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Essential Spiritual Training

October 22, 2009

I’m using my Librarything to compile a list of books of particular value in spiritual training. I also have one for essential magical training. I will be adding to them and modifying them over time, so please check back periodically!

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Book Review: “Entering the Sacred Mountain”

March 5, 2010

Entering the Sacred Mountain: Exploring the Mystical Practices of Judaism, Buddhism, and Sufism
by Rabbi David A. Cooper
1994, Bell Tower
9 out of 10

This book appears to have been out of print since 1995, which is a real shame. It is among Rabbi Cooper’s best works, alongside his brilliant God Is a Verb (1998, Riverhead Books), as well as one of the best spiritual biographies I’ve yet to encounter.

Taking place over the course of several years, Entering the Sacred Mountain moves frequently between excerpts from Rabbi Cooper’s journals from the time and detailed reflections on the events of his life and spiritual practice of the time of the entries. The narrative style is interesting in that it does not follow broad trends as much as very specific details. Still, the order and depth of the details give the reader an intimate view of the Rabbi’s life between the years of 1981 and 1992. It is obvious that Cooper chose a particularly eventful period of his life; it is during the decade in question that he and his wife, Shoshana, jointly entered an increasingly deep spiritual practice, converted to Judaism, dealt with the stress and conflicts as well as pleasures of married life, and moved to Israel. It was also during these years that Cooper trained under Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to himself become a rabbi.

All of these events do more than provide context. They reveal how so-called “mundane life” is inextricably linked with the spiritual life; how we cannot segregate them or draw lines through our life experiences; how our relationships with our fellow human beings and even other life forms inform and enhance our connections with God.

Rabbi Cooper also uses his own life to demonstrate the essentially universal nature of the mystical practices and experiences underlying all traditional religions. He has studied the mysticism of Christianity, Judaism, Sufism (Islam), Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. In Entering the Sacred Mountain, he describes many experiences with the three with which he was most familiar.

Much of Cooper’s earliest mystical experience seems to have been in Sufism, a tradition to which I have had very little exposure myself but which, after reading of Cooper’s time with Sufism, I would like to get to know. Having been raised in a secular Jewish family, there was no apparent cultural conflict for Cooper to practice an Islamic form of mysticism. Instead, he found in Sufism a joyful, ecstatic form of spiritual practice and expression, easily accessible to people of all backgrounds.

In Buddhism, Rabbi Cooper found a more disciplined, quiet approach. Intensive Vipassana retreats followed upon his earliest experiences in Buddhist meditation. These powerful insight meditations led him to a deeper understanding of himself and to the world around him.

The most fascinating part of the story, though, is how Sufism and Buddhism led him, against expectation, back to his ancestral faith of Judaism. He burrowed deeply into the traditional Jewish life. He and his wife traveled to Israel and even moved to Jerusalem in order to better live the Jewish life. They did not, in this experiment, give up their meditative practices, but instead applied them bit by bit within  Jewish context in order to bring their Judaism to a deeper, more intensive life.

Rabbi Cooper is very honest, though, about the conflicts he encountered during his process. He and Shoshana found that they did not ever feel completely at home in orthodox Judaism, largely due to a combination of its conservative social positions and the nonacceptance of their “non-Jewish” spiritual activities. I can sympathize with this process almost in its entirety. Since I’ve become a Christian, a big part of the process has been finding ways of integrating the spiritual practices which have brought me to where I am and continue to carry my onward with my love for Christ. Once this integration had taken place, the next task, still ongoing, became finding my own place within the social structure of Christianity. I do not feel that it is impossible to do so, however, and Rabbi David Cooper is a great example of the process in action.

Rabbi David Cooper is a wonderful example to spiritual seekers of all sorts. He found what works and found ways of integrating it all in a way that is meaningful for himself. If you can find a copy of Entering the Sacred Mountain, do not hesitate to pick it up! Spiritual biographies are always helpful to us as we move along our own paths, but especially so when they are so honest and identifiable.

