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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Evolving Beyond Sin

Call your heretic hunting friends, for I have a confession to make - but first I have a question to ask. If a belief is no longer accurate, do we have a duty to jettison it? When we learned that the sun was the center of the universe rather than the Earth, there was tremendous resistance, a herd of excommunications, and not a few executions. Luckily, none of these actions succeeded in maintaining the status quo, and eventually the truth won out. We also believed that the moon had a man in it, or was made of cheese, or had a group of aliens on it who constantly relocated to the dark side so that we could not detect them. Most of those questions were settled when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, cheese slicer in hand. No reasonable person today believes that the Earth is the center of the universe or that the moon is made of cheese - not even in the name of "Tradition."

Here's a bit of light reading from the Episcopal Church. Please note that my intent is not to criticize the Episcopal Church alone. Every Christian denomination has some version of this either in their liturgy or their doctrine. I chose this one for its colorful language.

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father ;for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That's a load to carry, isn't it? I used to say that confession four times a week as an active lay person in the Episcopal Church. Once per week I said a much less daunting version of it in contemporary language worship, but the impact was the same. At its core is the notion of sin, perhaps even the fiction of Original Sin, which says that we are born with a share of Adam's guilt as a consequence of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Never mind that all responsible scholars now acknowledge that story to be, in the best sense of the term, mythological and not historical fact. Our imaginary forebears sinned in an imaginary garden, and we carry the burden with them throughout time. Huh?

Defenders of sin tend to say that if it weren't for sin people would believe they were perfect and their egos would run amok. I contest the notion that egos are not running amok even with sin being a doctrine. Even more importantly, I dispute the notion that the only two alternatives are sin or perfection. There seems to me to be a lot of ground in between of those two extreme concepts. Most importantly of all, since sin implies that we fracture our relationship with God through that sin, I need to question whether sin offers us a satisfactory understanding of God in the 21st century or whether it offers us a projection of our own limited understanding of love onto God, recreating God in our own image for the millionth time.

Let me stipulate at the outset that we all make mistakes. We make bad choices, and our behaviors are sometimes not what we in our best moments wish they would be. Sometimes they are even evil. That's healthy guilt at work - acknowledging that we could have done better, but didn't. The notion of sin begins by saying that our behavior missed the mark, but also implies that if we rack up enough unskillful behavior - and exactly how much that might be is never specified - our very selves become unacceptable to God and we will be excluded from God's presence throughout eternity, so we best confess our "manifold sins and wickedness" compulsively. It's the carrot and the stick writ large, and it says that if you aren't perfect then ultimately you are unacceptable. What it reflects is the truth that biblical images of God much more resembles that of King or Emperor than anything close to a transcendent Deity.

The issue at the root of this discussion is whether or not we can ever be separated from God.

When I Baptize babies, I make the sign of the cross on their foreheads with holy oil and say, "You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever." Apparently, immediately after that I should shout in my best Lewis Black voice, "Unless you screw it up!" In a crazy-making festival of liturgical contradiction, we alternately claim that we can never be separated from God and that we are teetering on the brink of eternal separation and damnation. If we point this out to the powers that be, their reply is likely to be that it's a mystery - but there's no mystery here at all. We have recreated God in the image of an abusive parent who is only too willing to torture people throughout eternity. It's long past time for a corrective, and I believe the corrective is to take the word sin out of our vocabulary and speak instead of mistakes, errors, unskillful behaviors and choices, and other words that make it clear that while our behavior is sometimes less than the best, our being is eternally connected to God with a bond that cannot be broken.

This is critically important because unless we know that we are safe we will never be able to address the big issues of life - the very ones that lead us to act in a less than skillful way. We aren't going to admit our struggles if we believe doing so will lead to our being shunned by the very community that we rely on for support. We need to acknowledge that what ideas like Original Sin really do is set the bar low. We can't really help ourselves, because we carry Original Sin in us. What a ready made excuse for doing whatever we choose and denying that we can do better! The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity does the same thing, only more effectively. Forget about improving yourself, it's not possible so hope to be rescued instead. What a load of nonsense!

There were times in history when these ideas served us well, but those times are long past. Abandoning them for a better, more accurate understanding of Divinity isn't being disloyal - it's the only way to truly be loyal to the reality of God. Refining our beliefs doesn't mean that we are saying that God has changed, it means that our understanding of both God and human beings has evolved - as our understanding of everything evolves over time. There will be those who insist on holding to the old view, and that's fine. We should leave them to their cavernous, life denying, empty churches, as they wonder silently and aloud where all of the people have gone. In the meantime, the rest of us can move forward into a life giving understanding of all the Great Traditions. We can do no other.



Monday, February 23, 2015

The Problem of Shame

The powerful work of Brene Brown highlights the implications of shame in our lives from the perspective of our social and psychological health. Brene and I believe it also has profound implications for our spirituality, and it's the spiritual implications of shame that I would like to examine in this post. First, though, a definition that distinguishes between unhealthy shame and healthy guilt.

