The Errant Abbot

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A Tree and Its Fruit: A Review of Matthew Vines’ “God and the Gay Christian”

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“I’ve heard all of the arguments before” I thought, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed noting a link to a video entitled “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality” that seemed to have been circulating widely amongst my more religiously oriented friends. Half-interested I hit the play button and quickly took note of the length of the video (over an hour) and assumed it’d be the same old sentiment and emotion based argument that had been going back and forth in the limelight for years now – I was wrong.

The issues arising between what might be called “practicing Christians” and “practicing Homosexuals” have been both tense, and many. As has been well documented both here and elsewhere, in our modern society gay people are becoming more and more visible, and individuals are being able to be true to themselves at younger and younger ages. Whilst social media has been filled with heartwarming stories of LGBT teens being able to “come out” in high school, and with the full support of the majority of their classmates even being elected royalty at school dances, still shadows loom over a tremendous amount of individuals young and old alike who are shunned entirely on the basis of religion for being true to themselves with their families, friends and colleagues. Undoubtedly the progress happening in support of equal rights and treatment for LGBT peoples in our increasingly secular society is still being met with massive resistance from religious conservatives.

In what seemed to have passed in moments rather than minutes I found myself enthralled, exuberant and hopeful, having sat through some sixty-seven minutes of the aforementioned video, which I found to be filled with erudite and respectful address from a perspective seldom heard. Within the ensuing hour, I found myself sharing the video far and wide to all of my friends with any sort of interest in “The Gay Debate” as it were, and I was met in their responses with a reflection of my own enthusiasm. A twenty-something young man named Matthew Vines from the smallish metropolis of Wichita Kansas, having taken a break from his studies at Harvard to do the research for this video, had presented in just over and hour what scores of theologians haven’t been able to do in at least decades- present the issues in a manner not only respectful to all involved, but too in a form accessible to the majority of the individuals concerned, and with practically undeniable rhetoric.

A couple years have passed since I first heard Matthew Vines’ presentation, and in that time I’ve shared it frequently, and yet its impact has been somewhat limited in my opinion, as we still seem to be living in an age where type media is the defining mark of qualification for bona fide status and consideration. Thus, my original excitement and enthusiasm for Mr. Vines’ work was rekindled and doubled when I took note of the upcoming release of his book entitled God and the Gay Christian and perhaps even more so when an advanced review copy arrived in my mailbox.

As an infant, I was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith, and through a complex string of events was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and for numerous reasons, largely stemming from the mainline Christian condemnation of homosexuality I left the Christian faith and eventually became a Buddhist clergyman. Through my involvement with Buddhist practice my wounds incurred at the hand of what I would call bigoted theology had a chance to heal, and I now regularly find myself joyfully in attendance of services at various churches and interfaith events centered around Abrahamic faiths. None-the-less, I never thought that I’d find myself reading a book on Christian theology at an advanced Buddhist retreat, and yet that’s just the situation I found myself in only weeks ago.

From my retreat cabin in Austin Texas, in just a matter of hours pieced together in downtime between sessions of meditation, chanting, and teachings, I devoured God and the Gay Christian, page by page nodding in agreement and affirmation; Matthew Vines’ latest offering truly is a riveting page turner! While the research into the six scriptures of the Bible that seem to condemn same-sex behavior isn’t new, the presentation offered by Mr. Vines assuredly is. Unfortunately advanced doctrinal extrapolation has historically been much like trickle down economics, wherein little of the scholarly conclusions gleaned through anthropological survey and etymological inquiry within the greater scope of practical theology makes its way (let alone in any digestible form) to the common lay person. The mix of autobiographical narrative and Biblical analysis presented by Mr. Vines, combined with the overall patient, kind and respectful tone of this book make it duly accessible to the a wide array of audiences. God and the Gay Christian is sound and thorough from a secular-scholarly standpoint (the book is accented finely with extensive end notes), while simultaneously being written from and to the perspective of a practicing Christian with a conservative approach to the authority of scripture, which I feel makes this offering truly unique.

To be clear, Mr. Vines’ conclusions, shedding light on the Biblical case in support of same-sex relationships do not rely on any sort of allegorical interpretation of scripture but are rather rooted in the assertion presented in 2nd Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” relying on Jesus’ words in John 10:35 that “scripture cannot be set aside.” Thus as a basis for his book’s biblical exegesis, Mr. Vines’ utilizes a simple bible based test given given by Christ himself in Matthew 7: 15-20 concerning “a tree and its fruit,” applying it continually to all evidence (equally weighed I might add) both for, and against same-sex relationships as found in scripture and supporting historical evidence alike.

As I wrapped up my first reading of God and the Gay Christian I found myself in awe and appreciation, filled with hope for the future of the Christian faith, and even encouraged enough to once again immerse myself in the religion of my upbringing, noting its place in my heart as a source for good not only there, but too in our increasingly desacralized and oft suffering world.

If I hold any criticisms for this book at all, it would be that I had hoped the final edition would include, separate from the end notes, a bibliography and index. While those resources don’t appear in the final edition, the book’s precision and therefore extremely manageable length make finding the information that might be contained in the aforementioned sources not too difficult. I am happy to recommend this book as a “must read” for any and all people concerned with LGBT issues in the church, it is certain to enlighten, inspire and build both faith and hope in and for the fulfillment of Christ’s message.

God and the Gay Christian will be released on April 22nd and is available for pre-order on Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/God-Gay-Christian-Biblical-Relationships/dp/1601425163)

~Sunyananda Dharma, D.Dh
Guiding Teacher, Dharmakaya Buddhist Association
Abbot, Five Mountain Zen Order

All teaching is but concession to the inadequacies of language and should be interacted with as such.

- Sunyananda Dharma

Letting Go of “Now”: A Meditation on an Identity of Buddhahood

Change is such an interesting phenomena, indeed more than a mere phenomena itself, impermanence serves as a marcater, a defining characteristic of phenomenon. It’s so easy for us to idealize the past, ignore the present, and fear the future- that is, dreading something uncertain, and making up the gone-by as we go along because it’s something not changing through any force outside of our own minds (giving us the illusion of control), all whilst paying but a nod (if that) to the now-ness that is ever unfolding- and that’s entirely in our nature. Indeed the miracle of our minds is too, their bane, we can see the world as it isn’t.

Yet, we hear it time and time again: “This moment is it!” “There is no reality but this reality!” And still, we work so hard to acquaint ourselves with some sort of unshakable enlightenment and liberation experience, outside of this one that we’ve been molded in all along. Zen Master Seung Sahn often spoke of “no hindrance” and really I think that’s the best definition of the idyllic realization so materialized, I mean, mysterialized in our practice.

Enlightenment is as enlightenment does; so too do we hear “You are it, look within!” as we scramble pick up the next best-selling Buddhist book, and attend that latest enlightenment-guaranteed lecture or retreat course- and even that’s okay if we can view it all through the lens of Buddha activity rather than aspirational ado. Everything is it, but somehow not that! For anything to be it, by nature, nothing can be and, always “and”, vice versa. Enlightenment may only be set in definition through its obscuration, its seeming loss. There is no-thing that can be had without too stewarding its lack, which binds the illusory two inseparably. Can we come and go freely with no hindrance, all the while grasping and letting go, “managing without ado”, except for when we do ado, then, that too.

This moment is all inclusive, trying to define one from the next is in-and-of-itself, an unending errand- our clinging to the past, grasping to the future and even ignorance of some “now,” thought to be separate from those afore, unfold in perfect unison. So what really is there to do? When hunger appears, eat (unless you’ve no food, then don’t). When tiredness appears, sleep (unless your function in the moment demands that you cannot, then don’t). When someone needing help appears, only help them (unless you have no resources with which to remotely affect the situation, then don’t). Coming and going freely, means coming *and* going freely; wading both in and out of our idealized enlightenment experience, and our actualized realization of it.

Doing what we can, with what we can, for as long as we can- that’s life, and it’s enough, and there’s enough of it when we allow ourselves to partake of it. What choice do we have? We cannot escape this moment, even if we tried, therefore no coming, no going, no freedom and no choice- therein may we find perfect Buddhahood; always coming, always going, with perfect freedom and boundless choice. “Ha ha ha ha ho!” :-)

~sunyananda

Apr 7

Dissolving Our Practice

When it comes to the practice of dharma, it’s important to remember that practice is ongoing and unending, the law of change and impermanence (anicca) is universally applicable- just as there is no-thing that can exist unchanged perpetually, so too is there no-one to hold it.

Awakening/Enlightenment/Liberation itself requires much upkeep, and it’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to be able to give question and presence (witness) to our suffering and malaise- one not afforded to much of our suffering world. We must bring our practice of great questioning, great presencing and great unknowing to finer and finer, subtler, subtler and still more subtle levels until it may be continually dissolved into the fabric of our being, as enlightened/liberated activity, non-different from what we’ve been doing all along. ~sunyananda

A Celebration

Recently this blog has celebrated two milestones, for one it reached its two year anniversary and almost simultaneously (today) we gained our 300th subscriber, alongside having had one of our most in depth pieces re-blogged and liked some 133 times. 

I’ve never reblogged any content, and everything produced here has been original, almost entirely textual, content- which sets us apart some on the tumblr platform. 

I’m encouraged, and inspired to see so many of you wonderful folks committed to investigating your lives and the Buddha Dharma, in addition to fostering wakefulness, love and compassion in our shared world. 

If there’s anything you’d like to see me do with this blogs, or topics/questions you’d like to see addressed, please do let me know!

As always, remember that you can support myself and our Abbey and monks via our page here.  Your support is very meaningful, and supremely appreciated!

Thank you as always, for all of your support and all of your hard practice and good work in our shared world!

With love,
~sunyananda

Heretics make the greatest Saints, it just takes time for the rest of society to catch on. Indeed, as Lao Tzu put it “When all the world recognizes beauty as beauty, this in of itself is ugliness.”

- Sunyananda Dharma

Collisions With Clouds

Mindful-ness is not mindless-ness. Probably the biggest misunderstanding and stumbling block for people getting involved in contemplative practice is the tall order of a notion that thoughts are things to be stopped, or even indeed things that can be stopped whilst living. Simply put, clearing your mind and seeing through your mind as clear (transparent) are two very different things.

Much as the function of a heart is to love, the function of a mind is to think, and as long as we’re living, our minds will endlessly give rise to unlimited mental formations; indeed cognition is congruent with sentience. Therefore, the basis of meditation is not to bring about the cessation of our thinking, but rather to cultivate a proper relationship with it.

We spend our lives as slaves to our thinking, reacting, reacting, reacting to most every idea, opinion and emotion we give rise to, and often thus inflicting much hurt on ourselves and the world around us. We treat our thoughts as unstoppable freight trains headed straight toward us, that must be dodged or outrun rather than as the ethreal clouds they’re much more akin to; we need not concern ourselves with so much ado, afterall, what’s the worst that could arise from even a head on collision with a cloud?

Time and time again I stress that the dharma has very little to do with any sort of enlightenment, and a lot to do with liberation (after all, we take pratimoksha vows, literally “vows of behavior leading one toward liberation”, not “pratibodhi”, “vows of behavior leading one toward the only canonical Buddhist word even resembling enlightenment”). So what are we seeking to liberate ourselves from? In essence, I’d have to say we’re after freedom from the nose ring our thinking leads us around by, so that we may then choose to respond compassionately to our life situations rather than reacting impulsively with varied sorts of impact.

Mindfulness is a call to full stewardship of the mind from stewardship by the mind. It’s a call to discover who and what we are beyond the veil of our thinking, so that we may then make FULL use of our MIND, including its capacity for logic and reason (as taught by Buddha Shakyamuni to the Kamalas) in order to engage the world with helping hands and compassionate choice. ~sunyananda

Inflecting and Inflicting

If you intentionally meet your life with gentleness and kindness, you’ll find that it does far more than merely benefit those around you. Make your first breath of the day one of gratitude, smile and be, one moment at a time. Inflect your words with joy, rather than inflicting others with your tongue; silence too can be sharper than sarcasm- always make use of mindful discretion. The yoga of peaceful presence simultaneously seeks to burst out from within and peck in from without. ~sunyananda

For anything to be sacred, everything must be; attentiveness sanctifies.

- Sunyananda Dharma

Zen is NOT “Just Sitting”

Zen is not just sitting meditation, nor is sitting meditation the totality of Zen- if it were, the word Zen alone would be sufficient as description for the practice without the modifier of “sitting”, or “za” (as in Zazen). I have heard it offered many times that sitting meditation is the quintessential Buddhist practice “because that’s what Buddha did”, and whilst I would never argue the efficacy of sitting for some, I would stress the essence of Buddha’s practice as his finding a point beyond his thoughts as his original nature, rather than his culminated practice of sitting beneath the Bodhi tree. Shakyamuni Buddha studied and tried many methods of practicing before coming to sitting as his root practice, and still thereafter his awakening offered 84,000 (infinite) dharma doors for infinite types of minds.

Zen Master Seung Sahn attained recognition of his awakening at the age of 22 from Zen Master Ko Bong after a 100 day retreat spent on Duk Seung mountain chanting ceaselessly the Great Compassion Dharani. When Seung Sahn arrived in this country he taught mostly chanting, bowing and kong’an practice, and only began instructing disciples in sitting practice after his American students urged him to, noting that this is what westerners expected of Zen practice (due to the prevailing Japanese style of practice that had already been introduced and made popular through the writings of DT Suzuki and the efforts of others).

Today, there are many attempts to organize teachers of Zen Dharma into associations, and it seems that for many of these groups the only point of commonality that they can find with one another rests not in attainment, opinion, nor style but rather in a long history of sitting meditation, with in one instance, general guidelines in place that to be considered for membership one must have sat at as minimum three hundred and sixty five nine hour retreat days throughout one’s practice life- regardless of what one comes out the other side with or without.

I dont have a general problem with these associations, and indeed even applaud the efforts of some in our extended Buddhist community to come together and cooperate, and, I do have concerns with efforts to define the entire scope of Zen Dharma by (if not, as) the practice of Zazen.

There are those of us within the Buddhist community whom express generally quite ecumenical sensibilities, wherein we recognize the validity of numerous types of practice in the various wisdom traditions of the world, as leading an adept practitioner to the same type of awakening of mind and the same breaking and widening of the heart that we experience through our Zen practice lives. It’s not uncommon at all these days to find shared in dharma talks and lectures, or in essays and postings of contemporary Zen Teachers a poem written by a Sufi mystic, a verse of the Tao Te Ching and scriptures from Judeo-Christian holy texts, chants from various native traditions, even exclamations of wonder from enthusiastic astrophysicists like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Clearly sitting meditation is a practice that many have found refuge in, and yet many too fail to connect with it, whom can yet find their refuge in prolific chanting, strict precept practice, sutra study and/or varied somatic practices like bowing, martial arts or even hiking. So, at what point does a practice become Zen and at what point does one transcend Zen, going beyond and becoming defined as something else entirely?

We have many stories in our Zen tradition that serve to demonstrate the possibility of varied forms of practice leading toward the most profound attainment, most famously perhaps is that of the poor, illiterate lay woodcutter Hui Neng, whom never having practiced any type of meditation or Buddhist study was awakened upon hearing a recitation of the Diamond Sutra, eventually becoming the Sixth Patriarch and yet we fail as a community to recognize that sitting, whilst powerful is but one tool in our dharma tool belt.

When I try to define the Zen process, the best answer that my mind can muster up with words is that of wisdom realized through profound attentiveness, and indeed, what is seated meditation but an attempt at profound attentiveness to this very moment. Our communities pay lip services to adages speaking to the effect that “ordinary mind is the way” and yet by and large, limit the realization of ordinary mind to one method of cutting through layers of discursive thinking: seated meditation. However, I do wonder if seated meditation without the philosophical implications, that in my opinion form the basis of Zen practice in any form, namely the Four Noble Truths and accompanying concepts (pratityasamutpada/dependent origination, anatman/non-self), the Three Refuge Vows and the Five Root Precepts, would indeed be considered Zen at all?

We speak toward the fact that Zen is “a special transmission outside of the scriptures” one “not dependent upon words and letters” but rather “directly pointing to one’s mind” it allows one to “attain Buddhahood”, and yet we allow the form of Zen to be distinctly one founded upon words, if not those aforementioned, those of perceived masters of successive generations leading to our present day incarnation. So if say the practice of Vipassana (arguably, “just sitting”) is not Zen due to its lack of outward Zen ritual and form, must then a practitioner whom chants tirelessly, dons the robe and kasa/rakusu, takes refuge, upholds the precepts and yet doesn’t find sole affinity with the practice of seated meditation be considered a Zen practitioner?

I’d say as a “transmission outside of the scriptures”, the process of Zen (wisdom realized through profound attentiveness) can be realized through and applied to any set of scriptures (and not just sutra, either) and practices aside from sitting meditation alone; I’d say that it’s thus high time to reverse the paradigm we’ve come to define as Zen, to a form beyond our limited conception of practice as just sitting, and just sitting alone. Perhaps we look toward “just meditating”, with the realization that meditation is a wide open door, perhaps even parent to the 84,000 that Buddha’s attendant Ananda spoke of, as a process of simply how one tends to and stewards the mind, moment after moment. ~sunyananda