Monday, May 12, 2008

culture clash


Last week, I was reminded of the classic question that confronted early Christians: is man essentially holy, pure, and good, but with sinful aspects, or is man inherently sinful, with the possibility of being cleansed? (After a way lot of hard work?)

In the dialog between early Church fathers, of course, St. Augustine won this argument with his premise that man is inherently sinful. This idea that, so to speak, we "start out bad" has colored Christianity for the next 1600 years or so.

Despite all the sincerest efforts of the rainbow crowd, let's face it, it's not a pastel religion.

In Gurdjieff's world, man may not have started out bad -- in fact, his fall from grace was initiated by an asteroid colliding with the planet (an event well outside his own control, unlike the Biblical version, which just features a lil' old silver-tongued snake in a tree) but we certainly ended up in a bad place. I think Gurdjieff's idea of man's mechanicality corresponds well to Augustine's contention that man is driven by sin that arises from his lusts. Lust, or desire, is, after all, a reflexive response-- a habitual and mechanical one. We all find ourselves enslaved by this. The Buddhists have a rather similar understanding about desire: it corrupts a man's being.

It's gotta go.

This idea of cleansing dominates many religious practices. In yoga, purification is considered to be essential if one wants to open the channels of the body to the energies that can lead it to a higher awareness. In Islam, ritual bathing (a whopping five times a day, no less) is an essential part of the act of prayer: in other words, there is an inherent acknowledgment that man is a creature that is dirty, unsuitable to present himself without cleansing. And in Christianity, we have the 51st psalm, which is of course a Judaic text and thus covers both religions quite neatly.

Some of my closest spiritual advisers and friends think that this whole idea that we are not worthy is a load of crap; other close spiritual advisers and friends think that it is completely true.

To the great dismay, perhaps, of the ones who think it's a load of crap, I lean towards the other side. My experience of myself is one of a fallen nature; I am, as one friend would say, "a frayed wire," transmitting much higher energies than my insulation can usually handle in a spastic and erratic manner. And, to be sure, I have the weight of spiritual tradition on my side; far more traditions view men as a fallen creature trying to stand up than as a standing creature who falls down occasionally.

Anyway, dear readers, going back to the 51st psalm, this particular piece touches on the essential suffering that I think it is absolutely necessary for us to experience. The writer truly understood something we all need to understand about our lower nature, and the distance we need to travel within ourselves in order to receive something real:

"The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit."

This bears a striking resemblance--doesn't it?--to the Buddhist idea that the ego must be destroyed. And in it we also find "precursory echoes" of Meister Eckhart's contention that man's will must be completely surrendered in order for the will of God to manifest.

In one of my classic forked-tongue cop-outs, I am now going to straddle the territory of good and evil and contend that both statements are true. We contain two natures within ourself, and each one has its own inherent quality. The nature of the higher is pure and unsullied Buddha-nature; the nature of the lower is that of the dog. So the dog has Buddha nature--which takes us back to a relatively ancient post, in the context of this blog--and Buddha nature has a dog.

This argument even bears a relationship to the old argument of the biologists: nature versus nurture. What creates a man?

His relationship with his lower nature, which is that of the dog--a mercurial animal, dominated by a pack mentality, lusting for raw meat and status?

Or his higher nature, which we might say is formed from a grace whose instinct is to nurture and protect?

Or is man created by the intersection of these two natures? And is his task to stand between those two natures, earnestly seeking the higher, while actively suffering the lower?

I believe we might agree that mankind's entire history, both sociologically, psychologically, historically, and spiritually, reflects the tension that arises between these two impulses, and the effort to reconcile them. Each one of us, as individuals, finds ourselves called to an outer responsibility corresponding to the reconciliation of these forces, and each of us chooses a role in life and society reflecting our understanding.

In the same way, each of us is faced with an inner dilemma of equally compelling--perhaps even more compelling--proportions.

--Are we essentially good--golden nuggets trying to polish off a grimy coating of karmic bad?
--Are we essentially bad, attempting to immolate the dross so that what little good there is can shine like gold?

Or are we just, essentially---

what?

Maybe it is indeed in a ruthless (i.e., without the bitter taste of rue--try it sometime and you'll see what I mean) seeing, rather than the good and the bad of it all, that we ought to invest ourselves.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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