The Wisdom of Doubt, Part XI

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

The first line of the Tao Teh Ching (China, ca. 500 BCE), in most translations, is “The Tao that can be talked about is not the Tao,” or variations thereof. John Wu (Shambhala, 1989) begins the first verse:

Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.

Lin Yutang does it this way:

The Tao the can be told of
Is not the Absolute Tao;
The Names that can be given
Are not Absolute Names.

I’ve read all manner of commentaries saying that it is impossible to translate Zhou Dynasty Chinese into English literally. Each translation is, therefore, a reflection of the translator’s conceptualization of what the ancient text is trying to say. If you breeze around the web you can find at least a dozen translations, and no two begin exactly the same way. However, most of them say that the true nature of the Tao cannot be explained with words.

In spite of the caveat, the Tao Teh Ching is a work of words — 81 verses about the Tao. How do you talk about that which cannot be talked about? One way is by simile, and the Tao Teh Ching is full of ’em. The Tao is like a empty bowl (verse 4). The Tao is like a bellows (verse 5). The Tao is like water (several verses).

Jesus used simile also, to describe the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast (or “leaven”; Matthew 13:33). The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed (Matthew 13:31). The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44).

There’s a big difference between water and an empty bowl, or between a grain of mustard seed and hidden treasure. What do these similes communicate? Of course, the original passages from which these similes were taken provide more explanation to guide the reader to the possible meaning. Even so, over the centuries there have been diverse interpretations of the texts.

If you’re talking about something that has no precise physical attributes and is outside most peoples’ experiences or conceptual frames of reference, how do you explain it? As soon as you open your mouth, your listeners will try to relate your words to something they already know. Struggling to “get it,” they’ll conceptualize all manner of things that may bear little resemblance to what you are trying to explain.

If the communication is from another time or culture, the likelihood of misunderstanding is even higher. Often people who live in the same culture share metaphors that are easily misunderstood by someone outside that culture. There’s a good example in moonbat’s “Freeway Blogging” post. A sign says “We’re all wearing the blue dress now.” How would a time-traveler from twenty years ago interpret that? They might relate it to the song “Devil With a Blue Dress,” but I doubt that’s the reference intended by the sign maker. Similarly, maybe yeast and mustard seeds had connotations for Jesus’ listeners that have been lost.

Joseph Campbell wrote,

The symbol, energized by metaphor, conveys, not just an idea of the infinite but some realization of the infinite. We must remember, however, that the metaphors of one historically conditioned period, and the symbols they innervate, may not speak to the persons who are living long after that historical moment and whose consciousness has been formed by altogether different experiences. …

… The problem, as we have noted many times, is that these metaphors, which concern that which cannot in any other way be told, are misread prosaically as referring to tangible facts and historical occurrences. …

… When the language of metaphor is misunderstood and its surface structures become brittle, it evokes merely the time-and-place bound order of things and its spiritual signal, if transmitted at all, becomes even fainter. [Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, Eugene Kennedy, editor (New World Library, 2001) pp. 6-7]

When people insist the old texts must be interpreted as literal facts, the deeper meaning is entirely lost. Karen Armstrong writes,

Before the modern period, Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture. The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation. Preoccupation with literal truth is a product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge.

We tend now to read our scriptures for accurate information, so that the Bible, for example, becomes a holy encyclopaedia, in which the faithful look up facts about God. Many assume that if the scriptures are not historically and scientifically correct, they cannot be true at all. But this was not how scripture was originally conceived. All the verses of the Qur’an, for example, are called “parables” (ayat); its images of paradise, hell and the last judgment are also ayat, pointers to transcendent realities that we can only glimpse through signs and symbols.

And then there are myths. We use the word myth to mean something that isn’t true. We might say, “Al Gore didn’t claim to invent the Internet; that’s just a myth.” But myths are more than just made-up stories. Consciously or unconsciously, myths shape our unspoken assumptions. They create the context within which we understand ourselves and everything else. These days we refer to political myths as “the narrative.” The narrative is a kind of folk history/mythos through which people form ideas about What America Is Supposed to Be and who we Americans are as a people. The factuality of the narrative is less important than the values, ideas and beliefs it conveys. This is why attempts to correct the many factual errors in the Right’s narratives don’t put a dent in their belief in them, since the stories themselves are not the point. The narrative shapes the collective imagination and identity of those who choose to accept it. As Bill Moyers argued here, we progressives ignore the power of narrative at our peril.

