To love “God,” love yourself as you would a spouse

3,700 words


The Song of Songs

Nuptial imagery has been the gold standard for western mysticism from before the middle ages. Its origins can be traced to Christian antiquity when the Platonic mindset of Origen of Alexandria, who died in 254 c.e., reconceived the Biblical Book known as the “Song of Songs” as applicable to the individual Christian “soul” and its relationship to “God.”

The Song of Songs is a book of ancient Hebrew poetry celebrating the erotic love between a man and his lover incorporated into the Jewish Bible. It was originally used by the priests of the Temple to poetically characterize the relationship between Yahweh and the nation of Israel. It was an intentional theological application in which an individual relationship was taken as poetic metaphor for what was considered a literal collective reality.

The shift back to an individual understanding of those poems seems natural enough, especially for a Christianity that had embraced Platonism as the ultimate truth. The principal Platonic category dominating the Christian worldview was that the human person was a “soul,” ― individual, immaterial and immortal ― a “spirit” that was substantially distinct from the body which it inhabited as a temporary tenant. It had the ultimate effect of extracting the human person from the world of material things and situating it in another world where only “spiritual” entities resided. It eliminated the community as the primary locus of human reality and substituted the spiritual individual. For Platonists, the family, clan or nation were not “essential” ideas and therefore not “humanity.” Humanity resided in the human individual alone. The theory worked well for the Roman Empire and its state religion whose investiture with divine favor was claimed to supersede tribal prerogatives. The one imperial power, a theocracy chosen and protected by God, ruled a whole world of isolated individuals.

The other entities that inhabited Plato’s “real world” of ideas included, first and foremost, “God,” the One, Pure Spirit, uncontaminated with even the slightest hint of matter, and his Nous, Mind, Logos, a divine emanation who took the “One’s” creative ideas that constituted his own reality and “poured” them into amorphous matter as into an “empty receptacle” (Timaeus). Those ideas were spiritual realities which humans could access because they too were immaterial spirit.

“Spirit” for Plato was naturally immortal because it was not composed of parts as matter was. Not being composed meant it could not decompose, i.e., it could not die. But because, in the case of humankind, spirit was “married” to matter, the “soul” suffered the weaknesses and limitations of the body, the principal one of which was its inevitable decomposition. But being spirit, the human individual could transcend its material side, and in anticipation of the final liberation from the body at death, relate with increasing exclusivity to the spiritual world to which it alone among earthly entities belonged; that included not only “ideas” but also the One and its Mind. The “spiritual life” was conceived of as the “soul’s” systematic disengagement from the world of matter including its own body, and engagement with “spiritual” realities and entities, the highest of which was “God.”

But “God” was pure spirit and no shadow of matter existed in “God.” His Mind, Nous, Logos, was believed to play the role of mediator and interface with the world of matter, and that would of course include the human individual wedded to matter. Christian Platonists assimilated Jesus as Jewish messiah to the Nous or Logos, and generated a narrative in which “God” united humankind with “Him”self and His immortality through the incorporation of the human individual into the saving events of Jesus’ (Nous, Logos) death and resurrection in Christian baptism.

Thus, the achievement of immortality was imagined as the by-product of new relationship in which the original ties to the body and its communitarian relations ― the family and tribe ― were replaced by a “marriage” between “God” and the individual human soul, mediated by the Logos. This created a new universal community: the Catholic Church, identical to the Roman Empire when Constantine made it Rome’s state religion.

Hence, the nuptial imagery on display in the Bible’s Song of Songs became an aspirational symbol for Christian mystics. It was used to represent this union between “God” (mediated by Christ) and the human “soul.” Following Origen’s commentary, Greek Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa accepted it as part of the truths received from the Jewish tradition and even used it, to the degree that the poetics allowed, to draw theological conclusions. For Ambrose of Milan it revealed virginity to be more than a personal preference, it became a transcendent goal of Christian perfection. Because the Platonic theory said that both “God” and the “soul” were exactly alike insofar as they were “spirit-persons,” the nuptial imagery was increasingly taken literally. The patristic practice of commenting on the Song of Songs continued on through the Middle Ages. The commentaries and sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux composed about 1136 were probably the most famous and widely read; they were cited by Martin Luther as a principal influence on his own spiritual development, and may explain his insistence on maintaining the doctrine of the real presence in glaring contrast to most of his fellow reformers. As late as 1584, Spanish Carmelite John of the Cross wrote Spiritual Canticle, an exposition applying classic Thomistic theology to an understanding of The Song of Songs.

Despite its revered tradition, it’s my contention that the Christian importance accorded to the literal interpretation of the imagery established by the Song of Songs is intimately connected to the Platonic world­view, and for that reason false and misleading. Even if the LIFE that has extruded and enlivened the material universe could in some philosophical sense be called a “person,” it is not as we are persons, and LIFE does not interact with us as we interact with one another which is what the nuptial imagery projects. Most specifically, the erotic dimension so prominent in the Song is entirely inappropriate. Relationship to LIFE does not demand sexual fidelity which has been the common application since Origen. The celibacy it enjoined reinforced Plato’s denigration of sexuality as hostile to the human “spirit” and justified Augustine’s outrageous claim that sexual desire was a corruption of the human body and that sexual intercourse performed under its influence transmitted Adam’s sin from parent to offspring.

Not only does nuptial imagery falsify relationship to “God” but it reinforces a radical individualism that detaches the human being from family and its extensions in the local community, and through the fiction of a “marriage to God” leaves the individual psychologically isolated and vulnerable to the control of impersonal forces like despotic empires, exploitive masters and bosses, and totalitarian religious hierarchies. This individualism cultivated by Platonic Christianity impels the believer to reject natural solidarity and transfer loyalty to “God” and his Church-State agent. The power of religion to galvanize new artificially created conglomerates has been recognized and exploited by empire builders since before recorded history. Traditional Christianity is not alone in lending itself to these efforts.

Moreover, the dualist Platonism implied in the literal take on the traditional imagery is a primary obstacle preventing understanding between spiritual aspirants of Eastern and Western mystical traditions. But I emphasize literal. As with all religious imagery, the nuptial analogy is metaphor, and simply acknowledging that fact will go a long way in opening closed doors and beginning the journey to the universalism that I believe is the final result of sincere and authentic religious dialog.



Spiritual growth: growing up

The similarity of the imagery in the Song of Songs to an erotic fantasy is obvious. The appeal it could have for isolated, sexually frustrated individuals creates the suspicion that the claims of mystics like John of the Cross might be pathological projection. Along with the paternal imagery about “God” cited by Freud, it seems to be an added example of how religion can be used to maintain the childhood dependencies that result from (and contribute to) the failure to achieve adulthood. That such consequences correlate with the political effects of individualism makes the traditional imagery even more questionable.

This anomaly of traditional mysticism needs to be rectified. I would like to approach the issue by first bracketing all religious belief about the nature of “God” and the “soul,” and look at things strictly from the point of view of human experience. I want to start with what I think is the true state of affairs, i.e., that the first step in spiritual growth is growing up. Maturation is the response to what we call “the human condition,” something that is true for all people everywhere and does not depend on religious belief of any kind. By “human condition” I mean the endemic, universal, inescapable “problem” of human dissatisfaction with the parameters of life available to human organisms on the planet. It is an immaturity identified with childhood; in is grossest form it displays itself as selfishness ― a refusal to accept the responsibilities of the collective struggle for survival.

Humankind seems to be the only species on earth that is capable of not being happy with itself. We are restive and feel trapped by the limited capabilities of our organisms, the unavoidable material and social/psychological demands of survival (i.e., work and family), and the nature of the human life-cycle which is vulnerable to trauma and disease, and necessarily includes old-age and death. This general dissatisfaction with being human defines us as different from all other forms of organic life, plant and animal, who seem to embrace their evolutionary inheritances ― which have virtually the same limitations as ours ― without question, and live out their organic destinies which include the struggle for collective survival with unmitigated enthusiasm.

