Thursday, October 7, 2010

a newfound appreciation

Admittedly, I've been fairly critical of Christianity as an institution for most of my life, not to mention certain scriptural passages that are, in my eyes, less than divine. And yet, I find myself coming to appreciate Christianity, and Orthodox Christianity in particular, as an extension of the ancient Greek mystery religions mixed with a bit of Eastern mysticism; although much of its 'mystery' seems to have been lost on many of its adherents.

My appreciation began after reading an interview with Archimandrite Dionysios, and discovering that Gregory Palamas is said to have constantly prayed: "Enlighten my darkness." It also struck me how Hesychastic prayer bears a superficial resemblance with Buddhist meditation, e.g., specific body postures, deliberate breathing patterns, acquiring an inner stillness, sense restraint, etc. It was years ago, however, and my appreciation quickly faded; but it was recently rekindled by my reading of Plato's Republic, as well as other of his dialogues, and a conversation I had at a local Greek Orthodox church.

While I practice Buddhism and am interested in things like philosophy and religion in general, I'm a very skeptical and secular person by nature. I have a hard time seeing into what some call 'the realm of the divine' — i.e., Plato's realm of forms, Spinoza's absolute substance, Buddhism's unconditioned reality — and I regularly doubt that such a realm even exists, but my recent readings of Plato have at least piqued my interest in trying. And talking with my kind guide at Holy Trinity last weekend during the annual Greek festival got me thinking about Christianity in a whole new way.

Seeking to explore this subject more, I decided to ask Simon, my long-time kalyana-mita (admirable friend) from, to explain to me his views regarding the "excellence of the synthesis of the messages and practices" of Buddhism and Christianity. After receiving a brief message saying that it may take a day or two for him to condense his views for me, I was delighted to find this reply later in the day:

Despite what I said about taking time to reply, I reflected on this over my latte and toast in the autumn sun while in town and have put together a preliminary outline for your consideration. As you have been speaking to Orthodox Christians, you might like to consider the Christos Pantocrator with what I say about creative sunyatta.

I would add (because these first lines are written after the rest) that a fundamental principle, on which all rests, is that 'revelation' does not stop, either with the Buddha's death or with that of Saint Paul, but that we can inform our understanding across the ages.

First of all, I must stress that I do not imagine that I have a complete or, even, a completely coherent account. The fact is that I see humanity as progressing towards a more perfect understanding and we, you and I at this time and in this place, are within the process, the work in progress (see Note below). A synthesis will require the total transformation of all the elements, resulting in something new and, probably, very alien to our present thinking. This, for me, is the meaning of Jesus' saying about the grain of wheat that must fall to the ground and 'die' before it can grow. My personal image is that of the caterpillar the pupa and the butterfly. Just as the individual ego resists the apparent death of awakening, so bodies of belief like faiths and religions resist their own 'transmogrification'.

This leads me to my second point, which is that I expect to find contradictions because those are the places where the most reflection is needed and where the energy of that mediative reflection is transformative. Do you know the poetry of George Herbert? One of his poems, which is now sung as a hymn, The Elixir

TEACH me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see

The last two stanzas talk about "the famous stone/That turneth all to gold", the Philosophers' Stone of the alchemists taken as a metaphor for the Christ-inspired mind:

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine :
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th' action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold ;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.

It is at the points of resistance that transformation occurs. Here, the poet Rilke and his attitude to praise for "the secateur and the rose" helped form my view.

Both you and I, I seem to remember, find inspiration in the Gospel of Thomas, which sometimes makes it hard to dialogue with those Christians who reject it as authentic or inspired, nevertheless, there are still enough hints in the canonical New Testament to point us to areas of the Way that Jesus taught that have tended to be overlooked or ignored in practice, and the same goes for the Buddhist sutras. These gaps are, to some extent, filled when both are brought together.

Here are some examples:

Jesus says that we are "deny our selves". This occurs in both the canonical and the Thomas gospels, although Thomas is closer to an 'Eastern' approach, an abandonment of ahamkara (the word McGregor Ross uses in his Thomas translations), of atman. The classical explanation is one of self-denial, of disciplining the senses but stops short of a denial of 'self'. I would argue that the Buddhist notion of the aggregates empowers the Christian's self denying practices, making it mindful of the deceit of the world that is often the subject of scripture. Here, as in other examples, Buddhist texts reveal a model of 'how' and Christian texts reveal outcome, particularly if we take the Teilhard view of the Cosmic Christ and the Omega Point. The thorny question of 'soul' must, in the end, be up to each one of us to decide for ourselves, if possible from our own experiences arising from practice or enlightenment.

