Tyranny Vanquished by Love

As an advocate of the healing manifested in the world through divine love – that is to say, as an apologist – the most painful apology is that offered by those that justify violence in the defense of received truth.

In modern America, those justifications are flavored with desperation. For many years, Christian culture was synonymous with the dominant Caucasian culture. The twenty-first century promises an end to that dominance, but that eventuality was clearly forecast in the last century. The misguided hope that change and accommodation can be avoided breeds irrationality, manifested in the religious extremism that spawned death-threats against doctors that prescribe chemical abortions or that drives parents to resist education in evolutionary biology. Fundamentalism bred in the military, where “Warriors for Christ” sometimes coerce religious conduct in their subordinates, and issue death threats against leaders in organizations (such as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation) that oppose that unconstitutional practice. In each case, the instigators see the tenets of their faith as justifying imposition of their values upon others, and therefore implicitly justifying a broader defense of inherited social privilege.

In both Judaism and Islam, this tendency is heightened by the intervention of God in martial struggles against those seeking to subdue the faithful. It is only in Christianity that radical non-violence is upheld. That the bookends to Christianity both deny the divinity of Christ may be symptomatic of a pragmatism that makes violence inescapable.

In Islam and the Destiny of Man, Eaton explicitly upholds this principle. A Sunni scholar, his survey of Muslim history after the death of the prophet concludes with the observation that the practical realities of maintaining control of an Islamic culture meant at least paying lip-service to its theology, which was often solidified by investments in public works that facilitated its spread. Through that means, tyranny was turned to the service of faith. But it goes beyond that – Eaton makes a deep statement that truth cannot survive in the world unless evil is divided from it, and that division requires violence. Indeed, the hypocrites of the ruling class in the Umayyad and Abbassid dynasties were short-lived.

In discussion with my Shia colleague at work, I have been slowly establishing the validity of the contrasting proposition of Christian faith: Jesus demonstrated that the pragmatic truths of this world are dust in the hands of those that manipulate them. What is known to be “true” is far less meaningful than what is possible. While the common reaction is “good luck with that,” I keep on pointing out that far more power is available to us than is required to solve the problems we face. A billion times as much energy leaves the sun as reaches the earth. It is not allowed us for the same reason that parents don’t give matches to children – one selfish miss-step can destroy us all.

But, you see, it wasn’t a solar eclipse on Good Friday. It was the sun pouring its power through him.

I discovered Lauren Naigle through BJ out at The River Runs. The compositions on Lauren’s debut album don’t rival those found in the secular (and often profane) debuts of Ricky Lee Jones or Norah Jones, and subscribe to a simple lyrical formula. But they encapsulate the fundamental truths of Christian experience: it is the loving heart that bled for humanity that demonstrates the preconditions for true power. Surrender self-concern and trust that all those that you love ultimately will love you in return.

Lauren is young, and among her tracks are jingles that might be dismissed as overly exuberant. But she has not been without suffering, losing two years of high school to an auto-immune disorder and a beloved grandfather. In How Can It Be’s closing homage, she pleads for self-surrender:

There is victory in my Savior’s loss
In the crimson flowing from the Cross
Pour over me, pour over me. (Yes!)

Oh let this be where I die
My Lord with thee crucified.
Be lifted high, as my kingdoms fall
Once and for all, once and for all.

Oh Lord I lay it down.
Oh Lord I lay it down.
Help me to lay it down.
Oh Lord I lay it down.

Bad things happen to good people not because they are weak.

Evil walks in the world, and hungers for the power that originates from love, but love recoils from its grasp. In Richard Nixon, the great lesson of abused power was visible when he bade farewell to his staff, tears streaming down his face as he juxtaposed his experience of political life with the love he had received from his mother. That is another way of reading Lauren’s lyrics: “Be lifted high, as my kingdoms fall. Oh Lord I lay it down.

There are those immune to these realizations – Beria, Stalin’s security chief, spat on the corpse just moments after his master’s death. But Stalin has already been forgotten by history, replaced by Vladimir Putin, a man who justifies his power by promising to allocate money for road repairs left undone by the local governments impoverished by the corruption he organizes.

Putin’s political aspirations were conceived when unrest in East Germany paralyzed the embassy staff. Stepping in with a firm will, he saw people galvanized to action. It is this strength of will that he relies upon, but the lesson that is demonstrated by history is that the will to power is no match for the discipline required of those that love unconditionally. Tyrants can concentrate spiritual power, but they cannot hold it in any confrontation with a wise and loving adversary. The tyrant simply serves as a dark well in which light shines more brilliantly into the spirits of the oppressed.

The mistake of religious fanaticism is to believe that the institutions of tyranny must be dismantled, for that strategy only justifies oppression. The truth found in Christianity is that we don’t need to destroy the institutions of tyranny. Instead, in service with he that died once and for all, we can dismantle the personalities of the tyrants.

Oh, Lauren, what an joy it is to celebrate your wise old soul!

