Thursday, July 1, 2010

Being open to the insights of your sacred tradition and avoiding self-limitation

I recently suggested that when it comes to the stories, images, concepts, vows, creeds, etc that outline and highlight the insights of sacred traditions:  

These terms and the creeds and stories in which we hear about them can have different meanings for us depending on where we are in our lives. This doesn't mean we get to make up what we want -- in fact it means we have to be honest about how we are reacting to such stories, not how we ought to feel. Nor does this mean we can skip things just because they seem fantastic or miraculous because we are comfortable believing in our own version of what is acceptably possible while others are just so primitive in their thinking. How many modern thinkers do you think have been shocked and even disgusted or frightened to find that their encounter with such a story was not the sterile, logical and mundane account that had no "supernatural mumbo jumbo" but rather one filled with a power and mystery that defied their expectations? 

[To paraphrase the end to make it more approachable outside of its original context: How many modern thinkers have heard or read a sacred story and were upset to find that where they had already decided on a particular significance for it, perhaps a thoroughly dissected interpretation that had left it lifeless and acceptable as a lesson or conclusion that could be safely removed from its cultural and historical wrappings, they now found that the story had become real to them in a visceral way. It reached out an grabbed them and said, "Not so fast, there's more me to than some theological or philosophical observation." It broke open their preconceptions and forced them to beyond their predefined limits of the truth or value of the story.]

In the original context I was discussing specific beliefs peculiar to Christianity, but I wanted to take that thought and expand it to encompass other sacred traditions as well, such as Buddhism.  Not all of the stories in sacred text and oral traditions, not all of the experiences of ritual and practice, are going to "give us" what we expect, let alone what we want.  By pre-determining what is or isn't acceptable as an insight or revelation, we effectively neuter the experience --we make ourselves blind, deaf, and numb to what we might otherwise encounter. For example, I remember when someone sent me a link to a portion of the Lotus Sutra.  At the time, I was a self-described secular seeker, someone who thought strictly like a contemporary atheist but who dissatisfied with atheism.  Yes, I thought, there might be wisdom of some kind here but it is buried under all this other garbage about heavenly beings and other fantastic creatures. 

Later, reading Thich Nhat Hahn's commentary on the same Sutra, Opening the Heart of the Cosmos,  he talked about the two truths concept -- that of the historical world and that of the ultimate.  The colorful imagery was a way to bridge the two.  In other words, I could discount these gods and demons because they were just symbolic.  The real material world as I had been shaped to perceive it was still over here, and the other stuff was just creative imaginings pointing us toward some deeper truth which itself was contained in the same real world.  

Saints and mystics have described this kind of loosely organized development -- seeing only as literal, seeing as metaphor, seeing as both, seeing as neither, and just seeing.  They also have warned time and again against expectations.  This will be especially familiar to those who practice some form of meditation or similar activity.  With admonitions and encouragement to let things be, to see them as they are, to let go, and the like.  But, we often wonder, what does that mean?  And how long do we have to do it until it works to produce a result?  Because, you know, just letting everything be what it is my sound a bit dumb (how could it not be what it is?) and a little boring.

So we don't really lose those expectations, we modify them in ways that accommodate us and what we think our experiences ought to be like.  I ought to hear this story and react a certain way.  I need to experience it more as a metaphor, or more as a literal story, or more as something else...either because that's what how we prefer to experience it or because that's what we think our spiritual director would want.  Oops, that makes me think of what I might call God or a higher Power but I am an atheist so I can't accept that.  Oh, wait, Buddhism is supposed to only fit in this little box of sayings and activities and this might move me outside of that box.  Umm, are Christians allowed to think that way?

This doesn't mean dismissing the guiding principles, creeds, affirmations, etc as irrelevant and inviting a free-for-all of eclectic views that have no over-arching structure.  Instead it is vital that each age must come to terms with these traditional practices and beliefs while respecting the context(s) in which they emerged and subsequently developed.  This tension between received wisdom and unfolding revelation is held together by the energy and experience of faith, which flows from an honest reaction to the outward and an introspection of the inward.  It is an important tension that must be guided by a well-formed conscience.  This kind of honesty in experience and inner searching can be uncomfortable and frequently disappointing but that is the road.  Travel it well.

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