The Ten Thousand Idiots

“It is always a danger
To aspirants on the Path

When they begin
To believe and act

As if the ten thousand idiots
Who so long ruled and lived inside

Have all packed their bags
And skipped town


There is a lot of cautionary wisdom packed into that one-sentence poem of Hafiz, the magnificent Sufi genius whose poetic spiritual insights rivaled those of his better known fellow Persian ecstatic, Rumi. It seems particularly relevant in these strange days of instant internet gurus, youtube preachers, satsang circuit regulars, and the steady cavalcade of both imported and home-grown varieties of holy masters, roshis, swamis, priests, and smiling lamas — a startlingly high percentage of whom seem to share the common destiny of being caught in the beds of their disciples, or with their hands in their students wallets, just to name a couple of the all too familiar peccadillos that appear to characterize the species.

Nevertheless, aside from the outright charlatans, frauds, and criminals, most of these folk who present themselves as teachers and preachers – “Knowers” — are relatively well-meaning individuals who are sincerely convinced that they have been personally called to the pulpit — usually after having enjoyed some sort of spiritual epiphany, dramatic conversion, or life-changing revelatory experience that they consequently imagine grants them the license to spread their particular version of the truth, the way, and the light. Some may have even undertaken a good deal of study in a formal environment and been handed certain validating documents by their own teachers, granting them authority to “carry on the family business”, so to speak.

Now, the purpose of this essay is not to consign the whole species to the dog house (even damaged personalities still have the potential to be of service on the “path”). Rather, it is merely to suggest that very few folks are actually as spiritually enlightened as they may take themselves to be, or promote themselves in the spiritual marketplace to be. That includes each one of us too, since a common characteristic of most humans is an inflated sense of their own evolutionary status, especially in the spiritual arena. In fact, the more highly advanced or accomplished we believe ourselves to be, the more the ten thousand idiots are certainly present and accounted for — clapping in glee at our silliness and vanity.

Even the exceedingly rare few who have achieved true liberation in human form are usually still unable to fully embody such realization in their lives and relationships. The ten thousand idiots are still waiting in the background to perform their mischief. Moreover, the even rarer few who actually have mastered the basics of this relatively kindergarten level of the Totality’s manifestation have in no way reached some final landing place, but are merely fit to graduate to the next higher curriculum, having achieved release from the afflicted states that typically define human life.

Such folk have learned how to behave, and that in itself is no meager attainment, especially in this realm of mad children. For example, they have awakened to their identity with the Absolute, recognized the true Suchness of all phenomena, and opened their hearts to the Miracle of Love, eliminating the poisons of greed, envy, hatred, and fundamental ignorance in the process. Still, that is not the end of the story, and in fact there may not even be an “ending” in that respect, though our human brain is not capable nor is it even configured to comprehend what further evolution beyond this human realm entails.

Suffice it to say that most claims of “enlightenment” are typically delusional exaggerations, if not outright lies, errors in judgment and appreciation, or simply seductive traps, such as the “Intermediate Zone” referred to by Sri Aurobindo, and described here. It is common for aspirants to imagine that they have already reached the pinnacle of the human potential, when in fact they are still lingering at base camp.

In previous essays, such as this, I discuss the myths and imaginative notions surrounding the phenomenon of Enlightenment in greater detail, and so will not be rehashing the matter so much here. Rather, I will move on to a brief consideration of the stages of spiritual awakening in human form — a subject usually mired in a lot of confusion, misinterpretation, fantasy, and sectarian controversy.

To delineate the classical levels, I will be utilizing a 1200 year old model developed by the great Chan (Zen) Buddhist Master Dongshan Liangjie (Tozan), and refined through the ages by various notable Realizers, such as Hakuin Ekaku, known as the reviver of the Rinzai Zen School in 18th century Japan. It was originally based on a text called “The Jeweled-Mirror Samadhi”, whose origins are unknown, but has been traced back to a Master named Shitou Xiqian (Sekito).

As indicated earlier, true spiritual breakthroughs have always been an extremely unusual phenomenon in this world, and even rarer still is the full embodiment in life and relations of the insights such a revolution at the root of consciousness will yield. Moreover, without the proper context for such shattering experiences, or without some guiding influence from mature teacher/benefactors, the experiencer could end up literally dazed and confused, believing they have lost their mind. Others may imagine that they have been “chosen”, and so go off to found some cult of personality based on their personal sense of revelation. Indeed, the old cliché invariably applies here that “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”

Pitfalls abound on the way, and there are numerous cautionary tales that have been handed down through the ages concerning the misapplication of spiritual insights and epiphanies. Furthermore, we need not delve into the historical record, when plenty of such examples confront us today. It seems that, wherever we turn, we are encountering the documented fall from grace of this cultic teacher or that would-be prophet, sometimes ending in both personal and group tragedy. In my essay on Zen and the Emotional/Sexual Contraction (here), I discuss a particular case that hit close to home, but more than one of my teachers over the years has demonstrated the weakness and compromised frailty of the human condition, even when informed by deep spiritual attainment.

