Author Archives: Monksway

Notes From a “Retreat”

So once more I went up into the high country of the Eastern Sierras to spend a few days in the silence and solitude of this magnificent wilderness. Found my favorite campsite, pitched the old tent, built a fire, and was ready for a great week or so. It was cold–the highs during the day were in the 50s and the nights would drop to the 30s, but I had a warm sleeping bag and there was plenty of wood for fires in the early morning and evening when it was the coldest. Food would be minimal. Hot oatmeal with raisins in the morning; boil ramen noodles or rice in a package; some salami and cheese that I can pick up in a store on the way and which holds up well in the cold; eggs maybe; pita bread and peanut butter; salted almonds; trailmix and of course coffee and tea.

I must say that this is not what most people would consider a “retreat.” The term is usually reserved for spending a few prayerful days, maybe well-structured and organized for talks and reflection, within the ambience of some kind of religious group. I fully support such ventures, but this is not what this old coot needs at this time of his life! I prefer to spend a few days in the silence of John Muir’s “cathedral,” the Range of Light–or perhaps some would prefer to call it John Muir’s Zen garden!! I don’t recommend this to anyone unless you feel it within you, but it sure seems beneficial and important to include the elemental aspects of reality and not just sit in a room no matter the spiritual practices that enables. There are vistas that open up when you are exposed to the beauty and power of the elements. There is no fooling yourself or imagining some kind of spiritual realization–the elements require your attention in order to survive. Just the daily chores of staying warm, staying alive, etc. are quite a spiritual practice in this environment. And all around you is nothing but beauty and grandeur and manifestations of life in all its intricate interrelatedness. Needless to say what unfolds within you remains unsayable. The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao…….

So there I was, thriving for several days when everything changed. The weather turned threatening, dark clouds covered the sky. There was a drizzle, then a bit of rain. I am well-prepared for such circumstances with a neat tent and like I said a warm sleeping bag. I have been in quite a few rain storms and have fared well. In fact it was quite awesome to listen to the rain and the lightning and thunder resounding through the mountains and canyons. The only negative part is that cooking becomes impossible. It is too hazardous to bring the little stove into the tent, so as much as I would love a cup of hot tea, no go. Just wait out the storm. This is part of that elemental reality that I was speaking about. Everything, absolutely everything, speaks of and manifests Reality, Absolute Reality,…..but sometimes you can get a bit too much of it! Yup! The hail started to come….and it started to increase….and then it got really bad. It hailed like I have never ever experienced or seen. The ground all around me was covered with about four inches of hail. And the worst part…..it destroyed my tent. Just demolished it. I did not get hurt, but the tent was finished. And I was wet and cold. A recipe for getting very sick. As the hail all around me was melting, I found myself in a field of “goo.” Wow, what a predicament.

I knew that I had to get out of there or I could get very sick. Temps were dropping and I was very wet. With some help I got myself out of there and to a motel in Mammoth Lakes, about 40 miles away. In a warm room I could dry out and get a safe and warm night of sleep. I got a chance to wash my dirty stuff, muddy and all, get everything dried out, and head out in a new direction. In the not too distant past I had gone to Mt. Whitney and so I remembered there was this BLM campground right at the foot of Mt. Whitney. It is cheap, just $4 a night, in the desert, remote yet only a few miles from town, Lone Pine. So I got myself there the next day.

Now I was out in the desert and what a difference.   Temps were in the 80s during the day and the 50s at night. No tent, so I slept under the stars. It was so exhilarating to be under this vast open sky–looking north and east and south I could see for miles and miles, not a tree anywhere, just the scrub sagebrush. Lying there at night I could look up at the stars and what a sight that was. One night I counted over 11 meteors. Then there was the awesome majestic wall of the Sierras rising right out of the earth directly west of me just a few miles away all the way to 14,000 feet with Mt. Whitney towering over all. And not a sound anywhere, just the whispers of a desert wind now and then. Yes, there were a couple of other campers there, old guys like me with their RVs but we were all spaced out quite far from each other. I felt like I knew how the Desert Fathers had experienced their desert life.

So this was a very different experience than I had planned but I made a new discovery. As much as I love the mountain forests of the High Sierras, I discovered how much I was missing in not going out into the desert. By the way, I found a very brief video on You Tube of the area where I was camping and here is the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7ihIvXsmKE

(Or if this does not connect just go to You Tube and type in Tuttle Creek Campground Lone Pine)

 

Each environment has its own kind of impact on your heart and on the core of your being. I think this is an important consideration. I realize that there are many very good spiritual teachers in all of the great traditions who would minimize the place of the environment in the spiritual journey, or at least they would admit only the importance of certain human constructs, like a monastery, in considering the importance of the environment in one’s spiritual insight. There are others who would say that none of this has any real spiritual importance, that wherever your two feet are you can be holy and attain realization. Agreed, definitely I agree, and I respect all these views, but one has to walk the path that is right for oneself. And this exposure to the wilderness is a very important part of my own spiritual journey. And this explains why I have this special fondness for the ancient Chinese Taoist and Zen masters and hermits. I feel closer to them the more I learn about them.

The one book I was going to read on my “retreat” was Mountain Home: the Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China by David Hinton. Not knowing Chinese I can’t tell if Hinton is a good translator but the language seems solid and true. But what I liked most is the introductory material where he tries to explicate the Chinese spiritual way. Here is a sample:

“Originating in the early 5th century C.E. and stretching across two millennia, China’s tradition of rivers-and-mountains (shan-shui) poetry represents the earliest and most extensive literary engagement with wilderness in human history. Fundamentally different from writing that employs the ‘natural world’ as the stage or materials for human concerns, this poetry articulates a profound and spiritual sense of belonging to a wilderness of truly awesome dimensions. This is not wilderness in the superficial sense of ‘nature’ or ‘landscape,’ terms the Western cultural lens has generally applied to this most fundamental aspect of Chinese poetry. ‘Nature’ calls up a false dichotomy between human and nature, and ‘landscape’ suggests a picturesque realm seen from a spectator’s distance–but the Chinese wilderness is nothing less than a dynamic cosmology in which humans participate in the most fundamental way.”

 

And here he comments on a particular poem:

“What makes this poem archetypal is that it tells the story of this ‘first poet’ giving up the empty pursuit of professional ambition and returning home to the more spiritually fulfilling life of a recluse in the mountains. T’ao Ch’ien’s return to his farm became a legendary ideal that virtually all later poets and intellectuals revered, and the deeper reason for this is found in the final words of T’ao’s poem: ‘occurrence coming of itself.’ This term (tzu-jan) has traditionally been translated through the lens of Western cultural assumptions as ‘nature’ or ‘freedom, which reduces this to a kind of sweet pastoral poem, or perhaps a poem of romantic escapism. But this is neither escapism nor sentimental pastoralism: it is a poem about returning to a life in which the perpetual unfolding of Lao Tzu’s organic cosmology is the very texture of daily experience…. The vision of tzu-jan recognizes earth to be a boundless generative organism, and this vision gives rise to a very different experience of the world. Rather than the metaphysics of time and space, it knows the world as an all-emcompassing present, a constant burgeoning forth that includes everything we think of as past and future. It also allows no fundamental distinction between subjective and objective realms, for it includes all that we call mental, all that appears in the mind. And here lies the awesome sense of the sacred in this generative world: for each of the ten thousand things, consciousness among them, seems to be miraculously burgeoning forth from a kind of emptiness at its own heart, and at the same time it is always a burgeoning forth from the very heart of the Cosmos itself.”

 

 

Some News Items

The first thing is all this noise about the white nationalist movement that has emerged out of the woodwork. I mean it was always there but now they have a president they can trust, so here goes….   These people are truly sick and in some ways dangerous, but what I am focusing on is that some part of their fascist spirit/disease lurks in a lot more hearts than it seems. Their ideas are being portrayed as disgusting and dangerous….and that they are; but I think we are losing sight of the larger picture. In fact I think all this hoopla about them is just another diversion from facing our real history. At the bottom of it all, what they represent and what they bring to the table has in a sense been there from the very beginning of the New World (and of course way before that also). The genocide of the indigenous peoples and then the way we treated those we didn’t kill, and the slave trade and then the way we treated the “freed slaves,” all this points to something very dark at the core of this enterprise. There is a long history here that we are very much in denial of its real meaning. And in fact the current noise is almost a way of saying “we are not THAT bad.” We are told in the mass media that these people are an aberration, an anomaly, a repugnant minority view, etc., and in a sense this is true. Most Americans would not subscribe to a quasi-nazi movement; but then also most Americans don’t know, don’t understand, don’t really care about our REAL history, never mind that “rosy” patriotic fluff they teach in school and which is our pop myth. (Have you ever seen any of those very real photographs of not too long ago, maybe a 100 years or so, a scene in a small southern town, a Sunday afternoon and a whole crowd of people gathered dressed in their Sunday best, men, women, and children, some are smiling, and somewhere in the back you see a black man hanging from a rope…. Yup, those lynchings were real, and those people were just your normal American folk hypnotized by their own myths and illusions and insane fears.) The Confederate icons, disgusting as they are in their meaning, have been prominent in many of our public places–how come no one questioned their appropriateness 50 years ago say. But the most important thing is that even if they vanish overnight, the fact is that they are merely a symptom of the disease at the core of our national heart. They can be torn down, but the disease will not so readily go away.

 

The next thing is a series of stories that appeared in the Boston Globe which have been pretty much overshadowed by the above stories. You will recall that the Globe was the newspaper that broke open the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church back about 2001. Their focus was on Boston, but this was a real keen piece of investigative reporting (portrayed in the award-winning movie Spotlight) and it opened the doors to a flood of stories nationally about so many other children who were victims of predator priests. Well, the Globe has done it again; this time not in such a revolutionary way, but still a very significant piece of investigative reporting. This time they focused on adults, women in particular, who have been victims of sexual predation by priests and who have been left behind with children who now don’t know who their real father was. Apparently the number of such cases is in the thousands nationally. The numbers are impossible to nail down, yet there appears to be an incredible number of such victims. The results of this situation are very, very sad. And one big question, and not the only one, that emerges from this story is the reality of that celibacy requirement that the Western Catholic Church puts on its priests. It appears that the number of priests not living up to that requirement is quite large–making Church language about that seem quite unreal. Sexual immaturity and sexual dysfunctionality would not go away if the Church allowed priests to be married, but it could help in many ways in alleviating the problem and diagnosing it before a person gets priestly responsibilities. In the Eastern Church you marry first, then you become a priest. A reasonably healthy married life is a prerequisite to a priestly ministry. Those who want a more focused spiritual life can become monks and nuns. In any case, a lot of issues come up when we considers this situation, a lot of questions, and I am not sure that our Church has ANY answers. Here is the link to that story: (I could not link directly to the Boston Globe, so here are 2 different accounts of that story as it was picked up by the media. You probably can read the original in the Globe in some connections:

https://www.getreligion.org/getreligion/2017/8/19/the-boston-globe-writes-on-priests-sex-and-the-kids-who-resulted-from-it

http://boston.cbslocal.com/2017/08/16/catholic-priests-father-children-boston-globe-spotlight-michael-rezendes-cbs-this-morning/

 

 

Now the last story that I want to consider is not unrelated to the above one. But this time we will be in the Tibetan Buddhist community. In the recent issue of the Buddhist magazine, The Lion’s Roar, there was the very sad story of Sogyal Rinpoche. He is a very renowned Tibetan lama, has a reputation for being a very advanced practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, a friend of the Dalai Lama, and a very key figure in introducing Tibetan Buddhism to Westerners. He is also now caught up in a very serious sex scandal. He appears to have sexually exploited a number of women who were his students, and he also appears to have had a lot of financial misconduct also. Now what’s especially jolting about this is that this person was not an American who joined the Buddhist way and rose in the ranks–we have witnessed this kind of scandal quite a few times in recent decades, and that is sometimes attributed to the spiritual lack of basically a newcomer who advances to a leadership position too soon. Here, however, we have a traditional Tibetan lama, and it is a really sad story. Here is one link to that:

https://www.lionsroar.com/after-allegations-sogyal-rinpoche-retires-from-rigpa/

 

Sogyal Rinpoche was the leader and key teacher of an international group of Tibetan Buddhism called Rigpa. They have basically booted him out of the position. And there is a lot of self-reflection and commentary going on right now. The problem is not just “American” but one that infects all the major religious traditions. Even traditional Tibetan communities have been affected. And one very important aspect of the problem is the role of the so-called “guru” (or “spiritual father” in the Christian tradition). It is good and important that there are people who can be spiritual teachers, but it is a really bad thing to idealize these people, to “put them on a pedestal,” to in fact treat them as “beyond criticism” or even “godlike.” I have on several occasions written about this problem in these postings, and I am glad to see that there are various followers of these great Asian traditions coming to terms with the real problems inherent in that “guru mechanism.” What’s important to recognize is that the construct of the “specialness” of the spiritual teacher is a cultural construction and not an inherent or intrinsic element at the heart of that religion; and that goes whether it be Tibet, India, China or Japan or anywhere else (including anywhere within Christianity).

