Like brother monks on the road to nirvana

Cassia’s conversations with Rinpoche lead her to crucial new understandings of her father.

In earlier drafts of my novel What’s Left, I considered these possibilities, but rejected them as, well, too wordy, esoteric, or preachy:

Your Baba was on the cusp of some original thinking about Christ as Light, Rinpoche tells me. He was connecting that with an ancient line of Greek philosophy about a term known as Logos. It was all very, very exciting. He was seeing Christ as much more than the historic person of Jesus, much as we see Buddha as something much more than a historic person — you know, Gautama — too.

Well, that happens to be a hobbyhorse I ride. Let’s give her father a break!

Rimpoche continues. Your Baba had scorn for those who claim a personal spirituality without any disciplined tradition. He wanted to encourage people to delve into a practice — not that they’re all equal, but they have their own unique wisdom to impart — and that led to his organizing some fascinating ecumenical dialogues, ones that included your Orthodox priest, plus a rabbi, a Sufi or yogi, an evangelical, and so on.

Maybe we’d better leave all that for a later discussion? Cassia has more pressing questions, many of them regarding his photographs and family.

Throughout his monastic studies and labors, he’s pressed to concentrate totally on what’s happening in the moment. Even while sleeping. Looking through a lens would, according to Manoula, place a filter between full experience of that timeless breath and himself. It would place a mask across his face when he most needs to be fully naked, as it were. Who knows what he wears in the monastery, for that matter. We can guess from the photos he took later, on his return visits — and his portraits of his teacher and fellow practitioners. For now, he needs to see not just with his eyes — and his Third Eye — but also with his nose, tongue, lips, ears, and especially his fingers and extended skin. And from there, to embrace the eternal realities rather than the ephemeral illusions flickering and dashing around him. Through this stretch, he heeds fellow monks who create beautiful colored-sand mandalas and then scatter them to the wind rather than preserve their work. This emphasis on the present while pursuing eternal truth may seem to be a paradox, but he submits to the instruction and its flowing current.

So that, too, was filtered out of the final revisions. As was this:

Baba and Rinpoche had grown close when they were both residents in the monastery. Rinpoche was then just another of the aspirants, albeit a Tibetan refuge with a lineage. Their teacher blessed their venturing into the Heartland to establish the institute here, and Rinpoche, with his mastery of Himalayan languages, took up an offer to teach academic courses at the university while leading a spiritual community from the house.

~*~

Like Rinpoche, Cassia’s father was in many ways a teacher. In their case, they were dealing with ancient Buddhist lore. Good teachers, as you know, are rare.

Tell us about your favorite teacher.

~*~

Orthodox Christian iconography can be out of this world. Just look at this church ceiling!

Some things to consider about Pentecostals

When Jaya meets Joshua and his family in my novel Nearly Canaan, she’s introduced to their Pentecostal faith. It’s not like most Christianity.

Here are some points to consider.

  1. It’s more emotional than most churches, for one thing. Shouting, dancing, praying out loud during the service are common, along with applause, praise songs, and a rock band.
  2. The term comes from the Day of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts and its events 50 days after the Resurrection of Christ.
  3. Pentecostalism’s principal defining trait is speaking in tongues as “Bible evidence” for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The vocal utterances are rarely in a foreign language the speaker doesn’t know, unlike the Day of Pentecost, but in a stylized babbling known as glossolalia. The proclamations are usually translated by another into the language of the congregants – typically English, though the movement is rapidly spreading worldwide.
  4. In Brazil, an estimated 12 percent of the populace is Pentecostal and rising.
  5. The movement started at the 1906 Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, led by African-American preacher William J. Seymour, or maybe as early as 1896 with the Apostolic Faith movement or maybe 1901 in Kansas when Agnes Ozman, a Holiness Methodist, was publicly recognized for speaking in tongues. It’s had more recent incarnations, such as the Charismatic strand among Roman Catholics and Episcopalians.
  6. Among Pentecostal churches, theological beliefs can vary widely. But the majority interpret the Bible literally.
  7. Women were ordained to leadership roles from the beginning of the movement.
  8. Some denominations place strict limits on personal conduct and attire, even forbidding sports and movies.
  9. Many Pentecostals are found as active members in non-Pentecostal congregations.
  10. Pentecostal denominations include Assemblies of God, Foursquare Gospel, United Pentecostal, Church of God in Christ, and Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, but there’s a raft of smaller ones, too. Congregations range from small storefronts to mega-churches.

 

Beware, the Romantic Cult of the Artist

Yes, we’ve admired madmen, especially those of a tragic sort via what I see as often incestuous works of art. You know, celebrations of other works of art or, especially, their creators.

