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.

“. . . the most to be pitied.” (II)

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

1 Corinthians 15:19

That statement of Paul’s was uncharacteristic of a Jew. In Paul’s time, Jews did not believe in an after-life.  Besides, the remark had an arrogant and demanding tone that was more typical of Greek attitudes dominated by the belief that human beings were immaterial spirits unnaturally imprisoned in their bodies of matter.  The Greeks were focused on an “other world” of divine spirit where our “souls” supposedly originated and to which they returned at death after escaping from their dungeons of flesh. They were quite passionate about it. If a world­view did not relate to the existence of the immortal human spirit, it was not worth considering. We are not animals.

The mystery religions that flourished in the ancient Mediterranean world reflected this Greek obsession with spirit and the afterlife. And it was to the mystery religions that Paul turned for an interpretation of the Christ event. Paul taught that the Christian was ritually immersed in the death and resurrection of Christ the way the mystēs was immersed in the death and resurrection of Demeter and Orpheus, Isis and Mithra. For Paul, the resurrection was more than a sign of divine approval for Jesus’ authenticity as a messenger, it became the message itself, the mysterion (Latin: sacramentum), the ritual-vehicle that would transport us to the other world. In a thoroughly Hellenized culture where religious practice was constituted by the pursuit of life after death, one can understand the appeal of Paul’s proclamation. Christianity, because of this emphasis of Paul, stopped being a heterodox Jewish sect and became a Greco-Roman religious cult.

The paradox that lies under the surface of early Christianity is that Jesus himself was a Jew and expressed none of the focus on life after death that was central to Paul’s message. Jesus’ preaching as reported in the gospels, was most definitely “for this life only.” This is more than a mere matter of emphasis. Jesus did not offer life after death as the motivation for the humble, generous, just and loving behavior he encouraged. In the tradition of Job and the Jewish prophets he conspicuously avoided any motivation based on reward or punishment either in this life or after death. The motivation, like the behavior he called for, was love. He told his fellow Jews to imitate their loving Father who was just, compassionate, generous and forgiving. “Be like your heavenly Father who makes the sun shine equally on the just and the unjust.” . . .   His model prayer, the “Our Father” said “forgive us as we forgive others.”

Paul and Jesus

I believe what we are dealing with are two very different religious visions: (1) Jesus’ renewal of Judaism grounded in an emphatic re-characterization of Yahweh as “loving Father” and the rejection of earlier imagery that painted him as warrior king and punitive lawgiver, and (2) Paul’s focus on the Hellenistic pursuit of life-after-death, proven by the real resurrection of Jesus to be more than wishful thinking, confirming Greek hopes.

The arrogance of Paul’s statement is a first clue that his message was different from Jesus’. Paul sits in judgment on reality itself and finds it wanting. If living morally is the only way to be authentically human, and we are not able to live moral lives without radically altering the natural course of human life which ends in death, then, indeed, it is not possible to be human, because there is no way to avoid death. I believe it was Paul’s merger of the two sources of his formation that accounts for this bizarre metaphysical judgmentalism. The Greeks had decided that their theory about the immortal immaterial soul was scientific truth, and those that did not accept it had to believe that we were only animals. The Jews, for their part, were convinced that they were God’s chosen tribe destined to political supremacy over all the other tribes in the world. If Jesus was the messiah, for Paul it meant that God was bringing the whole world into submission to Jewish salvation history. Put these two delusions together as Paul did in his own head and you’ve got an ideology with an attitude. It laid the foundations for Christianity’s subsequent tendency to demand the submission of all other traditions to its own.

But consider how presumptuous this is. Paul claims to know exactly what God’s intentions are for humankind and therefore how “God” structured the world and directed human history. In Paul’s attitude there is nothing of Job’s blinding insight that, while he could not explain Yahweh’s behavior, he realized he knew so little that his only valid reaction had to be an awed silence.

Job’s was the proper reaction. If God is as utterly unknowable and his designs as unfathomable as theists have always claimed, then the door must be left open for possibilities that we cannot imagine. Who are we to decide that death, which, is the destiny of absolutely every single living thing on earth, is “unnatural” in the case of humankind . . . a claim our Platonist Christianity has sustained for two millennia despite the indisputable evidence that every single last human being that has ever lived has died and no “immortal soul” has ever been encountered.

Besides, by arrogantly deciding that if resurrection is not part of the picture “we are the most to be pitied,” Paul is implying that alternatives are not authentic and cannot be considered reliable guides to life. He ignores the fact that Jesus himself encouraged people to live moral lives without ever invoking resurrection following the entire Jewish tradition for a thousand years before him. Were Jesus’ listeners being misled? Were all those people to be pitied?

