The Chinese Tradition

In the early 1960s Thomas Merton began a serious encounter with the Chinese spiritual traditions (among so many others!).  When he met the works of Chuang Tzu (today spelled as Zhuangsi), he immediately connected with him.  With the encouragement of his friend, John Wu, he took to doing what was a kind of translation of Chuang Tzu.  While not being a literal word-for-word rendition, many readers still hailed it as truly “capturing” the thought of Chuang Tzu, including the famous Chinese translator Burton Watson.  In any case Chuang Tzu quickly became one of Merton’s “favorite people.”  He writes: “I think I may be pardoned for consorting with a Chinese recluse who shares the climate and peace of my own kind of solitude, and who is my own kind of person.”  Later he writes somewhere in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander that he is more at home with all the Tzu’s, Fu’s, etc. he has met in the Chinese tradition than he is with most of modern Westerners. 

I first read all this stuff many years ago when I was in my teens, and it too resonated very much with my heart.  Foolishly I did not stay and grow in that milieu but in recent years I have rediscovered the spiritual and human riches that are there.  Here I would like to touch upon simply one aspect of this great tradition.

Recently I stumbled on a truly marvelous book: Mountain Home: the Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China by David Hinton.  The book covers what is known as the “rivers and mountains” tradition of Chinese poetry.  It illustrates the depth, the beauty, the power of what we might call the contemplative, mystical vision of ancient Chinese thought—though putting it this way is typically “westernizing” and complicating what they are saying. Hinton is a master translator of Chinese poetry  which is very, very difficult to translate.  Those of us who have to rely on folks like him are limited in what we can say about the translator’s work.  But reading Hinton and comparing it with other translations you can see that his language has a liveliness and an authenticity, and you intuit that this is getting you close to the original (other very good translators are Red Pine and Burton Watson, etc.–best method is to look at several translations and compare).  I will not comment on individual poems or poets.  They are so subtle, so refined, so deep that any passing comment would greatly miss the significance of the work.  You have to spend a bit of time with each work and appreciate the linguistic, the cultural, and the spiritual backdrop of each work.  That means that you need a real intuitive sense of early Taoism (like Merton had) and the Chinese Buddhism traditionally known as Chan, later to become Zen in Japan.  And here I do have some disagreement with Hinton.  I don’t totally buy his read, his interpretation of the meaning of “the Tao”–though of course there is much truth in what Hinton does say. 

The Tao we are pondering here is not the Tao of later “Taoism,” which becomes a kind of cultural, institutional artifact of China.  It  became a strange amalgam of body-work, martial arts, healing methods, magic, superstition, elixirs, alchemy, talismans, a seeking of immortality, a ritualizing of key life-moments like marriage, death, organized temples, etc., etc., etc.  Pop Catholicism has its own version and flavor of this phenomenon.  In fact this kind of thing can be found in all religious traditions. Some of this stuff is ok; at least it gets people thinking a bit beyond the surface reality.  But a lot of it is an obfuscation of what is at the core of each religious tradition and an attempt to manipulate reality to one’s ego benefit.  In any case it is the Tao of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and Chan Buddhism that is the true backdrop of the poetry and art of the “rivers and mountains” tradition.

The next thing that will enable our appreciation of this poetry is to recognize the importance and the role of the hermit life in the Chinese vision of things–even to this day.  Even during the peak of the Mao years and the Chinese communist ideology, there were hermits living in the wilderness areas of China.  Granted, the numbers were not large like in the old days, but there they were–and largely ignored by the government which was demolishing all institutional forms of religion.  Then with social and economic relaxation and a change in perspective, the hermit movement in China has begun to flourish again (see the works of Red Pine).

There is a paradox in all this.  Something that modern Westerners cannot grasp at all, and I fear some of the younger Chinese who have thoroughly appropriated Western ways may be losing.  Think about this: the Chinese are a quintessentially communal people–I think it would hard to find anyone more so.  In this context the atomized individualism of the West is almost incomprehensible.  Yet what is most remarkable is that this same culture provides the most prolific manifestations of the hermit life.  The thing that most modern Westerners do not understand is that the true grounding of the hermit life is in a strong sense of communion, oneness, community.  It is not our atomized individualism, which so afflicts modern consciousness.  In this context the hermit is seen as a kind of “rebel” vs. society or “the crowd.” The myth of the “rugged individual” who stands “outside” normal social life, the brave, lone fighter for what is real, or in fact just plain nuts….we are left to choose!  You can see this in a lot of modern myths, including a serious misreading of Thoreau.  In any case, the hermit’s real vocation and identity is to simply be a silent witness to that most fundamental (and therefore unspeakable) unity which is not grounded in politics, economy, nationality, race, sex, religion, or anything else.  (I won’t go into how the language of Christian spirituality can obfuscate all this–it needs careful explication.  Compare the language of early Merton with the later Merton.) That unity is grounded in what the early Chinese mystics called “the Tao,” and what Christian mysticism would call “the Mystery of God,” the unnamable and totally incomprehensible Ultimate Reality.  It is this fundamental unity which transcends all dualisms such as community/individual. The true hermit has no message for the world; he/she is simply a witness to that unity through silence and emptiness and solitude.  This unity is not a “something” alongside all the other somethings in one’s life; it is more like a “no-thing,” a “nothingness.”  So in a very real sense there is “nothing there” in the hermit’s life; no badge of identity, no ostensible purpose, etc….the true hermit is a “no-monk,” (Merton loved this term), a “nobody,” nameless in the truest sense.  People can stick labels on him/her, but that’s their doing.  The hermit’s home is in the emptiness of silence and solitude; and this is the atmosphere which pervades the work of these poet-artist recluses of ancient China.

Now it must be added that there is a tension in Chinese culture between community and solitude that is due to two contrasting ideals:  the Taoist/Chan ideal and the Confucian ideal.  The latter fills the Chinese mind with a sense of social responsibility for the family and the community; the former initiates a dynamic seeking of Ultimate Reality.  Among the poet-artists this tension is not resolved but a life becomes lived in various stages.  A person might start out by serving the state as a scholar-official (what’s amazing about ancient China is that you could become a state official only if you were proficient in language and poetry).  For one reason or another they then might “drop out,” leave the “world of red dust,” as the Chinese termed the busy social world of commerce and government, and live in solitude in a mountain wilderness.  There also are the cases where the person is driven out of government, even into exile, and there they find themselves in an unexpected solitude. Then again sometimes a hermit is called by the Emperor to some official capacity because he is respected for his wisdom, and here again a variety of answers can transpire.  Then there are the cases where a person heads into solitude early in life and comes back into community much later for one reason or another. Also, there are the cases where some of these poet-artists were married and lived in the wilderness with their wives. What they all share in common was a keen sense of what was found in that wilderness: silence, solitude, depth, emptiness,….the Tao.


Now let me briefly touch upon some very significant points that Hinton makes in the introduction to his translations.  Let me quote from the beginning:

“…China’s tradition of rivers-and-mountains 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’ suggest 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.”


Now this is a very important statement, and I am not going to try and unpack all the key insights here; but I do want to say that I was startled when I first read this.  I was always attracted to the wilderness, and I read much in John Muir and Edward Abbey and so many others(even Merton was a bit of help here) trying to find the language to understand my heart’s yearning for that wilderness.  A lot of this was very good, but I sensed it did not go deep enough.  When I first encountered Han Shan, the most remarkable hermit of any tradition, I felt I had discovered a real friend and a real source of further inquiry.  Now I know why Merton loved all these Chinese characters and why I myself felt so attracted to wilderness places!

Here’s another quote from Hinton’s introduction:

“This cosmology as dwelling place provided the context for virtually all poetic thinking in ancient China.  Indeed, it was central to all Chinese culture, for wilderness has constituted the very terms of self-cultivation throughout the centuries in China.  This is most clearly seen in the arts, which were nothing less  than spiritual disciplines: calligraphers, poets, and painters aspired to create with the selfless spontaneity of a natural force, and elements out of which they crafted their artistic visions were primarily aspects of wilderness.”

