With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Thursday, January 11, 2007

We Must Sow The Seed of Heaven In Our Lives

Medieval exegetes of Holy Scripture primarily used four ways or methods of interpreting a Scriptural text. The first was to look at the text according to its letter, that is, to find out and understand what the text said happened historically. The second was to look for the hidden, and therefore allegorical, meanings of a text; this method was seen as especially useful for the discernment of doctrinal truth in Scripture. The third was to explain the moral significance of the text: what does Scripture tell us about the human condition and how we should live? The fourth way, called the anagogical interpretation, used typology to explain how Scriptural events, including the people, places and things therein, represent things to come in our hoped-for end.

While all four methods were used, exegetes could produce radically different interpretations of a given text. Through the rise of modern hermeneutics, we can understand why this is so. What you take with you into a text will be the lens by which you understand and read that text. Each exegete would come to a given text with their own theological, philosophical, and historical beliefs, which, without question, led each of them to their own individualized Biblical interpretation. Not all of these interpretations, it must be said, are incompatible with one another; nor are all of them wrong. Indeed, many of them complement each other very well. The task for the exegete was to make sure his or her interpretation was compatible with the context of Christian tradition.

Many people consider the kinds of interpretations we can have of Scripture if we look at it within new cultural or philosophical perspectives. It must be noted that our current life and situation requires we do this. Our culture is radically different from the culture in which the texts were written and from the medieval culture which produced the interpretations of Scripture many know and follow. We must study the Sacred Scriptures according to the new cultural situation we live in. This does not mean that Holy Scriptures have to be made as a handmaiden to our culture, never criticizing it; but it does mean that our own cultural situation and scientific knowledge must be taken into account when we read the sacred text.

In Pope John Paul II’s great encyclical, Fides et Ratio, the Pope noted the need for Christian theologians and philosophers to take the ideas of the Indian religious and philosophical imagination into account, and adapt what in them is good and compatible with the Christian faith. “In India particularly, it is the duty of Christians now to draw from this rich heritage the elements compatible with their faith, in order to enrich Christian thought.” Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio. Vatican Translation, 72.

My own work in systematic theology has taken this to heart. There is a great variety of Indian thought, and it would be difficult if not impossible for one to gain a mastery of it all. Therefore, while gaining a broad understanding of it, one should also specialize; for me, that specialization lies with Buddhism. However, once a Christian begins to engage Buddhism, they quickly find out that the Buddhadharma is too wide and broad for one to specialize in all aspects of its history and teachings. One must choose specific areas of interest and focus upon them for one’s scholarly pursuits. The area of Buddhist thought which fascinates me the most is Yogacara Buddhism. Not only is it interesting, but it provides a rather thorough and useful examination of the human psyche and the way we experience the world. While I will not agree with all the Yogacarins profess, I believe many of their insights are compatible with Christian thought.

In the light of my studies, many Scriptural texts have taken on a new meaning. Each time I read them or hear them recited in liturgy, I keep thinking about how Yogacarin they sound. I keep thinking how interesting it would be to put these texts side by side, and interpret them according to a Yogacarin lens. Would such a task be useful? If they provide a new interpretation of the text, one which can be seen as representing at least one of the four primary medieval exegetical methods, and one which ends up being compatible with Christian thought, I would have to say yes. Not only would it provide a possible place for dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, it would also show that Christian thought could be enriched by such a dialogue.

Tradition states that Asanga, under the tutelage of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, founded Yogacara Buddhism sometime in the fourth century. Later, Asanga convinced his half-brother Vasubandhu to join this new school of Buddhist thought, making the two-half brothers the original proponents of its teachings. While Asanga was its founder, Vasubandhu’s writings, it could be argued, were far more influential in the spread of Yogacarin ideas.

