From Human to Holy

You’ve probably heard about or watched video replays of the botched Fox News interview with Reza Aslan, Iranian-American scholar of religion who just published a new book on Jesus, so I won’t waste time going over that. Suffice it to say that the incident helped propel Aslan’s book to the #1 spot on the Amazon Best Seller list.

The book is called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t read it. I did read a review in the Los Angeles Times. Charlotte Allen says there isn’t much original or new about it. Ground already covered by many other scholars. That may be, but I like that the book’s message is reaching so many people.

What is the message? Basically, that the historical Jesus was not divine, and when he died, he stayed dead. Evidently, Aslan portrays Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary, who was not the half-man, half-god with a virgin birth, who preformed miracles, walked on water, and rose from the dead.

jesus-buddhaThere are many these days who like to draw parallels between Jesus and Buddha. For instance Thich Nhat Hanh’s popular book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, that according to Amazon, has them “walking, hand in hand, down the same path to salvation.” To me, that’s a bit of a stretch, as I see them walking in two radically different directions. Yes, they both taught about compassion, but that is a common religious teaching. In everything else Jesus points to a path that leads out of this world, while the Buddha’s path leads us within ourselves.

It’s when we strip away the layers of mythology from each man that we find real similarities. Like Jesus, Buddha was also a revolutionary. He rebelled against the Vedas, denied the authority of the Brahmin priests, opposed the caste system, and was pessimistic (at the very least) about the existence of gods and the efficacy of prayer.

Even more striking are the parallels in the history of their marketing. What I mean is how a king helped to elevate each of them to a status above that of common mortal.

In the case of Jesus, it was Constantine the Great, a warrior who murdered his way to the throne of Rome by killing the rightful Emperor, Maxentius, and his two sons. Constantine was a Sun God worshipper, who supposedly converted to Christianity, but in actuality never renounced his faith in Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”). He convened the First Council of Nice in 325 CE (held in part to combat the Arian heresy), during which the human Jesus was transformed into the Jesus the god, or “Lord of Light,” the Sabbath was changed from Saturday to Sunday, and it was decided which books would be included in the Bible.

Similarly, the transformation of the human Gautama into the supermundane Buddha – with the miraculous birth and supernatural powers, who could perform miracles but refused to do so, etc. – was advanced significantly during the reign of the Indian king Ashoka, approximately two and a half centuries after the Buddha’s death. Ashoka was also a murderous warrior, who converted to a new religion, but unlike Constantine, the conversion seems to have taken hold, and Ashoka became a changed man. He, too, presided over a council, The Third Buddhist Council around 250 BCE. The details of what transpired during that event are not well-known but apparently it was convened in order to rid the Sangha of corruption and eliminate certain heresies. At any rate, it was during Ashoka’s rule, and due in no small part to his patronage and his propagation of Buddhism (through the “Rock Edicts”), that Buddha-dharma was established as a major sect in India, the Sangha evolved to the shape that we know it today, and the Buddha was elevated to almost god-like status.

I don’t know if Aslan’s book discusses the role Constantine played in the Jesus story or not. And frankly, how much truth resides any of the stories about Constantine or Ashoka, as in the case of Buddha and Jesus, is hard to determine.

I’m not aware of any biographies that attempt to demystify the Buddha, as Aslan and others have done with Jesus. I recently mentioned Trevor Ling’s The Buddha, which presents the most realistic portrait that I’ve read, but that only amounts to a relatively small section in a work largely devoted to a sociological study how Buddhism developed through succeeding centuries in India and Sri Lanka.

Buddhism has no real need for a central figure with extraordinary powers and super-consciousness. Buddhism works just fine without the mythological Buddha. In fact, Buddhism could survive without a historical Buddha. As Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” That’s because Buddhism is about what the Buddha taught, not that he taught.

I wonder, though, if you take divinity away from Jesus, what survives in Christianity. The very essence of Christianity, as it stands today, is faith in Jesus as presented in the New Testament, the Son of God, the divine Messiah.

I also wonder about the folks reading Aslan’s book. Are they the atheistic and agnostic reading it to find loopholes in the Jesus story, perhaps to confirm suspicions they already harbor? Are they people of faith, who exposed to this information for the first time will take it seriously and reevaluate their beliefs, maybe precipitating a sort of mass revolution in Christian thinking? I’d like to think it is the latter, but I’m not willing to place any bets on it.

Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


Against the Stream, in a Leaky Raft

“My dharma is against the stream.”

– A real Buddha quote (I think)

I’m not a regular reader of the National Catholic Review, but I happened to notice they recently reviewed The Scientific Buddha by Daniel S. Lopez, Jr. The book has been out for almost a year now, so I don’t know why NCR is just now getting around to it, except that Buddhism is probably not a high priority for them, and then the title of the review is “Are Buddhism and science incompatible?” which is currently a hot topic.

The reviewer, Paul Knitter, the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, writes,

Who is this scientific Buddha who, in Lopez’s view, is threatening, “bleaching,” “domesticating” the message of the original Buddha? It’s the Buddha “discovered” by critical, Enlightenment Europeans who thought they found a religion without God, based only on experience and reason. Nowadays, it’s the Buddha who is presented as not only compatible with, but a harbinger of, the discoveries of quantum physics and even biological evolution. Most recently, it’s the Buddha whose teachings on the benefits of meditation are being confirmed by neurological research and by movements such as “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” Lopez will have none of this . . .

Now, I like Lopez. His The Heart Sutra Explained contributed greatly to my understanding of that text. But I wonder why he is spending his time on this rather fruitless debate, which is not really about Buddhism vs. science, but religion vs. secularism.

First, the Enlightenment Europeans did find a religion without God, at least without a concept of God, as we in the West understand it. I’m not too sure they thought Buddhism was based only on experience and reason, after all, they were not blind to the mythological and supernatural elements woven into the dharma. Nor am I convinced they wanted a completely secular spiritual philosophy, because many of them, just like many Western Buddhists today, were reluctant to let go of their belief in some sort of all-powerful super-enlightened being controlling the universe.

I think it’s great that scientific research is confirming the benefits of meditation, but on the other hand, I don’t think too many people become Buddhists so that they can prove it is compatible with quantum physics. No, I think the debate is really about whether or not Buddhism is a religion.

My feeling is that Buddhism is more than a mere religion. It was many years ago and I don’t remember who said it, but someone in a documentary (about Jack Kerouac, perhaps) gave about the best description of Buddhism I’ve heard yet. It went something like this, “Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, a discipline, a yoga, a way of life – it embraces all these things and then goes beyond them.”

Buddhism is a path, a Way. It’s not easily defined, and I think it is unique.

There are folks who will argue that if you say Buddhism is not a religion, it’s akin to asserting some sort of Buddhist exceptionalism. That seems rather silly to me. Just because you say that something is unique or different doesn’t mean you are claiming it is superior. Thank goodness all religions are not the same. That would be boring.

Most of the religion vs. secularism debate centers around the two concepts of karma and rebirth. I’d be the first to say that they do require a leap of faith, and are both unprovable. However, I don’t think its necessary to throw them out. If you cannot understand these concepts literally, it’s possible to understand them differently, as Jung did, as archetypes, or as metaphors.

I’m in favor of minimizing the religious aspects, and the mythological elements, but I am less interested in secularism than I am in non-sectarianism. And that’s what bothers me about the Secular Buddhist movement. It’s essentially just creating another sect of Buddhism, and don’t we have enough already? We should spend more time building bridges instead of creating more dividing lines.

I’ve always liked the idea of “home-grown” Buddhism, the cultivation of neighborhood sanghas, small groups practicing together in their communities made up of Buddhists from different stripes, crossing over the sectarian divide to practice with one another where they live. I think this would go a long way toward dispelling ignorance about different forms of Buddhism and their histories, and would bring people together.

People often ask which sect or school of Buddhism I belong to, and I have different answers depending on my mood at the time. Sometimes I say, “All of them.” At other times, I will say, “None,” which is the more accurate response.

I have been interested in Buddhism since I was a teenager, but didn’t begin to seriously practice until thirty years ago. Since then, I have practiced with different groups, studied with various teachers, taken refuge in a number of traditions, received empowerments and precepts in several, have been ordained as a Buddhist minister by two organizations, and yet, for some years now, I have been on my own, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. Hmm, that sounds familiar . . .

I don’t believe that you have to belong to a particular tradition or group in order to be a Buddhist. At the same time, I think that it’s a good idea to find ways to practice with others since it is very difficult to maintain a daily practice all on your own. I used to think that I was an anomaly. However, I think these days there are quite a few, who like myself, are unaffiliated and yet consider themselves Buddhist.

