Monday, May 04, 2015

Dis-incarnation

There has been a question about what constitutes dis-incarnation. Perhaps we need to start with a definition: dis-incarnation is any move that denigrates the body, that lowers the view of the human; that overemphasizes penance and suffering.

In a sense, the entire trajectory of Christian history has been one of progressive dis-incarnation. First, there was the establishment of an institution or institutions ("all the Christianities"). Institutions by definition are dehumanizing. The subject is reduced to a cipher to fit into the schemes of the hierarchy.

In early Christianity there were also groups that denigrated the body and the material character of creation. Many of these groups were suppressed as heretical, but the thread continues in one form or other throughout Christian history. It is evident in Celtic Christianity, whose pessimism subsequently infects western Christianity at large. It takes on particular strength at the time of the Counter-Reformation and the rise of Jansenism.

The emphasis of Christianity shifts from living a resurrected life in God to living life as a guilt-ridden sinner meditating on suffering. Instead of going to church to be educated and incorporated into resurrected life, people more often than not leave the liturgy feeling more guilty than forgiven. One might say that rules are substituted for grace. Western Christianity has lost most of the praxis that was inherent in the first centuries.

By contrast, Paul tells us that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit; indeed, we might gloss this statement by saying that the body is suffused and animated by the Holy Spirit, which cannot work grace without the body. Body and spirit/soul are inextricably bound together; it is counter-productive to pick the scabs of wounds in any aspect of the body-spirit continuum. Paul also emphasizes joy and a cosmic perspective. These, too, have been lost in modern expressions western Christianity—including the forced gyrations, devastating noise and narcissism of extreme evangelicals.

By contrast, Tibetan Buddhism appears to have a profound emphasis on incarnation, not only in the methodology of visualisation, but also in every aspect of praxis. The beginner is told to meditate on 'precious human life' as foundational to praxis. The beginner is also made to understand that buddhahood already exists within, like a diamond covered with mud, and that the task is to wash off the mud by getting rid of negativities. 

The more advanced practitioner may undertake a four-year retreat. In the second year of this retreat, there is a five-week period devoted to both appreciation of and detachment from the body: no part of the body is cleaned in this five-week period. The effect is paradoxical: it makes acceptance of the body at its ripest unavoidable, and also stimulates detachment from vanity. The more advanced practitioner is also taught the rite of chöd, in which the body is offered as food to the hungry ghosts and other beings.

There are meditations on death, on the charnel-ground, on physical dissolution. These are not to encourage morbidity but rather to encourage the practitioner to accept death as a given and as a presence in every aspect of life. Equally, and on the other hand, there are visualizations in which the practitioner visualizes a deity and then moves to take the place of the deity in order to see with the deity's eyes.

In Tibetan Buddhism there seems to be a profound understanding of every aspect of human psychology as it relates to the body; if it were possible, it would be helpful to Christianity to understand the psychology that underpins Buddhist practice, to help Christianity reestablish both praxis and lineages—for the practices are embodied and transmitted through unbroken lineages of practitioners.

I am not saying we should all become Tibetan Buddhists. I am saying that ironically, in many cases, Tibetan Buddhism is far more incarnational than western Christianity, which purports to be an incarnational religion, and that there is a lot to be learned from it. There are parallels and correspondences between the two, but we should never make the mistake of saying that this or that aspect is "the same" in both religions.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

First-Hand Report from Nepal

Greg Sharkey, SJ, is a very dear friend of mine who lives and works in Nepal. He happened to be Stateside at the time of the earthquake, but was at the airport headed to Kathmandu the same day. He has just written to me as follows below. Please pray for him and for everyone in Nepal, and please donate as much as you can to the charities sending supplies and medical assistance. The lives of eight million people are on the line.


It is so hard to keep up with emails, while organizing efforts that have to be made immediately, in these early days, in order to save lives. Apologies for my cybernetic silence.

The death toll is now well above 5000; but I am sure that very large numbers of the dead will never be counted. It is wrenching to get daily updates from the Tamang and Newar villages of Kavre, Sindhuplachok and Dolakha Districts, in which I’ve lived and done research. Many of the numbers have a beloved name and face attached. 

The official count of serious casualties — i.e., requiring surgery — is over 10K. I spent the morning at Dhulikhel Hospital — about an hour outside Kathmandu Valley. It’s the place where many of the wounded from the above-mentioned districts are brought. We brought orthopedic surgery supplies, which are desperately needed here. The hospital is so overstuffed that patients awaiting surgery are lined up on mats in the lobby. I thank God for my various stints as a hospital chaplain during formation; otherwise the sights would be overwhelming. 

