There is purported to be a Chinese curse (No Chinese source has yet been found, however.) that masks as a blessing: “May you live in interesting times.” Well, we certainly do live in interesting times! We are facing the first worldwide pandemic in one hundred years. The global economy has been seriously shaken thrice in the last two decades. Most everyone reading these words clearly remembers the events of 9/11 and the wars that followed. Advances in science and technology are increasing exponentially, as are their detriments. The world faces ecological havoc, the likes of which threaten our very existence. And, for all its blessings and curses, the “internet of things” is knocking on our doorstep (I will be doing a sermon about the onset of A.I. this spring.). The list can be made very long... these are definitely interesting times!
This all reminds me of a teaching story from the Sufi tradition:
“Jesus (upon whom be peace!) saw the world revealed in the form of an ugly old hag.
He asked her how many husbands she had possessed. She replied that they were countless.
He asked whether they had died or been divorced. She said that she had slain them all.
‘I marvel,’ said Jesus, ‘at the fools who see what you have done to others yet still desire you!’”
Now, this could easily turn into an anti-worldly message. That seems to be its trajectory, does it not? But we’re going to peel the worldly onion one layer deeper than that. Rather than push back against the world, with all its vicissitudes, we are going to set this teaching story in the larger context of Jesus’ other teachings. We begin by asking, did Jesus deprecate life in the world? He did not. Quite the contrary!
Jesus saw the world as the abode of the kingdom, per the Gospel of Thomas, “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth,” and the Gospel of Luke, “For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” The problem, said Jesus, was not life on earth. The problem was that “people do not see it [the kingdom of God].” This gets to the crux of Jesus’ ministry. His ministry did not aim, as modern day evangelistic preachers tell us, at delivering people from this miserable world into a perfect, eternal state of heaven. Jesus’ ministry aimed at helping people see that they already inhabit the kingdom; that the kingdom is spread out among them now. Jesus’ was the quintessential spiritual optometrist!
Well, if Jesus taught that the “kingdom of God was spread out upon the earth,” why would he, per the Sufi teaching story, marvel at the fools who see what the world has done to others yet still desire the world? It’s all about desire and identification, those forces that cloud one’s vision like a cataract of the soul.
The earth is the realm of the sacred. And, it is inhabited by us creatures of desire. The spiritual life is the art of knowing the proper limits of desire (we must survive, after all), coupled with the ability to keep one’s eyes (and mind and heart) open to the sacredness in which we are enmeshed. When desire dominates, as it does with those (most) that live for the gratification of desire, the capacity to recognize life’s sacred depth is proportionately compromised (One cannot take in the lilies of the field when one is constantly digging for diamonds.). The result is an over identification with the objects of gratification: money, power, fame, food, sex... whose transitory and fleeting nature ultimately bring suffering (classic Buddhist teaching).
Those who live life for the gratification of desire, who are over identified with the objects of gratification, are ultimately “slain” by the world. That is, their spirits are depleted by the suffering that follows from the pursuit of what is transitory and fleeting; never realizing the sacred depth of life that offers ongoing sustenance and innate joyfulness.
Knowing this, Jesus’ counseled a shift of attention = a turn of the mind (metanoia) = “repentance.” He aimed to reawaken us to the kingdom by calling our attention to different objects, objects that are doorways to the sacred: the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the vineyards and the fields rips for harvest... the nature theme in general. (For those wanting to explore the imagery of nature themes in Jesus’ teaching, the work of Niel Douglass-Klotz regarding Jesus’ words in the original Aramaic is very informative.) Indeed, every phenomenon of nature, from the flowering fields to the running rivers to the floating clouds will, if we are receptive enough to the experience, open a doorway to the sacred.
Once we successfully turn our attention to the sacred and enter therein, our greatest longing is satisfied – our longing to know we belong to the greater reality of which we are, in essence, a part. When this occurs, when that longing is satisfied, desire returns to its proper place in our lives and we are no longer identified with the world’s objects of gratification. It is then that we are able, as Jesus’ counseled, to live in the world but not be of it.
Being in the world but not of it is the reconciliation of Jesus' teaching that “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth” with the simultaneous recognition that the world slays all who marry her. We need not deprecate life in this world, only engage it from our identification with Spirit.
Now, pause and breathe deeply... hear the birds calling to you out your window... respond to that call with your mind and heart... and enter in...
In my previous post, A Misty Morning Musing, I raised the topic of the difference between occupying a dualistic perspective on the world verses occupying a nondual perspective, known in Eastern mystical traditions (originally in the philosophy of Vedanta) as advaita (dvaita = “two or three (or more)”; a-dvaita = “not two or three (or more)”). In sum, advaita, or the nondual perspective, is the perspective in which one experiences oneself as an aspect within the unity of being, being, as it were, “unified in a seamless whole, as in that Eden like state wherein Adam and Eve walked in union with God...”
