Mortaljive: The Rest is Silence

There is no still point in all the Universe, and that is the rock upon which I stand

Thursday, August 25, 2005


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In August of 2002 I gave a guest "sermon" at a UU church my father and mother attended in Poway, California. It is the only time I have spoken in a church. Here are the words I read in that church:


Thank you for having me here today!

Garrison Keillor, creator and chief occupant of Lake Wobegon, speaks of the unfailing politeness of Lutherans--how, when assembled inside the gates of heaven, they linger near the gates. When St. Peter beckons to them, saying, "Come on in, celebrate and bask in the beatitude of the Lord," they are too polite to accept: "Oh, we don't want to be a bother. Besides, we can't stay, got a casserole in the oven and all..."

The Unitarian version goes like this: After St. Peter invites the assembled Unitarians in "to enjoy and bask in the divinity of the Lord," they respond, "That is so sweet of you, but we just don't have the time! You see, this is our third heaven this morning, and after lunch we were hoping to squeeze in two more..."

So goes this saying:

Before studying Zen a mountain is a mountain, while studying Zen a mountain is no longer a mountain--after achieving Zen (if you could call it that), a mountain is once again a mountain.

I believe that the world religions, at least the three great monotheistic traditions that come from the fertile crescent of the Middle East--I believe that they have been stuck in "The mountain is not a mountain" for over 2,000 years.

What little I knew about the "Biblical Supreme Being" struck me as a raging dysfunctional father; violent, threatening, removed, arbitrary, needy, insecure and very, very dangerous. A strange god, a Dr. Strangegod, if you will. Religion comes from the root word "religio" which means "to link back." I was looking backward, but what I wanted was a "Link-with." Alan Watts said that when you look at a boat moving on the water, you see the wake left behind by the boat--it's not the wake that causes the boat to move--the wake is what's left behind. The Past didn't cause now, Now causes Now. There is only Now, there has always only been a "Now"--and that is our participating point, experienced temporally, in Eternity. Question: Was this Old God someone who was left behind, a God in the Wake, but did not know it, and still thought he moved the boat?

I don't think I can describe my life in my late teens and then in my twenties in any meaningful fashion except that before the prodigal son returns he must travel way the freak out there. But at the back of my back-less mind I thought about the meaning of existence, and 'What is God'? Life seemed too big to fit in catalogues and on television. Seemingly well intentioned God-Peddlers would come to my door and my blood pressure would rise up at the preposterousness of anyone dropping in to insinuate their religious fantasies upon me, or to show me "the one true way."...But I actually had precious little to say--what can you say to a true believer? Alan Watts said that you can't have a very good discussion with a devout Christian because they set themselves up as both advocate and judge. I found out during these years something important: that it's not that people know what they like, it's that they like what they know, and I try to remember that when engaged in discussions. Best thing I ever learned was it was okay to shut up and listen--this is a fairly recent development, as my wife Donna can attest to.

In the "back then" I was trying to find my way in the world, the way to myself, a way to living in this life--and a way of coming to terms with matters that were beyond all daily terminology--"Isn't it amazing to be alive?" When my son was maybe five or six he asked me about magic--I said to him, "Lift your arm," which he did. I said, "Amazing--how did you do that?" "I told it to," he responded--"that's not magic!" It's the most normal, everyday thing, and yet to me it is quite beyond remarkable. I didn't know it at the time, but I was ready for Joseph Campbell.

In 1988 I turned on PBS and saw Bill Moyers talking to this erudite man who spoke with such relaxed authority on timeless issues--he was someone who made me lean forward, and people like that are rare. He spoke of Comparative Mythology, of the various religious systems from all over the world, of the meanings of world myths--the Mono Myth...

"The truth is one, the sages call it by many names."

I bought and read his book "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" and I was off and running. My library grew with more and more books by the now deceased Campbell, who died before the series aired.

Joseph Campbell's amazing news was: you don't have to be a member of one sect or cult or fixed system of thought to connect in a meaningful fashion to the mystery and essence of your being. It was there for anyone who wanted it. Said Campbell:

"Having your image of God--the most intimate, hidden mystery of your life, defined for you in terms contrived by some council of bishops back, say, in the fifth century or so: what good is that?"

