Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Silence and Conviction

Note: This post has a few movie spoilers.

I finally caught up with Martin Scorsese's Silence over the weekend. First, let me say it is a beautiful film, and I highly recommend it. It is well acted, full of gorgeous cinematography, and elegantly constructed to allow the rich narrative to unfold with nuance. Moreover, it challenges your soul and morality in ways few films do these days.

The film is based upon the Shusaku Endo novel with the same name. Not unexpectedly, Scorsese offers the film a twist in the end that was not covered in the book.

The story is set in mid-17th century Japan, where there is a state sponsored persecution of Christians underway. A couple young Jesuit priests (played by Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) hear a rumor that their mentor, Fr. Ferreira, has renounced his Christian faith (a.k.a. apostatized) for the state. Under extreme danger, the young Jesuit priests decide to travel to Japan to confirm the fate of Ferreira.

When they arrive, they are greeted by Christian peasants in hiding, joyful to have priests in their midst that are able offer the sacraments. When the state authorities get wind of the priest's presence, suspected Christians are rounded up and tortured in the hopes of luring the priests out into the open. 

The film primarily focuses on Fr. Rodrigues, one of the young Jesuit priests, who is eventually captured and subjected to horrific psychological torture to temp his faith. Many of the Christian peasants risk their lives to protect him, and are in turn, tortured in his presence. In order to free the Christian captives from their torture and suffering, Rodrigues is invited by the Japanese authorities to apostatize by trampling on a Christian image. He refuses over and over again, until he comes across his spiritual hero, Fr. Ferreira.

Rodrigues finds the rumors to be true, and that Ferreira is now a Buddhist practitioner under the protection of the state. The disgraced priest then tries to persuasively get his former student to do the same. In a pivotal scene, while the Christian captives are being tortured, he corners Rodrigues in an argument for practicality; in that while he prays for the suffering, he should pray with his eyes open.


In the midst of anguish over the screams of the tortured Christians, Rodrigues hears what he takes to be the voice of Jesus himself telling him to trample on the image. He follows the voice, and in turn, follows the footsteps of his former Jesuit mentor Ferriera.

Rodrigues lives a fairly long life, renouncing his faith publicly every year until his death. The one major twist Scorsese offers from the book is he shows the corpse of Rodrigues inside his coffin clutching a small crucifix. This leaves us with a sense that Rodrigues held on to his inner Christian faith throughout his life in Japan.

I appreciate the subtlety that film displays around faith and conviction. Is it appropriate to renounce one's values to end the suffering of another? Is inner conviction enough to justify the consequences? Should we be conditionally principled when the circumstances call for it?

Yet, I can also hold the opposing view around this. Bishop Robert Barron takes another position on this film, making the well-thought out point...
“Like any great film or novel, Silence obviously resists a univocal or one-sided interpretation. In fact, almost all of the commentaries that I have read, especially from religious people, emphasize how Silence beautifully brings forward the complex, layered, ambiguous nature of faith. Fully acknowledging the profound psychological and spiritual truth of that claim, I wonder whether I might add a somewhat dissenting voice to the conversation? I would like to propose a comparison, altogether warranted by the instincts of a one-time soldier named Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order to which all the Silence missionaries belonged. Suppose a small team of highly-trained American special ops was smuggled behind enemy lines for a dangerous mission. Suppose furthermore that they were aided by loyal civilians on the ground, who were eventually captured and proved willing to die rather than betray the mission. Suppose finally that the troops themselves were eventually detained and, under torture, renounced their loyalty to the United States, joined their opponents and lived comfortable lives under the aegis of their former enemies. Would anyone be eager to celebrate the layered complexity and rich ambiguity of their patriotism? Wouldn’t we see them rather straightforwardly as cowards and traitors? My worry is that all of the stress on complexity and multivalence and ambiguity is in service of the cultural elite today, which is not that different from the Japanese cultural elite depicted in the film. What I mean is that the secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion. And it is all too willing to dismiss passionately religious people as dangerous, violent, and let’s face it, not that bright.”
This is an astute observation, and displays this curse we have with complexity. There are few of us willing to die for our beliefs in the postmodern era. We hold our convictions lightly, if at all. We can't relate to the the Christian peasants who remained courageous and dedicated to their faith, even when it took them through horrific torture and eventually their death. Instead, it's easier to understand the decisions that Ferreira and Rodrigues made given the circumstances they were put under. Why give up a life for something so rationally untenable as God?

