“Donald Trump is My Id”

by Sam Buntz

In my dreams, I behave much like Donald Trump. For starters, there is little continuity between what I may be saying or doing and the last thing I said or did.  As in a classic Trump press conference, nothing bears any clear cause-and-effect relationship to anything else. One moment, he’s praising a stack of Trump Steaks, and the next he’s threatening to throw CNN’s cameraman out the door. Then he’s talking about Marco Rubio’s propensity for flop sweats, while shaking drops of spray from a water bottle to illustrate his point.  Similarly, in a typical dream, I will be back in high school Spanish class, taking an incomprehensible test in the nude, before suddenly smashing the front window of a K-Mart with a brick and getting arrested by a police officer with a falcon’s head.

The anti-logic of dreams governs Trump’s actual existence: he senses no sequential relationship between anything that happens in his life, whether he’s giving a speech or tweeting or eating breakfast—he can’t quite remember the last thing he did, and he’s only wildly, flutteringly conscious of what he’s doing now.  He’s running on pure impulse.  My dream-self can relate.

No. Scratch that.

I can relate.

My Freudian Id surfaces in dreams, and acts out. Primal sensations of aggression, terror, buffoonery, lust, and humiliation (often self-induced) explode out of my subconscious and play before me in lurid and disturbing splendor. When I see Trump defending his dick-size during a debate or claiming that Ted Cruz’s dad killed JFK or that “second amendment people” might want to assassinate Hillary, it strikes me that he is my Id.  He is my dream-self brought into the wide-awake world.

When I watch Trump stoke an arena full of boy scouts, raving at them about a housing developer’s sex life as Rick Perry and a uniformed scout master stand behind him with frozen smiles, I feel like I am watching a video that was somehow taken inside my head at 4 a.m.  A Tibetan Buddhist phrase, “the dreamlike nature of existence,” comes to mind and seems particularly pertinent.

This is why I have a hard time feeling emotions of hatred or even genuine dislike for Donald Trump.  Oh, I strongly disapprove of him.  Intellectually, I recognize that he represents modern decadence in its quintessential form.  Yet, he’s too much a part of myself to viscerally despise.  Instead, I have only bizarre, confusing empathy – like the empathy you might feel for a feral child who was raised by lemurs in an isolated jungle and knows no human language.  The same incoherence exists within my own being.  I can’t deny my dream-self, even if I usually manage to suppress it to a fair degree.  Like Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I need to say, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

I would argue that my attitude towards Trump does not betoken my own instability and impending mental collapse.  To the contrary, it is essentially healthy, sound, and in line with the theory and practice of Jungian psychology.

According to Carl Jung, each of us has a “shadow,” part of the personality we refuse to recognize as our own.  The shadow represents things we don’t like about ourselves and which we consequently bury within our unconscious mind.  However, according to Jung, this process of repression allows the shadow to gain control over us.  Since, we refuse to allow ourselves to know the shadow, we remain oblivious to its designs and its capacity for exercising influence over us.  The shadow becomes “blacker and denser” the more we deny its reality.

However, if we acknowledge the shadow, and bring it into the light of consciousness, it stops dominating us.  We don’t need to take arms against the shadow or struggle against it with our willpower—we just need to see it.  The more clearly we observe it, the less its influence can harm us. In a societal dimension, this would mean recognizing the problems or blind spots in the establishment’s way of thinking, which made the rise of a Trumpian candidate inevitable.  It would mean recognizing one’s callous indifference towards so-called “flyover country” and confronting one’s corporate-oriented conception of social good.

Yet, it’s incredibly hard for people who do feel authentic hatred for Trump and for his supporters to acknowledge their own inner Trump.  I mean, I understand the difficulty – but when you go on Twitter or Facebook, you see the consequences: many of Trump’s most vocal opponents are as deranged and terminally unreasonable as he is. Their blanket accusations are made in the same intolerant and un-empathetic spirit, hectoring and bullying without any self-reflection.  Again, refusing to acknowledge the shadow gives the shadow power over you.  You become what you despise.

Because Jungian analysts are hard to come by these days, a simple solution geared towards cultivating a rich sense of compassion for one’s enemies would help. If you can feel compassion towards Trump, you can feel compassion towards your own shadow self.  Hell, if you can attain that lofty goal, you can feel compassion towards anybody.

A professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, Robert Thurman (father to Uma), has a solution based on a form of Tibetan meditation.  During the Bush Administration, an interviewer for The New York Times asked Thurman what kind of meditation he practices.  Thurman replied, “Usually, some form of trying to excavate any kind of negative thing cycling in the mind and turn it toward the positive. For example, when I am annoyed with Dick Cheney, I meditate on how Dick Cheney was my mother in a previous life and nursed me at his breast.”  The interviewer responded, “You mean you fantasize about being breast-fed by Dick Cheney?” to which Thurman rejoined, “It’s a fantasy of releasing fear and developing affection. It’s a way of coming back to feeling grateful toward him and seeing his positive side, finding the mother in Dick Cheney.”

The form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation Thurman alluded to is based on the idea that we have all been reincarnating for so long that each individual has been both child and mother to every other individual in one lifetime or another. By meditating on this relation, one learns to feel compassion.  One could imagine being suckled by Dick Cheney or, alternatively, one could imagine suckling him, in order to provoke this feeling.  Quite naturally, the same goes for Donald Trump.

William Blake once said, “We become what we behold.” If we insist on holding a raving maniac within our mind’s eyes for a prolonged period of time, we are going to take on the qualities of that raving maniac. They will seep into us the same way a marinade gradually permeates a block of tofu. But if we acknowledge the maniac within ourselves, we can see that he is just a manifestation of a greater, non-maniacal self. As Thurman recommends, we can find the mother or baby within that maniac.

There’s still time.  Dive within.  See your shadow.  Confront your inner nature and fully integrate it…

Breastfeeding baby Trump is your only chance.


Eternity’s Sunrise: Blake and Buddhism

by Sam Buntz

The British poet-engraver, William Blake, is often a favorite of Americans with an interest in Buddhism.  Poets with Buddhist affinities, like T.S. Eliot and W.S. Merwin, have cited him and expressed their admiration, and, in a notable instance of hippie, counter-cultural influence, the band “The Doors” took their name from Aldous Huxley’s book about drug experiences, The Doors of Perception, which itself had borrowed its title from a famous observation of Blake’s: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Yet Blake, himself, never did drugs. Admittedly LSD hadn’t been synthesized in the late 18th Century, and magic mushrooms weren’t exactly a craze either. But the great poet would’ve likely had little interest in such substances even if they had been available, since he condemned making the human mind the overly complacent subject of any external influences, chemicals included. To risk applying a cliché to such a genius (though a very true one), for Blake, change—and especially spiritual change—needed to come from within. Negative external influences—from the scolding he received as a child for “telling tales” about his mystical experiences, to an accusation of treason later in life (albeit one levied by a drunken soldier with a grudge)—could not dim the light of that internal revelation, no matter how grim the wider world seemed to be. And it often seemed very grim, indeed, as the French Revolution declined into the “Reign of Terror” and repressive government policies took hold at home, in England. But Blake’s visions were entirely the product of a naturally awakened consciousness, that of a man who perceived the Earth not as we usually see it—hypnotized as we no doubt are—but as the infinite landscape that it really is, what his fellow visionary, Rilke, called “The Open”. A new bout of political oppression from Parliament or a rise of rents always seemed to be “something other than Human Life” to this rebellious seer.

