Understanding Emptiness

Having discovered a central role for women of grace through my interpretation of Revelation, I was hungry for more insight. It arrived for me at Thunderbolt Books in Santa Monica, in the form of Judith Simmer-Brown’s Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism.

As I explained at Love Returns, Unconditional Love cannot judge, for to judge would be to reject experience that must be understood to bring healing. This is the central tenet of Buddhism: the acolyte must avoid attachment to phenomena, seeing them clearly without judgment, and use compassion to transform experience. This principle is called “emptiness.”

Christianity struggles with this wisdom, for it foretells of an era of universal love guided by Christ. When people hurt others, Christians categorize them as “fallen,” as among the goats the Jesus separates from the lambs in the Last Judgment.

Being the least subjective of our great religious traditions, in my reading of Dakini’s Warm Breath, it appears to me that Buddhism has advanced most closely to the underlying nature of reality.

Dakinis originated in Indian Buddhism as carnal demons that protected nature from exploitation. Perhaps understanding that Humanity was going to place itself in opposition to nature, they originally sought to stifle spiritual development. In Tibetan Buddhism, this changed when enlightened persons projected their commitment to compassion and honor for all aspects of reality. Discovering a partner in those practitioners, many dakinis took cause with them, becoming defenders of the wisdom teachings from corruption. Having removed this impediment to relation with the divine feminine, Tibetan masters then encountered the Great Queen Prajnaparamita.

The parallels with the Book of Revelation are too obvious to ignore. The carnal dakinis would be Whore of Babylon; Prajnaparamita would be the Sacred Mother. Indeed, Simmer-Brown explains:

So, she who manifests as Prajnaparamita is the Great Mother of all the buddhas of the past, present and future.

Parjnaparamita has specific characteristics that allow her to serve in this role. She is space. She “shows the world for what it is.” and she “reveals the thoughts and actions of other beings.”

In Love Works, I advanced a model of spirit that explains these characteristics. The primary duality of existence is self and other. To have compassion, we must preserve our self. That is the gift of space, without which all phenomena would collapse into a single point. Space is not empty, but a lattice framework that supports the evolution of spirit.

When an event occurs, space does not transform the event – it does not seek to interpret or change the event. Those that seek the truth are given access to that history, while those that serve the self must fight against the resistance marshalled by the truth.

All events unfold into spirit. To those that do not impose themselves upon the world, instead choosing to negotiate win-win outcomes for all beings, those thoughts are freely available. Those that work for selfish ends trap themselves in their materiality, and so are cut off from this source of wisdom.

As Simmer-Brown explains, the Buddhist knows this through experience, but has no answer to “Why?” The Christian relies upon the promises of Christ, and answers “Why?” with “Because God loves us.”

In the first hundred pages of Simmer-Brown’s beautiful, wise and compassionate treatise, her teachers emphasize that the dakini is the root of Buddhist practice. The bodhisattva is a practitioner of “skillful means” that propagate the dakini’s wisdom. This seems to deprecate the masculine role.

At Love Returns, I offer this: Love seeks to create marvelous relationships. In a wounded world, to do so it must divide into two parts: a masculine part that changes and a feminine part that preserves what is good. Neither is superior or subordinate. Eventually, they unite, and our division from love is healed. Masculine virtues will continually invent new experiences, but only under the guidance of feminine virtues that prepare space to receive those manifestations.

First Video Posted on Love Returns

I spent the weekend producing my first video out at Love Returns (Doors to Love). The experience was a little humbling. My face is complicated, and I haven’t had to pay attention to my diction given that I spend most of my time teaching computers with my fingers. But I decided to push it out so that I could gauge the effort required to do a weekly video.

In the end, I’m surprised how easy it was to make a high-quality product, limited only by the qualities of the presenter (i.e. – myself). Vegas Movie Studio is a great tool, my greatest frustration being addressed once I learned to put a marker in every time I wanted to switch video clips. The titler also has an odd quirk, in that the time length of the animation must be set before entering the setup screen.

What surprised me most was the intensity of the emotions that came up as I did the first of the two recordings (the one with me seated). I didn’t use many of those moments in the final cut, preferring the less agitated demeanor of the close-up. I didn’t think to turn the Handycam viewer around, so the framing of the close-up is a little odd, but I hope that there’s some charm in that.

For those that can’t bear to watch the whole thing, I’ve also posted the transcript.

The Zen of Jesus

Upon waking up to the reality that self-serving does not bring joy, the seeker after comfort tends to a superficial sampling of religious wisdom. The sophisticated teacher needs to avoid becoming involved in blame-shifting for the seeker’s miserable state. In the traditions of Abraham, that begins with a vow of submission, formulated in Christianity as “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” In Islam, it is stated as the Shahada:

There is no god but God alone; he has no partner with him; Muhammad is his prophet.

The dissatisfied acolyte is then made responsible for his own condition, in that all wisdom is found in direct relation with the godhead.

Lacking a divine center for its practice, Buddhism takes a different approach, epitomized by the Zen koan. A koan is a cryptic one-liner that organizes an inward meditative journey. The most notorious is:

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

The obvious answer is “nothing,” but that certainly doesn’t point the way to wisdom. The student still needs to grasp that the “hand” being referred to is themselves, and that in seeking after spiritual glory, they earn no lauds.

The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-22 shows Jesus ministering to the problematical seeker. The poor fellow grasps at eternal life as a guarantee that joy can be secured. Calling Jesus “Master,” he then asks what good he must perform to earn that grace.

Presciently, in Matthew 7:21, Jesus had pre-empted the Christian vow of submission:

Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my father.

Consistent with this warning, Jesus immediately deflects the proffered authority:

Why do you ask me what is good? There is one alone who is good.

No man needing anything but faith to draw upon the strength and wisdom of the Father.

But the teaching does not end with the Zen master’s edict to seek inwardly. Jesus lists the six commandments of human relation: edicts against murder, adultery, theft, and lying; and encouragements to honor our parents and love our neighbors. The latter build intimacy with those closest to us; the former prevent those bonds from sundering. Through this practice, Jesus suggests that his protégé will “enter into life.” In avoiding the drama of struggle, adherence to the commandments allows to blossom those quiet moments in which we gain the subtle and sublime assurance of security in our knowledge of the compassion that embraces us.

We are no longer a hand trying to clap alone.

But the seeker is not just young; he suffers another handicap, one known in Islam as Allah’s greatest test of character. He is rich. Thus, while meaning well, others see him as a potential source of material security. They seek a bond with his money, not his heart. And so Jesus offers him this final advice: give your wealth to the poor and follow!

The young man departs saddened. We can only guess at the cause: was he responsible for managing money that ensured the well-being of the community, wealth that he could not trust others to manage responsibly? Was he simply unable to imagine survival without the perks of wealth: the daily bath, the satisfying meals? Or did he arrogantly perceive his wealth as a sign of divine approval, and so Jesus’ pronouncement as proof that hope had been invested with just another false prophet?

Whichever it may have been, we as readers should recognize the advice not as some generic one-size-fits-all formulation, but a direct response to the needs of this troubled young man. It is the mark of the greatness of his compassion that Jesus does this again and again throughout his ministry: offering just the words that the listener needs to hear to bring solace and healing, even to the point on the cross of:

Father: forgive them. They know not what they do. [Luke 23:34]

Jesus was not concerned with self-preservation – he was devoted to his ministry to the lost. Thus, while his teaching encapsulates the wisdom of the Zen and Christian teacher, it then surpasses it. None can doubt that he does the best that he can for them, although they might not be able to respond fully. Yes, it is this I believe that gives the young man sadness: his realization that salvation was offered him, and he was unable to grasp it. It foreshadows Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane:

The spirit is willing; but the flesh is weak. [Matt. 26:41]

and:

My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. [NIV Matt. 26:38]

Beyond Evil to Good

Miguel de Unamuno, considering the road from masculine frailty to faith, observed in Tragic Sense of Life that all men desire two things:

  • To live forever.
  • To rule the world.

The obvious paradox in these impulses is that most of us (myself being a man) attempt to accomplish the second by beating the crap out of other men – which tends to advance the interruption of our seeking after the first.

Work-arounds abound, the most obvious being to have a gun at the ready whenever an altercation arises. The subtlest is the use of psychological conditioning to get others to do the beating up for us. In totalitarian states, that conditioning takes the form of propaganda against imagined enemies, but is often joined with control over basic necessities. In democratic cultures, the conditioning is typically tied to unattainable visions of sexual conquest. When progeny ensue, hypersensitivity to their vulnerability often becomes the lever used to encourage financial exploitation of others.

Obviously in these systems there will be losers – a great many losers. The power of the impulses identified by Unamuno then manifests in a terrible perversion, expressed by a friend who asserted that the world would “know about him.” He testified ominously:

“Yeah, when a man has nothing to lose, there’s nothing he won’t do. And when the world learns about me, it will be nothing like anything that it’s ever seen before.”

I tried to lighten the air, offering that I knew what he meant, and that my sons were sometimes worried that I was going to just walk off and disappear. When he asked “You mean go live on the streets?” I replied, “No, probably they’d find me out someplace like the Amazon in Ecuador helping the indigenous people deal with the mess that Texaco left behind.”

