Foundations & Fundamentals, Part V: The Mercy & The Compassion

Foundations & Fundamentals, Part V: The Mercy & The Compassion
by A Monk
Ok, this one is real hard also!  Extra hard!  But for quite another reason than the previous postings in the Foundations Series.  The problem is the words are “nice”; everyone likes these kind of words, and everyone thinks they understand what these words mean and imply and what they point to.  There is a psychological and social component here that everyone, or almost everyone, connects with and believes in and leaves it at that.  However the deeper realms, what is properly called mysticism or the contemplative vision of this, remains largely unexplored.  Just speaking for the majority of Christians!  And that is a sad story when in fact every single human being has this knowledge in their heart.  But what the Desert Fathers called “the world” tends to distract and preoccupy us.  However, when “the heart” awakens it opens up on these infinite vistas which we normally call “Mercy” and “Compassion”–again I capitalized and used the article “the” because I am not referring simply to a “fellow-feeling” here but an aspect of that Ultimate Mystery which we call God.

So let us begin in an odd place–thousands of miles away as it were.  In a Japanese Zen monastery, of the Rinzai School, during one of their sesshins.  A sesshin is a retreat of sorts, a very intense period of practice where the monks and lay guests do walking and sitting meditation for more than 12 hours a day.  Gary Snyder relates one such sesshin that he participated in when he was a student in Japan.  It was at Shokoku-ji in Kyoto during the 1960s.  He tells of how intense the experience was and describes one striking feature of the practice: during the long hours of meditation, the head monk, the Jikijitsu, paces up and down the rows of meditators with a wooden paddle.  If anyone’s posture is slipping up or if they start nodding off, the Jikijitsu will whack them on the back with the paddle, some more, some less, but a real whack, enough to knock one off one’s cushion and depending on what was wrong.  Snyder concludes his story:

“The sesshin ends at dawn on the eighth day.  All who have

participated gather in the Jikijitsu’s room and drink powdered

green tea and eat cakes.  They talk easily, it’s over.  The Jikijitsu,

who has whacked  or knocked them all during the week, is their

great friend now—compassion takes many forms.”

Indeed.  A little parable perhaps!  But by no means is this story to be taken as an endorsement of causing someone suffering.  As a matter of fact the compassion and mercy we really want to think about and which is primary is not what we “do to our neighbor” but really the Mercy and Compassion of God.  And here we have to enlist our Sufi friends again for here also they have gone the deepest.  Their whole theology and spirituality is built on this foundation, and we can learn much from them.

Recall the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching:

“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.”

For those of us in the theistic traditions this is a perfect summary of one aspect of that reality which we call God.  It is the Absolute Mystery of God, totally transcendent, absolutely unknowable in its essence, totally nameless, beyond all knowledge.  And yet we also affirm that this Reality manifests itself, and as it is truly the only Reality for there is nothing else real “next to it” or compared to it, thus it truly manifests itself  only to itself; and within this manifestation our semblance of being arises.  Our being has reality only because it is grounded in Reality and apart from that we have no reality, and so we are part of that manifestation and  our purpose is to be a witness to this manifestation in all its aspects.  Thus the gift of intelligence and freedom, and so we are able to respond to every manifestation in that classic triad of “to know, love and serve God.”  This is the fundamental point of human beingness as even our catechism puts it.

But now we can push this further.  So the Sufis (and we) affirm that absolutely everything is a manifestation of this Absolute Mystery: the drop of rain, the hawk circling in the sky, the smile on a child, the laughter of friends, the lovemaking of husband and wife, a kind word of a stranger, the snowflakes falling, the Black Hole at the center of our galaxy,  a blade of grass, a delicious meal, the coolness of water, etc. etc.  In a sense these are obvious, but what about the really bad and evil things.  Someone like Abhishiktananda said toward the end of his life that he did not believe anymore in evil or suffering.  I am not so sure about that as a solution–that is a kind of gnostic solution to the problem of evil where it simply vanishes when you arrive at a certain state of awareness.  Dostoyevesky in Brothers Karamazov provides the definitive challenge to any gnostic solution to the problem of evil.  The Sufis have their own way of dealing with this, but it does not mean denying the reality of suffering or evil.  Simply that for the “person who knows” yes, he will see God even there–but you don’t preach that to people as if evil did not exist–it lies beyond our ability to explain the mystery of evil and suffering but for the Sufi “who knows the score” he will see God even there.   As Good Friday approaches we may see the point of what they intend.  At the crucifixion, Jesus says to the thief crucified next to him and who turns to him, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”

In any case, the key thing for the Sufis is that “What Is” is a manifestation of that Absolute Mystery which we call God (Allah), but it is not a manifestation of His essence which remains totally transcendent, but a manifestation of His Love.  The Sufis have this expression, “the straight path.”  To be on “the straight path” is to be in harmony with “what is” as it comes from the Love of God.  This does not mean negative passivity but knowing how to respond to every thing and every situation in a way that witnesses to the manifestation of God and attests to God’s Self-communication and Self-manifestation in every moment and in every situation and in every thing.  This requires “purity of heart”–thus the importance of that expression for the early monks and mystics.  What we all want to be is on the Straight Path with purity of heart!

