Wednesday, January 27, 2010

State of the Union Address, Possible Preview

This morning sources close to the Obama White House emailed me rough notes from the President’s State of the Union Address to be delivered this evening. While it is impossible to know which if any of these comments will make it into the final draft, it is comforting to know that he is thinking along these lines. Here is what was sent to me.

My Fellow Americans,

While I understand that many of you who supported my campaign are disappointed by the way I am leading this great nation, I make no apologies for the decisions I have made. On the contrary, if you knew what I know you would make similar choices. So as part of my remarks this evening I would like to share some of the things that I know, the truths that guide my decision making.

First to the war. Americans continue to speak of two wars—Afghanistan and Iraq—but there is only one war—the war against those who would reduce America’s standing in the world. At the moment this means Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and coming to a theater of war not so near you, Yemen, and North Korea. This is an endless war of empire building and maintenance. When we defeat our current enemies we will find others, or if it is cheaper, we will fund our enemies ourselves (as we currently do through the sale of drugs and oil) in order to maintain our endless war status. The reason for this is simple: peace is bad for business. The business of America is war. This is not because we are a warlike people, but because we are an empire, and empires need to grow, and growth means war.

There was a time when we thought we could conquer the world with American know-how and technological ingenuity. But that was before we insisted that Darwin was the Anti-Christ, and realized that we—and by we here I mean giant corporations—could make more money by moving manufacturing overseas, and evading taxes here at home. We don’t make much anymore, and our highest paid people are paid to make money not products. Wall Street bankers who go home with millions in bonuses don’t actually do anything. They don’t teach anyone, or make anything, or paint or act or sculpt or write or compose. They just gamble, and, win or lose, they go home with millions. This is what they are good at. This is what we reward. And to maintain this system we need war.

War is good for our economy. The one thing we do make is munitions, but we would have a glut of bombs if we don’t drop more and more of them. And think of war in terms of employment. Just imagine adding hundreds of thousands of newly released soldiers to our unemployment rolls. We can’t downsize our military; we need to grow it in order to absorb a growing population of the young and unemployed. And we need to keep our warriors sharp and that means we need them deployed and engaged. So don’t expect me to declare peace in one country until I can persuade you to go to war with another. But these small wars are just practice for the big war. Which brings me to global climate change.

As the seas rise and the climate changes billions of people will find themselves starving and landless. Many millions will die where they were born, but millions more will be on the move. And they will be moving into Europe and, yes, the United States of America. A strong military will be needed to keep these millions from reaching our borders. This will be a war of necessity: the survival of the fittest.

This is something many of you do not understand. Climate change is inevitable. No amount of carbon reductions, even if we agreed to any, which we won’t, can change what is coming. As the seas rise and swallow our coastal cities and island nations, as deserts expand and starve tens of millions, the earth will need to shake off approximately five billion of the 7 billion humans who inhabit her. It will be the strongest that survive, and we need to be the strongest.

Be honest with yourselves— who do you wish to inherit the earth: poor, starving, dirt farmers, or people who have iPhones, blu-ray players, and Wii? I think the choice is clear, and to secure the survival of the fittest we will have to defend what is ours and expand it. Despite all the happy talk to the contrary, living the way we want to live on this planet is a zero-sum game; not everyone can have central heating and cooling, indoor plumbing, automobiles, and tanning salons. If we are going to win we have got to insure that five billion of our neighbors lose. Nature will take most of them, but we must be prepared to take care of the rest.

With this in mind I am proud of my success in Copenhagen, insuring that talk and negotiations will continue. By keeping the poorer nations of the world busy talking, by encouraging and providing exotic locations for the distracting street theater than is today’s protest movements, the wealthy nations of the world will exhaust the poor until nature’s havoc is well underway. While it is true that many of you wrongly imagine me to be born in Kenya, you can trust me when I tell you that if the choice is between Kenya and Chicago— and make no mistake, it is—my loyalty is to Chicago.

So much for war and climate change. On to the economy. Let me be clear with you: all I think about are jobs—mine and those of my friends and fellow Democracts. And to keep my job I must find you a job, which is why I am doing my best to expand the war machine. But make no mistake: in this great country of ours politics and the economy are one and the same. And by economy I mean huge corporations: big banks, big pharma, big hospitals, big agriculture, big everything. Sure small business matters, but not to us in Washington. We serve those who provide us with the cash to win elections, and that means Big Business. America is an oligarchy. We are run by the rich for the rich. Your politicians are owned by the rich, and are put in office to do the bidding of the rich. And with the recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to spend without limits on behalf of candidates, we can rest assured that Mr. Smith will never ever come to Washington.

