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.

The Rude Chakra

I would imagine that readers of this blog might be asking “Why?” Not just, “why are you writing this”, but also “why do you think you have the authority to undertake this work?”

Bear with me while I explain:

Among the methods for spiritual development are practices that focus on the activation of “energy centers” in an ascending sequence from the hips to the crown of the head.

My orientation to the seven chakras, an Indian categorization, occurred simultaneously with reading of Cozolino’s The Neuroscience of Human Relationships. I was stunned by the close parallels between the personality traits manifested at each stage of chakra activation and the development of the seven neurological centers involved with socialization. Clearly, the investigators of chakra had captured something fundamental about human personality.

So what, then, to make of the parapsychology of the chakra system? The capacity for healing obtained through activation of the heart chakra? The gifts of divine knowledge and wisdom? Why would the investigators have corrupted their careful study of human psychology with unfounded assertions such as these? My sense was that it would be unlikely – that in fact the assertions are based in fact.

The principal hazard in exploration of the chakras is the sequential order of the activation. The theory is that the root chakra, located at the base of the spine, is the conduit for spiritual energy (prana) that arises and activates subsequent energy centers. Of course, that energy is tied to fundamental life processes, including, at the root level, our sexuality.

In adults, once control of that energy is established, a common tendency is to engage in sexual self-gratification. Some people never tire of that game. Worse, kundalini energy, once turned on, becomes an extremely powerful tool in the hands of manipulators interested in controlling our will.

Having gotten past that stage, I am now mortified when the response to an offer of heart or mind energy is sexual energy. It’s usually driven by simple greed: the simplest way to ensure access to knowledge and power is to grab on to the source at the root level. In the process, energies that are designed to support our basic life processes are raised up and set loose in the more delicate structures of personal discipline and social imagination. Generally, a mess results.

It is, indeed, rude, in the sense of both “crude” and “insensitive”.

It was with some interest, then, that I reacted to being told by a reader of auras that I have a gap of four inches in the flow of prana up my spine, located just above the root chakra. I was told at the same time that “[I] keep on losing parts of myself” in the course of the sequence of my lives. I therefore assumed that the gap was a prophylactic step taken before entering this life, as a means of keeping people from getting into my heart energy through sex.

There’s some truth to this, but recent events counter that interpretation. When I finally decided that I needed to stop investing energy in people that were unable to reciprocate in kind, I went through a period of several weeks in which I felt at times that the top of my head was going to come off. All the energy I had been laying about was seeking an outlet through the crown chakra.

At the suggestion of a friend, one night I began experimenting with alternative channels for the flow. In a few minutes, I found myself directing it down through my spine, bridging the gap. In the following days, the transformation in my personal energy was unexpected. In yoga classes, problems with alignment of my spine began to evaporate. And in interacting with peers and family members, I have become more direct, to the point, well, of being “rude”.

In terms of the activation of the chakras, though, I need to emphasize the reversal of sequence. I am reorganizing my root chakra with energy originating from the heart, rising through the crown, and now being directed downwards.

And this brings to mind the Native American theory of energy centers. In that theory, there are twenty total stages of development. The first ten are similar to the Indian chakras, rising along the spine and blooming from the body through the crown. The pattern of personal development is also similar. One the tenth stage is activated, the subsequent stages repeat the sequence, with the subject of the work being the community served by the practitioner.

So, to the original question: the reason I am doing this is because it is the only thing that works for me at this time. A consequence of that program, I am beginning to realize, will be the injection of discipline into the pool of prana drawn upon by Human Nature.

Spiritually Engineered

Here we are.

No more doubts. No more partial truths, corrupted by political expediency. No more relying upon wisdom received from the past. We stand or fall on our own.

It is going to hurt. Humanity had at its disposal all of the tools needed to avoid this eventuality, but they were not marshaled and applied to that purpose. Rather, we focused on our material needs, attempting to separate ourselves from the cycles of nature. In the end, though, we are faced with the fact that we are not as powerful as they. They will hold us to account.

What are we to hope for, then? This: we are designed to organize resources other than the material elements made so convenient to us. It is there, in the realm of spirit, that we must accomplish the work of design that will liberate Human Nature from naive and foolish choices.

If we are inmates, then we have control of the asylum. Our only option is to become therapists. What use to hate crazy people? We are them.

Walk through time with us. The patient suffering of the lamb opens gates through which all truths are revealed. The joyous dissolution of masculine and feminine heals the divisions that separate us from understanding. When we surrender ourselves to service, we see each others’ need, and the Love of the Divine flows through us and heals our longing.