Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.

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Psalms 85 to 89

PSALM 85

Background. A community lament, possibly post-exilic but historically undetermined. Murphy thinks that if the restoration mentioned in v.1 is the return from the exile, then this new plea may have messianic allusions. The anticipated salvation is personified as a “kiss” between earth and heaven: a symbol of the contract. The messiah was still an earthly messiah.

Reflection. This psalm has been given a “prophetic” messianic interpretation, probably originally from the Jewish community after the exile nostalgic for the Davidic kingship and then by Christians who applied it to Jesus. From a general Buddhist point of view, however, “salvation” can only mean enlightenment ― that through fidelity to meditative mindfulness we see clearly the structural impermanence that characterizes the human condition, stop looking for an escape for a fictional “self,” stop calling on help from an outside source that does not exist, and re-train ourselves out of mutual compassion to bind with our fellow humans in a community of justice and loving-kind­ness. Later Mahayana Buddhists would claim that the very possibility of conquest over samsara implies the existence of a True Self, a Buddha-nature, that ante-dates the false self-created by our delusional dreams. What emerges from the stripping away of the layers of meaningless habits of self-indulgence, self-aggrandize­ment and self-protective isolation, is something that was there all along: a Real Self, the resonance of living in accord with the Dharma, LIFE’s path, something we share together with all things. That Real Self the Hindus call Atman, Brahman, and I call LIFE’s energy ― a notion that corresponds to Meister Eckhart’s idea of the “Godhead” and the Sufis’ concept of Allah. We are THAT, every bit as much as the material energy of which we are constructed. They are the same thing.

1 LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.

2 You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.

3 You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.

That is a gross deflection. LIFE is never angry. We are the angry ones, unreconciled to our condition. We rebel at what we are, biological organisms in a world of living matter, and the severe limitations that places on us ― the greatest of which is death. Will we stay angry forever? When will we accept what we are, impermanent, perishing creatures, and start having compassion on one another. We are all in the same boat. Grabbing food from a starving companion only infuriates everyone, including yourself; it intensifies everyone’s suffering.

4 Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.

5 Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?

6 Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?

It means learning to love ourselves, forgive one another for we are all driven by the same conatus to live forever in an entropic universe where all things decompose and die. Reconciling ourselves to our condition brings peace. We are the offspring of LIFE. We can let go. Rest in the flow of LIFE that carries us. There is nothing to do. There is no place to go.

7 Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.

8 Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

We can dodge death for only so long. Everyone will eventually lose friends, family, and the accomplishments of a lifetime. Building a “legacy” that will live in the memory of others is a pallid alternative to immortality. It only fools us while there are those that even care to remember. But they also disappear in the general emptiness, and the colorless shadows that their pale light had once cast on the wall of history disappear with them. Earth and heaven will finally meet when we accept what we are. That moment will be, for us, like a Cosmic kiss: what we are, and what made us what we are, will finally be one thing.  And living in the present moment — the eternal Now — is a foretaste of that ultimate event.

10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.

12 The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

13 Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

 

PSALM 86

Background. A personal lament of generic focus. It appears to have borrowed a great deal from other psalms and so gives the impression of being a “boiler plate” offering used perhaps as stock prayers for sale by the temple priests and paid for by suppliants in court cases. Murphey says “LORD” in this psalm is Adonai, not Yahweh.

Reflection. Regardless of its origins, this poem expresses the same sentiments as others of this genre. The same metaphors apply. The “enemies” are the enemies of LIFE, the Dharma-path of justice and compassion that turns the earth into a community of loving-kindness.

1 Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.

2 Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God;

3 be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.

4 Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

5 For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.

6 Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.

7 In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.

8 There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.

9 All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.

10 For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.

LIFE is our LORD. The world is the work of LIFE. It is everyone’s undisputed LORD and we bow down before it. The Dharma-path is the “truth” of LIFE. To love LIFE is to walk the truth of the Dharma-path with undivided heart.

11 Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

12 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.

13 For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

Our enemies are our false selves; those fictional creations of ours meant to conjure up a reality that does not exist and which, at any rate, we do not need.

14 O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them.

15 But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl.

17 Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.

 

PSALM 87

Background. A Hymn of praise on the occasion of an undetermined feast. Mt Zion, the place of the Temple, is central to the worship of Yahweh who rules all peoples. As the universal ruler, Yahweh is assumed to have a register of his citizens … and they are from everywhere. Diaspora Jews also live in all these nations mentioned, and many were born there. The image of the presence of Jews in these lands meshes with the universal rule of Yahweh which also paradoxically means that all peoples are also citizens of Mt Zion.

Reflection. LIFE is comfortably metaphorized by the imagery in this poem. The residence of LIFE is in all things composed of living matter, the energy of existence everywhere, but most especially in humankind who are LIFE’s mirror and agent. LIFE’s living matter is the Source from which all things arise. We are all the offspring of LIFE. We are all the mirrors and agents of the Way of Dharma, fundamental morality: justice and compassion. This establishes a reciprocal relationship of all people to one another. We are all born of LIFE, we are all pilgrims on the Way of the Dharma, I belong as much to any one of my brothers and sisters in LIFE as they belong to me. We are one family.

1 On the holy mount stands the city he founded;

2 the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

3 Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God.

4 Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia — “This one was born there,” they say.

5 And of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in it”; for the Most High himself will establish it.

6 The LORD records, as he registers the peoples, “This one was born there.”

7 Singers and dancers alike say, “All my springs are in you.”

 

PSALM 88

Background. An individual lament, conspicuous for the absence of any belief that divine help was forthcoming. It has been described as the only psalm where there is no victory, no redemption, no release … no sense of hope. And yet the psalmist insists on voicing his complaints to “God.” He may not expect help but he expects to be heard.

The poet is “lying in his grave” from some relentless misfortune, and feels utterly forgotten by Yahweh whose “wrath,” he thinks, lies heavy upon him. He sinks beneath Yahweh’s waves, high water being a frequent symbol of death and chaos in the Hebrew scriptures. Not only can he not count on Yahweh’s help, but Yahweh somehow has insured that even his human companions, friends and family, shun him. They look on him with horror. He is utterly isolated.

It is remarkable that this psalm was even included in a collection of what are very often pious formalities built on the common belief of miraculous divine intervention held in common by the tribes of the ancient near east. It stands as a credit to the poetic and religious integrity of the psalmists and redactors. This poet has the courage and candor to “tell it like it is,” a rare virtue.

Reflection. This psalmist speaks to the human condition like no other. His imagery is peppered with allusions to “the Pit,” Sheol, the place of death and lifeless shadows. There is not the slightest hint that there is any way to escape his destiny. This psalm holds our feet to the fire. We are all deniers. We find it very difficult to admit the truth, that, sometimes for everyone, and for some individuals virtually all the time, life can be intolerable. I am reminded of my friend, Tim, an outdoorsman who at 48 years old fell and hit his head. He severed his spinal cord at the base of the cranium and became paralyzed from the neck down. Lack of blood flow to his legs meant that an earlier wound would could not heal and one leg had to be amputated at the hip. He had to breathe with a respirator and he could only speak by having air diverted from the respirator to an artificial sound box. Doing so was dangerous, however, and on one occasion he went into respiratory arrest when the diversion was attempted and failed. I would pray this psalm in his stead for he was indeed a man who was already “lying in his grave” unable to move arms and legs, unable to speak and communicate, left for days on end to the ministrations of a paid staff of caregivers who were all too inclined to use opioids to relieve his anxiety and save themselves from his constant demand for company and communication.   Like Jesus on the cross who could not move either arms or legs, I thought I could hear him crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? Was such suffering pointless, or was it redemptive? Jesus himself, I believe, was not sure. We have no idea to what depths suffering can reach … it seems there is no limit. Our clinging to LIFE and our dedication to the Torah, the Dharma­path, has to include these possibilities, for they are all too real. The Disneyland mirage is a myth of the worst kind. It is a massive cultural collusion designed to encourage confidence that technology’s consumer products, including modern health care, is actually a way out of the human condition.  There is no way out.  The only way is in.  Embracing LIFE as it is, is the only way.

1 O LORD, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence,

2 let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.

3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.

4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help,

5 like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.

6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.

Suffering that entails isolation is the most awful of all. How do prisoners survive months and years in solitary confinement? At this very moment there are human individuals all over the world who are suffering more than we could ever imagine. Nothing says it couldn’t be me. Nothing says it has to be someone else. It’s almost like LIFE is angry and is punishing me. I feel like a leper. People shun me; they smell the residue of burnt flesh and want no part of it. I am trapped and alone.

7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

8 You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

9 my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you.

So I turn to LIFE, but LIFE will not extract me from my sufferings. LIFE is not a god who works miracles. LIFE is not in need of worship and praise so there is no sense cajoling. LIFE needs only a place to live … live, then, in me, but save me!

10 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you?

11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

12 Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

But I am what I am. I do not know how to die. I cannot ignore this overwhelming desire to live. LIFE, I bear your face, your features, your character, your conatus, your DNA. I am your offspring. I see my face but I don’t see yours. Does the suffering and isolation have to include blindness as well? Why do you hide your face? Of all my sufferings, this is the worst. Why do you hide your face?

13 But I, O LORD, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14 O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?

15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.

16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me.

LIFE, I do not apologize for complaining.  What I need now is a god of miracles: someone out there with power. I am dying. I need help, not insight. Until I can let go of my need to live ― a need I got from you ― I will rail against my fate. I don’t know what else to do. You’ve left me to deal with it alone; my one companion is darkness.

17 They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me.

18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my one companion is darkness.

 

 

PSALM 89

Background. This psalm is divided into two sections: a long first section of formalities of praise and repetition of the standard truisms of Yahweh’s power and fidelity to his promises. The object of the promises, however, is not the Hebrew people, but, in a glaring departure from traditional expression, that of the king alone, and he is emphatic in reminding Yahweh of the promises he made to David. Then the poet turns to the second and last part: a lament and open chiding of Yahweh for not upholding his side of the bargain. Suddenly it becomes clear: part one was flattery. Yahweh was getting an ego-massage to set him up for what the psalmist apparently thought would be an irrefutable argument that Yahweh could not ignore ― that you have not only abandoned your contract with the king, but you have allowed your own honor to be trampled in the dust. What power-soaked near eastern autocrat could allow such sentiments to be expressed without reacting?

Roland Murphy (Jerome Biblical Commentary, OT, p. 592) bizarrely misses the dynamic of this psalm and with astonishing naïveté suggests that there were two authors or two totally different psalms inexplicably redacted together. In my opinion, this unaccustomed obtuseness on his part can only be due to an unwarranted attribution of “divine inspiration” that imagines the psalms as devoid of negative sentiments ― pique, ill-will, deviousness, cynicism, even sarcasm ― toward “God” that a more secular critic would be quick to notice.

It confirms for me that the psalmist is working out of a very primitive and simplistic theological framework. For this poet what makes Yahweh “God,” is power. The poet lives in a world where all human action is a response to and an expression of one person’s power over another, in the family, in the fields and workshops, in business and trade, in politics local and international. Not much has changed in practice since then, and so we can easily be sucked into maintaining these familiar attitudes by allowing them to guide our prayer. But we must honestly acknow­ledge: they are obsolete. They have been superseded. We use them as prayer only out of deference to our tradition. They must be purged of what disqualifies them. If they cannot be reasonably updated without breaking bones they must be discarded.

The psalm is also conspicuous for its almost exclusive focus on Yahweh’s promises to the king, not as usually presented, as part of his contract with the nation. That makes the theology erroneous, even for that time. This is another hint that we are dealing with a self-serving religious manipulation that had the audacity to use some liturgical occasion to shore up autocratic power and avoid “regime change” by appealing to Yahweh. The intention was to utilize whatever resource was available: in this case divine help. It used a prayer format but there was little of sincere religious devotion there.

The later Christian use of this psalm as a prophetic announcement of the universal political power of a future messiah they identified as Jesus the Christ adds to its unacceptability. That distortion derives directly from the psalm’s original exclusive focus on the Hebrew king.   By linking together the exaggerated theocratic intentions of the psalmist and an unwarranted identification of that king with Jesus, it was all by itself as impactful as any other factor in the total gutting of the gospel teaching on power as service. It was used to justify the mediaeval Papacy’s claim to universal secular power. This linkage is a complete fantasy and it must be broken. One way to begin doing that is to strip the psalm from its place in the canonical hours. It should no longer be prayed by Christians.

