Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

The Three Views of Existence (Edited)

March 7, 2017

[This is an old post that was originally in three installments. I’ve edited them together and am reposting them. I’m surprised at how much of what I wrote then I still stand by.]

Five years ago, down with the flu and having to spend all day in bed, I found myself thinking about the three fundamental views of existence, which are the creator god view, the scientific/materialist view, and the pantheistic, or everything-is-god, view.

To elaborate a little, the creator god, or monotheistic, view is what most people in this culture think of when they hear the word “religion.” It’s the belief in a god who exists apart from his creation. There are many different schools of thought within the fundamental view, ranging from followers of intellectuals like Augustine to populist evangelicals. The scientific/materialist view maintains that there is no spiritual realm whatsoever. There is only the material plane, and consciousness arises out of the workings of chemistry and physics. These first two views are currently duking it out. They barely recognize the existence of the third view, the pantheistic view, which says that the entire universe is god. (I once thought pantheism meant “nature religion,” that the “pan” referred to the Greek god Pan—or something. But “pan” means “all,” as in “Pan American.” So Pan-theism is “everything is god.”) We are god. The rocks are god. The trees are god. It says that the material realm arises from the spiritual, that everything is mind. It includes schools of thought and tribes that range from serious, committed Buddhists to frivolous New Agers. (While Jesus is seen as representing the creator god view, I believe he was actually teaching the pantheist view. But more on that later.)

Each of these views, even if we’re not all that serious about them, affect how we live and respond to events. If you believe in the scientific/materialist view, which is probably the most popular and widespread view, there is no such thing as “wisdom.” There is only knowledge. A people that sees knowledge as the be-all and end-all of life also sees material and scientific progress as essential to our growth as a species. We are currently entering an era when we are hitting the limits to material progress—the end of growth. Whenever this idea is brought up, the materialists become either angry or despairing. There will be no reason to live! But it’s not like that. We will never truly start living until we get past our present-day obsession with money, possessions, and scientific progress. We’re committed to an enormous misunderstanding of what the material plane is. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars that you see. You are still one with everything. That is more true than I can say, and more true that you can hear.

Shunryu Suzuki

Of the three fundamental views of existence—creator god, scientific/materialist, and pantheist—I subscribe to the third. (I should add that “pantheism” is short hand for me. It’s a Western term, that is, from the world of Western philosophical speculation, and has a lot of attached baggage that is not real.) I don’t see myself as having sought out this view. At one point in my life I was reading a lot of Taoism and Buddhism in order stay afloat. I was doing a lot meditation, too, but, again, simply to survive an extraordinarily rough time. (I write about this in my work-in-progress Street Song.) In the midst of my reading I kept coming across the idea that everything is god, or mind. For a long time I assumed that this was just a metaphor. Eventually I saw that the people advocating this idea really meant it. It’s difficult to see the material plane as “merely” mind. If you cut me, I will bleed. If I kick a boulder with all my might, it will hurt like hell. The turning point for me came when someone I was reading, someone whose opinion I trusted and valued, stated that the material plane is an illusion, albeit a very thick one. His statement tied together a bunch of others I had floating around in my head. Suddenly I understood how the material plane, while having laws, is one with the spiritual background from which it arises.

I don’t read a lot of science. I try, but I can’t hack the attitude that a lot of scientists adopt. They want to be the go-to guys, the great explainers. But science can never explain existence. It can only probe one layer of it—the material plane. I’ve read enough science to know that as scientists delve deeper into matter, they find that, essentially, it disappears. It’s a big mystery! But scientists insist that there is a rational order to reality, that through experimentation and research we can eventually understand everything—soberly. But that’s not what the sages say, and I take their word—the word of the real ones—over that of the scientists. The sages say that when you take the journey that leads to an understanding of what existence really is, it astonishes you. It blows your mind. If what you saw didn’t blow your mind, then you didn’t see fundamental reality. And fundamental reality is ineffable, that is, it cannot be put into words. You have to see it for yourself. (There is more on this in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, in the chapter called “Consciousness Explained”.) I’m not asserting here that I’ve had this vision. I haven’t. Just bits and pieces. So, in a sense, this is a statement of faith. But my journey isn’t over.

