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The struggle for reality

Published in:

 

‘Dialogue in Action. Essays in Honor of J. Aagaard’

Edited by Moti Lal Pandit and Lars Thunberg

New Delhi 1988

 

 

This is the first article I got published . It is written in 1987 -  more than 20 years ago.

At that time I had spend  around 3 years of my life travelling the world to study various religions.

The article represents part of the vision this period of my life gave me.

Many years has passed. My thoughts were written down before the fall of communism and before 9/11.

But I think that time has shown, how at least some of the ideas were right.

Global consumerism has the last 10-15 years changed the overall perspective of religions in the world.

So this is truly  reflection from the pre-internet time.

 


 

The Struggle for Reality.

 

 

      In the early morning, the day before Christmas Eve 1984, I had the

most joyful conversation 10.000 metres above the Bay of Bengal with a Tibetan

Geshe, who was on his way back to India from the USA.  He had been working there

as a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in various dharma-centres for the last two years,

and he was, as many Tibetan lamas, a very warm and cheerful person.  So time

slipped by, and suddenly the plane stood on the runway at New Delhi airport.

 

      Now my dear friend might have been a highly enlightened spiritual

person, but he wasn`t very practically minded, so I helped him at the customs

and immigration control, with all the formalities he had to go through, as a

person holding a refugee passport, and about 1 hour later than all the other

passengers, we made it through.  I was just about to head off for the Anglican

Community where I had planned to celebrate Christmas, when one of the two

Western devotees, who had come to meet the Geshe, asked me, if I would like to

celebrate Christmas with them. I must admit, I was a bit taken aback, but they

assured me, that they were having a Christmas celebration the next day, so I

thought "why not?" - after all I was in India now!

 

      It was the most amazing Christmas I have ever had. The house was

decorated with streamers, Christmas cards and a big Christmas tree, and there

was a sign above the entrance saying  " Merry Christmas ".

 

      On the evening of the 24th there was silence in the house. Only

Sakyamuni Buddha, the Gospel, an icon of the nativity and I were present in the

gompa. But next day, great celebrations took place. About 80 western Buddhists

and several Indians came to listen to lectures from high lamas, flown in from

Leh and other places, about the significance of the birth of Christ. They

Were

certainly no Christian scholars, but they showed in their lectures and by

their presence, a great respect for their Western disciples' past. " Do not

forget your cultural past ", was the message, " but let it be enlightened by the

Buddhist teaching ".

 

      Over the next few months I became close friends with a number of the

Western Buddhists present that Christmas, and in many ways my expectations were

confirmed. They were in general very serious practitioners of their new faith,

and more aware than the average person in the West. They had searched for

meaning in the world, and now they had found it. They had knocked on " the door

of reality ", and reality had started revealing itself in their minds.

 

      Every single Western person present had his own story to tell about

his way to Buddhism . Their stories were varied. For

some it had been the

attraction of a lama`s personal charisma, for others the loss of a beloved

person or philosophical interest that had been the determinant reason for taking

refuge, and for a

 cynical outsider it could sometimes appear as mere attraction

to

 something exotic and different. But they shared one thing; they

came from a modern, Western industrial society, and for them Buddhism had given 

answers to many of the existential questions they had experienced in their lives

Buddhism had in it`s dharma revealed the reality of life.

 

 

      Talking with not only serious Westerners in various branches of

Buddhism, but also with people involved in various Hindu practices, has

convinced me, that behind the personal story,

there is a common search; a search

which is rooted in the common experience of the existential questions, emerging

out of 'reality' as perceived by people in Western society  today.

 

      It seems that the challenge of Buddhism to the West, lies in the fact

that Buddhism provides the Believer with adequate answers to the specific

existential questions, that Modern Industrial Society may seem to raise.

 

      In the following, I hope to illustrate this supposition with specific

examples of some of the questions raised(a), and the way Buddhism answers them

(b).

 

 

1. a.

      The philosophical and religious unity in our Western worldpicture,

ended with the Middle Ages, and has never been restored.

Science and philosophy

have since struggled to reach an understanding of reality and Christianity has

gradually lost its decisive importance in the lives of people and society. There

is no longer a generally accepted philosophy or system of beliefs, to give

adequate answers to  the questions of life; answers that may not be openly

acknowledged but that never the less shape the way people live. The only

accepted means of finding out answers to such questions, is rational and logical

thinking, which seems in general to have taken the place of belief.