Don’t misunderstand. I am not trying to disprove the resurrection. That’s not my point. I would personally be overjoyed if we were all to come back to life as ourselves to be united once again with the people we love. I am not hoping there is no resurrection, I’m simply saying, against Paul, that even if there is no resurrection, nothing changes. Our sense of the sacred and our trust in LIFE remain the same. No one is to be pitied. Faith in the resurrection might make it easier for some to live a moral life, but that doesn’t invalidate other views. All are obliged by their humanity to be moral, even those who find resurrection incredible.

Resurrection is either real or it’s not. If Christian beliefs are true, my denying them won’t make them disappear, any more than believing them will create them.   Whatever the case may be, we have absolutely no control over what happens to us after death. All we know is that we die and we cannot bring ourselves back to life. That means that if we are to come back to life someone or something else that we cannot see or control has to do it. It is not in our hands. Everyone is equally powerless. Christians have no more control than anyone else. They, too, have to trust that “God” will bring them back to life after death.


This finally brings us to the core of the issue: trust. Belief in the resurrection does not change reality, it changes my attitude toward reality. It offers no more guarantees than human life itself in whose processes we have to trust implicitly.

For consider: Our dependency on the forces of LIFE is so universal, so deep and so insuperable that no matter how willfully selfish and anti-social we decide we are going to be, we still have to trust in the biological processes that must continue to function efficiently if we are to carry out our nefarious plans. We have to trust that the multiple organic operations of our bodies, alimentation, respiration, elimination, circulation, the proper release of neurotransmitters guaranteeing perception, insight, thought, memory, many of which we do not fully understand, will work without error or interruption. And then there are the events that create our very identities and roles in society: conception, gestation that brought us from conception to birth fully equipped for life as independent biological organisms, the ontogeny that impeccably brought us to adulthood along with the generative sexuality that allows us to reproduce. None of us has personal authorship or control over any of these things. Everything about us and our life with others has been handed to us, developed over immeasurable eons of deep time by an evolutionary process that has adapted our organisms perfectly to our environment. We have implicit trust in all this. We have no choice. Trust in LIFE is the sea we swim in. It is the inescapable attitude, conscious or not, that characterizes the relationship that we have to being-here. Our organisms are programmed ― they are hard-wired ― to trust in LIFE.

Trust in death

Given that trust is the very condition that defines us, it should come as no great surprise that even as our lives wind down and we approach death, we are spontaneously inclined to continue to trust. The fear of death is a learned response; it should not be confused with the flight from danger which is a biological instinct, a reaction to a living perception that evaporates as soon as the threat has passed. Death is different. The organism has no notion of death because no one living has ever experienced it. Death is a mental construct, pure product of the imagination. Trust, I contend is instinctive. It is the simple seamless continuation of the way we live our lives from moment to moment. Given that life is a very long unbroken series of trusting moments no one is spontaneously inclined to suddenly decide that some next moment cannot be trusted. Something has to intervene to break that chain.

It is very difficult to be afraid of the moment of death without conceptual intervention and a considerable amount of projection. We imagine what death must be because we see what it has done to all the people that have passed through it. Using this gathered data, our minds create an abstract concept which, in fact, is at odds with our spontaneous trusting expectations. Our instinctive inclination is to embrace with joy each now moment as part of the process of living.

Now resurrection, life-after-death, is itself a projection of the imagination that is obviously generated to neutralize the death-concept. No one living has ever experienced resurrection, even those that claim to believe in it. But it is even more remote than death, for while we have evidence that people have died, no one living has ever seen anyone who has come back from the dead. All “data” in this regard come from the records of ancient people who themselves are dead, and never came back to life. That the belief in resurrection can overcome such a huge credibility gap tells you how powerful the urge is to trust LIFE.

Now my point in all this is to identify “human bedrock,” by which I mean the ground beneath which there is no ground. It is the sine qua non for living a human life. Resurrection is not bedrock, as Paul’s arrogant statement seems to claim, a psychological human need so deep that without it, it is impossible to live humanly. For resurrection as a psychological operator functions as magnet for a trust in LIFE. It restores the trust that our organisms are programmed for.

I contend that trust in LIFE is human psychological bedrock. And that means that without trust in LIFE we cannot lead human lives, we cannot be sane, we cannot be moral, we cannot love ourselves or others, we cannot build a human world. And the trust we have in LIFE, while it gives us absolutely no information whatsoever about what happens to us as conscious identifiable selves after death, has the potential to override the absence of evidence about life after death.

