Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Emptiness of God

Like every religion Hinduism evolved over many centuries, each successive wave
of conquest and migration adding new and often conflicting elements. Like a snowball rolling down hill, over time religions hide their internal contradictions beneath layers of apparent coherence. But closer inspection melts the fa├žade revealing the depths.

            Beneath the brash polytheism of Hinduism lies a quiet philosophy of non-duality—the metaphysical claim that all is one. So which is it? Is divinity to be found in hundreds of diverse gods and goddesses, or is divinity a singularity, the very ground of being, a boundless, formless field in which all energy, consciousness, and matter takes form? The answer, I’m afraid, is yes.

            Nowhere is this contradiction more powerfully exposed than in the Kena Upanishad, composed around 3,000 years ago. In this playful parable the gods Agni, Vayu, and Indra have just defeated some demons and restored order. As they proudly pat each other on the back a mysterious being appears. It is Brahman, the formless One from whom all the gods draw their power. But they don’t recognize their visitor.

            Agni approached the being saying, “I am Agni, god of fire. I can burn anything.”

            “Burn this,” said the being, tossing down a piece of straw. Agni tried to burn it but it would not burn. He slunk back to Vayu and Indra defeated.

            Vayu approached the mysterious being.

            “Who are you?” the being asked.

            “I am Vayu, god of air. I can blow anything around.”

            “Let’s see if you can move this,” the being said, pointing to the piece of straw.

            Vayu tried and tried but could not move the straw an inch. He too slunk back to his friends defeated.

            Agni and Vayu turned to Indra, their leader, and said, “You have got to find out who this mysterious being is!”

            As Indra approached the being it vanished and in its place stood Uma, the Goddess of Wisdom.

            “Who was that being?” Indra asked.

            “That was Brahman,” she said, “from whom comes all your power and glory.”

            It was up to the Great Goddess to bring these proud boys back down to the ground by reminding them that they are not the source of ultimate power—they are merely its instruments. The deeper wisdom is clear. All of our powers and abilities come from a deeper source. Our consciousness is an aspect of the one consciousness. Our creativity is an aspect of the one creativity. Our loving is an expression of the one love coursing through all energy, matter, and manifestation. Each of us is the embodied presence of the formless sacred source of the universe. But it’s ok if we forget sometimes—even the gods forget.

            Now comes the final realization—that our idea of God is just that, an idea. What the idea re-presents is beyond concepts, forms, and words. All god-portraits are foregrounds of a depth that goes down and down and down. The idea of God is an empty chair—there’s no one or nothing sitting there. Our concepts are helpful until we forget that they are empty, and that the reality to which they refer forever eludes our conceptual grasp. But we experience this ultimate reality here and now in the gaps between our thoughts, in our loving kindness, and in the beauty of the field out of which our lives arise like poppies in the summer sun.

[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column in the May/June 2023 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Monday, May 15, 2023

Love is the Mystery

There is a higher reality that words, concepts, and sermons can’t reach. We try to
point to this reality with carefully wrought language, theology, and doctrine, but the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The map is not the place. The menu is not the food.

For those of us who teach, preach, and write this news is somewhat deflating. We thought we were getting close to naming the mystery. But in the end, all we can do is cultivate in others a willingness to deepen into the mystery that wells up through the cracks of their own lives. This is why Buddha simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. This is why Lao Tzu wrote that “Those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.” Even Jesus seemed exasperated as he chastised his disciples in chapter thirteen of the Gospel of Thomas. “I am not your teacher,” he said. “Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring I have tended.”

If the teacher is not the message, and if the message cannot be received second-hand, then why do we gather in spiritual community to hear sermons about how to better ourselves and draw closer to the sacred source? As a guy who often gives those sermons, this strikes me as a particularly urgent question. What, in the end, are spiritual teachings for? Why do we need any of this?

You might as well ask a tree why it leans toward the sun. We love language, talking, and teaching because concepts are what we know. They’re how we know. In a way, they feed us.

First we perceive the world, then shape those perceptions into thoughts. As Adam named the animals, we name the concepts taking up residency in our consciousness, even going so far as to order them into hierarchies, because with naming comes judgment, prejudice, and bias. There is no such thing as value-neutral thought. We fall asleep and forget that we do not know the world as it is—we know only our thoughts about the world. This dynamic leaves us vulnerable to self-aggrandizing narratives that lionize us while diminishing the other. Prejudice seems baked into cognition itself.