That's what makes this such a great film: you can look at the issues surrounding  faith, conviction, and morality from many different angles. And yet, if one was to look for the right response to the tests the Jesuit priests go through in the film, the answer may only lie in the silence.

Father Rodrigues: I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Meditative Musings

I just came back from a lovely weekend retreat, meditating on a beautiful Pennsylvania Quaker setting over the Easter holiday.

Meditation rarely comes easy to me. Too much of a busy, ruminating mind, often forcing the realizations or checking in with its experience. And through all this willing by the self, the mind often gets jammed up with agitation feeling worse than before the session started. How ironic. 

I actually do better off the cushion at times. The simplicity of being with nature, listening to a beautiful piece of music, or conversing with a soulful person gets me closer to the stillness. 

So why meditate? It seems to me there is always a deeper way to be. I know this intellectually, but I also intuit it. And this deeper place can move us in life affirming ways. It may lead to touching the hand of God, getting to know who I really AM, and finding the Ground that will allow me to traverse the storms of life.

Despite what I once believed, it has less to do with happiness. Although happiness may be its by-product. It seems we are here for more: to become saints would be the ultimate goal as the Catholics say. But before that, we should aim to be free.

I know an it can be contained by the mind, whereas Existence can never be. Not that all concepts are bad. They serve a useful purpose, and can often be a doorway of their own to spirit. “All schools, therefore, have to admit the important role that intellect plays in removing ignorance and causing the rise of knowledge of Self” (Deba Brata SenSharma).

I have practiced for many years in the Tibetan Buddhist path of Mahamudra/Dzogchen. Like much of Buddhist practice, it is very refined and systematic. For my persona, this can also make it a tad dry at times.

The teacher this weekend said maybe it may be better for me to feel my way into it like a mystic. Incidentally, the girlfriend is reading a book that makes the point to fall in love with meditation. She also added, maybe it's “enough with the technical path.” Maybe so.

All in all, I see meditation as not just a practice, but a posture toward life. The structures for practice are useful, but I am realizing the need to experiment with my own way of self in relation to Being. Without a magic bullet, all I can do is be curious and available.

In allowing for more of my absence, I am allowed to sense more presence. At least until I grab onto an intriguing thought, and get the mind in a jam once again. Over the weekend we explored those thought grabs, which often for me include seeking pleasure, survival concerns, and manipulating experience.

Then again, these are all spiritual seeker problems (in a context where there is no problem). 

Back to that saintly goal; I feel it's quite a distance from this fallible self. My recent read adds to this, as I experience some heavy heart reading about a dying neurosurgeon reflecting on his challenges in supporting his patients through their own mortality. The doctor muses, “Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another's cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”

This story, among many like it, moves and humbles me by how much love can do through these vessels we are given. My practice is a challenge, but it has far from crushed me. So I meditate, so I can animate this finite vessel with as much as the infinite will allow.

And in the process, fall in love with love.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Foolish Foibles of Mr. Smarty Pants

Let’s state the obvious, although often forgotten by many: human beings are complex. That’s why I would never want to fit us in to a one-size-fits-all system. For example, why are so many religious or spiritual people jerks? Or why do so many artists who can create something so beautiful can also be so dysfunctional? Moreover, why are so many intelligent people foolish? The good, true, and beautiful are not always found in those representing the good, true, and beautiful.

I would often revere the sophistication of many high-brow academics. It can be seductive to hear theories or ideas spoken so eloquently. And I would assume because of their high capacity for knowledge, that somehow that would translate to the higher faculties of wisdom and virtue. Not so.

I recently read Roger Scruton’s excellent book, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, to get some perspective on my old romance with postmodern philosophers.

He covers many of the biggies here: Sartre, Foucault, Habermas, Lacan, Deleuze, Gramsci, Badiou, and Žižek. So what do most of these guys have in common? Besides a lot of linguistic cleverness and windbaggery, they tend to view life through the lens of Marx to varying degrees. Scruton distills their abstract theories on the assumption that: “first, that ‘capitalist’ society is founded on power and domination; second, that ‘capitalism’ means ‘commodification’, the reduction of people to things, and the fetishizing of things as agents.”

So while establishing the Biblical idea (in secular terms) that world is fallen, the postmodern intelligentsia took it upon themselves to redeem it. In the process, they were also able to uphold their own position as a leisure class from their academic edifices while feeling contempt for the everyday man that disagreed with them. As such, they believed they possessed some knowledge inaccessible to the rest of us.

