Category Archives: Interreligious Dialogue


  1. Recently I saw this story on the online version of the New York Times.

How to Live a Happy Life, From a Leading Atheist

“I want people to see what a meaningful, happy life I’ve had with these beliefs,” says philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. “I don’t need mystery.”

I was certainly curious and eager to read this story which seems to be a kind of review of a new book by Daniel Dennett.  However, I needed to pay the New York Times for the privilege of reading it, and that I was not going to do.  But I  could still ponder these words just as they are.

Daniel Dennett is a well-known philosopher of science, very much admired by the bigwigs of Silicon Valley, a militant atheist, and a person whose writings I would generally avoid.  Here I am  intrigued by his  choice of words:  “meaningful,” “happy,” “need,” “mystery.”    The first two words are easy to dispose of.  Consider two iconic figures of the 20th century:  Hugh Hefner and Karl Rahner.  They were diametrical opposites in life.   The former espoused a philosophy of hedonism; the latter was a humble but brilliant Jesuit theologian.  But both could have said  they were living a “meaningful, happy life” within the context of their values and world view.  So these two words are rather vacuous until given a clear semantic context.

The next two words, “need” and “mystery,” are much more puzzling.  It does seem that his statement amounts to saying that “I don’t need the notion of God.”  Mystery = God.  Ok, understood, but I suspect that his understanding and use of the word “mystery” is of the common notion which would be applicable in science also.  Mystery here is a problem, enigma, riddle, puzzle; it’s something which baffles or perplexes. So, “mystery” simply means a certain lack of knowledge, which lack can or will be supplied sooner or later.  The reality in front of us is a mystery to us because of some current limitation to our knowledge, our understanding, our vision.  And this limitation can potentially be overcome at some future point when we apply more resources, etc.  Mystery is a provisional state; given enough time, enough resources, enough research, it will dissipate.  What seemed like a mystery in 1750 is now explained by science.  The murder of so-and-so remains a mystery until more evidence solves it.  Etc.  So I think Dennett relegates the notion of God to this level of mystery and he feels  he has “solved” that and it turns out he can live without it.

Now theology and authentic mysticism have a very different understanding of “mystery” as it applies to that  Ultimate Reality which we call God.  In the Catholic tradition we have the likes of Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, and the modern Karl Rahner, all of whom have emphatically pointed to God’s absolute incomprehensibility, meaning this is not something due to OUR limitations in this life but that this is the very nature of God.  In Rahner’s language, God is the Holy Mystery which is infinite, inexpressible, absolutely incomprehensible; but which yet draws near to us personally in self-communication deep within our being, our personhood, and deep within history in the person of Jesus Christ.  This self-communication unfolds as Love, as forgiveness, as truth, as beauty, as absolute goodness.  And when we die this self-communication of God continues for all eternity as we never exhaust the divine fullness.  God’s infinite Love fills our hearts with an infinite capacity to receive the endless ecstasy of the Divine Life.  This is Catholic theology at its best as it opens the door to an authentic mysticism.

Returning to Prof. Dennett’s statement, the “mystery” that Christian thought and mysticism speak of is not something that you need…like some extraneous element “outside” you….like something that you can choose.  Yes, there is a profound choice to face, but this is not it.  This Mystery is like the air you breathe…it surrounds you…you live within it…and you encounter it in all you see, whether a tiny leaf falling from a tree, a far-off galaxy whirling with millions of stars, a tear on a sad face….  This Mystery is also the fabric of your deepest personhood; it is that into which you are invited to lose yourselves in order to be constituted as persons.  Human beings are essentially oriented to mystery.  So, no, I don’t “need” mystery also, as if I were lacking something; it is the “givenness” of my existence, of my life.

  1. Two very different visions of the “good life.”

Also something that I saw in the news recently: examples of some strikingly different choices in what one might call the “good life.”  The first is a seemingly harmless version of hedonism, what I would call “escapist hedonism,” a kind of beach bum life.  This was espoused in the  songs of Jimmy Buffett, musician, song writer, and super rich.  He recently died so he was in the news, and his songs peppered You Tube.  His top hit and a key to his “message” is “Margaritaville.”  A very catchy tune which you can hear and see the lyrics here:

Actually Buffett was very hard working at pushing and selling this beach bum vision of life and made millions.  It’s a daydream kind of life which really amounts to nothing, but amazingly hordes of fans bought into this daydream.

The next choice is also another variant of hedonism, what I would call “engaged hedonism”:  the Burning Man Phenomenon.   Every year just before Labor Day some 80,000 or so people gather on the playa of the Black Rock Desert 90 miles north of Reno, and set up a temporary encampment of sorts for a week of “activities.”  It is quite a phenomenon to say the least with people coming from all over the world.  This year it was a bit of a mess due to unexpected rain!  

It is actually difficult to say what this is all about, but they do emphasize words like “participation,” “engagement,” “spontaneity,” “creativity,” etc.  The fact that sex and drugs are part of the picture is simply assumed, no need to talk about it.  People from various walks of life come (the ones I’ve met were very nice), but mostly they are well-off and many are very rich…I’ve heard of talk of some bringing a chef….some tents had chandeliers and portable showers…..  Actually it costs several thousand dollars just to be there, so you better have money.  

There’s a pretense that this is some kind of alternative society.  People leave the “constraints” of their regular life and are given the space to “cut loose” for a week.  That makes you wonder what their regular experience of life is like, what’s it all about!  The whole week’s experience culminates on the final night when an effigy of a human being, a totem of sorts, is burned in a huge display of fire and fireworks.  Again, not sure what  this means; certainly this fire is not the fire of the Burning Bush, nor is it the fire in which heretics were burned, nor  is it a warm quiet camp fire.  It seems to represent human creativity, spontaneity, or something like that.  But it is all, more or less, ego self-expression; and all the distortions of the ego get projected out into the beauty and night of the desert….which by    the way the participants do not notice….such is the self-absorption.  It’s such an historical irony that in the past the desert was where the first monks went out….to transcend the ego and encounter God.

Here’s a brief You Tube video where you get to see a bit inside and meet some of the people:

And the next version of the “good life” ….”and now for something completely different”—to borrow from Monty Python!

Recently I saw a story on CNN about a family that hiked the three great trails of North America.  Mother and father are both doctors, and they have 5 children….and  all went!  First they  did the Appalachian Trail; the experience was so positive that nobody wanted to stop!  So next they did the Continental Trail in the Rockies; and  this year they did the incredible Pacific Crest Trail.  What a story!  They “homeschooled” their kids even out on the trail.  Looking at the photos of the family out in the wilderness, you can see the healthy faces of the kids; I mean healthy in a deep human way.  This experience will shape their  minds and hearts for life.  It opens up an awareness that no amount of money can buy.  And mom and dad sure do seem to have a good sense of what a “good life” entails.

Here is a link to that story:

And for a different take on Burning Man, try this from The Onion:

  1. A few easy steps!

I am not a fan of spiritual methods, Christian or Buddhist or whatever.  But this  set of instructions speaks to me!  It is an excerpt from a poem by my favorite modern poet, W. S. Merwin…..the poem is called “Exercise.”

First forget what time it is
for an hour
do it regularly every day

then forget what day of the week it is
do this regularly for a week
then forget what country you are in
and practice doing it in company
for a week
then do them together
for a week
with as few breaks as possible

follow these by forgetting how to add
or to subtract
it makes no difference
you can change them around
after a week
both will help you later
to forget how to count

forget how to count
starting with your own age
starting with how to count backward
starting with even numbers
starting with Roman numerals
starting with fractions of Roman numerals
starting with the old calendar
going on to the old alphabet
going on to the alphabet
until everything is continuous again

Reminds of a couple of old zen/tao masters….one said to forget the self…the other said he wanted to meet the sage who had forgotten words!

When everything is continuous again…..!

Poets, Philosophers, & Other Scoundrels

Ok, the title is facetious, but I do have a serious point to make.  

Nothing here will even remotely resemble some deep/systematic/comprehensive treatment.  I’m kind of playing with a few ideas  and kind of “pondering out loud.”

Lets begin in the spirit of Medieval thinkers, by defining some key terms:

By “poets” I really do mean all artists…but certain craftsmen of language are my primary focus.

By “philosophers” I mean all who try to explore and explain existence in a thoroughly rational way….so this would include scientists, who were called “natural philosophers” a few centuries ago.

By “scoundrels,” well, this one is difficult….borrowing a term from the previous reflection….these are folk who somehow get “paradise” wrong!  This needs some explanation.  First, a controversial claim:  all art and all philosophy takes place “outside the gates of paradise.”  Some of it, however, gives us a hint, a “scent” as it were, of “paradise.”  But most of it lives in the land of chatter and noise, of greed and ambition, of lust and violence, of self-inflation and self-promotion, of pseudo-knowledge and cleverness, etc., etc… know, this is what some call the “real world.”  True, a lot of this art and philosophy does do a good job of dissecting this mess, showing its many  layers and the many shades of unreality; but none of this is the same as having some kind of awareness of “paradise.”  

Then there are folk, “poets” and “philosophers,” who are very close to “paradise,” but somehow there is something askew in their vision, or you begin to feel there is something missing here, or even to put it in a seemingly contradictory way,  something is there blocking their path to “paradise.”  I am reminded of that scene from the Gospel, the rich  man comes to Jesus and expresses a desire to “follow him.”  Jesus tells him to drop that load of wealth he’s weighed down by….but, alas, he can’t do it.   And then there is the paradox that for all his wealth he is “lacking one thing”…the need to put it all down….  

In any case, these “poets” and “philosophers” are folk we can truly admire, respect, learn from, etc., but ultimately we will find ourselves disagreeing with them profoundly.  One of these, for me, has been Czeslaw Milosz.

(Milosz was good friends with Merton, and some of their correspondence was published.  It was  interesting to read that.)

Milosz was a giant of modern poetry, a Nobel Prize winner, a scholar and professor of Slavic literature at Berkeley, and a true intellectual.  I became acquainted with him when I studied theology, philosophy and classics at both a seminary and the university in Berkeley.  Needless to say it was none of the above that brought us together….it was the fact that I was Lithuanian and Milosz had this weakness for all things Lithuanian!  Although Polish, he was born in Lithuania and spent his childhood there, and he had a kind of romantic vision of old Lithuania.  He was a man of high culture, so who was I to argue with him!  So, when I told him I had lost my native language, Lithuanian, and he scowled in disapproval, I took my lumps and did not bother to offer a defense or explanation why I had absolutely no regrets of turning my back on that whole milieu.  

