Author Archives: Monksway

A Bit of History

Lets begin with India.  Vir Das is a very popular stand-up comedian from India who has been touring the US.   This is from a recent article in the Washington Post:

“The comedian from Mumbai stood onstage Friday night at the Kennedy Center with a camouflage-print shirt on his back and fire in his belly.  Before closing his sold-out show, Vir Das told his Washington audience he needed to talk about his homeland. He didn’t come from one India, Das said, but two Indias, seemingly at odds.  Today’s India is a country that is proudly vegetarian yet oppresses protesting farmers, Das said. It’s a country that worships women but grapples with horrific rape cases. It’s a country brimming with a huge, young population but is led by septuagenarian leaders with outdated ideas.” ( He could have also added, a country that espouses a religious view of reality but also allows one group to call for the extermination of Muslims!)

When this appeared online the response in India was just as expected: outrage and applause.  There were calls for censorship, for muzzling him, even for prosecution.  Not surprising considering the restrictions on free speech that the current government is bringing about or its denial of some of its real problems.  (The US State Dept. issued a travel advisory warning travelers to India that rape has alarmingly increased in India.)  But none of this is the point of this reflection.  I am more interested in the level of awareness of this young Indian, the fact that he understands, at least in part,  the “two” situation.  This can be and has been trivialized by saying that, yes, every culture has some good and some bad in it.  The situation is more complex and more interesting and more problematic than that.  All cultures, all countries, all religions live in a kind of dualism of vision.  There’s the story they tell themselves about their strengths and virtues, their truths, their contributions to the human condition; and then there is another story which is really not told, which holds a nightmare of darkness and chaos and confusion and violence, which we grapple with but try to pretend that it is not really an integral part of our fabric.  In other words, our children do not learn our real history, do not learn what were “the sins of the fathers” and therefore they are cut off from redeeming that past from its delusions and darkness. Thus they become vulnerable to the sloganeering of MAGA, to the fantasy vision of early America, to the arrogance of power, to a delusional sense of what constitutes the “good life” for an American, etc.  To put it in Vir Das’s terms:  we all live in two Americas, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not.  And each is as real as the other, and it has been that way since the beginning!

Lets recall Norman Rockwell, the illustrator.  He became famous for his “sweet,” heart-warming depictions of life in small-town America….of course almost all white with a few Black people in ambiguous roles.  These drawings appeared as the front page of each issue of the magazine Saturday Evening Post.  When the Civil Rights era unfolded in the ‘60s, he wanted to include Blacks in a fuller way in his portrayals.  The Post would not allow it unless Blacks were shown in a subservient position.  He refused and left.  When he joined Look magazine, his first drawing showed a little Black girl being escorted to school through an angry crowd by a U.S. Marshall.  So…Rockwell had visited both Americas.  The really sad part and the really alarming part is that the majority of Americans seem not to want to know the “other America.”  And this “other America” pervades the whole culture until it is seen for what it is and confronted with the truth.

Two years ago, 2019, the NY Times published The 1619 Project, a collection of essays by some historians and other scholars, to memorialize the 500 year anniversary of the arrival of the first ship bringing African slaves to the New World.  But this was far more than some “remembrance”; it examined and highlighted the impact of slavery, the pervasive effects of slavery throughout our culture and economy, how it shaped the racism that infects our institutions and our collective lives even today.  A lot of this kind of analysis has not been taught widely in the history classes of our schools.  Certainly not in the American history class I had in my high school!  And, significantly enough, teachers today who have tried to use some of this material in their classes have run into heated opposition from parents’ groups and others.  Yes, some of the claims made in The Project might be overstated; and yes this material is not really for grade school members; but overall The Project is a bullseye, and can be wisely used in high school history.  When properly used it could help everyone, students and parents, come to terms with who “I” am, who “we” are, and how do we journey as a culture and a society from “here” to “there.”  Sadly many parents want to live only in a fantasy myth of America.  (I won’t go into it here, but it is also interesting to see the academic and elite feathers that were ruffled by The Project.  Don’t think that the “American fairy tale” dominates only MAGA lower classes.)

You might think that slavery and American capitalism have nothing to do with each other.  You won’t learn much about this from the standard history books used in high schools and colleges.  See if this essay doesn’t open a disturbing door:

Then, there’s the infamous 2nd Amendment of the Constitution, the one which all gun lovers in America swear by.  There are a number of reasons why this constitutional bow to gun-toting citizens was inserted.  Among them, two were connected to the institution of slavery.  Several slave-holding states wanted this provision in the constitution to legitimize the arming of civilians who went hunting for runaway slaves…even to the “free” states.  Also, unspoken, but very real was the fear among slave owners of slave rebellions and the physical danger they posed.  You needed guns to protect yourself from retaliation!  Even today there’s quite a few whites who have this subconscious fear of Black people buried deep within them.  

I bet you never heard of “sundown towns” (sometimes also known as “sunset towns”).  I certainly did not hear of these until very recently.  These were prevalent in the South, but they were also abundantly available in the Midwest and could also be found in significant numbers everywhere else.  A “sundown town” was one where people of color were either explicitly told not to be out on the street after sunset, or there was a general understanding that it was not wise for them to be out at that time.  Here is the wiki page on this phenomenon; read and be shocked:

Lets not forget our Native American brothers and sisters.  Most of us have some sense of the physical trauma that Native Americans experienced from White America right from the get go, from colonial times all the way to the beginning of the 20th Century.  Even so, when you become informed of the details you will still be shocked.  But few of us have any real grasp of the psychological and cultural genocide experienced by Native Americans.  Consider the story below:

And I bet you never heard this story in your history class:

D. H. Lawrence, the famous British writer, lived for a number of years in Taos, New Mexico.  He was a keen observer of American mythologies and a sharp interpreter of their meaning.  Once, in writing about the frontier myths created by James Fenimore Cooper, he opined:

“But you have there the myth of the essential white America.  All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play.  The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.  It has never yet melted.”

