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Daily Obstruction: Essential Ingredient

28 Aug

quan yin

Essential Ingredient


There are certain lines of texts that are a key to unlocking the whole:  “And the student brought fuel for the fire to the master” – Upanishads; “The master gave a shout” – Zen koan collection; “Socrates had a way of playing with my hair” – Phaedo; “Mahakashyapa smiled and began to laugh” – The Flower Sutra.  Or rather than a key, they are more like a particular spice that gives the flavor and aroma to the whole meal.

Daily Obstruction: RPG

2 Jul

Vishnu as Man-Lion




“Why is my life so difficult?”

“Think of it like a video game – after mastering a level, you jump to the next incrementally more challenging level.  Maybe you’re a game master?”

“Maybe I’m not cut out for video games.”

“That’s a possibility too.”

Daily Obstruction: Antinomies

9 Mar

vishnu and lakshmi


Now is only temporary.  Now is eternal.

Daily Obstruction: Moksha & Art

21 Feb

guan yin

Moksha & Art

It has been said that the power to enlighten others, if not discharged, is like a restless elephant caged by a straw hut.  Conversely, if that power is released to others, it is like draining an aquifer of its water causing it to implode upon itself.  Is not the creative process akin to this power to enlighten?

Daily Obstruction: Theme & Variation

27 Jan

the rules

Theme & Variations


Once, when I was a young man, I got out of a crowded Manhattan subway at night.  All the commuters went up the right staircase.  Separating myself from the herd, I went up the left stairway all alone. . . and got pistol-whipped and mugged.  The rest of my life has been a variation on that theme.

Re-Bound: Religion, Spirituality, & Life

26 Sep

First published in the Northwest Zen Community Eishoji Newsletter, Vol. III


Religion, Spirituality, & Life


Jason Giannetti

In this day and age, we are seeing many Americans abandoning their religions, but the statistics suggest that just as many Americans are searching for “spirituality” or are claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.”  Are religions devoid of “spirituality” or is the “spirituality” people are searching for something new and of a different order than traditional religion has to offer?

Both polling statistics and anecdotal evidence suggests that more and more Americans are leaving the traditional religious faiths of their parents.  (See The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.,” February, 2009, revised, 2011.)  At the same time, increasing numbers of Americans are saying that they are leaving their religions, in part, because those traditional religions do not satisfy their “spiritual” needs (ibid.) and that they are looking for something more “spiritual.” (See “‘Spiritual but not religious’ becoming more common self-identification,” Joshunda Sanders, American Statesman, May 31, 2010.)  71% of all people surveyed by the Pew Research Center said that religious organizations are too focused on the rules and not on the spirituality.  49% said that this focus on rules rather than spirituality was a main reason for leaving their church.  But what are these terms: “religious,” “religion,” “spiritual,” and “spirituality”?

The English word “religion” comes from the Latin root, religio, “to bind.”  It is the same root as in the word “obligation” and “ligature” – ligare.  With the “re” prefix, it literally means to rebind or reconnect.  One could take this etymology to suggest a metaphoric meaning of religion – that which connects humans and the divine.  (The notion that religion “re-binds” us to the divine suggests that there was an original connection – rather than original sin – that was severed and needs re-connecting.)  Or one could understand it in a more concrete sense, aligned with the term obligation – being bound to the rules, traditions, strictures, and authority of the belief system.

“Spiritual” comes from the Latin, spiritus, literally “breath.”  We can understand the connection between “breath” and our use of “spirit” by noticing that when one breathes one’s last breath, the animating power of the body leaves with it.  Whatever it is that causes this flesh and bone to move is the “spirit.”  This is how the ancients understood soul (anima in Latin and psyche in Greek) – that which moves bodies.  Science has searched and dissected the body and the brain, probed it with all manner of measuring instruments, but that subtle power, force, energy, or electrical field that causes movement and creates consciousness continues to elude definitive detection, explanation, and quantifiable calculation.

With this in mind, we can try to understand better this modern rejection of religion and the concomitant search for spirituality.  Undoubtedly a number of historic causes play into this turn from organized religions.  We can trace one trajectory of this from the Enlightenment, the rise of Science and Reason, the Reformation, through to Modernism and Post-Modernism.  With the advent of the Scientific Revolution, the creation of the printing press, and the Renaissance of Reason, people were less likely to rely upon received tradition and appeals to authority as their guiding light.  As Michael Weinstein notes, “The line of modern individualism, which was initiated by Martin Luther and Rene Descartes, and which was infused with romanticism by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, culminated in Friedrich Nietzsche’s tragic vitalism.”  (The Wilderness and the City, Weinstein, Michael, p. 129, 1982)  We, here in America, might also add next to Nietzsche’s name, those of Emerson and Thoreau in this history of the rise of Individualism over Authority, Modernism over Medievalism.