Our present-day understanding of religion is poor. When people discuss religion they are usually arguing about some doctrine they read in a book somewhere. Most of today’s religious institutions and organizations are led by people who’ve had no direct experience of the spiritual, but have ideas about what it. You can’t get religion from a book or from speculative thought.

In real religion a person sets out on a path that takes him, or her, to the very edge of what can be understood with the thinking mind. At the point he can go no farther, he has to let go of his ego and take a leap into the unknown where he has a vision of the oneness of all existence (and nonexistence). To most people this sounds like some kind of Eastern religious trip. But I contend that Jesus took the same journey. If you read the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, it’s easy to recognize. One of the good things about the Gospel of Thomas is that it’s all sayings and aphorisms. There isn’t any mythology attached. It’s simply religious instruction. And religious instruction is mostly about how to safely manage the spiritual journey, which is incredibly dangerous.

Maybe it’s pointless to try to talk about this. To most ears, the journey I’m referring to sounds mythical rather than real. But that’s because of the time we live in, which is mundane and materialistic. In any case, for the moment, the door to the journey is closed. It wasn’t so long ago, however, that the door was open, and thousands, if not millions, went in pursuit. Even then, it was difficult to get people to understand. For many years, I was one of those who refused to hear of it. I contend that real religion is simply the search for the truth about existence, about reality. There is only one true religion, and it doesn’t have a name. It is simply the laws of existence—an existence that goes beyond physical reality. Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, and others are all examples of individuals who  made that journey, and then came back to tell the rest of us how to go there. In each case, only a handful of the original hearers had any real understanding of what Buddha, Jesus, or Lao Tse were talking about. But they were impressed by the power of the speakers, who had been completely changed by the experience. That’s where the big churches came from—from the mass of people who didn’t really understand what they were hearing, as well as from those who heard it second and third hand. In the first group I would include most of Jesus’ disciples; in the second, people like Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, and so on. (I’m being critical of Christianity here, but I see Buddhism as having identical problems. One of the problems is to think that there is a “Buddhism” or a “Christianity.”)

It’s not easy to get people to understand what’s true. It’s easier to give them a jealous god who sits on his throne, sees all, and crushes his enemies. They can understand that much more easily than the idea that everything is god, that everything is mind. We all have, at the very least, an unconscious awareness of the spiritual roots of existence. That’s why the churches became so powerful. But as the churches—Buddhist included—have grown ever more distant from the source, their doctrines have become more at odds with observable reality. A few centuries ago it got to be too much for the well-educated, and they began to question what they knew as religion, that is, the creator god religion they’d inherited from Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther et al. Eventually they created science and philosophical materialism as a replacement. Today those two sides are duking it out, making headlines, trying to win converts. I can’t take either one of them seriously. There is that third way, which is quieter and more intelligent than either the creator god or philosophical materialism. It has the added advantage of being true. But, as I say, the door to understanding it directly is not open right now. That will change, however. Sometimes I feel that that’s all I live for—for that door to open again. When it does open, everything changes for everybody everywhere.

gpnf_trail

Spiritual Books I Recommend

October 19, 2012

A reader, Lynn B., asked me to post a list of spiritual books that I recommend. In the last decade or two a lot of the really valuable works have been obscured by new translations of the classics as well as newly written books, both with the “modern-day seeker” in mind. In short, they’re New Age, and from what I’ve seen, most of them are useless. What follows are the books that I’ve actually read and value most. There are certainly many others worth reading; but these are the ones I actually know:

Tao Te Ching: The fundamental text of Taoism. There are many, many translations. I have two favorites. One is the version by Richard Wilhelm and the other—my current favorite—is by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo. The original work is extremely terse. Most English translations have a lot of added verbiage in order to help the Western reader better understand the ideas. The Addis/Lombardo version retains the simplicity of the original text. Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with the lengthier translations, but I find this book clearer and easier to understand than any other version. It’s also more enjoyable.

I Ching: In some sense a Taoist text with heavy Confucian influences, the I Ching is really its own thing, that is, it has its own tradition. This is the book I know best. I’ve been studying it for nearly 40 years. To my mind, the only translation worth getting is the Wilhelm/Baynes version. One note of caution: A lot of people approach the I Ching with the hope that it will help them get what they want. It doesn’t do that. The I Ching is a book of wisdom. It’s a good idea to treat the oracular aspect with much caution.

