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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

11 JUNE, 2015

What Trees Teach Us About Human Nature, Relationships, and the Secret to Lasting Love: Wisdom from a 17th-Century Gardener

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“Not only rational and irrational, but even inanimate creatures have a voice, and speak loudly to men, and it is our duty to learn their language, and hearken to them.”

Since the dawn of time, trees — the oldest living things in our world — have been our silent companions, which we’ve transmuted into the myths and metaphors through which we make sense of the world — from their deity-like role in ancient Indian legends to their long history as the perfect visual metaphor for visualizing human knowledge to their symbolic representation of the cycle of life. Perhaps because they are so strong and so silent, bearing steadfast witness to our earthly lives and while reaching up toward the heavens, we’ve long projected our spiritual longings onto trees and turned to them for answers to our existential questions.

Four centuries before Hermann Hesse proclaimed trees “the most penetrating of preachers,” the English author Ralph Austen, who wrote in great detail and with great beauty about various aspects of gardening, explored just that in a peculiar pamphlet titled The Spiritual Use of an Orchard or Garden of Fruit Trees (public library) — the companion to his 1653 book A Treatise on Fruit-trees, showing the manner of grafting, setting, pruning, and ordering of them in all respects. Beneath the highly religious language of the era and the highly esoteric subject of the book lie unexpectedly elegant metaphors for human concerns of eternal resonance to secular life — from the secret of lasting relationships to the true test of character.

The book was republished nearly two centuries later, with this disarming note to the reader from the editor and publisher, a T. Pettit from London’s Soho, making the modern reader — this modern reader, at least — wistfully wishful that publishers today had such courtesy and warmth for their audiences:

Come, now learn a parable of the Fig tree — and (believe it) there are but two things requisite to enable you to learn to profit or profitably:

first, a heart to receive instruction;
second, The Great Teacher for your instructor;

and then, I am sure you will get heavenly lessons by heart.

I leave the worthy Author to tell his own story, and so bid you heartily welcome to a participation of some of the Fruits to be gather’d from this Orchard.

Grace be with you, and farewell,
so says your Servant,
The Editor.

Waltham Abbey,
September 26, 1847

In the original 1653 “Preface to the Reader,” Austen vows to “endeavour to make some spiritual use, and improvement of [fruit trees]” and writes:

When we have gone through all the works and labours to be performed in the orchard, and have received thereby a rich recompense of temporal profits and pleasures in the use of the trees and fruits, we may (besides all that) make a spiritual use of them, and receive more and greater profits and pleasures thereby. Men are not wont to stint themselves at worldly profits, but why are they not willing to receive all kinds of profits, or why are they not willing to receive the greatest, and the best? … How much more foolish and unwise, is he that seeks after temporal profits, and neglects spiritual, and eternal? Therefore be careful to make a spiritual improvement of fruit trees.

Artwork from 'The Night Life of Trees,' based on ancient Indian mythology. Click image for more.

But while Austen’s text bears the deep religiosity of his era, at its heart is a deeper, timeless wisdom that speaks to those of us who are nonreligious but invested in attaining a sense of secular spirituality — for who can deny that trees teach us to belong to our own lives? Trees, he assures us, contain great gospels of truth:

The world is a great library, and fruit trees are some of the books wherein we may read and see plainly the attributes of God, his power, wisdom, goodness &c. … for as trees (in a metaphorical sense)* are books, so like-wise in the same sense they have a voice, and speak plainly to us, and teach us many good lessons.

[…]

Fruit trees, though they are dumb companions, yet (in a sense) we may discourse with them… We may read divine truths in them, as in a book consisting of words and sentences… Not only rational and irrational, but even inanimate creatures have a voice, and speak loudly to men, and it is our duty to learn their language, and hearken to them.

To do this, Austen argues, requires that we begin seeing other creatures as more than mere means to our practical ends — a remarkably prescient case, given that half a millennium later, we still struggle to stop operationalizing creatures far closer to us on the evolutionary chain than trees. Beneath his religious language, a hallmark of his era, is a deeper message about how we commune with the universe by attending to all of its life forms so we can glean what Mary Oliver memorably called “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.” Austen writes:

If we make use of creatures to serve our turn only in reference to our toward man, we make not half that use of them as we ought, we should study the creatures and learn from them, to bring us nearer the Creator, climbing up by them, as by step, or stairs, till we ascend to the highest good.

