Category Archives: Spirituality & Religion

SOCRATES, The Original Western Guru Blog Post #5

Bodhisattva

Japonese

  The Importance and True Nature of LOVE

When I initially gave this presentation on the spiritual aspects of Socrates’ teachings to the Santa Fe Philosophical Meetup I included a section called “The Importance and True Nature of Love.” At the time, this topic seemed self-explanatory and I think I glossed over it very quickly in my talk. Now, in expanding on that talk through these blog entries I feel overwhelmed at the complications involved in talking about “Love.”

I will be honest: the topic of “LOVE” and how it fits into either Socrates’ or any of the threads of Eastern spirituality that I am familiar with is just too big for this tiny blog. The word “love,” in English, has so many different uses and connotations and from what I know there isn’t such a catch-all LOVE word used in either Socrates’ or the ancient Buddhist scriptures.

 

 

My original intention in including the topic of “LOVE” in my talk was to bring up “love,” as in, “love your neighbor.” In the West we often associate the highest connotations of the word, “love,” with Jesus’s teachings. So in asserting that Socrates also taught a “love” similar to what is found in the Gospels was an underhanded way of connecting philosophy with religion. But of course, I am not prepared to prove that type of connection here. So I actually bit off more than I am prepared to chew by introducing the idea of “Love” into this discussion.

I am left to give only with a few vague hand gestures around the “Love” connection between Socrates and Eastern spirituality. And I only provide one quote from Plato’s Republic (ch. III) for them:

“The right kind of love is by nature the love of order and beauty . . the right kind of love has nothing mad or licentious about it. . . . sexual pleasure mustn’t come into it.”

Sound like a quote from the Buddha?  Does to me, if you allow Socrates use of the word “beauty” to mean not the low forms of beauty (the sensuous) but the high forms of beauty (what is noble, peaceful, balanced, infinite . . the unconditioned).

Advertisements

SOCRATES, The Original Western Guru Blog Post #3: EVERYTHING IS CHANGING, MOVING (Impermanent)

 

One of the cornerstones of all spiritual thought is the recognition of the fleeting nature of material existence. Eastern spirituality is known for its argument against attaching oneself too strongly to material existence because existence is constantly changing. This attention to “IMPERMANENCE” is a central teaching of the Buddha among other Eastern gurus. Impermanence is one of the principle focuses of the Buddhist Vipassana style meditation, the idea being that detachment to all types of “possessions” comes automatically as the impermanence or changing nature of all things is seen during meditation. This type of detachment frees us from suffering and opens us up to transcendental experiences and knowledge, so Eastern spirituality has repeatedly taught. I will add quotes from Eastern spiritual scriptures to support this later on. For now, I want to show how Socrates’ ideas are similar.

Before I list and explain quotes of Socrates however, I want to warn the reader that the connection between Socrates ideas and the similar ideas from Eastern scriptures is far from obvious. Socrates taught the idea of impermanence in his own way and the terms he used might not be immediately understandable to a person familiar with the corresponding Eastern ideas. In other words, I am not making a claim that the words Socrates used to describe impermanence are identical to the ones used in Eastern texts even after they have both been translated into English. If the similarity between the two were obvious it would have already been noticed by the perhaps tens of thousands of western academic scholars who have dedicated their lives to Plato’s writings and Socrates philosophy. No, the words are different but once a thorough analysis is performed one sees that the essence and practical import are the same in both. That is the conclusion that I want to share. Unfortunately, in order to see this connection a reader has to come to Socrates’ teachings with “new” eyes so to speak. Thinking that we already understand the import of Plato’s writings and Socrates’ teachings will surely make the task of seeing the connection with Eastern writings an impossible one. Even a reader with “fresh eyes,” so to speak, will not see the connection between Socrates and the Eastern writings unless a considerable amount of intellectual effort into the task of seeing the connection is made.
Not to sound negative, but I don’t expect many readers to follow me in these arguments because the readers who are oriented to this type of heavy intellectual analysis are most likely already prejudiced by the accepted (“academic”) understandings of Socrates and the potential readers who are not already prejudiced in this way are not likely to willingly put in the strenuous contemplation that both my arguments and Socrates’ arguments themselves require in order to understand fully. Nevertheless, the connection is valid and the argument for that connection is worth sharing.

The following quotes from Plato illustrate Socrates’ version of impermanence. Socrates explains that we perceive the phenomenal world through the use of sets of qualitative opposing ideas (hot/cold, etc.) but we don’t actually gain any real knowledge of those objects in that way. Socrates teaches that our world of objects is constantly changing and we know those objects in the present moment and only relative to the ideas we ascribe to them. Thus we really only know the mental ideals that we use and not anything absolute about the objects we connect them with. Objects change, only the ideas about them are not subject to change.

