Sunday, October 27, 2013


[It is still hours before dawn breaks over the Land of the Rising Sun. I am sharing this dream with you because writing is how I process and publishing is how I let go of what I process.]

Yesterday I participated in Shinnyo-en Buddhist meditation, having my inner world mirrored back to me through the words of another. My mirror was Rev. Minoru Shitara, Director of International Relations for Shinnyo–en. This is what I was told: “You are wandering and worrying that your wondering is without purpose. You cannot see where you are going or why, or whether or not it matters. Release the worrying, there is no knowing for you, only wandering. Trust the wandering.”

Yes, I am wandering and I have no firm sense of direction, and I do worry about this. This is true physically as well as spiritually. I have difficulty distinguishing “right” from “left,” and am easily lost and spatially disoriented. Nevertheless I did not like what I heard. Sadly, I could not “unhear” it.

Moments ago I awoke from a dream. I’m walking a rope bridge strung over a vast chasm. I can’t see where I’d come from or where I’m going. There is no sense of going back or going forward, only walking on. My dream self recalled the story of Abraham leaving all he knew and walking (physically and spiritually, outwardly and inwardly) into the not–known, and said, “But at least Abraham had the promise of arriving and there of becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth, whereas I have no such promise and no such hope. Please show me more.”

I watched as the dreamscape expanded and I could see a wider view. The rope bridge grew longer and the walker grew smaller, but still no beginning or end came into view. I again asked for more, and again the bridge grew longer and the walker even smaller, and still no beginning or end. Again and again I asked for the view to widen, and finally I say this: at the one end of the bridge birthing and dying, and at the other dying and birthing. And the now almost invisible dreamer walked on. With this I awoke.

Over these past few days among these amazing teachers from so many paths and countries I have been reminded of my wandering. I am like the ancient Judeans who would pack a sack of sand from the Promised Land when travelling abroad so that their god could recognize them. I carry a sack of Jewish sand as I wander physically, psychologically, and spiritually far beyond the borders of my home not so that god will recognize me, but to recognize myself and in this way honor my tribe and my ancestors and my heritage. And yet, as I admitted without hesitation but a few hours ago, I am a hasid of Jesus, indeed I am a lover of the Beloved in all Her forms and hasid of all her saints and prophets, and I am a “victim” of the formless nondual whose love is all consuming and self erasing.

I didn’t choose this “path” I simply find myself on it. Decades ago Reb Zalman told me this would be my way, but I neither believed him nor understood his meaning. Now there is no talk of believing or understanding, just walking on over this chasm from nowhere to nowhere. “No wonder you don’t take students!” a teacher told me recently. Perhaps so.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Purity of Soul

[Here are the basic talking points I used in a talk I gave yesterday in Kyoto, Japan.}

First, may I express my gratitude to Shinnyo-en and the Global Peace Initiative of Women for sponsoring this important gathering and for inviting me to Kyoto to participate in it.

Second, let me offer two warnings. Warning one: Judaism has no fixed or official theology. What we have are the experiences of Jews articulated through the limited medium of words which leads to a culture wildly divergent in its philosophies and beliefs. As we put it: “Two Jews. Three opinions.” What you will hear from me is simply my opinion.

Warning two: words are maps and never the territory they claim to represent. Whatever we say about the soul, Atman, or Buddha–nature is only a finger pointing to the moon and never the moon itself.  More importantly, from my understanding—personal as well as Jewish—there is no moon at all, only mooning, as I hope this brief talk will explain.

Each morning observant Jews recite this short affirmation: Elohai neshamah sheh natatabi t’hora he: “My God, soul manifesting as me is pure.” It is not a prayer, but a statement of fact. I am not thanking God for my soul, I am reminding myself of the nature of soul.

Notice, as the ancient rabbis did, that “God” is qualified by the word “my,” but “soul” is not qualified at all. Why is this? We speak of “my God” because God in and of itself cannot be spoken of or about. As Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao te Ching: The tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao.” Any god about whom we can speak is not God. In this prayer when we call out to “my God” we are to realize even in the moment of our calling that our idea of God is insufficient. In the Book of the Prophet Micah something similar happens when we are told to “walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In other words we should not cling to any theology, especially our own, but hold all such notions humbly, lightly, for no notion of God is God.