Religious myths have a similar function. The Bible can be read as a huge myth that informs the Jewish people who they are. Or, you can read it for more universal truths. For example, the Garden of Eden story in Genesis is a very rich myth with many layers of meaning. Truly, you don’t have to believe in God to appreciate it. We start with Adam and Eve in the Garden, naked and carefree. They are forbidden only one thing (the One Forbidden Thing is one of the most consistent story devices in all the world’s myths, I think), which is to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So when they ate the fruit (characters in these stories always do the One Forbidden Thing; otherwise there wouldn’t be a story) they recognized their nakedness and felt shame.

Then God showed up and said, “You blew it, people. You did the One Forbidden Thing. From now on, humans will be conscious of themselves as separate from the rest of Creation. Women will have pain in childbirth because their babies will have grapefruit-size heads. You will have to work for a living. And your descendants will have neuroses. They will need psychiatrists and lawyers. Way to go.”

This is, of course, a loose interpretation. Joseph Campbell wrote, “When Man ate of the fruit of the Tree, he discovered himself in the field of duality instead of the field of unity. As a result he finds himself out, in exile” (op cit, p. 15). Sort of what I said.

There’s a lot in this myth that underscores a paternalistic worldview, and of course I don’t much care for those parts. But the fruit-eating bit is fascinating. What does it say about knowledge of good and evil? What does it say about human consciousness? What does it say about how humans understand themselves vis-à-vis other living things on our planet? There’s lots of juicy stuff to contemplate in that story. I dare say you can find a lot of Truth in there, if you look for it.

And the great irony is that those who insist the story itself is factual, not myth, squeeze all the Truth out of it.

It’s stunning to me that people think the Garden of Eden had a geographical location and that Adam and Eve were real people, not archetypes. I understand the Garden as a level of consciousness. Can we return to that consciousness? Do we want to? And what does knowledge of good and evil have to do with it?

I’m thinking of the Hsin Hsin Ming, a 6th century Zen text called in English “Mind of Absolute Trust” or “Verses of the Faith-Mind.”

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

Another translation at the same link substitutes “The struggle between good and evil” for “To set up what you like against what you dislike.” The latter is the more common translation. In any event, it’s a clear warning against sorting things into binary absolute piles.

Humans have a limitless capability to misunderstand things. A recent “Explainer” column at Slate about the supposed reincarnation of the Buddha mentioned the “32 marks” or 32 physical characteristics of a Buddha, which include 40 teeth and a tongue long enough to lick his own ears. This is out of one of the old sutras of the Tripitaka. Allegory, people, allegory. Not that I have even a clue what significance 40 teeth and an extra-long tongue have. But compare/contrast to the fifth verse of the Diamond Sutra

“Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Buddha be recognized by means of his bodily form?”

“No, Most Honored One, the Buddha cannot be recognized by means of his bodily form. Why? Because when the Buddha speaks of bodily form, it is not a real form, but only an illusion.”

The Buddha then spoke to Subhuti: “All that has a form is illusive and unreal. When you see that all forms are illusive and unreal, then you will begin to perceive your true Buddha nature.”

The Slate piece doesn’t get anything else right, either, but I thought the bit about the 32 marks was a particular hoot.

The iconic characters of Buddhist art sometimes are portrayed with numerous arms. The significance of the arms should become clear when you understand these characters as something like Jungian archetypes. The god, goddess, or bodhisattva is not to be worshiped, but realized as one’s own self. As the Hindu say, Thou Art That. When many people realize themselves as the Goddess of Compassion, then of course the goddess has many arms (and eyes, and feet, and multiple everything else). Just don’t expect to see someone who looks like that appear in your back yard in a puff of smoke. If you do, seek professional help.

One of the really aggravating things about the fundies is that they’ve persuaded non-religious people that religion is just a matter of believing nutty things written in scripture. In my experience it’s harder to explain why this isn’t true to atheists than to religious people, fundies excepted. I think even most Christians appreciate that at least some parts of the Bible are allegorical. I have come to realize that the crusading atheists assume all religious people are some kind of fundamentalist, and the only distinction is that some of us are more wishy-washy about it. The truth is that different people understand religion in an entirely different way.