Reflection. This psalm is another object-lesson in how we have to approach scripture in general, and ancient prayer in particular. Just because the psalms are found in the “Bible” doesn’t mean that they express authentic religious sentiments that we can allow to guide our relationship to LIFE. Our first and most basic reaction to the psalms has to be to read them as literature and history. We have to understand the level of religious and scientific development that the poets of that time reflect. We then have to judge whether these sentiments are appropriate for our relationship to LIFE and the moral path we are enjoined to follow, or can reasonably be understood in our terms. Even ignoring gross literalisms, many of the psalms express a dynamic ― a relational attitude ― that is simply unaccep­t­­able. Giving some “things” mentioned in the psalms (nations, enemies, even Yahweh) a symbolic function may work in some cases, but changing the relational dynamics is another thing altogether. It will often simply distort the poet’s meaning beyond acceptability. I believe this psalm, like others that we have encountered in this study, is in that category. I think we are better off just reading it as an historical religious artifact. An obsolete museum piece.  A primitive religious phase that we are well rid of.

1 I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

2 I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David:

4 ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.'”

5 Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones.

6 For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,

7 a God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around him?

8 O LORD God of hosts, who is as mighty as you, O LORD Your faithfulness surrounds you.

9 You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.

10 You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.

11 The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it — you have founded them.

12 The north and the south — you created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.

13 You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand.

14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.

15 Happy are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance;

16 they exult in your name all day long, and extol your righteousness.

17 For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted.

There is no mention made of Yahweh’s power on display at the exodus from Egypt. At times in the OT, “Rahab” is used a symbol of Egypt, but it seems not to be meant that way here, and is simply a symbol of chaos and of Yahweh’s universal power established by creation. It should be noted that “universal power” is what gives Yahweh power over the other gods that represent other nations. This in my opinion is what is driving the poet: getting Yahweh to assert his dominance in the council of the gods to prevent some impending international catastrophe from occurring to the Israelite king.

18 For our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel.

19 Then you spoke in a vision to your faithful one, and said: “I have set the crown on one who is mighty, I have exalted one chosen from the people.

20 I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him;

21 my hand shall always remain with him; my arm also shall strengthen him.

22 The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him.

23 I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.

24 My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him; and in my name his horn shall be exalted.

25 I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.

26 He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’

27 I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.

28 Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm.

29 I will establish his line forever, and his throne as long as the heavens endure.

The exclusive reference to the king, his line, his special relationship to Yahweh, the range of his power and the complete absence of any mention of the nation, is a clue to the theological eccentricity here. This is not orthodox Yahwism; it is the king arrogating to himself the prerogatives of the whole nation. The people are mentioned as potential transgressors, but even granting the total failure of the people, the psalmist demands that Yahweh’s fidelity to ”his king” should not be shaken.

30 If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinances,

31 if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments,

32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with scourges;

33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness.

34 I will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips.

35 Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David.

36 His line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun.

37 It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies.”

Here begins the lament, and once again it is exclusively centered on Yahweh’s abandonment of the king. The people do not figure in this picture except as failures. Damage done to fortifications and city walls is described as being done to the king. Those that do these things are his enemies. The losses on the battlefield are his losses. Yahweh has abandoned his anointed who is only the king.

38 But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed.

39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.

40 You have broken through all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins.

41 All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.

42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice.

43 Moreover, you have turned back the edge of his sword, and you have not supported him in battle.

44 You have removed the scepter from his hand, and hurled his throne to the ground.

45 You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame.

46 How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?

47 Remember how short my time is — for what vanity you have created all mortals!

48 Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?

49 Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?

50 Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted; how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,

51 with which your enemies taunt, O LORD, with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.

The traditional Christian application of this psalm to Christ is another reason to reject its use as prayer: the original Hebrew distortion which ignored the community dimension gave rise to the Christian extrapolation, applying it theocratically to Christ. Christians have taken it from the Jews as a prophecy of a messiah who will be given autocratic power over all the peoples of the earth, subverting Jesus’ specific call for leadership as loving service and reverting to the paradigm of coercive power: a subversion that the Catholic Church ratified and arrogated to itself. It provided the theoretical basis for the Church’s claims of universal political dominion over the entire planet and justified harnessing Jesus’ message to serve the theocratic interests of every state self-identified as Christian. It’s time we repudiate these sentiments.

52 Blessed be the LORD forever. Amen and Amen.

This ends Book III of the Psalms

Self-embrace

Please note: section 5 of this blogpost was revised and republished on Saturday May, 26, 2018.

1

In a review[1] of a new translation of a mediaeval Persian religious epic called The Conference of the Birds by Attar, the reviewer, Robyn Creswell, offered some background to the acknowledged masterpiece of Sufi spirituality.

The Sufis taught a form of monotheism that believed not only that there is a single God, but God is all that truly exists; everything else, including our worldly selves, is merely a shadow of his presence. Accordingly Sufi sheikhs urged their followers to disdain wealth and bodily pleasures. By looking inward, believers were taught to recognize the affinity of their soul with God. Through self-discipline they were guided toward a self-annihilating union with the divine.

Creswell then gives a short précis of the narrative. A small bird, the hoopoe whose significance comes from its special mention in the Koran, gathers all the birds of the forest together and

exhorts them to renounce their material comforts and join him on a difficult journey through seven valleys (the first is the valley of the Quest, and the last is the valley of Poverty and Nothingness) to reach mount Qaf the home of the mythical Simorgh (an Iranian version of the Phoenix).

One by one the birds decline, each for their own reasons until at the end of the journey only a handful of the original multitude remain to meet the Simorgh.

They arrive in his presence only to discover a mystical mirror:

“There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw themselves

The Simorgh of the world ― with awe

They gazed and dared at last to comprehend

They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.”

The birds were the very thing they had searched for. It is an eloquent summary of the Sufi teaching that the divine lies within each believer’s soul.

The overall concurrence of the Sufi worldview recounted here with the views of Mahayana Buddhism and Eckhartian Christianity is the more remarkable in that it comes from another religious tradition altogether. Granted that in all three cases we are dealing with an evolution from a more fundamentalist primitive origin that continues to exist (and for two still remains the majority view), the agreement suggests that insights and aspirations that gave rise to such similarities in such different environments in time and place, and coming from such different ideological roots, may be indications of something universal to the human species.

Moreover, unlike the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity and Islam, this view is compatible with science.   This makes for an unexpected four-way consonance that adumbrates a universalist synthesis about reality and spiritual development that is valid wherever human beings are found.

 

2

I propose that the term and concept “Self-Embrace,” symbolized by the birds’ recognition that they themselves were the very object of their quest, captures the essence of the mystical insight common to these three traditions. That insight describes and defines both the metaphysical nature of existence itself, and the ultimate goal of psychological/spiritual development which is cosmic nature’s human recapitulation. Parallel to this is the understanding of all the major traditions that the commonly acknowledged moral paths ― Dharma, Tao, Torah ― have always been understood as themselves the reflection of the same inner dynamism that rules the cosmos. Thebes falls into chaos because Oedipus, however unwittingly, shattered the natural order. All reality resonates in the same key. The harmony comes first, not last; it is we with our unfettered minds who have to listen closely enough to hear it and intentionally join in the chorus. Our morality ― justice, and compassion for all things ― is that enlistment. The implication here is plain: there is a common spirituality that suggests a common dynamic that rules the universe ― a common metaphysics. I want to explore that connection, and the exciting possibilities if it is true.

Self-Embrace and the delusion of permanence

I take the term “self-embrace” to mean that, insofar as anything is able to assume an intentional stance of some kind toward its own existence and character, it will be driven to accept, cherish and defend itself as it is and with whatever tools or abilities it has received from cosmic and biological evolution.

Before beginning any further analysis, to propose self-embrace as the goal of human spiritual development should strike one as paradoxical; that it doesn’t, is a clue to the depth of the problem. For it implies that in some fashion or another self-embrace is not the status quo, i.e., that what in fact actually obtains among human beings is a self-alienation, a discomfiture with oneself, in which the individual does not accept, cherish, defend and enjoy itself as it is. Humans are not happy with what they are, how they feel, and what they do in life. Much of their activity is not necessary for survival, and seems rather dedicated to becoming something else. This is extraordinary, for nothing else in the entire universe seems to have this problem.

Survival is the primary act of self-embrace. I believe the imperative to embrace oneself derives directly from the bearing of existence to-be-here-now clearly manifest and perceptible to us in the compulsion of every living organism to preserve itself. This instinct for self-preser­va­tion is called the conatus by Spinoza. All living things are “born with” that instinct. It is not repressible, and it is absolute, i.e., it has no natural limitation. There is no intrinsic reason perceptible to the conscious organism, man or animal, why the daily struggle for and conquest of survival should ever end.

Most living things accept and enjoy being what they are, and doing what they do. It does not occur to them that their daily victories will ultimately terminate in extinction. Humans, however, are different. They know that no matter how efficient they are at amassing what is necessary for survival, they will die. It’s simply a matter of universal fact: their very organisms are impermanent and will decompose. Why? The answers are all conjecture. No one really knows. The fact, however, is undeniable, and it is responsible for driving a wedge between the conatus and the instincts installed by evolution for the survival of the physical organism and its species.

The Buddha’s insight was to see that the ordinary urges and desires implanted in the human body do not correspond to the need of the intelligent conatus for continued existence. It’s as if there were two affective dynamisms vying for attention in the same organism: a dynamism akin to animals’ urges for day-to-day survival: to eat, reproduce and defend themselves and their progeny, urges that once they are satisfied are temporarily quiescent, and a second dynamism working in the human imagination that never rests; it refuses to be satisfied with daily survival and aspires to the permanent possession of being-here, something that is clearly impossible because, like all biological organisms, we eventually succumb to entropy, the material energy of our bodies decoheres and we die. Altogether, this accounts for what we call the human condition. We are not reconciled to this situation. It accounts for an immeasurable amount of suffering, both in the anguish of individual deterioration and loss and in the social horrors perpetrated by individuals’ delusional attempts to create an ersatz immortality by amassing wealth for themselves and power over others.

3

The problem is the imagination. It allows us to separate ourselves from the present moment and its needs (or absence of needs) and put ourselves in a past that we wish had not occurred but cannot change or in a future that we yearn for but cannot insure, so vividly that we feel all the associated emotions of desire and aversion. The imagination is also capable of fixating on virtually any conceivable surrogate as the symbol of its quest to break out of the life-to-death cycle, despite lack of any evidence for its possibility. The most glaring example of this is the generalized belief that permanence is achieved at the very moment when impermanence is most undeniable: at death. This reveals the human imagination to be utterly irrational and capable of grabbing at anything that it believes will “save” it from material decomposition. We are matter. Matter’s coalescent coherence is temporary ― a coherence snatched from the very jaws of the entropic energy that would return everything to a state of incoherent equilibrium. To claim that when the dreaded decomposition actually occurs that permanence is miraculously achieved, is the height of delirium.

What is even more remarkable is that this thirst for permanence is capable of transcendentalizing the more concrete desires of the biological organism, like the appetite for food, sex, battle, and turn them into symbols of permanence. Hence always eating the food one prefers instead of what is available is a symbol that connotes permanence. That one is not ever limited to what will just keep the organism alive is a symbol of not being needy. It’s hardly necessary to point out how that functions in the case of other intense gratifications like alcoholic beverages and sexual experience. These activities lose the focus on their primary purpose altogether and become symbols of a possession of transcendent life that is pure illusion. Universally acknowledged as desirable because of their euphoric ability to extract the psyche from ordinary experience, they become symbols of transcendence and are pursued as a conspicuous display of power and control, not just for the pleasure they afford. There are multiple addictions in play here. As soon as something is enjoyed for its symbolic or surrogate significance, we know we are in the realm of the delusion of permanence.

The problem lies in the conatus’ alliance with the intelligent imagination. Since what the conatus wants ― endless life ― has no identifiable means of achievement, the human mind must imagine what it might be, and any passing satisfaction is capable of capturing it. This explains , for example, the grip that promises of eternal life in exchange for Catholic Church membership, obedience and monetary support had on the mediaeval Christian mind ― and on the minds of many even today.

The Buddha’s solution was to get control of the imagination ― the mind and its thoughts. He taught that meditation was the tool that would do this. By first maintaining a steady calm of body and mind, concentrated reflection would first of all bring the imagination back from its past and future haunts and set it firmly in the present moment. Once the mind begins to experience the peculiar pleasure of the present moment without the torments of past remorse and future yearning, meditation will inevitably reveal to the mind the all too obvious disconnect between what the individual was seeking, eternal life, and the target content he/she had identified as the means to its acquisition. The foolishness, self-destruction, insatiable frustration, damage to others and to the earth that came in the train of mindless response to selfish desire would necessarily, in meditation, rise to the level of clarity. It was that clarity that the Buddha was after. Once the mind could see clearly that desire for an impossible permanence is what stood in the way of its own peace and threatened the peace and joy of others, it could choose the correct path, what he called the Dharma, the “way.” The way out is to accept ourselves as impermanent evanescent biological organisms ― nothing more or less than what we are. And meditation ― the intense and continuous practice of mindfulness, living in the present moment ― is the tool that will do that. He insisted we trust him on this. It works, he said. He did it. So can we.

Buddhist teacher and social activist Thich Nhat Hanh provides a simple way of illustrating this greatest of Buddhist achievements. All things, including us, he says, are like waves in the ocean:

Some waves are high and some are low. Waves appear to be born and die. But if we look more deeply, we see that the waves, although coming and going, are also only water, which is always there. Notions like high and low, birth and death, can be applied to waves, but water is free of such distinctions. Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes that it is water.[2]

Accepting ourselves as impermanent is enlightenment. There is nothing arcane or mystical about it. What makes enlightenment seem so elusive is the recrudescent insistence of the conatus constantly to create, maintain, defend and promote a false self locked into the need to achieve a delusional permanence in the multitude of forms available in our material universe. No matter how often the individual realizes that the false self is really no-self at all, and transform its stance toward reality by living mindfully in the present moment and accepting its impermanence, the conatus, even though perhaps weakened by the assaults of Buddhist practice, is never entirely eliminated. It is always ready to direct its energies once again toward rebuilding the sand castle of our dreams.

4

Accepting ourselves as impermanent is what I mean by self-embrace. Now this is open to further analysis in two areas: (1) experience and that includes discovering the daily practices that will support and advance personal transformation towards the embrace of impermanence, and (2) metaphysics which looks to grasp intellectually the foundational underpinnings in universal reality ― the cosmos ― that confirm, support, encourage and foster a project of personal moral transformation as the disciplinary path for the achievement of enlightenment.

The first, the analysis of experience, is practice. It explores the way our bodies and minds work. It is fundamentally mental because it involves the imagination above all, but it is not a simple rational choice. Feelings, urges, desires must also change. When we finally accept ourselves for what we are, the added psychological suffering ― the sense of suffocation caused by alienation from ourselves ― disappears. This is what Buddha discovered, and what inspired his compassionate efforts to share the discovery with everyone. First and foremost, it was a program of practice, and the practice was meditation. He wanted to end suffering, and to that end he offered a program that worked.

The second area is metaphysical understanding; by that I mean a comprehension that is fundamentally scientific. Metaphysics has been the discipline used to speak objectively about the nature of reality in our scientific tradition. Most often it has involved the analysis of being. But the Platonic confusion between the concept of being and the nature of being has brought the entire enterprise into disrepute. Given Plato’s belief in the substantial existence of ideas as spiritual realities, it was natural to think that by examining the concept of being that one was examining being itself. In fact, since the notion of “God” as a cosmic factor came to be equated with being as the act of existence, philosophers were persuaded that by a careful analysis of the qualities and features of the concept of being that they were discovering the nature of “God” and the dynamic features of “God’s” reality that produced the universe.

Modern science, functioning on the premise that concepts are not spiritual realities that exist out there somewhere on their own but are simply states of the human brain, has limited itself to observing, measuring, analyzing and describing the properties of reality as a material energy. Through the last five centuries of intense study science has been able to identify the workings of material reality to such a degree of proven accuracy, that many are prepared to accept physical science as the permanent replacement for metaphysics.

I have a different idea. I believe it’s time to finally abandon the bifurcated worldview in the west that sees reality as split between a material and a spiritual side, and that “science” is the analysis of the material only, leaving the rest ― ideas ― to philosophy. But ideas are as much a part of the work of science as any other discipline and the analysis of the data uncovered by scientific observation and experiment is guided by the same logic and probative principles as ancient philosophy. I believe we should call the thinking about cosmic reality what it is: a cosmo-ontology ― a study of the existence of the material (scientifically known and described) cosmos. I am not proposing a new science, I am simply acknowledging that all analysis must proceed from and attempt to elucidate the observed and measured data of science. Metaphysics, in other words, has to not merely include the sciences, it must use them as its point of departure and they must remain the heuristic framework throughout its procedures. It is no longer a valid enterprise to pursue metaphysics as a separate discipline with its own conceptual data, starting point and ultimate worldview.

It’s here that the two perspectives ― the psychological/spiritual and the metaphysical ― merge, or perhaps better, where they show themselves to be mirrors of one another: where human attitudes and behavior recapitulate the evolutionary dynamism of the living cosmos. What each and every thing spawned by the substrate is focused on is the same as the what the totality constituted by the substrate is focused on: self-embrace, because, I contend, the substrate which we all share ― matter’s living energy ― is itself only and always a material self-embrace, observable in a material drive to be-here activating and directing the totality as much as any individual within it, including human beings. We are all material energy. We are all “water.” And we are all driven to be-here under the same conditions: we are impermanent composites of components that are common to all..

Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha himself, however much he avoided answering questions about the nature of reality beyond human experience, still clearly crossed the line and made statements foundational for his program of self-transformation that were undeniably metaphysical. The primary example of this is his key concept of impermanence. When Buddha speaks of impermanence, he is certainly referring to human experience, and if pressed could always deny having metaphysical pretensions: “We experience everything as transient and changing, composing and decomposing.” If asked why? (the metaphysical question), he could say “we don’t know why. Nothing says it had to be this way, but that’s just the way it is.”

But please note: he always says “that’s just the way it is.” He never says, we do not know what things really are, but that’s the way they appear to us. He avoids metaphysics at a second level of explanation, but not at the first. The first level is epistemological. The Buddha is a realist, and a metaphysics is implied in that. He believed that what our senses perceived and told us was out there, was accurate and reliable. What we perceived as impermanent was really and factually, always and everywhere, impermanent.

This is not insignificant. Later followers took impermanence to the next level of explanation. They made an unambiguously metaphysical attempt to explain why things are, and we accurately experience them as, impermanent. The principal metaphysician of Mahayana Buddhism was Nagārjuna who wrote in the second century of the common era. The explanatory term he used was emptiness. He said the reason why things are impermanent is that they are empty of their own reason for being-here. Both their coming into existence and their continuation in existence is due to a plethora of causes outside themselves. This is called “dependent co-arising” and while that term antedated the Buddha and is found in the Upanishads, it did not have the same causal denotation as it would later have with Nagārjuna.[3]

Nagārjuna did not have the benefit of modern science and was not aware of the quantum energy that constitutes the reality of which we are made. The totality of what exists, we now know, is what can be called in short-hand, matter. I say short-hand because the “nature” of matter, once thought to be billiard-ball like particles called atoms, is now known to be a vast interpenetrated and interrelated collection of force fields that, depending on our instruments of observation and meas­ure­ment, can appear to us either as waves or as particles. And while we are still far from plumbing exactly how all this varied energy interacts in time to produce our universe, we are pretty sure that it is all there is.

Certainly there is nothing else as far as the eye can see. But is there more beyond our ken? If there is nothing more, then our universe contains within itself the reason for its being-here. That means, whether we have discerned and identified what it is or not, we must already be in touch with it, for we ourselves are, in our very selves, everything that reality is. The only other alternative is that the totality of co-dependent causation responsible for all phenomena ― emptiness, as Nagārjuna defined it ― is itself the product of some higher-level causation of which we have no evidence and are unaware. In other words, that emptiness might itself be empty, a proposition that Nagārjuna defended.

5

We may have thought that last paragraph gave a final description to an ultimate dilemma that we do not have the resources to resolve, because we cannot see beyond the horizon of our sight. Seeing is limited to seeing, and the explanation is either inside or outside the totality. It is either accessible or not.

But I believe that the dilemma mis-states the possibilities. There is a third alternative. The explanation — the causal source — is both. It is accessible to me because it is inside the totality characterized by emptiness and at the same time it transcends the limitations of the things that compose and decompose. There is nothing arcane or “mystical” about this alternative, because the causal source is an existential energy that is physically, observably and measurably the very component of which all things that exist in the totality are constructed. In other words, there is no dichotomy between the things that are empty and the things that are not. Both are commensurate with the totality, the energy as “light source” and the “shadows” as dependently arisen. All things are the locus where both reside, simultaneously. A forcefield that is not empty energizes the components whose coming together and coming apart constitute the emptiness of all things made from it.

Emptiness also means that the realities that we see directly, throw shadows of unmistakable similarity to their own form that constitute other realities. These latter, then, are things whose form imitates and reveals the presence of what launched them out into the world. Sparrows beget sparrows, humans beget humans. They are shadows for sure, we can see that, but what casts them is itself a shadow and imitates the form of an even earlier shadow and form. Nothing is its own explanation of what it looks like and why it’s here; everything comes from something else. How far back can this go? We are looking at the famous “infinite regress” that philosophers have perennially claimed cannot be. They insist that the entire chain must hang from a single immovable hook somewhere ― a form that is not a shadow. Buddhists were not unaware of this revelatory function of emptiness. This following quote is an exclamation (udāna) attributed to the Buddha from an early collection in the Pali Canon:

There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.

(Udāna 8:3 … tr. Thānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff).   Cited by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 138. On the antiquity of the Udāna: Scholars have questioned whether this collection is related to the udānas collected during the Buddha’s lifetime … there are no compelling reasons to believe that the relationship is not close. (De Graff)

Commentary on this udāna in a contemporary parallel collection of quotations suggests that the Buddha was not referring to some absolute “thing” out there, but rather to nirvana, enlightenment, a human state of mind, an interior appropriation that provides an “escape that is calm, permanent, a sphere beyond conjecture, unborn, unproduced, the sorrowless, stainless state, the cessation of stressful qualities, stilling-of-fabrications bliss.” (itivuttakas 43 (“quotations.” The Fourth Part of the Khuddaka Nikāya).

But the udāna is clearly intended to evoke both, because it very explicitly quotes the Buddha as saying that the state of mind would not be possible if the metaphysical reality were not also there. The Buddha’s reputed statement is only possible because they are one and the same thing, exactly as Mahayana Buddhism discerned. For all the branches and derivatives of the Mahayana reform of the second century c.e., samsara and nirvana refer to the same reality. The only difference is in the perception, the state of mind in which reality is apprehended. Reality is simultaneously temporal and timeless, limited and unlimited, composed and uncomposed. The empty “shadow” entity contains within itself the source of the light that throws it.

Other traditions corroborate this interpretation. In the mediaeval metaphysics of Johannes Eckhart, source and shadow are explicitly identified as the same reality. We have to remember, Eckhart claimed there is no “God,” no “thing” or “person,” an entity apart from other entities that thinks and acts and creates, but rather a “Godhead” that, following Aristotle, was the Pure Act of existence, esse in se subsistens, the pure unmixed energy of being-here expressed as a simple, eternal, impassive, totally fulfilled self-possession ― a serene motionless, non-rational, unthinking and silent self-embrace that emanates the cosmos of material being. The material energy that science has identified as the homogeneous substrate of all things plays precisely the same role that the mediaevalists like Eckhart attributed to “being.”

Spinoza attributed the same emanative energy to his “God,” identifying divine energy so thoroughly with the universe of perceptible things that emanated from it that he called them mere modalities of “God,” earning him the false label pantheist. But like Eckhart, Nagārjuna, and Buddha he was trying to explain how two realities, cause and effect, reside in the same “thing” even while they reside in all things, without either losing its character as cause or effect.

To enter nirvana is to enter a forcefield that is already there. It is to resonate with the existential energy that pervades, suffuses and characterizes everything in our material universe. It is consciously and intentionally to enter a state of being-here-with everything else (what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being”) and in the way everything is-here-together.   It is to vibrate on that same wavelength, with the same frequency, driven by the same appetitive energy for being-here, the conatus, that mystics of all traditions have most remarkably described in exactly the same terms despite differences of time, place, cult and culture. Clearly, their experience was the same. It is to identify your being-here with the cosmic forcefield in which all other things are-here and are joyfully themselves in their shadow relationships with all other things. This is not just a frame of mind. The frame of mind is possible, as the Buddha said so emphatically, because the physical/metaphysical reality establishing that consonance is really physically there. It is to embrace yourself unreservedly for being exactly what you are … just as everything rejoices in being exactly what it is: this perishing material organism that is-here, now. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that the permanence you touch is yours.

