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Wisdom personified, the piping of heaven, winter holy days

As this year’s Hanukkah celebration draws to a close and we move towards Winter Solstice, Christmas, and an amazing array of women and goddess-related holy days, it is good to take a look at a second Torah/Old Testament writing that evokes the spirit of the thread of unity we have been following.

While the “I am who am,” of Exodus is a fairly straightforward narrative, this passage from Proverbs is poetic and sounds more Eastern than most of the Bible. Wisdom is personified as a strong woman who was present as the Master Craftsman created the oceans and speaks of the wonders of those times.

The book of Proverbs is considered part of the wisdom literature of the Jewish/Christian scriptures, along with Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. Proverbs are sayings that use similes and comparisons to make a point.

Scholars disagree about exactly when the various parts of the Book of Proverbs were written, but place them somewhere between 900 and 350 BCE, partly overlapping the tail end of the Axial Age..

In Chapter 8 of Proverbs, Wisdom calls all to goodness and remembers her existence before even the oceans were formed. The chapter begins, “Is not Wisdom calling? Is not Understanding raising her voice? On the heights overlooking the road, at the crossways, she takes her stand.”

The chapter goes on to exhort “simpletons” to learn how to behave and “fools” to come to their senses in keeping with much of Proverbs, but then takes a mystical turn into our realm of unity-thinking that is breathtaking.

Proverbs 8:22-31

Yahweh created me when his purpose first unfolded before the oldest of his works.

From everlasting I was firmly set,
from the beginning, before the earth came into being.


The deep was not, when I was born,
there were no springs to gush with water.

Before the mountains were settled,
before the hills, I came to birth
before he made the earth, the countryside,
or the first grains of the world’s dust,

When he fixed the heavens firm, I was there,
when he drew a ring on the surface of the deep,
when he thickened the clouds above,
when he fixed fast the springs of the deep,
when he assigned the sea its boundaries
– and the waters will not invade the shore –
when he laid down the foundations of the Earth,

I was at his side, a master craftsman,
delighting him day after day, ever at play in his presence
at play everywhere in the world,
delighting to be with the sons and daughters of humanity.


A strong argument can be made that this connection of Wisdom, the Creator and Creation speaks of unity. I have read other interpretations that put more emphasis on the separation between the Spirit creator and what was coming forth. While I respect that, I don’t think it is the only possibility.
The lens of nonduality seems to sing through these verses as Wisdom recalls when One Spirit decided to explode and become the physical world we know.

Staying within this time period, one can also hear chords of unity in this writing by our old favorite, Chuang Tzu. Instead of Wisdom and the Master Craftsman, however, this writing use the image of The Great Clod belching out wind that causes the “ten thousand hollows” to begin crying wildly as a description of unity.

To me, with respect to Teilhard de Chardin, the Cosmic Christ can be seen just as clearly in Taoism’s description of the crying of the hollows as in the Judeo-Christian depiction of wisdom. The following is a conversation between two men, one”leaning on his armrest, staring up at the sky and breathing – vacant and far away,”  and the other “standing by his side in attendance.” Conversations are a typical technique in Chuang Tzu’s writings.

The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu.
Chapter Two

Tzu-ch’i said: “…You hear the piping of men, but you haven’t heard the piping of earth. Or if you have heard the piping of earth, you haven’t heard the piping of heaven.

Tzu-yu said, “May I venture to ask what this means?”

Tzu-ch’i said: “The Great Clod belches out breath and its name is wind. So long as it doesn’t come forth, nothing happens. But when it does, then ten thousand hollows begin crying wildly.

“Can’t you hear them, long drawn out? In the mountain forests that lash and sway, there are huge trees a hundred spans around with hollows and openings like noses, like mouths, like ears, like jugs, like cups, like mortars, like rifts, like ruts.

“They roar like waves, whistle like arrows, screech, gasp, cry, wail, moan and howl, those in the lead calling out yeeee!, those behind calling out yuuu!”

“In a gentle breeze they answer faintly, but in a full gale the chorus is gigantic. And when the fierce wind has passed on, then all the hollows are empty again. Have you never seen the tossing and trembling that goes on?”

Tzu-yu said, “By the piping of earth, then, you mean simply [the sound of] these hollows. And by the piping of man [the sound of] flutes and whistles. But may I ask about the piping of heaven?

Tzu-ch’i said: “Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself – all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?

Who, indeed, does the sounding? Who is Wisdom? What is the Tao? Whence cometh the Cosmic Christ?

