Enlightenment: Behind the Scenes, by Marc Leavitt

It seems that no one can know the Truth; one can only be the Truth. But in order to be the Truth, the person who seeks the truth needs to die. In fact, it is only the seeker that obscures the sought.

Everyone that you have ever met and will ever meet in any existence is actually you looking out through different eyes.

In one moment, all seeking dropped away and has never returned. From that moment on, I not only lost interest in reading, but in meditation as well.

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Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing by Jed McKenna. Is enlightenment rare or common?

Spiritual Enlightenment“The one and only truth of any person lies like a black hole at their very core, and everything else — everything else — is just rubbish and debris that covers the hole.” Enlightenment is truth-realization — the self is false.  “Your moments of blackest despair are really your most honest moments; your most lucid moments.”  Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing by Jed McKenna is one heck of a book. McKenna is enlightened, he tells us, and most people are not. It is a cocky claim, but his clear thinking and effective dispatching of the usual spiritual trappings suggest a person with first-hand experience.

Damnedest is set in an ashram in Iowa where McKenna is a spiritual instructor of sorts, though he is quick to disclaim any special mystical status. “Think for yourself and figure out what’s true.” Dialogue with students provides a light narrative around his philosophy. Life is a dream, says McKenna. The core of this delusion is a belief in self and all the ensuing dualities including right and wrong. Happiness is a good dream, suffering a bad one. It is neither desirable or important to become enlightened unless you are one of those rare few in a hundred million who insist on truth.

McKenna advises a form of truth seeking called spiritual autolysis. “Sit down, shut up, and ask yourself what’s true.” Write your own metaphysics, question everything till you hit bedrock. Done. I agree that there is no constant self, no soul. There is no final world of pure forms, no essence. Change is at the heart of our universe and human nature. I disagree with his oversimplified notion of truth. “All beliefs. All concepts. All thoughts. Yes, they’re all false; all bullshit. … If you’re going for truth, you’re not taking any of them with you.” What about scientific truth? All bullshit? McKenna might be surprised to learn the consistency between the laws of physics and his views. Take the second law of thermodynamics — everything falls apart. It is an empirical truth, a predictable dynamic in space-time, quite useful for understanding the big picture and our little lives. What about existential truth? Yes, I might die tonight, but probably not. Meaning is fleeting and beautiful. There is truth and beauty.

Enlightenment is both difficult and liberating. It can take years to fully sink in. It changes everything. For McKenna it is the end of the human drama. He jokes that he has become a vampire, a post-human. I think enlightenment is more common than McKenna knows. Life inevitably forces the realization upon us, and many choose to embrace it, to become more fully human.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Religion is poetry and we cannot live without it.

The God DelusionIt took many long thoughts before I was ready to write a response to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I have tossed a lot of things in my religion closet over the years and was overdue for the cleaning this book provided. I still feel a bit raw.

I will give you my personal context as briefly as possible. I grew up in a fundamentalist church, believing the literal heaven and hell story as a child, rejecting it as a teen, and settling with agnosticism as an adult. I look back at the childhood experience as a positive one. I read the bible multiple times and can speak knowledgeably about it. It fashioned me into a reader and a philosophical thinker. Like any teen I decried hypocrisy. In truth most Christians were better people than their principles. My main contention was the general unwillingness to admit the religious story might be wrong. I still root out the occasional blind spot caused by fundamentalism but today I feel easily clear of its influence. I had settled into a cozy agnosticism when Dawkins’ book came along. I am not a new atheist and will not begin deriding theists. In fact, I am clearer on the role of religion though uncritical theists will not find in me an easy ally.

