Porneia, Pornography, and the Sexuality of Israel

 

 

In the letters of the famous Christian writer, Paul of Tarsus, he often rants against what he calls porneia, which denotes sexual immorality, or misconduct with regards to sexuality. As pointed out by James W. Thompson (Moral Formation in Paul) this is a term used primarily by Greek-speaking Jews to refer to the wrongdoings of the gentiles. In other words, it is a word used to denote sexual practices unacceptable to Jewish moral sensibilities. What are these?

 Well, the Torah spells them out as bestiality, rape, incest, and forms of sex which are degrading or distressing to one of the partners (eg. sleeping with two sisters at the same time or anally penetrating a man- the latter example was considered humiliating for the passive partner in the ancient middle east). Paul appears to add to these idolatrous sexual rituals, orgies, pimping, prostitution and the use of prostitutes. These misuses of sexuality collectively give us a sense of what is not porneia: sex that occurs within a consensual context of mutual respect and which is not exploitative or harmful to either partner. Paul lived at a time when slaves, male and female, were used as sex toys by their masters; when the Emperor Caligula was known to openly rape dinner guest’s wives and then report on their “performance” to the other guests; when women and men were both secular and religious prostitutes; and when older men entered into patronage relationships with pubescent boys where they exchanged political favours for sexual service. (Ah the good old days, before Judeo-Christian prudery ruined things.)

 In our day these things are considered generally repulsive and often illegal as well, mostly because of the legacy of Israelite sexual ethics on our society. It is certainly true that the concern for sexual purity has also had neurotic or excessively repressive legacies. It is tragically true that the strictures against degrading forms of homosexual intercourse were misinterpreted as a general condemnation of male homosexuality in extremely harmful ways. The root concern, however, was for sexuality to be holy and to respect the dignity of all people and creatures, and that was and is a good thing. 

 In our day the old scourges of rape and prostitution persist, and we have a new toxin to contend with- pornography. Pornography is, in essence, some people engaging in porneia so that others can purchase (or enjoy for free while others pay) videos or images of them doing so. Enjoying pornography involves either ignoring the degradation of the participants so as to enter into an empathic (and delusional) fantasy world or what is worse, actively enjoying the degradation (as websites like “teen abuse” demonstrate). In either case the moral wrongdoing of the purchaser is clear- he or she is bankrolling exploitation. 

What about the consumer of free internet porn? They are not bankrolling anything directly (though their clicks surely support the websites in some way).They are, however, either enjoying the exploitation or degradation of others or ignoring that degradation in order to exploit the participants for their own sexual ends. Either way it is a sleazy business. 

This does not even begin to touch on the issue of consuming pornography while in a monogamous relationship. There is no doubt that to do so is an act of violence against that relationship unless you have the explicit permission of your partner, though even then it is not advisable for the reasons mentioned above. 

 The sexuality of Israel was not pleasure denying, and even Paul did not attempt to remove sexual pleasure for its own sake from marriage. It was degradation denying.  This principle is still an extremely important one which is imperfectly implemented in our society. Its greatest enemy today may be the proliferation of pornography, whose production and enjoyment should be beneath the dignity of men and women created in Gods image. 

 

 

 

 

Dealing With Shit Days: A Philosophical Perspective

 

Do you ever have one of those days where one or more of your primary relationships seems fractured, painful, dysfunctional- or maybe your work seems meaningless, a patina of play-acting laid on top of the unfulfilled desires of your soul- or you feel stupid and slow, worried you may have an early form of senility or a brain tumour-or suddenly the beauty of the beautiful people- which normally means nothing to you- is making you suspect that there may actually be something terminally wrong with you by comparison? 

How do we respond? Well, first off I would suggest we recognize that we are vulnerable in this state. Things can easily go farther south. Indulging in old bad habits out of self-pity; being withdrawn, slothful, or irritable; or speaking an angry word. The first priority is not to make things worse. We should try to be patient, keep things simple, keep to our normal standards, and avoid complaint and the expression of anger. Last tip for not turning the dark turn into a total shit show: do not take your perceptions seriously. The way things seem to you is not the way they are. Objects in your fearview mirror may be much less important than they appear.

