Ancient Buddhist texts claim that "God has a million faces." This perspective is just one of many among different religions and cultures that describe a diverse array of names given to God.
Credit: Davi Barker sell1234.wix.com/eccentric-circle and Tikkun Daily Gallery.
Fourteenth-century mystic and activist Meister Eckhart says “all the names we give to God come from an understanding of ourselves.” If he is correct, then as humanity’s self-understanding and understanding of the cosmos evolve, then clearly our God-names will evolve in response.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow reminds us that the Book of Exodus is also known as the Book of Names because God goes through two name changes within its pages. Why is this? In his article “When the World Turns Upside-Down, Do We Need to Rename God,” Waskow suggests it is because “the old Name cannot inspire a new sense of reality … God is different when the world is different.”
So where do we go for new names for God? The ancient texts of Buddhism say: “God has a million faces,” and ancient Hindu texts discuss “the one Being the wise call by many names.” Thirteenth-century Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas is much wilder—he says that every creature is a name for God—and no creature is. He observes that apostles and prophets praise God in the Scriptures in this way:
As the Cause of all things, as good, as beautiful; as wise; as beloved; as God of gods; as holy of holies; as eternal; as wisdom; as reason; as justice; as virtue; as in spirits, as in bodies, as in heaven and on earth, at the same time in the same place, in the world, involved in the world, above the world, supercelestial or above the heavens, supersubstantial; as the sun, as a star; fire; water; air; and dew; as cloud; stone; rock and all the other beings attributed to God as cause. And the Divine One is none of these beings insofar as God surpasses all things.
Is Aquinas in this passage revealing himself to be an unabashed polytheist? Or has he merged polytheism with monotheism like no one ever has, urging us to find the One God in all things? The Jewish and Muslim mantra of the One God finds a radical application in this powerful and unprecedented passage. It opens us to a new practice: Find God in one being, any being—a leaf, a flower, a star, a galaxy, a person, an animal, a musical piece, a poem, a bridge. Here lies a challenge for the ages.
The author writes, "People of all faiths can draw inspiration from the Muslim practice of reciting the '99 most beautiful names' for God," and thus be encouraged to seek their own names or build upon those from Islam. 99 Names of God - Al Wadud (Most Loving) by Kelly Crosby. Credit: Kelly Crosby (izzymo.myshopify.com).
I recommend that we each pray on this profoundly meditative passage and let it pass through our open hearts. If every creature is a name for God, then all of us need to loosen up and breathe in multiple names for the Divine and be stuck on none.
People of all faiths can draw inspiration from the Muslim practice of reciting the “99 most beautiful names for God”—we can seek our own names or we can build upon the list of ninety-nine names from Islam.
The practice of seeking to rename God is not for dilettantes or pious preachers. This is serious stuff. The names we give to God come from an understanding of ourselves and our world. It is our responsibility at this critical time in human and planetary history, this tipping time, this turning time, to rename God. We cannot sit around idly living off the fumes of worn out, trite names and images of God that are failing to move anyone to save our species and the planet. Time is running out for us. We cannot hide in our comfortable religious (or anti-religious) boxes anymore.
When Eckhart dares to pray, “I pray God to rid me of God,” he is warning that we do not take on the new and necessary names of God without a sacrifice, without a letting go of the old. Clearly we have our inner work to do. And from that work “God” by whatever name will be reborn.
In what follows I wish to touch on six areas where I feel God-talk emerging freshly in our time: discussions of the Divine Feminine, science, light, dark matter, transformative action, and the idea of God as life.
The Divine Feminine
The recovery (rather than discovery) of the Divine Feminine in our time opens up multiple avenues for inspiring our God-talk. To name and image God as Gaia, Goddess, Kuan Yin, Shechinah, Ochun, Tara, the Black Madonna, or Kali puts the Divine into a whole larger context with tremendous implications for ourselves and the institutions we give birth to whether of law, politics, education, economics or religion. Consider for example the ecological implications of what anthropologist Marija Gimbutas says of the Goddess: She is “in all her manifestations a symbol of the unity of all life in Nature. Her power was in water and stone, in tomb and cave, in animals and birds, snakes and fish, hills, trees, and flowers. Hence the holistic and mythopoeic perception of the sacredness and mystery of all there is on Earth.” The Goddess calls us back to the sacredness of creation all about us.