No such qualifier is attached to the word “soul,” however. Why? Because, having admitted the limitation of language, we are now challenged to step beyond language into the state of pure transparency, t’hora, a state beyond all words and concepts. When we know soul is t’hora, we know that soul—my very sense of “I”— is pure, without conditions, without limits, without boundaries, without anything that would in fact make it “me” or “my soul” at all. When I understand that soul is pure, my sense of separate and conditioned “I” dissolves for a moment, and there is a knowing (though not an “I” to know it) we call da’at d’vekut, a knowing of the nonduality of all in all.

A simple word–play found in kabbalistic or Jewish mystical teaching will, I hope, make this a bit more clear.

The Hebrew word for “I,” the first person singular, is ani—aleph, nun, yod or “a,” “n,” “I” in English. The Hebrew word for the formless and yet ever–forming God is Ain—nothingness, sunya— is comprised of the same three letters in different order: aleph, yod, nun or “a,” “i,” “n.” The fact that both words are comprised of the same three letters suggests to the Jewish mystic that “I,” “soul,” “self,” and “God” are different expressions of a singular dynamic, an endless dance of birthing and arising, and dying and dissolving that is the very nature of reality.
Focusing on the letter yod or “i” which stands for the Hebrew word yadah, attention, the Jewish mystics teach that when our attention is focused outwardly—when the yod/i is at the end of the word as it is in the word ani,—we have a sense of distinct self and soul. When our attention is focused inwardly—when the yod/i is in the middle of the word as it is in the word ain,—our separate self or soul is seen to be transparent, pure, t’hora, and thus empties into a greater reality we call YHVH.

As I understand it, the unity of Ain and Ani is a teaching similar to that of the Prajna Paramita Hrydaya Sutra (Heart Sutra): “form is emptying, emptying is forming.” Again I avoid the use of nouns in this translation to help free us from any notion of permanence, even a temporary one. God is, if you’ll pardon the paradox, permanent impermanence. God doesn’t change from one moment to the next, God is the changing moment this moment and the next. And, again, we call this process YHVH.

The soul, the self, is the extending of YHVH the way sunlight is the extending of the sun, and a wave is the extending of the ocean. I am not saying the soul is an extension of YHVH as if the soul were a thing, but that the soul is an extending of YHVH, an activity of YHVH, pure activity.

This word YHVH, sadly rendered as Lord, is a verb and not a noun. YHVH is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” YHVH is a dynamic process and not a static something. In the biblical book of Exodus we are told that YHVH is Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, not the static “I am that I am” of most translations, but the dynamic “I am becoming what I am becoming,” of the literal Hebrew. God is not a being, or even a supreme being, but the endless process of being/becoming itself. And because we are YHVH extending, we are this process as well. There is no fixed “Rami,” only YHVH “rami–ing.” And the realization of this is the promise offered by the chanting of Elohai neshamah sheh natatabi t’hora he.

My chanting does not make this so, it only awakens me to what is already so. D’vekut, the unity of ani and ani, of self and God, is not achieved or earned, it is a given. The wave cannot be other than the ocean. The awareness of what is we call da’at, knowing. My chanting of Elohai neshamah creates nothing new, it only opens my eyes to that which is always and already there.

Though the goal of Jewish contemplative practice is to become aware of this dance, to achieve da’at d’vekut the knowledge of what is already so, we can say nothing of the moment of knowing or awakening because at that moment that is no one to experience it, and only experiencing itself. At the moment of knowing there is no ani, there is no ain, there is only the ineffable happening we call YHVH.

While we cannot say about this experience, we can sense that something happened. Somehow we are less afraid, more loving, more just, more compassionate. In Hebrew we call this reshimu, the fragrance of something no longer present but something no less real.

Imagine purchasing a bottle of expensive perfume, removing the stopper, and allowing the oil to evaporate over time. Eventually the perfume is gone, but even so the fragrance remains. I suggest that while none of us can articulate the deepest truth beyond language, we are all smelling the same fragrance, the aroma of the dynamic dancing of YHVH that arises as ain and ani over and over and over again.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A New Covenant

I am preaching at Christ Church in Calgary, Canada this morning, and thought I would share with you the message I will share with them.

Let me offer you a deeper reading of this morning’s passage from Jeremiah, one true to the Hebrew, though one you will not find in your English translations.

Be certain, declares the Only One of Being, a time of new covenanting is coming for the House of Israel and Judah, and this new covenant will be unlike the old made with your ancestors when I liberated them from the Narrows only to see them brake with freedom and abandon Me, their true Beloved.

