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Posts Tagged ‘criticism

On Crazy Wisdom and Other Bad Ideas

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“To ordinary people, I look completely mad. To me, ordinary people look completely mad.” – Milarepa

Viktor Frankl, the celebrated author of Man’s Search for Meaning, was addressing a congress of psychologists and psychiatrists when he read two short writings to his audience. One was written by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger; the other, by a hospitalized paranoid schizophrenic. Which, he asked, was written by one of the world’s most prominent philosophers, and which by the patient?

Of course, they were unanimous in judging Heidegger to be the madman. (1)

How do you tell the difference between craziness and genius? It’s not always so easy. Sometimes the perspective that makes sense is simply wrong.

When Thomas Jefferson heard reports from Yale that meteorites had recently fallen, for example, he is said to have replied that “it was easier to believe that two Yankee Professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven.”

Madness and genius both entail perspectives that lie outside of the ordinary range of what people accept to be true.

The Tibetan Buddhists speak of a distinction between what is true from the perspective of ordinary life, and what is really true. According to one tradition, something is conventionally true if it cannot be disproven by normal reasoning or perception. But ordinary reasoning and perception are mistaken, so there is no simple way to arrive at the ultimate truth. (2)

This distinction between the way that things appear and what’s really going on is at the heart of Buddhist teachings, which hold that our mistaken ideas about the world are the ultimate source of all suffering.

When we translate this problem into a human context, we find groups of people trying to collectively orient themselves with respect to what’s really going on. But how do you know?

Of course, you can simply not worry about it – you can settle down in your own vision of reality and say that everyone else is wrong. That’s a common approach.

But if you don’t accept the normal version of reality, and you want to figure out what’s really going on, you have to go outside of convention. Most of the venerated spiritual masters have said that the ordinary perspective is mistaken.

The problem is, whenever people come together and reinforce a shared set of beliefs, they run the danger of creating a sealed-off world and losing their moorings to the planet earth. There has to be some basis for staying grounded, or it is very easy to drift off into space.

In the west, we have a particular danger of gurus who cynically or naively capitalize on the possibilities that open up when you lead people out to sea. Many such teachers claim that their degree of understanding places them outside of the normal range of human values. Sure, they may seem like selfish assholes on the surface, but that’s just because they’ve broken through to the other side. And if that means the guru wants to sleep with your wife, like Adi Da or Richard Baker, then brace yourself for a lesson on non-attachment.

Such teachers have often appealed to the idea of “crazy wisdom,” which is supposedly of Tibetan origin, though in my 15 years of study I have yet to see the corresponding Tibetan term, or find any teacher in Tibet who advocates it as a philosophy.

There is, however, a rich tradition of folklore regarding venerated teachers who shock their disciples with unorthodox behavior, trying to wake them up by confounding their expectations. People like Tilopa, Milarepa, Drukpa Kunley, and the Sixth Dalai Lama fit the bill. It’s also a beloved and common motif in China and Japan – the itinerant Zen priest who piles contempt on the bureaucratic functionaries of the great temples.

It’s a charming motif, the mad fool. But I see no evidence that it was ever intended as a philosophy of practice or teaching. Most of the Tibetan sources I’ve read that deal with such an approach consist of scornful denunciations of self-described Tantrikas who use the Dharma as an excuse to indulge their appetites.

In the short history of the Dharma in the west, we have been blessed with an abundance of controversial teachers who, to all appearances, have acted unethically by pressuring students to sleep with them as part of their practice or by appropriating funds. And many of these teachers are defended as practitioners of crazy wisdom. Two of the many examples that come to mind are Chogyam Trungpa and Richard Baker.

Trungpa, who drank vodka like you and I drink water, according to his friend Shunryu Suzuki, is remembered as a sensitive, insightful teacher and a gifted writer. But he is also remembered for his raging alcoholism and controversial sexual tendencies, including reports that he led his followers in wild sex parties that got out of hand, with some students literally finding themselves stripped bare by hordes of others.