In the afternoon I took a group of Taiwanese doctors and volunteers to Bhaktapur, the ancient medieval capital. Nearly all the historic buildings are reduced to piles of broken brick. Search and rescue teams are still struggling to extricate those who were trapped in the mountains of debris. (In some of the narrow lanes, 3-4 buildings collapsed into one pile.) At this point, however, it’s a matter of removing the dead. I spent some time comforting a Newar couple whose son was trapped on the ground floor of one such pile. He was able to text his pleas for help for two days; and then the phone went dead. A Korean search-and-rescue team removed the body today. Even cowboys cry at that stuff…

It’s all quite draining; and the knowledge that villagers out in hundreds of hill villages have received no help yet, is daunting. But knowing that our efforts truly matter is a great consolation that keeps us going. We are looking after each other and taking time to step away from it all and breathe deeply. We are also holding daily meetings to discuss what’s going on. That lets us share what we are experiencing. Asians don’t do that the way Americans would; but it’s working. We’re standing strong for the good of the afflicted. I drag myself home each evening, have a good, quick cry over the reports of friends’ deaths, go to sleep, then get up to make the coffee. What else can you do?

I’m too busy to write all my friends. Feel free to share this as broadly as you like.

Love, Greg

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Separate Universes, One Heart

Whenever I talk about the island the question inevitably arises as to what I, as a Christian, was doing at a Buddhist monastery (a question often asked with a certain suspicious tone, as if Buddhism were some sort of apostasy), so perhaps it is a good idea to write a bit about how I approached the retreat—and approach Buddhism.

First of all, Buddhism is less a religion and more of a philosophical psychology, a statement that immediately has to be qualified because there are many forms of Buddhism, some of which are in conflict with others. Also at the Tibetan end of the spectrum, one begins to encounter practices and insights that echo Christianity, especially as regards symbolism and sacrament. The relationship between Buddhism and Christianity is anything but uniform, according to Buddhists—and indeed, there are, of course, many forms of Christianity. 

In one book, Thich Nhat Hanh [Living Buddha Living Christ] suggests that Christianity and Buddhism in the end are the same. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama says it is very important not to confuse the two. Just to complicate matters, these two positions don't necessarily contradict each other. Thich Nhat Hanh is speaking from a Zen point of view, and writing about the similarity of ethics of the heart. Tibetan Buddhism is something altogether different, and much more complicated—one might even say, thorough, in its understanding of the permutations of the human psyche, and its practices and symbolism reflect these subtleties.

That Tibetan Buddhism appears perhaps to have much in common with Christianity is probably due to the fact that there were Christian bishops in Tibet from the 8th-12th centuries. Tibetan Buddhism as we know it doesn't really coalesce until the 13th century, and so it is no surprise that some of the practices and insights seem to resonate so thoroughly with Christianity. Having said this, it is, in my view, a mistake to speak of more than 'correlations' or 'resonances' between the two—even in such situations as I described above in which the English teacher for the Karmapa's monastery pointed out that the word that is translated as 'merit' in Buddhist texts should really be translated as 'grace'. The Tibetan context is so utterly different, at least in its early and middle stages, that the word 'grace' takes on a completely different set of nuances to those that occur in Christianity. That is not to say that there is not some overlap, but it is better to err on the side of caution.

One might point to the Buddhist image of the person as a diamond covered with mud; all that needs doing is the cleansing of the diamond. In other words, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the human person; we are just ignorant and confused. A Christian might immediately suggest a comparison with Athanasius' statement that the human person is a portrait that simply needs to be cleansed. It sounds so similar, yet the two images are universes apart.

What enables any dialogue between the traditions is not a 'perennial philosophy' which, as this blog has frequently noted, is a fallacious concept because it is interpretation based on interpretation, but rather a perennial psychology. There are markers along the way but again, no claim can be made that even these are 'the same' because the contextual mindsets are so different.

I solved the problem for myself on Holy Island by simply practicing the Buddhism that I understood, aided by the very delightful and generous lama with whom I had some fascinating conversations about the comparison/confusion problem. She is French and had been raised Catholic—she has a sister who is a Carmelite nun—and she told me that Buddhism had made some of her Catholic background come alive again. One of the biggest stumbling blocks, we both agreed, is that over the centuries Christianity has dis-incarnated itself—a kind of self-refutation for a religion that purports to be about incarnation—while Buddhism has retained and indeed heavily emphasises the incarnate aspect of practice. More on this later.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Re-Entry

It is now a month since I left Holy Isle—or rather, since my body left Holy Isle, because a large part of me is still there. And I hope to go back one day. Perhaps telling you, Gentle Readers, a little about the place will help me heal the split.

The transition has been more than difficult, especially since after arriving in Oxford I came down almost immediately with one of my notorious chest infections. I have not been able to work and barely to think.

Holy Isle sits about a mile and a half off the SE coast of Arran in Lamlash Bay. It's about two miles long and a mile wide. Parts of it are very rugged, and it has the same sort of basalt formations that you can see on Staffa or the Giants' causeway; there are also sandstone and other types of rock, attesting to a lively geologic history. 

The retreat centre has made minimal impact on the island. The conference centre is on the North End, and the facility for the long (1-4 years) retreats are at the South end, created out of the old lighthouse keeper's cottage. Also at the south end are three 'pods' for permanent nun retreatants. If I weren't going on 74 years old and if I had some money I might try for a pod myself. In a sense I have been pod-hunting all my life. It's good to know that three people at least are living that life even if I am past it physically to make it at the South end.


At the North end there are a lot of polytunnels and gardens; the island tries to be a self-sufficient as possible, though in the deep winter additional supplies have to make the crossing when the wind permits.


The beginning of the retreat was delayed by the wild weather we had right after Christmas. I finally arrived a week late, along with the lama who was directing the retreat and has one of the pods at the South end, and a few others. We crossed the stretch of water between two worlds accompanied by rainbows. It was like going through a time-warp.

The retreatants and resident volunteers were an amazingly varied lot. An architect, two doctors, an herbologist, a construction expert, several therapists, a physicist, someone who worked for Virgin trains and so on. The atmosphere was very laid back and low key, while at the same time those doing Buddhist (or other) practice were very serious about what they were doing without being obtrusive about it. It was an unusual and welcome combination I've never encountered before. Often at retreat centres there is a certain preciousness, an 'in' group and an 'out' group; there are some engaging in competitive piety, etc. But there was none of this, and I sank thankfully without resesrve into the open arms of the island.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Happy Easter to All

Gentle Readers,

This brings you every good wish for the spring, for a Holy Eastertide, for joy, whatever your belief or nonbelief.

I returned from my long retreat in Scotland at the Buddhist retreat on March 20. The shock of re-entry cannot be described, and I went into hibernation for a week, sorting through emails and trying to get used to the city noise. Then I went to Devon for Easter and unfortunately took an NHS bug with me that affected both my hostess and myself—I am still coughing and feeling rather rough. 

But take heart: this Blog will resume as promised. Also, as promised, I kept a journal while on Holy Isle and will be sharing some of that with you.

Just to tantalise: there was a woman on retreat there who teaches English at the Karmapa's monastery in India. The Karmapa is the head of the Kagyu sect, which is the group that owns Holy Isle. She made an interesting remark (among many) that most of the Buddhist texts that are translated with the word 'merit' should rather be translated as 'grace'—this in response to my observation about the mis-use of the word 'experience' in Buddhist as well as Christian texts—the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

In the meantime, forgive me if this post is short shrift: I just walked in the door, as it were, and am having to adjust all over again!

A thousand blessings on you.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Christmas to All


Christmas arrived last week.

A friend (thank you, Beth!) took me to hear The Sixteen at the lovely St John the Evangelist Church in East Oxford, now a concert venue. It happened that this formal concert took place on the same day as the Bodleian carols at the library, which is very informal: the community of scholars gathers to sing carols and listen to readings, led by a choir and scratch orchestra drawn from the staff. This year there was a trumpet for the first time, which made for a spine-tingling finish as we sang the Hallelujah chorus from the Messiah.

Bodley carols always makes my Christmas, but to be able to listen to The Sixteen in addition was something close to heaven. The end of the first half of the concert left me in floods of tears—two versions of O Magnum Mysterium sandwiched around Bethlehem Down. My friend's eyes also were damp as she ministered to me with hot mulled wine from a thermos during the interval.

What is it about this musical group that is so deeply affecting? Perhaps in part it is that the twenty singers have a broad age range from twenties to ??? fifties? sixties? The span of ages makes for a particularly rich sound. Perhaps it is the perfection of the singing? Yet the listener is aware that the music goes far beyond perfection. The group is intensely human in the best sense. It is never artificial. Spontaneity charges the music with what I can only characterise as kindly passion. Does the passion give rise to the perfection or vice versa? The integration in the music of The Sixteen means that the whole is far, far more than the sum of its parts. The listener is so caught up that it becomes impossible to analyse either in the moment or in retrospect. As Beth remarked, Harry Christophers is the sort of conductor for whom you'd sing your heart out. 'Who sings, prays twice', the hearts of listeners singing silently with the group, mirroring that spontaneous perfection.

And yes, the whole experience was a parable of the incarnation, which resonates far beyond the musical moment—as does the Feast itself, far beyond the twelve days of Christmas. It will continue to resonate as I leave for my retreat in Scotland on January 6. There is no wifi at the retreat, so this blog will be suspended from that date until late March. I hope to keep a journal of the retreat, which I will post on my return.

May all of you, Gentle Readers, have a most blessed Christmas season and every joy in the New Year.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Great O Antiphons

Today in England the Great O antiphons begin. If you don't know them, go to the link below for a wonderful essay, far better than anything I could write!

http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/the-o-antiphons-in-middle-english-to-e.html?m=1