Live Together More: A Conversation With Craig Greenfield

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“Gustavo Gutierrez’s provocative words rang in our ears: ‘You say you care about the poor. Then tell me, what are their names?’

Subversive Jesus

Craig Greenfield is a man who has made a lot of remarkable decisions. A living embodiment of Jesus’ instruction to practice table fellowship with the poor, Greenfield has dedicated much of his adult life to caring for and empowering children, especially orphans of AIDS and systemic injustice. Greenfield decided to spend six years living in the slums of Cambodia, and then when he needed a break from having his family’s home demolished repeatedly by the Cambodian government, decided to spend six years practising fearless community in the infamous “drug ghetto” of Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Along the way Greenfield became the leader of Servants, an international fellowship of people dedicated to living in community with people in some of the world’s toughest places. Greenfield then went on to found Alongsiders International, an organisation which follows that mandate according to his own vision. More recently he wrote a bestselling book, Subversive Jesus; and has become a social media presence as a loving critic of mainstream charities. On Mayday 2016 I sat down at a Tim Horton’s, Canada’s iconic working class coffee shop, in East Vancouver, to talk with Greenfield.

The Tim Hortons on Commercial Dr is cramped, plastic, and opens into a mall. Inside Craig Greenfield was doing what he does, bringing life regardless of surroundings. I found Craig seated at a table with a friend, John Baird. John had tattoos on his face and hands, and his warm brown eyes paid close attention from under his scraggly grey hair. He was wearing a neck brace from a recent bicycle accident. John is a resident of the downtown eastside who became a member of the Servants community Greenfield co-founded in Vancouver more than a decade ago. “When Craig was here”, Baird said, “Craig and his wife, three days a week I went to the community for dinner there. We would sing songs just before dinner. It was the best time of my life, the best time ever.”

John stayed to join in the conversation, complementing it with his thoughtful presence. Craig looked like a friendly pirate, with goatee, broad, open face, and sunglasses perched on his greying hipster mohawk. In fact, Greenfield spent a few rare moments in the spotlight in Vancouver for his Pirates of Justice flash mobs where protesters decked out like swashbucklers shone a light on slavery-like working conditions on the cruise ships that pull into the city. Greenfield played Jack Sparrow to a tee, and you could see it wasn’t that much of a stretch.

Craig’s new book is doing well, #1 in it’s category on Amazon. “It’s been a really positive response. I’ve been waiting for the pushback.” He laughs, and adds, “There was a line in one of the reviews that I loved, ‘Greenfield  veers into leftist economics at times, but we can forgive him that’.” Craig points out that John is in the book too.

“Without Craig and his wife Nay I wouldn’t be here today”, says John. “I wouldn’t have lived.”

Greenfield’s work in Cambodia, which continues today, centres on empowering Cambodian youth to walk alongside younger children, forming mentoring relationships and offering love in a way that saves lives and changes futures. “The children’s needs are so great”, says Greenfield. “Half of their mothers are sex workers. They are thrilled just by the sight of a piece of bread. They will fight over slices of cucumber.”

Craig sees the root causes of poverty in Cambodia and Vancouver as both similar and different. “There is systemic injustice in both countries and poverty that flows out of that. The details are different- war there, the residential schools here (where the government attempted to forcefully integrate Indigenous children). The similarity is that poverty flows out of multiple generations of systemic injustice.”

Greenfield is critical of institutional charities. Echoing the sentiments of activists like Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Workers Movement) and Gustavo Gutierrez (Peruvian liberation theologian), Greenfield argues that instead of advocating for justice, a lot of charity work stops at taking care of the victims of injustice. “I critique it because I want us to go further”, he says, “It’s done with a good heart and I don’t want to discourage people,  I want them to think deeper and more structurally. What transforms lives is mutual relationship, not just hand-outs.”

I pointed out that a friend of mine who works at an institutional charity had said something almost identical to me. Well, I still have to critique those institutional charities, because they may say that, but within their policies the relationships they can have with people are limited. I believe we need to invite people into our homes. People long for change, people have a sense that they want to do things differently. But systems are there to stop us and set us up as benefactors and beneficiaries.”

Living in community with the poor, instead of hiring other people to be charitable for us, is at the heart of Greenfield’s mission. The scriptural heart of Greenfield’s vision is Luke 14:12, which reads:  When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.It’s so funny”, says Greenfield, “because, how clear is that passage? People don’t even try to reframe it or interpret it so it says something else, because they can’t. No one applies it!“

Craig frequently mentions a Cambodian proverb at the heart of Alongsiders:, “It takes a spider to repair its own web.” The vision at the heart of Alongsiders could be summed up as the intersection of Luke 14:12 and this Cambodian wisdom: it is about empowering others through fellowship, not practising charity toward them.

Greenfield says that he grew up with a domesticated image of Jesus. In his teenage years, he rebelled against that, walking away from the faith for years. His parents, though, practised radical hospitality and lived in “a very radical way”. Greenfield seems to have imbibed his parent’s way of life while rejecting the “Jesus meek and mild” of the conservative Church he grew up in. Greenfield prefers the Jesus overturning tables in the Temple.

Despite Greenfield’s passion for his own mission, he is not calling all people to imitate what he has done. “There is nothing prescriptive about the stories I have shared in this book”, he writes in Subversive Jesus. His advice for those inspired by his message is simple: community. “Wherever you are, find ways to bring people together. This is my advice: live together more.”

 

The Silent Cost of Shangri-La? The Human Rights Controversy in Bhutan

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For many in the Western Buddhist world, Bhutan has become a quasi-mythical land.  Bhutan is an officially Buddhist Kingdom with ties to internationally popular Lamas. It has become famous for it’s lauded vision of “gross national happiness”. In 2006, it was named the happiest country in Asia and the sixth happiest in the world in a survey based on the Gross National Happiness index inspired by Bhutan itself. In 2012, as a result of an initiative of the Bhutanese government, the UN named March 20The International Day of Happiness. More recently the environmental media declared Bhutan one of the few countries in the world to be not just carbon neutral but carbon negative.

 

Bhutan is venerated for resistance to modernization and westernisation.  The fact that it is difficult to even visit Bhutan due to its limitations on tourism only increases its mystique. In addition many Western students of Vajrayana dream of retreats in the green mountains and valleys of the “land of the dragon”, where pure teachings of the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages are still to be found.    

 

Gross National Happiness

In the 1970’s the Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck began instituting his vision of “gross national happiness (GNH)”, which included strong measures to protect Bhutan’s dominant ethnic culture and the religious tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism (which it shares with Tibet). In the 1980s, the Bhutanese government was worried about illegal immigration and preserving the country’s cultural identity in the face of Nepali influence as well as the power of it’s neighboring giants China and India. Bhutan adopted a “one nation one people” policy and introduced mandatory Driglam Namza, the ancient code of social etiquette practised by the dominant ethnic group- people from west Bhutan, who are of Tibetan origin. The government decided to deport thousands of people of Nepali ethnicity, many of whom had lived in the south of Bhutan for generations and are known as lhotshampas (“southerners”). The government passed laws requiring people to wear traditional Bhutanese dress and banned the Nepali language in public, and, human rights groups say, tortured Nepali Bhutanese, who spoke out.  

 

In a harrowing 2013 NY Times article Vidhyapati Mishra wrote an account of the expulsion of his family from Bhutan. He recalls an idyllic childhood on a farm that grew “maize, millet and buckwheat, a cardamom garden, beehives and enough pasture for cows, oxen, sheep and buffaloes.” After the 1989 declaration of the “one people, one country” policy things began to change. Hindu seminaries were closed, “traditional Bhutanese” customs were imposed on all and Mishra’s elementary school, which served the Lhotshampa population, was closed down. One day in 1991 Mishra reports, men in uniform came to his house and seized his father. After insisting he put on his bakku (traditional Bhutanese dress), they dragged him from the house kicking and slapping him. As Mishra describes it, “My father was held for 91 days in a small, dank cell. They pressed him down with heavy logs, pierced his fingers with needles, served him urine instead of water, forced him to chop firewood all day with no food. Sometimes, they burned dried chilies in his cell to make breathing unbearable. He agreed eventually to sign what were called voluntary migration forms and was given a week to leave the country our family had inhabited for four generations.” At the time of writing that NY Times article Mishra had been in a refugee camp known as Beldangi 2 for 21 years.  

