Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Theodore Nottingham: On the Kindgdom of Heaven

“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain
of mustard seed that a man took and
sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all
seeds,but when it has grown it is larger
than all the garden plants and becomes
a tree, so that the birds of the air come
and make nests in its branches.”

(Matthew 13:31-32)
The Kingdom of Heaven is not above, but is both within us and spread out upon the face of the earth. In a powerfully insightful sermon on the parables of Jesus, author and pastor, Rev. Theodore Nottingham, illustrates how a mustard seed of spiritual insight nourished by spiritual practice can blossom into a true flowering of the higher consciousness that is innate within each of us. It is this "Kingdom of Heaven" within us (Luke 17:21) that Nottingham rightly asserts is at the heart of all of Christ's teachings.

"I suggest to you," says Nottingham, "that the Kingdom of Heaven is nothing less than God's living presence known to you when you can enter that state of awareness, that state of consciousness, when you are not asleep to it. And so all of (Jesus') teachings are processes to get us there."

It will not be said, 'Look, here!'
or 'Look, there!' Rather, the
Father's kingdom is spread out
upon the earth, and people
don't see it."
(Thomas, 113.)
"There is a method to this madness of spiritituality," Nottingham asserts. "Just that little bit of (spiritual) remembrance (and) application is so powerful that its ripple effect can change others and affect others, who (then) affect others, and (thus) have a powerful impact on your world today. . . . It is the power of God in action through you."

"He is," Nottingham points out, "giving us the clues (and) telling us in timeless imagery how to make these gifts of God manifest in your life, how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and become one with that love which then pours out to the world, how to forget 'self' and let something more profound come forth."

"When that yearning to help another takes you beyond your 'self' and causes you to do good in the world," says Nottingham, "the Kingdom of God is at hand because you have taken that seed seriously, you have cared for it and you have let it come through in such a way that transformation occurs. Then you unite with something greater than yourself (and) you become a conduit for the love of God in this world."

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Tao: Beyond Preconceptions and Thought Structures

"In order to recognize the reality of (the) experience of Greater Being, " writes modern mystic philosopher, Karlfried Graf Von Durckheim, "we need nothing more that the 'sacred sobriety' of common sense. This, in fact, is that transcendental realism which is neither clouded nor inhibited by preconceived concepts and rational thought structures."

Steeped in Eastern spiritual traditions, yet grounded in his own Christian faith, Durckheim (a one-time consular diplomat in Japan) was well aware that preconceptions and strictly rational thought structures more often than not obscure the 'realities' they try to illuminate.

In the Tao Te Ching, we read:
When the superior man hears the Way.
      he is scarcely able to put it into practice.
When the middling man hears the Way,
      he appears now to preserve it, now to lose it.
When the inferior man hears the Way,
      he laughs at it loudly.
If he did not laugh,
      it would not be fit to be the Way.

For this reason,
There is a set of epigrmas that says:
      "The bright Way seems dim.
      The forward Way seems backward.
      The level Way seems bumpy.
      Superior integrity seems like a valley.
      The greatest whiteness seems grimy.
      Ample integrity seems insufficient.
      Robust integrity seems apathetic.
      Plain truth seems sullied.

      The great square has no corners.
      The great vessel is never completed.
      The great note sounds muted.
      The great image has no form.

      The Way is concealed and has no name."
 This "sense of reality" that is uninhibited by preconceptions and rational thought structures "permits the unique, unclassifiable quality of the experience to be as it is," notes Durckheim. "(It) accepts and savours it, and because of its very incomprehensibility, is intuitively convinced of its truth."

"We need practice in order to acquire the possibility of recognizing the quality of this reality," Durckheim points out. "By remaining alert and constantly prepared, we can learn to hear and feel the call of Divine Being in everything that happens to us. For this," he observes, "we need to work diligently in order to become vessels capable of receiving all that is poured into them."

[Karlfreid Graf Von Durckheim, "The Way of Transformation," p. 31.]

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Tao of Beauty

My favourite film, American Beauty, is one in which the paradoxes of our so-called conventional society are shown in their true light. The orthodox beauty of the world is critically examined and the beautiful people leading successful lives are exposed as their underlying ugly, fearful selves. Even the conventional beauty of the cultivated roses from which the film takes its name are exposed as ugly in comparison to a wind-blown grocery bag (in the poignant scene attached below).