“Land of the Free, Home of the Brave!”  Right?

Admittedly a partial truth here, a grain of truth  here…..but unless the “other part” is admitted, brought out into the light, not for browbeating people but for an authentic and collective healing (recall the scripture readings for Ash Wed. and Lent), unless we really see how we got “here,”  we will continue deteriorating spiritually, socially, economically.  To borrow from Jesus, if the “darkness” is our light, then we truly live in the Dark.

Purity of Heart: A Few Thoughts

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).  Of all the incredibly enigmatic, mysterious, seemingly impossible statements in the so-called Sermon on the Mount, this one is the “most” everything!  We are so used to hearing these words in church services and homilies that we are mostly numb to the mystery, even the shock value of ALL  the mysterious, paradoxical,  statements of the Sermon.  And, sadly, often what preachers and spiritual writers have to say does not help at all.  As if the purpose of religious discourse is to “take the air” out of the Mystery.  Let’s ponder this fragment of the Sermon a bit.

What in the world does “purity of heart” mean anyway?  Too often this has focused narrowly on one’s sexual integrity.  Or just keeping “bad thoughts” out whatever they might be.  The Christian tradition, as a whole, is a mixed bag in this regard.  We find bits and pieces of deep insight that at least point us in the right direction, but also we find so much of impoverished spirituality.   Then there is the other half of the statement:  how in the world can anyone “see” God?  This one is a real mind-bender!   Whatever this word “see” means in this context, it cannot be “see” in our usual sense.  God is not an object out there among the world of objects in front of our eyes.  We are not in a subject-object relationship to God.  Also, it should not be reduced to some metaphorical status as it often has been in Christianity.  Now think of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, the context for the Gospel.  We are told that no one can “see God and live”(Exodus 33:20).  Also consider this pericope from the Gospel of John (14:8-9):

 “Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father,* and that will be enough for us.”d

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?e

One implication of these words is a confirmation of the Old Testament understanding that one cannot “see” God directly….you can see God’s “glory”….you can “see His ‘back’” (Exodus 33:23)….you can encounter the Mystery of God in those mysterious angelic encounters of the Bible…., so by “seeing” Jesus we can “see” the Father so to speak, the Absolute Mystery of God, another kind of “indirect” seeing but one that opens for us otherwise unfathomable depths.  But maybe “purity of heart” is even needed to truly “see” Jesus.   A lot could be said here, but I would like to push on in another way.  However, there is one question  that is very important which I will leave unanswered.  Do Jesus’s words here refer to the historical Jesus or to the Risen Christ?

Words from Thomas Merton:

“No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything  that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.  These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests.  But what can the wind say where there is no hearer?  There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer.  That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.”

Words from an Introduction to a Japanese translation of Thoughts in Solitude.  In my opinion, this Introduction may be one of the most beautiful and deepest reflections in Merton’s writings, and it certainly shows Zen’s influence on him.  In any case, we might want to say the same thing about “purity of heart” and leave it at that.  “Purity of heart” is not just a cipher for a bushel of virtues or a pretext for moral legalism or even the result of spiritual methods and practices.   Rather, however we want to explain purity of heart, it is what opens us to an intimate awareness of the Mystery of God…and so we ‘begin to see” God.  And here silence is best.   On the other hand, a bit of verbal-reflection might still be helpful in pointing us in the right direction.   We shall explore some aspects of  purity of heart through a three-pronged approach.

The first will be Scriptural.  The expression, “purity of heart,” or some variant of it, can be found in both old and modern works of spirituality, especially contemplative spirituality.   We can see it being used even in interreligious dialogue with folks trying to equate that expression with some expression from another tradition.  We’ll come back to that later.  But for now  we cannot get a sense of what this “purity of heart” is by ignoring its scriptural roots.  When I was in the seminary and we had our scripture class, it was interesting to discover how Jesus was presented differently in each of the Gospels, so you could see in each Gospel, and sometimes in various parts of each Gospel, something different and new about who Jesus was and what he was about.  The Sermon on the Mount is one of those moments.  And it is very interesting why this moment is totally absent from Mark and John and very differently presented in Luke; but we will stay with Matthew’s famous version.  Jesus, it is said, goes “up a mountain” and begins to teach the people.  He is presented as the “New Moses” establishing a “New Law.”   Moses came down from the “mountain of the encounter” with the Ten Commandments, which then delineated all of Israel’s relationships, both horizontal and vertical.  Jesus now opens up for us something new and radically different.  From Matthew 5 through Matthew 6 there is a collection of separate statements of truly enormous consequence.  Yes, the statements could be lined up as a series of “laws,” but they are not of that character. (They are also not what one wit called them, “suggestions or guidelines.”)   You have very little of “do not do this,” but rather much more of “do this.”  Take all the statements as a whole rather than isolate each one to figure out what it is saying; and you begin to sense that a whole new way of life, a whole new identity, a whole new level of awareness is  opened up for us.  And it seems that this is, to borrow a Buddhist expression, our “original face,” “our original nature.”

So my first proposal is to consider  the sayings as a whole; and how their revelatory function, all together, point at a radically new reality which is at the same time the oldest reality.  “Blessed are pure in heart” contains whatever else all the other expressions say; and all the other expressions contain, imply, and  exhibit whatever it is that “purity of heart” means.

