Stephen T. Butterfield — a poet and English teacher who lives in Shrewsbury, Vermont — is a student of the Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche.

Trungpa, who founded the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, is best known for such books as Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, The Myth Of Freedom, and Meditation In Action. In Issue 107, we printed excerpts from his most recent book, Shambhala/The Sacred Path Of The Warrior.

Butterfield’s poems and fiction have appeared in Beyond Baroque, Nimrod, Beloit Poetry Journal, University Review, Husk, Driftwood, Raven, Green River Review, and other journals.

— Ed.


As a Westerner turning Buddhist in 1982, I was concerned about abandoning my “Christian heritage” for a foreign culture. I had never felt completely at home with that heritage: church seemed like a sterile routine, and any form of dogma affected me like one more arrogant know-it-all telling me how I should live.

Nevertheless, I had read Dante, T.S. Eliot and Thomas Merton; I loved “The Messiah,” the Old Testament prophets and the Gospels. The sacredness of Christianity lived for me in its art. When I took Buddhist refuge vows, a member of the Sangha explained to the new refugees the meaning of what we were about to do. “The shopping trip is over,” he said. “You are choosing a single path.”

“I want to go deeply into one path,” I said, “but I have learned a great deal from Christians. Does this mean that we are no longer free to appreciate them?”

He said, “You will probably appreciate them more.”

That response has gone on resonating in my mind. It becomes more profoundly true the further I penetrate Buddhist practice and study. Perhaps it is not too much to say that the essence of Christianity was, for me, best discovered outside its own frame of reference.

 

The ultimate goal, the omega point, of the Christian journey is to behold the image of God, and to realize entirely the image of ourselves; that is, to become Christ. The destination of Dante in the Paradiso is to glimpse, for an instant, Him in whose image we are made — and then to feel the love that moves the stars. The human-become-divine and the divinity-become-human recognize one another like reflections in a mirror. Salvation is being able to remain in this beatific vision eternally.

The Buddhist journey uses a different language and a different set of reference points, but it is questionable whether the pilgrim on a Buddhist path has a different destination. Intuition seems to say it cannot be so: there cannot be multiple versions of salvation or enlightenment. Being fully realized on the Buddhist journey would be liberation from birth, death and space/time, complete and utter liberation from suffering. To be real, this experience must transcend the relative, the comparative, the partial; it is not an achievement, nor an acquisition; it cannot be manufactured in different brands and qualities.

Both Christian and Buddhist literature seem to assert that salvation — translate this term as “enlightenment” for the Buddhist vocabulary — can occur in different degrees. Dante locates his saints in nine circles in Heaven, with a tenth reserved for the transcendent Deity; Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a Mahayana Buddhist text, describes ten bhumis, or levels, of the bodhisattva path. But, paradoxically, both assert that all degrees are aspects of the absolute finality of awakening: in Dante, the circles all become the petals of a single rose; in Buddhist authors the levels are emanations of Buddhahood manifested within relative conditions.

Although realization is timeless, some effort seems to be necessary to get there, and this effort must occur in the realm of time. Hence there is the notion of a journey, a path, a piigrimage. Since the journey occurs in time, it is possible that there is more than one path; diversity can occur in the path, if not in the final result.

Two kinds of paths, with corresponding reference points, have evolved on this planet: theism and non-theism. Christianity is an example of the first approach, Buddhism of the second. In the first, a distinction is made between God and self; the path occurs in the psychic and historical space/time between these two, and the goal of the journey is to bring them together. In the second type, the distinction is not made; the categories of God and self have no inherent reality. The path is a bridge from nothing to nothing.

In both systems, there is a constant temptation to confuse the reference points with the final result — easy to do, since that result cannot be described. If the territory is beyond all our categories, we find it much easier to settle for the map. “Settling for the map” is a belief in doctrine, without understanding its experiential content.

It might be difficult to see the moon, if there is only one finger pointing at it. With two fingers, pointing from different directions, we might have a better chance. Two eyes, by combining and duplicating part of the same field of vision, reveal a stereoscopic depth not perceived by one eye alone. This is not to say that we can walk successfully on two paths at the same time, but that immersion in one system could enable us to recognize the landscape which is viewed from the other.

 

I become interested in a spiritual path because of a permanent mid-life crisis, which may have started for me at age seventeen. Long before turning forty, I have recognized that I am repeating myself over and over, that I am a carbon-based machine tied to the ground, filling my belly and making my little judgements and trying to ward off the judgements of others. Career goals after a certain point cease to be exciting. It takes five, six, maybe fifty-six affairs, if I last that long, to discover that they are all soap operas, and the sex act itself begins to appear not only repetitious but ludicrous. However momentarily joyful, or funny, at best it can only propagate life, not give meaning to it.

