Buddhist “non-duality”

“Non-duality” is a key notion of later Buddhism associated with the developments introduced by Nagarjuna in the second century of the common era. It is a companion concept to emptiness and is central to the Mahayana worldview.

These concepts are about as philosophical in the western sense that Buddhism ever gets. They are the attempt to ground the Buddhist emphasis on the impermanence of all reality in something objective. They are the elaboration of the notion of “dependent co-arising” which is so central to the Buddhist vision.

Buddhist practice concentrates on the mirage-like quality of the phenomena of experience as the source and wellspring of detachment. The craving that creates so much suffering and injustice for humankind is the result of attachment. This clinging to things ― pleasures, possessions, power ― thought to enhance and solidify one’s grip on life, is a chimera. Everyone’s experience confirms it. Chasing those things is like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When you get there, it disappears. You find that your desired happiness, ascendancy and solidity slips like water through your fingers. Part of maturing into adulthood is the appreciation of the ephemeral nature of all such goals, and balanced adults, psychologically successful and secure, are always aware of the reality of what they are pursuing. Detachment is a natural response to the experience of impermanence.

The Buddha made the empirical discovery that detachment is the key to the elimination of suffering because it provided two correctives to the maladjustments characteristic of immaturity. One, it gave the mind the serenity to gauge benefits and judge clearly what pursuits were worth any human effort at all, thus making it possible to avoid disappointments in advance; and two, it prepared the emotions for the predictable let-down when those disappointments occurred. He also saw that poor judgments and disappointments not only attended the grosser objects of human desire, like pleasure, possessions and power, but were equally present when more refined goals were on the table, like virtues, humility, generosity, compassion … yes and even detachment itself. He quickly came to the conclusion that detachment was universally applicable because everything was equally impermanent.

Enter “science”

Such a universal declaration was intellectually pretentious on the face of it. The Buddha never went any further, philosophically, than to declare it the fruit of his experience and asked his followers to confirm it in their own experience. Thus it stood for many centuries as a universally agreed upon principle of Buddhist practice because it worked. But in the second century of the common era a Mahayana Buddhist philosopher by the name of Nagarjuna tried to give this universally acknowledged experience a scientific basis. He wrote a treatise called “The Essential Wisdom of the Middle Way” in which he systematically attempted to examine all classes of human experience and prove that they were empty of their own reality, impermanent, and the proper object of human detachment.

The fundamental vision that grounds emptiness is based on what the Buddhists call “dependent co-arising” which means that everything that exists ― both that it exists, and the way that it exists ― is not self subsistent. It is rather the effect of a plethora of causes in space and time that ultimately reach to the very edges of the cosmos and cosmic history. It is this effort to define the existence of anything, a “thing” or any of its characteristics, as the effect of other things and forces beyond the “thing” or ability in question, that constitutes emptiness. All things arise into existence in dependence upon the arising of other things into existence.

Commentators use simple examples to illustrate the phenomenon. Take a rose. When you look at a rose what you are looking at is the net result of a network of causes ― the seed that became the rose bush, the soil and its many and balanced nutritional chemicals, water in the proper amount and at the proper acidity, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which the rose bush absorbed and converted into oxygen in the process of photosynthesis, etc. Each of those causes were themselves dependent upon other causes for their own arising into existence. Hence the carbon dioxide came from multiple sources like volcanic eruptions, the decay of organic matter, animal respiration; plant nutrients were released by the breakdown of rock into soil caused by various kinds of erosion; water formed from available oxygen and hydrogen gelled out of the gasses of the supernova that preceded the formation of our solar system … etc., etc. You get the idea.

Meditate long and be singularly focused on that aspect of our experience and it will shortly occur to you that when you think you are looking at a rose, you are really looking at all that went into it. That “all” is not hyperbole. It is literally real. Seen from the point of view of its “causes” the rose represents the combined effect of every thing and every event in the universe going all the way back to the big bang … none of which is a “rose.

So the “rose” is really not a rose. It is empty of its “self.” But that’s not just true of the rose. It is true of all things, forces, events ― all phenomena of whatever kind ― that occur in our universe.

Now this may seem outlandish. Of course a rose is the result of the entire chain of causes that are responsible for everything, but, you will insist, it is still a rose. The Buddhists respond, indeed, but for how long? The clearest indication that we are dealing with something that is not substantially itself is that it withers and disappears in short order.   This is characteristic of all things, including the human organism. We are here for exactly as long as the network of causes that generate our being-here exists. Our being-here is not dependent on ourselves or on some singular source that lives in another world, but precisely on that identifiable network of things and events other than ourselves which comprise the totality of our world. As those supports collapse because their own network of causes no longer produces them, they disappear, and with their disappearance so do we. Outlandish as it may seem and outrageous as it may feel, we are ultimately nothing more (or less) than the congealed effervescence of matter’s living, existential energy here and observable only while its transitory material causes continue to be operative.

We may not like it, but we are the way we are because we are matter, and that’s the way matter behaves. If we appreciate being-here we have to accept the sine qua non conditions of matter’s being here, because we are THAT.

The totality = non-duality

This awareness that all things are intimately linked by a chain of causes that extends to the very boundaries of our cosmos in space and in time changes the focus of what it means to be-here. There is no individual thing that is here by itself. It is here and has the character it does because everything else that goes into its being-here is-here. There is no way to define or identify any single thing without identifying and defining everything else.

So the fact that I spontaneously think of myself as an individual is an error, not just a partial truth, but a seriously defective falsehood because there is no aspect of any form or feature characteristic of me that is-here on its own. All of me ― body, mind, feelings, intentions ― is dependent on actively functioning factors that are other than me. So that at no point is there any duality with anything for there is nothing that can be called “not-me” and there is nothing I can look at and say that I am “not that” or claim that some part of me is “only me.”

