One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Case 32: A Philosopher Asks Buddha

Stepping out from under the shadow of God


The case

A philosopher asked Buddha:

"Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?"


The Buddha kept silence.


The philosopher bowed and thanked the Buddha, saying: "With your loving kindness I have cleared away my delusions and entered the true path."


After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked the Buddha what he had attained.


The Buddha replied, "A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip."


Mumon's Comment


Ananda was the Buddha's disciple, but his understanding was not equal to that of the non-Buddhist. I want to ask you, what difference is there between the Buddha's disciple and the non-Buddhist?


Mumon's Verse 


On the edge of a sword,

Over the ridge of an iceberg,

With no steps, no ladders,

Climbing the cliffs without hands.


___________

A friend asked, “If convert Western Buddhists just set up a competing cult, what’s the value in that?’ Then, because it was a rhetorical question, he answered himself, “The West doesn’t need another religion.” My first impulse was to agree, but when I realized that the koan was about asking questions, that put every answer into a new perspective. I believe some of the answers to my own questions; others I rebel against; some cannot be answered.


Although we cannot identify with certainty the “philosopher”—sometimes it’s rendered, “the pagan” and one teacher even calls him a “Hindu”—this much is clear, the Buddha’s questioner is not a member of the sangha or a lay follower. Hindus, philosophical atheists, pagans, Unitarians, even Jesuits, people who may not even be interested in learning about the Buddhist Path, I have many friends in all those categories.


When I first heard this koan, I took it as validation of my strongly held opinion that no one, not even Buddhists, should try to convert anyone. Who am I to convert anyone? I have a hard enough time with myself. And as the Lord Buddha himself didn’t have anything to say, it was further proof that I was on the right side, or if I were a betting man à la manière de Blaise Pascal,* that I’d picked the right pony.


The Buddha kept silent. For a meditator this is an invitation for introspection and not a confirmation of some rule not to proselytize. But the Buddha also did not pass over the philosopher’s question in silence. What if I began to examine my own questions to see how much they were merely a reaction to the unspoken admonitions of my training both as a Jesuit and an ordinary human? 


I entered the Jesuits just after Jean-Baptiste Janssens’ tenure as Father General. His letters to the brethren were filled with more admonitions than Saint Paul. He began sentences with the Latin heads up, “Taceo--I pass over in silence reports that many Jesuits are smoking,” which was in no uncertain terms an order: “stop smoking.” 


Father Janssens was a remarkable man, the recipient of the title, “Righteous among the nations” for his courageous act of hiding a large group of Jewish children in the Provincial's residence in Brussels, and he was not known for a lax interpretation of Jesuit discipline. Needless to say, examining the restrictive Jesuit norms brought a great sense of freedom, almost as much as rebelling against them. But even Buddhists agree that behavioural norms can promote liberation. 


And now to another type of question. During our last meeting Avery Dulles said to me: “I hear that Buddhists haven’t settled the God question.” Of course he knew the answer—most Buddhism is non-theistic; it does not entertain the question of divinity, neither affirming nor denying a supreme deity, certainly not in the same way that Christians do. In the realm of dogmatic theology these kinds of statements about the nature of divinity are the coin of the realm, and for Avery the existence of a godhead, a personal deity, was central. 


Avery was the renowned, learned Jesuit whom, when he was 82 years old, Pope John Paul II named a Cardinal of the Roman Church, a very high honor indeed and validation of his theological work. He had also been my spiritual director during my theology days, and remained my friend for more than 30 years after I left religious life. Despite all the demands on his time, he never visited San Francisco without calling and inviting me to dinner. 


But that afternoon, despite our friendship, or perhaps because of that bond, I felt as though Avery was trying to pry out an answer that would undermine my Buddhist “beliefs.” His tone was friendly and loving, not disapproving or forceful. He may have been trying to push me towards a more traditional faith, but I couldn’t respond of course I still believed in God, because honestly I was leaning more towards the agnostic end of the spectrum, an answer that would surely have disappointed him. My love for the man overrode any other considerations. Again, we’re back to questions and answers. 


Avery however was a Jesuit through and through, and I might have countered his proposition with an invitation to inquiry, but I didn’t have the skill to turn a rhetorical or speculative question into an opening for spiritual discovery. I didn’t know how my friend would take it, perhaps almost as blasphemy although my real fear was that he would have just made fun of the question—and me.


