Ok, here we go again… More deep thoughts and something that should only be read after you have looked at least 10,000 pictures of hot Filipinas. But after the last article I wrote for Jung’s Window, it occurred to me the story was only half done. What needs to be completed is an understanding between Eastern thought and Western thought.
What is interesting about this is that here in the Philippines there is a combination of the two and to help understand the population here you must yourself understand both sides as well.
However, a word of warning: These ramblings are totally of my own making (based on a lot of reading, experiences, plagiarism, etcetera) and not to be taken as Gospel. This is after all, just one man’s opinion…
In “The Ballad of East and West” the poet Rudyard Kipling wrote, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” At first reading, this seems to epitomize the differences between the occidental world and the oriental one: two separate paradigms, two separate belief systems, two distinctly different ways of life. One paradigm is based on faith; the other on science. One concerned with the inner contemplation; the other expanding into the universe. One solidly founded in the past, the other looking forward into the future. However, regardless of the observable differences, the basic concepts of religion are found in both these models.
Each paradigm seeks to resolve the eternal questions of where we came from and where we are going. Scholars in each model endeavor to clearly interpret the relationship of humans to a life source and then delineate the steps that build and strengthen that relationship. So then, the scholars’ goal is to define religion as Eastern and Western systems characterize it. This is the objective of every denominational theology. The relationship between man and a life source is constantly being explored, one through meditation and contemplation and the other through testing and experimentation. Each denomination pronounces itself correct and finds fault in the other. The question put before us is to compare the two approaches on the platform of time. That is, how has social progress effected this search for truth? Or, for that matter, has it?
Though science endeavors to replace religion, many find that this discipline and its resultant data are unable to supplant their faith. For example, cults of the Virgin Mary are alive and well. Late in 1995, a statue of the Virgin Mary was reported as “weeping tears of blood”. Despite DNA analysis that proved the blood to be from a man, thousands of people were drawn to a small village in Italy. Clearly, historical analysis and unembellished scientific data did not convince these people.
Science has the unique ability to dismiss the sacred even when found in the profane. Doctors, when testing new drugs, for example, use placebos to balance the results of these tests. A placebo is a dummy treatment, where scientists give flour or sugar capsules to their subjects instead of the drugs being tested. However, on average, thirty-five percent of patients in any given study respond to the placebo as if it were the drug, on various conditions ranging from arthritis to ulcer treatments to the shrinking of tumors. Stacy Davids, a clinical psychiatrist in her paper “How did Jesus heal?” writes, “…the placebo effect, once the anchor of treatment in premodern societies, has become a contaminant to be blocked out in Western, scientific Random Clinical Trials.” Thus even when the sacred reveals itself, it is dismissed away as a known-element in a statistical analysis; in other words, an aberration or anomaly of the profane.
I consider myself akin to the apostle Thomas. I have always been the type to say, “show me, then I will believe”. However, there have been times that the sacred manifests itself and the experience transcends any profane existence.
In 1987 during my globetrotting for the Army, I traveled through Israel. I took all the tours but viewed the spiritualness of the place through critical occidental eyes. For example, nowhere does the Bible state the exact location of Jesus’ baptism. Yet, on one outing outside Jerusalem, the tour guide insisted that the place we were being taken was the place. As my scientific-based self watched people dive into the river as older women wept on the shore, I slowly took off my shoes and gently stepped into the river. My occidental upbringing restrained me from venturing beyond ankle-deep water. However, a feeling of humbleness progressively filled me, which barely prepared me for the next day when I was to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the purported location where the Romans crucified Jesus of Nazareth.
On walking up to the church, I was thoroughly unimpressed with the exterior appearance. What I expected to be a grand structure in the mold of Notre Dame looked more like a place for an art show rather than the hub of the Christian religious wheel. Outside on the streets, there were booths selling everything from T-shirts to key-chains plus a multitude of sideshows. From singers to jugglers to street preachers proclaiming their version of the truth, I felt as if I were in San Francisco down by the wharf and not at the very nucleus of Christian faith.
Inside it was crowded. People were pushing and shoving in a very “non-Christian” manner. To my right, a group of teenagers knocked over parishioners bent down in prayer. Our tour guide stuck to a rigid schedule, stating he could not afford us to pause and internalize the artwork and other sculptures. He briskly herded us towards an extended line of people. After a prolonged forward-shuffle, we abruptly started to ascend a wooden staircase. As I assisted a grandmotherly woman up the last step, a large man in front of me finished his perusal and moved out of the way. And there it was: the focus of our search. The rock.
Through the smoke from candles and low light from the stained glass windows, I stared at the exact place on which Jesus of Nazareth was reportedly crucified. No longer the mountain once known as Golgotha, it is now a rock about fourteen feet high.
