Sunday, December 23, 2007

Book Review: Manifesting God

Manifesting God is the name of a very short, direct, and affective (that's not a typo) book written by Thomas Keating. I have promoted interspiritual, interreligious, or interfaith issues before and I was particularly moved by the writings of the late Brother Wayne Teasdale, who saw the contemplative dimension that is common to all religious traditions and spiritual paths as essential for one's personal fulfilment as well as the transformation of the human community to a more compassionate and mature state. Keating and his revival of Centering Prayer are frequently featured of such interspiritual dialogue. So when I saw slim, diminutive summary book on the topic by Keating himself dated to 2005, I decided to read it and see what the fuss was about.

I am not going to quote from the book here, but let me just that if you are a Buddhist, especially a Western-culture-raised Buddhist, regardless of whether you into Tibetan Buddhism, Chan/Zen/etc, traditional or Japanese Pure Land, or the many other varieties or combinations, I suspect you will frequently feel as if you are reading a book on Buddhism. That's right - whether you identify more with sitting silently while being open and nonjudgmental toward Ultimate Reality/reality-as-it-is or whether you identify more with the idea of faith in our True Nature (i.e. expressed as True Mind, a vision of a particular Buddha, as an ineffable Presence, etc) as the bedrock for all other practice, you will read passages that will resonate with what you have seen, read, heard, and/or experienced as a Buddhist practitioner.

I am not suggesting that what Keating is offering is simply Buddhism-lite dressed up a Christianity. However, as many have noted before while particular rites, rituals, prayers, and paraphernalia are important to beginning and sustaining a spiritual or religious path, it may be that where many of them lead is not so different (or in the end even identical). Naturally, similar traps crop up in all faiths leading at times to exclusion, fear, and hatred. That is because while religions express a shared understanding of who we are and how to live a meaningful life, they don't always come up with the same answers, even within themselves. Hence the familiar fallacy of what it means to be a "true" Christian, or Buddhist, or Muslim. This makes the commonality of the insights and resulting qualities of so many dedicated seekers quite fascinating.

Rather than call for a amalgamation of all religions into a theological gumbo, many contemplative masters and respected spiritual and religious leaders often point instead to the idea that there is a path in each system that works as to get people past the superficial (where much of the disagreements and disputes arise)to the more profound realization of their faith (where there is more commonality and less friction). To paraphrase Teasdale, religious systems are now open and interconnected with one another, able to borrow and learn from each other without completely absorbing or nullifying the others. If I recall correctly even the current Dalai Lama has suggested as much, encouraging people raised in Christianity to seek realization in that more familiar cultural paradigm of spirituality. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't those who identify with more than one faith, but many I have heard of or know tend to see them as multiple incarnations or distinct expressions of human understanding. That is, I get the feeling they can identify with multiple religions without having to try to explicitly include all of their practices and symbols.

I bring this latter point up simply to remind readers of the complexity of and hence the potential for misunderstanding when discussing interspiritual topics. I have noted a defensive tendency at times(playfully addressed in a post titled "Don't taint my Buddhism with comparisons to Christianity"). Nor am I excluding myself from being more inclined to be argumentative first and respectful second. As for the book, Manifesting God is intriguing to me because yes, it does talk about God and Jesus and it includes quotes from the Bible (for more on my thoughts on these issues in general look here), but it also speaks to topics I have wrestled with in Buddhism.

Perhaps this is in part because so much of my spiritual cultural heritage was founded from such a different perspective than Asian spirituality. While some folks rush to exorcise God and any notion resembling God from their lives and their practice when embracing paths such as Buddhism, it is possible that at times that lacuna means that we have more difficulty processing certain images or messages. That is, even if one does not believe in the God of their childhood or church-going days, it is difficult to "get" some spiritual concepts without a reference that at least vaguely resembles that term because it occupies a unique linguistic and ontological space in our culture and society.

