the stone

The feeling of gratitude underpins optimism and the love of LIFE.

But it’s hard to feel grateful when your life-situation gets really, really bad, as it does for many people, especially toward the end.

Was Jesus feeling grateful when he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me”?

I don’t think so.

Feeling can be a trap. Much of what we call “spirituality” is generating feelings induced by assuming imagined postures ― part of our endless pursuit of self-construction.

Of course, gratitude is the point of it all, so really feeling grateful should be embraced with joy. But feelings come and go; and pursuing them is chasing the wind.

I may find myself at the last moment without a sense of gratitude. Who’s to say it won’t happen? The feeling of abandonment may be insuperable as it was for Jesus. What then?

Then, with Jesus I say, “Enough!

All attempts to establish the “self” I have built with my thoughts and feelings collapse, and I become, finally, what I really am in this vast universe of things:

zero.

I plummet like a stone.

The plummeting is what I do.

The rest is not my business.

 

Tony Equale

The Begging Bowl

The “Prayer of St Francis” has become for many people, not only Christians, a quintessential expression of universal spirituality. It is a terse and unadorned statement of the intention to dedicate one’s energies to the service and well-being of others and not to oneself. It has two parts that correspond to each of those desires. The first part of the prayer identifies what the well-being of others means: peace ― achieved by overcoming hatred, injury, error, doubt, despair and darkness wherever they are found.

The second part of the prayer tacitly acknowledges that the stated intention of the first part cannot be accomplished without a radical selflessness ― a 1800 turn on the ordinary pursuit:

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved as to love.

Wonderful as the sentiments of the second part of the prayer are, anyone who has attempted to live them out realizes the impasse that they represent. For none of us can live without the love of others, their consolation and their understanding. These needs are not optional; it is not selfish to have them. They come from the nature of the human organism which can only survive in human society. Without the emotional and physical support of other people we shrivel and die.

How do I reconcile an absolute requirement of my human organism with the intention of the prayer? The prayer states clearly that my responsibility lies in loving others, not in getting others to love me. My job and duty is to understand and console others, not to find and insure ways to get others to understand and console me. How can both those things occur?

It means I forego any attempt to pursue, possess or control what comes to me from others.

Like the mendicants ― some Buddhists even today ― who go out every day with their begging bowls and eat only the food that people decide to give them, as a practitioner of the prayer of St Francis I accept my condition as an emotional beggar. I voluntarily embrace it as the endemic condition of all widows and orphans ― the Hebrew scriptures’ symbols for the poor and vulnerable. That means I renounce all ownership or direct pursuit of this most precious commodity. Like those who beg for their food, I choose to live everyday on the love, understanding and consolation that people ― any people, not the ones I have chosen, and yes, even the ones I do not like ― decide to give me, freely. And I will eat that “food,” and if that’s all that comes, I will live on it.

I trust that it will be provided, for I trust people.

I abandon any attempt to pursue, possess or control it. I acknowledge that my insuppressible need for love is dependent on the free and uncoerced generosity of others, and it’s not my place to decide who it comes from or in what form they give it, what it looks like in my bowl or how it tastes.

And I will do it as “practice” ― i.e., as a constant reminder of my real work in life: to be an instrument of peace.

Buddha and the Absolute

1,300 words

Efforts to correlate western theism with Buddhism always run into the same difficulty: theists try to introduce the concept of a non-material changeless Absolute into a Buddhist world of empty ephemeral “things” that exist in a roiling process of constant composition and decomposition. “Absolute” is a concept that is necessarily non-material and changeless. It is because it is so totally different that it immediately evokes a “world” or a dimension of reality that is other than ours. If you conceive “God” as an “absolute” as Christian theology has always done, his relationship to the world requires a complicated explanation that is not always convincing even when it’s coherent.

Besides, to claim access to another world that is not empty, shows a fatal misunderstanding of why the Buddha refused to talk about such things. For once you introduce the “Absolute”, you have introduced permanence and non-materiality. That means the material human “self” seeks to connect with the Absolute and must think of itself as becoming (if not already) permanent and non-material. Transformative practice becomes a pursuit (or protection) of permanence and a rejection of the body. One seeks absorption into the Absolute here and/or hereafter by changing oneself and being filled with the Absolute’s non-material, non-temporal reality.

Anatman, “no-self,” would then become only a “skillful means,” a technique, a mental manipulation, a kind of self-deprecation you use to help you “act” right and fill yourself with a permanence that you do not have; it no longer characterizes reality-as-it-is. That may serve as a synthesis of Hinduism and Abrahamic theism, but however abstract and non-anthropomor­phic, it is still radically dual. If the Absolute is an entity, it is transcendently Other. It is non-material and changeless in a universe of matter, change and process. It sets up a necessary relational dynamic of imitation and infusion, whereby “salvation” consists in matching human behavior to a standard “out there” set by the Absolute Other, and those who do not conform become sinners or failures who require “forgiveness” from the Other and a metamorphosis accomplished by an infusion that changes the organism from what it is into what the Other is: from matter to non-matter; from process to permanence. Anatman disappears because the emptiness from which it is derived becomes a source of repugnance and recoil.

To do that is to abandon what I believe is Buddha’s radical religious insight and challenge: we cannot “achieve” Nirvana. Nirvana emerges from embracing our emptiness. And nirvana emerges because it is already there. We are constituted of it, like an oak tree emerges from an acorn. Our “salvation” is to embrace ourselves; “I” and my body are “two” in one flesh, one thing. The “I,” in fact, stops insisting on being acknowledged, because now it knows it was never anything separate from the body to begin with. What was there was only the human organism ― the body ― material energy-in-process. What we thought was a separate non-material permanent “self” was the organism’s own material reflex for self-preservation.

Only in a system of total immanence, where the practitioner is already fully and completely what s/he transforms into, i.e., where what becomes is what seminally is fully there, can the material universe be what it is: material energy-in-process ― what we see unfolding itself before our astonished eyes: hydrogen atoms becoming stars, suns imploding and spewing out earths, sea and soil generating living organisms, acorns developing into oaks, species evolving species endlessly. Everything is in process; and nothing comes from nothing.

This is not some esoteric insight, the solution of an exquisitely complex equation. It is simply the result of taking the evolving universe out there to be exactly and only what it appears to be, with no remainder whatsoever. What is there is exactly and only what you see. There is no other world, plane or dimension of existence. You are looking at it all, every bit of it: cause and effect, source and outflow, seed and organism, origin and emanation, Creator and Creatures. A universe in process. It’s all right there.

There is nothing more. WE ARE THAT! We belong here. We are in the only home we will ever have, and we already are all we could ever hope to be, an emanate constructed of our very source: material energy-in-process.

metaphysics and practice

I am attempting to make a point about the nature of reality for those who are trying to philosophically synthesize theism with Buddhism. I am not comparing practices, or trying to counsel a new way to practice Buddhism. This is strictly a metaphysical exercise.

Is there a cosmic “Absolute” or is there not? That is the question. Can traditional theists be Buddhists? Buddhist practice, I am saying, cannot conflate with an Absolute without abandoning its unique focus on the pre-existence of that reality which makes nirvana possible: emptiness understood as radical metaphysical contingency.

(Many people erroneously think of “emptiness” in psychological terms, as a “realization,” a subjective appropriation of the objective metaphysical fact which translates into a kind of self-deprecation. I do not mean that. I am using the word as Nagárjuna originally meant it: metaphysically. Nothing has its own “stand alone” being. “Emptiness,” sunyata, is a phenomenological description of the nature of reality.)

Nirvana pre-exists as dharmakaya because the organic matter of our bodies, when undistorted and unencumbered, exists naturally in a state of serene self-embrace: inner peace and abiding joy. For me it corresponds to the definition of material energy as existential ― i.e., matter is the very energy to exist, hence it is pure “act,” esse, necessarily one with itself, utterly undivided.

This, I am claiming, has nothing to do with reward or metamorphosis or imitation, implying an absent “reality” outside the living human organism that needs to be inserted or infused or in some other way added to the human organism to give it meaning and a reason for self-accep­tance. The organism needs nothing outside itself . . .   and therefore that fact creates a presumption that there is nothing outside the matter’s energy-in-process that constitutes the human individual, i.e., there is no non-material “soul” with an eternal destiny. The empirical “self” is the material reflex for self-preservation, a derivative of matter’s existential nature as self-embrace. Following Spinoza I call it conatus. It is a reflex of this organism. When this organism dissolves, its reflexive “self” disappears.

Embracing (realizing) that reality constitutes “enlightenment.”

This is a metaphysical discussion. I’m trying to say that the psychology of enlightenment in the Buddhist system requires a particular way of understanding reality metaphys­i­cally; and I believe that taking reality as material energy-in-process fulfills that requirement. It explains why Buddhism is not compatible with a non-material, non-changing “Absolute.”

Buddhism has no explicit metaphysics. Nagárjuna’s analysis of “emptiness” in the 2nd century c.e. was an attempt to elucidate the meaninglessness of metaphysics. His book, The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, is not itself a metaphysics. It simply takes possibility after possibility and, in repetitive fashion, shows that nothing you can bring up has its own being.

Buddhism is exclusively a practical program. Buddhism works; even though it does not evoke an Absolute. That fact alone says that a non-material, non-tem­poral Absolute, even if it existed, is irrelevant to human aspirations; but it also suggests that there is no such entity.

Theists generally insist on conceptualizing “God” as an entity that is Absolute. But those who have chosen to practice Buddhism authentically, will have to stop doing that. In fact they will have to stop imagining “God” altogether and simply acknowledge that the contingency of the universe ― the emptiness of all things, including ourselves ― is the only metaphysical “fact” that we can say we “know.”

The rest is beyond our knowledge, but not beyond our loving embrace.

Buddha and the Body

1,000 words

The Buddha is notorious for refusing to discuss metaphysical questions. He is a source of great frustration for western thinkers who are trying to correlate Buddhism with other theories of the destiny of humankind, especially the Abrahamic tradition ― Judaism, Christianity and Islam ― “religions of the Book”. His silence not only covered any attempt to explain the origin and nature of the universe, but it included the question of life after death for the human individual.

