Ups and downs and spiritual experience

So, in my previous post I explored how pride is an attempt to feel in ourselves the greatness that belongs to existence itself. It’s an attempt to usurp our sense of awe at reality, and feel awe about our own selves instead.

Once you realise this, you’ll experience awe. And you’ll understand for a moment that awe just happens, there’s no need to cling to a sense of self as some kind of false centre of the experience.

But that realisation will be short-lived. Almost immediately you’ll start clinging to the experience of awe as if you can store it up inside you and make it your own.

You want your own sense of self to be the object of your awe.

The moment you bring yourself into it, the awe starts to fade. This happens because your sense of self is not a real thing, it’s just an impression. Treating an impression as if it were real is delusional, and delusion is not something that inspires awe.

Bye bye, awe.

So now you’re back, stuck in your sense of self again, and whatever you do at this point is probably going to exacerbate the delusion.

You’ll most likely feel some kind of bad feeling, because you’re coming down off the awe. You might feel hollow or empty or just miserable.

You might leap head-first into some kind of distraction, hoping to escape the unpleasant feelings that come from being deluded about yourself once more.

It might be a bad distraction that offers short-term relief but makes you feel even worse about yourself later. Or it might be a constructive distraction that leads you into a project with some real benefits for yourself or others.

But whether you find a way to feel good about yourself, or end up feeling bad about yourself, either way you are stuck playing the old game of up and down with your own self-centred emotions.

I used to go through this cycle a lot when I was younger. I would read a book, delve into the wisdom of mystics from various traditions, and for a brief time it would all make sense. I would feel as if the barrier between self and reality had fallen away, and all that remained was an experience of awe.

Then the “I” would creep back in. I’d start to wonder how I could capture, define, control this experience. I’d look for a way to remain in that state of mind permanently.

It didn’t work.

I guess you could say there was no stability to the insights I was having. I only achieved them briefly, thanks to great mental effort. It wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve only just understood what was wrong: even though the experience of awe is wonderful, it is still an experience, still a thought, still an impression. So long as we cling to experiences, thoughts, or impressions we are denying the complete truth.

Saint John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as precisely an antidote to this kind of spiritual greed. God wants us to love him for himself, not for the good feelings that come from loving God. So at some point the saint passes through a purifying process in which there is no support and no comfort from the usual sources.

Likewise, Buddhist and nondualist sources attest that bliss cannot be the final goal, because the experience of bliss still implies a subject-object division. If you cannot pass beyond bliss, then it’s as if you stand forever at the door, refusing to enter.

So the awe I’ve always pursued is, finally, an obstacle and a hindrance to finding the truth. But I had to pursue it, had to recognise it as the summit of experience, before understanding that an experience is still not enough.

What matters is the source of all “experience”.  The thoughts and impressions that make up our entire reality – where do they come from? So long as we are attached to one experience – however elevated and spiritual it might seem – we cannot go beyond experience. That’s why Christ says we must lose our life in order to save it, why the Buddhist teacher Lin Chi said to kill the Buddha if you meet him, and why the Zhuangzi is just so damn elusive:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit.

Enlightenment and Depression

So…if your sense of self is really just a bunch of thoughts and impressions created by your mind – or more profoundly: the mind, Buddha-nature, God, consciousness, Brahman – then doesn’t that mean experiences of negative mental states like anxiety and depression are also products of this same mind?

All thoughts and impressions come from the same place. So although on the relative level your depression can be viewed as your reaction to negative life-events, on the absolute level there is no difference between “you” and “your reaction”. Both are products of mind.

Which is pretty weird, if you think about it.

It’s as if you’re a character in a story, and you think the things that befall you are due to your beliefs and choices and actions. But in fact both you and all the circumstances in and around you are created by the author. You have no control, because “you” are just another part of what is being written.

So when “you” start thinking about this, it’s not as though “you” are exercising your autonomy and control over your thoughts and circumstances. It means the author has gone from writing “you – who doesn’t think about this stuff” to writing “you – now thinking about this stuff and realising how weird it is”.

Likewise, these mental states like depression and anxiety; it’s not that “you” suddenly become afflicted by anxiety or depression. There’s no central, coherent, unified “you” who suffers those states. Instead the author has gone from writing “you without depression” to writing “you with depression”. If the depression stops, it will be because the author is now writing “you with depression stopping and feeling relieved about it”.

So what’s going on? Is the author an arsehole? Why is he or it inflicting so much suffering on everyone?

Well, the weird thing is that there is no “everyone” on whom suffering is inflicted.

There are temporary thoughts and impressions, some of which contain the belief that there is an “everyone” who is suffering.