For the second prong let’s look at the Desert Fathers, the origins of Christian monasticism.  These folks definitely took the Sermon on the Mount as more than just “suggestions or guidelines”!  But first we need to make a distinction between Cassian (and Evagrius) and the grand old monks, especially of that 1st generation.  Among the latter there was hardly a mention of “purity of heart” in direct terms; but for Cassian “purity of heart” was the foundation for his monastic spirituality.  (By the way, it’s interesting to see how someone like Meister Eckhart, by contrast, takes “poverty of spirit”  from the Sermon as the linchpin for developing his mystical spirituality).  In his Conferences, a classic of monastic spirituality, Cassian systematizes what in fact is more mysterious and much more vast in scope.  So he says that the ultimate goal of all monks is the “kingdom of God,” but the immediate goal and the means by which one “gets there” is “purity of heart.” And purity of heart is associated with what today we would call contemplative prayer, and finally it leads to agape, that totally selfless love.   I was taught this when I was a novice, and this sounds reasonable and it is basically ok.  But I found it a bit too pat and structured, like Cassian was trying to coral and tame something much more dynamic and wild and mysterious.  When you start out on the spiritual journey, the “scaffolding” of structures and systems and methods may be a real good, but as you go on you may discover yourself without any “ladder” underneath you!  Incidentally, that is one of the values of engaging the Old Testament:  the encounter with God is never the result of some method or system or “school of spirituality.”  It is good to have a home, but then there is the moment when you find yourself truly “homeless” no matter where you are, and that holy ground might not look like what the books described.

In any case, Cassian supposedly presents the teachings of the grand old monks of Scete; it’s as if he and we are listening to them as they teach.  That’s an effective literary technique, but it doesn’t mesh with the actual sayings and stories from the Alphabetical Collection, for example (translated by Benedicta Ward).  As Merton mentions more than once, the actual sayings for the most part are simple, humble, concrete, existential examples of a certain kind of struggle and journey, not a presentation of a system, and definitely no attempt to “map out” purity of heart.  (By the way, later writers like Palladius, really get carried away at times with fascination for the “odd.”)

Now Evagrius is not quite the systematizer that Cassian is.  He is a true intellectual, well-educated in the Platonic tradition, who has ardently taken up the desert life of the first monks.  He makes some important contributions in the early development of the Christian contemplative prayer tradition.  What Evagrius does is connect purity of heart with Platonic/Stoic apatheia….our word “apathy” comes from it, and sometimes apatheia gets translated as “indifference,” without feeling, etc.  That is a mistake.  Apatheia really means a kind of integration of all our faculties to be working in a harmonious way.  Evagrius pushes this into the depths of our minds and consciousness in the pursuit of what he terms, “pure prayer.”  Once you are no longer driven by chaotic thoughts and feelings, you are laying the foundation for pure prayer; and for Evagrius this is somehow what purity of heart is all about.  Not bad, in fact quite good but very inadequate for getting a fuller sense of what purity of heart is as it impacts all levels of human existence.  And just as with Cassian, the actual sayings and stories of the grand old monks seem to have a different feel and a different optic.

So, let me make two proposals at this point:  First of all, I propose that we do not look for a “definition” or a “map” or some schematic explaining what purity of heart is/means for these pioneers of Christian monastic/contemplative life.  Rather, among the grand old monks, especially of that 1st generation, what you get in most of their sayings (certainly not all) are what I would call “markers” or “signposts,” or, to change metaphors, a “fragrant scent” indicating the presence of something transcending the boundaries of what we usually call “life.”

Consider this story:

“Three brothers were in the habit of going to see the blessed Anthony every year. The first two would ask him questions about their thoughts and the salvation of the soul. But the third would keep silence without asking anything. Eventually Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You have been coming here to see me for a long time now and you never ask me any questions.’ The other replied, ‘One thing is enough for me, Father… to see you.’”

This beautiful story is at the same time one of those “markers” of the presence of purity of heart but without naming it or explaining it.  Also it illustrates how someone encounters that reality—not in words, a system of spirituality, etc.—but in a very concrete person.  No words, no explanations are then needed.  And this story is also very important and very exceptional in that it comes from a subculture that pulsates with the expression, “Give me a word, Abba, that I may live, that I may be saved….”  In other words, give me, in my existential predicament, my now need, that particular path for me that leads to…and this expression is never explicitly used…that leads to purity of heart.  Here this third brother no longer needs that word or any words….here is a person already well on the way….  In Anthony he finds his affirmation.  As that old pop saying goes: it takes like to know like.

And here consider this story, quite the opposite of the above, the marker here is for absence of purity of heart:

“The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, ‘You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers.’”

This story illustrates quite well that these early desert monks understood the nature of a “counterfeit spirituality” and its consequences.  What it doesn’t show and which is illustrated in some other stories is the moment of awakening when the monk realizes the false ground of his spirituality and then begins the journey from the unreal to the Real.  And this brings us to the second proposal.

The second proposal I would like to make is more difficult to express, but it goes like this:  Lets not look at purity of heart as a “something you possess,” a state of mind or heart, a state of being, a condition, etc.  Rather, it is more like a dynamic process, a journey….   To borrow from the Upanishads, purity of heart is really the journey from the unreal to the Real, it is the very dynamism of this journey, involving the whole complex of human life, mind, heart, body, emotions, desires,….  And purity of heart in this sense is not restricted to being a monk; rather it characterizes the most fundamental call of every human being.  

