Perfect Vision

The following is an exerpt from Sangharakshita “Vision and Transformation” where he expounds on The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. This is his explanation of the first of the eight steps on the path. I found it interesting because here he communicates it through a series of images rather than concepts.

So what is this Perfect Vision? One may say it is a vision of the nature ofexistence, but what does this vision reveal? What is the nature of existence? This question is difficult to answer because it is easy – only too easy – to answer. This is not to be paradoxical. What it means is that only too many concepts lie ready to hand. There is so much Buddhist philosophy available. One can so easily use a few technical terms, refer to this system or that, and say this is the nature of existence according to Buddhism. But this is too slick, too easy. We must beware of the temptation to produce our concepts too readily. What one is trying to communicate is not simply a set of ideas, not a system of philosophy in the academic sense, but what the Buddha himself, in his own language, quite unambiguously called drsti – a vision.

There are two principal ways a vision can be communicated – through images and through concepts. In Buddhism there are three main images of the nature of existence. These are the Wheel of Life, the Buddha, and the Path. Since these images communicate a vision, it is helpful, in absorbing that communication, if we can ‘get the picture’, instead of just ‘thinking’ them in an abstract manner and assuming they have been understood.

The Wheel of Life
The Wheel of Life comprises four concentric circles. Within the central circle,
which forms the hub of the wheel, are three animals, a cock, a snake, and a pig, each biting the tail of the animal in front. These animals represent the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion which control our minds and make the whole wheel of mundane existence revolve. Outside the hub is a second circle, divided into two equal segments, one black and one white. The white half represents the good or ethical path leading upwards, to states of happiness. The black half represents the bad or unethical path leading downwards, to states of misery. The third circle is divided into six segments representing the different ‘worlds’ or spheres of existence within which, according to Buddhism, sentient beings are continuously reborn. These six worlds are those of the gods, titans, hungry ghosts, hell beings, animals, and humans. The outermost circle of the wheel, which forms the rim, is divided into twelve segments. These are the twelve nidanas, or links in the process which is called Dependent Origination, or Conditioned Co-production. These show in detail the whole process of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

This is the first great image, the first great symbol. This is what we begin to see when we have a vision of the nature of existence. We see the whole of mundane conditioned existence going round like a great wheel – a Wheel of Life, a Wheel of Death – with ourselves as well as all other sentient beings caught up in it. We see that the Wheel of Life in fact is us, is sentient,
conditioned existence.

The Buddha
The Buddha is usually depicted seated on a lotus flower or beneath the Bodhi tree, the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’, with its great spreading branches and its canopy of beautiful heart-shaped leaves, his body radiating light of various colours. There are also more elaborate versions of this image. One of the best known is the mandala of the Five Buddhas, which comes from the more esoteric teaching. In the centre of this mandala is the White Buddha, with theDark Blue Buddha to the east, the Yellow Buddha to the south, the Red Buddhato the west, and the Green Buddha to the north. There are even more elaborate versions of the image in the form of a ‘Pure Land’, or ‘Happy Land’ – Sukhavati – with its presiding Buddha flanked by his attendant Bodhisattvas, its rows of wonderful jewel-trees, its magical singing birds, and many other marvels.

The Path
The path of spiritual progress – or spiral path – connects the two images we have already described, that is to say it leads up from the Wheel of Life to the Buddha, or to the mandala of the Five Buddhas. These then are the three great images through which Buddhism communicates its vision of existence. Perfect Vision is a vision, first of all, of our actual present state of bondage to conditioned existence as represented by the Wheel of Life. It is also a vision of our potential future state of Enlightenment as represented by the Buddha, or the mandala of Buddhas, or a Pure Land. Finally it is a vision of the path or way leading from the one to the other – a vision, if you like, of the whole future course of evolution.

The Holy Spirit and the Trinity

In theological texts the doctrine of the Trinity is often dealt with as part of Theology Proper. Personally however I find it more logical to deal with it as part of Pneumatology. For it’s not until the Holy Spirit is explored more fully that the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity can be explored more fully. And indeed one of the more debated aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity – the filioque clause – is focussed on the Holy Spirit. So, I tend to deal with monotheism as part of Theology Proper, the doctrine of the Incarnation as part of Christology, and the doctrine of the Trinity as part of Pneumatology.

Is sin contaminating your gospel?

I have heard some Evangelicals say that an essential aspect of evangelism is raising unbelievers awareness of their sin. I consider this potentially erroneous for a few reasons.

Firstly, it is a mistake to presume that the sins you are most concerned about are the sins they need to be most concerned about. Newsflash, sometimes what you don’t see is more important to their life situation than what you do.

Second, it is a mistake to presume that they unaware of their sins. This may not be the case at all. They may not call it sin per se, but most people are aware there are ways in which they fall short, even if only by their own standards.

Third, it is a mistake to presume their sins are the only sins that need acknowledging. This is a big mistake. If you focus exclusively on their sin you are likely coming across as judgmental and self righteous. Far better to quickly acknowledge your own sin and the fact that only God is righteousness. Make sure you’re holding God up rather than yourself.

Fourth, it is a mistake to presume that the unbeliever is unaware of any of your sins. If you focus on their sins and downplay your own, don’t be surprised if you get called a hypocrite, just as the Pharisees were by Jesus. And know this: the accusation will probably be justified.

So, I am not saying we should sweep sin under the rug and downplay the problem. On the contrary, I am saying sin is more pervasive than we realise and we should be wary of the sins of judgmentalism and hypocrisy weaving their way into what should be good news.

Alexei Ospipov on the limits of experience and the knowledge of God

Is it really possible to deny God only because everyday experience does not give Him to us? But we know that “everyday experience” is in no way absolute, that it encompasses only some superficial sides of events and phenomena, that plain common sense is limited, and that there are many irrefutable facts which do not fit into what would seem to be unshakable, self-evident truth. Everyday experience gives us almost none of the things modern scientists talk about, but we believe their experience; we believe them without even knowing them or having the remotest possibility of testing the larger part of their assumptions and conclusion. On what grounds do we disbelieve the innumerably greater quantity of religious experiences, the testimony of people who are pure as crystal?

The experience of these experts in the “science of sciences” does not speak of unsubstantiated faith, nor of opinion, nor of an accepted hypothesis, nor even simple tradition, but of the fact of their knowledge of God.

The main experience of religion – a meeting with God – possesses (at least in its highest points) such a victorious power and fiery conviction, that it leaves any other obviousness far behind. It can be forgotten or lost, but not denied…. If people of faith began to tell about themselves, about what they have seen and learned with final certainty, then a whole mountain would form under which the mound of sceptical rationalism would be buried and hidden from sight.

Knowledge of God is an exact science, and not a chaos of mystical ecstasies and unhealthy exultations caused by inflamed nerves. Knowledge of God has its own systems, conditions, and criteria. How can we attain the knowledge of God? It begins with a selfless search for the truth, for the meaning of life and moral purity, and by forcing oneself towards goodness. Without such a beginning, the “experiment” of knowing God cannot be successful. These conditions are expressed in the Gospels briefly and clearly: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”.(Mt 5:8).

Alexei Ospipov

Angels and Veneration in Ancient Judaism

The following excerpt is from Monotheism, Principal Angels, and the Background of Christology by W. Hurtado, University of Edinburgh. This is a pre-publication version of an invited chapter to appear in The Oxford Handbook to the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by Timothy H. Lim and John J. Collins.

Jewish traditions place stress on God’s uniqueness and authority compared to other heavenly beings. He the Creator and the King.

“Bauckham’s astute observation about the topos of angelic refusal of worship in certain Jewish texts was followed up in Stuckenbruck’s published doctoral thesis (1995), an important study in which he conducted a thorough survey of all references to the veneration of angels, and the limitations of it, in ancient Jewish texts, inscriptions and magical material.  Stuckenbruck noted that there was no evidence of a fixed ‘cultic devotion’ to angels, in the sense of angels being the recipients of corporate worship in the ways that God was in ancient Jewish settings. But he also contended that there were various uses of ‘venerative language’ with reference to angels: e.g., (1) occasional invocation of angels (but usually with God) for help, vengeance or protection, (2) angels presented as exemplary worshippers of God (e.g., 4QShirShabb), and (3) expressions of thanksgiving (to God) for actions attributed to angels (Stuckenbruck 1995: 200-3).”

“Yet he judged that none of these various kinds of ‘angel veneration’ was conceived as a substitute for, or infringement on, the worship of the one God, noting that ‘most often the venerative language [for angels] is followed by an explanation which emphasizes the supremacy of God’ (Stuckenbruck 1995: 201).”

“In summary, in second-temple Jewish tradition a firm commitment to the uniqueness of the one God, expressed both in religious rhetoric and in cultic practice clearly sat easily with beliefs about powerful and exalted adjutant figures, among which principal angels were prominent, sometimes portrayed as uniquely deputized to act in God’s name as God’s chief agent.  In its earliest expressions, Jesus-devotion was a distinctive example of this, albeit novel in ways noted and, of course, particularly noteworthy in terms of its historical impact, the risen/exalted Jesus portrayed as God’s uniquely glorious agent of creation and redemption.  The Qumran texts have added enormously to our store of evidence concerning second-temple Judaism, and help us thereby to reconstruct the religious context of earliest circles of the Christian movement.”

How is Gnosticism different from orthodox Christianity?

A key difference between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism is that Christianity has traditionally affirmed that the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus are one and the same, whereas Gnosticism has traditionally asserted that the two are different beings altogether, envisioning YHWH as a self-deluded Demiurge who sits well below the Father in the divine pecking order. This is why you’ll find esoteric interpretations of the Song of Songs from Christian mystics, who consider the Old Testament scripture, but never from Gnostics, who don’t.

Beyond human-centred faith

I find the biggest difference with deeper greener styles of Christianity is their post-anthropocentrism. That is, they are not so human centred. Instead of limiting their spiritual focus to the relationship of God to humanity, or even more myopically, of God to the individual, a more expansive awareness is embraced. So not only is the relationship of God to the human considered but so too is the relationship of God to the non-human, and of the human to the non-human. It’s not so one dimensional. It’s much more holistic. And this post-anthropomorphism flows into Christian ritual, experience, storytelling, symbolism, ethics, theology, social organisation, and more. It flows into the life of how we worship, how we pray, and how we read and interpret the gospel. It opens up aspects of the Christian tradition that have been long forgotten and neglected.
Embracing such styles of Christianity does however involve a lot of unlearning. It involves re-examining what we’ve been told are Christian teachings and testing how intrinsic to Christianity they actually are. Is the earth truly to be left behind? Do animals only have utility value?  Is the body irrelevant or even inimical to spiritual practice? Is the Spirit of God not to be found flowing in the earth as well as the sky, in the female as well as the male, in the body as well as the mind? Can we not, with the Psalmist, joyously call on sun and moon, mountains and trees to praise God with us, as fellow worshippers? How much of our inherited, human-centred view is intrinsic to Christianity and how much is merely the cultural accretion of the centuries? It can be surprising to learn what the scriptures and more ancient expressions of Christianity and Judaism actually say.