Buddhist Enlightenment

a function of matter’s living energy



Enlightenment ― satori in Zen-speak ― like everything else in the Buddhist universe, is empty. That means it is transitory, temporary, co-dependent on the multiple causes that make it arise. It is not a “thing in itself” which could guarantee that once arisen that it would always be there. Enlightenment is impermanent.

That view of things is characteristically Buddhist and stems directly and inescapably from the metaphysical premises implied by the Buddha’s teaching: there is no designer or substrate to the universe. There is no single source, no solid ground that generates or underpins everything. Everything is dependent upon a multiplicity of constantly changing causes that are only the same in rare coincidental instances and those few instances are themselves never repeated.

I believe that both everyday human experience and the findings of modern science belie the Buddhist metaphysical vision, without necessarily challenging the Buddha’s description of experience. There is a homogeneous physical substrate to the universe that underpins all things and that provides a continuity that we all take for granted. It is material energy. It is responsible for all phenomena of whatever kind, including what are traditionally called “spiritual.” But, that one substrate is also an energy that is in a state of constant internal flux that explains the Buddhist experience of impermanence.

The pre-history of material energy

The identification in our western culture of the foundational function of material energy came at the end of a long historical development. In our pre-scientific tradition which reached its high point of synthesis and consensus in the Middle Ages, “being” was the term that all had agreed on for that role. In that dualist worldview all things exercised, to one degree or another, a specific, shared actuation of existence that was paradoxically exactly the same for all: they were-here. God and a speck of dust had something in common: they both existed. But please note: because both shared an idea: existence.

In true Platonic fashion, “being,” though admittedly an abstract idea, was considered a real “thing,” because in that worldview ideas were real things that existed in a world apart and were constructed of a quasi-substance that mimicked matter even while it was totally other than matter. That “idea-stuff” they called “spirit” and it underlay everything. This was the core of the dualism. Between matter and spirit, however, there was no parity; ideas ― spirit ― dominated reality. The dualism was actually a thinly veiled idealism.

The primary spirit was “God” from whom all spirit derived. “God” was the “thing” that was “being itself,” pure spiritual existence, totally actualized with no undeveloped potential whatsoever. The category of spirit included the ideas which existed in the mind of “God” as a kind of blueprint for every other thing in the universe. These ideas ― easily copied and multiplied ― were “poured” into formless matter as into a “receptacle” (cf., The Timaeus of Plato) to create things, whose being came through the idea, the essence of what they were.

Matter’s energy has inherited all the characteristics that were once assigned to spirit. It is now generally accepted in the West that whatever of “spirit” there is, is not a separate substance or force but rather a dimension or property of matter’s energy. And regardless of how science will finally describe its functioning, material energy is the one homogeneous substrate responsible for all forms, features and functions in the known universe. Dualism has become monism, and idealism ― the belief that all reality is ideas and matter is a mirage ― is clearly on its way out.


Material energy dissipates. It is subject to the law of entropy which presides over the need of all things to seek equilibrium. This dissipation of energy in the service of returning to stasis is responsible for all movement of whatever kind in our cosmos. It is the universal law that governs the fluctuations of material energy and accounts for the impermanence that is so evident to human experience, and identified by the Buddha as the characteristic of reality most instrumental in human suffering.

Dissipation does not occur all at once. It takes place serially at a point in time we call the present moment. Dissipation of energy takes the form of the release of heat that accompanies work. That only happens at one point, and it is not reversible. The heat lost in the performance of work does not reconstitute. Like gravity, it only goes “downhill,” from a hotter body to a colder one. The present moment is identified as that point in the flux and swirl of reality when this irreversible transfer of heat occurs, changing forever the interrelationships of the inner constituents of the reality in question.