Now, of course, another reason why I am unaffiliated with any Buddhist sect or organization is because I also follow the teachings of Marx, and as the great guru Groucho once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”



When God Moves To Another Star

Tagore in 1925 - note the Buddha statues in the background
Tagore in 1925 – note the Buddha statues in the background

Today is the 152nd anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and philosopher whose phrase “the Endless Further” I borrowed for the title of this blog. Tagore was not a Buddhist per se, but he had great respect for the Buddha and his teachings. In Rabindranath Tagore His Life and Work, historian and translator Edward John Thompson, wrote, “He [Tagore] is almost more Buddhist than he is in sympathy with many forms of Hinduism that are most popular in his native Bengal.”

In The Religion of Man, Tagore wrote of our “constant struggle for a great Further.” This “further” is not mere knowledge, for as Tagore explained, “the further world of freedom awaits us there where we reach truth, not through feeling it by our senses or knowing it by our reason, but through the union of perfect sympathy.” By union, Tagore meant realizing the “eternal” within one’s own life. He called it an “inner inter-relationship.”

Although he often referred to God, Tagore’s God was different from our common conception. In The Religion of Man, he also talked about the “idea of the humanity of our God, or the divinity of Man the Eternal.” For Tagore, God was a “divine principle of unity,” the inner inter-relationship previously mentioned. Within this ideal of unity, we realize the infinite within life and appreciate the boundlessness of human love: “The unity becomes not a mere subjective idea, but an energizing truth. Whatever name may be given to it, and whatever form it symbolizes, the consciousness of this unity is spiritual, and our effort to be true to it is our religion.”

Tagore described his personal faith as “a poet’s religion.” I suspect he intended to mean that whatever one conceived as the Ultimate was ineffable and therefore expressible only through a language resembling poetry. The freedom mentioned above “is for expressing the infinite; it imposes limits in its works, not to keep them in permanence but to break them over and over again, and to reveal the endless in unending surprises.” As well, it is freedom from the bondage of suffering, or experiencing the infinite.

In experiencing the infinite, an individual is only realizing his or her own true nature, for we are already infinite in the sense that we participate in the timelessness of time. Our lives are moments in that time, and the space we occupy is a particle of infinite space. We are a part of the infinite, but we cannot be the whole of it, and whether we call the whole of everything – time, space, life – Ultimate Reality or give it the name of God, our journey to realize it will always remain incomplete.

In a story attributed to Tagore, a man goes searching for God, a search he has been on since the beginning of existence. Once in a while, he sees God on a faraway star, but by the time he reaches the star, God has moved to another star. This symbolizes the futility of searching for God or the Ultimate Reality outside of our lives, and trying to conceive God as a being or even as Being. The infinite is infinite, God is everywhere, as is Buddha, which is just a name for awakening, and the Ultimate is ultimately unknowable. Yet this does not negate the value of the journey, the searching.

In his collection of poetry, Gitanjali, Tagore wrote,

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said `Here art thou!’
The question and the cry `Oh, where?’ melt into tears of a thousand
streams and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!’

Without the search, without wayfaring, we can never know ourselves, and least that much we can know. We search for unity with the infinite within ourselves. We maintain “the search, enjoy the very journey, the pilgrimage” understanding that it too is infinite, and will remain incomplete, never exhausted, and that the union we seek is a continuous coalesce.

The searching is our religion, and you can give it any name, call it God if you wish, but know that God is the Endless Further.


Higgs boson and Nagarjuna’s no-God Particle

The universe may be finite. That what the science team at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator, have been thinking ever since they discovered the Higgs boson particle last year. And that could be bad news. Last week one of the team members, speaking at a science meeting in Boston, suggested that it is possible that tens of billions of years from now, another universe could come along and “slurp” ours up. Damn, and I had plans.

God Particle?
God Particle?

Higgs boson is a subatomic particle that scientists believe is what gives matter mass. The media has taken to calling it the “God Particle,” much to the chagrin of most physicists who say it has nothing at all to do with God or creation.

Speaking of which . . . Yesterday I tried twice to leave a comment on another blog and it never showed up. I don’t know if it was a glitch or if the blogger didn’t care for what I had to say, so I guess I’ll say it here.

