Obviously we are a unique species. Just look around: humans have transformed much of the surface of the earth, remolding it for our own convenience. We have fulfilled God’s injunction in the first chapter of the Bible: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26) A few chapters later our dominion is reiterated: “And fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air . . . into your hands they are delivered.” (9:2) We may wonder what it means to be made in God’s image (more on that later), but our superiority to all other creatures is thereby divinely sanctioned, with the apparent implication that they exist for us to use.
These verses are often cited as one root of the ecological crisis, because the consequences of that superiority— technological, at least—have become devastating. It is not surprising, then, that an increasing number of people now doubt that we should anoint ourselves as the pinnacle of creation. Deep ecologists claim that the natural world should not be understood as a resource for humans to exploit, for all living beings have inherent worth. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that evolution does not imply that we are a unique species: any perception of progress is a delusion based on human arrogance.
From a Buddhist perspective, however, our situation is more complex. The earliest texts emphasize how precious human life is. According to an analogy repeated three times in the Pa ̄li Canon, to be born as a human is more rare than the chance that a blind turtle, rising to the surface of the sea only once every hundred years, would put its head through the hole in a wooden cattle-yoke floating on the waves. In this case, however, the emphasis is not on some innate superiority but on our unique potential. Viewing ourselves as better than other species, which exist for our benefit, is not the only way to understand the unique position and role of humans on the earth. This alternative perspective needs to be clarified. In what ways are we special, and in what ways are we not?
From an evolutionary perspective, a tendency toward more complexity and greater awareness is apparent. Many important biological traits have originated and improved over time, most noticeably the better information-processing abilities provided by larger brains. In accord with this, not all scientists are as uncomfortable as Gould in viewing evolution as progressive. The renowned biologist E. O. Wilson, for example, claims that progress “is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by almost any conceivable intuitive standard, including the acquisition of goals and intentions in the behavior of animals. It makes little sense to judge it irrelevant.”
But can progression be understood in a way that does not fall into the hubris that worried Gould?
Here I think we can bene t from Buddhist teachings about the “two truths,” which distinguish the highest (absolute) truth from conventional (relative) truth. From the ultimate perspective there is no such thing as progress, because no matter how simple or complex phenomena (forms, things, etc.) may be, they remain “empty” (shunya) of any self-existence. Everything is interdependent, a process arising and passing away according to conditions. In cosmological terms, our self-organizing universe ceaselessly generates new forms, and all of them are equivalent insofar as they are impermanent products of the same cosmic creativity. There is no progress or decline because, in terms of that generative process, there is no gain or loss. There is no more value to a rock or tree than to a chimpanzee or human, because better or worse does not apply here. Each of them simply is, not as a distinct thing, but as an “empty” manifestation. And from this perspective nothing is lost if civilization collapses or even if humanity becomes extinct. Other species will continue to evolve, because the universe will continue to generate forms.
Yet that perspective is not the only perspective. “Form is emptiness,” declares the Heart Sutra, but also “emptiness is form.” In terms of that relative dimension — focusing on the forms themselves — there is evolutionary progress: from unicellular to multicellular life, from reptilian to mammalian brains, from conscious primates to self-conscious human beings. And, according to traditional Buddhist teachings, only humans can awaken and become Buddhas. That is why it is so important not to waste our precious human birth.
Creatures that Create
In this way the “two truths” doctrine of Buddhism can help to answer the question of whether human beings are special in some way (which does not necessarily mean that we have dominion over the rest of creation) or are no more special than any other species (as Gould and many others believe). Both perspectives are valid. In one way, we are creatures just like every other creature and of no more value. Nevertheless, there is something that distinguishes human beings, as Buddhism also emphasizes. One characteristic of that distinctiveness is that we are creatures that know we are creatures; moreover, we are creatures that create, and know that we create. If the universe is not a thing but an ongoing creative process, we have become its epicenters, in a way that none of its other forms are (so far as we know). With us, new types of creativity and flourishing become possible.
