Mystical Tradition: Lectures 15-17 – Eastern Christian Mysticism

My husband cannot understand how I can listen to Dr. Johnson’s lectures (Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam)  for hours on end.  He says it would drive him crazy.  I guess it probably does sound completely monotonous when you don’t have an interest in the topics he covers, but I find it completely engrossing.  I’m cramming in as much as I possibly can right now because the time I have to put toward lectures these days is extremely rare.

I took so many notes on Christian mysticism that I had to purchase a second spiral notebook to continue.  What I find interesting is that I am far more interested right now in Jewish Mysticism and Islamic mysticism than I was in Western Christian mysticism.  It’s not that Western Christian mysticism doesn’t interest me, but I am already quite very familiar with most of it. I’ve read essays or books from almost every Western Christian mystic Dr. Johnson cites.  Can’t say the same thing for Eastern Christian Mysticism, however.  Those lectures were extremely fascinating to me because I know so little about Eastern Orthodoxy. 

I went through Dr. Dreyfus Berkeley webcast class on Existentialism and Literature a few years back.  He claimed that Dostoevsky’s answer to the seemingly unsolvable predicament Ivan Karamazov presents (Grand Inquisitor, etc.) as being Russian Orthodox Christianity.  I had a feeble grasp on why that might be at the time, but have a much better understanding now, after Dr. Johnson’s lectures. Please bare with me as I make my way through those notes…

I suppose I should start with the Desert Fathers and Mothers who were influential on both Western and Eastern Christian mysticism. Desert spirituality came about during the 4th century.  It emphasized askesis (asceticism). This is the disciplined programming of the self on the way of moral transformation. For these people, the martyr was the highest expression of Christianity.  There were two sorts of martyrdom: red martyrdom was the actual spilling of blood while white martyrdom was a life of asceticism and prayer.  When Constantine made Christianity the religion of Rome, Christianity became a path to wealth. This is when the monks fled to the desert and became hermits (lived completely alone), anchorites (semi-hermitical existence – lived completely alone except to pray and worship with others) and cenobites (those who have pulled away from the world but live in communities). This is the beginnings of the monastic tradition. Purification of the passions was more important than physical asceticism. Humility and lack of judgment were extremely important. They did not exercise a “holier than thou” form of asceticism.

After the 4th Century, Christianity in the East developed very differently than Christianity in the West.  This is because a lot was happening in the West in the 4th and 5th centuries that wasn’t happening in the East. Rome shifted from being the seat of imperial power to becoming the centralized power of the Pope. Latin replaced Greek so Christians in the west were increasingly forgetting their Greek and became more and more cut off from the wisdom of the East that had preceded them. Also, Barbarian invasions threatened the order of society, including ancient learning.

Meanwhile, none of this was happening in the East. A slogan that persists in Eastern Orthodoxy today is “hagia pardosis”: sacred tradition. The east maintained a continuity of its past that the west did not. Greek remained the language of scripture (it became Latin in Rome) and Greek theologians were well aware of their past.  Also, unlike the west, the Patriarchy in the East was regional, not absolute.

In Eastern Christian mysticism, the role of scripture was fundamental, especially the Psalms.  The spirituality of the desert had a very strong influence over Eastern Christian spirituality and there remained a Platonic world view.  This didn’t impose upon the thinking in the east because it had continuously existed. (Unlike in the west where it was “rediscovered” in the middle ages.)

So, what was this thinking?  Plato made a distinction between phenomenal (perceivable by the senses) and noumenal (only known by the mind).  The distinction was between matter and ideas.  This distinction applied ontologically (to being), espitemologically (to knowledge), and axiologically (to worth or value).

Ontologically, it was understood that the realm of spirit is more real.  Things that corrupt and die are less real. Epistemologically, truth is only at the level of Spirit. In other words, it is only at the level of real being.  (Things that corrupt and die are not as real as Spirit.)  Another way of stating this is that there is a difference between truth and opinion. (Reality and perception.) Axiologically – spirit is better than how we find ourselves.

Humanity is a necessary part of experience, but it must be transcended. This is very similar to the Jewish thinker, Philo of Alexandria, who read the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible) allegorically.  For instance, Philo could read the story of Moses’ escape out of Egypt at a literal level as escaping the slavery of Egypt and entering freedom as a people of God of Israel.  But he could also read it as being the slavery of the person who is locked in the passions.  Embodiment itself could be viewed as slavery.  (Again, this is very similar to what is presented in The Book of Hebrews.)