So the Buddhist doctrine of “non-duality” is the flip-side of their identifying the real reality of the universe with the totality. They come at it from the point of view of their notion of “causality.” Everything is part of a totality because its existence and functioning is dependent upon the existence and functioning of other things … eventually, all other things. My “being-here” is dependent on my “causes.” Therefore my being-here does not exist apart from my causes. I and my causes are one being-here.

From my point of view, the Buddhist vision is corroborated by modern science which identifies the same homogeneous material energy as the fundamental component of all things that exist in our cosmos. Non-duality obtains in this view because nothing can claim to be made of anything other than what everything else is made of. We are all part of a totality of things which is comprised of the same material, and here on our planet most things even share their various elements in the same proportions, making us one identifiable family within the totality.

I think it is important to point out that the “reasons” the Buddhists give for “non-duality” are not exactly the same as what I would adduce from modern science. Regardless, it seems that the experience of oneness with all things which is a constant feature of all forms of mysticism ― Christian, Hindu, Judaic, Buddhist, Islamic ― is claimed by all traditions to have an objective “scientific” basis, and I contend that modern science agrees. Looked at from the point of view of the physical, chemical, biological constituents of all things we are all one thing: matter’s existential energy, living, evolving, dissolving.

“Non-duality” is the reason why the Hindus say “Thou are THAT.” We are all the subsets of the same reality. Were we to take that seriously, our behavior would change to the point of being unrecognizable. Right now, what we do to our bodies and to others’, human and non-human, is a function of a non-existent distinction that we insist on maintaining between us and “other” things.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jesus and Buddha (2)

As the last post (Aug 22, Reflections on Jesus and Buddha) indicated, I believe the principal difference between Jesus and Buddha is not in their moral vision but in the relational and motivational context that gave a their recommended behavior a special character. Jesus lived in a hieratic, religious context where the world was believed to have been created and micro-man­aged by a personal “God.” For the Jews, the real reality ― what gave substance and direction to human life ― was the “contract,” the relationship to “God.” The moral law may have been updated by Jesus’ insights, but the relationship was the same.

The Buddha, on the other hand, had an unmistakably skeptical attitude toward the gods and anything that smacked of forces originating in another world that were believed to neutralize or reverse awareness of our impermanent condition. While he never denied the existence of the gods, he considered all such beliefs to be distractions that militated against the detachment required to end selfish craving and the suffering it entailed. It was the realization that all things were empty of permanent existence that spurred the necessary detachment.

Buddha denied the possibility of achieving permanence through any activity whatsoever and saw its pursuit as a myth. Mindless striving after the impossible not only created frustration and suffering, but also generated an untold amount of injustice as individuals stampeded over one another in the effort to acquire the symbols of the permanent possession of life: wealth, status, power, pleasure.

Basing myself on modern science, I attribute Buddhism’s perception of radical impermanence to the fact that existence is material. Matter is subject to the second law of thermodynamics as expressed in entropy. The discrete quanta of energy that constitute matter come together in an evolving process of integration and complexification and then come apart in the dissipation and dissolution that accompanies the return to equilibrium. We experience it on the biological level as birth and death.

That proposition, however, goes a step beyond Buddha’s message. Buddha avoided all physical/metaphy­si­cal speculation about the nature of reality and confined himself to a description of how it behaved. Reality ― all of it, including the human organism ― displayed a radical impermanence. No formation of whatever kind, no matter how well constructed and protected against change, was self-subsistent, and none endured. All things were in a constant state of flux ― coming together and coming apart dependent on a myriad of factors other than themselves ― and given the craving of the human organism for permanent existence, this impermanence was the source of all our suffering and the wellspring of our competitive injustice and self-destructive addictions.

Eschewing any reference to the gods or other forces not of this world, Buddha could confront the problem directly and undistracted. On the one hand there was the human conatus that is an instinctive irrepressible organic drive to continue to be-here bred into every biological organism by evolution, and on the other, there was a universal process whereby all composites dissolved back into their components in the inevitable return to equilibrium. This process included the human body and stood in direct contradiction to its own innate desires, hard-wired by evolution. Every last bit of it came and went like the morning mist.

This made reality, for humankind, an intrinsic dilemma … and insuperable. The human organism could not deny or disregard its desire for permanent life without becoming suicidal or at least self-destructive in some way. And the material universe ― which paradoxically included the human organism itself with all its drives ― did not have the wherewithal to provide what that desire wanted. It was a total impasse.

That meant life, for the Buddha, was absurd. He had no trouble saying that. He said existence was “empty” and called it a “mirage.” Life was a scam, a delusion. He called for endless compassion for all the biological organisms (“sentient beings”) who were caught in this trap. If you are to end suffering, you have to first acknowledge and confront the delusion. Then you must transcend it. Your motivation is to end your suffering. You begin by loving yourself and your people. Then you can look clear-eyed at what has to be done. If you have any relationship in all this, it is to yourself.

Jesus, it must be said at this point, had no such liberty. Like the Buddha, Jesus saw what had to be done if people were to live in peace and with justice, but he was locked into a world­view inherited from his Jewish forebears. For Jesus, this same material universe that the Buddha looked at with a cold and cynical eye, was the gift of a loving father. Given Jesus’ belief system, you could not look at reality with the same detachment and disdain as the Buddha. For Jesus, all things were good. They were not an empty mirage. Life was not a scam. This life was supposed to be a paradise. It was our sins ― our lack of trust in God and the selfishness that resulted from it ― that cast us out of paradise, nothing else; that was the meaning of the Genesis myth. The cravings that the Buddha saw as the enemies of personal control and inner peace, for Jesus were the generous gift of a benevolent creator, who also created the object of that craving. The discipline required was for their proper use, not for their disposal as trash.

The relationship to God determined everything. Notice how this changes the picture. For the Jews both the craving and its object are good. The only condition was that they were to be pursued in accordance with the will of the “person” who made them, who established their “purpose,” and who gave them to humankind as gifts. The Jewish universe was centered on “God.” Things were not as they appeared. Their appearances ― the impermanent phenomena of experience ― which seemed random, meaningless and uncaring for humankind, were in fact something entirely different. They were gifts from God. But their real permanent and loving reality could only be known by revelation ― know­ledge that came from another world.