But there are other temporary thoughts and impressions that recognise all thoughts and impressions as coming from the same place.

The thoughts that are full of suffering only think they are full of suffering. They aren’t actually full of suffering.

In other words, if you are depressed, but you then recognise that all thoughts and impressions come from the same place, then it’s not that you would stop being depressed, but that the “you” who feels assailed by depression would no longer be a separate, distinct, enduring entity who can be assailed by things like depression.

If the author writes a character experiencing depression, it’s not as though he first writes the character and then assails them with depression. No, the author writes the character-with-depression as one thing. Then later he writes the character-after-depression as another thing. There’s no actual, continuous character who exists from beginning to end and is assailed by depression, then recovers from it.

Moment by moment, our thoughts and impressions are coming from the same place. They don’t linger. Like the frames in a movie. Some objects in a movie scene might appear to stay still while others, like the actors, move around. But in reality we are seeing continuous individual frames. The sequence is composed of individual frames, and for an object just to remain static in place it must still be reproduced one frame at a time in every frame.

On the relative level we all have individual reasons for the negative mental states we experience. But on the absolute level, our negative mental states are all due to one thing: we mistake the “self” of our thoughts and impressions for an actual entity.

But who commits that mistake? Isn’t it too a product of the same author?

This is why there is such ambivalence about the nature of delusion in Buddhism, and the nature of evil in Christianity. If God is all powerful, is he also responsible for the existence of evil?

One thing is clear: despite the ambivalence over causation, delusion will be overcome and evil will be vanquished. There is no ambivalence about the end. Delusion and enlightenment, evil and good, they are not viewed as equal and opposite pairs.

Depression is a horrible experience, but when we recognise that both the experience and the apparent subject of that experience are products of thoughts and impressions that arise from the same place, then both the suffering and the one who suffers are transcended. The son of man has nowhere to lay his head.

At the same time, there comes the realisation that even this realisation itself has come from the same place as all the other thoughts and impressions. The quality has changed, but not the source.

And at that moment there comes the realisation that this realisation too is coming from the same place – that the author is now writing himself into the story as the author. And everything it took to arrive at this point – all the suffering and confusion and striving and grasping and gradual realisation – that too was the author, writing everything.

And when it stops, when realisation is replaced with forgetfulness and the door closes once more and it feels like “you” have returned to normal…who do you think is doing that?

Two Birds on a Tree: different models of selflessness

Discussing the illusion of self control with a friend the other day, it became clear that the idea of self as an illusion is not for everyone.

Is self truly an illusion?

It depends on what you mean by ‘self’, what you mean by ‘truly’, and what you mean by ‘illusion’. Heck, while we’re at it: it depends on what you mean by ‘is’ as well.

But before we worry too much about precise definitions of terms, it might be worth considering some of the other ways this central phenomenon of selflessness is framed.

I’ve been focusing mainly on the analogy between the illusion of a self who is in control from a Buddhist perspective, and Christian perspective of pride as the desire to be like God in the sense of (paraphrasing Aquinas) desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

But there are other models or frameworks that attempt to describe the same phenomenon of selflessness. One notable example is found in the Upanishads, a Hindu scripture, where the individual human being is shown to contain two ‘selves’: one that is involved in the world, and the other that is conscious but not involved.

two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, are perched on a branch of the same tree. One of them tastes the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the other, tasting neither, calmly looks on.

On the same tree, the individual self (jiva), deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the other as the Lord worshipped by all and His glory, he becomes free from grief.

The site where I found these excerpts from the Svetasvatara Upanishad contains a much better commentary than I could produce. The following explains the meaning of the two birds:

The form of every sentient being has two indwellers–the two Selves just like the two birds. However, they do not have the same experience of the tree. The individual self, the jiva, tastes the fruit of the tree in the form of the inner and outer senses, and according to the quality of that experience is made happy, unhappy, contented, discontented–and so forth. The individual thus undergoes experience sometimes laughing and some times weeping, immersed in thought and bewildered by his own helplessness.

The Supreme Self, on the other hand, tasting neither [sweet or bitter experiences], calmly observes. God also experiences because He is an indweller of all and is aware of all that the individual spirit experiences, yet, He looks on without eating–without being affected or conditioned by such experiences. But He does know exactly the effect and conditioning that accrues to the individual Self. He is experiencing right along with us, but unlike us is not pulled into a mistaken identity with the body-mind and its experiences.

We are drowned, submerged, in the deadly ocean of samsara, of continual birth, death, pain and pleasure. Sankara points out that the individual self is overwhelmed with confusion because it cannot understand what is really happening to it, and why. Just like a piece of driftwood on the heaving sea, it is lifted up and down, thrown onto the shore and then pulled out to sea again. So it grieves at its helplessness and hopelessness.

