Sunday, January 1, 2012

Living Buddha, Living Christ: Ch 2

Chapter Two: Mindfulness and the Holy Spirit

In this chapter, Hanh draws comparisons between the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the Buddhist concept of mindfulness.

I found this chapter very interesting because the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is something I've had to think about a lot. Last year I gave a seminar at our Winter Conference on the Holy Spirit, and last semester I spoke on how to make Spirit-led decisions at our movement's weekly meeting. I've also done some research on (and had personal experience with) the charismatic movement. After all this, I still find the role and operation of the Holy Spirit to be one of the most mysterious things about Christianity.

Hahn starts off by saying that he once asked a Catholic priest what his understanding of the Holy Spirit was. The priest said, “The Holy Spirit is the energy sent by God.” Hahn was very happy with this definition, but I was less so, because the priest's definition fails to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is a person. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit is never portrayed as a force like electricity or magnetism. The Holy Spirit is a being with emotions and desires. He can be grieved or pleased. The Spirit is never an “it,” but a “he.”

I think many Christians fail to recognize this because we think a person must be corporeal, but this is not true. By “person” one should not mean “a physical being” or “a being bound to certain locations in space-time,” but rather “an entity with a mind and a will.” When we refer to the Holy Spirit as an “it” or as “energy” we depersonalize him. We make him less than he really is, because a mind is always more remarkable than an impersonal force.

With that said, the Holy Spirit does
possess energy. He can impart power. He is the one who gives life to the creation and who makes order out of the raw materials therein (Genesis 1:2). There is a sense in which the Holy Spirit is “the energy sent by God,” because he is the animating force in the world. However, we need to be careful not to reduce the Spirit to simply “energy.” The Holy Spirit is the author of the energy – the provider of energy – but the Holy Spirit is more than just the force itself. If we reduce the Holy Spirit to just energy, we remove the relational aspect from our interactions with him and, in a sense, we make ourselves greater than him (because if there is any objective hierarchy in the universe, surely conscious, aware beings are higher on the chain than unconscious, unaware forces).

Hahn then describes the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. To be mindful, he says, is to be fully aware in the present moment. This awareness, he says, brings the fruits of “understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy.” One of the ways monks increase mindfulness is through the “conscious breathing” meditation technique. While breathing, they recite to themselves:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

Hahn says that we forget to live in the present moment because we always postpone being alive to the future. We say, “Wait until I finish school and get my Ph.D. Degree, and then I will be really alive, or “I have to wait until I have a job in order to be really alive.” Hahn says, “After the job, we need a car, and after the car, a house. We are not capable of being alive in the present moment.

I definitely know what he's talking about here. It's so easy for me to think that life is something that is going to happen
later, but life is something that is happening now. In fact, it is only happening now and there is no guarantee that it will be happening later. It is foolish to never think about or plan for the future, but it is also foolish to spend all our time thinking about what's to come rather than what is happening. Too often, concern about the future overshadows our experience of the present moment and diminishes our enjoyment and appreciation of that moment.

Hahn says we can experience peace by being mindful of our blessings. “
Our eyes are wonderful,” he says, “but we usually take them for granted. Every time we open our eyes, we see thousands of marvelous forms and colors. Those who are blind may feel that if they could recover their sight they would be dwelling in paradise, but we who have good eyes rarely take the time to appreciate that we are already in paradise.” This reminds me of the relief I feel when I get over an intense sickness. If I'm in the midst of a horrible fever, sore throat, and nausea, I usually think, “I'll never take being healthy for granted again.” What Hahn seems to be saying here is that we need to go through everyday being mindful of all the wonderful things we already have. This reminds me of the Psalmist's injunction to always rejoice. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Melancholy should be an innocent interlude – praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul.”

I agree with Hahn that mindfulness can lead us to greater appreciation of our lives and of the blessings within them, but is our appreciation complete if it doesn't overflow into thankfulness? And if it does overflow into thankfulness, who do we thank? Christian doctrine recognizes God – the self-existent mind behind all of creation – as the author of every good and perfect gift and the worthy recipient of our thanks, worship, and love. But in Buddhism, God's existence is often regarded as inconsequential. Hahn mentions God a lot, but I'm not sure his concept of God includes the essential elements that most people think of when they speak of him (that is, a mind who is distinct from creation and is the author and sustainer of that creation). If the world around us is not the byproduct of God, any gratitude generated by our mindfulness will be homeless; there will be no one to thank.

Also, I think it's worth mentioning that while mindfulness can lead to greater thankfulness, it can also lead to despair. The world is filled with beauty and love and goodness, but it is also filled with horror and suffering and pain. If there is no God and no intended order behind the universe – no law-giver and no true standards of anything – then all moral judgments are arbitrary and life is ultimately meaningless. The horror, suffering, and pain is – morally speaking – no different than the beauty, love, and goodness, and the tension between the “good” and “evil” is not leading toward any kind of purposeful consummation in the story of the universe. But is this view of things really satisfying? The human soul longs to believe that it exists for a reason and that it can be known and loved fully. Apart from God, however, neither of these desires can be fulfilled. Therefore, if an individual is fully mindful of the human condition and of the disparity between desire and experience, despair is a very reasonable outcome.

Of course, one of the central tenants of Buddhism is that we must cease to desire, but I don't think this is even possible. After all, we can't even pursue desirelessness unless we have the desire to do so. The idea, therefore, is akin to declaring with objective certainty that truth does not exist. It's fundamentally absurd.

To be fair to Hahn, he hasn't mentioned anything here about Buddhism's lack of emphasis on God or about the quest for desirelessness. I'm just addressing his thoughts within the larger context of what I already know about Buddhism. It's possible, though, that Hahn's views are different from Buddhism at large. I don't know.

Hahn says that when we are mindful of others' suffering, our mindfulness helps to bring relief because it produces understanding and compassion. In “
showing your loving-kindness and understanding,” Hahn says, “the energy of the Holy Spirit is in you.” I agree that mindfulness can help us to be understanding and compassionate to one another, but only in so far as we possess the quality of empathy. Is it possible for someone to be very mindful but not be empathetic?

One of the things I thought about as I was reading this chapter is Cru's
Satisfied booklet (also known as the “Spirit-Filled Life” booklet). To be honest, the book has always bothered me a little. I've wondered: If the Holy Spirit exists within every believer, why do people need a booklet to tell them about it? Why do they need a tutorial on spiritual breathing? It seems more like psychological conditioning than interaction with the living God.

The booklet says that if we are going to live fruitful lives we need to walk in the power of the Spirit. I don't disagree. It's interesting to me, though, that the method it describes for how to do this is similar to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. Both require
awareness. The booklet tells the reader to recognize his sins – whether in thought or deed – and to confess them as soon as he is aware of them. Of course, in order to recognize sin one has to be mindful. I'm not suggesting that the Spirit-filled life is synonymous with Buddhist mindfulness, but I think Buddhist mindfulness touches on an essential piece of the Spirit-filled life.

Now, as to whether “the Spirit-Filled life” and Buddhist mindfulness are simply psychological conditioning or actual communion with spiritual reality, that is tough to say. Buddhist mindfulness seems more like psychological conditioning to me than the Spirit-Filled life because – as far as I know – its practice does not appeal to a consciousness beyond the meditator's. Central to the concept of the Spirit-Filled life is the idea of dependence on a person – a consciousness – that is not your own. Through acknowledgment of and dependence on this consciousness, one's own consciousness and affections are said to become more in line with the Holy Consciousness. But in Buddhism, belief in a Supreme Mind who is distinct from all other human minds is often absent or considered inconsequential. There is no dependence on a supreme consciousness – only reliance on one's own mind. Both practices could potentially have more to do with psychological conditioning than anything else, but at least the concept of the Spirit-Filled life proposes the idea that one is going outside him or herself for enlightenment.

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