For Jesus, the modification in behavior that this implied had to be understood as a command from “God” ― necessarily from another world ― no matter how gently and invitingly that command was issued. It made human behavior a matter for the God of that other world to decide and the import of human behavior was the effect it had on the relationship to “God” who lived in the other world.  Whereas with the Buddha, correct human behavior was determined by the Dharma ― our conscience reading the “law of nature” ― it was our guide to happiness because we were part of nature. But to comply with it was a free choice. We were encouraged by the Buddha to make that decision on one basis only: what is good for us … what will end our suffering … what will take us beyond sorrow … what will give us joy and guarantee peace in our communities. Living by the Dharma will make us happy; it is the relationship to ourselves and our communities that motivates our choice.

Polar opposites

I want to draw attention to the huge difference in these two dynamics. Even though both Buddha and Jesus are calling for the same moral responses, and in many cases, moral responses (like non-violence) that are similarly counter-intuitive to the customs of their times, they did not agree on the real significance of their teachings ― what those behavioral modifications meant for the relationships in which people found their primary identity and ultimate destiny. For Jesus your identity was grounded in God’s creative act and fatherly love, hence, morality was your loving obedience to God’s “law;” for the Buddha your identity was your self-possession and personal detachment: your hard-won emotional freedom grounded in your control over your mind and its imaginings sustained by your insight into the emptiness of all things, hence, morality was the practice of meditation and submission to the Dharma.

The difficulty that people encounter in trying to integrate these two religious perspectives does not have to do with moral response or ascetical practice. What appears on the surface as a “slam dunk” in terms of agreement on program, reveals itself to be a profound difference that I believe recapitulates the original human dilemma ― the desire for permanence in an impermanent universe. Each tradition has impaled itself on one of the two opposing horns of the dilemma. Let me explain what I mean.

Jesus’ Jewish perspective opts for a permanence that I consider imaginary. To him, the world was not the welter of ephemeral phenomena we see unfolding before our eyes, it is really the rock-solid unchanging eternal love of a creating “Father” that is invisible to unaided human sight. The traditional theist view of the world, mis-interpreting the exquisite interconnectedness of the physical world and attributing that order to a rational benevolent Creator “God”-person, projects a permanent ground that belies the impermanence and randomness obvious to experience and confirmed by modern science. That view collapses on the issue of divine providence.

Divine Providence means “God” has control over every detail of cosmic and human history. But a moment’s reflection reveals that catastrophes like the Nazi Holocaust and the Haitian earthquake that were responsible for an untold number of deaths of innocent people, in the latter case mostly children, could never have occurred if a rational benevolent “God”-person with the capacity to prevent these horrendous effects were actually watching over and guiding the affairs of humankind. No provident “Father” would ever have permitted such things to occur to his children. So either “God” doesn’t have the power to stop these events, or if “he” could but chooses not to for whatever reason, “he” is not rational and benevolent. Jesus’ loving all-powerful Father is not consistent with the world of human experience.

The Buddha, on the other hand, opted for an exclusive randomness and impermanence. His worldview, adjusted 400 years later by the Mahayana Reform at the turn of the common era, provided no objective grounds for the universal compassion he enjoined on his followers which became the Buddhist ideal. There was no loving father to imitate. There was no infinite eternal generosity that established the paradigm of the bodhisattva ― the ideal Buddhist who renounced the bliss of nirvana in order to struggle for the liberation of all. Compassion for the Buddha was completely self-grounded, an entirely subjective phenomenon. It was the product of his own personal outrage evoked by insight into the delusional nature of human suffering. Its only identified source was the trap created by the mirage of reality and his own personal sensibilities. That instinctive compassion of the Buddha was then transformed by the Mahayana Reform into an ontological ground for the future bodhisattvas who followed him. They imitated and were inspired by HIS compassion which was given divine status. But there was no basis for compassion in nature. The Buddha’s compassion sprang full blown and totally original from his person. The world was a fortuitous network of unrelated emptiness and impermanence; human empathy was a unique phenomenon.

The human being and the community of humankind were the only forces in the universe capable of compassion … and compassion stemmed from empathy: i.e., the ability to see that others’ sufferings are the same as one’s own. The result of this emphasis of the Buddha is the ironic focus on the self as the exclusive source and ground of all morality, social justice, liberation and growth in generosity. The paradox is that the supposed linchpin of the Buddha’s spiritual program is anatman ― his claim that the self is an illusion ― a mirage, like everything else that we experience. Empathy itself is impermanent. This is an anomaly of the Buddha’s vision as glaring and inexplicable as Jesus’ insistence on the hovering protection of a loving “Father” who did nothing to prevent his torture and assassination by the Roman thugs. How can the “self” that supposedly does not exist, the “self” whose insane cravings for a non-existent permanence are the source of all human suffering, now be called upon to ground, pursue and sustain the entire Buddhist program of personal transformation into selfless generosity?

Coming at it from the opposite (objective) side of the question: how can the abundance and compulsive expansiveness of life, resulting in this vast intricate, complex and interconnected network we know as our world, arise in a universe of discrete, radically unconnected particles and forces? And why has the conatus ― the instinct for permanence ― evolved as the principal innate drive in all animal life, not just human?   The Buddha does not address these issues.  His interest was not speculative; it was stone practical. He wanted to end human suffering. Having discovered the causes of suffering and how to conquer them in himself, he felt driven to share his discoveries with all who would listen. But the lacunae left by his disregard for physics/metaphysics leaves the rest of us frustrated. We might know “how,” but we are left wondering “why?” Buddhists may answer, “we don’t need to know why.” But it’s a question that springs from the very core of what we are, and we ‘suffer’ until we have an answer.