How much of the goodness and excellencies of God do fruit trees show forth when they (in their seasons) flourish with leaves, blossoms and fruits; especially considered not only as they appear beautiful to the eye, but also with all their inward beauties and perfections, their virtues, and uses in the life of man?

Centuries before tree-hugging became a cultural trope, Austen extols the rewards of tree-whispering as a form of contemplative practice and intimacy with our own minds:

Fruit trees discover many things of God, and many things of ourselves, and concerning our duty to God. We enquire of, and discourse with fruit trees when we consider, and meditate of them, when we search out their virtues and perfections… when we pry into their natures, and properties, that is speaking to them.

And when we (after a serious search) do make some use and result of what we see in them, when we collect something from them concerning the power, wisdom, goodness, and perfections of God, or our duty to God, that is the answer of the fruit trees; then fruit trees speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.

Our considerations of them are the questions we put to them, and the inferences or conclusions, are their answers. Those are the lessons they teach us… Fruit trees are a Text from which may be raised many profitable doctrines… Many things may be learned from fruit trees for spiritual profit… Fruits of faith, love, joy, peace, and other fruits of the spirit, bunches of grapes, for the feeding, and refreshing of our souls…

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth from Encyclopédie (1780), from Manuel Lima's 'The Book of Trees.' Click image for more.

Austen, who was only forty-one at the time of this treatise and by that point had already planted more than a thousand fruit trees with his own hands, draws on his experience with these silent sages to offer a number of apt metaphors for the central concerns of human life. In one passage, he explores what the grafting of fruit trees teaches us about compatibility in human relationships. Half a millennium before modern psychologists and relationship gurus began pointing to shared values as the single most important factor in lasting relationships — that is, relationships in which the partners nurture each other’s continual growth — Austen writes:

Grafts and stocks joined together of contrary, or much different natures, will not grow, nor thrive together; if they be joined in grafting, either the graft grows not at all, or else very poorly and weakly, and in a few years decays and dies; but if the kinds of trees are joined together according to rules of nature and art, then they thrive together vigorously, and bear fruits plentifully… Persons joined in any relation, they have comfort or affliction together according to their natures.

[…]

Likeness is both the cause and the bond of love.

And yet, Austen admonishes in a remarkably modern sentiment, this similarity shouldn’t be of the superficial kind — much like one wouldn’t graft two trees that have similar leaves but thrive in wholly different conditions, one shouldn’t seek a mate merely on the basis of appearance or alignment of demographic variables like class or income. He counsels:

Likeness in natures, manners, customs, begets love, and distance in these causeth dislike, and sometimes hatred… This should teach all who intend to enter into the stage of marriage, to look well into their choice, that it be upon good grounds , and not for worldly advantages in the first place, as most do, and match a soul to the earth, between which there’s no likeness, nor proportion: neither are they to look so much at likeness in the more low, and inferior respects, as person, age, birth, friends, riches, &c. (though care is to be had in these) as to that great likeness, in natures, manners, habits, and principles of the mind, for these are the springs and the ties of love, therefore “be not unequally yoked together.”

In a sentiment rather ominous given its proximity in time to Henry VIII historic break with the Catholic Church in order to get the first true divorce, Austen adds:

The sad experience of many thousands may be a sufficient warning to others.

If that love flows according to that likeness of natures, then let this teach us to strive for increase of grace…

Austen seems to remind us, too, that lasting, nourishing relationships are daily work:

Every act of grace adds something to the habit, so that the habits of grace are mightily confirmed by their frequent operations.

Austen also admonishes against mistaking appearances from true grace, arguing that — like trees — the people most obsessed with the shape and style of their persona are most vacant in the substance of their personhood:

Fruit trees that bring forth the fairest and most beautiful blossoms, leaves, and shoots, they (usually) bring forth the fewest, and least fruits; because where nature is intent, and vigorously pressing to do one work (spending its strength there) it is at the same time, weak about other works; but distinct, and several works of nature, in moderate and remiss degree, are all promoted at the same time… Generally those persons who are excessive, and most curious about the forms of duties have least of the power of godliness.