 

1. b.

      Buddhist teaching provides an ahistoric world view, that appears to

explain all the phenomena man meets. In its structure, it is logical, as long as

there is an acceptance of the basic anthropology including karma, cyclic

existence, and the concept of the mind. Moreover the logic of the Buddhist

cosmology and anthropology is fascinating, and if one carries out certain

specific practices to cultivate the mind, it will have some determinable

effects. This provides man with a promise of freedom obtainable within a

logically understood world.

 

2. a.

      In many ways Western society of today is a broken society. There is a

tremendous lack of primary experiences. Man in general doesn`t any longer

experience nature with its change of seasons and its beauty. He lives in towns,

works in centrally heated rooms and only notices the workings of nature  by the

fact that

he sometimes experiences the inconvenience of having to change into his winter

clothes! He is cut of from the silence and the experience of wonder in the

encounter with nature. He no longer experiences himself as a created being in

unison with all creation.

 

2. b.

      Buddhist practice builds up a set of inner primary experiences :

through systematic training of the mind, using visualizations, mantric chanting,

rituals with an inner meaning and various other  practices an inner world starts

to appear. These inner primary experiences, in a long term perspective, alter

the fundamental conception of reality, and slowly become decisive for values and

truths . The inner world becomes the real world and the basis of life and

reality, because the inner experiences have become the fundamental primary

experiences according to which reality is structured.

 

3. a.

      The sense of community is today mainly defined by work or by common

interests such as, sport, hobbies etc. and exist only as long as the interest is

there. Fellowship is something existing between separated individuals, and deep

feelings of separation are still there in spite of an outside community

structure.

In the West, family-structures have changed dramatically over the last 100

years, and the family is no longer a definite basis for the experience of a

loving, stable community. Broken families in one way or the other are more the

rule than the exception today, and kinship doesn't imply fundamental feelings of

responsibility. Also, with society's acceptance and approval of pre-marital

sexual relationships, words such as faith, commitment and sacrifice have lost

their depth of meaning amongst young lovers. A relationship

is something to use

and throw away when it doesn`t fulfill your personal needs any longer. More than

ever, man today sees himself as an individual who primarily carries the

responsibility for himself and his own life.

 

      The fundamental mechanisms of a capitalist society teach man, that he

will receive according to his yielding capacity, and even in relationships

between people, the law of give and take is present. As one gives, so will one

receive, and you alone are carrying the responsibility for your actions. In

general, modern Western society perceives itself as a society of cause & effect,

and man is also seen as a causal being.

 

3. b.

      The concept of karma is fundamental to the Buddhist universe. The

intimate connection between the present suffering or joy and former actions is

expressed in the firm Buddhist  belief in the law of karma. Everything is inter

connected, but each person is responsible for his present situation. This is a

challenge to the individual to cultivate his mind and be aware of how to act,

as

it will have an effect on life in the future. For modern man this sounds

reasonable and is an understandable motivation for starting to make changes in

his behaviour. Each person is responsible for himself• and even with the ideal 

of Bodhisattvahood in Mahayana

Buddhism the conquest of karma is an individual

achievement.

Community with other people remains a causatum only, where a

person should aim to act as beneficially as possible.

 

 

4. a.

      Western society today has no room for suffering. If anything

 is

wrong, it has to be treated, either with medicine, psychotherapy or other

treatments that repair whatever is seen to not

 function .  Where there is

suffering something is 'wrong', and it

is just a question of finding the right

`medicine`.  The

tremendous use of psychoactive drugs is an example of

How

suffering is reduced to an unacceptable failure in the human

machine. Modern

man has built a society where it is easy to keep

a safe distance from suffering,

and that way he hasn't learnt to

come to terms with it. He is fundamentally

afraid of suffering,

and shies away from it.

 

4. b.

      The Four Noble Truths were based on Buddha`s overwhelming

experience

of suffering, and show a way out. In one of his talks

 in the USA H.H. Dalai Lama

said about the Four Noble

Truths: Suffering is like an illness; the external and internal

 conditions

that bring about the illness are the sources of

 suffering. The state of cure

from the illness is the cessation of

suffering and of its causes. The medicine

that cures the disease

is true paths.   