This was big stuff--I expected the whole of Mankind to respond with a great flowering!--Campbell was lighting candles everywhere with which to see! He emphasized over and over the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas, from the Coptic texts unearthed in the middle of the last century:

"When it will come it will not come by expectation. It will not be 'See it here, see it there'. I tell you, the Kingdom of Heaven is spread upon the face of the earth and men do not see it."

This is big news! "It" is not somewhere else, "It" is here! We are in the garden, we are of the garden, we are the garden! I walked out into the world to see the effect of this marvelous revealing--After the series aired I thought there should be parades, bells ringing in the town squares, the masses rejoicing!--But when I looked outside I was looking upon an unchanged world. I realized I had to scale my vision of mass Nirvana down a bit. Many, many people heard Joseph Campbell's words and bought his books, and connected with his ideas, but the metaphysical foundations of the dominant world religions did not alter, and heaven was not yet democratic. I was reminded that in the 1960's, when so many young men grew their hair long, wore beards, donned sandals and spoke of Love a lot of older people freaked out--they loved the idea of Jesus but didn't really want a bunch of Messiahs mucking about in their neighborhood.

Campbell made the word "Myth" come alive--he spoke of how it puts you in touch with a plane of reference that goes past your mind and into your very being, into your gut. In my journey, Campbell was the helper, the wizard or teacher who appears and gets you on the road to undertake that journey.

Campbell got me to think about what happens when symbols are read as literal facts--you end up with people killing each other for a few acres of sand. He did not use kid gloves when speaking of the bible as:

"...Like a dead weight. It's pulling us back because it belongs to an earlier period. We can't break loose and move on into a modern theology."

He spoke of the biblical Creation story, beginning with page one, with unconcealed disdain:

"The feminine aspect had been reduced to an element: water."

My library of books by Campbell, and the VHS tapes of his appearances on PBS and of his college lectures, I will treasure always--he got me started.

"God is an intelligible sphere whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere."

That's as close to what I feel in my bones as anything I've ever heard.

Many religious leaders insist on the importance of a Transcendent Cause of life. Campbell pointed out that in the West the image of Eden after the Fall was of two cherubim with flaming swords, spinning this way and that, standing guard at the gates, (making open houses a tricky business)--the way to the garden closed off to mankind. But in one Eastern tradition, Buddha sits cross legged in "the garden," with one hand held aloft--fear not, and one hand touching the ground--the ground of being, of your being. Outside the garden, defending the gates, stand horrible beasts snarling at you, but Buddha sits serenely and invites you to get past the demons (which you have responsibility for--your fears, your attachments)--he invites you to come on in anyway, come on into the garden. The garden is a state of mind--it is attainable by all--it is immanence itself. That theme ran through all of Campbell's teachings, and I think of that image often, the offer of participation, in the here and now, in the garden within. It beats Prozac.

Campbell led me to Carl Jung, whom he quoted often. I delved into Jung's arcane (to me) world--and found a generous helping of the sublime. I was now solidly with my second teacher, the Alchemist of the Self, the Poet of the Psyche. Of all his writings I became most interested in a long essay entitled "Answer to Job" written after he had suffered through a severe heart attack, and was therefore infused, at least according to one critic, with an intense and overarching passion. I realized for myself that I did not have an educated history with the Old Testament deity Yahweh, nor with his mellower and more removed self in the New Testament, and yet this Tribal Lord out of the Middle East had impacted just about my entire society. "One Nation Under God"--ahh!! Jung looked at the phenomenon of Yahweh as a psychological event--something was happening in the Collective Unconscious, something that happens over and over in the Temporal world, but only once in Eternity. Time does not permit me to go on at length today, but upon reading "Answer to Job" I understood why the Old Testament Deity needed a change--now remember, I am thinking of Yahweh, this Middle Eastern God, as a psychological phenomenon, not a literal, physical truth. Prior to the episode with Job, Yahweh's bipolar behavior towards mankind wreaked havoc and caused massive suffering in the world he created--he lacked any ability to participate in that suffering, to understand what suffering was, to empathize with humanity, routinely breaking his own commandments with alacrity. In "Without Conscience" criminologist Robert Hare identified the key emotional traits of psychopaths:

"The inability to feel remorse, a grossly inflated view of oneself, a pronounced indifference to the suffering of others and a pattern of deceitful behavior."

