Spiritual Praxis

I’ve been reflecting on some of the vocabulary I use in these writings and some of the experiences I’ve drawn on in attempting to understand them. I think it’s important that I establish some of the terminology that gets used here, and the larger context in which they are framed.

Many of the writings here have emerged through my own experimentation and have had the feeling of discovery. This feels like different viewings of something comprehensive yet hidden from view. This is part of the genesis for referring to these experiments as occult or esoteric, in that they are typically more hidden from the mind’s rationalizing capabilities. In order to aid me in looking at these experiences closely and accurately, I have embraced a broad platform of human thought and experience.

Following this kind of journey has made it clear to me that liberation and understanding, so crucial for humanity’s efforts in this reality, are global possibilities which everyone contributes to. Although I am not an accredited teacher, and do not have an official teacher within a spiritual tradition, I have learned something valuable from casting my nets wide and listening to as many perspectives as possible. This type of study serves as a check on my many one-sided viewpoints.

This is why my writings have emphasized different understandings of religion and spirituality. I tend to use these concepts frequently on this site, although they elude rigid interpretation. They are used in a looser and more intuitive way. Spirituality, in my view, begins with a human investigation into topics of universal significance. These can include self-identity, love, the problem of evil, and our reason for existing. It embraces a wide range of physical and mental tools, such as reason, intuition, and meditation. It also has an ethical component which seems to be one of the most important characteristics of any kind of spiritual writing – how this type of investigation, in broadening our understanding of life, contributes to more realistic and compassionate behavior.

Religion is an extension of spirituality and shares many commonalities with it. When discussing religion, we are not only looking at spiritual teachings, but the architecture that sustains these teachings. This can include monasteries and nunneries, church gatherings, and meditation groups. It also looks at the larger social consequences of those participating in these practices and how spiritual teachings are spread through cultures. So when we are discussing religion, this is intentionally broad. It looks at human values, practices aimed at understanding the universe, and human social institutions that preserve the teachings of individuals who teach this particular kind of knowledge.

Both of these expressions are tied together in a human impulse, where, through reflection, we wish to understand our place in the world. That impulse manifests as a desire to connect to something larger than ourselves. Both spiritual and religious practices tie this impulse into what is commonly referred to as practice. Simply put, this practice is not only the techniques we use in our spiritual inquiry, but how we express what we have learned there.

The culmination of this kind of spiritual and religious study is an understanding beyond our self-image, and why this understanding is truer and more reflective of reality as a result. Many traditions have emphasized this understanding, such as the Kabbalistic map of God and the complete human; Christian kenosis and rebirth in Christ’s love; or Buddhist emphases on human action. These maps all seem to converge around deeper human awareness, how to access that, and how to ultimately transform human behavior.

This kind of analysis is found in the book Symbols of the Kabbalah by Sanford Drob, also discussed in my previous post. His excellent analysis involves the Sefirot, the Kabbalistic aspects of God’s nature. The process of the Sefirot also describes the individual contribution to something higher than oneself. This interpretation revolves around the last triad on the Sefirot, Netzach or “Endurance,” Hod or “Splendor,” and Yesod, “Foundation.” Since Netzach and Hod are understood as the “legs” on the Sefirot that correspond to the body of God, they correspond to the material expression of divine potential that hold this process aloft.

From a psychological point of view we may regard Endurance, Splendor, and Foundation as the cultural fulfillment of earlier, more individualistic psychological principles. This follows from the very names of these Sefirot; for civilization and culture are the very aspects of the human psyche that are splendorous and enduring, and which serve as a foundation for human communal life. It is not sufficient that we as humans have individual desire, intellect, and emotion; we must also build something of enduring value. Such cultural pursuits – achievements in work, the arts, religion, the family, society, etc. – are the human equivalents to God’s creation of the material world; for through them, as Hegel observed, the human spirit expresses itself and becomes concrete and real. Psychological (and psychotherapeutic) work does not begin and end with the harmonizing of conflict in one’s own inner life; it must extend to the achievement of a wider expression and balance in one’s work in the world, an achievement of something more enduring than the individual self. (225)

This seems to be what follows from the highest reaches of spiritual inquiry – questions of origin and identity, and what we can create with the time that we have. Part of this inquiry is the nebulous concept of meaning. Meaning allows us to ask and follow questions through which we can create our life. We therefore have a great deal of freedom in what we help create.

Making these realities also involves kindness, love, and compassion, which all converge at the nexus of spiritual and religious life. In the process of asking these questions, we become one with that massive outpouring of reality, and realize our connection to it, from which we are never apart.

Practice and Parenting

My wife and I had our daughter a few years ago, provoking a massive change in our lives.    Combined with shifts in my current job and my wife’s illness, I have been gradually assuming more responsibility at home.  I was no longer able to rely on old supports, which gradually kickstarted a process that would put me in limbo for most of the year.  Part of this process involved a painful interlude of inner work.  

This interlude has immeasurably enriched my meditative practice.  Being a parent is in some ways a close parallel for many of the things we can bring about through meditation.  It encourages a greater awareness of our connection to our fellow creatures and the reality in which we live.  It is also an avenue back to a beneficial perspective that many of us have lost.  We can discover this perspective at work joyously within our children.   

When I first began spending long stretches of time working at home and caring for my daughter, I noticed an internal resistance begin to surface.   I had an immediate recognition of some of the things that had come up in meditation, and an awareness that what I was going through was part of my conditioning.  In this conditioning I discovered how many of my personal habits were used to keep personal pain at bay.  Long hours of studying, reading, writing, and playing music were all ways of losing myself and escaping.  As a child, my days were wider and gentler, and my time was not always linked to the endless rituals of adult life.  Being asked to remember this fact and spending hours being present with my own child seemed foreign to me.  I could not endure the kind of time that my child inhabited so easily.  My inner conversations and reactions hardened into interminable days of struggle.   

Given enough time, this inner resistance softened, and parenting became somewhat easier.  As this resistance came down, I noticed some changes within myself that correspond to what I have observed in my own child.

Children seem to have a different order of time.  The day feels different with my child, and she has certainly taught me an extended sense of that time.  Instead of running from project to project, I am learning to slow down and settle into a slower timeframe.  Attached to this sense of time is an incredible sense of play that can transform any activity into a game.  As I play with her, she comes up with rules that we both follow that create the structure of the game.  She instructs me on how this game operates, and if I find myself deviating from the rules, she guides us back.   Part of the fun with these games is finding variations on them.  She responds to them totally in the moment, being both hyper aware and able to absorb and process large amounts of information. 

This sense of time and play don’t seem to be coincidental.  It seems that children have a recognition that many adults lose as we leave our childhood through biological and cultural changes.  Spiritual practice allows us on many levels to discover what we had lost in this transition and a chance to combine adult and childhood perspectives harmoniously. 

Another reference to this kind of experience happens in the writing of philosopher Georges Bataille. 