Yogacara Buddhism, also known as Vijnanavada (the way of consciousness) or Cittamatra (mind-only) is one of many schools of Mahayana Buddhism. In order to understand the school, one must therefore understand some of the core principles of Mahayana Buddhism. Perhaps the two core Mahayana values are sunyata (which means emptiness) and karuna (compassion). The Mahayanist tries to merge the two together in themselves in order to become a Bodhisattva, one who in their quest for enlightenment seeks enlightenment or liberation not only for themselves, but for all sentient beings, and vows never to enter final nirvana until all beings have been liberated from suffering. While the Yogacarin agrees with the Madhyamakan on the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena of substantial, self-subsistent being, one can say the Yogacarin also looks for a positive ground of framework in which to establish this fundamental emptiness. They want to develop a way to overcome all possible nihilistic interpretations of sunyata.

While the Yogacarins kept to the basic teachings and practices of Mahayana, they provided a unique interpretation of them. Their interest lay in the psyche and how it develops and evolves, and their understanding of the psyche was based upon the combination of canonical Buddhist texts, their authoritative commentaries, and their own experiences in meditation. Many doctrines they produced became widely accepted by other followers of the Great Vehicle; others became hotly contested and disputed. More often than not, the Yogacarins are examined in relation to what they hold distinctly from other Buddhists, making it difficult to understand their teachings holistically. Thus, many of their critics exaggerate aspects of their thought to make their teaching turn into something which it is not: a belief in a substantial, eternal, self-subsistent self.

In saying this, however, I must add that it is many of their distinct teachings which, if they are put into a proper balance in relation to the rest of the Buddhadharma, that I find the most interesting. Any study on Yogacara Buddhism will note that in its understanding of consciousness, it has added several new layers of depth to an earlier, and more commonly accepted among Buddhists, teaching of human consciousness. Traditionally, it was understood that human consciousness was actually the combination of six different elements: the five western senses of sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching combined with a sixth mental sense. The mind, like the eye, is viewed as an organ of perception, one whose objects are mental instead of physical. Moment by moment these consciousnesses are constantly in flux, changing what they perceive and how they should be perceived, so that it must be understood that there is no unchanging, self-subsistent entity being described in them. Even the mind must be seen to exist in this perpetual flux so as not to be discerned as an immortal, unchanging eternal soul.

While the Yogacarins accept all six basic forms of consciousness, they believe that consciousness contains two more “mental” realities, and like the rest, they are in constant flux. The most important one, which to them is the root of all consciousness, is the alaya-vijnana, the storehouse consciousness. It is the base upon which all other forms of consciousness flow, what is contained within it influences how all other aspects of consciousness are experienced:

There the maturing [consciousness]
Is otherwise called the
Which carries the seeds of all [past experiences].

Stanza 2 of Vasubandhu, “A Treatise in Thirty Stanzas” in A Buddhist Doctrine of Experience. A New Translation and Interpretation of the Works of Vasubandhu the Yogacarin.. Thomas A. Kochumuttom (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982), 135

The alaya can be said to be the unconscious base of consciousness in Yogacarin thought. It is called the storehouse consciousness because it contains the impressions of past deeds and experiences, which the Yogacarins call seeds:

Residual impressions from past aggregate-moments in the present consciousness-moment have been given the metaphorical designation ‘seeds.’ The metaphor is in some ways a very apt one. A ‘seed’ is actually a constantly changing series of interrelated energy-events which gradually, if conditions allow, will give rise to a sprout. Similarily, a ‘latent impression’ is a constantly changing series of moment-events which will, gradually, if conditions allow, give rise to a memory, or ‘reverberation’ in the consciousness-series.
Stefan Anacker, Seven Works of Vasubandhu (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1998), 61.

Like a seed, these impressions can change and mutate, or even be destroyed. What one does creates the seed, but the seeds then influence how one thinks and how one acts. “If a person engages in acts of lust, he becomes permeated with lust. As his mind repeatedly arises and passes away in tandem with lust, the lust becomes the generative cause for the [lustful] evolutions of his mind.” Asanga. The Summary of the Great Vehicle. Translated from the Chinese of Paramartha.. Trans. John P. Keenan (Berkeley, California: Numata Center For Buddhist Translation and Research, 1992), 21. In western terms, they can be seen as similar to habitual imprints in our consciousness, except for the fact that to the Yogacarins these imprints more than influence how we act, but they also become the hermeneutic base in which we experience reality.