“For since things are being swept along, wisdom is the power to grasp, comprehend, and follow them. . . .if [an object] never stays the same, how can it BE something? Everything changes, moves, except the ideals.” –FROM Plato’s Cratylus.

In this quote Socrates undermines the conventional assumption that objects have fixed cores that allow them to clearly and solidly exist as the specific objects that we have named them as. For example, an apple on our desk surely exists because we can name it as an apple (using its prescribed characteristics) but Socrates shows that as the apple changes (gets chopped or cooked) we need to add other qualifying ideas to follow its changing nature. Furthermore, Socrates says, if we have to change the names or the ideas of names for an object in order to follow the changing of that object, can that object be said to have ever existed as anything we can fixedly name? If objects of our world are not so fixed then how can we claim to own them or even really know them? We know only the ideas or sets of opposite conditions that we use to describe objects and not the objects in themselves. This type of philosophical contemplation leads to attitude of detachment from material existence that Socrates repeats again and again throughout Plato’s dialogues and mirrors that emphasis within Eastern spiritual writings.

“We must understand this account as applying in the same way to hard and hot and everything else: nothing, as we were saying before, is in itself any of these. All of them, of all kinds whatsoever, are what things become through association with one another, as the result of motion. For even in the case of the active and passive motions it is impossible, as they say, for thought, taking them singly, to pin them down to being anything. There is no passive till it meets the active, no active except in conjunction with the passive; and what, in conjunction with one thing, is active, reveals itself as passive when it falls in with something else. And so, wherever you turn, there is nothing, as we said at the outset, which in itself is just one thing; all things become relatively to something. The verb ‘to be’ must be totally abolished.” — FROM Plato’s Theaetetus.

 “One cannot understand them [objects] as fixedly being or fixedly not being or as both or as neither.” — FROM Plato’s Republic Chapter 5.

Socrates teaches that philosophers are just like Eastern spiritualists in that they are searching for what is stable, what is dependable, what is Eternal in life. That quest is initiated as a search for truth and nothing more. Both Eastern spirituality and the dialogues of Socrates are obsessed with truth and that obsession has led them both to examine the very nature of “being” or existence. And the foundation of that inquiry is the realization that in our everyday lives we treat the objects of our world as “existing” or as “being” in a fixed stable way and that habit is not justified by the careful observations and analyses of “philosophers” or “spiritualists.” One of the central teachings of the Buddha’s discourses or sutras was that to hold any “extreme view” about the nature of any object is a sign of complete ignorance. In other words, the Buddha also taught that we cannot go around thinking that we know the “reality” of the objects that we perceive in the world. For the Buddha, suffering comes from the very belief that we can know about the world and its objects. Without this belief, all of our evil and unwholesome habits come to an end:
“Monks, as to the source through which perceptions and notions born of mental proliferation beset a man: if nothing is found there to delight in, welcome and hold to, this is the end of the underlying tendency to lust, of the underlying tendency to aversion, of the underlying tendency to [having fixed opinions or] views, of the underlying tendency to doubt, of the underlying tendency to conceit, of the underlying tendency to desire for being, of the underlying tendency to ignorance; this is the end of resorting to rods and weapons, of quarrels, brawls, disputes, recrimination, malicious words, and false speech; here these evil unwholesome states cease without remainder.” FROM the Madhupindika Sutta (MN 18) emphasis mine.

In other words, the Buddha taught that the changing nature of everything means that there is nothing within anything to “delight in, welcome and hold to.” When we no longer feel confident that anything “IS” and we admit that “the verb ‘to be’ must be totally abolished,” just as Socrates teaches, then our evil tendencies end along with the suffering that they cause.

Of course, this teaching has led to criticism of both teachers. Some criticize the Buddha’s teachings as being nihilist and anti-life, even pro-death. IN THE SAME WAY, Socrates can be wrongly criticized. But the truth is that both teachers were leading others away from valuing life for the wrong reasons. Both teachers were attempting to turn our attention from things that change and are unstable towards what is unchanging and eternal.

“Philosophic natures always love the sort of learning that makes clear to them some feature of the being that always is and does not wander around between coming to be and decaying.” FROM Plato’s Republic ch. 7.

SOCRATES, The Original Western Guru, Post #2 Eight Themes

Socrates Bust at UCBerkeley

In my attempt to show the connection between the teachings of Socrates and those of so-called “Eastern Spirituality” I zeroed in on 8 different themes. These were eight statements about life or aspects of life that seemed to me to be nearly identical to what I have found in Eastern religious/spiritual scriptures. It was very easy for me to pull out an assortment of quotes from Plato’s writings to support these 8 themes and I could have included many more than I did. Although I see the connection between Socrates and Eastern spiritual gurus to go beyond these 8 themes, I decided to start the discussion with them. I will use the next blog posts to go through each of these themes in detail. These 8 themes are:

1.    EVERYTHING is CHANGING, MOVING (Impermanent)

2.    Virtues or Qualities of the “GOOD”

3.    The Importance and True Nature of LOVE

4.    ROLE of the true PHILOSOPHER

5.    DESCRIPTION of a true PHILOSOPHER

6.    The ESSENCE, or the FORMS, as Key to the ETERNAL

7.    The Importance of SELF-INQUIRY or The Examined Life

8.    The Analogy of the CAVE, or THE DECEPTION of APPEARANCES

SOCRATES, The Original Western Guru, INTRO

death of socrates

SOCRATES, The Original Western Guru

In the summer of 2016 I gave a presentation on the teachings of Socrates as a type of “spirituality” to The Santa Fe Philosophical Society Meetup. My argument to them was, in essence, that the so-called “philosophy” of Socrates, as described by the ancient Greek author Plato, is the same as what was taught by Indian gurus of the ancient world. I boiled down all of Socrates teachings to the idea that “Doing and being ‘GOOD,’ in the highest sense of that word, leads to the greatest of all possible lives.” This is, of course, an over-simplication of an incredibly profound body of teachings, but it is, I believe, still valid with that caveat.

In that presentation I briefly went through a number of ways in which Socrates’ teachings match up with Eastern scriptures. I primarily used Hindu and Buddhist scriptures to make the comparison but I believe I could have just as easily used other Eastern sources as well.

The results of that talk inspired me to write a book outlining my point extensively and that inspiration to write a book has been reduced somewhat to write a series of blog articles. And so, this is the first in a series of articles in which I would like to share with you the details of this startling and exciting connection between Western and Eastern thought. For, if I am right and there is a strong similarity between the teachings of Socrates and what is considered Eastern “Spiritual” teachings today then a bridge is created. That bridge shows cultural unity instead of division and can help westerners to feel more at home following “spiritual” principles. If Socrates is truly a “guru” on par with the “gurus” of Indian thought then that East/West divide starts to look a bit artificial and “spirituality” in the form that is studied today can be recognized as the property not just of the East but of all cultures and all races.

WHAT IS SPIRIT?

What is SPIRIT?
Spirit is the term used to indicate the source of blessings or gifts which inspire, support and even push us to gain wisdom and the freedom that comes from wisdom. Wisdom can also be described as direct, dependable knowledge of the absolute truth of who we are, why we were born and why we will die.

What is GOD?
GOD (or GODDESS) is the term commonly used to describe Spirit as something we can have a personal relationship with, in which real two way communication can occur. Addressing (or praying to) God (or GODDESS) is a way of declaring that Spirit has the power to interact with us on our level.

Why do we need Spirit or God (GODDESS)?
Nothing in our physical world has the power to give us wisdom. Acquiring wisdom is a miraculous/mysterious affair that can only happen with the blessing of Spirit. This spiritual force is counter to the physical forces of the material world and that is why we can call it something special; that is,”Spirit,” or “God,” or “GODDESS.” Spirit teaches us about the value of wisdom, shows us the path to wisdom, inspires us to tread that path, assesses our efforts on that path and finally CAN reward us with wisdom for those efforts.

We need Spirit or God (GODDESS) because the natural influence of our physical lives is to push us away from wisdom and into greater and greater ignorance. We need Spirit or God (GODDESS) because wisdom is better for us than ignorance. Spirit or God/Goddess IS the natural attraction to wisdom that is at the center of everything. Wisdom is the greatest blessing because it creates love in our hearts and peace in our minds. Ignorance, however, creates anger in our hearts and anxiety in our minds. The benefits of spiritual wealth (wisdom) are therefore greater than the benefits of material wealth because only spiritual wealth actually gives us what we want: true happiness. No amount of material wealth can ever give us what we truly want, happiness, because that wealth can disappear as fast as it can be gained whereas wisdom, once gained, gives us happiness and cannot ever be lost.

What is Spirituality?
Spirituality is the choice to go after wisdom in spite of the physical/social pressures to go after immediate pleasure, comfort and security. Spirituality is the waging of a war against the pressures of material anxiety in order to attract and make the proper use of the blessings from Spirit. The specifics of that war, including the timing of victories and defeats, come from Spirit and the only choice we can make on our own is how fast we advance when we win a battle and how long we stay down when we lose a battle. That choice is a result of our attitude and can shorten or lengthen the duration of the war. The perfect attitude is infinitely patient and generous, courageous, indefatigable and zealously enthusiastic. Such an attitude is a certain sign that the war is almost over with Spirit, the victor, and wisdom, the prize.

image

Meditation as Habit

The BHAGAVAD GITA IN FOCUS is now Available.

HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT of studying The Bhagavad Gita but didn’t know how to start?

HAVE YOU READ THE BHAGAVAD GITA but were disappointed by a confusing translation?

Please, RECONSIDER!

The Bhagavad Gita In Focus is your answer. It is a comparison of the 35 major translations with a helpful commentary. Confusion gone! The difficult passages are now easy to navigate and appreciate in this new edition. This book makes studying YOGA a blissful affair.

 

Find it here in PRINT VERSION:

https://www.createspace.com/5183805

FIND IT HERE AS AN eBOOK/KINDLE:

http://tinyurl.com/jg9z3d7

 

In the kindle version you can order a free sample, sent directly to your phone or tablet using the KINDLE AP!

You can also read the first 2 chapters right there at the Amazon site. Please Enjoy!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Interfaith Harmony

A prayer took shape within me last week while attending the U.N. Conference on Interfaith Harmony. What if there was a permanent standing body, just like the U.N., made up of representatives of all the religions of the world? Surely, such a council could do a lot to stop the use of religions to promote hatred and war.

The idea is that religious leaders would send a representative to such a United Religions Council and then all representatives would discuss matters related to their interactions and vote and pass resolutions. In my mind, this would lead to these representatives, sooner or later, admitting that their goals and orientations in life matched those of the other representatives. As a body, then, they would be able to publicly denounce any religious fraction that attempted to stir up hatred, intolerance and violence. The United Religions Council would have passed resolutions in advance defining such a group as ANTI-religious despite their claims. Such groups would be publicly castigated and called out on their offenses.

There are three tricky obstacles to creating such a Council. One is identifying the religious leaders and determining rank or power within the Council assigned to each denomination. Two is finding a permanent home for the Council that is agreeable to all religions and three is getting the religious leaders to commit to sending a representative.

The first problem could be solved by including all religions and all denominations of religions and giving them power based on the provable number of constituents that they have. The second problem is also solvable. Tokyo, Japan, seems like it would be amenable to all, as a relatively neutral place among the big religions. The third problem is possibly the toughest to accomplish but there has been no better chance for this than right now.

Right now, we have a Pope that is liberal and sensible concerning social welfare issues. It is possible that he would commit to participation in such a Council. Also, the Islamic denominations are under great pressure right now to connect with other religions because of the bad PR that ISIL is causing them. They would have much to gain from such a council. There is tremendously negative public opinion in the West right now not just for ISIL but also for Iranian Muslims. I imagine that Egypt and Turkey would love the chance to boost PR as well about their countries’ religion.

It boils down to Pope Francis, really. Without an amenable Pope there is not much chance of this Council forming. If the Pope joined, the other Christian denominations would have to follow suit.

The Hindu faith would also create a bit of a challenge as well because of its lack of clear central hierarchy but that would not impede the forming of the Council. That would give time for the Council to zero in on finding the Hindu leaders that the average Hindu would pay attention to; i.e.: who could credibly claim to have the ear of the Hindu people. Including all denominations of the Hindu faith would allow there to be many representatives, each with their own claim of followers.

Back to the UN Interfaith Council: thanks to all the groups that made this happen. Here are some links to the wonderful Interfaith efforts already happening in the U.S. and around the world that I made contact with through this UN event:

Fuji Declaration

Even though the U.N. made this event and its success possible, interfaith issues should not be a long term subsidiary of the U.N. if real progress is to be made. The U.N. is very helpful in getting the idea going and gaining momentum but it is not a proper permanent location for these efforts. The U.N. has much in common with Interfaith Harmony but also does not share in some key issues. Where the U.N. and religions meet is obviously in charitable relief efforts. It is natural to religious persons to want to help the disenfranchised and the impoverished peoples around the world just as the U.N. has rightly focused on such issues. But religious people do so from a different standpoint and such charitable activity does not necessarily cause Interfaith Harmony. Two different religions doing the same disaster relief work in the same area may not cooperate at all without some additional prodding. An Interfaith Council can do such prodding but the U.N. cannot.

The simple fact is that a religion will never really feel bound by the U.N. This is because it is the UNITED NATIONS not the UNITED RELIGIONS. No one is more aware of the separations between Church and State that exists in most countries than the religions themselves. Many states are using this separation from religion to sanction the removal of any support for religions. The U.N. is a STATE body and not a religious one, therefore efforts at Interfaith Harmony must eventually find its own support and meet with the U.N. as an independent body not as a dependent one.

There are other good reasons for an Interfaith global council to distance itself from the U.N., eventually. These reasons stem from the limitations created by the politics that hinder the U.N. An Interfaith Council would want to be as free as possible from such politics.

In conclusion, I hope that you will join me in a prayer for the establishment of a permanent body representing the religions of the world, for greater peace and welfare for all peoples, all over the world.

 

 

 

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky as a Spiritual Tool, Part 5 of 5

The point of view of the “Grand Inquisitor” within Dostoevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov” and of its author, Ivan, are fascinating and insightful on many levels. It is truly worth reading and re-reading over and over again because of its complexity and power. I would like to make a few additional points that are just the tip of the iceberg, I believe.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that Ivan hinted within the chapter entitled, “Rebellion,” that he was someone who “suffered for an idea.” That idea turned out to be his assessment of God as unfair (due to the suffering of innocent children) and his suffering comes from his voluntary self-exclusion from the happiness that God offers the “saved.” In other words, Ivan chooses to suffer out of protest. He connects his protest to the love for humanity that he feels in his heart. He is connecting the mind (an idea) and the heart (love feelings) in an interesting way here.

Which comes first, the idea or the feelings? Did he develop the idea that life was unfair and then form his love of humanity after in order to justify a very egoistic type of freedom that followed (which he calls “everything is lawful”)? Or did he recognize that a universal, non-judgmental love existed in his heart and then judged the God that his religion offered him as falling short of that love? Or could both be true at the same time?

Ivan certainly admits at the end of the chapter that his “ideas” about God and religion have led to a style of life he calls “everything is lawful.” In other words, Ivan’s rejection of happiness in faith in God frees him of any self-judgment of any possible action. When “everything is lawful” Ivan can do anything he wants to, without a concern for its ethics or morality, without feeling a sting of conscience about it. That is because he has willfully rejected the existence that God has created (as inherently unfair and therefore, flawed). In an incredible expression of self-centeredness Ivan tells his brother that he will take advantage of his youth, doing whatever he wants until age 30 or so, and then will kill himself. This is his act of “Rebellion” against a creator God who feels less love than he does (so he believes).

The grand inquisitor expresses something similarly self-centered in his chapter as well, stating that he rejected Jesus and the salvation (happiness) that He offered because he saw that salvation wasn’t for everyone. Out of love for those who could not follow Jesus’s instructions and become worthy of salvation the grand inquisitor rejected Jesus in his heart and began a religious campaign of lies and oppression in order to give something of value to those of nonredeemable character. He also then says that he willingly suffers for having done so. He has chosen to leave God’s side and His happiness for the sake of others (he says that only a repressive Church can give the nonredeemable some happiness because they fear freedom more than anything and the Church can take away that freedom and make them happy at least part of the time). Ironically, in his rebellion, the grand inquisitor mimics Jesus in his claim that he suffers for the sake of others’ happiness. The difference is that Jesus suffered in order that people might be free while the grand inquisitor suffers that people might be somewhat happy (because they are incapable of achieving Jesus’s freedom and in fact, they would prefer their “daily bread” to the freedom that Jesus offers).

There is another interesting connection to observe concerning the “idea.” At the end of the grand inquisitor’s story he talks about freedom in terms of free thinking. He connects having his own ideas (instead of just taking the ideas that the church offers) to developing the sciences. He then connects the sciences with greater unhappiness and war. And he says the only possible chance for happiness for most people is a return to submission to the church’s doctrine. But ironically, Ivan admits that it is his free thought that has led to his suffering and to his rebellion from the idea of God and so, from the grand inquisitor’s point of view, Ivan cannot possibly be happy.

Ivan chooses to think for himself and that leads him to judge God and suffer for it. That free thinking then prevents him from believing in religion which he claims (through the words of the grand inquisitor) is the only way he could be happy (we assume that he doesn’t consider himself capable of following Jesus’s teachings in order to reach true freedom). That circle of suffering that free thought creates (which he claims Jesus encouraged) can therefore only be overcome through the forced, violent, repression of the church. And of course, the church represses by jailing or killing the free thinkers (like Ivan). That repression then causes more suffering in innocent people further justifying rebellion against God. That rebellion against God, of course, requires free thinking!

So the circle goes round and round with no clear way out. Again the important result of this is not to come up with a solution at this point but rather, simply to recognize if we are caught in this circle or not. A few questions to ask ourselves might include:

–Are we a free-thinker about the question of God or do we simply trust what our religion says about Him (or Her)?

–If we are a free-thinker then do we have any deeply held feelings about the suffering of those we consider innocent and undeserving of suffering (our spouse, children, parents, friends, etc.)?

{In asking that question we should observe our emotional responses in the moments when we encounter first-hand the suffering of those we consider innocent.}

–If we have strong and negative (depressive, or anger) emotional responses in those moments do we harbor the idea that God might be unfair?

–Could that deeply held thought that God might be unfair (at times) cause us to feel vulnerable, scared and even depressed occasionally (especially when directly confronted with others’ suffering (or our own))?

–Due to these deeply held doubts about God, do we feel that it is right for us or for anyone to be happy all the time?

–Do we turn to scientific explanations in our lives because we feel a deep vulnerability in front of a possibly unfair (or nonexistent) God?

–Do we feel critical of religions and those of blind faith in religions because we suspect those religions are based on repression of free thought?

–Do we secretly feel jealous of those who can feel happiness from their religious faith and then do we feel frustrated (or depressed) because we feel we already know too much scientific facts to allow us to ever return blindly to our religion?

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky as a Spiritual Tool, Part 4 of 5, The Grand Inquisitor

“The Grand Inquisitor” is a chapter within Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Brothers Karamazov.” In it one of the brothers, Ivan, relays his feelings about Jesus and religion, to his monk brother, Alyosha. In the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” Ivan explained why he can’t accept the idea of God and the happiness that God offers in Heaven or “salvation.” His argument rested upon his refusal to accept the fact that innocent children suffer within God’s creation. He said that it was impossible for him, as a lover of humanity, to accept an eternity of happiness as one of God’s “saved” if it came on the backs of suffering innocent children.

Alyosha agreed with his brother that his difficulties in accepting God on that basis are understandable but countered that the life and actions of Jesus provide the answer. Ivan, however, is not convinced and shares a story he calls “The Grand Inquisitor” to explain his difficulties with Jesus the Savior.

Ivan’s story involves a highly respected leader of the Christian church who wielded near absolute power over his parishioners. He was so influential that he was able to orchestrate and direct the killing of perhaps 1,000’s of people he called “heretics.” This fictional story of Ivan’s supposedly took place during the Spanish Inquisition of the 1500’s and curiously described a possible meeting between this “Grand Inquisitor” and Jesus, Himself.

In the story the Grand Inquisitor persecutes and threatens to kill Jesus for similar reasons to the ones Ivan shared in “Rebellion.” Just as Ivan said that he could not accept a salvation that involved the suffering of innocent children, the grand inquisitor tells Jesus that His salvation is unfair to the majority of humans and is willing to kill Jesus again for the sake of those people.

The grand inquisitor implies that his authoritarian, oppressive measures are more loving of humanity as a whole than Jesus’s original teachings. He tells Jesus that He left humanity with directives that they cannot possibly match up to and that what He offered them, namely True Freedom, most of humanity does not even want. The Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that what most humans want is their “daily bread” not freedom. The Grand Inquisitor claims that he, not Jesus, gives most of humanity their chance for happiness by taking away the one thing they fear the most, their freedom.

Ivan’s story paints Jesus as the God who offers salvation (and its eternal happiness) but in a way that only a very small number of people can actually receive. Jesus’s teachings are too difficult for most people to even think about, much less follow through with, and so, his teachings are partial; i.e., unfair. Ivan thereby explains his grounds once again for rejecting such a salvation offered by Jesus, due to his “idea” of unfairness.

Earlier in “Rebellion” Ivan mentioned that he “suffered for an idea.” This is his way of saying that he adheres to principles which get in the way of faith in God or Jesus. His principles about what is right and just allow him to feel indignant towards what he witnesses in society. He observes a world that is unfair, even downright cruel at times, and he cannot forgive such injustice nor does he feel it is right for anyone else to do so. Jesus’s salvation doesn’t work for him either because he believes that salvation is partial; not everyone is saved, only those who are capable of acting correctly as Jesus prescribed. What about everyone else, Ivan asks? For the sake of those people, the ones excluded from salvation, Ivan rejects God and the eternal happiness that He offers through salvation. “And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee [Jesus], what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly?”

Ivan also criticizes religion itself, as characterized by the Christian church. In “The Grand Inquisitor” Ivan paints a picture where a religion must become oppressive in order to cater to the majority of humanity that is incapable of true sanctity as the scriptures prescribe. In other words, religion itself ends up perpetuating the very unfairness/cruelty of the world in order to give people what they want (food and shelter) and protect them from what they fear (true freedom) because “freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together.” The picture that Ivan paints is thereby even more distressing for a man of real love for humanity as he claims to be. On one hand religion provides for the needs of people that Jesus has discarded (because His standards are too high) and on the other hand religion adds to the suffering of innocents.

Ivan’s criticism of religion, as represented by the Christian church, has another ironical part to it. In addition to the church adding to suffering (out of concern for the masses) the church must take away freedom in order to give happiness to the people. Ivan claims that the church owns “mystery” and when the people bring a certain threshold of suffering upon themselves because they follow the path of “free thought” (i.e., the sciences) they will turn back to the church as the abode of “mystery.” In other words, when the intellectuals finally admit that they don’t understand the world and its purpose any more after extensively exhausting the sciences they will give up such freedom of thought and come back to the safety of the church.

The Grand Inquisitor predicts that science (free thought) will fuel humanity to fight each other ever more fiercely, causing ever more suffering, until it gives up such science and admits that existence is all a mystery that only religion can handle. They will say in the end “’Yes, you were right, you [the church] alone possess His mystery and we come back to you, save us from ourselves!’” The grand inquisitor says that in the end “they will know the value of complete submission!” But “until men know that, they will be unhappy.” And, of course, he blames Jesus for leading humanity away from such submission by offering them complete freedom (in exchange for acts that they aren’t capable of). In the grand inquisitor’s view Jesus led humanity astray by inspiring them to reach for freedom which led to the sciences which led to wars and an increase in strife. Only religion, he claims, can fix this situation by humanity’s complete submission to it.

Echoing Ivan’s thoughts, I believe, the grand inquisitor stands up to Jesus, claims that he is the true savior, providing for the people that Jesus has rejected and then dares Jesus to judge him for the lies and the acts of cruelty that he had to perform in order to do so. The grand inquisitor truly believes that he holds the high moral ground on Jesus and so, does not fear Him. The grand inquisitor feels that he rejected Jesus’s salvation on principles (on an “idea”), because any salvation that leaves a vast number of incapable, weak, childlike beasts (as he describes the majority of humanity) hanging is “madness.”

So Ivan’s counter-argument to Alyosha’s reliance upon Jesus to overcome the dilemma concerning the suffering of innocent children is a negative assessment of Jesus’s actions relative, not to each individual, but to humanity as a whole. Through his “Grand Inquisitor” story, Ivan criticizes God for not accepting everyone, regardless of their capabilities and actions, into Heaven.

Essentially, Ivan criticizes God for judging us in any way: for identifying what we are doing wrong and delineating what we need to do in order to reform ourselves and receive eternal salvation and happiness by His side. Ivan criticizes God because His plan leaves out a tremendous number of humans who are not capable of earning their place in Heaven by doing good, being good.

In that way, “The Grand Inquisitor” does a wonderful job of putting words to so many valuable questions and helping us to determine how we have already secretly answered many of them. Do we, too, already harbor an “idea” about the suffering of innocent children? Do we, too, secretly feel that if God judges any of us He is not a truly loving God? Do we, too, harbor resentment towards the idea of a God that will reject an individual for choosing “bad” over “good?” What if that individual is our father, brother or sister? Can we happily go to Heaven if we know that they have gone to Hell? Or to put that in more modern terms, are we willing to be happy everyday (because we believe in an all-loving God) when others close to us are unwilling or unable to do the same? Can we allow ourselves to be happy all the time when we know that many children are suffering all around the world? Do we secretly feel superior to the God that our religions describe because of our unwillingness to be happy all the time?

In the next blog entry I will explore a few of those questions in greater detail but for now the important point I want to make is that the value of reading this story is in considering to what degree we share Ivan’s feelings and opinions. We must keep in mind that these feelings and opinions may be held deeply within our mind and may take a bit of introspection in order to dig up. It is a fact that our upbringing may have encouraged the burying of such feelings. Modern society doesn’t help us very much in exploring our emotional relationship to God and suffering. It trains us, rather, to focus more superficially on issues related to daily affairs.

In other words our very busy daily lives may hide deeper feelings about God and suffering that are not only secretly driving us but also do a lot to prevent us from feeling content or happy in any given moment. To what degree have we already blocked off happiness in our lives, like Ivan has done, because we have judged God and His creation as inherently unfair or even downright cruel to those undeserving of such treatment? This is question worth asking and re-asking ourselves, resisting the temptation to judge our deeply held ideas and opinions are “good” or “bad.” Let’s find out how we truly feel about life, first, before attempting to force ourselves in one direction or another.

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky as a Spiritual Tool, 3 of 5

In “Rebellion,” the fourth chapter of Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” Ivan speaks to his brother, a Christian monk, about God. Ivan explains to his brother that the suffering of innocent people prevents him from believing in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and all-loving God. Even if God exists, Ivan explains, he wants no part of His Heaven because he cannot forgive the wrong done to innocent children.

Although Ivan appears to argue from a stance of accepting the existence of God and Heaven, Ivan is secretly telling his brother why he doesn’t believe in God at all. He then surreptitiously explains that without such a belief he views life as not worth caring about or preserving. Ivan is truly “rebelling” not just against God but against the existence of God.

In this one well-written chapter, Dostoevsky gives a cogent voice to feelings about God that many (if not most) humans deeply harbor. These are feelings that can cause not just depression but also suicidal aggression, as Dostoevsky also depicts. But the issue right now is not whether these feelings are right or wrong but rather whether they are acknowledged and admitted. When feelings that cause depression and aggression are kept hidden within the recesses of our subconscious then they affect us without any control. We are simply at the mercy of such emotions and don’t know why.

Ivan explains that even if he were to accept that all the suffering in the adult world is caused by previous sins (starting with the sin of eating the apple of knowledge of good and evil) that doesn’t help him to accept the suffering caused to innocent children. So even if all the pain in one’s life is a result of having caused pain to others previously (cause and effect, as he describes it) nothing atones for pain inflicted on children, especially by their own parents. Therefore if God does exist, He is imperfect and so is His happiness in His Heaven. Ivan says that he cannot respect such a God enough to receive His “salvation” into eternal happiness. In other words, Ivan doesn’t want to be “saved” into happiness by such a God because he must forget about the suffering that has happened to innocent children in order to do so. And because of the love he feels in his heart for humanity he cannot do so (“for the sake of an idea” as he describes it). Ivan, therefore, feels justified in his depression, anger and “rebellion.” Ivan, in fact, feels superior to such a God because he is unwilling to be happy out of protest to the injustice seen here and now.

How many of us, when we carefully consider Ivan’s arguments, feel as he does? I say this not to judge this position as good or bad but simply to point out that such feelings must rise to the surface of our awareness. If we harbor Ivan’s opinions and feelings on this matter, doesn’t it also follow that we share at least some of his depression, anger and rebellion? Whether or not such feelings are truly justified we must become aware of them if we are to understand what happiness in life is all about and why we are not experiencing it in every moment.

Some readers may counter that they think differently than Ivan because they are aware of Eastern spiritual principles that Ivan was ignorant of. Specifically, such readers may mention that the concept of reincarnation removes this stumbling block to accepting the possibility of a perfect, all-loving God that Ivan describes. Reincarnation explains that every innocent child that suffers is also receiving payback for the suffering that it caused in a previous lifetime.

I must ask, however, if reincarnation is a fact, why do children not remember their previous lives and if they don’t remember them do they really deserve to suffer for them? Is some degree of innocence returned to a child because it doesn’t remember what it has done to deserve being mercilessly beaten by one’s father or mother? If a child regains even a little innocence because it doesn’t remember what it has done wrong in a previous life don’t Ivan’s arguments regain validity whether or not reincarnation is a fact? As Ivan asserts, can we really forgive even the smallest transgression against someone who is even partially innocent? Do we have the right to forgive such things, Ivan wonders. Can we forgive even if we want to? Can we use the idea of reincarnation to force our heart to forgive even when it doesn’t feel justified?

Additionally, reincarnation is an idea that most of us have not actually verified by ourselves. How many of us “believe” in reincarnation but are far from certain about it? Many, I would guess. If we are not certain about reincarnation then there is some doubt. With some doubt about reincarnation Ivan’s arguments return and depression, aggression and rebellion are justified again.

Those of us who are like Ivan in that they are depressed, angry and rebellious of life itself AND they see this to be the correct response of a truly loving person have nothing further to consider here. I am not writing with these people in mind. These people have considered life and realized that they don’t want to be happy all the time. I am, rather, writing for the people who claim they want to be happy all the time but still experience moments of depression, anger and rebellion. These are the people that can most easily benefit from a careful consideration of the underlying question of God; that is, the benefit comes not in finding an answer to the question as much as in recognizing where they already stand on it.

The idea of reincarnation is weak for another reason, I believe. Even with those that profess to believe soundly in reincarnation such a “belief” is not there when they need it. In other words, even if you say, “yes, I believe in reincarnation” you still will find yourself depressed, angry or rebellious the next time your boss or neighbor treats you unfairly. You still will feel a sense of the unfairness of life if you witness a man molest a woman on a public bus and get away with it or if you see a news report of a mother who threw her one-year old baby into a garbage dumpster. In those moments you will probably forget about your “belief” in reincarnation and will be depressed, angry or rebellious. In those moments you will reject the happiness offered by “God,” out of indignation, just as Ivan does. The fact is that the mind might say “yes, I believe in reincarnation” but when push comes to shove the heart does not agree. And you can’t force the heart to feel happy when you are ignoring the underlying “ideas” that cause the heart to feel depressed, angry or rebellious. This points out an interesting connection between ideas we hold in our mind which affect the emotions of our heart. Certain ideas can force us to be unhappy even when we claim that we want to be happy and feel love. Clearing the heart of depression may require that we look closely at the ideas we hold in our mind.

At the end of the chapter Ivan’s monk brother, Alyosha, recovers his wits a bit (after being knocked over by Ivan’s argument) and asserts that God, himself, in the human form of Jesus can do all the forgiving, even for the innocent children. Alyosha asserts that all of injustice is redeemed because God, himself, was willing to suffer the worst of it. He implies that not even a child can be more innocent and undeserving of pain than God himself is and so, God’s willingness to suffer allows us to feel good again for all of life. God’s willingness to suffer restores our ability to respect and accept life as it is, in all its imperfections, and embrace the eternal happiness that is offered to us in “Heaven.” If God himself is willing to suffer indignation than certainly an innocent child should be willing as well, the argument goes. We forgive all in an attitude of celebration for God’s infinite love and compassion for us (which we “witnessed” in His suffering as a human being). That’s Alyosha’s response, in essence.

Alyosha thereby presents a strong counter-argument to Ivan’s “rebellion” but Ivan isn’t convinced. In the next chapter Ivan will counter back, explaining why the idea of the “Savior-God” doesn’t work for him. I hope you stay with me while I continue to examine Dostoevsky’s well-written words, not as much to find answers to this age-old dilemma but more to realize where we already stand on this issue and how this stance pre-determines our faith in God and level of happiness in the here and now.