“. . . the most to be pitied” (III)

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we of all people are the most to be pitied.”

1 Corinthians 15:19

2,400 words

There are many indications in the Dhammapada, one of the earliest and most basic collections of the Buddha’s sayings, that he took for granted that human behavior would be judged after death.  But as a motivator, these traditional Hindu beliefs about re-incarnation kept the focus fixed on this world because the punishment for failing to live a moral life was to return to earth until you do.  The Buddha translated that to mean you would remain enslaved to the same insane insistence on chasing pleasure and amassing the resources needed for creating a secure permanent self ― goals that are simply impossible in a universe where everything composes and decomposes ― that caused your re-birth. It turns living into an endless cycle of insuperable frustration. No worse punishment could be conceived.

Buddha said delusional craving was the cause of all the human-generated suffering that individuals inflict on themselves and on others, with whom they compete in a zero-sum game of amassing the wind. It was to that ensuing suffering, dukkha, that Buddha addressed himself exclusively. Dukkha was that anguish, unique to human beings, that came from yearning uncontrollably for what is not available: permanent happiness. It was his only motivation: ending dukkha.

Buddha did not see the problem as the absence of the object of our insane quest as Paul did, but rather the quest itself. It’s not that what we yearn for is not at hand . . . impelling us to look for it or pray for it or create it which only intensifies the craving  . . . but the craving itself, which is insatiable. Once the thirst is seen as the true problem and we begin to direct our efforts at eliminating it, we make a consequent discovery that would not have occurred to us otherwise: we never really needed the thing we thought we could not live without. The cessation of craving which brings the end to human suffering, is the doorway to a realization ― a well-kept secret ― we already have everything we need to live in a state of continuous joy. That realization and its deliberate habituation through meditation into a steady state-of-mind, he called nirvana ― the other shore.

Notice: with enlightenment nothing physical or metaphysical changes. You are living in the same world, with the same experiences you’ve always had. The only difference is that you experience these things without selfish desire. Once craving for what does not satisfy ceases, clinging to life in order to continue amassing what does not satisfy also ceases. Hence you “go beyond life and death.” You can embrace death with equanimity, which is sometimes expressed as “going beyond being and non-being.” But enlightenment is accompanied by a new joy in living; it is not a yearning for death, a misconception we will deal with later.

Now the Buddha did not expect that this emotional transformation from living in a state of constant craving and dissatisfaction to a joyful embrace of reality as it really is (in its “suchness”) would take place easily or instantaneously. He offered a program for the long-term re-educa­tion of the conatus through the practice of meditation, mindful attention to the present moment, faithful dedication to morally (socially) right living, and the controlled withdrawal from the automatic pursuit of what we like, and avoidance of what we don’t like.

He did not define good behavior as obedience to a “God”-person, but rather as the intelligent concurrence with the common sense norms that guaranteed health, individual peace of mind and harmony in the human community. He called those norms the Dharma and they were ends in themselves. The word Dharma had the sense not of a code of laws issued by a ruling divinity but rather the “Law of Nature” or “the way things are.” Following the Dharma was like having a healthy life-style; it made you strong, stable and clear-headed. His entire focus was “with this life in view.” He related neither to a “God” who dwelt in another world nor to any suggestion that human beings would want to live there rather than here. It simply was not part of his perspective. His only goal was to end dukkha.

Just as the Buddha’s program was not a compliance with external norms, it was also not an intellectual exercise, a drawing of practical conclusions from theoretical assumptions and premises. The Buddha claimed he was simply putting into words the experiences he himself had gone through. It was the carefully articulated and meticulously detailed directions for changing the emotions. He assured his listeners that it worked. It necessarily achieved the transformation of the emotions, but it did not do so directly.

The agent of change was to end the craving that provided the emotional interface that shaped and colored reality as we perceived it. By eliminating the craving for objects of desire, suddenly those objects began to be perceived differently. What they were, changed, because the “fog” of desire through which they were perceived had disappeared. Specifically, the frustration and “unsatifactoriness” of all of life ― the suffering, the sorrow ― that accompany ceaseless cravings is transformed into the experience of continuous joy.

