Archive for the 'Theory' Category

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? 

An Alternative Interpretation of Genesis’s Account of the Fall of Man

October 27, 2006

To a Christinan, zen teaching provides a fresh perspective on the account of the fall of man recorded in Genesis.   Perhaps the most insightful interpretation by a Buddhist of Genesis’s account is the one sketched by S.T. Suzuki in the context of a discussion with Thomas Merton in Zen and the Birds of Appetite.  The following very brief interpretation is inspired by Suzuki’s view. 

 The serpent tempts Eve, saying that if she eats of the fruit of the tree she will be “like God, knowing good from evil.”  Typically in Catholic parishes today the serpent’s temptation is interpreted as the temptation to determine for oneself what is good and evil.  In other words, it is the temptation to do whatever one wants and justify it as good because one chooses to call it good, even if it is objectively evil.  But from a zen perspective — I write as a practising Catholic who has recently become interested in zen and done some reading and practice — the story can be seen in a radically different light. 

The serpent’s temptation is two-fold, and it is based on two fundamental lies.  The first is that Eve is not already like God or, in other words, that she needs to do something or undergo some transformation in order to become like God.  In fact, not many verses before the account of the fall, the sacred writer of Genesis informs the reader that man is made in the image and likeness of God.  Scripture thus teaches that in the beginning man was like God by virtue of God’s grace and that he needed not grasp to become something he already was by nature.  Thus, the first part of the serpent’s temptation was to sow doubt in man about his fundamental identity as one made in God’s likeness and image.

The second part of the temptation from this zen perspective as a second dualism: separation of good and evil.  In other words, the temptation is not so much that of choosing for oneself what is right and wrong  — that interpretation assumes of course that the two exist separately — but of separating the two in the first place. 

An understandable Christian objection to this last statement might be that it is wrong to call good evil and evil good, to identify the victim with the oppressor, etc.  This is true, yet perhaps it is not really relevant to the question.  The question, after all, is why what we know as good and evil appear to us to exist, and why we do things that are indeed properly called evil.  This zen-influenced interpretation of Genesis suggests that one reason may be that under the spell of delusion we have divided a world that was, and in its essence is, one, into a a dualistic world: God is there, we are here; God is God, we are men; do these things, avoid those things, etc.   Again, the argument is not that good and evil have no existence for us and certainly it is not that wicked actions are no different from good actions or that justice is the same as injustice.  Rather the argument is that the reason for the existence for us of these categories, and the reason we even think of committing evil acts, is our delusion of wanting to think of reality in terms of good and evil. 

This is not an easy concept to articulate, and I doubt that it is one that, if true, can be grasped through logic alone.   Perhaps an unlikely example from scripture will illuminate it: St. Paul writing about the Mosaic law.  What does Paul say about the law?  He says that God gave it to men so that sin might abound!  In other words, God gave man the law knowing full well that man would not follow it, and indeed that the very knowledge of the law would lead man into greater sin.  God did this, Paul explains, so that grace and mercy might abound all the more; in other words, so as to draw a greater good out of greater sin. 

Isn’t it interesting that St. Paul would argue that knowledge of the law — that is, knowledge of good and evil, of what to do and what to avoid — would lead to an increase of wickedness and guilt?  It’s consistent, though, with the zen-influenced interpretation of the fall of man: we do wrong because we know good from evil.  If we were like little children, not knowing good from evil, we would not do wicked things or, more accurately, whatever we did would not be wicked. 

A Dialog on Zen, Dualism, the Trinity, and Creation

October 27, 2006

The following is an email exchange between the host and a good friend who is a strong and faithful, theologically sophisticated evangelical Christian. It begins at the bottom with a quote I sent my friend from Robert Kennedy’s Zen Gifts for Christians. My friend responds and then I respond to his comments. What do you readers of this blog think about these issues? What is your perspective?

Response to my friend:

Hi there, thanks for these thoughts! You are surely right to highlight the disunity of the world, the reality of sin, and what has been called the “already but not yet character” of the present world — these should not be ignored. It’s a strong point, it seems to me, that this disunity has provoked a divine judgment and radical divine intervention. On the other hand, I wonder to what extent some of these points can be understood in a way that is harmonious with zen.

