Sunday, May 30, 2021


The Trinity deciphered. Well, maybe.

Let's start with a statement of the obvious: there is no Trinity in the Old Testament. Of course not you say, the 'Son' had not yet come on the scene (or he was always there ... the fun of theology). But there also wasn't a "two in one" in the Old Testament, either. So the Trinity came in with the New Testament, right? Wrong. There is no mention of the Trinity in the New Testament, or more pertinently anywhere in Jesus' teachings.

The Trinity is an invention of the early church -- the same early theologians of the type who later when on to argue endlessly about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This whole topic began with their struggling to work out who or what the person of Jesus was. Was he a man? Was he a God? Was he a hybrid mixture of the two? They quickly decided -- since they actually had no clue who Jesus really was -- that all of these options were unacceptable. So they decided that God could be in three modes: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Then -- and this is the really neat trick -- having used this modalism to create the concept of The Trinity they then (drum roll) banned modalism and made it a heresy. Hardened 'expert' theologians will argue this isn't true, but witness the contortions they get into trying to prove it isn't true.

So what did Jesus actually teach? First regarding God the Father: he taught that the goal of his teaching curriculum (which was known as "The Way") is to become one with God in heaven. And he further taught that heaven is within you and that to achieve this oneness with God you need to have a spiritual awakening -- something he called 'metanoia' or going beyond thinking. That everyone is a Son and Daughter of God (not just Jesus) but this truth is generally obscured because we are too much in our heads, believing God to be 'out there' (or more often 'up there'). So there is his teaching on God the Father/God the Son/Daughter. You are human and you are divine, and the goal is awakening to this basic Truth. Two in one? Maybe. But as Zen teaches, not two not one.

By the way, a quick aside: in the New Testament it can be confusing since Jesus uses two similar but quite distinct terms, 'children of God' and 'Child of God.' the former just means part of Gods creation. The latter -- becoming a Child of God, a Son or Daughter of God -- is about realizing your oneness with God. When you make your will and God's will one, then you become a Son (or Daughter) of God. Which is probably one of his most misunderstood teachings.

So what about the Holy Ghost (Holy Spirit) in the New Testament? Pneuma -- the Greek word for spirit -- appears some 105 times in the gospels, 161 times in Paul's letters and 69 times in Acts. But mentions of "Holy Spirit" are very few in the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke), and even then mainly in the Paul-influenced Luke.

Anyone who has read my prior blogs, posts or any of my books will know that I will not include the Gospel of John in the discussion. I rely on the Jesus Seminar guide as to what Jesus probably said, may have said, and almost certainly did not say -- and John being written so much later contains both the most words attributed to Jesus as well as the least words we believe Jesus actually spoke. The extensive use of Holy Spirit by Paul along with its presence in Luke and Acts (heavily influenced by Paul) supports the view that to a large extent the idea of the Holy Spirit as a member of a trinity is a Pauline invention.

How many times does Jesus mention the Holy Spirit? Very, very few. Twice and perhaps three times. Ever.

Mentions in Mark, just 4. Basically just two of which are attributed to Jesus himself: one that is an admonishment not to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, and one to not worry what you will say because it will be the Holy Spirit speaking through you.

Mentions in Mathew, just 5. Again only two attributed to Jesus. One again that says you can blaspheme against the Son of Man and it will be forgiven, but speak against the Holy Spirit and that is never forgiven. Which hardly fits with the idea of a Trinity as God in 3 persons.

Mentions in Luke, a whopping 13. And only three attributions to Jesus himself: the same two about not blaspheming the Holy Spirit and don't worry about what to say because the Holy Spirit will speak through you. The third, unique to Luke, is that if you who are evil know how to give gifts to your children, then imagine how much more your Father in heaven will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

Thus what Jesus himself said about the Holy Spirit is that it is God speaking through you -- your will and God's will being aligned, and it is a gift from God. No mention whatsoever of it being a third person of God, or even an implication it should be seen as part of a Trinity. So we can't even say Jesus was a modalist. In fact, Jesus' mentions of the Holy Spirit relate more to what we tend to call a moment of grace: a moment when you do or say something that is just right in the moment and does not seem to come from you but rather God acting through you. You experiencing a moment of oneness with God, your will and God's will momentarily aligned.

In my book, "Christ Way, Buddha Way," I write of the parallels between The Trinity and the Buddhist Three Treasures: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. There's still merit in the parallel of Buddha as Truth, the absolute (what we may call God but not saying Buddha is God), Dharma being the teachings (or the Word, another name for Jesus The Christ and his teachings), and Sangha being the community as a parallel in Christian terms to God acting in community, acting in our lives.

