Some Thoughts On the Children Burnt Alive in Dalori In The Form of a Prayer

 

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Father in heaven, any words seem trite in the face of children burnt alive in their huts by Boko Haram two days ago, an unknown amount of children among the 86 people murdered. Yet we must keep speaking. We must keep finding meaning, we must keep speaking what truth we can, what solace and protest we can, because if we stop speaking, if we stop trying to understand, we will vanish into a horrible silence in which we say and do nothing.

Mother of spirit, my conscience tells me that those children, who a survivor heard screaming in the flames as their homes burnt down, must now be in your arms if you are worthy to be called the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekka, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. As their bodies screamed their souls must have already been halfway out the window of this world into your waiting arms. This world created so we could learn to love, in which all of us everyday in ways small or big choose often, too often, to hate instead.

My conscience tells me this must be so, or else the world we live in worse than meaningless. Some will be offended that I contemplate a God at all in these circumstances, will wish that I only be angry, that I only mourn, that I do not seek any solace. Some take a curious refuge in meaninglessness, but I can’t see any strong solace there. How could pain plus meaninglessness be better than pain with meaning, pain with God? Does the world need more bald, unhealable rage and sorrow? Oh Lord, I think and hope that believing that Your loving embrace met those injured souls means that this world is not the way it is supposed to be, not the way you want it to be. Things are bleak because of the darkness in our human hearts, but things are not hopelessly that way. We must fight against the violence done to the innocent, not by doing violence to the guilty but by remembering and embodying the mercy you desire. We must not go silent, not go cold, not become comfortably numb. We must keep alive a heart beating and burning for what your heart desires, and the love you bear each one of us.

Creatorgive us strength to see above the fire and the water, and to walk with faith and hope towards your world.

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.

 

Vogons Behind NEB Hearings on Kinder Morgan Pipeline

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In a move which has surprised no one in the universe, except for the actual residents of the Earth the Vogons have long wanted to destroy to make room for a hypergalactic speedway, the spacefaring bureaucrats with a penchant for unutterably bad poetry have come out with an official statement supporting the NEB hearings over Kinder Morgan pipeline construction in BC. The hearings have been widely criticised for ignoring public input and for bias towards Kinder Morgan’s pipeline plan, which critics charge will do grievous harm to the local BC ecology and speed up the probable destruction of human civilization itself.

Moved by what apparently constituted ecstatic excitement but appeared to observers as a bad case of gas, one Vogon cleric burst into a poetic ode to the Kinder Morgan Pipeline which began:

Oh freddled gruntbuggly…..

The following lines were not reported after all the human reporters in attendance ran into a nearby river screaming and attempting to pull the ears off their heads. One reporter in attendance, who had cleverly inserted steel earplugs before the onslaught, was Ford Prefect, apparently a visiting alien of unknown origin. When asked about the Vogons and their intentions he pulled out an Hitchhiker’s Guide and read:

Here is what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders – signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.

Reflecting on the NEB hearings thus far Chloe Hartley of Dogwood Initiative wrote, “This NEB review has been a carefully orchestrated process designed to defeat the public.” Hartley wrote that in a piece titled What’s a Public Hearing Without The Public? “Public Hearings Without The Public” are, of course, a Vogon speciality, as written above in the Guide.

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.

 

What Is The Human Way? A Report From Martin Buber

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The following is a lecture I wrote and gave at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in Vancouver last Shabbat (Sabbath). In it I attempt to hit some of the main points of Buber’s classic work “The Human Way (Der Weg Des Meschen)”. This work was based on six lectures Buber gave where he attempted to present Hasidic insights on the human way to an audience of Dutch Quakers.

At a time when Hasidic life is dominated by legalism, insularity, outward religious observances, and a thick layer of customs it is increasingly difficult to recover what it has to contribute to humanity. Buber’s lectures, which were given in the late 40’s, are a window into the rich inward life and deep insights of this tradition at it’s best.

Martin Buber was an Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher best known for his works in existentialism and his popularisation of the inward aspects of Hasidic spiritual practice. He was also an important figure in the early Zionist movement; translated the Bible into German, and played an important role in the transmission and development of Jewish culture both in Europe and in modern Israel.

Buber came from a family of observant, if liberal, Jews. Buber joined many Jews from Observant families in pursuing secular studies- in his case philosophy In 1923, Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later translated into English as I and Thou), and in 1925, he began translating the Hebrew Bible into German.

In 1930, Buber became an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt Am Main, but resigned from his professorship in protest after the Nazis came to power in 1933. He then founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which became important after the Nazis forbade Jews access to public education. In 1938, Buber left Germany and settled in Jerusalem, receiving a professorship at Hebrew University. Buber died at his home in Jerusalem in 1965, where there is now a street named after him. 