Their commitment for the postmodern intelligentsia is always toward some Utopian ideal that is never based on Truth. For instance, Scruton mentions that according to Sartre, “Nothing actual can be ‘authentic’. The authentic defines itself in opposition to the Other – which means in opposition to the world that others have created and in which they are at home.” For him, commitment can never be for the “fragmented imperfection of the actual, but to the purified ‘totality’ of an abstract idea.”

The cranky psychiatrist Lacan, who gave us ideas around the mirror stage and big Other, ultimately reduced meaning to some algebraic machination. As such, “Lacan showed that it is not necessary to mean anything anyway. You can go on meaning nothing for page upon page, and as long as a few ‘mathemes’ [symbolic representations] are thrown in, and as long as you maintain a posture of inviolable certainty, secure in the revelation of which you are the sole proprietor, you will have done all that is required by way of making a contribution to the emerging ‘revolutionary consciousness’.” (Scruton). (As a side bar, I find this video of a student protesting a Lacan lecture amusing. Apparently, Lacan had to give such nonsense lip service, since he was partially responsible for creating such misguided behavior.)  

Scruton also points to Habermas’s meta-dogma, where “you will seldom encounter a real dilemma, and actual institution, a record of some felt community of purpose.” Instead you are left with a “methodological sophistication that places it beyond any criticism from standpoints other than its own.”

Scruton elaborates that with all these postmodern theories: 
“Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law. It is as though the abstract ideal has been chosen precisely so that nothing actual could embody it.”
And that’s the issue with anyone proposing a new order of things. It's easy to criticize things as they are; however, it's not so easy to know if any new order will undermine the things that actually do work now (especially when presented so abstractly, and purposely so).

This Utopian impulse itself is not new, and comes from a deeper yearning we all share. Scruton again,
“Clearly we are dealing with the religious need, a need planted deep in our ‘species being’. There is a longing for membership that no amount of rational thought, no proof of the absolute loneliness of humanity or of the unredeemed nature of our sufferings, can ever eradicate. And that longing is more easily recruited by the abstract god of equality than by any concrete form of social compromise.”
But that longing will also never be fulfilled through the application of abstract ideas. As Scruton notes, that religious need is probably better best served by traditional religious institutions — a place where we can sort ourselves out from within than to look outwardly for some systemic resolution.

So again, why all this smart foolishness? It would seem we have a scarcity of common sense in some parts of the academy. In that, Truth would be better recognized by a sensibility of deeper understanding than the conclusions that are just drawn from clever abstractions. This would require a vision of wholeness, an integrated character, and experience that is rooted in the senses and refined by reason. 

The issue is when reason alone, rooted in a fragile ego, is the source of one's ideas. As Chesterton once quipped, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madmen is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” 

Yes, indeed.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Guilt Without God

“The price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.” — Sigmund Freud

With religion declining in our secular culture, you would think guilt would also be in retreat. Yet, it appears we are more guilt-ridden than ever. No Jewish mother needed. David Brooks covers this notion of pervasive guilt in a recent column, and refers to an excellent article by Wilfred McClay that covers this theme more thoroughly. 

It seems there's something built in to our nature where we acknowledge right from wrong, justice, concern for the underdog, and privilege. We feel a moral outrage, and want to be justified by it. That's not so much the issue, as is we have lost a framework for true moral deliberation. We are instead led by emotions that are unable to see the issues more clearly.

(Which reminds me, I recently watched this debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley asking: Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro? When you watch it, you realize how far we have fallen from our moral discourse. I realize these are all Oxford students, so it doesn't represent the culture at large, but it still points to a bar that has been considerably lowered. Emotions weren't driving the discourse for debate, but an objective framework.)

Ultimately, there's plenty to feel guilty about. McClay says, “Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless. Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation—there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap.

Since most of us are lucky souls, we feel the burden of responsibility that comes with it. But we can never take it all on. Hence, the guilt overwhelms us as sin (yet, most of us can't even see it as sin, but just as outrage.)

McClay notes that the “fundamental truth about sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that sin must be paid for or its burden otherwise discharged.” Without religion being the foundation for culture, our psychic discharge for all this guilt moves from the vertical to the horizontal. If you don't have a metaphysical worldview to handle those internal debts, you're going to project your baggage on to the world (or the religion of politics).

