Friday, August 7, 2009

The idol of no form

[I tried to post this as a "diary" entry at Street Prophets as a reply to something written by Clark Strand, which is cross-posted from his own blog, but there is some technical issue with my account and publishing, so here is what I was trying to "say"...]

I can appreciate the problem with idolatry, of seeking the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land, the Gohonzon, etc, outside of yourself. The Buddha, and Christ, and others can themselves be recast as idols, and this is a very subtle problem. But over-correcting and swerving too far the other way can be a problem as well. Ancient Jews were prohibited from making idols and wouldn't allow any graven image, even decorative engravings or paintings or trim, were not permitted. Nor could they speak the name of God. And thanks to the controversy over a Danish cartoonist depicting Mohamed, many of are aware of the prohibition in Islam against producing images of either Mohamed or Allah.

But if we stop and pause, is that not a form of idolatry as well? Idols are made to bring Mysteries and Powers down to a level where they can be contained and constrained by the human will and rendered by the human imagination into something limited enough to be comprehensible. Perhaps even controlled by a magical system of rules. But simply becoming attached (having an unhealthy craving or dependency to fill an unrequited need for to feel whole) to the image of no image can be just as egotistical and just as small-minded.

But if we have a panentheistic view, which at least sounds sympathetic to some of Strand's recent writings, we see why both views - the idol of form and the idol of no form, are equally dangerous. In panentheism, the Ground of Becoming, the Source, is always giving rise to the phenomenological realm, like an ocean gives rise to waves. The ocean (the limitless potential of existence) and the waves (the phenomena) are really the same stuff. And the interdependent web of causality co-determines which waves will arise where and in what form and in what direction, speed, etc. Co-determines? Yes, because of the fact that some of these waves are sentient and have the capacity to choose.

Buddhists will likely appreciate the above metaphor as compatible with the notion of form and emptiness, karma (cause and effect), etc. Many Abrahamic theists and certainly many "Hindu" will recognize the infinite nature of their Creator which encompasses the whole ocean. I have read similar depictions of God from many theologians. And the basic premise then is that we are already connected to God, the Tao, the Dharmakaya, etc. But we have forgotten it as our sentience and imagination and awareness of our mortality emerged. This is, as Strand has suggested elsewhere in other writing, the source of delusion in Dharmic traditions like Buddhism and the source of original sin in the Abrahamic faiths.

Hence the goal is to get past the distraction of our false limited view of self (i.e. "ego") and recall that connection, the universal quality of Buddha nature, that inherent awareness of our wholeness which can enable us to end our attachments and suffering (Buddhist version). It is to die to that false view of self and be reborn to that original connection to God (Christian version). Fill in your tradition here if it isn't already listed.

Hence, we are told, the Pure Land, the Kingdom of Heaven, etc, is within us. In Buddhism there is a saying that samsara (the world we live in because of our delusion) and nirvana (reality without delusion) are not separate places. That is, the Pure Land is here right now for those liberated from delusion, and the Kingdom of God is here right now for those who have been reborn. Two but not two. That is, the distinction is in our hearts and mind. There is also the notion that an ordinary person sees deluded beings, while an enlightened mind sees only Buddhas. This is echoed in the Abrahamic teachings about seeing God in the faces of others and the commandment to love God and to love others as we love ourselves. Why? Because all of creation is of God and hence everything is sacred.

It is the human mind, owing to its capacity for imagination and choice, which can create unreal or false views which can then lead to ignorance, greed, and hatred, and in turn lead to suffering. And if the human mind creates the option for evil, what is in the heart of humans, their insecurity and misery, will in turn be reflected in their actions. Hence we create for ourselves a world of war, poverty, discrimination, etc. Everywhere we build false idols to gain some sense of control. But now we can appreciate why the idol of form and the idol of no form are both dangerous and false. Because God (or whatever you choose to call God) is not any thing nor no thing. God isn't just a superlative form in the realm of form. God is the infinite in the finite and the eternal in the moment.

The idolatry of no form is, as I suggested, very subtle. For example, in Buddhism some have the goal of destroying the self. Self is the enemy, and I will slay it and claim the prize of enlightenment. Muhahaha! Others say no, I will simple ignore the ego and give it the cold shoulder, hence allowing enlightenment to arise. But as a Chan monk instructed me, both notions are wrong and only compound our delusion. Instead, we must learn to live with the ego in peace, neither expending energy to focus on it or to try to push it away. I am sure the Christians here and those of other faiths have similar wisdom about the need to accept and forgive ourselves and God for what we are in order to be open to our wholeness and to truly live.

When we touch the Ultimate, presumably we are touching all that is, was, will be, and possibly even what could have been. But it would be all at once - a totality where linear distinctions like past and present and here and there break down. I am guessing here that this is what is meant by the omniscience of a Buddha. In human form the mind would likely not be able to process all of this properly but I have heard various accounts of mystics who claim to have had such visions in which they could grasp everything but not in relative terms like meters or seconds, hence afterward they couldn't tell you stuff like where Hoffa is buried or the date on which human first entered the New World.

Now, these mystics may have been insane or hallucinating. But it does pay to consider the seeming duality of experiencing life from a limited historical perspective and from an ultimate perspective. From the historical perspective there is an emphasis on dividing things into beginnings and endings, but that might be hard to define in an ultimate view. Still, we hear the the Pure Land is here if we can see it, and that the Kingdom of Heaven is with us already. I have been noticing many account lately in which the exegesis of the crucifixion and ascension are re-examined in terms of history. The idea being that, for example, when Christ says that the one thief will be with him that day in paradise, it doesn't mean until after they die, that it means it starts right then, while they are still nailed to some hunks of wood. I believe Strand has commented on this as well. Many Buddhist masters seem to say something similar. The idea is that we don't have to wait for death to begin eternal life, that we have it and are it and just need to realize that.

I don't have a clue what that does or doesn't mean in terms of an afterlife, though speculation may be fun, but the thing is, I don't think the Pure Land is deathless because it is just some escapist death-aversive pipe dream any more than heaven is the same thing, although I would agree both can and have been used in that fashion. But then, religious wisdom is always open to abuse. I see the Pure Land and similar depictions as a reflecting a Pure Heart and a Pure Mind. In the steps of dependent origination in Buddhism, the first step isn't birth, it is ignorance. Buddhahood is a deathless state because it is a birthless state because it is free from ignorance. It has no beginning and it has no end. It is whole, and perfectly appreciates its participation in the totality.

In a sense then, being reborn into the Kingdom of Heaven or being reborn into the Pure Land is a bit of a misnomer, although it is easy to see why such depictions seems apt. Yes, religion sometimes mistakes the flash for the substance, and the Buddha can be idolized in a certain form, and so can Jesus, the Pure Land, and the Kingdom of Heaven. But I am just as wary of the errors in the teaching of avoiding the Pure Land as much as the errors of seeking it, in the errors of rejecting the Buddha as much as embracing him. Many masters used to rinse and spit after saying words like Buddha as if they were foul words or curses to avoid the risk of idolization, but they kept saying it and passing on the teachings anyway. The idol of no form is as dangerous as the idol of form. The only solution as far as I can tell is a living, dynamic faith that is open to all sources of genuine insight.

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