How God Loves

June 4, 2009

This morning I was reflecting on the way in which loving my infant son makes me imitate the Father’s love for me.  In this connection, there is a story to relate from George Weigel’s biography of Pope John Paul II.  The Pope, Weigel wrote, kept an old photo of his parents.  The mother died when Karol was a small boy, and the father died when Karol was just entering manhood.  “This is how he remembers them,” Weigel wrote.  Note the striking double entendre.  In other words, the Pope remembers his parents looking as they do in the picture, taken so many years ago, decades after they died.  At the same time, the photo is what enables the Pope to remember his parents, or at least to remember their faces; otherwise he just could not, the distance in time being too long.  Thus, this is how he remembers them.

Back to my infant son and me.  This is how God loves him, and how God loves me.   In other words, I love my son, or try to, in the manner in which God loves me, that is to say, with great tenderness and compassion, fatherly care, even the care of a hen for her chicks, and delight.  And this is also the means by which God loves him, i.e.. through the love of his earthly father.  (Of course not exclusively through his earthly father, for there are many others who also love my son.)  In other words, manner and means become one.  As I try to love as God loves, I imitate God.  I “play” God.  What enables me to do this except God himself, namely the Holy Spirit?  And through this play, in which I am the willing and cooperating actor, God actually does love my son in deed.  My son is loved by God through the love of his father, and the father is divinized in the process.


Summary of Introduction to Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

December 9, 2007

Note: I plan to prepare and post on Kashin a detailed and practical summary of Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.  What follows is a summary of the book’s Introduction.  Check back later for summaries of other chapters, each of which gives a clear and practical guide on how to live one step in the Eightfold Path.

***

Bhante Gunarata (“bhante” means “sir,” and is a term of respect for Theravada Buddhist monks), the abbot of the Bhavana Forest Monastery and Meditation Center in High View, West Virginia, has written a clear and useful guide to the fourth of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path.   According to Bhante Gunaratane (“BG”), anyone should follow the Eightfold Path who is tired of being unhappy and who seeks happiness not dependent upon conditions.  “Even a little effort to incorporate [the steps of the Eightfold Path] will yield happiness.  Strong effort will transform you and bring you the happiest and most exalted states achievable.”   

As the title indicates, the focus of the book is on how to use the practice of mindfulness to follow each step of the Path.  BG defines mindfulness in the introduction as a way of training yourself to become aware of things as they really are.   Since the aim of the book, and the Eightfold Path, is happiness, it makes sense that BG, following the Buddha, describes in some depth what happiness is and is not. 

At the lowest level, there is a happiness of clinging, which can also be thought of as a happiness of sensual pleasures or favorable conditions.  Included are the happiness of food, possessions, conversation, skill in music or art, mental stimulation, and family life.  The more we trust these things to bring us happiness, seek them, and try to hang on to them, the more we suffer.  Our efforts will create painful mental agitation as conditions will inevitably change. 

A much higher level of happiness is the happiness of renunciation.  Above all, is it the happiness that comes from the practice of generosity, the wholesome opposite of clinging.  When we let go of anger, desire, and attachment, we can experience this happiness. 

The highest level of happiness comes with the experience of attaining stages of enlightenment.  With each stage, the load we carry through life is lifted.  Eventually, we can attain permanent freedom from all negative states of mind – uninterrupted, sublime happiness.   

BG observes that the Buddha urged everyone to practice the Eightfold Path regardless of the level of happiness sought, since following the Path can help us attain all levels of happiness. 

The trap of unhappiness, according to BG, is the endless cycle of cause and effect, attraction and aversion, which comes with seeking happiness in pleasurable worldly conditions.  Practicing the Eightfold Path permits us to reverse the cycle, to focus on the emotional and mental causes of our negative behavior, and eliminate unhappiness at its source.  Thus happiness can be achieved by rooting out clinging. 

The Eightfold Path is a gradual path, since attempting to eliminate clinging through willpower alone will not work; and each step on the path builds upon and supports the others.  “The process begins at any point, at any time.  You start wherever you are and move forward, step by step.  Each new wholesome change in behavior or understanding builds upon the last.”  In other words, the Eightfold Path is a spiral.  The steps are skillful understanding and thinking (collectively, wisdom), skillful speech, action, and livelihood (collectively, morality), and skillful effort, mindfulness, and concentration (collectively, concentration).   

