Category Archives: Interreligious Dialogue

Belonging

A while back David Brooks, a conservative commentator, wrote an important op-ed piece in the New York Times: “Our Elites Still Don’t Get It.” Not that I agree with everything he says; not that he doesn’t oversimplify the problem; but Brooks has definitely hit an important bullseye. Basically he addresses one of the most serious flaws in our dominant ideology of liberalism: the issue of what I call “belonging.” To be clear, “liberalism” here means our social, economic and political ideology derived from the18th century ideas of such figures as John Locke. This was, you might say, the founding ideology of our country.

This liberalism bifurcates into Left and Right wings: the liberalism of the Left is what we call “progressives,” “liberals,” most Democrats, etc. The liberalism of the Right is what we call “conservatives,” most Republicans, etc. At the heart of both wings of this ideology is the dynamic of maximizing choice for the individual or a sort of “freedom.” To oversimplify the matter a bit, the Left seeks primarily to maximize lifestyle choices; the Right seeks to maximize individual economic choices. Both sides crash into the inherent contradictions of their own emphases and both sides crash into each other.

What Brooks does is show how both sides miss out on the “sense of belonging” that people badly need in order to flourish. Decades ago Thomas Merton pointed out the futility and delusion of equating our real freedom with having more choices of toothpaste or cereal, etc. He also was emphasizing the important distinction of the “chosen” elements of our life and that which is not chosen, that which is more fundamental really. For example, Merton said that the sun was going to rise tomorrow morning whether you “choose” it or not; your only option is to say “yes” to it or not, really to say “yes” to the God-given reality or not. This is also at the heart of the Sufi message. All the things we do choose, can choose, etc., fall within this more fundamental ground of the “not-chosen” aspect of our reality, who we really are.

Recall also the great sociologist, Robert Bellah, and his book from the 1980s, Habits of the Heart. He delineated acutely how the dominant ideology of liberalism eroded away all social bonds and an authentic sense of belonging to something larger than one’s own circle of reality. The ultimate logic of either Left liberalism or Right liberalism is a drive to focus on “me, myself, and I.” Left liberalism emphasizes the “freedom” of life choices that this “I “ has; Right liberalism emphasizes the “freedom” of this “I” to make as much money as it wants unhindered by other restraints. Obviously this is a bit oversimplified but you can get the picture of what is going on. What Bellah was especially good at noting is how all this eviscerates the fundamental dynamic of religion. He interviewed a number of people, and there was one that was especially memorable: Sheila (the name was fictionalized). It did not matter whether Sheila was Protestant or Catholic or even Christian because as Bellah pointed out her real religion was ultimately “Sheilaism.”

 

But let’s return to Brooks. He begins like this:

“John Bowlby is the father of attachment theory, which explains how humans are formed by relationships early in life, and are given the tools to go out and lead their lives. The most famous Bowlby sentence is this one: ‘All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.’ Attachment theory nicely distinguishes between the attachments that form you and the things you then do for yourself. The relationships that form you are mostly things you didn’t choose: your family, hometown, ethnic group, religion, nation and genes. The things you do with your life are mostly chosen: your job, spouse and hobbies. Through most of American history, our society was built on this same sort of unchosen/chosen distinction. At our foundation, we were a society with strong covenantal attachments — to family, community, creed and faith. Then on top of them we built democracy and capitalism that celebrated liberty and individual rights. The deep covenantal institutions gave people the capacity to use their freedom well. The liberal institutions gave them that freedom.”

Now one can argue with some of this, but there is a basic truth here. Our rootedness in the “covenantal institutions” has been seriously eroded since anything that seems to restrain that maximization of choice is considered bad by both Left and Right. Brooks calls this “naked liberalism.” It is “freedom” without any covenantal relationships; there is only the individual self and there is no sense of obligation to something greater than one’s own perceived good. And that includes religion as well–this is the essence of “Sheilaism.” To be clear, this is a lot more than the usual criticism of egoism or selfishness; it has to do with how we perceive our fundamental identity, or better, what is our sense of “belonging”–traditionally this enables us to begin to transcend our inherent selfishness.

