Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Learning from the East

After attending the previously mentioned Rosanne Cash concert in Sydney on Saturday, January 6, I spent several days with my friend Kerry at her home in Exeter in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

Even though I
lived and taught in nearby Goulburn for six years (from 1988 to 1993), I never really spent much time exploring the Southern Highlands’ many beautiful and towns and places of interest.

One of these “places of interest” is the
Sunnataram Forest Monastery on the outskirts of the village of Bundanoon, which Kerry and I (along with a Kelpie pup currently in Kerry’s care) visited on Sunday, January 7, 2006.

Established in July 1990, Sunnataram is a Theravada Buddhist monastery constructed in the tradition of the forest monasteries of Thailand. The Sunnataram Forest Monastery is renowned throughout Australia and the world for its Buddhist teaching and retreat programs.

Above: The Sunnataram Forest Monastery’s Gratitude Pagoda.

Rising to a height of 18 metres, the Gratitude Pagoda has two chambers: one in the ground floor level of the building and another in the smaller second floor level. Both chambers enshrine the relics of the
Buddha and other enlightened monks who lived in India over two thousand years ago.

Above: The exterior wall of the first floor of the Pagoda contains representations of the Buddha from every Buddhist country. This one, for instance, is from Vietnam.

Above: The Pagoda is also in the process of being decorated with numerous sandstone reliefs – handcarved by artisans and volunteers at the monastery.

The design of the Gratitude Pagoda is modeled on three famous pagodas in the North of Thailand: Wat Doi Suthep, Wat Phra That Jomkitti, and Wat Pasak. The Gratitude Pagoda, however, has a natural stone finish in keeping with its Australian bush setting.

Above: The Sunnataram Forest Monastery is built on 100 acres of land bordering the beautiful Morton National Park. This image depicts the view from the monastery looking out over Kangaroo Valley, with Jervis Bay at Nowra on the distant horizon.

Interestingly, one of the books I’m reading at the moment is Caroline Jones’ An Authentic Life: Finding Meaning and Spirituality in Everyday Life. At one point in her book, Jones explores what we in the West can learn from the spirituality of the East. Here’s an excerpt:

We are complex and contradictory. That is the nature of the human condition. It is not to be resolved but relished and explored for its nuance and possibility. . . . [T]here is much insight to be gained in paradox.

. . .The writer Barbara Blackman told me that the principle of many insights she gained in the East was not either/or, but both. It is a profoundly useful concept to incorporate into your habits of reasoning, in order to think more freely, to gain a more imaginative view of the world and to avoid the limiting pitfull of fundamentalism – taking everything literally. But what is the authority, or the origin of this concept?

It is found first in the Tao Te Ching, thought to have been written by
Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius, some five centuries before Christ. Other scholarly theories place it in the third or fourth century BCE and suggest more than one author.

Bede Griffiths, in his book Universal Wisdom (Fount, 1994), says that, whatever its authorship, the Tao Te Ching belongs to that breakthrough in human consciousness which occurred in the first millennium before Christ, and is a supreme example of the great mystical tradition that underlies all religion.

The Tao Te Ching affirms, as the Hindu Upanishads and Buddha had done, that the ultimate reality has no name. While Hinduism speaks of ultimate reality as Brahman, and Buddhism speaks of it as Nirvana, the Chinese preferred to refer to it as Tao, or the Way.

The understanding of God (i.e., “ultimate reality”) as a mystery ultimately beyond human comprehension, is, of course, not foreign to Christianity, as Paul Collins explains here.

Here’s how Bede Griffiths describes “Tao,” the Chinese expression for ultimate reality, in his book Universal Wisdom:

Tao is the “rhythm” of the universe, the “flow” of reality, like the “ever living fire” of Heraclitus or the field of energies of modern physics. Its character is the union of opposites, the Yin and the Yang. . . . The western way of thinking, based on Greek philosophy, thinks in terms of opposites, of good and evil, truth and error, black and white. Its way of thinking is logical, based on the principle of contradiction. But the Chinese mind, and with it the eastern mind as a whole, thinks more in terms of complementarity. It is aware of the Unity which transcends and yet includes all dualities, of the whole which transcends and yet unites all its parts.

