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.