Brooks again:

“Naked liberals of right and left assume that if you give people freedom they will use it to care for their neighbors, to have civil conversations, to form opinions after examining the evidence. But if you weaken family, faith, community and any sense of national obligation, where is that social, emotional and moral formation supposed to come from? How will the virtuous habits form?”

 

The result of this problem is not pretty, and here I think Brooks is spot-on:

“Freedom without covenant becomes selfishness. And that’s what we see at the top of society, in our politics and the financial crisis. Freedom without connection becomes alienation. And that’s what we see at the bottom of society — frayed communities, broken families, opiate addiction. Freedom without a unifying national narrative becomes distrust, polarization and permanent political war.

People can endure a lot if they have a secure base, but if you take away covenantal attachments they become fragile. Moreover, if you rob people of their good covenantal attachments, they will grab bad ones. First, they will identify themselves according to race. They will become the racial essentialists you see on left and right: The only people who can really know me are in my race. Life is a zero-sum contest between my race and your race, so get out.

Then they resort to tribalism. This is what Donald Trump provides. As Mark S. Weiner writes on the Niskanen Center’s blog, Trump is constantly making friend/enemy distinctions, exploiting liberalism’s thin conception of community and creating toxic communities based on in-group/out-group rivalry.

Trump offers people cultural solutions to their alienation problem. As history clearly demonstrates, people will prefer fascism to isolation, authoritarianism to moral anarchy.”

 

The solutions offered by our political culture are totally ineffectual because they completely miss the nature of the problem. Brooks again:

“If we are going to have a decent society we’re going to have to save liberalism from itself. We’re going to have to restore and re-enchant the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole deal. The crucial battleground is cultural and prepolitical. In my experience, most people under 40 get this. They sense the social and moral void at the core and that change has to come at the communal, emotional and moral level. They understand that populism is a broad social movement, including but stretching far beyond just policy. To address it, we’re going to need to confront it with another broad social movement. Many people my age and above seem clueless. Our elected leaders were raised in the heyday of naked liberalism and still talk as if it were 1994. Many public intellectuals were trained in the social sciences and take the choosing individual as their mental starting point. They have trouble thinking about our shared social and moral formative institutions and how such institutions could be reconstituted. Congressional Republicans think a successful tax bill will thwart populism. Mainstream Democrats think the alienation problem will go away if we redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely. Washington policy wonks build technocratic sand castles that keep getting swept away in the cultural tides.”

 

Now it is important to point out that even though this op-ed piece is not intended as an extensive analysis, yet still Brooks has missed some important parts of the picture. It is a social/cultural analysis, and it is good as far as it goes; but I think the problem he indicates is never really solvable at the level of his analysis. There are serious limitations to the boundaries of his story of the belongings and the covenantal relationships that these various belongings create and inform. This would be true even of our sense of belonging to a certain church/religion and much more so of any belonging to a nation/nationality/race/family, etc. It is too often merely a social reality, albeit a necessary one. The result he is looking for can only be approximated at this level. Something much deeper is needed.

 

The really fundamental issue can be sensed through this question: to whom/to what do I fundamentally belong? It is this “foundational belonging” that then determines and informs how I perceive the world, my values, the moral and emotional state of my heart and mind. It is in this “foundational belonging” that we discover what Brooks has called the “covenantal relationships” that are so important for human flourishing and upon which our real freedom can then be exercised. However, what Brooks actually discusses are what I would term “secondary belongings” or derivative belongings; they are absolutely important but not foundational. In fact, if the foundational level is not uncovered in awareness then all the covenantal relationships can be easily distorted.

