The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Friday, September 4, 2015
Religion ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

It’s time once again to think about the Big Question: what should you ultimately believe about YOURSELF (and about the world around you)? About where you are heading, why are you here . . .

In the Zen tradition, there is no self, no eternity, no personal transcendence of death (although through karma, something of one’s behavior does achieve transcendent manifestation). Time is a mental abstraction, a product of the mind. As such, it is discouraged from any use other than making sure that you get to the dentist on time, and other such quotidian things. The ultimate psychological emphasis should be on the present, on the now, on living in the moment. The future, the eternal . . . that is all just “mind stuff”.

In a lot of ways, the Bible’s Old Testament isn’t all that far removed from Zen; at least the early stages of it (i.e., the core “Torah” books). There is little philosophy in it, little struggling with the nature of God and the Universe and the meaning of one’s existence. There is a creation story along with some stories of tribal deliverance, but after that, the Torah has little worry for the future. With all its codes and social edicts, the Torah is mostly about getting by in the present — and about getting along with God. No promises of eternal paradise, just sunrise and sunset right here amidst the crops and the cows on this planet earth. The Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Bible) is pretty realistic about things just as they are, including the need for war and battle against rival nations. They present stories admitting that people are full of darkness, e.g. Cain and Able, Jacob and Esau, etc.; they just present that as a basic, existential fact.

It’s not until the later prophetic books, written after the Jewish people started intermingling with other cultures (Greek, Egyptian, Persian) that scripture began to take a longer and more personal view (and ultimately more idealistic view) of things. One of these later books is Ecclesiastes, which is traditionally attributed to King Solomon of the 10th Century BCE. However, scholars generally put the writing of Ecclesiastes between 400 and 200 BC; the earlier dates reflect a mostly Persian influence, without any reference to Greek thought; by contrast, those researchers who favor a later date believe that ideas from both cultures are reflected.

Either way, we find a more reflective and philosophic approach to life in Ecclesiastes than anywhere in the Torah. So I was reading an article recently which made reference to Chapter 3 in Ecclesiastes. Chapter 3 contains the famous “to everything there is a season” soliloquy, which was popularized in the 1960’s by a Top 40’s hit song by The Byrds.

However, the passage that I got interested in comes after the final “a time for” line (i.e., “a time for war and a time for peace”). That line is 3:11, and it goes like this:

He hath made every thing beautiful in his time. Also He hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.

Well, that’s the way that old King James put it. Since then, a variety of other English translations of the Bible have been published, and the wording and implied meaning of this passage can vary quite a bit, especially for the section about just what God has put into the hearts of humans. Most of the modern translations replace “the world” with something having more to do with time. This is based on research and better understanding of the original Hebrew manuscripts. The Hebrew word in question is “olam”, which researchers believe has to do with the past, present and maybe even the future.

However, the matter is not entirely clear; we are dealing with an ancient language and culture, where words and thoughts don’t always easily translate into our modern world. To make matters worse, the writer of Ecclesiastes is known to use ambiguous words and to find interesting and sometimes novel ways of using them. Exactly what the writer of Ecclesiastes was getting at in 3:11 is thus subject to some disagreement.

Here are some different interpretations of what Solomon thought that God had put in our hearts, taken from the modern Bible translations: “the ability to think about his world” (ERV); “the past” (LEB); “obscurity” (MEV); “ignorance” (NET); “a desire to know the future” (Good News); “an awareness of the passage of time” (New Jerusalem); “a sense of past and future” (NRSV); “knowledge of the beautiful” (Youngs Literal); and, “a sense of who God is” (NIRV).

Other than the last two versions, most Zen roshi’s could generally agree with these readings of line 3:11. Of course, they would get their digs in by focusing on the Good News version, which uses the word “desire”. According to Zen and to Buddhism in general, desire is the root of all suffering. So, they would agree with the MEV and NET versions, in that whatever it is that makes human life special (which obviously has a lot to do with an awareness of time), that factor ultimately leads to obscurity and ignorance — and thus to suffering.