But in order for it to do that, trust in LIFE has to neutralize the exaggerated import­ance of the self which, to my mind, is at the root of Paul’s arrogance. Resurrection as we have imagined it correlates to the human individual self. Our trust in life has been detoured into an expectation that the individual “self” will live forever. The bitterness and disillusionment characteristic of modern times in the lands of the West, in my opinion, is directly due to having been sold a bill of goods about our selves that was sheer fantasy. Having taken Paul seriously, when it became clear to many that there was no resurrection, their love of life itself was destroyed by the conviction that “we are the most to be pitied.”

The “Self”

I believe that the transcendent importance that we have accorded ourselves as identifiable self-conscious individuals, (requiring resurrection if we are to trust LIFE) is a cultural phenomenon, not metaphysical. It is characteristic of Western Christianity and the cultures that it has shaped. It is the result of the artificial expansion and intensification of a psychological focus on oneself that was always open to being situated anywhere along a fairly wide spectrum of importance. In other words, it is our culture that has made the “individual” the super-important thing that we project it to be. Our culture under the tutelage of our dualistic religion has cultivated the appreciation of the individual person well out of proportion to what it might have received from other cultures. We are not unaware of this. For many it is a source of great pride and admiration. It has given rise to what we call western values which includes the dubious legacy of belief in our superiority and the right to impose our way of life on the rest of the world.

That importance is culturally inflated but not created out of nothing. Self-awareness and self-prioritization is a universal biological experience. All animal organisms display it. But, falsely defining the human person as a “divine” eternal “spirit” destined to live forever without the body precisely because the “self” is not the material biological organism it appears to be, is the cultural bellows that forced air artificially into the “self” expanding it in size and visibility. The individualism of the West is an exaggerated, overblown, cultural artifact grounded in the unfounded belief in the separable human spirit as a metaphysical “thing” of divine provenance, different from every other thing in the material universe. The cultural context of belief in the human “soul” as immaterial immortal spirit skews the perception of what the human individual is, well beyond the conclusions that would be drawn by experience if left alone. The evidence that we are material biological organisms is undeniable; but there is no evidence that there is an immaterial thing called a “soul” that continues to exist after the death of the body, none whatsoever.

Once the exaggerated importance accorded to the human person has been reduced to the proportions that the evidence will support, we are left with a biological organism that is able to perform extraordinary functions that go beyond what organic matter in other biological configurations is capable of, but at no point do they propel it out of the orbit of the organic and biological. Even the human mind, which we identify as the “self,” is a material phenomenon whose human functions can deteriorate beyond recognition well before they cease entirely at death.

Trust in LIFE, then, is trust in the material processes, micro and macro, physical, chemical, biological, from which human beings have been elaborated and in which they remain immersed and borne along. Trust is a direct corollary of the recognition that we ourselves are an emergent form of the matter-in-process that constitutes this entire cosmos of things. We trust the process because we are the emanations of the process. We are evolving LIFE in its most forward manifestation. It has produced us and elaborated in the most exquisite detail all the organic tools we would need to interact successfully with the environment. Both that and what we are we owe to the process. Death is an integral part of it.

The key is to not be distracted by the fears and apprehensions generated by the mind, for we have no idea what death brings. And like Job, our ignorance calls us to silence. Whatever death brings is what LIFE has devised as a necessary component of our being-here. We have to trust it. We know no more about it than our coming-to-be-here itself. If we have trusted LIFE implicitly up until now what could possibly cause us to stop trusting it into the future, except unrealistic expectations based on who we have been told to think we are. Our unnatural demand that we live forever as our “selves” is born of the delusion that we are not part of nature and that what applies to the rest of biological life constructed of organic matter does not apply to us. It’s time we disabused ourselves of that fantasy, which indeed makes us, of all of living things in this vast and awesome universe, the most to be pitied.


Jesus and Buddha (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polar opposites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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




Reflections on Buddhist Impermanence

2,500 words

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impermanence and “being-here-now”

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

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

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

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.


Please note: section 5 of this blogpost was revised and republished on Saturday May, 26, 2018.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Simorgh of the world ― with awe

They gazed and dared at last to comprehend

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

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

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

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



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

Self-Embrace and the delusion of permanence

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


We may have thought that last paragraph gave a final description to an ultimate dilemma that we do not have the resources to resolve, because we cannot see beyond the horizon of our sight. Seeing is limited to seeing, and the explanation is either inside or outside the totality. It is either accessible or not.

