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Encounter with Enlightenment

We've been reading and discussing Robert Carter's Encounter With Enlightenment: A Study of Japanese Ethics in my Deep Ecumenism class. It's an occasionally dense read for a student unused to thinking in philosophical terms, but for a reader willing to devote some time offers worlds of insight into the relationship between ethics and enlightenment in Eastern thought -- and into the ways in which Buddhist teachings about enlightenment might be understood to mesh with Jewish teachings about encountering God.

Earlier this fall I posted some thoughts on Sufism (arising out of our study of William Chittick's excellent book Sufism: A Short Introduction) which sparked fascinating converstion here; I thought I'd do the same with my response to reading Carter. In this post I'll draw out some of the ideas that interest me most in his book, among them thoughts on dualism and non-dualism, assimilating one tradition into another, self and no-self, and connection with ultimate reality.

The first quote I'd like to highlight comes from the book's forward, written by Yuasa Yasuo. He writes, "That which is metaphysical does not possess visible form but exists prior to all that is in the world and transcends it. At the same time, however, it is continually emanating into the world."  There's real resonance between this and the way I, as a Jew, understand God. The insistence on lack of visible form is Maimonidean; the sense of the Eternal emanating continually into the world is mirrored throughout our mystical tradition.

Speaking of that mystical tradition, I have a preexisting interest in the relationship of mysticism to language, which this book feeds. Yasuo writes,

Zen places its fundamental teaching on 'no dependence on word[.]' That is, teaching does not depend on linguistic expression. In spite of this, Zen places extreme importance on dialogue between master and disciple, and has left an inordinate amount of dialogue records. Zen ignores this sort of contradiction altogether, because in Zen dialogue, one must speak what is originally unspeakble.

Speaking what is originally unspeakable is one of the fundamental challenges of mysticism. I think of it as a theological challenge (e.g. one that arises when one is trying to talk about God), but obviously it's an issue also in systems like Buddhism where belief in the positive existence of God is not foundational.

As a Westerner, Carter is conscious of the risks of appropriating Eastern thought. His response to that possibility rang a bell for me. He writes:

I see no reason why I can't temper my own world-view with a healthy dose of otherness. Indeed, it seems imperative to me that I do so, and doubly so at a time when both the natural and the human world are in such disarray, and at such risk. I wish to rethink, and to rethink fundamentally, in order to breathe new lfe and new health into my way of being in the world....We live at a time when boundaries are breaking down of necessity[.]...We are no longer strangers to each other, by and large, and as a result we ought to be less 'alien' as well.

As we wrestle with the question of finding an appropriate way to engage with other traditions, I think Carter's insight on this matter is invaluable. His language of "healthy dose[s]" puts me in mind of Reb Zalman's assertion that we need to know what spiritual food is good for us, and where to go to find the nutrients we need. And his assertion that we live in a time when boundaries are disintegrating, and ought therefore to be less "alien" to one another, strikes me as a deeply ecumenical one. (Guess that's why we read this book in my Deep Ecumenism class.)

I thought of Reb Zalman again when I read, "The past can never be an answer unless we bring it into the present after incredible amounts of thinking and adaptation. It needs to be reappropriated, and that is hard work." We can't move forward if we drive only with the rearview mirror, but nor can we move forward if we don't know where we've been. Balancing these two impulses isn't easy, but it's important.

There is a difference, Carter asserts, between assimilating another tradition into one's practice and what he calls "fusing horizons:"

To assimilate a tradition to one's own always already presupposes that one's own 'house' of language and being is the ruling one, and that whatever is learned must be fitted into this jouse, or left outside to rust harmlessly on the lawn. There is no thought of foundational renovation....[S]ome do break through the barriers of inscrutability and mystery, and successfully begin the arduous and demanding business of the fusing of horizons.

The first category of interreligious encounter is relatively easy to contemplate. The second category is more threatening to my lizard-brain: what might it mean to fuse horizons, to renovate the foundation of my religious thinking? What if my Judaism is changed by the encounter? (Would it be so bad if my Judaism were changed?) Grappling with these questions gives me sympathy for those who find some of Renewal's practices threatening to the Jewish status quo -- and reminds me that as much as I'd like to manifest what Ken Wilber calls a second-tier consciousness, I'm not always there yet.

Carter begins the section entitled "The Transformation of the Everyday World" by asserting, "It is sometimes alleged that Oriental thought is unable to make legitimate moral distinctions because it sanctifies this world, making all of it good, or as the Buddhists say, nirvana. All action, all existence is religiously drenched."  He goes on to unpack reasons why this allegation is unsound, to his way of thinking, but I'm interested primarily in the notion that in Buddhist life all existence is "religiously drenched." How does that differ from the Jewish notion that we sanctify ordinary existence by the practice of mindful brachot?

In trying to explain the Buddhist understanding of self and no-self, Carter runs into the predictable problem of language's inadequacy to describe nondualism. "Language is being stretched beyond its normal elasticity, and hence, no phrasing seems quite right: 'selfless self-centeredness,' or the expanded self, or selfless compassion, or non-self-centeredness-all of these reach beyond the dualistic thinking which separates self from other."