Let me illustrate some of this with these two marvelous examples: Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. MLK started out his public life with a strong sense of identity with his own Black community and with a clear commitment to win certain civil rights for his people. He was also rooted in his Baptist tradition. However, by the end of his life MLK had an incredibly enhanced vision. Without losing sight of the goal of the civil rights movement, he began to articulate the vision of what he called the “Beloved Community,” which of course has the faint echoes of the New Testament but goes outside this boundary to a lot more–this term was actually used in this sense by the 19th Century American philosopher Josiah Royce. King spoke of it in contexts such as this:

“…the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.… It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

Now he was concerned with the poverty and injustice that afflicted all Americans and with the end of war as a national policy which inflicted suffering on us and on all people. His sense of belonging was now grown to a more universal dimension that generated his enhanced moral vision and even his social tactics. He was now able to embrace his “enemies” as the Gospel called for–note how that injunction in the Gospel to “love your enemies” is not some emotional “feel goodism,” but rather a fruit of this deeper vision of belonging that includes “your enemy.” Martin Luther King clearly saw the toxic racism and hatred in people’s hearts, did not gloss over that or look away from that, but rather he sought to heal that suffering within them, not to hate them or defeat them but to free them of that burden. He was rooted in his Baptist identity; he belonged to that community, but his new vision also enabled him to learn from such figures as Thoreau and Tolstoy and Gandhi because he also now belonged to a more universal sense of his humanity, the Beloved Community. The boundaries of his sense of belonging were now much deeper and much larger, and in a very real sense a true mysticism.

 

Malcolm X had a different story in many details, but the essential is very similar. He starts out with a very, very negative situation of a brutalizing racist social existence and prison experience; and then belonging to a group whose cohesion was built on a serious distortion of Islam. Everyone should see the movie about his life. For all the handicaps that this distortion burdened him with, his keen intelligence and the true spirit of his heart still enabled him to speak important truths, and he seemed like some kind of prophet in development. All he needed was a kind of jolt that would liberate him from that constricted, distorted sense of belonging that he was carrying. That came when he made a holy pilgrimage to Mecca, and there he encountered thousands upon thousands of other Moslems from all over the world and of all races and nationalities, and all focused on that One Reality, God. It was more than an eye-opener. It was a total heart-level transformation in his sense of belonging. He was now set on a trajectory that would have taken him very far and very deep but it was not to be. Just as with King, assassination was the result. What darkness, what delusion it must be with some people who would fear so much this vision that calls them to a new sense of belonging.

 

In conclusion let me remind everyone that this story cannot stop here. The real meaning of Christmas, which is almost upon us, points us to a sense of belonging that is truly “the further shore,” transcending all our notions and visions. When we speak of Jesus as being born truly man and truly God, we mean that we now are aware that we also belong to the divine realm, that our real identity is hidden in the Mystery of God.

 

 

 

 

The Last Great Place

Recently I came upon two articles in the New York Times that I found very engaging. The first is an article by Christopher Solomon, who writes for Outside magazine. The title of this piece is “America’s Wildest Place Is Open for Business.” It is both disturbing and evocative at the same time. It is the story of a huge tract of wilderness in northern Alaska that the present administration wants to tap for oil and gas. Apparently there is a lot of that stuff under the ground, but what is above ground is absolute pristine wilderness of incredible beauty and enormous size. But what I would like to point to is not just an “environmental issue,” but rather it is our disregard, our trashing, our actual destruction of authentic sacred space. (By the way look at what they want to do with Bear’s Ears too down here in the lower 48.)

I will begin by simply quoting from the beginning of the article:

“Several years ago a mapping expert pinpointed the most remote place in the Lower 48 states. The spot was in the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, 20 miles from the nearest road. Roman Dial read the news and wasn’t much impressed. To him, 20 miles — the distance a hungry man could walk in a long day — didn’t seem very remote at all.

Mr. Dial is a professor of biology and mathematics at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, and a National Geographic explorer. He decided to figure out the most remote place in the entire nation. His calculations led him to the northwest corner of Alaska, where the continent tilts toward the Arctic Ocean. The spot lay on the Ipnavik River on the North Slope, 119 miles west of the Haul Road (otherwise known as the Dalton Highway), which brings supplies and roughnecks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. Judged by miles, Mr. Dial reckoned, the place was six times more isolated than that corner in Yellowstone. So he decided to walk there. On the journey he and his companion didn’t see anyone else for 24 days.

Their destination lay within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. NPR-A, as it is known, is the single largest parcel of public land in the United States. The reserve sprawls across nearly 23 million acres, which makes it larger than Maine or South Carolina or 10 other states. The reserve’s eastern border sits about 100 miles to the west of the more famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Separating the two like a thorn between roses lies the industrial sprawl of Prudhoe Bay.