But this new more detailed look above at how Jesus used the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit leads to a better parallel with Buddhism or more specifically with Zen. Namely that the terms relate to your Self (with a big S), your self (with a small s) and moments of kensho of glimpses of awakening. Here then is an almost perfect one-on-one mapping of the three as Jesus taught them, and the three as we are taught in Zen.

God/Father -- Self (big S), true self, who you really are, the absolute

Son/Daughter of God -- self (small s), your human reality, concrete, the relative

Holy Spirit/moments of grace -- kensho, flashes of realization, momentary glimpses of awakening

Palms together

AN ADDENDUM – That one time that Jesus did mention a trinity... And it’s a trinity that is radically different from the version invented by the early church.

In writing my last post I handicapped myself by deciding not to include anything from John. And yet the one mention attributed to Jesus of a trinity is in John 3:5 “Truly no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they first are born again of water and the Spirit. Flesh is born of Flesh, but spirit is born of the Spirit.”

Here then is Jesus once again teaching about metanoia but using different language that his audience would be familiar with—especially a Jewish audience. He presents a vision of awakening to your true self as being like being born again spiritually, but not in the Evangelical Christian sense. Here it is a rebirth of the male aspect of God (the Father depicted by water) and the female aspect, God the Mother in the form of the Spirit, or Sophia, Wisdom. All Jews familiar with the Jewish Wisdom teachings would have been familiar with the central role of fire, Sophia, wisdom, as the feminine aspect of God. It may be tempting here to think of the water as implying baptism, but to the Jewish audience of that time it would have invoked the Pool of Siloam – the pool at the outskirts of Jerusalem where pilgrims would ritually wash to cleanse their sprit before entering the city to go to the Temple. This is referenced in one of Jesus’ parables, so we know he used this imagery in his teachings.

Here, then, is the trinity Jesus saw: a metaphorical transformation – a spiritual rebirth – in which you awaken to your true self by being born again of the male and female aspects of God, as is entirely proper for a spiritual rebirth in contrast to a biological one. Here is the Father he speaks of – not an actual Father in the biological sense – but a Father as a spiritual Father who ‘begets’ with the spiritual Mother, wisdom (prajna).

Despite its source being in John, this teaching fits with the teachings he is described giving in the synoptic Gospels. Teaching that we are all able to be reborn spiritually, undergo metanoia, awakening. No mention of God only being his Father, or him being the only Son, or the Spirit (wisdom) being a third leg of a trinity stool as invented by the early church. Rather, a metaphorical trinity that is simply another way to talk about metanoia, awakening to who you truly are.

For those tempted to refer to another famous quote in John, I would just caution again that John needs to be read selectively and trusted only to the degree that what he states aligns with the Jesus we learn about in the synoptic Gospels, and the teaching we find there once any post-death Pauline amendments have been removed. Thus, yes, you may want to mention that in John 3:16 he has Jesus being described as the only begotten Son of God. But this does not agree with the teachings we know Jesus gave that we are all equal, all Sons and Daughters of God. He taught ‘Our Father” not “My Father.”

As I discuss in my book “Christ Way, Buddha Way,” Jesus clearly drew heavily on the works of Philo – a Jewish Greek scholar who was a contemporary of Christ and who is known for his syncretic merger of Greek and Jewish philosophy. He wrote that your true self is “the only begotten son of God.” He actually wrote this, and Jesus had to be aware of this writing. But Philo didn’t mean that some one human being – a messiah – would be known as the only begotten son of God, rather he taught that for everyone your true self is the only begotten son of God. It is a pity that like so many he was constrained by the male centered speech of his day, since in his writing he is clearly also referring to women, too, when he says their true selves are also the only begotten son of God. In my own teachings I take the liberty of saying Only Begotten Daughter of God for those who identify with a female gender, since to refer to everyone as an only begotten son seems decidedly odd in this day and age.

Saturday, April 11, 2020


Image (c) Tim Langdell 2014, 2020


At this time of the year I miss Marcus Borg. I dearly miss his writings and the talks he gave when he came to our Southern California city of Pasadena. But I am also deeply grateful to him for having the bravery to write about what many of us were discussing, but perhaps were too scared to write about. That is, the disconnect between what Christ actually taught and what ended up in the Christian canon, preached from pulpits on Sundays.

Borg wrote about what he called the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter Jesus is a charismatic, wise teacher in the Jewish first century Wisdom Tradition. He is human, like you and I, born probably around 4 B.C.E. and died around 30 C.E. The post-Easter Jesus, by contrast, is divine, infinite, a spiritual non-material reality, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Messiah, and becomes that Face of God as the second person of a Trinity. 