Brooks elaborates, “Instead of seeing moral struggle as something between you and God (the religious version) or as something that happens between the good and evil within yourself (the classical version), moral struggle now happens primarily between groups.” Usually, this works itself out by groups identifying as victim or for the victim and against the oppressor.

Without a framework of self-reflection or atonement, we are led astray to discharge our anxiety onto the other. This leads to scapegoating, shaming, and the inability to see the complexity in an issue. Our moral discourse collapses on to itself and is relegated to hasty emotional judgments. 

Guilt is a real trickster. Until we can robustly take it on within ourselves and in a relationship with a higher authority, we are in danger of falling into flimsy approaches to working with groups with dissimilar values and resolving worldly concerns that require cooperation.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Gay, Marxist Atheist Does Jesus Right

The Gospel According to Saint Matthew is probably the best film ever made about Jesus. While the film is beautifully executed, fully embodying the spirit of Jesus's life simply through his teachings, it really is the director that makes the story behind the story compelling.

One IMDb reviewer says, “Certain films haunt me. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew is one of them. The only possible explanation is the passion of its maker. Everything about it is so real that I remember the first time I saw it, I felt I had met Jesus.” 

When I recently saw the film, I felt the same.

So what of the maker of this film? Italian director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was a well known homosexual Marxist who also considered himself to be an atheist. When asked why would an atheist bother to make a film about Christ, he responded: “If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.” It seems Pasolini intuited we are condemned to religion, whether we believe or not.

In making the film, he decided to take the dialogue directly from the Gospel of Matthew and filmed without a screenplay. He believed images would never reach the poetic heights of the text, and therefore reportedly chose Matthew's Gospel over the others because he had decided that “John was too mystical, Mark too vulgar, and Luke too sentimental” (wiki).

The film was shot in the the poor Italian district of Basilicata during the summer of 1964. Pasolini decided to cast most of the roles to local peasants and workers to align with Jesus's reverence for the poor and outcasts. In regards to Jesus, he cast Enrique Irazoqui, a 19-year-old economics student and communist activist from Spain, who just showed up to discuss the director's work. 

Pasolini's directorial style displayed a beautiful, stark simplicity that mixed in Italian Neorealism with French New Wave. As such, his sensibility for understated direction allowed for the subtlety and depth of Jesus's teachings to come through more vividly in the cinematic medium. 

Roger Ebert noted, “If a hypothetical viewer came to The Passion with no previous knowledge of Jesus and wondered what all the furor was about, Pasolini's film would argue: Jesus was a radical whose teachings, if taken seriously, would contradict the values of most human societies ever since.”

We do seem to forget this and ironically, it took an unbeliever to remind us. 

You can watch the entire film for free here:

Friday, March 24, 2017

Decisions, Decisions

'Life does not ask what we want. It presents us with options.' — Thomas Sowell 

If someone had told me long time ago that not making a decision was making a decision, I would have put more effort into being better at making them.

Sure, it's easy to make choices when the stakes are low. But every so often you have to make a decision that will set you on a whole new trajectory into the unknown. 

Sometimes these decisions require information, which complicates things even more so. Recent research suggests that we experience great pleasure when taking in information that supports our beliefs. This confirmation bias means we'd rather be right than true. Appealing to our emotions may stir and sway us, but it won't lead to a truly informed decision (see fake news and alternative facts).

Good advise can come from many unexpected places, such as the Jesuits in this case. I just finished James Martin's The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, and found it particular poignant around how the Jesuits make decisions.

First, humility is the key. The Jesuits acknowledge that poverty of spirit means accepting that we are powerless to change certain aspects of ourselves. We are plagued with confusion, doubts, and restlessness. Therefore, we can't do it alone.

Martin brings out a beautiful meditation from Pedro Arrupe that can cut to the root of making difficult decisions: 
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.”
I love this quote, and I believe it eventually leads to choiceless choices. But there is also some additional practical advise that we can all use in the meantime.

Martin notes that many of Saint Ignatius's practices for making decisions came from his own life. Ignatius was a practical saint, despite having such a strict and courageous order. In his approach, he saw decisions falling into three categories each with different approaches.

The first category is the easiest, since these decisions bring the person to the place of neither doubting nor able to doubt. It's pure grace, or an Aha moment, where you are called to something that could be no other. 

