Thursday, September 27, 2012


The author at Odawara Castle, Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

‘…God is light and in him is no darkness at all.’ (1 Jn 1:5) [RSV]

I have said before that all talk of ‘God’ is the language of poetry. Yes, theology uses the language, metaphors and thought-forms of poetry in an attempt to describe what is. Now, the word ‘God’ is simply an expression, a figure of speech. The word ‘God’---if we choose to use it at all, and I use it very sparingly indeed---refers to that which we deem to be of ‘ultimate’ importance or our ‘ultimate’ concern. (I use the word ‘ultimate’ advisedly, not wishing to suggest for one moment that the so-called ‘ultimate’ is or lies in some supposed order or level of reality ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ so-called ordinary reality. As I see it, there is only one order or level of reality, that is, one way of being, that of ordinary things in time and space. For me, the word ‘ultimate’ is simply synonymous with the words ‘sacred’ and ‘holy’. The sacred or holy is to be found in the ordinary and the everyday, although there is certainly much that is truly extraordinary about the mundane.)

We are told that God is light, not ‘the’ light or ‘a’ light but light itself. This light is said to be the source of all other light. Thus, James writes:

Every good and perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of Lights, in Whom there is no variableness, or shadow of turning (Ja I: 17).

The prophet Isaiah said:

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined (Is 9:2).

We dwell in ‘the land of the shadow of death’ when we live mindlessly, that is, when we live with unawareness. Nevertheless, the light still shines, even in the darkness of unawareness. We are simply unaware of that fact---very much to our detriment, I might add.

Now, here is a paradox. All of the world’s major religions, and most other systems of spirituality as well, exhort us to seek some ultimate ‘light’, which is said to be ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ us, ‘within’ us, or both. However, in that wonderful little work of Christian mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing, we are told that we must ‘learn to be at home’ in darkness. Why darkness? Because when there is ‘darkness’ the things of the world are no longer visible, so we can’t see them. If we are to live mindfully---that is, with choiceless awareness of what is from one moment to the next---we must learn to be ‘at home’ in darkness.

No matter what happens to us, our life can still be ‘brighter than the noonday sun’ (cf Job 11:17), and we can shine even in darkness. Returning to the theme of The Cloud of Unknowing, we are most likely to come to know God (or Life, Truth or Reality) as light in darkness---as that ‘cloud of unknowing’ that remains when we objectively see things-as-they-are--things both inner and outer---without becoming attached to anything.  In other words, there is no choosing to be aware of one thing but not another. We simply look, watch and observe without identifying too closely with any elements of the experience and without judging anything that arises as 'good' or 'bad'.  In other words, we do not try to dispel the cloud but simply let it be.

Yes, you can walk in darkness yet still see a great light---at all times. In order to see that light---at all times--- there must be no analysis, comment, judgment, evaluation or condemnation, no 'abiding of thought' anywhere on anything, just a constant, continuous, pliable, effortless, ever-present and unconditioned state of impartial, objective and choiceless awareness of life as it unfolds from one moment to the next. In the words of James, there must be ‘no variableness, or shadow of turning.’



Friday, September 21, 2012


‘To whom [God] said, This is the rest with which you may cause the weary to rest;
and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.’ (Isaiah 28:12)
[King James Bible/Cambridge edition]

‘This is the refreshing.’ The renowned pastor, lecturer and author Norman Vincent Peale wrote, ‘These few words remind us of a spring of cool water because of their renewing quality.’

Each new day---indeed, each new moment in the eternal now---is, or at least can be experienced as, a ‘refreshing,’ for that is what it truly is. Each new moment is a renewal. The moment is so brief---as I write these words, many such moments have come and gone----it is virtually timeless. Time is simply a medium in which all things live, move and have their being. So, what we call ‘life’---or reality, truth or God---is nothing other than a timeless renewal in the present moment. Each new moment is a re-creation---or a refreshing.

The only power that can be ours is that which is found in the reality of the present moment that is ever-before us ‘in’ the now. That is the only ‘place’---for want of a better word---in which we can find ‘refreshment.’ Indeed, it is a refreshing. That is the only ‘place’ wherein we can find help in time of trouble, for if we seek that help in the past or in the future we look in vain. Indeed, trouble really only occurs when we allow ourselves to dwell in either the past or the future. True peace and acceptance can only be found in the calm acknowledgment of the omnipresent reality of the present moment. I have said as much on so many occasions. Not only peace and acceptance, but inner transformation as well. In one of his many classes the spiritual philosopher and teacher Vernon Howard, whose ideas about life have had a big impact on my life and thinking, said this:

‘Truth exists at this very present moment. Truth, which is the great power, the only power, therefore exists right now by man-made time, about a quarter after nine, exists for anyone in this room who is no longer living in man-made time, that is in his acquired sense of self, developed from experiences of past and hopes of the future.’