The written records indicate that when directly confronted, he simply would not respond; but some of his teachings carried an embedded implication that many have interpreted as answers to those questions. One such teaching is the doctrine of “no-self” often labeled with its Sanskrit name: anatman. The doctrine states that there is no permanent, independent “entity,” identified as a human person, in existence. Buddha didn’t deny the existence of the human organism, with all its urges, feelings, fears and aversions or its mind-filled plans and reactions, but he simply said that apart from all the multiple factors contributing to the phenomenon, there was no independent thinking, willing, core that was responsible for this individual’s stance in the world. What we call the “self” is merely the sum of its inputs; and when the inputs are no longer functioning, in whole or in part, the “self” disappears to a corresponding degree. The claim that there is no permanent “self” underlying human active presence seems to be, in traditional western terms, the denial of the existence of a “soul”.

As a religion, Buddhism has always been something of a mystery to westerners because it does not seem to offer any concrete motivation for its rather wide-ranging and intense austerities that run counter to human inclinations. Buddhism counsels the avoidance of selfish gratification in all areas: food and drink, sex, possessions, relationships, status in the world, control over others, even “spiritual” experience. The question emerges “why”? Why should the human individual stop pursuing the desired goals that have driven all human activity as far back as records go? The Buddha, unlike the various versions of the Abrahamic tradition, spoke of no “God” who watched over and cared for us or commanded a “justice” that might require self-sacrifice; he offered no “eternal reward” after death, and feared no “eternal punishment” except that of continuing to live as we do now, suffering the frustrations of “chasing the wind” of our insatiable cravings for what is just not there.

The Buddha offered nothing but the end of the suffering. But notice: even here, it was not the end of all suffering. He said his program would end the suffering caused by craving for things that do not satisfy. He did not say he would eliminate sickness, accidents, poverty or death. He simply said he would eliminate the extra suffering that we heap on ourselves because of our bitter dissatisfaction with the way things are.

The Buddha also said that when all selfish craving was ended through the faithful pursuit of the “eightfold path,” the practitioner would arrive at “the other shore” ― a metaphor for what he called Nirvana. Nirvana was described as a psychological state in which all craving, and therefore all dissatisfaction, ceased. At that point the “self,” always a delusion anyhow, ceased having any affective and therefore any effective presence and was “extinguished” as far as the practitioner was concerned. The practitioner embraced, or maybe better, “sank into,” realized somatically, the human organism’s true reality as anatman ― as empty ― in western philosophical terms: conditioned, dependent, contingent, determined ― with no independent “stand alone” existence of its own. It knew it was “not there.”

It is necessary to point out that Buddha never evoked any other reality than the world as it actually was, right in front of our eyes. Nirvana, like its opposite, the insatiable senseless craving called Samsara, was a state of mind. Each of them was focused on exactly the same things and events: this world in its real-time process. Even the “other shore” was not “other” than real life as it was. It was simply a metaphor for having substituted nirvana for samsara ― seeing the very same realities through different lenses. What had happened in nirvana was that the mental operation of the human organism changed through a transformation of perception that usually occurred only after a long, hard, incremental labor on the part of the practitioner, modifying mindset, attitudes and behavior. But there was nothing to prevent such a conversion from taking place instantaneously. Nirvana was not a place or some Absolute person into which you were absorbed. It was yourself without the “self.”

The result, the Buddha said, was the natural emergence of a way of being human that was characterized by inner peace, self-acceptance, compassion for others, and a deep abiding joy in life. But while the practitioner had been focused all through his/her practice on developing precisely these attitudes and corresponding behavior, nirvana was not to be thought of as the creation, or construction of such a human “personality configuration” as an actor would do it. Nirvana is not an “act” or a mindless reflex or even a mental habit. It was rather something that emerged from the human organism along with a release of creative energy of which the practitioner was totally unaware and did not expect. This occurred on its own once the delusional cravings generated by the imagined “self” were put to rest.

Buddhists refer to this phenomenon as the emergence of the practitioner’s “Buddha nature,” in later Buddhism called dharmakaya. The term means that every human organism in undistorted form spontaneously loves itself and everything else in the world, and lives in a state of unalloyed and endless joy. The process accomplished by Buddhist practice, then, is to eliminate all those distorting factors that have channeled human organic energies into selfish directions, creating cravings that lead to insatiable desires and the inevitable frustration of trying to make permanent a “self” that is not really there.

To repeat: at no point does the Buddha suggest that there is “another world,” with forces or entities other than this one. It is the individual material human organism, spawned and nested in this world of matter, exactly the way it is, that bears the potential for Nirvana.

Raindrops

A reflection and a parable

2,650 words

1.

Source

I usually use the word LIFE in place of “God,” but here I use the word “Source.” I believe it is more appropriate. It is less religiously allusive, and I think that compassionate atheists belong in this conversation because of the new universal consensus provided by science. We all know what we are made of and how we got here. And we all have to respond to what we know we are. This is not a “religion” issue. Theists belong in this discussion, but they have no privileged place.

The departure point for this reflection is my main proposition ― what this blog has been trying to say for over ten years. The distinction between us and our “Source” is exclusively in the relationship of existential causality.

Our “Source” makes us to be-here, we do not make our Source to be-here, but in all other respects, we are indistinguishable from our Source which is present and active in the presence of our living material organism. We are-here together. Since the effects are matter, the cause has to be material, i.e., physically capable of making my living matter to be-here as my matter, in the present moment. Whatever else my living matter’s source may be, it must be matter, and it must be alive; it must be the same matter that I am. The distinction between my Source and my organism is only the metaphysical structure of cause and effect.

Here’s an image that illustrates that relationship. Think of your on-going “self” ― your living human organism ― as a pool of water actively welling up from an underground spring. The “source” of that visible, active spring of water is not itself visible but it has to be producing the pressure necessary to keep the water flowing up to the surface. It is truly “source,” for it not only provides the action, it provides the very water itself. The pool on the surface is nothing more (and nothing less) than the emergent flow of its source: it IS its source at a further point in a space-time process. The only distinction between the spring and its underground source comes from the structured nature of the process. To express this, we use a category of thought we call “causality,” which is shorthand for antecedent and consequent phenomena in a process. I do not mean unconnected phenomena that just happen to appear in a temporal sequence. The antecedent phenomenon, in this case, is not only prior to but really makes the consequent phenomenon to appear, while the contents and forces operating in each are exactly the same, in reality and not just in appearance.

Now, applying this imagery to the human organism, we can see scientifically what comprises this “self” that emerges from moment to moment as a living presence in the world: it is material energy ― the quarks and electrons, gluons and neutrinos that congealed out of the amorphous energy plasma released at the big bang. These elements evolved through many forms over eons of astrological/geological time into the living organism that we all enjoy. The DNA-guided human organism is nothing but a form of material energy-in-process. Material energy is our source, and like the spring, we and our source are one and the same thing, undivided, indistinguishable, inseparable, a single process structured as cause and effect. The quarks and muons of living matter are the source of the motor and emotive activity we call “life” but they also comprise the content ― every last bit of “stuff” ― that our organisms are made of, blood and bones, hair and hormones.  Everything is matter’s energy.

But doesn’t there have to be something else? If material energy ― my source ― is the same in everything, even the stones, how do I come to be “me,” and where does the force of life come from except through some factor other than matter’s energy?

In a Platonic universe, everything sharing the same word also shared the same idea, and, therefore was thought to share the same reality. That’s why, in a spiritual universe, the idea of humanity made us all “one thing.” Platonists needed to posit an individual spiritual soul uniquely created by “God” to account for personal human spiritual individuality.

In a material universe, in contrast, particles of matter are not all the same, therefore the cluster of particles that comprise my organism is different from yours. Individuality comes from a multitude of coalescing particles and forces, all of which have a uniqueness of their own that derives from a prior similar coalescence from other more remote sources. What you call them does not affect their particularity. I am “me” because a huge multiplicity of unique particles and forces came together at the same time to construct “me.” There is no need to posit a “spiritual soul” to account for individuality. Individuality is a material phenomenon.

Similarly, as regards life, matter, in the pre-scientific Platonic universe, was considered dead and inert. Platonists thought it required that a living spiritual idea be intentionally inserted into matter by a rational divine “Craftsman” for matter to be alive. But in the material universe that science has discovered in our times, if matter is itself a living energy, as many claim it is, life is present as a potential in all particles and forces from the very beginning, ready to become perceptible as life when the complexity sufficient and necessary for its appearance is achieved.

2.

a parable

How can a collection of sub-atomic particles become “me”?

I offer a parable. It starts with our image of the human organism as an emerging spring of water. Let’s imagine this particular organism has been visited by the coronavirus which uses living human DNA to replicate itself. In my reverie there are two little coronaviruses, brother Covidone and sister Covidella. (I give them names to evoke familiarity, because they are living organisms just like we are, trying to survive by using whatever they find around them. Francis of Assisi would understand.) They are living on the banks of the spring, which is the human organism, reproducing because of the life-giving power of the upwelling water: living human DNA.

They are relaxing and basking in the sun after replicating, and they are chatting. Covidone says, “Della, I wonder where all this wonderful water that keeps us alive and reproducing comes from? We’re good swimmers; why don’t we go down into the wellspring and locate the original source of the water. It’s gotta be down there somewhere.” Covidella said, “great idea, Vido, let’s do it.”

With that the two little adventurers start down into the spring, swimming against the upwelling current. They find themselves in a kind of shaft, a long vertical tunnel; the water is being forced up from below and they keep going down. Finally, at a great depth the shaft opens into a large cavern filled with water. It was clear that pressure from the cavern’s water was making it rise to the surface. “This is it,” said Vido, “this is the Source of the Spring. Both the water and the pressure come from here. I think we should just pitch our tent and stay here. It’s the source of the life we live on. Maybe, here, we can live forever, d’ya think”?

Della was skeptical. “There are two things I still don’t understand,” she said. “The first is the water itself. Was it always here? And the second is the pressure. Why is this water under pressure”?

Vido had to admit she was right. Where did this water come from, and what was the reason for the pressure? The two began to take another look around.

They saw that water was coming into the cavern on all sides from stratified layers of earth and rock. “Well, now,” Della says, “it looks like the water really comes from multiple sources and they all feed into this one place. Let’s pick one of these strata and follow it wherever it leads and see where its water comes from. That may take us to the original source.” Off they go, following a very thin sheet of water in one of the strata. They immediately notice that they are no longer going down, but they are now swimming uphill against a current that is flowing downhill.