Ah, the contradictory consequences revealed by Unamuno’s observation!

Some men lose everything, and seek to rule the lives of others by ending them, thus finding immortality in notoriety. I have nothing, and so claim this little piece of the blogosphere, writing about everything for almost nobody, and imagine conquering a little part of the world with a sponge and a squeegee. Some men fear the immigrant, and extrapolate our future against Europe’s tragedies where the Muslim population is ten times proportionately larger than ours. Accepting King’s dictum that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I embrace Muslim America as an opportunity for Islamic scholarship to rediscover and reassert the original message of Mohammed (pbuh), and any acts of violence as a cross to be born in conquering fear.

Unamuno’s defense of Christian faith was that we “create this God of love and eternal life by believing in him.” I see that as heresy: we don’t create him; we rather allow his virtues to manifest in our lives. In doing so, we learn to love ourselves and accept love from others, thereby obtaining dominion over the only part of the world that really matters: ourselves. In focusing that strength to the service of loving others, we lessen the burden of their resistance to our survival, and so enter more deeply into their world.

And for those that cannot learn – either those that lash out in violence or those that consume the innocent? What do they become in the end? Not themselves any longer – they become a headline in a newspaper. The history implicit in the personal “why” is lost. They become simply a “what”: 18 in San Bernardino. 49 people dead in Orlando. 3000 dead on 9/11. 47 million during World War II. Their personal history is consumed by the violence they created.

But men like Buddha – who renounced violence to bring a system of self-control to his people – or Jesus – who died to expose the hypocrisy of the military-religious complex – their names are enshrined in the hearts of those they have liberated. They live on in us.

“Judeo-Christian” is an Oxymoron

As Eastern mysticism enters Western culture, its practitioners have adopted Western marketing techniques. Starting from the proposition that Western seekers of enlightenment have been failed by their institutions, the Daoist or Buddhist teacher seeks a rationale for the failure that will entice victims of “Judeo-Christian” spirituality to sample their methods. The central tenet of the narrative is that Judeo-Christianity imposes a view of human nature as fallen into sin that disempowers its followers. In contrast, the Eastern tenets and practices of “mindfulness” open a doorway to self-knowledge and self-control that leads into joyful exploration of life’s possibilities.

Having respect for Eastern methods, I’m not going to dispute the beneficial consequences of its practices. Rather, I want to emphasize that it’s not an “either-or” proposition.

In the Bible, the confusion arises right at the start, in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. As I explain in The Soul Comes First, this is a parable for a community living in direct relation with the spirit of unconditional love. In Vedantic terms, this is to interact with an occupant of the higher astral realms. The problem was not that Adam and Eve partook of the “Tree of Knowledge”, for they were given great knowledge of the world in that era, as necessary to assuming stewardship of the Earth. Rather, it was because they chose to partake of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” They chose to exercise independent moral judgment. They chose to make mistakes that would cause suffering in others, rather than disciplining themselves to the dictates of love.

The immediate response of the personality described as God is to establish a safe distance. A repeated theme of the Old Testament is the pain caused by the Chosen people to its God, and in the New Testament that culminates in human experience. To love is to give power, and when that power is misused, it causes pain. What is amazing about the devotion of the God of Abraham is the investment made in human maturation in the face of that pain. But to remain in immediate and direct contact with humanity as it went through that process would have been disastrous. Love is an amplifier. It empowers whatever it touches. It needs to keep evil out, lest that destructive force run amok everywhere.

But the devotion to our maturation is clearly visible in the Bible, and follows a logical progression. The story of Abraham and his descendants ends with Joseph, the first man in the book with the strength to be steadfast in danger and to resist his primitive sexual drive. It progresses with Moses, who introduces that Law of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus to instill the discipline of logic in the Chosen people. In modern psychological terms, God was trying to create a people who were capable of using their cortexes to control the survival instincts of the brain stem and aggressive emotions of the limbic system.

Unfortunately, any fixed system of rules is inevitably corrupted by those responsible for its administration, who find it all too easy to manipulate it to deny rights and even life to those that they wish to control. It was against the corruption of the Judaic system of Law that Jesus set himself, eventually confronting both the Sadducees and Pharisees with this great truth [NIV Matt. 22:34-40]:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In effect, what he is saying to these experts of legal interpretation is “The Law has taught you to think. Now think about love.”

This is evident throughout Acts in the teachings of the Apostles, foremost among them Paul, but not exclusively. The message is that there is nothing that we can do to attain salvation from this corrupt existence except to call love into our presence. Having been born into corruption, which is to say in a spiritual context of Darwinian competition that requires the theft of resources from other living creatures, the fastest way to healing is to call upon love – which is to say “God.”