To get started on the Path, BG makes several recommendations.  First, simplify your life.  Cut out unnecessary activity and business.  Cultivate the inclination to spend time each day in silence and solitude.  Second, exercise self-restraint.  Since practice develops from the outside in, external factors make a difference.  For example, BG recommends keeping a tidy home; paying attention to your health by practicing yoga or taking long walks; and eating to live, rather than living to eat.  Third, cultivate goodness.  Practicing virtues such as patience and generosity is the beginning of spiritual awakening.  Fourth, find a teacher and explore the teachings.  Choose a teacher who lives an exemplary life, with whom you can develop a long-term relationship.  Beware of teachers who charge high fees.  Finally, read and discuss the Buddha’s teachings.   All of these lifestyle changes will help you make mindfulness part of your daily life. 

Mindfulness – also called “vipassana meditation” – is a unique method of cultivating moment-by-moment awareness of the true nature of everything experienced through the body and mind.  Mindfulness is a skill that you will develop and use in following the Eightfold Path.  To begin a practice of mindfulness, BG recommends taking several steps, which he elaborates on later in the book. 

First, practice sitting meditation.  Do this by sitting in a quiet place with spine erect (either in a full or half lotus position, or with one leg in front of the other (Burmese), or on a meditation bench or chair) and trying to be still.  It is important not to change positions, because if you give in to the urge to do so you will find it harder to concentrate.  Choose the length of your sitting beforehand.  BG recommends twenty minutes for beginners.  Close your eyes, focus on the object of meditation (such as the breath), and begin to experience the joy of meditation. 

Second, learn how to deal with the pain that comes in meditation.  BG assures the reader that pain is mostly due to lack of practice.  Pain subsides the more you meditate, and this fact should spur you on to meditate more often.  The most effective way to deal with pain is to watch it.  “Be with the pain, merge with it.  Experience it without thinking of it as my pain, my knee, my neck.  Simply watch the pain closely and see what happens to it.”  If the pain increases, keep watching it.  You may become fearful, but keep watching.  What you will find if you stay with the pain is that it will change to a neutral sensation.  You will discover that even pain is impermanent.   

You can do the same with psychological pain, such as pain from guilt or a traumatic memory.  Don’t push it away.  Instead, “[w]elcome it.  Stay with it, even if some awful scenario plays out in your mind.  Without getting lost in the story line, keep watching that psychological pain and see it eventually break up, just like physical pain.” When the breakthrough happens and the pain disappears, you may feel great relief.  The pain may come back, but “once you have broken through a particular physical or psychological pain, that particular pain will never recur with the same intensity.”   

BG also outlines other strategies for dealing with pain, such as comparing it to greater pain you or others have experienced, or ignoring it, or, if all else fails, moving slightly with great mindfulness. 

BG asks and answers a question the reader may be asking: “I started this practice to get rid of my suffering.  Why should I suffer more in sitting meditation?”  BG’s advice is to remember that this kind of suffering is the kind that can lead to the end of all suffering.  By dealing with pain, you gain confidence in your ability to withstand pain—not just the pain experience in meditation but also the pain experienced in the rest of you life.  Just as you experience pain the first time you ride a horse or climb a mountain, you will also experience pain while practicing sitting meditation; but with practice, the pain of meditation subsides, just as the pain of horseback riding or mountain climbing decreases with practice. 

Third, focus your mind.  Since the breath is always present, and since it is not involved in emotion, reasoning or choice-making, focusing on the breath is a good way to cultivate a neutral state.  Begin sitting meditation with thoughts of loving-friendliness, if necessary by using a method.  One such method is to recite, either mentally or aloud, a text wishing happiness and peace for yourself, your teachers, relatives, friends, “indifferent persons” (those for whom you have no strong feelings), adversaries, and all beings.  This practice will make it easier to gain concentration and help you overcome any resentment that may arise as you sit. 

