I saw two good movies last weekend. One was Duma, a coming-of-age story about Xan, a white farm boy in South Africa during the apartheid era, who must let go of his nearly-full-grown pet cheetah, Duma. He runs away from home to try to return Duma to the area he came from, and ends up crossing hundreds of miles of the wild on foot, including part of the perilous Okavango Delta. In addition, he needs to teach a very tame cheetah who loves to play with other animals, how to hunt. Xan, who was home-schooled and sheltered, must also learn to trust Ripkoen, a mysterious black wanderer, in order to survive. As unlikely as it seems, it’s based on a true story.

This is the kind of movie people used to go to the movies for! It’s directed by Carroll Blanchard of The Black Stallion and Fly Away Home fame. If you get the chance to see it, do it. You won’t be disappointed.

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Naked in Ashes

Another good film shown at the Naro last weekend was Naked in Ashes, Paula Fouce’s documentary on the sadhus (holy men) of India, and their extreme asceticism. The documentary focuses on three small groups of yogis (each with two or three practitioners) and follows them for several weeks.

As I suspect many are, I’ve generally found extreme acesticism, especially of the Eastern kind, very off-putting. I can understand St. Francis and his love of having nothing but God, but wasn’t able to make the same connection to these ash-covered guys in India.

Naked in Ashes sheds some much-needed light on the sadhus. Some are true bodhisattvas, dedicating their austerities to taking away the sins of the world. One guru said, “The world is suffering. That is my problem. I take on myself the sins of all, and wash them away in Mother Ganges.” I came to realize the answer why these holy men live in caves with nothing is not that far from why Jesus went to the Cross. The spirit of all-consuming Love is behind it.

The experience was further enhanced by a guest speaker, (an ODU professor on Eastern religion) an excellent enthusiastic discussion afterwards.

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Size matters! (Clarifying ‘a really big man’)

Judging from the comments that got on my previous post, I guess I need to give it more context. I’m not writing about Paul Bunyan, folks, but the Teacher.

I was thinking about how practical people (God love ’em!) tend to warn how important it is to keep “both feet on the ground.” and not to have your “head in the clouds.” They have good points. Too often I really have had my head in the clouds and my feet weren’t on the ground.

But an enlightened person is “big” enough to have his or her head in the clouds and feet on the ground, and strong enough to blow the clouds away. Thomas Traherne (the 17th-century Anglican priest who has been wonderfully treated in some posts by Akilesh on Graceful Presence”, and by Trev on Diesel Musings) wrote:

It is less that I am in the world, than that the world is within me.

Size matters! The teacher knows that the Kingdom of heaven is within him, and all things are as well. He or she sees the spiritual reality, and knows the physical appearances to be only what they are. When this image came to my mind, I saw the BIG man as being like the angel in Rev. 10, who stands with one foot on sea, and one foot on land, and declares “there shall be no more time.” All potential already is. What will be manifested, though, is up to us in the manifest world. It’s like all the lines for all the scripts are already written. It’s up for us to awaken and choose the parts we will play. What will this world be like tomorrow? Will we stay unconscious, and react instinctively to protecting our belief systems and other mental fictions, or will we live as what we really are?

About six weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear another teacher, Lono Ho’ala. Lono shared the horrific story of the unbearable pain that forced him to awaken. Lono the asked the group: how much pain do you think the world will need for our political, cultural, and religious leaders to awaken? To realize that God is love, and is everything? He urged us to wake up, before nuclear bombs explode over Tehran and New York. Only awakening beyond the reactive nature can spare us the holocaust we’re threatening ourselves with.

That’s putting it dramatically, but these are dramatic times, and the ego is endangering the world with its lust for drama. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Get ready! Find a big person who can reach down, pick you up, and show you the clear sky.

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Gnosticism? A few more thoughts on Thomas and Judas

Some of you requested I tell a little more about how I found my teacher, and I will return to that soon.

But right now, I wanted to discuss “Gnosticism” a bit. It’s one of those things that everyone’s talking about, but few people understand. Actually, it would probably be a good thing if we stopped talking about it, because Gnosticism is so broad a term that it’s practically meaningless. When we use a word like Protestantism, we’re talking about something that runs the gamut from Tennessee snake-handlers to French Huguenots, to most of the population of Papua New Guinea. What are we saying?

“Gnosticism” is even more vague. There were pagan, Jewish and Christian Gnostic movements in the ancient Mediterreanean and Middle East. If we think the term is analogous to “mysticism,” in that there are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim mysticisms (among others), we might be getting close, but my gut feeling is that some Gnosticisms were authentic mystical paths, but others had degenerated to mere religions.

