Category Archives: Interreligious Dialogue

Whose Empire Is It Now? Some Reflections on Recent Events

Do you know who Paul of Thebes was?   Very interesting character, but obviously not very well known….at least in modern times.  Some scholars believe he was a totally made-up figure by Jerome, the only early Christian writer mentioning him.  Jerome seems to be well-acquainted with that early desert scene in 4th century Egypt and Palestine, so maybe Paul is not fictional.  Whatever be the case that story has some very significant and interesting points.

Jerome presents the young Antony, the future legendary hermit and father of Christian hermits, meeting this old bedraggled hermit out in the desert.   Jerome tells us that Paul has lived a very quiet, undramatic life in his solitude—this seems to be deliberately depicted in contrast to Athanasius’ picture of Antony and his epic struggles against the forces of darkness.  In any case, Paul, meeting a human being for the first time in a long, long while, gently places a few interesting questions before Antony:

Tell me, how fares the human race?
Are new houses being built in the ancient cities?
Whose empire is it now?
Do any yet survive, snared in the delusions of demons?

With this as our “background music” we will now move on to some reflections on our current situation.  First of all the pandemic is raging again.  As I write this, Pfizer has announced that the first results on their vaccine are positive—they say “there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”  Unfortunately this tunnel may be much longer than anyone knows.  There are still a lot of unknowns about this virus and this vaccine.  One scary possibility is a mutation that would make the virus more virulent as it passes into the mammal world and then back to the human.  That’s why they killed millions of mink in Europe when it was discovered that a number of them were infected with the virus.  The mink was a perfect “petri dish” for the virus.  But apart from all that there are the Trump people!  Things could get very ugly in the next few months, and this brings us to the election.

Ok, so Caligula (oops, I mean Trump) was defeated.  But, as a number of commentators have pointed out, we are still stuck with “Trumpism,” which shows no sign of going away but is growing.  Ok, so I am relieved that we have rejected that paragon of narcissism, that malevolence, that supporter of white supremacy and the gun totters, that propagator of lies and fantasy, etc., but just think, about 70 million people voted for him, almost half of the electorate.  They are not about to go away.  The country is deeply, deeply divided, and I fear the situation is going to get worse.

Some of the people who voted for Trump are lost in all the bad stuff I just mentioned, but a lot are also basic folk who are themselves very badly deluded: Catholics and Protestants, a surprising number of Hispanics, poorly educated simple white folk who feel like they have been trashed by the system of which Biden is a supporter(and they are not so wrong), and so many others.  You have to read this essay from the NY Times about a farming community in Nebraska that voted strongly for Tump:

The title is “He Already Saw the Election as Good vs. Evil”—I can’t get to the story a second time unless I subscribe—you get one free read if you give your email!  Anyway, it was Nov. 1, 2020 in the Times and quite revealing.  Another story that I was able to get to and along similar lines.

Next on our list of headaches is the Republican Party which has gotten very nasty and just as delusional as their now leader.  Vilification and polarization, fear and division, these have been their tactics in the recent decades.  And the problem is that they have gained in this election.  They have made inroads in the House and look like they will still control the Senate—the two run-offs in Georgia won’t take place until January.  They potentially could prove to be supreme obstructionists—and of course there is the “packed” Supreme Court.

But we must not be fooled.  All this chaos and turmoil and political and social thrashing about is only the symptoms of a deep and long-term problem.  The political divide (and the economic divide, the income inequality) are only the pimples on the communal body.  Hard to say; harder still to believe; but we are in much more trouble than any election can cure.  

Someone who digs underneath the surface of our popular news and culture and scares the willies out of most people in his dark vision ( or else they just ignore him like Jeremiah and Cassandra….he can’t get published in any of the major media even though he was a Pulitzer Prize winning newsman once with the New York Times).  Here are two recent op-ed pieces he wrote; the first one before the election, the second one after the election.  Hard to digest these but I think he is mostly right, but even he doesn’t get deep enough in his diagnosis.

That’s why I am not dancing in the street over the seeming Biden victory.  Oh yes, he will have a more rational approach to the pandemic, and we won’t have to listen to all that bombastic narcissism; but do not ignore or underestimate the problems and issues that Biden’s presidency will bring.  Progressives who hope that he can be nudged in that direction will most likely be disappointed—after all half the country doesn’t “want” medicare-for-all or any other “socialist” program.  Joe does not seem like FDR, leading the country into a new vision, but more trying to hold the thing together by compromising and paying off various groups…and maybe alleviating a little bit of the misery….  He has such a bad record in the past that it’s hard for a progressive to feel comfortable with him.  I voted for him because there was no choice.  (Actually I almost wrote in Paul of Thebes but then I realized the old guy would not have appreciated such an awful suggestion!)

There is a scholar, Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist by training who has written an intriguing book:  How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart?  Interestingly enough there is a whole field of study now devoted to studying civilizational collapse…you can see a long Wikipedia article about it.  Tainter’s main thesis: “Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things.   Nearly every one that has ever existed has also ceased to exist, yet understanding disintegration has remained a distinctly minor concern in the social sciences.”  He says he’s alarmed at all the signs of disintegration that he finds in the complexity of modern society.”  

The agents and causes of decay and collapse are on the one hand internal to a society, in the increasing human confusion which we see co-existing with and perhaps riding within  the increasing complexification.   And on the other hand the causes of collapse can also come externally, so to say, in an “enemy force,” or more likely from Mother Nature herself.  Climate and geology have played a big, big part in the end of many civilizations.  (By the way, Biden’s announced plan to reconnect with the Paris Climate Accords sounds good but according to many climate experts the Accords are way too weak to put a brake on the catastrophe down the road.)

But there is still another critical point to consider.  More than one political philosopher has pointed out that a society disintegrates when it can no longer produce a leadership adequate to its problems.  You can have leaders boasting of their own greatness and/or boasting of the greatness of their country, and this is very common certainly in our history….America, the greatest country on earth.  Here I would like to turn to a poem by Shelley:  

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The poem speaks for itself.   As Paul of Thebes well knew, the “demons” delude us all into thinking our institutions and structures, our power and wealth,  are a permanent reality.

But our reflection is not through yet….there is still another poem and even a more dire insight.   It is a poem written by the great Yeats in 1919, “The Second Coming.”  The poem was written when the world was traumatized by the slaughter of the first world war and the insanity of it all happening among these supposedly “civilized” nations who were also professing Christianity.  Yeats saw deeper and expressed his nightmare eloquently.  Here is the poem, and afterwards I borrow, word for word, a section by section commentary written by a dear friend…it is so insightful:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Commentary:

Yeats begins his meditative poem by looking heavenward.

He sees not unity of God and human, but a real-time dissolution occurring before his very eyes.

The falcon, he says, is gyrating, meaning, having left his hands, and soared high into the sky, it is now turning in circles and whirling down and down, further and further away from the falconer.  That trajectory was how a bi-plane would have traced in the sky toward its impending crash once hit by machine gun fire in WWI. 

So, the date is 1918.

A year when war was seen not as romantic and heroic, but indeed a “blood-dimed tide.”

And the dissolution of heaven and earth has begun.

That is what Yeats means by “anarchy.”

Now in Homer, the analogue of all Western warrior-culture, blood is also what feeds the spirits of the fallen.

And Yeats, classically educated, fluent in Greek, would have known that analogue.

Of course, that analogue of Homeric blood is filtered thru a knowledge also of the Roman World as the first world empire, whose land was gained by countless human battles, and the later claim of Christianity to have invoked by its writings a world of peace, overcoming that world of Roman war, a peace which spread “everywhere”—”pan” in Greek. 

But Yeats sees something different now—a world coated in blood, blood everywhere, and he divides people into two classes—the people who have a realization of how horrible the whole situation is—those who “lack conviction” in the prosecution of war, and those who are “full of passionate intensity,” in other words, brimming over with passion. 

The implication is that behind the warrior is merely the beast, and Yeats will expand on this in the next half of the poem. 

Yeats considers the beast-warrior-man to be a revelation.

Yeats pretends to look “upward” for a “revelation”—a “Second Coming”—and he mocks himself repeating it for a second time.

And now, like Paul or one of the Prophets, Yeats has a mock vision—not of heaven—but of earth, and what he has really been seeing all the time. 

Yeats sees no “new Adam” who is coming—no prefiguration of Christ—the “Spiritus Mundi” of which Yeats speaks is a creature of the earth, and a creature—even more primitive, as a “spiritus,” than the warrior of Homer, the battle-line agmen of ancient Rome, or the ascetic of Christianity in the desert mimicking Christ.

Here is the “spiritus”—it does—like Christ at his baptism—come from the desert—but it is clearly animalistic—it is more like the Sphinx, and not at all like Christ, and this “spiritus” has no human or God-like characteristics, but looks at the world and evaluates it through a beast-mentality. Yeats writes:

“A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”  

   Yeats further defines the spiritus beast as the physical embodiment of the passion he had mentioned earlier in terms of its “slow moving thighs, and like a Greek auger, Yeats sees that the birds now gyrate and “reel” around the beast. 

   Are the birds being commanded by the spiritus beast—or are they ready to eat the dead—of WWI and its following “pan-demic”—of H1N1, that also killed 50 to 100 million people, we are left to guess. 

   The is the world of an even deeper darkness than Homer.  

   Death is everywhere.  Affecting all peoples—as in “pan-demic.

   It is a world transformed. 

   That was the point of Yeats’s vision. 

    And looking at this world of pandemic death, Yeats’s vision via Greek augery brings us back to the beginning of Western Civilization, which appears to be the theme of his meditation —that is, to give all of us a second look at the origin of Western Civ—what we would call today, “Year Zero.”  

   And in the last four lines Yeats’s poem comes, we see Yeats’s not only thinks 1919 is bad, but that he knows 1919 is bad because Year Zero—and the very origin of Western Civ – is bad and not what we thought at all.

    According to Yeats, in the 20 centuries of sleep, we slept as beasts—we had a “stony sleep,” the sleep of the “spiritus mundi.”

   And in order to unpack the events of 1919—in a way better than any newspaper editorial—Yeats tells us that we had been looking at something all along, and yet not really believed our eyes at what we were seeing.

   We are seeing who we are—for the first time. 

  We were baby beasts being rocked into a nightmarish existence for the past 20 centuries, and all that Christianity and Judaism did for Western civ and human beings within its framework was to “vex” us awake and help us grow into our true beast-nature, earth-bound killers who live as our own pitiless sun, that’s our “darkness dropping” on the earth.

   We are the beast, whose birth hour has come, moving beast-like to the birthplace of the man in the desert, who had no affect on us whatsoever. 

And that is 1919. 

In 2020. 

But somewhere out there is a lonely but peaceful hermit, under the starry sky, with a wolf and a squirrel in his neighborhood, listening to the wind in the trees, and silently wondering, whose empire is it now and how fares the human race?

Some Random Thoughts

  1. As I get older and reflect back on my life it sometimes astonishes me how really right I was about certain things, about certain decisions, about certain ideas….  Then again I inevitably have to face the many mistakes, the many times I was miserably wrong in my understanding of something or someone or in this or that decision or choice.  Alas, those times very much outnumber the former!    For better or worse, both resonate through one’s life with various consequences.  But such is life….
  1. In the Gospel of Matthew (11: 28-30) we find the following saying of Jesus:  “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Very simple words but very profound stuff is being conveyed.  Sadly these words are too often made into pious sentiments…their depths concealed under “holy thoughts.” 

 We are called upon to lay down one kind of “burden,” one which makes life itself a burden of sorts; and we are called to pick up another kind of “burden,” one which is unspeakably light, which actually frees us.   What is this “labor” and what is this “burden”?  And what about that “rest”  (makes you think of the “quies,” and “hesychia” of the Desert Fathers)?  How do we lay down “our burden” and “take up that yoke” which is so easy and light?  May I suggest that we are here at the doorway of a kind of Christian Rinzai Zen…meaning that these questions are not solvable as rational, conceptual puzzles.  With their koan-like challenge we stand at the gateway to the mystery of our very identity.

  1. Stalin said, “It’s not who votes that matters; it’s who counts the votes.”  This made me nostalgic for my childhood home in Chicago, where I grew up way back when in the Mayor Daley era.  I swear Stalin must have gotten his training as a precinct captain in old Chicago!!  Those guys pioneered  “counting votes.”

