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June, 2006
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June 21

Welcome to the Realize! Journal
The Human Side of Religion

[Happy Summer Solstice!  Read more here!]

Let's start with a story.

Years ago I was on the staff of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Sierra Madre, California.  Fr. Ron Erlandson, the Rector, had decided to invite parishioners into the Rectory in small groups for a program he called "Coffee, Coke, and Conversation."

This was a sort of "evangelistic" endeavor.  The idea was two-fold: to create stronger ties between the people who attended, and to "pick the brains" of the parish members, a few at a time, about how the church could attract more people.  To this end, members were encouraged to bring family members who did not regularly attend church.

Well, Nancy was a regular attendee, but her husband Bob was not.  In fact, if anything, Bob was a little antagonistic to church in general.  So it was surprising--and perhaps a little bit worrisome--to see that Nancy had dragged Bob along to "C, C & C."

As we went around the circle introducing ourselves, one offered: "I was born a Lutheran, but became Episcopalian when I was 30." "I was born Episcopalian," said another.  And a third contributed, "I was born a Catholic, but converted after my divorce," and so on, offering our pedigrees ("My great-great-grandfather was a chorister who emigrated from England.")  It was all very Episcopal.

And as the baton moved around toward Bob, I got ready, because his answer would help us understand the non-church-goer's mind, and this in turn could help us to bring more people in.  So we got to Bob, and nearly 30 years later his answer sticks in my memory, and sounds the theme that will permeate this journal (and this website):

"Well, unlike the rest of you," Bob drawled, "I was born a baby."

A Pinoy (Filipino) baby takes it easy--an inspiration to us all!

Silence.  Embarrassed laughter.  Animated discussion.

Bob was exactly right.  What is important is not our affiliations, but our humanity.  What is it to be human?  What makes us the same?  What potential is inborn in every one of us?  And how do the labels (Lutheran, Episcopalian, Muslim, Buddhist, black, white, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief) both expand and limit our possibilities?  Churches (and nations, and cliques, and just about every "in group") forget that we were all born babies, and are bonded by our human-ness far more than we are separated by our tribes.

In talking about this, Joseph Campbell spoke of the creation of a new mythology that embraced all of humanity.  Here are three brief quotes from The Power of Myth:

[The ground of a new mythology] is already here: the eye of reason, not of my nationality; the eye of reason, not of my religious community; the eye of reason, not of my linguistic community. Do you see? And this would be the philosophy for the planet, not for this group, that group, or the other group.
When you see the earth from the moon, you don't see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come. That is the country that we are going to be celebrating. And those are the people that we are one with.

Earthrise: The earth comes up over the moon's horizon


Now, today there is no out-group anymore on the planet. And the problem of a modern religion is to have such compassion work for the whole of humanity.


All this hope for something happening in society has to wait for something in the human psyche, a whole new way of experiencing a society. And the crucial question here, as I see it, is simply: With what society, what social group, do you identify yourself? Is it going to be with all the people of the planet, or is it going to be with your own particular in-group? This is the question, essentially, that was in the minds of the founders of our nation when the people of the thirteen states began thinking of themselves as of one nation, yet without losing consideration for the special interests of each of the several states. Why can't something of that kind take place in the world right now?

As you ponder this, you might want to read an essay I wrote for the local newspaper shortly after I arrived in Shenzhen.  It alludes to the same ideas.

* * * * * * * *

Realize! You Are That is ostensibly a "spiritual website."  But it reflects the idea that the most deeply spiritual thing is fulfilled humanity (and, conversely, that no one is fully human who neglects the spirit).  This journal will serve three purposes:

  • To offer frequent (often daily) bits and pieces of things that I'm reading, viewing, or thinking about, along with reflections on how to see

  • To guide you through the various pages on the website

  • To alert you to new happenings

I hope you'll visit often.

* * * * * * * *

Please send your comments by e-mail.  Useful comments will be added here.

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June 22

Who's Your Daddy (and Mommy)?
The Interconnectedness of Everything

Last May on a visit to Tokyo, I picked up Donald S. Lopez's The Story of Buddhism (Amazon).   It's a fine introduction; I put it right up there with Buddhism: A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith and Philip Novak (Amazon) and Christmas Humphreys' classic, simply titled Buddhism (Amazon).