After settling into the meditation with thoughts of loving-kindness, take several deep breaths, paying attention to the expansion and contraction of the lower abdomen, the upper abdomen, and the chest.  After taking these breaths, begin to breathe normally, focusing your attention on the sensation of the breath on the rims of your nostrils.  As you breathe, pay mindful attention to the beginning (inhalation) and end (exhalation) of the breath, as well as to the middle (the brief pause in between inhalation and exhalation).   The mind will wander, and each time it does bring it back to the breath.  

Some meditation teachers recommend the practice of “labeling” distractions – e.g., “thinking, thinking, thinking” or “hearing, hearing, hearing.”  BG recommends against this practice because it forces you to conceptualize events that have already passed.  It is better to watch things as they happen. Mindfulness teaches direct awareness, without the intermediaries of concepts and words.  In meditation, there is no need to express anything to anybody.  Seeing is seeing, hearing is hearing, etc.  This is enough. 

BG recommends beginning and ending each day with meditation.  He also recommends practicing meditation for one minute each hour during the day.

 


The Difference between Catholic and Zen Meditation

December 9, 2007

Today I came across the following very interesting exchange between two American Zen Buddhists and an American Catholic priest,which took place in Japan in the late 1980s and is recounted in David Chadwick’s Thank You and OK: An American Zen Failure in Japan:

 “What’s the difference between Catholic meditation and zazen?” asked Norman.

“Zazen has no object.  There have been some disputes in the [Jesuit] order about the appropriateness of a form of worship that doesn’t focus on Christ or Mary or something sacred to the Church.  I also had a problem at first with letting go of an object of devotion in meditation.”

 “What did you do about it?” I asked.

 “Some people, like some nuns I knnow, combine zazen with devotional concentration.  I came to believe that true faith needs no form to support it and that a mere mental symbolic representation of a sacred object in one’s imagination is not the holy object itself, and so I sit still and wait, which is an invitation for God to enter.  It seems to me that’s at least as appropriate as carrying a mental picture into the vastness of meditation.  In the end, I cannot hold on anyway and am left naked to face God on God’s terms, not on mine.”


Buddhism and Man’s Telos

December 7, 2007

Regarding Buddhism, the telos of man, and “non-self”: my understanding is that Buddhists don’t approach the question of the telos of man in the fashion that the Greeks and Christians do. Instead, Buddhists believe that the universe is governed by the law of karma — what goes around comes around — and that man’s dissatisfaction is rooted in his belief that he has a permanent, unchanging self or soul apart from everything else that exists.

Both beliefs are verifiable, according to Buddhists, by experience; in other words, through the practices of mindfulness and meditation you ought to be able to realize these truths for yourself. Still, sometimes I wonder whether for many Buddhists, the belief in non-self is dogmatic, by which I mean that it is a belief they hold because authority figures have told them it is true rather than because they have verified it through their own practice.

In any case, Buddhism’s great promise is the end of suffering and dissatisfaction; in other words, nirvana, a state of unshakable contentment and bliss not dependent upon conditions. The Buddha is said to have taught that this state could, through dedicated practice, be achieved in a single lifetime.

Returning to the issue of telos, perhaps a Buddhist could say that this state of nirvana is man’s telos, yet a Buddhist would need to qualify such a statement by adding that whether a man achieves his telos is up to him. It depends entirely on whether a man can free himself from delusion and other obstacles by following the Eightfold Path.

To expand upon this point and bring into more closely into dialog with the Western, and specifically Judaeo-Christian tradition, consider the fascinating interpretation of the Genesis account of the fall of man by the zen Buddhist scholar, D.T. Suzuki. An account can be found in “Zen and the Birds of Appetite,” by Thomas Merton. According to Suzuki, what Adam and Even gained when they sinned was indeed the knowledge of good and evil, as they were promised, and yet this knowledge turned out to be ignorance and delusion. They left the state of original innocence, where good and evil are not differentiated (think of a small child, who also does not know good from evil), and entered a state of dualism. The phenomenal world was the same before and after the fall, and yet the change in Adam’s and Eve’s minds was profound. Immediately their own relations became marked by recrimination and then lust and domination.

