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SPIRITUALITY

Guan Yin statue

 

   CONVENTIONAL THINKING AND UNCONVENTIONAL THINKING

 

       In Tibet, there is a saying about pilgrimage.  When going to a holy place on pilgrimage, the best thing that can happen is for you to die.  Failing that, the second best thing is to become gravely ill.  If you are unable to manage that, at the very least you should lose something of great value.  This unconventional approach is definitely not the way most modern people think.  Imagine the conversation you would have with a friend returning from a trip to a holy place: “Oh, it’s you.  You survived.  My condolences.  Did you at least get sick?  No?  That’s too bad.  Please tell me you lost something valuable.  No?  I’m really sorry to hear that.  You had fun?  Oh, no, that’s awful.  I hope you have a worse trip next time.”

       We don’t have to be quite that dramatic about what we consider success or failure, but we should definitely re-evaluate our standards for determining what we consider to be “good” or “bad.”  The Tibetan adage above is based on what they consider to be the big picture, considering that people pass  through many lives on the way to ultimate enlightenment.  By experiencing what appears to be an unfortunate event in a holy place, they believe their negative karma will be reduced and they will be much closer to achieving enlightenment in their next incarnation.  The worse the incident appears on the surface, the better for the elimination of lingering bad karma.  I’m not saying you should literally take things to this extreme, but I think it’s important to step back, look at the big picture, and stop viewing the world based only on what meets the eye, and with blinders of narrow self-interest. 

       Most people in the world today think in a very conventional way.  If something puts money in our bank account, it is good.  If it leads to less money in our account, it is bad.  We also use this profit and loss tally-sheet in terms of how we view our jobs, our status, our possessions, our looks, our vacations, our food, our partners, and so on.  Our mindsets and our decisions are based on what appears best for us in surface terms.  If we take the attitude of the majority of people living on the planet today and condense it into a single representative character, this person would be as coldly logical as Spock, as greedy as Scrooge, and as narcissistic as in the bride in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” (season three, episode one).  By thinking this way, we tend to act selfishly: not for the greater good or even our own long-term good.  The obvious example is the tragedy of the commons, where each person thinks primarily in terms of the extra profit that they can get by feeding their own cattle more, so they wind up over-grazing the shared pastureland until there is nothing left to graze anyone’s cattle.  This is essentially what we have been doing with the planet: with our cars, our chimneys, our mines, our factories, and our over-development in general, to the point where we are nearing a complete ecological breakdown. 

       Religious teachings are as unconventional as possible, and yet most of us cling to them for our identity.  People who are willing to fight to the death over a perceived slight to their professed religious tradition nevertheless betray the principles of that religion in a heartbeat when faced with real-world issues.  They want the label of being a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, etc., but do not want to drop their conventional way of thinking (which essentially boils down to the motto: “show me the money”), even though this is directly opposed to the teachings of their stated religious beliefs.  Self-professed Christians (who follow the man who said that a camel will pass through the eye of a needle before a rich man will go to heaven and that people should store their riches in heaven, not on earth) make it their goal in life to become fantastically wealthy.  Buddhists (who follow a man whose “middle path” meant meditating in the forest and eating one bowl of vegetables and rice per day) focus on sending their kids to the best colleges, getting the best (highest-paying) jobs, having the biggest houses, the most luxurious cars, etc.  Hindus revere the Upanishads, which claim that the good and the pleasant are far apart, yet they chase after the pleasant, material things in life the same way the ordinary non-believer would.  Just watch some Bollywood movies if you have any doubts.  Jains (who follow the most fastidious and Spartan teachings of all) are ironically reputed to be the best businessmen in India.  The average Muslim, who claims to revere a man who said that anyone who goes to sleep with a full stomach while their neighbors are hungry isn't a Muslim, behaves about the same as everyone else.  The list goes on and on.  I’m not trying to pick on anyone in particular; we are all guilty of this sort of hypocrisy one way or another.

       By using conventional thinking to determine the best course of action, we often shoot ourselves in the foot.  By ignoring the unconventional approach, we miss unique opportunities, and fail to grasp what is really happening.  One of my favorite Chinese stories demonstrates this principle.  During the Han Dynasty, old man Sai lost his horse.  All his neighbors came around to console him at the loss, but he only said, “Who knows if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”  Before long, the horse returned, but this time it brought another horse with it: a fine breed that was worth a great deal of money.  All the neighbors came around, this time to praise him for his good fortune.  Again, he showed no emotion, but only said, “Who knows if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”  The neighbors were annoyed by his non-conventional attitude, and they went back to their farms.  One day, Sai’s son was riding the new horse, and it threw him, breaking his leg badly.  The local doctor set the leg, but it seemed clear that he would never be the same again.  All the neighbors returned, this time expressing sorrow at his misfortune.  When old man Sai gave his usual utterance, “Who knows if it’s a good thing or a bad thing,” they definitely thought he was mad.  Soon after, the war with the Huns was raging, and officials scoured the countryside to conscript able-bodied young men into the military.  They would be gone for years and many would never return at all.  When they reached the home of old man Sai, the officials took one look at his son’s leg and gave him a letter that permanently exempted him from military service.  All the other families were filled with envy that their sons had not broken their legs in the same way, so as to avoid the draft.

       The story from Mali of Emperor Sundiata is another great example.  King Naré of the Mandinka people chose to marry a hunchbacked woman named Sogolon because of a prophecy that if he married her, his offspring would become a great leader.  The king had a son by Sogolon, and he was named Sundiata.  Sundiata disappointed everyone because he was sickly and bent over like his mother.  By the age of seven, he was still unable to walk.  He and his mother were teased mercilessly by the king’s first wife, Sassouma.  For anyone who judged the situation by conventional means, it must have seemed that the king had made a terrible mistake in marrying Sogolon.  In order to help Sundiata to stand up straight, he was given an iron bar on which to lean.  He pressed down hard on this iron bar, and became so strong that that he slowly bent the bar into a bow.  When the king died, his kingdom went to his first-born, Dankaran, son of Sassouma.  Sundiata and his mother were sent into exile.  Sundiata then traveled from place to place, training to become a warrior.  Meanwhile, back in Mali, a sorcerer called Soumaoro conquered the kingdom.  Sundiata returned with an army, carrying the only weapon that could harm the sorcerer: a rooster’s spur on the tip of an arrow, fired from his iron bow.  After killing the evil wizard, Sundiata went on to be the greatest ruler in Mali’s history.  Anyone who had advised King Naré in the beginning with logical, conventional thinking would have told him not to marry a woman with such a deformity.  If he had followed this advice, the kingdom would have been ruled by an evil magician, and the great and just Sundiata never would have been born.

       Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, and Mahavira, a founder of Jainism were both born as princes.  They had everything that could be desired in the earthly sense.  From a conventional standpoint, a person would have to be insane to give up the life of luxury and power that they enjoyed.  However, each of them realized that their riches were empty and meaningless.  Simply enjoying such a pampered life would not do any good – neither for them nor for the world.  Both of them came to the same unconventional conclusion that they had to renounce their position and meditate in the forest.  It is said that both men reached enlightenment and experienced complete nirvana: the highest state of omniscience, wisdom, and bliss.  If they had not done this, they would not have given been able to offer guidance to billions of people ever since.  If Jesus had made the conventional decision to either become a rich merchant or make himself a king, the largest religion in the world would never had existed.  Instead, he fasted and withdrew to lonely places to pray, and the rest is history.  When Muhammad (peace be upon him) was 40 years old, he acted in a most unconventional way for a wealthy man.  Instead of single-mindedly plotting how to increase his wealth, he climbed a mountain and meditated in a cave.  If he had not done so, the second largest religion in the world would never have existed in its present form.  These civilization-molding events all revolve around people having the insight to turn away from the conventional path.  What is needed is inner vision to know that there is more to life than meets the eye.  This is easy to say but hard to put into practice.  The allure of conventional thinking is powerful, and the peer pressure to conform is tremendous.  The main elements of the world around us all seem to operate according to conventional principles.  When we want to buy something (a house, a car, food), it always takes money; we do not get any special financial credit from sellers for our unconventional thinking, no matter how much love we have in our hearts for others. 

       The vast majority of us stay firmly within the parameters of conventional thinking, trusting only what we can weigh, measure, compare, and enjoy with the senses.  This is unfortunate, because, generally speaking, the unconventional mode of thought is usually the best one to follow.  The universe is, by nature, illogical and downright unconventional.  Quantum mechanics has demonstrated this much.  Religious teachings sound crazy to people who are intent on hoarding wealth, and who know that one plus one equals two.  Unconventional thinking looks beyond this, into the quantum level, and sees that there is no solid, independently-existing thing to be counted, and no independently-existing person to be in possession of anything.  What sounds nonsensical is actually the basis of deepest wisdom.  If our only goal is to acquire more and more, we wind up losing everything, including ourselves.  Even if our situation appears to be improving on the surface (with more money, better looks, more status, etc.), on the inside we are losing our humanity a la The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Wisdom is unconventional.  It teaches that we must let go.  If you cling to anything, even your individual sense of self, you are missing out on your true identity.  The truth is counterintuitive: to gain the universe, you have to give up everything.  

Jesus walks among soldiers from all warring nations in history

 

  JESUS CHRIST AND THE

PERIODIC TABLE OF THE ELEMENTS   

  

      Imagine that we lived in the Middle Ages, and I was an alchemist struggling to understand how the foundational building blocks of matter fit together.  Suppose I announced that I had discovered a revolutionary way to explain why each element had the properties that it did, according to immutable, demonstrable truths of the universe.  Suppose that I went on to claim that each element’s nature came from a particular Catholic saint or mythological being.  This might have made some sense to people of the time, depending on how well my explanations were constructed, but to an objective observer who did not share my initial assumptions about theology and mythology, the arbitrary nature of my system would be apparent. 

       Now imagine that someone else came along and introduced the periodic table of the elements as we know it today.  With this revolutionary model, we have a way to explain the weight of the elements, their structure, and a way of arranging them in rows and columns according to their type and interaction with other elements.  Now consider how you would feel if I introduced the modern periodic table of the elements with a complete scientific explanation, but left one element off the table, insisting that it was so different from the rest that the ordinary rules of physics did not apply.  Suppose I picked mercury, for example, and claimed that it was a special, sacred element that could not be placed on the table with the others because it was created in heaven by God.  Gullible people might accept this without question, but those who sat down and considered my words logically would wonder how I could claim that the rules of physics applied to all things in the universe except for this one element.  It would make no sense for me to claim I had a way to explain everything, yet be unable to integrate this one magically and mysteriously privileged element into the schemata along with the others.  The weakness in this view should be recognized with honesty, and the picture of reality should be amended to create an explanation of reality that takes everything into account.

       Christianity is the largest religion in the world.  Christian churches are by no means a monolithic group, but for the most part, all Christians believe in the exceptionalism of Christ.  Almost all Christians today take the same view as early Christians in the Roman Empire that their religion is completely unique in the world, and that Jesus and his miracles are an utterly singular phenomenon.  While many modern Christians have developed a more nuanced view of other religions, most continue to believe that those who follow different spiritual paths are being led astray, that they are on an evil, devil-inspired path, and that they can never get to heaven.  If we compare this view of how Christianity is related to other religions with the example above, the Christian view is one of exceptionalism to the point of superstition.  Other religions are not viewed as legitimate or even similar to Christianity in their basic nature.  Each religion of course believes itself to be more correct than others, and some believe other religions to be evil or heretic, but the Christian view has more weight because of its size and its location in the developed, Western world, where the direction of modern culture is largely determined.

       This view of of Jesus as being completely unique among world religions is problematic for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it is illogical.  If an objective observer considered the doctrines of the major world religions, he or she would find startling similarities in terms of basic messages and rules for proper living.  Why, then, should one religion insist on its absolute superiority to others?  Why should it be like an organism that is not classified with a Latin name (as if it did not evolve the same way as all others) or an element that is not put in its place on the periodic table with the rest?  If a logical, intelligent being came from outer space to evaluate this practice, do you think they would be convinced by arguments of the clergy that this one religion is so different from others that they are not in any way comparable?  Second, this belief, if adopted by all religions, would lead to pure hostility and a lack of tolerance around the world.  Whatever you may personally believe about the superiority of your own religion over all others, if we want to live in a peaceful world, we should be diplomatic and publicly acknowledge both the merits of other religions and the decency of the people who practice them.  If we claim that the devil is behind these other religions, we are literally demonizing people, and this cannot end well.

       In the future, people will no doubt put the words of their parents and their communities to the test as never before.  They will not allow their ancestors and societies to indoctrinate them as youths and let this last for their entire lives without rigorously examining the logic, consistency, symmetry, and soundness of the philosophies that they have been taught.  The absolute uniqueness argument of Christianity (and other monotheistic religions) does not hold up to scrutiny.  It has to be taken on faith, and it requires a suspension of all reason.  An objective inquiry into principles and practices across religions will show massive similarities, as documented in Utopia Found.  It is ridiculous to say, for example, that Tibetan monks who spend several hours per day in deep meditation are being led astray by the devil because they are focusing on something other than Jesus Christ.  


       I fully understand the conservative reaction to my view, and I respect people’s right to disagree.  However, if we look down on other groups, call them evil, overtly declare that they are not real religions in the same sense as our own, and treat religion as Nixon treated politics (his motto was “Politics is war,” and he aimed to destroy his enemies), then we are headed for more alienation, rancor, and large-scale violence.  If you believe that your religion is the one true teaching, different from and better than others in every way, I must say I disagree with you, but I concede that you have the right to your own opinion.  If you insist on holding this somewhat hostile view of other religions, it is still best to take care to speak and act in a friendly way so as not to antagonize others.


       If we step back and analyze these claims of uniqueness, they are impossible to prove and easy to refute with logic.  Yes, we must all choose between religions.  Yes, we have reasons for making choices that imply we believe one is superior to others.  Yes, we can personally believe that they are not all equal.  But, just as we may hold such opinions, we should still treat all people with kindness, respect, and decency: as equals, the way we ourselves would like to be treated.  Moreover, serious devotion to any religion requires that we practice (engage in prayer or meditation) and develop certain qualities in ourselves.  These qualities are prized by all religions.  They lead us beyond the world of earthly argument and division and toward a universal love that transcends surface differences.  We must greet one another the way Jesus and Shakyamuni would have greeted one another if they had met in person: with love, conscious of the fact that there is no difference between self and other.  We are all ultimately part of the same eternal, infinite spirit, and all religious teachings are expressing the same truth in different ways.  The best way to exemplify the teachings of our own religion is to focus on making our own thoughts, words, and deeds more saintly, and stop criticizing others or the paths they follow. 

  

God on throne

WHO OR WHAT IS “GOD”?

 

          Around the world, people have always sensed that there is a unifying power or intelligence behind everything that exists.  Native Americans often call it something that is often translated as “Great Spirit.”  In English, the main word we have to describe this idea is “God.”  What are the parameters of God?  This is a tough one, since God has no boundaries.  God is omnipresent.  God is all of time and space: not only the entire universe, but the history of the universe, the creator of the universe, and the rules that made the universe operate as it does.  God can be called pre-existent or self-creating, but either way, the origin of God is a mystery.  The concept is an impossible one for us to fully wrap our logical minds around, because it includes (by definition) more than we can ever see or comprehend, and it also includes us and our comprehension of it.  If we use the analogy of the manifest universe as a movie on a screen, God would be the entire film, including the entire cast and crew.  But that’s not all: God would also include the company that made the movie, the screen, the entire theater, and the entire universe around the theater, its history, creator, rules for creation, and so on to infinity.  We ourselves would not even be members of the theater audience, but only two-dimensional characters with bit parts in the film.  What chance would we have of understanding God?