Speaking of elections, this is going to be a very, very messy affair in November.  There is a very real potential of a lot of turmoil.

  1. One candidate, President Trump, had and still has the overwhelming support of evangelical Christians.  Anyone puzzled by that needs to read this clarifying (and depressing) story from the New York Times.

What’s equally dismaying is that in 2016 about 50% of the Catholic vote also went to Trump.  Perhaps not this time….  The pollsters say these are the key points for the Trump Base:  MAGA, abortion, 2nd amendment, stopping socialism, country on edge of chaos (meaning Blacks are getting “uppity” again), and illegal immigrants taking over the country.  I think I might want to check out the “how to” page on moving to Canada….not that it is any paradise either.

What else to say about this mess?  Well, I am not thrilled by the Biden-Harris ticket, but the other choice of the sociopath president is simply not possible as even a consideration.  Both Joe and Kamala have a lot of baggage from their past that makes me worried about them.  Also, they pretty much represent the “great center” of the Dem party though they have moved to what seems like leftward due to the pressure of the movement generated by Bernie, AOC, Warren, and others.  It is really funny that these folks are labeled as the “radical left” by the Republicans, by the media, and even by many Dems; but by European standards they would be considered “centrists!  It is also interesting how AOC, a real possible future leader of progressive Dems, got only a bit more than a minute speaking time at the convention whereas someone like billionaire Michael Bloomberg got a big chunk of time.  

Alas, even as I vote for this crew of Dems, I am with Chris Hedges in believing that elections will not solve our real problems.  They are much, much deeper than what any party has to offer.  It will relieve us of the immediate insanity of the present situation, and simply give us a “kinder and gentler” corruption  and a miasma of competing self-interests where we get a few crumbs off the table while corporate interests and the 1% flourish.  Also, given the past record of the Dems, don’t count out some egregious sell-outs like the Bankruptcy Reform Act under Clinton (brainchild of Biden), and the Criminal Reform Act also under Clinton.  I won’t bother with Obama Care.  By the way, none of these people spoke out against the Iraq/Afghan war; in fact endorsed it.  

But I would also disagree with Chris Hedges in his belief that what is needed is a revolution of sorts.  Nothing totally external, nothing that is just an external rearrangement of social/economic parts will be adequate to the task of tackling our real problems.  Only insofar as the “revolution” will be in the heart will we be able to deal with the challenges ahead.   Yes, I can abstractly name the social programs that would make us a more decent, humane society….things like Medicare for All, a universal basic income, forgiveness of all college debt, free education for all who want it, etc….but none of these programs can be implemented in a social fabric so divided as we are, so riddled with delusions about each other and hatreds for each other, so dysfunctional, so mesmerized by the pursuit of narrow superficial goals, so ready to reach for the gun, meaning violence of any kind….   Alas, I am not very hopeful about the future of this country.  I wonder if the people who vote for Trump see what’s coming down the road toward all of us….   A lot of them are simple people who are afraid and confused and don’t know where to turn; a lot of others are much more troubled, and with these we have a lot to worry about….

  1. And now for a bit of classic philosophy:  Here is a quote from Aristotle:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” 

This line of thought was followed by Thomas Aquinas and most of the West until modern times.  The idea gets expanded like this:

Some goods are subordinate to others

The highest goods are intrinsically good –not subordinate to anything.

If something is the highest good, then it is good in itself, and not merely because it leads to something else.

Good in itself  is called an intrinsic good. 

Good because it leads to something else is then an extrinsic good.

Now, what is good for X depends on the function of X

The function of a knife is to cut.   Thus, a “good” knife cuts well.

The function of an eye is to see.   Thus, a “good” eye sees well.

The function of a tree is to grow and flourish.  

A good tree grows and flourishes.

Any living thing can be said to “flourish,” which is to say that it is living well.  But living well for a tree and living well for a human being  are different things, because they have different natures.

Ok, this is where it gets interesting. 

  This whole tradition tells us that the true and ultimate human good is our ultimate happiness.    So, we are built as it were to aim for our good.  And we aim for our good in everything we do, in everything we reach for, in everything we think, etc.  All the “little goods” we reach for are a kind of sign of that total, absolute good that our whole being reaches out to in everything we do and want.

And in everything we do and in everything we aim for, etc., we are then reaching for our happiness.   And in every “small,” relative, contingent happiness, what we are really reaching for is our ultimate, absolute happiness.  But this is where we leave philosophy and turn to religion in its deepest and truest sense.  Both Buddhism and Christianity, for example, would say that this dynamic gets frustrated and fouled up because we do not clearly see what leads to happiness and mistakenly choose only that what appears to be a good.  There’s a kind of metaphysical “sleight of hand” that takes place in the depths of our being, and so we begin to act against our very nature.  We are fooled in a profound way.  And this is a total and comprehensive problem.  Granted, there are degrees of affliction; a person could be extremely warped  and have a totally distorted sense of their “good,”  but really that person is still acting/seeking their happiness but in a completely blind way, totally distorting the nature of their “good,” and so causing themselves and others much harm.  But we need to emphasize that everyone is afflcted to one degree or another; the human condition.  Our seeking of happiness gets lost in trivialities, in hedonism, in egoism, in wealth,  even in religion, etc., etc.  In the Gospels the devil is called the ‘father of lies,” the “deceiver,” and Jesus is tempted by Satan precisely in this way:  What is your good, your happiness, Jesus of Nazareth?  And Buddha is tempted by the demonic Mara right at his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.  These mythologies are extremely deep and important for our consideration.  Now Buddhism and Christianity both provide a diagnosis of the problem, but of course with some degree of difference; and both point us in the direction of a “cure” or better, a “liberation” from this condition.  May I suggest at this point that the reference to the Gospel pericope about the “burden” and the “rest” has a lot to do with this issue?  Jesus’ invitation to lay down that burden is an invitation to this liberation, because we are truly weighed down in life by the illusory nature of what seems like our good.  The “burden” of a kind of falseness deep down in us is an enormous burden and weight which we carry.  We labor like Sisyphus in the Greek myth, who is condemned to roll that stone up the hill but it gets heavier and heavier as he seems to get higher until it rolls down again and again and he tries again and again.  Or like a thirsty man drinking salt water to quench his thirst.   Or again in Gospel language, we seek “treasure” which moth and rust devour; we build our house on sand.  

  1. I have ranted here before about how much I dislike the Catholic practice of canonization, how I think it badly misleads people about the nature of religion in general, and even how it just adds to the ambiguity of the institutional church itself.  Not too long ago Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, not one of my favorites for sure.  But who am I to say what this is all about.  It is interesting, though, to see the varied responses this produced.  A balanced, thoughtful op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times. This is the Link.
  1. The conquistador Cortez said to the Aztec chief, “We have a disease of the heart, and only gold can cure it.”   After this the Europeans proceeded to massacre, rape, and pillage (and yes, enslave), but one suspects that this “disease” was not cured.  In any case, Cortez was partially correct…he and his men did suffer from a “disease,” and some would say that it was pathological greed or something awful sounding like that.   But just think of this in terms of what we said above…..  These men are just like all human beings seeking happiness in seeking what is the good….the only problem is that they are pathologically deluded in what constitutes their good and so they are hopelessly incapable of achieving real happiness.  What transpires in their lust and greed and murderous rapacity is a brief mirage of  a superficial satisfaction.  They are merely an awful blow-up of the enslavement to maya in all human hearts one way or another.  Buddha and Jesus and some others seek to liberate us from the “hell” that these delusions lock us in.  Buddha even uses the imagery of fire: the imagery for a person lost in his desires, seeking his/her happiness in that which can only produce more unhappiness…..he portrayed it as a man whose house is on fire but he won’t/can’t leave.  Recall Gandhi’s words to the Hindu who was all devoured by a murderous rage toward the Muslims, “I know a way out of hell.”  Indeed, there is a way.
  1. Two books written almost 60 years ago are very timely these days:  Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Destruction and Faith and Violence.  Readers of these works in the last few years have posted some reviews that expressed surprise and shock how timely and prophetic the essays were.  

Here is one reviewer’s observation:

“We no longer communicate,” Merton said. “We abandon communication in order to celebrate our own favorite group-myths in a ritual pseudo-event.” He wrote that in the Sixties, but he could have been describing a Trump rally, which, in the absence of substantive content, is mostly a ritual acting out of a group-myth, reaching its crescendo in the anticipated expulsion of protesters. As Rachel Maddow showed in a recent montage of those expulsions, Trump repeatedly asks the crowd, “Isn’t this exciting?” Roughing up protesters may express anything from personal rage to fascist methodology, but it is also entertainment. As Neil Postman has noted, Americans like “amusing ourselves to death.” When the anti-Trump signs come out, the crowd gets happy, knowing the real fun is about to begin.

This is all contemptible and sad. But I wonder: how do protestors avoid becoming unwitting collaborators in Trump’s entertainments? Even if they don’t hit back or give the crowd the finger, how do they escape complicity in a political Punch and Judy show? How do they avoid getting their own group-myths stuck in the futility of an endless ritualized dualism of “us versus them”?

From this blog site:  https://jimfriedrich.com/tag/thomas-merton-faith-and-violence/

  1. Saw this on a t-shirt:  You can’t change stupid.  Maybe you can quarantine it.   

Reminds me of my all-time favorite worn by a Native American:  Resisting Illegal Immigration Since 1492.    I almost offered him $20 for the shirt off his back!

  1. Eliot Deutsch, a philosopher who was very conversant with Asian thought, commenting on a famous rock garden at Ryoanji, a Zen temple in Kyoto:

“The concept of yugen teaches us that in aesthetic experience it is not that ‘I see the work of art,’ but that by ‘seeing’ the ‘I’ is transformed.  It is not that ‘I enter into the work,’ but that by ‘entering’ the ‘I’ is altered in the intensity of a pristine immediacy.”

We in the West have very little sense of the “why” and the “how” of the “I” needing to be transformed.  Even in our various religious traditions somehow this “I” gets put on a pedestal of sorts.  Even when we “punish” ourselves for our “sins,” it is the “I” behind the mask of a superficial humility, another badge that it wears proudly!  What is needed is a kind of transformation, which is, in Gospel language, an unburdening.  What we don’t realize is the “heaviness” of this “I” that we bear through our daily lives, a sense of identity that constantly needs to be worked, maintained. (The best of the Desert Father tradition knew this well.)  Sometimes you can even see this “burden” in peoples’ faces, and I don’t mean the suffering that life sometimes brings but rather the “heaviness of life” felt in upholding some identity based on fleeting credentials.   

 Of course a radical “unburdening” takes place when we die; death comes like the ultimate thief to steal everything that is stealable, including even the sense of who you seem to be.  We invent various myths to console ourselves…portrayals of the afterlife…, or else live in total denial of “the end.”    An icon of this “unburdening” is sannyasa…the initiate plunges totally under the water, symbolically and actually dying to all social identity.  You would think our Baptism would have the same meaning—our identity now is uncovered “in Christ” and it should have the same sense as the Zen person of “no-rank,” of “no-account”—meaning it is not just another credential to wave at people to tell them who we are.  (The Gospel does say, ‘Not everyone who shouts ‘Lord, Lord……’) 

But even sannyasa is a kind of credential.   There is something beyond that, but this is not on any map.  And so our identity is always transcendent to what we can point to….because it ultimately is in the One we call God.   Let us end with the prayer from the Upanishads:  From the unreal, Lead us to the Real.

From India

I am taking a break from all my Chinese Zen materials and doing a bit of dabbling in metaphysics and returning to India for a while. The main reason for this is that I want to do a bit of renewed reflection on spiritual nondualism.  And India is certainly rich in that tradition.  However, we westerners should not forget our own possibilities and our own resources for discovering in the depths of Christianity and Islam a true nondualism.  Perhaps some day I will spend some time with that, but here and now I want to touch base with perhaps the greatest, most profound of India’s proponents of nondualism or advaita; and that is Sankara, and I would like to also touch base with two westerners who came to India and found themselves deeply challenged by Sankara and deeply inspired and profoundly influenced both in their spiritual and in their intellectual lives:  the Belgian Jesuit Richard De Smet and the English nun Sara Grant.