Yoga Limits

The constraints of my professional life have driven me to yoga twice. Both times, I was suffering from back pain that constrained my ability to sustain my focus while sitting at my desk. I recognized that the problem was tight hamstrings and a weak core, but I channeled my need for exercise into jogging, which didn’t address either condition.

The first practice was held in the meeting room of a spirituality bookstore. The instructor was an Indian lady, and I was the only man that showed up consistently. As I got stronger in the practice, I eventually found myself with thirteen women hitched to my wagon. At the time, I didn’t have the energy to manage the load, so I quit.

I was able to stay away for a few years, and then I discovered the Bikram yoga studio in Agoura Hills. I have to admit that it’s been a struggle for the owners as much as it has been for me. I am a tall string bean with a large chest.

The relative narrowness of my frame results in transmission of stress into the stabilizing muscles in the hips and lower back that are supported by bones that provide limited leverage. This means that muscle balance is absolutely essential not only to achieve postures, but to avoid overuse injuries. As I strive for that balance, I’ve been developing muscle groups that had always taken a free ride in the past, which means that I become exhausted doing postures that are often placed in the “warm up” or “recovery” category.

After four years I’m finally able reliably to stay in the 105 degree room for the full ninety minutes. While the owners were often frustrated by my bailing out in the middle of class, some of the instructors are impressed by my persistence. Several have observed that the practice is not designed for my body type.

The attraction to me is a feature that many find intolerable – the dreary repetition of the practice. The Bikram formula is a series of twenty-six postures that the instructors describe with a rote dialog. Fortunately, the more difficult postures are progressive. This means that we aren’t expected to achieve full expression, and so I have the latitude to focus on trying to figure out how to get my muscles to work together. It’s a process that has caused my to look in the mirror on occasion and burst out in laughter in the middle of class.

This opportunity to focus on my physical self has been critical to my peace of mind over the last four years. While not typical, I have dreams in which people show up seeking help to keep societies and ecosystems glued together. There’s not much I can do except to offer them the sanctuary of my heart as a place of restoration. It’s frustrating and grievous to me.

So I should have intervened early today when the instructor continued reading his story during the srivasanas that punctuate the exercises of the floor series. Although I realized that it was interfering with my ability to focus on aerobic recovery, I was fascinated by the enthusiasm that filled the room, . The diversion provided some relief from the normal thoughts – people struggling with the urge to escape the room.

The story contrasted the experience of two caterpillars. The humble yellow caterpillar (which I’ll call ‘she’) encounters a grey caterpillar spinning a cocoon. While uncertain about the possibility of becoming a butterfly, the yellow caterpillar finally chooses to try, and discovers comfort in the realization that spinning a cocoon is a natural skill.

The second, striped caterpillar (which I’ll call ‘he’) has chosen to climb a pillar of caterpillars, symbolizing the struggle for social success. As he nears the top, stepping on those below, he is finally unable to penetrate the clinging mass, and becomes trapped. He looks out and sees a field littered with caterpillar pillars, and realizes that his struggle is meaningless – with so many pillars, attaining the pinnacle of one signifies nothing.

As he weighs his options, the yellow butterfly arrives to rescue him. She attempts to pull him out of the pillar, but he draws back, and sees this terrible sorrow in her eyes.

It was at that point that I walked out, the class laughing at my explanation. I laid down on the couch in the lobby, crying “Oh, God!”

I live this every day, and it’s not that simple. They don’t just refuse assistance.

They pull off your wings and drive nails through your hands and feet.

One of the students told me, as I was passing him after class on the way out the door, that “I had missed a good story.” Really? I don’t come to yoga for a spiritual fill-up, or for entertainment. That’s supposed to happen at church or the movies. I come to focus on keeping my body strong enough to bear the burdens that I carry. If I can’t focus on that, then I’m going to have to quit again.

A Christian Reaction to Buddhism

Ethan Nichtern is one of my favorite people, and has an exceptionally clear and gracious understanding of the path he represents. As any wise teacher, he understands that wisdom is rooted in our personal life experience, and so that each of us arrives at wisdom in our own time.

As Nichtern presents in “The Road Home”, Buddhism is a technology for self-introspection and other-relation. Adherents are taught a method for analysis of the operation of their mind. Given Ethan’s lucid description of that method, we could advance a critique of Buddhism through categorical comparison with records of objective and subjective experience. I am hesitant to do this because I know from personal experience that Ethan is reticent, as many spiritual practitioners, to expose deeper truths to minds that have not attained a certain strength and discipline. I believe that he leaves much unsaid about spiritual experience.

I am absolutely convinced that Buddhism is a powerful technology for spiritual self-assessment. While it might seem like a matter of no lasting consequence, just learning to sit in stillness for ten minutes is an important manifestation of both mental strength and discipline. The concern that must be addressed of any spiritual teaching, however, is what guides the application of that strength. Nichtern asserts that most of us are conditioned with self-destructive perceptions, and that when we learn that the world does not actually behave according to those perceptions, we are released into a playful and compassionate exploration of life’s possibilities. However, I have experience with people that attain a certain power and enter into childish exploitation of others. Nichtern does not, by my assessment, advance a proof that exploitation is excluded by Buddhist practice.

