Sunday, February 11, 2007

Just as you are

In a post called Cause it's how you are supposed to feel I was writing about "getting it", which was intentionally vague, but had to do with one's relationship or perception of connection to the unfolding existence of which one is a part, however that might be symbolized or expressed...

It seems to me that "getting it" is kind of an on or off thing - you do or you do not, there is no try. But at the same time, I don't think "getting it" is an end, either, but more like a constant companion and reminder that stays with us even when we are in the doldrums. Maybe that's why we tend to personify "getting it".

Yet if we can "get it" and still at times find ourselves to be out of sorts, frustrated, or discouraged, then what is our companion reminding us then? What is that message, whether embodied or transmitted through a life philosophy, spiritual path, or sacred tradition, for someone on the outs?

I can't speak for you. I can't speak for "getting it" on your behalf. The next time you are down and out, I guess you will get another shot at hearing the message yourself. So don't let what I say, or what someone else may write on the topic, "poison you", so to speak. I don't mean you won't find the same answer, or that my answer or someone else is wrong, but rather that hearing what someone else thinks may bias your own experience at best or serve as a substitute for having your own genuine experience at worst.
My phrasing might have been better, but I think the sense that I perceive is something along the lines of "Just as you are". In fact, it's a signature I've used to some degree on the web as my greeting to the people reading my entries and posts. This basic idea is not anywhere new or revolutionary, but I felt t might be worth expressing on the most basic level. Still, you've got to be impressed when someone says it expansively with style.

At Dharmakara's Prayer the author recently quoted Paul Tillich, who is known as a Christian philosopher and theologian who has advanced notions of God that are more dynamic and ubiquitous; rather than a localized being, God is the ground of Being, which is in some ways an "anti-fundamentalist" conception. Despite the fact that people make superficial comparisons between Pure Land Buddhism and many forms of Christianity, their similarity is rooted in their emphasis on acceptance. This is a tricky notion as it is so simple it seems to be in need of complication, which people love to provide. This is especially true in Christianity because of the notion of sin. Hence acceptance, or grace, can be superficially seen as a license to sin since salvation is often viewed as an eternal destination with a single moment of judgment; hence, if you are "in the clear" at that moment, you are good forever. But if one forgoes that framework, and sees eternity as an ever-changing manifestation of the moment, then in the Christian view grace is not an excuse to sin, it's the realization that separation from God is an illusion we create for ourselves and which we can abandon anytime. That is, you are always accepted, no matter how many mistakes you have made. And the deep realization of this, when it shakes someone to the core, is a transformative event in liberal Christian theology.

While the framework of Buddhism, even the Pure Land traditions, do not translate to Christian ideas of God and sin and the soul as well as some might think at a superficial glance, again, the emphasis on acceptance does give rise to remarkably similar discussions of one who is transformed by an awakening to unwavering acceptance. Nor is this alien to other Buddhist traditions and schools, it's just that the Pure Land versions emphasize it more than the other teachings (each East Asian tradition seems to be like this, emphasizing some basic aspect of Buddhist teachings more than the others, reflecting the needs of various practitioners). Here, for example, is an expanded passage from the Tillich quote used recently by Dharmakara:
Thus, the state of our whole life is estrangement from others and ourselves, because we are estranged from the Ground of our being, because we are estranged from the origin and aim of our life. And we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going. We are separated from the mystery, the depth, and the greatness of our existence. We hear the voice of that depth; but our ears are closed. We feel that something radical, total, and unconditioned is demanded of us; but we rebel against it, try to escape its urgency, and will not accept its promise.

We cannot escape, however. If that something is the Ground of our being, we are bound to it for all eternity, just as we are bound to ourselves and to all other life. We always remain in the power of that from which we are estranged. That fact brings us to the ultimate depth of sin: separated and yet bound, estranged and yet belonging, destroyed and yet preserved, the state which is called despair. Despair means that there is no escape. Despair is "the sickness unto death." But the terrible thing about the sickness of despair is that we cannot be released, not even through open or hidden suicide. For we all know that we are bound eternally and inescapably to the Ground of our being. The abyss of separation is not always visible. But it has become more visible to our generation than to the preceding generations, because of our feeling of meaninglessness, emptiness, doubt, and cynicism -- all expressions of despair, of our separation from the roots and the meaning of our life. Sin in its most profound sense, sin, as despair, abounds amongst us.

"Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound", says Paul in the same letter in which he describes the unimaginable power of separation and self-destruction within society and the individual soul. He does not say these words because sentimental interests demand a happy ending for everything tragic. He says them because they describe the most overwhelming and determining experience of his life. In the picture of Jesus as the Christ, which appeared to him at the moment of his greatest separation from other men, from himself and God, he found himself accepted in spite of his being rejected. And when he found that he was accepted, he was able to accept himself and to be reconciled to others. The moment in which grace struck him and overwhelmed him, he was reunited with that to which he belonged, and from which he was estranged in utter strangeness.

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!" If that happens to us, we experience grace After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.

In the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to others and to ourselves. We experience the grace of being able to look frankly into the eyes of another, the miraculous grace of reunion of life with life. We experience the grace of understanding each other's words. We understand not merely the literal meaning of the words, but also that which lies behind them, even when they are harsh or angry. For even then there is a longing to break through the walls of separation. We experience the grace of being able to accept the life of another, even if it be hostile and harmful to us, for, through grace, we know that it belongs to the same Ground to which we belong, and by which we have been accepted. We experience the grace which is able to overcome the tragic separation of the sexes, of the generations, of the nations, of the races, and even the utter strangeness between man and nature. Sometimes grace appears in all these separations to reunite us with those to whom we belong. For life belong to life.

You are accepted

Now, the fact that one can remove the words "Jesus" and "God" and the reference to the Apostle Paul and have a sentiment that could easily come from Buddhist teachings and experience suggests that the underlying experience is beyond something that is taught or otherwise culturally generated or maintained. I am sure that some Christians would say "Oh, well, that just shows God's grace is at work in Buddhism", but then again some Buddhists could say that Jesus (either figuratively or literally, depending on the Buddhist) was/is a sambhogakaya, or archetypal manifestation of the Buddha.

Yet Buddhists also talk about things like "fingers to the moon" and using a raft to cross to the other shore. Once across, we no longer need to carry the raft around with us. So in terms of this intense revelation of acceptance, how would one who has experienced such an event feel about such a debate? Interestingly, Clark Strand wrote in a (fairly recent) issue of Tricycle magazine about such acceptance and the deep faith it engenders ("Born Again Buddhist"). He refers to it as being settled. Those who are not fully settled, Strand claims, are the ones who have to go around making justifications and arguments justifying their own beliefs while tearing down the benign but differing beliefs of others. Therefore the "faith" that these unsettled people talk about is loud, and sometime vulgar, and frequently intolerant, bereft of the very appreciation of grace/acceptance of their traditions teachings. Hence grace becomes a hollow trophy for the righteous who follow all the right rituals and images of this or that sect (OK, I am going a little beyond what Strand actually wrote). Looking at Tillich's quote, I am compelled to wonder if that would be an example of how a "settled" Christian talks about their faith. I suspect that it is.

It's always interesting to find out how different people understand "getting it".


  1. The Tillich quote really resonates with me and i like your commentary -

    Dharmavidya David Brazier has this to say about Amida-shu's take on Buddhism and why it can appear to more closely relate to christianity than some forms of "Western Buddhism".

    "Pureland is Buddhism itself. It is true that Pureland is somewhat different from much of the Buddhism that is presented in the West, but there are reasons for Western Buddhism being generally presented the way it is - a way that is rather different from how it is presented in much of Asia. But if we go back to fundamentals for a moment, in most lists of qualities valued by the Buddha, faith comes first. Everything else follows. The term bonbu in Japanese that is translated into English as "foolish being" means "being of klesha nature" and klesha is a term used all the time by Shakyamuni. ... Shakyamuni puts great emphasis on "knowledge" of a certain sort, but his point is that the vast majority of people (i.e. us) lack that knowledge - thus we are foolish beings. What can be said is that Western Buddhists do not tend to emphasise this as much as Shakyamuni did and do not generally give faith or devotion the prominence that they have in Asian Buddhism. So one could say that Pureland is closer to "Buddhism itself" than it is to Western Buddhism (WB) and is this not because Western Buddhists are somewhat allergic to anything that reminds them of Christianity so that WB is only a selection out of Buddhism itself, a selection that excludes the elements that are Christian-like, hence Buddhism itself is bound to seem more like Christianity than WB is. To restate this:
    WB=(Buddhism itself) minus (faith, devotion, klesha-nature, anything else that looks Christian...),
    hence Buddhism itself is closer to Christianity (and most other religions) than WB is. It would not be surprising if there is a fair bit of common ground between major religions. Having said that, klesha nature and Purelnd teaching have nothing much to do with "fear and trembling". The Judaic God may have been something to fear but there is no equivalent in Buddhism, certainly not in Pureland. Similarly, Pureland is not about surrender in the sense understood by the monotheisms. It is about refuge which is certainly the bedrock basis of "Buddhism itself".