But all that is trivial.  I was deeply impressed by his poetry.  You can read a sample of it online at this site:

I found it always engaging; at times beautifully insightful; but sometimes puzzling, even troubling.  Take a look at the poem  “Theodicy.”  This is a very important word in Milosz’s intellectual universe, so I will borrow an explanation of it from Wikipedia:

“In the the philosophy of religion, a theodicy, meaning ‘vindication of God’ in Greek, is an argument that attempts to resolve the problem of evil that arises when omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience are all simultaneously ascribed to God.  Unlike a defense, which merely tries to demonstrate that the coexistence of God and evil is logically possible, a theodicy additionally provides a framework wherein God’s existence is considered plausible. The German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz coined the term “theodicy” in 1710 in his work Théodicée, though numerous attempts to resolve the problem of evil had previously been proposed. The British philosopher John Hick traced the history of moral theodicy in his 1966 work Evil and the God of Love, identifying three major traditions:

  1. the Plotinian theodicy, named after Plotinus
  2. the Augustinian theodicy, which Hick based on the writings of Augustine of Hippo
  3. the Irenaean theodicy, which Hick developed, based on the thinking of St. Irenaeus. 

The problem of evil has also been analyzed by theologians and philosophers throughout the history of Islam.

A defense has been proposed by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga, which is focused on showing the logical possibility of God’s existence. Plantinga’s version of the free-will defense argued that the coexistence of God and evil is not logically impossible, and that free will further explains the existence of evil without contradicting the existence of God. 

Milosz was a religious person, a practicing Catholic who at the same time was very uncomfortable with his Church.  In Berkeley we often found ourselves at  the same church for Mass, and each time I would see him seated in the very back row for the very early Mass (7am).  Each time the priest would utter some banality or evoke this “happy feel” Catholicism of post-Vatican II, I would wince, knowing he was back there in the shadows scowling!  He scorned the Church’s attempt to embrace modernity, the modern world; but you could not pin an easy label on his attitude and position.  He was even more critical of Catholic history, even more outraged at what it did to people….from its many sell-outs and allegiances with tyrants and dictators to the torture and massacre of countless human beings….like the massacre of thousands, women and children, Cathars and sympathetic Catholics alike, burning alive 200 of their spiritual leaders about the year 1200 in southern France….all to “preserve” the purity of the Catholic doctrine and their status as the “Big Dog” religion.  Milosz knew his stuff; if you were a “conservative” Catholic, you would not fare well arguing with him.  (Hate to think what he would have said about the “sexual predator clergy.”)  One of the things I deeply regret is not sharing with him how much I felt the same about the Church and its history.  I think he had me pegged as a “modern pretend monk” (and who’s to say he was wrong….after all WHAT was I doing in Berkeley?!), but he let that slide because I was Lithuanian!

One of the other deep regrets I have is that I did not have  the courage to challenge him on this “theodicy” issue, where I radically disagreed with him.  You can see that issue appearing in his poetry and in his essays….he wrestled with it all his life.  In this poem, “Theodicy,” he throws down the gauntlet with the opening lines:

“No, it won’t do, my sweet theologians.

Desire will not save the morality of God.

If he created beings able to choose between good and evil,

And they chose, and the world lies in iniquity,

Nevertheless, there is pain, and the undeserved torture of creatures,”

That age-old dilemma…how can an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God allow evil…even to coexist with it….?  Milosz was among those few who would not “let God off the hook.”  He had scorn for all those philosophers of religion and theologians who came up with all these various rational arguments that left one wondering if they had any sense of real evil, real suffering.  Sure, you could get some traction out of the “free will” argument….you know, God gives human beings freedom of choice…some choose extremely badly (Adam & Eve)….consequences…the presence of evil….  Milosz doesn’t think much of this argument, and neither do I.  But his focus is on the suffering, the evil inflicted on the innocent, not those who “have it coming.”  Here Milosz can be seen to be standing on a precipice, an abyss of sorts, where reality is structured on two equal principles: the Good (God), and Evil.  The former is purely spiritual; the latter is marked by matter.  Needless to say that makes the whole beautiful natural world very ambiguous, but it does provide an explanation of sorts.  I am not sure that he fully embraced such a view, but certainly two of his favorite people, Albert Camus and Simone Weil, more or less moved more in that direction…at least it seems that way if you read what he wrote about them.

Note these quotes from his essays:

“Horror is the law of the world of living creatures, and civilization is concerned with masking that truth. Literature and art refine and beautify, and if they were to depict reality naked, just as everyone suspects it is (although we defend ourselves against that knowledge), no one would be able to stand it.”

“Alas, our fundamental experience is duality: mind and body, freedom and necessity, evil and good, and certainly world and God. It is the same with our protest against pain and death.”

I certainly am more than in disagreement with all this; I am kind of speechless about how to address such a problem.  Back in Berkeley, coward that I was and eager to be liked by him, of course I never challenged his views, nor offered any counter arguments.  And that’s just as well because “arguments” is not what is called for here.  You have to understand this about Milosz, the old man’s incredible life experience.  Two world wars, living through the murderous savagery of Hitler and Stalin, millions killed, millions more without homes (like my family), you are not going to easily accept the “happy talk” of either priests or thinkers, not if you have the sensibility, the learning,  and the intelligence that he had.

There is actually no rational way of dealing with this problem…you are not gong to think your way to a solution…reason, as valuable as it is, is not going to be a resource here.  Look at the Zen koan…you do not “untie” that knot by rational analysis.  But you also cannot run away from it….at least not without detriment to your whole way of seeing reality.  So it is with this theodicy dilemma.  At his best Milosz had a sense of this, and at the end of his life his poetry displayed a deeper, more serene vision….could we say a “scent” of paradise?  Through most of his mature, creative years, however,  Milosz was deeply attracted to that ultimate dualism; and it’s truly ironic that this position is a kind of escape hatch for rationality, for intelligence, as it confronts the mystery of evil.  Here you do   not transcend rationality but merely disguise it with a new look.  In any case, how it sometimes warped his understanding and even his intuition is displayed by his treatment of Dostoevsky’s great novel, Brothers Karamazov, especially as the novel resonated with the theodicy issue and its seeming resolution.  Recall how Dostoevsky puts words into the mouth of Ivan Karamazov that become the most powerful, most sustained, most irrefutable attack on our notion of God that you will find anywhere.  Dostoevsky holds nothing back; he jolts you with a “sledge hammer” and wants to see what you have to say.  I think that a part of Milosz deeply  identifies with Ivan Karamazov.  Let’s listen to just one of Ivan’s discourses to his brother Alyosha:

“Listen! I took the case of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its center, I will say nothing. I have narrowed my subject on purpose. I am a bug, and I recognize in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. Men are themselves to blame, I suppose; they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them. With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level—but that’s only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it?—I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”  “That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.

“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

Well, Dostoevsky crafts Alyosha and Father Zosima (primarily) as the only possible reply to Ivan’s impassioned challenge.  It is not a rational argument but their very personhood, their state of mind and heart, this is the only answer that Dostoevsky can summon to this side of the dilemma….and the silence of Christ in Ivan’s mysterious dream.   For Milosz, this was a miserable failure.  He calls Alyosha and Father Zosima “sentimentalists.”  For Milosz, Dostoevsky was brilliant on the side of Ivan, but a total failure on the side that was meant as a kind of response.  At the end of the novel we see Alyosha and a group of boys celebrating their koinonia, their communion, even in the face of death.  In a real nasty takedown, Milosz called this “salvation by a troupe of boy scouts.”

 I don’t know what  I could have said to him to change his mind….really nothing….this brilliant, good man had his own journey to make.  But there is a final quote which surprisingly illumines  this whole thing in a marvelous way that not even Dostoevsky can touch.  It is amazingly from Karl Bath’s Church Dogmatics.  (Merton alludes to all this in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.)  Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian, one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th century.  Barth was a stern, no-frills Protestant who had little sympathy for all the “frills” of Catholicism.  When I was studying theology, I had friends who loved Barth; but in my then narrow-mindedness I avoided Barth as much as possible.  

Barth actually had a lot of critiques of Catholicism, but there was one Catholic who was a kind of constant companion of  his during the  years when he was in his prime:  Mozart!  He would listen to a Mozart piece every morning before beginning work on his theological endeavors.  And we will conclude with Barth reflecting on Mozart in volume 3 of his magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics:

‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign?

Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists.

1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend Him. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it? He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet [light perpetual shines] (sic!) eis [upon them]—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light. Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God. He neither needed nor desired to express or represent himself, his vitality, sorrow, piety, or any program. He was remarkably free from the mania for self- expression…..

He died when according to the worldly wise his life-work was only ripening to its true fulfillment. But who shall say that after the “Magic Flute,” the Clarinet Concerto of October 1791 and the Requiem, it was not already fulfilled? Was not the whole of his achievement implicit in his works at the age of 16 or 18? Is it not heard in what has come down to us from the very young Mozart? He died in misery like an “unknown soldier,” and in company with Calvin, and Moses in the Bible, he has no known grave. But what does this matter? What does a grave matter when a life is permitted simply and unpretentiously, and therefore serenely, authentically and impressively, to express the good creation of God, which also includes the limitation and end of man.

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could.”


No-Questions and No-Answers

Merton wrote a book of essays called Disputed Questions, and the great Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, had a book called Ultimate Questions.  So…here’s a few of my own kind of questions.   Just some interesting and intriguing and troubling thoughts….

  1. There is no “I” in I.

What could this possibly mean? 

Sounds very Buddhist, doesn’t it?  Maybe a bit Hindu, as in Advaita, Sankara, etc…..  But what about Christianity?  Definitely not if we stick to conventional Christianity.  Yes, Paul did say, “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”  But it’s usually taken  in some kind of metaphorical way, or as some external acts of imitation….be like Jesus, act like Christ…..  However, in some mystics, like Eckhart….this goes much, much deeper.  And for someone like Abhishiktananda, with  his “advaitic insights,” well, we are way beyond the usual Sunday sermon/piety.  But in Thomas Merton you see a trajectory, a growth in awareness concerning this…which we will look at shortly.

Lets borrow a term from Marxist theory: false consciousness.  False consciousness is  a way of thinking that prevents people from being aware of the true nature of their social or economic situation; their true relationship to the whole material scheme of their existence.  They are not able to recognize that they are being exploited and how they are exploited.  They may even contribute to their own exploitation.

