December 18, 2008

Tom's First Sermon at Union Gospel Mission

[This is what my talk would be, if the Union Gospel Mission would allow, me, an unordained Buddhist, to give a sermon there. But, ahh, it's, um, not likely that I'll be allowed ... I would guess.]

I want to talk tonight about the fictional children’s story set in the Garden of Eden found in Genesis 1, 2 & 3. It’s a wonderful tale, even better than "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," but like "Goldilocks...," it never truly happened.

It’s an especially swell tale, that Eden thing, though. It’s the OBVIOUS story that a tremendously-insightful ancient person would invent to explain the beginnings of human life.

Think about it: God is Perfect, All-Knowing; Has nothing; Needs nothing. Then, just for kicks, he divides the universe in half.

Before the first day, he creates time, separating it from stillness.
On the first day, he separates darkness and light.
On the second day, he separates heaven and earth. … and so on.

God, ONE UNIFIED PERFECTION, WHICH IS CONTENT FREE, is dividing, like a growing human cell, dividing and multiplying and, in a process of evolution, coming to life. For, what else can he do? Perfection has no counterpart. So, he creates a counterpart by cutting Himself in half an endless number of times.

In the Garden of Eden, which is the opposite of the chaos of the life on earth that God created in the first seven days, He divides Himself from Himself, creating a companion, his image, Adam. And later, to give a companion to Adam – so that Adam can be that much more like God – cuts a piece out of the first man, giving him a woman.

And then, rather slyly, He creates that which is forbidden, separating it from that which is fully available: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil and The Tree of Immortality are forbidden, separate from all of the other vegetation which Adam and Eve may eat. [So now, it seems, that Adam and Eve are made less like God, to whom nothing is forbidden.]

Now, it’s a curious thing. Adam and Eve only know about the The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil, and not about the The Tree of Immortality. [I’ll get back to that later.]

Because it is human nature – or, truly, the nature of all life – to be especially, keenly interested in whatever is forbidden, Adam and Eve end up eating the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, just as God had wanted them to. For now, they are even that much more like God. They are exploring; going beyond themselves, exercising their free will. [For how else, other than by thinking about what you're not supposed to do, can anyone exercise free will?]

God, now, kicks Adam and Eve out of Eden – making them, then, EVEN MORE like God. Remember, God had kicked himself out of “Perfect Oneness which is Content Free.” Now, God is kicking Adam and Eve out of the BORING AS HELL Garden of Eden, where you are not confronted by challenges.

Now, Adam and Eve have left their so-called idyllic spot. Just like us, Adam and Eve have been left to fend for themselves on the dangerous – and sometimes cold and wet – pathways of earth.

Now, we are told, God installs the cherubim and a flaming sword at the gate of Eden to keep Adam and Eve out, lest they eat of the Tree of Immortality. [BTW, be aware that this information seems to tell us that Adam and Eve were never immortal up to this point.]

The cherubim and the flaming sword. What do they represent? Cherubim is plural for cherub. So, here another duality. What are the TWO cherubs? [A cherub is defined as “Usually represented as a pudgy, blond haired child that has wings sprouting from his/her back.”] So, what do the TWO cherubs represent?
- - - -

Let us pause here for a moment.

The story, I hope you all are coming to understand, IS METAPHORIC!!! It is not to be taken as a concrete happening, as conservative, painfully-literalist Christians are inclined to take things.

Why MUST there be a fictional story in the Bible? [A book already full of parables (i.e. fictional stories), I might add.] Because it is only through metaphor that psychological issues can be addressed. Religion is about spiritual matters, not dead rocks. There are some things we cannot tell each other about: specifically, those experiences that happen within the lonely space of our minds. We cannot comprehensively communicate our suffering and gladness. Language is a blunt, crude, wholly-inadequate instrument. Thus, until [referencing 1 Corinthians 13] we meet face to face, and see through the glass clearly] we need metaphor.
- - - -

Now, what do the two cherubs with the flaming sword represent? Fear and desire.

Fear and desire are the two things that bar us from the Tree of Immortality. Fear and desire are the two prime things in human nature that make us unlike God. If we can overcome our fear (primarily of death, but of other things, too) and desire (for the fun, alluring and diverting things to be found on earth), then we would easily pass through the gate and return to Eden.