The idea of Apocatastasis remained fairly stable within Eastern Christianity.  This is the idea that eventually there will be a restoration of all spiritual creatures, including the devil, in God.  (It is this idea that is central to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.) It was originally developed by Origin of Alexander (184-254) who is considered to be one of the great geniuses of Christianity.  He influenced almost all subsequent Christian thinkers.  He considered himself to be Orthodox and against gnosticism, but he definitely pushed the boundaries.  His thoughts were very closely related to Gnosticism.   He was eventually deemed as heretical, but not until the 6th Century, which was centuries after he actually lived.

The Cappadocian Fathers (Cappadocia was an area in Turkey) were also extremely influential.  These were Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nanzienzen. They helped develop the Trinity and thoughts on the Holy Spirit.  Gregory of Nyssa was a mystic and provides a precursor to The Cloud of Unknowing

What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? …  Leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God.  This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness.  Wherefore John, the sublime, who penetrated into luminous darkness, says “No one has ever seen God”, thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men but also by every intelligent creature.”  (Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa)

Another feature of Eastern Christian Spirituality is  the Hesychastic tradition.  Hesychia means “stillness” or “quiet”.   Teachers in Eastern Christianity taught people to pray in silence. There was also a belief in theosis which was the process of becoming divine.  For the Eastern Christian mystic, mysticism is the realization of the process of divination.

An important 5th-6th century author was Pseudo-Dionysius.  (Also known as Dionysius Aeropagite.)  He was extremely important for theology in both the East and the West.  He wrote Mystical TheologyThe Divine Names; Celestial Hierarchy; and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.  We don’t actually know who he was or where he lived or what his exact dates were.  All we know is that he criticized the anthropomorphism (attribution of human traits to a deity) that is present in all propositions concerning the divine.  He explains that the names of God are metaphors that cannot be taken literally.  If we accept “God is good” or “God is wise”, or “God is creator” literally, God becomes captive to our language.  This is a form of idolatry.  In order to avoid this, one must not make positive statements of God (ketaphasis – affirmation or assertion).  Apophasis (denial or negation) is more important.  In other words, God is X or Y AND God is not X or Y – that’s the only way to maintain the otherness of God (which was likewise important in the Merkabah mysticism).

From The Divine Names

If God cannot be grasped by the mind or sense perception, if he is not a particular thing, how do we know him?  this is something we must inquire into.  It might be more accurate to say that we cannot know God in his nature, since this is unknowable and is beyond the reach of mind or reason.   But we know him from the arrangement of everything because everything is, in a sense, projected out from him, and this order possesses certain images and semblances of his divine paradigms.  We therefore approach that which is beyond all as far as our capacities allow us and we pass by way of the denial and the transcendence of all things and by way of the cause of all things.  God is therefore known in all things and distinct from all things.  He is known through knowledge and through the unknowing of him.  There is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name and many other things.  On the other hand, he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him.  He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them.  He is all things in all things and he is nothing among things.  He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything.

This shows an ontological link with God but an epistemological gap.  God goes beyond the human capacity of knowing. He speaks of the radiance of God as a dark cloud.  This is akin to the ascent of Moses to God in Merkabah mysticism.

According to Plotinus (205-270), everything that is of God participates in God.  Christ represents the full offer of the divine in creation. Christ is the divination of human nature (theosis).

In the 7th Century comes Maximus the Confessor (580-662).  There was a controversy (called the Monothelite Controversy) over whether or not in Jesus there was a real human will or whether it was totally subsumed by divine will.  Maximus held that there was a real human will.  This is standard Eastern Christian stuff.  He was arrested, tried, exiled and maimed for saying this. Maximus wrote, “In becoming incarnate, the word of God teaches us the mystical knowledge of God.” It is through the human image we reach God.  Paradoxically, the closer one gets to God the more one comes in touch with one’s own humanity and humility.  The process of divinization is ontological, not epistemological.

John Climacus (579-649) taught that discipleship is a process of ascent.  He wrote, “Stillness of body is the accurate knowledge and management of one’s feeling and perceptions… The powers of heaven join in living and worship with the man who practices stillness in his soul.”  In this sense, hesychia is a profound state of concentration on what is not there.  It is a movement of the heart, not of the mind.

     Words are not important – when man has found the Lord, he no longer has use for words when he is praying, for the Spirit Himself will intercede for him with groans that cannot be uttered.

     Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath.  Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.

Sounds like meditation to me!!  The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”) doesn’t become popular within the Hesychastic tradition until it is more fully developed by Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) in the 14th century.  Then it becomes virtually synonymous with the Hesychastic tradition.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite – Part 2

Suzuki says that Merton’s use of emptiness does not go far enough or deep enough. He says Merton’s emptiness is still on the level of Godhead, and Merton agrees. The problem is that whenever you try and put Zen into theological terms, it’s bound to miss the point. Pureland Buddhism is much more like Christianity than is Zen because it is likewise about salvation. So as far as Buddhism goes, the dialogue between Pureland and Christianity is much more clear cut than the dialogue between Zen and Christianity.