The next step is very important: do not feel bad about feeling bad. The reason is for this is very simple: feeling bad about feeling bad will make you feel: bad. Which you’re likely to feel bad about. Get the picture? For this reason you must accept that you are not feeling good. Do not resist. Today this is your cross to bear. By nature these things are impermanent and if you don’t make it worse it will pass. Whatever problems you think you have will then either no longer exist (because they weren’t real) or be better dealt with from a clear, balanced mental state, not a depressed, despairing, Nine Inch Nails type mental state.

After that? Practice ishwara-pranidhana. That’s Hindu for laying it at the feet of Christ. Or surrendering to Allah. Or visualizing the Buddha. I have my own go to- and you need one too. We need an anchor in the storm. Sometimes grabbing hold of this rope will not just keep us out of the quicksand (yes I know quicksand is much less common than saturday morning cartoons led me to believe) but lift us up in to the air where we may end up swinging around and singing, ecstatic in the blue. Or maybe not. But we won’t be in the quicksand anymore. 

What do we do once we are free of the sticky downward pull of entropy, despair and the devil’s deceit? Once the skies clear we still need to turn towards the beauty beyond us. If when the storm clears we stop clinging to the boat and jump into the water we’re asking for trouble next time. We need to look into the mirror of God’s presence if we want to keep our vision clear. We need the hand of the spirit rewriting our software if we want to minimize future crashes. The rewrite only happens if we keep submitting our heart to the change. That change comes with keeping our mind’s eye on the highest we can conceive. This highest acts like a magnet passed over a soup of metal, sucking out all the impurities.

 So, to summarize: 

 

don’t make things worse. This is the priority.

don’t feel bad about feeling bad.

turn beyond yourself; be with the beautiful.       

 

 

All A Horrible Mistake: The Bible’s Supposed Condemnation of Homosexuality

Moses

Human history, especially recently, has shown that we can be very wrong about some things, even things we’ve believed for a long time. The sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. Solid objects are actually mostly filled with space. And the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality. What? But don’t most Jews and Christians, the people of the Book themselves, say it does? Don’t they say the Bible condemns homosexuals even when they disagree with that condemnation? Doesn’t the Bible say homosexuality is an “abomination”?

The answer to the first question is “Yes, that is what they say.” But the answer to the second question turns out to be “No, it is a misunderstanding.” I myself was unhappily convinced, until a few years ago, that the Hebrew Bible did condemn homosexuality. I thought this was disturbing because I myself don’t agree. Homosexuality seems to me ethically neutral and grounded in genetic predispositions.

All of this changed when I took a closer look through the lens of some excellent Biblical scholarship basing itself solidly in the historical-critical approach, ie. in arguments based in textual criticism, archaeology, anthropology, and cross-cultural studies.

When we say “homosexual” today we generally mean people who are primarily sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. By “homosexuality” we mean people of homosexual orientation who engage, homosexually, in all the same sexual and romantic behaviours that heterosexuals do: casual sex, affairs, committed monogamy, and now marriage.

First off, no one in the cultural sphere of the Bible thought of certain people as “homosexuals” or had a concept of “homosexuality” like the one I describe above. There is no word for homosexual or homosexuality in Hebrew. In fact scholars assert that the category “homosexuality” did not occur in western culture until the 17th century. Before then, sex with another man was just seen as a “perverse desire”, a temptation that some people were more prone to than others.

What is at issue here in Leviticus is a certain act not a category of person. The verses in question are: “You shall not lay with a male as you would with a woman, it is a repulsive thing.” (Lev 18:22) and “The two of them have done a repulsive thing. They shall be put to death.” (Lev 20:13). We need to understand exactly what “laying with a man as you would with a woman” means, and why that was considered “a repulsive thing”.

Friedman and Dolansky (2011) offer a very compelling historical and cross cultural analysis here (For a detailed discussion and defense of their argument see here, what follows is a summary).