Suppose that we make a mistake at work. Shame says, "I am such an idiot, I can't do anything right. I can't believe I'm such a moron." On the other hand, guilt says, "wow, I really screwed that up." In other words, guilt focuses on our behavior being inadequate or in error while shame says that we ourselves, our very essence, is inadequate. The distinction should be obvious because if our behavior is lacking then we can change our behavior, but if our person is lacking we are stuck. Of course, we can try to change a person but it tends to take many years of therapy with no guarantee of effective change.

Can you see how religion in the West has added to our shame? Tying salvation, which at its heart is a question of worthiness, to our behavior blurs the distinction between guilt and shame and guess which pile it all falls into? Of course, it falls into shame because if I am not qualified for salvation, if I am damned for all eternity it means that God doesn't love me and questions of whether or not we are lovable are always questions of shame. When we hear either people or deities say, "you aren't enough, you aren't adequate, you are less than okay and so you cannot come into our little eternal club," our shame level takes off as if it had been shot out of a cannon.

Why would religion want to broker shame? Religion wants to dealing shame because there is no better way to control people's behavior than through shame. Throughout the centuries, religion has not been in the business of seeing people reach their full potential. Rather, religion has been in the thought and behavior control business and that is precisely why we see religion in decline today. It comes to us like an abusive parent saying in effect, "I know that I've beaten you every week for all these years, but I really love you and want what's best for you so want to come home?" At least many of us have managed to generate enough self-love so that offer isn't especially attractive.

Eastern religions tends to do better in that they characterize behavior as either skillful or unskillful. In this way they make an effective distinction between healthy guilt and unhealthy shame. If I can come to perceive my own errors as questions of unskillful behavior rather than as a problem with my being, I can begin to move from an unhealthy place to a healthier place. I have to confess, however, that I'm not in a place yet where I can see all behavior is falling into either skillful or unskillful categories. I must admit that I still see some behaviors as evil. When an adult molests a child, I don't believe that calling it unskillful is strong and. When a terrorist sets off a suicide bomb, I believe it goes beyond the realm of what I am comfortable calling unskillful behavior. Perhaps this struggle is the vestigal remnant of my Christian upbringing, and one day I will come to see even the most vile, despicable act is simply a matter of less than skillful behavior. It could be that such behaviors have at their root a long history of the person being shamed. Whatever the case, I'm simply not ready to say that the people who flew those planes into the twin towers at the World Trade Center were simply demonstrating unskillful behavior.

My hesitations and qualifications aside, there can be little doubt that we need to move from a culture of shame to being a culture where healthy guilt is our response to mistakes. We need to stop taking the easy way out in our parenting, refuse to use shame in rearing our children, and instead take the longer but healthier route of modifying their behavior by addressing that behavior rather than shaming their person. Our spiritual and religious institutions must also move from a culture of shame into a culture of separating a person from their behavior. We simply must stop using salvation language that tries to tell us that some of us are okay and always will be while others are not okay and never will be. This will require all of us to invest more effort into our relationships with all other people and relate to them as the equals they are, rather than some sort of inferior being that we can manipulate and bully. I believe if we do this the effect will ripple throughout our culture and offer the best majority of people the self-confidence they need to reach their full potential as the beautiful human beings they always have been!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Religions Aren't True

Religions aren't true. At their best they can point to the truth from time to time, but no religion points to the truth all the time. If that sounds blasphemous to you, it's because you have been very well conditioned by religion. You have been conditioned by religious teachings, sometimes called doctrine or dogma, which you have been required to believe upon penalty of excommunication at best or being shunned by friends and family at worst. Since human beings are social animals, these penalties are among the worst humans can experience - short of being interrogated by the CIA using methods approved by Donald Rumsfeld.

Why aren't religions true given that they are God ordained? Quite simply because no religion has every been God ordained. Every last one of them was created by human beings in response to some kind of encounter with life that led them to believe there was something much more than they could see and that was a critical part of their reality. Many of them named that thing God, but other traditions had other names. Regardless of the name chosen, they all point us toward the transcendent. Religion runs into problems because, although the transcendent is incredibly vast, religion insists that it can only be found in this one tiny corner of reality, and so cuts people off from well over ninety-nine percent of that for which they are searching. It's as if the transcendent was the entire night sky (it's actually much larger) and religion insisted it could be found only in that one tiny point of light just to the left of the big dipper.

Many hundreds of years ago, long before satellites and GPS systems, sailors navigated by the stars - and their knowledge of the stars wasn't all that great, to be quite honest. As you might imagine, being off just a tiny bit at any given point amounted to being off a whole lot after you sailed another thousand miles or so. What's more, they weren't even sure what they would encounter because not only didn't they have reliable maps of the stars they didn't even have reliable maps of the world. This explains why when Christopher Columbus set off to rape and pillage India he had to settle for raping and pillaging the Americas. No plan is perfect.

In truth, religion is a lot like Christopher Columbus - sadly, historically, including the raping and pillaging part. Religion sets out looking for God and quite often finds itself somewhere quite different and, lacking the humility to admit their error, claiming the erroneous destination is God Itself. Sometimes there is a later, although most often rather subtle, correction that everyone hopes will go unnoticed. True believers forge ahead despite all evidence to the contrary, and professional clergy of all stripes encourage that behavior while themselves knowing better, perhaps creating the cognitive dissonance that lies behind much if not most clergy burn out. But I digress.