But he does offer an experience, describing a night flight cross-country to an empty home. Overcome with sadness, he begins to weep, and does so without self-judgment. Nichtern does not describe his submission as leading to any catharsis, except a certain satisfaction that he was open to the experience of the moment. So why does he advance this as a moment of profound self-connection? What was he connecting to that made this experience stand out from any other?

Perhaps simply that at its deepest throes, he heard his father’s voice reiterating a wisdom believed fervently to be profound, “I live in the center of my awareness.” To me, this is the key: the love that others tender to us is not bound by time or space. It is delivered in the form that we have conditioned ourselves to receive it, in the moments of our greatest receptivity. Love alone has that power, the power to heal and strengthen our souls.

Those that practice exploitation do so at the cost of that great benefit.

I don’t know how Ethan would respond to this characterization. Buddhism is, at its core, a method for linearizing our reaction to experience with the goal of subjecting it to analysis. But we know that is not the way that the mind works. The mind is a parallel-processing device, with many threads of interpretation and analysis combining to produce a reaction. For this reason, Buddhism may be the province of rational thinkers capable of forcing reaction through the logical circuitry of the cortex. In Nichtern’s development, I certainly find support for that conclusion. Even as a Ph.D. physicist and having processed previously the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hahn, I can only read a chapter at a time before needing to rest.

From the Christian perspective, human intelligence is a key and essential capacity in bringing love into the world. Christianity holds, however, that while our lives appear to drown with sorrow, this reality is suffused with a divine love that will nurture us if we honor its constraints, foremost of which is that we not use its power willfully to cause pain. This gift and covenant is what Christians honor in their worship of “God.”

Now, as I have said, I find much in Nichtern’s writing that suggests that he has experienced the power of this love. So why the reticence? Perhaps it is found in his assertion that Buddhism is not a religion, in that it does not “tell people what to believe.” But it is exactly a connection with divine love that is needed by those that cannot draw upon mental discipline, but must rely upon the urgings of their hearts.

Nichtern characterizes the problem of karma, or negative conditioning, as a problem of self-trust. Through the development of that trust, he records that he eventually recognized the full depth of his father’s love, and perhaps thus freed himself from the negative conditioning of growing up in a broken home. Did he understand the experience that way? In other words, has he learned to trust in the love of others?

Buddhism strikes me as a tradition rooted in a failure of that trust. It asserts that we must first learn to love ourselves before learning to enter confidently into relation with others. Christianity takes the opposite approach. It teaches, “Abandon yourself to divine love. Surrender yourself to trust in that presence. Allow it to guide you, heal you, and use you to do great works of healing in the world, and thus to enjoy the admiration and gratitude of others.”

I find this to be compelling. The reason that we have to work so terribly hard to understand our reaction to our perceptions is because we are trapped in our viewpoint. It is so much easier for an outsider to see us in the context of our relationships. If that outsider is trust-worthy, they can offer us insights that would take us years to achieve on our own. So why not draw upon the strength of the only completely trustworthy guide, the presence of divine love that awaits our embrace?

I know that in human relationships, Nichtern would identify with this truth. When I met him at a Buddhist Geek’s conference, he stood out as the contrary voice that insisted that growth to maturity required the sangha, or spiritual community.

Considering that context, Nichtern does allude to the burdens of the role of the disciplined mind. I expressed them once to another Buddhist who complained that his meditative practice was regressing. He found himself struggling to prevent extraneous thoughts from entering his mind. I suggested that he simply send them metta, or an offering of acceptance and love. I then explained that in my experience those voices were not extraneous, but the thoughts of people reaching out for strength. I encouraged the gentleman to embrace this new and incredibly important stage of his practice.

The final stage of Buddhist discipline, the Vajrayana tradition of Tantric practices, organizes the collaborative generation of reservoirs of positive intention. At the workshop during which he warned me against the path of the “suicide bodhisattva”, Ethan introduced the practitioners to White Tara, the Buddhist manifestation of loving kindness. While many Christians might have considered this to be an invitation to demonic worship, I recognize it as just another engagement with the divine emissaries that Christians characterize as angels. Consequently I believe that Buddhism must come in contact with the power of the ultimate “suicide bodhisattva”, Jesus of Nazareth.

A truth that I am fairly certain Nichtern has not internalized, or reserved in his writing to this point, is that our bodies are wonderfully designed to channel love to create healing. Submitting to the action of tears, feeling deeply our sorrow: those are practices that inform love when and where it needs to do its work. Christ was the ultimate manifestation of this truth: after preaching that there was nothing we can do either to alienate God or to gain preferential claims on his love, Jesus surrendered body, mind and spirit to the purpose of healing humanity of the self-destructive consequences of the predatory programming that we brought forward from our Darwinian past. In his resurrection, he delivered compelling proof of the power of love for those that rely upon their hearts, and thus must trust in faith.

In the eventuality of their encounter with Christ, I am confident that the power of the Buddhist collective and its Tantric constructs will be a magnificent aid to those of simple faith. I am also confident that Nichtern, whether or not he understands it as such, already guides others to the love that secures their peace of mind.