Merton used Zosima from The Brothers Karamazov as an example about the Christian belief that Paradise is right here right now but that we don’t realize it. Suzuki says this is the illusion we are conditioned with as beings in time or “becomings” in time [I like that – “becomings” in time!] When we experience “Paradise here now”, we cease to ask questions about it. We just accept it and live it.

I liked this quote:

Before I grasped Zen, the mountains were nothing but mountains and the rivers nothing but rivers. When I got into Zen, the mountains were no longer mountains and the rivers no longer rivers. But when I understood Zen, the mountains were only mountains and the river only rivers.

Merton says that the existentialists and a few others have recognized the absurdity and self-contradiction within current western industrial culture. But the majority of us continue to see only the rational machinery because it is rational and it is a fact. Merton points out that the internal contradiction is likewise rational and a fact.

Merton writes:

Zen pushes the contradictions to the ultimate limit where one has to choose between madness and innocence. And Zen suggests that we may be driving toward one or the other on a cosmic scale. Driving toward them because, one way or the other, as madmen or innocents, we are already there. It might be good to open our eyes and see.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite – Notes from Part I

These are continued notes from Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Part I. 

More on Zen and Christianity

Merton writes: “For Zen, the moment fact is transferred to a statement it is falsified. One ceases to grasp the naked reality of experiences and one grasps a form of words instead. The verification that Zen seeks is not to be found in a dialectical transaction involving the reduction of fact to logical statement and the reflective verification of statement by fact…The whole aim of Zen is not to make a foolproof statement about experience, but to come to direct grips with reality without the mediation of logical verbalizing.”

“Zen is not an idealistic rejection of sense and matter in order to ascend to a supposedly invisible reality which alone is real. The Zen experience is a direct grasp of the unity of the invisible and the visible, the noumenal and the phenomenal, or if you prefer, an experiential realization that any such division is bound to be pure imagination.” [I always have to look up noumenal: The noumenon (plural: noumena) classically refers to an object of human inquiry, understanding or cognition. The term is generally used in contrast with, or in relation to, "phenomenon" (plural: phenomena), which refers to appearances, or objects of the senses. That which is perceived but not tangible.] According to D.T. Suzuki, there is a sense in which Buddhism is radical empiricism or experientialism, whatever dialectic later developed to probe the meaning of the enlightenment experience.

The difficulty to a mutual understanding of Buddhism and Christianity has to do with the Western tendency to focus not on the Buddhist experience, which is essential, but on the explanation, which is accidental and which Zen regards as trivial and misleading. Buddhist meditation and especially Zen seek not to explain, but to pay attention. It’s about developing a certain kind of consciousness that is above and beyond deception by verbal formulas and emotional excitement.

The obsession with doctrinal formulas and ritual exactitude makes many Catholics forget that the heart of Catholicism is likewise a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations. When Suzuki compares Eckhart with Zen, he is not comparing the mystical theology but the ontological and psychological experience of Eckhart. Both Christians and Buddhists can practice Zen equally well if by Zen we mean precisely the quest for direct and pure experience on a metaphysical level, liberated from verbal formulas and linguistic preconceptions.

Merton asks: to what extent does the theology of a theologian without experience claim to interpret correctly the “experienced theology” of the mystic who is perhaps not able to articulate the meaning of his experience in a satisfactory way? Is it acceptable to allow the abstract demands of theory to take precedence over the psychological facts of experience?

Christianity tends to set experience into language and symbols in order to be easily communicable. Zen, on the other hand, resolutely resists the temptation to be easily communicable. The Christian experience is acceptable in so far as it accords with an established theological and symbolic pattern. The Zen experience is only acceptable on the basis of its singularity and yet it must in some way be communicable. What is communicated is not a “message”, “word” or any sort of “what”. Zen communicates awareness. The language in Zen is therefore a sort of anti-language and the logic of Zen is a radical reversal of philosophical logic. Zen says as does Wittgenstein, “Don’t think: Look!”

D.T. Suzuki says that these words of Meister Eckhart’s, which are perfectly orthodox and traditional Catholic theology, are the same as Prajna intuition:

In giving us His love God has given us the Holy Ghost so that we can love Him with the love wherewith He loves Himself.

Suzuki translates this into Zen terms: “one mirror reflecting another with no shadow between them”.

Suzuki often quotes this sentence of Eckhart’s: “The eye wherein I see God is the same eye wherein God sees me”. He says this is an exact expression of what Zen means by Prajna.