The first of the “5 Ranks of Tozan” is called “The Apparent Within the Real”, or “The Relative Within the Absolute”. It consists of an initial glimpse (called “Kensho” in Zen) into the true nature of Reality – the Absolute. Previously, our sense of self was a matter of identification with body and mind, sense impressions and thought forms, separate from others and bound to a particular destiny. With the sudden revolution, or shift, at the very core of consciousness, our perspective or angle of vision changes to one in which we experience ourselves as that vastness within which all bodies, mental events, and phenomena are arising and vanishing, the transparent spaciousness of timeless presence, or awareness itself.

This experience represents a tremendous breakthrough, in which all things (including the person one had assumed oneself to be) are directly recognized to be empty of any inherent and enduring substance. Contrary to many expectations however, it is not the end of one’s work, but merely the entryway into the real matter of spiritual transformation. In his definitive exposition on the 5 Ranks of Awakening (“Keiso Dokuzi”), Hakuin describes it as “the state of total empty solidity, without sound and without odor, like a bottomless clear pool. It is as if every fleck of cloud had been wiped from the vast sky.”

As profound as this realization may be, it too can also become a trap, especially for those who would linger in what is still an imbalanced view, and one whose peace and assuredness can easily be disturbed by contact with the challenging tests this human life provides us, since the habit energies are still active. Consequently, the next rank consists in stabilizing and embodying the insight gained in the initial glimpse into Reality, regardless of the changing circumstances and distractions encountered in the midst of ordinary life. It is called “The Real Within the Apparent”, or “The Absolute Within the Relative”.

Here, everything is recognized as an aspect of oneself, and so nothing is separate and excluded in this view, unlike in the first rank. As one commentator noted: “Eventually a middle ground is found where the holographic self-image appears but oscillating in empty transparency that never fully shifts back into a solid identity, because its now known to be empty holographic light without substance. That is the wisdom of emptiness known as prajna that arises spontaneously from the Ground during total transparency.”

Nevertheless, only when one has stabilized in the third rank is true compassion born (Bodhicitta), and one becomes capable of selfless, heart-felt, and loving response to all and everything. It is called “Coming From Within the Real”. As Hakuin notes, “In this rank, [one] does not remain in the state of attainment that they have realized, but from the midst of the sea of effortlessness they let their great uncaused compassion shine forth.”

The fourth stage is called “The Arrival at Mutual Integration”, which is even more potent than the third rank, in that one can now “enter the market place with empty hands, yet others receive benefit from them.” Such a strong practitioner has cast off any stink of awakening, any emblem or badge, and so is perceived in the world as an ordinary being, and yet within that ordinary being dwells a “bodhisattva of indomitable spirit who turns the Dharma-wheel of the non-duality of brightness and darkness. He stands in the midst of the filth of the world, his head covered with dust and his face streaked with dirt.”

Nevertheless, even this profound level is not a place to rest, since there is still a further level to be realized in the course of human spiritual liberation (in Tozan’s paradigm): “Unity Attained”. Truly, it is not even a rank or level, but more an indication that there is no end to one’s evolutionary development, even beyond this limited human incarnation. As Hakuin writes: “It is of the utmost importance to study and pass through the Five Ranks, to attain penetrating insight into them, and to be totally without fixation or hesitation. But, though your own personal study of the Five Ranks comes to an end, the Buddha-way stretches endlessly and there are no tarrying places on it. The Gates of Dharma (Truth) are manifold.”

In other words, even though the ten thousand idiots who so long ruled and lived inside may have been subdued, this merely represents an auspicious start to a journey without end, and may all beings appreciate and enjoy this ineffable way as it unfolds!

“Work is always going on for millions of years. It will never be complete. We will never say that it is enough.”

~ Siddharameshwar Maharaj

About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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10 Responses to The Ten Thousand Idiots

  1. jencistory says:

    Great piece as ever, Bob. I have just been writing about this today on my blog, the journey up to the “enlightenment” rather than the maturation of liberation itself, in my post Opening the Spiritual Heart. My observation of people on the path is that they avoid many aspects of themselves and I can see why powerful experiences which could be seen as final enlightenment, may mean they think everything is resolved and yet that which has been suppressed will eventually come to the surface and hence the sights we see with some of the teachers. Unresolved conflict, not wholeness.
    Still having said that and with my current limited perspective of this maturation process, like the 5 ranks, I would be cautious to believe that “good behaviour” was a sign of someone who had attained the highest level of liberation or if they hadn’t achieved that 5th rank, then I wouldn’t dismiss the validity of what they were teaching.
    I would consider Nisargadatta to be an excellent teacher and as about “self realised” as it gets in the body. Still he often was irritable, angry, dismissive or playful in his sense of humour with his students. Yet he was also incredibly loving, compassionate, giving and people talk of the extraordinary presence they felt in his company. I would say that was the Truth operating through his body at the time, however it looked and the legacy of his teachings will remain for a very long time, if not indefinitely.
    So I am cautious when I hear about “good” behaviour because I think people have the tendency to judge teachers in the realms of “saints” or “sinners” but I don’t think that is what the 5 Ranks are alluding to either – more that the Truth is beyond all comprehension of the human mind and it is only when the human has dissolved all their fixations and attachments, can that Truth of realisation move freely unhindered by illusion of the separate self.