Consider the virtues that are extolled in this ancient Tibetan prayer to Tara: “Homage to Tara our mother: great compassion! Homage to Tara our mother: queen of physicians! Homage to Tara our mother: conquering disease like medicine! Homage to Tara our mother: knowing the means of compassion! Homage to Tara our mother: Spreading like the wind! Homage to Tara our mother: pervading like space!” Consider this commentary on the Tao who is called “The Great Mother, Mother of the universe” who “gives birth to all beings, / nourishes them, maintains them, / cares for them, comforts them, protects them, / takes them back to herself.”
Medieval Christian mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Mechtild of Magdeburg and Julian of Norwich also explored the Divine Feminine in their writings. According to Hildegard, we are “surrounded with the roundness of divine compassion” and we are “encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.” For Mechtild, “God is not only fatherly. God is also mother who lifts her beloved child from the ground to her knee” and the Trinity is “like a mother’s cloak wherein the child finds a home and lays its head on the maternal breast.” Julian says: “God is delighted to be our Mother.”
Naming of the feminine side of Divinity gives inspiration and support to women struggling with their womanhood and sisterhood while simultaneously challenging men to get more in touch with their maternal and compassionate capacities.
The Divine Feminine is not at all about softness or passivity but about a passion with instead of a passion over. Feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle has argued that we need mysticism to access this Divine Feminine. “Mysticism comes closest to overcoming the hierarchical masculine concept of God,” she writes. “In feminist theology therefore, the issue is not about exchanging pronouns, but about another way of thinking of transcendence … as being bound up in the web of life…. We move from God-above-us to God-within-us and overcome false transcendence hierarchically conceived.”
The return of the Divine Feminine is a sign of our times. It assists profoundly in renaming Divinity and in the process, ourselves.
Names Drawn from Science
The second realm that inspires new forms of God-talk and offers important insights about names for God is science. Science has exploded into human consciousness in a special way within the last 100 years, during which so much of our view of the world and our knowledge of the history of our planet and the universe, its age and scope, has emerged. Science’s new creation story tells us that our universe began 13.8 billion years ago with the “big bang” (which was in fact utterly silent). Science has also unleashed powers of technology in our midst that like everything else can be used for constructive or destructive purposes since they carry both light and shadow.
As scientific discoveries continue to shape our view of the world, new names for God emerge corresponding to these shifts. Credit: Creative Commons.
Where is God in all this? Are new names for God emerging from science? Thomas Aquinas says, “A mistake about creation results in a mistake about God.” Mistaken science of the past has surely distorted our God talk and God imaging. But let us turn Aquinas’s words around: insight about creation results in insight about Divinity.
I would like to offer a few names for God that derive from today’s science and that seem germane to our time. One new name—offered by physicist Erich Jantsch in The Self-Organizing Universe—describes God as “the mind of the universe.” Jantsch defines “mind” as “self-organization dynamics at many levels, as a dynamics which itself evolves.” He compares the paradigm of self-organization in science with the experience of the mystics over the ages, writing, “This connectedness of our own life processes with the dynamics of an all embracing universe has so far been accessible only to mystic experience.” He goes on to describe natural history as the evolution of consciousness.
Where is God in all this? Jantsch argues that the divine “becomes manifest … in the total evolutionary dynamics of a multilevel reality…. The God-idea does not stand above and outside of evolution as an ethical norm, but in true mysticism is placed into the unfolding and self-realization of evolution.” In other words, God evolves and “God is evolution.”
Astrophysicist Arne A. Wyller takes a similar approach to science and God, describing God as a “Planetary Mind Field” that “is itself evolving in its creativity” and is restrained to conform to existing physical laws in its biological creations. Wyller also argues that there is a biological aspect of evil in human behavior and that this evil derives from the imperfect coupling between the rational part of the human brain and the emotive and reptilian parts. The Mind Field itself is all about love. In his book The Planetary Mind he writes:
The idea that humans create evil by their imperfect mastery of the evolutionary gifts of the Mind Field, the rational brains, the emotive brain, and the reptilian brain, one on top of the other, in no way needs to reflect on the attributes of the Mind Field. In contrast, Nature around us bespeaks of its love.
