Category Archives: spirituality

God as an ‘Object’ of Experience

Although it has become something of a cliche, the statement “Experience trumps faith” represents a high religio-spiritual concept.

For example, any amount of scientific knowledge about a particular brand of candy bar may “explain” the candy bar’s material facets, but it is only by tasting that we can personally, subjectively, truly, know if the candy bar is sweet. All prior assumptions, even when based on scientific knowledge of the candy’s ingredients, come under the category of “faith” or “faith-about”. That is, even exhaustive material-scientific knowledge of the candy’s ingredients may at most permit us to say that it probably will taste sweet, but only the criterion of actual tasting is the one thing that can bring the candy’s sweetness (or lack thereof)  out of the realm of mere intellection into the realm of personal experience, personal consciousness, and personal truth. Similarly, then, the proposition that spirituality is truly a “Way of Knowing” – a way of “gnosis” is, in my view, quite true and valuable for religion.  Jesus himself claimed that Eternal Life consists in “knowing” the heavenly Father and the Son whom He sent (John 17:3) – and not a matter of merely having faith in God as Something or Someone “out there”, Which can only believed-in, but not really, directly, experienced. Only by such direct experience can we taste of the manna and know that it is sweet indeed.

Philosophical proofs and evidences for the existence of God, Spirit, the human soul, etc., are not irrelevant or unimportant. But, in my view,  they ought to be secondary supports for an original, ineffable experience of Spirit. The wordless experience should come first, and its intellectual supporting structures and definitions second. Or at most, the intellectual structures might act as “lures” whose main purpose would be to lead the questioner into the ineffable experience of the divine – into prayer, contemplation, centering, or whatever name we might give the process (and its accompanying states). For instance, of what real use is faith vis-a-vis the Catholic sacrament of the Real Presence in the Eucharist? If Jesus is not, or cannot, be known in this – the most intimate of sacraments – then one wonders what the point of it is; if, in fact, this were the case, the Catholic communicant may as well just switch over to “sola fide”, Eucharist-free Protestantism. That is, one’s experience of the Real Presence had better be “Real”, and not something to merely be believed-in or believed-about!

Scholars such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, as well as “Great Sages” such as Ramana Maharshi, Bodhidharma, the Taoist Masters, “God (or Self-) Realized persons, and countless anonymous indigenous shamans globally, in varying ways of expressing the thought, claim that spiritualities are indeed “Paths of Knowing” and “Technologies of the Sacred”.

This kind of knowing differs from scientific and philosophical ways of knowing in that it refers the questioner inward, not to the external world (science) or to mental/intellectual considerations (philosophy), but to the human soul and its relationship, interactions, and its potential merger with God (“gnosis”). As such, these spiritualities function as “lenses” or sacraments through which God is “seen” (perceived) –  that is, known inwardly through immediate experience, whether direct or mediated. This experience, obviously, sidesteps the question of prior belief or unbelief, because its only requirement is to have an open mind, and is therefore available to believers and atheists alike, as the following hopes to illustrate.

Following the work of the American philosopher Ken Wilber, we might try to interest atheists in this “Direct Experience” approach to (spiritual) knowledge-acquisition:

1. The Injunction:  If you want to know ‘X’, then DO ‘Y’. If you want to know if Jupiter has moons, look through a telescope – if you want to know if its night time, look out a window; if you want to know about God, look through the appropriate lenses (e.g., meditation, contemplation).

2. The Experiment:  Put the Injunction to the test. Look through the lens; do the meditation. Take notes.

3. The Conclusion:  Collate and preserve all the aspects of the Experiment. Then compare notes with others – i.e., those who have already, adequately performed all the three steps. This is a form of “peer review” which places the three steps into a responsible social context.

If this three-step knowledge-acquisition process is valid, then it is one that can be carried out by believer and unbeliever alike. There is no prior “faith burden” or “unbelief burden” to come between the participant and the experiment. It is fair-minded and invitational. This “test” is open to all – and therefore, atheists, as well as believers, may consider themselves equally invited to participate.