Perhaps the most condensed and potent of Buber’s spiritual writings is the small book “The Human Way According to the Teaching of Hasidism”. This book originally consisted of six lectures given to a group of Dutch religious socialists in Holland in 1947. The Woodbrookers were a Christian group who has been persecuted by the Nazis during WW2 and had ties to English Quakers. Their leader had known Buber for some time and had been influenced by Buber’s philosophy. Buber delivered the popular lectures as requested, and a German edition called Der Weg Des Menschen was published in 1950.

Each of the six lectures is based on a Hasidic story, though Buber in fact touches on many Hasidic sayings and tales in each lecture. Time constraints will not allow us to ponder insights from all six lectures here. What I will do is share the essential lesson of each lecture, giving particular attention to the first two.

Heart Searching

The first talk opens with the following tale: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, was jailed in Petersburg because the mitnagdim had denounced him to the Russian government. He was awaiting trial when the chief of the gendarmes entered his cell. Impressed by the Rav’s demeanour, the man entered into conversation with him and brought up a number of questions he had about the Bible. Finally he asked him, “how are we to understand that the omniscient God asked Adam in the garden, “Where are you?”

“Do you believe”, answered the Rav, “that the scriptures are eternal and address us all?”

“ I do”, the man said.

“Well then”, said the zaddik, “in every generation God calls to every man, ‘where are you?’ God says something like this, ‘You have lived 46 years. How far along are you on your way?’’

When the man heard his age mentioned he pulled himself together and said to the Rav, “Bravo!” but his heart trembled.

What happens in this story? asks Buber. He points out that it is similar to some Talmudic tales where a Roman challenges Jewish doctrine by pointing out a seeming contradiction and has his point refuted or resolved by a Rabbi. The difference here, points out Buber, is that true to Hasidic discourse in general the answer is given on a different plane than the question is asked on.

 Buber says, “‘Where are you?’, whether the question be addressed to Adam or some other man- in so asking God does not learn something he does not know; what he wants is to produce an effect in man which can only be produced by just such a question, provided that it reaches man’s heart- that man allows it to reach his heart.”

 Why does every person run from this question?

 “Adam hides himself to avoid rendering accounts, to escape responsibility for his way of living. Every man hides for this purpose, for every man is Adam…..To escape responsibility for his life, he turns existence into a series of hideouts.’”

 There is always a Voice seeking us, asking us, “Where are you?” But we spend much of our days in hiding, whether we are outwardly religious or not.

As Buber points out, however, “Man cannot escape the eye of God, but in trying to hide from Him, he is hiding from himself. ’” We cannot, of course, hide from God. Who are we hiding from them? We hide from ourselves. Yet in hiding from ourselves, we do not face where we are, and so we are lost.

Buber writes, “….the Voice…is a ‘still small voice’, and easy to drown. So long as this is done, man’s life will not become a way. Whatever success and enjoyment he may achieve, whatever power he may attain and whatever deeds he may do, his life will remain way-less, so long as he does not face the Voice.”

Buber points out, however, that the Gerrer Rebbe teaches that Esau also asks questions. Esau asks Jacob, “Where are you going?” Buber writes, “There is a demonic question…which apes God’s question, the question of truth….it does not stop at ‘Where are you?’ but continues, ‘From where you have got to, there is no way out.’ There is a Voice that offers a liberating confrontation, and there is a voice that accuses and interrogates so as to kill. In Jewish tradition that voice is, of course, the voice of Hasatan, Satan, whose name literally means “the accuser”. Our problem is that we are confused about what voices are from God and which from Satan. To quote another Hasidic teaching: the devil clothes his demands as mitzvot. Some of God’s commands to us we mistake as satanic. How ironic that sometimes, in trying to escape the accusing voice of Hasatan we unwittingly run from the liberating voice of God. That must be one of the Devil’s most diabolical tricks. How then are we to find our way?

The Particular Way

Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once said to his teacher, the ‘Seer’ of Lublin: ‘Show me one general way to the service of God.’ The Zaddik told him that it was impossible to tell men what way they should take…Everyone should carefully observe what way his heart draws him to, and then choose that way with all his strength.” The way to find our way is to know what we love. We should do that, yet pursue it not as an end in itself, but as a way to God.

We are to revere the sages of the past, but not to imitate them. “God’s all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one man. When some disciples of a zaddik visited the Seer of Lublin and expressed surprise that his customs differed from those of his teacher, the Seer replied, “What sort of a God would that be who has only one way in which he can be served!” God says, whatever you do may be a way to me, provided you do it in a manner that leads you to me.”