On Earth As It Is In Heaven Indeed!

From the East Buddha said,

"All life is sorrowful, therefore be compassionate in all things."

Yahweh, like a shark on Wall Street, did not tie his actions to any moral compass. According to Jung all that changed after the incident with Job--as a result of this warrior god's violent and bizarre series of actions where Job is visited with all the horrors that a good theme park can offer--with god against a good and honest man --well, after that episode, God decided to become Man, to have a new relationship with Creation, to become fully conscious in man: Our ancestors were ready for a revealed truth--

"Tat tvam asi: Thou art that--I and the Father are One."

Jung saw the Job episode as the precipitating event that led to Christian mythology--God would become mankind, and mankind would become god, a kind of correction, if you will. Religious leaders got nervous as to how this might affect receipts, so instead of a new dawn of enlightenment, mankind was left out and only one "God-Man" made the final cut: the Holy Ghost ended up as a bit player on the Scooby Doo show, Christ was kicked upstairs so as to not interfere with the weekly Church services, and the West missed a chance at Identification with the ultimate source of being. But read the essay. Though not raised as a Christian or Jew or Muslim, I needed a kind of therapy session with this deity--before I could say goodbye to Yahweh, I had to first say hello. I have since freed this deity from the half or ill-formed prison as I understood it--the submerging of the feminine aspect, the gross and simplistic personification of eternal energies, the chains of all categories of thought about that which is beyond all names and forms, the mistaking of metaphor for literal facts. I used to think that man was in an existential prison constructed by a God, but it turned out to be the other way around.

Belief is like a jailer
Who offers you a key
To free you from a prison
The jailer built for thee

How does one have a living, breathing religion that is not just a reaction to the inanities of pre-existing or prevailing religious cults, dogmas, etc. How do you have a path all your own? Be open, and Jung opened me up.

Finally, a quick look at the third member of my teaching trinity, the late Alan Watts, who spoke often at Unitarian Churches in the fifties, sixties on up until his death in 1973. I was introduced to the words of Alan Watts via Public Radio--as I drove home late at night KPFK in Los Angeles broadcast many of the recordings of the countless lectures given by Alan Watts, and I was hooked--he was bright, he was rascally, and he had a great English accent--I've always enjoyed those blasted English accents. And though Watts did not suffer the foolishness of the monotheistic religions lightly, it was he who helped me to escape a trap laid by so called "Science and Reason."

It goes like this: Watts pointed out that the Old Testament creation story consisted of what he referred to as a "Porcelain Model" of the Universe and of mankind--this personality creator god, this Strangegod, acting upon lifeless dust, like a potter at his wheel, making something that wasn't him--the first man.

You know that if Sophia, the powerful yet hidden feminine aspect as pointed out by Jung and others, had come forth as a bride (a second wife!) she would have inquired of her husband, Yahweh, what it was he was making...

"What have you got there, darling?"


"Oh, come on--let me see--ahh!--isn't that nice. You made a doll!"

"It's not a doll! This action figure! I'm thinking of selling them..."

So God, who is not Nature and is not man, sits upon a throne--Watts liked to point out that if you lived in the United States it was a way of saying you believed Democracy was the best form of government, but if you were a Christian you were essentially a spiritual monarchist--we are contradictory beings, after all.

Now leap forward to the age of reason, and the fashioning of ever larger lenses for our eyes to look out into the cosmos--The lens got bigger until it was a telescope, and the farther into the sky we peered the more heaven receded--later on, when electron microscopes arrived, the ultimate building blocks of the material world became smaller and smaller until we discovered there was practically nothing there at all. Watts said that the Universe likes to run away and hide, because the game would end if we discovered everything.