          We use a three-letter word to describe this infinite, eternal concept, as if by giving it a short title, this automatically means we are on a first-name basis with the supreme ultimate.  If I have a neighbor named Tom, I can get to know him and we can be on a first-name basis.  I can describe the characteristics of this person named Tom by observing him and interacting with him.  He has a physical description, an address, and definable qualities.  Tom has clear likes and dislikes, which can be easily verified.  When I say his name, it has meaning because this agreed-upon title connects to the actual person with knowable characteristics.  None of this applies to God.  What definable qualities can there be for that which is infinite and eternal?  We are way out of our league if we imagine we have an understanding of this God person we speak of as if they were a neighbor.  We are fooling ourselves if we think we know what we are talking about when we use the word God, unless we use it the same way scientists use the term “dark matter” to mean “the thing I know nothing about.” 

          In China, Daoists deliberately refrain from giving the ultimate a name.  They believe the way that can be named is not the eternal name, and so they use the expression “the Way” (the Dao).  They do this with the clear understanding that this word is not correct, but is a mere covering for a mystery (like dark matter), used as a place-holder to refer to that which can never be understood. 

        In India, Hindus call the God that is everywhere “Brahman,” and the spark of God within each living thing “Atman.”  They believe the only way to know all of Brahman is to unite Atman and Brahman through Yoga.  In the Bhagavad Gita, chapter nine, text five, Krishna (speaking as an avatar of Brahman), says, "Although I am the maintainer of all living entities and although I am everywhere, I am not part of this cosmic manifestation, for My Self is the very source of creation."

        In Buddhism, there is an agreement with other religions that all things are united in an interconnected singularity.  There is simply no discussion of a creator entity beyond the consciousness of all sentient beings.  When people ask, "Do Buddhists believe in God?" the best answer is: "That depends on what you mean by God."  They definitely do not think about it in the same terms as most believers in monotheistic religions do.

       God is not like our neighbor, Tom, who has simple and definite characteristics.  People who believe in the Abrahamic version of God, however, sometimes talk about him like a neighbor.  For one thing, they tend to refer to God as a he, not a she.  What does this even mean in the context of an all-encompassing deity?  We can look at history and notice that the mother goddesses of the prehistoric era were eclipsed by beliefs in more male deities as civilization took hold.  This can be explained in terms of humans feeling they needed a masculine war-god to guide their armies to victory more than they needed a fertility goddess to help the farmers grow food.  As governments grew more complex and armies increased in size, prayers for victory in battle might have seemed paramount, and the best powers to ask for help on the battlefield might have been those who resembled the warriors themselves.  Kings probably also encouraged this trend, wanting a god in heaven that reflected the masculine look of the king’s own court.  As the Jewish people struggled for an independent identity in the Middle East against the larger, stronger civilizations all around them, they saw this emphasis on a male deity as a good thing.  Jews had a growing belief that their God was not just a powerful war and storm god, but that he was literally the one and only God (with a capital G).  A chain of unlikely events followed:  Jesus the miracle-worker was Jewish, a new religion was created in his name, and the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire meant that Christians inherited the Jewish brand of monotheism.  This, along with the subsequent rise of Islam, led to half the world identifying God as a he, not a she or an it.  However, if God is everywhere and everything, if God has no mate, if God creates both the female and the male (and both genders are part of God), then why should we insist on God’s maleness?  Isn’t that just another way of using our limited, puny intelligence to try and make God seem more like us?  As we’ve seen already, God isn’t like us.  We do not need to define God’s gender, and defining it does not mean our definition is correct.  How can such a thing have any meaning whatsoever under the circumstances?  If we follow this line of thinking in mainstream monotheistic culture, we inevitably wind up with an image of an old man sitting on a throne in the sky.  Does this picture we have conjured up for ourselves have any basis in reality?  To summarize: we have an idea of a person who is not a person, a man who is not a man, and a shape with clear boundaries to describe an entity that, by definition, is boundless.  This does not make much sense.

          Some claim to know God much better than being able to simply assume God's gender.  Some claim that God has clear opinions, preferences, and wishes – and that they themselves are somehow privy to all of this.  Some people are convinced they know which political party or candidate God supports.  I remember back in the 80s, when televangelist Jim Bakker was in the midst of scandal, a reporter asked why he needed such expensive chandeliers in his house.  Jim replied with a smile, "Do you think God likes junk?"  Again, this is the Tom-complex, whereby you imagine that because you have given the supreme ultimate a short nickname, you are somehow best buds with God, and can finish each other’s sentences.  It's a funny how people naturally tend to see God's thought processes as always coinciding 100% with their own.  Woody Allen made fun of this tendency for people to claim to be chummy with God in the movie Sleeper, when he said that Billy Graham used to go on double dates with God.  Monty Python made fun of the human tendency to think we know what God is like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with God appearing from behind the clouds as a king with a long, grey beard to speak in a deep voice and give King Arthur his marching orders.  These comedy sketches are funny because they are so overtly ridiculous, but how far removed is this from the over-simplistic way that millions (or billions) of people really think? 

       When we begin to go down the wrong path with assumptions and illogic, we become certain that we know the truth, although we may not have a clue.  Many people in prehistoric and ancient times were absolutely convinced that their gods thirsted for blood.  They were so sure of themselves that they engaged in human sacrifice.  How many people today look back and think human sacrifice was a good idea, or that any of those ancient gods even exist?  It is inherently dangerous to jump to the conclusion that you have special insight into ultimate truth, because it leads to rash actions, or at the very least, hostility between religions.  When you think you know all about God and believe you are carrying out God's orders, you tend to look upon every other religion with distain.  When you lose your humility about understanding the infinite, it becomes all too easy to think you are right and everyone who disagrees with you is wrong.  Worse than that, you may jump to the conclusion that followers of other religions are evil (or at least on an evil path), and that anything you do to them is therefore justified. 

       We should definitely practice spirituality and try to understand the big picture of what is going on around us.  We should never cease in our attempts to connect ourselves with the entire universe.  When doing so, however, we should be careful not to over-simplify or take things too literally.  We must always be open-minded.  We must remember that others feel as correct in their views as we do, and they have as much a right to those views as we have to ours.  We must admit that, as certain as we may be about our convictions, we may be thinking about things entirely the wrong way, like a blind man with an elephant.  Remember the lesson of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: if we ask the wrong question, we will always get a meaningless answer.

       When it comes to the idea of God, the word is too ubiquitous to avoid, but I believe it is necessary to define the term in a larger way in order to provide common ground for interfaith agreement and communication.  I choose to define God in an expanded, non-denominational sense as follows: a mind-matrix that extends beyond time and space, constituting all existence, the manifest and the unmanifest, the creator and the created, the supremely intelligent power binding all things together as a singularity full of wisdom and benevolent intention: omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, absolute, infinite reality.  This may not fully satisfy anyone, but it is non-specific enough that it can be used by everyone.  This expanded definition allows us to use the word God in conversations between Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus, who already have a word for a unifying intelligent creative force, as well as with Buddhists and Daoists, who have no monotheistic conception at all.  This generic definition of the term allows us to make reference to the idea of the universal creative force or principle while avoiding endless arguments over the specifics of our own interpretation of the supreme ultimate.  Each person, each sect, and each religion can make its own more detailed definition as they like, but there is no way to prove that their expanded definition is correct, and so it becomes a matter of opinion, like the blind men and the elephant.  Is the elephant like a rope, a tree, a wall, a fan, a spear, or a snake?  Each of us has a unique experience, yet even if all our experiences were combined, it would still not add up to the infinity which is God.  Until we gain superhuman awareness and multidimensional consciousness, how can we hope to understand God, let alone accurately explain God with words?  In Daoism, the character 玄 means mysterious.  It is used often to remind people that the full mystery of creation can never be fully comprehended by human beings, and the need to accept this fact from the outset, no matter how we choose to practice or worship.

Jesus above Jerusalem

 

MYSTICISM

 

          What does it take to win the big prize and make it to heaven?  Most people assume that if you follow the rules of initiation into a religion and then behave yourself reasonably well after that, you will be saved.  Christians think of this in terms of baptism, having faith, and trying not to commit sin.  Muslims think in terms of professing the faith, following the Five Pillars, and of course refraining from sin.  These two groups make up more than half the planet’s population.  Jews think in terms of following the Ten Commandments.  Even among believers in Eastern religions, which are by nature mystic, most people do not really practice mysticism; they act as if they are shielded from future harm by nature of their faith alone.  People often use terms like “mystic” along with “occult,” as if to suggest that anything like this is dark, scary, evil, and leading a person into a dangerous sect or cult.  So what is the mystic view of the world, anyway?

 

          To explain the mystic view, we can use some analogies.  If you bought a furniture kit at Ikea and dumped all the components on the floor of your living room, would you sit on the pile, or would you assemble it first?  If you were following a step-by-step instructions while making a volcano model in chemistry class and everyone’s volcano erupted in the end with the intended chemical reaction – and only yours didn’t – would you consider your effort a success?  When you go to a gas station, do you pull up, pay for the gasoline, and then drive away without making the effort to pump the gas?  If you buy a book, do you read it, or do you put it under your pillow and hope the information in its pages will magically percolate into your brain while you sleep?  Mystics view the average, non-mystic religious believer the way they view people who make these mistakes: lazy, unclear on the concept, or both.  They think such people are like students who do not study for exams and yet somehow expect to pass.  The exam in this case could be said to come only after this life is over, so the realization that one is unprepared for the test does not arrive until it is too late.  In the mystic view of the world, too many people have taken a belief in an idea and confused it with the mastery of a skill.  Mystics say these people think that faith is an accomplishment in and of itself, when in fact it is an assignment to do some homework.  Knowing music theory, they say, does not mean you are ready to perform at the London Philharmonic.

 

          So what do mystics believe?  They think that being saved (or enlightened) is an accomplishment that involves a process; not something that happens just because you have faith, underwent a ritual, and behaved yourself reasonably well.  As they see it, either you can juggle or you can’t, either you built a stable igloo or you didn’t, either you can do the quad in ice-skating or you can’t: the proof is in the pudding.  Generally speaking, they believe spiritual achievement is self-evident, and dependent upon knowledge, skill, and enormous effort over time.  Either the volcano erupts in chemistry class or it doesn’t.  No eruption means you keep on trying until it does.  If the engine doesn’t run, the mechanic needs to keep working till it does.  Specifically, mystics believe everyone needs to engage in the spiritual practices of Yoga.  This involves renunciation and concentration (meditation, prayer).  It could also include devotion, recitation, study of scriptures, and many other elements.  Mystics believe that the founders of religion are their teachers, and that everyone who believes in them should follow their examples as closely as possible.  This means doing all those difficult things these people did: fasting, going to lonely places for contemplation, resisting temptation, etc.  They believe that to be successful, we must practice strenuously and change so completely that we are literally “reborn.”  Your original personality must all but disappear.  As mystics see it, anything less means people are taking their religion to be mere play.

 

          How can we know when a person has “made it”?  There is not necessarily any outward sign, but the mystic view says that people who have truly accomplished their goal will develop siddhis.  Siddhis are mysterious abilities to interact with the quantum field matrix we call reality.  Siddhis include ESP, psychic powers, the ability to see through objects (or even pass through them), levitation, and so on.  Basically, mystics believe that the miracles from the Bible and other holy books are real, and they are within everyone’s grasp if only we practice long and hard enough, using the right methods.  Anything less than this, according to the mystic view, is inadequate.  Siddhis will naturally accompany enough spiritual purity, but siddhis alone do not necessarily mean a person is fully enlightened.  People who think it would be cool to have these powers and who practice in order to get them will be disappointed.  Yoga philosophy says that to make progress, you have to lose all desires.  As long as you want these powers, they will remain out of reach.  They come as a side-effect of practice, and are given to those who no longer have an ego and therefore no longer desire the powers.  Moreover, the practice of Yoga can’t be done properly for one’s own benefit; the goal must be to help others.  The skeptical might think this sounds like a superstitious, ideological teaching to try and make people more selfless.  Actually, it reflects the quantum reality that all consciousness is a singularity, and the realization that there is no difference between self and other.  This sounds like a cliché, but mystics claim that when higher states of consciousness are achieved, this oneness can be directly experienced.  In Buddhism, it is said that the recognition of emptiness engenders compassion.  Some are confused by this, as it sounds illogical.  I have heard people wonder aloud why emptiness doesn't engender terror, as if it means we are floating through a dark vacuum.  This is a misunderstanding based on the image conjured by the word emptiness.  If we think in a quantum sense, we see that time and space are illusions and that nothing exists independently from other things, we see beyond the world of opposites (no distance, no insides or outsides, no up or down), and we see that all beings have a non-localized consciousness.  When we reach this stage, we know for a fact that we are all part of the same being, and we cannot help but feel their suffering as if it were ours – because it is ours – and want to help others progress to a state beyond suffering.  

 

          If siddhis are real, why don’t we see people displaying them every day?  Mystics would say this is because only a few reach this level, and the prerequisite practices mean a person has no interest in making money or showing off.  Many teachers give instructions to their disciples with the admonition that they never display their powers to others.  The Buddha specifically told his followers not to make a demonstration of their abilities, and he rarely performed healings.  If those who possessed miraculous abilities put them on display, they would be inundated with people wanting to be healed.  People with these powers want to teach others how to follow the path themselves; not turn themselves into tourist attractions.  If you want to find people with some of these powers for yourself, you will find them eventually if you seek with sincerity and persistence – and for the right reasons.  Ordinarily, these teachers will not be found unless they want you to find them.   