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(Notes from a Shin perspective:)

It would seem that Jodo Shinshu adherents are at least partially exempt from this process, for the simple reason that they do not so much typically rely on a three-step process (or any other) of inquiry, but more on a non-intellectual but experiential “Calling” from Amida Buddha, issued from His Presence on “the Other Shore”. It is as if the great “Raft” from that shore has arrived at our feet … unbidden. Our mysteriously-received Faith is at once “faith-full” and experiential.

Amida’s Call has been issued and has pierced our heart with its love-laden arrow. Our only reply to this gift is to voice, verbally or mentally, our simple, sincere “Thank-You” as phrased in the Nembutsu. Amida has enabled us to sidestep the three-step inquiry, without our having to strive with its inherently self-powered methods of searching.

Namo Amida Butsu.

Materialists, the Human Soul, and Introspection

One issue I’d like to bring up is the question of how to communicate the idea of non-material reality to those who claim that matter is a universal fact of being, a stance, which by nature, cannot allow for the existence of, and evidence for, spiritual realities, entities, and “realms”.

In claiming that only matter exists, materialists let themselves off the metaphysical hook, because they a priori  dismiss evidence for non-material realities. They talk the liberal, open-minded approach – you know: “I’m open to believing if you show me the evidence”. However, since evidence for the non-material is itself non-material, the atheists cannot and will not accept such evidence. Which, in a negative sense, makes them the “winners” because they live in an air-tight dialectical bubble, where nothing from “the outside” can reach them and shatter their worldview. So, how to reach them, since there is no argumentation they will accept?

Perhaps one angle of approach would be to attempt to address the fact of their own non-materiality, i.e., their own mental functions and their subjective selves.
At first, they will no doubt protest that the self is nothing but a product of neurological function. The reply to that, I think, would be to ask them to introvert, to “look inside” not only at the fact that they are conscious, but also to examine the contents of their consciousness. At that point, it should be easy to show how utterly different mental life is from the brain – and the first thing they will discover is that they won’t find anything like a brain or a body within the field of their awareness.

The brain is a three-pound skull organ, whose purpose and functions are well-known. And none of those functions demonstrably constitutes the creation of a mind or mental contents. At best, there is only a correlation between the two, but not an identity. On principle, “Like begets like” – so the brain might perhaps beget more brain – but never a non-material, subjective self. Moreover, the brain is not “about” anything, whereas the psyche is “about” everything under the sun, including the experience of its own – non-material – contents. Therefore, to claim that brain equals mind, self, subjectivity the qualia, personhood, etc., is to commit a category error of egregious proportions.

One suggestion for mental introversion would be to have the experimenter realize that he or she is the observer – that is, in and as a non-material self, he or she can realize that the body and the myriad objects witnessed within the stream of the introverted consciousness are simply things that exist outside the observer, and are therefore not the observer him–or-herself. This will bring the realization that the observer – the soul, the self – is not material and is not part of the passing objects that stream by in front of the observing self. Rather, the observer is the non-material consciousness that merely – simply – witnesses the passing sense impressions and mental phenomena, and therefore, because it is not identifiable with such material-world phenomena, is not a material category – not a body and not a brain.

So, if materialists could be weaned from their naive “Brain equals mind” / “We ARE the brain!” perspective, simply by having them empirically discover, via introspection, that the exact opposite is the case, their materialism might weaken – and weaken to the extent that they would begin to make intellectual room for God, the Spirit, and the human soul.

I think that this hands-on, empirical, experiential approach would have at least as much success as pointing materialists to books, websites and philosophical ruminations, on the principle that experience trumps mere intellection or “belief-in”. That is, giving a person real fishing equipment to catch real fish is more pragmatic than merely telling a person about fish and how to catch them. Introspection could function as the unbeliever’s rod and reel, with the Catch being as big as their net could handle.

These considerations also seem to at least in part successfully dovetail with certain categories in Jodo Shinshu – namely the experiential reality of the non-material Transcendent as postulated by Masters Shinran and Rennyo and interpreted so well for us by scholars such as John Paraskevopoulos, D.T. Suzuki, Harold Stewart, and others. “Our” Transcendent – “our” Amida Buddha and his gift of Shinjin – are our very own experienced, unmediated reality of “the Other Shore” – from which our “Raft” of salvation has sailed to us for our benefit.