The truth is that we all have to discover the version of the truth that makes most sense to us. That's not a statement of relativism, but rather the reality that each of us has a largely unique perspective. We may be perfectly happy attending a local church, synagogue, temple, dharma center, or mosque, but we will only remain happy if we give ourselves permission to make adjustments and revisions to the company line from time to time based upon or actual experience. We have to recognize that religion, and for that matter systems of spirituality, only points at the truth. It's up to us to do the spiritual practice and fine tuning that leads us even closer to our destination.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Some Day We'll All Be Dead

Some day we will all indeed be dead. None of us knows when or how that will happen. We probably agree with the bumper sticker that says "When I die, I want to go in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car." The truth is that we have very little control over how we die, but what we can control is how prepared we are for the moment when it arrives.

Given the many advances in medical care over the last few decades, the truth is that we are living longer and longer. The truth also is that medical care now has the ability to keep our bodies apparently alive even after our minds and our consciousness have left the body. Despite this, many medical professionals seem to lack the ability to forthrightly address end-of-life issues, including those that arise when the time comes to discontinue life support. They tend to use euphemisms and speaking directly about "quality of life," and "comfort measures." While their desire not to be abrasive or shock people may be commendable, the truth is the people who are uninitiated to the subtle language the medical community prefers to use at times like this may very well miss the point altogether. A physician can believe that she is telling the family they need to face the choice to withdraw life support while talking around the issue because, in fact, she herself has not learned to face anything beyond clinical death. She may face death clinically with great efficiency, but that is very different from coming to terms with death. And so she believes she is helping the family when in truth she's only confusing them and making it more difficult for them to understand the choices they are facing on behalf of a loved one.

You and I will die one day. The great failure of Western religion is that it runs away from this truth, and in doing so fails to prepare its constituents for the transition into whatever lies beyond this life. As noted above, the medical community, with the exception of hospice and palliative care professionals, also fails to prepare its constituents and their families for the transition into whatever lies beyond this life. That's not only very sad, it's completely unacceptable. We need to examine our beliefs forthrightly and explore death long before we are confronted by it. In the East, monks and nuns meditate in cemeteries, charnel grounds, and where cremations are performed. People tend to die at home, and the families wash the bodies of their loved ones as a last gift and gesture of respect. The body is often kept in the home for visitation and the equivalent of funeral services. In the West, we attempt to sanitize death by hiding it away in nursing homes, hospitals, and funeral homes. We prepare bodies for viewing by making them up so that it appears that the deceased is only taking a nap while wearing clown makeup. While I am certainly not in favor of traumatizing anyone, I don't think that there could be a greater disparity in practice between the East and the West. I believe we do ourselves and our loved ones a tremendous disservice through our attitudes toward death and our subsequent inability to be present with them during that most important transition.

Ironically, we so fear that last transition that there is a growing movement in this country to beat death to the punch by committing suicide before death arrives naturally. That movement is based in fear and ignorance. We fear our death because we are ignorant of it and of palliative care and hospice services which allow us to die with dignity and minimal discomfort in a way that suicide never can. I am so convinced of this need for those of us in the West to come to a healthier relationship with death that I intend to make it a primary focus of my personal ministry. I intend to lead my denomination, The UAC, to a similar focus so that we might help others come to a healthier understanding of perhaps the greatest spiritual transition in our lives. Won't you join us?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Does Freedom of Speech Extend to Religion?

I'm pretty impressed with Pope Francis and generally agree with what he has to say. I know that there are some groups who feel he isn't changing things fast enough or who want to make him responsible for every stupid thing any bishop ever says, but I quite frankly don't agree. That's not my purpose in writing today, however. I am writing to take issue with his statement, made after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, that freedom of religion should not protect criticizing other people's religion.  In light of two terrorist attacks Saturday in Copenhagen, I feel I have to speak out.

I wrote after the Charlie Hebdo attacks that the regulations and requirements of a particular religion apply only within that religion. I want to emphasize that here, and also expand upon it.

I may decide that saying that Jesus ate mashed potatoes is blasphemy. I may forbid members of my particular sect within Christianity to portray Jesus eating mashed potatoes and excommunicate them if they do. If I live in a country where it is allowed, I can even cut off their right hand for committing such obvious blasphemy. What I cannot do is run out and cut off the hands of people of other faiths or living in other countries for depicting Jesus eating mashed potatoes. My beliefs do not give me permission to run around the world committing acts of violence in the name of my particular faith. When a leader like the Pope says that criticizing other faiths is wrong, he is giving tacit permission to these lunatics to continue their attacks.

If I may digress for a moment, I must say that my initial reaction was that I have no desire to lampoon anyone's faith. Then I realized I do it all the time regarding Evangelical and Fundamentalist expressions of Christianity, and came to the conclusion that I have no desire to lampoon any faith other than my own. I don't feel it appropriate for me to criticize that of which I am not a part and in which I have no stake. However, that's a very different thing from saying that such speech should not be allowed or that an appropriate response to such speech is a terrorist attack.