The point of most of the world’s sacred texts is not to “believe in” whatever they say, but to understand what they’re trying to tell us. In most of the world’s sacred texts, “what they’re trying to tell us” is about ourselves. Even in the great epics like the Mahabharata, which has a long and convoluted story with many characters, the real subject of the story is the person hearing it. The story presents a way for the hearer to understand and experience himself in relation to everything else in the cosmos, throughout space and time. People who thumb through the epic looking for “facts” about Krishna and other deities in the story are missing the point.

Awhile back John Shelby Spong wrote a book called Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. “My purpose in this volume is first to rescue the Bible from the exclusive hands of those who demand that it be literal truth and second to open that sacred story to levels of insight and beauty that, in my experience, literalism has never produced,” he wrote. Amen.

Joseph Campbell said,

The best thing one can do with the Bible is to read it spiritually rather than historically. Read the Bible in your own way, and take the message because it says something special to each reader, based on his or her own experience. The gift of God comes in your own terms. God, pure and in Himself, is too much. Carl Jung said, “Religion is a system to defend us against the experience of God.” It may be a species of impudence to think that the way you understand God is the way God is. [op cit, p. 60]

Although I agree generally with Campbell’s advice, lots of people will misunderstand what “spiritual reading” is. There always will be people who get stuck in the literal interpretations. Sometimes it helps to get a guide. A major function of a Zen teacher is to get students unstuck by challenging their understanding and urging them to go deeper. My first teacher, Daido, used to say that his role was to pull rugs out from under people.

Years ago I was active on some Buddhist Internet forums, and there I encountered no end of people determined to study Zen without a teacher. They figured they could just read the books, study the koans and figure it out for themselves. Inevitably they came up with dreadfully anal, left-brained, not-even-close ideas about what various teachings meant. And, of course, once they had made up their minds that their understanding was the “true” one, no one could talk them out of it. This phenomenon is so common it’s come to be called Zen Lite.

There’s a wonderful Zen story from 8th century China, give or take, about a tenzo, or monastery cook. (Tenzo is a Japanese word. This is a Chinese story but I mostly know Japanese names for things.) The tenzo usually was not chosen for his ability to cook but for his spiritual maturity, and it was a great honor to be the one chosen to nourish the rest of the monks. Anyway, one day while the tenzo was cooking the Bodhisattva Manjusri rose up out of a rice pot and began to expound upon the Dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. Manjusri is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and one might assume anything he said about the Dharma would be profoundly wise.

So the tenzo, as a spiritually mature monk, did the correct thing. He picked up a large spoon, smacked the Bodhisattva back down into the cooking pot, and slammed a lid on the pot so he couldn’t come back.

Why did the tenzo do this? He might have assumed he was seeing a hallucination. But I think the real reason was that the tenzo feared he would become attached to the Bodhisattva’s words and be unable to see through them to the deeper meaning. The Tao that can be talked about is not the Tao.

Did this story really take place? Does it matter?

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29 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Rick Moran  •  Jul 29, 2007 @9:24 am

    Another excellent analysis and dissertation. You really ought to think of compiling these for a book – if you haven’t already.

    A quibble – “absolute” good and evil. I believe Campbell recognized we’ve been grappling with this concept and that some sacred texts are deliberately obscure about it not because absolute evil doesn’t exist but because it is self referential.

    That, and the old debate over whether people are evil or the acts they commit. Gengis Khan massacred hundreds of thousands of people. Was that evil – even if the Mongol culture had no strictures against it?

    Very old questions with some new light shed on them.

    Again, good job.

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Jul 29, 2007 @11:25 am

    Z
    E
    NOW

    I read a lot of books about the Zen philosophy in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s.
    You make me want ot sudy it more – with a real master. Thank you, maha…

  3. Doug Hughes  •  Jul 29, 2007 @12:03 pm

    A long while back I worked on a satirical piece, the title of which is pretty much the story “The First Church of God in a Shoebox”. The totally confident founder will explain that to him alone has been revealed ALL truth, and he actually has the Deity in a sacred shoebox, which must be deemed Sacred & Holy.

