Self-embrace

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Simorgh of the world ― with awe

They gazed and dared at last to comprehend

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

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

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

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

 

2

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

Self-Embrace and the delusion of permanence

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

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5

We may have thought that last paragraph gave a final description to an ultimate dilemma that we do not have the resources to resolve, because we cannot see beyond the horizon of our sight. Seeing is limited to seeing.

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

There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.[4]

Commentary on this udāna in a contemporary parallel collection of quotations makes it clear that the Buddha was not referring to some absolute “thing” out there, but rather to nirvana, enlightenment, a human state of mind, an “escape that is calm, permanent, a sphere beyond conjecture, unborn, unproduced, the sorrowless, stainless state, the cessation of stressful qualities, stilling-of-fabrications bliss.”[5] But it is quite possible that Buddha may have meant to include both the state of mind and the metaphysical reality because they are one and the same thing and in the mediaeval metaphysics of Johannes Eckhart, they are explicitly identified as such. For if, as Eckhart claimed, there is no “God,” no “thing” or “person,” an entity apart from other entities that thinks and acts and creates, but rather a “Godhead” that, following Aristotle, was the Pure Act of existence, esse in se subsistens, the pure unmixed energy of being-here expressed as a simple, eternal, impassive, totally fulfilled self-possession ― a serene motionless and silent self-embrace, then they are indeed the same thing. To enter nirvana is to enter an energy field that pervades, suffuses and characterizes everything in our material universe. It is consciously and intentionally to enter a state of being-here with everything else and in the way everything is-here.   It is to vibrate on that same wavelength that mystics of all traditions have most remarkably described in exactly the same terms despite differences of time, place, cults and culture. Clearly, their experience was the same. It is to identify your being-here with the cosmic forcefield in which all other things are-here and are joyfully themselves. It is to embrace yourself unreservedly for being exactly what you are … just as everything rejoices in being exactly what it is: this perishing material organism that is-here, now.

How did Eckhart get there? He claimed that it was precisely the fact that this vast network of shadows was itself a shadow, exactly as second century Indian Nagārjuna said, that turned Johannes Eckhart, who wrote in frontier Germany in the early years of the 14th century, into an explorer of mystical space. His quest was for the face and features of what he believed had necessarily emanated the entire universe as such a perfect shadow ― such a faithful and accurate representation of itself ― that using the universe including his own individual human yearning self as a map and guide, and working backwards, he could “discern” it. He called it “The Godhead” and believed that his own “soul,” similar to the Sufi mystics, was its mystical mirror. What he saw when he looked at his own face, was the face of the Godhead, what I call LIFE. Nirvana is the personal appropriation of the pure existential energy ― the LIFE ― of living / dying matter. It is the realization that there is nothing else there. The wave is all and only water. WE ARE THAT!

 

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

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

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

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

[5] itivuttakas 43 (“quotations.” The Fourth Part of the Khuddaka Nikāya).

 

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Psalms 81 to 84

PSALM 81

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PSALM 82

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PSALM 83

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PSALM 84

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mahayana Buddhist ideal: The Bodhisattva

1

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7

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

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

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

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

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

On the “will” of “God”:

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

On divine Providence and predestination:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eckhart laid great emphasis on the eternal now:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

Poetry and Prayer

Tony Equale

March 2017

3,000 words

 

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

   (W.B. Yeats, Under Ben Bulben)

                                 

Poetry is transporting. It’s ethereal, magical; it’s almost other-worldly, but it is not prayer. Poetry produces its effect because it activates a special dimension in us — an intelligence that sits slightly above it all, like a horseman, with a perspective you don’t get when you’re on the ground and stuck in one place. This cognitive dimension goes beyond our usual work-a-day perception which we pursue for the purposes of survival. The horseman has other interests. This “other” dimension suffuses both the object of perception and the human perceiver. It is an essential bond between them that bypasses use and need. When that dimension is described accurately — it need not be in words — it produces its characteristic effect: enlightenment. It’s as if we are seeing those things for the first time … which is to say that we never really knew them before this moment. Poetry, then, is like science in that respect: it reveals what things are … what they really are, not what we thought they were.