While zen does not understand sin in the way that Christians understand it (principally as an offense against God), it does recognize that we commit transgressions and it also recognizes that we are full of delusions (the last point has parallels to the Christian concept of original sin). Zen does not just accept the brokenness of our world. On the contrary, one of the four great vows in zen is, by attaining enlightenment, to “save all beings.” Enlightenment means, principally, an experiential knowledge of the unity of all things, both the relative and absolute. Vowing to save the world may sound a bit presumptuous — after all we Christians believe that Christ is the unique savior. Yet there is no doubt that Christ has joined himself mystically with his Body the Church and its members. Moreover — and I have a perception that Catholics are generally more open to this idea than Protestants — Christ invites us to share and even play a part in his saving mission. So in a way each Christian is called to save “all beings” provided that this call and the power to follow it can never for us be separated from Christ and our mystical union with him.

Zen does then recognize a need for salvation, but it sees the way to salvation as awakening to the true nature of reality and of course it does not recognize (at least not in the Soto and Rinzai schools–the “Pure Land” school may be different) a heaven that is separate and apart from the rest of the universe. Of course zen’s understanding, lacking the knowledge of Christ and the Triune God, must come up short, yet there is also much truth, it seems to me, in some of the teachings that illuminate some truths found in Christianity.

Regarding creation, that is a hard subject. I always thought I knew what it was — in some eternal moment God suddenly formed the universe out of nothing, gave it its principles and laws, set it in motion, and sustains and governs it forever. God is “in eternity,” whereas we are “in time.” This must be right–as far as it goes. Moreover, I see your point about the disunity of the world, on the one hand, and the unity of God. In other words, how can the world be one with God when we know of God that he is perfection whereas we know of the world that it is far short of perfection?

Yet Scripture says that God is pleased with his creation, that man is made in the image and likeness of God, that Christ himself is present in the poor and disadvataged, in the Eucharist, and in the church, that St Paul says it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him, and in the end Christ will be “all in all.” All of this suggests a very strong identification of God with his creation. I agree that it does not mean God is not creator and we his creatures. However it does indicate that some of the dualism in ordinary Christian practice may be unscriptural and indeed that true orthodox Christianity may have more parallels with a Buddhist or Hindu understanding of creation that we would have expected.

I’m trying to understand zen on its own terms even as I try to deepen my understanding of Christian theology. Stephen Covey says that one of the key principles for effective communication is to begin by seeking to understand the other fully on his or her own terms. I appreciate my fully orthodox Christian friend, though, raising certain objections and arguments when it may appear I am wandering too far off the reservation. 🙂

Friend’s response to quote from Robert Kennedy:

” How can we believe God created us in God’s own image if God can in any way be separate from us?”
The question contains the answer. If God created us, then we are separate from him as a creation is separate from its creator.

“Instead, believing that the world is a manifestation of God, we know that the unity of God and the world as well as the unity we have with one another are analogous to the unity of the Three Persons in the Trinity. ”

There is a difference between a creation of God and a manifestation of God. And God is not pleased with everything that occurs in the world so there is a disunity. Even the roshi’s urging to acceptance of a supposed unity seems to betray an admission that there is not unity. The unity that we have with one another has a possiblity, an ideal where we are in unity with one another as the persons of the Trinity are but that is not something which actually exists in fullness no0w, it is something we hope and wish to see attained and our dependent upon the intervention of a separate God for it to even be possible. The one position contains a radical judgement on the way the world is; the other seeks to passively accept all that is in the world and see no evil, it seems to me.

My original email, with the quote from Robert Kennedy:

Some interesting thoughts on dualism, zen, and the Trinity. This passage is from Zen Gifts for Christians, by Robert Kennedy, SJ, who is a theology professor and zen teacher in New Jersey. When I read books on zen, I find myself continually reflecting on readings of St. Augustine on the Trinity. Yamada Roshi, whom Kennedy mentions in the passage below, was a zen master in Japan who taught Kennedy and many other Christians.

“Having experienced the Zen belief in the unity of the absolute and the relative, Yamada Roshi of Kamkura once told us that he could believe in God. What he could not believe was that God could make a dualistic world. So steeped in the unity of all things, so at one with this world, Yamada Roshi could not imagine a world of separate realities. . . . We ask ourselves, why ever would it be necessary for Yamada Roshi to have to believe that God would or could create a dualistic world? Why would Christians, of all people, who believe that God is a Trinity, that is Three Persons in one reality, present their faith in a dualistic fashion? We believe we are made in the image of God; we know we are one with God, not identical but not separate. How can we believe God created us in God’s own image if God can in any way be separate from us? We do not believe that God is only in heaven and we are on earth, and that we relate to God as one who is outside ourselves. Instead, believing that the world is a manifestation of God, we know that the unity of God and the world as well as the unity we have with one another are analogous to the unity of the Three Persons in the Trinity.”