I contend that the overarching pursuit for human beings is the thorough understanding and appreciation of exactly what we are and the decision to accept it. This is admittedly an intellectual quest, but it is undertaken as the necessary precondition for emotional self-acceptance. It is unavoidable. For it is the uniquely human feature of being reflexively self-conscious­ that lies at the root of the very possibility of imagining ourselves to be other than what and where we are, and therefore dissatisfied. Unlike all other animals who, as far as we can see, cannot imagine themselves differently from what they experience at any given moment, we humans must consciously choose to embrace what we are, and what we are doing, and the necessary prerequisite for that choice is understanding.

Laying out this premise in this way identifies the contours of the “human problem.” There is no solution that does not entail an accurate understanding of the boundaries and the possibilities of our situation ― what doors are closed and what doors are open ― and denying neither. No transcendent experience, no interpersonal relationship, no guarantee of survival or security here or hereafter, no accumulation of resources or of pleasurable, satisfying events, no accolade or recognition by others can substitute for knowing what we are as human organisms, acknowledging our limitations and responding to the demand of our potentials. The solution to the “human dilemma” is self-embrace; and it follows that unless we understand thoroughly, accurately, and without self-deception what we really are, what we can and can’t do, the possibility of choosing to-be something else, or wanting to be somewhere else ― some imaginary concoction ― is always there and bodes a continuance of the frustration. It is to fall right back into the problem, for that is exactly the nature of it. The human problem is that we are trying to be something that we are not and cannot be, in order to please and aggrandize ourselves at the expense of reality. Adulthood is the realistic acceptance of what we are ― and that includes both positive and negative ― bowing to what we cannot be or do, and obeying what our humanity demands of us.

The mystical quest

Being an adult is a basic condition of survival. But the total “end of sorrow” (words of the Bhagavad Gita) is the goal of the mystical quest and goes much further. It is not, as some believe, some kind of “end run” into an imaginary never-never land, an escape-fantasy chosen to avoid responsibility and struggle. The mystic begins with having achieved full responsible adulthood but goes far beyond simply tolerating our condition and reluctantly coping with the frustrations of life. The aim of mysticism is joy. There is no greater human achievement than to understand the full burden of our humanity and embrace it enthusiastically without disappointment, reserve, fear, reluctance or hesitation. All religious belief, all spiritual programs can be seen as attempts to reach such a state based on some set of beliefs thought to make it possible, and even mandatory.

In our case the beliefs begin with the discoveries of science. Science reverses ancient Platonic metaphysics which identified humanity with the individual relationship to “God” and “God’s” political agent, the state. Science identifies us as belonging to a universal community. Being human is a biological fact. Self-embrace, therefore, involves first of all, acknowledging that to be fully human is to have a human body, the result of the reproductive activity of male and female human beings. This applies to everyone. No one has to worry about becoming human through proper behavior, or “joining” the human family by some choice or another, like baptism. The human organism at birth is fully integrated into the evolving human community as it currently interacts with the material conditions of biological life on earth. Human Identity is biological in origin: clear, unambiguous and unchallengeable. This affects all of humankind. There are no distinctions, racial, ethnic, national, class, that make some more human and others less.

The second step, of course, is the details; it is the full elaboration of what being in a human community with this organism, evolved to this point of development from these people with this formation and on this earth, means. Unearthing the details is the work of meditation and mindfulness because it is a comprehensive self-conscious picture that must reflect reality. We are talking about understanding. If the end of sorrow is self-embrace ― accepting ourselves with the unmitigated enthusiasm that we see in all other forms of organic life ― it begins and ends with right thinking. We have to understand fully, without illusion, regret or rejection, exactly what we are where we belong and who belongs to us. The human community is universal. The responsibilities of mutually assisted survival bear on all of humankind. Those who do not see the egalitarian and universalist implications of this need to do some more meditating.

An integral part of this second step is the honest perception of the deformative influences on our “thinking who we are” made by parents, siblings, family and the local social environment; these are all time and place dependent and their self-aggrandizing inclinations must be acknowledged and corrected. We are born into the current of human history and we bear the marks (scars?) of our location in that flow. It determines, among other things, exactly how much knowledge about our evolutionary biological origins is available to us, and how aware we are of the universality of humankind. If knowing what we are is crucial to an effective self-embrace, when and where we were born and what deformities our local community has passed on to us enters decisively into the possibilities of accurate understanding. The discoveries of modern science are particularly relevant to this question, for the narrative that paints the picture of what we are has radically changed under its tutelage. We now know we are a universal family.

This leads into the third step in the process of growth ― if indeed it can be called a “step” because it is the point of it all ― the unreserved acquiescence to what we have come to understand ourselves to be in both our limitations and our potentials, talents and responsibilities. This step acknowledges that merely understanding what we are is no guarantee of success. There is always the possibility of resisting, rejecting, ignoring, avoiding, disdaining and even destroying ourselves. The social dimension, the global extent of our community of mutual support, is always the most vulnerable to selfishness ― individual or group. There is always the possibility of a regression back into childhood or pre-scientific myth; it is a prime example of the suppression of reality. Even after painting an accurate picture of what it means to belong to the global human community, the ultimate challenge remains: to embrace it lovingly, without disappointment, doubt, ambiguity or reserve. There are many who feel this is simply not possible. We are, they say, irremediably unreconciled to what we are; we would simply rather not be human the way humanness currently exists. Besides national, ethnic and religious conditioning accomplished so early in life that the individual cannot avoid being misshapen, they adduce the fact of universal death as proof of their claim. It’s difficult to undo childhood formation, and no one can accept death. An examination of this claim and the consequences of abandoning the quest for self-embrace because of it will be discussed in a later reflection.

I am using the word “embrace” in an effort to incorporate as much affectivity as possible into this final step. This is the defining mark of the mystical quest which is not satisfied with merely accepting life; it wants to love it. I am aware that the word can be taken in less than the sense of intense self-abandon and enthusiasm that I mean it to include. I want the word “embrace” to bear the emotional weight of the word “love” plus the sense of active personal engagement that makes love more than a passive self-pleasing experience and converts it into passionate commitment. Self-embrace is really intended to mean “falling in love with your life.”

Hence, the nuptial imagery of western mysticism. As a poetic metaphor for the loving self-embrace of the mystics, it is quite appropriate. Betrothal and marriage evoke the affective dimension that is the proper component of authentic self-embrace. But notice, it is metaphorical. I am not talking about being “married to God” but rather loving myself and the humankind into which I was born and through which I survive. But I not only love myself as I am programmed to do by the conatus of my organism, for if I am to achieve anything like the enthusiastic self-accep­tance that I see in the in the myriads of organisms ― plant, animal, insect, fish ― that surround me on this planet, who all live in a state of total joy, I have to do more than just passively “accept” myself or tolerate my life. I must fall in love with myself as I have been made and, as is so poignantly expressed in the marriage vow, “abandon all other” imaginary ways of being. I have to fall madly in love with being human as I am with all the moral and social burden that comes with it. This is the goal of mysticism: not a mental escape but a total joy that puts me in sync with all the other forms of living organism evolved by matter’s energy.

This “fidelity” which requires “forsaking” anything other than what I really am, means “letting go” of any and all imaginary constructs ― selfish fantasies of escape ― that do not correspond to what is possible to and demanded by my humanity. My body bears forward in me the direction and intensity of the extroverted existential energy released at the birth of our universe. Matter’s energy comes to me in a highly evolved form. Material energy that comprises my organism is not a tabula rasa. It is already spoken for. It is an unquenchable energy focused on being-here that, in the pursuit of ever greater expansion has molted first into living and then into reflexive self-con­scious form. That is not a revealed truth but an undeniable fact drawn from 14 billion years of observed behavior and demonstrated direction. Material energy is committed to universal availability ― the work of limitless abundance. My body is composed of this existentially committed energy.