Nothing is as it seems on the surface, we are told, and so-called "beauty" turns out to be a thin veneer. Underlying beauty is a corroding ugliness, and it is in the unorthodox and the supposedly ugly where real beauty and true value may be found. Life artists and sages know this.

In the Tao Te Ching we read:

"The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful,
yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the
good as the good, yet this is only the bad.
     Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;
     The difficult and the easy complement each other;
     The high and the low incline towards each other;
     Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking
no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.
     The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority;
     It gives them life yet claims no possession;
     It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.
It is because it lays claim to no merit
     That its merit never deserts it. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Monday, August 22, 2011

Come Back Again . . .

. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door.
And of all the forgotten faces.

Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not
know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh have we come
into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his
father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?
Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this
most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek
the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a
stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

-- Thomas Wolfe --
("Look Homeward, Angel")

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Within the Kingdom of God & the Kingdom of God Within

"In the Kingdom of Heaven all is in all, all is one, and all is ours."
-- Meister Eckhart --
"The world inhabited by ordinary, nice, unregenerate people," observes Aldous Huxley, "is mainly dull (so dull that they have to distract their minds from being aware of it by all sorts of artificial "amusements"), some times briefly and intensely pleasurable, occasionally or quite often disagreeable and even agonizing." However, Huxley notes, "(F)or those who have deserved the world by making themselves fit to see God within it as well as within their own souls, it wears a very different aspect."
[Aldous Huxley, "The Perennial Philosophy," p. 75.]

In one of the most significant passages in the New Testament, Jesus, who had been perpetually persecuted for his views by the Pharisees, and thus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven exclusively in parables, speaks unambiguously to his persecutors. When asked by the Pharisees where the Kingdom of Heaven might be found, he replies directly, "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17: 20-21.) Then, in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, when asked by his disciples when the Kingdom of God would come, he replies: "It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, 'Look, here!' or 'Look, there!' Rather, the Father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it." (Gospel of Thomas, Verse 113.)

Thus, it may be seen, as Huxley observed (above), that our being and our environment take on very different aspects depending upon whether we have a mundane or supermundane understanding of their nature. Alluding to these two very different ways of seeing the world, Jesus (again, from the Gospel of Thomas, at Verse 77) tells his disciples: "I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."

"It is in the Indian and Far Eastern formulations of the Perennial Philosophy," notes Huxley, "that this subject is most systematically treated.What is prescribed is a process of conscious discrimination between the personal self and the Self that is identical with Brahman, between the individual ego and the Buddha-womb or Universal Mind."

"The result of this discrimination," Huxley points out, "is a more or less sudden and complete "revulsion" of consciousness, and the realization of a state of "no-mind," which may be described as the freeedom from perceptual and individual attachment to the ego-principle. This state of "no-mind" exists, as it were, on a knife-edge between the carelessness of the average sensual man and the strained overeagerness of the zealot for salvation. To achieve it one must walk delicately and, to maintain it, must learn to combine the most intense alertness with a tranquil and self-denying passivity, the most indomitable determination with a perfect submission to the leadings of the spirit."
"When no-mind is sought after by a mind," says Huang Po, "that is making it a particular object of thought. There is only testimony of silence; it goes beyond thinking."
 "In other words," says Huxley, "we, as separate individuals, must not try to think it, but rather permit ourselves to be thought by it."
[Aldous Huxley, "The Perennial Philosophy," pp. 72-73.]

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Lama Surya Das: On Dealing with Anger

Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.
-- Aristotle --

There are three basic causes of human suffering, according to Buddhist teachings: ignorance, desire, and anger. Of these, it would seem, anger is perhaps the most-readily identifiable as well as potentially the most damaging to one's self, to others and to the environment.

For most people, a certain degree of anger bubbles just under the surface of their persona, thus recognizing and learning to manage one's innate anger in a mindful manner is a readily achievable aim for each of us. Moreover, efforts in that direction forwards all of us on our common spiritual path.
"The true battlefield is the heart of man, as Dostoevsky said, not wars," Lama Surya Das points out in the attached two-part video. "Wars are not fought over borders. It's not weapons that kill people, it's people that kill people."

"So why," he asks rhetorically, "is this occurring? It is occurring from the greed, and meanness, and cupidity, and fear, and insecurity, and intolerance of people. And we see that all throughout history and all around the world today. So we live in a violent era, a volatile world, and we all see violence and hot wars - shooting wars - in (scores of countries) today. But also we have domestic violence in our homes, and in families, and children being beaten, and all kinds of violence being acted out."