Wyller predicts that our evolution will move us toward a community based wholly on the principle of love in a new unstructured religion that is “more global, less ritualistic, and less dogmatic.”
Light and Matter
A third area in which contemporary God-talk is flourishing is in the area of light. As I pointed out in my study One River, Many Wells, I find that light is the most universal image of God among the known religions of the planet. Whether one considers African or Celtic religions, or the Buddha saying “become a light unto yourself,” or Christ saying “I am the light of the world,” or Judaism teaching about Shechinah, the name of God as Light is found most everywhere. It is also found in contemporary science. Light is far more present than matter in the universe. As Wyller points out, “No matter what scenario we envision for the details of the creation of the Universe, we are left with the incontrovertible observations that a flood of light dominates our Universe…. For every particle of matter there are 1 billion particles of light.”
With the discovery that, in David Bohm’s words, “matter is frozen light,” science allows us to put to rest the horrific dualisms of spirit vs. matter that have haunted western consciousness at least since Plato. Matter may be frozen or very slow-moving light, but light is the name for God world over! What does that mean? Matter is incarnated spirit—and it is far rarer than light! We who are incarnated light (i.e., material) are rare in the universe. Rejoice!
Darkness: The Apophatic Divinity
A fourth way to name and approach God is through a discussion of darkness. In a universe we now understand to hold 97 percent more darkness than light, Darkness becomes more than ever an operable name for the Divine. The Double Dark theory of the universe calls for an explosion in our time of an apophatic Divinity that, as Meister Eckhart put it, “has no name and will never be given a name,” the Divinity of “superessential darkness.” Says Eckhart: “The final goal of being is the darkness of Divinity.” He reminds us that “God is nothing; but God is also something.” In other words, Nothingness is another name for God.
One reason for the rise of the apophatic Divinity in our time are the multiple stories emerging about dark matter and dark energy. As astrophysicists Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams have pointed out in their book The New Universe and the Human Future, one gift of today’s science is to have discovered that we ride in a sea of darkness. If over 97 percent of the matter of the universe is dark matter or dark energy, we ought to synchronize our theologies and spiritualities with these facts (otherwise we fall into Aquinas’s “mistake about creation [that] results in a mistake about God&rdquo.
Primack and Abrams invite us to imagine the entire universe as an ocean of dark energy, explaining that “the larger the universe expands, the faster more dark energy gets created.” This sounds like mother power if I have ever heard it: creativity generates more creativity, expansion generates more expansion. This is the Cosmic Mary, the Black Madonna, at work in the universe. The darkness that characterizes dark energy, dark matter, and black holes finds its human counterpart in the mystery of the unconscious. Eckhart tells us God is “a being beyond being and a nothingness beyond being” and “the ground of our souls is dark.” Ours are a time for learning to dwell in that nothingness and that beyondness—a time for silent receptivity in “the cave of our hearts.” In meditation we discover these truths.
Transformative Action: God as Creativity, Justice, and Compassion
A fifth area in which contemporary God-talk comes alive concerns creativity and compassion. Thomas Aquinas calls God “the Artist of artists.” God or the Holy Spirit is the implicit power of creativity itself, the urge to beget, the urge to make, the urge to give birth. What does God desire us to give birth to? To justice, compassion, and love—for God is described as constituting all of these things.
The Jewish prophets remind us time and again that compassion and justice are one. Our striving for justice is a striving for God. God is the love we strive for and the love we learn to give and receive; God is the justice we work for; God is the compassion we grow into. God is the Holy Spirit of creativity that births the universe. We experience God when we too are in a creative state. In that sense we are, as Eckhart says, “the mothers of God,” ever birthing Divinity, participating fully in the divinizing of the universe and in the exponential increase of awe, wonder, and beauty. Of course, like any mother, we do not know what our progeny is until we give birth to it, so in this way, as Eckhart says, God is still “unborn and needing to be born.” In this way too we are without God until we start birthing compassion and justice.
God as Life
Medieval Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen explored the Divine Feminine in her writing. Fox writes, "Naming the feminine side of Divinity gives inspiration and support to women struggling with their womanhood." Credit: Creative Commons.
