The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
June 2015 – Vol. 18 Issue 4
“Prosperity and Poverty” was the theme addressed at the Fostering Interfaith Relationships on the Eastside potluck dialogue dinner on May 17th at Temple B’nai Torah, Bellevue. While believers hold varied opinions on the causes of and best responses to income disparity, representatives from several faiths shared how they interpreted their traditions.
Karma, compassion and the Middle Way are key ideas, according to Steve Wilhelm from the Tibetan and Theravada Buddhist traditions. First, all people are equal and equally sacred. The Buddha ignored the caste system and welcomed all to undertake the spiritual path. What is important is who we essentially are and who we become. Karma or “action” isn’t deterministic. Conditions in this life result from our past actions, but karma gives the possibility for change. Actions we take now can help ourselves and others. We need to grow in compassionate action that comes from the heart. Buddhist paintings illustrate compassion by showing beings with a thousand arms reaching out to help all beings. Whether rich or poor, we are all human beings and can help each other. We need to follow the Middle Way between extremes.
Catholic Sr Linda Haydock of the Interfaith Peace and Justice Center in Seattle began with Luke 4, where Jesus says that he came “to bring good news to the poor …, to proclaim to the captives release, and sight the blind; to set at liberty the oppressed, to proclaim … the day of recompense.” Since 1986 the US Bishops have issued a statement, “Economic Justice For All,” with ten principles. These include that the economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy; that economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine people’s life and dignity and serve the common good; that people have the right to the basics of life, productive work and unionizing; and that the global economy has moral dimensions and human consequences, so that decisions on investment, trade and development should protect human life and promote human rights, especially for those most in need wherever they may be around the world. She reminded us that we are all moral agents and so are responsible for bringing about a just economy and for contributing to the common good.
Rabbi David Lipper gave a Jewish perspective on poverty and economic justice along Biblical and practical lines. The Hebrew word for charity comes from the word for justice, and one moral standard applies to all people. Many Biblical texts tell us to open up our hands and help those who are vulnerable, and Jews seek to rebalance economic conditions through tithes and taxes used to help the poor, ill, children, strangers, etc. The unequal situation today was not created overnight, but came from people’s fear of each other and their fighting the reach the top position. Religion hopes to bring about harmony, but it is a very long process. We need to begin to see God in all others and realize that, on our human journey, until we’re all there, none of us is there.
The Muslim representative, Shama Omran, emphasized that God is responsible for the world’s inequities and that we should abandon jealousy and greed and strive for spiritual wealth and contentment. The Qur’an has many rules for the sharing of wealth and for taking care of the vulnerable. It also tells us to want for others what we want for ourselves.
Representing the Beauty Way of the Native Americans was Arlie Neskahi of the Dine’ Nation, Seattle, who spoke of a life in harmony with all things – not just family and other people, but with all that we see as well as the invisible spiritual elements that surround us. The widespread obsession with hierarchical pyramids and pecking orders, with wealth as a marker of divine privilege or favor, is invalid, as is the scientific view of life as a struggle for survival of the fittest. In contrast, Native Americans see around us a circle of life, an interdependent web of lives working together, all for all.
One question from the audience was: in light of your tradition, how do you see the trade-off between environmentalism and jobs? Pointing to the vast time scales found in Buddhism, Steve Wilhelm suggested that we take a more spacious view of life and not sacrifice long-term interests for short-term advantages. Rabbi Lipper said that for Jews, protecting the environment is a primary responsibility. The charge to Adam to have “dominion” over the earth implies responsibility for the earth, not control. Traditionally, produce had to be grown in fields where the corners were left for gleaning by the poor and that had to be left fallow at least one year out of seven so the land could replenish itself. While we have a responsibility to support family and help others, the environment is a higher priority. Arlie Neskahi pointed out that we are connected with the environment, and the consequence of being out of harmony with it is a lack of balance. We must regain our wisdom and share, taking care of the land and all life.