A zaddik once said, at the end of Ecclesiastes we read: “At the end of the matter, the whole is heard: “Fear God.” Whatever matter you follow to its end , there, at the end, you will hear one thing: “Fear God”. The point, says Buber, is that “Any natural act, if hallowed, leads to God, and nature needs man for what no angel can perform on it, namely, its hallowing.”  The word “hallowing” here, refers to sanctification. Any way if taken in order to reach God, is a way that reaches Him. In following that desire, that natural inclination of the heart, but seeking to do so in a way which leads to God and answers God’s call, that desire and the heart which desires are both sanctified.

Resolution

In the third talk Buber clarifies that in all of this heart searching and seeking one should not become a creature blown around by internal winds, irresolute and conflicted, obsessed with introspection. Rabbi Nahum, the son of the Rabbi of Rishyn, entered the house of study at the wrong time and found his disciples playing checkers. “Do you know the rules of checkers?”, the Rabbi asked his embarassed disciples. “ The first is that one must not make two moves at once. The second is that one must go forward and never back. The third is that when one gets to the other side one may make any move one likes.”

As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “We learn the way by walking.” In seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow our own particular way we must not be paralyzed by introspection but must act resolutely and keep moving forward.

Begin With Oneself

The primary answer to the conflicts of our lives is found in knowing ourselves and bringing our own selves into harmony. Buber here quotes a Hasidic saying that “if a man makes peace in himself he can make peace in the world.” Satirizing the way that we get lost in externals, trying fruitlessly to put other people in order,  to control our lives, and to amass cherished things while losing the one thing most essential, Buber tells a fable of Rabbi Hanokh: “There was once a foolish man. When he went to bed at night he was afraid that he would not remember where he had put his clothing. So making a great effort he took a paper and pencil and noted down where he put everything as he undressed. When awoke in the morning he took the slip of paper in hand and read “cap”- there it was; “shirt”- there it was; and so on until he was fully dressed. “That’s all very well”, he exclaimed, “but now where am I myself?” He looked and looked but it was in vain, he could not find himself. “And that is how it is with us”, concluded the Rabbi.

 Not To Be Pre-occupied With Oneself

Rabbi Hayyim of Zans married his son to the daughter of Rabbi Eliezer. The day after the wedding he visited the father of the bride and said to him, “Now that we are relatives I feel that I can confide in you.” My hair and beard have grown white, and I have not yet atoned!”

“O my friend”, replied Rabbi Eliezer, “you are thinking only of yourself. How about forgetting yourself and thinking of the world?”

At first glance, points out Buber, this seems to contradict everything he has just said. He has just said that everyone should search his own heart, find his particular way, unite his being in action, and begin with himself, and now we are told a man should forget himself. This is not a contradiction, however. Buber says, “One must simply ask, what for? Why am I to search my heart? What is my particular way for?”.  Not for my own sake. You begin with yourself, yes, but you do not end with yourself. We put ourselves in order so that we can turn outwards toward the world.

That is not yet the final point though. Why do we search our hearts, find our way, unite our beings, put ourselves in order and turn toward the world?

Here Where One Stands

For this final lecture I won’t offer any commentary, but let Buber’s lyrical voice speak for itself.

“Most of us achieve only at rare moments a clear realization of the fact that they have never tasted the fulfillment of existence, that their life does not participate in true, fulfilled existence, that, as it were, it passess true existence by….in some measure we strive to find-somewhere- what we are seeking. Somewhere, in some province of the world or the mind, except where we stand, where we have been set- but it is there and nowehere else that the treasure can be found…..It is said of a certain Talmudic master that the paths of heaven were as bright to him as his hometown. Hasidism inverts the order: It is a greater thing if the streets of a man’s hometown are as bright to him as the paths of heaven. For it is here, where we stand, that we should try to make shine the light of hidden divine life.”

 “Once they told Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz of the great misery among the needy. He listened, sunk in grief. Then he raise his head. ‘Let us draw God into the world,’ he cried, ‘and all need will be extinguished.’

Buber tells a final story:

 “Where is the dwelling of God?” This is the question with which the Rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world filled with his glory?”

Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever man lets him in.”

“This is the ultimate purpose”, says Buber, “to let God in. But we can let him in only where we really stand, where we live, where we live a true life. If we maintain holy intercourse with this little world entrusted to us, if we help the holy spiritual substance to accomplish itself in that section in which we are living, then we are establishing, in this place, a dwelling for the divine presence.”

 

 

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

Chadral_Rinpoche

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!

crmerton

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.”