Buddhism and the New Testament

This is my response to a discussion over at Dharma Wheel, **

regarding the question of whether Buddhism can “absorb” other religions. Of course, there are many paths to “the One”, but I think it strains the capacity, as well as the purposes, of any religion to absorb all the others:

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I don’t see how all religions could be absorbed into Buddhism, although I do think that most religions and expressions of spirituality share certain core ideas and values with Buddhism. For example, and not to stretch a point too far, some would associate, if not identify, particular aspects of the New Testament teaching with Buddhistic ideas.

Like Buddha, Jesus taught a way of self-denial (“take up your cross daily and follow me”; “whoever loses oneself for the Kingdom will find oneself”), which – when sincerely practiced – would ideally lead to self-transcendence (“resurrection”). Thus, Jesus taught, at least in some of his parables and sayings, a kind of “ego-death” brought on by centering the self in Spirit rather than in world and culture. Some would even say that his life and death represent the victory of Spirit over culture.

His saying, “seek first the Kingdom of God” / which “is within you and among you” could be interpreted as brushing aside all peripheral values by way of a kind of “not this”/”not that” stripping away of egoic, cultural, “super-egoic” categories, and blossoming into one’s true spiritual nature which at base is not separate from unadulterated Spirit. For instance, 2 Peter 1:4 says

“Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

In this passage, perhaps similarly to Buddhism, “evil desire” is an obstruction to merging with the Divine Nature – and if we would care to associate this with a participation in Bodhi, discovering of our real Buddha Nature, and our link to the Dharmakaya, then we might see some Buddhistic parallels. This interpretation, of course, even if accurate, does not mean that NT categories can or should be absorbed into Buddhism. It merely indicates that the two systems may be spiritual cousins in some very central matters.

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**

https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=77&t=24982

Merry Christmas…

…to all who celebrate or observe the holiday, even if only to have a day off to be with yourself, your friends, your families.

Recalling  the atheist slogan that appeared on billboards a few years ago (you know the one) showing a traditional Nativity-creche scene with the caption, “You know it’s a myth!”. I would only comment, as I have before, that the Gospels’ (Luke, Matthew) Infancy Narratives are not myths in the sense connoted by the modern non-believing critics – first because they are not primordial traditions, or survivals of such, as the critics imply; and second, because their proper literary category is not myth to begin with.

As certain scholars have pointed out, the Infancy Narratives are a type of literature that forms a prologue to the main body of the Gospel to follow; and as a parable that delineates the main theological and christological themes of the following Gospel. These stories are, therefore, not “myth” in the “ancient pagan religions” connotation – they are not legends handed down from times in the primordial past – but rather preambles, overtures, and parables. They are ways of explaining that what Jesus was at his Ascension, Resurrection, Crucifixion, during his career/mission, his Spirit-receiving baptism by John in the Jordan … he was also all those things at his birth. Each Infancy Narrative echoes all these spiritual themes in its own way.

Luke emphasises the Pax Romana, a time of order and peace, into which Jesus is peacefully born; Matthew, on the other hand, depicts the Savior’s birth against a backdrop of political antagonism, with the holy family needing to escape the “pogrom” of Herod the Great against Jewish infants of Bethlehemic birth. And the two Evangelists (Gospel authors) weave into their Infancy stories themes that will fully blossom later in the main text of their respective Gospels. The birth stories are in one sense condensed or miniaturized “mini-Gospels” in themselves, by way of their revelation of Jesus as God’s pre-selected Christ and Son of God, a selection, as Luke tells it, that was made even before his earthly birth.

So the ancient myth connotation that the modern “Mythicist” critics falsely project on the Infancy Narratives is a simple misconstrual of the type of literature in which the birth stories actually consist.  The late scholar Raymond E. Brown identifies the Narratives’ profound, complex connection with Jewish – not Pagan – theology, traditions, allegory, and mysticism. The Infancy Narratives are rooted in remembered stories about Jesus’ Jewish ministry to Jewish people in Jewish Galilee and Judea, as well as in “midrash” and interpretation/re-interpretation of Jesus associated with extant Jewish themes.