Often the “new” perception requires going beyond conventional uses of language, art and music to find a substitute mode of expression, which may also include silence, or cacophony, to evoke what the poet sees, and simultaneously functions as a vehicle for eliciting that same reaction in the listener. In all cases, I want to emphasize, what poetry reveals is reality. Any suggestion that a poem is some kind of superimposition that coats things with a layer of emotion, or injects them with an outside energy they do not themselves possess, is false. The emotion that results from poetry emerges authentically from the reality as it echoes in the poet. The poetry reveals what binds the reality and the seer together. It reveals that, in fact, they are one.

Poetry allows things to shine with their own interior light. The poet says clearly what is clearly seen, … and what the seer sees is himself. Poetry is a self-recog­ni­­­tion mirrored in the object seen; for what is encountered, identified and communicated is what things have in common, and what they have in common is what I am.

science

All the various levels of human perception do exactly the same thing, but with different labels for the commonality. The scientific level appropriates reality as material energy and provides the mathematical descriptions of how it displays itself universally across all the various instances of its presence. Observer and observed, not entirely unlike the poet and his vision, share a common reality — their material existence — and the quantifiable tests and instruments of measurement used are equally conformed to the material components of the thing observed and the observing material organism. Science is possible because we are one and the same thing: material energy, quantifiably comparable to each other.

In the process of surviving, matter evolves. At a certain point the measurable quantities in the evolving sequence become so incomparable that we say some “other” thing has emerged that must be measured separately. Determining exactly when something stops being merely a modification and becomes a different thing is never without controversy. And the reason is that, underneath it all, despite appearances, nothing has changed. The underlying reality is always and only matter’s energy. And matter’s energy will always evolve if it is going to convert entropy into an existence that perdures, survives … .

The perceptions characteristic of everyday life are a subset of scientific observations, simply limited to more primitive measuring instruments and common quantities that focus on the practical applications for human survival. In both cases what the objective viewpoint sees, and measures, and expresses are the equations of matter’s needy behavior: Matter, including us as material organisms, must evolve, work and struggle in order to remain itself.

philosophy

At the philosophical level, with its own conceptual tools, we do the same. We appropriate the very same reality, but now in its quality as “being” or “existence.” What Philosophy is looking at, however, is not simply an “idea;” it is the same material energy that was examined by the scientist, but now under a different rubric: material energy as existential — material energy as constitutive of reality itself; material energy as “being.” They are one and the same thing, only Philosophy does not take existence for granted as Science does but queries it in its very quality as existence, asking what does it mean, this strange phenomenon: to be?

But what gauge does the philosopher use to determine that meaning? There are those that say the question cannot be answered because you immediately have to ask “compared to what”? Since being comprises everything, the only thing that being could be contrasted with is non-being. But non-being is nothing; it does not exist. No one knows what it means “not to exist” because the only thing we can experience and have ever experienced is what exists. There is no such thing as non-being. So to ask, “what does it mean to be”? … cannot be answered without begging the question. You either know what existence is, or you don’t. Existence cannot be defined in terms other than itself because there are no other terms. We cannot look at existence from outside because there is no outside. There is no philosophical horseman on a quest riding above the grubby business of living and dying. We are material organisms; living and dying is what we do … and our eyes are hot with the desire TO BE.

Our desire to be is the key. The meaning of being cannot be articulated apart from the existential need of the enquirer. The “cold eye” of the poet, in other words, if it is valid at all, must be grounded in some other aspect of universal reality not explained by science and philosophy.

Because it occupies the wider perspective, it is Philosophy not Science that recognizes and asserts that it is the same needy material energy that is the dynamism of existence. The philosopher does not manipulate “being” as if the concept were something in itself, as Plato thought, apart from the real world of matter — an “idea” whose logical features provided a map of reality. It’s the philosophers’ task to see clearly where existence resides. That place, alas, it turns out, is in his heart, that is to say, in his own material organism. The philosopher looks for an objective viewpoint, but there is none. Matter’s lust for LIFE gets in the way and cannot be suppressed. The examiner, the philosopher, is invested in being-here for he is nothing more nor less than material energy. Life and death cannot be bypassed. There’s no way to evaluate “being” except with the eyes of desire.

