Book Reviews

The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus: Review

In The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus, Dale Allison discusses the challenges inherent in the "quest for the historical Jesus," his methodology for historical criticism of the Gospels, the paradigm of Jesus that emerges from his methodology, and personal impressions about how his historical studies have informed his own faith.  This is required reading for anyone embarking on their own quest to understand who Jesus of Nazareth was as a historical figure.  

Overview:  Allison breaks this book up into five sections: The Problem of Theological Utility, Disputed Questions, How to Proceed, Some Difficult Conclusions, and Some Personal Impressions.  I'll take a look at all five parts.

The Problem of Theological Utility and Disputed Questions:  In the first two sections of the book, Allison focuses on the question, "Of what use, if any, is the so-called historical Jesus for Christian theology?"  That is, should Christian theologians even concern themselves with uncovering a so-called historical Jesus?  And, if so, how should that historical reconstruction inform theology?  Here Allison discusses the polarization between theologians who simply use canonical descriptions of Jesus for theology and those who want to find a historical Jesus and use that construction to inform their understanding of Christian doctrine.  For those who are even interested in finding a historical Jesus, they are in for a challenge, for there is little consensus in the field:

"If contemporary theology wants to include the historical Jesus in its discourse, it is up against grave obstacles, because his identity is unclear.  More than one historical Jesus resides between today's book covers.  We indeed have a plethora of them.  There is the Jesus of Tom Wright, a Jewish prophet and almost, it seems, orthodox Christian.  There is the Jesus of Marcus Borg, a religious mystic who dispensed perennial wisdom.  There is the Jesus of E.P. Sanders, a Jewish eschatological prophet a la Albert Schweitzer.  There is the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan, a Galilean but Cynic-like peasant whose vision of an egalitarian kingdom and nonviolent God stood in stark contrast to the power politics of Roman domination.  One could go on.  To the outsider, theories about Jesus must seem to crisscross each other to create a maze of contradictions.  For the portraits in the marketplace are to large degree not complementary but contradictory."

In the end, Allison believes that yes, a historical Jesus is of value to the theologian, and indeed his own historical conclusions have changed how he views the Christian faith.  Although there is no consensus about the identity of Jesus, and the biases of each historian are difficult to overcome, there is real value in the Quest.

How to Proceed:  After affirming the value of historical research into Jesus, Allison moves on to consider methodology.  How do we go about finding the historical Jesus?

Traditionally historical Jesus scholars have used what are known as "criteria of authenticity" to determine whether a particular passage about Jesus is historical or not.  The major criterion have been multiple attestation (Does the story or saying show up in multiple, independent sources?), dissimilarity (Is the story or saying significantly different from what we would expect to come out of 2nd Temple Judaism or the early Christian communities?  If so, the story or saying is unlikely to have been "made up."), embarrassment (If the story or saying is embarrassing to the Church, it is unlikely to have been "made up."), and coherence (Does the story or saying fit with other texts that we believe are historical?).  Allison himself has used these criterion in the past, but does so no longer.  The major problem he sees is that while these criteria are supposed to create a more "scientific" way to determine the historicity of a text, scholars, using the very same criteria, come to vastly different conclusions regarding both the historicity of individual texts and even major paradigms to understand Jesus with.  

For Allison, the criteria just don't work.  There are hardly any individual texts that he believes we can even reasonably assign a probability of historicity to:

"After years of being in the quest business, I have reluctantly concluded that most of the Gospel materials are not subject to historical proof or disproof, or even accurate estimates of their probability.  That Jesus said something is no cause for supposing that we can demonstrate that he said it, and that Jesus did not say something is no cause for supposing that we can show that he did not say it.  Similarly, if Jesus did something, that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did it, and if he did not do something , that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did not do it.  There is a gaping chasm between what happened and what we can discover or deem likely to have happened...Did Jesus utter the golden rule?  I do not see how anyone will ever show that he did, or how anyone will ever show that he did not.  I certainly have never run across persuasive arguments for one conclusion or the other.  Sadly, this example for me is representative."

The solution for Allison is not to sift through individual sayings and determine whether each is "historical" or "unhistorical," but to look for large patterns in the Gospels.  If there is a large body of material that, for instance, portrays Jesus as coming into conflict with religious authorities, then we should conclude that he had public conflict with religious authorities.  It does not matter if this or that story is historically accurate, and we will never know either way, but the pattern leads us to believe that he acted in this sort of way:

"The Gospels are parables.  When we read them, we should think not that Jesus said this or did that but rather: Jesus did things like this, and he said things like that."

