Friday, April 27, 2012

The Resurrection as Samadhi

Studying to become an interfaith minister while attending and working for a Lutheran church is opening up some interesting Pandora's boxes for me.  I need to write this down today for the sake of my sanity. 

I have been obsessed with the Resurrection lately.  I am trying to make sense of the Christian belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and his promised Second Coming, which will bring about the Resurrection of the faithful and usher in the era of the New Creation.  For the past year, while attending my church, I have been hearing a lot about the need for an "embodied" Christianity.  I have also been reading quite a bit about "embodied" spiritual practice in the contexts of Buddhism and Yoga.  I am beginning to hate the word "embodied," a real buzz word for religion geeks, apparently. 

I love Jesus.  I also love Buddhist philosophy and practice, and Yoga is my primary spiritual path.  In each of these belief systems, there is an emphasis on how we confront matter (our bodies and the physical world).  Each of them teach profound respect and reverence for the Earth and for our bodies.  Buddhism and Yogic teachings focus less on the transformation of the Earth and the body, and more on the concept of impermanence.  In Christianity, mourners are comforted by being told that the actual body of the person they lost will be resurrected, and that even the Earth and all its inherent suffering will be transformed.  Christians believe that one day, in the future, we will live again on the Earth with no suffering, in newly transformed physical bodies.  A key component to this belief is the reason that is given for our current vulnerability to suffering and death: sin.  Basically, we are currently living in an imperfect, flawed world, with bodies that are flawed due to the sinful condition of humans and their world. 

Buddhists and Yogis do not look at the human condition in this way.  In these Eastern traditions that came out of a very different cultural and historical context, the reason given for our current vulnerability to suffering and death is impermanence.  We are living in physical bodies that decay, in a physical world where nothing is permanent.  However, there is an eternal aspect to existence which is not subject to impermanence.  This eternal aspect is the Source of all, and we each carry it within ourselves.  We can thus transcend the suffering and impermanence of the physical world by connecting with the fullness of pure being, the bliss of the Infinite.  According to both Buddhist and Yogic teachings, we can do this through dismantling the boundaries of the finite Self, reaching a place of complete and total freedom and release: Enlightenment.  Enlightenment happens simultaneously with the continued impermanence and suffering inherent in the physical world.  In other words, we do not need new bodies or a new creation in order to experience Paradise.  We can touch Paradise right now, and not even death can ruin it.  Moreover, there is nothing wrong with the continual turning over of the physical realm through death and rebirth.  We see constant rebirth and renewal on our Earth, right now. Death is a part of this renewal.  There is no need to look to a future time where everything will be permanently renewed.  There is no such thing as physical permanence, nor is there a need for such a thing. 

I still believe in Jesus as the incarnation of the Divine, who came to the Earth to show us the Way, which I believe is similar to Buddha's Middle Way, and even to the Way of the Tao.  I do believe in Jesus' Resurrection, but I do not believe in a future Resurrection of all physical bodies, nor do I believe in a future New Creation which will dispense with death and impermanence.  My belief in the Resurrection is more along the lines of the Buddhist and Yogic emphasis on letting go of the finite self to embrace the Infinite.  For me, the Resurrection is a symbol and actual embodiment of Enlightenment.  Jesus' life, death and resurrection from death show us the Way to die to or let go of our limited selves so that we may unite with the Divine; through following Jesus' Way, we let go of ego, fear and the constraints of living "in the world," so that we may experience rebirth in a new kind of a world, or an enlightened state of existence; Samadhi, the height of Divine consciousness. 

Now I will breathe a major sigh of relief and this quandary will no longer disturb my peace! Blogging is good for making sense of this stuff.  Thank God for freedom of conscience and religion, because I'm pretty sure I'm a heretic in at least five faith traditions right now. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tantra as Spiritual Devotion

When most of us hear the words “tantra” or “tantric,” we envision some kind of mysterious, sexual cult.  This is how tantra has been depicted in Western media; I think of scenes from the American Pie movies involving Finch and Stifler’s mom. 
 Tantra is not an obscure sex cult from India.  It is indeed from India, and among its many teachings, there are indeed instructions on how to evolve spiritually through elevating one’s sex life to a refined and sublime state.  And yet, there is much more to Tantra than Finch’s chosen method to seduce Stifler’s mom. 
Like Yoga, Tantra is a spiritual and scientific system developed over thousands of years.  According to some scholars, it was first taught in India over 7,000 years ago, but the teachings were all contained within oral traditions.  Certain Indian pandits believe Tantra to be the continuation of the original Indian aboriginal traditions, predating the Indo-European Aryan invasion which brought the Vedic religion to India. 
The specific Tantra teachings are contained within scriptures called Tantras, which date from the 7th century CE, or possibly earlier.  Some of the Vedic scriptures (Vedas) predated the Tantras and contain the teachings of the Rishis, the Aryan sages who formulated questions about the origin and destiny of the Universe.  The Rishis put forward the idea of a Supreme Consciousness rather than a group of multiple deities, and they developed a ritualistic system to enter into a relationship with the Supreme Consciousness. The Aryans and their Rishis were very interested in the spiritual practices of the indigenous peoples of India; these original Tantric practices were introversive as opposed to external or ritualistic. 
The Aryans and the indigenous peoples (the Austrics, Mongolians and Dravidians) were at war, and this period of warfare is depicted in Indian epic tales such as The Ramayana.  It was during this era that the founding father of Tantra, Lord Shiva, emerged; he was named Sadashiva, meaning one who is absorbed in consciousness and whose entire existence is devoted to promoting the welfare of all living beings.  Shiva was an enlightened yogi, and the great Guru or spiritual teacher who founded the Indian system of music and dance.  He also created the Tantric system of medicine that incorporated Ayurveda.  He is sometimes referred to as Nataraj, or Lord of the Dance.  Shiva is known for having introduced the concept of Dharma, a Sanskrit word signifying the innate characteristic, or natural order of all things.  Shiva taught that the innate characteristic of human beings is their thirst for absolute peace; humans need more than the pleasure provided by sensory gratification.  Tantric teachings aim to enable any human being to attain absolute peace. 
Shiva’s wife Parvati asked him many spiritual and philosophical questions, the answers to which are compiled in texts known as the Tantra Shastra (the Tantric scriptures). There are two types of Tantric scriptures: the Nigama contain the principles of Tantra, and the Agama contain the prescribed practices.  Many of these original books have been lost, and of the ones that remain, some have been written in a code language in order to keep the secrets of Tantra off limits for the uninitiated student.  Therefore, many Tantric teachings remain shrouded in mystery and have yet to be clearly explained. 
The Sanskrit word, Tantra, is roughly translated as “expansion leading to liberation,” since the root tan means “expand” and tra signifies "liberation." Tantra prescribes very specific meditation and yoga techniques, but more important than these are its underlying world-view: according to Tantric philosophy, struggle is the essence of life, in that struggle cannot be avoided.  The aim of Tantra is to move from the imperfect to the perfect in the struggle to surpass all obstacles.  The Tantra practitioner will move through three stages in this progression toward highly developed consciousness: i) first, he/she is dominated by basic animal instincts, then, ii) he/she masters the baser instincts and reaches the stage of true human development, and finally, iii) the highest level is achieved, uniting the individual with Divine or Supreme Consciousness.
What I find to be the most beautiful aspect of Tantra is the sacredness of all experience.  “Tantra is the yoga of everything” (Ramesh Bjonnes, The Yoga of Tantric Love: 7 Reasons Why It’s Not Just About Sex).  Tantra is a non-dualistic spiritual discipline embracing all human experience as a pathway to the Divine.  The day-to-day peaks and valleys of human existence are the essence of the spiritual journey; this includes suffering, desire, anger, boredom and vice.  Tantra teaches that we can meet God everywhere, in the good and the bad within and without.  “This knowledge, this wisdom is called Madhuvidya, or honey knowledge, the idea that the bees of Spirit can turn everything we do and feel, even failure, into nectar” (Id.).  Tantra is thus a practice of intense spiritual devotion.  Ideally, the Tantric practitioner will learn to transform primitive or base desires, kama, into spiritual love, prema.  Through embracing all experiences, even physical experiences and the great range of human emotions, Tantric yogis make use of vulnerability as a gateway to receive Divine love and compassion.  “Tantra is seeing love in everything” (Id.) 
I recently made a vow to myself to search for the face of Jesus Christ in everything I see.  This intention is consistent with Tantric practice.  I consider myself a Tantric yogini, because in learning to accept all experience as sacred, I am finding greater depths of love through the encounter of Divine Grace.