 

Bhutan’s governmental policies had dreary results beyond the camps for those sentient beings who happened to be Nepali in origin. One refugee, who spent 17 years living in a camp before immigrating to the US, said that when he first arrived in the camp “two or three’ dead bodies” were being taken away every day due to crowding and lack of medicine. The U.N eventually arrived with help, but the governments of Bhutan and Nepal refused to take responsibility for the more than 100,000 refugees living in camps. In 2007, the U.N. decided there was no hope of either country taking them in and started sending the refugees around the world to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Amnesty International says that “the Bhutanese refugee situation has become one of the most protracted and neglected refugee crises in the world.”

 

Many refugees have had difficulty integrating into their new homes abroad. The rate of depression among surviving Bhutanese refugees has been found to be three times that of the general public, and their suicide rate almost twice as high. Vidhyapati Mishra has now relocated to North Carolina, but 27,000 refugees are estimated to remain in the camps.

 

To this day, the Bhutanese government claims that the exodus of over 100,000 lhotshampas from Bhutan was voluntary. Some students of the Bhutanese lama Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche who I contacted justified Bhutanese governmental actions with the assertion that some Nepali Bhutanese did not just speak out but engaged in acts of violence against the government and even acts of terrorism against Bhutanese citizens in response to laws perceived as creating a monocultural Bhutan that excluded lhotshampas.

 

Jigmi Thinley, who wrote an article for the “Mindful Politics” compilation put out by Wisdom Publications in 2013, and was given an honorary degree from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium in 2014, was the Prime Minister of Bhutan from 2008-2013. Thinley worked in the Bhutanese government since 1976. He is currently the president of the Council of the Centre for Bhutan Studies. In 2011, when Prime Minister of Bhutan, he announced that the government was open to repatriating lhotshampa refugees following “screening.” He stated:  “They are economic refugees, they are environmental refugees, they are refugees of political instability. And they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. But I maintain that the question of whether they are refugees from Bhutan is a subject of discussion.” This statement  sparked outrage among the refugee community. The Bhutanese government disputes the claim that the camps are filled with Bhutanese of Nepali origin, claiming that some of them were illegal immigrants in Bhutan only for a short time or agitators from within Nepal seeking to enter and gain power in Bhutan.

Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others, contest this, as does the US State Department.  According to Human Rights Watch, who refers to Bhutan’s policies as “ethnic cleansing”: “The government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion.” In 2008 HRW noted that Bhutan had not repatriated a single refugee, which is still the case. In 2007 the United States recognized the refugee status of the lhotshampas and accepted 60,000 people from the camps. In 2011 Bill Frelick, director of the Refugee Program at Human Rights Watch, wrote an article pleading with the Bhutanese government to at least repatriate some of the elderly refugees in the camps who did not want to be resettled abroad but wanted to return to the homes they remembered. His plea went unanswered.

“What I would like to see,” says Vidhyapati Mishra today, echoing Frelick, “is for the government to admit the remaining unsettled refugees. Some of them have refused to be resettled in the US or elsewhere because they just want to go home. At least the government could admit those who have been resettled on tourist visas to be able to see their own country, but even with a US passport the Bhutanese government will not let us in to see our homeland again.”

When asked whether the refugee camps have been infiltrated by “fake refugees” Mishra says it has not. “A small amount have joined themselves to the refugees through marriage perhaps,” he says, “But their children, once they reach adulthood, must leave the camps and enter Nepal. Perhaps there are a small number of people who have become parts of the families of refugees, but there have been no masses of people coming in. Everyone knows each other in the camps and groups of people coming in from Nepal and claiming to be refugees would be obvious and unwelcome.”   

 

Bhutan Today

 

According to the Diplomat, “Article 7(4) of the 2008 Constitution of Bhutan states that every Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Article 7(15) adds that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status.”

Nevertheless only Buddhists and Hindus are legally allowed to form organizations. 80 percent of Bhutan’s population is Buddhist and about 20 percent of Bhutanese are lhotshampas, most of whom are Hindu. The Religious Organizations Act of 2007 says that its main intent is to “benefit the religious institutions and protect the spiritual heritage of Bhutan,” which is Vajrayana Buddhism. In practice the government reportedly harasses Hindus and obstructs their activities. Bhutan’s roughly 19,000 Christians, who are mostly southerners but also from other ethnic groups, say they are treated like second-class citizens. Christians have applied to be able to function with a legal Christian identity but have been unsuccessful so far. As a result, there are no Christian burial grounds, no Churches, and no Christian book stores.

There are some signs of improvement. According to Freedom In The World 2015, Bhutan is taking steps towards becoming more authentically democratic and towards greater transparency in government and lawfulness in its judiciary. Since 2013, the laws requiring traditional dress in public have been repealed. When the current King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Wangchuk was married, he had a parallel Hindu wedding in the south in an attempt to forge better relationships with the lhotshampas who remain in Bhutan. Local authorities are still reported to severely harass non-Buddhists however, and permits for Hindu and Christian religious activities are very hard to obtain. In March 2014, a group of Christian religious pastors was arrested for holding a worship service and held in jail for a month with no trial or charges laid. In September of the same year, two Christian pastors were sentenced to prison for conducting illegal religious activities.

 

Western Buddhism and Bhutan

Asked whether anyone from the Buddhist community had ever approached him to offer help or hear his story, Mishra says they have not. Nevertheless, and despite his experiences at the hands of Buddhist Bhutan, Mishra retains his respect for the religion. “I have great admiration for Buddhism as a religion. What is happening in Bhutan is not being done by the real Buddhists. Buddhism is being used to justify criminal behaviour.” 

Buddhist organisations in the West associated with Bhutanese traditions have largely been silent on the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities in Buddhist Bhutan. One webpage on a site run by Shambhala, a major force in Western Vajrayana, at one time had a link to some comments on video by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on the issue. They are now nowhere to be found, removed due to issues with ownership rights over the video according to a website administrator.  My request to be directed to the owner of the video or someone else qualified to discuss the issue met with no reply. One source, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed to have tried to inspire high ranking leaders in the Shambhala community to take action on the issue for years but had been resisted or ignored. Others within Shambhala, however, including at least one senior student who studied directly with Chogyam Trungpa, offered help and contacts who might shed light on the situation in Bhutan. Similarly, some direct students of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche, and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche offered assistance in finding sources for this piece.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is one of the most popular contemporary Buddhist teachers, and probably the one with the strongest ties to Bhutan. As well as being a spiritual teacher he is also a writer and film-maker and made the first feature film shot in Bhutan, Travellers and Magicians (2003). Although he has been actively teaching in the West since at least 1989, the year that the deportation of the lhotshampas began, and is well known for his frank outspokenness, I could find no public statements of his dealing with Bhutanese human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities. A source among his senior students supplied me with some anonymous opinion pieces written about Bhutan which argued that the actions of the Bhutanese government were substantially justified by their need to retain cultural and political stability as a distinct nation state. The pieces also argued that the Bhutanese government had taken steps to limit abuses of lhotshampas by citizens and government officials, and that the situation was more complicated than western media sources represent it to be. Finally, the anonymous essays echoed Jigmi Thinley’s assertion that the people in the camps were not definitely refugees from Bhutan. As stated above Vidhyapati Mishra, who lived in Beldangi 2 for 21 years, dismissed the claims of “fake refugees” as untrue and making little sense.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Many in the Western Buddhist community do not countenance government actions which compromise the human rights and dignities of refugees and illegal immigrants, nor those of ethnic or religious minorities. It hardly seems correct to rationalize or overlook the situation when an explicitly Buddhist country chooses realpolitik over compassion, or defends its culture and borders with outright aggression, violence and ethnic cleansing, as the evidence suggests.

