Translating the Mystics

2,000 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-forming Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

The mystics’ vision

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

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

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

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

Christian Universalism (II)

an evolution of The Book

2,500 words

Universalism is not just an idea. It has had a long and tortuous history in the lands of the West ― lands that are now dominated by religions whose origins are in “The Book.” By “The Book,” of course, I am referring to what is known as the “Bible,” which is a large collection of documents, compiled and organized by religious officials at the time when the nation of Judah was being reconstructed after the Babylonian Captivity, about 600 years before the common era.   It contained earlier accounts that were simultaneously religious and historical, of events cherished and passed on by the remnants of people who identified themselves as members of one extended family, the offspring of a man named Abraham, who came from a city in ancient Sumeria, present day Iraq, located where the Euphrates once entered the Persian gulf.

Originally, there was no distinction between religious and historical. Later material began to be included that was more identifiably poetic and moralistic, what people in our time call “religious.” But the Bible was originally constructed on the premise that the history of the nation of Israel (later called Judah) was actually the narrative of the exploits and accomplish­ments of a near-eastern war god, named Yahweh, who had selected the descendants of that one extended family to be his representatives. The history of those people, who called themselves Hebrews, was the history of Yahweh.

The relationship between the Hebrew people and Yahweh was conceived as contractual. It resulted in what came to be known as the promises of the “Covenant” or Testament.” Yahweh promised he would guarantee success in war and prosperity in peace to the descendants of Abraham in return for obedience, praise, sacrifice and the promotion of his reputation among the gods. It was definitely a quid pro quo. Yahweh was to be their only god, hence idolatry, the worship of other gods, was the greatest of crimes. The worship of Yahweh, which evolved into the Jewish religion, was an ethnic, national, political, necessarily theocratic state of affairs. The relationship maintained these features of national ascendancy until Israel’s fortunes turned permanently sour at the beginning of the sixth century b.c.e. When the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar uprooted the entire population of the kingdom of Judah (what was left of Israel) and deported them to Babylon, it became clear in a way that could not be disputed, that the “contract” between Yahweh and the nation of Israel as traditionally understood had fallen apart.

Since political success was tied to fidelity to Yahweh, it was always assumed that if there was defeat or calamity, it had to be because some “sin,” known or unknown, had been committed by the people to merit Yahweh’s “punishment.”  But after the exile, awareness of the overwhelming power of the successive Mesopotamian empires disabused the returning Jews of any hope in their own eventual supremacy in the world of geo-politics, despite Yahweh’s promises; it was dawning on them that defeat was a matter of political impotence, not a punishment for sin. The “contract” had to be re-thought. They were faced with a choice: either abandon Yahweh (which would mean the loss of national identity and absorption into another nation and god), or stay faithful to Yahweh and abandon the traditional terms in which relationship to one’s “god” was to be understood..

New religious thinkers of deep traditional faith who had experienced the exile and come in contact with other “nations” began to look at Yahweh with fresh eyes enlightened by their own widening vision. Authors like the writers of the book of Job and of Qoheleth refused to delude themselves about reality. Face it, they said. Yahweh permits the just to suffer. Why? The ancient formula that all suffering is a punishment for sin . . . that if you suffer it is by default because of you  . . . was challenged. But it was not only challenged, the challenge was published and read and its depth and significance recognized, for it came to be included in the collection of the sacred writings of the nation. These included the prophets whose unwavering conviction of Yahweh’s goodness began to adumbrate the importance of justice across national boundaries despite disparities of political power.   The very injustice done to Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians was an affront to Yahweh, not because they were his people, but because injustice was wrong, and Yahweh was the guardian of right and wrong everywhere. The psalmists were clear: the perpetrators of injustice were following other gods, and they should be ashamed. The psalmists also upbraided Yahweh without apology for not punishing those who make the just to suffer, but they never embraced the fiction that suffering was on Yahweh’s initiative. Suffering is caused by human injustice perpetrated by unjust selfish people who follow false gods; Yahweh does not condone injustice, he does not reward those who cause suffering . . . why, he even fails to punish the guilty.

This unmistakable universalism developed in tandem with a growing sense that Yahweh was Israel’s “one” god because, in fact, he was the only god there was. A monotheistic Zoroastrianism had become dominant in Mesopotamia around the time of the exile and seems to have been the religion of Cyrus the Great of Persia who ended the Jewish exile in 538 b.c.e. An earlier monotheism which had a brief ascendancy in Egypt in the reign of Akhenaten was squashed by the religious elite but obviously was not eradicated from people’s minds. Some have suggested that Mosaic monotheism was inspired by that phenomenon.

The conquests of Alexander the Great around 330 b.c.e. introduced Greek philosophical thought to the region and monotheism was clearly part of it. Theological monotheism ― that there was in reality only one god ― as opposed to henotheism which recognized a supreme god among many gods, was a correlate of universalism, because it said unequivocally, the same one god ruled everyone. And the belief that it was the same “God” who legislated the moral code, meant that all of humankind was enjoined by the same morality.

In the second century b.c.e., the successor state to Alexander’s conquests ― the Seleucids ― occasioned a nationalist reaction in Judah known as the Maccabean revolt.   It was a reassertion of the vision of a Yahwist theocracy against the Hellenizing that came with Greek domination of the region which was once the chess board for the maneuvers of Egypt and Mesopotamia. After a century of civil war within Israel, the victorious rebels, known as the Hasmoneans, came to rule an independent theocratic Jewish nation of Judah for about 70 years in a respectful alliance with the Seleucid Greeks. That ended in 63 b.c.e. when Judah became a client state of the Roman empire.

In Jesus’ time, the Jewish debate between religious nationalists and those who favored collaboration with the “Greeks” that had been at the root of Judah’s civil wars, continued on in the divisions of Palestinian Jewish society among Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes, with the Pharisees and Essenes disputing between themselves the inheritance of the Maccabean vision. Whether Yahwism was a viable political possibility was an issue that many saw as a specifically religious question, to be solved not by political analysis and a realistic assessment of possibility, but only by an accurate theological interpretation of the “promises of Yahweh.” Not only are there indications that Jesus was well aware of this debate, but also it seems plausible that both Jesus and his cousin John had been associated in some way with the Essenes. Reports in all the gospels seem to indicate that Jesus believed that an apocalyptic event was about to occur. Was this a retro-projection made by Christian communities suffering Roman persecution? We may never know.

I believe that Jesus’ message contained, tacitly, a universalist insight ― a potential religious “revolution” of huge significance ― derived from the essential premises of Judaism. It was fundamentally the insights of Job, Qoheleth, the later prophets and psalms. It was an authentically Jewish development that transcended the primacy of the nation of Judah as a political theocracy, and therefore implicitly went beyond the sect (“Judaism”) that was its ideological justification. Jesus, in other words, without making it the center of his vision, embraced the elements of a universalist view that was being spontaneously generated by an evolving Judaism whose ancient forms of expression remained sectarian. Jesus’ views, surely, were spurred in part by a realistic evaluation of the actual course of Mediterranean political history and Israel’s unavoidable subordination. In his frequent evocation of the “kingdom” there was no indication that Jesus meant to lead a return to political power and autonomy. In his statements he was careful about the way he challenged Rome.

That realization ― acknowledging that the ancient promises were not realistic ― had begun as early as the Jews’ exile in Babylon in the 6th century b.c.e. It marked the transformation of Yahweh from a minor Mesopotamian tribal war-god into a supra-national, universal “Deity” of which there could only be one.   However, the dream of Israel’s national-tribal ascendancy continued along with these universalist developments. Many Jews remained attached to the fantasies of national autonomy and supremacy until the Jewish-Roman wars of 70 c.e. and 150 c.e. put an end to them for good.

Was Jesus himself ever partisan to those fantasies? The evidence is not entirely clear, but for sure the purport of his message as recorded in the gospels was moral, spiritual and, explicitly non-political. Jesus’ followers, then, picked up the essence of his tribe-transcending insight and began to find ritual and propositional expression for this non-sectarian message about Judaism, authenticated, confirmed and inspired by his extraordinary personality. Jesus was a Jew; he directed himself only to Jews and remained a Jew until his death, but the implication of his religious vision was a universalized Judaism. Given Judaism’s tribal origins, this may have been a bridge too far, for both the Romans and the Jewish authorities of his time concurred in effectuating his elimination.

