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.]

Monday, June 27, 2022

The Three Temptations of Buddha


When Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE) left his childhood palace to find wisdom in the forest he was desperate and willing to try anything. Like many spiritual seekers, Siddhartha had grown convinced that his liberation lay in finding the right teacher, the right practice, and the right theory-of-everything to sooth his addled mind. He studied with every guru in the forest and they helped a little, but each time, their teachings collapsed under the weight of their own beautifully ornamented contradictions.

In his deepening despair Siddhartha fell into an extreme form of asceticism that nearly killed him. None of it worked so he quit searching. He let it all drop. He found his way back to the middle path, sat down in the forest, and began to meditate.

According to legend, a demon named Mara came to see him, for it is the job of demons to interfere with the progress of spiritual aspirants. To this end, Mara offered Siddhartha three temptations.

The first temptation was lust. Mara ordered his two daughters to perform an elicit dance, sure that this would divert the young man from his meditation. But instead of arousal, Siddhartha felt only compassion for these young women so clearly caught in a hell of their own, trapped by their father into a rather, shall we say, disreputable profession.

The second temptation was power. Mara offered to make Siddhartha king of the world—the same temptation, incidentally, that Satan offered Jesus in the wilderness 500 years later. The stories are essentially the same: demons attempting to lure our heroes off their respective paths toward transcendent illumination. But worldly power held no allure for Siddhartha (as it also would not for Jesus).

The third temptation was one of personal paradise—to leave the embodied realm and vanish into Nirvana, a celestial realm of bliss far above this world of woe. But Siddhartha said no. It was never his own liberation he was after, but the liberation of the world. With the defeat of Mara, Siddhartha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, the Awakened One.

Thus the bodhisattva ideal was born. In Mahayana Buddhism the bodhisattva (bodhi: illumined, sattva: being) is the spiritual ideal—an illumined being with one foot in Nirvana and one foot in the world. In a significant way, Jesus plays this role for many Christians—the presence of the eternal formless sacred source here in the world of temporal forms.

In both of these figures—Jesus and Buddha—we see the polarities of divine and secular, formless and formed, sacred and profane unified in a living mystery. And in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions we are likewise called to be the presence of this unified paradox by manifesting our inner Christ and embodying the bodhisattva vow—working for the alleviation of the suffering of all sentient beings. As Jesus said in Matthew 25:40, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Pedagogical parables, legends, and metaphors like the three temptations story appear throughout the world’s wisdom literature. When we take these evocative tales into our contemplation what do they mean for us? These stories lead us into an increasingly nuanced, skillful, and disciplined mastery of the always delicate task of self-actualization. They help us give birth to the sacred potential locked inside us since the universe was born. There are so many ways to get it wrong, and only a few ways to get it right. 


[This piece was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]