Lopez covers a lot of ground that I'm quite familiar with; the pleasure for me is in finding a story or two that I didn't know before (or perhaps heard and set aside--different stories "resonate" at different times in one's life).  Here is one "new" story that really struck me:

The story is often told of the monk Shariputra [considered the Buddha's wisest disciple] encountering a woman with a baby on her lap, eating a piece of pork. When a dog approaches, she kicks it away. Shariputra weeps at the sight, explaining that through his knowledge of the past he sees that the woman is eating the flesh of a pig that had been her father in its past life. The dog had been her mother. Her parents had been murdered by an enemy who had been reborn as the woman's child, now coddled in her lap.

AHHH!!! I got goose bumps when I read that!

There are lots of routes I could take in discussing this.  One would be to discuss "Why I Am a Vegetarian."  But that will surely be covered later.  Another is the whole concept of reincarnation, which the Buddhists call rebirth.  (The distinction is fine but essential.)

But, as we are in the early days of our time together, I think it would be best to discuss a technique that I call MS: Metaphorical Seeing.

"The Way of Seeing"
(Click on the pic to see a larger version)

The idea is fundamental to many of the things that I will say in these pages.  In one of my Foundations articles, I wrote that perhaps the most important thing I have learned from reading Joseph Campbell's works is to see things in terms of metaphor.  Quoting myself here:

All language about "the Other," I came to see, is of necessity metaphorical language.  That is, "God," "heaven," and other such words, are referring to something which cannot be expressed in words at all.  The more I pursued this idea, the more excited I became.  I came to see that words might hint at reality, but they can never capture it.  In the Eastern image, they are "fingers pointing at the moon"...but never the moon itself.

Think about it.  Christians put great stock in "the name of Jesus." But this name is no word he ever heard; it's a translation (of a translation).  The name is just a name, and by extension the story is just a story.  It is pointing toward something "real," but cannot be the reality itself.

Can you imagine the effect this insight had on me?

Suddenly, my ideas about "God" became something much...bigger.  God was no longer a tame, domesticated animal.  Instead, he was ferocious, unencompassable, ineffable.  In Otto's words, a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, sometimes translated "a dread and yet alluring mystery."  Wow.

This way of thinking, "Metaphorical Seeing," is useful when I think of stories like the one about Shariputra and the woman.  Is the story literally true?  Can a wise monk really see your past lives?  Were the woman's parents really murdered in a previous life?  Were the three other players in the story--the pig, the dog, and the baby--really the father, the mother, and their murderer?

The answer is simple.  It doesn't matter.  Nor does it matter if God made a garden, or if Jesus hung on a cross.  This is radical for some of you, I know; our Western traditions have insisted on the historicity of their stories--sometimes, it seems, to their detriment.

A poster of galaxies entitled "Gems"

What does matter in this story is the idea that we are all connected, interdependent.  The Buddha spoke of the universe as a Net of Gems.  Think of an infinite, three-dimensional net.  At every knot in the net there's a gem.  Every gem is reflected in every other; and so each gem contains reflections of all the gems.  When one gem is moved, they all change.  This is clearly a metaphor, describing the interconnectedness of all things.

The story of Shariputra is less obviously metaphorical--but that is exactly how I see it.  It is meant to encourage a time-honored Buddhist practice of seeing myself in the other.  Everybody was my mother (and my murderer) in a previous life, as was every living thing.  If I could learn to see this way, I would naturally be more compassionate.

While this is a notable Buddhist idea, it is not restricted to Buddhism.  In a well-known Western example of this idea, John Donne's Meditation XVII contains these lines: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. ... Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

And so, as we spend weeks and months and perhaps years together in this journal and website, bear in mind that I am not insisting on the historical or scientific value of any of the stories I tell here; rather, the "bottom line" is: What can we learn from these stories?  How can they make us more-fulfilled human beings?  How can they help us to Realize! that We Are That?

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June 23

Bad Feng Shui
In Which America Gets Dissed by a Chinese Monk

Tonight Lila and I had dinner with our friend Mr. Wu and his family.  Mr. Wu is a government officer--and a high-powered Buddhist.  He and our friend Wang Fu Qing (who introduced us to Mr. Wu) took us on an overnight trip to a temple in Guangzhou last year, where we dined with the abbot; and Mr. Wu often takes us to Summer Tea House, an elegantly-decorated vegetarian restaurant that actually has a shrine room inside.

Tonight, Mr. Wu brought along a monk from Hong Fa Temple, who turns out to be the head of the Shenzhen Buddhist Association.  As usual, Diego, Mr. Wu's son, served as translator.  (Mr. Wu speaks no English, and Diego is a senior at Shenzhen Foreign Language Middle School.)  Diego had two shockers for me.  One was when I asked the monk if there were any monks at Hong Fa Temple--a big, showcase temple--who could speak English.  "Mei you," the monk replied, meaning "we don't have any."  That much I got without translation.  Diego then translated the next comment: "We have one monk who can say 'Yes,' 'No,' and 'OK.'" Wow.  A place like that, all those resources, and no English-speaking monks.  Mr. Wu is going to check into the idea of me offering an official tour once a month, just so the temple will offer some English instruction.

The other revelation was more disturbing.  Just after I sat down, apropos of nothing, the monk volunteered to the table (and poor Diego had to translate) his view that the Buddha-Dharma has little chance of success in other countries (outside of China) because they "lack good feng shui." Feng shui is the Chinese "science" of geomancy, placing buildings and other features in harmony with the land and, as the two words say, the "wind and water."

So wait: We're doomed?  The dharma will never penetrate our minds and hearts because we were born in the wrong place?  We can never get enlightened?

This smells to me of the rankest kind of chauvinism.

Numerous retorts rolled through my head.  I wondered, for instance, if the Indians who brought Buddhism to China felt the same: That the Chinese would never "get it" because they hadn't been born in India.  But I calmed myself, realizing that like most of us, this monk was a prisoner of his upbringing.  And as I calmed down, I realized what I should say.

The story is that Hui Neng "struck" a spring here.  Devotees still come to fetch water at the spring; this picture is immediately over the fountainhead.
Hui Neng at the Spring, Nan Hua Temple

Most of the monks I have met are descended from the lineage of Xuyun, the 20th-century monk who restored Nan Hua Temple in Shaoguan and revolutionized the southern sangha (monastic order).  And Xuyun in turn is a dharma descendent of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch.  So I remembered a passage in The Platform Sutra and repeated the story for this monk (Hui Neng is speaking):

I then went to pay homage to the [Fifth] Patriarch, and was asked where I came from and what I expected to get from him. I replied, "I am a commoner from Xin Zhou of Guangdong. I have traveled far to pay you respect and I ask for nothing but Buddhahood." "You are a native of Guangdong, a barbarian? How can you expect to be a Buddha?" asked the Patriarch. I replied, "Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-nature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature." He was going to speak further to me, but the presence of other disciples made him stop short. He then ordered me to join the crowd to work.

So the Fifth Patriarch had no reply to this.  Well, neither did my monk.  He changed the subject.

One of the long-running discussions in American Buddhism centers on the nature of American Buddhism itself.  (See one such discussion here.) How can the Dharma be extracted, as it were, from its cultural bindings and be freed for "translation" into another culture?  And prior to the question of how, some insist we must ask the question if : CAN the dharma be translated at all?

Anyone with a knowledge of history knows that it can, because it has.  It moved from India to China (among many other places); and these two cultural spheres, the Indian and the Chinese, are quite different.  The "translation" into China wasn't easy.  Somewhat ironically, it has been noted that in some ways Indian thought is more "Western" than Chinese thought.  Indian philosophy is more analytical, more linguistics-based, more "scientific" in the Western sense of the word.  So the step from China to the West is a big one, but perhaps the step from Indian models to the West would be easier.

One of the obstacles to the translation of Buddhism to the West is the very attitude exhibited by this monk.  Here is a Keeper of the Dharma expressing (against all rules of etiquette) his opinion that this precious knowledge can never go West. Later, he said that there are many holy mountains in China, where the practice of generations of holy monks can be sensed by the visitor; and that other countries lack this echo of sanctity.  Again, the dharma is exclusive to China's geography.  (This ignores its smashing success as planted in Korea, Japan, and other countries.)

Ven. Miao Hsi (our teacher) and Ven. Hui Chuan (the abbot) with the English-Language Dharma Class on the steps of Hsi Lai Temple's Main Hall.  I'm near the top left (in a white shirt)
The English Class, Hsi Lai Temple

In my own experience, I have found the "cultural bindings" to be problematic.  I had the pleasure and honor to be on the staff of Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California. (You can follow my extensive tour of the temple here.) The monks and nuns there are delightful, dedicated, hard-working, compassionate, giving people.  And yet it is tremendously difficult for them to pass on the dharma to the West because, with few exceptions, the sangha (monastic order) there is made up of people from the Chinese cultural sphere.  In order for non-Chinese people to participate in the temple's activities, they have to climb over the "cultural threshold" to get in.  This is not because of any malevolent design on the part of the temple; it is a simple side-effect of the Chinese-ness of the place.  Look at the opening statement on their English web page: "We are delighted that you have shown an interest in Chinese culture and in Buddhism and have chosen to visit us."

So I will finish with a question for you to ponder: How much of "Truth" is true regardless of culture, and how much is intrinsically woven into culture?  How can we discern what is true and what is merely culturally conditioned.

And can the Buddha-Dharma be successful in a country with bad feng shui?

* * * * * * * *

Update, June 28: I hesitate to add this, because it sounds like I'm bragging.  (And maybe I am. A little.)  But I think it's important to see what happens when someone who grew up "cloistered" in many ways comes in contact with the outside world.

I saw Diego, my "translator," today, and we talked about the monk a little bit.  Diego, too, was shocked by the apparent rudeness of the monk's comment.  But he said that later in the conversation, the monk said he was impressed by my grasp of the Dharma.  So perhaps he will discover that something as wonderful as the Buddha's teachings cannot be suppressed by feng shui?

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June 24

Good Feng Shui?
How Can a "Foreign" Belief Cross Cultures?

Friday with the Buddhists, Saturday with the Hindus.

Lila and I spent a delightful evening with her sangha, the Gaudiya Math.  (Update: Lila has a clip of the chanting that night over on her Xanga Site.)  The teacher of this group, their Gurudev, His Divine Grace Sri Srimad Bhaktivedanta Narayana Maharaja, is in Hong Kong this week, as they prepare for their "East Asian Festival of Love 2006" on July 1st-3rd, as well as the dedication of their new temple (which until now we have been calling only a "center").

And so there are devotees from all over converging on Kowloon.  The best conversations I had last night were with senior devotees from America, Israel, and Finland.  One of those conversations centered around the same topic as last night: how can this group (a close relative to the well-known "Hare Krishnas") "package" or market their message in a way that modern people will find palatable?

Because the message is simple: Be Happy.  But their particular path to happiness is through devotion to Lord Krishna, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, preserver of the world.  This is where modern Western people start to run into obstacles.

Gurudev and Hong-Kong-based devotees of Gaudiya Math meet in Taiwan
Guru and some Hong Kong devotees of Gaudiya Math

What tickled me the most was to see these guys sitting there in their saffron robes with their mostly-shaved heads (with a sikha, a little pony tail signifying one-pointed focus on one's spiritual goal)--in other words, their very foreign appearance--and knowing that their appearance will be problematic for many people, and yet insisting that these people need and deserve to hear this message--unlike last night's monk, who doubted that anyone unlike him could ever "get it."

To be fair, I doubt the monk has ever been out of China, while these devotees are themselves from countries other than India, so they are living proof that their dharma is transferable.

* * * * * * * *

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June 25

The Gods Behind the Gods We See
"God Without Attributes"--in (Un-)Stained Glass

Back on June 21, I mentioned the Church of the Ascension, where I worked back in the late '70s.  In those days I considered myself an Evangelical Christian and a Western Man, with a worldview shaped by Plato, Jesus, Leonardo, and so on.

But even then, I had inklings of something more waiting for me out there.

Read more and see a Photo-Journal Entry

* * * * * * * *

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June 26

"Who Do Men Say That I Am?"
The Debate Over the Nature of Jesus

Jesus asked this question of his disciples, and thanks to The Da Vinci Code it seems now to be the theological question of 2006.  Here's the passage in Matthew 16:

Jesus [to his disciples]: Who do men say that the Son of man is?
The disciples: Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
Jesus: But who do you say that I am?
Simon Peter: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Jesus: Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven

And the story concludes: Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

There's lots to be gleaned from this story, but I am fascinated by the "laundry list" in the first response: "John the Baptist...Elijah...Jeremiah...one of the prophets." Some of these same disciples had seen Jesus with John the Baptist; the other figures named had been dead for centuries.  Jesus couldn't possibly have been any of the people named--in rational terms.