Buddha's overwhelming experience of suffering,

and the negation of

this experience in Western society are in a

way opposite in their approach to

this fundamental condition of

 life, but they lead to the same conclusion.

Suffering is an

 illness that needs to be cured.

 

5. a. 

      Death is an unavoidable part of life, and everybody has some

indirect

contact with it several times a day through television,

newspapers etc. But

direct confrontation with death is very rare,

because real death remains hidden

in hospitals, homes for retired

people and other institutions, so that it is

safely outside our

world of direct apprehension.  No immediate

interpretation

concerning death is to be found in the general values of

society,

and there is no such thing as a living myth that gives hope of

an

existence after death. Man desperately tries to hide from death,

and never

lets it come close to him emotionally. Death usually

remains just another murder

in a  Sherlock Holmes film; not death

as my final destination in life.

 

5. b

      Seen in this perspective, the idea of rebirth comes as

 something

of a relief, because if man is to be born again after

he dies, death isn`t

real. It loses it definitive character by

the fact that there is another

chance.  This positive view of

rebirth occurs because the fear of cyclic

existence never seems

to penetrate into the mind of Westerners until they have

dealt

 quite deeply with Buddhist philosophy and practice.

 

 

6. a.

      Urban life, with it`s constant stream of external

impressions, the

emphasis on a person's outer appearance and the

 urge to perpetually `do

something` creates a constantly busy mind in  modern man. He can no longer

find peace inside  himself, and

is in  constant need of outer stimulation. He

has become a

 consumer of impressions and experiences.  The simplicity of life

 is

lost. Sometimes in moments of being busy, man experiences

himself as ”a

spectator to his own life.• It passes by, he wants

 to take the controlling role,

but he feels that life has become

 unreal. He stands outside life and watches it

passing by like a

film.

 

      The massive stream of impressions he gets from watching

 television

for several hours every day, supports the experience

 that reality is a constant

stream of events, happening outside

himself.  It becomes increasingly difficult

to feel the reality

of the human suffering he sees outside in the world, be it

hunger

 in Africa or a person on the street having a heart(r)attack.

 

6.b

      Meditation in general aims at restructuring the busy,

Freely

associating mind to make it calm. The cultivation of equanimity

is an

essential part of meditation, aiming at a state of non

attachment to all

things of the physical and psychical world.

 One general technique used in

various ways in Buddhist meditation

 is the cultivation of awareness ie.

training oneself to act as

'witness' to phenomena  occurring both in the outside

and the

inside world. This 'awareness' should become the natural state of

 being

at all times, and help the meditator to perceive the true

 nature of ”all•

phenomena, either as emptiness ( shunya c.f.

Madhyamika School) or as

consciousness (c.f. yogacara School).

 

      To a Westerner, the idea of calming down his busy mind is

very

attractive, because of the mentally stressful life he often

leads. Techniques

that enable the person to step outside the

world and become a non attached 

witness are seen as a

 confirmation of the state, already experienced by modern

man,

ie. of being a spectator to life not an active participant, but

one who

stands back and watches from the side lines. There doesn't

seem to be much

difference between being a witness to the physical

 world and to the mental

continuum.

 

7.a.

      Life in Western society is centered around growth. There is

much

talk of the growth of both society and of the individual.

The economy must grow

to keep society going, and individuals must

grow in skill and knowledge, to keep

up with society. The

 development of the science of psychology highlights this

growth potential in man.  He has become a being of infinite

 possibilities for

growth in both wealth and personality. But it

is up to him to find a way of

fulfilling this potential, and this

 puts upon him a feeling of enormous

responsibility for his own

destiny.

 

7.b.

      Buddhism appears to have techniques which assure constant

personal

growth, and the 'initiation' system of Tibetan Buddhism

plays an especially

important role in providing a concrete means

of measuring ones own growth.ie.

one can see how far one has

progressed, by the level of initiation that has been

reached. The

 path towards liberation is a growth process and Western

adherents

 to Buddhism  tend to evaluate one another according to their

stage of

development.

 

8. a.