    • Bob OHearn says:

      Hiya Jen, Thank you for your comments!

      Your example of Sri Nisargadatta leads me to clarify what I meant by “good behavior”, since apparently I was not thorough enough in my comments when I wrote: “Such folk have learned how to behave, and that in itself is no meager attainment, especially in this realm of mad children. For example, they have awakened to their identity with the Absolute, recognized the true Suchness of all phenomena, and opened their hearts to the Miracle of Love, eliminating the poisons of greed, envy, hatred, and fundamental ignorance in the process.”
      There is no question in my mind that Nisargadatta was essentially free of those poisons, had realized his identity with the Absolute, recognized the true Suchness of all phenomena, and opened his heart to the Miracle of Love. That is what I mean by learning how to behave. This does not mean that one is some sort of “saint” in the conventional sense, which is a fantasy anyway. As a realized teacher and jnani, whatever moved through him in any particular situation was solely for the edification and awakening of the student. This is also the case with the fascinating legacy of the “crazy wisdom” teachers (aka “holy fools”), who would often demonstrate highly eccentric behavior in their human contacts. You might check out for one interesting example.
      I hope this clarifies my meaning.

      PS: You also wrote, “…if they hadn’t achieved that 5th rank, then I wouldn’t dismiss the validity of what they were teaching.”

      I did write: “…even damaged personalities still have the potential to be of service on the “path””, so as to address the fact that one need not be at the 5th rank to be able to teach and guide.


  2. jencistory says:

    Thanks bob for the clarity. I had in mind that’s what you meant. The whole thing about teachers appearing “good” was one I got stuck on in the early days. In fact, I rejected Nisargadatta at first because he seemed too brusque to me. It seems silly now. Perhaps that was best at the time as I was far to sensitive for his type of teaching, which really is cutting for the fragile and picky ego, lol.
    I do wonder about these teachers that get into difficulty with temptations that they are being given everything they need to tease out the final remnants of those traits you mentioned above.
    Well all of us are really, being given everything we need 🙂

  3. Bob OHearn says:

    Jen, you wrote: “I do wonder about these teachers that get into difficulty with temptations that they are being given everything they need to tease out the final remnants of those traits you mentioned above.”

    Indeed, we are always given everything we need, although we tend to resist mightily. True humility, which is the foundation of real spiritual development, involves being able to let go of our preferences and accept life (including ourselves) as it is, and as we are. The craving to have things be other than they are is at the root of our stressfulness (aka “Dukkha”).

    Here’s an example I just came across today of a so-called spiritual leader immersed in the weeds:

    In sharing this essay with Mazie, she pointed out that, the closer one gets to liberation, the stronger the forces of bondage will strive to bring one down. What happens is, the ego-mind senses its imminent dethronement, and so arrays all its big guns to counter. This includes the subtle allurements of vanity, and not just the grosser distractions of money, food, sex, and power. Spiritual autobiographies are chock full of such cautionary tales. As our Friend Adya pointed out once, the ego-mind can co-opt even profound spiritual experiences, claiming them as “mine”, and so strutting “bragging rights” to a new and shinier self.

    This Subtle Ego represents that aspect of our mistaken identity which buys into its own myth, believing itself to be a specially advanced soul, secure in the knowledge of things Divine, and using every opportunity to project that wry self-assessment into all its relations.


  4. Awall says:

    We begin with no rank and end with no rank. In between is a path of self indulgence. Nothing more humble than the certainty of having empty hands and no rank. Blessings to you, Bob.

    • Bob OHearn says:

      Thank you for your comment, Awall! Beginnings, endings, and certainties can be a handful, eh! Perhaps such concepts too are a bit of an indulgence?

      • Awall says:

        Perhaps that is what time is for? I will certainly be giving that more thought. In the meantime, thank you for allowing me to indulge myself here.

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    Another insightful take on the various phases, or “ranks”:

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    “The way in which we view something defines for us what we’re going to allow ourselves to see of it. A point of view is merely one degree out of the three hundred and sixty degrees of a circle; each point of view can see from that point only, and so is three hundred and fifty nine degrees blind. When we become fixated on our “point of view,” our interpretations and expectations blind us. This is true of how we view our practice as well. Since our practice is about opening to our life as it is, opening to this moment as it is, and allowing this clear seeing to pervade our life, it is important that our view of practice also be open and clear. This requires honesty with ourselves and our own motives and a very open and clear investigation and recognition of the ways in which we might be approaching our practice as a means to try to grasp at things within our life, instead of opening to the vastness of our life itself.”

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    “Just ’cause you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town.”

    ~George Carlin

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