Friday, October 25, 2013

Purity of Soul

[Here are the basic talking points I used in a talk I gave yesterday in Kyoto, Japan.}

First, may I express my gratitude to Shinnyo-en and the Global Peace Initiative of Women for sponsoring this important gathering and for inviting me to Kyoto to participate in it.

Second, let me offer two warnings. Warning one: Judaism has no fixed or official theology. What we have are the experiences of Jews articulated through the limited medium of words which leads to a culture wildly divergent in its philosophies and beliefs. As we put it: “Two Jews. Three opinions.” What you will hear from me is simply my opinion.

Warning two: words are maps and never the territory they claim to represent. Whatever we say about the soul, Atman, or Buddha–nature is only a finger pointing to the moon and never the moon itself.  More importantly, from my understanding—personal as well as Jewish—there is no moon at all, only mooning, as I hope this brief talk will explain.

Each morning observant Jews recite this short affirmation: Elohai neshamah sheh natatabi t’hora he: “My God, soul manifesting as me is pure.” It is not a prayer, but a statement of fact. I am not thanking God for my soul, I am reminding myself of the nature of soul.

Notice, as the ancient rabbis did, that “God” is qualified by the word “my,” but “soul” is not qualified at all. Why is this? We speak of “my God” because God in and of itself cannot be spoken of or about. As Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao te Ching: The tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao.” Any god about whom we can speak is not God. In this prayer when we call out to “my God” we are to realize even in the moment of our calling that our idea of God is insufficient. In the Book of the Prophet Micah something similar happens when we are told to “walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In other words we should not cling to any theology, especially our own, but hold all such notions humbly, lightly, for no notion of God is God.

No such qualifier is attached to the word “soul,” however. Why? Because, having admitted the limitation of language, we are now challenged to step beyond language into the state of pure transparency, t’hora, a state beyond all words and concepts. When we know soul is t’hora, we know that soul—my very sense of “I”— is pure, without conditions, without limits, without boundaries, without anything that would in fact make it “me” or “my soul” at all. When I understand that soul is pure, my sense of separate and conditioned “I” dissolves for a moment, and there is a knowing (though not an “I” to know it) we call da’at d’vekut, a knowing of the nonduality of all in all.

A simple word–play found in kabbalistic or Jewish mystical teaching will, I hope, make this a bit more clear.

The Hebrew word for “I,” the first person singular, is ani—aleph, nun, yod or “a,” “n,” “I” in English. The Hebrew word for the formless and yet ever–forming God is Ain—nothingness, sunya— is comprised of the same three letters in different order: aleph, yod, nun or “a,” “i,” “n.” The fact that both words are comprised of the same three letters suggests to the Jewish mystic that “I,” “soul,” “self,” and “God” are different expressions of a singular dynamic, an endless dance of birthing and arising, and dying and dissolving that is the very nature of reality.
Focusing on the letter yod or “i” which stands for the Hebrew word yadah, attention, the Jewish mystics teach that when our attention is focused outwardly—when the yod/i is at the end of the word as it is in the word ani,—we have a sense of distinct self and soul. When our attention is focused inwardly—when the yod/i is in the middle of the word as it is in the word ain,—our separate self or soul is seen to be transparent, pure, t’hora, and thus empties into a greater reality we call YHVH.

As I understand it, the unity of Ain and Ani is a teaching similar to that of the Prajna Paramita Hrydaya Sutra (Heart Sutra): “form is emptying, emptying is forming.” Again I avoid the use of nouns in this translation to help free us from any notion of permanence, even a temporary one. God is, if you’ll pardon the paradox, permanent impermanence. God doesn’t change from one moment to the next, God is the changing moment this moment and the next. And, again, we call this process YHVH.

The soul, the self, is the extending of YHVH the way sunlight is the extending of the sun, and a wave is the extending of the ocean. I am not saying the soul is an extension of YHVH as if the soul were a thing, but that the soul is an extending of YHVH, an activity of YHVH, pure activity.

This word YHVH, sadly rendered as Lord, is a verb and not a noun. YHVH is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” YHVH is a dynamic process and not a static something. In the biblical book of Exodus we are told that YHVH is Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, not the static “I am that I am” of most translations, but the dynamic “I am becoming what I am becoming,” of the literal Hebrew. God is not a being, or even a supreme being, but the endless process of being/becoming itself. And because we are YHVH extending, we are this process as well. There is no fixed “Rami,” only YHVH “rami–ing.” And the realization of this is the promise offered by the chanting of Elohai neshamah sheh natatabi t’hora he.

My chanting does not make this so, it only awakens me to what is already so. D’vekut, the unity of ani and ani, of self and God, is not achieved or earned, it is a given. The wave cannot be other than the ocean. The awareness of what is we call da’at, knowing. My chanting of Elohai neshamah creates nothing new, it only opens my eyes to that which is always and already there.

Though the goal of Jewish contemplative practice is to become aware of this dance, to achieve da’at d’vekut the knowledge of what is already so, we can say nothing of the moment of knowing or awakening because at that moment that is no one to experience it, and only experiencing itself. At the moment of knowing there is no ani, there is no ain, there is only the ineffable happening we call YHVH.

While we cannot say about this experience, we can sense that something happened. Somehow we are less afraid, more loving, more just, more compassionate. In Hebrew we call this reshimu, the fragrance of something no longer present but something no less real.

Imagine purchasing a bottle of expensive perfume, removing the stopper, and allowing the oil to evaporate over time. Eventually the perfume is gone, but even so the fragrance remains. I suggest that while none of us can articulate the deepest truth beyond language, we are all smelling the same fragrance, the aroma of the dynamic dancing of YHVH that arises as ain and ani over and over and over again.


Hamish Alcorn said...

Thank you.

Have you ever compared the 2nd and 3rd Commandment...

Make no graven image...
Take not the name in vain

... with those first two lines of the Tao Te Ching...

The Tao that can be Tao-ed is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Or is that just me? Anyway, your analysis of YHVH certainly makes the idea look even more like 'Tao' than I already thought.


Erick Reynolds said...

Picking up on the strand by Hamish above; graven images, symbols, graphics, words are all physical manifestation of a thought or idea. In this physical world, it “appears” that a thought or idea only exists in the mind of the original brain until it is made manifest in physical form. However, there is no control on how an observer will “translate” the “meaning” of the manifestation into their brain.
Yet, if all we consider ourselves connected to, a reflection of, or at one with an omniscient God or a common consciousness, then the thought or idea already existed in every mind. Expressions or manifestations of ideas only create potential miss-reading and misunderstanding. I think this is how monasteries were invented. Better to keep our thoughts to ourselves? At least don't put into a book. How much easier would it be if the Bible and the Koran didn't exist? Then we could discuss ideas without someone claiming they got theirs on some written "authority".

Rabbi Rami said...

I think Hamish is right. The very "name" Y-H-V-H is a way of pointing toward the Tao that can't be named.

I would miss not having the Bible and Koran, though if they were never written I would know them so I wouldn't miss them. I like texts--I'm Jewish! But no text is an authority. Like the Buddha taught accept nothing on the authority of another, but check it out for yourself.

Mordechai Ben Nathan said...

Of course you fail to understand the meaning of the first line of the Tao Te Ching:

"Tao Ke Tao Fei CHang Tao Ming Ke Ming Fei CHang Ming"

Hamish Alcorn's translation is a fairly literal translation from the classical Chinese where "TAO" is both a noun and then a verb. Good Job Hamish!!

The nothing of not being able to know anything about God was not the point Lao Tzu was making. Thomas Aquinas could say and know much about God as Duns Scotus and hundreds of other.

Chuang Tzu would also agree that much could be known. The school of the logicians brought logical analysis to an absurd level, hence Kung Sun Long's famous dictim "Bai Ma Fei Ma" (A white horse is not a horse).

Pure theoretical Taoism understood the limitations of the rational mind. They believed that the infinite/tao/way could be intuited.

Western bozos in reading the Tao Te Ching, especially having no knowledge of the Chinese language and reading translations that can never do justice to the wispy inexactitude and suggestiveness of the Chinese language.