The present moment is not imaginary, nor is it merely a human macro-abstraction for quantum processes that occur below the radar of human observation. It is marked by (but not created by) the observable, non-reversible effects of heat transfer. Thus the best interpretations of science corroborate common experience: there is only one “now,” everything else is past or future. Being-here, the continuity in observable presence of a certain configuration of material energy, occurs only here and now. I can guarantee by observation that certain things are-here, and their presence here and now provides incontrovertible evidence that they were-here at a prior moment. But such is the ultimacy and passing impermanence of the present moment for existence, that no present moment can guarantee that the “thing” in question will be-here at any moment in the future.

I see no point in spending time trying to prove there is a “now.” Some highly credentialed academics, in correctly pointing out that there is no way of knowing what is actually occurring now in any location in our universe that is far away from us (since even the light from those places is eons old), have absurdly stated that because we cannot know what is happening now everywhere, that there is no “now” anywhere. That is entirely misleading as stated. Some irreversible heat transfer is occurring at this exact moment in the Andromeda galaxy which is more than 2 million light years away even though I don’t and can never know what it is. That moment occurs now and will never be repeated. How do I know that? Because the 2 million year old light that reaches me from that galaxy exhibits a series of observed irreversible changes from that time that correspond to the flow of time that I am familiar with in our corner of the sky. Novas and supernovas flare-up and recede, binary stars’ rotation can be observed and measured, pulsating quasars periodicity actually provides scientists with a way of calculating distances and elapsed time and those observations and their time-frames are not questioned. There are “nows” occurring everywhere and, regardless of their relative correlation with one another, they are all similar.

It is precisely the accumulation of those moments over unimaginable eons of time that accounts for whatever formations and forces exist in this vast universe in which our planet, nested in its family of planets circling our sun, exists.

But please note: the fact that the existence of the present moment cannot be denied, does not in any way eliminate or alter the evanescent, ephemeral nature of the events in our universe presided over by entropy all of which occur in the present moment.   Mediaeval “spiritual” ideologies like that of Meister Eckhart, which apotheosize the present moment, calling it “the Eternal Now” and claiming that it is a window in time that opens into the eternal changeless “being” ― a pure spirit-God ― which is the ground of our cosmos, is an inference of the dualist worldview; it is pure projection. It is based on the assumption that there are two worlds and that the “other” world exists outside the flow of time.

But there is no indication that there is any permanence anywhere, and the very basis for such putative changelessness, “spirit,” receives no support from science. All evidence points to there being one world. Whatever present moments there are, and however relative the “nows” of different spatial realms might be to one another, they are all the place where irreversible effects occur, never to reverse themselves. All present moments are equally impermanent.

Living organisms constitute a temporary oasis in the Saharan sand-storm of entropic events. By gathering together a large number of interrelated entropic processes occurring in the present moment, LIFE utilizes the energy generated by matter’s endemic fall toward equilibrium to produce a recognizable continuity that, even though it never achieves permanence, transcends the entropic dissipation potential of the present moment. That transcendence is acknowledged as an identity regardless of how ephemeral its perdurance, precisely because it is not limited to the present moment. Time is calculated as the number of present moments achieved by some particular configuration of processes known as an identity.

What is this LIFE that it should work in a way that appears to forestall if not reverse the process of entropic descent into equilibrium? No one knows. Also, because the two processes are so intertwined and mutually dependent that there really is no way to know which is the most basic. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Is material energy fundamentally an inert and lifeless entity subject to entropy which LIFE, as an outside force, exploits for the purposes of generating “things” with trans-entropic identity, or is LIFE the very originating energy of matter itself which proceeds by necessarily recycling itself, achieving a newness through the entropic return to its primitive state as pure energy? In this second option, LIFE and entropy are two sides of the same process which sustains itself through self-purification ― a quantum rebooting. For living organisms this translates to the experience of birth and death, but it immediately suggests they are not opposed to one another but rather the correlative aspects of a single process.