And one last quote, and here Hinton is referring to a particular poem, but I just want to illustrate the overall idea:

“The language in this sentence magically conjures the self as a presence, but it is an utterly empty presence.  Here is the Chinese poem as an act of meditative dwelling in the deepest sense.  When the bell calls out, we are not only there in the pregnant emptiness at the heart of the Cosmos, we are indistinguishable from it.  This dwelling is the Way of ancient China’s Taoist and Chan sages.  In it, self is but a fleeting form taken on by earth’s process of change–born out of it, and returned to it in death.  Or more precisely, never out of it: totally unborn.  For those sages, our truest self, being unborn, is all and none of earth’s fleeting forms simultaneously.  Or more absolutely, it is the emptiness of nonbeing, that source which endures through all change.  And China’s poets and readers were, in a very real sense, always already masters of this enlightenment, for it is the very structure of their language, their thought, their consciousness.  This is utter belonging to a wilderness cosmology as dwelling-place. And as the mountain realm is the most compelling manifestation of this cosmology, it was for them always their mountain home.”

And I would like to conclude with an ancient Chinese painting which graces the cover of Hinton’s book.  It pretty much illustrates it all and no more words are needed:


The Man Who Cared For Bears

This is not going to be a fuzzy warm story about nice animals.  Rather we are going to consider a man who befriended one of the most ferocious animals in Mother Nature: the grizzly bear.  I have recently been commenting on the values of exposure to nature and wilderness that is important for a healthy humanity and a deeper spiritual life.  It is interesting how all hermits and monks everywhere had that tendency to “get away” from civilization on the pretext of getting away from distractions, but I always thought there was a lot more there than they could articulate.  In any case, we are not returning to this topic but to something not unrelated but very different.  There is a deep lesson here for our own spiritual and theological understanding of our place in the great scheme of things.  So let us begin.

Recently I read an obituary of a Canadian naturalist by the name of Charlie Russell.  He spent a good part of his adult life studying and living close to bears, and he developed a very unorthodox view of them.  This from the obit in the NY Times:

“Mr. Russell was outspoken in his belief that the view most people —
including many of his fellow naturalists — held of the bear was wrong.

‘I believe that it’s an intelligent, social animal that is completely
misunderstood,’ he said in a PBS Nature documentary about his work.

To prove the point, he and his partner at the time, Maureen Enns, a
photographer and artist, spent months each year for a decade living
among bears in a remote part of eastern Russia.
They wrote several books based on those experiences and were the
subject of documentaries and countless articles. Mr. Russell’s ideas,
though, were not embraced by everyone.
Some fellow naturalists worried that they might lead people to be
unwisely casual around wild animals. And in Russia, Mr. Russell ran
afoul of criminal elements and corrupt politicians tied to bear

But getting back to the beginning, Charlie was not an academic naturalist; he did not get a degree in the subject; he did not just read about bears in books or learn about them in lecture halls.  Charlie went out and physically encountered them.  He had grown up in an outdoor setting; his father ran a wilderness outfitting and guiding business.  At some point Charlie’s father decided he wanted to get some film of bears in British Columbia.  His father “was also a noted naturalist and writer, and when he decided to make a documentary about the white subspecies of black bears on Princess Royal Island in British Columbia, he took Charlie and his brother Richard along as assistants. The experience, Charlie said later, helped him begin to think differently about bears.

The three found that they were mostly capturing footage of bears’
backsides as the animals ran from them — until they left their rifles
behind when they went out to film.
‘The three of us eventually came to the conclusion that bears could
sense that we were not a threat,’ Mr. Russell told The Edmonton
Journal in 2002, ‘that somehow they realized that without a gun, we
would do them no harm.’”

As his interest in bears grew, he realized that he needed to study bears that had little or no human contact–that in fact did not know of human threat to them.  From the obit:

But to really get at the innate nature of bears, he needed to find
ones that had no history of negative encounters with people. That is
what sent him and Ms. Enns to Kamchatka, which had been off limits to civilians for military reasons during the Cold War and thus was full
of bears that had had no contact with humans.
They first scouted the area in 1994. In 1996, Russian officials
granted them permission to build a cabin near a remote lake. Every
year they would fly in, using a small plane Mr. Russell had built from
a kit, and stay for four or five months.
The bears grew to know them, Mr. Russell said, and became comfortable 
enough with them that sometimes a few would come to the cabin and linger to see if he and Ms. Enns wanted to go for a walk with them.”

Here’s a couple of photos from that idyllic time:


 Above with a young grizzly bear!

But this would not last …simply because there are so many human beings who do not want this kind of relationship to “wildness.”  From the obit:

“His conclusion that bears were not naturally hostile to people earned him enemies among hunters.

‘A lot of it is because the hunting culture needs to promote an animal
as fearful so that people can feel brave about killing it,” he told
the Australian newspaper The Age in 2009.
His live-with-the-bears approach also drew criticism from some
wildlife officials. ‘He’s teaching people how to get mauled,’ one

Charlie would be the first one to tell you that you have to exercise great caution with these animals, that you have to respect their fear of you, that they are not your pets and you have to be able to read what their feelings toward you are.  Do not be moronic and try to take a “selfie” with a grizzly! 


But his research and relationship with the bears had a sad ending.  From the obit:

“His and Ms. Enns’s experiment on the Kamchatka Peninsula ended
heartbreakingly. When they returned there for the 2003 season, they
found that almost all the bears they had become acquainted with were
gone, presumably slaughtered. A bear gallbladder — the prize for
poachers, valued in some countries as an aphrodisiac and general
health remedy — had been nailed to their cabin wall, like some kind of
‘The bears were killed so we would go home,’ Mr. Russell told The
Globe and Mail in July 2003. ‘It is a brutal ending to our research’…. Their relationship ended in the aftermath of the slaughter of the
Kamchatka bears in 2003, an incident that also left Mr. Russell with
the fear that, by teaching the bears to trust humans, he had
inadvertently conditioned them not to run from the hunters.
‘I can see how easily they were killed,’ he said. ‘That’s my nightmare image.’”

There’s a lot of food for thought in this account, ranging from the social to the theological.  What is it about us/in us that makes us enjoy killing animals?  Ok, most animals kill other animals for food, but once they have eaten they move on.  It is a kind of cycle of nature.  They don’t do it for a trophy or the thrill of killing a “dangerous” animal.  Then there’s certain animals that will kill when they feel threatened.  We do both of these things: food and self-protection, but then we add this bizarre thing of “sport killing.”  What is that all about? Maybe we are touching the roots of violence in general in all this. In Christian theological language we might say that’s an effect of the “Original Sin.”  Ok, but giving it a name may simply obfuscate the reality of what is there; if we have a word for it we think we understand the phenomenon.  Is it any wonder that we as the whole human family seem so “out of whack” with Mother Nature, so out of harmony with the natural world.  It seems to serve only as another commodity for our exploitation or as a tool to increase our own enjoyment.  The fact is the natural world reflects back the various self-inflicted distortions of our humanity.

Some of you may be aware of the great Russian saint and hermit, St. Seraphim. In some mythic, iconic portrayal of him, I forget where I saw or read about this, he is seen in harmony with a great Russian bear.  I thought of that when I saw those photos of Charlie with his bears.  Whatever be the historic value of that depiction, its real significance is that Seraphim is shown as having “returned to Paradise,” where human beings lived in harmony with the natural world.  This would also be well understood by the Chinese Buddhist/Taoist hermit tradition. In any case, the beginning of the Genesis account depicts the world, the whole natural world as “God’s Temple” in a sense, and the human being as a kind of “priest” in that temple meant to care for it all and bring it all back to its Creator.  If the human being has the “lead part” in the great scheme of things, it is only to be a good caretaker and be responsible for its well-being. When John Muir was in Yosemite he said he felt like he was in God’s cathedral.  Muir would have loved Charlie Russell.





