Sunday, August 4, 2013

Danger in paradise.


Fusion of two worlds

Sixteenth century Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross wrote a poem that narrates the journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God. He called the journey “The Dark Night of the Soul,” because darkness represents the hardships and difficulties the soul meets in detachment from the world and reaching the light of union with God. The main idea of the poem can be seen as the painful experience that people endure as they seek to grow in spiritual maturity and fusion with God. The Christian experience assumes a soul separated from God that seeks reunion whereas the Buddhist perspective recognizes no separation. Instead unification takes place when the conceptual image of a false self is replaced by the actual experience of selfhood.

However, it must be said, that the key Christian scriptural passage that speaks to this matter comes from the 12th chapter in the Book of John verses 24-25 which says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” This is the English translation of the Greek, which camouflages the actual meaning of true human life due to translation limitations, and this inaccuracy has lead to misunderstandings. In the Greek, the first two uses of the word life meant soul—a conceptual equivalent of the self, and the latter meant the real self. The Greek word for soul/life was ψυχή better known as psyche, one of two manifestations of the source of life ζωή/zōē, the last Greek term used in this scripture.

How to understand this? When the soul dies the presence of God shines forth. Another word for soul is ego, thus death of the ego unveils the source, which is eternal (no birth/no death and unconditional). That being the case ζωή is ever-present but something without conditions: thus unseen. ζωή can thus never be perceived, only experienced. On the other hand, the ego is an unreal image—an illusion of the self. Nevertheless illusions have a hard way of immediately subsiding; the memory passes slowly at the same time that the light begins to dawn. The seed grows slowly and remains separate as an idea but when it dies, unity with all things emerges.

Roughly a century following the death of The Buddha, his teachings had moved out of India, along the Silk Road and into the Middle East, arriving during the era of the Greek philosophers. Evidence of his understanding, regarding illusion, can be found in the writings of Plato in an allegory called Plato’s Cave. In this allegory Plato describes a tenable argument involving this fundamental illusion and the resulting consequences on those so deluded. He also addresses the duty and price to be paid by philosophers who attempt to shine the light on truth. In essence Plato says that coming out of darkness and into the light involves both courage and pain.

Eckhart Tolle speaks to this process as follows: “It (dark night of the soul) is a term used to describe what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness.  The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression.  Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything.” Before, normal was egocentric and afterwards the center, begins to fade into a depressive, immature darkness. This is a stage of jeopardy and disorientation when we yearn for retention of our awakening yet can’t seem to grasp and hold onto what is our hearts desire.

The Buddha properly pointed out that to desire anything, even a lusting for enlightenment, is a sure prescription for suffering, and when we think about it, this makes immanent sense. Once true love is awakened, then only do we know for sure what it truly is. Up to that point, true love remains a product of our imagination; a wishful fantasy. But once we know, then we have a dilemma: what was previously a less than satisfying but acceptable idea, by comparison, now becomes a colorless and shallow experience that lives on as a not yet forgotten memory.

There’s a story is told in the Platform Sutra of a conversation held between Daman Hongren (fifth Chinese Chan patriarch) and Dajian Huineng (sixth Chinese Chan patriarch). Huineng was an illiterate, unschooled commoner who upon hearing the Diamond Cutter Sutra recited, realized enlightenment and subsequently sought out Hongren. When Huineng met the patriarch he was assigned the lowly job of rice-pounder, where he remained for many months before proving his worth to Hongren.

The conversation between the two was thus: Hongren—“A seeker of the path risks his life for the dharma. Should he not do so?” Then he asked, “Is the rice ready?”  Huineng— “Ready long ago, only waiting for the sieve.” Two questions, a single short answer which reveals the nature of enlightenment—both sudden and gradual. Sudden since the awakening happened quickly but fullness required the sifting of life’s sieve. The rice was ready but the lingering, residual chaff must be blown away by the winds of life.

In the words of the famous psychiatrist Carl Jung, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.’ Sometimes when we awaken, we realize that how we have lived and behaved has simply been out of line and nonproductive. It is a painful experience to observe ourselves from a space of neutral honesty and watch as we often go out of integrity to appeal to mental images we have created, and hurt people we love in the process. This observation of the false ‘self’ we have created in our minds is one of the first steps of becoming ‘enlightened’ if you will, and in this observation there is no gaining taking place. There is only the crumbling away of what you are not.’”

It takes many years of continuing adversity before our dawning matures. Once the seed of awakening is planted, the world changes forever, there is no turning back to old ways, yet maturity takes a long time.  But like Huineng, chaff of the old familiar way remains. It is natural once we awaken into the dawn of truth to retain the whisper of what is now dead yet lingers on in memory. And during this time we are in jeopardy, trapped between two worlds: one dead and gone, the other fresh and naïve like an infant not yet able to stand alone with the indwelling spirit of eternity beating in our heart.
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