Relationship refers to an intentional valence that is established by conscious living organisms between and among themselves. Because organisms are material things that ultimately succumb to entropy and dissolve, the valences they establish are also passing. But putting the time aspect aside for a moment, it is worth noting that by establishing a valence ― a connection ― relationships create a different kind of transcendence: they transcend the duality that necessarily defines two spatially separate and distinct organisms. The relationship may involve mutually dependent activity, not necessarily always benevolent, as hostility is also a co-depen­dent interactive behavior, but it may also consist of an interchange of cognitive or affective states we call communication, and in the case of humans it can exist as a simple wordless mutual recognition of the identity that each enjoys. The key word is recognition. Relationship is a cognitive phenomenon and presupposes the existence of mind in some form.

In the case of human beings who have reflex consciousness to a degree that allows for self-recognition, there exists the possibility of a relationship with oneself that is not true of other cognitive organisms. Human beings can actually look at themselves thinking, distinguish between successive thoughts or mental images, identify and classify mental events in a time line of past and present, and thus achieve a distance from their own mental processes that is unique, and for all its familiarity utterly incomprehensible.  It is because the cognition occurring in the present moment is able to identify cognitive events that occurred in the past (even the instantaneously immediate past) precisely as not-present, that the human individual can treat its own mental processes ― itself as an object of observation. The human being is able to look at its own mental processes as if they were another’s. It’s the reason why moral transformation is possible. The human organism is capable not only of looking at its own subjective state objectively, but it can also imagine itself in a different mental state. It can control and shape its thoughts and the behavior that proceeds from those thoughts. This is the Buddhist paradigm.

Human thoughts are not opaque. They do not present a solid interface with reality that would prevent other thoughts from occupying the same space and time frame. Human thought is transparent to itself so that the identity that is the self can use its current mental action to set a distance from any other mental action, no matter how instantaneously contiguous, and relate to it as no longer representative of its identity. This is what occurs in the process of moral/spiritual transformation. The individual imagines a self that currently does not exist, and through the incremental self-habitua­tion of its thinking to what it imagines, becomes that other self.

In this way it is entirely legitimate to say that one can have a relationship with oneself. Of course, the alert Buddhist will see that this analysis supports and even describes the value-guided reflexive observation and thought-control we call meditation― the foundational practice of Buddhism.

Enlightenment, satori

Enlightenment is a present moment in which a multitude of mental and physical phenomena, internal and external to the subject, come together to produce a complete quiescence of cognitive affectivity. The human organism has a noetic-somatic experience in which the conatus’ accustomed drive for whatever survival demands are next, ceases. It is a moment of stillness. There is no striving, no thought, no desire, no need, no lack, no disquiet of any kind. It’s not without content, however, as it is filled with awareness of the plethora of factors that congealed in that satori. But those remnants of thoughts, desires, anxieties, aspirations, regrets, whatever and however many they may be, are observable as past, like the wake of a ship that is visible only because the vessel has already moved on; they are utterly without affect, even the intellectual desire to understand sleeps.

Even though enlightenment is the unstated goal of all meditative practice, if it is pursued as a goal it eternally eludes the grasp of the practitioner. It is a necessarily passive event whose very essence is that it is the experience of the end of striving. To strive after the end of striving, of all mis-steps, is the most disingenuous and self-defeating. The corollary assumption that the moment of enlightenment only occurs in and is produced by meditation is also misguided. Enlightenment can take place at any point, in any present moment. It happens when a confluence of factors bring the human mind to the point of a concrete, body-included conviction of its time-transcen­ding existence, thus momentarily suspending the needy clamor of the conatus’ incessant quest for acquiring the means to be-here. The conatus is silenced because in that moment the organism is thunderstruck by an experience of its own existential security ― an experience that evokes a sense of permanence.

The paradox here is that this experience of permanence is momentary ― it occurs in some present moment, and is the product of a multitude of unknown and unrepeatable factors, all of which make it impermanent. The enlightenment passes, and with it the state of conviction. But the memory of it lingers. And just as one can intellectually remember the moment when one fell in love but emotionally does not experience the same feelings, enlightenment, which is a similar phenomenon in many ways, is remembered without reproducing the experience.