Artwork from 'The Night Life of Trees,' based on ancient Indian mythology. Click image for more.

The true test of character, Austen suggests through his arboreal metaphor, is in the fruits of our personhood — our motives, the actions they produce, and the aftertaste those leave in others — rather than in the appearance of our persona:

The fruits of trees discover plainly of what kind the trees are: the leaves and blossoms … may deceive us, but the fruits cannot deceive us, but discover manifestly of what nature the trees are… The ways, and conversations of men discover what their natures are: If men of discerning judgments will but exactly observe, and try the actions of others, they may (by degrees) conclude from what principles they act [but] from the actions and ways of some persons, a man cannot easily conclude this; vices in some are clothed in the habits of virtues.

Complement The Spiritual Use of an Orchard or Garden of Fruit Trees with a lovely children’s book based on an arboreal allegory for the human imagination, the fascinating history of visualizing human knowledge through trees, and Eve Ensler’s beautiful meditation on how trees lead us back to ourselves.

* Only a century earlier, Gutenberg had ensured that trees are books in a less-than-metaphorical sense.

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27 MAY, 2015

An Animating Presence: Dani Shapiro on the Quest for a Connected Consciousness

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The art of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue.

“I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars,” physicist Margaret Wertheim asserted as she turned to Dante in reconciling science and spirituality. Centuries earlier, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, had articulated the same sentiment — and yet here we are today, we secular moderns, still struggling to find a form of spirituality without religion.

That’s what novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro explores with uncommon elegance, unselfconsciousness, and unaffected candor in Devotion (public library) — her moving memoir of the search for a sense of sacredness as a nonbeliever shackled by the tyrannical routines and responsibilities of contemporary adulthood, longing for some form of tangible assurance that there is a greater meaning to be savored.

Art by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Jolted out of the trance of productivity by the prod of pain — her father’s untimely death, followed by the near-loss of her baby boy by a rare disease that strikes seven out of every million infants — Shapiro finds herself on the so-called spiritual path, skeptical of even its terminology. But the journey that unfolds is unexpectedly revelatory, her record of it profound without the slightest trace of precious.

As she plunges into the Eastern traditions — arguably the most common refuge for those disenchanted with the organized religions of the West and drawn to the philosophical aspects of spirituality — Shapiro is discombobulated to encounter the familiar demons of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, which she had long left behind and was now, in the wake of her father’s death, trying to understand.

Amid a Metta meditation — Metta being the Buddhist practice of “inclining the mind in the direction of good will” — she is suddenly gripped with unease at the required chants:

After a little while, I became troubled by the question of prayer. Was this a prayer? Who was it directed to? Was I petitioning some almighty being? The God of my childhood asserted himself: judging, withholding, all-knowing. In turn, the phrases themselves became supplication, bargaining, appeasement. My mind was aswirl once again, and I could barely sit still.

When she raises the question to the group, the teacher — none other than the venerable Sylvia Boorstein — explains that rather than metaphysical sorcery, the chants are meant to channel our deepest wishes. (“May I feel protected and safe,” this particular one goes. “May my life unfold smoothly with ease.”) Shapiro’s initial reluctance to give the notion of a wish much credence (“Wishing was something children did — wasn’t it?”) eventually gives way to grasping the deeper significance of these ritualistic incantations:

What did it mean to fervently, wholeheartedly name a desire? … To speak out of a deep yearning — to set that yearning loose in the world? … Could a wish be a less fraught word for a prayer? … Maybe it wasn’t about who, if anyone, was on the other end, listening. Maybe faith had to do with holding up one end of the dialogue.

Writing itself, she comes to observe, works much like a prayer. With an eye to Buddhist scholar Steve Cope’s term for early meditation experiences — “the noble failure” — Shapiro, who has since expanded on this idea in the magnificent Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, reflects:

In novels — as in life — there is no perfection. We do the best we can with the tools we have at our disposal. Given that we are changing, the tools are changing, the thing itself is changing — there must be a moment when we stop. When we say, This is the best I can do for now… There is nobility in the effort, courage in the dailiness — the doggedness. It is a process of trying and failing. Of beginning again.