However, it also touches most intimately the monastic identity.  Recall those amazing words of the great Macarius:  “I am not yet a monk, but I have seen monks.”  You are not yet a monk; you are always becoming a monk.  You are engaged in an incredible process of which you could never foresee its true dimensions.  Becoming a monk means that you declare yourself formally and openly to wanting to give yourself totally to this journey.  (I only wish that in our formal monastic institutions when a young person is professing to be a monk, they would ceremonially tell him/her, “you are not yet a monk, but you are becoming one.”  It is not a status  or a state of life but a journey with a particular external modality.)

To see the seriousness and depths of this process/journey let us refer to Gregory of Nyssa.  Gregory emphasized the infinity of God.   Just think what this means.  For Gregory this infinitude means that a limited being, a created being, can never reach a grasp or understanding of God.  For Gregory, however, this is the whole point of existence, our life, and the “afterlife”—from the very beginning and for all eternity we have this constant progression, an ἐπέκτασις in Greek (epektasis), toward a knowledge and vision of the infinite God.  We will for all eternity increase in our knowledge of God, in this movement “into God.”  And this means for all eternity our joy, our happiness, our bliss, our fulfillment will be increasing.  But this journey/process starts right here and right now, and we can call it purity of heart.  We find hints of all this in the New Testament, as in 1 John 3:2:

“Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”

And another hint of this even from an old work by Jean Danielou:

“There is at once for the soul an aspect of stability and possession, which is her participation in God, and an aspect of movement, which is the ever infinite gap between what she possesses of God and what He is…Spiritual life is thus an everlasting transformation of the soul in Christ Jesus in the form of a growing ardour, thirst for God growing as participation in Him increases, which is accompanied by a growing stability, the soul becoming simple, and fixed ever more firmly in God. J. Danielou: Platonisme et theologie mystique, Paris, 1944, pp. 305-307.

Returning to the Sayings of the Desert Monks, my proposal is, then, that many of the sayings are markers or signposts of this  incredible process/journey; and if we want to get a sense of what purity of heart entails, it would help to ponder these sayings in a way that doesn’t make of them simplistic or moralistic or superficial exhortations.  Consider a few of the sayings/stories: 

“Two hermits lived together for many years without a quarrel. One said to the other, ‘Let’s have a quarrel with each other, as is the way of men.’ The other answered, ‘I don’t know how a quarrel happens.’ The first said, ‘Look here, I put a brick between us, and I say, That’s mine. Then you say, No, it’s mine. That is how you begin a quarrel.’ So they put a brick between them, and one of them said, ‘That’s mine.’ The other said, ‘No; it’s mine.’ He answered, ‘Yes, it’s yours. Take it away.’ They were unable to argue with each other.”

“The devil appeared to a monk disguised as an angel of light, and said to him, ‘I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you.’ But the monk said, ‘Are you sure you weren’t sent to someone else? I am not worthy to have an angel sent to me.’ At that the devil vanished.”

[This monk has “no credentials,” a “no-monk” in Zen terms.]

“One day Abba John the Dwarf was sitting down in Scetis, and the brethren came to him to ask him about their thoughts. One of the elders said, ‘John, you are like a courtesan who shows her beauty to increase the number of her lovers.’ Abba John kissed him and said, ‘You are quite right, Father.’ One of his disciples said to him, ‘Do you not mind that in your heart?’ But he said, ‘No, I am the same inside as I am outside.’ “

“Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this; ‘I find myself in peace, without an enemy,’ he said. The old man said to him, ‘Go beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.’ So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, ‘Lord, give me strength for the fight.”

[An interesting story which first of all shows a monk recovering from a counterfeit spirituality (what some in this case might call apatheia!).  More importantly, if you don’t get thrown by the “war, struggle” language, you will notice that he moves from a static position, having this “possession” of a credential, “peace,” to a true engagement with his condition so that he can make “progress.”  The essence of a spiritual life is not something static, least of all an “identity,” but more like a journey; and at times it can get very difficult.]

“Abba Lot came one day to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Father, I keep my little rule to the best of my ability. I observe my modest fast and my contemplative silence. I say my prayers and do my meditation. I endeavour as far as I can to drive useless thoughts out of my heart. What more can I do?’  The elder rose to answer and lifted his hands to heaven. His fingers looked like lighted candles and he said, ‘Why not become wholly fire?’”

[An incredibly marvelous story!  So much could be said here, but I will refrain!]

Now we will move to the third prong of our reflection: the interreligious context.  Here you might think there is nothing for us; after all we are dealing with a scriptural term from the Christian tradition.  Partially that may be correct.  It would be a mistake to simply equate “purity of heart” with something in Buddhism or Taoism that looks similar.  On the level of language and concepts there are many possibilities for a spiritual mirage—things seem to be there when they are not really there.  A lot of good people have been fooled this way by being too hasty and overeager to reach out to another tradition.  Merton admitted making this mistake in his dialogue with D.T. Suzuki.  This is from Zen and the Birds of Appetite:

“At this point I may take occasion to say clearly that, in my dialog with Dr, Suzuki, my choice of Cassian’s “purity of heart” as a Christian expression of Zen-consciousness was an unfortunate example.  No doubt there are passages in Cassian and Evagrius…which suggest some tendency toward the “emptiness” of Zen.  But Cassian’s idea of “purity of heart,”…while it may or may not be mystical, is not yet Zen because it still maintains that the supreme consciousness resides in a distinct heart which is pure and which is therefore ready and even worthy to receive a vision of God.  It is still very aware of a “pure,” distinct  and separate self-consciosness.”