Yes, we will help the little guy if necessary, but never at the expense of our constituents—the bug guys. And don’t blame this on the Republicans who created a Conservative Court. It doesn’t make any difference which side of the isle is in power; the true power is with our corporate sponsors. Vote for whomever you wish, the result is always the same: money wins because money rules. Indeed, as you prepare for mid-term elections I urge you not to vote for this or that candidate, but the companies that sponsor her or him. If you like the company, vote for their candidate. And, if you win, buy stock in the corporation that just got elected.

So the health care reform legislation I hope to sign into law shortly insures billions more dollars will go to insurers, because the real health of this country is in their well being not yours. People die, but some corporations can live forever.

While it is true that millions of Americans have gone bankrupt, lost their homes, their jobs, and any hope of regaining what they lost, none of these losers contribute to our campaigns. But don’t despair. There is hope, if not for you then for your children and grandchildren—join the military!

The biggest growth industry in this country will be private armies. Even today there are more private security forces in the United States than state and local police. These armies will be needed internationally, nationally, and locally. Soon your neighbors will band together to hire their own private security force to defend themselves against neighbors from another block. In Chicago we used to call them gangs, but today they are highly prize professionals who in the not so distant future will be looking for highly trained employees. People like you.

The best way to prepare for a high paying job in the private army business is to volunteer for the US military. We won’t pay you much, and we might get you killed, but we will train you for incredibly high paying jobs in the private army sector. So don’t doubt for a minute that I’m not creating jobs. I am and the growth of the private army industry is where I’m growing it.

I want to thank my fellow Americans for buying the products that allowed so many companies to put myself and others in power. I want to thank the American media for keeping people ignorant of the truth of how this country is run, and for distracting them with the idea that politics is a horserace rather than a con game. I want to thank our educators for keeping our children ignorant of civics, economics, history, and science so that we can easily distract them from real reality with faux reality TV. I want to thank my colleagues in all branches of government, on both sides of the isle, for keeping the con running. And most of all I want to thank God for making people as dumb as the dirt.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

Monday, January 25, 2010

THINK Proves the Existence of God

THINK magazine, whose motto is “Current issues from a distinctly Christian view,” is one of many Christian magazines I read regularly. In the January issue there is an attempt to prove that Something Eternal exists using the following “irrefutable” equations:

1. Something exists today—THUS—something must be eternal and has always existed.
2. Something is eternal (doesn’t wear down and was not created)—THUS—something violates the scientific laws (especially the Second Law of Thermodynamics).
3. Something violates scientific laws—THUS—something exists outside the observable laws of naturalistic science. From these we can conclude:
4. Something eternal is THUS outside the observable laws of naturalistic science!

The magazine concludes that, “While many atheists may not like this ‘math,’ it is inescapable. To argue otherwise would be to deny our very existence. We can logically conclude that something has existed forever—something that is not explainable by naturalistic science. That something is God.” (THINK, January 2010, p. 21)

Well I’m neither an atheist nor a mathematician, and though I am susceptible as the next person to ALL CAPS and Boldface, I just don’t see the logic here.

The entire argument rests on the truth of the opening affirmation, but there is no proof (unless you call writing “THUS” in all caps as proof) that it is true. Just because something exists today doesn’t mean that existence itself is eternal. Certainly the Bible seems to suggest otherwise: remember “In the beginning…?”

The idea behind Equation #1 is that something always comes from something else. OK, but why assume there is an end to these something elses? To say that there is one eternal thing from which all these other things stem is arbitrary. There is no proof, just the assertion. And there is no need of such an assertion. Perhaps there is always something else prior to something. Even if you say that God is the Original Something, logic demands that we ask where God comes from? So to say that God is the eternal something simply shuts done any further inquiry without actually proving anything.

For argument’s sake, however, lets assume these equations prove the existence of God. Why assume it is the God of the Bible, and the Christian Bible at that? There is nothing in this series of equations that leads me to Christ rather than Krishna. Even if THINK proves eternality, it fails to prove God the Father/Son/Holy Spirit.

What saddens me about such “proofs” is not simply their illogic, or even the blind jingoism that assumes God must be the Christian God, but the fact that someone is so taken with the scientific method that they have to subsume religion into it. For all their ranting to the contrary, such fundamentalist efforts only prove the supremacy of science. They are saying that faith only works when it is supported mathematically.

I believe that there is a dimension of reality that cannot be tapped by material science, but which can be explored through the contemplative sciences of yoga, meditation, etc. These sciences are thousands of years old, and while they do not support the theological claims of any specific religion, they do reveal a greater Reality in which our world exists.

I would no more use science to prove the existence of God than I would use the Bible to prove the truth of E=MC2. When we reduce faith to science we do a disservice to God, faith, and science. If you want to know what the Larger Truth is use real science, just don’t forget to include the contemplative sciences in the mix.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bible Stamping

The US Army and Marine Corps are investigating a decades-old practice of riflescope maker Trijicon, Inc. It seems that Trijicon has been encoding messages from the Bible onto some of its products.