    I do believe in an afterlife and Deity. I think the nature of the Creator must be beyond my comprehension, as is the ‘dimension’ of the afterlife, which IMHO, is not a ‘place’. Knowing that the Creator and afterlife are beyond my comprehension does not prevent me from speculating or reading, but I have absolute confidence that any picture of those is incomplete and out of focus.

    That outlook of doubt prevents me from falling into dangerous fundamentalist thinking, which ANY religion is capable of, and leaves me open to find Truth, without regard to the source.

  4. felicity  •  Jul 29, 2007 @12:34 pm

    Very interesting, Maha. A very old, and in my view very wise Metropolitan was once asked to define God. He said, “Yes.” To me, it’s a perfect definition. However, through the years I’ve run it by others and have been met with blank stares – always surprises me.

    So many seem so comfortable with the endless words, whys and whereofs and so uneasy about letting them go that I fear they’re here to stay. (A number of years ago a young woman walked out of my beach house and into the surf where she dug her eye out of its socket and threw it into the ocean. She had read in the Bible that if your eye offends you pluck it out – or something like that. Probably one of the stronger cases for not getting overly attached to anything you read in any treatise no matter how sacred you believe it to be.)

  5. D.R. Marvel  •  Jul 29, 2007 @12:42 pm

    Lessee if I got this right…

    So…Adam and Eve hired a Japanese cook…And he sliced the “Fruit of the etc. etc” ever-so-thinly and served it on their Sushi…

    Would that he had served Serpent Sushi instead…

  6. apocalipstick  •  Jul 29, 2007 @1:23 pm

    Once again let me say how much I, an evangelical Baptist, am enjoying this series. This is great writing and powerful food for thought.

  7. maha  •  Jul 29, 2007 @1:57 pm

    c u n d gulag — There’s an old Zen saying that you have to have a teacher to find out why you don’t need a teacher. This is very wise. I think if anyone wants to get serious about Zen they have to encounter a real teacher at least once in a while, or it all turns into a big exercise in self-bullshitting.

  8. moonbat  •  Jul 29, 2007 @2:43 pm

    There is so much good thinking + writing here.

    Having spent years in fundie circles, I’m excruciatingly familiar with how nearly impossible it is to get this message through to the majority of these poeple. There are many dodges:

    – The circular reference: “But the bible says that the bible is true, right here”.

    – The scientific rebuttal: “our understanding of what the bible says has only improved over time because of so much archaeology and linguistic research.”

    It really is all about states of consciousness, which is a subject that usually draws a complete blank from fundies. The Tao that cannot be spoken, nonetheless can be understood by someone possessing a particular state of consciousness.

    As you mention, the prevailing consciousness of our time massively inherits from the scientific revolution of the last few centuries. When this is combined with the Protestant Reformation and the printing press, which took the bible out of the hands of the clergy and put it into the hands of the laity, it yields millions of minds wrapped around the effort to extract meaning from scripture, using a very literal, scientific point of view. Entire systems of theology have been constructed this way, elaborate mental artifices, this age’s version of the medieval preoccupation of counting the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin. Reflecting the emphasis on science in our society, this is an utterly left-brained, lawyerly, and logical approach to spirituality – endless mental masturbation, in my view. It makes my brain hurt to think about it.

    The other side of this is the way all of us are immersed in a consumer society that literally drowns us in the most sophisticated emotional manipulation on a mass scale, this world has ever seen. We are flooded with images and sounds, whose effects are very precisely calculated, and yet most people either lack the critical skills or the time to deal with this manipulation. We’re in effect programmed to not even think about this bombardment or hypnosis. If you’re numb or overwhelmed by the emotional (and mythical) ocean you’re swimming in, how are you going to penetrate a scripture’s mythical ocean, expressed in the words and concepts of a distant culture?

    I reflected on the We’re all wearing the blue dress now sign you mentioned, and wondered 1) how many motorists would even get the reference, or 2) would quickly conclude it was simply part of a clever ad campaign, say from Macy’s? Next message.

    When you combine the obsession with scientific based literalism with the consumerist ocean, some weird side effects surface, like the report on Evangelical teens who are at the front of their age cohort in experimenting with sex. Those of us on the outside of Evangelical Christianity are not terribly surprised, given the particular obsessions and myopias of this world.