A sixth area for contemporary God-talk is in the discussion of God as life. To speak of God as life is to recognize all of life—its awe and wonder, its beauty and grace, along with its pain—as God-experiences. The great mystic Howard Thurman, whose book Jesus and the Disinherited Dr. Martin Luther King carried with him to jail on thirty-nine separate occasions, says this about God and life: “The core of the analysis of Jesus is that man is a child of God, the God of life that sustains all of nature and guarantees all the intricacies of the life-process itself.” For Thurman, God is the “common center” that births life and what is at the heart of life itself? “Life is alive; this is its abiding quality as long as it prevails at all. The word ‘life’ is synonymous with vitality.” I consider “life” and “spirituality” and “vitality” to be synonyms. Clearly Thurman does also. To be spiritual is to be fully alive. Yet Thurman alerts us to how we can be so focused on each individual expression of life that we can miss its deepest reality—“the fact that life itself is alive.” Not only Thurman but also other mystics including Hildegard, Aquinas, Eckhart, and Tolstoy talk about God as Life. In my very first book I defined prayer (and still do) as “a radical response to life.” Perhaps Arthur Rubenstein puts it best when he says:
I have noticed through experience and through my own observations that Providence, Nature, God, or what I would call the Power of Creation, seems to favor human beings who accept and love life unconditionally. And I am certainly one who does, with all my heart.
Substitute “radical” for “unconditional” and you understand my definition and experience of prayer.
My Own Names for God
Thus far I have laid out some new (and often ancient) names for God, identifying deep experiences from which names for God can emerge—and have emerged for me in my own experience. In what follows, I’d like to share some more personal reflections on my own encounters with the Divine.
In so much of my work, reading, writing, liturgy, action, I experience God as Truth and God as Justice. I see Jesus as a rabbi or teacher and I see teachers or rabbis and all beings as other Christs. I see the Cosmic Christ as the presence of glory and radiance, beauty and elegance, in all of creation from microcosm to macrocosm. (I also see this as the Buddha Nature present in all things and as the Shechinah reflecting the numinosity of things.) I see the Cosmic Christ as “present with God before the creation of the world” and present in all creative acts as Wisdom and glory (doxa in Greek). I also see the Cosmic Christ as the wounds in all things—and I see all things that suffer as being like the Christ on the cross. I experience God as Holy Spirit that, like the wind, is invisible but tangible and very real. Spirit is especially active in our creativity, intuition, and inspiration.
In short, I subscribe to R.D. Laing’s philosophy that “God is our experience of God” because I see experience as primary. As the psalmist says, we must “taste and see that God is good.” Tasting and wisdom are essentially the same words in both Hebrew and Latin. Spirituality is about tasting. No one can do it for us.
As a “spiritual” theologian, I believe it is my vocation to speak to the experiential side of religion. I name the experiential side of religion as “mysticism” (our Yes and love of life) on the one hand and “prophecy” (our No to injustice) on the other. Our response to both is, I believe, our prayer. Our Yes and our No come from very deep places.
A Lifetime of Experiencing God
Over the course of my life, in addition to the names above I have encountered or listened to God in such ways as these:
In Nature: I encountered God early on in lightening storms when I was a child growing up in Wisconsin, in the tranquility and beauty of the snow, in the colors of leaves changing in the autumn and in the smells of leaves burning, in sunshine, in dark nights, in the stars, in the smell of newly cut grass.
In Sport: Playing outdoor sports like football and baseball has often brought together for me the spiritual experience of nature (sunshine, grass, wind, rain), body, and community (team awareness and “team-work&rdquo in what have felt like God experiences. A certain spiritual intoxication happens. A mystical encounter with life at its best.
In Books and Ideas: Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” blew my soul wide open in high school. Since then, I have encountered God in the works of all kinds of authors—including Mary Oliver, Howard Thurman, Joanna Macy, Thich Naht Hahn, the Dalai Lama, Hildegard of Bingen, and countless more.
In Science: I encounter God in the works of scientists such as Arne Wyller, Erich Jantsch, Thomas Berry, Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack, Brian Swimme, Albert Einstein, and many others.
In Music: I recall hearing Beethoven’s seventh symphony for the first time when I was in ninth grade—it made me want to dance. I have encountered God not only in classical music but also in the prophetic music of the sixties created by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and more—and of course more recently, Lenny Cohen.
Fox encountered God in nature: in the beauty of snow, in the colors of changing leaves, and in sunshine. Credit: Creative Commons.