We must understand that restricting speech is a slippery slope. Once we start, it will be hard to stop. As we have seen in our courts of late, decisions around expansion of religious freedoms such as the Hobby Lobby case have far reaching implications. We have already redefined freedom of religion to mean the freedom to impose my religious belief on another. If we add to that restrictions of free speech, it doesn't take much imagination to see that religious zealots in Christianity will act pretty much like their counterparts in Islam do. In point of fact, they already have regarding abortion clinics. It would be likely that all of the images in this post would be banned and that, eventually, people like me who post them would be the target of violence. That's not the kind of world I want to live in. In fact, that's precisely the kind of world that people fled when they came to America to establish a new nation. When we restrict free speech around religion and belief, we essentially create a State religion - even if that religion is simply political correctness. The problem is that, given the political activism of the religious right, the State religion that arose would likely be as anti-rational as they are. Again, I don't want to live in that nation and I am not alone in feeling that way.

Part of being a mature adult and developing a mature world in which to live is recognizing that we all won't agree about everything. The solution to disagreement is dialogue, not shutting the discussion down through violence, legislation, or both. One would hope we have evolved beyond those kind of mistakes, but apparently we haven't. Those of us who understand the problem need to speak out while we still can.

Friday, February 13, 2015

An Anus for Valentine's Day

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, and if you're having trouble choosing the perfect gift for your beloved I have a suggestion for you. It involves a bit of a trip, so it may be too late for this year, but you may want to keep it in mind for next year. It seems there is a man in the United Kingdom who will be only too happy to make a cast of your anus in chocolate or your choice of precious metals. Well I don't want to descend into scatological humor it is almost unavoidable in this case.

I don't want to lead you to believe that just anyone can present this special gift. As the video below demonstrates, a certain amount of flexibility is required. You also need to be comfortable in a rather compromising position around the man, whose name is Magnus, who developed this "procedure." He explains in the video how he came up with the idea. I really don't want to ruin it for you, but I will say I found it slightly disturbing when he described his ideal anus even though I have no idea who the gentleman he mentioned was. I will just say that over the course of my life I have been accused of having some fairly strange ideas from time to time. Honesty compels me to admit that none of them have come remotely close to the idea that would your loved one wants to receive as a symbol of your love is a chocolate replica of your anus. I'm not entirely certain that a bronze replica would be a bigger hit.

If there is a lesson to be learned or conclusion to be drawn from learning that people make replicas of their anus, it must be that some people really have far too much time on their hands - or perhaps on their anus.







Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What About Sentient Beings That Transmit Disease?

Many Buddhists say that, for them, part of the appeal of the Buddha's teachings lies in the truth that he encouraged people not to accept the teachings with blind faith but rather to test them, to check them out, to be sure that his teachings rang true for the individual believer before that person accepted them as a matter of faith. That is true for me as a Buddhist Christian as well. In fact, I have taken that same principle and applied it to the teachings of every spiritual teacher I have encountered, both those of history and those who live in the present day.

One of the things we have learned from the quest for the historical Jesus is that if we are going to understand a teacher accurately, we need to understand his or her historical and cultural context. In other words, we cannot interpret the teachings of someone who lived more than two thousand years ago as if they were living and writing in twenty-first century America if we want to understand them accurately. For example, we can't understand Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees unless we understand who the first century Pharisees really were. Similarly, we can't understand the Buddha's criticism of Hinduism and the Brahmans of twenty-five hundred years ago unless we understand something about who those people were.

No matter our religious tradition, one of the challenges in interpreting the teachings of the great historical teachers is the truth that they taught in a prescientific era while we live in a scientific era. We simply don't know what either Jesus or the Buddha would have said about contemporary medical procedures such as blood transfusions, yet we have ample evidence of what most people see as unwise conclusions that can be drawn when we fail to understand these teachers in their historical context. To say that either Jesus or the Buddha would want a young child to die rather than have a blood transfusion is at best simplistic and foolish. At worst, it represents a wanton disrespect for life and failure to fulfill parental responsibilities.


What are we to make of the teachings of the Buddha which prohibit taking the life of any sentient being, presumably even those that carry disease? These teachings were made at a time in history when next to nothing was understood about disease vectors, the illness process, or how to protect oneself from what today constitutes an avoidable health crisis. As an example, consider the black plague in the Middle Ages. The plague was transmitted by fleas and rats, and both are sentient beings. Presumably one of the reasons that plagues no longer afflict us is that society has learned the importance of pest control. Had the Buddha understood the role of certain sentient beings as disease vectors would he have granted an exception to the prohibition against killing sentient beings, or would he have said that the victims of the black plague were merely the victims of their own karma? Is it compassionate to allow human beings to die when we have the technology to avoid those deaths simply because to do so we must kill other sentient beings? I do not believe it is, but more importantly because the Buddha encouraged us to test his teachings for ourselves and see if they are true, he himself offered us the latitude to make decisions like this.

To cite another example, what about the role of mosquitoes in the transmission of malaria? Are we to simply allow mosquito populations to proliferate in areas where malaria is prevalent, or are we to take action to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds and even the mosquitoes themselves? Was it the Buddha's intent that human beings should suffer and perhaps even die needlessly, or would he say that the more compassionate act, and in fact even an act that would have a positive impact on the karmic debt of the disease vector, would be to kill the disease vector? Are we to stumble along ignoring the knowledge that science has given us in the name of a literal interpretation of a twenty-five hundred-year-old teaching that the teacher himself said we should examine before accepting? This is perhaps one of the places where we might see a kind of Buddhist fundamentalism coming into view.