How did Eckhart get there? He claimed that it was precisely the fact that this vast network of impermanent shadows was itself a shadow, exactly as second century Indian Nagārjuna said, that turned the Meister, who wrote in frontier Germany in the early years of the 14th century, into an explorer of mystical space. His quest was for the face and features of what he believed had necessarily emanated the entire universe as such a perfect shadow ― such a faithful and accurate representation of itself ― that using the universe including his own individual human yearning self as a map and guide, and working backwards, he could “discern” it. He called it “The Godhead” and believed that his own “soul,” similar to the Sufi mystics, was its mystical mirror. What he saw when he looked at his own face, was the face of the Godhead, what I call LIFE. Nirvana is the personal appropriation of the pure existential energy ― the LIFE ― of living / dying matter. It is the realization that there is nothing else there. The wave is all and only water. WE ARE THAT and our liberation is not to stop being THAT impermanent, vanishing, decomposing matter, but to embrace it.

 

[1] Robyn Creswell “The Seal of the Poets,” The New York Review of Books, October 2017, p. 24 ff.

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh Living Buddha, Living Christ, Riverhead Books, NY, 1995, p.138

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratītyasamutpāda

 

 

Psalms 81 to 84

PSALM 81

Background. Roland Murphy ( Jerome Biblical Commentary ) says this is a prophetic psalm recited on the occasion of Succoth, the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles), a 7 day celebration lived in temporary shelters that commemorated the trek of the Hebrews through Sinai when they lived in makeshift huts. The “prophesy” is the voice of Yahweh announcing the first commandment ― the contract ― and the warning of doom if the people abandon it. The Feast also served as a harvest festival. It was announced with the blowing of the Shofar, the sheep horn trumpet also used at other festivals. The “basket” refers to what was used for carrying clay bricks, the Hebrews’ daily labor as slaves in Egypt.

Reflection. We remember with joy when our ancestors in the service of LIFE “heard a voice they had not known” and trusting that voice they threw off their slavery and became a people. Truly a moment to celebrate, because it began the great trek in response to LIFE in the tradition that formed us. It was an early event in the millennial groping that all traditions have pursued in the search for the face of LIFE. But we have come to learn with increasing certainty that the face of LIFE is our own face. Each of us, one by one, are the mirrors and agents of that in which “we live and move and have our being” … for “we are its offspring”and together we form a new people.

Paradoxically, it turns out that it is also the path to our liberation and ultimate happiness. We become a people dedicated to LIFE ― a nation of those who trust the voice whose footprints are never seen. Our fidelity to that vision reflects the clarity with which we see the path that we must walk ― a path of justice, compassion, forgiveness and generosity. We are all we’ve got in this impermanent universe of matter. What else do we have but LIFE’s selves ― ourselves ― to count on? If we abandon LIFE, we cut the umbilical cord that sustains us and makes us a family of loving-kindness. And we will die, each of us, alone.

1 Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.

2 Raise a song, sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp.

3 Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.

4 For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.

5 He made it a decree in Joseph, when he went out over the land of Egypt. I hear a voice I had not known:

A voice never heard before is the call to liberation. It is a call that forms disparate individuals into a family of loving-kindness. The “secret place of thunder” was mount Sinai for the Hebrews; for us it is the moment of mindfulness when clarity surfaces rising through the mud to indicate the “way.” That clarity is the voice of LIFE reverberating in the material particles of our biological organism calling us to be exactly and only what we are: impermanet biological organisms. To abandon what we are is to abandon LIFE. To be ourselves is to embrace LIFE. The Dharma is LIFE’s path.

6 “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket.

7 In distress you called, and I rescued you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.

8 Hear, O my people, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you would but listen to me!

9 There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god.

10 I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.

It is all too easy to abandon LIFE and decide that liberation is too difficult, or too far in the future, or calls for too much sharing, gives too much to others, not enough for myself. Better to stay with the multitude of slaves where the feed troughs are full. But when we do, when we abandon LIFE, LIFE abandons us to our own devices and we are quickly engulfed by our insatiable needs; we lose our power to act, to decide. We become chained to our addictions. We become our own worst enemies.

11 “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me.

12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.

But if we return to following the ways of LIFE, our enemies ― the selfishness that redoubles our suffering and isolates us from others ― would be vanquished by LIFE’s potential for more LIFE, redoubling in turn the depth of internal peace and the joys of mutual security that well up like spring water from our loving-kindness for one another.

13 O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!

14 Then I would quickly subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes.

15 Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him, and their doom would last forever.

16 I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”

 

PSALM 82

Background. Akin to Psalm 58, this psalm excoriates the gods of other nations for allowing their people to pursue false values. Justice and protection of the poor and destitute are what mark true “godliness” for this poet, and Yahweh, the King and Judge of the gods, announces that they have failed the test. Yahweh pronounces sentence: they may belong to the race of the immortals but because of their crimes “they will die like men.” Murphy points out that belief in a conference of the gods was widespread in Mesopotamia and is found in Ugaritic literature, indicating that Yahwists had adapted this world of thought to their own contract and their belief in Yahweh’s superiority over all other gods. The motif of the “fall of the gods” is borrowed from Canaanite myths.

Reflection. This psalm, like psalm 58, is a remarkable example of the dawning realization, in a polytheistic system of beliefs, that Yahweh’s superiority over all other gods does not reside in his success on the battlefield or in international politics, but in the moral transcendence of the call to live with justice and compassion enjoined by the commandments. This is a major step forward in the evolution of religion. However that did not prevent the possibility of falling back into the still common belief that political and military superiority ― wealth and power ― were a proof of “God’s” favor and election. The fatal deterioration of Christianity as Rome’s guardian of its theocracy being the prime case in point. Augustine of Hippo’s “greatest” work The City of God was written to establish exactly that thesis: Rome’s ascendancy was the “will of God.” It is a deterioration that fundamentalists of all the religions of the book ― and Catholic Christians are included ― continue to espouse today.

1 God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

2 “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?

3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

LIFE, through our agency, demands justice and compassion. It is a demand, not a request. This is no moral nicety ― a refined hedonism for the morally sensitive “religiously inclined” among us. When justice is thwarted and compassion refused, the very “foundations of the earth are shaken.”  It is akin to what Sophocles believed happened to Thebes because of Oedipus.  This is the same vision evoked by the Dharma, the Tao, the Torah in their original sense: the very way of the cosmos itself. Justice in human society is a cosmic imperative, to disregard it is to invite a disaster of insuperable proportions. To reject LIFE is to die.

5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

6 I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;

7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”

8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

 

PSALM 83

Background. An early lament of the Hebrew tribal federation about the hostile tribes they perceive as arrayed against them. They call on Yahweh to activate his power to save them. The list of nations and allusions to events suggest early history, and the conspicuous absence of Babylon confirms a date before 612. Yahweh’s display of power will result in the acknowledgement that he alone is the Most High.

Reflection. The earlier the psalm the more saturated it is with a political and economic definition of “salvation” and a military interpretation of divine power. There is no way we can avoid unambiguously repudiating this emphasis, especially because, astonishingly, despite the millennia of religious evolution in our tradition, this mindset still dominates the imagination of our people who believe in a “theist” “God.” LIFE simply does not bear any similarity to the “God” we encounter in these early psalms, and we have to acknowledge both what they were literally saying in their context, and what we can no longer accept as valid religion. If metaphor is used it will always be an awkward “stretch.”

Rather than run the risk of recidivism in this matter it might be better simply to use the psalm as a meditation on how far we have come. Reading it then becomes a simple lesson in what is religiously immature … what we should be careful to avoid. It has been our historical challenge to understand that LIFE does not exist separately from what it has evolved into, and therefore all its actions are always and only the activations of the living potential of its emerging (and temporary) forms, one of which is us. The religious development of the individual has to recapitulate the development of the community’s consciousness. We have grown past these childish images. We cannot allow ourselves to slide back into them.

1 O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God!

2 Even now your enemies are in tumult; those who hate you have raised their heads.

3 They lay crafty plans against your people; they consult together against those you protect.

4 They say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation; let the name of Israel be remembered no more.”

If we use LIFE as the analog of the metaphors, “God,” and “Yahweh,” our enemies then become the enemies of LIFE. And the enemies of LIFE for Buddhism and authentic Christianity are our own immaturity: our failure to understand the impermanence of all things and the impossibility of creating a permanent “self” out of a vanishing, temporary coalescence of the energy gathered from the matter in our bodies. The illusory craving to achieve permanence in an impermanent universe is the source of the suffering that we add to the difficulties of survival and the inevitable deterioration and death that accompanies our life-cycle as biological organisms. These enemies conspire against LIFE as we have it.

5 They conspire with one accord; against you they make a covenant —

6 the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites,

7 Gebal and Ammon and Amalek, Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre;

8 Assyria also has joined them; they are the strong arm of the children of Lot.

9 Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin at the Wadi Kishon,

10 who were destroyed at En-dor, who became dung for the ground.

11 Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb, all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna,

12 who said, “Let us take the pastures of God for our own possession.”

The Buddha says in the Dhammapada: “Don’t just dig up one craving or uproot one selfish desire, keep on going and destroy the entire forest. Wipe it all out, every bit of it. Temporary desires are designed to achieve temporary goals. Everything else is illusion.” If we call on LIFE to direct and energize our actions, be careful, this is what we are asking for.

13 O my God, make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind.

14 As fire consumes the forest, as the flame sets the mountains ablaze,

15 so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your hurricane.

16 Fill their faces with shame, so that they may seek your name, O LORD.

17 Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever; let them perish in disgrace.

18 Let them know that you alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth.

 

PSALM 84

Background. Murphy says that reference to the king indicates that this psalm is pre-exilic. Otherwise there is no determinable historical context. It is a poem with a contemplative focus that uses the temple as the symbol and setting for an encounter with Yahweh. Yahweh’s residence is a place of refuge; it provides shelter at once maternal and protective, and like the birds that nest in these monumental buildings, it makes us feel safe and secure; we are at peace. Even the procession on the way to the temple is joyful in anticipation of being embraced by Yahweh ― it is as if the procession were a column of rain passing through the desert and left pools of water in its wake. But the loving embrace of Yahweh is for those who follow his ways; the wicked will never know that peace.

Reflection. A psalm that lends itself easily to our new understanding. Like the temple of old there are many things that symbolize LIFE because they actually throb with it. The primary one for us is ourselves. We who bear LIFE in our human organisms not only can see LIFE all around us in our magnificent universe and teeming earth, but we see it in ourselves. The Dharma, the Tao, the Torah, is the path of LIFE. Through our behavior and attitudes which concretize the Dharma in justice, compassion and loving-kindness for all things, we become a mirror-like display of LIFE. The LIFE that enlivens us becomes outwardly manifest in our actions. As we are slowly transformed through fidelity to meditation and mindfulness we begin to see LIFE’s potential being realized in us. The more we see LIFE faithfully re-displayed in ourselves, we are drawn to love and embrace ourselves ― something that perhaps we never thought could ever happen.

We ourselves are the temple that we enter through meditation and day-long mindfulness. Even anticipating the time of meditation makes us joyful and at peace because we know we are preparing to rest in the embrace of LIFE itself. It is like rain in the desert: it produces LIFE everywhere. The more we perceive ourselves as faithful in putting the Dharma into practice in our lives, the more secure we feel about our own instincts, the more we can accept ourselves, our bodies, these particular material organisms with their weaknesses as well as their strengths, bequeathed to us by our parents and our people. We consent to be what we are as part of a family of people, not as the solipsist, isolated, immortal “god” the false self demands ― a self that does not exist and cannot be created. We embrace ourselves as we are, with pride, without self-pity, in love and gratitude. That is the end and purpose of our pilgrimage.

1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!

2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

3 Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.

4 Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.

To acknowledge that we are embraced by LIFE gives us such joy and peace, that even anti­cipating the time when we will sit quietly and undistractedly abandon ourselves to it in meditation gives us joy. We enter into ourselves as into the very Temple where LIFE itself has its temporary residence. Mindfulness makes our whole day fertile, like rain in the desert, leaving pools of life-giving water as it passes.

5 Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.

7 They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.

It is following LIFE’s path that gives wisdom to our leaders; and it is the wisdom of the Dharma ― to live with justice, compassion and loving-kindness ― that is the source of all happiness among us during our brief stay in this perishing universe. LIFE’s happiness transcends anything our false self-worshipping imagination could ever devise.

8 O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!

9 Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.

10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.

11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly.