How do I know that the cherubs represent fear and desire? Because it is the message of overcoming for enlightenment, which is the twin of being born again. But also because that superior religion, Buddhism, TELLS US SO! [See “Mysticism and beyond: Buddhist phenomenology, part II”]

Buddhism, too, has its famous gate. It’s called the “gateless gate,” since, in reality, there is nothing barring one from passing through it, EXCEPT those ephemeral twins, FEAR and DESIRE. In the Buddhism theme, one of the guards has his mouth open and the other his mouth closed. But it truth there is nothing to stop you from entering the gate. Indeed, the whole point of your life is for you to pass through the gateless gate.

Many Buddhists, famously, sit in meditation. What does meditation accomplish? It stills the mind. What is the benefit of stilling the mind? It is a return to The One, to the Timeless Now, before God subdivided himself into all things on heaven and earth.
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Now, remember, in the Garden of Eden story, God has gone from THE ONE to THE MANY. At first God was ONE, then he became THE MANY. The Roman philosopher Plotinus tells us that our life has this path: Flee the Many, find the One; having found the One, embrace the Many as the One. This path, too, is the ground of The Perennial Philosophy. [You can read some about Plotinus relating to Homeless World Sacramento in a prior post to this blog: "Phobos and Thanatos"]
- - - -

So, here we are. You and me and Adam and Eve and everybody, possibly including the squirrel in the tree. We are outside of Eden, fending for ourselves in a dangerous world where there is strife, suffering and incredible injustice. Of course, we imagine a perfect world – a land of bliss. It must be somewhere. Metaphorically, it involves a return to Eden – a return to THE ONE.
- - - -

Now, about those trees. INSIDE the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were forbidden the fruit of ONE tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. OUTSIDE the Garden of Eden, there are TWO forbidden trees, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil AND the Tree of Immortality. Don’t you see!? THE TWO TREES, inside the Garden, ARE ONE AND THE SAME TREE!!! [Inside Eden, before God divided Himself, the trees are one. Outside Eden, in our world of duality, the single tree is seen as two.]

The Garden of Eden tale is telling us that THE WAY BACK INTO THE GARDEN IS THE SAME WAY OUT. But first you must overcome fear and desire. And then, you may eat, again, of the fruit of the tree! MORE knowledge is the return to THE ONE. MORE knowledge is the route to immortality. And what is this knowledge? It is the knowledge of Good and Evil. And what comprises knowledge of Good and Evil? Wisdom and Compassion. [BTW: It is NOT that wisdom and compassion ARE good and evil; they are THE KNOWLEDGE of Good and Evil.] Once you fully have wisdom and compassion, wisdom & compassion become ONE thing [the TWO become One]: Agape – unalloyed, unconditional, unbounded love.

Once you are ONE, again [like Adam briefly was], YOU WILL KNOW GOD [and knowing God is, of course, the knowledge of good and evil] and once you know God, you will love everyone unconditionally, as he does, thus EMBRACING THE MANY AS THE ONE. And THAT is the whole point of your life, dear friends [I think]. The Buddha said at enlightenment, "I am one with all things."
- - - -

So, the Garden represents Heaven. But when you embrace the many, you leave heaven and return to the earth with all its messiness. The Kingdom of Heaven, you see, is here. The Kingdom of Heaven is within. The Kingdom is on earth as it is in heaven. Hallowed be thy name.

Here is something I believe, that I've posted before -- though my believing it or not doesn't make any difference. What I believe is that consciousness is all One Thing and that we are all in the Game of Life, a "cosmic game of checkers," together. Here, then, a snippet from a Ken Wilber interview known as "A Ticket to Athens" which explains things:
Spirit is not good versus evil, or pleasure versus pain, or light versus dark, or life versus death, or whole versus part, or holistic versus analytic. Spirit is the great Player that gives rise to all those opposites equally -- “I the Lord make the Light to fall on the good and the bad alike; I the Lord do all these things” -- and the mystics the world over agree. Spirit is not the good half of the opposites, but the ground of all the opposites, and our “salvation,” as it were, is not to find the good half of the dualism but to find the Source of both halves of the dualism, for that is what we are in truth. We are both sides in the great Game of Life, because we -- you and I, in the deepest recesses of our very Self -- have created both of these opposites in order to have a grand game of cosmic checkers.
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Note: This post is an embellishment of some of Joseph Campbell's ideas in his book "Thou Art That." To Joe: A tip of the hat. My source material is found on ~pg 49-52 which can be seen via Google Books.


anonyrod said...

Nice sermon, maybe it is better that they don't invite you to talk, afterwards you would probably be banned for life.