(Incidentally, this means that Cassian’s purity of heart is not compatible with a nondualistic spirituality.)

However, given such cautions, we may still find some of the previously mentioned “markers” for what is purity of heart when it begins to be grasped in its depths and in its mystery.  My basic premise is that purity of heart is not just for the Christian monk, but it is an essential dynamic for every human being.  To steal from Cassian:  the immediate goal of being human is purity of heart!  (But understood in a much deeper way.)

Consider Gandhi.  Consider this story about him:

One day a mother brought her young boy to Gandhi’s ashram.  When she met him she asked Gandhi, “Please tell my son not to eat sugar.  It’s not good for him.”  Gandhi looked at them, and then told her, “Come back tomorrow and bring the boy.”  When she came back the next day, Gandhi told the boy not to eat sugar.  The perplexed mother asked him, “Why didn’t you just say that yesterday?”  Gandhi said, “Yesterday I was eating sugar myself!  Today I stopped.”

Gandhi was trying to be “the same inside and outside” like Abba John the Dwarf.  There were truly many moments in Gandhi’s life that illustrated markers for purity of heart, but there is one word that encapsulates everything Gandhi was about and how he, as a modern person, showed a human being fully engaged in that process which can be called purity of heart and that word is:  satyagraha.  It is often translated as “nonviolence,” but literally means “holding on to truth.”  You will not find one clearer marker of purity of heart, not even among the grand old desert monks, than in the practice of nonviolence when it is authentically a defining part of someone’s life.

Then there are the great Zen masters.  A lovely way to end our reflection on purity of heart is with two Zen storys.  The first is about the great Japanese Rinzai master, Hakuin:

“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, the 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.”

[Two comments:  There is a very similar story from the Desert Fathers concerning Abba Macarius.  Secondly, I saw some people’s comments about this story and it was pretty sad.]

The next Zen story is from ancient China:

“A monk once asked Master Chao Chou, ‘Who is Chao Chou?’  Chao Chou replied: ‘East Gate, West Gate, South Gate, North Gate.’”

Commentary by the Japanese philosopher of religion, Toshihiko Izutsu.

“That is to say, Chao Chou is completely open.  All the gates of the city are open, and nothing is concealed.  Chao Chou stands right in the middle of the City, i.e., the middle of the Universe.  One can come to see him from any and every direction.  The Gates that have once been artificially established to separate the ‘interior’ from the‘exterior’ are now wide open.  There is no ‘interior.’  There is no ‘exterior.’  There is just Chao Chou, and he is all-transparent.”



Last Thoughts on 9/11…Social and Religious Considerations

Now that the anniversary is over I feel the need to put a few thoughts “down on paper.”  I remember vividly getting up in the morning to go to work and turning on the TV and seeing the unfolding tragedy.  What an unspeakable horror it must have been to the people on the scene and to the first responders.  And so many lives so randomly cut short.  But I also remember thinking to myself “this is going to be really bad,” referring not so much to the destruction here and now but to our response which turned into a decades long nightmare.  

This is not quite how our mass media looked at it during the recent memorialization.  Not how our social, political, or religious leaders looked at it.  Instead we had this orgy of self-pity and self-adulation, illusions of how unified and how strong we are as Americans.  The speeches were mostly a parade of national pride, with the echoes of that chant, USA, USA, USA, USA, as the pall bearers of the tragically taken lives.  

I like The Onion; I like its biting humor and sharp satire.  Often it seems more on target than our great newspapers and all the pundits on TV.  But for sure I thought that they would never touch the 9/11 anniversary.  Boy was I wrong!  They hit it with a ton of bricks.  Only Chris Hedges could have done anything like this.  Here is the headline:

Americans Fondly Recall 9/11 As Last Time Nation Could Unite In Bloodlust

And here is the link to the story:

But the story is so cogent that I will quote more fully:

“WASHINGTON—As they reminisced 20 years later about a devastating and historic national tragedy, Americans reportedly took note Saturday of how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were the last time the country was able to put aside its differences and stand united in a bloody, homicidal thirst for vengeance. “Nowadays, there’s political polarization everywhere you look, but back then, we found a shared sense of purpose and agreed to just kill, kill, kill,” said Cleveland native Lewis Romano, one of the millions of U.S. citizens who waxed nostalgic for the days following 9/11, when Americans from all walks of life coalesced around common demands for widespread death, carnage, and destruction in a faraway place that most of them would never visit. “After those towers fell, it didn’t matter if you were from a blue state or a red state, because we all wanted the same thing—blood—and we wanted it immediately. So we came together, and in a single voice we told the world: We’re gonna drop tens of thousands of bombs on Afghanistan and ask questions later. There wasn’t any hand-wringing about whether we might fuck everything up and make it far, far worse. Republicans and Democrats simply locked arms, pulled the trigger, and let the bodies fall where they may. We were truly one then. It was a beautiful thing.” Asked to point to a map and identify any of the 85 countries to which U.S. counterterrorism operations have since spread, the American populace demurred.”

The Onion hits a bullseye!

Now you may ask, what was the response of religious leaders at 9/11 and its aftermath?   I am afraid that for most, including my Catholic Pope, the response was composed of the expected sentiments, benevolent platitudes, and very little about HOW we should respond.  No so with one religious leader: the Dalai Lama.  He was incredible (and very prescient, considering what happened in the following years).   This statement is so good and so important that I will quote it fully:

“The 11th September attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were deeply shocking and very sad. I regard such terrible destructive actions as acts of hatred, for violence is the result of destructive emotions. Events of this kind make clear that if we allow our human intelligence to be guided and controlled by negative emotions like hatred, the consequences are disastrous.