If we can't trust major patterns in the Gospels, then we can't trust our sources at all.  When discussing Jesus' eschatology, Allison makes the following remark:

"I do not contend, because I do not believe, that all this material comes from Jesus, directly or indirectly.  Nor do I insist that any of it is word-perfect memory.  To repeat what I have said before: the Synoptics are not primarily records of what Jesus actually said and did but collections of impressions.  They recount, or rather often recount, the sorts of things that he said and did, or that he could have said and done.  As for eschatology in particular, my contention is that either a decent number of the entries in my catalogue fairly characterize what Jesus was about, or the tradition is so full of mnemonic holes and fictional accretions that the quest is a vain aspiration and we should find some other pastime with which to amuse ourselves."

Some Difficult Conclusions:  Using his unique methodology (although he would argue that his conclusions should hold regardless of methodology), Allison argues here that the the historical Jesus is the Apocalyptic Jesus.  That is, Jesus believed that the world would soon end, a final judgment would ensue, and a new world – the Kingdom of God – would be born.  Furthermore, Jesus believed that he himself, as the final messianic prophet, would usher in this new age.  

"...Jesus had firm eschatological expectations, to which he gave frequent expression.  More precisely, he envisaged, as many did in his time and place, the advent, after suffering and persecution, of a great judgment, and after that a supernatural utopia, the kingdom of God, inhabited by the dead come back to life, to enjoy a world forever rid of evil and wholly ruled by God.  Further, he thought that the night was far gone, the day at hand."

Allison knows that his conclusions, in the line of Albert Schweitzer, will trouble both conservative and liberal Christians.  A historical Jesus who held these beliefs is advantageous to neither. 

Some Personal Reflections:  To end the book, Allison includes a personal section in which he discusses how his conclusions about Jesus have changed his own faith.  In the end, he finds that he must adopt Jesus' dream of a future ruled by God, for it the only way to make sense of the world as it is and the hope of a Loving Creator:

"Such (eschatological) expectation implicitly concedes that life as we have known it does not make sense.  It posits reward and punishment in a life to come precisely because they are missing from the here and now.  It locates meaning in the future because there is a deficiency of sense in the present.  It hopes for better someday because today it is worse.  Eschatology does nothing, of course, to explain away evil, and it leaves us with the question, Why would God be better to all in the future than God seems to be now?  To which Jesus prudently returns no answer.  But he does share with us his audacious imagination, born of his unswerving conviction that, despite appearances, God is profoundly good.  His fundamental intuition is that the creator must be the redeemer, that the divine Father is good enough to ensure that those who mourn will be comforted, loving enough to guarantee that those who weep with someday laugh...

We do well, I suggest, to follow his lead.  For although eschatology is not the solution to the problem of evil, without eschatology there can be no solution.  If what we see on earth is all that we will ever see, if there is no further repairing of wrongs beyond what we have already witnessed, then divine love and justice do not really count for much.  This is not, for me, a theological cliche but a philosophical necessity."

Allison ends another of his works Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, in a similar vein:

"And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming.  If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.  If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing."

Reflections:  I agree with virtually everything Dale Allison says in this book.  He bears witness to just how complicated historical Jesus study can be, while also clearly laying out his tentative conclusions, which I find persuasive.  He does so with humility and from a perspective of faith, albeit a faith that many won't be comfortable with.

Regarding his methodology, I am sold.  If we can't trust major patterns in the Gospels, then trying to find the historical Jesus is a vain endeavor.  Likewise, looking at individual sayings and dubbing them historical or non-historical, or perhaps assigning probabilities of historicity, may work for a small amount of texts, but not for the vast majority.  

In my mind, Allison towers over others in this field and deserves a much wider readership than he seems to have.  

Personal Takeaways:  This book pushed me over the edge into seeing Jesus of Nazareth as primarily an Apocalyptic Prophet.  In many ways, this was the straw that spurred my break from traditional understandings of Christianity and into an interest in contemplative practice.  I had widdled my faith down to Jesus, and then I came to accept that he was wrong about the end of the world.  The way I understood my own faith was forever changed.  Although this book was initially threatening and disorienting, in the end, I found it to be freeing.  It opened me up into new ways to think about Jesus, Christianity, faith, and spirituality.  

If there is one book to read as an introduction to the Quest for the Historical Jesus, this is it.  


For more, here is a lecture by Allison in which he reads from most of the sections of this book.  The lecture leaves out the sections of the book focused on eschatology.