In Scripture: I read the Bible from cover to cover as a teenager, going at it daily for twenty minutes per day. I did my master’s thesis in theology on the “prayer of Jesus in the New Testament” and it was there that I learned the deep connection between prayer and culture and how to understand Jesus one must ground oneself in his Jewish roots. I continue to encounter God in the writings of the prophets and in the wisdom literature.
In Liturgy: I frequented daily mass as a teenager, even though I attended a public high school. I was especially inspired by the Saturday Mass, which was always dedicated to Mary or the feminine divine. In my nine years of Dominican training I continued to encounter God through spiritual practices such as mantras (i.e., praying the rosary), processions, Gregorian chant, stations of the cross, vows, and daily mass. Praying, vision quests, sweat lodges, and sundances have been a rich way of feeding my ceremonial soul since.
In Silence: I also encountered God in my many hours of silence and meditation during my training as a Dominican. I cherished the silence that we maintained at meals, at night, in the morning, and in our rooms, and it spoke deeply to me—so deeply that my confessor suggested I become a hermit. After thinking it over, I gave it a try for one summer, joining a hermit colony on the island of Vancouver. I have often felt that I ran on the energy from that rich experience for twenty years. Nature itself is a school of silence if we allow it to be.
In Study and In Writing: Study and writing bring together everything I have learned with everything I am striving to learn and share with others. A great flow of creativity and grace occurs often for me while learning. The same occurs sometimes when I am lecturing, teaching, or preaching and experience deep exchanges with students or other listeners.
In Social Action: In social action I experience God. I came of age during the Civil Rights movement and it had a deep effect on me. One of the gifts I received the day of my first mass as a new priest was a subscription to the NAACP. The anti–Vietnam War movement, the ecology movement, the women’s movement, and the gay and lesbian movement have all shaped my experience of God and resulted in my expulsion from the Dominican Order. My social commitments eventually led me to stand up to the Vatican for selling its soul to the CIA and to neofascist movements such as Opus Dei, Legion of Christ, and others, and I continue to encounter God in sacred activism and struggles for justice.
Creating the Cosmic Mass and Alternative Education
In the current moment I work to rebirth new forms of worship using postmodern art forms of DJ, VJ, rap, and much more in an interfaith context through birthing what we call the “Cosmic Mass.” I have committed myself to working with the young to birth postmodern forms of worship and became an Episcopalian in order to work with young people from the rave movement in England committed to reinvigorate liturgy.
A woman sits at an altar at a Cosmic Mass. Credit: Andrew Young
I have been pursuing the idea of an alternative model of spiritual education since the 1970s, when I launched the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality, a master’s program in spirituality at Mundelein College in Chicago based on the idea that one cannot teach spirituality in an exclusively left-brain model of education. When Cardinal Ratzinger, having hounded this project for twelve years at Holy Names College in Oakland eventually succeeded in shutting it down, I started the University of Creation Spirituality, which offered a whole new kind of doctor of ministry program, seeking to bring spirituality and work together. Many professionals, from engineers to social workers, from therapists to doctors, from artists to activists of various stripes, joined the program to bring their professions more alive. I experience the God of Justice in these projects and struggles.
Years ago I was interviewed on Dutch television, and when the camera was off, the interviewer, a man in his early forties, said to me eagerly: “I have to ask you this one pressing question. Do you Americans really believe that we can still experience God?”
That may be the difference between pro forma religion and living religion: spiritual experience. The mystics are those who have tasted the Divine, and I believe that means all of us.
New names for God do not necessarily drop from the sky or arise from a book; they come from our experience of the living God in his/her living universe and from our own encounters with life. They emerge in our psyches and intuition and imagination. By listening more intently to the depth of our experience of Life in all its wonder and its pain, its fullness and its emptiness, God emerges often with fresh wording from a place of deep silence. It is our deep experiences of awe and amazement that gestate new names as we stammer to name the unnameable anew in each generation.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Summer 2014 print issue: Thinking Anew About God. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/god-anew to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)
Matthew Fox is author of thirty-two books on spirituality and culture including Original Blessing, A Spirituality Named Compassion, The Reinvention of Work, Letters to Pope Francis, The Pope’s War, and most recently Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times.