Transcendent experience is something more definite than “peak experience”. It is the self-transcending mystical or metaphysical experience of the “Transcendent” or of “God” not so much as object but as subject. It is realized from within”Himself” and within “myself”, but “myself” is now lost and found in “Him”. These metaphorical expressions point to the problem we have in the mind, “the problem of a self that is a “no-self”, that is by no means an “alienated self” but on the contrary, a transcendent Self. In Christian terms, this self is distinct from the Self of God and yet is perfectly identified with the Self by love and freedom so that there appears to be but one Self. Experience of this is what we call “transcendent experience”.

To attain this reality is to penetrate the reality of all that is, to grasp the meaning of one’s own existence, to find one’s true place in the scheme of things, to relate perfectly to all that is in relation to identity and love. It is a matter of superconsciousness rather than a lapse into preconsciousness or unconsciousness. (The Zen “unconscious” is metaphysical rather than psychological.)

Eckhart puts it this way: “In giving us His love God has given us His Holy Ghost so that we can love Him with the love werewith he loves Himself. We love God with His own love; awareness of it deifies us.” Suzuki quotes this as an expression of the Prajna wisdom of Zen. [This also sounds a lot like ACIM.]

In Buddhism, the highest development is likewise the development of consciousness by which the individual ego is completely emptied and becomes identified with the enlightened Buddha. It finds itself to be in reality the enlightened Buddha mind. Nirvana is not the consciousness of an ego that is aware of itself as having crossed over to “the other shore” (to be on “another shore” is the same as not having crossed over), but the Absolute Ground-Consciousness of the Void, in which there are no shores. Thus the Buddhist enters into the self-emptying and enlightenment of Buddha as the Christian enters into the self-emptying (crucifixion) and glorification (resurrection and ascension) of Christ. The chief difference between the two is that the former is existential and ontological, the latter is theological and personal. But “person” here must be distinguished from “the individual empirical ego.”

A spiritual guide worth his salt will campaign against all forms of delusion arising out of spiritual ambition and self-complacency. The aim is not to establish the ego in spiritual glory. That is why St. John of the Cross is so hostile to visions, ecstasies and all forms of “special experience.” It’s why Zen Masters say if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. The Holy Object must be destroyed in so far as it is an idol embodying the secret desires, aspirations and powers of the self. As soon as there is “someone there” to have a transcendent experience, “the experience” is falsified and becomes impossible.


According to Gabriel Marcel [a Christian existentialist], the self creates it’s own obscurity by placing itself between the I and the other. The Fall of “original sin” has to do with basic authenticity, not about making good pleasures seem guilty. It is a determined willfulness to make things other than what they are. [This is exactly what Rabbi Kushner says! That if there were to be an "original sin" in Judaism, it would be the moment Cain blamed Abel for his lot in life rather than accepting reality as it is. The term sin was first used in the OT in conjunction with Cain blaming Abel.] Our willfulness is inseparable from error and from suffering because we cannot make the world conform to what we want it to be. [I think this is where people get confused about Nietzsche, too. Will to power is not about making the world conform to what we want it to be, it’s about moving beyond the constraints of the labels, symbols, etc. But this first requires the acceptance of things as they are. We must be willing to experience Eternal Recurrence.]

The desire to experience Nirvana is still desire and is therefore a source of suffering because it maintains the brokenness that cuts the subject off from the ground of his own being in Sunyata. Ego-desire can never culminate in happiness, fulfillment and peace because it is a fracture which cuts us off from the ground of reality in which truth and peace are found. As long as the ego seeks to “grasp” or “contain” that ground as an objective content of awareness, it will be broken and frustrated.

If Nirvana is called an “experience of Love”, we must be very careful. If this experience is something that can be grasped or possessed, then it is not Nirvana. Nirvana is beyond experience while being the “highest experience”. It is not about emotional fulfillment or the fulfillment of desire. It is a full realization. A full awakening. This realization is not abstract or intellectual, it is concrete. Nirvana is the extinction of desire and the full awakening that results from this extinction. It is not the disolution of all ego-limits or a quasi-infinite expansion of the ego into an ocean of self-satisfaction and annihilation. To say with self-satisfaction that “I have at last crossed to the other shore” is to remain where we always were because there is no “other shore”. I have only managed to find a pill that produces spurious light and deadens a little of the pain.

To be here and now where we are in our “suchness” is to be in Nirvana, but unfortunately as long as we have “thirst” or Tanha we falsify our own situation and cannot realize it as Nirvana.

“Nothing” or “Emptiness” in Buddhism is not the same thing as Sartre’s neant [nothingness]. It is the exact opposite of the world-denying pessimistic “nihilism” and is absolutely life affirming since Zen regards being as the self-unfolding of the unformed Nothing.

