Praying with the Poets: God Here, Now
Note: This is Part One of a three-part series.
When I didn't know myself
where were you?
Like the color in gold,
you were in me.
I saw in you,
lord white as jasmine,
the paradox of your being
without showing a limb.—Mahadeviyakka(1)
Every day, priests minutely examine the Dharma.
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon. —Ikkyu(2)
Religions often hold a tension between immanence and transcendence, the latter indicating that God or the Holy One, as Wholly Other, decisively extends beyond mundane reality, the conditioned, changing phenomena constituted in time and space. Such a vision is quite commonly seen in theistic traditions, with God or the Supreme understood as "being" far beyond the changing flux of created order. Versions of Buddhism suggest transcendence, too, as nirvana decisively trumps, as it were, conditioned reality. Indeed, nirvana, in early Buddhism, is the single unconditioned dharma or factor of existence. It is a "state" that finally transcends the shifting, unstable set of conditions that constitute phenomenal reality, and this includes, for Buddhists, our karmic predilections that lead to the cycle of suffering and rebirth known as samsara. The spacious dharma-field is unconditioned, a state or plane of reality beyond suffering and the crushing cycle of change.
At the same time, religions also point to the immanence of the divine, the belief that the divine—God, Brahman, Buddhanature, the Tao—is present right here, right now, often in hidden, even mysterious, ways. Years ago, I conducted prison poetry workshops, and once a participant remarked, "People are always looking for the parting of the Red Sea, but don't see the little miracles before their very eyes." He then recounted a story of finding an abandoned kitten on his front lawn, a discovery that ultimately drew him out of a suicidal depression; the kitten needed him, but he needed the kitten, too. By caring for her, he found himself engaged, attentive, and positive. "That kitten saved my life." His story vividly communicates an essential truth seen in the religions of the world, that grace or the holy presence is undeniably close, even if, at other times, it may feel painfully distant.
Later Buddhism, especially that informed by developments in Mahayana thought, very much becomes a religion with a highly immanent sensibility. Thinkers in this tradition extended certain strands of early Buddhist thought. The no soul doctrine—the absence of a permanent substrate of personality—for example, becomes extended in "emptiness" doctrine, the notion that nothing exists on its own terms; nothing emerges intrinsically or by its own power, nor does anything exist fully self-contained and self-enclosed. This way of seeing reality thus destabilizes the notion of separate, individual, independent entities and instead weaves a more inclusive identity, a union with all phenomena. For if I am not separate, isolated, and independent, then I am connected, related, and inter-dependent. Thus nothing and no one are irrelevant to us. We are united, connected. The unity of the all, in Mahayana, is understood to be a pristine expression of buddhanature or "suchness," that is, reality such as it is. And this pristine reality is available to us right here, right now. We don't have to go looking for it. This buddhanature suffuses, as it were, all phenomenal reality. Indeed, it is phenomenal reality. In this case, reality already is nirvanic, but it becomes samsaric under the spell of self-centeredness and ignorance.
Thomas A. Forsthoefel, Ph.D., is associate professor and chair of Religious Studies at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. He served as poet laureate of northwestern Pennsylvania (Erie County) 2010-2012. His work focuses on the religions and philosophies of India, and he has published numerous articles and has written or collaborated on several books, including, Knowing Beyond Knowledge: Epistemologies of Religious Experience in Classical and Modern Advaita, a study of cognitive dimension of religious experience in Hindu non-dualism; Gurus in America, an edited volume; Soulsong: Seeking Holiness, Coming Home, a cross cultural exploration of holiness; and Dalai Lama: Essential Writings.