Judaism and Christianity are therefore two distinct spiritual practices. Because humanity is composed of individuals, both practices have value to individuals struggling with maturity. For those in thrall to aggression, lust and fear, the discipline of a system of rules still gives strength to the cortex. For those that shine hope into that struggle, love grants not only peace and joy, by a powerful transformative capability that is best exemplified by the devotion still awarded to Jesus, the man who died on the cross to prove that death has no sway over those that surrender to love.

So when looking at Eastern methods, what I see is a way to spiritual maturity without wading through the dangerous waters of Law. I see the possibility of “Veda-Christianity” that guides the seeker far more reliably into the healing spring of love.

Visualization Aids

I have been walking through my response to Ethan Nichtern’s The Road Home. The first two entries end with a “compare and contrast” to Christianity, though I recognize that the threads I emphasize are not typical of most Christian commentators. Given the power to frame the debate, the critical reader might assume also that I have tilted the playing field. For myself, I have been astonished at the degree of compatibility between Christian and Buddhist thought. I have not sought to diminish Ethan’s authority. I feel a great love for him, for reasons that will be revealed below.

Nichtern identifies three distinct stages along the Buddhist path: personal, interpersonal and cultural. The last is the realm of Vajrayana or Tantric practices of visualization. As Nichtern describes it, after having recognized our poor programming and having learned to harmonize our existence with others, in the final stage of the journey the practitioner does the greater work of revitalizing the stories that we tell about the lives that we lead, replacing myths of helplessness with tales of creative accomplishment.

Nichtern’s description of the first two stages of the path are firmly rooted in psychology. In his description of the Vajrayana practices, however, I felt the language to be beautifully poetical — that is to say, inspirational and aspirational rather than logical. I attribute this shift as a reflection of his rejection of mystical experience. Nichtern almost apologizes for the ancient Buddhist practitioners who asserted that their visualizations were personalities resting out of time. To the modern commentator, the ancient view is just not “scientific.” (Of course, here I have dispute that “scientific” consensus.)

While Nichtern claims to remain open to mystical possibilities, in considering the role of Buddhism in social action, he asserts that our struggles are rooted in a human culture that stimulates “scared, selfish and solitary” behaviors (the three S’s) to the detriment of “courage, compassion and connection” (the three C’s). Drawing upon Solnit’s A Paradise Born in Hell, Nichtern observes that in the aftermath of disaster most communities exercise the three C’s until leaders arrive to assert control — as Solnit documents, often with the goal of securing property. Nichtern then advances a variant of original sin, a la Rousseau: primitive man is noble, but human society corrupts that nature. The problems that we confront are self-made, and can be resolved by coordinating personal expressions of mindfulness in social action.

But does the problem originate with humanity? This is consistent with Christian dogma. However, upon careful reading, the book of Genesis clearly indicates that evil did not originate with mankind. The serpent existed before the fall, and in managing Cain’s struggle with selfishness, God says “Sin waits at your door. It desires to have you, but you can master it.”

When we awaken fully to the reality of mystical evolution, it can be terrifying. The forces at play are enormous, far beyond the capacity of any human mind to resist. An accessible analogy is the condition of the citizen in the modern nation-state: the government can easily destroy the individual. So where is hope to be found? In the United States, the liberty of the individual is protected in the construction of our Constitution, which safeguards individual freedom through tension between the three branches of government. So on the chessboard of mystical confrontation: life exists where spirit enters matter. In that melding, spirit is capable of propagation and adaptation, but also runs the risk of becoming mired. The protagonists proceed slowly and deliberately, pursuing their conflict with methods that may wound life, but never desiring to annihilate it, because that would be to annihilate themselves.

The long struggle for justice, extending back to the construction of this reality, has been to secure the fruits of creative collaboration against the destructive whims of predators. Once that is understood, we recognize that while we are hunted, we are also supported, and that support comes from entities that have creative capacities that are being organized to liberate us from evil.

So why reject that reality? Because it hurts. To take a turn of phrase from Madison: “Life is the worst form of experience – except all the other forms.” But before we lose hope, we should invoke Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The three C’s unlock the powers of the creative mind. When we embrace them fully, there is nothing that can hold us in check, not even death itself. Humanity has the privileged opportunity to facilitate the expression of the creative powers. We should embrace it.

I have met Ethan twice in person, and had the same unusual experience on both occasions. When I approached to shake his hand, his fingers folded inward. I had the strange impression that they were bending around a wound received in a past life. He seemed unable to control his reaction, even when my hand arrived as a brace.