      Finally I shall mention the tremendous importance of the

word

” energy• in Western society today. The word energy can be used in

 almost

any connection, where there are forces at work which are

not fully understood,

and it makes sense to people, because it is

a word used by science.  Nobody has

any strict definition of

 energy, nor can it be seen, but still it is a central

word used

in connection with  various phenomena in both  society

and

 individuals.

 

8.b.

      Energy plays an important role in the various forms of

Tantric

Buddhism, and the use of energy manipulation important in the path towards

liberation. This is not the place

to go deeper into this aspect of Buddhism but

there is no doubt

 that the possible manipulation of energy  makes sense to a

person

from a modern Western society, because it fits in so neatly with

 the use

of language in the scientific understanding of the world

that he has grown up

with. That a person can generate and benefit

from energy changes within his own

psyche, is quite easy to

 accept in a society where energy is the cause of

material

 progress.

 

      This discussion of Buddhism in relation to modern Western

man, is by

no means an exclusive, finite analysis, but it

 certainly highlights some of the

experiences in life of people in

the West, and shows how Buddhism provides

apparent solutions to

 their many 'problems'. Many people of course, can cope

with life

in the West, by simply avoiding reflection. They prefer to

 hide

safely in their own `busyness`  without asking any

 existential questions, and

thus to live in an existential vacuum.

They don't have, and don't appear to

seek any meaning in life.

But some people, and a growing number it seems to

me, pass in

one way or another from this basically non reflecting life into

a

search for meaning.

 

 

      Not only confessing Buddhists, such as the ones present at

the

Christmas celebration in Delhi, are searching for reality in

 the Buddhist

dharma, but there are also a lot of New Age groups

and non confessing seekers

influenced by Buddhist doctrines. The

 reason for this is simple. Buddhism as

shown, provides a seeking

Western person with answers that seem to be adequate

to the

existential problems / experiences in life. In it's analysis of

 life,

it is very close to how life is perceived by modern man in

Western society. It

ultimately seems to lead towards an interpretation of reality that appears more real than the reality

presented in

traditional Christianity.

 

      In my opinion the real challenge to Western culture in

 general and

Christianity in particular, doesn't come from Buddhism

itself, but from the way

the Buddhist doctrines  are used by non Buddhist New Age groups. A person who

really follows the teaching

of Buddha must devote his whole life to his faith,

and as he

plunges deeper into the practices and their results, he

often

 experiences a great crisis in his personal identity .  It requires

a lot

of courage and time to be a practicing Buddhist. Most

people are too lazy for

this and haven't the courage it takes to

 follow the path to such depths.  They

get fascinated by Buddhist

ideas and use some aspects of Buddhist teaching to

make up a frame

 of understanding of the world which suits them.  The

Buddhist

views are not usually presented in the form of teachings of the

dharma,

but as a part of the New Age ideology, that is to be

found in many contexts. So

people influenced by Buddhism  often

come nowhere near the depths at which the

personal identity is

shaken, but instead they  build up a strong personality

using

Buddhist ideas to support their experience of the reality they

live in.

 

      It is in this way that Buddhism might not be a religion

growing in

numbers of confessing devotees, but certainly a

 religion with a growing

influence on peoples' understanding of

reality as it is seen in the West.

 

 

A reflection on Christianity today.

 

      My Buddhist friends in the dharma center that Christmas posed

 many

questions to me as a Christian, and I tried to answer the

 best I could, without

trying to hide my own search within the

 Christian  Church. We talked about many

things, but the general

message I understood from them was, that they didn`t

feel the

Church had anything to offer. Of course seen from my

Christian

 experience of reality, that isn't true, but such statements must

be

taken seriously and must lead to self criticism amongst us who

consider

ourselves a part of the Church. The following is meant as

a few personal

reflections on this subject. 

 

      Western society is built on the Christian tradition, and the

 social

structures in our welfare society reflect to a large

extent Christian values.

But Christian cultural roots and values

 don't make a society Christian. Unless a

society is permeated by

people expressing their faith in an active Christian

life through

  the Christian communities, society remains Christian by name

 only.

Most Christians in the West tend to be part time

Christians.  That means going

to church on Sundays or special

occasions such as Christmas or Easter, and  the

rest of the time

 they feel their identity shaped by their work and the values

of

 the secular society, instead of by their faith.