It’s not long before they emerge back out onto the surface of the earth. But something was still making them wet. “Where is the water coming from now”? They look up and they realize: it’s raining!

The water all along had been coming from millions and millions of raindrops. The rain was falling on the ground, seeped into the earth until it encountered some formation ― like the stone cavern ― that forced the water to collect. With no place to go, the pressure from gravity built up. Eventually, when some outlet, lower than the level of the water sources, allowed it to escape, it emerged in the form of a spring. The “Source” was raindrops all along.

3.

Raindrops

The story takes on meaning with the change in perspective that occurs when we accept the fact that all of reality, even its living forms, like the virus, and us, are all and only matter. It helps explain how our living “selves” emerge from matter.

We are all made of the same clay. That means that all things, living and non-living, are subject to the same conditions for being-here, everywhere. Living organisms have the added burden of trying to stay alive in the midst of the maelstrom of roiling forces that constitute matter’s energy launched as our universe 14 billion years ago. This realization, occurring to someone who has not been totally consumed and blinded by belief that the “self” does not belong to this world, is enough to awaken a sense of compassion not only for other human beings, but for all things, for we are all made of the same “stuff” driven by the same forces. We belong only to this world, but we are not just ourselves. Everything is a temporary composite of that same “stuff.” And everything will decompose. Even the stones will perish. We, including the viruses, are one family. We didn’t ask for things to be this way, but it is the condition for our being-here. We are matter in a material universe.

Is this some kind of nightmare? No one I know would say so. We can’t explain it, but despite the suffering it entails and our final dissolution, to be-here is to die for. We love it. We can’t help ourselves. It’s hard-wired into our bones.  We want to be-here forever.

It is relevant to ask, “why”?

In the parable, the living spring was really raindrops. In the metaphysics of the Mahayana Buddhist system, the multiple threads that weave my “self” ― not unlike the raindrops ― are virtually infinite in number and type. It effectively amounts to the whole universe-in-process. That is what Buddha meant by “no-self.” Anatman ― the doctrine of “no-self” ― doesn’t mean there is nothing there, or that there is no “me.” Just the opposite. It means that “I” am the emanation of a vast multiplicity of sources, throughout geological time as well as in the present moment, all of which had to function together in order for my living organism to be-here now with the form and features that it has.

The spring was raindrops; our “selves” are particles of matter’s living energy.

The doctrine of “no-self” expands “I” into “all things.” It says we are not separate selves; rather we are the product of a totality that transcends the self and includes everything. No identifiable, eternal, independent, self-subsistent self, apart from its causes whose synchronicity is subject to eventual termination by entropy, can be said to exist. When that amazing confluence ceases to coalesce, the self, which is only the reflexive consciousness of the resulting composite, disappears. Nothing else disappears. All the components ― matter’s living energy ― continue on. Nothing is created; nothing is destroyed.

4.

A new imagery for “God”

So if “God” is really the Source of our being-here we are confronted with a huge challenge to the traditional imagery we have inherited from our pre-scientific forebears about what “God” is like. In ancient times, based on our experience of potters and carpenters, artists and sculptors we imagined a Craftsman of great power and intelligence who designed and shaped each and every kind of thing that we could see on earth. But, as we know now, that story was a product of our imagination; it was the best we could do in the absence of any real knowledge. Now we know better. We have learned that the earth itself, this planet, evolved all the life forms that live on it, including humankind, out of its own substance. We know what we are made of, and how we got here the way we are. The Genesis story was plausible guesswork for a long time; but it was wrong.

John said, “No one has ever seen God,” but going by our experience of brutal tyrants, we generated the picture of a grasping, controlling, cruel, thin-skinned, punitive and self-involved narcissist, that ran counter to everything that our human flesh cried out for. Why did we do that? When finally someone came along who challenged that imagery and said that “God” corresponded to our instinctive longing for justice and cooperation, love and compassion, the ruling “authorities” killed him to shut him up, and proceeded to appropriate his name to sustain their own slave-driven enterprises. “No one has ever seen ‘God’,” said John, but that didn’t stop us in our blindness from creating all manner of distorted imagery that, even today, continues to turn human beings into frightened grasping creatures who hate themselves and everyone else.

What do we do now? The blinders have come off and we can see clearly how this entire universe evolved and operates. We know our “Source” and how its creative energy functions. We have a new imagery to integrate. The word “God” has to take on a new meaning. We can’t claim ignorance any longer. We cannot continue to excuse our willful clinging to imagery inherited from ancient fairy tales. We have to face squarely how we have mis-taken and misunderstood our “Source” . . . and therefore how we have misinterpreted ourselves, what we are. We are our Source poured out and made available for all things to be-here, each in their own way, together. WE ARE THAT! Like the rain ― generous, abundant, self-emptying, undiscriminating ― life-generating energy is what we are made of. It is what we are!

What “providence” means has to be radically reimagined. There is no invisible rational “person” who chose to let 150,000 children die in the Haitian earthquake, or who “permitted” the Nazis to seek the “ultimate solution” for two millennia of Christian Jew-hatred in the Holocaust. There is no “person” who refuses to perform a miracle to cure your child’s cancer, or who wills rich and powerful men to enslave and exploit the masses of humankind, manipulate the minds of the frightened and despoil the earth of its ability to sustain life. There is no “person” who puts thoughts in your head, or who will “marry” you on the condition that you stay celibate.

Our “Source” is like the rain. Wherever it falls it brings life. It is always being used by others. In itself it is nothing, but it becomes all things. It has become us. We humans, like springs, are that same rainwater pouring itself out on the earth, now as persons, intentionally.

When we finally appropriate that reality and become rain for others, we will need no more proof.  All our questions will be answered.  It is at that moment that we will experience in our blood and bones why being-here is to die for.

 

Translating the Mystics

2,000 words

The mystics, east and west, are a key resource in the pursuit of the universalism that I am convinced lies at the heart of all religions and traditions, among which I include compassionate atheism. The mystics are cherished everywhere, but in the west particularly, they are not taken seriously as a source of “truth.” They are considered rather as visionaries, poets, holy to be sure and inspiring but not entirely reliable because the considerable emotion they display gives rise to the suspicion that they are subjective.

In the Christian west, Jesus fared no better. Observers will notice that gospel accounts do not record that Jesus enunciated virtually any of the “doctrines” that were later counted as core truths of Christianity. Hundreds of years later, as Christian doctrine came to be “defined,” mainly by councils sponsored by the Roman emperors, Jesus was divinized and treated more like an object of worship than a source of doctrinal truth. He was sidelined like all the mystics, even though it was his “defined” divinity that was called upon to “prove” doctrinal infallibility.

In the east, in contrast, the words and practice of Buddha became the subject of discussion, debate, interpretation and eventually canonization in the form of written documents considered by consensus to accurately reflect the mind of the founder. What there is of authentic dogma and ritual in Hindu-Buddhism, is closely linked to practice and bears no reference to the anatomy of the universe or the favor of the gods. The focus is what in our tradition we would call “prayer life,” and spiritual transformation; that practice, among Buddhists, is specifically meditation. Doctrine amounted to accurately identifying and applying the methods of meditation and, of course, achieving its goals: individual peace and social harmony in this world.

This was not true for Christianity where the words and attitudes of Jesus were used to justify a religion structured around dogma and rituals created by the Roman Empire broadly patterned on its earlier state religion. Early Roman religion was a local version of the polytheism common to the Mediterranean region built on the myths of the gods. It was not complex. Its purpose was to secure divine favor for the advancement of the interests of the polis. Social harmony and consensus among the citizens came as a byproduct of that, but were hardly secondary. By the beginning of the fourth century the old state religion of the mythological gods, whose adolescent antics were ridiculed relentlessly by the philosophers, had lost all credibility and the Roman Empire needed a replacement. It selected Christianity. As part of that award, not only the buildings and temple paraphernalia of the gods were turned over to the Christian Church, but with the “donation of Constantine” came a responsibility: to sustain the worldview and purposes of the Roman state religion. Christianity re-invented itself as the ground for Rome’s theocracy.

The “Way of Jesus” which had produced the gospels was ultimately swallowed up by the Imperial embrace. Jesus himself was not interested in using “God” as a prop for state power, so if his followers were to fulfill the role offered to them by Rome they would have to stop following Jesus. Effectively, the religion that came to bear the name “Christian” found itself required to reinterpret Jesus’ words, attitudes and behavior, lifestyle and motivations, in order to subordinate them to Roman priorities. It made Jesus an inspirational, even consoling figure, but it prevented the codification of his message, which was so thoroughly opposed to the demands of the Roman state that it got him killed. Jesus’ use of the words “kingdom of God” was precisely intended to situate ultimate loyalty and behavioral compliance in justice and compassion among people not in any state authority, whether it be the Jewish nation or the Roman Empire. In the frenzy to accommodate themselves to the windfall of Constantine’s “donation,” Christians had to ignore all this. They did. Some say they still do.

Roman “Christian” Doctrine came to be determined on other bases, some a crass, politically motivated exaggeration, like the Greek philosophical divinization of Jesus pressured by the emperor himself at the Council of Nicaea, and others the result of the interpretative fantasies of Hellenizing Jews like Paul of Tarsus and John following Philo, and neo-Platonic Roman philosophers like Augustine of Hippo who concocted “doctrines” like Original Sin which were not part of the Jewish doctrinal legacy and never even alluded to by Jesus. Nicaea, taking place in Constantine’s own private villa and with his dominating personal participation, proceeded to its decisions despite the fact that not only did the assembled bishops try to resist the emperor who insisted they use the word “homoousios” to describe Jesus’ divinity, but also with Jesus himself who, as recorded in the gospels, explicitly denied being “God.”

What “divinization” missed was the heart of the matter.   What made Jesus a great spiritual teacher was the fact that he was an ordinary human being whose extraordinary human experience had brought him to a profoundly human reinterpretation of the theocratic Jewish tradition and turned it into a potential universalism of irresistible appeal. It was providential that his message was preserved in the gospel narratives of his life and work or we may never have known what it was, for it is not borne forward by the dogmas of the religion. He saw “God” as a loving Father, not a demanding and punitive Monarch who would reward you with conquest and slaves if you obeyed him. The gospels, written by his earliest followers for whom it was entirely enough to say that Jesus was God’s messenger, have preserved for us the character and significance of his message. The claim that he was a “god.” or even, outrageously and blasphemously that he was “God” himself, served to distort, undermine and fatally emasculate the radical transformative power of his discovery and his invitation.

