Monday, August 17, 2009

creative encounters

It is generally agreed that no religious movement can come into being or develop without having contact with other established faiths or denominations which are bound to leave their impress upon the new creation of thought and emotion.
(A.J. Arberry, from Sufism; An Account of the Mystics of Islam)
I’m on retreat now with my brother monks at New Camaldoli. (If I post this I will be being slightly disobedient: the prior has asked us to not use the computer much, if at all, during retreat.) Besides getting renewed and refreshed in the extra silence and solitude that we provide each other during retreat time, and the excellent conferences given by a holy old monk from France, Père Ghislain, it has been a really good time of reflection for me about the work of this past year, and this summer especially. This summer has been a season of creative encounters, even more than usual.

It started with me attending the Four Winds meeting with our prior Raniero way out in Carmel Valley in mid-June. The Hermitage has for some 17 years now belonged to this council along with the Window to the West center of the Esselen tribe, Esalen Institute, and Tassajara Zen Mountain monastery. What unites these centers is the Ventana Wilderness, and the group comes together four times a year––at the solstices and equinoxes––to discuss advocacy issues for the wilderness as well as to share spiritual practice. I’d forgotten that that was my first instance of actual inter-faith encounters, doing sweat lodge with Little Bear and going at least once a year to Tassajara. It has been seven years since I have been involved, since I moved to Santa Cruz, but I finally made it a point to be at the last two. For me, the highlight of this one was again a sweat lodge. Some of them in the past have been brutal (one of our monks actually had blisters on his ears and shoulders after one some years ago); this one was only intense. I enjoyed it immensely, and especially enjoyed being around the energy of the people of the Esselen tribe. What I carried away from the day with me the most was this: I always try to teach about the importance of re-incarnating the spiritual life, how important it is that the body be involved in the spiritual life––sariram khalu dharma sadhana!––and I do make some mention of our relationship to the earth as well, but not nearly enough. I realized during the sweat lodge this time that we actually cannot really understand the body if we don’t understand the earth, the ground from which it comes. That taught me something valuable and left me hungry for more.

Then Br. David Steindl-Rast and I did another event for Boulder Integral Life, which was well attended and well received, and I thought we were better prepared than last year as well. Besides the marvelous hospitality of Nomali, Jeff and Ross, at the end of that time we got another nice long visit with Ken Wilber at his home in Denver. (A snippet of our visit is on YouTube, though it’s all of Ken speaking. I was reminded of Ronald Reagan’s visit with the Pope. Afterward he said, “It was a good visit. We exchanged views. And his views were, obviously, better than mine.” There is also one video of me singing a song from the concert the first night of the conference.)

After that I was for the better part of a week in Chicago. Actually I say Chicago but really I was in an air-conditioned bubble near O’Hare Airport, at a pastoral musicians’ convention. It was the polar opposite of the sweat lodge. I have a lot of friends there, and it is as always great to see them, but I have a hard time warming up to the environment of events such as that, so large and electrified, and so detached from earth. From there I scooted along the south shore of Lake Michagan over to Notre Dame and did a concert in a nice venue for the third year in a row called ND Vision, for high school students.

Then David and I did a weekend at Esalen, pretty much the same thing we did in Boulder but more relaxed. I think it went really well. I’ve been stepping out more and more, daring to talk about the universals of the spiritual life. This workshop was not designed for Christians but was specifically called “The Universal Call to Contemplation.” Though we never asked anyone’s affiliation (as is my want) I know for a fact that we had folks from many different paths, from yogis to Iranians Jews. There was at least one person, a Catholic, who did not like me using this approach, and we had a couple of very difficult exchanges about it. It is work I take very seriously and work that has to be done very carefully, but it is definitely the work I want to do, to find our common ground, to explore the universals. Overall, though I’ve not seen the official evaluations, folks were well pleased and I was too.