That is not the conclusion of a syllogism. No one who has not experienced it can prove that it is true. And that transformation from sorrow to joy cannot be experienced unless someone practices the program ― does the hard, slow and incremental work of “starving the tiger,” eliminating craving by denying its urgings which in turn require changing the mindset and the behavior that nourish it. All the proofs come from experience, and the results are counter-intuitive. It feels like we are denying ourselves what we really want, but in reality we are beginning to embrace things as they really are, without the strobe-light fantasies of our selfish desires laying a blinding dazzle, or repulsiveness, on reality that is really not there.

Buddhism and the Judaeo-Christian tradition

The transformation of the emotions and the cessation of desire are not religious objectives for those who have been brought up in the Judaeo-Christian traditions of Western Europe. We are focused more narrowly on change of behavior. This, of course, is due to the emphasis on obeying the commandments, codified in the Hebrew scriptures, which enjoin right behavior alone. Personal health, individual peace of mind and a harmonious, prosperous community were the results of compliance with the Creator’s will but were thought to be gifts personally bestowed by God as a reward for obedience.

When compared with the Judaeo-Christian vision, notice how the Buddhist process inverts, or at least subordinates the place of behavior in the scheme of things. “Right behavior” for the Buddha is the instrument, the tool, the “practice” that will eventually end craving. Right behavior while it is an end in itself is not the end of the process as it is for the followers of “the Book.” It is rather the path to the ending of suffering which only comes when craving ends.

Contrariwise, since the very object of the Judaeo-Christian believer is right behavior as the expression of submission to “God” in creaturely obedience, once that right behavior is achieved, the very goal of religious pursuit has been attained. The process ends. The conditions for moral living have been satisfied, there is no theoretical reason why anyone should go further. The only thing remaining is sustaining it.

But that is exactly where the problem is. If the craving has not ceased but is only postponed, which is what Paul’s argument in Corinthians implies, its constant suppression in forcing right behavior tends to create a heightened emotional tension. Two psycho-spiritual effects can result from this unremitting tension: (1) the practitioner falls, i.e., fails to sustain the right behavior and yields to the craving. This corresponds to Paul’s complaint in Romans that the good he willed he could not do , and the evil he did not want to do he did. Or (2) the practitioner does not fall but by not having eliminated the craving becomes “miserable.” Devotees generate a subconscious anger because of unsatisfied desire that turns life bitter. Self-direc­ted anger in modern parlance is called depression. Ancient Christian desert Fathers had accurately identified this one-two punch almost two millennia ago. They called it despondency.[1]

This state of unsatisfied desire experienced continuously over a long period of time creating depression and anger can intensify and broaden until it becomes all-consuming for the individual. The “sorrow” loses its specificity and grows to include all of experienced reality. Life itself, for the eternally frustrated, becomes a torment that one yearns to have end. The bitterness expressed in the mediaeval poem Carmina Burana immortalized by Carl Orff in his striking musical piece, reflects exactly this almost unbearable domination of the poet by his/her frustrated desires. This can create a craving for extinction.

Buddha was not unaware of this potential development. He was quite emphatic that his call for the elimination of selfish desire ― sometimes called “extinguishment” ― should not be confused with a craving for extinction, a form of nihilism. Buddha did not condemn all desire. Desire is good if we desire what is good and in the measure in which its satisfaction is good and possible. Following the Dharma guarantees that desire will be wholesome and balanced. He called it “the middle way” and it corresponded to the Greek ideal of the mean between two extremes. Buddhists generally are careful to modify the desire that is to be eliminated as “selfish,” which they describe as “bound up with passion and greed.” Texts in the Tripitaka of the Pali Canon use the word trishna meaning “thirst.” It is most often translated as “craving” and they identify three kinds: “there are these three cravings. Craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. These are the three cravings.” [2]

The first is self-explanatory. The second refers to the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” which claims that all things, including one’s own body and resulting psychological identity, are in fact the products of the “dependent co-arising” of a multitude of causes all of which enter constitutively into the actual reality that we call the self. There is really “no self” apart from the existence and healthy functioning of its causes. When they disappear, the “self” disappears. It is we, then, from selfish desire who generate the fiction that we are not our multitude of causes ― that we are separate and independent of them and that we will not disappear when our causes cease to function. This craving and the passionate pursuit of permanent existence and the self-aggrandize­ment that it engenders is a major cause of the suffering we heap on ourselves and others.

