Lets begin by remembering several marvelous stories. First, a Zen story:
“A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, (17th century Zen master) whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter’s accusation, he simply replied “Is that so?”
When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. “Is that so?” Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.
For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. “Is that so?” Hakuin said as he handed them the child.”
Then there is a longer Desert Father story about Macarius that is very similar to the above Zen story.
“At about the age of 30, he began his life of asceticism in a cell near his village. The people of the village admired his humbleness and purity and took him to the Bishop of Ashmoun who ordained Marcarius as a priest for them. Father Marcarius had not wished to become a priest. In his humility he could not refuse.
A certain young girl in the village became pregnant and accused Father Macarius of fathering her unborn child. The people without weighing the matter immediately sought him out and brought him back to the village. They beat and whipped Father Marcarius severely and hung huge black pots around his neck. He was forced to go before the village while they were mocking him and saying, “This monk seduced our daughter. Let him be hanged.” With the merciless behavior shown to him he continued in humility.
When allowed to return to his cell, he gave a young man all the mats that he had made from the work of his hands. Father Marcarius instructed the young man to “Sell these mats and give the money to MY WIFE that she may eat.” Father Macarius in thought had accepted this young woman as his wife without a single denial or bitter thought. He worked night and day making mats to send money to her.
At the time of the young girl’s delivery, she suffered many days in labor. The unbearable pain motivated the girl into telling the truth regarding Father Macarius. She related to all that she had falsely accused this priest and that he had never so much as touched her. Having not been able to deliver until she confessed, the entire village was remorseful at their judgmental actions. When Father Macarius heard that the village was on route to seek his forgiveness he fled to the place where he would live the remainder of his holy life.”
Now you may be wondering what these stories have to do with “religion” as such. Well, everything! But I readily admit that these stories are troubling or disturbingly enigmatic to many people….and seem to have very little to do with religion as they see it and engage it. And that is very unfortunate.
I remember hearing this very intelligent person say the following:
“I believe in God. I believe in science. I don’t believe in religion.”
Interesting observation. I suspect it reflects the position of quite a few intelligent people. When the word “religion” is used, it usually refers to official “organized religion.” And this reality has a bad taste for many people. Atheists will often point out how organized religion has caused so much injustice, so much suffering to so many people, that it has been used as a pretext for so much awful stuff in history. And, really, who can disagree with them? Afterall, Jesus was crucified by religious people for religious reasons…. And truly this sad phenomenon holds for all religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American religion, etc., etc. (An atheist once said this: “Jesus is like Elvis to me. I love the guy. It’s his fan clubs that freak me out.”) Then there’s also that interesting distinction many modern people make between being “spiritual” and being “religious.” So the word “religion” and the social reality it points to is truly very problematical. (And there is the issue that our modern use of the word “religion” is not quite in tune with its root meaning in ancient cultures. But that’s an issue we won’t go into.)
Let me put it very bluntly, tersely, and perhaps too provocatively: Any “religion” that does not address the phenomenon of “the self” is going to yield “rotten fruit.” And every religious teaching and activity insofar as it misleads people about the nature of this phenomenon will end up being toxic in the long run, no matter how “religiously” it is dressed up. The two stories above illustrate how two very different figures in two very different religious traditions acted in profoundly similar ways because their realization of “selfhood” was no longer a social or psychological construct. It was now the result of a true and deep realization. And their way of “being in the world” is unspeakably, unfathomably different….yet this is “being religious” or “being spiritual” ( or whatever you want to call it) in its truest sense. Without this realization, we can have all kinds of good, pious intentions, all kinds of rituals, all kinds of religious teachings, all kinds of “good works,” but our religion will be an attractive, addictive imitation of the real thing.
A few quotes from various traditions that might give you a hint of what this involves:
“But what then should they do? First of all, they should renounce themselves, and then they will have renounced all things. Truly, if someone were to renounce a kingdom or the whole world while still holding onto themselves, then they would have renounced nothing at all. And indeed, if someone renounces themselves, then whatever they might keep, whether the kingdom or honor or whatever it may be, they will still have renounced all things.”
“He meditates, he thinks he is meditating, he is pleased with the fact that he is meditating; where does that get him, apart from it all strengthening his ego.”
“Who am I?”
“Piety is perhaps the most subtle and also the surest way for the ego to escape pursuit and re-establish its status and dignity.”
“The way of the Buddha is to know yourself, to know yourself is to forget yourself, to forget yourself is to be enlightened by all things.
“The Sufi is the one who is not.”
Abu al-Hasan Kharaqani
“The thickest veils between man and God are the wise man’s wisdom, the worshipper’s worship, and the devotion of the devout.”