Does the Buddhist idea of “no self” strike you as bizarre or outrageous? Sunada has been reflecting on this difficult concept, and shares her thoughts on it so far. It isn’t just an obscure philosophical point for mental gymnasts, she says. Paradoxically, she thinks the ideas can help us in a very real way toward finding and becoming more of who we really are.
If I asked you who you are, what would you say? Many people might begin by telling me what they do for work – teacher, software engineer, accountant. But no, I’d say. That’s the work you do, not who you are. If you changed or lost your job, that identity would disappear. So who are you really?
OK, then next you might tell me something about your family and your people – perhaps you’re a mother or father, a person of African descent, an American citizen, and so on. But no, that’s you in relation to others. So who are YOU, independent of them?
“There really isn’t anything we can point to within ourselves that we can confidently say is a core essence that will never change.”
So then you might bring up your personality or values – an introvert, a romantic, or that you have a deep love of beauty. But I’d say these are descriptors of ways you behave or what motivates you. They aren’t who you are.
The thing is, we can continue this exercise forever, but we’ll never find anything we can nail down as “who we are.” That’s because everything we come up with is superficial and impermanent. There really isn’t anything we can point to within ourselves that we can confidently say is a core essence that will never change.
Let me be clear that this idea isn’t saying we don’t exist. If we walked into a wall, our bodies would bump against it and we’d feel pain. Yes we exist! Instead, what it’s really saying is that we’re constantly changing beings, always in flux. We’re not permanent, fixed entities. We’re more like rivers. If you stood on a bank and watched a river, the water molecules passing by now would be different from what passed by a moment ago. So then how can we say it’s the same river? Giving it a fixed name and identity is just a convention that humans came up with so we can talk about it. The whole idea is a fiction.
At this point, you might argue that there are core aspects of our character that don’t seem to change over our lifetimes. OK, now we’re getting into some tricky territory. The problem is that as soon as we attach labels and concepts onto something, our egos kick in and start objectifying it, nailing it down, and spinning off stories to make something permanent out of it. And that’s what can get us into trouble.
Let me illustrate with an example of my own. Some of the traits that emerged very early in my life were my hard-working and self-motivated nature, and that I enjoyed accomplishing goals I set for myself. The various labels I took on included “high achiever,” “Type A personality,” “motivated by excellence.”
But labels are traps. With every one of them comes a whole string of stories, assumptions, and beliefs. And for the most part, they don’t match with reality. I took my labels to mean I should go after a high-paying, high-status professional job, become part of a “respectable” (i.e. conventional) community … you get the idea. But more than that, I felt I had to do my absolute best at everything I did. I was driven to excel at everything I took on because it made my ego feel good.
Many of you know my life story, so I’ll keep it short here — but basically, my house of cards came tumbling down hard in my thirties. I had so taken in my own stories of what being excellent meant that I wasn’t seeing any of the signs around me that were telling me otherwise. My physical health collapsed and I fell into a depression. Then on top of that, 9/11 happened, which among other things, pretty much closed the door on my career.
“…look at what I’m bringing to the table RIGHT NOW. Not my concepts of who I think I am or should be, but the full, raw potential of what I have in this present moment.”
So what did the idea of “no self” have to teach me about all this? First and foremost, drop the stories. In any given moment when I’m faced with a choice, look at what I’m bringing to the table RIGHT NOW. Not my concepts of who I think I am or should be, but the full, raw potential of what I have in this present moment. Of course, this doesn’t mean I disregard everything from my past. I have all that I’ve learned from my life experiences, all the skills and knowledge that I’ve acquired, and all my personal strengths and talents. But the real question is, how are those things actually manifesting in me right now, and how do they apply to the situation at hand? It’s not about the degrees I have, or the idea that I strive toward excellence, or that I want to succeed. Those are my stories. What’s really present for me right now, and what’s the most positive choice I can make based on that?
The Buddha’s teaching of no-self is about letting go. Let go of our stories, or in short, our egos. Our egos think those stories bring us security, but in reality they act more like ill-fitting glasses that distort our vision. But at the same time, the teaching isn’t telling us to be passive and let the winds blow us around. It’s about being so completely immersed in and open to the present moment that we know clearly and fully what the situation is – including our own strengths and weaknesses. With that clarity of vision, we can choose to flow more in harmony with the way things really are by confidently relying on our known strengths, rather than fighting to hold up our version of a fool’s paradise.
