Letter from James
Of This and That: On
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August 20, 2004
In my blog post for August 1st, I wrote (in part):
A few days later, an Anonymous commentator then asked the following question:
In the same comments section, I replied (hastily):
So now, let me offer the more-substantive answer I promised.
One of the most intriguing--and sometimes frustrating--ideas in Buddhism is that of The Two Truths.
Think for the moment of the sayings of any great religious teacher, from any tradition. Although the teaching points to an ultimate state, it is almost always couched in terms of here and now. Jesus spoke of sheep, Ramakrishna of chameleons. But both were speaking of "ultimate truth." The thing is, as beings of flesh and blood who dwell in This world, we simply cannot operate on principles of that world--that is, ultimate truth.
Instead, we operate on the conventional level. All of our plans, all of our dreams, are couched in terms of here and now. When we do talk of That world, we tend to do so in terms of This: streets of gold, a walled garden, a land of milk and honey, a place of peace and quiet. These are conventional terms, because we live and move in conventional truth.
There is a magnificent Buddhist story that helps us understand these Two Truths.
Some of my friends have called this story "creepy." But that's just the "conventional perspective" hanging on for dear life. The story is a conventional way of saying that, from the Absolute, Ultimate, Other Shore perspective, all distinctions break down. From that perspective, there is neither I nor You, This nor That, Here nor There...All is One.
Our conventional minds can hardly grasp this idea, but it is a commonplace in many religious statements.
Finding such ideas in Eastern religions is easy: The Upanishads tells us "You are That"--the person you conventionally think of as "you" is in fact totally identified with the All. Mahayana Buddhism (as mentioned above) says, "Nirvana is Samsara is Nirvana is..." Nirvana, the Ultimate, and Samsara, this temporal world of changing, are in fact one.
The Western religions, where the transcendence of God (his "outside-ness," as opposed to his immanence or indwelling) is of paramount importance, are less amenable to this position.
But even here, there are hints. We cannot depend on such Gnostic writings as The Gospel of Thomas to examine the "orthodox" point of view, as these were rejected by the Church. There the Christ says, "The Father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it" (113), or, answering the question, "When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?" he said, "What you are looking forward to has come, but you don't know it" (51) (both can be found here; scroll down to the appropriate verse).
But if we look closely at the Canonical scriptures, we start to see hints of this. The entire world manifests from God's spoken word; is it such a leap to see the world as an echo of His voice? It was later theologians who coined the term creatio ex nihilo, "creation out of nothing." The implication of this is that creation is necessarily separate from God. It thus cannot be co-eternal with God. The universe, that is, had a beginning, and will have an end--with nothing existing before and after. But why is this necessarily so?
Furthermore, the Church is repeatedly referred to as "the Body of Christ" (see, e.g., Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. A great online Bible resource starts here). If the Church is the Body of Christ, and Jesus said, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30), than aren't the people of Christ "One" with the Father? This sounds more like the identity with God taught in the East, doesn't it?
This is a big distinction. The East teaches that we already have what we seek--we just don't know it. It is like an old rabbinic story (ripped off by Paulo Coelho for one of his books).
You know the rest. Saul went home and found the treasure, as Dorothy taught us after her trip to Oz, "right in his own back yard."
The idea is, we already have it. We needn't chase after it here and there. We need only to sit down and accept it. The many prayers of commitment used for evangelicals to become "born again" are all based on this one principle: You needn't do anything; simply adjust your thinking. In the pamphlet The Four Spiritual Laws from Campus Crusade for Christ, the new believer prays this prayer:
What does this believer do? Confess; say thanks; open her/his life; say thanks again; offer control. These are all matters of attitude, not action. Jesus already did the action by dying on the cross; all the new believer does is "plug in" and access what has already been done.
From this, as well as from the Eastern idea, I can't help but get the feeling that everything is already good. We are like people who already have money in the bank, yet we go around begging for scraps. Are we truly separated from that money, as monotheism would have it? Or do we just think we are separated, as they say in the East? In either case, all we have to do is hit the ATM and voila! we are rich!
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