Re-forming Christianity

But while the theocratic exploitation of Christianity has created outrageous doctrine that because of its antiquity, we realize now, will never be repudiated by the Churches whose success is tied to the appearance of tradition, the authentic religious endeavor should nevertheless move resolutely to the task of a new kind of codification: to identify and articulate the vision of Jesus in the light of the universalism it shares with all other religions. And in pursuit of that end, as a first and immediate item of common data across time and traditions, the experience of the mystics should be considered foundational. What Jesus and the mystics all have in common is the recognized superlative nature of their lived religious experience and practice. “By their fruits you will know them,” Jesus is recorded as saying. Indeed. It is the only test of religious truth.

Religion is practice. It is the art of living humanly. It is not primarily focused on “truth” taken as objective “scientific” knowledge. This should not be misunderstood. Knowing what things really are is important for determining what they can and should do; that holds true for humankind as well. But in our case, knowing what we are as human beings comes at the end of a process of discovery. We know what we are by seeing what we do that works. So practice, the lived experience of people like Jesus and the mystics who have achieved unequaled success in the art of living, has been the origin and energizer for most religions throughout history.

Unfortunately, because of the “other worldly” emphasis of mediaeval Christianity, some mystics expressed their discoveries in terms of visionary experiences. Despite their own clear rejection of assigning any importance to these forms of expression, the word “mystic” in the popular mind evokes enthusiasts who have psychedelic and hallucinatory experiences. But in reality, as a serious reading of their work will show beyond any doubt, their “doctrines” were about the moral and emotional transformation of the selfish individual into a generous and compassionate human being, for the benefit of all, and the practices necessary to achieve it.

Religious reform, then, which amounts to a re-appropriation of religion’s original vitality, should be equally based on the experience of these extraordinary people.

Jesus was one of the mystics. Christianity originally began as an attempt to follow and elaborate on his lived experience. That process got sidetracked and in many ways actually reversed by the Roman take-over. That reversal is not an insignificant development in the history of humankind. Among other things it has meant, after two thousand years of Christian “truth,” the domination and exploitation of the rest of the globe by White European Christians who falsely identified the wealth and power of their nation-states with the success of their “faith” applying the theocratic justifications embedded in Romanized Christian doctrine.  Correcting the false directions taken by Christianity and undoing the damage done by Christian theocracy will require reinstalling the lived experience of Jesus and other mystics from across the globe at the foundation of a new doctrinal edifice. There is no alternative. Many who have accurately seen the source of the problem, and yet, in an attempt to respect traditional institutions, believed that somehow the damaging effects of doctrine could be ignored and authentic religious experience pursued on a parallel track, have again and again had their hopes dashed as “reform” has been demolished by theocratic doctrine. We should have known better. The very attempt is schizoid. It belies the obvious integrity of the human organism whose thoughts and actions can be split from one another only at the cost of sanity. It is not insignificant that some have defined holiness as a profound and available sanity. What is eluding us transcends “truth.”

The mystics’ vision

I suggest starting here: Mystics, east and west, broadly speaking, agree on one foundational experience that characterizes their practice: the self is intimately one with all things. It has two aspects: (1) There is an intimate connectedness among all things creating an inescapable bond of unity with the whole universe. This is, in practice, most often seen in action within the human community in the form of justice, compassion and mutual assistance. (2) The practitioner’s self has a unique role in the establishment of the religious relationship which grounds universal connectedness. The human individual’s intimate relationship to all things originates in the depths of the self. The self is the wellspring of the principle of unity.

In practice, while the first expresses itself most often in human society, it is fundamentally universal; we see it functioning today in a concern for the whole planet. The second corresponds to a sense of ground residing in one’s own interior depths. It also sets up a relationship with that ground which may or may not be interactive as between two “persons.” All this remains to be explored in detail.

Both of these aspects of common practice give rise to other secondary explanatory “doctrines” which differ among the traditions depending on the “scientific” (philosophical) context provided by the local culture in which they are occurring. But I want to emphasize: the two foundational items are features of direct experience. They are not beliefs or objective truths “out there;” they are the descriptions of personal experience that are universal among the mystics. There is, initially, no talk of “God” or of any explanatory “entities” not encountered directly in the process of living. Such second tier explanations are claimed to be “revealed,” or conjectured, or inferred, but in all cases they are ancillary and, despite the dominant role they may come to play for the particular tradition, they are the doctrines that vary most among the mystics. What all mystics have in common with little divergence is the originating experience: a oneness with all things realized through the source of unity found in the depths of one’s self.

This is absolutely universal among them. For the mystics, we are intimately related, by dint of something resident in the self, to everything that exists, even the inanimate. I want to sit quietly with this for a while as experience before analyzing it in future posts. I think it is fair to say that it is not unfamiliar territory for any of us.

Christian Universalism (VII)

the just society

9.

Human community is a derivative of universal natural faith. The emptiness that conditions life for all human individuals causes them to reach out to one another for interpretation and support. Biological survival is certainly a primary motivating factor, created by a longer childhood dependency than any other animal species; but family and clan interdependence entailed the evolutionary development of brains that can “read” others. A great deal of the operating time of the human mind is spent imagining what others (who are significant to one’s survival in society) think, feel, desire, intend, and can do for them or against them; and most of human conversation is dedicated to sharing it. We may trivialize it by calling it gossip, but it is what we do.

The ability to sense what others are feeling when something happens, or what they “mean” when they say or do something, is called empathy.   Empathy is the ability to feel the similarity between others and myself ― it implies a high degree of self-awareness. Intelligence evolved, apparently, driven by the need to navigate relationships in a complex society. Its unavoidable by-product was self-awareness ― the know­ledge of one’s own emptiness, and the equally unavoidable expectation of endless life, for despite how inexplicable and improbable it all is, here we are, and we love being-here.

Given the biological reality of the drive to survive, the ability to empathize can go in any direction. There is no guarantee that this extraordinary emotional clairvoyance will not be put to selfish purposes. Knowing that I am “needy” and therefore what “neediness” looks and feels like, I have a window that opens onto a vulnerability in others. What may have served as a tool to alleviate another’s anxiety, can always lose its “other”-directedness; when neediness no longer evokes sympathy, it is reduced in my field of perception to something I can exploit.

Similarly the implicit awareness that there is a warm sustaining wind that bears us all aloft can also evoke a selfish reaction. I trust life and those around me; that means I know that others spontaneously trust me and are not initially wary and self-protective, in fact they are predisposed to support and protect me. I can exploit this spontaneous reaching out ― the very need that is creative of human community ― and turn it to my own advantage. That such a turn poisons the wellsprings of life together is disregarded. Our ability to empathize is not ultimate or absolute: it is subordinate to other forces in the human organism ― like the instinct for self-preservation and self-enhancement ― that are easily mis-taken as its contrary. At some point the conatus must consciously be directed to serve empathy or it will distractedly pursue selfish interests.

The spontaneous trust in life with which we come into this world, continues to penetrate and pervade all of our endeavors. An expression of this is the feeling of indestructibility that arises from the unchecked natural expectation of endless life. It is a biological disposition we are all familiar with, especially when young. It is generally held in low regard by adults who call it “adolescent.” It displays a naïve trust in life that can be dangerous. It is associated with having an aversion to the work that society deems necessary for survival. It is also seen as a source of recklessness that can result in fatal or crippling accidents. (That doesn’t prevent society’s managers from exploiting youthful naïveté to build armies of self-doubting teen-age boys “trained” to risk their lives and kill on orders. Young males are redundant for society’s reproductive needs and are treated as expendable.) But we have to recognize that this “frivolous” youthful attitude arises from a natural proclivity of the organic matter of our biological organisms to simply enjoy being-here free of care. Until the work of providing survival has been made so unachiev­able as to require total dedication to nothing else, thus disabusing the individual of dreams of a care-free life, it is the normal condition. We are all naturally care-free; we are spontaneously optimistic because we are made of matter; matter “knows” it belongs here and instinctively expects that all will be well. We must learn that is not the case.

The instinct to be care-free does not necessarily imply irresponsibility. In a random universe the urge to spend our days in play is quickly modified by the realities of survival. I contend that the effort to irresponsibly secure a care-free life for oneself ― selfishly seeking to avoid work at the expense of others ― is the root of social injustice. It is my opinion that the class divisions in society arose in the distant past, when some who had gained control of the survival process, in order to make life secure and care-free for themselves, coerced and extorted the labor of those who could not resist them. They became masters and made the others their slaves. Everyone acquiesced either actively or passively and the pattern became a system. Some claim the original model was the subjugation of women by men.

Master/slave systems provided a concentration of wealth and an organization of labor that was used to build all the great empires on the planet. All of us that are alive today came from one of the civilizations in which those empires flourished, and our current global civilization is in a process of concentration and once control is unified it will be an empire. There are very few human communities, even now, whose work life is not part of the global economy and its class divisions of labor. We have all internalized its principal features and transactional dynamics. We have all been formed by the master/slave system.

Work patterns in a master/slave system share certain distortions. For example, it is to the advantage of masters to eradicate care-free attitudes from their slave-laborers in order to get more work out of them. Instilling fear, and making any kind of satisfactory accumulation extremely difficult, the “masters” hone and sharpen their “slave” tools for their service, robbing them of the joy of life and a sense of security. The aim is to eliminate “frivolity” and make work’s survival achievements the only satisfaction available to the worker. This is done precisely so the masters can avoid having to live under such burdens themselves. They justify this by telling themselves (and their slaves) that there is a difference between them, a difference in their humanity ― that human nature is not universal ― that the masters are superior human beings and the slaves are inferior; that “nature” designed the division of labor.