They agree with the mainstream Judeo-Christian interpretation the verses refer to sexual intimacy between men, which is supported by the language used. How exactly does one man lay with another like the second man was a woman, though? Friedman and Dolansky ground their understanding of why homosexual sex is forbidden in an Israelite aversion to one man being penetrated by another (the reason for the aversion will be explained below). The Israelites most likely understood “sex (laying)” to refer to “sexual intercourse” specifically. Even more specifically, the law is addressed to the active partner- “you shall not lay with a man”. In other words, the intention of the law is to forbid a man having sexual intercourse with another man by penetrating him. Now, you might think this is a law forbidding homosexual romance. But, Friedman and Dolansky explain, it appears you’d be wrong.

First off, they argue, homosexuality per se can’t be the problem. Why not? Because female homosexuality is not against the law. Think that “the misogynists” just didn’t bother to mention women? Au contraire: when bestiality is discussed, the authors specifically mention both men and women being forbidden to have sex with animals. Further they argue ancient Israel was polygamous and men were not only familiar with female homosexual acts but had relatively easy opportunities to observe them and even to enjoy them, as they had multiple wives. The proof? There is a Biblical law in Leviticus making it illegal for a man who has married two sisters to have sex with both of them at the same time (Lev 18:18). Sisters just, not wives generally. If threesomes were not known and common enough, why would this law be necessary? Yet there is no law in the Hebrew Bible forbidding sex between females.

A Christian pastor named Justin Cannon makes an additional argument that is relevant here in his book The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality. It is in fact a very Jewish argument! He points out that in the Torah “to lie with” refers to sex. The verses in question could have just said ” it is forbidden for a man to lie with a man”. Why do they add “like a woman”? This seems to qualify and make more precise what is being discussed: not intimacy or love between men of just any kind, but specifically sexual intercourse.

To understand why male homosexual intercourse  would be repulsive to Israelites, Friedman and Dolansky look at mentions of anal sex in the surrounding cultures. A Babylonian divination text says that being the passive recipient of homosexual anal intercourse brings bad luck. Two Assyrian laws discuss anal penetration: The first states that someone who falsely accuses another man of often being a passive recipient of anal sex will be whipped, do forced labour, pay a fine, and be castrated. The next law states: if a man anally rapes a social equal than he will in turn be anally raped and then castrated. In other words: being penetrated by another man is degrading, and is a common enough form of male social violence to be mentioned in law. One very important detail: anally raping a social inferior is not punished. The reason for this is simple: the problem is not anal sex per se, it is the socially degrading nature of being the passive recipient. If you are already a social inferior of the one who pentrates you than there is no problem in the eys of the Babylonian law. All of this is relevant to understanding the Biblical law, as we shall see.

Egypt provides similar evidence. Egyptian literature generally portrays the passive partner as weak, cowardly and effeminate. In the bizarre myth of Seth and Horus a struggle between the gods is decided by who has managed to place his semen inside the other: the implanted god loses. What about famed Greek homosexuality? It turns out the picture is more complicated then you might have heard. Greek literature does not know of a general category of men called “homosexuals”, but it does know of homosexual love and sex. And even in Greece, it turns out, to be the passive recipient of anal sex was considered shameful, effeminizing, and humiliating.

Plato comments on the practice (with a strong note of misogyny): “Will not all men censure as a woman a man who acts womanly?” Here we have, of course, a very clear parallel to the probable thinking of the Biblical law: the passive partner is considered “as a woman”. Plutarch, a Roman inheritor of the Greek tradition wrote, “We class those belonging to the passive part as being of the lowest vice and accord them neither confidence nor respect or friendship.”

What Leviticus forbids is not what we call homosexuality, but the degradation of another man’s dignity and social status through an act which was widely regarded as humiliating and socially degrading. This is in keeping with the basic egalitarian intent of the laws of the Hebrew Bible, an intent brilliantly showcased by Joshua Berman. As Berman’s book shows masterfully, we mistake the laws of the Hebrew Bible when we see them as primarily about individual morality instead of economic, social and political dynamics (though grounded in a radical concern for individual human dignity). As Berman shows, the laws of the Hebrew Bible prevent the formation of a class structure; put the King under the law with everyone else; undercut the practice of slavery; alleviate poverty; prevent the formation of an inherited aristocracy, and restrain prejudicial treatment of foreigners and non-citizens, among other social justice measures unheard of in contemporaneous middle eastern and mediterranean societies.

Bearing this in mind we come to a shocking realization about the law against anally penetrating another man. Far from being a law about forbidding homosexuality, it turns out to be a law supporting equal dignity among men and a classless state. The law existed to prevent one man from socially humiliating and degrading another man. This doesn’t mean that the laws in the Hebrew Bible are perfect in promoting equality. They still contain inequalities, most notably between men and women. That does not change the fact that they were, in context, an attempt at building a new kind of Utopia, a rebellion against the stratified slave states of Egypt and Babylon. And it doesn’t change our fundamental point, which is that the law is not about what we think it is about.

The New Testament

This interpretation of the laws of the Torah is actually supported by a proper reading of the oft-cited and misused comments of Paul in 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Here Paul condemns a number of types of human immorality and includes the set “pornoi, arsenokoitai, and andrapodistai”. These are often translated “fornicators, homosexuals, and kidnappers”. Cannon argues, in The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality that in context these Greek terms are best understood as “male prostitutes, those who use them, and their procurors (literally “slave-traders/kidnappers”). All of these characters were present in the Rome of Paul’s time. This moral condemnation follows on the Hebrew scriptural idea of anal sex as fundamentally a degrading act for one of the partners.

A second text, Romans 1:24-7, condemns people who have turned away from God and are overcome with lust breaking through all boundaries and having “unnatural” sexual relations. Cannon and others argue that in this text the referent is in fact Roman religious orgies. The Evangelical ethicist David Gushee, following others, argues that this text may be a veiled reference to debauched behaviour at the Roman imperial court by the likes of Caligula and Nero. Either way, it cannot be taken refer to committed homosexual romances of the kind we know today.

The Consequences

We simply cannot take the Torah’s condemnation of anal sex between men out of its original cultural context. The act was condemned because of its social meaning then. As an illustration, consider this: in Thailand it is considered incredibly insulting to touch another adults head. Now imagine certain men were in the habit of touching the heads of other men in a way which marked them as social inferiors and exerted power and status. If one wanted to create a society of equals one might outlaw one man touching the head of another man. In our culture, however, touching another man’s head simply does not have that meaning. To insist that all “head-touchers” are immoral and worthy of censure in our context would make no sense.

Similarly to insist that male homosexual love relationships are immoral in all cultural settings on the basis of the Levitical texts is incoherent. In our culture sexual love between men is simply seen as another type of morally neutral romantic love. You might object that not everyone sees it that way. The irony is, of course, that those who see it otherwise are usually inspired by their fidelity to the Bible’s supposed condemnation of homosexual love! Their opinion, therefore, is not in need of respect but simply of correction.

The consequence of all of this is that centuries of religious interpretation aside, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. In fact it does not even discuss it. We are left to make up our own minds about what the Bible might have said about homosexuality today given its underlying mission to promote a political state where all people are free and equal before God.

Works Cited:

Berman, Joshua. Created Equal: How The Bible Broke With Ancient Political Thought. 2008, Oxford University Press.

Cannon, Justin. The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality. 2012, Justin R. Cannon (Ebook).

Friedman and Dolansky; The Bible Now. 2011, Oxford University Press.

Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind. 2014, Read The Spirit Books.

Why Does Jewish Tradition Compare Anger to Idolatry?

The Talmud (Shabbat 105b) compares one who gets angry to one who worships idols. Why? Clearly, on one level, the intention is to underline the gravity of the fault. Similarly the Talmud elsewhere compares one who humiliates another in public to one who sheds blood (Bava Metzia 58b). This is of a piece with the Talmud’s great concern to elevate the sensitivity of the mitzvot bein adam l’chavero (interpersonal commandments) to exquisite levels. 

There is a deeper meaning to be found, however. What is idolatry? As the Psalms and Isaiah affirm (Psalms 97:7; 115:4; Isaiah 44:6-23) it is to worship the work of ones own hands. On that level, our technological age may be the most idolatrous in history. Pertinent to this discussion, however, is an understanding of the inner dynamic of anger. When we are angry, what are we angry at? The person who we believe has hurt us? Yet when we are angry we do not see that person as they are. We are in the possession of what Spinoza called “inadequate ideas”: conceptions which fall short of the full intelligibility of what faces us; ideas which separate aspects of the object of our thought from a larger causal web and distort that object in the fires of our passions (Ethics). As Spinoza wrote in general terms, and several Rabbis have also said with regard to this passage, anger separates the hated object from its reality as grounded in God and His will. 

In short when angry we are worshipping a conception which is not of God but is the work of our own hands. We do not attend and reverence the being who we believe hurt us; rather we attend and reverence a being of our own making, a hateful caricature of Gods child formed of our own hands and lifted not only above truth but also above ourselves. Anger is never in our own best Interests. As the Buddha said, “Anger is like a flaming torch that we pick up to hurl at another, wounding our own hands first.” 

Anger is like idolatry because it is the worshiping of a creature of our own creation which we hold above the reality of Gods creation. The actual human being, the infinitely complex personality mixed of good and bad, is in their essence, in their true name, formed in the image of God. The Hebrew word for image, tselem, is the same word used for an idolatrous statue in the Torah (eg. Numbers 33:52). This shocking congruence teaches us that the human being is the only acceptable idol, the only representation of God that we can approach with lawful reverence. It must, however, be the person as they actually exist. This is the living reality who can not be fairly caricatured and needs to be approached as much with unknowing as knowing, as much with love as justice.  It is this balance that is obliterated by anger, which affirms a cheap and simplified knowing, an arrogant and superficial claim to justice, and is incompatible with love.

Nondual Ethics? The Case of Francis Lucille

 

In the modern Western spiritual scene “ethics” and “nonduality” seem like strange bedfellows. Since nondual spiritual practice, which is sometimes conceived as nonpractice (and therefore certanly not as containing ethical practices and commitments) is about transcending the efforts and evaluations of the illusory separate self, it is frequently thought that attempting to improve the illusion of the self, to care for other illusions, or to train or consciously transform the illusion of oneself, is, well, illusion begetting illusion. 

There is some truth to this perspective. Our ethical commitments are frequently much more grounded in our “self-project” than we realize. To put it differently, our ethical concerns, whether for our own behaviour or directed outwards to saving or serving the world, are often woven so tight with our concern to justify, maintain, and improve our self-image that in practice we cannot tell the difference. It is often wise to loosen the reigns on our ethical or salvific merry-go-round rides while we begin to look inward at how we are constructing who we are and to question our reality. Epictetus, the great Roman stoic, advised his students:  “Until you know what to desire, it is better to desire as little as possible.”

That said, there is a problem here. Attitudes, habits, and actions which have been traditionally considered “vicious” (vices), or as immoral/unethical are considered so for good reasons: they cause long term harm and suffering, the very things that the spiritual path sets out to overcome.  As Francis Lucille, a contemporary teacher of the “direct path” (vicara marga) and student of Jean Klein, says, the whole purpose of the path of Advaita is happiness. 

The Buddha taught his students to cultivate “sila” (restraint) not for the grandiose purpose of saving the world or the endless struggle of becoming better people but for the purpose of “freedom from remorse” which leads to “joy” and from there to the ability to meditate and contemplate reality free from obstruction (Anguttara Nikaya 10.1). The actions he advised his students to refrain from include killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and becoming intoxicated from alcohol or drugs. These actions are ill advised because, as he put it, they lead to the “long term harm and suffering of both oneself and others” and to therefore to remorse, sadness, and darkening of the mind (Anguttara Nikaya 4.99 and elsewhere). The Buddha also classed certain internal states as harmful: greed, anger, and confused thinking. 

 The point I am getting at is that as nondualists failing to care for our mind and bodies, and/or failing to care for the ethical quality of our mental states and actions will lead, as a natural law (dharma) to complications, remorse, and suffering in a way which will obstruct our path to awakening to what we are. The qualities advocated by Shankara as prerequisites for awakening (though few sages regard  them as literally prerequisites and I am unaware of any recent sage who has advocated for them being necessary) are all impossible to attain even a semblance of without ethical behaviour.  Although some will balk at the idea that practices should be undertaken to make it easier to awaken, out of fear that a gradualist deferral of the ability to awaken is being advocated, that is not so. There is a difference between a precondition and a favourable condition. Jean Klein frequently affirmed that physical yoga practices (done in the right way) prepared the body in a way which made awakening easier and also advocated for eating in a mindful, sattvic way for the same reason. It seems obvious to me that cultivating sattvic behaviour and mental states is useful for the similar reasons, though these must not be fetishized.

To my way of thinking there are two possible reasons to pursue ethical behaviour and internal virtue on the nondual way. These are 1) simply out of natural love and  concern for the beautiful and the true; ie. because it makes us happy to do so; and 2) to develop a sattvic condition of body and mind which makes awakening easier. Though this sattvic condition is not a precondition it is a favourable condition, and if awakening is our hearts desire, than aside from our natural desire to care for ourselves and others, why wouldn’t we cultivate favourable conditions?

Recently I came across a wonderful discussion of ethical decision making from the previously mentioned modern Advaitin sage Francis Lucille. In a recent satsang (April 2015) Francis was asked how to make decisions about whether and in what way to help other people. Francis’ answer, although it addresses that question, seems to me to offer a broader approach to ethical decision making which is very useful and is uniquely grounded in the internal logic and goal of nondual practice.

What Does a Nondual Ethic Look Like?: Francis Lucille

Francis: “I think the decision we make in any situation can not be predefined. It always has  to be made in context, and the context is never twice the same. In any given context the first question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Do I really have to make a decision?’ Then, if the answer to this question is ‘yes’, then ‘what is the appropriate decision?’, meaning, ‘what is the impersonal decision in this context?’ The impersonal decision is one in which I am not identifying with any party in the situation, in which my endeavour is to make the decision which is in line with truth, love, and beauty. So that’s how we can come to the good within these situations. 

The first thing is to ask oneself, ‘do I really have to get involved?’ My teacher (Jean Klein) told a story that once he was travelling in Italy and there was this man and woman vehemently arguing, screaming at each other, and then starting to hit each other.  He went there and tried to separate them and then they both started to hit him! He said, ‘I took my lesson’. I don’t have to get involved in situations! It is your ego that you feel so important that you have to be there and to play God. So the first question is: does the situation really require my intervention? My teacher used to say also we shouldn’t completely deprive people of their suffering because the suffering is somehow the ‘homing device’, that which puts us on the path to truth. We should rather give them the means, the knowledge, to save themselves, rather than to save them. Of course if someone is drowning it is very clear, if there is an accident on the freeway it is very clear, you call emergency services. There’s all kinds of situations where what to do is extremely clear. But there are other situations where it is difficult and we have to remember that sometimes we are not going to be certain that we have made the right decision. All we can do is to try to do our best given our knowledge of the situation and our impression that some action is required, and in innocence we try to do our best.” 

“Two different human beings in the same circumstance may have chosen two opposite decisions coming from the same place of innocence and truth because they have different means to look at the situation and therefore two different decisions in a given situation can be equally impersonal, and the converse is also true. In a given situation with a similar decision from two different persons one may be impersonal and the other come from ignorance: the magic is that the consequences of the impersonal decision will be harmonious and the consequences of the ignorant decision will be disharmonious because the universe in its wisdom knows and will reshape itself accordingly. That is the beauty, and it is very important to understand that. For instance, since it was mentioned with regards to politics, you can have two different attitudes in a given situation that are taken by two different human beings but each of them coming from a pure heart but with different experience and different knowledge of the world, of the events, etc.  They may take two different, even opposed decisions with good heart and good intelligence  but they will both be impersonal, and conversely the same is true.”  

“The universe will respond to intent. It corresponds to the Christian saying, ‘It is the intention that makes the actions holy, that sanctifies the action.’ So the intention of a pure heart in fact makes the action holy. In other words, an action cannot be judged by itself but rather by the intention it comes from.”

This answer contains quite a lot. Francis here first of all cautions against dogmatism and “precepts”, or predefined ethical rules. He then warns against being quick to intervene in other people’s problems or attempting to play God. This could be called humility, but of course it also resonates with the Advaitin teachings on de-emphasizing doer-ship and decreasing attempts at control and self-assertion. He then says that when a moral decision is needed, one should attempt to take as impersonal a perspective as possible and choose the action that reflects the values of truth, love and beauty. Elsewhere he calls this “the just position”. It is a thought exercise where one tries to view the situation from everyone’s perspective and make the most just, most true, most loving, most beautiful resolution for everyone involved. He warns that certainty cannot here be attained and we must make our best decision “in innocence”. Francis also warns against judging other people’s decisions, and emphasizes that what matters in making moral decisions is not technical perfection but intention.  The intention, here, simply put, is to benefit everyone involved, not merely oneself. So here we have, in effect, an impersonal ethic to meet an impersonal spirituality. 

Upon reflection it seems clear that the ethics Francis elucidates here attempt to approximate enlightened action, or the way a liberated person would act. The liberated person does not act out of self-interest or attempt to control external situations or play God, and also is wise enough to be nondogmatic about right action and hesitant to judge the decisions of others from the outside. Francis’ ethic is designed to bring us closer to the position of the awakened mind while navigating the circumstances of the world. This position is both a modelling of the Self (atman) in the world and an approach to action which will bring us “closer” to the Self in terms of resonance with it and openness to it and therefore be favourable to to our awakening. 

 

 

 

 

Yochanan in Ephesus

In the last years of the life of Yochanan HaTzadik (“Saint John”, writer of the fourth Gospel) he lived in Ephesus (in modern Turkey). The long lived holy man was often carried to meetings of the kehillah (group, ekklesia, church) of Jesus’ disciples. He used to repeat to them all the time, “My little children, love each other.” When the disciples asked him why he was always repeating the same thing, he replied, “it is the commandment of our Master, and if you keep it, it alone suffices.”

 

(told by St. Jerome, quoted in the Navarre commentary to St John).

 

 

 

New Book Published! Everyone in Love: The Beautiful Theology of Rav Yehuda Lev Ashlag

 

This is a book I’ve self-published on a great but little known Jewish theologian, Yehuda Lev Ashlag. He is known in some circles for his work on the mystical text the Zohar, and in others as the inspiration behind the teachings of some universalist “pop” Kabbalah movements (which is why Madonna visits his grave every year). His writings deserve more thorough study and serious attention, however, as he articulates a fascinating and radical perspective on many core Jewish themes which is rooted in classical thinkers like the Arizal, the Ramchal, Hasdai Crescas, and Chasidut, but goes beyond them in some respects to present a startling systematic theology of Judaism and Jewish spiritual practice.

This book is based on a lecture series that I taught in Vancouver.

http://www.amazon.com/Everyone-Love-Beautiful-Theology-Yehuda/dp/1505320763/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1427497546&sr=8-1&keywords=yehuda+lev+ashlag

Mortality

It makes no sense to casually think,

“Today I will not die.”

There is no doubt the day will come

When you too will be gone.

Shantideva

(quoted in Jewels of Enlightenment, Erik Pema Kunsang)

“Humility”- St Isaac of Syria

As long as the heart is not humbled it cannot cease from wandering; for humility concentrates the heart.

– St Isaac of Syria (7th century)

Daily Readings with St Isaac of Syria

tr. Sebastian Brock, Templegate Press

Kosho Uchiyama: The Heart of Nembutsu

The following is a poem written by the great 20th century teacher of Soto Zen, Kosho Uchiyama. Uchiyama Roshi was a great exponent and practitioner of Dogen Zen as taught by Kodo Sawaki, his teacher. Despite his grounding in Dogen and Soto Zen, Uchiyama Roshi also appreciated Shin Buddhism and Christianity and spoke on them in his dharma talks and poetry. The “Nembutsu” is the mantra Namu Amida Butsu, “Homage to Amitabha Buddha’, a Buddha Shin practitioners believe to have vowed to save all who chant his name. Uchiyama Sensei translated the Nembutsu as ” I practice (butsu) returning (namu) to the totality of heaven and earth (amida)”. Enjoy.

 

The Heart of Nembutsu

I eat food from the whole heaven and earth
I drink water from the whole heaven and earth
I live the life of the whole heaven and earth
Pulled by the gravity of the whole heaven and earth
I become pure and clear, one with the whole heaven and earth
The whole heaven and earth is where I return

– Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo