Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Out of Nowhere

Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind." - John 9:39 (NIV)

Last Sunday I went to Urban Village Church. I was feeling a little isolated and alone - disturbed by the recent events related to the unjustified police brutality and violence against several black men that resulted in their deaths, while the police officers involved were not indicted.  I needed some inspiration to lift my spirits. And Buddhist philosophy or teachings would not have offered much more than a few references to Karma and the need to develop Bodhichitta - which would have just been perceived by me as a slap in the face of reality.

So I went to Urban Village because it is a very diverse congregation that is very involved in social change and has often provided sensible wisdom and counsel in the past on the appropriate responses to these heavily charged situations.

The message or sermon was not particularly inspiring, and the worship was personally irritating to me; as it is mostly contemporary "christian" music full of platitudes about how "awesome" God is - and how God is "amazing" and  "provides" for "his people." When I considered myself an Evangelical Christian I liked this kind of empty sentimentalism - but I've "grown up" in my opinion, and don't see how the idea of God "providing" for "his" people at the expense of those who are not "his people" to be a very flattering concept of God - who, according to the way Jesus embodies him, would "love his enemies" equal to his "friends."

But - as I sat there, scrolling through the digital Bible on my iPhone, a highlighted verse (John 9:35)"jumped" out at me..... I had annotated it....

"When Jesus heard that they had thrown the man out, He found him and asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?"

In the notes I had written: "Jesus came LOOKING for him - very important."

Out of nowhere, as I was reading this, I became aware of a sense of peace - not as a sharply felt emotional comfort but as a kind of deep reassuring  conviction that I was not alone in my being. It's hard to explain - but there was a strong awareness that it was not just me in my skin - that I had become more than I understand about myself. If I am pushed I might say that I EXPERIENCED what the Apostle Paul wrote about in Galatians 2:20:

"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

Was this a "born again" experience that I've heard so many talk about but have ridiculed and trivialized in the past? 

I truly don't know. All I know is that in that moment I owned the sensation of having Jesus alive in me!!!

In the context of the passage in John 9:35, Jesus came looking for the man who was rejected by the very institution where he thought God would be proclaimed and where he thought he would find others of a like mind who had also encountered God....but, they rejected his testimony and threw him out of the temple.

Jesus came looking for him....
Jesus came looking for me...

and found me.

I have sought for spiritual truth for most of my life now - believing many, many times that I had found it. The problem was that as long as I assumed that I was responsible for the finding - what I would find was merely what I thought I was looking for, which I was never truly qualified with adequate discernment to judge.

For the first time in my life - I gave up the responsibility for looking and Who I was looking for came looking for me. It's so simple - it's what happens when you stop looking, when you stop clinging to prejudiced ideas about what the truth should be - when you stop chasing your own shadow and seeking out your own preconceived solutions.

What do I do now? Where do I go with this experience? 

I am grateful for not having to seek anymore.

It is quite a shock to your "spiritual" ego when you think you can see everything so clearly and then realize that you were completely blind all the time. 

It also seems very ironic to me that I had not gone to a church with the goal of seeking to find God - but God found me while I happened to be in a church.

Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind."

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Do not be wise in your own opinion...

"Let love be without hypocrisy. 
Abhor what is evil. 
Cling to what is good. 
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. 
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.  
Repay no one evil for evil.” 
- Romans 12:9-16

Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of how Christians are SUPPOSED to behave…...

Friday, November 28, 2014

The God Shaped Hole

"There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus." 
- Blaise Pascal

Thanksgiving is over and simultaneously the most stressful, and most wonderful of seasons begins.

I have not been sleeping well; waking up at around 4 a.m. For the past couple of early morning periods of sleeplessness I pulled out my rosary beads and prayed my own version of the “Hail Mary.” Mixing it with the "Jesus Prayer” and extemporaneous thoughts and wishes. I’m mystified by this apparent gut reaction to sleeplessness. Resorting to prayer at times of despondency or distress seems to be a reaction like putting out my hands when falling.

