We are not “Special”, but…

There is nothing special in / or about / the universe. The universe itself is not special. Nature is nothing but an amalgam of mindless cycles of force. The cosmos is not sentient – not even aware of itself. The universe does not have, and is incapable of having, a point of view about itself or about any of its parts. In that respect, the cosmos resembles H.P. Lovecraft’s blind idiot god, Azathoth.

Just as the cosmos has no sentience and no point of view, so, too – of course – it has no feelings about the fate of all the countless, hapless sentient beings who are caught up in its maw of grinding gears.

So who in their right mind would want to be significant in such a universe? Just to claim the false honor of being “the first among unequals”? The cosmos doesn’t care, so why should we? Carl Sagan actually went on the lecture circuit giving speeches about “Man’s Insignificance in the Cosmos” – as if he somehow thought that while man is meaningless, man nonetheless lives a life set against the “meaningful” backdrop of the cosmos. Which, of course, is patent nonsense. If the cosmos is meaningless, then – because we are part of the cosmos – we, too, are meaningless in-and-to the cosmos. Which means – because meaning is not inherent in the world – we must, through admirably fussy and elaborate self-hypnotic legerdemain, “create a meaning for ourselves”. Meaning is not like the treasure buried in a field, but rather an act of the imagination, and a rebellion against meaninglessness. Nothing more.

There are no social hierarchies in nature – no higher or lower levels on a status chart (at least until one sees them nascently emerging in a few of the non-human “social” animals). No status, no importance, no significance accrues to the cosmos or anything it contains. Thus, statements affirming man as insignificant in the cosmos are just as inept as saying the opposite – that man does have significance in the cosmos. Both propositions are all-too-human projections of human hierarchy onto a non-human framework.

So not only are we not the apple of the cosmic eye. More: the cosmic eye (which has no “I” – see what I did there?), sees nothing, perceives nothing, knows nothing about us at all. It is utterly indifferent, and cuts no creature any slack whatsoever, aging, injuring, sickening and killing us without discrimination, pity or awareness.

Or to invoke Sagan, if we are indeed “star stuff that has become aware of its own nature and taken hold of its own destiny”, and the cosmos realizes itself in us, then it’s all been for naught, because the cosmos-in-us looked in a mirror and found only dull meaninglessness. And people think that the issue of human importance in THIS cosmos is a worthy consideration?

We are all ephemeral dust motes in an unconscious and uncaring universe, a universe in which there are no “better” and “worse”, no significant and insignificant. Thanks to that, we’re all Spam In A Can, with no cosmic nurse to care for us or save us at the last minute. For that, on this planet, we only have ourselves. And what a terrible job we’ve done with that.
As if it matters in any case.

“Unless”, that is. Unless there is a “helping” reality operating behind, beneath, or beyond things for our benefit. Unless there are salvific systems that connect us to a Sacred Transcendent. Unless the Sacred Transcendent has compassionately sent us a raft from its shore. A saving act which is, in fact, found in Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhism.

Although Shin does assert that this universe is “samsara” – that is the place of eternal causal chains that result in craving, inadequacy, discontent, blind passions and other “slings and arrows” – still, Shin proclaims a “way out”, even while we partake in samsaric life. The raft from the Other Shore is available to suffering sentient beings. What is this redeeming “vessel”? It is Shinjin, the “no strings attached”, free, unearned gift of perfect faith, delivered straight to us from Amida Buddha in his Pure Land.

If we but have faith in Amida, He will embrace us without fail, take us to his Pure Land, and spark our Buddha Nature in that other realm, after which we ourselves will be Buddhas. But who could have such a faith? The answer is: no one can have such a faith – unless their karma has ripened to the point that Amida’s grace is sparked in them. They do not create that perfect Shinjin. Amida, in His compassion, simply supplies it to them as a free gift. It can’t be generated by us, because we are still samsaric beings (whom Shin calls “bombus”), who are incapable of it. Nor can we earn it. Nor can we attain Buddhahood in the Pure Land by any human act or attitude, no matter how good and worthy.

Rather, we only enter the Pure Land because Amida Buddha’s grace providentially permits it to happen. Thus, in the midst of samsara – the meaningless, insensate cosmos – we find ourselves already with one foot in the Pure Land. This doesn’t mean that we are Enlightened. It means that our faith has settled and we are in the state of non-retogression – a kind of smooth, sure path toward posthumous Buddhahood.

