Monday, November 5, 2012

Universality and Ritual, Part 1 – The Universality of Stillness

universal: “[I]ncluding or covering all or a whole collectively or distributively without limit or exception… [E]xistent or operative everywhere or under all conditions...” Merriam-Webster

ritual: “[A]ccording to religious law… social custom or normal protocol.” Merriam-Webster

It would seem that these two words comprise a natural dichotomy. On the one hand we have something that applies to everyone regardless of position or place or circumstance, and on the other hand we have that which pertains to some initiated subgroup on the basis of mutual agreement, prescription, affiliation, or decree. Perhaps we can think of this dichotomy as another aspect of the dichotomy between ultimate and conventional truth, or between transformation and translation, for that matter. Nonetheless, I think we’re well-served holding loosely in mind our ideas related to this dichotomy. Yes, attachment to ritual can cause us to overlook that which is universal – missing the forest for the trees, so to speak. But attachment to universality might prompt us to unwisely discard those ritual aspects of the rich spiritual traditions after prematurely judging them to be just so much useless baggage to carry along on our journey toward ultimate truth.


If you’ve read my previous two posts you’ll likely recognize why I think an examination of this dichotomy is an appropriate next step. Throwing Away Your Toys, after all, might easily be construed as a call for the jettisoning of all anachronistic or idiosyncratic ritual or protocol in order to more fully embrace that which is universal, namely, stillness – stillness of body, stillness of mind, stillness that becomes apparent once our conceptualizations (our “toys”) have been relinquished. Stillness, Silence, Truth then picks up that thread, ultimately closing with an invitation to embrace this universal stillness and silence for that which it reveals, or that which it is as the case may be, namely, truth.

I know, I know…, talking about universality in the same breath as truth is a very dangerous thing. It’s the stuff of arguments at the holiday dinner table and religious wars, alike. The problem is that most of us are far too quick to assume universality based upon a sample size of one. So, why do I even want to go down this road?

Well, as it turns out I’m not the first one to ever ponder the universality of zazen. Dogen Zenji finished at least one draft of his Fukanzazengi by the year 1227 or so, shortly after returning to Japan from China. Variously translated as, for instance, A Universal Recommendation of Zazen, A Universal Recommendation for True Zazen, and Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen, Fukanzazengi is a masterfully concise and powerful treatise on the how and why of seated meditation. But just how far was Dogen willing to take this claim of universality?

The first translation implies that it is recommended to all human beings, i.e., A Universal Recommendation of Zazen. That sounds a little like the Surgeon General making a universal recommendation of proper diet, regular checkups, adequate sleep and exercise, etc. The use of the word ‘for’, however, in the latter two translations seems to open the door to an ‘if you’re going to do zazen, then this is the right way to do it’ sort of interpretation. Titles notwithstanding, a Dogen scholar might rightfully suggest that we take into consideration the historical context in which Dogen wrote in order to sort through this question. In fact, the various sects of Buddhism in Japan during Dogen’s time did not all recognize the primacy of zazen. It took someone with the gravitas of Dogen to espouse it. Couple that with the uncertainty that we have as to whether or not or how much Dogen was even familiar with the concept of monotheism, and we have to leave room for uncertainty. While it is safe to conclude that he thought that all Buddhists should engage in the practice, going farther than that might be reading too much into his words. And, yet, the question remains: How far would Dogen take his claim of universality if he were alive today?

In the world of today we are made aware on an almost daily basis that our neighbors are  Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Native American Spiritualist, Hindu, Pagan, New Age, Wiccan, Atheist, unaffiliated and so on and so forth. Does a universal recommendation of zazen apply to these folks, too? How do we even begin to go about talking about the question, let alone answering it?

I think it is fairly safe to say that all religions – theistic or nontheistic – have at least some respect for silence, whether it be spent prayerfully, contemplatively, watchfully, meditatively, etc. Here is a smattering of quotes that indicate what I mean:

Be still, and know that I am God… – Psalm 46:10

Let silence take you to the core of life. All your talk is worthless when compared with one whisper of the beloved. – Rumi

Listen to the stillness, the language of God. – Father Richard Rohr

There is nothing in all creation so like God as stillness. – Meister Eckhart.