The third, the desire for extinction, is also a craving. It is the eventual result of the despondency and despair that accompanies the eternal frustration of selfish desire. It’s what results from the failure to satisfy the first two cravings ― a failure that is inevitable ― and the failure to let them go. One commentator on the Dhammapada describes the craving for extinction as: “. . . the oppressive desire for self-oblivion or self-destruction prompted by the revulsion with life that comes as the fruits of selfishness turn rotten and bitter.”[3]

This thirst for extinction is the polar opposite of the desire for nirvana, the release from the cycle of birth and death. Nirvana is the release from trishna (“thirst,”) itself, from the torment and conditioning of selfish desire; its characteristic features are joy, a love of life and the highest of all purposes, the desire and capacity to give.[4]

It is difficult to ignore the implication of the Buddhist program: that the Pauline insistence on the resurrection (which molted historically in the West into the traditional emphasis on reward and punishment after death) represents exactly the obsessive craving for permanent existence and the self-aggrandize­ment of the human person that the Buddha identified as one of the major causes of human suffering. In fact it might be fair to say that Buddhism represents precisely the effort to identify that obsession as delusional and let it go. And the irony is, that when the cessation of desire is achieved and the obsessive pursuit of pleasure and permanent existence disappears, the desire for extinction that accompanies frustrated desire also disappears. Depression evaporates even as a possibility and the resulting spontaneous love of life produces an abiding joy and release of energy that has caused people to claim they had been “reborn.” All cravings can be let go, and the craving for extinction is revealed in that moment as something we had been clinging to because we did not want to let go of the selfish desires for permanent existence and happiness that generated it.

Paul’s pity expressed in the epigram from 1 Corinthians is an indication that he never contemplated the possibility that desire could be “extinguished” and that those who achieved it would no longer need to have such desires satisfied in the afterlife. For Paul, it appears, selfish desire was insuperable. Either you delay gratification until the afterlife, or you act out your desires here.

Whatever the actual case for resurrection turns out to be, two and a half millennia of Buddhist practice contradicts the argument that without it we are condemned to lives of gross immorality. Jesus himself never displayed any lack of confidence in his listeners’ ability to do what was right, and live with joy and generosity, once they understood that they were in the loving embrace of a forgiving “father.” I feel supported in my trust in LIFE when I hear of people following Jesus’ “way” with this life only in view. Their attitude shows an unconditional appreciation for LIFE and trust in its processes.

[1] Bunge, Gabriel, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus, St Vladimirs Seminary Pr, 2012 (1983)

[2] Bhikkhu Sujato. Samyuttanikaya: Linked Discourses, 38:10 (Kindle Locations 14736-14737)

[3] Stephen Ruppenthal, introductory remarks to chapter 24 of the Dhammapada, tr. Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Berkeley, 1985, p. 232.

[4] Ibid.

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“. . . the most to be pitied.” (II)

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we of all people are the most to be pitied.”       

1 Corinthians 15:19

That statement of Paul’s was uncharacteristic of a Jew. In Paul’s time, Jews did not believe in an after-life.  Besides, the remark had an arrogant and demanding tone that was more typical of Greek attitudes dominated by the belief that human beings were immaterial spirits unnaturally imprisoned in their bodies of matter.  The Greeks were focused on an “other world” of divine spirit where our “souls” supposedly originated and to which they returned at death after escaping from their dungeons of flesh. They were quite passionate about it. If a world­view did not relate to the existence of the immortal human spirit, it was not worth considering. We are not animals.

