Without Cost: Buddhist Slice of Life for the Clueless…Visit to Nepal

July 20, 2014 at 10:45 am

Often we impose extremely high standards on “spiritual or religious” people that they cannot possibly meet.  We are all made from the same clay.  I was confronted by this reality as well as many many other surprises  as Kathleen, Martin and  I observed the Buddhists in Katmandu.  You think that you know something only to find that you are really clueless!

There are many monasteries and Buddhist Stupas here.  Stupas were created when Buddha’s ashes were distributed among his 8 disciples and they buried his ashes in the ground.  Mounds of dirt were formed which over time turned into small and then large hills.  At some point, the Buddhists dug up and distributed the ashes across Asia and 80,000 stupas were built.   One of the largest stupas in the world is in Katmandu.    People walk clockwise around the stupa spinning prayer wheels that are built into the wall.  The wheels contain prayers.  Apparently, after a believer spins the wheel, the prayer within the wheel will be consider as said by the believer as long as it spins.

Also, built into the wall of the Stupa was a figure of Ganesh.  The story of Ganesh involves Shiva and Parvati.  Shiva is one of the most popular of the 3 million Hindu godsand counting.  Parvati is his wife.  One day Parvati wanted to take a nap and she formed a little boy out of wax or clay depending which story you read.  She put him outside her door and told him not to let anyone disturb her.  When Shiva came home, he wanted to see Parvati and found this annoying little boy who refused him entry.  He proceeded to decapitate him and go into his wife.  Parvati was angry.  She did not appreciate being disturbed and was upset to find Ganesh beheaded.  Shiva sought to make amends by killing an elephant and placing the head of the elephant on the body of the boy and bringing him back to life.  Ganesh is extremely popular as well and is the subject of prayers.  Folks pray to him whenever they start a new undertaking and ask him to remove all obstacles that stand in the way of success.  I was very surprised to see Ganesh on a Buddhist stupa since I did not think Buddhists believe in any god or gods.  Based on reading the Dalai Lama, I know that he does not accept the idea of a First Mover and views the universe as uncreated.   Our guide is an anthropologist and he shared that  there are a variety of forms of Buddhism and perhaps no particular orthodoxy.  He stated that 70 percent of the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs are held in common.  He used reincarnation and karma as examples.  So once again, we are confronted by the multiplicity or chaos of beliefs in the East.

The stupa is surrounded by a commercial area with Tibetan arts and crafts, restaurants, guest houses, and temples or monasteries.  We walked into one temple where we were handed some incense to burn in front of a Buddha.  We were encouraged to say a prayer and then offered a blessing by one of the monks.  I passed.   In exchange for the blessing, there is an expectation that one would make a donation.  When we saw the Dalai Lama in Minneapolis last March, someone asked him for a  blessing for the audience.  He said that as a Buddhist, blessings do not really make sense.  He was referencing that his school of Buddhism is not theistic.   10 minutes later as he wrapped up his talk and was shaking people’s hands from the stage like the rock star that he is, he took his scarf and gave it to a person and said “Here is my blessing.”    So I was surprised to see these Buddhists give blessings.  Struck me as at odds with the Dalai Lama and also as a commercial transaction.  Reminded of the Church selling indulgences prior to the Reformation.

Later in another part of the city, we saw Sadhus.  Sadhus are Hindu holy men who are supposed to be ascetics and live in the woods or the mountains.  They are very colorful.  Their bodies are smeared with yellow and red colors and their hair can reach the ground.  At first, I wanted to take a picture, but our guide indicated that there would be an economic cost.  Our guide explained that these guys are commercial sadhus.  The real sadhus are hermits who live in the forests and mountains.  He said that during the high season, the proportion of sadhus in Katmandu are in direct relationship to the number of tourists.  Since this is the peak ( or depth) of low season, there are only a few.  One of them encouraged us to take his picture, but I did not have any small bills and passed.