Mark Twain visited the Holy Land in 1867 and used his time in the area now known as Israel for the location of his book “The Innocents Abroad”. This book caused an uproar in America, as it seemed to dismiss the sacred and introduce the profane even in this most holy place. However, Twain wrote of this experience, “With all its claptrap sideshows and unseemly impostures of every kind, it is still grand, reverend, venerable – for a god died here.” And as I kneeled down and placed my hand deep inside the hole of the rock where the cross was held in place, the sacred was introduced to me. No explanations or testing would ever explain away this feeling. I had direct experience of the sacred and it is impossible to ever doubt it again.
So in our search of religion, we must speak to those who already have faith. We search not for the existence of the sacred but for the reasons of this conviction. The occidental AD religious systems endeavor to define words such as beauty, goodness, truth, freedom, right and wrong through Biblical scripture. Where the very definition of oriental BC religions, like Tao for example, is in itself vague. If anyone should ask an eastern monk to define the Tao, he would of course be unable to do so.
Does this mean the notion of Tao itself is vague and imprecise? I guess it does. However no more so than the concepts of beauty, truth, goodness and faith. Confucius is quoted as saying of the Tao “…it is formless and vague. It is hidden, mysterious and dark. It is the source of all things.” In other words, the Tao is supposed to be vague. This drives the occidental mind frantic! To the scientist, the only way to understand something is to test it and examine it in an attempt to define it. To the oriental this quest for wisdom is a way of life or a set of attitudes rather than a list of rules or commandments in which to follow.
The philosopher Wittgenstien once said, “Don’t look for the meaning; look for the use!” This is the key to religion. Though I would go one step further and say that the meaning is the use. Where the AD occidental religion is mapped out and set in stone, the BC oriental religion is an evolving thought process. In the Eastern view, some find nirvana in dance; others in meditation. Some find enlightenment through prayer; others in the playing of a musical instrument.
When two people listen to a song, one a trained musician and the other extremely unmusical, they hear two different themes. The unmusical one would frankly admit, “I hear the notes, but I don’t hear the melody”. The musician would assure the other that in addition to the individual notes, he hears something much more important – The melody! Where this melody is elucidates the basic difference between the oriental BC religions and the occidental AD theologies. The notes of that song – the actual sound waves – are heard alike by the musician and non-musician and are universally acknowledged to be real in the purely physical sense. But what about the melody itself?
Is the melody real or does it exist only in the mind or imagination of the trained musician? The musician does not need faith that there is a melody, nor does he have to accept the existence of the melody on some scriptural authority; for he obviously has a direct experience of the melody itself. And once that melody is heard, it is impossible to ever doubt it again.
Therefore, in much the same manner, the Tao is nameless. This is much different than saying the Tao has no name. The latter statement immediately awakens an analytical Western sense, whereas the first statement “The Tao is nameless” tends rather to put the listener into a peaceful Eastern slumber. “The Tao has no name” seems more precise, and therefore testable. The other phrase is more vague, and insofar as it is vague, it allows all sorts of pleasant and interesting interpretations.
Where the scientific occidental is critical of vague statements, the oriental is critical of precise statements. For only precise statements can be labeled “right” or “wrong”. Occidental AD religions are precise and BC oriental religions use vague terms that encourage each searcher to find their own “truth”. This allows for so much clarity.
Language only confuses the matter. Even in the universal Greek, mistakes are made. To preach to a growing number of gentiles in the second and third century, scholars attempted to translate parts of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Many biblical purists of the time thought that this attempt was a serious mistake because the very words of God would be mutilated and mangled. They believed that God himself spoke Hebrew to the prophets. They postulated that the words that God spoke could not be translated.
Regardless of the bitter opposition, the endeavor to translate the Bible proceeded. The Septuagint was created. Named Septuagint or “Seventy” after the number of translators used in order to show that God was directing the work himself and that the authors were not merely translators but prophets. Thus, they reasoned, the faithful could rest assured that Hebrew wisdom, Hebrew concepts and Hebrew philosophy would survive the journey to Greek intact. However, in fact, it didn’t.