How should the Bhutanese government deal with these issues? The UN resolution on the rights of refugees would suggest that those in the camps, or who have been relocated, should be allowed to return. That would be a beginning toward redressing well-evidenced injustices visited upon the lhotshampas.  Both Frelick and Mishra have argued that the least they could do is to allow the elder refugees still in the camps to return home. As for the repression, harassment, and persecution of religious minorities, that is both against Buddhist principles and common sense. Human societies, like gardens, flourish when there is a healthy diversity and what polyculturalists call “fertile edge”- the place where two systems meet. Perhaps it’s time for Bhutan to fear diversity less.  

 

The Other Jew at The Vatican

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Bernie Sanders’ acceptance of an inviation to speak at the Vatican drew a lot of attention this week.  J.J. Goldberg speculated in the Forward about Sander’s embodiment of the Jewish social justice tradition and the Vatican’s recognition of such implied in the invitation. Sanders was quoted in the NY Times saying that he thought Francis has played “an extraordinary role, and with great courage” in getting the world to think more about the “moral economy and how we have to deal with economic and environmental and social injustice.”  Sanders continued: “I would just be kicking myself for the rest of my life if I rejected this opportunity, so I’m delighted to be going.”

The Hill cited the perplexity many observers felt over Sanders’ decision to leave the campaign trail for the trip just days before the New York primary. But the trip is actually pure Sanders- he has chosen the sheer beauty and idealism of the trip over staying in NY to drum up support for his candidacy. And alright, alright, maybe he’s canny- after all, is there a better imprimatur on Sanders status as a real global force than an invitation to the Vatican?  Sanders’ main vulnerability is the perception that he is an ungrounded idealist. The more official affirmation he gets, the better. Nevertheless the trip does seem a gamble, at least as far as the NY primary goes.

Gathering less attention is the other Jew at the conference: Jeffrey Sachs. Economist Sachs is scheduled to give the keynote address, examining changes in the global economy since the writing of Centesimus Annus, and thus visioning how John Paul’s 1991 papal encyclical letter on the economy and worker’s rights can be applied now.

Sachs is a powerhouse.  Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, he is widely considered one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty. Sachs is is special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals, a position he also held under Kofi Annan. He is director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a member of the International Advisory Council of the Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE). Sachs has authored three New York Times bestsellers: The End of Poverty (2005), Common Wealth (2008), and The Price of Civilization (2011). He was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2004 and 2005, and was awarded the Blue Planet Prize in 2015 for his contributions to solving global environmental problems.  He is a heavyweight. And he’s on Team Sanders, acting as foreign policy advisor. When Paul Krugman , who has been consistently critical of Sanders, published a harsh piece in the NY Times last week, Sachs tweeted, “It’s incredible that a silly rant like this passes for commentary at the NYT.” Sachs’ pitch for Sanders before the upcoming primary: “We have a real chance for a President with great values, honesty, decency, experience & vision. @SenSanders for the NY Primary on April 19!”

Goldberg is right to argue that Sanders and Sachs represent a particular strain of Jewish values concerned more than anything with the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and critical of militarism and kings. That tradition is the prophetic tradition, as I’ve argued elsewhere.  

A Season of Cooperation: The Good Interfaith News

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For the religious world, the last year has been a battle scarred one. The rise of ISIS has spelt the near-extinction of several Middle Eastern Christian communities as well as a severe threat to lesser known religious groups such as the Yazidis and the Shabak. Ahmaddiyas and the Bah’ai continue to suffer persecution in the Middle East, and Buddhist Myanmar continues it’s genocidal policies against Rohingya Muslims, even under new government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Meanwhile in the US and elsewhere there have been violent attacks against Muslims in response to terrorism in the US and Europe. Some Christian leaders in the West have responded with a recourse to militarism, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., who urged his seminary students at Liberty University to arm themselves. The 2016 Republican candidates have combined public avowals of Christianity with an embrace of militarism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Yet the picture as a whole is not bleak. Taking the above example of pistol packing theologians for one, Falwell’s statements sparked massive criticism throughout the US Christian community, including from the leading  Evangelical pastor John Piper in the Washington Post.  Despite the fearful shutting of doors against Syrian refugees in many US states, the inspiring stories of nations and communities welcoming them far outshadow that show of inhumanity. In the US, leading centrist and right of centre Christian pastors and Academics (aside from the expected denunciations from the Christian left) like David Gushee, Max Lucado, Russel Moore and others have come out against Drumpf and the behaviour of the GOP.

In Canada there were several examples of inspiring interfaith cooperation in the last months. In BC synagogues raised tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor refugee families. Across Canada many congregations stepped up to sponsor refugee families as well. Jewish communities are also  working with the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program which matches private sponsors with people fleeing war that the UN Refugee Agency has “identified for resettlement.” This program matches support from donors (who agree to sponsor the refugee for six months) with a government pledge of an additional six months of support.

In Montreal, Jews and Muslims joined hands to help Syrian refugees together, and Pope Francis called for every Catholic diocese to house one refugee family. One of the season’s most inspiring stories came from Peterborough, where a Synagogue donated the use of its space to members of a Mosque destroyed by arson. In addition many cold Facebook feeds were warmed recently by the Israeli restaurant that gave a 50% discount on any meal shared by Arabs and Jews during the recent surge of Palestinian terror attacks.

There were also heartening stories from within the Muslim community. In Kenya, Muslims on a bus refused to separate from the Christian passengers, preventing their execution by Jihadis, recalling the protective ring formed around a Jewish synagogue by 1,000 Muslims in Norway earlier in the year. In New Jersey, Muslims for Peace organized a Christmas Party for youth at risk, and in Montreal Muslims, Jews and Sikhs joined hands on Christmas to serve food to the homeless at the Old Brewery Mission.In Vancouver students from RJDS joined with students from Al-Zahraa Islamic Academy to feed the homeless, continuing a tradition the two communities have developed.

Meanwhile in Jewish-Christian relations the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document which radically changed the Jewish-Catholic relationship arrived. Two important documents were released to coincide with it, one by a colloquiam of Orthodox Jews and one by the Vatican. The Jewish statement used the boldest language yet in a document of this kind, asserting that Christianity is “not an error” and is an intentional part of God’s plan to redeem the world. The Vatican document discouraged institutional evangelization of Jews and affirmed that Jews are saved by their own covenant with God outside of accepting the historical Jesus as saviour.

Reason for hope exists on all fronts. The real religious war is not between the religious and the irreligious, or between one religion and another. The real “holy war” is between those who live their religion as a way to love God and human beings, walking in humility, love and the a quest for ever growing understanding and those who pervert their traditions to serve the causes of nationalism, war, fear and hatred. Religion becomes a weapon when the human passions are idolized above the wisdom of God, of whom “all Her paths are pleasant and all Her ways peace (Proverbs 3:17)”. May we have the wisdom and courage to listen to the “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) urging nonviolence, justice and humility.

 

The Tower of Babel: Bad Religion?

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I was recently listening to the punk band Bad Religion’s album Recipe for Hate. The song Skyscraper, whose passion and composition I’ve always enjoyed, centers around the metaphor of the tower of Babel (you can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/37Jlj0_FsZU). I can’t claim to understand the lyrics to the song in toto, but it does seem to be criticizing the destroyer of the tower (God), not the builders. In Greg Gaffin’s midrash, the tower builders are trying to reach God and God is afraid that if they find him they will abandon him (presumably because he doesn’t exist). Gaffin sings: I know why you tore it down that day, you thought that if you got caught we’d all go away, like a spoiled little baby who can’t come out to play, you had your revenge.  Gaffin sees the destruction as a bad thing: Well madness reigned and paradise drowned when Babel’s walls came crashing down. The song also seems to contain an implied criticism of the story of the tower itself- the last verse of the song characterizes the story as hardly understood and never any good.

