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Friday, March 22, 2013

What's in a Name, God?

Does a name define an experience, or merely give us a way to talk about it? If we call a table a door, does its essence change? If our best friend decides to start using her middle name rather than her first name, does she substantially change or is she the same person?

Harold 
Once we get to the point on our spiritual journey where we no longer believe that God is Harold, my name for the old guy with the white hair and beard who lives beyond the clouds in an undisclosed and invisible location, and rather understand God to be Spirit rather than embodied I wonder if it really matters what we call God. It's an important question for interspiritual understanding, because if we are attached to a certain name for God than we will automatically dismiss any understanding of what we call God that has a different label attached. If Paul Tillich, among others, is anywhere near right in describing God as the Ground of Being, then the experiential reality of God is so different from what most people associate with "God," I cannot help but wonder if we need to choose another name!

Given that God hasn't knocked on any of our front doors and said, "Hi, I'm God, nice to meet you," the truth is that we don't encounter God in the same way that we usually encounter human beings. Some would rush to say that we "meet" God in the Bible. Though I understand what people mean when they say that, I don't believe that's accurate. I do believe the Bible is the story of several thousand years worth of people's encounter with God, and while it can tell us quite a bit about what other people living in a certain period in history thought about God, it doesn't constitute an encounter with God any more than reading a biography of President Kennedy means that when I have finished I will have met him. The same could be said for Jesus.

An interesting part of the Buddhist-Christian monastic dialogue is that Christian monastics and Buddhist monks report the same experiences in contemplative prayer for the Christians and meditation for the Buddhists. For those who don't know, what Christians call contemplation and what Buddhists call meditation is essentially the same thing - sitting in silence. As you might have guessed, what Christians call meditation and what Buddhists call contemplation is also the same thing - pondering great truths in prayer. It must be said, however, that with Buddhism having come to the west and more Christian monks studying Buddhism it can be harder to know what a Christian means when she says "meditation."

If the Christian monastic tends to call what she encounters in prayer "God" and the Buddhist calls it something else (perhaps "emptiness") but their experiences are largely the same, isn't getting caught up what name is applied a huge exercise in missing the point? I believe it is exactly that, and that insisting we all use the same language can have disastrous consequences. In fact it has caused wars and genocide throughout history, one side having decided the other is heretical simply because we are labeling our common experience differently! Can we get over ourselves, already?

We can broaden the discussion even further when we learn that every major historical religion has encouraged spending time in the silence and every major historical religion has arrived at the same foundational values of love, compassion, non-violence, sexual responsibility and peace making. There is great diversity in how those values are expressed, in the names applied to spiritual experience, and in rules around worship and other rituals, but what comes forth is the same. Does that not seem to indicate that these common values spring from a common source, no matter what that source is called? If we do share a common source, what it there to fight about?

The human capacity for shedding blood over the smallest details of religion has always baffled me. One of us believes Saturday is the Sabbath, the other Sunday, and a third practices every day. You wear a Yarmulke, he wears a Kufi, and I pray with my head uncovered. Clearly, the best thing to do is to kill one another over such obvious and profound transgressions of religious polity. The three Abrahamic faiths tend to lead the way in killing those who see Divinity differently, most likely because we struggle to believe our own religious teachings that we are accepted and loved by an all knowing, all seeing, all loving Deity that created everything that is. Essentially, we don't believe our own story but are perfectly willing to kill you for doing the same. If Harold was God, he would be shaking his head up in the clouds.

Ultimately what is experienced in prayer and meditation is far too large to be described with words. Every attempt to do so falls miserably short, which is why do many mystics resort to poetry in an attempt to do their experience justice. Perhaps we would do better to not name whatever is encountered. That might be why God, when Moses asked God's Name, simply responded "I am." Who is encountered in the silence? That which is. Perhaps even saying that is saying too much.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Dual Citizenship

A dear friend used the term "dual citizenship" in response to someone on Facebook who commented that she didn't know I was a Buddhist. When that person wrote "I didn't know Craig was a Buddhist!" she was expressing pleasant surprise, at least as far as I can tell. She has since shared with me some of her Buddhist experiences, and we both are Christian clergy.

The more I reflected on it, the more I came to like the idea of dual citizenship. It doesn't imply split loyalties or that one has themself only partly submerged in each of two traditions. People who enjoy dual citizenship in the US and Canada, for example, aren't seen as half-citizens of each country, they are full citizens. I don't believe that when I am practicing Buddhism I am half a Buddhist, some sort of spiritual schizophrenic, and I would say the same thing about the time I spend practicing Christianity - though I would hasten to add that most of the time my practice has cross-pollinated and it would be very difficult to determine how to unpack the two traditions I inhabit in the same way that it would be hard to separate the sugar, water and drink mix I mix together when I make our grandchildren a pitcher of koolaid. The traditions inform one another, have points of commonality and points of divergence, and so create my rather diverse spiritual perspective.

Traditionally, of course, spiritual traditions have been very territorial and insisted that learning about another tradition for any purpose other than to criticize it constituted a kind spiritual adultery. Such claims remind me of stories my mother told me in an attempt to get me to comply with her wishes. When I was a child and she found me making a funny face she would tell me that one day "the clock would strike twelve" and my face would be stuck in one of those funny faces. I wondered whether she was telling me the truth or not, and gradually worked up the courage one day at 11:59am to watch the second hand sweep up toward twelve with my funny face in place. Needless to say, I survived unscathed and started to wonder what other fictions had been passed off as truths. Eventually, I went through the same process with my church, wondering what spiritual truths were genuine and which were designed to keep membership lists full.

I have heard the arguments that all religions do not lead to the same place. When it comes to particular expressions of religions, that statement may be partially true. I am not convinced that all expressions of a tradition are at all valid. I am thinking of places like People's Temple and Jim Jones, Terry Jones and Dove World Outreach, and the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas. However, if we exclude those expressions of religion that have fallen under control of leaders who are seriously mentally ill I believe religions share more in common, at least in terms of what I want to call "gross spiritual skills" than they would like to admit. For example, all religions subscribe to some form of prayer and/or meditation. All religions seek to answer the "why" questions of life, to offer some explanation of why human beings are on this planet, to investigate what constitutes a meaningful life, and what happens when we depart this life. Though the answers may be different from religion to religion, the questions are strikingly similar. They become even more similar when we factor in cultural differences. What's more, the things that constitute desirable behavior are remarkably similar across traditions. Violence, sexual misconduct, theft, deceit, disrespect, and even bad hygiene are universally rejected across traditions. Peace, non-violence, compassion, love, helping one another, providing comfort to the distressed, and caring for the poor, hungry, and homeless are universally praised. In fact the differences between traditions seem to exist in areas such as theology and doctrine, which are in fact human attempts to explain and replicate the spiritual experiences of religious adherents. As such they are not the experiences themselves and should not be understood to be equivalent, despite the fact that some traditions seem to value human explanations more than actual spiritual experience or practice.

I attended my first Tibetan Buddhist empowerment last Thursday with a friend of mine. It was a powerful (no pun intended) and moving experience on many levels. For those interested, it was a White Tara empowerment from my Buddhist Teacher, Domo Geshe Rinpoche. I first went to a teaching by Rinpoche in 2009. Since then my health and scheduling problems got in the way. If I am honest I also wasn't quite ready. My brain is more suited to the American expression of Vipassana among the Insight Meditation folks because of their unique blending of Buddhism and Psychology. I have a hard time understanding and accepting Tibetan Buddhist cosmology and some aspects of the tradition inherited from Shamanism because they are foreign to me and can seem a little "woo-woo," to use an imprecise but apt term. I have also resisted the idea of Guru yoga, most likely because of my own abuse history and some rather transparent attempts to justify abuse by Gurus such as the one in the book The Guru Question by Mariana Caplan. Why did people continue to follow Chogyam Trungpa despite his alcoholism and womanizing, and why did his wife stay with him? I honestly don't know, and perhaps it isn't important that I know. Misconduct on the part of Buddhist teachers is not limited to Tibetans, as there have been scandalous teachers in Zen as well. What's more, no tradition comes close to approaching the Roman Catholic Church of the late twentieth century when it comes to scandal and cover-up.

There are two things I know. The first is that I have learned that one has to be ready to really dedicate oneself to a teacher, and some people never are. The second is that last week at that empowerment I was told things about myself nobody could possibly know without having spoken extensively with me. Please understand that I have studied psychology and worked in the field, I am very aware that there are ways one can appear to know things about another that are little more than con games and I have been trained to spot them. What I experienced reflected a depth of spiritual practice and mystical insight that I have never encountered before. Is this the experience of the disciples who responded immediately to Jesus' call, or of the woman at the well who went back to her town and described him as a man who told her everything about herself? Mind you I am not anointing people Rinpoche as Messiah, I am looking for commonalities across traditions in an attempt to explain the experience. The ability to do that connecting across traditions is one of the great values of Dual Citizenship, by the way.

You may be thinking that this is all well and good, but you don't have any interest in Dual Citizenship. I'd like to ask you to reassess that idea, because you have read a rather longish blog post on the topic and are still reading. It's perfectly fine to sit with uncertainty and hold it gently. Over time, in your prayer or meditation practice, you may find some clarity arising. It's also fine to investigate other traditions, learn more about them, and decide they aren't for you. Not everyone is going to become what I call a Buddhist Christian. Some may become Hindu Jews, Taoist Muslims, or any of the other possible combinations. After being in a grocery store today that had an aisle labelled "Polish Kosher" I know anything is possible! I encourage you to investigate the possibilities. My experience is that Interspirituality has allowed my spiritual life to become three-dimensional, a quality you have to experience for yourself to understand fully. Why not try? There's nothing to lose!

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