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Even thinking generously of this philosopher, the best adjective I can come up with is “fringey.”  Bataille thought comprehensively on a number of subjects including taboos, sexuality, metaphysics, and literature.  In his book The Accursed Share, Bataille describes how culture mimics the flow of universal energy, and the various ways that culture replicates the squandering of this universal energy.  Bataille has numerous perspectives across his works worthy of consideration.  In the same book (and in my interpretation, linked to our experience as children) Bataille describes the misguided nature of objects and utility, and how he connects this view with his own theory of energy:

The beings that we are not given once and for all; they appear designed for an increase in their energy resources.  They generally make this increase, beyond mere subsistence, their goal and their reason for being.  But with this subordination to increase, the being in question loses its autonomy; it subordinates itself to what it will be in the future, owing to the increase of its resources.  In reality, the increase should be a situation in which it will resolve into a pure expenditure.  But this is precisely the difficult transition.  In fact, it goes against consciousness in the sense that the latter tries to grasp some object of acquisition, something, not the nothing of pure expenditure.  It is a question of arriving at the moment when consciousness will cease to be a consciousness of something; in other words, of becoming conscious of the decisive meaning of an instant in which increase (the acquisition of something) will resolve into expenditure, and this will be precisely self-consciousness, that is, a consciousness that henceforth has nothing as its object . . .  More open, the mind discerns, instead of an antiquated teleology, the truth that silence alone does not betray.  (190)

Bataille’s shift is placing our focus on the this momentary expenditure of energy, done for its own sake and not restricting it within any future end.  He makes a very profound point here about the typical human way of approaching problems, and the separation that takes place as a result.  This approach consists of using the mind to split experience apart into what we call objects, and then constructing additional approaches or realities using those objects.  With this ability humans engineer their environment in all sorts of concrete and abstract ways.  For instance, the label “house” is a certain configuration of matter.  The fact that we ascribe the mental designation of “house”  to this reality allows us new approaches to the reality of “house” and have a mental file of dealing with these kind of objects, from intended use to social etiquette.  However, we can also break this kind of thinking, and use this “house” beyond its intended use and build something else out of it. 

Seeing things from the level of a child is much different.  Children do not always limit things to their mental rank and file, and come up with amazing and unexpected solutions.  Like the games I mentioned earlier, these changes happen spontaneously.  This is also something that adults appreciate, but we tend to often equate survival with repeatability, and can often stagnate if we simply equate fulfilling our own needs with the purpose of our existence.  I think this is part of the point that Bataille is trying to make when he speaks in his works about intimacy with existence, although the consequences he draws from his views are taken much further.  He is discussing something that many humans no longer pay attention to in their quest to deal with the full realm of their mental objects and survive.

This brings me to my second main point about the spiritual aspects of parenting.   It has seemed to me, as I struggled with meeting my own and my family’s needs, that a larger perspective was in play.  It does seem that my daughter being born was part of this larger perspective, and that she is now involved in part of this bigger process.  In helping her growth and development, I am helping that perspective change into something else. If I pay attention only to what I think are my own needs, I may ultimately inflict some kind of damage on that process.    

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It is significant that the first Sefirah in Kabbalah is designated Keter (Crown) and associated with Will, which is what initially created the universe.  In Sanford Drob’s book Symbols of the Kabbalah, the author discusses a development in Kabbalistic thought called Lurianic Kabbalah.  The creation myth of Lurianic Kabbalah details how that in order to create the universe as we know it, God, after a sufficient “will” to create, had to “withdraw” itself and create a space for the universe to develop within its infinite presence.  This is called Tzimtzum.    In the book, parents also withdraw themselves somewhat from their children, in order to allow their children to become who they are.  

The Hasidic ethic, it would seem, implies an admonition that in relating to others, in particular to our children, we must first emulate the Infinite God and perform an act of Tzimtzum whereby our own thoughts and desires are contracted and concealed so that the other may emerge in his or her own individuality.  (150)

The challenge to this approach is knowing when to set aside some of our selves to allow our children to grow, as well as providing clear and appropriate boundaries.

Like the religious traditions, meditative and parenting parts of life enrich each other  when they are allowed to dialogue freely.   Being a parent has given me an entirely new perspective on my practice.  The love, attention, and presence that we provide for our children can also be given to the entire world, something that the great mystics and religious teachers have tapped into.  This is an avenue for us to enter as well, and an arena in which we can actually become what we have learned.

Zen Koan Discussion: “Linji’s Four Realms”

In the Zen tradition, koans are used as direct expressions of the truth of Zen. Examining the words of masters past allow koans to take on an awesome depth and join us on our inquiry to help guide us. Koans are a challenge to look at their truth for ourselves without turning away from our humanity. We can use them to come to our own understanding of Zen’s “Only Don’t Know,” an unraveling of our most basic assumptions and ways of looking at the world.

Looking at koans, I was initially confused and couldn’t really make sense out of them. A daily sitting practice has gradually shown me that koan answers are so precisely tuned that it’s easy to overlook them. Instead of molding koans to try to fit our expectations of them, we have to look at the koan and try to understand it on its own terms.

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The koan collection Entangling Vines, translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner, is one the of the most valuable koan references I’ve found. It’s packed with intriguing details that enhance the original text, as well as a fantastic translation. I haven’t finished the whole book yet, but it has steadily become my favorite koan collection. One of the koans featured in Entangling Vines that struck me recently is called “Linji’s Four Realms.” After some biographical details, we’ll take a look at the main text of the koan, and discuss how it locks together to form an organic whole. Linji’s economy with his teaching is astounding, and he covers a lot of ground in a short span of time.

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According to Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teaching by Andy Ferguson, Linji was the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen.

Linji Yixuan (d. 866) was a disciple of Huangbo Xiyun. Linji is a preeminent figure in the history of Zen. He came from the city of Nashua in ancient Caozhou (now the city of Dongming in Shandong Province). As the founder of the Linji school of Zen (in Japanese, Rinzai), his tradition remains, along with the Caodong school, as one of the two lineages that survive to the present day.
After taking the vows of a monk, Linji studied the sutras, the Vanaya, and the various doctrines that were carried on the currents of Buddhism in his era. Although he practiced under Guishan Lingyou, his enlightenment came about under Huangbo Xiyun, with the teacher Gao’an Dayu a key player in the drama.
 (173)

And according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (PDB), koans such as these are extremely important to the Rinzai tradition:

[Rinzai was] one of the major Japanese Zen schools established in the early Kamakura period . . . After the decline of the Gowan monasteries, the Otokan lineage came to dominate the Rinzai Zen tradition during the Edo period and was the only Rinzai line to survive to the present. Despite the presence of such influential monks as Takuan Soho and Bankei Yotaku, the Rinzai tradition began to decline by the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. The monk credited with revitalizing the Rinzai tradition during the Edo period is the Myoshinji monk Hakuin Ekaku. Hakuin systematized the koan method of meditation, which is the basis of modern Rinzai Zen practice; it is also through Hakuin and his disciples that most Rinzai masters of today trace their lineages. (715)

The information on Linji quoted in the Ferguson volume contains a story about Linji’s interviews with monks Dayu and Huangbo. The first part of the story involves Linji asking for the dharma teaching in various ways. He only gets hit in response. I’ve included some of the text here for reference:

When Linji reached Dayu, Dayu said ‘Where have you come from?’
Linji said, ‘from Huangbo.’
Dayu said, ‘What did Huangbo say?’
Linji said, ‘Three times I asked him about the essential doctrine and three times I got hit.  I don’t know if I made some error or not.’
Dayu said, ‘Huangbo has old grandmotherly affection and endures all this difficulty for your sake-and here you are asking whether you’ve made some error or not.’
Upon hearing these words, Linji was awakened.
(174-175)

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Now let’s see the main text of “Linji’s Four Realms” taken from Entangling Vines:

Someone asked Linji, “What are the four realms of no-form?” The master said, “A thought of doubt in your mind and you’re obstructed by the element of earth; a thought of desire in your mind and you drown in the element water; a thought of anger in your mind and you’re scorched by the element fire; a thought of joy in your mind and you’re blown about by the element wind.”  Understand this, however, and you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go. You can appear in the east and vanish in the west, appear in the south and vanish in the north, appear in the center and vanish at the border, appear at the border and vanish in the center. You can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.  Why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions. (Kindle Version, loc  4848)

Like many koans, “Linji’s Four Realms” is structured in a question and answer format. In the first part of the koan, Linji is asked the question, “what are the four realms of no-form?” The question is used as a springboard to address Zen’s concerns in an honest and direct fashion. The question is usually set up to indicate that the student is looking for some kind of doctrinal answer, or is seeking clarification on some area of Buddhist doctrine. Linji twists this question around and breaks it down. The question also indicates the artistry called for in these responses, as the master uses the question to create something new and interesting, while still broadly reflecting the Zen tradition as a whole.

