Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Method of the Jesus Prayer

The following is from Archimandrite Sophrony’s wonderful book “His Life is Mine.”  Sophrony was a true spiritual elder, a modern-day Saint, and he’s an invaluable resource for anyone who is coming to Orthodoxy from one of the Asian traditions.

The Method of the Jesus Prayer
Archimandrite Sophrony
I propose to devote this chapter to setting out as briefly as possible the more important aspects of the Jesus Prayer and the commonsense views regarding this great culture of the heart that I met with on the Holy Mountain.
Year after year monks repeat the prayer with their lips, without trying by any artificial means to join mind and heart. Their attention is concentrated on harmonizing their life with the commandments of Christ. According to ancient tradition mind unites with heart through Divine action when the monk continues in the ascetic feat of obedience and abstinence; when the mind, the heart and the very body of the 'old man' to a sufficient degree are freed from the dominion over them of sin; when the body becomes worthy to be 'the temple of the Holy Ghost' (cf. Rom. 6. 11-14). However, both early and present-day teachers occasionally permit recourse to a technical method of bringing the mind down into the heart. To do this, the monk, having suitably settled his body, pronounces the prayer with his head inclined on his chest, breathing in at the words 'Lord Jesus Christ, (Son of God)' and breathing out to the words 'have mercy upon me (a sinner)'. During inhalation the attention at first follows the movement of the air breathed in as far as the upper part of the heart. In this manner concentration can soon be preserved without wandering, and the mind stands side by side with the heart, or even enters within it. This method eventually enables the mind to see, not the physical heart but that which is happening within it-the feelings that creep in and the mental images that approach from without. With this experience, the monk acquires the ability to feel his heart, and to continue with his attention centered in the heart without further recourse to any psychosomatic technique.
True Prayer Comes Through Faith and Repentance
This procedure can assist the beginner to understand where his inner attention should be stayed during prayer and, as a rule, at all other times, too. Nevertheless, true prayer is not to be achieved thus. True prayer comes exclusively through faith and repentance accepted as the only foundation. The danger of psychotechnics is that not a few attribute too great significance to method qua method. In order to avoid such deformation the beginner should follow another practice which, though considerably slower, is incomparably better and more wholesome to fix the attention on the Name of Christ and on the words of the prayer. When contrition for sin reaches a certain level the mind naturally heeds the heart.
The Complete Formula
The complete formula of the Jesus Prayer runs like this: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner, and it is this set form that is recommended. In the first half of the prayer we profess Christ-God made flesh for our salvation. In the second we affirm our fallen state, our sinfulness, our redemption. The conjunction of dogmatic confession with repentance makes the content of the prayer more comprehensive.
Stages of Development
It is possible to establish a certain sequence in the development of this prayer.
...First, it is a verbal matter: we say the prayer with our lips while trying to concentrate our attention on the Name and the words.
...Next, we no longer move our lips but pronounce the Name of Jesus Christ, and what follows after, in our minds, mentally.
...In the third stage mind and heart combine to act together: the attention of the mind is centered in the heart and the prayer said there.
...Fourthly, the prayer becomes self-propelling. This happens when the prayer is confirmed in the heart and, with no especial effort on our part, continues there, where the mind is concentrated.
...Finally, the prayer, so full of blessing, starts to act like a gentle flame within us, as inspiration from on High, rejoicing the heart with a sensation of divine love and delighting the mind in spiritual contemplation. This last state is sometimes accompanied by a vision of Light.
Go step by step
A gradual ascent into prayer is the most trustworthy. The beginner who would embark on the struggle is usually recommended to start with the first step, verbal prayer, until body, tongue, brain and heart assimilate it. The time that this takes varies. The more earnest the repentance, the shorter the road.
The practice of mental prayer may for a while be associated with the hesychastic method-in other words, it may take the form of rhythmic or a-rhythmic articulation of the prayer as described above, by breathing in during the first half and breathing out during the second part. This can be genuinely helpful if one does not lose sight of the fact that every invocation of the Name of Christ must be inseparably coupled with a consciousness of Christ Himself. The Name must not be detached from the Person of God, lest prayer be reduced to a technical exercise and so contravene the commandment, 'Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain' (EX. 20.7; Deut. 5.11).
Attention of Mind gained
When the attention of the mind is fixed in the heart it is possible to control what happens in the heart, and the battle against the passions assumes a rational character. The enemy is recognized and can be driven off by the power of the Name of Christ. With this ascetic feat the heart becomes so highly sensitive, so discerning, that eventually when praying for anyone the heart can tell almost at once the state of the person prayed for. Thus the transition takes place from mental prayer to prayer of the mind and heart, which may be followed by the gift of prayer that proceeds of itself.
Do Not Hurry
We try to stand before God with the whole of our being. Invocation of the Name of God the Savior, uttered in the fear of God, together with a constant effort to live in accordance with the commandments,, little by little leads to a blessed fusion of all our powers. We must never seek to hurry in our ascetic striving. It. is essential to discard any idea of achieving the maximum in the shortest possible time. God does not force us but neither can we compel Him to anything whatsoever. Results obtained by artificial means do not last long and, more importantly, do not unite our spirit with the Spirit of the Living God.