This new covenant cannot be broken for I will place My Torah within you, and write it on your hearts, that I will be your Being and your Becoming, and you shall be My people. No longer will you teach one another, or admonish one another saying, “Know the One!” for you shall all know Me—from the least of you to the mightiest—for I will forgive your sins and forget your errors for ever. (Jeremiah 31: 31-34)

As Christians you may imagine Jeremiah is speaking of the covenant of Christ who died as ransom for your sins. I will not disabuse you of this reading, but I invite you to go more deeply into the text, to read it as rabbis do, and perhaps as Rabbi Jesus did.

In the beginning of this passage God admits failure: the old covenant written on stone was broken, but more importantly was breakable. This was a surprise to God: why would people newly liberated from Egypt—the Hebrew mitzrayim literally means the Narrow Places, the constricting places in which you and I are enslaved—opt over and over again to enslave ourselves? But we do. We are offered the endless love of the infinite Beloved and turn instead to the shallow passions stirred by our addictions: emotional, financial, cultural, ethnic, spiritual, religious, etc.

In Genesis 12:1–3 we are called to lech lecha, to journey inwardly as well as outwardly, and free ourselves from the enslavements and conditioning of nationality, ethnicity, religion, parental bias and the rest, and travel to a new place that the conditioned mind cannot see but that God will show us when we drop our conditioning, and there as free women and men to become strong and use our strength to be a blessing for all the families of the earth, human and otherwise, from the least to the mightiest.

And yet we abandon the journey, and seek to escape not from slavery but from freedom, and to “choose a new leader who will take us back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:4) The absolute love of God, a love that burns away the addictions to which we so desperately cling, is so frightening that many of us beg to return to slavery, and in so doing break the covenant of liberation made with our ancestors.

To correct this failure God plans to make a new covenant, an unbreakable convenant, unbreakable because it isn’t written on stone but on hearts. Yet the ancient rabbis wondered why God writes this new Torah “on our hearts” rather than “in our hearts.” Their answer is crucial for all of us.

The new Torah is on our hearts so that we may open our hearts to receive it. There is still work to be done: the heart—your heart—has to be opened to the covenant. But how? We Jews have our way. We call it Teshuvah and Tikkun, the Way of Returning and Repair: returning to our true nature as the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and Repairing the world with godliness. In this way we continue the process of lech lecha, the journey toward freedom and unconditionality, toward that place of liberation where we can be a blessing to all the families of the earth.

But you are not Jews, but Christians, and you have your own way, the way of the Cross. Not the Cross of Christ, the Cross of the institutional Church that teaches us that Christ died as ransom for our sins so that all we need do to open our hearts and receive the new covenant is to have faith in that act of absolute and infinite sacrifice, and worship the one who made it, but the cross of Jesus, the cross of resistance, the cross on which Rome crucified those who threatened its power and challenged its hegemony. Listen to the words of St. Paul on the nature of your way:

For our struggle is not against the people (flesh and blood), but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms, (Ephesians 6:12).

When you confront these powers do they roll over and surrender? No they crucify you. 

Jesus never said “worship me,” but only “follow me”: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me,” (Matthew 16:24). Turning from your selfish ways is the process of teshuvah—the Hebrew literally means turning; it is the lech lecha journey to freedom that frees you to be a blessing to the world, but at what cost? You and I, Christians and Jews, call this cost the Suffering Servant of God. You are taught that this refers to Christ alone, we Jews—and never forget that Jesus was a Jew—know that it is a cost each of us must pay on our own.

Jesus says “take up your cross” and follow him. Follow him where? To heaven that is the new covenant assuredly, but first to Golgotha, first to the crucifixion—not his alone, but yours. That is why you have to take up your cross, and not make a fetish of his cross.

Jesus is telling you that if you want to follow him you must do as he did and struggle against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces—the nonmaterial influences of our culture that sustain the rulers in their enslavement of the people. And in so doing you will die. And in dying your heart will break: Eli, Eli, lamah sabachtani; My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1; Mark 15:34). And with the breaking of your heart the Torah written on it slips within it, and the resurrection happens.

The resurrection is the day that is coming, the day of the new covenanting when you will do the work of Jesus and even surpass him (John 14:12), and the promise of God will be fulfilled because the godliness of free humans will transform the earth with love, compassion, justice, and peace. This is the promise. The only question you must answer is this: Do you have the courage to fulfill it?