Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Three Theories of Everything (Ellis Potter)

The following are notes on a talk by an ex-Buddhist monk Ellis Potter who then converted to Christianity. I fear I might have fallen short in representing his views to which perhaps the only remedy is reading his book (see the link below). Following the talk, there was a response from a Buddhist perspective by Rachel Harris and then a Q & A.

More about Ellis Potter's book on which his talk was based: 

Ellis Potter, Three Theories of Everything


There seem to be three absolute world views: monism, dualism and trinitarianism. These world views need not be religious, but they all seem to involve a belief in a perfect reality, in the existence of imperfection or suffering in our experience or misapprehension of reality, and in proposing a solution to this imperfection.

Monism. This is a theory of perfect unity. Since unity is stable and faithful, suffering is understood as fragmentation of that unity. According to this world view, all is One, Tathata, Buddha nature, just so, with an undifferentiated quality of possibility. Experience of ego-consciousness and alienation is caused by an illusion of separation, and enlightenment is waking up from this illusion. The metaphor of merging with unity is of a droplet becoming one with the ocean, and in this there is also an idea of redemption or salvation. But because we do not awaken to the All, we suffer the wheel of life, and reincarnation.

The path to enlightenment often involves the practice of meditation to quieten consciousness. In Hindu philosophy, this is the practice of raja yoga. The word yoga means literally “union”. The yoga that tends to be practiced in the West is a ritual form of physical exercise (hatha yoga), but as well as meditation (raja) and movement (hatha) there are at least four other branches of yoga, or ritual paths to union: through work (karma), through devotion (bakhti), through desire (tantra) and through wisdom (jnana). Each of these paths are full of wisdom and there is much that we in the West can learn from them. The repetition of a mantra for example can create a powerful healing vibration. The ritual practices are very therapeutic. But the lesson I think we ought to learn most of all from Eastern wisdom is the importance of the ordinary.

Zen Buddhists might be said to be nonists, believing in nothing, but a pregnant nothing in which everything is possible. There is a proverb that if you see Buddha on the path then you should kill him, the idea being to kill the idea and be Buddha, to transcend belief and realize Buddha nature.

Dualism. According to this theory, imperfection is not caused by separation from what is, but from an underlying imbalance of what is. The world is full of antipodes: light/dark, wet/dry, male/female, up/down. When the opposites are in harmony, life is good. In ancient Chinese thought, divination was conducted based on combinations of solid and broken lines giving rise to the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. Each circumstance was understood as requiring an appropriate response to keep things in balance. It is difficult however to see dualism as an absolute theory, because what is the opposite of a river? What is the
 opposite of time? Despite these difficulties, this does not make dualism any less logical than monism, but just a different paradigm, and like monism, it can be very effective when put into practice.

Trinitarianism. This theory is inspired by the revealed knowledge of Christian theology which offers us a glimpse of things beyond space and time which we would not be able to realise on our own. According to this theory, the universe in its creation is both completely unified and completely diverse, and the cause of imperfection is neither separation nor disharmony but alienation from God. The original perfection of God is the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit which includes both the objective and subjective viewpoint, both the form of God the Father to command and the freedom of God the Son to obey, the Holy Spirit blowing like a wind, in-dwelling and empowering all. There is a dynamism in this Trinity yet there is nothing in creation that is not in the Creator, so the starting point is fully complete. Although the Father commands and the Son obeys, hierarchy does not imply inequality because both are equally God. The father in a family may wear a crown, but then like Jesus it should be a crown of thorns; it is the suffering of responsibility.

Truth is fact plus meaning, and meaning only comes into being through relationship. In the famous words from Genesis, we see that being with precedes being: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The meaning of Jesus is in his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The crucifixion of Jesus wasn’t just symbolic; it was an actual physical emptying for others, but because each of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit also empty themselves for the other two, each are filled twice over.
We all have fundamental needs to be seen and heard, to make a difference, and to be wanted. Where do these needs come from? Maybe God has these needs. If I don’t have needs, then it means I don’t have trust, trust is the basis of love and God is love. The way out of suffering is not by letting go of needs because the needs can be a joy for God to satisfy but by letting go of self-centredness and becoming other-centred, like Jesus emptying out for others. While God is three, the devil is one because he is exclusively self-centred. It is the black hole of self-centredness that causes suffering in the world. God is other-centred. The Biblical solution to our alienation from ourselves and from God is in this holistic unity of a trinity.
Response by Rachel Harris: I’d like for you to pause a moment and feel  the sensation at the soles of your feet. In the Psalms, it says “be still and know that I am God”. Within the experience I just suggested, there were no concepts. God is beyond concepts and understanding. Emptying out concepts, there is only awe. When Christians talk of letting go of self-centredness and the possibility of closeness to God, and the Buddhists of emptiness and stillness, we are all talking about the same thing. Religion can be divisive as we see in the world today — the news is not good — but this is caused by an error. It’s important not to degrade religion and set ourselves up as different. Why am I a Buddhist? It is a result of causes and conditions. The way we engage depends on where we come from individually. I could not have said these things to you here a hundred years ago. I like a saying of Ato Rinpoche that we are all holding onto a branch of the great tree of faith. It’s important to be committed to the branch we are holding onto, but this does not involve saying that we are right and the other wrong.

Q. Jesus is not a concept, he actually existed! (Rachel) But for us now, he is, we are not experiencing him now. America is a concept.
Even if Buddha didn’t exist, that he is just a concept wouldn’t detract from his teaching.

Q. Is religion just metaphorical? (Rachel) Religion is a tool, a practice. If a practice is helpful, good, if not, then not. It is not a piece of cosmology.

Q. Why did you become a Christian? (Ellis) I was interested in reason, and when I was young, faith was taught as an enemy of reason, so I
became interested in Buddhism. I was interested in absolutes and philosophy and those who would listen to me despite my crazy questions. But who is asking the questions? In Buddhism, asking is asking, in Christianity, the “I” which is sustained by Christ. I found it involved less faith to believe in Christianity, faith as small as a mustard seed according to Matthew, so the smallest possible faith led me to Christianity.

Painting: “Lord's Prayer” by Tissot 

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