With Paul of Tarsus, a diaspora Jew who was reared in Greek culture, the embrace of Jesus’ universal insight led to the attempt to find a justification that was not based on a Judaism that remained tribal and sectarian. Jewish universalism was limited to Jesus’ followers. As a “Greek,” Paul’s own membership in the Christian community was the embodiment of Judaic / Christian universalism. Paul found a ground of support in the person of Jesus himself and the divine mandate that Paul believed was created/revealed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. With this new “direct” source of legitimacy, Christianity no longer looked to Judaism as its source of divine authority and relied rather on a “divinely chosen” messiah, the risen Christ, whose “obedience unto death” had earned him “a name above every name” and, surely, a direct line to God himself.

Once Christianity began to function in observable cultic groupings in the Greek-speaking world, the Christians’ “god” ― Christ ― was informally assumed into the pantheon of the Mediterranean gods by the all-tolerant, all-embracing blithely polytheistic Greco-Romans. Jesus’ later ascendancy to the position of “highest god” made Christianity a powerful tool for the legitimation of Roman rule, and that fact was certainly a primary motivating factor for Constantine’s pressure on the bishops to adopt the homoousios at the Council of Nicaea.

Roman rule, unfortunately, was precisely about wealth and power. It was not Jesus’ “kingdom,” even though it appropriated that language for itself. Christianity became the Imperial recapitulation of the tribal theocracy that had originated in the city-state of Rome. This had the effect of totally reversing Jesus’ universalist insight and using his “divine authority” to support the political ambitions of this one particular state which, even after the profession of Christian beliefs, still operated with its more primitive tribal structures. These included a “mandate from heaven” to rule the world for the Empire now made one flesh with its Church. Christianity was dragooned to fulfill the theocratic role once performed by Roman religion; and it turned itself inside out ― literally ― in order to do it.

The changes in Christian priorities occurred well before Constantine and Nicaea. It was a long development that took three hundred years to mature, driven by the Greco-Roman educated classes who came to dominate Christianity, bringing their two tier ― master / slave ― class system and Platonic philosophical idealism with them. The Roman embrace of Christianity by Constantine was the final step in a long process of acculturation that was in fact a much more natural evolution than history has traditionally portrayed. Christianity became the new face of Roman religion: the guarantor of divine protection and the justification for Roman conquest and rule.

The transfer of the functions of state religion for the protection and advancement of the “city”-become-empire from the traditional gods to Christ, tapped the residual theocratic potential embedded in the original Judaic literature from which Jesus emerged, and turned Christianity back into an Old Testament-inspired sectarian expression of a political theocracy: it became the sect of Rome, and effectively turned the “Father” of Jesus back into an ethnic war-god. The universalism that was at the heart of Jesus’ message was annulled and absorbed into Rome’s claim of universal dominion (a corollary of “God’s” providential will), and Jesus’ “kingdom of justice” came to mean simply a minimally oppressive imposition of Roman law.

Jesus spiritualized the word “kingdom” and insisted, as did the prophets, that “God” ruled the hearts of men because he was the Father of them all. The message was just that simple, but the implications have been impossible for western man to swallow; for it meant that we are all one family . . .   we are all brothers and sisters, and western Europeans, for some reason, could not accept that.  We need a universal religion to express that reality. The Roman Empire’s version of Christianity, which continues among us as the Roman Catholic Church and its “reformed” iterations, is not that religion.

Could this anti-universalist development ever be reversed? A return to the universal insight and message of Jesus would have to refuse all sectarian identification because it would eschew all political pretenses. Jesus’ “kingdom” can only be a metaphor for what rules the heart of man. Augustine’s identification of it with the Roman Empire ― and the Roman Empire and its successors as “God’s” providential will for the diffusion of the “gospel” ― was a theological travesty of the first order. It is this travesty that has come to define an intolerant and supremacist Christianity, the principal tool that created the racism, inequity, and the exploitation of people and the earth characteristic of our times. It has inspired a rebellion of the marginated in virtually all the continents colonized by Christians.  The violent rejection and repression of the exploiters in reaction to this demand for justice — effectively reasserting the supremacy of Christian ethnicity — may have already sealed our fate as a species.