It's a Long Path
In the atmosphere of the world today prayer requires super human courage. The whole ensemble of natural energies is in opposition. To hold on to prayer without distraction signals victory on every level of existence. The way is long and thorny but there comes a moment when a heavenly ray pierces the dark obscurity, to make an opening through which can be glimpsed the source of the eternal Divine Light. The Jesus Prayer assumes a meta-cosmic dimension. St John the Divine asserts that in the world to come our deification will achieve plenitude since 'we shall see Him as He is'. 'And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure ... Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him' (cf. 1John 3.2,3,6). In order in Christ's Name to receive forgiveness of sins and the promise of the Father we must strive to dwell on His Name 'until we be endued with power from on high' (cf. Luke24-49).
In advising against being carried away by artificial practices such as transcendental meditation I am but repeating the age-old message of the Church, as expressed by St Paul: 'Exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation. For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men' (1Tim. 4.7-10)
It's Not Like Transcendental Meditation
The way of the fathers requires firm faith and long patience", whereas our contemporaries want to seize every spiritual gift, including even direct contemplation of the Absolute God, by force and speedily, and will often draw a parallel between prayer in the Name of Jesus and yoga or transcendental meditation and the like. I must stress the danger of such errors-the danger of looking upon prayer as one of the simplest and easiest 'technical' means leading to immediate unity with God. It is imperative to draw a very definite line between the Jesus Prayer and every other ascetic theory. He is deluded who endeavors to divest himself mentally of all that is transitory and relative in order to cross some invisible threshold, to realize his eternal origin, his identity with the Source of all that exists; in order to return and merge with Him, the Nameless transpersonal Absolute. Such exercises have enabled many to rise to supra-rational contemplation of being; to experience a certain mystical trepidation; to know the state of silence of the mind, when mind goes beyond the boundaries of time and space. In such-like states man may feel the peacefulness of being withdrawn from the continually changing phenomena of the visible world; may even have a certain experience of eternity. But the God of Truth, the Living God, is not in all this. It is man's own beauty, created in the image of God, that is contemplated and seen as Divinity, whereas he himself still continues within the confines of his creatureliness. This is a vastly important concern. The tragedy of the matter lies in the fact that man sees a mirage which, in his longing for eternal life, he mistakes for a genuine oasis. This impersonal form of ascetics leads finally to an assertion of divine principle in the very nature of man. Man is then drawn to the idea of self-deification-the cause of the original fall. The man who is blinded by the imaginary majesty of what he contemplates has in fact set his foot on the path to self-destruction. He has discarded the revelation of a Personal God. He finds the principle of the Person-Hypostasis a limiting one, unworthy of the Absolute. He tries to strip himself of like limitations and return to the state which he imagines has belonged to him since before his coming into this world. This movement into the depths of his own being is nothing else but attraction towards the non-being from which we were called by the will of the Creator.
Knowledge of Personal God
The true Creator disclosed Himself to us as a Personal Absolute. The whole of our Christian life is based on knowledge of God, the First and the Last, Whose Name is I AM. Our prayer must always be personal, face to Face. He created us to be joined in His Divine Being, without destroying our personal character. It is this form of immortality that was promised to us by Christ. Like St Paul we would not 'be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life'. For this did God create us and 'hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit' (2 Cor. 5.4,5).
Personal immortality is achieved through victory over the world - a mighty task. The Lord said, 'Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world' (John 10. 3 3), and we know that the victory was not an easy one. 'Beware of false prophets ... Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it' (Matt. 7.13-115).
Wherein lies destruction? In that people depart from the Living God.
To believe in Christ one must have either the simplicity of little children - 'Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven'(Matt. 18.3)-or else, like St Paul, be fools for Christ's sake. 'We are fools for Christ's sake ... we are weak ... we are despised ... we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day' (1 Cor. 4. 10, 13). However, 'other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ' (1 Cor. 3 .11).‘Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me' (1 Cor. 4. 16). In the Christian experience cosmic consciousness comes from prayer like Christ's Gethsemane prayer, not as the result of abstract philosophical cogitations.
When the Very God reveals Himself in a vision of Uncreated Light, man naturally loses every desire to merge into a transpersonal Absolute. Knowledge which is imbued with life (as opposed to abstract knowledge) can in no wise be confined to the intellect: there must be a real union with the act of Being. This is achieved through love: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart ... and with all thy mind' (Matt. 22.37). The commandment bids us love. Therefore love is not something given to us: it must be acquired by an effort made of our own free will. The injunction is addressed first to the heart as the spiritual center of the individual. Mind is only one of the energies of the human 1. Love begins in the heart, and the mind is confronted with a new interior event and contemplates Being in the Light of Divine love.