Blake lived in a time and a place where only vague and largely garbled notions of Buddhism had penetrated—which is part of what makes it so uncanny that he was able to precisely mirror much of the Dharma. The child of dissenting Protestants, he spent nearly all of his external, corporeal existence in late 18th and early 19th Century London, with a brief sojourn to the seaside village of Felpham. Derided during his lifetime as mad, Blake remained with London’s working class, laboring productively, but without any overwhelming success, as a printer and an engraver—though he occasionally garnered admiration from major figures of his time, like his friend Thomas Paine, the poet William Wordsworth, and the Swiss painter, Henry Fuseli. For the most part, however, he dwelt in immense obscurity. As he confided in his notebooks: “I am hid.” But, in the country where he really spent most of his time—“The Worlds of Thought… / Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination”—Blake was a king.

While his songs and lyrics gradually gained a large popular following after his death (“Did Those Feet in Ancient Time?” is a kind of second national anthem in Britain) Blake’s reputation is that of a poet almost willfully obscure.  As his greatest critic, Northrop Frye, wrote, his work is “in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language.” But this was never something he intended, and when one pierces through the veil that two centuries of misunderstanding, neglect, and accusations of insanity have cast around Blake, one begins to see the fundamental clarity of his vision, and hence understands what he really has in common with Buddhism, and why so many American Buddhists have found a kindred spirit in London’s native seer.

Blake was, first of all, a non-dualist. In an age when philosophers largely accepted the strict division between mind and matter, body and soul, subject and object, Blake stridently objected, referring to all such systems of thought as “cloven fictions.” He viewed “Energy” as the only true reality: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for all that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age. Energy is the only life…Eternal Delight.” In these lines, we find a person thinking and saying things that no one else in England was prepared to say, let alone understand—excepting a few isolated spirits, like the philosopher Bishop George Berkeley and the poet, Christopher Smart (who actually was rather mad).

While most Christians of the time were busy believing in a God “out there”, lingering as a ghostly presence somewhere above the world of nature, and while most Deists and Agnostics saw any attempt to attain transcendence as mystical madness and crankery, Blake asserted that the distant creator of the Deists and the Father God of most orthodox Christians was only a human fantasy, a kind of divine “Caesar Augustus” projected into the sky, and comprised of our most terribly confused qualities. To the contrary, Blake asserted that God was actually “The Human Form Divine”, which, as a dissenting Christian, he often identified with Jesus. What Blake meant by the “Human Form Divine” is not immediately clear, but in the course of his poetry, he gradually makes it evident that he means all the world is part of one Divine Form—similar in nature to the Buddhist Dharmakaya, in certain interpretations of Mahayana philosophy, although Blake’s idea that everything is part of one “Form” might seem to contradict the Buddhist statement that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” and that neither being nor non-being are absolute.

But, as Professor Frye notes, this is the logical next step apparent at the end of Blake’s masterpiece, Jerusalem. Blake ends his prophetic epic, stating that everything on earth has been “identified” as one human form—yet ultimately this form isn’t a static being. It’s “Energy”, a subtle stream of life and light: Blake’s idea of the “Word” that became Jesus Christ at the beginning of John’s Gospel. Frye draws a parallel between Blake’s view of The Word and the idea of “Indra’s Net” found in the Avatamsaka Sutra (sometimes known as the “Flower Ornament Scripture”): The Avatamsaka Sutra states that the universe, when seen without confusion, appears to be like a sort of net or web, sparkling with dew, in which every dew-drop reflects every other dew-drop, so that, in Frye’s words, “everything is everywhere at once.” For Blake, this is really what the vision of the “Human Form Divine” is. It’s a state in which every being seems to reflect every other being, appearing exactly as what it is individually and as everything else, simultaneously. This is the real meaning of one of his most famous verses: “To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wildflower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour.”

Such parallels are fine, you suppose, as far as metaphysics go—but what about Compassion, absent which any high-falutin’ Indra’s Net conceptions are null and void? Well, for Blake, the Human Form Divine is compassion, just as the Gospel of John’s Christ the Word actually is love: “And every man in every clime / That pray’s in his distress / Prays to the Human Form Divine / Love Mercy Pity Peace.” Those last four qualities actually arethe four attributes of the Human Form Divine: in a state where everything is everywhere at once, the only natural response can be compassion. Completely rejecting the Biblical God of Wrath and his harsh unyielding penalties, Blake wrote “Mutual forgiveness of each Vice / Such are the Gates of Paradise.” “Paradise”, again, was not a kingdom in an actual “terrestrial celestial telescopic heaven”, but a state in which every member treated every other with complete forgiveness and compassion—an “Eternity” that is not un-ending temporal duration, but the Eternal Now—“The Quick” as D.H. Lawrence (that second-tier Blake) would’ve said. This leads us from Blake’s cosmology—his big, overarching picture of reality—into the minimal, the world of his ethics, of action. This is rather like descending from the large-scale level of physics where Einstein’s laws apply into the realm of the particular, the Quantum level where things really start to pop and fizz.

One of Blake’s short, immediately likeable wisdom poems offers a taste: “He who bends to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy / He who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sunrise.” Here we find a flawless summation of the Buddhist understanding of non-clinging. Our very desire to prolong joy paradoxically maims and shortens it, whereas the person who “kisses the joy as it flies” lives in a pure present, a state where it always seems to be morning, because the sun of joy never sets. It is perpetually fresh. Strikingly similar statements are sure to be found in the teachings of almost every major Buddhist teacher to offer up the dharma in America, but we can see the same truth reflected in the earliest Buddhist scriptures. Consider the Dhammapada, where Gautama Buddha says, “As the bee takes the essence of a flower and flies away without destroying its beauty and perfume, so let the sage wander in this life.” And is there not a sublime hint of Tantra in Blake’s “To be in a passion, some good you may do / But no good if a passion is in you”?

It is the brief, lyrical poems like this one—which condense so much into so short a span—which speak most directly to the contemporary reader. Blake’s long, extraordinarily difficult “Prophetic Books” are rightly considered to be his greatest works—but the lyrics have a brilliant quality of life-wisdom, particularly the “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience.” They are accessible and by no means daunting, but they contain unexpected depths. One of Blake’s lines can itself become like the “grain of sand” in which the poet saw the entire world endlessly reflected. We can meditate on them over and over again, and find new dimensions hidden in, say, two lines that we’ve already read many times before. When he writes, “Tyger, Tyger burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” we may at first take it as an indictment of a wicked Gnostic creator god, whom Blake condemns for making a world full of ferocity and suffering. But, when we look at the poem from another angle, we are forced to consider more seriously the beauty and majesty of the Tyger. Blake doesn’t intend us to view it one way or another: he intends us to view it every way at once, or at least in every justifiably possible way.

