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.