With some friends I attended the Chautaqua gathering up at Mount Madonna in mid-July. I may not do it justice in describing it, but it is a gathering that aims at exploring new models of education through re-negotiating the social contract of the classroom. It is led by Ward (SN) Mailliard, educator-entrepeneur of Mount Madonna School, with the legendary anthropologist Angeles Arien, and the well-known consultant (how do you describe him?) Peter Bloch, the author of “The Answer to How is Yes.” I enjoyed it a lot, especially because many of the attendees were my friends who had spoken highly of the gathering and I was happy to learn what is “working” them.

Then I led another silent retreat at San Damiano, Danville, this one definitely focused more for Catholics or other Christians, but still from the universal perspective. And then I was able to slip away for an overnight, at their invitation, to Tassajara. It was the first time I had been there in seven years as well, and I was so happy to be there. I had a couple of good conversations with the regulars and summer workers, I did a musical performance for guests and student workers I the afternoon, I had a couple of good sits in the zen-do, and of course relished the incredible cuisine. The highlight of the time though was spending the morning hiking and talking (and playing blues guitar––go figger!) with a Japanese Zen monk. His English was rudimentary but he and we did okay. I’ve been kind of fixed on Dogen-zenji lately, so it was good to talk to someone close to the source. He is also, at least up ‘til now, a celibate monk. The Japanese Zen tradition for the most part has married monks and priests. (There is a long conversation about the difference between monk and priest, and vows and ordination that I have had a number of times, but it’s too subtle for here and now…) Anyway, this does make him a but unique, dedicated mainly to meditation––not merely training in the monastery so that he can go back to a village temple and perform weddings and funerals; he, like Sunryu Suzuki, wants to teach people za-zen. It is always a surprise to Americans to find out that za-zen is more a phenomenon here than there. And so, he has been loving “American za-zen!”

Last big thing was a talk I did for the Pacifica Institute. This is a Turkish Muslim group dedicated to promoting inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue. I first met some of the folks from this group at our Tent of Abraham gathering last Fall, and they subsequently invited me to come and speak to them about my own faith journey, monastic life, and my experience of and interaction with Islam in my travels. I thought about this talk for months but, oddly for me, I wasn’t sure if I would even write anything down. They had also asked me to sing some songs, so I thought I might improvise the whole thing, sing songs and tell stories. But Saturday morning before the talk that evening, I sat down and wrote for about two hours, borrowing the title from Bro. David’s book with Philip Kapleau, about “The Ground We Share.” And I was glad I did. Perhaps I’ll post the rest of the talk later, but for now I’m just gonna include here below my opening remarks, because they sort of sum up where I am at with this theme of universality. These remarks contain in them a little bit of Boulder, Esalen, the sweat lodge, Tassajara, and all the creative encounters of this summer.

* * *

My main influence has been Fr. Bede Griffiths who taught about what he called the Universal Call to Contemplation, which means that every person is called to share in the grace of the contemplative life, mystical union with God––not just “professional religious” such as monks and nuns. This Universal Call to Contemplation also means that at the heart and at the summit of all the world’s great religions there is a contemplative-mystical core. Here is how he put it in an interview for the video “The Human Search”: “…when we get beyond the multiplicity to unity, we find a common tradition, a common wisdom that we all share.”

