religionless religion

bonhoeffer

Sometimes I feel like a moth drawn dumbly to a tungsten bulb. I hit myself against it, get burned, but unfailingly come back for more. Why do I do this?

The ever-alluring light source is religion. Why do I seek illumination there when it is possible to live a radiant life outside religion? You know, a life lived deeply, authentically, swimming through the currents of the universe with a thinking mind, an open heart, a joy that is kindled in the midst of pain, and a belly that laughs, rumbling full of contentedness? You can live like that without religion.

But for better and for worse, I always go back. After quitting a religion (Christianity) six years ago, finding a new one (the New Age) a year later, and then slowly slipping out of that one, I find myself unable to stop reading holy books, meditating, and even sneaking a listen to the podcast from Mars Hill church.

We already know that religion is a tool of violence, a way for those in power to further their domination over all others by mixing money, weapons, and theology. We know this from the crusades and we know this from the Middle-East today. This is why we leave.

But religions are more than that; to our amazement they are the carriers of centuries of wisdom, and experience of a great un-nameable love that grows within us. Have you ever met religious people who have been transformed by something undeniably good? People who draw you like a warm fire on a cold night. A fire that gives shelter, glow, not a light bulb that mockingly burns.

Religion, though not strictly necessary, many times is the carrier for this kind of transformation. And the transformation is not a given; it is a gift.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed during World War II for his involvement in the resistance to the Nazis. The letters and papers he wrote from prison sketch what he calls religionless Christianity. The church he envisioned:

…will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming—as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people…proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom…Until then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair…

I have been silent for a long time, but it is now time to start talking.

by Kit Johnson on . 

a path to here

I recommended someone read Eastern Body, Western Mind because he was interested in the theory behind my Reiki practice. He liked the down-to-earth, non fuzzy-wuzzy language that he found in the book. Too often discussions of ki, prajna, chakras etc. break down because the initiated (the people who are used to these strange words and therefore ‘understand’ them) have no way of explaining alien concepts with everyday words. This book fills a hole.

EXCEPT ‘RAINBOW BRIDGE’.

What the hell is a rainbow bridge? I can only guess. Maybe…the path (or bridge) to wholeness, which in the author’s experience comes through freeing and integrating the energy of each chakra. (The colours of the chakras when put together would look like a rainbow, I guess.)

This got me thinking. The path to wholeness. That means that where I am now is not whole (probably true), but that to become whole I have to go somewhere else. The people reading this have probably already clocked that it’s not through owning things that we will find this wholeness, so what other places do we look for it? Where are you looking?

christmas_walk

Somewhere else. We can take external trips somewhere else (buy or get rid of some things, travel, change your job, start or end a relationship) or internal trips to somewhere else (get saved, get enlightened, get your chakras healed). But what does this change?

Suggestion:
As long as you are trying to be whole by going somewhere else, you will never find wholeness where you actually are.

I’m roughly the same person I was five years ago, only I don’t hate myself for it now. That’s the only important thing that’s changed. Yes it’s true that my mental and emotional bodies are a little clearer thanks to a couple of things you might call spiritual practices, but that’s not the significant difference. What matters is that I can live with myself in my imperfection-riddled state of being, buy myself a beer, and say to myself that where I am right now, that’s okay.

So I wouldn’t call it the path to wholeness anymore. I haven’t gone anywhere but further inside. It’s the path of wholeness.

It brings me back to the leathery old AJ Muste quote:

There’s no way to peace. Peace is the way.

by Kit Johnson on . 

I cannot forgive you, for you are accepted.

Has someone close to you ever given you a random request like this?

“I’m really sorry for so and so fifteen years ago. Please forgive me.”

After racking your brains for a few seconds, you admit that you have no memory of the alleged incident. Forget about it, you don’t need forgiving.

I don’t know if that happens to other people, or if it’s just an evangelical thing. I’ve got it a few times recently, as my family are making redoubled efforts to clear themselves of demonic spiritual inheritances, sins of the forefathers, and sins of our own lives which they feel are putting a heavy black blot of ink over the pages of their books of spiritual accounting.

And I replied in that way. How can I forgive you if I’m not holding it against you? Sorry to disappoint, but you won’t find forgiveness here.

After a long and healthy break away from Christianity, I haven’t come across the word forgiveness too many times. What you find in Buddhism and Taoism is acceptance. It’s different.

When people look for forgiveness, they are looking for some kind of justification. They want their ink blotches erased, removed, vanished completely, leaving only pure white. The gospel of sin management is really all about this.

