Back in my college days, my youth, and days where the memories are still rich even now; my friends who had fought in Vietnam called it a soldier’s breakfast, coffee and a cigarette. I have fallen into the habit of smoking a bit again, now and then, fallen from grace if you wish. The taste is still sweet, the memories still clear from our carefree youth filled days, as I breathe in and out the steel blue smoke of youthful memories, memories of that self from long ago.
One old friend from then, (David, who served in Vietnam in an Infantry Army Ranger Company.) told me a story once of his time in Vietnam, and a vision of his childhood pet when he woke from a drug hazed dream. Induced he thought, by some Thai Sticks, he smoked that evening with some of his Ranger Company mates. His dog Max that he had grown up with, a white German Shepherd, was barking urgently in front of his bunk bed, running back and forth in warning, wanting him to follow and go somewhere desperately. Max was so persistent, my friend was finally forced to get up from his deep sleep and follow outside, like a walking dream.
So, my friend David, followed the vision of his dog out of the bunker where he had been sleeping. Just outside, Max suddenly jumped out of the sandbag bunker and instantly went into a pointing position, in the distance on the edge of the jungle they saw pin points of light flickering, dim and then bright again. David knew instantly it was the enemy smoking, they had been trained to look for such signs. Viet Cong Ghost Soldiers his Ranger Company called them, because they disappeared like ghosts, the light of their cigarettes glowing in the darkness as a warning, a call to combat.
He picked up and emptied his M16 in that general direction, into the darkness of the jungle night, not knowing for sure what or who was out there, other than the enemy. He knew there were no patrols from their camp out at night. An alarm was raised all over the camp, other guns fired in defense, an attack averted, and his Ranger Company saved that night, by a dream, a vision, a childhood pet, a dear old friend. The next day in the early morning light it was clear that a significant military force had been in place, a few bodies left behind.
Upon returning home from Vietnam many months later, my friend learned that his dog Max had peacefully died that same night, at close to the same time that he appeared by David's bunk. And in a final act of friendship and loyalty came to warn him thousands of miles away, from Brazosport, Texas, to the jungles of Vietnam. I believed the story then, wanted to believe it because it has all the right pieces any compelling story has to tell. I'd like to believe now still. I'd like to know, as you do I'm sure. How Max knew that David needed his help, how he found him even, went to him. We can ask the question. I think the answer is found in love's power to transcend time and distance and our own imaginations.
Then again, perhaps it’s only an Urban Legend, an old military ghost story of sorts, told by soldiers anywhere, from any side, from any war that is waged. Still, it must make you wonder what connections there are between two such close friends, a loyal childhood pet and the man he once protected as a child, and how we are sometimes blessed. It’s all a mystery, life, love, death, our intuition and imaginations. What do we know?
I'm not sure why I'm sharing this story now; perhaps I don't want it to be lost. It's a compelling story, a haunting tale at many different levels. It's a bit odd even that I formed such close friendships then, with these military men who served in Vietnam, we did become close friends. We may even have dated some of the same girls back then. Many times we would stay awake all night slowly sipping on good scotch and looking hard at life. These veterans of war taught me how to hold my liquor, and in the process, we talked for hours, sharing stories with one another, this is just one of those many stories.
You see, when I turned 18 years old, back when there were still Draft Boards. I asked for and was almost granted a conscientious objector status. It wasn't easy getting that classification back then, you had to answer a lot of extremely hard questions, you had to be deeply convincing. I had help from my father, himself a WWII veteran and a Methodist minister; he went with me to the interview.
He even had some of his seminary professors and clergy friends who were COs help me understand the process and what I would be asked. As it turned out, the Draft Board gave me two choices, take a college deferment or immediately begin serving two years of voluntary service as a CO in some capacity, usually in a hospital. I decided to take my chances and took the college deferment instead, and two years later the military draft ended in the United States.
I can't say that I feel the same way now, that I'm a pacifist today, so many years later. I've never been tested under fire or in any other violent situation when I had to defend my own life or protect the life of another. Not many of us have, unless they have served in this capacity.
There is an extraordinary honor to be found in serving your country, in being a peacekeeper. It is a sacrifice for the greater good. I do hold all life as sacred, to be sacred, and pray for an end to such conflicts and war, for a better world. At their very best, this is what soldiers do, they protect the weak and the innocent, they act as peacekeepers, they help protect the sacredness of life.