Having written a book by the name of Crazy Wisdom, Trungpa probably did more than any other figure to introduce and defend the concept to American culture. He spoke of crazy wisdom as though it were an established and mainstream tradition in Tibet, which it is not.

That may well be his most enduring legacy to western Dharma, which leads me to agree with Kenneth Rexroth, who said that ““Many believe Chögyam Trungpa has unquestionably done more harm to Buddhism in the United States than any man living.”

Richard Baker is an American Zen monk and energetic disciple of Shunryu Suzuki, the Japanese Soto Zen priest who founded of the San Francisco Zen Center. Baker was an enormously effective organizer and played a vital role at building the Zen Center into the prominent institution it is today. But he also was an egomaniac, using community funds to buy expensive vases and cars while a number of the students who worked full-time to keep the Center afloat did not even receive health care. And he slept with many of his students – a behavior that was, for whatever reasons, long tolerated and indulged, until one of his students became suicidal after his wife began sleeping with Baker. (3)

Eventually he was forced out of the institution that he helped build, but many years after that debacle he showed himself in interviews to be bizarrely heedless of the impact of his behavior. Reading an interview he gave with Tricycle magazine, I got the sense he doesn’t even understand why people were angry.

It is not so odd to me that a charismatic narcissist could set loose his unfettered appetites on a crowd of students and call it enlightenment. But it is odd to me that so many of his students didn’t seem to know how to take it.

“Perhaps it is the great teaching of Buddha,” they may have said to themselves, “when he takes the food off my plate. I should greet it with equanimity.”

***

I was inspired to write on this topic this morning after reading in the New York Times about the latest chapter in the dramatic saga of American teacher Michael Roach, founder of the Asian Classics Input Project, and formerly a geshe of the Tibetan Sera monastery, until he was kicked out.

I took one of his correspondence courses in 2000, and at the time I was put off by what I took to be his doctrinaire perspective. Many times in his lecture series, he exhorted his students to just “take the Buddha’s word for it.”

Now, I do not subscribe to that point of view. The Tibetan scholar Gendun Choephel said the following about “taking the Buddha’s word for it”:

One may think: ‘We concede that our decisions are unreliable, but when we follow the decisions of the Buddha, we are infallible.’ Then who decided that the Buddha is infallible? If you say ‘The great scholars and adepts like Nagarjuna decided that he is infallible,’ then who decided that Nagarjuna is infallible? If you say ‘The Foremost Lama [Tsong Khapa] decided it,’ then who knows that the Foremost Lama is infallible? If you say ‘Our kind and peerless lama, the excellent and great so and so decided,’ then infallibility, which depends on your excellent lama, is decided by your own mind. In fact, therefore, it is a tiger who vouches for the lion, it is a yak who vouches for a tiger, it is a dog who vouches for a yak, it is a mouse who vouches for a dog, it is an insect who vouches for a mouse. Thus, an insect is made the final voucher for them all. Therefore, when one analyzes in detail the final basis for any decision, apart from coming back to one’s own mind, nothing else whatsoever is perceived.” (4)

There is no way out of this circle. Ultimately, you are the judge of truth and falsity, and you are responsible for your judgment.

Michael Roach and Christie McNally

Michael Roach’s behavior has become increasingly strange in recent years. He was disowned by the Tibetan establishment after he began an unprecedented “celibate marriage” with his student Christie McNally several years ago, in which they were never to be more than fifteen feet away from one another.

That struck a lot of people as pretty weird. It’s the kind of distorted expression of sexuality, I think, that tends to come out of celibate clergies. I could not help but wonder why he didn’t do the obvious thing, give back his monastic vows and marry his cupcake? It seemed like a red flag to me.

The story just got a lot worse. Reports came out this week that McNally, who has since “divorced” Roach and married another fellow, was found delirious on the desert property run by Roach’s group.

McNally and her new husband Ian Thorson had continued living at Roach’s desert retreat center, but had a turbulent time of it. The two were apparently told to leave the retreat center after McNally stabbed Thorson during a fight.