If the reserve still doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not alone. Even Google Earth doesn’t know it, though the reserve is 10 times the size of Yellowstone. ‘It is the wildest place in America that you’ve never heard of,” as one conservationist recently told me. Yet the reserve deserves attention, now more than ever. The Trump administration has declared the nation’s public lands and waters open for business, particularly to oil and gas companies. In its first six months the administration offered more onshore leases to energy companies to drill on public property than the Obama administration did in all of 2016, the secretary of interior, Ryan Zinke, boasted to the conservative Heritage Foundation in late September. ‘Our goal is an America that is the strongest energy superpower that this world has ever known,’ he told the group, and added, ‘the road to energy dominance goes through the great state of Alaska.’

Nowhere is this more evident than on the North Slope. In April, Mr. Trump signed an executive order aimed at lifting President Barack Obama’s closure of federal Arctic waters to drilling, a decision now being challenged in court. Both the administration and the Republican-held Congress are trying yet again to open the Arctic refuge for oil exploration, an effort that provoked a fierce battle a dozen years ago.”

 

So the article goes on at quite some length. It is filled with facts of a political, of an economic, of a social nature. But it also describes with some eloquence the environmental significance of this land, its beauty and its manifold connections to so many forms of wildlife. Mr. Solomon does not explicitly say so, but he is in fact delineating a “sacred space” of sorts in the same way that John Muir did with the Sierras over a century ago. Muir sometimes referred to that wilderness as his “cathedral.” To refer to these kind of spaces in such a manner is not sentimentality or romantic effusions. Rather this is a sense, articulate or not, of the numinous, the divine, the mystery within the Mystery as the Taoists would put it, the recognition and intuition and contemplation of the incredibly complex interrelatedness in which we live and breathe and act and die. Living within society it is not impossible to have all this, yet it is also very noteworthy that most people simply become lost in all the diversions of human constructs that we surround ourself with. The end result is a kind of sleepwalking existence, yet it may be quite noisy, quite frenetic. Thoreau saw all this almost two hundred years ago.

Mr. Solomon laments the imminent destruction of this beautiful wilderness, but what you read between the lines as it were is a lament for the destruction of all sacred space because this is what the meaning of this destruction is all about. We are not just destroying a parcel of land, huge though it be; we are destroying our very sensitivity to that which transcends our petty greedy grasp. We are ultimately destroying our very selves.

Here is the link to that whole article:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/10/opinion/sunday/wildest-place-in-america.html

 

 

The other piece that struck me was an obituary in the New York Times of Katie Lee, a folk singer from the 40s and 50s and 60s. She died recently at the age of 98. She was not as well known to the general populace as Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, and probably not as talented as these two, but people in folk song circles knew her quite well. People like Burl Ives, Josh White, and Ramblin Jack Elliott admired her. Ives said, “The best cowboy singer I know is a girl–Katie Lee.”

 

At first her repertoire was traditional for folk singers of the early 50s, but a new awareness was brewing within her. Growing up in the desert country of Arizona she fell in love with the desert wilderness and especially the great desert canyons and rivers, like the Colorado and all its tributaries. Incredible country indeed! One particular area held an especially deep attraction: the Glen Canyon area. Many there were who said that this canyon complex was as majestic as the Grand Canyon. So when it was proposed to dam the Colorado at this point and drown the canyons under water, Katie was shaken to the depths of her soul.

From the obituary: “Her enchantment with Glen Canyon began in 1953 during a visit with friends and continued when she became a river runner. She adored its rapids, and the breezes that she said sounded like voices speaking to her. She swam nude in its potholes and waterfalls. She explored its 125 contoured side canyons, each of them named (some by her), and each one a different aesthetic experience. ‘When they drowned that place, they drowned my whole guts,’ she said in an interview in 2010 at Telluride MountainFilm, a documentary festival. ‘And I will never forgive the bastards. May they rot in hell.’”

