On Sunday, I was joined by Jay Michaelson for a scintillating, deep, and passionate dialog entitled “Evolving Dharma—and Evolving Practitioners”.
At the beginning of our conversation I asked Jay about the “panentheist” vision at the heart of his earlier book, Everything Is God.
The most common, quick definition of panentheism is that it sees the Divine as “both immanent and transcendent”, or as Jay put it, “both everything and nothing.” (Or should those words be capitalized: “both Everything and Nothing”? And what is the meaning and significance of the distinction between the capitalized and the small-case “E” and “N”?)
Jay began his spiritual journey as a Jewish-American steeped in the sophistication of contemporary scientific humanist culture, so he turned to the riches of his own tradition and did deep study and practice of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. He also experimented with various other practices, including Sufi and shamanic practices, before more recently devoting himself to serious Buddhist meditative practice, mostly in the Theravadin tradition. His new book, Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment tells the story of that most recent leg of his journey.
Thus, comparing our experiences as two contemporary mystics, we pushed into the dispositional differences between us.
I spoke for what Jay calls “the additive path”, which leads to astonished grateful recognition of the luminous Mystery of every moment of existence.
Jay spoke for what he calls “the subtractive path”, which “sees through” and deconstructs all beliefs, ideas and attitudes, even those that are born in high meditative states, leading to radical simplicity and peace.
This was not a debate but an exploration, always in a spirit, as Jay put it, “of radical pluralism and ecumenism”.
Jay pointed out the closeness of “Everything and Nothing” and “everything and nothing” but also the clear distinction between them.
He described his experiences of ecstatic recognition of the Divine, mostly expressed through his panentheist Jewish practice, and his experience of the jhanas, the blissful states of concentrated meditation in the Theravadin path. In the first, he interpreted these states to be a direct experience of the Divine nature of existence; in the second, he interpreted very similar states as simply being states of mind, to which he didn’t need to attach any significance.
So I asked, “Isn’t something important lost?” Most of us take up the path with a serious intention to be free of suffering. It sounded to me like Jay was back in the same mundane ordinariness, changed now only by a focused mind and acceptance of experience that confers lucid, agnostic simplicity. Looking at this from the place of my panentheist realization—grateful, delighted apprehension of the radiant transcendental beneficent Mystery that pervades and transcends me and everything—it seems reductive, spare, spartan, and unattractive.
Jay and I leaned in to this inquiry of whether something is lost and clarified the bottom line behind his intuition: because high states come and go, Jay feels freed up by a realization of a peace that rests on absolutely no ideas or feelings—it is far more robust, enduring, and therefore, frees him more completely from suffering.
But he took pains not to frame this as a debate in which we were arguing over which realization was “better” (the kind of thing over which wars have been fought and incredible suffering has been inflicted.) Jay prefers to frame it as a matter of style, soul-character, or karma. He feels that we’re all brothers and sisters, each needing to discover what vehicle can lead us to freedom, wisdom, compassion, and joy. Even in the midst of his attraction to the unadorned simple freedom of Theravadin realization he sometimes feels attracted to practices that are more juicy and ecstatic.
But he loves staying with bare experience, free of interpretations. Why call it “consciousness coming to know itself”? According to Jay (and Theravadin practice) that’s an interpretive layer that’s being placed on top of the naked experience.
So at the end his position is this: the rigor of the discipline of attention and the release into free awareness conferred by his Theravadin mindfulness and concentration practice frees him up radically. He finds himself resting in a simple ground of awareness that presumes nothing and that’s completely compatible with contemporary rational agnosticism. There, he’s able to rest with unthreatened ease, believing in and depending on no assumptions, not thinking his experience is anything significant—in fact nothing more than the consequence of the awakening of wisdom, compassion and joy into his individual life. In this, there’s radical depth of peace and confidence available to him via this “subtractive dharma” (which persistently subtracts beliefs, interpretations, significance, etc.)
Jay turned it around, acknowledging that Mahaya and Vajraya Buddhists think this is deficient. They would say, hey, you’re surrounded by luminous awareness and you refuse to pick your head up and look directly at the obvious implication of your experience—that the consciousness looking out through your eyes is not just yours but universal consciousness.
But according to Jay, there’s room for both views in an evolving dharma. For the individual, “It comes down to which practice works best for your particular hunger? We come to practice because of suffering. If there’s a different skillful means that leads to the end of suffering, then by all means, pursue it.”
I found this quite satisfying, and it took me in two directions. One was to acknowledge Jay for his confession of appreciation for fullness, for my tears of amazed gratitude at the exalted holiness of existence. Because of this I felt like I was speaking with a fellow, with a brother.
That led me to appreciate the implications of his acknowledging that his experience may evolve across the course of his life of practice. Is it a richer journey if it freely moves from one to another point of view regarding this and perhaps other paradoxically profound polarities? Why would it be richer? Because in moving freely, it is implicitly locating itself in a bigger reality than any of those perspectives—in a universal, non-rigid, non-exclusive spirituality. Perhaps we can commit ourselves fully to our current path on the journey, but with a transformed disposition because we feel free to reexamine that commitment, and perhaps to move into other practices and realizations, appreciating that a fixation on particular dharmic “truths” will tend to calcify and limit us, knowing that the aliveness and infinite possibility of the present moment are the very essence of the Tao.
Jay agreed, distinguishing this from mere postmodern relativism. He said in fact, “That’s our contribution as Westerners. I’m not an orthodox believer in any of the traditions in which I’ve practiced. What’s interesting about dharma is that it is evolving. This is one of the ways in which Western dharma is building on the traditions it has received. We’re interested to really “get” and “inhabit” the many worldviews that populate our world.”
We went on from here to explore what is lost and gained by each approach, each “part” of the “whole body of enlightenment”.
Then we looked more specifically at additional topics:
—The cultural transformation being worked by the mainstreaming and scientific legitimization of yoga and meditation
—The values and problems of our postmodern sampling and mixing of our different identities
—The pluses and minuses of sampling and mixing of different paths and practices
—The pitfalls of working with a strong teacher or Guru—and the pitfalls of not doing so!
I hope our dialogue will clarify your practice and enlarge your appreciation of what’s involved in the evolution of dharma and practice. Please listen in and enjoy!