 Metaphysics is not everyone’s cup of tea, quite understandably.  In fact, in the spiritual life, it can be quite detrimental if one gets lost in a lot of abstractions that facilitate one’s disconnect from life as lived.  Probably most people can go a long way without any explicit metaphysical language; but all human beings have an implicit metaphysics—it is their explanation/understanding of what constitutes reality.  The moment you put together subject and predicate in a statement you imply a metaphysics—whether it has to do with some reality or whether it is a delusion can be determined by some kind of inquiry.  In any case, metaphysics, rightly understood, can be a help in the religious life in various ways…especially in keeping our religious language from succumbing to superstition, infantile sentiment, simple narrow-mindedness, etc.  Nondualism has both a religious/theological component and a philosophical component…if we are going to think about it and talk about it and not just mouth pious formulas that we picked up somewhere.  That means an authentic metaphysics will have a real role in examining what we mean by nondualism and its implications for our spiritual journey. 

Now if you want the “real thing,” genuine metaphysics, you will have to go to classical and medieval Europe…OR…classical and medieval India!  For certain you will not find the “real thing” in modern academic philosophy departments, at least not to any substantial amount.  Long ago I had a great classics professor who was an expert in ancient Greek.  He told me that every once in a while a young student who was studying Greek with him would ask his advice whether he should transfer to the philosophy department because he/she wanted to think about the meaning of life.  He told them that from his perspective that was probably the last place he would go to in order to explore the meaning of life.  Same thing for advaita….you will not find the proper tools to explore this deepest of all spiritual treasures in modern philosophy departments, alas.

India had and still has a very rich and complex religious culture.  But when you think of metaphysics and theology in the Hindu context, or, better, the sanatana dharma, then one cannot help but first think of Adi Sankara (sometimes spelled differently), the great religious thinker from 9th Century India.  Sankara became THE voice of advaita Vedanta, the radically nondualist religious vision of reality.  I won’t get into the complexities of his thought and writings here—that calls for a lot more than just a bit of blogging!  But I have found several things about him fascinating and intriguing.  

  1. India’s religious culture cannot be reduced to advaita Vedanta, nondualism—Westerners who feel liberated from the dualisms of Western religious thought are prone to see all of India through this optic of advaita. The picture is much more complicated than that.  There are some very different schools of thought and practice in India.  In fact there are six major religious schools of thought in India, and most of them are dualistic to one extent or another—nondualism is not even the majority position in Indian religious thought but you might think otherwise if you just read Abhishiktananda…he became such a passionate adherent of nondualism that you don’t hear too much about all the other folks!  For example, there is the whole religious stream emanating from Ramanuja, an 11th century figure.  He is a very important figure for devotional Hinduism, bhakti,  and he was the proponent of what became known by scholars as “qualified nondualism.”  This was not the austere, pure, absolute nondualism of Sankara; it claimed a real plurality and a true distinction between Atman and Brahman and this left the door open for devotional piety, for giving value to religious rituals and religious sentiments, etc.  Ramanuja followed the tradition of the Tamil Alvars, the poet-saints of South India who were the great exponents of bhakti devotionalism, but his exposition was not simple dualism but rather something that tried to hold the values of both lines of thinking and also more accessible to the householder.  He believed in devotion to a personal God (Vishnu) which then led to liberation and ultimate union.  Sankara was much more intellectual—but not in a modern academic sense and also purely “monastic.”  But then there was also dvaita (strict theistic dualism), the philosophy of Madhvacharya.   This is a religious sensibility that would be very familiar in the non-mystical Western Christianity…you become devoted to a personal divinity, etc.
  1. It is interesting to me that not even Abhishiktananda felt comfortable with Sankara.  In part, he seemed to be “too intellectual” for Abhishiktananda.  This is not an uncommon attitude among people who are deep seekers and of mystical experience.  Their fear that what their life is all about is being truncated by the limitations of concepts, words, intellectual manipulations, etc.  This is not an illegitimate fear, the problem is truly there; however, if we drop the effort to express  what is in the depths, or worse accept any and all formulations, then we will surely succumb to fundamentalism, pettiness, manipulation by our own delusions and feelings, etc.  So an honest philosophy and theology is to be welcomed as an aid on our journey.  In any case, Sankara is anything but a superficial thinker trapped in his own words and concepts.  Furthermore, he relies on his own Scriptures, the Upanishads, and he explicates the profound and mysterious depths he finds there using the tools of a high level rationality.  But  on top of that he is thoroughly oriented to an existential realization of the Truth, not just verbal formulations.  But I think that the main reason that Abhishiktananda found Sankara difficult to swallow is that he accepted or assumed a certain common interpretation of Sankara that later was shown to be mistaken(but still maintained by many both in India and in the west).  Even today there is a widely held belief that Sankara’s presentation of Advaita is pessimistic, world-denying…the world we experience as illusory, monistic, devaluing of the human person, etc.   Abhishiktananda tended to read Sankara along those lines, reading Sankara along the lines of certain authorities,  and that’s why he was not comfortable with Sankara.  Bettina Baumer, scholar, friend and adherent of Kashmir Shaivism, later pointed out that Abhishiktananda, without being aware of it, was much closer to the kind of advaita of this path than Sankara’s because it valued the world in its multiplicity more truly and it seemed less intellectual in its presentation.
  1. India is afflicted with many social and cultural problems, among which are the notorious varnas, the caste system which structures society in an unjust way.  While not quite as bad as slavery in the history of the U.S., this ossification of human society into predetermined segments has taken a terrible toll on India’s poor.  Also, just like slavery, it has received a large amount of religious rationalization and support.  Modern Indian thinkers have often seen a solution to this problem outside their religious tradition—they are especially critical of the monastic-like advaita Vedanta path.  Many Indian reformers have been influenced by prophetic westerners, and  also by the spirit of modern western liberalism.  Some of this has had a salutary effect on India; some of it has deformed the Indian spiritual sensibility very badly. Figures like Gandhi were able somehow to hold both in his heart.  As he saw it, India had more than one critique of such religious distortions of the human reality in its own ancient tradition.  It’s not much, but it is striking and powerful….especially when you see it among the advaita folk!  There is an ancient story from the time of Sankara which reminds you of Gandhi; whether it depicts an actual incident or not, the important thing is that there is this story:

“In Kashi on an occasion while Sankara, accompanied by his disciples, was going towards the Ganga for a holy bath and prayers, he saw a paraiah…coming across his path and shouted to him: ‘Move away! Move away!’  But the paraiah replied: ‘When hundreds of Upanishadic texts speak about the unique, pure, relationless, indivisible One Reality of the nature of Truth, awareness and happiness, your imagining difference is surprising.  Some wear dress of recluses and act like them; without any real knowledge they deceive householders.  When you shouted ‘Move away,’ were you addressing the body or the self?  All bodies are made of food, they are all material, and do not differ from one another.  As for the inner witness Self, how is the consideration of its difference in a paraiah and a brahmana appropriate?  As there is no difference in the sun’s reflections in the divine Ganga and toddy, so there is none among the One Self’s reflections in various bodies.  Neglecting the one perfect, eternal and bodyless Person in all the bodies, why this false apprehension, ‘I am a pure brahman, O Dog-eater, get away’?  Surprised and deeply shaken, Sankara immediately recognized the truth of this and replied, ‘O You best among the embodied, you have asserted what is Truth.  So because of the words of you who are the knower of the Self, I am at once abandoning the notion ‘this is an outcaste.’  Sankara at once broke forth into five verses each ending with ‘he who has such steadfast insight is my guru, whether he be an outcaste or a brahmana.  This is my firm understanding.’”

Now this is a remarkable story, over a 1000 years old!  Among various things, it points to the fact that spiritual authority is not based on being part of some group or having some credential—several Desert Father stories along the same lines.  But for our purposes here, the main point is that amazingly it manifests the social implications of advaita, nondualism.  Sadly, there is very little  in the history of India that shows that this lesson was fully understood or accepted.  But lets step back a little bit from the obvious implications of this story and glance at the deeper insights it points to.

All of our ordinary daily life is structured along dualistic lines.  This is the fact of our normal experience.  Whether it be intellectual, biological, psychological, social, religious, material….  The subject-object relationship is the basic paradigm; “I” am the subject and the “other,” whether it is “God,” a friend, a stranger, a loved one, a thing, an animal, a concept, etc., is the “object” out there, apart from me.  (Incidentally, in the modern West society is built up on an economic foundation of atomized individuals bound to each other in some contractual form, and the handshake is really  a symbolic expression of that situation.  Note in India, classically you put your palms together, bow slightly and say “namaste,” and both in China and Japan, classically you would bow to another person—all this suggests some other kind of relationship.)  So, the dualistic structure of our everyday experience deeply shapes our sense of our relationship to the Divine Reality.  It takes some doing to break out of that conceptual prison!

But if you somehow awaken just a bit from this rigid dualism into some awareness, no matter how dim, of an Absolute Ultimate Reality, no matter what you call it, you begin an incredible journey into nondualism—all dualities then are relativized…they are seen as insubstantial as wisps of cloud…they are seen as both truly “real” and as truly “unreal”—-because that duality itself is now undermined also!   The Absolute Ultimate Reality cannot be just another “object” out there among all the other objects for you, the subject, to behold or relate to, not in any ultimate sense anyway.  

Think of the Buddhist novice, he/she starts out with an awareness of samsara, this is the stage on which our lives unfold, and which explains that deep suffering which the Buddha diagnosed as the driving engine of most of our problems.  The Buddhist begins his journey toward nirvana, his liberation “from samsara.”  The problem is that this seems to lock him/her into another dualism: samsara and nirvana.  Nirvana seems to become another kind of “object” out there for me to realize, to achieve, etc.  But the real Buddhist awakening or enlightenment begins with the realization that samsara = nirvana!  Mind-boggling for westerners especially, impossible to intellectually grasp, seems like just word-play, a kind of spiritual sleight-of-hand trick….!  But as the Zen people put it, before enlightenment mountains are only mountains, during enlightenment mountains are no longer just mountains, after enlightenment mountains are just mountains again.  In nondualism you do not “leave” the world of experience, you simply see it in a radically new way, and you see your identity within that world in a radically new way.  As William Blake put it, you will see infinity in a grain of sand, and eternity in a moment.

Now consider the Christian context and the world of sex, the dualism of male and female.  Christianity does seem like a very strongly dualistic religion, and on the surface of things it truly is that.  It’s mystical tradition, which is not generally taught to people, suggests otherwise.  Consider the realm of sex…surely the dualism of male and female seems solid; but sexual expression in the union of male and female has served as a powerful symbolic reenactment of the human divine union, and Christian mystics have drawn heavily on the rhetoric of eros in such writings as the Scriptural Song of Songs to point to a realm of identity that is far beyond such facile dualism—and this is true in a number of other religious traditions.  

Now consider conservative traditional Catholic theology and its view of the Mystery of the Incarnation.  It puts a heavy emphasis on the maleness of Jesus, and this has serious repercussions in various ways, among which is the exclusive maleness of the priesthood.  What many don’t realize is that this is possible mainly because of a deep-seated, thorough and solid dualism of this theology’s vision.  The ultra strong dualism of male and female is then superimposed on the maleness of Jesus.  Behind all this is of course the untouchable dualism of the human—divine reality in terms of creator—creature.  What is downplayed is the language of St. Paul when he asserts there is no longer male or female in Christ…there is only Christ who is all in all.  This is all pushed into the eschatological future, a distant reality somewhere out there…another dualism.  This theology seems to be ignorant of what many mystics experienced, best expressed by Dostoyevsky’s Fr. Zosima, that “Paradise,” “heaven” starts right here, right now if we have the eyes to see it.   Finally, it is interesting to look at the very identity of Christ through this lens.  He is in traditional doctrine both fully human and  fully divine.  Teachings that were presenting a dualistic Christ as it were, as if these two natures were two separate entities put in “one container,” were considered heretical.  The traditional doctrine says that, yes, there are two “natures” in Christ, but there is only one person, not two persons.  The personhood of Christ suggests a profound nondualism that cannot be rationally explicated.  It only remains to say that once we say that we are “in Christ,” and Christ is “in us,” what we have is the beginning of a truly Christian nondualism.

Well, we have gotten far off track, but I just wanted to ponder some of the issues, implications, and consequences once we discover advaita!