All is changed, though, when the individual sees, right in the core of his being, the very God he has been hitherto worshipping as separate from himself. Experiencing within his own being the presence and the glory of God–and thereby realizing that glory as his own–the individual becomes liberated from sorrow.

There are other models, other methods, and other attempts to explain the central phenomenon. These efforts have their own historical and social contexts. For example, one might view the Buddhist insistence on no-self or anatman as, in part, a refreshing reaction against the Hindu doctrine of atman – the inner self or soul, the ‘Supreme Self’ depicted in the Upanishad above.

The startling idea that we have an inner self that is divine can, over time, be taken for granted and fall far short of the reality depicted in the Upanishads. The Buddhist response reframes that reality in newly-startling terms: there is no atman, there is no enduring, divine, inner self. The nature of all phenomena is sunyata – emptiness.

What can you learn from the common cold?

I’ve been sick this past week.

Sickness is always challenging, spiritually as well as physically, because the central theme of our pride and sense of self is to seek pleasure and happiness while avoiding suffering and pain.

Sickness is synonymous with suffering, but it is also a direct challenge to our sense of self-control. Painful or unpleasant symptoms highlight the limits of our control at the most intimate border of body and mind. Our fragile sense of self arcs up in response to these threatening sensations and loss of control.

So my recent bout of a bad cold was frustrating. I felt like I couldn’t accept the symptoms, and I kept trying to find ways to avoid them, deny them, or reject them. It was quite pitiful.

At the same time, it was hard to find the mental space and clarity I needed. It was hard to even recall what I believed about my mind and my self. Eventually I gave up looking for meaning and dosed myself with pseudo-ephedrine tablets.

But now that the symptoms are disappearing and I’m returning to normal, I’m retracing my feverish steps and looking for meaning in the sore throat and blocked sinuses once more.

Do you control your body?

One thing that became clear during the sickness was my deeply ingrained sense of control over my body.

I’ve written extensively about the illusion of control, the illusion of “self”, but have been thinking of it broadly in terms of choices and actions. Sickness reveals how much deeper this sense of control goes, because at the meeting of body and mind our emotions and other somatic sensations respond automatically to our mental states without being ‘willed’ or chosen.

This is significant, because although our sense of control is an illusion, it is a convincing one, and our emotions or passions respond as if it is real.

If our mind persists with the illusion of a “self” then our body responds accordingly, eliciting the somatic states we know as desire, anger, sorrow, joy, and so on.

But when we are sick, our body no longer responds as usual. We no longer receive the biofeedback of consistent emotions, and so our sense of control is challenged, as is the consistency of our internal narrative.

Self-inflicted suffering

Ironically, the symptoms of the common cold are all produced by our own immune system, and there is good evidence that stress increases the severity of those symptoms. It’s not the virus that causes your nose to run, your throat to ache and your temperature to rise; these are defense mechanisms against the perceived threat of the virus.

Stress increases the severity of symptoms because the emotional threat of stress triggers inflammatory defences. It’s the old problem of your body failing to distinguish between physical threats and emotional ones.

It’s possible that being stressed primes your immune system to respond more aggressively than it needs to. Thus a stressful period in life seems to coincide with illness. In my own experience, the symptoms of my autoimmune condition have always corresponded to some kind of stressful stimulus.

The role of stress and inflammation in a variety of illnesses is a growing area of research with a great deal of promise, and of particular interest to people suffering autoimmune conditions.

Pride is the root of all sin

In Christian terms, the illusion of self is interpreted as pride. Not pride in the sense of feeling good about accomplishments or good qualities, but pride in the sense of wishing to be the author and agent of our own greatness. As Aquinas wrote in reference to the fall of Lucifer:

 he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

This desire – this pride – gives rise to all other forms of wrongful desire in the same way that persevering with the illusion of self embroils our minds and bodies in a mess of compensatory and destructive responses.

The emotional link

Our minds keep filling our internal narrative with the recurring theme in which we save the day, save ourselves, redeem ourselves in some form. What this meditation on sickness has shown is that our emotional state responds to this internal narrative, this pride, this illusion of self as if it is true – rejoicing in our triumphs and lamenting our failures, or more often endlessly hoping and dreading about future outcomes.

That’s why pride is often said to make us “puffed up” or inflated. Pride is not merely a false belief, it is also a physiological state.

That’s also why emotional responses like anger, fear, envy, craving and sorrow are often indicators of underlying pride and a self-centered mind. We might pretend to be selfless and humble, because in our pride we wish to be seen as virtuous. But when other people’s successes fill us with envy, or we sit paralysed with fear at where life may be headed, or we crave distraction and escape from our feelings of incompleteness, at those moments our pride and delusion of self are revealed.

