Archive for September, 2010


When I’m facing a particularly tough day, I often console myself with the thought, “this too shall pass.”  Even wars and pestilence will pass, so therefore it should be fairly easy to get through the minor challenges that lie ahead for me today.  Unfortunately, by the same token, the pleasures and satisfactions that I’m looking forward to at the end of the day, will also pass, and one day I will die. 

The transitory quality of the perceptual world is the most important clue to its illusory nature.  There is a wonderful jazz song by Benard Ighner, recorded by Barbra Streisand, that goes:

“Everything must change, nothing stays the same

  Everyone must change, no one stays the same

  The young become the old and mysteries do unfold

  ‘Cause that’s the way of time, nothing and no one goes unchanged

  There are not many things in life you can be sure of

  Except rain comes from the clouds, sun lights up the sky

  And humming birds to fly….”

If there were any lyric that crystallized the core of Buddhist philosophy, it would be this one.  Obviously, the melancholy of the song is that everything in the world is transitory, but the saving grace is the beauty of the moment:  raindrops on a pond, sun rays on a table or a face; the sudden appearance of a hummingbird on a flower.  The moment is everything, as Eckhart Tolle so eloquently puts it in The Power of Now.  But why is the moment everything?  It is everything because the moment actually is eternity.  There is no difference between this moment and eternity, and eternity is the same thing as infinity.

When you really feel this, when you know it in your heart and in your gut, when you go way beyond perceiving it as a passing thought or an intellectual construct, that is when you have truly reached nirvana.

To return to the melancholy aspect of the lyric, though, it also happens to point to everything that Western culture recoils from in Eastern religion and philosophy.  I remember that when I was a child, I was taught that Eastern religions are essentially fatalistic:  everything must change; the dueling faces of maya or yin and yang are so perfectly balanced that good can never triumph over evil, so why bother trying?  Why bother fighting the war or even facing the day?  Why not simply resign oneself to one’s fate and stop bothering to do anything at all?

This formulation, however, is a misreading of Hindu and Buddhist thought, reinforced by the apparent lack of social progress alleviating extreme poverty in India.  Paramahansa Yogananda believed passionately in scientific progress and in human personal development, creating a school for young boys in Ranchi that he was extremely proud of.  He took a keen interest in educating children, actively supporting educating young girls as well.

To those of us with a Western cultural background or bias, this Indian commitment to progress seems completely at odds with the melancholy of the very Indian but very real truth, “Everything must change.”  So what is the secret motivator of progressive Indian leaders from Yogananda to Mahatma Gandhi and on to Nehru and Indira Gandhi, just to name a few?  What is the secret ingredient that allows them to temper the fatalism of “This too shall pass” with the progressivism of a Ranchi school?  It is quite simply God.  God is the motivator because God is the changeless force behind the visible face of the ever-changing world.  God, or Reality, defined as the opposite of Illusion by Buddha, or simply Being, as Eckhart Tolle refers to it, is the hidden, changeless sun behind the clouds of our illusory daily world.  Becoming aware of the sun behind the clouds is the Awakening, and the Energy in the sun is the motivator.

We Westerners see Indian culture as fatalistic because of its perceived emphasis on the illusory quality of the physical world, but Indians themselves experience it as positive and progressive because its real emphasis is on focusing on the Reality beyond the illusion.  When Hindu masters say that this world is an illusion, they do not mean that it is simply a mental construct of the individual human ego:  they admit that it is, in a scientific sense, a real experience shared by all human beings.  Their point is that it is a world of boundaries, a world of perceived walls where no walls really exist.  In Chapter 14 of his Autobiography, “An Experience in Cosmic Consciousness,” and again in Chapter 22, “The Heart of a Stone Image,” Yogananda describes two of his most vivid states in “samadhi,” or union with God.  In both instances, he reports being able to see through all the walls of the city around him as if they were transparent and insubstantial or literally without substance.  As he sat witnessing in meditation, the solid forms of the material world or “manifestations” melted into the unmanifested single form of Light.