But I believe that the dilemma mis-states the possibilities. There is a third alternative. The explanation — the causal source — is both. It is accessible to me because it is inside the totality characterized by emptiness and at the same time it transcends the limitations of the things that compose and decompose. There is nothing arcane or “mystical” about this alternative, because the causal source is an existential energy that is physically, observably and measurably the very component of which all things that exist in the totality are constructed. In other words, there is no dichotomy between the things that are empty and the things that are not. Both are commensurate with the totality, the energy as “light source” and the “shadows” as dependently arisen. All things are the locus where both reside, simultaneously. A forcefield that is not empty energizes the components whose coming together and coming apart constitute the emptiness of all things made from it.

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

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

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

Commentary on this udāna in a contemporary parallel collection of quotations suggests that the Buddha was not referring to some absolute “thing” out there, but rather to nirvana, enlightenment, a human state of mind, an interior appropriation that provides an “escape that is calm, permanent, a sphere beyond conjecture, unborn, unproduced, the sorrowless, stainless state, the cessation of stressful qualities, stilling-of-fabrications bliss.” (itivuttakas 43 (“quotations.” The Fourth Part of the Khuddaka Nikāya).

But the udāna is clearly intended to evoke both, because it very explicitly quotes the Buddha as saying that the state of mind would not be possible if the metaphysical reality were not also there. The Buddha’s reputed statement is only possible because they are one and the same thing, exactly as Mahayana Buddhism discerned. For all the branches and derivatives of the Mahayana reform of the second century c.e., samsara and nirvana refer to the same reality. The only difference is in the perception, the state of mind in which reality is apprehended. Reality is simultaneously temporal and timeless, limited and unlimited, composed and uncomposed. The empty “shadow” entity contains within itself the source of the light that throws it.

Other traditions corroborate this interpretation. In the mediaeval metaphysics of Johannes Eckhart, source and shadow are explicitly identified as the same reality. We have to remember, Eckhart claimed there is no “God,” no “thing” or “person,” an entity apart from other entities that thinks and acts and creates, but rather a “Godhead” that, following Aristotle, was the Pure Act of existence, esse in se subsistens, the pure unmixed energy of being-here expressed as a simple, eternal, impassive, totally fulfilled self-possession ― a serene motionless, non-rational, unthinking and silent self-embrace that emanates the cosmos of material being. The material energy that science has identified as the homogeneous substrate of all things plays precisely the same role that the mediaevalists like Eckhart attributed to “being.”

Spinoza attributed the same emanative energy to his “God,” identifying divine energy so thoroughly with the universe of perceptible things that emanated from it that he called them mere modalities of “God,” earning him the false label pantheist. But like Eckhart, Nagārjuna, and Buddha he was trying to explain how two realities, cause and effect, reside in the same “thing” even while they reside in all things, without either losing its character as cause or effect.

To enter nirvana is to enter a forcefield that is already there. It is to resonate with the existential energy that pervades, suffuses and characterizes everything in our material universe. It is consciously and intentionally to enter a state of being-here-with everything else (what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being”) and in the way everything is-here-together.   It is to vibrate on that same wavelength, with the same frequency, driven by the same appetitive energy for being-here, the conatus, that mystics of all traditions have most remarkably described in exactly the same terms despite differences of time, place, cult and culture. Clearly, their experience was the same. It is to identify your being-here with the cosmic forcefield in which all other things are-here and are joyfully themselves in their shadow relationships with all other things. This is not just a frame of mind. The frame of mind is possible, as the Buddha said so emphatically, because the physical/metaphysical reality establishing that consonance is really physically there. It is to embrace yourself unreservedly for being exactly what you are … just as everything rejoices in being exactly what it is: this perishing material organism that is-here, now. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that the permanence you touch is yours.

How did Eckhart get there? He claimed that it was precisely the fact that this vast network of impermanent shadows was itself a shadow, exactly as second century Indian Nagārjuna said, that turned the Meister, who wrote in frontier Germany in the early years of the 14th century, into an explorer of mystical space. His quest was for the face and features of what he believed had necessarily emanated the entire universe as such a perfect shadow ― such a faithful and accurate representation of itself ― that using the universe including his own individual human yearning self as a map and guide, and working backwards, he could “discern” it. He called it “The Godhead” and believed that his own “soul,” similar to the Sufi mystics, was its mystical mirror. What he saw when he looked at his own face, was the face of the Godhead, what I call LIFE. Nirvana is the personal appropriation of the pure existential energy ― the LIFE ― of living / dying matter. It is the realization that there is nothing else there. The wave is all and only water. WE ARE THAT and our liberation is not to stop being THAT impermanent, vanishing, decomposing matter, but to embrace it.


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

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