Monday, May 04, 2015


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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this blog and the one on Nepal. In different ways they both take me way out of my depth and challenge me to confront my own shallowness. For this I am most grateful. Di

8:39 am, May 06, 2015  
Anonymous Ian Duncan said...

Thank you for the comprehensive answer to my question. It seems that much religious thought adopts the dualistic view that separates the physical from the spiritual, denigrating the former – this view surfaces in many religious traditions.
In the Theravadin Buddhist tradition there are also meditative exercises on dying, death, putrefaction etc., having the same purpose that you note for the Tibetan tradition. And I believe certain shamanistic traditions have something similar.

5:57 pm, May 06, 2015  
Anonymous AM said...

To connect to your 'work of silence,' dis-incarnation is fragmented mind "falling" ("fallen angels" in the Enochic take of Margaret Barker) from the the spaciousness of silence. One can only appreciate the word, the logos, one's embodied existence because the body itself is the language of silence. But silence also en-ables the detachment from the body. Again the paradox of embrace and letting go within the ambit of silence.

9:03 am, May 07, 2015  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,
I was surprised that you seemed to allude to Celtic Christianity as being dis-incarnational. I had always thought that Celtic Christianity was quite the opposite, evidenced in how it celebrated the ordinary, the earthy,our connectedness... Am I confusing Celtic Christianity with Celtic Spirituality?

11:23 pm, May 07, 2015  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

That's a good distinction between Celtic spirituality and Celtic Christianity. People get caught up in the sweetness and light aspect and forget that Celtic religion has a very, very dark streak: the wicker man, for example, the abuse of the body in the hope of preserving the soul. It isn't all sweetness and light. Celtic monks brought penitentials to Europe and changed the character of Christianity forever.

7:37 am, May 08, 2015  
Blogger Susan Hollins said...

Hurray! Here's to increasing dialogue between those who who tread a different spiritual path / keep a faith/ have a belief. This is very exciting.

9:40 am, May 13, 2015  

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