So, paradoxically, the unconscious, indifferent, samsaric universe – thanks to the redemptive power of Amida Buddha’s grace – has now become the very crucible in which we seek and find Him, and where He embraces us with the unearned gift of Shinjin. We don’t assign meaning to an empty universe. Rather Amida Buddha’s unimpeded Light permeates and makes holy, makes sacramental, the very universe which, before we entered the Transcendent, appeared to be without any spiritual value. Amida gives the world a spiritual value. Which is transcendent grace in action. Whether or not we are special within the samsaric universe, we are loved by a transcendent, infinitely compassionate non-samsaric Being. What more could one ask for?

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My Journey into Shin Buddhism

Even as I was leaving Christianity I still knew that I would always be religious by nature, so that I would probably always “believe” in the Sacred Transcendent in one way or another. So quite naturally I read comparative religion, Eastern religion, New Testament scholarship, and the ideas of “modern” sages like Krishnamurti, Osho (yes, I know he’s controversial), Ramana Maharshi, Ken Wilber, Alan B. Wallace, Adyashanti, some Ram Dass, etc. I also had the privilege of having been taught by the late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg who had a great influence on my thinking. I also delved deeply into Carl Jung and “depth” psychology.

During that process I discovered that I was a panentheist (not pantheist). I found that I could “have a deity” Who did not need to be a creator, intervener, or judge in order to be real, and Whose real “power” and “activity” functioned as a transforming Presence in the soul/my deepest subjectivity. A God who is both “here” (immanent) and “more than here” (transcendent). That is, the Absolute of the mystics, of the Gnostics, of divine union and communion. Not a acting as manipulator of matter, but rather as an “invitational” (not coercive) activity within me.

And during that process I came across a wise, compassionate article about “good Christians” whom the media and the general culture have a tendency to despise. It was written by the Buddhist sensei Jose Tirado, who is of the Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhist school. I then looked into Shin and found that it fit like a glove. Its Amida Buddha, although not a deity, nonetheless shares several functions in common with the panentheistic notion of a non-creating sacred Source, and also with the mystical notion of a sacred Ultimate working with us “from inside”.

So I converted to Shin about 9 years or so ago. I am a solitary practitioner and attend no Hondo or local Sangha. I just keep up with the practice of Nembutsu recitation – Shin’s only official practice, which is simply a prayer of thanksgiving: “Namo Amida Butsu” / “I take refuge in Amida Buddha”. Other than that, I keep reading Shin books and visit Shin-related websites – that’s my “church” these days. One of the most helpful teachers in the Shin universe is John Paraskevopoulos –

https://www.amazon.com/John-Paraskevopoulos/e/B002ZW88M8/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=15256…

– whose work has been most beneficial to my journey in Shin.

While Shin practitioners remain “bombus” – samsaric beings led by blind passions and spiritual ignorance – and who do not become Enlightened in this life – they have also received Amida’s unearned gift of perfect faith called “Shinjin”. Shinjin is Buddha Nature that will be sparked, vivified, and caused to blossom at death when we take birth in the Pure Land.

So that is my personal story of my path from Christianity to Jodo Shinshu.

“God”: Immanent and Transcendent

From my Western/philosophical Panentheist point of view, “God” (the ultimate infinite compassionate Reality) is both “here” (immanent) and “more than here” (transcendent), which to me simply means that everything unfolds in God’s presence.

It doesn’t mean that God is a spy, a judge, a bedroom-or-bathroom invader.
It doesn’t mean that God is a creator who is morally obligated to intervene in material processes for reasons known only to “Himself”.

What it does mean is that the universe is in God, and God is in the universe. Hence, “pan” (everything) is “en” (in) “theos” (God). If memory serves, it was St. Augustine who made the illustration of Panentheism wherein the world is represented as a water-soaked (“God-soaked”) sponge, floating in an infinite sea (which is also God). God is in the world, the world is in God.

However, the current God-debate is more often than not constricted to the theology of supernatural theism, which posits a kind of sky-father deity “out there”, who, as a creator, maintains and intervenes in the world. That, however, is an arbitrary view. Saying that God – in order to be real, to BE God – must be a creator, is as inept as saying that the moon must be made of green cheese, or it doesn’t exist.

One application of this concept is Jesus’s teaching about the fall of sparrows, “birds of the air”, which happens naturally without any intervention by God. The point is that the fall of sparrows and humans does not happen without context, in a vacuum. Rather, it occurs in the loving presence and awareness of God, the God who, precisely because “He” is not the creator or maintainer of the world, and does not intervene in its processes. Spying and miraculous intervention are simply not part of God’s “job description”.

So in actuality, it can be said that God does absolutely nothing as relates to the construction and maintenance of the world, for the simple reason that such activity is not in God’s nature to do so. Against the traditional view, God is neither “mighty” nor “All-Mighty”.

God is not “Doing”. God is “Being”.

But this does not mean that God is impotent or powerless. It only means that  God does not materially relate to or act upon the world.