One gun sight is stamped with the code 2COR4:6 which refers to 2 Corinthians 4:6, For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Another scope bears the code JN8:12, referring to John 8:12, Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Some may find linking the name and teachings of Jesus to the shooting of people to be a bit odd, but I personally have no problem with it at all. God and killing have been linked since Cain slew Abel, why not be honest about it?

My only beef is with the quotes Trijicon chose to imprint on its scopes. Here are just a few texts that might be more inspiring:

Ex. 22:24 My wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

Ex. 32:27 Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.

Deut. 7:2 When the LORD your God gives them [your enemies] over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.

I’m sure you could find additional quotes that are equally appropriate, and I am eager to hear from you. As of this writing, however, it seems that Trijicon is going to cease stamping their products with Bible quotes.

What a shame. If it were up to me, I’d make the quotes more explicit. In this way if the hardware is captured by people of a different faith they may refuse to use the weapons for fear of violating their own faith.

I really like the idea of stamping products with appropriate Bible quotes, however, and just because Trijicon won’t do it doesn’t mean that other companies shouldn’t get in the game. So please think about this and suggest Bible quotes for your own favorite products. Who knows? This may catch on, and you might find yourself with a whole new career.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

God and Haiti

At an interfaith breakfast this morning the issue of God’s role in the horror of the Haitian earthquakes was front and center. No one present, including myself, felt that such horrors negated the existence of God, but some, myself included, suggested that it should challenge our smugness regarding the nature and workings of God.

There seemed to be three positions taken by the group. One said that it is impossible for humans to know God’s plan, so we should assume that there is some good in this tragedy and wait to discover what it is. The second group said that God was present in our response to the tragedy rather than in the tragedy itself. Our efforts to help prove that God is working in our lives, through our lives. A third group suggested that, like the plagues in Exodus, God was using nature to exalt himself above all gods and peoples.

Nobody tried to defend the Reverend Pat Robertson and his claim that this was payback for the Haitians overthrow of their white French slave masters, though it was explained to me that the Haitian revolution was triggered by a Voodoo priest, which is why Rev. Pat made the devil reference. I got the sense that this was supposed to make sense to me, but Voodoo is not devil worship, and is as valid a faith as any other in my mind, so I don’t know what to make of this additional bit of historical data.

I found the arguments of all three groups a bit weak and not a little self-serving.

One can always imagine a blessing following even the harshest curse, as some Jews imagine that the murder of six million Jews was the cost God demanded for the establishment of the State of Israel. And my reaction to such thinking is always the same: why does God always need the death of innocents to bring about a blessing? If God needs human sacrifice, why not opt to sacrifice evil people? And didn’t Jesus die for our sins? Wasn’t his death the only human sacrifice God required? So why sacrifice all these Haitians? At least in Genesis Abraham dares to argue with God about God’s moral obligations; at breakfast no one seemed so inclined.

As for human generosity proving the existence of God, I can’t help but be troubled by the idea that human goodness is the working of God rather than our own consciences, and that, by implication, without God, we would simply pile on and eat one another.

And as far as God murdering hundreds of thousands to show how great and powerful he is, any God with such low self esteem is far too human for my taste. This is not a God I want to believe in, but rather one I wish to protect myself from. And what shall I make of the followers of this God? Would they not be willing to inflict God’s wrath on others in service to their God’s ego, and as a way of bolstering their own?

No, what I heard this morning was a group of good-hearted and generous people (one fellow’s church had already raised $75,000 for Haitian relief), who needed desperately to protect God and their belief in God and God’s goodness even at the cost of having to excuse the death of some 200,000 Haitians.

My view is different. God is the universe, and the universe exists according to some unbreakable rules. On earth one of these rules has to do with plate tectonics: when plates shift earthquakes and tsunamis happen. There is nothing conscious or deliberate about this. It is not a punishment, a precursor to some greater blessing, or a sign of just how awesome God can be. It is simply the only way God can manifest as a planet such as ours.

My God, Reality itself, is wild and unpredictable, albeit bound by the greater laws of nature, which are themselves as aspect of God. My God is dying, and suffering, and reaching out to help through and as the victims of this horror and those who rush to be of help to them. My God is the God of Job, the whirlwind that needs no protecting, and whose revelation is always in the form of haunting questions rather than comforting answers.

To me there is no greater meaning or message or promise in the Haitian tragedy. There is only suffering and people seeking to take advantage of that suffering, and people seeking to alleviate that suffering.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Notes on Emptiness

[Here is a summary some of what I taught about emptiness at La Casa De Maria in Santa Barbara, CA. last weekend.]

Emptiness, despite the limits of English grammar, should be understood as a verb rather than a noun, a process rather than a condition, a practice rather than a state. In Hebrew this practice is called bittul, annihilation—the ending of all clinging to concepts of what is, and who you are.