As we walked around the city, we would see monks of all ages.   Like India, there are many stray dogs here.  At a café where the monks were sitting outside, one of the dogs started barking at another dog.  As the dog barked and bared his teeth from underneath a plastic chair, I witnessed a monk grab a plastic chair and with much anger slam it into the concrete next to the dog 2 or 3 times.  One of the other monks tried to restrain him.

As part of our tour, we visited the home of a living goddess.  Please note that I said “LIVING GODDESS.”  The Buddhists take a young girl between the age of 3 and 6  from her family to be raised by another family in a small palace.  She must be a Buddhist, beautiful and have no scars.  Normally a few girls are chosen and then brought before the monks for one in particular to be chosen.  It is a great honor for the family to have their daughter chosen.  No one is allowed to take pictures of her except when she is carried on a throne by the people through the city during a festival.   She will live in the palace until her first menstruation at which time she is returned to her family with a pension.  Generally, no one wants to marry her for fear that she may still possess a bit of the  goddess.  Buddhists believe that if a human mates with a goddess, death will follow.   Martin said that he would have no such concerns and that the pension would make her even more attractive.

We almost stayed at a guest house connected with a Buddhist monastery.   However, we are spoiled.  The lack of air conditioning combined with  100% humidity caused us to relocate to a Hyatt Regency.   Before we relocated,  I asked one of the monks about Ganesh.  He said that Shiva, Ganesh, etc are lesser deities for them.  They  view them differently than the Hindus.  He said that they are lesser than the Buddha.   Another surprise to hear the Buddha described as a deity.

When we arrived at a 5 star Hyatt Regency, I was surprised to find monks in the lobby.  Somehow does not jive with my image of Buddhist monks living austere lives in monasteries or mountain caves in the Himalayas.

At the end of the day, all religions or expressions of spirituality are subject to the same proclivities of our human natures.   There are many beliefs and concepts that the major religions hold in common.  Apparently, there are also many pious and/or  superstitious practices that we humans bake into our spiritual rituals and observations.    I should not be surprised that monks and common people find a way to make a buck from any religion’s practitioners.

I suspect that our inspirational leaders would be surprised with what their followers have done and how their message has been transformed and often obfuscated.  After 2 days of touring Katmandu and getting ready to depart,  Matthew 10: 7-15  was the daily reading of the Church :

“Jesus said to his Apostles:  ‘As you go, make this proclamation:  ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons.  Without cost you have received;  without cost you are to give.’”

Without cost.

Lord, thank you for the many gifts that you have given us without cost.  The gifts of life, love, truth, meaning, purpose, fulfillment, joy.  May we share these gifts with others without expectation of return.  Help us bring your love and the  light of your truth to the circumstances, events, people and animals of our life today.  Thank you also for your followers today who continue to cure the sick, cleanse the lepers and stand up against injustice and the forces of evil.


Burning Embers and Anthropo What?

July 20, 2014 at 9:34 am

How can we finite beings speak of the Unspeakable who is beyond the comprehension of our limited minds? One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the Fear of the Lord which is the gift of grasping how small we are in the face of the awesome transcendent majesty of The Absolute Being. Here is how the prophet Isaiah ( Is 6:1-8) conveyed it:

I saw the Lord seated on a  high and lofty throne, They cried one to the other,  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!”  Then I said, “Woe is me.  I am doomed!  For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips!”   Then one of the Seraphim flew to me, holding an ember that he had taken with tongs from the altar.  He touched my mouth with it and said, “See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us?”  “ Here I am,” I said, “Send me”.

We can only speak of the unspeakable by using inadequate words of our human existence to capture the awesome transcendent majesty of the Absolute Being.  Is God a King?  Is  the kingdom of heaven or God a monarchical theocracy?   I think not.  But within the culture of Isaiah where the prevalent form of governance was monarchy, isn’t that best way to capture the Lord’s majesty?  Is it not still a helpful way to describe the beatific vision?  Isaiah’s language does convey a sense of the Lord as the Master of the Universe. ( I recall asking my son, Martin, when we was a little tyke perhaps 5 or 6 how he saw God.  His said, “ God is the Master of the Universe.”  At that time, I recall there was a cartoon or TV show with that theme).

