Complex Faith: Thoughts on the Survival of Mainline Christianity in a Post-Christendom World

My parish church in Tübingen, Germany, where I went to Uni-Tübingen (2004-2005)

Much has been made recently about whether the so called “mainline” (I prefer the term historic) denominations of Christianity will survive long into the future, or whether they will simply dissolve into the mists of history. The simple fact of the matter is that we, at least in the Western world, are living in a post-Christendom time. That is, Christian institutions’ power is waning (although in the United States this may not appear to be the case, but more on that in a moment). So, how can the long lived historic traditions of the faith survive in the midst of indications that these traditions cannot?

Christianity is perhaps the only religion where its older strains are perhaps among the weakest ones. Catholicism, despite its worldwide reach, is quickly losing its power to fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches in the developing world. Orthodoxy is nowadays essentially relegated to specific ethnic communities and a few angry mainliners unhappy with their previous denominations having done any manner of things from allowing women clergy to accepting openly gay and lesbian people into their congregations. The traditions of Christianity that seem to be gaining sway are the fundamentalist, evangelical, and Pentecostal traditions, which, in the grand scheme of the religious history of the world, are infants as compared to the traditions of Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, and even Methodism.

When we compare this to other religious traditions, we find a case of opposites. In the case of Buddhism, both the ancient Theravadin tradition (which focuses on what could be considered Siddhartha’s original teachings) and the less-ancient Mahayana tradition (which focuses on the Prajñaparamita literature of the first century CE) are still flourishing and continue to foster deep new roots in Western culture. In Islam, outside of the Salafist / fundamentalist philosophical variant, still clings to the religious traditions of the 5th and 6th Century. Of more recent import, Sikhism has largely remained unchanged since the times of Guru Gobind Singh in the late 17th century. So, why then, in comparison to these other religions’ mainline, is Christianity’s mainline in decline and how can they avoid this decline? I would like to share some ideas.

Offering a Rich Spiritual Practice

From my perspective of the world’s religions (having experienced most of them), one thing that I see missing in Christianity from other traditions is a spiritual practice. Upon entering the practice of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and even Judaism, one is confronted with a spiritual practice or exercise. Buddhists meditate, Hindus might say prayers and perform a puja to a deity, Muslims begin the practice of Salat, and so on. Whereas in Christianity, I see that there is an absence here. What is Christian prayer? What is the spiritual practice of the Christian church? As Christian churches in a Western society, the assumption is often made that people know how to pray, or how to practice spiritually.

In this respect, I see a vast underselling of the rich liturgical traditions of the church. In the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches, there is the magnificent tradition of the Daily Office, which exists in simpler forms in the Lutheran and Presbyterian tradition. These rites of daily prayer compare quite closely in routine to the practice I do in the morning and evening using Buddhist texts. This type of daily practice helps build a routine, and a structure around which to develop a deeper spiritual practice, and it is something that is perhaps undersold, and whose power is underestimated.

It is said that Thomas Cranmer’s vision in writing the first Anglican prayerbook of 1549, that everyone in England would be able to pray Matins (Morning Prayer) and Evensong (Evening Prayer) and in so doing recite the Psalms, hear readings from the Bible, and pray. Perhaps there is something to Thomas Cranmer’s vision that the modern mainline Church could use to its advantage. Modern Christianity has become too dependent on the clergy led Sunday service for its spiritual practice. The Mass, or the Sunday Service is a gathering place for the people for mutual support and a gathering to experience the ritual meal of the Eucharist that is so central to the Christian experience, but I don’t think it is meant to replace the heart of any true spiritual practice, that is an individual’s practice at home. As Jesus said “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6, ESV)