So even the disciples who knew him in the flesh could not identify him in terms of A - B - C logic.  Peter's answer isn't exactly "scientific" either, but it is the one that Jesus seemed to have been fishing for.  (I note in passing the ambiguity of Peter's description: Is it not still possible that we are all the Christ?) And what about Jesus' admonition to keep mum?

No wonder, then, that twenty centuries later we still can't figure out who he is.

Da Vinci's "controversial" painting

I spent the day doing background reading for a course I want to teach about The Da Vinci Code (Amazon).  I have been working on several themes regarding the question of who Jesus was; the role of Mary Magdalene and the Sacred Feminine; Secret Societies like the Templars and the Priory of Sion; and some of the key figures from history like Leonardo Da Vinci.

Around the same time as the release of Dan Brown's book (and not necessarily following it),  a flood of theorizing began on the person of Jesus.  Freke and Gandy's The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? (Amazon), for example, was published well before The Da Vinci Code, but covers some of the same ground.  The authors believe that there never was  a "historical Jesus," that the "Jesus myth" was a Jewish/Gnostic re-working of the mystery religions that spanned the Egyptian Osiris and the Greek Dionysus.

And this is one of the saner books out there.  Even more interesting are The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by Acharya S (Amazon) and Tony Bushby's The Bible Fraud (Amazon)

Let's do Bushby first. The basic thrust of his claim is that "the Historic Jesus" was a twin:

The Untold Story of Jesus and His Twin Brother, Judas Khrestus... Mystery and intrigue surround the church web of deceit, corruption, murder and debauchery. In THE BIBLE FRAUD, you will find the truth about Rabbi Jesus and his twin brother, their birth, marriages and deaths, as well as the bloodlines that have resulted from events of that time. (From Amazon)

In this interview Bushby discusses the book; here are some highlights:

  • One of the twins became a Rabbi (Jesus) and "the other became rather a wild drinking man" (Judas Thomas the Twin)
  • Mariamne (Mary the mother of Jesus) was King Herod's granddaughter; "she was raped by a Roman archer" who later became the Roman Emperor Tiberius.
  • The twins were raised in the House of Augustus, so "Jesus is called King over thirty times yet records of history never record Jesus as being King." Also, "Because Augustus and the twelve first Caesars were deified, these twin boys were called the 'Sons of God.'"
  • Judas was arrested for trying to seize the Roman throne; he was to be crucified but claimed the right to have another crucified in his place. This was Simon of Cyrene.
  • Judas went to India, and Jesus (because he was part of the plot) fled to France and then England, where he "became an honorary Druid"
  • Jesus married Mary Magdalene, "a Celtic princess," and their bloodline can be traced to the modern European monarchy
  • Constantine was "of the same blood" as the twins, and had their life stories blended together at the Council of Nicaea. "...there was talk amongst the old Churchmen of Jesus as having two natures. The problem was they had the two twin boys mixed up so he deified them both as one and combined both parts of their name and they became Jesus Christ."

I'll leave it to you to read the "debate" over this book on the Amazon page.

And now for The Christ Conspiracy by Acharya S., "A book that virtually proves that 'Jesus Christ' is a mythical character":

Contrary to popular belief, there was no single man at the genesis of Christianity but many characters rolled into one, the majority of whom were personifications of the ubiquitous solar myth, whose exploits were well known, as reflected by such popular deities as Mithra, Heracles/Hercules, Dionysus and many others throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

The story of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels is revealed to be nearly identical in detail to that of the earlier savior-gods Krishna and Horus, who for millennia preceding Christianity held great favor with the people in much the same way as Jesus does today.

Thus, the Jesus character is not unique or original, not "divine revelation." These redeemer tales are similar not because they reflect the actual exploits of a variety of men who did and said the identical things, but because they are representations of the same extremely ancient body of knowledge that revolved around the celestial bodies and natural forces. The result of this mythmaking has been The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold.  [From the website]

Perhaps the response to this all is best summed up by the first endorsement on the site:

"Good gosh, I love this book." Greg

But wait! Acharya S. is not finished! She also wrote Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled (Amazon). "This 595-page follow-up book to The Christ Conspiracy backs up many of the contentions found therein and addresses criticisms thereof":

Picking up where the bestselling and controversial The Christ Conspiracy leaves off, Suns of God leads the reader through an electrifying exploration of the origin and meaning of the world's religions and popular gods. Over the past several centuries, the Big Three spiritual leaders have been the Lords Christ, Krishna and Buddha, whose stories and teachings are curiously and confoundingly similar to each other. The tale of a miraculously born redeemer who overcomes heroic challenges, teaches ethics and morality, performs marvels and wonders, acquires disciples and is famed far and wide, to be persecuted, killed and reborn, is not unique but a global phenomenon recurring in a wide variety of cultures long before the Christian era.