Mt 10: 24-33 provides another sight of Who our God is:    “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?  Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.  Even all the hairs of your head are counted.  So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Addressing God as Father, Jesus revealed to us that the Absolute, the Almighty, the Master of the Universe,  loves us as his children.  Therefore, we need not live our lives in the fear of a karmic payback or a strict God who may judge us fairly, yet harshly. Such cowering fear of punishment is not the Fear of the Lord described above. Jesus constantly reveals that the Lord is “ My Father,”   “ Your Father”, “ Our Father,”   “Abba” or Daddy. Without question, one of Jesus’ primary teachings and revelations is God as a loving, merciful, faithful Father who patiently pursues, welcomes home and embraces with love the repentant thief or profligate son. Like Isaiah, we will experience a fearful sense of imperfection in the presence of the Almighty, but we have recourse to the embers of the Eucharistic sacrifice which cleanse and make us one in Jesus’ relationship with his Father who is now our Father as well .

Is God only a Father?  Is this metaphor not yet another anthropomorphism?  So be it for  this anthropomorphic expression is a powerful mode of communicating that the Transcendent is loving and unconditionally merciful.  Yet does not God’s love also have the nurturing presence of a Mother’s love who lovingly strokes the hairs of her children’s head?  Cannot both a mother and father reflect the faithfulness of our God?  May we as parents faithfully reflect God’s loving presence to our children as well as others.

This passage from Matthew comes in the midst of a section of the scripture wherein Jesus is sending his disciples out to preach for the first time. The disciples want to do what Jesus is asking. They are willing like Isaiah to be sent, but they are afraid. He senses their hesitancy and fear.  He tells them “…do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  Is it not amazing that our God who Jesus reveals as Father actually lovingly holds all of creation in His/Her heart?  We should not be afraid of where the Lord may send us as we respond “Here I Am. Send me!” The Almighty knows and loves all of creation every moment. Our Lord God is a deeply loving Master of the Universe.

“Be not afraid.”  Yet we are.  I am.  Despite knowing God’sfaithful ever present loving care, I still fear the future.   I consider continuing to scramble to build barns to hold more wheat in case there is ever a need.  No matter how much money people have, they fear its loss.  Where can it be invested safely come what may?  How can I avoid my circumstances changing for the worse?  How can I make sure that my safety net will not have holes?How challenging it must be to be an investment advisor or money manager for people! How do you think their clients would react if advisors told their clients to pay attention to the counsel of Jesus:

“Consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  They neither sow nor reap or gather into barns.”

Lord, help us deal with our fears.  Both our fears of You and the insecurity of our futures. Help us relax in your loving care.   May the Eucharist be an ember from the sacrifice that makes us holy as it touches our lips.  May it  cleanse us of our fears and enable us to say “Send me”.  May we not be afraid of what other’s think, but share your love in word and deed as your disciples and your children  have down through the years. Let  our hearts understand, recognize and embrace  Your promptings.  May the gift of your grace enable us to follow  You and not refuse You, our Fatherly King.  May we consistently reflect Your Fatherly and Motherly love in our families. May our families be like yours,  a Holy Family. Amen.

Is Matrimony Countercultural?

July 12, 2014 at 11:42 am

Recently I sent a NYT obituary of Stephen Gaskin to a few of the best friends of my youth.  I addressed them  as my countercultural brothers.  One of them responded that he is my brother, but that I am the one who remains “countercultural.”  I still puzzle over that comment.  I am not sure but he may be referring to my traditional beliefs such as my belief in the sacrament of matrimony.  The  readings of July 7 include one  from Hosea which captures the beauty of marriage.   Hosea describes the loving relationship of Yahweh and his people.  Hosea is one of the most poetic and comforting of YHWH’s prophets:

“The Lord says ‘ I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her.  She will respond there as in the days of her youth…She shall call me ‘My husband’…I will espouse you to me forever:  I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity.”