I am religious, just like Dawkins. In the opening chapter Dawkins describes a feeling, a profound sense of wonder at the vastness of the universe. The same feeling has been shared in religious terms by Sagan, Einstein, Hawking and other scientists. When these scientists talk about God they are doing so in a poetic sense. The God Delusion, says Dawkins, is not an attack on their God. No, his attack is not on the poetic thinkers but on the literalists. Put crudely, those who believe the fairy tale of a guy in the sky, waiting for you with pie when you die. Creation, heaven and hell, Jesus dying to save your immortal soul then coming back to life, miracles, the stuff you learn in Sunday school. Dawkins is using a rhetorical strategy. You can make a bold claim — God is a delusion — if you exclude all good thinking on the subject and only focus on a straw man. Like Dawkins, I reject the fairy tale and instead use religion poetically. Thing is, we are not all eloquent poets. Many theists use the language of religious tradition but the essence of their belief is the same awe at the grandness of nature. I dusted off my old Psalter Hymnal and its Confession of Faith begins by saying that we know God by the “creation, preservation, and governance of the universe”. Argue if you must, the religion begins with a naturalist testament, just like Dawkins.

God is not a empirical question. Either he exists or he doesn’t, says Dawkins. Who is being simple-minded? Tackling the origins of the universe Dawkins considers the two hypotheses of creation and evolution. Intelligence, he argues, occurs at the end of a process, i.e., evolution, not at the start, i.e., creation. In fact, that is only true in a local context. According to physics, the universe was highly ordered matter, a singularity, and history has been the unfolding of the big bang. This is entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. The order or intelligence is found at the start of the process. My point is that big questions do not have simple true or false answers. There is the middle value, “mu”, often excluded, which rejects the context of the question as too small. Agnosticism seems a sensible response, but like the religion of the scientists, Dawkins argues away the agnosticism of great thinkers like Huxley.

Religion is poetry and we cannot live without it. Whenever one talks about God and the singularity the inevitable retort is that we are placing God in the “gaps”, the unknown things science hasn’t figured out yet. Yes, I say. That’s right. God is a poetic or mythological concept for mystery, the things we do not understand. Religion is false in the same way that Shakespeare is false. The events of his stories probably did not happen, but this does not stop us from retelling the stories, enacting them for audiences again and again. We quote his lines. It affects our decisions and changes our lives. Poetry, mythology, fiction, we constantly underestimate the vital role of these things in our lives.

Genuine religious belief is not consoling. New atheists explain religion as a comfort factor. Genuine religious belief is not consoling. Believers are challenged to reflect carefully on their thoughts and actions, live up to a rigourous moral code, and sacrifice their wants for the needs of others. It is a wonder that anyone would want to be religious. Dawkins provides a better explanation. A meme functions like a gene, but causing ideas to reproduce instead of DNA. Religious ideas are memetic because they require acceptance without question. It is a brilliant explanation. Modern theists accept the value of doubt but only as a step to greater faith. Not good enough. Genuine faith must be subject to constant critical examination. Not comfortable at all.

Atheism abets the ascendant religion of consumerism. I sometimes forget how powerful the pro-religious, anti-science lobby is in the United States. It explains some of the militancy of the new atheist movement. Even in Canada, the pro-religious lobby is currently rising along with conservative politics and I oppose it. Still, on a larger scale, I observe the waning of Christianity and other religions as consumerism rises to replace them as the new religion. Atheism abets consumerism by overstating its rejection of religion. Dawkins, like me, is religious in a poetic sense, but unfortunately he reserves it as a special case. Without some poetry or mythology to imagine the unknown, we are reduced to creatures of physical matter alone, admitting only the things we can touch and taste, serving the economics of our want.

Meditations: On the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life, by Thomas Moore. Soul is found in the particulars of life.

MeditationsI knew Thomas More as the principled protagonist in A Man for All Seasons. The 16th century Chancellor of England always sought the monastic spirit, so writes Thomas Moore, author of Meditations: On the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life. Moore is a one-time monk who believes that men and women have much to gain in their ordinary engaged lives from the traditional monastic practices of contemplation and solitude, as well as monastic ritual and community.