In the next part of the koan, Linji uses the concept of “four realms of no-form” and creates an outline based on the student’s question that uses doubt, desire, anger, and joy. This outline is used to show the student their own mind, and the consequences of thinking and feeling in certain ways. When we have thoughts of doubt, desire, anger, or joy, those thoughts suffuse our actions and we enact the corresponding state of mind. Since we have examined anger a little bit in a previous article, let’s use desire as an example of what Linji is talking about.

When we look into desire, several components of the experience come immediately to mind. There is an abstract longing for the desired object, in which we fantasize about situations with that object, and how by acquiring it we will make our current experience happier or more meaningful. There is a tendency, at least in my own experience, to abstract out the problems associated with acquiring and keeping the object. Desire perpetuates itself through any objects that exist at hand, and can readily shift between them. There is also a corresponding sensation that is stimulating or enthralling, like a compulsion that moves us closer to the object.

Based on this examination, we can see how when we fully give ourselves over to desire, according to Linji we “drown in the element water.” Once this happens, we no longer see the ephemeral basis of desire and drown in its elemental nature. Linji’s succinct analysis indicates that forms such as desire are unfounded, and in fact are empty as discussed in Buddhist texts such as the Heart Sutra. By showing us that emptiness is in fact the fabric of our own minds, Linji gives us the key to pulling down the entire structure. He ties this point into the last segment of the koan, how insight into this empty nature of thought helps us respond to change.

In the next sentence, Linji says that “you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go.” Once we see into the empty nature of mind and constant change, we no longer have to rely on rigidly controlling situations or relying on external situations for happiness. One of the realms of reality that Buddhism describes is the “realm of hungry ghosts,” in addition to “hell denizens, animals, and sometimes demigods or titans” (PDB, 677).  Read metaphorically, we are no longer hungry ghosts that chase after the ephemerality of our own minds. We become much more capable of utilizing the intelligence of situations to help others and ourselves.

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This is why Linji says we can “appear in the east and vanish in the west.” Understanding this passage was informed by my own deepening process of self-observation. Closely noticing my own behavior, I could no longer believe in a necessity to the way I did many things. My approaches were often limited and sometimes arrogant if they did not allow for change. For example, at my job my skill set was a mix of approaches built over time. Some of these I had fine tuned to deal with many of the problems that arise at work and take the form of flexible programs. Many others were subjective, allowed within the wide scope of the job but not correct in any absolute sense. Some of my methods seemed more neurotic, entangled with a variety of personal and idiosyncratic details and repeated only for their own sake.

Over time, I have used these insights to broaden my own situational awareness and change my behavior as needed. Within these situations a tremendous amount of potential exists. Knowing this can result in a much more childlike, playful sense of existence. We can do things that seem unlikely because we are no longer relying on following rigid lines of behavior. We can break out of these boundaries as needed while still understanding the value of rules and obligations to social life. After this, Linji says that “[we] can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.” Linji reflects this childlike attitude through playing with the concepts of land and water.

In the last sentence of the koan, Linji says “why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions.” It’s as if we thought that elements such as desire, anger, joy, and sorrow were the proper way to live our lives. We spent our time patterning things after their structure. But what if we want to experience a different dream? Can we see through Dogen’s “colors of the mind” to the thing that interlinks us all? Can we do this, through our own efforts and with the help of Zen students of the past and present?

Let’s pursue this question fully, with the help of koans such as these, to realize our true capabilities and our identity with the boundless universe.

The Foundation of the World – The Zohar, Parashat Noah

Due to the Zohar’s explicit usage of sexual symbolism in this chapter, this article may not be appropriate for work.  All quotations are taken from Zohar: Pritzker Edition Volume One, translated by Daniel Matt, unless otherwise noted.  

The Zohar continues to draw up secret meanings of Torah with it’s third chapter and analysis of the story of Noah.  Titled Parashat Noah, the beginning of the chapter focuses on a discussion of Noah, his sexual purity (he was born circumcised!), and how this allowed him to enter the ark.   In the symbolic system of the Zohar, the themes of righteousness and sexual purity gravitate around the area of the phallus on the sephirot, which is also described as the body of God. 

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In the Zohar, our level of reality is called Malkhut and is symbolically associated with the female.   Since Malkhut “receives” its energy from within God and its higher divine realms, it is characterized as female.  That flow of energy is given to the female, characterizing its expression as male. The give and take between these two realms is described in terms of a charged, erotic relationship.  Where does the Kabbalist fit into this schema?

Taking a cue from the passage “righteousness and justice are the foundations of Your throne” (Psalms 89:15), the mystic becomes an integral part of the libidinal system.  Since our reality has been divorced from blessing through human action, the mystic is needed to correct this imbalance.   Through righteous action and creating interpretations of Torah, the Kabbalist unites the discord between the masculine and feminine God, reestablishing an optimal flow of energy and harmony.  They are the phallic link between the upper and lower, and allow this relationship to reach its fruition.  

Noah is associated with this level, and Parashat Noah elaborates on how this phallic symbolism relates to its discussion of the Ark.  A feature of the Zohar is its reading of Torah on multiple levels that create wonderful connections among all its verses.  The Ark is also read in this case as Malkhut (or Shekinah, the “divine presence”) and once Noah “entered” her, he enabled a new generation to flower after the Flood. Noah, like the Zoharic mystic, is considered a “husband” of Malkhut, wrapped around her in a loving embrace, forever joined to her.  

Noah entered the ark, bringing with him every species of the creatures of the world.  Truly Noah was a tree bearing fruit (Genesis 1:11), and all species of the world sprang from the ark, corresponding to the manner above.  

Come and see when this tree bearing fruit joins the fruit tree: all those supernal species!  Living great and small; countless species, each one unique, as is said: Living beings small and great (Psalms 104:25).  Similarly, Noah in the ark, all of them issuing from the ark, and the world was established, corresponding above.  So he is called Noah, husband of earth (Genesis 9:20), Noah, righteous man (ibid. 6:9) as they have already established.  (Zohar 1:62b, p. 362-363).  

Drawing the reader further into its dialogue on evil and moral responsibility, human sin was what brought on the waters of the Flood.  Another idea that is expressed numerous times in the Zohar is that through human action, God’s expression is biased towards Greatness (Compassion) or Judgment.  God gave humanity time to redeem itself after Adam’s initial sin, but this grace period eventually ran out and God’s judgment devastated the world.  In Parashat Noah, the Zohar elucidates these themes through its telling of the story of the Companions, the mystical brotherhood at the heart of the Zohar’s exegesis. As two of the Companions Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose wander through mountains, they discuss the history of the Flood and its divine implications. In this dialogue, it becomes clear that the mountains are a grim monument to human sin:

Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose were walking on the way.  They encountered the mountains of Kurdistan, where they saw traces of crevices in the earth dating from the time of the Flood.  