Many species create. African termites construct complex mounds more than thirty feet high that include nursery chambers and fungal gardens. Unlike such instinctive behaviors, however, humans create something immeasurably more complex and interesting: culture, which in turn re-creates us and conditions the further possibilities we can envision and realize. If we don’t assume the usual distinction between biological and cultural evolution, we can see civilization as a continuation of the same generative process. Our supersized neocortex and opposable thumbs enable us to be co-creators. If “God” is another, more familiar term for the intrinsic creativity of our ever-transforming cosmos, is this what it means to be “made in the image of God”?
We transform eating into growing food, cooking, and dining; procreation into romance, weddings, honeymoons, marriage, and family life (and divorce); communicative grunts into literature, philosophy, and other types of storytelling. We create new “species” that could never evolve without us: hand axes and knives, houses and schools, temples and cathedrals, string quartets and jazz quartets, economic systems and political institutions. In this fashion the universe becomes endlessly richer in ever-ramifying possibilities. Humans are not just one more manifestation of this process: we have become a unique and important contributor to its incessant creativity.
Modernity has brought about an explosion of ingenuity incomparably more sophisticated than anything that existed previously. Today, innovation of all sorts has become an ever accelerating feedback loop, as scientific discovery and technological achievements enable fresh ones. Thanks to new communications media, only one person needs to discover something important; within a few days most people who follow the news can know about it, and within a few years it can be utilized around the world.
We have become so accustomed to this process that we now take it for granted, yet it is one of the most extraordinary features of contemporary life. And, although I am as concerned as anyone to decry the institutionalized greed that motivates and exploits so much economic activity today, capitalism, with its encouragement of the entrepreneurial spirit, has played an essential role in promoting that creativity, and continues to do so.
There is another implication to be highlighted: the most important thing that humans create is meaning. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, famously claimed that, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” But to examine the universe objectively and conclude that it is pointless misses the point. Who is comprehending that the universe is pointless? Someone separate from it, or someone who is an inextricable part of it? If cosmologists themselves are a manifestation of the same universe that cosmologists study, with them the universe is comprehending itself. Does that change the universe? When we come to see the universe in a new way, it’s the universe that is coming to see itself in a new way.
Weinberg’s bleak scientific conclusion is very different from the traditional mythologies of perhaps all ancient civilizations. For them the world was objectively meaningful in the sense that humans are a part of a larger pattern and that we have an important role to play in maintaining that order. In ancient Egypt, rituals were necessary to keep the sky goddess Nut separated from the earth god Geb, or chaos would overwhelm the earth. Mesoamerican civilizations believed that human sacrifices were necessary to sustain the cosmos, the most famous example being the Aztec practice of cutting out the hearts of war victims as offerings to the sun god.
Few people still believe in such mythologies, fortunately, yet belief that the universe is ultimately pointless is problematic in a different fashion. From one perspective meaning is inescapable: it is built into our priorities. If my focus is “looking out for number one,” the meaning of my life becomes the promotion of my own best interests. If my own well-being cannot really be separated from the well-being of others, then that basic orientation may be based on a delusion; and if that delusion is widespread, the meaning built into the functioning of a whole society can be self-stultifying and even self-destructive. Such a motivation may nonetheless seem appropriate if the universe is pointless and our species is nothing more than an evolutionary accident. But if we are a way that the generative cosmos becomes self-aware, there are more interesting possibilities.
One uniquely human characteristic, emphasized by Buddhism, is that we can develop the ability to “dis-identify” from anything and everything, letting go not only of the individual sense of separate self but also of collective selves: dissociating from dualisms such as patriarchy, nationalism, racism, even species-ism [“we’re human, not lower animals”]. Meditation develops such nonattachment, yet the point of such letting-go is not to dissociate from everything but to realize our nonduality with everything.
That human beings are the only species (so far as we know) that can know it is a manifestation of the entire cosmos opens up a possibility that may need to be embraced if we are to survive the crises that now confront us. Instead of continuing to exploit the earth’s ecosystems for our own supposed bene t, we can choose to work for the well-being of the whole. That we are not separate from the rest of the biosphere makes the whole earth our body, in effect, which implies not only a special understanding but also a special role in response to that realization. As the Metta Sutta declares: “Let one’s thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world — above, below, and across — without any without any enmity.”
