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.]