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According to Walter Isaacson’s biography, Benjamin Franklin believed that God means us all to be happy.  An ostensible belief in God, paired with a healthy skepticism toward all forms of organized religion, pretty much sums up Franklin’s spiritual beliefs.  Despite the pain of his gout and the other ailments that increased his suffering in his later years, Franklin presumably retained a sunny, simple belief in God as a Supreme Being, and died a happy man.  His homespun and tolerant viewpoint both exemplified and codified the tolerance of varied religions and the freedom of religious belief that are enshrined in our American constitution.

Was Benjamin Franklin merely a victim of maya?  Did he live a life of illusion despite his enormous accomplishments fighting for America’s freedoms, securing the French alliance that allowed us to win the Revolutionary War, and winning consensus among the contentious delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia?  In a broader sense, is the Western commitment to social change and progress merely an illusory preoccupation?  Franklin’s religion could be described as a modified version of Deism:  God as Deus-ex-Machina, but with a warm, friendly outlook toward man.  In effect, Franklin believed in God as a sort of benevolent Chief Executive, somewhat like General and President George Washington himself.

When we contrast Franklin to Mahatma Gandhi, the twentieth-century Indian saint of non-violence who lived the life of a Hindu holy monk while leading his nation out of chains, Franklin appears to be such an ordinary man.   Nonetheless, Franklin, who was not above resorting to the violence of war to achieve his ideals of freedom, is a towering Western hero.

Is there any way to reconcile Franklin’s casual belief or casual lack of belief with the holy devotion of a Gandhi, whom Yogananda revered as a saint, or for that matter with a Martin Luther King or a Nelson Mandela?  I suppose we would need to resort to sophistry to do so. Nevertheless, perhaps the better question is, can we describe Franklin’s life as a spiritual path?  Was this worldly man a spiritual seeker?  More generally, does Deism as an essentially philosophical, humanistic stand-in for religion, have any enduring value?  Sophistic or not, my answer is yes.  In order for humanity to evolve in the direction of Spirit or Truth, we need both Franklin’s pragmatism and Gandhi’s mysticism.  In fact, it might be said that Franklin’s life served as a precursor to Gandhi’s, because Franklin was instrumental in creating the American democratic form of government that Gandhi later fought for in India by not fighting for it.  How Zen is that?

Gandhi was the cause or “Prime Mover,” as the pre-Deist Aristotle put it, for launching the largest democracy in the world.  He did so by orchestrating a mass action of non-violent protest, but I would argue that he was able to do it only because Franklin had achieved the same ends by resorting to violence nearly 200 years earlier.  Franklin’s ideal of democracy, transmuted through Thoreau’s notions of civil disobedience, set the stage for Gandhi’s non-violent revolution, not to mention Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement and Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  India and the United States have in this way become sisters who overthrew a common mother.

But what does any of this have to do with spirituality or spiritual seeking?   Yogananda believed strongly in human evolution—not the evolution of new physical body structures, but the evolution of man’s mind toward God.  He deeply admired American pragmatism and science, devoting much praise toward all of India’s scientific advances, which have in recent years coalesced into India’s world leadership in engineering and high-tech computing.  I would argue that not only was Franklin’s life and example a “necessary cause” for Gandhi’s non-violent revolution, but the rather bland face of Franklin’s modified Deism provided a catalyst for generating the benevolent form of religious tolerance that exemplifies not only Western democratic societies but also India’s religiously diverse civilization.

Yogananda’s life mission was to bring Eastern spirituality to the West, and specifically to the United States.  Perhaps in retrospect we can conclude that Benjamin Franklin’s and Thomas Jefferson’s reformist religious beliefs in particular, as well as the Deism of the Enlightenment in general, fertilized the soil in which this cross-cultural exchange of democracy, philosophy and inter-faith spirituality later grew.  Franklin may not have been a spiritual guru with a circle of devotees like Yogananda, but Franklin and Deism nurtured two very different societies in which the individual spiritual quest can flourish openly.  Perhaps along the universal human journey to find God, secular humanism is as important an aid as religious mysticism.

