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.

Monday, February 7, 2011


At the beginning of time
I declared two paths of spiritual discipline:
jnana yoga, the path of spiritual wisdom,
and karma yoga, the path of action.

Those who shirk action do not attain freedom;
nor can gain one perfection by abstaining from work.
Indeed, no one is inactive even for an instant;
all creatures are driven to action by their own nature.
(Bhagavad Gita 3:3-4)

There’s an upside and a downside to the self-help culture in which we live. The upsides are actually many––folks getting a sense of their own worth and dignity, a sense of an inner power that is transformative, inspiration toward greater healing and fulfillment. The downside is that we can focus too much on ourselves. I find the same thing happens often when people initially get focused on the so-called mystical traditions––Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, for instance. I’ve been working on some new chapters for Universal Wisdom (there are 30 online now, by the way: see the Sangha Shantivanam website), and once I cross over the dividing line between Buddhism and Judaism I can feel a whole change in the cabin pressure. The texts from the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Dhammapada, are very inward focused (the exception being certain passages from the Gita, as the one quoted above about detached action). Part and parcel of this is a criticism of Christianity, especially of Western Christianity (how often I heard this in India, from Christians!) for being so extroverted, outwardly focused on God and others instead of cultivating the cave of the heart. Of course, once the polemics die down and we can see the contrast non-judgmentally, we can also see what a beautiful marriage it would be if East and West were to really meet and complement each other, like breathing in and breathing out.

I am constantly trying to cultivate for myself and teach to others a holistic, integral spirituality, that is, care of the body, the soul and the spirit: health of body, which includes care for our environment, care for the soul with its multiple layers of consciousness from emotional intelligence and psychological health through cultivating the intuitive minds of the artist and mystic intuition, opening up to the higher realms of consciousness and ultimately to spirit itself. But when I end the retreats that I offer on Spirit, Soul and Body, I often draw a circle on the board divided into four quadrants, one for each of the above and a fourth quadrant for––what? Along with my confrere Bruno I don’t always know what to call this fourth quadrant: incarnation, insertion, participation? Usually I wind up calling it simply “service.” What the Ur self-help program––the 12 Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous––teaches is that service is an intrinsic part of recovery. In other words, we don’t wait until we get it all together before we start being of service; no, service is one of the tools for getting it all together. I love the phrase that Karen Armstrong uses in her book on the Buddha: the Yoga of Compassion. There is the Yoga of Knowledge, the Yoga of Meditation, the Yoga of Devotion, the Yoga of Sound––and there is the Yoga of Compassion, the Yoga of Action. Again reaching toward an integral approach, it seems as if we are trying to put some element of each of these Yogas into our personal practices, and one essential element is inserting ourselves in the world, participation, incarnation, service, and not just after we’ve been enlightened and gotten it all together. There will always be a place for withdrawal and silence and solitude, but inserting ourselves in the world is one beneficent practice toward our enlightenment. Service itself is a spiritual practice. In Catholicism it is referred to as the “corporal works of mercy.”

Why? Because it gets us out of our small self. I like the image about pratyahara in the eight limbs of Yoga that I learned, sense withdrawal. It’s like a tortoise pulling its head into the shell for a time. I remember a teacher saying, “It’s not because the world is bad; it’s just that we need to rein in our senses every now and then and make sure they are connected with that deepest part of ourselves.” Yes, yes! That’s it. But then what? We find the inner light and that inner light shatters our shell, like the light from Jesus’ heart that blew the stone off the tomb in the garden of the Resurrection.

Often in our tradition we hear a reading from the Jewish scriptures and then hear a reading from the Gospel that is like Jesus doing an exegesis on it. For once, the opposite is happening. This past week the reading from the prophet Isaiah put Jesus’ teaching from the Gospel in context. Those glorious passages from the Sermon on the Mount: You are the light of the world! You are a city built on a hill! A lamp on a lampstand! I could say my whole ministry as a priest has been based on trying to convince people of this, about themselves. But as a minister and a teacher, I find that I am always walking that fine line, trying to know when to build people up and when to challenge then to do something about it. The whole point of being beautiful and radiant and shiny is not to stand around looking beautiful and radiant and shiny. The whole point of being a city built on a hill is for people to live there, feel welcomed there. The whole point is to participate in this cruel crazy beautiful world. Our friend Huxley writes that no religion does any one any good but so far as it brings the perfection of love into us. So “true orthodoxy can nowhere be found but in a pure disinterested love of God and our neighbor.”

What does this mean practically? In a beautiful prophecy from Isaiah he tells his co-religionists in exile:
Share your bread with the hungry!
Shelter the oppressed and homeless!
Clothe the naked when you see them!
Do not turn your back on your own!
Remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech.
Satisfy the afflicted…

And here for me is the important word: “Then…”
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.
Then you shall call and I will answer.
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness.
Then the gloom shall become for you like midday.
(Is 58:7-10)

We crawl into our shell, the beautiful cave of the heart, in meditation and prayer. We find the light, we die to our outer selves in prayer and meditation, and we also do it in service. And then then then… the light bursts our shells, our caves open and we shine. Remember that song I quoted last week from Daisy May Erlewine? "There is work to be done, so you got to shine on!"

This of course is the example of Jesus too, who as St Paul tells us, did not cling to his godliness, his holiness, who never seemed to be mind being pulled out of his solitary retreats in the mountains abiding with his Abba to heal the sick or preach. Rather, he emptied himself, took the form of a slave. And then he taught his followers, The greatest among you will be the ones who serve; and the first ones among you must meet the needs of all. Then our light will not just glow in our hearts: it breaks forth like the dawn!