And so it is with the search for meaning — like writing, its rewards spring not from the finished product but from the integrity of the process, from the act of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue along its ongoingness.

Shapiro brushes with a stark testament to this as she nears the end of her journey. Over tea, a friend asks whether she has found an answer to her spiritual inquiry. She recounts the exchange:

There’s nothing trickier than trying to talk about personal belief. Add on top of that trying to talk about personal belief with a very smart atheist. But I had some things to say. And wasn’t that the whole point, really? To opt back in? To form — if not an opinion — a set of feelings and instincts by which to live?

“I would say yes.” I took a leap. “I believe in God more than I did a couple of years ago. But not the God of my childhood. Not a God who keeps score, and decides whether or not to inscribe me — or anybody else — in the book of life.”

“So what exactly do you believe, then?” She sipped her tea and waited for a better answer. I wanted to tell her that exactly and believe don’t belong in the same sentence.

“I believe that there is something connecting us,” I said. “Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.”

I looked at my friend for any sign of ridicule, but saw none. She was nodding.

“An animating presence,” she said.

That was as good a word as any: presence. As in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in the direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this was what I felt. Something — rather than nothing. While sitting in meditation or practicing yoga, the paradox was increasingly clear to me: emptiness led to fullness, nonthought to greater understanding.

[…]

I thought of Sylvia Boorstein’s elegant phrase: complicated with it. We were complicated by our history, by the religion of our ancestors. There was beauty and wisdom and even solace in that. I no longer felt that I had to embrace it all — nor did I feel that I had to run away. I could take the bits and pieces that made sense to me, and incorporate them into the larger patchwork of our lives.

Devotion is a beautiful and deeply gratifying read in its entirety. Complement it with Shapiro on vulnerability and how to live with presence and why creative work requires leaping into the unknown, then revisit neuroscientist Sam Harris on cultivating nonreligious spirituality and Alan Lightman on finding transcendence in everyday life.

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26 MAY, 2015

A Biologist-Turned-Buddhist and His Philosopher Father on the Nature of the Self and the True Measure of Personal Strength

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“You first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist.”

For the past few centuries, Western philosophy has maintained that human beings are driven by enlightened self-interest — a view predicated on the needs and desires of a solid self. Meanwhile, Eastern philosophies and spiritual traditions have long considered the self an illusion — a view with which modern science has recently begun to side.

These contradictory conceptions of the self as a centerpiece of identity and success, per the Western view, and as an illusion, per the Eastern one, are what French philosopher Jean-François Revel and his biologist-turned-Buddhist son, Matthieu Ricard, explore in their extraordinary conversation, published as The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life (public library).

What makes the conversation particularly compelling is the unusual pairing of perspectives — it is not only an intergenerational dialogue between a father and a son who both possess enormous intellectual potency, but a dialogue between Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality with a strong emphasis on science. The scientific perspective, in fact, comes not from Revel but from Ricard, who gave up a promising career as a molecular biologist — he had worked with Nobel laureate Jacques Monod — to move to Nepal and study Tibetan Buddhism. Doubly significant is Ricard’s route to Buddhism: Raised in the strongly secular home of two prominent French intellectuals — his mother, Revel’s wife, was the painter Yahne Le Toumelin — he grew up with only an intellectual curiosity toward religion and turned to Buddhism not out of disappointment with Western faiths but out of what his father calls “a state of indifference to any religion, a kind of religious weightlessness.”

Matthieu Ricard (right) with his father, Jean-François Revel (Photograph: Raphaelle Demandre)

So in 1999, when Revel traveled to Ricard’s home in Kathmandu and the two sat down for this remarkable intellectual encounter, it was the philosophical rather than the religion dimensions of Buddhism that took center stage as the father and son contemplated such immutable human concerns as free will, the meaning of life, the value of scientific progress, and the pillars of the good life. As they speak, each addresses the other as much as he is confabulating with himself, which results in a masterpiece of the art of conversation at its most elevated and ennobling — an exchange of dynamic contemplation between and within minds, driven not by the self-righteous slinging of opinions but by a deep commitment to mutual understanding and to enriching the shared pool of wisdom.