Leaving aside Gaffin’s somewhat bizarre atheist fantasy midrash, this got me thinking about the story. How good of a story is it?

This question resonated in my mind more because of some reading I was doing lately, in a book called Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament by John Walton. This book, which I recommend, strives to let people know what more than a century of intense archaeological investigation has uncovered about the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. It puts the Torah into context. Walton says, as many have before him, that the story of the tower of Bavel takes its central image from the Babylonian ziggurat.

In Genesis 11:1-9 a group of early humans settles in Shinar, probably Sumer, an area in southern Mesapotamia associated in the Torah with Babylon. The Mesapotamian building materials are foreign to Israelites, so the Torah describes them for us. The “city and tower” being built (see below), if true to history, would have been an urban area housing public buildings. In this case it was a temple complex. These structures, which began being built at the end of the 4th milennium BCE, were still visible in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The tower in the story is almost certainly based on the ziggurat temple complexes of Sumer, which are frequently described in Mesapotamian literature as”with head touching heaven”, as in the Torah as quoted below.

The story in the Torah is as follows:

The whole earth was of one language and of one speech.  It came to pass as they journeyed from the east that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and they dwelt there,  and they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly.’  They had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar, and they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in heaven and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ And YHWH came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And YHWH said: ‘Behold they are one people and they have one language and this is what they begin to do.  Now nothing will be withheld from them which they aim to do. Come, let us go down and confound their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.’  So YHWH scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off  building the city. Therefore was the name of it called Bavel; because YHWH did there confound the language of all the earth; and from there did YHWH scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

This enigmatic story seems to warn human beings about the hubris of using technology to storm the heights of heaven and make themselves secure from any danger. Sound familiar? Far from being a story that should irk Bad Religion, a band which continuously snarls warnings about human arrogance and self-deception, I would think this story might make it on to their “acceptable biblical stories list”. I suspect that such a list does not exist. In any case let’s look a little more at the story itself and its ancient context.

In the story YHWH confounds people’s languages and spreads them out over the world. The story then explains the existence of multiple languages: they are there to prevent the creation of a mega-mono-culture and the attendant human hubris and blindness, one in which people make themselves God and depend on their own technology and might.

The fact that the story appears based on ancient Israelite perceptions of Babylon is also interesting. Babylon was a sophisticated, expanding empire with technology beyond Israel’s. Israel, a society of farmers and shepherds, looked up at the urban megalopolis of Babylon and its temple towers and saw nothing but a symbol of human arrogance and, it seems, a force that threatened to destroy smaller cultures and impose it’s own hegemony on everyone. Babylon was an imperialist state whose leaders glorified themselves and exalted in their technology and military strength. The story criticizes what Israel perceived as Babylon’s dream of a monocultural, invincible empire.

One interesting thing about this story, though, is that the Israelite perception of the nature of ziggurats- temples reaching upwards to heaven- is wrong. As Walton points out, ziggurats had a different nature and purpose. Humans did not use them, did not live in them or climb up them. Ziggurats existed as stairways upon which the gods descended to bring blessing to the earth, and to receive offerings. The ziggurats were not for the use of human beings, but for the use of gods!

We can thus see that the Israelite story is not an accurate depiction of Sumerian or Babylonian religion but rather takes up an image from the civilization of their neighbours and riffs on it to make a point- a point that is both a shot at perceived Babylonian arrogance and a broader statement. Anyone familiar with the sourcing of the story of Noah and the flood in older Akkadian and Mesapotamian stories knows that this is not a singular occurence in Israelite literature. It appears that the crafters of Israelite literature took up motifs from the literatures and civilisations of their neighbours and ran with them in a completely different direction. The religious sensibilities of Israel were truly an anamoly in the ancient near east (see Created Equal by Joshua Berman or the excellent discussion in Fight by Preston Sprinkle, ch.3-5). 

To answer my own question: is the the tower of Bavel a good story? I think it’s a very good story.  The story’s lesson seems to me to be that cultural diversity is a divinely willed protection against human hubris. Think of this-when there is only one human culture, from where does diversity, criticism, and challenge come from? Israel seemed to intuit that an unchallenged culture possesses an unlimited potential for evil.

Technology tends to empower empire and its accompanying arrogance. The technical-industrial explosion of the last 300 years has not only allowed us to touch the heavens. We have also exterminated more than 50% of the cultures and languages of the world, reducing ethnodiversity as well as biodiversity. We have pierced the atom and the gene and are quickly approaching the doleful day when “there is nothing they cannot do”.

I am reminded of a verse from the Daodejing, the ancient classic of Daoism by the Old Master (Laozi) which describes the ideal civilization (translation by Red Pine):

Imagine a small state with a small population

let there be labor-saving tools

that aren’t used

let people consider death

and not move far

let there be boats and carts

but no reason to ride them

let there be armor and weapons

but no reason to employ them

let people return to the use of knots

and be satisfied with their food

and pleased with their clothing

and content with their homes

and happy with their customs

let there be another state so near

people hear its dogs and chickens

and live out their lives

without making a visit.

 

Four Thoughts of Dogen on Time

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Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) is widely considered one of Japan’s greatest philosophers. He was a monk in the Soto Zen tradition and a poet and religious essayist. He left behind him a body of writings called the Shobogenzo which contains almost 100 essays which resemble what in the West would be called “theology”, except that they deal with Zen Buddhist preoccupations. The essays are bold, labyrinthine, beautiful and profound. Today they are a major inspiration for contemporary Soto practitioners and have spawned a small academic industry of interpretations. One essay, Uji (For The Time Being), deals with the nature of time. Below I’ve posted a contemplation on four of Dogen’s thoughts in Uji, from a collection of Dogen’s writings co-edited by my friend and teacher Peter Levitt.

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Do not think that time merely flies away. Do not see flying away as the only function of time. If time merely flies away, you would be separated from time. The reason you do not clearly understand the time being is that you think of time only as passing.

We often think of time as something people are losing. Time flows by, and we lose more and more time. It is as if time were sand in an hourglass flowing away, or as if we were all leaking time.

Dogen is pointing out that just as all things have a spatial dimension, all things have a temporal dimension. Just as the space of a thing is not separate from it but part of it, so the time of a thing is not separate from it but a part of it.  Time is not just something “passing away”. Time is being, and being is time. We do not lose or gain time. We are time.

Mountains are time. Oceans are time. If they were not time, there would be no mountains or oceans. Do not think that mountains and oceans here and now are not time. If time is annihilated, mountains and oceans are annihilated.

Time is as much a part of me as breath, skin, bone, or thinking. Time is actually even more fundamentally a part of me: I can live for moments without breath, skin, bone or thinking, but not for one moment without time. Not just without time: without being time. When we resist time we become divided against ourselves. We should love time, because time is our most intimate friend. Our intimacy with time is our intimacy with ourselves. To resist time is to resist being a creature. Yet we only exist as creatures. We only exist as limited beings. Those limitations are not limitations on our being but conditions for existing at all.

The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

The self- you or I- arranges itself as a world. We exist always as a world, and that world has flowing through its fabric both space and time. Every thing is thus a moment of time. A car is a moment of time. A word is a moment of time. A cloud, a coffee, you, me, are all moments of time.

Spring always flows through spring. Although flowing itself is not spring, flowing occurs throughout spring.

I flow throughout myself. Although flowing itself is not me (since we all flow) flowing occurs throughout me. In my very nature I flow, just as a river or, as Dogen would say, a mountain flows.

Is there any part of me that doesn’t flow? Most Buddhist philosophers have said that there is. Dogen’s view on this is controversial. I believe he would say that there is, and that part is what is experienced when “body and mind drop off” (shinjin datsuraku). Dogen says that when this happens “the original face appears”. Thus something appears. It is not the cessation of experience.