Attending Seminary was a life-changing, eye opening experience for me. I dreaded it since I had all but dismissed the Old Testament as depicting an angry God I could never connect with, and New Testament classes I presumed would be like attending a revivalist evangelical tent rally. To my immense surprise and delight, I attended classes where professors related in simple factual tones what we know about when the gospels were written, how much of it reflects what Jesus actually probably did or said, and how much was added later by scribes reinventing Jesus in their theology, not his.

So one of the first things many of us are taught at seminary is that Mark is the oldest of the NT gospels, perhaps written around 65 C.E. or so. And that the oldest writings in the NT are some of the letters of Paul. What we also learn is that originally Mark ended with the discovery of the empty tomb: no resurrection, no sightings of a risen Christ, etc. Somewhere in this period after Jesus' death around 30 C.E. and around 70-90 C.E. a movement came into being that had transformed Jesus the Wisdom Tradition teacher (the pre-Easter Jesus) into a divine being who had risen from the dead, and who suddenly was now reported to have been seen (briefly) post-death on the cross (the post-Easter Jesus). 

Now, you may say even so the original ending of Mark has the young man (man, note, not angel) in the tomb saying "He has risen!" so isn't that sufficient support of contemporaneous reporting of the resurrection? That conclusion is sadly flawed and there is general acceptance that this section containing this phrase was added to Mark 16:6 at a later date, too. If we consider what this earlier ending of Mark actually says, it makes no sense: 

6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 

7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ” 

8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Note "They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." That none of them said anything is supported elsewhere by no text reporting they mentioned anything to Peter or the other disciples, no account of meeting up with a risen Jesus in Galilee, etc. But, the writer states they didn't mention this to anyone. If they didn't mention it to anyone, how could the writer of Mark know about it? He couldn't, of course. And this is a common device use by writers of this time period where they are adding to a story 'facts' they know are not actual facts, but what the scribe would like the reader to believe happened. There is evidence, then, that not only is Mark 16:9-20 a fiction added many years after Mark was first written, but that the rest of Mark 16 was probably either all later added fiction, or at least heavily amended and added to long after the first version of the text was written closer to the time of Jesus' death.

One of the most unfortunate consequences of the invention of the post-Easter Jesus by those writing decades after his death is that it sidelines what Jesus actually taught. Worse, it pedestalizes Jesus making him "non-human," "other," renders what he was "unobtainable" to mere humans, and so on. There's a meme that was going around the Internet not too long ago:  "It's not difficult to imitate Jesus. First, you need to get yourself born of a virgin. Second, you need to die and come back to life three days later..."

And, yes, the same solid scholarship that proves the new invented ending to Mark, also shows that the stories of virgin birth, being born in Bethlehem with wise men finding the child by following a star, etc, were all also later inventions added to the original gospels decades after the death of Jesus. Again, all part of a reinvention of Jesus as his post-Easter self, pedestalizing him.

Christ's teachings were deeply non-dual, or as non-dual as they could be being rooted in a monotheistic society and culture. During his lifetime--and thank goodness large parts of the gospels came through to us relatively unscathed--he taught that by adopting a state of consciousness that is beyond thought (metanoia) you can enter what he called heaven within. Like most Jews of the time (indeed even still of this current day), Jesus did not believe in a life after death, a place called 'heaven' that one goes to in an afterlife. He spoke of how the death and resurrection you need to experience is right here, right now, in this moment. He described it as being born again of water and the Spirit. He teased the benefits of following his teaching as including the fact that if you are born again in this way you gain eternal life. This eternal life, he says, is realization of your true self that is not (like God) subject to life and death, but rather is eternal. This is your Christ-Nature, essentially the same as what we call your Buddha-Nature in Zen. 

But more about that in future writings. My book on the parallels between the teachings of Christ and Buddha will be released soon. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 28, 2020

(excerpt from my upcoming book on the parallels between the teachings of Christ and Buddha)

