Archive for February, 2012

This I Believe

As someone who has shopped a long time for a religion without ever buying, perhaps it is time to check in with my own beliefs.  First, though, it makes sense to ask, why I am concerned with my beliefs in the first place?   In his book “Man Seeks God,” Eric Weiner makes observes that of all the religions, Christianity is the one most fundamentally concerned with belief.  Christians of all stripes are in the habit of reciting their beliefs and asking people of other religions what they believe in.  This is probably because from Early Christian times until today, each congregation has always recited a specific creed, in the same way that American school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  In the Middle Ages, the various creeds were unified by mass church councils, only to split apart again during the Protestant Reformation.  By contrast, Muslims submit to Allah by praising Him in prayer; Jews observe the Sabbath; and Hindus meditate in devotion to their various deities.  For Buddhists, belief is a mental construct that needs to be dissolved along with all the other constructs.  Faith is a common thread in all of these religions – for Buddhists, it would be faith in their daily practice – but only Christianity makes faith explicit by reciting a statement of commonly held beliefs.


Since I was raised in a secular, Christian-flavored family, in the secular, Christian-flavored culture that surrounded  the University of  Washington where my father was a professor, it always seemed normal to formulate and discuss my beliefs.  Like many other secular kids raised in a nominally Christian environment, I had my doubts about the virgin birth and I had trouble believing that Jesus was resurrected in physical form, although I had no trouble picturing Him resurrected as a spiritual being; in other words as the Holy Spirit. 


Then three years ago, when I read and fell in love with Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi,” I was fascinated by his overwhelming and unquestioning belief in divinity in all forms, whether Christian or Hindu.  Yogananda describes the existence of an astral realm where highly evolved, recently dead people such as his own guru, Sri Yukteswar, have the power to materialize at will in the physical world.  This assertion casts the concept of resurrection in a completely different light.  If Yogananda is telling the truth, then not only was Jesus resurrected as Christ, but many other holy men and women, presumably mostly from India, were arguably resurrected as well.  Far from asking us to believe in the resurrection of one man, the Son of God, Yogananda asks us to believe in resurrection more generally.  Moreover, Yogananda is an admirer of Western science and he seems to believe that resurrection is not so much a miracle as a phenomenon that may one day be proven scientifically, along with the existence of the astral realm from which Yukteswar materialized.  Everything is miraculous, he asserts, but as soon as we can describe a phenomenon mathematically, we cease to view it as a miracle.


I don’t know if I believe that everything Yogananda asserts is true.  For example, it’s hard to believe that an 800 year-old holy man named Babaji still walks among us, or did until the time of Yogananda’s death, revealing himself only to holy men like Yogananda.  What I do know is that I admire Yogananda’s attitude of belief.  With Yogananda, belief is a default mode.  Most of us don’t believe in something until it is proven to be true; Yogananda seems to believe in virtually everything spiritual until or unless it is demonstrated not to be true.  Another way to put it is that for most of us, left-brain, linear thinking is the default mode, while for holy men (and women) like Yogananda, right-brain, spontaneous and intuitive thinking is the default mode.  Right-brain thinking is not really thinking at all – it is more a steady conviction of implicit belief and explicit faith.


With that background in mind, I’m ready to relate my own creed, my own statement of belief.  My beliefs are what I hold spontaneously and intuitively, without asking God or the universe for the evidence to prove them.  I believe in God; I believe in one God; I believe that God is in all matter and non-matter; I believe that God is the Father, yes, but that He is also the Mother and the Child and that paradoxically He is also absolutely nothing that is anthropomorphic.  I believe that the physical world is simultaneously real and illusory; that it is dualistic and imbued with strands of good and evil. I believe that karma is a more accurate concept to explain why men perform evil acts than the notion of sin.


I believe that we human beings, along with all the other living and non-living physical forms in the universe, are at all times surrounded by the infinite and eternal Light; that the Light has no evilness, only goodness, and that the Light is both wisdom and love simultaneously.  I believe that when we die, all of us or at least most of us, are given at  a an opportunity, however brief, to behold the Light and to return to the Light; that is to merge with it.  I believe that most of us do not find it possible to throw our egos into the fire that is the Light, so we dwell for a time on an astral plane or “bardo,” as the Tibetan Buddhists call it, and then we eventually return to earth or another physical planet in a reincarnated form.  I believe in the Hindu/Buddhist wheel of life, but I don’t believe that we need to be ashamed about being reborn, as opposed to being absorbed forever into the Light.  I believe in learning.  I believe that we can never know everything that is to be known about life or the universe, or the universes, or God, but that it is our birthright to try to learn everything we possibly can about all of them.



