotion’ offer much richer insights and a way of integrating prayer and daily life within our whole affectivity and relationship with Christ?
A constructive dialogue with other religions can only help us in exploring the depths of our own belief and, in this particular context, to deepen our understanding of these three ways of prayer, study and work.
If we fail to explore those depths, then we tame an Asian tiger and make it into a domestic pussycat. f
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