Finally, I would remark that Matthew’s and Luke’s Overtures/Preambles and Parabolic disclosures are “mythic” only in the sense that they didn’t occur in mundane, historical, material space-time. They may not be historical/scientific, quantifiable facts, but what they express is nonetheless truth – truth allegorically expressed, because allegory  – as scholars such as C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell have shown us – is the only way in which certain sacred and ineffable realities can be expressed on the human level.  And, because it taps into and expresses deep archetypal material from “the eternal verities” of the soul, it is not dependent upon modern notions about science and history as defined in our post-Enlightenment culture.

Our God-experience, our God-conceptualization – must be refracted through the prism of human language for it to be understandable. And the Infancy Narratives – the Gospels’ Christmas story – continue to succeed on that level. Their language fits the truths they convey. They refer the reader outward – not into pagan myth – but into Jewish, biblical history, and to the memory of the humbly-born Nazarene whom they claim as Messiah and Lord.

Merry Christmas.

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Two excellent books on this subject immediately come to mind, and to which I refer the interested reader:

https://www.amazon.com/First-Christmas-Gospels-Really-Jesuss/dp/0061430714/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481789079&sr=1-1&keywords=borg+the+first+christmas

… and …

https://www.amazon.com/Birth-Messiah-Commentary-Narratives-Reference/dp/0300140088/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481789122&sr=1-1&keywords=brown+the+birth+of+the+messiah

“The Unhindered Path” – a “must-read”

Buddhist writer and pastor  John Paraskevopoulos has done it again in this new book about Shin (Jodo Shinshu) Buddhism, in which he elucidates basic Shin teaching and links it to global panentheistic and mystical traditions. He makes a credible case not only for “belief-in” the Spiritual Transcendent; he explains how It can be immediately experienced, even in our “Samsaric” lives in this troubled world. Paraskevopoulos cites numerous sources, some scholarly, others poetic/mystical, in delineating the sacred mystery at the core of Jodo Shinshu, and he describes why and how it is meaningful for us today – and timelessly for all generations. These portions bookend his own profound insights from his pastoral counseling and interviews.

The book has recently come to Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Unhindered-Path-Ruminations-Shin-Buddhism/dp/1621381986/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470777309&sr=1-1&keywords=the+unhindered+path

… and it is the perfect companion volume to his earlier Fragrance of Light:

https://www.amazon.com/Fragrance-Light-Journey-Buddhist-Wisdom/dp/1597311456/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470777413&sr=1-1&keywords=the+fragrance+of+light

… which this blog reviewed here:

https://rennyo01.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/the-fragrance-of-light-a-great-new-book/

If you would like to experience an exciting spiritual adventure that leads straight into the heart of divine compassion through the understanding and practice of Shin Buddhism – which culminates in the experience of Amida Buddha’s unimpeded, unhindered Light – you have only to pick this book up and let it sweep you away.

 

 

“The Fragrance of Light” – a great new book

Buddhist scholar John Paraskevopoulos has just published a wonderful book of compiled-and-edited Buddhist sources, titled The Fragrance of Light.

http://www.amazon.com/Fragrance-Light-Journey-Buddhist-Wisdom/dp/1597311456/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1440486105&sr=1-1&keywords=the+fragrance+of+light

The book is a tour de force and a witness to Buddhism’s real salvific power as well as its mystical beauty. Through only a few chapters, Paraskevopoulos leads the reader from general spiritual and Buddhist ideas into Amidist/Pure Land concepts, and finally into Jodo Shinshu (Shin) Buddhology. Each chapter, regardless of one’s status or non-status in Buddhism and spirituality generally, is profoundly informative and pragmatic – while at the same time constantly appealing to the transcendent factor at the base of all religion.

One beauty of the book is that Paraskevopoulos doesn’t ask us to trust him (although he well could, based on his other excellent professional writings). Instead, he invites us to journey through chapters composed mostly of various Buddhist, religious and philosophical citations  from many places and eras. These are the testimonies of those who have been touched by the spiritual transcendent, especially in the form of Amida Buddha, and they speak for themselves with very little commentary by the author. Even the helpful footnotes are mostly taken from bona fide external sources, with the author’s own notations (also bona fide!)  being very few and far between.