In effect, there’s a question. Other works based on mythology, classical or Nordic, typically, face immortals who are still caught in some dimension of time – how else could they spawn children?

Turning the focus from flawed gods to the Immortal Artist, then, implicitly asks: Are madmen closer to God? Or filled with demons to be cast out, perhaps as artworks?

You know, the cliché history of poet suicides or pianist-composers who die at an early age or libertine actresses, that sort of tragedy, not always as a consequence of defying the gods, either. Think of all the poets in the core opera librettos – a shorthand for the librettist himself or the social commentator – as well as the composers or singers. It’s a long list.

Remember, too, in many Native cultures, there’s a special place for the madman as gateway to ancient wisdom or healing or a netherworld.

Admired madmen but also feared them. Just don’t get too close, even with a morbid curiosity.

Like the artist, they exist at the fringe of the village.

It’s implicit even in hymns about hymns and the raising of voices.

And also my speaking here as a fellow poet and novelist.

~*~

It’s hard to look beyond our own boundaries and explore the greater world beyond.

This is crucial, if we’re to engage others, in light of murder, rape, warfare, and other oppression and injustice around us. Is art really far from fostering imitation in life itself? Or is it rather for escape from any reality? Do we desire encounter or flight?

Earlier, I admired dazzling tricks and outward style, derring-do, and jests with fancy footwork. Shining surfaces and surreal images.

Over time, that’s changed.

My heroes have become more human and flawed, as well.

~*~

Throughout much of Friends’ history, many of the fine arts were offensive to the faithful; most painting, drawing, sculpture, fiction, theater, music, and opera were seen as superfluous vanities, engagements that took our attention away from worship. “We Quakers only read true things” is how one Friend expressed the matter when returning an unread novel to a neighbor. For a people who refused even gravestones, worldly adornments detracted from loving a heavenly Father with all their heart, mind, and soul, as well as loving one another as Christ had loved his/its followers.

Tertullian issued a related warning, in De Spectaculis, Latin circa 200 CE. Essentially: “The Author of truth loves no falsehood: all that is feigned is adultery in His sight. The man who counterfeits voice, sex or age, who makes a show of false love, anger, sighs and tears He will not approve, for He condemns all hypocrisy. … Why should it be lawful to see what it is a crime to do?” (Translation by Kenneth Morse)

As was recognized in Zen some centuries ago, when people started writing and singing and painting and acting from their spiritual practice, the flowering is already past its zenith. Nonetheless, we also know the power of the Zen-suffused works as they extended on to pottery, architecture, tea ceremony, even martial arts.

When I view Japanese and Chinese art, the Zen/Chan pieces jump out in their freshness from the well-schooled stream of traditional art.

Thus, with poetry or musical performance that knows living silence: a whole higher dimension. Necessity for revolution here. Transformation. Transfiguration. Transcendence. Transparency, too.

Is this a matter of like recognizing like spirit?

~*~

My real distrust of the celebration of the artist as a demigod comes in a plea for greater humility.

Yes, we work – as the poem Toltecatl, translated as “The Artist” by Denise Leverov details lovingly before countering with “The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people, / makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of things, / works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.”

The contrast is telling.

We’re hardly alone in work. Plumbers work, paying the price in their knees. Farmers work. Teachers work. Mothers, especially, work. Go on down the line, and admire all who do so with developed skill and intelligence and service. Who can say one field is truly superior the others?

~*~

I’m left wondering about a crossover identity of artist and priest, an expectation that the artist is expected to guide others into love or even the natural wonder around us.

It’s a fine line, between being a priest and a demigod. An inflated ego is a constant temptation, among others.

Still, how can I not love the movie “Amadeus”?

Who do you look to for inspiration?

We could throw in a few exotic festivals to liven things up

One of my favorite lines I cut out of my novel What’s Left, was this quip:

I want some backbone in my religion. You can’t sit without it.

But as I looked at the flow of the story, I just couldn’t find a good place to develop some pushback from Cassia in her teens, where it would have been most appropriate.

Still, if you know anything about the practice of meditation itself — often called sitting — you just might enjoy the double-meaning.

Another way I thought of raising more color regarding their Buddhist identity was through rounds of Tibetan holidays. The names and special touches alone can be charming: New Year’s archery; incense to drive away evil ghosts; Sho Dun “yogurt festival”; the Meeting of the Eight Guardians (stay inside to avoid evil outdoors); Golden Star to wash away greed, passion, jealousy and to abandon ego; the washing festival. Think of the picnics and ritual bathing.

