Saturday, January 26, 2008

Amazing grace

Here is a paraphrase of something that occurred to me during a discussion on love, faith, etc, that took place last month: "If we are discussing love in the sense of agape, then isn't grace the expression of such love and isn't faith the acceptance of such love? That is, it would seem to simply be a matter of different perspectives on the same thing." Now, here agape (the Christian term) is used to refer to unconditional acceptance and patience and desire for the well-being of the other, not simply affection, or emotional attachment, or infatuation. It is not acceptance based on strings or conditions or used to divide or contrast (such as "love and hate"). The term love can be a tricky term to employ because of its many uses and contexts, so I try to clarify my usage of the term agape by comparing it the outpouring of the heart of the Buddha, which expresses the Four Immeasurables of compassion, loving-kindess, equanimity, and sympathetic joy and which encompasses and embraces all sentient beings.

I have of late been pondering the role of this trio - love, grace, and faith - and it seems to coincide with a reflection on gratitude...

[E]conomy refers to valuation (deciding what has value), production (generating or cultivating things of value), and distribution (of things of value). This could refer to material goods or money, but it can really be anything, and hence in an exchange reciprocity can cross categories from one "type" of things of value to another (such as exchanging material goods for social status and prestige when throwing a lavish party). Obviously we don't like to feel cheated, but we also don't like to feel indebted either. In one case, we didn't get "enough" back in the exchange, and in the other we received too much. This applies to the spiritual dimension as well...

[I had been] thinking about something I had heard in various forms and reflected on - that we don't have to "earn" the deathless, indestructible joyful peace of a Buddha. We always have permission to be truly unshakably happy deep down even if our conditions, including our thoughts and emotions, are responding negatively to the perception of an unfair or adverse situation. This doesn't obviate the need for practice, it just means that practice is to aid us in allowing/permitting ourselves to experience such pleasant tranquility and to assist others in doing the same. At least that's my current thinking related to my own situation (and as always, that's the big caveat for my writing).

So at that time I was thinking of even the implication of truly just accepting that such realization and its benefits are ready and available whenever we are able and willing to accept and access them. It's a little much, which is a bit of an understatement. And if you take it seriously, just a for a moment, just really allow that idea to be a much of a possibility as you can, and then something else comes up. You don't have to frame it in strictly Buddhist or religious terms either, but when you reflect at least as shallowly as I did (waaaay shallow here folks), a lot of the things which are typically associated with being a self-important, greedy, jerk, even those we may rationalize to ourselves or others, suddenly seem hollow and foolish. Not bad, not evil, not something to feel guilty over - just not appealing. There is a shift, at least for a brief time, in valuation.

Prior to all of this, I had been regretting how my own practice has waxed and waned and floundered. I had been considering how to generate enthusiasm and commitment. One of the things that had occurred to me (again, very unoriginal but highly useful) was to think about those who have cared for me, both in person and otherwise. Just imagine all of those people who have lived or who are living now who pray for us, or dedicate the merits of their practice to us, or send us their good will in the hope that we will find our way and be well. In this case, referring back to the basic economic model and the concept of reciprocity, we may then feel a debt of gratitude for those who have selflessly offered their genuine concern for our well being. We can include in this group those who have shared their own insight into how we can access such well being and those who have served as inspirational examples of the possibility of such transformation.

On one level, this explains the appeal of and some of the similarity between figures such as Jesus Christ and Amitabha Buddha (Amida), as well as to other conceptualizations of the Ultimate (the Source, the Divine, etc). On a gross level this is gratitude for a gift so amazing and valuable that we can never repay it. This is the most basic view of grace. We cannot really conceive of possessing or deserving our true nature and such deep and abiding calm joy, particularly with a dualistic view of existence and attachment to form (or even to emptiness). So we see it as a mythic (which here is not used as a derogatory synonym for "false") exchange in which a being of infinite compassion has worked and sacrificed to make up for our faults and deficiencies so we can be worthy of what the Dalai Lama refers to as "indestructible happiness".