This introduces another perspective that reinforces the validity of the nuptial imagery. This existential commitment to an ever-expanding abundance on the part of matter gives me a sense of the “otherness” of the living energy that resides in the components of my organism. My self-embrace is ultimately grounded in the prior presence of this energy that is undeniably independent of me and present in everything else in the material universe. It suggests that I am not only myself; LIFE transcends me. The LIFE that I enjoy and that energizes my every thought and desire is 14 billion years old and was not my creation either in design or production. This “outside” source of my “inside” energy puts me in the presence of a mysterious wellspring that I call LIFE. It suggests a unique immanent relationship between myself and that source that I did not initially suspect was there, and it reboots my relationship to all other things constituted of this selfsame living material energy: it makes all other things made of this universal matter, in some sense, “me.” This train has been running for 14 billion years and shows no sign of changing course or slowing down. We’re already on board when we awaken to its reality. Once we understand that WE ARE THAT, everything falls into place. We are at home in the universe.

I and my source are one and the same thing. My ancient pre-scientific tradition may not have completely anticipated that my unity with my source and creator had such a concrete ground and was so total, but it seems to have at least suspected that it was more than met the eye because since ancient times it characterized the relationship as “nuptial.” The implication was that the two were one flesh.

Being “married to God” is a poetic symbol that can be used to evoke our relationship to that in which we live and move and have our being. Like all poetry it becomes grotesque and meaningless if it is taken literally. Alongside of other poetic symbols that come down to us from our pre-scientific ancestors, it can remind us who we are, and what we are doing here. These are things, for some reason, we all find easy to forget.





3,200 words

Both Buddha and Jesus offer their followers a life of sustained joy ― Buddhists through constant ascetical practice, and Christians through faith in Jesus’ message and the witness of his life and death. Where does the joy come from? I contend that in both cases it comes simply from being alive ― being-here as you are. Neither adds anything to life as it is..

Joy is the natural state of all living things. This is also true of human beings. Look at the infant. Except when it’s hungry or lacking something it needs, it lives in a state of spontaneous and unmitigated joy ― unsuspicious, unthinking, unmotivated, unselfconscious, unyearning, un-nostalgic, imageless, aimless, care-less, joy. How is that possible? Because the infant wants what it has and has what it wants. What does it have besides being alive? Nothing. What more does it want? Nothing. Its joy comes exclusively from being here exactly as it is.

What about mother’s love? It’s taken for granted. Mom is no big surprise . . . She did not implant the joy, it was already there, she simply became part of it … just another strand in the seamless cloth of the joy of being alive. The infant lives in total joy because it is totally identified with its life; it fully embraces what it is. It has no idea it is a separate and helpless “self.” It loves its life. It has no regrets or nostalgia for the past, it has no hopes or fears for the future. It has no thoughts or images. It wants nothing else but being-here, and it has what it wants.[1]

The “absorption” or “immersion” that Buddhists often speak of, refers to the ultimate result claimed for meditation, arrived at only after years of continuous practice, but adumbrated much sooner, where the practitioner’s cognitive and affective self-appropriation begins to resemble the simple, all-inclusive self-embrace of the infant. The joy experienced does not come from somewhere else or someone or something outside, like “God” or some other “lover,” or from some accretion added in the course of life, like wealth or possessions or children or the recognition of the community, nor does it come from any secure hold on the continuation of life after death because even for those who believe in such a thing, it is a future hope, not a present possession. Joy comes from only one source: being alive as oneself.[2] It recapitulates the joy of the infant who has what she wants and wants what she has. Those that do not arrive at such a point of balanced stillness may not be suffering, but they do not experience joy.

Seen from this perspective, the difficulties and discoveries encountered in the process of living add obstacles to the infant’s simple self-appropriation and self-apprecia­tion. Those obstacles come in the form of deceptions that generate and distort our desires, deflecting them from wanting what we have and having what we want towards ersatz “outside” goals that do not satisfy human hunger. The Buddha claims that what we want is LIFE, and that we already have it. His program, then, is a negative, subtractive one: it is a “letting go” designed to eradicate the deceptions, empty desires and false goals ― all “other” than what we are ― that prevent us from resting in the LIFE that we have and are.

The “self”

One of the principal deceptions to which Buddha directs his corrective program is the “self.” He claims that what we call the “self” is a figment of our imagination, a fiction concocted to assign roles and responsibilities within society. We tend to think of the self as a real, separate, stand-alone entity. It is the feeling of certainty about the substantial reality of the self that lends credibility to the projection that we live on after death.

But for Buddha there is no such thing as an independent self. In fact, he says, everything that we identify as the constitutive elements of our self is the product of a myriad of causes that are not in any way our selves. My very body, for example, was not produced or designed by me, I did not determine my genetic components, my gender, intelligence, strength, size, appearance, much less the later basic psychological formations stamped on me by childhood experiences with these parents and these siblings. I did not choose the language I would speak, the cultural beliefs that I would embrace as undebatable truth, my religion, the amount and quality of education I would receive. Everywhere I look, as I meditate deeply on what has gone into making me to be me, I find that all those constitutive factors were not me. I “arose” from a multitude of “non-self” causes that conspired to produce what I call my “self.”

Modern science adds background to this panoply of “non-self” influences. The most important one is time. The evolutionary origins of living things means that the human organism was the slow and painstaking product of eons of development spearheaded by ancestors that we would hardly recognize as human, who were in turn the inheritors of even more ancient forebears who definitely were not. We are all descended from primitive progenitors who bequeathed these spectacular evolutionary achieve­ments to all of us. What are we but the ultimate leaves on a massive ancient tree of life that has been growing since the beginning of time.

The Buddha said that the “establishment” of mindfulness of the body ― by which he meant, the full and sustained realization of everything that went into making my body ― would lead to the awareness of “no-self.” “No-self” means that the belief that the self is a stand-alone “thing,” separate, independent, and distinct from other “things,” comes to be understood and felt deeply to be a fiction. The long range effect is the clear-eyed perception of my self as the product of virtually the totality of the evolving material universe which I have heretofore erroneously thought of as “not myself.” It is confirmed by the scientific identification of all existing things in our universe as being comprised of the very same material energy in each and every instance. Everything is made of the same clay. Nothing is only “itself.”

Buddha’s exercises are designed to reduce the insistent demands of the false “self” for aggrandizement and satisfaction of desires all of which become obstacles for wanting what I have and seeing that I already have what I want. For it is the very decision to comply with those false demands that creates and sustains the inflated sense of self. The self as a separate stand-alone entity is conjured into existence by chasing the wind, and chasing the wind keeps the inflated self visible like a hologram ― a surreal projected image of what is not really there. Its voracious and insatiable appetite is created and sustained by “feeding the tiger blood” ― attempting to satisfy the cravings of what is only the product of our imagination.  And I know they’re imaginary because when I stop feeding them they go away.

Institutional Christianity and Jesus’ message of joy

Traditional institutional Christianity as we have inherited it at least since the time of its Roman Imperial iteration, claims that Christian joy is the result of faith in the promises of an afterlife of bliss, the reward of a life lived in compliance with the commandments of “God” as identified and codified by “God’s” exclusive agent on earth, the Christian Church. It warns us that happiness is not possible in this valley of tears; it is not natural for us to be happy. Thinking otherwise is delusional and dangerous. Secure happiness only comes after death and is a gift of God, earned for us by the death of Christ paying for our sins. It says Original Sin passed on to us a human nature that is irremediably corrupt and distorted. It is responsible for the bodily cravings that incline us to disobey the commandments. These urges can be contained and controlled through the infusions of a quasi-substance called “grace,” from the accumulation of Christ’s earnings, that is delivered through the sacraments, which are rituals regularly performed in the Church precincts by an elite corps of males and attended by believing Christians. Participation in those rituals is a requirement, for they are the exclusive vehicle for the “grace” needed to control desires and avoid sin. Dying in sin means punishment for all eternity in excruciating torment. Hence belonging to the Church is not optional. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation.”

