What’s The Point?

What’s the point?

The beauty of it is that when you arrive at the point

You see that it’s connected to another point

And another point

And so many other points

That you begin to recognize

That it’s really

Not a point after all

 

And you see that the full stop

Is really so full

With everything that’s come before

And everything still to happen

That it’s really not a stop

Just a coming and a going

A moment to pause

And notice

 

And when you get to the period

You look up and see

That it’s all part of a much greater period

That encompasses all the other periods

That have been

And are yet to come

 

At which point

You notice that the point

Is one point in an infinite connection of points

That fill the universe

And that the point of it all

Is no point at all

 

Trust

TRUST

Trust that the breath you exhale

Will be followed by another one

In its own good time.

 

Trust that the wind biting your skin

Will eventually give way to

The warm kiss of the sun.

 

Trust that smiles invite,

That frowns conceal,

That eyes can be a gateway to the soul

And that words don’t always mean

Exactly what they say.

 

Trust that hurt will lead to closure

For a while

Until it’s over

And you open up again

A little bit stronger.

 

Trust that the bird gliding overhead

Won’t deposit droppings on your face

And if it does

You can always clean it off.

 

Trust in trust.

Trust in the fact that

Trusting won’t always take you where you want to go

But not trusting

Never will.

I am the wilderness before the dawn

Eliminate learning so as to have no worries
Yes and no, how far apart are they?
Good and evil, how far apart are they?

What the sages fear,
I must not fear.
I am the wilderness before the dawn.

The multitude are busy and active…
I alone am bland,
As if I have not yet emerged into form.
Like an infant who has not yet smiled,
Lost, like one who has nowhere to return.

The multitudes all have too much;
I alone am deficient.
My mind is that of a fool,
Nebulous.

Worldly people are luminous;
I alone am dark.
Worldly people are clear-sighted;
I alone am dull,
I am calm like the sea,
Like the high winds I never stop.

The multitudes all have their use;
I alone am untamable like lowly material.
I alone am different from others.
For I treasure feeding on the Mother.

From Tao Te Ching 20.  Translation: Ellen M. Chen.

Transcendence or Immanence? You can choose one but not both…

Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization

By Huston Smith

Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.  1982/2003.

Huston Smith is one of the most respected spiritual thinkers of our time.  Having been born in China to Methodist missionaries in 1919, he practiced different Eastern religions for several decades and wrote one of the few religious bestsellers of the 20th century, called The World’s Religions, in addition to many other well received books on religious beliefs.  So it is with some trepidation that I take issue with this great man on a fundamental matter of spiritual thought.

In Beyond the Postmodern Mind, as well as other more recent writings, Smith argues strenuously against the soulless nature of modern scientific materialism, positing a transcendent meaning to life that in his view, science “cannot handle.”  As I’ve described in other posts, I wholeheartedly agree in his invective against scientific reductionism, although I think his attack on science errs in equating reductionism with the whole scientific enterprise.  But other thoughtful scientists have already locked horns with Smith on that topic, so I won’t go there.[1]

In this post, I suggest instead that the fundamental structure of Smith’s spiritual cosmology is incoherent.  Smith eloquently describes a universe where meaning is both transcendent and immanent.  But I believe that if you want to conceive of your spiritual experience in a coherent way, you can choose transcendence or you can choose immanence.  But you can’t choose both.

In making my case, I’m not only going against Smith.  I’m also by implication criticizing the revered thinker, Aldous Huxley, whose book The Perennial Philosophy, a collection of mystical writings taken from different faiths around the globe, has gained enthusiastic advocates worldwide since its publication in 1945, and is viewed by many as a bible for ecumenical, liberated spiritual thought.

Smith himself is one of Huxley’s greatest advocates, quoting Huxley’s definition of the “perennial philosophy” as “the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being,” adding that he “cannot imagine a better brief summation.”  Later on in his book, Smith follows Huxley’s use of the two terms “immanent” and “transcendent” in the same sentence, stating that:

Looking up from planes that are lower, God is radically transcendent…; looking down, from heights that human vision (too) can attain to varying degrees, God is absolutely immanent.

Aldous Huxley: conflates “transcendent” and “immanent” in his "Perennial Philosophy".

The “perennial philosophy” advocated by Smith and Huxley is an attractive proposition from an ecumenical perspective, an enhancer of global spiritual integration.  The use of these two terms together was, I surmise, a deliberate choice by both writers to conflate the “transcendent” spirituality of monotheistic and Vedic religion with the “immanent” realization of East Asian traditions, thereby proposing a sense of mystical Oneness that embraces the metaphysical truths of all the world’s major religious traditions.  While I fervently support that goal, I believe that the conflation of these two concepts conceals some inconvenient but fundamental differences between them.

Let’s explore the meaning and etymology of both of these two terms before we go any further.  In a paper called Transcendence East and West, professor of comparative philosophy David Loy notes how the Latin trans + scendere means to climb over or rise above something.  Transcendence, he explains, is “that which abstracts us from the given world by providing a theoretical perspective on it.”[2] Implicit in this concept is the notion that spiritual meaning exists somewhere “up there” above worldly, material things, in a pure, eternal dimension.  Perhaps the ultimate statement of spiritual transcendence comes from this passage in the Katha Upanishad:

Higher than the senses are the objects of sense.
Higher than the objects of sense is the mind;
And higher than the mind is the intellect (buddhi).
Higher than the intellect is the Great Self (Atman).
Higher than the Great is the Unmanifest (avyakta).
Higher than the Unmanifest is the Person.
Higher than the Person there is nothing at all.
That is the goal.  That is the highest course.[3]

Now let’s turn to our other word, “immanence.”  The respected neurologist and Zen Buddhist, James Austin, notes that this word comes from the Latin immanere, to remain in.  In contrast to “transcendence,” “immanence” implies that spiritual meaning exists continually within us and all around us.  It’s there for the taking.  We just need to notice it.  Austin uses the word “immanence” as the descriptive term for the “deep realization” of kensho (the Zen term for a moment of enlightenment) that “ultimate reality is right here, in all things, and not elsewhere, or distant from us.”  In this moment of enlightenment, Austin describes, “no miracle is greater than just this.”  He quotes a famous saying from an old Zen teacher: “If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.”[4]

What a mix up!  How can spiritual meaning be derived from “up there” in one tradition, from “down here” in another tradition, and from all of the above in the “perennial tradition”?  A sensitive reader might be forgiven at this point for thinking: “Look, the words might be different, but the feeling is the same.  They’re all talking about a special moment of great meaning.  That’s an experience we humans can all share.  So let’s not get hung up on semantics.”  This is a viewpoint that I myself hold, when it comes to those rare moments of enlightenment we might be fortunate enough to experience.  But in this case, the difference I’m highlighting is far more than semantics, and here’s why.

The celebrated philosopher, Walter Stace, in an analysis of mystical states of mind experienced by people across many cultures, concludes that while the experience itself may have common elements among all humanity, the “many and varied conceptions” that accompany these experiences are “the products of post-experiential cultural and religious categorization and are not inherent in the experiences themselves.”[5] In other words, how people interpret their mystical experiences is structured by their foundational cultural assumptions.  This doesn’t for one instance take away from the validity of those experiences; but precisely because of the power these experiences have on the individual’s psyche long after the event, the interpretation can be crucially important to that individual’s future assessment of meaning and will both reflect and reinforce the underlying metaphysical constructs that inform that culture’s values.

In fact, I believe that the traditional Western, monotheistic-oriented view of transcendence is one of the most important aspects of a fundamentally dualistic view of the universe that has pervaded Western thought for two and a half millennia.  We see it emerging in the Western tradition as early as the Presocratic thinker Anaxagoras (c.500-428 B.C.), who posited a pure Mind which “is infinite and self-ruling and is mixed with nothing but is alone by itself.”[6] This notion got taken up by Plato for whom, in the words of the great classicist Francis Cornford, “the immortal thinking soul, which alone knows reality, is sharply distinguished from the body, with which are associated the lower faculties of sense, emotion, and desire.”[7] Then, with the rise of Christianity, we see the merging of a Hebrew omnipotent God with Plato’s body/soul division, to construct a universe where the cosmic dualism of an eternal God above ruling a material world below is paralleled by a human dualism of an eternal soul ruling the mortal body.

But as we all know, the soul’s rule of the body is somewhat problematic.  No-one has described the tortuous tensions arising from this search for transcendent meaning better than the Apostle Paul, who put it this way:

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[8]

Apostle Paul: defined the tortuous spiritual conflict arising from dualism.

For nearly two millennia, countless millions of people pursuing spiritual transcendence have suffered the conundrum defined by Paul.  This dualistic division of the universe then took a more modern incarnation after Descartes merged the Christian “soul” and the newly ascendant notion of “mind” into one entity, the res cogitans, utterly separate from the body, creating a “theory of mind and thought so influential that its main tenets are still widely held and have barely begun to be reevaluated.”[9]

In a cross-cultural analysis of views of transcendence, Professor Guoping Zhao has noted the potentially harmful effects of pursuing transcendence as a target external to our own physical existence:

What is particular about the modern notion of transcendence is that it is a transcendence of us, but at the same time, it is also transcendence from us, from the very material that constitutes human experience. It is this disconnected form of transcendence, I suggest, that makes our pursuit of transcendence at times unexpectedly harmful to human well-being.  For when transcendence means “disconnected from” the material nature of humanity, it detaches the modern construction of humans from everyday human experience and the deeply felt and commonly shared human sentiments.[10]

Here, Zhao has noted the spiritual harm that can be caused to the individual by seeking transcendence from something outside his/her own embodied experience.  In addition, I think this sense of transcendence as other-worldly has led to what philosopher Hans Jonas has called “among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race,” where our dualistic view has “continued to drain the spiritual elements off the physical realm – until, when its tide at last receded, it left in its wake a world strangely denuded of such arresting attributes.”[11] If spiritual value is derived from an eternal heavenly dimension, then ipso facto it is not intrinsic to the trees, rivers and animals of the natural world.  In a grand irony, the transcendent view has been partially responsible for the very scientific materialism that Smith so derides, one that has led to a desacralized earth, where the spiritual resonance of the natural world has been transformed into the economic value of geological resources and “ecosystem services.”

Thus it is that when Smith and others pursue spiritual meaning as transcendent, they leave the natural world around them denuded of meaning, fair game to those who would view their environment as resources with value calculated in dollars and cents.  On the other hand, when spiritual meaning is realized as immanent, the gap between the sacred and the scientific begins to get blurred, even disappear.  Biologist Ursula Goodenough describes her awe of nature in terms reminiscent of Austin’s description of kensho, when “no miracle is greater than just this”:

As a cell biologist immersed in [a deep understanding of, and admiration for, the notes and the strings and the keys of life] I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a signal-transduction cascade as when I watch the moon rise or stand in front of a Mayan temple.  Same rush, same rapture.[12]

The notion that spiritual meaning is immanent – ever present and all around us – is a liberating one in a world increasingly dominated by the scientific enterprise.  From this perspective, spirituality doesn’t have to flee from the material world into a construction of another eternal dimension.  Spirituality doesn’t have to fight a rearguard action against ever more intrusive scientific insights into the forces of evolution or the neural correlates of consciousness.  Rather, spirituality can embrace scientific illumination as yet another source of wonder, another means by which the infinite complexity of the natural world manifests itself to the human mind.


[1] See Goodenough, U. (2001). “Engaging Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters.” Zygon, 36(2), 201-206; Pigliucci, M. (2010). “The Place of Science.” eSkeptic, March 10, 2010.

[2] Loy, D. (1993). “Transcendence East and West.” Man and World, 26(4), 403-427.

[3] Quoted in Barnes, M. H. (2000). Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science, New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Austin, J. H. (2009). Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[5] Cited in Roth, H. D. (1999). Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, New York: Columbia University Press.

[6] Quoted in McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press.

[7] Cornford, F. M. (1912/2004). From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation, New York: Dover Publications.

[8] Romans 7:22-24

[9] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books.

[10] Zhao, G. (2009). “Two Notions of Transcendence: Confucian Man and Modern Subject.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 36(3:September 2009), 391-407.

[11] Jonas, H. (1966/2001). The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

[12] Goodenough, U. (1998). The Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.

A Moment to Touch the Li

Wife lying sick in hospital bed.
Long hours sitting by her side.
But lunch time brings a walk to grab a sandwich
Through quiet pathway along a little stream.

Surrounded by hedges on both sides
Sounds and smells of spring in the air.

The tweeting of birds calling to each other
Fresh-cut grass and honeysuckle flood the nose.

New shoots jutting out from the hedges
And flowers beckoning with splashes of color.

What a moment to touch the li!

The Three Boxes of Enlightenment: A Story

“So, you tell me you’ve achieved enlightenment!  Congratulations!”

The little, old man smiled at me in a strange way.

“Now that you’ve arrived at this new status, there’s something very special I have to show you.  Very few people have ever seen it.”

With that, the funny little man turned and began walking back to his house, beckoning me to follow him.  He led me down the stairs to a dusty old basement, lined with shelves holding a variety of oddly shaped items.

“Here they are!” he exclaimed with satisfaction.  “My three boxes of enlightenment.”

He reached up to a high shelf and, one by one, took three sealed wooden boxes down and put them on a table next to me.

“Here, open it up!”  He pushed one of the boxes toward me.

I picked up the lacquered box, barely able to see its colors through the dust on top.  I saw it had a latch, which I opened.  The lid creaked up on a hinge.  I peered inside.  Strange, indeed!  All I could see in the box was a dirty little piece of black string.  As I looked more closely, I realized I was looking at a used candle wick.

“Isn’t it beautiful!  Isn’t that extraordinary!” the little old man cried out gleefully in his strange accent.  “This is the beauty of the candle’s flame.  One evening, there I was, watching the flame flickering in the breeze, dancing to the invisible music of the air currents, sucking up the wax and turning it into warmth, brightness and life.  It was so beautiful, I wanted to capture it forever.  So, I took my scissors, cut the flame off the candle, and put it in my box.  And here it still is, after all these years, my beautiful candle flame.”

I looked again, but all I could see was a dingy little remnant of blackened thread.  Before I could ask him what on earth he was talking about, he had jumped up and started pushing over to me another of his boxes.

“Now, this next box is really something special!  Open it!  Open it!”  He could hardly contain his excitement.

As I picked up this new box, wiping the cobwebs away, I noticed it was heavier than the last.  It seemed to have something liquid swishing inside.  With a little consternation, I carefully unlocked the lid.  I opened it up and saw that it was full of water.  I gingerly put my nose towards it.  A smell of mildew from the sides of the box wafted up at me.  It was too dark to see below the surface of the water, but it didn’t seem like it contained anything else.  Just a liter or so of slimy, smelly water.  What was so special about this water? I wondered to myself.

“Isn’t that the most dramatic thing you’ve ever seen!”  The strange old man could barely contain himself.  He jumped off his stool and came over to where I was sitting.  He peered into the recesses of the watery box.

“I still remember the beauty of that moment like it was this morning!” He continued breathlessly.  “I was walking on this mountain path, and came across a hidden waterfall.  The water was crashing down!  I could hardly hear myself for the sound of its roar.  As the water hit the rocks, it foamed and fulminated, throwing up spray, whirling around like a wild animal.  It was breathtaking!  I can still taste the freshness of the stream, its cold sensation, as if it had just melted from the snow minutes earlier.  So I took my little box and captured some of the water.  I’ve kept it down here ever since!  Isn’t it sensational!”

I was wondering how I could politely point out to my odd host that, in fact,  all I saw was some stagnant water slowly becoming a health hazard, when he stretched up and grabbed the final box.

“And here,” he said to me, beaming, “here is my final glory.  This one, I guarantee you, you will never forget!”

By this time, almost panic stricken, I took a deep breath and accepted his gift of the final box.  This one was really sealed.  I had to go around the edges, untwisting some little metal strips, before I could free up the lid.  What was I going to find inside?  I carefully opened up the lid and, holding my breath, looked in.  Nothing.  There was absolutely nothing inside.

“Can you believe it!” the funny little man was getting so excited his arms were starting to swing by his side.  “This is my crowning achievement!  Sunlight!  Transcendent, glorious, life-giving sunlight.  There I was, one beautiful summer’s afternoon, feeling the warm glow of sunshine on my skin, and I knew this moment was to be treasured for all time.  So, I got my most special box, put it in the sunlight and closed it tight, capturing who knows how many sunbeams.  You must admit, my friend, this is truly momentous!”

My heart was sinking as the old man led me back outside.

“Now, my friend,” he said to me as we were making our farewells.  “Next time you arrive at a moment of enlightenment, you could just let yourself feel it, experience the moment, be one with the harmony of the sensations going through you, embrace it and share it quietly with those around you in the form of grace and love.  But, I’d much prefer if you could think about it for me, give it a name, put a frame around, box it up and bring it to me.  Then I can add it to my three boxes of enlightenment.”

With that the strange man shook my hand heartily, gave a formal bow and turned to walk back into his house.

“But wait!” I ran after him and grabbed him by his sleeve before he disappeared through his front door.  I plucked up my courage.

“Your boxes don’t have enlightenment in them!” I blurted out.  “They’re nothing but remnants of those moments.  When you took your scissors and cut the candle wick, you extinguished the flame.  When you caught the water and locked it in a box, you turned the fresh stream into stagnant poison.  And when you closed the lid on the sunlight, you didn’t catch the sunbeams – you just shut them out.”

I thought I’d insulted the old man.  But instead, his face broke out in a smile.  A calmer smile than before.  He suddenly looked both wiser and kinder as his eyes embraced me.

“And that’s exactly what you do, my young friend, when you tell me or anyone else about your moment of enlightenment.”  His voice was soft and gentle.  “That’s exactly what you do the moment you start thinking to yourself ‘I’m enlightened.’  There may be moments in your life when the waves of your body’s sensations and the waves within your mind achieve a perfect harmony, when your reality and that of the external world is synchronized, when time becomes eternal.  Let those moments be.  Don’t try to put a box of thought around them, don’t lock them in with words, and close them off with your concepts.  Just let them be.  And if you let them be, they will melt into your being and express themselves in love and kindness.  But as soon as you try to encapsulate them with a sentence, you will extinguish the flame, and all you will be left with is the burned candle wick, and the empty words: ‘I’ve achieved enlightenment.’”

And when I finally left the old man, and closed his gate behind me, I thanked him from the deepest part of my being, because his three closed boxes of enlightenment had opened up the boxes in my heart that I didn’t even know were there.