Monthly Archives: December 2012

Recent Notes

Recent Notes

1. THE OTHER ISLAM—that is the title of a fascinating book by Stephen Schwartz, a journalist and executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.
The story Schwartz narrates covers a lot of ground both in time and place, but his primary concern is to relate how the Sufi movement fares today around the globe. Islam as a whole, as a great world religion, is quite a varied phenomenon, and Sufism as well is not a uniform movement. The story tells of saints, of holy people, of good people, and alas it also has its villains, and among the chief “bad guys” is the Wahhabi movement centered in Saudi Arabia among the Sunnis. Powered by the oil wealth of the Saudis, the Wahhabis emerge as the nastiest and most virulent fundamentalist movement in all religions. It is from them that the Taliban and Al-Quaeda have been born and a host of other lesser known violent religionists. Westerners might not know it, but the Wahhabis hate Shia Sufis more than even the Jews or the Christians. That’s how crazy things can get. They forment all kinds of violence in their fanatical religious zeal—even against their fellow Moslems, and the sad fact is that most Westerners do not understand the nature of the problem. The U.S. is, afterall, an ally of Saudi Arabia, so our national media hardly points out that most so-called problems with “fanatical Moslems” comes not from Iran or Iraq but from Saudi Arabia.
What is really interesting is the presentation of the various kinds of Sufi presence in the Balkans in Europe(where fanatic Christian Serbs murdered so many of them), and in far-off and “mysterious” countries like Uzbekistan and Turkestan, where paradoxically some of the most progressive Sufis live. Not to mention the Sufis of Iran, and perhaps the most surprising, the Sufis living in Israel.

2. John Daido Loori, an American Zen teacher: “So, what is the self? What is it that sits here? What is it that thinks and feels? What we usually call the ‘self’ is this bag of skin; we consider everything inside the bag of skin to be ‘me’ and everything outside of it to be the rest of the universe. When we separate ouselves from the rest of the universe, then, obviously, everything we need is out there, outside our self. And so, the consequences of the illusion of self are desire, thirst, craving, need–which in turn form the roots of suffering.”
The essence of advertising and the main engine of what drives our economy is based on this “disease.” So what would happen if the majority of people were liberated, enlightened?

3. The post-election blahs have begun. The Republicans are as crazy as ever and border on extinction. Anyone who thinks the Dems have answers to our problems simply are not listening to their language carefully enough. The future is not very promising as long as our political discourse is limited to what these two parties have to say.
A new movie out—Zero Dark Thirty—ostensibly tells the story of Bin Laden’s killing. Notwithstanding that it is by a talented woman director and makes a big point to show a woman CIA analyst as a chief character responsible for finding this villain, the fact is that this movie is a horrible piece of propaganda. In an almost off-hand way it justifies the use of torture—apparently an important piece of information was obtained that way—and so the move is a propaganda piece for torture. Anything to keep us “safe.”
Again some of the best commentary on our current social situation comes from Noam Chomsky—as in this link:

4. The recent shooting of the children has provoked various kinds of responses. Although the call for greater gun control is quite understandable and certainly a good cause (afterall why does anyone really need assault type of weapons?), the problem is that this provides only a diversion, a diverting from what really ails us. You can see it also in the way the story is told: “Evil has visited us.” The problem is “something out there” which threatens us. Never mind our drones that kill quite indiscriminately in addition to their so-called target; never mind the insane wars in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, women and children included. These are, of course, killings out there somewhere where our supposed threats lie in wait to destroy us. It comes as a shock(mostly to white, well-to-do folk) when the killings emerge from within “our world.” Who could have guessed we are capable of this kind of thing. Surely the person is a deranged anomaly, something we can put a “fence” around and contain as we go on killing other folk. We supposedly can fix “the problem” with a bit of gun control. Unfortunately “the problem” is that we are “killers” and have been so from the beginnings of this country. To borrow a phrase from the ‘60s: killing is as American as apple pie. From the landing of Columbus, when he pillaged, raped, enslaved and murdered thousands of Native Americans, to the Pequot War right in Connecticut around 1638 where a bunch of English colonists and some Indian allies butchered a whole Pequot village of women and children—they actually burned them to death, and the Indian allies of the English abandoned them in disgust because they had never seen such blood-lust. And then, to Wounded Knee, when that brave American cavalry gunned down a whole village of Lakota in the 1890s. And so it goes…. Richard Slotkin has written a masterful trilogy documenting our national obsession with guns, with killing “the other” who poses a “threat.” The first book was titled Regeneration Through Violence. In detailed fashion he analyzes the spirit of “violent solutions” that became the driving force of American colonization and expansion. He goes on in the next two books The Fatal Environment and Gunfighter Nation) to explode the myth of the West. Of course these are social and psychological views of “the problem” and while badly needed and helpful they do not push all the way to the heart of the matter.