Mystics of theist religions (Christian, Islamic, Jewish) who try to describe this experience insist on their own passivity by attributing the event to the initiative of the personal “God” of their belief system who guarantees “eternal” life. Thus they explain their own lifelong striving to have or repeat the experience by saying they are placing themselves in a state of disposition ― making themselves available, as it were, for the divine initiative. Hindu practitioners, who do not believe in an interacting “God” claim that enlightenment is the passive realization of their own spirit’s oneness with the spirit that sustains the universe revealing their own participation in that permanence.

Buddhist enlightenment differs from these because, while it does not actively repudiate the existence of a “God” or even the Hindu Atman, it brackets them as irrelevant to the issue of human suffering stemming from craving. Buddhism insists that its practices and experiences stand on their own and owe their effectiveness to union with the Dharma, or the Way of Nature. Human beings who are part of nature, flourish when they mesh with its processes. This is completely consistent with a universe of living matter. Enlightenment is an experience of an individual’s synchronicity with the Dharma. Once the practitioner has advanced sufficiently in the eradication of craving, the conatus’ insistence is undermined and at some unpredictable moment stunned into stillness before the irrefutable logic of detachment. The claim to be needy ― which is the conatus’ stock-in-trade, the source of craving and the justification for selfishness ― is utterly demolished by the indisputable evidence: the organism survives and even thrives in the absence of the objects of its craving, and the cessation of the craving itself. All this is the work of the practitioner, not of “God” or the Atman. The “passivity” experienced comes from the unpredictability of the moment of confluence, and its rapid disappearance in the flow of time.

Enlightenment is a function of matter’s living energy whose conatus anxiously drives the organism to continue to be-here. That drive, the instinct for self-preservation and self-enhancement, which expresses itself in a myriad of urges, fears, desires and pursuits is involuntary and not suppressible. It is the conatus itself, the innate coherence of the network of material processes that constitute the “self” of the human organism, that is temporarily stilled when at a given moment it is overwhelmed with evidence that all its anxieties are the result of delusion. For all its impermanence, being-here as a concrescence of living matter is a given. No amount of striving can create it or change its impermanent character; no amount of resistance can prevent its dissolution. Like the drive of the conatus itself, to which it corresponds, the enlightenment experience is involuntary and not suppressible.


Tony Equale

October 8, 2018


Psalms 143 to 146



Background. A personal lament. The seventh penitential psalm. Standard boiler-plate pleas against enemies are set, unexpectedly and intriguingly, alongside unusual calls for Yahweh’s assistance in following the torah. The poet humbly acknowledges “no one living is righteous before you.” He is clearly someone committed to moral goodness and by “enemies” he may very well have meant obstacles to his uprightness and fidelity.

Reflection. The human condition is intrinsically conflicted. The same organismic energy that inclines us to generosity and compassion also impels us to take care of ourselves. The disciplines of transformation that we practice are intended to bring those two apparently disparate inclinations together, so that our desires and cravings become focused on giving and serving the totality ― others! The awareness of the gap between these spontaneous urges can generate a sense of guilt. But there is no time or need for that. No “god” has been offended by our failure to bring these two aspects of our organism together. If we have failed anyone it is ourselves and the community that depends on us. We are committed to the process. We call on LIFE itself, the LIFE that is emergent in us, to be all we are, so that the gap disappears and we become as LIFE itself: generous, loving and compassionate servants of all.

1 Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness; answer me in your righteousness.

2 Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.

This apposition is revealing. No one is righteous for the enemy crushes us and makes us sit in darkness. Where has LIFE, my LIFE, disappeared to? Who is this enemy?

3 For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead.

4 Therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled.

5 I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands.

I am my own worst enemy. My meditation is on LIFE. I know the power and the direction of LIFE, why is it not operative in me? Who’s failing here … is it me or LIFE? In any case, it is the LIFE that is in me that can do what needs to be done.