Taking Action
How to respond to such an attack is a very difficult question. Of course, those who are dealing with the problem may know better, but I feel that careful consideration is necessary and that it is appropriate to respond to an act of violence by employing the principles of nonviolence. This is of great importance. The attacks on USA were shocking, but retaliation by going to war may not be the best solution in the long run. Ultimately only nonviolence can contain terrorism. Problems within human society should be solved in a humanitarian way, for which nonviolence provides the proper approach.

I am not an expert in these affairs, but I am quite sure that if problems can be discussed with a calm mind, applying nonviolent principles and keeping in view the long-term safety of the world, then a number of different solutions may be found. Of course, in particular instances a more aggressive approach may also be necessary.

Terrorism cannot be overcome by the use of force because it does not address the complex underlying problems. In fact the use of force may not only fail to solve the problems, it may exacerbate them and frequently leaves destruction and suffering in its wake. Human conflicts should be resolved with compassion. The key is non-violence.

Retaliatory military action by the United States may bring some  satisfaction and short-term results but it will not root out the problem of terrorism. Long-term measures need to be taken. The US must examine the factors that breed and give rise to terrorism. I have written to President Bush urging him to exercise restraint and not to seek a brutal revenge for the 11th September attacks. I expressed my sympathy but I suggested that responding to violence with more violence might not be the answer. I would also like to point out that to talk of nonviolence when things are going smoothly is not of much relevance. It is precisely when things become really difficult, urgent and critical that we should think and act nonviolently.

At times the intervention of private individuals or non-governmental organizations can prove very effective in resolving certain kinds of conflicts in the world.  Therefore one of the things I suggested to several members of the European Parliament during my recent visit was that, perhaps under the auspices of the European Parliament, a meeting could be arranged of private individuals, people who are concerned about peace in the world, and related non-governmental organisations to discuss how the problem of terrorism can be dealt with and overcome. It would be useful to include people who are considered terrorists or who are seen as supporting terrorism, so that we can learn why they are resorting to or encouraging terrorism. It is possible that some of their grievances are valid. In such cases we need to address them. But where they have no valid grievances or reasons, the true situation should be clarified in order to remove misunderstanding and baseless suspicion.

Human conflicts do not arise out of the blue. They occur as a result of causes and conditions, many of which are within the protagonists’ control. This is where leadership is important. It is our leaders’ responsibility to decide when to act and when to practise restraint. In the case of conflict it is important to exercise restraint before the situation gets out of hand. Once the causes and conditions which lead to violent clashes have ripened, it is very difficult to restore peace. Violence undoubtedly breeds more violence. If we instinctively retaliate when violence is done to us, what can we expect other than that our opponent will also feel justified to retaliate in turn? This is how violence escalates. Preventive measures and restraint must be observed at an earlier stage. Clearly leaders need to be alert, far-sighted and decisive.

Everyone wishes to live in peace, but we are often confused about how that can be achieved. Mahatma Gandhi pointed out that because violence inevitably leads to more violence, if we are seriously interested in peace, we must seek to achieve it through peaceful and non-violent means. We may be tempted to use force because it will be seen as a decisive response, but it is really only a last resort. For one thing, violence is unpredictable. The initial intention may be to use limited force, but violence gives rise to unforeseen consequences. Generally speaking, violence is the wrong method in this modern era. If, on the other hand, humanity were to use more farsighted and more comprehensive methods, then I think many of the problems we face could be resolved quite quickly.

We must continue to develop a wider perspective, to think rationally and work to avert future disasters in a nonviolent way. These issues concern the whole of humanity, not just one country. We should explore the use of nonviolence as a long-term measure to control terrorism of every kind. But we need a well-thought-out, coordinated long-term strategy. The proper way of resolving differences is through dialogue, compromise and negotiations, through human understanding and humility. We need to appreciate that genuine peace comes about through mutual understanding, respect and trust. As I have already said, human problems should be solved in a humanitarian way, and nonviolence is the humane approach.

In this context, to punish an entire country for the misdeeds of an enemy who cannot be found may prove to be futile. Dealing with such situations as we face now requires a broader perspective. On the one hand we cannot simply identify a few individuals and put the entire blame on them, but neither can we target an entire country, for inevitably the innocent will suffer just as they did in the USA on 11th September.

Regarding those who carried the attack
Those who carried out the violent acts of 11th September were also human beings.  If something similar had happened to their family and friends, presumably they, too, would have experienced pain and suffering. And as human beings they would naturally have had a desire to avoid that suffering. Therefore, we need to try to understand what motivated them to behave the way they did, if we are to avoid some future repetition of these awful events. I feel that the hatred and destructive emotions underlying the attacks of 11th September have been completely counterproductive for the cause, whatever it might be, espoused by the attackers.

The world in which we live today is no longer as simple as it once was. It is complex and all its constituent parts are interrelated. We must recognize this and understand that in order to solve a problem completely we must act in accordance with reality. For example, as the global economy evolves, every nation becomes to a greater or lesser extent dependent on every other nation. The modern economy, like the environment, knows no boundaries. Even those countries openly hostile to one another must cooperate in their use of the world’s resources. Often, for example, they will be dependent on the same rivers. And the more interdependent our economic relationships, the more interdependent must our political relationships become.

When we neglect whole sections of humanity, we ignore not only the interdependent nature of reality but also the reality of our situation. In the modern world the interests of any particular community can no longer be considered only within the confines of its own boundaries. This is something I try to share with other people wherever I go. The dreadful events of 11th September have filled people throughout the world with a revulsion for terrorism, whatever its aims. Therefore, what happened has actually undermined what the terrorists hoped to achieve.