What do mean by “the self”? It is that which says “I,” “me,” “mine.” It is “the subject” as in subjective; it is called “the ego.” (The Sufis call it the “nafs.”) All of this flows from a sense of personhood that we all have, but each tradition has a significantly different understanding of the ultimate nature of this self. I won’t get into that now; what is more interesting is how each tradition diagnoses the problem with the self and proposes what seems like a radical “cure.”
That sense of personhood comes wrapped with a dynamic, a tendency “toward self.” Its pervasiveness makes it seem “normal,” “natural.” “You got to look out for yourself.” Its more intense manifestation we call “narcissism,” self-absorption, self-centeredness. On top of all that we have cultural, social, and psychological forces focusing on this self and its various drives toward self-hood….until our sense of personhood is dominated by a total self-referral in all we do, in all we know, in all we see, in all we value. We follow thoughts and feelings blindly, believing our self-image and the socially constructed values and realities. Lets face it, we live in a culture where all this is more than “normal.” Our economy, capitalism, is built on a deep-rooted self-interest. And whatever religion you practice in this culture will be poisoned by this dynamic, whether it be Christianity or Buddhism or whatever…. This will happen to the extent that any religion fails to critique its own inner religious life as it becomes caught up in that drive “toward self.” In my own Christianity, let me illustrate with a quote from Meister Eckhart:
“Some people want to see God with their eyes as they see a cow, and to love Him as they love a cow – for the milk and cheese and profit it brings them. This is how it is with people who love God for the sake of outward wealth or inward comfort. They do not rightly love God, when they love Him for their own advantage. ”
But there is a much deeper sense of personhood in us that is a kind of liberation from this pervasive and hypnotic hold that self-referral has on us. This self-referral becomes an anchor of personhood, as a locus of our identity, and is so deeply entrenched In our sense of who we are that any negation of this ego self is now looked upon with suspicion, especially in the modern West, and certainly in the wider secular culture. This is understandable considering the misunderstandings and distortions in the pre-Vatican II view of all this. First, consider the fundamental Christian “cure” for this congenital self-centeredness…all focused in one word: humility. Recall how this word is foundational to all Christian monasticism; how central it is in the Rule of St. Benedict and in the Desert Fathers. But here there is something sad….how badly distorted this “humility” gets in Christian spiritual history. Instead of pointing to that deep personhood which has no name and no credentials, as if “no one” was there, a profound poverty and emptiness that is repugnant and frightening to our self-centeredness, like death itself, what we often got is a call and a teaching to “grit our teeth” and stifle our selfish urges, our self-centeredness. In effect this leads to a spirituality of will-power, as if by exercising will-power we can become a truly “humble self.” What distortions of personhood this led to is a sad story. As Ramana Maharshi would put it, who is this who is stifling your self-centeredness? Why, it’s that same self! You’re merely exercising that same “muscle” and it’s getting stronger! And that can lead either to giving up and accepting that self-centeredness as your real personhood, your identity, or you ratchet up the stifling effort. The “vicious circle” begins, and it can end up in ridiculous displays of self-centeredness masked as self-sacrifice. Dostoievsky’s Father Zosima gives us the ultimate example: a person might even be willing to be crucified as long as there is a crowd there to applaud and praise the “self-sacrificer.”
The roots of authentic Christian humility, and therefore the realization of that deep self, are of course in the New Testament. The whole Sermon on the Mount for a start…but this can be totally derailed if also taken as “acts of my will.” The Sermon on the Mount is really a vision of life lived with a completely different sense of identity than that shallow self-centered “I”. Furthermore, there are those various words of Jesus that lead so many ministers, exegetes, and priests to make verbal pretzels, twisting them into some “reasonable” shape. Sayings that are paradoxes (or koans) where gain is loss and he who loves his life, loses it, and being last is being first, and so on. Nothing about these words is simple, but once you take into account the semitic mindset and semitic language matrix, you begin to see that all these sayings are intensely working counter to our usual self-centered perspective. What all these sayings point to is the fact that we have a deeper sense of personhood, a more mysterious and more profound sense of personhood than that shallow ego self. And a resultant vision of all reality that is radically different.
As I write this, Lent is approaching and Ash Wednesday is only a few days away. For those of us within the Catholic tradition, we go to Church where the priest puts a smudge of ash on your forehead and says something like “Dust you are and unto dust you will return.” (Unfortunately some priests thinking this is “too negative” use some other wording.) The most common take on these words is that they refer to our physical death and a classic reminder to “reform” one’s life…..the “memento mori” of monks. Not really wrong, but totally inadequate. The dust/ashes point to the absolute insubstantiality of what we perceive as our reality, one could even say the unreality of this “I.” Buddhism would certainly say this. Not that the phenomenon of my “I-ness” is an illusion, like a mirage, but that its “realness” is like nothingness, emptiness, compared to the Reality of God. And here we can turn to the Christian mystical tradition to even begin to sense what these words point to.