The Tibetan lama, the Zen Master, the Indian guru, the Christian spiritual father, all take on this authority that seems beyond questioning. And I emphasize again, this is all a cultural construct which is only apparently connected to the mysticism of that religious tradition. It is like all those insane “honor codes” which are so repressive to women in various Middle Eastern and Indian contexts, whether they be Muslim, Christian or Hindu–these are all cultural constructs which then are imbued with religious significance and treated as such. One also thinks of a place like Ireland about a century ago when all priests and bishops were treated as super special people who were totally beyond all criticism. This kind of stuff is simply a cultural sickness, and it leads to a bad end.

Getting back to this case, it is good to see the Dalai Lama came out with a powerful statement calling on all Buddhists not to be afraid to report any misconduct by their teachers…bring it out into the open. It is not healthy, spiritually, psychologically or physically to ignore or pretend that these things do not happen and that “our teacher” is “perfect.” Here is a link to that statement:

https://www.lionsroar.com/dalai-lama-denounce-ethical-misconduct-by-buddhist-teachers/

 

And there were several other articles by various Buddhist practitioners about this problem, pointing out what I was saying above, our tendency to “glorify” our spiritual teachers, sometimes at great cost to our well-being. Here is another link:

https://www.lionsroar.com/teachers-not-gods/

 

At the end of it all, I always come back to my friends, the Desert Fathers…..I never cease to be amazed how prescient and incisive they really were.  

http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/08/16/father-father-children-catholic-priests-live-with-secrets-and-sorrow/mvYO5SOxAxZYJBi8XxiaqN/story.html

 

 

Various Thoughts

Ok, I have been remiss in keeping up with this blog. I admit it. Mea culpa…but recently I just got fed up with all words, my own included and didn’t want to say or write anything. To borrow something from the Old Testament: there is a time to speak, and there is a time to be silent. Lately I spent some of that time up in the mountains, the Sierras, in a remote wilderness area. The beauty and power of such an experience is beyond description–though folks like Muir and ancient Chinese poets and artists have done a decent job of bringing it to our attention. The silence of the wilderness is not the silence of simply not-speaking or sitting alone in a room. It is alive; it becomes Present in your very bones and in your heart. It is not the absence of noise, not something negative, but something so positive that all attempts to express our thoughts fade into that Silence.

The only book I brought with me on this excursion was Red Pine’s Finding Them Gone, an account of another visit by him to China to visit the places associated with the great ancient poets of China, their old homes and gravesites. A very moving account. The book also contains Red Pine’s translations of many poems from that past. And these poets are very fascinating people. Many of them are involved in ancient Taoism and Buddhism—and Chinese Buddhism, especially Zen is a very unique enterprise, so different from the other variants of Buddhism. Many of these poets are also drawn into China’s great tradition of hermit life. This is a truly remarkable story spanning, some say, for over 5000 years, going all the way back to its shamanistic roots in the Neolithic period. I know of no other culture that has such a strong eremitical tradition. But the history of all this is complex and many of these poets find themselves in complex situations. They are caught between their traditional Confucian ideal of “service to the community” and the equally strong traditional pull of “dropping out” in a Taoist/Buddhist manner as a hermit or a communal monk. At some point I would like to spend some time reflecting on some of my favorites of these folk, but here is one sample from Li Pai (8th Century):

You ask why I settled on Jade Mountain

I smile and don’t answer my heart is at peace

the peach blossoms in the stream disappear into the distance

there’s another world beyond the world of man

                                      (translated by Red Pine)

And here’s another sample, from Shih-te (about same period–He was never formally even a monk, just a part-time kitchen worker at one of the monasteries, but Han-shan recognized him not only as a friend but as someone of great spiritual depth):

Woods and springs make me smile

no kitchen smoke for miles

clouds rise up from rocky ridges

cascades tumble down

a gibbon’s howl makes the path clearer

a tiger’s roar transcends the world

pine wind sighs so softly

birds discuss singsong

I walk the winding streams

and climb the peaks alone

sometimes I sit on a boulder

or lie down and gaze at trailing vines

but when I see a distant town

all I hear is noise

            (translation by Red Pine)

  

This past July was the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth. There was an interesting short piece about him in the NY Times by John Kaag and Clancy Martin:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/10/opinion/thoreaus-invisible-neighbors-at-walden.html

 

The authors brings out the little known fact that the famous Walden Pond and the woods around it were a place frequented by all sorts of outcasts: like runaway slaves, eccentrics, new immigrants who would not be accepted in the nearby town (Concord), etc. In other words, Thoreau was not really all that “alone” at Walden. From the article:

“For consumers of conventional history, it is easy enough to fall into the impression that Thoreau was the only person at Walden, that the pond was a pristine tract of wilderness. It wasn’t. Walden was just beyond the bounds of civilized convention — which meant that it was a place for outcasts. Thoreau knew this, and willingly lived among them, those who had been barred from the inner life of many wealthy suburbs of Boston. The self-imposed austerity that we often associate with Thoreau’s tree-hugging ways was, in fact, a means of understanding those individuals who had to eke out a meager existence on the outskirts of society. This does not make Thoreau a saint, but it does suggest an intimate connection between Thoreau’s retreat to the woods and his ability to understand those suffering under the conditions of oppression.”

For readers of Thomas Merton this would be a common theme and fully understandable. Thoreau’s pursuit of solitude was part of a whole philosophy of life, not just a “lifestyle” in today’s parlance. It was a way of “uncovering” what it really means to be a human being, and in some ways it is amazing that even in the relatively simple life of the early 19th Century there was a real need for “uncovering”—one cannot even imagine what is needed today to avoid living an “unexamined life”(Socrates). Here is another quote from the authors:

“’Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity’ — Thoreau embraced Spartan living as a matter of choice, but the irony of him tearing down a shed in pursuit of his much-celebrated modest way of life is a bit painful. It’s easy for us to judge Thoreau today; the privileged white man who plays at living austerely (choosing some “alternative way of life” that has been imposed on others) is a familiar target. But Thoreau himself was aware of this…. Thoreau recognized that he had every advantage; he also knew that the disadvantaged went, generally speaking, unnoticed by people of privilege. Social justice was in no small part a matter of counteracting this myopia, of recognizing suffering of others hidden in plain sight. For Thoreau, what keeps the rich from understanding the plight of the poor is, in part, the fact of their richness, their stuff: not just metaphorically or conceptually, but literally. It’s hard to understand the inner lives of others if you’re always going shopping or looking after your household business or rushing off to parties. To “live deliberately,” in Thoreau’s words, was to wrest oneself from the diversions of this rat race, to understand the difference between the seemingly urgent matters of spending and acquiring and the truly significant ones of caring and thinking. ‘Do not trouble yourself much to get new things,’ Thoreau instructs us. ‘Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.’ To be free from the distractions of modern life — of the endlessly diverting display of the ordinary, social world of stuff, stuff and more stuff — allowed a person to focus and think. What could we think if worldly possessions didn’t occupy our thoughts? What and whom could we attend to if we stopped attending only to ourselves? Thoreau is often portrayed as a hermit, a lonely individual who rejected all forms of community. He was, in truth, happy enough to abandon the formalities and luxuries of conventional life, but only in an attempt to participate in a wider natural and social order. This was a man who communed with the trees, spoke to bean fields, and conspired with the rain and sunshine that fed his crops. Yes, he had woodland friends. Many of his human companions were equally unusual: John Breed’s son, a day laborer, who lamented the destruction of his boyhood home; Perez Blood, the eccentric astronomer who Thoreau visited repeatedly on the outskirts of town; Sophia Foord, the brilliant spinster who fell in love with the one man, Thoreau, who rivaled her in peculiarity; the unnamed fugitive slave whom Thoreau escorted to the railroad station so that he could make safe passage to Canada. Countless others. Part of embracing Thoreauvian wilderness is to open ourselves to individuals and groups who exist beyond the town limits.”

 

 Not too long ago I was reflecting on the possibilities of a truly Christian advaita, nondualism in Christian spirituality, mysticism and theology. Mostly I was referring to Abhishiktananda because there is very little else written about this. For good reason….Christian theology and spirituality, because of its Semitic and Hellenistic roots, always tends towards a dualistic conceptualization. It is supremely relational in its expressions. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t Christian mystics whose inner experience did not venture “beyond relationship,” beyond an “I-Thou” experience; but to be sure they did not have the verbal resources in order to be able to express something of that experience–and in fact it might have been dangerous to do so with the threat of heresy hanging over one’s head! In any case, Abhishiktananda had the benefit of being exposed to a whole new world of spiritual experience in which nondualism was a real possibility, certainly not something to hide. He not only studied this “from the outside,” but entered into this experience, uncovered it in his own heart and lived it. This was made possible through his exposure to Advaita Vedanta and the Upanishads.

As Abhishiktananda himself relates, this caused a tremendous tension and spiritual crisis in his inner life in that he was confronted with two incommensurate visions that cannot be conceptually reconciled; and that inevitably what he experienced as the deeper of the two, the advaita experience, pushed him into reformulating the whole Christian vision into those terms. So he called for a whole re-visioning of the Christian message, theology and spirituality, into a nondualistic framework–ostensibly because that was the only way Christianity would ever find its way in India but really you can see that it has universal implications. The very nature of our Semitic-Hellenistic roots comes into question. Also, in conjunction with this, the relationship between spiritual experience and the conceptual apparatus it gets expressed in comes into question. Needless to say “official” Church spirituality and theology and popular religiosity has not really followed the paths opened up by Abhishiktananda, not even in India. A Jesuit theologian told me that, yes, you can find all of Abhishiktananda’s books in the various seminary libraries and religious houses, but they are gathering dust. This is not what Indian Catholics/Christians are reading. Mostly it is us Westerners, in Europe, here in the U.S. and elsewhere, who are buying his books and finding some connection to his experience and vision. But his language presents a problem to the Church as a whole and to the theologians–no doubt about that. I hope to return to this topic soon and explore some aspects of this problem.

 

 

One last thing: There is a new book out, The Age of Anger, by Pankaj Mishra, an Indian writer and intellectual. It is an amazing and sweeping analysis of our social predicament. There are several lengthy reviews of this book and here are the links. They pretty much give you the gist of this book which is quite complex and comprehensive and badly needed in order not to misunderstand what is going on today. One is by Chris Hedges:

https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-age-of-anger/

 

And the other one is from the New Republic by Harvard professor Samuel Moyn:

https://newrepublic.com/article/140242/look-back-anger

And another one in the British paper, The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/23/age-of-anger-pankaj-mishra-rage-rules-politics

 

 

 

Did You Know That……?

Did you know that in the last election Trump got only 25.5% of the vote when you count all the people in the country who were of age to vote?

Did you know that Clinton got only 25.6% of that vote?

Did you know that 46.9% of people who could have voted did not vote?

Did you know that even this number is better than in any other recent election?

Can you really blame them when you consider the choices, the fakery, the money, the bombast and sloganeering, the outright lying, the insanity of it all…?

(And in the French election a few months ago there was a record low turnout of just over 70% of the vote.)

Obviously neither candidate had much of a support group in the country, regardless of how loud their supporters seem to be.

 

Did you know that in a recent bout a “mixed martial arts” practitioner easily beat a master of tai-chi? This happened in China, and the modern pugilist who is also Chinese made mincemeat out of the classical tai-chi master and then he suffered massive public criticism for making a traditional master look bad. Interesting stuff in some way. The usual stuff is the portrayal of classical Asian martial arts masters as almost invincible. You see that in movies and on TV. You know, karate, kung-fu, judo, tai-chi, akido, etc., all these are portrayed as leveling everyone down to mere helplessness. The fact is that in several encounters over recent years all these masters have been easily beaten by these new modern “no-holds barred” practitioners of “mixed martial arts”: meaning there are practically no rules and all kinds of tactics are allowed. Now I find this whole world rather disgusting; these modern day gladiator games where they put two men (and sometimes 2 women) in a large cage and the two go at it until one is pulverized. But even here there is something to be learned. I am amused how the image of these classical masters is taking a beating in more senses than one. People who take up one of these classical martial arts as PART of a whole spiritual regimen and which aids this spiritual journey have nothing to worry about–they lose nothing in this revelation. But people who have been mesmerized by pop images of “martial arts monks” or something like that and want to be able to physically dominate someone, well, these folks are in for a shock if they meet one of these other guys. Image is one of those key mechanisms that drives our economy, the “selling point,” and one of the key psychological weak points. Image is really always a key problem in life and especially in spirituality. Folks following some spiritual path can be quite vulnerable to the “image problem.” There is the image of the “spiritual master,” there is the image of simple monastic life—which actually isn’t so simple after all; there is the image of what spiritual experience should be, what “God” should be in your life. Suddenly the whole thing collapses under the weight of some stress or other, and then what do you do……? Maybe that’s the real beginning of the real spiritual path.