Some traditions, notably Hinduism but also some Buddhists, refer to this that appears as “the self”. I think this is misleading, while also in a certain way pointing to a truth. What is misleading is that what appears is not our individuality. It does not have spatio-temporal characteristics. It is not what makes Jane Jane or Franco Franco. That self, which is what we normally mean by “self”- the bundle of body, mind, experiences, knowledge, choices, etc which make me different from you, includes time within its being and experiences itself as time as it flows.

The original face is not a self in the sense of something that lasts (it does not last as an object in a world since it is not an object in a world). It is also not a self in the sense of something that confers individuality. Yet in a way it does last, and in a way it does confer individuality. This is because it is the ground of our experience. It is an open space which allows us to be. In the words of the Dzogchen practitioner turned Catholic theologian Stratford Caldecott, this ground of our being spoken of by both Buddhist and Christian mystics is both gift and grace. When we meet it we meet that without which our flowing self of time and space could not exist.

In the thought of Jewish kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1572), when God created the universe S/he first created an empty space in herself where a universe could go- like a womb. This space is called the halal panui, the empty place. As Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi pointed out, this is actually a space where God appears not to be. It is actually bristling with divine energy- it is an empty fullness. This may be sounding familiar to Buddhists, though of course most would reject the idea that this empty fullness (tathata/shunyata) was created or exists within God.

However you look at it, the fact remains that this “empty space”, this urgrund, this empty fullness-full emptiness, is the gift that comes to us and allows us to be.

The time being has a characteristic of flowing. So-called today flows into tomorrow, today flows into yesterday, yesterday flows into today. And today flows into today, tomorrow flows into tomorrow.

Each moment flows into itself and flows as itself. All moments are also interconnected and interdependent. Hence they are always already flowing through each other. How you experience anything depends on your position in time and space, and the rate of your flow, as Einstein showed. Those who have studied Indo-Tibetan Madhyamika philosophy know all of this relative interdependence is necessarily true for their to be “times”, for there to be “spaces. This is because if an object were defined by itself it could not change or interact with other objects. The same is true of a moment of time.  If anything solid were found anywhere it would gum up the works, and the luminous gears of the cosmos would grind to a halt.

The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

The way the self arrays itself is as a moment of time. Time is not our destroyer, for time loves us into being within the space that God gives us within Herself.
-All quotations are from: Kazuaki Tanahashi, Peter Levitt. The Essential Dogen. Shambhala, 2013.

Other sources:

Caldecott, Stratford. The Radiance of Being. Angelico Press, 2013.

 

  

Loving The Alien: David Bowie and the Leper Messiah

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The world reels this week from the loss of it’s leper messiah, David Bowie, the man who fell to earth. Bowie positioned himself consciously as a spaceman, an enigma, a “blackstar” which emitted not light but mystery. Bowie gave hope and consolation to outcasts throughout the world- especially artists, LGBTQ people, musicians and poets, and even bookish Jewish misfits like me (as discussed by Jay Michaelson here).

David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, was more than anything a brilliant musician and lyricist and that was what I loved him for. Yet contemplating his career one cannot help but meditate on the power of his persona. Bowie’s greatest creation, apart from his art, was “David Bowie”, an alias which itself had so many aliases that it was practically Talmudic in its self-referential hypertextuality. In actual practice the two went together, persona and logos, and Bowie created a legacy of intertwined words and images which shed light on each other.

Bowie contemplated spiritual matters throughout his artistic career, though this often came through in subtle, enigmatic ways. Songs like Sex and the Church, Saviour Machine, and  Loving The Alien explored Christian themes, and Station to Station even references Jewish Kabbalah when Bowie sings, “here we are, one magical movement from keter to malkhut”, ie. from the unmanifest down the pathways of the tree of life. On top of that “station to station” is, Bowie said, a reference to the stations of the cross. On his brilliant last album this becomes even more pronounced, as Christian imagery plays out in at least three of the songs (Blackstar, Lazarus, and I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Blackstar muses on the enigmatic presence of God and Bowie’s own identity as an icon soon to live beyond his own lifetime; Lazarus and I Can’t Give Everything Away explore the theme of resurrection (“the pulse returns to prodigal sons” in the latter). Lazarus contemplates Bowie’s own impending death. It opens “Look up here/ I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars you can’t see” ( a clear contrast to Jesus who after his ascension has visible scars). In the song Bowie indeed pictures himself ascending to heaven (and amusingly losing his cellphone along the way) and then becoming free “as a blackbird, ain’t that just like me?” The video, which ends with Bowie disappearing into a dark closet also depicts him as a blind prophet on a hospital bed cavorting in movements halfway between levitation and crucifixion.

Messianic imagery appeared early on in Bowie’s career and has been a staple. The album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars depicts an androgynous alien rockstar messiah ultimately destroyed by the masses he came to save. Bowie tellingly refers to Ziggy as a “leper messiah”, a saviour who is himself a frightening outcast. In one of the album’s songs, Starman, a child hears a late night transmission on the radio about a “starman/waiting in the sky/he’d like to come and meet us/but he thinks he’d blow our minds”. The child tells a friend (“don’t tell your papa or he’ll have us locked up in fright”). The starman’s message to the children: “He’s told us not to blow it/cause he knows it’s all worthwhile/He told me:let the children lose it/ let the children use it/ Let all the children boogie.”

Messianic imagery continues to haunt his lyrics and iconography right up to his last two albums. On his penultimate album The Next Day he featured a song (and even moreso a video) which is a daring and disturbing midrash on the messiah and the institutional church. The song is narrated from the perspective of an aging Bowie, who sings “Here I am/ not quite dying/ my body left to rot in a hollow tree/ its branches throwing shadows/ On the gallows for me”. He tells a story of a hunted prophet/christ figure who is chased through the alleyways with whips by a “gormless (i.e. foolish) crowd” who bring him to a sadistic priest for death. The demonic priests  “live upon their feet and they die upon their knees/They can work with satan while they dress like the saints/They know god exists for the devil told them so.” The unsettling video (which is not for young viewers or the faint of heart) depicts a shady, worldly club frequented by Catholic priests. One of the priests, played by Gary Oldman, assaults a poor beggar on the way in. Once inside the priests enjoy the company of prostitutes and the spectacle of a flagellant whipping himself. Bowie, dressed like a Franciscan Friar, denounces the crowd from the stage. In the bizarre denouement one of the prostitutes, who has been dancing with Oldman, suddenly develops stigmata and begins spouting blood from her hands.

This controversial video, which understandingly upset Catholics a fair bit, seems to me to make a valuable point that is consistent with Bowie’s use of messianic and prophetic imagery throughout his career. In this video the institutional priests are pharisees and hypocrites. The true form of Christ appears in the prostitute who is a scorned outsider being humiliated and exploited, giving up her body and blood for others.

In Bowie’s art the messiah is an outsider, an alien, who comes from outer space. This messiah affirms the outcast and outsider, and is himself “leprous”- strange and frightening. It is clear to everyone that to some extent this reflects Bowie’s self-understanding, and to some extent is a mission statement for the icon he was trying to create in Ziggy Stardust and the persona of “David Bowie”. What made Bowie strange, frightening and liberating was his radical affirmation of art and freedom of self-expression (including cross-dressing and using the male body as a canvas for art) and his open-ness about his bisexuality.  As comedian Sara Benincasa wrote, “I do not believe it is a wild exaggeration to say that there are on this earth today many people who would not be here without David Bowie….he gave them a reason to stay alive when perhaps they did not want to. He was the patron saint of all my favorite fellow travelers: the freaks, the fags, the dykes, the queers, the weirdos of all stripes, and that most dangerous creature of all: the artist.”