A charming contemporary depiction of the fall can be found in Disney’s new movie, “Enchanted.” The chipper and originally innocent princess of a fairy tale, played by Amy Adams, ends up in Manhattan and through a series of events loses original innocence and gains the dualistic life we all know, with its downs but also its ups. In fact, the change comes about in one scene where the princess admits that she is . . . angry — a fallen emotion that she has never before experienced.

Returning to Suzuki, perhaps a means of gaining insight into Buddhism is precisely in this differing account of the fall of man. For Buddhists, as for Hindus, man is not so much a sinner as he is a fool. Accordingly, to achieve his end, what man needs is not so much a savior from sin, per se, but a means of dispelling his foolishness and delusion. The Buddhist find this means in the Four Noble Truths and in the practice of the Eightfold Path, which is based on the practice of wisdom, ethical behavior, and concentration.

The glory of Christianity is the felix cupla, the happy fault, the idea that Adam’s sin ultimately benefits man insofar as it is the precondition of the coming of the Savior. In other words, for Christians, man is much better off for being a sinner redeemed through grace by Christ than man would be had he never sinned and therefore not needed Christ.

For Buddhists, ignorant of Christ, the goal is to return to the original innocence and non-differentiation of the garden of Eden. (I’m stating the goal in Christian terms, drawing upon Suzuki, trying to be faithful to Buddhism. Naturally Buddhists don’t normally state the goal this way.)

To the Christian observer, this may seem like an impossible task. After all, Genesis says that God has placed an angel at the entrance to the Garden to keep man from re-entering it. Still, Christians would do well not to dismiss this goal too lightly without considering examples of Buddhists who, through dedicated practice and perhaps also through the working of God’s grace, have achieved a remarkable degree of holiness and innocence. The Dalai Lama, for example, is a remarkably innocent man, as can be seen in interviews where he keeps laughing a childlike laugh.

Moreover, to some extent it appears that Christians, too, are called in a certain sense to return to the garden, albeit through Christ. Who other than one who has become profoundly innocent can practice the Beatitudes? Can someone attached to his ego-self practice the Beatitudes? Or become as a little child? Recall that only one who has become like a child, our Lord tells us, can enter the kingdom of God. To the extent that Buddhism offers proven means of enabling man to overcome certain obstacles to innocence, it can be useful in enabling man to live an authentically Christian life and thus, from the Christian point of view, to fulfill his telos.


Solidarity with Burmese Buddhists

October 2, 2007

I’m prompted to write a post after nearly one year away from this blog to show solidarity with the heroic Burmese protesters, in particular the peaceful Buddhist monks and their lay supporters, who were recently beaten, slain or imprisoned by the Burmese government.  For a few days, I hoped that perhaps Burma would join Poland and the Philippines as a nation that has recently experienced a bloodless political revolution inspired by faith.  It is heart-breaking to see the pitctures appearing on the Internet now of the dead monks.  One account of the events in Burma that moved me very much was that of an eyewitness who saw the government’s goons beating monks and lay supporters as the latter chanted the metta sutta.  The metta sutta is an ancient scripture, recited especially in the Theravada school of Buddhism, expressing a desire for all beings to be happy and well.  The one who recites it radiates love and compassion to all. 

These are men and women who laid down their lives for their friends; Christ told us that there is no greater love than that.  Even more, though, than this, they preferred to be murdered than defend their bodies and livelihoods.  What a sublime example of living out to the full the consequences of the Gospel, in particular the Sermon on the Mount.  My admiration for Buddhism was strengthened by this example, and so was my Catholic faith.

Today I was reading an article that cited a very prominent Catholic cardinal as having called Buddhism a form of “spiritual auto-eroticism.”  The example of these heroically virtuous Burmese Buddhists shows the error of this negative judgment, and I will be sure to bring up their sacrifice whenever I hear this erroneous view.


Good-Evil Dualism in Music and Work

November 15, 2006

If only one who knows good from evil is capable of sin, and if we should avoid sin, and if by enlightenment it is possible to realize the emptiness of good and evil, then why should we not seek enlightenment?

