Tag Archives: spirituality

christmas, sin and innocence

kayden, a baby the christian story is one that keeps intriguing and baffling me. what is this thing that we’re celebrating today?

in the mountainous region of the german speaking alps, where i grew up, the image of the naked little baby jesus in the manger is the predominant one for the christmas story. maybe this is one of the things that pulls us so, maybe this is part of the new covenant: replacing sin with innocence.

not that i know what sin is, or what innocence is, but i have a sense of them: that innocence is the fresh, unspoiled purity of a newborn – oh, more than that: it is the embodiment of the deep, all-loving awe that inspires us as we see, feel, connect with such a precious being.

sin, on the other hand, that word makes me think of burden, of separation, defilement and the destruction of innocence – an image that comes up is that horrible one, of the newborn thrown out in the garbage.

this is extreme. both images, in fact, are extreme, and if we pitch them against each other, we will only experience unhappiness. what can we do, then, and, seeing that today is christmas eve, what can we take from the image of the newborn baby jesus?

i know that nothing will stay fresh or unspoiled forever – be it a newborn, a landscape, a beautiful object, a relationship. that includes my relationship with the divine. but what i also know is that purity appears again and again, and even more so, that i can always reach for that deep, all-loving awe. i can always keep my heart open for that, and that will, i hope, protect me. maybe not from the smaller burdens that i heap upon myself and others as i imperfectly walk through the day, unmindful and disconnected so often, hurtful sometimes. i fervently hope, though, that the knowledge, memory and experience of the purity of this all-loving awe will protect me from the ultimate sin of throwing away that wondrous goodness.

and that even if i do, there is a chance that the ever-returning purity of love and grace will touch me and awaken me from sin, that this awakening will come in the middle of that cold night and touch me with its light.

this is what i muse today, this christmas eve morning. may you all be blessed.

on god’s sweet leash

Tichvine Mother of God Russian late 17th century Egg Temperua on wood panel with gold leaf Detail 2

i breathe god in and breathe god out
eat god and shit god
drink god, piss god,
taste god, smell god, sweat god, hear god
see only god

god weaves through me and whispers me
god boils my blood and cools my voice

my walk is god’s, my hands are his,
my eyes are hers, my lips belong to it,
my mind treads the mysterious paths
of gods, goddesses, allah, angels
and of those gods who lie,
crossless, prayerless,
enshrined in science and in emptiness

i breathe god in and breathe god out
and like a little poodle
i walk along on god’s sweet leash

this poem is dedicated to my friends n. and a.  it came to me as i was waking up this morning. and then i went to my first quaker meeting.

“in love with the mystery” – ann mortifee’s new book

“mystery” – how do you talk about it? “the deeper you go into it, the more difficult it is to name,” says ann mortifee, and “everything becomes mysterious after a while.”

the first mystery that struck me as i entered st. mark’s church where ann mortifee’s launch for her new book and CD in love with the mystery was held was the image of paul horn, her soul mate and husband. there he was, standing in front of a cross as he gracefully welcomed the raging applause. why did this image speak to me so insistently? i don’t know. there seemed to be, in my experience (was it only mine? did others feel it, too?) a sort of communion, communication occurring between the man and the cross. who knows? no, i don’t know.

the word “mystery” is rooted in the greek myein, to shut, to close. it is that, perhaps, which is closed off to our knowing. all our knowing? or just the intellectual knowing?

ann certainly walks bravely into that thicket of unknowing: with words, images, music, and her voice. oh, her voice! it comes from a deep, deep place … and reaches a deep place inside us. when she let all her shamanic power loose and hurled that voice into space, she sang it into our ears and hearts – and again, into those deep spaces in between, where the mystery lies.

in love with the mystery is something physical you can take away that captures all of this. all the senses are engaged. “the whole work is a synaesthetic feast, an offering for the divine beloved,” says carol sill, who did the editorial work. the book feels good, has a nice heft, the pages are lovely to the touch. strange to talk about a book like that – aren’t you supposed to talk about the content? but any book lover will understand. there is something exciting, almost erotic, about touching, holding, weighing, allover feeling a new book. in love with the mystery is a book you want to hang out with, a book you can open on your lap while you drink a cup of tea on a quiet sunday evening, and while you listen to the music that accompanies the book. in addition to ann’s powerful voice and paul horn’s flute, miles black and edward henderson’s beautiful guitar complete the synaesthetic whole.

there is something melancholic about in love with the mystery – and it makes sense, given its history. in her talk, ann spoke often about the pain that deepens our understanding – shattered dreams and “the grit of disappointment.” these experiences inform the content of the book but there is more. the gentle images that form the background to ann’s writings were created by award-winning photographer courtney milne, who did not live to see the finished work of art. as well, the stunning design by diane jensen-feught was crafted in grief, as the designer mourned the death of her parents.

instead of an excerpt – you’ll just have to read for yourself – a few poignant lines from the talk:

“how does the mystery come?” asked ann.
“just keep breathing.”

st john of the cross

a few days ago, i went to a fabulous workshop with rob des cotes of the imago dei community about st. john of the cross. i’d like to share my notes with you.

but just a bit of an intro. maybe this post could be prefaced with another preface, written by r. kirkham at amazon about another christian mystic book, the cloud of unkowing

it seems only proper to begin a review of this book with the warning given by the anonymous author in his/her prologue. my paraphrase of that warning goes something like this, “in the name of the father, and the son, and the holy spirit, and in the bond of love i beg you not to read, copy, or look at this book unless you are ready. furthermore i beg you not to copy it, loan it out, or give it to anyone else to read unless they, too, are ready for this depth of spiritual growth, lest they misunderstand the things written herein and fall into error.”

what follows is of course not nearly as important as what was written in the cloud of unknowing; however, what i want to get across is that this experience was in the spirit of mysticism, which means that the words and ideas expressed need to be seen from a point of view of that is curious, open, wondering; and at the same time, it needs to be infused with wisdom. so when there is talk of surrender, for example, it should not be seen as the oppressive surrender that, for example, the highly politicized catholic church of the 16th century wanted to see in its believers in order to use them better as pawns in their machinations. rather, i invite you to see it as the strange, awe-ful, incomprehensible surrender that accompanies the moments of first falling in love …

here are my notes.

st ignatius asks: what’s god’s job, what’s mine?

st john of the cross: passive purification – letting god do the job. there’s nothing for me to do but accept god. it’s god’s initiative. i make myself as nothing, and present myself to god. god gives us freedom – and invites us to submit. let myself be created. jesus says, “your job is to remain in my love”

we cannot “do” contemplative prayer. st john: “contemplation is none other than a secret, peaceful and loving infusion of god, which if the soul allows it to happen, enflames it in the spirit of love”. the best way to start praying: lord, show me how to pray. the illusion is: “when i don’t pray, prayer isn’t happening.” in truth, god prays us.

“the dark night of the soul” – the darkness an owl experiences as she flies into the light. darkness is good. darkness is faith: you don’t need to second guess. in moses, there is talk of “the thick darkness where god is”

embrace the poverty of spirit. very different from the idea of enriching our spirit that is practiced today. we strive to become less so that god can fill us up. take me back to my emptiness.

most of us have a spiritual sweet tooth. we like the hymns, the icons, the lovely feeling of relaxation in meditation. then we mistake the sweetness for god. are we following god or the warm fuzzies? our sense of god can eclipse our relationship with god. “i’ve lost god” can mean “i’ve lost the feeling (the warm fuzzies) for god”. similar with art. art can be the garment of the spirit. just don’t confuse the garment with the spirit. in the end, even st john is just a garment.

the life i live is not my own, it is god’s life. i want to be possessed by god, commingled: “i in you, you in me“. if i give myself to god, i will lose myself and at the same time gain myself, just like the trinity is simultaneously unified and distinct

withdrawal into god as a martial arts move: rather than fighting, i step aside and “let god”. go blind to our attachments, don’t react to them. the dark night of the senses – sometimes when our appetites http://www.ocd.or.at/ics/john/dichos.htm get too big, god quenches them by taking them away. the dark night is a good thing. it lets us fall into god’s abyss. trying to grasp it causes us to lose it. go deep, descend into god.

we have access to our senses, we don’t have access to our soul. according to scripture, the soul is (approximately) the place where i reflect god (in a clean window, the light and the window appear as one)

“if i just get angry enough with myself, my relationship with god will get better” – no. better a blind faith that is not defined by how we feel. how much energy are we spending editing ourselves? why are we striving? why are we tiring ourselves out?. rest in the trust. no need to immediately snap into problem solving mode. just trust. just allow it to play out. we take a good thing and add too much to it. let it die. if it’s meant to be, god will resurrect it. god makes us restless until we rest in him. give god free rein to be god. let’s get to the point where god’s actions prevail. “shouldn’t i be doing more?” <– leave that alone. how does the apple ripen? it just sits in the sun.

the seeking for god is love for god. it is god who gives me the desire for god; i can pray for the desire.

single and simple minded: cultivate the beginners mind, over and over again.

the ticket: the recognition that we need to be saved. saved – salvation: making whole. we come to god to have him set us right.

the new covenant eclipses the 10 commandments.

my thoughts after all this:

christ and hekate ARE one. julian of norwich and majaraj-ji ARE one. iaveh and lugh ARE one. bill w. and st john of the cross ARE one. meister eckhart and eckart tolle ARE one. robert mugabe and i ARE one.

curious how this very christian workshop strengthened my conviction that god IS one.


the stream that brought me here,
gushed me out at the mouth of your river,
the mouth that opens
to your sea.
your stream, your river, your sea.
me, a loose bag of
spending myself
into your stream, your river, your sea.


god is not one, for someone with my buddhist and ecumenical leanings, was a bit of a provocative book title so i started reading it with some resistance. was this going to be some rabid right-wing pseudo intellectual trying to persuade me that all gods are bad except his?

really, the title of the book should be “if you think all religions are the same, you’re ill-informed and unrealistic when you hope that your attitude helps world peace.” (clearly, the people at harper-collins are better headline writers than i.)

far from a raging religious conservative, the author, stephen prothero from boston university, calls for empathy and a celebration of diversity while acknowledging the reality that the vast majority of people who practice a religion feel very strongly and protective about the details that make up their religion. while every religion “asks after the human condition. here we are in these human bodies. what now? what next? what are we to become?”, they tend to differ sharply among what philosopher of religion ninian smart calls the seven dimensions of religion: the ritual, narrative, experiential, institutional, ethical, doctrinal and material dimensions.

prothero makes a good case for his idea, although some of his arguments are a little circular. for example, he tells us that each religion articulates

a problem
a solution to the problem
a technique for reaching the solution
an exemplar (or exemplars) who chart the path from problem to solution

for example

in buddhism, the problem is suffering; in christianity, sin
in buddhism, the solution or goal is nirvana, in christianity, salvation
in buddhism, the technique is the noble eightfold path; in christianity, a combination of faith and good works
in buddhism, exemplars are, among others, bodhisattvas; in some forms of christianity, saints

this analysis is not a bad idea. prothero readily admits that this is a very crude lens, and i quickly came to like the book because he so freely admits to this and other shortcomings. however, what he doesn’t acknowledge is that it is easy to make the point about the divergence of religions if he is the very person who sets up the criteria by which this divergence is to be measured. this is all the more interesting because he points to that very problem with others: “there is a long tradition of christian thinkers assuming that salvation is the goal of all religions and then arguing that only christians can achieve this goal.”

another (small?) weakness of the book is that prothero does not do much to bolster his arguments – that religions are more different than alike, and that negating this difference detracts from harmonious co-existence – with evidence or reference in the relevant literature. he doesn’t point out who makes counter arguments (and how they might be refuted) or who else makes arguments similar to his. i put the word “small” in parentheses because the book is clearly meant as an introductory text for a wide audience. a person interested in the subject would do well to do some further reading.

these weaknesses aside, i am enjoying reading this book. prothero underlines that religions must be looked at warts and all, and from the point of view of its ordinary practitioners, not from the point of view of mysticism. i haven’t come to a conclusion yet whether i agree with that (i suspect that i might come to think that both perspectives are useful) but i welcome the chance to think about religions from that angle.

prothero’s concept of “godthink” is also interesting – a “naive theological groupthink” that lumps all religions into one, and which is practiced by theists and atheists alike.

i read the beginning and the end of the book and have a feeling that i have a good sense of prothero’s main arguments. and while i believe, perhaps mistakenly so, that i have a good grasp of the general outline of most of the religions he discusses in the middle of the book – christianity, islam, judaism, confucianism, daoism, buddhism, hinduism, yoruba and atheism – prothero has piqued my interest enough for me to look forward to what he has to say about these religions. so stay tuned; i think i’ll mention this book again.

why people don’t talk about “mental illness”

this is a guest post by one of my twitter friends, the barking unicorn.

“the only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well,” said alfred adler, a colleague of sigmund freud.

“most people live in a myth and grow violently angry if anyone dares to tell them the truth about themselves,” said robert anton wilson, the devoutly agnostic author of the illuminatus trilogy and many other books that have been banned.

there you have it: people don’t talk about nuttiness because they’re afraid that their experience with it will be noticed. they avert their eyes from nuts because, to every single one of us, a nut is a mirror. they don’t do anything about nuttiness because to do something about a problem is to admit you’re afraid you have it or will have it. so precious little gets done about nuttiness.

if you’ve stopped being afraid of your nuttiness then you probably want to see something more get done about it. that’s not going to happen until more people stop being afraid of their nuttiness. there are a few ways to show people that nuttiness is nothing to be afraid of:

lead by example. let your nuttiness out in non-threatening ways. i introduce myself as “the barking unicorn” and nothing bad happens. (i don’t actually bark unless asked for a demonstration.) i casually mention my past lives and don’t spill food down my shirt. people are reassured by such things. they open up and reveal their nuttiness to me, and to themselves. then we can start doing something about it.

let normal people see you hanging out with nuts. don’t hurry past on the street; stop and get to know them, and don’t mind who sees you doing so. i spent half an hour on denver’s 16th street mall discussing deep dharma with bill, a red-eyed scarecrow who swilled hot sauce right out of the bottle and let it dribble into his dirty-grey beard. you know what? a few other people stopped to join us, because if i wasn’t afraid of bill then it must have been all right. “tip this guy, he’s a holy man,” i barked, and they did!

take a nut to work; if your enlightened employer allows dogs and invader, mind-controlling space monster “cats” to wander around the office, he shouldn’t have a problem with nuts. if this practice needs to be established, talk to hr about sponsoring just one bring your nut to work day, for the favorable publicity the company can get. “look, we can attract more and better qualified job candidates if they know they don’t have to leave their nuts at home.”

most importantly, stop treating nuttiness as if it’s a problem. that’s where most nut advocates go wrong. they draw attention to the downside of nuttiness: chronic unemployment; homelessness; alcoholism and drug addiction; physical harm done and suffered by nuts, etc. well, normal people don’t want anything to do with problems, especially other people’s problems. (normal people “aren’t nuts,” remember?) they want solutions to their problems. give them one in the form of nuts, and they’ll give money to support nuts.
spirituality is a popular solution to many problems today. people are searching high and low, and paying good money, for the key to getting in touch with their higher selves, or some higher power. basically, they’re not happy with the results of what they’ve been told to do all their lives, and they’re desperately looking for different things to do. doing things differently is a nut’s forte. play to that strength instead of the weaknesses of nuts. history proves that nuts make good money when marketed properly.

the oracle at delphi made a mint, and she was high as a kite constantly. nobody could figure out a damned thing she said, but people came from miles around and stood in line to hear her spout nuttiness.

rasputin acted nutty all the time, even letting food and drink dribble into his beard just like bill. but the russian imperial family kissed his ass.

drukpa kunley became tibet’s patron saint, and never lacked for booze or sex, even though he was nutty as a fruitcake. to this day, he is revered as “the divine madman.”

native americans revered “sacred crazy people”. their nuts were fed, clothed, excused from almost anything, and consulted on important tribal affairs.

there’s a whole school of shambhala buddhism called “crazy wisdom”. bone up on it. find the crazy wisdom in the nuts you want to help, and market it. people will pay for any kind of wisdom.

i needn’t mention any contemporary western rock stars, televangelists, or political leaders. they’re all egregiously nuts and people throw money at them like rice at newlyweds. it’s all in the marketing.

so that’s why people don’t want to talk about mental “illness” and what to do about it. if you believe me, then you can do something with what i’ve explained and that will make you happy. if you don’t believe me, then you just wasted your time and that will make you unhappy.

now you have to decide whether to be nuts enough to choose to be unhappy.

the barking unicorn
“your work is to discover your world and then
with all your heart give yourself to it.” – buddha.
mine is to help you.

buddhist carnival, the first in 2010

it’s january 15, and time to serve up this month’s buddhist carnival, a selection of posts from the buddhasphere.  here is this month’s poem:

a first kensho

when things abruptly shift
like part of the body misaligned by a sharp move
when the house goes, or the he or she,
any room at once gets a new look
and old familiar chairs are instantly antique
a trip to the kitchen strewn with the rubble of routine.
what’s left when things get quiet, the certainties leave?
the reality of ‘you’ and what to do with that.

and because i like poems so much, let’s have another one.  here is an excerpt from one of my twitter friend dirk johnson’s creations.

all acts are sweepstakes.

the odds are against you.
there’s nothing to win
or to lose. the ruse of what

you credit with possibility
is zeros and ones on the fed
computer, a tally of your failures

and triumphs, hills and valleys, spills
on your bicycle ride from a pub.
you could enter a precious moment,

watch rain drops gather at the tip
of an oak leaf and tremble
at their certain fall. but this

is no more real than the bare
bulb a silk moth flings itself against
and pings off of again and again.

isn’t it beautiful?    don’t you want to read the rest?

redemption, forgiveness and tiger woods
earlier this month, there was a bit of a flurry in the buddhasphere as a result of a discussion of forgiveness and redemption, inspired by tiger wood’s story.  brit hume of FOX news had made some curious comments on the subject:  “he is said to be a buddhist. i don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the christian faith. my message to tiger would be, ‘tiger, turn to the christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.

those words provoked a letter-writing campaign by buddhists, started by the reformed buddhistthe examiner took this opportunity to examine what is directly related to buddhist philosophy in regards to the terms ‘forgiveness’ and ‘redemption’.

redemption means the settling of a debt, whether of monetary or spiritual value. this concept is indeed meaningless in buddhism. there is no debt, no sin, no accounts to be settled. however, there is the concept of ‘merit’, which is the accumulation of good karma through positive acts. it is sometimes described as if you are swimming in a lake, and there is a current following you with either positive or negative effects- most often, a mix of the two unless you have been consciously and deliberately creating a more positive (or negative) flow. but still, there is no ‘debt’ or balance to be maintained. you can have an effect on future events by acting in the present moment, but there is no way to ‘make up for’ or absolve yourself. the consequences of past events are unavoidable, period, including the consequences of being born human- old age, sickness, and death. it happened to the buddha, it happens to everything- people, religions, nations, planets.

forgiveness is another matter entirely.

more here.

buddhist magazines: racist?
john pappas over at the elephant journal has a great article on popular buddhist magazines.  of tricyle he says that it has

more glossy advertisements for crap then cosmo. “do you need a new zafu? new malas? what does your mala say about your practice? perhaps a brand new meditation timer is what you need? big wallet, then big mind©®â„¢ is for you!”

yup, i have to agree with that one.  then he goes on to shambala sun

one major snag is that shambhala sun tends towards the “self-help” buddhist revolution. this is not a revolution that i have any quams with but i have no interest in reading about how buddhism will help me “overcome shyness” or how to get through a “mindful divorce”. if that is your bag, then great! roll with it. i’m just not that interested. if i want to better myself, i like to go closer to the source.

shambhala sun publication’s strength lies with its blog.

but here’s the interesting part, one that has always made me a bit uncomfortable:

there is one huge glaring problem with these publications though – the lack of inclusion of asian practitioners (as well as any minority) in the ranks of their staff-writers and advisors of these magazines. they all do a horrible job of this. for a detailed description of this go over to the angry asian buddhist. arun has spent plenty of time on these issues and can present it with more passion that i can. just a brief view at any of these magazine will show you that asians are not well presented. arun even did a graph! it is sweet.