While today we may take for granted the freedom in much of Western culture, it was not always so and still isn’t so in much of the world. Bowie started off as a tall, strange looking artist walking around London in a dress being sweared at. By the mid-70’s he had changed the landscape. We may not agree with everything he stood for at times (like promiscuity, drug use, or for some the gender-bending sexuality itself) but aside from the power of art and the mind Bowie’s legacy still stands for something else even more important: loving the alien.

Bowie’s understanding of the Messiah has in the end a surprising depth. Bowie’s saviour figures are not figures of power or awe. They are strange and unsettling and they come “to seek and save what is lost” (Luke 19:10) and “not for the righteous but for sinners” (Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:13, Luke 5:32). The Talmud asks, “Where now is the Messiah?” and answers, “He sits outside the gates of the city, changing the bandages of lepers (Sanhedrin 98a).”  Bowie’s alien messiah is the saviour of the lost sheep, whose stigmata appears not in priests who protect boundaries but in hookers, addicts, and yes- artists.

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Update (Jan 14): In a pleasantly surprising move,  Christianity Today, which is the #1 mainstream Christian magazine (and was made what it is mostly by Billy Graham) has published an authentically appreciative and thoughtful eulogy about Bowie here.

 

Chatral Rinpoche Passes Away (with some thoughts on Thomas Merton)

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On Jan 5 the Himalayan sage Chatral Rinpoche passed away at the age of 102. Rinpoche was a long time ascetic, practitioner of dzogchen (a Nyingma meditation tradition), and spiritual teacher. He studied with many of the masters considered “greats” within the 20th century Vajrayana Buddhist world, and taught many of the leading teachers of today at some point in their lives. He was a man of enormous spiritual “weight”, an old elephant, a true sage. With his passing there is a feeling the earth just got dangerously lighter.

Here are some words from Harold Talbott, who travelled with Thomas Merton in Asia. From a Nyingmapa website:

“In Asian Journal, Merton refers to the Dzogchen Nyingmapa lama Chatral Rinpoche as the person he would choose as his teacher.

Talbott: He was Merton’s man. Chatral Rinpoche really gives the flavor of the Tibetans. I wouldn’t dream of studying with him, or anybody remotely like him, because he is totally and completely unpredictable. He is savage about ego and he will put you on the spot and I am not prepared to up the ante to that degree.

Tricycle: Why did you choose to introduce Merton to him?

Talbott: I wanted to make sure that Merton met all the outstanding lamas that I could dig up. In Dharmasala he met Avalokiteshvara-the Bodhisattva of Compassion-in the person of the Dalai Lama and I think okay, I’m doing my job, I’m getting him the whole spectrum of the force field. But of course that will an opportunity for me to hide behind Merton’s skirts and also meet Chatral Rinpoche who I’m terrified of.

He could throw stones at you- as he does do-and so I will use Merton as the front. We caught up with Chatral Rinpoche down the road from Ghoom in Darjeeling. He was painting the nuns’ house and he put some planks on some bricks and we sat and talked with the help of an interpreter. Chatral Rinpoche started by saying “Ah Jesus lama; you know I have never been able for the life of me to get a handle on Christianity so I’m real glad you came this morning.”

Tricycle: Did he know who Merton was?

Talbott: No. But he explained his perplexity about Christianity. He said, “The center of your religion is a man who comes back to life after death and in Tibetan Buddhism when you have one of those people, a rolog, or a walking corpse, we call our lama to put him down.

So I want to know what kind of a religion is Christianity which has at its center a dead man coming back to life.” So Merton explained the Resurrection in tantric terms about the overcoming of fear and the utter and complete power of liberation which is the center of Christianity. And this satisfied Chatral Rinpoche.

Tricycle: Freedom from fear?

Talbott: Freedom from all kinds of constraints and restraints. A man has died and he has come back in a glorious body and he has freed us from fear of death and fear of life. That’s freedom.

Tricycle: Because it’s eternal.

Talbott: No. If the universe is a place where a man can live again in a glorified body and teach the truth, then the world is a free place. And Chatral Rinpoche says, “At last I understand Christianity.Thank you very much.” And Merton says, “I would like to study with you.” And Chatral says “Right, we can work together. And so you’ve got to do your own ngondro (the preliminary practice of Dzogchen, which usually takes a Tibetan about a year).

We’ll get you a hermitage in Bhutan and that is where you should do your retreat. And I challenge you: see, I’m not enlightened yet, so let’s work

together and see which one of us can get enlightened first.” And so Merton said, “it’s a deal.” And so then we split and Merton says, “That’s the greatest man I ever met. That’s my teacher.” But they weren’t his exact words.

Tricycle: In Asian Journal he says if he took a teacher, that’s who it would be.

Talbott: Yes, but he would never have left the Church.”

Merton is a truly inspiring man: a devout Christian capable of revering and learning from the sages of other religions. My reading of the above meeting is that Chatral Rinpoche may have been testing Merton when he referred to Jesus as a “rolog”, a kind of Tibetan zombie, to see where Merton was coming from. If Merton has gotten offended or launched into a hyper-intellectual explanation he would have been revealed as coming from a place of ego or intellect, not heart practice. Instead Merton was unoffended and met Rinpoche skillfully, explaining the resurrection in a way which held true to the Christian view of it yet presented it in a way a man like Rinpoche could understand and value. Bravo, I would say. Having practiced the ngondro myself I have doubts that an orthodox Christian could practice them (they involved worshipping gurus and spirits) but I think Merton and Rinpoche would have worked out some way to work together if only they had had more time together. As it stands Merton was electrocuted in an accident in Thailand shortly after their meeting.

Rinpoche was a vegetarian and an advocate for animal rights. He was also concerned about nuclear weapons, and wrote the following prayer. It might be fitting to post it today, given the recent activities in Iran and North Korea. Here is an excerpt from the prayer (omitting a lengthy intro addressing the buddhas and spirit beings Rinpoche revered):

  

 We are beings born at the sorry end of time;  

 An ocean of ill-effects overflow from our universally bad actions.  

 The forces of light flicker,  

 The forces of darkness, a demon army, inflames great and powerful men.  

 And they rise in conflict, armed with nuclear weapons  

 That will disintegrate the earth.  

 The weapon of perverse and errant intentions  

 Has unleashed the hurricane.  

 Soon, in an instant, it will reduce the world  

 And all those in it to atoms of dust.  

 Through this ill-omened devils’ tool  

 It is easy to see, to hear and think about  

 Ignorant people, caught in a net of confusion and doubt,  

 Are obstinate and still refuse to understand.  

 It terrifies us just to hear about or to remember  

 This unprecedented thing.  

  

 The world is filled with uncertainty,  

 But there is no means of stopping it, nor place of hope,  

 Other than you, undeceiving Three Jewels and Three Roots,  

 (Buddhas, Teaching and Spiritual Community, Lama, Deity and  

 Dakini)  

 If we cry to you like children calling their mother and father,  

 If we implore you with this prayer,  

 Do not falter in your ancient vows!  

 Stretch out the lightning hand of compassion!  

 Protect and shelter us defenseless beings, and free us from fear!  

 When the mighty barbarians sit in council of war  

 – barbarians who rob the earth of pleasure and happiness  

 – barbarians who have wrong, rough, poisonous thoughts.  

 Bend their chiefs and lieutenants  

 To the side of peace and happiness!  

 Pacify on the spot, the armed struggle that blocks us!  

 Turn away and defeat the atomic weapons  

 Of the demons’ messengers,  

 And by that power, make long the life of the righteous,  

 And spread the theory and practice of the doctrine  

 To the four corners of this great world!  

 Eliminate root, branch and leaf – even the names  

 Of those dark forces, human and non-human,  

 Who hate others and the teaching!  

 Spread vast happiness and goodness  

 Over this fragile planet!  

 Elevate it truly with the four kinds of glory!  

 And as in the golden age, with all strife gone,  

 Let us be busy only with the dance of pleasure, the dance of joy!  

 We pray with pure thoughts-  

 By the compassion of that ocean the three supreme refuges  

 And the power of the Realm of Truth;  

 The complete sublime truth,  

 Achieve the goal of this, our prayer  

 Magically, just as we have hoped and dreamed!

