Francis of Assisi and Perfect Happiness

Earlier this week I recorded a film from 1961, Francis of Assisi, directed by the great Michael Curtiz and starring Bradford Dillman as Francis, along with Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 “hippie” version of the St. Francis story, Brother Sun Sister Moon with music by Donovan.  Last night on PBS I watched a documentary about Francis traveling to Egypt where he met with the Sultan of Egypt while trying to bring peace to the Crusades.  I guess you might call it a St. Francis binge.

Sunday night, TCM Imports aired The Flowers of St. Francis, a 1950 effort by Roberto Rossellini.  The script was a collaboration between Rossellini and Federico Fellini based on “The Little Flowers of St. Francis,” a text from the 14th century.  The cast was made up of real Franciscan monks, including the man who played the future saint.

There is a scene where Brother Francis and Brother Leone are walking through the countryside.  Francis tells his companion of the many things that do not bring perfect happiness, such as restoring sight to the blind, healing the crippled, casting out demons, converting heretics…

Frustrated, Brother Leone stops and says, “Please, Brother, where does perfect happiness reside?”  But Francis does not answer him.  Instead, he leads Brother Leone to a house and they ask the man who lives there for alms.  He refuses.  The friars persist and the man beats them with a club.  When the incident is over, Francis turns to Brother Leone and says,

“O Brother Leone, lamb of our good Lord, now that we’ve borne all this for the love of our blessed Christ, know that in this resides perfect happiness.  Because above all the gifts Christ bestows on his servants is the gift of triumphing over ourselves and bearing every evil deed out of love for him.  In this alone lies perfect happiness.”

For St. Francis, personal transformation is a gift.  The present of happiness that we have always had but never opened.  Winning over our faults, our weaknesses, bad habits, prejudices, fears – making better people out of ourselves, the opportunity is a very precious gift.

Bearing every evil deed doesn’t mean to go out and search for them, but to willingly bear suffering when it comes.  Francis thought like this out of  his love for God but he also loved nature and its creatures and he loved people.  He taught that we are all brothers and sisters, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon and Brother Wind, all together in the unity of existence.  He practiced poverty, giving away all material possession, and spiritual poverty in that he surrendered his entire life to God.  Gave over everything so that all he had in life was his robe and his relationship with the Lord.  In living simply and altruistically like this, Francis reminds me of the bodhisattva and the Taoist sage.

Religion  doesn’t matter.  This message is universal.  We should engrave it on our hearts, as we open our hearts to compassion to all.

This is the Way.

There is no other.

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The Bells of Religious Liberty

Monday, January 16, is Martin Luther King Day.  It’s also National Religious Freedom Day, first proclaimed by President H.W. Bush in 1993.  President Obama’s proclamation of 2010 reads, “On this day, we commemorate an early realization of our Nation’s founding ideals: Virginia’s 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom.”

It guaranteed Virginians the right to practice the religion of their choice and it separated church and state.  Encyclopedia Virginia notes, “The statute influenced both the drafting of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the United States Supreme Court’s understanding of religious freedom.”

Not long ago I watched a PBS documentary First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty.  The program covers the development of religious liberty in our country from colonial times to the early 1800s.  The filmmakers remind us of an astounding fact: “A government without the interlocking authority of religion was utterly unprecedented in Western history and within a generation of its creation, it produced a vibrant religious culture still unmatched anywhere in the world.”

Religious freedom was a revolutionary idea.  And so it remains.

Some people accused President Obama of waging a war against religion, and curiously to me, many of these same folk supported the President-elect who during the campaign promised to enact a ban against Muslim entering the U.S.  Democrats have been accused of having a “religion problem” because not enough of them have it and those who do, don’t understand it the same way as some less-liberal believers.

This week, Breitbart.com posted an article with the rather sensational headline: Pew Report: Religion Plummeted in America During Obama Era.  The implication being that somehow this tragic trend is Obama’s doing.  Read the Pew report for yourself.

Here’s a tidbit of history from First Freedom:  “Somewhat surprisingly in America in the mid 18th century somewhere around 20 to 30 percent, at the most, of European American colonists had any kind of significant relationship with a Christian congregation.”  (Jon Butler, Yale University)

Only 20 to 30 percent.

Not only that, but some of those who came to these shores to escape religious persecution then went on to practice religious persecution.  Baptists and Presbyterians were favorite targets, and so were Catholics.   For instance, prior to the American Revolution, if you were Catholic you were forbidden by law from entering New York.

