Monthly Archives: December 2009

Three Models of the Universe

I once heard a recorded lecture by Alan Watts where he explained the two dominant Myths of Western culture involving the nature of the Universe. He then described a Chinese model of the Universe to contrast the other two. Here is a brief summary of each of the models…

1.) The Ceramic Model – The Universe as artifact.

This is the model that has carried over from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In this model, one sees the world as constructed or made- particularly by a supreme God, be it an Intelligent designer or Yahweh himself. The Biblical Narrative in the first few chapters of Genesis describes how the world came in to being. When God made man, he formed him out of the earth and breathed life ‘in’ to him. This idea has left many westerners with the idea that the world was manufactured by God, and our essential being (soul, spirit, atman, etc…) was brought ‘in to’ the world.

2.) The Fully-Automatic Model – The Universe as dumb energy and random cause & effect.

When science began to take precedence over religion, it became harder for people to believe in the God of the Ceramic Model. They saw no evidence of his craftsmanship, because the signs were pointing to natural selection and evolution. Intelligent design became too hard to believe. Charles Darwin, one of the key thinkers for this model of the Universe, had this to say about Intelligent design:

“I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design…. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.”(The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 8:224)

The fully-automatic model that Darwin endorsed suggests that the evolutionary process is push along by a dumb energy, not an intelligent designer.

3.) The Organic Model – The Universe as organism.

This is the view that Alan Watts pulled from a Chinese worldview. Watts usually starts his discussion on this model by saying that the Chinese don’t see their lives/souls as coming ‘in to’ the world, but rather ‘out of’ the world. For example, a common question that a western child will ask her parents is, “Mommy, how was I made?” A Chinese child would not ask, “How was I made?” But, she might as her mother, “How was I grown?” This is the view that I believe Alan Watts held for a majority of his later years.

Watts would say that the same way an apple tree “apples” (as a verb), the universe “peoples”. Everything we see, hear, touch and taste has come out of the world – not in to it. It is assumed that when people believe that their ‘self’ was cast in to a human body on this earth, they see the unsatisfactory events in life as being unfair. They didn’t choose this life. Nobody asked them if they wanted to be born. But when if we believe that we are in fact a part of the world, coming forth from it, we are motivated to work with the ways of the world (what the Taoist calls establishing Wu-Wei). Realizing the interdependence of the whole Universe, we are able to see where we fit in it and how to work with it.

Which, if any, of these models makes sense to you?

The above post first appeared on the blog ‘Seeing Through The Net,’ which is my old Alan Watts tribute blog.

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Being open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.

“Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

– Alan Watts On FAITH

This simple passage meant the world to me when I first read it nearly five years ago. Defining faith as trust was not a new idea for me, as that is how it is often conveyed within the Christian communities I took part in for most of my life. The difference between the faith I learned from the Church and the faith Alan Watts describes is not a matter of definition so much as it is about the object of one’s faith. In what (or in Whom) are we to place our trust?

In the Christian communities I was a part of, one’s faith was placed primarily in the Bible as Truth. Sure, it is God or Christ to which one is to have faith, but the Bible is the “word of God.” The Bible was that which all else is to be measured; the final authority. But this is inherently problematic, as it causes one to place their faith in a set of ideas. If one’s experience differs from that of the object of one’s faith, the object must be grasped against all adversity in order for faith to remain intact. When this happens, faith no longer feels like trust. In fact, it ends up feeling more like a burden (somebody say “Amen!”). I should say that Christianity is in no way the only religion of which dogmatic adherence to faith in ideas is commonplace.  Truth be told, all religious traditions have some type of dogmatic sect.

The kind of faith of which Watts endorsed – the faith of letting go – resonates strongly with the reason why I started this blog in the first place: to discover truth – however paradoxical it may turn out to be. Anyone who holds tightly to a set of beliefs long enough is sure to notice when they no longer stand up to serious reality testing. It is for this reason, I believe, that many young would-be-Bible scholars and ministers go off to Bible college only to lose their faith (i.e. apostatize) as soon as a year or two later. One is forced to take one of three routes: adhere, adapt, or abandon. Unfortunately for some, many religious communities are not all that flexible, making choice #2 (adapt) as equally damning as making choice #3 (abandon).*

To make choice #2 or #3 is to venture out in to the unknown. This isn’t all bad. For what was known is found via one’s experience to be untrue, which means the truth has yet to be discovered and lies within the unknown.  One casts off the security that is felt within the confines of dogmatism and legalism, trading bondage and safety for freedom and risk (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?). By casting one’s self in to the Void, they come to realize that they have everything to lose, with only the Truth to gain (you might recognize this as Stage Four of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth). From that point on, progress on the journey toward the discovery of Truth will occur only if one is willing to fully, completely let go. You must, as Watts says, “trust yourself to the water.”

And that’s the paradox of it all – if you hold on to anything, you will sink and drown. If you surrender, you will float and live. For me, surrendering started in the form of studying the world’s great spiritual traditions from their own perspective. In doing so, I discovered the teachings of the Buddha and of Lao Tzu and took up the practice of meditation. This path is the opposite of blind faith. In blind faith, one clings tightly to their sacred ideas and shuts their eyes tightly closed, so as not to see anything that might discredit the object of their clinging. The path of surrender, of giving one’s self to the Void, is one of letting go and keeping their eyes wide open – seeing everything, clinging to nothing.

Speaking of this process as a journey or quest for Truth is a useful metaphor, but it can also be misleading. Jack Kornfield writes, “We need to remember that where we are going is here – that any practice is simply a means to open our hearts to what is in front of us. Where we already are is the path an the goal.”** By opening our eyes and letting go we come to discover not some distant or hidden truth, but rather that which is ever already the case.

In conclusion, I encourage (or even challenge) each and every person who reads this to trust yourself to the water. “[B]ecome open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

*(This certainly isn’t the case for ALL communities of faith. Marylhurst University, my alma mater, is a fine example of a truly ecumenical/inter-religious communion of enquiring minds and hearts.)

** from After the Ecstacy, The Laundry.

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Kinkakuji: The Golden Pavilion Temple

(Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)

Kinkakuji — which means “Deer Garden Pavilion” — was built in 1397 as a retirement home for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After the Shogun died in 1406, the pavilion became a Rinzai Zen temple. The original temple was destroyed later in the 15th century, and rebuilt.

A disturbed monk burned the temple to its foundations in 1950. The current structure was built in 1955. It is an exact copy of the previous temple, except that there is more gold leaf than before.

Kinkakuji’s primary function is as a shariden, which is something like a reliquary — inside are kept relics of the Buddha.*

I want to live here.

*Historic Temples of Japan: Kinkakuji (Buddhism.About.com)

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The Ego Revisited

The ego receives a bad reputation within many spiritual scenes. The truth is interdependence, they say, and the ego insists on its separateness. Ergo, the ego must die. Kill it! Annihilate every last trace of the ego and realize complete liberation!

Actually, this hardline stance against the ego isn’t as prevalent as it once was – thank goodness. With the help of communities like the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), a healthy personal psychology is encouraged alongside the transpersonal and spiritual lines of development.

That’s not to say that this ego-hating tendency has been extinguished. As recent as a few months ago I had a conversation with a friend who had been teaching mindfulness at a University alongside a Zen teacher in the community. My friend told me that the teacher taught egolessness, in the literal sense, and that he thought it was achievable, and perhaps even healthy. This is, in my opinion, a wrong view.

Look what can happen when communities take this KILL THE EGO thing seriously. I recently read Andre van der Braak’s book Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru, where he recounts his years as a senior student of the megalomaniacal Andrew Cohen (founder of EnlightenNext.org). “Impersonal enlightenment has to transform our lives;” writes van der Braak, recounting the teaching her received under Cohen; “we should banish any trace of a personal life. Our very reason for living should be dedicated to what Andrew calls ‘living for the sake of the whole’.” (van der Braak later concludes that ‘for the sake of the whole’ really meant ‘according to Andrew’s wishes.’)

Is this what the spiritual path is all about? Should we banish any trace of a personal life? Not at all. This teaching comes from a rather immature understanding of the role of ego in human development and the evolutionary process.

Take Ken Wilber, for example. His Integral paradigm involves moving through ever higher stages of development. Though rather than suggest that we are to banish the lower levels upon reaching a higher one, he adamantly affirms the idea that true developmental progress includes the process of transcending and including the lower levels. Otherwise, one’s identity becomes fractured, causing maladaptive beliefs and behaviors to arise. So if we are to move our identity beyond ego in a way conducive to true, healthy development, the ego has to be included.

Regarding the positive role of the ego in spiritual practice, the spiritual teacher and meditation instructor Anadi (formerly Aziz Kristof) has this to say:

“The traditional concept that the ego represents only ignorance and should be eliminated as such, [sic] has truly damaged a number of seekers. This misconception has created a real guild complex in the minds and hearts of all those who, for centuries, tried to eliminate the ego which they were. How can one annihilate who one is? The ego, in truth, represents itself a highly evolved state of consciousness, where the mind is able to create a self-referral. This is essential for further evolution as well as for spiritual awakening. […] It is ego which allows us to evolve and survive in the reality of time.” –The Human Buddha: Enlightenment for the New Millennium

According to Anadi, what truly separates man from other animals is the development of a self-referral (ego). Without the ego the journey toward higher consciousness would be impossible. In light of this, how can anyone think that the ego is like a wart or a boil that needs to be burned off before liberation is realized? In truth, the ego is re-contextualized when one awakens to their true nature – not abandoned. We learn that our identity may reach far beyond the small, constricted self in to a vast, open space of awareness which includes all things – yes, even the ego.

The next time you come across teachings about how evil the ego is, and how it ought to be annihilated, just remember one thing: the ego is just as real as anything else – that is, any-thing else. All things arise based on conditions. In order to awaken, you don’t need to annihilate your ego any more than you need to annihilate your left foot.

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