That's one thing I have noticed about Christians, despite their recognition of god they have a poor view of him, or her, or it. The first fault being that they try to make him another human being. Secondly, they blame all of the bad stuff on him, and then say such stuff as god works in mysterious ways and we don't have a clue why he did such things but he obviously did it for a good reason (all of which makes perfect sense to the parents of some innocent child who was raped and then buried alive).

As for Adam and Eve, here is what Ajarn Buddhadasa said about them"

"If you are a Christian, we request that you think and ponder much about the teaching in the book of Genesis, where God forbids Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Don't go and eat it, or it will lead to knowing how to discriminate between good and evil. Then it attaches with upadana toward that good and evil. And then good and evil become prisons. This teaching is very profound and good, most intelligent and wise, but nobody seems to understand it. People don't show much interest in it and thus can't be correct Christians. If they were proper Christians they would not cling with upadana to good and evil. We must not make either good or evil into prisons. This means not getting caught in the prison of goodness."

From Prison of Life

Tom said...

Thanks, anonyrod.

Of course, I may be creating my own prison by being very critical of the Christians.

But I can't see how Ajarn Buddhadasa is right that discriminating between good and evil is a bad thing - that is, if we discriminate correctly, with few absolutes at either pole, and accept that there are uncertainties.

anonyrod said...

Dear Tom, what he is pointing out is that discrimination is accompanied by clinging, attachment, and that this attachment creates prisons.

From a Buddhist perspective there is no evil, just ignorance, and knowing whether something is good or bad is not wrong, just that you should not have attachment.

Like when someone kills a child, we all know that it is wrong, but when people have attachment they want blood, to kill in return.

That particular excerpt was called "Goodness is prison", not that there is anything wrong with goodness, just that when people are attached to it you get problems, and when they dicriminate then they will view anything not matching up to their view of goodness as evil.

The problem when we discriminate is that we usually have some attachment to one side or the other.

Nagarjuna said...

That's quite a sermon. I'd almost love to be there when you gave it. Notice I said "almost." :-)

But you make one point that I really question. You apparently accept Joseph Campbell's argument that some truths, especially human psychological ones, can only be conveyed through metaphorical myth rather than through literal statements. I not only question whether this is true but also whether myths might actually cause more harm than good because so many people end up embracing them as literal truths and can never venture beyond this to understand their metaphorical meaning.

Might it not be better to brush aside religious myths and, from the outset, state their metaphorical psychological and spiritual meanings in clear and compelling LITERAL language?

Tom said...

Thanks, anonyrod. I think I understand, now.

Tom said...

Nagarjuna: I accept your point, but of course getting an allegory-free rewrite of the Bible accepted would be a daunting achievement.

Could we make do without metaphor and allegory? Can literalness 'get us there'? Or is metaphor and allegory a stepping stone toward a literal understanding?

I don't know; it's beyond my meager ken. I think Buddhism often 'tries' to skip past allegory and ends up with a state of confusion -- and maybe this is instructive. For example, take the Buddhist idea of sunyata/emptiness. Almost immediately, the translation into English of Sanskrit connotes nihilism. Yet, modern ideas of what sunyata meant 2500 years ago, and how we should understand the idea today, leaves us somewhere sort of midway between annialation and a concrete idea of 'self.' Justin's essay in Progressive Buddhism "Empty of What?" tries to present a literal understanding, yet it is all still impossible to get one's brain around OTHER than by knowing somehow in one's head in a non-language way what sunyata is.

Also, it is mostly the case that allegory arrives on the scene because man does not (yet?) have a concrete understanding. The Garden of Eden story comes from an ancient straining effort to understand how man must have come to earth, and from that supreme effort, some truth [or a lot of truth?] may have been found/achieved.

Joseph Campbell's 'thing' was to amass the tall tales of ancient cultures, see into their similarities, and then come to understand the underlying allegory. Thus, allegory arrives usually without prehension. Of course, Star Wars and the Matrix movies are intentionally slathered with usually-too-obvious symbolism -- which makes them a little unsatisfactory since they can seem too much like a lecture rather than a tale, or a 'real' hero's journey that is likened to what we should find in our life.

They call him James Ure said...

I always thought that "God" putting the forbidden tree in the garden was a total set-up. That zany "God" is always giving people tests. He must have nothing better to do than test us all the time.

Tom said...

Ah, wise James. God needs challenges! Think how totally boring heaven would be: standing around in our bodies of light, praising God, endlessly, endlessly.

We'd bore God to tears.

So, yeah, God is testing us. But with the Ultimate Test. The most exciting one possible. As life on a rock in the impossibly interesting universe.