The enjoyable and stimulating evening ended with discussions around the large tables. Throughout, I was reminded of William Sloane Coffin’s remark that those who support the status quo prefer charity, which as a band-aide allows the present system with its abuses to continue; while those who seek to end problems demand justice, which reforms the systems which are causing the problems.
"Life is suffering," said the Buddha. But no one wants to suffer. How do we avoid it? Mystics say "let go the illusion of self and become at-one." Clinging to our narrowness is the self-made mortar cementing the bricks of our perceptual prison. Buddha said that the way to cessation of suffering is to let our sense of separate self go. He didn't say there would be no pain or problems, but that there would be no suffering because of them.
But can we stay at-one with the minnow and die in that form, or be at-one with the predator seeking its life? Can we go beyond to be at-one with Life, which informs them both? When the blackbird leaves the reed, can we deal with the hunger of Life as he gobbles insects, or is moved to mate? We cherish tender feelings about home and parenthood, but how about Life's passions and lusts? Are we repelled into locking ourselves in the narrow, illusory limitations of being only who and what we think we are or desire to be? It's relatively easy to be at-one when what you're being at-one with is 'nice.' How about when it's not? How far does our desire for understanding and at-oneness go? Are we stuck in an artificial Pollyanna world of uplift, light, joy, and goodness that excludes the tragic, dark, painful parts of life? That's understandable but . . . that would be at-two, not at-one. Being at-one means to be so with every hurt and unkindness as well as every act of compassion and song of joy. If I'm doing these things then I'm responsible for them. All of them. It's too easy to ignore wholeness and merely seek our own concept of perfection.
Then there's the question of how the One becomes the many. It seems, in one way, to be nonsense. The One simply is. It depends on how we, in our seeming separateness, look at It; which aspects we see and identify, or disidentify, with. Like light being wave and particle at the same time, depending on how we choose to measure it. But what is light, really? There's only one way to find out: drop our exclusive insistence on measuring it (thereby separating it from everything else) and become light itself – seeking to understand its quality, rather than explicating only its quantities. It is one Being, being all things, displaying Its infinite aspects that seem separate to us. We can take all imaginable measurements of a being – a person, blackbird, pond, or planet – but we'll still not know the qualities of universal experience embodied in the wholeness of that being – for here measurement is superfluous. Sure, my toe is different from my ear – you can even measure the differences – but they're both integral parts of the wholeness that I am, and if those parts fail to perceive, if not the actual wholeness, at least their own relationship to and responsibility for the well-being of the whole they'll begin to behave independently, rather than interdependently, as units rather than as unity. Each would seek its own narrow self-interest and damage the whole on which its well-being depends – even if it isn't conscious of that dependence.
Mystics say that history's great sages and seers are not separate from us. We are the great love of Jesus, the peace of Buddha, the wisdom of Lao-Tzu, if we allow it, for we are not separate. If conscious at-one-ment is our goal, we need to let perceptual barriers dissolve, in spite of the inbuilt cultural fear of losing control. Our desire to control is an ego attribute, a pronounced modern characteristic which rationalizes our fear of necessary spontaneity, even to the point of denying the validity of universally accepted practices and experiences. Can we stop clinging to our mistaken translation of differences into separateness? Can we find ways to look outside our narrow personal, cultural and even human bonds that limit us to what we think we desire? Samsara and nirvana are different states – but, according to the Buddha, they are not separate. Business and political perceptions are different from spiritual and religious perceptions, but they are not, and cannot be, separate.
A good example of the separate/different illusion may be something so common we often overlook it. A mother cradles her child, gazing with adoring love and bathing in the love beaming back to her – they're definitely different from one another, though because of the recently shared intimacy of residing in the same body, perhaps less so than the child and anyone else. So, they're two different beings yet . . . separate? No way! Look and you'll see.
Can we disentangle ourselves from our illusory web of desires and concepts – such as right, just, fair, control, good, and evil – and try to deal with Life in Its wholeness? For It is divinity singing (and crying) in the infinite plenitude of eternal Now – not contained by our concepts, limited by our minds, or even restricted to what we, personally, want It to be. It contains, and is, all. How much of It can we embrace? Better yet, how much of It will we consciously allow to embrace us?