"Also," he notes, there is "aggression, basic aggression that we act out almost every moment, which is aggressively trying to change things from as they are. We are always fighting with reality as it is. This is what Buddhists call 'the basic aggression' - insisting or wanting things to be different from as they are."
"I think it is important to remember that there is nothing in the Dharma that tells us never to be angry," writes Das in "Awakening the Buddha Within," his best selling-book on Buddhist practice. "Anger is a human emotion and it doesn't automatically disappear. Also it has its own logic, its own intelligence and function. If you bottle up and swallow your anger too often, you are going to make yourself ill."

"Meeting the challenge of ill will is not about denying, repressing, or suppressing anger. It's about staying up to date with anger and other emotions by experiencing and releasing their energy moment by moment rather than storing them up. It's about not carrying grudges, or blaming yourself, or turning your anger inward and becoming depressed and despondent. Ideally we should be able to be sensitive enough and aware enough not only to feel life fully but also to let it go."

[Lama Surya Das, "Awakening the Buddha Within," p. 138.]

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Be Transformed By the Renewal of Your Mind"

". . . (D)o not be conformed to the world, rather be transformed by the renewal of your mind."
-- Romans 12:2 --
That there is an inherent conflict between the spiritual quest and the 'norms' of society is a reality that is as old, one assumes, as society itself. As Taoism was in many ways a rejection of Confucian conformity, Buddhism was a rejection of the ritualism of the Vedas, and Christianity was a rejection of a then-stagnant Judaism, so, too, in recent times the multifarious spiritual quest is in many ways a rejection of today's rampant consumerism. Be it the newfound Western interest in Zen, Yoga, Sufism or the Kaballah, or Eastern interest in Christianity, there is a sense it seems that in a post-modern world more and more people are looking for something deeper than scientific materialism and the strictly consumer society that it breeds.

Rather than seeking conformity in post-modern societies that are seen as being increasingly dysfunctional in the face of the existential challenges we face - be it global warming, increasingly severe famines, widespread poverty, massive species extinction, deforestation and desertification, etc. - many individuals now recognize that first and foremost there must be a "renewal of the mind" (individually and collectively) if we are to face and overcome these imminent threats to our very survival. However, there remains a profound inertia towards conformity that challenges even the most ardent spiritual seeker who wishes to remain "in the world" rather than sequestered from it.

The attached video of then radical spiritual philosopher Alan Watts (a video presumably made in the late 1950s or early 1960s before the 'beat' movement morphed into the wider counter-cultural revolution of the late 60s) critiques both the then (and now) status quo, and at once highlights the profound challenge that conformity poses to those spiritual aspirants who would reject conformity in favor of radical transformation.

"In the Christian scriptures," Watts notes, " it says that everyone is equal in the sight of God. That is a mystical utterance. That means that from the standpoint of God, all people are divine and are playing their true function. And that is something that is true on a certain plane of consciousness. But come down a step and try to apply the mystical insight in the practical affairs of every day life, and what do you get? You get a parody of mysticism, You get the idea not that everyone is equal in the sight of God, but that all people are equally inferior."

It takes a bold and independent spiritual seeker - a modern-day Thoreau, perhaps - to remain engaged in society and yet committed to his or her transformation. More importantly, it takes true commitment and independence to carrying the message, as Watts did in the 50s and 60s, that transformation is possible both for individuals and for society as a whole.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Bodhisattva: His Brothers' Keeper

"When Abba Macarius was in Egypt, he found a man with a mule stealing his belongings. Then, as though he were a stranger, he helped the robber to load the animal, and peacefully sent him off, saying: "We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything with us. The Lord has given, and as he wished, so it has happened. Blessed  be the Lord in all things.""

-- Gregory Mayers --
("Listen to the Desert," p. 32)
This story, which on its face deals solely with non-attachment, has its counterpart in many other wisdom traditions. However, whether it is Abba Macarius, above, Mullah Nasruddin in the Sufi tradition, the Bal Shem Tov in Chassidic teachings, an unnamed bodhisattva (below), or Jesus teaching that if a person forces you to go a mile with him, you should go two (Matthew 5:41), there are similar subtle teachings in all traditions that go far beyond mere non-attachment, which could (after all) be seen as just another form of appeasement.