***

As is well known, Buddhism teaches that good and evil are empty or, in other words, that neither has any fundamental reality in itself.  Moreover, Buddhism teaches that seeing the world in terms of good and evil is a form of delusion.  For a Christian, these teachings of Buddhism are “hard sayings.”  They are hard to understand, and they appear to be contradicted by much of our own daily experience.  At this stage in my practice of Buddhism, I have not yet appropriated these teachings.  Nevertheless, the insight of these teachings can be illustrated by examining a few examples from daily life: music and work.

Take the example of music.  Music can be wonderful, glorious, beautiful, and deeply moving — but of itself it is neither good nor evil.  It matters not to the quality of the music that Salieri may have been a better person than Mozart, or that Wagner was indisputably a louse.  Is God not pleased by the music of Mozart or Wagner?  Should we not enjoy their music? 

Under an extremely dualistic worldview, the answer might be “No, we should not.”  Under this view, one might believe that every choice we make, or a composer makes, is a moral choice, right down to the note.  Is this so far-fetched?  There is a strain of Christianity that does, in fact, turn every choice we make, and everything we do, into a decision for or against God.  Every moment and circumstance of one’s life is seen as an opportunity to demonstrate love for God — or hatred of him.  Even sleep, it was once explained to me, can be such an opportunity, to the extent that we exercise limited control over our dreams.  Thus, under this view there is no room for innocence (i.e., not knowing good from evil). 

Take another example: as I was riding into work on the Metro today a man beside me was reviewing a patent.  Question: is this action — reviewing a patent — a moral action or not?  To some extent, or from a certain perspective, the answer is yes: if one deliberately pays little attention to what one is doing, fails to ask the relevant questions or seek the answers to the questions, then then reviewer may be guilty of negligence.  Yet willing — which according to Christianity is a necessary component of moral action — is not the primary factor in determining whether the patent will be reviewed well or not.  Much more important is the skill and knowledge of the reviewer; even the attention he pays or does not pay to the task at hand is often not simply a matter of will-power.  If the reviewer finds himself in the “flow” of the task — in other words, in a state that zen practitioners might associate with samadhi — then the work will likely go very well.  By contrast, if the reviewer keeps thinking every few seconds that he is performing an act with moral consequences for his own salvation and that of others, that he may be meriting grace or damnation by his act, etc., then is it likely that he will ever enter into the flow or samadhi that is necessary for the work to be performed with excellence? 

Thus, the dualistic view suffers from this inherent contradiction: one can only perform a meritorious action (i.e., the opposite of sin) through the exercise of one’s will, and yet to perform an action with true excellence one must let go of one’s will and devote oneself fully to the task, thus rendering the action without merit. 