Now we come to our two key words: “Mercy” & “Compassion.”  Both are aspects of that one reality, Love, which manifests the Reality: God.  Indeed, in the New Testament God is defined as Love.  For most of us these words kind of blend into one sense or meaning, kind of interchangeable if you will.  However for the Sufis these two words have a serious differentiation which is worth paying attention to.   Muslims begin every invocation with the Basmalah, which can be found at the opening of the Quran,  “In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate..”(Different editions have various translations but this is what is meant).  They are not just being repetitious!  “Mercy” is the ground of all that we call reality.  It is the fundamental ground of every person and every thing.  God’s Mercy is the fabric of all time and all creation.  God Himself as the ground of all being is Mercy itself.  This Absolute Mystery chooses to manifest His Presence as Mercy always and everywhere, and our task is to “know” that with an awakened heart, to serve that Reality in total surrender, to walk the “Straight Path,” and so to respond as a witness of that Manifestation.  Now “Compassion” is a word saved for particular actions of God within historical time. The Compassion of God is in events.  It shows itself in His intervention in particular events here and there.  When Jesus cures a leper or opens the eyes of a blind person, these would be considered examples of God’s Compassion.  Some such acts might be great and very public; others very small and in secret.  But the Compassion of God is at work within history.  Thus to walk “the Straight Path” means also to be in harmony with the Compassion of God, but recall that especially God’s “compassion takes on many forms.”

Now let us listen to Merton as he talks about this topic:

“So that is why it is important to know that God Who is Manifest

in creatures is manifest primarily as Mercy….  The Muslims place

an enormous amount of importance to the Names of God.  See they’ve

got the idea that these Names are in God clamoring to the invisible,

unknown, absolute abyss of God for manifestation.  And God breathes

on them and they are manifested in creatures.  All creatures are not

manifestations of the Hidden Essence of God; they are manifestations

of Names of God.  And the Name of God which is the top of the

pyramid (other than Allah) and which includes every other Name is

Merciful.  God the Merciful.  Allah the Merciful.  And therefore one

seeks to ascend to the knowledge of God as Merciful in everything.

The Mercy of God in everything.  And of course one of the chief

Christian Sufis of the last hundred years is Saint Therese.  The Little

Way of St. Therese is Sufism.  It’s a form of Christian Sufism, and it

is based on this particular attitude toward God, this idea of God.”

Ibn Arabi:  ” If it were not for this Love, the world would never have appeared in its concrete existence.”  Merton again:  “In this sense, the movement of the world toward existence was a movement of love which brought it into existence.  And not only the movement of the world into existence, the coming of everything into existence is an act of love, the development of everything is an act of love.  Everything that happens is love and is mercy.  Not that it always appears to be that way, very often it appears to be just the opposite.  But everything that happens is love.  And of course the ones in Islam who emphasize this the most are the Sufis, because the great thing in Sufism is Love…the Mercy of God in everything , but you have to know how to see it.”

And this is a particularly hard thing to discuss or reflect on, this “seeing.”  A number of very deep spiritual concepts converge at this point: the awakened heart, purity of heart, prayer of the heart even, Mercy as the ground of all, and walking the Straight Path.  This last one alone needs much more reflection in another posting because it doesn’t sound familiar to our religious discourse. In that regard it suffers the same kinds of distortions as Buddhist “detachment” used to suffer so much among Western commentators, who took it as this grossly negative, passive mode of being.  Surely more words will not explain it or remove the difficulties, but at least some misconceptions can be spared and the significance of the Straight Path in relation to God’s Mercy can be indicated.   Suffice it to say that it holds the key to “bringing it all together,” and perhaps as an example we could point to the Rule of St. Benedict as one methodology of walking the Straight Path.  Certainly the Sufis prefer non-institutional approaches but at least it can be interpreted along these lines.  Finally, the problems associated with walking the Straight Path and seeing the Mercy of God in everything are similar to the ones we encountered in reflecting on the self and the heart.  Basically it is that very common illusion of ourselves as this solid entity which is separate from God and in charge of our own lives as it were.  It is what Abhishiktananda (and others) called “dualism” but it has all kinds of ramifications.  Let us listen to Merton again:

“And so the great sign of Mercy is that a person is able to see

the good in everything that is and go along with it…. To see that in

Everything That Is is the Mercy of God, and therefore to prefer

nothing else…that is the approach….  The average person who stands

outside the will of God…and looks in,…he does not understand that

really everything is willed by God and he makes choices, and…he

makes his own plans, and he submits them to God.  His idea of the

the Mercy of God is that, he makes his plans, and then God, being

merciful to him helps him so that it pans out the way he wants…that’s

kind of a common thing….  The only basic thing that the Sufis say

about it is that a man who lives in that realm doesn’t really know

what’s cooking.  He has the wrong idea of how things are set up.  In

other words, he thinks that he is able to stand outside of all this, and

make plans, and size things up, and then submit them to God, and

then he and God are going to work things out on basis of appeal….”