We might have waded into the tricky currents of sweeping, generalized truth statements that leave one floundering on rocky shores, or to return to my original thoughts about placing my bet on the right ponny, the kind of restrictive notions about God that Jesuits liked to argue about with M. Blaise Pascal and the Jansenists.


Working with the koan opened up that opportunity again.


Avery had framed his statement as a tautology. In logic it’s known as the excluded middle: the law (or principle) of the excluded third, principium tertii exclusi. Another Latin designation for this law is tertium non datur: "no third [possibility] is given." Ludwig Wittgenstein says this constitutes a statement empty of meaning.  


Framing the question as Avery did cuts off the possibility of even seeing or imagining anything but God-or-no-god. Despite what’s almost universal acceptance of monotheism at this point in time, it is simply one formulation that won the cultural and political “god” debate. It wiped out a huge range of numenistic experience, or reduced it to a series of distinctions within the “God, Yes or No” conversation, turning monotheism into a kind of shibboleth* that separates believers and excludes atheists and materialists.


The questioner (my questioner) couldn’t force the Buddha to either take that position into account or exclude him or herself from the Way. That would be simply asking a question looking for a wrong answer. Our philosopher doesn’t misstep.


There is an old adage in spiritual life that there are no bad questions. Frankly in my view this is little more than just trying to ease any inhibition from asking whatever questions might pop up. Given no picking and choosing, bad questions do not exist, but in the realm of good questions, there are better or more ‘useful’ questions when we are seeking to clear our path.


I’ve always felt the empathy, compassion and acknowledgment in this story. I am a former Jesuit, and to be clear, I left the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church. However it is impossible for me to change that part of my training, no matter how much I find myself outside the tradition. For me the practice of meditation has been more like stepping out of the shadow of God. There are innumerable spiritual possibilities hidden in between dogmatic statements, mixed in with syncretism and heresy. They exist in a kind of shadow world that is a rich vein for exploration. Maybe Jesus wasn’t bodily resurrected from the dead, but the myth still opens a window into the human psyche. I can happily remain agnostic and explore that possibility.


After the philosopher leaves, Ananda asks the Buddha what the philosopher had attained. Poor Ananda. He missed the opportunity to ask someone who might have pointed him towards a useful answer. If he’d asked the philosopher, for example, how meditation had changed his worldview, we’d be in practice territory.


So Ananda just gets to wrestle with a puzzling shadow. Perhaps that was a gift. 


I know I need balance. If not, I get lost in a long theological rant and call it spiritual practice. Sitting quiets my mind just enough so that I can hear other voices besides my own. The rants calm down. Hearing and listening, however, are just the first steps towards understanding, and ultimately compassion. I encourage anyone, no matter what beliefs they cherish, to practice meditation with their whole heart. 


There are several “philosophers” who have attained fluency in Zen practice, Christians, Jesuits, other Catholic religious, a Unitarian minister, and one UCC minister, a friend, who have followed this path and become teachers in the koan tradition. I won’t even try to predict where their practice will take them or their students, but may their practice help relieve suffering and free all beings.


Father Ignatius would have approved of the Buddha's “shadow of the whip” answer. I think that it might point to the heart of the Jesuit-Zen connection. Go ahead ask the question of your own self: "Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?"


I have translated Wittengenstein’s answer into Latin.


De quibus loqui non possumus, nobis tacendum est.

[About what we cannot speak, we have to remain silent. Or

What we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence.]


I will let the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins cap this conversation (from The Habit of Perfection):


Elected Silence, sing to me

And beat upon my whorlèd ear,

Pipe me to pastures still and be

The music that I care to hear.


Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:

It is the shut, the curfew sent

From there where all surrenders come

Which only makes you eloquent.



Avery died on
12 December 2008; I was told that among the few personal items he carried with him when he went into hospice care was the image of a painting I did when we lived together in New York. Your friendship was a precious gift. Thank you.















___________


Because this has become a Jesuit koan, footnotes are mandatory (and jokes are also helpful). 


*Shibboleth comes from the Hebrew for “ear of corn.” In the Book of Judges we learn that the Isrealites used it as a password because it was difficult for foreigners to pronounce. Mispronunciation didn’t just exclude. It marked them for death.


*Here is Pascal’s bet. 

“If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is....

..."God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. "No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all."

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

"That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much." Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.[12]




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