Slippery Slope

I’ve been home with a prostate infection, of all things, and so managed to get through all except the last two chapters of Judith Simmer-Brown’s Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s been a difficult but enlightening read. I have some concerns with the methods of the path as she describes it.

First, though, the positive: Tibetan Buddhism has a deep model of the manifestation of sacred principles in the world. Simmer-Brown traces that through secret, inner, outer, and outer-outer manifestations.

I related the essence of the secret dakini in my last post. Prajnaparamita manifests as space, wisdom and knowledge. As she builds the lore, Simmer-Brown explains that possession of these qualities makes the feminine principle dominant in Tibetan Buddhism, for skillful means (the use of compassion to transform experience) is both inspired by and guided by them. The secret dakini can be neither visualized nor understood, only known.

The inner dakini manifests as the deity Vajrayogini. Vajrayogini confronts the practitioner with the fear of death, and transforms it into acceptance and freedom. As a deity in Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrayogini is depicted in mandalas that define her relationship with the world. The most important elements in her depiction are the instruments of the charnel ground: skulls, flames and sharp implements. The logic of this depiction reflects the hazards of the sacred knowledge known to Tibetan practitioners. To advance, an acolyte must find a living guru that channels the sacred experience into the world, a yidam (devotional deity) to meditate upon, and a protector of the teachings that guides or violently transforms the personality to prevent corruption by residual grasping of the self.

The outer dakini mediates the transformation of the subtle energy system, similar to the system of prana or acupuncture. In Tibetan lore, all of our bodily functions are manifestations of energy flow through these channels. The central channel flows along the spine, but has two side channels that focus masculine and feminine tendencies. The goal of the practitioner is to merge the side channels into the central. In this process, the practitioner must cultivate relationships with twenty-four dakinis that originate the energies of the subtle body system. In a sense, the practitioner becomes a living mandala, and calls these energies into the world to create and transform experience.

The outer-outer dakini is the dakini in human form. In this section, Simmer-Brown celebrates the female figures in history that contributed to development of Tibetan wisdom. Here is where tantric sex comes to the fore, as well as validation of authority through esoteric action (magic). Both are cast in a positive light. Tantric sex is a method for mutual inspection and transmission of traits that facilitates personal growth. Magic is described as the means by which the physical infrastructure of the tradition is protected, including the bodies of practitioners meditating without food or shelter.

Through this summary, I hope that I reveal my respect for this tradition, whose richness and depth reflects a careful construction of interlocking elements that ensure the outcome of practice is compassionate engagement with all living beings.

However, I perceive certain issues.

First and most important is the conflation of space and mind. Mind existed long before this reality came into being, and is the realm of pure spirit to which we will return. Space exists in this realm only as a means to protect compassionate personalities from experiences more intense than they can mediate. To serve in this way, space was designed to capture and localize mind. Where that occurs, we find matter. This is the truth that Tibetan wisdom shares as the secret and outer dakinis.

Secondly we have the sense of privilege accorded to advanced practitioners. This manifests itself in the characterization of them as heroes rather than servants (the term used in Christianity) of humanity. The thanotic imagery of the inner dakini is particularly troubling. Death maintains the disintegration of spirit, something obvious in the description of the outer dakini. It’s adoption as a protector of privileged knowledge seems a dangerous compromise.

Personal privilege also seems evident in the rather sterile rendering of the relationship between tantric consorts. The gurus celebrate commitment, but not monogamy, each relationship broken off when the mutual benefits are exhausted.

This flies in the face of the most serious problem with the tradition. Simmer-Brown recounts that the assignment of a yidam (devotional deity) is driven by the tensions that exist in our lives. Meditation on the yidam resolves obstructions in the subtle energy system that manifest as perceptible heat in the body. Simmer-Brown refers to this in the title (warm breath), but never stops to wonder what tension is attendant to that heat.

Simmer-Brown gnaws at the bone of the problem throughout the book, defending Tibetan Buddhism against charges of patriarchy while postulating that its dominant spiritual forms arose from a prehistoric matriarchy. She decries the traps of feminine physicality that bring life into the world, seeing them as simultaneously a personal and cultural impediment to spiritual advancement.

This error is the cause of the warmth felt by those that meditate on Parjnaparamita, the secret dakini.