At this time of year my thoughts become intensified around the spirituality that I have always sought and never really found. The problem is that during the Christmas season - religion becomes extremely superficial and schmaltzy. Nativity scenes pop up in strange places and platitudes about sharing the “christmas spirit” are mouthed without, I believe, much good intention.

The story of the nativity has become such a folk legend that it is hard to see any real meaning behind it - it is legend undoubtedly, but the idea of a divine being coming to earth in humble circumstances to the poorest of people living in exile carries a lot of weight in interpreting the human condition. The allegories that can be drawn from the story are endless and rich in teaching. But, unfortunately, they are lost by so many Christians who spend tremendous amounts of energy clinging and “protecting” the literalness of the events.

If God exists he has made himself very elusive to me and it makes no sense. I have sought to encounter God in so many different ways - praying for guidance, a word, a sign, and perceiving nothing except a little self-motivated emotion. I have always believed in God; or so I thought. But how long can you look for something that you’ve never seen before you realize that perhaps it’s imagination?

Is there a God shaped hole in the human psyche? Or is it just a delusion that we experience as a desire to be more than we are?

It seems that the more I question the reality of God and consider the ways that God can possible exist outside of my limited awareness and experience - I keep coming back to a potential answer that says that God is life itself. The very nature of reality appears to be a boundless ocean of experience that "bubbles up” into waves of infinite variety with the sole purpose of experiencing itself in all its endless forms. I keep coming back to the same beliefs that Alan Watts speculated and wrote about in the mid 70’s.

Alan Watts has always been one of my spiritual heroes. I was very disheartened to learn from one of his acquaintances that he was a very tormented man - an alcoholic by action, if not by admission. He struggled with maintaining long lasting relationships and it seems that he was spiritually and emotionally restless most of his life.

But, that being said, I see a lot of Alan Watts in me - not as intelligent or gifted in the wisdom that seemed to pour from his mind almost endlessly, but the spiritual restlessness and the desire for aloneness rings true.

I’ve sought to fill the perceived “God-Shaped hole” with religious practice - as if by obeying the rules I could calm or control the wanderlust that pulls me in all directions. But, time after time, the shallow thinking and more bitter aspects of the teachings get to me. In Buddhism it doesn’t take long for the mythology of Shakyamuni to become front and center. The founder of Buddhism, known for teaching that discussions about the meaning of the universe and the speculation about the nature of God, quickly becomes a God (or divine being) that makes him special and somehow an unobtainable role model.

Jesus, the perfect exemplar, becomes someone to be worshipped, rather than someone we should follow and emulate.

Religion has a way of disarming the reality of being. It devalues our potential by claiming that “through grace,” or through “grace plus works,” we too can become “special.”

We are a focus point of the universe. What can be more special than that?

We do not have a God-shaped hole anywhere but in our minds. If we live life believing that we’re lacking the presence of God we are devaluing ourselves - the hole that we seem to have is our own creation - a figment of our delusion of inferiority.

We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God - we are gods in the hands of ignorance. We have built cages to our own design, and limited our freedom to the shape of our own imagined restrictions.

It is scary to be outside the cage - but it is where life is.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Religion of Doubt

Whenever I get the sense that I’ve found the spiritual practice and/or community that I feel I can settle into it rarely fails that I quite quickly become exposed to some of the more esoteric and, let me be frank, batshit cultish practices that the community engages in that, for me, completely muddy the water and miss the point of the core meaning of the teachings.

I became very excited by the fresh and practical teachings of the New Kadampa Tradition - and I’ve liked many of the teachers and practices that I’ve been exposed to; I continue to attend their Sunday “Advice for Life/World Peace Prayer” sessions a few times a month.