Blake is widely considered to be a prophet of liberated desire—and he was and is. “Visions of the Daughters of Albion” is an immensely powerful attack on the psychology of sexual repression, out-pacing and out-doing Freud by a full century. But he was not interested in liberating desire for purely hedonistic purposes. He wrote, “‘More! More!’ is the cry of the mistaken soul. Less than All cannot satisfy Man.” Here the “All” is the same as Blake’s “Eternity”, or the “infinite” world mentioned in the “Doors of Perception” quote. Our desires have been all balled up by our limited degree of perception, stuck within that shadowy circumference which Blake calls “the Selfhood” and which most of us would probably call “Ego.” Yet this Selfhood or Ego is, for Blake, just a shadow or a “Specter”—something that doesn’t really exist, and a mere shade cast by “The Human Form Divine.” Desire is compelled by the ego’s lack of vision—stuck in a small, dry, finite world, like the Toad stuck in his well, unable to imagine the ocean—to keep going around and around, attracted and repelled by the same perishable objects over and over again. Blake calls this the “circle of destiny”, but a Buddhist would likely call it Samsara, endless wandering and returning, attached to impermanent aims that flash on and off in the dark. Blake’s vision here naturally evokes the “Wheel of Birth and Death”, the vast diagram of cyclic existence, with reincarnation and karma implicit within it.

Blake holds that free desire can reach toward the All, toward the latitude of infinite vision, and that it can eventually snap free of its bondage to egotism and its sundry finite attachments. This is the state in which one realizes that “Energy is eternal delight”—a source continually replenished. Liberated from the Selfhood, the Human Imagination finds itself capable of radiating compassion towards other beings without limit. Over two centuries later, it begins to seem pretty obvious that—despite the massive confusion common among Blake’s contemporaries—everything Blake wrote and painted in his canon of engraved and illuminated books is just such a manifestation of compassion. As he himself wrote, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

Dealing with his own spectral Selfhood, Blake likely felt that he was as much a “production of time” as the rest of us—continually ground down by decay, by the endless movement of the Wheel. But, liberated from that Selfhood, and speaking (as he almost always did) from a better vantage point, he continues to have something to say to us—something of permanent and, in fact, infinite value. Buddhists—as well as Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and the wholly secular—can still find plenty to perplex and amaze in the writings of the English language’s greatest visionary poet. Blake can both hearten and disturb—but being so disturbed, from his perspective, was the necessary beginning of that precious gift, indispensable for the proper application of Compassion… Wisdom.

An Argument Against the Very Idea of Justice

by Sam Buntz

I don’t believe in justice. I’m announcing this to the world a little self-consciously, but it’s true. However, this doesn’t mean that I’m in favor of injustice—which is obviously just as destructive and hopeless as justice itself, since the very term “injustice” implies the need for a counter-measure of justice.

In the prehistoric past, justice was—as far as we can tell—an apparently minor concern. We continually dredge up one spear-tip riddled caveman corpse after another. (Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals offers a particularly pungent and still relevant linguistic argument for the fundamentally brutal nature of ancient humanity; “might makes right” really was the rule.) But, eventually, justice somehow worked its way into the human mind, probably from the lowest and most ardently persecuted rungs of ancient society upwards… And what was wrong with that? At the time, nothing—it was a positive development.

The world was hungry for justice, it being the necessary antidote to unmitigated war and slaughter, to the barbarian killing sprees common in every ancient culture, to sudden and casual acts of murder and assault. Justice was utterly necessary—but it only set the stage, in a sense, for the arrival of the Gospels’ concept of mercy, or for the Buddha’s teachings on the same. It enhanced the consciousness of humanity by torturing it with the knowledge of sin, the knowledge of good and evil. No progress would’ve been possible without this initial needle in the flesh—this inoculation against thoughtless brutality. Obviously, ancient justice as represented in the Code of Hammurabi or the Mosaic Law was almost as brutal as the reign of injustice that preceded it—but it was thoughtful brutality, a constructive, directed, and refined form of it, which only grew more constructive and refined over time.

We are living with the same basic notion of justice today, though it tries to couch itself in ever more congenial forms. For instance, we no longer support the more honest and obvious varieties of execution—hanging, the firing squad—but have no problem with lethal injection. This is true not only for criminal justice but for all other forms—even “social justice” and apparently liberal causes like slave reparations. If the idea were only to alleviate a burden, to provide aid and ease suffering, “with malice toward none, with charity for all”, it wouldn’t be called justice. It would be called love or mercy.

But since the consciousness of sin is involved (the advocates of social justice don’t call it sin, though that’s what they mean)—a consciousness of past debts, the register of misdeeds—it isn’t love. Actually if it springs out of “white guilt” or class guilt, it’s what the poet Shelley called, “The dark idolatry of the self / Which, when our thoughts and actions once are gone, / Demands that man should weep, and bleed, and groan.” It is purely pointless. Actions springing from an abundance of goodwill, from compassion and sympathy, remedy problems without constantly checking the tally of sins. As it is said, “Where there is love, there is no law.” Jesus and Buddha, among others, came to instigate this inner revolution—this basic re-orientation in the way human beings dealt with each other. They centered the motive for action in compassion rather than in a leveling of accounts.

Considered rightly, the bumper sticker and slogan, “No Justice, No Peace” is actually the opposite of Gandhi’s “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” Real progress comes out of this abundance of goodwill and love, but the process of identifying past misdeeds and chucking around blame, while ostensibly attempting to remedy those misdeeds, is just the same outworn precept that children should inherit the guilt of their parents. What does justice actually get for the person demanding it,which compassion doesn’t also attain?

Martin Luther King Jr. redefined justice as “the way love looks in public.” If that were the commonly accepted definition, I could easily go along with it—but it isn’t (though I’m all in favor of redefining it that way, as well). At root, justice is still centered in the ancient prescription offered by both Moses and Hammurabi: “an eye for an eye.” Gandhi was right when he said that this would make the whole world blind, and practically, few people live their lives in a perfectly “just” way, in any case. As William Blake put it, “Friendship cannot exist without forgiveness of sins continually.” I can’t think of a single, long-term friendship I’ve had that didn’t require either the friend’s forgiveness or my own, at some point. To keep an eye fixed on the register of faults—personal faults or social faults—obviously isn’t the best way to get on with people. We regularly abjure the principle of justice when it comes to our own personal relationships—but to apply the principle socially, in mass, seems much more difficult.

None of this, of course, means that I don’t believe in locking murderers away from society for what could easily be the rest of their natural lives. But I wouldn’t do it in a punitive spirit. The mind of an unrepentant killer is probably a miserable enough prison in and of itself—and even if our gestures towards rehabilitation were to prove futile in many cases, they would still benefit our own souls, cultivating our own sense of compassion, giving us the scope to extend it towards even the most reprehensible human beings and towards the non-human world. Perfect justice is best left to the cosmos—but mercy is for humanity. Shakespeare said it best, when he wrote Portia’s famous speech on “The Quality of Mercy” in The Merchant of Venice: “If justice be thy plea, consider this: / That, in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy.”