this says one thing to readers ~ western buddhism is for whites and is white dominated.

and in a more than superficially obvious connection, the renegade buddha declares i am not a western buddhist.  “sometimes,” he says, “being religious means wearing funny hats.”  or sitting on top-of-the-line zafus.  same thing.

the good man william harryman at integral options has a series of talks by the dalai lama here http://integral-options.blogspot.com/2009/12/all-in-mind-dialogue-with-dalai-lama_19.html.  this is part 3, where the dalai lama joins the founder of positive psychology, martin seligman, and buddhist scholar alan wallace to consider what it takes to flourish “…really flourish… individually and collectively.”

irreverence is next to godliness
finally, a few days ago, i discovered jack zen.  on his blog with clean, open lines, he writes a short post here, a few words there.  like seeing things as they are:

i had a conversation recently with gabriella gupta who suggests that irreverence is next to godliness. it’s certainly in line with the buddhist admonition that “when you meet the buddha on the road, kill him.” as severe as it sounds, it’s simply a reminder that we hold no idolatrous images of reality, instead simply seeing it as it is. when we simply see things as they are, we don’t need reverence to see the beauty of the infinite. we don’t need to pitch tents to preserve the eternal.

image by boeke

talking about spiritual experiences

a while ago evan asked the question how do we talk about our spiritual experience? we had a little discussion about that here.

what still remains to be done, however, is for me to actually tell you about my spiritual experiences. let me offer up two stories, and then perhaps you will contribute one of yours, too. let me also, once again, repeat my now almost broken record: spirituality is what you define it to be (maybe this post helps clarify that a bit)

whenever i try to remember my first intense spiritual experience, there is one glimpse that i come up with. “glimpse”, come to think of it, may not be such a bad word to describe certain types of spiritual experiences generally; it’s a little blip that quickly passes through the retina of our consciousness and then it’s gone – but it leaves a lasting impression, a sort of afterimage that never really goes away.

i don’t even know what the occasion was, all i remember is walking on the dirt road that led from my grandparents’ house to the dairy farmer, maybe to pick up our daily can of milk, and all of a sudden the thought struck me how much i wanted my best friend, who was jewish, to convert to my lutheran faith. knowing me, you might find that strange; i espouse quite a radical multifaith view here, as you know. even at the age nine that this happened, i was already well aware of ecumenic ideas because they were important to my grandparents (my grandfather was a lutheran minister). what was going on, i think, was not so much that i felt that her (unpracticed) faith was wrong and mine right; the force of this experience had more to do with the love for my friend and the great spiritual nourishment i received; i wanted to share this with her, i wanted to “break bread”. even now as i write this, i have tears streaming down my face. i am very grateful that my friend and i, after nearly 50 years of knowing each other, are still close. (and no, she hasn’t converted, and that’s just fine with me.)

fast forward to now, a few weeks ago. once again, i was out for a walk. either at the outset or some time during the beginning of the walk, i intentionally wanted to move into a keen awareness of the sacred. i let myself drift this way and that, letting my feet follow whatever path seemed the right one. i decided to walk down the block where years ago i had had a glimpse of reality, a minute or two of kensho. it was very different now: the street was not as everyday-familiar as it had been when i had lived at the end of that block; it was night in late fall, not a sunny summer afternoon.

i consciously pulled myself away from wanting to experience kensho again, just wanted to expose myself to – i don’t know what. there was just a sense of wanting to open up to something “there”, and wanting to be as open as possible to whatever, maybe nothing. this desire in itself was strong and expansive. then i remembered one of my favourite city magick exercises: to walk along a street, trying to connect with the life of everything you encounter along the way. this here is not just a bunch of walls with windows cut into it, it’s a living, breathing house with real people in it who fight and read newspapers and laugh and put on pajamas. and this here is not just a green something but a plant with a history from seed to tree, a living being that craves sunlight and rain, good soil and clean air. somehow, from this it was natural to turn to the energy of everything around me. i walked along the block, saying to myself, with ever increasing delight, “house energy, wet leaf energy, loud car energy, rain drop energy, rock energy, maple tree energy, sidewalk energy, siren energy …” i felt – full.

…. hard to come up with anything else to say after this …