Thursday, February 19, 2009

the same language, the same words

To learn the Buddha Way is to learn one’s self.
To learn one’s self is to forget one’s self.

There are a couple of ways of interpreting the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. One is that the infraction of the migrating people was that they built this tower trying to reach heaven. In a way it is the same “sin” as Eve and Adam––they were trying to take heaven by storm, trying to reach heaven by their own power. And the Lord punishes them for that by confusing their language so that they can no longer understand each other. Another way is to think of it in terms of the Hebrews’ ongoing evolution of understanding who God is––maybe they weren’t doing anything so bad, but this God, understood more in the image of a human being, was jealous of their progress and tried to stop them because he was afraid of them being too powerful, a god more akin to the Greek or Roman gods than to the God of love.

Either way, I love the fact that it is said that before this time, “the whole world spoke the same language, using the same words.” There is a primordial unity. It’s an intuition I stumbled upon years ago first in music. At some point I got the suspicion that it was “all the same music, that it all came from the same place.” This is when I started getting fascinated with essentially vocal music, realizing how many cultures had a chant form as the basis of their sacred music––and later added to that the other basic element, rhythm––and decided that if we would discover that root we could find a universal music. That in some way paved the way for an easy acceptance of the perennial philosophy, the sanatana dharma, the universal wisdom, a belief that there was a common core to the world’s spiritual traditions, a common root to the spiritual experience, and if we were to discover that common core, that one language, those same words, we could find each other, learn from each other and help each other along the way too.

With either interpretation of the story, we need to fast forward and find how this division is healed by the Gospel, in the Acts of the Apostles: when the Spirit comes at Pentecost, and the apostles begin to preach, the whole crowd understands, each in his own language, each in her own tongue. Now maybe we are being taught that the diversity was not such a bad thing after all––just another necessary step in the evolution of consciousness; or we are being taught the Gospel is its own version of the perennial philosophy and cuts right through the language and cultural differences and can speak all those different languages. Either way, the diversity is being reverenced. The Spirit speaks all these languages and recognizes in them her own voice, the primordial unity. And the Spirit calls us to the new unity beyond all the words. And above and below those words, of course, is the silence, the apophatic depth of the divine, the silent bija mantra of the sahasraha chakra at the crown of the head where the Spirit's flame appeared.

And so the ministers of the Gospel should be able to speak those different languages, an language of inculturation outside of Western European cultural expression, Roman law, Greek philosophy and Gregorian chant––each in her own language, each in his own tongue. As the documents of Vatican II say about music––in mission lands “their music should be held in proper esteem… in adapting worship to their native genius”––so for all things: their painting, their language, their rituals, their philosophy, each in his own language, each in her own tongue. Not to re-discover the original primordial unity, but to work toward that new unity, the new earth, the mystical unity that lies ahead, that respects the differences and allows others to reach the divine by means of that language.

That’s the good news. The bad news, or at least the difficult part of the good news, is contained in Jesus’ own version of the perennial philosophy in the Gospel. Exactly what Adam and Eve and the people of Babel get accused of––trying to grasp after heaven on their own power––is what St. Paul, in the most lucid description of Jesus’ way, tells us Jesus did not do, and that this is the mind we should have: Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, took the form of a slave… And it was therefore that he was raised on high and given the name above every other name.” And so Jesus himself says (Mk 8:34) that if we want to save our lives we will lose them, and if we lose our lives we will save them. Or, as Dogen-zenji expressed it, “To learn oneself is to forget oneself.” No matter what spiritual path one takes, it is only through this death, emptying ourselves, the journey beyond the small self, the false self, beyond the ego, that we once again find the new unity, the unitive way of the mystics.