Monday, January 19, 2009

Wake up and forget

ācakṣva śṛṇu vā tāta nānāśāstrāṇy anekaśaḥ
tathāpi na tava svāsthyaṃ sarvavismaraṇād ṛte

Recite numerous scriptures many times, my child, or listen to them.
Still, you will not be yourself until you forget everything.

This provocative verse (Aṣṭāvakrasaṃhitā XVI.1 ) suggests that all the religious practices one undertakes—listening to sacred texts, reciting them, praying, doing rituals, dutifully keeping commandments and following precepts—are in the final analysis obstacles to the project of being oneself (svāsthyam, literally, being situated in oneself). In other words, all those activities with which you identify, and all the doctrines with which you identify, are in fact concealing your identity from yourself and from everyone else. Those sacred texts and doctrines you study are the most probably the convictions of others. Most of them you never would have thought of on your own. They are not yours. Why take on someone else's self. Let's put it in stark terms. To the extent that you think of yourself as a Catholic, a Protestant, a Quaker, a Jew, a Muslim, rather than thinking of yourself just as you, you are failing to be who you really are.

It is not only a religious identity that conceals who one really is. Any attempt to see oneself as anything with limitations and boundaries is to settle for something incomplete and defective. Seeing yourself as a European American, or an African American, or an Asian American or a native American is to fail to be wholly American. To see yourself as an American is to fail to be wholly a human being. To see oneself as a human being is to settle for being less than just a being. Particularization is deficiency. Why celebrate being incomplete and unwhole?

Being fully who you are is to be aware of your being inextricably connected to everything that is. That kind of awareness is impossible so long as one is focusing only one part of your being, namely, the part with which you identify, the part you ordinarily think of as your self. The self is a persona, a mask, a disguise. It is what you wear when, for whatever reason, you will not or cannot appear as yourself.

The Hebrew prophet Isaiah voices a similar idea:

Don’t remember the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; now shall it spring forth; shall you not know it? (Isa 43.18–19)

Isaiah portrays God as saying that new things are constantly being created. The universe is in a state of constant renovation and re-creation. To the extent that you become rooted in the past, expecting the patterns of the past to be repeated, you miss getting all the updates and upgrades of the universe that are being presented at each moment. Expect yesterday's agreements and understandings to be in effect today and you may miss out on today's realities.

Remembering former things and considering things of old is behind some of the ugliest and most destructive behavior that human beings indulge in. When I was an undergraduate in Ottawa, I attended a public event in which a representative of the government of Israel debated with a representative of one of the Arab states. It took very little time for the debate to become heated and acrimonious. Each side had a long litany of injustices that they accused the other side of having committed. Before long it was apparent that both sides of this debate were so imprisoned by their memories of former things that they could consider nothing but things of old. Whatever new things might have sprung forth were entirely hidden from the view of these people who had become entrenched in their enmity. That was forty years ago. Turning on the news today and seeing the horrible slaughter of people in the conflict between Israel and the people in Gaza makes it clear that little has changed during the past forty years, and little is likely to change in the future, unless Israelis and Palestinians both wake up to who they truly are by forgetting that they are Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims and Christians.

It is fascinating to watch (and to participate in) the epidemic of hope that has gripped the United States of America as a result of the election of an African American to the presidency. For this to happen, a great deal of forgetting had to take place. Barack Obama is a deeply inspiring figure on the world stage, precisely because he reminds us all how important it is not to be stuck in remembrances of things past—past inustices, past failures, past successes, past victories for some and the inevitable defeats those victories meant for others. All those recollections that make up our particular social identities and mask our true identity as simple beings (or creatures, if you prefer that language) are to be forgotten as we focus on how we are all dependent on each other, as we remember that if forget our bonds with each other at our peril.