That description stands in stark contrast with the message of Jesus, whom the Church likes to claim it follows. But I contend that for Jesus and those who follow his counsels, joy is not created by rewards from God or by the assurance of continuous existence after death. The consolations of faith as Jesus taught it have to do with the awareness of being loved by a compassionate, generous and forgiving “Father,” and the self-appreciation that that evokes, not from any sense that life will go on forever. Jesus’ message had great magnetism. Following Jesus meant learning, credibly and palpably, who you were by being presented with the living dynamism of God’s loving-kindness in Jesus’ words and comportment. He embodied that love, as the Buddha embodied compassion, and in each case the messenger became a central piece of the message ― the “religion” ― that emerged from their work. People were transformed in their presence, and the change in their attitudes and behavior made them happy ― “blessed” ― as described in the beatitudes (Mt 5: 1-12). What the message announced was not a new product or a new contract or a way out of dying, but a new and definitive appreciation of yourself. “Forgiveness,” the leitmotiv of Jesus’ message, gave you back yourself.

Both these teachers, I contend, were focused on the same phenomenon: a joyful, loving self-embrace that implicitly included the whole universe. You came to love yourself for what you were: what we describe scientifically today as the extrusion of cosmic evolution. The Buddha pursued it systematically. He carefully analyzed, classified, and prioritized the psychological dynamics that worked in his own case and then presented it in detail to those who followed him. Meditation and mindfulness were the key because Buddha saw that by controlling the mental images that drifted unconsciously through our minds, we could shape and direct what we thought about ourselves and ultimately the actions we took to protect and advance ourselves. “As irrigators lead water to their fields, as archers aim their arrows, as carpenters carve wood, the wise shape their lives.” (Dhammapada, 10: 145).

Controlling the mind was the key to controlling the way we lived. Thinking the right thoughts meant realizing that the self is the sustained product of the whole evolving universe and that protecting and advancing your self meant protecting and advancing the totality. Thus was born the selfless compassion and universal love that characterizes the Buddhist vision.  Once you realize that your self is the offspring of whole universe, you stop living for yourself and your embrace expands to include everything and everybody. You begin to understand that your selfishness was the result of deception not malice, and that the selfishness of others must be understood the same way.

In Jesus’ case, his blinding insight into the warmth and forgiving generosity of Yahweh, his “father,” dominated his imagination. Jewish people who were intimately familiar with the same psalms and prophets that had inspired Jesus resonated with his message. They knew exactly what he was talking about because since the return from the exile, Yahweh’s forgiveness and compassion had displaced Judaism’s earlier focus on power and punishment in their contract with their God. Having failed to keep the commandments was now understood to be met with forgiveness, not punishment.

In Jesus’ scheme of things, as is clear in the narratives and letters of the New Testament, this transformation was believed to occur instantaneously. It was called metanoia, in Greek, a “change of mind” usually translated “conversion” or sometimes “repentance.” Jesus himself had such an experience at the start of his mission. It is produced by being overwhelmed by the sense of invulnerable self-worth implicit in the message of the fatherly love of “God.” Once, as the Christmas carol says, “the soul knew its worth,” a global change in attitude and behavior occurred automatically. The Christian convert experienced a self-acceptance and concurrent joy that was often described as “being born again.” The moral compliance, compassion and generosity toward others, and the enthusiasm to work for justice and peace that followed could hardly be called obedience.

The Buddha, clearly, while he did not rule it out, did not expect any such instantaneous transformation. His message amounted to the systematization of the process of learning to rethink who you were (and who others were), using moral and socially cooperative behavior as a tool for identifying correct imagery about yourself and re-training your mind to embrace it. The Dharma, the “natural law” provided the content for meditation, like an image to be copied, and the practice of constantly being aware of and controlling the images that drifted through your mind was the work of a lifetime. Whether you sat for long periods silently meditating about conforming to the Dharma, or understanding “no-self,” or undoing the judgmental “knots” in your mind about yourself and others tied by the false belief that you were an independent and separate “self” amassing and accumulating “stuff” for an illusory endless living, you were constantly occupied with re-training your mind to see itself as an integral part of a larger whole and identify yourself with others. “As archers aim their arrows, the wise aim their restless thoughts, hard to aim, hard to restrain.” (Dhamma­pada 3: 33)

At some point the practitioners’ behavior and attitude begin to conspicuously resemble the Dharma on which they meditate, generating the beginnings of a deep self-respect and self-appreciation ― a forgiveness of yourself and others. Then, meditative concentration becomes more sustained and intense over time until the practitioners become totally absorbed in the objects of their contemplation and mental striving, which, because of the focus on “no-self” tends toward “non-duality:” i.e., that there is no distinction between the self and the non-self and there develops a sense of immersion in the totality of being. It’s then that the joyful, self-oblivious self-embrace of infancy begins to re-emerge. The distinction between oneself, others and the rest of reality blurs, becomes irrelevant and tends to disappear.

The remarkable Meister Eckhart

Efforts of Christians to find a way to sustain the transformations of conversion, led to experiments in systematization that were not unlike the Buddhists’ and generated similar insights. The following passages come from a Christian mediaeval mystic and theologian, Johannes Eckhart, called “Meister.” They are from a sermon designated #52 and entitled “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit …” a reference to one of the beatitudes of Mt 5. It was written in the vernacular German in the fourteenth century, most likely in the decade after 1310.

Eckhart’s theology relied on Neo-Platonic philosophy to a degree that was not true of his scholastic contemporaries. Neo-Platonism held to the pre-existence of the “soul” before birth, which Eckhart understands to be an ocean of undifferentiated being where the “soul” is immersed, indistinguishably, with all things and “God.” Eckhart uses that theory as an explanatory backdrop for his mystical teaching about “blessedness” (which we should remember means “happiness”). But what is important to me is not the speculative metaphysical explanation, but the description of the lived experience. The similarity to the notions explored in this essay is easily discernible. (All quotation marks are from Eckhart himself). He is trying to explain how “poverty of spirit” equates to blessedness:

… so long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will and a longing for God and for eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor man is one who has a will and longing for nothing.

When I stood in my first cause, I had no “God,” and then I was my own cause. I wanted nothing, I longed for nothing for I was an empty being and the only truth in which I rejoiced was in the knowledge of myself. Then it was myself I wanted and nothing else. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted and so I stood empty of God and everything. But when I received my created being, then I had a “God,” for before there were any creatures, God was not “God,” but he was what he was.[3]

. . . so therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of “God” and that we may apprehend and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel, and the fly, and the soul are equal ― there where I was established, where I wanted what I was and was what I wanted. So I say, if a man is to become poor in his will he must want and desire as little as he wanted and desired when he did not exist. And in this way, a man is poor who wants nothing.

. . .   [Blessedness] does not consist in either knowing or loving; but there is something in the soul from which knowing and loving flow that does not know or love … Whoever knows this knows in what blessedness consists. That something has neither before nor after, and is not waiting for anything that is to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. … it is itself the very thing that rejoices in itself as God does in himself. … The authorities say that God is a being and a rational one., and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things, and therefore he is all things.

. . . In the breaking-through, when I come to be free of my will and of God’s will and of God himself, then I am above all created things and I am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and what I shall remain now and eternally … in this breaking-through I discover that God and I are one. Then I am what I was, and then I neither diminish nor increase … with this poverty man achieves what he has been eternally and will evermore remain. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty one can find. [4]


[1] I am tempted to include here my belief that the wellspring of this stillness, this complete contentment with just being-here, is that matter’s living energy is existence itself, the ultimate eternal reality, the stasis beyond all change, the final equilibrium. Matter’s living energy is being: there is no “nothing” that preceded it from which it came. Nothing preceded it; there is no such “thing” as “nothing.” Being is first, only, everywhere and always. This will be elaborated at another time.