Now to turn to the next person “from India”:  Richard De Smet, the Belgian Jesuit.  At age 16 in Belgium the young De Smet reads his first article on advaita.  He is captivated by this reality, almost totally unknown in popular western Christianity.  He was fortunate to have a good Jesuit teacher who shared his interest in Indian spirituality.  At 18 De Smet joined the Jesuits and after finishing his initial studies he got to go to India, to Calcutta specifically because the Belgium Jesuits were assigned that area of India as their “mission territory.”  He studied Sankara and was deeply impressed by this great Indian teacher.  One day he heard a lecture on Sankara by the renowned Hindu scholar Radhakrishnan.  In this lecture Sankara was portrayed as a purely rational philosopher, while De Smet’s intuitive sense of Sankara was very different.  De Smet decided to investigate Sankara thoroughly for his Ph.D. dissertation, and it proved to be a real groundbreaker.  Through the years, the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s  and ‘80s De Smet lived in India and became a top Sankara scholar, so much so that even many Indians regarded him as THE expert on Sankara.  

De Smet’s reinterpretation of Sankara was enormous in scope and implication.  He showed how Sankara was more a spiritual theologian than a rational philosopher, yet without diminishing the metaphysical depth of his thought.  He showed how Sankara primarily depended on the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, that his thought was no more than an in depth exploration of the advaita doctrine in the Upanishads.  According to De Smet, Sankara starts from spiritual experience and all his explications are meant to lead to ever deeper spiritual realizations.  In all this De Smet can’t help but compare Sankara to Thomas Aquinas.  The two are surprisingly close in their methodology and much closer than ever suspected in their substance.  Furthermore, De Smet explored in great depth the notion of personhood in Christian thought and in Sankara’s advaita.  It had been thought that these were totally irreconcilable until De Smet showed the matter was far from clear and that the notion of person in Aquinas, for example, was quite coherent with Sankara or at least there could be a real dialogue between the two traditions.  Finally, De Smet rescued Sankara’s view of the world and the notion of maya from very negative interpretations—the world of our experience is not simply illusory.

A final thought here:  De Smet and Abhishiktananda lived in India and had their best years at about the same time.   However they seem not to have really connected.  For his part, De Smet truly admired both the writings of Abhishiktananda and the person.  They were very different people with very different backgrounds, and it does seem that Abhishiktananda resisted getting to know De Smet more.  They were both present for several of the interreligious gatherings that Jacques Cuttat had put together to create an atmosphere of interreligious dialogue even before the impact of Vatican II had unfolded.  But it turns out that Abhishiktananda did not want De Smet at the first meeting because he thought this would make it into too much an intellectual, conceptual dialogue.  To the other meetings De Smet was invited.  He also was acquainted with Bede Griffiths and was invited to give talks at the Shantivanam Ashram.  But most interestingly, De Smet was highly regarded as an expert on Sankara by many spiritual Hindus.  On one occasion he was invited to give a series of talks on Sankara and advaita at the famous and historic ashram in Rishikesh, Sivananda Ashram.  There were gathered many Hindu spiritual figures and leaders and De Smet was warmly accepted.

Another figure “from India” that I want to I want to touch base with is a student of De Smet’s, the Catholic nun and theologian Sara Grant.  She is another one of those Europeans who was drawn to India out of spiritual need.  She became a nun at age 19, went to Oxford studying classics and philosophy, and at age 44 came to India to teach philosophy at a Catholic college.  She also found her spiritual home in advaita and did a doctoral dissertation under De Smet on Sankara.  She made her home in India and engaged in academic work and in ashram living.  Being a student of De Smet’s she promoted the new interpretation of Sankara which was generally well-received by Hindu followers of advaita, as for example when she lectured on several occasions at the famous  Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh.  She was good friends with Abhishiktananda and described herself as a “non-dualist Christian.”  Here is an interesting quote from her in an essay that was written as a tribute to De Smet:

“Anyone familiar with the thought of Aquinas…may be tempted to ask at this point if the challenge of advaita cannot simply be reduced for Christians to an exhortation to return to the study of St. Thomas with a greater alertness to the non-dual and apophatic dimensions of his theology.  From my own personal experience, I do not think so.  I have found and still find, that the advaita of the Upanisads and of Sankara challenges my Christian ‘faith seeking understanding’ in at least three ways….

  1. By its uncompromising insistence on and spelling out in detail of the demands the theological quest makes on a human being: one cannot ‘do’ theology as one may ‘do’ mathematics or history or any other branch….  Unless our lifestyle and value systems are in harmony with the Truth we are pursuing, we cannot hope for real enlightenment.
  2. By the starkly apophatic character of the Upanisadic teaching regarding the supreme Reality, a dimension which has been heavily overlaid in Christian tradition in recent centuries and yet appeals so strongly to people today, starved of transcendence and mystery.  The keen sense of this transcendence and the relative non-being of all created things which the so-called ‘advaitin experience’ opens up can shatter our comfortable self-assurance….  We badly need a reminder that, as Paul well knew, ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered upon the heart of man,’ what God has in preparation for us.  A firm and trusting admission of a healthy agnosticism might go far to stem the tide of disillusionment created by taking for granted as sufficient for people today the myths and symbols which satisfied older and less sophisticated generations than our own, who moreover recognized them for what they were—myths and symbols which had to be accepted in simplicity to reveal the hidden treasure they enshrined.
  3. By the Copernican revolution which would be brought about in our theological expression of our faith if we adopted as basis ‘God’ as the immanent yet transcendent Self instead of the ‘God up there’ or ‘out there’ of traditional imagery to whom modern humans find it increasingly difficult to relate….  Formulations of faith which we can recognize as perfectly valid in terms of the universe of discourse of the generation or culture in which they evolved frequently do not speak to a later age or different culture, and may even be blocks to the communication of the living message of the Gospel.  I think, and I speak from a fairly considerable experience, that the non-dual tradition of Hinduism can provide us with a universally effective means of transcending the cultural and religious barriers that divide us without destroying the rich treasure of our diversities….  The Gospel radically lived leads straight to advaita, or, from the other angle, that the perfect practical handbook for living out the Gospel is advaita.”

I Live Now, Not I…. Some Reflections

From Galatians 2:20:  “…nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me…”  This is from the old King James Version.  I prefer the old translation over all the modern ones in this case.  They are mostly ok but not as clear and succinct, and  it seems to me that there is a kind of muffling of the impact of the whole statement.  And in some cases a whole new layer of interpretation is put on that the reader can barely sense.

The Pauline writings are central to all authentic Christian theology, spirituality, and mysticism.  Galatians is a key moment in those writings, and Chapter 2 is absolutely essential here.  There is a complex argument laid out in Galatians and Chapter 2 especially, and we find a profound display here of what might be termed “the Christian vision of human existence.”  Traditional Biblical theology, both Catholic and Protestant, does a good job of explicating this vision within the parameters of “the Tradition.”  That means that this takes place within the Greco-Semitic sensitivity to the human-Divine relationship.  But what if we approach these verses having been inspired, informed, illumined by the great Asian traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism?  

Consider the full verses of Galatians 2:19-20:

“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.  I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”   (This from a standard modern translation.)

And this from an evangelical internet source, BibleRef:

“This much-loved verse is quoted, printed, and repeated often, most especially the first half of this statement. This is also Paul’s grandest declaration yet about what exactly happens when someone is saved or justified by placing their faith in Christ. In a very real sense, Paul’s argument is that we become so closely attached to Him that we die with Him and He begins to live in us. Paul has been emphasizing that faith, and faith alone, is what saves us—adding any requirement of good deeds or rituals is contrary to the gospel (Galatians 1:8–9; 2:16).
Christ was crucified for our sin. By faith, we trust that His death paid for our own personal sin. In that way, we are crucified with Him, our sin with him on the cross. That sinful “us” dies, replaced by the resurrected Christ “in us.” We continue to live in the flesh, of course, but our lives are now directed not by our sinful selves but by our faith in Christ. Paul expands on this great truth powerfully in Romans 6:1–6.
For the first time, Paul mentions Jesus’ motive for giving Himself for us: love. Christ died for us because He loves us. Unlike the unyielding system of the law, Christ is a person motivated by His love and concern for us.”

This is very standard language that could be found in Pauline explication in any of the Christian communities with possibly a few different kinds of emphases. But let me be bold enough to suggest that such explications are inadequate at best and can even be misleading.  There are two special instances where this becomes apparent.  If you are a person approaching this Pauline text from an Asian perspective, we will not only be puzzled by the inadequacy of the explication, but our own experience of Ultimate Reality will probably seem so much more real and deeper(Abhishiktananda found this to be so, and it caused a faith crisis in him for many years).  Secondly, if we are simply an intelligent modern person who reads things with a critical sense, we certainly will be puzzled by the explanation because it leaves in question the meaning of so many key terms.  This person, to his/her chagrin, will discover that the Tradition only speaks in “this language” and there seems to be no room for another way of looking at this dynamic.  

Let’s take a look at some of the key terms in both the Pauline text and the explication:

Law

 What does this word mean?  One obvious reference is the Jewish Law of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament.  This refers to a whole complex of practices, rituals, requirements, privileges, do’s and don’ts, institutions, and official status given to certain people, etc.  It reflects the Semitic cultural mindset.  This complex defines for the devout Jew his/her relationship to the Divine Reality…provides a kind of access to the Divine.  Otherwise one is an “outsider,” in the darkness of not knowing what is ultimately true.  This complex is considered to be a Divine given in a very real sense.  Now for Paul the “Law” was very important, but it is radically replaced, all of it, by this one reality, Christ.  What defines his relationship and gives him total access is now Christ.  The Law is then opposed to Christ…becoming one of these polarized pairs…Christ/Law…faith/works, etc.  Now what about all those people who are not burdened by this Law (most of the world)?  Paul says, no problem as long as they have faith in Christ the Law is totally useless.  And those who do not know/experience/accept Christ as the “gateway” to the Divine Reality are relegated to a kind of foggy existence that traditional theology does not know what to do with (fundamentalist theology relegates them to “hell”…that is completely cut off from the Divine Reality.) Modern theology, especially modern Catholic theology, prefers to see the Presence of Christ even where that presence is not recognized or acknowledged…like in Rahner’s notion of “universal salvation.”  “Salvation” is another one of those words that badly needs exploring, but here lets just say that it means knowing and realizing our relationship to the Divine, not being in the dark.  But Buddhists and Hindus might object to this view of them, and those Christians like Abhishiktananda who penetrated very deeply into that religious consciousness find that view inadequate.  After all easily a Buddhist could also say to us that all you Christians are really Buddhists but don’t know it….everyone after all has Buddha nature!  So how does the Law/Christ dichotomy work in the situation of very deep religious traditions that are outside the Hellenic-Semitic circle?  

Incidentally, for many conservative Protestant religious thinkers this “Law” represents all human religious structures that supposedly mediate or “stand between” you and God…like an institutional Church, rituals like the Mass, sacraments, the priesthood, etc.  Needless to say any non-Christian religious structures and practices would be even more “the Law.”  Catholic theology obviously would not agree to that view!  It has a way around that argument which we won’t get into here, but let’s just say it is not a very satisfying argument and it also leaves much in question.  But from an anthropological viewpoint that position is very interesting….it points to a human need and bottomless desire for utter transparency and total immediacy to the Divine Reality. Recall that Paul says that nothing, absolutely nothing stands between us and God.  And Augustine’s, God is closer to me than I am to myself.  Now this is very, very interesting, and it creates some openings for a genuine encounter with the authentic Asian traditions (and Islam also).

Flesh

  Now this one is easy compared to the previous term!  This word does not mean the meat on our bones.  The Greek word that Paul uses is “sarx,” and in older translations and more traditional ones that comes out as “flesh,” and in more modern ones it often becomes “body.”  Very misleading.  Sarx really refers to the human condition, its existential limitations….the transiency of life, the dynamic toward entropy in our physical and mental existence.  We grow old, we experience disintegration, we die.  There is a built-in instability in our existence, nothing lasts; we experience the tendency toward a chaotic cloud of desires and emotions that affect our vision of reality.  We seem to have a bottomless thirst and hunger for something “just over that hill,” but that leads just to more desire, and so on.  This is what the Asians call “samsara,” “maya.”  The Buddhists especially understand this human situation well.  Our house is on fire and we don’t seem to know what to do about it…some of us try to put the fire out by tossing gasoline on it.   There are also various “solutions” or “escapes” from this situation provided in the religious world.  (The non-religious world, whether it be social, economic, political or intellectual, calls this condition “natural” and says “simply go with the flow.”)  Some of these proposed paths of “salvation” are deep and profound, like the realization (satori) of Zen; others are more like the “snake-oil of the soul” which can be found in every tradition.  The things which ensnare you ever deeper in being blind to anything but samsara.  Paul tells us the following:  “The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God….”   He correctly tells us that in this life you do not leave THE human condition, but now you live in it with a realization of wholly different sense of who one is….!