    There was a point in my life when I studied Gnosticism, and after a few months of this, I read the New Testament. When read from a Gnostic point of view, the meaning of Paul’s letters in particular is utterly different from the literal meaning conventional Christianity obtains. In many ways it makes his letters come alive. A different state of consciousness will yield a different take on the literal words.

    Passages that are obscure from one state of consciousness will therefore have great meaning in another. Jesus’ parables are an example of this – the literal minded were dumbfounded by them, this fact itself is reported in scripture.

    Finally, Yogananda had this to say about the bible:

    “What the Bible says, and what people understand what the bible says are often poles apart.

    “The Bible moreover, is not to the same degree throughout inspired by the highest wisdom. Some of those who wrote it were more enlightened than others. Some were not particularly enlightened at all. Translators moreover, with merely human understanding, altered the meaning of certain passages – especially of those which had been written from profound, but therefore, uncommon, insight.

    “Even the disciples of Jesus Christ reported his words according to their own sometimes limited ability to comprehend them. We read passages in which Jesus upbraided them for the superficiality of their understanding.

    “So you see, the truth in the bible comes to us filtered, even through so great a scripture.”

  9. BPx3  •  Jul 29, 2007 @4:02 pm

    This is a well written and deeply valuable post. The primary underlying cause of our most serious social problems just might be our collective inability, or unwillingness, to think in abstract concepts and read what we call “sacred texts” with an eye toward metaphor and allegory. This should be obvious to all who call themselves Christians but, for some reason, it isn’t. Jesus Christ, who knew something about Christianity, taught through the use of parables sprinkled with metaphor. Had he intended to establish an authoritarian religion based on literal truths, he no doubt would have simply provided us with a handy pocket-sized list of all such literal truths. Instead, he urged us to think for ourselves, challenge authority, and break the rules when we have to do so in the service of love and compassion.

    We could make some real progress in this world if we begin to think of God as a “presence,” a “force,” or an “energy” that permeates and surrounds us, as opposed to a “Father” or a “King-of-Kings” that punishes and condemns us if we’re “naughty” little boys and girls or if we fail to bow down and worship “Him.”

    Also, FWIW, I think you answered the question, “Why did the tenzo do this?” earlier in your post when you asked “Can we return to that consciousness? Do we want to?” My interpretation would be that the tenzo was spiritually mature enough to realize that his knowledge of ultimate spiritual truth would thrust him back into that blissful state of Edenic, non-dualistic consciousness before he was ready to go there. I’d like to believe that this tenzo sensed he still had some important work to do while “here” in our lower, dualistic level of consciousness.

    Perhaps, prior to accepting ultimate enlightenment, this tenzo wanted to help someone erect a banner along a freeway proclaiming a certain president to be a “Lying Sack of Shit.” After all, upon ultimate enlightenment, our friend the tenzo would “hold no opinions for or against anything” and would no longer be willing or able to distinguish between and among “lying sacks of shit,” “truthful sacks of shit,” and “non-sacks of shit.” It just might be that this tenzo thought it best to postpone ultimate enlightenment as long as there is work that remains to be done here among the fallen.

  10. No More Mr. Nice Guy!  •  Jul 29, 2007 @4:09 pm

    As a “crusading atheist”, personally I love allegory. I was raised in a very strict Irish Catholic family but I new very well that a lot of stuff in the bible was allegorical. Although you could never pin down the priests (or the De La Salle Brothers who ran the school I went to) on which parts were meant to be read literally and which, allegorically. It was a useful fudge factor for them. Hell, even the most mouth-foaming Southern Baptist doesn’t take the whole bible literally, however much he may claim to – it simply isn’t possible.

    Sometimes I think that Christians long ago were in some ways wiser than today’s crop. In Ireland for example you often see “holy wells” and “patterns” (ritual processions) associated with early Irish saints. Before Christianity came to Ireland, the well or “pattern” was associated with a Celtic god or godess. Instead of trying to stamp out these practices, which would have been futile, the early Christians absorbed and co-opted them. People could carry on with their cultural traditions, but now the goddess was Saint Bridget and you prayed rosaries at her well, or the god was Saint Kevin and his pattern became the stations of the cross. I’ve seen a similar dynamic with native people in Arizona who have integrated Christianity with their own traditions.