 

Did you know that a hunter killed an elephant, and then the elephant fell on him and killed him? It was in the news a while back. Now I am not in favor of anyone getting killed, but I am also sick and tired of all these people who kill animals because it gives them a thrill to kill and then take home a trophy to display their prowess. It’s one thing if a person kills an animal to feed his family; it’s quite another when it’s done for the thrill of killing. That is sick, no matter how many millions of people do it. Like the guy who guns down a dozen or more ducks, filling them with lead from his shotgun. Maybe this elephant was sending a message from Mother Nature: Please stop this insanity!

 

Did you know that there are Buddhist monks in Thailand and Malaysia carrying guns–they are engaged in real battles with Muslims. Real physical violence going on between these religious groups. In some ways surprising and shocking; in other ways not so much. This is a phenomenon that has been going on since the beginning and continues to this very day, no matter what the culture or the nationality: Muslims vs. Buddhists in Southeast Asia, Muslims versus Hindus in India, Muslims versus Jews in the Middle East, Shia Muslims versus Sunni Muslims, Catholics versus Protestants in Europe, Christians versus Jews in Europe, Christians versus Native Religions, Christians versus “pagans” of all sorts (like the burning of “witches” who were really practitioners of a rival religion), and so on. Amazing story really. No wonder so many people find it so hard to accept any kind of organized religion.

 

Did you know that ISIS has actually killed more people of the Islamic faith than Westerners of all other faiths (or none)? ISIS is a lot like Christian fundamentalists who have become pathological killers. ISIS will not tolerate any version of Islam except their demented and grotesquely distorted one. Kind of reminds one of the Christian mob that killed Hypatia, the pagan woman philosopher in Alexandria in the 4th Century. I know that’s an ancient example, but I choose it for a reason.

 

 

Did you know that we have detected gravitational waves? You may be wondering what that has to do with spirituality, religion, human values, etc., the usual topics of these reflections. Well, maybe nothing; maybe everything. First of all, I admit I am a science nerd….love the stuff….always did and always will. The wonders and mysteries of the universe were my first gateway into a contemplative orientation in life when I was a little kid. It still enchants me with its beauty and its awesome grandeur. Sad, therefore, to see some Christians and some of other faiths who look upon science as some sort of “enemy” of religion; equally sad to see some scientists who insist on the hegemony of the scientific view to the exclusion of all other understandings of our life here and now.

But let’s get back to these gravitational waves. They were detected by unimaginably supersensitive instrumentation that was only possible to build in recent years. Two black holes over 3 billion light years away were colliding and set off this ripple through the whole cosmos. Imagine sensing an event that happened over 3 billion years ago–the earth was just beginning to form—the event is so far away that light traveling at over 186,000 miles a second would take 3 billion years to reach us. And here’s the real kicker—no light and no form of energy can ever escape a black hole, that’s why that name, because the gravitational field of a black hole is so intense. What happened in this cataclysmic event is that these two behemoths collided, one of them was over 30 times the size of our sun, and the result was so enormous that it caused a ripple effect in the very fabric of spacetime. All this was predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Amazing stuff the more you learn about it!

 

Did you know that a young man by the name of Alex Honnold scaled the rocky face of El Capitan in Yosemite with no other equipment than sticky soled shoes and a bag of chalk dust for his fingers? He went up this seemingly impossible rock over 3000 feet. Now many others have gone up El Capitan with ropes and all kinds of other equipment to aid them, but nobody had done what Alex did. Imagine being up against a rock face a 1000 feet above ground with your fingers grabbing hold of whatever crack space you can and your feet hugging a ledge of 1 or 2 inches wide. I got wobbly knees just looking at the photos! That gets you an idea of what that was all about!!

I was interested in some of the reactions to this event when it reached the major news media. Sadly some people felt a need to demean what Alex had accomplished. Ok, I agree, he hadn’t cured cancer, or created a great work of art, or discovered something about our universe that changed the way we look upon it all, or……whatever…..that’s no reason to demean this accomplishment. There is a wonder to it that beguiles the open heart. Alex is a good guy, not a “showboat,” not someone doing it for publicity or something like that–he lives a simple lifestyle, he lives simply to climb, like his whole being is made for that. One of his friends and also a great rock climber himself, Tommy Caldwell, had this to say:

“It’s all too easy for headlines about climbing to lean on clichés about the climbers themselves–that these people are daredevils, thrill seekers, adrenaline junkies. But to most climbers, nothing is quicker to trigger the gag reflex. Climbing is an intimate relationship with our world’s most dramatic landscapes, not a self-boasting fight against them. I don’t claim to understand the inner workings of Alex’s mind, but I know one thing for certain: Alex climbs to live, not to cheat death.”

The other day I witnessed a young father taking care of his mongoloid child of about 10. This also was an amazing scene. That kid could have been aborted; he also could have been institutionalized from the get-go. But no, he was being taken care of by a loving parent, for whom this was no easy challenge. You could easily see the real self-transcendence this called for. How much this young man had to forgo or at least adjust to in his life. He did not find a cure for cancer or create a great work of art or do anything special intellectually, but what an amazing feat this represented. And self-transcendence is really the core thing of all spiritual journeys, no matter what you call them; and without that we are only playing at it as it were.

So our world is filled with many wonders and much beauty and inspiration and it’s important to note this because our political and social and economic world can be very, very depressing.

 

 

Wisdom Is Where Wisdom Is

Here we are obviously not going to talk about information or even knowledge, but about that mysterious reality which is denoted by that term “wisdom.” Like porn, we may not be able to define it in legal or scientific or philosophical or even social media terms but we generally have a sense of what it is when we encounter it. And encounter it we can anywhere, absolutely anywhere–lift up any rock and there it might be. The end result of such an encounter can be illuminating, even transformative; but as is the case for many of us we might want to keep that “wisdom” at “arm’s length” so to speak. It might also be very costly in personal terms to engage wisdom and let it take you where you never intended to go. Much easier to just admire it from a distance.

But sometimes we run into wisdom personified, where a person’s whole life bears the weight of wisdom and this suddenly places a challenge before us on how to respond. Such a person was Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan; such a person was Rumi, Buddha, Milarepa, Mother Teresa, Hui-neng, Thomas Merton, Han-shan, Hakuin, al-Hallaj, Jesus of Nazareth, and so many more. Each of these figures in his/her own way embodies wisdom, to a greater or lesser extent, in all that they are. Wisdom is not just some saying or idea that they live by.

Consider this story about Jesus from the Gospel of Luke: “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’”

 

Now this is a very interesting story for many reasons and a remarkable encounter. It illustrates one kind of invitation to a profound transformative experience. The young rich man is basically a “good” guy–I think he has that self-image (there’s that word again!) and that’s why he calls Jesus “good,” really wanting Jesus to approve his own basic religious posture in the world. Jesus radically deflects the young man’s concerns and questions at this level of being. He is inviting him to a kind of leave-taking from a rule-based religiosity to something quite different. Now rules are ok, and for social living quite necessary, like traffic signals. And “rules” are the first “baby-steps” of any kind of spirituality or religiosity. I mean it’s quite obvious that you shouldn’t be cheating on your spouse or stealing from your neighbor or living a lie or….if you intend to go deeper in whatever religious tradition you journey.

But, unfortunately, for too many people rules become a rigid totality, almost the very substance of their spiritual journey. Now Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as a wisdom-figure, not a “messenger of wisdom,” not a “message- bearer,” but as someone whose very life is wisdom and who seeks to transform the meaning of the rules of his world; and more, who seeks to awaken you to that same life and wisdom within you that he has and which takes you way beyond what the rules can do. And so we have to be very careful how we read his next words, not being simplistic or literalistic. Jesus’ call to the young man to “follow him” is an invitation to live a life in the light of that wisdom which is within him, which Jesus now attempts to awaken him to. The main obfuscation of that wisdom is usually the ego attempt to build up various identities that we feel we cannot be without but which are all spurious, fragile, vacuous, ultimately just a wisp of cloud that is easily blown away–thus a lot of anxiety and effort and work and even violence goes into defending and holding on to this pseudo-reality. The “wealth” that Jesus addresses in this “rich young man” is on the one hand literal wealth, which can easily be a very intoxicating source and enabler of various false identities; and on the other hand, it is more a metaphorical or symbolic pointer of in fact the multitude of identities that we all carry in order to feel secure and that we even exist. So what Jesus proposes is a radical process that the young man feels threatened by; he has an iron grip on this “wealth” and will not let go. The invitation is turned down. The “bystanders” are represented as wondering out loud how anyone can be “saved,” meaning how anyone can ever “let it all go” and partake of this wisdom. This is a good question, and it may very well be that we can’t “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” so to speak; spiritually speaking you can’t transcend yourself by your self. But Wisdom is always there in every encounter, in every moment, in every event, which comes from the Hand of God and it provides the call and the means for that leave-taking and a totally different view of life.

A lot more could be said about that story but so much for that. Let us go on now to what might be considered a most surprising opening to wisdom: a Hollywood sitcom writer/producer. Let me back up a bit. A while back I was very sick, and someone brought me some DVDs of a sitcom, thinking that would entertain me and take my mind off my misery. Normally I watch no TV whatsoever so I don’t know what is “big” these days, nor do I care. When I was a little kid I heard Newton Minow call TV “the great wasteland.” I agreed with that then, and I see no reason to change my mind on that one. In any case this program is a comedy called “The Big Bang Theory,” and it is all about a group of nerdy scientists at Cal Tech who are very smart in one respect and very clumsy and fragile in human relationships and funnily neurotic about many things. I did find it astonishly engaging and entertaining to my surprise. I watched one episode after another on the DVDs, and at the very end of an episode, after all the credits, there was this thing called a “vanity cardI.” It was a short personal reflection from the writer/producer of the program: Chuck Lorre. I started reading these and found them truly interesting. Most of it is trivial, even banal, but occasionally there was a gem of wisdom there. And always it was written with a pecuiiar panache and always witty and always ready to tickle your funny bone even when it was a trivial observation. The man definitely has a talent for humor, but what interested me was his wrestling with some deep wisdom on occasion. It gets buried in the humor, but if you look hard it jumps out at you and surprises you with that refreshing insight. Yes, surprising for something like that coming from THAT cultural locus!! Let’s look at some examples:

“The things I have spent my life depending on are undependable. Because they are things. And things are, by their very nature, subject to change. This applies to people as well. People change. People leave. Inevitably we all leave. The world, therefore, is essentially an unstable, uncertain environment. That’s why I choose to believe in, and depend on, an unchanging, eternal, omnipresent non-thing. I prefer not to call it God, because the very word tends to thing things up. So I try not to call it. I try to experience it. Easy to do looking out at the ocean. Hard to do looking up at the ocean. Easy to do when you look at a baby. Hard to do if the baby is next to you on a long plane flight. Easy to do when you look at a pretty girl. Hard to do if you were once married to her. Clearly what blocks me from transcendence is judgment. If I were able to suspend having an opinion on drowning, other peoples’ baby’s vomit, and alimony, if I could simply see these things as they are – actions devoid of meaning until I give them meaning – I could experience some semblance of union with the infinite sublime. I’d instantaneously transition from neurotic sitcom writer to one seriously badass guru dude. People would travel great distances to ask me for guidance with their personal problems. I’d wisely tell them “It is what it is.” They’d judge this as being ridiculously inadequate advice and punch me. But I’d be okay with it because I’m, you know, exalted.”

 

Mr. Lorre comes from a Jewish background but you see a lot of Buddhism in his observations, sometimes with a lot of New Age flavoring, but no matter what you call anything, wisdom is where wisdom is as you find it. A lot of it is valid spirituality in most traditions, just packaged a bit differently here and always with humor. Here is another example:

“The human mind is very adept at labeling. Left to its own devices, it will label situations, things, places, and people. It’s a pretty handy app. Except when it comes to people. Over time those labels tend to solidify. They become all we can see. They become what we experience. The true depth of a person, the breathtaking miracle of their very existence, is replaced with a word. A sound. An assemblage of vowels and consonants. Ink or digital letters on paper or screen. Which is why I sometimes try to look at people and see them, witness them if you will, without immediately attaching a mental label. This is especially fun to do in a crowded public place. After a few minutes of practicing nonjudgemental looking, I find my heart filling with affection for total strangers. It’s an extraordinary experience. I encourage you to try it sometime. Be warned though, when you feel affection, you can’t stop smiling. This may cause total strangers to react fearfully, or, in New York City, say, “What the hell are you lookin’ at, ya friggin’ freak?!” “Friggin’ freak” being your new label”

 

 

And another one, one of my favorites:

“I don’t mean to offend anyone, but God told me to write this vanity card. The following are His words. I just took dictation.