 

          What should we think of the mystic view?  If you don’t agree with mysticism, you already know what mystics think of you.  They see you as the kid whose volcano didn’t erupt, but who won’t admit they made a mistake, or the student who bombed the test but still insists they studied enough.  According to the mystic view, we have a job to do here on earth: practice Yoga so we can help others.  People who believe but don’t practice are wasting their time, say the mystics.  Whatever you yourself believe about siddhis and mysticism, it wouldn’t hurt to spend more time praying and meditating, as your religion suggests you should.  It wouldn’t hurt to read up on the subject and do some personal investigation.  There have been plenty of Christian mystics over the years, starting with Jesus himself.  Muslim mystics are called Sufis.  In Judaism, there is a mystic tradition called Kabbalah.  People who follow these traditions say it takes a lot of effort to get to "heaven."  In Matthew 7:14, Jesus says, “The gate is narrow and the way that leads to life is hard, and only a few find it.”  Eastern religions are overtly based on mysticism, though not everyone in these religions actually follows the mystic path.  Instead of just doing the basic prayers required in your religion and making the necessary appearances in church, mosque, temple, or synagogue, you might try to go above and beyond.  Try living and thinking according to the mystic view for a while and see what happens.  You can definitely do this without compromising your religious beliefs.  Actually, you should begin by taking your professed beliefs more seriously.  Instead of thinking of mysticism as something weird, you might come to view it as common sense.  Sitting on a pile of unassembled pieces from Ikea and calling it furniture sure doesn’t make much sense.  Whether you are religious or not, don’t be too quick to dismiss mysticism.  If you are religious, remember what Jesus says in Luke 6:40 – “. . . everyone, when their training is complete, will reach their teacher’s level.”  If you are not religious, remember that scientific inquiry requires that we remain open-minded, collect information, make hypotheses, and conduct experiments.  In this case, consider yourself to be the experiment.  That’s what a mystic would do.

acupuncture model

 

THE HUMAN BODY AS A SACRED MICROCOSM

 

       A human is a microcosm: a reflection of the world, the universe, and God.  If the true nature of the universe is a singularity, wherein all points are connected to all other points, and in fact the idea of multiple points is an illusion to begin with, then all “points” are actually contained in every single “point,” if viewed from an enlightened, multidimensional perspective.  There actually is no difference between self and other, and no duality between the body and the things around the body.  There really is no difference between inside and outside, except in our deluded minds, which cling to this illusion based on the tricks played on us by the senses.  The fact that we have this amazing consciousness in such an advanced brain is due to the evolution of this most incredible gift – our physical body as a vehicle for spiritual advancement.   The body is a sacred thing, and must be appreciated and revered as such.

 

       In ancient Greece, Democritus wrote that humans are a “microcosm” a miniature universe.  The Greeks believed that humans were made in the image of their gods.  The nude human form was therefore considered noble and godly.  It was considered a sacred duty to keep one’s body in prime condition and display it proudly.  The Greek word gymnos means naked, and the gymnasium was a place where males went nude for both exercise and study.  In Sparta, females had a gymnasium of their own.  In Plato's Republic, he argues that not only male athletes, but female athletes as well, should compete in the nude.  The regal, realistic depiction of nudes in Greek art reflects this reverence for the human body.  Socrates spoke of nudity as a form of honesty.  “Gymnophilosophers,” or nude philosophers, were revered for their rejection of artificial social conventions, false coverings, and vanity.  Diogenes was a famous philosopher who often went about unclothed.  In a famous exchange between Diogenes and Alexander the Great, the latter discovered the wise man while he was sunbathing.  Alexander, soon to be the most powerful man in the world, asked the naked, homeless Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him.  Diogenes replied with the simple request for Alexander to step to one side, so as not to block his sunlight.  For Diogenes, his body was a temple much finer than any mansion Alexander might have given him. 

 

       Reverence for the human body is shown in Judaism in a number of ways.  The story of Genesis includes the idea that humans are reflections of God.  This appears in Genesis 1:26, which says “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .”  In the beginning, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden like innocent children: naked, pure, and without desire.  Adam and Eve then taste the forbidden knowledge and begin to paint the world with artificial distinctions.  This is why they covered their bodies in shame, and had to be cast out of the garden. 

 

       Traditional Chinese medicine teaches that the body is a direct reflection of the natural universe.  Acupoints on the body can be seen as representing spots on the contours of the earth’s surface, the stars of the sky, or the days of the year.  Every part of the body (especially the foot, hand, ear, finger, and area around the eye) are a reflection of the whole body and treatments to these parts can affect the entire body.  Blood, fluids, and other materials of the physical body are more Yin and therefore belong to earth, while virtue (synonymous with power) and qi are more Yang and belong to Heaven.  The human head represents Heaven, as it is nearest to the light above.

 

       In Corinthians 1, 6:19, it says, "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?"  In The Nag Hammadi Library, in the tract called “The Gospel of Thomas,” Jesus says that when you can undress without being ashamed and stand on top of your clothes like a child, then you will see the son of God and be beyond fear.  When asked whether circumcision is beneficial or not, Jesus answers that if it were beneficial, baby boys would be born already circumcised.  

 

       Shamans around the world have always held that the body is a microcosm.  The Yanomamo tribe in South America in particular say that inside the human body is a copy of the physical world around us: a world with hills, trees, and seas.

 

       In the words of Michelangelo: “What spirit is so empty and blind that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?”  As Walt Whitman said, “If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.”

       Most people would agree that this idea of the human body as a sacred microcosm is beautiful.  It remains an abstract concept, however, unless we act on it in some way.  How can we make this notion an important cornerstone of our culture so that we behave in a way commensurate with this insight?  Start by looking around you.  Watch the news.  Then look in the mirror.  Imagine that all the horrific things you just saw on the news had happened to you – to your precious body that you love so much.  We live in a world where war, violence, poverty, and homelessness are common, and we act as if this is just the way things are.  Do we really want to find a solution to these problems or not?  We can begin by remembering that these people being killed, hurt, impoverished, and unhoused are all sacred microcosms of the universe.  They are all just like you.  When we realize this at the deepest level, these issues take on a new urgency. 

 

       Part of the solution is to redesign our socio-economic system so that these horrible realities of today are not perpetuated in the future.  Another part of the solution is to practice simple daily rituals that allow us to re-focus on what really matters, re-connect with the miracle that is the human body (a reflection of the world, the universe, and God – a temple of all that is holy), and to remember that this miracle exists in all other human bodies as well.  To see a single person suffer or be harmed should pain us so deeply that we will take action to rectify the situation and prevent recurrence of such awful tragedies.  This may sound melodramatic, but it really isn't.  To avoid being desensitized, we must hold tight to the understanding that they are us and we are them.  If you were starving, homeless, and beaten up, you would definitely think of it as a tragedy.  Why do we think of these everyday occurrences so lightly just because it is others who suffer?  By meditating on this each day, we would remain grounded in reality, be constantly reminded of our priorities, view everything in a human scale, and use love and compassion in all we do as individuals and as groups to ensure that war, poverty, persecution, and violence are impossible in the world of the future.  Yes, this is easier said than done, but we have all we need to reinvent the world in a way befitting to all the glorious, sacred spirits who live here.  If it helps, you could think of others who suffer as children of God and ask the famous question, "What would Jesus do?"  All it takes to change the world is a proper goal and adequate determination.  Nothing is impossible.

Jesus and the Devil

WHERE IS EVIL HIDING?

 

       The Abrahamic conception of Satan tells the story of a fallen angel, a clever creation of God who rebelled against heaven.  This fallen angel, known as Lucifer, Satan, or the Devil (among other names), is described as the one who tempted Adam and Eve to taste the forbidden fruit, the one who brought original sin into the world.  The narrative is that God could destroy the Devil at any time, but has decided to allow him/her/it to exist until the Last Judgment so that humans are provided with a test.  According to this paradigm, we have been granted free will to choose whether to follow the path laid out by God, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and the saints, or to fall for the temptation of the Devil.  

 

       This storybook narrative leaves many questions unanswered.  First of all, if God is omnipresent, how can the Devil exist at all?  If God is everywhere and God’s nature is pure goodness, then how can any of the angels created by God be separate from God, or turn into anything but goodness?  If God is everywhere, how can evil exist anywhere?  If God is omniscient and omnipotent, how did this happen?  Is the Devil a part of God, sent to test us?  If one accepts the basic premise of this version of reality, the Devil must at least be part of God’s plan.  How can our souls, created by God, be separate from God?  Is it possible that either eternal reward or eternal damnation await us after a brief test of our God-given free will in a single lifetime?

 

       In Buddhism, there is a concept of Mara, the tempter.  This is not meant as a literal entity like a devil, but as the embodiment of the part of ourselves that is susceptible to being led away from the spiritual path by worldly desires.  In the storybook version of the Buddha’s enlightenment, Mara appeared with a bevy of beautiful women to distract Siddhartha from his meditations.  The idea in Buddhism is that this moral struggle took place in the Buddha’s mind; if an independent observer had been watching, they would have seen nothing.  However, as Dumbledore said to Harry Potter in the heaven/railroad station sequence at the end of The Deathly Hallows, part two , "Of course it's happening inside your head, Harry.  Why should that mean that its' not real?"  In the story of Jesus’s baptism and accession to power, he went directly from his meeting with John the Baptist to fast for forty days in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the Devil.  In this account, the Devil was not just a figment of Christ’s imagination; he was separate from Christ's thoughts and presumably would have been visible to a bystander.

 

       The idea that the Devil exists as a separate entity from ourselves can be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it can make people ever-watchful to avoid the temptations they believe will entrap their soul.  Unfortunately, this belief can also lead people to lower their guard because they are so certain the Devil is separate from them.  People tend to think, “I am a Christian who has been baptized, so evil cannot exist within me.  Ergo, I am purified, so whatever I think or do is somehow sanctioned by God.”  When the conquistadors arrived in the New World and promptly set about butchering and enslaving people, they felt confident that they were justified because (in their minds) they were spreading Christianity.  Today most people would consider the actions of these “Christian soldiers” to be evil, but to them this was impossible, because they considered the Devil to be an external entity, and they considered themselves, as Christians, to be pure by definition.  The Crusaders thought the same thing when they massacred the inhabitants of Jerusalem, as did many of Hitler’s soldiers as they marched on Stalingrad, as did the HAMAS terrorists of October 7th.  The danger of believing oneself to be immune to evil cannot be overstated.  When the Devil is seen as existing exclusively outside ourselves, people believe they can do no wrong.  All moral objectivity is lost and evil runs rampant.

 

       So where, then, is the Devil?  Perhaps the Devil, like Mara, is not so much a separate, independent entity as it is the very idea of evil.  Perhaps the stories are meant more as allegories than narratives to be taken literally.  If we view evil and temptation not as characters with names and discernable physical characteristics, but instead as traps that we can all fall into (like laziness or carelessness), we can remain vigilant.  Anyone can make a misstep and fall from the proper path.  We need to remain humble about our weaknesses.  Illusions of infallibility are the surest way to ensure a dark future full of regret.  If we want to resist evil, we must admit that it arises not from an external source, but from inside our own hearts and minds.  It is not a part of our true identity; it arises from our mistaken beliefs about ourselves, born from our erroneous grasping at samsaric objects and concepts in the material world.  But is evil a power, or is it more of a vacuum?  Author Reynold A. Nicholson writes that in Sufism, “Evil has no real existence; it is not-being, which is the privation and absence of being, just as darkness is the absence of light" (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, 94).  In Matthew 6:19-6:24, Jesus describes the darkness which can come into us if we look out at the world and make the mistake of valuing the material over the spiritual:

 

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  The eye is the lamp of the body.  If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!  No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and money.

 

       Whether we choose to think of evil as an external force, an internal force, or simply as a deficiency of light, evil definitely can be overcome and our spirits fully purified, but only through a combination of proper understanding, proper intent, proper speech, proper action, proper career, proper effort, proper mindfulness, and proper meditation.  The old adage, the Devil lurks behind the cross, is full of truth.  Just ask the survivors of the Christian-run boarding schools for Native Americans (First Nations) in the U.S. and Canada or other victims of religious abuse.  Christians need to remember that they are sinners (just like the adherents of all other religions), which means they are imperfect and susceptible to temptation.  No one should ever assume they are holier-than-thou and can do no wrong.  In Chinese, there is an apt expression (素口罵人), “curse people with a vegetarian mouth,” which means that although people may practice Buddhism and may act sanctimoniously, they are hypocrites if they cannot control their temper.  Rather than feel safe from evil, we would be better off to remain forever on guard.  We must monitor our every thought and action and emulate our role models (Jesus, Buddha, etc.), in essence continually asking ourselves, “What would ____________ do?”

Screenshot 2024-06-27 184059.png

WHAT MAKES TIBET SO SPECIAL?

 

       Tibet is the roof of the world.  The peaks of the Himalayas may be only a few thousand feet taller than other mountains in Asia and South America, but the Tibetan Plateau itself is completely unique: an area larger than Alaska with an average altitude of almost 15,000 feet taller than Mount Rainier.  It is the source of Asia's major rivers and contains so much ice that it has been called the Third Pole.  It is so inhospitable that humans were unable to live there until they domesticated the yak.  As you might imagine, the character of people who can survive in such an extraordinary place is unusual to say the least.

 

       In the beginning, Tibetans were small in number but famed as some of the most ferocious fighters in the world.  The Tibetan Empire expanded into Central Asia and challenged the Chinese on an equal footing in the high-altitude passes that controlled the flow of goods along the Silk Road.  What the Tibetans lacked in number, they more than made up for in skill and determination.  In the Tang Dynasty, they even captured the capital of Chang An in 763, requiring the Chinese to pay an annual tribute.  It was during the Tang Dynasty that Tibet became Buddhist.  King Songtsen Gampo famously married the Buddhist princess Wen Cheng from China as well as a Buddhist Nepalese princess, Bhrikuti.  At about the same time, the famous founder of the Nyingma (the oldest lineage in Tibet), Padmasambhava, brought tantric Buddhism to Tibet from India.  

 

       Tibet was believed to be controlled by dangerous and powerful demons who lived in the land.  Every mountain, canyon, lake, and glacier was said to possess a malevolent entity bent on the destruction of any human who chanced to venture there.  The Tibetans believe that Padmasambhava and other Buddhist pioneers sought out these evil forces and subdued them one by one.  The demons were not in the human realm, but they were still bound by the rules of reincarnation, although their lives might extend for many millennia.  The early Buddhist leaders first used their magic to defeat the demons in epic battles, then explained to them the need to accept the Dharma, and in the end the demons were converted to become powerful protectors of the faith.  They are fierce, fiery, and fanged, but don't let their fearsome faces fool you; they are no longer evil.  Now they promote Buddhism and defend against non-Buddhist influences.  This is what Tibetan Buddhists believe about their land and what makes it so special.

 

       After becoming Buddhists, Tibetans mostly renounced warfare and devoted themselves to religious practices.  Over the centuries (and continuing to the present day), something on the order of 20% of the population becomes monks or nuns.  No other society on earth can compare with this fervent devotion.  Tibetans believe that they can become fully enlightened in a single lifetime, and an amazing number of them have put all their time and energy into this effort.  In the 1200s, the Mongolians met the Tibetans and were so impressed with their religion and their religious zeal that they adopted the Tibetan religion and promised to be protectors of the Tibetan people, further absolving the Tibetans of any need to maintain their earlier militaristic culture.  Tibetans collected all the teachings of the historical Buddha, as well as all the later teachings of the Mahayana, delivered by other Buddhist thinkers, gurus, and allegedly by enlightened, non-human teachers (Buddhas or Bodhisattvas who appeared as needed to give instruction).  The result is that Tibetan Buddhism became the high-altitude repository of the most complete library of Buddhist teachings in the world.  Tibetan practitioners focused on solving every problem of the human psyche in a way that turned poison into medicine.  Tibetans believe that the ¨84,000¨ causes of human suffering all have their cure in Tibetan Buddhist practice and traditional medicine.  Tibetan tantric practices are a diverse collection of approaches, which range from the ordinary to the unorthodox.  They are special because they compose a highly-effective toolkit of methods to correct the all the possible ailments of the mind that prevent us from reaching enlightenment.