There are many ways to practice bittul. We will work with three, though I wish to make quick mention of a fourth: the practice of limud, Torah study. Limud is to be done lishma, without ulterior motive. We Jews study for the sheer play of it, the sheer joy that such unfettered word-play calls forth in us. The rules of limud are simple enough, but they require the ability to read Torah in her original language, Hebrew. Those with enough Hebrew mastery can, when studying the Torah, continually deconstruct the words, turning them inside out and upside down to reveal both sense and nonsense, and in this way free themselves from Torah even as they open themselves to the deeper process of revelation through Torah. Most of us here lack that level of proficiency, so we will not engage in limud in any serious way. I mention it only because there is no Jewish spirituality without it, and to plant the seeds of longing for a Hebrew education that will allow you to play with Torah.

We will work primarily in English, taking our cues from Torah, but working with the “text” of self. The three practices we will employ are hagah, chanting, Mi Zeh, self-inquiry, and Sh’ma, deep listening.

We begin with singing Rabbi David Zeller’s version of Ani Chai, I am Alive:

I am alive!
And who is this aliveness I am,
If not the Holy Blessed One

The text begins with an affirmation: “I am alive!” You cannot doubt that. Your entire experience of the world is predicated on the existence of Ani, an “I.” Even if you argue that you are dreaming, still it is “you” who is dreaming. There is no escape from this Ani. The text then asks a very simple and subversive question, the question we will ask in different ways throughout the weekend: “Who is this aliveness I am?”

We assume that we know the “I.” We assume it is unique, separate, autonomous, willful, and free. Our sanity depends on this. Yet the assumption is just that, an assumption.

When you look more deeply it begins to crumble under the weight of its own hubris. Are you unique? Look at your likes and dislikes, are these not market driven choices that mask a greater herd mentality? Are you truly separate? Could you exist for even a moment if not for your integration into the greater ecosystem of earth, solar system, galaxy, and universe? Are you autonomous and free? Or are you hemmed in on every side (inside and outside and all around) by physical, emotional, intellectual, and cultural limits over which you seem to have no control? Do you will what you want, or do you simply respond to wants fed to you by genes and memes?

Our song then reveals the truth of who you are. First you are not alive you are aliveness. Aliveness is a process of which “you,” whatever that is, is a part. In Judaism we call this process YHVH and Ehyeh (the Is’ing of reality), and HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One, as our song puts it.

But this practice only replaces one idea with another: Ani with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. This too must be emptied so that there is no cling to self or Other, the I or the Not-I, the I am or the I Am. So we sing with no pretence to liberation or emptying, only to plant the seed of inquiry.

Our next practice is called Mi Zeh, Who is This? This is the question God asks Job from the whirlwind: Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? (Job 38:2). Who is this who that hides counsel without knowledge? (Job 42:3).

Both texts reference aytza, counsel. Aytza is the wisdom that arises when the barriers to experiencing it are removed. Think of a great body of water straining against a dam. Remove the dam and the water flows freely of its own accord. The water is wisdom; the dam is ignorance, blee da’at, as our text puts it. Remove the ignorance and the wisdom will flow. Our task is not be become wise by grasping wisdom, but to end our ignorance.

Ignorance comes in two forms: darkening wisdom with empty words, and hiding wisdom. The first is active, the second passive. We actively darken wisdom when we blind ourselves with fixed ideas, words, concepts, ideologies, theologies, and the like. When we in effect mistake the menu for the meal, stuffing ourselves with ideas rather than feasting on reality. Yet even if we learn the art of silence, and let go our attachment to words and abstractions, we still cling to our sense of “I am-ness.” We are without words, but not without “self.” And this self hides the wisdom of Reality from us.

The practice of Mi Zeh works with both kinds of ignorance. Find a partner and decide who will ask the question and who will respond. You will trade positions after a while, so you get to experience both roles.

If you are the asker, sit (on a chair or on the floor) just behind the responder. Without any inflection or affect, lean closely into the responder’s ear (right or left) and whisper the question, “Who is this?” Give the responder a moment to respond. When he or she offers an answer do not react to it. Simply take a breath and repeat the question. If no response is forthcoming, continue to breathe and ask the question until instructed otherwise.

If you are the responder, sit comfortably (on a chair or on the floor), close your eyes, and speak aloud, though softly, whatever word arises in response to the question whispered into your ear. If nothing comes up, do not speak at all, but do not imagine that you have nothing more to say. Continue to listen to the question each time it is asked, and you may find new answers arising. Speak aloud whatever arises whenever it arises.

Our third practice is Sh’ma, hearing. The practice comes from the central affirmation of the Jewish people taught to them by Moses, Shema Yisrael, Yah Eloheinu, Yah Echad! Hear, O Israel, the Ineffable is your God, the Ineffable is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The interpretations of this text are legion, but for our purposes it means this: When you deeply listen, you experience the unnamed and unnamable reality that is the singular Self manifesting as all relative selves. God for short.