From the Christian perspective, the answer to this dilemma is obvious: all things are joined in love. Coitus is not necessary to transmission of masculine and feminine virtues, only love. Relationships persist because the love between the couple expands to include the society, and their shared experience is essential to greater service to humanity. And the dangers of esoteric knowledge are lessened because love – the source of all creative power – is unknown to those that would abuse its energies.

In patterning the female path to enlightenment on the masculine path, Tibetan Buddhism does women a terrible disservice. These are precious gifts: the ability to bring life into the world, the determination to preserve it, and the social rewards for their devotion. Any proclaimed feminine spirituality should provide practices that strengthen those gifts, rather than sacrificing them on the altar of death.

Contrast that with the promise of Spirit and his Bride:

“Come! And let all that hear say: ‘Come!’ Let all who desire come and drink of the free gift of the water of life.”

Considering the  filters and constraints of Tibetan Buddhism, this confidence is marvelous!

The Season of Peace

Among the seven forms of selfishness released upon the Earth when the seals were broken in heaven [Rev. 6], the prince of death is that mystical presence that divides us from those that we love and feasts on our sorrow.

In this season, we celebrate a man who submitted to death, yet still loving those that abused him [Luke 23:34]. Through his devotion, Jesus suffused death with love. He converted that impenetrable barrier into a shield that keeps warring spirits apart until they find the strength to forgive one another [Matt. 1:21 and Luke 24:47].

For those of us that in this season celebrate Christmas, this is the source of its meaning and joy.

Getting Over Our Ages-Old Fear of Old Age

I came across this delightful image today in David Stipp’s Scientific American short on anti-aging supplements. He says:

Whenever I see my 10-year-old daughter brimming over with so much energy that she jumps up in the middle of supper to run around the table, I think to myself, “those young mitochondria.”

Stipp’s article leads me to the conclusion that the recent fad for mitochondrial supplements seems to be undermined by evidence that systemic factors dominate. Specifically, our youthful vigor is not restored by supplements that improve the efficiency of the mitochondria that transfer energy from sugar to our muscles. That means other factors are at work.

My advice for those that can’t wait to be young again: enjoy this life, and don’t fight death when it comes. It’s your opportunity to be reborn with a full set of new equipment.

Dying in Peace

Standard Christian theology is that Christ died so that God could forgive our sins. But I think that Jesus said something a little more subtle: that he would die for “the forgiveness of sin.”

As I understand it, God is not about choosing those worthy to live in his presence, he is concerned with healing. A sin is a sin because it leaves a wound in the soul. That wound cannot be healed until we are ready to forgive the sin – to let it go so that it may be displaced by love. When that occurs, even the most vicious criminal becomes qualified to enter paradise.

Even better, though, is to hold on to the sin. It is to do as Jesus did – to allow the sin to take hold of us, and then to forgive it so that it may be suffused by love, and so made noble.

Death is a sin because is separates things that cherish one another. That cherishing reflects a mutually beneficial relationship. So for death to enforce such separation is to deny the parties those benefits, and thus to wound them.

In dying, Jesus allowed the servants of Death (the priests that slaughtered innocent creatures on the altar) to have their way with him, and forgave them. He suffused death with love, and so became the Prince of Peace.

How does that work? Because warring parties need to be separated. That can be accomplished in death, but what Jesus does is offer a spiritual refuge in which we can reflect until we figure out how to share strength with the ones we war against.

Sometimes, of course, that is our selves. Peace starts within, and when we accept Jesus, we allow him into our hearts and minds and grant him loving dominion over the conflicts that rage within us.

As Cain learned, it isn’t easy, but God understands that sin cannot be healed unless we wrestle with it. Terrible things happen: Cain murdered his brother Abel. But even then, that most heinous of sins was not punished with death. Instead, Cain was sent away to think, reflect, and become stronger.

Don’t Blame Love

In the final chapter of Love Works, the feminine personality of life, irritated by the disorder generated by the masculine personality of intellect, grabs him by the short hairs, prompting him to observe:

Choice is a bitch. Let’s hope the kids do better next time. Now, will you let go? (How does she make it hurt so much?)

It’s undeniable that the spread of life across the earth has been driven by primitive urges.

Life’s procreative greed causes ecosystems to become saturated, stunting evolutionary opportunity. The great extinction episodes of paleohistory terminated biological dead-ends, and were all followed by eras in which life took off in new directions.