Instead of complying, they headed for the hills and hid out on the land. Tragically, both fell ill while living in a cave, and were too weak to retrieve water. By the time the couple was found by a search party, Thorson was dead.

You know, in all of these cases, the warning signs were not subtle. We have charismatic personalities associated with devoted students. We have increasingly prominent evidence that something is wrong with the guy in charge, and the signs are ignored. Cognitive dissonance is explained away by the students as crazy wisdom.

So, students of the Dharma, a word of warning: if your teacher tells you that sex with him is part of the practice, something is probably wrong. When they’re driving a Rolls while the center is kept afloat by volunteer work, something is probably wrong. If you’re told to “just trust” the tradition or the guy in charge, something is probably wrong. When you start seeing widespread evidence of students considering unethical or criminal behavior, something is probably wrong.

I’m an advocate for Sane Wisdom.

And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when your teacher starts talking about crazy wisdom, the sane thing to do is get up and walk away.

 
References
1) Frankl V. The Will to Meaning. Plume. 1988. pg. 4.
2) See, for example: Newland G. The Two Truths. Snow Lion. 1992.
3) Downing M. Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center. Counterpoint. 2002.
4) From Choephel’s Ornament of Nagarjuna’s Thought, translated in: Lopez Jr, DS. The Madman’s Middle Way. The University of Chicago Press. 2006. pp. 49-50.

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Written by Mesocosm

June 7, 2012 at 10:12 am

The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth Life

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Mary (detail), circa 14th Century, Greece
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

On Christian Doctrine, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series on Christian theology, we took a brief look at some of the competing ideas alive in the early Christian church concerning the life and ministry of Jesus, and the nature of his relationship to God. We briefly compared the interpretations of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas.

While John taught that Christ’s life and relationship to God was a unique historical event, Thomas believed that Jesus was a paradigmatic example of the relationship that all persons have to the divine. These imply radically different concepts of salvation: for John, salvation consists in affirming Christ’s death and resurrection, while for Thomas it consisted of coming into accord with your personal relationship to God.

For those who have studied Indian philosophy, the resonances between Thomas’ soteriology and Indian models of liberation, such as those taught by the Buddhist, Jaina, and Advaita Vedanta schools, is immediately apparent. It is interesting to note that Thomas is believed by some traditions to have traveled to India, and an extant community of South Indian Christians traces their own lineage back to Thomas.

The extra-canonical Acts of Thomas describes his ministry and martyrdom in India. It begins with an episode in which Christ, after his resurrection, instructs Thomas to go to India to teach, and Thomas replies “How can I, who am a Hebrew, go forth and preach among the Indians?” (1) When he refuses to go, Christ sells Thomas into slavery to an Indian trader, who brings him home, and there his adventures begin.

I am not certain to account for the apparent significance of this Indian tradition claiming a lineage back to Thomas and the affinities the Gospel of Thomas shows with Indian philosophy. Thomas’ gospel is quite early – earlier than the Gospel of John – and if extraneous religious ideas were interpolated onto the gospel, one would expect that to occur at a relatively late date. The Acts of Thomas dates to the third century, for example. It’s a mystery to me, what is going on there.

In Part 1 of this series, we also looked at the doctrine of the Trinity and the unsuccessful attempt by the church to exclude female representations of divinity, which has everywhere been challenged by the Cult of Mary. It is worth noting that the early churches in the Arabian peninsula and in Egypt may have glorified or even deified the Virgin. The religious historian Jonathan P. Berkey notes that in the centuries before Muhammad, many Arabs appear to have interpreted the Trinity as consisting of God, Jesus, and Mary. In support of this reading, Berkey cites a Koranic verse in which Jesus denies being the Son of God (2):

And when God said, ‘O
Jesus son of Mary,
didst thou say unto men,
“Take me and my mother
as gods, apart from God”?
[Jesus] said, “To Thee be
glory! It is not mine to
say what I have no right
to.” (3)

Berkey notes the proximity of Arabia to the Ionian colony of Ephesus, which, as we noted in Part One of this series, was a prominent center of goddess worship, and the site of a great temple dedicated to Artemis Ephesia. It was at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE that Mary was affirmed to be “God-Bearer” (Theotokos).