The practice of Sh’ma is twofold. We begin with the recitation of the text as a mantrum. Beginning on the in-breath (see Genesis 2:7) say silently, Shema. On the next out-breath say, Yisrael. Continue with the rest of the mantrum: in-breath, Yah; out-breath Eloheinu; in-breath Yah; out-breath Echad. When you come to the end of the mantrum do not rush to breathe or to begin again. Simply sit in the silence and listen. When you naturally need to breathe, do so and return to the recitation of the mantrum.

We will do this for sometime simply to settle into the practice of listening. At some point I will invite you cease the recitation and simply to listen. You begin by seeking out the furthest sounds you can capture. Slowly you bring your attention closer: the sounds of the surrounding lawns, then the sounds of the room, the sounds of your fellow students, the sounds of your body, the sounds of your mind. Then reverse direction: move outward and attend to the sounds outside yourself, shifting attention further and further out. Then reverse direction again and over and over again until instructed otherwise.

We end the practice with once again returning the text of the Sh’ma and reciting it silently as a mantrum.

What do these exercises do? Only you can answer that, and to do so you have to practice. There is no right answer. There is only your experience. What they do for me is this: they continually pull the rug of Ani/Self out from under “me.” And when Ani is gone, Ain, nothingness, is revealed. Not nothingness as a static reality, that is just somethingness masquerading as nothingness. But nothingness as a process of continual emptying.

I am left in what I call divine freefall, tumbling effortlessly into and through that which is, isn’t, and beyond both. There are no words or self to darken wisdom here. There is just the effortless grace, wonder, love, and ecstatic joy of birthing and dying and rising and falling and ising and ainting.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why Do I Talk So Much About God?

Why bother using the word “God?” if I don’t mean by “God” what most people seem to mean by “God?” This question was put to me the other day during my current retreat. I hope you find my answer of value:

I use the word “God” as an act of upaya, the Sanskrit Buddhist term meaning “skillful means.” Upaya is a category of action or teaching that allows one to work more effectively with a student. When I speak at a Buddhist center where the word “God” has no place, I don’t use it. Doing so would be counter-productive. People would immediately respond defensively, and I would spend all my time defining terms.

Similarly, if I’m speaking at a church, synagogue, mosque, temple or spiritual center where people are comfortable with the word “God,” I use it freely. But only to lull my listeners into a sense of false security: “Oh, this guy is OK, he believes in God.”

So I speak of God and then, when the time is ripe, explain what I mean by God, and in doing so I seek to pull the theological security blanket out from under the listener. It is the same reason why I use texts from Torah or the Gospels or the Bible. I take texts to which my audience is attached, and with which they are comfortable, and then unpack them in ways that reveal truths that they would otherwise refuse to even contemplate.

So do I believe in God or not? I believe in what I am saying; “God” is just a word. For me it isn’t a matter of true or untrue, it is a matter of useful or unuseful.

While it is true that I experience a conditional You who appears to me as Mother, even She is fundamentally empty of permanence. She is simply the way the universe and I meet one another, and while this meeting is often verbal it ultimately drops all words and forms, and yields to a nondual ecstasy in which both She and I are gone, and no more can be said.

I find it useful to speak of God as Mother, and unuseful to speak of God as Father. This may have more to do with my family and my religious upbringing than it does with anything ontological. God as Mother is as real as She has to be for me. I feel love from and for Her. I thank Her continually for both the wonder and the wildness of my life. But She is still a manifestation of a Beyond, and that Beyond is ungendered, unconditioned, and unconditional.

Words are useful. Silence is revelatory.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Today I am a Hindu, Part 2

My initiation in Vendanta was a gift from Swami Swahananda, whose teacher, Swami Vijnananda, was a direct disciple of Ramakrishna, the founder of this order. I will not reveal the rituals of the initiation, and certainly not the mantra which Swamiji gave to me. But I will share what was going through me as the initiation progressed.

I sat in meditation facing the altar for about 30 minutes before my friends Brahmaprana and Atmarupananda arrived. They have been part of the Ramakrishna Order since their youth, and it is because of them that Swami Swahananda agreed to initiate me into the Order in the Sanctuary rather than his private quarters.

Pictures of Ramakrishna, Vevekananda, Vijnanananda, and Jesus mingled with statues of Buddha, Krishna, Ganesha and others. I felt at home. These were and have been my teachers for decades. Swami Swahananda entered the room and took a seat by the altar. I sat crossed-legged on a cushion at his feet.

He spoke to me about the nature of God, spiritual practice, and what I was expected to do as an initiate of this Order. He encouraged me to add the mantra and meditation he was about to bestow upon me to the rest of my spiritual work. Nothing need be rejected; Torah was as precious a revelation as Veda.