Truth not only exists at this present moment; it is this present moment---at least when we are mindfully aware of what is going on. That's a refreshing thought. Mindfulness, itself, is a refreshing, for it is the choiceless awareness of awareness itself. If we stay fixed and focused, and fully grounded, in the reality of the eternal mow---that is, if our minds are fully and mindfully engaged in what is taking place in and around us now---we will experience a refreshing, no matter what happens.

If you really want to come alive, start to experience each new moment as a refreshing. However, this can only be done from one moment to the next. It cannot be done ‘in’ the moment itself---despite the omnipresent reality of the present moment---simply because the so-called ‘moment’ is so brief, so ephemeral, that no sooner has it arrived, it's gone. It's the past. One cannot experience or live ‘in’ the moment because the moment, although ever-present, is always changing ... into the next moment ... and the next ... and then the next!

This is where mindfulness comes into its own. You see, mindfulness is awareness---in a deliberate and purposeful but ‘soft focus’, gentle and kind sort of way---from one moment to the next. Got that? Mindfulness is concerned with being fully present, and living with awareness, from moment to moment. Mindful living is living receptively with choiceless awareness from moment to moment---that is, being aware step by step, breath by breath, thought by thought, feeling by feeling, memory by memory, sensation by sensation, and so forth. Such is the flow of life, for what is life but the ongoing moment-to-moment livingness of living things and beings living out their livingness from one moment to the next.

Now, that is the refreshing.

1. The photos were taken by the author during a trip to Japan in June 2011. 
2. For those who are interested in the writings and ideas of Dr Peale, I have compiled and edited a book entitled The Norman Vincent Peale Book of Quotations.


Friday, September 14, 2012


What can we say about life that is demonstrably and self-evidently true?

Well, a fair bit. Let's see ... .

For starters, life just is. I think that is, or must be taken to be, axiomatic. However, in a very profound philosophical sense there is no such thing as ‘life,’ just as there is no such thing as the ‘universe’ or a ‘totality of things’. Yes, no such thing. You see, words like 'universe' and ‘totality’ are just that---words. They simply refer to the sum 'total' of all there is (that is, A + B + C + D + … ad infinitum). A, B, C and D are all very ‘real’, but the totality of all those things is not in itself a thing.

So, what we call ‘life’ is just this---the sum total (sorry) of all living things living out their livingness in spacetime. I sometimes refer to this as the ‘self-livingness of life.’ That’s just a shorthand expression. Do you disagree? Well, come, look and see, as the Buddha would say. Now, what do we see? Lots and lots of living things doing something. Doing what? Well, living out their respective states of livingness from one moment to the next. Trees, flowers, birds, animals of all kinds, as well as the human animal---they are all living out their livingness from moment to moment, constantly entering into complex 'relations' with other things. Yes, waxing and waning, too. Things appear for a time and then disappear and vanish from view. They change form, they disappear, but in a very profound sense they never cease to be---not for a moment. The self-livingness, or be-ness, of life. It’s simply awe-inspiring.

Can we say anything more? Well, come, look and see. Now, what do we see? The ‘life’---for want of a better word---flowing through each living thing would appear to be the same ‘life’ flowing through every other living thing. Expressed a little better, the livingness of life is the same, irrespective of the life species. As the Scottish-born Australian philosopher John Anderson (pictured right) would say, a single ‘logic’---note, logic is about things, not words---applies to all things and how they are related to all other things. No, not all things are one, for clearly they are not. However, a single principle----call it the life principle, if you wish---applies to all things and their respective relations with all other things. Here’s something else we can say, after looking and seeing. All things exist on the same order or level of reality---and on the same plane of observability. All things exists in the eternal now, the latter being the only ‘time.’ What we call ‘life’---albeit in a rather misleading sense---is nothing other than a timeless renewal or re-creation of all things in the present moment.

So, we have the livingness---or, rather, the self-livingness of life---and the oneness of life, in the sense that a single logic applies to all things, and all things exist on the same order or level of reality. Is there anything else we can say about life from looking and seeing? Well, come, look and see. Now, what do we see? Life---that is, living things---are constantly giving of themselves to themselves (including their respective offspring) so as to perpetuate themselves or the particular species. Yes, life tends to give of itself to itself in order to perpetuate itself. (That may or may not be a good thing! Only kidding.)

These three things---the self-livingness of life, the oneness of life, and the self-givingness of life---are, I submit, demonstrably obvious. So what, you may say. Well, I think we can derive a number of important ethical values from these objective facts. For example, cooperation and altruism are ‘natural,’ for they are life-affirming, life-promoting and life-enhancing. So are qualities that work for unity as opposed to division, for if a single logic applies to all things then no forms of discrimination or human distinction are ever justifiable. Life is ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ because it is all there is, and it is common to all things. I could go on, but that’s enough for the time being.

Life---the very livingness, or self-livingness, of life. Truth---the very oneness (that is, common life principle) of life. Love---the very givingness, or self-givingness, of life. It’s a ‘holy trinity’ of sorts. Well, it makes much more sense to me than that other supposed Holy Trinity.


Friday, September 7, 2012


Image of the Buddha in the garden at Asakusa Kannon Temple
(also called Sensoji), the oldest temple in Tokyo, Japan.
Photo taken by the author.

One of the reasons I embrace Buddhism is this---Buddhism, at least in its more early, uncluttered forms, espouses a realist view of ‘things as they really are.’ I like that, for I am at heart a realist, an empiricist, and a naturalist. I reject all supernaturalistic views of reality.

Buddhism, consistent with an empirical view of reality, affirms that whatever exists are ‘occurrences’---or ‘situations’---in one space-time. Things exist ‘in situations.’ This is known as situationality. Further, at any ‘point’---for want of a better word---in space-time there is always (yes, always) a plurality of space-time interacting situations or occurrences (‘complexes’). Indeed, there are literally countless such pluralities, and all these situations exhaust the whole of reality. There is nothing else ... or supposedly 'beyond' or 'above' all this. Things may be distinct---indeed, they are---but they also connected in space-time, and these connections are very real. The Buddha reportedly said:

Monks, we who look at the whole and not just the part, know that we too are systems of interdependence, of feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness all interconnected. Investigating in this way, we come to realize that there is no me or mine in any one part, just as a sound does not belong to any one part of the lute.

Situationality and plurality---such is the nature of reality. Never forget that!

The third Zen patriarch Seng-Tsan described situationality and plurality in this way:

One thing, all things:
Move along and intermingle,
Without distinction.

Truth---reality---is never static but always dynamic. The Buddha is also reported to have said that ‘things are different according to the forms which they assume under different impressions’. One could substitute the word ‘situations’ for ‘impressions’ without distorting meaning. Here is a typical saying attributed to the Buddha:

The thing and its quality are different in our thought, but not in reality. Heat is different from fire in our thought, but you cannot remove heat from fire in reality. You say that you can remove the qualities and leave the thing, but if you think your theory to the end, you will find that this is not so.

The author at Asakusa Kannon Temple (Sensoji).
People waft smoke over their bodies from the bronze incense burner
before worship. Some believe that the smoke can heal
or prevent illness. I'm skeptical---naturally.

Buddhism recognizes the existence, at any ‘point’ in space-time, of a plurality or multiplicity of interacting factors that can, at any time, produce a certain effect. We are talking about a complex, ever-changing, dynamic system whose parts are mutually dependent. In the ‘Fire Sermon’ (Aditta Sutta), the Buddha is recorded as having said:

The eye, O monks, is burning; visible things are burning; the mental impressions based on the eye are burning; the contact of the eye with visible things is burning; the sensation produced by the contact of the eye with visible things, be it pleasant, be it painful, be it neither pleasant nor painful, that also is burning. With what fire is it burning? I declare unto you that it is burning with the fire of greed, with the fire of anger, with the fire of ignorance; it is burning with the anxieties of birth, decay, death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection, and despair.

The ear is burning, sounds are burning, … The nose is burning, odors are burning, ... The tongue is burning, tastes are burning, ... The body is burning, objects of contact are burning, ... The mind is burning, thoughts are burning, all are burning with the fire of greed, of anger, and of ignorance.

The Fire Sermon presents, albeit in a highly lyrical way, a plurality of multiple situations that are in continuous process. That is causation---processes continuing into one another. Such is life ... wandering, wandering, waxing and waning. We live and die from moment to moment. 

The Vietnamese monk and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh uses the expression ‘InterBeing’ to refer to this state and process of interdependence. It is important, however, to note that Buddhism is not monistic. No form of Buddhism affirms that all things are in reality one. Nevertheless, a single ‘logic’ applies to all things, for all things exist in the same ‘level’ or plane of existence and observability.

All of this is very profound---but also very simple. Delightfully so. Truth is like that, you know.