I might have also built something on the Eight Auspicious Symbols, including conch shell, parasol (crown), victory banner, golden fish, or treasure vase. The Endless Knot is the name of a chapter, though.

Beyond that, I kept looking for synonyms for Buddha or Buddhism. One of my favorites, which I didn’t use, is the hanging cliff-side wonders. Some of those monasteries are no place for anyone with a fear of heights!

~*~

Many traditions have special dishes for specific holidays — secular or religious. Sometimes it’s even a family thing, rather than something everyone does.

What’s your favorite “holiday food”?

~*~

Church-sponsored Greek festivals are popular events in many towns across America. And, yes, men do much of the cooking. Opa!

Truly subversive

After his conversion in prison, Charles Colson held aloft Francis of Assisi and the early Quaker George Fox as his two examples of what happens when a person devotes his whole life to Christ.

Earlier, when Colson was in the White House, he oversaw the FBI creating subversives’ files for Fox and fellow Quaker William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, and anybody else whose name they found on public Quaker Meeting newsletters.

Yes, beware of true religion.

 

Ten things about Martha and Mary

The two sisters of Lazarus in the New Testament play a bigger role in the overall story than they’re usually given credit for. You often have to piece it together from the four different Gospels.

  1. Mary anoints Jesus with costly oil.
  2. In one version, she’s identified as a harlot (prostitute).
  3. So what does that make her sister? And why are they single rather than married? (Take that as a clue.)
  4. Considering her aforesaid status, as well as the expectation that women not be present alone with unrelated males, see how much scandal that element adds to her going in to listen to the guys rather than help prepare dinner. (Yes, it’s still an affront to social customs, only more.)
  5. Martha gets slighted for feeling a responsibility for feeding their guests, but she does openly rebuke Jesus earlier for his failure to come to the aid of his (presumably close) friend or relative. That is, don’t see her as some shy feminine type.
  6. Mary can’t keep a secret. She blabs, and that’s why everybody and his cousin shows up on the streets of Jerusalem for Palm Sunday a few days later.
  7. By the way, don’t get this Mary confused with Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. No suggestion there, despite widespread assumptions. No, the Magdalene maybe had only mental problems, as far as Scripture reports, nothing of a salacious nature.
  8. Although Jesus revives Lazarus from the stinky dead, the religious authorities come back and kill the girls’ brother a second time. Is this some kind of bad joke?
  9. Bethel, where they live, has always had a rap as a disreputable neighborhood. FYI.
  10.  The Hymn of Kasianna, in the Eastern Orthodox Passion Week services, is no doubt the most erotic piece of Christian liturgy ever. Look for it at the end of Tuesday evening’s or Wednesday morning’s service, the only time in the year it is chanted. It voices Mary’s deep gratitude for redemption and salvation despite everything.

~*~

Now, do these considerations add or detract from your estimation of these two saints?

 

Ten defining Quaker testimonies

In the Society of Friends, or Quakers, testimony and witness are synonyms. It’s what one does in one’s life, not what one says about the nature of faith or social stances. Here are some ways we practice this:

  1. Open, Spirit-led worship. Traditionally, sitting together in silence, but many Friends today do have pastors and hymns within a loosely structured worship program.
  2. Peace. It includes pacifism and non-violence, extending to speech.
  3. Honesty. No oaths, which can lead to a double-standard of truthfulness.
  4. Integrity. This means doing what we say.
  5. No creeds or dogma. We speak from our own hearts and experience. We do, however, recognize doctrine (meaning sound teaching) as useful.
  6. Queries. Use of questions and deep listening to guide actions and faith, rather than barking orders.
  7. Equality and social justice. (You don’t have to be a protester, though, to be a member.)
  8. No gambling. And no getting something for nothing, especially at another’s expense.
  9. No voting to arrive at decisions. (Voting in public elections, however, is strongly encouraged.)
  10. Simplicity. It’s more complicated than you’d think.

~*~

What would your faith tradition put on its list?

 

Why Wycliffe and Tyndale matter

John Wycliffe, who introduced the Bible into English back in the 14th century, shows up as a major character in the opening novella in my book, The Secret Side of Jaya, only he’s taking refuge out on the American prairie.

And a century-and-a-half later, William Tyndale picked up the mission in England, though he didn’t move on to my fiction.

Could they be the most important translators in history? Apart, maybe, from Martin Luther, who could be the basis of his own Tendril, one with 95 points rather than ten, and his German rather than English?

Here, then, we go.

