Thursday, April 21, 2011

Faith, Non-Attachment and Wu Wei

As you can probably tell, I love to make connections. It's sort of my thing. I especially love to make connections between the various religions and philosophies of the world. I have been able to do this relatively successfully, but until last February, there was one big exception. Non-attachment (or Nekkhamma) is one of the highest virtues of the Buddhist religion. Essentially, it means that one should give up all desire, craving or attachment to anything (including God) in order to achieve the highest state of happiness. This principle is quite possibly the most important one in Buddhism, and is therefore very problematic for a person like me. There seems to be no parallel in Christianity or Mormonism.We are taught that we need to cleave to God and that we are supposed to be bound to our families for eternity. So I was at a loss as to what to do. Then, a miracle happened.

Last February, while I was reading my Statistics textbook for homework, I realized something. I understood nearly every principle in the chapter, but only superficially. Or rather, I understood that they worked, but not how or why they worked. I wanted to keep reading, so that I could understand every rule and formula inside and out, front and back. But I didn't have enough time to both do that and my other homework. So, purely out of a desire for efficiency, I at least temporarily refrained from a complete understanding and for a while, I was content with understanding only on a surface level. To my surprise, this did not lead to me falling behind in Stats, but rather to me soaring ahead. Without my desire for a complete and total understanding bogging me down, I was able to progress a great deal in getting my homework done and in doing well on tests. And unexpectedly, the how and the why came naturally later, on its own. In my journal, I originally called it a leap of faith, but I later I realized it was something else as well. I suddenly understood that I was letting go of or detaching myself from the Statistical principles, just as the Buddha himself would have wanted me to.

This led to what I think may have been the most important connection that I have ever made: Faith is letting go. To have faith is to be non-attached. This may seem a shocking conclusion to come to, and perhaps may even seem heretical, but bear with me. A person with faith goes through life free of any concern. They have faith that God will work out everything in the end. Similarly, a person without ties fettering them to the world is free. They can live life to the fullest without worry, pain or sorrow because all of those things ultimately stem from unnecessary clinging. Providing yet another view to look at this idea, the Taoist principle of Wu Wei (as I discovered soon after) is the same concept to a tee. Wu Wei means roughly "going with the flow" and involves natural action, or "trying without trying". A person who practices Wu Wei gives up the futile struggle to change the world by individualistic actions, and like a person with faith or who practices Nekkhamma, can go through life freed from worry and sorrow.

All of these things have yet another thing in common. They all involve giving something up. For the Christian, it is the sure knowledge of any truth, including God. For the Buddhist, it is attachments to the world. For the Taoist, it is a person's ability to feel in control. But inevitably, when you give these things up, something even better comes to you, of its own accord!

In summary, to have faith, practice non-attachment or to live by the principle of Wu-Wei are the same thing. They all consist of looking beyond a here and now that is full of separateness, temporality and mortality to the source of everything that is good. The Christian looks forward, to the time when God will come and renew the Earth. The Buddhist looks inward toward the deathless Self at the heart of all things. The Taoist looks outward, to a world where everything that seems like conflict is actually harmony. But looking forward, backward, inward, outward, up or down all ultimately lead to the same place: the presence of God. These points of view all involve realizing that the physical world of mortality is in fact transparent glass, through which can be seen pure light.

This metaphor may seem to say that we should "look past" the physical world and only focus on the spiritual. This would be world-denying, and is against the tenets of the LDS faith. However, this is not what I mean. On the contrary, to see the light that shines through something is to fully appreciate that something for what it is: an extension of the light's source. The light of God (or Truth) fills everything that it comes into contact with.

On a final tangent, this is why it is perfectly fine for a mystic to believe in a personal God: the light of the undefinable and unspeakable God completely fills the God we can talk to and pray to, such that they are indistinguishable. To speak of one is to speak of the other. In fact, I would say that to not believe in God in this way, and to try to directly experience the ungraspable, incomprehensible God is tantamount to spiritual rape (the sin of the architects and laborers of Babel). Instead, we should realize that, whether in terms of belief or eternal progression, the road toward the infinite is never-ending. The journey is a marvelous, beautiful process: ever-improving and ever-growing. To participate in it is the ultimate act of faith: we will never actually reach the infinite, but if we can see rightly, we will perceive that its light is always shining upon us and filling us to the brim. 

I hope this has been a delightful post for you. It certainly has been a joy writing it.

And if you read it and have something to say, please comment! I am always willing to learn more.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Divine Comedy

A few days ago, I came to a very interesting conclusion. When I was getting ready for P.E. in the locker room, there was a really annoying seventh-grader making really annoying seventh-grade jokes. My peers were there with me, and they expressed to me their frustration with him. However, I was hesitant to join them in putting him down, for the following reasons:

  • I remembered being a seventh-grader and having seventh-grade humor. It seemed hilarious at the time, though I realize now that it was stupid. 
  • I realized that just as we considered him immature, there were older people who considered us immature and probably had a more "advanced" level of humor than we did. 
These things combined made me point out to my peers that all humor is ultimately relative: someone always has a more (and less) advanced style of humor than you do. When they heard this, a particularly clever member of the bunch responded (semi-jocularly): "Okay, then what is God's humor like?". This post is my attempt to answer that question.