Rabbi Hiyya said to Rabbi Yose, ‘These crevices are vestiges of the Flood, preserved by the blessed Holy One ever since, throughout the generations, that the sins of the wicked not be obliterated from His sight.  For such is the way of the blessed Holy One: He wants the virtuous who do His will to be remembered above and below, their blessed memory unforgotten generation to generation.  Similarly He wants to the sins of the wicked, who fail to do His will, not to be forgotten, their punishment and evil memory remembered generation to generation, as is written: ‘Stained is in your iniquity before Me’ (Jeremiah 2:22).  

In the story of the Flood, God turned over judgment to “the Destroyer,” whose judgment was so immense that it cleansed the Earth.  The Destroyer is associated with the demonic, and when humans rely upon that evil taproot, it eventually corrupts and eliminates them. Evil in this sense is also linked to judgment, as its practitioners bring the judgments of hell upon themselves.  This interpretation allows for humans to take a place in the cosmos, choosing the blessings of righteousness or the punishments of sin for themselves.  

In one of its group dialogues on this subject, some of the Companions go into this further, describing how humanity’s sin ultimately caused the judgment of the Flood to manifest.

And I, I am about to bring the Flood, as we have established: to unleash the Destroyer upon them, since through him, they had defiled themselves.  

Rabbi Yose said, ‘Woe to the wicked who, having sinned, refuse to return to the blessed Holy One while still in the world!  For when a person returns, regretting his sins, the blessed holy One forgives him, but all those who cling to their sins, refusing to return to the blessed holy One, will eventually fall into Hell, never to be raised.  

Come and see: Since the entire generation of Noah hardened their hearts, desiring to flaunt their sins, the blessed Holy One executed judgment upon them in a similar manner . . . These wicked ones were obliterated from earth.  Obliterated?  How?  Waters gushed boiling from the abyss, rising and peeling off their skin, then their flesh, leaving nothing but bones, fulfilling the verse: They were obliterated from the earth (Genesis 7:23).  All those bones disjointed from one another, no longer together, so they were totally eradicated from the world.  (387-388)

A focal element of the Zohar, and part of what makes it such an engaging read, is its use of a central story to combine its themes and bring the reader through its rich interpretive processes.  The story element is particularly playful in the Noah chapter, with several characters coming and going.  The characters play with a variety of themes that include righteousness, judgment, and redemption that are hallmarks of the Kabbalistic story. They return to these motifs throughout Parashat Noah, building on them with increasing subtlety and grace. 

The Zohar also uses linguistic analysis to examine Torah on deeper levels.  This technique looks at the structure of letters and words in the Torah, and treats them as significant to understanding the divine story.  Since this approach describes a Torah that is infinitely rich in meaning, its analysis adds another level in which they can discover divine will and its secrets.

This element is frequently couched in the story element and is used to great effect.  While traveling in the mountains, Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose meet a Jewish traveler.  The traveler proceeds through an exploration of the theme of judgment found in Noah.  Furthering on the Companions inquiry into the Flood, he provides a linguistic analysis of the use of the word “Elohim” in a certain passage:

When they reached the site of a certain field they sat down.  That man asked, ‘Why is it written: And YHVH rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24), whereas in the Flood it is everywhere written: Elohim, Elohim?  Because we have learned: ‘Everywhere it is written: And YHVH – this means ‘He and His Court.’ Elohim, unspecified, means Judgment alone.’  Now, at Sodom judgment was executed, yet not destroying the world, so He intermingled with Judgment, but in the Flood It destroyed the whole world and all those present in the world.  

Now you might say, ‘But look, Noah and his companions were saved!’  Come and see: Noah was hidden from sight, invisible! So everything present in the world It destroyed.  

Therefore: And YHVH – in the open, not destroying all.  Elohim – one needs concealment and must seek protection, for It destroys all.  So Elohim was alone.  (376)

Another significant dialogue is found with a child (interestingly named Abba, or Father), who proceeds to elaborate on further mysteries of Torah.  He uses a passage from Genesis that focuses on Noah after the Flood, and uses it to explore new meanings of the text. Emerging from the Ark after the Flood, Noah builds an altar and makes an offering to God.  To discover the verse’s secret meaning, Abba does a mystical reading of the verse, discussing how an offering done in this fashion quelled the divine wrath and allowed peace to return once more to Earth.  

Noah built an altar to YHVH, and took of every pure animal and of every pure bird, and offered ascent-offerings on the altar Genesis 8:20 . . . 

Of this is written:  They shall place incense in Your nostril (Deuteronomy 33:10), for fire returns to its site, and through that aroma the nose contracts inward, inward – till all is embraced, returning to its site, all drawn in toward thought, becoming a single desire.  Then (Reiah nihoah) a pleasing aroma, for wrath (nah), subsides, yielding (neyaha), tranquility – for smoke is absorbed, condensed in fire, grasping smoke, both entering within, within, until wrath subsides.  When all intermingles and wrath subsides, then tranquility, a single nexus named ‘tranquility’ – tranquility of spirit, joy of all as one, radiance of sparkling lamps, radiance of faces.  So it is written: YHVH smelled [the pleasing aroma], like one inhaling, drawing everything in to its site.  (412)

Unfortunately, the Flood was not enough to totally redeem those who came after.  The story of Noah effects another fall, this time from “the sacred to the secular.”  As we discussed earlier, this ensured that reality became more closely tied to the demonic serpent, and sin obscured the divine light.  And since Israel was not able to grant its blessings to the world and fulfill its cosmic vocation, Earth remained in its fallen state.  Furthering this turning away from God, the Companions discuss how Nimrod, “garbed in the garments of Adam,” used the power of the garments to draw worship away from God and towards other idols.  

Not even Noah could effect a redemption, as he was not prepared for what he was to find when he looked within the divine mystery.  Rabbi Shim’on, in typical head-exploding fashion, interprets Noah becoming drunk as becoming corrupted by the divine wisdom.  Since Noah was “saturated with the other wine” (or evil), his sons furthered this corruption and humanity’s fall.  Noah could not handle the divine energies he had unleashed.  The Zohar does justice to the possible corruption of spiritual practice, for when humans look within and are unprepared for the scope of their own freedom.  Moses was unique among the Patriarchs for his ability to explore the divine wisdom without becoming corrupt.  

Rabbi Shim’on said, ‘There is a mystery here in this verse.  When he sought to probe the sin probed by Adam – not to cling but to know, to mend the world – he was incapable.  He squeezed grapes to probe that vineyard, but as soon as he arrived, ‘he became drunk and exposed himself (ibid., 21), and was powerless to rise.  So, exposed himself, exposing the breach of the world that had been closed [by Adam].  Inside (oholoh), his tent (ibid.), spelled with a ‘he’: inside oholah, ‘her tent,’ the tent of that vineyard . . . Because the blessed Holy One brought secrets of wisdom down to the world, humanity was corrupted by it and sought to attack Him.  He gave supernal wisdom to Adam, and through that revealed wisdom he discovered rungs and clung to the evil impulse until the springs of wisdom vanished.  Afterward he returned to the presence of his Lord, and some was revealed, though not as before.  Later through that book of his, he discovered wisdoms, but then people appeared and provoked Him.  

He gave wisdom to Noah, who thereby served the blessed Holy One.  Afterward what is written?  He drank of the wine and became drunk, and exposed himself (Genesis 9:21), as has been explained. 

He gave wisdom to Abraham, who thereby served the blessed Holy One.  Afterward Ishmael issued from him, who provoked the blessed Holy One.  Similarly Isaac, from whom issued Esau.  Jacob married two sisters.  

He gave wisdom to Moses.  What is written of him?  Throughout My house he is faithful (Numbers 12:7).  There was none as faithful as Moses: he performed on all those rungs, yet his heart did not stray into desiring any of them; rather, he stood firm in supernal faith fittingly . . . 