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In the epilogue to Buddha:  A Story of Enlightenment, Deepak Chopra says that Buddha’s teaching was a thunderbolt:  “Buddhism caused an earthquake in the spiritual life of India.”  Chopra adds, “Buddha wasn’t just a kindly teacher who wanted people to find peace.  He was a radical surgeon who examined them and said, ‘No wonder you feel sick.  All this unreal stuff has filled you up and now we have to get rid of it.’”  Thus, while the religion of Buddhism can be perceived as an evolutionary outgrowth of Hinduism, the figure of Buddha represents a revolution against it.  Similarly, Christianity can be characterized as evolving from Judaism even as Christ represents a radical reaction to it.

But what is the actual difference between the two Eastern religions?  Hinduism and Buddhism share enlightenment as the ultimate goal of a human life and indeed of all human lives.  Both religions agree that human suffering is the province of the ego and thus that destruction of the ego is the essential pre-condition for enlightenment.  Lastly, they share the belief that overcoming attachment to other people, material things and the world in general is the key to smashing the ego.

It is at this point that they differ.  Hinduism is full of gods—Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Krishna and Kala the Mother Goddess, just to name a few—who are all aspects of the one God.  God has many faces, like the facets of a diamond, and human beings can sometimes perceive some of the facets without ever being permitted to see the Ultimate Reality, the Supreme Being, or the “Godhead” of Christian theology that is, in effect, the Diamond itself.  Hinduism is full of devotion to God, and each Hindu master, in an endless cycle of masters across the generations, teaches devotion to his circle of devotees. 

Buddhism, on the other hand, also has masters and followers, but it either teaches that there is only one God or that there is no God at all.  Buddhism is not simply atheism, but it is not theism either.  Buddhism is fundamentally the cult of Reality, whatever Reality happens to be (and Reality bares very little resemblance to what appears as reality to our five senses.)   It is devotion to the ultimate freedom from illusion, and in this sense it resembles Western Deism or the notion of “Deus ex machina,” the idea that an impersonal and non-interfering Supreme Being working behind the scenes simply sets the world in motion and leaves it to be.  The philosophers of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire in France and Franklin and Jefferson in America, believed in wordly freedom, just as Buddha believed in the Ultimate Freedom.

When we compare the transition of Hinduism into Buddhism to that of Judaism into Christianity, the odd thing is that the processes are in reverse to each other.  Buddhism is an extreme simplification of Hinduism, in which the multiple and multifarious Hindu gods are reduced to the one God or the zero God of Buddhism.  By contrast, Christianity might be seen as an amplification of Judaism, in which the monotheistic God-the-Father or Yahweh is replaced by the mysteriously more complex Trinity:  God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit simultaneously.  I would go further and argue that Catholic Christianity as it is actually practiced in most of the world as opposed to how its theology is formally taught, is a  Quadrivium in which the Virgin Mary is the fourth “Person” of God.  She closely resembles the Hindu Mother Goddess Kala.  Either way, Christianity takes the single God of Judaism and transforms Him into several facets of a diamond whose Whole form can never be seen by the eyes of mortal man.  This is the reverse of the transition from Hinduism into Buddhism because it represents the evolution of a simpler idea into a more complex one.