The reasons adduced in the West for the class divide have been amazingly adaptable through the millennia: first it was claimed that the slaves were more “carnal and unthinking” and the masters more “spiritual and rational” ― slaves were like children who needed the masters to organize life for them; then later it was held that the masters were war lords and paladins who defended the people, and the people worked for them to maintain them in their warrior life-style and insure their protection; then, when new lands were discovered, it was said that the dark-skinned people who were made slaves were not Christian, had never been baptized and therefore were under the dominion of Satan and needed to work for their Christian masters as a discipline of exorcism; and finally in our time that the masters are wealthy owners because they are intelligent and disciplined and the laborers are not. Hence the almost unchallenged agreement is for working people to “go to college” so they can become members of the educated elite and ultimately become owners themselves. The “story,” regardless of how it has changed, remarkably always comes to the same conclusion.

These efforts have resulted in normalizing an unnecessarily hard and sustained work-effort for those who must sell their labor. The business of working to stay alive has been made more onerous than it needs to be precisely because the economic life of society has been organized so the masters can live “care-free” lives, and habituating the slaves against any hope of procuring the same for themselves is an essential part of it. Economic life has been structured along class lines for so long that we cannot imagine anything else. Everyone has internalized these myths. Any hopes the slaves still harbor for living care-free become exclusively focused on the day they themselves can become masters over others. Yes indeed, go to college.

I do not believe in the “supreme value of hard work.” I see that particular “belief” as another dogmatic mystification created by the masters to keep the slaves disinclined to expect that the system will ever allow them to be autonomous and care-free responsible collaborators as workers. Their only hope is to become masters/owners themselves. They are driven to “succeed.”

I contend that in a just society ― one that has made the pursuit of distributive justice its constant priority ― personal insecurity is eliminated or reduced to a minimum and shared by all. Everyone knows that their work will guarantee them survival and a standard of living on a par with everyone else. Resentment at inequality, and the exhausting over-exertion expended by those who are not paid a living wage for a normal day’s work, simply does not exist. Most of us have never lived in such a society, even growing up in our families which often mimic the pressures of larger society in order to “train” their children. I submit that economic life has been so distorted in the societies we are familiar with ― societies that function on wage slavery and the normalization of insecurity that is intrinsic to the master/slave paradigm ― that the unnecessary impoverishment and insecurity of the working classes (and the unnecessary anxiety of the ruling classes) would be totally eliminated if it weren’t for this internalized expectation. Like everything else in human life that exacerbates the insecurity of existential dependency, it is a product of our minds. Our minds create the structures that enslave us. Life is hard; but we have made it harder.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Humans have evolved the ability to imagine what’s not there. One of the “things” that’s not there, says the Buddha, is the imagining mind itself. We imagine that our imagination is an entity, separate and independent, that we identify as our “self” in opposition to the body and all other “selves,” when in fact it is actually a function of the body, a tool of the self-conscious organism that survives only in its social network. The imagination gives the organism the ability to anticipate, “under”stand, and empathize (relate). The real self is the full human organism and the mind is its instrument of survival-in-society. The greatest of human tragedies is that we take the image-maker and the images it concocts to reify and aggrandize itself as if it were a separate self, not the complete human being, ― and then re-imagine society to be made up of similar selfish avatars in competition with one another for ascendancy. It’s like a masked melee of the WWE.

The Buddhist project includes using mind-control techniques ― principally, meditation ― to reduce and eventually eliminate the false images that our arrogant minds generate about who we think we are. The widespread suffering that comes from the frustrated attempts to secure ultimate happiness through selfish accumulation and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others is the primary damage that comes through a runaway imagination. “Living in the present moment” is a mantra that proposes to get us out of the fantasy that we are disembodied independent “selves” and that something will fill our emptiness and make us, as separate individuals, secure and care-free. It calls us to let go of selfish delusions and to focus on our reality as biological organisms who have need of one another here-and-now.

Accepting our emptiness, our insuperable vulnerability and complete reliance on the forces of community life-support, leads to a simple acknowledgement: some version of the golden rule must override all other considerations. We must treat others as we want to be treated. It is the foundation stone of a just society. It is natural, intuitive and universal. We don’t need “God” to reveal it to us. It is the totality of our moral obligation and the whole purpose of our political designs. Any nation, political party or religious sect, regardless of its venerable antiquity and claims to sacred origins, that has not discerned the primacy of that moral imperative, is exposed as false and dangerous to the human project. By their fruits WE know them. The gods we need are the ones who remind us that we are all we’ve got.

The just society is our tool of survival. I wonder if we fully appreciate what such a statement implies. Perhaps it’s clearer in the obverse: without it we will not survive.

The just society, unimaginable only to those who have imagined it out of existence, begins with a simple transformation of who we think we are.

 

 

 

Christian Universalism (VI)

endless trust

1,250 words

8.

Trust never ends . . . because we are made of matter. I believe no one dies in despair; the sense of trust is an organic and insuppressible material instinct. Despair is an effect of thinking, imagination. Hope is a physical bearing, an innate function of the components of biological life. As one evidence of this I cite the difficulty in committing suicide. 92 to 95% of all suicide attempts end in failure. I credit this to the behavior of the human organism which insists on being-here despite the efforts of the suicidal “self” that has decided to quit living. To be effective, suicide must be as carefully planned as a murder because you cannot count on the body to cooperate. The components of the body, in all other respects lock-step obedient to the “mind,” kick into autonomous mode and cling to life despite clear orders to the contrary from the thinking “self,” even when it “makes sense” as in doctor assisted suicides. Comas are another example. The extenuated nature of comatose life in the absence of brain activity is a testimony to the disregard that the body has for what is going on or not going on in the mind. It’s as if thinking were disconnected from its organic foundations. The organism’s blind desire to live attests to its insuperable sense of belonging to this material cosmos. It confirms the Buddhist claim that suffering ― the suffering that is unique to humans ― is almost entirely due to our imaginations, the mind. And it reinforces the Buddhist counsel to control what we think and let the natural instincts of our biological organisms determine the limits of our desires to accumulate, protect, aggrandize and defend our “selves.” In almost all cases the illusory, socially concocted, empty “self” desires much more ― and other ― than what the body needs and wants. Those socially generated selfish desires are the product of dreaming about filling an emptiness that can’t be filled. Regardless of how negative the reaction to life from the self-serving “mind,” the body at all times is anchored in its unwavering embrace of life with all the trust and hope that goes along with it.

The body is rooted in the present moment. Buddha’s initial step in meditating, according to sutras from the Pali Canon, is to concentrate on breathing in order to get in touch with the body, withdraw from daydreams and enter solidly into the present. Being aware of breathing ― staying within the ambit of the body ― is essential throughout the subsequent steps. Mind is dealt with as a part of the body. We are biological organisms. The function of the mind is to be at the service of the organism not the other way around.

Another example of organic trust: We are normally oblivious to the possibility of death. The announcement of our own terminal illness or the unexpected demise of a young healthy person we know well can be immobilizing. But the heightened awareness of our fragility and the pointlessness of efforts to survive wears off. No one can function normally in an atmosphere of impending death. While it affects our long-term calculations in how we will organize our goals, death is generally suppressed and ignored. Living in the constant awareness of death is extremely difficult to do. In this respect the mind displays its organic basis in the body. We are programmed to live; there is no death-instinct that overrides the spontaneous expectation of living endlessly.

The expectation of endless life might be considered the most characteristically human of all our traits, but, I contend, its source is the body, not the mind. The mind learns to hope from the spontaneous trust of the body. Organically ― i.e., biologically speaking ― the body simply expects to keep on living and demands its mind-directed “self” to make appropriate efforts toward that end. There is no natural “algorithm” that anticipates death and programs the body instinctively to die. Hence the impulse to accumulate endlessly is a function of that same expectation. The obsessive search for a miracle-cure even in the last days of an incurable illness reveals our insatiable hunger for life and innate expectations. There is initially no thought of “life after death” because originally and fundamentally there is no thought of death. We have to learn and remind ourselves we are going to die. Like all living things, the human organism is exclusively oriented toward living; the “endless” part is simply another way of saying there is no other expectation because no “other” experience can be imagined than living in this body.

Once death is transformed from an imminent threat to a mental concept, it continues to function in the mind of the thinking “self” as a modifier of feelings, expectations and reactive behavior. It is through the thought of death that death becomes a “thing,” or a heuristic (guiding) factor (an idea) in the determination of goals and behavior. Things are done, goods accumulated, and some things are avoided in the effort to thwart an imagined death that is not imminent and rarely predictable. It is all a work of the human imagination. Animals cannot relate to any of this because their ability to imagine what is not here, now is extremely limited.   Animals fear death when it threatens. And the minute the concrete danger disappears their fear disappears.

A psycho-conceptual transition takes place when “death” is elevated from a here-and-now experience to a mental concept. Being-dead cannot really be imagined because we cannot imagine non-experience, hence it is transformed into an idea which is then thought of as a “state” ― in fact an imagined “life” after death, often called simply, “the after-life.” Notice: we cannot think “non-life.” Eternal life is precisely an imagined “state” that has been generated from the biological instinct and spontaneous concrete expectations of endless life pushing back against the knowledge (the thought) that we will die. I claim that both the “state of death” and “eternal life” are abstractions ― projections ― generated by the imagination, derived from knowing that death comes to us all despite the felt instinct and expectation of endless living. They are both projections from our experience of living as biological organisms on this earth. We cannot imagine not being-here, and so we imagine that not being-here is really another kind of being-here. I claim that we all die expecting to live on in some way simply because anything else is totally unimaginable to the human organism.

We are matter. Matter is totally and exhaustively what it means to be-here. They are identical. Matter belongs here. The brain, made of organic matter, cannot imagine not being here. And it’s a sheer fact of cosmology that all of the sub-atomic building blocks of matter ― the quanta packets of material energy that constitute the elements in my body ― have been-here uninterruptedly for at least the 13.7 billion years since the big-bang. None of the particles that now comprise the matter of our bodies came from anywhere else, and as far as anyone can see into the future of cosmic history, they will never stop being-here until the cosmos itself stops being-here. Whatever else it might mean to be human, and whatever further destiny we may have, these are the inescapable parameters of our human reality ― the boundaries within which everything else must occur. We are the vortices ― the eddies and whirlpools ― spun out within the flow of the cosmic river. Whatever this cosmos is, that is what we are; its destiny is ours.

Christian Universalism (V)

Jesus and Buddha; the embrace of emptiness

3,350 words

6.