The Buddha neither confirmed nor denied the existence of God as we understand that concept. In fact, the subject never came up. He had not heard of the God of Abraham and it seems that monotheism was unknown in India 2500 years ago. He was somewhat tolerant of the Indian gods, or devas, which Joseph Campbell described as like impersonal “bureaucrats” presiding over different aspects of nature and human activity. Yet, it is clear that the Buddha was pessimistic about the idea of relying on higher, holier beings for salvation or enlightenment.

Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher who has been called the “second Buddha,” felt that Buddha’s rejection of the God-idea was explicit. In his Hymn to the Inconceivable Buddha, translated by Chr. Lindtner, Nagarjuna states, “Just as the work of a magician is empty of substance, all the rest of the world — including a creator — has been said by You to be empty of substance . . .”

Nagarjuna demonstrated that the existence of a creator god is, as Hsueh-Li Cheng, says, “unintelligible.” Cheng, author of Empty Logic: Madhyamika Buddhism from Chinese sources, explains in this way,

Nagarjuna examined the meaning and possibility of “Something is made or produced by someone or something.” He pointed out that whenever we say “Something is made or produced by someone or something” either (1) x is made by itself, (2) x is made by another, (3) x is made by both, or (4) x is made from no cause at all. Yet none of these cases can be established, therefore the proposition cannot be established, and hence it makes no sense to say that the world was made by God.”

"Ixora [=Ishvara],an East Indian god," by William Hurd, 1781 ( )
“Ixora [Ishvara],an East Indian god,” by William Hurd, 1781 ( )
Nagarjuna identified the “creator god” as Isvara, the Indian “Supreme Lord.” We don’t know if he was familiar with the God of Abraham, but it doesn’t matter, for the principle is the same. As far as I understand it, if a god did not create the universe, then it cannot be a supreme being. Nagarjuna used his logic to advance further arguments against the very existence of God.

But he was equally as hard on Buddhist concepts. For instance, he demolished any idea that nirvana is a substantial thing (dharma), ultimate reality, or transcendental state. He says that nirvana is neither existent nor non-existent (bhava/abhava), or both, or not-both.  Nirvana is empty, and he says that

There is not the slightest difference between this world (samsara) and nirvana. There is not the slightest difference between nirvana and this world.”

Middle Way Verses, Ch. 25, V. 19 & 20

To some the word “God” refers to a personal, anthropomorphic being who created the universe, while to others it may refer to a non-personal nature and/or force that determines and governs all things. To me, neither side of that coin seems logical. Nevertheless, acceptance or belief in God is not the same thing to all people. My feeling is that regardless of how one appreciates God, or names it – God, ultimate reality, “ground of being”, Tao – at some point, there is a suggestion, a hint, of something outside of our lives involved. Buddhism teaches that when we seek happiness or salvation outside of our lives, or outside of this world, it only makes for greater suffering. That’s why I think it is simpler, smarter, and less confusing to just drop the whole idea. Discover Nagarjuna’s no-God particle.

So, Ananda, you must be your own lamps, be your own refuges. Take refuge in nothing outside yourselves. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge, and do not look for refuge to anything besides yourselves. “

Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya 16



The Tao of St. Augustine

I don’t remember how, but some years ago a musty 1962 paperback edition of The Confessions of St. Augustine came into my possession. While I am not particularly interested in Christian thought, from time to time, I do like to see what these folks have been up to, and I began to read the first chapter. It was quite an experience. Seldom have I encountered writing that displayed such power over language, and despite that much of the phrasing is archaic, and notwithstanding my minimal interest, I found the masterful manner in which Augustine expressed his faith and described his God nearly mesmerizing:

Confessions, Pedro de Ribadeneyra, 1654

What art Thou then, my God? what, but the Lord God? For who is Lord but the Lord? or who is God save our God? Most highest, most good, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong, stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; never new, never old; all-renewing, and bringing age upon the proud, and they know it not; ever working, ever at rest; still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and overspreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet having all things. Thou lovest, without passion; art jealous, without anxiety; repentest, yet grieves not; art angry, yet serene; changest Thy works, Thy purpose unchanged; receivest again what Thou findest, yet didst never lose; never in need, yet rejoicing in gains; never covetous, yet exacting usury. Thou receivest over and above, that Thou mayest owe; and who hath aught that is not Thine? Thou payest debts, owing nothing; remittest debts, losing nothing. And what had I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy? or what saith any man when he speaks of Thee? Yet woe to him that speaketh not, since mute are even the most eloquent.” [1. Edward B. Pusey, trans., The Confessions of St. Augustine, Washington Square Press, Inc., 1962, Book I]