Now, this can quickly become an overwhelming philosophical concept for the uninitiated, as I also indicated in my previous post. At the same time, it is a very important concept to understand from at least two perspectives: the mystical and the ethical. So, stay with me as I lead you to the ethical import of this philosophy. I think you will find advaita key to understanding not only mysticism in general but the ethical implications of mysticism as well (to wit, Jesus – yes, Jesus was, in my reading of him, an advaitist, as his ethics clearly indicate). Indeed, there are significant ethical implications that arise from mystical states, a subject not given nearly enough due - most people merely seeking the “mystical high” without regard for the demands that follow from such experience.
One of the best and simplest descriptions of advaita that I have encountered is in J. D. Salinger’s short story, “Teddy.” Teddy is a ten year old boy who is the reincarnation of an advanced soul. As such, Teddy fascinates as a type of “mystic-savant” (to steal an apt phrase from Kenneth Slawenski). He possesses exceptional intelligence and an apparent ability to know what ought not to be knowable (for instance, there are several places in the story where Teddy correctly anticipates the day and manner of his death).
Regarding Teddy and advaita, there is a point in the story where Teddy relates his first mystical experience:
"I was six when I saw that everything was God and my hair stood up," said Teddy. "It was on a Sunday. My sister was only a tiny child then. She was drinking her milk and all of a sudden, I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean."
In sum, it’s all God.
Now, advaita can be understood on two levels. First, it can be understood as an abstract idea. This is to understand advaita as a philosophical principle. Second, it can be understood as subjective reality. This is to understand advaita as a mystical perception. This latter understanding of advaita is what interests us, especially in regard to its ethical implications. For this we invoke Jesus...
In The Gospel of Matthew we find a story of Jesus meting out judgement:
To some, he says:
“Come, you who are blessed. Take your place in the kingdom, for I was hungry - and you fed me... I was a stranger - and you welcomed me... I was sick – and you cared for me... I was in prison - and you visited me.”
These blessed ones questioned Jesus, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or as a stranger, or sick, or in prison, and helped you?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these, you did unto me.”
To others, he says,
“Depart from me, you who are cursed, for I was hungry - and you did not feed me. I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me... I was sick – and you did not care for me... I was in prison - and you did not visit me.”
These cursed ones questioned Jesus, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or as a stranger, or sick, or in prison, and did not help you?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do unto me.”
Now, if we approach this scripture from the dualistic perspective, it will read as an ethical charge to care for “the least of these,” meaning all people in need. This is no mean ethical charge. Indeed, it is quite profound! At the same time, from the dualistic perspective other people – including “the least of these” - remain as objects; ultimately separate from us. Hence the protest, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or as a stranger, or sick, or in prison...”
Read from the advaitist perspective, however, this scripture has an even more profound meaning and makes even more sense in the context of Jesus life and ministry. No one, including “the least of these,” is separate from anyone. People are not objects to which one applies ethical principles. Rather, all of us are aspects within the unity of being, being, as it were, “unified in a seamless whole, as in that Eden like state wherein Adam and Eve walked in union with God...” Hence, Jesus was the hungry, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner... not in an abstract, philosophical, thought experiment sense but in actuality. Indeed, we, too, are the hungry, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner... there simply is no separation of being(s).
It is this advaitist perspective that the mystical Jesus held and it is from this perspective that his ethics originate. It is only when we understand this that we truly understand Jesus’ words: “...whatever you did for the least of these, you did unto me.” Sit and absorb that for a moment!
In sum, when we consider Jesus’ life and ministry from the perspective of advaita, we discover a much richer, more compelling, and truer sense of who Jesus was (a Jewish mystic) and how he exhorted us to live our lives. From a mystical perspective we are to realize that we already exist in a sacred reality: “The kingdom of heaven is spread out about you.” From an ethical perspective, we are to act in the world as though our every action ripples through the entirety of creation, from the smallest single celled organism to the Divine itself: “you did unto me.”
"I am he
As you are he
As you are me
And we are all together...
goo goo g'joob..."
- The Beatles
tat vam asi (“thou are THAT”) my friends,
This post is the fourth (and final) in an informal series (maybe you’ve noticed the interplay between these four posts) on love and realization. The first post, Where There Is No Love There Is No Enlightenment, connected love with realization/enlightenment. The second post, Those Who Don't Feel This Love, expanded on the subject of love. The third post, A Legacy of Lies?, asked the question whether one believes there is an essential (Divine) self even to realize. In this post I ask the question, what price is one willing to pay to attain realization of one’s essential (Divine) self?
