The Parable of the Golden Buddha

A discovery in Thailand opens a window on one fruit of a spiritual journey.

The golden Buddha in the Bangkok temple of Wat Traimit

In 1954, a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok, Thailand, was undertaking renovations. A stucco image of the Buddha had long sat in the courtyard under a tin roof. The monks decided to build a shrine to shelter it.

The following year the statue was lifted from its pedestal to be moved to its new location. The statue proved surprisingly heavy. The ropes lifting it broke. The image fell hard on the ground. As it did, some of the stucco coating chipped off.

The color of gold gleamed through the crack. When the workmen removed the rest of the plaster, they discovered a gold image underneath. Parts of the head were in fact pure gold. It weighed five and a half tons.

The image had been moved to Bangkok in 1801 from the ruined city of Ayutthaya. There it had sat for many years in a derelict temple. A Burmese army had destroyed the city in 1767. It is now believed that the temple’s monks had covered the statue with clay in hopes that the invaders would not discover what lay beneath.

They were so successful that not only did the invaders not suspect what lay beneath the plaster, but everyone else forgot also, until the golden Buddha was accidentally rediscovered. Today it is the prized image in its own temple.

This story offers a wonderful parable for one fruit of our spiritual journeys. As we move deeper into the spiritual life through the practice of spiritual disciplines, we can find ourselves discovering more and more of our true self versus the false self that we show as a façade to the world in our everyday life.

A Theme in Modern Spiritual Writing

The contrast between the true self and the false self is a common theme in the writings of many modern writers on the spiritual life. We encounter it often in the writings of Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating, two Catholic writers who have had a profound influence on my own understanding of the spiritual journey.

Rohr attributes the introduction of this theme into the vocabulary of modern spirituality to Thomas Merton, that monk-writer who helped launch the rediscovery of the contemplative prayer tradition in the modern world.

For example, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton says this:

For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.*

He goes on to say later:

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny…To put it even better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.**

 This work of becoming who I truly am is not, however, work we do by our own initiative. Rather, says Merton, the secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. ***

A Theme with Pauline Roots

Though Merton, Rohr, and Keating are using the language of modern psychology, they seem to draw their inspiration from a passage in the apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul says:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

In this passage Paul speaks of our life that is hidden with Christ in God. It is a life that will be fully revealed and expressed when the Last Day comes and all creation enters into its destined glory, a glory in which each individual created being will shine in its unique identity.

The spiritual journey is the journey in this life when we begin to glimpse and experience aspects of that unique identity, which is our true self. We in partnership with God begin to chip away some of the spiritual clay that hides the golden image below. That is something of the excitement that the spiritual journey can bring us.

The Social Context of Paul’s Thought

This is an inspiring way of thinking for me. It means that we need to think of our spiritual journey as something wonderfully positive, not as something intensely negative. But it is easy to corrupt this way of thinking about the spiritual journey if we think of this discovery of our true self in solely individualistic terms. That is the bias of much of modern American culture and of modern self-help books and lectures.

The apostle Paul never sees our life hidden with Christ in God as a call to live our lives in splendid isolation from all others. We journey towards our unique life always in a social context. That is why the bulk of Paul’s writings are concerned with life in the church as a social body. It is in the challenge to live out the life of love in the rough and tumble interactions of a social network that we begin both to discover and build the unique self that God has created us to be.

Merton picks up this Pauline way of thinking when he writes:

I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.****

So I hope that as you pick up and practice the spiritual disciplines, they will empower you to chip away at your false self and discover the golden Buddha that lies underneath. It is the unique self that God created you to be, just as my true self is the unique identity God created me to be. As we let that true self shine forth, we let God’s glory blaze out into the wider world.

Notes:

* Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Books, 1961. Page 31.

** Merton, New Seeds. Page 32.

*** Merton, New Seeds, Page 33.

**** Merton, New Seeds. Page 51.

Spirituality Unmoored

Spiritual experience sickens when detached from the nitty-gritty realities of daily, material life. 

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1a

The Transfiguration by Raphael Sanzio, 1520

Some 20 years ago, I served on an advisory board for a Protestant seminary. In our first gathering, the school’s administration sketched for us the broad dimensions of the seminary’s curriculum. The emphasis was heavy on academic theology and field education. That represented their best judgment as to what was proper preparation for the task of ministry.

At the end of the presentation, one in our group asked, “Who is teaching our future clergy to pray?” The question seemed to throw the administrators for a loop. They did not conceive the seminary teaching spiritual practices.

