Category Archives: Commentary

Exploring the 4 Noble Truths Part 1: Life is Suffering

buddha varanasi The giant Buddha statue in Varanasi, India, commemorating the spot where the Buddha first revealed the 4 Noble Truths to humanity.  I was there is 2015.

Introduction

Buddhism is often misrepresented as a cynical religion, a frequently espoused inaccuracy based on only a superficial understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.  I have practiced Buddhist meditation and studied Buddhist teachings for years, and many of my good friends are either Buddhist monks or teachers.  I can tell you from experience that Buddhist practitioners are some of the most joyful people I know.  And I myself have become a far happier person after integrating the Buddha’s meditation methods into my own life, although I still do not consider myself “Buddhist.”

One of the reasons why many people associate Buddhism with negativity is the single-minded focus on human suffering in the Buddha’s historical teachings.  The Buddha famously said that if you were shot by an arrow and were bleeding to death, you would not ask irrelevant metaphysical questions about where the arrow came from, who shot it, or why it exists.  The Buddha was reluctant to comment on questions about the existence or non-existence of the gods, or the ultimate fate of the universe, because he believed that the essential purpose of the spiritual life is the pragmatic search for human happiness.  He wanted to actually remove the arrow instead of merely “explain” its mysterious origins.

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Re-interpreting Jesus II: The Kingdom of God

jesus 

Why, after 2000 years and massive changes in culture, language, and historical circumstance, are people still talking about Jesus?  Regardless of your religious views, Jesus’ continuing worldwide influence is historically astonishing.  If someone in the year 30 A.D. predicted to you that the most famous man to ever live would be a Jew who was brutally executed as a rebel by Rome, who was a relatively marginal figure in his own time, and who’s movement was rejected by the majority of his own religion, you would have assumed that he/she was crazy.  At the end of the day, history is fundamentally unpredictable, and the human intellect will always fail to grasp the inscrutable ways of Fate.

In any case, why are people still talking about Jesus?  For me, this fascination can be partially explained by the cryptic ways Jesus spoke about God and about himself that often make him seem like an unknowable enigma to people who study his life. Unlike the historical Buddha, who used precise technical language to describe his subtle mystical experiences (If Eskimos have 100 words for snow, Vedic religions have 1,000 words for meditation experiences), Jesus used simple metaphors that were profound, but that can be interpreted in countless ways as a result of their fundamental imprecision.  This fact has made Christianity almost endlessly malleable, producing hundreds of conflicting denominations which all use the same texts to justify their beliefs.

For instance, one of Jesus’ central teachings is his almost constant emphasis on “The Kingdom of God.”  What did Jesus mean by this?  Many evangelical sects teach that Jesus was referring to a realm in the afterlife that only his devotees will be admitted to; more socially conscious preachers have taught that the Kingdom of God is a movement that will create an era of socioeconomic equality on the earth; more mystical interpretations argue that the Kingdom of God is a state of spiritual illumination similar to the Buddha’s Nirvana.

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Re-interpreting Jesus 1: Beyond Religion (The Law and the Prophets)

 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”  – Matthew 5:17-18

Introduction

A religious historian once said that saying the word “Christianity” is like saying the word food. There are thousands of different kinds of foods, and no one assumes that the word “food” accurately describes the spectrum of possible things to eat, which is unimaginably diverse.  In public discourse, we erroneously talk about Christianity as if it were one monolithic entity.  I reality, as scholar of religions Reza Aslan likes to say, there are “Christianities.”  For every religion is, by definition, merely an interpretation of texts; so many interpretations, so many sects. Yet Jesus himself belongs to no religion or denomination, but is part of humanity’s universal library.   Anyone is free to approach his sayings with an open mind, and to develop his/her own understanding of their spiritual meaning.

I grew up in the Bible Belt, and as I reached the age of reason, I developed a strong distaste for the intolerant and often ludicrous forms of Christianity I had thus far witnessed in life.  I “threw out the baby with the bathwater,” and didn’t want anything more to do with Jesus’ teachings.  It was only later in life, ironically while living at a Zen monastery, that I re-explored the teachings of Jesus, and found in them a treasure trove of wisdom, the ingenious mystical expressions of an awakened spiritual master.

