Retrospective on a spiritual journey

A conversation with my brother prompted me to reflect on my spiritual beliefs and perspective. It’s not something I’ve shared with anyone at depth, partly because no one has been interested, but also because I’ve been in “observer” mode for so long, collecting data and perspectives and not wanting to make grand declarations of ultimate truths.

So it’s a bit of a surprise (but obvious in hindsight) to realise that people don’t know what my perspective is, let alone whether they agree with it or not.

This is probably a good indicator (if one were necessary) that I’m not an INTP, because an INTP ought to be pretty clear about their own perspective as a conceptual framework.

Where my search has taken me

Beginning at about age 15 I read a copy of Anthony De Mello’s “Awareness” which introduced me to the concept of mysticism or personal spiritual development as the inner core of Christianity, and of religion generally.

On the most basic level, De Mello (an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist) was pointing out that outward religious observance is empty without interior spiritual development.

From that starting point I set out to find out more about mysticism. These are the key figures and texts I explored over the following decade:

Christian

The Cloud of Unknowing

St John of the Cross

Catherine of Siena

Evelyn Underhill

The Philokalia/Desert Fathers

John Cassian

Dionysus the Areopagite

Meister Eckhart

Albert the Great

Thomas Aquinas

Brother Lawrence

Julian of Norwich

Bede Griffiths

 

Sufi

Jallalludin Rumi (not just the poems)

Hafiz

Hazrat Inayat Khan

 

Sikh

The Guru Granth Sahib

 

Hindu

The Bhagavad Gita

The Upanishads

Advaita Vedanta

Sankara

Ramana Maharshi

Kabir

 

Taoist

Dao De Jing

Zhuangzi

Liezi

Wenzi

Hua Hu Jing

Liu Yi Ming

“The Secret of the Golden Flower”

 

Other Chinese

The Analects

The Book of Changes

The Book of Rites

The Doctrine of the Mean

The Great Learning

Mencius

Wang Bi (Neo-Daoist)

 

Buddhist

Hui Neng (The Platform Sutra and other commentaries)

Dogen

Takeda Sokaku

D.T. Suzuki

Blue Cliff Record

The Diamond Sutra

The Heart Sutra

The Dhammapada

Assorted Pali resources

Naropa

Chogyam Trungpa

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Lama Yeshe

Dzogchen

 

New Thought/New Age

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Don Miguel Ruiz

Eckhart Tolle

U.G. Krishnamurti

Carlos Castaneda

A Course in Miracles

Neale Donald Walsch

Caroline Myss

Esther Hicks

 

Other

Joseph Campbell

Joel Morwood

 

In no particular order, and I’ve forgotten some, as well as omitting secondary sources that would have included other less well-known figures and texts.

Reflection

In addition to this eclectic mix of texts (some I hated, some I loved), I undertook tertiary studies in philosophy as part of the same search, though I eventually realised that philosophy was the wrong place to look for answers.

Initially I had no interest in theology, because I’d accepted the “via negativa” notion that we can’t really say anything substantial about the divine, but also because my earliest exposure to theology was a book by Teilhard de Chardin, which is a bit like having your first exposure to music be a free jazz performance.

Eventually through my work in ethics I discovered the natural law tradition, and from that the Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to metaphysics and theology, and from there got a bit of an understanding of the neo-Platonist tradition too.

(My unfinished PhD study was in the intellectualist versus voluntarist traditions in the West, and the possible application of those themes to the neo-Daoist philosopher Wang Bi.)

Along the way I avoided stuff that was too esoteric (Tibetan Buddhism leans that way, “A Course in Miracles”), too boring (the Vedas), too focused on outward observance (sorry Islam), or just too peripheral to the core subject of union with the divine (Carlos Castaneda….someone recommended him, but it was a poor recommendation).

So you can view this search as a massive, long-term effort in sifting and sorting through everything and anything that I felt or somehow knew intuitively was getting right to the heart of the mystery.

It’s not that hard…it’s obvious that John’s Gospel is the most mystical of the four, right?

Question time

Starting from scratch in my search for answers, I ended up facing a lot of questions that others have also faced along the way.

For example, the basic one of “does God exist?”