A Difficult Task
There is no ascetic feat more difficult, more painful, than the effort to draw close to God, Who is Love (cf. i John 4.8, 16). Our inner climate varies almost from day to day: now we are troubled because we do not understand what is happening about us; now inspired by a new flash of knowledge. The Name Jesus speaks to us of the extreme manifestation of the Father's love for us (cf.John 3.16). In proportion as the image of Christ becomes ever more sacred to us, and His word is perceived as creative energy, so a marvelous peace floods the soul while a luminous aura envelops heart and head. Our attention may hold steady. Sometimes we continue thus, as if it were a perfectly normal state to be in, not recognizing that it is a gift from on High. For the most part we only realize this union of mind with heart when it is interrupted.
In the Man Christ Jesus 'dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily' (Col. 2.9). in Him there is not only God but the whole human race. When we pronounce the Name Jesus Christ we place ourselves before the plenitude both of Divine Being and created being. We long to make His life our life; to have Him take His abode in us. In this lies the meaning of deification. But Adam's natural longing for deification at the very outset took a wrong turning which led to a terrible deviation. His spiritual vision was insufficiently established in Truth.
Our life can become holy in all respects only when true knowledge of its metaphysical basis is coupled with perfect love towards God and our fellow-men. When we firmly believe that we are the creation of God the Primordial Being, it will be obvious that there is no possible deification for us outside the Trinity. If we recognize that in its ontology all human nature is one, then for the sake of the unity of this nature we shall strive to make love for our neighbor part of our being.
Our most dire enemy is pride. Its power is immense. Pride saps our every aspiration, vitiates our every endeavor. Most of us fall prey to its insinuations. The proud man wants to dominate, to impose his own will on others; and so conflict arises between brethren. The pyramid of inequality is contrary to revelation concerning the Holy Trinity in Whom there is no greater, no lesser; where each Person possesses absolute plenitude of Divine Being.
The Kingdom of Christ is founded on the principle that whosoever would be first should be the servant of all (cf. Mark 9.3 5). The man who humbles himself shall be raised up, and vice versa: he who exalts himself shall be brought low. In our struggle for prayer we shall cleanse our minds and hearts from any urge to prevail over our brother. Lust for power is death to the soul. People are lured by the grandeur of power but they forget that 'that which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God' (Matt. 16.15). Pride incites us to criticize, even scorn our weaker brethren; but the Lord warned us to 'take heed that we despise not one of these little ones' (cf. Matt. If we give in to pride all our practice of the Jesus Prayer will be but profanation of His Name. 'He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also to walk, even as He walked' (1 John2.6). He who verily loves Christ will devote his whole strength to obeying His word. I stress this because it is our actual method for learning to pray. This, and not any psychosomatic techniques, is the right way.
Not a Christian Yoga
I have lingered on the dogmatic justification for the Jesus Prayer largely because in the last decade or so the practice of this prayer has been distorted into a so-called 'Christian yoga' and mistaken for 'transcendental meditation'. Every culture, not only every religious culture, is concerned with ascetic exercises. If a certain similarity either in their practice or their outward manifestations, or even their mystical formulation, can be discerned, that does not at all imply that they are alike fundamentally. Outwardly similar situations can be vastly different in inner content.
When we contemplate Divine wisdom in the beauty of the created world, we are at the same time attracted still more strongly by the imperishable beauty of Divine Being as revealed to us by Christ. The Gospel for us is Divine Self-Revelation. In our yearning to make the Gospel word the substance of our whole being we free ourselves by the power of God from the domination of passions. Jesus is the one and only Savior in the true sense of the word. Christian prayer is effected by the constant invocation of His Name: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy upon us and upon Thy world.
Though prayer in the Name of Jesus in its ultimate realization unites man with Christ fully, the human hypostasis is not obliterated, is not lost in Divine Being like a drop of water in the ocean. 'I am the light of the world ... I am the truth and the life' (John 8.12; 14.6). For the Christian-Being, Truth,'Life are not 'what' but 'who'. Where there is no personal form of being, there is no living form either. Where in general there is no life, neither is there good or evil; light or darkness. 'Without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life' (John 1:3).
When contemplation of Uncreated Light is allied to invocation of the Name of Christ, the significance of this Name as 'the kingdom of God come with power' (Mark 9.1) is made particularly clear, and the spirit of man hears the voice of the Father: 'This is my beloved Son' (Mark 9.7). Christ in Himself showed us the Father: 'he that hath seen me hath seen the Father' (John 14:9). Now we know the Father in the same measure as we have known the Son. 'I and my Father are one' (John 10.30). And the Father bears witness to His Son. We therefore pray, 90 Son of God, save us and Thy world.'
To acquire prayer is to acquire eternity. When the body lies dying, the cry 'Jesus Christ' becomes the garment of the soul; when the brain no longer functions and other prayers are difficult to remember, in the light of the divine knowledge that proceeds from the Name our spirit will rise into life incorruptible.
From His LIfe is Mine by Archimandrite Sophrony, trans. Rosemary Edmonds,St. Valdimir Seminary Press, pp112-120