The truth is that every teaching of any historical spiritual or religious figure is by very definition time bound. Our job as spiritual people is to continually reinterpret those teachings for a new era in light of advances in knowledge as time goes by. We must of course be sure that we are not reinterpreting those teachings simply for our own convenience. We must limit our reinterpretation to those areas in which our understanding of the world has advanced beyond the understanding of the teacher's time in history. There will always be those who say this isn't permissible, but if you examine their own lives you will see that they do things like drive cars, take antibiotics, have a refrigerator in their kitchen, and scores of other things never expressly permitted by the historical teacher they follow. Healthy spirituality never asks us to check our brain at the door. Most importantly of all, rules are never more important than people. There is no spiritual benefit to be found in sacrificing our own lives for the life of a flea, mosquito, or rodent and no healthy spirituality would suggest that such a benefit exists. Common sense is indeed part of a healthy spirituality!

Monday, February 9, 2015

God Breaks Through - Toward a Pluralistic Spirituality

Assuming that we have moved beyond the idea of a literal, creator God who on the first day created a
three car garage to serve as a workshop from which to create the rest of everything that is, we will eventually reach the point where we have no choice but to address both the stories within our own tradition of origin that are mythological (in the best sense of that word) and the existence of other traditions. Are we to continue with tribal religion, battling against the other traditions as if they were a threat to our own and in so doing move the world closer to self-destruction? Or will we find a way to understand our religious and spiritual traditions not as threats to one another, but rather as divergent paths that have arisen as the result of the diversity of human culture? While I certainly acknowledge that there are some who are not ready for this pluralistic approach and probably will not be ready in this lifetime, I believe it's fair enough to say that there is a critical mass of folks who are. I believe this accounts in large part for the struggles of institutional religion, which perhaps by definition are incapable of moving beyond tribalism into the reality of a pluralistic, post-denominational world that transcends the perspectives that currently divide us.

I have written before in different places and spaces about the reality that you could not swing a dead cat in Jesus' day without hitting someone who was born of a virgin. In fact, world religious history prior to the birth of Jesus is filled with stories of gods born of virgins who died and came back to life. It seems that resurrection stories are no less common than stories of virgin births, to the point where we might see such stories as archetypical rather than historical. This need not empty them of their power, as fundamentalists will doubtless assert. Rather, we might see these archetypical stories not as historical accounts of the life of the person in question, but rather as explanations of the way in which that person touched their followers - and, in the case of resurrection accounts, the way in which Jesus and other great teachers and prophets remained present to their followers even after physical death. There need not be an empty tomb for resurrection in this sense to be very real. These stories are not literally about intact hymens and empty tombs, but rather about the truth that when people encountered these individuals God broke through and was profoundly evident in them. Rather then lesson the significance of these great teachers and prophets, such a view frees them from dependence on implausible historical assertions and in so doing allows the power of their ongoing presence and reality to shine through.

In a blow to tribalism, such a view allows us to see that God broke through and all of the great spiritual and religious teachers and prophets, both those whom we have historically acknowledged as Divine and also in those who have been marginalized because of gender, class, social status, race, or any other factor we now recognize to be the product of bigotry rather than truth. So, in the Christian tradition, God breaks through just as much in the Virgin Mary as It does in Jesus. In fact, we can come to see the claims of Mary's virginity in the same way we see the claims of Jesus being born as a virgin, a claim not of physical, literal, historical fact, but rather as a claim of God breaking through in Mary and being evident and present to all who encountered her. This frees us from the horrible, discriminatory practice of valuing women on the basis of whether or not they have been sexually active and in so doing frees them to be both fully human and fully Holy.

Needless to say, such a view also allows God to break through in Moses, Elijah, Mary Magdalene, St.
Paul, Mohammed, Krishna, the Buddha, all the great Saints of all the traditions, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a host of others. We must resist the temptation to rank how much God broke through in each of these individuals and recognize the to do so is to miss the point. The point is that because we are all unique individuals, the way God breaking through in us will look will be different. The purpose of spiritual practice becomes clearing off the
muck and mire that obscures the presence of God within each of us, for surely It is there. We can see the incarnation as not being the result of the Holy Spirit somehow being a biological parent of Jesus, but rather as being evident by God present in each of us and in everything that is. Certainly, in those recognized as the great teachers and prophets of every tradition, God broke through in a unique and powerful way and it was on the basis of this that the great traditions sprung up. Acknowledging that in no way limits the potential of any of us to achieve the same thing.

Of course, because we all come from different cultural traditions we will find that one or more of the great historic traditions speaks to us most powerfully, but we must see that that fact does not diminish the power of the other traditions for other people. The fact, for example, that the Buddha, Quan Yin, Mary, and Jesus speak powerfully to me does not exclude the Prophet Mohammed speaking most powerfully to someone else. We must learn to excise our Western obsession with competition from our spiritual lives. The place where I find Divinity is not objectively better than the place where you find It, it is just different. This is pluralism at its best, a religious future in which violence is not only unnecessary, it is understood as counterproductive. This is a future in which God is not limited to being some old man in a three car garage, but rather It is freed to be what Jesus said It was - Spirit, unencumbered by physicality.