In a footnote to this section, translator Burton Watson explains that “heaven” “is “not something distinct from earth and man, but a name applied to the natural and spontaneous functioning of the two.”

So the spiritual realm and the physical realm are intertwined and function as one.

Amen to that!

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Beginningless beginnings in 350 BCE and the 20th Century – Chuang Tzu and Thomas Merton

Western society and its religions have traditionally fallen on the dualistic end of the philosophical spectrum. Good is good and bad is bad. Good is rewarded and bad is punished. God is all powerful and up in the heavens – transcendent. We are sinners way down here, and going to hell if we aren’t careful. Or if we don’t belong to the “right” religion.
NonSequitur10-31WrongChurch

Non Sequitur 10/29/09

Eastern religions have been more non-dualistic. There is yin in yang and good in bad. The spirit inside a person, Atman, and the spirit of the universe, Brahman, are the same. Spirit is immanent – in all things. The three religions of China – Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism – often meld the strengths of each and find a way to all get along.

For this and other reasons, there were few Western writings on the unity of Spirit and Creation until quite recently. Even the European mystics were trying to close the gap between themselves and God rather than believing there wasn’t a gap.

But then the tenor of late 1800s began opening some doors, in part because travel made contact between East and West easier. The first Hindu to set foot in the West came as a visitor to the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893.

Yin-Yang-Harmony-By the late 1930s, French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin was writing a stunningly non-dualistic vision of the Cosmic Christ, but on orders from the Vatican the controversial treatise wasn’t published until  the 1950s, when The Phenomenon of Man came out in French and English. It was discussed in some progressive Catholic colleges by the 1960s, although with the caveat that some Church officials felt his views bordered on pantheism, a no-no.

Since the mid-20th Century, Buddhism has taken root in the West; Hindus have grown to more than a million in the U.S. and practices such as yoga, tai chi and qi gong have introduced everyday people to Eastern concepts.

At the same time, changes in secular society in the West have created an atmosphere in which the unity of God and Creation could be seriously considered. Even the new physics and the interconnectiveness of the internet have given us a new way to look at reality.

In essence, if one’s entire philosophy and world view is built on dichotomy, a separate, remote God makes the most sense. When the focus is more on interconnections, the Vedic Upanishads’ sparks flying from the same fire can become part of our belief system again.

As I searched for writings for In the Same Breath, a few examples from the earliest times and today were particularly striking. In perhaps the most interconnected, a 20th century Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, studied the writings of one of the founders of Taoism, Chuang Tzu, and  wrote personal versions of his favorites. Merton was part of a group of Christian, Buddhist and Hindu monks who studied and prayed together as part of an ongoing inter-monastic dialogue.

chuang-tzu_1Chuang Tzu lived between 370 and 301 BCE. His writing is mind-bending and often shot-through with surprising humor. One of his writings in The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu is responsible for the domain name of the blog – beginningless.  Merton’s version is in his 1965 book, The Way of Chuang Tzu. Merton died in 1968 while traveling in Asia.

Chuang Tzu

There is a beginning. There is not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be nonbeing.

Suddenly there is nonbeing. But I do not know, when it comes to nonbeing, which is really being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.

There is nothing in the world bigger than the tip of an autumn hair, and Mount T’ai is tiny. No one has lived longer than a dead child, and P’eng-tsu died young.

Heaven and earth were born at the same time I was, and the ten thousand things are one with me.

Chuang’s words sound to modern ears almost like a Zen koan to tease the mind into reflecting on the mystery of this unity on a deeper level than rational thought. One has to let the words seep into one’s bones over several re-readings to begin to comprehend. That’s the fun of it. This brilliant gibberish, this impenetrable clarity, is early Taoism’s way of describing the unity of spirit and creation.

Thomas Merton

In the Beginning of Beginnings was Void of  Void, the Nameless.

mertonballcapSM

© the Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

And in the Nameless was the One, without body, without form.
This One, this Being in whom all find power to exist  –
Is the Living.
From the Living, comes the Formless, the Undivided.
From the act of this Formless, come the Existents, each according
To its inner principle. This is Form. Here body embraces and cherishes spirit.
The two work together as one, blending and manifesting their Characters. And this is Nature.


But he who obeys Nature returns through Form and Formless to the Living.
And in the Living
Joins the unbegun Beginning.
The joining is Sameness. The sameness is Void. The Void is infinite.
The bird opens its beak and sings its note
And then the beak comes together again in Silence.
So Nature and the Living meet together in Void.
Like the closing of the bird’s beak
After its song.
Heaven and earth come together in the Unbegun,
And all is foolishness, all is unknown, all is like
The lights of an idiot, all is without mind!
To obey is to close the beak and fall into Unbeginning.