This emotional aspect of our illusion of self is significant. It’s like the soundtrack to a movie – you may not always be conscious of it, but the video will seem thin and distant without it. Emotional responses help keep us immersed in our internal narrative, longing for fulfillment while ever vigilant for threats.

The answer, yet again, is to recognise that I do not have control, because my sense of self is an illusion. It is a “puffed up” thought of my own importance, a desire to be like God.

And the paradox, yet again, is that I cannot recognise anything, for that exact same reason.

 

Pride and the delusion of self

Seeing parallels between religions as diverse as Christianity and Buddhism depends on a familiarity with the themes expressed in their mystical and esoteric writings.

For example, it is thought by many that Buddhism denies the existence of a soul and that it aims at a nihilistic destruction of the psychological self.

Likewise, many believe that Christianity focuses on heavenly rewards for earthly virtue, through a peculiar filial relationship with a supernatural being, mediated by arcane, seemingly arbitrary laws or commandments.

The reality is that Buddhism and Christianity are neither the same, nor are they entirely different.

But after many years of reading the commonalities have come to the fore, and the differences seem much less significant. I don’t spend time worrying about how reincarnation can be reconciled with the Christian afterlife, because in terms of my own practice these questions are not significant.

What are significant are things like the Christian perspective on pride in relation to the Buddhist perspective on the illusory nature of the self.

Here’s one of my favourite passages on pride, from the 4th Century ascetic monk, John Cassian:

For as he (viz., Lucifer) was endowed with divine splendour, and shone forth among the other higher powers by the bounty of his Maker, he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity, and esteemed himself to be like God, as if, like God, he had no need of any one, and trusting in the power of his own will, fancied that through it he could richly supply himself with everything which was necessary for the consummation of virtue or for the perpetuation of perfect bliss. This thought alone was the cause of his first fall.

What he’s describing is the fall of Lucifer, who was the greatest of the angels but succumbed to pride and so fell from heaven.

Cassian describes the sin of pride in terms of Lucifer’s false belief that attributed his own greatness to himself rather than to God. Cassian goes on in the context of the subsequent fall of man:

For while he believed that by the freedom of his will and by his own efforts he could obtain the glory of Deity, he actually lost that glory which he already possessed through the free gift of the Creator.

The logic of pride and the fall is the same. It is a mistaken belief in one’s own powers and self-sufficiency. Cassian draws on scripture to demonstrate the contrast between pride and the corresponding remedy of humility:

For the one says, “I will ascend into heaven;” the other, “My soul was brought low even to the ground.” The one says, “And I will be like the most High;” the other, “Though He was in the form of God, yet He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant, and humbled Himself and became obedient unto death.”

Finally, Cassian describes how we can overcome pride:

And so we can escape the snare of this most evil spirit, if in the case of every virtue in which we feel that we make progress, we say these words of the Apostle: “Not I, but the grace of God with me,” and “by the grace of God I am what I am;” and “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

That last line is especially significant, as it undermines the freedom of the will and sense of agency that are themselves the greatest symptom of our pride.

This is where I see a direct parallel with Buddhist teaching on the nature of the self. An important part of this teaching is that our sense of self and our cherished identity are a delusion that we take for real. Enlightenment amounts in part to seeing that these selfish thoughts and impressions are not substantial, that there is no self who sits in control of our will and actions.

This is what “puffed up” means in Cassian’s words. Pride is an inflation of our sense of self, til it obscures the reality of our total dependence on God.

The problem with the Christian teaching on pride is that we often interpret it in very limited, human terms. We think pride is just about arrogance, and selfishness is about being inconsiderate of others.

But taken to their extreme we see both in the nature of the fall and in the remedy that pride is much more profound than this. On a spiritual level, pride is a mistaken belief in the primacy and power of our own will. Or to put it more strongly, it is a sense of ownership and control over our will, when in truth “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

Christianity is predominantly a devotional religion, focusing on the individual relationship with God. Yet in the depths of this relationship the mystics report a sense of their own negation in God’s love. That is, they experience a union with God that totally changes their own sense of self and agency.

Buddhism is not typically a devotional religion. Instead it focuses on this experience of the negation of the self, without attempting to express in devotional terms the reality into which the self is subsumed.

But in both cases, the obstacle to this insight is the delusion of control, of will, of self-sufficiency. Buddhists will not talk of it in terms of pride and humility, and Christians will not talk of it in terms of self and no-self. Nonetheless it is my belief that they are speaking of the same thing.