This also makes sense in that such a relationship assists in developing humility in place of arrogance and confidence in place of insecurity, which appear to be among the necessary changes in perception and attitude for seeing and accepting Buddha-nature (or one of the various other names given to this truth or realization). Through the process of learning to accept such a "gift", it seems to me we would be able to then learn to appreciate and recognize the same fundamental quality in others. Which gives rise to loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, as Buddha-nature is not a limited resource nor does it "belong" to any particular being. Ideally, though I confess to fall far short of this, our gratitude can be then be extended out to all phenomena and all beings as our teachers and our inspiration, including those that test us and permit us to deepen our practice and affirm our true nature.
I know I am reinventing the wheel here, and that religious scholars, practioners, and others have talked about and written about such things for a long time. But it still fits with my other, also unoriginal thoughts on the subject...
The work of the Bodhisattva path, as this ego-centric, un-ordained, and overly outspoken lay Buddhist currently understands it, rests on this all-embracing affirmation that is beyond any concepts like attainment. That work rests on it, it abides with it, and the Bodhisattva finds the will and energy to do this work through it: to cultivate ethics, concentration, and wisdom through the Eightfold Path, to embody the six paramitas, to uphold the foundation of the three Pure Precepts.
Looking just above at my quote about the work of a Bodhisattva resting in and being powered by "this all-embracing affirmation" of our Buddha-nature, then the reason for practice isn't self-powered salvation, as some may view it, but rather an act of deep compassion. The practices aren't selfish or strictly for ourselves and our own attainment, but, as the Bodhisattva Vows remind us and challenge us, they really are for the benefit of all sentient beings. The practices then can be seen as an outpouring of our gratitude and realization and a desire to limit or end any further harm we may be causing. The grace of Buddhanature, of Dharmakaya, of the Inconceivable Clear Light of Ultimate Reality, manifests from the realm of the unconditioned as compassion in the conditioned world (the historical realm of time and space) through the wisdom perceived by finite, karmically bound sentient beings. By those receptive to such insight, not in spite of their failings but at least in part because of them. The story repeats itself in various religious and spiritual paths. In the end, it may be that genuine practice, whether it is through mantra/dharini recitation, focused concentration, etc, is not done because we want to (so we can feed the ego) or because we feel obligated to (so we can feed the ego), but because we are compelled to do so. Not because we are driven to complete or correct our imperfections through our own efforts at self-improvement but because we are grateful for seeing that we are (all) capable of accepting and transforming such "flaws" through faith. Faith in Mind. Faith in Amida. For some, perhaps faith in a figure from another spiritual tradition. Or as Sharon Salzberg memorably phrased it, faith in "the possibility of our own awakening."

Ironically, a deceased friend of mine, an atheist whose greatly respected religion, once told me he could not embrace the idea of God because of the common presentation of the Divine as the ultimate good from which we would always be separated. That is, the way he saw it, theism suggested that we could only serve good, be a reflection of good. In atheism he was able to reconcile the idea that we ourselves could become the good. Now, what he might have though of panentheism as some contemplative and apophatic mystics portray it we will sadly never fully know, but he still maintained a conception of the universe in which the two most primal forces where Love (attraction, unhindered acceptance, total unity) and Freedom (distinction, diversity).

If my friend were alive today, now that I have studied contemplative Christianity, Buddhism, etc, I would wonder what he might make of the fact that, from what I can tell (I have no desire to misrepresent his views), his version of Love sounds an awful lot like Emptiness, the Dharmakara, the limitless potential of the ground of being, whereas his version of freedom sounds like Form, the realm of interdependent phenomena. It is possible he may have known this, but had he not, I think he would have have been tickled to learn about it, as he loved to read about and myth and mythic symbols (he was a long-time subscriber to Parabola magazine). One of his favorite songs was "Amazing Grace" - it really seemed to reflect a vital part of his spirituality. And while many may find it odd that an avowed and proud atheist would be so moved by and find such sublime comfort in a gospel song about grace and redemption, little by little I keep growing in appreciation of his spiritual insights. I don't know if they played the song at his funeral, as he lived across the country and we only knew each other from extensive online correspondence, but that's how I imagined his service. (He passed away February 7th, 2003.)

Which brings us back then to the notion of Grace as a reflection of the human perception of the ultimate dimension intersecting the historical dimension, whether one sees such Ultimate Reality as God or not, whether one practices a formal religion or not. This suggests that the "limitless undying Love"* that called my friend "on and on, across the Universe"* can speak to all of us, regardless of how we define ourselves or how explain the various phenomena we encounter. I will choose another set of lyrics to close, as they say what I am trying to convey better than I ever could (and ironically no, they aren't the words to that song)...

There is a universe that can't be seen
It's just a feeling if you know what I mean
A delectable dimension undetectable by sight
It'll fill up your heart in the dead of the night
Some say its an astral plane
Can't be described can't be explained

The world exploded into love all around me
The world exploded into love all around me
And every time I take a look around me
I have to smile

Oh is our life just an illusion
There is no need to figure it out
The separation exists not in your love filled heart
But only in your mind
The real story's all around you
Even now it surrounds you
Even now I feel the power

The world exploded into love all around me
The world exploded into love all around me
And every time I take a look around me
I have to smile

-from the song "The World Exploded Into Love" by BOB SCHNEIDER

(*) lyrics from "Across the Universe", written by John Lennon

1 comment:

  1. I like this article. Please come to my new boards, and please link to them?

    send me your email address, and please don't yell at me for forgetting it again.


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