While the Church Fathers inveighed against various teachers for widely different reasons, it’s important to remember that Gnosticism was never a single thing to them, even back then. On one hand, there was the school of Valentinius, who claimed St. Paul had taught Theudas “the wild things of God,” and that Theudas taught him. Valentinius’ works show a strong emphasis on theosis as many of the later Fathers would as well. In addition, Valentinius (like St. Paul), touched upon the “gnostic” idea of the “rulers of this age” (literally, the archons of this aeon), and emphasized that Christ frees us from them. But his emphasis seemed to be on the deep, transforming union with Christ, that leads us to become like him. But besides Valentinius, there were Marcion, Mani, Sethian Gnostics, Platonic schools of Gnosticism, pagan mystery religions, Mithraism, and more.

The Gospel of Thomas was tagged “Gnostic” because of its discovery in the Nag Hammadi library of mostly Gnostic writings, but nothing within it makes it so. But it lacks a Gnostic creation myth, has no exposition of “archons” or “aeons,” and shows no disdain for Creation. It simply records sayings of Jesus, many of which are familiar, and many of which are not. Most scholars have abandoned using the term “Gnostic” to describe Thomas.

The Gospel of Judas was published just two weeks ago, and seems to be a “Sethian” Gnostic work. It is mentioned by Ireneus, who wrote about it in 180 AD, hence it was composed some time before that, probably around the middle of the second century. Much of it it involves propounding a Gnostic creation myth, with elaborate geneaologies of spiritual beings, reminiscent of Paul’s injunction to avoid “myths and endless geneaologies” in (1Tim. 1:4, Tit.3:9). Paul warned that such stories were divisive and useless. It seems to me the product of a downward trend, from the simple belief that there are unfriendly spiritual forces at work in this world of appearances, to doctrinaire listings and the concretization of Gnostic mythology.

To me, the only interesting part of Judas is the last few verses, where Jesus essentially blesses Judas for doing his part, and says “you will free me from the man who imprisons me.”

Something rings true about that… not the actual scene or words so much as the the feeling behind them. Jesus’ teaching was not understood well by his disciples, let alone the masses. When he was resurrected and glorified, he had the ability to truly live within all who would call on his name. Being “freed of the man who imprisoned him” is a dramatic way to put it, but I wonder if it is dramatic enough for that unfathomable Love he had, longing to be with every soul, longing to be the Light that pierced our darkness. The Love that was “imprisoned” in one body, now can be in all.

I thank God, and also Adam, for the Fall so there could be Redemption.
I thank Jesus for offering himself up so there could be Resurrection.

I can’t thank Judas, but if Jesus did, that’s fine by me!

Adam and Judas were faithful to their parts. Nothing is amiss. Things are in divine order.

Are you alive? Prove it!

Christ has risen! Christos Aneste!

A visitor mentioned the story of “doubting Thomas” in a comment yesterday, which ties in neatly with the question, “Are you alive?” What really made me want to post this question was watching the Battlestar Galactica miniseries and first season over the last two weekends. Since I don’t have cable, I had to wait till the DVDs came out, and may I say I was impressed. It’s sci-fi and spi-fi (spiritual fiction) of the first order. Undoubtedly there is plenty of material for long posts and analyses (when I’m able to get caught up and see the second season.) It seems the meaning of being human and the nature of God are going to be key themes in the ongoing story. But for now, I just want to reflect on the first lines of the miniseries.

Number Six (a Cylon): Are you alive?
Human: Yes.
Number Six: Prove it!

Jesus was as dead as anyone can be. The body ceased to function. It was buried. Yet the Teacher’s spirit lived and according to Peter, “he went to preach to the spirits in prison” (2 Pet 3.19), as bodhisattvas do. When he appeared again in his body to his disciples, Thomas effectively asked him, “Are you alive?” And Jesus proved it.

But I think the real significance of Number Six’s question is that we don’t ask the question of ourselves. Are we alive? We assume we are. We take it on appearances. We don’t prove it to ourselves. Yet we go through the motions of life as if programmed, and when we see someone living deliberately, we remark on how alive they are.

When I was seven or eight, I had an experience which, at least for a short time, kept me from taking the world of appearances for granted. I saw a book in my older brother’s collection titled, Maybe I’m Dead. Just seeing that title disturbed me for days?it got under my skin. Of course I was alive! Obviously I was alive! But—what was life? What was the world? Did seeming to be alive in the world mean that it was real? That I was real? Was anything real? This wasn’t just a philosophical question for me at the time. It was something deep, important, and something which I knew I couldn’t discuss with anyone at the time. Maybe I’m dead was the only way I could mentally verbalize my brush with maya—the illusion of the world. After it faded, it wouldn’t be until early this year when I encountered it again.

Really coming face-to-face with the question can be a shock initially, but it opens up the freedom from conditioned, ego-bound plodding to see things anew, in other words, to really be alive. Another benefit is: how seriously can you take yourself when really asking “Am I alive?” 🙂

And yet, if you’re not, then there’s the question of who’s asking the question? There are paradoxes involved in the confusion of the world with spiritual reality, and like the koan, this spiritual practice, known as “Self-inquiry,” brings them to the fore. Am I alive? Is this the world? Who am I? This line of earnestness brings you to an awareness of your existence that is not dependent upon thought.