The End…

Ok, I am not referring to an end to this blog….though I am less inclined to write these days.  And I am not referring to an “end of the world” as this is usually seen by Christians of all sorts.  But I would like to call your attention to a kind of “end” of our civilization as I see it coming and some reasons for this and perhaps a hint or two about what to do.  These thoughts, insights and reflections come from various folks and various directions, but they are all people I deeply respect and admire and have learned much from them.

A. Walker Percy

Catholic novelist, prominent in mid-20th century, admired by Merton, a doctor by profession.  He was not afraid of treating religious topics, and he had a scathing portrayal of the shallow religiosity of both conservative and liberal Christianity.  He portrays a culture in total decline, sinking ever deeper into an abyss that is a strange amalgam of banality and insanity. Not too long ago I came across a review of his work by none other than Chris Hedges.  Here’s a few excerpts.   Hedges:

Walker Percy in his 1971 dystopian novel “Love in the Ruins” paints a picture of a morally degenerate America consumed by hedonism, wallowing in ignorance, led by kleptocrats and fools, fragmented into warring and often violent cultural extremes and on the cusp of a nuclear war. It is a country cursed by its failure to address or atone for its original sins of genocide and slavery. The ethos of ceaseless capitalist expansion, white supremacy and American exceptionalism, perpetuated overseas in the country’s imperial wars, eventually consumes the nation itself. The accomplices, who once benefited from this evil, become its victims. How, Percy asks, does one live a life of meaning in such a predatory society? Is it even possible? And can a culture ever regain its equilibrium when it sinks into such depravity?

Hedges again:

Percy, echoing the Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, argues that the capitalist, rationalist ethic that crushed empathy and understanding and replaced it with the primacy of personal gain, cruelty and profit doomed Western civilization. The basest lusts are celebrated by capitalism. Success is defined by material advancement, power and the attainment of celebrity. Those, like Donald Trump, who amass enormous wealth, often by cheating, abusing and defrauding their employees and associates, are treated like pagan idols.

Percy, who like the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov was a medical school graduate, was steeped in the classics, theology, philosophy, literature and history. He knew the common denominators of decaying societies. The elevation of the morally degenerate in the last days was never accidental. These corrupt elites embodied the warped values of a dying culture. They reflected back to the society, as does Trump, its spiritual emptiness. The feckless Romanovs in Russia, the megalomaniacal Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany and the doddering head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Joseph I, in the last days of the European monarchies exhibited the same stupidity, self-delusion and self-destructiveness seen in the late American Empire.”


Percy is totally relentless in his satire even of religion and especially modern Christianity.  He makes Saturday Night Live seem like amateur night!:

In Percy’s novel, the Roman Catholic Church has rebranded itself as the American Catholic Church, based in Cicero, Ill. It celebrates Property Rights Sunday. The priest raises the Eucharistic host in the Mass, conducted in Latin, to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sermons focus on how the rich in the Bible—Joseph of Arimathea and Lazarus—were specially blessed by God. Evangelical Christians stage ever more elaborate spectacles and entertainment, including nighttime golf—the Moonlight Tour of the Champs—advertised with the slogan “Jesus Christ, the Greatest Pro of Them All.”

If modern liberals think they have a superior vision of things, well, Percy dissects them also as Hedges explains:

Today’s secularists have their own forms of hedonism, self-worship and idolatry. Spirituality is framed by puerile questions: How is it with me? Am I in touch with myself? Have I achieved happiness and inner peace? Have I, along with my life coach, ensured that I have reached my full career potential? Am I still young-looking? What does my therapist say? It is a culture based on self-absorption, a vain quest for eternal youth, and narcissism. Any form of suffering, which is always part of self-sacrifice, is to be avoided. The plight of our neighbor is irrelevant. Sexual degeneracy—narcissists are incapable of love—abounds in a society entranced by casual hook-ups and pornography.

Every culture, every society has what you might call an “original sin” situation that then colors and haunts the mindset of that culture for the long term.  Very few societies come to terms with this “sin” –in fact I don’t know of any.  And this becomes an integral part of the demise of every society.  Here is Walker Percy’s powerful depiction of our “original sin”:

The old U.S.A. didn’t work! Is it even possible that from the beginning it never did work? That the thing always had a flaw in it, a place where it would shear, and that all this time we were not really different from Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer. Moon Mullins blames it on the niggers. Hm. Was it the nigger business from the beginning? What a bad joke: God saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you’re the apple of my eye; because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish Event even though you were nowhere near it and had to hear the news of it from strangers. But you believed and so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child’s play for you because you already had passed the big one. One little test: here’s a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That’s all.

One little test: you flunk!

B.  Chaco and Chris Hedges

It appears that Chris Hedges recently visited the famous Anasazi archaeological site in New Mexico.  I have been there myself, and all the Anasazi ruins are haunting and intriguing.  Chaco flourished from about 850 to 1200, and it developed into a complex and sophisticated culture, initially peaceful, artistic and quite skilled in early astronomy and building.  Here is how Hedges begins the story:

The Chaco ruin, 6,200 feet above sea level, is one of the largest and most spectacular archeological sites in North America. It is an impressive array of 15 interconnected complexes, each of which once had four-to-five-story stone buildings with hundreds of rooms each. Seven-hundred-pound wooden beams, many 16 feet long, were used in the roofs. Huge circular, ceremonial kivas—religious centers dug into the earth, with low masonry benches around the base of the room to accommodate hundreds of worshippers—dot the ruins. It rivals the temples and places built by the Aztecs and the Mayans.

Radiating from Chaco is a massive 400-mile network of roads, some 30 feet wide and still visible in the haunting desert landscape, along with dams, canals and reservoirs to collect and store rainwater. The study of astronomy, as with the Aztec and the Maya, was advanced. Petroglyphs and pictographs on the canyon walls often record astrological and solar events. One pictograph shows a hand, a crescent moon and a 10-pointed star that is believed to depict a 1055 supernova, and one of the petroglyphs appears to represent a solar eclipse that occurred in 1097.

A few thousand priests and ruling elites, along their retainers and administrators, lived in the Great Houses or palaces. They oversaw the trade routes that stretched to the California coast and into Central America. They maintained the elaborate network of lighthouses whose signal fires provided rapid communication. They built the roads, the long flights of stairs carved into the rock formations, the bridges, the wooden ladders to scale the towering cliffs, and the astronomical observatories that meticulously charted the solar observations to determine the equinoxes and solstices for planting and harvesting and for the annual religious festivals when thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, would gather.


Needless to say, this would not last–in fact the good years lasted about as long as the present age of the United States.  And when the “good times” ended, it was a catastrophic conclusion.  Hedges continues:

But this complex society, like all complex societies, proved fragile and impermanent. It fell into precipitous decline after nearly three centuries. The dense forests of oak, piñon and ponderosa pines and juniper that surrounded the canyon were razed for construction and fuel. The soil eroded. Game was hunted to near-extinction. The diet shifted in the final years from deer and turkey to rabbits and finally mice. Headless mice in the late period have been found by archaeologists in human coprolites—preserved dry feces. The Anasazi’s open society, one where violence was apparently rare, where the people moved unhindered over the network of well-maintained roads, where warfare was apparently absent, where the houses of the rich and powerful were not walled off, where the population shared in the spoils of empire, was replaced with the equivalent of gated, fortified compounds for the elites and misery, hunger, insecurity and tyranny for the commoners. Dwellings began to be built in the cliffs, along with hilltop fortresses, although these residences were not close to the fields and water supply. Defensive walls were constructed along with moats and towers. The large, public religious ceremonies that once united the culture and gave it cohesion fractured, and tiny, warring religious cults took over, the archaeologist Lynne Sebastian notes.

Lekson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, believes the Anasazi rulers during the decline increasingly resorted to savage violence and terror, including the public executions of dissidents and rebels. He finds evidence, much of it documented in Steven A. LeBlanc’s book “Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest,” that “Chaco death squads” were sent out across the empire. LeBlanc writes that at Yucca House, a Chaco Great House near Mesa Verde, as many as 90 people were killed and tossed into a kiva and at least 25 showed signs of mutilation.