Buddhism and Christianity: a brief convergence

G.K. Chesterton once teased his contemporary proponents of comparative religion as arguing that:

Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.

He was right in that enthusiasm for a “common truth” in all religion seems almost by definition to resolve comfortably in the domain of a Buddhist-inspired mysticism. Modern advocates of a universal religion still tend to fall into the trap of equating Christ with the Buddha, and then cutting out the bits that don’t fit.

But Chesterton was not especially well informed about Buddhism, and I suspect that those who want to Buddhify Christ may be thinking a little too narrow in their approach to the problem.

That’s not what this post is about, however, and lest I get sidetracked let’s keep things simple.

After some years of consideration and study, it seems fairly straightforward that what is described in Buddhism as Sunyata or ’emptiness’ corresponds to the apophatic or “negative theology” aspect of God as something that defies the grasp of our intellect.

Buddhism may therefore be viewed from a Christian perspective as a conceptually negative attempt to enter into a profound mystical relationship with God, both understood and experienced as the hidden foundation of all reality.

From a Buddhist point of view, orthodox Christianity is a little harder to grasp. Okay, it’s actually a lot harder to grasp without conceding some points that don’t seem to lie in the usual ambit of Buddhist metaphysics.

But if all form arises from emptiness, and we understand (thanks to negative theology) that by ‘God’ Christians refer to this emptiness, then wouldn’t we have to allow that ‘creation’, or the coming into being and sustenance of all things, must be the same as the arising of forms out of emptiness?

The stumbling block of an anthropomorphised view of God as some kind of Zeus-like deity sitting above the clouds and contemplating how to interfere in our lives is not the view held by orthodox Christianity.

The real stumbling block is that orthodox Christians believe Jesus Christ to have been an incarnation (coming into form) of God (emptiness), as a true expression of the emptiness, in a way that differs from the Buddha, where the Buddha is understood to be an ordinary human who realised emptiness.

You can see why there is such a temptation to reduce Christ to the level of a Buddha, or to say that Christ’s claims of divinity were misunderstood by his followers, or that they are somehow the ‘equivalent’ of the Buddha’s enlightened state.

Yet at the same time, some Buddhist sects have gone in the opposite direction, elevating and even divinising the Buddha until he represents not just an awakened or enlightened human, but enlightenment and emptiness itself.

Some people are offended by Christian exceptionalism. That’s understandable, but Buddhism can also be exceptionalist in its own way – viewing other religions as inferior paths that do not contain the complete truth – it’s just that reincarnation allows Buddhism a much more relaxed attitude on a number of issues.

Since I’m angling for a Buddhist perspective on Christianity, let’s look at it from the more pragmatic perspective of the individual path to enlightenment. When Christians hold up the crucifix they are venerating the image of the highest possible being (God) that was reduced to the lowest and most miserable human condition – unjust suffering and death at the hands of others.  They venerate this image in the understanding that the dead God-human did not remain in death, but came back to life, and in so doing revealed the truth about life, death, God, and humanity.

Is it any wonder that his followers subsequently lost their fear of death, changed their lives, and gained a new understanding of their relationship with God?

Each religion makes sense in its own context. We can also find points of contact between the different religions. But when we do this we are stepping outside the original frame of either religion. To try to make them all fit together is inevitably a different activity. To see them as saying the same thing is ultimately a solitary experience.

I guess the real question is whether it is otherwise for anyone else?

Nice, Western, Consensus Buddhism

Stumbled upon a couple of very interesting posts critiquing Western Buddhism:

Nice Buddhism

Niceness is a sleazy business. It is an unstated bargain: “I’ll overlook your bad behavior if you overlook mine.”

It is often kind to overlook other people’s bad behavior—but not always. There are times when the right thing is to point it out politely; to object firmly; or to suppress it violently.

The second half of the bargain is self-protective. “I’ll be nice to you because I’m afraid I won’t be able to cope, emotionally, if you draw attention to my selfishness.”

Within Consensus Buddhism, there is a huge emphasis on emotional safety. It’s non-confrontational, unconditionally supportive, peaceful, supposedly-inoffensive. This may be appropriate for children, or for people who are severely emotionally damaged. It’s repulsive and ridiculous as an approach for grownups.

https://meaningness.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/nice-buddhism/

 

From the same author, a little more intense:

What got left out of meditation

Buddhist meditation methods have been forced through a series of filters over the last 120 years:

  • Christianity: Everything offensive to Victorian Christian morality had to be removed, in Asia, in the 1800s.
  • Scientism: Meditation has to claim to be compatible with “science” and “rationality.” Popular ideas about what’s “scientific” have changed in the West over the past 150 years. What’s left of meditation has survived challenges from each version.
  • Romantic mysticism: Westerners thought the goal of meditation was a spiritual experience—oneness with all beings, maybe—through attention to the self. Meditation methods that weren’t about spiritual experience, or not about the self, got dropped.
  • Late 20th-century morality: Meditation had be eco-granola-consensus-therapy-correct in the 1970s through ’90s.