Whether one is pursuing a path that is mystical or not, the “secret” work that one performs in the privacy of one’s room or meditation place, is the very work that will bring forth the most fruit in spiritual development, and it is this very spiritual development that people seek. What Christians, I think, forget or overlook in the theology of grace, is, that although God gives grace, we are often not aware of it. Indeed, part of the Christian’s journey towards spiritual fulfillment is the practice of the recognition of the immanent presence of that grace, and the ability to draw upon that grace in any moment. To say that one must perform spiritual work as part of the Christian path is not contrary to the teachings of salvation through grace alone. Rather, it is one of the many dimensions to James’ often cryptic teaching: “So faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17, ESV)

Indeed, one of the functions of institutional religion throughout history was to teach spiritual practice to its followers. From the ancient pagan religions to the very modern religions of today, spiritual practice is the foundation from which all other religious activities come out. This is not an issue of compromising Christian theology or doctrine for the sake of a novel spiritual practice. Instead, the Church must rediscover, or at least share its spiritual practice with the faithful and show people how they can encounter the divine for themselves. If mainline denominations fail to be places where the Christian faithful can seek out genuine, authentic instructions in the spiritual practice of Christianity, then they will simply go elsewhere.

Offering a Complex Faith

“The answer is Jesus”, or so I heard during a sermon I heard recently. This sermon was actually a moment of epiphany for me. In the sermon, the pastor said that if we ever have any doubts or problems, we just remember that Jesus is the only answer and that only through Jesus can we ever be truly whole. I, being a UU-Buddha-palian, have a whole different take on this than most people, but, for the sake of this particular musing, I will take it at face value. My critique of this is its “all too simple to be true” type of feel. A question immediately comes to mind: If Jesus is the answer, how is Jesus the answer? How do I access Jesus? How do I draw the living water and the bread of life that Jesus offers to me?

No faith and no spiritual path is as easy as it seems. It is indeed a radical act, in our materialistic society, to say that one’s happiness is found in Jesus, the Present Moment, or any “other-worldly” type of experience or figure. But, to say that only through Jesus can we find happiness, ok … I’m waiting for more. Churches need to do a better job of offering a faith where adversity is not met with a pat, easy answer, but rather a compassionate, authentic method by which a person can process the situation they are in and find happiness, if not at least momentary calm or peace of mind. For example, in the Buddhist tradition, when we face sadness, we are invited to look deeply at it. We are invited to see where its roots are and in that process of reflection find out where we made a mistake in thought or interpretation.

Also, while, I know that Christianity is a creedal and doctrinal faith, it is by no means a simple faith, and by no means should it be. Instead, it is a faith that must be encountered again and again by those who practice it, and it should be a source of lifelong reflection. To offer a false security through fundamentalism is by no means compassionate, it is only manipulative and selfish. In faith, there are always questions and the recognition that sometimes, there may not be answers to those questions. A complex faith, taught with a healthy dose of wisdom and practicality, does not leave a practitioner or believer in an insecure, doubtful state. Rather, it presents them with the very tools they need to live their lives and take full advantage of the spiritual path and tradition that they have chosen.

A complex faith does not mean that its members are all intellectuals, or have vast amounts of knowledge about rituals, etc. It is, instead, a faith where its members grow in wisdom and spiritual maturity, and where such growth is not only allowed, but is carefully fostered. Clergy are good at being administrators, public speakers, and ritual performers, but they also need to focus on being spiritual teachers to their charges. People want teaching, they want spiritual depth to their practice of religion. If religion becomes nothing more than watching a ritual performance and hearing a nice public speech one day a week, why would one stay?

In Closing

This has been a bit of a long exploration, but an important piece of reflection for myself, and I hope for my Christian friends, it is something they can ponder. I know that mainline Christianity has within it a rich, beautiful tradition of spirituality that can answer the needs of modern people both now and well into the future. I also take this moment to express my gratitude to the people and clergy of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, who have taught me, and continue to teach me that Christianity is not always as simple as I or others think it is, and for their accepting and welcoming attitude towards all people, wherever they are on their journeys.