Back in September I visited a more established community in Northampton, England - and was given a tour along with many other visitors, of their temple and grounds. During the visit I was taken to their Puja room - where a long term practitioner described his daily Buddhist practice of filling seven offering bowls and offering prayers to Dorje Shugden. I had no real problem with the concept of making offerings and being devotional to the symbolism of an enlightened being. But, what drove me a little batty was when the guide described how he had to make sure each of the seven bowls was filled evenly and equally - he said that this was very difficult at first and took many hours for him to master. For someone who tends to be a little obsessive compulsive - this concept was a nightmare.

I belong to a Facebook group devoted to the teachings of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and the New Kadampa Tradition, and yesterday I was copied on a question that one of the other members asked. Without naming names - here’s the post:
"Hi there, I have a question. I have recently completed a close retreat of time of Je Tsongkhapa. In heart jewel it mentions finishing an action close retreat by doing 7 sessions of the Vajradhaka burning offering. Since my retreat was one of time and not actions, is it still necessary for me to do 7 sessions of vajradhaka burning. I don't want to do so unless it is strictly necessary. Also, if I am to do these vajradhaka sessions, do I need to burn actual sesame seeds or can I just imagine this process. Many thanks."
I’m sure if Shakyamuni Buddha read this he would slap his forehead and groan…..

As would Jesus, Muhammed, Baha’u’llah, Lao Tzu, and all other founders of religions upon observing the absolute nonsense that the “believers” get hung up about.

I’ve come to realize that all religious people are crazy; or as my wife says, perhaps we’re all crazy and religion provides a better way to observe it!

I need to be healed of this deep seated dependence on institutional religion. It’s not healthy for me to feed my addictive personality with all of this superstitious crap.

When I was an Orthodox Christian I loved the idea that Icons were “Windows to Heaven,” but now I realize that we don’t need "Windows to Heaven” but rather "Mirrors of Heaven” as it is here on earth. The religious division of people into those who are heaven bound and those who are hell bound is a perversion of all of the teachings of the Masters. In Tibetan Buddhism, the punishment of hell is more dramatic and awful than any of the imagery of Bible, yet people often flock to Tibetan Buddhism to be free of the guilt of judgement that they found in Christianity.

I think we need to be rid of religious  superstition - and the fear-mongering that goes along with it.

Enlightenment, liberation and salvation is not purchased by good behavior in this life - nor is it a gift born on the back of a bloody sacrifice. It is already the case -

I think this is what Buddha and Jesus were really trying to tell us - but humanity didn’t “feel” that it was true so humanity tried to create a formula for emotional manipulation that manifests as Dharma or Dogma.

Of all the Buddhist schools, the one that seems closest to expressing the teachings of present and imminent liberation is the Pure Land school. More so than Zen, Pure Land offers the principal of boundless grace and compassion with no strings attached. Zen is close, but comes with a few disciplinary strings that require specific behaviors to earn merit - it’s not unconditional until you’ve met the conditions for receiving the unconditional compassion!!

Pure Land practices seem to be those of gratitude for what has already been received, rather than tools of barter for gaining liberation or salvation. Christianity in its original form - prior to the dogma and rubrics of the Church - seems to also be about the unlimited, boundless compassion of the Universe.

All of this of course begs the question: “If boundless compassion is already present, and liberation is already the case, why do I need to practice any religion at all?”

I’m wondering the same thing myself……..

Perhaps the craziest, most outrageous answer is this: perhaps we should practice religion like we listen to music or drink wine or enjoy a good story, not to gain anything - but merely to appreciate the beauty of it and enjoy the experience without expectation beyond the very doing itself.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Wrong Questions - Right Answers?

In order to find something that you’re looking for you have to know what you lost - or at least know what it is you’re looking for so that you’ll recognize when you’ve found it.

This is the conundrum of all spiritual seeking. We seek for truth - but obviously there must be some recollection or awareness of what truth is, already present in our consciousness in order for us to be satisfied that we’ve found it.

Truth can never be new. It is only our understanding of it that can be fresh or newly experienced.