Acceptance, I suppose, works more like this: I know you did something hurtful, and I accept it; I accept you, without needing any accounting for that action. And certainly I wouldn’t make you changing a condition of this acceptance. What kind of acceptance asks for change? Incomplete acceptance.

Acceptance is maybe less satisfying, because the hurtful actions still exist in the metaphysical ether-they haven’t been washed away. But there is a hidden power to it. If a friend can accept and love me even with my tendency to be an arrogant and proud, I don’t have to worry about being like that in the future. If I’m arrogant again tomorrow it doesn’t matter; my friend accepts me. I don’t need to be forgiven all over again. My good friend has eaten the whole apple, even the bruised bit, and said “that’s OK. Apples are like that sometimes.”

Forgiveness tries to separate sin from sinner and says: “You are okay! Your sin is gone.”

Acceptance swallows the whole lot. “My arms are open to every part of you. Those ugly bits are you, at least for now, and you are my friend.”

These are thoughts-on-the-run; nothing is set in stone. Please let me know if they connect to you or if you have something to add by commenting.

by Kit Johnson on . 

how to be a genuine spiritual fake

Somewhere during the course of yesterday, which was full of frustrated efforts to program the blog, and last night, which was complete with bizarre dreams of old school friends and having to copy out Old English from a textbook, I realised that I am not as happy as I thought I was.

a shack in Op Khan Canyon, Thailand

a shack in Op Khan Canyon, Thailand

The way I see it is that this realisation is good, because it means greater honesty, and less trying to create something that is unreal.

One of my defining personality characteristics is that I am happy. I smile a lot, am cheerful, and enjoy making other people happy. How much effort do I waste trying to ensure this happiness never dries-up?

spiritual veneer

It’s like veneer. We use veneer to cover-up cheap wood and make it look better. We don’t want people to see what’s underneath. We think the wood inside is not worth looking at and so try to keep it hidden. Happiness is the veneer of spiritual fakes.

Spiritual practices like prayer, meditation or worship work to polish the veneer. What we really need is to crack it off first, peel it away, and let the real wood inside breathe for a while. It will not look healthy, because it has been trapped inside a tight jacket of external constraints for so long. It will probably look pale and weak because it has never known the enlivening power of the air it needed to breathe.

While you are polishing your veneer, you just get more and more shiny, and the only way to get at what is real is to stop lying and stop your spiritual trying. Quit this kind of religion today.

After we have become honest with who we really are, unimpressive, moody, the oil of a quiet spiritual practice will slowly stain the wood of our real inner selves. As the real wood feeds on the oil and fresh air, it grows strong.

How do we make this happen? I would be the first to put my hands up and admit to being completely incapable of such a thing. Grace is needed.

But one thing is clear: the deeper I go in the journey to undivided living, the more I can rest in my own unhappiness–the more I am comfortable without my veneer.

by Kit Johnson on . 

thai national park

Rolling through the backcountry of North-West Thailand, my friend and I found this National Park just outside Mae Horng Sorn. We arrived just in time. All was quiet, except for the rain which came so quickly, and threatened to swamp the tent.

As shower became deluge, we tightened-up guy ropes, closed all zips, and settled-down for a very early night. In the sticky confines of a tent not designed for the intense heat and humidity of the Thai rainy season, sleep was fitful.

But like so many camping adventures, it all felt worthwhile come morning:

maehorngsorn_park-hdr

I captured an impression of the magic of this morning with a single raw file, which I treated to the HDR powers of QTPFSGUI’s Mantiuk algorithm.

(Be sure to click on the image to get a full-screen rendering.)

by Kit Johnson on . 

friends with everything

What do you do when you come up against something that you don’t agree with? Atheist: you meet fundamentalist. Liberal: you meet conservative. What happens when you talk and you find they are the opposite of everything you stand for?

How do you react when someone tries to hurt you, or take from you?

Thomas Merton wrote of a Buddhist story he read:

One evening [a farmer] heard some noise in the garden. He noticed a young man of the village atop a tree stealing his fruit. Quietly, he went to the shed where he kept his ladder and took it under the tree so that the intruder might safely make his descent. He went back to his bed unnoticed. The farmer’s heart, emptied of self and possession, could not think of anything else but the danger that might befall the young village delinquent.1

This is very, very far from my usual reaction, which might be to throw stones at him, or at the very least, wish that he breaks something when he comes down from the tree. There is so much anger that rises in me at something like robbery. But is this anger necessary?