Are we to believe that the stillness and silence spoken of above is a different kind of stillness and silence altogether simply because it is experienced by a Jew or a Christian or a Sufi? Might it be that the Jew or Christian or Sufi, or anyone else for that matter, must throw away his or her “toys” on the way to knowing that which they refer to as “God” – just as the Buddhist must throw away his or her “toys” on the way to knowing “Buddha-Mind”? After all, is it not the case that words are woefully inadequate when it comes to this ineffable realm of truth – stillness, silence, truth? It is my contention, then, that the experience of stillness and silence is universal, the truth to be found therein is universal, but just as soon as we begin to put that truth into words we fall into the realm of disagreement and argumentation.

Perhaps we should try to stay away from words as much as possible, then. I have constructed a series of diagrams that I hope will let us do just that. As you examine Diagram 1 below, please keep in mind that it represents the actual or theoretical experience of truth – not some intellectual understanding of teachings or dogmas. So, when I refer to “Buddha-Mind”, I am referring to an ineffable experience which, from a Buddhist’s perspective, is called “Buddha-Mind”; and when I refer to “God”, I am referring to an ineffable experience which, from a Christian’s perspective, is called “God”. By the way, I’m restricting the diagram to Buddhist and Christian experience merely for the sake of simplicity. We could add any number of circles that we might like.

Diagram 1

What we have above are two non-intersecting “circles” representing unique experiences of truth, neither of which encompasses any of the truth of the other. Both circles are contained within a larger circle that represents some theoretical human potential to experience truth via some heretofore undiscovered practice or means. If you’ve heard the story of the king who asks a group of blind people to touch various parts of an elephant and describe what they “see”, then you may want to use that story to understand this particular representation. Note that the king represents the maximum human potential to experience truth – he can see it in totality. Of course, people from one tradition might believe that their experience of truth belongs inside the larger circle (or, in fact, is the larger circle) even as they relegate the experience of another to the outside – the realm of delusion! Yes, there can be many different versions of these diagrams!

You might be wondering what has become of the subject of this post – universality. Yes, it would seem to be absent in Diagram 1. Each circle represents a very parochial experience of truth which could certainly stand to be embellished by the truth of another tradition. For there to be any universality there needs to be at least one point of intersection between these two realms of experience. And so we have Diagram 2.

Diagram 2
Diagram 2, for my way of thinking, is a step in the right direction with respect to representing the common ground between Buddhism and Christianity. Each has at least some regard for stillness and silence. I suspect, however, that the universality that Dogen was referring to such a long time ago was not anything that could be circumscribed by any finite circle within some larger domain of human potential for experience. No, I suspect that Dogen would draw the circle representing “Buddha-Mind” just as large as the domain of human potential would allow. Likewise, I suspect that no Christian would be willing to say that their experience of “God” is subject to any limitation other than that of the outer limits of human potential. Does that mean that our diagram should look like Diagram 3? Hmmm…

Diagram 3
Mind you, I’m not saying that I have the answer to this question. I just hope that I’ve framed the question in a clear enough fashion to be instructive. Might it be the case that, if we could only boil away all of our words and theories and concepts about what it is that we are experiencing, we would find that the Buddhist’s experience of truth that he or she calls “Buddha-mind” and the Christian's experience of truth that he or she calls “God” are, in actuality, the same?

I expect to have more to say with respect to this question of universality as this blog continues – both in the next post and down the line. For now, though, let me thank you for following along to this point. I hope you’ve found at least some merit in these graphic representations of the various experiences of truth. I’ve shown them to a number of clergy friends and, while we certainly didn’t arrive at any conclusions, we did have some lively discussion with respect to how else the circles might be drawn. So, please have some (serious) fun with them!  


Image Credits

Iris image manipulated by the author using Photoshop. Original photo by Laitr Keiows via:


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

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