In all the various spiritual teachings, religions, and philosophies in the world there are answers offered for the deep questions.

  • What is the meaning of life?
  • What happens when we die?
  • What is the nature of consciousness?
  • Are we consciousness experiencing life - or life experiencing consciousness?
  • Is there a soul that lives on beyond our bodies?
  • Do we reincarnate or do we live only one life?
  • Is there a God (Ultimate Being)?
  • Why is there suffering?
  • What is the purpose of existence?
As I’ve spent most of my life looking into these questions and come up with a vast array of answers that often contradict one another; I’m beginning to realize that perhaps I’m asking the wrong questions - or that it may be possible, however strange it may sound, that the truth about reality is a flexible continuum of experiences that is conditioned by our own sense of existence.

As we believe - so is reality?

Could it be that we determine our own experience of reality - within a boundless expanse of potential absolutes?

Could it be that there is no meaning to life other than that which we give it?

Could it be that what we believe to be God is the ultimate expression of life itself? Not something that is separate from our experience as living beings but rather the entire underlying “technology" of our awareness itself.

The various varieties of religions appear to be interpretations of the teachings of their founders. Whether eyewitness accounts of encounters with ultimate reality, or the embellished oral transmissions of a legacy of disciples, they all record the experiences of apparently unique individuals as they live out their experience of communing with reality.

The various religions do not agree on the answers to ultimate questions - so not all religions are true if we hold their answers to be the ultimate truth. But, there is another way of looking at these apparent contradictions. Perhaps we need to take another look at the questions we’re asking before we disqualify some of the answers.

It seems to me that what matters most about these questions is not arriving at timelessly true specific answers - but to be constantly seeking the relevance of the answers that fit the circumstances of life over time.

In my study of Buddhist teachings I’ve observed that over the course of his life the Buddha would deliver teachings that were appropriate to a time, place, and an individual’s circumstances. Sometimes a teaching or answer that was delivered to one disciple would drastically contradict the same teaching or answer given to a different disciple. This principle of applying time-based reality transfers well to interpreting the teachings of all other religions.

What I’m suggesting is that we perhaps would find a healthier mindset about religion or spiritual teachings in general, if we removed the designation of “absolute truth” from the recorded verbal or written traditions. 

One practical example of this may be the teachings on the afterlife that are found in the Judaeo Christian tradition. So many assumptions about the existence of heaven and hell have been made based on some specific time-based comments that Jesus made to an audience that was made up of fairly unsophisticated listeners, whose perception of the world was generally pretty narrow and full of superstitious fears and mixed with pagan beliefs. To interpret his words on this deep subject as being ultimate timeless truth - may well be a stretch beyond the context of their meaning. 

When Jesus spoke of hell - he often used the imagery of a dump where lifeless and unwanted objects were sent to be destroyed and burned in a fire that was never extinguished. We can’t know the minds of the people that he was talking to at that moment - but we can certainly visualize that they might be emotionally charged and inspired by the concept of a wasted life being compared to worthless garbage being incinerated, especially if the burning dump was clearly visible in their peripheral vision!

The value of Buddhism is not that of just an alternate religion - but as a set of beliefs and practices that explore the nature of the mind it has incredible value when its practical methods of meditation and contemplation are applied to all other religions. Applying its critical self-analysis techniques and studying how it has adapted and changed over time in each of the cultures where it has flourished can help us break down the barriers in communication with other religions.

Personally, I struggle tremendously with the institutions that supposedly support (any) religion. The “protection” that they provide often becomes additional dogma that becomes attached to the heart of the teaching and divides people based solely on matters of dubious interpretation. I have so-far been unable to find a faith community that is truly open to exploring reality beyond the context of unquestioned, traditionally held beliefs. I have hopes that there are others out there who feel that it’s time for a fresh approach to interpreting reality. 

We cannot continue as a divided world much longer. 

We have had too many religious and/or political wars, based on “jot and tittle” matters that ultimately have no real importance to the practical lives of most people.