For the second layer of consciousness is a transformation of this unconscious alaya into the conscious manas-vijnana, a consciousness which grasps the unconscious alaya with its contents, believing the alaya to be a reflection of an eternal, self-subsistent being. Grasping the alaya in this fashion, it then divides reality into a personal internal subject and external objects, turning the world purely into a realm of individual, self-subsistent objects to be interacted upon by the personal self. These external objects, however, are only understood and interpreted through the lens of the alaya,, that is, how these objects are experienced (as good, bad, or indifferent), and even the way they are perceived through our sense organs are based upon the seeds implanted within our unconscious mind. They create as it were a filter by which reality is perceived, clouding our vision of the world we live in.

The knowable internal form,
which appears as external,
is the object (of the cognition).

Dignaga. “Investigation About the Support of The Cognition” in Being as Consciousness. Fernando Tola and Carmen Dragonetti (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004), 36.

The knowable form, the seed caught in one's unconscious mind, modifies the way reality is experienced. External reality is experienced as an object of perception by the sixth consciousness, experienced as a combination of the internal seed as it is taken and placed upon what our senses perceive, creating an apparent external reality, but in actuality, it is reality mixed with the defiled sense of experience covered by what the manas generates.

The consciousness contains all seeds;
Its such and such transformations
Proceeded by mutual influence,
On account of which such and such [subject-object] discriminations arise.

Stanza 17 of Vasubandhu, “A Treatise in Thirty Stanzas”,147.

From this it can be said that Yogacarins believe that a “common object” could be and would be experienced by people differently according to the seeds stored in their own alaya-vijnana. Indeed they would say there is but one reality with six realms or ways of experience (from the heavenly realms of bliss to the damnable hell-realms). Even in the same basic realm of experience, different people could and would experience a given “object” differently. A rabid dog, an animal control specialist, and a young girl desiring to have a pet cat, could and would experience a cute stray cat walking down an alleyway differently. The dog would attack it, the animal control specialist would view it as a pest that needs to be taken off the streets, and the young girl would see it as a potential friend.

We should keep in mind that what we have said so far is to be understood as a continual process, by which our actions and past actions already seeded in the alaya creates the base by which new actions are done; these new actions create new seeds in the alaya, fundamentally changing it, so that from moment to moment the alaya and its contents are similar to but not identical to one another. There is no unchanging entity behind all these actions. Because of this, the consciousnesses can be purified and transformed. An unclouded, undefiled experience of reality is possible. “From the total transmutation of the seed, there is the transmutation of the appearances of places, objects and bodies; this is the uncontaminated realm, and it has a universal basis.” Asanga. The Universal Vehicle Discourse Literature. Trans. L Jamspal, R. Clark, J. Wilson, L Willing, M Sweet and R. Thurman (Columbia, New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2004), 134.

How does one go about this transmutation? Surprisingly enough, it begins with its own seed, a desire for enlightenment. One who hears about the possibility of liberation is seeded, if ever so slightly, with the desire for its attainment. “The world-transcendent mind arises because its seed is the permeation of hearing that flows from the purest Reality Form.” Asanga. The Summary of the Great Vehicle , 31. This seed is said to develop into the dharmakaya the body of truth, that is the core of enlightened existence. “This permeation of hearing, whether lower, middle, or higher, is then the seed of the Dharma body. Because it rises in countering the container consciousness, it is not comprised within that container consciousness. Since it is an outflow from the world-transcendent, most pure Reality Realm, even though a worldly state, it brings about the world-transcendent mind.” Asanga. The Summary of the Great Vehicle. 32.

That is, while it is called a seed, unlike the other seeds, this seed transcends the personal alaya, and is able to overcome the contents within. There is a revolution within the alaya where that revolution, as it were, sets fire to the other seeds, destroying them. Of course, like a seed, it too must grow; this transformation of the base does not occur in an instant, but develops as one engages in it in the continued transformation of their consciousness. The goal is to experience the world outside of all defilements in one’s consciousness, thereby showing the world once experienced as samsara is itself in reality not other than nirvana.