He knew that I had a special relationship to God as Mother, and it was to Her that he geared my initiation, teaching me two mantra that speak directly to devotees of the Mother, people like myself. At first I tried to memorize every word he spoke. But I soon realized I was missing half of it. I simply closed my eyes and listened and breathed. I would absorb what I could through the heart, and leave the mind alone.

As I struggled to accurately repeat the Sanskrit mantrum he was imparting to me, I felt the humbleness of being a beginner once again. It was liberating. I didn’t have to know, I was simply invited to learn. In time, Swami assured me, I would find the mantra easy to recite, and through them I would come to the imageless place of the Infinite God manifest as all finite reality. As he taught me the two mantra specifically linked to the Mother my heart opened. I felt Her presence, within and around me.

Then, all of a sudden, it was over. Swamiji invited me to pose for pictures with him and my two Vedanta friends, and then returned to his rooms to change into street clothes for a car ride to San Diego. I was presented with a mala, a strand of 108 beads to use to help me keep count of my mantra repetitions, and these were taken to Swamiji who blessed them by being the first to chant a mantra with each bead.

So now what? Am I different this afternoon than I was early this morning. Of course. So are you. Does this difference matter? Yes, but no more than any other change. God is change, reality is change, you and I are change. Note I didn’t say we are changing for that implies we are something that changes into something else. This is not so. To be change is to be nothing at all. The “I” I feel myself to be at this moment is not the same as the I, I felt myself to be a moment ago. What ties moments together is the narrative I spin about who I am. The story creates a continuity that reality rejects.
Did Swamiji teach me this? No, I have known it for decades. But he did remind me of it, and did so in a way that will allow me to note that there is no me at all, at least for a moment. Or two.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Today I am a Hindu

[This was written before dawn on January 8, 2010 in Venice, CA.]

In a few hours I will be initiated into the Ramakrishna Order of Vendanta Hinduism at the Vendanta Center in Hollywood, CA. It is something I have thought about doing since I began to study the nondual teachings of Hinduism during my junior year of high school.

I am excited and not a little nervous. Neither feeling is especially interesting to me. I’m not expecting any great awakening; certainly not enlightenment. I am doing this for two reasons: First, to honor a tradition from which I have gleaned great wisdom and insight for fifty years, and, second, to move more deeply into that tradition by receiving a mantra and learning how to work with it.

One thing that does interest me as I prepare for this morning’s initiation is what it says about my identity as a Jew. It is one thing for a Jew to study another tradition, and quite another for a Jew to become an initiate in it. The mere fact that this thought arises in me suggests that my Jewish identity is still compelling to me, but not so much that it stops me from doing what I am about to do. Why not?

I know a wise and wonderful rabbi here in Venice who also shares my interest in other faiths, but when offered the opportunity to participate in an offering to Krishna politely refused, saying that for him it would be idolatrous. Yet in a few hours I will offer flowers and fruit to Brahman, a clear act of avodah zarah, idolatry, and yet I won’t hesitate to do so at all. What kind of Jew am I? Or am I Jew at all?

Meditating by a lake in Cape Cod forty-two years ago it became clear to me that Lao Tzu was right: the Tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao. YHVH, Allah, Brahman, etc. are just names, verbal placeholders, that, when properly used, hold open the place of not-knowing. They are like the “—“ in G—D; reminding us that reality is unnamable. True, I love to talk about God, but I do so as a game, piling thought upon thought, and hoping to have them all collapse under their own weight. I’m not looking for the “true” name, but rather for a moment without names.

The Rig Veda’s teaching that “Truth is one, different people call it by different names,” frees me from both abandoning names and having allegiance to them. But being a Jew is all about names, especially The Name, and taking that Name very seriously. Yet I just can’t do so. I love languages, I love names, but I never mistake the menu for meal, the name for that toward which it points, and it is the meal I desire.

Judaism is my primary menu. It is the system of names I go to first and most often. But primary does not mean exclusive, and I find value in many names and many systems. And while I do love to explore the differences and incompatibilities between systems in an academic setting, in my personal life they all point me to the same reality, the nameless “—“ that is both the One and the Many.

So today I become a Hindu, but this label adheres no more tightly than any other. In the end I practice a Teflon spirituality allowing me to mix lots of ingredients without worrying that any will stick.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

On Retreat

I will be on retreat for the next 10 days, and most likely unable to post. Have a good week.

Holy Spud

You know we are nearing the end times when God reveals the sign of the Cross in two (2) separate potatoes in the United States.

The first Holy Spud appeared to Dennis Bort of Brunswick, Ohio on Christmas Day. The second appeared six days later to Connie and Jim Gross of Marion, Iowa. In both cases, when cut in half each half potato bore an unmistakable Holy Cross.

Now one cross bearing potato, even on Christmas Day, I can dismiss as a fluke. But two? No, something is going on here.