Christ is as revolutionary to Judaism as Buddha is to Hinduism.  Christ is mysteriously and at the same time both the Son of God and the Son of Man:  He is God-and-Man, or man redeemed to his original position in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.  Buddha, on the other hand, represents a stripping away of all the aspects of the Hindu gods until nothing but Reality is left.  If Buddhism has any God at all, He is the God that existed before Creation and the God that will exist after Creation is finished and nulled.  What He is not is God the Creator, God the Father, God the Son.  He is not the Son of God and He is not the Son of Man.  Because we ordinary human beings are limited by our intoxication with maya, we can never truly perceive God.  Still, if God exists (and with all my Western heart I believe He does,) He must in an even more mysterious way be all the facets of an infinite Diamond and none of them at one and the same time.

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Both Hinduism and Buddhism teach that we need to be detached from the drama of human psychic energy that surrounds us at all times.  In fact, we should be detached from the physical world itself.  But doesn’t this teaching, so hard to fathom for those of us who were brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition, fly in the face of Christ’s and Buddha’s injunctions to be compassionate?   All religions stress that compassion is one of the core values of life, yet how can one be compassionate and relinquish attachment to one’s fellow man at the same time?  Lifting one’s own suffering may require detachment but alleviating the suffering of others cannot help but involve some sort of attachment to them.

In Chapter 14 of Buddha:  A Story of Enlightenment, Deepak Chopra imagines how the monk Gautama himself struggled with this quandary before becoming Buddha, the Enlightened One.  Chopra writes, “It was not difficult (for Gautama) to believe in the teaching of illusion, or maya, because he continued to see ordinary people as ghosts, weighed down with care and suffering.”  Not so with his guru Alara, however, because “there was no pain lingering around him.”  Still, Gautama was taken aback when Alara’s sad-faced, emaciated son arrived to visit his father.  When Gautama offered the young man a bowl of rice, Alara “knocked the bowl out of his hand, and the rice scattered on the ground.”  Alara then reprimanded Gautama sharply for this act which revealed Gautauma’s attachment to the world, saying, “My lower self once had a family.  They are of no concern to me, just as this whole world is of no concern.”

In Chopra’s telling, Gautauma instinctively recoiled from this extreme act of detachment on Alara’s part, saying to himself, “How would the sad young man at Alara’s door feel to know that he was an illusion, another trap to be avoided?”  Instead of following Alara’s lead, Gautauma departed, rousing his guru’s anger by this act of, in effect, firing his master.  Two truths were revealed to Gautauma by this event.  First, Alara’s anger proved that he was still strongly attached to the world despite all his protests to the contrary; despite having such extreme views on the subject that he was willing to reject his own son.  However, the second and more important truth was that detachment without compassion is an empty void, not an enduring spiritual path.  Gautauma promptly left Alara’s care and never again found a master he could follow. 

One of the broad themes of Chopra’s partly fictional biography is that the masters who encountered Siddhartha and later Gautauma were strongly aware of something so sacred or powerful in his character that they voluntarily withdrew their protection or master-hood over him.  While he was not yet the Buddha, they all saw the seeds of enlightenment or nirvana within him and felt that their assistance was either irrelevant or counter-productive.  Having no other masters, Gautauma went on to pursue a path of extreme asceticism on his own, nearly dying of hunger and thirst before enlightenment finally came to him.  It was only then that he was able to preach “the middle way” between monastic asceticism on the one hand and the worldly life of Prince Siddhartha on the other.  Chopra’s book shows us how the three phases of the Buddha’s life—his evolution from Prince Siddhartha to the monk Gautama and finally to the Buddha—were akin to a metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a larva to a butterfly.

So what can we glean about the proper relationship between detachment and compassion?  I believe one of the lessons of Buddha’s life is that we need to practice a compassionate detachment.  Ideally, we can find a way to be detached from our loved ones while still loving them.  Buddha never ceased to love his wife, Yashodhara, even though he chose to leave her when he abandoned his first identify as Prince Siddhartha to become the monk Gautauma and eventually Buddha.  In the Hindu tradition so vividly portrayed by Yogananda in The Autobiography of a Yogi, the aged householder does not act cruelly toward his family or express anger toward them in order to overcome attachment.  Instead, he simply walks away from them, just as in Chopra’s telling, Gautauma kissed the sleeping Yashodhara before leaving the palace forever.  The key to a positive detachment, it seems to me, is to find a way to transmute and enfold one’s love of one’s spouse and family into a transcendent love of God.  Whether this is a Buddhist notion or not is uncertain, since it is not clear whether Buddha believed in God or not.  What he actually believed in was unadulterated Reality in its purest and simplest form.