As Caroline Jones reminds us, “The West was offered this insight later by the Christian philosopher, Nicholas of Cusa, a cardinal of the Roman church, who spoke of the coincidence of the opposites. Yet as Bede Griffiths points out, ‘for centuries now the western world has been following the path of Yang – of the masculine, active, aggressive, rational, scientific mind – and has brought the world near to destruction. It is time now to recover the path of Yin, of the feminine, passive [i.e. receptive in a dynamic and creative way], patient, intuitive and poetic mind’.”

I’d like to add two points to this conversation: First, many insights of the East can be discerned embedded in the life and teaching of Jesus – especially if one explores the various Gnostic gospels and/or read any of the gospels in their original Aramaic context. Doing so will illuminate the origins of Christianity as being more eastern than western,
more esoteric than exoteric. (A book I’ve found to be both helpful and insightful in this matter is Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition by Richard Smoley.)

Second, if one defines “male/female” solely in terms of the anatomical apparatus found between one’s legs, then homosexuality could be condemned in the eastern view because of its failure to embody “the union of opposites,” “the Yin and the Yang.” Yet many concur with Caroline Jones when she notes that when talking about the male/female opposites, we’re actually referring to an “attitude of mind, not with biological gender.” Understanding male/female in this way means that we can confidently say that the tenets of eastern spirituality (along with the esoteric stream of spirituality within Christianity) do not condemn homosexuality.

Yet what about the problem of the overt emphasis on the male “attitude of mind” in the West?

Says Bede Griffiths: “The world today needs to recover [the] sense of feminine power, which is complementary to the masculine and without which [humanity] becomes dominating, sterile, and destructive. But this means that western religion must come to recognize the feminine aspect of God.”

In society, too, the “sense of feminine power” needs to be recognized and embodied by all. I’m heartened when I read of people working towards such recognition and embodiment – people like champion kickboxer Paul Briggs, whom I’ve written about previously.

When discussing the mentoring group he has started so as to “give young blokes a different experience of what masculinity is,” Briggs notes that “the most common word used to describe what is manful – macho – is all about ego, nothing about depth of character. . . . Boys need to fathom that being a man is not about being aggressive, sexist, homophobic, emotionally mute, overconfident, and pig-headed. Such qualities have no business being used as reference points for manhood. We have evolved too much psychologically to allow boys to be so limited in their thoughts and feelings”.

Accordingly, says Briggs, “I’d like to show them a fresh take on masculinity, one that is not rooted in physicality and ego but in vulnerability, self-love, and noble values. . . . The torrent of gung-ho, aggressive, and vacuous male role models steamrolls over qualities such as kindness and gentleness and caring. They are seen as weak, disdainfully feminine qualities a man should avoid like rattlesnakes. I say the opposite. I say women are lucky. Generally speaking, they are closer to their emotional centre of gravity. They seem to be born with an emotional maturity that men inherently lack. So unless we develop this asset ourselves, we will never acquire it. If men made the effort, they’d realize what powerful, enriching rewards are to be had by tapping into their emotional wisdom.”

“To do so,” says Briggs, “is to become more of a man, not less. I think one of the greatest gifts a man can give himself is to learn to understand and process his feelings.”

As a Christian, I’m well aware of one man who famously embodied this particular “greatest” gift Briggs talks about; a man who calls not to be worshiped but simply followed in his embodiment of consciousness and compassion.

I’ve experienced this embodiment in my own life and in the lives of many others – regardless of religion. And I certainly experienced it in the Sunnataram Forest Monastery – in the monks I encountered there and in the calm and beautiful atmosphere they’ve created in the Southern Highlands.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Passage to India
In the Garden of Spirituality: Paul Collins
A Fresh Take on Masculinity
The Thorpedo’s “Difficult Decision”
Keeping the Spark Alive: A Conversation with Chuck Lofy

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

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