Language presupposes dualism, distinction between self and other, subject and object. How then can we use language to describe a state that transcends and shatters these boundaries? Beyond and before all distinctions, Carter teaches, is the state of sunyata, "the root source from which all dualistic distinctions are carved or discriminated; it is the original nothingness (or no-thing-ness), or radical emptiness. It is the formless prior to the coming into existence of all distinctions." Again, I see in his description a mirroring of a Jewish mystical understanding of God. I understand the ein-sof, literally "Without-End," as that transcendent aspect of God which exists beyond and before all distinctions of consciousness.

Questions of self and other, and of the ultimate insubstantiability of selfhood, play a large role in this book. Carter draws on David Loy's words to explain,

If the self is not thought of as an independent, self-existing, substantial entity, we are less likely to have a disposition towards self-love and self-attachments, the Buddhists maintain...Indeed, this reification and substantialization of the self, 'and its resultant self-centeredness are the root-source of evil and human suffering. Accordingly, as a way of salvation, Buddhism teaches the necessity of realizing the nonsubstantiality of the self, that is, of realizing no-self or anatman.'

Within Buddhism, it is attachment to self and to ego which causes problematic thinking (and from problematic thinking arises problematic or immoral behavior). The solution to this is recognizing the "nonsubstantiality" of the self. To find an analogue for this teaching within our tradition, I look to Rabbi Rami Shapiro's understanding of non-dualistic Judaism. For Shapiro, as for many within the Jewish mystical tradition, there's no fundamental division between us and the God Who emanates us into being. Once we recognize that we are emanations of the living God -- as are all other beings and creations -- how can we treat one another with anything other than I-Thou respect?

Carter shores up that interpretation for me when he writes, "The state of enlightenment is a non-dual state, a direct awareness of the interconnection that is discernable at the base of all things."

Perhaps because I went into this text with an eye to finding resonances between Buddhism and Judaism, they popped up everywhere. "From the Shinto perspective cheerfulness is ethically relevant," Carter writes, "for how one greets and treats others is a part of what it means to be in social relationships." That put me in mind of Shammai, who maintained the importance of facing one's fellow human beings with cheer. Scholar and rabbi Joseph Telushkin has maintained that Shammai had an irascible disposition (as evidenced in the story about the man who wanted to learn Torah standing on one foot, who Shammai beat with a stick), and thus asserted the need for good cheer as a way of reminding himself to enact his higher self rather than his baser impulses. (Of course, beating the man with a stick was a kind of Zen koan, too...)

Toward the end of the book, Carter writes, "Zen relentlessly pushes us toward satori. Alas, most of us will never experience enlightenment. Most of us will cling to the teachings, rules, and commandments as though they were -- well, the word of God....[W]e will be applying only the husk of enlightenment out of ignorance of the inner enlivening kernel itself." The disjunction he describes, between the experience of holiness itself (whether one frames it as enlightenment or as mystical union with God) and the texts which arise around it, is a familiar one. I understand the risk of becoming so attached to the words which describe the Ineffable that one might lose access to the Ineffable; it's a kind of idolatry in which the texts replace the Reality they're meant to point at. In Chittick's terms, it's an obsession with the finger pointing at the moon, blinding one to the moon itself.

Ultimate reality -- enlightenment, God -- is beyond language, but we necessarily use language to describe it, and that's a tough problem to work around. "Watsuji calls to our attention the Japanese word wakaru, which means 'to understand;' it is derived from wakeru, which means 'to divide.' In order to divide, to wakeru, one must already have presuppsed something whole, that is to say, some system or unity which one now sets about to divide in some significant way." How like this is to our term binah, understanding, related to beyn, between.  In his commentary on the Jewish mystical work Sefer Yetzirah, Aryeh Kaplan asserts that the divine quality of chokhmah, wisdom, is understood as pure, undifferentiated Mind. Within that text, the antithesis of wisdom is binah, understanding. At the level of understanding, ideas exist separately. Understanding is the level where division and difference exist. Language operates in the realm of binah, differentiating that which -- in a fundamental sense, in the mind of God -- is all One.

Ultimate reality is One; we are many and fragmentary. That teaching permeates Sufism and Judaism as well as Buddhism. Carter quotes Nishida in asserting that our differentiation is necessary -- and necessarily leads us back to oneness.

[D]ifferentiation and development of consciousness is the other side of unity, and it is necessary for the establishment of consciousness.  In fact, it constitutes a search for a greater unity, which is the alpha and omega of consciousness. Thus in this sense, the religious demand is the demand for the unity of consciousness and, further, the demand for union with the universe.

As Peter Aronson notes in Reflections of a Jewish Buddhist, at the higher or more esoteric levels these two traditions overlap in profound ways. They can't, and shouldn't, be reduced to "the same thing" -- but I hear harmony between Carter's description of the Buddhist desire for unity of consciousness, and the Jewish desire for connection with God. We're not singing the same song, but our melodic lines intersect in beautiful and fascinating ways.

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