5. An obscure but significant story showed up in the National Catholic Reporter a while back. It appears that there is this spirituality center in Wisconsin, a retreat center of sorts, a place of prayer, run by two Catholic sisters but with a clear ecumenical identity. They are open to people of all religious traditions and incorporate various prayers, sayings, and teachings from all these traditions. Now it is reported that the Catholic bishop of that area has written a letter to all Catholic institutions telling them not to participate in the spirituality of this center. In other words Catholics should not make retreats there, and whatever these sisters publish about prayer or spirituality should not be used in any parish, and the sisters are not allowed to give any talks in the diocese. And so on. Interesting. This is almost beyond comment. This kind of bishop and this kind of church can exist and go on for a very long time, but it will be lifeless and dead and simply exist through a kind of external “wall-building”. And there are many people who psychologically need these kind of walls in order to affirm themselves. But to borrow from Robert Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

6. Modernity invades a country and the culture changes and it doesn’t look good for contemplative monasticism. Old story; new setting. Here is the link to the New York Times with the sad details:

7. Let us end with one of my favorites, Han Shan (“Cold Mountain”):
​What is the saddest thing in the world
​the rafts of sin people build to reach Hell
​ignoring the man in the clouds and cliffs
​with one thin robe for the shores of his life
​in autumn he lets the leaves fall
​in spring he lets the trees bloom
​he sleeps through the Three Realms free of concern
​with moonlight and wind for his home.

​Cold Mountain owns a house
​with no partitions inside
​six doors open left and right
​from the hall he sees blue sky
​wherever he looks it’s bare
​the east wall greets the west
​nothing stands between them
​no need for anyone’s care
​he makes a small fire when cold comes
​cooks plants when hunger arrives
​he isn’t like the old farmer
​enlarging his fields and sheds
​creating nothing but hell-bound karma
​once begun it never ends
​think this over well
​think and discover the key.

And finally:
​Idle I called on an eminent monk
​amid ten thousand mist-covered mountains
​the master himself pointed the way home
​the moon held up its lone lantern.
​​​(all translations by Red Pine)

Lesson: do not mistake the finger “pointing the way home” for the home!

Whichever Way You Turn: A Different Take on Advent and Christmas

There is a Sufi saying that goes something like this:  Whichever way you turn, there is the face of God.  This has to be understood within the context of a basic Islamic prayer ritual, the call to prayer five times a day. Now like any devout Moslem the Sufi will turn toward Mecca during that time of formal prayer.  It is a spatial orientation which has both historical roots and symbolic importance.  A human being becomes involved with many things in the course of his/her day both in body and in mind.  So it is good and important to “reorient” human attention toward the Ultimate Reality.  The Moslem does this five times a day by turning his body toward Mecca and his mind and heart toward God.  The Sufi does this also, of course, but his inner dynamic is to be “turned” in that “direction” at all times and all places.  In fact, when pushed to its final realization, there is no more “turning” because there is no more of the ego “I”—it is totally taken over by the “I” of God.  There is no more “the face of God” because the Ultimate Reality is no longer a dualistic “thou” out there. Again, from the Sufis:  When we reach perfect servanthood, it is God himself who says “I.”  As Abhishiktananda would say,  the Sufi, in his “turning” transcends the “nama-rupa,” the forms and names, of his religious path—not by doing away with them but by penetrating their inner meaning.