6 I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.

7 Answer me quickly, O LORD; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me, or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.

8 Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.

Unashamed, I call on LIFE. I know LIFE is not separate or distinct from me, but I feel so overwhelmed that I don’t know what else to do but cry out to LIFE. It is LIFE, after all, that I am; and it is LIFE that I want to be in all my actions.

9 Save me, O LORD, from my enemies; I have fled to you for refuge.

10 Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.

11 For your name’s sake, O LORD, preserve my life. In your righteousness bring me out of trouble.

Clearly, here, the poet juxtaposes moral righteousness and the enemies.  The enemies must be the enemies of righteousness.  No wonder the modern psalmist sees them as the enemies of the torah, the dharma … the doubts, fears, self-denigration, attachments, addictions, defense mechanisms that prevent us from sticking with the practices that will, little by little, transform us into the mirrors and agents of LIFE.

12 In your steadfast love cut off my enemies, and destroy all my adversaries, for I am your servant.



Background. Murphy believes this is a royal psalm, a prayer by and for the king. He suggests it was modelled on psalm 18. The king is the ultimate warrior, the servant-defender of the nation against foreign enemies; Yahweh fights with him against these forces who lie and scheme, with chaos and death in the balance; he plays the harp anew like David and relies on Yahweh; he prays for the health, strength and prosperity of the people, for which he is responsible and will be judged. He is the servant of all.

Reflection. The tribalism/nationalism symbolized by the warrior king has been superseded in our time. Our nations are now neighboring families protected under the umbrella of a universal humankind that increasingly characterizes our politics and power distributions. If anyone can be called “king” metaphorically it is individuals who strive to be the servants of humankind ― the totality of LIFE’s evolved offspring. They struggle against the forces that would alienate us from one another, resurrecting a tribalism that feeds on war as its fuel and identity. Their ultimate goal is the good of each and all, the prosperity and distributive justice that will ensure that everyone’s sons and daughters will be strong and healthy. LIFE can be thought of as fighting alongside such warriors, but it is only a poetic allusion. For in fact the reality is fiercely literal: those who fight such battles are LIFE itself in combat mode.

1 Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle;

2 my rock and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues the peoples under me.

I am the agent of LIFE. LIFE’s struggles are mine; the forces within all of us that would militate against the goals of LIFE will be subdued by the power of LIFE. I train and discipline myself in preparation for the struggle. The community depends on it.

3 O LORD, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them?

4 They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.

What is my organism except the evolved form LIFE has assumed. The collection of atoms and molecules that comprise my body would be nothing but a mass of protoplasm ― impotent ― if they were not alive. It is the fact that they are LIFE, living matter, that reveals their power.

5 Bow your heavens, O LORD, and come down; touch the mountains so that they smoke.

6 Make the lightning flash and scatter them; send out your arrows and rout them.

I am awed by that power … and that power is mine, for I am LIFE.  I must stay in shape or that power is lost.

7 Stretch out your hand from on high; set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters, from the hand of aliens,

8 whose mouths speak lies, and whose right hands are false.

The waters of chaos and oblivion are no match for the power of LIFE. Entropy would deceive us, it would persuade us that LIFE is an illusion. All must succumb to entropy.

9 I will sing a new song to you, O God; upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,

10 the one who gives victory to kings, who rescues his servant David.

I sing of LIFE which knows how to wrest the energy from entropy and turn it into LIFE.

11 Rescue me from the cruel sword, and deliver me from the hand of aliens, whose mouths speak lies, and whose right hands are false.

I know LIFE directly. I am not dismayed by entropy’s boasts. LIFE’s generous abundance is driven to expand LIFE. LIFE ― matter’s living energy ― constitutes my organism. Where it goes, I go; what it does, I do. I am THAT.