In the aftermath of the two world wars, this Modern mentality began to falter and the transfer of absolute faith in God to absolute faith in the individual was no longer convincing.  In the face of the Holocaust, individual infallibility seemed as dated as papal infallibility.  This has led thinkers such as Jean-Francois Lyotard to state, “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, p. xxiv)  By this he means that the post-modern mind looks askance at any and every attempt to tell a grand or over-arching narrative – be that the Biblical omniscient narrator, the Platonic Theory of Forms, or Nietzsche’s Übermensch.  This entire trajectory from the Copernican Revolution to Revolution #9 illustrates an ever decreasing authority of the church and an ever increasing vacuum in its place.

In addition to this five hundred year old historical development, the past decade or so has been one of repeated crises in the Catholic Church that have rippled through the population as a whole, chilling trust, faith, and good-will toward all organized religions.  Such crises in the Church have led to crises of faith for many of the formerly faithful.

Compounded to these factors is the way that religion is taught today in so many venues.  Long, long ago Plato pointed out that the stories of the gods were not appropriate to teach the children.  Children were not prepared to comprehend the meaning of the myths beyond the literal sense.  Today we have adopted this approach to our stories of God so thoroughly that Biblical stories are boiled down to only their moral meaning and all the disturbing, equivocal, ambiguous and morally reprehensible passages are filtered out.  Stories as complex as the Garden of Eden, Noah, and Sodom and Gomorrah are simplified to mean “Do as you’re told,” “Don’t fight,” and Show hospitality,” respectively.

Adapting stories to the comprehension levels of children is understandable and even commendable, but the problem is that most people (in the Judeo-Christian traditions) don’t continue with their religious education past middle school or high school.  As a result, people walk away from their religious school education thinking that their religion and the Bible have nothing to offer them.  The “simple” religion with its “childish” stories couldn’t possibly have anything meaningful to say to us in our modern, complex, and difficult lives.

I’ll never forget how, when teaching World Civilizations at a community college, I assigned the first ten or so chapters of Genesis.  At the start of the next class session, one of my students enthusiastically remarked, “Had I known there is so much sex and violence in the Bible I would have read it a long time ago!!!”  The fact is, the Bible is subtle, deep, and made for “mature” audiences.

But it is not only the distillation of the message in religious education that leaves people disenchanted with the Bible and their religions.  It is also the stance on the part of religion that it does have the answers for every question.  The earliest organized religions in the West were mystery cults.  These cults, as the name suggests, centered around mystery.  Life and love, birth and death, God and mortal, are, fundamentally, mysterious.  Religion, all religion, has at heart mysteries.  The imagery of the pilgrimage parallels the detective genre.  The essential difference being that the pilgrim discovers the mystery, not solves it.  Mystery is the force and attraction of the religion.  But what modern religion has done – perhaps in imitation of science – is to claim to actually have the answers to life’s problems, conundrums, and mysteries.  What is death?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  How can we be good?  Religious dogma squelches the mystery that once was the powerful allure of religion.

Somewhere between not having relevant answers and having complete certainty is where religion actually falls.  In other words, it, like drama and philosophy, grapples with life’s great and small challenges without providing simple answers or reducing those problems to formulaic lines from the Catechism.

The formulae, ritual, and dogma are precisely at issue when Joseph Campbell says, in agreement with Carl Jung, that one function of religion is to prevent us from having a genuine religious experience.  As he says, “Ornate and detailed religions protect us against an exploding mystical experience that would be too much for us.” (Campbell, Joseph, Thou Art That, pp. 13-4, 2001)  The experience of God, Being, Life, the sublime universe, or however you wish to name it, is like direct contact with electricity: It can be dangerously shocking.  Thus religion comes to our aid like the insulation on an electrical conduit.

Another way of putting this is to say that the experiences of death and dying, birth, and all the various transformative stages of life could cause a person to come unhinged if it were not for the psychological salves of religious ritual and the consolations of tradition.  As the experience of Uzzah indicates, coming in direct contact with the Holy can be dangerous, even deadly.

On the other hand, Jewish mysticism places a positive value on this very same prophylactic power of ritual and custom.  The metaphor employed is that of light (spirit) and vessels (matter/bodies/physical).  God, when uttering “Let there be light” contracted in order to infuse His spirit into the world, but the vessels of matter were not able to contain the power of that spiritual energy and they shattered, scattering the spiritual light of God throughout the universe as sparks that we, humans, are entrusted to collect and make whole (shalom) again.  In order to do this we need proper containers to handle the powerful embers of divine light.  Those “containers” are rituals and formulae.  Thus, in contrast to Jung and Campbell’s characterization, religion provides the necessary form through which we might possibly come into contact with the formless.  Rather than the insulation that shields us from the direct or immediate exposure to the electric-like power of the Holy, in this view religion and religious ritual act as the conduit itself that harnesses the otherwise ubiquitous, yet unavailable energy.