My starting point is suffering; I have had lots of it, and so has everyone I know. According to Buddhist teaching, the suffering that happens to me is the result of my own thoughts, words and deeds, my own defiled impulses, in this or other lives.

Those blues that creep over me as the sun goes down; the dreams I never achieved; the pain in my teeth; the gasping suffocation when I try to climb a hill, having lost almost half my lungs; the sadness of watching my father tell the same stories for thirty years; the worry that I could turn into a senile headcase and shit my pants and not even realize that my brain is a withered prune — all these are karmic seeds I have sown that are ripening one by one. I should accept full responsibility for them and be glad they are blossoming now instead of later; I should welcome them as inspiration on the path. I bought my ticket for the mortal race the day I was born. Besides sowing my own seeds, I also participate in the collective karma of my country and planet, and I share in the responsibility for their poisons as well.

My starting point is suffering; I have had lots of it, and so has everyone I know.

The First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha was that suffering is part of the texture of existence. That certainly looks true to me.

Christian teaching ascribes the cause of suffering to sin. Because we sin, we are separated from God, and to the extent that we are separated from God, we suffer. The first separation was — is — pride: the fixation upon self. The commission of sin results in pain, for ourselves and others. We do it because we are grasping at some illusory form of pleasure corrupted by the general inherited sinfulness of humankind. The utility of the pain is to expiate the misdeed, turn our thoughts toward God and remind us of death. Injuries inflicted on us for no transgression of our own may be suffered as our part in the misery of the world; by cheerful acceptance of such pain, we become like Christ, we participate in His nature and become a branch on the Holy Vine.

In Buddhist thought, suffering is actually enlightenment in disguise; that is, enlightenment comes through to the unenlightened as pain. The disguise is my ignorance, aggression and greed, my ego, my belief in a self which has to be protected and preserved. If I tore away the disguise, then duhkha, the confusion and pain of conditioned existence, would appear in its true light as the ground of awakening. The last thing I want to do, then, is run away from suffering, or pretend it isn’t there. To do that would be to ignore enlightenment itself.

In Christian thought, God does not enjoy tormenting people; suffering exists because this is almost the only way God’s infinite mercy and presence can manifest in a sinful and corrupted world. Anxiety is God’s mercy and goodness experienced from the viewpoint of sin. We might wish for God to withdraw such mercy from us, but the root of suffering is precisely the impulse to withdraw from God, into the illusion of self. God cannot disappear; for that matter neither joy nor salvation can disappear, but we can invert them by our own withdrawal.

The pain of the innocent is the scourging of Christ. By patient acceptance of undeserved pain, we draw closer to the nature of Christ, and therefore to the nature of God incarnated in human flesh. Affliction is a treasure. To follow the Christian path, to accept Christ, to follow the steps of confession, atonement and expiation, to take Communion and allow that perfect being which is our potential and our heritage to be born in our hearts, is to open this treasure and accept it as precious grace.

The last thing I want to do, then, is run away from suffering, or pretend it isn’t there. To do that would be to ignore enlightenment itself.

What, then, do the two systems have in common? Both assert that the source of suffering is the ftxation on the illusion of self. In both systems, the responsibility for suffering is ours; we cannot blame it on an external deity or each other. In both systems, suffering is actually inverted salvation, and is therefore a tremendous opportunity to wake up. This viewpoint confers great power on the individual: since we have caused our own darkness, we can dispel it. We originate the illusion of self as an unconscious act, which in Christian thought is called “original sin” — this is a heritage of pride, or a kind of automatic, built-in tendency to believe in the aggrandizement of the ego as the most important value. In Buddhist thought the analogous concept would be avidya, which is a kind of fundamental ignorance, an automatic and unconscious belief in the existence of oneself, which is then elaborated into a complex web of dreams called the five skandhas.

The further analysis of sin in both systems is profoundly complementary. Catholic thought identifies seven roots of sinfulness: pride, anger, sloth, envy, gluttony, covetousness, and lust. These are categorized as love perverted, love deficient, and love to excess. In Mahayana Buddhism, the root cause of avidya results in six obscurations, or kleshas: aggression, passion, and ignorance are the primary kleshas, the chief engines that create our whole delusionary and suffering world. Aggression might correspond to love perverted, passion to love excessive, and ignorance to love deficient. The term klesha can also be translated as “defilement” and “disturbing conception.”