Christ died for us/Christ crucified for our sins/crucified with Christ/His death paid for our own personal sin

Now we are getting to the “nitty-gritty” of Paul’s language and theology.  Those of us who are Christians, who grew up in the Christian thought-world, are so used to these words that we might not be sensitive to the difficulty they present.  If we ask what these words really, really mean and not just mouth religious clichés that we heard since childhood and never questioned, then we run into a kind of wall.  What does it mean that someone has to “pay” for our “sins”?  Let’s step back a bit…look at such language from an anthropological perspective….  In all human cultures and civilizations in the ancient past human beings have struggled to grasp their relationship to some form of Transcendent Reality that explains all there is, that makes sense of their experience, that establishes a ground for order against a constantly threatening chaos and disorder….the ever-present dynamism toward entropy.  So….a common occurrence is the notion of “sacrifice”;  the Divine Reality transcends the human condition and pretty much runs “the whole thing” according to a certain sense of order and human beings need to know that sense of order and abide by it.  If they don’t then they “offend” the Lawgiver and a “fine” must be paid…reparations of sorts, etc.  This will involve rituals, mediators, rites of sacrifice, where symbolically something important to us is “sacrificed” to make up for our transgressions.  This usually involves the whole or partial destruction of what is precious to us to placate the “injured” Divine Order.  Unfortunately, in all parts of the globe there is evidence that ancient human beings believed that in some cases what needed to be sacrificed are other human beings, even children.  When people experienced a threatening drought, for example, there might be a perceived need to re-establish a “friendly” relationship to a deity and even the slaughter of children might be seen as necessary for the well-being of the whole group.  We have supposedly advanced beyond that view, but if you stop and think about it all wars have resulted from our divinizing the State or a nationality and then sacrificing millions of lives in order to restore some kind of social order.  (Also, the so-called “honor killings” in some parts of the Middle East and India even today are a remnant of this mentality.)

Interestingly enough, the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Hebrew Bible is an attempt to at least eliminate child sacrifice and “spiritualize” the whole notion of “sacrifice.”  However that basic dynamic still remains; we still have a “debt” to pay for “transgressions” or to restore some divinely given order.  So when we get to the New Testament we have to see the story of Jesus’ life and death within the context of this language and this universal dynamic, which is especially strong in the Middle East.   Paul’s insights, intuitions, and vision of Jesus’ life and death are profound, revolutionary in that context, and transformative, but his language and his ability to put into words is limited by that worldview.  (Incidentally, all the other major religions have their own kind of interpretive problems.)  If we take these words literally, we are faced with a God who  stands out there somewhere and demands “payment” for our “transgressions.”  There was a “debt” to be paid, and the crucifixion of the Son of God “paid the debt.”  The whole New Testament is riddled with this language to one degree or another, but we also have to notice that there is more than one layer of language in the New Testament.  We see that mostly when Jesus presents a view of the Absolute Transcendent Reality which he calls “Father,”  “Abba”—very intimate designation, it is a reality that is absolute and universal love and that our lives are totally enveloped and infused with that Love.  It is our Source and our Destination and our Everything in between.  Paul’s other language firmly emphasizes that vision, it is this layer of language that needs to become the foundation and interpretative principle of the other language.  We need to discover and interpret the life and death of Jesus as somehow changing our own vision of reality and empowering us to live by a principle that is not mediated by cultural limitations….and that brings us to the next words…..

The sinful “us” dies, replaced by the resurrected Christ “in us”

These words are just a hint at the most important and most central idea in Paul’s presentation: the Resurrection.  Let us again emphasize that “resurrection” in this context is not “resuscitation” or some kind of continuation after death of life as now lived.  Unfortunately a lot of religion and spirituality is lived in the imagination…meaning it is limited severely by our abilities to conceptualize and form images in our mind.  This can keep us from deep realization and inhibit abiding in those depths in our daily existence.  For Paul, the Risen Christ is totally beyond any kind of concept or image and totally beyond our capacities to grasp such a reality.  That’s why for Paul the chief “practice” for a Christian is faith; and this is not some “act of the will” or some kind of inner imagining to make yourself believe some concept is “true,” etc.  It is more like this, and I choose this example realizing that I seem to be in very different territory.  The quote comes from Wu-men, a most remarkable Zen master from 12th century China.  Whatever activity a student proposed as his religious practice, Wu-men rejected…his goal was to block every path and challenge the student into a new awareness…he was the proponent of the “gateless gate”:  “If you follow regulations, keeping the rules, you tie yourself without rope, but if you act any which way without inhibition you’re a heretical demon. … Clear alertness is wearing chains and stocks. Thinking good and bad is hell and heaven. … Neither progressing nor retreating, you’re a dead man with breath. So tell me, ultimately how do you practice?” This is much closer to Paul’s mindset than you might think.  This is much closer to what Paul calls “faith” than you would ever guess.  Simply because for Paul this “faith” has replaced “Law,” the structure and concepts and all evident “ways” and “gates”  that are posited as standing “between” us and the Divine Reality.  This “faith” is now the “gateless gate” for the Christian.  It is the foundation for the ultimate koan, if you will, in the Christian context; something that certainly is way beyond some feeling or notion or wish…something that will actually “crack open” the superficial layers of awareness that we walk around with.

Now consider again those key words of Paul:  “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”  This has to be the ultimate Christian koan…unless of course you water down these words to a trivial sentiment.  It is a sad fact that too much in Christian preaching all this Pauline language –“Christ in me,” etc.—gets treated as if it were merely metaphorical/symbolic, or it gets turned into an abstract new principle of activity and life…we “imitate” Christ, or related to that it is simply an ethical call to live by another moral code, or, worst of all, with that little preposition “in” the picture that is presented is a kind of radical dualism where somehow there are now two principles of life …there is your identity and then there is Christ somehow attached to this identity as an addendum.  Whatever grain of truth there is in all these positions, they all fall very far short of the Reality Paul is pointing at.  And THAT points to a Christian nondualism.  One could say that Augustine summed up Paul in these words:  God is closer to me than I am to myself.  It is only here that we can even begin to appreciate and encounter the deep mysticism of the other great religious traditions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, etc.

What I Did During the Pandemic, Or How I Try to Make the Titanic Great Again

Ages ago when I was going to elementary school, when we came back from summer vacation, it was customary to write a short essay describing how we had spent the summer.  That was not an enjoyable or easy exercise since mostly in my old neighborhood in Chicago we did nothing…just play a little ball and sit around and think of different ways we could be mischievous.  For some reason I felt an obligation to report on what I have been doing and thinking during this very unusual period of history—perhaps also trying to be a bit mischievous!  So, let me follow this illuminating tradition and begin.

First of all, I have been practicing self-quarantine with the exception of several visits to the store for supplies.  Considering my age probably a good idea even though I don’t have the usual underlying conditions that can lead to serious consequences if the virus hits you.

Reading my old favorite Chinese poets…in translation, alas….T’ao Ch’ien, Hsieh Ling Yun, Meng Hao-Jan, Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Meng Chiao, Po Chu-I, Stonehouse, and of course my beloved Han Shan, the fool of Cold Mountain, and a few others.

Saw a lengthy, multi-part BBC video on China…Michael Wood….history, geography, culture….very good but sadly weak on the special gifts that China has.  Pathetically little on the poetry, the art, the incredible history of the hermit movement, very inadequate on the Taoist and Buddhist traditions in China, a superficial take on Confucius….but still it was interesting and informative.    I admit to a kind of infatuation with China….I know it has some very dark and unpleasant corners in its history, as do all cultures, so I am not idealizing it….but some aspects of “the mind of China” are more interesting and much deeper than anything else I have encountered…it is after all the birthplace of Zen!

Pondering “being” and “doing”…the role of solitude and silence in life and culture.  All cultures, all societies have valued both being and doing, but the emphasis placed on each can be very, very different.  Our society is very much a “doing” thing…and in a hurry…and this would be true for the whole modern West.  We not only value action to an exaggerated degree, but we have also almost completely forgotten “being”….we have lost sight that authentic action flows from who we are in the depths of our personhood.  While it is also true that what we do forms us into who we are, nevertheless at the deepest level who we understand ourselves as determines the nature of our actions.  Chaotic activity, spasmodic actions, dysfunctional lives, self-destructive attitudes, distorted relationships, downright evil, spiritual blindness and social delusion, all this and more flow from a distorted view of our being or a total ignorance of who we really are in our depths.  As one of my theology teachers once said talking about John of the Cross and detachment, “Some people are only as good as their last cup of coffee.”

All the major religious traditions have this, but unfortunately all of them also have a plethora of obfuscations that lead not only to superficiality and superstition but also to all the same distortions of human life.

Among the practices and structures that lead to a deeper sense of being are solitude and silence….the hermit life….monastic life in general.  Normally the overwhelming number of the population pays no attention to these realities, but now with so many pushed into self-quarantine and isolation and feeling cutoff from others and regular human interaction, well, solitude and silence is something that has at least brushed the lives of many…and instead of being an opportunity to discover the depth dimension of our being it simply is another challenge to find something to do…activities that fill our space….thank you, internet!

In a sense this brings up the “chicken/egg dilemma”…which comes first?  Does solitude and silence uncover the depth dimension of life, or is it that it is only when we encounter our depths that we can begin to live at home within solitude and silence….and journey ever deeper….?  The answer is of course….Both!!  

Solitude and silence can be hard…I get that.  It is never very easy unless you are exceptionally in the depths already.  But instead of running away from it we should use this opportunity to learn something from whatever bit of silence and solitude we experience.

One of the things that we can learn in solitude and silence is to what degree we are a relational being and to what degree we are a reactive being.  Sadly, too many people are mostly reactive….”as good as that last cup of coffee”….dominated by what is our latest stimulus.  If something rubs us the wrong way, the spontaneous reaction is inevitably anger and more….But with the help of solitude and silence we can paradoxically uncover the relational nature of our being and we can relate to someone else’s negativity in a positive way instead of just reacting all the time.  By the way, this is at the heart of non-violence.

On several occasions I listened to Gov. Cuomo of New York giving a daily update on the crisis in New York.  Don’t know too much about him, but he seems like a decent person and a good governor.  At one point he mentioned how New Yorkers have a reputation for being tough.  Yes, he said, we are tough, but tough should mean being smart, being resourceful, being united, being caring, loving.  Very good, Governor!  On the other hand our national leadership is just a total embarrassment (and even dangerous).  I can hope for a change in November, but that is probably just dreaming…I fear the Dems will somehow manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory…..and regardless of who wins and who rules we show no sign that we are aware of what our real problems are and how deep they are.  The Ship of State is sinking.

As I write this, over 70,000 people have died in the U.S. due to the virus.  That’s more than in the whole Vietnam debacle which spanned about 7 years.  Karl Marx once wrote: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”  Marx was referring to Napoleon I  and decades later Napoleon II.  Here this saying would apply to Lyndon Johnson and Trump.

Speaking of which, the pandemic has shocked the sensibilities of many people, especially here in the good old U.S.A….exposed some of our vulnerability.  We have a very poor sense of the “larger picture” of who we are…very vulnerable mammals who have been here a very very short time in the grand scheme of things, and civilization and our nation…hardly a blink of the eye.  We seem to forget or ignore or simply not be aware that all this can go “poof” like a soap bubble floating in a breeze.  Modern life and especially modern technology creates this illusory sense of living in this invulnerable cocoon….dominance of nature, manipulation of our environment, the hubris of “we can do anything,”….etc….all this feeds our illusions of our permanence.  All civilizations and societies eventually fall apart and crumble…both from their own internal incoherence and even more so from external, natural forces….the ruins of the Anasazi in Arizona and New Mexico show a culture wiped out probably by a vast century-long drought.  And note this recent headline about a newly released study:

Billions projected to suffer nearly unlivable heat in 2070

We live within this incredible natural environment that has its own rhythms, its own laws, its own time scale.  The mountains we love to gaze at did not spring up like a flower…they rose through unspeakably enormous forces at work that shaped and reshaped our landscape over millions of years.  And so much of our beautiful, natural landscape is due to enormous collisions with these visitors from the far reaches of the cosmos which seemed like apocalyptic catastrophes at the time.  To be sure our civilization, our society is not a permanent fixture on this planet!!