 

You can feel her anger, and it is like the anger of Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the Temple. Katie wanted to chase these same money-changers out of this Temple. She joined such legendary figures as David Brower, the head of the Sierra Club at that time and author Edward Abbey, one of our greatest champions of the desert wilderness in their concerted opposition to this “blasphemous” destruction of a rare sacred space. Katie became known as the “Desert Goddess of Glen Canyon.” But their fiery opposition proved futile–just as it happened with John Muir’s opposition to the Hetchy Hetch dam in Yosemite. The money interests seem to always win. But that didn’t stop Katie from writing songs of protest: From the obituary:

 

“In ‘Colorado River Songs,’ an album she released in 1964, she pilloried the Bureau of Reclamation.

Three jeers for the Wreck-the-Nation Bureau
Freeloaders with souls so pure-o
Wiped out the good Lord’s work in six short years.”

 

But you can see that her protest came from a deeper place within her, that Glen Canyon had affected her heart much more than just as “beautiful scenery.” From the obituary:

“She added: “I had a cause! A cause that didn’t center on me-me-me: one that asked nothing of me, really, yet was far from mute. I’d never had a cause before, but now there was a place, almost a person, that needed my help.”

 

She never let up, even in old age, even when the environmental movement became stagnant and superficial and willing to compromise with the powers that be. Her fiery nature never got old; her keen sense of the magnitude of this blasphemy never faded. From the obituary:

“Ms. Lee recalled in “All My Rivers Are Gone” that while on a trip to Glen Canyon in 1957, a year after the first dynamite blast that initiated construction of the dam, she took a break from lunch, stared at the river and talked to the water. “I feel betrayed. Homo sapiens! Greedy pathetic fools with a genetic mania to destroy all the sanctuaries that feed their souls. Well, hell, I don’t give a damn if we’re blotted out. I don’t want to be a part of the human race when I see the pimps in government and the whores who do their bidding. I’d rather be a coyote.”

 

From the few coyotes I have met, I would say it would be an honor to be among them! And I am sure that Katie and all her coyote friends are in the all-loving embrace of the One who crafted all of us.

                                                           

 

 

 

 

 

Dominus Vobiscum

Dominus VobiscumAs a youngster in the 6th grade of a Catholic grammar school in Chicago in the 1950s I trained to be an altar boy. I recall those days with a lot of fondness–though of course not all aspects of those days! It was my first exposure to the Latin language in an active way. I could actually say Latin words! Of course for years I had listened to the Latin in regular Mass attendance. It seemed like such a mysterious thing. Even though, like a good Catholic schoolboy I had a missal that translated those mysterious, evocative phrases into straightforward English, the Latin is what I loved. The words seemed to say more than what the translation indicated. And I think this “more” is very important.

The Latin translates very simply into “The Lord be with you” which the priest proclaims several times during the Mass. (Of course I am only referring to the Roman Catholic Mass, not the Lutheran, for example, or even the Anglican, but this example may very well hold for them also.) In that era the altar boy would then respond, “Et cum spiritu tuo” which translates as “And with your spirit also.” The Mass would begin that way, proceed on this recurring theme, and end on this note. Even though it was only between the priest and the altar boy, the dialogical dynamic at play was very obvious, and in fact the altar boy was really a stand-in of sorts for the whole congregation. The rest of us would follow this with our missal and say the words in our hearts. After the Vatican II liturgical reforms the Latin vanished and the vernacular version took over and the dialogical nature of the moment became accentuated in that the whole congregation was called upon to respond.

Ok, so the words “Dominus vobiscum” translate into “the Lord be with you,” but what does all that mean? Is it simply a kind of wish, like “have a good day,” or is it more like a statement of fact: the Lord is with you? Either interpretation is possible, but I think the latter is the “bullseye” if you will. Let’s take a step back. Imagine entering an old Catholic church, one built well before Vatican II. You enter a dim, quiet space surrounded by stained glass windows, frescoes, statues, candles, the faint scent of incense, etc. It all speaks of a Presence. (Actually this would be more true in a Russian Orthodox church, but we won’t go into that!) All the artistic renderings concern stories and myths pointing to a critical “call and response,” a deep vision into the heart of Reality, a dialogue of Love, etc. Even before the priest begins the Mass with “The Lord be with you,” the whole ambience speaks of that Presence. And when the whole congregation answers “And also with you,” it affirms in words that it accepts/realizes this Reality as the Ultimate Truth.