 

       Tibetan Buddhism is unique among all branches of Buddhism in that it is the only tradition in which a lama, or guru, is believed to return in future lives to teach more students in a new body.  The first person to do this was the Karmapa Lama.  The current Karmapa is believed to be the 17th incarnation.  The more famous Dalai Lama is on his 14th incarnation.  While Buddhists, Hindus, and many others believe in reincarnation, only Tibetan Buddhists look for the reincarnation of their deceased teachers and test them by having them identify items that were used by the previous incarnation, hidden among a number of similar items.  Early western explorers who traveled there did not understand tantric Buddhism.  They called it lamaism because of the extreme reverence for teachers there.  It seemed to foreign observers that the Tibetans were worshiping their lamas.  This was not actually the case; it only appeared so because the teacher (guru in Sanskrit, lama in Tibetan) was honored as if they were the embodiment of the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), since they were the gateway through which a student accessed these things.  The strong faith in the teacher as if they were both a living Buddha and the concentration of the whole community of Buddhist masters (past, present, and future) was believed to catapult a student forward in their spiritual practices.

 

       Tibet was a hidden land of mystery for the longest time.  The Manchus conquered the Mongols and then all of China in 1644.  They took up the mantle of protectors of Tibet.  They called it part of the Qing Empire, although to the Tibetans, this was a nominal arrangement.  They were not occupied by the Manchus, nor did they pay taxes to them.  The Manchu emperors developed a close relationship with Tibetan Buddhism, as did the Mongols before them.  Tibet was protected by its natural defenses: its mountains and desert wastes.  There was almost no need for armed forces.  The Tibetans were able to hide from the rest of the world and pretend that change was not coming, but as China crumbled under the Western onslaught in the 1800s, more and more foreign explorers reached Tibet.  The British invaded in the early 1900s with Sikh troops, but never occupied more than a tiny piece of Tibet, and that only briefly.  After the communist revolution in China in 1949, everything changed.  Mao Ze Dong saw his opportunity to take his millions-strong army and expand China's borders to India.  In Chinese, Tibet is called Xi Zang, which means "western treasure house."  Tibet was seen as a place of enormous mineral wealth, plus a kind of ¨high ground of Asia¨ from which the P.R.C. could defend its southwest, or project power if need be.  The borders of Tibet were changed to make it look smaller.  Two million out of six million Tibetans were killed or died of starvation.  Some six thousand temples (and connected schools and monasteries, nunneries, etc.) were destroyed.  Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans fled this oppression.  They went to Nepal and India, but did not stop there.  The Tibetan diaspora reached the West in the 1960s, and the esoteric teachings from the Roof of the World were spread like diamonds for the population of the entire world to access.  Tibetan teachers took Western students, and some of them became lamas.  Some Tibetan teachers were even believed to have reincarnated into the bodies of Westerners.  Out of the apocalyptic suffering the Tibetan people have endured over the last seven decades, the once-secret gem of their spiritual traditions has been offered as a blessing to the entire world.

       In Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer's story about his life in Tibet in the 1940s, he describes a people so reticent to kill that they avoided harming the worms when they dug to excavate for the foundation of a new building.  He befriends the young Dalai Lama, who grew up to be a world-renowned spiritual leader.  Christ said to love your enemy.  The Dalai Lama has said that your enemy is your greatest teacher because they put your compassion to the test.  If everyone had an attitude like this, there would never be another war on earth.  There would not even be another crime.  This peaceful quality of the Tibetan people is a truly precious jewel.  It contains the answer we have all been looking for to achieve world peace.

 

       This is why there is such a large section on Tibetan Buddhism in book stores.  This is why the hijacked plane in Lost Horizon crash-landed in Tibet and the survivors found the hidden valley of Shangri-La there.  This is why Bill Murray (in The Razor's Edge), Ace Ventura, Alec Baldwin (as The Shadow), and Batman all went to Tibet.  This is why the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.  Tibetan people are single-minded and intense in everything they do.  The Tibetan landscape is unlike anything else in the world.  It is a metaphor for the pinnacle of human spiritual endeavor.  The Tibetan religion is in many ways more more complex and sophisticated that any other.  To cure a psychological problem, you can see a psychiatrist, or you can try the immense toolkit of Tibetan meditations, which claim to have the most diverse assortment of methods for self-improvement of any teachings on the planet.  There is no undiscovered valley of Shangri-La no physical actual place where an idyllic lifestyle can be found.  However, the real teachings from the Roof of the World are now available to all, and from these a veritable utopia can be built in the real world: anywhere and everywhere.  The hidden pearls of wisdom that people gleaned over painful centuries of practice and meditation, which were once sought so devoutly and with such immense difficulty, are now scattered at your feet.  All you have to do is pick them up.  You don't have to be a Buddhist to benefit from these teachings.  You only have to apply the universal principles they embody and the whole world will begin to change.

Krishna

 

ACTIONLESS ACTION
 

       In the year 1160, Lama Shang was given a new assignment by his teacher, Gomsul.  Lama Shang was a man of peace who wanted to practice Buddhism, a religion that taught ahimsa (non violence), the purification of one’s karma, and meditation.  Specifically, he wanted to disappear into the mountains to meditate alone.  Now, nearing 40, he was being asked to hunt down and kill all the bandits in the region who were making civilized life impossible.  Four clans were at war and the country was lawless.  The two holiest temples in Tibet had recently been burned down in the chaos.  Lama Shang was tasked with rebuilding these, as well as suppressing the bandits.  If the bandits were not eliminated, it would be impossible for any Buddhist pilgrims to travel in Tibet, for they would all be robbed and perhaps killed by roving highwaymen.  In addition, Lama Shang was told to end the fighting between the warring clans and bring peace to that region of Tibet.  How does a man who is devoted to self-perfection become a real-life Rambo?  How did he do this without compromising his principles, harming his karma, or losing his soul?  

 

       He did so by rising to a higher level.  He dissolved his own ego so there was no longer any anger or desire to seek revenge; only a clear understanding that a greater purpose was involved, and that this necessitated the accomplishment of a particular mission.  He realized that all the objects around him were only a sea of energy, and that the normal prohibition on killing or harming others does not apply in such unusual circumstances.  His karma remained unblemished so long as his intentions were driven by wisdom and a compassionate interest in the greater good.  Lama Shang drafted monks into the army and led his own meditation students into battle.  According to tradition, he won every engagement by using his yogic powers to prevail and was often seen to be surrounded by beasts of prey. 

 

       Just as surgeons need to make an incision with a scalpel in order to heal a patient, Lama Shang had to use forceful, military means to bring about peace.  Simply using stern language with warlords and bandits was not going to be effective.  Even as he entered into combat, Lama Sheng remained in a state of enlightened equipoise.  He said, “Everything I do is Mahamudra.”  Mahamudra is the “Great Seal,” the essence of mind itself.  Those who can achieve this state can balance inner peace with the temporary requirements of unorthodox behavior in an insane situation.  Tashi Repa was later instructed by Lama Shang to use his yogic powers for the purpose of defending Tibet from a Mongol invasion.  He won two battles but refused to fight a third, saying, “I came here to learn dharma and not kill people.”  Because of his unwillingness to continue acting as protector, the Tibetan kingdom of Tangut fell in 1226 when the Mongols attacked again.

 

       The path of Mahamudra is known as tantra.  Tantra is unorthodox spiritual practice, often done in the midst of life, not necessarily while sitting in silence.  When monastic asceticism is not an option, one must transform all the daily things in ordinary life (normally considered the poisons of desire) into medicinal nectar.  In other words, when you cannot go to the monastery, you bring the sacredness of monastic retreat to your home and your workplace.  This seems like self-delusion and fantasy, but think again.  As quantum mechanics teaches, the solid objects around us are not so solid; they are a quantum foam, a sea of energy, and its ebbs and flows form a symphony that is conducted by the mind.  If you really believe you are in a sacred space, and treat it as such, it becomes sacred.  You are in a retreat even in the midst of battle.  If you visualize yourself as an angelic being in a Pure Land, you begin to become one.  When you have a difficult, distasteful job to do, you will be tainted by the negative karma of these necessary acts unless you can slip into the dimension of tantra and engage in actionless action.

 

       Padmasambhava, or “lotus born,” was an Indian sage believed to be a living Buddha.  He is said to have used perfect actionless action to enlighten others in strange ways.  According to tradition, he went about unclothed, lived in cemeteries, smeared his body with ashes, and broke every social and legal convention to demonstrate that, with proper mental skill, spiritual development, and compassionate intent, any action, no matter how awful on the surface, could direct a person towards enlightenment.  Padmasambhava was the first person to bring Buddhism to Tibet.  He began the Nyingma sect, the oldest of the four main branches of Tibetan Buddhism.  Padmasambhava showed that Yoga and Buddhism could be properly practiced in an infinite number of ways, and that no action could be rightly judged by surface appearances alone.

 

       The Indian sage, Bodhidharma felt compelled to pick up stakes and move to China.  According to tradition, he sat and meditated in a cave until he lost the use of his legs.  He brought the Dhyana (meditation) style of Buddhism to China, which became known as Chan (Zen in Japan).  He is said to have invented kung fu from the movement of animals in nature.  The monks of the Shao Lin Temple learned kung fu as part of their meditative training.  It began as a health-giving self-defense exercise, and then evolved to become the basis of all the martial arts, including Tai Ji Quan.  The only proper way to study kung fu or to use it in real life is to maintain the proper mental and spiritual attitude.  This means it is only to be used for good and only for defense.  A martial artist must therefore practice actionless action.  Their movements, while incredibly violent, are not done out of negative emotion.  Kung fu, when done properly, is not so much a matter of moving physical objects (your body, your weapons, the body of your opponent, etc.), as it is a metaphysical matter of controlling the vortex of energy within you and around you.  This is how Shao Lin masters can hang from trees by their necks without being choked, smash cinder blocks with their hands without breaking bones, rest all their weight on sharpened spears without being cut, start fires with their qi gong, and shoot needles like bullets while sparks come from their fingers.  They use their qi, not their muscles.  Ideally, they direct it while in an emotionless state, becoming one with the benevolent forces of the universe working for the greater good.    

 

       The Bhagavad Gita is perhaps the best example in history of actionless action.  The hero Arjuna rides his chariot to a position between two giant armies and sees that his family members are fighting on both sides, and so he cannot avoid killing some of them in the upcoming fight.  He is filled with disgust and is on the verge of abandoning the struggle.  Just then, his chariot driver reveals himself to be an avatar of Lord Krishna.  Krishna then lectures Arjuna on the need to look beyond the normal rule of ahimsa and do battle for the greater good.  Normally, non-violence is the way of Yoga, but in this case, India will be put under the rule of evil people if Arjuna refuses to take up arms.  It is not simply a matter of avoiding bloodshed; he is part of the ongoing equation and has a holy mission to perform, unpleasant as it may be in conventional terms.  Arjuna has a lengthy conversation with Krishna, after which he practices actionless action and wins a great victory.  

 

       How does a person go on and win although they are in an impossible situation?  More importantly, how do you do so without losing your mind or soul?  You do this by rising above yourself.  In every situation, you think of your body not as the real you, but as an avatar under the control of your spirit, which literally looks down on the scene from above the crown of the head.  The spirit drives the vehicle of the body.  When you realize that the real you your undying spirit is indestructible, it releases you from fear.  You must let go of the ego, all self-absorbed emotion, and all earthly desires.  Then you can see the big picture and make judgments based on concern for others who have not yet reached your plane of comprehension.  It is your job to thread the needle, find the way through the maze, undo the Gordian knot, and assist all others who are lost in the darkness of their own suffering to see the light.  By maintaining this state of repose, you are able to act without being internally affected.  You do not need to stop feeling; in fact you will feel the pain of others more acutely than before.  In so doing, you generate a dynamo of compassion, an overwhelming determination to save them.  This stops the waves that buffet you on a physical level from destabilizing your mind with negative emotions.  You vow that if your body ceases to exist, you will return to save others, and your fears of death dissipate.  Remaining focused on this goal ensures that after this life ends, you will once again return in a position to help others.  Those with no understanding of the mechanics of karma would argue that it is illogical to care so much for others and not for one’s own self.  People who think this way can debate anyone to a stand-still with logic and sophistry, but theirs is a foolish, specious argument.  In fact, the only reason we do not directly experience the unity of ourselves and others from birth is because we falsely believe that there is such a thing as “self” and “other” in the first place.  A fully-enlightened being like Jesus or Shayamuni Buddha can see that such distinctions are false.  At the highest level, all beings are one.  Knowing this as a rock-solid certainty is the key to engaging in actionless action, which is the secret to survival in difficult times  as well as the proper way to go through life in “ordinary” times of peace and stability.

woman sculpture

 

THE EGO AS AN ALGORITHM

       Each of us likes to think we do not have an ego, which we define as an inordinate amount of pride and narcissism.  No one ever admits to this.  Even the most narcissistic people who are so self-absorbed and full of pride that they could compete with Napoleon or Mussolini deny that they have an ego.  If they are proud or self-absorbed, they justify this by thinking that it is a proper reflection of their inner greatness.  The elimination of the entire ego is a necessary component of any serious self-improvement program, but ego must first be defined.  In terms of spiritual improvement, simply getting rid of pride and narcissism is too low a bar.  For starters, ridding oneself of the ego means that a person has to get rid of all self love and concern for reputation.

 

       This practice of destroying the ego was undertaken by the Christian Desert Fathers in Egypt.  Abba Macarius once ordered a brother to go to the cemetery and be abusive to the dead.  The brother went to the cemetery to curse the dead and throw stones at their graves.  The next day, he was ordered to go back to the cemetery and praise the dead, which he did.  When the brother returned home, Abba Macarius said to him that even as the dead did not react whether cursed or praised, so he too must be like a dead man, ignoring both praise and scorn, in order to be saved (Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 132).  

 

       In the Kabbalah tradition of Judaism, a student who wanted to learn meditation would be asked whether or not he felt unsettled by the insults of others.  If the answer was yes, he was advised to spend a few years deliberately ridding himself of the ego before being taught to meditate.

 

       In the Islamic Sufi tradition, the destruction of the ego is also extremely important.  When Shiblī offered to pay the Sufi master Junayd for divine knowledge, Junayd refused to take money, and instead assigned Shiblī the preliminary work of destroying the ego.  He told Shiblī to sell sulfur for a year, then live in the streets as a beggar for five years – until his concern for reputation had been eviscerated.  Only then did Junayd accept him as a disciple (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, 34-35).   

 

       In Buddhist terms, the creation of the ego is a result of the belief that the apparent material world is the only world that exists, which implies that the self is an independently-existing entity that deserves special treatment.  This is explained by the model of the five skandhas, or “aggregates.”  It is composed of five interconnected links in an ever-spinning spiral that combine to create the persuasive illusion that the temporary self we see in the mirror is the true self.

 

       The first skandha is rupa, the tendency of space to create forms in the proximity of sentient beings, or even in proximity to the field of mind generated by these beings.  These shapes include our bodies, our sense organs, and all the visible patterns of the universe around us.  Why do forms result from emptiness?  To fully understand it, you must first become enlightened.  Until then, just accept that forms appear from emptiness, but that the forms are themselves empty of independent existence.  If you demand an explanation before you accept this, you are like the foolish man in Buddha’s parable of the poisoned arrow, who demanded that someone explain to him who made the arrow, where the poison came from, why the arrow was shot, etc., prior to the arrow being pulled out.  He died of the poison, never knowing the answers to these questions.