Borrowing this term, we can use it to designate an even deeper and more fundamental problem: our lack of awareness of who we really are.  We get this wrong very badly.  I, me, myself, mine…..that sense of “I-ness,” that strange orientation of everything toward  that sense.  This is a mistake with enormous consequences.  So we end up fretting about this “self” quite a bit.  It feels very fragile, so we want to protect it, defend it.  Thieves can come and rob it….  But what if we ask that universally profound question: who am I?  

Merton becomes quite sensitive to the problem in the middle period of his monastic life.  You get a hint of it in quotes like this:

“In an age where there is much talk about “being yourself” I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anyone else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on “being himself” he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.”

Drawing on a deep interpretation of his own tradition, he formulates the issue in terms of “false self” vs. “true self.”  Note:

“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.”

“My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”

“We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves—the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.”

“All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.”

“But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasure and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.”

(All Merton quotes are from New Seeds of Contemplation)


A number of people have been very influenced by Merton’s insights here, like Richard Rohr, for example:

“The false self is all the things we pretend to be and think we are. It is the pride, arrogance, title, costume, role, and degree we take to be ourselves. It’s almost entirely created by our minds, our cultures, and our families. It is what’s passing and what’s going to die, and it is not who we are. For many people this is all they have—but all of it is going to die when we die.  

But Merton’s awareness grows and deepens even more as his encounter with zen and Buddhism unfolds.

Recall, early on,  Merton’s dialogue with D. T. Suzuki about Cassian’s notion of “purity of heart.”  At first Merton wanted to consider it as something like the zen “sunyata,” emptiness.  Suzuki emphatically corrected him!  With Cassian’s “purity of  heart” there is this “heart,” this self, which you can look at and work at “purifying.”  But with sunyata there is no self there as object for you to work on.  Who you are is not an object that you can grasp and “purify”…that you can look at, admire as being “pure,” that you can “polish,”  etc.  In zen terms, who you are is no-self.   Foolish westerners have claimed that zen denies the personhood of the human being.  Quite the contrary, the fullness of personhood only emerges when the boundaries of that narrow, little self vanish.  Toward the end of his life Merton begins to use that term “no-self” more instead of “true self” (or some variant, such as no-hearer in a beautiful essay about solitude).  In Zen and the Birds of Appetite, the last book he published, he provocatively writes:  “”As long as there is an ‘I’ that is the definite subject of a contemplative experience, an ‘I’ that is aware of itself and its contemplation, an ‘I’ that can possess a certain ‘degree of spirituality,’ then we have not yet passed over the Red Sea, we have not yet ‘gone out of Egypt.’ We remain in the realm of multiplicity, activity, incompleteness, striving and desire.”

By that time his zen awareness colors everything he touches.  My favorite is this lovely piece on the hermit life:

“The hermit life is cool. It is a life of low definition in which there is little to decide, in which there are few transactions or none, in which there are no packages delivered. In which I do not bundle up packages and deliver them to myself. It is not intense. There is no give and take of questions and answers, problems and solutions. Problems begin down the hill. Over there under the water tower are the solutions. Here there are woods, foxes. Here there is no need for dark glasses. “Here” does not even warm itself with references to “there.” It is just a “here” for which there is no “there.” The hermit life is that cool.

The monastic life as a whole is a hot medium. Hot with words like “must,” “ought” and “should.” Communities are devoted to high definition projects: “making it all clear!” The clearer it gets the clearer it has to be made. It branches out. You have to keep clearing the branches. The more branches you cut back the more branches grow. For one you cut you get three more. On the end of each branch there is a big bushy question mark. People are running all around with packages of meaning. Each is very anxious to know whether all the others have received the latest messages. Has someone else received a message that he has not received? Will they be willing to pass it on to him? Will he understand it when it is passed on? Will he have to argue about it? Will he be expected to clear his throat and stand up and say “Well the way I look at it St. Benedict said . . . ?” Saint Benedict saw that the best thing to do with the monastic life was to cool it but today everybody is heating it up. Maybe to cool it you have to be a hermit. “

“This is not a hermitage—it is a house. (“Who was that hermitage I seen you with last night? . . .”) What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe. Who said Zen? Wash out your mouth if you said Zen. If you see a meditation going by, shoot it. Who said “Love?” Love is in the movies. The spiritual life is something people worry about when they are so busy with something else they think they ought to be spiritual. Spiritual life is guilt. Up here in the woods is seen the New Testament: that is to say, the wind comes through the trees and you breathe it. Is it supposed to be clear? I am not inviting anybody to try it.”

  1. There is no “I” in Paradise.

In Dostoevsky’s great novel, Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima, a key character, tells of his older brother, Markel,  who died young but had a powerful influence on Zosima. He had been scornful of spiritual realities and generally a rude, brusque person.  But as he was being overwhelmed by illness, one Holy Week he experienced a profound change which no one could explain.   A key quote from the novel, Zosima speaking:

 “I remember he used to cough all night and sleep badly, but in the morning he dressed and tried to sit up in an arm-chair. That’s how I remember him sitting, sweet and gentle, smiling, his face bright and joyous, in spite of his illness. A marvelous change passed over him, his spirit seemed transformed. The old nurse would come in and say, ‘Let me light the lamp before the holy image, my dear.’ And once he would not have allowed it and would have blown it out.

‘Light it, light it, dear, I was a wretch to have prevented you doing it. You are praying when you light the lamp, and I am praying when I rejoice seeing you. So we are praying to the same God.’

Those words seemed strange to us, and mother would go to her room and weep, but when she went in to him she wiped her eyes and looked cheerful. ‘Mother, don’t weep, darling,’ he would say, ‘I’ve long to live yet, long to rejoice with you, and life is glad and joyful.’

‘Ah, dear boy, how can you talk of joy when you lie feverish at night, coughing as though you would tear yourself to pieces.’

‘Don’t cry, mother,’ he would answer, ‘life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but refuse to see it, if we would, we should have heaven on earth the next day.’”

Paradise???  What could this possibly mean?  Is it mere sentimentality, delusions of a sick young man.  Needless to say the literati who have written so much analyzing this novel from various angles are not the ones to consult about this!  Also, forget the pop culture appropriations of that word, “Paradise,”  so comical in their obvious hedonism.  Best way to get a sense of this is to look at its opposite: hell!  No, again not the pop images of devils with horns and pitchforks and flames.  Consider the following  images:

  1. The ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus.  The guy condemned to roll this boulder up this hill, and as he is about to get to the top….the boulder gets too heavy and it rolls down….and this for all eternity…..  This is a marvelous picture of life lived  grounded  in that ego self.  The gist of this is also witnessed in that old Rolling Stones ditty, (I can’t get no) “Satisfaction”…but I try and try….  

This is a life loaded with burdens, obvious and not so obvious, and it offers satisfactions like mirages in the desert.  Being in a wrong relationship to oneself and to all around one is a very heavy burden; but the real sadness is that this is simply experienced as “life,” life as a kind of “heaviness,” a burden that weighs on  us more and more.  And there is a built in futility to all you do.  If pushed to an extreme, this leads to such a distortion of humanity, such a dysfunctionality, that it can make one forget what human life is about.

The Gospel invites us to lay down that burden of “self” and pick up the burden of Christ’s life in us, a burden that is no-burden….because there is no-self.

Here we are at the Gates of Paradise….or I should say the “Gateless-gate of Paradise”!

  1. There are much more subtle pictures of hell in literature, more refined ones, if you will.  One place you can find it is in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, The Great Gatsby.  From the closing paragraph of the novel:

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——”

Again, that sense that one’s fulfillment is just out of reach!  In that old classic move On the Waterfront the lead character, former boxer Terry Malloy, laments to his brother, “I couldva been somebody, I couldva been a contender.”  We are are all caught up in wanting to be that “somebody.”  Some pursue it in wealth, some in sex, some in power, some in heroics, some in learning, some in religion, etc.; but this is essentially an “unattainable illusory self” even as we seem to hold it in our hand.  Shakespeare’s Macbeth is another figure who desperately wanted to be “somebody.”  At the end of his road, at the end of his insane pursuit of power, he concludes this about the meaning of life:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

What a marvelous picture of hell!  Because hell is a state of mind, a state of awareness, a state of relationality, a state of being.  

And so is Paradise.  Paradise is your own being, your own personhood, not something “out there” to reach or achieve.  To enter Paradise all you need do is “return home” so to speak.  If you are alienated from your “true self,” you are in effect this illusory individual “I” separated from all, an isolated consciousness, filled with deep anxiety about its separateness, seeking connections in all manner of modes, which never really satisfy it.  This is one sign of being an “outcast” from Paradise.  But to be in Paradise is to be in the Wholeness and interrelatedness of all being.  It is our Original Nature as the Buddhists would put it . Francis of Assisi  knew Paradise.  Think of the significance of the stigmata in his body (historical or symbolic, no matter).  Think of that in relation to Paradise.

  1. There is no “I” in Namaste.

Consider this poem by W. S. Merwin, my absolutely favorite modern poet:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveler

Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer

Find myself in life as in a strange garment

Surprised at the earth

And the love of one woman

And the shamelessness of men

As today writing after three days of rain

Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease

And bowing not knowing to what

Hands folded, bowing slightly, quietly saying “Namaste,” a greeting thousands of years old….this is such a more beautiful and profound way of greeting than  a handshake….but what does  it mean?   Of course a simple translation opens a vast door…. “The Divine in me recognizes the Divine in you.”  There is no “I” in Namaste, not if it is real.  But it’s not like there is only “God,” or only “I,” or “God” + “I”…..  Who you are is a mystery lost  in the Mystery of God, so do not think you know who is bowing or to whom….

But there is more.  In a fragile little wild flower in  the wilderness, it is  the Whole Cosmos bowing to you.  In the smiling eyes of a little child.  In the   quizzical gaze of a lonely coyote.  In the loveliness of another person, young or old.  In the kindness of a stranger.  In the tears of loss.  In the vast beauty of the night sky.  In the self-sacrifice of a parent….   Bow your head slightly and whisper “Namaste.”

Monastic Musings, Part II, the Zen Thing

In the previous posting, after hearing about the closure of the Trappist monastery in Colorado,  I briefly reflected on problems  and issues confronting Christian monasticism.  Now I have before me an article, sent by a friend, which is a blistering critique of the state of Zen Buddhism, especially in the U.S.; and it is a critique that comes from within that community.  Obviously there are some real differences in the problems that each community faces, but I have also found it fascinating where there is some significant common ground.  