One of the most pause-giving dimensions of the conversation deals with this notion of the self and its illusory nature. When Revel takes issue with the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, pointing out its mystical and scientifically ungrounded suppositions, Ricard emphasizes its metaphorical and philosophical importance over its literal interpretation. Embedded in that notion, he suggests, is the key to unmooring ourselves from the tyranny of the self in the here and now:

It’s important to understand that what’s called reincarnation in Buddhism has nothing to do with the transmigration of some “entity” or other… As long as one thinks in terms of entities rather than function and continuity, it’s impossible to understand the Buddhist concept of rebirth.

[…]

Since Buddhism denies the existence of any individual self that could be seen as a separate entity capable of transmigrating from one existence to another by passing from one body to another, one might well wonder what it could be that links those successive states of existence together… It’s seen as a continuum, a stream of consciousness that continues to flow without there being any fixed or autonomous entity running through it.

Illustration from 'The Magic Boat' by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Sigmund Freud's niece. Click image for more.

Ricard likens this concept to “a river without a boat descending along its course” and is careful to point out a common misconception: Although Buddhism denies the existence of the individual self, it doesn’t deny individual consciousness. He explains:

The fact that there’s no such discontinuous entity being transferred from one life to the next doesn’t mean that there can’t be a continuity of functioning. That the self has no true existence doesn’t prevent one particular stream of consciousness from having qualities that distinguish it from another stream. The fact that there’s no boat floating down the river doesn’t prevent the water from being full of mud, polluted by a paper factory, or clean and clear. The state of the river at any given moment is the result of its history. In the same way, an individual stream of consciousness is loaded with all the traces left on it by positive and negative thoughts, as well as by actions and words arising from those thoughts. What we’re trying to do by spiritual practice is to gradually purify the river. The ultimate state of complete clarity is what we call spiritual realization. All the negative emotions, all the obscurations that render the underlying wisdom invisible, have then been dissolved.

Echoing the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s assertion that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Ricard argues that this recognition of individual consciousness is central to the dissolution of the ego-shell:

It’s not a question of annihilating the self, which has never really existed, but simply of uncovering its imposture. Indeed, if the self did have any intrinsic existence we’d never be able to bring it from existence into nonexistence.

[…]

A nonexistent self can’t really be “abolished,” but its nonexistence can be recognized. What we want to abolish is the illusion, the mistake that has no inherent existence in the first place… whatever we judge to be disagreeable or harmful. But as soon as we recognize that the self has no true existence, all these attracting and repelling impulses will vanish… The self has neither beginning nor end, and therefore in the present it has no more existence than the mind attributes to it.

Ricard, who has since written about the secret of happiness, considers how our natural, everyday experience of the “I” mutates into the illusion of the self, from which all of our suffering stems:

There’s a natural feeling of self, of “I,” which makes you think “I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m walking,” and so forth. By itself, that feeling is neutral. It doesn’t specifically lead to either happiness or suffering. But then comes the idea that the self is a kind of constant that lasts all your life, regardless of all the physical and mental changes you go through. You get attached to the idea of being a self, “myself,” a “person,” and of “my” body, “my” name, “my” mind, and so on. Buddhism accepts that there is a continuum of consciousness, but denies any existence of a solid, permanent, and autonomous self anywhere in that continuum. The essence of Buddhist practice is therefore to get rid of that illusion of a self which so falsifies our view of the world.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

When his father probes how one is expected to effect positive change in the world without a sense of personal agency — another common critique by those who misunderstand the foundational philosophies of Buddhism — Ricard responds:

The wish to allay others’ suffering, which may inspire a whole lifetime’s work, is an admirable ambition. It’s important to distinguish between negative emotions, like desire, hatred, and pride, that solidify still further our self-centered outlook, and positive ones, like altruistic love, compassion, and faith, that allow us to free ourselves little by little from those negative and self-centered tendencies. Positive emotions don’t disturb our mind, they reinforce it and make it more stable and more courageous.