Book Review: “The Case for God”

January 18, 2010

The Case for God
by Karen Armstrong
2009, Alfred A. Knopf
10 out of 10

It’s not many scholars of religion who understand the essence of religious practice. The subject has unfortunately been transformed into a purely rational exercise seeking to understand religion as if it were simply an incidental collection of ideas requiring mere intellectual assent, as vulnerable to intellectual analysis as any other set of ideas. The obvious problem of this approach is set down perfectly by Armstrong herself in the introduction to The Case for God:

Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart. This will be one of the major themes of this book. It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth—or lack of it—only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Like any skill, religion requires perseverance, hard work, and discipline. Some people will be better at it than others, some appallingly inept, and some will miss the point entirely. But those who do not apply themselves will get nowhere at all. Religious people find it hard to explain how their rituals and practices work, just as a skater may not be fully conscious of the physical laws that enable her to glide over the ice on a thin blade. (pg xiii)

For Karen Armstrong, unlike most religion scholars, religious history and theology are themselves religious disciplines. They both have the power to reveal to us the fact that we cannot box the Transcendent into any categories, that God or the Dao or Nirvana cannot be defined by any thoughts, emotions, or limited to a cultural context. Religious history reveals the cultural relativity of religious symbolism, but also the core universal experiences achieved by all of the great traditions. Theology insists upon the indefinite God, pealing away layer after layer of description and rationalization until, like the Buddha’s teaching of non-self, we arrive at that incredible Nothing in which we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

The Case for God was written principally as Armstrong’s response to the “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and their ilk. In this capacity, the book serves admirably. Most responses of this sort (such as philosopher, and former atheist, Antony Flew’s There Is A God [2007, HarperOne], and The Dawkins Delusion? by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath [2007, IVP Books]) try to convince the reader that, contrary to the arguments common to the new atheists, belief in God is reasonable or, at least, not unreasonable. These books make for fascinating reading, and excellent thought experiments, but really do not approach the very core of the subject at hand. Another approach in the genre, that of journalist Chris Hedges in his I Don’t Believe in Atheists (2008, Free Press), is to undercut the atheists’ fundamentalist paradigm rather than their questioning of the idea of God. This mode of thought is itself valuable, for the religious and irreligious alike, as it requires the reader to question the assumptions of modernist and rationalist thinking that most of us hold dear without even realizing it.

For her part, Karen Armstrong takes a similar tack to Hedges, but she particularizes it to arguing that the very definitions of the idea of God used in debating both for and against are themselves the problem. In other words, the fact that we define God at all makes all cases in either direction false, at least insofar as they are based on merely thinking or emoting rather than actual religious experience.

The heart and soul of Armstrong’s entire approach to religion, perfectly exemplified by her expostulation in The Case for God, is that none of the great religious teachers approached the subject as either the intense emotional experiences found in most modern Western systems (whether of “charismatic” or “ecstatic” forms of Christianity, Judaism, Neopaganism, New Age spiritualities, or what have you), nor as the mere intellectual assent to a set of specific ideas (such as the modern Catholic statements of God as an immense and powerful spirit found in the catechism). These are largely post-Enlightenment developments in religious thought precipitated by the rising dominance of a purely reason-based approach to the search for truth. Rational definitions of religious practices and experiences are plainly inconsistent and absurd, but came about because Westerners more and more came to believe that only that which can be proved by the physical sciences or revealed by principles of demonstrable reason could possibly be “true” because “factual”. Uncontrolled experiences, such as glossolalia, colorful visions, intense emotional states, possession, and the like, are generally more harmful than positive as they tend to keep us anchored in the senses and the ego, steering us toward delusion and away from Reality. The seeking after such experiences came about as a reaction against the aforementioned rationalistic philosophizing; because many people who wanted a vibrant religious life found that they could not have one within that growing rationalism, and because heart and head had been newly placed in opposition to one another, it seemed only natural to choose powerful emotions and incredible visions over dry theorizing.

A reading of the religious literature of all of the great traditions, at least that which was written by the greatest spiritual directors and mystics of those traditions, shows a very different picture, one which Karen Armstrong shows to the reader in detail. Here we see, not dry philosophizing, nor emotional discord, but an indescribable, pure and clean experience of Reality beyond what we can otherwise know, yet intimate and deeply familiar. This experience, if pursued with both love and discipline, enlivens and purifies our emotional souls while at the same time honing and clearing our intellective minds. This, as clearly as I can express it, is the great difference between traditional spirituality, rational philosophy, and emotionally-dependent pseudo-mysticism. Karen Armstrong’s greatest argument is to simply point to this traditional spirituality in the three major theistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism and point out that until we have understood this tradition with its contingent techniques and methods, we are in no position at all to either define or judge the edifice of that which we call “religion” or that symbol which we call “God”.