The title of this essay is, “Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi,” by Stuart Lachs.  It is somewhat dated (2002), and all the references to the mess at the San Francisco Zen Center are a well-known thing.  But the article brings up all kinds of issues that have hardly changed.  The article begins like this:

“Most people think of Zen as being iconoclastic, anti-authoritarian, simple, direct, and unattached. Its raison d’etre is to produce people who possess a fundamental insight into life, people who are not fooled by appearances or ideas. The fact is that almost everything about Zen’s presentation, practice, and rituals is aimed at producing people who give up their good sense with the promise of a greater gain in the future. While this is obviously a general statement that demands further qualification, it serves to introduce some of the basic problems to be dealt with here. Please keep it in mind. This is not a new idea nor is it unique to Chan/Zen.”


(Incidentally, if you want to read the whole article, this is the link to it:

And the website, “thezensite,” is a most valuable resource of zen writings, including the critical ones.)

Some scattered comments:

  1. Zen vs. institutional Zen Buddhism.  The author does make this distinction, but I am not so sure that he drives home the full implications of that move.  If you do  not clearly see and understand the difference between the two, you will miss the reality by the “width of the universe!”  And this is so true of the scholars who in the last several decades  have worked so diligently to “demystify and demythologize” “Zen.”  They have brought out many interesting and important facts about the historical development  of zen buddhism and buddhism in general.  The picture isn’t pretty; you get a sense of it in Lachs’ article.  But this is true of every religious institution, including Christian monasticism. (And not to mention the enormous problem within Catholic institutions of sexual dysfunctionality and abuse that has been uncovered and that really has not been dealt with in any adequate way.)  What the scholars have done is provide an antidote to living in a kind of religious fairyland that is ultimately toxic to one’s spiritual health.  

However…..there is a tendency in these writings to conflate the institution of zen buddhism, as it unfolds in history, with the reality of zen.  Even if not intended (but I think it often is intended), zen is reduced to that collection of practices, beliefs, institutions, etc.  that is found under that umbrella called zen buddhism.  This is a serious mistake, and it can easily lead one far astray from the reality of zen.

Incidentally, proliferating pop notions using the word “zen” in modern western society are another distorting agent that is a real problem.  I did a search in my local library for books with the word “zen” in their title.  Here’s a few of them:

Zen Guitar

Zen Golf

Zen Happiness

Zen Poems

Zen Interiors

Zen Miracles

Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen and Mindful Parenting

and the list goes on and on……  In other words, the term “zen” is being used willy-nilly.

Now of course the scholarly literature and the critical tracts are not that bad!  But they are prone to go wrong in several ways:

  1. The word “zen” is simply used as a shorthand expression of zen buddhism.  A controversial point…because it is assumed that always when we speak of “zen” we are talking about “zen buddhism.”  What if that is not the case?  We will shortly explore that.
  2. Then the term “zen buddhism” is, as I mentioned above, reduced to the beliefs, practices, teachings, values, etc. of a certain institution.  Zen Buddhism (and by implication “zen”_ is then this cultural, historical entity—an undeniable fact.  But is THAT all there is….?
  3. Applying scholarly, scientific, critical, historical methods, scholars dissect this entity, and they uncover all kinds of interesting facts and, alas, all the “stuff swept under the rug.”  Really, no one should be surprised by all this…all religious institutions are plagued by similar problems.  But to borrow an image, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the scholars but simply to emphasize a certain point, they are like   vultures who are picking at a carcass…the living reality is not grasped by these methods.

Now I will give an extensive quote from Thomas Merton. You might wonder why bring in a Christian monk to comment on Zen, etc.  Well, this will not be a popular claim, but in my opinion Merton had a deeper sense of the reality of Zen than most American Zen Buddhists.  Also, already in the 1960s he had an intellectual grasp of some of problems as Zen Buddhism “translated” into American culture.  The following quote is from Zen and the Birds of Appetite:

“This raises a curious question: I wonder if Zen could somehow be fitted into the patterns of a structuralist anthropology?  And if so, can it be “understood”?  And at once one can see that the question can probably be answered by “yes” and by “no.”

In so far as Zen is part of a social and religious complex, and in so far as it seems to be related to other elements of a cultural system—“yes.”  In so far as Zen is Zen Buddhism, “yes.”  But in that case what fits into the system is Buddhism rather than Zen.  The more Zen is considered as Buddhist the more it can be grasped as an expression of man’s cultural and religious impulse.  In that case Zen can be seen as having a special kind of structure with basic demands that are structural demands and therefore open to scientific  investigation—and the more it can be seen to have a definite character to be grasped and ‘understood.’

When Zen is studied in this way, it is seen in the context of Chinese and Japanese history [and culture]….  And then a lot of things about Zen come to seem important, even essential.  The Zendo, the zazen sitting, the study of the koan….the bows….the visits to the Roshi….  Zen, seen in this light, can then be set up against other religious structures—for instance that of Catholicism, with its sacraments, its liturgy,etc….  One can examine both of them and conclude that they have a few things in common.  They share certain cultural and religious features….  Nevertheless, studied as structures, as systems, and as religions, Zen and Catholicism don’t mix any better than oil and water….  All this is true as long as Zen is considered specifically as Zen Buddhism, as a school or sect of Buddhism, as forming part of the religious system which we call ‘the Buddhist Religion.’

When we look a little closer however, we find very serious and responsible practitioners of Zen first denying that it is ‘a religion,’ then denying that it is a sect or school, and finally denying that it is confined to Buddhism and its ‘structure.’  For instance, one of the great Japanese Zen Masters, Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, said categorically, ‘Anybody who would regard Zen as a school or sect of Buddhism and call it Zen-shu, Zen school, is a devil.’  To define Zen in terms of a religious system or structure is in fact to destroy it – or rather to miss it completely, for what cannot be ‘constructed’ cannot be destroyed either.  Zen is not something which is grasped by being set within distinct limits or given a characteristic outline or easily recognizable features so that, when we see these distinct and particular forms, we say, ‘There it is.’ Zen is not understood by being set apart in  its own category, separated from everything else….  …Zen is outside all particular structures and distinct forms, and…it is neither opposed to them nor not-opposed to them.  It neither denies them nor affirms them, loves  them nor hates them, rejects them nor desires them.  Zen is consciousness unstructured by particular form or particular system, a trans-cultural, trans-religious, trans-formed consciousness.  It is  therefore in a sense ‘void.’  But it can shine through this or that system, religious or irreligious, just as light can shine through glass that is blue, or green, or red, or yellow.  If Zen has any preference it is for glass that is plain, has no color, and is ‘just glass.’

In other words to regard Zen merely and exclusively as Zen Buddhism is to falsify it and to betray the fact that one has no understanding of it whatever.  Yet this does not mean that there cannot be ‘Zen Buddhists,’ but these surely will realize (precisely because they are Zen-men) the difference between their Buddhism and their Zen—even while admitting that for them their Zen is in fact the purest expression of Buddhism.  But, of course, the reason for that is that Buddhism itself (more than any ‘religious system’) points beyond any theological or philosophical ‘ism.’  It demands not to be a system (while at the same time, like other religions, presenting a peculiar temptation to systematizers).  The real drive of Buddhism is toward an enlightenment which is precisely a  breakthrough into what is beyond system, beyond cultural and social structures, and beyond religious rite and belief….”

So….a powerful but extremely controversial statement by Merton.  A goodly number of scholars and experienced Zen adherents, Western and Asian,  would disagree with Merton.  But if Merton is right, and I truly believe he really is so, then that gives you a better insight into how a religious tradition, no matter how ancient, no matter how “beautiful” can really go awry.  The fact is that every religious institution, practice, form, structure is prone to corruption; and not only “prone” but actually likely to deform and distort what it’s meant to communicate.  That’s why there are these historical “reform” movements….and renewal figures like Dogen and Hakuin in Japanese Zen Buddhism are examples.  And the cycle starts all over!

  1. The Roshi Thing

Among corrupt structures in Zen Buddhism, this one is big!  For one thing, this is  how the tradition supposedly travels through  history: the Dharma transmission from the master (roshi) to the disciple.  If this goes bad then you have a debilitating problem of major proportions.  I am not going to go into all the details that Lachs presents; suffice it to say he does a commendable job, but it is depressing to read.  But what interests me is the universal nature of this problem.  I saw something like this happening in my own Catholic ambience in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  There was this proliferation of “spiritual teachers,” spiritual directors, even borrowing a term from Eastern Christianity, “spiritual fathers” (and “mothers”).  And, oh yes, how many wanted to be seen as some kind of spiritual guru. Colleges and seminaries even began offering degrees in this.  A lot of people were taking on a role that they were  not spiritually equipped to play.  (So in Japanese Zen Buddhism when father  passes  a spiritual office/role to son, that’s obviously a problem.)  Incidentally, Plato said that the  person who desires to lead others is by that very fact the least qualified to be a “leader.”  I think that holds, with some modification,  for so called spiritual teachers.  Think about all those people, both in Buddhism and in Christianity, who now make a living doing this. It’s a big industry.   Makes one wonder.  Then there’s the sexual abuse problem….also present in Buddhism and an enormous problem in Christian religious circles.  A bizarre and extreme instance of that was exemplified by one of the Jesuit spiritual directors of Mother Teresa, Fr. Donald McGuire….he was discovered to be a profligate sexual abuser of children!  

The actual fact is that the reality of being a “spiritual teacher” in its full essence, a spiritual father, is a truly rare gift, not to be self-designated and maybe surprisingly so, a mysterious burden.  And this reminds me of the tradition of the hidden  zaddik in Hasidic mysticism.  The “specialness” of the hidden zaddik is completely concealed by God, even from the zaddik’s own eyes and mind.  He does not realize his own special gift, but in the community in which he finds himself he is the occasion of blessings and illuminations in the hearts of many.  One of the  hidden zaddiks was a village butcher; it was said of him that with every cut of meat one could feel the Holy Presence. (An interesting story  in this tradition can be found here:   Another instance is exemplified by Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima (modeled on a real Russian spiritual father), who is considered a “pretender” by most of his community…and when he dies his body corrupts exceptionally  fast, contrary to popular criteria for signs of holiness….so his spiritual fatherhood is completely hidden to  most eyes.  

In any case, no matter the rarity of this reality, there is the simple fact of someone having a bit more experience, a bit more knowledge, which can be helpful to a fellow-traveler.  Lachs has some good, common sense wisdom here:

This article is not saying that there is no place for a Zen teacher. As in any field, there is a need for experienced and knowledgeable teachers. However, crediting a teacher, by definition of their role or title, with exalted qualities he does not really possess, is begging for trouble. A Zen teacher can certainly assist his students in their practice, can encourage the students to be diligent, guide their meditation practice in both public and private meetings, offer aid in difficult times, talk about Zen texts to enrich the student’s sense of the tradition and explicate Buddhist and Zen ideas. Importantly, teachers can inspire followers by setting a living example through interactions with their students and others and, with the conduct of their own life, demonstrate that Zen practice can make one a wiser and more compassionate human being. In addition, as there are other practitioners around the teacher, it is helpful to be part of a community of fellow practitioners.

