Fiction and Fantasy Feed Humanity

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Avatar adds new thread to growing tapestry of cosmic unity, spurs discussion of pantheism

Has Avatar added  a new thread to the unfolding tapestry of understanding the unity of the universe? Does it’s “Aha! Moment” measure up to true nonduality? Does it speak of the unity of Spirit and Creation as Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton, the author of the Proverbs and Meister Eckhart have?

Let’s take a look.

Atavar lasts two hours and 40 minutes, can be seen in breath-taking 3-D and is showing on nearly 23,000 screens worldwide.

It tells the story of an interconnected universe in which people, plants, animals and a Mother God, Eywa, form a unified, dynamic network of life.
Not surprisingly, it has been attacked for being pantheistic. Those attacks, in turn,  have triggered responses that point out the value in its view of a dynamic, biologically networked world.

One of the first and most often quoted attacks came from conservative columnist Ross Douthat, one of the New York Times Op-Ed writers who generally is on the other side of the more liberal official voice of the Times.

Douthat called Avatar director James Cameron’s “long apologia for pantheism,” and ends his column by stating that if, at the end of life, “there is no escape upward” to a transcendent God, we are in an “agonized position” and our human lives are “deeply tragic.” Pantheism, Douthat says, is “a downward exit,” that leaves us with nothing but “dust and ashes.”

Quite soon after I read that in the actual paper New York Times with my breakfast coffee at a wooden kitchen table, I wrote a Letter to the Editor, pointing out a third way of looking at reality and spirituality. It was, of course, along the lines of what we have been discussing here.

The NYT didn’t print it, but I was thrilled to see that the letters they did print in response to the column echoed many of my thoughts and that some were written by religious leaders or professors of religion.

Here’s what I said:

Let me suggest that there is a third way to avoid the “agonized position” Douthat describes.

If one believes, as many have through the ages, that Spirit and Creation are One, then one doesn’t have to chose between escaping to God or turning to dust with Nature. The unity has already happened and will continue during whatever comes after the body dies.

That thought sings through the Tao Te Ching, the Upanishads, Alice Walker, Teilhard de Chardin and Meister Eckhart’s writings, and some parts of the Bible. Ponder the possible implications of unity in Exodus, 3:14, “I am who am,” and Matthew 26:26, 28 “This is my body…this is my blood.”
Martin Buber said it well: “There is no such thing as seeking God, for there is nothing in which He could not be found.”

Here are a few of the printed letters.

Ross Douthat gives us only two choices: the upward heavenly route or the downward earthly one. The latter, he says, results in the despair of atheism. This is much too dire.

Traditional religions teach the presence of God in all creation, an indwelling of the Holy Spirit in matter. Although we are all agnostics (in the sense of not knowing) about afterlife, it may be that nature mysticism is a prelude to something else. Why discard that possibility?

Eugene C. Bianchi
Athens, Ga., Dec. 21, 2009
The writer is professor emeritus of religion at Emory University.


Ross Douthat’s column treats pantheism with straw-man condescension. It is simply not true that there is no demanding Almighty in pantheistic religions. In Hinduism — my religion and probably the oldest surviving religion with a pantheistic element — stories abound of divine exhortations and actions against evil.

Nor is it true that there is no escape except downward into ashes. The laws of karma and reincarnation are deeply moral constructs that specify a cosmic calculus matching each human action to a just reward or punishment, always fair, yet always allowing second chances to achieve Moksha, our interpretation of salvation.

These beliefs are nonverifiable scientifically — no more or less so than Mr. Douthat’s own, I might add — but it is a mistake not to discuss them when making claims about pantheism’s theological implications.

Raman Khanna
San Francisco, Dec. 21, 2009

The writer is a member of the Hindu American Foundation Working Group.


Ross Douthat is right to say that the ”circle of life” in Disney’s ”Lion King” and the Force of George Lucas’s ”Star Wars” represent a recent trend in American religion. For years, I have argued for the same point.

But the alternative to biblical monotheism is not pantheism or a religion of nature, as Mr. Douthat asserts, but a more sophisticated attitude.

Today, Americans accept many manifestations of God, from Ganesha of the Hindus to Sky Woman of the Iroquois, as equally valid. They seek a sacred power that is also immanent in nature, but not limited to the natural world of death and evolution.

The emergent sense of God in America is neither monotheistic or pantheistic, but transtheistic. It is an attitude that last appeared in the West among Romans of the time of Jesus, but that has been common among philosophical Hindus and Buddhists for many centuries.

Peter Gardella
Purchase, N.Y., Dec. 21, 2009
The writer is a professor of world religions at Manhattanville College.

I would like to know more about Gardella’s meaning in using the term. “transtheistic,” since it is new to me and what I find online isn’t very satisfying. Let me throw out another one, however, which I think fits our analysis of where Avatar fits in our thread of unity of Spirit and Creation.

Rather than pantheistic, I see Avatar as a good example of the slightly but significantly different term, panenthesism, which allows for the mystery of both immanence and transcendency to occur.

Traidtional  critics of pantheism, including Teilhard de Chardin, say it makes nature and God identical – God is everything and everything is God. Panentheism is a concept from the Upanishads that was made popular in the 20th Century by creation theologians.

The late Wayne Teasdale, a student of Bede Griffiths who was involved in the study of science and religions and in the dialogue between Catholic and Buddhist monks before his death in 2004, explained the dfference between the two this way in The Mystic Heart.

[In pantheism,] God is exhausted in his immanence in the universe…[and is] not able to sustain transcendence… [In panenetheism,] everything – the universe, nature, the earth or life – is within God, in the consciousness of the divine or the divine mind.

In other words, God is everything, but not every individual thing is God.

Does the world of Avatar fit that description? I think so. Please let me know in your comments what you think.

For more about the controversy surrounding Avatar and its possible effect on people’s behavior, please see CyberINKonline’s other blog, CyberINKonline.


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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!


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.

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.


© 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!

gswimg at eartlhlink dot net