First of all, we will find that our personhood has a much deeper foundation than our psychological ego (and of course totally beyond that self-image our social life feeds us). We are invited to a self-knowledge that is much deeper and vastly more consequential than what psychology or sociology teaches us. (Someone once put it this way: “Psychologists are the fender repairmen of the spiritual world.”) So, what constitutes “personhood,” my true personhood? (In a sense this question is also: what is a human being?) Meister Eckhart, from the 14th century begins our journey:
“A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don’t know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.”
The whole Christian mystical tradition calls us to this profound self-knowledge; and in the modern era no one has articulated our depths and the real meaning of our personhood better than Abhishiktananda (Merton of the ‘60s would be a close second). What is astonishing is how theological he is considering that some people, like his compatriot Monchanin, considered him to be “lost” in Advaita Vedanta and the Upanishads. Abhishiktananda tells us that not only our deepest self but also our whole being is to be seen within the context of the Christian Trinitarian vision of the Absolute Reality.
Deep within us, within our consciousness, there is what you might call, a “placeless place,” paradoxically a “nowhere” when we ask where can we find this “place,” what some in the Tradition call, “the heart.” From the standpoint of the ego self it seems to be totally empty, total poverty and silence. This “place” is not cluttered by the usual garbage of our minds…our incessant thinking, our turbulent emotions, and our erroneous self-centeredness. This “place” is beyond our grasp to manipulate or dress-up in various self-images. But this is also the “place” where the “I am” of God is spoken, in the depths of my own “I am.” These apparently “two” “I am’s” are not really two, nor are they one and the same. This nonduality is also exemplified in these quotes from Meister Eckhart:
“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
“There is something in the soul that is so akin to God that it is one with Him… It has nothing in common with anything created.”
This is THE mystery. The reality of my “I am” is totally grounded in the absolute reality of God.
“There is only one thing that really is—the being-in-communion of the Father and the Son in the unity of the Spirit, at the heart of all Being. This is reality, “the Real of the real, satyasya satyam…. It is in this alone that everything that exists has its existence, and that human beings, …come to be, and to be themselves.”
So, what constitutes personhood? According to Abhishiktananda, it is what Jesus communicates,…”that experience of being from the Father and going to the Father.”
Again, following Abhishiktananda, when we go deep within, no place remains where we might independently pronounce our “I.” Before, we can even breathe our own “I,” the abyss has already resounded with the “I” which God addresses to himself from all eternity. In other words, the identity of every person, their selfhood, their personhood, is grounded in this Mystery of God’s Presence to Himself.
Jesus penetrated beyond his own “I” (as Jesus of Nazareth…and the various identities, titles thrown at Jesus), into the mystery of the Source, which he calls “Father”….. “I and the Father are one.”
Abhishiktananda, following St. Paul and Galatians:
“And whoever penetrates within himself to the supreme mystery, in Christ, has passed into God, from death to life, from darkness to light, ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ “ (Galatians 2).
So for the Christian it is in Christ and through Christ that he/she discovers their deepest self, their true personhood, which is at the same time their unity with the Absolute Reality, the Source of all reality, which he/she can now call “Father.” Or as Abhishiktananda put it:
“Christ is my Sadguru—my true Guru—and he makes himself the singer of the Presence of this inner Mystery which Jesus called the Father, and of the relationship to the very heart of the Mystery which Jesus called the Spirit.”
To borrow from Abhishiktananda again: One could say that our whole journey as human beings should be an absolute surrender of the peripheral ego to the inner Mystery. (Again exemplified by Jesus.)
One last thing—in all theistic mysticism this ego self is seen as a kind of obstacle or obstruction between our being and God. In one sense it really is that and can be experienced as that. Note these sentiments from one of the greatest Sufi mystics, Al-hallaj:
“Between me and Thou is an ‘I am’ which torments me. O take, by your own ‘I am,’ mine from between us.”
In the Sufi tradition “the veil” is a term for various obstructions that seem to block our realization of who we are in relation to God. And of course the ultimate obstruction is the “nafs,” the ego self. So far, so good, all familiar territory as it were. But one of the greatest Sufi mystics of the 20th century, Shaikh Ahmad Al-Alawi, pushes us Beyond:
“It is not a question of knowing God when the veil be lifted, but of knowing God in the veil itself.”
When you can say that, you won’t need any Lent! But, for the rest of us, Happy Ash Wednesday!!