The philosopher, like the scientist, confirms the poet’s vision: that all things are one. But what he has learned from his honest inclusion of himself in science’s equations is that being-here-now is a scary, threatened, struggling thing … the object of everyone’s and everything’s uncontrollable desire, the source of great fear as well as joy.

the poet

So where does the poet get his “cold eye”?  How does he look on life and death, unlike the scientist and philosopher, and pass them by? It is my contention that the poet transcends cerebral rationality and using the eyes of his body, experiences in himself and in the “thing” his eye has alighted on, a common energy that gives him a different perspective on it all. He not only sees that all things are at root the “same thing” but he feels it. They have this universal oneness because they all share the same existential dynamism, LIFE, which the poet experiences first hand as his LIFE, himself.   He experiences somatically that his LIFE also exists beyond him, and that means his LIFE is part of something much bigger … something transcendent.

To the poet, things are not just there; he sees that they are doing something … and that they are all doing the same thing. He not only sees that they are alive, he experiences them liv-ing as he is. Drawing attention to the “-ing” in that word is a clumsy effort to emphasize the active and autonomous nature of the phenomenon. LIFE, which is another word for “being,” is not some “thing,” it is a pervasive energy, a force field, that all things activate as their very own, but, by the very fact that they all activate it, is clearly beyond them all. The poet is in direct touch in himself with the living force energizing all things in the present moment. It transports him to a realm beyond living and dying, to the energy of LIFE itself. He sees what the pray-er will try to embrace.

prayer

Prayer is not an entirely different phenomenon from poetry. It is not a seeing, however; it is rather an attempt at an embrace, a union. What prayer reaches out to embrace is LIFE itself precisely as the object of desire. Prayer may follow poetry’s vision, more so than any other universal mode of perception, like science and philosophy, for while they all deal with the bond that unites all things, the poet is in touch with it as the energy of his own LIFE. The poet knows he rides on eagle’s wings because of how far he suddenly can see. But he is not ready to step off a cliff because of it. The pray-er is.

Poetry is a deep-body seeing. But prayer goes beyond seeing. The poet recognizes the living dynamism that is operative in all things as his own. His reaction is a self-embrace that incorporates the “other” because they are both LIFE. The pray-er, on the other hand, seduced by what the poet’s cold eye has discerned, wagers all on LIFE as the subject and object of desire, and reaches out to embrace it, as if it were “someone” or “something.” What suppliants historically have felt perfectly comfortable calling a “person,” I identify as LIFE itself. In my own case, I use the word “someone” reluctantly and only because without it an essential feature of what justifies prayer’s transcendence over poetry will be omitted. But I insist, LIFE is absolutely NOT a person.

I say LIFE cannot be called a “person,” because it is not an individual entity and it does not have rational intelligence. If it did, it would respond to me in conversation; it would at least acknow­ledge my presence and identify itself. It’s what “persons” do. Moreover, if it were a person, sup­plication would make sense … and “God” would become responsible for all the evil in the world because one of the burdens of being a “person” is that you are held accountable for what you do or fail to do for others. We cannot deny LIFE’s complete indifference to human suffering. LIFE does none of the things expected of a person, therefore LIFE is not a person.

LIFE is the living energy of all entities; but it is not itself an entity. How can a “non-entity” be real? That’s not a rhetorical question. It can be real the same way any force-field or pervasive energy, whose presence is on display suffused in a myriad of entities, is real without being a “thing.” LIFE is a force-field, equally active in every entity that is alive, but not found any­­where alone and by itself. LIFE is not a “thing,” an entity or an individual.

And yet, squirm as we might, we cannot suppress the acknowledgement that LIFE is a benevolent force. The deck is stacked on this question because we humans are made of matter’s living energy and we are not able to view LIFE without desire, for we are LIFE. We also see its creative generosity on unmistakable display in its universal manifestations: the intense affect that accompanies every aspect of sexual reproduction of every organism from the most primitive to the most complex without exception. The living feelings that we experience within ourselves as we participate in these processes we can see mirrored in every living organism. Despite the varied forms it takes in different species, everywhere the LIFE-force is seen, it leans out in the same direction. It is what the philosopher discovered in querying being: if it is we who define existence, it can only be defined as the object of universal desire. To us it has no other meaning. Those who move from poetry to prayer have decided to trust it and plunge headlong into the abyss. Prayer is the attempt to be one with LIFE.