For peace to be solid, you need to be at peace with everything. This sounds radical, but it’s the only way to be free.

I don’t mean to let the whole world walk all over you. If someone robs you, call the police. But you can call the police without hating the intruder. The integrity of our world does not depend on him being caught and brought to ‘justice’.

There is no deep freedom if our peace can be stolen from us, in addition to our possessions. If a robber can steal our peace too, we are completely at his mercy. I don’t want to be completely at the mercy of robbers.

When we are friends with the world, we make peace with both the pretty and the ugly, the giving and the thieving, and then we are free.

Notes:

  1. From Zen and the Birds of Appetite, pg 111
by Kit Johnson on . 

danny

Another visa run. A new country. Every country I have been to has a unique feeling. It’s just surprising how quickly you get to sense it.

I was prepared for the onslaught of hawkers peddling fake brand-name cigarettes, fake DVDs, and genuine Burmese prostitutes. Not feeling tempted, I walked purposefully away from the roundabout up a road that seemed to fit the purpose, to get away from hawkers. I did not have a clue where I was going, as I’d neglected to do any research, but I wanted to see Burma. As much as that was possible in the three hour gap before my return bus.

Dirty, open-air restaurant. An old Burmese man with grey, blond-streaked hair, and teeth that were falling out. Danny. He was the only Burmese man in the restaurant that spoke any English. And what English. He opened with a one-liner: “love can create anything”. Taken aback, but interested, I let him go on. It was not long before he was talking about wave-particle duality and matterless motion.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember too many occasions where I spoke about matterless motion with a guy I met in a restaurant in south-east Asia.

He sounded genuinely crazy, but as we went further into his Christianity I couldn’t help but feel we understood each other. He talked about the ground of our lives that is love beyond knowledge. I probed: what of the people who call it God, and claim to understand it–to have captured it inside knowledge? Without hesitation he replied: “Bullshit!”

When we’d stopped laughing, I gave him a hundred baht (three US dollars), securing him as my guide to Tachilek.

Danny: a guy filled with truth and love.

Danny: a guy filled with truth and love.

Danny talked of how he had ostracised himself from the local Reverend and community because of his heretical opinions. (Yes, much of Burma is Christian. The missionaries did their job well.) We talked about sacrifice in chess and life, and how so many wish to sacrifice their time, energy, love, money, but refuse to see that what is needed is to sacrifice the self.

He had a gift for seeing the future, and in the end I risked missing my bus back home and asked him to read my palm. Over a cup of the local sweet, milky tea for him, and a Sprite for me. I was a bit scared, but something inside me wanted to try it.

Danny told me how he had predicted a lying preacher would die within three months, and how he did. The other foresights he described were also of sickness and death. The words ‘he is a messenger of death’ came to me. My fear heightened further when he started saying that the spirit cuts through all lies, and does not tell us what we want to hear, but what is true. He seemed to be prepping me for something.

Gulping down a little more Sprite, I held out my hands for this ruthless seer to inspect.

Now I’ve had a palm reading done before, by a Thai man, whose insight was limited to generalities and one specific prediction: that I was an English teacher. Not breathtakingly impressive. I know a lot of people that could predict that a white guy living in Thailand is an English teacher. But Danny was good. He told me some very difficult to guess things about my past and then made a couple of suggestions about my present, which were penetrating. He helped me understand my own situation.

This was not an every day occurrence; Danny is not the kind of person you meet every day. When I got back to my room, later in the evening, I had the feeling that something special had happened. My first trip to Burma, and I doubt my last.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

by Kit Johnson on . 

laos

This New Year, with my miniature backpack, I hit the northern provinces of Laos in search of the road less travelled.

A mere five minute walk out of Phongsali town, and I was rewarded with this.

The highlight of the trip was meeting Glen Allison, a pro photographer. He needed an assistant, so without much thought I tagged along as we made the long and positively arduous journey to Phonsali, far off in the misty hills, somewhere near the border with China. On the many exhausting journeys along river and through mountain, the time flew, as we talked of lenses, Buddhism, and finding an authentic path in life.

phu_fah_mountain_stupa

Glen focused on photographing Akhar women. In his quest for the traditional Akhar look we trekked many miles into dense jungle by foot. I love walking; Glen doesn’t, but for both of us it was well worthwhile.

Here is my selection of the best images.

By the way, welcome to my blog. If you have any comments about it, please drop me a line.

by Kit Johnson on . 
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