Come and see: With fragments of wisdom discovered by these people from wisdom of the ancients, they antagonized the blessed Holy One, built a tower, and perpetrated all they did – until they were scattered over the face of the earth, lacking the wisdom to accomplish anything.  But in the time to come the blessed Holy One will arouse wisdom in the world, with which He will be served, as is written: ‘I will put My spirit within you and cause you’ – not like the ancients who ruined the world with it, but rather: ‘cause you to follow My Laws and carefully observe My rules.     433-447

The chapter concludes with the building of Babel, when God realized that if humanity united with a common language and singular will, they could no longer be judged.  Therefore God broke up humanity.  This furthered the corruption of the fall, and humanity would not receive the revelations of Torah, and the Ten Commandments until Israel’s exile from Egypt and their experience at Mount Sinai.  

I’m five volumes in and the Zohar has slowly come into its own, somehow masterfully combining insightful analyses, poetic language, the erotic, the mystical, an interesting story, and a relentless creativity into a book like nothing I’ve ever read.  The Zohar is a peerless work of spiritual literature, and I’m looking forward to doing further essays, as close re-readings bring out the true wonder that this text provides at every step.  

Next up is Parashat Lekh Lekha, “Go You Forth,” the Companions adventures starting with Genesis 12:1-17:27.  

You can purchase the Pritzker Edition Zohar from Stanford University Press here. You can also purchase it from Amazon here.

Wild Wild Country

This article contains spoilers for the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country.

My wife and I recently finished watching Wild Wild Country, a documentary series on Netflix that examines a controversial commune established by Osho (formerly the Bhagwan) and his acolytes near Antelope, Oregon.  Due to the commune’s recent formation, the producers of the show have a stunning amount of archival footage to work with, and manage to get illuminating interviews with many of those who participated.  The series is well worth a watch.  It is a detailed look at how communities form around religious teachers, and some of the sociological dimensions of these kind of communities.

I was not familiar with Osho’s work before watching the show. I was particularly interested in seeing Osho describe his efforts “trying to help people to be awake.”  His desire to freely explore subjects such as sexuality was important and remains so to this day.  He also had a palpable way of being with people which comes through in the documentary.  Not being there, I can only surmise what it must have been like to meet him in person.  Especially in today’s internet saturated culture, where spiritual writings and videos are instantly accessible, it must have been a unique and special event attending his lectures.  He no doubt introduced many to meditation that may not have practiced it otherwise.  

The converse of this is that Osho’s image and mannerisms appear contrived, and his community’s shrewd manipulation of financial currents demonstrated their ability to capitalize on that image.  Osho got his start in India, but after problems with the government, his community migrated to Antelope, Oregon.  There they began functioning in many ways as a religious state.  Christened Rajneeshpuram, it had its own law codes and police force.  One of the most striking images of the show is the commune’s acquiring and practicing with automatic weapons.  From this image emerges one of the most interesting tensions of the show, with reconciling the humane and compassionate teachings of spiritual insight with the exigencies of group living.  

Working at a corporation for close to a decade has impressed on me the need for a hierarchy in the day to day functions of the job.  Without officers within that organization who are managing the time and work of other people, and given the ability to enforce the organization’s rules, many shared tasks would be difficult to coordinate.  It would seem that in many ways we are highly sensitive to the flow of information within that hierarchy, and seek to leverage these situations in order to receive the benefits of power.  There is often a delicate balance in play between our own needs and the need to contribute to group survival, moderated by those in charge.  Those balances are part of the dynamism of group life.    

The questioning of core concepts involved in spiritual practice can look deeply threatening as it undermines the rationales of the group.  Since both leader and follower are connected and inform the other, hierarchies can be seen through as the practicalities they are. It’s hard to reconcile the desires for position within the group with an understanding of the interconnected and equal nature of all phenomena.  As the poet Ryokan has said:

In the landscape of spring there is neither high nor low.
Flowering branches grow naturally, some short, some long.

This is a challenging paradox, and one that is not easily resolved.  I noticed this frequently in the archival footage, as Osho’s group grew too large for the experimental ideas that it was founded on.  Osho seems to have given management of day to day activities to his lieutenant Sheela, and Sheela responded with maximum aggression. She intrusively monitored the commune’s activities, and even conspired to murder Osho’s doctor Deva Raj.  Watching Rajneesh member Mel Shanti B calmly discuss this attempted murder is one of the most chilling moments in the series.  Elaborate plans are implemented that involve giving food poisoning to the residents of Wasco County to influence an upcoming election, and bringing in people off the streets to grow their commune’s numbers to increase their political sway.   Osho was forced to leave the United States in 1985 under pressure from the government.

 

These tensions within the community are one of the most interesting parts of the show. There is a lot of footage of Osho demonstrating his status symbols, from an expensive diamond watch to numerous Rolls Royces. It appears that Osho is a typical human deeply enmeshed in the undercurrents of power that affect all human communities.  Osho seems to be caught in the middle and trying to have it both ways – being able to retreat into silence regarding the workings of his own community, while enjoying its support and benefits.   It’s difficult to see this in a non-abusive light, as the leader enjoys gifts, status, and food through active manipulation of social relationships. Osho did not emerge from silence until after Sheela leaves the community, but by then it was too late to salvage the situation.  In one of the most ironic moments on the show, Osho ordered the tenants of Rajneeshism burned.  This merely fulfilled the promise that helped begin the community in the first place. 

Watching the community grow and hearing its members individual backstories was another show highlight. I’m sure that there are diverse reasons for people wanting to join religious communities.  However, I’m also struck by the sheer amount of people who seem to be hurting, with lives full of suffering and loss, looking for a group and a practice they can call their own.  One of the most moving testimonies comes from Swami Prem Niren, a lawyer who joined Osho’s group.  In one of the show’s later episodes, he says that it was a place where he found “an experience of being loved and accepted totally for the first time in [his] life.”  One of the most interesting things that emerges from meditation practice is the ability to explore and integrate the traumas that afflict all of us.  These deep sufferings are part of all life. The ability to listen, both to ourselves and others who come seeking similar things, is paramount.  Since so many of us have experienced trauma, it can be incredibly meaningful when someone listens to us, responds with compassion, and helps us get to work on the things that need the most attention in our lives.  

Let’s learn from the example of so many religious teachers and not abuse that.

Practice Notes – Experiments in Concentration

 

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I’m currently working through Richard Shankman’s The Experience of Samdahi, as well as Shaila Catherine’s Wisdom Wide and Deep.  Both works examine concentration in the context of Buddhist meditation.  Concentration allows us to gradually let the mind further open to itself,  leading to an understanding of mind and body that is more nuanced, detail-oriented and case sensitive.  It also has incredible implications for self-awareness, potentially promising fundamental changes in how we understand our own minds and their attendant capabilities. 

For many years after I first began meditation, I simply sat, going out into the fringes of my own internal world to see what I could find.  I did not have any kind of end in mind other than not getting lost in thinking.   Doing this repeatedly changed my own internal processes.  Thought became a small part of reality that did not take on any importance beyond what I ascribed to it.  The value of this practice is the way that it began to subtly move my experience away from certain expectations and absolutes.  Life could open to me in ways that I had not understood with my closed body and mind.  

In the past year, I have been steadily building to more concentration based exercises in my mediation sessions, coupled with my original “free-play” style of attentional exploration.  Exposure to books such as Focused and Fearless (also by Shaila Catherine) and Right Concentration by Leigh Brasington piqued my curiosity about concentration-based practices.  I have come to view these practices as necessary for my ongoing study of Buddhist traditions in general.  In order to see for myself how this type of concentration affects the mind, I began watching the breath.  This is an important practice for developing concentration.  It involves focusing on breathing, noticing when attention becomes distracted, and redirecting it back to the breath.