It is also worth noting that the Christian church assimilated the iconography of Mary with the infant Christ from an ancient tradition in Egypt, depicting the goddess Isis and the baby Horus.

The religious imagination will not tolerate suppression of the divine feminine for long, and institutional attempts to eliminate it are constantly challenged by forceful, spontaneous attempts of the psyche to formulate symbols of this kind. Mary the God-Bearer lies within easy reach of Mary the Goddess-Mother, as the Koran and other evidence from the Middle Ages will corroborate. As a caveat, however, it should be borne in mind that the Western Church values Mary’s status as God-Bearer primarily in the light of what it says about Christ’s divinity, not for what it says about Mary.
 

The Problem of Christ’s Dual Nature, Both Human and Divine

Christ Enters Jerusalem (detail)
c. 14th century
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

Continuing our evaluation of Christian doctrine, I would like to look at the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures, as it was formulated in 451 CE at the Council of Chalcedon. It is my belief that this Council painted the church into an unenviable corner, insisting upon the literal truth of a doctrine that cannot be accepted as such.

By the time of this council, it had already been established at Nicea that Jesus Christ was the third persona of the Trinity. In addition to being the Logos, co-eterntal with the God the Father and with the Holy Spirit, he was also believed to be the human son of Mary.

According to church doctrine, Christ was incarnated, lived as a man, suffered death, and rose again, and this human death was vital for the atonement of human sins. The conceptual vocabulary of atonement in early theology was closely modeled on contemporaneous legal doctrines of atonement for transgression. Based on a tradition dating back to the Code of Hammurabi, which famously called for “an eye for an eye,” atonement for transgression required a penalty of the same type as the transgression. Only by dying a human death could Christ’s atonement redeem human life.

We are therefore left with a logical problem. The Nicene Creed proclaimed Christ to be of one essence with the Father; he is eternal, unchanging, and beyond suffering. But as Jesus, he was incarnate in the field of time, suffered, and died.

How does this work? Is the immortal Christ different from the human Jesus? Did Christ have two distinct natures that somehow coexisted in the person of Jesus?

These doctrinal questions may seem trivial, but in their own clumsy way they get at very deep questions about what Christians mean when they talk about salvation, and what they mean by their cardinal doctrines. I am not myself a Christian, but as a person who takes spiritual problems seriously, I think it is important to understand what is going on here. It is not only historically important, but it is necessary if one wishes to come to terms with the rich and ancient tradition of Christianity, and to see what it may have to offer to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Back to our two natures problem, then. Different people tried to respond to it in different ways. Nestorius, for example, argued that in Jesus there were two persons and two natures. And a school called the Monophysites believed that there was only one nature within Jesus – a single, unique nature.

Both of these positions were rejected by the orthodox church as heretical, and, as you might expect, these kinds of disagreements led quickly to political violence, arrests, depositions, and threats of war. So goes the history of the church.

The Council of Chalcedon was called to settle this dispute, and they arrived at the following definition of faith:

Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all with one voice teach that it is to be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same God, perfect in divinity, and perfect in humanity, true God and true human, with a rational soul and a body, of one substance with the Father in his divinity, and of one substance with us in his humanity, in every way like us, with the only exception of sin, begotten of the Father before all time in his divinity, and also begotten in the latter days, in his humanity, of Mary the Virgin bearer of God.

This is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, manifested in two natures without any confusion, change, division or separation. The union does not destroy the difference of the two natures, but on the contrary the properties of each are kept, and both are joined in one person and hypostasis. They are not divided into two persons, but belong to the one Only-begotten Son, the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. (4)

They are of one substance but two natures? Joined in one person, without any division or separation? This is no answer to the question; it merely restates the problem.