As stated in my last post, motivations for the spiritual journey vary and most motivations are insufficient to the task. I then suggested that the belief that one has an essential (Divine) self that one can discover is from whence proper and sufficient motive arises. This point is beautifully and simply expressed in Jesus’ parable of the pearl of great price. “The kingdom of heaven,” said Jesus,
is like unto a merchant seeking goodly pearls. When he found the pearl of great price he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
This is not a difficult parable to understand but in order to understand it in the context in which we are considering it, i.e., spiritual motivation, we need to tease it out a bit.
First, we need to understand that the kingdom is not an afterlife abode promised to believers. Rather, it is something that already lies “within you” (Luke, Ch. 17). In other words, the kingdom is the realization of one’s essential (Divine) self. (I know there are those who would debate this understanding but this post is not for that debate.)
Second, let us consider the merchant. It is important to note in this parable that Jesus chose a merchant to make his point, rather than some generic figure (He could have simply said, “...a man...”) So, why a merchant?
The merchant is someone who peddles in the acquisition and sale of fine things. This means two things. One, he possessed a chest of riches. Two, being a peddler of fine things he would recognize the value of the pearl (Many people might have “eyes to see” but still not see. It has always been the case that many people seeking spiritual wisdom fail “to see it” when they see it.).
Third, and most pertinent for us here, the merchant sold all that he had (his chest of riches) to obtain the pearl. That is, he was motivated enough to obtain the pearl that he was willing to pay the highest price he could. Now let’s consider that price.
By selling all he had to obtain the pearl the merchant was sacrificing his livelihood, the means by which he provided for his personal security: food, clothing, shelter, etc. This is no mean feat, especially in Jesus’ day when one’s livelihood was an all-consuming (24/7) endeavor. But the merchant understood: the price one is willing to pay for a thing is in direct proportion to one’s motivation to obtain that thing. Such is the value of the kingdom/realization.
The pursuit of realization is a costly endeavor - one’s life as one currently knows it. One must undergo a reevaluation of one’s life context and the influences therein, then make the decision to relinquish the egoic attachments that do not support the spiritual journey. This usually requires significant life change, including everything from the material one chooses to read to how one spends one’s free time to with whom one chooses to spend one’s time. All such choices indicate the price one is willing to pay – or not.
There is another saying attributed to Jesus: “Many are called. Few are chosen.” I am not a Biblical literalist so sometimes find myself reinterpreting what I read therein, in a manner more consistent with the other mystical traditions I study (I consider Jesus a mystical Jew – not a Christian). In this case I have reinterpreted Jesus’ words thusly: “Many are called. Few Choose.” (Matthew, Ch. 22) I prefer this version of Jesus’ words because, well, given my own study and practice they seem likely to be more historically accurate. And, this puts the onus of responsibility on the individual rather than God. Truly, isn’t this where it belongs, anyway?
Now, what say ye?
Ego, or, agape?
In my last post ("Where There Is No Love There Is No Enlightenment") I wrote about the importance of discerning between realized and unrealized teachers. In sum, it is less important what a teacher professes than the quality of that teacher’s Presence; the extent to which the fruits of the Spirit shine through him/her. Of course, the greatest fruit of the Spirit is agape, unconditional love.
I went on to end that post by reminding us that we, too, are called to embody agape. After all, each of us is on the path to our own realization, are we not? (For more on this, see my next post…) Given this, this seems like a good time to emphasize the point, with a little help from Rumi.
In his poem, “Those Who Don’t Feel This Love,” Rumi says, “Those who don’t feel this Love pulling them like a river… let them sleep.” He goes on to say that the study of theology is “trickery” and “hypocrisy.” The significance of this juxtaposition of heart and mind is indispensable to the spiritual journey and has even greater meaning when one understands that it is also deeply biographical for Rumi.
Those who don't feel this Love pulling them like a river,
those who don't drink dawn like a cup of spring water
or take in sunset like supper,
those who don't want to change...
let them sleep.
This Love is beyond the study of theology,
that old trickery and hypocrisy.
If you want to improve your mind that way...
I've given up on my brain.
I've torn the cloth to shreds and thrown it away.
If you're not completely naked,
wrap your beautiful robe of words around you…
Rumi’s father was a great scholar and Rumi followed suit. He was trained in Islamic law and served as an Islamic Jurist. In other words, he was an expert in the social and personal application of Islamic theology. In short, his was a religious life of the mind alone. Enter Shams…
Shams-e Tabriz was a dervish (a Sufi ascetic) and Rumi’s encounter with him radically changed Rumi’s life. Rumi and Shams developed a profound spiritual friendship and a deep love for one another. Indeed, after shams was killed (some believed he was killed because of a suspected homosexual relationship between the two) Rumi wrote the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, a lengthy lyrical poem in which he expressed his love (and bereavement) of Shams. Thereafter, Rumi spent the remainder of his life as a love mystic and mystic poet, having come to understand that the path to Spirit was through the heart, not the mind: “I’ve given up on my brain. I’ve torn the cloth to shreds and thrown it away.”