[2] This is corroborated by the poverty which is enjoined on Christian and Buddhist aspirants alike. Likewise, one of the goals of all mystical traditions, declared explicitly by the Sufis, is to achieve a love of “God” that is totally detached from any desire for heaven or fear of hell.

[3] The comment of Bernard McGinn, the translator and editor, on this particular phrase is that it is an allusion to Ex 3:14, “I am what I am,” which modern exegetes agree was a way of emphasizing the unknowability of God.

[4] Colledge and McGinn tr. Meister Eckhart, Paulist Press, 1981, pp. 199-201

Letting go ― east and west

2500 words

Buddhists insist that everything in our impermanent universe is destined to fall apart, to crumble like dust, to run through our grasping hands like water. You may ask: if everything is so empty, what then does Buddhism tell us to achieve, to obtain ― what should we live for? The answer is emphatically, nothing.

The Buddhists identify three cravings or thirsts whose “conquest” leads to nirvana; but it’s important to note: this conquest is not an achievement, a getting something. It’s a “letting go.” The three cravings are a short list intended to cover the entirety of potential human desiderata ― absolutely everything someone might choose as an object of desire and possession. There is nothing a human being could want that does not fall into one of these categories, and the goal is the letting go of them all. This short paragraph from the Samyutta Nikaya may be said to be Buddhist doctrine in a nutshell.

“Mendicants, there are these three cravings. What three? Craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. These are the three cravings. The noble eightfold path should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings. What is the noble eightfold path? It’s when a mendicant develops right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion, which rely on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripen as letting go. This is the noble eightfold path that should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings.”[1]

The first category of craving, sense pleasures, is the easiest to understand because the recognition of the passing nature of pleasurable experiences is essential to growing up. All acknow­ledge that the ability to postpone gratification is necessary if we are to accomplish any­thing in life. The pursuit of endless pleasure is delusional and those that try it eventually abandon it or they do not survive.

The second, that we are locked into an unrealistic craving to continue existence is not so obvious. It only becomes apparent when we are confronted with an experience of death that goes beyond a mere intel­lectual recognition. When the true precariousness of life comes home to us through a near-death experience or the death of a young, strong companion, family member or partner, it can be immobilizing, revealing the delusional nature of our day to day pursuit of accumulation. It is in such moments that we realize that amassing the resources for a long and secure life was an unrealistic fantasy, at best a throw of the dice. It becomes clear that we had taken for granted that living would be virtually endless, because when it is cut short we are astonished and feel betrayed. It’s only when that bubble bursts that we realize that it was an empty craving, as delusional as the quest for endless pleasure.

If permanently having pleasure and avoiding pain is a vain pursuit, and the accumulation of resources in the form of money, tools, land, buildings, family, etc., cannot prevent the disappearance of life in death, some may decide the best you can do to end the torment of life’s universal frustrations is to disappear and have it all over with. It’s what Buddhists call the desire for extinction, or the craving to end existence. It’s the flip-side of the frustration of the first two cravings.

But it has been a metaphysical axiom on the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial that after death you were re-incarnated and returned to life. The Buddha took that belief for granted. Therefore extinction was impossible. You were condemned to be reborn and to chase after the wind all over again. Hence Buddhists see this craving as another illusion.

I do not believe in re-incarnation. But if we bracket the worldview and just look at the ascetic coun­selling that he proposed, it becomes clear that by saying that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever to strive for in life including extinction, we are prevented from turning our attention any­where outside of ourselves, either in the excitations of the body and mind, or in the hope for a future life, or even in the sweet peace of oblivion. All we have is our mutually interrela­ted selves here and now, as we are, alive, situated as a community of biological organisms in an impermanent and impersonal mater­ial world. We are cast back on our living selves as the only valid object of human embrace and human service. There is no way out. The ultimate message of the Buddha is precisely and simply this: Forget about it! There is nowhere to go! There is nothing to get! LIVE! Choose what you are, pursue the flow of life here and now; embrace yourself as provided by Nature and live uprightly and generously as part of your survival network. It is all you’ve got and all you need.

All Buddha’s recommended practices focus on a communal self-embrace in the present moment. The Dharma, which includes socially responsible moral living, is the first. The Dharma, what the Jews would call Torah in its widest sense meaning the “law of nature,” produces nothing except peace, harmony and prosperity among people. It adds nothing whatsoever to what we were born with. We “gain” nothing by it. It does not give us “eternal life” or make us more than human with our cycle of life and death. Then mendicancy, begging for food, which Buddha enjoined on his monks, empha­sizes the precarious nature of human life and the necessity of our communal network for survi­val. Begging is symbolic. It is not meant to be a permanent social structure. By begging one does not control what one eats, because the food made available is the product of the labor and generosity of the human community. One eats what one is given. And it is sufficient because it is not the eating but the being-here-now sustained by the community’s collaboration that is the true desideratum. Eat, but eat detached and aware. Eat as part of a community, not for individual pleasure. Then, there’s breathing. One concentrates for long periods of time on one’s breathing, both during meditation and throughout the day. Think of it. Just breathing. When you are just breathing you are going nowhere, you are accomplishing nothing, you are accumulating nothing, you are just being-here-now. It’s not a command; it’s another symbolic exercise ― a practice ― designed to bring buried truths to the surface. The Buddha pushes us to learn to enjoy breathing because once we sense the simple joy of letting go ― no longer clinging to the past in regret or nostalgia or imagining a future of doom or triumph ― we begin to experience life as a process of continuous present joy . . . if lived fully in the moment detached from ulterior motives. But that can only be done by letting go of everything else. There is nothing to be found outside ourselves living here and now. All human activities are to be subsumed under the dynamic of this universal detachment. Whatever you do, do it detached, which means do it just to be-here and do it, not because of what it’s going to “get” for you. There is nothing to get. Life is going nowhere.

Letting go in the West

Many will say, we have to work, we have responsibilities to other people, we have to plan for the future. We can’t go around begging for food and expecting that others will feed us. And spending time just breathing is time wasted in a preciously short life. Of course they are right. But the objection is off-the-mark because mendicancy and meditation are practices ― symbolic activity, exercises designed to bring certain human values to the forefront of consciousness. Begging was never intended to be a model for economic interchange. This misunderstanding is reminiscent of the “dilemma” created by the advice of Jesus as recorded in Luke, which is also the result of erroneously taking a symbol literally:

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ . . .

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!   . . .   Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you — you of little faith![2]

The “dilemma” created by these statements of Jesus came crashing down on Roman Catholicism in the high middle ages when Christians under the leadership of Francis of Assisi attempted to take Jesus’ poetry literally and construct a way of life out of it. But after a short time in the 13th century few continued with the mendicant practices embraced by Francis and his original followers. Francis himself, because of his insistence on living in radical poverty, was sidelined by his own order which had abandoned his way of life ― and implicitly Jesus’ teaching which inspired it ― as practically impossible.

We have to acknowledge what was on the table here, and why, both before and after Francis, Christians never attempted to take Jesus literally. The literal personal, micro-managed divine providence described by Jesus in these beautiful passages, in fact, does not exist, and everybody knows it. Even a closer reading of the examples Jesus uses of the ravens and the day-lilies reveals that the resources provided by “God” are nothing more than the natural order. The ravens don’t have to work because their DNA produces feathers. In contrast, human DNA does not produce coats, shoes and houses for us, and so we have to work. “God” as a loving father who personally watches over and provides for each of his children . . . except in the most remote sense of having provided the material cosmos with its energy and regularities . . . is a mega-metaphor, a huge symbol. The real “God” does none of the things that Jesus described and certainly doesn’t save us from natural and man-made disasters. It is poetry so massive and all-encompassing as to amount to what anthropologists call a myth. By myth they mean the poetic, symbolic ground that establishes the foundational premises for an entire culture. In the lands of the West that myth was The Fatherhood of “God.”