It could well be that the Messiah that so many religions look for, or expect to return, is already here among us - within us. The Messiah may well be the personification of all of us agreeing to disagree but loving each other anyway.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Transmission; from no-one to no-one

Bart Marshall
More “Random Dharma” - on the subject of liberation, enlightenment, and self-discovery.

I’ve been a subscriber to the TAT Forum for many years. It’s an interesting gathering for people who seek to know and experience reality for themselves; “Spiritual Seekers” who seek through dialogue and self-inquiry.

Here are some interesting observations from Bart Marshall;  

"In Zen, the word transmission is used to denote the "passing on" of enlightenment through a master-student relationship. It is misleading, in that it implies an energy transference in which enlightenment flows from someone who "has" it to someone who does not. 

Still, there's really no better word for what Zen points at with transmission. Enlightenment cannot be "taught" like mathematics or language, or mastered with "practice," like art or music. The Zen master's task is more akin to helping someone born with no sense of humor suddenly break into an uncontrollable belly laugh. Or to trigger in a self-absorbed ego-maniac a spontaneous experience of unconditional love. One never makes "progress" towards this sort of thing. It could happen any moment, or never. And so when Truth stands revealed, it is said transmission has occurred. 
Within that metaphor, however, it is perhaps more accurate to say that transmission is occurring always. God, Tao, the One, the Source, the Absolute—whatever we might call it—is in an unceasing state of transmission. Awakening is when reception occurs. (Although this, too, is misleading since there is no receiver.) 
God's eternal state of transmission is a standing "invitation to receive" that may be accepted at any moment—but not by the ego-identity. The ego-mind—even one that has spent years "seeking enlightenment"—treats the invitation to receive transmission as a threat, as "the hound of heaven." As long as ego is in control—or believes itself to be—the hound is successfully kept at bay. But if ego is dethroned for even a moment, the hound is upon it, and its name is Grace. Invitation accepted, transmission complete. 
Knowing the ego-identity to be the sole "guardian of the gate," the Zen master—with the permission and complicity of the aspirant—goes about the business of undermining and attacking its "authority" in subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, ways. 
This is the entire work of Zen. There is no teaching or practice, no zapping, no secret wisdom imparted with words—or rather, whatever there is of this is not the point. The Zen master is up to one thing only—the maneuvering of the seeker's ego-mind into a sufficiently vulnerable position that it might falter just long enough for reception to occur. 
The master transmits nothing. He does not "have" enlightenment (no one ever has) so what could he transmit? He is a midwife, a facilitator, an "awakening therapist." 
All rests with the aspirant. The Source is as unavoidable as air—the very "space" you now take in. How close is the place you peer out from? How far from it could you stray? To "see" it where do you look? To "know" it where do you go?"

for more information on the TAT Foundation -  click here.

Monday, November 3, 2014

More Random Dharma

Today I flipped open Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful book: “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” at random, and read this:

“This morning, before giving a Dharma talk, I was having breakfast with my attendant, a lovely novice monk. I paused and said to him, “Dear one, do you see the cow on the hillside? She is eating grass in order to make my yogurt, and I am now eating the yogurt to make a Dharma talk.” Somehow, the cow will offer today’s Dharma talk. As I drank the cow’s milk, I was a child of the cow. The Buddha recommends we live our daily life in this way, seeing everything in the light of inter being. Then we will not be caught in our small self. We will see our joy and our suffering everywhere. We will be free, and we won’t see dying as a problem. Why should we say that dying is suffering? We continue with the next generations. What is essential is to be our best while we are here. Then we continue to be through our children and grandchildren. Motivated by love, we invest ourselves in the next generations. Whether birth or death are suffering depends on our insight. With insight, we can look at all these things and smile to them. We are not affected in the same way anymore. We ride on the wave of birth and death, and we are free from birth and death. This insight liberates us."
- Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” p. 118