Despite superficial differences, I contend there is a profound concurrence between the religious visions of Buddha and Jesus . . . and, in my opinion, it stems from their experience of being-here. The agreement consists in the fact that both of their core symbols ― the “fatherhood” of “God” for Jesus and “no self” for Buddha ― are really conceptual derivatives of the same experience, and the two apparently divergent images are simply due to the different cultural matrices in which the experience occurred. I claim that both Jesus and Buddha experienced the same thing: their radical trusting existential dependency. Neither one had any experience of the other side of the equation: where their being-here came from, i.e., what was the source and sustaining factor that accounted for their being-here and for why they spontaneously trusted it.

This is salient, particularly, in the case of Jesus where it has been assumed by a naïve literal take on the gospel narrative and mediaeval theological retrospection, that Jesus had direct, person-to-person knowledge of “God” the “Father” because he was “God” the “Son.” I deny that, and I am supported in that opinion by scripture scholars of all denominations. There was no “trinitarian” reference in Jesus’ awareness of the “Fatherhood” of “God.” His reaction was that of a believing Jew who, upon emerging from the Jordan after a life-changing act of personal surrender, fully embraced what his Judaic tradition told him was his “creature-hood” launched and sustained by Yahweh his “Creator.” Furthermore, his reading of the prophets and the psalms had subsequently defined and refined the personal bearing of Yahweh as one of total personal benevolence, and the word “father” was the most apt image for that reality.

But I want to emphasize: Jesus did not “see” anything. What he saw was his own existential dependency along with the spontaneous sense of trust in life that he had experienced since infancy which his family and religion had reinforced. He was as blind to the source that sustained him as the most hardened atheist. His innate trust had been interpreted by the consensus of the community to mean the benevolence of Yahweh, his Creator.

In the case of Buddha the “quest for enlightenment,” was a culturally encouraged religious pursuit which had a long and revered tradition behind it. It was a quest in which many people in Buddha’s time were already intensely engaged and to which Buddha himself had dedicated many years of personal effort at great cost to his standing in the world. It predisposed him to find what he did. That the “liberation” he experienced took the form of ending the cycles of samsara ― “chasing the wind” ― that enervated daily life and poisoned human community, is no great surprise. Samsara had long been identified as the cause of human sorrow in the Hindu tradition. Buddha’s discovery was not a new religion. It was a simple advance on the elusive Hindu asceticism that had preceded him. He found that mortifying insatiable desire ― no matter how long and how intensely ― was not sufficient to end samsara. What was missing was denying the “self” that lay behind it. It was a unique insight that allowed for a “middle way” between an impossible and fruitless asceticism and a life of self-gratifying illusion.

Once the illusory “self” was identified as the real culprit ― the hidden demon that kept trying to dig, or build its way out of a trusting emptiness ― denying the pretensions of the self proved to be the key to personal liberation and community harmony. Buddha did it by saying there was “no self.” There was nothing to build, and nothing to protect, because there was nothing there. It allowed for the pursuit of a middle path in ascetical practice that led directly to the goal of Buddhist meditation: letting go.

The key point for this reflection is that by eliminating the “self,” what was being held in a trusting embrace was emptiness. For to say there was “no self” was precisely to affirm a transcendent confidence in the totality of all things in which we are sustained like the knots in a cosmic net. There is nothing to us. We are the product of other things. We are “caused,” in Buddhist terminology, by a multitude of causes, proximate and remote, which are themselves similarly caused. The entire network is also empty; it is somehow sustained and he never asked how or why. It was sufficient to understand that certain attitudes and behavior follow from the fact. We are not a stand-alone, independent self and the desires that assume and nourish that illusion must be challenged by unmasking the fallacy ― the “self” ― that gives them their energy. Mortification had to be directed at reducing and eventually eliminating the fallacy of the “self.” The entire exercise is in function of embracing emptiness.

I am claiming that neither the Buddha nor Jesus saw anything. They had insight. Just like you and me, they saw themselves for exactly what they were: existentially dependent items in a vast universe to which they belonged, spawned by forces that impacted the totality, and which they trusted totally. For the Buddha those forces ― whatever they were ― were not him “self.” They were part of a totality that could be trusted. For Jesus, it was a personal force, Yahweh, whom he was taught had brought the whole cosmos into being, and him as part of it, that could be trusted. The Buddha’s lack of concern for identifying any ultimate source, turned out to be ironically identical to Jesus’ belief that it was Yahweh’s craftsmanship ― for we now know that Jesus was dead wrong. That means that, in fact, he also knew nothing. The only factual experience that they had ― and they both had the same ― was their experience of their own existential dependency, or emptiness, in conjunction with a spontaneous trust in being-here interpreted by their religious traditions. It should go without saying, that all of us, believer, agnostic or atheist, live in the same universe with the same human organism as they. We all have the same experience. Trusting that experience and the biological organisms that share it, is what I call faith.

*       *       *       *       *

This discussion of the concurrence of Buddha and Jesus is recapitulated in every human being. The human organism spontaneously infers what is missing in the picture of its dependent existence. The fact is, there is no personal, rational, planning, purposeful, hovering providential “God”-Creator-of-the-Universe that anyone knows, no matter how intensely they claim to believe it. No one has ever met “God” nor related concretely and directly to the source of its being-here. Those who claim such a “person” exists are projecting an inference, often transferred to an image or a religious belief, not an experience. If we are honest we have to say we have no direct evidence ― only indirect clues left by the existent structures in our world ― of the ultimate source of being-here. We have to admit that all we know directly and empirically is our emptiness and that of everything we know in the universe considered alone or as a totality. The rest is projection.

However, not all projection is unfounded; some is the result of valid inference. First, the metaphysics is undeniable. Being-here has to be accounted for either in itself or in its cause(s). The very fact of emptiness immediately implies a correlate that explains how some­thing that cannot account for its own existence can be-here. In the case of human beings dependency is evident in a myriad of ways that affect virtually every aspect of the human organism’s presence in the world throughout life and in a most dramatic and undeniable way at death. Making the inference implied in all this conditioned existence results in a “concept,” an idea called “ultimate and necessary source.” An emptiness of the character exhibited by a human organism requires a corresponding “filling” source to account for all of it ― and from the number of manifestations of dependency there is clearly a need for a multitude of sources which must finally include the source of the being-here itself of the entire network.

But that’s all we ever have: the flip-side of our emptiness. “Source” is gallingly abstract: it is an intellectual image that receives every bit of its concrete character from the nature of the emptiness it is filling. Let me emphasize: the projected image ― the idea ― of the unknown source is exactly as empty as the effect that elicits it. All the effect can tell us is that the source must some­how possess what the effect lacks. We never encounter any “thing” we can call “ultimate source.” We only generate an idea required by our intellect looking with great perplexity at one side of an obviously multisided relationship and where the principal source of being-here itself ― the “other side” ― never appears or takes any identifiable shape of its own. Whatever shape it has is generated only by the inferring intellect and it is entirely determined by the shape of the emptiness from which it is epistemically derived. At the end of the inferential exercise there is not one wit more direct concrete visibility of the source than there was at the outset. The concept, “source,” is entirely exhausted in the character of the dynamic, the inference; there is no concrete image whatsoever outside of the image of the empty receptacle. Like a mirror, the only thing visible is the image it is reflecting. But there is “no-one” there.

I claim that that is what people are experiencing when they say they have had an experience of “God,” and that, in essence, it is the same as the experience of the atheist. The only concrete experience anyone has is of their own emptiness; the imagery they generate about their source is a self-projection generated by their own minds out of the elements of the dependency-experience they have of themselves as interpreted and given imagery by their community.  In other words, what they are looking at is their own foundationless self and they are picturing an inverse function that is necessarily inferred from that. The “God” they see is themselves “inside out,” as it were ― themselves with their inferred cause ― themselves, in other words, without the limitations of their perceived dependency.

This “unlimited self” comes close to what the Hindus call the Atman. In this case a local religion has elaborated symbolic imagery and corresponding rituals that are understood to refer to what always remains beyond visibility. All that is ever concretely seen is one’s empty self. The “apophatic” tradition shared by the religions of the book ― Judaism, Islam and Christianity ― is similar. Apophatic means “speechless” and refers to the absolute unknowability of “God” in those traditions ― a claim, by the way, that is most often honored in the breach, as these religions insist on giving us detailed knowledge of “God” and telling us exactly what they imagine he wants. If “God” cannot be known, as these traditions claim, then that should explain why the fears and apprehensions that derive from emptiness do not go away with mere declaration of “belief” in “God.” Belief is projection based on inference; it is not the same as know­ledge. An unknowable “God” is, psychologically speaking, the same as no “God” at all. Hence many “believers” who project such a “God” define faith as a mental struggle. “Faith” for them is not simply accepting your emptiness with trust and leaving the unknowable unknown; it is forcing yourself to imagine something that is not there; it is an exercise doomed to frustration. This is another form of samara, “chasing the wind,” and Buddha counseled against enquiring into it. Hence he never tried to explain how the entire universe could be empty.

Now in my view, no human being can avoid this experience of the empty self. Nor can anyone deny the spontaneous trust and joy of being-here, which is innate. This joy of being-here is a positive connection with the totality of things that can be clouded over, suppressed, betrayed, ignored, denied and dismissed (not to mention poisoned, tortured and punished) but never eliminated. It is an organic function of matter’s existential energy. In other words, just to be-here is to know with absolute certitude that you belong here, it is to love and desire being-here, and to rejoice at the possession of life. It is to trust your emptiness. It is not a “free” choice. It cannot be avoided. We can’t help it. It’s time we stopped second-guessing it and let it be there.

 

7.

The spontaneous joy in being-here which is characteristic of all matter, continues to generate its characteristics in whatever form it assumes through the developments of evolution. Once we step back from our anthropocentric perspective ― stop putting humankind at the center of the universe ― and start looking at things from the point of view of the myriad of living species all around us, we can see that the sorrow that humans experience is exclusive to us. Every other species of living thing lives in a state of constant joy, marred only by and strictly limited to the moments of danger and hunger that are unavoidable for living organisms in a world of random occurrences. The generalized dissatisfaction that enervates humankind even in the absence of any hostile circumstances, is a suffering exclusive to us. It derives from the samsara that we alone generate because we alone can think; we can imagine what does not exist. That very often means yearning after what we don’t have and what we are convinced will make us permanently happy. But nothing can make us permanently happy. We can never overcome our emptiness; it is what we are. Meditation proposes to end thinking that is nothing but chasing the wind and to surrender to what we are by looking at it and embracing it.

