Here I am with Aaron Weiss, scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and doctoral candidate at CIIS, talking about the nature of consciousness and what to do about it. The first talk was filmed back in April; the second was filmed in September as a follow-up.
Check out this interesting post by my cousin, Seth Segall, over at the Existential Buddhist. The topics Seth discusses include whether consciousness is emergent from or intrinsic to the physical world, the place of values (human or otherwise) in the universe, and the variety of God concepts available to those willing to philosophize about such matters. Seth also compares the ideas of the 13th century Zen Buddhist monk Dogen, the 17th century Jewish philosopher Spinoza, and the 20th century mathematician and cosmologist A.N. Whitehead.
I could never believe in a supernatural, anthropomorphic God, an omniscient autocrat standing outside of creation, judging it, and miraculously intervening in accordance with our prayers and petitions—in other worlds, the kind of God that Whitehead describes as having the attributes of “a Caesar.” “God talk” doesn’t interest me or turn me on. As I’ve mentioned in another post, when I hear “God” mentioned in a Dharma talk, my mind wanders off. But how different — really — are Spinoza’s and Whitehead’s naturalistic, creative, immanent Gods from Dogen’s understanding of the dharmakaya? How different is Whitehead’s God who experiences the experiences of the world and nudges us towards love and beauty from Dogen’s compassionate Avalokitesvara who hears the cries of the world and awakens us to wisdom beyond wisdom? Even if one dispenses with Gods and Buddhas, if mentality, morality and aesthetics can be features of reality right down to the bone, why can’t reality also include some non-supernatural “spiritual” dimension as well? Some beneficial principle that encourages us and the world towards greater love and compassion, beauty and understanding, and our own best selves? I’m not convinced, like Whitehead and Spinoza, that God is either necessary or tenable, but I’m more open to consider it than I once was. That’s why I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist; it’s what keeps me from joining the secularist camp.
I appreciate Seth’s pragmatic (in the Jamesian sense) approach to these questions. I do not pretend to any metaphysical certainty about the existence of the Whiteheadian or any other God. From my perspective, we inhabit a cosmos that is always on the edge of chaos with nothing guaranteeing continued peace, goodness, or beauty. I do believe these ideals are realized in the ongoing genesis of this universe to a degree far greater than mere chance, but I cannot go so far as to claim they are metaphysical necessities. I think the process-relational God articulated by Whitehead allows us to recognize the realization of these ideals as somewhere in-between utterly contingent and totally necessary. They are potentials freely realized by the creatures of this cosmos because of their intrinsic desirability. Nothing is to stop any particular being in some particular circumstance from desiring otherwise. On the other hand, Whitehead makes it clear that we cannot speak of a “cosmic order” without already assuming the realization of an ideal of beauty. For Whitehead, all order is aesthetic order. In other words, no beauty, no cosmos. So the fact that there is a cosmos at all is already evidence enough that the scales are tipped toward harmony.
Check out the video from their exchange at Northwestern earlier this year. Below are some of my notes and reflections after watching…
Owen Flanagan argues that physicalism is the only feasible view. Naturalism is the inference to the best explanation. Conscious states are brain states. At some point in evolutionary history, somehow dead matter came to life, and some time later, somehow, life became conscious. There can only be physical solutions to these problems.
Flanagan argues that I can never have another person’s experience, that consciousness is inherently private.
Flanagan quotes the Dalai Lama, who counters physicalism with the claim that, while gross mental states may be physiological, our innate nature–the luminous core of consciousness–is not limited by the brain.
Evan Thompson had four key points: 1) consciousness is primary, 2) physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodologically, 3) neuroscience must integrate embodied phenomenology, and 4) contemplative practice can help us with this integration.
1) Primacy of consciousness first established by Kant, elaborated by Husserl… Consciousness is not something we have, it is something we live. If we lost it, we would no longer be. Without consciousness, there is no world, there is no science. This is a horizonal conception of consciousness. It cannot be objectified.
Consciousness has epistemological primacy. Scientific models of the world are distillations of our conscious experience as observers. We never step outside consciousness to see the world from nowhere. It makes no sense to try to reduce consciousness to one or another of our scientific models.
2) Physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodology. What is it to be physical, anyway? Let’s try to define it: the physical is what today’s science says it is. But that can’t be right, since there are deep and fundamental problems with current physics, so we have to define the physical by pointing to some future scientific conception of matter… But what if it turns out that the panpsychists are right and it turns out that mental states are as fundamental as material states at the most fundamental scale? Or, what if it turns out there is no fundamental scale?
We need to enlarge our conception of the scientific method if we hope to account for consciousness scientifically.
3) Neuroscience must integrate phenomenology. Science cannot objectify the subjective if it hopes to understand the subjective as such. For Thompson, consciousness requires not only a brain, but a body and a world. Science must therefore approach consciousness intersubjectively. Which is easy, since science is already an intersubjective enterprise guided by peer review. Scientists are always already involved in lived experience and their work is always already phenomenological.
4) Contemplative traditions can teach us about the ontology of consciousness. The training of awareness and emotional response, learning to cognitive reappraise our knee-jerk reactions, etc., may be necessary to understand the underlying nature of experience. Learning to distinguish our narrative sense of self from our present moment experience or embodied sense of self has measurable neurological effects. The science of consciousness requires a circle of hermeneutical exchange between (at least!) neuroscientists, phenomenologists, anthropologists, and contemplative practitioners.
As Thompson describes it: “Whatever counts as ‘nature’ can’t be understood apart from human cognitive practices of investigating nature, and therefore can’t be given absolute explanatory primacy over mind.”
I with him for the same reasons I’m on board with Bruno Latour‘s ontological constructivism. I’m not sure Evan would go so far, however, as he seems to plant his feet firmly on phenomenological ground, and so in some sense his claims about the limits of physicalism are not really metaphysical, but epistemological. I don’t know if Husserl is enough here…
Thompson ends with some questions about the ethics of consciousness studies. He wants us to ask not only “what is consciousness?“, but “what sort of consciousness do we want to cultivate?” This isn’t a question many cognitive scientists seem to be asking…
In his rebuttal, Flanagan acuses Thompson of “romantic rhapsodizing” for claiming that consciousness is “all we are and all we have.” He questions whether we can really take our phenomenological intuitions seriously. He also wonders if even highly refined introspective practices (like Buddhist meditation) aren’t just unnecessarily theoretically front-loading experimental work. Unlike Thompson, Flanagan thinks science can objectify consciousness.
In his response, Thompson clarifies the ontological principles underlying the particular school of Buddhism (Madhyamika) that he thinks is relevant to the scientific study of consciousness. For Mādhyamikas, there is no underlying substance or essence to anything, whether physical or mental, because all apparently separate things are really dependently co-arising phenomena. From this point of view, not only can’t consciousness be objectified, nothing can. Thompson looks to this Buddhist tradition in an attempt to draw Western cognitive scientists into a cross-cultural dialogue, not so we can all become Buddhists, but so we can learn from a tradition that has been studying human mental processes from a first and second person point of view for thousands of years longer than Western science has been studying it from a third person view. And learning from them doesn’t mean we accept bad arguments about the ontology of consciousness.
Thompson agrees with Flanagan that we can objectify the mind, he just doesn’t think we can do so exhaustively. There will always be something left out of an objective account of subjectivity (duh?).
- Responding to comments about Bakker’s “blind brain theory” (footnotes2plato.com)
- Evan Thompson on Autopoiesis and Enactivism (footnotes2plato.com)
Entropy is the measure of order in any system. In this regard, to take a rough and ready criterion, the more probable it is that a particular element is located anywhere in a system the more entropy that system embodies. By contrast, the more improbable the location of an element in a system, theless entropic that system is. Thus, systems characterized by high entropy are highlychaotic or disordered, while systems characterized by low entropy are highly ordered. Finally, those systems that maintain the improbability of the location of their elements over time are referred to as “negentropic”. “Negentropy” is a sort of portmanteau word combining “negation” and “entropy”, signifying “the negation of entropy”. In other words, negentropic systems like my body or a corporation are systems that maintain their order.
I posted a comment which read:
I’ve always been somewhat confused by definitions of entropy in terms of probability. It makes perfect sense if I think about molecules of gas in a closed chamber; but on the scale of the universe as a whole in space and time, why is it that entropy is assumed to be more probable than “negentropy”? In the universe we observe (which includes ourselves as observers), there seems to be no reason to assume that disorderliness is anymore probable than orderliness. I see more reason to assume the opposite. Clearly, objects tend to age; but in the case of organisms, the process of aging is also (for the first half of life at least) a process of development and complexification. Phylogenically, organic life has moved from the very simple (prokaryotes) through various stages to the very complex (social mammals). I’ve read complexity theorists who account for this negentropic movement in terms of the tendency of matter to seek equilibrium of energy gradients. But what produces these gradients in the first place? Doesn’t matter also have a tendency to congeal, to fold in upon itself, to complexify? If so, why do we refer to this tendency in the negative, as if it were incidental to the dominant entropic tendency of nature? What about the more neutral term “centropy”?
To which Bryant responded with:
The thesis is not that entropy is more probable in the universe, but that the degree of entropy in a system is a measure of probability in that system. Your questions about gradients suffers from the same problem as intelligent design arguments in biology. You’re basically saying that if there’s order there must have been a designer or an author and are unable to conceive emergent order without authorship.
To which I responded with:
I certainly would not want to conjure up a transcendent designer. That is why I spoke of matter itself having the tendency to complexify. My comment was not an attempt to suggest we need a designer to account for cosmic order. My point was that order seems no less probable than disorder on the cosmological scale. This makes the term “negentropy” seem inappropriate, since it defines order as if it were the accident and entropy the necessity. If we assume something like the big bang model is correct, then leaning on entropy to explain away all the order in the universe as an accidental by-product requires positing that the universe began in a state of hyper-improbability/zero-entropy.
Instead of positing something so improbable because of what seems to me to be an extra-philosophical commitment to nihilism (where everything inevitably is blindly running down towards heat death), why not posit a tendency to life/organization right alongside the tendency to death/dispersal? More appropriate terms for the former tendency might be “centropy,” or “exergy,” which could be understood to operate alongside entropy as the two poles of some more basic, ineffable power/energy underlying the creation and destruction of everything.
Later in the same post, Bryant links his thoughts concerning entropy to Ray Brassier‘s ontology of extinction. I quote Bryant at length:
In many respects, the role that entropy plays in my thought places me close to the metaphysical, political, and ethical conclusions of Ray Brassier. In Nihil Unbound, Brassier argues that the ultimate truth of existence is extinction. In making this claim, he’s not simply pointing out that we all die, but is claiming that at some point the human species will become extinct and that the universe itself will undergo heat death…Brassier argues that the thought of radical extinction carries with it an enlightenment. What might this enlightenment be? Why might this horrific thought of erasure, extinction, be enlightening and ethically invigorating?…I must know the nature of physical reality to answer the question of how best to live, how best to organize society, what to aim for, what to hope for, etc. Lurking in the background of all materialist thought is the hunch that one of the central sources of human suffering is, on the one hand, the “two world hypothesis”, and, on the other hand, what might be called “messianism” and salvation…If we situate Brassier’s radical nihilism in this context, we can see why it is a sort of enlightenment. The truth of extinction is not the gloomy thought that all is pointless because everything is going to be destroyed anyway. Rather, the thought experiment of radical extinction hopefully accomplishes three aims. Insofar as the truth of every person’s life is death (i.e., there’s no afterlife), we should not direct ourselves to an afterlife, but rather should devote ourselves to this life. How can we live in relation to ourselves, to others, and to the earth in order to best live this brief spark that we possess? How should society be transformed and organized to maximize this existence? Second, the truth of extinction with respect to the existence of the human species has the effect of decentering us. We can imagine a world where we are absent. As a consequence, we are not at the center of existence. We are one being– certainly important to ourselves –among others, and we are a being like the others destined to pass away. This discovery encourages us to both respect other beings, but also to recognize the fragility of ourselves and the world we rely on and therefore attend to the preservation of that world. Finally, the extinction of the universe cures us of messianism. There is no apocalypse, no final revelation of the truth, no final salvation, just this world. As such, we should squarely direct ourselves at this world and the work required to maintain this world, not at a world to come or an afterlife.
It’s somewhat easy to tell “just so” stories about how one metaphysical position or another will effect the general public’s common sense ethical beliefs and practices. Bryant’s story is isn’t entirely improbable, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, would tell a story about reincarnation and karma that might be even more ethically compelling to those who experience it as true. Rather than the horrific thought of erasure, Tibetan Buddhist accounts of reincarnation suggest what may at first appear to be the even more horrific thought of endless suffering. Though the doctrine of non-self is difficult to square with that of reincarnation, I don’t believe it is entirely wrong from the perspective of this tradition to suggest that all “I” really am in this incarnation is a collection of dependently co-arising causes and conditions. In other words, I am karma. My suffering as as separate self is the result of accumulated karma; further, I should not hope for extinction, since this same karma, “my” suffering (which is also the suffering of every sentient being), will continue to reincarnate forever. Forever, that is, unless the inherent emptiness of all supposedly self-existent things is realized here and now. From this perspective, one is lead to compassion for all presently existing beings (human or non-) precisely because any of these beings could be the reincarnation of one’s own mother. Similarly, one is lead to compassion for all future beings because that in us which doesn’t die (i.e., karma) will be present in and as them.
Levi Bryant has problematized my attempt to clarify Whitehead’s position on the function of divinity in the universe. He writes:
“You make the claim that without God there would be chaos and no order. This is a problematic claim for two reasons. First, you have repeatedly tried to claim that God isn’t supposed to explain anything, yet here you are evoking God to explain order. Second, it is unclear why, 1) God is required to explain order (the fact that order exists doesn’t entail that it must have been designed), and 2) it is not clear what God would explain about this order in such an account…”
I will admit that I am still thinking through these issues myself. Whitehead’s writing in this area is illuminating, but much remains obscure. I am struggling to “think with” Whitehead, not so much because his “arguments” are convincing, but because I come to his work already sharing many of the problems he found interesting. One of these is the problem of God, but I did not come to philosophize about God in order to rationalize my faith. God was not at first a religious belief for me. Though I went to temple and church as a child (mixed religious family), I began referring to myself as an atheist at 12 years old after learning a bit about cosmology from Steven Hawking and biology from Richard Dawkins. I remained highly skeptical of religious claims as my understanding of science and cultural relativity grew throughout my teens. Then, as a 17 year old, I learned a bit about the psychology of religion from Carl Jung. I came to to realize that our scientific narratives about the origins of the universe and life on earth are still mythically structured and shaped by cultural attitudes. Jung lead me into a deeper study of anthropology and the evolution of consciousness, allowing me to bracket the “reality” of God in order to consider God’s effect as a symbol, or archetypal complex, on the history of the human psyche. Soon after, I discovered the work of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser (a friend and associate of Jung’s), who completely transformed the way I conceive of the relationship between rational and religious consciousness. Eventually, like Whitehead, I came back to religion and theology (I feel most at home in the dialogue and practice emerging from the encounter between Buddhism and Christianity) as a result of philosophical reflection upon life. As a teenager, I thought God seemed like a belief added to experience by religious doctrine. After reading Jung and Gebser, I came to see the experience of God as constitutive of the order and harmony of our human consciousness of the world. After reading Whitehead, I saw that, for the sake of metaphysical coherence, God must also be constitutive of the order of the world itself.
One of Whitehead’s colleagues at Harvard, Ernest Hocking, reports that (Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on his Philosophy, 1963, p. 16), in regards to the concept of God, Whitehead once told him:
“I should never have included it, if it had not been strictly required for descriptive completeness. You must set all your essentials into the foundation. It is no use putting up a set of terms, and then remarking, ‘Oh, by the way, I believe there’s a God.”
