Down By Law

July 29, 2008

Comedian Roberto Benigni says it all, and then the gravelly-voiced Tom Waits sings it: “It’s a sad and beautiful world.” Indeed. If you haven’t seen it before, check out Jim Jarmusch’s “Down By Law” (1986).

Through a Glass Darkly: Christian Non-Theism

July 28, 2008

Prophet Elijah, 15th century icon


Moses has to settle for a dialogue with a burning bush; the Israelites roll the dice on a pillar of dust and flame; whatever Job witnesses he does so in a whirlwind, and keeps mum about his encounter. One day, we will see the Lord “face to face”; but for now, as Saint Paul rhapsodizes, we can only glimpse the divine “through a glass darkly.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, no one sees the face of God and lives (unless one is a televangelist). Ultimate reality conceals itself from the discursive mind and manifests only in the elements of nature. These are but a few of the Scriptural sources of Christian non-theism.

From a Buddhist perspective, theism is “fixed mind”; from a Judeo-Christian perspective, it is “idolatry,” which is a sin. (For the secular modernist, theism is neurosis à la Freud.) Christian theology is shot through with non-theism. At the beginning of the High Middle Ages, for instance, Saint Anselm (1033–1109) postulates that God is that which is beyond mind’s conception; fast forward to the Death-of-God era, and Paul Tillich (1886–1965) writes with a distinctly Dharmic sensibility that God is the “ground of being.” Of course, Sunday morning congregants occasionally fall prey to theistic theism. The killjoy Jehovah who casts down thunderbolts and the cosmic Santa Claus who doles out spiritual bobbles do provide certainty and comfort, but, they also infantilize the minds of the devout. The good news is that the great majority of mainstream Christians are not Biblical literalists. They have a more spacious view of the cosmos. From my own experience at Saint Agnes Church, I can report that there is a vanguard of parishioners who are happy to take shamatha instruction from me, a Christian Shambhalian, when I transpose the language of meditation into the vernacular. It’s not that great a leap for them or for me.

Sangha members would do well to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995) and Christ and Buddha as Brothers (1999). The Vietnamese monk grew up in a country teeming with French missionaries and saturated with Catholic culture. He understands the cathedral-like structure of theology and has a genuine devotion to Christ. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks Christian with no trace of an accent. In my travels, I have only ever met a handful of sangha members who can both speak Christian and love the language.

Given their heart connection to the Buddhadharma and the time they must invest in practice, it’s perfectly reasonable that Buddhist Shambhalians would have little desire to master the grammar and syntax of Christian non-theism. If the subject is broached, a few can cite Meister Eckhart (1260–1328) as a non-theistic fellow traveler or reference the friendship that the Vidhyadhara shared with the great Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915–1968). More often than not, though, what I hear in the Shambhala center cloak room are mutterings about the benighted Christian right, and what I hear in church is intercessory prayer for hapless “non-believers,” which can be code for Buddhists and practitioners of other Eastern religions.

Thich Nhat Hahn, calligarphy

So how do we overcome this dialogue of the deaf? The Speaking-of-Silence type Buddhist-Christian events are powerful gatherings, but logistically difficult to pull off. The strategy that I’ve adopted over the last twenty years is to use the Shambhala teachings, which for me constitute a secular or civic path, to serve as a bridge between Buddhism and Christianity, two religious paths. I’ve learned enough Buddhism to be able to speak the language, albeit with a thick accent. Whenever someone at the center shows an interest in my religious tradition, I try to translate the discourse of my Christian faith into the Buddhist tongue. A good place to start is with Greek apophatic or negative theology. If my interlocutor is inquisitive enough, we can travel quickly from Mount Athos to Vulture Peak Mountain. Naturally, all languages have their idioms. There is not a perfect Christian analogue for every Buddhist concept, and vice-versa. But, ultimately, the point of the endeavor is to move beyond language, beyond religion.

In my years of Shambhala training, I’ve noted that near the end of a long Saturday afternoon in the shrine room there are neither theists nor non-theists. Instead, there are “tea-ists”: frazzled meditators anxiously anticipating the four o’clock tea break. Whether you are a Buddhist or a Christian, if you sit long enough on a gomden, you will realize that neither Buddha nor Christ is going to swoop down and save you from the vexation of your mind and the roiling in your heart. A Christian in Shambhala is like Elijah. Elijah searches everywhere for God: he climbs mountains, he braves fire and earthquakes, and he shakes his fist at the empty sky … until he is exhausted. When Elijah finally stops ranting, when his heart finally breaks, he sits down and starts to listen to the silence of the hills. It’s in this silence that he first hears the Word of God. Elijah: Judeo-Christian prophet or bodhisattva manqué? Merely human, I suggest.



Image Credits

Top: Elijah, fifteenth-century icon

Bottom: Thich Nhat Hahn, calligraphy


Calcutta is Everywhere

July 28, 2008

For Mother Theresa there are two Calcuttas: there is the actual city of lepers and outcasts, where “suffering … is much more physical, much more material”; and there is the Calcutta of the mind, where “suffering is much deeper and more hidden.” The tangible Calcutta is a seething Indian metropolis; the intangible Calcutta is a soul lost in a burb somewhere in the West.

“You can find Calcutta all over the world,” she says, “if you have eyes to see; not only to see, but to look.” To look at the tangible Calcutta is to contemplate the causes and effects of a rigid, hierarchical social system and the lopsided distribution of scarce material resources. To look at the intangible Calcutta is to contemplate box store USA, whose superabundance of material wealth cannot hide the anomie that wastes away its citizens.

Who is hungrier: the living skeleton that a Missionary of Charity wraps in a blanket or the zoned-out football fan who hauls into Costco in his SUV, hunting down the perfect 60’ flat screen? The former is too weak to stand, the latter too emotionally compartmentalized to love his family. The Beatitudes differ on the question on poverty. Luke’s Jesus says that the materially destitute are blessed in the eyes of the Lord; Matthew’s Jesus says that it is the mentally impoverished who are blessed. Jesus himself makes no such distinction between the atrophied body and the sickly mind.

In Dharmic terms, Mother Theresa’s Calcutta is the lair of the Three Lords. As warriors, the right attitude to adopt in order to eradicate materialism in all forms is that of daring and renunciation:

What the warrior renounces [says the Druk Sakyong] is anything in his experience that is a barrier between himself and others. In other words, renunciation is making yourself more available, more gentle, and open to others. Any hesitation about opening yourself to others is removed. For the sake of others you renounce your privacy. (Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, 59.)

Jesus’ approach to renunciation is distinctive of the warrior. Jesus heals and hence becomes the leper shunned by the village. He embraces the denizens of all the Calcuttas of his time: tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, and so on. For him there is no “other”; there is just us—each made in the image of God, or, if you will, the embodiment of basic goodness or tatagathagharba.

The dissolution of self and other is at the heart of Jesus’ kingdom message, a kingdom which is within you, in front of your eyes, or in your midst. In other words, it can be tapped into on the spot. (It resembles Shambhala vision in its immediacy.) Of course, if comes with a cost, the crucifixion of one’s own ego fixation. But how else are we going to clean up the world’s real and imagined Calcuttas? If you won’t save this world, asked Trungpa Rinpoche, who will? This is a question that all of us, regardless of our faith tradition or philosophical inclination, are called to answer.