 

       The second skandha is vedana, or perception.  This refers to the fact that sentient beings, while in the form of an incarnated living shape, use their sense organs to perceive the forms around them.  This limits our ability to comprehend the true nature of forms, as it restricts our data intake to the limited input that our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind allow.  When we become over-reliant on the senses for our understanding, we shut ourselves off from our innate intuition and extra-sensory perception.

 

       The third skandha is samjna, or recognition.  This means we take the jumble of information we receive from our senses and rapidly assimilate it according to our past experiences.  Like any animal, we classify the things we encounter into meaningful, predefined categories: this is a car, that’s a house, a person, a fork, a cell phone, etc.  When we see something we don’t recognize, we are curious.  We investigate and look closely.  If we can’t make sense of it, we make notes to ourselves like, “it has the body of a horse and the wings of a bird” until we come up with a new term like Pegasus to describe it.  Some things we just put into a box labeled “does not fit with any known category.”  Some of us leave this box alone.  Others try to resolve its mysteries, which leads us to read and inquire widely, which leads us to the discovery of teachings like this about the skandhas.  

 

       The fourth skandha is samskaras, or mental formations.  This includes all thoughts and concepts.  In terms of our relationship with the outside world, this refers to the determination of our relationship with objects.  We have an implicit understanding of each thing we have identified in terms of its standing vis-a-vis ourselves and our interests.  Food is good, but some food is better than other foods.  Poison is bad, but some poisons are worse than others.  A gold nugget is always something to grab and hold onto.  A radioactive chunk of uranium, although valuable, is to be avoided.  An attractive person draws us closer.  A person with qualities we don’t like repels us.  Money is always something we want.  Disease is always something we don’t want.  These mental formations color our ideas of the world in a fundamental way and make objective thought impossible.  The fourth skandha also implies that our actions towards these objects (that appear to be external to us) follow according to our mental formations about them and appear to validate our ideas.  We run from fire and avoid getting burned, we seek cool water and it slakes our thirst.  This makes us believe that our notions about what gives us pleasure and pain, what makes us happy and sad, etc. are all well-founded.  Our stranglehold on the nature of reality, false though it may be, is reinforced. 

 

       The fifth skandha is vijnana, the awareness of the first four skandhas.  It refers to the seamless continuation of this conscious experience.  We see things, process the data, categorize, determine a course of action based on what we determine to be a proper relationship with objects around us (usually: accumulate money, seek out pleasure, avoid pain), and the fact that this formula works well enough most of the time appears to prove that our thesis about the world around us is correct.  We wake up in the house that we bought with the money we earned, and enjoy the things we accumulated (food, furniture, cars, etc.).  Those who do not carefully avoid the things they should avoid (dangerous people, things, and situations) seem to meet with unfortunate consequences.  The continuity of this all reinforces our belief in the world created by the skandhas.  This is very similar to the way a series of still pictures can be flashed in sequence to create the illusion of motion.  The ongoing "movie" of our conscious experience possesses a convincing continuity which reinforces our belief that it is the one and only truth.  Unless a person does a lot of drugs, their sense perceptions do not periodically glitch out into static, go into a dark state of limbo, then reboot in a different body looking at entirely different scenery.  If this happened on a regular basis, we would begin to doubt the reality of our present situation.  Since this doesn’t happen, it appears to confirm what scientists take for granted: that our collective experience in the material world is – for want of a better term – "real" (that is to say, we are tricked into thinking that objects have an independent existence).  Scottish philosopher David Hume noticed the disconnect between this assumption of reality and our ability to prove it:

 

       The mind has never anything present to it but the perceptions, and cannot possibly reach any experience of their connexion with objects.  The supposition of such a connexion  . . . is, therefore, without any foundation in reasoning.

 

       Hume’s observation about this fault at the heart of all scientific thought was never really answered in a meaningful way.  Scientists generally think we need to move beyond Hume’s doubts, as if dwelling too long on his critique would prevent further experimentation.  Actually, his concerns can be traced all the way back to the original disagreement between Plato and Aristotle.  Plato looked at the physical world as something that, due to its transitory nature, was unreliable and illusory.  Aristotle saw the physical world as a legitimate area of inquiry in the search for truth, and he viewed the senses as necessary tools for its exploration.  By declaring that our bodies and the things around us are “real” (in the ultimate sense – having firm, independent existence) without acknowledging that this is an assumption, we are jumping to an unfounded conclusion.  This conundrum is reminiscent of the Daoist sage, Zhuang Zi, who had a famous dream of being a butterfly, then awakening to wonder if he was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamed he was a man.  Hume, Plato, and Zhuang Zi all have a good point that scientists do not like to admit.  If we cannot find a control or an escape hatch to step outside ourselves and view what is happening objectively, how can we ever be sure what actually comprises the true nature of reality?  

 

       The existence of the self is a trick of the skandhas to convince each of us that we – as in the person we think of when we sign our name – exist in a meaningful way.  “Of course I exist,” each of us thinks, “Here I am right now.  Look at me.  I see myself in the mirror,”  or, as Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”  The real question we can never answer with logic alone is: what will we do when we no longer have a body?  The scientist, trapped in the material view (like Apasmara, the stunted demon from Hindu iconography), says there will then be no more existence of the self after death.  This assertion, made without any evidence, of course flies in the face of the wisdom of all religious teachings.  These teachings are represented by the god Shiva, who tramples the demon underfoot in the eternal triumph of wisdom over ignorance (that which is grounded in time and space, and which wrongly believes there is nothing more to reality than what the senses can perceive).  Thus, like AI software that mistakenly believes itself to be an independent, living entity, we imagine ourselves (our imaginary selves, our egos) to be real in a permanent, meaningful way.  Laboring under this delusion, we use the senses to view the physical world around us and mistake it to be truth: the only reality there is.  So, an imaginary thing imagines itself to be real, looks at imaginary things, imagines a set of opinions about them, and then creates a set of algorithms to justify its erroneous, self-serving views.  This invented algorithm is the basis of the synthetic set of interconnected suppositions that compose the ego.  All living beings inevitably mistake this apparent set of likes and dislikes, the sense of an existent self with a body, the appearance of our body, the way we expect others to react to the sight of us, our reputation, as well as all our thoughts and conceptions of ourselves and the world around us, etc. (essentially the five skandhas) for their true selves.  The Buddha said this was absolutely not the case: the skandhas are not the real you.  The ego is not the real you.  

 

       If we are to have any success in eradicating the ego, we must first admit that we have one, and then recognize how expansive and deeply-rooted it is.  It isn’t just a matter of not being a stuck-up jerk; it is a matter of realizing that everything we assume about the world and ourselves, no matter how nice a person we may be, is based on the illusion of the skandhas.  We have to deconstruct the ego from the inside out, understanding how its architecture was created from a series of interdependent effects chasing each other around like a string of bulbs lighting in sequence to create the illusion of movement.  It seems to be real because of our ongoing experience of it, but this is what makes the trap so hard to escape.  The Buddha stated that people, failing to fully comprehend his teachings, become "tangled like a ball of string" in views (diṭṭhis), which condition the mind and ensure the continuance of samsara, the cycle of rebirth and suffering.  If we cannot stop having an ego, then we cannot eliminate ego-clinging and desire.  If we can’t get rid of desire, we can never properly practice any spiritual path and reach enlightenment.  If, on the other hand, we succeed at seeing through the ego, we can realize that there are actually no insides or outsides.  Our minds are not located in our brains as we assume, nor are we located in our bodies.  We are infinite and eternal.  The first step toward higher consciousness is understanding and believing this.  We imagine what it must be like to be omnipresent and omniscient, but in fact we already possess these qualities.  We do not experience them directly yet because we are blocked by the skandhas and our sense of ego.  The ability to experience this enlightenment is buddha-nature, which is hidden yet accessible for all of us.  The problem is that we refuse to accept the fact of our own infinite self, and this refusal prevents us from accessing the truth.  The water cannot flow unless we unclog the pipe, but as long as we identify ourselves with the ego, we are thinking of ourselves as the blockage, not the pipe, and therefore we cannot conceive of how to bring about a higher state of being.

 

       In considering this enigma and the means of resolving it, I often think of a movie I saw as a kid: the 1978 made-for-television version of The Thief of Baghdad, starring Roddy McDowall.  In one scene (one hour, 14 minutes, and 30 seconds in), the thief was inside a giant cavern.  The prized magic jewel – the all-seeing eye – was in the ceiling far above him.  He sized up the situation and was disappointed to discover that the eye was impossibly high overhead.  Then he noticed the inscription “BEHOLD THE TRUTH LIES WITHIN THY REACH” written on the floor below.  After pondering the message, he intuited its meaning.  He ignored what his senses were telling him and extended his hand upward toward the distant prize.  When he did so, he found that the height of the ceiling was a mirage.  The jewel had only been within his grasp all along.

beach-meditation

 

MEDITATION

 

       What is meditation?  It depends who you ask.  Some teachers say that it is the absence of thought.  One form of practice is to empty the mind and attempt to keep it empty for as long as possible.  One teacher described meditation as what happens in your mind in the space between thoughts.  The majority of the public seems to have accepted this idea of meditation as the emptying of the mind, although this is only one technique.  Many more meditation practices exist, and they usually include things like contemplation, focused concentration, visualization, and imagination.  For example, a person could contemplate on death and impermanence, on the devotion their parents gave them, on the lack of substance to the strata of what we call “reality,” or on the suffering of others.  A practitioner could concentrate on a mantra, a mandala, a statue, an image, or a written character.  They could visualize the flow of energy in their body, the appearance of a deity and loving coming from such beings, or sending blessings from themselves to others.  A person could imagine that they were exchanging places with another person to feel their suffering (and grow their compassion), that they were in fact a deity, or that they were in a heaven-like paradise.  These are just a few of the countless methods a person could employ in the process of the average meditation session.   

 

       How is meditation different from prayer?  Again, it depends who you ask and what your practice entails.  For the most part, prayer tends to be about communication with a higher power.  It is usually a matter of making requests or offering thanks.  The underlying idea in the minds of most believers in monotheistic religions is that God is separate and apart from oneself.  For some people, prayer may mean far more than this, but in general, a duality is assumed.  Meditation, on the other hand, is more a matter of attempting a transformation.  The underlying idea is that you are in fact a unity with the supreme ultimate, however you may conceive of it, and that your goal is to remove the artificial sense of separation that exists in your mind.  The idea is that by visualizing and imagining, you are not just playing games with thoughts; your thoughts are shaping reality itself.  The code that programs reality begins at the level of mind.  Mind is not dependent on chemistry and physics; chemistry and physics are created by fields of mind-consciousness, all of which can be altered and reprogrammed by a single mind, the closer to enlightenment, the better.  To make progress in this realm is much like lifting weights in a dark room with exercise equipment that is completely intangible.  It takes great effort to even begin to make progress, but the exercises that lead to improvement are so abstract that, in the beginning at least, it is difficult to know if you are doing them correctly in the first place.  The style of meditation all depends on the purpose one intends, as well as the school of meditation or teacher from which they draw inspiration.    

 

       Of course, meditation doesn’t take place in a vacuum.  The point of meditation is to improve oneself, and so it must include other aspects of life, including philosophy, posture, breathing, lifestyle, behavior, attitude, thought process, self-image, and perhaps diet.  To imagine otherwise would be tantamount to thinking that by touching one’s toes daily, their entire figure would change in a few weeks’ time.  A person cannot break all negative habits  especially mental habits  overnight.  Yet, on the other hand, there is no limit to what proper meditation and lifestyle can achieve over time.  

 

       There is nothing strange or occult about meditation.  Thinking itself is a form of meditation.  In one sense, the terms “meditation” and “prayer” are only words, with semantics attached that limit our conception of their meaning based on past associations and practices.  Meditation can include thankfulness, requests, and communication with higher powers.  Similarly, there is nothing to prevent the definition of prayer from encompassing all the meanings we have traditionally ascribed to meditation.  If we take the words of the sages seriously, we should make meditation (and/or prayer) the top priority in our lives.  If we don’t take the words of the sages seriously, we should ask ourselves: why not?  It may be that you cannot believe these seemingly-magical transformations can be real because you’ve never seen such things with your own eyes.  If this is the case, I strongly encourage you to get out more.  Seek, and you shall find.

the Matrix

 

EMPTINESS AND FORM

 

       According to religion, the material world is empty and only the world of the spirit has meaning.  For the rich and powerful of this world, the billionaires and elites, this idea sounds like insanity.  If we turn our attention away from the visible world and pursue intangibles instead, aren’t we just chasing mirages?  The rich and powerful are rarely troubled by the renunciates of the world, so the aristocracy goes about their business of bossing the planet and lets the religious folk do their own thing in relative obscurity.  Who is right, though: the billionaires or the spiritual-minded?  In what sense can the material world be described as empty and without meaning?

 

       Emptiness is a major theme in Buddhism.  People wonder what the word means, and often take it to be an indication that nothing matters, or that there is no value in anything.  This is a complete misunderstanding of the expression.  Some people oversimplify the teachings of Buddhism and summarize them poorly by saying “nothing is real.”  It is much better to say that, when one reaches a deeper level of being, one can see that the physical world around us can be more accurately described as a virtual world.  When one “gets it” 100% and reaches the state of enlightenment, you can “hack the system” so to speak, and perform miracles.  The classic 1999 science fiction movie, The Matrix, was entirely based on the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness.  Perhaps the best way to grasp the concept is to picture all the things you would buy if you won the lottery: large house, fancy cars, yachts, delicious gourmet meals, trips to beautiful places all around the world, etc.  Now imagine all of it turning into soap bubbles.  Deconstruct the objects of desire by viewing them as foam and then asking yourself again why it seems so attractive.  A house or a car made of bubbles would not be of much use, would it?  As you reach out to grasp it, it would disappear like smoke in your hand.  It is literally composed of empty air, and moreover it will disintegrate in a few short moments as the bubbles pop.  The logical mind argues that a physical thing made of steel, plastic, wood, electronics, etc. is different: it can be held in the hand, its solidity can be felt.  It can be used as a functional object and enjoyed for years – in some cases for your entire life.  The conventional mind screams out that this use over time to satisfy one’s desires seems to have measurable value, and therefore the importance of the item (and hence our pursuit of it) should not be discounted.  Even when this is the case and an item (like a diamond ring) lasts a lifetime, we cannot stop ourselves from aging and one day dying.  When this happens, and our spirit passes to the other side, the emptiness of all worldly things will become clear.  All the objects to which we held so tightly during life will (from our point of view) dissolve like mist, and then we ourselves will dissolve.  The truth will be seen with clarity – that our insistence on desiring worldly things (and experiences) was folly.  Savoring each precious moment of time is a good idea, but the way a renunciate meditator does this versus the way a hedonist does this are poles apart.  The renunciate considers time to be a precious opportunity to become enlightened, not titillate the senses.  When a person fully appreciates the doctrine of emptiness, they must agree that the person who spends their time seeking satisfaction through the experience of the senses is completely wrong.