However, the more common interpretation of what 3:11 puts in the heart is “eternity” (or variants thereof, such as “a sense of eternity” [GW], “an awareness of eternity” [GJB],”thoughts of forever” [NLV], or my favorite from the Catholic New American Bible, “the timeless”). Most of the eternity lines appear in the more traditionalist renditions of scripture. Obviously, these translators have taken a maximal view of what we are as personal beings, as God’s children, as entities with ultimate cosmic importance. As the final clause in 3:11 suggests (quite similarly in all of the cited versions of the Bible — this part of 3:11 is fairly well agreed upon), even with our God-given legacy, we still can’t see the entirety of God and his (or her) plan. Despite our eternal potential, for now we live a life of limits and bounds. As St. Paul said, we see in a mirror darkly.

The “eternity in the heart” interpretation would definitely be anathema to any good Zen teacher. We are NOT eternal !! As the Buddha said, our personal selves do NOT exist. Thus there is no self there to experience eternity. Perhaps karma is eternal; perhaps something of that eternal karma courses through our short and limited lives; and perhaps we might somehow get a fleeting taste of it if we sit diligently, listen to our sensei, and finally experience “kensho”, “satori”, and maybe even “The BIG E”, i.e., Enlightenment !! But no, eternity is not something existing “in our hearts”, even if we do harbor the potential for Buddha nature (which can be brought forth only through our ceaseless practice and though the dharmas and traditions mercifully offered to us by our teacher).

Hmmm. So, how should a person look at this? Well, I’m signing on with the “eternity in the heart” people, at least as far as this particular question goes. I’m still a member of a Zen sangha, and I enjoy the group meditation and chanting. I agree that a lot of the Buddhist-oriented teachings are still very valuable (they present many things from a different perspective, as compared to what I grew up with in a Roman Catholic family). But at the same time . . . I just can’t accept all the Buddhist emphasis on “the moment” and the present. Even the more wimpy Biblical interpretations of Eccl 3:11 posit that we humans, by nature, sense the passing of time; and that we have a natural feeling for both the past and the future.

Thus, the past and the future are as much a part of our “present” as the present is! They are not merely mental chimeras, as Buddhist doctrine would suggest; they are quite different from unicorns and conspiracy theories. By remembering the past and thinking about the future, humans are given the ability to swim against the tide, to have a loud and clear voice in just what the world that we live in will be like. Sure, any good thing can be taken too far; dwelling too much on either one’s past or future can mess up our lives. But without any sense of the past and future, our present moments would lose a lot of their “flavor”; they just wouldn’t be as meaningful and as interesting as they are.

The past and future, and our underlying ability to know what time is and why it is important, should be seen as our treasures. But what about eternity? Who is to say, or what could prove, that time is ultimately limitless, that reality is ultimately timeless? I.e., how could we know there is a God? Well, as the final part of Eccl 3:11 says, we can’t. We may have it “in our hearts”, we may see the signs in the winds, but we cannot truly know and possess the ways of God here in this realm.

And yet, our mere ability to know what time is (or at least to know that we experience it), and then to imagine that reality and the universe might ultimately transcend whatever it is that we are aware of (psychologically or scientifically) . . . that to me is a miracle in itself, a sign that reality is something much more than temporary interacting patterns within a flowing impersonal karma. I believe that the ultimate theme of the universe is RELATIONSHIP.

Our relationships in this life are very imperfect, but they still point to an ultimate principle of boundless relationship. Such boundless relationships will require our existence as personal selves, and an eternal personal reality behind all of the universe. Or so I believe. Take it or leave it. In sum, I love my fellow Zen students from the local sangha (relationship, you know), but . . . well, I feel that the Eastern teachings that we study are missing something really fundamental (while at the same time, the good old Catholic and Christian teachings that I grew up with certainly missed a LOT of important things that the Eastern traditions readily grasp, as some of the more “enlightened” Christian thinkers such as Thomas Merton realized). So, I chug along, hoping against hope that some of this stuff (both Buddhist and Christian) might ultimately be just a bit more than make-believe!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:53 am      

  1. Jim, As usual when it comes to anything “established” in a religion/belief, I find things I disagree with. I’ve decided to call myself Catholic and then go about what it is I believe from the standpoint of what makes sense to me; I tend to lay aside the rest. It seems to me that you are doing the same thing in this post. So any disagreement I have with the Zen tradition would not be a reflection on you or Zen either. So at this point a few words about the basic concept of Zen as you state it in this post.