Is God an explanation for order in Whitehead’s system? Not exactly. God is not best described as the cause of harmony, nor the designer of the world, since Whitehead’s God is involved in the world, as much the effect of its harmony as its cause. It would still be true to say that, without God, chaos would reign; but this doesn’t necessarily mean God is the explanation for order. Rather, God is the very presence of order in the world, not an absent designer who orchestrates the world’s order from a position beyond it. God is embedded in the world as a kind of aesthetic gravity holding otherwise conflicting possibilities together so as to transform them into novel contrasts in the experiences of actual occasions. Actual occasions are the only reasons for Whitehead, which is to say that God is not an explanation for the order brought forth by their individual decisions. God is also an actual occasion, a creature of Creativity, but God’s creatureliness is everlasting. As a result, God’s primordial nature conditions all temporal experiences as an ingredient in the concrescence of those experiences. God is what mediates between the infinite possibilities of Creativity and the finite actualities of the Universe. God is the World-Soul allowing ideas passage into reality. In this sense, Whitehead’s reformed Platonism is similar to Schelling’s, who built on the description of the World-Soul and its role in the realization of Ideas given by Plato in the Timeaus (I unpack these ideas in this essay on Schelling).
It may still remain unclear to Bryant exactly why God became necessary in the course of Whitehead’s, and my own, reflection upon reality. As I said at the outset, I struggle to think with Whitehead because I share his sense of what matters, of what the problems of philosophy ought to be given the facts of experience. Given these facts, as I experience them, the most urgent philosophical task is to bring together the insights of scientific experiment and religious experience into one rational scheme of thought.
“Throughout this discussion you have repeatedly appealed to 30,000 years of human religious experience that philosophy has a duty to account for. You seem to take this experience as evidence that there must be some ontological truth to the claims of religion (i.e., that God exists). Over at Knowledge Ecology’s blog I pointed out that there are at least 30,000 years of racism and sexism and that the form of your argument about God seems to commit you and Whitehead to the position that the ontological claims of racism and sexism must contain some truth.”
Adam has offered a response that I am largely in agreement with. He distinguishes between facts of experience and truths of experience. Religion, racism, and sexism are each facts of experience, though I am not prepared to claim that the content of these experiential modes necessarily corresponds to reality. I take a broadly Jamesian/Deweyan/Peircian approach to truth, however, in that I am more concerned with the effects of our descriptions of reality than with their accurate correspondence to a supposedly pre-given world. The truth of the claims arising out of religious experience are to be judged, from the pragmaticist perspective, by a “consideration of the experimental differences in the conduct of life which would conceivably result from the affirmation or denial of the [claim] in question,” as Dewey puts it (Century Dictionary, 1909). I think certain religious ideas and meanings stand on far better footing than racism and sexism in this respect, since the later two modes of thought have only been productive of hatred, violence, and injustice. I judge the experiential possibilities of racism and sexism to be undesirable based on “the experimental differences in the conduct of life” that their practice has been productive of in the past. No doubt some religious ideas have also been productive of violence and injustice, but I think it would be disingenuous to claim that religion has offered nothing positive to humanity. My pragmaticism may go beyond traditional definitions at this point, but when dealing with the ontology of the claims arising from experience, I take a radically participatory view. The history of humanity represents the Universe’s struggle to discover its own nature: we are the Universe’s conscious testing ground of truth, beauty, and goodness. These are ideals which are still in the process of working themselves out in our (and the universe’s) history. It is not simply a given that racism is wrong; its wrongness is a fact that must be discovered in our moral feelings and defended by our ethical practices. If Nazi Germany had won WW2, and its Final Solution had succeeded, we might be living in a world where the experiential facts confirmed the truth of racism. Fortunately, because of an outpouring of ethical will, this possibility was kept at bay. It has now become an ethical fact that genocidal racism is wrong, but only because the moral feelings of one sector of global society won out over another. Goodness is always at stake, always being defined and redefined in the adventure of civilization.
I’ve written about what a participatory spirituality looks like for me. I have more work to do to flesh it out, of course…
Finally, Bryant writes:
In your post over at footnotes2plato you make the odd claim that somehow naturalism prevents us from fighting neoliberal capitalism. This ignores the rather obvious fact that 1) Marxist thought is a naturalistic position, 2) those European countries that are most socialized are also overwhelmingly secular, and 3) religion has repeatedly sided with capitalism throughout history and provided support for forces that underly these forms of capitalism.
I would make the claim that atheistic naturalism (wherein the whole point of the scientific endeavor becomes the thorough disenchantment of the universe) makes criticism of neoliberal capitalism more difficult, since I think such critiques must penetrate to the metaphysical underpinnings of capitalism in order to be effective. These underpinnings include what Donna Haraway has referred to as “productionism”:
“Productionism and its corollary, humanism, come down to the story line that ‘man makes everything, including himself, out of the world that can only be resource and potency to his project and active agency’” -“The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others,” in Cultural Studies (1992), p. 297
Marx’s humanistic orientation and productionist metaphysics suggests to me that his naturalistic assumptions leave the deeper metaphysical structure of capitalism (that which makes it so socially and ecologically disruptive) untouched. Also, even if Marx himself was less than enthusiastic about religion, there are plenty of examples of religious communists, for whom it is religious experience that compels them to adopt communist ideals. Marx’s may have been a naturalistic position, but the Marxisms emerging in his wake have not always been.
As for “secularized” Europe, polls suggest that as much as 76% of Sweden, 80% of Denmark, 79% of Norway, 61% of France, 72% of Germany, 71% of the Netherlands, and 78% of the United Kingdom either believe in God or in”some sort of spirit or life force.” Church attendance may be down across much of the Continent, but this seems to be reflective of a move toward less conventional, more individual forms of post-religious spiritual expression.
A religious revival itself will not necessarily put a dent in capitalism. Žižek is fond of pointing out how New Age spirituality only functions to support the commodification of religious practice. And in some sense, even religion as understood esoterically (in both Western and Eastern contexts) may only foster a withdrawal into the apoliticism of mystical contemplation. This is why I think Whitehead’s philosophical project is so important, since it presents us with a way to bring science, religion, and politics into a more mutually enhancing relationship.
I should begin. I don’t know how much time I have… I’d like to tell you a secret, even though I’m not sure if I can repeat it exactly as I hear it whispered to me inwardly even at this very moment. It is my secret, you see, and by verbalizing it in order to share it with someone else, it will undoubtedly lose some of its existential force. However, despite its being my secret, and so difficult to communicate to others, I know intuitively that it is of ultimate concern to everyone. I must risk telling you, even if it sounds at first like something obvious, something you’ve known since you were seven years old. It is a Big Secret, but it won’t dispel The Mystery or explain Life’s Meaning; knowing it can only deepen the mystery of your life’s meaning.
Are you ready? You may never be. It takes a whole life to prepare for. Here goes: it is absolutely certain that you and everyone you love will die.
Did you hear me? Now listen for an echo of what I’ve said within you. If you hear it, know that it is not an echo, but your own soul sharing the essence of her earthly mission with you. Ask your soul: “Why have you wed yourself to this mortal body?” I imagine she will answer as mine has: “Because love means nothing without death; there is no other way for Spirit to truly matter, no other way for your soul to find its way back to heaven but to die with love in your heart.”
Behind death hides the Immortal Soul. It is not your’s that lives forever, mind you, but the World’s Soul. The World-Soul is love itself, the center of all creation, the gravity that “moves the sun and other stars.”
The Soul is a universal embrace holding all things together in the radiant space of Wisdom. But Wisdom’s light is not always bright enough to make the meaning of matter transparent, and so the Soul is also a battlefield upon which the chaos of shadow confrontation unfolds. Human history, which provides the background and container of your own personal life, is a “tangled web of fate” spun by the sustained encounter of Soul with shadow, Spirit with matter, Self with other. Death is denied by most human cultures, becoming a great evil to be fought against at every turn. Our fear of death’s ego-dissolving depths leads to all kinds of violence against other mortals, since the only power over death we are capable of securing comes by taking the life of others.
Perhaps it is not ignorant power that truly defeats death, but clear insight into the mystery hiding in its depths. Do not forget to hear death’s secret. Turn inward and face death squarely: Wisdom can be heard, in the still, dark center of our souls, beneath the crowded places and tormented faces of earthly time, silently speaking the Truth of freedom and love. History cannot escape the gravity of the World-Soul, and so inevitably there germinates within her the seed of enantiodromia: the shadow, confronted and integrated, becomes its opposite. When the horror of the shadow is swallowed, the Soul becomes pregnant with the Savior. Light shines through matter from the far side of death, escaping its dark lie to emerge within our soul as Wisdom, becoming our spirit-guide or daemon.
What had been a fearsome phenomenon observed only second hand through the death of others becomes what it always really was: the numinous source of all meaning and spiritual substance of all love. No longer something abstractly held at a distance from life, death becomes itself the point of the emergence of the mind’s present perspective, the Seer behind all that is seen. The Soul is not living as opposed to being dead, she is the Life that conquers death, the portal through which eternity flows into and transforms history, one generation at a time.
Death is a trickster. At once the most sacred and the most desecrated of rites, it shapes your life long before it ends it. If Socrates was right and the Soul is immortal, then death does not end our need of her love.
“…The soul demands our care not only for that part of time we call life, but for all time… If death were a release from everything, it would be a gift-of-Hermes (hermaion) for the wicked, because by dying they would be released not only from the body but also from their own wickedness together with the soul” (Phaedo).
But death, despite the Soul’s everlastingness, may still be Hermes’ gift to saint and sinner alike, since it carries with it a secret message to each individual human being from the gods. The secret is one I have tried to tell, but in the end it can only be heard in one’s own heart, there whispered by the Soul. In truth, it is a secret that cannot be shared between mortals, since its meaning cannot be limited by any language, nor pointed at by any finger. It is an open secret whose signature is nowhere in particular precisely because it can be found everywhere in the universe: in the passing clouds of the daytime sky, in the folds of our aging palm, in the names of those we love. There is no great significance in anything but for its being a sign of transience and death. All earthly things point away from their origin and toward their own demise, and it is precisely by indicating that which is before and beyond them that they are illuminated and made alluring to the Soul. A beautiful thing is never just what it is. It also is not, and in the space of this not, the whole of eternity is opened to our loving contemplation.
Humans are unique in our ability to sense what is not there, in our capacity to think and to feel not just actuality, but possibility. This power to recognize what is not is as much our gift as our curse, since it all but erases the instinctual “species knowledge” that so perfectly situates other creatures in the world according to their natures (Trickster Makes this World, by Lewis Hyde, p. 42). For this reason, despite the apparent harmony of the cosmos in which we live, we are generally riddled by anxiety and shame, imitating others since we are never sure how to behave ourselves. We lack our own way, and sense also in the life of the world that a certain arbitrariness is responsible for its beauty. There seems to be no universal principle to determine what is aesthetically pleasing from what is not. Beauty is unruly; its concreteness cannot be made to conform to formal notions of symmetry or measure. Tragedy is as touching as comedy, the absurd as provocative as the ordered. Beauty is seen or felt in a thing not because of what it is, but because of what it makes possible within the Soul who sees or feels it.
Perhaps our anxiety is due not only to our sense of the possible, and to the lack of a natural way that results, but also to our aborted knowledge of death. We know only that we will die, that a threshold will be met that surely will transform the ego and the arbitrarily ordered world it has come to think of as real. We do not know, however, what this transformation will produce in us, nor how we ought to conceive of the eternal nowhere and nowhen that it takes us. Knowing that, while not knowing what–this is the recipe for a lifetime’s worth of anxiety.
Typically, human cultures construct “cosmetologies” to cover up their ontological insecurity. These stories provide us with masks to hide our deep wounds and to avoid our having to face the forms of cosmic order and chaos at work outside our feeble comfort zones. What is needed is a more compassionate and developmentally open ontology, a cardiontology or mettaphysics, that provides a way of encountering the demons associated with death as our teachers. Demons can be invited into the Soul in order to help us heal, since it is they who carry to us an awareness of that which we are least aware and least compassionate. Only when demons are rejected do they seem to be motivated by evil intentions; faced with loving kindness, they lose agency altogether and are revealed to consist only of our own unclaimed traumatic material.
Has the secret been adequately told? Perhaps not. Though its meaning can only be postponed by being summarized (since its essence is either heard at once or forgotten), the limits of my medium require that I do so.
In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich, Ivan says, “At the moment of death I hope to be surprised,” and doubtless death will be quite a surprise for most of us. Why so? Because, according to our common sense, death is the end, something we have never experienced before and can never experience until we die. Sure, plenty of us give ourselves various religious labels, belong to such and such a church, temple, mosque, or monastery, believing in this or that kind of afterlife… but how much of it is genuine? How much of our own spiritual opinions do we take seriously? It has become hard in today’s skeptically-minded times to truly believe anything but the standard company line that our entire existence on Earth consists of nothing but this one fleeting breath of life between birth and death. It is commonly thought that to demand more is to regress into fantasy, to ignore the hard fact of life that is death. But surely even the skeptical rationalists, beneath their veneer of intellectual pride, still feel the chilling air of uncertainty bubbling up from the darkness of their own impending death.
Death unites us all in a common mystery, though most of us mistake it for misery. If death is really the end of our personality, and by all biological accounts it seems to be, then what is it all for? Why live? What more could life be, in this case, but a hesitation, a rejection of the inevitable, a denial of our fate? To consider ourselves alive, we must deny ourselves death. But our denial cannot prevent its inevitable arrival. It’s coming to swallow us up into a timeless void for all eternity and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. In such a situation, there is only one reasonable option for those seeking freedom. In the teachings of the Buddha, we find a path toward the realization of this freedom. But the path, rather than leading away from death, leads directly into it. The Buddha suggests, in other words, that we learn to “die” while still alive, so that the eventual death of our bodies won’t be such a shock to us. This death while still alive is enlightenment, realization of the Dharma, and it consists in seeing deeply enough into the Soul in order to discover that which is neither dead nor alive but eternal.
If the struggle against death gives rise to the ego—in a sense, is the ego—then the dissolution of the ego should be one and the same as the acceptance of death. The Buddha’s doctrine of anatman here becomes relevant in that it reveals the selfless nature of reality, thereby giving one the sense that death need not be feared because there never was anyone to die to begin with. Similarly, the Buddha’s doctrine of sunyata, or emptiness, shows us that life has meaning only within the context of death, and vice versa. Life itself has no self-nature. Its appearance in the relative realm of maya depends on its contextual relationship with death. In such a realm, life means whatever death does not, just as death means whatever life does not. The Buddha saw the trap inherent to all discursive methods of thought that attempt to understand the life-death polarity intellectually. The coincidence of these opposites can be known only experientially, and even then, their reconciliation inevitably slips away and is forgotten.
Contemporary humanity finds itself in just such a strange epistemological paradox. We are convinced out of sheer habit of thought that the meaning of life is knowable and rational—that it obeys a reliable and symbolically describable order, and that it has some demonstrable purpose; but all the while, whenever we happen to stop and look into the mystery of our own being, we become aware of the terrifying fact that all of our supposed knowledge rests on blind assumptions about the completely unknowable experience of death that will one day befall us.
We, as civilized humans, are raised to act and think as though we are isolated individuals, as if our skin was an ultimate boundary completely cutting us off from the world around us. We are brought up in a way that distorts our initial childhood perception of reality, which is the simple truth of our growth out of this world, and therefore of our inseparable connection to it. This intuition is denied and repressed in favor of the more intellectually useful idea of having been thrown into this world. From this outside, third-person perspective, scientific map-making becomes possible. Such maps are directly responsible for the great technological successes of our society. But the rewards of this perspective come at a cost. By pretending to be an outsider on our own planet, we have alienated ourselves from nature. This “outsider’s view” of the universe is a major source of our anxiety about death, as any human who was in touch with his nature would be as accepting of his death as he was of any other naturally occurring event. Were we to remain in touch with our childhood intuitions about reality, we would not fear death but instead spend our lives preparing for it with great excitement and expectation.
“To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise,” says Socrates,
“for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”
Why Religious Dialogue?
Interreligious dialogue is not a distant possibility but a present necessity. This essay is a response to this need, but it is written also as an intrareligious dialogue. This is because the conditioned nature of my own personality, having been historically shaped into what it is by my unique imaginal participation in certain texts and practices, at first allows me to speak and be understood only within the personal and communal bounds of these traditions.