Peace,

Ian

The Magic of Tantra

When I tell people that I practice Tantric Buddhism, they tend to raise their eyebrows a bit. People tend to think about one thing, and one thing only when they hear the word Tantra: sex. Of course, Tantra is about a lot more than just sex. It is a way of looking at the universe. It is a way of looking at the universe that delivers the method to achieve genuine inner and outer peace. The magic of Tantra lies in the fact that it is at once one of the simplest (though definitely not the easiest) ways of looking at the world and at the same time the engine of rapid, powerful transformation.

The foundation of Tantra is Sacred Outlook. Sacred Outlook is not a complicated doctrine or dogma. It is quite simple. The essence of Tantra is that everything is primordially good, and therefore, we should accept whatever and who we are. It goes even further, it also demands that we live on the razor blade’s edge that is the exact middle between existence and non-existence, between eternalism and nihilism. In the extremes, our actions become mechanical and robotic. Humans are not robots or automatons. Humans are humans, vibrant, spiritual, and alive. Tantra deeply acknowledges not just our humanity, but also acknowledges everything as it is.

Just recently, I was sitting amongst the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, absorbing, feeling and returning the energy of that place. I felt as if I was without substance, simply an ordinary part of everything that is, holding it in a loving and intimate embrace. The ordinariness was indeed the very magic that I needed. I felt like I was embracing everything, and everything was embracing me in return, unconditionally with love. But, there was no “magic” to be found here. No sadhana, no ritual, just sitting and being with ordinary space.

I continue to experience magic every day. Maybe not in big doses, but sometimes, just seeing cherry blossoms in Jerome, or just a simple tree along the pathway to the office, there is magic there. It is utterly and completely simple. John Lennon wrote:

“Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too […] Imagine all the people sharing the world”

What John Lennon imagines, Tantra makes possible. We don’t need to imagine it could be true, we simply acknowledge it is true. Though demanding and unrelenting, the path of Tantra is incredibly simple. It is the path of unconditional welcome and love.

The ordinary magic of Tantra is something we can and should use to transform ourselves and in turn the world. The Buddha is said to have taught that upon achieving enlightenment, we can stay at the shore and become a Righteous One, or go back to the world as a Bodhisattva, one who lingers a little longer to help others discover their true nature. The Tantric practitioner is the Bodhisattva. Upon discovering the ordinary simplicity of what is, they return, back into the world to show others the magic of all that is ordinary.

Peace

Ian

 

 

 

Emptiness: For Real

I was at a planning / organizational meeting for a young adult group I participate in. It is a group that is a part of an Episcopal Church. Yes, it’s a bit of an odd story. I am a Vajrayana Buddhist with some connections to a Christian Church. Then again, I digress. So at this meeting, there was a question posed about how this community of people, as a “Christian community” differed from just being a “community of friends”. The question irked me a little bit, not in the angry way, but just a bit of a “brain stopper” moment. My immediate response was: “is there a difference?”

 

This little question provoked a stretch of contemplation that has continued until now, even as I’m writing this piece. I posted on Facebook: “Is there any difference between genuine community and a Christian community?” The reply was an interesting one. One person said: “Yes, Christian community points to something greater than itself-the life we have together in Jesus.” This prompted even more contemplation and reflection. It prompted me to ask: don’t all genuine acts or expressions of community point to something greater than itself?

 

At one time, I might have been a more conventional “Christian” voice, but here, I’m going to speak in a much less conventional voice, because I think there’s something important to be learned here. Genuine community, meaning a place where true friendship is found, where there is acceptance, common growth, and common experience, points to something greater than itself. What that something is, is inexpressible, and inexplicable. And that is where things get interesting. Human beings have lots of fun with the inexpressible. Being the curious animals that we are, we like to define things, to label, identify, and set things apart. This game of naming, unfortunately, has created a lot of division. It’s at the root of many of our deepest religious rivalries. And this is where we get into trouble.

 

I’ve been a part of many religious and spiritual communities throughout my spiritual journey. I can say that in each of them, I have found the same inexpressible quality of genuine community that Christians claim only for themselves. That quality is what I find nourishing and what I find propels me towards spiritual growth. So, it’s definitely not something that is confined to a particular religious or spiritual community’s experience.