Religious bans and trends of dwindling interest are nothing new.  Our “religious problem” is context.  We are missing the context of history.  We’re largely illiterate about history.  It’s our political problem as well.

And we tend to forget, or accept, that religious liberty is not only freedom of religion, it’s also freedom from religion.  You don’t have to have a faith.  There’s no law that says you must believe… in anything.

I am not always tolerant toward certain religious beliefs.  I feel conflicted about how much respect I should show to the teachings of some religions.  Is there a line you cross over and become an abettor, an enabler, with teaching you feel are misguided?  I do not have to respect a religion’s teachings.  But I must respect the right for people to follow those teachings.

“We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”

– John Adams, founding father, April 8, 1785

We could also begin by going back to our history.  Not just the fun stuff, like war.  I mean peering back beyond the popular images to see the forces and ideas that shaped the men who shaped America, and to read the words, planted like seeds beneath the slogans, which by themselves, out of context, are merely the echoes of the bells of liberty, and not their true ringing.

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Joseph Campbell: Matters Fundamental to Ourselves

Today is the 111th anniversary of the birth of mythologist, writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell. My thinking about Buddhism and religion in general was influenced greatly by his work. From Campbell, I learned that nearly all religious literature is pure mythology, and therefore, one should not take it literally. A simple idea, perhaps, but when you consider how many people in this modern age are literalists when it comes to religion and that they cause a lot of trouble for others because of it, you realize it is a great insight, and extraordinarily relevant.

The title of one of his books, Myths to Live By, suggests that we should not disregard myths, but rather try to understand what these stories are trying to tell us about living. Here, in his own words, from that book, is Campbell explaining the essence of religious mythology:

Joseph Campbell 1904-1987
Joseph Campbell 1904-1987

What I would suggest is that by comparing a number from different parts of the world and differing traditions, one might arrive at an understanding of their force, their source and possible sense. For they are not historical. That much is clear. They speak, therefore, not of outside events but of themes of the imagination. And since they exhibit features that are actually universal, they must in some way represent features of our general racial imagination, permanent features of the human spirit — or, as we say today, of the psyche. They are telling us, therefore, of matters fundamental to ourselves, enduring essential principles about which it would be good for us to know; about which, in fact, it will be necessary for us to know if our conscious minds are to be kept in touch with our own most secret, motivating depths. In short, these holy tales and their images are messages to the conscious mind from quarters of the spirit unknown to normal daylight consciousness, and if read as referring to events in the field of space and time — whether of the future, present, or past — they will have been misread and their force deflected, some secondary thing outside then taking to itself the reference of the symbol, some sanctified stick, stone, or animal, person, event, city, or social group.”

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The Need to Win and Flight from Shadow

Later this week (Jan. 31) we can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton. I wrote about Merton last year at this time, and I began that post by explaining that he was a “Trappist monk considered a major spiritual thinker of the 20th century. Author of more than 60 books, he was an influential Catholic writer. He also had an impact on the religious culture of America through his embrace of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. He pioneered inter-faith dialogue, engaging with such people as D.T. Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh.”

So if you didn’t know why folks interested in Buddhism should be aware of Merton, now you do.

merton-800b2As noted above, he was a prolific writer. I’ve read the biography by Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, but only a handful of Merton’s own writings, those that deal with Buddhism. He explored other spiritual philosophies, yet he never lost his Christian perspective and that’s why I am not in agreement with everything he had to say about Eastern thought. But one of his works I can find little to complain about is his interpretation of Chuang Tzu, the classic Chinese writings attributed to an early Taoist philosopher.

I’ve presented selections from Chuang Tzu in previous posts, and in one from 2011 I included part of Merton’s interpretation of a passage from the “Mountain Tree” chapter. I assume, since the best known translations (by Arthur Waley, Lin Yutang, and Burton Watson) are in prose form, that was how the text was originally composed. But I could be entirely wrong about it. For me, part of what makes The Way of Chuang Tzu unique and interesting is the way in which Merton interprets much of the text as poetry. It also makes for a great introduction to the Chuang Tzu’s somewhat abstruse writings, heavily invested with satire and paradox.

Here are a couple of selections:

The Need to Win

When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets —
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting–
And the need to win drains him of power.

Flight from Shadow

There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.

So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.

He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping until he finally dropped dead.

He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.