By seeking out the essence of my own spiritual path, I hope to become more capable of generating wise and compassionate relationships with those who walk adjacent paths. There’s a way in which the intra- and interpersonal boundaries generated by each of the world’s religions also opens them to extra- and transpersonal bonds. These bonds tie the traditions to each other within an ecology of Spirit, each of them creating and receiving love from the other within the space opened up by Spirit’s eternal passage into history.
And so while it may at first appear so on the surface, the condition “we”—the English speaking post-secular intelligentsia, or whoever—currently find ourselves in is not one of lacking an effective method or means of contacting those of “other”—let us say, non-Christian, non-secular, or indigenous—traditions. If “we” have identified ourselves as “the same,” we have already set ourselves in differential relation to “others.” No tradition has known itself as religious or salvific in the absence of a relation to other traditions claiming the same. In other words, the self-consciousness of each of the world’s religious traditions never could have emerged but as a consciousness of otherness. Moving from the historical to the metaphysical register, we can say that differentiation begets identity even as identification begets difference. This seems to be a logical contradiction, when it fact it is the principle of life (or incarnation) itself. The concepts—self/identity and other/difference—are conditioned by one another and so exist relatively. Only the relation is absolute. “Religion” is that which relates, or binds together, this with that, me with you, time with eternity, secular with religious, human with divinity. Religion may appear to us through the expressions and experiences of many religions, but underlying all of them is a universal love for and convergence upon the unspeakable oneness of Spirit (unspeakable because always arising anew, eternally born within and between us).
The need for dialogue on dialogue is now more urgent than ever, since our species’ ability to communicate compassionately across borders is already determining the sorts of worlds being brought forth by an increasingly planetary civilization. Unfortunately, the most powerful form of transnational communication taking place today is governed by the purely economic norms of corporations. The earth and its human and non-human populations are being exploited by these amoral entities. They operate under norms with no system of evaluation but that selected by “the invisible hand” according to the laws of supply and demand. “The strongest will survive, and the species will progress”: so goes the market mantra. Transitioning into a just, peaceful, and ecologically resilient planetary civilization will require that our governing ethos shift away from that of monetarily-motivated corporate entities toward institutions not concerned solely with their own profit. Power must be transferred to institutions concerned for the welfare of all sentient beings.
For the last three or four centuries, the political influence of the world’s religions has waned, but the secular nation-states that have risen to replace them in the hopes of mediating their discord have proven unable to prevent violence. In fact, nations continue to wage war upon one another, always under the pretext of self-defense. It seems that the capitalist logic to which the nation-state is subject inevitably generates economic pressure that leads them to militarily secure and/or expand their industrial markets. One of the underlying assumptions of interreligious dialogue generally seems to be that, in the wake of this failure of the modern secular state, the religious traditions of the world must be among the institutions called upon to reclaim a more enlightened version of their former power and responsibility for directing the course of world history. What is needed is not a return to feudalism and monarchy, nor a re-absorption in “dogmatism, fanaticism, and sectarianism” (MMR, p. 16), but a more integral way of politically mobilizing the world’s great wisdom traditions as a counterweight to the market religion that has come to dominate the planet.
Traditional religion, as it had been known by civilizations yet to planetize, is being re-invented within the crucible of the global encounter of the religions (including secularism). As Haridas Chaudhuri put it, religion is “the undying substance of the spirit of man” that, if it is “destined to play a vital role in the advancement of civilization,” must today “be reborn out of its own ashes” (MMR, p. 15). In the hopes of furthering this rebirth in some small way, the remainder of my intrareligious “confession” will circle around just two traditions, those most responsible for the ongoing formation of my soul: Mahayana Buddhism and Esoteric Christianity. The wisdom of these traditions will be approached in light of the poetic insights of William Blake and John Keats, both of whom sought a new experiential revelation of Spirit at the personal level.
It is not only the various religious institutions that must renew themselves; each person’s consciousness of the religious must also be transformed before Spirit can adequately guide human civilization into the next century. The planetary is personal, since the planet can only be redeemed through the love of person for person. We must each continue to speak compassionately from within in search of the One who binds us all together:
When the two will be made one, both the inside and the outside, the outside and the inside, the superior and the inferior…then you will enter [into ‘The Kingdom’], (Gospel of Thomas, quoted in IRD, p. xix).
Soul-making with Christ and Buddha
Rather than attempt to sum up what are in and of themselves vast and diverse traditions with their own inner tensions and controversies, or deal with the intractable question of who should speak for either, I will take is as a matter of course that Buddha and Christ exist as spiritual beings who are potentially in communication with human consciousness independently of any specific institutions or canonized texts. Though I will still draw from the scripture and practice built up around them, I do so with the assumption that each being is eternally present on the imaginal plane of consciousness and so irreducible to (though not separable from) culture and history. This is a religious realism that stands in contrast to both relativism and exclusivism, since it takes seriously the reality of multiple more-than-human Teachers whose supersensible love and wisdom enters into the world through the power of Imagination. The respective teachings of Buddha and Christ will be brought into dialogue within my own consciousness to exemplify the activity of “intrareligious soul-making,” an activity growing increasingly relevant to the current generation of planetary citizens. A person is not a “conscious atom,” but “a knot in a net of relationships,” and so though what I have to say is peculiar to my own process, I say it in expectation of the resonance and dissonance that it will provoke in others. This internal dialogue is but an opening gesture humbly offered in service to the ongoing struggle for a more humane planetary mythos.
“Soul-making” is a “system of salvation” and “spirit creation” first articulated by Keats in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law in May of 1819. Keats was after a form of spiritual wisdom that did not “affront our reason and humanity,” and that would reframe many of the problems besetting traditional Christianity. “Intrareligious dialogue” has been defined by Raimon Panikkar as a “quest for salvific truth” that “takes place in the core of our being” as “an authentic prayer open in all directions” that is “no longer concerned with mere formulations of our own tradition or of other people” (IRD, p. xvii). This essay is my experiment in soul-making, which Keats defined as a search for the “proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul.” It could also be called an inward opening, or intrareligious prayer, to Buddha and Christ. I beckon these beings, asking them to reveal, if they will, “the whole human world and also the entire reality” as it is reflected within the microcosm of my soul (ibid., xviii).
Though Keats had but little conscious knowledge of the Buddha, the development of his system of soul-making was motivated by realizations nearly identical to the First and Second Noble Truths, that life is suffering caused by attachment to a transient world.
“Circumstances are like clouds continually gathering and bursting,” writes Keats,
…while we are laughing the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events—while we are laughing it sprouts [and] grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck…This is the world—thus we cannot expect to give way many hours to pleasure.
The world, or perhaps the soul’s relation to the world, has gone astray. It is this condition and circumstance from which all salvific religion emerges. It was only once I had awakened to the truths of suffering and impermanence—to the waywardness of the human world—that my spiritual path began. As Christ has said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Only upon recognizing and accepting my own fallen state can I hope to hear the saving Word within a receptive heart. Otherwise, without the inner silence brought by such recognition, my mind wanders endlessly, grasping at one temporary pleasure after the next, never finding in them the Love I so desperately seek. No matter the worldly progress I may make by achieving money and fame, it inevitably leaves me unhappy and wanting more, since, as Keats writes, I am “mortal and there is still a heaven with its stars above [my] head.” Unless I find Love, upon death I “would leave this world as Eve left Paradise”: sinful and with regret. Such a world remains fallen, what Keats called “a vale of tears.”
The Buddha’s Third Noble Truth suggests that there is a cure for the suffering of this world, and that it may be attained, if not in this life, then in one of the many lives to come. Rather than temporally relieving pain with pleasure, Buddha uproots it entirely, offering a way out of the cycle of samsara through the gradual elimination of karma. Christianity’s way of salvation is often contrasted with Buddha’s, since the former’s focuses on the overwhelming importance of this life as our one chance to prepare for death, after which we may be “redeemed,” writes Keats, “by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven.” Keats finds this a doctrine too “little” and “circumscribed” to be believable. But the larger possibilities of reincarnation are not entirely foreign to Christian theology. One of the first Christian theologians, Origen, articulated a doctrine of metempsychosis in the 2nd century based on the fallen soul’s need of passing through successive stages before returning to God. Rudolf Steiner, a 20th century seer, suggested that, without accommodating itself to the truths of reincarnation and evolution, Christianity would remain too narrowly focused on the salvation of the ego or private personality, rather than the whole cosmic community to which the individual is karmically tied (CMF).
“If we observe the various phases of karmic chain-reaction [or evolutionary reincarnation],” writes Tibetan Lama Anagarika Govinda,
…we become conscious of a supra-individual karmic interrelatedness, comprising nations, races, civilizations, humanity, planets, solar systems and finally the whole universe” (FTM, p. 219).
If I contemplate the life and teaching of Christ, it becomes apparent to me that the meaning of the resurrection is already suggestive of reincarnation, or our ability to be “born again.” If I die to myself, to the reactivity of my physical body and pleasure-seeking soul, I am born again free of sin, like Christ, “not of the water, but of the spirit” (Luke 3:16). This rebirth is my reincarnation, my second chance at life, through participation in the eternally resurrecting Body of Christ. The earth and the cosmos are within this Body, and only dying for the sake of its Life awakens consciousness to his invisible Soul. The meaning of the historical arc of Christian redemption becomes all the more clear when each particular soul is understood to participate in a multi-generational work of uniting itself with the World-Soul and the visible universe it animates. God cannot force change upon the world from outside time and space, since God’s omnipotence is not other than God’s Love, which works only from within the world through the power of animation and the magic of soul (i.e., Imagination). As the particular soul seeks identity with the universal anew in every age, Spirit incarnates more fully into history. Gradually, karma is undone and sin forgiven, since life after life the Love of God for the world becomes more present between persons.
Gautama and Jesus were enlightened human beings whose bodies nonetheless bled upon the cross of time and space, there dying to finitude in order to more fully realize the infinite. “Do you not see,” asks Keats, “how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school a [divine] Intelligence and make it a Soul?” Without living and dying upon the earth, these beings could not fully grasp the nature of the eternal realm from which they came. Even divinity has something to learn from the condition of suffering. But rather than dissolving into the bliss of nirvana or remaining with the Father in heaven after their earthly deaths, they returned as bodhisattvas, vowing to remain in connection with the earth until the sin and suffering of all sentient beings is alleviated.
What form have they taken in their return? It does not seem to be physical or sensible, as then surely more would recognize their presence among us. Rather, these beings have taken up residence within the human soul, there acting as friends and advocates along our path through the school of the world toward spiritual happiness. The supersensible, rather than plainly visible presence of Buddha and Christ accounts for why the current state of human discussion concerning their reality tends to circle endlessly around the relative merits of belief or disbelief. While the secularization thesis (that modernization would inevitably lead to reduced religiosity) has failed, leaving the world more religious today than ever before, in general, the return to religion has tended to construe spiritual claims as merely notional, available for conceptual assent or not depending on one’s psychological disposition or moral inclination. Therefore, while religion can offer justifiable ethical standards, the ontology of Spirit has been bracketed, since no empirical proof has yet been made available that might scientifically verify its reality. For religion to meet both the practical and theoretical needs of a planetary civilization, it must respect the validity of the scientific picture while at the same time pointing out the limited scope of its empirical method. Religion cannot only be critical of science, however; it must also develop its own techniques of transformation to bring the soul into relation to supersensible spiritual realities. Soul-making is an example of such a technique, and can be the catalyst of a new consciousness of religion.
Empiricism has honed only one of the soul’s powers, namely, sensory perception, and due to its great practical successes in technologically extending the reach of sensation, science has tended to ignore the soul’s other capacities. The soul is dynamic, always in motion between its active (poeisis) and passive (paschein) poles. In its sensory mode, the soul passively suffers the world; in its thinking mode, the soul actively creates the world. The reality of Spirit must be considered in the context of this polarization in the life of the soul. A soul whose productive half remained dormant could not experience Christ or Buddha, since these beings are not simply waiting in the outer world for us to perceive. Nor could a soul released from its passionate attunement to the outer world experience their being, since then they would be but figments of inner fantasy evaporating as soon as the fervency of our belief grew tired. The reality of Spirit cannot be known through sensation or conception alone, but must be participated, or enacted, by the organ of Imagination. Imagination unites passivity and activity, perceiving and thinking, and is cultivated by the mutual work of heart and mind one upon the other.
“I am certain of nothing,” writes Keats,
but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination—What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not… The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth (from a letter to Benjamin Bailey on November 22, 1817).
Science, of course, also draws from both ends of the soul’s polarization, being as much a logical as an empirical method. It is primarily a tool of the mind used to read the book of nature, but its emphasis on empirical data alone prevents it from hearing the divine Word spoken in the heart. The role of religion is to remind humanity that the eye of the mind is in need of the heart’s ear, lest we forget our real desire and true identity.
Who is the soul, what does it desire, and why? These are the questions besetting each individual person, and it is through our unique participation in the imaginative process of soul-making that they are answered. Regarding the issue of identity, Buddha taught some of his students the doctrine of anātman (no-self), while to others he granted the reality of the ātman (whose true identity is Bráhman) (GH, p. 81). This is no contradiction, but rather the result of Buddha’s upāya, or skillful means. His teachings are never final, but offered provisionally as helpful aids tailored to the students that he happens to be speaking with in any given moment. Perhaps in the Buddhist context, the soul is best conceived of as a principle, rather than an entity. According to D. T. Suzuki, the soul is tṛṣṇā, the principle of thirst, or desire. In this sense, the soul does not have desires, but in fact is desire (the polarity of the soul discussed above is here preserved, since as desire it is both an active seeking and a passive suffering). Suzuki also suggests that tṛṣṇā is the creator, not just of the individual soul, but also of the material universe itself. We are the microcosmic reflections of its macrocosmic extent.
“As its highest and richest expression,” he writes,
[the human being] can have an insight into the nature of tṛṣṇā and its working. When we really see into ourselves, tṛṣṇā will bare itself before itself in us…Tṛṣṇā lies in us not as one of the factors constituting our consciousness, but it is our being itself. It is I; it is you; it is the cat; it is the tree; it is the rock; it is the snow; it is the atom” (MCB, p. 107-108).
As was held by Christian scholastics, Suzuki is describing how, from a Buddhist perspective, “the soul is, in a way, all things” (Anima quodammodo omnia). In our literalistic age, the soul is looked for in the body, as if in the heart, the lungs, or the pineal gland. For a pre-modern seer like Aquinas, it is rather the body that is in the soul. As tṛṣṇā, the soul creates and gives form to the physical organism, which is “the coagulated, crystallized, or materialized consciousness of the past” (FTM, p. 68). The organism is the product of billions of years of accumulated desire, the materialized memory of past mental activity. In other words, even the body does not escape the process of soul-making. “Man can never be large enough to possess his psychic organs,” writes psychologist James Hillman, “He can but reflect their activities” (RP, p. 173).
Soul-making is an attempt to become more conscious of how our desires shape us, in body and in mind. Both Buddha and Christ teach that the desire that made the universe can, in the awakened, anointed human soul, become a Love that glorifies and redeems all things.
Trinity and Trikaya
When the teachings of Christ first encountered Greek culture, the Biblical account of the creation of the universe through the power of divine speech was understood to be akin to the role of the philosophical concept of Logos, or cosmic intelligence. The incarnation of Christ meant a radical change had occurred in the nature of the world and the human being. For the Greek convert to Christianity, the meaning of the incarnation is that, as John’s Gospel puts it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). No longer simply a philosophical concept, Logos became a living human person made of flesh and blood. Logos, understood macrocosmically, entered fully into the microcosm.
A deeper understanding of the 2nd person, and of the Trinity generally, may be garnered from considering them in relation to the Buddhist Trikaya. My reading of the similarities between the Trinity and Trikaya is predominantly an imaginative exercise or experiment, not a textual exegesis of Buddhist or Christian sources (though these will be consulted). I do not mean to equate the two concepts, but to consider them as unique attempts to articulate the differentiated unity of ultimate reality. I’ll begin this exercise by describing the Trinity and Trikaya each in turn, before moving on to draw out their similarities.