Everything made of matter, everything that exists speaks so repeatedly and unequivocally of desire for LIFE as to make it a cliché. We are made of desire … we are made for desire … and bite our tongues as we may, we can hardly keep from saying: we are made BY desire. LIFE appears to us as the desire to live … in us! After all, LIFE was not my idea. How did I come to own LIFE?

The object of prayer is to possess LIFE itself. It is a function of our need to be here. Our immediate temptation is to reason backwards to a singular source. Each thing alive received its life from its parents. No pool of chemicals and proteins has yet been able to generate LIFE out of its own resources, or to concoct it out of the surrounding environment. LIFE comes only passed on by living things that reproduce. Science, moreover, has determined that everything living on planet earth is made of cells that are the living inheritors of one original proto cell. It is natural, then, to assume that LIFE, the force-field, is itself a singular entity; but that’s not the way LIFE is found in nature. LIFE suffuses all things; it is owned and deployed with equal autonomy by each living thing, eradicating any possible individuality to the field itself. In my case I can say without equivocation, LIFE is my very own. That instantaneously makes it unavailable to its own individuality.

This is the beginning of prayer: the clear perception that our own being is enfolded in LIFE, not a vague unspecified LIFE, but a LIFE defined by desire not more or less present and active in us than in any other living thing. What poetry perceives as the threads and fibers of connection, prayer takes a step further and reaches out to as intended, generous. The reality of desire in us prods the pray-er to see desire as more than metaphor.  LIFE is not only my own; LIFE desires to be owned … LIFE wants to be alive in others. “I” am what LIFE has done. LIFE “chose” to live as me. I reach full maturity, physically, psychologically, when I can give LIFE to others.

Other?

In prayer I reach out to embrace LIFE as if it were something other than myself. Indeed, the poetic perception of the commonality of LIFE shared among all living things seems at first to encourage such an objectification; LIFE is clearly more than myself. That seems to imply “other.” Throughout our history prayer has been directed to LIFE as to an independent rational humanoid entity called “God,” — the totally “other” — whom we imagined as simply a much larger version of a human person. But reality interrupts our dream. LIFE is not an entity. LIFE belongs equally to myriads of living organisms; no organism is more alive than any other. The most privileged source of the perception of LIFE — where we know it most unmistakably — is ourselves. I am LIFE but I am not all of LIFE. I am forced to assume some kind of distinction, if not separation and distance, between my individual being and LIFE — this force-field — which preceded me in the procreative cells of my parents, and which my own reproductive cells pass on with or without my conscious intention. LIFE does the same for every living thing on planet earth and perhaps everywhere in the universe. LIFE may not be rational, but you cannot deny it is generous, abundant, magnanimous, profuse, munificent, sharing, openhanded, bighearted … and transcendent. Those who are seduced by this undeniable extravagance may be forgiven.

The subsequent struggle to survive can delude me into thinking that LIFE is an achievement of mine. But I cannot forget that my “self” — my body — came formed by the unconscious processes of LIFE, namely the reproductive action of my parents. This organismic “self” — me — is the original coherence of my body; it anteceded the accretions that I have attached to my organism by the way I have consciously lived my life. My body is the product of LIFE itself. It is an open potential always ready to be activated in ways that I choose. This is the power residing in my organism that “can do” anything; it is not fatally determined by any past choices and therefore it is the source of the radical freedom every human being enjoys. This is the self that LIFE made.

I reach out for LIFE but I am already in a state of indistinguishable unity with it. Rather than thinking I have earned and own LIFE, the determining factors coming from the other side of this relationship are so preponderant that I feel compelled to express it the other way around: LIFE reached out and took possession of me … gave me itself, made me part of itself. LIFE owns me.