St. Augustine’s poetic prose is compelling, and after the first chapter, I had to read further. In this autobiographical work, St. Augustine tells the story of his humble beginnings on an Algerian farm, his time spent indulging in hedonism, astrology, and thievery, and his eventual embrace of Christianity. Confessions is a searing meditation on spiritual struggle, as Augustine passionately probes his own soul, recounting in unflinching detail his inner turmoil, the battle between doubt and belief:

Thus soul-sick was I, and tormented, accusing myself much more severely than my wont, rolling and turning me in my chain, till that were wholly broken, whereby I now was but just, but still was, held. And Thou, O Lord, pressedst upon me in my inward parts by a severe mercy, redoubling the lashes of fear and shame, lest I should again give way, and not bursting that same slight remaining tie, it should recover strength, and bind me the faster. For I said with myself, “Be it done now, be it done now.” [2. Pusey, Book VIII]

The earliest portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome.

I bring St. Augustine up today because he was born on November 13th in 354 CE.

There are lines in Confessions that remind me of Lao Tzu. When I read “still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and overspreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing” from above, I thought of “The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease, creating, yet not working, yet not taking credit.” from Chapter Two of the Tao te ching. [3. Lao Tsu, Gia-Fu Feng, Tao te ching, Vintage Books, 1997]

I find more substantive parallels with Nagarjuna, perhaps Buddhism’s greatest philosopher. In his own way, Augustine argues in favor of a reality of interdependent existence, and, as Christopher Etter, in A Study of Qualitative Non-Pluralism, notes, “Like Nagarjuna, Augustine declares that when placing distinctive definitions on concepts we limit the understanding of the concept . . . However, unlike Nagarjuna, Augustine does not feel it is useless to use terminology, and makes qualitative distinctions on every aspect of his theological model.” [4. Christopher Etter, A Study of Qualitative Non-Pluralism, iUniverse, 2006]

There are also similarities with Shantideva, the Buddhist poet and philosopher from the 8th century:

I completely offer my entire self to the Jinas and their Children. O Supreme Beings, accept me! I reverently devote myself to your service. Being free from fear of mundane existence due to your protection, I shall serve sentient beings; I shall completely transcend my earlier vices, and henceforth I shall sin no more.”

Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life [5. Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, A guide to the bodhisattva way of life (Bodhicaryavatara) by Santideva, Snow Lion Publications, 1997]

Hear, Lord, my prayer; let not my soul faint under Thy discipline, nor let me faint in confessing unto Thee all Thy mercies, whereby Thou hast drawn me out of all my most evil ways, that Thou mightest become a delight to me above all the allurements which I once pursued; that I may most entirely love Thee, and clasp Thy hand with all my affections, and Thou mayest yet rescue me from every temptation, even unto the end.”

St. Augustine, Confessions [6. Pusey, Book I]

Augustine would probably have been pessimistic about Buddhism or Taoism, if he knew about them. In City of God, he rejects the “blasphemous notion of cyclical returns” merely on the basis that once having endured “this life with all its great calamities,” he finds it impossible to believe that “this is to happen again and again, as it has happened before, endlessly,” [7. Henry Bettenson, trans., St Augustine, City of God, Penguin Classics, 1984] which seems a rather weak argument to me. That is not to say that there is any great compelling argument for the notion of a cycle of birth and death.

At the beginning of Confessions, Augustine says, “Thou madest us for Thyself,” and here is the crux of my disagreement with the Christian notion of faith in God (aside from the fact that there is no evidence to support his or her existence), for even if I did believe in a Supreme Being, I could never accept that he would create us purely for his own satisfaction, or that our only purpose in being is to love him. It is quite ridiculous for anyone to think for a moment that we can even begin to fathom a mind so vast that it could create the universe. But if we must try to conceive this mind, it is logical to assume that it would be utterly devoid of any ego, as well as the other attributes, such as anger and jealousy, that we assign. I imagine (and that’s all I or anyone else can do) that such a being would be completely adverse to the idea of worshiping him. I think God would say, “Don’t love me, love each other. Love this earth, take care of this beautiful place I have given you.” And frankly, the Christian world has spent so much time adulating God and taking care about their faith, that they’ve done a pretty poor job of taking care of each other or this planet. But then, the rest of us haven’t done much better.

In any case, St. Augustine is a writer and thinker that people should know, and appreciate, whether they share his faith or not.