For the Christian, ultimate reality is conceived of as a loving communion between Father, Son, and Spirit. God, though of one substance, is nonetheless three persons, since otherwise, there would be no differentiation in the Godhead, and therefore no possibility of love or relationship. The Father is traditionally described as unknowable and infinitely transcendent (GH, p. 152). The First Letter to Timothy says of the Father that “…no one has ever seen or ever can see him” (6:16). The Son is the image of the Father, the transcendent made immanent by being given concrete form. The Son issues forth eternally from the Father, which is why Jesus says “I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself commanded me what to say and how to speak” (John 12:49). The Son could be described as a doorway, or gate, leading to the Father (GH, p. 105). The Spirit is the advocate who proceeds from the Father and the Son, and who remains on earth after Christ’s resurrection to council humanity concerning the power of Love. The Spirit has also been identified with the personal spirit or breath of Jesus that inhabited his disciples (GH, p. 154).
For the Buddhist (of the Tibetan lineage), ultimate reality is conceived of as infinite spaciousness, though not a spaciousness that is opposed to form. As the Heart Sutra says:
…emptiness [or spaciousness] is form; form is emptiness. Apart from form, emptiness is not; apart from emptiness, form is not. Emptiness is that which is form, form is that which is emptiness.
This spaciousness that is not other than form is called the body of truth, or the Dharmakaya. It is the primordial law and cause of all things (FTM, p. 213). The Dharmakaya, when envisioned and expressed in its mode of creative formation, is called the Sambhogakaya. This is the body of enjoyment and bliss. “From it,” according to Lama Govinda, “flows all deep wisdom and profound truth” (FTM, p. 214). The Sambhogakaya might be conceived of as akin to the Imagination discussed above, the organ of soul-making that unites the spiritual and the sensible through the wisdom and compassion of the heart-mind. When the inspired bliss of the Sambhogakaya is transformed into visible activity by incarnating into human form, it is called the Nirmanakaya, or emanation body (FTM, p. 213). In Tibetan, Nirmanakaya is translated as “tulku,” which refers to a reincarnate lama (GH, p. 190) who has re-entered the physical plane not on accident, but consciously. The Nirmanakaya, then, is a consciously created body (FTM, p. 221). Lama Govinda suggests that only through the Nirmanakaya, as seen from within the world of physical embodiment, can the other two bodies be experienced and realized (FTM, p. 222):
Only in the Nirmanakaya can we realize the Dharmakaya effectively, by converting it into an ever-present conscious force, into an incandescent, all consuming focus of experience, in which all elements of our personality are purified and integrated. This is the transfiguration of body and mind…achieved only by the greatest of saints (ibid.).
The parallels between the Trinity and the Trikaya may already have become apparent, but I will attempt to make them more explicit. It must be acknowledged that there is no perfect one-to-one correspondance between the three bodies and the three persons, but rather a rich ambiguity testifying to the deeply evocative meaning inherent in each doctrine.
Thupten Jinpa links the Dharmakaya with the Father, the Sambhogakaya with the Spirit, and the Nirmanakaya with the Son (GH, p. 189). In this scheme, the Dharmakaya and the Father are both recognized as the inexpressible mystery from which all things freely arise. They are the Truth and the Law underlying the manifest cosmos. The Sambhogakaya and the Spirit are recognized as the love, wisdom, and enjoyment of being that pervade the world at a level subtler than the physical dimension. The Dalai Lama describes how, after Gautama Buddha’s parinirvana, though his physical body decayed and disappeared, his Sambhogakaya, or “state of perfect resourcefulness,” continued and remains ever-present (GH, p. 119). Those still devoted to the Buddha’s teaching benefit by relating to this subtler form of his being. This is very close to the message of John’s Gospel, where Christ says that, after his ascension, the Spirit will be sent to remind the faithful of his message and to aid them in its practice (14:25). Finally, the Nirmanakaya and the Son are recognzied in Jinpa’s scheme as emanations or physical embodiments of subtler forces that have been “stepped down” so as to benefit the temperament of ordinary mortals like ourselves. Were it not for the historical emanation of Gautama Buddha, or the incarnation of Jesus Christ, normal human beings could never have accessed their divine teachings.
Another reading is possible. Relating the Dharmakaya to the Father is unproblematic, but Son and Spirit may also be fruitfully understood as parallels to Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, respectively. The relation between the Sambhogakaya, understood to be the organ of Imagination (as discussed above), and the Son becomes clearer in light of William Blake’s oft repeated insight, that “Jesus is the Imagination.”
Jesus is the Imagination, the creative power at the core of man’s being. All things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Savior, the true vine of eternity, the Human Imagination” (BD, p. 159).
If, as Lama Govinda suggests, the Sambhogakaya is the body that provides an exalted vision of higer forms and ideas (FTM, p. 214), perhaps Christ is not (only) a historical emanation, but an eternally born, universal potency lying dormant in the human soul. Through the processes of interplay between heart, mind, and world at work in soul-making, Christ may be resurrected within each of us as an organ of Imagination, thereby granting us participation in eternal Love and bliss. On this reading, Christ is not (or at least not only) an individual who lived and died in Jerusalem during the first century CE (as in Jinpa’s scheme, where He is equated with the Nirmanakaya), but an ever-flowing creative presence available to those whose heart-mind’s are adequately prepared to witness Him.
The Nirmanakaya, then, can be related to the Spirit, or that which is awakened in the individual human being to the imaginal presence of the Son. As Blake put it, the Spirit is “the intellectual fountain proceeding from Jesus to man” (BD, p. 158). It would be impossible to remain a Christian while denying that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine, and that he indeed walked the earth as a man in 1st century Jerusalem. That Christ is currently present to consciousness on the imaginal, rather than the physical plane, does not mean he wasn’t once physically incarnate. His birth, death, and resurrection as a physical being prepared the human vessel for Spirit to enter into and be realized by our consciousness. The ambiguity between the Son and the Spirit, or the Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, is a reflection of the permeability of the physical plane to the supersensible influence of the Imagination. According to Steiner, this permeability is a result of the spiritual transformation of the very substance of the earth brought about by the Christ event (CMF).
Conclusion: Soul and Spirit
“As various as the Lives of Men are,” writes Keats, “so various become their Souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, identical Souls of the Sparks of his own essence.” If religion is to return to play a fruitful role in our post-secular context, it must re-envision itself so that it might speak to the needs of modern people. Nearly a hundred years of depth psychology have made it increasingly difficult to deny the inherently polytheistic tendencies of the soul. According to Hillman, for whom psychology was akin to soul-making, “The soul’s inherent multiplicity demands a theological fantasy of equal differentiation” (RP, p. 167). Each of us is uniquely shaped by our respective traditions, which is not to deny that all of us are also universally drawn toward Spirit. Spirit is such that, as soon as it is named, it becomes multiple. Christ and Buddha are the voices most easily heard by my soul, but it is through a devotion to their teachings of love and kindness that I become capable of hearing the voices of other traditions. There is no more important challenge, and perhaps none more difficult, than this openness to the wisdom of others.
The “New Age” approach taken in this essay could be criticized as leading to a “religion of the supermarket” (DRB, p. 44), wherein an uprooted individual borrows various elements from the world’s wisdom traditions in order to construct a spiritual orientation most comfortable to their personal inclinations. There is indeed a danger of superficiality in such practices, but the growing interpenetration of traditions in our new planetary context has also created new possibilities for soul-making.
As Chaudhuri has written,
…modern man is uniquely privileged to draw upon the manifold richness of world culture. He can select according to the needs and requirements of his growing soul. The selected material, however diverse in form, can be transformed into the harmony of balanced self-development by the creative spark within him, by his authentic self, which shines most in free communication with the boundless universe (MMR, p. 74).
The world becomes a vale of soul-making when earth is no longer radically separated, due to our sin (or clouded perception), from heaven, nor soul (or desire) separated from Love (or Spirit). Instead, an economy can be opened between the Above and the Below, such that creative divinity participates directly in the life of the soul, and, eventually, in the shaping of the body igniting it.
MMR = Chaudhuri, Haridas. Modern Man’s Religion. 1966. J. F. Rowny Press: Santa Barbara, CA.
DRB = Cornille, Catherine. “Double Religious Belonging: Aspects and Questions.” Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 23. 2003. University of Hawaii Press.
BD = Damon, Samuel Foster. Eaves, Morris. A Blake Dictionary: The ideas and symbols of William Blake. 1988. University Press of New England: Hanover, NH.
FTM = Govinda, Lama Anagarika. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. 1959. Rider & Company: London, UK.
RP = Hillman, James. Revisioning Psychology. 1977. Harper: New York, NY.
GH = Kiely, Robert. The Good Heart: A Buddhist perspective on the teachings of Jesus. 1998. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA.
IRD = Panikkar, Raimon. The Intrareligious Dialogue. 1998. Paulist Press: New York, NY.
CMF = Steiner, Rudolf. Christianity as Mystical Fact. 1997. Anthroposophic Press: Hudson, NY.
MCB = Suzuki, D. T. Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. 2002. Routledge: New York, NY.
Excerpts of John Keats are from the letter dated Feb 19th, 1819 to George and Georgiana Keats (unless otherwise noted by in text citation).
The following is a short personal reflection written for a course on inter-faith dialogue with Prof. Jacob Sherman.
“Any interreligious and interhuman dialogue, any exchange among cultures,” writes Panikkar, “has to be preceded by an intrareligious and intrahuman dialogue, an internal conversation within the person” (p. 310, 1979). My personal interest in religion, broadly construed to include both its theological and practical dimensions, arises out of polarized desires: one the one hand, I long to participate in an enduring community’s celebration and worship of divine reality; on the other hand, I remain unsatisfied by beliefs and practices that do not spring from the unique voice of divinity within me. I call these desires polar not because they are necessarily mutually exclusive, but because a certain tension arises in me whenever I attempt to sync up outward observance with inward contemplation. My desire for integration into a religious community seems to contradict my desire for an inward intimacy with the divine. Whether this tension is a mere appearance, or the result of an ontological rift between self and other, is an issue I hope to explore in the course of the short meditation that follows.
Though I cannot fully identify with any religious culture in particular, the sacred texts and esoteric treatises emerging from several traditions continue to offer me guidance on my individual path. I sometimes use the cliché “spiritual but not religious” to describe myself, but this never feels quite right, since religion in general does not strike me as an essentially dogmatic and so inauthentic response to Spirit. In fact, what calls me to the religious life is precisely the unwavering commitment that it entails. Spirituality absent a religious commitment may leave more room for autonomy and freedom, but what if a genuine relation to Spirit requires submitting to the will of something other than myself?
Of course, there is no religion “in general.” There is a vast array of cultural responses to what for now can be called “Spirit.” But even to say the diversity of religions represent responses to the same “Spirit,” or unified underlying reality, underestimates the extent to which each tradition draws from its own sources in pursuit of its own ends. How am I to decipher which tradition represents an authority worth submitting to if so many different options for belief exist amongst which to choose from? This uncertainty leads me back to my own individual autonomy, but there I find only the dizzying freedom of an “I” unmoored from any established norms or worldviews. Independent of the spiritual desires of other people, I am no longer sure what it is that I myself am after, or even what it might mean to be a self in the first place. No matter which way I turn, toward authority or autonomy, I end up confused. Is there a middle path?
Because I need to call it something, I’ll continue to refer to “Spirit” as the underlying reality drawing me to religious dialogue. Whether it is at work in the space between myself and others, or that between me in relation to myself, Spirit dynamically binds together that which may appear separate. Or at least this presupposition is the ground out of which my faith in a divine reality grows and is nourished. Though I do not know if Christianity is truer than Buddhism, or Mohamed more holy than Moses, I have faith that all human beings ultimately belong to the same universe. This faith implies that failures to communicate across cultures or between religious traditions must not be due to metaphysical discord in the cosmos itself, but rather an epistemic misunderstanding or confusion of practical contexts. In other words, it is not what each tradition is trying to know and to become that differs, but how they come to know and become it. Instead of assuming that each religion has its own unique ends, perhaps it is more fruitful to interpret diversity as the inevitable result of finite creatures attempting to know and love an infinitely creative Spirit.
The tension I experience between the desire to seek refuge in a religious tradition and the desire to intuit the divine mystery afresh within myself is unavoidable if Spirit is the relation between beings, rather than a being among beings. Religious traditions may undoubtedly help to support and sustain this relation, but they can just as easy strangle it. Spirit is grander than can be contained by the categories of any public religion or private spirituality. Its source is deeper than either. What if the very possibility of communication between beings (including that between myself and my own being) rests upon the reality of Spirit? Panikkar writes of “intrahuman” dialogue alongside “intrareligious” dialogue, which is a reflection of his cosmotheandric intuition of the interpenetration of the human, the universe, and the divine. If such interpenetration is taken to be metaphysically basic, then reality itself exists in a state of super-position between the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal. The diversity of perspectives making interreligious dialogue necessary is then a reflection of the creative instability of Spirit at an ontological level, where as Panikkar says “everything is ultimate mediation, or rather communion” (p. 240, 1996). Each perspective on divinity exists only by virtue of its relation to the others, and it is in this tension of relation that Spirit brings forth the world anew in each moment (paying due respect to the accumulated wisdom of Its past incarnations in the process, of course).
But how is it that I am capable of taking such a perspective on the religious practices of others? Upon what sacred ground do I stand in order to make such metaphysical pronouncements? Is there some post-religious point of view capable of reconciling the teachings of all the traditions of the world? I can only have faith in this possibility, because there is, admittedly, no such point of view available to contemporary humanity (at least not one that all the religions might participate in affirming). The whole effort of interreligious dialogue must, in the end, be guided by a similar faith. The hope is that reality is ultimately communicable: both that Being itself opens intelligibly to beings, and that beings open intelligibly to other beings; and that, though the truth of reality has not yet been and may never be completely conveyed (at least between beings, if not between Being and being), human beings may nevertheless continue to asymptotically approach the universal translatability of their diverse points of view through sincere cross-cultural and interpersonal engagement.
The translatability of one culture’s relation to Spirit into another’s is never without remainder or distortion, just as a spoken sentence is never identical to the vague feeling which precedes its articulation. But in the act of attempting to communicate, and especially after having done so, the original feeling is itself transformed. It moves into an interpretive field of far greater context and dexterity, gathering greater self-understanding along the way. Translations are expressive trials where initially offensive (even if unintentional) renderings of the other meet resistance until, eventually, conversation becomes constructive and mutually revelatory. The participants in the dialogue begin to learn something, not only about each other, but also about themselves. It is not that the interior space of a foreign tradition becomes fully transparent, but that each comes to inhabit a newly enacted common interiority, a “third culture” or novel way of being human in relation to each other and to Spirit. No doubt these interior spaces will be tenuous at first, since they lack the sedimented historical matrix of symbolism and ritual that protects each of the world’s great wisdom traditions from dissolution in the sands of time. But perhaps what is needed for inter- and intrahuman dialogue is more a way of being than an ideological space to inhabit or position oneself within. This way of being would acknowledge the ontological role of mediation: that all beings are always already interbeings. It is only Being itself, or Spirit, that provides for their diversity and individuality. Spirit is infinite, and finitude its way of entering into dialogue with itself. Strictly among themselves, beings are radically open to mutual influence and transformation. But it is only through their relation to divinity that they gather themselves into a unity, be it a unity of self or community.
This is the faith that guides my daily routines and daring adventures among others. It is an open-ended faith, a path, and not a place of refuge. I believe this openness is not vague and ambiguous, but a clear reflection of the transitional nature of our times. We do not know what religious forms will emerge in the coming decades to lead our increasingly interconnected planet forward, but like Diana Eck, I am convinced that “Laying the foundations for one world is the most important task of our time” (p. 30, 1985).
1. Eck, Diana. 1985. Minutes, Sixth Meeting of the Working Group of Dialogue with People of Living Faiths. Geneva: World Council of Churches.
2. Panikkar, Raimon.
—1979. Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics: Cross-Cultural Studies. New York: Paulist Press.