Prayer, then, is the conscious acknowledgement of my receptor status with LIFE. I have been enveloped by LIFE which has embraced and infused me with itself, making me inescapably one with it. Nothing is more solid or more unarguable. The LIFE I have is not mine; it was not my choice. But that means that whatever union I hoped to gain by reaching out, was already given at birth. Prayer, in the first instance, therefore, is the conscious appropriation of my real identity, LIFE … and all that it entails.

 

The Big Picture (6)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

6

In the real world death is subordinate to LIFE. It’s only in our heads that death dominates; religion helps us adjust to reality. LIFE exploits the energy of entropy, the descent to equilibrium, to launch its enterprises. LIFE has devised an effective ongoing strategy to transcend death, but it doesn’t live on in the individual; it lives on in the totality. Sexual reproduction not only insures that the living cells of the reproducing organisms pass unscathed under the wire to become new individuals built from the actual cells of their parents, but the natural genetic drift occurring at the time of reproduction provides the mutations which evolution uses to create new and unimagined organisms.

Evolution is a corollary to sexual reproduction and by means of evolution LIFE has produced this universe of living things creating a vast totality that is genetically interrelated. The family of living species is like an immense cosmic tree, every part connected to every other part by reason of a sharing that proceeds on two levels at once.

The first level is biological structure. Because of the homogeneity of the 27 principal proteins used by the three domains of living organisms, scientists believe that all living things are traceable to one original ancestor cell:

All life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism that lived roughly 3.5 billion years ago, a new study seems to confirm. The study supports the widely held “universal common ancestor” theory first proposed by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.[1]

The second is the energy of LIFE. LIFE, it seems, does not arise spontaneously. Traditional beliefs in “spontaneous generation” have all been disproven, and modern reductionist attempts to find some “mechanism” that will turn LIFE on have failed. Where there is LIFE it has only been passed on from a living organism. This seems to confirm the single-cell origin of all living things on earth. That means, if we were to think of LIFE as a flame, all currently living things are alive with the same LIFE: they are the continued manifestations of the same fire that has been passed on from the first originating ancestor.

This image — of LIFE as fire — is helpful in another way. If we think of various materials, like paper, cardboard, wood, coal, we know that they all are combustible, i.e., they can all burn. Their “ability to burn” is an intrinsic property that lies dormant until a flame is brought near and for a long enough time that it causes the material to “catch” fire making “combustibility” visible. The property was there all along, but it needed to be activated by fire itself to become manifest.   We can think of LIFE similarly.   All matter has the potential for being part of living organisms. But it is only when LIFE transmits itself genetically that a new living thing is born and “matter” displays its viability. Once that happens, the “fire” widens and intensifies. It is still the very same fire, now shared among many without in any way being diminished. The fire burns until it exhausts fuel or oxygen or both.

The point of this imagery is that reality is a living totality. We are part and parcel of an ongoing organic process whereby LIFE’s power to exploit the energies of entropy expands continually. LIFE’s parasitism of death results in the continuous production of ever new living composites that transcend themselves creatively in unexpected directions by evolving. These new organisms enter into the ever larger totality of genetically related living things with which they themselves then interact anti-entropi­cally. The infinitely variegated universe of matter is one “thing” with one dynamism by reason of a LIFE-that-plunders-death.

To be part of this universe, therefore, is to be part of a cosmic project of boundless proportions whose inherent dynamism exhibits no discernible reason why it should ever end. If entropy is the ultimate source of the energy that LIFE uses for its undertakings, and if the “dark energy” thought to be responsible for the accelerating rate of expansion of the universe is actually new material (in disequilibrium) continually entering the system, the system is not closed; the process is open and potentially endless, and the capacities of the composites evolved by LIFE’s continued exploitation of the tension-toward-entropy, potentially infinite.

*

Here is where the “meaning” for humankind emerges from our analysis, and provides the substance — the raw material — for the poetry that naturalism by itself lacks. Death, the very source of our anguish, is simultaneously the wellspring of our participation in LIFE and the source of LIFE’s endless transcendent creativity. But please note well, there is a condition: living matter’s reproductive strategy is the only immortality there is. We must understand and be willing to embrace LIFE’s way of living endlessly. We have to let go of our way — fantasy projections like the Platonic paradigm whose historical time and place of birth are well known. We have to embrace the material conditions of our existence. How do we do that after millennia of conditioning?