I believe it is our continued insistence that God is somehow embodied as we are that holds us back from understanding the truth of who and what God really is. It is our continued insistence that God is somehow embodied that leads us to believe that God needs us to protect It in the same way that we need to protect our friends and families from the possibility of being mugged. Could there be anything more simplistic and absurd? Do we really want to assert that the God of the universe is vulnerable to someone hiding in an alley? Have we not grown beyond such a limited view? Sadly, for some of us, the answer is "no." We must recognize that those people quite simply are not ready for a pluralistic perspective and that no amount of persuading or education will make them ready, because it is life that must make them ready. It is the reality of life and its pain that must lead them to confront their beliefs and see that they do not adequately address their life and their pain.

In the meantime those of us who are ready for such a perspective must not allow ourselves to be held back by those who are not. We must explore a spirituality that speaks to the reality of our experience and move into it. We must discover stories, art, images, music, and a host of cultural expressions that speak to our truth. We must share our stories with our children, and remind them that the function of religion and spirituality are peace, not war; harmony, not conflict. We can teach them that there are many perspectives, many truths, and that ultimate truth and ultimate reality are not threatened by a diversity of perspectives, rather a diversity of perspective enhances our understanding of reality and truth. I believe this is the basis of what will rise from the ashes of institutional religion. I believe this is what will lead us forward into the next great phase of human evolution. I am convinced that our current understandings simply are not up to the task.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Scoundrels, Rapists, Abusers and Their Teachings

In every tradition there have been teachers and ministers who have abused their authority in a way that impacted their followers. In the days of our innocence, we believed the biggest problem we could encounter would be the teacher with an addiction or a bad temper. Over the last fifty years, we have come to wish that all we had to deal with were addictions and personalities. The highest profile example of this was the pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. On perhaps a lower profile over the same period of time there have been ongoing scandals in the Zen communities, where it seems that nearly every Japanese Zen master who came to America, and some western masters as well, have engaged in sexual misconduct with their students. Recently, Zen teachers gathered and issued a joint letter to Zen communities in response to these scandals. They acknowledged that the lack of a central authority in Zen makes it very difficult to discipline renegade teachers and pledged to work together to find a way to make Zen centers safe places to be.

The other traditions in Buddhism are not without their own problems. In Tibetan Buddhism the most
notable example was Trungpa Rinpoche, who slept with many of his students and essentially drank himself to death at the age of forty-eight. He often showed up to teachings hours late and intoxicated, but people waited for him and to this day speak of him as a great teacher. He and other teachers have attempted to justify their misconduct by saying that it is part of an ancient tradition of "crazy wisdom," but, in the west at least, we do not identify taking advantage of an imbalance of power as either wise or enlightening in any way.

The thing that has long puzzled me about these cases is that even when the truth comes to light people quite often still talk about the teachings of these individuals with great respect and admiration. How are we to understand this phenomenon? Traditionally, it has been argued that there are many conflicted feelings that arise in victims of abuse toward their abusers. I agree with that, but what confounds me is that the group of people who continue to speak of these teachers and their teachings with admiration and respect includes not just abuse victims but also those who were not abused. It seems that the same people who decry the actions of these individuals towards their students quite often also still hold that they were great teachers or offered great teachings the transformed the lives of their students.
Sasaki Roshi

I think this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and it certainly flies in the face of my experience. I have struggled to understand how people can give respect and admiration toward the teachings of individuals who abuse their students. It seems to me it requires almost a pathological compartmentalization in their understanding of the words and actions of these teachers. Yet so many people, including people for whom I have great respect, continue to sing praises of the Trungpa Rinpoches and Sasaki Roshis of the world. How can this be? Am I out of line? Even into his nineties, Sasaki Roshi was groping his female students during personal interviews. Since personal interviews are a part of the teaching process, it seems to me that this disqualifies him from being categorized is a great teacher. Unlike Sasaki Roshi, in the case of Trungpa Rinpoche even some of the female students who slept with him and were therefore by definition victims of his abuse still speak of him as a great teacher. I am unaware of anything comparable among the followers of Christian clergy who were abused by them. In this, I believe, must be found a clue to the behavior and esteem in which Buddhist students hold their teachers who have fallen from grace. In fact, this is in esteem which makes a complete fall from grace nearly impossible.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I believe that offering a teacher or a member of the clergy a kind of unearned respect and esteem is always problematic. We saw that kind of unearned respect and esteem offered toward Roman Catholic priests during the 1950s and 1960s, and as people have investigated the pedophilia scandal in that church they have discovered that that respect and esteem translated into well-meaning and well intended people repeatedly leaving their children alone with their abusers. That statement is not intended to blame either the victim or the victim's parents, it's intended to show that placing authority figures on a pedestal and so giving them too much authority colors and clouds the decisions we make. In Buddhist circles, in the Zen and Tibetan traditions it has always been assumed that the teacher is fully enlightened. How could a fully enlightened person do anything contrary to the best interests of anyone they encounter, most especially their students? And so in the same way the door of opportunity is opened and unscrupulous, pathological individuals who have no business in positions of authority will walk through that door.
Cardinal Bernard Law

The question that remains is whether or not the teachings of these pathological individuals still deserve a place of respect and honor in their various traditions. In my world, the answer is "no." We do not, for example, scurry about cataloging the teachings of Cardinal Bernard Law because we find the truth that he continually reassigned abusing priests to new churches and so offered them new victims to outweigh anything positive that might have been contained in his teachings. I would assert that a pathological mind does not stop being pathological while speaking the teachings and then become pathological while acting them out. In Christian terms, I can not be a good and authoritative teacher in the pulpit if I am abusing people in the confessional. The same thing is true, and it is a strikingly close analogy, of the Buddhist teacher who gives wonderful Dharma talks and then abuses students in private interviews.

I also find it extremely unsettling that, with the exception mentioned above of Trungpa Rinpoche's female students, the support and respect offered to disgraced Buddhist teachers most often comes from males. In doing so, these men perpetuate the rape culture that is so predominant in our society. I believe that when well known celebrities and clergy such as Leonard Cohen and Father Thomas Keating sing praises of Sasaki Roshi they also, perhaps unwittingly, sing praises of the fact that he raped his female students. That quite simply has to stop. We need to wake up. We have to stop declaring those people great teachers, and start declaring them what they were - unscrupulous abusers of their students. We cannot say with any consistency whatsoever that one a Roman Catholic priest abused somebody it was a terrible heinous crime and then with our next breath declare Buddhist teachers who engaged in the same behavior wonderful and enlightened masters. Unless and until Western Buddhism is willing to change this behavior and take a hard line against teachers who abuse their students, they will struggle to create a safe place for their students. Ultimately, it may be the biggest challenge and the biggest limitation facing Buddhism in the west.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Are You Lying to Yourself About Your Life?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the different beliefs and perspectives that people hold, and most especially about those that seem to fly in the face of objective evidence. I started thinking about people who believe that the poor and the homeless find themselves in the circumstances that they do because they are lazy and unwilling to work hard. I don't believe that any informed person, having studied the economic realities of our urban areas, the lack of employment opportunities there, the lack of public transportation to the suburban areas were viable jobs exist, and living conditions that include substandard housing, predatory loan and rent practices, pest infestation, and the violence that exists in our streets could possibly come to the conclusion that people live under these conditions by choice. Despite that, this is precisely what those who assert that
poverty and homelessness are the result of laziness are saying.

Then I considered those who believe that people who do what's pleasing to God are somehow protected by God from adversity and misfortune. They hold these beliefs despite the fact that most of us know someone who follows all the rules, attends church every week, is always pleasant and kind, but despite all these things has lost their job, lost their home, or lost their marriage. Some of the responses to these events from those purporting to be people of faith are simply unbelievable. They speculate that the person enduring the misfortune must have lived a secret life of sin or otherwise grievously insulted God. What utter nonsense! How can anyone with any amount of empathy or compassion kick people when they're down as these self-proclaimed people of faith tend to do?

Finally, there is a group of most urgent concern to the health of our families, those who have decided not to vaccinate their children. Many of these people have succumbed to the pseudoscience that says that vaccine causes illness despite the ample evidence that it was vaccines, and nothing other than vaccines, that led to the elimination or near elimination of diseases like smallpox, measles, and polio. Yet our culture seems to listen to those who shout the loudest, and mistake audacity and sincerity for fact. No matter how many scientists come forward, these people would rather believe that for some reason a conspiracy exists, a conspiracy far too large for any group of people to pull off effectively. Yet this group, and other groups like it around other issues, seem to love conspiracy more than even the health of their children.

The simple answer is to say that these three groups of people either lack sincerity, intellectual acumen, or both. Like all simple answers, this one falls short if for no other reason than that there are plenty of insincere and/or stupid people who do not hold these beliefs. I believe the real answer is fear. I believe that there are people who are so frightened that they will lose their jobs or their homes or that their children might become seriously ill that their consciousness literally cannot tolerate the fear. The result is that subconsciously they develop these explanations for why bad things happen. They buy in to the notion that somehow, somewhere we are promised that there will be no adversity in life despite the fact that anyone who has lived at least twenty years has encountered some adversity. Perhaps this group of people found the adversity they did encounter so intolerable, perhaps
it led to so much dissonance, that their subconscious developed a defense strategy that makes perfect sense to them while seeming completely unreasonable to those of us who better process our adversity and our fear.

You see, if I believe that only the lazy encounter economic adversity and if I know myself not to be lazy then I don't have to worry about losing my job or my home. I don't have to worry about losing my economic status, being looked down upon by my friends and family or the people at church. If I believe that serious illness is the result of some kind of a conspiracy that actually poisons children under the guise of vaccinating them, then all I have to do to keep my own children safe is to avoid vaccinations. On top of that, if I believe that what I do is pleasing to God that I have a second layer of insulation against economic disadvantage and disease. You may be thinking that this is magical thinking of the worst kind, and you are absolutely correct. This is also magical thinking of epic proportions that leads me to a question for all of us.