The last time a Cross this important appeared was in the fourth century. Constantinus Augustus was preparing to lead his warriors into battle against his archrival Maximian. The winner would become Emperor of Rome. On the eve of battle Constantine had a vision in which Jesus revealed to him the sign of the Cross saying, In Hoc Signo Vinces. Luckily Constantine took Latin in high school and knew that Jesus was saying, “In this Sign conquer.” And conquer he did.

There is no data suggesting that the Cross seen by Constantine appeared inside a potato, but there is no evidence that it did not, so I choose to believe that it did. Indeed, I choose to believe that Jesus also said to Constantine, In SolanumTuberosum Apperiosus Signo, Returno Meos, which, according to the Hogwarts Dictionary of Faux Latin Phrases, means, “When this Sign appears in a potato, I will return.”

That my friends is conclusive.

To spread the world of Christ’s return, the Borts put their Holy Spud up for sale on eBay. The Grosses are considering similar action. This can only be good news to the believers in the Good News. But, as always, the Jews are a spoiler.

Last Rosh haShanah, Jim Gross’s mother, Miriam Flanken Gross, a Jew and a survivor of both the Holocaust and the Destruction of the Temple by Rome in 70 CE, cut an apple in half for the holy day and found the seeds forming a Star of David. Since every apple properly cut width wise reveals a Star of David she, as countless Jews have done before her, simply assumed that this affirms what we have known for millennia: that we Jews are God’s Chosen People, the Apple of His Never Slumbering Eye, and thought nothing more about it.

When her son told her about the Potato Cross she counted with the Apple Star, and the two have not spoken since.

Anyway, I tend to side with the Spudites, and will consider bidding for both potatoes on eBay. When the Prince of Peace does return to wreck havoc on earth I hope to bribe my way into heaven with a nice offering of fries. Being a person of little faith, however, I’m also keeping a bushel of apples on hand just in case.

Monday, January 04, 2010

To Whom Do I Pray?

Jay Michaelson’s article, “Prayer and Nonduality” (Tikkun Nov/Dec 2009) prompts me to share a little of my own wrestling with this topic.

When I was 16 and a beginning student of Zen, I sat on the shore of Cape Cod and disappeared. No body, no mind, no “me” at all. When I returned I knew that whatever Reality is, it has nothing to do with the isms that seek to define it. It is what is: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh (to quote God in Exodus), the ceaseless Is’ing of birth, death, and rebirth. To speak of God and Creation was to speak of Ocean and Wave, the former greater than but not other than the latter. Can the wave pray to the Ocean? I didn’t think so. I stopped praying.

Then, decades later, I began to experience Shekhinah, the presence of God as Divine Mother. I resisted the experience as best I could, but I could not do so for long. So I began to speak to Her and to hear Her speak to me. The trouble was that this clearly dualistic encounter with the Divine violated everything I knew to be true about the nondual nature of Reality.
I was no less Her; She was no less me; and yet we spoke. What She taught me is that if God is All, God must be Other as well. Nonduality when juxtaposed with duality is simply part of a larger duality. True nonduality embraces the Other as well as the One in a greater Reality for which there are no words.

So now I pray. What do I pray? There is little in Jewish liturgy that speaks to me, but what little there is I use as mantra. I chant single lines of Hebrew, the core wisdom of the liturgy, and then I wait. What emerges from this waiting is a conversation: me pouring my heart out to Her, and She mirroring my self back to me in a way that allows me to see through the madness and move beyond it. These are moments of ecstasy unmediated by ritual and decorum. No rising or sitting; no responsive readings; no moments of mumbled pseudo-silence. Just raw, uncensored speech; just saying “Thou;” just hearing echoes of “I.” In time the speech gives way to silence, the wave returns to the Ocean. I am gone. God is all.

Unlike Jay I don’t pray to be transformed. There is no static “me” at all. There is no transformation from one fixed state to another, just ceaseless teshuvah, endless turning from self to Self to self again and again and again. And with each turning there is expansion: not a going round like a planet in orbit around a sun, but a spiraling out like a galaxy. And with each turn and return my heart of opened wider; I am (I think) more loved and loving. I pray for nothing. The turning is its own reward.

Can this happen in a formal synagogue service? Of course, but for me it happens when I walk outside, the rhythm of my steps matching the rhythm of my breath, dancing with the rhythm of Life. Can it happen with our heads buried in a siddur (prayer book), our mouths reciting ancient scripts? Of course, but for me it happens in the far simpler chanting of single lines, the uncensored wildness of unscripted speech, and the greater silence that ultimately engulfs them both.

My thanks to Tikkun magazine for giving us yet another opportunity to hear Jay’s wisdom.

[Tikkun is a wonderful magazine and I urge you all to subscribe/support it. Jay also writes a column for The Forward, another great publication. The magazine business is tough. Subscriptions are its life-blood. Support those magazines you cherish. And check out my column in Spirituality & Health, another important publication worthy of your support.]