  1. Where have they all gone?

 The diminishment of Catholic monasticism and Zen Buddhist monasticism is quite obvious.  They are part of other, larger patterns of diminishment,  but I am not going to go into  that here.  Suffice it to say that both groups have “shot themselves in the foot,” “sawed the branch off that they were perched on,” etc….whatever other cliches one can think of.  Whatever blame you can put on the social conditions for this diminishment, ultimately both groups are largely responsible for their own shrinkage.  To show you how bad  things are in Japan, consider these two articles:

  1. Concluding remarks.

Let me begin with the foundational story of what is called Zen or Chan.  This is one version of it: The Flower Sermon:

One day the Buddha gathered all his key disciples as if to instruct them.  But instead of speaking to them, he held up a lotus flower before them.  All looked puzzled except Kashyapa; he only smiled.  The Buddha then spoke:

I have the eye treasury of the true Dharma, the marvelous mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, the subtle gate of the Dharma. This wisdom does not depend on letters, it is transmitted outside all formal teachings. I now entrust it to Kashyapa.”  

Let me now say that it matters not one  iota whether this story is a description of a historical moment or a myth rendered in these words.  The important thing is Kashyapa’s smile.  Yes, we see the smile in these words…so words can be useful, helpful….but the smile is a sign of a realization beyond all words.  No corruption can touch this smile; no scholarly analysis can make it go away.  The smile is always there.  And if you want to know what Zen is all about, you will need to look at that smile.

And here is Merton at Polonnaruwa (from The Asian Journal)…to help you:

“ The path dips down to Gal Vihara: a wide, quiet, hollow, surrounded with trees. A low outcrop of rock, with a cave cut into it, and beside the cave a big seated Buddha on the left, a reclining Buddha on the right, and Ananda, I guess, standing by the head of the reclining Buddha. In the cave, another seated Buddha . .. . I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything-without refutation-without establishing some other argument.  I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape figure, rock and tree …. Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. The queer evidence of the reclining figure, the smile, the sad smile of Ananda standing with arms folded …

The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery.” All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya  . . . everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely, with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains  but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage,  Asian or European or American.”


Monastic Musings, Part I

A  couple of very interesting things were brought to my attention not too long ago.  One was the apparent closure of a Trappist monastery in Colorado, Snowmass.  The other, a blistering critique of zen buddhism written in 2002 and still very current.  These two seemingly very disparate “moments” have quite a few fascinating connections.  Been pondering these for quite a while and will  continue to do so given what I feel  are important “signs” of things we need to be aware of.  What follows are just some preliminary reflections concerning the first item; the zen stuff will follow in Part II.

First, the Trappists in Colorado.  In some ways the closure  is a surprise; in many other ways, not so much.  Founded in 1962 (same year as the Trappistine Redwoods Monastery in California) in Colorado, in the high country  of the Rockies, a place of great beauty and peace, they seemed to be ideally situated to flourish as a monastic community.  But now there are only a handful of elderly monks, and the place is apparently not viable as a monastery.  The Trappist monastery In Utah gave up the ghost a few years ago; the few remaining monks ended up in a senior care facility in Salt Lake City.  From what I have heard all the Trappist monasteries are all extremely “top heavy” in elderly monks; some places with an average age well  over 70.  Does not portend well for the future.  This is all consistent with what we have seen in various other religious orders and in the priesthood in general.   But monastic life has some special interest because it makes some special claims about itself.  So the fact that young people are not coming in any meaningful numbers, and those who do come, do  not stay, this tells me this is a very significant sign.   

A personal note:  I have lived in a Christian monastic community for about 15 years.  I am a total believer in  the monastic charism;  I see  the monastic life as one of the most beautiful and most significant ways of life in the whole human experience.  But I also see some very serious problems with this phenomenon.

First of all, we need to realize and acknowledge the cultural/social dependence of monasticism as an institution.  A given society “allows” the monastic phenomenon to exist, to flourish; it gives it that critical space in which it can breathe and be itself.  Or it does not.  This notion  that  monasticism is “outside” society, its “difference” as a kind of badge of authenticity, is of course a delusion.  Think of  this analogous and most radical example….the sannyasi in India.  In his radical renunciation he is totally dependent upon the social/cultural matrix in which he finds himself.  You will not find him on the streets of New York, LA, or small- town America.  Even the notion of “renunciation” will hardly be acknowledged!  So….what I am getting at is that maybe this  culture of ours, this modern western society, is too toxic for monasticism to flourish.  Sounds too awful to be true, too pessimistic, etc.  But here I want to make an important distinction between monasticism as an institution and the monastic charism, that inner experience which translates into a sense of some kind of monastic identity.  There is absolutely no reason why monastic institutions, no matter how venerable, can or even should last.  There may be a natural life cycle for these institutions of birth, development, and death.  Even without the culture suffocating them.  But the charism, well, that will never end as long as there are human hearts.  Think of the young Chinese who retreated into the Zhongnan mountains to become Taoist and Chan hermits even during the most repressive era of modern China, and who keep coming even in this day of prosperity and a more relaxed rule.  They live a very different life from the big government-supported monasteries of the past.

So…while one could make an argument that whatever merits Christian institutions of monasticism had in the past,  those days are over, and while one could say it is finished as a human endeavor, this is not what I will say; but neither will I argue against that  point.  In a sense either you recognize the inner monastic reality and are drawn to it, or you are not. No institution can open the door to it.  No one can or should be “talked” into it or convinced that this is an important good for all of us.  Either you see it or you don’t.  However, a certain clarity about monastic identity (as distinct from the institution) is very, very important and critically helpful.  And this is where our problems begin…..  Both the liberals in Christianity and the conservatives have really muddled things, so it is really hard to appreciate the monastic charism in its essence.  And it is so easy for both camps to “close that door.”

Aristotle said that to understand something you need to look at it at its origin.  For Christian monasticism that would be the Desert Fathers of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Century Egypt and the parallel movements in Palestine and Syria.  Interestingly enough Vatican II, in its call for reform and renewal of all Catholic religious orders, asked every congregation to get back to the “spirit” and charism of its founding and renew and adapt to the modern world in that light.  When this was applied to monasticism, a serious mistake, in my opinion, was made.  The emphasis became: what are we….Benedictines, Trappists, Carthusians, Camaldolese, etc.  The emphasis was on the monk as a member of a particular “order.”  I know this is not a popular or even “acceptable” view…all these Orders are looked on as a charism of the Western Church, but I think this optic distorts our sense of what the monastic identity is. In some cases it leads to a real spiritual sclerosis that can best be evoked by borrowing a critical phrase from C. S. Lewis:  Churchianity vs Christianity.  An ersatz manifestation of the reality can look, feel, sound like the real thing, but the seeking heart knows this is not it.   In any case, these Orders are dying a natural death, a slow atrophying shrinkage, which  neither  conservative nor liberal gestures or ideology can save.  Reshuffling the furniture on the Titanic either in a liberal or conservative way is not going to save the ship.  But the monastic thing will live, will go on, all you will need are the eyes to see it.  And this “seeing” is very critical…what you see and how you see it.

A few words about monastic identity from the Desert Fathers.   The Sayings are largely not an easy, comfortable read for the modern sensibility!  What is important to remember is  that these words are not aiming at some universal  theory of monastic life but are particular words pertaining to particular people with particular problems and situated in a certain cultural/historical matrix.  However, there  is much we can learn from them if we read them right for they are constantly struggling with this thing of monastic identity: Who is a monk? What makes one a monk?  What is monastic praxis? Etc.  After all THIS is a “new thing”; here we are at its origins….at least for  Christianity.

Now if we take the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and read each saying and anecdote looking for some insight about monastic identity, we will easily go wrong.  Their “words” are not like “arrows” pointing at this reality, not formulas or recipes, not a map.    Rather, the words, sayings, examples, anecdotes, etc. are more like a marvelous display of concentric circles, like in the figure below.


Now imagine each saying as being one of these circles, and at the very center is the heart of monastic identity, silent, transparent, almost as if nothing were there…. Some sayings will  be very close to that center; some will be rather far….but the whole collection, if you really look at it with understanding, will be this marvelous “focusing agent,” a “target” if you will, for what is essentially nameless, wordless, beyond concept, an unspeakable poverty of constructed identities.  

That great figure of the Desert, Macarius,  is reputed to have once said, “I have not yet become a monk, but I have seen monks”…. speaking of some “Egyptian sannyasis” he had witnessed in the wilderness.  Any program of monastic renewal should ponder this saying for a long time!


It is Easter time, and it would be appropriate to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s Resurrection in the Christian scheme of things.  However I want to do something different; I would like to approach this from a purely personal standpoint, not from theology, or scripture, or philosophy, or anthropology, but start from the fact of death, my own death, not death as an abstraction.  I am in my late 70s, and I see so many of my contemporaries dying around me.  The reality of death is not some far-off experience for someone like me, even if I live into my 90s.  

It fascinates me to see the different attitudes/visions of death, its meaning, its approach, that people have.  Consider the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who wrote these lines as his father was dying:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And then there is the New Testament, Pauline cry: O Death, where is thy sting?

There is a striking difference in the emotion behind each statement, but what is more striking is the commonality underlying the surface difference.  In both cases death is envisioned as something of an “enemy,” something which is at war with you….  In the first  instance, it is kind of despairing, you go down “fighting,” but you do go down.  In the second instance, death is defeated or its seeming victory is manifested as a fraud.  

These are pretty much the views present in Western Civ, both secular and Christian.  Of course, the majority of this population does not care to reflect on the reality of death; diversions of any  kind, even the most self-destructive, are preferable.  And modern culture is very, very capable of providing these.  However, this majority group is still basically in the same camp: death is something to be feared, something definitely negative….don’t even think about it.  

Now I myself never fit in with  any of these camps.  I remember very well standing next to the body of my dead father when I was four years old.  It was a wake; there’s a photo of that moment.  My father was killed in an accident, a sudden shocking event in my life.  I am only 4, but I am not crying and I am not shielded from the reality.  In the photo I am standing next to the open casket looking at my dead father.  Yes, there is a certain sadness in the young face, a sense of loss. All natural feelings.   But the dominant feeling in that sad gaze is that I am looking at something that is totally opaque to me; there is nothing here that I can grasp in any way, that I can have any hope of understanding.  There is an absolute finality to death, a door that can’t be opened, a wall beyond which you cannot see.  That young gaze is encountering the Mystery of death, a great, profound, universal mystery which every human being encounters in one way or another.