Toshimitsu Hasumi writes: “Christianity is a manifestation of the Incarnation of God, whereas Zen is intensive, inward enlightening of the divine being which the Japanese has apprehended as Nothing, and which must be supplemented, uplifted and completed by means of the manifestation of the Incarnation.” Merton says this is a generous and perceptive statement of what the Budhist might expect from his Christian brethren.

Is Buddhism Life-Denying?

Buddhist mindfulness, far from being contemptuous of life, is extremely solicitious for all life. It has two aspects: one, the penetration of the meaning and reality of suffering by meditation, and two, the protection of all beings against suffering by non-violence and compassion. Without such insight, there can be no real respect for life. Without such insight it is easy to multiply fine words about being “life-affirming” and about love of others; but one destroys them nevertheless.

The Buddhist meditation on suffering is not masochistic or morbid. Suzuki says:

The value of human life lies in the fact of suffering, for where there is no suffering, no consciousness of karmic bondage, there will be no power of attaining spiritual experience and thereby reaching the field of non-distinction. Unless we agree to suffer we cannot be free from suffering.

Buddhism does not deny the body and it does not seek to escape from life. The body plays the most important part in Buddhist meditation, in fact in no other meditation discipline is the body so important. Instead of eliminating, or trying to eliminate, all body-consciousness, Buddhist meditation is keenly aware of the body. In order to master the mind, Buddhist meditation seeks first of all to master the body. Nyanaponika Thera writes:

If the body is unmasterd (by mediation) the mind will be unmastered; if the body is mastered, the mind is mastered….Since mental processes will become clear only to one who has grasped the corporeal with full clarity, any endeavor in grasping the mental processes should be made only through grasping the corporeal, not otherwise.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite – The Study of Zen & the New Consciousness

I had Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton many moons ago. My friend brought up Merton recently which inspired me to re-read it. I wonder what I understood of it all those years ago? I felt I had understood it, but I think having read the Existentialists recently and having a better grasp of Buddhism than I did then has given me a completely different understanding, now.

I want to work through what I’ve highlighted to make sure I’ve grasped it. This is from the first essay, "The Study of Zen". Merton thinks Christianity could greatly benefit from a study of Zen…

Beyond its moral implications, familiar to all, there is a Zen dimension to this word of the Gospel. Only when this Zen dimension is grasped will the moral bearing of it be fully clear!

No wonder so many orthodox Christians took issue with Merton! But this makes sense. Zen is a mirror. Jesus’ saying: “Judge not and you will not be judged” means something totally different when you think of it in terms of reflection. What you do gets mirrored back to you.

The Burning Bush of Exodus reminds us strangely of the Prajnaparamita Sutra: “Form is emptiness, emptiness itself is form; form does not differ from emtpiness (the Void), emptiness does not differ from form; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form…” Is the fire other than the Bush? Is it more than the Bush? Is it more the Bush than the Bush itself? When Moses asks, the answer he receives is – “I am what I am.” No one quite knows what the Hebrew means. We assign to it the meaning of our age (different eras understand it differently). But we don’t really understand what “I am what I am” means.


Merton says that Moses is asked to approach it without shoes – and probably also without feet. This is Zen. It is beyond both the formulations of Buddhism and it is also beyond the revealed message in Christianity.

Cassian – one of the Christian Egyptian Desert fathers, suggests the idea of “purity of heart”. This is not Zen because it maintains a separate self-consciousness that is ready and even worthy to receive a vision of God. Meister Eckhart offers a better expression of Zen: “To be a proper abode for God and fit for God to act in, a man should also be free from all things and actions, both inwardly and outwardly.” This is Cassian’s purity of heart, but Eckhart takes it one step further: “A man should be so poor that he is not and has not a place for God to act in. To reserve a place would be to maintain distinction.”

Merton says that for Eckhart, there is a sort of separation between Creator and creature, but the distinction between Creator and creature does not alter the fact that there is also a basic unity within ourselves at the summit of our being where we are “one with God”.

It is only in the highest unity that we finally discover the dignity and importance even of our “earthly self” which does not exist apart from it, but in it and by it. The tragedy is that our consciousness is totally alienated from this inmost ground of our identity. And in Christian mystical tradition, this inner split and alienation is the real meaning of ‘original sin’.

Eckhart’s expression is very close to the expressions offered by Zen Masters. But it is also purely Christian. From Eckhart:

The shell must be cracked apart if what is in it is to come out, for if you want the kernel you must break the shell. And therefore if you want to discover nature’s nakedness you must destroy its symbols, and the farther you get in the nearer you come to its essence. When you come to the One that gathers things all up into itself, there you must stay.