Oh, my brother! I have tried, in my visualizations, to pull those nails from your palms. That burden was not yours. There are greater powers at work than ours. Trust them, and embrace the greatest of human privileges: dispelling the shadow of shame and fear not only from individual human minds, but from human nature itself, and eventually all the sentient minds populating the world that we both love so deeply.

It is, indeed, an honor to walk the road with you.

Running on Empty

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised – after all, how many people testify that they turned to spiritual practice because they wanted to share the secrets of their material success and psychological balance. No, even if, as Siddhartha and Jesus did, they seek after solutions for others, most seekers after inner truth do so because they find the world to be unsatisfactory. So most spiritual paths start by attacking that which is considered to be most wrong.

In the case of Buddhism, that process beings with deprogramming. The seeker turns inwards and attempts to break the association between her experience of the present moment and its interpretation by the mind. The goal is to understand the operation of the mind, and to correct its programming so that we can construct more successfully our lives.

As Ethan Nichtern describes this process in “The Road Home”, the currency of the successful life is bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is that ephemeral awareness that human nature is constructed to empower our well-being. All the tools are available to us, if we only apply ourselves to learning the craft of living well.

Nichtern does not expose the contradiction of that process: in order to live well, we must murder our dissatisfied self. Our resolve is fortified by applying the law of cause-and-effect to the history of our lives. When we recognize the connection between our misunderstanding and our dissatisfaction, it becomes clear that we should modify our understanding. While the impact of that change is healing of our relationship with the world, that takes time to manifest. Immediately, the change is in fact a form of self-murder.

I experienced this a number of times in my first year in college. As I expanded my awareness of the world of the intellect, I had dreams of my old self dissolving into this greater realm. That old self wasn’t a bad self, and it inhabited a world that I was comfortable navigating. I knew that I couldn’t go back, and so with growth came mourning for the self that had died.

When she has severed the sense of self from the process of forming judgments about the world, the Buddhist seeker is prepared for a journey into emptiness. Nichtern cautions clearly that this is not to surrender a search for meaning. Rather, it is to recognize that the self – our personal experience – is not the entire measure of meaning.

Nichtern illustrates the problem with a parable of the irritating mother-in-law. Rising from the mat, the meditator considers with satisfaction the clarity of mind that he has attained. Then the phone rings, and mother-in-law demands an audience. Equanimity is replaced with dread and anger.

The wisdom of all great spiritual teachings is that it doesn’t help to project our ill-feeling back on the trigger. That simply reinforces the pattern – obviously they find us irritating as well. Instead, we have to learn to project equanimity into our relationships, both beneficial and hostile. When the latter overwhelm us, we should seek separation.

As Nichtern documents, the Buddhist concept of emptiness has a complex lineage. I also find it to be subtle, almost to opacity. He eventually resorts to a metaphor: the ego is like a cocoon, protected in the shell of hardened ideas, but seeking from deep within to transform into a liberated soul. To become empty is to break out of our cocoon. Our experience becomes “empty” because we are no longer bound by the constraints of the cocoon. To be “empty” is to be free.

But free for what? Nichtern asserts that the Buddhist practitioner, recognizing the interdependence between her well-being and the well-being of others, is motivated to seek after healing for the world as a whole. This is a freedom to, rather than the ideal of freedom from which is so popular in America and expressed to magnificently by W.C. Fields with the comedic line, “Go away kid. You’re botherin’ me.”

Put in this context, I find it valuable to make the leap to a more accessible characterization of the dysfunction addressed by Buddhist practice: quite simply, it is selfishness. When embarking in her practice, the acolyte must learn to surrender the protective cocoon that defines her hostile experience. For her own good, that self must be relinquished, allowing her to emerge into constructive engagement with the world. That engagement necessarily involves relationships, and Buddhism offers that wisdom that attaining healthy relationships requires that we not impose our experience on others. We must seek instead to improve our experience.

In Christian practice, selfishness is recognized as the antidyne of unconditional love. In the material world, selfishness manifests most powerfully as predation — the tendency to say “I don’t care how much effort was required to make this. I don’t care how much it will hurt to lose it. I want it, and I’m going to take it.” In the spiritual realm, selfishness desires nothing but itself, and so is arid, producing nothing of value except by coopting the virtues (interesting, then, that Jesus went into the desert to confront Satan).

When the Christian surrenders to the strength of unconditional love, they conquer selfishness. That condition is characterized, not as emptiness, but as peace, arising from the same source as does Buddhist bodhichitta: the realization that reality is organized to bring us into a life that is both satisfying and rich.