However, that does not mean that God is inactive – because the presence of God does act in our deep subjectivity as a catalyst toward spiritual growth and enlightenment. This is the God-experience of mystical union and communion  which is not about miraculous physical intervention in the world or in the human body, but rather about the manifestation of God’s presence in the souls of sentient beings.

Once one becomes aware of the inner presence of God in oneself, one no longer has to entertain the idea of, or has a need for, a creator deity “out there” who supernaturally intervenes in the material universe. Because one already “has” God in the only place it really counts – the human soul, the human heart. God conceived as a transformative inner presence trumps God conceived as a mechanistic, intervening creator deity. The person him or herself is the locus of God’s activity. The material world spins on, following its own self-directed laws without divine intervention.

An additional comment from a Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhist framework, from which this blog hopes to operate:

Jodo Shinshu’s “Ultimate” – Amida Buddha – is not a creator deity, but rather the highest celestial primordial Buddha. Just as with the non-creating God conception, Amida does not intervene in the material world – first because he did not create it and bears no personal responsibility for it, and second because his effulgent grace causes the salvific reality of Shinjin – “perfect faith” – to arise in the deep subjectivity of sentient beings.

Shinjin is a free gift from the Sacred Transcendent. That is why Shin calls it “a raft from the Other Shore” – a vehicle that makes landfall softly and unbidden and that carries us across the ocean of samsara, all without any effort and self-power practice on our part. Our own Amazing Grace. Not a God, but rather the Buddha whose grace ensures the vivifying sparking of our own aspiration toward Buddhahood. Where, in his Pure Land, our own Buddha Nature finally blossoms and we begin to do the selfless work that enlightened Beings do.

Jesus: Divine, but not “God”

Jesus’s famous saying, “Before Abraham came to be, I am” is only found in John (8:58), “the maverick Gospel”. Which should be something of a red flag to careful, serious readers.

In any case, Trinitarians misuse the text as “proof” that Jesus was calling himself ontological God. That is doubtful in view even within “high” Johannine christology itself, where John’s Jesus functions merely as “the finger [human being] pointing to the moon [God]”.

John’s Jesus, in John 17:3, explicitly excluded himself from the Godhead: “YOU [Father-God] are THE ONLY TRUE GOD”. Not Apollo, not Zeus. Not Jesus. Only God.

The phrase in itself is amenable to several non-divine interpretations:

1 John’s Jesus as a divine union mystic: “Who sees me sees the Father”, “the Father and I are one”. John’s Jesus also holds the incarnate Logos within himself, as he does the Spirit in the Synoptics. He is not claiming to “be God”, but rather to be seamlessly united to God and to the Logos.

2 As so many divine union mystics have expressed their union with God, so does Jesus – as with (say) the Sufi mystic who, pointing to himself, said, “There is no one in these garments but God”, and who ended up crucified like Jesus, by people who similarly misunderstood the claim. Which is not a claim to be God, but rather to be the “empty vessel” in which God dwells.

3 Many divine union mystics claim to experience a share in God’s consciousness, and in God’s timeless awareness: the “Eternal Now”. All of these people can say “before Abraham came to be, I am”, because, like God, they experience the Eternal Now, a timeless state.

4 In John, Jesus speaks in two voices: A) the Jewish mystic relating his divine union experience, and B) the incarnate Word. Of course, the Logos is “before” Abraham, knows the secret things of God, descends from and ascends back to heaven when He/It returns to the pre-incarnational “glory that I had with the Father before the world was made”.

None of the above requires that we must think that Jesus is speaking in capital letters and usurping the divine “I AM” that belongs to Yahweh alone. He has already excluded himself from the Godhead. He scolds “the Jews” who charge him of making himself “God” by telling them that – because they are not ashamed to call Israel’s ancient judges “gods” – they ought not complain when Jesus makes the much lesser claim of merely being God’s son.

At most, Jesus’s “I am” sayings, statements of divine oneness, and of his Eternal Now experience only represent pre-existence, not Godhead or divinity itself. This is standard Jewish theology, which held the real existence of many pre-existent beings, from the angels to the heavenly Son of Man from the book of Daniel. Jesus himself, at his Sanhedrin trial, precisely claimed to be that pre-existent celestial figure, who is “divine”, but not God eternal.

Torah-Observance Not Difficult

It is a particularly Christian failing to condemn the Jewish religion and its Law as a burden that was – fortunately for Christianity – removed by Jesus’s supposedly atoning sacrifice on the Cross. However, the Torah itself disagrees.

The Law was not “hard” for practicing Jews of ancient Judea. They considered it to be “just what the Doctor ordered”. The notion that at the time of Jesus and before, that Judaism had become “legalistic” is a canard. Granted, legalism as practiced by the Pharisees is real, but at the same time is an obvious abuse of Law-observance.