In his book, "Essential Teachings," the Dalai Lama cites "the Twelfth Practice" of the bodhisattva, which states:
"If in the grip of violent desire or cruel necessity, an unfortunate person steals our possessions or incites someone else to steal them, to be full of compassion, to dedicate to this person our body, possessions, and past, present, and future merit, is a practice of the bodhisattva."
 The guru who is said to have composed this practice, according to the Dalai Lama's account, was said to have run into markedly similar circumstances to those faced by Abba Macarius (above).

"While on route from Sakya Monastery," the Dalai Lama writes, "robbers stole the guru's baggage from him. After having robbed him and fearing that he would call for help, the bandits wanted to (kill him and) flee. He begged them to not do anything to him, and said: "I will not call for help, but if you leave now, you will have 'stolen' my things which will be for you a fault, and so that you will not have to endure the consequences of this act, I will dedicate them to you, (and) give them to you. So, in this way, you will have obtained them completely legitimately."

The outcome, according to the Dalai Lama was that "(t)he wrongdoers were so astonished at this that their minds were transformed and they became (the guru's) disciples."
[Dalai Lama, "Essential Teachings," p. 59.]

Thus, in this telling, the emphasis is not only on non-attachment and non-violence, but also on compassion and non-judgment. In this instance, indeed, the bodhisattva became his brothers' keeper, unsurprisingly, as the bodhisattva's vow is to take continual rebirth until all beings - including those who would harm him or her - become enlightened.

From this perspective, sense is made out of Jesus' admonishments to go the second mile, to turn the other cheek, and to settle quickly with your adversaries, lest you be jailed. All such actions are based not on what is best for one's own interests and salvation, but what is best for one's fellow sufferers. That, in all traditions, is the true nature of compassion.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Philokalia: A Discourse on Abba Philimon

"It is said that Abba Philimon, the anchorite, lived for a long time enclosed in a certain cave not far from the Lavra of the Romans. There he engaged in the life of ascetic struggle, always asking himself the question which, it is reported, the great Arsenios used to put to himself: 'Philemon, why did you come here?'"

"He used to plait ropes and make baskets, giving them to the steward of the Lavra in exchange for a small ration of bread. He ate only bread and salt, and even that not every day. In this way he took no thought for the flesh (cf. Rom. 13:14) but, initiated into ineffable mysteries through the pursuit of contemplation, he was enveloped by divine light and established in a state of joyfulness."

"When he went to church on Saturdays and Sundays he walked alone in deep thought allowing no one to approach him lest his concentration should be interrupted. In church he stood in a corner, keeping his face turned to the ground and shedding streams of tears. For, like the holy fathers, and especially like his great model Arsenios, he was always full of contrition and kept the thought of death continually in his mind."

"When a heresy arose in Alexandria and the surrounding area, Philimon left his cave and went to the Lavra near that of Nikanor. There he was welcomed by the blessed Paulinos, who gave him his own retreat and allowed absolutely no one to approach him, and he himself disturbed him only when he had to give him bread."

"On the feast of the holy resurrection of Christ, Philimon and Paulinos were talking when the subject of the eremetical state came up. Philimon knew that Paulinos, too, aspired to this state; and with this in mind he implanted in him teachings taken from Scripture and the fathers that emphasized, as Moses had done, how impossible it is to conform to God without complete stillness; how stillness gives birth to ascetic effort, ascetic effort to tears, tears to awe, awe to humility, humility to foresight, foresight to love; and how love restores the soul to health and makes it dispassionate, so that one then knows that one is not far from God."

-- A Discourse on Abba Philimon --
(Palmer et al., "The Philokalia," Vol. Two, pp. 244-345.)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mother Theresa: On Suffering

"There is much suffering in the world - very much. Material suffering is suffering from hunger, suffering from homelessness, from all kinds of disease, but I still think that the greatest suffering is being lonely, feeling unloved, just having no one. I have come to more and more realize that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience."

"In these times of development, the whole world runs and is hurried. But there are some who fall down on the way and have no strength to go ahead. These are the ones we must care about."

"Let us be very sincere in our dealings with each other and have the courage to accept each other as we are. Do not be surprised at or become preoccupied with each other's failure; rather see and find the good in each other, for each one of us is created in the image of God. Jesus said it beautifully: "I am the vine, you are the branches." The life giving sap that flows from the vine through each of the branches is the same."