Now there are certain special “sacred spaces” that point to this reality in a somewhat different way–an Islamic mosque for example, or even certain monastic churches that have been stripped bare and this “emptiness” speaks of the Presence in its own way. But apart from that I am afraid that I have found so many post-Vatican II churches that are rather weak in this regard in that they have created a rather sterile environment reinforced by an English translation/attitude of the liturgy that is more in keeping with “Have a nice day,” “Nice to meet to you,” etc. In part this is a vast cultural problem in that our language is “flattening out,” becoming less able to articulate or even imply the deeper realities. You get a sense of that if you compare the letters written in the 19th Century by ordinary people compared to today’s emails and text messaging. So the result becomes not only that the “deeper realities” become more difficult to refer to, but in fact they become seemingly more unreal.

So then this leads us to a big theological issue. The dialogical nature of the language in the Mass in its current English seems to fix us to a purely dualistic vision of our relation to the Divine. This is one view of Christianity about which I discussed here. The Biblical stories and myths and the hagiography in its traditional renderings seems to reinforce that dualistic vision. (Abhishiktananda railed against a kind of absolutizing of that language.) There is a “Divine Other who is truly “other,” and you stand in relation to that “otherness.” But then again, traditionally there was also the narrative of Christian mysticism which took all these renderings and picked up on a much deeper truth here than just purely dialogue. This dialogue, rendered either in language or in art, was merely one way of beginning to awaken to a true nondualistic vision of our relation to the Divine Mystery. Granted, Christianity’s main mode of expression is always going to be dialogical in an I-Thou manner, but we can either stay fixed in that or we can gain a sense of something deeper going on within that dialogue. Recall that consummate dialogical narrative from the Resurrection stories in Luke, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They are depicted as encountering the Risen Christ who opens their eyes to the meaning of the Scriptures. They conclude: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road while he opened to us the scriptures.” (Luke 24: 32) That “burning of the heart” is not just a feeling thing, an emotion, but a sense of something much deeper in the meaning of the words and symbols of all our encounters with the Divine Reality. The Lord be with you. And with your spirit.

 

 

 

Notes For a Toxic World

*I do not speak of the natural world but of the one constructed by human beings, sometimes called civilization. And sometimes you wonder if there is anything worth saying about this dubious venture!!

The whole country is seriously divided on the issue of gun possession–very sad but what else is new! The gun lobby and the “crazy conservatives” present the issue of guns as if it were some divine right. And then again we are violent in so many different ways that the gun issue may actually disguise the deeper disease.

Majority of mass killings in the U.S. in the last 50 years or so have been perpetrated by white males, not Black men, not folks of Islamic faith. When one of the latter perpetrates such a crime it is called “terrorism”; when a white male does that, you very seldom see that word used, in fact a lot of times they will say “it is not terrorism, just a crime.” More people have been killed by white males than by any other group. I say ban all white males from this country. Or perhaps they should be all rounded up and put in internment camps–like we did to our Japanese neighbors during WWII. (I speak here as a member of the white male class; I don’t have much so I can be packed in minutes, but they do have to give me a ride, ok?)

One of our military drones hovers high above some parcel of land in the Middle East. There is a suspected “terrorist” in some building. A missile is sent. Unfortunately there are other houses nearby with families. Dozens of people are killed. This has happened over and over again. Strange that we are shocked when the killings come home.

When the Spanish Conquistador, Cortez, confronted the leader of the Aztecs in what is now Mexico City, he said to the Indian leader, “My men suffer a disease of the heart and only gold can cure it.” Then they went out and killed and pillaged the Aztecs.

 

It has been written that the Las Vegas massacre was the single worst such incident in our history. If you define such an incident very narrowly, like it being perpetrated by only one agent, well, yes, that might be true. But in terms of just plain awfulness, there have been a lot, lot worse. Consider just the following:

The Colfax Massacre: In Colfax, Louisiana on Easter Sunday over a 100 African-American freedmen were gunned down in a group by a white vigilante group, 1873.