Are Krishna, Buddha and Christ "real people" or myths?

These godmen were not "historical" people who all "walked the earth" but mythical characters of the famous "mysteries." A major element of the secret, international brotherhood, these mysteries extend back thousands of years and are found worldwide, reflecting an ancient tradition steeped in awe and intrigue. The reasons for this religious development are unveiled in this in-depth analysis containing fascinating and original research based on evidence both modern and ancient, captivating information kept secret and hidden for ages!

From the cover of Suns of God
From the cover 

I haven't seen this book, but the excerpts on line are filled with the worst kind of howlers, e.g. "To begin with, Buddha's mother, Mahamaya, was fecundated by the 'Holy Spirit,' while a 'heavenly messenger' informed Maya that she would bear 'a son of the highest kings.'"

How, in good conscience, could she make such mistakes?

A clue, I think, lies in her sources.

In The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India's Lost Religion (Amazon), historian Charles Allen chronicles the gradual unraveling of the mystery of Buddhism by (mostly) British civil servants in 18th- and 19th-century India. The early impressions of the Buddha are themselves howlers: he is referred to by early Western investigators as "Bood-ha, a mysterious, heretofore forgotten deity."  Sir William Jones, one of the first great "Orientalists," postulated that the Buddha may have hailed from Ethiopia.  (The curled hair of his statues is part of the "evidence.")  Indeed, it was quite some time after Europeans arrived in Asia that they put together the idea that the religions of Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Thailand (Siam), Burma, China, and Japan had any connections at all!

It is in this environment of slowly-dissipating ignorance that many of the works relied on by Acharya S. were created.  Furthermore, we know that one of the works she cited, the "Abhinish-Kramana Sutra," is available only in a translation by "the Rev. Samuel Beal (1825-89)," a man who might likely have leaned toward Christian terminology in his translation.  (The translation is again in print as Romantic Legends of Sakya Buddha [Amazon]).

Here's another unlikely quote: Buddha was called "the Lion of the Tribe of Sakya, the King of Righteousness, the Great Physician, the God among Gods, the Only Begotten, the Word, the All-wise, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Intercessor, the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, the Anointed, the Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour of the World, the Way of Life and Immortality."  This one seems to come from a book cited as The Fountainhead of Religion.  The full title is actually The Fountainhead of Religion: A Comparative Study of the Principle Religions of the World and a Manifestation of Their Common Origin from the Vedas (Amazon) and it was written by Ganga Prasad, a Hindu (writing in 1927) who was clearly trying to prove that all religions derived from the Hindu scriptures.


In a critical article subtitled "Buddha as Copycat Christ," James Patrick Holding makes an important point: virtually none of Acharya S.'s sources are primary Buddhist documents. This leaves open the possibility that all have been filtered through Christian sensibilities.

The Point: Okay, I've spent a lot of time representing "alternative" views of Jesus.  To what end?  Just to let you know that there are crackpots out there?  No, there's more to it than that.

I want you to know that all this energy being spent on determining who Jesus really is is a waste of time.  It started long ago, with books like Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus; and it arises from a mistaken notion.  Who cares if Jesus was married?  Who cares if he was crucified, died, buried, resurrected, and ascended?  Who cares if he ever lived?

Once again, the idea that the Bible is history is a mistake.  To mistake "religion" for history and science is, as Joseph Campbell so often said, like going to a restaurant and eating the menu.  The story of the life of Jesus (or Buddha or Krishna) is the story of our potential for transformation.  It is not about "where (or whether) the bones are," but about the fulfillment of our true natures.  The Buddhists get this; there is little insistence on historicity.

In fact, I have often said that questions like "Were Adam and Eve real people?" are questions that would only be asked by post-Enlightenment Western people.  I think our forebears up to the Renaissance, and most of the peoples of non-Western cultures, never asked such questions, accepting the story as a story.