A Zen Mondo says the same thing:

A Zen Master said to his disciple: “Go get my rhinoceros-horn fan”

Disciple: “Sorry, Master, it is broken.”

Master: “Okay, then get me the rhinoceros.”

Merton says that the development of a historical perspective on Christianity radically altered the early Christian perspective. The eschatological ideas were given a Hellenic metaphysical dimension so that Christian truths began to be experienced “statically” rather than “dynamically”. This is when they developed into mystical experience. Today, if mysticism is summarily identified with the “hellenic” and “Medieval” Christian experience, it is becoming increasingly rejected as non-Christian because Christianity is becoming increasingly secular. Much of this has to do with what Merton calls “Cartesian Consciousness”:

Modern man is a subject for whom his own self-awareness as a thinking, observing, measuring, and “self” is absolutely primary. It is for him the one indubitable “reality” and all truth starts here. The more he is able to develop his consciousness as a subject over and against objects, the more he can understand things in their relations to him and one another, the more he can manipulate these objects for his own interests, but also, at the same time, the more he tends to isolate himself in his own subjective prison, to become a detached observer cut off from everything else in a kind of impenetrable alienated and transparent bubble which contains all reality in the form of purely subjective experience. Modern consciousness then tends to create this solipsistic bubble of awareness – an ego-self imprisoned in its own consciousness, isolated and out of touch with other such selves in so far as they are all “things” rather than people.

It is this experience that has created what made Nietzsche say that “God is Dead” and it is we who have killed him. We objectified God and thereby killed him. However stuck we are in Cartesian consciousness, it isn’t the only sort of consciousness. Merton writes:

Underlying the subjective experience of the individual self there is an immediate experience of Being. This is totally different from an experience of self-consciousness. It is completely nonobjective. It has in it none of the split and alienation that occurs when the subject becomes aware of itself as a quasi-object. The consciousness of Being (when considered positively or negatively and apophatically as in Buddhism) is an immediate experience that goes beyond reflexive awareness. It is not “consciousness of” but pure consciousness, in which the subject as such “disappears.

It is this Being that sustains us although we don’t encounter Being as Being, we experience this Being as Freedom and Love.

He continues: 

     The metaphysical intuition of Being is an intuition of a ground of openness, indeed a kind of ontological openness and an infinite generosity which communicates itself to everything that is… It does not consider God either as Immanent or as Transcendent but as grace and presence, hence neither as a “Center” imagined somewhere “out there” nor “within ourselves.” It encounters him not as Being but as Freedom and Love…Being is not an abstract objective idea but a fundamental concrete intuition directly apprehended in a personal experience that is incontrovertible and inexpressible.

     Cartesian (reflexive) consciousness interprets the classical mystical experience of having an intuition of God’s love without “seeing” or “understanding” any object as either “a stubborn fixation on ‘something out there,” or as narcissistic repose of the consciousness in itself. It is true that false mysticism can take on some such appearance as this. The only solution is to admit that there is no way for this “Cartesian” type of consciousness to really grasp what the mystics of the classic type are talking about.

This is similar to what Huston Smith says. Rational understanding does not understand mystical understanding. Yet mystical understanding does understand rational understanding. Christianity is becoming increasingly rational and no longer understands the mystical experience as Christian. It’s suspect. Christian consciousness is becoming activistic, antimystical, and antimetaphysical. (Metaphysical in the traditional sense has, according to Smith, become a “bad word” in the modern and post-modern sense and it is drastically misunderstood.)

Merton agrees that it is plausible (as the Existentialists claim) that the old Hellenic categories are worn out and that Platonizing thought will not serve the modern world. So what is to become of Christianity that has been defined in Hellenic terms for centuries? It has to meet the following great needs of man:

  • His need for community, for a genuine relationship of authentic love with his fellow man. (This implies a radical seriousness in approaching the critical problems which threaten man’s survival – war, racial conflict, hunger, economic and political injustice.)
  • Man’s need for an adequate understanding of his everyday self in his ordinary life. We can’t afford the sort of idealistic philosophy that removes all reality into the celestial realms and makes temporal existence meaningless. Man needs to find ultimate sense here and now in the ordinary humble tasks and human problems of every day.
  • Man’s need for a whole and integral experience of his own self on all its levels, bodily as well as imaginative, emotional, intellectual, spiritual. We cannot cultivate one aspect of human experience at the expense of others even on the pretext that one sort is sacred and the rest profane.
  • Liberation from man’s inordinate self-consciousness, his monumental self-awareness, his obsession with self-affirmation, so that he may enjoy the freedom from concern that goes with being simply what he is and accepting things as they are in order to work with them as he can.