In this description, we already have Buddha nature, the capacity to be completely awake; the kleshas obscure this from us, like mud being stirred up in a pool of water, or clouds hiding the sun. But the energy which goes into the creation of the kleshas is the same energy which is present in enlightened action, just as, in the Christian system, the energy behind sin is actually love, misunderstood or misapplied. In both religions, suffering is real, but the causes of suffering have no inherent reality of their own. According to St. Augustine, evil in any case does not exist in itself but is merely the absence or perversion of good. According to the Buddha, nothing whatever exists inherently; all phenomena are real only in context.

Perhaps the chief difference between the two descriptions of sin is that in Buddhism there is no guilt. There is ignorance, and misdeeds are committed, but no one is there to commit them. Guilt is pointless; it would simply be aggression directed at the illusion of self. On the other hand, the Mahayana teachings recognize that intense regret for one’s bad actions and intense revulsion for samsara — the world created by the kleshas — are necessary to motivate one to pursue the path of awakening. Even though regret and revulsion form part of the illusory world of suffering which is to be dissolved in the final awareness, without regret and revulsion it is unlikely that we would ever begin. Regret has a similar importance in the Catholic sequence of confessional steps: we have to be genuinely sorry for the sin before it can be absolved.

I have wanted to get rid of all these emotions because they are profoundly uncomfortable, and the struggle has turned me into a slave; my fear of uncomfortable emotions has conditioned my behavior. And the irony is that they fed off the energy of my struggle; they became stronger than ever.

What do I recognize in these systems that might be personally applicable? After all, I don’t want to reach for a spiritual aspirin; the market has all kinds of aspirins, and after they wear off, boredom and anxiety still whisper in my ear that everything is useless, nothing matters, no goal is worth achieving, love is an excuse for insecurity; victory is a colored ribbon, and the only task I have left is to wait for death. Aspirins do not cure.

I also tried “positive thought.” According to this degenerate version of pseudo-religious cheerfulness, pain is an illusion. Imagine whatever goal I want, believe I can succeed, conquer fear with action, fulfill my desires. This required that I direct tremendous aggression and ignorance toward the reality of what I am. Only one aspect of that reality was to be acknowledged and cultivated: the squawking little yuppie that says, “Yes I can, I’m a winner, I’m excited, sock it to me, let me suck up the world and have lots of fun and get healthy, wealthy and wise.” Such an attitude simply does not address the dilemma of being bored with desire itself.

I have to begin by looking at this environment I have tried so hard to avoid, this duhkha, this so-called treasure, which is at the same time sensation and context, nebulous as a restless night and sharp as a nail in the foot.

It consists of fear, desire, anger, boredom, dullness, jealousy, envy, hope, disappointment, and emotional hunger. They are all forms of suffering, supported by all kinds of thoughts and memories. It is remarkable that I could ever pretend they aren’t there, because they have ruled my life. I don’t like feeling any of them. To ignore boredom I have watched television. To escape dullness I have chased all forms of entertainment. To escape fear I have stayed in the same general area on the planet, held a secure job, not taken too many chances with my personal safety, avoided walking through bad neighborhoods, and kept my political activity within conventional boundaries. To avoid jealousy I have demanded monogamy from mates, lied about my own actions, and restricted my relationships. To avoid envy and disappointment, I have banished certain kinds of activity from my life that I might have enjoyed. To vent anger without allowing it a place in my mind, I have lied, cheated, caused harm, used words like daggers to make others bleed and then blamed the wounds on them. To sustain hope, I have gone on nurturing painful illusions that left me with craving for fame, wealth, unattainable ultimate joy. I have wanted to get rid of all these emotions because they are profoundly uncomfortable, and the struggle has turned me into a slave; my fear of uncomfortable emotions has conditioned my behavior. And the irony is that they fed off the energy of my struggle; they became stronger than ever. Beginning as thoughts, they solidified into demons.

If I look for them, what are they? Memories, fantasies, projections, sensations in the solar plexus and the heart, a blush, a cascade of images and words that vanish repeatedly like faces in the clouds. They are nothing I can touch or hold. And here is another wonderful irony: although my life was ruled by the effort to avoid them, now that I invite them in so that I can learn what they are, now that I have decided to meditate on their inherent reality, they turn into water and mist, they are shadows on the screen of what we are pleased to call our days. And they all have a common source: belief in me. They are all about me. How to sustain me, how to keep me fed and fondled and happy and safe, how to defend my territory and confound my enemies.

Now I want to look for this “me” which gives birth to such a yammering array of phantoms. I want to find out whether it needs to be adjusted or admonished or killed. I can lecture myself in the mirror, but I’m just playing somebody else’s tapes to a reflection of light.

When I look inside, what is there? Transforms of images, colors, shapes, sounds, smells, lots of ideas, that same cascade of thoughts. A passing bird, a mountain which I judge to be far away because the brain creates distance from parallax. I find the world, created moment by moment from perceptions, memories, senses, concepts, hopes, and fears. I can’t find any “me.” Is it what happened to me thirty years ago that now plays into the main video, is it yesterday’s anger, is it the brain, the blood, the eyeball?

We create an authority with a Divine Will separate from ourselves; this Will must be imposed on our own will, and, in the cruder forms of theism, on the wills of others. Then, having created duality by inventing God, we must dissolve it again by mystical contemplation. It might be faster and clearer not to have made this projection to begin with.

Then I look outside, and there is the same world: transforms of images, colors, shapes, smells, lots of projected ideas, the same cascade of thoughts busily interpreting whatever is there. A passing bird, a mountain . . . it’s like a mirror with two sides and nothing in between. Which is “in” and which is “out?” This is actually very funny: up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane; no, it’s a reflection of an illusionary me looking down a reflection of my own throat.

Now, there is no essential difference between jealousy and the flight path of a cloud of flies. It is the thought, “my jealousy,” that makes it so painful.

In prolonged or catastrophic suffering, a great deal happens besides pain: destruction of illusions, denials, and defenses; loss of the future; raw, naked vulnerability; shedding of polite concealments; open and direct responses, such as weeping and laughter, happen more spontaneously. The conceptual mind is temporarily garotted and alternating with numbness are episodes of intense clarity, sense of humor and precision. These are also some of the qualities of enlightenment: in awakened beings are seen, again and again, absence of illusions and defenses, renunciation of “future,” open and direct response, vulnerability and softness, discarding of conceptual fixations and incredible presence. We need not mystify “enlightenment,” or wonder what it would be like, for all of us know flashes of it from our direct contact with the First Noble Truth. What maintains the quality of suffering is our return to the notion that this experience is happening to me. From this thought spring whole trains of ruminations that prolong our darkness and create a basis for further misdeeds; I did not deserve this; why did it have to happen; how can I get revenge; where is the justice? With renunciation of “me,” the fear of suffering at once begins to wither, and the demons whirl past like leaves changing color, on the way to the ground.

These two spiritual paths, Buddhist and Christian, don’t seem to have much use for aspirins either, and they admit the reality of pain. The Christian even asserts the possibility of permanent pain, eternal separation from God — I suppose if you aren’t there to begin with, your existence cannot end; therefore your nightmare could continue, theoretically, without limit.

What do we find in Buddhist literature that might verify or explain this two-way mirror with nothing in the middle?

Form is emptiness, emptiness also is form; in the same way feeling, perception, formation and consciousness are emptiness; there are no characteristics; there is no birth and no cessation; there is no ignorance, no end of ignorance, no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom , no attainment, and no non-attainment . . . since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. . . .

Prajnaparamita Sutra

 

That goes a great deal further than I was prepared to imagine, but there it is.

Can we find anything like that in the writing of Christians? Here is a paragraph from the thirteenth century Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart:

 

. . . if a man will turn away from himself and from all created things, by so much will you be made one and blessed in the spark in the soul, which has never touched either time or place. This spark rejects all created things, and wants nothing but its naked God . . . it wants to go into the simple ground, into the quiet desert, into which distinction never gazed, not the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit. In the innermost part, where no one dwells, there is contentment for that light, and there it is more inward than it can be to itself, for this ground is a simple silence. . . .

Sermon 48

 

To the Christian, God is ineffable. To the Buddhist, sunyata, the ultimate nature of reality, is beyond any concept. According to Christian theology, humans were created naturally good, by a divine Being Who is infinitely generous; sin contains the (albeit perverted) energy of a desire to be one with God. According to Buddhist thought, within each of us, like a jewel in a dungheap, is bodhicitta, the seed of spontaneous generosity and compassion. Confusion contains co-emergent wisdom.

Words like “sin,” “confusion,” “wisdom,” “desire,”and “good” shape the reality they name, just as surely as the eye and ear create the world in the act of perceiving it. (The sky would look vastly different, for example, if we had compound eyes that were sensitive to radio waves.) Still, the parallelism of the thoughts tells me that behind the words is a genuine discovery, which may be repeated in my own experience.

Particularly in Dante, Meister Eckhart and the author of a medieval English Christian contemplative work, The Cloud of Unknowing, the echoes and parallels with Buddhist teaching and practice become almost symphonic. We could be encountering Jungian archetypes, absolute truths, evidence that the experience of meditators is similar regardless of cultural origin, or all of these and more.

In the Inferno, for example, the soul meets a direct path to Heaven but the way is blocked by three images of sin. Buddhist tradition, too, asserts that the journey need never have been made, since enlightenment is present in us all the time, but our inherent karmic tendencies prevent us from realizing it. The soul in the Inferno slides deeper into hell at first out of a kind of fuzziness, a sleepy, sensual indifference to its own actions. Only later do the circles mirror images of deliberately chosen ego-pain arising from fixation upon self; e.g., being frozen in blocks of ice, imprisoned in trees, and sinking in wells of boiling pitch. In Buddhist teaching, too, kleshas arise first from lack of awareness, a forgetting that we have already invested in the illusion of self, and a kind of “so what” attitude toward the sacred opportunity of human birth. But just as the entire structure of belief in ego is a cosmic joke, since the ego never existed anywhere outside of that belief, so the circles of the Inferno are actually holes; nothing is there.

In the Purgatorio, the circles are repetitive cycles of penance, which become spirals leading toward a recovered innocence. The pilgrim enters these circles through a kind of initiation ceremony, in which St. Peter traces seven Ps, for peccata, on the forehead of the penitent; these are removed one by one as each of the seven roots of sin is purged.

The first root of sin to be encountered is pride. Arrogance must be reduced before the pilgrim is able to benefit from the opportunity to work on his other obstacles. Here the soul carries heavy weights and bends low to the ground, spurred on by examples of humility.

The initiation to Tantric Buddhism, likewise, includes a device, called a dorje, being pressed upon the head, although it symbolizes not sin but the clarity of mind which is to be awakened by further study and practice. Before receiving any higher teachings, the initiate must first work on arrogance, by prostrating to images of awakened beings 100,000 times — a repetitive process which, since it ultimately ends, can be regarded as a spiral leading to the recovery of the mind’s original purity and innocence.

Practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism, and lovers of Tibetan art, would be particularly intrigued by Dante’s circles of Heaven. They are mandalas: interconnected spheres of awakened beings, presided over by a central Deity, the very embodiment of love, whose influence radiates so far into every corner of the universe that even a broken, lost, exiled, and sinful being like the poet can be touched and saved. The rose of the Paradiso could be painted as a Tibetan thangka and we would have to look closely to determine whether the image was Buddhist or Christian.

According to the teachings of the Mahayana, steadiness in meditation is the source of all genuine transcendent virtue. The direction of Mahayana activity is toward the benefit of others — what in Christianity would be called “works of charity,” except that a good Mahayanist would have no boundary between self and other, no distinction of “me” doing a good deed for “you.” Buddhist generosity is simply the spontaneous result of bodhicitta, which has been awakened by the realization of sunyata, the primal emptiness beyond conceptual “things.” Therefore it is expressed to everyone, without regard for the categories of “friend,” “neighbor,” and “enemy.”

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing expounds good Mahayana advice from a theistic direction: “Charity is to signify nothing else to your understanding but love of God for Himself above all creatures, and love of man for God even as yourself.” Good works should be preceded by a “naked intent” of contemplation toward “simply nothing but God Himself.” As God is “no thing,” such contemplation might afford glimpses of sunyata; in any case it is beyond categories.

 

It seems sufficiently indicated that the second and lower part of charity with respect to your fellow Christians is truly and perfectly fulfilled in this work. In this work the perfect worker shows no special favor toward any man of himself, whether he be kin or stranger, friend or foe; for he considers all men to be equally related to him, and no man to be a stranger. He considers all men to be his friends, and none to be his foes. In fact, he believes that all those who bring him pain and do him harm in this life are his full and special friends; and he is therefore inclined to will them as much good as to the closest friend he has.