What can we learn from this tragic event?
This tragic occurrence provides us with a very good opportunity. There is a worldwide will to oppose terrorism. We can use this consensus to implement long-term preventive measures. This will ultimately be much more effective than taking dramatic and violent steps based on anger and other destructive emotions. The temptation to respond with violence is understandable but a more cautious approach will be more fruitful.

The source of such violence
Generations of suffering and grievances have provoked this violence. As a Buddhist I believe that there are causes and conditions behind every event. Some of these causes may be of recent origin but others are decades or centuries old. These include colonialism, exploitation of natural resources by developed countries, discrimination, suspicion and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Years of negligence and indifference to poverty and oppression may be among the causes for this upsurge in terrorism. What is clear is that the shocking, sad and horrific terrorist attacks in the USA were the culmination of many factors.

Who are these terrorists?
It is a mistake to refer to Muslim terrorists. I believe no religion endorses terrorism. The essence of all major religions is compassion, forgiveness, self-discipline, brotherhood and charity. All religions have the potential to strengthen human values and to develop general harmony. But individuals twist religious beliefs for their own ends. There are people who use religion as a cover to achieve their vested interests, so it would be wrong to blame their particular religion. Religious divisions have lately become dangerous once more, and yet pluralism, under which everybody is free to practise his or her own faith, is part of the fabric of contemporary society. Buddhism may be good for me, but I cannot insist that it will also be good for you or anybody else.

To the American people
America is a democratic country. It really is a peaceful and open society, in which individuals have the maximum opportunity to develop their human creativity and potential. After these dreadful incidents we saw the willingness with which Americans, especially New Yorkers, worked to help each other. It is vital to maintain this high morale – this American spirit. I hope that people will keep their spirits up and, taking a broader perspective, calmly judge how best to act.

My own wish and prayer is for everyone to remain calm. These negative events are the result of hatred, short-sightedness, jealousy and, in some cases, years of brainwashing. I personally cannot understand people who hijack an entire plane with its passengers to carry out such destruction. It is quite unthinkable. But these were not acts of spontaneous negative emotion. They were the result of careful planning, which only makes them more terrible. This is another example of how our sophisticated human intelligence and the sophisticated technology we have produced can lead to disastrous results. My fundamental belief is that unhappy events are brought about by negative emotions. Ultimately the answer to whether we can create a more peaceful world lies in our motivation and in the  kind of emotions and attitudes we foster in ourselves.

I am sure everybody agrees that we need to overcome violence, but if we are to eliminate it completely, we must first analyse whether or not it has any value. From a strictly practical perspective, we find that on occasions violence indeed appears useful. We can solve a problem quickly with force. However, such success is often at the expense of the rights and welfare of others. As a result, even though one problem has been solved, the seed of another has been sown.

On the other hand, if your cause is supported by sound reasoning, there is no point in using violence. It is those who have no motive other than selfish desire and who cannot achieve their goal through logical reasoning who rely on force. Even when family and friends disagree, those with valid reasons can state them one after another and argue their case point by point, whereas those with little rational support soon fall prey to anger. Thus anger is not a sign of strength but of weakness.

Ultimately, it is important to examine our own motivation and that of our opponent. There are many kinds of violence and nonviolence, but we cannot distinguish them through external factors alone. If our motivation is negative, the action it produces is, in the deepest sense, violent, even though it may appear to be deceptively gentle. Conversely, if our motivation is sincere and positive but the circumstances require harsh behaviour, essentially we are practising nonviolence. No matter what the case may be, I feel that a compassionate concern for the well-being of others – not simply for oneself – is the sole justification for the use of force.”

Nothing more needs to be said.  Nobody has delineated a vision of a true response better.

To Tech or Not to Tech:  That Is An Important Question

First, before we get to the topic at hand, my apologies for the misuse of language…turning  a “slangy” noun into a “slangy” verb….just can’t help myself!  Secondly, a prefatory word about the so-called contemplative life.  In Catholic culture, especially pre-Vatican II, but even afterwards to this very day, contemplative life is too often seen as simply another “layer” of life on top of all the other layers as it were.  It was something “you did” in addition to all the other things you do.  So you had all these articles, pamphlets, books on the topic of “contemplation and ……..”  There is no “and” in true contemplation.  It is Life lived in a particularly deep way, with a certain vision of the whole of Reality, and an awareness that transcends what’s in front of your nose!  Merton and Abhishiktananda, among others, pointed this out time and again.  Abhishiktananda once wrote to a housewife who had written to him that she could be more of a contemplative than a “professional monk.”  It was a matter of a certain state of heart and mind.

Now for two interesting stories:

First, very recently there appeared a piece in SF Gate with the following title:

“How saying ‘yes’ to tech devices saved one Bay Area family’s Yosemite vacation”

Written by Matt Villano, it describes how he as a father observed his young daughters enjoying their yearly stay at Yosemite in a new way.  Here is the link to the full story:

Villano takes his family camping to Yosemite every year.  He is obviously a good father, an intelligent and sensitive man, and someone who has some appreciation for the wilderness.  On this trip he senses a new problem.  His youngsters have, during the pandemic, become very attached and proficient in smart phones, social media, and the whole internet thing.  Now they want to bring this to the wilderness.  He writes, referencing John Muir:

“How else would the conservation icon, travel writer, and poster child for the Sierra have reacted to the way my three daughters leaned into technology during our most recent visit to Yosemite National Park? What would he have said about my kiddos making TikTok-style videos amid the big trees?

