Depraved Because Deprived

Those lines from West Side Story’s rollicking song, “Office Krupke”  have come back to tease me over the decades since I first heard them.

Are we depraved because we’re deformed? Or because we’re deprived?  Some Christians, given their understanding of original sin and our fallen nature, would hold to “deformed.”  I suspect that that’s an incorrect reading of the myth of Adam and Eve, and certainly a misunderstanding of what Jesus had to say when he called people to work for the Reign of God here on earth. It is also squarely opposed to what Buddhists hold to be the “human condition.”

Both Buddhists and Christians can agree with another line of “Officer Krupke”: “Deep down inside us there is good….There is good, there is good, there is good, good, good.”

But that “good” has been stifled by our being deprived.

Buddhists would agree. We’ been deprived.  But  of what? Buddha’s answer: Of a correct understanding of who we really are.  Ignorance, not deformity, is the fundamental problem.

Marx would agree with Buddhists that the fundamental problem is not deformity. But he differs in pinpointing what we’ve been deprived of. For Marx, and I believe for many Christians, the fundamental cause of the hatred, violence, and “depravity” affecting our world today is that so many humans have been deprived  of the material conditions necessary to live a full human life.

Terry Eagleton, with his usual clarity and precision, makes this Marxist argument in a passage from his recently published Why Marx Was Right:

If history has been so bloody, it is not because most human beings are wicked. It is because of the material pressures to which they have been submitted. Marx can thus take a realistic measure of the past without succumbing to the myth of the darkness of men’s [sic] hearts. And this is one reason why he can retain faith in the future

It is his materialism which permits him that hope. If wars, famines and genocide really did spring simply from some unchanging human depravity, then there is not the slightest reason to believe that the future will fare any better. If, however, these things have been partly the effect of unjust social systems, of which individuals are sometimes little more than functions, then it is reasonable to expect that changing that system may make for a better world.  (pp. 98-99)

So Marxists, and most Christian liberation theologians and activists, would hold that if we want to change the “depraved heart,” we first must change the “depriving system.”

Buddhists, in general, would see it differently: if you want to change the “depriving system,” you have to change the “deprived heart.”

Which comes first?


We are “the tanglible presence of God on earth”

Every once in a while, as I go about the reading and research that are part of my job, I come across a statement or a passage that touches my Buddhist-Christian heart.  Here’s one of them, from literary critic Terry Eagleton.  It captures, at least for me, the unitive, non-dual understanding of God as “no-thing,”  as the groundless Ground of everything:

“If God lies at the heart of all things; and if … he is no kind of entity at all but a sublime abyss of pure nothingness; then what sustains phenomena is a sort of néant or abyssal void. … To say that things lack substance is to say they are the eloquent discourse of the divine.  God — sheer  nothingness — is of their essence. The elusive object known as substance is simply a fantasy object filling out the void of the Real — which is to say … the unbearable presence of the Almighty. And since God would have no tangible presence on earth without the ceaseless deciphering of his discourse which is human perception, our own existence is necessary…”

Would Eagleton, who at his core is still a committed though critical Christian,  be offended if I called him “an anonymous Buddhist”?  I hope not. I think not.

Prophecy and Credibility

Prophets are generally pains in the butt.  That means that they generally have a hard time with credibility – people tend not to take them seriously.  Prophetic, or counter-cultural or counter-governmental,  messengers are considered to be “way out … unrealistic… utopian… dreamers.”  Not the kind of people to be taken seriously.  Simply, they’re weird. All too often, they’re also strident.

A thought: Maybe, the problem with prophets not being taken seriously arises not so much because they are weird – but because they are strident.

That, to a great extent, is the point of an essay in the Aug. 1/8, 2011 issue of The Nation. It’s by Richart Sennett and is titled “A Credible Left.”  What Sennett has to say about “leftists” applies also to “prophets.”  Nowadays, to be “on the left,” or to be liberal or progressive, is to be counter-cultural; that means prophetic.

Sennet’s main point, if I might simplify in my own words, is that for prophets (or progressives) to be credible and gain a hearing, they have to be “nicer” than they generally are.