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Questioning Maya – September 2, 2010

If you are questioning the truth of the Hindu doctrine of “maya,” that the physical world is essentially illusory, then consider this. Do you ever think about a place you’ve left behind? What is left of it besides your memory? Only the place you occupy at the present moment feels real – other places appear to be mere projections of the mind.
Of course, you can go back and visit those locales from whence you came and when you are there, the reality of your former surroundings becomes primary again. Still, by the same token, the place you are in right now will recede from your consciousness. Add to this the fact that your past home has now changed, perhaps radically, in the intervening years, and the illusory properties of the physical world seem even more pronounced. We cannot recapture the past, we can only confront the hallucination of the present. In a funny way, our shared physical world is both real and not real at the same time. This is the paradox known as maya.

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 “Don’t be so clever.  I’ve never seen anyone think their way to heaven.”

–Deepak Chopra, from Chapter 14 of Buddha:  A Story of Enlightenment.

This bit of dialogue, spoken to Gautama (the future Buddha) by one of his masters in Deepak Chopra’s imagined biography of the Buddha, slices right through the illusory web of human reasoning like a Zen master’s hand chop or kick, apparently unmasking philosophy as an empty human preoccupation.  Yogananda similarly speaks of the limits of philosophy in Autobiography of a Yogi, and Eckhart Tolle devotes an entire chapter of The Power of Now to the assertion that “You are Not Your Mind,” with a sub-chapter called “Enlightenment:  Rising Above Thought.”  He goes further, saying that writing a book about spirituality is no substitute for becoming enlightened – it is the mind fooling itself.  Rounding out the personality of Gautama’s early master, Chopra says, “The scriptures were his illusion.  They led him to imagine that he was free just because he could describe freedom out of a book and think about it with his subtle mind.”

The message is that real Truth is above human thought.  Thought is grounded in the “either-ors” and the “ands-or-buts” of our dualistic, illusory physical world.  By contrast, Truth resides in the One-ness of God.  Not surprisingly, Yogananda puts it best, saying in Chapter 49, “Truth is no theory, no speculative system of philosophy, no intellectual insight.  Truth is exact correspondence with reality.  For man, truth is unshakable knowledge of his real nature, his Self as soul.  Jesus, by every act and word of his life proved that he knew the truth of his being—his source in God.”

So why am I bothering to write this blog?  If the thoughts of these great masters, Chopra, Yogananda and Tolle, not to mention Jesus, can’t get to the Truth, then how can I?  I don’t know.  I do know that I am drawn to writing about spirituality like a moth to a flame.  I am an unenlightened human being, but I am a spiritual seeker and writing helps me on my quest.  Thought, reasoning and writing cannot arrive at the Truth but I believe they can help along the way.  The great seventeenth-century French philosopher-scientist, Blaise Pascal, suddenly received a radical revelation of God and in today’s parlance, we would say that he was born again.  But who read him after his conversion?  His “Pensees,” the thoughts he wrote before his great encounter with God, are what we remember.  Thoughts and great quotations can trigger a catharsis that elevates our minds to a higher place. 

Even in the Hindu tradition, there are several paths to God:  one is through devotion (Yogananda’s path) and another is through intellect.  Devotion is most likely a direct reflection of Truth, whereas intellect is merely a means of perceiving it obliquely, as through a lens.  Both are divine gifts of a very different nature.  The paradox of writing about spirituality is that while it may never reveal Spirit directly, it may help prepare us to recognize it and receive it when we are ready.

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