Zen can help the developing Christian consciousness because it is nondoctrinal, concrete, direct, existential, and seeks above all to come to grips with life itself, not with ideas about life, still less with party platforms in politics, religion, science or anything else.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite

A friend of mine brought up Thomas Merton a few days ago which I just noticed on her blog today. It inspired me to pull out a book I had read by Merton some time ago – Zen and the Birds of Appetite. The "Authors Note" to the book struck me much more deeply tonight than it did previously. It’s beautiful…

     When there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend. Life and death are two. The living attack the dead, to their own profit. The dead lose nothing by it. They gain too, by being disposed of. Or they seem to, if you must think in terms of gain and loss. Do you then approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something gained by it? This question is not intended as an implicit accusation. But it is, nevertheless, a serious question. Where there is a lot of fuss about “spirituality,” “enlightenment” or just “turning on,” it is often because there are buzzards hovering around a corpse. This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen – even though they may be a highly useful exercise in other contexts. And they enrich the birds of appetite.

     Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the “nothing,” the “no-body” that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.

Zen and the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss

Finished reading another little book I picked up at the library called Zen and the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss. I think I am probably in agreement with 99% of what Prentiss is preaching here, but the promise of producing the capability of acquiring stuff through spiritual practice doesn’t seem particularly spiritual to me.

The premise of the book is that everything that happens to you is the best possible thing that could happen to you. I believe this to be true in that we have the capacity to believe it is true.

He provides an example of a man who lost his job and started drinking and snorting cocaine because of his “bad luck”. After a three month binge, the guy gets a call from a company he had always wanted to work for, but they required a drug test and of course, he couldn’t pass it. The moral of the story: he had failed to expect that the universe had something better in store for him.

He uses another similar example of a man who was addicted to Vicadin and was told that nothing could be done for his pain. He refused to believe this was true and finally called Prentiss, who runs a substance abuse center. Prentiss referred him him to an Acupuncturist who was able to relieve most of his pain and helped him overcome the Vicadin addiction.

These are excellent examples. What you think about expands and we thereby create our realities through our thoughts. But, while I know we have the ability to choose our reaction to the events in our lives, that doesn’t mean we likewise control the events.

My limited understanding of Zen is that it is about cultivating “one mind”. You don’t look to the future or to the past, you stay in the reality of the present. So if something happens to you and you immediately wonder – “what good is going to come from this?” – your mind is in the future rather than the present so you are not of “one mind” in that moment because you are focused upon the outcome.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to think “what good is going to come from this” when you find yourself in a difficult situation. That can be quite helpful. My concern is that this is being touted as Zen and I don’t think it is. From what I know about Zen, this barely scratches the surface, if at all.

Plus, there is still that sense of “doing to get” rather than “being”. If you stay open to the universe, you’ll be able to get the four wheel drive white van you have been needing. It will fall into your lap, complete with the cool stereo you imagined. While certainly serendipitous events like this happen on a regular basis, is that truly about Zen, happiness or the Zen of happiness?

My understanding is that happiness is a state of mind and doesn’t rely on getting the white van, the job, or the relief from pain in order to exist. It’s the ability to have peace of mind at any moment, no matter your situation.

I always feel just a little bit concerned about books like this and documentaries like “The Secret” not because I don’t think they are helpful. Clearly they are. But I think they are turning something that has incredible depth into something extremely shallow.

But perhaps we are so spiritually deprived that it is necessary for us to start at the outward material level and work our way further inward. I’m just not sure we should be calling it Zen if the focus is on what we can have by being happy. Zen, I think, is about becoming happiness itself.

The Mirror Mind Zen-Christian Dialogue

The Mirror Mind: Zen-Christian Dialogue, by William Johnston, has been very helpful for me as I try to navigate through a new understanding of Christianity.

Johnston, I believe, is a Jesuit Catholic Priest. He claims that religious dialogue has been a norm throughout the ages, but was horribly handled within Christianity and it’s missionary, chauvenistic movements. He quotes Bernard Lonergan as having said of the missionaries that “they seem to have thought of truth as so objective as to get along without minds.” Johnston claims dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism can only be based upon the mystical religious experience, not objective truth. We won’t find the common ground through metaphysics either, but rather, through the Christian “transcendental method.”

The precepts of the transcendental method are the following.

  1. Be attentive. (Buddhism -mindfulness)
  2. Be intelligent. (Buddhism – koan – spirit of enquiry.)
  3. Be reasonable. (A little more difficult to reconcile with Buddhism – but not from the Christian mystics interpretation of reason requiring contemplation)
  4. Be responsible. (Recognize and accept the values and committments of others – typically not as much of a problem for Buddhism as Christianity).
  5. Be committed. (Buddhism – the dharma and songha).