Dear Humanity,
You are all animated by me. Like electricity lights a bulb, I light you. What you call awareness is, in fact, me. Some awareness plays soaring piano concertos, some shoots three from the perimeter, some drive around in little cars looking for parking violations. It’s still me. Just in a different guise. God in drag, if you will. Simply put, each and every one of you is a perfect expression of my timeless, universe-straddling ineffability. You are also meaningless and inconsequential. It’s a paradox, I know. But only to you. Which brings me to the purpose of this vanity card. In your endless quest to forge an identity, you have lost sight of what you are. So I will say it again. When you strip away all the temporary labels- American, Iranian, Israeli, Russian, Chinese, young man, old woman, soldier, florist, gay, straight, rich, poor, liberal, conservative, Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Jew- when those identities are taken away, and believe me, they eventually will be, then all that is left of you… is me. Consider this the next time you feel compelled to hurt or kill someone. Look at them. See me. Then act. On a lighter note, that was a really funny episode of Big Bang tonight! That Sheldon is a hoot”

Something tells me Abhishiktananda would have liked this one a real lot!!

 

Now here Lorre is in his element: total humor hiding a real grain of wisdom:

“I’ve thought long and hard about this vanity card. What I’m about to say is going to upset quite a few people. Some of them are my friends. Or perhaps, after reading this, my former friends. But I can’t let that stop me from speaking my mind. It’s time to say out loud what I know in my heart to be true. Vegetarians and vegans are mobility bigots. They believe that if a life form doesn’t move, it’s fair game to be killed and eaten. They hold a deepseated prejudice against plants, or, as plants prefer to be called, “We Who Stand Still.” This hateful philosophy is predicated on the idea that movement equals consciousness, or, if you will, a certain level of sacredness. To put it simply, if it walks, flies, or swims, or comes from something that does, it should not be ingested. If it doesn’t, yum-yum. Of course when you ask vegetarians and vegans, they say no, they’re only opposed to eating flesh. But what could be more fleshy than a mushroom? Or avocado? Or eggplant? The ugly truth is they are cowards who murder and devour anything that can’t run away. These people, who act so high and mighty, so spiritually elevated, have somehow constructed a style of cuisine that would justify them eating my Uncle Murray, a man known for sitting still for hours at a time, staring at a TV that is turned off. So the next time you order a salad consider this: Prince told us that doves cry. But what if kale does too?”

 

Here is one where Mr. Lorre wrote years ago, before the election of Pope Francis. He is applying for the job of pope! As a Catholic, I loved this one….

“I’m a big believer in the old maxim, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” With that in mind, I’d like to throw caution to the wind and ask the Vatican’s College of Cardinals to consider me for the job opening that recently became available. Now, before you say anything, let me be the first to point out the many reasons “why not.” I’m Jewish. I’ve never understood the hoopla over the Old Testament, with all the smiting and begetting. I’m a twice- divorced sitcom writer with a shady past. And perhaps most importantly, I look silly in a hat. No argument, the cons are plentiful. But let’s take a moment to examine the pros. First, I am completely untouched by the abuse scandal that is currently engulfing the church. I can stand on the balcony that overlooks St. Peter’s Square and say to the adoring masses, with a straight, albeit Semitic face, “Folks, I’ve never even met an altar boy.” With me as your pontiff you buy yourself some serious deniability. Next, believe it or not, I happen to be a very spiritually inclined guy. I would love a job where my primary thrust was encouraging prayer, meditation and acts of loving kindness. (Although in the interest of full disclosure, we would have to negotiate some common sense middle ground for any other thrusting I might want to do. It’d be a shame to waste adoring masses as long as they consist entirely of consenting adults.) And finally, there’s the issue of my name. How can a billion true believers not smile and breathe a sigh of relief when the white smoke coming from the chimney is to announce the investiture of Pope Chuck? Cardinals, I want to assure you that while my papacy is a little “outside the box,” you can rest assured that I would passionately carry the good word to all the poor and the downtrodden, beginning with a holy visit to Saint-Tropez, or maybe the Bahamas or Turks & Caicos. And just think of the marketing opportunities! How is “Pope Chuck” not the name of the next Adam Sandler movie? What’s to stop me from busting a move on the balcony and starting a dance craze called “Pope Chuckin'”? And don’t get me started on the demographic potential of a TV show entitled “Pope Chuck, P.I.” (Kiss the ring, or get punched by it!) Yes, this transition represents an incredible opportunity for the church to be reborn. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the name of the game?”

 

Mr. Lorre is also a bit of social critic, but as always with humor hiding a real grain of wisdom:

“As some of you might know, I have long avoided having any social media presence. I am completely ignorant of all things Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever other cyberforum the teenage cognoscenti have recently anointed. I know the pound sign is a crucial element to communicating via Twitter, but have never personally tried it. More importantly, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. My life doesn’t feel lesser for it. When I began these vanity cards almost twenty years ago, I decided that they were a perfectly adequate way of communicating my personal thoughts on a large scale. Sure, they’re a one-way communication, but I actually prefer that. My thinking was, and still is, that this world of ours already sends too many messages. Or perhaps consciousness, by its very nature, acquiesces to being barraged. Either way, my self-preservation seemed to demand digital inaccessibility. Or, to put it more simply, the only hater I can tolerate in my head is already in my head.”

 

And also this:

“I grew up devouring science fiction books. I was like a little Pac-Man, gobbling up everything I could get my hands on: short stories, novels, and, of course, comic books. Looking back, I realize that sci-fi and, to some degree, fantasy novels, were my first attempt at escaping reality (later attempts would prove to be a bit more problematic). Regardless, I now see that immersing myself in this kind of literature informs my current view of the world. The path of history is, for me, forever seen through the eyes and imagination of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven, Philip K. Dick, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and many, many more. Which is why I consider all efforts to control human behavior through force as ultimately doomed to fail. Sure, they might work for a while. That’s where the cool story is – the resistance and overcoming of authoritarian rule. But at the end of the day, the macro, sci-fi view is always toward greater freedom, regardless of what form it takes. The real evil, the much more insidious method of control, is actually what we do to ourselves. The abuse of drugs and alcohol, plus relentless consumerism and over-exposure to mind-numbing entertainment, are the real chains on the human spirit. Of course this means that I, having produced close to a thousand half-hours of television, am part of the problem. Sorry. I never meant to be a Minor Overlord for the Terrestrial Shadow Masters.”

 

Enough of all this. Just a few examples from the pen of this interesting man. It is refreshing to see Chuck Lorre understands his enigmatic or paradoxical position. One doesn’t expect even a grain of wisdom to show up in a social matrix which is really organized to cause illusion, but there he is immersed in that world, doing quite well, and still able to have some deeper insights than just trying to sell something to someone or keep them from thinking about real life. So …wisdom is where wisdom is….not for us to decide where it should be…. But I still have hopes that Lorre will one day hear that inner voice say, “Friend, come up higher!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ripple

I cannot believe I am writing this, but I would like to reflect a bit on this Grateful Dead song: “Ripple”–words by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia. It is an extraordinarily beautiful song, haunting in its multi-layered meaning and in its lyrical performance. There are various interpretations of it, some shallow and misleading, others catch the deeper drift of this poem. But here I would like to venture another kind of interpretation. And I would like to do this as a kind of preparation for the final installment of my reflections on Christian advaita, which I hope to have for the next posting. So, first of all here are the lyrics of this remarkable song:

 

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

(Chorus)

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

(Chorus)

You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home

 

Because it is primarily a song, it needs to be heard as a song in order to catch its subtle movements and nuances. There is a studio version done by the Grateful Dead that is especially clear for listening purposes and that can be found here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFsbAuX9P4w

But you also have to see it in its actual performance where the words may not be as clear to hear but the trade-off is that you see this amazing dynamic of a rock concert by the Grateful Dead performing this very subtle and lyrical song to a very loud crowd! And here is just one example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JT8zLTaKxeE

 

Let’s begin with a most fundamental and basic view of the poem: it is both a song and a poem–in ancient times there was no distinction–and its most obvious theme encompasses the various possibilities and problems in communicating a deep experience or a deep insight in human language and through human art, the built-in limitations of language and art to express that which is most intimate and most transcendent in us. But what I would like to suggest and add that this song/poem also expresses one of the deepest dynamics of spirituality and one of the most crucial dilemmas faced by those of us who are trying to come to terms with a Christian version of advaita. (Obviously this was not the intended meaning of Hunter and Garcia but then no work of art is limited to what its creator intended.)

In talking of advaita, Abhishiktananda always referred to the radically ineffable nature of the advaita experience, the fact that you cannot express it in words or concepts, all words and concepts and thoughts and ideas, all fail in touching this experience. All you get are some images and faint reflections of the reality, the so-called “namarupa,” which in Abhishiktananda’s reckoning includes even the most sacrosanct Christian doctrines. As we shall see in the next posting, the theologians will say, “Not so fast, Abhishiktananda, our words, feeble though they be, are truly connected to the reality we are trying to express and in some sense represent that reality.” We shall argue that one later, but here let us see what “Ripple,” and the Grateful Dead have to contribute.

In ancient times poetry/song was considered a “divine gift,” in fact coming from the divine realm and manifesting it. Consider the opening line of Homer’s Illiad: “Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son, Achilleus, and its devastation…..” Also here is the opening line from Homer’s Odyssey: “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…..” So in this reckoning the artist is not even really the real creator/storyteller. It is the Divine which uses the poet as a medium to speak/sing the story and in its telling/singing we are connected to the Divine realm as we hear it and take it in. The song/poem participates in a divine vision of the human drama. It is certainly not just the poet “expressing himself.” Underlying all this is an understanding of the mystery of language and knowledge as imbued with the numinous. But the “Divine” in that world is not yet a wholly transcendent realm but one simply parallel as it were with our natural world. It is simply like an “alternate universe” or like “another dimension” of pop science fiction. With the development in human consciousness and a growing awareness of a more profound and transcendent divine reality, the limitations of human language and art to “make present” that reality became more and more painfully obvious.

 

“Ripple” shares in all this in a most remarkable way. It begins: “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine,” and this immediately evokes the ancient and classical world where language and song illumine all and convey a kind of transparency to all. The song fully conveys the meaning of the artist, the meaning of the reality it sings about. (Classical Christian theology and spirituality seems to have that same kind of confidence in its language.)

 

“Ripple” continues: “And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung.” The confidence of the artist/singer is not based on his own skill or the “fineness” of his “instrument,” whether it be the “harp” or his talent or his mind. It is the “harp unstrung” which is the source of this song. This is a symbolic paradox, obviously not humanly possible, which veils the real transcendent source of the song (the theology/spirituality). Such paradox is a common motif in the ancient and pre-modern world as a way of veiling the transcendent Divine Reality as when Aquinas says that we know God best when we know Him as Unknown, and recall the Cloud of Unknowing, etc.

 

But “Ripple” Immediately infuses a kind of doubt about all this, a problematic that may be inherent in this level of communication between two people. Recall that the very first word of the song is “If,” making the situation more like a wish than a reality, the implication is that my words are not quite like that at all, no so luminous and transparent. But the song gets more explicit: “Would you hear my voice come through the music, Would you hold it near as it were your own?” The point is that every artist (and in a certain sense this holds for all of us in our most intimate and most important communication) has the question whether he/she have really been able to communicate their vision, their knowledge, their experience. Whether the song was done a thousand years ago or just yesterday and you hear it, do you really share in the artist’s vision/experience fully or in some incomplete and fragmented way? “Ripple’s” answer is clear:   “It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung.” There is a sadness here, and the whole song has a kind of mellow sadness; but that is only due to a realization of human finiteness and limitation even at the deepest levels of our experience. The song ponders the utter futility of such communication. (And also of course theology and spirituality is a kind of “hand-me-down” and these thoughts are also broken and so totally inadequate in capturing the original experience–Abhishiktananda was saying this with vehemence at the end of his life. The utter futility of Christian theology in capturing the vision of advaita was his concern.)

But “Ripple” doesn’t leave us there; it continues:


“I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air “

 

The poet/singer gives up wrestling with this dilemma, and then suddenly the whole song pivots and becomes something quite new. No matter the limitations and shortcomings and opaqueness of language and art, we must continue the human effort to communicate what is deepest in us. (And no matter the feebleness in our God-language, it is the human thing to continue doing.) From here on the song actually lifts us up.   And all this is marked with this remarkable chorus which is really a haiku and gives us the title of the song:

“Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow.”

