Friday, April 21, 2017

Honoring the Old Stories

I have developed a deep respect for our ancient forbearers.  Often when I thought of homosapiens who lived 200,000 years ago, the tendency was to think of them as separate from myself.  However, we are directly descendant from them.  We may not be able to use to trace the lineage all the way back, but our DNA is nearly identical. 
It is impossible for us to comprehend the intellectual challenges that faced them.  As language was just emerging, they were trying to make sense of a world void of knowledge and information.  In many ways, it was like trying to put a 50,000-piece jigsaw puzzle together with no idea what it was supposed to look like.
In our age, we are so proud of ourselves because large sections of the puzzle are finally starting to be assembled.  The more we understand, the faster we can locate the missing pieces; however, they had just been given everything in a brown paper bag with no picture and didn’t even know what they were supposed to do with it. 
Perhaps we should treat their errors gently and at least give them credit for the groundwork they laid for us.  With no concept of the age of the universe or an awareness of the creative nature of evolution, it is completely understandable that they would have attributed the material world to the handiwork of a superior being.  The form and function of living organisms, the rhythm of the tides and seasons, the predictable paths of the heavenly bodies all seemed to reflect the design of an omniscient intellect.
Initially, everything that was unknown or mysterious was attributed to God.  Progressively we have discovered the natural explanations for storms, plagues, eclipses, and countless other phenomena that perplexed our ancestors.  In doing so, we have diminished both the relevance of divinity and the validity of ancient scriptures.
For several years, I simply disregarded ancient writings.   To me they were based on superstition and ignorance.  More recently, however, I have recognized that error and truth can coexist within the same source.  Newton and Kepler are prime examples.  Both were outstanding mathematicians, advanced our knowledge of motion and optics, and used the Bible to meticulously calculate the date of creation.  Certainly no one would suggest that we dismiss their contributions to science simply because they still viewed the Bible as a valid historical resource.
When we overlook the myths, and embrace the metaphors and archetypes in those old texts, we discover an incredible wealth of wisdom regarding human interaction and harmony.  For several hundred thousand years, our forefathers lived in hunter-gatherer bands.  There, they recognized their interdependence and need for cooperation.  Much of what was learned in these egalitarian societies has been preserved through oral and then written tradition.
This awareness offers a new appreciation for many of the admonitions contained in sacred texts.  As children, we are subject to the household rules and values set forth and enforced by our parents.  When we reach adulthood, we establish our own homes free from that authority.  Nevertheless, we typically continue to observe many of the precepts from our childhood, not due to fear of punishment, but because we recognize the validity of the guiding principles.
In a similar fashion, a large segment of our modern age has declared its independence from the dictates of religion.  Unfortunately, there is currently no alternative widely accepted contemporary social institution that is focused primarily on personal character development and cultural solidarity.  Consequently, we are like children who have lost their parents.  Some are mature enough to appreciate the traditional values.  However, others seem to exhibit an adolescent preoccupation with their own interests and generally disregard the welfare of the rest of the family.
It is little wonder that the world seems to overflow with conflict and severe inequities.  In light of this reality, can we afford to overlook the wisdom of people who understood how to live together in peace?  Perhaps it is time for some social maturity that allows us to openly embrace the values presented in scriptures without a need to affirm deity or fear the reproach of sceptics.
When we lay aside the issue of the divinity of Jesus, we recognize that he is the personification of our human aspirations.  He is the fulfillment of who we want to be; who we ought to be; who we can become when we place our faith in the possibility of our ultimate potential.  Over the years, many have suggested that the world would be a better place if people simply lived more like Jesus.  When we consider him or other spiritual leaders as role models, it becomes apparent that their formulas for personal salvation are secondary to the redemptive potential these spiritual paths could have for all of humanity.
Is there better advice than what Jesus is credited with saying in the Sermon on the Mount?  “Blessed are the peacemakers … love your enemies … pray for them who spitefully use you … turn the other cheek … go the second mile….”  The message of sacrificing oneself for others is captured in the Gospel of John where Jesus is quoted as saying, “No greater love has any man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends.” 
Is there a better description of love than what is attributed to the apostle Paul in the 13th chapter of first Corinthians?

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have {the gift of} prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  And if I give all my possessions to feed {the poor,} and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.  Love is patient, love is kind {and} is not jealous; love does not brag {and} is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong {suffered,} does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never fails...." (I Corinthians 13:1-8 N.A.S.B.)

Over several centuries following Buddha’s death, the oral traditions preserving his teachings were compiled into a book known as the Dhammapada.  Like the Bible, several versions currently exist.  Nevertheless, they contain similar affirmations that convey the core message of Buddhism; the importance of attaining enlightenment, right thinking, right living, loving kindness towards all creatures, and a commitment to communal harmony.
The Dhammapada is not a narrative intended to be read extensively at a single sitting.  Instead, more than 400 verses convey simple, easily understood precepts for contemplation and meditation.  Many of the affirmations present deep truths using colorful imagery.
Consider the following:

1.      All that we are is the result of what we have thought.  It is founded on our thoughts. It is made up of our thoughts.  If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
2.      All that we are is the result of what we have thought.  It is founded on our thoughts. It is made up of our thoughts.  If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him.
13. As rain breaks through an ill-thatched house, passion will break through an unreflecting mind.
14. As rain does not break through a well-thatched house, passion will not break through a well-reflecting mind.
145. Irrigators regulate the waters, fletchers straighten arrow shafts, carpenters shape wood, and the good control themselves.
162. Just as a single creeper strangles the tree on which it grows, even so, a man who is exceedingly depraved harms himself as only an enemy might wish.
While Buddhism was spreading throughout India, Confucianism and Taoism were emerging in China.  I have found philosophical Taoism to be compatible with my personal cosmic views.  Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, is credited with authoring the Tao Te Ching, a revered text among Taoists.  It is rather short and concise, yet incredibly profound.  Its brevity may be due in part to one of its observations, “Those who know don’t speak.  Those who speak don’t know.”
In a world that is currently embroiled in armed conflict in numerous locations and a nation that experiences more than 30,000 firearm homicides annually, is there a more pertinent view than what was offered by Lau Tzu 2,500 years ago?

Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.

Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn't wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.

There is no direct English translation of the word “Tao.”  Generally, it means “the way,” but a more accurate understanding might be the natural way things occur in the universe.  Consider this definition and the impact it would have on our national politics if applied to the following passage from the Tao Te Ching:

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn't meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

(Translations by Stephen Mitchell)

Most diamonds are mined from deep within the earth.  To the untrained eye, they appear to be nothing more than common rocks.  However, when they have been cut and polished, their true value becomes apparent.  In a similar fashion, reflecting on texts from antiquity may require sorting through outdated concepts of the origin of the cosmos, descriptions of the afterlife, and doctrines regarding the proper way to access the “right” path, but in the midst of this surrounding material lie precious gems of universal wisdom.
When we mindfully consider the spiritual and philosophical writings of previous generations, their music and art, it becomes evident that these are expressions from minds and hearts that spent countless hours in silent contemplation prayer, and meditation.  Undistracted by the din of modern electronic media, they were able to explore the depths of their inner being and bring forth treasures that are still capable of inspiring us today. 

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