—1996. “A Self-Critical Dialogue”. In The Intercultural Challenge of Raimon Panikkar, ed. Joseph Prabhu. New York: Orbis Books.
 I do not want to rule out the possibility of revelation, which some traditions claim to be the bearers of.
Logos of the Lived Body:
Remembering the Way Home
By Matthew Segall
Buddhist Philosophical Systems
Prof. Steven Goodman
“Embodiment is: emerging into this world of light and sound…confinement to a body as a constantly changing piece of luggage, always a surprise to look down and it has sprouted hair or breasts, become fat, wrinkled, thin, peeling, saggy…becoming afraid that this will end…frustration of mind-never-still standing square in the way of Mind…wonder of using mind-that-can-grow-quiet to encounter Mind, body-that-can-sit to realize Body…” –Jan Chozen Bays (Being Bodies: Buddhist Women and the Paradox of Embodiment, p. 171-172)
The fact that I exist at all strikes me as unendingly weird (German: werden– ‘to become’; wer– ‘to turn, bend’); but, what at first pass seems like the most stubborn and persistent of facts may, after the careful inquiry and practice of re-turning (i.e., bending back to look again), reveal itself as a fleeting appearance. Perhaps, if my self-query is sufficiently penetrating, the seeming fact of my separate existence will dissolve entirely into the blissful radiance of Śūnyatā. Who and what am I, really? How is it, exactly, that I exist in this wonderfully weird world (W3)? And why should my mysterious existence continue to come into being at all? These questions—the who, what, how, and why of existence—will guide me along this hopefully homeward bound philosophical holzwege (‘wood path’). My walk along this unknown wood path is risky (wagen– ‘to risk’), because I know not from where I came nor when I will end—I simply (and often quite confusedly) find myself thrown here amongst others without memory of my whence and without clear sight of my whither. All I know is that the path I walk is motivated by a heartfelt concern, not for the proper definition of abstract concepts, but for the ultimate significance of my and my fellow’s being-toward-death. I am compelled by this uncanny situation to develop a coherent account of my body-as-lived that is adequate to the task of guiding my journey home (i.e., homing) through such a W3.
The practice of re-turning is also one of remembering, of making the self-body-world complex whole once more through a process of anamnesis: I must call to mind again that in me which is aware of the original universal current of intelligent energy (Logos). The body (Sarx) and its intimate relations are the place of my concern and the mandalic center of significance around which all my existential thoughts will revolve.
“The body,” says Guenther,
“acts as an orientational point in terms of which and around which the surrounding world in all its richness and variety is structured and organized” (Matrix of Mystery, p. 22).
My holzwege will be translated by alphabetic magic into vessels of visible sound, and so must function for the reader as a grammatical walk through tangled webs of English syntax, rather than a bodily sojourn across earthly trails. You cannot literally walk by my side into the invisible landscapes that I seek to traverse, but nonetheless, the written words that mark my movements are originally bodied forth as speech, and speech is the site where my “ethically agitated altruistic intent” (Goodman, 12/7/09) for self and others first fully emerges into the world. As a sentient being of human incarnation, my “authentic utterances” (MoM, p. 67) serve as mediators between the actual and possible worlds that my heart-mind aspires to know and dwell within. As per the demands of discursive investigation, despite my heartfelt concern for concrete matters of life and death, the perspectival power of abstraction and conceptuality must be called upon. I lay down this path in walking home not to outrun the mind’s tendency to grasp-at-in-attempting-to-contain the rich perceptual flow of experiential reality, but to consciously engage these mental tendencies in an attempt to transform them, making of the thinking process a spiritual ally.
As Guenther says,
“Concepts imply selection; that is, some aspects of what we perceive are contrasted with others, some are even suppressed, and the emotions assist in further distorting that which is perceived, because they, too, are denied their scope. In the context of our body this state of affairs is termed the body of sedimented drives and tendencies initiated by and filtered through a system of concepts and discursive ventures” (MoM, p. 25).
In being explicit about the telos of my current task (remembering the way home), I hope to avoid the distortion that might be caused by drives and tendencies that remain sedimented and suppressed. I will select and contrast the perceptions provided by my earthly embodiment, being careful along the way to avoid fruitlessly constructing a castle of systematic thought which in the end serves only to cast an enormous shadow over the nearby shack where I find myself still living. I desire not a new textual representation of the body’s place on the path, but a praxecology applicable to actual life on earth with others.
In a topological sense, the universe is a seamless garment of excitatory intelligence whose energy can, through “bending and twisting,” be “stepped down” and worn by an endless variety of sentient beings even while maintaining the “dynamic invariance” of its “formal gestalt” (MoM, p. 27). The universe remains eternally whole even while impermanent particulars are constantly being born and dying as expressions of its “cosmic evolutionary force moving in an optimizing direction” (MoM, p. 33).
“There is a twisting or going astray of the gestalt into the shape of a body,” says Guenther,
“such that a vast expanse is crumbled into a tight sheath and a transparent and open presence is mistaken (misread) as something which, as an isolated or more exactly self-isolating system, now begins to exert its gravitational pull” (MoM, p. 27).
The nature of this misreading is of great concern to me, as the ignorance and isolation it produces are the chief sources of suffering in my life. That the open transparency of the vast expanse is mistaken by a self-isolating system suggests that only I am to blame for the suffering (duḥkha– ‘crowded space’) associated with Samsāric experience. This realization leads not to resignation, but to the insight that Nirvāṇa, too, is potentially my karma (i.e., my responsibility): Through the non-arising (nirodha) of a mistaken reading of reality (and a mistaken identity), dharma can shine through the twisted garment of excitatory intelligence making up my body, thereby revealing the anti-gravitational pull of “pristine cognitiveness” lighting the path home (MoM,p. 10). The body-as-lived Samsārically is like a burdensome piece of luggage dragged along by an alienated ego whose lack of substantial existence necessitates its forever-thwarted attempts to have a life (as if it were not life that always already has it). I do not have a body or a life, but continually become a lived body thrust into and drained out of the intrinsic emptiness of being by the mysterious and intelligent dynamics of our W3. Let us now turn to the task of remembering how this weirdness bodies forth so that the Nirvāṇic impulse, having gone astray, can find again its homeward way.
Bhāvanā: Meditations on the Spirit of Birth and Death
I first entered this world not out of my own desire, but that of my parents. Twenty-four years ago, Eros’ arrow hit its mark and the ancient biological ritual of genetic transfer was successfully accomplished. A seed was fertilized and began to grow within the womb of my mother. I have no conscious recollection of gestating within her for those formative enneadic months, but the warmth and comfort I feel laying in bed beneath blankets each night evokes dim and distant memories. Upon falling asleep, my lungs are once again breathed for me as my waking life in this W3 is submerged into dreams and darkness. The entire sequence of birth, life, and death is fractally enfolded in each and every day-night cycle. Laying in bed while dreaming, I inwardly re-imagine the world—my limp body vegetating as if still afloat in the maternal waters of pre-creation; waking to the light of morning, I am born again into the gravitationally-restrained motility of life on earth; when of my own weight I grow weary in the evening, I retire to pass once more into the cleansing fires of deep sleep, forgetting all that seemed burdensome and heavy beneath the harsh light of day.
“Twilight is intimate,” writes Erwin Strauss,
“because here nature veils the boundaries separating things from one another as well as the distances that divide us from them” (PP, p. 19).
In sleep, the body is lived again as an undivided whole, temporarily escaping the tumult of daily life. I become again an unborn, still nascent consciousness weaning at the teat of the mother matrix. But all things turn, and in time this side of the earth rolls over to face the sun for another round of wakeful life. If the sleep-wake cycle and the life-death cycle are analogous, then life, as an integral whole, is rounded by birth and death. These events represent the horizon surrounding my presence on earth as a lived body. Birth raises my lived body into the light of the world until death decays it, returning it to the dirt out of which it was grown. Unlike the vegetative sentience of plants, however, my animate life as a human being presents me with a most auspicious occasion for fully awakening.
The place and time of my bodily birth was karmic, the fruit of the conditions surrounding past parental action. Guenther suggests that it is through my body that I “actively [engage] in and with [the] world”—through my body that I am “in touch with” both touching (noesis) and touchable (noema) (MoM, p. 115).By right of birth, my lived body, despite its apparent spatial and temporal limitations, shares in the mysterious indestructible intelligence of the seamless garment of ever-excitable pluripotentiality constituting Being itself (MoM, p. 114).The self-organizing “ensemble” of my body, speech, and mind functions as a unique expression of this universal source, free to participate in but also to seemingly stray from the vast flowering continuity of our cosmogenesis. Seemingly losing our way through the forests of the formal gestalt is possible because of the self-isolating nature of ignorance (avidyā) and our “inveterate human tendency to lose touch and forget, err and stray, stumble and fall” (Levin, p. 257). Losing touch is the result of an overly rigid embodiment leading to a loss of responsive motility and sensitivity.
What is required is a “transition from rigidity to fluidity,” according to Guenther, wherein
“the body as me-as-embodied is experienced as a process of embodying which, in the last analysis, turns out to be the spiritual richness that pervades the whole of Being…Thus every individual is an intentional structure in which the inseparability of mentation, speaking, and embodying occurs as an undivided and indivisible totality” (MoM, p. 196).
Though it may at times appear as if my mind and body, thoughts and speech, lose contact and become fragmented, it remains the case that underlying my personhood is a process of embodiment whose intrinsic motivation is for growth toward wholeness. The garment of excitatory intelligence seems to become tangled and restrictive only superficially, if viewed through occluded eyes or approached with an attitude of ungrateful resignation. The seamless fabric of reality cannot tear, nor can knots in its fibers remain for long before their tension unravels back into the void.
Guenther writes in relation to this inevitability of our awakening that,
“Our internally constituted sense of reality (comprising our embodiment, speaking, and mentation) and our externally constituted sense of reality (comprising the totality of phenomena) are felt as a phantom-like fabric, emerging out of nothing, yet unfolding as something—this ‘something’ being attested by the fact that there is a coming-into-presence, and the ‘nothing’ by the fact that this coming-into-presence never occurs as a reifiable domain” (MoM, p. 79).
No body that has been born can avoid returning to the emptiness from which it came. Death is part of the bargain of embodiment, the energetic payment for life’s temporary far-from-equilibrium adventure as a self-isolating space-time event (or sentient autopoietic being). All forms are empty of substantial existence, even while emptiness remains itself overflowing with an infinite variety of potential forms, each one awaiting its chance to participate in the choreography of cosmic coexistence (tToK, p. 248).
I am born into this W3 again each morning refreshed, having sloughed off the cellular sacrifices whose living offspring continue to generously body forth an organic dwelling place for that in me which is aware and was so even before my mother and father crossed the chromosomes that unfolded into my spatiotemporal form of becoming. Physical reality offers no stable ground for my lived body, but “experience-as-such, having no root, is the root of all that is (MoM, p. 79).
What am I?
What is my body? It appears that all the myriad forms of intentionality that I experience in daily life and dreaming, including my own flesh, are impermanent: grasper and graspable arise together, neither able to sustain objective stability independent of its shifting relation to the other. I thrive as my body not by clinging to an illusory stasis, but by passing away gracefully. Enlightened life as a particular body (Nirmaṇakāya) is the art of decaying willfully while radiating love to others (as the sun consumes itself to warm the earth). My body’s purpose in life is to suffer for the love of others. In this case, my bodily telos is sacrificial service—my body a vessel to be filled-until-overflowing with compassion (Mahākaruṇā).
What is my speech? It seems that all the melodic sounds that I hear or utter, while intrinsically meaningful, nevertheless recede as quickly as they emerge. Meaning cannot remain the same for long, because it emerges from the ongoing dance of differences, the rhythmic call and response of intelligent dynamism. Dogmatic doctrines that once conveyed truth become fossilize with time. Only images evoked with living words and symbols manage to communicate the timeless joys of creative play underlying the manifest universe (Sambhogakāya). The topology of Being is like a text, a logos, always open to fresh interpretation (Levin, p. 260). My speech’s purpose in life is to sing with others in poetic praise of our “interbeing” (Thich Nhat Hahn), that common body in which each contains all (Being Bodies, p. 9).
What is my mind? It appears that all ideas and emotions mentally conceived are but clouds floating through an open sky of“ceaseless pristine cognitiveness” (MoM, p. 79). Through all this conceptuo-emotive commotion, experience transparent to the open expanse of Śūnyatā endures unbroken, undisturbed. The mind is the “directedness of awareness” that, when purified of the desire to possess its intended objects, provides the spiritual momentum underlying the continuous authentic voicing of signifiers relevant to the unfolding character of the encompassing “meaning-saturated gestalt” (MoM, p. 196). An enlightened mind unveils the absolute reality of complete, ever-present emptiness (Dharmakāya) underlying all form. Not a mere heap of thoughts and emotions, the mind is the guiding thread unifying the autopoietic processes linking speech, body, and world.
What am I? I am not a thing, physical or mental, but an
“action of resonating concern…embodied [as a] locus of experience…installed in a world with respect to which I…can engage in various ‘world’-related endeavors” (MoM, p. 195).
In body, speech, and mind, I engage the world because I care. I care because I know the eternal presence of Being can be so easily misread and ignorantly experienced as a dualistic realm of subjects/beings over and against objects/environments. I cannot be separated from my body, my voice, or my mind—nor from the phenomenal world these open me toward; I am aware of but not contained by any of these.
It seems I am not a what—I am a who. As a who, as opposed to a what, I cannot be chained to any particular substance, quality, or idea. As is written in the gSang-ba snying-po:
“…there is [nothing] that could be called a fetter;
Nor is there anyone to be fettered!
Fettering is done by the divisic notion which holds to a self
Tying and untying knots in the open sky” (MoM, p. 31).
A who is not an immutable essence, but a mandalic concentration of energy representable as a cross-cap (2-D), sphere, (3-D), or toroidal vortex (4-D) that forms an extensionless point of origin attended by an appreciative surrounding audience.
“In this manifestation of the point,” says Guenther,
“a departure from its source is indicated, and this departure expresses itself in the experienced (relished) relationship of the central (‘original’) point and the peripheral (‘moving’) point becoming an arc which, as it closes on itself, becomes the circle of (‘encircling’) attendants. Thus, it appears as an enlivening geometrical configuration imbued with the experience of beauty [see title page for visual representations]” (MoM, p. 43).
I am the site of mutual concern where self and other arise together as conspirators in the intrinsically ordered and marvelously coherent unfolding of the universe. I am Dasein, the cosmos as it happens “here” (Goodman, 11/30/09). But here is also “there”; I cannot be without you. In the dependent co-arising of our being-with one another, we participate in the further development of “an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (Corpus Hermeticum, 3rd century). As a who, I am the experiential event horizon created by the folding of the garment of Being back upon itself. Each who emerges as a center attended by a surrounding audience of others with their own unique perspectives (“…center is everywhere…”). This twisting of the universe into multiple centers of perspective prevents any final closure on the identity of a particular being. I remain always open to reinterpretation or even reinvention depending on the company I find myself sharing. The universal contains all particulars (there is no outside to a universe whose “circumference is nowhere”—all things share in unbounded oneness), even while each particular represents a unique once-occurant emergence onto the world stage.
If I truly am a who of such infinite significance, it must be possible to fully embody the deathless state in this life. The section to follow records my recollection of the home I’ve never left.
Nirvāṇa is the deathless state that naturally arises with the extinction of Samsāric existence as a being-toward-death. It is the realization of the unfettered bliss of eternal life. Opening to the possibility of deathlessness requires confronting the end (i.e., telos) of my embodiment: death. An embodied life lived awakened (as a Buddha) or asleep (as a sentient being) ends all the same with old age, sickness, and death. What attains deathlessness is not the body, but a pure awareness of and as Śūnyatā that, while alive, may or may not have become transparent to itself despite the apparent restraints of embodiment.
The analogy between sleep and death provides a conceptual aid to support a deeper understanding of the wholeness underlying the life-death cycle. While my body has not yet perished on the physical plane, I have fallen asleep to its presence here/there many times.
