Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Bottomless Vessel

First appeared in the Missoulian, Christmas 2010.

There is a Jewish saying that, “in a man who is full of himself there is no room for God.”  Surely, this is true, but it is not just oneself that a person may become full of. One may become full with learning, with scholarship, or with some political ideology or other, or even with religious dogma and teaching. Countless are the things with which a person may become full, which may crowd out all inner space for compassion and patience, for forbearance and understanding; in short, for those qualities of spirit which are the flowering of the divine in humanity.

A person is akin to a vessel, a jug or perhaps a wineskin. In our natural state we are as bottomless vessels, which take in all and yet always have room for more. There is no problem with learning, ideology or dogma per se, but the problem arises when we take our personal understanding of one of these things as the end-all and be-all of existence. That which has been called God, Brahman, Wakan Tanka, Allah, Tao, among other things, is the mysterious, the inconceivable, the spirit of all life and consciousness in the cosmos.

It is said that, “with God all things are possible,” but with one who is full of herself, only that which she already contains is possible; she will admit nothing else. She turns away from new aspects of existence and so seals her vessel, as it were, at the mouth. How can God add to one who has thus sealed themselves up? How can God teach one who is so convinced of their own learning, their own understanding?

There is a Zen Buddhist saying, “in the expert's mind there are few possibilities, in the beginner's mind there are many.” The expert has sealed himself up, has turned away from the infinite possibilities of reality in favor of the finite possibilities of his own understanding. For the expert, for the one full of themselves and their own understanding, there can be no compromise, and thus no dialogue or community, with another whose understanding is different, or even just differently phrased.

The expert says that our enemy must be hated and destroyed, but Jesus says that our enemy must be loved and prayed for, befriended if possible, and the Buddhist sage Shantideva agrees with him, along with many others down the ages. They are all calling us to the remembrance and realization of our higher possibilities, possibilities denied by the experts.

The requirement, then, is simply to remain open. Open to others and their understandings, open to all possibilities, especially the possibility (nay, certainty) that our own current understanding is incomplete and relative. Let us not seal off our vessels, but rather let us be vigilant in making room for the higher here in the lower.

Many are they today who claim that the possibilities are few, that the enemy must be despised and vanquished, not loved or befriended. May we not pay heed to those voices, but rather to the small, quiet voice of the divine that still whispers in every soul where there is room, calling us to love and to compassion and to all the wondrous possibilities of our highest, divinely-human nature

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