Listen:  I once wrote a paper about applying the "historical approach" to religion.  In order to assess the value of this approach, I wrote this (in part):

A man walks into a doctor’s office with a frog on his head. The doctor looks at him and asks, "What happened?" and the frog says, "Well, it started as a wart."
The purpose of a joke is to make people laugh; the value of a joke lies in its humor. One could assess the humor of a joke on a scale of one to ten (assigning this, I suspect, a value closer to one than to ten), and thus evaluate its efficacy in achieving its goal of making people laugh.
Once this assessment has been made, one wonders what value there might be in applying "the historical approach" to the joke by asking the following questions: "Who was the man? How did he really manage to get a frog on his head? Where was the doctor’s office? What were the doctor’s credentials? Is it medically possible for a man to develop from a wart? Can frogs talk?" and so on.

(If you really must read it, the paper is here.) My professor "got it," that I was basically mocking the whole idea of historicity.  (This is despite the fact that his dissertation advisor had been Mircea Eliade, famed as "The Father of the History of Religion in American."  Elsewhere I argue that Eliade was really something of an anthropologist rather than an historian.)  But anyway, I think that this whole "public debate" is more fascinating in that it is happening at all than in anything actually being said.

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June 27

Bliss Station
Get Yer Daily Dose

Tonight I was showing my new friend Jay Govinda (a Krishna devotee of the Gaudiya Math) around Shenzhen, and we ended up at my pal Murli's 1947 Indian Restaurant.  (I wanted Jay Govinda to meet Murli as he thinks about offering some yoga and other lessons in Shenzhen.)

My new pal Jay Govinda
Jay Govinda

As usually happens, talk came around to spiritual things, and I ended up suggesting to Murli that he reserve a little time each day for meditation or contemplation.  In his case, this would be telling beads in his family's tradition, but for others it might be another formal exercise, such as the Christian rosary, Indian japa, or Buddhist chant or meditations.  But it doesn't have to be; it could just be (as the cliche has it) stopping to smell the roses.

I remembered as I was speaking that Joseph Campbell refers to this by the wonderful phrase "bliss station":

[Bill] MOYERS: You write in The Mythic Image  (Amazon) about the center of transformation, the idea of a sacred place where the temporal walls may dissolve to reveal a wonder. What does it mean to have a sacred place?

CAMPBELL: This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don't know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don't know who your friends are, you don't know what you owe anybody, you don't know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

MOYERS: This sacred place does for you what the plains did for the hunter.

CAMPBELL: For them the whole world was a sacred place. But our life has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the music that you really love, even if it's corny music that nobody else respects. Or get the book you like to read. In your sacred place you get the "thou" feeling of life that these people had for the whole world in which they lived.

[The Power of Myth (Amazon)]

Another teacher, Koyo Kubose, refers to one's home altar as the SPOT: the "Special Place of Tranquility," of which he says:

Your SPOT can be a secular (ordinary) place that is made sacred (spiritual) through your attitude. Conversely, your SPOT can be a sacred or religious place that is intimately related to your secular or everyday life. In other words, your SPOT need not be labeled as a solely sacred or secular place. Our approach is the Way of Oneness. In the present context, this means that such dualistic terminology as sacred versus secular can be transcended.

Although both of these seem to be locations ("station" and "place"), perhaps more essential is time.  Note that Campbell says, "You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day..." For many, this is a morning hour, just after rising.  (But not for me!  I usually do my quiet time at night).  Some people even take a part of the lunch hour.

On the SPOT

But whenever it is, the point, as Campbell somewhat slyly suggests, is to go to that place (which is not a place) "where you don't know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don't know who your friends are, you don't know what you owe anybody, you don't know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be."

Exactly.  If you don't have such a "place," I encourage you to create one in your life.  As I told Murli tonight, don't wait until trouble comes.  Develop this discipline now, in the good times, so that you will be strong to face difficulties when they come.

One more note: When Campbell mentions "the 'thou' feeling of life" he is referring to an idea espoused by Martin Buber in his book I and Thou (Amazon).  As described at Wikipedia (access in China): 

Buber's main proposition is that we may address existence in two ways: that of the 'I' towards an 'IT', towards an object that is separate in itself and from us, which we either use or experience; and that of the 'I' towards 'THOU', in which we move into existence within relationship, without bounds. One of the major themes of the book is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. All of our relationships, Buber contends, bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou.