When I re-read the gospels with a mind cleared of my anti-Christian bias, Jesus often sounded more like a Zen master than the founder a dogmatic religion, and I noticed that many of his teachings were nearly identical to similar ones found in Buddhism, and other of humanity’s great religious traditions.  To see the universality of these recurring themes in multiple religious systems is important not only for Christians, but for anyone who ascribes to a particular faith.  For, to me, religions are paths to God that do not exist in mutual exclusion to one another.  It is my belief that humanity’s great religions will be doomed to extinction unless they learn to adopt this more universal, inclusive standpoint.  If they do not, they will be drowned in the tide of globalism that the human race is on an inevitable collision course with, and will remain stuck in a tribal ethos that is merely an unfortunate vestige of our blood stained past.

To me, the mystical statements of Jesus undeniably reveal the mind state of an awakened person.  When Jesus utters ridiculous and (in their historical context) blasphemous statements like, “I and the Father are One,” and “The kingdom of God is within you,” he is expressing his direct experience of God-Consciousness, or Enlightenment.  Just as it would be ridiculous to worship a Zen master as a god for saying, “I myself am the Buddha,” it is ridiculous to worship Jesus the human being for saying, “I myself am one with God.”  Both are merely expressing universal mystical experiences in different spiritual languages.  The day will come when the majority of Christians will realize that their own Christ-Consciousness is the source of Jesus’ mysterious teachings, and will realize in astonishment that they themselves are one with God, just as he was.

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Peaceful Protest: Wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita on Helping the World from a Spiritual Perspective

Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind. -Krishna

krishna  – Krishna was an earhtly prince who did many practical things to help the people of his time, but was always established in Self-Realization through yoga meditation.

Intorduction

In periods of seated meditation, there are states of great peace and great turmoil that pass through the mind in oscillating intervals.  As with the personal, so the collective: as human civilization evolves, periods of relative peace are often followed by chaotic times that require protest and dedicated work on behalf of the oppressed.  As current events unfold, it appears we are entering a period marked by increasing ignorance, injustice, and even impending catastrophe: nationalist politics threaten to deprive the rights of minorities; terrorism strikes fear into the hearts of decent people worldwide; climate change even threatens to destroy the world as we know it.

Any rational person understands that mere prayers and a “spiritual” perspective are not enough.  When people are hungry, they must be fed.  When laws are unjust, they must be protested.  When leaders concoct schemes to defraud the innocent, we must fight nonviolently to thwart their plans.  In short, all sorts of practical work must be done to improve the world, and every person has their own particular work to do.

To realize God is not to deny the obvious suffering in the world, but to have a different perspective on it.  While we do our work, we can simultaneously understand that the physical world, with all its seeming madness, is not the only Reality.  The sages and mystics of many religions tell us that our life is like a dream, and that whatever happens in the dream ultimately has no effect on the Dreamer, our True Nature. Everything we see in the physical world of matter is like the waves on the ocean.  The waves are sometimes peaceful, and sometimes raging in terrifying storms.  Yet whatever happens on the surface, the depths of the Sea remain at peace.  A sage is a person who works on the surface for the welfare of the world, but is simultaneously in touch with the depths.  Perhaps a better way to say it is that a sage is someone who sees that the waves and the depths are, in reality, one and the same.

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Lessons from the Gita 3: God Realization – The End of Religion

krishna  – Krishna revealing to Arjuna the timeless Way of the Yogis.

“In this world there are two orders of being: the perishable, separate creatures and the changeless Spirit.  But beyond these there is another, the Supreme Self (Brahman), the eternal Lord, who enters into (or manifests) the entire cosmos and supports it within.  I am that supreme Self, praised by the scriptures as beyond the changing and the changeless.  Those who see in me that Supreme Self see truly.  They have found the Source of all Wisdom, Arjuna, and they worship me with all their heart.”

The End of Religion

In the West, everything is a debate.   Politics is Democrat vs. Republican; economics is Capitalism vs. Socialism; and religion is so often unfortunately painted as religion vs. science, or even as one religion vs. another.  Atheists argue that all religion is a lie, and the religious respond with equally passionate claims of dogmatic surety.  We often and unwisely approach religion as a problem to be solved with our intellect, or as an “argument” to be won by debate.  Does it ever occur to us that God is an experience that is not confined by any tradition, that cannot be confirmed or denied by the perishable human intellect?

When I first began my spiritual search seven years ago, I was immediately drawn to the religions of the East like Taoism, Hinduism as expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, and especially Zen Buddhism.  What most intrigued me about them was the idea that the Divine was not something outside of me to be “believed” in, but an actual experience that is the essence of what we ultimately are.  These religions were not “true” or “untrue” in the intellectual sense of the word, but merely described paths to an experience that is beyond all words and concepts.  To “have faith” in this sense was not to have faith in a God in heaven, but to have faith that through spiritual practice the experience of God is possible to have for yourself.