How the presidency of Barack Obama will unfold remains to be seen. I have no idea. But for now I am grateful that the invitation has been extended to all of us to wake up and forget.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mr Socrates, meet Mr Buddha and Mr Fox

Some thirty-odd years ago I was working as a research assistant for a pair of authors who were writing a textbook on world religions. One of the tasks they assigned to me was to read Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to see how well his analysis applied to Eastern religions. On a personal level, Weber's book had quite an impact on me in that it made me aware of my own Protestant roots and on how various Protestant doctrines had influenced my heart and mind. I read some of Weber's other materials as well and found myself intrigued by his discussion of prophetic traditions. If memory serves me well, Weber distinguished between prophets who spoke for God (as in the Abrahamic religions) from prophets who spoke for a more impersonal wisdom (as in Buddhism and Confucianism).

As it happened, at the same time I was reading Weber, I was also reading the dialogues of Plato that deal with the trial and death of Socrates. Struck by Socrates's frequent references to his daimon, a kind of inner voice that helped him distinguish right from wrong and was very much at the heart of his notion of the “examined life” that he famously believed was uniquely worth living, I could not help wondering whether he, too, might not be considered a kind of prophet. Most of my friends who were philosophers were not particularly receptive to the idea of Socrates as a wisdom-prophet along the lines of the Buddha or Confucius or Laozi, nor were most of my friends in religious studies. It occurred to me that I was living in an academic culture in which religion is seen as one thing and philosophy is seen as another, that talking of Socrates as a kind of prophet (or the Buddha as a philosopher) was to invite accusations of being terribly confused.

My experience with Quakers also became part of all this thinking about Weber and Socrates. George Fox, who founded the movement of religious seekers who were eventually called Quakers, often spoke of the inward light. Influenced by his reading of the Gospel of John, Fox was convinced that all human beings are capable of being guided directly by the logos—the Word that was with God in the beginning and that was identified with the Christ that existed even before creation. Fox was convinced that there is “that of God” in everyone. Moreover, he was convinced that this bit of God that dwells in all human beings, which he variously called the Inward Light or the Seed, would guide everyone who learned to still the mind, reduce the influence of what we nowadays call the ego, and wait patiently with an open mind and a heart filled with love. Fox's conviction that no one could possibly understand the scriptures without being in touch with the Inward Light that was itself the source of all scriptures, and that one who had access to the Inward Light did not really require the guidance of either scriptures or a professional priesthood or trained theologians, led to numerous confrontations with the religious authorities of his day. He was accused of the blasphemy of thinking that he was Christ, to which he responded that a more accurate statement of his conviction is that everyone is Christ—a response that did not necessarily persuade his accusers that he was innocent of blasphemy.

George Fox said of the Inward Light that it reveals to everyone his or her sinfulness, but that the very Light that shows us our sin is also the Light that shows us the way out of sin. The very awareness that shows us our failures also shows us how to succeed. By following the guidance out of sin or failure, said Fox, anyone can participate in “a certain kind of perfection.” In other words, the Inward Light has the capacity to free all human beings from original sin. Christ can be said to be the savior and redeemer of all human beings in the sense that Christ is but another name for this Inward Light. Salvation through Christ has nothing to do with Jesus dying on the cross as an atonement for the sins of Adam, as is taught in conventional Christianity. Rather, the death on the cross dramatically shows the death of what Paul called the flesh (which corresponds to what we now call the ego) that is necessary if one is to gain access to the heeling Inward Light.

As I reflected on the writings of George Fox, I could not help being struck by how similar all his talk of the Inward Light was to Socrates's talk of his daimon. The inner guide that is within all human beings (and I would want to insist further in all sentient beings) is not exactly the same as conscience, although conscience is part of it, nor is it exactly the same as instinct, although instinct is also part of it. The Inward Light (which is also, I would contend, the daimon) guides us in all things, not just in matters of morality. The better one learns to heed this inward light, the less likely one is to fall into counter-productive and destructive patterns of behavior. The people whom we call sages, saints and prophets are those who are good at heeding their inward light most of the time.