“Unbelievers, Old and New”

by Sam Buntz

“And all must love the Human Form / In heathen, Turk, or Jew / Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell / There God is dwelling too.”  – William Blake

I’m continually amazed by the vast decline in the quality of atheist literature from the 19th Century to our present era.  (I’m not an atheist, but as a student of religious debate in the modern world, I keep up on the general trends of atheist literature, anyway.)  To begin with, in authoring this near-polemic, I’ll look at the controversial, contemporary end of atheism first—hopefully reeling in the prospective non-believing reader by sparking his or her indignation, and stringing him or her along with the promise of yet more indignation, until I start to speak admiringly of a 19th Century atheist, Ludwig Feuerbach, and things suddenly get very calm and contemplative… These are my plans, to be perfectly straight about them.  Of course, I require only the aid of the Deity to make them succeed…

First off, throughout the past eight years or so—up until his death—I’ve read a ton of Christopher Hitchens’ essays in Slate and the Atlantic, not to mention significant chunks of his books. While I admired Hitchens’ rhetorical zeal, and found him to be generally a very entertaining writer (in fact, he had a pretty big influence on my college opinion columns) I think it’s fair to say that, to the bitter end, he retained an essentially parochial intellect—as far as his anti-religious polemics are concerned, at least.  His atheism was that of a mischievous British boarding-school kid, eager to hock a few good loogies at the Established Truths of the local Church of England Chapel.  However, after class was dismissed, he was left to roam around the mansions of the world’s other religions.  Yet he had never been properly housebroken.

To get more specific, the chapter on Eastern Religions from God is not Great provides a representative instance of his typical tactics at their absolute worst: it proclaims itself to be a refutation of Hinduism and Buddhism (two religions so enormously diverse as to almost automatically withstand any non-believing pamphleteer’s twenty page assault), and proceeds mostly by way of lambasting two contemporary figures: Rajneesh—the “Sex Guru”, whose disciples launched a biological terror attack by spreading salmonella at an Oregon salad bar—and the Dalai Lama, who donated money to the Japanese cult leader, Shoko Asahara, who later launched a terrorist attack on the Tokyo Subway (the donation occurred before most people were aware of what Asahara was up to—for the record).   Given that the Dalai Lama said this was a big mistake and an accident, I think we can cut him some slack—considering the number of financial transactions his offices must handle in a given year.  As for Rajneesh (who changed his name to “Osho”, once he was deported from the U.S. after the salmonella debacle), I can say with confidence that he has almost nothing to do with authentic Hinduism or Vedanta—his brand of spirituality was a pure product of the hippie era, calculated to stoke the strange cravings of Westerners.  Aside from rightly criticizing certain Japanese Buddhists for supporting the Imperial aspirations of their nation in the first half of the 20th Century and then wrongly using that fact to discredit Buddhism as a whole, this basically constitutes Hitchens’ polemic against Eastern Religions: two ad hominem attacks.

At no point does Hitchens prove himself capable of wrestling with these religions’ ideas; he is capable of reciting unsavory anecdotes, but he is never able to make the cognitive leap and engage with the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or the Vedantic insights of philosophical titans like Shankara and Ramanuja.  Moreover, while I comprehend what the Hindu and Buddhist luminaries were driving at—what they thought the end goal of a human being is or could be and what leads to the supreme joy—I could never quite put my finger on what Hitchens really wanted, what kind of happiness or final joy he was trying to get.  His non-belief was a purely combative and destructive project—he never much explained what vision of human happiness he would substitute for those he attempted to depose.

Richard Dawkins’ own schoolboy variety of atheism differs from Hitchens’ only insofar as Dawkins is an inferior writer.  I remember he once rebuked religious critics, who claimed that he didn’t know enough theology to be a worthy combatant, by saying that you didn’t need to become an expert on “leprechaunology” to argue against the existence of leprechauns.  But once the cheaply earned chuckles have died down, we begin to realize that this is yet another rhetorical flourish, without an actual idea at its kernel.  Most people have a pretty clear picture of what a leprechaun is—a little Irish guy who hides gold at the ends of rainbows.  But there are numerous pictures of who and what God is—or what, in Hindu terms, Brahman or Ishvara is, or, in Buddhist terms, what the Dharmakaya is—and Dawkins refuses to familiarize himself with pretty much any of them, asserting that a child’s-eye-view of the Old Testament Deity provides the world’s default notion of God.  He may have a clear idea of what a leprechaun is (though I’m even a little doubtful about that), but his idea of God constantly wavers, melting into the shifting, insidious element that constitutes the substance of his prose.

So, if I’ve succeeded in raising any unbelievers’ hackles thus far, they can start to relax, since I’m going to say some fairly nice things about Ludwig Feuerbach—the German atheist and materialist who wrote a classic work of philosophy, The Essence of Christianity (translated by George Eliot—who was Chris Hitchens’ favorite writer, incidentally).  The difference between Feuerbach and the “New Atheists” is simply that Feuerbach gives a damn about his subject—he doesn’t reject the mythology and theology of religions but, instead, tries to find psychological truths about humans hidden within them.  Whereas Dawkins and Hitchens tend to dismiss whatever religion they may, at present, be holding under the gun, calling them fairy stories and deluded fantasies and chunks of contemptible fudge and what-not, Feuerbach—like the late Bruno Bettelheim—looks for the deep psychological truths hidden in these “fairy tales.”

For Feuerbach, Christian theology is not wrong, so much as it is an awkward way of analyzing the character of human beings.  God, says Feuerbach, is really a projection of humanity: he is human nature writ large.  Of course, most atheists would dismiss God on just these grounds—he’s an anthropomorphic projection, a scam!  But Feuerbach takes the extra leap of trying to learn about human beings from this projection—the very leap that Hitchens and Dawkins are never willing to make, primarily because they aren’t respectful of the human beings who create and maintain these projections, and are hence unwilling to accord them that mild degree of dignity.  But Feuerbach wants to understand.  Additionally, he has an idea of what the ultimate aim of human existence is—it might not be a particularly exalted one, but unlike in Hitchens’ and Dawkins’ writings, it’s actually present.

When Feuerbach looks at the God of Christianity—the Holy Trinity comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—he sees a vision of humanity’s own implicit beliefs and powers.  Whereas for the Christian and Jew, God makes humanity in His image, Feuerbach sees God as being made in humanity’s image, and since God is supposed to have supreme power and supreme knowledge, Feuerbach posits that these attributes are really our own physical strength and intellect stretched to the furthest limit we can imagine them attaining.  However, such a supremely powerful and all-knowing God becomes terrifying—since humans lack this kind of unlimited strength and intellect, they’re unable to live up to this God’s inflexible moral order, thus leading to the endless cycle of retribution and punishment we see in the Old Testament.

But human beings have more than intellect and strength—they have feelings. Love and sympathy play a greater role in the human cosmos than in the world of divine law, since the O.T. God seems preoccupied with using “an eye for an eye” as his principle of action.  In the Hebrew Bible the only human being who seems capable of retaining God’s love is King David—which doesn’t bode particularly well for the rest of the supporting cast.  Hence, says Feuerbach, the New Testament remedies this: it creates a God who actually is a human, who suffers all that a human suffers, and hence attains a supreme emotional intimacy with humankind.  He is a God who is perfect not just in strength and intellect, but in feeling and sympathy, as well.  He is now—in the form of the completed Christian Trinity—a full representation of the human being, a maximized version of our own brains, bodies, and (most importantly) hearts.