The West had no choice. If “God” was a rational, willing, humanoid father-person, as they insisted, there had to be wall-to-wall divine providence. No alternative was possible. The two concepts are steel-bound corollaries. The entire civilization was built on the model of a patriarchy ― micro-control by an all-powerful father-ruler ― grounded on the imagined humanoid paternal personality of a “God” who controlled everything that happened, no matter how it was contradicted by the evidence. The “atheism” of our times is an obvious attempt to find our way back to reality after having for millennia erroneously embraced the religious myths and poetry of our ancient, pre-scientific ancestors as literal, scientific, historical fact.


By deconstructing Jesus’ poetry in Luke, we can understand the role it played as an application of the fundamental myth of Western culture. Once we see that Jesus’ examples were drawn from the patriarchal cultural ground of both the Hebrew and the Greco-Roman worldviews, we can appreciate his use of them to illustrate and motivate an attitude toward life that is at the very heart of all religious enlightenment: trust in the process of life, and abandonment of all attempts to substitute something else for it. In his idiom, that had to mean trust in the providence of “God.” The real issue for us is not the metaphy­s­ical background, which in both Christianity and Buddhism are pre-scientific and seriously flawed, but rather the spiritual dynamic their teachers tried to evoke. Trust, expressed by “letting go” of attempts to find a way out, is the ultimate religious truth across the board. The pre-scientific world­views evaporate, but the ascetical dynamics do not. There is no other way to live authentically.

Trust was exactly what the Buddha was trying to say by insisting on “letting-go” of all pursuits and strivings of whatever kind ― a radical, absolute and unequivocal abandonment of seeking for an outside source of permanent life. All traditions fundamentally propose the same thing: instead of seeking to obtain or become something we are not — including nothingness — the answer to life is to cherish and embrace what we are and to trust the process that brought us here and bears us onward. We have to embrace our impermanence, our inescapable perishing condition. Instead of looking outside of ourselves we have to look inward. We already have everything we could want, and our trans­­formation consists not in the escape into a refined hedonism, or becoming something other than what we are, or finding a vehicle to ride in other than the process that is bearing us forward, or retreating in despair from the struggle to build a just and sustainable world, but in learning to cherish and want what we already are and have. Trust in the process that produced us ― which means embracing, joining the process. The rest is delusion.

It is living in the present moment; minimally that means to stop distrusting LIFE . . . to embrace the Ocean we are swimming in with its work and struggles, the river of material impermanence that is carrying us along with everything else in the universe. We are all made of the same clay.

The universal bedrock of all religious enlightenment, east and west is trust in the process in which we are immersed. From science we know that process is the biological evolution of material energy. Accept­ing the process means embracing ourselves ― becoming thoroughly absorbed in what we are ― the flowing current of evolving matter, in which we live and move and have our being.

[1] Bhikkhu Sujato, Sumyatta Nikaya, 45:170 Kindle Locations 14736-14737

[2] New RSV Luke chapter 12

Materialism and Spirituality

Reflections on the fallacy of common assumptions

2000 words

For readers of spiritual literature it is not surprising to find statements that accept the existence of the human spirit as axiomatic. Sometimes such declarations are grounded on a more basic metaphysical worldview, but more often they are offered without further justification except for the force of practice, an unassailable ascetical premise. Belief in spirit is considered a dynamic necessity for spiritual growth, regardless of the metaphysics.

The message is implicitly anti-materialist and is justified as the fruit of experience not speculation. if you are serious about advancing spiritually, they claim, you have to acknowledge that you are NOT your body. Since control and training of bodily urges is central to all ascetical practice, it is a common assumption that the practitioner must confront the body as if it were alien ― something “other” than one’s self. I can control my body because I AM NOT my body. Thus belief in spirit enters by the back door.

The point of this essay is to affirm that the same dynamic of practice can and does function well and perhaps even better in a world that is exclusively material. This is more than an academic exercise or personal preference of mine. For, while the material energy that comprises all things is capable of producing an amazing and unexpected range of behavioral phenomena including what we have traditionally called “spiritual,” there is no evidence of the existence of a separate kind of “thing” called “spirit.” If, as science suggests, there is nothing but matter’s energy, then there must be a way to explain and sustain historical ascetical practice, otherwise thousands of years of attested human transformation would, implausibly, have to be dismissed as illusion. Whatever the metaphysics might be, the traditional practices work. If it is also true as science claims that we are not “other” than our bodies, then there must be a way to understand how both can be true.

Matter’s consistency with traditional goals

Two principal aims of traditional spirituality, the objectification of one’s own body for the purposes of its control and training, and the practitioner’s personal identification with a transcendent ground that provides a basis for the embrace of altruistic universalism, can be achieved in an exclusively material universe without having recourse to belief in a separable human “spirit,” or projecting the existence of a separate world.

First, my total identification as matter does not in any way necessitate that I identify exclusively with my particular body. As a matter of fact, identifying my body as comprised of the selfsame particles that comprise everything else in the material cosmos tends to de-emphasize the particularity that my intense spontaneous urges for self-protection and self-aggrandizement seem to imply. The feelings they elicit are ephemeral and therefore, spiritually speaking, their demands for satisfaction are bogus. If every particle of my organism is a generic entity, entirely replaceable by other particles of the same type, it is much more difficult to assign my feeling of unique­ness to anything more objective than the minor variations that differentiate my organism from other “things.” All “things,” not only human beings, are made of exactly the same clay.   The insistence on existence ― the drive to survive ― is common to us all. Nothing justifies the priority I am inclined to give myself.

The Buddhist claim that the metaphysically independent, stand-alone “self” is an illusion, is supported by this scientific description of reality as material energy. In fact, no “thing” of any kind in our universe is only “itself” according to science, since all things are comprised of the same material energy. Buddhists have been saying this at least since the Mahayana Reform at the beginning of the common era. Buddhists, however, do not adduce the common material base as the reason for it; rather, they point to the multiplicity of “causes” that conspire in the “arising” of any phenomenon. Regardless, the fact of universally shared matter implicitly includes the dynamic interactions ― the “dependent co-arising” ― characteristic of material elements. In both descriptions, the “self” is absorbed into a totality-in-process which Buddhist teachers like Thich Naht Hahn claim is the point of meditation: to come to a full cognitive-affective realization of one’s identity with all things. Knowing that I am pure material energy ― whole cloth with the rest of the universe ― accomplishes exactly that.

This brings us to the second supposed unique achievement of belief in spirit: the personal identification with a transcendent ground that provides a basis for the embrace of altruistic universalism. All major traditions ultimately agree on the goal of human transformation: universal love and compassion for all things.

Traditions like Christianity which are metaphysically dualist in nature (because they believe there are two distinct kinds of “stuff” in the universe, matter and spirit), assign the human self to the spiritual realm not just because human activity transcends the limits found in other entities and organisms, but because they attribute that transcendence to a metaphysical source: a separable “soul” that is made of spirit not matter. Spirit is further believed to be the “stuff” that comprises a multitude of invisible entities variously called angels or devils and includes the highest entity and source of all things spiritual: “God” theorized to be pure Spirit. By identifying oneself as spirit, therefore, one identifies oneself with “God” and thus is metaphysically predisposed to the kind of generosity, compassion and creativity characteristic of spirit. Besides, by realizing that one is not matter, domination of the body’s insistent urges is rationalized: there is a reason why the mind can and should dominate the body. Thus many Christians (and other dualist traditions) see belief in spirit as uniquely foundational for the pursuit of “perfection” which is to live morally, to love and to give as “God” does.

Other traditions, like Hinduism, which are more accurately described as a spiritual monism (because they believe that all things including matter are ultimately illusory manifestations of an underlying universal Spirit they call “Atman” or Self), claim that belief in spirit is simply acknowledgement of what is really real. The body is an illusion. The human “self” (atman) is the evolutionary emergence of the underlying Universal “Self.” And it is only through meditation that this identification can be brought to consciousness and firmly established in the practice of daily living with justice, love and compassion. The Great “Self” is thought to be “Mind” not matter, and therefore the human mind is similarly not matter. This grounds the dynamic of the ascetic pursuit of self-control leading to self-transformation into the “first principle.” Matter is ultimately resolvable into Spirit.