This is where the practice of mindfulness is vitally important. At some point in our practice, we begin to let go of our grasping to uphold “me” as something opposed to “the world out there.” We start subtly shifting away from being dualistically MINDFUL OF various things to sensing that we are just awareness itself, inseparable from our surroundings. We stand naked just as we are, the pure potential present in us right now, and flow intimately with the world as it is. That’s the real gift of mindfulness — to feel so confident and in harmony with the world that we can trust and let go of our lives to it.
Back to that notion of character traits that don’t change much – yes, I still have many of those qualities that keep me motivated to do my best at everything I do. But my way of thinking about them has really changed. I now know I’m at my best when I stand back and let the world around me augment what talents and skills I have. I suppose it’s sort of like sailing. Rather than me doing a lot of rowing, I’m learning how to harness the wind so it propels me toward where I want to go.
So if there is no self, then who’s sitting here? I guess the answer is a growing, changing being. In my case, this being also wants to grow toward becoming wiser and more open-hearted, and so every moment, I try to make the best choice I can to point myself in that direction. Where am I going? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. Because the more I make positive choices, the more strongly the flow of my life seems to move in the direction I aspire toward.
I find the Buddha’s teachings profoundly optimistic and hopeful, because it says that we can change, and we can choose how. And paradoxically, I’m finding that the more I take in the idea of no-self, the more I’m becoming who I really am.
Sunada not only teaches the online meditation courses at Wildmind, she runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, through which she coaches people toward finding their inner wisdom and confidence. You can read about her explorations of mindfulness in her Mindful Living Blog or follow her on Twitter.
When asked about self hatred the Dalai Lama said, "Self hatred. What is that? But you have Buddha nature. How could you think of yourself that way?" How can Western Buddhists gain confidence in Buddha nature and nourish our capacity to offer lovingkindness to ourselves?
I went to Dharamsala, India in 1990 for a Mind and Life conference with the Dalai Lama. It was a small gathering of psychologists, scientists and meditators, exploring the topic of healing emotions. “What do you think about self-hatred?” I asked when it was my turn to bring up an issue for discussion. I was eager to get directly to the suffering I’d seen so often in my students, a suffering I was familiar with myself. The room went quiet as all of us awaited the answer of the Dalai Lama. Looking startled, he turned to his translator and asked pointedly in Tibetan again and again for an explanation. Finally, looking back at me, the Dalai Lama tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Self-hatred?” he repeated in English, as though trying out the words. “What is that?”
I think that encapsulates much of what we encounter as the teachings come from East to West. I don’t want to deify Asian culture, but the rock bottom belief that if we went to the core of our being, if we really knew who we were it would be pretty bad news, doesn’t seem to be there, certainly not in the way it exists in the West.
During the remainder of the session, the Dalai Lama repeatedly attempted to explore the contours of self-hatred with us. “Is that some kind of nervous disorder?” “Are people like that very violent?” “But you have Buddha nature. How could you think of yourself that way?” At the end he said, “I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange.”
For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this session took place during our tea break. Several of the Westerners who were old students of the Dalai Lama’s tried to convey some of how the teachings of the Buddha could sound if one was listening with the perspective of self doubt and chronic self condemnation instead of confidence in our Buddha nature, however obscured it might be. They related things like, “When I first heard, ‘Give up self-cherishing, this is what I heard…’” “All this emphasis on effort, when I secretly think I might not be capable of achievement, makes me feel…”
It was amazing. The fact that self-hatred was not a part of his worldview summed up the essence of what I first aspired to through the practice of meditation. And I’ve certainly witnessed in many years of teaching the burden that not really believing we deserve to be happy, not really feeling that we can actually achieve happiness, brings.
In the Theravada tradition when we do lovingkindness meditation, the instruction is to begin by offering lovingkindness to ourselves. The explanation is that this is easiest, that we can “search the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of our love and affection than ourselves and that we won’t find that person anywhere. We ourselves deserve our own love and affection more than anyone.” But for many, that’s not the easiest, by any stretch. It might in fact be the hardest. And so we need a creative approach to accommodate that.