Speaking of which, I have also been pondering the “rivers and mountains” school of Chinese art, poetry and painting.  Very profound folk….for them the wilderness was an icon of the Mystery of the Tao, the mystery of their own being….  It was never a landscape to admire or a place of recreation.  There have been a few in the West who have approximated this sensibility….like John Muir who spoke of the Sierras as his “cathedral”…like Ansel Adams who tried to capture this spirit in his photographs of Yosemite…like Edward Abbey whose heartfelt passion for the desert was so evident….and a few others.

Let me conclude with a few lines from my Chinese poet friends and Edward Abbey, some words to accompany us during the Pandemic:

From T’ao Ch’ien (translated by David Hinton):

I live here in a village house without 

all that racket horses and carts stir up,

and you wonder how that could ever be.

Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself

a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums

at my east fence, I see South Mountain

far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight

returning home.  All this means something,

something absolute: whenever I start 

to explain it, I forget words altogether.

From Li Po, aka Li Bai (trans. by Hinton):

You ask why I’ve settled in these emerald mountains:

I smile, mind of itself perfectly idle, and say nothing.

Peach blossoms drift streamwater away deep in mystery

here, another heaven and earth, nowhere people know.

From Li Po again (trans. Unknown):

“The birds have vanished into the sky and now the last cloud drains away. We sit together the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.”

And from Edward Abbey:

 I choose to listen to the river for a while, thinking river thoughts, before joining the night and the stars.  

 

The Circus

I mean, of course, the political circus, the presidential campaign which is upon us even in the midst of all the other problems around us now.  Normally I would not be worked up by this political spectacle, but there are some deeper and more serious implications here that not many are paying attention to.   First of all, it does appear that Biden, the darling of the Democrat establishment, will be the candidate of the Party to go against one of the worst presidents in history—but I think he is tied at the bottom with a few dozen others!!  The Democrat establishment has jumped all over Bernie to defeat him, not that he is perfect—actually he is simply a watered-down version of where we should be at, but still he is pointing in the right direction.  Can’t say that about ANY of the others.  What a depressing situation!  But like I said there’s some much deeper issues than this or that political candidate.  The whole vision of who we are as a country is sadly visible, no more masks, and in fact our view of the human reality is also very much exposed.  Let me hit some key points and then get to some underlying themes.

Let’s go back in time a bit.  

Martin Luther King is sitting in a Birmingham jail.  It is Eastertime, 1963, and a group of white clergymen have called on him to become “more moderate” in his demands and tactics.  MLK writes a letter to them from the jail explaining his disagreement with them.  This is from that letter:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Fast forward to this month and the primary season.  Nina Turner, a Black woman who is co-chair of Bernie’s campaign, invokes this message to counter Biden’s appeal to older Black people and other Dems with a message of “We don’t need a revolution”(Biden’s actual words), to counter that sneaky addiction to “moderation” that ultimately leaves people with the illusion of change.  She was immediately challenged by a white spokeswoman from the Biden campaign who said that Nina had “no standing”! to use MLK in his critique of moderates.  Interesting!

Recently Bernie got the endorsement of Jesse Jackson.  He also has reasonable support from young Blacks and intellectuals and artists in the Black community.  However, unfortunately older Blacks overwhelmingly support Biden (as do older white people but for different reasons).  In part that is understandable.  Think of this:  for centuries your people have been enslaved, abused, degraded, spit upon, pushed down, etc.   Then suddenly one day one of your people is elected president.  This has an unspeakable impact on your psyche.  Now the man who is running for president was his “sidekick,”  “had his back,” etc.  You are going to be “loyal” to him no matter what.  I get that; I can see the pull that would have.  However, it is still a mistake.  Furthermore, it is only a partial answer to the problem.  Bernie has a particular language and analysis of what is the core problem in the U.S., and the key word in that is “class.”  Black people would prefer to see “race” as an equally critical component of the analysis—they see racism as the driving force of negativity in their lives because it is so “in your face” in their lives.  The class thing is more subtle, more disguised, and much more pervasive.  In fact, it partially enables the racism.  But Bernie’s language has not made that clear enough for this segment of voters.

Then there are all the “moderate” white voters.  These are the ones I don’t get at all.  They don’t want any substantial change, or they are afraid of that or something.  Perhaps they only want a “little less corruption” with Biden than with Trump.  Lets get this clear:  both Dems and Republicans are rife with corruption.  Biden seems like a “kinder, gentler” corruption.  However, his track record is incredibly bad, and it is amazing to me that the Dem electorate is ignoring this—of course the national media is all in on him so you won’t see that in their presentations.

I will let others state the case more thoroughly—here are two very good ones:

https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/03/democrats-you-really-do-not-want-to-nominate-joe-biden

Now I see this headline in Common Dreams about a Biden interview on MSNBC:

Hiding Behind False and Misleading Claims, Biden Refuses to Commit to Signing Medicare for All Bill as President

Incredibly Biden doesn’t seem to want to sign a Medicare for All bill even if it were passed by Congress!

I will let Chris Hedges have the last word on this election—his commentary is titled:  The One-Choice Election:

“There is only one choice in this election. The consolidation of oligarchic power under Donald Trump or the consolidation of oligarchic power under Joe Biden. The oligarchs, with Trump or Biden, will win again. We will lose. The oligarchs made it abundantly clear, should Bernie Sanders miraculously become the Democratic Party nominee, they would join forces with the Republicans to crush him. Trump would, if Sanders was the nominee, instantly be shorn by the Democratic Party elites of his demons and his propensity for tyranny. Sanders would be red-baited — as he was viciously Friday in The New York Times’ “As Bernie Sanders Pushed for Closer Ties, Soviet Union Spotted Opportunity” — and turned into a figure of derision and ridicule. The oligarchs preach the sermon of the least-worst to us when they attempt to ram a Hillary Clinton or a Biden down our throats but ignore it for themselves. They prefer Biden over Trump, but they can live with either.

Only one thing matters to the oligarchs. It is not democracy. It is not truth. It is not the consent of the governed. It is not income inequality. It is not the surveillance state. It is not endless war. It is not jobs. It is not the climate. It is the primacy of corporate power — which has extinguished our democracy and left most of the working class in misery — and the continued increase and consolidation of their wealth.”

So much for all that.  But what is at the root of all this social dysfunctionality.  To get a grasp on that is probably the most important thing you can do—more important than voting or protesting or complaining or trying to look the other way.  We are laboring under a dysfunctional vision of human life and human identity.  Age-old problem; universal problem.  But there is our variant of this disease.  

From the beginning Americans have always put “the individual” on a kind of conceptual pedestal.  We see ourselves as these atomized entities of selfhood, each with his/her own self-interest.  When there is a “group” it is as if it were like a bucket of marbles, simply rubbing against each other.  But there are also the inevitably more organic groupings based on race or nationality or religion—and these can also splinter into subgroups.  However, given the underlying and dominant paradigm of our vision, these groups become focused on their self-interest.  The whole social fabric becomes a struggle of competing self-interests.  Capitalism is built on this foundation and exploits it thoroughly.  Modern political theory from the Enlightenment onwards has been about the management of competing self-interests.  When someone runs for office today, whatever it be, he or she  needs to satisfy a whole bunch of conflicting self-interests.  

At the other end of the pole is a vision of goals not built on self-interest but on what is called “the common good.”   This is a term from Catholic social thought.  Interesting that this is close to Buddhist insights about our essential interrelatedness—we are not “marbles in a bucket,” seeking to maximize our own gain in a conflict of interests.   Interesting also that a Jewish politician is closer to Catholic social teaching than a Catholic one!

What ALL human beings share very clearly is a seeking of happiness, but authentic well-being and happiness is not achieved by “me” but by “us” because we are pure interrelatedness or as Catholic teaching puts it, “the Body of Christ.”  This has tremendous practical implications in the political and economic life of the nation.  For example, universal health care free for all or a for-profit health care for those who can afford it are stem from such fundamental difference in vision.  If we have a distorted view of the human reality, we will have a dysfunctional and distorted economy and politics.

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Lent: Questioning Old School Spirituality

We are at the beginning of another Lent.  That means something if you are within the Catholic/Orthodox framework.  This is an important time for spiritual and liturgical reasons.  It is a time of clarification of our priorities and our vision and our self-understanding.  This is also at the heart of monastic life, and the monk is the quintessential “Lent person.”  This also happens to be one of my favorite times!

Now Lent can be understood in different ways, and in fact some of this can be very truncated, very superficial, even very distorted.  Unfortunately this is mostly true of a lot of traditional religiosity.   In my youth I was very much a devout follower, but as I got older I began to question more and more of it.  It is not that there aren’t great and profound truths in what I like to call “old school spirituality,” but it is so laden with misconceptions, misunderstandings, superficial concerns, etc., etc.   And so many people are burdened by a language they are so eager and docile to accept.  Granted, this is less true today than a few decades ago; but it still afflicts us in many ways.  

The roots of the problem is in our reticence to “question all authority”—as that old bumper sticker says.  The authority both of persons and the language of our tradition.  In the case of religious traditions, practices and structures, this becomes critical.  Otherwise we can easily become enveloped in a fog of superficial mythology and our spiritual path reduced to simply “trying to be a better person.”  In some cases we can be seriously fooled and badly damaged interiorly.  Recently I saw a report about Jean Vanier, that he was involved in the sexual molestation of a number of women associated with his community of disabled people.  He and the Dominican priest who built this community were hero-worshipped as almost saints, but it turns out there was a “dark side” to this story.  One writer who detailed this sad story correctly points out how certain ecclesial attitudes and structures and language enabled and shielded this situation.  

The hero-worshipping of Vanier and his Dominican cohort is a symptom that can be found in all religious traditions(that’s how certain Buddhist teachers got away with   The religious dynamic in us somehow always drives us to put certain people and certain religious language  and religious structures on a pedestal.  History shows us that is a big mistake with all kinds of serious consequences.  By the way, the “questioning of all authority” is not antinomian or anarchic, and it is as old as the hills.  Read the Desert Fathers, for example,  and you’ll find it there all the time—not of course if you institutionalize their words and turn them into a “fossil record” of conventional piety.  

But getting back to our Lent….  What is this all about?  Old school spirituality speaks of “penance, prayer, and fasting.”  We also hear about “giving-up” stuff during Lent.  That was real big when I was a kid in the ‘50s.  We also get a good dose of what I call “cross-language”—from the Gospel, using that historical moment of Jesus’ crucifixion as a metaphor/symbol of something else.  Ok, all this language has an authentic sense to it and it can serve a true spiritual purpose.  But….how truly sad it is to see that mostly it is handled in a very superficial way and at times in a very distorted way that ultimately leads people away from the depths and mystery of the spiritual journey.

Consider the following insight from a book on Plotinus (Return to the One):

“A person’s illusory and shifting sense of individuality thus must be distinguished from a true sense of self.  If one traces his or her I-ness back to its source, as one would trace a line (or radius) back to the center of the circle from which it emanates, then the core of one’s self will be found to be identical with the core of everything.”