The point of my story is this; the mysteries of our interconnections with one another are astounding. We need to pay attention to them. Can you begin to imagine the angels watching over you even now, as Max watched over my friend David? Our own angels are out there you know, in many forms, found in complete strangers walking along the street at times, unseen or unknown directly, but known I believe at some level of the self, many levels.
Love calls out to us, moving through and across our many selves, through our lives and the years, through time and mystery and death. These interconnections arise out of our relationships with others, with all life and through life. It is life at work, and something more I think, Śūnyatā-Dependent-Arising-InterBeing in Buddhism; or in more theistic faiths the Holy Spirit, the Great Spirit, God as Spirit if you wish, as the Ultimate Divine Mystery at work within the world, calling us into a relationship with one another. It's something we need to awaken to, a key truth, maybe an ultimate truth; an enlightenment that helps us to understand this mystery.
One final thought, I lost contact with David over 40 years ago when we went our separate ways, after those early college years. For all I know, he's still out there living his life, and I trust that something in him may still remember our nights of conversation and scotch, the stories we shared. If he is, I want to wish him the best. I hope he has had and is still having an enjoyable life.
As Christians engage more and more in an interfaith dialogue with Buddhism, and other faiths, they are constantly challenged by a vocabulary, which is very different from the one they know and love. This is especially true in working with and studying Buddhism, with its non-theistic approach to understanding the nature of reality.
How may a Christian perceive and understand the Buddhist concept of Śūnyatā – Nirvana
, written of in the Heart Sutra, Mahāyāna Buddhist literature? Where the Heart Sutra teaches Śūnyatā–Nirvana
, is that, which is empty of emptiness, and is that, which, points a Buddhist to an experience and union with Ultimate Truth, Ultimate Reality, as the Perfection of Wisdom.
A teaching that leads a Buddhist to great wisdom and compassion. How may we understand “emptiness is form, form is emptiness,”
coming from a spiritual tradition like Christianity that is theistic?
May a Christian embrace a non-theistic approach to understanding the Divine Mystery, and still hold on to their theistic relationship with the Divine? My simple answer is, yes. One that I have learned from Paul F. Knitter, author of Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian
, as well as other writers and theologians. I believe that we may do both, understand and see the Divine through both a Buddhist and a Christian lens.
In Buddhism, emptiness points towards a concept, which tells us that our sense of self as being permanent is false and that the self we may actively identify with is empty of such permanence. Buddhism refers to this false self as not-self, or no-self, anattā (uhn-uht-tah), it is an ego clinging self that leads to suffering, misperceptions, and false projections. Indeed, what we may think of as "oneself" is largely the ego, who is not our truest deepest self in union with the Divine Mystery, or for a Christian, in union with Christ and through Christ, in unity with the Holy Trinity. Quite often, the ego is selfish and self-centered, blind to a greater and more meaningful, spiritual life.
The Buddhist concept of anattā (uhn-uht-tah) is not proclaiming that humans have no soul, as a Western mind might think of a soul. There is a soul in Buddhism, Ātman, seen as our intrinsic nature, even our Buddha nature. It is seen as a greater self, a truer self, and to find this self, they learn to let go of all concepts of the self. I know this may sound strange to Western ears.
A Christian might think of it as the image of God within themselves, the spirit within that belongs to God, their Christlike nature, or the Holy Spirit who dwells within us each. Even in Christianity it is taught that to find our life in Christ, we must give up the life we know and who we think we are. In this sense there is also a letting go of the self.Matthew 10:39 (NRSV): "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." . . . Luke 9:23-24 (NRSV): "Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it."
As a practicing Christian, I might say this in another way; simply, that it is Christ and the Holy Spirit who dwells within us all and that the Holy Spirit as a teacher and comforter transforms, transcends, reveals, redeems, even expands and diffuses, all sense of self. Ultimately, what we mean here is that the self, our deepest self, our soul, our spirit self, is so intimately interconnected with the Divine that it is the Divine who dwells within us and who we are in union and unity with; in union with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to place it in Trinitarian terms.
I’m not saying we lose our being, our core identity, our uniqueness as a creation of God, who God gave life to, neither, is Buddhism when it points to the false self as not-self, or no-self, anattā (uhn-uht-tah). For a Christian, as we grow more and more in Christ’s love, as we are constantly changing; we are being transformed moment by moment. Within Christianity this is a continuous process of change and growth, of Sanctification
, where one day we wake up, and no longer recognize the person we once were, because that person has been utterly transformed.