The mystery religions that flourished in the ancient Mediterranean world reflected this Greek obsession with spirit and the afterlife. And it was to the mystery religions that Paul turned for an interpretation of the Christ event. Paul taught that the Christian was ritually immersed in the death and resurrection of Christ the way the mystēs was immersed in the death and resurrection of Demeter and Orpheus, Isis and Mithra. For Paul, the resurrection was more than a sign of divine approval for Jesus’ authenticity as a messenger, it became the message itself, the mysterion (Latin: sacramentum), the ritual-vehicle that would transport us to the other world. In a thoroughly Hellenized culture where religious practice was constituted by the pursuit of life after death, one can understand the appeal of Paul’s proclamation. Christianity, because of this emphasis of Paul, stopped being a heterodox Jewish sect and became a Greco-Roman religious cult.

The paradox that lies under the surface of early Christianity is that Jesus himself was a Jew and expressed none of the focus on life after death that was central to Paul’s message. Jesus’ preaching as reported in the gospels, was most definitely “for this life only.” This is more than a mere matter of emphasis. Jesus did not offer life after death as the motivation for the humble, generous, just and loving behavior he encouraged. In the tradition of Job and the Jewish prophets he conspicuously avoided any motivation based on reward or punishment either in this life or after death. The motivation, like the behavior he called for, was love. He told his fellow Jews to imitate their loving Father who was just, compassionate, generous and forgiving. “Be like your heavenly Father who makes the sun shine equally on the just and the unjust.” . . .   His model prayer, the “Our Father” said “forgive us as we forgive others.”

Paul and Jesus

I believe what we are dealing with are two very different religious visions: (1) Jesus’ renewal of Judaism grounded in an emphatic re-characterization of Yahweh as “loving Father” and the rejection of earlier imagery that painted him as warrior king and punitive lawgiver, and (2) Paul’s focus on the Hellenistic pursuit of life-after-death, proven by the real resurrection of Jesus to be more than wishful thinking, confirming Greek hopes.

The arrogance of Paul’s statement is a first clue that his message was different from Jesus’. Paul sits in judgment on reality itself and finds it wanting. If living morally is the only way to be authentically human, and we are not able to live moral lives without radically altering the natural course of human life which ends in death, then, indeed, it is not possible to be human, because there is no way to avoid death. I believe it was Paul’s merger of the two sources of his formation that accounts for this bizarre metaphysical judgmentalism. The Greeks had decided that their theory about the immortal immaterial soul was scientific truth, and those that did not accept it had to believe that we were only animals. The Jews, for their part, were convinced that they were God’s chosen tribe destined to political supremacy over all the other tribes in the world. If Jesus was the messiah, for Paul it meant that God was bringing the whole world into submission to Jewish salvation history. Put these two delusions together as Paul did in his own head and you’ve got an ideology with an attitude. It laid the foundations for Christianity’s subsequent tendency to demand the submission of all other traditions to its own.

But consider how presumptuous this is. Paul claims to know exactly what God’s intentions are for humankind and therefore how “God” structured the world and directed human history. In Paul’s attitude there is nothing of Job’s blinding insight that, while he could not explain Yahweh’s behavior, he realized he knew so little that his only valid reaction had to be an awed silence.

Job’s was the proper reaction. If God is as utterly unknowable and his designs as unfathomable as theists have always claimed, then the door must be left open for possibilities that we cannot imagine. Who are we to decide that death, which, is the destiny of absolutely every single living thing on earth, is “unnatural” in the case of humankind . . . a claim our Platonist Christianity has sustained for two millennia despite the indisputable evidence that every single last human being that has ever lived has died and no “immortal soul” has ever been encountered.

Besides, by arrogantly deciding that if resurrection is not part of the picture “we are the most to be pitied,” Paul is implying that alternatives are not authentic and cannot be considered reliable guides to life. He ignores the fact that Jesus himself encouraged people to live moral lives without ever invoking resurrection following the entire Jewish tradition for a thousand years before him. Were Jesus’ listeners being misled? Were all those people to be pitied?