While Fox was inclined to identify his daimon with the Word that was God and Christ, my own conditioning is not as influenced by Christian terminology as was Fox's. I am more habituated to thinking of this Inward Light as what East Asian Buddhists eventually called Buddha-nature (fó xìng). (The naughty punster in me likes to think of fóxìng as Foxing, that is, being like George Fox. But I digress.) The older and more soft-headed I become, the less important difference I can detect between the inner Buddha, the inner Christ, and the daimon. All of them, I think, are different terms for living up to our highest potentials.

It was noted above that what Saint Paul called flesh (sarx) people in our times are more inclined to call something like ego or persona. The claim was also made that our ego or persona—our sense of who we are both as individuals and as social beings—blocks the Inward Light. To the extent that I identify myself as Richard Hayes, American, Quaker, Buddhist, philosophy professor, male and so forth, I put up an obstacle to the best of myself that could provide valuable guidance through life. This is because one's sense of identity is constructed largely of a series of strategies (or what psychologists often call “defense mechanisms”) for dealing with pain and fear. These mechanisms are like walls. Walls keep us safe, and in so doing they block light. These walls also have the effect of making us feel that the very light they are blocking is one of the enemies against which they are offering protection. There is a sense in which that is true, for one of the things the Inward Light does is to challenge the validity of our sense of identity. This is why early Quakers often said that the Light is horrifying before it is healing. This is why many Buddhists acknowledge that it takes a lifetime to learn how to manifest one's Buddha-nature consistently. The walls of the ego seem to have a capacity to repair themselves almost as quickly as they are breached. That is why one must constantly work at breaching them.

There are numerous tools that human beings have developed for breaching the ego. One that I have come to value is called the enneagram of personality, a typology of nine basic personality types, each with two subtypes. There are many books available on the topic; the one I like best is Don Rios Riso and Russ Hudson's The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types. Riso and Hudson speak of what they call our true self (which corresponds pretty closely to Fox's Inward Light, Socrates's daimon or Zen Buddhism's Buddha-nature), and they see the eighteen personality subtypes as what we send to a task when our true self fails to show up. The basic personality types are nine basic ways of blocking the Inward Light, nine basic ways of sinning, nine basic ways of failing to reach our highest potential—please use the language that your conditioning finds most comfortable.

This is not the place to go into any of the details of how Riso and Hudson employ the enneagram. To find that, one should go to Riso and Hudson's website. While there are those who are dismissive of the enneagram as a tool, I have found over the years that it is one of many effective tools for becoming aware of the effects of my own persona and finding my way past it from time to time. When those moments of successfully breaching the walls of the ego take place (and before those self-repairing walls are reconstructed), the prophets, the sages and the philosophers of the world make more sense. And so do birds and cockroaches and even ordinary human beings.

There is just one further point to make about Inward Light/Buddha Nature/Inner Christ/daimon and that is without gaining access to it, no kind of critical thinking is possible. Critical thinking is impeded by a the reactionary force of the ego, which hastens to fortify itself against anything that is not already considered part of the self. The ego has no interest whatseover in learning anything. Even when part of one's sense of one's own identity is that one is curious and scholarly, what usually turns out to be the case is that one craves to “learn” in a slightly new form something that one already believes. This, of course, is not learning at all. The highly trained academic ego operates on the principle that if anything is important, I already know it, and if something comes along that I don't already know, then it is eitehr wrong or trivial. (If you don't believe this, write a PhD someday and defend it in the PhD club. You'll see that most of the questions are designed either to trivialize your work or dismiss it as false. If you don't have time to write a PhD, just join an e-mail discussion group on any topic and venture to say something. Wait a few minutes. You'll be shot down in flames either for saying something stupid or stating the obvious.) In contast to all the reactionary defenses put up by the ego, critical thinking is open and dispassionately awake to whatever is of value and alert to whatever is not. In short, critical thinking is the work of the daimon when it is not being blocked by the strong-armed bodyguards who stand at the door of the ego.