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Humanism and Religion – part 2

The principal reason why some religious teachers are not humanistic is because they distrust human nature and have a pessimistic view of human beings. These religious teachers tend to downplay the humanity of the founders of their religions, emphasing their superhuman or even divine qualities. 

Traditional Christianity teaches that due to our Fall from the grace of Eden, humanity is in a state of sin and that this original sin passes from one generation to another as part of our human nature. The only redemption is considered to be through Christ, whose nature is believed to combine divinity with humanity. Therefore traditionally Christians were encouraged not to rely on or trust their corrupt human nature but instead to rely on the divine Christ their saviour.

In Buddhism there are different understandings of how human Gautama Buddha was. While all schools accord him a special status as the ‘wheel turning’ Buddha who presented the Dharma (doctrine/law) for his age, some schools play down the significance of his own human struggle in this life, claiming that he was already an enlightened being at birth and that he merely ‘manifested’ his actions of ascetism followed by meditation under the bodhi tree as a kind of act. 

There is a strand in Buddhism which distrusts human nature on the grounds that it is ‘samsaric’, the karmic product of impure causes and conditions, and contends that to achieve the ultimate fruits of the spiritual path we must abandon our ordinary human bodies and impute ourselves instead on subtle bodies of light. While developing and associating with our higher energies and potentials is surely a good thing, there can be a danger that practitioners will distrust and become alienated from their normal human urges and energies, which would not be a humanistic approach.

Unlike Christianity, Islam has a fundamentally positive attitude towards human nature. Muslims believe that, although Adam and Eve fell from the garden, their human nature was not corrupted or tarnished. Therefore there is no original sin passed from one generation to the next. Instead, Muslims believe that everyone is born with their basic purity (fitra) intact and it only through the vagaries of our upbringings and the difficulties of the world that we develop sin and alienation. Because of this basic postive view of human nature Islam does not require renunciation of the body. Therefore “there is no monasticism in Islam” unlike in Christianity and Buddhism. Bodily urges such as sexual desires are considered fundamentally healthy and to be enjoyed within “marriage [which] is half of the religion”.

No Muslim would claim that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was divine, because the fundamental tenet of Islam is that “there is no god but God, without partners”. Muhammad is considered fully human, the best of creation, and a perfect model for believers. God said to Muhammad ﷺ “but for you I would not have created the world” because Muhammad, as the perfect human (al-Insan al-Kamil), is most able to appreciate God’s truth, beauty, and love.

Through emulating and loving Muhammad ﷺ, Muslims are able to share in his grace and experience something of the truth, beauty, and love he experienced. This is why the following story of  Muhammad ﷺ and his companion ‘Umar (later the 2nd Caliph) is recounted: “We were with the Prophet and he took the hand of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab. ‘Umar said to Him, “O Messenger of God, you are dearer to me than everything except my own self.” The Prophet said, “No, by Him in Whose Hand my soul is, (you will not have complete faith) until I am dearer to you than your own self.” Then ‘Umar said to him, “By God, it is now that you are dearer to me than my own self.” The Prophet said, “Now, O Umar (your faith is complete).”

The point here is that the Muhammadan nature is the essence of human nature, and that by embracing this nature we fully embrace our humanity and are able to experience all its peace and blessings. We do not need to deny our humanity, but we do need to efface our normal, limited sense of self in order to achieve closeness to God, and become like his beloved.

To efface ourselves in Muhammad ﷺ we need to transcend our personality but not our humanity because Muhammad ﷺ is the epitome of humanity. Also, because Muhammad ﷺ was suffused with light (noor) we will find that, by cherishing him, our humanity becomes suffused with light and takes on a higher quality.

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Can We Attain Liberation In This World?

In his Lojong teachings Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that we can see this world as a Pure Land of Buddha, because for a Lojong practitioner every situation provides a perfect training opportunity. However in his Mahamudra teachings Geshe Kelsang emphasizes the impurity of this world.

During his Mahamudra teachings in the summer of 2007 Geshe Kelsang taught about sleep. He said that sleep is a subtle mind which causes sense awareness to cease. While awake we use our five sense awarenesses but

“these sense awarenesses, normally, for ordinary beings, always perceive inherently existent forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile objects”.

These are the five objects of desire.

“We are like flies, always wanting, seeking these objects.”

Our mind is always grasping at these objects, therefore we have no opportunity to experience inner peace during waking, instead we experience unpleasant feelings such as worry, attachment, anger and dissatisfaction.

“We are like a negative person during waking.”

When we sleep our gross minds such as our sense awarenesses cease. All the problems we experience during waking cease. Deep sleep activates our very subtle mind, which functions to perceive emptiness (shunyata), but we cannot recognize it because we have insufficient mindfulness. Therefore we need to train in Mahamudra meditation to activate our very subtle mind during waking. This involves trying to replicate the sleep process by causing our sense awarenesses and other gross minds to cease. (Please see Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books Mahamudra Tantra or Clear Light of Bliss for a detailed explanation.)

Geshe Kelsang says that the path to liberation taught in Mahamudra Tantra is different from that taught in Sutra, because in his Sutra teachings the Buddha never mentions subtle or very subtle minds. In fact, in the Sutras the Buddha teaches that liberation (nirvana) can be attained by working with our normal (i.e. gross) perceptions. For example, in the Rohitassa Sutta (Samyutta-Nikaya (I, ii, 3.6)) Rohitassa, the some of a god (deva) asks the Buddha if there is some place

“where, lord, does one not get born, nor grow old, nor die, nor leave one’s sphere for another, nor get reborn? Now is one able, lord, by walking to come to know the end of the world, or to see it, or to get there?”. The Buddha replies that there is no such place, but that “it is in this fathom-long carcass [i.e. the human body], friend, with its impressions and its ideas that, I declare, lies the world, and the cause of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the course of action that leads to the cessation of the world.”

In the Sutras the Buddha therefore recommends, as a path to liberation, meditative practices which work with our normal sense perceptions and mental awarenesses, such as the four ‘close-placements of mindfulness’. (For more information on these close-placements please read the book Satipatthana – The Direct Path to Realization by Ven. Analayo.)

The idea that this body is a suitable basis for achieving liberation is in accordance with the Abrahamic religions. At the core of all of these religions is God’s creation of Adam and Eve in His own image or form. According to Muslim tradition God fashioned man from clay and then breathed life into him. Muslims believe that man has a privileged place in creation because God taught man “all the names” (Qur’an:2:31).

“To say that God created man in his own form implies that man’s meaning is designated by God’s all-comprehensive name, which denotes both the Essence and all the divine attributes. When the Qur’an says God taught Adam “all the names,” this means that he taught him all the names of God and creation. These names designate God as the One/Many, the single Essence that comprehends all reality, what Ibn ‘Arabi commonly calls “the Divine Presence”.” (from Ibn ‘Arabi – Heir to the Prophets by William C. Chittick, OneWorld 2005, p74).

It is because God taught man “all the names” that man has the potential to achieve perfection (i.e. liberation).