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self : Review

In Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Stephen Cope, a practicing psychologist, leads us through his journey into the world of yoga, especially as it relates to his experience with the Kripalu community in Massachusetts.  Along the way, the reader is clearly introduced to core concepts in yoga psychology.

Overview: The book is broken into five parts – The Discovery of the Royal Secret, The Self in Exile, Encounters with the Mother and the Seer, The Spontaneous Wisdom of the Body, and The Royal Road Home.  I'll take a look at the first two sections.

The Discovery of the Royal Secret:  In the first section of the book, Cope describes his own spiritual quest and his entering of the Kripalu yoga community.  After ending a long-term relationship, Cope finds himself questioning what he wants his life to be about.  He and a friend connect over a sense wanting something radically different than the professional lives they have created.  They identify their longing in several ways:

  • "A search for "the quiet" in which the small inner voice could be heard
  • A longing for the authentic and the real
  • A visceral need for self-expression
  • A sense of rebellion against the "captivity" of (their) old lives
  • An inchoate sense of something unimaginable about to be born out of the disorganization of (their) lives"

Cope, drawing on his study of Carl Jung, believes that in the second half of life human beings long to draw inward and find the very center of themselves, and that this is inextricably bound with the search for God.  Cope sets out to find his deepest self, and God, through the practice of yoga.  

The rest of this section describes his entering the Kripalu yoga community and clearly lays out a presentation of yogic metaphysics.  Sharing the view of Hinduism, the yogic tradition assumes that at the deepest level of our being lies a spiritual absolute – the Atman.  When we penetrate to the core of ourselves through meditation, we discover the Atman is our true nature.  Furthermore, this spiritual absolute we find at the core of our very being is identical with Brahman, the spiritual source of existence.  According to Cope (and the Vedic tradition as a whole), when we make this realization our view of reality is forever changed:

"When we begin to see clearly who we really are, according to this view, we feel a natural friendliness toward all beings.  Beneath the surface of separation, we feel the hidden, unseen threads that link us.  We know that we're exactly alike inside.  We're the same being.  As author John Welch says, 'We are each like a well that has a source in a common underground stream which supplies all.  The deeper down I go, the closer I come to the source which puts me in contact with all other life."

The section ends with Cope questioning how this view of the self plays out in day to day life as he explores the yogic concepts of Brahman and Shakti.  

The Self in Exile:  In Section II, The Self in Exile, Cope further relates his experience in the Kripalu community and explores the concept of the "true self" vs. the "false self."  He believes, along with many from the yogic tradition, that the major problem that humanity faces is that of misidentification.  We choose to identify ourselves with the small, or false, self.  Our ego, our persona, becomes our identity.  So not only do we have jobs, we are our jobs.  Not only do we have relationships we are our relationships.  Not only do we have likes and dislikes, we are our likes and dislikes.  We create an identity for ourselves from elements of our personality and call it "me."  The alternative is to identify with the Atman, our true or deepest self, which is continuous with Brahman, the source of existence.  Cope believes that yoga is a way to find and experience this reality, our True Selves.   

The rest of the book mostly contains stories of various yogis and how the practice has changed their lives.

Reflections:  I really, really resonate with the first half of this book.  Both Cope's personal story of his need to depart on a spiritual quest and his clear breakdown of yogic metaphysical thought are major strengths of the book.  I underlined more in the first two sections of this book than I have in any other recent read.  

But...the second half just felt forced.  His discussions about other yogic concepts became overly complex and the anecdotes from other yogis just didn't seem all that helpful to me.  I felt the book could have been half as long.

Personal Takeaways:  One of the biggest takeaways I took from this book is a resonance with the experience of emotional turmoil that can occur when finding a meditation practice.  Here is how Steven describes his friend Jeff's experience with intense vipassana practice:

"As Jeff sat in meditation practice day after day at the retreat, the emotional reality of his relationship with his father emerged.  His father had been a high-ranking officer in the navy. Straight, tight-lipped with his feelings and praise, he had enormously high expectations both for himself and for Jeff.  Jeff never measured up.  Finally, in his late teens, as he went off to college, Jeff had given up trying and had withdrawn from the relationship.  Ten years later, when his father reached out, Jeff had rebuffed his appeals for healing their relationship.  Now, in the midst of deep meditation practice, Jeff had begun to face a very difficult truth.  It wasn't just that his father had hated him.  It was also that he hated his father.  He wasn't just the persecuted.  He was also the persecutor.  Jeff had actively rejected his father and had felt some pleasure in doing so.  Just a month before his father's death, he had even used his coming to Kripalu to sadistically taunt his father.  'I'm a failure, Dad.  Look what I'm going to do with my life after Yale.'  Now Jeff felt unbearable guilt and sadness.  'I'm sorry.  I'm just so sorry.'  Jeff was overwhelmed by these discoveries.  After six days of intensive meditation, he was exhibiting all of the signs of a personality on the brink of disorganization and fragmentation.  'It's so strange, Steve.  I'm on a roller coaster.'....

