Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for December 2010

View through a needle’s eye

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As he was going out into the way, one ran to him, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except one—God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not give false testimony,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.” Jesus looking at him loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” But his face fell at that saying, and he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions. Jesus looked around, and said to his disciples, “How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus answered again, “Children, how hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:17–25)

One of the many enigmas that we face as we enter into the year 2011 is the political alliance that has formed in recent decades between some evangelical Christians and the plutocrats who have seized control of much of the world and have waged—and for the most part won—a war on the poor. So successful has the campaign of the wealthy classes against the middle-class and the poor been that the political forces who promote the interests of the wealthy have even managed to stigmatize the expression “class warfare” by suggesting that anyone who thinks in terms of class warfare is anti-American and opposed to the ideals expressed in the Constitution of the United States and in the Declaration of Independence. Consequently, it has become almost impossible to have an honest and accurate discussion of the dynamics of American politics without immediately being dismissed as an extreme-left  ideologue. Fortunately, an increasing number of Christians, and followers of other religions, are speaking out and pointing out that the amassing of wealth—especially when this is done to the detriment of the general well-being of the rest of the human race—is contrary to the core values of nearly every religion and philosophical system in the history of the human race. (Just to give two examples, there is a website called Faithful America and another called Sojourners, on both of which one finds thoughtful and spirited critiques of mainstream American politics by mainstream American religious leaders.)

In his essay Creative Unity Rabindranath Tagore quotes the opening lines of William Wordsworth’s sonnet, The World is Too Much With Us:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Tagore comments on these lines,

But it is not because the world has grown too familiar to us; on the contrary, it is because we do not see it in its aspect of unity, because we are driven to distraction by our pursuit of the fragmentary.

Tagore’s conviction is that the world is a whole, a unity, an integer. To be driven to distraction by pursuing only a part of the whole is to miss the integer; in other words, it is to lack integrity. Lacking integrity by pursuing a part in forgetfulness of the whole is described in other terminology in the Abrahamic religions; in Judaism, Christianity and Islam such amnesia is usually called idolatry, the worship of some part of creation while neglecting the Creator. However one chooses to refer to it, the effects of being driven to distraction range from the merely wasteful to the disastrous.

Among the ways of being distracted from unity that engaged the attention of Rabindranath was nationalism, the favoring of one nation above all others. Who can help cringing every time a politician describes his or her country as the greatest nation in the world—or, worse, that some nation or other is the greatest that has existed in all of history? Those who believe (or at least say) that their own nation is the best (or most free, or most prosperous, or happiest, or has the best health-care system) in the world usually go on to show their ignorance in other ways, such as by suggesting that some peoples living and working within the best of all countries are doing less than others to promote the greatness of that blessed country than others, or are even diminishing the greatness of the country in some way. In India, which became an independent country a little less than a decade after Rabindranath’s death, one finds the disturbing Hindutva movement, which denigrates the contributions of Muslims, Christians and Sikhs to the greatness of India and challenges the painstaking research of all historians whose publications offer a nuanced picture of the cultural diversity and complexity of India.

In much of Europe one finds political movements dedicated to the proposition that Muslims have a substandard grasp of the theories and practices of the European enlightenment and thus pose a serious threat to modernity. In the United States one witnesses a persistent xenophobic current in which Muslims leaking into the country via Canada and migrants storming the borders from points south are targeted as alarming threats to the American way of life. (Muslims and Mexicans seem to have replaced Catholics, Italians and voting women as the greatest internal threats to the indivisible one nation under God that promises liberty and justice to all. No sooner is one threat domesticated, it seems, than another rises to take its place.) None of these social and political phenomena would have pleased Rabindranath Tagore, but probably none of them would have taken him by surprise either.

Probably the greatest single rupture of integrity in the current American way of life is the willful blindness to the damage the pursuit of comfort and convenience has done to the earth’s environment. As if to exemplify the words of Paul the apostle (in II Thessalonians 2.11) that “God sends them a working of error, that they should believe a lie,” coal and oil and gas providers have convinced a substantial number of Americans that there is truth in the lie that human behavior is not a factor in global warming. The commercial sources of opinion (often misleadingly called news) have been complicit in spreading the lie that experts are divided on the question of whether the burning of fossil fuels for energy has been a factor in the warming of the atmosphere and the oceans and the resultant extreme weather conditions that are being seen all over the planet.

Environmental devastation is the inevitable result of a way of seeing the world through the eye of a needle that allows people to focus only on what is of immediate utility to the comfort and convenience and maintenance of power of the most affluent human beings who happen to be alive right now, while ignoring the well-being of the majority of human beings who are not affluent, and while ignoring generations to come after we have all died, and while ignoring the welfare of non-human species of life. When one thinks about it for a moment, it is clear that the American political forces that are most loudly claiming to be aligned with God are doing the most to rupture the integrity of what they call the kingdom of God.

Hypocrisy, savagery and delusion are, of course, nothing new. Our generation has no monopoly on them. Ever since human beings have been recording their thoughts in writing, people of insight and integrity have been decrying the ways of the powerful who have lost sight of the Dao, the principles of Tian, the will of God, the unity of Brahman or the Buddha nature innate in all beings throughout the universe. That there is nothing new in the brutal assault on the fabric of being by those who lose sight of the whole makes that assault no less outrageous and heartbreaking.

There is an alternative to the blindness of power and partiality. It is often called love. Poets, philosophers, visionaries and psychologists have written about love in countless ways. Many call it atonement—at-one-ment, being at one with all there is. Rabindranath speaks of love as an essential feature of the harmony that characterizes the life lived well. He writes in Creative Unity:

The quality of the infinite is not the magnitude of extension, it is the Advaitam, the mystery of Unity. Facts occupy endless time and space; but the truth comprehending them all has no dimension; it is One. Wherever our heart touches the One, in the small or the big, it finds the touch of the infinite.

Being in touch with this infinite, Rabindranath goes on to say, is true joy, a happiness that can be neither compromised nor diminished. It is that joy alone that makes life worth living. It is the absence of that joy that makes living life worthless. It is a wish for just exactly that sort of integrated and harmonious happiness in 2011, and in all years to follow, that goes to everyone out of the living silence.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, December 31, 2010 at 14:11

Posted in Faith and practice