“If authentic being-toward-death dwells in angst,” says Corey Anton,
“authentic being-toward-sleep opens humanity to the abiding joy of a more inclusive ground of being. It takes courage to endure the angst of authentically reckoning with death, but we take blissful comfort when we understand that, as alive, existence is always already less than the whole of who we are. To fall asleep is to give up momentarily on the individuated project of resolute existence; it is to let all cares fall to oblivion” (Anton, p. 194).
But individuation is not so easily escaped. The analogy between death and sleep is stressed by the temporary duration of the sleeping state. We lay our bodies down at night only to rest for the coming of a new dawn. The death of the body would appear at first glace to be permanent; however, with the realization of the deathless state beyond the body, reincarnation becomes not a return to bodily entrapment, but an awakening to the responsibility of compassionate coexistence. This is so because, as Nāgārjuna has written, emptiness is not other than form, nor Nirvāṇa other than Samsāra. The truly enlightened (those awake to the pristine cognitiveness underlying their bodily incarnation) do not choose heaven over earth, but forego eternal bliss for the sake of the holier work of easing the suffering of others. Full realization of the emptiness of the deathless state is immediately followed by an outpouring of compassion for all who live and die upon the earth (all sentient beings). Buddhahood reaches its apex not with Nirvāṇa, but with the boddhisatvic vow of willful service to others.
The difference between an arhat and a boddhisatva might be clarified by examining their spatial and temporal backgrounds. Space as the unconditioned openness underlying all apparently material existence provides every body with an opportunity for awakening to the freedom of its intrinsic emptiness. The arhat has realized this spatiousness by letting go of all attachments to the realm of ever-changing forms. But the time dimension is not overshadowed by space; if emptiness is not other than form, the unfinished evolution of the manifest cosmos from origin to Omega calls the enlightened back into human history to participate in the eventual redemption of the world. The boddhisatva hears this calling and responds wholeheartedly. No longer identified merely with the physical body, with its self-centered concerns of pleasure and pain, of having and getting, the boddhisatva is motivated instead by the project of midwiving awakening in all sentient beings through loving kindness and skillfully compassionate action. Embodying deathlessness is not an end in itself, but a catalyst for self- and other-transformation in a life no longer defined in opposition to death. Death, like sleep, is integral with the spiritual purpose of life: only by reckoning ourselves with the temporal destiny of our lived body can the blissful eternal presence of spaciousness be brought forth into the earthly realm in service of all who still suffer through the tangled confusions of Samsāra.
The body can seem at times a chore and a burden. But the seed of unfettered existence lies hidden even in the most uncomfortable of circumstances. Never truly isolated, the body remains always arrayed within the “formal gestalt” of a universal coherence. This gestalt is not fixed, but evolutive, and so the body’s seeming instability and excitatory inclination is a “stepped down” expression of the universe’s seamless current of intelligent energy. Returning home is making of this bodily incarnation a temple to the intelligence at work within all things. Through all my earthly travels and ordeals, I remain attuned to the intrinsic wholeness and beauty of our shared adventure of cosmogenesis. My bodily form is a gift, a house where Being is granted a clearing through which it can become present to itself and others.
My holzwege has not been straight or exhaustive; much has been left unexplored, and perhaps some of the discursive trails I’ve traced end only in thickets. I end only where I began, with the awareness that the only home I’ll ever know is already here. But a home without the company of others lacks warmth and good conversation. I’d rather continue my eternal wanderings through this W3 in search of those friends whose heart burns with the same passionate flame that has brought light to my path. Perhaps together we can work to make a home expansive and transparent enough for all to dwell. The earth awaits this most marvelous of divine deeds.
1) Anton, Corey. Human Studies. Volume 29 (2006). ‘Dreamless Sleep and the Whole of Human Life: An Ontological Exposition’
2) Grof, Stan. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. 2000.
3) Guenther, Herbert. Tibetan Buddhism in Western Perspective. 1989Matrix of Mystery. 1984.
4) Levin, David Michael. Ed. by Graham Parkes. Heidegger and Eastern Thought. ‘Mudra as Thinking: Developing our Wisdom-of-Being in Gesture and Movement.’ 1987.
5) Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco. The Tree of Knowledge: Biological Roots of Human Cognition. 1988.
6) Straus, Erwin. Phenomenological Psychology. 1980.
 Praxecology is a neologism whose meaning was first articulated in my essay, Logos of the Living Earth: Towards a Gaian Praxecology (2009). I invoke it here to continue to build upon its meaning, which “is not theory or praxis alone, but human understanding-as-participation in the meaningful cycles and evolutions of the earth community…[and] larger cosmogenic whole” to which all sentient beings belong (p. 4).
 First order autopoiesis occurs in each of the hundreds of trillions of cells composing our human bodies; second order autopoiesis maintains the metazoic form of our human bodies (see Maturana and Varela, 1988). A non-organic, primordial autopoiesis might be attributed to atoms, and a third order, social autopoiesis could be said to allow human bodies to consensually coordinate their intentions and behaviors via the enactment of domains of linguistic significance. Each of these microcosmic orders of nested autopoiesis shows an organizational similarity to the macrocosmic Being of the universe as an “atemporally operative dissipative structure” (MoM, p. 40). See title page for visual representation of this toroidal form.
 “You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within—the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased, and at a price. So glorify God in your body” -1st Corinthians 6:19-20. Compassionate coexistence with others is the only proper payment for the gift of individual existence.
Despite my resolute sense of the sacred nature of earthly existence, religious belief has yet to strike me as a particularly appropriate form of response to the presence of the holy. Belief is to be distinguished from Faith, in that believing implies conceiving of the existence of spiritual beings without the perceptual experience to give such conceptions their content. Faith, in contrast, involves opening one’s innermost heart to the Wisdom of the divine and is the first step toward accessing supersensible experience.
Beliefs are empty wishes, which according to Rudolph Steiner, are “deeply bound up with personal egoism…rising out of the body like subjective smoke” (IMS, p. 233). I may believe a friend’s testimony concerning any number of worldly issues, but I cannot settle for a secondhand understanding of the true source of my deeply felt spiritual intuitions. I am forced, then, in this essay, to go beyond belief by way of Faith, that mode of loving perception whose content is Wisdom. In this way, I hope to contact the true source of my desire for the divine.
But leaving behind religious teachings and symbols entirely would be an arrogant mistake, stranding me in uncharted astral waters without any direction home. The human soul is a stormy sea between the lonely island I call “me” and the shores of a shared earthly destiny. Crossing these treacherous waters requires more than my ego can take. Psyche (my soul) is a spiritual being who cannot be an experience had by my ego, because my ego is always already adrift within Her, already swallowed whole. To calm the seas of my soul, I can only die willingly for Her in Faith that She redeems me. She is the Church, not of Rome, but of the earth entire. In Her, I find my destiny.
The maps toward Her hidden treasure have been written for us by countless spiritual seers, each urging us to brave the depths of Her psychic sea so that we may see with them what our earthly senses conceal. Her treasure is buddhi, the gift of intuitive knowing that bridges heaven and earth and turns death into eternal life.
The sacred scriptures pointing signs for us in the direction of the divine are many, but in this essay, I will discuss those mentioning three beings in particular: Krishna, Buddha, and Christ. In what follows, I will attempt, aided by Faith, Wisdom, and Love to know with these beings the purpose of their presence on earth, and to see with them how they are guiding the evolution of humanity toward a rebirth as the children of Gaia.
The human, at present, is a being precariously caught between the ignorant instincts of its animal past and the angelic gnosis of its spiritual future. Said differently, the human is a heavenly being still in the process of becoming fully conscious of its mission on earth.
The human soul, wounded by the split of the ego from the unconscious, is torn between a desire to live and a fear of death. In such a wounded state, humanity has little choice but to make of life a war in defense from death. Out of this confusion (confusion, because war for life only assures that death prevails) grows the soul’s conscience, its sense of good and evil. These moral opposites arise because the ego knows of no other scheme with which to make sense of its precarious mortal existence.
Humanity’s inability to see the meaning of the playful war of these friendly enemies (good and evil, life and death, desire and fear) is responsible for shattering its collective Psyche into an untold number of ego identities, for whom collectivity has become unconscious. The current age of spiritual darkness due to egoic isolation is one of war for forgotten wisdom buried beneath the blood of ages, for as Krishna says, only he or she “who in all things is without affection though visited by this good or that evil and neither hates nor rejoices, [only] his [or her] intelligence sits firmly founded in wisdom,” (BG, 2:57).
Krishna is the being that helps open the human heart to the karma of the generations who have come before, in whose deaths the lives of the present steal their time. Krishna is consciousness of the past, and all its implications for humanity’s future path. In Krishna, one becomes conscious of the weight of the whole human mass, or what Teilhard de Chardin might call the “great Monad” (HM, p. 188).
In the opening scenes of the Bhagavad-Gita, after being urged by his as yet unrecognized charioteer to ride forth into battle against his own family, the warrior Arjuna is caught in an epic struggle with the great moral forces in his soul. The war of Kurukshetra is set to begin, but Arjuna throws down his bow and arrow because he cannot bear the thought of slaying his own people, of embracing the cosmic significance and ultimate sacrifice of the task before him.
Arjuna looks to his charioteer for help, saying:
It is poorness of spirit that has smitten away from me my true heroic nature, my whole consciousness is bewildered in its view of right and wrong. I ask thee which may be better [to fight, or not]—that tell me decisively. I take refuge as a disciple with thee; enlighten me, (BG, 2:7).
His charioteer responds:
Finite bodies have an end, but that which possesses and uses the body, is infinite, illimitable, eternal, indestructible. Therefore fight, O Bharata. He who regards the soul as a slayer, and he who thinks it is slain, both of them fail to perceive the truth. It does not slay, nor is it slain, (BG, 2:18-19).
In the chapters that follow, the charioteer eventually reveals himself to be Krishna, the Lord of all existences. He shares with Arjuna many lessons concerning the inevitability of action in the constantly flowing realm of Prakriti (Nature). Among these lessons are the yogas leading the divinely inspired worker to act without attachment to the fruits of his or her labor while knowing Purusha (Soul) through devotion to the supreme Brahman. Bhakti brings one closer to the divine essence within, the atman, which when identified with heals the egoic rift in Psyche by reminding us of our eternal origin and destiny. The necessity of uniting the three yogas of action, knowledge, and love is a message running throughout the Gita, but the most important impartation occurs in chapter 11.
Arjuna, now free of self-pity and the delusion that his egoic indecision might forestall the inevitable cosmic unrolling of the Supreme Godhead’s secret labor on earth, asks Lord Krishna to reveal his divine form and body.
The Gita describes Krishna’s supreme form:
It is that of the infinite Godhead whose faces are everywhere…a world-wide divinity seeing with innumerable eyes, speaking from innumerable mouths, armed for battle with numberless divine uplifted weapons…the whole world multitudinously divided and yet unified is visible in the body of the God of Gods, (BG, 11:9-14).
Arjuna struggles to see such a tremendous vision, which he says is “hard to discern because Thou art a luminous mass of energy on all sides of me, an encompassing blaze, a sun-bright fire-bright Immeasureable,” (p. 176).
A warrior of another time, Teilhard de Chardin, seems to have encountered a similar many-eyed, many-mouthed divine being while embroiled in war against his own European family, calling it variously “an immense human Presence” (HM, p. 174), and “a Soul greater than my own” (HM, p. 175). He echoes the difficulty expressed by Arjuna, saying that the “gift or faculty of perceiving, without actually seeing…is still comparatively rare,” (HM, p. 31). Krishna relates the same when he says, “What thou hast to see, this thy human eye cannot grasp; but there is a divine eye (an inmost seeing), and that eye I now give to thee,” (BG, 11:8). This eye belongs to the atman, whose spiritual sight sees beneath the surfaces that separate to the face shared by All.
The intense human energy that is brought forth in war seems to have served as the provocation for the emergence of such a spiritual sight in both Arjuna and Teilhard. As Teilhard says, “The effect of the war was to break through the crust of the commonplace and conventional [so as to open a window] onto the hidden mechanisms and deep strata of what humanity is becoming,” (HM, p. 178). In this way, the confusion of good and evil are transcended through a vision of the future, as the full breadth of time and the path of world history are made present. Evil becomes, given such a view, the provocateur of further evolution—the light that violently wakes the Self (atman) from its slumber deep within the clouded human soul.
As Teilhard says, the outward chaos of the front lines, like a crashing wave, curls upon itself and develops within one:
“…an underlying stream of clarity, energy, and freedom that is to be found hardly anywhere else in ordinary life—and the new form that the soul then takes on is that of the individual living the quasi-collective life of all men, fulfilling a function far higher than that of the individual, and becoming fully conscious of this new state,” (HM, p. 168).
Krishna-consciousness calls upon one to go beyond the isolated egoic state and its culturally relative sense of good and evil by offering insight into the mission of humanity as a whole. Krishna is the first awakening of the human Self (atman) and its demand of personal sacrifice for love of All (Brahman). The ego must transform, like Arjuna and Teilhard, by remembering the momentum of karmic current carrying it out of the fragmentation of old, and seeing, with them, the future unification that redeems its present sacrifices. With the knowledge gained through such sight, one is called to fight not for hatred of one’s enemies or the spoils of war, but for love of an earthly destiny decreed by heaven.
In the closing pages of the Gita, Krishna offers his final teaching to Arjuna, saying:
Devoting all thyself to Me, giving up in the conscious mind [ego] all actions into Me, resorting to Yoga of the will and intelligence be always one in heart and consciousness with Me, (BG, 18:57).
To which Arjuna responds:
Destroyed is my delusion, I have regained memory through Thy grace, O Infallible One, I am firm, dispelled are my doubts. I will act according to Thy word, (BG, 18:73).
“We are,” as Teilhard says, “the countless centers of one and the same sphere” (HM, p. 192) rushing toward an inevitable return to psychic and spiritual wholeness. Only by yolking individual knowledge, action, and love for the sake of collective human destiny can one participate in bringing to fruition the divine mission on earth.
Krishna grants the human being a glimpse of the glory of his or her dharma by reminding him or her of their terrifying karma and the sacrifices its purification requires. Fully acknowledging one’s dharmic duty involves purifying the soul of its desires and fears. The teachings of the Buddha provide an appropriate practice kindling in the soul the fires of such purification.
The Buddhist Pāramitās provide the ego with a vessel to carry it from the island of isolated suffering across turbulent seas to the shores of enlightened compassion. One such path toward moral perfection and wise understanding can be found in the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.
The first Truth concerns dukkha, or the fact that egoic life is suffering. Before Prince Gotama realized his inner Buddha-nature, his encounter with the three sorrows of age, sickness, and death nearly overwhelmed him. During the course of spiritual development, every individual is forced to confront these same sorrows in one way or another. Most initially ignore and repress them, turning their eyes elsewhere toward the many distractions afforded by countless bodily desires. But beneath the surface of such superficial pleasures, there begins to boil a sense of the emptiness of all egoic longings. The ego is possessed by a thirst that knows no satisfaction, and so eventually, dissatisfaction begins to overflow it, carrying the sorrows back into consciousness where they drown one in despair.
The Buddha invites one to sit with this psychic crisis rather than run, such that in its painful message is seen the source of the cure for all earthly sorrows. Recognizing that life lived egoically is a disease is the first step along the path toward calming the unsettled waters of the soul.
The second Noble Truth concerns samudaya, or the origin of suffering. Only once the impermanence of all manifest form is accepted and the sorrows of age, sickness, and death have been faced can the cause of such afflictions become apparent. It is craving for and attachment to the flux of phenomena that disquiets the soul and gives rise to its suffering. An ego still immersed in the uneven seas of desire is afflicted with a dis-ease occluding the clarity of its dharmic destination. Unless the ego-identified soul is cured of its suffering, one’s Buddha-nature remains but a seed awaiting the lush soil affording it an opportunity to grow.
The third Noble Truth, nirodha, concerns the cure allowing for the cessation of suffering. In this Truth is found the promise of the Buddhist path, that desire and its samsaric effects can be overcome and transformed into the bliss of nirvana. Nirvana is the extinction of desire through the realization of an emptiness (Suññatā) so luminously alluring that one cannot help but fill it with infinite compassion (Karuṇā). With this, the seed, or Tathāgatagarbha (GH, p. 105), of one’s inherent Buddha-nature absorbs the now purified water of the soul and begins to grow.