 

We get ourselves into trouble when we start claiming the experience of the divine or whatever else you want to call it (I call it Emptiness, or in Sanskrit: Shunyata) for ourselves of a particular religious community of our choosing. When we do this, we begin to create walls, more specifically dualities. When we create dualities like these, we begin to create enemies. These enemies don’t come from the outside to attack our city on the hill. By simply creating the notion of other, we create an enemy with our own minds. When we separate and exclude the experience of others in other communities as qualitatively different than our own experience, those others become enemies.

 

 

Let me also make note here: there is nothing wrong with expressing our experience in the context of the language of our spiritual traditions. As a Buddhist, I relate with the experience of divinity as Emptiness, the absence of inherent existence. That Emptiness, in the Buddhist tradition, is expressed as spaciousness, the expanse of nowness, everything as it is. A Christian might see this as God. What’s important here is that no matter what you call it, you are still trying to express the inexpressible.

 

Community is only a part of the rich fabric of human experience that is common to all human beings. Whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Spiritual but not Religious, or just plain Secular, community is an experience that points to something greater. Whether we call it our humanity, God, or Emptiness, the fact is that it is an experience that is shared by all. So, it’s not necessarily a problem if we want to talk about it in the spiritual, religious, philosophical or sociological language of our choice. Indeed, that’s part of how we make sense of the world. But, we need to understand that there are other ways of making sense of the world.

 

I really feel that when we start naming it “Christian community”, “Buddhist community”, or whatever else, we begin to erode the power of that “something greater” that is pointed to by a genuine experience of community. Indeed, it’s divisive and detrimental when we start to piece out the divine and carving out our part of it.

 

Sarva Mangalam

Come Come Ye Saints … For Buddhists

I was driving to the Vajrakilaya retreat at Iron Knot Ranch, when I saw a large tower just outside Safford.  It looked like a church steeple … I thought it was rather tall for a church steeple in a small town like this, until I saw the golden figure atop it, the angel Moroni. Of course, I stopped to snap some pics of this Mormon temple out in the Arizona desert (I was a Mormon, once  upon a time). So, it was not until I was driving back home when the first verse of a classic Mormon hymn, Come Come Ye Saints, started playing over and over in my head. It goes like this:

Come, come ye saints
No toil, nor labor fear
But with joy, wend your way
Though hard to you this journey may appear
Grace shall be as your day
‘Tis better far for us to strive,
Our useless cares from us to drive
Do this and joy, your hearts will swell
All is Well! All is Well

This hymn seemed to resonate with me again, and it was on ruminating on the words that I found the würzel – the seed of Dharma in this hymn which gives us a pretty simple message. The hymn was written in the Pioneer days of the church, when the Mormon people were migrating from Nauvoo, Illinois to Utah. People were losing heart, and fearing the journey ahead, which is perhaps where some of us Dharma practitioners find ourselves sometimes.

I know that I find myself sometimes thinking about that next step towards the frontiers of enlightenment. What lays beyond that next precipice of the mind? A memory or perhaps an emotion that will blow my socks off? Or perhaps feeling, anticipating something icky is going to happen? But then the words of the hymn came to me: “No toil, nor labor fear, but with joy wend your way.” The journey of Buddhadharma is a journey full of toil and labor in the sense that as a practitioner, it is hard work to begin to quiet the mind and to realize what is really there. Trungpa Rinpoche was known to say that you shouldn’t begin the path of Buddhadharma unless you’re serious, because once you do, you’ll have no choice but to go on towards the finish. In a sense, we don’t have any choice, do we? Once we start working on the path, we can either face those things that arise in our practice with dread and fear, or we can face them with joy. Joy isn’t being a piece of jello. When we talk about joy in a Dharma sense, we are talking about it as playful curiosity. We have to develop a sense of friendliness to our shit. Only when we do can we truly “wend our way with joy”, because, if we don’t, we wither choose to escape dealing with our shit, or react to it in very negative ways (be it through anger or otherwise).

The journey of Dharma is not an easy one. You have to confront yourself, who you really are, and then eventually, how everything truly exists. Hope and fear are to be transcended, not nurtured. There is no comfy end all solution to your problems or to the world’s problems. But, in the end, I think it’s better for practitioners to strive, to practice perfect transcendent discipline, to boldly and fearlessly encounter what lies beyond the borders of our fear. I have found that a lot of times, I’m expecting this big dragon of emotion to come up looking for a fight and burn me to pieces, but instead I find a soft cuddly kitten who is is growling out of hurt and fear and looking only for nurture and love. Indeed, we do this, and perfect joy will swell our hearts. When we do the hard work of finding ourselves, and find that underneath the demon of emotions we fear is a self that is looking for nothing more than friendliness and love, joy will swell our hearts, and we will find that all is truly well.

SARWA MANGALAM, and Happy New Year to everyone!

Ian

Weaving the Tapestry of Transformation: A Humanist Reflection on the Narrative of Transformation

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of studying with folks from Trinity Cathedral and learning about some of the female heroes of the Bible. We started in the genealogy written in the first chapter Matthew’s Gospel. What becomes apparent is that Matthew’s tracing of Jesus’ lineage is a theological statement more than it is a historically accurate statement. Matthew is known perhaps as the Jewish evangelist. His gospel was written for the benefit of the Jewish community that was trying to incorporate Jesus into their own experience and their own history and perhaps make sense of what Jesus was saying. In a few short, seemingly meaningless recitations of who fathered who and so on, we see Matthew’s selection of a few women, who happen to be gentiles, and coincidentally among Judaism’s most celebrated female figures. Matthew is setting his theological narrative and story for what he eventually would write at the end of the gospel: “go therefore, and make disciples of all nations”, indicating that Jesus’ teachings were not just for the Jews, but also for the rest of the world.

Matthew was trying to take the rich tapestry of Jewish heritage and weave Jesus into that tapestry. In fact, we do this quite a lot with transforming figures in our world. In today’s Christianity, people take New Testament ideas and read them back into the Old Testament and regard it as God giving surreptitious hints about the future, but as a humanist, and non-theist, I don’t buy that. In reflecting on the stories of the Bible, I understand the Bible as an ultimately human story, and not a divine one. It is not a story of the divine’s work, it is rather a magnum opus of the Jewish people’s historical attempts to understand the world around them and what was happening to them as a people. The writers of the New Testament were trying to understand the very profound impact of Jesus’ revolutionary teachings on them.

Jesus was a transformational teacher that arose out of Jewish surroundings, but I believe that the teachings of Jesus were not traditionally Jewish. To read the Old Testament and get the feel of the relationship between the Jewish people and God, is to feel the resonance of the ancient Mesopotamian religions, and the mythological gods that we encounter in Greek, Roman, Norse, and even Middle Eastern myths. The Jews did not have one god for this and one god for that, but the relationship to their God was remarkably similar. They had a class of magicians (who they called Priests) who performed magical rites to invoke the blessing of their deity and to ask for favorable outcomes. This God, if he was dissatisfied would exact his wrath on his people (or at least so the Jewish people understood in the context of hard times).

So, then, to me, Jesus’ tapestry of transformation is not necessarily a continuation of the tapestry of Jewish history and relationship with their chosen Deity. Jesus’ tapestry of transformation is a completely new tapestry. It is one that may have some similar threads and colors as the culture that he rose out of, but it has a completely different feel and vibration.