In a sentiment that calls to mind David Foster Wallace on the dark side of ambition, Ricard makes an important distinction between the two types of ambition:

Positive ambition — the pursuit of others’ well-being by all possible means, the fervent wish to transform oneself — is one of the cardinal virtues in Buddhism. In fact, Buddhists nurture one main ambition without any limits, that of removing the suffering of all living beings throughout the whole universe. That sort of ambition stops you succumbing to inertia and makes you strong-minded and determined. So the distinction between the positive and negative, selfless and self-centered sides of ambition is important. You could say that ambition is positive if its aim is to help others. That’s the simplest definition. Conversely, ambition is negative if achieving it is detrimental to others, and an emotion is negative if it destroys your own and others’ inner peace.

He illustrates this with a verse from the eight-century Buddhist sage Shantideva:

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.
Is there need for lengthy explanation?
Childish beings look out for themselves,
While Buddhas labor for the good of others:
See the difference that divides them!

With that great Eastern capacity for holding paradox and fusing contradictory concepts into a unity of wisdom, Ricard argues that shedding the ego-shell actually requires first fortifying our ego — more than that, he suggests, true altruism is the product not of selflessness but of a strong sense of self:

Buddhism’s goal of uncovering the “imposture of the ego,” this ego that seems so powerful and causes us so much trouble while having no existence in itself. Nevertheless, as a first step it’s important to stabilize this feeling of a self in order to distinguish all its characteristics. You could say, paradoxically, that you first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist. Someone with an unstable, fragmented, amorphous personality has little chance of being able to identify that powerful feeling of “me,” as a prior step to recognizing that it doesn’t correspond to any real entity. So you need to start with a healthy and coherent self to be able to investigate it. You can shoot at a target, but not in fog.

[…]

But it’s important not to think that once the imposture of the ego is unmasked you find yourself in a state of inner nothingness, to the point that the destruction of the personality renders you incapable of acting or communicating. You don’t become an empty container. It’s quite the opposite. When you’re no longer the plaything of an illusory despot, like the shadows in Plato’s cave, your wisdom, love for others and compassion can be freely expressed. It’s a freedom from the limitations imposed by attachment to a self, not at all an anesthesia of the will. This “opening of the eyes of wisdom” increases your strength of mind, your diligence, and your capacity to take appropriate and altruistic action.

Revel contrasts this with the West’s “cult of the self” and our civilizational emphasis on “the strong personality” as a hallmark of success, questioning whether there can be a common ground between cultural and philosophical traditions so diametrically opposed in this regard. But Ricard, once again, meets the problem with semantic lucidity that melts away the apparent conflict:

If by personality you mean exacerbation of the ego, simply to have a strong personality seems to me, unfortunately, a highly dubious criterion of success. Hitler and Mao Tse-tung had very strong personalities.

Illustration by André François from 'Little Boy Brown' by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

Echoing Bertrand Russell’s famous assertion that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult… and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it,” Ricard adds:

It’s important not to confuse strong individuality and strength of mind. The great teachers I’ve been able to meet had indomitable strength of mind. You could say they had very impressive personalities, and that they radiated a sort of natural strength that everyone who met them could perceive. But the big difference was that you couldn’t find the slightest trace of ego in them. I mean the kind of ego that inspires selfishness and self-centeredness. Their strength of mind came from knowledge, serenity, and inner freedom that were outwardly manifested as an unshakable certainty. They were worlds apart from Hitler, Mao Tse-tung and the like, whose powerful personalities arose from an unbridled desire to dominate, and from pride, greed, or hatred. In both cases, we’re faced with immense power, but in the first that power is a flow of constructive altruism, while in the second it’s negative and destructive.

The Monk and the Philosopher is a remarkable read in its totality, addressing with enormous depth and dimension such aspects of the human experience as happiness, suffering, education, ethics, and love. Complement it with D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character and Jack Kerouac’s Zen-inspired meditation on the self illusion and “the golden eternity,” then revisit Albert Einstein and the Indian philosopher Tagore’s historic conversation entwining Eastern and Western perspectives with great mutual curiosity and goodwill.