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Why a Chinese Buddhist Became an Athonite Monk

The following comes from the excellent website "Journeys to Orthodoxy" - which you can find a link to on my sidebar.  

Why a Chinese Buddhist Became an Athonite Monk

By Fr. Libyos

On my last trip to Mount Athos I visited the Monastery of Simonopetra. It is a majestic monastery and the sky was fully blue. There I met a graceful novice monk from China. In truth, he surprised me by his presence. An Orthodox rason on a Chinese man? I was moved somewhat. I had never seen this before up close, only in pictures of missions. An inheritor of a great cultural tradition and for him to embrace Christianity? My friends and I got curious to ask him about this.

"Brother, how did you, a Chinese man, embrace Orthodox Christian monasticism coming from such a great cultural tradition? Were you a Buddhist?"

"Yes, of course, I was a Buddhist."

"What won you over to Christianity?"

"Divine companionship!"

"Excuse me?"

"Yes, yes, Father, hahahahaha!", he laughed, since with every three words the Chinese seem to laugh at two. "In Buddhism, my Father, you are very very much alone. There is no God. Your entire struggle is with yourself. You are alone with yourself, with your ego. You are totally alone in this path. Great loneliness Father. But here you have an assistant, a companion and a fellow-traveler in God. You are not alone. You have someone who loves you, who cares about you. He cares even if you don't understand Him. You speak with Him. You tell Him how you feel, what you would have hoped for - there is a relationship. You are not alone in the difficult struggles of life and spiritual perfection.

I realized things in those days. A severe cold bound me to bed. No doctor could find anything wrong with me. The clinical picture was clear, at least the doctors couldn't see anything. The pain was unbearable and there was absolutely no pain killer that could stop it. I changed three different pain killers and still the pain was not alleviated.

At this time I got the news that the brother of my father, whose name I bear, had an advanced form of cancer in the vocal cords and larynx. He had a largyngectomy. It was the result of chronic alcohol consumption and smoking. Generally he lived a bad life, without any quality.

Then I felt something a former Buddhist and now a Christian monk on Mount Athos told me, that you need to have a God you can talk to; to perceive and to feel someone besides yourself Who hears you.

I don't know if it's wrong or right. I only know it is a deep need of man. This is evidenced by life itself. Even these Buddhists, who are from a non-theistic religion, created various deities. Even in dream language and worlds. But they have a need to refer to someone, to something, someone beyond and outside themselves, even if it's dreamy. Besides, reality and truth is something very relevant and will always remain so. It is an enigma, a mystery."

At this I remembered the words of Saint Gregory the Theologian, who had a sensitive and melancholic nature, when he said: "When you are not well, or not feeling so, speak. Speak even if it is to the wind."