Honestly that was a pretty easy one, and I answered it pragmatically: if there’s no divine thing out there, then nothing matters and there’s no deeper truth or answers to be had, so I might as well just die. The desire for answers doesn’t logically necessitate the existence of answers, but it does practically guarantee the search. Next question!

“Is God a person?”

This was much trickier.

Many people who are interested in comparative religion conclude that a personal God is an anthropomorphic concession to the simple-minded who can’t handle abstract concepts.

But it depends what you mean by “personal”. When the Christian tradition itself tells you that anthropomorphic characteristics are just an analogy, and goes on to define “person” as “an individual being of a rational nature”, all the “simple-minded” objections evaporate.

Like Hieromonk Damoscene, author of Christ, the Eternal Tao, I concluded that to be a person (by this definition) is greater, not lesser, than an impersonal divine being.

“Is Jesus divine, or another ‘great teacher’ like Buddha?”

This is another amusing one, because comparative religion types tend to argue a la John Hick that the divinity of Christ is a metaphor, that Christ was really just a “great teacher” like the Buddha. You almost want to add “not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

But I had to conclude in the end that the depiction of Christ in the Gospels bears little to no resemblance to Buddha as a teacher. If he was just a teacher, Christ really didn’t do enough teaching.

If he was a teacher, he failed miserably. But the coherence of his comments regarding his unique relationship with God the Father only make sense if Christ is unique. And his significance makes sense only if you look at the events of his life, death and resurrection.

Compare the Gospels to the Dhammapada and you have to conclude that either Jesus was not a very good teacher, or it wasn’t about his teachings per se.

Besides, it’s not as though the unique nature of Christ is the only stumbling block in comparative religion. The complexity of the trinity and Christ as logos is an excellent complement to the seemingly unnecessary complications of the Laozi on metaphysics.

Christian metaphysics offers a potential lingua franca for understanding the Buddhist focus on “emptiness” (the contingency of creation and negative theology), as well as the peculiar insights of the Taoists on “the way” (the logos) Yang and Yin (substantial form + prime matter?), and glimmers of Isiah’s prophecies in abstruse passages like:

“Only he who has accepted the dirt of the country can be lord of its soil shrines; only he who takes upon himself the evils of the country can become a king among those what dwell under heaven.”

An individual path

It’s hard to discuss this stuff with other people because they’re not coming from the same starting point of a personal search, nor have they necessarily covered the same ground along the way.

So I’ve come to accept that mine is necessarily an individual path, and that’s great. It ties in with my greater understanding of temperament (Melancholic-Phlegmatic), my intellectual formation, and even my family history.

I’m probably a little defensive when discussing religion with others, because I’m agreeable (Big 5 trait) and prefer to avoid conflict, plus I guess I intuitively expect that others won’t understand where I’m coming from, doubleplus I haven’t practiced communicating it to others so where would I begin?

Ultimately I think it’s perfect for a melancholic to find his own way. I think everyone is finding their own way, even if “their own way” includes choosing to follow others. I’ve tried following others as well, but it turned out that we were never really on the same page to begin with!

I’m very open to ideas (Big 5 trait) so I tend by default to try to understand where other people are coming from, and if necessary then describing where our paths diverge. All this time in philosophy and theology and comparative religion have made it second-nature for me to ask “what do they mean by this?”

I mean, you don’t have to go far to find radically divergent perspectives on what ought to be fairly simple questions. When Muslims worship Allah, are they, from a Christian perspective, worshiping the same God from a different (less complete) perspective, or are they pointlessly worshiping a non-existent being because their theology isn’t right?

When Buddhists say there is no God, are they denying the Christian God? Are there really any Buddhists well-versed enough in Christian theology to definitively answer this question (and vice-versa)?

But ultimately I’ve returned to the realisation that I’m not really in this for the analysis. My melancholic temperament has led me to search through an intellectual lens, but I’m not fulfilled by intellectual play. It’s always been a means to an end, or rather, a search for the ideal.

I accept that the truth I’ve searched for is much more than a set of intellectual propositions. Some of those propositions fill me with the deepest joy when I contemplate them, but it’s the joy, not the propositions I’m after.

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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?