Category Archives: language

To awaken is to love

To awaken is to love, and in that love the tiresome need to put up and defend our views and opinions dissolves, and right there is an insight into things that nothing else compares with. We have to discover through personal experience how that insight, our faith and our intelligence all interrelate. For me, words and the effort to give expression to the truth continue to be of profound necessity in training. To awaken and not give expression to that awakening would be a contradiction. The struggle to find the words and the struggle to find the form our lives must take are the same struggle. I find it important to recognize that the way we represent training and enlightenment to ourselves and to others is influenced by our own existential needs. Those needs can give rise to many mistakes, yet if we engage them intimately, they impart a resonance of authenticity. How we represent the truth to ourselves and to others needs to be examined with sympathy, care and intellectual rigour. To me, this is part of what it means to cleanse the heart.

Daishin Morgan, Buddha Recognizes Buddha

I have often wondered how my instinct to put things into words might fit with the journey of awakening. I have not often had the opportunity directly to teach what I have found, nor am I a member of any institution within which publishing might be a normal and indispensable part of my life and work. So I have drifted, I suppose, into blogging. Small though my audience might be – oddly enough, it was much larger when I was blogging in a Christian context – at least I am making some effort perhaps “to give expression to the truth”.

As I have found myself increasingly at variance with institutional religion, Christian, Buddhist or whatever, and increasingly sceptical of its value either in the life of the spirit or in the life of society, so my naturally eremitical inclinations seem to have strengthened – dramatically so since the enforced isolation in which so many of us found ourselves during the earlier months of the recent pandemic. The opportunity for online fellowship and collegiality of one kind or another changes our expectations of community and communication almost daily.

Almost as an aside, I have to say how profoundly grateful I have been to Sam Harris’ Waking Up course, both as a tool for learning and exploration, and as a wholly open community of practice. I came to the course through reading Harris’ book Waking Up, having had no idea that such a thing existed, and discovered right from the introductory course that I had discovered exactly the non-religious, intellectually honest and ethically sound path I needed once I had laid down my Christian contemplative practice. Without some such place to hitch the wagon of my nascent practice of open awareness, I might have found it much more difficult to avoid losing the thread altogether, or else attaching myself to a some avowedly religious community merely in order to keep some structure in my spiritual life.

Harris’ approach, which can best be summed up in his own words (quoted here before), was exactly what I needed at that time:

Spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary. And the conventional opposition between humility and hubris has no place here. Yes, the cosmos is vast and appears indifferent to our mortal schemes, but every present moment of consciousness is profound. In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life.

Sam Harris, Waking Up, p.206

The explorations I have chronicled here and in my other blogs will go on, of course – probably as long as I do – but at times it is hard to know quite what to write. Any attempt I make at direct description of spiritual experience is almost bound to descend into hyperbole or bathos, and to try and describe life in the light of awakening would probably end up more like poetry than anything else. Maybe the value of a blog like this then is merely to carry on trying to communicate a few insights from the path of practice itself: glimpses, perhaps, from some imagined railway.

Faith and watching

In an extract published in Tricycle Magazine, from his 1998 book Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor writes:

THE FORCE OF THE TERM “agnosticism” has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say “I don’t know,” when you really mean “I don’t want to know.” When allied (and confused) with atheism, it has become part of the attitude that legitimizes an indulgent consumerism and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media.

For T H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through “the rigorous application of a single principle.” He expressed this principle positively as “Follow your reason as far as it will take you,” and negatively as “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This principle runs through the Western tradition: from Socrates, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the axioms of modem science. Huxley called it “the agnostic faith.”

First and foremost the Buddha taught a method (“dharma practice“) rather than another “-ism.” The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable. Dharma practice has become a creed (“Buddhism”) much in the same way scientific method has degraded into the creed of “Scientism.”

Just as contemporary agnosticism has tended to lose its confidence and lapse into skepticism, so Buddhism has tended to lose its critical edge and lapse into religiosity. What each has lost, however, the other may be able to help restore. In encountering contemporary culture, the dharma may recover its agnostic imperative, while secular agnosticism may recover its soul. An agnostic Buddhist would not regard the dharma as a source of “answers” to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, etc. An agnostic Buddhist is not a “believer” with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and in this sense is not “religious.”

But in order to practice, whatever method one follows, one must have faith: faith that something is possible, whether one calls it enlightenment, encounter with God, minding the Light, or something else. From within the Sōtō Zen tradition, Daishin Morgan writes:

Zazen is not an absence of thought, feeling, perception and volition, it is awakening to their emptiness. The same is true of purpose and the path. Some of the best advice is never to believe that you were lost in the first place, and never hesitate to do that which you know to be needed.

To awaken is to love, and in that love the tiresome need to put up and defend our views and opinions dissolves, and right there is an insight into things that nothing else compares with. We have to discover through personal experience how that insight, our faith and our intelligence all interrelate. For me, words and the effort to give expression to the truth continue to be of profound necessity in training. To awaken and not give expression to that awakening would be a contradiction. The struggle to find the words and the struggle to find the form our lives must take are the same struggle.