I've heard people say that God must necessarily have no sense of humor. Not only is humor not "appropriate" for a celestial monarch, but humor depends on a lack of knowledge, and God knows everything. God would therefore know the punchline to every joke before it has been told. I disagree. In my opinion, God sometimes imposes limitations on himself, on purpose. For example, God could ensure Celestial glory for everyone, but he's not going to. If he did, there would be no point: it's the "getting-there" that's the most important. In exactly the same way, God limits his knowledge so that he, like us, can enjoy a good joke. 

That answers how God can have a sense of humor. But it still doesn't answer my friend's question: what type of jokes does he tell? I thought about it for a while and then came up with another question that I hoped would lead me to the answer: what makes some jokes funnier than others? I decided that it is how unexpected the punchline is. The worst jokes you can see coming. The best jokes are unexpected. They have their punchlines hidden deep below the surface so that when they finally emerge, it happens in a way that you could have never anticipated. Because of this, the best jokes are those whose punchlines are thoroughly obscured and seem to have no point, like meta-jokes, surreal humor or even Seinfeld.

Now, getting back to God, it is only a natural to say that, just as my humor is more advanced than that seventh-grader, God's humor is infinitely more advanced than mine. And if we accept my proposition in the previous paragraph as true, then it naturally follows that God's jokes have the most obscure punchlines of all. To me, this means that God's jokes are so well-crafted that the punchline must be virtually invisible, so that when we get it, it is the funniest thing we have ever heard. I pondered on this for a while, and then came to a startling conclusion: since God's humor must be so well-designed that the point of a joke has to be hidden to all, what better to fit the bill of the ultimate joke than the universe itself? To put it simply: we are a part of the funniest joke ever told

To me it makes perfect sense. God's joke is infinitely subtle. Though it may seem to have no point at times and may even become boring or long-winded, ultimately we realize that those failings were intentional, and actually serve to enhance its humor: the ultimate meta-joke. Its punchline is so well-preserved that until the joke is finished and the punchline is revealed (a.k.a. Christ's second coming to the Earth and its subsequent renewal), only a select few can predict its outcome. The Buddha was one of them. So was Laozi. In fact, that's what having a mystical experience is: seeing the outcome of a joke and realizing the punchline before it happens. This is why many people who have true spiritual experience are so light-hearted. They see the world for what it really is: hilarity, hidden by a sheathing of seriousness.

Some people may say that this is a morbid and even offensive way to look at the universe. How can something like the Holocaust be part of a giant joke? It necessarily trivializes everyone who suffers in the world. May I offer a counterpoint? I don't see viewing the universe as a comedy as trivializing at all. I merely see it as another way of saying that the suffering is for "but a small moment". If we endure it well, we shall see that there is a much greater and more wonderful reality behind all of it. And what better way to look at that wonderful reality than as humor? 

If it helps at all, the movie Life is Beautiful is a very powerful example of how something can be both filled with suffering and be humorous at the same time. It beautifully combines the two, showing that humor and happiness can exist side by side with pain and sorrow, and will in fact eventually triumph over it. I'm sure that there are many more examples, but I trust you get the point.

To reinforce my point, I will also argue from authority. Here are two quotes by two great authors/philosophers:

"God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh."

"[The angels sounded] like the laughter of the universe"
-Dante Alighieri (The Divine Comedy) 

Now, I need to point out that this is only a lens through which to see the nature of God. I am not precisely defining God's reason for creating the world. I am just providing a new way to look at it. I do not mean to exclude other ways of looking at God. I just wanted to share with you a view that I enjoy.
And so I say goodbye for now, hoping that we all someday will get the joke!

Sunday, April 3, 2011


While watching General Conference, I noticed how often they said the word "Amen". In case you didn't know, Amen is the word that Jews, Muslims and Christians use after a prayer or sermon. It is a word of affirmation, dating back from the earliest texts of Judaism. It literally means "So be it", or "truly", with the connotation of "truth" itself. In addition, Jesus Christ himself is referred to as "the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation" in Revelation.

Now, before I make a connection, I want all of you to know that the following is pure speculation. It could be completely wrong and not based in truth at all. But here it is nonetheless:

The Sanskrit word Aum or Om holds much the same connotation.  It literally means "yes", "it is" or "will be". It has the additional connotation of being a symbol for totality, wholeness and the divine. It is used as an object of concentration when meditating, allowing a person to focus their thoughts on its sounds so that their thoughts to subside. Its constituent sounds, A, U and M, are symbols for the three members of the Hindu trinity: A for Brahma, U for Vishnu and M for Mahadev (another name for Shiva). Incidentally, the A sound is formed in the back of the throat, U in the middle of the mouth, and M on the lips. In each case it symbolizes quite the idea of totality quite well, either in the context of divinity or of vocalization. As if to seal the deal, AUM is recited at the end of prayers.

I don't think I have to say any more to show you the immense similarity between the two words. They both symbolize the eternal, the whole and the truth. As if that weren't enough, they both indicate an acceptance and a peace with what is [Which gives me the idea that perhaps meditation is prayer without words. But I could be wrong, and it's beside the point]. But the connection isn't just limited to these two. Similar-sounding words indicating totality, wholeness, finality, etc. can be found all over the world: Amun (the Egyptian "god of gods"), words beginning with omni- (omniscience, omnivorous, omnipresence, etc.), omega (the last letter of the Greek alphabet).

As to how these similar-sounding words popped up all over the world, I have no idea. Perhaps, although unlikely, they spread from a single center to all of these places. Perhaps it is built into the human consciousness as an archetype (as Jung would tell us). Or perhaps, a little more orthodoxly, it is revelation given from God to all people. 

Anyway, hope you have enjoyed this! Take it with a grain of salt.