Zorba the Monk – Ascending and Descending Approaches to the Devine

These remarks grow out of a talk Ginger gave a few weeks ago, when I asked her if she wouldn’t mind a “hostile question.” She had read us an account by a young meditator who faced the dilemma of choosing between what he saw as two poles: on the one hand, monastic renunciation and withdrawal from the world, and on the other, immersion in a more sensual, hedonistic life, like most of his peers. Although he acknowledged that he longed for some compromise, the thrust of his remarks was that he had to choose between “the bliss of renunciation” or the “guilt or blame” of a worldly life. I objected to the stark polarity, suggesting that the goal of most of us is not to disengage from worldly pursuits, but to engage in them more mindfully. That, at least, is what I had in mind. Dan Rigney summed it up with a trenchant question: “Can there be Zorba the Monk?”

Nikos Kazantzakis’s character Zorba the Greek throws himself into the fullness of life—its dilemmas, struggles, joys, pains, ambivalences. He celebrates and dances through it all—the “full catastrophe” of it. With that notorious phrase, Zorba was describing his marriage—“wife, house, kids, everything,” he says. But metaphorically, as John Kabat-Zinn reminds us, he was referring to the whole of embodied human experience, which he exuberantly lives out and celebrates. So Dan’s question, as I took it, was this: Can we engage life fully, in the social world as we know it, and still be right with Spirit, still aim for divine connection, even “bliss”?

I’m basing my remarks tonight not primarily on Buddhist teachings, although we’ll speak of them, but on the material that’s the focus of my attention: we call the field “transpersonal studies.” It looks at spirituality from a contemporary, scientifically informed point of view, sharing a kinship with religious studies and spiritual psychology.

Let me begin with some very broad strokes. In that field these days, there is a distinction drawn between what are referred to as “Ascending” and “Descending” approaches to the divine (see Daniels, 26-9). In this view, the Great Axial Age— the epoch of the Buddha, Moses, Socrates, from, say, 800-200 BCE—marked a radical shift in how humanity thinks of spirituality. This is the epoch that gave rise to the great world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, eventually Christianity and Islam—which are designated as “post-Axial.” With them comes the notion of a hierarchy of being, moving upwards from matter to mind to spirit. Spirit is supernatural, literally, above nature. It is located in transcendent realms, and in the great world religions, salvation or transformation is conceived of as moving up the ladder, towards Transcendence, essentially leaving behind the lower realms of matter and worldly life. With that often comes a denigration of the body: “brother ass,” as St. Francis of Assisi had it, beaten, in his case, by self-flagellation.

Pre-axial religions, those in place before the Axial Age, such as animism and shamanism, are largely Descending. They view the divine not as above nature and the world, but as imbedded in it: the divine interpenetrates the natural world. Spirituality is part of the fabric of nature and the earth. Transformation is sought not by leaving the world, but rather by greater connection, a deeper order of connection, with nature, other people, the body. Ascending religions, then, emphasize a transcendent sacred, descending ones, an immanent sacred.

A touchtone, to be sure, is attitudes towards the erotic: With the notable exception of some rather renegade Tantric Asian traditions, Ascending religions largely flee from erotic energy, casting it almost as the opposite of transcendence, a dangerous binding to the lower orders of nature, in need of strict policing and repression. Flesh is the opposite of spirit. Descending traditions, on the other hand, are more inclined to view the erotic as the sacred pulse of life itself: life-force, the divine energy that gives rise to all reality. Spirit and flesh are interconnected. The thrust of this basic distinction in transpersonal studies is often to suggest that modern spiritual life could use a greater dose of the Descending traditions.

Now these are very broad and simplistic categories, and any religious tradition is likely to be, in some measure, a mix of both. The fundamental virtues of the Buddhist tradition are Wisdom and Compassion: Wisdom may be seen as an Ascending quality, Compassion as a Descending one. Nevertheless, like other post-Axial religions, Buddhism has had to face shadow elements of its Ascending orientation.

I think of Jack Kornfield’s account of his return to the West after five years at a forest monastery in Thailand, where his only possessions were a robe and a bowl, where lived on a single meal in the day and watched bodies burning on the charnel grounds at night. At Elizabeth Arden’s beauty parlor on Fifth Avenue in New York, confronted by women in rollers with avocado green goo smeared on their faces, he had an epiphany in which he realized that he would have to, as he put it, “find a way to reconcile the ancient and wonderful teachings I had received at the Buddhist monastery with the ways of our modern world” (PH, 4). “In joining the monastery,” he confessed, “I had hoped to leave behind the pain of my family life and the difficulties of the world, but of course they followed me. It took many years for me to realize that these difficulties were part of my practice” (PH, 5).

Once back, finding that the monastery, for all its value, left him unprepared for challenges of relationship, intimacy, and life in the modern world, he undertook studies in clinical psychology and began work as a psychotherapist as well as meditation teacher. Too many meditation students, he found, try to use spiritual practice “to escape from their lives…, to avoid the pains of difficulties of human existence,” as he himself had done (PH, 6). The focus of his own teachings in the West, would be to apply the fruits of spiritual practice in daily life, as we live it in the world.