In Buddhism, there is transformation too; there is a release from an ego driven false sense of the self that is grounded in selfishness. There is a transformation that leads to selflessness and service to and for others; there is the path of the bodhisattva, found in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism. Where a person intentionally engages in specific practices that help to develop immeasurable loving-kindness, compassion, joy for others, and composure or equanimity.
Along with the Six Perfections of Wisdom, which are generosity, patience, virtue, joyful effort, meditation, and insightful wisdom that lead to enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Tibetan Buddhist practices, likeTonglen
, that involve taking on the pain of others with an in-breath and sending them joy and healing with an out-breath, and extensive-mind training (Lojong
) that are all very sacramental in nature and experience, grounded in the Spirit. The parallel to these in Christianity are the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit that may arise from a spiritual practice (praxis) and service to God, the church, the community. Service simply and lovingly to other people, grounded in God's compassion, loving-kindness, and justice.
Let me point out, as Paul F. Knitter and other theologians before him have, that all our language about God, as the Divine Mystery, is symbolic language; like Sumerian Cuneiform, Vedic Sanskrit, ancient Hebrew, Latin, or Greek, all our human language is symbolic. We may use the vocabulary of a Christian, or of a Buddhist, or another great spiritual tradition in explaining our relationship with the Divine Mystery, but such language, is always a finger pointing at the moon.
Our language and words are symbols that may point us towards God as Ultimate Truth, but these symbols, this symbolic language is not that Truth, although our words and symbols do have the power to help reveal the Truth. To look at the Truth, we must gaze beyond the finger pointing towards the moon, to the moon itself, to Truth itself. All the words of Holy Scripture, when they are truly effective, from any and all the great spiritual traditions of humankind, are simply fingers pointing at the moon.Jesus tells us in John 4:24: "God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." And in 1 John 8:16: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
As a Christian, I see these scriptures, pointing us towards a deeper level of understanding in our relationship with God, and in turn with all of creation and one another. Perichoresis (peri-kor-es-is
) is an ancient Greek term in Christian theology, which refers to the indwelling of the Trinity. It tells of how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are so intimately connected within their unity as one that there is an indwelling between them all. This indwelling is shared with us, in and through Christ, in the Paschal Mystery of Christ as the Incarnate Word, the Word Made Flesh, who a Christian encounters in the sacrament of the Eucharist, where Jesus is truly present. Saint John of Damascus (7th Century) describes Perichoresis as a “cleaving together,” and as a fellowship of the Godhead that enters into one another."That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us (John 17:21)."
Jesus points us towards another realization of God’s oneness and reign in these verses from Luke 17: 20-21: And when the Pharisees had demanded of Him when the Kingdom of God should come, He answered them and said, "The Kingdom of God cometh not with outward show. Neither shall they say, `Lo, it is here!' or `Lo, it is there!' For behold, the Kingdom of God is within you."
Jesus is telling us in these verses that God lives within us each, dwells within us each, and is in our very midst, actually within any sacred community where people are gathered in his name, but, even more than this I think. Jesus is telling us that we are so intimately connected to one another, not only one with him and the Father, within the Trinity, but within one another too, within a community, and that out of this oneness our lives unfold, or rather our lives fold into one another, interweave with one another.
It is our relationships with one another, and all of creation, which is the reality we experience every day of our lives. It is out of all these relationships that our lives arise, interweaving, unfolding and folding into one another, and it is in and through these relationships we encounter and come to know, and be known by God, by the Divine Mystery. Through and in one another, we come to know God, in a divine relationship that is creation itself, constantly creating new relationship from one moment to the next.
In Buddhism, this concept of our interconnectedness with life, all life, reality itself, out of which our lives arise, is called Dependent Origination or Dependent Arising. The Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls this concept interbeing, in his book, The Heart of Understanding
, 1 where he teaches that “To be” is to inter-be, and that “we cannot be alone, exist alone without anything else.”
All beings are in relationship with one another; we are all “interbeing” with the rest of creation. Indeed, our life and the reality we experience moment to moment is arising out this “interbeingness” and that through “interbeing” we come to know God in and through our relationships. As a Christian, I want to use the language and symbols that I know and love so well, and add that what is drawing us together is the life giving presence of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who is actively at work within the world. And to recognize that it is the Holy Spirit who is literally calling us into a relationship with one another and into the fullness of our humanity, the full potential of our human life, which after all is a gift from God.