Muir, a Scottish immigrant,…. wrote his wife that at Yosemite, ‘only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.’ My kids — ages 12, 9 and 5 — took a markedly different approach, bringing an iPad, a Kindle Fire and an iPod Touch to document, and more deeply engage with, every waking moment of their journey.”

He relents, as long as they promise to use the gadgetry to “enhance” their experience of Yosemite, not to shield them from it.  As you read this you see that everyone is truly enjoying the experience.  Villano concludes:

“I couldn’t help but marvel at how a more liberal use of technology had empowered my girls to connect with a familiar park in thrilling new ways. Weeks later, they’re still chortling at their dance videos and still talking about how much fun they had. They’ve even started asking if we can go back again before the first snow of the season.  Maybe Muir wouldn’t have minded after all.”

Ok, I get it.  But I wonder if our author is missing something in his reflection, making a serious mistake.  (It could be that I’m just an old “fuddy-duddy.”)   Yes, for his young girls that was probably a good thing, enjoyable, and maybe it might lure them someday into a deeper encounter with the wilderness.  Very often, however, tech gadgets and the social media world proves to be very addictive and in fact begins to substitute for the Real. 

Villano uses the word “connect.”  A very important word in the techy world.  Certainly there is all this tech gadgetry that facilitates communication and connection at a certain level, a real benefit in modern living.   What is amazing is how much felt need there seems to be for this “connection,” how isolated many people feel.  But no tech can engender true communion, a sense of oneness—it very often simply enables people to bond with similar minded people and this sharing of your “one world” is just a more advanced form of “tribalism”; you encounter only the world of your tribe or you project the world of your tribe everywhere.  

 The encounter with Yosemite that Villano celebrates is not the encounter that Muir invites us to.  That would be more like something from the previous posting: the Romantic vision and the Chinese Taoist; or, to put it more simply, it is a call to a contemplative vision.  And a sense of communion.

Secondly,  there appeared in the Washington Post a story about a British farmer that really intrigued me.  The title was:

“He is Britain’s famous shepherd-author-influencer. He wants to transform farming to save the planet.”

Here is the link to the whole story:

The story is about James Rebanks, Oxford grad, a very smart guy who inherited a 600-year-old family farm and has become a “rock-star” farmer in England.  Here’s how the story starts:

“Britain’s rock-star shepherd and best-selling author, James Rebanks, is out at the family farm, giving the tour, waxing rhapsodic about his manure. The glory of it — of the crumbly, muffin-top consistency of a well-made plop from a grass-fed cow.

‘Has anyone in your life ever truly explained grasses to you?’ he asks. And we think, not really.

It’s not just ruminant digestion. Don’t get the man started on soil health. Rebanks is a soil geek, with the zeal of the convert. We’re soon on our knees, grubbing in the dirt. Sniffing. He’s distracted by a red-tailed bumblebee, then by the surround-sound of birdsong. ‘I don’t trust a quiet farm,’ he says. ‘It should be noisy with life.’

This is a man with a very different vision of what farming should be like.  He doesn’t believe it is healthy for us or the planet to have these giant industrial farms.  He has created something different on his little patch of land.   In his words:

“The shepherd riffs on the circle of life, the frenzy of lambing season, the deliciousness of grilled mutton and the wisdom of sheepdogs — speckled with rants against the alleged ruinous stupidity of industrial farming ‘where the field has become the factory floor.’”

He is not into the Amish/fundamentalist thing of being anti-technology or science; in fact he uses it but quite wisely.  The root of his farming, the foundation of his kind of farming is a wholly different vision of nature and our relationship to it.  The “other way” is not simply another choice; it is a kind of suicide on a planetary scale, social, natural, cultural, psychological, even spiritual suicide.  He wrote a book about that.  From the article:

“On one level, the book is about how cheap food culture, globalization and super-efficient, hyper-mechanized, highly productive modern farms (giant monocultures of beets, wheat, corn) are terrible for nature (insects, rivers, climate) and our health (obesity, diabetes) and our farmers (indebted, pesticide-dependent, stressed).”

The German philosopher, Heidegger, proposed that now technology “enframes” our vision of reality.  We have become creatures who seem to be only able to see reality through the optic of technology.  And this distorts not only our relationship to it but also our own self-understanding.  Again, this is not being anti-science or a call to some silly “return” to a world that never existed in the first place.  Rather, it is a proposal to see ourselves and our world in a different and deeper way.

A Tale of Two Visions

Way back in 1959, when I was in 8th grade, I watched one of the early programs on the new public tv channel.  It was Alan Watts discoursing on Eastern spiritual traditions.  He very emphatically made the point that the Eastern vision, especially the Chinese Taoist vision,  of the human being, of nature, of reality, is so radically different from the Western version of these.  He illustrated it by comparing a painting from ancient China and one from the Renaissance in Europe.  I found the whole thing so mesmerizing; never forgot the experience.  I would like to “re-live” the experience as it were, but with two different paintings that I think are even more interesting in this illustration, and maybe they show things may be more complex and more nuanced than Watts presented.  So….let us begin.

Sometimes no words are needed.   All you need do is LOOK.  What you see, what you think you see, and what you don’t see are all interesting.  Here two different sets of artwork invite comparison and contrast.  So, lets begin by just looking and pondering…..

The first painting is a prime example of German Romanticism, early 19th Century, Caspar David Friedrich.

The second one is from China: by Shih T’ao in the Ming Dynasty, 17th Century.

And just for emphasis I’ve included a third painting, another from China, something surprisingly very similar, by Shen Zhou,  also in the Ming Dynasty, 16th Century.