Reflections on Arise My Love, by William Johnston

November 1, 2006

Using Augustine and Aquinas, Johnston explains a couple New Testament passages that I had never before understood.  First, why does Jesus forbid Mary Magdalene from touching him after his resurrection?  Second, why does Jesus tell his disciples that it is better than he return to the Father than stay with them in the flesh?  According to Johnston/Augustine/Aquinas, the reason is that while Jesus’ sacred humanity is, of course, a critical segment of the path toward union with God, attachment to his humanity can prevent us from moving beyond his humanity to the Trinity.  In other words, if we only see the form of a servant, then we won’t be able to enter into the higher state of consciousness that comes from union with the Godhead.  Practically and historically speaking, this is surely true: it would have been pretty hard, if not impossible, for people in Jesus’ time to look at a 33 year-old Jewish carpenter, whose mother and father everyone knew, and see that he is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.  Even for us today, there is a paradox that, on the one hand, Christ’s humanity is for us a bridge, perhaps the primary bridge, to the Trinity, and yet, on the other hand, there is a danger that we can focus too much on his humanity (isn’t this what some scholars do who are ever in search of the “historical Jesus”?) and hence on what is contingent (even Christ’s humanity is created), dualistic, etc. and ignore the Godhead, which surpasses images, dualities, etc.  Another insight from Johnston — it’s really part Johnston and part my own interpretation of recent readings from Augustine’s Trinity — is that the Christian mystical tradition can answer some of the objections raised by the Buddhist and Hindu East to the alleged “dualism” of Christianity, but at the same time everyday Christianity could benefit from a dose of the Christian mystical tradition (and perhaps even the non-dualistic mystical tradition of the East).  Specifically, as you know Buddhists reject dualism, i.e., that something is this and not that.  (In fact, my favorite zen koan treats this point.  The zen master sits in front of the novice monks in the monastery meditation hall and holds the kyosaku (stick used to slap drowsy monks, release their energy, and help them toward awakening) in one hand. He says: “Say this is a stick and you affirm. Say it is not a stick and you deny.  Now which is it?  Somebody give me an answer fast!”  A very bright novice rises, takes the stick from the master, cracks it over his knee, and replies “What’s this?”)  It’s hard for us in the West, I think, to understand how it is possible to move beyond dualities; to do so looks like an improper negation.  Yet take a look at the Trinity.  Christ and the Father are one (Christ says so), and yet they are not one.  They are essentially the same, and yet they are also different.  The divine essence is the same in each, yet there is a difference in relationship.  Whence this difference in relationship?  How, if God is simple, can there be a “part” or “aspect” of God that is Father and one that is Son?  We were not able to answer this question at out last Augustine seminar.  At the level of the human and divine, St. Paul can say “It is not I but Christ who lives in me,” thus asserting identity and indwelling, and yet he also speaks of Christ as being different and in a way “outside” himself.  According to this Christian mystical tradition, our destiny is to be one with God (“God will be all in all” says the New Testament, and, “In the end it will be one Christ loving himself” says Augustine) and yet there will still be “room” for us to cry out “Abba, Father!”  I recall that in the dialogue with Thomas Merton in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, D.T. Suzuki criticizes the Christian mystical tradtion for not going far enough along the path of non-dualism.  On the contrary, maybe the Buddhists go too far, and the Christian mystical tradition does go very far indeed.  A good practical starting place on our side of the religious dialogue, it seems to me, would be to use the Christian mystical tradition (which is rooted in Scripture and in Trinitarian theology) as a counterweight to some of the dualism of everyday Christian practice (for example, the notion that God is in a place called heaven and not here, or that God is an object outside us), which it seems to me the Buddhists and Hindus are right to criticize. 


Why Do We Need to Be Saved: Buddhist and Christian Views Explored

November 1, 2006

Why do Buddhists say that grasping is the cause of suffering? Suffering is the first noble truth, and grasping is the second. Rather, is not suffering the cause of grasping? Why would we grasp unless we suffered? And why do we suffer? Because we delude ourselves about the nature of reality? And why do we do this? Not even the wise know.**

Buddhists and Christians can agree that the actual state of the world (which includes ourselves), at least as we perceive it and experience it, is disordered.  Why?  As I understand the Buddhist answer, it is: because we are deluded and therefore grasp.  The Christian answer is: because man disobeyed God and sinned.  Yet we should not ignore the very intimate link between delusion and sin, and thus it may be that the real difference between the Buddhist view and the Christian view is not as great as is commonly believed.   

Sin leads to delusion and delusion leads to sin. Christianity take aim primarily at sin, while not ignoring delusion. Buddhism takes aim at delusion, and though its notion of sin is relatively weak it does exist.

What is the fundamental delusion? Go back to Genesis. It is the lie told to Eve by the serpent, and it has two elements. First, man is not like God and must therefore do something to become like God. Second, in order to become like God man must do what God has forbidden him to do: know good from evil. The serpent’s temptation is thus the temptation to regard the universe in dualistic terms. Buddhist enlightenment means snapping out of this delusion and thereby returning to a state of original innocence, a state of oneness with the universe. Moral conduct — the Eightfold Path (e.g., right speech, right livelihood) — is seen as an aid to the attainment of enlightenment as well as the kind of action that flows naturally from a fully enlightened person.

For Christians, overcoming the fall and its effects requires participation in the paschal mystery of Christ who, being both God and man, is able through his sacrifice to reconcile man to God and restore man’s original innocence. Christ surely conquers sin, but he is also the Light and the Truth. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, Christ “fully reveals God to man and man to himself.” And how does he do this? In his own person he embodies the unity of God and man and by his life and teaching he calls man back to the life of innocence from which man turned his back in the garden of Eden.