In his book, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian
, in writing about Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of “interbeing,” Paul F. Knitter tells us that understanding God through relationships is critical and that the source and power of our relationships is driven by the presence of the "Holy Spirit." The importance of this concept is summarized by this: "behind and within all the different images and symbols, Christians use for God – Creator, Father (Abba), Redeemer, Word, Spirit, - the most fundamental, the deepest truth Christians can speak of God is that God is the source and power of relationships."
Another way to view this, as Paul Knitter explained to me once in a conversation, is that in meditation Buddhism asks us “to let go of all concepts, and to let go and open ourselves radically and utterly to the present moment, and in the trust that this present moment contains all that I need. This setting aside of words and imagery and opening oneself to what St. Paul calls God as Spirit, letting that Spirit make itself (or herself or himself) felt within us, grow within us, to lead us.” We find this idea beautifully expressed in these two scriptures from the Gospel of John, and in the book of Romans.John 14:26-27 and Romans 8:26-27, tell us: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” … “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
I imagine that this is exactly as Jesus must have prayed to our Father in Heaven (Abba), with a radical and complete openness and trust that took him beyond all forms and images into a union and unity with the Holy Spirit that was praying with and through him. This is the same Holy Spirit, who prays with and through each one of us, when we take the time to be still, to be silent, to meditate and rest in the Divine and Ultimate Mystery of God as Spirit.“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”“That very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”"God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.""That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.”
For a Christian, this is it, this is unity, this is union with God, and union with one another in community, the union that we find within the church or any sacred community that values one another and the stranger. And you know; it's all a mystery, it's all a marvelous mystery that calls us into a relationship with one another, even across faiths, especially across faiths.
If we could reframe the message of the Gospel for the 21st Century, the "Good News" of the Gospel, I believe that this would be that message. A message that calls all of us into a deeper understanding of the Divine Mystery found in relationship, found in an interfaith dialogue that is radically open, radically inclusive, and grounded in the historical and orthodox tradition of the church, and of the Great Commission, Christ gave to his Disciples, to all Christendom.
As my friend Paul Knitter once wrote in a sermon, quoting John Cobb, another theologian, "Jesus is the way, that is open to other ways.
"Jesus is the way that is open to other ways. Jesus is not the way that excludes, overpowers, demeans other ways; rather he is the way that opens us to, connects us with, calls us to relate to other ways in a process that can best be described as "dialogue."
Originally Posted on: http://spinningoutprose.blogspot.com/?view=magazine
1. The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra – Thich Nhat Hanh http://www.parallax.org/cgi-bin/shopper.cgi?preadd=action&key=BOOKHOU
- Śūnyatā - Emptiness - Interbeing (Thich Nhat Hahn's comments on Emptiness as InterBeing)
2. Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, Paul F. Knitter, Chapter 1, Nirvana and God the Transcendent Other, Pages 14-23.Publisher: Oneworld Publications (July 25, 2009)Language: EnglishISBN-10: 1851686738ISBN-13: 978-1851686735Paperback: 336 pages http://www.oneworld-publications.com/cgi-bin/cart2/commerce.cgi?pid=443&log_pid=yes
3. Sermon by Professor Paul F. Knitter, from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, entitled "Jesus: The Way That is Open to Other Ways". http://www.tcpc.org/library/article.cfm?library_id=518
John 1:1-5 (NRSV) - The Word Became Flesh
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."
Beyond all our thoughts and words, there is something more, something full of mystery. Take a moment please and think of the Gospel of John, where it is written, "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God." In indeed, think about how God brought creation into existence, how God created your life and my life.
Genesis 1:1-3 (KJV) - In the Beginning
Before there was creation itself, there was a wordless nothingness, an emptiness waiting to be filled, a formless void. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light, and there was light". And creation was formed out of the formless void, and there with God in this moment of creation, in the beginning of all things, was the Eternal Word, perhaps born from a single desire and thought of God.
"In the beginning was the Word." As a Christian, or even someone of another faith, have you ever thought of how your own relationship with creation is grounded in the Word or words, and how your life arises in and through all your relationships, with all creation? This is certainly true for a Christian in their relationship with Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, the Word Made Flesh; as well as words from many other sacred traditions forming the world, words, like sutras, binding the family of humankind together. When we take time to dwell on our relationships, even those beyond our immediate family and friends, we begin to see how life arises from these many interconnections.
Can you begin to imagine how you have touched my life, even if we have never met or spoken? Can you begin to imagine how you have touched the lives of other people too, and will continue to touch them? This is how powerful relationships are in the world. This is the Word, the Holy Spirit, at work within the world. And then imagine, please, how our own thoughts become words of our own, shaping our world, shaping our lives, our communities, our reality.