Shams had lit the spark of Divine Love within Rumi and Rumi’s life was forever changed. He saw the limitations of a religious life centered in the mind and thereafter became a lover of God. He wrote of this love in a myriad of ways in his plethora of poems. Elsewhere he says: “There is no salvation for the soul but to fall in Love,” and, “The Rose of Glory can only be raised in the Heart.”
There is a strong affinity between Jesus and Rumi that lies in their eschewing of rational theology in favor of Love in matters of the Spirit. “One cannot serve both Mammon and Spirit,” said Jesus. Likewise, said Rumi, “Those who don’t feel this Love pulling them like a river… let them sleep.”
Jesus and Rumi are thus exemplars of the Spirit and to fail to understand their emphasis on Love is to fail to understand the Presence they bequeathed to the world. They realized within themselves the possibility that remains dormant within each of us - agape as modus operandi. This of course begs a question, namely, how do we awaken to that Love that we might also embody the same quality of Presence as the likes of Jesus and Rumi (They are not exceptions to the rule but prototypes of human possibility.)?
Awakening to Love implies a willingness to enter into a loving relationship with Spirit that is commonly omitted from people’s spiritual lives these days (I mean as a subjective experience rather than as an abstract idea.). Yet consider this. If “God is love,” as stated in First John, does it not follow that God would desire a loving relationship with us? Of course it does, and that relationship is twofold.
In the first place, we are to minimize our egoic attachments to the world and set our minds on the Love of God. Hence, a life of meditation and prayer. In the second place, our actions in the world are to be consistent with that Love. Hence, an ethical life that reflects the fruits of the spirit (see previous post). These two things combined, meditation and prayer, and an ethical life, are the foundations of a life of devotion that will awaken one to Love.
Ease yourself into the current, dear friend… let Love pull you like a river…
In our “spiritual but not religious” age I find that people sometimes miss the deeper meaning of Jesus’ parables. For instance, “Consider the lilies of the fields…” was not simply a groovy Jewish hipster’s way of telling us to “R… E… L… A… X.” It was a realized being’s way of using the simplicity of nature to teach about psychodynamics (the dynamic relationship that must be managed between the human psyche and Spirit on the spiritual path). Likewise, “Consider the birds of the air…”
Another parable concerning which people miss the deeper meaning is the parable of trees and their fruits:
Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit while every bad tree bears bad fruit. - Matthew 7:15-17
What is Jesus telling us with this parable? He is telling us that it is important to discern a realized teacher from an unrealized teacher (As we are often cautioned in the Upanishads, we are only to sit at the feet of a “realized” teacher: someone who has had the subjective experience of their own Divine nature.). This is a very important lesson, especially in the age of the self-appointed guru and other self-assessed spiritualists. So, how does one discern a realized teacher from an unrealized teacher?
The world in which we live is very rationally centered. Hence, we tend to discern things via the mind, e.g., “If something makes sense to me, it is true.” The reasoning that underlies this type of discernment is this:
I have a personal understanding of how the universe operates.
What this person says confirms my personal understanding of how the universe operates.
Hence, what this person says is true.
I have a personal understanding of how the universe operates.
What this person says disconfirms my personal understanding of how the universe operates.
Hence, what this person says is false.
The fallacy of this type of reasoning is rather obvious, once one takes a moment to consider it. The fact that a person says something that confirms one’s own understanding does not mean that what that person says is correct; both could be wrong. And, the fact that a person says something that disconfirms one’s own understanding does not mean that what that person says is false; that person could nevertheless be speaking the truth.
In sum, to use the mind as one’s process of discernment tends only to affirm one’s own biased understanding how the universe operates. This is a long way from discovering truth or discerning whether or not a teacher is realized. Given this, how is one to discern a realized teacher from an unrealized teacher? Jesus gives us the answer in this same parable…
When Jesus says, “You will know them by their fruits,” he is telling us that what a teacher professes is far less significant than the quality of that teacher’s Presence. Indeed, it is the quality of Presence that reveals whether or not one is realized.
The quality of one’s Presence is made known by the extent to which the fruits of the Spirit shine through one’s being. What are those fruits? Many of them are named in Galatians: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” Of course, the greatest fruit of the spirit is agape, unconditional love. Jesus embodied this state – it shone through his being - which is why his Presence was so compelling (and how we know that he was a realized teacher).
But the story doesn’t stop there. Jesus went on to call us also to strive to embody agape, as that was the essential message of his ministry. Some of the disciples understood this and so strove. Consider, for instance, these words from First John:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.
Indeed, everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
The one who does not love does not know God -
for God is love.
Not long ago I had a meditative experience from which I emerged with the following mantra, which has been the inspiration for this particular post. I suggest printing it out and attaching it to your refrigerator, your bathroom window, or the visor in your car… whatever mnemonic device works best for you:
“Where there is no love there is no enlightenment.”