Much has changed since then. The current president of that same seminary writes a weekly blog on spirituality. Many seminaries around the country now offer not only courses in spirituality, but also certification courses in spirituality and spiritual direction.

Likewise many local congregations now give great emphasis to prayer practices as well as other spiritual disciplines. The church my wife and I attend is one. Every educational term there is at least one offering in spirituality, sometimes more than one.

I belong to a professional association for Christian educators. I note the frequency that discussions of spirituality come up in its newsletters and national conferences.

Mainline Protestantism seems to be awash in spirituality. I applaud this because the practice of contemplative prayer has played a very formative role in my own Christian life for the past 25 years. I believe in the spiritual journey. I am glad that many others now see its importance, too.

And Yet

Yes, and yet. I am becoming increasingly concerned about this growing popularity with spirituality. When popularization latches onto any thing profound, it tends to water down the profundity. Quickly the popularized version becomes something innocuous or disappointing.

This, I fear, may be happening with the fad for spirituality. It runs the risk of becoming something cloying, sweetly sentimental, and therefore riskless. We use spiritual practices not to enter more deeply into the nitty-gritty realities of daily life, but to escape them into an unreal never-never land where nothing bothers us.

Gordon Cosby, the late pastor of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., always instructed his parishioners that they must be engaged in two simultaneous journeys in their individual lives and in the congregation’s life. One journey is a journey inward. It is the journey we pursue when we engage in spiritual practices. The other journey is a journey outward, as we engage in ministry and mission to the world outside our inner fellowship.

What has always impressed me about his vision is that he never regarded the two journeys as an either/or. We must engage in both…and simultaneously.

If we do not, our journey inward becomes very self-centered. Our spirituality will sicken. We need to journey outward as a check on that ego-centrism. But likewise, if we engage only in a journey outward, then we quickly burn out. Our inner energy is depleted. We lose either the joy or the momentum to serve. Our spiritual practices keep us in touch with the spiritual springs of our inner energy and inspiration.

I have always felt Cosby was spot on in his analysis. His vision has become my own.

What I fear is that with our current obsession with spirituality, many people and churches today are falling into the very trap that Cosby warns against. We are so focused on spiritual experiences that we are neglecting the simultaneous call to ministry outward.

Mountaintop Experiences and Life in the Valley

Here I find the beauty of Mark’s vision in his gospel. In Mark 9:2-29 Mark tells two stories about Jesus. As is usually the case with Mark, the two stories are not two independent stories that just happen to follow another. They belong together and comment on each other. So we must read them together.

Mark 9:2-8 tells the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a high mountaintop. It describes what must have been a spectacular spiritual experience for the three witnessing disciples. Jesus glows in a dazzling white light. Moses and Elijah stand beside him in conversation.

Talk about a spiritual experience. Not much can top that. It so impresses Peter that he proposes to build three shrines on the mountain to commemorate the event. In this way he would like to hold on to the experience. This might mean that he, James, and John could return to the site over and over again to bask in the glorious memory.

But the brilliant light fades, as do Moses and Elijah. All that remains is the heavenly voice instructing them to listen to Jesus. Religious experiences never last. What does endure is the gospel word.

Jesus then leads them down the mountain. He tells them to say nothing about the experience until he rises again from the dead. His words make no sense to the disciples.

When they reach the valley (Mark 9:14-29), they encounter a confused scene where a desperate man seeks a healing for his epileptic son. He does not get it from the disciples. Only a fierce argument.

The man pleads for Jesus to step in and Jesus does, healing the boy. Afterwards the disciples ask Jesus why they could not heal the boy. Jesus responds, This kind can come only through prayer (Mark 9:29).

Together these two stories illustrate the point that Gordon Cosby makes. The three disciples are given a powerful spiritual experience on the mountaintop. But they are not meant nor allowed to remain there in its rarefied spiritual atmosphere. Instead Jesus leads them down into the pain, suffering, and frustrations of life in the valley. This is daily life, life in the material world of the body, the place where most of life is lived.

What gives Jesus and his disciples the power and resources for serving those demanding needs in the valley are the practice of prayer. And so Jesus and Mark would have us travel to a quiet place of retreat for prayer and then back into the valley over and over again. This is the  cycle that leads to spiritual maturity.

 

Chasing Emptiness

The prophet Hosea offers two evocative images for the pursuit of vanity.

An Assyrian king engages in a royal lion hunt. 7th century B.C.

An Assyrian king engages in a royal lion hunt. 7th century B.C.