Seed Sown in Four Types of Ground

This is a seminal parable, often retold (Matt 13:3-23). It is notable for the fact that it is one of the times Christ is asked “Why do you teach in parables?” He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”
How wonderfully Zen, and how koan-like: “Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”
Not surprisingly, over the millennia Christian scholars have debated the meaning of this teaching. Indeed, it is often simply labelled as a “difficult saying” with suggestions that perhaps we are not meant to understand what it means. Yet other scholars note that whereas Matthew and Mark (4:25) both have this phrase “even what he has will be taken from him,” Luke has a variant, “whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him” (Luke 8:18).
These scholars argue that Mark and Matthew got confused, or simply failed at accurate translations, and that Luke’s revised wording is merely a clarification of what Jesus actually said. They base their argument on what they see as the obviously nonsensical nature of the version that appears in both Mark and Matthew: the logic goes, if the earlier two versions don’t make sense then Luke was just adding sense where sense was needed. The trouble is, there is no actual evidence for this, nor does it explain why both Mark and Matthew have the same phrase – why, in these scholar’s view of things, would Mark and Matthew both make the same ‘mistake?’
Of course, it’s a nice side-step to the teaching to say, “well what Jesus obviously really meant is that to those who have nothing even what he thinks he has will be taken away.” After all, now the teaching makes sense, and refocuses the message on people believing they have something when they in fact do not. And because they only thought they had it, therefore of course it is taken away (because they don’t actually really have it …). Which when we unpack the Luke version like this helps us to realize that this was not what Jesus was teaching. Luke was not merely ‘clarifying’ what Mark and Matthew should have written.
A further blow to these scholar’s theory that Luke was clarifying what Jesus ‘really’ said when he write 8:18, the problem for them is that at 19:26 Luke then goes on to put in the mount of Jesus the following: “but the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” So much for the simplistic theory Luke was clarifying by adding in the “what he thinks he has.”
Christ has thus tag-line of to those with nothing even that will be taken away in a total of 3-4 parables and sayings: The Ten Servants and the Ten Minas, and The Three Servants given Talents are two notable others. Indeed, given how often this core teaching appears in his parables, we can assume he saw it as an important message. 

One who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away

 So, what does this phrase mean? Again, this seems to be one of the most koan-like statements Jesus is reported to have said, and he is reported as saying it several times. Some insight into the first century Jewish meaning behind this phrase may be gained from considering Talmud writings. As KJ Went has observed, the following is a well-known Talmudic writing:

“A mortal can put something into an empty vessel but not into a full one, but the Holy One, blessed be He, is not so, He puts more into a full vessel but not into an empty one." (Babylonian Talmud, Berakôth, 40aSukkah 46a)[1]

Instantly, the Zen “Cup of Tea” koan comes to mind:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868–1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Two different cultures and traditions, two almost opposite metaphorical images. In one we have the image of God giving most to someone who’s cup is already overflowing, and in the other a master teacher who cannot teach someone who is already too full of ideas, concepts and preconceptions.
The Jewish way of thinking, though, gives rise to what some have dubbed the “Matthew effect” (otherwise known as the Matthew principle or the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage). Stated simply, the effect says that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. To those who perform well more tasks and merit are given, to those who under-perform fewer new tasks or rewards are given.
The “Matthew effect” was coined by Robert K. Merton to describe, for instance, how famous researchers get more credit for their work than unknown researchers who do essentially the same work.[2] Seen simplistically, this appears to be what Christ was teaching: if you work actively towards building the Kingdom of God on earth then God will favor you and reward you, whereas if you are lazy or simply refuse to work toward the Kingdom, then you will fall into God’s disfavor and not be rewarded in life.
But the teaching is deeper than that and is ultimately a teaching about dualism versus non-dualism.  It is both the joy and the challenge of Christ’s parables and sayings that more often than not they can be read on at least two different levels. Here with these several related parables is no exception. At the surface level of understanding, the teachings say that if you work towards establishing the Kingdom of Heaven (on earth) then God with reward you. The harder you work, the more ‘full’ you are of such work, the more you will be rewarded. There’s some similarity to a more simplistic view of karma: you do good then good will happen to you. The more good you do the more you benefit. Again, this is a simplistic view of karma, not an accurate one.
But the deeper teaching goes to Christ’s message about dualistic versus non-dualistic thinking and action. Throughout so many of his parables and sayings, Christ keeps coming back to common themes: develop don’t know mind, the mind of wonder of a child (childlike not childish), align your will with God’s will (that is, realize your true self, your Christ nature, your oneness with the ground of being), reject attachment to material things, and so on.
 While the two approaches (Zen and Jewish wisdom) may at first seem to be at odds—one teaching your cup must be empty, the other that it must be full—they are in fact both addressing essentially the same teaching. Insight into how this can be is gained from appreciating that a core part of Christ’s teaching was the practice of kenosis, or “self-emptying.”
Kenosis (or rather the verb form kenóō) is mentioned five times in the New Testament (Ro.4:14, 1Co.1:17, 9:15, 2Co.9:3, Phil.2:7) with exponents of Christ’s “self-emptying” core practice using the text of Philippians (2:7) which describes Christ emptying himself of his own will and filling himself with God’s will. This is Christ’s teaching, mentioned elsewhere in here, that a key goal of following Christ’s “The Way” was to align your will with God’s will, thereby becoming a son (or daughter) of God.
Another way to think of this is that this kenosis is an overcoming of ego-based behavior and thought, a transformation from dualistic (ego-based) being to non-dualistic being. An emptying yourself of your “self” (with a small s) and filling yourself with your true “Self” (with a large S). The simple truth is that as you enter into non-dual consciousness then your entire being simultaneously becomes totally empty (of self, ego, dualism), and yet by the very fact of being thus ‘empty’ is therefore totally full. Non-dual consciousness cannot be partial—it is full to overflowing at all times since it is, after all, awakening.
To evoke a modern parable, it is like the woman who went around with extremely dark glasses on that turned her world dark and monochromatic, and blinkers that cut out most of her field of vision. And then one sunny mid-summer day, the woman took off her glasses and removed the blinkers. In that moment she went from being full of a dark, limited view of the world to be filled with light, color, expanse of vision.
The spiritual transformation from ego based, dualistic being to non-dualistic fully awake being is like this. But it isn’t the end of the journey: there is then the integration of the dual and the non-dual. To draw the parallel of a compass, realizing non-dual consciousness is like getting to 180—but our journey doesn’t end until we get all the way back round to 360, having fully integrated the dual and non-dual (or in Zen terms, the “absolute” and the “relative”—but more on that later and elsewhere in this and subsequent books).
Let’s look again at the core teaching Christ is reported to have used in more than one parable: “as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.”
In teaching my students as we work on koan introspection I caution them to look out for “the hook.” Many koans have at least one hook, and often there is a core hook. What form this hook takes varies koan to koan, but in general it is the part of the text that is designed to draw the intellect in. In other cases, it may be just a red herring or deliberately misleading, or even downright false, statement. But the intellect is drawn to it as if a moth to a flame.
Here in what Christ taught I would suggest the hook is the word “has.” Elsewhere in his parables and sayings, Christ focuses on a core part of following “The Way” is to not be attached to material possessions. He speaks of becoming like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (within), and of how it is harder for a rich man to achieve this state of consciousness than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. And elsewhere still he teaches his followers to look at whose face is on a coin: “Give to Caesar things that are Caesar’s and give to God that which is God’s.”
These are all part of Christ’s core teaching on attachment, which is also a core part of the Buddha’s teaching, too. The teaching goes like this: so long as you think there is a “you” (or “I”) that can “have” things you will not be able to realize your Christ Nature/Buddha Nature. To believe you “have” things is central to dualist thinking, and a core illusion that keeps us from being awake to who we truly are.
Let's close by returning to the core teaching: To one who has nothing, even that will be taken away.  
Sit with that. Having nothing, having that taken away. What does this mean?

[2] Merton, Robert K. (1968). "The Matthew Effect in Science" (PDF)Science159 (3810): 56–63. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017


As some of you know, I have been living and working at the intersection of Christianity and Buddhism for most of my adult life; and as you also know, I am ordained both as an Independent (Ecumenical) Catholic Priest and as a Zen Buddhist Priest. Where possible, then, my goal is to either post on topics that draw on both traditions, or do parallel posts where I feel the topic is best separated out. My post yesterday about Stages of Enlightenment is one such topic where I wanted to address the Zen perspective separately. 

Here then my focus is on oneness with God, non-dual thinking and the question of the divine versus the human states of being. And, yes, I know for many these may seem blasphemous or irreligious, but it is in fact in line with Jesus' own teachings.

Apologies to those who have heard me say this before, but perhaps the single most egregious example of bad translation in the New Testament is the word "metanoia." Since an accurate translation of the term did not suit the early church's theology of sin, redemption, Jesus dying for our sins, they decided to mistranslate it. Thus the term found its way into translations of the NT as "repent" or repentance. With it came the invention of a theology that Jesus did not teach: namely, that of our needing to repent our sins so that after we die we will get into heaven. And of course the related invented theology that Jesus died for our sins (which actually is true, but not in the sense it is usually meant).

What the term actually means is meta=above, beyond and noia=thinking, mind. So it translates to above or beyond thinking, indeed one might say before thought. Hence Jesus' actual teaching was that in order to enter the state of being he termed 'heaven on earth' (where heaven, he tells us, is inside us) you must first go beyond thinking, or perhaps more accurately, come from a place of before thought. 

In John we learn that Jesus also taught that one can become a son (or daughter) of God by aligning one's will with God's will. And throughout his teaching, Jesus points to this aligning of wills being associated with this coming from a place of before thought, being as a child (child-like, not childish), in order to enter the state of being he called heaven.

His teaching, then, although not often presented in the way he said it, was that we are all both human (ego-based, mind/concept, duality based) and divine (before thought, non-dual thinking, oneness with God). And if this sounds irreligious to you, remember that in his core prayer Jesus taught us to pray to "Our Father," (not his Father), and he referred to all his followers as his brothers and sisters. Indeed, in one superbly clear teaching he even talks of who is his mother? who are his brothers? to which he answers that all present are his brothers, sisters, mothers. But that is a topic for another blog.

In reading about mystical experience you will have noticed a common theme that those who have so-called "mystical experiences" often speak of becoming one with God, one with everything, a dropping away of self, of ego, and a sense of ecstasy and a feeling of all being well. A deep sense of peace that passeth all understanding.

For many, this moment of non-dual thinking, of becoming one with God, is just that -- a fleeting moment that they may then spend the rest of their lives trying to repeat. For others, these moments of oneness happen on a regular basis, and what ensues is the challenge of balancing one's ego-based dualisitic way of being, with the non-dualistic state of who you truly are.

Here, as with the Zen version of my blog, the above visual illusion can be used as a metaphor or parallel. For many, living in the dualistic every day life of the ego, of me-my-I thinking, is the norm represented by the upright staircase that runs from top on the left down the lower step on the right. But once, or perhaps occasionally, there is a glimpse of your true self, which is like getting a glimpse of the inverted staircase that runs the other way upside down. 

But when in dualistic mode its hard to also being in the unity mode of your true self: similarly, when in the state of union, which for many can be like a state of ecstasy, its hard to also be in the "regular" ego driven dualistic state. Its either one or the other: seeing either the upright staircase or the inverted one, not both at once.

Entering into a state of non-dual thinking, of the before thought "heaven within" that Jesus taught about, whether by centering prayer or other means, can not only be a challenge but, for some, a scary experience. Unlike Eastern traditions like Zen, Christianity doesn't tend to promote the idea of having a mentor or teacher -- yet it can be vital to have someone walk the path with you. 

The path can be a challenging one, and I heartily recommend that you seek a mentor or spiritual director if you are pursuing this path (following the writings of the likes of Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton or Fr Keating). Yet the path is the most important one any of us can take: that toward unity with God and seeking heaven on earth. It is to go beyond ego-based dualistic thinking to non-dualism and unity -- finding your true self -- but to not be deceived into taking on the non-dual experience as some kind of "achievement" or badge of honor. Your true self is love, and here we mean agape of course. It is a very deep state of compassion, for ultimately true selfless love is deep compassion, and vice versa. But beware: as one person recently wrote she thought she had become the most serene peaceful compassionate person ever until someone cut in front of her on the freeway when she was already running late for work :-)

Seek the way that Jesus spoke of but be prepared to discern illusion from the true path, your true self. And if you have not already done so, seek out a mentor or spiritual director to walk the path with you. 

peace and blessings.

do well, do no harm, do what you can, remember to truly love yourself, and above all help others.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Enlightenment has come up a few times recently in various FaceBook discussions. First, let's put one thing to rest right here: this blog post is not actually about the "stages" of enlightenment. That was hook title I selected to entice you to read further. Enlightenment by its very nature is impossible to discuss in words since by very definition it deals with the ineffable. It is also not some "thing" that you can attain, or that once attained you can then "lose."

But there was a method in my madness in selecting the title, and in selecting the above image of what is known as the "staircase illusion" since this all relates to what we call enlightenment, as I hope to clarify here.

I should say first that I am writing this part of this blog from the perspective of Zen Buddhism, and some of the ideas and views are not accepted even in other branches of Buddhism. 

In Zen we have a term "kensho" which can be variously translated as "seeing into nature" or "seeing into essence," and is most often used to describe a glimpse of enlightenment. Some may say it is a glimpse of your Buddha Nature or a glimpse of emptiness. Yet others -- and I would say they are mistaken -- equate kensho with enlightenment as such, and then proceed to conclude that having had a kensho experience the person is thus "enlightened" or now qualifies to become a teacher, senior teacher, Zen Master or Roshi. Indeed, we've had some lively discussion recently on FB as to the importance of verifying a kensho experience as a precondition to granting dharma transmission, and if so how many kensho experiences must be affirmed before transmission is granted (or if already granted, is recognized as "valid"). Yet to play devil's advocate, one might say do you wish someone who has only had a glimpse -- a kensho experience -- teaching others as if they have some deep appreciation? I'll return to this below.

Then there is the term "satori" which some equate to kensho, and yet others equate to enlightenment. Other still draw a distinction and say that satori, like kensho, is a glimpse of non-duality, of emptiness, but is not a complete enlightenment, yet is a deeper state or experience than kensho. Already we are splitting hairs, counting angels dancing on the head of a pin, and being drawn into the very condition that "enlightenment" is meant to be freedom from. Oh the irony! The idea thus arises in discussions and attempts to define these terms of levels of enlightenment, or stages of it, or degrees of it. Hence my title for this blog post. But all this itself is illusion, all is construct and condition: the mind doing what it does best.

But to complete this summary of terms, some then might say that beyond kensho and satori is daigo tettei, which is the true, final, enlightenment. This, they would say, is the final and absolute enlightenment, from which the person does not go back. It is the "great realization." So, to summarize, there are no levels of enlightenment and these levels are kensho, satori and daigo. Welcome to the wonderful world of zen.

Yet there is something to what these terms refer to: experience and listening to the experiences of those following the Zen path, reveals that there are commonalities of experience that in some sense align with terms such as these. That is, the term "kensho experience" to identify a glimpse of non-duality or emptiness seems to be a valid term with genuine usefulness.

In simplistic mass market discussions of Zen its not uncommon for people to talk of overcoming the ego, defeating the ego, of realizing non-duality as the only true reality, of everything being illusionary, and so on. As many have pointed out before, realizing the Mack truck hurtling toward you on the road is in a sense an illusion, a fabrication of mind, is all very well, but if you step out in front of it you'll soon have a serious teaching moment about what illusion means. In this instance, one might say you get the 1, but not the 2. Getting the 1, getting non-duality, getting a glimpse of emptiness, is all very well and good but then you need to get the 2. Then both 1 and 2, and then neither 1 nor 2. Let me expand on that.

As I mentioned above, enlightenment is by its nature ineffable, and neither words nor pictures can do better than a finger pointing at the moon. But perhaps the staircase illusion can stand as a reasonable metaphor. Most people looking at the illusion tend to see a set of stairs that goes down from the top left to the bottom right. A simple staircase, nothing special.

But then when you are asked to try to see the upside down staircase that goes from a low step on the upper left to a high step on the lower right, for many you transition to seeing this alternative. Again, it is often the case that when you concentrate you can switch back and forth between the two views of the staircases, and eventually you may be able to see both at once, or perhaps even see neither. But I get ahead of myself. Suffice to say, here we have a parallel to 1, then 2, then 1 and 2 then not 1 not 2.

Consider everyday ego-based, dualistic reality as the regular staircase most people see on first looking at the illusion. Then consider that having a glimpse of emptiness and non-duality is like momentarily being able to see the inverted stairway. It flashes before you, but then you cant grasp it again. Kensho can be exactly like this.

Satori, by contrast, might be likened to being able to switch back and forth at will between the two views of the staircase, switching between ego based, dualistic perception and non-dualistic direct perception of emptiness. And for some it is rather like this: in every day life they find the slip back into an ego-based dualistic worldview, and then while sitting zazen, or perhaps for some period of time after sitting, entering a deeply peaceful, centered non-dualistic state that then dissipates over time. Perhaps it rises to a kensho glimpse, perhaps its just samadhi (yes, I know I said "just" -- this is a topic for another blog post).

In this analogy, letting go and just being in the moment = fully embodying "what's this? don't know" - is a parallel to both being able to see both versions of the staircase at the same time, and seeing neither staircase (1 and 2, neither 1 nor 2) and that this then equates to daigo.

There is some merit to this analogy or metaphor since like the visual illusion, equally the self is an illusion just as the non-self is. 

I have watched as those who have had kensho experiences, or perhaps satori, have got stuck with "So this is it? That's all there is to it?" What ensues in too many instances is a cynicism or resort to alcohol, drugs, or in some cases it seems to aberrant sexual relations with students. They get the 1 and get the 2, they intellectually grasp 1 and 2 as well as not 1, not 2 (e.g. Alan Watts), but the feeling that "Is this really all there is?" consumes them. Perhaps not publicly, but privately.

But this too, along with samadhi, are topics for further blog posts. A Christian version of this blog post based on Jesus' non-dual teachings will follow.

do well, do no harm, do what you can, remember to truly love yourself, and above all help others.


Sunday, June 11, 2017



Today in Christian Churches around the world the main priest has likely tried to pass off the job of giving the sermon/homily to the curate or junior pastor. This is the quintessential theological hot potato: preaching on the topic of the Trinity. 

You see, the Christian Church has managed to get itself tied in knots by inventing a theology in the early to mid hundreds that bears no resemblance to anything Jesus actually taught, or to Jewish faith (on which, lest we forget, Christianity is based).

In the synoptic gospels the theology of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is fairly uncomplicated: Jesus teaches that we are all children of God, and instructs his followers to pray “Our Father who art in heaven ...” – note, not MY Father who art in heaven. And what of this heaven? There his teaching is clear, too, it is within you. Already, by going back to what Jesus actually taught, we are light years away from the theology the early church invented at the Council of Nicaea and beyond.

Jesus also teaches that in order to become a son of God (or daughter of God) you must align your will with God’s will. In other words, set aside the ego and become one with God. Then, he teaches, by definition you will be a son (or daughter) of God.

Only in John do we find claims of Jesus as the only Son of God: this gospel written well after Jesus’ lifetime, is also the one that has the most words attributed to Jesus but the fewest that leading scholars believe he actually ever said.

So how did the early church’s misconception of the Trinity come about? Well, in sizable part it came from a lack of understanding of Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus reframes the Jewish view of God as an intensely personal, present, immanent God, one that is within you (and you within God), one that “is” you, in a very real sense, he opts for language that aims to break down the traditional view of who or what God is.

Remember, by this time, the Jewish Kings are gone; now, first century Middle East, God is distant from humans and God’s name is never to be spoken or written down. Thus God becomes the tetragrammaton (YHWH/JHVH), and only by speculation of possible interstitial vowels expanded out to Yahweh or Jehovah. 

No, in order to reframe God as imminent – closer to you that you are to yourself – Jesus invites the use of Abba to refer to God (and no this is not “Father” it is closer to dad, daddy, papa, or pops – it is the intimate name for a father that is used by a young child). Jesus also describes God as Love: not as being merely “loving” but as the very embodiment of Love. And that is of course not sexual love (eros) but divine love (agape).

And what is this Love, this agape? It is the absolute, selfless love that is all encompassing, non-judgmental and totally inclusive. To expand on his reframing theme, he then likens God’s love to be like that of a father for his only begotten son. And here was the first place for those failing to grasp his teaching to go off the tracks.

Reminding ourselves first century Palestine was a very male oriented society, thus the pinnacle of this selfless love would be best expressed as that of a father for an only son (its not a coincidence that the parable is of the prodigal son, not of the prodigal daughter). Today some might better frame that love as being that of a mother for her only child, and better still of a parent for their only child.

Some have drawn on Augustine to help unravel the Trinity: “For I do not love love, except I love a lover; for there is no love where nothing is loved. Therefore there are three things— he who loves, and that which is loved, and love.” The parallel, then, being the Trinity as love, lover and beloved. But this raises the specter of dualism: that there must be separateness – the lover separate from the beloved and the ethereal connection of “love” itself.

Rather your true nature is Love, God’s true nature is Love – Love is who you truly are. Lover and Beloved are one (which evokes Rumi and Sufi teachings). In Buddhist terms, some have trouble with this word “love” for it has so many connotations for people: mainly its association with human love and sexuality. Rather, in Buddhism we talk of compassion. Your nature, your Buddha Nature, is pure, unadorned, compassion.

I recall while at a well know Zen Center, a discussion arose about our true nature and I happened to observe that when all else is removed (i.e. when ego and duality are put aside) what is left is compassion. The person next to me ran to the exalted teacher and repeated this to the teacher. Take no notice of Tim, came the reply, that is wrong. Tim is not yet an authorized teacher, take no notice of anything he says. If that ego could have but fallen away, there compassion would have remained.

In Buddhism we have our own “trinity:” The Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Like the Christian trinity, this trinity can be easily misunderstood. It can be wrongly unpacked as worship (in some sense) of the Buddha as an historical figure, Dharma as Buddha’s teachings, and Sangha as community. But Buddha is also Buddha Nature – who you truly are: Love, Compassion. Buddha (or rather, Buddhahood) as parallel to God, our true being (not to be confused with ‘Buddha is a God’ use of language). Dharma is the teaching, and is parallel to Jesus, The Word. That leaves Sangha and Holy Spirit. Sangha or community is at its core about interdependence – the Spirit that weaves all this together.

Rev Songdo Prajna, Abbot and Head Teacher, Still Center Zen (part of the Five Mountain Zen Order)
Fr Tim, Rector, Loving Catholics, Los Angeles (part of the Ecumenical Catholic Church/The American Catholic Church)