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos

Monday, April 29, 2013

Archimandrite Sophrony on True Prayer

Archimandrite Sophrony on True Prayer

In recent months, Archimandrite Sophrony has become one of my favorite writers on Orthodox contemplative practice.  Before becoming a beloved monk on the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, Father Sophrony traversed the whole terrain of Asian philosophy and religion – he even lived for some years as a yogi in India – before re-converting to his childhood faith: the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The following is an excerpt from his book “His Life is Mine[1].”   It is on real prayer as it’s viewed from the Orthodox perspective:

To pray like that every morning is not easy[2]. But if we pray from our heart,
with all our attention, the day will be stamped by our prayer and everything
that happens will take on a different character. The blessing that we have
sought from the High God will beget a gentle peace in our soul which will
have a miraculous effect on the way we see and interpret the world. The
man of prayer beholds the surrounding scene in another light. Concern is
quickened and the intrinsic quality of life enhanced. In time prayer will
penetrate our nature until gradually a new man is born of God. Love for God,
Who verily sends His blessings upon us, liberates the soul from extraneous
pressure. The one imperative is to preserve this loving tie with God. We shall
not care what people think of us, or how they treat us. We shall cease to be
afraid of falling out of favor. We shall love our fellow men without thought
of whether they love us. Christ gave us the commandment to love others but
did not make it a condition of salvation that they should love us. Indeed, we
may positively be disliked for independence of spirit. It is essential in these
days to be able to protect ourselves from the influence of those with whom
we come in contact. Otherwise we risk losing both faith and prayer. Let the
whole world dismiss us as unworthy of attention, trust or respect- it will not
matter provided that the Lord accepts us. And vice versa: it will profit us
nothing if the whole world thinks well of us and signs our praises, if the Lord
declines to abide with us. This is only a fragment of the freedom Christ
meant when He said, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you
free’ (John 8.32). Our sole care will be to continue in the word of Christ, to
become His disciples and cease to be servants of sin. For ‘whosoever
committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the
house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make
you free, ye shall be free indeed’ (John 8.34-36). The end result of prayer is
to make us sons of God, and as sons we shall abide forever in the house of
our Father. ‘Our Father which art in heaven…’.

Of all approaches to God prayer is the best and in the last analysis the only
means. In the act of prayer the human mind finds its noblest expression.
The mental state of the scientist engaged in research, of the artist creating a
work of art, of the thinker wrapped up in philosophy- even of professional
theologians propounding their doctrines- cannot be compared to that of the
man of prayer brought face to Face with the living God. Each and every kind
of mental activity presents less of a strain than prayer. We may be capable
of working for ten or twelve hours on end but a few moments of prayer and
we are exhausted.
Prayer can accomplish all things. It is possible for any of us lacking in natural
talent to obtain through prayer supranatural gifts. Where we encounter a
deficiency of rational knowledge we should do well to remember that prayer,
independently of man’s intellectual capacity, can bring a higher form of
cognition. There is the province of reflex consciousness, of demonstrative
argument; and there is the province where prayer is the passageway to
direct contemplation of divine truth.

[1] From Chapter 6: Prayer of the Spirit
[2] Father Sophrony is referring to ascetical and repentant prayer; the kind of prayer that is the hallmark of Orthodox spirituality and contemplative practice.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Can Orthodoxy Speak to Eastern Religions?

     The following is an excellent article written by Kevin Allen.  Before converting to Orthodoxy, Kevin was a Hindu practitioner.  He hosts a weekly radio show over at Ancient Faith Radio (a great resource for anyone interested in becoming Orthodox, or for Orthodox who want to know more about their faith).