Chacoan violence, concentrated and brutal, appears to represent government terror: the enforcement of Chaco’s rule by institutionalized force,” Leksonwrites in the article “Chaco Death Squads” in Archeology magazine. “Violence was public, intended to appall and subdue the populace. Chacoandeath squads (my term, not LeBlanc’s) executed and mutilated those judged to be threats to Chacoan power, those who broke the rules.”


So much for that idyllic and idealized picture some of us have of Native American life!!  When complex societies collapse they never do it in a “nice,” quiet way!  


Now I would like to consider two other very different scenarios–not as “solutions” to what seems like an accelerating decline of our society, but just something that points in a very different direction.  Be aware: we are not going to “solve” anything by “reform”–kind of adjusting the knobs of our social, economic, political, and religious world.  You know, the old saying about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or giving the deck a new paint job!  Most people seem quite content in their pursuit of “the good life”: a good family, a nice home, a rewarding career, and then on top of this the accumulation of more and more stuff and the diversions of manifold entertainment.  It is pretty much like drinking salt water; you get thirstier and thirstier; “more and more” only leads to a desire for more and more.  The “average good guy” sees very little wrong with all this, as long as it is all moderated by this or that concern….not realizing that all this merely sets the stage for an endless cycle of decadence, corruption, violence, lies, greed, etc.  Donald Trump, for example, is not as an individual some anomaly that got elected somehow as president–he is more a reflection of the state of our collective soul, an unmasking more or less of what we are really about.  Getting rid of him will not truly solve the problem that lurks at the core of what we are.

And neither will revolution, the proposed alternative to reform.  One set of scoundrels replaces another set of scoundrels in what appears to be a “new start” but it turns out to be merely a new version of the old problem–this is generally the history of all revolutions.  Both reform and revolution are approaching the problem from the outside where we are very much tempted to focus our attention–simply because it is so much easier to objectify the problem as something “out there” where we can manipulate “reality.”  But actually the problem is right there at the core of our own being, our “heart” as it were.  Just like the great religious traditions always said it was.  However, here is the sad thing: organized, institutional religion of any of the great traditions seems extremely ineffective, almost impotent, to address the real problem.  They all have compromised more or less with the culture, and so their voices, when they do manage to say something important, are hardly believable.  It should not be surprising that there are numbers that show that a whopping 40% of millennials do not affiliate with any religion.  One only has to remember the child molestation scandals affecting various churches in Ireland, Australia, Latin America, and the U.S. and church officials desperately denying and covering up—like some politicians.  Then there’s the insane Hindu nationalists in India and the list goes on and on depressingly.  Much too often religion seems as part of the problem more than a way to some solution.

No, there is no easy or simple solution to our slipping deeper and deeper into this pit of deterioration.  The only thing we can say for sure is that some sort of change has to take place in the way we live and in the way we look at the world.  It’s only then, when this change begins, that we will also begin to see our solution.  Here I will point to two very radical examples of the change in vision and lifestyle that is needed, but I want to emphasize that this is NOT the only possibility and that each person/persons has to find their very particular kind of change that they can embody and bring about so it is clear that they are not simply doing business as usual.”  

C. Jack Turner

Let me tell you about this guy.  He grows up as a “normal good kid,” goes to college, gets advanced degrees in philosophy and Chinese and becomes an academic.  In his own words: “In the mid-1970s I was an assistant philosophy professor at the University of Illinois. I was about thirty years old. I was very unhappy. One day I went to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sneak some meat to the snow leopards, as I did on occasion. It was a crappy day, cloudy and dim and snowing, and I thought to myself: I’m as trapped as these wild cats. I decided that I didn’t want to live my life working indoors. Since then, I’ve worked inside — a forty-hour-a-week, punch-the-time-clock type of job — for only two and a half years total. The rest of the time I’ve been working outside or writing in my cabin.”  He pursues rock climbing and mountaineering and becomes a mountain guide in Wyoming for a living.  That physical change leads to a very significant inner change in how sees the world around him.  He discovers the importance of what might be called “intimacy with the wilderness”–loss with this contact, Turner emphasizes, is a loss with a significant part of our humanity.  He fears that way too many people in our society are crippled by this loss of “intimacy with wildness.”  It becomes a serious vision problem where you can’t evaluate what is and isn’t important to your life as a human being.  Very hard to explicitly explain how the wilderness can touch your life like that, but you do see it sometimes very clearly in some people–like John Muir for example.

At first Turner did some mountaineering in Asia.  About that experience he relates:  “I think that anybody who goes into a wild place like that for the first time is simply stunned, not only by the land but by the differences in lifestyle. The average per capita income in Baltistan [a region in northern Pakistan] at the time of my first visit was seventy-three dollars a year. I quickly learned that Western ways of classifying people according to education and career are meaningless. There are brilliant people who can’t read. There are ways of living that don’t have anything to do with our way of living. People in the Hindu Kush knew virtually nothing of the U.S., nothing of our ways of life, and their own ways of life were thousands of years old. And there was the marvelous unfamiliar wildlife, too. I saw markhor and ibex and blue sheep and snow-leopard tracks. You simply cannot imagine the wildness of the place, the animals, the humans. Years later I led the first trek to the north side of K2. There is no place on earth wilder than the Karakoram.

But Turner’s main focus is on our situation right here and his increasing concern about the disconnect people have with the wilderness:

And here’s the problem: nowadays very few people directly experience voles, coral reefs, redwoods, and whales. You can live in San Francisco, ride a Google bus to work, stare at a screen, come home, stare at a screen, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’ve asked my environmental-studies students how much time each day, on average, they spend in contact with raw wild nature. Thirty minutes, they say. And what are they doing then? Walking between classes.They’ve told me they look at a screen eight to twelve hours a day, on average. These kids have not spent much time hiking in remote areas. They don’t have much personal experience with wild creatures. They also don’t have much experience with isolation. These days parents can hardly get their children to participate in an outdoor program, such as a backpacking trip, because it will cut them off from Facebook for two weeks.  At Exum Mountain Guides Climbing School we forbid our students to bring music into the Tetons. They hate not having music. They don’t want to be alone. They are hive creatures now, far more so than generations past, fiercely attached to their social network, which is a large part of their identity. I’m part of the amateur astronomy community here in Jackson Hole. Our club has more and more trouble getting young people to come out in the dark — the cold, scary dark — and look at stars. They want to watch the night sky through video cameras. They want to use computers to connect to a telescope in Chile. They want to look at the stars on a screen. But the immediate, raw experience of being out in the dark, of being in the ocean with sharks, of seeing a bear, is far different from any simulation on a screen.  If you don’t have contact with a wild place, a wild animal, or a wild process — and I mean experiential, bodily contact — then why would you ever vote for conservation and environmental measures? That’s a long-term problem for the American conservation movement. Sure, there are still Sierra Club trips and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and families who cherish the outdoors, but in terms of a general population trend, it doesn’t look good…. This doesn’t bode well for the natural world, let alone the quality of these people’s lives. I fear there will come a day when people won’t understand the writing of Thoreau and John Muir. It will be unintelligible to them. They just won’t get it.”


Turner again:  “In my youth I did a lot of skin diving. One time I was ten feet underwater by some undulating eelgrass, and suddenly it opened to reveal a five-foot shark against the sand. That does something to your nervous system. It’s the same when you come across a bear in the wild. And you can have these experiences with people, too. I once ran into a sadhu [a Hindu holy man] way up in the Himalayas. It was sleeting and snowing heavily. He had a long beard and wore nothing but a loincloth. His eyes were huge! I said hello. He nodded. I pointed to the camera on my chest, indicating that I’d like to take a photo of him. He politely asked me not to in perfect English. I replied by saying something incredibly stupid: I asked him where he’d learned English. He said, “From my parents; where’d you learn English?” Wham! That guy was something else. Whether it’s with sharks or bears or sadhus, that type of wham experience shakes your foundations in a way an iPad never will. It has to do with contact. As Thoreau wrote in The Maine Woods: “Contact!Contact!” You can’t get contact from a screen.