There is a parallel here with the story of the Buddha, who predates Jesus by approximately 500 years. The Buddha arose out of a Hindu culture and Hindu society. The relationship between Christianity and Judaism, in many ways, is analogous to the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism. A great transformational teacher, in the person of the Buddha, started his own tapestry of transformation. The contrast between the two, however, is that Christianity appears to have chosen not to create its own tapestry of transformation, but rather, continue the Jewish one and make all of it a part of their own tapestry. In Buddhism, there was a whole new tradition created. Though it had some Hindu and Indian cultural elements, it was definitely very different. It completely got rid of the concept of caste, and regarded women as worthy of attaining enlightenment. Buddhism became in its own right, its own tradition.

Here, I think we learn a subtle, but very important lesson. Transformation is not a continuation, it is rather what it is – change. We all come from various cultural, religious, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds. However, when we begin to walk the spiritual path of transformation, we cut ourselves out of the tapestry. We start our own. The narrative of our transformation is ultimately our own and of our own construction. Spiritual transformation, and walking the path towards it is an immensely profound act of separation, of acquiring a new identity. In Christianity and Buddhism, when one takes on these paths, one casts off one’s previous name and one’s previous identity and assumes a new identity. So then, this is the true beginning of transformation.

In transformation, we don’t need to read our new identity, our new ideas into the stories and myths of our history. In fact, that holds our spiritual transformation back. We can, however, be informed by our history, by our background, and use the knowledge from that to work towards spiritual transformation. What does it matter if Isaiah or Jeremiah or any of the prophets were really talking about Jesus? What does it matter that Jesus is confirmed to be the Messiah by laborious and meticulous scriptural proof using pedantic logical tricks? Buddhism doesn’t have this. Buddhists don’t read into the Vedas and look for prophecies of the Buddha. Buddhists simply continued the journey of transformation, even transforming the esoteric Hindu Tantras into some of the most profound meditations and practices in the world.

So, what does your tapestry of transformation look like? Have you begun weaving your own narrative of transformation?

Peace, and a Happy New Year to All

 

 

A Wounded Winter

Winter holidays have always brought weird feelings to me. But in either case, this year is a little bit different. Although I still maintain peripheral connections with Christianity, this year, I feel less connected with the outward celebrations of the winter holidays than I do the mystical celebration of this time of year. My Christian friends have entered the season of Advent, the time of waiting before the major feast days of Christmas. It seems that I am connecting to this spirit of preparation, this mystical spirit of retreat, which is deeply calling me. At least that is how the Universe, Dharmakaya, whatever you want to call it is calling me to deal with my woundedness this winter season.

Winter holidays are always a tough time for me. I have a wonderful sangha, family and great friends that I am immensely grateful for. But, winter reminds me sometimes that I am ultimately alone. I don’t know if this is good or bad. But I know that at least in relative terms, there is an emptiness in my heart that I can feel. It’s something that I have to work on every year. Maybe, this is what Chögyam Trungpa refers to as my wound … the raw open wound that needs to be tickled by the world outside. Maybe, this is what winter is all about … a season when we let down our armor and let our wounds be tickled. Or in more peaceful terms, time to commune with the basic space of what is.

Winter is a spacious time, but I also find it to be my wounded time. My time to explore my woundedness in greater detail, to spend time introspecting, and reflecting. In Tibetan Buddhist circles, the time before the new year is also a time to actively work towards averting obstacles in the coming year and one of the ways Tibetan Buddhists do that is the practice of Vajrakilaya (a very wrathful yidam or practice deity) – and I have been extremely fortunate to have been authorized to engage in this practice. The practice is definitely doing something .. very subtly. I can also say that combining it with the practice of mindfulness is opening new pathways in my mind, and ripening it.

Maybe woundedness is not such a bad thing, maybe it’s the universe telling me something. It may be a good thing, but it hurts. It’s what makes the feeling of woundedness such a dilemma for me, especially this time of year. On the one hand, I feel like I should take the bull by the horns and take advantage of this precious moment in time to grow, but on the other hand this season is one where the pain of my heart is probably the greatest. There’s no neat happy ending to this little reflection, but maybe that’s the way it should be.