The question comes down to this: which “self” do I identify with? An individual “self” struggling to live forever in another world as a “spiritual” entity after a lifetime of competition for material survival in this world? … or a “Self” that embraces its role in the Cosmic Project of matter-in-process for whose communitarian service it has been prepared?

We all spend our early years as helpless children experiencing firsthand the selfless service of others, parents, siblings, kindred, friends, on our behalf. When we mature we reproduce ourselves by joining in a partnership of selfless love with another, each partner prepared to provide years of selfless love to offspring. After a lifetime wherein such selflessness, experienced both coming and going, clearly constitutes the chief activity of our time on earth, it seems more than obvious that we, of all LIFE’s projects, are the most prepared for identifying ourselves with the LIFE-widening goals of the totality. We are communitarian in nature; we are the products of and active participants in a collective project that has preceded us by billions of years to which we now contribute and which will continue on for billions of years into the future evolving versions of LIFE as yet wholly unimaginable. For all our transience as individuals, we are fully reproductive members of this totality and so we participate in its work of self-perpetu­a­tion. The ontogenesis that infallibly guides individual development from infancy to maturity terminates when our organism is capable of reproducing itself by mating with another. Sex, and therefore gendered life, male and female, across the phyla in plants and insects as well as animals, are the totality’s tools for endless LIFE. Our gendered bodies are the agents of living matter’s immortality.

Each organism embodies the totality. Every part and parcel of us is constructed of the same material energy that constitutes everything else in the universe. The cells of our bodies are built from the materials gathered from the organisms — plants, animals, fish, fungus — we consume every day. Humans burn up 60 tons of food and two and a half tons of oxygen over the course of a lifetime in the combustion process of living metabolism. Our bodies are 60% water. The exchange of matter between us and the material environment is so great that, physically speaking, we are one and the same thing. The only thing that seems to be exclusively ours is the “self” — the individual “self” that the great mystics of all traditions counsel us to discount and discard — the “self” that dies.

It is the individual “self,” conjured by the impulses of the conatus, that seems to be the only thing that dies at death. The rest — all the matter of which we were constructed along with the contributions, virtual and reproductive that we have made to the totality — live on after us with the same capacity to catapult the collective project beyond our death into the future. So if detachment from the individual “self” is the crowning goal of LIFE, as the great mystics have said, that detachment seems an inevitable achievement. For the human life-cycle seems ordered to the eventual disintegration of the “self,” and the return of the substance of every individual to the living pool of matter’s energy from which we came. We are part of the Cosmic Project whether we like it or not.

Thus the meaning of LIFE reveals itself, not as some dramatic reversal of the material processes of organic life throughout the planet — an imaginary “spiritual” escape into another world not made of matter — but rather the convergence of the destinies of all living things spawned by living matter in a great Project into the future. That Project can be summed up simply as the exploitation of the energy of entropy to achieve the triumph of LIFE over death. Theoretically speaking, in principle there is nothing to prevent all matter, everywhere, from being incorporated into living organisms. The only condition is that it be matter.

Religion, especially in its efforts to help us cope with the human condition, need no longer create fairy tales of other “spiritual” worlds where we will live forever, and conjure up fictional conditions for entry. Religion can counsel our acceptance of death as inherent to life, the wellspring of our living energies, and it can hold up as great models for us those who embraced death fearlessly and even with joy. The central role of the cross in the Christian tradition is validated, not as disdain for this world and flight to another, or as punishment for being born human, but as the poetic symbol of the transformation of our “selves” from individual isolated selfishness to a selfless participation in LIFE’s Project.

 

[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/05/100513-science-evolution-darwin-single-ancestor/

 

The Big Picture (3)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

3

Entropy’s empirical effect at the macro-level of human life is death. With death we enter the realm of the seriously poetic that I feel Carroll’s naturalism fails to deliver. His upbeat statements about a life that ends at death sound superficial.   His allusion to his own happy marriage and a successful, well remunerated career of a man still young, strong and healthy, suggests that we are being counselled by someone personally unacquainted with tragedy or serious loss of the kind that has been known to cripple the human will to live.