Morgan, Daishin. Buddha Recognizes Buddha . Throssel Hole Press. Kindle Edition.

Faith and language may be more closely related than we know. But in love, as Morgan points out, much of the difficulty does not so much resolve as dissolve. Quakerism is sometimes described as an “experimental faith”. Daishin Morgan’s words, “We have to discover through personal experience how… insight, our faith and our intelligence all interrelate” could almost be a restatement of that. It is the wholeness of love that contains all things.

Names for things

I continue to be haunted by the question of language and tradition. There are untold depths within any religious tradition, and within each there is a contemplative core, often unrecognised by most followers of a religion, and all too often opposed by its hierarchy.

There are great practical similarities between practices like Centering Prayer, Sōtō Zen meditation, vipassana and others, but they are set within very different traditions. For those of us in the West in the 21st century it is often very difficult to read even modern texts in English whose conceptual bases are as different as 14th century English monasticism (Centering Prayer draws much of its inspiration from The Cloud of Unknowing), 13th century Japan, or the Pali of the 3rd century BCE. Christian mysticism as a whole is rooted in the Bible, mostly in the New Testament Greek of 1st century Palestine and the surrounding territories.

Within each tradition there are living communities of contemplative practice, and many who have felt the call to a life of prayer and contemplation have left their homes, and sometimes their countries in search of this continuity. At times they have learned another language or languages, and taken on an entire culture different to the one in which they were born. But is such an upheaval necessary, or even advisable?

If nothing else, the current pandemic has show to many of us that our inner lives are far more independent of a physical community of faith than we had thought, and for those of us who are part of a religious tradition involving a regular physical rite such as the Eucharist, even to some degree independent of the priestly administration of such a rite. But a spirituality stripped of all tradition and history can seem barren and artificial, just as assuming the mantle of a tradition rooted in another culture can seem alien and uncomfortable.

Certainty is of course a poor fit for the contemplative life, and it may be that there is still a long way to go before a comfortable home is found for contemplative practice in these days; in any case, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is still in the very recent past.

To change people’s consciousness, we have to find a way to reach their unconscious. That’s where our hearts and our real agendas lie, where our mother wounds, father wounds, and cultural wounds reside. The unconscious is where it all lies stored, and this determines a great deal of what we pay attention to and what we ignore. While it took modern therapy and psychology for us to recognize how true this was, through apocalyptic literature, the Scripture writers were already there. We can’t get to the unconscious logically, literally, or mechanically. We have to fall into it, I’m sorry to say, and usually by suffering, paradox and the effective use of symbols.

Richard Rohr, from In the Footsteps of St. Paul (audiobook)

Rohr might have mentioned that the unconscious cannot be hurried, either! This is why, awkward and counterintuitive though they so often are, and burdened with at times unsought resonances and prejudices from other cultures, there is still so much power in the linguistic formulations and texts of the past. Our minds have roots: we cut them, often, at our peril.

Looking for a language

All contemplative traditions seek, in one way or another, to look past the shifting pattern of thoughts and emotions which we take to to be ourselves, and to know directly that which is unthinkable, and is.

But thinking is what we always do, if only to find some way of pointing out the ineffable, of showing others the beginning of the way to this unconditioned treasure. But it is always difficult, and painfully easily misunderstood, as contemplatives have long found to their cost in their dealings with religious authorities.

I think the reason why most contemplatives are in fact allied with some religion or another may be that, not only do we ourselves find the way to our own contemplative practice within a religious tradition, but within that tradition we find a path that others have walked, a thread others have followed, and a language with which to talk, and more importantly to think, about contemplation and its purpose. In many traditions contemplative practice is seen and experienced as a form of prayer, which comes with its own questions, and its own ways to think and talk about them.

One of the difficulties with treading a secular contemplative path is that these frameworks of tradition and language fall away. This is of course a great freedom, but it is easier perhaps to see what it is a freedom from than it is to see what it may be a freedom to, because of the sheer difficulty we have in finding new words for that which is beyond words, and in looking for ways to understand what we have perceived directly.

Happily, in most cases, bereft of a traditional Buddhist, Christian, or whatever language for contemplative experience, with all its baggage of doctrine and metaphysics, some have turned to Western philosophy, or to neuroscience, for paradigms. Those who are trained in these fields, Susan Blackmore, for instance, or Sam Harris, have made contributions that I for one find useful to say the least. Others, like Stephen Batchelor, seem to work more nearly by pruning the language of an existing tradition to express a secular practice, repossessing well-tried (in Batchelor’s case Buddhist) words to chart a secular path.

I am very late to the game. My four decades, more or less, of broadly Christian contemplative practice have left me missing their rich tradition of expression, and the depth of thought and teaching that underpins that tradition in both the Eastern and Western church, and in the great body of writing that predates the Great Schism of 1054, and, come to that, in the Quaker way since the 17th century in England.

I am finding it hard, as readers of this blog may have noticed, to pick up an alternative framework in which to think and write about practice and experience. I don’t have an alternative expert language, like the philosophers and the students of consciousness, and yet there is a sense that my own stream, my own practice and its fruits, has not gone astray so much as found a deeper bed on its way to the sea. The question is, how to talk about it?