12 May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars, cut for the building of a palace.

13 May our barns be filled, with produce of every kind; may our sheep increase by thousands, by tens of thousands in our fields,

14 and may our cattle be heavy with young. May there be no breach in the walls, no exile, and no cry of distress in our streets.

15 Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall; happy are the people whose God is the LORD.



Background. An acrostic poem ― each line is in alphabetical sequence ― which apparently explains the re-presentation of thematic material from other psalms; but all are focused on praise of Yahweh. Yahweh is first praised for his “works,” alluding to creation, then for his “rule” which evokes the theme of Israel’s ascendancy under Yahweh’s guidance and finally for his compassion and readiness to help the weak and downtrodden.

Reflection. We cannot suppress our gratitude to LIFE which brought us into existence through eons of evolutionary time and an infinity of unknown factors. It is this universe of living matter that brought all this ― our earth, our organisms, our communities ― together. We are all here at the same time. What a great party!  It puts on raucous display the superabundance of the material energy that we are constructed of … a gift of incalculable proportions by which we have creatively developed ourselves … for we are THAT!

1 I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.

2 Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever.

3 Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.

4 One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.

5 On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.

6 The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness.

7 They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

8 The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

9 The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your faithful shall bless you.

Having praised the “works” of LIFE we celebrate its power to create a just, generous and compassionate human community ― a “kingdom” like no other.

11 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power,

12 to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.

13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The LORD is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.

The compassion we have to have for one another if our communities are to neutralize the crushing, dehumanizing fear of death, is inspired by LIFE’s non-judgmental generosity, sharing its gifts and power even with those who would abuse them. Our compassion is the work of LIFE, and the fruit of our compassion is the family of humankind. We are in the hands of LIFE. We trust it; even as it provided us with ourselves, we trust it will provide us with what we need to live.

14 The LORD upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.

15 The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.

16 You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.

17 The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.

18 The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.

19 He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them.

20 The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.

21 My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.



Background. This poem introduces the last group of “alleluia” psalms, psalms of praise, clearly grouped together at the end of the psalter to form a coda to the entire collection. The concrete images that characterize the post-exilic understanding of Yahweh, no longer the warrior champion able to defeat other gods, dominate the last five verses. He is now the God of compassion and support of the poor, weak and defenseless. Was this meant metaphorically? Or was it an inducement?

Reflection. The gap between the imagery of vv. 5-10 and reality, had to be as obvious to the poet as it is to us.   How can we account for this disparity without imputing a mindless verbal formalism to the psalmist ― a mouthing of empty platitudes? Could the author and redactors have understood “Yahweh,” as we do, to be the very force of LIFE that enlivens, energizes and enlightens us to the awe and respect for the living things around us, impelling us to establish justice, compassion and generosity in our communities and in our relationships to all things? For who is it that has to give food to the hungry if not ourselves? Who will protect the stranger, the defenseless, the widows and orphans, take the blind by the hand and lift up those whose hearts are broken by the avalanche of death, if we do not do it. It is LIFE, functioning in and as us, that does these things. We are LIFE in its most agile, intelligent, empathetic form to date. How else can LIFE do these things except in its most morally evolved form? We do not do these things for LIFE. We are LIFE. We do them because LIFE is what we are.

1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul!

2 I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

3 Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.

5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God,

The power of LIFE is immense. It was responsible for the development of this material cosmos and all the awesome things that have evolved from its living matter.

6 who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;

Not least of which is humankind, a being so akin to the profuse abundant generosity of matter’s LIFE itself that it is compelled to works of heroic justice and profligate compassion. We give food to the hungry, we set prisoners free, we walk together with the blind, we share ourselves with those who are bowed down, strangers frightened in a strange land, the widow and orphan who have no source of sustenance and protection. We are LIFE, and we install the reign of LIFE wherever we go. We can’t help it. It’s who we are.

7 who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free;

8 the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.

9 The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10 The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!

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.






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.


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.


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.


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 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.