Humankind is aware of its emptiness. Its conditionality is in evidence in a multitude of ways and the general daily activity of the human species ― our work ― is dedicated to responding to the need for food, clothing, shelter and protection from dangers. These are the primary objectives necessary for the procurement of survival. The sense of emptiness, however, that humans alone are aware of, doesn’t end with the achievement of daily survival. The existential dependency that underlies superficial conditionality, unlike other needs that can be satisfied, is insatiable. Its principal source is the awareness of death, but the threat of death for humans is not limited to the moments of mortal danger as in the case of other animals who do not think. For humankind the awareness lingers and devitalizes all accomplishments that otherwise might seem to hold out a modicum of satisfaction. Death pervades the human consciousness often subliminally, and death’s ultimate finality robs temporary achievements of the rest they promise. This generalized sense of dissatisfaction, by not ever finding a proper object that will put it to rest (since there is none), remains diffuse and unfocused. It is an unspecific energy that can be directed toward the pursuit of virtually anything the individuals imagine will be a source of ultimate satisfaction. It is an energy that has been used to amass fortunes and create empires, but it is all chasing the wind.

*       *       *       *       *

We think in imagery. And what we think about engages our affect toward acquisition or aversion depending on how we think it will impact our happiness. The entire enterprise is a work of the imagination. The unavoidable human awareness of emptiness guarantees that the unrestrained imagination under the blind impulse of the conatus will try to imagine a way out. What will fill the emptiness and make me happy? No amount of repeated frustration will ever convince us that there isn’t something that will work. And so we try one thing after another, sometimes even after they have proven to be failures. The society in which we live has its own ideas about what will make us happy ― usually wealth, power, fame, status, pleasure ― and it encourages people to pursue them. Much of the economy is built on selling you what you need to acquire them. We tend to internalize that message and buy what they tell us we should ― until it becomes clear that it, too, is samsara.

If we’re lucky we will run out of options before we destroy ourselves and others, trying to gather the wind. To “run out of options” means to wake up. What we awake to is the realization that we are irremediably empty across the board and that the answer is not trying to fill the emptiness (or escape from it), but to embrace it with trust. We see, at first perhaps only for a moment, that we have been chasing the wind. Of course there’s nothing to stop us from returning to those empty pursuits in despair. In most cases a sustained awakening is achieved only after a number of such episodes.

This is what Buddha means by enlightenment and Jesus means by the kingdom within us. And it’s a vision that in its practical applications is remarkably similar to religious and therapeutic programs from all over the world and from all epochs of human history. It is not simply an ascetical discipline ― a gaining control over unruly desires and aversions. It is, more importantly, a contemplative awareness grounded in an increasingly confident trust in what I am, expressed in a grateful embrace of what put me here ― whatever it may be, proximate and remote ― and a compassionate embrace of other people who are all in the same boat. The discipline is to direct behavior, seriously and consistently, toward the goals of compassion and gratitude where an expanding, ever-more confident trust calls. In the case of Jesus’ vision, the ground of trust is the love of a Father-“God” whom, he insisted, knew every sparrow that fell from the sky, and could be trusted through death.

That trust was tested in his case when his simple message was deemed so threatening to the exploiting powers that ruled his world, that he was tortured and executed for it. His followers have always revered his death as an event of universal significance for humankind. To understand it was to know the answer to the human dilemma, and to embrace it was “salvation.”  Jesus, obedient unto death, trusted his “Father.” A community of such people threatens the powers that be, because it elicits a compassion and mutual support for one another that no empire can smother or replace. It threatens the fear-of-death / master-slave system with resurrection.

But notice: this way of looking at Jesus’ crucifixion sees its significance derived from the universal condition of human emptiness and the accuracy of trust as the human response: it is a dramatic and moving example of trust in a context of utter despair. It does not claim to be doing any more than what is within the reach of any human individual trying to respond authentically to life. In other words, it draws its sacred liberating power from being the right response to the human condition, not from some storehouse of “grace” in another worldIt does not create and confer a unique meaning of its own, introjecting an exogenous “divine” into human life.  The power it transmits is a human moral energy, entirely natural, made available by Jesus’ example and grasped by the empathy of the human individuals who hear, recognize and are moved by his story. Jesus’ “obedience unto death” earned him “a name above every name” among us because he exemplified in a most graphic way the correct universal response to human emptiness.  It is its human universality that makes the cross a transcendent event for humankind.

It is the human condition that gives the cross its meaning, not the other way around.

 

 

Christian universalism (III)

the mystery of being-here: emptiness and faith

3,500 words

1.

The turn to non-biblical sources in an early attempt to establish Christian universalism was, ironically, a scriptural event. Paul of Tarsus, in looking to justify the transition beyond a sectarian Judaism did not limit himself to the resurrection of the Jewish messiah; he turned to ancient Greek creation poetry of an immanent sustaining energy as if it were a scriptural authority. It’s significant that he did not cite Genesis. The “Fatherhood” experienced by Jesus evoked for Paul, not Moses’ Yahweh, but the universal existential experience of humankind: The “Unknown God,” said Paul, is familiar to all of us. “God” is where “we live and move and have our being.” Paul’s “God,” near though “unknown,” was the same as Jesus’ “Father.” We have known “God” all along through our very own being-here.

What name Moses had once given “Yahweh” based on what he expected from him ― a violent liberation from Egyptian slavery and later the spoils of conquest: wealth and power ― was now superseded because Paul could see that Jesus, obedient unto death, trusted “God” as his “Father” and it had nothing to do with wealth and power. Paul was unambiguous: “God’s” Fatherhood is bound up with sustaining our being-here. And our being-here was no mere extrinsic relationship to gift and giver. It was an organic immersion in the source itself. We were embedded in “God’s” reality like a sponge in the sea; we were an intrinsic part of “God.” And there was nothing supernatural about it; the relationship to “God” was not conditioned on being a Jew, and it preceded any membership in the Christian community and access to the sacraments. Where we “live, move and have our being” ò theos for Epiménides, a poet of the 6th century b.c.e. ― was Paul’s Greek translation of the “Fatherhood of God.”

[Please note: I am using the term being-here and not “being” because I want to emphasize the concrete nature of existence and our ordinary human perception of it. We all know exactly what that means.

The term “being” by itself, however, has traditionally been used to refer to all kinds of things, and probably most often an abstract philosophical idea. The “idea of being” or the “concept of being” is not a “thing” out there somewhere. We have to be reminded of that because all the characteristics of “God” that are listed with such definitive authority by the practitioners of mediaeval philosophical theology, come exclusively from an analysis of the concept of being. That is an exercise in abstract logic applied to a concept ― a human mental product with no empirical connection to reality whatsoever. But because it is logically impossible to deny the comprehensive all-inclusive character of the concept of “being,” it has been taken to be “God” in our tradition. It was this logical lock on the human mind ― equating “being” with “all possible perfections” ― that has called forth, over and over again in the history of western thought, the claim that being able to think the concept of “being” was itself a proof of the existence of that to which it referred, “God.” These have been called “ontological proofs” because they are based on necessity as an intrinsic quality of “being” (but note: as a concept). “Being” had to be there because it is absolute and universal and includes the “perfection” of actual existence, and what was “absolutely perfect” was what we call “God” and so “God” had to be there.

So, I repeat, I do not mean that. What I mean by being-here refers to something else.

Being-here refers precisely to the real presence of things ― what makes them actually here, now, and not just an idea, a future possibility or a past memory. There is nothing absolute or transcendent about being-here. The concept of being-here is the generalization of a present experience; it does not pretend to refer to something that is not experienced in real time. That is the difference. The Platonic idea of “being” was believed to be more than what gave it rise; it was thought to have its own separate, independent existence. Being for the Greeks was an entity, a “thing” called “God.”

The phenomenon which is the human experience of being-here has certain common, universal and undeniable characteristics that derive exclusively from generalizing on those experiences.  First, it is a sensory perception and therefore whatever mental features it generates are bound to the human body as a bank of sensory receptors . . . the human organism is the absolute inescapable place where the perception of being-here occurs. Even were the experience to happen during a reverie of the imagination ― a kind of Cartesian “meditation” ― it is a bodily experience and cannot occur without its material foundation. Hence, being-here is a material experience; whatever “mental” dimensions it may have, they are tightly bound to the sensory apparatus of the body.

Being-here, I contend, is the empirical counterpart of the traditional notion of “creation.” It constitutes the most important single element grounding agreement among all religious traditions, regardless of where they may situate it in their particular hierarchy of “beliefs.” That we are-here in this world that is-here and how that all came about is one item of primordial significance common to all. Today, we recognize that the question corresponds to a universal desire to know ― a curiosity not entirely alien to awe, but not bound to it ― and thus is legitimately considered separate from religion. Before the age of science, however, no such separation was even thinkable.

For the Genesis thinkers there was no distinction between science and religion. When they said “God made the world” they were responding to their “scientific” need to explain how this spectacular world got here and at the same time they were following their own religious sense of existential dependency and need to connect with their source of existential support. Imagining that there was “someone” who could put together the incredible world they saw before them, a world which included their own body-persons, inspired a profound and insuperable wonderment. The world ― “creation” ― was the revelation of a transcendent existential power and engineering ability that spawned us; it was our “Father” in whom we all ― the entire cosmos ― live and move and have our being. It became the ground of religious universalism.

The starting point and constant guide for the religious journey is being-here. At some point we wake up to the fact that we are-here, and didn’t have to be. It is the beginning of the experience of faith.

 

2.

The keystone in the study of religion is the full understanding of the universal phenomenon of faith ― a word that in this essay does not refer to religious beliefs. Here, faith means the acquiescence to a relationship of trusting existential dependency that entails moral responsibility.

The content of the experience of faith, as I conceive it, is existence: being-here, what we call life.  Briefly my intention is to show that the principal elements of natural religion flow directly from a trusting existential dependency. Faith, like morality itself, is a natural, spontaneous and irrepressible reaction to life. It comes with being human; it may take unexpected and unfamiliar forms some of which may appear to be quite irreligious, paranoid and immoral, but it cannot be avoided or eliminated.