So begin the stories, the speculations, the theologies, the myths, the diversions….it all begins when we gaze upon that impenetrable Mystery…death.  And it is amazing, all the interpretations we try to give to this Mystery, the different attitudes, the varied visions….  At the heart of Christianity is the Resurrection of Christ; he endures death, but it is ………and here you can fill in a lot of different words:  overcome, defeated, transcended, and the phrasing can be changed in a lot of ways, from the pop, superficial, filled with our ego-fulfilling fantasies, to St. Paul’s (in some passages) truly profound respect for the unspeakable nature of  this death/Resurrection.

But from early on I began to feel something lacking, something not quite right with the usual Christian “read” of death/resurrection.  Not that it was fundamentally wrong, but that it seemed a stifled vision of things, due mainly to the fact that even our deepest theological, and should I also say “mythic,” vision was impoverished by the limitations of the religious mindset of the Semitic and Hellenistic cultures.  Recall the profound change of vision in Abhishiktananda and even Merton as they encountered the deepest traditions of Asia.  For me it all began about age 14, in faltering steps, as I started reading ancient Taoism and Zen.  To make a long story short, I eventually developed a rather different vision and approach to the Mystery of death.  And if your vision and interpretation of death changes, so will your vision and interpretation of resurrection.

Death is not my “enemy,” something to fear, not because it  has been “overcome,” but because it never was that.  I see myself as a member of what Gary Snyder calls the “Community of All Beings,” like in those ancient Chinese paintings, where human beings are a small part of a great Whole.  Gary Snyder, one of my favorites and someone who has strongly influenced my vision, as a kid dropped out of Christianity.  Why?   In Sunday School he was told animals don’t go to heaven.   As Snyder put it, “The moral engagement with the nonhuman world was nonexistent in Sunday School.”  Already as a kid he had a different sensibility and a different vision…probably due to his spending a lot of time in the wilds of the Northwest as he was growing up.  For Snyder, the human community was only one of many.  

 St. Francis’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” so rare in Christianity, is a hint of all this—too bad that most Christians take this as a pious sentiment.  So I see myself as part of this Wholeness in which death is a normal process, really a process of transformation.  And all beings can be said to participate in this process.  (We have to pause to point out that we are focusing on the simple reality of death, not its surrounding circumstances.  If someone is tortured and dies, there is nothing “natural” about that torture and suffering, and it’s obviously quite different than dying in old age.  The injustice surrounding the former can truly be said to be “overcome” in the Christian read of things called the Resurrection.)  And all beings can be said to participate in this process.

So what does Resurrection mean in this light?  Maybe it points to the Divine Presence within this Community of All Beings.  But more than that, it makes the Mystery of death into the greatest adventure and revelation of all existence.  Death seems to strip us of everything, all we have, all we achieved, all we know,  all our credentials, all our images, everything that we think we are, that’s why from the standpoint of our ego, it seems like oblivion and nothingness, an absolute poverty of being, symbolized so well by the authentic sannyasi.  Christ’s Resurrection means that we can yield and surrender to this process.  To echo St. Paul, what we shall be, we cannot put into words;  but we will not be without that Wholeness which is the real fabric of our being, only now totally illuminated by the Mystery of the Divine Presence.  And perhaps the very special Christian contribution to this vision is that the Reality you surrender to in death is Absolute Love and Compassion, Infinite Mercy.   And if death is seen as some kind of impenetrable veil , well, let us again borrow from that great Sufi, Shaikh Ahmad Al-Alawi,  :

“It is not a question of knowing God when the veil be lifted, but of knowing God in the veil itself.”


As a kind of “Ps.” To this reflection, here is a quote about St. Francis from a Benedictine website!

“Francis invites us to embrace rather than battle Sister Death, to love not to despise Sister Death, to welcome not to shun Sister Death. Saint Francis’ invitation not to live in fear of death or with hatred toward death opens our life as it did that of the saint to the joy of eternal life. Someday Sister Death will greet us and we will go home to our God who created us, loves us, and redeems us through Jesus our Savior.

As Francis lay dying in a small hut built for him near the chapel of San Damiano where he had heard God’s call for him to rebuild the church, he wrote The Canticle of Brother Sun, considered to be the first poem written in the Italian language and certainly one of the most profound. The poem of praise to God for all of creation concludes: ‘Praised be my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death, from whom no living person can escape.’”


The continuing Saga of Lent

This Lent I was pondering the great jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane.  A man of incredible spiritual sensitivity and vision.  He played during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and his album, A Love Supreme, is considered a masterpiece, both musically and spiritually.   The article on this album in Wikipedia is worth reading:

If one’s view of “spiritual music” is restricted to “church stuff,” good or bad, Gregorian/Russian Orthodox chant, or sentimental hymns, well, then one will miss the beauty and power of what unfolds in this work of art.  Merton is known to have listened to Coltrane on a phonograph in his hermitage; he was so moved by it.   Granted, Coltrane’s kind of music is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is beneficial in deep ways to encounter his kind of vision.  

Look at this quote:

“God breathes through us so completely, so gently we hardly feel it, yet, it is our everything.”

For Coltrane God is the Great Saxophonist, and our lives, our very existence, is His Music.  Lent is a time for beginning to hear THAT music, and perhaps with the Sufi dervishes, to enter the Dance of all Being.

Not many jazz musicians spoke like this:

“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being… When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups.”

Then, there is this little-known cogent expression that is overflowing with common sense:

“I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.”

This applies not only to old classical music but even more so to the classics of spirituality and yes even the old sacred texts of all the great traditions.  Speaking of which, it is very interesting that Coltrane was not a full member of any of the great traditions.  Usually this is not recommended for anybody; it is just too easy to get “lost” and end up in a weird spiritual fog.  But Coltrane was one of those rare people who had a profound spiritual compass to  keep him on track.  He was one of those people exemplified by Rumi’s famous quote:

“The lovers of God have no religion but God alone.”

Another companion this Lent, who brings out another side to Lent, is Chris Hedges.  Ok, I read him all year round, and yes, reading him makes  it feel like Lent 24/7, 12 months of the year.  He is  not easy, uplifting reading.  And he seems to be a “one-rant man,” not much variety in what he says; sometimes it gets a bit numbing.  But most Importantly, Hedges is our version of Jeremiah, the great and difficult Old Testament prophet.  At times he seems to overstate his case; at other times he seems to miss something important; but there is also an unavoidable truth in his provocative vision.   The quote below is from a speech he gave recently to a group in Washington, DC.:

“Idolatry is the primal sin from which all other sins derive. Idols tempt us to become God. They demand the sacrifice of others in the mad quest for wealth, fame or power. But the idol always ends by requiring self-sacrifice, leaving us to perish on the blood-soaked altars we erected for others. 

For empires are not murdered, they commit suicide at the feet of the idols that entrance them. 

We are here today to denounce the unelected, unaccountable high priests of Empire, who funnel the bodies of millions of victims, along with trillions of our national wealth, into the bowels of our own version of the Canaanite idol, Moloch.

The political class, the media, the entertainment industry, the financiers and even religious institutions bay like wolves for the blood of Muslims or Russians or Chinese, or whoever the idol has demonized as unworthy of life. There were no rational objectives in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Somalia. There are none in Ukraine. Permanent war and industrial slaughter are their own justification. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing and Northrop Grumman earn billions of dollars in profits. The vast expenditures demanded by the Pentagon are sacrosanct. The cabal of warmongering pundits, diplomats and technocrats, who smugly dodge responsibility for the array of military disasters they orchestrate, are protean, shifting adroitly with the political tides, moving from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party and then back again, mutating from cold warriors to neocons to liberal interventionists.

These pimps of war do not see the corpses of their victims. I did. Including children. Every lifeless body I stood over as a reporter in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Bosnia, or Kosovo, month after month, year after year, exposed their moral bankruptcy, intellectual dishonesty, sick bloodlust and delusional fantasies. They are puppets of the Pentagon, a state within a state, and the weapons manufacturers who lavishly fund their think tanks.   Like some mutant strain of an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, they cannot be vanquished. It does not matter how wrong they are, how absurd their theories of global dominance, how many times they lie or denigrate other cultures and societies as uncivilized or how many they condemn to death. They are immovable props, parasites vomited up in the dying days of all empires, ready to sell us the next virtuous war against whoever they have decided is the new Hitler. The map changes. The game is the same.”

Hedges has a very intense Biblical vision, and here he reminded me of an absolutely critical theme in the Bible: idolatry.  This has always meant and always will mean one key thing:  the falsification of that Ultimate Absolute Reality which we call  God.  The “idols” of primitive cultures are merely the fingerprints of this illusory dynamic which is very much with us in the modern world.  I think I will leave it at that….this is a “monster” topic for pondering.  Trust me, it is not a simple, easy to grasp thing!

And to conclude this Lenten reflection here are two samples of spoof ads from my favorite magazine: Adbusters.




Religion, the Self, & the Veil

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.”

                                                                       Meister Eckhart

“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.”

                                                           Ramana Maharshi

“Who am I?”

        Ramana Maharshi

“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.”

                           Bayazid Bistami

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!!


The Road to Hell…

Before I begin a special request for your support as I move through the healing process of an agressive Prostate Cancer. I’ve never done any kind of fundraising but need help at this time. If you are able please visit:

The Road to Hell

That phrase appears in various contexts:  like a kind of marker of pop wisdom, “The road to  hell is paved with good intentions”; or as a lyric from a rock song; or as a catch- all for all kinds of bad situations, etc.  But here I want to allude to its use recently by the General Secretary of the UN, Antonio Guterres, as he put it bluntly:

“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.  We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing.”

From what has transpired at COP27, it looks like no national leaders have taken the General Secretary’s words seriously.  But here I would like to expand the full impact of that statement to include our (U.S.A.) political culture and our social and economic “climate.”  And I would like to begin this reflection with an episode shown on CNN….here is  the link:

Jordan Klepper, a CNN reporter interviews this white, middle-class woman who is an “election denier.”  Klepper asks her about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.  She says it was a peaceful gathering.  She says she turned off her TV when it started showing the attack because that “was not what was happening.”  This person is living inside her own bubble…her own world of “truth.”  Only what pleases her is accepted as true, as fact.  That is a scary and dangerous place to be.  And what is even more disturbing is that millions of Americans, the overwhelming majority, both conservative AND liberal are in the same boat.  I don’t think that modern social media caused this, but it certainly enabled it, enhanced it, and thoroughly cemented it in the national fabric. Everyone, liberal or conservative, has their own truth now or what passes for the truth; and maybe you might want to say that this is simply the human condition.  But now we seem even unable or unwilling to dialogue, to discuss our differences, to try and understand the “other guy.”   Everyone lives in their own bubble of “reality.”  Postmodernism provided an ersatz intellectual foundation for this social climate: “there is no objective truth,”  “all truth is a social construction.”  What this leads to is a very real “road to hell.”