We are all interconnected, perhaps even more so now, as we listen and come to know one another within a sacred community, as we listen to or even read each other’s words. Words have a life of their own, they shape our lives, and they interconnect us in marvellous ways. This is why writers love writing and use words to express themselves, it is why people love poetry, good plays, a compelling novel or story, or any appreciable writing in which we form a connection with one another.
I’m sure that we have more than 300 books in our library at home, and at some level, there is a relationship with every single word in every single book, or even in the words I am typing now, hopefully making a connection with all of you.
In Buddhism, this concept of our interconnectedness with life, all life, reality itself, out of which our lives arise, is called Dependent Origination or Dependent Arising, Pratītyasamutpāda in Sanskrit. Dependent Arising is hard to wrap your mind around, unless you know and have the right vocabulary, unless you have devoted time and energy to understanding Buddhism's beautifully symbolic and complex language, its words.
For now, let’s simply say that it is a reality of shared interdependence and one that tells us, we are intimately interconnected to everything else in life, with one another, with all of creation. The Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls this concept interbeing, in his book, The Heart of Understanding, where he teaches that “To be” is to inter-be, and that “we cannot be alone, exist alone without anything else.”
In Christianity, there is a remarkably similar and beautiful concept, it is found in a marvelous Greek word used by the early church fathers and mothers, to describe the mystery of the Trinity. It is the word, Perichoresis (peri-kor-es-is). Perichoresis is an ancient term in Christian theology, which refers to the indwelling of the Trinity, of how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are so intimately connected within their unity as one that there is an indwelling between them all. And that this indwelling is shared with us, in and through Christ, in the Paschal Mystery of Christ as the Incarnate Word, the Word Made Flesh.
How appropriate, since not one of us can imagine living without words, living a life without words in some form.
Let me go back, please to the wordless beginning of things, ultimate reality perhaps, to the Buddhist concept of Śūnyatā–Nirvana, emptiness. I’m struggling for a clear image or a metaphor to use in this dialogue, and it’s hard for me to find one. This is why I love to write poetry, because poetry for me is a transformational and transcending language.
Perhaps it would help, as Jesus or a Tibetan or Zen Master might, to have you visualize the emptiness of an empty cup. The space that can be filled at any time, by anyone, by you, by God. This space, this emptiness, can be seen as the pure and infinite potential of all eternity, out of which all reality arises in a universe of infinite possibilities, or even of a given intimate moment within eternity, now in this present moment, in these words, even in the spaces between each word. You may also visualize it as an empty cup, a cup that is ready to receive the new wine of life or hot jasmine tea.
What I’m trying to say, with all these words, is that sometimes we simply need to let go of all our words, all our images, all our thoughts, even becoming lost for a while. Becoming lost can be a goodly thing, a needful thing. Because in doing so, we can develop a whole new language, and new images, like an artist, does when they are creating, be it a new symphony, a beautiful painting, a poem, a play, or a photograph that takes your breath away and leaves you speechless. I love that feeling of speechlessness, of emptiness, of being empty and ready to receive the next new thing. The secret I think is in understanding that each moment is the next new thing. It is a moment that is both empty and full of infinite potential, a newness that is born out of every moment. I ended a poem once with these words.
“We are the poet and the poem out of which each moment arises.”
I know in my soul this is a powerful truth, one born out of my own thoughts, words, and spiritual life. I love the dialog we may find within any sacred community, and the many gifts it brings us to discover such moments, to discover the newness of a moment, and to discover a new meaning in life within one another, new words even, words that God constantly shapes. Words that arise from a single point of emptiness and words that help us to shape the life we live into a new language, a new life. Words that help us to breathe together as one body, with one breath, in one spirit even. There is something truly sacramental and spirit driven, inspired, by such a dialog, by such relationships. It is an indwelling where we do dwell within one another, Perichoresis.
I'm thinking of Jesus now and the words we hear him say in John 10:10; "I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly." And I'm thinking how much your life enriches my own life; how we enrich one another in our lives that God has given to us each. I just want us to realize this fully, to appreciate it fully, and know fully that we are all a part of that gift too, and
to be grateful for the sacramental moments we share together, where we come to know and be fully known by God, where we come to be blest.
I'm thinking that the Buddha would certainly agree with all this, in a sheer Buddhist enlightenment and wakefulness practicing sort of way, practicing this way, this journey, this celebration of life.