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!

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.

On Poverty and Riches

Just taking the long view (I mean – the long, long, long view), I consider the time-scale of the cosmos and the saga of biological evolution and we have the precious experience of living in this 10,000 year period in which our intelligence and the natural resources stored up from the past are available for us to do really deep work on our personalities. Simply to be alive in this time is such an incredible gift – to be able to play at being a creator, each in our own limited way.

Even if only to be able to plant a field, or tend a herd, or write a blog. Even if only to be the voice that reminds “There are still problems to be solved” in a way that motivates others to seek for solutions. Not to place fault, but to exhort greatness in others – to guide them into the only form of self-creation that opens to God.

Yes, the window is closing, as it was prophesied in Revelation. No, it’s not the fault of any single individual, and if we collectively had been more considerate of the forms of life that occupied the planet before us, maybe it wouldn’t be so traumatic. But that’s not under my control, so the question I constantly confront myself with is: what am I doing with my opportunity? Am I offering my creative capacities in the service of Life, or do I expect Life to serve me? Because when I finally lose my grip on this body, it is Life and Love that awaits to embrace me with the eternal embrace, if only I know how to receive it.

Peek-a-boo with the Prince of Peace

When the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they were at the end of their rope. There was no resistance to its presence, because they had surrendered their lives already. There was no place to go but up.

As the repository of truth, the Holy Spririt opens us into understanding that may make our prior lives seem shallow and vain. That was certainly true for the disciples, but it was an experience that they received joyfully for suffering had been their prior occupation. To have revealed the purpose of that struggle was to discover the extent of their own strength.

To understand the mechanisms whereby Christ arranged this transformation, we have to understand the nature of Death. Not “death”, which is the end of our physical existence, but “death” as revealed in Revelation: one of the six forms of selfishness that-  approximately three billion years ago – were released upon the world when the seals of the scroll were broken.

Death is not the destroyer, but a divider. When we die, we pass through a door that human love can rarely penetrate. In moments of intense psychic focus – when our lives are threatened, for example – messages may pierce the veil, but the grieving that survivors suffer reflects the loss of a relationship with the departed soul. Death is the personality that manages that barrier.

Sometimes there is value in separation. It allows us to shed associations that are harmful to us. As suggested in the parables of Hades and the Inferno, that process may continue even after dying, as we surrender to Death the destructive energies we accumulated during our lives. Consider the pride of the pathetic Sisyphus, mindlessly pushing a rock up against the pressure of Death’s will, like a galley slave pulling an oar. This is why the evil fear to die – they know intuitively that their spirits will be broken and repurposed in the afterlife.

So why did Christ struggle for us against Death? Because Death serves no purpose but the spread of its influence. It is a greedy spirit, and loathes to surrender its captives. Indeed, it held sway in the world for a long, long time. The drives of Darwinian evolution are simply an impotent exploration of biological strategies for avoiding Death’s grasp.

This is why the innocent Adam was told “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree [of the Knowledge of Good and Evil], for surely you will die.” The pull of death on our physiology is manifested by a deep winding of its influence within our DNA. When God “breathed life” into Adam, it was to dispel that presence. When the fruit was eaten, we opened our hearts once again to death.

We are nearing the end of the long road of pain and suffering that was set before us. The key is to embrace the Prince of Peace. Looking at the degree to which human history is defined by our wars, we need to step back and consider why that has been so difficult.

The short answer is because it is like dying.

You see, when Jesus took up his cross, he did not conquer death. He confronted it, let it work its will on him, and suffused it with love. Jesus tamed death, chaining its hunger to the service of love. There are things in the world that do not work well together. The tension between Hitler and Stalin is an illustration, as is the tension between freedom and government. To prevent those tensions from flaring into destruction, sometimes things need to be separated. They need to “go to their rooms,” not as punishment, but to give them time to relax and envision a resolution of their differences.

This is the authority that Christ gained on the cross: To turn the talents of Death to the purposes of healing and creation.

The challenge that we must confront is our investment in the psychological practices of death avoidance. For many of us, they define our existence. We create conflict around ourselves as a means of protecting ourselves from loss of life. In a sense, the strong still eat the weak, it’s just that they do it indirectly, using the police to impose the Sisyphean burden on our underclasses. Having acquired that power, we console ourselves with the construction of a facade of elegance and civility, a facade now being torn away most notably by Donald Trump.

So to accept the Prince of Peace is to become aware of that social vampirism. It is to become aware that there are others that need his attention more. It is to become aware that we are the cause of our own pain.

That is why those that have the power to elaborate it instead run from the Truth that transforms the world.

Pity poor Christ in his suffering for the oppressed. Calling out with love to the powerful is the only method allowed to him.

Will the Pope Speak for Life?

The Republican climate-change deniers were busy this week pre-empting the expected declaration by Pope Francis that responding to global climate change is a moral necessity. The foundation of their argument was that the Pope is not a scientist, and he should leave scientific matters up to those that understand the issues.

But is that the authority upon which the Pope Francis will issue his declaration? I certainly hope not. I think that the Pope should boldly speak for God, because in my meditations on this matter, it is clear where God stands on the issue.

To establish the scriptural basis for this assertion, I re-iterate the Book of Revelation. God sits on his throne surrounded by the twenty-four principal angels (in whose image we are made). In one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible, John describes (NIV Rev.4:9-11)

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives forever and ever. They lay down their crowns before the throne and say:

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created,
and have their being.”

What this is telling us is that the virtues of the angels are expressed and tied to life on earth. When life flourishes, the joy of its expression flows up through the angels to God. This is not just the joy of humanity, but the joy of all forms of life. The power of that gratitude is enough to force the angels to surrender their sovereign independence in deference to unconditional love.

But it is not limited thus. If joy and thanks is transmitted, so too must pain. I have felt this pain, a great crying out from the heart of life as it succumbs everywhere to humanity’s merciless exploitation of the bounty of the earth. Reading this passage, can anyone doubt that God would not hear and heed that grieving?

Pope Francis does not need the authority of science to speak out on this issue. That’s too bad for those who have purchased “scientific” opinions. No, if Pope Francis speaks, he will speak with religious authority, the authority of a true representative of God on earth. He will speak for all of Life. He will speak the truth of God’s anguish for the hypocrisy of those that claim to speak in his name while carelessly murdering his creation.