For Feuerbach, cultivating the heart and developing loving-kindness becomes the most important feature of religion—and of the secular culture he wants to succeed it.  It is the lynchpin that keeps everything together, that sets the human being completely at accord with himself or herself and with the idea of a greater human reality—the species itself.  If human beings can just flip their God-projection inside out, says Feuerbach, they can realize that they are the Deity they’ve been worshipping, and can live in sympathy and fellow-feeling, eating and drinking with a merry heart… But, at what point in their writings do Hitchens and Dawkins ever manage to spell out a similar conception of human destiny?  They probably would agree with Feuerbach—but they never had the strength or will to articulate their agreement, placing it front and center.  Their constructive project, their idea of what they wanted to replace religion, is vague—part of the background scenery.

As someone who does believe in God, in Brahman—though believing for me is a matter of seeing, as well (which is the point of meditation and prayer in Vedantic Hindu thought: the great Swami Vivekananda said, “See Christ first, and then you are a Christian.  All else is just talk.”)—I find Feuerbach helpful.  If I simply disagree with him on one crucial point—the idea that the ground of existence is material—and instead assert that the ground of existence is spiritual (thus bringing me back to the position of Feuerbach’s immediate forebear, Hegel), I can accept most of what Feuerbach is saying without losing any part of my religion.  There’s still a God—a living, creative Reality behind the scenes, Who, using the human mind as a tool, creates helpful projections and images of Deity—names and forms—which gradually guide humanity towards a transcendent apprehension of God’s undifferentiated and absolute reality, beyond the world of names and forms.  So—that’s my personal aside.

Feuerbach was an atheist who accorded enough respect to human beings to admit that anything they create—be it a painting or a comprehensive mythology—can teach us something about our own inner nature.  The “New Atheists” today lack this respect—it’s all jeers, without any qualified cheers…  Perhaps this is why they seem less relevant now than they were a couple of years ago: they mainly provide high-schoolers and college students with yet another opportunity to write obnoxious tweets.  That, on the whole, is the extent of their service to humanity.

But a more sensitive atheist like Feuerbach or Freud gives intellectual riches to believers and unbelievers equally.  Towards the end of The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach writes, “The [human] species is not an abstraction; it exists in feeling, in the moral sentiment, in the energy of love. It is the species which infuses love into me. A loving heart is the heart of the species throbbing in the individual. Thus Christ, as the consciousness of love, is the consciousness of the species. We are all one in Christ. Christ is the consciousness of our identity. He therefore who loves man for the sake of man, who rises to the love of the species, to universal love, adequate to the nature of the species, he is a Christian, is Christ himself. He does what Christ did, what made Christ Christ.”

Even if you disagree with this, I hope you’ll agree that—considering the excessively and pointlessly combative tenor of our times (which I may have joined in a bit, penning the earlier part of this article)—it’s certainly got some soul to it… which is ironic enough, since Feuerbach didn’t believe in the literal existence of the soul.  Funny, right?

‘Love in a Golden Bowl’: Mystical Dimensions of the Grail Myth

by Sam Buntz

“Does the Eagle know what is in the pit
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole?
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod
Or Love in a golden bowl?”
-William Blake, “The Book of Thel”

If people in modern day America are familiar with the Holy Grail, this is largely due its varied manifestations in popular culture.  The Grail legend plays a prominent role in movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Fisher King, and (of course) Monty Python and the Holy Grail—not to mention the strange but interesting interpretation offered up in The Da Vinci Code, borrowed from the book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail.  One of my favorite writers, Nelson DeMille, is also about to publish a novel involving a Grail quest, so I figured now is as good a time as any other to discuss my own understanding of its symbolism.

To briefly cover the basics: the Grail is, first of all, the cup that caught Jesus’ blood during the Crucifixion, after a soldier stabbed Him in the side with a lance.  But it later came to be identified with the same cup that was used as the Holy Chalice, from which Jesus drank at the last supper, and with which he offered His blood, in the form of wine, to the gathered apostles.  In medieval legend, the Grail becomes an artifact of immense power, capable of granting eternal life and knowledge of the mysteries of the universe—if you can drink from it.  In the famous Arthurian legend of the Grail Quest, it is only Sir Galahad, the one knight who maintains perfect chastity throughout the course of his journey (and of his entire life, for that matter) who is able to drink from the Grail, and thereafter become the Bearer of the Cup himself.  Some scholars claim the Grail came to possess mystical powers partially under the influence of an ancient Celtic myth, which held that the king Bran the Blessed was restored by drinking from a magic cauldron.  These, in short are the crucial facts about the Grail—but, things are about to get weird, since I intend to offer up an interpretation of the Grail’s symbolism relating to its more mystical and imaginative dimensions of meaning, with an eye to similar stories told in other religions and mythologies.

In the vast body of Arthurian literature relating to the Grail—whether in French or in English—the Grail is often described as sitting on an altar, where the Holy Lance (the same used by the soldier to pierce Jesus) continually drips blood into it.  This image is absolutely central:  some psychoanalysts have suggested that the duo of Lance and Grail form a phallic and a vaginal symbol, respectively, but this perspective, while having a certain relevance, is not, in my view, quite accurate.  At least, from the perspective of someone who believes in archetypes, the phallus and vagina would themselves be symbols or lesser embodiments of what the Lance and the Grail manifest—which is what Hindus often say about the Linga and the Yoni, two images which are also usually defined as sexual icons by Western scholarship (again, phallic and vaginal, in that order).  The Linga and the Yoni are usually placed in the same position that the Lance and the Grail find themselves in, the one above the other—and Hindus even identify parts of the natural landscape with the Linga and Yoni, notably Mount Kailash, looming up over Lake Mansarovar in Tibet.  Naturally, these symbols, Eastern and Western, have provided a field day for the Freudian crowd—or, at least, for the small number who take an interest in comparative religion and mythology.  As with the Grail, a person who drinks from the waters of Lake Mansarovar is said to ascend to the highest heaven after death, attaining immortality.  Also, the Cup of Jamshid in Islamic myth serves a similar symbolic function—it supposedly reflects the entirety of the world and the seven heavens, and can grant supreme knowledge to whomever drinks from it, in addition to providing the usual boon of eternal life.

