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Mystery and darkness, profound and subtle – Tao and Cloud of Unknowing?

After reading the most recent post here, Richard over at Buddhism Now sent me a piece of Zen Grafffiti that he said he thought I’d like.

We are all contemporaries of beginningless time, yet we run in fear of
death.

What a great way to express so many concepts in so few words. I’m taking the “we” to extend in all directions in time and space and the “beginningless time” to be one of those bare statements, seeming to be an oxymoron but not, that pushes our levels of thinking even deeper into nondualistic ground..

I’m tempted to jump ahead to some “ground of being” readings and comparisons between Medieval mysticism and the new physics that would fit well with this quote, but I will restrain myself. Best we become a little more grounded first in the thoughts of these epoch-changing years from 600 to 300 BCE.

Since Zen, many say, fuses many concepts of Taoism with Buddhism, perhaps Richard’s gift of that Zen graffiti can be an introduction to more of the Buddhist and Taoist writings of that time

Here are two that I chose for In the Same Breathboth seminal works in their own traditions.

Tao Te Ching – Stephen Mitchell, trans.

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

In reading this first of 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching, of the one question that comes to my mind is, “What is this darkness and how can it be the gateway to understanding?”

It is often helpful when reading English translations of poetic writing from a different time and culture to look at other translations to see if the meaning becomes clear by seeing how severl people have expressed something.

The Tao Te Ching has been translated in to many languages and someone has taken the time to post the names of translators in 26 languages, including 112 in English, with links to their translations. Here are the final paragraphs of Chapter One from two of them.

Tao Te Ching – D.C. Lau

These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery.

Tao Te Ching – Hua Ching Ni

Nothingness and Beingness and other conceptual activity of the mind all come from the same indescribable subtle Originalness.
The Way is the unfoldment of such subtle reality.
Having reached the subtlety of the universe,
one may see the ultimate subtlety,
the Gate of All Wonders.

Tao Te Ching – Bram den Hond

These two spring from the same source.
They have different names; yet they are called the same.
That which is even more profound than the profound
The gateway to all mystery.

Darkness, mystery, subtle, profound.

Four ways of describing where one must go to attempt to understand that which is not able to be understood.

And perhaps – to do what we said we weren’t going to do yet and jump ahead to writings of the Medieval mystics – these are also the same methods necessary to begin to “beat against the Cloud of Unknowing” described by an anonymous Christian European mystic of 1375 in a slim book of instructions to new monks.

But to understand how the mystical, spiritual landscape of the 14th Century was formed in Europe, we have many more paths to travel.

A closer look at Buddhism during the Axial Age when next we meet.
– Thanks to Christine Tobias for the new art on top, one of many from “In the Same Breath.”


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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.
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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.

gswimg at earthlink dot net


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Today’s version of ancient epiphany of Brahman = Atman: Ducks, water, kids, trees = Spirit/God

Where does the name God Swimming in God come from?

And might it not be slightly blasphemous?

Best get both questions out there right away. The name comes from the mental picture that I had when I first began to get an inkling of the concept of the unity of Spirit and Creation.

The question of whether it is an apt description of reality or an offensive statement depends on one’s belief system and perspective. Perhaps we can all work that out together as time goes on.

First, the origin.

In the 1990s, I had a habit each Lent of confining my reading to books with a spiritual theme, often dealing with meditation or the connections between religions. During the Lent of 1995, my reading included The Journey Inwards by F. C. Happold and Universal Wisdom by Bede Griffiths. I was amazed by Griffiths’ description of the Axial Age and his selections of early writings about this unity. Happold’s book provided a glimpse into how one might live in that unity rather than just read about it.

Lent was over, Easter came, but I just kept looking for more and more scriptures and writings on this theme.

After about a year of this focused reading, I experienced what  many had come to call an “aha” moment. Up until then, I was fascinated by the whole unity concept and thought that it “made sense,” but hadn’t gone far beyond that.

It was late afternoon in Springfield, Illinois, and I was on a business trip, covering the state legislature for the Chicago Tribune. I had ridden my bicycle from the motel where I was staying to a park with a stream. The sun was beginning its way down to the horizon, and was creating beautiful sparkles on the water. I was sitting on the grass, leaning up against a tree, just enjoying the breeze, the sounds of children running around and the sight of the ducks, swimming and bobbing their heads down into the water to drink.

I wasn’t trying to meditate. I was just open. And it hit me. This is all God. The water is God and the ducks are God and the air is God and all these people are God. There is nothing but God. Yet in some mysterious way, we are all also individuals.

This is what I wrote about it at the time.

April 23, 1996

Sitting at the edge of the brook that goes through Washington Park in Springfield, Ill., looking at an incredible tree in the late afternoon sun, surrounded by ducks, water, grass, people, dogs.

It was so bright, it was sort of surreal. And then one of those “Aha!” moments happened. What people have started to call an epiphany. When an understanding, a way of seeing things, happens all at once, that you weren’t expecting. And you know you’ve turned a corner and will never go back to seeing things the way you saw them before.

The crashing-through-my-head thought was: All of this is God! Not just God is in all of it or it is all in God.

It IS God. God IS it.

It’s like the commercial of Michael Jordan running on his own head. We are God, walking on God; the duck is God, swimming in God, the crows and cardinals are God, flying in God.

Life is springing forth from God and is God.

This is not pantheism. There is a Bede Griffith scripture citation, in the Upanishads, that said it so clearly and beautifully–the mystery is that we are unique, separate individuals, while all being God.

Even the duck is God swimming in and drinking God — and I am God watching God swim in and drink God, yet the duck is a duck, the water is water and I am a self-aware, conscious human being.

This is the mystery Christ was trying to show in the Eucharist.
This is my Body. This is my Blood.

I’m somewhat overwhelmed by the beauty of all this. How do I dance the mysticism into words to explain the insights? How do I harvest the experiences and put them into words to explain the journey?

For the next ten years, I worked to find a way to take what I felt in my bones and get it into my mind, or at least my fingers, so the concepts could be written and shared. That involved searching writings over the past 2,600 years, trying to follow the thread of the unity of Spirit and Creation. One of the surprises was that it ebbed and flowed throughout history and that the 20th and 21st Centuries saw an incredble upswing.

Half way through that journey I began collaborating with a fantastic artist, Christine Tobias, who took those writings and brought them to life with color and images, sensitivity and spiritual wisdom. From the Upanishads to 21st Century secular writing, we traced the thread and the result was In the Same Breath.

Here we are now, in the 2009 land of blogs and tweets, friends and follows, wuffie and the cloud, and it’s time to expand the reach of the physical book and invite more people to continue weaving the thread. Hence, the God Swimming in God blog.

During those ten years, I also sent a 275-word section of my journal, written in 1997 after my mother died, to my sister-in-law Jane Gaunt, also an artist, and we began working on a book that explores the theme in another way, One Spirit: A Creation Story for the 21st Century.

More on that journey when next we meet.
gswimg at earthlink dot net