In a time of multi-tasking and maximized productivity, monks are experts at doing nothing. A little down-time should be part of everyone’s day for sanity. Instead of seeking novelty and entertainment, monks practice repetitious chant or silence, not kidding themselves that life is ever silent, but attending to things usually unheard. In a time when consumerism is the ascendant religion, monks take a vow of poverty, not to glorify pennilessness but to tone down acquisitiveness and desire for possessions. A vow of chastity is not the same thing as celibacy, but then celibacy is not a denial of sex, only redirection of sensuality and pleasure. Personally, at mid-life, having fulfilled my biological destiny, or at least having passed any likelihood of further reproduction, I delight in this expanded sense of physical pleasure.

What I envision is a rebuilding of monasticism without the need for monasteries, a recovery of sacred language without a church in which to use it, an education in the soul that takes place outside of the school, the creation of an artful world accomplished by persons who are not artists, the emergence of a psychological sensibility once the discipline of psychology has been forgotten, a life of intense community with no organization to belong to, and achieving a life of the soul without having made any progress toward it.

The soul. Do I still think such a thing as a soul exists? I am persuaded by the Buddhist writings that specifically discuss the suffering caused by believing in an essential self or soul. Reflecting on this at length, I think perhaps there can be a mortal soul, defined not by some divine substance, but by my particularity in time and space. It is co-occuring for every living being, but none can claim the “me-ness” of my life. I do not believe in an after-life or reincarnation of a soul, but the re-birth of subjective me-ness makes perfect sense. There was a time when “me” did not exist, there will come another time when “me” will not exist, and there will come again a time when “me” is felt. The key difference from the usual notion of soul is that I do not claim any connection between lives.

Moore imagines monasticism as a spirit, not of any particular religion, moving some men and women to live that spirit as a way of life. It may be secular but I think not atheistic in the most recent sense, in which religious thinking is explained away as a need for comfort, belonging, or convenience. Religious practice can instead be motivated by a tolerance for incompleteness and uncertainty. Prompted by life experiences that fracture a small world view, some seek a larger view, without fussing much over “progress toward it.” It takes a person out of the usual path. It is inconvenient, incomprehensible, isolating, uncomfortable, and non-conformist. In short, none of the pat answers.

The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe it willingly (quoting Wallace Stevens). 

Meetings with the Archangel by Stephen Mitchell. The angel, naked, tiptoes off, weary, content, maybe limping.

Meetings with the Archangel“To discover now, after twenty-two years of Zen training, that I was still susceptible to otherworldly visions …. Ah, well.”  The narrator has written a book, Against Angels, protesting all the popular attention given to angels in recent years, and rationally discussing the facts known about angels. Now, he sees an angel.

The fictional book has enough substance to have been worth writing. It contains a section with six pictures depicting a maturing understanding of angels. The chief theme is that angels are a projection of our spiritual selves; it is important to stop seeing angels.

1. Longing for the angel. The young man looks to the sky for angels, shading his eyes from the sun. He is open to possibilities but still thinks freedom belongs to somebody else.

2. Seeing the angel. The young man is kneeling and trembling. Perched on a rock, a fierce angel stares down at him. He has seen the angel, but the beauty makes him weak and confused.

3. Wrestling with the angel. The young man stands wrestling with the angel. The wingless angel strains but has a hint of a smile. “At last! He has come to grips with the essential point. There is neither heaven nor earth, holy nor unholy, just the mysterious other, bearing down on him with all its might. He has no choice now. It is not a question of victory or defeat. As long as he is grappled by an other, he is grappled by a self. And though he may not be aware of it in the midst of their sweaty embrace, the other wants nothing more than to be defeated.”

4. Letting go of the angel. The young man sits comfortably, gazing into the distance, holding a flute. The angel, naked, tiptoes off, weary, content, maybe limping. The struggle is over; he no longer remembers who won. The light of creation shines from him.