Conversely, the ability to use tools requires a large brain and flexible digits, both of which limit the growth of organic armor (which traps heat) and organic weapons (which must be anchored to large bones). Thus creatures of intellect such as humans are biologically vulnerable, and so spread only when they can produce tools that overcome the weapons and armor of other animals.

Once those tools were available, however, fear and greed drove us to consume natural resources without restraint, bringing the globe today to the point of ecological collapse. Deflecting the force of these natural tendencies is the challenge we have laid at love’s door.

In the history of religion, that struggle began with the worship of the two polar opposites of procreation and death. With the rise of the hydrological civilizations, an intellectual class of priests began to envision gods with subtle ethical character. But it was really only about 3000 years ago (and only among the intellectual elite) that humanity dared to suppose the gods should be devoted to us, rather than the other way around.

Monotheism is the culmination of this process, and led eventually to the declaration that God is love. This is common to all of the great religions.

But is it to our advantage? Given that we have free will, why should we feel constrained to draw only upon love when we face challenges? When our treasurer embezzles the retirement fund, do we just shrug our shoulders? Or do we get a noose? And when the hanging is done, can’t we justify the act with the assertiong that we are loving our spouse, children and/or co-workers?

The retort to this logic is that if you had really cared about your treasurer and paid attention to her psychological well-being, you would have seen the trouble long before it manifested. But, damn, that seems like a lot of work, and didn’t we pay them to do the right thing? So we keep the noose handy, and that means that the old deities of death get in through the back door of our religions. They stay alive there, and as ecological collapse sweeps across the globe, they will appear once again to grow in power.

But, fundamentally, they are the disease. Sexual indulgence and fear of death are what drove us to exploit the natural world. That love did not have a magic wand to drive them away is not its fault. So we need to stop blaming monotheistic religions for our refusal to hew to the dictates of love. Rather, we need to double down, even as fear sweeps over us, and invest in the love that creates the strength to resist the urge to exploit the world around us.

God and Human

One of the more frustrating problems faith is trying to make sense of pronouncements that characterize realities that we cannot understand. In Christianity, a great deal of dialog, derision and good-old-fashioned blood-letting revolves around the concept that Jesus was at once both God and man. It is related to the problem of the Holy Trinity that was the most controversial issue in the Council of Nicea, and continues to divide the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

To critical onlookers this probably appears to be ludicrous ado about nothing, merely an attempt to layer a veneer of respectability over a huckster’s mumbo-jumbo. But to those that take the program of Christianity seriously, the mystery is a real problem. Jesus clearly expected us to be more. That is hinted by his repeated pronouncement “Your faith has healed you.” It becomes more explicit when he tells the disciples “there is nothing I do that you cannot do yourselves” leading him to observe peevishly, when waken on a stormy sea, “Oh ye of little faith!” And of course, ultimately he avers to his students “Things even greater than these shall you do.”

Clearly, Jesus’s expectation was that he was only an existence proof, not a singular phenomenon.

So how do we become like him? What is this faith? What power does it allow to enter into us? And as Jesus demonstrated, how do we establish a permanent and continuous living with and through that power?

The key, I believe, is clear through Jesus’s teachings. He began with parables that characterize the unconditional and infinitely forgiving love of the Father. At the midpoint, he simplifies the Law as “Love your God, and love your neighbor as though he was yourself.” And finally, in the great struggle in Gethsemane, he conquers the fears of the flesh and surrenders himself fully to his love of the world. And in his resurrection, his glory testifies to the authority earned in his remaking of heaven and earth through the mechanism of his sacrifice.

So he is God and Human. But why God? Why the best, most powerful God? What is it about love that is so powerful?

To understand this, we have to turn to the realm of the Almighty, where the ethereal host evolves under different laws of physics. What we know is that angels do not have flesh. They are souls living in pure relation. What is common between their realm and ours is that some of those relationship are beneficial, and some harmful.

Two forms of relation are particularly potent. First is the relation of Death, which creates insuperable barriers between the angels, preventing them from entering in relation. Although there is a certain restfulness in death, by its very nature its grasp is difficult to escape. The second is Unconditional Love, which seeks restlessly to maximize the benefits of relation. It is a force that helps angels escape circumstances that suppress their expression, liberating them into mutually beneficial engagements that generate new and unexpected possibilities. As we are told, liberated spirits facilitate the spread of love by “singing” its praises.