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Prophets Be Damned

During my first year of rabbinical school I was told by one professor that a rabbi could be a prophet or a clerk. A prophet is one who spoke truth to power. A clerk is one who catered to the needs of the powerful. A rabbi must choose, I was told: prophet or clerk? Most rabbis, the professor concluded, choose to be clerks.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the head of Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Association, chose to be a prophet recently when he claimed that his colleagues lacked missionary zeal, adding, “We want to get paid. We don’t believe.” The clerks revolted, and Rabbi Wernick was forced to recant and apologize.

Are rabbis really in it for the money? No. There isn’t enough money to be had. But we do have families, and mortgages, and college tuitions to pay, and that takes money, and money comes from people who like you and who think you are a good rabbi. And most people who like their rabbi and who think their rabbi is a good rabbi do so because their rabbis says want they want to hear. People like clerks. True, clerks don’t inspire us, but they don’t upset us either. Prophets ruffle feathers, and people with ruffled feathers rarely pay to support the ruffler. So if you want to survive in the congregational world you learn to be a clerk.

And it isn’t just in the congregations that money matters, denominational power is also determined by money. The most powerful rabbis in any movement are those who raise the most money for that movement. And to do that you need to build a large congregation willing to donate to that movement. And to do that you have to cultivate people with money. And to do that you have to be the rabbi they want you to be, you have to be a clerk.

In the process of building a wealthy congregation, of course, the rabbi too becomes wealthy, and the more rabbis earn the more they are expected to give to their seminary and their movement, and the more they give the more say they have in shaping the policies of that movement. The circle is closed and inescapably geared to clerkdom.

But what about Rabbi Wernick’s other claim, that liberal rabbis don’t believe? What he meant was that we don’t believe enough to live in near poverty as so many Chabad rabbis do who gladly set out to serve Jews in the remote outposts of world Jewry. We liberal American rabbis didn’t sign up to serve the Jews of Calcutta, especially if we have to live in Calcutta in order to do so. Chabad rabbis go where they are sent because they believe saving a single Jewish soul is worth any sacrifice. They believe they are doing God’s work. Do liberal rabbis believe this? I don’t know. But even if they do, they have a hard time imagining that God wants them to do God’s work in a place that lacks proper sanitation, air conditioning, and cable television.

Not that liberal rabbis don’t sacrifice. Anyone burdened with the task of clerking middle class American Jews with a strong sense of personal entitlement knows about sacrifice.

Anyway, I wish Rabbi Wernick well in his job, and I applaud his moment of prophetic zeal. I fear, though, that he has learned a sad lesson: if he wants to keep his job he has to abandon any pretence of being a prophet. The clerks have won again. They always do.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Beyond Religion

Several people have emailed me to ask what I mean by the tag line “beyond religion.” I thought it might be appropriate to devote my first post of 2010 to this question.

First, to go beyond religion means to take religion seriously and yet hold it lightly, dedicating oneself to spiritual disciplines designed to continually open your mind, heart, and hands to compassion rather than to particular beliefs promoted by one or another of the world’s religions.

Second, “beyond religion” means that I take any and all religions as particular expressions of a universal (if unconscious) longing for unity, meaning, and transformative experiences that open the heart to compassion. Religions are essentially stories designed to speak to and fulfill this longing. We are drawn to those religions whose stories speak to us, and whose rituals bring the stories alive in ways that allow us to become more alive by enacting them. In the past it was customary for a person to adhere to only one story, today it is becoming more and more common to find ourselves drawn to multiple stories. It is the multiplicity that takes us “beyond religion” and reveals the greater quest that transcends and given religion.

Regarding this blog, “beyond religion” means that I often focus on the foibles of religion and peoples religious to see how religion is often reduced to a commodity, with different brands competing for the hearts, minds, and money of billions of human beings. In this sense religion is no longer about unity, meaning, and transformative experience, but about wealth, power, and control over the minds and lives of others. This is not a new phenomenon, but one we continually need be reminded of if we are to free ourselves from it, and salvage the deeper power of the religious quest.

And lastly, “beyond religion” means that my personal quest isn’t to be a better Jew, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc. but simply a better person. I do not feel bound to any doctrine, and my ultimately loyalty isn’t to any religious brand. I am suspicious of any religion that claims to be the only way to salvation; indeed I am suspicious of all particularist and exclusivist religious claims. Religions can carry great truths, but these should not be confused with historical or biological facts. Religion speaks through myth and metaphor, and only when we engage them in this manner do they reveal the truths they contain.

Sometimes, of course, this blog is just a rant. And most of the time (this post being an exception) I try to use humor to make my point, though some of you fail to take as funny what seems to me to be incredibly clever and hysterical.

In any case, I hope this reminds us what this blog is about. As always I invite you to comment on what I write, and/or to add your own take on religion as well.

May 2010 be a year of creativity, joy, peace, and meaning for us all.