Yes, and this insight is at the heart, one way or another, of all the major spiritual traditions.  Our real identity is not this “solid” isolated self entity that relates to all else via external relations.  Rather we are essentially a pure relationality—not an isolated entity (this is at the heart of the Buddhist no-self doctrine and as my Thomistic philosophy professor put it, our self is like a tunnel at one end of which is this sense of “I” and at the other end, if we look deep enough, is the ultimate reality which we call God and the two are this one tunnel of relationality).  Both Aristotle and the Dalai Lama say that all human beings seek to be “happy,” but if they have a mistaken sense of self their search for happiness will not only be frustrated but actually may cause more suffering and darkness to themselves and to others.  When we begin to realize the interrelatedness that IS our self, this also affects all our understandings of ethics, morality, politics, economics, etc.   So the real meaning of Lent isn’t about “preparing for Easter,” eating fish on Fridays or “giving up” something or going to church more often or even “trying to be a better person” whatever that means, but it has to do really with getting our priorities right and focusing on what is our core identity.  When we finally do get to Easter, we finally get to that symbolic point that is beyond all language, all concepts, all images…the Resurrection in Christian terms, where the Risen Christ manifests to us the meaning of our existence which is not bound by death or any other limitation of identity.  Paul has his moment on the road to Damascus….”Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me”—Paul discovers himself not as this individual trying real hard to “keep the Law,” and he is a real zealot at that, but now he finds a whole new sense of being—not “I” but “Christ.”  So, in the words of the Upanishads, our true Lenten journey is a journey from the unreal to the Real.

Favorites

Every once in a while it is good to take inventory of such folk in our life and see how that list might change or stay the same over time.  I recall doing this a few years ago it seems, so it’s about time to revisit that effort as I begin 2020.  The list is not in any order, just random.

To begin with there are the obvious:  Thomas Merton and Abhishiktananda.

Then, much less obvious:  Thoreau and Muir and Edward Abbey

Continuing:  Dostoyevsky (especially his Father Zosima)

The Desert Fathers  (collectively, though some more than others)

Gandhi

Lao Tzu and the most incredible of all, the poet, fool and lay hermit Hanshan

Eckhart

I think I have pared my list down to these names as I have reassessed their impact on my life’s journey and my spirituality.  It is important to point out that no claim is being made that these figures are “perfect,” beyond criticism, or “have it all figured out.”  Far from it!!   Now it is also important to acknowledge that I have enjoyed and benefited and marveled at the insights of countless other figures who may in fact be “deeper” people than some on my list.  Who could not learn from St. Antony, St. Seraphim, St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, etc.?  And how about all those other great Chinese figures like Hui Neng, the seminal figure of Zen Buddhism and Lin Chi, otherwise known as Rinzai in Japanese?   And then of course there are these incredible Japanese zen figures like Hakuin, Dogen and Ryokan.  And who could not have been inspired and learned much from such as Santideva and Milarepa and Ramana Maharshi?   All these and so many more have influenced me greatly and profoundly, but the others are the “special favorites” for this person. 

And to start off 2020, here is a “blessing” for your journey from one of my favorites, Edward Abbey:

“May your trails be dim, lonesome, stony, narrow, winding and only slightly uphill.  May the wind bring rain for the slickrock potholes fourteen miles on the other side of yonder blue ridge.  May God’s dog serenade your campfire, may the rattlesnake and the screech owl amuse your reverie, may the Great Sun dazzle your eyes by day and the Great Bear watch over you by night.”

Another Round of This and That for the New Year

A.

Recently I came across this story of a Native American woman’s encounter with some young white girls.  It starts like this:

“Lori Metoxen, 52, works as an administrator at Oneida Behavioral Health in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a treatment center for indigenous people suffering from addiction and mental illness. Metoxen says one beautiful summer day in 2017 she drove home from work with the windows down, the sunroof open, and her Oneida Nation license plate, available only to members of the tribe, proudly displayed on the back of her car. When she stopped at a traffic light in the part of western Green Bay that belongs to the Oneida Nation reservation, she noticed a car full of white, teenage girls in the lane beside hers.   ‘Go back to Mexico, you scumbag sack of shit!’ one of the girls yelled at Metoxen. 

Stunned, Metoxen remembers saying something like, ‘What is your problem?’ to which the girl, after a string of profanities, replied, 

‘You heard me, go back to Mexico!’ 

‘The angriness of their voices was shocking to me,’ Metoxen, a Native American who is not from Mexico, recounted to HuffPost. ‘They really needed to make somebody feel bad. What was the fun in that?’ 

After a few seconds, the light turned green and the white girls, all laughing, turned left. Metoxen drove straight, and as so often happens after incidents like these, she suddenly realized what she should have said. 

You go back to where you came from! I belong here!’”

(written by Christopher Mathias in the Huffington Post)

I remember once meeting a Native American man who had a t-shirt with the message:  Fighting Illegal Immigration since 1492.  I think he understood the situation!

So one of the problems that seems to be in the air these days is the issue of immigration.  Nothing easy or simple about it; not sure how it can be resolved in a good way.  On the one hand the tough, brute anti-immigrant, seal-the-borders stance is not only morally wrong but also historically wrong-headed and ultimately not even effective at that.  On the other hand, a totally open border where anyone can come in any time is not a workable situation for a modern nation.  In fact it was never such a situation even in pre-modern times among indigenous peoples.  Although you almost never had clear borders, there was a sense of “this is our territory,” and to enter or traverse this territory from another tribe required some negotiation or conflict was a possibility.  In any case, it never was just anybody come into “our territory” even though it was not “our state.”  To be honest we also have to admit that premodern peoples did invade and sometimes force other inhabitants out if they were weaker.    In modern history, when Europeans forced their way into the Americas and kept coming and coming, it was in fact a kind of invasion.  We cannot undo that time, but you see how that complicates the picture.  On the level of politics and economics the situation is intractable, but what that means is that we are not seeing it at a deep enough level.  It means it is time for us to see things radically differently, from the depths of our being, and our flourishing as human beings will depend on that.  

B.

Climate change.  No need to say much on this one.    Recent headlines speak of record temps in Australia and extremely warm pools of ocean water in the vicinity of New Zealand.  And a lot more.  The evidence is all there, but we seem to be strangely stagnant about what we might want to do.  I am reminded of the ancient historian, Livy, who said of his own Rome, “We cannot endure our vices nor their cure.”  It seems like another intractable situation where we seem to have a sense that something is happening but at the same time we seem unable to change anything of our lifestyles that might make a difference in some degree.

C.

Election year and impeachment.  Let “The Circus” begin!  In my opinion impeachment is mostly a distraction from our real problems I don’t see much hope in this process.  The country is sadly, tragically, and stupidly very, very divided.  And to top it all off there is almost no one who seems to be a decent choice to vote for.  I am not seeking the perfect candidate, just someone who is not BSing or just power hungry. I can vote for Sanders and maybe for Warren, but even if one of them wins, the way the country is and the way Congress is, mostly what would happen is that their decent proposals would get gutted out.  The temptation is to blame Trump and the Republicans for our predicament, and they certainly are a significant part of it; but really the Democrats have done more than their share of damage in recent decades.   As usual, Chris Hedges has presented this most eloquently in an essay on Truthdig:

Here is an excerpt from that essay:

“Yes, Trump’s contempt of Congress and attempt to get Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, to open an investigation of Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in exchange for almost $400 million in U.S. military aid and allowing Zelensky to visit the White House are impeachable offenses, but trivial and minor ones compared with the constitutional violations that the two parties have institutionalized and, I fear, made permanent. These sustained, bipartisan constitutional violations—not Trump—resulted in the failure of our democracy. Trump is the pus coming out of the wound.  If the Democrats and the Republicans were committed to defending the Constitution why didn’t they impeach George W. Bush when he launched two illegal wars that were never declared by Congress as demanded by the Constitution? Why didn’t they impeach Bush when he authorized placing the entire U.S. public under government surveillance in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment? Why didn’t they impeach Bush when he authorized torture along with kidnapping terrorist suspects around the world and holding them for years in our black sites and offshore penal colonies? Why didn’t they impeach Barack Obama when he expanded these illegal wars to 11, if we count Yemen? Why didn’t they impeach Obama when Edward Snowden revealed that our intelligence agencies are monitoring and spying on almost every citizen and downloading our data and metrics into government computers where they will be stored for perpetuity? Why didn’t they impeach Obama when he misused the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force to erase due process and give the executive branch of government the right to act as judge, jury and executioner in assassinating U.S. citizens, starting with the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and, two weeks later, his 16-year-old son? Why didn’t they impeach Obama when he signed into law Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, in effect overturning the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of the military as a domestic police force?”

And there’s a lot, lot more there that he says…..

D.

Religion.  Now you would think that religion might be some kind of antidote to all this.  Well, not exactly.  To be precise, by religion I mean the institutions, the structures, the organizations, etc.  It’s hard to say whether it was always like this or we are simply more aware of the rot.  Consider some of these recent news items:

80% of evangelical Christians who voted, voted for Trump.  Now there is an evangelical “army of prayer” praying to save him from impeachment.  And then there was this recent headline:

America’s Christian churches are flush with cash despite declining attendance

The story was about how many Protestant churches are “blessed” with lots of cash and their pastors are doing quite well financially.  

And then there was this headline:

Mormon Church has misled members on $100 billion tax-exempt investment fund, whistleblower alleges

Lest you think we Catholics are exempt from such corruption, consider this recent story in the Wall Street Journal:

Headline:  Vatican Uses Donations for the Poor to Plug Its Budget Deficit

https://www.wsj.com/articles/vatican-uses-donations-for-the-poor-to-plug-its-budget-deficit-11576075764

Or two recent stories in the Washington Post:

Headline:   Ousted cardinal McCarrick gave more than $600,000 to fellow clerics, including two popes, records show

This is a story about how the archbishop of Washington, DC, one of the top positions in the Catholic Church basically bribed people who could cause him problems if his sexual predation was outed.  And where do you think that money came from?

The other headline, also from the Post:

W.Va. bishop gave powerful cardinals and other priests $350,000 in cash gifts before his ouster, church records show

Later the Post did another story about this West Virginia bishop and his decadent and opulent lifestyle in one of the poorest dioceses in the country:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/disgraced-bishop-spent-46-million-on-mansion-that-sold-for-only-12-million/2019/12/29/6d7ad002-225f-11ea-a153-dce4b94e4249_story.html

You have to read the story to really get a sense of how bad the situation can get!  It is almost too much to believe.

All of this stuff is, of course, only scratching the surface of what ails us.  The sex problems among the church clergy is unspeakably awful and it is not something that we have really confronted or “solved.”  Want to read a current harrowing story about a priest approved by Mother Teresa?  Here is the link:

https://www.sfgate.com/news/crime/article/Lawsuit-Famed-Jesuit-abused-boy-1-000-times-14940594.php

 But even that is only a symptom of a much deeper dysfunctionality.  Can’t speak for the Protestant scene or the other major religions, each of which have their own serious problems, but we Catholics have a major institutional, theological and spiritual crisis going on and few seem to recognize its true dimensions.

But good people still do good things, and maybe that’s all that matters.  And here is a  story that the struggle to “do the right thing” still has a voice:

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/oak-flat-arizona-apache-mining_n_5dfa9a7be4b006dceaa7e48c

I love the photo below—from HuffPost with this story.  It speaks a lot against all the stuff above, but I will refrain from any interpretations.  I also love what this girl said:  

“We’re Apaches.  We’re warriors. The Spaniards and the United States government fought us here. They think they won but they didn’t. The war never ended.”

The struggle will continue.

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And then a word from another direction.  From one of my favorite people, the late Tang period hermit and poet, Han-shan (or Cold Mountain):

“Who takes the Cold Mountain Road

takes a road that never ends

the rivers are long and piled with rocks

the streams are wide and choked with grass

it’s not the rain that makes the moss slick

and it’s not the wind that makes the pines moan

who can get past the tangles of the world

and sit with me in the clouds”

And Wang An-shih, who lived several centuries later wrote this in his honor:

“I have read ten thousand  books

and plumbed the truths beneath the sky

those who know know themselves

no one trusts a fool

how rare the idle man of Tao

up there three miles high

he alone has found the source

and thinks of going nowhere else.”

(above translated by Red Pine)

`

The Tao

From Lao Tzu:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.

The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.

Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.

These two spring from the same source but differ in name;

This appears as darkness.

Darkness within darkness.

The gate to all mystery.

As translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching, the core document of ancient Taoism.  

