Monthly Archives: June 2012

Revisiting Some Old Friends

It is summertime and a good moment in which to reacquaint ourselves with some old spiritual friends.  On the monastic path it is often not so much of “going forward” all the time but more of circling around and around certain fundamental truths until it dawns on you what they are saying.  So here’s just a few for consideration.



Lao Tzu


Thus it is said:

The path into the light seems dark,

the path forward seems to go back,

the direct path seems long,

true power seems weak,

true purity seems tarnished,

true steadfastness seems changeable,

true clarity seems obscure,

the greatest art seems unsophisticated,

the greatest love seems indifferent,

the greatest wisdom seems childish.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.

Yet it nourishes and completes all things.



The paradoxes of Taoism are more powerful and more comprehensive than even those of John of the Cross or of the other apophatic mystics. Notice how it all depends on “seems”–a matter of perception.  So who is doing the perceiving?  Thus the ego cannot traverse the path of the Tao—can’t even see it!!  

 It is a shame that Taoism never really develops but deteriorated over the centuries into a kind of  pop magic-religio concoction.  Apart from Lao Tzu (whose historical reality is even doubted–but then somebody wrote this!) and Chuang Tzu and a number of poets and mystics, Taoism at its roots remains a mysterious way–not surprisingly preferring to be nameless most of the time and of help to those who are on the Way without any name themselves.




Another great old friend is the Sufi Master Ibn Arabi.  Here he details the four stages of development in a Sufi:

(as condensed by Nasr)


  1. At the level of the law(shariah) there is “yours and mine.”  Individual rights and ethical relations.
  2. At the level of the Sufi path (tariqah), “mine is yours and yours is mine.”  Dervishes are brothers and sisters–open their homes, their hearts and  their purses to one another.
  3. At the level of Truth (haqiqah), there is “no mine and no yours.”  The advanced Sufis at this level realize that all things are from God, that they are really only caretakers and that they “possess” nothing.  Those who realize Truth have gone beyond attachment to possessions and beyond attachment to externals in general, including fame and position.
  4. At the level of Gnosis (marifah), there is “no me and no you.”  At this final level, the Sufi has realized that all is God, that nothing and no one is separate from God.


What can you say?  What can you add?  It is so simple and lucid, and also at the same time beyond any real comprehension.  For it is easy to mouth these words, but quite another to know their reality.  Another thing  note their universality–just as with Lao Tzu there is nothing here that is incompatible with the Gospel; indeed, it seems more like a fulfillment of the Gospel!  I suppose most religiosity operates at Level 1.  One would hope that Christian monasticism can at least bring a person to Level 2, at least to the level of your basic Dervish community!  With Level 3 we are at the more individual, personal level, heart level, and this is the beginning of true mysticism.  Lived rightly (and that’s a big IF!) one would hope that the monastic way would bring a person to that level eventually.  As for Level 4, well, very few make it.  The great modern Sufi master, Shaikh al-‘Alawi, said that only one in ten thousand Sufis get to this level.  Or as Han-shan would put it:  “Try and make it to Cold Mountain!”




From the venerable Ramana Maharshi:


We loosely talk of Self-realization, for lack of a better term.  But how can one real-ize or make real that which alone is real?  All we need to do is to give up our habit of regarding as real that which is unreal.  All religious practices are meant solely to help us do this.  When we stop regarding the unreal as real, then reality alone will remain, and we will be that.


Ah, if only it were that simple!  The “unreal” is not some “ghostly” mirage or delusion.  It is actually our daily world when we see it apart from God—when we see it only from the standpoint of our ego self.  The hurly-burly busy world of our urban centers is truly unreal in that in all that frenetic activity no one realizes that God is right there and that’s all that matters.  If that realization should hit everyone, then all that activity would stop–what’s the point of it?  The basis of civilization and culture would change.  Human beings would spend their time in prayer, contemplation, reflection, adoration of the Real, working just enough to maintain life….the world would be one big monastery!  Not that present monasteries aren’t caught up in the “unreal”! 





And we must never forget Merton:


“I am the utter poverty of God.  I am His emptiness, littleness, nothingness, lostness.  When this is understood, my life in His freedom, the self-emptying of God in me is the fullness of grace.  A love for God that knows no reason because He is the fullness of grace.  A love for God that knows no reason because He is God; a love without measure; a love for God as personal.  The Ishvara appears as personal in order to inspire this love.  Love for all, hatred of none is the fruit and manifestation of love for God–peace and satisfaction.  Forgetfulness of worldly pleasure, selfishness and so on in the love for God, channeling all passion and emotion into the love for God.”


No need for comment here.





Then a very rare, little known figure from the Middle Ages, Marguerite Porete who wrote a thing called “The Mirror of Simple Souls”:


“If that soul had all the knowledge of God ever possessed or to be possessed by any creature, she would deem it nothing compared to what she loves, which never has been and never will be known.  She loves in God that which is in him and has never been imparted more than she loves that which she had already received from him or will ever receive. The soul is not drunk on what she has drunk, but on what she never has drunk and never will drink.  It is the beyond that has intoxicated her.  It is with this that without drinking she is inebriated.  She is free, all-forgetting, all-forgotten, out of herself.”