The fourth Noble Truth concerns mārga, or the Eightfold Path. It lays out a systematic way of engaging life as a spiritual practice in order to cultivate the seeds of wisdom (prajñā), morality (sīla), and concentration (samādhi) in oneself. Of course, an initial glimmer of insight was required before one could find the path at all. Without having the capacity to deeply recognize the inadequacy of egoic existence, one cannot even begin to take seriously the wisdom and moral precepts contained in the Eightfold Path.
As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, in each person hides “the pure nature, the potential…to overcome imperfections and attain liberation,” (GH, p. 105). A natural awareness of the ever-present seed of wisdom within allows one to begin the process of cultivation. Once one has mastered right speech, action, and livelihood, he or she can begin to cultivate right effort, mindfulness, and concentration. With continued practice, the path culminates in a full flowering of the divine wisdom of buddhi, the intuitive intelligence lying dormant in the heart of each of us.
Buddhi opens in us a gateway between the heavenly realm of eternity and the earthly passage of time, giving us insight into the essence of our existence. The purpose of Mahayanist Buddhist practice, however, is not merely the attainment of Nirvana for oneself, but the transformation of one’s whole being into a bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva is compelled to remain on the earthly plane to “suffer with” all sentient beings, sympathetically sharing with them through skillful means the path toward liberation.
Buddha’s mission is to provide the human being with a method for realizing the wisdom and compassion of its inherent Tathāgatagarbha. Without a way of cultivating this seed within, one remains stranded on an island of ego lost amidst the sea of saṃsāra. Buddhist practice offers a light in the darkness, a means of contacting the buddhi hidden in the depths of our soul and making conscious its task of transfiguring the world.
While it has also been said of Buddha that he “walks on the water” (EPO, p. 90), Christ heralds the very Spirit of the water itself. Rudolf Steiner has said, “Buddha’s life ends with the transfiguration, whereas the most significant part of Jesus’ life begins after the Transfiguration,” (CMF, p. 97). By this, Steiner means that Christ not only became one with the light of the world (as Buddha did after his parinirvana), Christ is the being who radiates this light into the world of flesh and blood, into the very heart of the cosmos itself.
Just before his death, the historical Buddha, according to the Dalai Lama, “stated that the body of a fully enlightened being…is…impermanent and subject to [transience, impermanence, and non-endurance]” (GH, p. 120), just like every other phenomenal form. According to Steiner, Buddha’s transfiguration merged him with the “all-pervading blissful life of the spirit” (CMF, p. 97), thereby demonstrating humanity’s origin in the divine Word (Logos).
In contrast, as is written in the Gospel according to John, in Christ, “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (1:14). In this way, the spiritual essence of the cosmos incarnated on earth, suffered crucifixion, and was resurrected. As a Sun being, Christ expresses the hidden meaning of light and warmth, radiating wisdom and love upon all humanity. Christ’s transfiguration makes transparent, according to Jean Gebser, “the genuine irruption of the other side into this side, the presence of the beyond in the here and now, of death in life, of the transcendent in the immanent, of the divine in the human” (EPO, p. 529).
While Buddha provides the method that purifies the soul, returning Psyche to a virgin state free of the conflicting desires and fears of a merely earthly existence, only Christ can provide the spiritual power that births in us the divine Wisdom capable of loving the world entire.
As is spoken by Christ to His Father:
…the glory which You gave Me I have given them; that they may be one, even as We are One: I in them, and You in Me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have Loved them, as You have Loved Me (John 17:22-23).
The Love made possible by Christ’s incarnation on earth is what unifies not only the entire human race, but the cosmos itself into a single Body whose life is eternal. This, the Body of Christ, is the true Church open to anyone with the Faith to heal the separation from the spiritual realm caused by original sin. This sin was the knowledge of good and evil that turned the soul into a battleground and made death its principle enemy. As is written by Paul in Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Faith was distinguished from belief at the outset of this essay in order to make it clear that the wishful desiring of the latter only clouds our ability to listen for divine inspiration. Although it is written, “…blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29), we may read the use of the term “believed” in this context as more akin to the openheartedness of Faith than the egoic desire for wish fulfillment. But the open ears afforded by Faith are not enough to fully and intuitively participate in the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
As Steiner has said,
Faith allows a person to participate unconsciously in the Mystery of Golgotha, [but] initiation leads to a fully conscious connection with the power that streams invisibly from events depicted in the New Testament (CMF, p. 100).
In other words, while Faith brings us to the water, it cannot make us drink of its immortalizing Wisdom. However, the Resurrection of Christ is significant precisely because it transforms what had been revealed only to a few in secret into an event upon the world stage of history. What had been a mythological image becomes, after Christ, an actual event (CMF, p. 98). Given Faith, though one may currently lack the spiritual sight to consciously commune with the Wisdom of Christ, realization is nonetheless assured and made inevitable by the deed that was done on the Cross for all humanity.
But as was made clear at the outset, I cannot settle for the hearsay of stories, but must myself die and rise by the Love of Christ. I must know, with Paul, “that Christ, being raised from the dead, dies no more,” (Romans 6:9), and “that our old man [was] crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed” (Romans 6:6). With this, the Christ in me becomes alive unto God, I am reborn, and my Psyche remembers her true name: Sophia, Bride of God.
My soul is but a reflection of Sophia, the divine Wisdom who’s Love was so great it overflowed the Pleroma and created the world. As Eve, She tempted me when I was Adam with the serpent’s secret fruit. I ate and gained knowledge that this world was not my origin and that death must not be my destiny. Christ was Her rescue mission, the Savior sent to Redeem Her creation from the sin of separation from God. Christ is “the Light of the world” (John 9:5) who shines upon the shattered mirror of many souls making each One with Him in Love.
Only when I begin to open my heart in Faith can I hear the whispers of spiritual beings softly singing me the Song of the Spheres. Faith brings me—through Krishna, Buddha, and Christ—to Wisdom, the source of the Light of the world.
With Krishna, I come to know and love my karma, to act without personal attachment to the fruits of my labor. For the labor of life on earth concerns a destiny shared by all, a mission mandated by the insatiable ramification of the human race and the closed shape of its planet’s surface. Our dharma is to unite as a single Omega, a Cosmic Person.
I come to know, with Buddha, the skills required to pacify my soul, to cure it of its sickness. So long as the ego remains unconscious of its shadow and Psyche forgets her name, my soul cannot express its one true desire: to love all beings that suffer in the world of earthly turning. Buddha provides the soil out of which the seed of compassion and Wisdom may grow.
In Christ, I come to know that His was also my ego’s crucifixion, the death of all my sin. Christ comes to replace the external Law of old by awakening the Word of God within my heart, “for the Law was given by Moses, but Grace and Truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). His resurrection redeems the creation of the cosmos and opens the gates of heaven to all who dwell on earth, because as Teilhard says, “Heaven cannot dispense with Earth” (HM, p. 203).
ISM – Bamford, Christopher, ed. Isis Mary Sophia: Her Mission and Ours. Steiner Books, 2003.
BG – Bhagavad gita and its message with text, translation and Sri Aurobindo’s commentary. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Light Publications, 1995.
HM – Chardin, Pierre Teilhard de. The Heart of Matter. New York: Harvest Books, 2002.
EPO – Gebser, Jean. Ever-present origin. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1986.
GH – His Holiness The Dalai Lama. The Good Heart A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus. Minneapolis: Wisdom Publications, 1998.
CMF – Rudolf, Steiner,. Christianity as mystical fact. Hudson, N.Y: Anthroposophic P, 1997.
There was a time when physics, still high on the spirit of the Enlightenment, took seriously the idea that its measurements of the fundamental stuff composing the universe could explain just about everything worth knowing about. Granted, it didn’t have all the necessary measurements compiled just yet, but it assured everyone that it was just a matter of how much time it would take to do the necessary calculating and experimenting. Time passed, and just when they thought they were about to figure it all out, Einstein shook the faith by discovering that the physical laws once thought to have absolute frames of reference were actually relative. Not all was lost, but soon after, quantum mechanics laid to rest the notion that there could even be any fundamental “stuff” to begin with. It turned out the universe wasn’t made of anything but measurements [QQ]. As Alan Watts put it, “[The physical universe] was all form and no matter, or all a matter of form” [LHG]. This lead the renowned physicist Sir Author Eddington to remark, “We have found that where science has progressed the farthest, the mind has but regained from nature that which the mind has put into nature” [QQ 179]. In other words, the “objective observer” was a myth-the method one selects for measuring the world has a direct effect on the way the world then appears.
I tell this story because of the many striking parallels it seems to have with the most recent trends in the cognitive sciences. There was a time when these scientists of the mind, still under the spell of a subtle form of Cartesian dualism, believed representation was the fundamental function of the brain. They labored tirelessly for decades searching for a coherent and naturalizable story of representation, but it was to no avail. There is, of course, much debate about what “representation” actually means and how it should be used in reference to certain types of mental processes. Let us therefore be explicit about the meaning of this word “representation” for the purposes of this essay. Representation shall be used to refer to any description that rests on a Cartesian view of the mind. That is, any theory of the mind which posits a sort of inner “I-ness” that receives and interprets recreations of an outer “otherness,” such that that which is outside the skull must be transformed into some inner, mental language before it could be understood. The problem is that any representational approach to the mind this wrapped up in dualism cannot ever be fully naturalized. Just as physicists once believed there was a meaningful distinction between form and substance, cognitive scientists once believed there was a similar distinction between the mind and the world itself (indeed many still do). As Erwin Schrödinger has said, from this dualistic perspective “we do not belong to the material world that science constructs for us. We are not in it; we are outside. We are only spectators. The reason why we believe that we are in it, that we belong to the picture, is that our bodies belong to it” [QQ 83]. This essay will combine the approaches of theorists like Andy Clark, Daniel Dennett, John Haugeland and Brian Smith, who all seem to be forcing the field in a new direction, one even they themselves feel uneasy about. Like the quantum physicists who came before them, their data has lead them to a strange place indeed. I will begin this essay by fleshing out the collective conclusions of the above philosophers, using Dennett’s notion of minds as user-less bundles of tools and his affinity for evolutionary explanations to lay out the findings they are all so uncomfortable with. I will then attempt to pick up where they left off, using mythological imagery and Buddhist phenomenology to ground their surprising philosophical findings in our own direct experience.
In a discussion on Dennett’s ideas, Smith says, “We have a remarkable amount of agreement, such that in fact we may almost be ready to let go of that R-word, and actually make some progress” [PMR 101]. For Dennett, representation becomes a linguistic skill available only to human beings by virtue of their ability to speak and write in a public language [PMR 91]. It is, therefore, not something animals can use to get around the world. He goes on to suggest that “Our kind of consciousness is not anything we are born with, not part of our innate hardwiring, but in surprisingly large measure, an artifact of our immersion in human culture” [PMR 79]. Dennett’s word choice, referring to consciousness as “an artifact,” strikes me as especially significant. It would seem that Dennett is suggesting that the “user-illusion,” as he calls our type of consciousness, is a by-product of our language, especially when written.
Let’s take a step back.
What is consciousness, for Dennett? The short answer is we really shouldn’t phrase the question in quite that way. To ask what consciousness is immediately turns it into something ontologically separate from the body and the world. This is the pre-emptive registration that Smith wants us to avoid [TMR 225]. Dennett, similarly, is everywhere on the look out for this kind of Cartesian dualism. Consciousness, for him, can only be described behaviorally. Therefore, those organisms that act appropriately within their environment are said to be conscious.
When we ask, “What is consciousness,” we are really asking about the self. We want to view consciousness as a distinct kind of thing because we want to view ourselves as individual, undetermined egos. For, if being conscious means merely to behave in a certain way (as part of a normative community), then my inner sense of “I-ness” is secondary-a kind of epiphenomenon-nothing more than a collection of meaningless private thoughts floating away from the “real” world, the world that you can pound with your fist, or at least shout out loud about without fear of seeming crazy to others. Meaning, so this story goes, comes from the community. What is true is what the community has agreed upon. But there is a further force at work, something unconscious constraining the kinds of agreements the community can reach. It is the evolutionary force, and it doesn’t care much about what we want be true. For the same reason Dennett wants to get rid of the homunculus in the skull, he wants to get rid of the self-directed society, that real sense of a collective “we” that freely decides what ought to be [TMR 289]. Dennett wants to continue using the evolutionary metaphor that works so well in biology to show us that people and societies do what they do because of similar pressures. It is here that he disagrees with Smith and Haugeland, as they want to keep that sense of a “we who decides” over and above the impersonal hand of evolution [TMR 263, 289].
So then, choosing Darwin as our guide, let us try and find the evolutionary purpose of the “user-illusion” in the humanity of present. To do so we must first understand the consciousnesses of our ancestry. Plants seem to take an intentional stance toward the Sun, tracking it across the sky in some cases, but it becomes meaningless to ask if they are actually having thoughts about it. Let’s try animals. Animal consciousness is focused on the direct environment in ways we might call conceptual. They can pay attention to, or have intentional states about, certain “targets” in the environment and the patterns they follow over time, both locally and, to a certain extent, distally. Humans, however, can have intentional states not only about the so-called targets themselves (as presented to any of the five senses), but also about the names of those targets as they exist within a language game. The naming of targets transforms them into objects, and we must be careful not to confuse objects with their primordial cousins. When Dennett is asked if animals can represent objects, he responds that they “can behave vis-à-vis [objects] in all sorts of really adroit ways” [TMR 108]. The point is the world does not appear to them as a collection of objects, but rather as a “direct recipe for action” [WBMWC 10].
The human ability to abstract objects from targets leads to what Dennett refers to as florid representation, and without it he feels we are somehow sub-human. In fact, many people alive today are yet to become florid [TMR 107]. Children provide the most obvious example, being “language virtuosos” [TMR 108], but not yet understanding the full implication of their abilities. The discovery that words are symbols for the real thing, and that they can be skillfully arranged to communicate meta-meanings, still awaits them. It is here, however, that the really interesting discovery is made, that words are not used, but instead compose our very being . Our “selves”-our sense of being a self-supporting, well-behaving, rational actor-rest so heavily on language that it is fair to say we are nobody without it.
Language: Verbal and Written
The notion that “I” communicate with those who are “other” than me is the crux of the language game, built into its very grammatical structure. But the kind of “other” met while speaking language, engaging in a direct face-to-face conversation, is quite different from the kind met while writing, when the “other” is at a distance and becomes more objectified. When speaking, people (at least when they truly understand each other) are in communion with one another. They exhibit what Martin Buber calls an “Ich-Du,” or “I-You” relationship to one another (more on this in a moment) [IT 73]. If we view this from an evolutionary perspective, a coherent story begins to emerge. All evidence suggests that the first forms of language were vocal. We can then infer that, prior to the invention of written language, human beings had a type of consciousness far different from the one most of us has today. Buber refers to this kind of archaic consciousness as “I-You,” which means that it doesn’t yet consider the “other” as an object that is encountered. Rather, it views the “other” as a part of itself, something to be reconciled and understood in a participatory way. Buber says those with this kind of consciousness “have not yet recognized themselves as an ‘I'” apart from an “other” [IT 73]. This would make sense, as the subject/object ontology inherent to the grammar of written systems was not yet available to the mind. One might object to this characterization on the grounds that the whole story of natural selection requires at least some sense of self-preservation. Why do animals even try to survive unless they have a sense of “I-ness”? Buber explains that in the case of animals, “What wants to propagate itself is not the ‘I’ but the body that does not yet know of any ‘I.'” Bodies are survival machines. They have no inner sense that “wants” to survive; surviving is just what they do. Evolution has a way of recapitulating itself at ever more complex scales. Organisms first appeared as an emergent property of the physical world, living on top of it as though their bodies were an autopoietic, self-transforming software program running on the hardware of the world. When organisms evolved into more complex animals like ourselves, another emergent property sprang forth, that called the “I,” or ego. The ego seems to float atop the biological brain in the same way that the organism floats atop the physical world. The ego’s relationship to the body is made clearer in the following example: “I” feel responsible for styling my hair, but “I” do not feel responsible for growing it.
