Wednesday, February 9, 2011

the nakedness of the journey

We are called to see each arising of our day
not as a threat, but as an opportunity––
a chance to open our arms,
lay down our weapons,
and surrender to this exact moment of our lives.
(Reginald Ray)

Always on the lookout to overcome dualism, to redeem eros, to recover our bodies, the earth, and to see, as Wilbur and Aurobindo and Huxley insist, that any duality is really a misunderstanding of the seed of truth that is in the tradition, the core of the perennial philosophy. So some things I’ve run into recently.

In a pair of articles in the Winter 2010 issue of Tricycle with Reginald Ray the well known contemporary teacher in the Tibetan tradition. He himself is a student of the controversial Chögam Rimpoche, founder of Naropa Institute, where Ray himself taught for some years. He uses the terms Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana––normally associated with Theravadan, Chinese-Japanese-Korean-Vietnamese, and Tibetan Buddhism respectively, to refer to three stages in which he spiritual journey unfolds. Obviously he has a prejudice toward the Vajrayana, his own tradition, but it is specifically because he has found in it an insistence on the unique power of relative reality, and the power of all that makes up the ordinary human experience. Here we are of course in the realm of the relation of the Absolute to the Individual, the One to the many, the foundational problem of our spiritual traditions.

The first stage is the Hinayana stage. The word literally means the "lesser vehicle" and came to be seen as a pejorative term for the Southeast Asian tradition that stays close to the Pali canon, more monastic, insistence on a total break from “the world.” But seen as a stage, this is when we begin to realize that there is such a thing as reality that is only relative––the realm of feelings, thoughts, perceptions, situations––and they are experienced as an obstacle. At this stage in our meditation practice the focus is on gradually (or not so gradually!) extricating ourselves from our karma, understood here as our “reactivity,” which digs us deeper and deeper into suffering–dukkha and clinging to self. In a second stage, which he refers to as the Mahayana stage–literally the “great vehicle,” a term obviously favoring this tradition; “here comes everybody!”––we gradually become more and more aware of something that lies beneath that relative reality, “in a spacious, open and unimpeded dimension” of our existence. But in having made that discovery, we are not meant to leave that realm of the limited and relative, we are not meant to simply dismiss the world of emotions, feelings, perceptions, etc. behind forever. From the Vajrayana viewpoint, “it is actually the opposite”:
The third, Vajrayana stage of the journey calls us to reenter the world of the relative with a ferocity and intensity that is––to the conventional mind––quite crazy. In the Vajrayana we see that our difficulties with relative reality stem from our attitudes and beliefs, rather than from reality itself. We are called to see each arising of our day not as a threat, but as an opportunity––a chance to open our arms, lay down our weapons, and surrender, to this exact moment of our lives.

I suppose that’s why the name of the article is “The Vajrayana Journey is an experience of love, power, and freedom”!

Last Sunday I was reflecting on how we don’t wait to we get our lives together before we enter into service, that service and our insertion in the world is actually part of our sadhana; it is the Yoga of Compassion (the phrase of Karen Armstrong that I like so much), the corporal works of mercy. At the same time, there are legitimate and necessary times of withdrawal from the world, pratyahara, if you will, to reassess and reconnect with our own ground, hopefully also with the Ground of Being and Consciousness itself. I am still picking carefully through Teilhard’s Divine Milieu, and I am, as always, fascinated by the complementary if not opposite approach presented by the different traditions. For Teilhard we also need to first get in touch with this ground of our being, but he refers to it as, as the title implies, the divine milieu. There is no good English translation of the French word milieu, though it of course has been adapted as an English word meaning one’s social environment. (As a matter of fact one early translation of the book into English left the whole title in French, le Divin Milieu, noting the inadequacy of English to convey the meaning.) The French concept and for Teilhard, a milieu is much more than a social context. It is a realm, and the divine milieu an all encompassing realm, much like Fr. Bede’s notion of the spiritual realm, as well as Ken Wilbur’s, which is both source and summit, but also somehow saturates all of reality like water that soaks a sponge, like the smoke from the incense on my altar and my inefficient fire place insinuates itself into everything I own. Teilhard teaches that we must first become aware of this:
Before considering others (and in order to do so) the believers must make sure of their own personal sanctification––not out of egoism [he insists], but with a firm and broad understanding that the task of each one of us is to divinise the whole world in an infinitesimal and incommunicable degree. (DM, 142)

Once we have become aware of this realm, that’s when we really understand charity.

As insipid as the word "charity" sounds to us moderns sometimes, this is a specific type of love that implies a love for humankind, with kindness and tolerance. The ancient translation of the famous text is Deus caritas est–“God is charity” not “God is love” (incidentally, the name of Pope Benedict’s first encyclical), and though the famous hymn usually comes down to us as Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est––“Where there is charity and love, there is God,”––early manuscripts show the version used by our friend Bob Hurd in his beautiful and popular rendition: Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est–“Where charity is true, there is God.” When we discover this divine milieu we also discover charity, in the sense that “our salvation is not pursued or achieved except in solidarity [emphasis his] with the justification of the whole ‘body of the elect.’” We are all one person, according the Teilhard, and this is his understanding of who/what Christ is––the Person, the head and living summary of humanity. (Is this not the Purusha, or am I seeing too much into this?) And so our individual mystical efforts await their essential completion in union with the mystical effort of all others who make up this body. We link our work with that of all the laborers who surround us; we rekindle our ardor by contact with that ardor of others; we make our sap communicate with that circulating in all other cells. That is when power bursts asunder the envelope in which our individual microcosms “tend jealously to isolate themselves and vegetate.” Ouch.

But here it is, and compare this with Reginald Ray’s call for us to reenter the world of the relative with a ferocity and intensity:
Those with a passionate sense of the divine milieu cannot bear to find things about them obscure, tepid and empty which should be full and vibrant with God. They are paralyzed by the thought of numberless spirits which are linked to theirs in the unity of the same world, but are not yet fully kindled by the flame of the divine presence. They had thought for a time that they had only to stretch out their own hand in order to touch God to the measure of their desires. They now see that the only human embrace capable of worthily enfolding the divine is that of all people opening their arms to call down and welcome the Fire. The only subject capable of mystical transfiguration is the whole group of humankind forming a single body and a single soul in charity. (DM, 144)

May all become compassionate and wise!

P.S. Ray also said something during in an interview entitled “Blazing With Wakefulness” (get a load of that!) in the same magazine that really struck me, referring again to his relationship with his old teacher Chögyam Rinpoche:
When spiritual instruction and mentoring become too fixed, then the vitality tends to be lost, and a person’s development is compromised… You can’t build your spiritual life on inflexible procedures and rules and regulations, because at that point your armor is pretty much back in place. Once you start living out of “shoulds” and “oughts” and rules and credentials and levels and attainments, all of a sudden the nakedness of the journey is lost.