I love the word “allure”.  Allure possesses a flirting quality.  Contains sexual energy or desire.  Allure is followed by “speaking tenderly” which conveys a sense of deep and  unafraid intimacy.

This verse is reminder of the book of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs, and also of the verses in Paul’s letter to Ephesians which is frequently used to celebrate the sacrament of marriage.  Paul compares Jesus’ relationship with the Church to the relationship of a husband and wife.  Of course, in this age where divorce is commonplace, it may be difficult for our contemporaries and us to grasp what is signified  here.

I recall when I taught high school in the 80s, the prevailing attitude among our Catholic students was that it was not a big deal if a marriage did not work out.  One can simply get divorced.  I do not think that is what the prophet  Hosea or St Paul has in mind.   We have lost a sense of what a covenant is or what it means to take a vow.  For the Chosen People, the covenant made with YHWH meant a commitment that could not be broken.  Mother Teresa understood this sense of commitment when she took an additional vow to those of poverty, chastity and obedience.  She took a vow to “Never refuse the Lord”.  Brian Kolodiejchuk describes her faithfully executing this vow in Mother Teresa Come Be My Light:

A few days before Mother Teresa’s death,  a sister witnessed a scene that confirmed her heroic fidelity to her private vow not to refuse God anything:

I saw Mother alone, facing…a picture of the Holy Face…and she was saying, “Jesus, I never refuse you anything.”  I thought she was talking to someone.  I went in again.  Again I head the same:  “Jesus, I have never refuse you anything.”  Mother Teresa had kept her word to God.  She had succeeded in not refusing Jesus anything for fifty-five years, welcoming each situation as a new opportunity to be faithful to the love she had pledged.”

Mother Teresa considered Jesus her spouse.  Kolodiejchuk describes her relationship with God as follows:

The secret of the abundant light and love that Mother Teresa radiated…lies in the depth and intimacy of her relationship with God.  She was a woman “madly in love with God,” and even more she was a woman who understood that “God was madly in love with her.”    Having experienced God’s love for her,  she desired ardently to love Him in return—even as He had never been loved before.

Isn’t it interesting that we can more clearly see the meaning of marriage in a celibate sister than we often can those who take the vow of Matrimony?   Our scriptures tell us that  YHWH’s relationship to the Chosen People and Jesus’ relationship to his Church is as deep and intimate as that of a husband and wife who live out their marriage vows by recognizing that they are called to love one another and bring God to one another.   Married life is a call to incarnate and make real the Kingdom of God  and Love that Jesus proclaimed.  God willing, our love for one another is incarnated in our children.  Our children are tangible physical products of our passionate love for one another and mirror the act of God in creating life.  God created because God must love.  Family life is an opportunity to live out this Christian understanding of God’s love as revealed in Jesus’  gospel of love.  Yet it is not always easy.  We are frail creatures who often fall short.

I am reminded of one time when I was suffering from a sinus infection which particularly made me cranky and irritable.  Kathleen looked me at said “ So this is the meaning of ‘ For better or for worse.’ “ Believe me that captured my attention!  To paraphrase  Father Raj:   So many families are bleeding like the woman in the Gospel of Matthew  (Mt. 9: 18-26) who was suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. ( She touched the cloak of Jesus in faith and was healed.)  “They are bleeding through misunderstanding, conflicting egos, infidelities.  Spouses have to touch Jesus in faith –individually and together as a married couple in prayer.  It would bring great healing to them, their families and the entire society and the Church.  After all is not family a domesticChurch?”  Personal relationships can be very challenging.  Our faith tradition has example after example of God embracing our fallen condition, forgiving us, and renewing our life.  David committed adultery with Bathsheba.  Their son, Solomon ruled during the golden era of Israel.  We too through prayer must learn to embrace forgiveness to truly make our homes  domestic churches.

I recently read an illuminating example of the sacrament and its vows that builds on Father Raj’s comments in a publication of one of my friends, Matt Palmer.  He and his twin brother manage money  for people and publish “ Harvest.. a quarterly journal on true wealth building and sharing”.  Matt interviewed a retiring couple and asked them about faith and family:

“We’ve both been blessed with Catholic educations, provided by loving parents who understood its importance during our formative years.  We met and fell in love while attending a  Jesuit university and enjoying a vibrant, faith-filled college community together.  When we married we chose to top our wedding cake with a simple gold cross with two entwined wedding bands at its center.  For us it symbolized the true nature of our relationship, being one with each other and Our Father.  That sense of God being a part of our relationship, our friendship, our marriage each day has carried and sustained us throughout our lives together.  Without our faith and Him in our lives, I know our path would have been rougher and our challenges more severe.  He multiplies our joys and divided our sorrows.  For us, life is all about faith, family, and friends…and all the rest is just stuff!”  Truly this couple lives reflects that a sacrament is an encounter with God.  Together they experienced and encountered God frequently if not daily in their lives together.  They became the people that they had to become to make the marriage work and be faithful to one another and their Father.

In the sacrament of Matrimony, husband and wife are called to minister to one another.  We help one another along the Way.  Was it Jean Valjean at the end of Les Miserables that sings “We reveal the face of God to one another.”   I was touched one Sunday when Fr Raj gave me a second communion host to bring home to Kathleen.  It was acknowledgement that a husband and wife bring God to one another. As Mother Teresa said to her sisters and brothers:

“God is in love with us and keeps giving Himself to the world—through you—through me….May you continue to be the sunshine of His love to your people and thus make your life something truly beautiful for God.”

Lord, help all married couples faithfully live our marriage vows.  Make us into sacraments for one another.  May we encourage and nurture one another. May we reveal your unconditional love to one another.  May people see our relationships and yearn for You.  As parents, grant us wisdom and prudence to nurture and guide the fruit of our loving passion for one another.  May we be holy families who live in gratitude for all the great gifts you have bestowed upon us.  May our lives be something beautiful for You.  Amen.



Chaos Theory

July 12, 2014 at 11:11 am

We recently spoke to an American who has been in India 12 years.  He said that when people ask him what India is like, he says  “Ornate”.  I could see his point.  This word does capture the furniture, jewelry, clothing, artwork, and interior decorating of homes in India.  Yet, it did not completely resonate.  But I thought it was an interesting notion and started to think about what one word I would use to describe India.

India is the flip side of the US and The West.   When our Indian professionals return from the US, I always ask them what struck them.  Invariably, they describe the US as “organized”.  It is telling that the returning Indians notice our organization and discipline.  It captures the fact that their Indian reality is undisciplined and disorganized.   Perhaps the word I want to use is “chaos”.   I must emphasize to my Indian friends and colleagues that this characterization is meant affectionately and not judgmentally. It is important for us to be open to all cultural expressions  and what they offer or tell us about being human. With that important qualification, let me spend a few minutes describing the chaos of Indian traffic, public behavior, crackers and Hinduism.

When one first arrives in India, you cannot miss the craziness of the traffic.  Honking is constant.  Lane markers are suggestions.  Pedestrians cross busy thoroughfares willy nilly.  Cars and cycles frequently drive down the wrong side of the road.  There is no queue for cars at intersections.  It is not unusual for cars to make a right turn from a left hand lane in front of cars turning right from a right hand lane.  One expects to hit a pedestrian or vehicle a few times on every trip.  Yet there is a certain flow that one must feel as a driver since generally all this  chaos is handled without any  road rage or even mild perturbation.

At the airport, whether waiting in line to check baggage, to pass through security, or to disembark from a plane,   Indians simply ease their way if not push to the front.  I even observed this behavior by Indians in the US.  I was flying to Detroit from Columbus  and had to check some baggage.  I was in a line of 10 people when I observed a slight Asian Indian walk past me and 3 or 4 more people.  He was obstructed by a woman who he did not know and who he then engaged in a conversation about his boarding pass.  No one seemed to noticeas he made himself at home in the line there.   Similarly, I was 3rd in line in a queue to go through security to catch a flight to Delhi when all of a sudden a group of 4 women starting loading their purses and other carry-on items onto the belt for scanning.  The security guard objected, but they ignored him.  The two men in front of me smiled.  I asked audibly if the women  were royalty.  Likely they are members of an upper-caste such as the Brahmins.  When I jokingly described this anecdote to one of my Indian golf buddies, he was clearly embarrassed.

After passing through security,  I decided to go to the sundry store to buy a magazine and some munchies.  As I approached the counter that had two cash registers, there was a scrum standing there.  Looked like 4 people standing shoulder to shoulder.  I positioned myself behind a man who was directly in front of the register.  A 6”2”American came up and joined me on my right.  All of sudden, a man who was all of 5’1” started to wiggle in front of me.  I assumed that he was trying to work his way through to the magazine section.  My American colleague said,  “Excuse Me Sir, Get in line!  Unbelievable Rudeness!”  He was pissed.  The smaller gentlemen backed away.  I was in a good mood and smiled at the American and said “ It is no different than the driving on the road.”    However, I am not always so cheerful.

When there is a queue, it is not unusual to have folks pushing into you from behind.  I sometimes wear a backpack and there will be constant pressure against it.  One time after a plane landed, I stood up to stand in the aisle and get my backpack from the overhead bins.  A man from the rear of the plane, pushed past me even though there was nowhere to go.  He progressed a foot or two.  After I had my backpack and the line started moving to disembark, I pressed my backpack into his back.  10 feet later, he stopped and asked me if I would like to go in front of him.  I innocently said  “No. Thank you” as if nothing untoward had occurred.  After all, it did not seem so different from what is a common experience for me.  Nonetheless, such behavior on my part is embarrassing.

Kathleen arrived shortly before Diwali, one of many Hindu festivals.  This is a festival  that is celebrated by lighting fireworks or “crackers”.    I do not have to tell you that in the US, we gather around one site that has fire engines and squads at the ready to enjoy a displaythat may last 20 minutes.  In contrast, in India, it is every person’s  prerogative to buy crackers and set them off.  Nothing is organized.  We watched from the top floor of a local hotel as the fireworks began at 6 pm and went to midnight.  Sporadically litby the devout, flashes of large colorful displays  could be seen across the whole horizon from left to right.   The next day, we read about how the emergency rooms were busy with burnt hands, lost eyes, etc.   Is the picture of constant chaos coming into focus?   Even so, when I highlighted the contrast of our cultures, one of my Indian colleagues who has spent time in the US and witnessed our fireworks  laughingly said that Indians are truly free and liberated.

The chaos theory also applies to Hinduism and its polytheism.  With my Western mind set, I assumed that there would be some semblance of sense or underlying rationality to their spirituality.  One of our young professionals tried to tell me that Hinduism is confusing.  I told her that I needed to talk someone else  then  since I did not want to share in her confusion.  I did not realize that she was actually onto something.  I recently read Wendy Doniher’s On Hinduism.  She sits in the Mircea Eliade chair of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago.  While she is sympathetic to Hinduism, she is unsparing in her scholarly approach which has led to her book being “pulped” or banned in India.  As I read her book, it became clear to me relatively quickly that Hinduism is confusing and in fact chaotic.  One Vedic poem will credit one god for creating the world while another will ascribe creation to a different god.    The gods Soma, Tvastri, Varuna, and Vishnu are all credited with creation by different sources within the Hindu scriptural tradition.

Similarly, various gods are addressed within the same Hindu scriptures as  “You, god abc, are the only god I’ve ever worshipped; you are the only one.”  Doniher suggests that the “various competing claims of supremacy cancel one another out, so that the total picture was one of equality: each of several was the best.”

She goes on, “To the question, ‘Is Hinduism monotheistic or polytheistic?’ the best answer is, ‘Yes’(which is actually the answer to most either/or questions about Hinduism). “   One of the Hindus’ scriptures, the Rig Veda states  “The wise speak of what is One in many ways.”   Doniher indicates that this oft quoted Vedic saying does not represent a monotheistic One  so much as a “unitary substratum supporting a vigorous polytheism.”  Even so , this quote later became the basis for monotheistic versions of Hinduism when the invaders of India brought Abrahamic monotheism.  When the Hindus saw themselves through the eyes of Islam and later Christian rulers, they were not happy with what they saw. They looked and felt like a superstitious lot.  Some felt misunderstood.   Shankara first responded to the monotheistic philosophies of Islam around 800CE.  He helped start a Hindu revival.  One of his contemporaries humorously argued that he “championed monism because he was so stupid that he could only count to one.” Later Rammohan Roy reacted to the British and more recently,  Vivekananda brought back ideas from a visit to America that were infused into or read into  the Vedanta. These latter leaders argued that the ancient Hindu scriptures are monotheistic.

Doniher says that the Hindu traditions really descrbe a monism rather than a monotheism.  The later Vedanta monotheistic tradition  focused on the Upanishads’ teachings (900 BCE)which possess a monism that “assumes that all living things are elements of a single universal being (often called brahman), reached by individual meditation.”  In the West, we commonly refer to this view of God in all “elements”  as pantheistic.  The Christian tradition as embodied in Paul’s letter to the Colossians recognizes that all things live and move and have their being in God, but the creation is not the Creator.  We do not worship God in things even though their created beauty often brings us to and points to  the source of their beauty and  their Author.

I tremble a bit as I write these notes.  I would like to understand Hinduism better before arriving at conclusions about another faith tradition that are not particularly flattering.  But it remains difficult for me to understand polytheistic festivals where offerings for success are made to a deity, Ganesh, who is a boy with an elephant’s head,  whenever a new endeavor is undertaken.  Kathleen, the boys and I also witnessed goats being sacrificed to appease Kali, an angry goddess,  often pictured with a necklace made out of the skulls of demons that look a lot like men. There are temples to her all over the golf course on which I play.   They are among the large and beautiful boulders that are out of bounds.

Returning to Doniher’s  analysis that the Vedantic teachings are monistic, the Vedantic philosophy of the Upanishads “is  often contrasted with the polytheistic world of group sacrifice to multiple gods.  An image often used to characterize the relationship between the individual soul and brahman is that of salt dissolved in water.  ‘Thou art that ‘ the Upanishads insist.”    In other words, our true self can be found within ourselves.  This true “self” should be spelled with a capital “S” because it is the Self that is Brahma. “Thou art That!”   As our egoistic self disappears like a wave disappearing into the ocean of Self.  It is similar to salt that dissolves into the water.

The more recent interpretation or conversion of monism by Hindu spiritual philosophers into monotheism sits side by side with the ongoing practice of polytheism.  Perhaps it is consistent with the non-duality of the East.  The East is both/and whereas we in the West are either/or.  In any event, all this fluidity or lack of stability in Eastern thought is very confusing and chaotic.   This thought is reinforced by Doniher as she states  there is no Hindu orthodoxy.  There is orthopraxy.  In other words, Hindus are more concerned about ritual correctness than “right” thinking.  No wonder it is confusing and chaotic.

Perhaps a better word to describe India would be “fluid”.  Maybe.  For now, I will stay with chaos and also stay with the thought that there is an Absolute Being — The “I AM WHO AM” revealed to Moses in the burning bush and who is further revealed to us as  “ Our Father” by Jesus.  We are all children of the same God who is accessible to all who seek with a sincere heart.  Although it may be a bit more challenging in the midst of the shadows of chaos, I am sure that our loving Father  is accessible even as the Spirit floated over chaos in Genesis 1.   His sun shines on all humans as the Almighty holds us all in a loving embrace.