Cold Mountain Poems: Han Shan (or Cold Mountain) was a Chinese religious hermit who wrote poems on the rock walls around his cave, 300 of which were collected after he disappeared. He spoke the language of both the Taoists and the Buddhists. I love this book. He can be very funny! My favorite version is by Red Pine.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind; Not Always So; Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Three books by the Japanese Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki. I love these. They are tidied-up versions of talks he gave and are especially useful because he knew that the people he was talking to were new to the subject. This doesn’t mean that they’re easy to understand. They’re not. It took me many years to even begin to understand any of Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. But they speak to a level that most Westerners can attain if we try.

Crooked Cucumber: This biography of Shunryu Suzuki, or Suzuki Roshi, was written by David Chadwick, a former student. It’s a wonderful book—humorous and well-written—and I recommend it highly.

Monday Night Class, The Caravan, and Amazing Dope Tales (aka Haight Ashbury Flashbacks): Stephen Gaskin was one of the hippies who, back in the 1960s, used LSD as a tool for spiritual exploration. He helped to develop the groundwork for what might be called Acid Religion, which is virtually identical to Taoism, Buddhism and true Christianity. (I’m not sure that “virtually” is actually necessary. But I’ll let it stand.) I like all of Gaskin’s books, but only a few of them are available today. Monday Night Class and The Caravan are currently out in annotated versions (done by him). He’s one of us and he’s talking to us.

The Gospel of Thomas: One of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, this is the only Christian text I bother with nowadays. One reason I like it is that it lacks the usual Christian mythologizing. It consists solely of the sayings of Jesus, many of which don’t exist in the standard Bible. It presents a Jesus who speaks with the voice of a sage. I only have the version by Marvin Meyer (The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus). For all I know, there may be better versions. But this one seems fine.

Finally, three books  I haven’t yet gotten into deeply, but know that I will get into deeply in the future: The Diamond Sutra, The Platform Sutra, and The Heart Sutra. Red Pine has done translations of all three. I don’t speak or read Chinese, so I can’t say how good he is at that level. But I like his work. He studied for years in a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. I’ve never read any negative comments about him.

Rick Santorum

February 18, 2012

I saw a headline today: Santorum Knocks Obama’s Christian Values

He said that Obama’s agenda is “not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.”

Not that it makes much difference, but I hate letting this kind of thing go by without a response. (This is not support for Obama, about whom I’ve become less than indifferent. It’s simply revulsion at what passes for religion in this country.) Rick Santorum knows nothing about religion. He is a staunch opponent of real religion, a follower of a phony theology. While I think that anyone who believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God is off their rocker (or should I say “sadly mistaken”?), I would add that Santorum actually opposes a great deal of the philosophy—stated plainly—that is in the Bible. Christ taught pacifism as well as redistribution of the wealth, and anybody who can’t see that is deaf, blind, or simply obstinate. People like Rick Santorum need to be exposed as the charlatans that they are.

The Three Views of Existence Part 3

December 22, 2011

Our present-day understanding of religion is poor. When people discuss religion they are usually arguing about some doctrine they read in a book somewhere. Most of today’s religious institutions and organizations are led by people who have had no direct experience  of the spiritual, but who have ideas about what  it is. But you can’t get religion from a book or from speculative thought.

Here’s what real religion is: A person sets out on a path that takes him, or her, to the very edge of what can be understood with the thinking mind. At the point he can go no farther, he drops his ego and takes a leap into the unknown where he has a vision of the oneness of existence. To most people this sounds like some kind of Eastern religious trip. But I contend that Jesus took the same journey. If you read the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, it’s easy to recognize. One of the good things about the Gospel of Thomas is that it’s all sayings and aphorisms. There isn’t any mythology attached. It’s simply religious instruction. And religious instruction is mostly about how to manage safely the spiritual journey, which is incredibly dangerous.

Maybe it’s pointless to try to talk about this. To most ears, the journey I’m referring to sounds mythical rather than real. But that’s because of the time we live in, which is mundane and materialistic. In any case, for the moment, the door to the journey is closed. But it wasn’t so long ago that the door was open, and thousands, if not millions, were in pursuit. Even then, it was difficult to get people to understand. For many years, I was one of those who refused to hear of it. Futile or not, I want to try and make the point that in my mind I’ve been wanting to make for several months.