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14 MAY, 2015

Charlotte Brontë on Faith and Atheism

By:

A specimen from the fossil record of Truth and Reason.

“People wish to be settled,” Emerson wrote in his spectacular 1841 essay on character and the key to personal growth, “[but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Exactly a decade later, Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816–March 31, 1855) — a mind at least as brilliant as Emerson’s and a spirit at least as expansive — tussled with this vital and vitalizing interplay of hope and unsettlement as she faced one of the most momentous frontiers of the human experience.

In an 1851 letter to her friend James Taylor, found in Elizabeth Gaskell’s altogether indispensable 1857 biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (public library), 35-year-old Brontë urges Taylor to read a book that had just unsettled her worldview in a most profound way — Letters on the Nature and Development of Man, a collection of correspondence between English social theorist Harriet Martineau and American missionary George Henry Atkinson.

After enthusing about the book’s impact, Brontë writes to Taylor:

Of the impression this book has made on me, I will not now say much. It is the first exposition of avowed atheism and materialism I have ever read; the first unequivocal declaration of disbelief in the existence of a God or a future life I have ever seen. In judging of such exposition and declaration, one would wish entirely to put aside the sort of instinctive horror they awaken, and to consider them in an impartial spirit and collected mood. This I find difficult to do. The strangest thing is, that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank — to receive this bitter bereavement as great gain — to welcome this unutterable desolation as a state of pleasant freedom. Who could do this if he would? Who would do this if he could?

Brontë was perhaps more sensitive than most to the anguish of this “hopeless blank” — nine years earlier, she had experienced one of its sharpest and most personal permutations in the heartbreak of unrequited love, the ultimate devastation of hope for communion met with blankness. (One wonders where Taylor stood on this most intimate continuum of hope and hopelessness — he had proposed marriage to Brontë three times, to no avail. Indeed, the beloved author received a fair share of marriage proposals, which she declined with great psychological mastery.)

And so, with sturdy self-awareness and crystalline coolness, Brontë goes on to articulate the reason so many people believe — choose to believe — in the truth of “God” even when it clashes with the facts of reason and reality:

Sincerely, for my own part, do I wish to know and find the Truth; but if this be Truth, well may she guard herself with mysteries, and cover herself with a veil. If this be Truth, man or woman who beholds her can but curse the day he or she was born.

English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd captured the concept of non-space in his 1617 creation series, long before the concept of vacuum existed in cosmology. Artwork from 'Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time.'

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But Brontë, a woman of intense intellect, decides not to dwell on the unsettling notion of this “hopeless blank” and instead approaches the issue like a scientist — by seeking out alternative hypotheses and subjecting her theories to an objective peer review:

I wish to hear what some other person thinks, — someone whose feelings are unapt to bias his judgment. Read the book, then, in an unprejudiced spirit, and candidly say what you think of it. I mean, of course, if you have time — not otherwise.

Taylor did find the time to read the book and seems to have vehemently dismissed its premise, for Brontë wrote to him in another letter five weeks later:

I do most entirely agree with you in what you say about [the] book. I deeply regret its publication for the lady’s sake; it gives a death-blow to her future usefulness. Who can trust the word, or rely on the judgment, of an avowed atheist?

Brontë’s response, of course, is to a rather crude conception of atheism equating the absence of belief with the very sense of “unutterable desolation” she so feared. But if, as Richard Dawkins reasoned in coining the word “meme,” our ideas evolve much like our genetic material does, then Brontë’s primitive interpretation of faith and materialism is a necessary step in the evolution of our more nuanced contemporary ideas. Having come of age in a deeply religious era as the daughter of a clergyman, she belongs to that pivotal species of ideological amphibians who first emerged from the oceans of religion to step tentatively onto the solid land of reason and secular thought — even if by merely questioning dogmas that had been accepted for eons and being unsettled by alternative views of reality.

It is in no small part thanks to such unsettled ponderings, however primitive, that a century and a half later we can afford to speak of spirituality without religion and watch our scientists turn to Dante for answers and heed Carl Sagan as he whispers posthumously: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”

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