A Talk for Insight Meditation Houston

March 18,  2024 – Covenant Church

In this sangha, we refine our practice of Vipassana meditation and review basic teachings of the Buddhist dharma, with an eye, especially, towards their application in our daily lives. As valuable as that is, I often find myself trying to cast a wider purview, thinking about the nature of spiritual life in general and what our approach might have in common with other religious traditions.

In his classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James states that religious life, wherever it is found—at its core—includes two basic notions: “1. That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;[and] 2. That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end….” (VRE, 475). Achieve some communion with that higher universe, says James, and our lives gain a “new zest,” a sense of “safety” and “peace,” and what he calls “a preponderance of loving affections.” Whatever their endless differences in doctrine and practice, major religions, in their higher expressions, encompass those assumptions.

In this generalized spiritual outlook, that higher universe, however we conceive of it, is seen as intelligent, as having an infinitely greater intelligence than our own. It guides our reality, and the greatest wisdom available to us is to seek out and submit to its guidance. In traditional philosophical terms, that higher universe has will, and wisdom consists in submitting our limited human will to that higher one. In the Christian gospel of Luke, Jesus, praying “in agony” on the eve of his crucifixion, says “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22: 42, 44). For the purposes of tonight’s talk, I refer to that subordination of individual, human will to a higher will as “surrender” and suggest that it is the basic key to spiritual life, whatever form that life may take.   

Surrender, of course, is understood in different ways and with differing degrees of subtlety. Scholars of religious make a distinction between mystical and popular branches of religious traditions. In popular religion, prayer and ritual are often aimed at propitiating the gods, attempting to muster divine will in service of human desires: to bring us health or wealth or achievement or some social advantage. “Oh Lord,” says a satirical Janice Joplin, “won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” In mystical experience, there is a realization that Divine intelligence and will are far beyond our worldly conceptions, and cannot be rendered in human terms. Founders of great religions are often seen by scholars as mystics whose ineffable insights are later reduced to common language, and inevitably distorted, by well-meaning followers who take their words as dogma.

The gap between experiential mystical insight and human efforts to formulate it is sharply recognized in Taoism. The opening words of the Tao Teh Ching are “The Tao that can be told is not the Tao. Words cannot describe it.” The effort of Taoism, however, is to encourage surrender to, compliance with, the Tao—the Way, the Truth, the deeper Nature of Reality—or in more Westernized terms, Divine will, letting go of the illusion that human will can control our lives. “The world” says the Tao Teh Ching, “is won by those who let it go, But when you try and try / The world is then beyond the winning.”

The notion of surrender pervades Hindu scriptures and teachings. Take for example, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which was compiled in the fourth century. Here is a modern summation of its core message: “In this text, Patanjali sings the praises of surrender as the prerequisite to self-realization…. Rather than cling to our willful thoughts and attempt to control reality, we’re encouraged to live in a state of surrender, listening to what life is telling us, moving in the direction where we’re being guided—all the while aware of an intelligence superior to the cogitating, ego-driven mind…. Surrender begins with the acknowledgement that a higher power is running the cosmos and animating our personal life” (Mark Matousek, Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation and Self-Discovery, Kindle edition, pp. 138-39).

Like Jesus “in agony” in the garden of Gethsemane, these traditions acknowledge that submission to a higher will implies the acceptance of suffering. Reality does not give us a life free of pain, however much our individual wills might crave it.

But in all these traditions, it is in part through suffering that we gain the liberation of wisdom. Patanjali wrote, “To him who possesses discernment, all personal life is misery, because it ever waxes and wanes” (Book II, no. 15).

All things, in other words, are impermanent. Surely it is Buddhism that most fully focuses on suffering, and the management of it, as the path to liberation. The first noble truth is dukkha, often translated as suffering; the second is the cause of suffering, which is attachment, our craving for what, in the face of impermanence, can never be fully possessed. The other cause of suffering is ignorance, which we might see as a failure to comprehend and accept the fluid nature of all temporal reality. To adopt my terminology, we might frame those Buddhist insights as saying, that suffering comes from favoring our human desires over Divine will, over the built-in order of a more spiritual universe. The first element in the Eightfold Path is Right View, which we might define as understanding the futility of that attachment—understanding, that is, the need to surrender.

We learn the truth of that, in part, by our own encounters with suffering.

Contemporaneous with the Buddha, in the Western world, is the rise of classical Greek civilization, whose greatest art form was Greek tragedy. The central theme of a Greek tragedy is typically the destructive character of hubris, which is, precisely, the assertion of an individual will against the dynamic of cosmic order. Greek tragedy depicts the disaster that results. But its characters realize that inexorable truth by living through their own pains, their conflicts with the world, which won’t behave as they want. They find that their lives are governed by an intelligence far greater than their own. Consider these lines from Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy, in his play “Agamemnon”: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.”

In Christianity, surrender is embedded in the notion of Divine Providence. St. John of Damascus defines it: “Providence,” he wrote, “is Divine will which maintains everything and wisely rules over everything.” The notion is prominent in Augustine and Aquinas and Luther, in Eastern and Western orthodoxies, in Catholicism and Protestantism. Our charge on this earth is to understand, and comply, with the providence of God, even as we make legitimate efforts to improve our individual and collective lives. Recall the popular Serenity Prayer, written by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.” Wisdom, in this perspective, is knowing when to fight, and when to surrender.