In the Book of Revelation, John is brought into Heaven. While Heaven is not the Realm of the Almighty, but reflects its dynamic. Around a throne occupied by Unconditional Love, twenty-four principal angels are gathered wearing crowns. When the living creatures sing the praises of love, the angels are compelled to lay aside their crowns and bow in praise to the one on the throne.

Why is this so? If so powerful, why should love sit on a throne, isolated from us, guarded in fact by fearsome predators? That is not its desire, as revealed in the final Chapters, where no light and no temple is found in the city of God because love has been woven into its very fabric.

The problem is that when offered power, we think first of ourselves. Trapped here in this physical existence, full of pain and struggle, we use our strength to compel others to serve us. We violate the compact of unconditional love. We corrupt it with “sin.” To become as Jesus, we must surrender our self-concern. We must think only of others, and trust that they will concern themselves with us.

This was the compact that Adam and Eve sundered in the Garden of Eden. Given the task of tending God’s kingdom on earth, they thought of themselves. God tried for many generations to overcome that sin, but the gap was too great between his perfection and our fallen state. Jesus came down to experience that fallen state, to struggle with its frailty, to have his compassion sharpened on the point of our daily peril. It was only in the intimacy of the disease that healing could be given.

So this is how Jesus was both God and Human: he was a one-way street. Through him, only love came. Impervious to self-concern, no sin went back the other way. And through the humanity of his courage, love gave those he encountered the strength to turn aside from fear and accept the healing power of love.

And finally, in his encounter with death on the cross, love suffused that presence and turned it into the agent of peace. Death is no longer a final separation, but an agent that brings surcease when fear pushes us into violence. Having submitted death, the Prince of Peace is capable of cocooning us in love until we recall our better selves.

So this is the answer: in submitting to the teachings of Christ, we become gods in loving one another, and thus receive from each other the power to bring good into the world, and thus experience good to the limit of our capacity.

What is Evil?

This is a response to this post by Insanity Bytes on “There’s this Thing Called Biology”:


IB:

This is a terribly complex problem, but fundamentally, I see it this way: love (which is God) enters into all things, because everything desires the power that it offers (the essence of loving is to offer power). But that power comes with constraints – love will abandon us if we hurt others. So love turns everything to its purpose, which is loving. To preserve their identity, the things that love embraces will do terrible things to push it away.

You began your post with a meditation on dysfunctionality in relationships. Often, that is what I see going on: people struggling for control against the dictates of love.

Jesus taught on many occasions about this struggle: the parable of the talents, the exhortation to “die to yourselves.” He understood how difficult it was, confronting the surrender to Death in Gethsemane and pleading “take this cup away from me.” The reason it is hard is because the world is full of the pain of our attempts to assert ourselves over the needs of others. Rather than the graceful patience of accepting that “this is not my moment, but my moment will come”, we lash out in fear, seeking to make every moment our moment. Paradoxically, we only augment our suffering, because in that lashing out we drive love from us.

Jesus was confronted with the obligation to shoulder that burden, surrendering everything else to it. I don’t know if you’ve seen “The Green Mile”, but the jailed healer in the movie pleads in the end for death. He says that walking around in the world is like living with broken pieces of glass in your mind.

You allude to Christ as the solution to evil, but he is the “Prince of Peace” for a reason. Death separates our souls – we mourn the loss of those that loved us, and often celebrate the end of those that hurt us. But Death consumes us, stealing from us the memory of our lives. Jesus changed all that. He suffused Death with love, and so now has the power to say: “These two enemies need to be separated for the sake of peace.” So I don’t think that he sees anything as evil. He sees sickness that as a surgeon he has the power to heal.

Pope Francis, in reaction to his predecessors characterization of homosexuality as a sin, said “Who am I to judge?” As humans, we might recognize the existence of evil in the world – the presence of personalities so committed to themselves that they will never accept the dictates of love. But it is not our place to pass judgment on them. Jesus redeemed death when no other believed that it was possible. Until we enter fully into his mind, we should be cautious about casting people into the abyss, seeking instead to educate and heal.

I recognize your participation in that in your work. Thank-you.