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Lessons from the Gita 2 – Three Dimensions of Renunciation

krishna – Krishna teaching the mysteries of the universe to his devotee Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

“Those who have attained perfect renunciation are free from any sense of duality.  They are unaffected by likes and dislikes, and are free from the bondage of self will.  The immature think that knowledge and action are different, but the wise see them as the same.” – Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita

Renunciation is a word that freaks many people out, largely because they do not understand its spiritual meaning.  They associate it with images of emaciated forest Yogis who engage in silent meditation for years at a time, or perhaps with Christian hermits spending long days and lonely nights fasting solitude.  This misunderstanding unfortunately hinders many people from integrating the blessings of renunciation into their everyday lives. For periods of intense meditative separation from everyday routine are indeed a small aspect of renunciation, but true renunciation is a state of mind that is not limited to any particular life circumstance.

The Bhagavad Gita revolutionized and redefined the idea of renunciation at time in India when the population felt that God-Realization was only attainable by a small spiritual elite.  It proclaimed that renunciation is a matter of the heart, which transcends the mundane conceptions of monk and lay person, spiritual practitioner and “worldly” person that unfortunately still dominate many religious communities today.  The Gita radically proclaimed that a life of actively serving others (while inwardly renouncing desire and practicing frequent meditation) is actually superior to a life of solitary meditation alone.  Anyone who understands that God-Realization is the highest goal of life, and strives to structure their life around this lofty ideal, is a renunciate in spirit, regardless of their vocation, race, gender, or religion.

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Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita: Introduction

krishna and arjuna – Krishna revealing the Bhagavad Gita to His famous devotee Arjuna (Although I have never heard of any scriptural evidence for this, Arjuna is usually depicted with a sweet 1980’s style mustache in most paintings of him).

“All those who take refuge in Me, whatever their birth, race, sex, or caste, will attain the Supreme Goal.”  – Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita

Every now and then, I discover a book that radically changes the way I perceive the world.  For me, the Bhagavad Gita was one of those books.  I remember randomly taking it off the shelf at Borders in 2009, and as I grazed its mysterious pages, my heart leapt with wordless recognitions of its greatness and profound depth.  I have read the Gita many times since then during difficult moments in my life, and it has infallibly been a potent source of inspiration and spiritual insight.

The Gita is many things: an archetypal expression of the human condition, a guide to Self-Realization, a quintessential text on yoga philosophy – some have even called it “the Bible of India.”  It has been a source of inspiration for countless thousands of spiritual seekers and eminent minds, including Gandhi, Emerson, Thorough, and Paramahansa Yoganada, just to name a few.

Including and superseding all these descriptions, the Gita is a powerful poetic expression of the Krishna’s Awakened Mind, the spiritual Muse of the text penned by Vyasa, a sage in his own right.  Any authentic scripture is, at its deepest core, an expression of a spiritual state of mind that the words point to, but do not containTo understand the essence of a scripture is therefore to experience that state of mind yourself, not merely to memorize the words.  In the West, nearly the entire Christian world has unfortunately overemphasized intellectual knowledge of scripture, as if the unfathomable Christ-Mind of the Spiritual Master Jesus could be understood by merely memorizing passages.

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Homosexuality, Christianity, and The Future of Scripture

Introduction:  A Hyperbolized Moment

A few months ago I was visiting my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I attended a local church on a Sunday night.  This church helps a lot of people, and the messages there have often inspired me during crucial periods of my life.  This particular night was only about one week after the historic Supreme Court ruling that finally granted gay people the equal right to marry, something that should be an obvious option in a secular democracy.  I was feeling somewhat down that day, and I expected to hear an inspirational sermon.

What I actually sat through was a 50-minute rant from a constitutional “expert” the church hired to speak.  He outlined how America had entered an age of destruction typified by the Supreme Court’s “disastrous” decision.  I won’t get into his political arguments here, but I will share how he dramatically ended his sermon:  in one hand he held up the Bible, and in the other hand he held up the Supreme Court ruling.  With a gesture of passionate defiance, he threw down the ruling, and lifted high the Bible to the rapturous cheers of the audience.