    Pureland is Buddhism itself, that is, it is faith in ultimate refuge as taught by Shakyamuni and all other Buddhas. Pureland has its own styles of expressing that faith - nembutsu and so on - but style is not the essential. Pureland derives from the very earliest days of Buddhism, from the teachings of Shakyamuni himself and there is actually no legitimate school of Buddhism that does not teach the deluded nature of the vast mass of humanity, no school that teaches fear (with or without trembling), and no school that does not teach faith. They may not emphasise these features in the West, but it is so".

    i enjoy your christian-buddhist explorations!

    with love

  2. I agree with the idea of the allergic reaction to Christianity, but I also think there is also a common thread running through all major sacred traditions. Many people have divided religious belief into stages - such as literal, figurative, etc. In my mind, it's like each stage is the necessary precursor to the next, but for some people just stop where they are and never move on. Like being stuck at the "pre-teen Sunday school" level of theological/philosophical understanding.

    I don't know to what degree different historical, social, cultural, and psychological forces effect the reception, development, and transmission of sacred traditions, but I find that there are (not to be insulting) more "mature" forms which come to resemble one another beyond the symbols and imagery. And by mature forms, I don't mean just a completely secularized demythification of "superstition masquerading as explanation" or "magical thinking acting as a crutch to abate a sense of impotence or insignificance".

    I agree with those who suggest that those of us raised in Christianity, even if it's only a by being in a predominately Christian culture, cannot simply escape the imagery, even if one becomes a devout and highly anti-religious atheist who eschews all things sacred. It's part of our consciousness. On the other hand, I think by appreciating the imagery and one's personal connection to it, beyond the general tenets of common religious interpretation, without denying its influence one can actually be liberated from any guilt, shame, frustration, or animosity previously associated with it. To in effect "move on" and take it with you simultaneously, not as a burden being dragged behind you that you can't seem to get free of but as an integrated aspect of who you are - no more or less problematic than what language you grew up with or whether you prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream.

  3. Pureland teachings are not dissimilar from the core principles of most major religious traditions. To live in relation to something greater than oneself, in gratitude and modesty, touched by the love and compassion of the ancestral sages, working together in a sense of communion, with hope of a better, kinder world to come... this is the wisdom of ages. Pureland does not claim any exclusivity. It simply points out what is at the heart of the human religious quest and actualises it in the context of its own particular tradition that has come down to us directly through India, China and Japan

    The first book on Buddhism I ever read was Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism without Beliefs" - I am still very fond it, and I went on my first day retreat with him 6 years ago. I was attracted to his agnostic, "stripped down" approach. None of that religious symbolism! Looking back at this book now, it is telling how he sees religion -

    "Historically, Buddhism has tended to lose its agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalised as a religion (i.e. a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests". BWB,p16

    That's a very narrow view of religion

    I like Rev Alfred Bloom's comments -

    Shinran recognised “that religion itself is a danger to one's spiritual development. The belief that one may achieve enlightenment through one's own practice leads to comparisons, self-righteousness and the elitism that infects all religions (including later Shin Buddhism). Shinran's view of Other Power altered the understanding of religious life by transforming it from a religion of self-perfection or self-benefit to a religion of gratitude and commitment. Religious faith became an end in itself and not a tool or means to some other end. For Shinran, one becomes religious because one is aware of the compassion that embraces one's life and expresses it in gratitude and sharing. The essence of religious faith is altruism. One lives to convey compassion to others."


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