Johnston claims the chief difference between Buddhism and Hebrew–Christians is that Buddhists believe the true self is found through discoverng the “no self” through ones self. Hebrew – Christianity, is relational. He says of it, “I find my true self by going beyond this true self to the other. If my true self is a mirror, this mirror reflects a face other than my own – yet this other face becomes mine in a remarkable way. For what union could be closer than that of the pure mirror and the object it reflects?”

But Buddhism and Christianity have much to offer one another in that they can cast light upon one another. From the Christian perspective, we can learn to get out of our heads and experience our religion more bodily as the Buddhists, do. And we can learn to “control” differently. Rather than directly controlloing others, Buddhists exert control through being watchful – just as they watch their breath through meditation.

Johnston says “the authentic mystical path is not one of rejection but of transformation.” Christian control has often assumed control through rejection rather than transformation. Watchfulness, instead, has the power to transform. He says that theologians since Origen have said that “God became man in order that man might become God.” Apparently, this thinking was lost with Augustine. I think this makes sense because Augustine’s thinking was heavily based upon Aristotlean logic. We know today that the way we have interpreted Aristotle’s thinking has kept us locked into a specific understanding both scientifically and theologically that physics is just now disproving. Watching does seem to be a much more powerful tool in this regard.

Another concept I find interesting is what Johnston says about karma: “The Hebrews thought that the word has a substantial existence of its own; once uttered (like that great blessing of Isaac) it could never be recalled. And the oriental tradition in a somewhat similar vein speaks of karma, the word or thought that is like the pebble thrown into the pond, creating ripples and ripples and ripples throught the universe. Small wonder that Jesus warns us to be careful about our use of words” ‘Let wht you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil”‘ (Matt. 5:37). The Christian Center, where not deceit is possible, is the substantial word.

Johnston goes into great depth about the mystical experience of the “dark night”. He claims that he used to think that all saints and mystics would arrive somewhere. That they would be liberated from fear. But now he understands that this is an impossibility. Fear and clinging can never be “gotten rid of”, they can simply be transcended. But they are still there and still experienced. Just experienced differently. And so it becomes possible to go deeper into fear and accept it.

Johnston talks about Jungs work. One of Jung’s patients had said: “So now I intend to play the game of life, being receptive to whatever comes to me, good and bad, sun and shadow that are forever alternating, and, in this way also accepting my own nature with its positive and negative sides.” Jung was very concerned about Europeans shedding their own religions to take on Eastern Religions. His fear was based upon the Europeans need for control which does not exist in the same way among Eastern cultures as it does amongst Western cultures. He fears the European mentality gaining “more control over the nature within us and around us.” That we will become even more destructive than we already are if we gain this ability.

I remember hearing Ram Dass say that the traditional Eastern Zen Masters were ineffective with Westerners. Their techniques were meant to wake people up to their individuality which is much needed in Eastern cultures where people do not tend to view themselves as individuals but as part of a family. We westerners, on the other hand, already see ourselves as individuals and are in greater need of seeing ourselves as part of a bigger whole. Being a part of something bigger than ourselves is much more terrifying to us than the thought that we are separate from teh whole. The recognition that they are a separate entity from the whole is much more terrifying to the Eastern mindset than the thought that they are a part of a whole.

I have actually thought, at times, about leaving Christianity and becoming a Buddhist. But this makes a lot of sense to me. Christianity is relational and the ability to deeply relate is what the Western mindset needs moist. We must be able to see our reflection in the other. To be able to see the Christ in each other. We have much less trouble recognizing our individuality. The greater trouble is being able to see the other as other. If we misused Buddhism in the slightest, we would simply be driven even more into our individuality rather than made to see that we are merely part of the whole. And Christianity might serve to be a similar problem for the Eastern mindset – driving them more deeply into a focus upon the whole rather than their individuality.

Christianity and Buddhism mirror one another.

Johnston says that trying to understand the Bible literally is a more recent phenomenon – taken from an out-dated idea in hermeneutics that the most scientific way to understand the Bible is through a literal interpretation. But this idea was naive in that any inspired author is interpreted beyond his meaning. Knowledge is creative, not stagnant. So if you write a book today, people tomorrow will find meaning in it beyond the meaning you gave it when you wrote it, just as we do with Shakespeare and the great classics. What is important is not what is written, but the relationship between the words that are written and the reader of the written words. It is the relationship that is important.

I found this book to be extremely helpful and encouraging as I walk along the current path I now find myself upon. It gives me hope that Christianity can be transformed out of it’s current controlling patterns and into something more open and receptive.