Like the spiritual warrior that he was, Jeff had dived into the vipassana meditation technique with what the Buddha called 'strong determination.'  Following instructions, Jeff had done sitting and walking meditation for thirteen hours a day, watching his thoughts, following his breath, paying attention to a subtle new inner landscape of sensations in his body.  Not surprisingly, waves of thought and feelings that he ordinarily kept out of awareness began to come into view.  At first this was fascinating to him.  He wanted more.  He stayed later at night in the meditation hall than anyone else.  This was magic.  Soon, however, the insights became overwhelming.  Yet once he had begun to open up the process, he wasn't sure how to shut it down again...When insight moves too quickly to uncover painful aspects of mental and emotional life, the personality becomes disorganized and fragmented.  Under these conditions, there can be a sense of disorientation, a deterioration in cognitive functioning, and an experience of depersonalization and dissociation."

I've written about this before, in the sense that I don't see talk of emotional turmoil much in books on meditation practice.  It is well acknowledged in the Centering Prayer movement, and what Jeff describes above might be spoken of in terms of "The Divine Therapy" there, but it is rare to find this subject addressed in other traditions.  It is always helpful to know that this is part of most spiritual paths.  

Another takeaway for me is a connection to my own yoga practice.  I'm not sure I agree with all the claims of how hatha (physical posture) yoga can lead to spiritual discovery, but I do find it a very helpful aid to my meditation practice.  Just as in my Centering Prayer practice, I "notice the thought, return to an openness to God," in yoga I "notice the thought, return to the sensations of the body."  I feel that this helps me discipline my mind in preparation for meditation.

Overall, this book is a really good intro to Yoga psychology, from a trained psychologist, in narrative form.  In my opinion, it does get a little fragmented towards the end, but that doesn't take away from the value of the read.  



What's Wrong With Mindfulness : Review

In What's Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn't), a host of Zen authors critically interact with the current mindfulness movement in the West.  Having witnessed the rise and fall in the popularity of Zen practice, these authors are in a unique position to offer advice to leaders in the mindfulness movement.  Contributors to this book range from being extremely critical of the direction of mindfulness to more sympathetic outlooks.  Mindfulness instructors and practitioners as well as those engaged in Western Buddhism as a whole will benefit from reading this collection of essays. 

Overview: The book is divided into two large sections: Critical Concerns, a series of essays which addresses the problems Zen authors see with the mindfulness movement, and Creative Engagement, a series of essays which explore Zen perspectives on mindfulness meditation itself.

Part One:  In Part One, Critical Concerns, each contributor offers their unique critique of the state of the mindfulness movement in the West.  Recurring themes, as discussed in the Introduction, are the realities of secularization (pulling meditation from its monastic setting, complete with ritual, the sangha, study, etc.), instrumentalization (seeing meditation primarily as a means to a particular personal end), and deracination (extracting meditation from the wider religious context of Buddhism as a whole, including its ethical and philosophical dimensions).  

Of these three concerns, the most common critique from the book's contributors surrounds instrumentalization, or seeing meditation as simply the means to a personal end.  Mindfulness meditation has been hailed as a method for stress reduction, a way of focusing and paying attention, a way to regulate emotions, a treatment for physical illness, an aide in psychotherapy, a path for personal happiness, a means of increasing kindness and compassion, and a way of living more in the moment.  The problem is not that mindfulness meditation may, in fact, lead to these positive effects, but that meditation is often seen as simply a means to an end that the practitioner finds desirable.  This focus on positive effects has, in the view of several contributors, led to the commercialization of meditation, or what has been dubbed "McMindfulness."  The examples of mindfulness being used by businesses (specifically Google) in order to improve production, or even by the military to help soldiers' performance, are pointed to as ways in which mindfulness has been co-opted and used for ends that are far from the original intention within the Buddhist tradition.  

Many of these authors feel that the Buddhist ideals of non-striving, or realizing the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and impersonal nature of all things is being lost when the focus is placed in improving a particular element of a practitioner's life.  