The East St. Louis Massacre. Over 200 African-Americans were gunned down randomly by rampaging white mobs in a “white riot” in 1917.

The Tulsa Massacre. Over 200 African-Americans gunned down during another white riot in 1921.

There are several books that document and narrate our sad history and incredible predicament:

a.) Richard Slotkin’s trilogy of history beginning with Regeneration Through Violence, , then The Fatal Environment, and finally Gunfighter Nation

b.) Howard Zinn’s History of the United States

c.) Kurt Anderson’s very recent, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire

 

*Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times. He is a conservative Catholic (a convert), a graduate of Harvard, and very articulate writer. I disagree with most of his commentary on the Catholic scene, but at times he is very incisive about cultural matters. Recently Hugh Hefner, the founder of the Playboy empire, died and there were a number of liberal and libertarian-inclined voices that eulogized Hefner. I found that very troubling. The philosophy of Hefner and his lifestyle is in my opinion another manifestation of that disease of the heart which afflicts our culture. Douthat wrote a piece about Hefner in the NY Times and it is absolutely brilliant. He really hits a bullseye in unmasking the Hefner myth which a lot of liberals, hedonistic or not, had fallen for. Here is a link to that piece:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/30/opinion/hugh-hefner.html

 

 

*Now I switch to a more positive topic. We are moving away from the “toxicity” of civilization and using the gentle language of Thoreau:

“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and school committee and every one of you will take care of that.”

I have always wondered why Thoreau was so sensitive to the “call of the wilderness.” Was it in order to “escape” the “toxicity of civilization”? It was already very evident in his own society of early 19th Century America, but one still wonders. In any case, “escape” is one thing, a first step if you will; but for some this leads to a second step, something deeper and more positive: like the Desert Fathers and the ancient Chinese hermits. For some, “escape” is all they can summon and in a sense that may help survive the madness. The wilderness has always been an attraction for people seeking to survive the insanity of their society. It is a well-established fact that there were real social conditions that were the foundation for people seeking to “leave” their civilized structures. This was true in the 4th Century Middle East and in ancient China. With a few of these people the “escape” turns into a much deeper and more profound journey.”

 

*Absolute stillness. But before we get to that there is simply silence. To seek to inhabit silence, like in a monastic context or in a wilderness, is a form of escape from the confusions and turbulence of the surface of our everyday life. But then we can go further, go deeper.

There is a Christian woman who is a profound student of Tibetan Buddhism. She is becoming an expert in their very sophisticated meditation techniques, and she is at present doing an intensive retreat in silence that will go on for some time. I saw this quote on her website:

“If there is a dimension of reality that is absolutely still, unmoving, the ground of being from which all existence flows, then what kind of mind would one need to be able to dwell in its presence?”

A very good question. But I think there are quite a few different answers. And I am reminded of something that Merton wrote which points in a direction that I find very attractive. This is from a Preface he wrote to a Japanese translation of his little meditation Thoughts In Solitude:

“No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.”  

Notes From a “Retreat”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

And here he comments on a particular poem:

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

 

 

Some News Items

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Various Thoughts

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

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

You ask why I settled on Jade Mountain

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

the peach blossoms in the stream disappear into the distance

there’s another world beyond the world of man

                                      (translated by Red Pine)

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

Woods and springs make me smile

no kitchen smoke for miles

clouds rise up from rocky ridges

cascades tumble down

a gibbon’s howl makes the path clearer

a tiger’s roar transcends the world

pine wind sighs so softly

birds discuss singsong

I walk the winding streams

and climb the peaks alone

sometimes I sit on a boulder

or lie down and gaze at trailing vines

but when I see a distant town

all I hear is noise

            (translation by Red Pine)

  

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

And another one in the British paper, The Guardian:

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

 

 

 

Did You Know That……?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Wisdom Is Where Wisdom Is

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

And another one, one of my favorites:

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

And also this:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toward a Christian Advaita, Part III

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

–Gudham: the absolutely ineffable Ground, the Father.

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

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

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

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

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

Sahatvam, vaktram, gudham.”

Continuing….

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

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

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

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

 

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