In contrast with both these traditions, Buddhists quite intentionally avoid ultimate metaphysical worldviews as distractions from and hindrances to the principal goal of ascetical practice: the realization and full acceptance of all reality including one’s “self” as impermanent.   The full acceptance of impermanence reality as it is ― is, for Buddhists, the end of sorrow and the beginning of compassion and loving kindness for all things. All suggestions that there is a way out of this impermanence for oneself are obstacles to nirvana which is identified with the “letting go” of any clinging or craving for permanence that would enthrone the “self” ― the conceit of “I am” ― which is the self-inflicted source of all suffering.

“Mendicants, when the perception of impermanence is developed and cultivated it eliminates all desire for sensual pleasures, for rebirth in the realm of luminous form, and for rebirth in a future life. It eliminates all ignorance and eradicates all conceit ‘I am’.[1]

Some may think that by encouraging the practitioner’s identification with the totality, that Buddhists have somehow “found a way out” of the impermanence ― and that the totality represents a permanence that the parts do not. Not at all. For the impermanence evident in the flow of day to day reality is equally applicable to the totality as a totality. The totality itself is impermanent and, according to all scientific predictions, will eventually run out of energy and metamorphose into something that is utterly unrecognizable to current definitions and descriptions of reality.

Negative effects of belief in “spirit”

On the negative side, there are reasons why belief in spirit has been and may continue to be a damaging and dangerous thing. The feeling of alienation, what I have called in other places an autogenic disease, wherein the human organism identifies its own body as alien, can push efforts for the control of bodily urges into self destructive territory. Practitioners who believe they are spiritual “souls” trapped in dungeons of flesh are justified by the metaphysics alone in loathing, denying, negating, and ultimately punishing, torturing, damaging and even killing their own bodies. A case could be made for saying that even when carried out in the most rational and emotionally detached way, alienated dualist metaphysics guarantees that the efforts will be repressive and therefore ultimately ineffective. So that even from the point of view of bodily control, the belief is counter-indica­ted. Many of us reading this today have experienced in our own flesh the damaging effects of these beliefs. This is not just speculation.

Similarly, in the spiritist worldview what is true in one’s attitudes toward oneself is applied with all the more rigor when it comes to other people. Having accepted that self-loathing is part of self-control, the practitioner has little hesitation in inflicting pain on others with the justification that “it will give them a healthy distance on their bodies.” Humiliation, isolation, the denial of affection and constant denigration heaped on those for whom the ascetic has “spiritual” responsibility are deemed necessary for the lowering of self-esteem which is routinely confused with the egotistical self-projection of the mindless conatus. Thus belief in spirit tends to prevent the loving embrace of our organic nature, which in some traditions contradicts the doctrines of creation being the gift and image of a loving “God.”

We need also to be constantly reminded of the disastrous ecological implications of the belief in spirit. For by attributing all value to spirit and denigrating matter as inferior and corrupting of human aspirations, the earth itself with its multitude of other biological species, plant and animal, is disdained except as it might serve humankind. It is of absolutely no concern to the spiritist if any number of species “irrelevant” to human survival or utility were to disappear. No life form other than man is respected for itself. The result has been the ever increasing deterioration of the water, air, soil and climate that all species rely on for their sustenance. I don’t think it is far-fetched in the least to attribute our environmental crisis directly, if not exclusively, to belief in the existence of separable “spirit” and the anthropocentrism that resulted from it. It paradoxically spurred our self-serving technology (which has kept many of us alive well past our otherwise expected time-of-life) even as it conspired to disregard other species and the life-supporting resources of the planet.

We are not the gods we would like to think we are. The rest of creation does not have to bow down and serve us. We are matter ― an integral part of an impermanent material universe. Our survival is bound up with the survival of all.

Now, the point of this reflection has been to suggest that belief in a transcendent materialism dovetails with the dynamic goals of the spiritual aspirations of our many religious traditions. Does it prove that “there is nothing but matter”? No. But it shows that belief that I am my body does not necessarily inhibit my spiritual growth and that belief in a separate kind of “thing” called spirit is not a necessary prerequisite for the spiritual programs of the great religious traditions of our social history.


[1]Bhikkhu Sujato. Samyuttanikaya: Linked Discourses 22:102 (Kindle Locations 10696-10698).

“. . . the most to be pitied” (III)

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we of all people are the most to be pitied.”

1 Corinthians 15:19

2,400 words

There are many indications in the Dhammapada, one of the earliest and most basic collections of the Buddha’s sayings, that he took for granted that human behavior would be judged after death.  But as a motivator, these traditional Hindu beliefs about re-incarnation kept the focus fixed on this world because the punishment for failing to live a moral life was to return to earth until you do.  The Buddha translated that to mean you would remain enslaved to the same insane insistence on chasing pleasure and amassing the resources needed for creating a secure permanent self ― goals that are simply impossible in a universe where everything composes and decomposes ― that caused your re-birth. It turns living into an endless cycle of insuperable frustration. No worse punishment could be conceived.

Buddha said delusional craving was the cause of all the human-generated suffering that individuals inflict on themselves and on others, with whom they compete in a zero-sum game of amassing the wind. It was to that ensuing suffering, dukkha, that Buddha addressed himself exclusively. Dukkha was that anguish, unique to human beings, that came from yearning uncontrollably for what is not available: permanent happiness. It was his only motivation: ending dukkha.

Buddha did not see the problem as the absence of the object of our insane quest as Paul did, but rather the quest itself. It’s not that what we yearn for is not at hand . . . impelling us to look for it or pray for it or create it which only intensifies the craving  . . . but the craving itself, which is insatiable. Once the thirst is seen as the true problem and we begin to direct our efforts at eliminating it, we make a consequent discovery that would not have occurred to us otherwise: we never really needed the thing we thought we could not live without. The cessation of craving which brings the end to human suffering, is the doorway to a realization ― a well-kept secret ― we already have everything we need to live in a state of continuous joy. That realization and its deliberate habituation through meditation into a steady state-of-mind, he called nirvana ― the other shore.

Notice: with enlightenment nothing physical or metaphysical changes. You are living in the same world, with the same experiences you’ve always had. The only difference is that you experience these things without selfish desire. Once craving for what does not satisfy ceases, clinging to life in order to continue amassing what does not satisfy also ceases. Hence you “go beyond life and death.” You can embrace death with equanimity, which is sometimes expressed as “going beyond being and non-being.” But enlightenment is accompanied by a new joy in living; it is not a yearning for death, a misconception we will deal with later.

Now the Buddha did not expect that this emotional transformation from living in a state of constant craving and dissatisfaction to a joyful embrace of reality as it really is (in its “suchness”) would take place easily or instantaneously. He offered a program for the long-term re-educa­tion of the conatus through the practice of meditation, mindful attention to the present moment, faithful dedication to morally (socially) right living, and the controlled withdrawal from the automatic pursuit of what we like, and avoidance of what we don’t like.

He did not define good behavior as obedience to a “God”-person, but rather as the intelligent concurrence with the common sense norms that guaranteed health, individual peace of mind and harmony in the human community. He called those norms the Dharma and they were ends in themselves. The word Dharma had the sense not of a code of laws issued by a ruling divinity but rather the “Law of Nature” or “the way things are.” Following the Dharma was like having a healthy life-style; it made you strong, stable and clear-headed. His entire focus was “with this life in view.” He related neither to a “God” who dwelt in another world nor to any suggestion that human beings would want to live there rather than here. It simply was not part of his perspective. His only goal was to end dukkha.

Just as the Buddha’s program was not a compliance with external norms, it was also not an intellectual exercise, a drawing of practical conclusions from theoretical assumptions and premises. The Buddha claimed he was simply putting into words the experiences he himself had gone through. It was the carefully articulated and meticulously detailed directions for changing the emotions. He assured his listeners that it worked. It necessarily achieved the transformation of the emotions, but it did not do so directly.

