Friday, April 16, 2004

Religious Diversity Friday: Broken-heartedness

From the end of an Economist article titled "The Season of the lambs" (p.20 of the April 10, 2004 edition):

Perhaps it will help if Christianity and Judaism regard one another not as monoliths but as complex spiritual systems which meet and diverge in many different places. "Rationalist" Christians, such as German Protestants, feel much in common with the cerebral world of rabbinical Judaism. And among mystically minded Christians and Jews, there can be unexpected points of encounter.

In the mystical traditions of Christianity and Judaism (and indeed Islam) there is much reflection on the principle of "broken-heartedness". This is not meant in the ordinary sense of sadness or despair. It is a spiritual state in which the hard shell of arrogance and self-centredness that encases the human heart somehow melts away in order for the light of divine love to come flooding in.

Through much of Christian history, Christians and Jews have encountered one another through the prism of arrogant, worldly power. If Christians can approach Jews with broken hearts-- which is not the same as abandoning their own beliefs-- the tragedies of history may, at some level, be transcended.

I think this ethic applies to more than just the narrow field of Christian-Jewish dialogue.

At Geumho Presbyterian Church in Seoul, there used to be a moksa-nim (pastor) who, without fail, used the Korean phrase "yeollin maeum eu-ro, kibbeun maeum eu-ro, sarang-haneun maeum eu-ro," which means, "with an open heart, with a happy heart, with a loving heart." Once you get to know Christian pastors, you start to realize they all have certain pet phrases they like to throw out again and again-- phrases that might almost be taken as that pastor's philosophy of life. When I read the Economist article's definition of mystical broken-heartedness, I was reminded of this pastor's pet phrase.

The Infidel's question was:

Perhaps BigHo can speak more about the power of "broken-heartedness" as the glue that can hold western civilization together.

I see close thematic ties between broken-heartedness as envisioned by the monotheistic mystics, and the notion of mindfulness (yeom or nyeom in Sino-Korean) found in East Asian Buddhism, where the character for mind (Chn. hsin, Jpn. shin, Kor. shim) is also the character for heart. Mindfulness is heartfulness. It's the antithesis of ego-centered living and stultifying attachment to name and form. This is more than just a Western or Eastern thing; it's universal.

Religion is at its best when it's about getting to the heart of things. Dr. Bill Vallicella wrote (or quoted?) something rather pithy in one of his recent blog entries:

The philosopher looks around in a dark room for a black cat that isn’t there. The theologian finds the cat.

I suppose the above could be read as either complimentary or insulting to the theologian. I'll choose the complimentary interpretation for my purposes: a theologian (or, more in consonance with what I'm talking about, religious folks) can get to the heart of the matter more quickly than the pedant in his ivory tower. If the theologian's found the cat that wasn't there, maybe he did it by having the common sense to search somewhere other than where the philosopher was looking. "It's the height of stupidity to look for the ox you're riding on," the Chinese say. Sometimes you just need to realize what your situation is, and with that basic orientation taken care of, the rest just falls into place. Sometimes it's simply a matter of looking down to find the ox.

Master Shin Go Seong of the Korean temple Hanguk-sa in Germantown, Maryland says that religion is "deepest teaching." Here, too, we see the idea that religion is about getting to the heart of the matter. If "religious life is life," as Thich Nhat Hanh contends, then religion is less about pedantry and discourse than it is about simply living. How easily we forget this. The fact that you're reading this blog entry right now and maybe nodding in agreement with my (cough) wisdom is enough to indicate you still don't get it, fool. Religious folks, at their best, discover this more quickly than philosophers, I think. The question, though, is how often we encounter religious folks at their best.


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