We’re taught (and I teach) that lovingkindness for ourselves is a foundation for lovingkindness for others, so that our motivation in giving is generosity and not martyrdom, our efforts at morality are not guilty and repressive but claiming a slice of the great human compassionate potential as our own. We’re taught (and I teach) that our own happiness, when it goes beyond merely seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, is not born of the circumstance we find ourselves in. Instead, when it is real and stable happiness, it is the basis for our ability to be generous, kind, and compassionate. Not only do we deserve it, we need that kind of happiness.
Implied in all of this is a deep sense of our own worth. What I’ve seen over these years of bringing an Asian teaching to the West, is that this sense needs to be a lot more than implied: it needs to be stated, examined, and nourished; our fears, assumptions and hesitations need to be challenged; and our capacity for freedom and happiness needs to be continuously brought forth and celebrated.
I have been asked (and I often ask myself) how a Taoist approach to life responds to the ultimate Yin of life - death. As I enter my 73rd year the question is anything but theoretical. It is a reality that insists on breaking through the walls of my culturally conditioned denial and avoidance. But let’s stick with philosophy for a moment. The folk Taoism of Chinese culture entertains various beliefs in reincarnation, rebirth, and multiple heavens and hells, but the philosophical school of Taoist thought - that of Lao-Tzu and The Tao Te Ching - does not speculate about an afterlife. It does not deny the possibility, but it is frustratingly consistent in its refusal to pretend to know the unknowable. Instead it recommends the wise practices of; “letting go,” and of “not knowing.” I’ll “know” someday. In the meantime I want to practice the wonderful art of letting go and develop a relationship of gratitude with this ultimate Yin that is asking for my attention.
I am coming to understand that the presence of death breathes life into the too-easily shrugged off concept of letting go. The Tao Te Ching, repeatedly advises the practice of letting go - of opinions, beliefs, desires, things, and even of people. The Buddhist ideal of non-attachment fit well with Taoist thought when the two philosophies blended in China two millennia ago. Both continue to stress the importance of ceasing to cling. Yet it is all to easy to delude myself into thinking that I am not attached, while in the back of my conditioned mind the thought process is actually: “I’m not attached. I’m just confident that my life tomorrow will have the same perks and pleasures that it contains today. It’s always been that way and I don’t see it changing.” This thinking process is the essence of clinging, and clinging is the root of humanity’s stress, tension, and unhappiness no matter how much my conditioning tries to insist otherwise.
I do not advocate a morbid preoccupation or obsession with death. I am finding, however, that the acknowledgement of its reality can enhance life in ways that the practice of denial and avoidance can never fathom. One of the changes that the growing awareness of the ultimate Yin has brought to my life is the joy of actually letting go, not just pretending to let go. I am now able to say, from experience rather than philosophy, that letting go increases joy and pleasure in events, things, and people. What I have believed for decades to be true, I now find actually is true!
I am healthy and take great pleasure in the elements of my life, but my physical energy and muscular strength is noticeably less than it was five, or even two, years ago. On the other hand, my pleasure is noticeably greater. My delight in the sights and sounds of the natural world is increasing almost daily. My gratitude for simple things has expanded - for the aroma and taste of morning coffee; for pasta sauce simmering on the stove; for the breeze that comes through the window touching even a mid-summer day with coolness; for Nancy’s loving presence on the patio in the early morning.
Those of you who have had this ultimate Yin enter your life suddenly rather than gradually know how wrenching the process of letting go can be when it is imposed upon you. One of my dear friends has recently discovered that he has a debilitating and terminal disease that will take his energy and his life, sooner rather than later. I can only imagine the fear and grief that he and his spouse must be facing, yet they both report the presence of a marvelous joy that comes from remembering their long years together, from sitting on their patio with evening tea, and from learning how to care for and to be cared for in new and tender ways.
These friends have had a crash course in letting go. I am reminded that, for the moment, I can take this course a bit more leisurely but take it I must. It is a course we all must take. We can’t “test out of it” with our philosophical meanderings. We will, however, all surely graduate. In the meantime, I think that Taoist thought advises us to allow the mystery of death to teach us the true meaning letting go. This, I believe, will bring us greater joy and appreciation than any of the false promises our acquisitive culture has fostered will ever be able to do. As one of my folk heroes, Arlo Guthrie, says, “Die now, go later!”
SOURCE: Taoist Living