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Jesus as Koan: The Zen Perspective

JC

-A rendering of Jesus in deep meditation.  In my opinion, the future of Christianity must be informed by the more experiential religions of the East if it is to remain relevant.

 

Introduction

Jesus, Jesus Jesus….  Try as I might, I have never been able to escape this foreign name whose omnipresence in our society is, to me, an object of fascination.  Imagine giving an alien a tour through present day America and walking around a Midwestern city.  Inevitably the alien would ask, “What is this strange T-shape that adorns so many buildings and the necklaces of so many people?”  You would then answer, “It is an ancient device used to torture people to death that is a symbol of hope and transformation for billions of people on Earth.  It refers to a Jewish carpenter’s son who lived in Israel 2,000 years ago whom they claim was God Incarnate.”  What would the alien think about this?  Do we never stop to think about the strange uniqueness of the largest religion in the world? What a fascinating state of affairs!

This strange T-shape has dominated my spiritual life since childhood.  I was born in a Jewish family and converted to Christianity as a child.  I went to Catholic schools and non-denominational churches, and even have been the full time director of a Presbyterian ministry.  I can frequently be seen reading the Bible, and even have pictures of Jesus in my bedroom.  To the outside observer I might be labeled a Christian, but I do not consider myself one since I view all religions as equally valid paths to the Divine.

In high school I became disinterested in religion until I started practicing Zen meditation and ultimately went to live at a Zen monastery.  Ironically, my practice and study of Zen re-opened me to appreciating the original teachings of Jesus, now viewed from a new angle.  There is really no right or wrong angle, for there are many ways to understand the multifaceted life of Jesus and of religion in general.  In a previous post I examined Jesus’ death and resurrection from the Jungian perspective of an archetypal symbol, for instance.

In this post I am going to explore how the sayings of Jesus can be viewed from the perspective of the the Zen koan tradition. I hope to show that many of the sayings of Jesus can be approached the same way Zen students approach the Zen koan.  His sayings should be viewed as statements pointing to an awakened state of mind to be realized experientially, not as dogmatic edicts to be received with blind faith.  Jesus was not, as many Christian theologians have absurdly misinterpreted, God’s sole representative in the world for all of time to come.  Rather, to me, he was an awakened human being who taught about God and Enlightenment in the context of his Jewish environment in the 1st century.  He used various metaphors that people in his historical context were familiar with, but ultimately he was teaching about ineffable universal truths that other religions also symbolically express.

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Ordinary Mind is the Way – Thoughts on Chapter 19 of the Mumonkan

Zhaozhou_Congshen

-A 19th century woodcut of the great Zen Master Joshu

Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” “Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied. “Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked.  “If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen.  How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu.  Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?” With those words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.

– Chapter 19 of the Mumonkan

Introduction:  Where is the Place of Enlightenment?

I grew up surrounded by what is sometimes called “Churchianity” in Oklahoma.  I certainly learned some important lessons from my experiences in church-most notably a deep appreciation for the original teachings of Jesus – but eventually I grew jaded with the traditional Christian worldview as time went by.  There were many complicated reasons for my frustration, but perhaps the primary reason was the inaccessibility of God.  God was always something separate from us; He was always in a faraway realm that was far superior to this world, and the only hope we had of experiencing Him fully was in the afterlife. And even then there was always a separation-we were mere humans, and God was God, end of story.

In Zen Buddhism I found a tradition that, among other things, taught the (for me) revolutionary teaching that the Buddha Nature, a term which for me is functionally synonymous with God, is not separate from this very world.  In fact, we would see that we ourselves and all things are It if we could see clearly. As I practiced Zen meditation and studied more about the tradition my ordinary life, with all its usual maddening frustrations, became infused with a glow of supreme sacredness, a point of view that the story I am about to comment on expresses with powerful clarity.  For in Zen our ordinary life is itself the life of the Buddha.  And as it says in the Lotus Sutra, this very world is the “Place of enlightenment.”

A koan is a typically paradoxical Zen story or saying that is sometimes used as a meditation object and is also frequently used as sermon material. This koan from chapter 19 of the Mumonkan (or “Gateless Gate”), the most famous collection of Zen koans, centers around the life question of Joshu, a future Zen master who taught in 8th century China and who in this koan appears as the student.  As with all commentary, my thoughts are not the “correct” way to see the story but merely reflect my own personal thoughts and understanding at this moment.  I also am admittedly interposing my own biases and feelings into the story, but this itself is the very nature of commentary. Please reflect for yourself and discover what it means to you!

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