In discussing the seeds as defilements of consciousness, we must understand that the experience they bring is not always negative. That is, while unwholesome deeds generate unwholesome seeds, wholesome deeds generate wholesome seeds, and wholesome seeds help create a more joyful and even pleasurable experience of reality. But the two are seen as defilements, because these deeds, even wholesome ones, make us cling to an imperfect and therefore limited experience of reality. Thus one can say that to transcend this defiled state one must transcend the way of works, not by rejecting works, but by overcoming any attachment to their effects.

Because of the concern that Yogacara Buddhism has for these seeds and the desire to purify ourselves of any defiling seeds within our consciousness that when I come to Scriptural texts which directly or indirectly use an analogy using seeds that I take notice of the text and see what a Yogacarin hermeneutic could make for the text.

Galatians 6:7 - 10 says, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatsoever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

It does not take a scholar to notice that this text has a rather karmic tone to it. For every action there is a reaction, for every habit we develop, we will experience its resultant fruit. “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit” (Matt. 12:33). To sow according to the flesh is to sow according to the things of the flesh, making us entirely attached to them. Yet, since these things are impermanent, if we attach ourselves to them, we will suffer when we lose them. “As in the case of seeds, one who sows pulse cannot reap corn, for what is sown and what is reaped must both be of one kind, so is it in actions, he that plants in the flesh, wantonness, drunkenness, or inordinate desire, shall reap the fruits of these things. And what are these fruits? Punishment, retribution, shame, derision, destruction.” St John Chrysostom, “Homily on Galatians Chapter VI” in Nicene Post Nicene Fathers, Series I. Ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994), Vol. 13, p. 45.

While a Yogacarin could agree with Chrysostom in saying that the consequences of such actions are punishments, they would point out that these punishments are self-contained within the actions that have been committed. Instead of trying to say these punishments are placed upon us by God, one could and should say that these punishments are self-imposed. It is not that one desires these punishments, but rather, out of ignorance of the consequences of their actions, one creates the conditions in which one will suffer. You truly reap what you sow, but you should know what seed it is you are planting before sowing it into the ground.

What about the spiritual seed? In interpreting the Parable of the Sower, Jesus suggests that this seed is planted into our consciousness by himself. “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man” (Matt. 13:37). How then are we to sow this seed, as St Paul tells us we should do, if it is sown by the Son of Man? It is by taking what Jesus tells us to do and to do it. “But the fruit of the Spirit is of a nature not similar but contrary in all respects to these. For consider; hast thou sown alms-giving? the treasures of heaven and eternal glory await thee: hast thou sown temperance? honor and reward, and the applause of Angels, and a crown from the Judge await thee,” ibid. p. 45.

The Yogacarin tells us that the seed for enlightenment is planted into our consciousness by our hearing of the dharma. “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). We must become a hearer of the word. We must be open to this word and receive it into our life. We must realize that this word is none other than the Word of God, the Word which is not-other than God himself. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Reception of this word is not a one-time event but takes a lifetime sowing, where we must unite ourselves to the very will of God, sowing what God desires us to sow, growing in the spirit, until the seed planted in our soul takes root and cleanses us of all sin and brings us to our desired end. “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).

“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them,” (Matt. 13:5 -7). It is not enough to hear the word and simply believe it: we must act upon it, and let this word completely enter into the very core of our being and transform us, purifying us of all defilement, ““for indeed our God is a consuming fire,” (Heb. 12:29). God desires us to experience the purity of reality, and will set us afire in his love, so that all our defilements, all our impure sowing, can be cleansed from our being. “If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire,” (1. Cor. 3:15).

While we are called to sow according to the spirit, we must remember it is God who provides us the seed to sow. It is neither works alone nor grace alone. It is our work, in cooperation with the grace of God which provides to us, that leads us to our desired heavenly bliss. “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness,” (2. Cor. 9:10).