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At the beginning, the mind can’t focus on the breath. The thought that it generates becomes like a space that the mind creates in order to experience pleasure, strategize, and avoid pain or boredom.  The mind is so habituated to associative thinking that attention must be brought back and focused on the breath.  That process gets repeated every meditation.  Seeing our limitations in doing this kind of practice lets us get creative each session and see if we can push our limits a little. This pushing of limits is extremely physical and demands our continued presence.  I’ve experienced a kind of nervous exhaustion as a result, which indicates that I’ve run aground and need to try again, maintaining that focus longer.

Progress in this regard is nonexistent at first, and this kind of attention unfolds very slowly, if at all.  Once this practice is done enough times, however, there begin to be very definite changes that take place in the character of the mind.  Rather than being dissolute and continually chattering, the mind becomes highly focused and quiet.  Concentration can then engage with whatever is present without being perpetually diverted.  This is useful because we are engaging with felt characteristics rather than what we think about them.  Rather than simply thinking about our problems, concentration starkly brings them out so that we can really feel them.  We can then use this concentration for our own purposes in helping us dissolve ingrained constructs of the mind.  

It also begins to free our awareness up to focus on things that really matter, priming us for better ways of understanding.  This understanding divulges what seems to be a common liability of the human mind:  the ways we are accustomed to using our attention serve only to cloud the issues and postpone actual solutions.  In Wisdom Wide and Deep, Catherine describes this process as beginning to take control of our own attentional biases.

Every person has a unique attentional bias that is reinforced by a lifetime of habit. Your habits may support you in one role but pose formidable barriers in other arenas of life. Sometimes these habits are highly trained skills —doctors are trained to focus on physical symptoms, soldiers are sensitized to signs of threat, parents become responsive to their children’s distress. As you train your mind to stay steady, calm, tranquil, and equanimous with the whole breath, you are not merely replacing one habit with another, more spiritual, pattern. Rather, through concentration practice, you enhance the flexibility and durability of attention as you gain control over the attentional bias of your mind. (Kindle Version, loc 1246-1255)

Recognizing these biases is the first step towards changing them.  A lifetime of socially encouraged self-construction has left us with maladaptive processes of every kind.  Our biases towards pleasure and status are like grasping at smoke in every moment, and are gone as soon as we obtain them.  With stronger concentration, we can see these mental and physical processes more clearly as they occur, and how quickly they disappear.  We can use these exercises to see that these types of behavior are often props that are obscuring a very rich vein of freedom that we are always embodying.

This is important to Buddhist practice because we sleep within our own illusions, telling ourselves stories about ourselves, others, and the world.   And it is through these illusions that we hurt others and crave the stability of comforting ideas and situations, done in the name of a ghostly and malformed sense of self.  Since Buddhist practice is aiming to bring us into a more complete understanding of ourselves, concentration is an indispensable part of realizing the phenomena that make up our bodies and minds.  With a thorough reckoning of this practice we will develop more of an understanding of the cause and effect nature of these bodies and minds, and how to use them to help others, finding our own liberation in the process.

Chaos and Void: Gnosis and Scientific Practice

Professor Farnsworth: And, now that I’ve found all the answers, I realize that what I was living for were the questions!
Fry: That stinks, Professor. Too bad the universe made it turn out that way and not some other way. I wonder why it did that.
Stephen Hawking: Probably magnets.

Futurama

Science is a discipline that involves personal and social inquiry into the nature of reality. While having its intellectual forebears, it truly evolved into its own in the past few centuries leading up to the modern age. Searching for material truth has led humanity to develop sophisticated systems that parse cause and effect towards finer control and repeatability.

Science shares space with other fields of human knowledge that make concepts, attempt to explain natural phenomena, and provide experimental knowledge. These other fields include religion and philosophy. While its claims are often presented with the ring of authority, its provisional character is less apparent. The same factors that influence personal works are at play in science’s quest for accuracy, including accident, intuition, and material design.

One of the most influential philosophers in the way I conceive science has been Paul Feyerabend. In his classic book Against Method, Feyerabend outlined a philosophical attack on “homogenous” reality, and attempted to subvert reductionist approaches to science and life. In the beginning “sketch of the main argument,” he said:

Science is essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes. For example, we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories and/or well-established experimental results. We may advance science by proceeding counterinductively . . . Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding. Yet is is possible to evaluate standards of rationality and to improve them. The principles of improvement are neither above tradition nor beyond change and it is impossible to nail them down.

Feyerabend refers to this methodology as “ad hoc,” and this opportunisitic approach to explaining cause and effect relationships has a lot to offer us. It envisions a kind of science in which all things are open to interpretation, experimentation, and meaning.

The experiment is often the nexus of scientific practice.  There are many factors that can affect how scientific experiments are designed and their results reported. These factors can include the subjects used in the experiments, intended applicability of the results, current limits of technology, use of materials and how they are set up within the system, how those materials interact, and the interpretation and assumptions of the scientists involved.

These assumptions can be particularly important for our investigation of scientific practice. Many times our theories are the best approximations we can make of complex phenomena, and those approximations allow us to make certain predictions and material designs. We also have to consider the use of the data we are working with. This is a strength of the practice as well as a weakness: what our data may lack in completeness allows us to manipulate the experiment more effectively. However, we should not confuse this with any kind of “ultimate” truth. The Wikipedia article for fluid dynamics states:

In addition to the above, fluids are assumed to obey the continuum assumption. Fluids are composed of molecules that collide with one another and solid objects. However, the continuum assumption assumes that fluids are continuous, rather than discrete. Consequently, it is assumed that properties such as density, pressure, temperature, and flow velocity are well-defined at infinitesimally small points in space and vary continuously from one point to another. The fact that the fluid is made up of discrete molecules is ignored.

The trade off to making these assumptions is that scientific theories cannot possibly describe or account for everything. There are therefore multiple ways of doing different “taxonomies” of theory. How one organizes their information can affect the system in exciting ways. This is one of the first lessons I learned from the study of history – how the issues of perspective and assumption effect the kind of history we are writing. There is not necessarily one correct perspective in this regard. Manuel deLanda’s work A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History writes world history from three different viewpoints:  geological, biological, and linguistic.   All three are valid perspectives.

According to Amanda Geftner, a science journalist who wrote the great book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, we can’t really determine a “god’s eye view” of the universe in which there is one transcendent perspective for all subjects. She writes:

A participatory universe? Participatory, yes; a universe, no. It was one participatory universe per reference frame, and you can only talk about one at a time. Why the quantum? Because reality is radically observer-dependent. Because observers are creating bits of information out of nothingness. Because there’s no way things “really are,” and you can’t employ descriptions that cross horizons. How come existence? Because existence is what nothing looks like from the inside.

Earth is just one part of an incredibly complex, dynamic system that is continuously effected through interconnected levels. This generates questions that scientists are able to explore further. They are then able to make new creations by setting up interactions in ways that were not possible before. When we set up these interactions within experiments, interesting implications spontaneously emerge. These implications then have important bearings on how we can make and organize decisions.

Just as important for scientific practice are the moral implications of how one builds their world. This is where the importance of ethics come in, and which the spiritual attempts to address: the wider impact of human activity. For example, use of fossil fuel burning is beginning to shift, helping to drive alternatives to sustainable energy sources. While combustible engines are scientifically applicable, they are silent on the degree and morality of their use. This degree of use will also change based on present observations.