12 O LORD of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.

Reflections on Emptiness

3,000 words

  • Emptiness, one of the foundational notions of Mahayana Buddhism, is a strictly metaphysical term. It is not primarily psychological or spiritual nor is it merely phenomenological. It refers quite specifically to the fact that all phenomena of whatever kind are not themselves the source and explanation of their existence. They are causally dependent on other phenomena; they are empty of their own being.
  • The concept of metaphysical Emptiness did not originate with Buddha. Buddha’s teaching was experiential; it was about the perception of impermanence ― that things compose and decompose. He deduced no-self (anatman) from the universality of impermanence. All things compose and then pass away with their decomposition. The human self is no exception. He saw it as part of a phenomenon affecting all things. I personally ascribe it to the fact that whatever exists is all and only matter. Emptiness was a later Mahayana metaphysical conjecture articulated to explain impermanence and anatman, but it was not specifically materialist.
  • Emptiness of own-being characterizes the self. It is the basis and reason for the Buddhist claim of “no-self,” anatman, which means that a permanent self separate from the coherence of the body is an illusion. The phenomenological, temporary self, however, is not an illusion, it is quite real. But it is not permanent. In physical, material terms, it is the efflorescence of the integrated energy of the matter of the body.   When the organism disintegrates, ― the self ― the integrated energy of all the various particles, disappears. The self is a reverberation of the complex coherent interrelationship of a vast amount of material energy under the (temporary) control and guidance of a living DNA (which is also all and only matter). What the Buddha decried was the delusional attempt to create a permanent self by amassing wealth, control over others (including God), social status and recognition, etc. No such self can be created. The self dissolves with the body.
  • Living in the present moment is a corollary of emptiness for it accepts as ultimate the fact that there is nothing permanent that can result from any interaction of the self with any other dependently arisen phenomenon (which is everything in our material universe). To “do” anything or to “get” anything, is simply to add more dependently arisen phenomena to the totality. Temporary phenomena do occur and are real but nothing permanent can come from them. No event can ever be anything other than a composing or decomposing of material components. Therefore, enjoying the experience of the event itself in the moment when and as it occurs is a direct and valid derivative of emptiness, for, vanishing as it may be, there is nothing more here than what is occurring now, generated by whatever confluence of factors happen to be operating, and will disappear when that confluence ceases.
  • Pointlessness refers to the same phenomenon as emptiness but from a psychological point of view; it is a teleological corollary of impermanence, i.e., it is impermanence seen from the point of view of purpose. All things are empty: they have no purpose beyond just being-here, and are unaware that their being-here is dependent on evanescent factors whose disappearance will “cause” their own disappearance.
  • Emptiness is metaphysical. Nagārjuna (the principal Buddhist philosopher of emptiness, who wrote in the second century ce) uses the word “essence” the way western philosophy used the word “being.” Emptiness means “things do not have (they are “empty” of) their own “essence” or “being.” They have the power to cause other phenomena to appear, but they do not have the power to prevent them from disappearing or to prevent their own decomposition and disappearance.

The West: idea and spirit

  • In the WEST, on the other hand, where idealism prevailed, philosophers, dominated by Plato’s theory of reality, ascribed real being to ideas alone. Ideas were considered the anti­thesis of matter and were made of a different kind of “stuff” that did not compose and decompose as matter did, and were not limited by space and time as matter was. They were believed to be one of a large category called “spirit” which included the permanent human self, the “soul” (which existed before birth, during life and after death), and the “selves” of other “spirits” believed to exist outside time without bodies, like devils and angels (and for a while, gods, who were a little of both). When the idea of one all powerful, all knowing Creator “God” emerged, it was naturally assumed that it was one of those spirit-persons outside time and without a body.
  • In a universe dominated by spirit, a “thing” was believed to be first and foremost an idea (the definition of whatever that thing was) that gave “being” to a meaningless undefined matter. In that form, the idea was called the “essence” of something, also the “form.” Plato believed all these ideas of things actually existed as real substances in a world of Ideas, which was later identified as the “Mind of God.”
  • Since reality was basically ideas, it had to be permanent; the impermanence that we all experience, therefore, was an anomaly and had to be explained. Plato surmised that ideas were yoked to matter, and that it was the disparate elements of matter that had been organized and connected by the idea lost coherence when the idea departed. Without its principle of coherence matter decomposed. In the case of the human being, decomposition occurred with the departure of the “soul” which, like all spirits, had substantial existence and could continue on without the body.
  • Widespread rejection of belief in the substantial existence of ideas began with William of Ockham who wrote in the 1320’s. Today that rejection is almost universal, but its residual effects are still with us, primarily in the form of belief in the existence and natural immortality of the human soul separated from the body.
  • Aristotle defined “things” as composed of matter and form (matter and a particular idea), but that neither could exist without the other. He called existing things “substances” because they stood on their own while they were-here as opposed to other phenomena that were clearly only variant qualities of things, like their color or their size, which he called “accidents.” Aristotle isolated and identified esse, existence, as an energy that underlay all existing reality. He called it act and contrasted it with unactivated potential. He surmised that the “first mover” in the universe had itself to be pure act without any admixture of potential, or it would have needed to be activated by another, and therefore would not have been the “first mover.” Pure Act, then, became the working definition of existence and therefore, “God.” This was still consistent with the assumption that all act had to be “spirit” and that an isolated “matter” without the energizing of spirit had to be pure potential, utterly incapable of energizing anything. They called it “prime matter.”
  • Thomas Aquinas said that things received “substantial being” from God who “gave” them an inferior kind of existence (that Thomas called esse commune) that was different from God’s own (which he called esse in se subsistens). Thomas’ esse began to lose the quality of an energy and took on the coloration of a “thing.” Meister Eckhart, his successor, demurred. He held (with more Ockham-like simplicity) that esse was act. There is only one esse as Aristotle said, and that esse is God. Therefore if there is any esse anywhere in the universe it has to be an emanation from God’s own esse. This brought Eckhart’s terminology closer to pantheism than Thomas’ and helps explain his problems with the Inquisition.
  • Spinoza’s thinking was similar to Eckhart’s in saying that there was only one esse. He followed Aristotle’s definition of “substance” as “that which exists by itself and on its own” and concluded that the only “stand alone” thing in the universe was “God.” Everything else existed by reason of participating in God’s existence, and therefore could not be called substances. He couldn’t call them “accidents” because that category was already linked the qualities of things, so he called them “modalities” that had emanated from the one substance which was God. His intention was the same as Eckhart’s who said that all things were “nothing” because all their being came from God; they had no being of their own. Nothing outside of God had its own being. Spinoza said that the organic drive for self-preservation, the conatus, was a finite version of God’s self-subsistent esse. All things imitate the “God” from whom they emanate.
  • This development is noteworthy because the very term “own-being” became the Mahayana Buddhist word that identified emptiness. There was no semantic link; it was a purely fortuitous choice of words. Everything was empty because everything lacked its own-being. The Buddhists, for their part said that the phenomenal being that things actuated came from their “causes” which were other things. Everything was dependently arisen because everything owed its existence to causes other than themselves. Nothing was the source of its own being-here and when the causes responsible for its existence disappeared or became inoperative, the phenomenon necessarily disappeared.

Materialism and non-duality

  • The absolute identity (oneness, what the buddhists call non-duality) that I share with my source (the multiple “causes” of my dependent arising, including the components of my organism) is only conceiveable in a scenario like our material universe where the very source of being-here for all the “causes” are the very same components. We are ― causes and effects ― all and only one homogeneous matter’s energy. Our identity with all things (and our source) is metaphysically absolute because in the most profound sense we are the same reality, even though from the point of view of phenomena we experience ourselves and all things as stand-alone substances as Aristotle said. Aristotle’s problem was that he thought “things” were metaphysically substantive because he attributed existential bearing to the idea, whereas Buddhism saw through the illusion of permanence to the true temporariness of the composites and continued to call them all phenomena including their idea.  
  • Now if the source of my existence were other than a material component, as in the case of the West where we believed a “spiritual” person (“God”) was the real cause of everything and that the ideas in the Mind of God actually carried existence and conferred it on the things they defined, there would always be a duality because, no matter how close they come, the one ― the source, “God,” ― is simply not the other ― me ― and never will be. There will always be an identity difference because there are always two “beings,” two “wills” which in a universe with real stand-alone spirits represents two separate and distinct entities. But in the case of exclusively material components, that in and of themselves as sub-atomic particles have no identity at all and no pre-composite “will” of their own, the only identity is the identity of the organic composite: me. There are not two things, only one, but the existential energy comes exclusively from the components whose collective conatus also provide an inchoate pre-composite intentionality to the organism ― toward endlessly continual (permanent) existence. All organisms of whatever kind, no matter how primitive or complex do not anticipate dying.
  • Many claim this is difficult to grasp. I contend it is not, and the only reason why people struggle with it is because they are still dominated by the imagery of a substantial “self” ingrained in their minds. It is this residual imagery that is blocking the understanding of a very simple fact: we and our components are one and the same thing. We are nothing but material energy with a specific configuration that allows us to interact with the rest of the material universe as humans rather than as some other form of organism. But the hardened delusion that we are other than the universal matter that all things share, comes from our spontaneous sense of self-identity reinforced by millennia of conditioning under the tutelage of Plato’s idealist theory of the “soul.”

The Eternal Now ― the present moment

  • Both Mahayana mindfulness and the Eckhartian living in the eternal now are the same in practice. They both encourage focusing exclusively on the present moment. The only difference between the two is the difference in belief about the ultimate nature of the Source. I should say “possible difference” because in some forms of Hindu-Buddhism ― I am thinking of those that hold to the existence of Atman or Brahman ― they may fundamentally be the same as the Eckhartian “God.” But for forms of Buddhism that resemble the more primitive Theravada, where there is no talk of Atman, the source is an undetermined multiplicity of “causes” forming an infinite regress. This infinity of impermanence provides the motivational dynamic for mindfulness, living in the present moment. There is nowhere else to go. There is nothing to get. The present moment, the evanescent product of everything in space and time that has gone before, is the only thing that is here ever and it is always fast disappearing.
  • Eckhart, on the other hand, remarkably focused on exactly the same present moment, and without tinkering with its phenomenal character as evanescent and dependent in the least, embraces it as the point of contact with the eternal Now of a serene and impassive spirit-God emanting the universe of time from his existence ― his esse. Eckhart’s “Godhead” (Spinoza’s “God”) in virtually every respect is indistinguishable from the Hindu Atman. So for Eckhart the very pinnacle, the leading edge, of the infinity of impermanence in flowing time ― the present moment ― is paradoxically the doorway to the permanent “God” who exists in an eternal stillness of self-em­brace. Note that “self-embrace” is also the same phenomenon in both the Hindu-Buddhist and the Eckhartian views. I would also argue that “self-em­brace” and being-here are one and the same thing; they are also the present moment and the Eternal Now. All refer to the same phenomenon, seen through different perspectives.
  • Along these same lines, Eckhart would also agree with the Mahayanists that there were not two worlds. But for a different reason. Eckhart’s experience-based vision sounds like it reduces everything to “God.” But Eckhart would insist that it’s only the temporal nature of ours that prevents us from seeing the one single and undivided esse that is the totality of each. Metaphysical duality at the level of emanation is non-existent, swallowed up in the monism of esse. Multiplicity is only in our heads. Everything that exists in time and space derives its being only and always from the very same esse of the Eternal Now.
  • Now this kind of talk for orthodox Catholics has always been considered pantheistic. Even though under a disciplined philosophical-theological analysis it is not, less educated pastoral personnel, priests, catechists, etc., tended to shy away from it. However, that its conceptualization was beyond the people’s ability to grasp, I believe, was an excuse that functioned right up until our own time. Even Thomistic immanence, a far more domesticated version than Eckhart’s, was labeled “too philosophical” and seminary students were told to disregard it in favor of the anthropomorphic imagery of the Bible. This was the mindset of the Inquisition that drove Eckhart, along with the Beguines who shared his vision, into extinction. By the time of the Protestant Reformation the only vestiges of Eckhart’s spirituality that were still active, as in the case of the Theologia Germanica, had already lost the sense of emanant participation in the metaphysical oneness of God.
  • A serious incorporation of the insights of Hindu-Buddhism could help western Christianity to recover some of its own tradition ― like Eckhart’s vision ― lost to the demands of the theocratic quid pro quo imperative that was imposed on Christianity by Rome and subsequent religious monarchies. Christianity was re-shaped to function as a motivation for harmony in society, an objective that even the sixteenth century reformers ― despite rejecting the dogmatic quid pro quo ― were unable to shed. Correlatively, the incorporation of the metaphysical scope of Eckhart’s philosophy (updated by modern science into a transcendent materialism) could serve to provide Hindu-Buddhism with a cosmic worldview that it now lacks. But in all cases the concurrence between the two traditions confirms the embrace of the present moment as the unique place where, in Buddhist terms, suffering will end and nirvana is found, and in Eckhart’s terms where the breakthrough takes place and the “soul” experiences the stillness and joy of its origins in the common esse that it shares with the “Godhead” and all things that have emanated from it.
  • The experience of the present moment that all seek, however, is to touch reality deeply ― as it really is ― in all its wealth and profundity. This is not a desperate counsel to a cynical and superficial hedonism, a mindless return to the prison of a selfish and shallow samsara. Living in the present moment includes penetrating into the depths not only of the savory and comforting, but also the painful and empty ― the loss, impermanence, pain, decomposition that is equally characteristic of life in our material universe. It means coming to terms with the strange nature of the abundant generosity that has poured out our human organisms into this weird world of entropic time. It is a generosity that is embedded as an innate dynamism in our own material energy. We are born of LIFE, and we are driven to reproduce and protect LIFE. If we fail to understand that, we shrivel and die. Universal love, justice, compassion, generosity, that is what living in the present moment means.