When I describe what I think the Lance and the Grail (and their correlates in other religions) represent, it may sound odd at first, but I think with some contemplation it will eventually seem coherent enough:  the Lance represents, in my understanding, the active function in the psyche, whereas the Grail represents the receptive function.  The active function generates energy and the receptive function contains it—this is what underlies Blake’s cryptic question about putting wisdom in an iron rod and love in a gold bowl.   At its best, the active function—the Lance (iron rod)—is what drives one to pursue wisdom and supreme knowledge, and, also at its best, the receptive function—the Grail (golden bowl)—is that which receives energy, retains the capacity to love and be loved.  But in a fallen state of nature, these functions get twisted towards contrary goals, where the active function becomes the source of selfishness and raw ambition, a drive not towards attaining the authority of real wisdom but towards that authority embodied by the iron rod—brute strength.  The Lance, in this condition, is Egotism—that which prods and drains blood and water from the soul, just as the soldier’s actual lance drained blood and water from the side of Jesus.  The Grail, in the same degraded state, represents the tendency to look for love and joy in the illusory pageant of the world—in golden bowls and Rolls Royce collections and massive closets filled with designer shoes (and so on and so forth.)  It is the parade of appearances hiding—but also reflecting—Reality.  In Tibetan Buddhist symbolism, these functions are represented by the Vajra—a sort of lightning-bolt-scepter, symbolizing the active function—and by the Padma—a lotus, symbolizing the receptive function.  The Tibetan mandalas and iconographic designs depicting these symbols highlight the fact that both functions can be used either in an enlightened fashion or in a crude and degraded way—the latter version being more common in our present, Iron Age.  Putting it another way, the Lance is the Selfhood (or Ego) and the Grail is (before you drink out of it, at least) Illusion, the Veil (the same which is torn in the temple when Christ dies), hiding the answers to the real mysteries of life from any weary seekers who might pass through.  Living in the wreckage of this world, these are the two fundamental forces, the duality, that constantly defeat us.

This may seem almost willfully obscure, at first, but I think it’s correct.   However, there remains the matter of analyzing the Quest itself, particularly the crucial problem of Galahad’s chastity, something that seems quite quaint in the present day and age.  But Galahad’s chastity has its allegorical as well as its literal significance.  The other knights, who don’t preserve their chastity and don’t attain the Grail, all fall in that they succumb to various illusions, diverse goals that distract them from the ultimate end of drinking out of the Grail.  Galahad’s chastity symbolizes his whole-hearted attention, his utter determination not to become self-deceived, trapped in Illusion’s spell.  Thus, since the Grail itself represents the illusory barriers but up by Nature, it is only Galahad who is allowed to peer inside the Grail, thus seeing the Reality it has been retaining—both hiding and preserving—for so long.  Finally, he is able to drink from that Reality, partake of it directly—which is what I believe Holy Communion symbolizes, in a higher sense that has now been forgotten.  When Christ offers the Apostles (and everyone else) His blood, he is allowing the whole of humanity to become part of His “mystical body”—people can now attain a wholeness of being, a resurrected spiritual body in which one finds the same illumination and gnosis as the victorious Galahad.  But in order to attain this resurrected body, one needs to participate in the Crucifixion, during which one endures the pains of being tormented by the Lance and drained away by the Grail.  The Grail catches Christ’s blood, in the same way that Illusion or Nature (in the Gnostic and Blakean cosmos) drains away the Spirit’s life energy, convincing souls that they exist in a state of perpetually infantile dependence on its nurturing powers, when in reality, those powers are latent in the soul itself, and are only leached out of it by egotism (the assaulting Lance).  Christ endures these pains to provide an example of the complete pattern of human suffering—and to demonstrate the way to get out of it.   The Grail symbolism tallies with this quite easily.

At the risk of getting more far-out than I already have, one can easily see the four points of the cross as symbolizing the same four qualities depicted in the quadrangular Tibetan mandalas, which can be taken as representing the four powers that govern our nature, and which can exist in both fallen (confused) or risen (enlightened) states of being—two of these are the active and receptive functions discussed above (Vajra and Padma), and Blake’s account of the fall of the four “Zoas” (primordial powers of life) represents the same mystical psychology from a Protestant Dissenter’s standpoint.  Yet when Christ’s death on the cross tears the temple’s veil aside, revealing the Holy of Holies, it shows that Christ has attained the same triumph that Galahad would later attain—He transcended the plane of the relative and illusory, attaining the Absolute, and raising the four fallen powers of the soul back to their original, un-fallen condition.   Wisdom gets taken out of the iron rod and Love gets removed from the golden bowl—they become, instead, forces that render compassion towards humanity.

I don’t deny that this may seem like a weird jumble of symbolism, but I am convinced that it is, in fact, consistent with the best elements of the mystical traditions of the East and the West.  I can only urge the reader to seek out more information, looking into Joseph Campbell’s works on comparative mythology and religion, and into those of writers like Jung and Aldous Huxley—but also into Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, Theosophical and Anthroposophical texts, and great works of scholarship, like Heinrich Zimmer’s Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization.  The attentive reader will certainly find further dimensions of the symbolism I’ve just outlined—in different versions and with different images, I’m sure.  I don’t mean to suggest, by the way, that one particular esoteric school conspired to somehow align the symbolic content of the Grail Quest and the Crucifixion of Jesus with Hindu and Buddhist psychology.  But I do mean to suggest that such similarities reveal that the imagination works in its own forms, and if it works on those forms for long enough and puts enough together, it will arrive at a mythology with universal resonance (if not a theology with universal resonance, given the assorted creedal differences of the world’s faiths.)  The only good and true interpretations spring from the deep self—from the heart that vibrates to the iron string—and not from pedantry and the technical obsessions that so frequently dog scholarship.  The real Story—the Big One—doesn’t have a historical origin, as most academicians would prefer, though it can be discerned throughout various time periods and in various disguises, proving to be illuminating just as much for its multiplicity as for its sublime unity.

‘You are the Music while the Music Lasts’: ‘Auditory Cheesecake’ vs. an Opportunity for Transcendence

by Sam Buntz
Harvard University Professor, Steven Pinker — he of the silver curls — once wrote that music, claimed by so many (myself included) as an experience providing intimations of transcendence, is really just “auditory cheesecake.”  But calling music “auditory cheesecake” is merely a disparaging way of saying that music is comprised of sounds which we find enjoyable, a statement undoubtedly true, though by no means the complete rap on music.  The comparison with cheesecake is purely polemical, since Pinker only means that music makes its appeal in terms of pleasure.  He might as easily have said it was “an auditory five-course French dinner” or an “auditory Indian buffet,” but went with this more aggressive musician-baiting instead.  Since we see cheesecake as being so many empty calories, without either nutritional or high-aesthetic value, he went with the more unflattering comparison, just to try (vainly) to take the entire musical enterprise, with its supposedly grandiose ideas about itself, down a notch.  Professor Thalia Wheatley, of Dartmouth College, recently rebutted–or, at least, nuanced–Pinker’s claims, by claiming that music has a social utility as well, since we all get together and listen to it, solidifying our sense of community.  I didn’t actually find this any more helpful than Pinker’s jibes, though I don’t mean to argue that these claims are entirely *wrong* — they’re just supremely irrelevant, missing the proper cognitive target by a light year or two.

Professor Pinker and Professor Wheatley both fall into the fallacy of reductionism–believing that what is most true about a subject is also the most sparely material and uninteresting fact that can be trotted out about it (though Wheatley is perhaps a little less guilty).  You could just as easily say that Van Gogh’s paintings are “visual cheesecake”, if you wanted to suggest that all art is just another way of popping off a few prime neurons (which, come to think of it, Pinker basically does say, in How the Mind Works).  Music for the hard-scientist Pinker is comprised of vibrations in the air, which stimulate the machinery of our inner ear in a pleasant fashion, which consequently stimulates the neurons in our brain pleasantly (as you can probably tell, I’m not sure about the mechanics of this physiological game of Mousetrap–I mean, the board-game–but its fine details would be unnecessary, and probably at cross-purposes anyway.)  For the soft-scientist Wheatley, our social bonds are strengthened by the shared experience of hearing music — which is obviously true enough, and I’m not sure why we need a social-psychologist to say it, when anyone at Woodstock would’ve noted the same thing. This too fails to remark on what the individual experience of listening to music actually is.  The physical mechanics that attend it have been well described by the industrious neuron-fanciers, but I fail to see how knowing which cluster of neurons in my brain music affects, can enhance my actual aesthetic appreciation of music, at all–though I know many would assert that it somehow does.

As a needed antidote to the wisdom dispensed by these contemporary sages, I would recommend turning to the literary and philosophical traditions, which offer more accurate descriptions of what listening to music actually is (and I won’t qualify that or cede any ground by saying “what listening to music actually is like“, because these aren’t fanciful extrapolations from the experience, but direct insights, observation and not simile). Pinker’s whole error rests in assuming that his description of the neurological billiard ball games played in the brain somehow reduce or fully explain the actual experience they describe.  If you think music is teaching you something about the flow of human emotions or about “longing for the far shore” or anything remotely inspiring, it’s not — it’s just a game played by particles that happens to leave you feeling pretty O.K.  But there’s no reason to accept that the particle-based level of reality fully explains the experiential level — although they definitely correlate, there is a gap between the sights, sounds, tastes, scents, and tactile realities experienced at the human, everyday level, and the colorless, scentless, taste-less world of the mathematical patterns that govern atomic and molecular motion.  We have no idea how our actual experience of a color is created out of atoms that are colorless–and the same goes for sound-waves.  We don’t really know why a sound-wave can be heard as an actual sound, so to speak.  The Tufts philosopher and noted skeptic, Daniel Dennett, doesn’t think that it’s even profitable to ask these questions — mainly because he can’t answer them.  But since color and sound and the rest comprise everything that we actually do experience, as opposed to the mathematical models we create, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about them — I mean, considering that they comprise the world we deal with at every moment of our lives.

In “The Dry Salvages”, T.S. Eliot said that people could experience a pure present, unburdened by time, when listening to “music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts.”  I don’t know what Pinker would say about this — maybe he would concede that it was a interesting “poetic” flight of fancy, but state again that it’s not a description of hard fact.  (There’s the risk of being a tad unfair to Pinker–but the analytically and not aesthetically minded, in my experience, always dismiss good literary observations for being “poetic”, without explaining why being poetry disqualifies something from intellectual or philosophical consideration.)   Given that this is from a poem, it is undoubtedly “poetic”, but to deny its interpretation of music a fair hearing is simply to confess that one doesn’t feel like wrestling with philosophy.  Eliot, a student of Buddhism (and a Christian at the same time), suggests that the subject-object distinction — the sense of the self as a hearer, and of music as that which is heard — is illusory, and can, when one pays very close attention, dissolve, leaving only Reality itself, which is not perceived or heard by a separate subject or conceived of as a separate object, but is simply “that which is naturally so”.  Merging with music provides a hint of what Eliot calls “the intersection of the timeless moment with time”, the state in which the temporal division between the self and the not-self disappears, leaving an eternal unity that was always present, though not noticed, because not looked for.  This is not Eliot’s view of music alone — the literary tradition (books are also, incidentally, a mere neuron-stimulation device in Pinker’s view) is rife with references to music transcending refined hedonism, to become a tool for training the mind to unite with the flow of time.  This idea is central in writers like Proust and Beckett, Wallace Stevens, G. Bernard Shaw, and plenty of others.  And the philosophical tradition has the same reverence for the musical experience:  Nietzsche saw it as the perfect vehicle for transport into Dionysian ecstasy (he once said “Life without music would be a mistake”) and Arthur Schopenhauer, under the same Eastern influences as Eliot, paid one of the ultimate tributes to music. He said that we live in a world driven by misguided needs, urges, and desires, and indulging these was, in his view– following that of the Buddha–the surest path to generate suffering.  In addition to practicing meditation and contemplation, music could also become a way of getting beyond desire — to simply be aware of the endless flow of the will, represented by music’s continual fluctuations, while yet existing in a state of detachment from it, beholding it.  According to Schopenhauer, one should not get lost in the emotions evoked by music, but simply contemplate and follow it, attaining a state of tranquility — one more temporary than that attained through meditation and renunciation, but still valuable.

I’m not saying the reader needs to accept these specific descriptions of the transcendental nature of musical experience (although I, of course, do).  I’m just denying that Steven Pinker’s way of explaining musical and artistic experiences by saying that neuron clusters fire when A, B, or C occurs, and Wheatley’s way of explaining them by appealing to social-realities, are enormously inadequate — although, obviously, at the purely scientific or mathematical or sociological level, they’re relatively accurate.   We can’t afford to hand over a substantial portion of our own perceived reality, just because we can’t explain it wholly through the movements of particles and waves — we have to actually experience it by experiencing it, not by getting at it through second and third-degree explanations.  I’m not suggesting that we should stop doing neuroscience or anything utterly mad like that — far from it, since the benefits we can accrue from neuroscience are massive.  I’m saying we should stop trying to use pop-neuroscience and pop-evolutionary-psychology as a way of reducing a very large experiential world into a very small mathematical and mechanical one.  I’m sure that any person attempting to live, work, love, deal with suffering, and all of that classic stuff, will find that the great poets and philosophers have a lot more to tell him or her than many rather over-published semi-scientific authorities, who dominate a great deal of the non-fiction marketplace in the Western World.  I think that music, at its finest, can draw us out of our ego-consciousness and into an awareness of a greater experience, flowing within and outside of the self.  But pop-neuroscience only leads us into entertaining simplistic ideas about what listening to music looks like in a mathematical model, rather than actually letting us listen to it — it tries to elevate the ego’s claims over the demands of actual lived experience.  Going too far down this road, one is liable to end up like William Blake’s caricature of Isaac Newton — sitting at the bottom of ocean, placing a compass on a scroll riddled with diagrams, while staring between his feet.

“The Kingdom of God in a Bag of Donuts”

by Sam Buntz

There has been much debate about how to translate Jesus’ saying “The Kingdom of God is within you”.  Some versions of the Bible prefer to translate it as “The Kingdom of God is among you,” ensuring that any inner light the individual self may or may not have is thoroughly subjected to the interests of a more communal idea of Christianity.  I can’t read Greek, and hence cannot really comment in a scholarly fashion on the true meaning of the word entos, translated as “within” and “among” in each case—but the Canadian Sage, Northrop Frye (an ordained but only occasionally practicing Methodist minister, incidentally) could read Greek, and he informs us that the difference in translation has more to do with the translator’s attitude than with any inherent meaning that we can determine, one way or the other, in the word itself: “Those who feel that psychological metaphors express the profoundest truths will prefer ‘within’; those who want a more social gospel—and these translators clearly have a social conscience—will prefer ‘among.’”  Yet, in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says (in a version that Frye suggests might be original),  “The Kingdom of God is inside you and outside of you.”

This last formulation not only combines, in a strange way, the differing emphases of the two translations of the same saying—but it manages to provide further clarification. The Gospel of Thomas’s Jesus goes on to say, “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and then you will understand that you are children of the living father.  But if you do not know yourselves then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty.”  In its mysterious advice to “know yourselves” but also to “be known”, this resembles St. Paul’s great passage, “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.”  But what, then, does it mean to “know as I am known”?  By seeing through a “glass”, the King James translators mean seeing in a mirror or reflective lens.  So, Paul is stating that, in this world, we are gaining knowledge of Reality at a remove, as in a reflection.  We are not seeing the Face of God itself, but are only seeing the Image of God as it exists in a corrupted form in human beings: we are perceiving only a dim distortion of God, as when Moses was only permitted to see the “back” of God.  To “know as I am known” is, hence, for the same being to see and be seen by itself at once, to see its own face without the aid of a mirror—to see, in other words, the “face you had before you were born” (as W.B. Yeats and a Zen meditation question, or koan, both put it, albeit in slightly different ways)—to see Adam before the Fall or, even, as the Buddhist philosopher D.T. Suzuki more radically put it, “To be with God before He said ‘Let there be Light’.”  Meister Eckhart expressed the same idea as Paul, stating “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me,” and St. Thomas Aquinas also depicts the condition of the Blessed in heaven as being one in which God within the soul knows God outside the soul.  Naturally, Jesus’ emphasis on self-knowledge in The Gospel of Thomas’ report raises the ire of socially-oriented (or just externally-oriented) Evangelicals, but the Gospel of Thomas probably means something closer to Aquinas’s condition of the Blessed.  It is not espousing some sort of far-out New Age egotism—doesn’t seem to be talking about the ego-self knowing itself—only about God in the self and God outside of the self knowing Himself all at once.  Not only is this somewhat complex, but it is also bafflingly simple—“a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything,” in T.S. Eliot’s words.

Now, this involves a form of mystical apprehension that has not always been looked upon with favor by some churches.  Frequently, it is misunderstood as being a kind of spiritual narcissism—turning away from God to become centered in a sort of perfect self-love.  But Jesus’ purported statement that the Kingdom of God is outside as well as inside, and St. Paul and Eckhart’s shared idea that the act of knowing and the act of being known can become the same thing, should put this interpretation to rest.  If it is orthodox for St. Teresa de Avila to ascend her “interior castle” towards God, I see no reason why Eckhart—whose works were initially condemned as heretical—or a Zen Monk or Hindu Vedantist, for that matter, is any less orthodox.  If this kind of mysticism were what some people accuse it of being—turning entirely away from the objects of perception to the subject, to the self that perceives, constituting self-knowledge without God-knowledge—it would, perhaps, be a kind of ascetic selfishness, an utter withdrawal from our shared experience of life.  But it isn’t that, and none of its most revered practitioners and explainers ever asserted that it was.

I believe that all of the authorities I’ve just cited—from Jesus to Eckhart—are talking about the same fundamental experience, which, in a not exactly smooth attempt at providing a definition, we can call “the elimination of the subject-object distinction” (a commonly used but by no means easy to understand expression, often found in literature on mysticism, be it Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or Sufi).  It can be expressed more simply this way: we usually consider ourselves to be separate and distinct beings perceiving a separate and distinct world.  But, in reality, it is impossible to divide the contents of our consciousness from consciousness itself—we can never wholly separate the object from the subject.  When we are actually conscious of seeing something—a chair or an apple or whatever—we can’t actually parse our consciousness of a chair from the chair being perceived.  In terms of our real experience, it is all part of the same basic awareness, which has not the slightest shade of dualism in it.  Zen meditation—or really any form of meditation that seeks to train the mind to attain a certain perfect-pitch of concentration, whether by focusing on a mantra or on any other object or non-object—seeks to more deeply realize the unreality of the subject-object distinction.

But what does this have to do with the Kingdom of God?  If one takes Jesus seriously when he says that the Kingdom is within you and outside of you, one is inevitably led to the conclusion that there is no difference between what is inside and what is outside—the Kingdom of God is a country not limited by any borders, this false subject-object distinction we continually draw up.  In a Buddhist metaphor, this experience is usually described as being like the shattering of an empty clay pot: the pure space within the pot becomes the same as the pure space outside the pot, with no distinction remaining between them.  It is not that the subject absorbs the object—which is basically C.S. Lewis’s idea of how Satan works in The Screwtape Letters (that is, Satan is a giant Ego seeking to suck all external egos into itself)—and it is not that the object absorbs the subject (which is, I’d imagine, in an extreme form, what being enchanted or terrified by hallucinations induced by a drug are like).  It simply eliminates this false duality.  We cannot say much more about it, except that the people who attain such a realization and do not fall from it become the real Saints of this world.

Christ Himself, as I understand Him, represents a Person in whom this falsely conceived duality had dissolved or never even existed—He is a Person who has realized and experienced “the sound of one hand clapping”, in the classic Zen phrase.  I believe this is why Christ is not described as a being-among-beings—although in His incarnation as Jesus this is, at least, the impression He gives to the people around him—but as The Word, and why the Holy Spirit is described as being “the wind that bloweth where it listeth.”  Word and Wind are both images that transcend the concepts of subject and object: The Word is not a thing or even a being, strictly speaking: it is a Power, the stream of endless creativity that is not only from God, but is God.  It also radically overcomes the difference between Being and Non-Being—as the great theologian, Paul Tillich, thought God must.  The Word and the Spirit are hence not beings-among-beings, but symbols of the “Ground of Being”, a Deity to be apprehended through life and contemplation, not through set formulas and definitions.  Jesus, as I understand Him, was a Man who transcended his status as a mere man—while also retaining it—by becoming at one with the Father, seeing Himself no longer in terms of the subject-object distinction, but living perpetually in and as the God that transcends this distinction.

Hopefully, this article has demonstrated that the idea that “the Kingdom of God is within you” does not imply a sort of quietism—a withdrawal from outer activity into a solitude that is basically autistic.  Far from it: the entire life of Jesus demonstrates how such a claim needs to be incorrect, but it also, in His realization that “Before Abraham was, I am” (i.e. “before any being came into existence, The Word or Power of Being already existed”), demonstrated that those who thought the Gospel was purely social, and that there was no room for a deeper mystical revelation, were gravely mistaken.  A Zen parable beautifully complements Jesus’ own Gospel narrative, showing that the life of contemplation and the life of action are, in reality, made one in the Kingdom of God:

There was a Zen Master named Ho Tei, who was, in fact, an Enlightened man. He used to hand out donuts to the neighborhood children, and was always jolly, earning the title “Laughing Buddha.”  (Many of the fat and joyous Buddhas, seen in Chinatown shops and Chinese restaurants today, depict Ho Tei, and not the original Siddhartha Gautama Buddha.)  Once, a student of Zen came to test the Laughing Buddha’s attainment, and asked him, “What is the realization of Zen?”  Ho Tei simply dropped his giant donut bag and stared at him—which was, itself, the answer to his question.  And, the student asked further, having gotten the point, “What is the actualization of Zen?” Again, answering the question, Ho Tei picked up the bag of donuts and went merrily on his way…

Thus is the Kingdom of God.