This line of questioning can also be put to Jesus from the point of view of his principal insight: the permanence and solidity of the love of a Father “God.” How can belief in such a “God” correlate with the utter mayhem in natural events and human social affairs that causes so much human suffering and destruction? The belief in divine providence and the miraculous interventions that such a belief implies, are patently incredible. How can you square your “faith” with reality? There are, in fact, no miracles. There is no intervention of “God” in human history or in the processes of the natural world. Belief in providence is an illusion that ends up baptizing whatever actually happens as the “will of God.” In this form it confers divine approbation on the status quo and glorifies the rich and powerful.

The Christian religion, whose ritual program can be characterized as begging this provident miracle-working “God” for divine interventions ― to win wars, to punish enemies, to be restored to health, to achieve success, to have adequate rainfall and good harvests ― is being abandoned by myriads of people who have become aware of its incredibility. There are no miracles, and to ask for them borders on insanity.

The turn to Buddhism on the part of many people in the west represents the recognition that, whatever its failures in identifying the ultimate constituents of reality, Buddha’s vision faithfully describes the real world and our interactions with it; it is preferable to the Christian fantasy of a humanoid “God” whose providence is a joke. Buddhism brackets “God,” and provides a practical program of self-develop­ment that is completely consistent with both experience and modern science. And, while Buddhism may not offer a scientific or metaphysical ground for the compassion and generosity it promotes, it acknowledges that these aspirations are universally human and offers a concrete path for achieving them.

The “Religions of the Book,” Judaism, Islam and Christianity, however, will continue to claim that the source of the spontaneous compassion that wells up in the human heart is a loving and protective Father, the compassionate heart of the universe. That means they will always have the anomaly that theodicy was created to resolve: how can a provident all-powerful and “compassionate” God design and sustain a universe where an innate human conatus that seeks eternal permanence must search for it among random events where no permanence of any kind is possible … resulting in universal personal suffering and widespread social injustice?

My answer is: it can’t. Unless you are willing to ignore your own rationality altogether, there is no way to reconcile the traditional Western image of “God” with the reality of the world as we know it. They simply do not compute. So either “God” is something so different from our traditional imaginings that the word “provident” no longer applies, or there simply is no “God” at all.

LIFE

I opt for a different “God.” I believe there is a way to resolve the anomalies of the messages of both Jesus and Buddha and simultaneously reconcile them to one another. And that is to understand that the material energy ― the being-here ― of which our universe is constructed is a non-personal, non-rational LIFE that is characterized by an effusive expansiveness which through the transcendent creativity of evolution has emerged in the form of the generous, compassionate human biological organism that is totally identified with being-here. In concrete terms, that means my “self.” My conatus, like the conatus of all biological organisms, is the primal expression of that identity for me. All things are simply evolved forms of material LIFE and are the expressions of its existential self-embrace; they cannot even imagine not being-here. The “desire for immortality” is a secondary, rationally elaborated proposition derived from the subsequent realization that life ends in death. It is specifically human. Animals do not have such a wish because it never occurs to them that life will ever end, and until we are reminded of it, neither do we. The conatus is pure drive, not thought; but it can be reconfigured by thought.  

Understanding “God” as LIFE ― matter’s living, existential energy ― brings together the visions of Jesus and Buddha. The relationship to “God” and the relationship to my “self” are now no longer two different things. They are seen to be one and the same thing.

This material LIFE, of which we are an emergent form, is what Jesus’ tradition had been calling “God” whose will was the Torah, and what the Buddha saw expressed in the Dharma. It is not a person; it is not rational; it has no purposes or intentions in our sense of those words; it does not design or manage the forms and events of the universe. It is not an entity apart from the material entities it composes and enlivens. It is the living super-abundant and self-sharing ENERGY that constitutes everything in our universe, making it a process with an unmistakable direction: toward more LIFE. This LIFE is on display in an infinity of forms corresponding to the level of complexification achieved by evolution. And one of its forms ― the one most accessible to my observation ― is my own biological organism, my “self.” If I want to discover what LIFE is, I have to plumb my own depths.

This “solution” provides Buddha with the solid ground that supports his program of compassion and compliance with the Dharma, and it provides Jesus with the reason why “God” lets the sun shine and the rain fall equally on the just and the unjust. It gives the Buddha the reason for the “permanent” features of his vision, like compassion and embrace of the Dharma, and it explains why Jesus mistakenly thought that an uncaring “God” had forsaken him on the cross.

 

 

 

Some reflections on Jesus and Buddha

To try to compare Buddhism and Christianity as religions is hardly possible at this point in time. Each has become a categorical label for a multitude of sectarian subsets that differ so widely that they are barely recognizable to one another. Rather than even attempt to relate to the myriad of institutional versions of these two ancient traditions, I propose a much simpler exercise. How do Jesus and Buddha compare to one another in what they personally taught?

This is feasible because in each case we have what we believe are their original teachings or at least what their earliest chroniclers heard them say. Jesus’ words and actions are narrated in the gospels and the Buddha’s preaching and doctrine are documented in the Pali Canon. Granted that in each case there is really no absolute guarantee of accuracy and completeness, If we accept those documents and the consensus on what they mean, I believe we can get a pretty good idea of what these two extraordinary people were saying.

Historical context

The first thing is the historical context into which they were born; in each case I believe it is determinative. It explains what they were reacting to, and what choices they decided to make given the options that were available to them.

In Jesus’ case it was a nationalist Judaism, besieged in the first century of the common era by the Roman empire, perceived as just one more of the oppressive regimes the Jews suffered under throughout their history. Jesus, following Job and the prophets, interpreted Israel’s “kingdom” promised by Yahweh as spiritual and moral, not political and physical. His view ran counter to his contemporaries’ expectations. Hopes for an eventual Jewish ascendancy motivated the collaboration of the Jewish leadership with the Roman occupation authority. Jesus’ demurral from the mainstream view eventually revealed the latent subversive import of his message: to follow Jesus meant to reject the pursuit of wealth and power — therefore, by implication, collaboration with Roman domination. Once the Romans got the idea that Jesus posed a threat to their power, they wasted no time in eliminating him. The central place of Jesus’ assassination ― the cross ― in the Christian program was a direct result of that historical context.