JOY

3,200 words

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

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

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

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

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

The “self”

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

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

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

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

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

Institutional Christianity and Jesus’ message of joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The remarkable Meister Eckhart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Letting go ― east and west

2500 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting go in the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust

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

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

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

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

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

[2] New RSV Luke chapter 12

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (III):

Tribal Identity, Political Humiliation and Nietzsche’s Rejection of Christianity

 

1

Nietzsche had a unique take on Christianity. He accused it of being the last recourse of “losers.” He claimed it was the concoction of people who could not achieve a sense of self-worth in the harsh world of reality. Despairing of achieving a human existence in life, they generated a pathetic belief in an imaginary world where all their aspirations would be realized after they died.

The flip-side of Nietzsche’s rant was his belief that the human individual’s appropriation of his humanity in the face of all the obstacles against it would result in the emergence of a superior kind of human being: a “superman” who owed his self-worth to no one but himself, loved the earth, rejected any thought of the after-life and necessarily shunned all those who lived by some other standard. Even though Nietzsche himself was opposed to anti-Semitism and the ethnic German nationalism of his day, the Nazis used his thinking to support their vision of Aryan superiority.

Abstracting from the horrific purposes to which others applied his thought, It seems that there might be some historical support to Nietzsche’s claim. Christianity was a development of later Judaism, and Judaism, we have to remember, was a religion that evolved in a most dramatic and intriguing way. It went through an inner transformation that turned it 180o from a religion of tribal superiority into a religion of salvation for the oppressed.

It began as a contract (“covenant”) with a warrior god, Yahweh, who freed the Hebrews from their enslavement to the Egyptians and conquered an extensive territory in Palestine along with the tribes that lived there for their possession. He was a god of armies, more powerful than all other gods.

But it was Israel’s destiny to return to servitude. In 587 bce, Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians and the people carted off to work for their conquerors. The evidence was clear. Yahweh was no longer providing military victory. This struck at the very core of national identity for the Jewish people. Either Yahweh was impotent or he was uncaring; both were considered impossible. The fault had to lay with the Jewish people. They were not upholding their side of the contract, hence Yahweh’s abandonment.

The Jews were about to disappear as a nation. When they were “miraculously” allowed to return and rebuild their city and their Temple 50 years later, they took it as a sign of Yahweh’s compassion. But because their exile was surely the result of their failure, this miraculous act on Yahweh’s part had to be in the form of forgiveness. Thus Yahweh evolved from a war god into a God of forgiveness and compassion, ready to help the failures who begged him for help.

This is extraordinary. Suddenly, with the post exilic prophets, strength and power are no longer the instruments of life and prosperity. What draws down divine help is precisely the opposite: neediness, failure, poverty, vulnerability and sin … . For the Jews’ return from Exile there was an added factor: the new Persian conquerors gave the permissions and provided the protections for the return. They had to be acting as the agents of Yahweh’s will. The logic was undebatable: Yahweh wasn’t only the god of the Jews, he ruled all of Mesopotamia as well. Political impotence translated to a new universalist concept of “God.” If “God” is indeed all powerful, he must be guiding those who rule the world. How else could Israel have come back to life?

Of course, the earlier imagery of a god of tribal military triumph still remained. But it was braided into the new vision, became muted and went underground. It took the form of hope: that Yahweh would, at some future time “awake from sleep” and keep his “promises” to Israel of tribal supremacy. This meant that the collaboration with the current empire was a “holy” albeit temporary strategy. It established a paradigm that was in place when Jesus appeared at the start of the common era.

Enter Christianity

Jesus’ life coincided with that point in history when Rome changed from a powerful city-state that grew by making alliances, to a plundering despotic world empire. Rome’s oppressive control, which involved enslavement and heavy tribute extorted from its vassals, awakened the aspirations for national independence among the Jews, and these two “Yahwehs,” the conquering, liberating warrior of the Exodus and the compassionate, forgiving father of the Exile who was grooming the Romans for Israel’s ultimate glory, vied for control of the Jewish imagination. Jesus, some say, following the Essenes, melded the two images by declaring the coming “kingdom,” which many believed to be imminent, to be both Yahweh’s long expected military assertion of Israel’s world domination and the installation of a completely new way of organizing society run by justice and compassion. There would be a final battle ― an Armageddon ― between the forces of good and the forces of evil and after Yahweh’s victory, justice, compassion and forgiveness would rule the relationships among men, not force, greed, lies and larceny.

