Wednesday, February 8, 2012

God is no-self (the love of God)

This is part of a series reflecting on God-talk and Buddhist terminology. It is an opening to dialogue, not a final word on the subject.

No-self is a teaching that is hard to comprehend and even harder to realize consciously as lived experience. The Westernized translations tend to go like this: While one does not exist intrinsically, as a self-sufficient and self-contained entity, nothing about the self is unreal. Only the perception of the self as existing on its own forever unchanging and apart from everything else is unreal.

The same can be said of the love of God -- that is, everything else is unreal.

There is an image in Christian mysticism which has been captured in a famous icon of the Holy Trinity by Rublev wherein three angels, representing the three aspects of God, are each inclined to one of the others. The love of God creates and completes this circuit as it creates and completes all things in a dynamic equilibrium. The Father (emptiness) gives rise to the Son (form) which dissolves revealing the Father (emptiness).  This dynamic movement is the essence of the Spirit.

In this view, then, the love of God cannot be captured or limited but flows ceaselessly through all things. But this love can be missed if one tries to set up artificial boundaries or distinctions, even really productive and useful labels and models to help make sense of the world. This is especially true of limiting beliefs about one's identity.

There are many references to dying in the Bible that are clearly intended to allude to some process other than mere physical death. Throughout the Old and New Testaments death is both a permanent and a relative state, suggesting different meanings and views on the nature of death. When Jesus is quoted as saying that those who seek their life will lose it while those who lose their life will find it, this fluidity of layered meaning is invoked.

Contemplative Christians are especially fond of suggesting that there are two selves or layers of self, the true self which rests in God, and the lesser or false self which has forgotten its true self and thinks it is self-sustaining and independent of any deeper grounding or connection beyond itself. Thus the admonition mentioned above (and found in Matthew 16:25, Matthew 10:39, Luke 9:24 and Mark 8:35, suggesting it is an authentic core teaching of the early Church) is interpreted to mean that if one continues to exist in the ignorance of the lesser self one will not truly or fully live. Thus one must "die" to this limited sense of self to find ones true self.

There is a parallel here with the Buddhist view that one can be trapped in the never-ending narrative of the ego, a game which sets up opposition and struggle toward or away from some imagined state of affairs. As the ego cannot truly be self-sufficient, the anxiety it experiences is dramatized in the narrative and objectified in targets of avarice and aversion. By obtaining this or disposing of that, the opposition can be resolves, the struggle won, and the idealized state of affairs can be achieved. Yet this never happens, and the focus changes to keep the story going.

I am not sure if there is a better translation, but I have noticed that the feeling that one experiences when one is starting to wake up from this egoic dream within a dream is rendered in many English language publications as joy or abiding happiness. This is in distinction to the happiness of hollow pleasure or temporary euphoria, which in Buddhist teachings are merely the leading edge of new misery and suffering. This joy is not limited to a particular circumstance, nor is it in opposition to pain or weakness; rather it is found existing alongside all things, moving in and around them, even sorrow.

Naturally, one can claim that since Western translations are going to use conceptual domains and language influenced by Abrahamic religions such as Christianity there are bound to be artifacts of translation which give undue resemblance between it and Buddhism. That is always a possibility. Someone who rejects any hint of personification of the absolute, even if it is understood as only one conceptual aspect of that which is beyond either personification or im-personification, might bristle at the notion at using the term love to describe this experience of opening oneself to non-self. That is their perspective, and I can really appreciate it.

One the other hand, as human beings, everything we experience, whether we label it personal or impersonal, affective or analytical, or with some other dichotomy, is human reflection dividing up the truth of this deeper reality into an aspect of the unfathomable absolute, somewhat like the refraction of light into a spectrum of violet, blue, green, yellow and red. The crystal or drop of water may object to thinking of light as yellow or red, preferring instead to emphasize it as green, blue and violet, but it matters little.

Thus the passages throughout the Bible teaching us to love God and others as ourselves, to see beyond ourselves and to prize humility in our perception of the world around us, to die to the self in order to live in God. To know and share God's love.

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