In the case of Buddha, the background was an elite Brahmin Hinduism that had created a draconian caste system protecting the status of a nobility that ruled a myriad of kingdoms in northern India. Siddhartha himself was born a member of that ruling elite, in line to be king of a small domain at the foothills of the Himalayas. He rejected the entire worldview represented by that social structure much as Jesus did. But, unlike Jesus, he invited his followers to withdraw from it and form separate communities that were dedicated to meditation and personal transformation. These monasteries did not threaten the ruling class; to the contrary the powerful found it was in their interests to support the movement. While many elites may have withdrawn from conventional life to follow the Buddha, his teaching did not openly challenge the status quo.

Despite these differences, what is immediately common to both these teachers is their focus on the present world and human behavior here and now. Jesus’ may have contemplated the possibility of life after death, but by no means embraced it as an established fact, much less as the principal motivation for his counsels. Regardless of what may have come later, Jesus’ own vision was riveted on this world. It must be clearly acknowledged: in Jesus’ message any mention that one’s moral behavior might be significant for life after death in another world was anecdotal, as in the story of Lazarus and the rich man.[1] Gehenna was a kind of an overstated background myth that served to illustrate his moral teaching. That someone would burn in hell for not having compassion on the poor was hardly your conventional morality. This was poetic hyperbole intended to communicate how important the issue was in Jesus’ view of life. Many passages in the Dhammapada show a similar use of traditional myth.

This same communication style is also evident in the gospel of Matthew. The way Jesus is reported speaking indicates that he was well aware of the extraordinary nature of what he was saying.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’   But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.[2]

This teaching of Jesus is gathered by the author of “Matthew” with other sayings that are considered to be upgrades to the commandments and are pictured as part of the “Sermon on the Mount” ― a deliberate evocation of Mount Sinai. The reference back to the original Decalogue is quite explicit and expressed repeatedly in the segments that follow in that same chapter 5. Also the final symbolism of hellfire corroborates this clear intention; it was a threat used either by Jesus himself or inserted by the community of his earliest followers. As written it seems clearly a poetic image designed to make the demand emphatic much like the story of Lazarus and the rich man and similar allusions found in Buddha’s teaching; it was not presented as the reason for not calling your brother a fool. This was a new law, a new commandment meant to evoke the same awe and unquestioning surrender as the original decrees of Sinai with the same punitive consequences for failure to comply. Hellfire was simply part of that picture.

But, Armageddon was not: there is no suggestion of an imminent “end of the world,” which some have suggested explains Jesus’ radical ethics. If that were central to Jesus worldview and determined his morality, it would have emerged clearly here. But what is unmistakable is that Jesus is portrayed as so conscious of the category of commandment as the principal act of God’s rulership of “the kingdom” and obedience as the principal response to God’s will, that he presented his teaching in precisely those terms along with its punishment. This highlights the background of Jesus’ message and illustrates the unmistakable direction of his teaching.

Jesus was a Jew, speaking to Jews. The very structure of cosmic reality was conceived by these people to be the result of a personal choice by “God” to create the universe and then to elect the Jewish people as his own special family ― the agents of his will and the mirrors of his moral character. The intimate dimension here ― personal and paternal ― dominates the entire picture. There is no way to imagine a call to a serious change in behavior and attitude for Jews without characterizing it as a surrender to the will of Yahweh. This is precisely what Jesus was portrayed by Matthew as doing, and he did it because for his context there was no other option. Jesus was not preaching to the world. He was a Jew talking to Jews.

Now the Buddha also made a similar appeal which we can assume came from an insight into the human condition that he shared with Jesus. These are the very first words of the Dhammapada:

ALL THAT we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.

“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love — this is an old rule.[3]

Both Jesus and Buddha are calling for their followers not only to avoid killing other people, but to refuse even to think negatively about them. And each is explicit about the connection between hateful thoughts and what they may lead to. But notice a key difference: Jesus presents his teaching as a commandment. The Buddha offers it as advice. Jesus’ focus is on obeying the will of “God,” now newly understood in terms of love and forgiveness not an eye for an eye, but nevertheless a commandment. Buddha also calls for forgiveness and compassion, but not because some outside divine force, person or obligation demands it, but because it is good for you and your people. It puts you in sync with the Dharma, the natural order. To forego vengeance is to end hatred; hatred causes suffering for you and your people. The Buddha explicitly declared that the purpose of his teaching was to end human suffering. There is no reference to “God.”

While both appear to be calling for exactly the same thing in terms of a counter-intuitive change in attitude and behavior, the personal dynamics required for compliance are contrary to one another. Buddha makes no reference to anything outside the human beings and the natural order to which they belong. What motivates you to change is yourself ― your well-being, your happiness, and that of the people you live with ― which comes from synchronizing with the natural order. This transformation is so important, as a matter of fact, that it is worth working at even if it takes a long time to achieve. The Buddha offers meditation and continual mindfulness as a way of incrementally changing the habitual thinking that lies at the base of negative living. It’s not a command. He recognizes you are not immediately capable of compliance. You have to slowly build the ability to reach your goal. Jesus’ is a command that is to be obeyed immediately.

In Jesus’ case, it is “God’s” will, his perfections, that are being served by the obedience of the human being. The admonition, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect …” is also found in that same chapter 5.   The focus is “God.” “If you call your brother Racca, you will be liable to hellfire.” The only human benefit mentioned is the avoidance of eternal torment.

Notice also, Jesus’ “law” like all law is absolute and self-contained. It is not relative to some other “good.” You are not to call your brother Racca, period. His mention of murder is not explicitly connected with negative thoughts except to set up the parallelism in the commandments. “Just as the fifth commandment is a commandment, this new requirement is equally a commandment.” Buddha’s injunction, however, set as it is as an illustration of the opening of the Dhammapada which identifies thinking as the target of Buddhist meditative practice, negative thoughts about your brother are recognized as the initiation of a chain of thinking that leads to other more violent things. Thus in order to change violent behavior you first have to change your thinking. The two are not just equally mandated, they are organically linked as cause and effect. Despite the evocation of the commandment not to kill, Jesus does not explicitate the causative connection between calling your brother a fool and being prepared to kill him. Once again, in the way Jesus is portrayed by Matthew, what is omitted is that this advice is meant for your happiness, and as an invitation to begin a process; it is presented rather as the will of “God” requiring immediate compliance.

Yahweh vs Brahma

The contrast here is due directly to the divergent worldviews of each of these teachers. Jesus worldview was dominated by a Jewish paternal monotheism that derives ultimately from the patriarchal Semitic culture to which the Hebrews owed their origins.

While India was invaded by Aryan tribes that were of the same hunting origins as the Semites, the settled matriarchal/fertility culture of the Indus valley that preceded their arrival seems to have exerted a moderating influence on the male-dom­i­n­ant and warlike character of the resulting culture.   Buddha was born into that culture as a member of the warrior class. The gods of the Hindu amalgam were not unlike the Jewish Yahweh who was a humanoid warrior-god; but an underlying cosmological vision that seems to have originated in the earlier matriarchal times continued alongside it. In that vision the ground of all things was a universal, non-personal, sub-conscious force known as Brahma, called Atman, which means Self, whose suffusive consciousness was recapitulated in the individual conscious human being who was also called atman ― a microcosm of the Great Force that pervades the world. To synchronize with it was to live by the Dharma, the natural order. This was similar to the “divine fire” of the pre-Platonic Greeks ― LIFE ― which seems to have been what the author of the NT letters of John had in mind when attempting to describe the divine spark alive in Jesus.

Buddha conspicuously refused to acknowledge any personhood to the natural order, and like­wise rejected claims for permanent personhood for the human individual. The insistence on the evanescence of the human being was not a culture shock for his time and place. For at no point was Buddha confronted with a contradiction between the impersonal, and transitory nature of experienced phenomena, which was the heart of his practical vision, and a personal, choosing, miracle-working “God”-Self. The very foundations of the Indian worldview were consistent with the ephemeral nature of lived experience. In such a context it was no great innovation on the part of Buddha to have rejected the belief that humans were permanent separate persons ― souls ― who would live forever. Buddha simply emphasized what was clearly evident everywhere: that nothing is permanent, a view that has been corroborated by modern science. Belief in one’s permanence was a delusional projection that spilled over into the way human beings attempted to create permanent satisfactions in this world that were impossible. Buddha’s insights did not involve swimming against the current of his culture; whereas, in Jesus’ case, to insist that the contract with Yahweh did not really include national wealth and dominion ― not now or ever ― was considered a repudiation of Israel’s identity and Yahweh’s reality. As portrayed by the gospels, the Jewish leaders were as threatened by Jesus’ message as the Romans.

Providence

Jesus and the Jews were predisposed by their belief in Yahweh as a personal creator-Self, and national savior-Self, to see things as selected, rational and personally planned. Hence they were inclined to interpret random events and fortuitous composites as “God’s” will, personally and even eternally chosen as elements of a universal Divine “providence.” This also explains why Matthew’s Jesus would couch the most innovative, untraditional and humanizing elements of his message in terms of an alienating obedience sanctioned by a quid pro quo reward-or-pun­ish­ment. It kept the ancient Jewish relationship to Yahweh intact. The transposition of quid pro quo from this world to the next, a defining feature of later Christian doctrine, was a natural and perhaps even inevitable consequence.

There was so much suffering in life, and so much political abasement for the Jews, that it rendered the “promises” of Yahweh little more than a verbal formality ― a mirage limited to the words on a page of ancient poetry, but never actually occurring in reality. One can easily understand the lamentations of the psalmists that Yahweh was “asleep.” But it also created a sense of national failure and desperation among believing Jews. For according to the traditional view of the “contract,” if Yahweh was faithful, the only explanation for the Jews’ subjugation had to be their sins. That supposedly inescapable logic is what convinced Augustine, 400 years later, that there had to have been an original universal “sin” inherited by all of humankind that left us permanently alienated from “God.” What else could explain such suffering and death even after the redemptive victory of Christ.

The Jews, as was evident, were certainly not the beneficiaries of Yahweh’s promises of prosperity and universal dominion. If any people were, it was the Romans. Augustine was deluded by that as well. He believed in a literal micro-manag­ed “providence” and claimed that Roman supremacy had to be the will of “God.” If you accept that as a premise, all manifestations of wealth and power come to be accepted as a proof of “blessings” and divine favor. Those are the inevitable fruits of such a delusional belief. That alone should be enough to undermine, once and for all, the credibility of the entire worldview that the universe is created and micro-man­aged by a personal humanoid “God.”

For the Jews or for anyone else, there never were any miracles. The human penchant for taking the ups and downs of a changing, impermanent reality modulating through time, and mis-interpreting them as the will of “God,” punishing and rewarding, keeps us forever enslaved to our nightmarish projections about reality. We are addicted to having a hovering parent to guarantee that “all’s right with the world” and in order to keep that fiction alive, we are willing to believe that “God” also chooses to impose on us all the evils we suffer. Therefore, in our mythic view, “God” must despise us. But since he’s “God” that means we must deserve it; it’s our own fault. Hence we hate ourselves. The nightmare is endless. The liberation of humankind from self-loathing and the self-inflicted violence that inevitably follows in its train depends on our withdrawal from these delusions. We are composite biological organisms whose material coherence dissipates over time and we decompose. It’s called entropy. That’s the way matter behaves; it’s also why it evolves. Those are the conditions of existence for material composites. We die because we are made of matter, not because we are being punished.

Matthew’s Jesus is no more to blame for this state of affairs than Paul, the Pharisee. They were all Jews, and the imagery of a humanoid, consciously choosing “God,” who actively enters into human history, was their common legacy. We have to have compassion on our forebears and understand the horizons of their view of the universe, even as, with the help of Buddha and the minority strains of our own Christian mystical tradition, we move toward an appreciation of the sacred that concurs with the discoveries of modern science.

[1] Lk 16: 19-31

[2] Mt 5: 21-22, New RSV

[3] Müller, F. Max. Wisdom of the Buddha: The Unabridged Dhammapada (Dover Thrift Editions) (Kindle Locations 62-64). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

 

Reflections on Buddhist Impermanence

2,500 words

The unexpected death of a young and healthy person is shocking.   On such occasions the impermanence of life suddenly reveals itself as the ultimate reality, and it includes oneself. The insight takes the form of a realization ― in the root sense of that word ― the vanishing nature of one’s own existence becomes real ― a felt reality.

I use the example of a sudden unexpected death, but unpredictable catastrophes of other kinds ― like natural disasters ― can also precipitate the same reaction.

The reaction I am speaking about is not grief or terror, but the resulting derogation of ordinary priorities, goals and objectives to meaninglessness. Desires and aversions, likes and dislikes, attractions and un-attrac­tions, spontaneously disappear. They generally reconstitute themselves in time but for some, they linger and must be intentionally re-installed. On the flip-side, the evaporation of the ordinary objects of desire also brings clearly to mind that death has happened to someone else. “I am still here.” This evokes a sense of personal liberation, a serene interiority and a joy in being-here-now that, however momentary, is accompanied by a cessation of time-flow. It is a profound self-appre­cia­tion and is quite unique. The experience is know­ledge-based ― an insight ― a seeing of one’s reality as it actually is for the first time. Some call it the opening of a third eye. Inevitably, this feeling of joy in the simple timeless fact of being-here-now recedes with the return of the ordinary pressures of life. It’s like waking up from a dream.

Buddhism

I have heard people refer to the profound liberation they have experienced on such occasions, and bemoan the fact that there was no way to keep it from evaporating in the stresses of daily routines. I believe that much of Buddhist practice can be understood as an attempt to grasp the nature of these spontaneous transformations and then to devise mental and behavioral exercises that will establish them as a permanent feature of daily living.

But this choice generates a contradiction. The irony of trying to make the experience of insuperable impermanence, revealed in the disappearance of a “self” (death), a permanent feature of a new, transformed and purposeful “self,” should not be lost on us. It was not lost on the Buddha. It is what is responsible for the second phase of Buddhist teaching, emphasized by the Mahayana Reform: universal emptiness.

Universal emptiness means everything is impermanent. The experience of impermanence is itself impermanent. Buddha, who counselled generating a mind-set he called “no-self” (meaning that nothing contained within itself the necessary and sufficient reason for its own existence) was quite aware that the re-establish­ment of “goals and objectives,” even one called “the experience of impermanence,” risked evoking the re-emer­­gence of a “self” that might very possibly pursue the permanent acquisition of those goals with as much desire as before. For a system that identified both permanence and desire as mental illusions that are the source of suffering, this was disastrous. Interest in simply being-here-now would be lost in the frenzy. The heedless practitioner could easily re-instate precisely those unconscious reflex reactions that cause suffering and had been transformed by the death experience to begin with. It meant that the medicine identified as the cure, could easily become the source of a new and potentially more virulent contagion.

So it required a frank acknowledgement: the very application of the means that would achieve a sense of impermanence had themselves to be understood as impermanent, or the initial insight would be lost, blinded by its own light. The attempt to apply and simultaneously undermine the practices that would lead to liberation and the simple resting in the present moment led to the creation of the confusing and apparently contradictory statements that have come to be associated with Buddhism. Zen doctrine especially, which was inspired by the focus of the Mahayana reform, has been accused of being arcane and inaccessible precisely because of its enigmatic expressions. Hence we hear, in the Diamond Sutra, a document of Mahayana origins, dialogs like the following:

“The fruit of the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind is realized through the practice of all wholesome actions in the spirit of non-self, non-person, non-living being and non-life span. Subhuti [the Buddha’s interlocutor in the dialog], what are called wholesome actions are in fact not wholesome actions. That is why they are called wholesome actions.

. . .

Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata [the Buddha] has the idea, ‘I will bring living beings to the shore of liberation.’ Do not think that way, Subhuti. Why? In truth there is not one single living being for the Tathagata to bring to the other shore. If the Tathagata were to think there was, he would be caught in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, a life-span. Subhuti, what the Tathagata calls a self essentially has no self in the way that ordinary persons think there is a self. Subhuti, the Tathagata does not regard anyone as an ordinary person. That’s why he can call them ordinary persons.”[1]

This practice of constantly negating doctrinal statements that have just been made is a deliberate attempt to create confusion and to force the reader to see the problem and think about it. These contradictory assertions are not themselves fully intelligible; they are not meant to be. They do not clear up the issue but rather emphasize its unintelligibility as a stimulant for thinking. Eventually, it is hoped, the fact that the teacher is intentionally trying to undermine the very clarity and “truth” of what he just said, should bring the practitioner to the realization that there is no permanence in anything ever, even Buddhist doctrine, and that therefore the pursuit of anything whatsoever as a permanent acquisition is an illusion and a waste of time. The aim is to get the student to “back-in” to the insight ― not as a concept but as a realization ― that being-here-now is the only thing that’s real and the insight into impermanence is only a tool that will lead to it. The ultimate desired state is to be-here-now in full enjoyment with no regrets about the past nor any interest in the future.

The understanding of the emptiness of things might be relatively easy to embrace at the early stages of practice when the objects of acquisition are material and the gratifications they offer are gross and evanescent. Objects of sensual desire are the first to be let go as the practitioner advances in her/his identification with impermanence. But other objectives, more spiritual in nature, like having certain insights, or being recognized for having humility, or a reputation for generosity and service, can entrap the aspiring Buddhist in ego-building for they presume the existence of a permanent self. These are subtle and it is not always easy to discern the way to avoid the pitfalls waiting on both sides of the question.

Zen koans (short pithy riddle-like sayings) in particular are claimed to be designed to bring the mind to a complete halt. The person meditating arrives at the intended insight from sheer exhaustion. It is not an active grasping or comprehension as much as a passive letting go. It is called enlightenment.

Enlightenment/Nirvana

Enlightenment is not a one-time thing. Enlightenment occurs over and over again precisely because like everything else it is impermanent. It is different at each occurrence because the capitulation to permanence that it is reacting to (and from which it draws its energy and richness of content) is new. But despite this absolute uniqueness as a personal insight, when translated into conventional terms it always amounts to exactly the same thing: being-here-now. It’s just that the flow of time has made it so that all three terms have evolved and are new for each occasion.

If you take the term “enlightenment” to refer to an action occurring, the state that results from that action is called nirvana. Nirvana means literally “snuffing out” as one would a match or a candlelight, and evokes the extinction of cravings and desires which the Buddhists have identified as the cause of all individual suffering and the ultimate source of all social disharmony. But because all things are impermanent, nirvana, too, is impermanent. The unenlightened state is called samsara, and there is no physical/metaphysical difference between nirvana and samsara. They are the same reality. The only difference (and it is a huge difference) is subjective ― how this same experience is perceived and the attitude that the practitioner has assumed toward it. In nirvana, the experience is perceived as impermanent, the passing perception of a non-self, one who is affectively detached from it, while in samsara, exactly the same experience is perceived as a necessary desideratum or aversion pursued with passion and the anxiety that always accompanies hot pursuit along with a disregard for the damage it may do to oneself or others. Nirvana and samsara are intimately related. It is samsara whose frustrations lead to the realization of emptiness and the embrace of being-here-now that constitutes nirvana.

So there is no permanent Buddhist salvation, because salvation consists in letting go of the misperceptions of permanence, including the fictional permanence of salvation. The accompanying sense of liberation and the joy of timeless self-embrace serves as confirmation that the experience is authentic. This unique sense of joy in being-here-now provides an intense happiness. But there is a potential trap here as well. This happiness itself can become the object of desire and pursuit and the fact that it does not last (it is also impermanent) can become a source of frustrated desire every bit as enslaving as the grossest lust. Similar to the advice of Christian mystics, practitioners are warned against clinging to them or pursuing them.

Thus salvation simultaneously is and is not. And because it does not exist as a permanent state of mind (no state of mind is permanent) it cannot be considered fully to exist. In fact, since all “things” of whatever kind ― conscious, living or inanimate ― arise as the effects of the causality of other things and are subsequently subject to entropic forces that ensure their ultimate dissipation, they are also simultaneously both themselves and not themselves, they can be said to exist and to not exist. Hence Buddhism claims to arrive beyond being and non-being.

The same thinking is applied to the coming into existence and the dissolution of those material composites that we call “things” (dharmas in Sanscrit) including biological organisms like ourselves. Everything that exists ― whether it be psychological phenomena or a physical entity ― is the result of causes beyond itself both for its initial coming into existence and for its continued duration. So in a very real sense, what anything is should be understood as the extension of those causal activities. Any given “thing” is itself because of all the other “things” not itself whose activity is essential to it have been or are active in its being-here-now. Therefore everything, simultaneously, is both itself and its necessary causes which are all other than itself.

The appreciation of what something truly is cannot be had until this analysis becomes incorporated into the perception of that thing. We don’t really see any given human being correctly unless we are aware of all the things that keep her/his body alive ― food, air, water, just to mention the most basic. For indeed, if that chain of causes should ever disappear, the organism would also disappear, and quickly. Looked at from this point of view, we can see that our “ideas” of things are a kind of “short-hand” or macro-image that intentionally ignores the 90% of the iceberg that lies beneath the surface. All things are intimately connected to other things, eventually involving the totality. What Buddhists ultimately mean by perceiving things as essentially empty of self, is that everything involves everything else. We are always aware of the myriad of non-self factors that are actively present in the encounter with any phenomenon whatsoever. Things are only themselves because of the plethora of things that are not themselves that make them be what they are. Ultimately that means everything.

Thus Buddhist impermanence also involves an immense widening of perspective on reality. Reality is ultimately incomprehensible unless it is understood in all its relationality, for how things are related to one another is not only accidental, it is constitutive of what they are. To fully appreciate reality, therefore, necessarily involves an embrace of the totality of existing phenomena which also includes what goes on in our heads.

Impermanence and “being-here-now”

This perspective is so different from the way we normally pursue our daily lives that some may think it immobilizing. If, in order to relate to baking a loaf of bread, they say, I have to be conscious of the entire universe, how can I focus on the simple task at hand? Buddhists answer that the awareness of the involvement of all of reality in the ingredients and human activity of baking bread does not hinder the process in the least. In fact it enriches the significance of both the work and the worker to such an extent that it transforms the experience. It becomes a mystical experience embracing what is happening here and now in all its depth and extent without breaking step. What the new perspective brings to the event implies a new respect and love for what is actually going on in the present moment. It makes the subjection of such activity to selfish ends, and perhaps utilizing unjust means, increasingly unthinkable. Imagine if the workplace were filled with people who were steeped in perceiving everything in the light of the totality. Being-here-now means doing the task at hand with a new awareness of the cosmic background. It does not mean stopping work to sit in contemplative rapture. That would be an example of the trap the Buddha warns against. This experience becomes part of the flow of real events in real time, events that are passing and impermanent, touched, felt, cherished and let go.

This is what is meant by mindfulness. Something essential has been introduced into the experience that was not present without it ― something that brings the activity in the orbit of the Dharma, the ethical dimension. For it is only in understanding things, people and human actions in the context of their real relationships both as effects themselves and as causes of other effects, that they can be treated as they should be: with justice, compassion and generosity.

[1] Diamond Sutra, taken from sections 23 and 25, quoted in Thich Nhat Hanh, Awakening of the Heart, Parallax, Berkeley, 2012, p. 330

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.

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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