  1. Wycliffe (1328-1384) was a dissident priest highly critical of the Papacy and much of Catholic teaching and practice. With his emphasis on scriptural authority, he is now seen as an important predecessor to Protestantism.
  2. He translated at least all four gospels and perhaps the entire New Testament from the Latin Vulgate into Middle English, while associates translated the Old Testament into what became known as Wycliffe’s Bible.
  3. His followers, known as Lollards, were a major underground radical movement leading up to the Protestant Reformation, despite being highly persecuted.
  4. His writings in Latin highly influenced Czech reformer Jan Hus, whose execution in 1415 sparked the bloody Hussite Wars.
  5. Wycliffe was declared a heretic and his books, burned. His corpse was later exhumed and burned, and the ashes, thrown in a river.
  6. About 150 manuscript copies, in part or complete, survive.
  7. William Tyndale (1494-1536) was a scholar influenced by Erasmus and Martin Luther.
  8. In translating the Bible, he drew directly on Hebrew and Greek texts. He was the first to rely on them in translating to English, and his was the first English translation to make use of the printing press. He introduced the word Jehovah in English.
  9. Many consider him the father of modern English, more than Shakespeare a generation later. His translations were widely plagiarized by others, including the committee of scholars who composed their authorized version for King James, where perhaps 83 percent of the New Testament and 76 percent of the Old Testament are lifted from Tyndale. The Bible was certainly much more widely heard and read throughout Britain than was the Bard.
  10. He was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in Belgium after his criticism of King Henry VIII in divorce matters only aggravated the situation.

~*~

There we go, politics AND religion. In this case, both of a radical nature. 

And as the semi-official state religion of today?

Church and synagogue attendance and membership are declining as the population turns gray, but that doesn’t mean many younger Americans aren’t worshiping something. It just might be an unacknowledged idol rather than the God of the Bible.

So what is the idol? One befitting the state, or secular society, rather than what’s more strictly defined as religion?

~*~

The first clue might come it that nemesis for Sunday school programs – soccer and softball leagues, which schedule many of their games and practice sessions on Sunday mornings. (Parental visitation in divorce decisions further affect the youth religious training.) It’s fair to ask just what values are the sports programs are giving our children.

Sports, of course, points to professional athletics, and if you tune into any of the radio sports talk shows, you can get a taste of the ways the players and games are worshiped by adult males. Just listen to the passion and attention. It’s fair to bet few of them have engaged spirituality with such devotion.

Beyond that, consider how much of their identity arises from their chosen team. Where I live, it’s not uncommon for an obituary to list a person as an avid Red Sox or New England Patriots fan (or Celtics or Bruins). Sometimes the following even extends to a favorite sportscaster.

Many of the teams, we should note, play in arenas and stadiums built with taxpayer money or similar concessions.

Sports also points to the cult of physical fitness – people who can find five hours a week to spend at the gym but not an hour a week for worship. Sunday mornings often turn into fundraising walks or races, too.

~*~

Another, but more passive cult idolizes celebrities. Generally, the figures are venerated for their physical beauty or sexual magnetism, which are parlayed into the entertainment or fashion business. Some professional athletes cross over into celebrity status, while a perplexing few more are simply born rich and have no talent at all other than being celebrities, kind of like royalty without the responsibilities. No scientist, surgeon, teacher, corporate executive, senator, governor, or other working leader can match the recognition a typical celebrity possesses.

For much of the envious public, following their contortions occupies a lot of time and brain space.

The whole scene looks to me like a modern-day cyber-Parthenon full of semi-mortals.

~*~

Less obvious is the way art has become a semi-official state religion in America, now that state and federal funding exists. There’s long been the recognition of the fine arts as an adjunct to wealth, for whatever reasons. Many sense an abstract “goodness” in the products of art – chamber music, art museums, Shakespeare festivals, opera, poetry, the “book” that so many people dream of writing – even if the artist himself/herself remains (often with good reason!) somewhat suspect, a shady character. Perhaps that’s why these big institutions stand between us and the rest of ourselves, as artists and audiences.

Something abstractly “good” even when they themselves admit they don’t know much about the field. Contrast that to the lesser state religions in America: collegiate and professional athletics, Hollywood movies, and rock concerts, wherein no one actually advocates any common wealth.

I raise this to point out the materialism we, even as starving artists, are enmeshed in – one way or another.  It is so easy to hold the artist up in some idealized light – or the product itself – as the object of worship, totally forgetting to turn to the source of all. The dilemma of the news photographer: Should he rescue the victim and lose the opportunity of taking a great photograph? Or remain instead “professional” and observe the world as an outsider? This holds for all artists: at one point are we being selfish in our pursuits? At what point is our solitude essential for the well-being of all?

Gets complicated, doesn’t it.