To ask whether the universe itself is objectively meaningful or meaningless is to miss the point — as if the universe were outside us, or simply there without us. When we do not erase ourselves from the picture, we can see that we are meaning-makers, the beings by which the universe introduces a new scale of significance and value.
The Responsibility of Being Special
If we are special because of our potential, we must choose. We are free to derive the meaning of our lives from delusions about who we are — from dysfunctional stories about what the world is and how we t into it—or we can derive that meaning from insight into our nonduality with the rest of the world. In either case, there are consequences.
The problem with basing one’s life on delusions is that the consequences are unlikely to be good. As well as producing poetry and cathedrals, our creativity has recently found expression in world wars, genocides, and weapons of mass destruction, to mention a few disagreeable examples. We are in the early stages of an ecological crisis that threatens the natural and cultural legacy of future generations, including a mass extinction event that may lead to the disappearance of half the earth’s plant and animal species within a century, according to E. O. Wilson—an extinction event that may include ourselves.
What needs to be done so that our extraordinary co-creative powers will promote collective well-being (collective in this case referring to all the ecosystems of the biosphere)? Must we evolve further — not biologically but culturally — in order to survive at all? From a Buddhist perspective our unethical tendencies ultimately derive from a misapprehension: the delusion of a self that is separate from others, a big mistake for a species whose well-being is not separate from the well-being of other species. Insofar as we are ignorant of our true nature, individual and collective self-preoccupation naturally motivates us to be selfish. Without the compassion that arises when we feel empathy — not only with other humans, but with the whole of the biosphere — it is likely that civilization as we know it will not survive many more generations.
In either case, we seem fated to be special. If we continue to devastate the rest of the biosphere, we are arguably the worst species on earth: a cancer of the biosphere. If, however, humanity can wake up to become its collective bodhisattva —undertaking the long-term task of repairing the rupture between us and Mother Earth — perhaps we as a species will fulfill the unique potential of precious human life.
Your image of God creates you. This is why it is so important that we see God as loving and benevolent and why good theology is still important.
One mistaken image of God that keeps us from receiving grace is the idea that God is a cruel tyrant. People who have been raised in an atmosphere of threats of punishment and promises of reward are programmed to operate with this cheap image of God. They need deep healing, because they are actually attached to a punitive notion of God. Many experienced this foundational frame for reality as children, and it is hard to let go. It gives a kind of sick coherence to their world.
Unfortunately, it’s much easier to organize people around fear and hatred than around love. Most people who want to hold onto power view God as vindictive and punitive. Powerful people actually prefer this worldview, because it validates their use of intimidation. Both Catholicism and Protestantism have used the threat of eternal hellfire to form Christians. I am often struck by the irrational anger of many people when they hear that someone does not believe in hell. Threat of hellfire “works” because it appeals to the lowest level of consciousness, where we all start.
Much of Christian history has manifested a very different god than the one Jesus revealed and represented. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but this “cultural” god sure doesn’t. Jesus tells us to forgive “seventy times seven” times, but this god doesn’t. Instead, this god burns people for all eternity. Many of us were raised to believe this, but we usually had to repress this bad theology into our unconscious because it’s literally unthinkable. Most humans are more loving and forgiving than such a god. We’ve developed an unworkable and toxic image of God that a healthy person would never trust. The mystical, transformative journey cannot take place until that image is undone. Why would you want to spend even an hour in silence, solitude, or intimacy with such a god?
It’s true that there are some troubling passages of Scripture; even Jesus used dualistic and judgmental statements. Jesus was an honest and wise teacher. He knew that clear-headed, dualistic thinking must precede non-dual or mystical thinking. Jesus was particularly emphatic about issues people normally want to avoid, especially social justice teachings. Here he used dualistic examples like God and mammon (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13), the rich person and the eye of the needle (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25), and the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46). Jesus had to make these points absolutely clear, otherwise it’s far too easy to avoid issues of justice for the poor and inclusion of the outsider.