In the scholarly world this is known as the perennial philosophy, but it is not a notion shared by everyone. Some rather think that we start out with a problem and our religions are our way of solving that problem, the problem of death, the problem of evil. But I prefer this approach, that we start out with an experience, and our religions, our faith traditions, are our way of understanding that experience and letting that experience transform our lives; then our faith traditions are our way of passing that experience on, articulating it through language, ritual, song, dance and art. As that experience starts to get expressed one person’s version of it looks very different from another’s, and that should be no surprise. For all of his teaching about the universal call, and the universal wisdom Bede wrote in River of Compassion:
The Buddhist nirvana and the Hindu moksha are not the same, nor are they the same as the Christian vision of God. So the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim and the Christian are all experiencing the ultimate Reality but experiencing it in different ways through their own love and through their own traditions of faith and knowledge. There are obviously various degrees as well. There is a tendency to say that there are no differences anymore, but I do not think that is true.
And beyond that he added, beautifully:
In a sense, the experienced of the ultimate truth is different for each person, since each person is a unique image of God, a unique reflection of the one eternal light and love.
Now, that need not negate our efforts at understanding each other and finding common ground. Our sangha in Santa Cruz has as part of its mission statement that we aim “…to understand the experience of Ultimate Reality as found in all the world’s spiritual traditions.” In order to do that, I need to really try to enter into someone else’s experience of ultimate reality as much as I can. My friends know that there are a few words that really raise my hackles, and they are, “It’s all the same.” No. We have very different experiences and I want to respect those differences, understand them as legitimate expressions of an experience of the Divine, and even uphold them as someone else’s vehicle for union with God. That’s when the real work starts, finding “unity in diversity.” To use other words of Fr. Bede from Return to the Center:
I have to be a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Parsee, a Sikh, a Muslim, and a Jew, as well as a Christian, if I am to know the Truth and to find the point of reconciliation in all religion.
And so the journey to the center... The challenge for all of us, each of our religious traditions, is to re-discover the depth of our own tradition, the original inspiration. Fr. Bede said,
That is the hope for the future: that religions will discover their own depth. As long as they remain on their surface, they will always be divided in conflict. When they discover their depth, then we converge on the unity… (A)s you go deep into any religion, you converge on the center, and everything springs from that center and converges at that center...
I find this very exciting, because I have been convinced by thinkers greater, holier and wiser than I that we are entering into a new phase in the history of the planet. Without getting into it too deeply here, some call it the second axial period. Whereas the first axial period was marked by a birth of a sense of the individual spiritual path, individual ethical responsibility, the birth of the rational mind and self-consciousness, this new period will be and is already marked by a sense of global consciousness. We are now aware that every tribe, nation and religion in some way shares a common history, and that is making us realize that we belong to humanity as a whole and not just to our specific group, be it ethnic, social or religious.

Part of the challenge of this new consciousness in this new period of history is horizontal: cultures and religions (and they often go together) meet even on a surface level and enter into what Ewert Cousins calls “creative encounters.” But those creative encounters are not going to make of us one bland world religion; we borrow the phrase from the great paleontologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin––this convergence gives birth to “complexified collective consciousness.” That’s a mouthful, eh? What it means is that true union diversifies; our union, the convergence of our centers of consciousness gives birth to more creativity. At the same time, again borrowing from Teilhard, “everything that rises will converge,” that is, everything that is reaching for spirit will eventually meet.

From a vertical perspective (and this is why the cross is a universal, archetypal symbol), this new consciousness is not only communal and global––the horizontal axis, it is also ecological and cosmic. So it is also necessary for us, all cultures and religions, to plunge our roots deep into the earth in order to provide a stable and secure base for future development. This new global consciousness has to be organically ecological, supported by structures that ensure justice and peace. So at the same time, we also need to band together to “bring about a new integration of the spiritual and the material, of sacred energy and secular energy into a total global human energy.” (Ilia Deleo, Christ in Evolution, 28) Thus the need for dialogue, community, and relationship––“well-worn paths between huts”––with a growing awareness that each person and each group is something of the whole, and is bringing a valuable part of the conversation.

Let me end my remarks with this quote from A.J. Arberry in his book on Sufism:
It has become a platitude to observe that mysticism is essentially one and the same, whatever may be the religion professed by the individual mystic: a constant yearning of the human spirit for personal communion with God. Much labour and erudition however have also been expended upon the attempt to shew how one form of mysticism has been influenced by another; while proof is often difficult or even impossible in such elusive matters, it is generally agreed that no religious movement can come into being or develop without having contact with other established faiths or denominations which are bound to leave their impress upon the new creation of thought and emotion. …While mysticism is undoubtedly a universal constant, its variations can be observed to be very clearly and characteristically shaped by the several religious systems upon which they were based.
With that in mind, we can talk about the ground we share…