Thursday, November 13, 2008

Slicing open the goose of tradition to get the golden eggs of enlightenment

The notion of dogma terrifies men who do not understand the Church. They cannot conceive that a religious doctrine may in be clothed in a clear, definite and authoritative statement without at once becoming static, rigid and inert and losing all its vitality. In their frantic anxiety to escape from any such conception they take refuge in a system of beliefs that is vague and fluid, a system in which truths pass like mists and waver and vary like shadows. They make their own personal selection of ghosts, in this pale, indefinite twilight of the mind. They take good care never to bring these abstractions out into the full brightness of the sun for fear of a full view of their unsubstantiality.

They favor the Catholic mystics with a sort of sympathetic regard, for they believe that these rare men somehow reached the summit of contemplation in defiance of Catholic dogma. Their deep union with God is supposed to have been an escape from the teaching authority of the Church, and an implicit protest against it.

But the truth is that the saints arrived at the deepest and most vital and also the most individual and personal knowledge of God precisely because of the Church's teaching authority, precisely through the tradition that is guarded and fostered by that authority. - Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Enlightenment, Chapter 20
There is a similar attitude in some Buddhist circles about many elements of tradition. Buddha Mind has been described as the root of compassion and wisdom, which themselves can be seen as different aspects of the same nature, yet even this kind description is a clumsy and imprecise effort. Hence archetypal figures including many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas help fill in the elements that cannot be conveyed even remotely accurately with logic and prose. Ironically some Western Buddhists try to deconstruct these figures and their myths as if that (alone) is going to help them understand, but they are like the farmer who killed the goose to get more golden eggs.


  1. Heh, heh, good analogy.

  2. Thanks. It's hard for some of us to let go.

  3. I would like to see you comapre Buddha mind with Vedanta. I've seen Vedantists say Brahmin is being itself.

  4. Yes, I've read that. I read a collection of Upanishads about 8 years ago and a few years later I read The Mystic Heart by Teasdale which gives a good overview of such beliefs (it is a comparison of the mystic elements in the various world religions). But I am not sure what other comment I can make as I am not overly familiar with the details of Vedanta.


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