/ 16 April 2014

Finding God can happen in church – or in a dew drop

Big Buddha at the retreat centre in Ixopo.
Big Buddha at the retreat centre in Ixopo.

Early one morning, when we had just started our walking meditation on the lawns at our Centre, a car came on to the property and stopped as we crossed the narrow gravel road.

It was a visitor who had experienced problems with his car the day before. Let's call him Tom. He was agitated and very apologetic for arriving so late. I could sense from his behaviour that a lot was going wrong in his life – and now this!

Tom was experiencing a difficult period in his life. He was a bit overweight, probably in middle management in a small company and about to be retired. He had always defined himself through his work and his family, but these crutches had been falling away. His children were now bringing their children on Sunday afternoons for obligatory visits. He had joined a bowling club.

I told Tom that we were in silence and to join us in our mindful walking as we walked slowly up and down the garden, simply observing the passing scenery of grass and trees without comment, as if we had never seen things like this before.

Apprehensively, he began to walk, nervously watching the others. He then got into his stride. After a while I saw him standing still, staring at the patch of grass at his feet. He was sobbing quietly.

Dew drops
When I approached him and asked whether he was okay, he said: "Ja, man, I am too okay!" Then, pointing at the grass at his feet, which was glistening with dew drops in the slanting sunlight: "Look! How beautiful! This is so beautiful!"

Tom told me later that his first thought had been that this exercise was pointless. Why on earth would you want to walk around and stare at the foliage around you? He had come to this place to get rid of his many problems – not to add yet more confusion.

Tom had experienced what psychologists call a transpersonal or alternate state of consciousness: his mind had shifted from a condition of highly internalised anxiety to a moment of release and ease with the world around him. He could have attributed this to the blessings of his God, but at that moment he just had this ecstatic sense of having come home to a reality that was larger than the dramas in his mind. It needed little more than a patch of wet grass.

Louis van Loon in the forest at the Buddhist Retreat Centre he founded in Ixopo.

Christian mystics such as Saint Teresa of Avila and Meister Eckhart of Germany had similar experiences, which they tended to see through the lens of their faith. But the way they expressed themselves was not always to the liking of the popes, who believed they departed too much from accepted scriptural language. A similar fate befell the mystics in other religions, such as the Kabbalists in Judaism and the Sufis in Islam.

The common principle linking Tom and those mystics is that although profound healing and revelatory experiences can be mediated by your religious faith and belief, they can equally be triggered by non-theistic, transpersonal means.

Spiritual experiences
OMG! – the title given to this collection of essays that brings together many accounts of such spiritual experiences all from widely divergent standpoints – instinctively respects an ancient tradition that holds that the sacred should not be addressed directly, least of all by its true name, which is, in any case, unknown and unknowable. Therefore Jehovah is represented as JHV and God as GD. Oh my God! becomes OMG!

Encounters with the divine tend to be beyond our capacity to capture adequately in words anyway. Poetry, perhaps, comes closest as it is more subtle than prose and because it alludes to and hints at such experiences rather than trying to give accurate descriptions of them. Therefore, if you read between the lines of the following essays, you are likely to catch the nuances of the encounters better than the mere reading of the words can.

Like the stories in the sacred texts, these essays are examples of experiences we are all capable of having, but not necessarily in the same mould as these accounts of others. That is because "spirituality" comes in dozens of formats, which are not necessarily dressed in religious garb.

OMG is not really a reference to God, of course. But it is an example of how glibly one assigns a happening to God. It may be uttered, absentmindedly, by atheists when witnessing a spectacular sunset or at the birth of a first child, which devout Christians would see as being rooted in their belief. A Shinto or a traditional African may ascribe such experiences to the intervention of an ancestor. A Taoist will attribute it to the mysterious Way in which spontaneous natural causes and effects turn out for us at an individual level.

Psychologists talk about such experiences in secular, neutral terms. That is why they use expressions such as having experienced an altered state of consciousness, or a transpersonal realisation, which are understood to be intense feelings of wholeness and belonging, in which one has momentarily left behind the narrow confines of the self-absorbed ego.

Another dimension
Experiencing a transpersonal state does not depend on fervent, ecstatic faith. It can happen spontaneously when we set aside, even for a moment, our preoccupation with our internal dramas and open up to a larger dimension of reality, however that is triggered or visualised.

In the early 1970s, I invited Lama Anagarika Govinda to visit South Africa from his remote hermitage in the far regions of the Himalayan foothills. While he was here, radio broadcaster Monica Fairall interviewed him. She asked him how a Buddhist understood the concept of God and, with a mischievous glint in his eyes, he told her: "It depends on where you lay the emphasis: the concept of God or the concept of God?" There is a difference, he explained.

When the emphasis is on the latter, one assumes that God is, unarguably, a self-evident fact: he exists, as he does for theists such as Christians, Jews and Muslims. God as a concept, on the other hand, leaves you free to explore whether the concept of God could be, as the Oxford dictionary describes it, an idea, a notion or an invention – one among many. Atheists are convinced of the opposite: the nonexistence of God, which is, of course, also a concept.

The Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo. (Photos: Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

As a Buddhist, the Lama took a position midway between the theist and the atheist. Buddhists are non-theists; they don't enter into an argument for or against the existence of a divine being or creator. This agnostic, nontheistic view is, in a way, a non-concept.

There are yet other isms, each with its own set of ideas, which attempts to explain our place in, and relationship with, the cosmos. Pantheism, for instance, holds that the universe is God; God is the universe. It therefore denies the transcendence of God: he is not separate from his creation. Everything you come across: that's him.

Rich religious culture
As is clear from these essays, written in a country with such a rich religious culture, one can therefore expect to come across a vast spectrum of transpersonal experiences, a number of which may not, at first, seem to fit the label "religious". These essays are proof of that.

So, no matter in what guises transcendent experiences come, there may be a way of understanding them all from a single perspective: that we are capable of having such encounters and that these can take us beyond a contracted sense of being and give us a thrilling glimpse of a greater reality and a more inclusive sense of wholeness and belonging – however that is defined or poured into a particular religious mould.

Take, for example, Sylvia Boorstein, who is a Buddhist and a rabbi. She leads a congregation in New York. She looks Jewish. She wrote a book called: That's Funny: You Don't Look Buddhist! That's rubbing it in. You can be, and look, Jewish and formally function like one, and also be a committed Buddhist – and write a book about it.

That, as I understand it, is also the meaning of Ubuntu: to find ourselves and each other in the common pursuit of happiness and meaning in our lives, whatever individual route we might be taking.

Louis van Loon founded the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo in 1980 and taught eastern philosophy at the Universities of Cape Town and Durban-Westville. He is an architect and consulting engineer in private practice.