And one last quote from Jack Turner: “Getting people to slow down — young people, in particular — is important to me. I’m not saying that anybody needs to formally meditate. A far less loaded word is contemplate. What’s going on in your life and your relationships? Think about it. Reflect. Most people don’t contemplate anymore. They just go, go, go. Every one of the luminaries from the American conservation movement — Thoreau, Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Margaret and Olaus Murie, E.O. Wilson, and many others — spent a lot of time alone on the seashore, or in a canoe on a lake, or in the forest, or in the mountains, or digging in the soil, and always in silence. I don’t think the conservation movement is going to get anywhere if we have a citizenry that no longer wants to be alone and experience silence.

There is no need now to encourage most people. There was when Muir started leading large groups of the public into the Sierra Nevada to acquaint them with the values of wilderness. Now the values claimed for such areas are well-known. The problem is that the people who go there don’t care about the wildness; they care about the other human values of our culture: money, gear, family, friends, having fun. Most people who do go into the natural world are going for recreation, not contemplation. They use their beloved stuff — skis, fishing rods, backpacks, rafts — in the playground of their choice. Many are in the wilderness business, servicing clients, often hordes of them, at thousands of dollars a whack. These visitors do not have to confront the loneliness, existential fear, silence, and indifference of the wild, nor do they contemplate what these things mean for a human life.

All of the above quotes came from an interview of Jack Turner by LeathTonino, entitled “Not On Any Map,” in The Sun, August 2014.


D. The Chinese Thing

Among the great spiritual traditions of the world each of us, I think, finds one or another of these traditions as particularly attractive/inviting/inspiring.  It might not even be “our home” but something we just visit for special insights.  In my own case, I love the Sufis; I find the sannyasa ideal in the Upanishads unspeakably profound; I am deeply impressed and illumined by the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama and Milarepa; and my original home and where I “live” is the hesychasm of the Christian East.  But what I can’t explain is the absolute fascination I have with the ancient Chinese Daoism of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and early Chinese Zen and the mountain poets and artists of ancient China and some of its Japanese inheritors.  Today there is a resurgence of interest in the ancient ways and a considerable number of young Chinese are “changing” their view of what constitutes “the good life.”  I won’t say anymore except that everyone should see this short film, “Summoning the Recluse” to know what I am trying to point to.  It is all in Chinese but with English subtitles.  It is incredibly beautiful, profound, very realistic, and gives us some hope for the future. Here is the link to that movie, “Summoning the Recluse.”


Various Namarupa

What are “namarupa”? This is a term from Sanskrit that plays a large role in the later writings of Abhishiktananda. According to the various glossaries in his books the meaning is something like this: “name and form”…including the world of phenomena and all the signs used to refer to the unique mystery that is beyond all. Another approach to this can be found in the Tao Te Ching, which famously begins:

            The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao

            The name that can be named is not the eternal name

            The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth

            The named is the mother of ten thousand things

                                                (trans. by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English)


When we speak of the Divine Reality, much of what we say is within the realm of “names.” There may be much that is true within this realm, but it cannot grasp the Ultimate Mystery of the Divine or our (and this is supremely important) our ultimate relationship to this Reality which is also beyond all names

As Abhishiktananda grew in knowledge and experience of advaita, nondualism, within Hindu religious thought, he was seriously tormented by Christianity’s inability to claim this very same mystical experience. The theological and spiritual language of Christianity seemed unredeemably dualistic. I am this solid reality over here and God is over there…to put it very crudely. As he wrestled with this problem he began to see more and more of Christian theology and doctrine as simply another example of namarupa. Not false or untrue, but not to be taken as literally true either. This was going to be his liberation from dualism to the mystical abyss of advaita.

The surface meaning of the words is only a pointer, if you will, at the ultimate truth. Ok, maybe more than a pointer; but the fact is that even our most sacred doctrines are in words that are necessarily culturally conditioned and bound. This is not something “bad,” just inevitable; and this holds for all religions. As Abhishiktananda was fond of pointing out, it is just as much a mistake for Hindus to absolutize their namarupa as it is for Christians. Words and symbols and rites are just that and certainly good and necessary but to take them as absolute and literal truth means you will not be able to engage other traditions in any meaningful way and you may miss the gift they bring to you in their spiritual experience of the Ultimate Reality. So, Abhishiktananda fretted over the fact that there seemed to be no interest or concern or means to translate the meaning of Christianity into Hindu terms, to liberate Christianity from its Judaeo-Hellenic roots. There seems to be no other way of then being liberated from a dualistic view of our relationship to the Divine. The situation has not changed 50 years later; we are now certainly much more friendly to other religious traditions, but we still refuse to see our own language and terms as a kind of namarupa. The challenge is too scary; the implications are enormous.

Consider this easy example from our liturgical/Biblical language: the Catholic feast of Christ the King. The terminology is alien to us because it comes from a monarchical social order. So you have to work at this language to extract its real significance, and that’s what a lot of homilies do on that feast day. Ok, that was obvious. But you need to go a lot deeper to see the nature of the problem. Consider the following list of terms: sin, justification; judgment; adoption; advocate; atone/atonement; “that we have been justified by his blood”(Rom 5:9), “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22); obedience; etc.; etc.; etc. There is so much more of this; and this is Biblical language, New Testament, which is then carried over to Church doctrine and theology. Yes, it is explicated in books and homilies, but the point is that such language arises in a certain context, like the ancient Mediterranean, but it can be really alien in another context. In fact even in my own situation I remember how I was troubled by the notion that “Jesus died for our sins” when I was just beginning to get into spirituality in my early teens. I wondered what does that really mean. Why does God require bloodshed as the Bible seemed to be saying? It didn’t occur to me, as a youngster, that bloodshed was a big deal in engaging the divine order in the Mediterranean world and, yes, elsewhere. It is a fundamentally and decidedly dualistic picture in which there is this awesome reality out there somewhere and poor little us who try not to displease this ultimate other. Ok, yes the New Testament does say we no longer need animal sacrifices but why does Christ have to shed his blood for us? And what is this “debt” he has to pay?

Recall the movie Gandhi, the scene early in the movie where Gandhi and associates are riding a train through India, and his Anglican friend climbs up to the top of the railroad car to cool off and meets a number of poor travelers riding there. One of them recognizes him as a Christian priest and says “I have a Christian friend and she drinks the blood of Christ every week.” The humor of that situation only illustrates the problem that kind of language presents to someone who is “outside” that context. But what I am more concerned at the moment is what that language means to us who are “within” that context. And here I don’t mean to question the doctrine of the “Real Presence,” in which I am a firm believer, and which certain Protestant groups “solve the problem” by turning that language into a kind of metaphor, a linguistic maneuver that evaporates away the profound dimensions of that language. No, the Catholic and Orthodox commitment to the so-called Real Presence is profoundly true but when it encounters Hindu advaita, it should not retreat into a narrow shell but rather discover its deepest dimensions and most profound implications, which I admit is a real challenge on the “language level,” for theology and Christian spirituality which in its namarupa is definitely dualistic. The first step would be to admit the namarupa nature of our whole theological enterprise, but you know that isn’t going to happen. However, some of Christianity’s deepest mystics and theologians have come very close to seeing that. And that’s why Abhishiktananda is still the “prophet” of our future; we have yet to catch up to him!


Now I would like to further challenge and explore various avenues of the above issues somewhat at random:

Consider St. Paul. His basic message is that there is no need for this enormous religious scaffolding known as “the Law” in order to relate to the Ultimate Divine Reality which he calls “Father” (following the example of Jesus). Don’t get lost in the “new” namarupa of his language, however; follow the dynamics and trajectory of his thought: You have this direct relationship of unity with the Mystery of God (he would say “in Christ” “through faith” but I refrain from that because this language has been beaten into religious clichés—it badly needs rescuing from its own namarupa quality).