Others say Jesus opted for the forgiving father and used kingdom terminology only because of its universal currency among the Jews. It’s hard to dismiss the first theory entirely, however, because after his death his followers took up a stance of awaiting Jesus’ return in power which they claimed would usher in Yahweh’s kingdom. The imagery was clearly political; the condemnation of Roman oppression was implicit in this expectation. They called themselves Christians and demanded a transformation of life into the ideals promoted by the compassionate Yahweh in anticipation of the coming kingdom of justice.

As time went by two things happened that radically changed the Christian version of post exilic Yahwism. The first was that Jesus never returned. This was more disrupting than we may realize. For it resulted in the dismissal of Jesus’ radical morality of non-violence and compassion as poetic exaggeration.

The second was that ethnic Jews no longer dominated the Christian community either in numbers or influence. Most new Christians were Greco-Roman converts who had been brought up in the polytheism of the Mediterranean basin and did not see Rome as an alien conquering power or Israel as “God’s” favored nation. Their political acquiescence and the categories of their ancestral religion re-shaped Christianity. These factors conspired to bring Christians to disregard any thought of a revolutionary Jewish “kingdom” installed by a conquering Yahweh, and to transfer any hopes they may have had for a better life to an imagined existence after death. These developments occurred during the three centuries prior to the decision of the Roman Emperor Constantine to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire, and, in fact, made that decision possible.

When that history-changing event occurred in 312, the new “Greco-Roman” Christian world­view got set in stone. Christians, almost universally, interpreted Constantine’s windfall as the establishment of the promised kingdom.  But the kingdom was not Israel, it was Rome, which is apparently what “God” had in mind all along.  For them, the struggle was over. The laws and statutes of Rome were to be accepted as the rules and regulations of the kingdom. The warrior god had come back to life, and both conquest and obedience to law were re-installed as the fundamental dynamics that ruled the kingdom.

This development was explicitly sanctioned earlier by Paul the apostle himself who had referred to the Roman Empire as having been instituted by “God:” “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (Letter to the Romans 13: 1). Augustine’s City of God, written a century after Constantine’s choice, picked up the thread and claimed the Roman Empire had been prepared for its role in the spread of Christianity by God himself. That meant that conquest, plunder, enslavement and cultural extermination were officially acknowledged as appropriate tools for a providential “God” who micro-manages human history. This served as a paradigm for Christian thought throughout subsequent millennia. Power and wealth were “blessings” from “God,” no matter how they were gotten. That’s what “providence” meant.

Evolution

Don’t be fooled by the smooth transitions occurring here. The evolution of the Christian view of political power ended up co-opting Jesus’ message and harnessing it to the goals of empire for external conquest and the internal control of the conquered. Slaves accounted for about 25% of the population of the Empire, mostly obtained through conquest. The economy of the empire was totally dependent on slave-labor. The compassionate, post-exilic Yahweh was actually made subordinate to the warrior king (whom Constantine’s Council at Nicaea identified as Jesus himself) who led the Roman legions to victory, his cross emblazoned on their shields. Jesus and the conquering emperor Constantine were assimilated to one another and Jesus was apotheosized as the Roman Pantocrator: the all ruler who sat in judgment on humankind ― specifically condemning disobedience to the laws of the kingdom and its authorities. Correlatively, the emperor ruled, and conquered, and plundered, and enslaved, in the name of Christ.

Rome took Christianity in stride; the hum of daily life never skipped a beat. Emperor and Church were one entity, a theocracy exactly as it was under Jupiter and Venus. The “secular arm” legislated and imposed sanctions, punishing those who disobeyed, and the Church provided the narrative that divinized Rome as the “kingdom.” No one challenged slavery. And whatever justice was missing in “God’s” kingdom on earth was dismissed by the Church as of no consequence when compared to the pleasures of heaven. All the bases were covered.

It was not in the interest of the Empire to encourage any aspirations toward an end-of-time “kingdom of Justice” that challenged empire’s slave-based economy. Therefore it was extremely convenient that the new state religion wanted people to think of themselves as moral cripples ― losers ― deserving of punishment and thoroughly dependent on the forgiveness of “God,” a promissory note that was brokered exclusively by the Empire’s Church and cashed in only after death. Judaism’s inheritance from the post-exile experience served the Empire well.

2

Thus it would seem that there are historical reasons that would support Nietzsche’s characterization. Subsequently, the states in the West reproduced the patterns established by Rome: that “God” worked alongside (Christian) government to insure peace and harmony. The fact that peace and harmony were necessary for the smooth operation of the Imperial machine made the Christian religion something of a windfall for the Empire.

Please note the dynamics operating in this paradigm which has become our common legacy in the West. The “God of compassion” works in the service of the “God of political supremacy,” not the other way around. The ultimate definition of “God” identifies “him” as “all powerful,” the ally and guarantor of power. All other functions of divine intervention were ordered to it as means to an end. Any other belief would be inconsistent with “providence.”

This “theocratic imperative” ― the marriage of religion and political power ― is true everywhere in the West. For many, even “liberation theology” follows this paradigm; they think of it as a reprise of the “Armageddon” theology of the Essenes in modern, progressive garb. In this view “God’s” kingdom is not a spiritual metaphor, but rather a real social/political entity with laws and sanctions and the ability to defend itself. These new structures will guarantee justice for everyone. The “God” who reigns over this kingdom is still the “God of power” and armies; that’s the way “he” has always worked as illustrated by the supremacy of Rome. The only thing that has changed is the identification of the social class that legitimately wields power, makes laws and imposes sanctions.  There are many who are persuaded that “God” has chosen the United States to be the latest version of the “kingdom.”

My reaction is to say that people have a right to decide the social and political structures they want to live by, and to do what is necessary to install them. But they do not have a right to claim that it is “God” who is doing it.

National underdogs and “their” religion

The political character of our concept of “God” in the West is also on display in the national character of western religious denominations. By “national character” I mean that being from a particular local tribe (nation or clan) is invariably linked to a particular religion. When we think of the Irish or the Polish, for example, especially in the United States, we are accustomed to them being Catholic, while we anticipate that Brits and Germans, despite being from neighboring countries in each case, will be Protestant.

I singled out those nationalities not just as examples, but as particularly supportive of my thesis: that religion follows politics. The thesis, however, is double-edged. For the political choices also in turn shape the religion, sometimes in ways that are not anticipated. Who would have expec­ted, for example, that Jesus, who taught that those in authority in his community should be “like children” inviting compliance from their flock and never “lording it over them as the gentiles do,” would eventually be crowned as Pantocrator of the slave-based Roman Empire and be used as divine justification for its brutal and larcenous projects?

In the case of the Irish and the Polish, the national humiliation suffered at the hands of their dominating neighbors impelled them in each case to cling fiercely to a Catholicism that represented opposition to their oppressors. But look how the second “edge” comes into play. The autocratic infallibility claimed by the Catholic Church served as a welcome psychological prop for the humiliated nations against the debasement being dealt out by their enemies. The Irish and Polish people became invested in Catholic ideology. Catholicism made them superior to their antagonists. Certainly for these people, any suggestion that the doctrines of Catholic superiority ― like doctrinal and moral infallibility ― that they found so supportive in their humiliation were actually contrary to the spirit and even explicit counsel of Jesus, or that the “Reformation” embraced by their hated neighbors was actually closer to the mind of Christ, would be rejected at the doorstep. One might reasonably claim that dogmas that otherwise might have evolved into more mollified form if left alone were actively kept in the strictest construction by these ethnic minorities for the purposes of their national/ethnic interests. What they may have bequeathed to the world by their tribal Catholicism is the most potent tool for the dismantling of the democratic experiment that exists to date: a reactionary obdurate Roman Catholic Church ― whose dogmas are the ideological blueprint for the re-establish­ment of Roman Imperialism, and the last bastion of the Ancien Régime in the modern world.

3

Everything that this version of events describes can have occurred for only one reason: that people believed that “God” was a supernatural humanoid person. “He” has a will, thinks and chooses, intervenes in history in order to ensure the accomplishment of his intentions, and rewards and punishes humans for compliance or non-compliance with his “commands.” “Providence” means God controls everything.

It seems that the theist humanoid “God” of the traditional western imagination not only was used in place of science to explain phenomena that mystified the human mind, but also functioned to justify the conquests that enslaved the conquered. And just as science has eroded confidence in any personal divine agency in the operations of the physical world, so too, modern political self-deter­mination has challenged the theocratic premise that all power forma­tions, no matter how oppressive, were the will and work of God.

But if, as I have been proposing in this blog since 2009, we were to consider “God” not to be an acting, willing person, but rather the source of our spontaneous sense of the sacred, which I identify as the living material energy ― LIFE ― of which we and everything else in our cosmos is constructed, then much of our historical narrative is exposed as just so much myth. It is all a mirage, a projection, the fantasies of primitive ignorance. They are a major source of the suffering that we have inflicted on one another, for they have been used to justify the exploitation of man by man.