One of my joys in reading the Bible happens when a poetic image in the text suddenly arrests my attention. I stop to consider it. Then my imagination kicks in. I begin to make associations that carry me in unexpected directions.

That happened a couple of days ago when I was reading the prophet Hosea. I was just beginning to read Chapter 12 in the New English Bible translation. It begins:

Ephraim is a shepherd whose flock is but wind,
a hunter chasing the east wind all day;
he makes a treaty with Assyria
and carries tribute oil to Egypt.*

One of the great themes of Hosea is his denunciation of the northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim) for seeking its security by manipulating power politics in the Middle East. On the one hand Israel seeks a treaty with the Assyrian empire. On the other it delivers tribute to Assyria’s rival, the Egyptian empire. The hope is that maybe Israel can remain safe by playing one power off against the other.

Hosea, however, sees the whole diplomatic exercise as a game of illusions. Earlier in chapter 8, he says that Israel is sowing to the wind and is reaping the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). Its diplomatic games will bring no peace. Instead they will bring disaster. His words proved true when Assyria sweeps down in 722 B.C. and obliterates Israel from the political map.

Shepherds of Emptiness

Hosea returns to this theme in Chapter 12 when he picks up this same image of sowing to the wind. But this time, it comes across in two arresting images (at least in the NEB translation). First he compares Israel’s pursuit to a shepherd who herds a flock of the wind. Its flock consists of nothing but invisible air. I immediately make the association with Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the emperor’s new clothes.

The Israelite king and his court may think themselves astute politicians. Hosea, however, suggests they are nothing but shepherds of illusions and herdsmen of emptiness.

Then the prophet goes on to compare Israel’s diplomacy to a hunter who chases the east wind all day. It was this image that so captured me.

Hunting has traditionally been a favored sport of the aristocracy in many cultures. (See the stone relief above from the ancient Assyrian empire.) It offers the thrill of the chase, whether that be after the lion, the deer, the boar, or the fox. (The favored prey varies from culture to culture.) As the prey races through the forests, over the hill ridges and down into the valleys and then across the plains, the horsemen follow, hoping to wear the animal out and corner it into its death.

That’s the association that Hosea’s image brings to my mind. Except that the prey that Israel pursues is the east wind. It is impossible to ever capture and imprison the wind. As one chases it, it forever eludes capture. In the end it is the hunter who is worn out, not the wind.

Now I find that a powerful image for the pursuit of vanity, however, we define vanity. When we pursue vanity, we are constantly pursuing something that slips out of our grasp in terms of giving us true, deep satisfaction. Just when we think we have achieved our dream, we find it has dissolved into thin air.

In many ways this image of the hunter chasing the east wind strikes home for me as a description of my own personal spiritual journey. For many years, I pursued God, like the hunter chasing the swift gazelle. But God always seemed to slip out of my grasp. All the reward I got for my obsession was exhaustion and frustration.

It is the tried and true experience of deeply spiritual people (as described by some of the great spiritual writers) that we can never cage God and force him to bless us with a vivid sense of his presence. As one of my favorite writers on prayer, Russian Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom, puts it, God is like a wild tiger.** We cannot domesticate God. He is beyond our control.

The Great Value of Being over Doing

What I had to learn was that if I want—and I believe if anyone wants—to experience a vivid presence of God, then we must stop chasing God obsessively. If we try to grasp the wind, the wind will simply slip through our fingers.

But if we stop the chase and try to sit calmly and expectantly, we may find that God slips into our life and consciousness quietly and unobtrusively. The tiger dwells with us intimately in his own gentle way. He has become the loving house cat. The elusive wind makes its presence known to us by its gentle caress upon our face. We sense God’s presence not in dramatic miracles, but in elusive intuition. But that we know God by intuition does not make that knowledge any less real.

This is why the practice of contemplative prayer has come to play such an important place in my spiritual journey. In contemplative prayer we do not try to do anything with God. We give up speaking and arguing and debating with God. We even give up trying to be pious. Instead we choose to sit with God in silence. We simply be with God.

Being rather than doing becomes the royal gateway into the presence that we have spent so much time and energy chasing. And then comes another surprise. As we settle into just being, the Lord begins to fill us with his Spirit, pouring energy into us that issues eventually into action, but now action that moves in harmony with God’s will. We can begin as spiritual hunters to chase the values that eternally count.

____________
* The translation I was reading was an earlier version of the New English Bible. Verse 12:1 reads a bit differently in more recent editions. The book of Hosea has had a difficult history of textual transmission through the centuries, and so the Hebrew text is not always crystal clear. This accounts for a great diversity of readings in modern translations.