The ultimate challenge in life, in my opinion, is the human condition itself, defined as it is by death or its equivalents, the result of an intrinsically entropic material energy. We may call it the “human problem” because it has such a paralyzing effect on our species. But it is certainly not limited to humankind. It affects all of life. But our nearest cousins, sentient animals, seem not to be aware of death because they are limited in their ability to anticipate the future; their conatus dominates their psychic states freeing them from the sense of impending doom that affects human beings.   Regardless, everything alive dies reluctantly and struggles with all its strength to defend its life and that of its offspring. Those who have heard the desperate wailing of a cow that has been separated from her calf will never again make the mistake of thinking that animals do not suffer loss.

*

All energy is the result of disequilibrium. The tension in “energy” refers to a non-dismissible bias toward equilibrium.   When equilibrium is achieved, the energy disappears.   The dissipation of useful energy in the quest for equilibrium is called entropy.

If matter as mass is a form of energy, it is necessarily also entropic, that is to say, it is held together “unnaturally” in a state of tension seeking equilibrium.   When the parts under tension achieve the equilibrium they “seek,” the tension — the energy — will disappear and all that will remain will be the residue of what was once held together under tension.

The entropic dissipation of energy affects all matter in our universe. Therefore the eventual disintegration of everything made of matter appears to be an inescapable feature of life on earth, and probably everywhere in our material universe.

LIFE, on the other hand, is anti-entropic; it exploits entropic disequili­bria: energies that result from displacements and driven to seek equilibrium. LIFE appropriates the force of entropy and diverts it to its own ends. The living energy available to an organism during life is the expropriated tension-toward-equilibrium (= dissipation and death) of its gathered components.

We, living matter, call the disappearance of energy, death. A bio­logical organism dies when the components at various levels of composition, macro and micro — bio-chemical, molecular and atomic — which had been gathered out of various locations, assembled and held to­gether “unnaturally” (thus creating a massive multi-level disequilibrium) under the forcible drive and direction of DNA to form a living individual, can no longer hold toge­ther and they return to their former states. The “particles” remain, their individual ener­gies now determined by their own entropy. No­thing ever disap­pears except the energy gradients involved.

It is precisely its “being-to­ward-death” that provides the organism the energy — the ability to do work — like a battery whose artificially skewed electron-to-proton ratio creates voltage. The irresis­tible “gravitational pull” — like water falling on a paddled wheel — to restore equilibrium is the energy utilized by LIFE, and which we exploit for our identities and our en­deavors, just as we exploit the flow of electrons to start our cars and power our cell phones. So the very LIFE we cherish so much is really the appropriation of our components’ “desire” to aban­don their unnatural conjunction as us and return to their former state … i.e., to die. To convert to entropy — to die — is the energy source tapped by LIFE.

If somehow you were able to do away with “death,” therefore, you would also have eliminated the very wellspring of living motion: entropy. Death in a universe of matter, I submit, is intrin­sic to LIFE. This is a contradiction for human beings and constitutes what we call “the human condition.”

*

One of living matter’s more creative achievements was to use reproduc­tion to bypass the natural entropy of all living matter. The dying organism reproduces itself and its progeny receives a full quota of energy at zero entropy. But there was a twist. We have to remind ourselves that at the dawn of life, simple cell division, mitosis — endlessly cloning the same individual — was superseded by the counter-intuitive innovation of coupling two distinct individual org­an­isms producing a third indepen­dent of each — meiosisalso known as sexual reproduction.

Sexual reproduction was invented by eukaryote single-celled animals 1.2 billion years ago and it allowed for the production of genetically superior cells with a far greater range of capability. The achievement was exponential, for it not only accomplished its principal goal, the transcendence of death, but it also created species — a community of individuals based on biological relationships which carried LIFE into the future in the place of the individuals who died. We are the beneficiaries of those seminal discoveries; they determined the basic structure of the bodies and behavior of everything that came afterward. It hap­pened before the Cambrian explosion, and those advances made possible the emergence of all complex multi-celled organisms in existence, including us. The genetic sex-based relationships that are so fundamental to our personal identi­ties and social lives originated in that epic achievement made by a single celled organism so tiny that it cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Sexual reproduction outflanks death but it does not overcome it. This was the “immortality” devised by matter’s living energy, and it was obtained at the cost of the individual organism which dies. LIFE transcended death by appropriating it. Individual organismic death was integrated into matter’s energy transcending itself and evolving. Nature’s concern, apparently, has never been the eternal life of the individual, it is something else … .