A personal “God” who has a specific will narrows the options open to humankind and, in the hands of a multitude of tribes, necessarily pits them against one another. The level of the resulting slaughter and enslavement is proportionate to the divine approval imagined. The more “religious” the people, the more convinced they are that “God” wills their success and rejects that of others, and the less inhibited they will feel about unleashing unspeakable atrocities on people they identify as their “enemies.”

One could legitimately elaborate a theological argument along the lines of the “ex convenientia” logic of the scholastics and say, if all this follows inevitably or even most probably from the premise of belief in a personal “God,” then it suggests the premise is false, for it makes “God” either an unwitting dupe, if he does not really “will” these things, or a moral cretin if he does. It forces us to re-think our assumptions. Minimally it means the theist “God” of traditional western faith does not exist.

In contrast: “God” as LIFE

LIFE, on the other hand, does not narrow the options open to humankind, it expands them. LIFE supports the autonomous management of our way of life. Our political/economic structures are ours to decide. LIFE has no enemies because it has no “will,” and it has no will because it is not an entity, and certainly not a “person” as we understand the word.

We all know what LIFE is because we are alive and surrounded by living things; we experience it directly and first hand. We may have a hard time defining it in terms other than itself, for we have nothing to compare it to, but we know what it is intimately and interiorly for we are alive. It is responsible for the developments of evolution that have filled our teeming earth with a near infinitude of life forms culminating (from our point of view) in the human species. LIFE does not think except in us; it does not choose except in us; it does not have preferences or a “will” except in us; it does not command or cajole or persuade or punish. It is only in us that it is “personal.”

It is this LIFE that impels us to live and do all those things, positive and negative, necessary for life to continue, that gives rise in us to a sense of the sacred. Existence, being-here, is the grail ― the great quest. We know LIFE in living things because we know LIFE in ourselves; and what we all want is to be-here.

To be-here, ESSE, is to die for. We “live move and have our being” in the living material energy of this cosmos. Matter’s energy is all we are … there is nothing more to us. The living material energy of this cosmos is ESSE, and we are THAT.

So where does that leave us? All of the functions, from the elaboration of the universe to the configurations of our social/political structures, that we have heretofore claimed were the work and will of “God,” are the work of living material energy ― LIFE. But that means they are ours … for we are living matter in its most evolved form on our planet. LIFE enters into those functions as ourselves. What we do is what living matter is capable of. We are the expressions of its potential, the outward manifestation of its inner dimensions and dormant properties. LIFE does not intervene in these issues “personally” for it is not an entity; it is a universal energy. It acts as the forms into which it has evolved. There is a sacredness to these things, but the sacredness does not come from an outside “God” … it comes from within, from energy ― creative, abundant, generous and utterly disinterested ― the characteristics of LIFE that impel our work, our morality, our social constructions, and our environmental responsibilities. This what being-here looks like.

We are the mirrors and agents of the living matter ― the LIFE ― of which we are made. There is a reason why we resonate with all the living things around us, from the smallest one-celled organisms to the great animals in our zoos. We all flee from enemies; we all defend ourselves; we all spend our days hunting for food and shelter; we all seek partners for company and to reproduce our kind; and we all want passionately to be-here. We are all made of the same clay. And that clay is alive and has a bearing that elicits a similar response in us all.

Against this background our theist history is revealed as pure projection ― the creation of a primitive imagination that could not cope with being alone. Did that make us all “losers”? Our modern technological prowess has given us confidence that perhaps we are not. We may be, after all, capable of taking care of ourselves, especially if we don’t delude ourselves with expectations that go beyond the possibilities of material energy. Belief in eternal life, is one of those, as is the thought that we are not biological organisms evolved from and living on this earth with all the needs and limitations that entails. But the business of organizing our communities on this earth so that we can be what we are ― the just and generous, empathetic and sharing, exemplars of the living material energy that we bear as our own ― belongs to us alone.

Tony Equale, October 2018

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.

LIFE

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Some reflections on Jesus and Buddha

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

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

Historical context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yahweh vs Brahma

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

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

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

Providence

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Lk 16: 19-31

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

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