Friday, March 18, 2016

Emptiness and Compassion

"Abundant Emptiness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

From time to time I browse through social media to observe and sometimes participate in various “God” discussions that often take place in some of the online communities. Over the past few days I have been witnessing one of the most fierce “battles about God” that I have ever come across.

“God” arguments like the one I have been following recently usually follow a rather predictable course of events. They usually become very strident and very heated in a very short period of time as the “believers” in the room quote scriptures to argue for the existence of “God” and offer explanations of who God” is and the non-believers respond by appealing to science in order to verify why there is no “God.”

The thing I especially noticed in the latest “God” battle I have been observing was how absolutely sure and certain everyone was about their statements about who “God” is or who “God” is not.

Yesterday as that online battle became more and more heated, I was struck with the fact that no one on any side of the issue “knew what they were talking about” because, when it comes to “God, ” no one ever really knows what they are talking about.

I am reminded of a statement once made many centuries ago by someone who was arguably one of the most influential theologians of the Western Christian Church. Over the course of his life, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote massive, systematic and comprehensive volumes of theological discourse (still read to this very day) and yet in the introduction to his writings he makes the following disclaimer:

This is what is ultimate in the human knowledge of God –
to know that we do not know God.

Aquinas said that "God” is an Unknowable Transcendent Mystery unable to be contained or explained in words or human concepts, and all any of us can ever do is make some feeble attempts to “get at” the mystery. In his massive volumes of theological writings, Aquinas was attempting to do just that” - he was making some feeble attempts at getting an insight into the Unknowable Mystery.

Saint Augustine, another prolific and foundational theologian of Western Christianity put it this way:

In talking about God,
if you claim to understand what you are talking about,
then what you have understood is not ‘God.'

I am also reminded of yet another, more contemporary figure, the renowned monk and author, Thomas Merton. When Merton first became a monk he wrote many books replete with an abundance of theological concepts -  many scripture quotes and references to church doctrine. But the more he advanced along his spiritual path, the less concerned he became about all the many “God” words he had used throughout his career. Toward the end of his life he would simply go outside of his little hermitage where he would sit quietly, gazing at the mountains, listening to the breezes in the trees.

One week before his untimely death in 1968, Thomas Merton (who was a Christian monk but also well acquainted with Buddhist wisdom) was visiting a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka, and as he gazed upon the many Buddha statues in the shrine, he had an intense moment of spiritual clarity. It was the culminating point of his life-long quest for “God:”

Looking at those Buddha figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly,
jerked clean out of my habitual, half-tied vision of things,
and an inner clarity became obvious and evident to me –
everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.
I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of
beauty and spiritual validity.

When it comes to “God” none of us ever knows what we are talking about whether or not we call ourselves believers or nonbelievers, religious people or spiritual but not religious, or atheist or agnostic. None of us really knows what we are talking about.  And yet,  at some deep level we all have a spiritual hunger. Instead of trying to fill the hunger with all our sure and certain words, we might best just sit in the emptiness and make ourselves available to the mystery.

I am in my meditation garden as I write this, looking out into the wilderness around our home- such a perfect icon of a spiritual journey, such an empty place, so wild and untamed and yet abounding with such Beauty that It cannot be put into words:

Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.

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