Our political culture is one stage on which this is so clearly manifest.  Look at this video of an interview of comedian and satirist Bill Maher.  While I have found myself often disagreeing with his Libertarian politics and while he predicts the election wrong (as so many pundits did),  I think here he offers at least a partially helpful insight into this polarization:

And then there’s this conservative law professor and her experience at one of the top law schools in the country:

Then there’s this story, both funny and alarming.  Recall the bizarre world of professional wrestling…it is all a staged show.  One guy dresses and acts the “good guy” role, the “hero”; and the other guy is “the villain,” “the bad guy,” like in Grade B westerns.  They put on a show pounding each other, while the crowd vents quite loudly their feelings of approval or disapproval.  Well, it appears that two wrestlers who were going to tour West Virginia thought it would be a good show if one of them was labeled as “Progressive Liberal,”…he would be the “bad guy”!!  It turned out that this worked too well….the crowds not only got worked up, but the show was on the verge of spilling over into violence against that one wrestler.  

Historically something has happened in this country that is hard to explain.  We have a very large segment of the population that seems unable or unwilling to talk civilly about their political and social differences….they seem paralyzed by a mirage of suspicions and a lust for power to overcome “the other.”  Then, also, there is a sizeable segment of the population that seems truly impossible to reach with reasonable discourse as fellow citizens.  The recipe for social chaos and violence is there.  The road to hell.  How and why this happened is a complex story, but lets point out one element of this story:  the role of the Democratic Party in getting us here.   

You would think that the Dems were mostly innocent in creating this scenario but like I said the history is complex and long.  It begins in the 1930s, during the Depression, when FDR built a powerful coalition with the working class, the poor, the intellectuals.  In the 1960s LBJ added Blacks and the Civil Rights Movement to that coalition. The Republicans had the large business class.  We all know how that turned out!  The Republicans tried various nefarious tactics to wrest power from the Dems; and each tactic worked to erode a truthful dialogue/debate about policy.  For example, during the Cold War the common campaign tactic of the Republicans was to call the Dems “soft on Communism.”  This scared people.  Then came “the Southern strategy,” the Republican alliance with segregationists, “States Rights” people, white peoples fear of Black ascendancy, etc.  A whole host of other issues were trotted out, but at the heart of it all and hidden was Coolidge’s famous maxim:  What’s good for business is good for America.  Peel away all other arguments and you will see that’s why we have a for-profit health-care system and why education is becoming a consumer commodity, and why our natural world has been trashed, etc.  

The last Dem to speak with the power to hold FDR’s coalition together was Bobby Kennedy in 1968, running for president before being gunned down.  Today there is an echo from that past in Bernie Sanders, but it’s very telling that Bernie’s language about “class warfare”  does not really connect very well even though it captures the truth more so than any other analysis.  

About two decades ago historian Thomas Frank focused on one State, Kansas, and did a close study how the political/social culture got transformed from strongly progressive to intensely right-wing (even “conservative” is not an adequate description…Frank was conservative while in college).  Here’s how Frank begins:

“Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers – when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists’ furthest imaginings – when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work – you could be damned sure about what would follow. Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.”

Frank writes a whole book (What’s the Matter With Kansas?) analyzing the change in Kansas from 1900 to 2000.  There are a number of factors that led to this amazing transformation, but it is striking how the Dems themselves contributed to this situation by retreating from economic liberalism to focus on social liberalism.  It is a complex picture, but here is Frank zeroing in on a core point:

“The Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and — more important — the money of these coveted constituencies, “New Democrats” think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation and the rest of it.”

Now we have this awful situation where a significant segment of the population has been trashed by the “System,” and they are angry and their anger is mostly irrational and chaotic, not addressing any real problems, and due to successful “brainwashing” by certain elements in the Republican Party this anger is aimed primarily at so-called “liberals,” “progressives,” or simply Dems.  But the sad fact is that the folks they are angry at are mostly NOT liberal or progressive.  Take President Biden for example.  We vote for him because we legitimately fear the other side.  But his track record is hardly progressive!  This puts us on a “road to hell,” but simply a bit slower, more gentle ride….   Here Chris Hedges documents Biden’s sad record:

One has to say, however, that there still are some progressives who know how to speak to their people.  Who knows, maybe their number will increase….  Here is one such example:

And then we have to place this whole political dysfunctionality in the context of a massive social and cultural decay.  And strangely religion seems to be of no help here.  Just recently I read this piece in the National Catholic Reporter about the latest big meeting of American bishops—the gist of the story is the “continuing slide of the American bishops into irrelevance.”  The country is awash with guns—there are about 393,000,000 guns in the U.S…..please take a  look at this chart:

The whole country, rural and urban, poor and well-off, is saturated in drugs of all kind.  Gambling is mesmerizing more and more people and corrupting more and more of our cultural institutions….even higher education.  Take a look at this story:

So at this point a key question does arise: In the face of all this, what do I do as an individual?  There is no “American Gandhi” on the  horizon to tell us “I know a way out of hell.”  So first of all we need to use whatever resources we can muster to deeply reflect on our communal condition and our own roll and place in this mess.  Here’s just a small example from Chris Hedges when he was a young reporter for the New York Times, covering the Bosnian war in the 1990s:

“ During the war in Bosnia, I worked my way through the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” The novel,  populated with 400 characters, was not an escape from the war. The specter of death and the expiring world of La Belle Epoque  haunts Proust’s work. He wrote it as he was dying; in fact, Proust was making corrections to the manuscript the night before his death in his hermetically sealed, cork-lined bedroom in Paris. 

The novel was a lens that allowed me to reflect on the disintegration, delusions and mortality around me. Proust gave me the words to describe aspects of the human condition I knew instinctively, but had trouble articulating. He elucidates the conflicting ways we perceive reality, exacerbated in war, and how each of us comes to our own peculiar and self-serving truths. He explores the fragility of human goodness, the seduction and hollowness of power and social status, the inconstancy of the human heart and racism, especially antisemitism. 

Those who see in his work a retreat from the world are poor readers of Proust. His power is his Freudian understanding of the subterranean forces that shape human existence. The novel is grounded in the bitter wisdom of Ecclesiastes: The beauty of youth, the allure of fame, wealth, success, power, along with literary and artistic brilliance, reap a horrendous toll on those beguiled by them, for they are transitory, and perish. “

Secondly, when we speak or act it  must come from the heart, not from our spasmodic, chaotic feelings and delusions, which all of us experience.  Cheap sentiments won’t help us; manipulation of people won’t bring us peace. Self-serving obfuscations will only blind us more and more. (During the pre-election period I happened to see a number of political ads touting this or that candidate.  Not owning a TV, I was amazed at what I saw….all kinds of misleading half-truths in an attempt to manipulate our perception, and a whole bunch of mud-slinging…from both sides.)   In our darkness we need to make all our words, all our acts, bearers of clarity, of wisdom, of love, of compassion, and most of all (in Gandhi’s spirit) of truth.

I am reminded of my friends, the ancient Chinese poets and  hermits who often lived in terrible times—a lot to learn from them; and I am also reminded of Boris Pasternak, who wrote Doctor Zhivago during the height of Stalinism.  Read Merton’s account of this great writer and his wisdom in Merton’s Disputed Questions.

Solitude, Hermits, and All That Kind of Stuff

Before I begin a special request for your support as I move through the healing process of an agressive Prostate Cancer. I’ve never done any kind of fundraising but need help at this time. If you are able please visit:

Some preliminaries:

  1. If you go to You Tube and type “Chinese Hermits” in their search engine, you might be surprised to see a whole bunch of videos.  Most of them are good; a few are a bit “odd.”  The best ones are connected, one way or another, to Bill Porter (aka, Red Pine).  Many years ago when I was in a seminary studying theology, I had a Chinese friend who knew of my inclinations toward the hermit life, and one day she tells me to my astonishment that the Chinese culture has had a very prominent tradition of the hermit life for thousands of years.  There were not the organized “religious orders” like in the modern West; more like the Desert Fathers, folks who would go out into the wilderness, into the mountains for the Chinese, for a period of time, or for life, as a spiritual journey, usually Buddhist, sometimes Taoist.  
  1. Porter, who was fluent in Chinese and acquainted with this tradition, went to China about 1989, when China began opening up.  He was curious to see what, If anything, was left of the hermit tradition after Mao and the Cultural Revolution.  What he found was a still strongly surviving hermit presence in the  mountains.  The numbers were down, but the life was still being lived and growing.  Porter wrote a book about his journey to find the hermits, Road to Heaven.  It hardly got  noticed here in the U.S.; but when it got translated into Chinese, it became a “best seller” over there.  The Chinese people themselves were delighted to find out that their hermit tradition, although weak, was still alive and going.  Several of the You Tube videos follow Porter on several return visits to the mountains where he retraces his steps from decades ago, showing what has changed and what hasn’t.
  1. In the videos you see the usual presence of old hermits, but also a surprising number of younger people.  There is significant disillusionment with the materialism of modern China, with the corruption, with the doggy-dog competition for success, and with an authoritarian political life.  So the search for “something more, something different” gets an impetus.
  1. What struck me about all these Chinese hermits, young and old, was their basic humanity (the Buddhists very clear; the Taoists not so much; modern Taoism has little connection with ancient Taoism).  What you find among them are simple, down-to-earth people, serious and intense in their practice of meditation, lightsome in all else. Getting along as best as they can with no frills or  no need of approval.  My two favorite videos were these:



The first one is titled:  Assignment Asia: A Modern Hermit in China.  It features a young Chinese woman who has been living as a hermit for a few years.  She showed a graceful maturity, strength of character, and a keen common sense in her assessments.  The next one is titled:  Amongst White Clouds.  It opens on a very deep note, and I will return to this shortly.

  1. Chinese culture and history are filled with profound paradoxes and disturbing contradictions.  This was also true in religion.   No culture has produced a deeper and  more  mystical vision of our relation to the natural world, and this is evidenced in its artists, poets, and religious thinkers.  And yet you will not find a civilization that has experienced more ecological degradation than China.  A disturbing enigma!  In one of the videos,  Porter is visiting some temples in Xian, one of the major cities, and you notice the incredible air pollution.  You wonder how they can breathe!  A reality and a symbol of the problem.

The Heart of the Matter:

  1. Amongst White Clouds opens slowly…you hear a man’s voice in Chinese slowly, calmly saying something, and these words appear in the subtitles:

“Once delusion is extinguished, your wisdom naturally arises, and you don’t differentiate suffering and joy.  Actually this joy and this suffering, they are the same, the same.”

His face is intense, and he seems to be himself amazed at his “discovery.”  We can begin by saying we are out of our depth here!  But first we badly need to make a point here—one does not say such things casually over a latte….!  One does not say such things to a person suffering either physically or mentally….this is not like some kind of verbal pill that offers relief….  These words flow out of an inner illumination that is beyond all words and concepts, and it is only in such a context that you can even ponder the meaning of such a statement.  In a sense this hermit gives us a koan through which we must view the hermit life. 

The video begins with these words, and as it continues and you see a lot of the interesting (and sometimes bewildering) externals of these engaging people, that statement stays with you as a reminder of the depths this life engages….the silent, secret “heart of this life.”

  1. Switching to the West, in our society there are people who simply live alone for one reason or another.   They are often called “hermits.”  These are not the folks I will be referring to.  Nor even necessarily the people who are members of religious orders or officially recognized by  the Church which allows some to live as hermits of one kind or another.   The key word now becomes  “solitude.”  Often used  as equivalent to “hermit,” and that’s ok; but it really points us to a deep inner reality.  Solitude is an aloneness that can be external, but primarily it is an inner reality.  And the person who has written most profoundly about this is of course Thomas Merton—and the quintessential Merton teaching can be found in an essay, “Philosophy of Solitude,” found in Disputed Questions.  

This solitude, then, is not the aloneness of an individual, separate and isolate from others, standing apart and “looking down” on the mass of humanity.  (And sadly this kind of solitude is not limited to cranky, eccentric malcontents but often could be found in formal religious settings.)  Rather, this solitude is the “aloneness” of unity where there is no ”other.”  But to the “solitary one,” whoever he or she may be, whether in a religious order or someone just seeking a deeper meaning to their life, this deep solitude will at first not manifest itself; maybe only as a kind of gentle loneliness, as a bewilderment of what passes for normalcy, as an inability to take seriously the projects,  the pieties, the obsessions, the “games” of his/her neighbors.  In due time this solitude will become the illumination that is born within when “delusion is extinguished.”  There is no locus, no method, no label, no map, no “way” for any of this.  But the physical hermit, as he/she journeys into this Mystery, is an icon and a reminder of “the heart of the matter.”  In their silent, ordinary life, the hermit gradually becomes lost in a solitude he/she cannot explain.

Let us listen to Merton as he emphasizes interior solitude even and especially for the physical hermit:

“…men and women who  have not so much chosen solitude as been chosen by it.  And these have not generally found their way into the desert either through simplicity or through innocence.  Theirs is the solitude that is reached the hard way….  To say that they have been ‘found’ and chosen by solitude is a metaphor that must not be taken to mean that they have been drawn into it entirely passively.  The solitude of which I speak is not full grown and true until it has been elected by a deep interior decision.  Solitude may choose and select a person for herself, but this person is not hers until he has accepted.  On the other hand no amount of deciding will do any good, if one has not first been invited to make that decision.  The door to solitude opens only from the inside.  This is true of both solitudes, the exterior and the interior.  No matter how alone one may be , if he has not been invited to interior solitude and accepted the invitation with full consciousness of what he is doing, he cannot be what I call a monachos, or solitary.  But one who has made this choice and kept to it is always alone, no matter how many people there may be around him. Not that he is withdrawn from them, or that he is not one of them.  His solitude is not of that order at all.  It does not set him apart from them in contrast and self-affirmation.  It affirms nothing.  It is at the same time empty and universal.  He is one, not by virtue of separation, but by virtue of inner spiritual unity.  And this inner unity is at the same time the inner unity of all.  Needless to say, such unity is secret and unknown.  Even those who enter it, know it only, so to speak, by ‘unknowing.’

“It should therefore be clear that one who seeks to enter into this kind of solitude by affirming himself and separating himself from others, and intensifying his awareness of his own individual being, is only traveling further and further away from it.  But the one who has been found by solitude, and invited to enter it, and has entered freely, falls into the desert the way a ripe fruit falls out of a tree.  It does not matter what kind of a desert it may be:  in the midst of men or far from them.  It is the one vast desert of emptiness which belongs to no one and to everyone.  It is the place of silence where one word is spoken by God.  And in that word are spoken both God Himself and all things.

“Often the lonely and empty have found their way into this pure silence only after many false starts.  They have taken many wrong roads, even roads that were totally alien to their character and vocation.  They have repeatedly contradicted themselves and their inmost truth.  Their very nature seems itself to be a contradiction.  They have perhaps few ‘clear signs’ of any vocation.  But they end up nevertheless alone.  Their way is to have no way.  Their destiny is poverty, emptiness, anonymity.”

Some Additional Notes:

  1. Important to remember that “solitude” and the “hermit” do have different interpretations, different valuations, different meanings as we look at various historical periods and various cultures.  What Merton is saying is meant for the modern West and this highly complex technological culture and a climate of mass humanity.  You would have to greatly modify what he says if you were talking about, for example, a pre-modern tribal culture.  Lets explore this a bit.

What is the root meaning of the word “hermit”?   Eventually its roots can be traced back to the ancient Greek word “eremos,”  meaning a place that is uninhabited,  empty, desolate, a wilderness, a desert, etc.  Thus a hermit is a “person of the wilderness.”  Also, if you dig deeper,  the Indo-European root of the Greek eremos is “erem,” which indicates “to rest, be quiet”—interesting that the Sanskrit word, “ramate,” comes from the same root and means “to rest,” also the Lithuanian “rimti,” to be quiet.

Now all this is very interesting…the eremos, the place of the hermit is set in contradistinction to the village, the town, the city, where the work of civilization goes on.  Out there, “outside civilization,” or “the human dwelling place,” there is great ambiguity.  In some places the “bad person,” the unwanted one, is expelled from the human environment; he/she becomes the “outsider.”  In some situations, the person goes out voluntarily, perhaps temporarily, leaves the accepted human environment to discover the point of their life and their real identity.  Remember that for premodern cultures who you are is pretty much determined by your membership in the group.  So when a young Native American would go out “into the wilderness” on a  “vision quest” that would tell them who they really are and the point of  their life, as an initiation into adulthood in their tribe, this already shows a need for “something more” that transcends the group.  He/she temporarily becomes an “outsider,” a person of the wilderness, to receive something that the collective cannot give  him.  Of course the young person  now returns to take their place in their society, but now with an enhanced sense of their identity that in turn enriches the community.  Another kind of situation occurs In ancient China:  the Buddhist /poet who usually holds a high place in the Confucian social order is either expelled or flees from the “red dust” of the city(referred to  here in previous postings).  Buddhism can be practiced in the city, but when the person goes out  into  the landscape of “mountains and rivers,” becomes an “outsider” of sorts, then something deeper unfolds.

Now lets switch scenes.  In the Gospels we find Jesus going out to the “eremos” to pray, and then there is the “Temptation in the Wilderness” episode.  Really the essence of it is a matter of Jesus’s identity, who he is.  In a very real sense Jesus “extinguishes delusion” in this wilderness and affirms that his real identity is an absolute gift of  his absolute unity with the Absolute Mystery whom he now can call “Abba, Father.”  Note also how Jesus is now always an “outsider,” not a man of the city, certainly not what we would call today a member of  the establishment.  In one Christmas reflection, Merton mentions that in the Nativity accounts, it is the shepherds, the folks outside the city, who are first to receive the “Good News.”  They are the remnant of the true Israel who with Moses had to go out to the “eremos” to discover their true identity, the meaning of their very existence.  Later on in Christianity, the desert monks follow this pattern, and one will totally misunderstand their teachings unless one sees this pattern and this dynamic of “extinguishing delusion.”  

As an example of how badly the whole thing can be misread and misinterpreted, consider the example of the early American colonists, the Puritans.  For them, the wilderness was the locale of the Devil, the Evil One, not a place for one of “the Elect.”  In fact, those who were “native” to the wilderness or were “influenced” by it partook of this evil and needed to be “extinguished.”  This explains both the witchcraft fears and a hidden attitude  that manifested in the continuing saga of cruel injustice toward Native Americans, whose very culture was practically extinguished.  (Please do not fall for the “Thanksgiving myth!)

  1. Looking at a book like The Book of Hermits, whose author is also the person behind the interesting website, “Hermitary,” can be confusing.  On the one hand, it is a comprehensive survey cutting across all  ages and all cultures to give brief accounts of people one way or another connected with solitude.  But the problem is  that the book makes no effort to distinguish between the “real” and the “ersatz.”  I think that approach is problematical.  Just living alone or talking about solitude does  not make one a hermit or living solitude, unless one is using such terms only in a sociological sense.  Then one has a potpourri of examples, but it all can be very misleading.  The person who recently attacked Paul Pelosi was described by his neighbors as a “loner,” he lived alone.  Enough said.
  1. Reading some parts of Merton, you could get the  idea that living in solitude is a breeze, only fulfilling, deeply satisfying, always relieving one of what was bothering one, the problems just falling away, etc., etc.  Here’s a couple of quotes from his personal journals that say “Not exactly!”

“I see more and more that solitude is not something to play with.  It is deadly serious, and much as I have wanted, I have not been serious enough about it.  It is not enough just to ‘like solitude’ or love it even.  Even if you like it, solitude can wreck you, I believe, if you desire it only for your own sake….  Solitude is a stern mother who brooks no nonsense.  And the question arises—am I so full of nonsense that she will cast me out?  I pray that she will not, and I suppose that is going to take much prayer.” 

“Unfortunately even in solitude, though I try not to and sometimes claim not to, I still depend too much emotionally on the idea of being accepted and approved and of having a place in society.  But obviously there is no such thing as absolute solitude.  Even my solitude is my place in society.”

“The solitary life, now that I really confront it, is awesome, wonderful, and I see I have no strength of my own for it….  It seems to me that solitude rips off all the masks and all the disguises.  Everything but straight affirmation or silence is mocked and judged by the silence of the forest.”

And so we end on the note that began this reflection:  the extinction of delusion and the wisdom that then naturally arises.