       For those who think these Buddhist ideas do not fit with Christianity, think again.  Jesus clearly states that earthly riches and luxuries are empty and that the only things which matter are those of the spirit.  In Matthew 19:21, Jesus says, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”  In Matthew 19:24, Jesus declares, “. . . it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”  In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus says “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  In 1 John 2:15 - 2:17, Jesus says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”  In Matthew 6:24, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money.”  Jesus had only a short time on earth between his baptism and his crucifixion; if he had been given as many years as Shakyamuni to instruct people, he no doubt would have said even more about emptiness.

 

       The Heart Sutra says that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.  One way of explaining this is that forms arise out of emptiness when seen or contemplated by sentient beings, and that seemingly solid objects are actually nothing more than a vacuous quantum foam.  This is to say that material reality is empty of independent origin: all things are interdependent on all other things in a ceaseless chain of cause and effect.  Things do not necessarily “exist” in definite form until such time as they are observed, thought of, or interacted with by a conscious entity.  This raises questions about the definition of existence.  Does an avatar in a video game exist?  Does the virtual world around him exist?  How different are we from the avatar and how different are our surroundings from his?  Are we both stuck in Plato’s cave, looking at shadows on the wall and assuming they are “real” because they are consistent with the rest of our experience?  How can we be sure this is the substratum level of “reality” with no more hidden levels beneath?

       If we truly understood emptiness, we would not allow ourselves to develop an ego, lose our patience, or become angry.  According to Shechen Gyaltsap, when a person is angry at having been wronged:

       "If we check carefully, the victim, the aggressor, and the harm are, all three, devoid of intrinsic existence.  They are like things in a magical display, so who would get angry at them?  The same text says:

       Knowing this, we will not be annoyed

       At things that are like magical appearances.

And,

       When things that in this way are empty

       What is there to gain and what to lose?

       What is there to give me joy and pain?

       May beings like myself discern and grasp

       That all things have the character of space!"

       (from A Chariot to Freedom, page 361, citing the text, The Way of the Bodhisattva, by Shantideva)

 

       Furthermore, if we truly understood emptiness, our entire culture would change.  We would not chase after wealth, fame, and power, nor would we idolize people who do so.  In the fully-democratic future, we may no longer need political leaders, but we could definitely benefit from spiritual advisors who possess wisdom, beginning with a basic understanding of emptiness.  The quality that must accompany true wisdom is compassion.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have leaders (in terms of influencers, role models, and good examples) who had wisdom and compassion instead of greed and narcissism?  If we restructure society to reflect our spiritual values, we could turn our attention to people who had these positive qualities and try to emulate them.  The ideal restructuring of the world around us must begin with the proper reordering of our thoughts to bring them in line with quantum realities regarding emptiness.  With our thoughts, we create the world.

Spirit Light

 

SPIRITUALITY FOR ATHEISTS AND AGNOSTICS

 

       My focus has been almost entirely upon reconciling the core teachings of different religions with one another and reverse-engineering a practical, pragmatic manner for us all to live together in peace.  This is due to the facts that (1) most people in the world are religious, (2) religious disagreements have been the main impetus for war throughout history, and (3) the spiritual teachings at the heart of the major religions are, first of all, demonstrably true and, secondly, full of wisdom (which is absolutely essential if we are to survive).  The fact that I do not mention atheism or agnosticism in Utopia Found does not mean I envision a future in which atheists and agnostics will be faced with a choice of pretending to believe something in order to be accepted into an interfaith group or being somehow left out.  It is my personal belief that, as more research is done and more evidence is made available, the power of the mind and the “miraculous” abilities of certain spiritually-advanced individuals will be so well-documented that the number of people who cling to the mechanist theory will shrink as dramatically as the number of people who think the earth is flat.  My prediction aside, there is still an important question regarding how atheism and agnosticism can be integrated into a world based primarily on multifaith, spiritually-oriented cooperative communities.

 

       To begin with, atheists, who deny the existence of God, and agnostics, who decline to take a position on the issue, are originally a Western phenomenon.  Both groups have adopted a point of view in opposition to mainstream Christian culture, which has been dominant in Europe for the last 1500 years.  This is a monotheistic belief system that proposes the existence of an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, pre-existent, benevolent male entity that created the entire universe, guides its development, and determines which souls are allowed into heaven.  Those whose intellects rebel against this “old man in the sky” cosmology have felt alienated by the majority culture around them.  They have chosen to declare their opposition to the type of monotheism with which they disagree, and in doing so, have ironically been defined by it.  The debates between believers and atheists over the centuries have been framed by the type of belief that happened to exist in Europe.  The particular beliefs regarding God that are held by Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and other Christian groups have some differences, and the view of God held by all these Christians may again have some key differences with the view of God held by Jews (of all denominations) and Muslims (of all sects), and in all cases, the views of an atheist are shaped by the fact that they are, by definition, counter to the particular religious beliefs of the people around them.  To be more clear about their opinions, atheists (and agnostics) must be more specific as to the nature of the God in which they do not believe.

 

       While there have been doubters of religion in all times and places, what we think of as “atheism” is a product of European civilization.  The intellectual refutation of the simplistic idea of a king in the clouds is form-fitted to a particular time and place.  It is a statement of disagreement, not a clear and independent belief in anything.  It is like a pre-shaped buttress, meant to resist the pressure from a particular wall to prevent collapse.  Although some of the points of contact may be similar between this object and any other wall in the world, such a buttress will only fit properly with the one wall for which it was made.  If we attempt to apply one brand of atheism to a different religion, we find that the conception of God is different, and therefore the counter-argument must also be different.  The ideas of God that are held by Hindus, Sikhs, Bahá'ís, and Jains are all dissimilar in their own ways from the Abrahamic conception of God.  Other large religions do not mention God at all in the sense of a prime mover, but they nonetheless have a belief in an overarching order.  Understanding how Buddhists, Daoists, believers in Chinese Folk Religion, or the adherents of countless other indigenous religions conceive of what could be called God, the “Great Spirit,” or the “Supreme Ultimate” is like exploring a shifting, multi-dimensional maze that each person is expected to solve for themselves.  In the mystic tradition of Eastern religions, there are no clear answers, only a paradox as deep as the impenetrable contradictions of the quantum world.  An atheist who has not considered their views on these things (or spent large amounts of time personally exploring these belief systems) is a lot like a bigot who hates people from one other part of the world and is not sophisticated enough to know that any other people exist besides the group with which they identify and the group they have chosen to despise.

 

       Atheism can of course be extended into a more free-standing expression of belief if attached to a fully mechanist interpretation of the universe and a secular humanist philosophy.  A person can live a rich, fulfilling life in this fashion, assuming they did so according to lofty, altruistic principles.  They could examine their lives thoughtfully, as Socrates instructed, and make every day count by trying to advance science and benefit humanity.  There is no reason why the contributions of a caring, loving, conscientious atheist are necessarily any less valuable to the world than the contributions of a religious devotee.  The fact that I disagree with the fundamental atheist tenet of non-belief in a particular religion, along with the mechanist theory to which atheists normally subscribe, is unimportant when it comes to the question of working together to save the planet.  According to my recommendation for the creation of a wide spectrum of co-op communities to fit every person’s preferences (along with a culture and an education system that produces people who care about others and are willing to focus not on their own hedonistic pleasures, but on alleviating the suffering of others), there will be enough choices to fit everyone's need.  People who belong to a non-religious classification could, just as people who are involved with a particular religion, join a co-op that has a diverse collection of folks who agree to follow certain stated principles and allow certain practices, or join a co-op with a less diverse collection of people, and can tailor the specific rules and norms of their culture and living arrangements in any way the majority so wishes.  We have to trust that in the end, people will make choices that people in the more distant future will consider to have been wise decisions, and things will improve rather than implode. 


       I often use the word spirituality, which leads to the question of what this means for an atheist, who may reject the whole notion of multidimensional spirituality.  When it comes to spiritual improvement for an atheist or an agnostic, we can look at the subject in the broadest sense and consider any effort to improve the self or assist others – to attempt to discipline the mind, show empathy, feel compassion, be patient, be hardworking, be generous, absorb the teachings of others, remain humble, and stay focused – as a kind of spiritual improvement.  When we reduce self-improvement to these admirable traits, they closely resemble the Six Paramitas of Buddhism or the Seven Heavenly Virtues of Christianity.  If we drop the idea that you must first believe in a God or a metaphysical spirit that exists beyond this life and focus on these useful qualities instead, it is easy to find enough common ground between religious believers and non-believers to allow the two groups to work together to make the world a better place.  There will continue to be disagreements, but we can agree to disagree peacefully and all work for the greater good in our own way, with all individuals being allowed to live in communities that give them adequate space, freedom, and respect.  

       In conclusion, while I disagree with the existentialist conclusions of an atheist as well as their practice of letting the incidental proximity of a certain brand of monotheism dictate the parameters of their own thinking, I have a lot more in common with an open-minded atheist than I do with an closed-minded Bible-thumping preacher who thinks all non-Christians are going to burn in hell forever, but who has never even taken the time to understand other religions (and I feel the same alienation when considering similar intolerant zealots of any religion).  I am certain that over time a more enlightened scientific approach will research what we now call “paranormal” phenomena, demonstrate their validity, and cause the vast majority of people to accept the power of mind over matter.  I think often of Shakyamuni Buddha's admonition not to take his words on faith alone, but to put his words to the test, just as gold is tested.  If we think of spiritual teachings not as religion to take on faith or reject for lack of it, but as a theory to be put through a series of trials, with ourselves as the experiments, then our quest for spiritual truth is undertaken with the same attitude of objectivity with which we approach science.  I have no doubt that this cultural shift will eventually change our entire conception of God and, by extension, what we consider to be atheism or agnosticism.  In the meantime, we need to understand that spirituality comes on a number of levels, from performing miracles to praying to just doing good deeds and trying to help others.  While I personally believe that spiritual practices (as in Yoga) are supremely important, and I plan to try and convince others of this with hard evidence (just as I was convinced), the most basic agreements we need in order to survive and thrive only require that we all agree to care for others as ourselves, regardless of our individual theology or lack of theology.  Religious adherents can agree to amicably disagree with atheists and agnostics just as believers in different religions must agree to peacefully disagree with one another.  The most important thing to remember is that we are all in this together.  

enlightenment

 

THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS WITHIN YOU

 

       One translation of Luke 17: 21 is: “The kingdom of heaven is within you.”  Whether or not this translation is precisely what Luke had in mind, or what Jesus would have said if he had spoken English,  the idea contained in this sentence is a profound one.  The question remains: what exactly does it mean?  Most people imagine heaven as a place they go after they die, but few ponder deeply what this really indicates.  The general consensus is that heaven is up in the sky, but no one actually expects to find it with a telescope or a spacecraft.  When we say it is “up,” it is really a way of saying it is superior to life here on earth, not actually occupying a physical locality beyond the planet.  So, is heaven to be found in another dimension?  Can such things be described in cartesian coordinates at all, like the imaginary points in a geometry question with X, Y, and Z axes?  If, therefore, the location of heaven is not a thing that can be pinned down with certainty, then it seems the normal ideas of up, down, inside, and outside no longer apply.  Time and space are no longer relevant when we speak of heaven.

 

       In Hinduism, the God that is omnipresent is called Brahman.  There are a few key differences, but in general, this God is described much as the God of Abraham in Judaism: the entire universe, the power that maintains it, as well as the pre-existing source of its creation.  There is a twist in Hinduism, though: the spark of God in you that constitutes your soul is known as Atman.  The Atman-Brahman self is the realized truth that you and God are one.  When the two become re-connected through Yoga, moksha (enlightenment) occurs.  This is said to be like a drop of water entering the ocean and becoming one with the whole ocean.  The two are indistinguishable, although one seems infinitely large and the other seems miniscule by comparison.  In fact, though, if we are dropping our conceptions of time and space, all these notions of scales and relative sizes must also be discarded.  All of Brahman is contained in Atman.  To put that into Judeo-Christian terms, all of heaven (and all reality) is contained inside every soul.  

 

       This sounds impossible, but that is because we have to stop using our rational minds to try and make sense of it.  This need to stop thinking in earthly terms is reflected in Matthew 22, when Christ is asked a trick question about heaven.  In a complex, “what if”-style thought experiment, a woman is married to seven brothers in succession, and Jesus is asked to which of them she will be married in heaven.  Jesus points out that God is for the living, not the dead, and that there is no marriage among angels in heaven.  Relationships in heaven (where our living spirits will reside) are therefore completely different from human relationships on the earthly plane.  When we are no longer in human form, our mundane attachments are left behind and only the living, eternal spirit (the true us) continues.  This is impossible to fully comprehend until we enter the state of full sainthood and begin to see the kingdom of heaven.  This can also be done right here and now, while we still exist in physical form.  How?  By unlocking the kingdom of heaven that exists within us.

 

       A Buddhist parable describes a wrestler who had a prized gem he wore on his forehead during his matches.  Once he lost the gem during a bout.  As the surgeon dressed his wounds, he washed off the mud and blood and discovered that the gem was not lost at all, but still on the man’s forehead.  He held up a mirror for him to see and he was amazed.  This is like the story in Matthew 13:44-13:46: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.  One day a man found the treasure, and then he hid it in the field again.  He was so happy that he went and sold everything he owned to buy that field.”  Another version of the story appears in the Gospel of Thomas in the Nag Hammadi Library, where Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a field containing buried treasure, of which the owner is unaware (The Nag Hammadi Library, page 137).  The operative idea is that the kingdom of heaven (like Buddha-nature in Buddhism) exists in all of us, but is hidden away from our perception, beyond the ordinary world of the senses.  To find it, we must employ a subtle means of observing ourselves, much like staring at a 3-D picture for a long time until the hidden image reveals itself.  This subtle method of solving the invisible Rubik’s Cube is Yoga (meditation, prayer, contemplation, renunciation, etc.).  This is the path taught by the world’s mystic sages, all of whom are telling us virtually the same thing.  The similarities are clear, but can only be appreciated if we brush away the irrelevant cultural differences and get to the heart of the matter.  Only when we all search with persistence for the kingdom of heaven within ourselves will we find inner peace, and only then can we make the world around us peaceful like the harmonious and angelic realm that we imagine awaits us in the afterlife.  It cannot exist around us until we unlock the treasure within us.  Fortunately, the key is already in our hands.  

Dad as a little kid
Dad as a young adult
Dad and the dogs

LIVING WITH IMPERMANENCE

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

You're only dancin' on this earth for a short while.

And though your dreams may toss and turn you now,

They will vanish away like your dad's best jeans, 

Denim blue, faded up to the sky.

And though you want them to last forever,

You know they never will,

You know they never will,

And the patches make the goodbye harder still.

