Saints, Teachers, and Seekers in the Indian Tradition
American Sage of Vedanta Philosophy
Franklin Merrell-Wolff was an American living in rural California who documented his spiritual awakening in a journal published under the title Pathways Through to Space. Franklin grew up in California, the son of a clergyman and graduated Stanford University Phi Beta Kappa in 1911 majoring in mathematics with minors in philosophy and psychology. He did graduate work at Stanford and Harvard. He also taught mathematics briefly at Stanford. At this point, he withdrew from the academic world and began his spiritual search. Franklin does not include much additional personal information in his diary. Thus, this biography is more about spiritual experience and contains less background information on his life.
In 1937, Franklin had been studying and meditating on the Indian philosopher Shankara’s thought reading his books in English translation. He felt a great affinity with the writings of this sage, and his view of Vedanta. Franklin had also been spending a great deal of time alone as a gold-prospector, and this solitude helped him contemplate and understand the subtle philosophical issues in some depth.
He describes his initial spiritual realization as follows:
One day after the evening meal… I passed into a very delightful state of contemplation. … My breath changed, but not in the sense of stopping or becoming extremely slow or rapid. It was, perhaps, just a little slower than normal. The notable change was in a subtle quality associated with the air breathed. Over and above the physical gases of the air there seemed to be an impalpable substance of indescribable sweetness that, in turn, was associated with a general sense of well being, embracing even the physical man. It was like happiness or joy, but these words are inadequate. It was of a very gentle quality yet far transcended the value of the form of any of the more familiar forms of happiness. It was quite independent of the beauty or comfort of the environment. At that time the latter was, to say the least, austere and not in any sense attractive. … the air was far from invigorating due to the period being exceptionally warm. However, introspective analysis revealed the fact that the elixir-like quality was most marked during exhalation, thus indicating that it was not derived from normal air. Further, the exhaled breath was not simply air expelled into the outer atmosphere, but seemed to penetrate down through the whole organism like a gentle caress, leaving throughout a quiet sense of delight. It seemed to me like nectar. Since that time I have learned it is the true Ambrosia.
Franklin describes in detail some of the formative experiences that led to his present realization.
Franklin had in the previous few days an insight that he believed "played a vital part in clearing the way for the illumination that occurred later". The insight had to do with his concept of the relationship of empty space to matter. He had gradually come to perceive that so-called empty space was in fact full and substantial, while material objects were in fact a kind of "partial vacuum". The effect was that his senses began to be capable of perceiving empty space as the substantial foreground while physical objects receded into the background. This, in turn, led to the perception that material objects were part of a "dependent or derivative reality".
In the previous eighteen months, Franklin had also begun to have conversations with a person he recognized as a sage. These communications led him to follow certain suggestions from the sage when he felt unclear on certain points of discussion. As the teaching continued, he reports that both he and his wife began to see "Light where their had been obscurity".
Two previous insights also contributed to the current experience. Franklin mentions that nearly fourteen years prior, he had a realization that "he was atman" (atman loosely translates to soul). In the second, which occurred less than a year prior, Franklin realized while reading a book of a living Indian Sage that Nirvana was not "a field, or space, or world which one entered" but that he was "identical with Nirvana and would always be so".
Franklin described this event as a "recognition" rather than an experience in the conventional sense. It was an awakening to a kind of knowledge best described as "knowledge through Identity".
To precipitate his spiritual recognition, he had been reading a chapter on "liberation". He realized that a common mistake in meditation, which seeks enlightenment, was that the meditator seeks something that can be experienced. He realized the falseness of this approach and proceeded to "drop the expectation of having anything happen". He was then able to abstract the atman or "I am" from the objective reality around him. He found nothing but "darkness and emptiness" from an objective viewpoint but realized "it as Absolute Light and Fullness" and that he was That. He writes:
I found myself above the universe not in the sense of having left the physical body and being taken out of space but in the sense of being above space, time, and causality. My karma seemed to drop away from me as an individual responsibility. I felt intangibly, yet wonderfully free. I sustained the universe and was not bound by it… I seemed to comprehend a veritable library of knowledge, all less concrete that the most abstract mathematics. The personality rested in a gentle glow of happiness.
The experience left him disinterested in everyday activities. The questions that occurred to Franklin were, "what is there of interest here?", and "what is worth doing?". His answer: "I found but one interest: the desire that other souls should also realize what I had realized." He perceived the tragedies of the everyday man as "little tragedies". He wrote: "I saw one great tragedy, the cause of all the rest, the failure of man to realize his own divinity".
Since that first realization, Franklin wrote that "the Current" as he described it continued to be with him off and on. Focused activity or thought stopped this Current. Action could occur along with the Current, provided that an "inner concentration" was not broken. The Current had an effect on certain people (such as his wife) who could recognize it, while others were not affected. Some people had the effect of shutting down the Current in Franklin while others had no effect on it.
The rest of Franklin’s journal consists of short tracts where he examines his realization from a variety of different standpoints. He examines such concepts as beauty, morality, cosmic consciousness, occult powers, asceticism, duty, and "the high indifference" from his new awakened perspective.
He also continues his analysis of the new spiritual states he was exploring under the repeating chapter title "The Record Continued".
Franklin was fascinated with the formless unmanifest form of mysticism while acknowledging the existence of an intermediate form of mystical experience he identified as "Cosmic Consciousness". He clearly states his preference:
I cannot conceive of anyone who has glimpsed the beauty of the Transcendent Formlessness ever preferring cosmic beauty.
He seemed most affected by the Indian author Shankara but also acknowledged his debt to the Western philosopher Immanuel Kant for his investigation into the noumenal world which lies behind and beyond the phenomenal world of the senses. His experience seemed to give him a universalist perspective to the world’s religions where the different religious prophets and leaders of the past had different approaches to religion but each was valuable:
It seems clear that no man can effectively illuminate the Way for all men. There is more than one main Road and a great number of subroads. On all these, men who can serve as beacons are needed.Franklin even goes so far as to use the terminology of different religions to describe the Current characterizing it as the "Soma", "Nectar", the "Ambrosia of the Gods", the "Water of Life", and the "Baptism of the Spirit".
Franklin mentioned on different occasions that the "Current of bliss" had a purifying affect on the body. This brought on a certain degree of tiredness due to the stress on the body when he remained immersed in it for an extended period. He therefore needed sleep after a prolonged period of contact with higher states.
He also gives an example of how his realization enhances everyday experience when he describes his response to a small yellow kitten he glimpsed:
It ran across the platform and I felt a thrill of delight. It was as though a tiny melody from the Cosmic Symphony had trilled joyously into the mind – a little stretch born forth from the Grand Harmony. And from this a wave of joy was distilled and pulsed through me.
Franklin continually tries to analyze and describe his experience of the Current in various ways reflecting on how it affects him:
There were no words, no ideas, not any other form, yet one might say It was the very essence of Sound and Meaning. It was utterly satisfactory and filling. It was the very Power that makes all things to become clear. Again there flowed the Current of gentle joy that penetrates through and through…. It appears as of the nature of a fluid, for there is this sense of ‘flowing through’. It penetrated all tensions with the effect of physical release. All over and through and through there is a quality that may well be described as physiological happiness. The organism feels no craving for sensuous distraction to find enjoyment.
He concludes that the true sage, while appearing ascetic, is in fact anything but ascetic, because "he who has realized Spiritual Gold enjoys more not less".
One of the unique elements of Franklin’s spiritual path was the degree to which he used spiritual discrimination to bring about his realization. He found over the years that any attempt to stop thought, which is common to oriental methods of meditation, was an impediment to meditation. Instead, he spontaneously evolved methods to analyze his own experience in the light of his spiritual reading.These methods involved distilling out certain subtle aspects of experience and focusing his attention on those while letting the rest of his perceptions fade into the background. He believed that this is a common practice in Western scientific methods of understanding natural phenomena. He was extending this analytic method into the realm of spirituality and psychological states, as have others in the past who have followed the path of discrimination.
Franklin’s unique contribution to the varieties of religious experience seems to be his success in penetrating the mystery of consciousness without undergoing the exercises in fierce concentration that are generally prescribed by Hindu and Buddhist teachers. These are usually considered prerequisites to any sort of realization, and a necessary component of the path to enlightenment. However, Merrell-Wolff's insight came spontaneously.
It seems that Franklin's spiritual realization has also stood the test of time. In the preface to the second edition of Pathways Through to Space, he writes:
It is now more than thirty-six years since the precipitation of the inner events which led to the writing of this volume. It may be said now that the value of this unfoldment is as high as it ever was. It is true that I would place this treasure far above anything which may be obtained in the ordinary world field, in whatever domain, such as achievement in government, in business, in science, philosophy, mathematics or the arts. All these stand as values far inferior to these greater values which come from Fundamental Realization.
Though Franklin was an American, he did achieve genuine guru status himself, and gained disciples. And he was most certainly someone who felt himself to be in the Indian tradition looking primarily to Indian spiritual books and teachers for insight into the spiritual mysteries. In the following passage, he speaks of both the importance of the Indian philosopher Shankara's works and Vedanta philosophy (text in parenthesis is added by the author for clarity):
Immanuel Kant is a great example, among western peoples, of a man who attained some Recognition through Manas (defined by Wolff as the "Intellectual principle"). As a result, his philosophy clears the way in the West in a sense analogous to the thought achieved by Shankara in the Orient but, unlike the latter, it is incomplete on the metaphysical side. Hegel partially completed the structure, but the whole of this falls short of the completeness of the Advaita Vedanta (India's primary non-dual system of philosophy).
Franklin also believed that Indian culture had developed language in a way that was helpful to the spiritual quest:
There is a science of recognition, though in large part it remains esoteric. But some of the knowledge may be uncovered by the uninitiated student if he seeks in the right place. Among the various races, the East Indians form the chief repository of this science, and the language employed, the Sanskrit, involves terms corresponding to concepts for which there are no real equivalents in our current western languages.Franklin also followed certain aspects of the Indian tradition in his emphasis on celibacy. As with many Indian renunciants, he considered sexuality a hindrance on the spiritual path, and suggested that serious spiritual seekers abstain from sexual activity.
In terms of Franklin's role as guru, it is unclear to what extent he acted as a classical Indian guru to his disciples. He mentions on many occasions meditation with others, and talks of suggesting different approaches to see how effective they are in inducing his state of "recognition" in others. It seems unlikely that he accepted disciples who would depend on him or surrender to him in the more classical role of guru as spiritual father and director of the disciple's life. His role appears to be limited to spiritual advisor and helper. A more exhaustive study of his life would be required to determine how he lived out his role as guru.
Although Franklin had contacts with one or more persons he considered "sages" who helped him in deep discussions of spiritual matters, he did not appear to have a guru in the classical Indian sense of initiation and surrender. His focused and penetrating mind appeared to be sufficiently powerful to discover the underlying mystery of consciousness without the direct aid of a guru.
Pathways Through to Space by Franklin Merrell-Wolf, Warner Books, 1976
The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object by Franklin Merrell-Wolff
Franklin Merrell-Wolff's Experience and Philosophy:
A personal Record of Transformation and Discussion of Transcendent Consciousness
by Franklin Merrell-Wolff
Some of the above listed books available from:
SUNY Press (Search on key "merrell")
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