Yahweh, the Jews’ own god, had this to say about observance of the Law and its ease of carrying out, not as a burden, but as a gift:

Deuteronomy 30:11-20 New International Version (NIV)
The Offer of Life or Death

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+30%3A11-20&version=…

It was Paul, and later, John, who came along claiming that the Law was a burden, and worse, that Jesus’s supposedly “atoning” sacrifice had invalidated the Law.

 

 

Bible Errors?

A mistake is a mistake, a contradiction is a contradiction. And there’s no reason that such gaffes must necessarily mean that the rest of a book is therefore useless. Of course, the Bible is widely held not only to be God-inspired, but also inerrant – and that’s the problem.

A fundamentalist view of scripture demands that scripture be free of error and contradiction, whereas an informed, critically-based view will allow for a certain percentage of error – even when that critically-educated reader is Christian. The works of Marcus J. Borg and Raymond E. Brown clearly illustrate this “Christian but not fundamentalist” approach.

The basic informed Christian biblical view seems to go like this: “We believe that scripture contains all truths necessary for our salvation, but that not all biblical texts were written solely for that express purpose”. Thus, scripture is “permitted” to be erroneous and contradictory, as long as its essential soteriological message comes through unscathed.

Enlightened exegesis also recognizes that salvific truths are not always and necessarily facts. Truth includes, but is not limited to, quantifiable material fact. The key to a biblical text is not in its factuality, its scientific and historical accuracy. The key is its meaning: “Believe what you like about a particular biblical story. But now let’s talk about its meaning”, as Borg (RIP) used to say.

Profound spiritual meaning often cannot be expressed in the language of fact, but only in the language of poetry, allegory, analogy and parable. For example: Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan is spiritually true even if there was no historical Samaritan and no historical roadside crime victim and no uncaring passersby. Meaning trumps external issues of fact and history, and it cuts through to the numinous core of the message.

So, for critically-educated Christians, biblical error is not a game-stopper, as long as scripture’s essential messages of spiritual transformation, unattached to questions of scientific/historical fact, remain plain in the text, and as long as they successfully unfold in Christian life.

Living in the Amida-Dharma

It has been said that religiously experienced people think differently because they see differently. They have a perspective on life that mere World cannot convey. Their view of life prior to religious experience changes after the experience.

The changed view of life changes our life-perspective. It causes us to see or perceive differently relative to ourformer view(s), providing light in the darkness, a wider perspective or higher prospect from which to see people, animals, and universe. Since my conversion to Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhism, I now see all good and bad things in a larger context of connection to the spiritually Transcendent “Other Power” of Amida Buddha.

Bad days in our lives are only to be expected because bad days are de rigueur in the Samsaric realm – and the same applies to the good days. I think it was Albert Camus who said, that despite the suffering and absurdity of life, still, “joy, too, is inevitable”. So days spent in connection with Amida Buddha and the Buddhist Dharma are days understood in a certain light, a light that illumines daily life with a new shade or tone. That’s the central core: Life lit from within by the Dharma’s immanent (“here”) presence, and by its Transcendent (“there”) existence.

Post-conversion, I have not done many new and different moral or social things, the chief reason being that Shin is not a works religion. The adherent is expected to follow the basic Buddhist moral code (but does not expect to be saved or Enlightened thereby). Amida Buddha provides Shinjin (perfect faith) and his grace alone is the factor that will spark the fulfillment of our innate Buddha Nature when we cross into the Pure Land. We do not, and cannot, do this for ourselves, or earn it as a reward. A bad day for me, consisting (say) of sickness, public humiliation, theft, assault, personal loss, affects me no differently than it would anyone else. The difference is that now I see both good and bad, suffering and joy, unfolding against a backdrop of the divine presence of Amida Buddha. It really makes all the difference in the world – at least, to my world.

In Jodo Shinshu, no “good works” are required of us – at least, if they are directed toward the goal of Enlightenment. Good works are required, however, to lighten the load of fellow suffering beings – the practice of “compassion in action”. But all kinds of people, religious and non-religious, already perform good works, whether or not in expectation of earthly or heavenly reward. What makes Shin different is that it teaches that no good work or self-effort practice can redeem us or erase our karma or “wipe out our sin” (except that there is no sin in Buddhism). Amida does all that for us.

Living in the Amida-Dharma means acknowledging our own powerlessness to save and Enlighten ourselves; it means throwing ourselves into the merciful arms of the Buddha’s Other Power; and it means “letting go and letting Amida”. Our outer lives may not change very much, but our “inner man”/”inner woman” is indelibly marked by Amida’s powerful yet gentle touch.