In Christianity our “turning” is primarily “temporal.”  In Advent we are invited to turn “toward the future,” toward the so-called Second Coming.  I say “so-called” because the nature of the Second Coming is a real bone of contention within Christianity.  Fundamentalists and conservative Christians seem to hold to a literal meaning when history ends at some moment in time and Jesus returns and so on following the Biblical language.  Those who read these texts with more nuance and recognize its symbolic language, its mythopoetic quality,  still look toward the future, but this time we might call it an Absolute Future, a moment when there will be a summation of all history in the person of the Risen Christ.  A time of fulfillment if you will—we have a partial realization of God now; in the “future” comes a “fullness.” So it is a season of hope, of expectation, of yearning and reaching for that Future. But the deeply contemplative person will still be puzzled and bothered by this language—it seems to place the reality of Christ somewhere “out there”.  Listen a bit to Abhishiktananda:


“Advent…in which I took such delight twenty or thirty years

ago, now says so little to me, even though its poetry contains

infinite echoes, far beyond the disappointing words.  Who is

coming? And from where?  In order to experience Advent as in

time past, I should have to be able to remove myself from the

blazing Presence, and dream that it was still ‘coming’.  Not a

‘waiting’, but an awakening should constitute a Christian



The deeply contemplative experience is to abide continually in the Absolute Divine Presence, and so the Christian contemplative struggles to make sense of this “turn” toward the future of any kind.  What are we to do?  What are we to make of all this?  The “turning” is perhaps an “awakening.”


The other great “turning” that the Christian is invited to is toward the so-called First Coming, the feast of Christmas, the mystery of the Incarnation.    Here too the language is problematic and even covered over with all kinds of extraneous symbols, myths and “decorations.”  Thus, Santa Claus, gift giving, Christmas trees, etc., etc., have nothing to do with this but now it is inextricably connected to it.  So it complicates this “turning” back to that moment in time.  But if we strip away all the “nama-rupa,” all the symbology, all the extraneous stuff, we find ourselves turning toward the Mystery of God in this person of Jesus Christ.  What we are to make of this will depend on our theology concerning the reality of Jesus, and this thicket we are not going to enter in this particular posting.  Suffice it to say that Abhishiktananda, to take a crucial example, changed quite radically in his understanding of the Christ event toward the end of his life.  Some in the Church would even say that it was no longer “orthodox.”  Be that as it may, what is important is that we are continually answering that question that Jesus himself asked in the Gospels:  “Who do men say that I am?”

What is truly interesting is how the Eastern Church handles this material.  It certainly admits the language and the symbology of the Second Coming, but it almost seems to downplay the Nativity, Christmas Day.  It’s big liturgical moment is Epiphany, where you have this mythopoetic depiction of the Three Wise Men coming to be in the Presence of God in the person of this child.  “Epiphany” really means a manifestation—in fact the three feasts of Christmas, Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus are termed a Theophany: a manifestation of God.  So the Eastern Christian is invited to turn toward this manifestation of God, and in the hesychast tradition that becomes one with a turning toward the heart in which God is one with us.


Another interesting thing:  the New Testament writings are very unequal and divided over the emphasis they place on these “Comings.”  For example, Paul has significant Second Coming language but he seems not to care at all about the First Coming.  If we had only his letters, there would be no Christmas!  Among the Gospels, Mark and John both lack First Coming language and almost totally absent in Second Coming language except in a very nuanced and hidden way.  On the other hand, both Matthew and Luke have rich details in both cases.  So these accounts do vary in the emphasis they place on which “turning” is important.  This is not to say that we can pick and choose, but that there is a difference in emphasis, and a contemplative may find himself/herself more at home with John, like Abhishiktananda did.


One final point: my favorite turning: the thief nailed to the cross next to Jesus turns to him and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus replies: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”(Luke 23: 42-43)  This is perhaps the truest, most fundamental turning.  It is done by a person who has no resources, no self-image left, no “goodness,” no merit, no “good works,” no value, no status, no religious identity, no spiritual practice—except this one: he “turns.”  And he turns toward Jesus, and that is ok and not some kind of crude dualism or superficial piety.  He turns toward Jesus because in history, in time and place, we need to turn somewhere, and Jesus is given to us, the “Gift of Godness” that manifests the Presence of God within us regardless of our condition in time and place.  When we recognize that in our hearts, we can say with our Sufi friends:  Whichever way you turn, there is the Face of God.