    In the last few centuries of course, it’s been a very different approach. A missionary goes halfway round the world, intrudes into some society he knows nothing about, and tells the people: “Your most cherished beliefs are false. You must abandon them and embrace mine instead.” What incredible arrogance! Hey buddy (I would say to that preacher), look critically at your own beliefs first, really think about them, before shoving them down anyone else’s throat.

    Speaking of Adam and Eve, it could not be more obvious that this is meant to be allegory. After all, “Adam” is the Hebrew word for “man” and “Eve” means “life”. Hello! How much more of a clue do people need? It’s astonishing that today’s fundy creationists, with all the knowledge at their fingertips, are less savvy than primitive goat-herders living thousands of years ago. Willful ignorance and stupidity is a terrible thing. That’s one reason I hate dogmatic religion which makes people switch off their brains and close their eyes to the huge vistas opened up by allegory.

  11. moonbat  •  Jul 29, 2007 @4:30 pm

    One more comment (I’ll bite the apple):

    We start with Adam and Eve in the Garden, naked and carefree….So when they ate the fruit….God showed up and said, “You blew it, people. You did the One Forbidden Thing. From now on, humans will conscious of themselves as separate from the rest of Creation…Way to go.

    And so begins what amounts to conventional Christianity’s guilt trip on humankind. Our ancestors did something bad and we now need something to restore us to our original Edenic relationship with God. Just so happens we’ve got this big institutionalized religion here to help you out in this department.

    Another way of looking at it, is that of young innocent birds being pushed out of the nest, so they have to grow up, develop themselves and learn to fly. Eating the forbidden fruit (of knowledge) is expected and a good thing when it occurs.

    Different types of consciousness will see this story very differently.

  12. myiq2xu  •  Jul 29, 2007 @4:37 pm

    That opening line reminds me of the first rule of Fight Club.

  13. myiq2xu  •  Jul 29, 2007 @5:20 pm

    The earliest books of the Bible were originally oral histories of a nomadic people we now call the Hebrews. That’s why there is so much genealogy in some of the books. But they weren’t written down until much later (writing materials and alphabets not having been invented yet.) Even when writing became possible, the texts had to be copied and recopied over and over.

    One of the often unspoken premises of the fundamentalists is that not only are all written copies of the Bible 100% accurate reproductions of the long-lost originals, but the oral histories passed down for hundreds of years remained completely accurate as well. Furthermore, current English translations of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic convey the exact same meanings as the original texts.

    Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows that quite often things don’t translate exactly. We learn that instead of translating a sentence word-for-word, the entire phrase is examined for meaning and translated accordingly.

    For example, in English we would say “My name is Bob.” In Spanish, the same phrase would be “Mi llamo Bob,” which literally means “I am called Bob.”

    A minor and irrelevant difference? Try reading Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in the original English. Then try translating an entire book from a “dead” language that no living person speaks anymore into modern English (American Standard.) For even more fun, add an intermediate step and translate it into Latin first.

    Did you get it right? Who are you going to ask? The original authors are dead.

  14. Mike  •  Jul 30, 2007 @1:55 am

    Great article.

    I once pointed out to somebody that the question of whether there really was a guy named Noah (or was it really Gilgamesh?) who built that boat so many thousands of years ago or not is mere trivia. The real question is whether you have what it takes to save what is important when those around you bring on The Flood.

  15. maha  •  Jul 30, 2007 @8:01 am

    There are a lot of great, thought-provoking comments here. I want to just respond to a few —

    #8 — There was a point in my life when I studied Gnosticism, and after a few months of this, I read the New Testament. When read from a Gnostic point of view, the meaning of Paul’s letters in particular is utterly different from the literal meaning conventional Christianity obtains. In many ways it makes his letters come alive. A different state of consciousness will yield a different take on the literal words.

    Passages that are obscure from one state of consciousness will therefore have great meaning in another. Jesus’ parables are an example of this – the literal minded were dumbfounded by them, this fact itself is reported in scripture.

    So true. The point of Zen training is not to learn stuff, but to change one’s state of consciousness so that a person perceives stuff differently. After some years of banging my head against Zen training I think there may be something to it. Anyway, I’ve heard a number of Zen teachers talk about various things Jesus said — Buddhists on the whole are impressed by Jesus and respect him — but the Zen view is often several miles away from Christian orthodoxy. And of course we all may be several miles away from what Jesus intended.