My contention is that real religion is simply the search for the truth about existence, about reality. There is one true religion, and it doesn’t have a name. It is simply the laws of existence—an existence that goes beyond physical reality. Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, and others are all examples of individuals who  made that journey, and then came back to tell the rest of us how to go there. In each case, only a handful of the original hearers had any real idea of what Buddha, Jesus, and Lao Tse were talking about. But they were impressed by the power of the speakers, who had been completely changed by their experiences. That’s where the big churches came from—from the mass of people who didn’t really understand what they were hearing, as well as from those who heard it second and third hand. In the first group I would include most of Jesus’ disciples; in the second, people like Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, and so on. (I’m being critical of Christianity here, but I see Buddhism as having identical problems. One of the problems is to think that there is a “Buddhism” or a “Christianity.”)

It’s not easy to get people to understand what’s true. It’s easier to give them a jealous god who sits on his throne, sees all, and crushes his enemies. They can understand that much more easily than the idea that everything is god, that everything is mind. We all have, at the very least, an unconscious awareness of the spiritual roots of existence. That’s why the churches became so powerful. But as the churches have grown ever distant from the source, their doctrines have become more at odds with observable reality. A few centuries ago it got to be too much for the well-educated, and they began to question what they knew as religion, which was the creator god religion they’d inherited from Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther et al. Eventually they created science and philosophical materialism as a replacement. Today those two sides are duking it out, making headlines, trying to win converts. I can’t take either one of them seriously. There is that third way, which is quieter and more intelligent than either the creator god or philosophical materialism. It has the added advantage of being true. But, as I say, the door to understanding it directly is not open right now. That will change, however. Sometimes I feel that that’s all I live for—for that door to open again. When it does open, everything changes for everybody everywhere.

God and Mammon

November 12, 2010

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed here in Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is one of the basic tenets of our economics. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how we’re going to get people borrowing and spending again. We have to “grow the economy,” they say. And, as much as ever, the great majority of Americans believe that they should be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means taking everything apart, examining it in detail, and living solely by principle. The deeper meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” actually means abandoning one’s materialist existence and following truth—never doing anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus encouraged his disciples to leave their jobs and to become beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

Defining My Terms #2

November 3, 2010

There’s another term I want to clarify before I begin work on some posts that I want to put up here. The term is Christianity. I make a distinction between the teachings of Christ and Christianity. The only thing they have in common is that root word, Christ. I don’t believe that we know much of what Jesus actually taught. His time was short and his teachings began undergoing heavy distortion right after his death. This happens all the time. I see it happening now to Suzuki Roshi. What we call Christianity or Christendom begins not with Jesus, but with Paul. When I read the Epistles, which I find an onerous task, it is very clear to me that Paul knows very little about true religion. He is not a seeker, but a zealot, more interested in building a movement than in truth. From what I’ve read, Paul would not have had access to what became known as the Gospels. It was only after his time that different books purporting to be the true story of Jesus came into circulation. The four “official” choices all drew from other books that were available to scribes, and they quite obviously dressed the teachings up in myth. I’m convinced that all four books were chosen because they suited, or were more acceptable, to a particular political and cultural persuasion. Another early architect of Christianity was Augustine. Before he became a “Christian,” Augustine was a speculative intellectual. After his conversion, it became his aim to make his new religion acceptable to the Roman Empire. Accordingly, he came up with concepts that are not only absent in what Jesus is purported to have taught, but are even hostile to it. The distortions and obfuscations in Christianity built up over a long period of time and go on to this day. I don’t need to detail any more of them to make my point, which is simply that when I use the word “Christianity,” I mean the movement that descends from Paul, not the teachings of Christ.

Defining My Terms #1

October 25, 2010

I’ve been putting up a lot of posts that many people will consider “doom and gloom.” (See my previous post, for instance.) And I completely agree that it’s no good just to lay back and criticize without having something positive to offer. I do, in fact, believe there is hope. There isn’t any hope for our current way of doing things—that has quite nearly run its course now—but there is a path we can move to that does work. I believe we’re going to have one more chance to set things right. It may well be our last chance. I’ve been reluctant to get into these positive possibilities because of a problem with language. Words trigger automatic reactions in people’s minds—words like “terrorist,” “conservative,” “liberal,” “evil,” “socialist,” “pacifist.” They create images that are seldom useful for arriving at an understanding.