Only something extremely bland could pass all these challenges. That’s what we’re left with: modern “mindfulness meditation.” It’s relentlessly nice and couldn’t possibly offend anyone’s ideological sensitivities.

https://meaningness.wordpress.com/2011/07/12/what-got-left-out-of-%E2%80%9Cmeditation%E2%80%9D/

 

Beatitudes

Yesterday a friend more or less demanded that I offer some kind of Daoist reflection on the contents of the Beatitudes, based on Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.

The scandal of the Cross is harder for many to bear than the thunder of Sinai had been for the Israelites. In fact, the Israelites were quite right when they said they would die if God should speak with them (Ex 20:19). Without a “dying,” without the demise of what is simply our own, there is no communion with God and no redemption. Our meditation on the Baptism has already demonstrated this for us—Baptism cannot be reduced to a mere ritual.

Obviously the crucifixion and the person of Christ give a focal point and an historical finality that is lacking in Daoism. But the psychological premise is by no means foreign: to emulate the Dao, we must empty ourselves of all our selfish interests and desires. As Laozi 49 states: “The Sage has no heart of his own; He uses the heart of the people as his heart.”

“Dying” underlies the principle of inversion at the heart of the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes, spoken with the community of Jesus’ disciples in view, are paradoxes—the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in the right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are the truly fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in the midst of their sufferings. The Beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and of man inaugurated by Jesus, his “transformation of values.”

[…]

The paradoxes that Jesus presents in the Beatitudes express the believer’s true situation in the world in similar terms to those repeatedly used by Paul to describe his experience of living and suffering as an Apostle: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:8–10). “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8–9). What the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel present as a consolation and a promise, Paul presents as the lived experience of the apostle. He considers that he has been made “last of all,” a man under a death sentence, a spectacle to the world, homeless, calumniated, despised (cf. 1 Cor 4:9–13). And yet he experiences a boundless joy.

These paradoxes are likewise present in the Laozi, professing the inversion of worldly values in accordance with the Dao. Consider verse 8:

The highest good is like water. The goodness of water lies in benefiting the myriad things without contention, while locating itself in places that common people scorn. Therefore it is almost exactly like the Dao.

The image of water is a common symbol or metaphor of the Dao, but the paradox of “reversion” goes deeper:

The crooked will be whole;
The bent will be straight;
The empty will be full;
The exhausted will be renewed;
The few will win out;
The many will be thrown into confusion.
Therefore the sage holds to oneness
And in this way serves as the shepherd of the world.
He has no regard for himself, and so is illustrious;
He does not show himself, and so is bright;
He does not brag, and so is given merit;
He does not boast, and so his name endures.
It is only because he does not contend that no one in the world is able to contend with him.
When the ancients said, “The crooked will be whole,” these were not idle words. Truly they return us to wholeness.

The idea of reversion is personified in verse 20 of the Laozi:

The multitude are loud and boisterous
As if feasting at the tailao offering
Or climbing terraces in the Spring.
I am instead tranquil and make no display,
Like an infant that has not yet learned to smile,
Drifting as though with no home to return to.
The multitude all have more than they need.
I alone am in want.
I have the mind of a fool—how blank!
The common people are bright,
I alone am dull.
The common people are clever,
I alone am muddled.
Vast! Like the ocean.
Endless! As if never stopping.
The multitude all have a purpose.
I alone am ignorant and uncouth.
My desires alone are different from those of others
Because I value being fed by the Mother.

The connection between the “way of heaven” and the attitude of the sage is reinforced time and time again:

Heaven is eternal, the Earth everlasting.
How come they to be so? It is because they do not foster their own lives;
That is why they live so long.
Therefore the Sage
Puts himself in the background; but is always to the fore.
Remains outside; but is always there.
Is it not just because he does not strive for any personal end
That all his personal ends are fulfilled?