    Re #12, 14, 15 — Does “The first rule of the fight club is not to talk about the fight club” relate to “The Tao that can be talked about is not the Tao?” I never saw that film, but I assume people didn’t talk about the fight club because they wanted to keep it a secret from outsiders. The Tao Teh Ching is making an entirely different point. It’s not esotericism for the sake of esotericism.

    The Tao Teh Ching itself is one of the most widely translated books in human history. I believe all of the classic Zen koan collections have been published in English, with copious commentary and pointers. Yet trying to understand this stuff just by reading it is like trying to learn to swim by reading about water.

    In much Buddhist literature, what is realized when one realizes “enlightenment” is often called Thusness or Suchness, because there are no words to describe it.

    #9 — My interpretation would be that the tenzo was spiritually mature enough to realize that his knowledge of ultimate spiritual truth would thrust him back into that blissful state of Edenic, non-dualistic consciousness before he was ready to go there. I’d like to believe that this tenzo sensed he still had some important work to do while “here” in our lower, dualistic level of consciousness.

    Maybe, but that wouldn’t be a Zen interpretation. Even the greatly realized (Zennies don’t like the word “enlightened”) still put their pants on one leg at a time. The ideal of the realized monk, as presented in the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, is of the old man who re-enters the world and acts for the benefit of all sentient beings.

    (One of the traps of trying to “get enlightened” is that if you’re doing it just for yourself, then you are being selfish, so it won’t happen. So the student develops “bodhicitta,” which is the desire to realize Thusness for the benefit of others. This relates also to the Four Bodhisattva Vows.)

  16. Weasel Tracks  •  Jul 30, 2007 @8:06 am

    Also, FWIW, I think you answered the question, “Why did the tenzo do this?” earlier in your post when you asked “Can we return to that consciousness? Do we want to?” My interpretation would be that the tenzo was spiritually mature enough to realize that his knowledge of ultimate spiritual truth would thrust him back into that blissful state of Edenic, non-dualistic consciousness before he was ready to go there. I’d like to believe that this tenzo sensed he still had some important work to do while “here” in our lower, dualistic level of consciousness.

    I believe the usual Zen interpretation is that he had to cook the rice first.

    Hi, Babs! “Zen Lite,” indeed 🙂

    —Uncle Weasel

  17. maha  •  Jul 30, 2007 @9:43 am

    he had to cook the rice first.

    Thank you for your answer. 🙂

  18. BPx3  •  Jul 30, 2007 @12:01 pm

    @19, “he had to cook the rice first.”

    Exactly. And the reason he had to cook the rice first is that he recognized the dualistic distinction between a monk’s stomach filled with rice and a monk’s stomach devoid of rice and held an opinion regarding the favorability of the former over the latter.

    It may also be that he had to cook the rice first because, if he didn’t do so, he’d be replaced as resident tenzo and required to chop wood and carry water instead. I know I hold an opinion on the relative favorability of performing those tasks.

  19. maha  •  Jul 30, 2007 @12:17 pm

    BPx3 — the question was not “why did the monk do what he did?” but “why was it the correct thing to do?” It’s an allegory, remember. If a tenzo had really seen Manjusri in the cooking pot, the moral might have been that the old guy needed a vacation.

    I found a variation of the story in this dharma talk

    There’s a famous koan of an ancient master who was a hermit. He had been practicing many, many years, living isolated in the mountains. One day he was cooking soup and in the steam Manjusri Bodhisattva appeared and in his deep, resonant voice proclaimed the Dharma to him. The old hermit immediately picked up the ladle and started beating him with it. “Get out of here!” he said. “Get out of here!” In other words, don’t put another head on top of the one you already have. Anything that we hold on to along the way—anything—is a dead end, because the minute we attach we create two things: the “attachee” and the “attachor.” That is not the intimacy of samadhi; it is not the intimacy of shikantaza.

  20. BPx3  •  Jul 30, 2007 @3:30 pm

    @21

    Thanks for the links in both of your comments. Interesting reading. It will take some time to get through it all.