In Islam, the very name of the religion, “Islam,| means “surrender,” and “Muslims” are those who have surrendered, who have resigned their will to God’s will, achieving personal peace. “But you shall not will,” says the Koran, “unless God will” (76:30). Says the scholar of religion Mark Nygard, “Surrender to God is seen by Muslims as the defining characteristic of their faith, basic to their own sense of identity as Muslims and the touchstone of their sense of unity” (https://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/13_3_PDFs/05_Nygard.pdf). The practices known as the Five Pillars of Islam aim towards that end. Conflicts within the Muslim religion are often driven by differing interpretations of that fundamental principle, of how it should be judged, and of its effect in the community. But all factions acknowledge the principal of surrender itself. Mystical union, says the eleventh-century Sufi mystic al-Ghazali, “means that God and man are in harmony, and that man’s heart reflects God” (Nygard, 129).

This spiritual orientation common to all these traditions, mind you, stands in contrast to philosophical materialism, which is the dominant posture in Western intellectual life. In the materialistic outlook, consciousness is a product of physical processes—and its highest form emerges from biological structures and electrical impulses in the human brain. Notions of a pervasive intelligence in the cosmos—of a “more spiritual universe” that gives significance and guidance to our lives—are seen as an illusion of a pre-scientific world.

Inevitably, we take our own measure of that cosmic intelligence—we decide for ourselves whether it exists or not—by judging whether it has effects in our own individual lives. The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote an essay with the cumbersome title “Transcendent Speculation on the Apparent Deliberateness in the Fate of the Individual.” There he makes the argument for a greater cosmic intelligence, taking an attitude that we might call “spiritual but not religious.” “Belief in a special providence,” he wrote, “or else in a supernatural guidance of the events in an individual’s life, has at all times been universally popular, and even with thinkers who are averse to all superstition it is occasionally found firm and unshaken and entirely unconnected with any definite dogmas…. We recognize therein the hand of providence and this most clearly when it has led us to a fortunate destiny against our own insight and even in ways that we abominate” (Schopenhauer, pp. 1-2). As we age, Schopenhauer goes on to suggest, we can look back on our lives and see what seems like a well-planned story with a consistent theme. Seemingly random and accidental events, even ones which we consciously and passionately opposed, even ones felt as disasters, appear in retrospect to have a place in the pattern and unfolding coherence and lessons of our lives.

I offer the example of a contemporary Western, Hindu-influenced devotee. Lately, I’ve been preparing for a course that Ginger and I will teach at the Jung Center, focusing on Ram Dass. In 1997, at the height of his career as a teacher of Asian spiritual ideas and practices, Ram Dass suffered a massive cerebral hemorrage. He was given only a ten percent chance to live. While he survived, the stroke vastly diminished his capacity for movement and speech. At first it instilled fear, and a doomed struggle to regain his former skills. But then, Ram Dass surrendered. “Healing,” he has said, “does not mean going back to the way things were before, but rather allowing what is now to move us closer to God” (Still Here, p. 5). He began to see how the stroke intensified his spiritual awareness and his connection with his own deceased guru, who, he felt, still guided his life—and perhaps sent the stroke. It allowed him to sense more deeply his connection to divine unity, to his spiritual essence, and to his physical body. From the confrontation with fear, pain, paralysis, and the nearness of death came a greater, grounded wisdom and a greater appreciation of the love that surrounded him. Ram Dass began to talk of himself not as victim of a stroke but, with a smile, as having been “stroked.” The stroke was “fierce grace.” “Instead of will,” he wrote, “I’ve found in myself a peaceful surrender to the karmic unfolding of my life” (Still Here, p. 194).

To close these remarks, let me return to William James, whose philosophical stance we might now characterize as “spiritual but not religious.” In 1895, he gave a talk to the Harvard Young Men’s Christian Association titled “Is Life Worth Living?” In it, he acknowledged the suffering that all must endure, and even raised the question, why not commit suicide? He found no respite in the philosophical materialism that was rising in his day and continues dominant in ours. But he had emerged from his own despair by taking refuge not in old religious doctrines and superstitions, but by seeing that physical nature, as science then understood it, is, as he put it, “only one portion of the total universe,” and that it is an unseen and in that sense spiritual context, however dimly we understand it, that establishes “the true significance of our present mundane life” (The Will to Believe, p. 51). He characterized our connection with that spiritual context in a passing phrase that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it, and that, I would say, captures our theme of surrender. Spiritual life, thought James, consists in the striving for “acquiescence and communion with the total soul of things” (The Will to Believe, p. 40, Ital. mine).

I thank you for your kind attention, and I invite you to think for a moment about whether you might have found, in your own life, instances in which, perhaps, in retrospect, a greater intelligence than your own conscious one might have prevailed over your intentions—and led you to a fortunate destiny against your own desires—bringing wisdom, we might say, “by the awful grace of God.”