Is it possible that each of us does this on a much smaller scale in our own lives? Are there things we are unwilling or unable to face, not necessarily things that fly in the face of scientific evidence, but things that challenge our coping strategies and our defense mechanisms so much that we believe we have no alternative other than to lie to ourselves about some aspect of our lives? Do we work more hours than we should and grow distant from our spouse and our children while convincing ourselves that we are doing it for them, when we really are remaining so busy because we don't want to look at our own pain? Do we strive for success while sabotaging ourselves because we still believe the lies we were told his children? Do we still hear a parent asking us in a rage, "Who do you think you are?" and so labor on, never daring to succeed and thereby prove them wrong? Are there smaller things, other places, where we are less than honest with ourselves? Can we see that part of growing into the fullness of who we are meant to be is becoming honest with ourselves about everything?


It may be that the most pressing spiritual and psychological challenge of our times is fear and learning to cope with it. It may also be that we need to pass some laws to protect ourselves from some of the people who do and especially poor job of processing fear, especially those who choose to not vaccinate their children. Such laws, however, are a kind of closing the barn door after the cows have escaped and our goal needs to be keeping that door closed at all times. Our churches, temples, mosques, and spiritual centers as well as popular entertainment need to address in an open and honest way the challenges of living in the twenty-first century. Our churches in particular have excelled at denying the realities of contemporary life for the last one hundred years. Perhaps that's why they are closing. We need to recognize that the current trend among conservative governors of gutting the education budgets in their states only contributes to this madness. Perhaps that is part of their agenda, but it is unacceptable. We need more education, not less. We need to oppose those forces that would leave us in the intellectual dark, or that would posit that intellectual growth leads to immorality. Such assertions feed the very same fears the drive the attitudes I have discussed in this post.

Knowledge is never the enemy. Knowledge leads us to ask intelligent questions, and that may be something that makes politicians and others uncomfortable, but that does not mean asking the questions is wrong. Quite the contrary. Perhaps history is cyclical. Perhaps we need to bring back the bumper sticker from the 1960s that said "question authority" with a slight modification so that it reads "question fear." It is fear that is the enemy, and fear is always displaced by knowledge. When we tried to displace fear using rationalization it always lingers in the background, a coiled serpent poised and ready to strike. Those who use rationalizations such as the poor are lazy, God protects those who please God, and vaccines poison our children, do not experience a resolution of their fear but only succeed in pushing it just below their level of awareness. That's a strategy that doesn't solve anything, and hurts a lot of other people in the process. Stop listening

Monday, February 2, 2015

Of Gods and Men (and Buddhas, too)

It seems that one of the most popular topics in Buddhist circles, at least when it comes to an attempt to place Buddhism within the broader spectrum of comparative religion, is whether or not the Buddha believed in a creator God. Now, I am certainly not qualified to provide an expert opinion on whether
or not the Buddha believed in a creator God. I am however qualified to present an expert opinion on what, precisely, a creator God might look like. I am constantly disappointed that those participating in these discussions seem to hold an extremely simplistic view of the God of Christianity, and along with it the God of Judaism and Islam. Again, I will confine my remarks to what I know, which is Christianity.

It seems that the God of these discussions is the God of fundamentalist Christianity, and that God can hardly be seen as representative of the broad spectrum of Christian understanding of God. In fact, it can hardly be seen as representative of anything but a minority view of God in Christianity. It is not a caricature of this vision of God, though this vision of God may be a caricature of God, to say that it posits and embody the God locked away in a workshop somewhere before the beginning of time. This so-called "Creator God" tinkers a way in this workshop until it has constructed the universe and everything within it. Such a view is prescientific, the stuff of myth and legend, and while myth and legend have a usefulness they do not provide us with a well-rounded picture of God in the twenty-first century.

The truth is that many contemporary Christians are not afraid of science and so do not choose to posit a God who looks more like Pinocchio's father than anything we might call the Ground of Being. On the other hand, these same contemporary Christians are not afraid to say there are things that we
cannot explain or describe with scientific accuracy and that still undeniably live, move, and have their being. I do not have to be able to explain how the internal combustion engine works in order to drive my car. I get in, turn the key, and off I go. I can say that I believe that the energy that is God was present at the Big Bang without feeling compelled to run off and earn an advanced degree in astrophysics so that I might defend my thesis. What is important to me are not theories about God, but rather my direct experience of God which is such that no one can explain it away. That is the nature of mystical experience, and the tradition in which that mystical experience occurs does not change that once a person has it they are no longer threatened by science. Science is now seen as an aid on the journey rather than as a threat to its successful completion.

Perhaps the question that needs to be asked of Buddhist scholars is not, "did the Buddha believe in a creator God?" A much better question, which admittedly is one that was never directly asked of the Buddha because in his time this perspective did not exist, would be whether the Buddha would have rejected a view of God that incorporates human knowledge in its fullness and diversity. While this conversation would undoubtedly be speculative, it seems to me that it would bear more fruit than asking if God was Pinocchio's father. Of course, this would also be a less satisfying question for a dedicated atheist to ask. It seems to me the dedicated atheists prefer to ask questions about God and views of God that are little more than caricatures of the visions of an earlier time. While such questions may make them feel superior, in fact they contribute little to the discussion.

I suppose the truth is that I am extremely bored with discussions and articles about discussions regarding the Buddha's understanding of God. I do not believe they are productive in the sense of advancing our understanding of either the Buddha or of God. They more resemble distractions along the way, distractions from the Path, and while we might entertain them for a while I believe we must ultimately move beyond them if it is our wish to draw closer to the truth.