Cloud of Unknowing

 

Buddhist authors sometimes refer to the awakening of bodhicitta as “tender heart,” because of the sorrow felt by the meditator for the suffering of the countless beings trapped in the round of samsara; and because of the realization that suffering is an inevitable mark of existence itself. The author of the Cloud of Unknowing is surely describing bodhicitta with a Christian vocabulary when he writes that a “strong and profound spiritual sorrow,” one of the fruits of contemplation, is a great achievement:

 

All men have reason for sorrow, but most particularly does he have cause for sorrow who knows and feels that he is. Compared to this, all other sorrows are mere sport. . . . And whoever has never felt this sorrow, truly has reason to be sad; for he has not yet felt the ultimate sorrow. This sorrow, when it is experienced, cleanses the soul not only of sin but also of the pain that derives from sin. And it thereby makes a soul capable of receiving that joy that separates a man from the awareness and feeling of his being.

Cloud of Unknowing

 

Since the Christian contemplative tradition is so rich, we may well ask why a Westerner would become a Buddhist at all. One obvious answer is that I could not appreciate that richness otherwise; in fact, without the practice of meditation I could not even recognize it. But there is a deeper reason for making a choice: the language of the Buddhist path seems to me more direct. The projection of God is unnecessary for the process of awakening (“salvation”); it may even be an obstacle. To transform this mind, to come out of the larval stage and become citizens of infinity, we must completely illuminate and consume as food every scrap of the old life, every shred and broken tooth of aggression, every wisp of the illusion of self. The projection of God is a fundamentally aggressive act. We create an authority with a Divine Will separate from ourselves; this Will must be imposed on our own will, and, in the cruder forms of theism, on the wills of others. Then, having created duality by inventing God, we must dissolve it again by mystical contemplation. It might be faster and clearer not to have made this projection to begin with.

The difference between a theistic and a non-theistic path is like the difference between the Newtonian and the Einsteinian theories of gravity. Newton imagined that large bodies in space exerted a force; then he calculated that the amount of “force” exerted was in proportion to the mass of the “attracting” body and the distance of the “falling” object, and the experience of the observer seemed to validate the existence of the force itself — so much so that writers, and the general public could talk of gravity as “seizing” and “holding” us to the earth and “keeping” the planets in the sky. Gravity became self-verifying in the manner of a tautology: how do we know there is a gravitational force? Because the apple falls. Why does the apple fall? Because of the gravitational force.

Einstein imagined gravity, not as a force, but as a structure assumed by space in bending to accommodate the presence of mass. Within that structure, objects must “fall” in order to stay in the same place. As far as everyday experience is concerned, the mathematics come out the same as in the Newtonian theory, but the causes ascribed to events are totally different. The two ideas lead to different understandings of space and time.

In this analogy, theism is like Newtonian gravity; we imagine a Creator of being, and explain our suffering as a consequence of separation from that Creator, who must save us by descending into the creation in human form. Non-theism works directly on the causes of suffering, without assuming any separation between suffering and enlightenment. Suffering is simply the shape of being, from an unenlightened point of view.

On a practical level, either path may free the mind from obscurity. To recognize and take responsibility for sin, to bear all suffering for the sake of God, to become empty of self — these are essential steps on the Christian path to salvation, and they release our innate capacity for love. But, possibly, the deeper one goes into the experience of release, the more inconvenient and useless becomes the notion of “God.” Perhaps the idea of “God” maintains the idea of self, which in turn keeps alive the possibility of sin: a kind of conceptual parody of the Creation myth. Paradise is “self without sin,” yet belief in self is the root of sin; the tree and the serpent are always waiting, as long as there is anybody to eat the forbidden fruit.

Some Christian mystics, in fact, have found that the idea of “God” becomes an impediment to their realization instead of its object. Eckhart wrote:

 

. . . before there were any creatures, God was not “God but he was what he was. But when creatures came to be and received their created being, then God was not “God in himself, but he was “God in the creatures.

Now I say that God, so far as he is “God, is not the perfect end of created beings. . . . So therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of “God, and that we may apprehend and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel and the fly and the soul are equal. . . .

. . . I say that God is neither being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things, and therefore he is all things. Whoever will be poor in spirit, he must be poor of all his own knowledge, so that he knows nothing, not God or created things or himself. . . .

Sermon 52

 

It is at this point of understanding that the languages of Christian and Buddhist contemplatives become mutually translatable. But significantly, it is meditation that reveals this discovery. The Zen master D.T. Suzuki wrote that Eckhart was talking about satori, or enlightenment. Apparently Suzuki could recognize that the windows of different cultures and times may bear different inscriptions and figures, but the light is the same.

If this were not so, then religion would be simply a projection, a means of social control, an opiate of the people. It is most useful as a window when least tied to its own language. Perhaps the best window is the open sky — no frame, no glass. The words matter — we can be fatally misled by words — but only as clouds indicate the presence, direction, complexity, and temperature of the wind.