    If I understand correctly, you’re highlighting the point that any attachment to, and reliance on, written descriptions and dogma may prevent us from having the direct personal experience of ultimate reality that should be our goal. I accept that. Have no quarrel with it. My point was that the tenzo may not have been ready to experience the type of ultimate Samadhi, or return to a Garden of Eden consciousness, that would leave him unable to actively participate in what we call life on Earth. An ancient master isolated in a cave may very well achieve some form of perpetual intimacy of Samadhi, but he, at least in my view, would not be an active participant in the drama of human life. At least as long as he remains isolated in a cave. (Also, after reading this story, I would want to ask the ancient master if he might have become a little too attached to the concept of non-attachment).

    The reason I raise my point is your citation to the Hsin Hsin Ming, and the assertion that, “To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.” Well, if so, I think it’s a necessary and noble disease of the mind. My tentative conclusion (and all my conclusions are tentative) is that even when we realize a higher level of consciousness, our active and loving participation in what we call the “real world” requires us to continue to function at a lower level of consciousness as well. In other words, even though some part of us may come to “realize” the ultimate oneness of all that is and that life on Earth is an illusory experience, we are required to treat it as if it were “real.” Often, this requires us to make judgments, form opinions, and form attachments. If we don’t do these things, wouldn’t we be like an actor in a play who decides to step out of character every five minutes in order to remind the members of the audience that they shouldn’t form any attachments to any of the characters because the play is just an illusion and not real?

    My apologies for rambling, but you’ve raised such interesting issues.

  21. maha  •  Jul 30, 2007 @4:16 pm

    ultimate Samadhi, or return to a Garden of Eden consciousness, that would leave him unable to actively participate in what we call life on Earth.

    I have a terrible tendency to over-intellectualize everything, which is my biggest hindrance as a Zen student. I could give you reasonably accurate explanations of many of the koans, for example, but that’s not the same thing as resolving them. So when I say you are over-intellectualizing, I hope you won’t feel insulted. Your questions are good ones, but they are not questions that can be resolved by intellect.

    First, you are misunderstanding how the enlightenment thing works. Even the most highly realized people still participate in what we call life on earth as long as they’re alive. Even the historical Buddha, so the stories go, lived and talked and ate and blew his nose and crapped for several years after he attained Buddhahood. The notion that “enlightened” people live in some perpetually blissed-out state and are no longer part of this world is, um, fanciful.

    Samadhi is not enlightenment. Samadhi isn’t the goal, but the means. Samadhi enables people to break out of their conceptual boxes to experience themselves directly and intimately. After samadhi it becomes possible to perceive oneself and the world in a different way, which makes it useful. But, as you say, sometimes you’ve got to attend to other things, like changing your socks.

    “Enlightenment” is not a quality one can possess. It is who you are. It is who you are right now. But believing that enlightenment is who you are is pointless. Having an intellectual understanding of the Buddhist Theory of Being is worthless. This is a matter that must be directly experienced so that it becomes the reality you live in. Then it is no longer a “belief” or a “concept.” It’s as real to you as the hand at the end of your arm. It is also, so I’m told, as ordinary as having a hand at the end of your arm.

    The “attachment” thing trips a lot of people up, because they interpret it to mean that realized beings can’t form relationships. Not so. The point may be easier to understand if you substitute “clinging” for “attachment.” Don’t cling.

  22. BPx3  •  Jul 30, 2007 @5:21 pm

    @23, “I hope you won’t feel insulted.”

    Of course not. To the contrary, I appreciate your willingness to continue your commentary.

  23. Larkspur  •  Aug 3, 2007 @10:54 pm

    Are there any LDS/Mormons reading this? Because this isn’t my religion, either by upbringing or by choice, but my impression has been that outsiders are inclined to assume that to be a Mormon, you have to accept and believe in the literal truth of the Book of Mormon. But maybe this isn’t true. Maybe you can be a Mormon and acknowledge the tenets without depending on them to be literally true. I mean, non-Mormons have a tendency to place Mormonism into (or very close to) the cult category. Surely fundamentalist Mormons (self-defined) have cult-like beliefs. But can you believe in the Church of LDS and allegory or simile?

    (I am prompted to curiosity not by Mitt Romney, but my former neighbors – because I love them – and by Steve Young, because he’s really smart and the best quarterback ever. Although I absolutely do not believe in American tackle football, oh noes.)

    Is this a bad question?

  24. Peter Gaffney  •  Sep 2, 2007 @12:03 pm

    But how does one go about transcending one’s preference for Zen over fundamentalist Christianity?

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