Of course, there are challenges. By and large, Christians do not accept the notion of anatta as traditionally described and Buddhists object to a teleology or purposefulness other than personal. We have to go deeper.

Deeper brings us to sunyatta and kenosis and the mystery of creative emptiness. Much argument is wasted on whether or not there is a 'Creator', conceived along quasi-human lines. As I see it, Jesus reveals that there is compassion and caring which is behind and subtends all that is, from which all arises and into which all falls back, and that this parent-like caring is personal as well as ineffable. It is, if you like, the Buddha-nature (or indwelling Christ) of the universe.

Arising from the depths of mystery, a further example of creative interaction between Buddhism and Christianity is in the realm of social and politico-economic action. Buddhism, for too long, has tended towards a solipsistic approach, focusing on individual Awakening and ignoring political action. It is salutary to notice that Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh or Joanna Macy, along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, coming to the Western tradition, have brought in an emphasis on 'good works', an area where Christians have been active for many centuries. Whereas there are excellent schools, hospitals and other 'guardian' institutions which were founded by and continue to be run by Christian groups across the ages, catering for all faiths and none, delivering services at the point of need, similar Buddhist institutions are few and far between - indeed, I can only think of hospices or animal sanctuaries. The abolition of slavery, too, is a further example.

From these few examples, you may be able to see why and how I developed, for myself, a 'hermeneutic', a way of reading scriptures and of seeing the world which rejects exclusivity of truth to any one theory or body of faith in favour of another: each brings something to the party. Often, however, I need to sit for a while with a contradiction or a 'knot' before I can penetrate the symbolism because I truly believe that we perceive shadows, as Plato taught in his Cave Myth, and it is up to us to spend the effort needed to understand what casts the shadows, the Reality behind apparent phenomena. In this, I recognise that I am in the mainstream of neither Buddhism, which can be seen as denying an ultimate Reality, and Christianity which ignores dependent origination.

This is already rather long but I hope it gives you some idea of how it all connects for me.

Years ago I came across a talk given at the World Council of Churches by an IT specialist priest who likened the unfolding universe to a computer program. Such a program, they said, who need to be answering a question and the question is there, in one of the creation stories in Genesis (1:26): "Let us create in our own image". Thus we are part of the (to us) long process by which Compassionate Creativity is achieving that goal. And why? The next (older) story gives us the clue: (2:18) "It is not good to be alone." Inherent in these texts are also the notions of relationship and interbeing.

A lot of what Simon wrote reminded me of what the amiable gentleman at the church said, especially regarding the notions of relationship and interbeing. For example, he said that in talking to me, he saw God. Not that I was God, but that there's something special, something divine, in our interactions with other people. This brought to mind one of the images of hell mentioned by the deacon in one of the church tours earlier in the day — that of being utterly alone — and I couldn't help but be reminded of the Buddha's words to his cousin, Ananda, in SN 45.2:

Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.

I also found it interesting that Simon mentioned the allegory of the cave from Plato's Republic since it's one of the things that helped motivate me to explore this subject in the first place. (I even wrote a blog post recently comparing what's in the Republic to many of the things the Buddha is recorded as saying in the Pali Canon.)

I'm not planning on converting to Christianity anytime soon; still, I do feel like I'm deepening my own practice and understanding of Buddhism simply by allowing myself to be open to these, for lack of a better word, mysteries. This is not only due to the works of Plato and my recent conversation at Holy Trinity, but to people like David Cooper (God is a Verb), Thomas Merton (Mystics and Zen Masters) and Simon who continually seek to find harmony between spiritual disciplines. Perhaps in time I'll go back to my old, critical ways, but for now, I'm enjoying this newfound appreciation of what devoted people of all religious disciplines have to offer.

1 comment:

  1. Brother, these are good words. The "amiable gentleman" at the Greek church sees with the heart and considers not the appearance but the reality indicated by the living ikon that you are. There is no such thing as "converting to Christianity" except for the religious, but to go up to Tabor and experience metamorphosis…

    Come, let us run to where He is waiting for us…