 

      It doesn't make much sense from a modern rational point of

 view, that

the historical events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were unique and brought salvation to

 mankind.  Jesus might

be considered  "a Great Man " and  "a good

example", but Easter isn't ascribed

an overwhelming significance

that makes the heart take primacy over the rational

mind. That is

why the sign of the Church as the centre of a loving community

 has

become so very essential for modern man`s understanding of

the `good news`.

 

      The Holy Spirit is God operating in His Church, and the

Spirit of God

is not an omnipresent power to be manipulated

 whenever it pleases man, as is,

for example prana in Tantrism,

but God Himself being present whenever people

dare to live in the

love of Christ. But without a living Church that is

sensitive

towards the workings of the Spirit,  God's Spirit will die, and

man

will be left alone with the suffering of impermanence.  He

 will experience  the

world in  the way Buddhism has interpreted

it.

 

      In my opinion the Lutheran Churches, are amongst those that

 suffer

most deeply from the inability to express what it means

to the people of God,

that Jesus Christ is Lord. They have in

 general become dull, and have lost the

basic religious element of

 searching, through which the faithful slowly

discovers the depths

of his faith.  The sermon much too often merely presents a

set of

answers, and instead of being called to come closer towards the

depth of

the sacramental presence of Christ in his Church, man is

 called to become a `big

Ear`.

 

      From the pulpit the congregation is told about the Grace of

God

towards man, but unfortunately salvation by the Grace of God

has much too often

become merely a salvation from sin . The Grace

 of God is not understood as a

Grace into a life in Christ, where

every Christian by Grace is set free from

the bondage of sin to a

life centered around love towards his brothers, sisters

and fellow

 creation by utilizing the gifts that God has given specifically to

him.

 

      The sense of mystery has been lost in the Lutheran tradition.

It

seems to take the incarnation, resurrection and salvation for

 granted,  and to

see them as such simple issues, that they can be

 understood by the intellect.

The intuitive side of man, whereby

he feels the presence of the mystery in life

is ignored. Man

 doesn`t get a deep sacramental understanding of what it means

to

 live as a created being for God together with all creatures.

In other religions the rituals are important in providing this

 approach towards

the mystery, but rituals in Lutheran services

don't create the atmosphere that

man needs in order to open up

his inner most being towards the Presence of God.

They have

 become stiff ceremonies, with little possibility for man to

 express

devotion. They do not provide the element of silence in

 worship in which man can

stop and look at his everyday life from

a new and enlightening perspective.

 

      The Church in Denmark is not, in the consciousness of the

ordinary

person, the place where his experience of life can be put into a new and vital perspective. It has become an institution

of `rite de

passage.

 

      If the Church is to remain alive, it must not avoid

confrontation

with the essential questions about life and death

 as man today meets them. Our

Christian religious language has

 been so distorted, and more often than not it

gives the average

person strongly negative associations, rendering it almost

useless

when it comes to explaining what Christianity says about reality.

Only

through a religious search created inside the Church can this

 be rediscovered in

Christianity, because the time of superficial,

ready made answers to the

questions about reality has passed.

Only a living Christian spirituality can

provide such answers

 containing the depth of truth. 

 

      Buddhism is not a threat to Christianity, but a big

challenge,

which might force the Church to look at a number of

important questions

concerning the nature of reality for man

 today. In the time of the Fathers the

encounter with paganism was

important for the development of theology, and through reflections

 on the

questions posed by paganism, the Church found it's own

identity. The process of

creating theology contextual to its

 historical setting is still going on, but it

is more a question of

 doing theology today than making new dogmatic

statements. In a

pluralistic society a theological statement is just

another

statement, but the example of a living faith carries the truth of

 love

from which the Christian reality springs. 

 

      It is Autumn outside my window and the trees have taken the

most

beautiful shades of red, yellow and many different browns.

 From the

newly ploughed fields the fine scent of leaf mould

reaches my nostrils; a scent

sharpened by the freshly fallen

drops of gentle rain. Soon the sunset will bring

an end to another

day, and  dusk will blur  the sharp lines from the day's work.

                            ANDERS LAUGESEN