 

The image is once more shrouded in paradox and mystery. The “ripple” is seemingly without any cause, without any reason for being. It is not accessible to rational and “scientific analysis.” The Grateful Dead have been seen as promoting a kind of hedonistic nihilism where the human being is but a faint and feeble “ripple” within a vast and empty space and empty of meaning except to join in the pleasures of the moment. Taken out of context, this haiku could be read in that way. But within this song, it is something altogether different. This haiku evokes the paradox and mystery which imbues our real existence and this song, and the music at this point actually lifts the song slightly out of that mellow sadness which otherwise underlies it thoroughly. Recall that most famous koan with Basho’s frog jumping into the pond, as it does everytime you read the haiku, and in the splash and in the ripples from that the whole cosmos is recreated and renewed. So, really this haiku is a zen koan of sorts–what is the sound of one hand clapping? The poet/singer as zen master. Where we will find our “consolation,” our “rest,” our “place,” our essential humanity, is indicated by this koan. No rational analysis here; it eludes all such seeking. This is true of all koans; we discover what we discover as we awaken from our shallow slumber and our petty notions of who we are. But if we are going to say any words they must be imbued with the same paradox and mystery as the koan. Also, like all koans, when we become one with this “ripple” we will awaken and be liberated from our shallow dualistic vision. There is “no wind,” there is no “pebble” falling into the water causing the ripple, there is ONLY the utter stillness and the ripple. There is only ONE reality. This neither the “spirituality of nihilism,” nor the simplistic spirituality that envisions some God standing out there “making” the world and us “happen,” like the clockmaker God of the 18th Century deists who winds up the clock and stands back and watches it work. No, the “ripple” is all there is; there is only ONE REALITY but it is not projections of our ego self.

The song/poem continues in this vein. The issue it is addressing is not on the level of simple human satisfactions, wants, desires, needs, etc. These may or may not be dealt with on a simple human level and human interrelationships. So whether your “cup be empty” or “full,” there is something more urgent, more fundamental to be aware of.  “Ripple” continues:

“Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men.”

 

Robert Hunter, the man who wrote so many lyrics to so many songs performed by the Grateful Dead, said that this was his most favorite line and the most beautiful he had ever written. The “fountain” is that which refreshes us, recreates us; it is the source from which we draw our art, our song, our spirituality, our feeble ability to communicate the experience of the heart. It is this which we seek in all our other seekings; and it is not something that we create or construct or control. It is that which is Transcendent in us, and it is that which we truly are. Gently the song lays aside our concerns about whether our “cup be full or empty” and moves into a whole different dimension of our identity. Interestingly enough, for all the pessimism at the beginning of the song about its communication being a “hand-me-down,” and the “thoughts being broken,” it does appear that at the very least the song can point us in the right direction for this journey. (And so that would also hold for theology/spirituality.)

“Ripple” continues now with a keen insight into the journey into that divine/ transcendent identity, not made with human hands:

“There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone”

 

This is extremely important. The way to that kind of awakening, to that satori on the other side of that koan, to a “mystical experience,” if you will, of who one truly is, well, there is no map, no directions, no “how-to” directions, no “GPS” to guide you. And what’s more, it is excruciatingly unique. That’s why you cannot read spiritual works like cookbooks or imitating other peoples lives. There is a “terrible” uniqueness that one has to go through, each of us knows this in our hearts, that particular “eye of the needle” which beckons us, maybe not until we are dying do we become aware of it; but it is that which we must pass through absolutely alone until we emerge into a whole other vision of who we are. Death and Resurrection.

 

“Ripple” then concludes with some advice for those who consider themselves artistic or spiritual “leaders.” And then the whole song finishes with a line that is both sad and engaging and evocative: “If I knew the way, I would take you home.” The poem/song began with one kind of “If” statement, “If my words did glow…,” beginning with the problematic of artistic communication; and now it ends with another kind of “If” statement, “If I knew the way….,” the problematic of knowledge in the human heart. No one, absolutely no one knows the Way that You have to take to that universally recognized and yearned-for abode of fulfillment and truth and reality: Home (or whatever else we might want to call it). But the offer is beautiful and it leaves us with a sense of companionship on our own effort to make our way there, a companionship of the poem/song that will go with us into the Silence behind and beyond all words and all songs, into the Light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can a Monk be in a Funk?

Well, yes! A lot of people would not think that. They project an idealized spiritual world and it is mostly an illusion and too many monks lap it up. I mean that when you “give up everything” you begin to want to be admired for that! And so you can’t afford to show the weakness and fragility and the emotional quicksand that stalks us all–even “holy” people. Well, ok, if a monk can be in a funk, so can anyone else, and sometimes that is the only honest feeling to have. No sugar-coated “hopefulness,” just trying to keep your feet on the ground of the Real. Always, always aim for that; whether it be comfortable or not, whether it be painful or not, whether it be dark or light….it is this which is the true Holy Ground. Staretz Silouan heard the “Lord’s voice” speak to him: Keep your mind in hell and despair not. Indeed. In our time and in our situation, not bad advice. The important thing is to let the Consuming Fire of the Divine Reality cleanse us of all illusions. Truly it will happen. The Divine Light, then, will be that by which we see everything.

And now for a few stories from the “funk vortex” all around us and within us:

  1. Recently I saw a story in the Washington Post about an exhibit at the Library of Congress about that famous World War II American leader, General George Patton. That he was a remarkable military leader and a genius at orchestrating tank attacks is without question and widely known. But something that is not known by many is the fact that Patton also wrote poetry voluminously. Frankly it’s all lousy, but it does reveal him more than his façade of military splendor. Here is a poem written at the end of World War I when he was a young colonel still learning his trade as it were:

We can but hope that e’re we drown

‘Neath treacle floods of grace

The tuneless horns of mighty Mars

Once more shall rouse the Race

When such times come, Oh! God of War

Grant that we pass midst strife

Knowing once more the whitehot joy

Of taking human life.

 

Patton loved war. He loved the battlefield of human carnage. He felt depressed when WW I ended and also at the end of WW II. If you saw this in a movie, you would consider this a caricature. But, unfortunately, we do not have a movie here. And here is the biggest mistake you might make: you might consider him an anomaly, a bizarre exception, a uniquely distorted heart, etc. I don’t think so. This darkness is hidden in the human heart and it manifests itself over and over, again and again, in the distant past, in the recent past, in our own very “advanced” modern era, wherever you look…. There is something in our hearts that loves war, loves killing and brutalizing and conquering. That’s the real reason we have wars. The myth of Cain and Abel begins this story; but more importantly we see that even religion is involved in this urge and a pretext for killing.

Americans have this fantasy of being righteous and just and in pursuit of the good and the true. We lie to ourselves over and over. We killed Native Americans as a form of genocide among many others. We have participated in the brutalization and the killing of all kinds of people down to this very day in the drone killings approved by both Republicans and Democrats. As the radical Black leader, Stokely Carmichael used to say: Violence is as American as apple pie.

Then again don’t make up the story of primitive people being pure victims. There is plenty of evidence that prehistoric and historic indigenous inhabitants of the Americas committed wars and slaughtered people and brutalized many. So what I am trying to point out is that there is no innocence in this regard, and it is an illusion if you try to disassociate yourself from this history as if these were merely abberrations in our history. Better to be like Gandhi, start with your own heart and find the roots of nonviolence there by facing the dynamic of violence that haunts our nature. Individually we may not be as distorted as Patton, but trust me, the love of killing is part of the fabric of our nationhood because violence is lodged deep in the human heart. Amazing that this man is lionized as a military hero! (And here we might reference that marvelous trilogy of scholarly analysis by Richard Slotkin of the American infatuation with the myth of violence. This explains our love of guns!)

 

  1. Religion is really very tiresome. I did not say “God.” I said “religion.” Any religion. The word “God” refers to that Ultimate Reality which is the ground of all that is and truly the only Real. Religion refers to what we human beings do about all that, and it has a tendency to become very unreal. And it can become a real source of the “funk.” It can become paradoxically an obfuscation of the Ultimate Reality because it is imprisoned in its own illusions–illusions in “religious garb and religious language.”

For a starter, for too many people “religion” and “God” are inseparable–they think that when you say God you inevitably are “talking religion,” and when you say religion, you are most often talking about God. Not true. I have met people who do not use the word “religion” much but are deeply and truly “religious” and “spiritual” in the deepest and truest sense of the word. Abhishiktananda mentions somewhere that when he met some Quakers in India early in his sojourn there he was shocked–he said that they “didn’t believe in any of the things you’re supposed to believe in” but were more Christian than anyone else he had ever met. Religion can become simply another way to expand one’s ego identity; it can easily become a vehicle for all one’s crazy fears, paranoia, violence, greed, even lust. God has nothing to do with this (or “enlightenment” for that matter), but the words of religion and spirituality can multiply and take over one’s discourse. (The Pharisees in the Gospel are one portrayal of this reality, but let’s not put the problem “back there”–it is our current church situation as well.)

Religion can also become very tiresome when it seems to lose touch with the realities people experience. Religious language especially begins to lose its power to grasp the heart when our leaders wallow in platitudes and banalities and retreat to ready-made formulas. A recent example is this:

https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/lets-be-honest-its-lack-faith

 

This is a short article which I found in the National Catholic Reporter. Written by Bishop Tobin of Rhode Island, it addresses some issues that he had seen addressed in an earlier issue. The key issue, as the Bishop sees it, is that young people are unhappy with the Church and voting with their feet by walking away from it in large numbers. Bishop Tobin thinks he has it all figured out, and it’s summed up in the title of the piece: “Let’s Be Honest, It’s a Lack of Faith.” Really?! The lameness of this is beyond description. I won’t go into a detailed analysis of how bad this article is; let everyone discover what they can in it. When I first read it I got depressed–this is after all the church I belong to. The sad thing is that there is a certain truth in what he is trying to express, but his focus is all wrong and superficial and filled with religious phrases that he learned in seminary, the repeating of which made him a good institutional figurehead. As I have often written in different ways, I don’t believe that the Church (or monasticism for that matter) should be worried about young people or anyone else. Church people who get all wrapped up about this start resorting to all kinds of “gimmicks” in order to appeal to young people (the “liberal” approach) or attribute “sinfulness” that keeps people from coming to the Church (the “conservative” approach). What’s important is that the Church (and monasticism) be truly and starkly real, speak the Gospel in its naked power uncompromisingly, teach the mystical truth of our identity in God and not just a “membership” in the Church, etc., etc. If we had that, we wouldn’t be worried about who is or isn’t “in” the Church.

But the Church speaks mostly in a most compromised and muted way about all these things. It often comes across as simply protecting its institutional skin. At other times the Church seems allied with the forces of darkness and lies and pure institutional egoism disguised by an ecclesiology of “the holiness of the Church.” Recently Pope Francis apologized to Rwanda for the participation of Catholic leaders in Rwanda in the incredible massacres of thousands of people by one tribe versus another. The Catholic priests and nuns were members of one tribe that felt it had been greatly wronged and went on a killing binge. The apology is good but also very weak because it doesn’t get at the root of the problem: Catholic Christianity did not penetrate and challenge the cultural and tribal/national identity of these people, so that tribal identity was primary not the shared humanity they had with all other people. This kind of thing happens all the time and all over the place. It was so true of the “Christianization” of Europe which actually was totally shallow, no matter the grand cathedrals and the “pageants of faith.” And we see this of course in our own American situation. A small example: Amazing to me that Congressman Paul Ryan, a member of the Catholic Church, is not condemned from all the Catholic pulpits–here is a man who wants to destroy Medicare and Social Security and make life miserable for millions of poor people. Another congressman, who happened to vote for a bill that had funding for abortion clinics is told by his bishop that he cannot receive communion at a Catholic Mass. Another example: Still amazing to me that the American bishops never once condemned the various American wars in the Middle East, nor the continued use of drone killings, etc.

Ok, they occasionally issue vaguely worded documents that somehow manage to sputter out something real. No matter. Actually if any of the bishops actually did say anything prophetic, they might not be believed because they have been seen in various kinds of deceptions and subterfuge. Note the New York Archdiocese: it is fighting “tooth and nail,” lobbying very hard against a bill in the New York legislature that would extend the statute of limitations for child abuse victimization, so that those who were abused as children decades ago can come out now and sue the Church for compensation for all the pain they have experienced. The fact that the bishops are against this is interesting. They want to say that they are sorry for all that abuse by priests, but then their main thrust is to protect the institutional church from feeling “any” pain as a result of this. Maybe it’s things like that that can cause “a lack of faith.” I think the Church has a long way to go in this regard. I wouldn’t blame anyone from walking away from this Church.

 

  1. Speaking of Church language, here is a humorous but cogent representation of a certain kind of “Jesus” that may seem a caricature but I think he is more prevalent than you think. This was written by Derek Penwell and I saw it on Huffington Post:
  • ”Love your friends, bless those who bless you … and screw everybody else.”
  • “If you had the faith of this mustard seed … you wouldn’t need all that fancy ‘affordable health care.’”
  • “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? I mean, look at all these liberals, and their un-Christian ‘caring for widows, orphans, and the stranger.’ Why can’t they care about Christian stuff, like the 2nd amendment or school prayer?”
  • “Go, sell all you have and give it to the richest one percent.”
  • “Blessed are those who hate immigrants in my name, for they shall inherit all the jobs white people don’t want to do.”
  • “Follow me and I will make you fishers of … people who look just like you.”
  • “Give unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and give unto God only what you can’t hide on your 1040.”
  • “Let the little children come to me … unless they’re in Head Start or need help with school lunches, then cast them out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of their tiny little teeth.”
  • “Go ye therefore into all the world … and make sure everybody hates Muslims. Because obviously.”
  • “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery, but I say to you … unless she’s a lot younger, prettier (like a model or whatever), and you’ve had enough foresight to sign a prenup.’”
  • “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you … what the hell? They’ve got it coming.’”
  • ”You have heard it said that healthcare should be a right for everyone, but I say to you, ‘If you can store up for yourselves another new Benz, even though it comes from money meant for poor people’s chemotherapy, then you should totally do it.’”
  • “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven … but if you have a suitably large investment portfolio, that definitely won’t hurt.”
  • “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Marginalia—“This only applies to People of Color and women in abusive relationships.”)
  • “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but I say to you … just kidding. That’s for suckers!”
  • “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all straight, cisgender, middle class white guys unto myself.”
  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … except refugees. They definitely do not count.”
  • “So therefore , none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Wait. Actually, he did say that, but he probably shouldn’t have.)