It seems to me that in Matthew 25, when Jesus appears to make threats of “eternal punishment,” he is making strong contrasting statements about issues of ultimate significance, calling the listener to a decision. The trouble with this passage is that we focus on the threat more than on Jesus’ positive promise of “eternal life.” Jesus presents the teaching first in a dualistic manner. When pressed, he explains it in a non-dual way that encourages universal compassion: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Non-dual thinkers can see that he is creating a moral equivalence between what we do to the least of the brothers and sisters and what we do to Christ. So Matthew 25 is supreme dualism overcome by supreme non-dualism. That is what we need. First do your clearheaded, rational, logical study of all sides of the issue of concern. Then you will see that the issue deserves much more subtlety than taking one side and damning all others. Non-dual thinking allows us to calmly hear, calmly detach, and calmly see from a higher level.
In his book, Inventing Hell, Jon Sweeney points out that our Christian notion of hell largely comes from several unfortunate metaphors in Matthew’s Gospel. Hell is not found in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. It’s not found in the Gospel of John or in Paul’s letters. The words Sheol and Gehenna are used in Matthew, but they have nothing to do with our later medieval notion of eternal punishment. Sheol is simply the place of the dead, a sort of limbo place where humans await the final judgment when God will finally win. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, in the end “God will be all in all” (15:28). Gehenna was both the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem—the Valley of Hinnom—and an early Jewish metaphor for evil (Isaiah 66:24). The idea of hell as we most commonly view it came much more from Dante’s Divine Comedy than the Bible. Dante’s Purgatorio and Inferno are brilliant Italian poetry, but horrible Christian theology. Dante’s view of God is largely nonbiblical; however, there are some great insights in the Paradiso.
In his book, Introduction to Christianity, Pope Benedict XVI explains his understanding of the curious phrase in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed: “[Jesus] descended into hell.” Benedict says that if Jesus went to hell, that means there is no hell—because Jesus and hell cannot coexist. Once Jesus got there, the whole game of punishment was over, as it were. One of the most popular icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church shows Jesus with his legs spread, bridging the abyss of hell, pulling people out of the darkness. This is called “the icon of icons” in the East because it shows the highest level of contemplative perspective and the essence of the Good News.
Gateway to Silence: Open me to grace upon grace upon grace.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Today Is a Time for Mercy,” December 10, 2015, https://cac.org/richard-rohr-on-mercy-mp3; Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), disc 3 (CD, MP3 download); and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2007), 162.
See also Hell, No! (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014, CD, MP3 download).
Posted in Daily Meditations | Also tagged Dante, Divine Comedy, Eastern Orthodox Church, Inferno, Inventing Hell, Isaiah 66:24, Jon Sweeney, Luke 16:13, mammon, Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24;, Matthew 6:24, Pentateuch, Pope Benedict XVI, Purgatorio, Sheol
--“Dalai Lama”, Ink Drawing by RIYAZ POCKETWALA
I often think about a memorable conversation I had with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1990 while we were at a small conference in India sponsored by the Mind & Life Institute. At one point during the event, I had an opportunity to ask the Dalai Lama a question, so I ventured,
“Your Holiness, what do you think about self-hatred?”
He looked at me seeming somewhat confused and asked in response: “What’s that?”
It powerfully sums up a fundamental difference between our Western, ambition-focused value system and the Buddhist moral compass. While I came to meditation at 18 as a result of dealing with feelings of inadequacy and self-judgment for my entire young adult life, the Dalai Lama didn’t even know what the meaning of self-hatred was. When I explained to him what I meant by the term — talking about the cycle of self-judgment, guilt, unproductive thought patterns — he asked me, “How could you think of yourself that way?” and explained that we all have “Buddha nature.”
In other words, he simply didn’t get the fact that many of us are often overcome with fundamental feelings of negativity and inadequacy. I revisit this story repeatedly because there was, and still is, something so freeing about the fact that the Dalai Lama was so surprised about this negative way of relating to ourselves, an attitude that seems so common in today’s day and age.
I don’t want to deify Asian culture, or Tibetan people, or Buddhist thought. There are problems in every society, group, and philosophical school. But, I think it is powerful to reflect on what we think we will find within if we look underneath our habits and our desires and our fears. Is it a capacity for love and awareness? Or is it pretty much nothing, or nothing good?