The conservatives who fought the translation were correct. By the translation of certain words, the Hebrew Bible was reflecting Platonism and even Aristotelian logic. The best example of this is in the translation of Exodus 3:14. God appears in a burning bush before Moses to tell him he will lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses wants to know by what authority he will speak to the people: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God replies not with an ordinary name, but with the first person singular of the Hebrew verb “to be”: Ehyeh. “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
In the translated Septuagint, ehyeh becomes oein – Being. The two seem nearly the same – merely different forms of the same verb – but they are worlds apart. “I AM” is The Creator; “Being” is a concept. When it makes the transition from Semitic, the word registers with the Greek-speaking world in an already familiar way. The thundering God of the Israelites, a God of anger and mercy, a feeling God, becomes the divine, supremely cool one of Greek Stoic Philosophy. With one stroke of the pen, the Hebrew Bible found Plato. As Paula Fredriksen wrote in “From Jesus to Christ”, “Greek concepts, in brief, did not need to be read into Scripture. They were already there, by virtue of the new language of the text.” Possibly, it was the first tangible example of the concepts of faith and piety changing through language and over time: an AD view of a BC text.
Even the very words of Jesus can be interpreted differently over time. Some believe that the meaning behind the duty of turning the other cheek as found in Matthew 5:38-39 (and surprisingly in the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls in the Manual of Discipline 10:17-18) as though it is an invitation to be a ‘doormat for Jesus’. This is far from the original intent. When it is reported that Jesus said, “Don’t resist Evil” this translates from the Greek word antistenai, which referred to the resistance movement. If someone hits you on your right cheek, they will have done it with the back of their hand – as though you were beneath their contempt. To offer up the other cheek was an attempt to get them to strike you a second time with the open palm. Thus signifying that by doing so they admit that you are a fellow human being, an equal, and someone who is entitled to respect.
Time will always change the assessment of anything. Acting like a circus mirror; depending on how and from what angle you look into it, your reflection differs.
Philosophy instructors are quite fond of holding up a mirror and asking what we see in it. What I now realize from experience is that religion is that mirror. The very act of looking into the mirror changes the state of that mirror; the mirror reflects you, the mirror reflects me.
How disturbing it would be if you were to look into a mirror and not see it reflect your image but merely remain in its original state. Chuang-Tzu is reported as saying, “The mind of the Sage is like a mirror which reflects the entire universe”. How appropriate. Not only is religion a mirror, but we ourselves are also mirrors. I find this to be an even more accurate statement. The most hostile people I know tell me how hostile I am, the nicest people I know tell me how nice I am, honest people trust me and tell me how genuine and sincere I am, hypocritical and malicious people tell me that I am basically insincere and a big hypocrite, and so on.
Why is this? There are two possible explanations. One possibility is that I am that mirror. I simply reflect into people’s faces their own souls. Or perhaps I am more like a chameleon and simply reflect those characteristics that I see in others. For example, I certainly feel more hostile in the presence of a hostile person, more selfish in the presence of a selfish person, more generous in the presence of a generous person, etc. A brilliant person will certainly stimulate me to my fullest brilliance. However, this model breaks down under certain cases. For example, a stupid person does not stupefy me into a state of stupidity or a dishonest person does not make me feel any less honest. So this is only a partial truth. Some would say that this “mirror theory” is all hogwash. They would argue that only in my own arrogance does this apply. In other words, I am so egocentric, that my judgments of other people may be conditioned primarily by their judgments of me. For example, when someone tells me how hostile I am, I would think, “What a hostile thing to say! He must be a hostile person”, or when told how smart I am, “How brilliant of him to know what I am really like,” or when told how stupid, “How stupid of him to not recognize my intelligence”. Many people I know would suggest that this hypothesis arises out of my own egocentricity. But all these people in question are themselves extremely egocentric.
So the question should not be the AD occidental theorem “ Is the “God who is” the God we think is” Which by its very nature begs for a definition of God and thus an interpretation of religion. The proper statement should be “the God in heaven is exactly as you picture him”. The oriental BC mirror of religion reflects this.
So two methods to one end. At the heart of Christianity, which defines much of western civilization, and Buddhism, a driving force in eastern culture, lies the same basic wisdom. Both Jesus and Buddha focused on the individual, emphasizing that the inner character is more vital than the outer image. Buddhist teaching forms the basis of a religion without a god. Jesus claimed he was the very Son of God. To Christians, Buddhism is a pagan religion; and for Buddhists, Christianity is a web, full of false hopes and dangerous myths.
But in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, a recognized master of peace known as the Coconut Monk built a monastery on a delta island. At one end of this island, on top of a hill, stands an enormous fifty-foot tall statue of a standing Buddha. Next to Buddha stands an equally tall statue of Jesus.
They stand next to each other, arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling. I believe that if Buddha and Jesus were to meet today that it would be like this; arm in arm. Neither would try to convert the other – not because they would regard such an effort as hopeless, but because they would recognize one another as mirrors of the essence of religion.
So we must once again look to the famous Kipling poem and continue reading. We must look to the last stanza, which is routinely ignored by occidental readers. Kipling writes,
“ There is neither East nor West, border, nor breed, nor birth.
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the Earth!”