The second category is less clear. Ignatius suggestion focusing on decisions that bring you closer to consolation, which may feel like a sense of peace, tranquility, and joy, verses desolation, which moves the soul toward hopelessness or agitation. These types of decisions will require more reflection, prayer, and contemplation. One excellent practice is to live out each of your choices for a day, and see which alternatives bring you more harmony verses more dissonance.

The third category of decisions are the most difficult. Ignatius suggests using both reason and imagination. With reason, we can make lists, confer the price to the benefit to our soul with each choice, reflect upon it, and ask for guidance from God. With imagination we can visualize advise being given to us from a wise person we respect, or how we would feel about this decision if we were on our deathbed, or how we would feel about presenting this option to the our 'best self' or maybe even the Creator. 

The key to all these practices is to have more objective discernment, and that can only come from the state of one's soul. This why discernment can be so tricky for us, because we easily be misguided by spirits if the state of our soul is not whole. Ignatius notes, “When the soul is different, they [evil spirits] enter with perceptible noise and are quickly noticed. When the soul is similar, they enter silently, like those who go into their own house by an open door.”

And what if we make a decision that appears to go poorly for us? Here, Martin quotes Teilhard de Chardin:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
So I go forth incomplete and in suspense of myself, ready to get my skin in the game of life. My first decision hereon is to end this post now. Voila!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Let the Light Get In Your Eyes

For some of you, this blog post is going to come off a bit obscure, but I can't help to be drawn to the esoteric at times. I do have a fascination with various spiritual teachings, in particular, when there is a pattern that seems to traverse many cultures and religions.

For instance, there appears to be a transmission of Light teachings that exist at the core of most religions and mystical experience.

Taoist yoga, Kabbalah, Orthodox Christianity, and Tibetan Buddhism all have practices related to Light body that are performed in the relationship between the eyes and the heart. When people say the eyes are the gateway to the soul, there may be more to this than the typical cliche.

And how these light body practices manifest bring up a particular fascination. I don't have much direct experience with the fruits of these practices, however, having studied with a Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher for several years I have do have some intellectual understanding.

The teachings of Dzogchen instructs that awakened awareness (rigpa) is in the eyes associated with a Light channel (Kati) linked to the Heart. In other words, our true original spirit is the Light in the eyes arisen from the Light of the Heart. 

The Tibetans have practices that are design to help facilitate this fruition, known as Thögal (or leap over the crest).  

According to the Tibetan Buddhists, the center of our Beingness (Dharmakaya) is in the Heart (Ramana Maharshi also intuited that the Heart Cave was two digits right midline of the chest). The Heart is directly connected to our eyes through the Kati Light channel, which bypasses the brain and karmic mind consciousness. When the clear Light arises from the heart through the Kati channel, the rigpa wisdom awareness at the eyes becomes our vantage point from which we view.

The idea with these practices is that we don't have to purify the karmic mind, as it's completely bypassed. The methods for Thögal often involve practices that involve sky-gazing, which will manifest visions known as thigles. Thigles are known as drops, or spheres of rainbow light, and are seen as the ground substance of Reality. It's the experience of seeing primordial essence manifesting, the direct expression of generative intent, a sort of sacred geometry, which are not outer phenomenon but Inner (as inner and outer together).

A typical practice would entail one to look indirectly at the sun (of course, never directly and with dark sunglasses) while tightly squinting the eyes. As the phenomena begins, it is important not to get caught up with what is arising, but to see it as it is. These practices are typically done for a short time over several days. Over time, the thigles with join together to form groups and become bigger in size, eventually forming more coherent concentric spheres with rainbow-like colors.

The phenomena you see are less important than the state of rigpa wisdom awareness that does arise. But the phenomena is quite fascinating. Below are some diagrams of the thigles. The first diagram is from a 17th century book on kabbalah. The rest of the diagrams are from a couple, Robert and Rachel Olds, who did Thögal practices over several years and decided to sketch out these radiant visions. 

Yes, some of these sketches appear alien or bacterium-like, but when directly revealed, these visions are also seen as beautiful and sacred... 







Come home to Primordial grace,

come home to spontaneous creation

arising from an absolute intent,

absolute potential.

Come home to Earth, Original heart,

and the Visions of radiance.

Come home to the essence of our very being,

come home to the message of love

blended into light itself.

Come home to a blended existence with our First mother,

come home to the heart of oneness, a living universe.

Come home to the breadth of all being, Original heart.

Come home to this primordial

poem of light, union, and love.

Come home….

— Robert & Rachel Olds