** This way of describing God comes from Anthony Bloom’s little masterpiece, Beginning to Pray. The book is now out of print, but I rank it high among the many books I have read on prayer. If you find a used copy, I suggest you buy it immediately.

Why Mystics Love the Song of Songs

The Erotic Poetry Mirrors the Mystic’s Yearning for God.

I sometimes wonder how the Song of Songs made it into the biblical canon. It is lushly erotic poetry. Bible translators often label the lovers in the poem the bride and the bridegroom, but it is not crystal clear that the lovers are indeed married. The poem may be celebrating pre-marital, not marital love.

The poem, with its slightly risqué flavor, does not seem like something sober rabbis and church fathers would find appropriate in holy Scripture. Yet there it is, with images that are so evocative of sensual pleasure.

One reason why it did get included in the canon is that many of those rabbis and church fathers read the poem as allegory. The real theme of the poem, they contend, is the passionate love between God and Israel, or between Christ and his church, or between God and the awakened soul.

Many modern scholars dismiss this allegorical interpretation as simply eisegesis, an interpretation that reads a meaning into the text that simply is not there. Yet we must deal with the fact that spiritual writers, especially of the mystical sort, have been drawn to this text from almost the time it entered Scripture. Through the centuries, spiritual writers, especially monastics and mystics, have written scores upon scores of commentaries on the Song of Songs. It could vie for the most popular book in the Bible during the Middle Ages.

Why? What is the connection between the text and those who are intense in pursuing the spiritual journey?

The Evocation of Desire

One of the striking things about the Song of Songs is that it says almost nothing explicitly about the sexual act itself. In verse 8:5, the poet writes, “Under the apple tree, I awakened you.”

If this is a reference to the act of sexual union, it is a highly allusive one. It hints, but does not describe. It leaves a lot to the imagination. This contrasts dramatically with all the explicit descriptions of sexual acts that we find in modern novels.

What we find instead in the Song of Songs is repeated description of erotic desire. The lovers are constantly searching for each other, longing to be together. And when they do seem to meet, almost immediately one of them, usually the male lover, mysteriously vanishes away.

Here is one example from chapter 5:

I slept, but my heart was awake.

            Listen! my beloved is knocking.

            “Open to me, my sister, my love,

            my dove, my perfect one…

My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,

            and my inmost being yearned for him.

I arose to open to my beloved,

            and my hands dripped with myrrh,

            my fingers with liquid myrrh,

            upon the handles of the bolt.

I opened to my beloved,

            but my beloved had turned and was gone.

            My soul failed me when he spoke.

            I sought him, but did not find him;

            I called him, but he gave no answer.

What makes the Song such powerful poetry is this ability to evoke the experience of desire, intense desire that lovers can feel for each other.

Spiritual Experience as Desire

This is the feature of the poem that so draws mystics to the Song of Songs, I believe. For in the lovers’ intense erotic desire for each other, mystics see mirrored the similar intense desire they feel for God. They long for God with deep longing. And the best analogy for this deep spiritual longing is the erotic longing the lovers feel in the Song.

The psalmist uses a different analogy to describe this intense spiritual longing. In Psalm 42, we find the psalmist writing:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            for the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God?

My tears have been my food day and night,

            while people say to me continually,

            “Where is your God?”

In the psalm the longing for God is compared to a basic physical need. In the Song, the longing takes on a more deeply personal character. But both texts highlight the ever-continuing experience of desire, a desire that has yet to be consummated.

This is what attracts the mystic to the Song, as a moth to the shining light bulb. Desire lies at the heart of the mystic’s experience. So much so that the mystic’s experience can often be described as a never-ending search for union with the divine.

In fact, the early church father Gregory of Nyssa believed this spiritual longing will never be completely satisfied, even in the next life. In the fourth century, he wrote, “This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.” [Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Paulist Press, 1978, page 116] Whether Nyssa is right or not, he highlights that central place desire has in the spiritual journey of those who have developed a particularly close personal relationship with God.

So it may be eisegesis for the mystic to read the Song allegorically, but does that really matter? For the Song of Songs lays bare the dynamic of the mystic’s experience with God.

 

The Spiritual Life as Unfinished Business

Bible texts: The First Five Books of the Bible  (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)

In Judaism, the Torah is the inner core of the Bible, the canon within the canon. Christians know the Torah as the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

These books contain a lot of legal material. But the Torah is much more than a legal code. It is essentially a narrative. It tells the story of Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt, through 40 years of nomadic life in the Sinai, to its arrival at its destination, the land of Canaan, which is the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants.