It is unfortunate, to the point of tragedy, that those to whom this brilliant, insightful and elegant case is directed will almost certainly never read it and, even if they were to read it, they would probably not allow themselves to process the point on its own terms. At least we have the fact that Armstrong presents her entire discussion to us, those who might benefit from it. As such, The Case for God is a great gift to spiritual seekers of whatever tradition in the modern world. In this, her most recent of many brilliant books, Karen Armstrong gives us a classic, elegant, and immediately useful historical and philosophical foundation in religious thought and practice. Whether you are considering a new religious exploration, a return to the religion of your upbringing, or a better way of approaching your current spiritual path, this is a valuable and beautiful book by one of our greatest living religious scholars and writers.

Book Review: “In Days of Great Peace”

January 7, 2010

In Days of Great Peace: The Highest Yoga as Lived
by Mouni Sadhu
2001, Sri Ramanasramam
10 out of 10

I’ve read a lot of spiritual memoirs. I like them as a genre because they possess much of the value of a conversation with the individual involved, getting to know what it is they’ve gone through as if you were sharing histories over hot cider. Unlike theological essays and manuals, memoirs usually serve as encouragement and inspiration with a personal touch. Any book will show you something of the author’s soul, but it takes a memoir to lay it bare.

Mouni Sadhu’s In Days of Great Peace was originally written in 1950, the year of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s death. (The expanded  second edition was published in 1955. The 2001 2nd edition print is a limited reprint published by the Rishi Ramana’s ashram, Sri Ramanasramam, in Tiruvannamalai, India.) It is really something of an expansion of notes that Sadhu took while staying in the ashram of the Maharshi. The book is not laid out in any particular format, and is mostly not in chronological order. Instead of trying to record exact events, the author was trying to capture something of the actual experience of exploring the sacred hill Sri Arunachala, living in the Ramanasramam, and meditating at the feet of the Great Rishi.

At that task, I can only say that Mouni Sadhu does an admirable job. Not having been there myself, I still feel as if I have made the trip. I can picture the Rishi staring out into infinity, yet somehow looking more deeply within me than even I have seen. I can feel myself sitting next to Sadhu as he prays at the grave of “Haji”, a local Muslim saint. Most of all, I can vividly experience the parallels between the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi and my own Master, Jesus the Christ, as well as Shakyamuni Buddha, Krishna, and Hermes the Thrice Great.

Sadhu also gives some details of his own spiritual search, those events which lead him to Sri Ramanasramam and the teachings of Rishi Ramana. He doesn’t say a lot, but what he does tell us is full of meaning. We can see ourselves in his place, finding similarities between his journey and our own. That is the test of a good memoir: how personally identifiable is the author’s story? Does he treat himself as a human being, or does he try to make of himself some epic figure? In this case, Mouni Sadhu doesn’t need to go to lengths to make of himself an “everyman”, because it is very simply clear that that is just what he is.

Unlike many memoirs, Mouni Sadhu also does provide something in the way of instruction. This is not done in a way that interrupts the story, but instead facilitating the narrative organically. An entire chapter is devoted to the method of Vichara, that style of self-inquiry which Sri Ramana personally practiced and taught. Sadhu also provides snippets of correspondences he sent out to friends from the ashram, answering various questions on the topic of spiritual practice for the benefit of the reader of any degree of experience.

What’s also unique about Mouni Sadhu’s memoir is that In Days of Great Peace is the first book in an intentional trilogy, followed up by Concentration and Samadhi (with a fourth volume, Meditation, acting as a later cap on that trilogy). Concentration and Samadhi are purely instructive books, being composed principally of exercises for mental development and spiritual realization. In Days of Great Peace, then, serves to draw a person in to the entire process of spirituality, revealing it as the sumum bonum that it is. The message is clear: there is nothing else!

Unfortunately, I cannot capture, in something like a review, the shimmer and shine of this book, nor its dust and gravel. In Days of Great Peace is among the greatest spiritual books of the 20th century. A big claim, certainly, which places the book in great company. I can only suggest that you read it for yourself and see what I mean.

Book Review: “The Year of Living Like Jesus”

November 22, 2009

The Year of Living Like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do
by Ed Dobson
2009, Zondervan
9 out of 10

Usually when I look at the back of a book and see something like “Evangelical pastor Ed Dobson had a radical idea…”, I think “Oh, no!” But this time, I gave it the benefit of the doubt for two reasons:

First, the foreword is by A. J. Jacobs, the guy who wrote The Year of Living Biblically (which was actually Dobson’s inspiration for his own journey and book). Jacobs is himself a “secular Jew”, not at all an evangelical Christian. As a Christian, I have to admit that I still have a hard time with the more conservative elements of my own faith group, and the term “evangelical” more often than not refers to just these folks, but not always. So if A. J. Jacobs found the book interesting, maybe it wasn’t as “conservative” as I would have guessed.