Can Orthodox Christianity Speak to Eastern Religions?
Kevin Allen
I recently had a conversation with a dear Eastern Orthodox priest, whose twenty six year old son had left home the day before to live indefinitely at a Buddhist monastery. He was heart broken. His son was not a stranger to Eastern Orthodoxy or to its monastic tradition, having even spent two months on the holy mountain of Mt. Athos.
His son's journey is not an isolated event. Eastern religious traditions are a growing and competing force in American religious life. Buddhism is now the fourth-largest religious group in the United States, with 2.5 - 3 million adherents, approximately 800,000 of whom are American western "converts"? There are actually more Buddhists in America today than Eastern Orthodox Christians! The Dalai Lama (the leader of one of the Tibetan Buddhist sects) is one of the most recognized and admired people in the world and far better recognized than any Eastern Orthodox hierarch? Have you looked in the magazine section of Borders or Barnes and Noble lately? There are more publications with names like "Shambala Sun", "Buddhadharma", and "What is enlightenment?" on the shelves than Christian publications!
In addition to losing seekers to eastern spiritual traditions (many of them youth), eastern metaphysics has also seeped into our western cultural worldview without much notice. They are doing a better job (sadly) "evangelizing" our culture than we Eastern Orthodox Christians are!
The Lord Himself commands us clearly "that repentance and remission of sins (baptism) should be preached in His name to all nations" (Luke 24:47). Buddhists (of which there are many sects) and Hindus live among us in America in ever-growing numbers, in our college classrooms, on our soccer fields, and in our "health foods" stores - they are right in our own backyards! They are a rich, potential "mission field" for the Eastern Orthodox Church in the United States. Unfortunately with few exceptions, like the writings of Monk Damascene [Christensen] and Kyriakos S. Markides, we are not talking to this group at all.
As a former Hindu and disciple of a well-known guru, or spiritual teacher, I can tell you Orthodox Christianity shares more "common ground" with seekers of non-Christian spiritual traditions of the east than any other Christian confession! The truth is when Evangelical Protestants attempt to evangelize the eastern seeker they often do more harm than good, because their approach is western, rational, and doctrinal, with (generally) little understanding of the paradigms and spiritual language (or yearnings) of the seekers of these eastern faiths.
There are three "fundamental principles" that Buddhists and Hindus generally share in common:
1.             A common "supra-natural" reality underlies and pervades the phenomenal world. This Supreme Reality isn't Personal, but Trans-personal. God or Ultimate Reality in these traditions is ultimately a pure consciousness without attributes.
2.             The human soul is of the same essence with this divine reality. All human nature is divine at its core. Accordingly, Christ or Buddha isn't a savior, but becomes a paradigm of self-realization, the goal of all individuals.
3.             Existence is in fundamental unity (monism). Creation isn't what it appears to the naked eye. It is in essence "illusion" and "unreal". There is one underlying ground of being (think "quantum field" in physics!) which unifies all beings and out of which and into which everything can be reduced.
What do these metaphysics have in common with our Eastern Orthodox Faith? Not much, on the surface. But in the eastern non-Christian spiritual traditions, knowledge is not primarily about the development of metaphysical doctrine or theology. This is one of the problems western Christians have communicating with them. Eastern religion is never theoretical or doctrinal. It's about the struggle for liberation from death and suffering through spiritual experience. This "existential-therapeutic-transformational" ethos is the first connection Eastern Orthodoxy has with these traditions, because Orthodoxy is essentially therapeutic and transformative in emphasis!
The second thing we agree on with Buddhists and Hindus is the fallen state of humanity. The goal of the Christian life according to the Church Fathers is to move from the "sub-natural" or "fallen state", to the "natural" or the "according to nature state" after the Image (of God), and ultimately to the "supra-natural" or "beyond nature" state, after the Likeness. According to the teaching of the holy Fathers the stages of the spiritual life are purification, illumination and deification. While we don't agree with Buddhists or Hindus on what "illumination" or "deification" means (because our metaphysics are different) we agree on the basic diagnosis of the fallen human condition. As I once said to a practicing Tibetan Buddhist: "We agree on the sickness (of the human condition). Where we disagree is on the cure".
