The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, January 20, 2018
Personal Reflections ... Photo ... Spirituality ...

At my office desk, I have a little “altar” hidden away on a shelf behind my computer monitor. This little altar reflects my own spiritual philosophy that God and reality are much bigger and difficult to grasp than any human system of understanding and belief can adequately deal with. And by “system of understanding and belief”, I include all religions, modern science, philosophy, art, literature, and “the voice of nature”. I think that the best that a “seeker” like myself can do is to listen to what all of them have to say, or at least as many as you have time for.

My little altar here is a tribute to the dynamic duo of world spirituality, Jesus and the Buddha. Obviously those two figures cannot represent all of the various “systems of understanding” out there, but they are two world-class heavyweights who saw things from very different perspectives. Jesus put his faith and emphasis in love and relationship, relationship between humans themselves and between humans and God. Jesus felt that humans could, with proper effort and with God’s help, achieve fulfillment and meaning in relationship and love. His vision of a “Kingdom of God” reflected his faith that humans were up to it, with God’s countenance. But the Kingdom that Jesus saw coming would require a lot of love, the kind of love that is a lot more than a Hallmark card sentiment. Jesus was not talking about sentimental niceness, but radical justice for the poor and oppressed.

The Buddha, by contrast, put his faith in the capacity of humans to achieve knowledge and wisdom. He felt that with proper effort, humans could transcend suffering and attain a better and more meaningful state, both in this limited world and in a transcendent eternal reality (i.e., the realm of cosmic karma, reincarnation and ultimate nirvana). Buddha did not talk about a God in the way that Jesus did, but you can be sure that the Buddha was NOT a logical positivist or physical materialist. Although he had big differences with the Brahmanistic Hindus around him about how reality worked, he still accepted that reality was much bigger than what is perceivable in our world, either by observation or logical inference (i.e., what science focuses on).

The Buddha, unlike the Brahmans around him, had faith that humans were able to attain the wisdom necessary for their transcendence, and thus were not at the mercy of greater powers and gods for their enlightenment and fulfillment. By contrast, Jesus focused on love and relationship, a loving relationship which encompassed the Creator God of Judaism. In that regard, Jesus was making a big reform relative to the way that most Jews had envisioned God up until then (i.e., God as all-powerful law-giver in the great tradition of Abraham, interested in “Israel” as a whole but not really about each particular individual). Jesus reinterpreted the way that God was seen as a “father” — from a strict judgemental father to a caring, loving father. Jesus had faith that humans had the ability to change their lives so as to deserve the love of a caring God (and thus salvation and deliverance in an earthly “Kingdom of God”), if they would live justly. This is what Jesus tried to get his followers to do.

Between Jesus and the Buddha, we have love and wisdom, two fingers pointing towards ultimate fulfillment and transcendence. Each finger gives us a line of direction. We hope that somewhere along that line, the ultimate truth resides. But simple geometry tells you that a line is useful for giving you a direction to search in, but does not tell you anything about how far up the line your goal is. For that, you need another line starting from a different place. Let’s assume that this second line is also true, in that somewhere along it is the ultimate truth. Again, though, you don’t know how far away that ultimate truth might be along that line; it could be 50 feet or 50 billion light-years away.

But with two lines that start from different places, you have a much better chance of figuring out where an intersection between them would be. If both lines are truly pointing to the ultimate truth, then the intersection of those lines should be the location of that truth. With some relatively simple math calculations, you can get an estimate of where that intersection is, if you can measure how far apart the two starting points are, and what the angles of their two lines are. This is the method of “triangulation“.

Unfortunately, the metaphor of spiritual triangulation only goes so far. We cannot accurately measure the relative line angles in 3 dimensions, nor the precise different in starting points between Jesus and the Buddha; we are making a conceptual analogy, not describing a hard, measurable reality. But still, even this problem can be understood in terms of physical triangulation, given the addition of measurement uncertainty. Triangulation works if you can measure the exact distances and line angles; but sometimes you can’t, sometimes your tools don’t allow really precise measurement. You may often be wrong by 20 or 30 percent in where you think the starting points are and which way the lines are pointing. SO, in the case where there is “inherent error”, what can you do? Well, you can get even more lines and starting points. The more that you can include in your calculations, the lower the error will be.

So, Jesus and the Buddha are not enough. BUT . . . they are very good places to start one’s search for the ultimate truth. Jesus’s “pointing line” is love, and the Buddha’s “pointing line” is wisdom. And we know that love and wisdom depend upon each other. There are a number of aphorisms about this, and here is a good one from Ammon Hennacy, an Irish-American radical Catholic pacifist:

Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. But the one who has love, courage and wisdom moves the world.

OK, that quote comes from someone on the “Jesus” side of the fence. But here’s another good quote from someone who might be more Buddha-friendly, an Indian guru named Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Love with wisdom is bliss! Love without wisdom brings pain!

As such, my little workdesk altar is there to honor both Jesus and the Buddha (and also the pine cone, which represents what Nature tells us); and to help me along the path of spiritual triangulation in my own search for meaning and fulfillment. (Hey, I don’t imagine that I’m ever going to attain those lofty states, but at least I hope to go down trying!).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:25 pm      

  1. Jim,

    Your shrine in your office is lovely. I hope you keep it up all the time; it’s something I’m sure the “powers that be” are happy with. I must say I like the Orthodox Icons much better than the Western pictures of Jesus (or Mary or whoever). What I read about them always says the Orthodox Icons MUST be painted by someone deeply in prayer and the prayer must be a part of the Icon and evident to the onlooker. I find myself thinking there must be something to that as the Icons always attract my eye.

    Sorry I have little to comment on your Budda, but I will say it’s one that I like much better than others I’ve seen. So your shrine is truly lovely.

    It’s a good time of the year to have such a shrine; it honors the “powers” and it also asks for their help at what tends to be a hard time of the year – all the big holidays are gone, Valentine’s Day approaches which (it seems to me only the newly “in love” appreciate), lent approaches, and life seems gloomy, good only for hibernating at this point till spring starts again. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 24, 2018 @ 11:32 am

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