Religion, in a second step, is the organized social expression of faith. It is an inevitable development; for wherever there is a common set of significant experiences among human individuals, it will always find social interpretation and expression. As time goes on and social context changes, any particular religion may or may not maintain its expressiveness for the faith of the group using it. Religions change for the same reason they emerged to begin with: the spontaneous faith generated by existential dependency will always seek confirmation, interpretation and a symbolic expression agreed on by the community. Because faith is, as I claim, natural, spontaneous, irrepressible and universal, it will always force religion to emerge where it doesn’t exist, or evolve where it does. All religions maintain their authenticity by evolving; for it is only by evolving that they continue to be a credible expression of spontaneous faith. And faith without religion ― without an anchor in the consensus of the community ― can go in any direction.

Faith and emptiness

‘Faith is a relationship of trusting existential dependency that generates moral responsibility.’ There is more to that definition than meets the eye. As the first step in unpacking it I want to clarify the term existential dependency. What it means is what the Buddhists of the Middle Way meant by sunyata, “emptiness.” That word was the fulcrum of a metaphysical analysis ― a theory of being ― that they elaborated to understand and explain Gautama Buddha’s much earlier teaching on enlightenment (which he did not explain in metaphysical terms).

Emptiness was not a subjective feeling, or a phase in ascetical progress like a “dark night of the soul.” It referred to a permanent objective metaphysical condition. It meant that characteristic in things that made them incapable of being-here on their own. To be “empty” meant to not have the wherewithal to make oneself be-here; it meant to be existentially dependent on some­thing(s) other than one’s self for one’s own being-here.

Now the Buddhists elaborated the concept of emptiness in a way that coincided with the universal interconnection of causes that are operative in the production of any phenomenon. They called it “co-dependent co-arising.” Everything that is-here, every phenomenon of whatever kind, regardless of whether it appears to be a stand-alone “thing” or just a quality of a thing, is dependent upon a multitude of factors other-than-the-phenomenon in question that must also be present and operative for that phenomenon to be-here. For example, in order for the rose to be-here, other things that are not the rose must also be-here and functioning. There must be soil, water, warmth, sunlight, pollinating insects, etc., etc. And for there to be those proximate causes there also need to be an array of more remote geological and atmospheric conditions producing and sustaining them. All these factors are co-depen­dent and they must all arise and be-here at the same time or there will be no rose. The idea dovetails with the Buddhist idea of “no-self” (anatta, or anatman) because the co-depen­dent co-arising of any phenomenon from and with its causative factors proves that the phenomenon under examination is, in reality, not itself.   Its very self is being actively produced and sustained by a multitude of things that are not itself.

Keeping this dimension of existential dependency in mind shines a spotlight immediately on its universal character. For it means that emptiness is a characteristic of absolutely everything that exists; all things are empty of their own existence, and the very fact that they are-here indicates that everything else on which they all depend also has to be-here. This clearly involves the whole of the material universe. Everything, including every human being, exists in and, more significantly, is dependent upon a vast matrix ― a network that embraces the totality of things that are-here.

Now I claim this sophisticated “philosophical” analysis is performed spontaneously and wordlessly in real time by every conscious human being on the planet and at a relatively early age. Everyone is aware at some level of conscious articulation that they are empty of their own being: they are not self-originating and they are not self-sustaining; they did not put themselves here, they rely on a multitude of other things to keep them being-here, and they cannot prevent their ultimate disappearance.

In the case of the human individual, the “thing” in question is its very own self. This realization of existential vulnerability occurs in an organism that is impelled by its inner constituents to always preserve itself above all things and continue to be-here. This drive, traditionally called the conatus, is so intense that it programs the organism to do virtually anything that is required to stay alive. This “instinct for self-preservation” can be overcome but only with extreme difficulty. It amounts to a “catch-22” from nature: you MUST ALWAYS stay alive, but you DO NOT HAVE the wherewithal to do it. The Buddhists identified the illusory attempt to create that wherewithal as the root of all dissatisfaction: samsara, “chasing the wind.” And we all recognize the instinct to stay alive is what lurks behind all injustice, exploitation, political oppression, tyranny and enslavement. The oppressor threatens death or its equivalent and no one can resist it.

Community and Morality

The combination of the compulsive drive of the conatus in tandem with the awareness of emptiness existential non-independence ― accounts for the intense valences created from the earliest infancy between the individual human organism and the human community into which it is born. The vulnerability of being human generates a dependence on other human beings; and its inversion in exploitative oppression, particularly demonic. Human community is set in stone from the start. Survival for the infant is a gift received from others who provide what it cannot provide for itself. The content ― the “what”― of the social transaction is human existence, life. Human community is bathed in the warmth of family love, but the stock-in-trade is not just a warm feeling, it is life itself, survival ― being-here.

The individual’s experience of emptiness immediately elicits human community; and human community immediately brings a demand for equity to reign in the transactions by which all humans survive; for the vulnerability is universal. This is the origin and the significance of morality: morality is the identification of the attitudes and behavior necessary for peace, harmony and equity in human society united in the common pursuit of an elusive survival. Its corruption is our principal enemy. It has nothing to do with “obedience” to a god-person. Such a deflection was a fiction: a poetic way of bringing a sacred intensity to bear on social interaction. Morality is a natural corollary of emptiness; it is the social dimension of being-here for human beings.

Faith includes the recognition of the organic connection between universal emptiness and human compassion, mutual assistance and the protections of larger society ― justice ― which is our only defense against existential vulnerability. Faith is primordially expressed in the ac­know­ledgement and embrace of emptiness and a reaching out to others for understanding, help and stability.

Ancient primitive religion imagined that the vulnerability that remained after society had done all it could to protect itself and its members, was in the hands of some supra-human agency that wielded a controlling power over the events in the world of humans.   In most cases this power was imagined to be held by one or more invisible divine “persons” who were related to humankind rather like older siblings. The inquiry into universal religion identifies the energy driving this primitive imagery to be the same existential dependency that humankind faces today but, informed by science, no longer projects onto personal deities. Today, even religious people of all traditions have adjusted to the fact that there are no “divine persons” who control the factors by which humankind survives. The erstwhile claims of “Christian Science” have been muted if not totally silenced. Recourse to medical intervention for illness and the pursuit of political remedies for social problems are universal among all religious people. And those who are informed know quite well that it was the evolution of living matter that produced the intricate interconnections that keep our vast cosmos in balance.

This highlights the foundational role of faith. As used here, faith is the experience of metaphysical emptiness. It is not the experience of an invisible divine presence or entity. Faith is the interior perception of one’s own existential vulnerability coupled with the recognition that other human beings have the same experience, generating the same feelings that produce the same questions and preoccupations, needs, fears and hopes. Morality is born of that empathic insight. It gives rise to compassion and is at the root of the universally recognized moral obligation: “treat others as you want them to treat you.”

Internal moral insistence, called synderesis, is the basic sense of right and wrong. It impacts everyone connaturally. It is not unconscious, but at the same time it is not the conclusion of an explicit reasoning process. It is not suppressible. It is a corollary of existential dependency and as such it is universal.  Its primary mandate is justice and its empirical awaken­ing is in the spontaneous, irrepressible reaction to injustice.  Moral responsibility and existential dependency are corollaries. You can’t have one without the other.  Moral responsibility implies the shared experience of existential dependency as much as it is implied by it.

The origin of this correlation between existential dependency and the moral sense arises in the same ground as religion ― faith ― the spontaneous and connatural recognition that we are all existentially dependent. It is the universality of emptiness that generates compassion and the immediate awareness that I must treat others as I want to be treated. Those who dismiss this primordial insight always do so by denying their essential emptiness and live in a fantasy of their indestructibility.   We tend to associate it with the insufferable immaturity characteristic of adolescence, but a deeper look reveals that there are ideological fantasies that can provide the same assurances for the deluded at any stage of life. Some religions play that role either alone or in conjunction with an ethnic tribalism lost in the illusions of its own superiority.

Trust

Faith, we said, was a trusting existential dependency. Now why include trust in this foundational phenomenon of humankind’s presence in the world? Because in the first instance the recognition of existential dependency involves no fear whatsoever. No infant is born afraid or suspicious. The very idea is absurd. The newborn awakening to consciousness implicitly trusts what it is and where it has awakened. It has no worries at all. The human organism spontaneously trusts being-here and being human. The child doesn’t have to learn to trust; it is born with it. It is the very nature of the material energy of the components of the human body. Living matter is at home in the universe. It must learn to mistrust. Faith holds both its emptiness and its boundless trusting optimism in one undivided embrace. It is no more surprised or distressed by its emptiness than its hunger pangs, as it expects both will be answered and satisfied. It is natural and spontaneous. Trust is embedded in the very matter that our organisms are made of.

Trust should not be confused with an oblivious ignorance or reckless disregard of vulnerability. Without an awareness of vulnerability there is no trust. Trust is precisely the sense that vulnerability belongs here which implies that it trusts that its counterpart of support also is here.

Trust is not confined to infancy or childhood. Trust is the air we breathe always. We have not appreciated the extent to which our lives are dominated by it. It is so common, so necessary and so taken for granted that we have to make an effort to recall and remind ourselves how universal it is.

Consider: we trust the infallible process of fetal formation in the womb from zygote to birth; we trust the perfectly proportioned development of our organisms from infancy to adulthood; we trust all the internal functions of the body having to do with the processing of nourishment, waste, respiration, circulation of the blood, sleep. We never question them until they malfunction, and even then our medical interventions are generally dedicated to the elimination of obstacles to the body healing itself which we trust most of all.

Of course, we also trust the network of cosmic forces that sustains our solar system and we trust that our planet will be able to continue to supply the oxygen, weather, warmth and water we need to sustain ourselves. We trust the human community we live in. We trust our families and friends. And we trust strangers: co-workers, teachers, doctors, technicians, security personnel, public officials . . . the list is endless. All these fine-tuned interconnections, environmental and social, were created by eons of patient evolution.

After all this, to say we trust being-here seems like the most unoriginal and commonplace of statements. But of course we do. We are made of trust. It is a corollary of being empty. For, being empty as we are, if we did not trust, we would disintegrate.