Don’t misunderstand. I am not trying to disprove the resurrection. That’s not my point. I would personally be overjoyed if we were all to come back to life as ourselves to be united once again with the people we love. I am not hoping there is no resurrection, I’m simply saying, against Paul, that even if there is no resurrection, nothing changes. Our sense of the sacred and our trust in LIFE remain the same. No one is to be pitied. Faith in the resurrection might make it easier for some to live a moral life, but that doesn’t invalidate other views. All are obliged by their humanity to be moral, even those who find resurrection incredible.

Resurrection is either real or it’s not. If Christian beliefs are true, my denying them won’t make them disappear, any more than believing them will create them.   Whatever the case may be, we have absolutely no control over what happens to us after death. All we know is that we die and we cannot bring ourselves back to life. That means that if we are to come back to life someone or something else that we cannot see or control has to do it. It is not in our hands. Everyone is equally powerless. Christians have no more control than anyone else. They, too, have to trust that “God” will bring them back to life after death.

TRUST IN LIFE

This finally brings us to the core of the issue: trust. Belief in the resurrection does not change reality, it changes my attitude toward reality. It offers no more guarantees than human life itself in whose processes we have to trust implicitly.

For consider: Our dependency on the forces of LIFE is so universal, so deep and so insuperable that no matter how willfully selfish and anti-social we decide we are going to be, we still have to trust in the biological processes that must continue to function efficiently if we are to carry out our nefarious plans. We have to trust that the multiple organic operations of our bodies, alimentation, respiration, elimination, circulation, the proper release of neurotransmitters guaranteeing perception, insight, thought, memory, many of which we do not fully understand, will work without error or interruption. And then there are the events that create our very identities and roles in society: conception, gestation that brought us from conception to birth fully equipped for life as independent biological organisms, the ontogeny that impeccably brought us to adulthood along with the generative sexuality that allows us to reproduce. None of us has personal authorship or control over any of these things. Everything about us and our life with others has been handed to us, developed over immeasurable eons of deep time by an evolutionary process that has adapted our organisms perfectly to our environment. We have implicit trust in all this. We have no choice. Trust in LIFE is the sea we swim in. It is the inescapable attitude, conscious or not, that characterizes the relationship that we have to being-here. Our organisms are programmed ― they are hard-wired ― to trust in LIFE.

Trust in death

Given that trust is the very condition that defines us, it should come as no great surprise that even as our lives wind down and we approach death, we are spontaneously inclined to continue to trust. The fear of death is a learned response; it should not be confused with the flight from danger which is a biological instinct, a reaction to a living perception that evaporates as soon as the threat has passed. Death is different. The organism has no notion of death because no one living has ever experienced it. Death is a mental construct, pure product of the imagination. Trust, I contend is instinctive. It is the simple seamless continuation of the way we live our lives from moment to moment. Given that life is a very long unbroken series of trusting moments no one is spontaneously inclined to suddenly decide that some next moment cannot be trusted. Something has to intervene to break that chain.

It is very difficult to be afraid of the moment of death without conceptual intervention and a considerable amount of projection. We imagine what death must be because we see what it has done to all the people that have passed through it. Using this gathered data, our minds create an abstract concept which, in fact, is at odds with our spontaneous trusting expectations. Our instinctive inclination is to embrace with joy each now moment as part of the process of living.

Now resurrection, life-after-death, is itself a projection of the imagination that is obviously generated to neutralize the death-concept. No one living has ever experienced resurrection, even those that claim to believe in it. But it is even more remote than death, for while we have evidence that people have died, no one living has ever seen anyone who has come back from the dead. All “data” in this regard come from the records of ancient people who themselves are dead, and never came back to life. That the belief in resurrection can overcome such a huge credibility gap tells you how powerful the urge is to trust LIFE.

Now my point in all this is to identify “human bedrock,” by which I mean the ground beneath which there is no ground. It is the sine qua non for living a human life. Resurrection is not bedrock, as Paul’s arrogant statement seems to claim, a psychological human need so deep that without it, it is impossible to live humanly. For resurrection as a psychological operator functions as magnet for a trust in LIFE. It restores the trust that our organisms are programmed for.