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June 28

Buddhism 101
An Index to Things to Come

Over in the Foundational Essays you will find an article that details The Influence of Buddhism on my thinking.   One section is called Lessons of Buddhism, which ends with a relatively short (20-item) list of ideas.

Seated Teaching Buddha

I have now expanded that list to 33 items (and many of those contain three items or more) on a page called Buddhism 101, which serves as both a guide to Buddhist ideas and an index to future articles.  Please take a look.

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June 29

Provisional Truth
The "Front Porch" of Dharma

The Story of Buddhism (mentioned above) has a long discussion on provisional vs. definitive truth.  Those statements of the Buddha "that cannot be taken literally are regarded as provisional or subject to interpretation.  Those that can be taken literally are regarded as definitive." (p.112) This is an aspect of upaya, the "skillful means" used by the Buddha to help followers on the path. In its most extreme form, this may involve lying; whatever it takes to bring about benefit for the hearer.  I knew Taiwanese nuns in Los Angeles with a 200-word English vocabulary, but they knew the expression "white lie"!

For example, in Chapter Three of the Lotus Sutra (Amazon), the Buddha tells "The Parable of the Burning House."  If a man's house is on fire, and his sons are distracted inside and are not concerned about leaving, he is justified in telling them that there are three kinds of carts outside for their pleasure: each one is pulled by a goat, or a deer, or an ox. In fact there are no such carts; there is just one uniform (and magnificent) kind of cart pulled by a majestic white ox. But the man had to "lie" to distract his children and get them outside.  This story is a device of the Mahayana to describe why the original teachings had three vehicles and the Mahayana prescribes only one, the Buddha vehicle.  In the early days the Buddha spoke of the sravaka, or hearer vehicle (the most common vehicle, for arhats); the pratyekabuddha or solitary practitioner, vehicle (for those born when no Buddha is in the world, and who discover enlightenment on their own), and the Buddha vehicle, the most majestic of all--the vehicle of the Mahayana.  So the Buddha had to "distract" his early hearers with the promise of various vehicles to get them going, and then presents the One Vehicle when they are ready to hear it.  (In addition to the Amazon link above, the Lotus Sutra is available online here.)

My Venerable Friend

Later in The Story of Buddhism, Lopez is talking about the various reasons that people have become monks--and not always the right reasons. However, he says, "It would be inappropriate to assume that one's initial motivation provided any indication of one's future success...One of the most prominent Tibetan monks of the modern period explained that he decided to enter the order because he liked the looks of the monks' robes."

This is an important idea: We all start from where we are. "Just as I am," the Christian hymn says, "I come, I come."

When I read Lopez's story, I was instantly reminded of a dear friend.  She is quite a cultivated nun, who has now lived in several countries and has developed a wise perspective.  But when I asked her why she had become a nun, she told me a most charming story.  At the age of 19, still in her hometown in central China, she had visited a temple.  She was taken with the appearance of the monks and nuns, and got it into her head that they had the ability to do the sort of magical martial arts seen in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--flying, walking on tree-tops, etc.

Running on air in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

So she signed up.  And she said she was in the order several years before she learned that that sort of thing doesn't really happen, but by then she had learned the real benefits of the Buddha-Dharma, so she decided to fulfill her vows, and has never looked back.

Who knows what sort of silliness might cause us to turn a corner one day and find ourselves living richer, fuller, happier lives?

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June 30

Foundational Fridays
A Tour of My Ideas

Instead of writing an essay, I will usually use Fridays to introduce you to some of the Foundational Essays on the site.  So today, I want to encourage you to read About Our Logo.

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Also on Fridays, I will be publishing the Free Online Sutra Study.  Today we offer our very first lesson:

The Middle Way and the Eightfold Path

being the first portion of

The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

This is the Buddha's first sermon, called in English "The Turning of the Wheel of the Law."  That is, here is where the Buddha "cranks up the teaching machine" which ran for another 45 years, from his enlightenment at age 35 until his death at 80.  Here he laid out the basic insights acquired in his moment of enlightenment.  This, too, is "foundational"--to everything else he taught.  Please read it and, if you feel so moved, join the study by responding to the questions.

Bon weekend!

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That's all for June!  You may return to The Journal Index or move on to July.

..Contents (C) 2006 James Baquet

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