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Father Louis (Thomas Merton) and Chatral Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the well known postmodern Lama and film maker (eg. the Cup) had this to say about Chatral Rinpoche (here):

“…make no mistake: Many lamas like myself, who make the loudest noises, display the most jarring images, and travel every inch and corner of the world, have achieved next to nothing compared to this man who appears never to have done anything except for keeping his meditation mat from ever getting cold. And if he did manifest in action, this is the man who spent 99.99% of what he had rescuing the lives of animals. So for ignorant beings like us to try and express the great qualities of this enlightened being is like trying to measure the depth and width of the sky.”

“In my limited life I have seen very few anti-hypocritical beings, and he was one of them. He meant business, there was no negotiation, and of course he never traded one single word of the dharma for money. Time and again, he refused to bow down to the mighty.

He made a lot of us hypocritical beings shudder. Just knowing he was alive and breathing somewhere between Siliguri and Pharping made our hearts quake. Even though we never got to see him, especially towards the end of his life – and I myself was refused an audience 20 times or more – his mere presence on this earth shattered hypocrisy.”

 

The Faith of Abraham (Revised 2015)

The story of Abraham and Isaac, known as the Akedat Yitzhak (binding of Isaac), or Akedah in Jewish tradition, has long haunted the imaginations and consciences of Jews and Christians. The Torah recounts in suspenseful, harrowing prose God’s request to Abraham that he slaughter his beloved son Isaac as a ritual sacrifice. Abraham famously acquiesces and takes Isaac up Mt. Moriah to a makeshift altar. He is stopped by an angel of God at the last moment. Do not stretch out your hand against the child, the angel says, you have passed the test.

What exactly is the test? How could God ask such a thing? How could Abraham agree? Are we supposed to applaud Abraham for the seemingly horrifying willingness to kill his own son? In the days of ISIS and other forms of violence across the religious spectrum these questions gain a new urgency. I want to suggest that the point of this story is somewhat different than most of us take it to be, and that there is still something important to learn from it 3,ooo years or so on from the events it purports to describe.

Growing up in a Jewish context I was told that this story has two main points: 1) Abraham’s incredible faith in God; and 2) God’s lesson that Israel was not to sacrifice its children in religious ceremonies, unlike the tribes that Israel would later dispossess in the land of Canaan. I agree that these two points are among the lessons of the story. But they still leave many questions which Jewish and Christian thinkers have struggled with.

Kierkegaard famously opens his masterpiece Fear and Trembling with several re-imaginings of the story. What really happened? In one harrowing version Kierkegaard imagines Abraham indeed carrying Isaac up the mountain but before drawing the knife confessing to Isaac that he, Abraham, is in fact a fraud- an idolater and a violent man, and he intends to sacrifice Isaac to an idol. Better he not believe such a thing true of God and believe me evil instead, Abraham reasons.

In some Jewish versions the Rabbis notice that Abraham is described returning from the mountain but Isaac is not mentioned. He remained alone on the mountain, scarred by what happened and unwilling to descend, say some. Others, more shockingly: Abraham did kill him.

Mainstream Jewish tradition has always affirmed Abraham’s virtuousness in the story, though the horror of it continued to surface in Jewish midrash. As an old man Isaac was blind because His eyes were weakened by the sight of the angel that saved him. Or: His eyes were ruined by tears shed because his father was willing to sacrifice him.

Surely in all of our imaginings the shadow that haunts us is this: how could Abraham have been willing to sacrifice his son, and what kind of faith is this willing to do such a thing? Is this faith actually commendable? Let’s look at the story in more detail.

God calls Abraham personally and unequivocally. Abraham responds: Hineni!, “Here I am!” a phrase which in Hebrew suggests total availability. At this point in his life Abraham has shown himself to have deep faith in God. God has been at times inscrutable and God’s time frame in delivering promises has tested Abraham’s trust, but Abraham has trusted and has thus far followed God’s voice, and his trust has proven trustworthy.

God opens without preamble to a shocking request: Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac…..God’s wording is strange. Why does he not just say “take Isaac”? God’s wording bears within it explicit reference to the intense meaning of Isaac for Abraham. Isaac is his son (his first son Ishmael is lost to him now). Isaac is his “only one”, his only son, who carries the whole weight of Abraham’s life into the future. Whom you love. Isaac is not just the bearer of Abraham’s legacy; Abraham dearly loves him.

Why does God speak this way? It is as if he is affirming Abraham’s feelings and signalling that He understands them. I think God speaks this way, counter-intuitive as it might at first seem, to evoke Abraham’s trust. In other words, at the moment that supremely tests Abraham’s faith he speaks in such a way as to simultaneously support it. As we shall see, it is essential that Abraham be reminded of what we could call the humane nature of God.

Most amazing is Abraham’s response to the request. Early the next morning Abraham woke up and loaded his donkey. Abraham indeed responds with trust. What, though, is the exact nature of that trust? Does Abraham believe that whatever God ordains is good, and so he must comply? Is Abraham’s trust a simple submission to God’s inscrutable but always authoritative will? That was the way the text was presented to me as a child, and I think it is a very common reading. I also think it is wrong. Is this not the same Abraham who argued with God over the punishment of Sodom? The same Abraham who called out the challenge, will not the judge of the world deal justly?

I believe the text itself tells us the nature of Abraham’s trust in the next harrowing moment in the story, surely one of the most spine tingling in all religious literature.

Abraham and Isaac proceed up the mountain together alone. Isaac seems to intuit that something strange is going on. Perhaps Abraham’s hand trembles. Perhaps Isaac has heard stories of Canaanites who offer their children as sacrifices. Father? he asks.

Yes, my son?

The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?

Abraham’s answer holds the key to the whole story. YHVH himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, he replies. Adonai yireh, he literally says, God will see to it.

When I was a child I thought this answer was evasive and meant to reassure Isaac. It wasn’t until I read Yoram Hazony’s discussion of it (in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture) that the scales fell from my eyes. Hazony argues simply that Abraham is here saying exactly what he means. God will see to it. Abraham does not believe that YHVH will actually require him to sacrifice Isaac. This is likewise why Abraham explicitly tells his servants not just to wait, but says, “we will return to you.”

To believe that YHVH will in the end truly ask that heinous deed of Abraham would contradict everything Abraham believes about Him. Abraham’s trust is not just about trusting in God. It is about trusting in God’s character. The point of the monotheism of Israel is not just that there is one God. It is not a religion finally about the nature of divine authority- about its singularity. Judaism is not a numbers game. Israel’s monotheism is the belief that the universe is ruled by one good God, that any God worth worshipping is a God of love and justice.

The fact that what is central to Abraham’s trust is his trust in God’s character is proven by his reaction when God does indeed send an animal in Isaac’s place. Abraham names the spot to commemorate the wonder of what has happened. He does not name it “test passed.” He names it, “God will see to it (adonai yireh).” God will provide the sacrifice. That is the central meaning of what has happened to Abraham: He, Abraham, was right. Right about God’s character. Right about God’s justice. Right about God’s promises and faithfulness. Right about God’s intelligibility.

The test that YHVH set for Abraham is significantly different than we might have thought. It is not in the final analysis a test of Abraham’s submissiveness. It is a test of Abraham’s faith: its nature and its object. It is as if God is speaking through the test to Abraham, and he is asking the question, Do you know me?

God is not interested in mere submission. What God wants is for Abraham to know His heart. God does not want Abraham just to trust Him, but to trust Him for the right reasons. God wants Abraham to know who He is trusting. In the story of the Akedah God does not just test the nature of Abraham’s faith, He also vindicates and reveals His own character.

Imagine that you wake one night to find your house on fire. You grab your sleeping infant and turn around to find your wife trapped in a part of the room that is becoming engulfed in flames. “Hand me the baby!”, she says.