I contend that trust in LIFE is human psychological bedrock. And that means that without trust in LIFE we cannot lead human lives, we cannot be sane, we cannot be moral, we cannot love ourselves or others, we cannot build a human world. And the trust we have in LIFE, while it gives us absolutely no information whatsoever about what happens to us as conscious identifiable selves after death, has the potential to override the absence of evidence about life after death.

But in order for it to do that, trust in LIFE has to neutralize the exaggerated import­ance of the self which, to my mind, is at the root of Paul’s arrogance. Resurrection as we have imagined it correlates to the human individual self. Our trust in life has been detoured into an expectation that the individual “self” will live forever. The bitterness and disillusionment characteristic of modern times in the lands of the West, in my opinion, is directly due to having been sold a bill of goods about our selves that was sheer fantasy. Having taken Paul seriously, when it became clear to many that there was no resurrection, their love of life itself was destroyed by the conviction that “we are the most to be pitied.”

The “Self”

I believe that the transcendent importance that we have accorded ourselves as identifiable self-conscious individuals, (requiring resurrection if we are to trust LIFE) is a cultural phenomenon, not metaphysical. It is characteristic of Western Christianity and the cultures that it has shaped. It is the result of the artificial expansion and intensification of a psychological focus on oneself that was always open to being situated anywhere along a fairly wide spectrum of importance. In other words, it is our culture that has made the “individual” the super-important thing that we project it to be. Our culture under the tutelage of our dualistic religion has cultivated the appreciation of the individual person well out of proportion to what it might have received from other cultures. We are not unaware of this. For many it is a source of great pride and admiration. It has given rise to what we call western values which includes the dubious legacy of belief in our superiority and the right to impose our way of life on the rest of the world.

That importance is culturally inflated but not created out of nothing. Self-awareness and self-prioritization is a universal biological experience. All animal organisms display it. But, falsely defining the human person as a “divine” eternal “spirit” destined to live forever without the body precisely because the “self” is not the material biological organism it appears to be, is the cultural bellows that forced air artificially into the “self” expanding it in size and visibility. The individualism of the West is an exaggerated, overblown, cultural artifact grounded in the unfounded belief in the separable human spirit as a metaphysical “thing” of divine provenance, different from every other thing in the material universe. The cultural context of belief in the human “soul” as immaterial immortal spirit skews the perception of what the human individual is, well beyond the conclusions that would be drawn by experience if left alone. The evidence that we are material biological organisms is undeniable; but there is no evidence that there is an immaterial thing called a “soul” that continues to exist after the death of the body, none whatsoever.

Once the exaggerated importance accorded to the human person has been reduced to the proportions that the evidence will support, we are left with a biological organism that is able to perform extraordinary functions that go beyond what organic matter in other biological configurations is capable of, but at no point do they propel it out of the orbit of the organic and biological. Even the human mind, which we identify as the “self,” is a material phenomenon whose human functions can deteriorate beyond recognition well before they cease entirely at death.

Trust in LIFE, then, is trust in the material processes, micro and macro, physical, chemical, biological, from which human beings have been elaborated and in which they remain immersed and borne along. Trust is a direct corollary of the recognition that we ourselves are an emergent form of the matter-in-process that constitutes this entire cosmos of things. We trust the process because we are the emanations of the process. We are evolving LIFE in its most forward manifestation. It has produced us and elaborated in the most exquisite detail all the organic tools we would need to interact successfully with the environment. Both that and what we are we owe to the process. Death is an integral part of it.

The key is to not be distracted by the fears and apprehensions generated by the mind, for we have no idea what death brings. And like Job, our ignorance calls us to silence. Whatever death brings is what LIFE has devised as a necessary component of our being-here. We have to trust it. We know no more about it than our coming-to-be-here itself. If we have trusted LIFE implicitly up until now what could possibly cause us to stop trusting it into the future, except unrealistic expectations based on who we have been told to think we are. Our unnatural demand that we live forever as our “selves” is born of the delusion that we are not part of nature and that what applies to the rest of biological life constructed of organic matter does not apply to us. It’s time we disabused ourselves of that fantasy, which indeed makes us, of all of living things in this vast and awesome universe, the most to be pitied.