– 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.
The genuine sages of humanity who actually realized this “God” for themselves were not attached to provisional names. In the Tao Te Ching (the central text of of Taosim), Lao Tzu pragmatically wrote, “For lack of a better word, I call It the Tao.” Jesus called this unnamable Essence “The Father” (“Avinu” in Hebrew) in accord with his Jewish upbringing. Ehei Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, called It Buddha Nature. Rumi, the Sufi poet par excellence, called It Allah in accordance with his deep love for traditional Islam. In the above quote, Krishna calls It Brahman, and makes it clear that It is an experience beyond the limited concepts of “the changing and the changeless,” or any other idea.
These sages used names and various teachings to help people awaken, but they were not attached to the paths they taught. Like the Buddha, they regarded their teachings as “a raft which leads to the other shore” of direct experience that is not the experience itself. They understood that the experience of God or Tao or Buddha Nature is the goal and therefore the end of religion, a perspective that is desperately needed in the West today. God is not a debate. He is not proved or unproved through the use of logic, the reading or scriptures, or the performance of sectarian rituals. He is utterly beyond the limited view of the rational mind. Yet as the Gita and many other scriptures so poetically exclaim, we all have the capacity to realize It for ourselves through our own spiritual practice.
The confirmation that every human being – regardless of ethnicity or gender or religion – can become a fully awakened Yogi is the authentic perspective of the Gita, which is not “Hindu” in the sense that it was not written to draw followers to the Hindu religion (technically speaking there is no such thing as “Hinduism” which is in reality a blanket term describing multiple religions, but that is a separate topic). Although in the above quote Krishna uses words that were familiar to the historical populace (Brahman and Atman, for instance), he understood that the actual experience the words point to is beyond his teachings. In this spirit he uttered: “Just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman, who sees the Lord everywhere.” A similar concept is expressed in the famous Zen proverb which says that the teachings of Zen are like a “finger pointing to the Moon” and not the Moon of Enlightenment itself.
This experiential perspective is the mark of a mature religion. A mature religion is a path that is unattached to itself, and ironically contains within itself the seed of its own destruction. As the great cultural mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, a mythology or religion (with its trappings of ritual, scripture, and historical development) is like the womb that an embryo temporarily inhabits to prepare it for birth. Yet when birth comes, the womb is no longer needed. When the fruit sprouts, the flower drops away, and a dimly lit flashlight is cast aside as the light of a billion suns burn simultaneously in a Sky with no boundary.
The Paradoxical Return to Ritual
Let no glib preacher bent on worldly riches deceive you: unless we inwardly renounce all lesser desires and seek God Alone with a passion that can only be described as madness, we will never realize It. Similarly, unless we repeatedly practice an actual meditation technique, our God-Perception will most likely remain at the intellectual level and will not actually bless us with inner spiritual bliss.
Yet once God is experienced as your own Self (which is a way of saying it that abominates the actual experience just as urine stains ruin a couch) there is a natural tolerance that arises which can only be described as religious pluralism. How could someone who sees God manifested in every fluttering atom of existence be attached to a particular religious language system, or a particular teacher like Krishna, Jesus, Lao Tzu, etc.?
When through the practice of Zen Buddhism I had several powerful experiences of the Divine, I afterwards gradually re-read the teachings of Jesus and started going to church again with my family – activities I was highly averse to early on in my spiritual search. I grew up in a Jewish family, went to catholic schools, and went to non denominational churches as a child. When I realized that God was an experience that was independent of any tradition, I paradoxically felt freer to re-explore the religion of my childhood, and realized that this was not at all a hindrance to my God-Perception. Yet this time around I was not attached to the Bible or rituals like communion as expressions of absolute truth. Worshipping God as Jehovah, reading the Bible, and contemplating the life of Jesus was simply a form of personal spiritual enjoyment that reminded me of life’s highest goal in a particular language that I could culturally relate to. Yet all the while I understood that the experience of being One with God as an awakened Christ was far, far beyond the historical teachings of Jesus the Jewish prophet. Outwardly I may have appeared to be a Christian, but inwardly I was no such thing, for Jesus was only a “finger pointing to the Moon” of the Christ-Mind enjoying my oatmeal.
Similarly, through Krishna’s teachings and his own ardent practice of yogic meditation, Arjuna in the Gita eventually realizes the Formless Spirit whose remarkable manifestation is the whole universe. Yet because of his cultural upbringing and particular karma, I speculate that he retained throughout the rest of his life a deep love for Krishna’s teachings, and the Hindu form of worship generally. Although he had “graduated” from the school of religion by actually experiencing God, he retained a love for the traditions that nourished him in his youth.
Was I more “right” than Arjuna simply because Jesus was my temporary teacher and Krishna was his? Is he more “right” than Rumi because he referred to God as “Bhagavan” or “Brahman” and not Allah? The names differ, but the realization is the same. All religions are certainly not equal and differences do matter, a discussion for another time. My main point here is that actual God-Realization does not negate the role of traditional religious practice, but rather completes it, and is its goal. This was Jesus’ esoteric meaning when he said, “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” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus did not come to abolish Judaism, a religion which he obviously loved and participated in, but to fulfill it with the actual experience of Christ-Consciousness which couldn’t be limited to Judaism any more than Krishna’s ecstatic descriptions of Brahman can be limited to Hinduism.
What I have briefly described in this post is how I believe mankind as a whole will approach religion in the future. The first and foremost purpose of human life is to realize God or, in Buddhist lingo, to attain Enlightenment. This quest transcends religion and is the culmination of it. Yet when God is realized, it is still wonderful to retain particular cultural forms of worship that connect us to our ancestors and offer poetic ways of collectively expressing inexpressible spiritual experiences. The fact that all traditions are imperfect is unimportant to a sage. The great Avatar Ramakirshna in The Gospel of Ramakrishna (what a book!) spoke on this point: “It is not our business to correct the errors of other religions. He who created the world will correct them in time. Our duty is in some way or other to realize Him.”
On this note, my prayer for you, dear reader, is not that you find a religion that satisfies your ego, but that you find a path that leads you to the experience of God. Then may you become, as the great Zen Master Mumon wrote, like “a mute man who has had a dream” who cannot describe what he has seen. Once you realize this for yourself, then you can wander through the various realms of life and call It by whatever name you choose, or perhaps enjoy a sublime devotional relationship with a traditional aspect of the Deity, though in truth what you worship is That which you ultimately are.
To conclude, a poem:
THE UNFATHOAMBLE DOXOLOGY
No one will understand
The meaning of this blog post
Except by God’s Grace,
For no one will experience God
But God Himself.
Written for the glory of God in a coffee shop in Portland Oregon, with Love for every being in the whole universe, and with the hope that you will understand that nothing I have written comes even close to describing what I have described,
- Re-interpreting Jesus II: The Kingdom of God
- Lessons from the Gita 2 – Three Dimensions of Renunciation
- Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita: Introduction
- Re-interpreting Jesus 1: Beyond Religion (The Law and the Prophets)
- Peaceful Protest: Wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita on Helping the World from a Spiritual Perspective
- The Rest is Gravy: A Rambling
- A Bumbling Okie’s Brief Thoughts on the Kingdom of Heaven
- Spiritual Priorities