The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1969

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Joseph Campbell and the Ramparts of Belief

“Belief gets in the way of learning.”
– Robert A. Heinlein

When I quoted the late Joseph Campbell in Monday’s post, I did not realize that today, 2 days later, we would be celebrating the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Few philosophers – in addition to a mythologist, writer and lecturer, he was a philosopher – outside of Buddhism have influenced me as much as Joseph Campbell. When I watched his dialogue with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth as it aired on PBS in 1987, it had a profound effect and certainly changed my life. It finally resolved for me the tension between the metaphysical aspects of religion and my rational mind.

1987 was a largely pre-cable time and the Big 3 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) still dominated the television landscape. After The Power of Myth aired, a TV executive, with CBS as I recall, said that if the program had been broadcast on one of the major networks instead of PBS, it would have changed the face of religion in America.

Campbell’s central thesis in this program was relatively simple:

“From the point of view of any orthodoxy, myth might be defined simply as “other people’s religion”, to which an equivalent definition of religion would be ‘misunderstood mythology’, the misunderstanding consisting in the interpretation of mythic metaphors as references to hard fact . . .”

In other words, religious stories are just stories, myths, and not history. If more people understood and appreciated this, we could spare the world from much trouble, and free ourselves from the bondage of dogma. Some have taken this message to heart, but there are others who dismiss it as something that undermines their faith.

Faith is a concept used by different persons to designate very diverse attitudes, but most often, we find faith reduced to belief coupled with the misunderstanding that belief makes what is believed fact. Any attempt to clear up this confusion is viewed as a threat, and this insecurity is the cause of most religious controversy and conflict.

Campbell did not articulate his view as such, but the principle underlying his philosophy was essentially the same as Nagarjuna’s Middle Way teachings on the emptiness of views, which Dr. K. Venkata Ramanan* explains in this way,

The Middle Way is to see things as they are, to recognize the possibility of determining things differently from different standpoints and to recognize that these determinations cannot be seized as absolutes. This is the way that realizes the relativity of specific views and of determinate entities. This becomes practically the central point in the philosophy of Nagarjuna.”

Faith is not belief about experiences but something inferred from them, and various things can be inferred from any one experience. Even while we may acknowledge the fact that faith/belief does not make what is believed fact, faith/belief can greatly influence attitudes and produce undesirable, unbeneficial, and even dangerous actions. A case in point would be the Louisiana teacher who taught her students that the universe was created by God 6,000 years ago and that that both the Big Bang theory and evolution are false. She gave her class a test in which the only correct answers were those based on this literal interpretation of the Bible. When one student gave different answers and then stated he was Buddhist and didn’t believe in God, the teacher reportedly told the rest of the class that Buddhism was “stupid.”

The student’s parents successfully sued the school, with the presiding judge in the U.S. District Court ruling that “School Officials shall not denigrate any particular faith, or lack thereof, or single out any student for disfavor or criticism because of his or her particular faith or religious belief, or lack thereof.”

This case is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, for we know all too well how religious intolerance can lead to violence and war.

Campbell said

We have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Both sides are wrong. Campbell further explained that

Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images . . .”

Buddhism has its share of misunderstandings about mythology. Some tend to dismiss concepts they see as supernatural or metaphysical and fail to appreciate the real messages they convey, while others insist that certain beliefs, such as karma and rebirth, must be taken literally, missing the point that if these ideas are regarded as metaphor, it does not undermine Buddhism’s core philosophy. Then, in addition, there are those who also mistake belief for fact and contend that the sutras and the theology surrounding the sutras are historical and adopt an absolutist stand that their Buddhism alone is true.

Religious philosophy is a system of ideas. It uses words and symbols to refer to what lies beyond the full scope of our knowledge. The nature of God is a continuous debate, and yet, assuming there were a super-awakened being that created the universe, the mind of such a being would be so vast and impenetrable that no one on this earth could possibly know it, let alone claim the ability to interpret His or Her will.

Religion does has practical value when it is practiced without undue attachment to belief and the blindness of faith. In Monday’s post, Joseph Campbell pointed out that yoga means to “join” or to “yoke.” In The Power of Myth, he explained, “The word ‘religion’ means religio, linking back.”  We can say then that yoga and religion have essentially the same meaning, and the same ultimate aim, which is to enter the zone of pure consciousness awake. When we awaken from slumber each morning, we wipe the sand or sleep (rheum) from our eyes. To be awake in the religious sense means to wipe away the sand of dogma from our minds and then go into the world and make our stand not on the ramparts of belief but before the gates of wisdom.

[You] have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and because the three of them have different names for the same biblical god, they can’t get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don’t realize its reference. They haven’t allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group says, ‘We are the chosen group, and we have God.'”

– Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

The wayfarer that can understand this [the emptiness of views] does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.”

Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra

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* K. Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987

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