Your reaction will tell us everything about your opinion of your wife. If you trust her with your life (and the life of your baby) you will hand over the baby to her even though it seems that this is a homicidal act. So you do, and she then passes the baby out the window into the arms of waiting firemen you couldn’t see.

If you believe your wife to be irrational or even delusional you will not pass the baby to her. Your trusting aquiescence, or lack of it, tells us about your understanding of her character and your consequent faith in her (or lack of). This is the meaning of the last line of the story of the Akedah: now I know that you revere YHVH, because you have not withheld your only son from me.

In CS Lewis’ The Final Battle a cunning ape named Shift convinces a gullible, weak donkey named Puzzle to dress up like Aslan the lion, the spiritual ruler and creator of Narnia. The Narnians are well aware that Aslan is “not a tame lion” so when he begins making questionable, even violent requests many Narnians go along with it. Their instincts rebel and they feel sick, but who, after all, can understand the inscrutable Aslan?

Lewis brilliantly depicts the trap of perceiving God as above morality, a God of absolute power beyond good and evil. If God is not “tame”, i.e. does not conform to human demands and expectations, then who are we to judge his actions? In the end God may request anything of us, which means that his “representatives” may request anything of us.

Kierkegaard’s analysis approaches the truth of the story but also obscures it. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard correctly asserts that Abraham surrenders his son, his family obligations, his ethics and even his very self in a transcendent trust of God. His brilliant insight is that Abraham does not do this merely as a “knight of resignation” who acquiesces out of his sense of nothingness before God. Abraham acts as a “knight of faith” who against all rational evidence trusts that since God has promised him Isaac God will deliver- Isaac will somehow be returned to him in this world.

Kierkegaard is right in thinking that the nature of Abraham’s faith transcends normal reasoning and is based in a trust that he will not lose Isaac because God has promised him Isaac and will not himself be unfaithful. He is wrong though in considering this a “suspension of the ethical” or a trust which is entirely irrational or absurd. This line of thinking actually obscures the nature of Abraham’s faith as routed in an apprehension of the supremely ethical nature of God.

The Akedah teaches us about what Abraham believed of God’s character, and what God wanted him to believe. The point is not submission, not obedience beyond reason. Abraham trusts God not just because He is God, but because Abraham knows God. Abraham has seen God’s character and believes in Him as a God of grace and justice. Abraham trusts that God will not ask him to do something unjust, capricious, or immoral. If it appears that that is what God is asking than the reality must be otherwise, and Abraham complies and trusts, waiting to be proven right. God Himself will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, son. And He does. Abraham proves the nature of his faith, and God proves the nature of His faithfulness. The kind of faith that God wants is not simple obedience to pure authority, but a knowing and intelligent trust in His nature as love.

New Article on George Macdonald at Wisdom Pills and Works of Macdonald

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The following was published at Wisdom Pills (http://www.wisdompills.com/2015/11/24/12607/) and reblogged at Works of Macdonald: (http://www.worksofmacdonald.com/musing-on-macdonald/2015/11/29/10-spiritual-gems)

What could be cooler than having mentored Lewis Carrol? How about C.S. Lewis calling you his “master”? Being friends with Mark Twain and Walt Whitman? Being the major inspiration of J.R.R Tolkien? All of this is true of a little known Scottish mystic, poet and writer named George Macdonald (1824-1905). Macdonald wrote dozens of novels and was a pioneer in the creation of modern fantasy literature. He was also a pastor who was kicked out of his own Church for controversial preaching. Macdonald was a brilliant spiritual writer and something even more rare– a sage. C.S. Lewis said of him, “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.” Below are a few gems from the writings of this remarkable man:

1) “A man is in bondage to whatever he cannot part with that is less than himself.”

The question that jumps out here is: what things are ‘less than oneself’? God is not less, but more. Other people are not less, but equal. A cause or a principle might be more, but not less. Wealth, though, is less. Pleasure is less. Esteem, reputation, what others think– less. An emotion– less. An emotion that someone else has– less. Any part of yourself, or anything you value that is only a part of human happiness, one should be able to live without. It’s interesting to think that while this doesn’t mean not loving others, there is nevertheless no emotional state or state of affairs which is not “less than oneself”.

2) “To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.”

This is an important insight. There are many reasons why someone might love you– because of what you do for them, because of a hope they have in you, because some quality of yours delights them. That quality might be physical, or might be a random quirk of your personality. Trusting you, however, is dependent on only one thing: their perception that you are trustworthy. What greater virtue is there than being worthy of trust?

3) “Low-sunk life imagines itself weary of life, but it is death, not life, it is weary of.”

As Macdonald writes elsewhere, when a person thinks that they want less of life they are mistaken. They do not want less, but more.

4) “The fire of God, which is His essential being, His love, His creative power, is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns–that the further from Him, it burns the worse.”

This is one of Macdonald’s most brilliant images. The Bible says that God is a “consuming fire” and Macdonald dwells on this image in several of his writings. For Macdonald the fire of God is a “purifying fire” which consumes impurities and whose essential nature is love. It is a love which does not just warm or comfort (though it does that) but more importantly, transforms.

Like a refiner’s fire the fire of God’s love removes impurities– it “makes us more lovely, more worthy of love, as it loves us”. Macdonald here says that love is not truly love by wishing the loved one simply to remain as they are. This modern, romantic conception of love is shallow and incomplete. Love wishes to see growth and increase in the beauty of what it loves. Love wishes to see the beloved become ever more what they essentially are, ever more freely and in strength. According to MacDonald, only God knows us fully as we really are, only God knows our true potential, which makes his/her love, in a sense, relentless. God does not love us into stagnation or self-indulgence, but into change and growth, which can often be painful.

Macdonald here points out that the “fire” of God’s love is of a unique character– it does not burn you the closer you get, but rather burns the further you away go. The closer you get to the fire of God the less it burns, and the more you discover it’s nature as love.

5) “It is by loving and not by being loved that one can come nearest to the soul of another.”

Macdonald was not only, or even principally, concerned about the love of God in distinction to the love of people. In fact these two were the same to him. Here he points out that the way to draw closer to another person is not to win their love, and not to try to manipulate them into loving you more, but rather to learn how to love them.

6) “Otherness is the essential ground of affection. The love that enlarges not its borders, that is not ever-spreading and including, and deepening, will contract, shrivel, decay and die.”

Difference is not a challenge to true love but its pre-condition. The more difference, the more potential for love. Macdonald points out here that a love which does not keep growing to include more and more difference, more types of people, more situations, more challenges, will tend to stagnate and then retreat.

7) “I repent me of the ignorance wherein I ever said that God made humans out of nothing: there is no nothing out of which to make anything; God is all in all, and Divinity made us out of Divinity.”

Macdonald is riffing here off of the traditional Theistic doctrine “creation ex nihilo” which affirms that God is not just a kind of super-being who crafts the universe but the creator of everything, the ultimate cause of all forms of existence. Macdonald here points out that when God created humans s/he did not make something out of nothing, but rather must formed them of the only resource there was to work with: God itself.

8) “The whole system of the universe works upon this law– the driving of things upward toward the center, an ongoing process that has no end.”

Macdonald believed that God willed the salvation and perfection of all creatures and would ultimately succeed in rescuing every soul to bring it to him/herself. The process of understanding and delighting in an infinite God would go on infinitely. It was not a question of attaining a static, boring “heaven” but a never ending process of deepening beauty and divine adventure.

9) “Each person for whom we can do anything is our neighbour. We must not choose our neighbours; we must take the neighbour that God sends.”

Macdonald here builds on the parable of the good samaritan (Luke). This one doesn’t need any commentary. In the era of the international refugee this quote takes on an urgent resonance.

10)”A healthy child’s heart holds within it the secret of creation.”

What is that secret? I will leave this last quote for you to ponder yourself. If you’ve never read Macdonald, try the “Collected Fairy Tales” to start, and happy reading.