Volume XIV:1 January - June 2024
Sitagū Buddha Vihāra (Austin, Texas USA)
Sitagū Buddha Vihāra (Austin, Texas USA)
Buddhist Inspired Reflections
On Verses from the Hebrew Bible
I recently completed writing an autobiographical narrative of my decades-long eclectic spiritual journey. In the process of writing it and re-viewing the detours and diversions I have taken, I have come to realize that the years I spent as a Christian monastic, as well as my brief return to Judaism, are intrinsic to my journey. As a result, I have delved into Judeo-Christian scriptural texts, discovering how they are not only relevant to me as a Buddhist monk but more importantly how they enrich my current spiritual life. A key realization was that God is still an inherent part of my spiritual life; however, I have come to view God through a Buddhist lens.
The following is a slightly abbreviated version of the first chapter of my book-in-progress, Savoring Transcendent Nectar: A Buddhist Monk’s Meditations on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Scriptural Verses. But before I present reflections on some of my favorite verses from the five books of Moses, I will very briefly articulate my personal theology.
I view God as Unconditioned energy, Unborn, Uncreated that “drives” (not creates) and undergirds the universe, the natural law of impermanence, and Karma. God is ultimate truth, ultimate reality which I come to know, non-dualistically, through my I-less God consciousness. God is the ultimate fullness of what Buddhists refer to as “emptiness,” imbuing this primordial emptiness with a supernal warmth and non-emotional love which does not compromise the Buddhist understanding of emptiness.
God is within, not external to me. According to Buddhism, all experienced phenomena are within the mind. God is not inside my body – there is no “body”; God is not outside of me – there is no “me.”
God nature is not God; rather, it is the pure luminous awareness of my inherent God-likeness — the ultimate non-fixed “state” or mode of being a human can realize. It is the principal characteristic of the mind of one who is God-like.
The following passages, except where indicated, are taken from the New Jewish Publication Society translation of the Tanakh. Bold highlighting of selected verses is mine.
Genesis 1:26; 2:7
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
And the LORD formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.
I see this as an inspired narrative of the beginningless beginning of God nature, which did not occur at a moment in time ages ago. This narrative is using the convention of words and the idea of a beginning to express what was always already present — God energy as the inextricable undergirding of humankind.
The seed of God nature signified by the “breath of life” blown into human “nostrils” is inherent within every human from the moment of birth. Unlike God-energy that is formless and substance-less, human beings are physically formed from earthly material. That humans are physically formed from “the dust of the earth” reveals the materiality of our bodies. This is even clearer in the Hebrew text, where “man” is “adam” [אָדָם ], which literally means “earth.” God, on the other hand, contains nothing from the earth. Thus, humans can never be God. God-energy (here expressed as breath) has no physical origin. And this ever flowing breath-energy will continue into another human life when the present human body dies. It will ever infuse human after human in a timeless future as it has in a timeless past.
Breath-energy from God infuses humans with the innate possibility of achieving God-likeness, which manifests as ideal human behavior, the highest mode of being possible for humans, whereby all their actions will demonstrate impeccable morality, ethics, and compassion. Concomitantly, they will have fully realized their inherent God nature; namely, their minds abiding in the pristine mirror-like, luminous awareness of reality. And when this God nature is fully operative, all their perceptions and experiences of internal and “external” phenomena will be informed by this primordial God-like awareness.
Humans have from beginningless time contained at the deepest depth — the ground of their being — the ethereal “substance” of God-energy which is a “likeness,”  not an actual copy, of God. Timeless energy coursing within humans is the same energy pulsing through the universe because God-energy pervades all life. Humans have the capability to perceive at the deepest, wordless, self-less core of their being the timeless flow of God-energy.
Genesis 28:10-13, 16-17
Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground, and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the LORD was standing beside him and He said, “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac…. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it.” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”
A spiritual journey needn’t be traveled on the physical plane. Yet spiritual seekers have gone on pilgrimages for more than two thousand years motivated by the hope of receiving some non-material benefit, nourishment for their souls. For those willing to put up with hardships, they may find themselves in a desolate place with nothing to use for a pillow but a hard stone. Exhausted from walking miles and miles on dusty roads, the hard ground feels comfortable for replenishing the energy of the tired body. The pilgrim falls asleep without any conscious wish to have a mystical dream but because he is after all on a pilgrimage to a holy place — one where he expects to be lifted up spiritually — deep in his mind, beneath his consciousness, is an openness to the supramundane.