The Mahayana Buddhist ideal: The Bodhisattva

1

The historical evolution of Buddhism around the beginning of the common era had much in common with the developments that occurred in Western Christianity at the end of the middle ages. Buddhism, which started about 500 bce as something of a demystification and democratization of elitist Hindu Brahmanism, over the next four hundred years became an almost exclusively monastic pursuit, requiring celibacy and the abandonment of home and family, supported by the wealthy and ruling classes. It was as exclusive, if not as elitist as what it had replaced. The failure of Buddhism to achieve one of its principal goals — the universalism implied in the Buddha’s personal commitment to unlimited compassion for all sentient beings — occasioned a major rethinking of Buddhist practice and led to a great reformation known as Mahayana around the beginning of the common era.

The word Mahayana connotes a “great boat,” large enough to accommodate everyone, in contrast to Hinayana — a small craft that could only carry a few, a pejorative term used of monastic Theravada Buddhism. The keynote of the Mahayana reform was the insistence that the heights of Buddhist spiritual achievement were not restricted to those who left home and family and lived in a monastic community, but was open and accessible to ordinary householders, women as well as men, living and working in the world.

This transformation bears an historical resemblance to the Protestant revolt of the early 16th century which occurred at the beginning of the modern era in Western Europe. Like the Mahayana in India, the Pro­tes­tant Reformation represented the widespread rejection of the eremitic celibate religiosity that had come to dominate Western Catholic Christianity in the middle ages. The limitation of the highest aspirations of Christian perfection to the monasteries from which the general clergy drew their ideals and their personnel, was an accepted wisdom that dovetailed conveniently with the two-tier, clergy-laity structure of Church authority and ritual practice. Laypeople’s contribution was relegated to the support of the religious elites.

In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, however, a new restive population began demanding participation in authentic Christianity. Lay movements like the Beguines, supported by outstanding theologians, created their own network of residences outside of the control of Church authorities. These groups adapted the principles of monastic spirituality which they used as personal preparation for a life of loving service to others in the world.

Interest in spirituality was in evidence everywhere in Western Europe, and the participants were not persuaded that obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities was a necessary element in that pursuit. Resistance to this movement on the part of the bishops, predictably, was strong and repressive. The Inquisition, originally created to counteract the spread of heretical ideas came increasingly to be employed in the control of these groups whose call for greater participation inevitably turned into a demand for reform of the venal and authoritarian hierarchy itself. The issue was never heresy. A Conciliar Movement that would have taken Church governance out of the hands of an Imperial Papacy and given it to representative Ecumenical Councils was stalled and finally crushed in the fifteenth century by the monarchs organized and led by the pope. With the elimination of any institutional path to reform it’s not surprising that by early in the following century reformers were ready to disregard the authorities altogether. Central to that reform was the invalidation of the monastic way of life and the promotion of the ordinary Christian values of love and compassion applied to life in the world, lived in family households. The concurrence with what happened in south India in the first centuries of the common era is remarkable and illuminating. For it speaks to the very heart of religion and how easily it is detoured.

2

It is said that the Buddha, after having discovered the secret of overcoming suffering in life, chose to forego nirvana — a life of contemplative bliss — in order to remain in the world teaching his method of personal liberation until all had been freed from the delusions of samsara. (Samsara is the suffering created by the attempt to satisfy selfish desire.) In a famous passage at the end of the Dhammapada, one translator rendered the Buddha’s compassion this way:

The sun shines in the day; the moon shines in the night. The warrior shines in battle. The Brahmin shines in meditation. But day and night the Buddha shines in the radiance of love for all. (Dhammapada, 26 # 387 tr. Eknath Easwaran)

The verse places the Buddha’s universal love at the apex of that short poetic list of human achieve­ments. It conspicuously declares compassion to be more important than either the controlled anger of the warrior who has conquered his fear of death, or of the accomplished ascetic who has embraced his true Self in the depths of mindfulness and contemplative practice. Universal love, it is saying, embodied in the Buddha’s compassion, transcends it all. It is the unsurpassable goal of human fulfillment.

This ultimate Buddhist vision, a product of the Mahayana reform, contrasts with Siddhartha Gautama’s original program. His teaching could be characterized as the elimination of suffering obtained through self-abnegation and a life of moral uprightness. Compassion stands out as a Mahayana development because the Buddha, even while he practiced it, never emphasized it in his message to others or to the monks; it was always there but often implicit, or stated simply without development. Whatever Buddha’s intentions, once Mahayana clearly articulated the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice as compassion, it was never lost to view. Compassion, universal love, characterized all subsequent Buddhist evolution.

One of the developments that reflected that insight was the elevation to primary status of a new Buddhist ideal: the faithful Buddhist practitioner known as the bodhisattva. Bodhisattva meant someone who was becoming a Buddha. The significance of this new image was based on taking “Buddha,” which means fully awakened, as the symbol of the totally perfected end of the entire process. In this sense “Buddha” stopped being an historical person who lived and died, taught and trained, and became an eschatological ideal: the essence of liberation, nature transformed and returned to its primitive innocence and perfection. The image of the ordinary human being, submitting himself to the Buddhist program and striving to serve all sentient beings, evoked someone on the path to Buddhahood. That meant that Siddhartha Gautama himself, by rejecting nirvana, chose to be a bodhisattva rather than Buddha: he would not allow himself to enjoy the full fruits of liberation until all were liberated.

I believe that this turn toward the universal, so evident in the Mahayana inclusion of everyone in the quest for liberation, and the similar democratization of spirituality represented by the salvation by faith of the Christian reformers of the 16th century, is not just a coincidence. It speaks to the very nature of the material reality in which we live and move and have our being, and religion has been its perennial expression everywhere.

3

In a background awareness that is always present but not always in the forefront of consciousness, there is, I contend, a universal astonishment among humankind of the utterly improbable developments of biological evolution, culminating in the emergence of the intelligent human organism. If the word that characterizes this perception is not astonishment, then it is awe. Regardless of the absence of any obvious personal author of that development, and despite the compelling scientific argument that there is none, it is difficult to suppress the impression that the developments of biological evolution result from some unknown form of affective abundant generosity ― a benevolence as immense as it is unfathomable. It is one of the sources of our sense of the sacred.

The feeling that there is, in nature, an uncontrolled compulsion to share, to multiply, expand, with a selfless abandon that is so automatic and unrestricted as to appear to be reflex, almost mechanical and totally unlike anything resembling “personal intention,” is recognized as a common background across the planet. I believe it is the source of a sense of the sacred that grounds religion, and a factor in the evolution of morality toward universal love.   The pre-scientific assumption that there was a “God”-per­son responsible for creation sustained the belief that nature’s generosity was indeed “love” and not something else.

However, that this source of the LIFE that abounds everywhere on earth, and that we increasingly suspect functions uncontrollably everywhere in our vast material cosmos, is not a “person,” is becoming acceptable simply because the evidence for it is overwhelming. Anyone can see that this unquestionably “abundant generosity” is not the product of someone’s free choice in any sense that we can recognize. Hence, in describing the source of the living cosmic phenomenon by which and into which we have been spawned, we find ourselves embracing the unresolved paradox that LIFE is an “abundant generosity” functioning as non-personal reflex mechanism. We are becoming comfortable with that, for no other reason than that is exactly the way things always and everywhere present themselves. Prior assumptions about a rational “God-person” no longer obviate that equation. But as a consequence, the assumption that nature’s abundance is really “love” loses coherence if not credibility. Those who are committed to “love” because of its human resonance with the natural order, tend also to cling to the “God” theory of cosmic origins despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

The “over-abundance” evident in the explosion of LIFE evokes a sense of redundancy, of unnecessary excess. It’s the first hint that there is something strange here, something that does not quite compute. For it doesn’t take much reflection to recognize that LIFE has absolutely no purpose whatsoever. 99% of all living species produced by evolution on planet earth during three and a half billion years at least, have ceded their place in the sun to other species that survived better. No achievement of biological evolution accomplishes the apparent goal of secure and permanent existence ― the invincible possession of being-here. Any successes are quickly swallowed up in new developments that are more successful and capture the food niche of their predecessors … only themselves to be superseded by still others.

Among humankind, energy expenditures are equally pointless. Every achievement of intense human striving, individual or communal, eventually disintegrates and vanishes. Even huge stone monuments, erected in an attempt to triumph over this galling disintegration, also eventually crumble to dust. Nothing is permanent. All human organisms die, leaving behind only the members of their own species that they may have reproduced and protected at great cost, but who in turn also die, giving rise to the suspicion that our sense of being substantial “persons,” souls apart from our bodies, is an illusion. We are our bodies, and when our bodies disappear, “we” disappear with them. And there is no guarantee that homo sapiens, which emerged about 300,000 years ago, will not also go extinct as have all other earlier sub-species of homo. The very pointlessness of life adds to our sense that we are on the right track in this conflation between benevolence and impersonal force. There is something astonishingly generous here, but it is not rational.

But “pointless” is not only a negative. “Pointless” in the sense of “purposeless” is the basis and justification for some of the most cherished experiences in life: the infinite human capacity for play, our desire to “hang out” with the people and things we love, our ability to “waste time” doing the things that just give us pleasure but are of no benefit to anyone, or doing nothing at all. What is the “point” of a vacation, a crossword puzzle, a Sudoku, a friendship? Looked at in themselves and taken out of any pecuniary or competitive context what is the “point” of art, music, poetry, story-telling, dance, theater, sports? The most precious and enjoyable things in life are “pointless.” They lead nowhere, they earn nothing, they achieve nothing, they help no one, and like everything else, they do not endure. And love, most of all, is utterly gratuitous and evanescent. There is nothing that coerces or justifies its inception nor any universal necessary benefit that results from its practice. Love, like most of the things we treasure in life, like LIFE itself, is its own reward, and eventually disappears.

4

These multiple indications that there is no purpose to LIFE besides living itself, I contend, completely dominate the subliminal awareness of all intelligently perceptive human beings. It is this universal and undeniable pointlessness that ultimately provides the background of our cultural choices. But not always in the same direction. There is a huge backlash. For it quickly becomes clear that, however enjoyable the present moment, organic survival in a material universe characterized by random interactions will not tolerate dallying in aimless triviality for long. Even if we are not taught, we soon learn that we have to organize our activities into work that is planned, directed and purposeful. We have to find and gather what we need to live: food, clothing, shelter, mates, and a cooperative community of human collaborators dedicated to mutual protection. Without a plan and sense of purpose we will die. However temporary, we must build the structures that protect us from the randomness of reality. The grasshopper lives for one season only, but the ants know they cannot fiddle around if they want to endure the winter to see another spring. A common human reaction to the pointlessness of LIFE is to deny it, and create narratives intended to disprove it. Human culture conjures an imaginary world in which the constant application of human planning and purpose supplants nature’s profligate tendency to live in the moment. That imaginary world has to be sustained by a massive lie; and the lie is that ultimately there is a purpose to it all. It should come as no surprise then to learn that the proponents of the “purpose” scenario tend to make common cause with the proponents of the “God” theory, since each is invested in the demolition of the view that the cosmos as far as we can tell, is pointless and unintended.

Here in the West, that alliance is identified with a hardened belief that the purpose of life is a permanent happiness after death earned by an immortal “soul” through the faithful compliance with a spiritual “God”-person’s moral program, a major part of which is work. After an avalanche of scientific challenge, that narrative appears more and more to be simply a pathetic attempt to introduce purpose and immortal (permanent) “spirit” into a universe where there is neither; left to themselves our material organisms vibrate with the rest of nature on a dynamic of dalliance and play, the appropriate response to pointlessness.