It was not until the advent of written language that humanity was able to stake its claim so high above the animal kingdom-to say, “I have a body” instead of “I am a body.” The body and the mind were thus torn apart as humanity began to take on a new kind of consciousness, one Buber calls the “Ich-Es,” or “I-It.” “The I that has emerged,” says Buber, “proclaims itself as the carrier of sensations and the environment as their object” [IT 74].
Of course, this happens in a “primitive” and not in an “epistemological” manner; yet once the sentence “I see the tree” has been pronounced in such a way that it no longer relates a relation between a human “I” and a tree “You” [as in “I-You” consciousness] but the perception of the tree object [It] by the human consciousness [I], it has erected the crucial barrier between subject and object… [IT 74].
This barrier was “primitive” and not yet “epistemological” because floridity had not yet fully developed. The kinds of philosophical meta-thinking, for example, that lead Descartes to the Cogito took a bit more evolution, but its seeds were sown when the first alphabets were systematized.
As we’ve seen, “Research into the origins of language is really research into the origins of consciousness,” as William Irwin Thompson has said [TFBTL 84]. But how can we to attempt to grasp such origins when it seems that “Man is man through language alone-but in order to invent language he must have been man already” [TFBTL 85]? Might the search for the origins of language bring us to the limits of our knowledge? It seems so, but for Thompson, “That shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being is the landscape of myth” [TFBTL 87]. Let us then shift our method of investigation from the philosophical to the mythological.
A “myth” is often considered synonymous with a lie, or a fanciful story made up for religious purposes bearing no relation to the actual state of affairs. But let us, for a moment, consider a new use for the myth-let us refer to it as an image or metaphor in terms of which we can attempt to understand our past. This kind of approach may seem a bit too gooey and mystical for modern academic philosophy to take seriously, but in the kind of post-modern philosophical territory that says your job is to figure out what all these scribbles mean using only the same scribbles, you are forced into using tools other than just your rational intellect. “If we try to do without poetry and esoteric mythology to describe precisely and scientifically how language evolved,” says Thompson, “we find that there is no causal explanation” [TFBTL 93]. If we use only our rational intellects-our words-we will never find a purpose or foundation for their use. Trying to do so is a bit like “shining a flashlight in search of darkness” [TFBTL 87].
Let us move on, then, to the question at hand. Where did language (with the rational mind riding on its coat tails) come from? Thompson again: “The scientist looks for a cause inside time; a mystic knows that causality is essentially a process that is outside time-space” [TFBTL 94]. What does it mean for causality to be “outside time-space”? Thompson provides an apt example using the mythical relationship between women and the moon. Numerous studies have shown that women who live in close proximity to one another tend to have menstrual periods at the same time [MSS 171]. Other studies have shown that woman who live near the equator tend to ovulate in synchrony with the full moon [UH 106]. So then, “It is reasonable for us to expect that [prehistoric] women living together in small hunting and gathering bands would all have their menstrual periods at the same time” in synchrony with the moon [TFBTL 96]. The primitive consciousness of early humanity, lacking our more linguistically developed minds, mistook this correlative relationship for a causative one. So, as it were, the moon caused women to menstruate and even to give birth. At this stage in the development of human consciousness, such a belief made very good sense. In fact, we might say it marked the beginning of our understanding of the regularities of nature. It was this kind of understanding, the kind that allowed our ancestors to link the cycles of their bodies to the phases of the moon [TFBTL 97], that, with the help of a more stable form of expression, would mature into our kind of thinking.
That more stable form of expression was written language, born along side the ancient walls built to divide the first human cities from nature. This division of culture from nature occurred in the individual, as well.
The rise of writing helps to break up the continuum of the sensorium and locates consciousness in the written word. What the written word is to the sensorium, the ego is to the entire consciousness” [TFBTL 196].
We can say then, that the ego gains its strength from words, from the “I.” Using the Biblical myth of the Fall of Man as our metaphor, we can see now that the fruit hanging from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the alphabet. When Adam ate of the fruit offered him by Eve, he gained knowledge of himself. With this knowledge came all the wonderful inventions we now hold in esteem as monuments to our great progress as a species. But this most promising of realizations carried with it a tragic flaw, for even with all the technological power it put in our hands, it left us powerless before the new reality of death. The identification of consciousness with the ego necessitates death, as to be born into this world as an “I” means the eventual death of that “I” is unavoidable.
“Writing, individuation, and civilization are all parts of one larger cultural phenomenology,” says Thompson [TFBTL 196]. And so it was that with the birth of written language came the birth of the ego and the birth of its civilization. But because the ego fears its own death so immensely, it reaps havoc upon all that is other to it in a desperate attempt to make a name for itself that will live forever. We see all around us today the result of this struggle, as the egos of humankind rush toward their own destruction in search of salvation. It is not the brutish and primitive among us that are causing this disaster, but the most advanced, the most civilized, and the most educated. It is the rational ego that wages war, pollutes the environment, and exploits its own kind. The call to transcend this identification with words has become urgent, and Dennett’s philosophical conclusion that the mind is a collection of user-less tools couldn’t have come at a time more desperate for the application of its implications than now.
The Implications of Minds as User-less Tool Kits
Andy Clark, in his essay on Dennett, explains how “language uniquely positions us to create a cascade of new mind-tools that literally transform us into more powerful (but extended) cognitive engines” [TMR 77]. This creates a situation “where you peel away layers of equipment as you would peel away the layers of an onion, ending up with nothing at all in the way of a central core” [TMR 78]. Without a central core, it seems that all notions of personal responsibility become untenable.
None of this forces us to give up on the morally and socially crucial notion of persons and of thinking agents. One potential reconstruction might begin with the phenomenological facts of first-person experience. A tool/user divide might then be motivated by facts about how things seem to an agent… [TMR 78]
The “phenomenological facts of first-person experience” may not be as easily understood as Clark here assumes. The user-illusion is called an illusion for a reason, and its deceptions are powerful indeed. For Dennett, human culture has created a “kind of cognitive organization-a new ‘virtual machine’-that allows us to weave a kind of ongoing narrative that artificially ‘fixes’ our cognitive contents” [TMR 79]. This fixation is artificial because, “underneath the personal-level narrative stream the more fundamental multiple processing streams” that actually make up our cognitive apparatus and allow it to function in the world have no stable locus of control. It is only our cultural upbringing that inculcates a sense of “I-ness,” and therefore, for Clark, “much of the burden is shifted from the notion of consciousness to the notion of personhood.” In other words, we no longer need to worry about finding the self in the mind because “having a self” really means being a person, and being a person means being part of a normative community. But many problems still remain. If being a person means using all kinds of tools to extend cognition, drawing boundaries around what counts as a person and what counts as a tool becomes tricky, if not impossible. If I miss my girlfriend’s call because my cell phone lost signal, am I then responsible for not answering?
Faced with these kinds of problems, Dennett is lead to conclude, “The notion of a person is a forensic notion… It’s not a metaphysical fact about the nature of persons intrinsically in themselves” [TMR 98].
It would seem, then, that the phenomenological experience of most people is in flat contradiction with the actual state of affairs. Most of us feel as though the stories we tell when asked really do represent a stable ego that is responsible and willful. We feel as though we really are separate from everyone else, even though our whole sense of “I-ness” comes directly from our relationship to the community, from that which is “other” than “I.” As Buber has said, the “I” is nothing without the “It.” Smith came to a similar conclusion, showing that subjects cannot exist without objects [TMR 225].
The call to transform our sense of ourselves seems loud and clear. The ego has been made ripe for this transformation by the stress of modern life. Raised by a society that implores it to do that which will only be acceptable if done voluntarily-to love because it must, share because it must, be responsible because it must-the ego is caught in a catch-22. The only remaining way out is awakening to what Buddhists refer to as one’s inherent Buddha Nature.
Dennett’s philosophical conclusion that the human mind is made of nothing but a bundle of user-less tools is compelling enough to demand that its implications be extended to our direct experience of life. How, though, can we make such a convincing aspect of our experience transparent while still retaining a sense of moral responsibility? It is clear that the user-illusion once played a huge role in society, allowing it to hold individuals responsible for their actions. But once the truth of its very namesake has been discovered, its power becomes rather unconvincing. This is made evident by the characteristically irresponsible behavior of modern society, especially the youngest generations, who are always ready to blame circumstance for their mistakes without remorse. The authority of the community is no longer persuasive enough to convince the populace that its external rules ought to be obeyed. The sense of responsible agency projected onto the individual from without by the society is no longer acceptable. The only solution to this moral crisis is to turn inward for ethical guidance, leaving aside all forms of socially imposed morality. This may at first seem like support for total anarchy, as, if everyone acted out of their own inner selfishness, society would become more chaotic than it already is. But the whole point of awakening to an inner sense of morality is that the ego is transcended. Therefore, with the ego no longer the reigning identification of consciousness, selfishness disappears and one acts out of total benevolence and compassion for all “others.” Attaining such an awakened state is often easier said than done, of course. The real issue, then, is not merely to convince people that this kind of transformation is necessary. Certainly, everyone would probably agree that it sounds great on paper. The issue is how to actually evoke the transformation.
If the evolutionary story told thus far is accurate, we can assume that, in a sense, the transformation will eventually evoke itself. Consciousness has been transcending itself into ever-higher states since the beginning of time, so there’s no reason to believe it won’t do so again. Even so, this in no way takes responsibility away from the individuals that work to bring such a transformation about. How, though, is it to be done?
Buddhism offers a variety of paths, most of which are centered on a meditative practice. What exactly it means to meditate is a matter of much controversy, even within the Buddhist community. But the basic idea is to develop the habit of paying attention to one’s own mind until the sense of “I-ness” is seen for what it is. With enough practice, the “I” becomes a relative truth, a way of speaking. In other words, for all practical purposes of communication and day-to-day interaction, the mask of personhood does just fine. But to mistake this mask for one’s original face-to take seriously the notion that ‘I” am truly separate-is to live in ignorance of one’s actual nature. The very word, “person,” is derived from the Greek “persona,” which refers to the masks worn by stage actors.
It may be asked, though, if the notion of personhood and Buddhahood do not in actuality conflict, why is the inner transformation necessary at all? The goal of Buddhist practice is not merely the belief in this idea of selflessness; it is the direct experience of it. And this direct experience of the lack of self, something Buddhist’s refer to as satori (roughly translated as “enlightenment”), forever changes one’s interpretation of what it means to wear the mask of personhood. The change settles the inner conflict created by the identification with a personal ego, releasing one from the double-bind inherent to this struggle to be that which it is impossible to be. The person who feels themselves to be a skin-encapsulated ego is in search of a stable “I” that never seems to turn up. This leads to all kinds of internal psychosis and fragmentation. Worse, it leads to the projection of inner fear onto others in the form of hatred and hostility. The realization of one’s true state, that which lacks a self, allows the mask to be worn without conflict, as it no longer represents the do all and end all of one’s existence. Instead, one’s consciousness rests in the eternal “now” moment, free from objectification and arbitrary boundary enforcement. One approaches the world with total acceptance, facing other people not as separate entities or objects to be properly understood and mechanically dealt with, but as living presences one can’t help but be in creative and compassionate communion with. The awakened person, having this sense of their true identity, is far freer and far more capable of being truly responsible than is the naïve, ego-identified person.
There is, as Alan Wallace calls it, a “taboo of subjectivity” in our modern day scientific culture. It is this taboo that makes the quantum physicist so uncomfortable with the notion that the observer, the subject, has a role to play in how the observed, the object, appears. In the same way, the cognitive scientist’s “Cartesian anxiety” keeps him or her from realizing that the mind cannot be said to exist as something separate from the body and the world. Just as the physicist cannot ignore the data leading them to their conclusions about what the physical world is (or isn’t), the cognitive scientist cannot ignore their data about what the mind is (or isn’t). All attempts to build truly intelligent machines using a representational model have failed. Descartes conception of the mind as an internal, otherworldly entity that views the outside only as a representation has similarly failed, having been shown to be too supernatural to be taken seriously. We are thus forced to find a new way to understand how the organic mind works, one that doesn’t assume the ontological constructions of our language are built into the real make-up of the world. As members of a community of language speakers, we are prone to make comments like “I have a body.” But our metaphysical microscopes have shown us that such a statement, while not entirely false, is merely true enough. It is truer to say “I am a body.” Of course, if I am a body then I must be just as responsible for beating my heart and growing my bones as I am for tying my shoelaces and brushing my teeth. Trying to make sense of this kind of situation boils down to where we want to draw the arbitrary boundaries that separate what I do from what is done to me. The whole point of this essay, though, is that this “I” is itself an artificial boundary.
Take breathing, for instance. Now that you have been made aware of your breath, it seems that it is a voluntary process. However, just a moment ago, before I mentioned it, your lungs went about their business without you paying them the slightest bit of attention. Trying to figure out which way it really is, whether you breathe or are breathed, amounts to total nonsense. We simply cannot know because our language has here met its maker.
It is here that Buddhism comes to the rescue. Buddhism doesn’t propose to solve the problem by telling you what is going in these kinds of situations. Instead, it makes an attempt to show you by leading you toward the experience of satori. Satori solves the problem by showing that there never was one to begin with, as your ordinary sense of being an ego wrapped in a bag of skin is seen for what it is-a hallucination created by the language game of your society. Only once this realization has occurred can the socially defined “person” become a truly moral being, as only then can real altruism and compassion come about from within. For the person still chasing after an imaginary ego, morality becomes something external that must be obeyed for fear of punishment. For the awakened person, the world and everyone in it ceases to be “other,” instead becoming the one true self, the upper-case Self. “In the language of the sages, only the Buddha Nature, or Brahman, or Allah, or God, sees or hears or experiences anything at all” [MI 30]. All true morality stems from this understanding.
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 This leads neuroscientists to ask questions like, “What happens in our brains when we deliberately concentrate on something?” The answer given is that a “ballet of neurons” becomes active in the brain when objects are focused on. But this explains nothing. It amounts to saying: “I decide because my brain behaves in a certain way.” The neuroscientist has over-emphasized the figure and completely forgotten the ground. The brain is nothing without the body, and the body is nothing without the world. To say, “I decide what to see,” you must neglect the possibility that the world decides for you [CA].
 To track non-effective targets for a substantial period of time, animals would need the mnemonic aid of words. As a language-using human, I can talk/think/write about objects that are not present (i.e., represent them) because I use words to stabilize them [PMR 105].
 Why can’t a purely verbal language game have a subject/object ontology? -Because it isn’t stable enough to hold such an abstract ontological structure together. It takes the aid of the written word for consciousness to make such a jump.
 Evolution, in this sense, is not evolution driven by natural selection alone. It has access to more tools than that. It is only the “I-It” consciousness that projects the “survival of the fittest” metaphor onto nature, after all. This kind of evolution makes leaps to higher and more organized states all at once, as though it knew where it was going before it got there. The study of emergent behaviors in systems theory here becomes very relevant. This may also be how Good Tricks [PMR 113] come about.
 The earliest known forms of “writing” are scratches on bone fragments designed to model the phases of the moon (and the cycle of menstruation) [TFBTL 97].
 Alphabets and written languages go hand-in-hand, the purpose of the alphabet being to capture vocal utterances in symbolic jars called letters so they can be recorded and standardized by grammaticians.
 It is an illusion, after all.
 The modern obsession with movie stars and celebrities is a perfect example of the glorification of the ego. They are worshipped because they represent what is usually considered the pinnacle of egohood: fame and recognition.
 “The usual response of the cognitive scientist [because of the Cartesian anxiety] is to ignore the experiential aspect when she does science and ignore the scientific discovery when she leads her life” [TEM 239].
 Indeed, if “I am a body” is truer, then “I am the All” is truest. If the body reacts to its environment as though it were a “direct recipe for action,” then the body and the world are coupled. I (not the ego but the deeper Self) become equally as responsible for rising the Sun and blowing the wind as I am for growing my bones and brushing my teeth.