If one could prove by logic
Everything there is to prove
The game would all be over,
Words would hang inside the Louvre
And all our clever banter,
Soaring concepts, fancy flights
Would fall like silent ashes
And no poets would delight.

--Watts spoke of "The game of Black and White": We in the West want up without down, yes without no, crests of waves without troughs, yin without yang--profit without loss (ah, bookkeeping), light without dark, life without death...If you take away down, there is no longer an up, if you take away dark you wouldn't know what light is.

Emptiness is frightening to many of us in the West--the chasm, the void, the Great Nothing--If you don't believe me, just look at a television executive--if his or her Tuesday night lineup suddenly vanished, leaving only a blank television screen, the executive would fast look like the Edvard Munch painting "The Scream." Movies with empty streets auger danger, not serenity. An empty parking space is okay, but an empty parking lot suggests desolation.

And yet the Tao, and Watts spoke often of Taoism, talks of emptiness as the most normal and essential of qualities:

Thirty spokes converge on a hub, yet it is in the space where there is nothing that lies the usefulness of the cart.

A room has four walls, a ceiling and a floor, yet it is in the space where there is nothing that lies the usefulness of the room.

Well, about the time rational men slipped the bonds of the literal creator god, the personality deity, Dr. Strangegod or Yahweh or what have you, many thinking people let go of that God but kept the Porcelain Model of the Universe--this according to Watts--the automatic model, the measurable yet spiritless world of gross matter. Science can do much, but it cannot tell you what a flower means. Rational men and women are indeed very bright, but did not know to look more closely at the sub-basement of all very basic assumptions, the foundations of such ridiculous ideas as "Man is separate from Nature" or "Man against Nature"--Man is Nature. Thought is an outgrowth of Nature! Even our domiciles--when we see a termite mound we think "Ah, natural" but when we see a split level ranch house we think "Not natural, man made." What is man? Most unnatural? The homes we build?--A more complex version of termite mounds complete with government inspectors. The Porcelain God still infuses much of our everyday thinking, man against nature, or man separate from nature, which is only to say nature separate from nature. When you begin to let go of these informing principles, the mountain starts to become a mountain again.

Read "The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are" by Alan Watts.

There is much more to share, but not enough time in one afternoon to share it.

--It is time for me to summarize: Campbell, Jung and Watts are headliners in my spiritual revue, in my journey to "See it here and now." All three would agree, I think, that grown men who can steal with ravenous glee from company employees, purloin the pockets of small investors as though they were bears fishing for salmon--these captains of industry are not affected, in any meaningful way, by the religions that they often espouse as their rock, their guiding light, their moral model. Men and women who can profit from the exportation of death and cancer and yet attend church and bow their heads with all sincerity--what is it that their religion is saying?

Before I was able to move on spiritually, I had to visit the god I could not believe in, and set him free--free to be male and female, and free to be neither, to be immanent and transcendent, and to be neither. To free this overworked and mis-constructed and misconstrued Old World God from belief, from fear, from personality, from the blandishments of praise, from the cage, the prison of limitations, from rationalism and irrationalism, from form and non-form, from the coincidence of opposites, from heaven and hell, from being and non-being, from the temporal to the eternal, from Job to Jesus, from Mecca and from Jerusalem, from all categories of thought, all places, all times. God cannot be portioned, there is no wall in god--there is not a single particle of the Universe that is not what I feel to be, for lack of a better word, this substance that is no substance that is God. The reason I assert this is not because I know what I like, it's because I like what I know.

Earlier we heard "Into My Arms" written and sung by Nick Cave--the song is a reminder to me that no matter how high one climbs, how far one's mind and spirit travel, it is how we treat each other right here, how we cherish each other everywhere in the world - that is the proof in the pudding of a life well lived, of a sweet, cradling and realized heart--

"All life is sorrowful, therefore be compassionate in all things..."

The mountain is simply a mountain, but isn't that just grand?--Isn't it amazing?

Thank you for letting me go blah-blah-blah...Thank you!