Eastern Orthodoxy - especially the hesychasm (contemplative) tradition - teaches that true "spiritual knowledge" presupposes a "purified" and "awakened" nous (Greek), which is the "Inner 'I'" of the soul. The true Eastern Orthodox theologian isn't one who simply knows doctrine, but one "who knows God, or the inner essences or principles of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. " As a well-known Orthodox theologian explains, "When the nous is illuminated, it means that it is receiving the energy of God which illuminates it..." This idea resonates with eastern seekers who struggle to experience - through non-Christian ascesis and/or through occult methods - spiritual illumination. They just don't know this opportunity exists within a Christian context.
As part of their spiritual ascesis, Buddhist and Hindu dhamma (practice) emphasizes cessation of desire, which is necessary to quench the passions. Holy Tradition teaches apatheia, or detachment as a means of combating the fallen passions. Hindu and Buddhist meditation methods teach "stillness". The word hesychia in Holy Tradition - the root of the word for hesychasm - means "stillness"! We don't meditate using a mantra, but we pray the "Jesus Prayer". Buddhism, especially, teaches "mindfulness". Holy Tradition teaches "watchfulness" so we do not fall into temptation! Hindus and Buddhists understand it is not wise to live for the present life, but to struggle for the future one. We Orthodox agree! Americans who become Buddhist or Hindu are often fervent spiritual seekers, used to struggling with foreign languages (Sanskrit, Tibetan, Japanese) and cultures and pushing themselves outside of their "comfort zones". We converts to the Eastern Orthodox Church can relate! Some Buddhist and Hindu sects even have complex forms of "liturgy", including chant, prostration and veneration of icons! Tibetan Buddhism especially places high value on the lives of (their) ascetics, relics and "saints".
The main difference in spiritual experience is that what the eastern seeker recognizes as "spiritual illumination", achieved through deep contemplation, Holy Tradition calls "self contemplation". Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), who was experienced in yoga (which means 'union') before becoming a hesychast - monk and disciple of St. Silouan of the holy mountain wrote from personal experience, "All contemplation arrived at by this means is self-contemplation, not contemplation of God. In these circumstances we open up for ourselves created beauty, not First Being. And in all this there is no salvation for man."
Clement of Alexandria, two thousand years ago wrote that pre-Christian philosophers were often inspired by God, but he cautioned one to be careful what one took from them!
So we acknowledge the eastern seeker through his ascesis or contemplative methodologies may experience deep levels of created beauty, or created being (through self-contemplation), para-normal dimensions, or even the "quantum field" that modern physics has revealed! However, it is only in the Eastern Orthodox Church and through its deifying mysteries that the seeker will be introduced to the province of Uncreated Divine Life. It is only in the Orthodox Church that the eastern seeker will hear there is more to "salvation" than simply forgiveness of sins and justification before God. He will be led to participate in the Uncreated Energies of God, so that they "may be partakers of the divine nature" (II Peter 1:4). As a member of the Body of Christ he will join in the deifying process, and be increasingly transformed after the Likeness! Thankfully, deification is available to all who enter the Holy Orthodox Church, are baptized (which begins the deifying process) and partake of the holy mysteries. Deification is not just for monks, ascetics and the spiritual athletes on Mount Athos!
Eastern Orthodoxy has much to share with eastern spiritual seekers. Life and death hangs in the balance in this life, not the millions of lives eastern seekers think they have! As the Apostle Paul soberly reminds us, " ... it is appointed for men to die once but after this the judgment." (Heb. 9:27).
May God give us the vision to begin to share the "true light" of the Holy Orthodox Faith with seekers of the eastern spiritual traditions.

1. Makarian Homilies; Glossary of The Philokalia
2. Hierotheos Vlachos, Life after death; 1995; Birth of the Theotokos Monastery
3. On Prayer; Sophrony; pages 168-170

Kevin Allen, a former Hindu practitioner before becoming an Eastern Orthodox Christian, is also the co-host of the Internet radio program "The Illumined Heart" which is broadcast weekly on Ancient Faith Radio ( © 2007 Kevin Allen.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

From Eastern Philosophy to Eastern Orthodoxy

From Eastern Philosophy to Eastern Orthodoxy

     Welcome to my new blog.
     For the last 8 or 9 months, I’ve had a blog entitled “Blue Jean Theosis.”  The purpose of that blog—or at least the attempt of it—was to bring Orthodoxy into the minds of modern seekers, people who may not usually be interested in the Orthodox faith.  But the problem is that it was “all over the place”—for lack of a better phrase.  It didn’t have a coherent message—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—and was more or less various “thoughts” that I had regarding the Eastern Christian view in light of modern philosophical concepts and ways of thinking.  It was in many ways nothing more than a “personal” blog.
     I realized that I could do better.
     And I realized this because I have a “story” to tell; one that will reach many more hearts, and many more “seekers”, than Blue Jean Theosis could ever attempt to reach.  And that is the story of my life, and the story of this blog—a story that I hope will resonate with a great many people; a story of my conversion from Eastern philosophy and religion—specifically that of Taoism, Buddhism, and Vedanta—to the very heart of Christianity: the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, most commonly referred to as Eastern Orthodoxy.
     This blog is for those of you who are interested in Christianity—specifically the ancient Christian spirituality found within the religion—but have been turned off with the “trappings” of Western Christianity.  It is for those of you who want Christ in your life, yet have been more attracted to the philosophies and practical spirituality of the Asian East.  And it is for those of you who want the Truth—who desire it more than anything else in the world, more than breathing and more than eating—and who think that it is found in the Absolute Being so often talked about in Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, and the Vedanta of ancient India.  The truth—and here’s the whole crux of what this blog will be focused on—is that the Truth is found in the Primordial, Pure Being of those ancient philosophies, but it is not the Ultimate Truth.  Because the ultimate truth is this: Truth is a Person, known and loved by the human heart.[1]  It’s not that the philosophies of Asia are wrong, it’s that they are incomplete.
     Listen to the words of Saint John the Theologian, and let it call out to you from Holy Scripture, let it call to your heart:
     In the beginning was Primordial Being,
     And Primordial Being was with God,
     And Primordial Being was God.
     …And Primordial Being was made flesh and dwelt among us…[2]
     If these words from Scripture—and what I have written so far—resonate with you, then the rest of this blog will hopefully do the same.  Here is a quote from the book “Christ the Eternal Tao” that sums up in many ways who this blog is written for, and what you can look for in upcoming posts[3]:
     In modern Western Society, many people turn away from the Christianity of their formative years because they find its truths smothered under an unreal kind of religiosity.  They see that the people in the churches are not changing and becoming better, but rather are comforting themselves and each other in their unregenerate state.  They find that the spirit of Western churches is, at its core, little different from that of the world around them.  Having removed Christianity from the Cross of inward purification, these churches have replaced a direct, intuitive apprehension of Reality and a true experience of God with intellectualism on one hand and emotionalism on the other.
     “In the first case, Christianity becomes something that is acquired through rote learning, based on the idea if you just get the words right—if you just memorize the key Scripture verses, intellectually grasp the concepts and repeat them, know how to act and speak in the religious dialect of your particular sect—you will be saved.  Christianity then becomes a dry, word-based religion, a legalistic system, a set of ideas and behaviors, and a political institution that operates on the same principles as the institutions of the world.
     “In the second case, Western churches add the element of emotionalism and enthusiasm in order to add life to their systems, but this becomes just as grossly material as religious legalism.  People become hypnotized by their self-induced emotional states, seeing a mirage of spiritual ascent while remaining bound to the material world.
    “This is not direct perception of Reality; it is not the Ultimate.  It is no wonder, then, that the Western spiritual seekers, even if they have been raised in Christian homes, begin to look elsewhere, into the Eastern religions.  It is also not surprising that so many are turning to the profound and enigmatic work of pre-Christian China, the Tao Te Ching.  In reading Lao Tzu, they sense a similar spirit to that of Jesus Christ.   They see a poetic glimpse of Christ in Lao Tzu—a reflection that is faint, but somehow still pure.  And to them, this faint but pure image is better than the vivid but more tarnished image of Him that they encounter in much of what now passes for Christianity.”[4]
     If that resonates, then this blog is surely for you.
     If you are attracted to the Tao, then may you find even more comfort in the Tao that became flesh—the Tao that dwelt in the world, and still dwells within the heart of every seeker.
     If you are attracted to the Buddha, then may you find even more comfort and solace from suffering in He who took on the suffering of the world.
     If you are attracted to the bhakti of Hinduism, may you find solace in the ultimate bhaktas, the ascetical hesychasts of the Orthodox Church, who know Christ as the ultimate Beloved.
     And if you seek unity with the One that is beyond all duality, may these words of Saint Athanasius ever ring true: “God become man in order that man might become god.”

     This blog will contain many of my own writings—including, but in no way limited, to posts from my previous blog—and it will also contain all that I can find on the Web regarding the interface of Asian philosophy and spirituality with the Orthodox Church.
     I hope that this blog will be your one-stop for everything you are searching for if you are searching for a real, lived philosophy—a contemplative philosophy—and if you wish to find it in the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, the Primordial Being made flesh.

[1] These are not my words.  Rather, they are the words of that great bastion of Orthodoxy, Father Seraphim Rose.  Father Seraphim—a Saint in my book—was a seeker of Truth.  He thought he had found the truth in Taoism, but it wasn’t until he encountered the Orthodox Church that he knew “Truth was a Person, known and loved by the human heart.”
[2] I “borrowed” this translation of the Gospel of John from the book “Christ the Eternal Tao,” but instead of “Tao”, I have substituted “Primordial Being.”  In my view—and I believe in what would have been the view of both Lao Tzu and the early Church Fathers—it constitutes the same thing.  The reason is because the Greek word for “Word” is “Logos.”  Logos and the Tao—and therefore Primordial Being—are essentially the same thing.  A Christian who doesn’t understand the Logos simply doesn’t understand Christianity.  (More on what this entails—and how the Logos made flesh is also the Tao made flesh—in upcoming blog posts.)
[3] As far as I’m concerned, “Christ the Eternal Tao” is the best book ever written that brings together both Asian philosophy and the revelation of Jesus Christ.  It does this without being a syncretism (a common pitfall of most books that combine the two), while also bringing out the full significance of Asian philosophy and the Church of Christ.
[4] Found in the forward of Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene.