The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Friday, December 7, 2012
Religion ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

I was once a practicing Catholic who went to Mass every Sunday. However, it’s kind of difficult to be a modern, somewhat-well educated adult in the USA these days and still put up with the Big Catholic Church and all its quaint, antiquarian / medieval ways. So, for a while I became a practicing Episcopalian who attended Eucharist every Sunday. That was OK for a while, but at some point the whole idea of Christianity seemed . . . well, something of a mythologically-based approach to God, too heavily mythological.

For a while then I also tried being a practicing Quaker, one who went to the Meeting every Sunday. The Friends were OK, I liked the silent meditation . . . it was just that there wasn’t enough of it (people keep getting up to talk when you’re supposed to be sitting in silence). And there was something rather quaint about the whole Quaker set-up too, a bit stuck in the world of George Fox in 17th Century England and William Penn in 18th Century Philadelphia. Sometimes even pacifism can be a cop-out . . .

Thus, for quite a while, I just sat home on Sundays. But I didn’t feel right about that either. So now I’m a member of a Zen sangha that sits zazen every Sunday. Not that I find Zen to be without its own quaintness and mythology. We still pay homage and pay to the Buddha and his followers. But then again, I never heard anyone at the zendo say that we are Buddhists, and that we “believe” in Buddhism. That’s the nice thing about Zen; i.e., it rejects all “ism’s”, and all “ist” thinking. It is not an accident that there is no “Zenism”, and that we don’t call ourselves “Zenists”.

Nonetheless, most Zen leaders (we still have “teachers” and priests and leaders; Zen does not seem to overcome the needs of the ego) appear to focus on the Buddha, to the exclusion of other spiritual wisdom traditions. There is occasional talk about the Tao, but most others “ways” aren’t mentioned, especially those confessing belief in a deity (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, Islam, even Hinduism). I myself find this to also be rather quaint and closed-minded. Zen is definitely NOT a perfect path to the truth (although it suits my tastes better than most).

So, I do NOT limit my readings at home to Buddhist and Zen-oriented materials. On my reading stand next to my bed, I have copies of the Tao, the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Koran (well, an annotated version of it anyway), the Upanishads, the poetry of Rumi and Rabia, and a World Bible containing excepts from a variety of sources including Confucian writings, Zoroastarian texts, and the Buddhist Pali Cannon. Basically, I think that they all have their flaws and limitations; but each of them also has a “piece of the metaphysical puzzle”, often a unique and indispensable piece. I feel that the best way to attain greater truths is to consult as many truth-seekers from around the world and throughout human history as possible.

Again, each of these different sources on spiritual wisdom contribute some invaluable insights and reflect some profound truths. But each of them also have their disadvantages. In the spirit of a consumer’s guide, here is my list of the down-sides of some of the major faith traditions represented on my night stand.

Judaism and the Hebrew Testament: The Torah and its affiliated “Old Testament” books can be beautiful; the Psalms and Proverbs and Isaiah are a regular part of my evening prayer readings. However, the overall focus of old-school Judaism is the freedom of a special people from oppression (quite inspiring), and their selection by God for special status (a bit suspect . . . why should God set aside one small tribe of humans? Why aren’t all humans equal sons and daughters of God, why shouldn’t all be loved equally?). As part of that special status, they felt themselves divinely entitled to a certain patch of land along the eastern Mediterranean . . . and the Old Testament spends a lot of time outlining their wars and struggles to conquer, hold and regain that land. Thus, a lot of Hebrew books are not a part of my evening thoughts, as they focus on tribal conflict, often violent conflict. Even some of the Psalms are “imprecatory”, they contain prayers for the harm and even death of adversaries (i.e., Psalms 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137 and 139 all contain prayers for God’s judgment against enemies).

Christianity and the New Testament: The Jewish testaments and tribes turn their spirituality into a claim for land, and some Jews are still fighting the same kinds of battles today for the same patch of land. Christianity, by contrast, is not as “land based” (although in its past, it did battle for the Holy Lands, i.e. the Crusades). But it still claims a parochialism that, when stepped back from (which most Christians never do), seems quite bizarre. I.e., that God would select one human being in one corner of the earth at one particular time, and make the whole system of justification and salvation for all of humankind revolve exclusively around that one particular life (i.e., Jesus of Zazareth in the first century).

Not to say that Jesus did not convey some very deep spiritual truths, which still hold up today; but the notion that Jesus was the only human who was God’s son, something that never happened before and will never happen again (unless Jesus does somehow come back again “at the end of time”) . . . just seems terribly odd. And unfair in a lot of ways (how many humans lived never hearing of Jesus? And how do humans 1000 years later relate to someone who lived in such a different world?). It does NOT seem like the best plan if God truly loves every woman and man and seeks to bring every one of them along on the path to Godly truth and realization.