The famous image of a stairway or ladder leading up to heaven has inspired poets throughout the centuries and may have inspired the writer of the classic rock song, “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin — a song that I often heard, generally high on pot, during my college years. It is natural to look upward to find ultimate lofty existence. We wouldn’t think to look in front of us and certainly not below. At the time I did not reflect on the opening verse regarding the lady looking to buy a stairway to heaven, I focused instead on what heaven might be like. But now I see how true it is in Western consumer culture to imagine that we can purchase an object that will bring us if not ever-lasting at least long-term happiness. The scriptural verses, however, offer a view of a heaven that could never be purchased.
Of course in the scriptural context here, heaven is the “abode” where God can always be “found.” And our weary pilgrim not only has a vision of a stairway connecting the earth upon which he is lying with the mystical heaven beyond the material realm, but this unfathomable distance has been so reduced that he comes into direct contact with God. However, the stairway is in fact not leading up above the limitless sky but rather deep within him. And at the very core of his being he “hears” God’s reassuring words in the nonverbal pulsing energy of absolute inner stillness. He thus experiences ultimate intimacy with God, as if God were “standing beside him.”
That the pilgrim has never before had such a mystical experience is suggested by his startling and fearful reaction. He knows from that fleeting moment of clear-light awareness that he has indeed experienced God — as much as that is possible for a human at the primal depth of his being. The recognition that the physical place in which he has been resting has a spiritual power conducive for profound inner travel and thus is in fact the “gateway to heaven” — the place where God can be found within — sends a shudder of awe through him.
While not on a pilgrimage per se, Jacob inadvertently stumbles upon a holy site where he is fortified by a profound encounter with God.
Genesis 32:25-32
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at the socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.
I see this famous passage as a metaphysical inner battle that is being waged between my ego-self and my incipient God nature, or between mind and Mind. I am about to commit an unwholesome action, ruled by the defilements of aversion and strong self-entitlement. I intend to pay someone back for vicious slander by engaging in a similar unskillful act. As I plan my strategy, I enter into a fierce internal battle with my still inchoate and weak God nature. If this innate pristine awareness had already been fully developed in my mind, the image of rage I felt at the person who slandered me would simply bounce off the “mirror” of my luminous mind and disappear. But here that is not the case. My ego-driven plan of revenge is entrenched and though God nature puts up a good fight, ultimately I pin it down and force it to retreat. Yet my ego-self is not unscathed by the fight. It is wounded by a flash of luminosity from Mind. I am so confident about my imagined victory that I presume to question this luminous power, demanding it to state its credentials. Of course, God nature has no “name” for it operates beyond the convention of words and concepts. Cognizant of the infliction I have suffered, I come to know with certainty that I have encountered “a divine being face to face,” namely my primordial God-like nature in its incipient form, and that lingering recognition suffices to dissuade me from my unwholesome plan.
Exodus 19:18
Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the LORD had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.
One biblical image that struck me the most during my Hebrew school days was that of Mount Sinai, the mysterious place where Moses received the Ten Commandments. For it is the foundational moment of the Jewish people. In my adult years, I viewed many paintings that attempted to convey the power of God on the mountain. And when I actually climbed the mountain that Christians believe to be Mount Sinai and sat completely alone in the shelter of a rock at the summit, protected somewhat from the wind, I felt the awesomeness of the site. Whether or not it was the actual place where Moses encountered God, thousands of pilgrims for nearly two thousand years have climbed it fully believing that it was. And I was one of them that day, and during the pre-dawn hour I spent in meditative prayer, I allowed my mind to silently experience the majesty of God’s dwelling.
Language, as a tool of a talented writer, can express the exquisite beauty of nature and a full range of human emotions, but it fails at rendering the Transcendent. One has no choice but to bring the ineffable power of God down to a level that humans can understand. And a multi-dimensional image of a mountain blazing in fire, rising in smoke and violently trembling can lead a receptive mind into the wordless realm of God.
Exodus 24:15-17
When Moses had ascended the mountain, the cloud covered the mountain. The Presence of the LORD abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. Now the Presence of the LORD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
There is a beautiful irony in the phrase, “cloud of unknowing” — the title of a well-known English mystical text from the late Middle Ages. It captures the apophatic method of not naming the un-nameable. The irony is that only by unknowing, i.e. forgetting all the concepts we have about God, allowing our mind to accept that it really does not know God, can one actually come to know in the mystical silence at the core of one’s being, where intellect and words have no place to stand, a hint of God’s presence.
Consuming fire has different connotations: For one attached to ego-driven desires and individual self-identity (maintaining the division of me vs. others), mystical experience of the ultimate emptiness of God-energy is frightening. Thus, this incomprehensible, indefinable force is viewed as fire capable of consuming one’s treasured ego/self.
But if one bravely climbs up the mountain leading to increasingly greater awareness of reality, penetrating through the layers of brush and thorns of the mental defilements, and upon reaching the top of the mountain, engages in deep contemplation on the mind over an extended period of time, it is possible to get a glimpse of the radiant light of one’s primordial awareness. 
Exodus 33:17-20
And the LORD said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name.” He said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” And He answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.”
Conceiving God initially as some-thing, an object to experience is skillful means leading eventually to an unmediated, non-dual experience of God-energy. By subsequently engaging in a process of melting down the I-thought mechanism, gradually diminishing it, the distance separating the I-observer from the cognized object, God-energy, also becomes less. And perhaps, fueled by unbridled, self-less love on the part of the observer, the gulf dissolves for a brief moment and there is only God. One does not actually unite with God, and cannot see God’s “face” even during that inexpressible flash of awareness of God’s presence, because the transcendent experience is still channeled through a human mind. All concepts, even that of God, must “die”, i.e. dissolve, in order to “see” God without actual sight.
Exodus 34:29-30
So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him. Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’s face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him.
Mystics of monotheistic and non-theistic religions who have had a profound encounter with God or a flash of enlightenment are unable to express in words what they have experienced. Such transcendent encounters cannot be analyzed or interpreted in words because any effort to do so merely removes one from the core experience of the luminous primordial, knowing Mind. Afterwards, a trace of God-like luminosity may remain on the observer’s face. Yet the brilliant light of primordial awareness that has seen ultimate reality, i.e. God-energy, cannot be directly conveyed to those who have no understanding of the intrinsic nature of the human Mind.
The context of Moses’s encounter with God, and the responsibility he was given, is of a magnitude that causes a shudder of awe to pass through me. For Moses has the fate and faith of an entire people in his hands.
Deuteronomy 6:4
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
This call to believers to recognize the LORD our God, the opening verse of the sh’ma, still resounds deeply within me, decades after my childhood when I heard this prayer weekly in the synagogue. It is the only Jewish prayer that I remember in Hebrew. שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד(Sheh-mah Yis-rah-eyl Ah-doh-nai Eh-loh-hay-noo Ah-doh-nai Eh-khad) I reflect that it retains its emotive power for me because it has taken on new significance and relevance in my current Buddhist spiritual journey. I focus on the word, “alone,” which conveys the Hebrew word eh-khad.
As a dedicated follower of a spiritual path, I recognize that God alone needs to be at the center of my life, the sine qua non of every endeavor — mundane tasks as well as in periods of meditation; because the God force imbues all facets of my life, making every activity part of the awakening of my mind. Naturally, I cannot expect God to simply catapult me into pristine enlightened awareness without any effort on my part. By recalling God throughout the day, I am actually recalling my inherent God nature, which is still just a potential to realize. The key to fully realizing it is by strengthening my ability to deflect all the thoughts and preoccupations that prevent the arising of my inherent God-like awareness. I have chosen to live a monk’s life in order to be free of many of the tasks and responsibilities that people have who are living in the world. It is, I believe, possible for lay persons who have jobs, children and spouses or partners to make God the center of their lives, allowing that divine presence to imbue all of their interpersonal encounters in work and at home, but it is a much more formidable task and few have been able fully to do so.
The Impediments for a monk attempting to focus on God alone throughout the day are also formidable but mostly internal. They are the stubbornly persistent chain of thoughts, worries, memories, fantasies, and plans. And all of these are fueled and maintained by the crucially mistaken notion that there is an independent self at the core of my being — the place where God alone should be.
Deuteronomy 6:4 (New King James Version)
Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
This alternative translation of eh-khad as “one” is perhaps even more emotive for me. For “one” connotes mystical oneness, the ultimate oneness of nonduality, the absence of the artificial division of subject and object. Understanding God as “one” does not reify God into a “thing” to be known; for the oneness of God defies any conceptualization. Thus God’s oneness is even beyond oneness.
But there is something more that strikes me here. There is only ONE God even though God is understood or conceived differently by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, etc. Thus, even in religions where God is not recognized, God nevertheless is because God-energy is coursing through each sentient being at their very core, whether or not it is recognized or acknowledged. God is not affected by the conflicting views of different religions; for the oneness of God is a unified energy force beyond the universal realm, the natural law that undergirds all existence in all world systems.
Although this verse is inextricably tied to the Jewish faith and recited several times a day by observant Jews, the meaning and implication is vast, extending to all spiritual seekers endeavoring to know the mystical oneness of God.
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