I keep seeing that one word I will have to use in any discussion of possibilities is “God.” The idea of God that most Americans argue over is the anthropomorphic idea of God, the creator God, the sometimes loving, sometimes angry guy in the robes and white beard who lives outside his creation and passes judgment on us all. This is the God that atheists love to ridicule and Christians feel compelled to promote and defend. As far as I can tell, it’s been a completely useless debate. Nobody is talking about anything real. God is, first of all, a word, a word that we use to discuss something that’s nearly impossible to discuss. The word really refers to the massive intelligence of the universe, the intelligence that is beyond physics and beyond intellectual comprehension. It doesn’t have a personality. It’s of a different order than that. I don’t believe that Jesus believed in this creator God. Those who surrounded him and who followed him did, but they never really understood what Jesus was talking about. And I don’t believe that Buddha was an atheist. Buddhists who say he was are either pointing out that he didn’t have a belief in a creator God, or they don’t know what they’re talking about. I find that there are just as many Buddhists who don’t understand their own religion as there are Christians who don’t understand theirs. Actually, there is no Christianity and there is no Buddhism. There is only one religion, and it has no name. Both Buddha and Christ saw and believed the same thing. (I use these two examples because, other than Lao Tzu, who is less known, they are the ones whom I’ve studied in greatest depth.)

Having said all that, my experience in conversation is that I can explain what I intend when I say “God,” and the next time I use the word, the person I’m talking to will immediately conjure up the image of the creator God. The image is so deeply imbedded. I could use terms like “the Great Spirit,” and I undoubtedly will. But “Great Spirit” often sounds affected to me. “God” is the word I almost always want to use. It’s simple and to the point—I wish. For those unfamiliar with this idea of God, I will add that it’s not of my own making. It’s ancient. There’s a more detailed exposition of my view in my book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, in the chapter called “Consciousness Explained.”

Reading Rexroth

March 19, 2009

I’ve been reading Kenneth Rexroth lately and enjoying him a great deal. In his long poem (200 pages!) The Dragon and the Unicorn I found in one small section two statements of belief that I’ve held myself for quite some time. They’re related. The first one is this:

A real religion is not
Believed in, it is practiced.

I think that’s an important idea. A lot of Christians think that all you have to do is believe in Jesus, and you’re covered—which isn’t true. You have to put the principles he taught into practice—and they’re tough ones. You can’t understand religious ideas any other way. You can’t take your understanding from a book. Books get messed with. More importantly, religion—real religion—is ineffable, and no book can contain the ineffable. It’s only there to get you started.

The second statement is:

Neither Augustine nor Karl Barth
Are religious men. They are
Emotionally unstable
Philosophers…

I don’t know anything about Karl Barth, but I’ve had a gripe with Augustine for a long time. He wasn’t a saint; he was an intellectual. And while not the first, he was one of the biggest distorters of the teachings of Christ. He was, in part, trying to make the new religion palatable to the Empire, which has nothing at all to do with spirituality. It’s a perversion of it.

Redistribution of the Wealth

December 3, 2008

For me, the most irritating episode of the 2008 election was the Republican attack on Obama for being a “socialist” after he suggested to the faux plumber that it might be a good thing to spread the wealth around some. In an interview with Joe Biden, a Florida television news reporter tried to tie Obama to Karl Marx’s dictum

From each according to his ability to each according to his need.

Biden, to his credit, replied, “Are you joking? Is this a joke?” She might well have tried to tie Obama to

And they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need,

which is from Acts in the Bible and predates Marx by nearly two thousand years. But that would have foiled her aim. To the Republicans, redistribution of the wealth is, of course, a Great Evil. And yet, here’s Jesus in Matthew telling a rich man:

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.

Here Jesus is clearly advocating redistribution of the wealth. And it’s hardly the only instance of it in the Bible, which is radical in its condemnation of materialism. But within the general culture, it was decided long ago to ignore this sort of statement. They are always explained away. I did an Internet search on the second quote and found a forum where somebody asked what Jesus meant. The response was invariably, “Well, he didn’t mean that,” and “He certainly didn’t want people to be homeless.” But Jesus urged his disciples to leave their jobs and their homes and to follow him in his wanderings.

I tend to see a blog as a ridiculous place to explore this kind of idea in depth. The Internet is too ephemeral for deep discussion. But somebody needs to point out that you can’t condemn redistribution of the wealth while simultaneously embracing Jesus, as most Republicans do.