Peace,

Ian

 

 

 

Forgiveness: Giving Up Our Attachments

Today is the 2nd day of Yom Kippur. For our Jewish friends, today is a day known as the day of Atonement, the day when forgiveness is sought for the misdeeds of the past. Forgiveness is something that we probably are missing in our discourse, and in our society at large today. So what does it mean? What did Jesus mean when he said “forgive seventy times seven times” when commanding his disciples to forgive others? Is our society a forgiving society? In a society where a debate audience applauds the mention of 234 executions during the term of Gov. Rick Perry, one has to wonder where forgiveness is, if it even exists.

America, it seems, is very much an Old Testament society, a society that believes very much in Hamurrabi’s ancient adage of “an eye for an eye”. We are a society that believes that justice is something that is given, something deserved, more to the point, something external to ourselves, something different from the rest of us. This is no surprise, of course, given that we come from a Judeo-Christian, and more particularly a strong Puritan and Calvinist heritage (which sets us apart from most other developed countries). But what of forgiveness’ role? It’s talked about a lot in our religious communities from evangelical fundamentalist Christian ones to the most liberal secular and humanist ones. We talk often about our need to forgive others, so what is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is fundamentally an act of letting go. It is the act of divesting one’s self of the perceived or actual right to justice or retribution. In forgiving someone, we in a way reject and renounce any right to an apology, to being “made whole”, because in the act of this giving up and letting go, we have achieved our own wholeness. The magic of forgiveness is that in letting go of that thing that we want: justice, retribution, apology, vengeance, and so on, we gain the same feeling, nay, a more authentic feeling of wholeness than had we actually gotten what was due to us. Forgiveness arises out of openness, out of a sense of freedom than it does out of a sense of closedness, or a sense of rigidity. When there is only a narrow and closed set of possibilities as to how to react to a perceived offense, forgiveness is difficult at best.

Of course, it’s not easy. We have a sense that we have a solid self that needs to be protected. Indeed, much of our anger, our hatred, and our desire for vengeance come out of a desire to protect this self that we have constructed for ourselves. When we grasp at this sense of self, and shield it by quests for retribution or “justice”, we fail to see what is beneath that hard shell we have made for ourselves. In not forgiving, we are further shielding ourselves from the beautiful, but tender heart that lies beneath the shell we are working so hard to protect. We spend so much time working at knowing that we are “in the right”, and that we have been “made right” that we forget that it is in letting go that true freedom is found.

There is a Christian cliché that says when you don’t forgive someone or you are angry at them it is like letting them live rent free in your head. And let me extend that further, to say that it’s like letting an utterly destructive tenant live rent free in your head. Anger and hatred, if allowed to fester, can wreak havoc on every aspect and level of our lives. In essence, we are letting our past suffering create suffering in the present life, and if you’re the Buddhist / Reincarnation believing type, it plants negative seeds in our consciousness that will ripen into immense suffering in the future. So, forgiveness then is essential.

Now, this is not to say that we become, as Chögyam Trungpa put it, jellyfish. In teaching about the Mahayana stage of Buddhist practice, Trungpa Rinpoche teaches that becoming compassionate, is a wholly different thing than “idiot compassion”. We don’t become doormats. Forgiveness is not just about “love and light”. It is about working intelligently with others. In other words, letting go, and divesting ourselves of the retribution or justice we perceive is due to us, is not an out to let someone walk all over you, or to just simply “take it”. Being able to forgive, should mean, that we are not on the level of retribution or vengeance anymore. It should mean that we are ready to open ourselves fearlessly to the world, and to be open to situations and react accordingly out of openness instead of aggression or fear.

Forsaking our attachment to the things we think we deserve from others because of what they have done “to us”, is indeed the hard work of forgiveness. It is something that we need to work on at the individual, family, community, and even societal levels. It is something that at this time of Yom Kippur, we are reminded and called to do by the Jewish prophetic tradition. This prophetic call to forgiveness and authenticity could not have come at a more opportune time in our common life in today’s world.

 

Peace – and may all beings benefit.