The agent of change was to end the craving that provided the emotional interface that shaped and colored reality as we perceived it. By eliminating the craving for objects of desire, suddenly those objects began to be perceived differently. What they were, changed, because the “fog” of desire through which they were perceived had disappeared. Specifically, the frustration and “unsatifactoriness” of all of life ― the suffering, the sorrow ― that accompany ceaseless cravings is transformed into the experience of continuous joy.

That is not the conclusion of a syllogism. No one who has not experienced it can prove that it is true. And that transformation from sorrow to joy cannot be experienced unless someone practices the program ― does the hard, slow and incremental work of “starving the tiger,” eliminating craving by denying its urgings which in turn require changing the mindset and the behavior that nourish it. All the proofs come from experience, and the results are counter-intuitive. It feels like we are denying ourselves what we really want, but in reality we are beginning to embrace things as they really are, without the strobe-light fantasies of our selfish desires laying a blinding dazzle, or repulsiveness, on reality that is really not there.

Buddhism and the Judaeo-Christian tradition

The transformation of the emotions and the cessation of desire are not religious objectives for those who have been brought up in the Judaeo-Christian traditions of Western Europe. We are focused more narrowly on change of behavior. This, of course, is due to the emphasis on obeying the commandments, codified in the Hebrew scriptures, which enjoin right behavior alone. Personal health, individual peace of mind and a harmonious, prosperous community were the results of compliance with the Creator’s will but were thought to be gifts personally bestowed by God as a reward for obedience.

When compared with the Judaeo-Christian vision, notice how the Buddhist process inverts, or at least subordinates the place of behavior in the scheme of things. “Right behavior” for the Buddha is the instrument, the tool, the “practice” that will eventually end craving. Right behavior while it is an end in itself is not the end of the process as it is for the followers of “the Book.” It is rather the path to the ending of suffering which only comes when craving ends.

Contrariwise, since the very object of the Judaeo-Christian believer is right behavior as the expression of submission to “God” in creaturely obedience, once that right behavior is achieved, the very goal of religious pursuit has been attained. The process ends. The conditions for moral living have been satisfied, there is no theoretical reason why anyone should go further. The only thing remaining is sustaining it.

But that is exactly where the problem is. If the craving has not ceased but is only postponed, which is what Paul’s argument in Corinthians implies, its constant suppression in forcing right behavior tends to create a heightened emotional tension. Two psycho-spiritual effects can result from this unremitting tension: (1) the practitioner falls, i.e., fails to sustain the right behavior and yields to the craving. This corresponds to Paul’s complaint in Romans that the good he willed he could not do , and the evil he did not want to do he did. Or (2) the practitioner does not fall but by not having eliminated the craving becomes “miserable.” Devotees generate a subconscious anger because of unsatisfied desire that turns life bitter. Self-direc­ted anger in modern parlance is called depression. Ancient Christian desert Fathers had accurately identified this one-two punch almost two millennia ago. They called it despondency.[1]

This state of unsatisfied desire experienced continuously over a long period of time creating depression and anger can intensify and broaden until it becomes all-consuming for the individual. The “sorrow” loses its specificity and grows to include all of experienced reality. Life itself, for the eternally frustrated, becomes a torment that one yearns to have end. The bitterness expressed in the mediaeval poem Carmina Burana immortalized by Carl Orff in his striking musical piece, reflects exactly this almost unbearable domination of the poet by his/her frustrated desires. This can create a craving for extinction.

Buddha was not unaware of this potential development. He was quite emphatic that his call for the elimination of selfish desire ― sometimes called “extinguishment” ― should not be confused with a craving for extinction, a form of nihilism. Buddha did not condemn all desire. Desire is good if we desire what is good and in the measure in which its satisfaction is good and possible. Following the Dharma guarantees that desire will be wholesome and balanced. He called it “the middle way” and it corresponded to the Greek ideal of the mean between two extremes. Buddhists generally are careful to modify the desire that is to be eliminated as “selfish,” which they describe as “bound up with passion and greed.” Texts in the Tripitaka of the Pali Canon use the word trishna meaning “thirst.” It is most often translated as “craving” and they identify three kinds: “there are these three cravings. Craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. These are the three cravings.” [2]

The first is self-explanatory. The second refers to the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” which claims that all things, including one’s own body and resulting psychological identity, are in fact the products of the “dependent co-arising” of a multitude of causes all of which enter constitutively into the actual reality that we call the self. There is really “no self” apart from the existence and healthy functioning of its causes. When they disappear, the “self” disappears. It is we, then, from selfish desire who generate the fiction that we are not our multitude of causes ― that we are separate and independent of them and that we will not disappear when our causes cease to function. This craving and the passionate pursuit of permanent existence and the self-aggrandize­ment that it engenders is a major cause of the suffering we heap on ourselves and others.

The third, the desire for extinction, is also a craving. It is the eventual result of the despondency and despair that accompanies the eternal frustration of selfish desire. It’s what results from the failure to satisfy the first two cravings ― a failure that is inevitable ― and the failure to let them go. One commentator on the Dhammapada describes the craving for extinction as: “. . . the oppressive desire for self-oblivion or self-destruction prompted by the revulsion with life that comes as the fruits of selfishness turn rotten and bitter.”[3]

This thirst for extinction is the polar opposite of the desire for nirvana, the release from the cycle of birth and death. Nirvana is the release from trishna (“thirst,”) itself, from the torment and conditioning of selfish desire; its characteristic features are joy, a love of life and the highest of all purposes, the desire and capacity to give.[4]

It is difficult to ignore the implication of the Buddhist program: that the Pauline insistence on the resurrection (which molted historically in the West into the traditional emphasis on reward and punishment after death) represents exactly the obsessive craving for permanent existence and the self-aggrandize­ment of the human person that the Buddha identified as one of the major causes of human suffering. In fact it might be fair to say that Buddhism represents precisely the effort to identify that obsession as delusional and let it go. And the irony is, that when the cessation of desire is achieved and the obsessive pursuit of pleasure and permanent existence disappears, the desire for extinction that accompanies frustrated desire also disappears. Depression evaporates even as a possibility and the resulting spontaneous love of life produces an abiding joy and release of energy that has caused people to claim they had been “reborn.” All cravings can be let go, and the craving for extinction is revealed in that moment as something we had been clinging to because we did not want to let go of the selfish desires for permanent existence and happiness that generated it.

Paul’s pity expressed in the epigram from 1 Corinthians is an indication that he never contemplated the possibility that desire could be “extinguished” and that those who achieved it would no longer need to have such desires satisfied in the afterlife. For Paul, it appears, selfish desire was insuperable. Either you delay gratification until the afterlife, or you act out your desires here.

Whatever the actual case for resurrection turns out to be, two and a half millennia of Buddhist practice contradicts the argument that without it we are condemned to lives of gross immorality. Jesus himself never displayed any lack of confidence in his listeners’ ability to do what was right, and live with joy and generosity, once they understood that they were in the loving embrace of a forgiving “father.” I feel supported in my trust in LIFE when I hear of people following Jesus’ “way” with this life only in view. Their attitude shows an unconditional appreciation for LIFE and trust in its processes.

[1] Bunge, Gabriel, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus, St Vladimirs Seminary Pr, 2012 (1983)

[2] Bhikkhu Sujato. Samyuttanikaya: Linked Discourses, 38:10 (Kindle Locations 14736-14737)

[3] Stephen Ruppenthal, introductory remarks to chapter 24 of the Dhammapada, tr. Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Berkeley, 1985, p. 232.

[4] Ibid.

Buddhist Enlightenment

a function of matter’s living energy



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

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

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

The pre-history of material energy

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Enlightenment, satori

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tony Equale

October 8, 2018

Some reflections on Jesus and Buddha

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

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

Historical context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yahweh vs Brahma

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[1] Lk 16: 19-31

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

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