5. No angel, no self. Both angel and man have vanished. The angel is integrated; the man has no one left to confront. He has stopped looking inside or outside. “He has hung out a shingle on his front door that says, “Vacancy: come on in.”

6. Entering the marketplace with angelic hands. The young man is middle-aged, bearded, and smiling. He holds a basket of goodies for children. He has graduated from spiritual practice, from obligations, from enlightenment. He acts for pure pleasure, the benefit of all beings. But all beings are already saved. Open his basket, you will find as much or as little as you need.

Upon seeing the angel, he allows it to teach him angelic sex, and guide him on a tour of the heavens. He learns that the sorrow of humanity is a special thing, the opposite pole of the joy of the angels, a necessary experience to understand others, to truly have love and compassion. “You can love only where you enter.” It is for this reason that when angels meet humans the help they can offer is so limited. “Actually, our greatest service is to stand before you as clear mirrors. The compassion that a human may feel coming from us is his own mirrored compassion. The angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.”

Nothing flakey about this book. It has survived many weedings of my book collection.

Becoming Enlightened by the Dalai Lama. The fascinations and fears that lead us by the nose cause us grief until we finally give up the self.

Becoming enlightenedWhen the Dalai Lama visited Canada in 2007 a Catholic asked if he should convert to Buddhism. The Dalai Lama replied that the man should use Buddhism to become a better Catholic. A humble answer, it seemed, but it was also a clever one. Buddhists do not wish to compete with other religions. How rare, I thought. It took some time to sink in, but the Dalai Lama’s reply also positioned Buddhism as a meta-religion, a perspective from which to understand and enhance other religions. Clever. Each new insight I get into Buddhism confirms that position is not presumptuous.

Becoming Enlightened is written by the Dalai Lama. I have knee-jerk resistance to claims about enlightenment. What is enlightenment anyway, a state of perpetual bliss? When asked what the Buddhist outlook is, the Dalai Lama says “its view is dependent-arising, and its prescribed behavior is nonviolence”. Let’s unpack that. Dependent-arising means that all the fascinations and fears that lead us about by the nose cause us grief until we finally give up our illusion that self has any permanence. Most pleasures we seek are rooted in suffering. I learned years ago that the only pleasure in smoking is the relief from withdrawal caused by the previous cigarette. Like wearing tight shoes for the pleasure of removing them. We eat and drink and shop too much to smother the stresses of daily life, mostly the jostling of other people against our wishes and egos. Year by year I lay down my addictions and discover another kind of pleasure, rooted contentment and brimming creative energy. It feels very enlightened but the Buddhists ultimately insist on altruism, committed service to others. From this view, my enemy is more instructive than my friend, for it shows where I still cling to the illusion of a separate self. I still have a long way to go.

Reading Becoming Enlightened I am again challenged by one core tenet of Buddhism that I have always found illogical. As discussed above, we do not have a permanent self. The Dalai Lama is careful not to use the term, soul, but it seems to me that is exactly the thing he is saying does not exist. The Buddhists also say that actions in this lifetime affect our reincarnations in future lives. But if we have no soul, how can there be any personal connection between one life and the next? It seems like a contradiction.

Frustrated that Buddhism could be so right about practical things and so wrong about this metaphysical issue, I asked the question of Aardvark social search. The responses were very helpful. Mark quoted Rapola Wahula, “If we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like Self or Soul, why can’t we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a Self or Soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body?” Ah ha! I am still tripping over the assumption of a permanent self, both in this lifetime and possible future ones. This answer turns my question on its head. Our self is just a gathering of physical and mental energies with no permanent core (“dependent-arising”). We do not require a permanent self for continuity past death; moreover, it is not until we give up the illusion of self that we can finally stop reincarnating. Heady stuff. Another one of the social search answers gently suggested my fixation on soul reflects a Christian bias. Point taken. Perhaps there is wisdom in the Dalai Lama’s advice to stick with the religion of your parents.

Becoming Enlightened is a worthy source of reflection for outsiders to Buddhism like me.