This is one of Abhishiktananda’s favorite quotes, and he makes that word “beyond” one of his favorite words.  The Abyss of God is fathomless, limitless, infinite; and to plunge into it endlessly, ever being drawn “beyond”, ever deeper into an endless bliss….

Oh yes, by the way, poor Marguerite was burned at the stake as a heretic.  A woman claiming this kind of intimacy with God…could be dangerous.  The fact that she wrote things down  may indicate that she somehow was educated, and some scholars believe she was an influence on Eckhart.





Ancient Greek saying:  “When the gods want to punish us, they grant us our desires.”


“Brother Ancient Greek, you are not far off from Buddhahood.”





And to conclude, to those who are puzzled by enigmatic spiritual sayings and wonder what they mean, here’s a piece of advice:

Concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz tells about the time he played a dissonant contemporary composition at a private gathering.  When he had finished, someone asked, “I just don’t understand what that composition means, Mr. Horowitz.  could you please explain?”  Without a word, Horowitz played the composition again, turned to his questioner, and announced, “That’s what it means!”

                Philip Kapleau
























Fundamentals & Foundations, Part VI: Kenosis

Consider these words from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (2: 2-8):  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 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.”

A classic text in Christianity of what is sometimes called “kenotic spirituality.”  Actually it is a foundational text for all Christian spirituality, and one could really say that kenosis, in one form or another, appears in all true spiritualities.  This self-emptying is an important dynamic in all religious paths even as it may have different nuances, totally incommensurable layers of background text and narrative,  and radically diverse indicators and symbols.  Thus, the Buddha sitting in calm meditation with that inimitable hint of a smile and Christ in agony on the cross are two very different symbols but both lead us into the realm of kenosis, and we won’t speculate about their relationship any more than that.  We will limit ourselves to some random reflections on kenosis as foundation for the Christian spiritual path, but as usual we will keep one eye on our Sufi friends and on Abhishiktananda’s Christian advaita.

Within Christianity, Russian Orthodox spirituality has a very strong “kenotic element.”  The “fools for Christ,” the radical nonviolence of some of its holy people, the strong hermit tradition, a sense of the value of suffering….all these point in that direction.  Paradoxically (at least for some) this spirituality is also known for its beautiful emphasis on the Resurrection and for a strong sense for what might be termed “spiritual beauty.”

Kenosis…what can it possibly mean?  We term it “self-emptying.”  The words from the New Testament quoted above are not at all self-explanatory.  They have been interpreted in some seriously different ways.  But it is obvious that the radical kenosis of Jesus Christ is meant to serve paradigmatically for all human beings.  But also, kenosis is not “something we do,” a project that the ego self can undertake, another spiritual practice among many others, etc.  Rather, with our Sufi friends, all we need do is be attentive to “what is.”  Truly it will take us where we need to be.

Adam, the Biblical prototype, the first human being, is called the “icon” of God (in the image of God, etc.).  Jesus, the so-called new prototype is termed as “in the form of God” (morphe theou).  There are very deep implications on how one reads these two phrases.  Some scholars claim that the two terms are interchangeable; that they basically refer to the same thing.  Others say, no, “morphe” refers to the very essence of God and “icon” obviously does not.  From the standpoint of a mystical spirituality, these kind of arguments are a waste of time, though not without some interest.  From the standpoint of a nondualistic Christian mysticism, like Christian advaita, as in Abhishiktananda’s latest Christology(as opposed to his earlier ruminations), what this phrase would seem to mean is that what God is, Jesus is.  “That thou art,” in a Christian perspective.  Obviously not in his arms and legs, etc., but in what makes Jesus truly Jesus, this is in the morphe theou.  In the Greek thought-world everything has a morphe, a form—so there is the form of a dog, the form of a cat, the form of a rock, etc.  The form is what makes something to be that which it is.  There is form and matter.  Matter is the stuff; form is what makes it to be this particular stuff as opposed to some other stuff.  So that is where this word is coming from, but that does not necessarily mean it has that  precise a meaning.  But we can infer still that somehow this morphe theou means that what the reality of the Ultimate Mystery is, Jesus is truly that.  “That thou art.”  He manifests that Reality in the purest, most translucent way.  There is absolutely nothing in Jesus that obscures that reality—and yet it can be said to be “concealed” on the cross—that most cruel form of execution that only the worst criminal or worst enemy would get.

Abhishiktananda was often fond of pointing out that the meaning of such a text is way beyond any textual/verbal analysis, and it requires a certain spiritual experience to really get at its core.  But this text is very rich and loaded with meaning in almost every word and phrase, and it would be satisfying and interesting and beneficial to do a detailed, word-by-word analysis and reflection, yet  we will skip that for the time being and simply “underline” some key signposts as it were as the text wants to take us to a place we might not be aware of.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….”  Abhishiktananda tended toward the end of his life toward a Christology which focused on the awareness within Jesus of his relationship to that Ultimate Reality which he called “abba.”  Abhishiktananda claimed that this was the only way the Semitic mindset could get at the advaitic experience of Jesus–in that experience of “sonship” and in the language of “the kingdom of heaven.” There is much to recommend in that reading, and this text certainly seems to point in that direction.  However, this text also seems to be taking us to a place where no “advaitic experience” seems possible:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me….”  The kenosis of Jesus on the Cross is a concealment of all religious experience.  At the very end there is only surrender to what seems like utter emptiness—“Into your hands….”