Second, the cover of the book is a photo of Ed Dobson with his long “Jesus beard”. The man’s smile is disarming and his eyes are warm and inviting. I can’t help but looking at him and thinking, “Yeah, I could have a nice conversation with this guy.”

So, I kept reading the back: “Live one year as Jesus lived. Eat as Jesus ate. Pray as Jesus prayed. Observe the Sabbath as Jesus observed it. Attend the Jewish festivals that Jesus attended. Read the Gospels every week.” Hmm. Ok, doesn’t sound all that profound, but at least here’s a Christian who’s willing to take Jesus’ Jewish background seriously, and not just so that he can support Israel and help to bring about the end of the world.

“Dobson’s transition from someone who follows Jesus to someone who lives like Jesus takes him into bars, inspires him to pick up hitchhikers, and depens his understanding of suffering. Living like Jesus is quite different from what we imagine.”

Here’s the thing: based on Dobson’s experiences, living like Jesus is actually pretty similar to what I imagined. That’s why this book is so great. Dobson is one of those rare individuals who possesses the intellectual and moral honesty to travel outside his own comfort zone, even outside his evangelical theology and upbringing, in order to figure out what his religion really means.

I don’t agree with all of Dobson’s opinions and conclusions, but that’s cool. The thing that he and I can share (apart from our faith in Jesus Christ) is our love for trying to get to the root of things, the real “fundamentals”. In other words, his conclusions aren’t conclusions at all, but are temporary intellectual rest-stops during his continuous exploration.

How did he step outside of his comfort zone? Well, for starters, he started to go to Jewish services. Most evangelicals are willing to shout about supporting Israel, but can be downright antisemitic in their personal words and deeds. Dobson’s just not that type of guy. He also learned how to pray the Rosary and the Orthodox prayer rope. If you know anything of the modern Christian environment, you know already how big of a no-no that is! Disciplined religion, outside of going to church and reading the Bible, is very much frowned-upon in most Protestant circles, and (ironically) considered to be “unspiritual”. But Jesus was very disciplined in his Jewish faith, so why shouldn’t we be in our Christianity?

And here’s another thing: for once in his life, Dobson didn’t vote party-line Republican. After actually looking into each candidate and lining them up with the teachings of the Christ, he came to a few realizations… Now, I’m no Democrat, and because I’m not at all a “party-liner”, I applaud Dobson’s willingness to look below the surface.

Written with candor and simplicity, this book is worthy of the attention of all spiritual seekers, and even the non-religious. Apart from the lessons in religion and morality which Dobson shares with the reader, he also shares much of his own life and personality. In The Year of Living Like Jesus, we have a gift of rare sincerity, honesty, and true pathos.

Book Review: “Tao Te Ching” by Stephen Mitchell

November 22, 2009

Tao Te Ching: A New English Version
by Lao-tze, Stephen Mitchell
1988, 2006, Harper Perennial Modern Classics
10 out of 10

Stephen Mitchell’s version of Tao Te Ching is often cited as among the best translations of this most fascinating and beautiful book. And for good reason! Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching is lyrical and clear, a worthy effort at capturing the poetry of the Chinese while maintaining the “no-nonsense” matter-of-factness of the message.

I normally prefer a more literal translation than Mitchell’s, and I’m the type of person who will read the same story in the Bible in multiple very different translations just to make sure that I’m getting the sense of the original. Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching is not even a translation; he didn’t know a word of Chinese while creating his version, so he compared renderings from multiple well-respected translations available to him. In the process, he tried to keep the literal meanings intact as much as possible, but would sometimes modify the verses in order to make the meaning more plain or to clean-up the poetry a bit, as most English translations are done by scholars who are (understandably and laudably) more concerned with the content than the form. In other words, Mitchell’s mission was to produce an English poem out of Lao-tze’s classic.

This, he does admirably. While not as literal a translation as you can get elsewhere, Stephen Mitchell has definitely captured Lao-tze’s mind in English verse. My other favorite translation, that of John Bright-Fey (2004, Sweet Water Press) is considerably more dense, literal and truly esoteric. Bright-Fey’s translation is one to study, but Stephen Mitchell’s is one to simply absorb.

Librarything!

October 20, 2009

I now have a Librarything account! Come check out my profile and book collection and start your own.