Regular readers may recall that we recently looked at the nature of mysticism on Mesocosm, and we found that mystical symbols refer to a domain that lies beyond language and thought. Mystical symbols frequently invoke contradictory or paradoxical language to evoke a domain that lies beyond the reach of logic. Can we not simply accept the Council’s solution as a statement along these lines?

We cannot, for the mystical symbol is a symbol, that refers to a reality outside of itself. The Council’s formulation, on the other hand, insists on a literal reading of the symbol. It does not only assert a paradoxical formulation of Christ’s nature, but also insists that we take it as a factual description.

In my opinion, this represents the worst tendency in western theology: it takes itself too seriously, too literally. A study of Buddhist logic, by contrast, offers a deeply refreshing alternative – problems of this type are built in from the ground up. I may return to this topic in a later post.

For now, suffice to say that the language of spiritual symbols is the language of poetry, not science or history. You cannot pin down what religious symbols “really mean,” certainly not by applying metaphysical distinctions such as substance versus nature. One is reminded of Molière’s doctor, who, when asked how it was the medicine puts people to sleep, replied “by virtue of its dormative faculty.” As Nietzsche remarked, such answers belong in comedy.

I will suggest a alternative reading that distinguishes between Jesus the person, and Christ the symbol.

With respect to the literal, historical truth, the evidence strongly indicates that a man named Jesus taught in Galilee during the time of Pontius Pilate, and he was executed for sedition. His ministry was probably something along the lines of the teaching we get in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – an eschatological teaching of the Essene variety.

That is, his primary message was probably something along the lines of “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Matthew 3:2). Like many Jewish teachers in Judea in his day, he appears to have believed that a literal end of history was coming soon, and that the dead would experience bodily resurrection right here on earth, similar to the teaching of the Zoroaster.

In the meantime, before the end of days, Jesus appears to have affirmed the Old Testament injunctions to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” (Deut 6:5) and to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” (Lev 19:18).

White Crucifixion (detail)
Marc Chagall
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

Now, sometime after the death of Jesus, certain of his followers began to hold the story of his death and resurrection as primary. John and Paul taught that Christ’s resurrection signified atonement for all who would choose to believe in him. This is a completely different teaching that is virtually undetectable in the earlier gospels.

The message of redemption through belief in the resurrection of a God was by no means new. Countless regional variations of this mystery had existed throughout the Mediterranean for centuries, including the cults of Tammuz, Osiris, Attis, and Dionysus. Important elements of this aspect of Christianity are demonstrably drawn from the Demeter rites at Eleusis as well, along with the cults of Isis, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.

When we evoke the possibility of redemption through the spiritual affirmation of the resurrection of a dying God, we are talking about a religious symbol of great antiquity and wide distribution. As rational people, we simply must look at the abundance of cognate symbols in the region, and make some kind of sense of what that implies for the nature of the story of the Gospels.

This is not to say that the religious symbol of Christ is not important or powerful – on the contrary, its wide distribution is testimony to the degree to which it is valued by those to whom it speaks. But the fact of the matter is that Christ, taken as the third persona of a triune Deity, is a symbol. The person Jesus is not the same as thing as the Son of Man, attendant upon the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14), and he is not the same kind of thing. To try to interpret the symbol as a fact is to miss its meaning.

What, then, is its meaning?

I would personally submit that the ultimate meaning of the Christ symbol, as with any religious symbol, consists in the living response that it evokes in the human heart, whatever that might be.

In the next post in this series, we will look at Christ as a religious symbol in the context of another place where orthodox doctrine in the Western Christian Church really missed the boat – the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius over the doctrine of Original Sin.

References
1) “The Acts of Thomas.” fr Barnstone W. The Other Bible. HarperCollins. 1984. p. 465
2) Berkey JP. The Formation of Islam. Cambridge University Press. 2033. pp. 45-6
3) Arberry AJ. (trans.) The Koran Interpreted; A Translation. Touchstone Books. 1955. 5.115. pg. 147
4) Gonzalez JL. The Story of Christianity; Volume I. HarperCollins. 2010. pg. 301

Written by Mesocosm

March 25, 2012 at 11:13 am