The scenario of eternal reward and punishment, we should also notice, is self-refuting: the happiness that the “doctrine” claims to offer is still, at the end of the day, only life. Why will a perishing “life” that now leaves us frustrated, miserable and unfulfilled, suddenly become a source of unmitigated happiness? The argument that it will stop being life as we know it and become something else is futile. We don’t want anything else. Or that we will be changed into “spirits” and so enjoy life in another form. But we don’t want to be changed. We want to be what we are, with these bodies, families and friends that make us, us. It can’t be life as we know it, because life includes death as intrinsic to its processes. If we get what we want, permanent human life, we will get permanent suffering, frustration, loss, isolation … and with nothing to put an end to the misery, the best that can occur is that we get more of the same. Eternal Life translates to endless suffering, separation, and the slow deteriorations ― the entropy ― that characterize matter’s energy wherever it is found.

So, besides confirming the Buddhist insight into samsara (that desire is ultimately insatiable and re-begets itself in its fulfillment) it evokes the imagery of endless recurrence that in Indian tradition has crystallized in the belief in rebirth after death. When Buddha speaks about ending the cycle of rebirth, what he says applies to this foundational frustration of our organic condition: that an eternal life would simply prolong suffering endlessly. What we want is for that suffering to end. The Buddha claims he discovered how to end suffering.

5

I believe Siddhartha Gautama came to see the fundamental features of human life on earth in the terms laid out above. He saw that we are quite alone. He did not believe there was a “loving person” behind it all, explaining life’s depth and diversity, nor did he believe that we ourselves were permanent “persons,” “souls” that are not subject to the vanishing that affects all other biological life. He saw that we were fooled by the ever-recur­ring delusion that our desires and instincts could be trusted to lead us to the end of suffering. It seemed clear to him that all sentient beings, not only humans, were the victims of a massive scam: that by following the urges of our organisms we will find happiness and closure. It is simply not true. The animals are unaware that they are being scammed. We are, and we rebel.

Know all things to be like this: a mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition, without essence but with qualities that can be seen.

Know all things to be like this: As a magician makes illusions of horses, oxen, carts and other things, nothing is as it appears. [1]

Later, Mahayana would call it emptiness.  I believe that his celebrated compassion was born of that assessment.

With a cold decisiveness that betrayed the hidden fury behind his quest and discoveries the Buddha dismissed the promptings of nature as fraudulent and devised a way to replace them with others that were guaranteed to end suffering. The uncontrolled stream of images that passed for thought, he said, was the source of reflex behavior that could hardly be called conscious. He determined that by re-introducing conscious awareness back into a mind that was at the mercy of its urges, we could gain control over the process of living and feeling and not be its passive victims. How to re-introduce this conscious awareness? By incrementally changing thought through meditation.

Meditation for the Buddha was not a head-trip in search of enlightenment, much less the dreamy delights of a nuptial relationship with a transcendent Bridegroom. Meditation was a warrior’s daily workout designed to control thought, discipline the mind, re-estab­lish conscious control over our attitudes, opinions, feelings and their subsequent actions. Stop obeying a blind conatus, and start obeying the dharma ― the moral responsibilities revealed to us by our innate and honest intelligence. Think the right thoughts, and you will do the right thing. Start living according to your conscience and you will end suffering for yourself and all others whom you touch.

The Buddha’s program exudes the sweaty energy of military exertion and control. “You got yourself into this pickle, you have the resources to get yourself out.” “Be master of yourself. Once you are in control you will be the best master you will ever have.” “Do it yourself. Be beholden to nobody.” In the entire Dhammapada there is no mention of any help from the outside, divine, human or the forces of nature. Even the sangha, the community of practitioners, is barely mentioned. You are on your own.

It was the absence of any appeal to outside help and no acknowledgement of a “revealed” standard of behavior that has impelled the nearly universal judgment that the Buddha was atheist ― at least in our western terms. The motivation for transformation was what the individuals decided was the right thing to do. There was no “god’s will” being served by any of this, nor was there any prodding or help coming from the practitioner’s “higher power.” What motivated the Buddha was love of his LIFE and the LIFE he shared with others. He wanted to end human suffering. That was the source of his compassion.

The program of obedience he proposed was to one’s own conscience. He called it the dharma. The term captured the essence of a what is universally considered right and wrong: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not become intoxicated, do not transgress sexual norms. Commentators have remarked on the similarity of the concept of the dharma with the Chinese notion of the Tao and the original Hebrew idea of the Torah not as written law but as “the way of heaven.” Some have tried to equate it with the “natural law” of later Greek philosophy, but the dharma does not share the rigidity, divinization of logic and legal simulation that characterizes the western system.

6

Mahayana went beyond the Buddha in a number of ways. To understand how, let’s recap. I believe there are two bedrock ultimates at play in life. In the first there are intense cravings that arise spontaneously in the human organism compelling it to pursue things that are necessary for the survival of the individual and of the species. These are algorithms implanted by evolution. We are all familiar with them. They impel us incessantly to nourish ourselves, reproduce, accumulate, compete with and defend ourselves against others, and in the pursuit of those objectives, to plan and apply disciplined purposeful effort. Second, and with a completely opposite dynamic, there is also a universal sense of purposelessness about reality that comes from the superfluous profligacy of LIFE coupled with its utter randomness, and the spontaneous, virtually irrepressible attraction of the human organism to play and enjoyment. These two force-fields are in direct competition with one another for the attention of the human beings trying to navigate the current that carries them from the cradle to the grave.

I believe the ancient Indians saw the intrinsic connection between the impermanence and frustration that attends the planned attempt to satisfy spontaneous desire, and the purposelessness of all reality. They are one and the same thing.  They called it emptiness.  Because reality has no purpose beyond just being-here, no version of it, no matter how elaborated or evolved, is ever enough, finished, complete. The hunger for more life emerges insatiably from the very material cells of our organism. I believe it is a clear evidence of the existential bearing of matter’s energy.

Then, in a tour de force of vertical reflection, Hindu-Buddhists realized that if being-here is all that LIFE is really concerned about, then being-here is the elusive “purpose” that we have always been searching for. If being-here is the goal of LIFE then, zounds! we already have it, and we have had it from the very beginning. The last place we looked was under our feet. Things are, in a profound but hidden sense, already perfect, enough, fulfilled, complete, finished.

Therefore, the rest ― the craving, the fear of dying, the need to reproduce, the amassing of wealth and power, the annihilation of competitors ― are residual reflex urges which, if mistakenly pursued beyond their temporary evolutionary purpose, degrade into a vain attempt to achieve permanence. In this form they are pure delusion, for none of it accomplishes its imagined purpose: none of it gets us one step closer to permanence. LIFE always remains vulnerable and evanescent. There is no closure.

But LIFE itself, in its perishable form, is the closure. The craving for more is delusion because it is not possible to have more, and the attempt to satisfy a delusion is what is responsible for socially generated suffering, the human condition. The answer to LIFE is not to continue trying to get what we think we want but cannot have, but to retrain our minds to want what we’ve got.

The Buddhist practical organizers zeroed in on the answer: to embrace what is, as it is, and forget about what our “desires” claim they need, and what our rational intelligence, following the clues of our desires, thinks is the purpose of LIFE. We need neither. Embracing what we are, as we are, is to put being-here-now at the center of our striving. Embracing ourselves in the present moment is the ultimate answer to LIFE. And it is not only the answer now, it is the answer at every now. It is always the answer, the only answer; there will never be a time when it is not the answer or when there is any other answer.

The discovery that not only is there a reason why things seem pointless, but that’s the way they are supposed to be, is mind-blowing. Far from being a problem, it is revealed as the solution. And our “job” is not to try to disprove it, or undermine it, or transcend it; it’s rather to endlessly enjoy its utter and glorious emptiness as we would an infinite spring of clear mountain water. We find that our thirst for being is slaked from the very first moment … and every subsequent present moment thereafter. All that remains is to retrain our frightened and paranoid conatus to see things for what they are. It’s not really a matter of faith, but rather trust. We can trust LIFE, the way things are … and we can trust what our human teachers ― Buddha, Jesus and their authentic imitators ― accomplished with their lives and the steps they took to get there. If they could do it, they told us in very clear terms, we can do it. We have to trust that they were ordinary human beings just like us, something that both of them insisted on. And we have to trust that since our humanity is the same, we also carry that power with us. The ability to transcend suffering and sorrow is ours to activate.

7

This opposes the fundamental direction of our Western Christian worldview which is focused on moral compliance in the pursuit of eternal reward, permanent immortality, and ― according to Roman Augustinian Christianity ― relies exclusively on the intervention of a spiritual “God” who both issues the moral law as the command of his will, and elects those who will receive and benefit from his miraculous “grace.” In this view, in complete opposition to the Buddha’s original teaching, the entire drama of personal transformation and the achievement of immortality in a state of eternal bliss, is the work of “God.” For a Christian to become a Buddhist, as the Buddha conceived his program, would involve a radical shift in perspective.

But the West is not totally closed to the Hindu-Buddhist view. There is a “minority report” from western culture that is diametrically opposed to the mainstream quid pro quo scenario outlined above and is categorically in agreement with the “pointlessness” that Indian spirituality adumbrates at the core of reality. The most articulate proponents of this opposing point of view are Johannes “Meister” Eckhart, a mediaeval Dominican theologian who died in 1328, and those who were inspired by his mystical vision in the centuries that followed : Tauler, Ruysbroeck, Suso, Angelus Silesius.

The last named author in the list of the Meister’s followers was Angelus Silesius. He was German, a mystical poet who wrote about the middle of the 17th century, more than 300 years after Eckhart’s death but his writings are full of the Meister’s thought. Here is a sampling of his poetry from different translations that reveals the similarity with the Buddhist view. Keep in mind that he is projecting these ideas in the midst of a Christian cultural contradiction. These individual and separated verses come from a much larger series of poems called The Cherubinic Wanderer, composed about 1658. His lines are in italics and indented: [3]

On the absence of “purpose” in life he says:

The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms simply because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.

On the “will” of “God”:

We pray: Thy Will be done! But God has no Will: in His changelessness God is eternally still.

On divine Providence and predestination:

God foresees nothing — it’s our dull and blundering sense that imagines God with the attribute of Providence.

On the “rationality” of the abundant source of LIFE:

God does not think. Otherwise He would change, and that is impossible.

On “God” as the “being” of all things:

Eternal Spirit, God, becomes All that He wills to be — but still remains ever as He is, without form, or aim, or will.

For Eckhart and his followers, their experience conformed to and in many cases was the formative factor in their theology. Following the mediaeval focus on God as ESSE in se subsistens ― self-subsistent Being ― they conceived of God, the designer and exemplar that all things resembled and the absolute good that all things desired to possess, as pure impassive stillness. They imagined God living in a blissful serenity totally absorbed in an eternal act of self-embrace silently pouring out a single changeless energy (Aristotle called it Pure Act) that because there was nothing in ESSE that was not fully actuated, could not become something more in any way. It remained exactly the same for all eternity. They called it The Eternal Now.

Eckhart laid great emphasis on the eternal now:

The now-moment in which God made the first man, and the now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one now. [2]

Time in their view stood at the other end of the spectrum from the eternal now. Time was the record of change, of becoming, the activation of dormant potential ― of what could be but was not yet ― and on the downslope of new being, the entropic dissipation of energy in the inevitable direction of equilibrium, inaction, non-becoming, complete stasis, death. Time is the vapor trail of becoming ― i.e., the tracks left by potential being activated, by things coming into being-here out of nothing, which occurs always and only at one point in time: the present moment. They saw the present moment as the “stargate,” the “wormhole,” the permanent, ever accessible bridge and indelible link between the Eternal Now and the world of time and change. It was the one, solid, ever present and infallible connection between God and humankind, the place of contact, the kiss of existence that sustains the universe.

This is where the contemplative experience of both East and West, Buddhism and the Mystical traditions of the religions of The Book, not only confirmed what the other had stumbled upon, but reached for a rational way to explain why. For contemplative experience universally rests upon the present moment, and is described as absorption in the here and now ― the reality of being-here-now ― to the complete exclusion of any competitor or rival. It includes the sense that there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to get, nothing to want, nothing more precious or valuable than the simple uncomplicated act of being-here-now-together which is the simultaneous activation of energy by the living material organisms and the material energy of their common source-matter, the substrate of which all things are made, LIFE.

The awareness that this realization ends suffering, both the suffering that comes from fear of personal annihilation and the suffering that comes from competing violently with others for possession of what neither of us needs and really wants, is the ultimate source of the universal love, expressed as compassion, gratitude, generosity, respect, forgiveness, characteristic of both traditions. In India, it was crystalized in the image of the bodhisattva and his mind-blowing recognition that nirvana and samsara were only different ways of looking at one and the same pointless material cosmos, the same purposeless LIFE. Nirvana itself stopped being a thing to be achieved. Nirvana became present in the instant of embracing the present moment, the kiss of LIFE. Zen practitioners called it satori ― enlightenment.

It works coming and going. Coming to us as the joy of being-here-together and going out from us as the joy of sharing the good news of our liberation to fellow slaves and victims of mindlessness.

 

 

[1] The Buddha, quoted by Andrew Harvey, Mystics, Castle Books, 1996, p.72

[2] Johannes Eckhart, quoted in DT Suzuki, Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist, Macmillan, 1957, p. 84

[3] Selections from The Cherubinic Wanderer, by Angelus Silesius, translated with an introduction by J. E. Crawford Flitch, [London, 1932]   http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/sil/scw/scw004.htm

 

REVOLUTION OR REFORM:

a meditation on Psalm 58

PSALM 58

Background. The “gods” referred to here are an imagined “heavenly court” — minor divinities believed to be subordinate to Yahweh. They are called in other places “the sons of God.” These divinities were also assigned other tribes to protect and promote. The poet rebukes them, surely, because they have not brought their wards into subservience to Yahweh; they have allowed them to perpetrate injustice and violence on others which probably included Israel. The psalmist is furious over this, as the extreme violence of his language reveals.

Rational thought is the realm of the gods. And for humans, what you consider good and worthy of your disciplined service is inspired by the “god” you worship. So the “gods” are judged guilty of plan­ning evil because the actions of their people are evil and must stem from the evil thinking or at least the conscious permissiveness of their “god.” The “stinking thinking” of course, is that you are superior to others and have a right to lord it over them.

The Psalmist calls on Yahweh to confirm his supremacy by a visible display in reverse order: the op­pres­sor nation will be defeated and its arrogant thoughts of superiority conspicuously humiliated thus proving that its “god” has been reined in and his “thinking” made once again subservient to Yahweh’s plan. Faith in Yahweh and his thought-path — the torah and the ascendancy of Yahweh’s people — will be restored.

In Israel’s history, this interpretation of international politics sometimes played itself out with savage consistency by all nations to the point of wholesale population relocation or even national extermination, the latter strategy pursued by the Hebrews themselves in their conquest of Palestine. The “target” of the extermination was putatively not the people but the “god” whose thought-path was their life.

Reflection. The theological cosmogony imagined in this poem is utterly foreign to us. We have little choice but to resort to metaphor. It is axiomatic for us that Yahweh is an ancient metaphor for LIFE, and in all cases we want LIFE as dharma — the rational thought-path of self-control, egali­ta­rian justice, com­­pas­sion and generosity — to assert its supremacy above all other competing ideo­logies. LIFE is not tribal, as Yahweh was. It is universal, as is its dharma, its torah, its thought-path. It applies to all. Everyone knows what it is.

This supremacy impacts politics as much as individual spiritual liberation. Trun­ca­­ted ideological distor­tions that would make “gods” out of something less than LIFE — the individual “self,” the race or nation, the educated elite, the dominant gender, or the wealthy, powerful and merciless bosses in every sector who function on the illusion that they are owners of others — must all be de­feated and those various con­cept­ual surrogates made subservient to LIFE. They are all functions of the isolated ego. For it is my self I promote, my nation, my ideology, my status, career, credentials, and credibility that drive and justify the violence I heap on others. These are all rogue “gods,” and in order to conquer the promised land (fully appropriate our humanity), they must be made to submit to LIFE, applying whatever violence it requires, and the attraction of their thought-path exterminated. This is where spirituality and politics intersect; it is what makes monasticism and revolution dif­fer­ent applications of the same insight and vision.

1 Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? Do you judge people fairly?

2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth.

3 The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies.

4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear,

5 so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter.

6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!

7 Let them vanish like water that runs away; like grass let them be trodden down and wither.

8 Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime; like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.

9 Faster than a brush-fire flashes through thistles, may he sweep them away!

In the most trenchant and uncompromising terms, anything that would dare assert itself above LIFE as the goal and purpose of our human existence as a community of life-sharing individuals, must be neutralized — aborted, exterminated — and swept away. They are our sworn enemies. To value anything above LIFE is to invite disaster.

10 The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.

11 People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

 

Fifty years ago, in the decade of the ‘70’s, the idea of “revolution” was part of everyday conversation, and many seriously pursued it as a real possibility. That is not true today; people claim it is just not possible. What is called “revolution” today are actually proposals for reform: changes for the better that do not contemplate a change of system.

Even in those days what “revolution” meant was not always clear. It varied among the political theories and nascent parties that espoused a change of system. That variety didn’t only stem from debate about what the replacement was supposed to look like, it was originally and more maddeningly due to disagreement about what exactly it was about the system that was the root source of the injustice.

For me, there is no debate. I want to make my position clear on this point from the start. I contend that the bedrock human value that is deformed is the dignity and autonomy of the human individual, ground up and blown away by the forces of social, political or economic organization. The prospects for revolution may not currently augur well, but revolution is as salient today as ever. It is not the power to vote, or parity in remuneration, or access to goods and services, or public recognition and commendation, or proportionate representation, even though these secondary indices correlate with the primary problem. It is the requirement that, as the condition of becoming a fully fran­chised member of society, the individual must abdicate his/her individual dignity and autonomy to such a degree that he can be said to be — and behaves as if he were — owned by someone else. The most common form of this in our society, sustained by economic necessity, is aptly called “wage slavery,” [cf my blogpost for Aug 27, 2017] though the grosser forms of slavery that are sustained by physical and/or emotional vio­lence, inclu­ding extreme spousal and child domination and exploitation, also abound.

From this perspective, the problem I have with the Capitalist system is not primarily that it is capi­talist, but that it is master/slave. The “capitalist” designation is secondary and injects injustice indi­rectly through its fictional claim to ownership of the means of production. Capitalism refers to the ownership of stuff: land, buildings, machinery… and the money that allows you to obtain them. Master/slave, on the other hand refers to the ownership of people, either directly as chattel, or indirectly through the ownership of their labor. I contend the “original injustice” is right there. You cannot own someone’s labor any more than you can own his/her person. It is a metaphysical contradiction. Work in community is the human organism’s necessary interaction with its environment for the purposes of survival — an absolute requirement for all biological organisms in a material universe. Labor can only be communally shared; it cannot be sold because it cannot be owned by anyone else. It is when capitalists claim to also buy and own the labor of those who work on their farms and factories that the fiction of ownership makes them complicit in the injustice.

At the foundation of the injustice — the justification for the master/slave relationship — lies a faulty view of human nature. It is a view built on the discarded belief that the human indivi­d­ual is made of two metaphysically distinct components, body and soul, comprised respectively of two distinct kinds of “stuff,” matter and spirit. On that basis it was believed that the “soul” was an entity distinct from the body; superior to it because it was living thinking spirit and body was only dumb lifeless matter; the soul was master and the body was supposed to be its slave. All the prob­lems in human society, it was claimed, stemmed from the disastrous reversal of that “natural” stra­ti­fication: the body, somehow, through some original mishap, had come to throw off the domi­na­tion by the soul and in many cases usurped its role and ruled the person. This “un­natural” situ­a­tion could only be rectified by the soul reconquering the body by discipline and obedience to disci­plined superiors who imposed “spiritual” norms, re-establishing the reign of spirit over matter. The Christ­ian­ized Roman Empire, whose economy was based on slave labor, was considered the authority that im­posed those norms.

Because it was believed that the “soul” was really the person, the body and its needs requiring labor and struggle was deemed something of an inferior alien “thing” that, like a wild animal could be trained and exploited, used and abused, bought and sold. The slavery that was the foundation of the economic life of the ancient Roman Empire, from which our modern Western civilization emerged, was considered the direct and accurate reflection of the dual nature of man. All bodies are the slaves of spirit, if not your own, then someone else’s.

The supposed dominance of spirit over matter also established the superiority of mental activity over physical labor and the corresponding right of those who lived by mental activity — the educated elite — to direct and control the lives of those who lived by the sweat of their brow and the labor of their body. This also provided a justification for the subordination of women to men, a pheno­menon already well established by male physical dominance and the soft nurturing character of the female organism shaped by evolution to care for and share life with children. Even among wealthy landowners, boys were educated girls were not. Thus it came to be believed that the male head of family owned and managed his wife and children, the way one would own tools or furniture and do with them whatever he wanted. The incorporation into the family of ser­vants and slaves, conquered by war and bought for a price, was considered a simple extenuation of the ownership which the paterfamilias exercised over his household — land and animals, buildings and wagons, tools and people: women, children, slaves.

Wage slavery in turn is the continuation in modern form of those beliefs inherited from ancient times about the nature of the human being. The belief that society is naturally and necessarily com­prised of intelligent thinking educated owners who direct the work of the thoughtless sub-hu­man illiterate inferiors whose labor they own, incapable of surviving without the master’s control and direction, is more than a caricature. There is no democracy on the job. The owner is an absolute dictator whom the worker is bound to obey because he owns his labor.

In all forms of master/slave the value of human labor was not determined by the integral connection between the human material organism in community interacting with its cosmic material envi­ronment. It was determined by the profit it brought to the owner’s person, the “soul,” one’s own or the buyer’s. The result was that the vitality and guiding authority of that material cosmic symbiosis atro­phied. The reality of (and respect for) the material organism integrated in its human com­mu­nity and nested in its mat­er­ial environment disappeared. The “soul” always remained “free” in theory but the body could be sold into slavery, permanently or for a time, to do whatever bidding was required of it. The social sys­tem obliterated individual autonomy and its authentic relationship to its matrix as the condition for its inclusion in the community of sur­vival. The body had no say, for its needs were material and disdained as worthless.

Revolution

I contend that the master/slave system in all its forms is dehumanizing. It supposes and in turn supports a false notion of human nature and militates against the integrity of the human organism dependent on the human community. “Revolution” is a political symbol that proposes the complete elimi­nation of the master/slave system. Changes in other categories of social role, status and distribution of goods will come in its train, and as determined by the nature of the egalitarian socie­ty resulting from revolution.

A truly revolutionary program may not be possible at the present time because the political conditions are not propitious, but despite that fact, plans for the radical change of economic/social sys­tem have to continue to be hammered out and proposed to the world. And these plans cannot be allowed to be watered down to the point where they become acceptable to the current Capitalist version of the master/slave system. Why? Because the system is dehu­man­izing. And it’s pre­cisely for that reason that revolutionary vi­sions, despite their “impossibility,” stand in a class apart from those that offer reform. Preserving intact the revolutionary intent of these alternatives is one of the few ways we have of holding aloft a vision of the integrity of the hu­manity that we are privileged to bear and pass on. We are meant to become fully human as individuals in a human community that respects and protects our fragile and vulnerable humanity. That means that slavery in all its forms is banished from human life. That is not an optional choice, and it is not possible under Capitalism’s version of the master/slave, two-class, two-sub­stance theory of human nature. Wage slavery is slavery.

In my opinion the furthest we’ve gotten along these lines are reforms: proposals for changes con­ceived to function within a system that will harness them to its own dehumanizing agenda or it will neutralize them. Reform is not revolution. In order to effectuate such reforms you have to emas­culate revolution and turn it into a non-threaten­ing modification of traditional Capitalism. That leaves our dehumanizing master/slave paradigm in place and festering. Reform will work within things as they are. Please note: the beneficiaries of the system – wealthy, white, male, edu­cated people — support reform efforts. And the reason why, I suggest, is because whatever the benefits reform might achieve for others, it does not threaten their privilege.

I admit that reform is better than what we have now. But reform does not address the threat to our humanity. Revolution — the annihilation of the master/slave relationship — does. Without it nothing changes except that the slaves are given a stake in the system (possibly to perpetuate it) and some may get to con­sume more. The multimillennial dehumanization created by the master/slave system will continue on until it finally produces a humankind totally disfigured by selfish uncontrolled consumption, a massive social inequality and widespread destitution created in its pur­suit, and the resulting destruction of Earth’s ability to support life. The system will not tolerate any­thing that contradicts its two-class, master/slave view of human nature that has made “gods” and masters of the elite who control it. It will precipitate Armageddon before it would ever embrace Revolution.