What can we make of this? I think it it plausible on finding a pre-Christian depiction of a mysterious ontological entity that creates, sustains, and guides all of creation (the ten-thousand things), and does so in a distinctively humble way, that the authors of this depiction were “inspired” in Christian terms, or to put it more plainly, were in fact aware albeit dimly of the source of all existence (that which men call God), and in a context that quite uniquely among pre-Christian religions focuses not on sovereignty, deity, and grandeur, but on the subtlety and obscurity of this seemingly ephemeral “Way”.  Wang Bi writes that such is its emptiness, if we say it exists then where is its form? If we say it doesn’t exist, then how do we explain its creation, the forms it gives rise to? Yet despite the obvious obscurity and paradox, as Laozi writes:

My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice. Yet no one under heaven understands them; no one puts them into practice. But my words have an ancestry, my deeds have a lord; and it is precisely because men do not understand this that they are unable to understand me.
Few then understand me, but it is upon this very fact my value depends. It is indeed in this sense that “the Sage wears hair-cloth on top, but carries jade underneath his dress.”

In a Christian context various religions are seen as reflecting to varying degrees the truths of natural theology, and potentially even pre-figuring deeper aspects of revealed theology, such as the notion of a God who is sacrificed or killed and returns to life.  What makes Daoism unique is that its elements are both more subtle than natural theology, clearly apophatic, yet avoiding a deistic view of supreme being that otherwise tends to plunge religions into the worship of more spurious particulars of their conception of God.

Or perhaps to be more fair, it is very easy to distinguish between the philosophical Daoism of Laozi, and the folk-religion Daoism that venerates him amongst a colorful pantheon that bears no resemblance to Christianity whatsoever. In other religions, these elements tend to be more closely intertwined such that the personal or the deistic (Buddha, Vishnu, Krishna, etc) are bound up in the theology and the mysticism.

For better or worse, I find that the impersonal apophatic language of certain Daoist texts and their themes provides a different perspective on the highly personal and often cataphatic language and themes of Christianity, where even the word “God” can be so heavily loaded with meanings, allusions and human projections that the ontological magnitude and significance, not to mention the “foreignness” of the supreme being is forgotten.

How not to heresy

I got caught up this morning in a piece on the ABC titled “Why should we believe unbelievable religion?”

So what does he make of the feeding of the multitude tale, when Jesus reportedly fed 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish?

‘In my view nobody at the time would have read that particular miraculous feeding literally,’ says Tacey. ‘In other words, they sat at his feet, he provided spiritual nourishment and it was as if they were fed with loaves and fishes, and then there were 10 baskets full in the end to collect.’

It’s one thing to find such an interpretation more satisfying or credible than the miraculous version, and I can sympathise with people for whom the standard interpretations of Christianity seem insufficient.  But despite the caveat “in my view”, I bridled at the subsequent “nobody at the time”. Unless by “in my view” the speaker means “I prefer to believe that…”, it strikes me as insufficiently humble for someone explicitly breaking with a long-standing tradition to not maintain the weakness of their own position.

After all, the root of ‘heresy’ is ‘choice’; why not own up to it as a choice, instead of trying to pass it off as the obviously and self-evidently preferable, more intelligible, and more spiritually rewarding interpretation?

Yet for all their efforts to disentangle the historical Jesus from the web of mythic stories about him, have these scholars offered Christians a Jesus they can believe in?  If miraculous stories involving Jesus are merely reworked stories about Moses, do they leave Christians with a more appealing focus of faith?  Tacey thinks not.

‘They’re the ones who I think are in danger of ending up emptying Jesus of all his spiritual significance, so that he simply becomes a community health worker or something like that,’ he says.

Of course: my personalised heresy that I developed in the context of a post-Christian society and my specialised and eminently democratic skill-set as a professor of literature with a background in Jungian psychology is in every way superior to the interpretations favoured merely by the credulously devout of the past twenty centuries.

It makes perfect sense that a professor of literature might find more meaning in miracles as metaphors than in miracles as miracles. However, it is one of the more intriguing aspects of Christianity that it embraces the supposed dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, binding the two together in a great and unfathomable mystery.  It is, for instance, by no means novel to read into the feeding of the five-thousand a metaphor of spiritual food. Indeed, as the short form of the forthcoming Corpus Christi sequence states:

In figúris præsignátur, Cum Isaac immolátur: Agnus paschæ deputátur Datur manna pátribus.

It was prefigured in types: when Isaac was immolated, when the Paschal Lamb was sacrificed, when Manna was given to the fathers.

It’s not that tradition doesn’t recognise the metaphors, just that it doesn’t hold with the modernist certitude that metaphors must only be metaphors, that an event can’t be both real and symbolically meaningful at the same time. It is, ironically, a much less nuanced perspective to hold either that the miracles have no greater significance, or that they are so full of significance that they can’t possibly have happened.

Personally, I don’t understand why some people are so wedded to the conviction that miracles cannot have occurred as they are claimed to have occurred. What’s the big deal? It’s as though they’ve been told that faith itself must hinge on belief in second-hand accounts of miracles, and hence find themselves riven by existential doubts, like a born-again Christian trying their hardest to feel appropriately saved.

Skepticism alone doesn’t account for such doubts.  A skeptic is free to doubt the existence of miracles, but they’re equally free to doubt the staid pseudo-skepticism that insists that miracles are not possible. Again, it shouldn’t be such a big deal to admit the possibility.  What kind of person has a world-view and identity contingent on the insistence that the biblical accounts of miracles are false?

I won’t pretend to understand people’s emotional or ideological baggage around miracles – whether they’ve been force-fed a false piety, or long to rehabilitate their spiritual life in the good graces of some kind of anti-supernaturalist clique.  Listening to the broadcast itself, Tacey contrasts his parents’ view of the bible as a “history book” with his own eventual discovery of it as “a long sacred narrative poem”; but he makes somewhat inconsistent references to his own perspective being on the one hand “not for everyone”, while on the other hand claiming that “official” Christianity has erred in taking any of Jesus’ teachings literally.

The irony is that Tacey extols the ability to live with uncertainty rather than having everything nailed down, yet in his discovery of metaphoric scriptural interpretation turns adamant that a metaphoric interpretation is the only valid one.  He accepts that Jesus did exist and was crucified, but that his life was subsequently converted into a metaphoric or parabolic story in its own right, and eventually converted by literalist Western Europeans into a series of lies told for God.

Tacey doesn’t see this interpretation as diminishing Christianity, but perhaps only because he is in the grip of a false dichotomy: the scriptures are either literally true with no metaphoric significance, or they are metaphorically true and not to be taken literally.  Yet as far as I am aware, there exists a substantial orthodox tradition of viewing the scriptures as true both literally and metaphorically.  In fact you could go so far as to say that the tying together of spiritual significance with real events is kinda the whole point of Christianity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Desire and the Dao

It appears that many Westerners become interested in Daoism because it is not overtly moralistic. To me, Daoist themes offer a spiritual method that outwardly corresponds to a moral system, yet does so according to its own internal logic. In other words, a Daoist’s conduct ought to correspond to the moral order, but not because he is trying to make his conduct correspond to the moral order.

Western morality is often depicted as moralistic, depending on fear of rule-breaking and in many cases supported by a divine-command metaethic.  If you break the rules, God will condemn you; you are a bad person because you broke the rules; humanity is pathetic and miserable because collectively we broke some long-forgotten rule.

This is not the definitive or most satisfying interpretation from the Western tradition, in fact it appears to be the simplest, lowest-common-denominator interpretation.  I find Daoism refreshing because it is as far away as one might get from a moralistic position while still recognising an objective metaphysical and metaethical reality.

That which was the beginning of all things under heaven
We may speak of as the “mother” of all things.
He who apprehends the mother
Thereby knows the sons.
And he who has known the sons,
Will hold all the tighter to the mother,
And to the end of his days suffer no harm;
“Block the passages, shut the doors,
And till the end your strength shall not fail.
Open up the passages, increase your doings,
And till your last day no help shall come to you.”
As good sight means seeing what is very small
So strength means holding on to what is weak.
He who having used the outer-light can return to the innerlight
Is thereby preserved from all harm.
This is called resorting to the always-so.

Daodejing 52

Wang Bi, the 3rd Century AD Neo-Daoist commentator identifies explains “Block the passages, shut the doors” in terms of desire, specifically the desires for things that pull us away from the “mother” or “root” and toward the “sons” or “branches”.

In other words, desire for things takes us away from the Dao and we cannot help but deteriorate morally, spiritually, and even physically as a result.

To put it in a Christian context, keeping the Ten Commandments is important, but underlying the Ten Commandments is a deeper reality of human desire. That’s why in the New Testament Jesus lifts the bar dramatically by stating that being angry with someone or looking lustfully at someone is tantamount to murder or adultery in one’s heart.

If we are only interested in not breaking the rules, then this internalisation of moral laws sets the bar impossibly high. But if we look at it in terms of actually wanting to be close to God, then it becomes clear that a “rules” mentality is insufficient, and that we must look at the deeper question of desire.

A serious athlete doesn’t regard his coach’s comments and instructions as punishments or arbitrary rules, but as valuable advice and correction. He understands that the coach is there to help him advance and achieve a greater performance.

I think that in the spiritual life moralism must likewise give way to the understanding that our interior orientation is vital to our relationship with God, and that the things which detract from our relationship are the seeds of what we know of as vices and eventually the breach of moral laws.

In Daoist terms, desire pulls us from the way, it depletes our virtue (de), and robs us of the profound peace that is ours in the Dao. Put simply, the cultivation of desire is obviously an inferior and self-defeating path.