Here is a small sampling of what Buddhists might recognize in the book. The practice of getting past our assumptions, letting go of our false selves, and therefore not clinging to expectations (whether these expectations and judgements are about our formal practice or our lived experience). The idea of being an interdependent aspect of the greater whole of Ultimate Reality. The idea of challenging the view of the embodiment of Ultimate Reality as a transcendent, aloof, and judgemental ruler who only favors the (religiously) observant, the successful, and the upstanding with the view of an immanent Presence that is all-inclusive and is found in the broken, the vile, and the discarded as well as the pretty and the pleasing. (The transcendent aspect is not discarded but is taken from being aloof or inaccessible and recast as simply being ineffable.)

Additionally, Keating talks specifically about pre-conceptions of God (Ultimate Reality) that are commonly passed on to children and which can hinder their interest in or experience of the Divine. While I am not listing and discussing them here, I do believe that for many people raised with such notions these same hang-ups may manifest in subtle and not so subtle ways in their practice of Buddhism as well. Therefore even for those are not particularly interested in interfaith dialogue or Christianity per se, I do wonder to what degree reading this little book may be beneficial to other Buddhists with a Western/Christianized background. So I put the question out there and you can decide what, if anything, you will do with it. Those who practice and path involves both contemplation and faith as co-equal or even unequal elements (including the Zen folks, the Shin folks, etc) I anticipate it will be most useful. For those totally turned off by the association of Buddhism with or even the mere mentioning of Christianity, Jesus, God, etc I anticipate it will be even more useful.

PS- I am aware that Clark Strand, a name that produces strong reactions in English-speaking Buddhist circles, is supposed to have a new book out in the next several months How to Believe in God (Whether You Believe in Religion or Not). I have no idea what he plans to say in that book, but I am wondering if it will be along the lines of what I am discussing here? And if so, I wonder what kind of reaction it will generate?
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  1. I have a compilation of three books by Fr Keating entitled "Foundations for Centering Prayer and the Christian Contemplative Life" which includes his classic "Open Mind, Open Heart"

    I think the differing contemplation traditions have a lot to learn and share with each other. Another book you may want to look at is "Beside Still waters" - there's a good review of it here -

  2. Keating refers back to "Open Mind, Open Heart" quite often, but I also heard that his best work was... ahhhh shoot. I can't recall if it was supposed to be "Invitation to Love" or "Intimacy with God". I just looked that appraisal up recently too.

    The book you mentioned sounds interesting. I find it so disheartening that so many Buddhists, let alone Christians, find such interreligious inspiration or dialogue to be threatening. "Oh, well, that's not Buddhist". Sheesh. Yeah, cause obviously it's only Buddhist if you explicity mention the names of the four noble truths or the eightfold path. To actually see them beyond such packaging in your life or in other faith traditions is a no no. Or better yet, there is a widespread notion which basically says: the way we were taught about God isn't consistent with Buddhism, so rather than rethink what God may mean we'll just make the whole concept "unBuddhist".

    Talk about a need for liberation. Buddha, save me from your followers.

  3. LOL
    I hope it was "An invitation to love" as that's the second book in the compilation I have! (not read that one yet) Open mind... was written in the mid 80s i think so i wonder if "Manifesting God" is a refinement over a further 20 years experience? i look forward to reading it.

    Yes, lots of quakers and progressive christians i know will happily quote Thich Nhat Hanh and talk about their own meditation practices, but do Buddhists read much Thomas Merton, John Main, Fr Keating?

    I've been tagged to write about my favourite five dharma books and I am seriously thinking that Marcus Borg's Heart of Christianity should be one of them!

  4. I looked the Keating recommendation up again. It was made in the chapter by chapter bibliographic notes from the book The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World's Religions. And the book that the author suggested was...

    Intimacy with God.

    From what I can tell the book examines theology and theory in support of Centering Prayer.

  5. ... another addition to my booklist!


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