Spiritual practices, which aim at a gnosis that can’t be proven with science’s external instrumentation, attempt to put us more in touch with human subjectivity and morality. It is a knowing based on the fact of our own existence – and the profound questions that follow. It is a knowing that isn’t afraid of following those questions into interesting spaces for their own sake.

Speculating on why this might be the case – isn’t a universe in which constant discovery is possible preferable to one in which there are no longer any room for the subjective or idiosyncratic? A lack of transcendent law seems to be a way to make sure that each subject has the ability to contribute in their own way. This way involves participating in an unknown manner.  An episode of Futurama, from which the quote at the beginning of this article was taken, beautifully illustrates the necessity of unanswered and unanswerable questions to science.   Material answers point to the enormous question, also addressed in this episode, of why things are the way they are.

How we create life is a messy, complex, and unpredictable undertaking that cannot be revealed through only material concerns.  Following this undertaking requires luck, knowledge, and skill that develops over time, and in which we may need to dispense with to go forward.  Even a totally accurate theory may be rendered obsolete as the universe continues to develop.

This is because that universe is alive – breathing in, breathing out, and transmuting itself at every opportunity.

Evolution, Compassion, and the Human Mind

Compassion isn’t separate from reality. It doesn’t pretend to transcendence or an arid contemplation. Compassion and benevolence are part of looking at our own behavior and minds in the realities of everyday life. We are better able to change situations from within as we penetrate further into the various layers of human experience. The process is like excavation: further levels of awareness open up the deeper we go and the more we see. We will follow our minds to discover where they lead: down into ourselves, the depth of our predicament, and the depth of our amelioration.

Through my interest in philosophy, I have been exposed to many ways of understanding the world. Reading for this article was shaped by the political climate, including conspiracy theory.  (A good article by The Atlantic on conspiracy culture becoming mainstream can be found here.) Understanding these theories is extremely important, not only due to their reach through mass media, but also the keys to insight that they provide us. I see the limits of my own mind splayed all across these writings, with its false certainty, emotional justifications, and dilated belief systems. It ensures that humans continue to partition others, and then use violence, whether physical or verbal, to enforce these divisions.

‘We were out there and I seen a lot of Communist flags and anti-fascist and we’re going to see more stuff like this,’ [Justin] Moore said. ‘White people are getting fed up with the double standard setup in America today by the controlled press.
We should have been able to go out there and have our protest and it should have been peaceful but it’s the anti-fascist and the communists…continuing to try and stop us,’ he continued. ‘So I think there will be more violence like this in the future to come.’ (The Charlotte Observer, August 15, 2017)

In contemplating these shared boundaries of the mind, coherent explanations began to emerge. I’d like to share them with you as possible explanations for the problems we encounter in statements like those above, their persistent yet illusory nature, and why meditation is such an effective way of seeing past these illusions. Once we see how limiting the mind can be in its reductive and constructive approaches to reality, compassion begins to start naturally manifesting. We see the traps we have fallen prey to, and that humans continue to repeat. The difficult task is doing this in the midst of the human situation, but with persistent effort we can create more effective and compassionate patterns which benefit the whole.

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One of the most exciting developments in modern science has been examining human evolutionary history. When considering the idea of how humans initially started in smaller groups, and the realities of this kind of situation, many of the things that I observed in the mind began to make more sense.

Most likely, these small groups would tend towards fear of outsiders. Eliminating these outsiders would often be the safest course to prevent harm to the coherence of the group. The human mind deals with the dangers of this situation by readily stereotyping other groups. It also tends to split people along a nice dichotomy of “us and them.” We still find this attitude today in every form of racism and its justifications. This situation still tends to work its way into belief systems, in which this dichotomy is reinforced, backed up intellectually, and presented as if our racist inclinations are established fact.

Stereotyping others ties into the conceptual elements of group life. Being raised in certain cultures means that we absorb certain ways of understanding the world, which often affect our perception in insidious ways. These concepts are important in reducing the overwhelming detail of our environment to a more manageable “headspace.” We also use this ability in practical ways of identifying animals and other resources that are part of that environment. However, if we discount the individual in favor of these organizing concepts, we miss out on unique persons and situations.

Our emotions can also prevent us from acting cogently and with full awareness of these unique situations. Although emotions have evolved to fix certain kinds of problems, they often do not give us the best course of action. Anger is a good example of this. By observing this emotion in myself, it seems that anger helps to prevent others from dominating us socially, and helps us address inequalities in situations when being forceful is required. Anger can help with these problems, but its negative impacts are observable everywhere. These emotions can make situations far worse, especially since each person may have skewed and intense emotions from their own personal histories.

An interesting way of looking at the emotion of fear is outlined in this Nautilus article:

Those fears that are near-universal are known as ‘prepared fears.’They are not hardwired in the same way as the fears of sudden, loud noises and looming objects are. Nobody learns to flinch at a rapidly oncoming basketball. Prepared fears are innate, though, in the sense that they are genetically transmitted but require environmental input for their activation. The human fear system, in this aspect, is relatively open-ended—that is, it is set up for environmental calibration. The evolutionary logic underlying this design characteristic is as follows: Humans evolved to be adaptable . . . Humans quickly absorb local culture, including norms, language, knowledge about dangers, the sorts of things people in your culture consider edible or not, and so on. Learning, in fact, is an ‘evolutionarily derived adaptation to cope with environmental changes that occur within the life span of individuals and allows individual organisms to tailor their behavior to the specific environmental niche they occupy.’

This seems to be a good way of describing both the general patterns that occupy human organisms and the personal idiosyncrasies that can evolve in unique environments.   These are all characteristics of the mind that can be observed directly. I think that evolutionary theory is so far the best account for these human ways of thinking.  Without observing and recognizing the concrete patterns of human lives, we won’t be able to shed fresh perspectives on our perennial problems. Since these problems often have such intense cultural justification behind them, we have to look at the mind unflinchingly. This is where meditation practice comes in and helps us.

Buddhist meditation attempts to address the questions of how the mind structures our lives and consequently, how it creates a background of dissatisfaction and suffering to experience. When we sit in meditation, in the silence we start to recognize the familiar patterns that the mind falls into. We notice our biases and suggestibility, our opinions of others, and the play of our emotional life. We also might notice how excluding certain outcomes, and limiting diversity to what we have in our heads worsens the problem. It further reduces others, and the world, to the image we have of them. Since the world resists such easy categorization, we are doomed to sketching out the same outcomes and repeating the same limiting behaviors.

These patterns are something we may have always taken for granted: that this is the way the world is, or that they exist inexorably. With more meditation it becomes increasingly obvious that the mind directly constructs some of its own experience. It then gradually becomes easier to let things go or change things with more pragmatic approaches. Our patterns can be changed with the consistent, challenging work we do on ourselves.

Compassion is part of this process because as we notice these characteristics of our own minds, we notice them in others as well. We see how easy it is to be consumed by approaches to reality that make ourselves and others suffer. In effect, this has been with us since we were born, infiltrating us and reducing our ways of responding to this life. Instead of being separate, we all share a commonality that can’t be reduced to simple divisions of class, race, or ideology. Compassion acknowledges this common link and ultimately expresses it, changing the conditions of reality for others to respond to.