Recall Abhishiktananda’s account of an early encounter with some Quakers. This was while he was still trying to be an orthodox Catholic. He said he was thoroughly surprised by the fact that they “didn’t believe in all those things you were supposed to believe in,” yet they were more Christian than most other Christians he had met. It was an eye-opener for him about not getting trapped within a need to absolutize the namarupa of Christianity.


The so-called Old Testament is a very complex text, filled with an incredible diversity of views. It has some beautiful things in it and also many horrible things. The problem is that this forms the background of the Christ event, and as it is often said in the New Testament itself and in Church doctrine this background is said to be necessary in order to understand the Christ event….Jesus is the fulfillment, etc. Orthodox Christianity has always considered this language as “non-negotiable” in its self-understanding. And here I don’t mean to suggest that we should willy-nilly change or drop traditional language, like Jesus’ use of the word “Father.” That is a totally superficial “corrective” by some liberal church people; well-intentioned but it is simply the substituting of one kind of namarupa for another. A much deeper approach is to take the traditional language and “see into it” much deeper than its literal sense. (By the way, if you want to get a glimpse of how “bad” the Old Testament can get, take a look at Phyllis Trible’s little book, Texts of Terror.)


Consider St. Paul’s reference to the “mind of Christ.” There is the line from Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”(Phil 2:5). As an expression, I always wondered how close this was to Buddhism’s invitation to have the “Buddha mind” in realization. Again, not saying that the two are the same, don’t they circle around the same Ultimate Reality in many ways. Consider how Paul continues in his description of what constitutes having this “mind of Christ”:

“…who, though he was in the form of God,

            did not regard equality with God

            as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

            he humbled himself

            and became obedient to the point of death–

            even death on a cross.”


Now compare all this with someone like Santideva, the great Indian Buddhist and the great ideal of the Bodhisattva; and you might find some very engaging similarities. They are working in a kind of harmonious way, circling around the same Ultimate Truth. What you need to do is not to get lost in the surface reality of the namarupa within both traditions. There is nothing wrong with the namarupa, nothing false; it’s simply that you need to get into the depths of what is being said, to that which is truly unnameable.

Consider this quote from J. P. de Caussade, an 18th Century Jesuit spiritual director and writer, from a work that was published only after his death called Abandonment to the Divine Providence. This is not exactly my favorite period of spiritual writing, nor are these folks much attended to by me, but this is a remarkable little work of spiritual direction:

“If we knew how to greet each moment as the manifestation of the divine will, we would find in it all the heart could desire…. The present moment is always filled with infinite treasures; it contains more than you are capable of receiving….[underlining mine] The divine will is an abyss of which the present moment is the entrance; plunge fearlessly therein and you will find it more boundless than your desire.”

Now this is quite remarkable, and if you know anything about Sufi spirituality, you would be amazed at the similarity. But now I want to quote something much more alien, from a definition of sorts of Dzogchen in Tibetan Buddhism:

“Dzogchen–the direct realization of the naturally abiding enlightenment within one’s own experience. This fundamental experience of limitless freedom, clarity, and openness is at the heart of who we are, and Dzogchen practice merely uncovers this experience.”


Do you see how these two quotes coherently converge? No, they are not the same thing in different languages; I would never venture to say that…..but it is amazing how both lead us to this fundamental realization of the Ultimate Reality which is always at our fingertips as it were, not far away, not somewhere else, but in the very fiber of our being. So the dissolution of another kind of dualism. The namarupa of these two traditions do not obscure the fact that here they are singing in harmony. Dostoevsky’s Fr. Zosima said that we are always in Paradise if only we had the eyes to see it. He uses the namarupa of Biblical language to point to that reality which the two authors above present in very different terms. Paradise is our real state of heart.


Motley Topics

A.  Recently I read a truly different book:  A Journey to Inner Peace and Joy: Tracing Contemporary Chinese Hermits by Zhang Jianfeng.  It is a personal account of a visit to the flourishing phenomenon of a healthy hermit movement in China.  The earliest such account in modern times was by Bill Porter (Red Pine) about 25 years ago.  This account surprised a lot of people, even a lot of Chinese, because most people just assumed that the hermit phenomenon had died out in China.  Then there was a documentary movie made that was inspired by that work and covered some of the same ground.  Now we have this more personal, subjective account of this Chinese man visiting many hermits in the mountains south of Xian–this is one of the favorite haunts of Chinese hermits from way back.  These encounters took place just five years ago or so, and it is reassuring to see the hermit movement in full swing.  The Chinese love their hermits!

The book is not great but still interesting; the author does not get beyond the surface descriptions, but here and there you will find gems of comment and insight:  “The occupant of Baxiu Maopeng was in his thirties and the lay brother who followed him was half as old again.  The lay brother’s gaze had a radiance which I had not often seen and so had his speech, everything under his gaze seemed as penetrating and clear as spring water.  The hermit said that he had no title, that the hut was his….  He had left home to become a monk in the Southwest in 1999 and had been here ever since…..  I asked: how do you normally practice?  A: The method is unimportant.  All rules should be set aside.  The rule is that there are no rules.  Instruction is merely a path, in the way that the nourishment required for each stage of life is different….”

There are gems like this sprinkled through the book, but unfortunately a lot of it is also very superficial observation.  The subtle thing here is how the hermit undermines the “seeker’s” need for detailed instructions.  This afflicts quite a few people on the spiritual path, and it leads to a clinging to detailed step by step instructions, systems of spirituality, which practically become almost an end in themselves.  One of the things that very much characterizes the hermit approach to spirituality is a basic simplicity, taking whatever tradition of spirituality you want and applying what I call the “Thoreau rule”:  Simplify, simplify, simplify!


B. Speaking of hermits, let us turn now to some thoughts on Western hermits.  This phenomenon is not nearly as focused or as flourishing  as its Chinese counterpart.  Here we need to distinguish between two seemingly very different types:  those who seek solitude for explicit religious/spiritual purposes; and all the rest!  I hesitate to characterize the latter group because it is so varied and so problematic so often (in fact some of these folk can be much more spiritual than the first group but it is not easy to see).  There are some very fine people in the first group, both those in formal religious groups and those who are more informal in this regard; but what I find intriguing (as did Merton) are people who find their way into a solitude which is often opaque to our view, and its purpose becomes concealed behind what may be basic human weakness.  Often these folk have real human failings that are less visible in social life but which emerge in disturbing clarity in solitude.    Our neurotic tendencies/fears/gestures which become somewhat concealed in the nitty-gritty of daily modern social life and whose rough edges can be softened by human companionship, all this can come out quite starkly in solitude; and the hermit has to deal with his/her own “craziness” undiluted by social life.  This is an occupational hazard for all those who live alone in an unstructured context. And a visitor could find this a bit too much!  Especially if they have an idealized, romantic view of solitude.  For a much deeper discussion of the issues involved in all this I do highly recommend reading Merton’s essay, “Philosophy of Solitude.”

So recently I stumbled upon this story in The Guardian: “This reclusive life: what I learned about solitude from my time with hermits,” by Peter Willis.  In many ways it is both a funny and an illuminating account of one man’s journey to try and meet some “real hermits”– he tries to contact some “religious” hermits but with no success he ventures out into the “wild and wooly ones”!  Here’s how the article begins:

“A few years ago, beset by the same malaise that I suppose afflicts everyone who spends too much time in the bustle and chaos of a big city, I wondered if solitude might be the answer. I began to read about hermits and became obsessed with the idea of meeting one. As you might imagine, hermits are a difficult sub-group to track down. But I found out about a newsletter run by a couple in the Carolinas aimed at solitaries and, after posting an ad there, began writing to a few. The correspondences never led anywhere. The closest I got to an actual encounter was with a woman in rural Oregon called Maryann. We planned to meet but at the last minute she got cold feet, writing to say she could not risk letting a stranger visit her “in this crazy age of violence”.