Read Full Post »

Buddhism Plus G…

Buddhism Plus God – February 25, 2012


Would it be possible to add God to Buddhism?  Of course not.  That would be some sort of odd Western hybrid, like rolling a burrito in a pita shell.  Buddhism is the religion of what is not:  there is no self and no God, at least as we understand God in the West.  Buddhism’s de-constructivist quality is beautifully summarized by Eric Weiner in his rewarding book, “Man Seeks God:”


“’Do you see that bicycle over there?’ asks Matteo.


‘Go over and touch the bicycle.’

I walk over and touch the bike.

‘No, you touched the tire.  That’s not the bicycle is it?  Touch the bicycle, please.’

I touch the seat.

‘No, that’s the seat.  Touch the bicycle.’

I touch the frame.

‘No, that’s a metal tube.  Touch the bicycle.’

I give up.

‘You see, there is no bicycle to touch,’ says Matteo.  ‘It doesn’t exist.  Yet it does, as a mental construct.  The bicycle is like an illusion, real and yet not.”


The point of Buddhism is to shatter mental constructs, because that’s the only way to attain enlightenment.  Buddhists don’t actually have a word for what does exist, unless that word is “Reality.”  Reality is the sum total of everything and it is simultaneously nothing.  Reality can only be perceived by those who attain enlightenment, yet it is right in front of our face at all times.  To attain Nirvana is to fully realize, accept or align oneself with Reality.


I find it fascinating that whereas Christianity added Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to Judaism, the older religion into which Jesus was born, Buddhism subtracted God from the older Hinduism.  It has sometimes been said that Buddhism is a stripped-down form of the older religion into which the Buddha was born. Conversely, it could be argued that Hinduism is like Buddhism with God added back in. While Buddhism subtracts God from the emphasis of spiritual practice, Hinduism adds God everywhere.  Hindus would agree that the bicycle (along with the entire physical world) is an illusion, but they would add that it is a divine illusion and that every part of the bicycle is a manifestation of God.  Ultimately, it is an illusion because all of its colors and materiality simply dissolve in the divine energy, the pure white light of God.


The Hindu view appears to be aligned with Plato’s theory of Ideas, that the essence of things precedes their existence.  The idea “bicycle” preceded the material assembly of any one bike; the idea is divine and so is its material form.  This is a pragmatic notion that our dear American inventor and national father, Benjamin Franklin, would probably have toasted.  Whether or notFranklinwould have regarded the actual bicycle as divine, he would almost certainly have regarded our human potential to imagine, design and engineer a bike as an expression of divine providence.


Personally, I have long regarded myself as shopping for a religion, but with the commitment issues of a playboy.  I have flirted with Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.  I am drawn to the Buddhist emphasis on regular practice and its teaching that I, along with everybody else, assemble my illusory personality on a daily basis like a photograph of a face is assembled on a computer screen from pixels or like the bicycle in Weiner’s example was assembled from its constituent parts, which in turn were assembled from constituent materials, which in turn were…and so on.


At the same time, I have always spontaneously believed in God, and I’m not ready to admit that my belief is merely another illusory construct holding me back from enlightenment.  Hinduism finds God everywhere, and that draws me even more than Buddhism.  Each of the multitudinous Hindu gods is a manifestation of the one true God.  While it is impossible for us humans to understand God, we can understand, at least partially, several Godly aspects, one aspect at a time.  Take the Hindu trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma:  Brahma is the Creator; Vishnu is the Preserver; and Shiva is the Destroyer-Rejuvenator.  Whether or not these three aspects of God are analogous to the Christian trinity, they are understandable descriptions of three parts of God’s “universal work,” as Yogananda characterizes it.


The problem with Hinduism for any non-Hindu Westerner is that the religion does not reduce God’s aspects simply to a single trinity.  After all, God cannot be reduced!  Thus Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva each are represented in many specific incarnations, manifestations and avatars.  For example,Krishnais an incarnation of Vishnu.  While these distinctions may be helpful meditation objects for devotees raised as Hindus, they present a kaleidoscope of confusion to anyone else.  No wonder Buddhism, with its significantly reductionist emphasis, was so much more easily exported fromIndia!  Of course, the real point of Hinduism is devotion to the divine One, but for most of us, the Hindu mythological entities, commonly referred to as Hindu gods, are in effect visual aids which can seem like detours from that singular path.  In my own spiritual journey, I have not yet decided whether I’d prefer to add God to Buddhism or subtract a kaleidoscopic jumble of sacred imagery from Hinduism.

Read Full Post »