No, I will not be “naming” the Tao or anything of that sort!   This will only be some scattered thoughts and various reflections.  There are many English language translations of the Tao Te Ching, but the one I will be using is by Feng and English.  Simply from an intuitive feel I sense that this translation has touched the reality of the text more than the others, though many are good and interesting and valuable for comparison and to gain an additional insight.  The ancient Chinese is especially difficult and even native speakers cannot always agree on what the text is getting at.  Thus there are various versions of the text, and the interpretive twist that is applied depends on what the translator brings to the text.  Finally, there are different spellings of Anglicized Chinese terms: as example, in years past it was “Tao Te Ching”—that has become in recent years as “Dao De Jing”—no big deal, the change has to do with politics and cultural/social issues.  I will use the older spelling for these notes.

Taoism has a long and complex history.  Its roots go back to prehistoric shamanism but it emerged as a refined and extremely deep spiritual consciousness around 600 BCE.  Its golden age was from about 600 to about 300 BCE.  Interestingly enough in the West this was also the golden age of Greek philosophy from Parmenides to Aristotle.  

From Jacob Needleman’s Introduction to the Feng/English translation:

“The word Tao…has been characterized as untranslatable by nearly every modern scholar.  But this statement should not lead us to imagine that the meaning of the Tao was any more easily understood by the contemporaries of Lao Tsu.  It would be more to the point to say only, half jokingly, that the word Tao, and even the whole of the Tao Te Ching, is not readily translatable into any language, including Chinese!….  The present translation generally leaves the word Tao in Chinese.  Those who have sought an equivalent in Western languages have almost invariably settled on Way or Path.”

The word “tao” appears all over the place in Chinese culture and in all the various traditions and schools of thought, including the historically dominant Confucianism.  It can have different senses in all these different contexts, and mostly it loses its mysticism and mystery.

Lao Tzu is a seminal figure for authentic Taoism.  Many scholars doubt he even existed and that the text attributed to him was composed by a variety of people.  Frankly I find that totally irrelevant to my purposes.  I know there is a text; there is a voice that speaks through the text; there is a vision that engages me.  Whoever Lao Tzu is, I consider him a dear friend who speaks to my heart.

There is another seminal figure for ancient Taoism: Chuang Tzu.  (Thomas Merton loved Chuang Tzu:  “Chuang Tzu is not concerned with words and formulas about reality, but with the direct existential grasp of reality in itself.  Such a grasp is necessarily obscure and does not lend itself to abstract analysis. It can be presented in a parable, a fable, or a funny story about a conversation between two philosophers….  The whole Chuang Tzu book is an anthology of the thought, the humor, the gossip, and the irony that was current in Taoist circles in the best periods, the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.  But the whole teaching, the ‘way’ contained in these anecdotes, poems, and meditations, is characteristic of a certain mentality found everywhere in the world, a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and in general a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity, the ambition, the push, and the self-importance which one must display in order to get along in society.  This other is a ‘way’ that prefers not to get anywhere in the world, or even in the field of some supposedly spiritual attainment.”) 

Like all major religious traditions Taoism did not remain static.  Over time a lot of changes took place; it evolved, it transformed, it degenerated, it became infected with a lot of pop religiosity, which is its condition at present as it barely hangs on precariously in Chinese culture and society.  It has largely become a strange amalgam of superstition, health practices, alchemy, magic, body therapies, martial arts, religious rituals, etc.  This kind of religiosity seems to have been prevalent over the last thousand years or so, but even in ancient times there were figures who poked fun at it or critiqued  it, like the hermit-poet Han Shan.  Needless to say, all the major traditions have had similar problems, but Taoism experienced some special problems of its own in modern times:  Chinese Communism.

There is very little trace of pristine Taoism left, but it can be found here and there, especially in the hermit subculture of China.  And this is a most remarkable story in itself.  There is probably no other culture in which the hermit monk has been more valued than in this especially communal culture of China.  An amazing paradox, and this has been going on for several thousand years.  When the Communists took over there was a strong repression of the hermit movement as with all other religious expressions.  However, “the way of the hermit” was still not lost among the common people no matter the ruling ideology, and so some folks headed out into the wilderness and lay low, albeit not in the numbers of past years.  As the repression began to lessen in the 1980s and 90s, their presence began to be noticed.  The American poetry translator and scholar and travel writer, Red Pine,  went to China in 1989 to see for himself if there were any hermits still in China.  Chinese officials told him there were none; even the monastic centers and temples in the cities that were beginning to be allowed once more to open told him not to waste his time looking for what is not there.  But he decided to visit the legendary mountain wilderness areas where hermits used to inhabit, and to his surprise discovered a remarkable number of them.  Certainly not in the numbers of old, but still an astonishing presence considering the recent history.  He wrote a book about it: Road to Heaven, Encounters with Chinese Hermits.  The really interesting thing about this is that when the book was translated into Chinese in China, it became a big seller.  The general populace of China was still very enchanted with their hermits and wanted to know more about them!  The situation is not unlike the one depicted in another documentary about Tibetan Buddhist nuns in a particular monastery on the Tibet/China border, how their monastery was demolished by the Red Army and they were scattered.  But a number of them kept up the monastic life in secret and the whole thing came back to life when the repression was alleviated.  In any case, inspired by Red Pine’s book, a short documentary was made about these Chinese hermits a few years later (“Amongst White Clouds”).  It is in these circles that you can still find the authentic pristine Taoism.  And of course not only there.

There is another place where you might find authentic Taoism but you might not recognize it there—Chinese Buddhism or to be more precise, Chan, Chinese Zen.  A very elaborate, speculative Buddhism traveled from India primarily to two places, Tibet and China.  In Tibet it got even more elaborate,  and it developed an enormous system and methodology.  In China the opposite happened.  When Indian Buddhism encountered Chinese culture and ancient Taoism, it was transformed into Chinese Zen, which is then the source of what we know as Japanese Zen. (Of course there was also other forms of Buddhism in China.)  For the most part, for the Chinese the incoming Buddhism seemed to them a bit like their native Taoism.  They just stripped it of all its “luggage” and “decorations” and so developed Chinese Zen, an amazingly austere, simple path.  This is a controversial point because many scholars of Taoism simply study what is practiced and taught at the pop Taoism level and which practically what millions of Chinese around the world engage in to some degree.  This is a complex question, and it is probably a worthwhile thing to do, but not what I am interested in.  I think it is important to get a sense of authentic, pristine Taoism, and the roots of this incredible mystical path.    I follow people who are so inclined and who have a deep sense of Taoism, not just a sociological/anthropological interest.  So I follow folks like Merton, Burton Watson, Red Pine, etc.

 In ancient times there were figures like the hermit-poet Han Shan who seemed to combine both a Buddhist vision and a Taoist vision.  Such figures can be found even today, and there is one characteristic that they all seem to share: a very keen sensibility for wilderness and the natural world.  And this greatly influenced Chinese art and poetry.  (You can read about this in a work like David Hinton’s Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China.)  This relationship to the wilderness and a sensibility for its spiritual significance is scarce in the West, but here and there you can catch a glimpse of it in various figures like John Muir and Ansel Adams.  Some of Adams’ photographs from the Sierras and other places remind one of some Chinese scroll paintings.  The human being is “de-centered” in this vision—still there but no longer the center or the “main part” as in Western art.  The human is there as a small but integral part of a much larger Whole, which in itself opens up as a window to the Ultimate Mystery.   In the West the natural world is there for our exploitation, the extraction of resources for our benefit, the source of power and wealth, the playground of our ego self.  Or, the wilderness can be an “obstacle” to be overcome. The Bible and Western Thought are almost of no help here—in fact by some considered the cause of the problem.   (When the first Europeans came to the Grand Canyon, they lamented what an obstacle that was to their explorations for wealth.  When the pioneers came upon the Sierras during the Gold Rush, they only saw the mountains as another obstacle to the gold.  And so on.  Our attitude and treatment of the Native Americans is not unrelated to this mindset.)  After that we become “tourists” in nature; the wilderness is there for play, a theme park of sorts.  Edward Abbey has written bitterly about all that.  Rare is that person who has that Taoist spirit and sees the spiritual significance of the wilderness. 

Merton:  “Chinese Buddhism is in fact an amalgam of Taoism and the ‘Great Vehicle’ (Mahayana Buddhism) of India.  The Taoism that still goes by that name is in fact much further from the original Taoism of Lao Tzu than Zen Buddhism, which preserves intact the living thought of the Tao Te Ching, while popular Taoism is a hodgepodge of quasi-magical rites, folklore, and superstition.”  One might also add that there is a lot of that kind of stuff in many Christian circles also!!

We began by quoting in full the first lines of the Tao Te Ching.  This first chapter or first part or first poem, whatever you call it, is pretty much the essence of it all.  Everything else in the Tao Te Ching is a kind of drawing out the implications and the full meaning of these opening lines.  Unless you get the deep sense of the opening, at least a glimmer of it, the rest of it will seem opaque or banal or just a pile of inscrutable paradoxes (the Christian Gospels have some of this kind of language too).  What might strike you is how much there is of focused ethical language—not abstract, vague mystical language.  For the true Taoist there is a definite way of living and acting in the concrete.  Here I would like to quote a famous and profound Chinese scholar, Wang-Tsit Chan:

“But there is in Lao Tzu a peculiar emphasis on what is generally regarded as negative morality, such as ignorance, humility, compliance, contentment, and above all, weakness.  Lao Tzu is very insistent that we avoid the extreme, the extravagant, and the excessive, do away with desires, knowledge, competition, and things of the senses.  He wants us to be ‘contented with contentment’ and know ‘when to stop.’  He encourages us to ‘keep to humility’ and accept disgrace, to be willing to live in places which others detest, to be low and submissive, to be behind others but never ahead of them, and to ‘become one with the dusty world’….”

For Lao Tzu, Wang-Tsit Chan continues, “water, the infant, the female, the valley, and the uncarved block are used as models for a life according to Tao.  No other school has deliberately selected these as symbols for a good life.  Practically all of these symbolize the life of simplicity.  Some people have therefore regarded the teachings of Lao Tzu as negative and defeatist.  But this is not the case…. Knowledge in the sense of cleverness and cunning  is to be discarded, but knowledge of harmony and the eternal, contentment, where to stop, and the self is highly valued.  Or take simplicity.  The symbol for it is the uncarved block which is not spoiled by artifice.  Metaphysically it stands for the original purity and unity of Tao and ethically it stands for a simple life that is free from cunning and cleverness, is not devoted to the pursuit of profit or marked by hypocritical humanity and righteousness, but is characterized by plainness, tranquility, and purity.”

(from the Introduction to The Way of Lao Tzu by Wing-Tsit Chan)

But, as I said above,  all this can be relegated to a very superficial and stultifying modality unless one has a sense of the depths which that word, “Tao,” opens up—as in the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching.   And there are also other parts of this work that invite our hearts into the depths.

I remember many years ago sitting in the chapel of a Benedictine monastery in the desert in Southern California, just beginning a retreat before I was going to start my own monastic journey in another community.  It was time for vespers, evening prayer, and the community was gathering.  Several dozen other people were there also; it was the end of a prayerful weekend workshop on pottery at the monastery.  Many of the participants were there, and this prayer service was the close of the workshop.  Evening prayer went along in a traditional way, except for one of the readings—they are usually from the Bible, but this one was suppose to be a final thought for the pottery folks but it hit me extra hard:  it was from the Tao Te Ching:

“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;

It is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape the clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes that make it useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.”

(Feng, English translation)

Most people, especially us Westerners, fixate and value “what is there,” the stuff of reality, that which is.  Normal and understandable, but the Taoist sensibility is keen on “what is not there,” that which is not, emptiness.  It understands the mysterious and profound value of that emptiness—without any need to explain the unexplainable.  The mysterious fruitfulness of this emptiness.  

If I were writing a book on what is called Christian contemplative prayer or meditation, I would begin with this little poem.  The key to going deeply into “contemplative prayer” is to value this particular emptiness and recognize its presence ( a paradox of course, because it is the essential absence!!). 

Let me conclude with one more excerpt from the Gia-Fu Feng, Jane English translation:

“Look, it cannot be seen—it is beyond form.

Listen, it cannot be heard—it is beyond sound.

Grasp, it cannot be held—it is intangible.

These three are indefinable;

Therefore they are joined in one.

From above it is not bright;

From below it is not dark:

An unbroken thread beyond description.

It returns to nothingness.

The form of the formless,

The image of the imageless,

It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.

Stand before it and there is no beginning.

Follow it and there is no end.

Stay with the ancient Tao,

Move with the present.

Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.”