-- Mother Theresa --
("In the Heart of the World")

Lao Tzu: The Taoist Sage

"Outside the universe, sages see without discussion. Inside the universe, sages discuss without deliberation. When it comes to the passing times and generations and the records of kings of yore, sages deliberate without debating."

"Therefore there is that which distinction does not distinguish, there is that which explanation does not explain. What is it? Sages take it to heart, average people try to explain it to each other. That is why it is said that there is something not seen by explanation."

"The Great Way is not called anything: great discernment is unspoken; great humaneness is unsentimental; great honesty is not complacent; great bravery is not vicious."

"When a way is illustrious, it does not guide; when humanitarianism is fixated, it is not constructive; when honesty is puritanical, it is not trusted; when bravery is vicious, it does not succeed. These five things are like looking for squareness in something round."

"So we know that to stop at what we don't know is as far as we can go. Who knows the unspoken explanation, the unexpressed Way? Among those who do know, this is called the celestial storehouse: we can pour into it without filling it we can draw from it without exhausting it; and yet we don't know where it comes from. This is called hidden illumination."

[Thomas Cleary, "The Essential Tao," p. 76.]

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Circles, Horizons and Depths

"Nature centres into balls,
nd her proud ephemerals,
Fast to surface and outside,
Scan the profile of the sphere;
Knew they what that signified,
A new genesis were here."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson --
"The eye is the first circle," Emerson observes, "the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms. One moral we have already deduced in considering the circular or compensatory character of every human action. Another analogy we shall now trace, that every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens."

[Emerson, "The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson," p. 252]

In a classic series of sermons, the great 20th-century theologian, Paul Tillich, observed, like Emerson, that there is a fathomless depth to our being, a depth so great and infinite that it is the ultimate Ground of Being.
"The wisdom of all ages and of all continents speaks about the road to our depth," Tillich notes.  "It has been described in innumerably different ways. But all those who have been concerned - mystics and priests, poets and philosophers, simple people and educated - with that road through confession, lonely self-scrutiny, internal or external catastrophes, prayer, contemplation, have witnessed to the same experience. They have found they are not what what they  believed themselves to be, even after a deeper level had appeared to them below the vanishing surface. That deeper level itself became surface, when a still deeper level was discovered, this happening again and again, as long as their lives, as long as they kept on the road to their depth." 
"The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being," he continues, "is God. That depth is what the word God means. . . . For if you know that God means depth, you know much about him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or an unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God."
[Paul Tillich, "The Shaking of the Foundations," Scribners, pp. 56-57.]

Thus, our lives are circumscribed by the orbits of the stars and the horizons of time and space, but beyond each such horizon we see there exists yet more distant horizons, including some we can never see. Similarly, there are depths within that delimit our knowledge of who and what we are; yet, they, too, are infinite and each depth yields to a further depth; and even underneath the depth which we must take to be the ultimate of all depths, a lower deep needs open. Such is the nature of the universe and our Being within it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Reflections on Emptiness and the Void

Thomas Merton: On "Desert and Void"
"The uncreated is waste and emptiness to the creature - not even sand, not even stone, not even darkness and night. A burning wilderness would at least be something. It burns and is wild. But the uncreated is no something. Waste, emptiness, total poverty of the creator. Yet from this poverty springs everything. The waste is inexhaustible, infinite zero. Everything comes from this desert nothing. Everything wants to return to it and cannot. For who can return nowhere?"

"But for each of us there is a point of nowhereness in the middle of movement, a point of nothingness in the midst of being - the incomparable point not to be discovered by insight. If you seek it you do not find it, if you stop seeking it is there. But you must not turn to it. Once you become aware of yourself as seeker, you are lost. But if you are content to be lost you will be found without knowing it, precisely because you are lost. For you are, at last, nowhere."

Thomas Merton: On 'Form and Nothingness'
"The perfect act is empty. Who can see it? He who forgets form. Out of the formed, the unformed. The empty act proceeds with its own form. Perfect form is momentary, its perfection vanishes at once. Perfection and emptiness work together, for they are the same - the coincidence of momentary form and eternal nothingness. Form, the flash of nothingness. Forget form and it suddenly appears, ringed and reverberating with its own light, which is nothing."

"Well then, stop seeking, let it all happen, let it come and go. What? Everything - i.e., nothing."