Thoughts do not answer the question. Feel your existence. Not your body, or your emotions, but your being. Prove it. Get out of The Matrix. Notice it as you go throughout the day, and your ego reacts with its identifications, fears, and quests for approval from others or superiority over them. Or whenever your conditioned, habitual mind runs in the same groove of needing and dependency, remember the question: Am I alive? Take the opportunity to prove it.

Holy Thursday: Teacher’s farewell

2000 years hasn’t begun to exhaust discussion of who Jesus was, and what his life means for us. During this time, it’s traditional to reflect on the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. However, during most of the rest of the year, many Christians spend more time reflecting on Jesus’ day of suffering, than on his three years of teaching. I’ve become convinced that in addition to everything else he was, Jesus was above all, Teacher.

A true teacher cares about nothing so much as helping their students discover truth. Although teachers are rare, true students are too. It’s hard to understand a Master who has seen beyond the appearances of the world, who knows God as his own Self. And it is hard for them to communicate the Kingdom they live in. Certainly Jesus and the disciples shared this difficulty.

The Teacher taught “whosoever” would come to him, yet out of thousands who would come to hear his lessons for a day, only a dozen or so would dare to commit themselves to his instruction for three years by living with, and traveling with him. And in spite of their dedication, they didn’t “get” his teaching very well. After months of being with the Teacher of unconditional love, two of his disciples wanted supernatural powers to call down fire upon those they didn’t like! And the Teacher himself learned that he could not teach in the conventional religious arenas of the day. His first teaching in a synagogue was such a hit, the listeners tried to throw him off a cliff!

Jesus was awake. He was awake to love, awake to God, awake to his true Being, awake to all. To prove that his teaching wasn’t idle words, he performed miracles, most often of healing, but sometimes simply to show “the glory of God.” Yet when he did, too often people focused on the miracles instead of the message. He tried to explain that miracles were not the point at all, and that even his wonder-working would be exceeded; although he and the Father were one, he said his students would do even greater things (John 14:12).

If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.

—John 14.23

Continually tuning in to God, his Father, his Source, he realized that going to Jerusalem and challenging Religion directly was what he needed to do. And he would definitely be killed for doing so. On his last night with his beloved students, he shared the Passover meal with them, and urged them to not forget him, but remember him in the sacred meal. And above all, to remember and follow his teaching. The teacher is the teaching.

Although condemned by man, he was vindicated by God, and given the power to fulfill his love by being with all who call on him. He meets everyone where they are, yet as a teacher, he calls them to take the next step further. That’s what teachers do.

Teachers, continued

I think I might have created some inadvertent confusion with my last post. I certainly don’t think that everyone who reads this blog should start looking for an enlightened teacher, although there are a few whom I know well enough to think that they might be at that point.

I think someone might be ready for a teacher when not only does learning “about” God no longer satisfies, but “spiritual growth” also no longer satisfies. When you’re sick of the ups and downs of spiritual experience; feeling close to God one day, not feeling there the next, and you must have Something beyond “experiences.” You want God, all of God, everything God has for you, and nothing else will do; you feel you must become enlightened or die. At least, that’s how it was for me…

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Find yourself a teacher!

Every Thursday night, I go to my teacher’s satsang (gathering), with other local members of our sangha. (Most of Kitabu Roshi’s students are scattered around the world.) In recent meetings, I find the connection between him and myself growing stronger, communication clearer, and the “presence” increasing. To put it simply, being with him is probably what being with Jesus was like for the disciples.

A spiritual master, an enlightenment teacher, is a very different kind of instructor than any other. They are not self-help coaches, psychologists, or “spiritual directors.” They’re not interested in your subconscious or your dreams. They are there not to teach you things to “believe in,” to affirm your beliefs, or even to affirm “you.” Rather, they reveal the true You to you, and that means helping you to get your f%$@-ing self out of the way. It takes commitment, courage, perseverance, and humility from the student. Teachers are not always easy to understand, especially at first, and the teacher must stretch you and help you change your mind, to see beyond the appearances of things. And this kind of change is very threatening to the ego, which will resist it, as surely as the sun rises in the morning.

But a true teacher loves you like no one else does… because he or she knows what you really are. A teacher is committed to helping you overcome the barriers. When we saw that the martial approach wasn’t working well for me, Kitabu Roshi encouraged me to come to satsangs, which was exactly what I needed. What is a satsang like? Kitabu’s satsangs have a lot of teaching, then some time for either questions or meditation, followed by socializing and fellowship with delicious food.

There’s a saying in wisdom traditions around the world, that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. This is true. But more people need to become students and get ready. The world needs more people to see past appearances. Now is the time.