 

  1. At this time of year, around Eastertime, I am overcome with the hegemony of the Easter Bunny! This character dominates our cultural sense of Easter; his presence is ubiquitous.  Down with the Easter Bunny! Does anyone have a good recipe for rabbit stew?

 

  1. So lately we have had all this talk about a new health insurance plan, “Trumpcare” if you will, and it got defeated. Progressives should not get too jubilant about this because it was actually only the really, really bad defeating the really bad. The people who actually were responsible for breaking Trumpcare did so because they want to destroy the whole social structure that is a safety net for the physical well-being of people: Medicare, Social Security, etc. Trumpcare, in their eyes, was only a tiny step in that direction and they were expecting a lot more from him. Stay tuned for “tax reform”…..it will be a doozy!

With all this hullabaloo about health insurance, there is an amazing shortage of analysis that gets at the root problem: this insane American compulsion to put every aspect of our lives in the “free market.” Health insurance and health care “for profit” is a serious distortion of what is at stake. There is not another developed industrial country that deals with the well-being of its people as simply another consumer product, a commodity, by which someone can make money. On the contrary, all this should be considered a God-given right for every person no matter their economic status. Obama had an opportunity to challenge the prevailing view but passed on it, preferring to tweak the system and make it a “kinder and gentler” for profit system. It’s helping some people; it’s hurting a lot of people. But these folks today are out to destroy the whole thing.

Here is an interesting little op-ed piece from the New York Times by a person coming from Finland and reflecting on our health insurance system:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/18/opinion/the-fake-freedom-of-american-health-care.html?_r=0

 

  1. Speaking of the “free market,” (actually there is no such thing but an illusion perpetrated by the upper class that controls all the levers to manipulate the economy), there is this very, very interesting reflection by an Indian economist on our whole economic and social perspective. Lynn Parramore writes about this in Alternet in an essay with the title, “Have We Been Denying Our Human Nature For Four Hundred Years”:

 

Here are a few relevant quotes:

“Rajani Kanth, a political economist, social thinker, and poet, goes beyond any of these for the answer. In his view, what’s throwing most of us off kilter— whether we think of ourselves as left or right, capitalist or socialist—was birthed 400 years ago during the period of the Enlightenment. It’s a set of assumptions, a particular way of looking at the world that pushed out previous modes of existence, many quite ancient and time-tested, and eventually rose to dominate the world in its Anglo-American form.

We’re taught to think of the Enlightenment as the blessed end to the Dark Ages, a splendid blossoming of human reason. But what if instead of bringing us to a better world, some of this period’s key ideas ended up producing something even darker?

Kanth argues that this framework, which he calls Eurocentric modernism, is collapsing, and unless we understand why and how it has distorted our reality, we might just end up burnt to a crisp as this misanthropic Death Star starts to bulge and blaze in its dying throes.

Kanth’s latest book, Farewell to Modernism: On Human Devolution in the Twenty-First Century, tells the history of a set of bad ideas. He first caught the scent that something was off as an economics student in India, wondering why, despite his mastery of the mathematics and technology of the discipline, the logic always escaped him. Then one day he had an epiphany: the whole thing was “cockeyed from start to finish.” To his amazement, his best teachers agreed. “Then why are we studying economics?” demanded the pupil. “To protect ourselves from the lies of economists,” replied the great economist Joan Robinson.

Kanth realized that people are not at all like Adam Smith’s homo economicus, a narrowly self-interested agent trucking and bartering through life. Smith had turned the human race — a species capable of wondrous caring, creativity, and conviviality — into a nasty horde of instinctive materialists: a society of hustlers.”

“Using his training in history and cultural theory, Kanth dedicated himself to investigating how this way of thinking took hold of us and how it delivered a society which is essentially asocial — one in which everybody sees everybody else as a means to their own private ends. Eurocentric modernism, he argues, consigned us to an endless and exhausting Hobbesian competition. For every expansion of the market, we found our social space shrunk and our natural environment spoiled. For every benefit we received, there came a new way to pit us against each other. Have the costs become too high?”

 

“Kanth thinks what we’d much prefer is to live in what he calls a ‘social economy of affections,’ or, put more simply, a moral economy. He points out that the simple societies Europeans were so moved by when they first began to study them, conjuring images of the ‘noble savage,’ tended toward cooperation, not competition. They emphasized feeling and mutual affection. Karl Marx got his idea of communism from looking at the early anthropological studies of simple societies, where he was inspired by the way humans tended to relate to each other. Today we are taught to believe that society doesn’t owe us a living, says Kanth. “Well, in simple societies they felt the exact opposite. Everybody owed everybody else.  There were mutual ties. People didn’t rely on a social contract that you can break. Instead, they had a social compact. You can’t break it. You’re born with it, and you’re delighted to be part of it because it nurtures you. That’s very different from a Hobbesian notion that we’re all out to zap each other.”

 

And so the essay goes. I am sure that you can find some criticisms of his ideas, but the basic thrust of this is without doubt truly valid. I think that Robert Bellah wrote in this vein in his monumental book, Habits of the Heart, years ago, and Merton anticipated Kanth’s analysis in his own social criticism. In some ways, the economic model for society would best be found in a monastery when it is authentically lived out, as Merton pointed out even in his last speech in Asia–but also as he pointed out this requires more than a change in ideas, but a radical change in heart, in consciousness, “a conversion of heart” as Benedict pointed out.

 

  1. I am eager to get out into the wilderness once more, the true sacrament of the Real! But, alas, my usual places of camping are under 10 feet of snow at present. I usually head out to the mountains in June but this year may be a bit hard for that. Well, anyway, a few positive words in conclusion from some of my fellow wilderness enthusiasts:

 

“I suspect the real glories of Yosemite belong to the backpackers, the trudgers and trekkers, those who finish a strenuous climb and wait for their psyches to catch up, suffer a thunderstorm on an alpine fell, and most of all, let the night spirits seep into their sleep. The real glories of Yosemite belong to those who are comfortable with being uncomfortable, who know it’s all right to be afraid, to be cold, wet, tired, and hungry, to be euphoric and, on occasion, ecstatic.

                                                                                    Ann Zwinger

“Most of all, I was awed, very early and indelibly…. The universe was neither hostile nor friendly, simply indifferent to my small, freezing-handed, steam-breathing figure in the white waste. You do not feel that mystery in city canyons or on suburban lawns. What you feel is the specious persuasiveness of human control, human management and organization and rearrangement. You do not know who the ultimate Authority is. Out in the public lands, where the nearest neighbor may be ten miles away and the stars are closer than the nearest town, you do.”

                                                                    Wallace Stegner

 

 

“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”

                                                                  John Muir

 

 

 

 

 

Toward a Christian Advaita, Part III

Continuing our reflections…. There’s one of the letters that Abhishiktananda wrote to someone describing some time he spent with his one disciple, Marc. In that letter he says that he and Marc had spent two whole days studying and reflecting on just the first line of the Gospel of John. As I mentioned in the previous posting this is very rich ground and it is key in developing a theological foundation and a spirituality of a Christian advaita.

Let me begin with a quote from Abhishiktananda, from the mid ‘60s when he wrote Saccidananda:

“It is a fact that Jesus never expressed himself in terms like those used, for example, by Ramana Maharshi, and still less does his teaching echo that of the Upanishads. No one has the right to isolate the saying, ‘My Father and I are one’(John 10:30), and to interpret it without reference to the rest of the Gospel. Advaitins themselves apply a similar rule when anyone lays too much emphasis on the apparently dualistic expressions which can be found here and there in the Hindu Scriptures.

“For Jesus, God is truly ‘an Other,’ another I distinct from his own I. Jesus addresses God as ‘You,’ and God also speaks to him in the second person. With this You, this Other, Jesus has continual communion and communication. But the relationship is a particularly profound and mysterious one. No words can adequately describe it or fully express its richness.”

“Again, at the deepest level of his human consciousness, underlying all his activity, all he said and did, there appears that secret and inexpressible relationship that he has with God. He calls God his Father, and that in a sense that no Jew had ever done before. To reveal the Father is the heart of his message, the purpose of his mission in the world…. Jesus constantly refers to that Other from whom he has come and to whom he is going. When he speaks, it is only to repeat what he has first heard from his Father…. The Father who dwells in him bears witness to him….One senses that the continual recollection of the Father underlies Jesus’ consciousness at every moment. He cannot think of himself without being aware of his Father at the very source of this thought of himself; and equally the awareness which he had of himself simply as a man seems to lead him irresistibly to the thought and awareness of the Father deep within, deeper than his own I, the Father from whom he comes and to whom he goes.”

 

By the end of his life in the early ‘70s, Abhishiktananda was not satisfied with this wording and he criticized his own work in Saccidananda, and you can see from his letters and his journal that he was moving in a more radical direction and he was more uncomfortable with the capacity of traditional formulations to capture the experience of advaita. But this earlier language does serve several good purposes. For one, it does help the person who is new to advaita to begin to explore the possibility of a Christian advaita and not just stay in a bhakti mode as it were. But more importantly, this language reflects quite accurately the real struggle in the Gospel of John between the language of relationality–and thus an implied dualism, “God” as the “Other”–and the language of “oneness,” advaita.

What’s being conveyed in this language reaches a kind of crescendo in the final discourse of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Both relationality and oneness are paramount and neither can be dropped out of the Christian picture. Jesus is “the Logos” in “sarx,” in the human condition totally and fully. Thus Jesus manifests who the “Father” is(this is the function of the Logos), who this Source is and what is this Source all about. Don’t be thrown by that term, “Father”; it is a Semitic expression in contrast to the seemingly more abstract Greek term, “Logos.” It personalizes the Source, and thus this language pushes the vision into a relational, dualistic focus. However, it is also, in this context of the Gospel, not an emotive word, a kind of bhakti endearment, nor is it a gender designator. It is not as if there were “another” person sitting across the table from you. (Thus the folks who want to replace “Father” with “Mother” are missing the point, focusing on a wrong emphasis as if gender is an issue here. True, later generations made the same mistake in making male gender critical in this rendering of the Source. Here is Abhishiktananda: “The words Abba, Amma, Ba, Ma, are the first babbling of the infant, his first expression of relationship. Ba, Ma, designate not the father-mother, but the person close to him whose relationship has for him an absolute value, who is his support, his loka. God the Father[or Mother] is so much more than the abstract symbol of the one who begets.” )

Jesus in the Gospel of John does two things at the same time: on the one hand he manifests an incredible relationality with the Source, “the Father,” which has this intimacy which was jolting to the Semitic mindset. This is apparent in his appropriation of the word, “Abba,” which would never ever be used in reference to God in a Semitic setting. When we reduce “abba” to an emotive or gender word we miss out on the full implications of what the Gospel is pointing to. (As Abhishiktananda said “abba” is the “mystery of non-distance.”) On the other hand, this Jesus of the Gospel also claims that he is “one” with the Source. As Abhishiktananda correctly warns us, we cannot jump from this statement alone to a claim for a Christian advaita. This is a mysterious oneness, and it is very important to recall that Jesus never says that he is “the Father.” “My Father and I are one” is not the same saying as “I am the Father.” That would be what we earlier called “monism”–Jesus and “the Father” are one thing, simply two different appearances of the same thing–this is not uncommon among various Hindu advaitins. But Jesus does emphatically claim a “oneness” with the Source which is all wrapped in absolute Mystery. Remember that Jesus says that NO ONE knows “the Father”… except “the Son.” Thus, oneness with Source is only “known” through and in this relationality. A very paradoxical situation! And then this Jesus of the Gospel invites us into a participation in that oneness. This then introduces the other “mysterious” party in this relationality, the Holy Spirit. And believe me, no one knows what they are talking about when they talk about the Holy Spirit. We do know what Paul tells us is very, very significant: it is the Holy Spirit which utters “abba” in the depths of our hearts; and thus it is the Holy Spirit which is the “agent” as it were of Christian advaita.

 

So Christian advaita will always be wrapped in Total Mystery which speaks to us through symbols and languages of paradox and mystery which are there for our hearts and minds to ponder. It is always characterized by relationality AND oneness, the irreducible poles of the Mystery between which we live our historical lives and by which our very humanity constantly shines…the Transfiguration…. In the last years of his life, Abhishiktananda was still wrestling to better express this Mystery but he was also pushing the language into new territory. Here is a sample from 1972, a year before his death:

“The Trinity is a threefold depth when the laser penetrates to the deepest point of my being. A threefold depth of myself, not an idea received from without, in the abstract, but an experience of my own consciousness which the Master’s revelation nevertheless helps one to formulate…. The name of these depths: sahatvam – vaktram – gudham.

–Sahatvam: the mystery of being-together, or relationship, of the Spirit.

— Vaktram: the face manifested by the word, vak, the Purusha.

–Gudham: the absolutely ineffable Ground, the Father.

The name of God had been at the same time revealed and hidden in the O.T. Yet in it God had spoken so much. In it God had revealed so much of himself. Jesus claimed for him the function of the Word and of Judgment. He gave back to God his mystery by taking for him the function of God manifesting God.

God is communion–God is Word and face–God is mystery.

I am communion. I am word and face. I am mystery.

Each human “I” is communion, word and face, mystery.

The whole of creation is communion, word and face, mystery.

Sahatvam, vaktram, gudham.”

Continuing….

“So long as I call anyone on earth brother (on whatever grounds I may do this) I have the right to give the name Father to the ultimate depth of the guha….

“Christian experience is really the experience of advaita lived out in human communion. And that is what the Trinity is. But we have sought to escape this fire by deifying formulas and institutions. Christian experience is the Spirit who makes human beings to be brothers and to gather around the unique, cosmic, archetypal Purusha, of whom Jesus is the preferred expression for an entire segment of humanity. But we should not base an ‘apodictic’ theology on this essentially relative mental foundation (a particular myth), in terms of which the Gospel has been thought and expressed. The gospel lived in the Spirit. The Spirit alone is important. No form can hold the Spirit, it passes through them all.

“The Father is not necessarily Someone to whom I would address adoration–prayer, to whom I would say Thou, of whom I would say He. I adore him just as truly when I am recollected in my depth, in myself, outside myself…. I discover him, I adore him, when I say Thou to another person, from the very depth of my own I. Un-born, to whom should I address myself? Born from every look that rests on me, I adore the Father in my surrender to that look.

“Offer the rite, offer the prayer in all freedom-spontaneity. No one can impose it on me. But in the group of believers it has its value. And that is why I was as genuine at Poona in the liturgy as in the Upanishads. Therefore a refusal of all theology–both that which ‘namarupin’ Christians impose on me, and equally that which no less namarupin Vedantins want to impose on me! I am, according to the Trinitarian model, indivisibly non-dual and in communion, ‘both’ of them, the one through the other. Theological questions: recover the wisdom of the Buddha’s silence. Refusal, even refusal of the refusal.”

 

An amazing statement! And only one of many such statements in the last years of his life. To be continued………..

 

 

Toward a Christian Advaita, Part II: The Gospel of John

Continuing our reflections on the possibility of a Christian version of advaita, nonduality. Here we will focus on one of the most fundamental documents of Christian identity and thought: the Gospel of John. While there are also many parts of Paul that could be helpful in this regard; and while the other Gospels can also be brought into a coherent harmony with a nondualistic vision, it is John who is most important and most critical for our purposes. Our guide in all this is of course Abhishiktananda.

“In the beginning was the Word”….such is the opening of the Gospel in most translations. We have to be attentive to the multiple nuances and rich layers of signification of each word, especially in a deep ancient language like Greek. And so here we run into a problem–every translation, no matter how good, ends up flattening to a more or less extent the nuances of the original. Here the Greek reads (in transliteration): En arche en ho logos. The word “arche” here is usually and correctly translated as “beginning,” but this beginning is not simply the first element in a sequence. Like if you have the sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., you just have a series of elements and “1” is simply the first, or the “beginning” of this sequence. But when John starts “en arche,” he is not pointing to a sequence but to something that is “first” or a “beginning” in the sense of being fundamental, the ground on which all else is built you might say. The first principle of it all. And this is, according to John, the “logos,” weakly translated as the “word.” But this is not the fault of the translators because it is impossible to get into English or any other modern language the amazing richness of meaning that “logos” has. If you look it up in the famous and comprehensive Greek dictionary by Liiddell & Scott, you will find several pages on this word alone. It is one of the most ancient words in the Indo-European family and it has a long history of numerous associations and nuances. It was a very important word for Heraclitus, for Plato and Aristotle, and into modern times when Heidegger reflected on the Greek roots of Western thought through a reflection of the nuances of this little word. Just to scratch the surface, logos can mean the following: that by which the inward thought is expressed, that which is said or spoken, a word, language, a saying, speech, discourse, a story, a conversation, report, history, a narrative, a proposition, a principle, rationality, thought, reason, an account, and much more. You can see this word appearing at the roots of many modern words, like anthropology and theology, the logos of anthropos (or human beings), and the logos of theos (or God).

So you can see that John is plunging us right into the depths with the very first words. In a sense he is saying that the foundation of all that is is a kind of “self-expression”, an implied relationality. There is the Source; then there is “that by which the inward thought of the Source is expressed,” and made manifest, the Logos. So we are also seemingly plunged into a vision of a kind of “twoness” or dualism. John tells us: kai ho logos en pros ton theon–translated as, “and the Word was with God.” Here we need to note two new important terms: theos = “God,” but immediately note not to imagine or think you know what this word refers to. All images of “God” must be cast aside at this point; all notions of “someone” or “something” “out there” are not it–a kind of mental idolatry that is purged by whatever serious spiritual path we take until we meet the real Mystery of the One we call God. We misread the Scriptures almost always by a kind of lazy familiarity with the words and think we know what is being said to us. And the next word is even more critical for our purposes: pros = “with” in the translation, but in actuality the primary sense of pros is “toward” or “to” and “with” is a kind of derivative sense. So the underlying meaning is that there is this “to-ness” to God, that the Logos is “toward” God in the fullest meaning of that, a dynamic of relationality that is turned to this Reality. You see that the word “with” is a weaker notion in that it connotes merely proximity in a sense: the Logos is with God; but in reality the Logos is totally turned toward God. All this of course seems to imply a fundamental dualism before there is even any creation.

But the very next sentence throws us into the paradox and mystery of this Reality: kai theos en ho logos, translated as “and the Word was God.” So we have a real dilemma here. The Logos is not only “with” “God,” or “toward” “God,” but also and at the same time equivalent to “God.” So in normal language all of this looks like we have “2” of something–“2” of God. Later, when we are introduced to the “Holy Spirit,” we seem to be saying there are “3” of these called “God.” But it must be emphasized right away that this is not “normal” language or language in its everyday usage. This is not a “counting” situation. All classic traditional Trinitarian theology of all the main traditions recognizes this. The Trinity is a total Mystery. There seems to be a “threeness” there and at the same time a “oneness.” How this can be is totally beyond our capacity to conceptualize or explain. But there have been attempts to precisely do that and they are called heresies: conceptualizations that mislead us from the truth. One was called tritheism: basically this said that the Logos, or later called the Son, and the “Father” and the Holy Spirit are three enumerated and separate entities, in other words, “three gods.” This absolutizes multiplicity and dualism right within the Divine Reality. As crude as this sounds, I am afraid that a lot of popular piety and popular religious thought is very close to this because it doesn’t take the mystery aspect seriously enough. There are these “3” and three they are, and a lot of popular religiosity has this feel about it. And this can have a devastating effect on spirituality and the religious life.

Now the other heresy, which I believe was called “modalism,” reduces the Mystery in the other direction: oneness. The “three” are merely aspects or appearances of One Reality. “Threeness” here is merely a function of a certain difference in the “showing” of the Divine Reality. In both cases what we have is a collapsing of the Divine Mystery into one or the other of its poles. Very difficult to maintain both poles when we have such a deep drive to rationalize and explain reality. And even though we are speaking only of the Divine Reality, this has a paradigmatic effect on the whole dualism/nondualism argument. You see, if multiplicity is the very nature of the Divine Reality then there is no question that dualism is the more proper way of conceiving our relationship to the Divine Reality. We stand before the Trinity in prayer as the “fourth” enumerated element. On the other hand, if oneness is the very nature of the Divine Reality then we are drawn into what is called “monism,” everything is really only One, multiplicity is only an illusion, maya. Certain strains of Indian religious thought are very strong on that. Abhishiktananda knew that was a crucial wrong turn in the spiritual road, that claiming that all multiplicity in reality is only maya, would never allow Christian nondualism to be discovered. Yet he also had his undeniable advaitic experience of the Divine Reality. He found a promising path in plunging ever deeper into the fundamental Christian Mystery of the Trinity and then reinterpreting the Jesus story in a more untraditional way.

So in the very first sentence the Gospel of John has immersed us into the depths and exposed us to a deep conundrum. The next sentence practically repeats this and emphasizes this line of thought: “He was in the beginning with God.” This repetition is striking and not without a purpose. Then the next sentence opens up a new door: “All things came into being through him”–meaning “through” the Logos. Well, this brings all of “creation” or, if you will, all of reality into the picture. Everything, all, absolutely nothing excluded except the “beginningless” Divine Reality, exists only “through” the Logos; and what this “through” means is kind of the “crown jewels” of the Gospel. Everything, like one blade of grass or your very self, exists only because of the Logos; and it’s important to see this correctly, not as the “clockmaker” God of the Englightenment Age deists who looked at the Divine Reality and creation in a mechanical relationship: this God makes the universe like a clockmaker making a clock and then he sets it “there” and it goes by itself. This is a very crude kind of dualism. But the implication of the text and the deepest Christian theology and mysticism would say that the Logos is present “in” every created reality as the one keeping that reality in existence–apart from the Logos it would go out of existence. And the text finishes this line : “and without him not one thing came into being.”

There are a lot of other points to be made in the next few lines like all that language about “light” and “darkness” which seems to point to another symbol of dualism but in actuality all that does is make a kind of distinction that our Buddhists friends tend to make: the difference between being “awake” and “not awake” to reality; but we will skip all this and proceed to something of absolutely crucial importance: “And the Logos became flesh.” I especially want to avoid that usual translation of “Logos” as “Word” because that is a weak rendering whose real meaning we are totally numb to. The Greek word for what is translated as “flesh” is “sarx,” and here again the radical nature of this statement is not at all apparent. Sarx does not just mean “flesh” as what you have on your bones; that image really stands for the whole human condition, human finitude, human fraility and limitation, etc. To borrow something from the Buddhists: sarx is the human situation viewed through samsara. You have to realize that in the Greek-thought world of that time, which would have included all the writers and readers of the Gospel of John, the logos as located within the Divine Reality cannot possibly have anything to do with sarx. They are at opposite poles as it were and imply a radical dualism. The Gospel, thus, makes this radical claim that the Logos “became” sarx. Wow! The whole Gospel is engaged in this delicate dance between dualism and oneness, and here it seems as if the dualism is totally overcome. But of course the key word here is “became,” which then turns into quite a bone of contention over the centuries leading to many different kinds of heresies and different kinds of traditional interpretations and including Abhishiktananda’s radical reinterpretation which may or may not cohere with Church teaching. Abhishiktananda wanted to look at this statement through the eyes of Advaita Vedanta, through the eyes of the Upanishads, through the eyes of the rishis who had this experience of advaita. I am not sure if the Church will ever be able to do that in any serious way.

Be that as it may, what we want to do now is simply appreciate the radical nature of this statement. It is even deeper and more fully needing exploration than even that profound Buddhist realization: samsara=nirvana, the elimination of the final duality within the human mind. In a future posting we will continue to ponder this delicate dance within the Gospel between dualism and oneness, and we will bring in explicitly Abhishiktananda’s words.

To be continued…..

 

 

Another Tale of Two Cities, or “I Ain’t No Preacher No More”

There is this famous and powerful trope in Western literature: the two cities. Plato had it; Augustine had it most famously–the City of God and the City of Man; it is hidden within many works of literature and history. But of course there is that marvelous Dickens novel: A Tale of Two Cities. What’s important to remember is that this trope does not primarily refer to actual physical locations or cities but the city is more or less a symbol of a state of mind and a state of heart. Truly, physical cities are very often named here; physical places like Rome, like Paris and London, have an important presence here; but still what matters is something deeper that these different locales merely point to or symbolize in many different layers of significance. So let’s take a look at a couple of these tales of modern vintage.

The words in quotes are a powerful line from a very great American novel: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It was also turned into a remarkable movie by John Ford. Here we are not going to engage in literary criticism or analysis, but I think the novel has some very interesting and important religious aspects, and it is on these that I would like to reflect a bit. A personal note: years ago when we first started to show movies in my monastic community (and I will totally deny any part in such an arrangement–unless someone has some pictures showing me setting up the DVD player), we wondered what would be some good movies to show the community. One time we hit on The Grapes of Wrath, and it was really interesting to see it in the monastic context as it showed the very real struggles of people to hold on to their humanity in a very hostile world. All the little aches and pains of monastic life and all the griping of monks about this or that situation seemed a bit exaggerated.

