Various Thoughts

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

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

You ask why I settled on Jade Mountain

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

the peach blossoms in the stream disappear into the distance

there’s another world beyond the world of man

                                      (translated by Red Pine)

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

Woods and springs make me smile

no kitchen smoke for miles

clouds rise up from rocky ridges

cascades tumble down

a gibbon’s howl makes the path clearer

a tiger’s roar transcends the world

pine wind sighs so softly

birds discuss singsong

I walk the winding streams

and climb the peaks alone

sometimes I sit on a boulder

or lie down and gaze at trailing vines

but when I see a distant town

all I hear is noise

            (translation by Red Pine)


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


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

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

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

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


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

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



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


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

And another one in the British paper, The Guardian: