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Author of this essay:

Ven. Ming Zhen Shakya
(November 29, 2008)

Science of the Dead
by Ming Zhen Shakya

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. The bamboozle has captured us. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

-- Carl Sagan, The fine art of Baloney Detection

Along with his other accomplished personas, Carl Sagan became the Sherlock Holmes of baloney detection. His specialty was religious baloney, and, as in the above quotation, he spoke definitively on the subject. If his switch from the bland, editorial 'we' to the wistful seasoning of the familiar 'you' is any indication, he also spoke with the voice of experience. it would have been nice to hear the details of his struggle with God.

We are left to wonder how and where he reached the momentus conclusion: "The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous."Appalled that mankind could be so universally bamboozled by such nonsense, Sagan declared himself an atheist and preached against the folly of religious belief. He had solved a complicated set of problems with a single explanation. It was so elementary that a host of naive scientists and young impressionable science majors eagerly played his Dr. Watson.

Curiously, he appended that profundity with the following saganism: "But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity." (And yet... when we're thirty thousand feet in the air and the plane starts to shudder, with or without words and in one way or another, we all pray to that divine law of physics.)

Although Sagan was only trying to be witty, he came close to the truth. While there may be many people who believe in the big bearded guy who counts sparrows, there are many others who think less anthropomorphically of the Giver of Laws. The Buddha was Indian, and, as such, shared the culture of those who wrote the book on virtually all eastern metaphysics. Although India's philosophers tended to split hairs rather finely, it's still possible to speak generally and say that the material world consists of "Laws and that which Obeys the Laws." Masculine Shiva ("grace") is the Law; and his feminine Shakti ("force, energy, power") enacts it. For example, the formula F = ma is Shiva, and the accelerating mass is Shakti.

As to the Origin or Creation, that began with the word "Om." Masculine Parama Shiva ("Supreme Grace") formed the command and feminine Para Vach ("Supreme Speech") uttered the Word. (Incidentally, Vach was Jean Luc Picard's tantalizing paramour. The English cognates of vach are voice, vocal, vocabulary, etc. The Latin is vox.)

At the primordial sound "Om" the spiritual became material. From Indian (Vedic) scripture and from the Gospel of John we find, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," uniting the creative pair in a single One. There is an inseparable relationship between the formula and the material which acts in accordance with it. Likewise, divine fiat and its fulfillment are inseparable. "And God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light."

Regarding creation as an effect that has had a divine cause provides a poetic starting point, a necessary beginning from which we can then get on with the journey. That's it. We cease to worry about beginnings. The explanation may be fanciful, but colliding parallel universes is not exactly a prosaic hypothesis.

It is a fact "carved in stone" that, universally, no iconoclast has ever entered any of the spiritual states to which religion supplies the road maps. Without spiritual experience no one is in a position to discuss the great merits of religion. As to the lesser merits and those admittedly wretched detriments, these have been endlessly lauded and disparaged. They are social matters or the nonsensical stuff of academic psychspeakers, the pedants Mohammed had in mind when he noted: "A philosopher who has not realized his metaphysics is an ass bearing a load of books." The Buddha put it in a kinder, gentler way: "A philosopher who has not realized his metaphysics is a shepherd who counts other men's sheep."

Sagan was too busy counting sparrows to notice sheep. He entertained notions about beliefs in God that would have been considered quaint back in the stone age. No matter what poignant references we make to the Almighty, the Dao, the Urgrund, the Oversoul, etc., we Zen people do not concern ourselves with matters of Creation unless we happen to be astrophysicists or astronomers. Zen is all about the here and the now - the moment irrespective of its relationship to any other time or place. And Zen's God functions not as an exterior judge but, in Jungian terms, as the serene, interior Buddha Self. (This is also why we say that God is omniscient and knows every little thing we do. He has "insider" information.) To make this clear, we often inform visitors to our temples: "When we bow to a statue of the Buddha, we are bowing to the Buddha within ourselves."

Unfortunately, we also have an interior trouble-making ego that drapes itself over our eyes, distorting our view of the material world. The task of Zen is to tear away the troublesome ego so that we can see things clearly and move in the direction we need to go. Emotional involvement with the people, places, and things of the external world obstruct our path; and when we meditate and turn our attention inwards towards the Buddha's Refuge, we take that first step in the right direction. Immediately, the experience of true meditation sweeps away depression, ennui, alienation, regret, ignorance, and any other malaise we had been suffering. It also illuminates the mind and makes it able to see connections between facets that previously were regarded as unrelated. The sense of relief we feel is palpable.

If we maintain disciplined meditation, we enter a higher, ecstatic state of consciousness, samadhi, - the domain of the brain's pleasure centers, We experience a huge serotonin rush - the orgasmic ecstasy of divine union. These experiences defy description. To be understood they must be experienced.

Zen is a mystical synthesis of Daoism and Buddhism. It has never been a congregational religion. We do not "take the kids" to a Zendo or wear our new Easter bonnets to the temple. Our Path does not intersect with social paths. We do have fellowship; but essentially our Way is a solitary, contemplative way. And in this solitary, contemplative way we are identical to every other mystic of every religion in the world. Regardless of the extent, if any, that the Tushita Heaven and its Buddhas and Bodhisattvas exist, our God, i.e., our Buddha Self, is within each of us. This is a universal belief to which all persons with spiritual experience subscribe. Here are some quotes:

"My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself." Saint Catherine of Genoa.

"The Beloved is all in all; the lover merely veils Him; The Beloved is all that lives, the lover a dead thing." Jalal-uddin Rumi.

"There is a spirit in the soul, untouched by time and flesh, flowing from the Spirit, remaining in the Spirit, Itself wholly spiritual. In this principle is God, ever verdant, ever flowering in all the joy and glory of His actual Self." Meister Eckhart

"One nature, perfect and pervading, circulates in all natures. One Reality, all-comprehensive, contains within Itself all realities. The one Moon reflects itself wherever there is a sheet of water, and all the moons in the waters are embraced within the one Moon. The Dharma body of all the Buddhas enters into my own being." Yung Chia

"The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of truereligiousness." Albert Einstein

"Behold the One in all things. It is the second that leads you astray." Kabir

"Like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, the individual self and the Immortal Self are perched on the branches of the selfsame tree. The former tastes of the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree: the latter, tasting of neither, calmly observes." Mundaka Upanishad

"Disease is not cured by pronouncing the name of the medicine, but by taking the medicine. Deliverance is not achieved by pronouncing the name 'Brahman' but by directly experiencing Brahman." Shankara

"Though God is everywhere present, yet He is present to thee only in the deepest and most central part of thy soul." William Law

"I went from God to God, until they cried from me in me, 'Oh thou I'" Sufi Bayazid of Bistun

"The virtue of wisdom more than anything else contains a divine element which always remains." Plato

"When the ten thousand things are viewed in their Oneness, we return to the Origin and remain where we have always been." Sen T'sen

"There is something nearer to us than Scriptures, to wit: the Word in the heart from which all scripture comes." William Penn

Among many others, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, and George Lamaitre, scientists of no small stature, were fully ordained, active clerics. All three were celibate. What did Carl Sagan know that their brains could not comprehend? And did he have them in mind when he wrote, "A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity towards fanaticism"?

Atheists, however, would say that having an interior spiritual life is one thing - but the other things, the absurd superstitions and harmful judgments that flow from a belief in God, those pernicious things that are used by institutions and individuals to gain power over the gullible are what constitute pernicious bamboozling. They can see no good that has ever come from religion.

They share with Carl Sagan a vision of religion's history that is usually fixed on the brutalities of past centuries. "In Italy," Sagan writes, "the Inquisition was condemning people to death until the end of the eighteenth century, and inquisitional torture was not abolished in the Catholic Church until 1816. The last bastion of support for the reality of witchcraft and the necessity of punishment has been the Christian churches." He clearly sees how religion's domination of government had facilitated the Inquisition's atrocities. But what of countries in which religion was not a factor in government because the government was decidedly atheistic? Carl Sagan and I were born in the same year. In our lifetime an atheist Soviet government killed uncountable people in the Gulag. Was Raoul Wallenberg's heroic defense of Jews and his death in the Gulag not worth remembering? In China the atheist Red Guards closed all universities, imprisoned teachers and dissidents in labor camps, burned churches and temples, and murdered clerics of all religions. For the amusing irony of it, they stripped hundreds of Buddhist nuns and monks of their garments and forced them, naked, into the snow to freeze to death. And atheist Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia? Was Sagan in a coma while more than a million people were being starved and hacked to death in the Killing Fields?

Considering the millions of people who were tortured and murdered under various communist regimes during the last fifty years, it is devoutly to be hoped that religion is indeed "the opiate of the masses." The masses need the anodyne.

When it comes to an afterlife, Sagan's views are similar's to Zen's. "I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking." Similar... but not exact. Our Zen path does not consider an afterlife because we interpret the Buddha's Four Noble Truths to mean that this ego-driven material-world existence is bitter and painful, like a disease that is in need of a cure. Untreated, it continues its misery - which is our hell. Its cure - and our deliverance from hell - can be found in following the Eightfold Path's disciplines - its ethics, attitudes, and techniques. The Buddha's entire ministry was devoted to teaching us this regimen which, when followed with a sincere heart, will allow us to experience Nirvana, i.e., our heaven.

Here, we see celestial figures, painted and sculpted. We do not imagine that they will be vividly encountered, there, in the various Buddha realms of Nirvana. That world, more real to us than this, is pristine and exquisite in its smallest detail. It is a new life we know, wholly different from the murky, ego-driven life we previously knew. We are suddenly free - immune to the spite, jealousy, anger, desires, and manipulations of other people. The people are all still there... but they are simply irrelevant and have no power over us; for now we are splendidly independent and complete. We need no one. What once was loneliness is now solitude. We comprehend and pity the motivations of sinners. We know the peace which Saint Paul said, "passeth understanding," and we know it with a joy that fills our heart from the moment we open our eyes at dawn. Again and again as we slip into effortless meditation we feel a tremulous bliss which is beyond description. No earthly love or lust comes close to the experience. And strange as it sounds, our mind seems to expand, to focus on many places at once and to see so much that we missed before. Sometimes we find ourselves obsessed with wanting to know more and more about some trivial thing,- learning an obscure language or an out-of-fashion craft like making pottery on a potter's wheel. Everything holds the same delight, and no one thing is more important than another. It is all a kind of charming, engrossing, intellectual game.

There is something sad about people who are mired in their own landscape and yet curse, mock, and reject the offer of a map. Religion is not the experience of being in any location. Yes, to those who need the security of "numbers" it is a social gathering place, a community. But when a person is weary of that place, who cannot imagine that it is all there is to life, and who needs to Quest for a place that will give his life meaning beyond purpose, religion is a road map. That is all. As we say in Zen, we do not go into a restaurant to eat the menu.

It is recorded that the Sufi master Bayazid was once asked how old he was. "I am four years old," he replied.

His questioner laughed. "How can that be?"

Bayazid answered, "For seventy years I let the world veil my eyes so that I could not see God. Then four years ago the veil was lifted and I saw Him. The years in which a man does not see God with his own eyes cannot be counted as years of his life. When veiled from God, a man does not exist."

Humming Bird