Overview and summary of the plot: the story is set at the height of the Great Depression in 1936, the “dust bowl” of Oklahoma, and the tenant-farmer economy that was the fate of millions. It is the story of the Joad family with Ma Joad and her oldest son, Tom, being the main characters. There is also another very important but mysterious character, Jim Casy, a former preacher who accompanies the Joads on their trek to California. These are tenant farmers; that means they don’t own the land they farm; the Bank owns it all. They have to turn over a certain amount of their crop as “rent.” In the mid ‘30s, during the height of the Great Depression, a tremendous drought hit this area and the land turned to dust and the winds blew and blew creating vast dust storms and millions of acres were lost to farming. The banks took over the land driving these tenant farmers out. Many of them, like the Joads, headed for California to become farmworkers picking vegetables and fruit–remember this is way before all the Hispanics that came into the fields of California to become farmworkers and Cesar Chavez and that era.

Now Steinbeck did not write just an historical/sociological study–but in fact it does have a lot of such observations–he wrote a novel, a story of deep significance for all human beings in all situations. If we focus on the three mentioned characters we will see this narrative as a kind of “conversion story.” So the “two cities” here might seem like the Joads in Oklahoma and the Joads in California and there is the journey from one to the other. There’s a certain truth in that, but the much deeper thing is the inner state of the key characters and their journey from one state of heart to another. Consider these three characters:

Tom: At the beginning of the story Tom is basically a good guy, the oldest and favorite son of the family, good-natured and thoughtful. A bit of a hot head, he accidentally kills a man in a bar fight and does some time in prison. As the novel begins he is on his way home. He makes do with what life hands him, but things have changed at home. He has a certain down-to-earth wisdom that makes him a fierce protector of the family’s well-being. By the end of the novel that whole inner dynamism has been transformed into a vision that encompasses not only his own family but the downtrodden everywhere. At the very end he is almost a Christ-like figure, the Risen Christ, who vanishes as an individual ego and is now going to be found everywhere where there are people who are mistreated and suffering.

Ma Joad: She is the stalwart anchor of the family, much stronger interiorly than her husband. As with Tom, at the beginning her main concern is with the welfare of her family. By the end of the novel she has journeyed with Tom to another sense of belonging. It is now “we, the people” that is her perspective.

Jim Casy: This guy is the most interesting character in the novel. His is the most radical conversion that we witness. At the beginning of the story when Tom meets him on the dusty road as Tom is walking back home after his release from prison, Casy confesses to Tom, “I ain’t no preacher no more.” He had been the community preacher; a kind of Pentecostal fundamentalist preacher. There are some grotesque descriptions of this, but you have to understand that what all this represents is all religion that is simply a manipulation of people. The “preacher” is an agent of this, and you can see this in the modern televangelists among others. But actually this happens in all religious traditions, and every member of every religious tradition needs a kind of “conversion” from the “city” of religion as manipulation, as external rule following, as guilt inducing, as institutional authority, as “anxiety-bleeding” through a showcase of excessive emotionalism or a magic show, etc., etc. All this and more Casy has left behind. As he puts it, “I lost the call.” He says he no longer can “preach.” This actually refers to this whole mode of religiosity. (Personal note: After seeing this movie I used to bother some people in my community that as a young priest I was going around saying with Casy, “I ain’t no preacher no more.” Actually I felt very close to Casy then. I felt that my homilies were simply a form of manipulation. I could be very clever because I was smart, but the actual words would turn to ash when they left my mouth or so I felt. And I felt this was not just me but the whole religious enterprise. We were not speaking the “Word of God” but our own clever manipulative words that either made us look good, or induced people to feel good, to give donations, to keep the “thing” going. In actuality, or so it seemed to me, God was truly silent, maybe in a way like never before, and I should cease my words and become more silent myself so that I could enter into the meaning of that silence and learn what it had to teach me. ) So we see Casy in the beginning of the novel already having made the first step in his “conversion,” in his leave-taking of that mode of religiosity. He grows by leaps and bounds and in a certain sense he becomes a kind of spiritual guide to Tom and his own conversion. Their religiosity now no longer has any reference to “Jesus” or “God” because these were only words that people used in a way that blinded them to their responsibilities to each other. The only mark of their religiosity is what we hear in the Gospel parable of “the sheep and the goats”(Mt. 25: 31-46).

Let’s listen to some quotes from the novel:

First, to get a flavor of Steinbeck’s marvelous writing here is an excerpt from the beginning of the novel as Steinbeck is already thematizing the “two cities” trope–in this case it is the “city of the horse” vs. the “city of the tractor”–and all this foreshadowing the deeper divisions that will become apparent:

“The houses were left vacant on the land, and the land was vacant because of this. Only the tractor sheds of corrugated iron, silver and gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline and oil, the disks of the plow shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight. And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse. Then the corrugated iron doors are closed and the tractor man drives home to town, perhaps twenty miles away, and he need not come back for weeks of months, for the tractor is dead. And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation. And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation. For nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much, much more, and land is so much more than its analysis. That man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry, and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself. When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and his home is not the land.”

So the Joads, as poor and miserable as they are, are not alienated from the land, from the roots of their being. But their religiosity at this point is very external, rule-oriented, magical and superstitious, and it is still another form of alienation that they contend with. Here is Casy at the beginning of the novel describing to Tom something of his new liberated heart:

“”Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’… I says, ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust, sometimes.’… I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent-I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”

 

Here is an amazing vignette of the “two cities” as Casy is at the Joad farm with Tom and it’s mealtime and he is asked to say “Grace”:

“Casy ran his fingers through his hair nervously. ‘I got to tell you, I ain’t a preacher no more. If me jus’ bein glad to be here an’ bein’ thankful for people that’s kind and generous, if that’s enough–why, I’ll say that kinda grace. But I ain’t a preacher no more.’

‘Say her,’ said Granma. ‘An’ get in a word about us goin’ to California.’ The preacher bowed his head, and the others bowed their heads. Ma folded her hands over her stomach and bowed her head. Granma bowed so low that her nose was nearly in her plate of biscuit and gravy. Tom, leaning against the wall, a plate in his hands, bowed stiffly, and Granpa bowed his head sidewise, so that he could keep one mean and merry eye on the preacher. And on the preacher’s face there was a look not of prayer, but of thought; and in his tone not supplication, but conjecture.

‘I been thinkin,’ he said. ‘I been in the hills, thinkin’, almost you might say like Jesus went into the wilderness to think His way out of a mess of troubles.’ ‘Pu-raise Gawd!’ Granma said, and the preacher glanced over at her in surprise.

‘Seems like Jesus got all messed up with troubles, and He couldn’t figure nothin’ out, an’ He got to feelin’ what the hell good is it all, an’ what’s the use fightin’ an’ figurin’. Got tired, got good an’ tired, an’ His sperit all wore out. Jus about come to the conclusion, the hell with it. An’ so He went off into the wilderness.’

‘A–men,’ Granma bleated…. ‘I ain’t sayin’ I’m like Jesus,’ the preacher went on. ‘But I got tired like Him, an’ I got mixed up like Him, an’ I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin’ stuff. Nightimes I’d lay on my back an’ look up at the stars, morning I’d set an’ watch the sun come up; midday I’d look out from a hill at the rollin’ dry country; evenin’ I’d foller the sun down. Sometimes I’d pray like I always done. On’y I couldn’t figure what I was prayin’ to or for. There were the hills, an’ there was me, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy.’

‘Hallelujah,’ said Granma, and she rocked a little, back and forth, trying to catch hold of an ecstasy.

‘An’ I got thinkin’, on’y it wasn’t thinkin’, it was deeper down than thinkin’. I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing. An’ it on’y got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth an’ run off his own way, kickin’ an’ draggin’ an’ fightin’. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang–that’s right, that’s holy. An’ then I got thinkin’ I don’t even know what I mean by holy.’ He paused, but the bowed heads stayed down, for they had been trained like dogs to rise at the ‘amen’ signal. ‘I can’t say no grace like I use’ ta say. I’m glad of the holiness of breakfast. I’m glad there’s love here. That’s all.’ The heads stayed down. The preacher looked around. ‘I’ve got your breakfast cold,’ he said; and then he remembered. ‘Amen,’ he said, and all the heads came up.

‘A—men,’ said Granma, and she fell to her breakfast, and broke down the soggy biscuits with her hard old toothless gums. Tom ate quickly, and Pa crammed his mouth. There was no talk until the food was gone, the coffee drunk; only the crunch of chewed food and slurp of coffee cooled in the transit to the tongue. Ma watched the preacher as he ate, and her eyes were questioning, probing and understanding. She watched him as though he were suddenly a spirit, not human anymore, a voice out of the ground.”

What an incredible scene, and I am sorry to say that it is left out of the movie version. But it is magnificent in showing the unfolding awakening in Casy while the others are still in the “old city of religion”–except that something has stirred within Ma Joad.

 

Ma Joad’s last words as it were. She is talking to her son Tom who is going to have to vanish as he is being pursued by security goons in a corporate camp for farmworkers:

““Why, Tom – us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on.’
‘We take a beatin’ all the time.’
‘I know.’ Ma chuckled. ‘Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But, Tom, we keep a-comin’. Don’ you fret none, Tom. A different time’s comin’.”

When the group is on the road to California, Granpa dies and has to be buried. Casy is asked once more to say a few words:

““Pa said, “Won’t you say a few words? Ain’t none of our folks ever been buried without a few words.”
Connie led Rose of Sharon to the graveside, she reluctant. “You got to,” Connie said. “It ain’t decent not to. It’ll jus’ be a little.
The firelight fell on the grouped people, showing their faces and their eyes, dwindling on their dark clothes. All the hats were off now. The light danced, jerking over the people.
Casy said, “It’ll be a short one.” He bowed his head, and the others followed his lead. Casy said solemnly, “This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ just died out of it. I don’t know whether he was good or bad, but that don’t matter much. He was alive, an’ that’s what matters. An’ now his dead, an’ that don’t matter. Heard a fella tell a poem one time, an’ he says ‘All that lives is holy.’ Got to thinkin’, an’ purty soon it means more than the words says. An’ I woundn’ pray for a ol’ fella that’s dead. He’s awright. He got a job to do, but it’s all laid out for’im an’ there’s on’y one way to do it. But us, we got a job to do, an’ they’s a thousan’ ways, an’ we don’ know which one to take. An’ if I was to pray, it’d be for the folks that don’ know which way to turn. Grampa here, he got the easy straight. An’ now cover ‘im up and let’im get to his work.” He raised his head.”

 

And finally there are these amazing last words of Tom–Casy has been killed by the goons during a strike– as he is saying farewell to his mother in the dead of night as he has to take off and disappear or the whole family would be molested badly by the security goons out to break the farmworkers’ strike. He has picked up Casy’s vision; he has undergone a transformation, and he has become an enigmatic Christ-figure:

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”

 

Now we turn to a very different story, a biography of sorts of a person who died very recently: Charles Liteky. Very few have heard of him, but those in the peace movement and resistance movement knew him well. A most amazing person.

Born into a traditional Catholic family, the son of a career military man, he was ordained a priest in 1960. He became an Army Catholic chaplain and volunteered for Vietnam. In his own words: “Politically,” he would write later, “I was a clerical hawk, who believed that any war against communism was just. I knew little to nothing about Vietnam and its centuries-long struggle to free itself from foreign domination.” So Liteky was in this “city” of traditional religion and traditional patriotism and the two were very much intertwined. In December of 1967, as a young priest, he was assigned to an army unit that was active in engaging Vietcong forces. One day they were severely ambushed, the whole unit was paralyzed by enemy firepower. Numerous casualties happened, and Liteky, under great danger to himself, pulled 20 wounded men to safety and saved their lives. He was under constant fire as he went back again and again to get another wounded soldier. In 1968 President Johnson awarded him the country’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. As he put the medal on him LBJ whispered to him, “I’d rather have one of these babies than be president.”

Liteky stayed in the Army and returned to Vietnam. The war, the carnage and the destroyed lives, took their toll on him. As he put it, “I left the Army in 1971 with my humanity severely damaged.” He tried to be a counselor at the VA, but this only exposed him further to the wounds of war. He ended up leaving the priesthood in the mid ‘70s. So he joined with Casy in saying, “I ain’t no preacher no more.”

Eight years later he married an ex-nun, and his wife opened his eyes to what the U.S. government was doing in Central America. It was the Reagan era. He became an ardent resister and peace activist, now totally transformed in his outlook but with that same sense of courage and focus. Eighteen years after his winning of the Medal of Honor, in 1984, Charles Liteky renounced the Medal and the lifetime monthly stipend that came with it. This he did in protest of the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America. Nobody had ever renounced the Medal of Honor before. In a paradoxical sense, he was still “saving lives,” but now with a much deeper, broader vision—wherever there are people suffering he said, “I’ll be there.” He was one with Christ.