*

Scientists argue about the mechanisms involved here, but the details are ultimately irrelevant to the individual human being who is faced with an inescapable contradiction intrinsic to the human organism itself: there is a conatus — an irrepressible desire for endless LIFE — emanating from the very same matter that is entropically programmed to dissipate and die. Death’s sting is felt even more intensely because the relationships that make life meaningful — built on LIFE’s reproductive strategy — are terminated for the individuals at death. A death that may be acceptable to those inured to their own physical pain becomes intolerable when it means the permanent loss of irreplaceable loved ones: partners, spouses, siblings, parents, children, kindred, friends. The sense of isolation and abandonment that accompanies loss of such devastating proportions can be immobilizing. There is no solution to this problem. It will not go away and it is not only confined to the old and deteriorating. It pervades all of life and is dismissed only at the price of a shallow immaturity or a selfish and cowardly refusal of intimacy and commitment.

In concrete terms, we are inconsolably addicted to human LIFE in human community. Saying the same thing in abstract philosophical terms: we are only satisfied by communitarian existence, which in a material universe means being-here together. In the “philosophy” that Carroll agrees must guide the relationship among the intellectual disciplines, existence must be the controlling concept, because in all biological LIFE existence is the driving force.

Our individual relationship to LIFE is not limited to intellectual analysis. We are not only computers. We are sensitive human beings driven by the conatus whose loving embrace of what we are produces a pathos we all share. This pathos is at the root of all our poetry. We take our relationships seriously, and the fact that entropic life means that struggle as we will, each and every loved one we have will be lost to us either by their death or ours, spits in the face of the efforts we make to bind ourselves to one another with hoops of steel. If you are readily reconciled to this situation, it is my personal opinion that there is something lacking in you. “Cast a cold eye on life on death, horseman, pass by …” If you think the poet meant that that was the way he wanted to live, think again. What I hear Yeats saying is that this is what we are reduced to — the only alternative left to us — under the broken regime of entropic matter. It’s a seething anger that echoes Dylan Thomas’ “rage against the dying of the light.” This is the problem that Carroll does not address: the human condition. Death is not just a neutral biological event for us, it is a disaster of catastro­phic proportions because of the internal contradiction in matter’s energy. Matter is simultaneously conatus and entropy — LIFE and death. And for someone who claims to offer a picture so “big” that it will explain the “Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself” such an omission reveals a lack of depth that can only be described as pathetic.

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Death or its equivalents is the purview of religion. All religions are focused on taking away the sting of death. Some, like the Western religions of the “book,” evolved a belief that “life will be changed, not taken away” and the human person will live on in another world of “spirit” where all relationships will continue forever. Others, like Buddhists, avoid any talk of an afterlife and suggest rather that the problem resides with the unrealistic expectations that result from placing too much credence in the promptings of the conatus. The quest for permanent existence, they say, is a self-imposed false hope that aggravates suffering. Buddhism is entirely compatible with the conclusions of the reductionists’ worldview, and Carroll’s inexplicable silence regarding Buddhism’s poetic capacity to accompany science and address the internal contradiction at the heart of matter, in my opinion, displays his lack of any real interest in the “poetic” side of the issue. His interest in religion seems confined to insisting that in any form it is incompatible with science.

Existential suffering is a real phenomenon for human beings. And if you are going to insist that “religion” is incompatible with science, then it seems to me that, at a minimum, you have to show that you understand what religion does, and attempt to provide some alternative way of confronting (not just dismissing) existential suffering — i.e., the human condition. Being human is as real a manifestation of matter’s energy as any atomic, chemical or biological phenomenon. What is the “meaning” of lives and loves that disappear? Carroll’s promise is empty for he offers no meaning. There is no “poetry” in Carroll’s “poetic naturalism.” He has not convinced me that he has yet to feel the full brunt of what it means to be living matter in this material universe.