That is why, for example, Christ rejects Moses’ law on divorce, which was given to men because of the hardness of their hearts, and restores marriage to its state “in the beginning,” a state of perfect oneness. Who can practice the beatitudes but one who lives in innocence and simplicity? Why does Christ say we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of God? Christ calls us to oneness with God and each other. He calls us to move beyond knowing good from evil to a life of wholeness, simplicity, gratitude, and, above all, self-giving love.


What Zen Can Teach Christians About the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist

November 1, 2006

In the ninth chapter of Zen Gifts to Christians, Robert Kennedy, SJ sums up a set of critically important points that Zen Buddhism has to teach Christians, or rather remind us of, about some of the fundamental mysteries of our faith.  In future posts I hope to discuss what may be right and what may be wrong about Kennedy’s statement, and I hope that readers will also offer their comments.  Here it is:

Speaking to us in our theological langauge, Zen Buddhists would say that Christ and the Father are one, and to say that there are two persons is misleading.  There is only one God with one intelligence, one will, and one salvific intent.  The Father is everything invisible in the Son and the Son is everything visible in the Father.  They are one beyond any duality.  Analogously there is no dualism between God and the world.  They are not two things or separate realities.  They would agree with St.  Thomas Aquinas that creation adds nothing to the sum total of reality and that the world is the manifestation of its creator and adds nothing to the creator’s existence.  They would say that Jesus is the incarnation of God and the sign or sacrament of what we too are and must always be.

Zen Buddhists would claim that the union of the absolute and the relative in Jesus is not an absolutely unique miracle that excludes the rest of humanity, and that analogously you and I are not two separate realities but one.  They would very much contend [sic — he means agree] with St. Augustine that there is only one Christ loving himself, one reality with many faces.  And finally since the absolute and relative can never be separated, they would hold that there is no separation between the Jesus of history and the universal Christ of faith, and that the Eucharist is not a sign pointing to a distant God but a fact revealing the eternally present Father, Christ, you, and me.  For Zen Buddhists what can be distinguished must never be separated. 

The Zen Buddhists would agree completely that the Eucharist is not just a symbol that points to or represents an absent reality.  Rather the Eucharist renders present what it expresses.  This bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ.  So similarly are the mountains and rivers the body and blood of Christ.  What else could the universe possibly be?


Cultural Differences in the Experience of the Fall

October 28, 2006

John Paul II, as part of his theology of the body, argues that men and women experience the fall of man differently.  Men experience the fall as a desire for sexual gratification at the expense of women.  Women experience the fall as a desire for emotional gratification at the expense of men. 

With this mind, the question comes to mind: just as men and women experience the fall diferently, might not different peoples of different cultures experience it differently?  Now men and women, we Christians believe, do have an ontological difference between them that, say, a Japanese and  Jew do not.  Yet history suggests, does it not, that cultural differences are real and that some virtues and vices or patterns of behavior have been more prevalent among some peoples and less prevalent among others? 

For example, it is probably right to associate (not in an exclusive manner) rugged individualism with the people of the Old American West, whereas it is also probably right to associate a high degree of politeness to many Japanese.  One might also associate negative qualities with certain cultures, but since it is not considered polite to do so and since there is no need to make my point, I will not.

Now God is the author of the Bible, but the sacred writer is also the author.  Moreover, the sacred writer is a member of a human culture, and in fact all of the sacred writers of the Bible were members of a Hebrew culture (as it evolved) based in the Holy Land.  Is it not possible that in the writing of Genesis, the sacred writer emphasized the experience of the fall that he and those he knew had themselves experienced?  Put another way: how could this not be the case?  How could he have written about the fall from the perspective of a culture other than his own, he himself being a member of his culture? 

Granted, we Catholic Christians (and many other Christians, too) believe that God, who is universal, saw to it, in a way that did not take away the human writer’s freedom, that the Bible recorded exactly what God wanted to be recorded.   Yet this does not mean, does it, that Genesis, for example, is the only true account of the fall of man?  Could not God have inspired another true interpretation of the fall to be recorded or developed over time by writers in a non-Hebrew culture, who would have drawn from their cultural experience of the fall? 


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