It was winter by then. Desperate to flee the city, I flew to Vegas with a vague plan to hitchhike in to the high deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, which I had heard were good hermit hunting grounds. In the canyons of central Arizona, in Cleator, an inglorious little town of tin-roofed cabins an hour’s meandering drive west of the interstate, I heard about a man who had lived alone for 20 years guarding a disused silver mine. The next day I walked up the mountain to find him, watching the ground for rattlesnakes as I went. I had high hopes; I had read accounts of those who had gone alone into the wild and come back laden with deep personal insights. I wasn’t exactly expecting the Buddha, but a minor-league Thoreau would have been nice. As it was, I met Virgil Snyder. The first thing he asked was if I had brought beers. I had, and for the rest of the day I watched him down them, one after the other at his cabin, a ramshackle place cluttered with old birds’ nests and the bleached skulls of pack rats he had found on the trail.”


The guy turns out to be quite quirky and ornery.  Not an edifying sample of the hermit life!  Our author-seeker continues:  “He didn’t understand why I had come. When I told him I was interested in learning about solitude, he looked at me like I had just flown in from Planet Stupid…. I wrote down everything he said, poring over my notes at night, searching for some searing insight among his professed hatred of, well, everything, and the litany of insults he had thrown my way. (I was at different times called “a faggot”, “a motherfucker” and, more bizarrely, “a Tootsie Roll”.)  After several visits, I was forced to admit that he was not the mountain sage I had been looking for. He was an angry drunk.”


Ok, as “bad” as this guy was, you still have a basic choice of how you view this guy: either he is totally “out of it,” or like one of the Desert Fathers or Zen monks, putting up a “smoke screen” of unpleasant behavior to rebuff the casual and the curious, to test what is really the motivation of the “seeker.”  One thing that he said I really liked and which sums up a Merton viewpoint:  “I didn’t come here to prove a point,” he said. “I don’t do this to be unique.”  Whatever be the case here, our author leaves this guy to continue his seeking.


Our author finds another hermit who is also living a totally unaffiliated life but this guy has a religious, Christian orientation and motivation.  He is a “kinder and gentler” version of the genre of wild hermits.  Our author-seeker continues:

“The same afternoon that I left Virgil, a Catholic monk I had been corresponding with left a message on my phone to tell me about Doug Monroe, a religious solitary who had been living alone for a decade in New Mexico’s vast Gila Wilderness.  The monk described Doug as an “exceptional soul” and his hermitage as “the real thing”. There was no road or habitation within 10 miles of him and apart from a trip to Albuquerque once a year to restock his supplies, the monk said that he never left the cabin.  Buoyed by the serendipity of the timing I decided to go find him. The route to Doug’s place switched back and forth across a stream gushing with snowmelt.  I was greeted like a long-lost friend. ‘Boy, it’s such a treat to have ya here,’ Doug said in a homely southern accent, fussing over me, feeding me rice and tea.  Unlike Virgil, he understood my interest and tried to convey what the solitary life was like. He described moments when the silence around him was so profound it left him frozen to the spot, afraid that the noise of even one footstep would be deafening.  The desire to be a hermit had first come to him in his mid-20s, he said, but it was not until his late 40s that he finally plucked up the courage. When he first came here he had just $150 in cash and an 80lb pack on his back and trekked out into the forest determined to “entrust my survival to God”. For the first year, he lived in a metre-wide shelter he built below an exposed rock face using slabs of stone and fallen trees.  He eventually built himself a one-room cabin. Compared with the melancholic decay of Virgil’s home, there was a calm order here: all his supplies were arranged neatly around the room. On the shelves were boxes of crackers, bucket-sized tubs of peanut butter, dried milk and grains, tins of tuna and Spam, cocoa and powdered mash.”


This promising beginning, however, does not blossom into anything profound, at least in the author’s eyes.  He notices a distinctive neurotic pattern of behavior in the hermit:  “I had the sense that Doug was genuinely content with the path he had chosen, but there was an eccentricity I saw in him too. He talked non-stop, jumping from one subject to the next without any clear connection. At first I thought he was just excited by my presence but he admitted that it was the same when he was alone. He held imaginary conversations with absent friends, with dead saints, even with the Virgin Mary.”


Our author-seeker is a bit disillusioned, but he has an interesting conclusion:

“In other words, if you go into solitude to get away from something, your troubles will probably follow you. This, I suspect, was Virgil’s story. It was probably my own, too, and I returned to the city unhappy that my hermit encounters had not yielded more. To my disappointment, Virgil and Doug had proved all too human.  There was one aspect of the experience that had surpassed my inflated expectations: the environment where the two men lived. And as I became entrenched once again in city life, it was to the stark beauty of the high desert in winter that my mind kept returning, to the saguaros, dwarf junipers, pinyon pines and magical starlit nights.  In the 1968 race that cost Donald Crowhurst his sanity, another competitor had a very different experience.  French sailor Bernard Moitessier fell utterly in love with life alone at sea. So much so that instead of turning north towards the finishing line in England and possible victory, he dropped out of the race and sailed on to Tahiti.  In his book The Long Way, Moitessier describes sailing one night by a headland with the Milky Way overhead. It occurs to him that were this view only visible once a century, the headland would be thronged with people. But since it can be seen many times a year the inhabitants overlook it.  And because they could see it almost any night, perhaps they never will,  he writes.  It was a direct encounter with the quiet magnificence of nature that was the real gold I brought back from my wanderings in Arizona and New Mexico. It was probably what I had been looking for all along.”


One last note:  some years back GQ had an article about a hermit who had lived for decades in the Maine woods and had survived by pilfering from vacation homes.  After he was found and arrested, a GQ writer wrote about him and this was in GQ one of the most widely read articles of all time.  When the writer asked this hermit what was the meaning of life, the old guy replied: “Get enough sleep.”  Merton would have loved that!!


C.  In a completely different vein, recently we have noted two important days: the first was the anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre, and the second was Martin Luther King Day, honoring the life and achievements of this man who was looked upon as “America’s Gandhi.”  With regard the first date, it was on Dec. 29th in 1890, 127 years ago, that American military gunned down a small encampment of Native Americans, men, women, and children, more than a hundred people.  One is somewhat reminded of the Amritsar massacre in India by British troops, so clearly depicted in the movie Gandhi.  What’s important to remember is that this was not just an isolated incident by some troops going amuck, but it represents a whole attitude and history that reveals something is very wrong with us as a nation and a culture. 

The other day, MLK Day, needs little comment except to say that so many today jump on this bandwagon to praise Martin Luther King but they do not know or repress the message that was evolving within him. So many want to remember King for his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.  But they ignore the more revolutionary King of 1967-68 just before he was killed.  It is astonishing to realize that he was assassinated before his 40th birthday–to think what he could have done and been for us!  Here’s a couple of quotes of his that don’t get that much publicity:

The greatest purveyor of violence in the world : My own Government, I can not be silent.”

When he made the famous speech at the Riverside Church in New York against the Vietnam War, the whole liberal establishment came down on him.  Both the New York Times and the Washington Post railed against him; a lot of Black leaders and famous people disassociated themselves from him.  As long as he had “stayed in his lane,” and dealt only with Black issues and civil rights for Blacks(and mostly in the South), a lot of Northern liberals supported him.  But when he began to question the whole liberal establishment in its vision for America (never mind the Conservatives whom he had lost years ago), they turned against him, and a lot of Black leaders joined in that because they did not want to lose that support.  But King’s vision had expanded to a universal concern for economic justice, for peace, for an end to war and violence.  Read his Riverside Church speech on Google.

Very shortly before his killing, King gave a sermon in his own Church, and this is from that:

“I’ve decided what I’m going to do; I ain’t going to kill nobody in Mississippi … [and] in Vietnam. I ain’t going to study war no more. And you know what? I don’t care who doesn’t like what I say about it. I don’t care who criticizes me in an editorial. I don’t care what white person or Negro criticizes me. I’m going to stick with the best. On some positions, cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when a true follower of Jesus Christ must take a stand that’s neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take that stand because it is right. Every now and then we sing about it, ‘If you are right, God will fight your battle.’ I’m going to stick by the best during these evil times.”