Salvation in Flux

And though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds while hated, flourish.
-Eihei Dogen

I sigh when I see learned men
Wasting their minds all day
Babbling away at a fork in the road
Deceiving whoever they can
Creating more ballast for Hell
Instead of improving their karma
Impermanence suddenly comes
And all their learning is dust
– Pickup

Impermanence means that our perception and experience don’t stay in one place, but always remain in flux. The fluidity of phenomena, self, and agency are painful, so we try to cling to the walls of the dilapidated house we have built for ourselves in our own minds. Failing to see this fact for ourselves, we enter and inhabit elaborate fantasies, looking for salvation in something beyond change. Impermanence guts our opinions and gradually corrodes everything that we believe to be true.

Our minds serve to erect a kind of illusion that does not take the fact of impermanence into account. It frequently tries to uphold a static idea of self. Archaic attitudes we are raised with do little to help this situation. They place us further inside the morass by attempting to give us stable definitions of words like “self” and “other.” Thankfully, meditative practice is an antidote to these limited ways of understanding. The more we sense instability, the more we are able to see on a deeper level than we typically perceive.

Nothing seems to fully inhere on that level of change as concepts, acts, and agents are plucked from the void and thrown into the stream. Seeing into universal change has implications for our freedom. It allows us to go into what we experience with an inquisitive attitude and open eyes. It is beginning to swim from a our own small tributary into something abyssal and endlessly fluctuating.

Flux allows things to bloom, as there is no possibility in a static world. Infinite openings exist within that watery confluence of events, allowing us chances to act, to change ourselves, and to help influence all creation. The more we penetrate through to the core of things, the more we find something surprisingly malleable and contingent.  Contingency and change in the moment allows new choices to be discovered and mined. Aided in our perception of that change, we can respond in ways that free ourselves and benefit other beings.

It is through an understanding of impermanence, and the doors to action that it creates, where we come to the edge of choice. Here is where we discover what it means to be truly moral. That moral choice is something that requires the entire arc of our lives to appreciate and fulfill.

Similar ways of understanding exist in the Kabbalistic masterwork The Zohar. As described in The Zohar, Torah is infinite. The central characters known as the Companions participate in what scholar Melila Hellner-Eshed describes as “the nocturnal delight.” Waking at midnight, this group makes creative interpretations of Torah. The Companions connect passages from Torah amongst themselves in incredible, gravity-defying ways. These connections reveal each verse’s secret meanings. In doing so, the divine is evoked and its joy in the good that the Companions bring flows into the world. Hellner-Eshed’s writes:

The engagement with Torah after midnight and the endeavor to participate, day in and day out, in the nocturnal delight in the Garden of Eden lie at the core of the mystic’s service and worship; and it is this spiritual task that determines his way of life and his soul’s orientation . . .

The following passage, one of the most detailed accounts of the nocturnal delight found in the Zohar, highlights the interconnection between the events transpiring in the upper world and those transpiring below. The souls of human beings, together with their words of Torah-the fruit of their thoughts and emotions-are transformed into a gift bestowed by the Assembly of Israel to the blessed Holy One.They function as an aphrodisiac arousing the union between God and His Shekhinah. The delight is characterized by the arousal of the entire reality of the Lower Garden of Eden-with with light, song, joy, and play preceding the dawn union.

Rabbi Abba said, “Now is certainly the time for the blessed Holy One’s desire; and many times we have been aroused by this, that at midnight the blessed Holy One enters among the righteous in the Garden of Eden and delights in them. Happy is he who engages in Torah at this time!” Rabbi El’azar said,” How does the blessed Holy One delight in the righteous in the Garden of Eden? At midnight the blessed Holy One is aroused with love from the left [side] toward the Assembly of Israel…. and the Assembly of Israel has no gift with which to draw near to the king, nor any important, excellent [offering] like the spirits of the righteous that the blessed Holy One sees crowned with many good deeds and many merits attained that day. And the blessed Holy One is more pleased with them than with all the sweet savor of the sacrifices and offerings. Then a light shines and all the trees of the Garden of Eden utter song and the righteous are crowned there with the delights of the world that is coming. When a person arises at that hour to engage Torah, he partakes with the righteous in the garden.” (Zohar 2:173b)

There is a connection between the “world that is coming,” from the preceding passage, the fluctuating present of the Kabbalists, and the Four Great Vows of the Buddhist tradition. The vows are:

The many beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to abandon them
Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them
The Buddha way is uncontrived, I vow to embody it fully.

Every night the Kabbalist restores harmony and creates blessings.  The world is always in need of the Companions’ righteousness. Similarly, every moment the Buddhist practitioner discovers truth and corresponding action. This is the opportunity couched within decay that flows into the new. The need to fulfill these vows, and to help heal ourselves and others, is never ending .

Radiance – An Excerpt From The Zohar

 

Zohar

Instead of an original essay this week, I wanted to highlight an excerpt from my ongoing study of The Zohar. The Zohar is an extensive work in the Kabbalistic tradition. Three volumes in and it continues to amaze me with the beauty of its writing and the depth of its philosophy. On the surface it is a reading of the Pentateuch, with the author(s) extracting a mystical system from its pages. Going deeper, they twist and mutate its language into stunning new vistas. The amplification of Torah is part of the religious function of the Kabbalist: to contribute new blossoms to the Tree of Life. As The Zohar says in Va-Yeshev: So all depends on Torah, and the world is sustained only through Torah – sustaining pillar of worlds above and below (129).

This exemplary passage touches on familiar themes found throughout the book: the creation of the universe and our world, the darkness found within Eden, and its redemption.

Rabbi Hiyya opened, ‘A song of ascents. Of Solomon. Unless YHVH builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless YHVH watches over the city, the watchman guards in vain (Psalms 127:1). Come and see: When it arose in the will of the blessed Holy One to create the world, He issued from the spark of impenetrable darkness a single vaporous cluster, flashing from the dark, lingering in ascension. The darkness descended, gleaming – flaring in a hundred paths, ways, narrow, broad, constructing the house of the world.
     The house stands in the center of all, countless doors and chambers round and round – supernal sacred sites, where birds of heaven nest, each according to its species. Within emerges an immense, mighty tree, its branches and fruit nourishing all. That tree climbs to the clouds of heaven, is hidden amid three mountains, emerges beneath these mountains, ascending, descending.
     This house is saturated by it; within, it secretes numerous supernal hidden treasures, unknown. Thereby this house is constructed and decorated. That tree is revealed by day, concealed by night; this house rules by night, is concealed by day.
     As soon as darkness enters, enveloping, it rules: all doors close on every side. Then countless spirits soar through the air, desirous to know, to enter. Entering among those birds – who collect testimony – they roam and see what they see, until that enveloping darkness arouses, radiating a flame, pounding all mighty hammers, opening doors, splitting boulders. The flame ascends and descends, striking the world, arousing voices above and below. Then one herald ascends, bound to the air, and proclaims. That air issues from the pillar of cloud of the inner altar, issuing, it spreads in the four directions of the world. A thousand thousands stand on this side, a myriad of myriads on that side – the right – and the herald stands erect, proclaiming potently. How many there are then who intone songs and render worship! Two doors open, one on the south and one on the north.
     The house ascends and is placed between two sides, while hymns are chanted and praises rise. Then the one who enters, enters silently, and the house glows with six lights lustering in every direction. Rivers of spices flow forth, water all beasts of the field, as is said: watering all beasts of the field . . . Above them swell the birds of heaven, singing among the branches (Psalms 104:11-12). They chant till morning rises, when stars and constellations, the heavens and their hosts all sing praises, as is said: When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of Elohim shouted for joy (Job 38:7). (Matt Translation, Volume 3, 40-41)

As part of this discussion, we will look further into the first volume, which contains a reading of the story of Noah. In the next few weeks, I also hope to publish the first in a series of articles that look at useful works in transformational literature. Stay tuned.