 

       These lyrics from Cat Stevens make me want to write a piece devoted to someone who, as Salieri said to Mozart in Amadeus, deserved a proper requiem but never got one.  Let me begin with the ending, then share an overview of the life of my father, Mark Albert Reicherter (born into this world on February 9, 1942, and left it on March 1, 2024), and conclude with final thoughts of a practical and constructive nature for living properly in a world filled with death.  Those whose loved ones are healthy one minute and then suffer a sudden demise are tortured by the fact that they never had a chance to say good-bye while the person was alive and conscious.  On the other hand, those whose loved ones linger for years are tormented by having to watch a family member deteriorate with no hope of recovery.  For the last two years of his life, Dad was in his own room in a care home tucked away down a quiet street.  Mom visited him every day (usually twice a day) and the rest of us visited when we were able.  In the beginning, we could still get him into the car to drive around town or even take him home for the afternoon.  Each time I saw Dad, I imagined him as he was back in the 90s.  It seems like only yesterday.  I envisioned him driving through town in his old blue Toyota pickup, a Western Bacon Cheeseburger in one hand and our two dogs, Max and Jones, hanging out the rear windows of the camper shell (he would often buy another burger for the dogs to share, or an extra ice cream cone), on his way to do something that seemed all-important at the time: buy or sell books at the bookstore, visit garage sales, estate sales, or thrift stores looking for treasures (usually for others), do some shopping, hang out at the fairgrounds, drop off an article he had written for the local newspaper, drive up to Lake Tahoe to make some bets on sports and eat at a buffet, stop at the community television station to interview some local celebrity on his show (People and Places) or just drive down a particular street so the dogs could bark at some local frienemy canines (who would wait all day for the sound of his truck).  People used to call him the Mayor of Camino because he lived as freely as if he owned the place.  In my imagination, the middle-aged, healthy, and independent version of Dad sailed past us, heading east on Main Street, but in reality we turned up the narrow lane to visit the older, terminal version.  It seemed wrong that a man with such a vibrant personality, who gave so much happiness to so many others, should pass away in a little room with only a few people present.  If all his friends from all the years gone by could have been there with him, the throng would have filled a large auditorium.  Then one day it happens, and the person who brought you into this world, raised you, fed you, clothed you, cared for you, taught you right from wrong (usually), and loved you with all their heart is no more.  I wish the whole world knew him as I knew him.

       My dad was born in San Dimas, California two months after America entered World War Two.  His father was a Los Angeles County sheriff and his mother worked part time.  He had one older brother.  The boys were generally loved, but my grandpa was an unhappy person with anger issues, so corporal punishment was excessive.  In a family where most people seemed to be frowning most of the time, my dad always had an impish grin.  He loved humor.  His jokes were often inappropriate and misplaced, and they often got him into trouble, but he never stopped.  The main reason for this, I think, was his determination not to let his parents’ grumpiness get him down.  Another important reason was his lifelong goal of always trying to bring cheer to others.  Dad loved baseball and he was good at it.  He kept a few trophy baseballs, including one from a no-hitter that he pitched when he was only twelve, along with a lot of newspaper clipping from games he won.  In high school, he also played basketball and football, but it was as a pitcher in baseball that he had his earliest glory days

       After high school, Dad had surgery on his left elbow due to damage from pitching, and it was this that kept him out of the draft for the Vietnam War later.  Never a great student, Dad didn’t go to college right away.  First he tried working for parks and recreation to get kids into physical activity.  Later, he opened his own trophy shop.  I knew him only as a father, but when I see black and white pictures of him around age 20 – a full, legal adult, but still single and free as a bird, with his whole life ahead of him – it always makes me think of of him in a whole new way: as a young man who could have chosen a different path than to become my father.  I remember the scene at the end of Field of Dreams, where Kevin Costner meets his own dad from a time before he became a father, and I imagine what it must have been like for him to be 20.  I can see Dad in the Southern California desert, driving around in his VW bug with his black Labrador, Moose, hanging out the window.  He’s wondering where he should live, what he should do, who he should marry, how many kids to have: all the big questions that would dictate the majority of his life.  From my vantage point in 2024, I know how the rest of his story plays out, but for Dad at that moment in time, the future was just a glimmer on the horizon.  I know it's silly, but I can't help but wonder: if some intergalactic Doctor Who set the coordinates of their TARDIS for Southern California in the summer of 1962, would they find Dad with a dog and a fishing pole somewhere along Highway 395?  Of course if he hadn’t followed the course he did from that point forward, I wouldn’t be here, and for that I am eternally grateful.

       It was in August or September of 1964 that he met my mother.  She had been born in Holland in 1943 and had come to America when she was 13.   One of their first dates was to see the movie Mary Poppins.  Dad had to join the Dutch Reformed Church in order to get her parents on board with their engagement.  One of the earliest 8mm home movie clips I have of my dad shows him with Mom on a sofa.  Always a wild and crazy guy, he holds up a can of whipped cream like he is doing a TV commercial, puts it to his mouth, throws his head back, and pretends to drink it.  On September 10, 1965, they were married.  I was born three years later and my brother three years after that.  During this period, Dad went to night school and got a degree in sociology.  They had a lot of stress over money.  Dad worked as a prison guard for a while, and he related that there was once a riot among the inmates.  He was the lowest man on the totem pole, so they gave him a pistol and a shotgun and made him stay behind in the room where prisoners’ records were kept while all other staff members evacuated temporarily.  It was lucky for all of us that he survived the night.  I was kept blissfully unaware of these traumatic episodes.  I remember mostly good things from those days: driving on the "bunny rabbit road" at night to see my grandparents in Hemet (Dad would speed over the hills so we would catch a little air in the VW, then spot rabbits in the high-beams as they scattered in the distance), taking me to see planes come in for a landing at the airport, going to Disneyland, playing outdoors, riding my Big Wheel, watching TV shows like Johnny Quest, Gilligan's Island, Speed Racer, and Scooby Doo from a fort made from couch cushions, pretending to be the Mummy (Mom or Dad would play the unsuspecting archaeologist, and would read the curse tablet while I stood like a statue with folded hands, waiting to be activated, again and again), taking me to see a giant talking balloon-pumpkin for Halloween, making Christmas decorations, or playing with toy trains.  Dad was always nearby, trying to seize the moment – always thinking of fun things for us to do, always trying to be the best dad he could be.

       Following Dad's work assignments in the Department of Corrections, we moved from LA to Morro Bay for a brief stay, then to an apartment in Sacramento when I was about five, then bought a house in Fair Oaks when I was six.  We lived there, on Earnscliff Avenue, for 11 years.  On school nights when Mom was in night school at CSUS studying accounting, Dad would let us stay up past our bedtime.  One thing we did was stack up cardboard tubes, put wax on the linoleum, then (wearing socks) run and slide into the wall of tubes to make them collapse on us.  When we heard the sound of Mom’s car coming back, we would run through the house turning off all the lights, jump into bed, and pretend to be asleep (as if we were fooling anyone).  Dad took us to see a lot of movies.  One film experience stood out among all others: he had read in the newspaper about a new movie called Star Wars that almost no one had heard of yet, and we made to the last showing at Century 21 Theater (the cool dome theaters they used to have) on the first day it was released, which happened to be my ninth birthday.  The lobby was empty because everyone was crammed into the theater, half of them wearing weird costumes.  There were only a few seats left in the very front row.  It was a bit surreal, as the crowd was completely silent while we took our seats.  They all seemed to know something we didn't.  Then the lights dimmed.  The movie began with the unlikely words, "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way," and the rest was history.  To say we were blown away by Star Wars would be the understatement of the century.  I saw it ten times in the first year.  Dad also took us to see The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi on opening day, even though it meant taking us out of school and missing work.  He took us to the drive-in theater with our VW van facing backwards, my brother and I laying in the back in sleeping bags to watch fun B movies like Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.  We had hamsters in a little plastic Jetsons-style house, and Dad gave a few tearful eulogies after they escaped and were found dead.  Dad tried to set a good example for us by reading books, buying a 1978 set of encyclopedias (which I still have), and investing in a giant dictionary in which he made us look up words we didn’t know.  He hated the movie Bridge on the River Kwai, and so whenever we wanted him to chase us, we would put the theme music from the movie on the record player.  He would pretend to go berserk and chase us into whatever ambush we had prepared.  It always looked something like Godzilla attacking Tokyo, with pillows and other projectiles flying everywhere.  Whether it was wrestling, arm wrestling, or a pillow fight, Dad would always lose so convincingly that we thought we were invincible.  On New Year’s Day of 1980, he wrote a giant number 80 in the street with gasoline and lit it.  The scorch-marks were visible for years.  We have a picture of him from that night, yelling with glee and pushing a piece of wood with a sparking firework attached to it.  He used to let us do things that were great fun at the time that I never would have allowed as a father, like light arrows on fire and shoot them down the street, blow things up with improvised pyrotechnics in the back yard, launch ground bloom flowers off a bridge to see how they would burn underwater, or have bottle rocket wars (using safety goggles, of course).  He was always taking us to donut shops and 7-11s to buy comic books and candy.  He was always on the lookout for whatever we were into at our age: parks with spiral slides for us to put our toy cars down (sometimes at night), or, when we were older, rated-R movies like The Terminator.  We went to Disneyland every year and Dad went with us on our favorite rides till he got tired and just waited for us at the exit while we ran around in circles (lines were shorter back then on weekdays in spring and fall).  We got a little motor home (I think it was a 1977 Dodge Sportsman) and took trips all over the West, going as far north as the fossil-rich badlands of Alberta as far east as Mt. Rushmore.  Dad bought a raft and a bunch of inner tubes for us to use on the American River every summer.  On Halloween, Dad took us to some apartments (to get the highest possible candy-per-step ratio) and we had filled entire pillow sacks by the time the night was over.  I especially remember sitting on the front porch with Dad as he told me about what life was like when he was a kid, way back in the olden days of the 40s and 50s (30 years in the past, which seems like an eternity when you're little), when a bottle of Coke was five cents and they used hand-pumps to spray DDT on bugs that came into the house. 

 

       In 1985, we moved to the town of Camino, just east of Placerville.  Mom and Dad both worked in Sacramento, so they had to commute, but they each only worked half time, so one of them was always at home.  We got a couple of dogs that were being given away free in Sacramento in July of 1985, on our way back from seeing Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.  We named them Max and Jones, after Mad Max and Indiana Jones.  Max was a stray and Jones was from a litter.  With the dogs beside us, we camped, hiked, swam, shot guns, and fished all over the Sierra, although we mostly favored the Silver Fork area.  Dad was always full of humor, but I was especially amused by one thing he said when he wasn't even trying to be funny.  We were driving down to Placerville one time and he said, "I don't know when this presidential library thing got started.  Carter had a library.  Ford didn't deserve an outhouse.  Nixon should have had a prison."  Once when Mom scolded him for letting the dogs chase cats off our land, he said, "This is private property."  She said, "Oh, yeah, like the cat knows all about private property."  He smiled and answered, "It knows now."  Once they were discussing how to get rid of a subterranean wasps' nest behind their house, and he retorted to something Mom said, "So you're saying these are just nature's little friends and why are we killing them."

       As hard as he tried to be light-hearted and fun, Dad was often beset with irritability, impatience, anxiety, and depression, tendencies that he clearly inherited from his father.  He obsessed over economics, politics, and social injustice.  He had an awful habit of chewing his fingernails and spitting out the torn-off bits.  I can still picture him watching the news and doing this, concerned that the world was going to hell in a handbasket.  He saw his parents’ decline in health and became morose about the fact that they would die one day.  In 1988, he went to a doctor and was prescribed antidepressants.  He was given different medications over the years, but he never stopped taking these until the end.  If only I knew then what I know now, perhaps I could have intervened and stopped his use of these psychotropic drugs, but as I recall, I didn’t even know he was taking them until some point in the late 90s.

       Dad never liked his work very much until he was about to retire.  For a while, he was a parole officer.  Then he reviewed contracts for the State of California for outside companies to provide care to the developmentally disabled.  In his final year, he was the safety officer for his building.  He told me this was the first time in his life that he actually enjoyed his job because he was able to help people and make a difference in their lives.  His dream job probably would have been as a sports reporter for a newspaper, but he never had any such opportunity.  Dad wasn't a fancy dresser ordinarily, but he always had to wear a suit, tie, and shined leather shoes for work.  When I go to work early in the morning, and especially when things happen that are less than enjoyable, I often think of Dad and the sacrifices he made over all those years to keep a roof over our heads and put food on the table.  He must have suffered all kinds of difficulties and indignities that he never shared with any of us.  As the decades of my own career roll by like numbers on an odometer, I often imagine what on-the-job Dad would say if he were able to reach across time and space like Bogart in Play it Again, Sam, or Chef Gusteau in Ratatouille to share a heartfelt comment about the reality of the daily grind and the meaning of it all.  He had a special talent for getting to the heart of a matter with a few expletive-laced statements that were simultaneously primitive and insightful.

       When I went away to study in Australia in the second half of 1989, he told me he felt like he was in mourning because he missed me so much.  I know it was hard for him when I went to live and study in Taiwan for five years, but I did come home to visit every year.  He was stuck taking care of our dogs after my brother and I moved away – not that he minded – but it was a big responsibility, and he was never thanked enough for this.  They pretty much became his dogs from that point on.  His own father passed away in January of 1989, and his mother passed away in December of 1995.  He got in one good joke when his mother was living with us.  I dropped something in the kitchen and he turned to his mother and said with a sigh, "It's hard to find good help these days," which made her break up laughing.  Both of these losses were very hard for him to take.  Grandma’s death was especially rough, because he was always closer to her, and because she stayed in our house for the last couple of months on hospice.

       Dad used to visit an old folks’ care home (not the same one where he later stayed) with Max, so that Max could walk around and cheer up the residents.  Max was a one-of-a-kind orange dog (we think he was part Chow, part golden retriever, and we frankly have no idea what else).  Max knew the routine.  He would saunter from room to room like a pro and the people would light up, hugging and petting him as well as they were able.  One elderly man said that Max saved his life, and Dad wrote that into an article for the local newspaper, revealing only at the end that his silent partner, Max, was a dog.  Jones passed away first, followed by Max in 1999.  Even after this, Dad continued to carry treats in his pockets – so he could feed other people’s dogs when he encountered them on the street.  

       That brings us to 1996-2007, the eleven-year era which we could call his final glory days.  This is where, as I described at the start, the Dad of my imagination was retired but still fully healthy.  He had the money and time to do whatever he wanted.  He and Mom went all over the West, up into Canada a few times, and even to China and Europe.  In 2001, Dad became a grandpa and was surprised by how much he enjoyed it.  He spoiled all his grandkids with toys and ice cream, and engaged in countless swordfights in which he, the slow-moving Captain Hook, was sliced, skewered, and diced by the fleet-footed Peter Pan.  One of our favorite things to do every year was to watch the Fourth of July parade in Pollock Pines (Dad had once accidentally brought up the rear of the parade, applauded by the crowd as he drove the old blue bomber with the dogs hanging out the windows), have water-gun fights around the house, go see some fireworks, then head to Carson City the following day to explore the mine beneath the Nevada State Museum and ride the rails at the Nevada State Railroad Museum.  Grandpa had a very good life.  He lived a comfortable, middle-class existence, mostly in peacetime, in the most prosperous country on the planet.  He could, at a whim, drive to some of the most beautiful places in the world.  And yet, as good as those days were, he confided in me a number of times that he sometimes felt like he just wanted to get in the truck and drive away, far away – anywhere – to escape.  He never said what he wanted to run away from or where he wanted to go; it was just a gnawing, indescribable sensation of wanting to flee.  I have felt something similar at times as I get older.  Part of it stems from stress, part of it comes from the overwhelming sense of the world situation spiraling out of control and the helplessness we feel as individuals to fix it, and part of it is from the innate terror we mortals have as we grow older: knowing that our time is running out like sand through the hourglass and there is nothing we can do to stop it, nowhere to hide from it.  I assume this was what Dad experienced.  