So the text proceeds: Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.”  Indeed.  “Equality”–very loaded word here, but we shall focus on “grasped.”  Whatever you want to make of “equality with God,” it is not something that can be “grasped.”  Why?  Because only the ego self, the phenomenal self “grasps.”  And our God-identity cannot be grasped in any way.  This text should also remind us of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness where in fact his God-identity was presented to him by the Tempter as indeed something to grasp and hold onto as a credential.  So we are invited to follow Jesus in his kenosis where our own God-identity unfolds, not as a “something we grasp” but as pure gift and grace and love..

The Buddha teaches along these lines:  if your house is on fire, you get out of that house.  And your house is on fire, so…..   Jesus in his kenosis opens a door.  In fact he says, “I am the door…”   The whole point of a door is that it is an empty space.  Jesus in his kenosis reveals the Great Emptiness, which is not-empty because it is not a something alongside other somethings, but that which is infinite and unimaginable Love(and this is something radically new in human awareness).  Al-Hallaj was ecstatic as they crucified him….without any ego he proclaimed “I am the Truth.”  “That thou art.”  But let us listen once more to Merton’s remarkable meditation on this “Door”:

“The door of emptiness.  Of no-where.  Of no-place for a self, which cannot be entered by a self.  And therefore is of no use to someone who is going somewhere.  Is it a door at all?  The door of no-door….  The door without sign, without indicator, without information.  Not particularized.  Hence no one can say of it ‘This is it!  This is the door.’  It is not recognizable as a door.  It is not led up to by other things pointing to it:  ‘We are not it, but that is it–the door.  No sign saying, ‘Exit.’  No use looking for indications.  Any door with a sign on it, any door that proclaims itself to be a door is not the door….  The door without wish.  The undesired.  The unplanned door. The door never expected.  Never wanted.  Not desirable as a door.  Not a joke, not a trap door.  Not select.  Not exclusive.  Not for a few.  Not for many.  Not for.  Door without aim.  Door without end.  Does not respond to a key–so do not imagine you have a key.  Do not have your hopes on possession of the key….  When you have asked for a list of all the doors, this one is not on the list.  When you have asked the numbers of all the doors, this one is without a number.  Do not be deceived into thinking this door is merely hard to find and difficult to open.  When sought it fades.  Recedes.  Diminishes.  Is nothing.  There is no threshold.  No footing.  It is not empty space.  It is neither this world nor another.  It is not based on anything.  Because it has no foundation, it is the end of sorrow.  Nothing remains to be done….  Christ said, ‘I am the door.’  The nailed door.  The cross, they nail the door shut with death.  The resurrection: ‘You see, I am not [that kind of] door.’  ‘Why do you look up to heaven?’….  I am the opening, the ‘shewing,’ the revelation, the door of light, the Light itself.  ‘I am the Light,’ and the light is in the world from the beginning.”

St. Francis is perhaps the purest example within Christianity of Christ’s kenotic path.  Read his account of the “Perfect Joy.”  Every time I read it, I get totally flattened—it is so radical.  Easy to misread.  It is not about “trying real hard” to “enjoy” getting insulted, rejected, etc.  Some real bad spirituality abounds in this regard!  No, it is rather living from a very different center than our phenomenal ego self with all its desires and wants and grasping…it  is living from the place of the no-self, the Self of the Upanishads…it is an exemplum of what is said in Luke 17:33(and other similar texts):  “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life will preserve it.”  As Abhishiktananda points out, this is at the heart of Christian advaita.  The life of communion, of unity beyond understanding, of unbounded love, of infinite bliss, is not found by expanding the ego self to infinity, but paradoxically through the narrow gate of this kenosis.

When you make the Sign of the Cross, you manifest the Ultimate Reality.  (Someone may wish to point out that whatever you do that is not “evil” is also the case.  Agreed, but there may be something different in this case.)  Who and What God is are both unconcealed and concealed by the cross.  To borrow from our Sufi friends:  it is the Ultimate Veil.  And it is one thing to know God when the veil is lifted; it is quite another to know that Ultimate Reality in the veil itself.  The very life of God, the very dynamism of God is kenosis—the total self-emptying which is a Total Gift of Self—such underlies the very meaning of the Trinitarian relations.  And within this Mystery we have our being and our identity–not outside of it, or apart from it.  God, being God, does not parcel Himself out, bit by bit, a little gift here, a little gift there, as popular piety would have it.  No, the Total Mystery abides within our hearts and within everything that is—or it would not even exist.  God gives Himself Totally in an unspeakable movement of Self-emptying which we call Love, and this Love is at the core of all that is Real.