Prophets (or liberals like myself) are people who are upset with the status quo.  They see people suffering because of the actions of other people. They see huge disparities in wealth. They see people cut off – or being threatened to be cut off – from health care.  That makes them angry.  And angry people can very easily be strident – in your face.

Sennet’s advice is not to suppress the anger, but to cool the stridency.  That means prophets will often have to shut up and listen; that means they will have to show respect for the people they profoundly disagree with. Prophets have to be truly present to the people they are confronting.  Let me quote a paragraph that explains what Sennett means by presence:

“You become credible when others take you seriously even though they may not agree with you.  To be taken seriously, you need to know when to keep silent and how to listen well; you are then extending respect and recognition to others. The philosopher Anne Phillips rightly insists on the importance of “presence” in politics, by which she means being someone an individual or group feels can conduct a discussion on equal terms.  Presence is something an outsider has to earn by his or her behavior.  Scoring points won’t alone admit you into other people’s lives; winning an argument over them will not include you in their thinking about how to live. Credibility, that is, lies more in the realm of receptiveness than assertiveness.”

Not winning arguments but engaging in conversations, not being assertive but receptive – these are not the virtues that generally characterize prophets. (They certainly don’t characterize the nightly talk shows on radio and TV.)

But these are the virtues, I suspect, that Jesus and Buddha would want to characterize the prophets who speak in their names and pass on their messages.

Certainly, to live and proclaim the Gospel and the Dharma in the United States of America at this present moment is to be called to announce a prophetic, counter-cultural message.  But as both Buddha and Jesus made perfectly clear, to confront others does not exclude – indeed, it requires – loving them and showing them compassion.   That means to respect them, honor them, listen to them as much as we disagree with them.

For any Christian or Buddhist, therefore, Sennett’s advice makes perfect sense:  We will be credible prophets by “making receptiveness to others more important than assertiveness.”

Master and Disciple — Buddhist & Christian

Everyday I receive via email from a Tibetan Buddhist organization  a “Glimpse” for the day.

Today’s “Glimpse” helps me, I think, come to a deeper sense of what it means to be a Christian, or of what it means to call Jesus Christ my savior.

Tibetan Buddhism understands the relationship between the disciple and the master like this:

When you have fully recognized that the nature of your mind is the same as that of the master,  from then on you and the master can never be separate, because the master is one with the nature of your mind, always present, as it is.

When you have recognized that the master and you are inseparable, an enormous gratitude and sense of awe and homage is born in you.

“Nature of your mind” would be another way of trying to refer to “our deepest self” or “my self-consciousness.”  For Tibetan Buddhists, the relationship between Master and disciple is to experience that one’s deepest self-awareness is really the same as the self-awareness of the Master. There is so separation.  The source of who I am and the source of who the Master is are both different and yet the same, distinct but not in any way separable.

When the student realizes this, there is a transformation of the sense of self. There is an awareness that who I am is so much greater that what I think I am or what I feel I am. To come to the awareness that “who I am” is “the same as that of the master” is to experience, within myself, a resource of peace, of freedom, and of compassion for myself and for others.

Once again, Buddhism offers Christians the opportunity to understand a little more deeply what St. Paul was trying to get at when he told the Galatians: “It is not longer I that live but Christ who lives in and as me.” (2:20)

A Buddhist-Christian Reflection on Pentecost

“To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. …. we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”  I Cor 12: 7, 13

The Spirit is real.  The Spirit is given as drink.  Drink the Spirit.  And let the Spirit manifest in me, as me.

The Spirit needs me to be Spirit; I need the Spirit to be me.

No me, no Spirit.  No Spirit, no me.

Without me, the Spirit could not be this particular manifestation.  This particular manifestation is the Spirit.

Let the Spirit manifest; let the Spirit be – be me.

Know that the Spirit is real.  Let the Spirit be real.  Let the Spirit be me.

This is who I really am – Spirit.  Not the thoughts of myself; not the feelings I have about myself, as real as those thoughts and feelings are.  But they are not what I really, truly am.  My real I is Spirit, Christ-Spirit.