In ignorance we sow what we do not know, and we create within ourselves the habits which will make ourselves suffer. Sin left unchecked leads to more sin, and eventually becomes habitual sin:

Directly, as when, by one sinful act, man is disposed to commit more readily another like act: because acts cause dispositions and habits inclining to like acts. Secondly, after the manner of a material cause, one sin is the cause of another, by preparing its matter: thus covetousness prepares the matter for strife, which is often about the wealth a man has amassed together. Thirdly, after the manner of a final cause, one sin causes another, in so far as a man commits one sin for the sake of another which is his end; as when a man is guilty of simony for the end of ambition, or fornication for the purpose of theft. And since the end gives the form to moral matters, as stated above (1, 3; 18, A4,6), it follows that one sin is also the formal cause of another: because in the act of fornication committed for the purpose of theft, the former is material while the latter is formal.

St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros. edition, 1947), II.75.4.

We have sinned out of ignorance; in gaining wisdom, we can overcome sin. Sin covers and darkens the soul, preventing us from experiencing reality in its pristine purity and goodness. Indeed, much of our sin is caused by our desire for an apparent but unreal good. We think something will bring us joy; momentarily it is so, but then it is lost and we cannot recover it. But when the seeds of sin are cleansed from us by the purifying fire of love, we shall no longer see the world as a world of shadows and darkness. We shall not be fooled by apparent goods. Knowing that they are markers on the road to perdition, we will ignore them, turning ourselves instead to the beauty of pure goodness. “The soul does not want a good that is only apparent. And if it is under the sway of some habit, it is also quite able to overcome this habit. Yet even before the habit was formed it had been deceived by ignorance. Hence one should above all strive after a true knowledge of created beings, and then spur one’s will towards primal goodness…,” St Theodoros the Great, “Theoretikon” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Two.. Trans. and ed. by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1990), 46.

Proverbs 11:18 tells us, “The wicked earn no real grain, but those who sow righteousness get a true reward.” Evil does not exist in itself; it must be seen as a deprivation of the good; the wicked earn no real grain, only pestilence, because the seed they sow is like a cancer eating away at our very soul. The habits we create determine the direction our soul is moving, but we must realize these habits are created by ourselves and we do not have to become creatures of habit. “Consequently man, while possessing a habit, may either fail to use the habit, or produce a contrary act; and so a man having a virtue may produce an act of sin,” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.73.4. If we find ourselves in habitual sin, we must not allow ourselves to become a slave to that habit, but seek for the grace to overcome it. We must not let it become the Lord of our life. Even if we do not overcome it in this life, the seed of grace, planted in our soul, can purify us through the purgatorial trial of fire that leads to heaven, as long as we do not squash that grace and turn it into naught.

Earlier in this essay I suggested that a new hermeneutic for Scriptural understanding should be welcomed if it provides for a complimentary understanding of Scripture; it must be one which does not override Christian doctrine, but rather provides for us a fuller and richer understanding of Scripture, especially if it does so according to at least one of the four primary ways of Scriptural interpretation. However, in this brief excursus, one can argue I have engaged not one but two exegetical senses: that is, according to a moral and an anagogical sense. Morally speaking, Yogacara Buddhism shows us how habits not only influence how we act, but how we think, and explain why bad habits can pervert the way we think. Anagogically speaking, we are shown why all defiled habits must be cleansed from us; because they influence how we think, they influence how we experience reality. If we are to experience the pristine goodness and beauty of God and God’s creation, which is what we seek for, we are shown why this will not be accomplished until the seed of grace, granted to us in baptism, purifies us and leads us to our heavenly rebirth. In the end, when we have truly been born into the heavenly kingdom, we will not sin, and we will not suffer the consequences of sin in our life any longer, since “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God,” (1 John 3:9).

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  • At 1/12/2007 10:47 AM, Blogger Katerina Marie said…

    Wow... very interesting material and insight... thanks!

  • At 3/25/2007 2:09 AM, Blogger Patrick said…

    About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

    Peace Be With You


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