    The one thing that really always “got” me when I went through what I’ll call my “Buddhist period in life” is the whole “no self” thing. The concept of “self” is so basic a concept in me that it’s simply something I cannot deny.

    Then too, if time is only a “mental abstraction”, it seems to me it’s a very functional one; so I have a little trouble with that Buddhist idea at times. However, it recently came home to me like a rock hitting me in the head that time can suddenly end when my sister died recently. I found myself thinking about all the things that didn’t matter to her anymore; most of them were time connected. So, time may be functional in this life and then suddenly have no meaning in the next. (It occurs to me that perhaps an analogy to this might be that “time” is similar to working at a job; “eternity” might be compared to being retired. Time takes on a whole different perspective in the two different ways of life. Thus time may function in this life; eternity [no time] may function in the next life.)

    I love to find out how other languages interpret words. I have Hebrew dictionary and found how complex a meaning is the Hebrew “olam” (or “owlam”). In English we really have no word for the complexity of the Hebrew meaning. You are so right that, most particularly, the words of ancient languages and cultures do not easily translate into English.

    As to the Zen and Buddhist concept(s?) of the word “desire”, I find myself wondering: If “desire is the root of all suffering”, what would the Zen/Buddhists have to say if one “desired” to be relieved of suffering? A conundrum, it seems to me. But that may be just me.

    And then again, I come upon the sentence: “As the Buddha said, our personal selves do NOT exist. Thus there is no self there to experience eternity.” That is something I just cannot accept. The self seems so “solid” and “real” to me that I cannot accept it “not being”. Why can the self no experience both time and eternity in different forms of life? Then I find myself wondering about karma. If karma does exist, if “we” are to come back in another form, then I find myself wondering just how can it be that if there is no self to come back, why bother about karma? Even if one came back as an insect, one would not be aware that this kind of life might be a punishment for a previous life. Another conundrum, as I see it. Then again, maybe I’m missing something.

    I don’t know if you think of this in these terms, but I see you in the last few paragraphs of your post beginning to establish what it is you yourself are in the process of deciding will be your belief. Call yourself what you will (Zen, Anglican, Catholic, whatever): It occurs to me that you are beginning to establish what it is you find for yourself that you believe.

    You begin with the concept that “humans” have “by nature” a sense of the “passing of time” and therefore a “natural feeling for both the past and the future” which are part of their “present”.

    Most importantly in this post I think is your reasoning that gets you to what you call a “miracle in itself, a sign that reality is something much more than temporary interacting patterns. . . .” You state: “I *believe* [emphasis added] that the ultimate theme of the universe is RELATIONSHIP.” Wow! What a wonderful statement of belief. And you then come to a concept of “an eternal personal reality behind all of the universe”.

    You’ve got several “little” (less important?) concepts in this post that are well stated, but this last one is the beginning of something really great, the beginning of a foundation!

    And here I do not mean that you will establish you *own* religion and accumulate followers (maybe that would be nice but more probably not really something anyone with sense would want). But I think more important than accumulating followers is the finding what one will believe within oneself; what parts will be important and form the foundation of one’s beliefs; what ideas and concepts one will know but not give a lot of attention to or lay aside and leave. What one believes can sneak up on one, can come to one subtly and gently, almost without knowing it. But there it is.

    At this point you’ve said that the ultimate idea for you is “the universe is RELATIONSHIP”. What a great start on where it is you may be going in your search. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 4, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

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