In particular, I’ve thought about this in the process of writing my upcoming book theses past few months. I’ve found that many, if not most, of the people with whom I’ve spoken, feel the greatest sense of struggle around the question of cultivating love for oneself. We are conditioned to associate self-love with selfishness, and self-deprecation with virtue. It often seems easier to access feelings of judgment and anger about ourselves than towards those around us.
(B.C. Lorio / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)
In my research for the book, I’ve encountered extensive information about evolutionary biology, and specifically about the phrase “negativity bias.” This concept refers to the fact that our nervous systems are programmed, on an evolutionary level, to look for possible negative outcomes in our surroundings. Our job as living creatures is to spot imminent danger and any sense of threat in our surroundings. Looking for negativity in our lives is literally a survival mechanism, dating back to the times when we were actually required to protect ourselves from being killed by predators. Given that most of us probably have no need to measure ourselves against the potential threat of a tiger or bear, we simply become lost in this pattern of dwelling on negativity, which includes more and more fixation on our own failings and inadequacy.
When I went to India to learn meditation, I hoped that I could become an entirely different person through meditating. Unsurprisingly, I found that I was unable to establish a practice of meditating from this place of self-hatred. In order to get to a place where I was able to feel a positive change in my life from the practice, I had to challenge my own self-judgment, as difficult as that was. Because it went against my habit, my survival mechanism of pointing out the negative in my life, it felt almost dangerous. By challenging myself in this way, I was able to let go of my constant state of guilt and find a sense of spaciousness and acceptance, even if negative feelings arose. Creating that spaciousness as a foundation allowed me to get to the place where negative feelings could come in, and go out, with greater ease and gentleness.
Of course, sometimes we have feelings of self-judgment; it’s important for us not to get caught up in judging the self-judgment, which leads to a vicious cycle of negativity. Years ago, a friend of mine visited the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts for the annual three-month retreat, and our teacher Dipa Ma was visiting during the course. One day during the retreat, my friend simply felt like he “couldn’t” meditate, and wanted to go check into a motel to watch football. So he did, but hardly cleared his mind.
When he came back, he was encumbered by self-judgment and preemptive shame about telling Dipa Ma. He ended up telling her despite his fear, and she unsurprisingly was OK with it and accepted him unconditionally. “Now you can begin again,” she reassured him, repeating a phrase that I now use to describe the practice of meditation to my students, no matter if they’re beginning their practice or have been meditating for years. Every time we sit with our breath, we can begin again an incalculable number of times. We can let go of our distractions, our ruminations and establish clarity of vision that is also filled with love.
Beginning again doesn’t mean we are lazy, or don’t seek excellence in what we undertake. It means we’ve figured out something that isn’t awfully available in our popular culture. Seeking to punish ourselves endlessly will leave us exhausted and demoralized. Caring about ourselves allows us to renew our efforts and continue on. This is the love that the Dalai Lama had tried to explain to me during our talk about self-hatred many years ago.
I posed a similar question pertaining to “self-loathing” to Galen Pearl over at the “NO WAY CAFE” (http://galenpearl.blogspot.com). The following is Ms. Pearl’s response. It’s quite insightful.
Thanks Ms. Pearl!
"I think that we live in a self-created illusion of separation. This illusion leaves us in a state of chronic fear, which can manifest in many ways, including self-loathing. As the Dalai Lama learned, and as you point out, this seems particularly characteristic of Western culture. Western culture has a broad foundation in Christianity, which has permeated our collective psyche with the condemnation of both original sin and sin in general. I'm making no judgment on that--just an observation.
On top of that, as Buddha taught, we become attached to our beliefs and desires and aversions, which results in the suffering of humanity.
All wisdom teachings seem to have in common the path towards freeing ourselves of our illusions and restoring us to our true nature, which is one of joy and unity. Self-loathing is eliminated when we are living in harmony with our true selves.
This opens the door for all sorts of views on theology and culture and psychology, more than we can handle here. But that is my offering in answer to your question."
TAGS: ASIAN TEACHING, BUDDHA NATURE, DALAI LAMA, LOVINGKINDNESS, MEDITATION, MIND AND LIFE CONFERENCE, SELF HATRED, SELF-CHERISHING, THERAVADA TRADITION, WESTERN BUDDHIS