But as Ibn Arabi says:  “Those who are veiled from the truth ask the Absolute to show mercy upon them each in his own particular way.”

Merton continues speaking of such a “veiling”:  [It]….”is the underlying of a basically insufficient concept of who we are and of how we function in relation to God, and this insufficient concept is the concept that we all have [my emphasis].  It is the basic assumption that we all start from.  That we are all somehow or other completely a little world by ourselves and in the center of this little world of our own is our own mind down in there figuring things out.  And if you stop and think, we consider ourselves more or less like sort of a turtle in a shell…there’s your turtle and inside this little shell, this little metaphysical shell, which is the self, inside there is the living being, hidden from everything, figuring things out.  And we think that this living center, which is within the center of ourselves, is kind of walled off from everything else.  And here we are, because this is what we experience, this is the only thing that we experience directly as reality, and we take this to be reality.  We take the turtle inside our shell, which is there, the self, which down in there, we experience this as reality and we start from there.  And we judge everything in reference to that, and everything that we see that we experience through the senses, immediately,…is the outside, and then way up behind the whole thing somewhere is God.  And we say, ‘now look God, here’s me and here’s them, now fix it so that everything works out.’  But that’s not the way it is.  It is not like that.  It’s quite a different proposition…”

The actuality is that the ground of everything is within me and it is the Absolute, the Ultimate Mystery, God; and it is within everybody also.  And there is one ground for everybody, and this ground is the Divine Mercy.  Those “in the know” ask for the Divine Mercy to subsist in them and it does.  Merton again: “This is a totally different outlook.  It is the outlook whereby the Mercy of God is not arranged on the outside in events for me…but it is subsisting in me all the time.  Therefore what happens is that if the Mercy of God is subsisting in me—and that goes to say if I am…completely united with the will of God in love [adding to Merton: meaning that I am “on the Straight Path”]–it doesn’t matter what happens outside, because everything that is going on outside that makes any sense is grounded in the same ground in which I am grounded.  The opposition between me and everything else ceases, and what remains in terms of opposition is purely accidental and it doesn’t matter.  And this is…a basic perspective in all…the highest religions.”

Now I grant you that this stuff is not easy to digest, may not make sense, and can be expressed in other ways perhaps.  Like I mentioned before it is susceptible to the kinds of misunderstandings that Buddhist detachment and the Tao of Taoism underwent at the hands of Western thinkers and Christian apologists.  It would be easier to write about methods of meditation and prayer, the role of poverty and humility, the value of ritual, etc.; but, alas, we are attempting to put something down on “Foundations & Fundamentals” and trying to find those elements which might be shared by more than one tradition.  If this stuff doesn’t connect with you, no problem, set it aside, but don’t abandon it, and maybe one day it will light up in your heart.  That too is being on the Straight Path; that too is an Awakening of the Heart; that too is grounded in Mercy.  Better than pretending to understand some words….   Let us conclude with some more Merton:

“…and incidentally, these are the kind of perspectives that today are

not very much in fashion.  This isn’t the sort of stuff that people are

getting wildly excited about, but it’s something fundamental.  If a

person has a grasp of this kind of thing, he has the sort of thing that

religions exist to give  to man and the sort of thing that we ask from

religion, because it gives a person an inner strength which nothing

can assail, a strength which is not based on some gimmick or other, it

is based on God.  It helps the person to break through to the realm in

which he is in fact immediately united with God.  And in which he is

directly supported by God, I mean, in which God cannot fail him.

The Sufis are the fellows who try to get down to this real basic level,

and one of the things that they claim about themselves is that they are

seeking purity of heart..the purity of heart of a Sufi is non-preference,

not preferring anything to What Is, taking What Is straight, without

adding onto it any other preference, without substituting something

for it….  The perfect Sufi [and the perfect monk: my addition] is lost

in God.  He that is absorbed in the Beloved and has abandoned all else

is a Sufi [and a true monk].”

To illustrate Merton’s words let me end as I began, on a Zen note (though there is a Desert Father story which is almost an exact equivalent!):

A Zen monk was living as a hermit outside a small town.  A young woman who got pregnant outside marriage tried to cover up her situation by accusing the monk of fathering the child.  The townsfolk cursed him, and when the child was born they brought the baby to the monk and told him this was his and he should take care of it.  All he said was, “Is that so?  He took the child and took care of it with affection and compassion.  Some time passed and the girl felt guilty and confessed that the monk was innocent.  So the townspeople came to the monk and told him it was all a mistake, the child was not his, he need not care for it and can turn the child over to the mother.  The only thing the monk said is, “Is that so?” and handed the child back to the mother.

There are unsuspected depths to these stories!  Truly this monk was on the Straight Path!


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