D.  Finally.  A lot of people on various spiritual paths speak of their guru, their spiritual father, their Teacher, guide, whatever….  It is often claimed that such a figure is essential on the spiritual journey.  I don’t know about that, but I do know that my own situation is a bit peculiar: my spiritual father is a fictional character: Father Zosima from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.  I met this guy for the first time when I was 17 when I was assigned the novel to be read for class.  His words set me off on my spiritual path, and it is amazing to find those words coming back to me again and again, decades later, as a beacon “in the night” of this life.  If I get lost for a while, it is only for a while, and Father Zosima brings me back on the road where I am focused on what is important.  Here is a key quote from him, and if you understand this there is little else that is needed:

“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love. Love the animals: God gave them the rudiments of thought and an untroubled joy. Do not trouble it, do not torment them, do not take their joy from them, do not go against God’s purpose. …

One may stand perplexed before some thought, especially men’s sin, asking oneself: ‘Shall I take it by force, or by humble love?’ Always resolve to take it by humble love. If you so resolve once and for all, you will be able to overcome the world. A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it. Keep company with yourself and look to yourself every day and hour, every minute, that your image ever be gracious. …

My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you. Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin. Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.”






Fools, Philosophers, & Other Friends

There’s certain people with whom I feel a certain kinship, a certain affinity, folks who jar me out of the limitations of my own vision. Always, absolutely always, they are not your “usual” kind of person, someone who “fits in” with whatever is around him. I have written about some of these folk in various blog postings here, like Han shan, the wild Chinese hermit monk, Ryokan in Japan, some of the Desert Fathers, Edward Abbey, and many others. Now I would like to discuss another such figure, Diogenes and his fellow Cynics.


Diogenes & the Cynics:

If you could go back to ancient Athens, you would find it a most remarkable place. The birthplace of western civilization, it was filled with poets, artists, philosophers, statesmen. It also was the bearer of many contradictions: an economy increasingly dependent on slavery (not racially oriented but still slavery); a series of wars; the political murder of Socrates, one of its greatest figures, etc. Within its cultural context was a “school” of philosophy called Cynicism–do not confuse this term with the modern notion of “cynicism.” The ancient Greek term that comes out as “cynicism” is closely related to the ancient Greek word for “dog.” Thus the Cynic philosophers were “dog-like” in a sense, and this will be clear shortly.

According to Wikipedia, the tenets of this school could be summarized as such:

“Cynicism (Greek: κυνισμός) is a school of thought of ancient Greek philosophy as practiced by the Cynics (Greek: Κυνικοί, Latin Cynici). For the Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people can gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which is natural for themselves, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions.”

“Cynicism is one of the most striking of all the Hellenistic philosophies. It offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Although there was never an official Cynic doctrine, the fundamental principles of Cynicism can be summarized as follows:

  • The goal of life is eudaimonia and mental clarity or lucidity (ἁτυφια) – literally “freedom from smoke (τύφος)” which signified ignorance, mindlessness, folly, and conceit.
  • Eudaimonia is achieved by living in accord with Nature as understood by human reason.
  • Arrogance (τύφος) is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions, unnatural desires, and a vicious character.
  • Eudaimonia, or human flourishing, depends on self-sufficiency (αὐτάρκεια), equanimity, arete, love of humanity, parrhesia and indifference to the vicissitudes of life (ἁδιαφορία).
  • One progresses towards flourishing and clarity through ascetic practices (ἄσκησις) which help one become free from influences – such as wealth, fame, and power – that have no value in Nature. Examples include Diogenes’ practice of living in a tub and walking barefoot in winter.
  • A Cynic practices shamelessness or impudence (Αναιδεια) and defaces the nomos of society; the laws, customs, and social conventions which people take for granted.

Thus a Cynic has no property and rejects all conventional values of money, fame, power and reputation. A life lived according to nature requires only the bare necessities required for existence, and one can become free by unshackling oneself from any needs which are the result of convention.


Now none of this is all that unusual or surprising…unless you consider its context. This was centuries before the rise of Christianity and Christian monasticism. Over a thousand years before the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, Crates gave away a huge fortune and lived as an impoverished street person. Modern counterparts are many and varied: folks like Thoreau, various “flavors” of the hippie movement, some of the “no money” guys hanging out on the fringes of society, the short-lived Occupy Movement, even Gandhi, and so many others. The thing to remember is that the Cynics did not just articulate an abstract philosophy, but they espoused a very concrete way of life; and what is most noteworthy is their posture of a very acerbic and aggressive critique of their own society and social conventions as a whole. They railed against all the masks provided by social life that kept people in a kind of fundamental falseness, the superficial social values and institutions of a corrupt and confused society.  And remember this is over two thousand years ago.

Probably the most iconic Cynic of all was Diogenes, who spent a good part of his life in illustrious Athens during the time of Plato. He lived in the streets, begged for a living, walked around barefoot, slept in a tub, ate openly in the marketplace (which was a real no-no for Athenian sensibility) and ate raw meat when he could get his hands on it. He would urinate and defecate openly in the street causing much consternation. But there was a wisdom about him that kept him from being locked up or expelled from the city. He openly declared that he was “cosmopolitan,” which meant that he “belonged” to the world as a whole rather than to this tribe or city or nationality. If he were living today, I don’t think he would be saying “America First” but rather “Earth First.”

There was about him a dynamism and a sense of humor unrivalled in the history of philosophy (as one author put it). There’s a story about Diogenes walking through the marketplace with a lit lantern in broad daylight, and when asked what he was doing he replied that he was searching for one honest man. This image was ripped off by Nietzsche two thousand years later in his work The Gay Science. Here he has a madman going through the marketplace with a lamp in broad daylight saying that he is looking for God. Later he declares that “God is dead” and that “We, all of us, have killed God.” Amazing, this philosophical dialogue between Diogenes and Nietzsche spanning two thousand years!

Now these friends of mine are not flawless people; nor are they anyone to imitate or even be inspired by. I am not presenting a new hagiography, like they loved in the recent past. Religious figures especially were presented in a kind of frame of impeccable perfection. People loved to put “saints” and holy men and women on these proverbial pedestals and relate unreal stories about them and in general present them as a form of spiritual “superheroes.” Then you could “pray” to them to “intercede” for you as if “speaking to God” was a bit much. It’s as if you needed a lawyer in the Divine Realm. But the times have changed. Recently I read somewhere that folks now want spiritual models that they can relate to, someone like them, not the superheroes of yesteryear. Ok, I get that; but that’s not what I am looking for. My friends, like Diogenes, are not folks that I can or need to “relate to,” and needless to say I am not like them and most importantly they might be quite seriously flawed. No matter. And why would I want someone “like me”!?

What I am looking for are folks who are not sleepwalking through life, who do not succumb to what might be called “the permanent lie” in our social and In our personal life. Recently Chris Hedges wrote another marvelous piece with this title, “The Permanent Lie.”   Here is the link:


Mostly he deals with the social consequences with only a hint or an indirect reference to the deeper problem, the deep down spiritual problem. This condition of the “permanent lie” refers to our inability not just to admit the truth in our lives, social and personal, but more our inability even to perceive that truth. The consequences are very significant, politically, economically, socially, and they are very well documented by Hedges–one could add that there are also some very serious religious consequences.  And so the kind of folks I am most attracted to are the ones who serve as “alarm clocks” to my own sleepwalking within the “permanent lie” of our society, who challenge in one way or another, in a large way or a small way, this aspect of our life which is “the permanent lie.” I really don’t care whether they are seen as “religious” or not, whether they can even be deemed as “holy” or not. In the far past in my life these categories were much more important for me. Not anymore. Religion, any religion, like sex, can be a most intoxicating purveyor, enabler, and mask of the “permanent lie.”











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:



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:



*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.”