Thursday, May 15, 2008

vengeful gods, infinite Bliss, and the middle ground


I have been concentrating my reading in two areas lately. One of them is the Bible, and the other is the Flower Ornament Sutra as translated by Thomas Cleary.

During Passover, I re-read Exodus. Most everyone remembers the inspirational moments of this book, such as the parting of the sea of reeds. The more unsavory details -- such as the incident when Moses and the tribe of Levi put thousands of people to the sword after he comes down off the mountain and finds them worshiping idols -- openly invite whitewashing. It's these gruesome Biblical moments (another example is the slaughter of the people of Jericho) that reinforce the classic Old Testament image of the vengeful God, the jealous God, the God who is willing to kill and maim in order to get what he wants: obedience, worship, and adoration.

Christian though I am, let's face it, this is a pretty crappy God. Forced to choose between religious alternatives, who (except the masochists) would honestly opt for the Old Testament?

I'm not one of those who argues that every word in the Bible was divinely inspired and actually written by God; my impression is that those who wrote many of these texts fundamentally misunderstood many important basic principles. Even if one wants to argue that they are allegories, they are deeply flawed allegories whenever they take a position that inspires fear. And there is, to be sure, a supreme irony in the flight of the Israelites: fleeing enslavement under the cruel Pharoah they find themselves under the yoke of an equally (perhaps even more) cruel God, who lures then with milk and honey, but then threatens them with death if they do not worship him appropriately.

Our patently human hero Moses even has to talk God out of this imprudent course of action on at least one occasion, which suggests that God may not be the brightest of light bulbs in the firmament after all.

To me, the whole story smacks of blindly trading one form of enslavement for another. A case of better living through denial.

In the Flower Ornament Sutra, we encounter the polar opposite of jealous, vengeful gods. In the first chapter, one is presented with a cavalcade of perfect and divine beings living in a universe that is blissful, gemlike, perfect, and gloriously incomprehensible. It's certainly a whole lot more appealing than tired, dirty hordes of paranoid nomadic peoples who run around putting their fellow tribesmen to the sword: it's heavy on the honey, instead of liberal with the vinegar.

At a certain point though, the flowery language and the endless images of perfection, joy, magnificence, bliss, and purity take on a cloying aspect. Can things really be this perfect? Look at where we are. Locked in the struggle of this level, this life, where even the gurus and masters get horrible diseases...

...or get nailed to crosses and die.

In short order, reading the Flower Ornament Sutra -- which is undeniably beautiful -- leaves one with the impression that a great deal of denial is at work, here, too. It's a true "pink cloud "text, despite its obvious spiritual virtues. One cannot reasonably construct a universe where everything is beautiful and perfect. The very premise invites enslavement to an ideal that appears equally subjective: this idea of an elusive perfection that does not, we see, reflect itself in billions of sharp-toothed, ravenous animals that eat each other, asteroids slamming into planets, or the very messy, highly explosive process of nuclear fusion.

This isn't to say that there isn't beauty and bliss here with us, and within us. There is plenty of it, and spiritual work can certainly bring us into contact with moments of that kind.

It's naïve to presume, however, that this is how the entire universe manifests. It has a great deal more dimension to it than that.

In the Gurdjieffian understanding about the nature of reality, we are treated to a more balanced point of view. There are plenty of bad things, to be sure. There are also plenty of good things. Instead of urging men to live through fear or to live through bliss, Gurdjieff asks us, as men, to just live--to inhabit the middle ground, seeing them both objectively.

Our work here is not to transcend and eliminate pain and suffering; our job here is to experience and acknowledge them. This type of work is certainly intimated in the Bible. Of Jesus Christ it is said he was "a man well acquainted with sorrows." Buddha called on men to transcend suffering; Christ took it on his shoulders and carried it like an ox. We might argue here that we are seeing a difference between the temptation to flee from reality -- which is certainly possible -- and a willingness to bear its burden.

Gurdjieff intimated that the task of man is to take on a portion of the suffering of God himself. If we adopt the Gurdjieffian perspective, we acknowledge that Gurdjieff did not ask men to escape suffering.

He asked them to participate in it intentionally.

And despite my ongoing interest in all things Buddhist, I think it is here, more than anywhere else, that I diverge from the Buddhist agenda of permanent escape.

The "Truth" that is attainable doesn't eliminate suffering; it includes it. Yes, perhaps it transforms it as it includes it; but the suffering is still there. The two polarized texts I cite as examples here are both examples, perhaps, of a failure to understand how to occupy this middle ground-

which, after all, is what Buddha called on men to understand.

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

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