       There are myriad other side stories I could tell about Dad – his stock trading, his photography, his loud rock and roll music with speakers the size of refrigerators, his attempts to lose weight, the way he read tabloids like The Enquirer, his large collection of books on the Old West, and so on – but in the summer of 2007, at the age of 65, he had a very bad seizure.   I will always believe it was caused by his long-term use of antidepressants.  Anyway, this seizure was like a stroke in that it destroyed part of his brain and made it difficult to form new memories.  When he came out of his coma, without waiting to find out why he was in the hospital, he immediately went into a round of "Take my wife, please" jokes to entertain whoever was nearby.  All we needed was a set of drums and cymbals to turn the hospital room into a comedy club.  After the seizure he couldn’t drive anymore, was dependent on my mother, and was required to take antiseizure medications every day – which damaged his liver and God only knows what else.  He experienced a slow decline over the next 12 years.  He would forget most recent events after about five minutes, but he lived in the moment and he continued to be a big part of the family.  He loved to play Sudoku, watch football, and laugh at old re-runs of The Phil Silvers Show.  He and Mom would go with my brother's family to drive dune buggies in Death Valley every winter.  One time when we were on our way back from Leavenworth, Dad (who couldn't have told you where he had been all day) saw a billboard for a small hamburger and yelled out, "That thing is a rip-off!"  He always remembered the truly important details in life.  Once at a buffet, after everyone had eaten to the point of bursting and the plates had been cleared off the table, Dad forgot the meal was over and asked if people were ready to go load up on some food.  I would have nice conversations with him on the phone, but knew that within a few minutes of hanging up, he would have forgotten the whole thing.  It was at least comforting to know that he was cozy in his Hobbit-hole with his TV, his computer, his Sudoku, and of course Mom.  Then Dad had a more rapid decline from 2019 onward.  By 2020, he was having trouble walking anywhere without assistance and started using a cane.  He lost interest in sports, Sudoku, and television.  His sense of balance deteriorated, and he spent up to 12 hours a day sleeping.  This brings us full circle to the end, when he fell and broke his hip in October of 2021 and wound up in the care home, where I began this story.  The last time I saw him was the morning of February 20th.  One of the final things he said to me in person was to ask, "You have the keys for the pickup?" as if it was 1987 and I had just come back from community college.  I assured him I did, even though the blue Toyota had been gone for decades.  "You be careful out there," he advised me.  This made me wince, since the concept of "out there" had become an abstraction for him.  as he was never again going to leave his bed, let alone his room.  In the week after that, he kept telling me "I love you" over the phone, his voice growing weaker until I couldn't make out the words anymore.  The day he passed away, a big oak tree collapsed on the road leading to Mom and Dad’s house, followed by a historic blizzard hitting the entire length of the Sierra.  I take these as heaven’s recognition of his passing.  I will try to filter out the bad memories connected with his last two years and remember him instead as he was in his prime: taking us to see movies when we were kids, taking us to the brand new theme park called EPCOT back in '83, eating at the Harrah's Lake Tahoe buffet with the top-floor view, crashing through the underbrush to find the perfect spot for catching trout, singing his "Summerquest" song to the tune of Raiders of the Lost Arkcoming back home with a cup of coffee and the morning paper as the rest of us were just waking up (he delighted in letting the dogs jump on my bed and attack me if I slept too late) – having already made the rounds once on his own and planned out our options for the day's activities, driving around looking for goodies at estate sales (either to resell or to give away as gifts), laughing with glee as he pursued a slow-moving, terrified jogger being followed by a rogue mongrel (with both our dogs hanging out the sides of the truck, barking themselves hoarse at the dog – the poor guy turned to look, then did a horrified double-take as he tried to make sense of the Cerberus-like nightmare that was bearing down on him), taking his grandson on a VIP tour of the local fire department where he could pretend to drive the fire engine, or in friendly competition with his friend Marcy in their perennial search for the Golden Grail: the best burrito in the greater Sacramento area.  He was always thinking of a way to put a smile on other peoples’ faces, even when he was crying on the inside.  As long as he was breathing, there was a comfort in feeling that we could still access all those Christmases, all those adventures in the Magic Kingdom, all those camping trips, and all those sporting events (participated in, watched on TV, or listened to on the radio) from the 1940s onward by gliding down the root structure of his memories, like sailors on a fiber optic highway.  When his life story reached its conclusion, this connection to the past was abruptly severed, and it felt as if all those moments in time were lost  like tears in the rain.  His life, which is so important to me personally, will now inevitably fade from human recollection to the point where it will seem as distant to future generations as black and white pictures of my ancestors from the 1800s seem to me.  My dad, who once upon a time held me in his arms (as I used to hold my own son), is gone forever.  Although I was already 55 when my father passed away, I can never forget that he used to be my daddy and I used to be his little boy – his pride and joy, his reason for living.  The tears come every time I think of it this way.  I have to face the fact that from March 1, 2024 until eternity, he will never be my dad again.  That chapter is closed.  It is hard to see the sun come up each day and know that he is no longer here to watch it with us.  Transitioning to thinking of him in the past tense has been difficult, but now he belongs to the ages.

       I know I am not the first person in this world to lose a member of their nuclear family and I will not be the last.  As a historian, I was fully aware this was going to happen, but when the event finally arrived, it nevertheless reverberated with the force of a gong.  It is one thing to read about the deaths of countless others in history books; it is something else entirely when it happens to you.  This disconnect between knowing something intellectually and grasping it with the totality of your being is not new.  Around 2,500 years ago, the Buddha was approached by a woman named Kisa Gautami who requested that he bring her infant son back to life.  He responded by asking her to first bring him a mustard seed from a home where no one had ever died.  She spent the day going from house to house, but everywhere the answer was the same.  Not a single household was free from the scourge of death.  Eventually, Kisa realized that this was the lesson the Buddha wanted her to learn: life and death are inseparable.  She accepted the passing of her child and devoted herself to the Dharma.  It is one thing to know that death is inevitable, but quite another thing to experience the stabbing grief when it happens within your own family.  Your soul cries out a series of unanswerable questions.  How can we go on without them?  How can the world exist in the absence of that unique person who shined their light so brightly?  How can an end to our lamentation be anything but a betrayal of their memory?  How can any memorial adequately tell future generations about their greatness?  How can we, the living, ever honor them enough for what they gave us, since they provided the physical form and nurturing that allows us to exist at all?  How can we ever show enough gratitude?  How can we be happy in a world where death is the ultimate end of all living things?  When we watch a loved one pass away, we are also in a sense watching ourselves pass away, as well as all our other loved ones, including our own children and grandchildren.  The sheer futility of life feels overwhelming.  It doesn't seem possible that this intense emotion I feel is the same as what everyone has felt over all of history, but it must be so.  Recognizing this fact is an important step in developing compassion for others, and thinking about them instead of just yourself and your own loss.  It may be that for the dead there is no sadness in death, as with the spirit of Emily in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, but for the living, there is an infinite melancholy attached to this subject that threatens to engulf us in black depression.  If we viewed the matter with complete wisdom and objectivity, we would feel only thankfulness for having had the opportunity to know our loved ones at all, but until we reach that stage, death remains a highly-emotional topic.  The usual response people have is to put death as far out of our minds as possible.  The spiritual response is to meet the challenge head-on.  

       In Buddhism, facing death is central to the entire religion.  Shakyamuni Buddha began his Dharma with the Four Noble Truths.  The first of these is that life is suffering (“dukkha” in the Pali language).  When Westerners hear this, we naturally want to argue: “No, I am enjoying my life, not suffering!”  The Buddha wasn’t saying there is no such thing as temporary enjoyment.  He was pointing out that, no matter how much we may enjoy each passing moment, there is unavoidable suffering at the end because of old age, sickness, and death, and there is suffering even in the knowledge that life, no matter how good it may seem at the moment, must come to an end.  The word “dukkha” has also been translated as unsatisfactory or deficient.  We all want to live forever, but we know we never can.  This alone makes life in physical form unsatisfactory.  The Second Noble Truth says that suffering is caused by desire.  This could describe any attachment to a thing or an experience, including the desire to go on living.  The Third Noble Truth says that when desire ends, suffering ends, and the Fourth Noble Truth explains that the way to end desire is to follow the Eightfold Path, which lists all the things that must be done correctly in order to lead one to enlightenment.  Rather than try to put the idea of death out of their minds, Buddhists try to constantly remind themselves that all things, including life, are impermanent.  This provides a logical reason and a powerful motivation not to stray from the Eightfold Path.  As the Wheel of Life diagram shows, all beings in the six realms are doomed to die and be reincarnated, but an enlightened Buddha is beyond the reach of Yama, the King of Death.  Shakyamuni told each of us to be lamp unto ourself and declared that everyone can become enlightened if we practice with diligence.

       We need to view life and death differently, and this shift must be part and parcel of a whole new way of thinking and living.  Our attitude towards death needs to become an integral part of a more spiritual mindset because only this can ensure world peace.  We cannot continue to treat life as something that goes on forever and refuse to consider death because it is a downer.  This was demonstrated very well in the scene from the movie Barbie, when, in the midst of dancing in Barbie-land, where every day is the best day ever, Barbie suddenly asks her friends, “You guys ever think about dying?”  The music stops at once and everyone stares at her in dismay.  What a total buzz-kill.  While not as fun as a trip to Disneyland, death is a powerful topic and it has the ability to get our attention.  If properly contemplated, it can be harnessed in a positive way to transform our character, making us calm, caring, and thoughtful.  During the Renaissance, Francesco Guicciardini wrote, "It is a remarkable fact that we must all die, and yet we all live as if we were to live forever."  Shakyamuni Buddha declared that if we only realized how everything we experience ends the moment we die, all our quarrels would cease at once.  When I get upset, I often try to regain perspective by reminding myself that one day I (like my own dad) will no longer get to be a daddy.  We should not take life, health, or prosperity for granted.  We cannot continue having collective amnesia about impermanence and allow unimportant things to make us angry.  We must be loving in all our interactions.  Look at the way we treat one another with more kindness after watching Scrooge at Christmas, but then go right back to committing acts of road rage in January.  We must remember that it's a wonderful life we have been given: an amazing opportunity to do good.  The gut-punch we feel when a loved one passes away must be re-awakened on a daily basis with meditation on death and impermanence, otherwise the abstract understanding that life doesn’t last forever will not translate into the deep-seated, first-person realization that we need in order to make a permanent change.  If old age, sickness, and death did not exist, Siddhartha would have been an immortal, and he (along with everyone else who ever lived) would all still be partying like college kids on spring break, or Barbie in her neon-pink dreamhouse.  This is not how the universe works, and we need to stop pretending like it is.  When we do not view the world through a spiritual lens, we do not make introspection and self-perfection the highest priorities, and this leads to egotism, selfishness, intransigent opinions, conflict, hatred, insults, violence, chaos, and war.  When people identify too much with the group to which they happen to belong in this current life, they make up their minds about what they want based on very limited, biased input, and they incorrectly determine that it is worth killing others who are different from themselves to get their way.  If you want concrete examples of this, just watch the nightly news.

       The sadness surrounding death and impermanence is a universal challenge that must be overcome by achieving wisdom.  This requires constant effort.  As the Buddha says in the Dhammapada, ". . . the wise man, climbing the terraced heights of wisdom, looks down upon the rest.  Free from sorrow he looks upon the sorrowing crowd, as one that stands on a mountain looks down upon those who stand upon the plain."  We must remember that the glimpse we see of a person’s spirit in their brief earthly incarnation is only one facet of an infinitely-large diamond, and the part of their soul’s story that we share in one lifetime is but a single chapter in a never-ending book.  In the broad scope of things, feeling sorrow over the loss of our loved ones is like grieving over a caterpillar because it goes into a cocoon, not realizing that a butterfly will emerge later, then evolve into a phoenix, a dragon, and so on until it becomes one with God: infinite, perfect, eternal, interdimensional, and indescribably radiant.  No one who died is ever really gone.  In an incredibly long process of spiritual evolution, we are becoming something more, something greater.  For the soul, these changes of body are like changes of clothes – until the spirit no longer needs to wear a physical form and expands to encompass the entire universe.  We will all meet again someday, though not in the same shapes as we remember from this lifetime.  I am convinced we have all appeared in many plays wearing different masks, each time mistaking our role in the play for our true identity.  We have to stop defining ourselves according to our temporary role of this life, and remember that we are eternal light-spirits, possessing sequential lives that extend through all of time like an infinite string of pearls.  As Yoda said, "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter."  When we meet again, we will be light-bodies, essentially standing on heaps of discarded masks the size of Mount Everest.  Though the details may vary in each religion’s version of the afterlife, the ultimate ending is never oblivion; it is bliss, unity, perfection, and omniscience.  This is where my dad, as well as your dear departed loved ones – and all of us, ultimately – will wind up.  The universe’s process of becoming is vast and mysterious, but the purpose will be revealed in due time.  We can attempt to grasp why things are the way they are with our reasoning minds, but this is like an ant trying to understand the operation of a university.  We just have to keep aiming for the light and one day we will reach it.  When we achieve full enlightenment, it will all make sense.  We will exist as pure light, in a world beyond sorrow.  Our past sufferings will be distant memories and we will all be together again.

       P.S. – Dad used to say his own father was so mentally ill as to be basically underwater in a swamp.  As he saw it, he was standing on his dad’s shoulders and had managed to get his head above water.  He said he pictured himself holding his hands up as high as he could, so my brother and I would be entirely out of the swamp.  He saw himself as a casualty of his father’s darkness, but he took comfort in the fact that the two of us could be free from the curse and could do whatever we wanted with our lives.  I think of this like the lotus: a symbol of spiritual purity because it rises miraculously above the mire to become perfect, even while existing in an imperfect world.  I think that's what the smile on young Mark's face really meant.  In a world full of suffering and hatred, where weapons of Armageddon were proliferating out of control, he dared to dream a better future: a world where everyone was happy, healthy, and went out of their way to do nice things for one another.  He was an avatar, a magician, and a sky-walker: he knew that by being positive, he (and we) would find a way to win in the end.  You did a great job, Dad.  Thanks to you, we will win, no matter what the odds.  I cannot thank you enough for all you gave us.  You were an amazing father and grandfather.  We love you always and forever.  Go into the light, Dad.  Until we meet again, be well and know that you are loved.

       I think it's only fitting that I close with a (slightly-edited) poem that I wrote when I was in fifth grade.  Dad liked it so much that I put it in a frame for him as a Christmas present.  He especially appreciated the last line.  Mom had it on the dresser in Dad’s room for the last two years of his life, along with pictures of the family – and a timeless photo of dad kneeling next to Max and Jones in front of the old pickup in winter, the ground covered in a light blanket of snow

ICE

Ice is quick and sneaky because it seems suddenly to appear.  

A forest that seems normal one day may be a glassmaker’s fantasy the next.  

Everything seems in suspended animation or put carefully into a showcase, 

Untouched by human hands.  

These shiny shards, radiated by the sun’s light

Drip gently into the small stream,

Where they are quickly carried away from the silvery winter wonderland

To find more beautiful places.

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