Islam, the Koran: I commend Islam for avoiding, in doctrine anyway, the “one man as God’s true revelation” idea, and the Jew’s “chosen people on the chosen land” ideal. But Islam manages to embrace both errors in its own ways. As with Christianity, Islam claims infallibility, perhaps even more vehemently and unreasonably. Although their “one man” (Muhammed) does not claim to BE God, the Moslems certainly do claim him to be unique, non-repeatable, and unquestionable in terms of what he conveyed regarding God’s message to humankind. And as to land, Muhammed himself certainly led his followers to territorial wars, and his successors spread those campaigns thousands of miles in all directions. The Jews (many Jews, anyway) still want their small patch in the Levant; however, Islam still holds or fights to gain the entire Levant and much of the rest of the dry land on this planet.

As to using the Koran for holy reading — I do, but very selectively. So much of it is warning or threatening in nature; so much of it conveys God’s relationship with humanity as almost a war in itself. There certainly are parts where its stridency and strong devotion is converted into beauty, and those verses I seek out. But as with the Old Testament, much of it is “imprecatory” or threatening, with little talk of understanding and forgiveness. Again, a piece of the truth is conveyed; but certainly far from the whole truth about God.

Sufi Islamic writings, such as those by Rumi and Rabia, are a bit easier to swallow; the beauty is easier to see.

The Hindu Vedas and Upanishads: These can be delightful; the focus is on wisdom and deeper metaphysical understandings, not on punishments in store for the wayward. However; some of the theological and mythological assumptions are very “extravagant”; there are all sorts of Gods with all sorts of powers. Sometimes it seems that Brahman is the “big monotheistic God”, akin to Allah or the Jewish God. And sometimes not. In the end, the Vedas and Upanishads seem to say TOO much. They can mean most anything you want them to mean. They sound profound, but how much substance is there behind it all? Are they relating to tangible entities in the real world? Do they tell us how to live better lives? Sometimes yes, but often . . . not quite.

Buddhism and its Cannons: The stories of the Buddha and his words focus very much on how to live a better life. They minimize the metaphysical speculation, they don’t say much on the nature of ‘the ultimate’ (although they do not DENY that there is a God behind it all). They do convey a good way of looking at life. BUT, as with Christianity, the Buddha myth suffers for its exclusivity. The Buddha lived hundreds of years before Jesus in an unimaginably different place and time. To celebrate Gautama Siddhartha as the one human being who truly reach some sort of perfection, to the exclusion of all other lives before and since, again seems wrong. Or, it puts too much focus on one part of the picture, when the overall goal is to see the picture as a whole.

But do give the Buddhists credit for saying that there have been and will be other Buddhas, even if not anytime soon. And yet, at the end of the day, Buddhists are still “ists”. Buddhism is still an “ism”. It’s not “the true and complete Way”.

Taoism: Give the Taoist tradition credit for focusing on “the Way”, and its mysterious nature. I myself give in to the “ist” and “ism” fallacy with regard to the Tao. The Tao Te Ching and its related literature are favorites on my bed stand. But even then . . . in the end, the Taoist writings only go so far in pointing you to an actual “Way” for your own life and environment. In their own way, they are quaint and limited. They reflect a life philosophy that resonates well with my own. But even the Taoist reflection is “through a glass darkly”, as Saint Paul said.

So, my bottom line is: READ THEM ALL. Embrace them all, notice the contradictions, perceive the failings, but also remember how and where they agree and enhance each other. Don’t take any one of them as “The Truth”, but know that “The Truth” is lurking hazily within each of them. Just as each point of a holographic plate contributes to a better and better overall holograph image when added to the contributions of its many neighbors, a study of the sincere attempts at expressing spiritual wisdom from across the globe and throughout the ages of human history adds to a better image in your mind of what reality truly is.

In the end, though, it’s still up to you to live whatever that “most realistic reality” would be — i.e., to make it real.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:04 pm      

  1. Jim, Can’t say I disagree with anything you’ve written about these various religions. But I do have a couple of varied comments.

    One religion I’ve found in Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One that initially intrigued me until I realized no way would I be able to “go” with it. That religion was the Yoruba Religion. And here I’ll quote Prothero: The “goal of this religion is to find and follow your own purpose”. Boy, I tho’t, that sounds great. Yet in the end it was filled with many gods and numerous variations on the theme of which god was which and who did what, etc. (It may be that I still don’t quite understand the Yoruba religion and have misstated the situation in the previous sentence.)

    There is one point that intrigues me about almost every religion—-even the ones that come in the category of “primitive” (where I think the Yoruba religion would fall). And maybe it’s not even the “religion” of any of the various groups. They all seem to end up calling themselves “The People” (or some variation on that theme) as if there never were and never would be any other group that could be classified as people.

    Perhaps if religions (note I’m talking about every religion here, not just some) would “get over” the idea that they are “the” only ones who count when it comes to belonging on the earth and having a connection to God (however that being may be perceived) perhaps a lot of problems would be solved in this world and the various religions would see what they have in common instead of seeing their differences.

    Then too, and here I can’t help myself, it seems that every religion seems to have some excuse to “put women in their place”, which place certainly is not on the same level as that of men. What’s wrong with that picture, I say.

    But then again, I can’t blame you for taking the parts of various religions that appeal to you and concentrating on them. Perhaps that’s the best thing to do in the end; that way one gets a “religion” that fits one individually. And here I say, why not? MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 8, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

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