When next we meet: Taking a closer look at 600 to 300 BCE and all those beginningless beginnings!

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Writings on Unity of Spirit and Creation ebb, flow and spiral back from 600 BCE to today

The ebb and flow of writings since ancient times on the unity of Spirit and Creation show remarkable patterns. The most interesting is the spiral that takes us from the beginning in 600 BCE, through ups and downs, fertile flowerings and bleak deserts, to the 20th and 21st Centuries, when the writings flourish again and are more like the earliest ones than any that came between.

Some say we are in the new “Axial Age” of spiritual discoveries, but this time with everyday people making those discoveries and tying them to everything from popular music to the new physics to the interconnectedness of the Internet.

We will spend time in future posts filling in the details of the ups and downs and the spiral that is still going strong, but first it’s helpful to pull some examples from each of the the five most fruitful periods of time. This is how I broke them up in writing In the Same Breath, with illustrations by Christine Tobias. If you have other historical categories or favorite writings, I’d love to hear about them.

TaoTeChing

- Christine Tobias

There are are 52 writings in Same Breath, one for each week; here are some from each of the five time periods.

Beginningless Beginnings – 600 to 300 BCE

There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Solitary. Unchanging.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, trans. Stephen Mitchell, about 500 BCE

Bread, Wine and a Billion Arms – 200 BCE to 200 CE

In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning,
Through him all things came to be,
Not one thing had its being but through him.

John 1:1–5, The Jerusalem Bible, about 100 CE

Mystical Aha! Moments – 850 to 1600

I gazed upon [al-Lah] with the eye of truth and said to Him: “Who is this?”
He said, “This is neither I nor other than I. There is no God but I.”
Then he changed me out of my identity into His Selfhood…
Then I communed with Him with the tongue of His Face, saying:
“How fared it with me with Thee?” He said, “I am through Thee, there is no god but Thou.”

Abu Yazid Bistami, Sufi mystic, 804- 874

A Spiral Back to Flying Sparks – 1900 to 1999

When we enter the unknown
of our houses,
go inside the given up dark
and sheltering walls alone
and turn out the lamps
we fall bone to bone in bed.

Neighbors, the old woman who knows you
turns over in me
and I wake up
in another country. There’s no more
north and south.
Asleep, we pass through one another
like blowing snow,
all of us,
all.

“Our Houses,” from Seeing Through the Sun, 1985, by Linda Hogan,
Native American poet and author

There is no such thing as seeking God, for there is nothing in which He could not be found.

Martin Buber, Jewish philosopher, 1878 – 1965

Seeking Eden in the Chaos – 1999 – today

I believe that the Messiah is not a person, outside of us, but is a noble state of mind possible in each and every one of us, a state of mind which must be attained, too often through pain.

Storm of Terror, by June Leavitt, 2002

What was going on during all this time?

Here’s the capsule version – many more details to come in future posts.

First there was a flurry of juicy, prolific writing in all parts of the inhabited world, stretching almost nonstop for more than a millennium starting in 600 BCE.

Then wars and invasions in Europe made sheer survival take precedence over spiritual growth, at least in the West, for 600 years until the emergence of Christian, Jewish and Sufi mystics in the 9th Century. The thread was more subdued this time, especially among Christian mystics. Eden had been lost. Those in exile were now unable to completely embrace the unity that was once so natural. Even so, a few were determined to try to reach the God who had once walked by humanity’s side, but had now been exiled by the theologians to the heavens.

After a mere 600 years, however, the mysticism that flowered in Christianity was stopped in its tracks by the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counter-Reformation, neither of which had any tolerance for mystical experiences or talk of other than a transcendent, separate God. The Enlightenment, for all its wonderful exploration of science and

Alien

- Christine Tobias

rational behavior, was also inhospitable soil for mysticism.  Kabbalah, however, kept the mystical thread going in Judaism, as did Sufism in Islam.

Meanwhile, the Eastern religions of Taoism and Hinduism were well into their 26th century of seeing Spirit and Creation as One; Buddhism had held up a mirror to the illusion of reality and Eastern Orthodox Christianity had found a way to continue to accept and even nourish mysticism.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th to the 20th Century, however, that writing of this unity began to appear again broadly in the West, often influenced by Eastern thought, but also at times quite home-grown.

We’ll explore how this came to be and take a look at Thomas Merton‘s 20th century rendition of the 300 BCE writings of Chuang Tzu, for whom this blog is named, when next we meet.

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