Given our framework of Ascending and Descending traditions, it is interesting to hear how Jack portrays his own personal development. “My own practice,” he writes, “has been a journey downward, in contrast to the way we usually think of our spiritual experiences. Over these years I’ve found myself working my way down the chakras (the spiritual energy centers of the body) rather than up” (PH, 6). In his first ten years of practice, he developed concentration, insights, and had visions and revelations. But back home, driving a taxi, working at a mental hospital, going to graduate school, living communally, and especially forming an intimate relationship, he discovered his emotional immaturity. “[M]y meditation,” he confessed, “had helped me very little with my human relationships…. I could do loving-kindness meditations for a thousand beings elsewhere but had terrible trouble relating intimately to one person here and now….  I had very few skills for dealing with my feelings or… for living wisely with my friends and loved ones” (PH, 6-7).

So down the chakras he went, descending from mind to heart, and then further.

As for his body, Jack says  that he had used it rather than inhabited it (PH, 7). Finally, he comes to a different vision of his spiritual practice, one that includes, as he puts it, “all of life, the relationships we hold, and the environment that sustains us” (PH, 8); it includes “our bodies, our families, our society, politics, the earth’s ecology, art, education. Only then can spirituality be truly integrated into our lives” (PH, 9-10). Jack is striving for a spirituality grounded in personal experience of life, in heart and body.

Most of us know Zorba the Greek through the 1964 film, with Anthony Quinn in the title role and Alan Bates as Basil, the cerebral, English-born, aspiring but unproductive writer. In the film, we’re never told what Basil is trying to write about, but in the novel it is a significant theme: his subject, in fact, is Buddhism. Kazantzakis is a subtle and complex novelist, and there may be various levels to his assessment of Buddhism. But for Basil, Buddhism is, in our terms, an almost purely Ascending tradition, rather cold and removed from worldly life, too associated with Basil’s saying “no,” with his excessive self-control. It is almost the polar opposite, a foil, to Zorba’s Descending exuberance, his “yes” to what comes his way.

Among his pastimes, Zorba is a musician, with rhythm in his bones, devoted to his santuri, and a miner, who digs in the earth—“a great brute soul,” says Basil in the novel, “not yet severed from mother earth” (19). He is earthiness itself, intuitively attuned to nature, people, and the rhythms of incarnate life. No one in the story understands more instinctively the contours of the land, the charms and threats of the sea, the dynamics of human relationships in the village. Unlike Basil, he is fully in the moment. He is also unapologetically eroticized, an enthusiastic womanizer who loves all women, of any stripe, as an expression of feminine archetype. Zorba constantly pushes the reluctant Basil to make love to the village’s beautiful widow, chiding him, for example, for going to the local church on Christmas, instead of visiting the widow, whom Zorba sees longs for him. “If God went your way,” says Zorba, “there would be no Christmas. He did not go to church; he went to Mary, and Christ was born.”

At the same time, no one in the story comes closer to certain Buddhist ideals. Zorba is unattached, to possessions, and to the success of his projects. No one shows greater compassion: for Basil, for the widow—whom at the risk of his own life he tries to save from a vengeful, church-going mob—and for the dying Mdm. Hortense, the foreign onetime cabaret singer, now far past her prime, who is spurned by everyone around her. His judgment is not perfect, because life is too complex to be controlled: His mining effort for Basil ends in a crashing failure, and Basil’s encounter with the widow ultimately contributes to her murder by the villagers. But Zorba has supreme resilience: He welcomes the fullness, the full catastrophe of life, with all its joys and all its sorrows—and all its rhythms. He dances, dances in ecstasy, dances in despair, dances his total acceptance of what is. And that is how the story ends: “Teach me,” Basil finally asks him, “to dance.” He does—and that, not Buddhism, is Basil’s redemption.

So can there be Zorba the Monk, combining sacred bliss with earthy sensuality? Certainly there have been teachers in the West who have consciously tried to strike the balance, or live in both. A prime Buddhist example is Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tantric Tibetan proponent of “crazy wisdom.” Trungpa was a reincarnate lama and masterful teacher who shed his robes and plunged into Western ways, not excluding Zorba’s favorites of sex and alcohol. Trungpa might have quoted Zorba, who said, “a man needs a little madness, or else he will never cut the ropes and be free.”

I suspect that Dan, when he asked his question in our sangha, knew of another Tantric Eastern teacher in the West, who explicitly tried to find the balance between the poles of Kazantzakis’s novel. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, had Hindu roots, but drew strongly on Buddhist traditions. “My disciple,” he said, “has to be Zorba the Buddha. Man is body and soul together. Both have to be satisfied.” Trungpa and Osho may be extreme examples—they are certainly controversial ones—but both, I’d argue, were masters of Buddhist psychology, Buddhist practice, and Buddhist understanding of reality, and they spoke deeply to many intelligent seekers.

“…[B]ody and soul together. Both” as Jack Kornfield learned, “have to be satisfied.” For a full and authentic spiritual life, both must be engaged. But in the end, I would say, the difficulty is that there is no consistent and proper, universally valid balance between those poles. Everyone’s authentic path incorporates some elements of both Ascending and Descending approaches to spirituality, but which elements any one of us needs depends not only on universal human nature; it depends, too, on our unique and individual combination of tastes, proclivities, and experience. Some hear the call and the music of a more transcendent divine, some of a more immanent one; each of us, necessarily, responds to a distinct set of chords, a different melody of integration. But in that grand, full cacophony of spirituality, there must be a place, I have no doubt, for Zorba the Monk.


Daniels, Michael, Shadow, Self, Spirit: Essays in Transpersonal Psychology (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2005).
Kabat-Zinn, Jon, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness (New York, NY: Delacorte Press, 1990).
Kazantzakis, Nikos, Zorba the Greek, trans. by Carl Wildman (Oxford, UK: Bruno Cassirer, 1959).
Kornfield, Jack, A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1993).