Our innate need to discriminate and ascribe hierarchies must be deliberately disrupted and discarded. The good news is that the deeper part of us already knows this. Beneath the conceptual realm there is a concept-free field of awareness unbound by the limitations of thought. The world’s wisdom traditions call it by many names—Atman, Buddha-mind, spirit, inner Christ—and it is our essential nature. We have our being there. The conceptual mind is ill-equipped to experience this deeper reality. Realizing one’s sacred nature is more a process of  unlearning, of getting out of our own way. No matter how Herculean the effort, how can you become what you already are?

One of the most notable hallmarks of awakening is humility. Less and less do you need to prove that you are right. You recognize that every religion is true—that they all work, like maps, to show the way home. You stop straining and start softening. Freedom replaces fear and anxiety. You no longer argue about the meanings of words. All of the names of God are fine. Or none at all. In the end, only one word—love—serves us best as the name of the nameless mystery that we are. 

[This piece was first published in my A to Zen column in the March/April 2023 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Wordless Sermon

Zen Buddhism traces its origin to a single afternoon in the life of the Buddha.
One day Buddha gathered his followers for a dharma talk as he had done many times before. But on this day he simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. How would you feel if your minister tried that this Sunday in church? Awkward rustling sweeping through the congregation. Sideways glances turning to outright confusion. But on that long-ago afternoon, one man, Kashyapa, met eyes with Buddha and smiled.

When the Indian Buddhist teacher Bodhidharma brought Zen Buddhism to China in the fifth century CE he penned the famous mission statement of this nascent movement: “A special tradition outside the scriptures, not dependent on words or letters, directly pointing to the mind, and seeing into one’s true nature and attaining Buddhahood.”

As a movement, Zen Buddhism replaced all of the normal trappings of religion—scriptures and beliefs, devotion to deities, dependence on authorities—with the direct experience of life as it is, pulled into sharper focus through the practice of meditation. In fact, the Japanese word Zen is a rendering of the Chinese word Chan, which is a rendering of the Sanskrit word dhyana meaning “meditation.” At the heart of the entire Zen project is the claim that we already are what we seek. We just have to empty out enough to realize it.

Another hallmark of Zen is its refreshing dearth of boundaries. “Your entire life is Zen,” said Bodhidharma. Our natural proclivity for compartmentalization is gently (and sometimes not so gently) shaken loose in the practice of Zen.

After a recent talk on Zen Buddhism, a woman raised her hand and said, “I came here looking for something tangible, but this was all very abstract.” She was right. I felt her disappointment. She was looking for guidance. An old Zen story popped into my mind. Maybe this will help I thought.

A young man went to stay in a Zen monastery. They graciously took him in and he was invited to participate in all the activities of the community, primarily meditation and chores—lots and lots of chores. One week passed, then another, then another. But nobody was talking to him about Zen. His frustration grew. Finally, he worked up the courage to go see the master. 

“I came here to learn about Zen,” he exclaimed. “I have been here a whole month now and no one has said one word to me about Zen!”

“Have you eaten?” asked the master.


“The go wash your bowl.”

Stories like this drive us into the immediacy of this moment, reminding us that true religion is not in books, beliefs, ministers, or rituals. All of those things are the plates we eat off of—they are not the food. Lived experience is the food. Every lunch is as sacred as a Eucharist. Washing your bowl sanctifies this moment as powerfully as any prayer. The mind asks for answers and explanations. But when the Buddha held up that flower, he was gently rebuking our tendency to build conceptual barriers between us and the here and now. 

Kashyapa understood what the congregation did not—that something sacred passes between us in every moment as if there are no barriers at all. Because there aren’t. Kashyapa passed the test, becoming the second patriarch after the Buddha. He understood the wordless sermon.

[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column in the January/February 2023 issue of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]

Saturday, October 22, 2022

The Masks of Eternity

According to a Gallup poll, the number of Americans who believe in God has
dropped to an all-time low of 81%. But what slips through the net of general questions like that are all the nuances that make religion interesting. Like what do you mean by God?

When we try to answer that question we find ourselves stumbling through the ruins of an ancient city whose long dead architects are unavailable to explain their designs, facades, and monuments. We mouth theological hearsay, second-hand creeds, and threadbare apologetics until we don’t even hear the sound of our own voices anymore.

In his own journey from altar boy to preeminent scholar of religion and mythology, Joseph Campbell brought lived experience and intellectual honesty to the journey so many of us are on—who, what, and where is God?

Campbell argued that all of our God-concepts are masks that we hang on the indefinable mystery beyond conceptual thought. Some cultures personify the mystery as a conscious entity with specific qualities and characteristics, including gender. Other cultures conceive of the mystery as a pantheon of thousands of gods and goddesses. Still others prefer to leave the mystery as it is—ineffable, beyond all names and forms, and impersonal, like Brahman, Dao, or the Force.

What matters most is not which of those conceptual masks is correct but  realizing that we are the ones who make these masks of eternity. So powerful is our longing to reconnect with the divine source from which and we and all things come that our indefatigable creativity builds a bridge across a chasm our minds cannot cross--a bridge made of myths, images, and poetic narratives.

Three factors determine the shape of our masks of eternity: our environment, our sociology, and our needs. The gods of Pacific Islanders are sea turtles and dolphins. The gods of the Navajo and Hopi of the American Southwest are coyotes, ravens, and spiders. We model our masks after the familiar things in our immediate environment.

In addition, we shape our God concepts around models of power we find in our own societies. In patriarchal cultures gods tend to be male. In matriarchal societies the Great Goddess prevails. We project our limited and local sense of power onto the heavens.

And finally, our masks of eternity are born from our unmet needs. Constantly under siege from warring enemies? You need a warrior god. Wounded and suffering? You need a healing god. Struggling to find sustenance? You need a god of abundance and prosperity. The mystery behind the masks eludes our conceptual grasp, but we never tire of creating out of the womb of our environment, sociology, and needs an infinite variety of God-concepts to protect, serve, and preserve us.

In the end, the masks become the final obstacle to be overcome. If you really want to know God, you have to forget everything you know about God. As Meister Eckhart put it, "God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction." Maybe it's best not to think about God as a separate entity at all, but the space within which we move. The apostle Paul said it best: "All can seek the Deity, feeling their way toward God and succeeding in finding God. For God is not far from any of us, since it is in God that we live and move and have our being." (Act 17:27-28)


[This piece was first published in my "A to Zen" column in the November/December edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]


Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Poetry of Nirvana

 Nirvana is one of those words like heaven, freedom, or God—it means so many different things to so many different people that it ends up meaning almost nothing. Let’s go back to the beginning and see if we can restore the essence of nirvana to its rightful clarity.

In Sanskrit, nirvana literally means “no wind.” Nir is a negating prefix (like unintentional or impossible), and vana in this context means breath or air that is moving. In its original sense then nirvana was a one-word poem connoting stillness, serenity, and the absence of agitation.

It certainly wasn’t a celestial realm reserved for the most devout—that idea would take shape much later.

As Buddha traveled and taught throughout India in the sixth century B.C.E., he used the word nirvana to describe the enlightened, awakened state. In this context, nirvana means “to extinguish” or “to blow out,” as in to blow out a candle. It’s a potent metaphor. When you blow out a candle, where does the flame go? I don’t know, but the conflagration is over. So too in the consciousness of nirvana no longer are we driven by the agitation of craving and fear. Not only is there nothing left to crave—there’s no one left to do the craving. In the state of nirvana we have transcended our ordinary egoic consciousness and entered a calmer state characterized by selfless compassion (karuna).

Would anyone around you even know if you had tasted nirvana? It’s not like you begin glowing, levitating, or spouting wisdom aphorisms. In fact, you probably just get back to work. As the Zen saying goes: “Before enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.”

But something happened as Buddhism evolved. In some of the devotional branches of Mahayana Buddhism nirvana came to be understood (especially in the minds of the laity) as an afterlife realm reserved only for the most devout Buddhists. While the original Buddha told his students “don’t follow me,” and “be lamps unto yourselves,” Buddha 2.0 required our purity, devotion, and adoration. How does this happen?

I guess we need gods, and in their absence, we create them. This impulse to devotion runs throughout the world’s religions. In mainline Christianity for example, it’s so much easier to worship Jesus than to follow him—to live as he lived. Setting celebrities, political leaders, and wisdom teachers up on celestial pedestals serves us in two paradoxical ways—it creates an aspirational ideal while releasing us from the arduous work of transformation.

But in original Buddhism, and arguably in the early Jesus movement as well, the emphasis was not on right belief (orthodoxy) or even on devotion, but on right action (orthopraxy). Nirvana was understood not as a reward for obsequiousness, but as an inner condition revealed only after the interfering impediments of egotism had sloughed off. The practice of renunciation, humility, meditation, and service untied all the knots and unlocked all the doors. The truth indeed will set you free.

Imagine a pond on a windy day, the surface choppy and silt from the bottom roiling up and muddying the water. Then imagine no wind—the pond’s surface returning to glass as the silt settles back to the bottom. Now, every cloud in the sky is reflected on its mirrored surface, and every pebble below a speckled jewel. From stillness comes clarity and depth. This is the poetry of nirvana.  


[This piece originally appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the September/October 2022 issue of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]