In the attempt to find “spirituality” through either leaving one’s religion (if one was raised in any sort of religious tradition), or through adopting other religions and traditions, I am reminded of two allegorical images.  The first is the proverb of the man who went out with a lantern searching for light.  Like that man, this quest for “spirit” and “spirituality” seems to ignore the original meaning of these words.  To the extent that spirit means one’s vital breath, we who look for spirit are searching for that which we already have.  Or rather, more precisely, as a character in a Walter Miller novel says, “You don’t have a soul. . . .  You are a soul.  You have a body, temporarily.”  (Miller, Walter, A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 281)

The second image I am reminded of is from Genesis.  We are told there that Abraham, traditionally the first forefather of Judaism and all monotheistic religions, had dug certain wells in the Valley of Gerar.  These wells were covered over by the Philistines, but after Abraham’s death, his son Isaac reopened the wells.  As you may recall, Isaac had a very traumatic experience when his father literally bound him in order to sacrifice him to God.  God stayed Abraham’s hand, but after that close call atop a mountain in Moria, the Bible never again speaks of Isaac in the presence of his father.  It would not be surprising if they never spoke again, but after his father’s death, Isaac performs this highly symbolic act of re-digging the wells of his father.

A well, as a source of water in the desert, is a source of life.  And wells play crucial roles in so many passages of the Bible – for Hagar and Ishmael, Moses and Zipporah, Miriam and the Israelites, etc.  In addition to being the literal sustainer of life, wells could also be symbolic of the religion that sustains the people in their search for meaning beyond material goods.  It is in this way that Miriam has been traditionally understood as the source of “fresh water” for the Israelites in the desert.  In the passage where Isaac uncovers the wells of his father, we could understand that Isaac worked for himself at discovering and rebinding himself to the (monotheistic) religion of his father.

Like Isaac, we may find that the religion with which we were raised has been buried by the sands of time.  Like Isaac, we may work to excavate that well and plumb its depths.  In so doing we may discover that the well of our fore-parents runs deep – very deep.  In fact, it may run right down to the common aquifer that is the source of all wells, all religions.  So, rather than digging a number of shallow wells that never produce water or that dry up quickly, dig your well deep and see if it does not lead you to the source.  Your well may thereby provide a container, a channel, a conduit through which the spirit you seek can flow.

It seems to me that the modern trend from “religiosity” and towards “spirituality” reflects the struggle between form and formlessness.  Religion provides the forms through which we try to reach the formless.  The formless requires forms as its medium.  But whether the form has forgotten the formless or we reach to grasp the formless without first utilizing the form of the vessel that contains the formless, we are trying to “reform” the relation between the two.  Such reformation is quintessentially Western and even more quintessentially American.  From Martin Luther to Thomas Jefferson, we have repeatedly struggled for reform and independence.

Along with this gradual democratization of liberation has developed an ever-increasing tendency to reform things to suit our needs, wants, and desires, rather than conforming our egoistic inclinations to something greater than ourselves through self-discipline and sacrifice.  Liberty in our modern age often is a slavish subjugation to the self in disguise.  The freedom of our political and economic system becomes bondage to the false idol of the self, whereas the re-binding of religion can be the initial steps in converting selfishness into submission, licentiousness into liturgy.

As suggested above, form and formlessness go together.  Through the form (religious discipline, structure, ritual) we come to the formless (God, the Holy, Emptiness).  The formless manifests itself within form.  If we take this one step further we see, as did William Blake, a world in a grain of sand, heaven in the wildflower, eternity in an hour.  That is, we come to see that form is formless and formless is form.  The distinction itself is the barrier and the barrier itself is illusory – it is a gateless gate.

On the nether side of that gate lies the hidden source: the deep fresh waters that feed all the wells and springs of the world’s great religions.  That source, that dark fount of the forms of religious experience, is not Truth, not Beauty, not Goodness, not Love, not even God.  It is something beyond all of these.  What is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end, origin and destination of all these religions?  In a word I would say that it is kenosis – the emptying of the “self.”  It is towards this that all the world’s great religions aim.  Liberation is not complete license to do whatever it is you want, but rather, the loss of the “you” that wants.  Just as one who is self-conscious is not free to be oneself, a fortiori, only when one has completely lost consciousness of self is one most oneself.

Whether we are looking at the passage from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt to service to God in the Promised Land, or the New Testament’s depiction of the Son of Man emptying himself to be the Servant of Man, or the word “Islam” itself, meaning “submission,” or the Hindu notion of karma-yoga – performing one’s duty for its own sake and not for the fruit of one’s labor, or the Taoist wei-wu-wei – doing-not-doing, or the Buddhist conception of anatman – no-self, all of these theologies are leading the devotee from form (discipline) to the formless (kenosis).  Becoming informed about a formal religion is important, not simply in order to conform to it, but so that one can become transformed through it.