If the book has a main theme, I would say that it is an invitation for us to trustingly return to the indwelling Transcendent,  an invitation supported by solid testimonies which  never become repetitious. The Appendix, Voices of Light, contains valuable, poetic testimony from assorted  practicers, and ends the book on an appropriately feeling-toned, mystical note.

The Fragrance of Light has my highest recommendation. It is made to read over and over again; to recall and return to the Source as It is mirrored in the hearts and minds of Its keepers.

A Fine Book about Shinran’s Conversion

I have just completed reading an excellent book about the conversion of Shinran Shonin, the initiator of what would become the Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhist school:

Shinran’s Conversion in the Light of Paul’s Conversion, by Sadami Takayama, a member of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and teacher in the anthropology at Tokyo’s Sophia University. This book, written by a Roman Catholic cleric, is a fine example of ecumenism at its best, bringing together Shinran and Paul in a highly accurate and impartial manner.

Takayama shows that both Shinran and Paul moved into a “new horizon” through their contact with, and immersion in, a divine Transcendent, through which they died to an old self and “rose” into-and-as a new creature:

Shinran delcared himself to be a true disciple of Buddha. The same Shinran acknowledged himself sinful and unqualified…[but these two contradictory-seeming aspects] are inseparable and inter-related aspects in a person of shinjin [perfect faith]. In fact, self-awareness of one’s sinfulness and incapacity is revealed for the first time when one is wholly embraced and illuminated by the Buddha’s compassion. It can be said that both aspects, namely, awareness of the immensity of the Buddha’s compassion and awareness of one’s own sinfulness and foolishness, are manifested as an enlightenment. They are the very signs of one’s encounter with the Transcendent, who is truth itself. They arise from a single religous awakening, a true conversion. (p. 222)

Takayama goes on to compare Shinran’s double-aspected spirituality with Paul’s own sense of unworthiness coupled with a sense of chosenness/prophetic calling, grace, and providential exaltation. These aspects are essential elements in both Shinran’s and Paul’s religiosity and conversion.

The author elaborates:

the structural similarities between the two conversions…tell us what a human being ia all about and how one can be changed by the encounter with the Transcendent. The similarities show us one’s way of life and attitude towards truth, whether in the East or in the West. There is a radical shift from human act to divine act. When one is truly touched and moved by Compassion, one is profoundly converted. It is beyond one’s imagining and calculation. One’s Lebenshorizont is entirely transformed. One cannot but give oneself up to this mystery… There is no more fear, doubt and double-mindedness in one. There is only the single way… (p. 227)

Takayama gives an interpretation of Matthew 11:25-26, where Jesus says, “I thank thee, Father…that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.”:

Here Jesus tells us that divine wisdom is not grasped by the human intellect but is revealed fully in the foolishness of man. This is precisely what is called the mystery of faith. The truth of the Gospel is always paradoxical, because it is dependent not upon self-power  but upon Other Power. There is the divine Word who calls us today. There is the voice which calls for our conversion. (p. 228)

The Shin practicer will immediately recognize “human foolishness” as the key to Shinran’s, and indeed, everyone’s conversion to the way of Amida whose Other Power channels even our “bombu-ish”, samsaric self-power into His great salvific working. And the Christian will appreciate the place of the unearned gift of Grace from God as mediated through Jesus Christ.

Takayama’s book is engaging, clear, enthusiastic and affectionate towards its subjects and its two heroes, Shinran and Paul. Shinran, however, receives most of the attention, which is one reason why I am so happily recommending this treatment. The book contains explicit discussions of crucial Shin ideas like the eko of Amida and Amida’s relation to Buddhist philosophy’s Three Buddha Bodies/Trikaya doctrine. It also includes an excellent section on Shinran’s biography, his struggles, marriage, and of course his conversion.

I recently received my copy from Amazon, at which time it was the last copy, but the site said that more would be forthcoming. But as of today (15 April 2015), there are still no new copies for purchase. Interested persons are invited to keep checking Amazon or other sites in order to obtain this wonderful volume.

Shinran’s Conversion in the Light of Paul’s Conversion. Tesi Gregoriana, Serie Teologia 65. Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, Roma 2000. Gregorian University Press, Rome, Italy. ISBN: 88-7652-862-8

 

Gassho to those of all faiths, and of no faith.