Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Are flaws key to virtue?

RegretsImage by chris.chabot via FlickrWhat do you think of positive spirituality?

Many people like to hear that they are part of the divine, that they have Buddha-nature, etc. It's cool. It's uplifting. For people who have a poor self-esteem, seeing the beauty in your existence, however you describe that wonder of life, can make a remarkable difference.

So why am I going to drop the other shoe?

Because there is just as much value in what is sometimes referred to as negative spirituality. Looking at the shadows. The faults. The flaws.

Now I don't see sin as failing to adhere to purity codes or moralistic dogmas, but that doesn't matter. It's still a good catch-all term for falling short of our potential, of missing the mark of our dreams, for all of the reasons we are frustrated, disappointed, or disgusted with ourselves.

We can ignore all of that for a time, and if we are hopped up on pure positive spirituality, we can live in denial for quite a long time. Or we can distract ourselves with work, intoxicants, mindless entertainment--you name it.

But we all do things that cause harm to ourselves and others, and ultimately if we have any capacity for conscience at all this leads to some measure of self-recrimination, to a degree of regret.

That's the good news.

Well, it can be the good news, depending on how we handle it.

In Christianity, there are rituals both formal and informal for examining our conscience. How have we lived out our day? Where have our actions, speech or thoughts created suffering for ourselves and others?

There is even the image of Jesus, representing both humanity and God, suffering on the cross. His wounds and agony are not noble, they are the senseless result of our collective violence and injustice to each other and the world in which we live.

So Christians are called to repent, to change direction, to seek fulfillment and meaning in ways that do not cause harm to themselves or others and which empower us to live fuller lives.

In Buddhism there are similar practices, but what they have in common is cultivating mindfulness. We become aware of our minds they are, sometimes chaotic and frequently full of anxiety, distraction and selfish attitudes.

By paying attention to this without judgement or trying to control or repress these thoughts and feelings, and without becoming captivated by them, we see their root causes and the triggers which activate them. The more we pay attention the more we understand ourselves, and the more we understand ourselves, the more compassion we have for ourselves. The tangled knots of our minds slowly unravel, and our habitual patterns which are creating problems and holding us back from truly appreciating and living our lives.

In the Christian model, this compassion first comes from God and is represented in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the non-dualistic contemplative variety of Christian perspective, we learn to see ourselves as "the son/daughter of God" just as Jesus did. Not in a vain dualistic way, but in solidarity with all of "creation", with no distinction between ourselves and other people, the rocks, the trees, or distant galaxies.

It is this whole that says, through us as it did through Jesus, "I am the son/daughter of God." That isn't complete non-dualism, because when that is achieved we say "I and the Father are one", because there is no "I" and there is no "Father".

But even from a dualistic perspective, seeing God and Jesus as "out there" or "in here" is still a powerful way of learning to admit what we feel are shortcomings and to learn to accept them and ourselves. Ironically, this acceptance can lead to overcoming these perceived failures or flaws or transforming them into strengths that make us more aware and alive, which in turn produces a solid and realistic foundation for a true positive spirituality.

The same kind of thing can be found in Buddhism. The most ready comparison is obviously Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, in which Amida Buddha represents the depths of reality calling out to us and taking the initiative in displaying compassion for us regardless of our circumstances.

While the teachings of Shin may give more explicit emphasis on the non-dualistic nature of such "Other-power", the adherents of Shin may also in reality perceive (and benefit) from a more dualistic perspective, and the power of transformation is expressed in the popular phrase "bits of rubble turned to gold."

However, it isn't just Shin. Even Zen, perceived in the West as the most austere and simplified version of Buddhism (from folks who've apparently aren't familiar with its Japanese roots) has its own form of
reflection and compassion. This ranges from invocations to and reflections on Avalokitesvara (a.k.a. Kuan Yin, Kannon, etc) the Bodhisattva of Compassion to koans touching and drawing out feelings such as arrogance, regret and despair in those who contemplate them.

The image of a Zen practitioner as an emotionless Vulcan who surveys the world with cold dispassion is as lamentable as it is erroneous. Chan and its children (including Zen) have always emphasized that great compassion arises with deep wisdom and insight into the ultimate nature of things. Awareness of errors and strong emotions can be potent fuel for mindfulness.

And whether you practice Christianity, or Buddhism, or some other religion or none at all, it is by learning to honestly see these shadowy or embarrassing or destructive aspects in ourselves and to have compassion for them that we can then see that others are struggling in the same way.

Just as understanding ourselves and seeing ourselves naked as we are allows us to have compassion for ourselves, it allows us to begin to understand and reach out in an authentic way to others.

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