It is, in one sense, a national epic. It provides the foundation story for Israel. It details how Israel came to be and the essentials of its identity.

But there is a peculiar twist to this story. It recounts a journey. But when we come to the last chapters of Deuteronomy, Israel has not yet finished its journey.

Deuteronomy ends with Israel on the east side of the Jordan River. It is poised to cross over and take up residency in the Promised Land. Israel, however, has not yet done so.  Even Moses at the end of Deuteronomy gazes at the land from a distance. He dies outside the land.

One has to read on into the book of Joshua to read how Israel crosses the river and takes up occupation of the land that God had promised. If one reads further on into the historical books, one will finally reach the story of the capture of Jerusalem, the construction of the temple, and the Solomonic empire. Here one reaches what we might consider the apex of Israel’s history. The historical books form part of the Hebrew Bible, but they are not included in the Torah proper.

Now this is odd, if we compare the Torah with another epic of national origins and identity, the Roman story narrated in Virgil’s Aeneid. The Aeneid, too, is a story of a journey. Aeneas travels from fallen Troy to Latium in Italy, where his descendants build Rome.

 The epic ends on a similar unfinished note. Aeneas kills Turnus, but the city is not yet founded. Nonetheless the epic still celebrates the greatness and glory of Rome at its height. In Book Six, Aeneas visits Hades, where he is given a vision of the glorious future of Rome. That future culminates in the greatness of the empire of Augustus Caesar. In that sense the epic ends on a note of triumph.

The Torah, on the other hand, ends with an uncompleted journey. It, too, looks ahead to a conclusion of the journey, but the conclusion is not included in the Torah proper. This means the core text of Judaism is a story of unfinished business.

This raises an important question. Why did the scholars who created the Hebrew canon decide to exclude Joshua from the Torah?

I suspect the answer is that those scholars sensed, even if only in their guts, that the conclusion of Israel’s journey is not the historical possession of Canaan under Joshua and the later Solomonic empire. The fulfillment of the promise still lies in the future.

Whether Israel lives in it own land or lives in other peoples’ lands as a diaspora, its life is fundamentally a life of unfinished business. What governs that life is the narrative of the journey. The Torah’s stories, principles, and laws provide the divine wisdom for a people whose life is always a spiritual journey. That journey will remain uncompleted until that glorious day of the Lord when the kingdom of God comes finally and definitively.

The Christian Application

Now this understanding of the Torah holds great significance for Christians as well. When Christian writers on the spiritual life write about that life, they often resort to the metaphor of a journey. A few examples: Gregory of Nyssa’s allegorical Life of Moses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. I believe all are drawing upon the paradigm of the Exodus as narrated in the Torah.

The Christian understanding of the journey begins with the crossing of the Christian Red Sea in baptism. It continues as a wandering through the wilderness of the world. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews will draw upon the language of strangers and exiles wandering on the earth (Hebrews 11:13), as will the apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:11). That journey brings both divine blessings and many false turns, both joy and sorrows. It ends with death, which Christians have traditionally celebrated as a crossing of the Jordan.

So for Christians, too, the spiritual life remains a journey of unfinished business. The journey does not reach its final destination until after death when we arrive in God’s perfect Sabbath rest, the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God. Hope, therefore, remains a fundamental virtue of the Christian life.

Now this has significance for the conduct of Christian evangelism. One popular way of preaching the good news is to set before unbelievers the great blessings they will gain by placing their trust in Christ. Traditionally those include love, joy, peace, healing, and sometimes very concrete material blessings such as prosperity and worldly success. If we base evangelism on these promises, what do we do when inevitably new believers encounter turmoil, serious illnesses and reverses, hostility, and even persecution or worse in their Christian lives?

Such forms of evangelism forget that we are inviting others into a life with Christ that will include both blessing and trials,  both happiness and sorrows, both fulfillment and unfulfillment. What we are inviting people into is a journey, a journey of discipleship. And that journey will not reach its destination in this life. We remain spiritual nomads all of our lives.

But that does not mean the journey is not worth taking. Rather our spiritual lives remain unfinished business until that day when we meet the Lord face to face and he invites us into the joy of our spiritual homeland at last. In the meantime the Torah as well as the rest of the Bible gives us guidance for making the journey with integrity.

Note: I do not want to give the impression that this understanding of the Jewish Torah is an original one with me. I first encountered it in James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972). I recommend it if you wish to explore the thought deeper.