**As spoken by MJS to the Chalice UU Congregation on 8/ 4/02.



At 5:14 PM, Blogger Oscar said...

An excellent talk. You're inspiring me to take another crack at Jospeph Campbell and Carl Jung(I'm already a huge fan of Alan Watts and have read pretty much everything he ever wrote).

How did the churchgoers take it?

At 5:53 PM, Blogger MJS said...

Very positive, but it's a liberal church. One woman thanked me, but then stated "You do believe god was there at the creation?" I said I didn't know, I wasn't there. She liked my honesty, though truthfully I hadn't really thought about it: first cause is kind of in all causes, yes?


At 7:13 PM, Blogger rkrider said...

Repent now, enlightened soul. Or soon I'll be looking down at you, laughing and gloating, while you hold your crystals and new age pagan books.

The rapture is near and before you know it, I'll be groveling at the feet of my lord, while you non-believers are burning in eternal damnation for eternity and stuff.

At 7:52 PM, Blogger MJS said...

I do have a crystal but its underarm deoderant. I think it stopped working about two hours ago.


At 9:10 AM, Blogger Annie said...

I thought it was "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

At 9:13 AM, Blogger MJS said...

Actually, a cigar is more often than not a cigar, except when Freud smoked one, in which case it was a delivery system for cancer. I think.


At 4:16 PM, Blogger mdhatter said...

A Universalist (the second U in UU) minister read "Mud" by Kurt Vonnegut at my aunts funeral. very odd choice.

As the only person raised UU in the whole room, I think i was the only one in the room, aside from my late aunt, who really appreciated it.

I'd link it, but I can't find one.

At 10:20 AM, Blogger MJS said...

How you can you tell when a family of Unitarian Universalists have moved into your neighborhood?

The KKK burns a question mark on their lawn.


At 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, Jivester. I love your poetry and writings, but before you become absolutely convinced about the Holy Spirit I implore you to just once, visit a true Charismatic Church.

I am not a nut or a fundie or a rightwingnut. I am a normal (whatever that is, I am still pondering that. Just kidding, lol)
person who has experienced the presence and the moving and work of the Holy Spirit in a charismatic church environment. It is the same in a charismatic Catholic church as it is in a protestant pentecostal church, or a non-denominational charismatic church.

It is not conjured up by emotion. It is not fabricated, or delusional.

It is real. And I'm not nuts. I did vote for Bush the first time, though, so I'm not so sure about the nuts part.

Please go and experience it. You will never doubt again.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger MJS said...

Thank you, anonymous, but I think you miss at least some of what I was attempting to impart: The Truth is one, the sages call it by many names. What is "felt" in a charismatic church is, I believe, truly and profoundly felt. To deny that would be folly. It would also be folly to deny Allah in a mosque or Yahweh in a temple. These are the local forms of universal motifs. At no point in my words do I suggest anything about "emotion" or "fabricated, or delusional" when it comes to believers, so please be fair to me here. To suggest there is only one way to a spiritual experience of life is to put handcuffs on the very source of that experience, and I will not and cannot do that.

Many believe that the Bible is the revealed word of a creator deity, a deity who manifested in space and time in the middle east over two thousand (for Christians) and three thousand and six thousand and ten thousand...(for Christians and Jews) years ago. I disagree, but will not enter a church where such a belief is sacrosanct and tell them why I think they are missing the boat. It's their boat, their ride. I just think they might get out of it once in awhile, look at how it is constructed, what is the framework, and what previous boat constructions served as templates for the one they are riding in. In my book, many Chrisitans refuse to examine the fundamental make-up of their belief system, and that is anathema to someone like me, who likes to know what things are made of--while conversely knowing that I cannot know everything because of the delimiting nature of sensory perception itself. In other words: the mystery of being is not for sale, nor is it only in one package, at one time, in one form, in one place. You want to feel the Holy Spirit? Start by climbing up that cross on Golgotha, take the central player in Chrisitanity off of it, and give love to the sufferer. Everything else is just so much blathering (and I include me in the "blathering").

For me everything is, for lack of a better word, god. After that comes parsing.



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