contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: religion

GUANYIN 1940

Childhood inspiration in a traditional Chinese Buddhist setting ….

“My early sense of spirituality was also derived from my mother. She was a member of the local Guanyin Society, twenty or thirty women who met three times a year to chant to Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of the Great Compassion, who hears and responds to the cries of all living beings. Most of the women, like my mother, could not read, so they just chanted simple prayers in a melodic drone.

“The women wanted me as part of the group because there was a common belief in China that children – pure of mind and unsullied by unwholesome thoughts such as greed – have a clearer connection to the life of the spirit than adults. But I also think that in subtle and unconscious ways my mother wanted me to chant because she was directing me toward a spiritual life.

I’d chant – a scrawny, sticklike kid among the sturdy peasant women in their padded jackets and pants, who laughed at my bumbling attempts to follow along. We met in different women’s living rooms by night, our activities lit by an oil lamp, sitting on wooden benches around a rough wood table. In the center of the table was a statue of Guanyin, in front of which we placed offerings of incense, fruit and candles.

“The women’s laughter was indulgent and spurred me on. I chanted with great energy. I grew to love chanting and would often chant on my own while doing chores or walking. I don’t think it is an accident that later in life, when I became a monk, a core part of my practice involved prostrations to the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. I believe that it is because of good karma in previous lives that I started chanting Guanyin’s name as a child. The karmic connection with Guanyin continues to this day. It is the foundation of everything I do.”

Chan Master Shen Yeng Footprints in the Snow: The Autobiography of a Buddhist Monk New York: Doubleday, 2008

Shen Yeng was born in 1930 and grew up by the shores of the Yangzi River. He was the last of six children in a poor rural family, but got the chance to enter a Buddhist monastery in his early teens. It was a time of civil war and Japanese occupation in much of the country.

In 1949 he was a monk in Shanghai and. along with other young monks, pragmatically recruited into the fleeing Nationalist Army as a means of reaching the safety (for a Buddhist monk) of Taiwan. He was not to see any of his family again until 1988. By this time both his parents were dead but he met up with an older brother, who had news of them and other family members.

On his discharge from the military in 1960 he resumed his life as a monk, became a well-known figure in Taiwanese Chan Buddhism, studying also with Zen practitioners for a period in Japan. Invited to teach in the U.S. in the mid 1970’s, eventually establishing a base for the ‘Western Chan’ in New York. From this beginning the Friends of the Western Chan, where people don’t necessarily have to become Buddhist to benefit from Chan teaching, have become established in several English speaking countries.

HYPATIA

March 15 is a day of remembrance for Hypatia, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria in Roman Egypt. Hypatia is claimed both as a Pagan and an Atheist martyr, for in 415 or 416 a mob of Christian zealots dragged her into a church, stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. Then they tore her body apart and burnt it. Her crime was a combination of her gender, education, non-Christian views and role as a publicly respected teacher.

In an article for Smithsonian.com (1), Sarah Zielinski says, “though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict”. Hypatia’s life (350/70? – 415/16?) was devoted to the Alexandrian Academy, where she was the pupil and subsequently colleague of her father Theon. She became the head of the Academy on his death and as a teacher is best remembered for her contribution to mathematics.

Hypatia has been described as “the first recognizably Neoplatonic teacher in Alexandria” (2), which links her into a belief system in which everything emanates from the One, but where the One is not the personal God of popular religion. Her pupils included Synesius of Cyrene, who later became a Christian Bishop of Ptolemais. Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning the robe of a scholar, the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato and Aristotle”, wrote the philosopher Damascius after her death.

She was also admired by Orestes, the Roman Governor of Alexandria. But this was less of a protection than it might seem. For many years, the city had been beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and Pagans, as the pressure for religious uniformity grew. Notable casualties included the city’s once famous Library and Museum. The last remnants “likely disappeared … in 391, when the Archbishop Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the remaining scrolls, and built a church on the site” (1). Hypatia’s father, Theon, was the last known member of the Museum. The Academy continued, with Theon and Hypatia working together, and then with Hypatia by herself taking pupils at home. Lessons included instruction on how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomic calculator that continued in use until the nineteenth century. Hypatia also wrote commentaries on important texts of the day.

In 412 Alexandria got a new Archbishop – Cyril, nephew to Theophilus. The hostile pressure on other faiths, now including Christian heresies, continued. One of Cyril’s first actions was to close and plunder the Churches of the Novatian sect. It became a fight over who controlled Alexandria. The Governor Orestes was a Christian, but not in this bigoted form, and in any case did not want to cede power to the Church. In 415 a three-sided feud broke out over the regulation of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria (3), with the Jewish community, Cyril’s Christian faction and the civil power all taking different positions. It seems that Orestes consulted Hypatia for neutral advice. The situation escalated. Orestes tortured one of Cyril’s followers on suspicion of instigating an anti-Jewish riot; Cyril then threatened “utmost severities” against the whole Jewish population; a group of Jewish extremists responded by killing several of his followers. At this point Cyril “rounded up all the Jews of Alexandria, then ordered them to be stripped of all possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed their goods to be pillaged by the remaining citizens of Alexandria”.

Orestes was incensed and wrote to the Emperor, “excessively aggrieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population”. Cyril, too, wrote to the Emperor. Then he changed tack and tried to restore relations with Orestes, but Orestes refused. Cyril changed tack again and brought down 500 monks of “a very fiery disposition” from the mountains of Nitria into the city. They attacked Orestes’ chariot in the street and tried to stone him to death, but they were driven off. One of the monks, who had struck the Governor on the head with a rock, was arrested and executed. Cyril’s people had come off worst and needed a counter blow.

Hypatia was an easier target than Orestes. A rumour was spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. A contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople, tells of “the fierce and bigoted zeal” with which she was waylaid, and the great public revulsion against the Alexandrian Christian community that followed her brutal murder. He laments, “surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (3). But 200 years later, in a world of deepened Orthodoxy, John of Nikiu celebrates the final defeat of Pagan idolatry “And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a Pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles … a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate … and they proceeded to seek for the Pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments”. John seems entirely at ease as he goes on to recount the story of Hypatia’s death.

Even in later times Hypatia remained controversial. The Deist/Pantheist scholar John Toland defended her in the early eighteenth century. but got a spirited reply from Thomas Lewis, in a 1721 tract The History of Hypatia, a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria, Murder’d and torn to Pieces by the Populace, in Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy, from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. In 1853 Charles Kingsley needed to adjust history. Hypatia; or New Foes with an Old Face initially portrays the scholar as a “helpless, pretentious and erotic heroine”, though later she is redeemed her through her conversion by a Jewish Christian character, Raphael Aben-Ezra, having supposedly become disillusioned with Orestes.

More recently, Hypatia has attracted more favourable attention from people as diverse as Carl Sagan and Judy Chicago. Iain Pears features a Hypatia-like figure in his novel A Dream of Scipio. Maria Dzielska published Hypatia of Alexandria, a scholarly study of her life, in 1995 and Michael Deakin wrote a book of the same name in 2007. The Indiana University Press publishes Hypatia: a Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The Spanish film Agora tells a fictional story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) struggling to save the library from Christian zealots, which is nonetheless faithful to the issues raised by her life and death. For me Hypatia’s is a living story, with lessons still to offer. It is well worth a day of remembrance.

 

  • Pauliina Remes Neoplatonism Stocksfield: Acumen Press, 2008

 

 

 

MIDWINTER THOUGHTS

I am tuning in to midwinter, before it gets overlaid with festivity. Outside, I encounter skeletal trees and the dying back of the land. Inside, I am half inclined to hibernate. I am sleeping longer and more heavily at night. During waking hours, I want to pars everything down. I want to be simple and minimalist.

This mood includes me and ideas. I want to shut them down for a while. But before I do, one topic is holding my attention: agnosticism and its spiritual value. I feel nudged to write now and then leave my seed thoughts to germinate when 2017 gets under way.

Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor says, “the force of the term ‘agnosticism’ has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say ‘I don’t know’ when you really mean ‘I don’t want to know’” (1). He goes on to say that “for T.H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through the rigorous application of a single principle’. He expressed this principle positively as: ‘Follow your reason as far as it will take you’ and negatively as: ‘Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable’. This principle runs through the Western tradition from Socrates … to the axioms of modern science. Huxley called it ‘the agnostic faith’”.

Batchelor characterizes early Buddhism as agnostic in this sense. “Buddha said the dharma was permeated by a single taste: freedom. He made no claims to uniqueness or divinity and did not have recourse to a term we would translate as ‘God’. …The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do.” In Batchelor’s account, Gautama Siddhartha was seeking to create an existential and therapeutic culture of awakening, refracted through the symbols, metaphors and images of the Gangetic basin in the sixth century B.C.E. Inevitably over time, the movement tended to lose its agnostic dimension and to become institutionalized as a religion. “The power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy while simultaneously assuaging the desperate piety of the disempowered” was too politically useful to be ignored by rulers in the Buddhist influenced world.

Looking at Buddhism in the modern West, Batchelor says that while Buddhism’s establishment has long “tended to become reductively identified with its religious forms” today it is in the further danger of being reductively identified with its forms of meditation. The danger is the “loss of potential to become realized as a culture, an internally consistent set of values and practices that creatively animates all aspects of human life”.

I am not a Buddhist and do not share these specific concerns. And yet I sense something there to reflect on. Modern Druidry and Paganism, as coherent movements, are new. But they are no longer brand new. We do have institutions, and the beginnings of wider social recognition. We enter religious alliances like Interfaith. We intervene in political and other civil society environments. I feel increasingly that I want to apply the test of agnosticism, or something like it, both to my own practice and to any public identity that I might have. I will need to be sensitive and careful. My practice and view are grounded in feelings and intuition. I came to Druidry as a path of beauty and wonder, of nature and the senses, willing to embrace the joys and sorrows of embodied human life. I will not wield the sword of discrimination recklessly. My hope indeed is that a little mental housecleaning will refresh me, bringing a greater clarity and purpose.

I wonder what changes I might make in how I express myself. I wonder about re-assessing my previous work. I wonder what I might seek to develop and engage with in the future. An agenda for the coming year.

Stephen Batchelor Buddhism without beliefs: a contemporary guide to awakening London: Bloomsbury, 1997

CONTEMPLATING SOUL

What do we mean by soul? Why does it matter? For me, soul is a bandwidth of experience rather than a detachable entity. James Hillman described it as “a world of imagination, passion, fantasy, reflection, that is neither physical nor material on the one hand, nor spiritual and abstract on the other, yet bound to them both. By having its own realm psyche has its own logic, psychology – which is neither a science of physical things nor a metaphysics of spiritual things”. As Jung’s successor, he believed that “psychological pathologies also belong to this realm. Approaching them from either side, in terms of medical sickness or religion’s suffering, sin and salvation, misses the target of soul”.

As a champion of soul, Hillman is contrastingly a bit grumpy about spirit, another bandwidth of experience, which according to him “always posits itself as superior, operates particularly well in a fantasy of transcendence among ultimates and absolutes … strait is the gate and only first or last things will do … if people choose to go that way, I wish they would go far away to Mt. Athos or Tibet, where they don’t have to be involved in the daily soup … I think that spiritual disciplines are part of the disaster of the world … I think it’s an absolute horror that someone could be so filled with what the Greeks called superbia to think that his personal, little, tiny self-transcendence is more important than the world and the beauty of the world: the trees, the animals, the people, the buildings, the culture”.

Hillman’s sense of soul is deeply intertwined with “a style of consciousness – and this style should not even be called polytheistic, for, strictly, historically, when polytheism reigns there is no such word. When the daimones are alive, polytheism, pantheism, animism and even religion do not appear. The Greeks had daimones but not these terms, so we ought to hold from monotheistic rhetoric when entering that imaginative field and style we have been forced to call polytheistic”. Then, he says, soul can show its patterns through imagery, myth, poetry, storytelling and the comedy and agony of drama – releasing “intuitive insight” from the play of “sensate, particular events”.

A universe of soul is a pluralistic universe, a world of Eaches rather than the One or the All. For Hillman oneness can only appear as the unity of each thing, being as it is, with a name and a face – ensouled by and within its very uniqueness. He quotes William James as saying: “reality may exist in distributive form, in the shape of not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to be … there is this in favour of eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to everyone, whereas the absolute (wholeness, unity, the one) has as yet appeared immediately only to a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously”.

For me this is where the terms Oran Mor (Great Song) and Web of Wyrd – from the Celtic and Northern traditions respectively – come into their own. The diversity and uniqueness of every note in the song, of each position within the web, are fully honoured and acknowledged. But these metaphors do also speak of a song and a web. Their unity is a unity of interconnectedness and relationship. Our current scientific metaphor of the Big Bang is a bit similar, in giving us a vast universe (or multiverse) bursting from a point at which time and space themselves originate. This image will doubtless change and may come to be seen as a ‘local’ presence/event (?) within a yet ‘larger’ system (?) ‘beyond’ our knowledge. But it offers a sense of being of the same stuff, and having a common source which in time bound 3D terms we come from and in eternal terms we simply are. Some non-dualists make much of this second aspect and frame it as an affirmation of divinity. But I see such an ultimate unity-at-source as a weak aspect of any identity I can usefully lay claim to and I’m agnostic veering sceptical about any evolutionary teleology or ‘as-if’ intentional drive. The gift  – a gift, certainly, evoking deep gratitude even in the absence of a discernible giver – is my precious, vulnerable, fleeting human life, time and space bound though it is. That’s why I value Hillman’s lens of ‘soul’, whilst also choosing to incorporate ‘spiritual’ disciplines into my own life.

  1. Hillman, James The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire London: Routledge, 1990 (Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore)

POEM: RELIGION

There are times, moods really, where the Druid path feels a bit rugged and aspirational. For such occasions the poet Hugo Williams offers another option.

If it were up to me

I would make use of sleep.

Going to church

Would involve a flight of stairs

To a familiar bedroom,

Where a broken alarm clock told the time.

The spreading of sheets,

The turning down of blankets,

Would be followed by the drawing of curtains in broad daylight,

The ritual of undressing.

Members of my religion

Would be encouraged to sleep in

On Monday mornings

And any other morning they felt like it, with no questions asked.

Sleep notes would be provided.

Couples would be authorised

To pull the covers over their heads

And spend their days tucked up

In cosy confessionals,

Where all their sins would be forgiven.

Hugo Williams, West End Final London: Faber & Faber, 2009. The publisher’s blurb describes this collection as a set of “sardonic investigations into the fault line between voice and projection”, if that’s any help.

DRUID CONTEMPLATION AS PAGAN RELIGION?

Up until recently I’ve practised Druidry as a ‘spiritual path’ rather than religion, and I’ve not strongly identified as Pagan. On launching my contemplative inquiry at the end of 2011, I assumed that this stance would be reinforced through the adoption of practices more widely associated with other spiritual families.

Now I’m taking stock. I begin to see my contemplative work as a Pagan religious practice. Three developments in the past year have made a difference. One is the consolidation of the Gloucestershire contemplative group within a regular and more committed meeting cycle. The second is the work of gathering contributions for the ‘Contemplative Druidry’ book due to appear later this year, which I will talk about in later posts. The third is my personal contemplative practice, my main focus in this one. Overall I’m finding a specific Pagan Druid note and seeing it mirrored in others.

Practices change their meaning according to the tradition in which they are located. Meaning-making is as much cultural as personal, though cultures – and particularly sub-cultures – are also influenced by persons.  When a group of contemplative Christians adopted a version of vipassana (insight or mindfulness) meditation from Theravadin Buddhism in the 1970’s, they looked deeply into their own tradition and called the practice ‘centering prayer’.  This was not just a re-branding, but a re-framing. Christian contemplative prayer is a “blind intent stretching to God” according to the English 14th Century ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ (1), a favourite text of centering prayer practitioners. It is a devotional theism, a focused synthesis of love and will. By contrast the Insight Meditation Society, from whom Father Thomas Keating got the practice, talks about “fundamental techniques for sharpening your awareness and releasing painful mental habits” (2), and thereby loosening the hold of pervasive underlying unease (dukka).

The procedure is much the same for both traditions– silent sitting whilst the restless surface mind is asked to attend to the breath and so undergoes an attentional training. But the larger aims are not the same. Christian contemplatives indeed sharpen awareness and release painful habits on the way to more directly encountering the Divine: they call it divine therapy. Buddhist meditators may enter the state of ‘bodhicitta’, the awakened heart – a space that becomes available when enough of this work has been done. Yet at a more fundamental level one tradition holds Deity as central and the other is not concerned with it. Theravadins are strict about this. They do not share the view of ‘Buddha nature’ or ‘original face’ found in Mahayana and Tantric traditions.

So what about me working specifically as a Druid, and not just someone with a background in Druidry who also meditates?  I prefer to talk of meditation rather than prayer, though I like the sense of dedicating the meditation (and myself) as an offering. In my Pagan Druid universe, where logos and mythos work together, the offering is to the Goddess, as the generativity, energy and consciousness of the cosmos.

I like ‘centering’ as an idea – establishing a centre, drawing myself into the still point, almost a vanishing point, at the centre, and radiating out again into 3D reality, bringing some of the stillness with me. For me the still point at the centre is within the heart, making a link to heart awakening (bodhicitta) and heart wisdom, a term used by some champions of centering prayer (3). The heart sits between the belly and sexual/sacral centres below, and the head, the place of reflexivity and self-awareness, above. Heart wisdom draws both into itself, validating and balancing them. For it is a wisdom of organic life in nature, as lived by a human – the life of extended sensory perception and reflective consciousness, always responsively in relationship of some kind, both without and within. In doing this, drawing energy and attention to the centre, heart wisdom contradicts archaic transcendentalist notions of a stairway to heaven.

I think that’s enough to give my practice a distinctive Pagan Druid note, though it’s still a work in progress. I share the work of attentional training, sharpening awareness and releasing painful habits that gets done, within the process, whoever does it. But it’s in the context of a specific and developing view, or meta-narrative.

That being the case, why not call it part of a religion? The core meaning of religion, like yoga, is about being tied or yoked to a discipline: connection to theistic beliefs is secondary. Religion has a tougher and more intentional ring than ‘spirituality’, and now sounds appropriate to me.  So I now call my contemplative practices – solo meditation included – both religious and Pagan. I will continue to learn from any source I value. But my personal inquiry is focused on deepening within my chosen path – deepening in experience and deepening in understanding.

1: Anonymous (late 14th century) A book of contemplation which is called the Cloud of Unknowing, in the which a soul is oned with God. (Edited from the British Museum MS. Harl. 674 with an introduction by Evelyn Underhill) London: John M. Watkins, 1924

2: Salzberg, Sharon & Goldstein, Joseph (1996) Insight Meditation: an in-depth correspondence course Boulder, CO: Sounds True

3: Bourgeault, Cynthia (2011) The Wisdom Jesus: transforming heart and mind – a new perspective on Christ and his message Boston & London: Shambhala

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