Other concerns discussed in this section of the book include the seeming "buffet" of options on the meditation and spirituality market and mindfulness' place in this New Age market, the divorce of mindfulness from a complete way of life, ambiguity in the meaning of the term "mindfulness" in popular usage, and skepticism, or at least caution, about the supposed scientific studies surrounding the movement, especially as it relates to brain research.  

Part Two:  In Part Two, Creative Engagement, Zen practitioners give their perspectives on mindfulness meditation itself.  Several of the authors in this collection either practice both forms of meditation or have even been officially certified in both.  Focus is placed on how both forms of meditation can be complimentary to one another, although, for these authors, Zen is the primary practice.  This section can be thought of as "seeing mindfulness meditation through a Zen paradigm" in the sense that the Zen tradition colors the authors' understanding of mindfulness, not the other way around. 

Of particular interest in this section is an essay on the word sati, often translated as "mindfulness," and a conversation between a teacher and student who are both trained in Soto Zen and Vipassana.  

Reflections:  As with any collection of essays, there were some that I found valuable and some that I didn't.  As a whole, I thought the first section of the book, which focused on the perceived problems with the mindfulness movement, was more thorough and more interesting.  I think those involved in Western Buddhism will find this part of the book to be far more important than Part Two.  Conversations surrounding these authors' critiques could lead to real change within the mindfulness movement (assuming it is just one movement).   Essays within this collection that I found to be the most helpful were Mischief in the Marketplace for Mindfulness, Mindfulness Myths, One Body Whole Life, and Two Practices One Path.  

Overall, I think the major trends within the mindfulness movement which are pointed out in these essays are accurate.  Mindfulness has become significantly unbundled from a Buddhist framework, probably moreso than any other form of spiritual practice has been uprooted from its religious context in history, and this is probably the biggest concern for those who approach the practice from a Buddhist understanding.  

Personal Takeaways:  I do not actively practice mindfulness meditation, although I sometimes go for "mindfulness walks" in which I feel I can cultivate the state of mind associated with vipassana meditation (i.e. creating an inner observer and simply watching physical and mental phenomena rise and fall).  My form of meditation – Centering Prayer – is much closer to Soto Zen practice than it is to mindfulness.  

One of the biggest takeaways for me comes from the forceful critique of using meditation for some perceived higher personal end (i.e. to have less stress, to be able to concentrate more, etc.).  Meditation, and in my case Centering Prayer, is more about changing the way you see things than changing the things themselves.  Maybe it is inevitable that people will come to meditation practices looking for a way to benefit their lives.  We are driven in large part by self-interest.  The paradox is that the more you deepen your practice, the less it becomes about you. 

One other takeaway I had was a connection with a line in the book's first essay.  When discussing the dangers of having beginners to the practice with no long-term training become instructors over others, Marc Poirier warns that students "may experience insights or rushes of psychological turmoil that an inexperienced instructor may be ill-equipped to address or perhaps even recognize."  As I've written about before in Centering Prayer, TM, and Emotional Struggle, I rarely see those from the TM movement, or Zen/Mindfulness movements talk about the emotional turmoil that can result from these practices.  It was just mentioned in passing here, but it caught my attention as a point of contact.  

This book will appeal mainly to leaders in the mindfulness movement, and it will be interesting to see the reaction from popular teachers.  It is sure to provoke plenty of discussion.  

Ecce Homo and Nietzsche's Freedom

I haven't really read much Nietzsche.  I've read parts of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but that's about it.

Last week, I picked up Ecce Homo, Nietzsche's autobiography.  It's really short – under a hundred pages – so I thought it was worth perusing.  

In a sense, Nietzsche is the exact opposite of an author I would interact with on a site dedicated to contemplative spirituality.  He is one of the most well known "anti-God" authors in the last several hundred years.  He hates all things spiritual, all things moral, and all ideals.  Listen to some of these lines from his autobiography:

"I do not set up any new idols; may old idols only learn what it costs to have legs of clay.  To overthrow idols (idols is the name I give to all ideals) is much more like my business.  In proportion as an ideal world has been falsely assumed, reality has been robbed of it's value..."

"...the lie of the ideal has been the curse of reality..."

"My experience gave me a right to feel suspicious in regard to all so-called 'unselfish' instincts, in regard to the whole of 'neighborly love' which is ever ready and waiting with deeds or with advice.  To me it seems that these instincts are a sign of weakness, they are an example of the inability to withstand a stimulus – it is only among decadents that this pity is called a virtue."

For Nietzsche, any type of spiritual ideal – say "lovingkindness" or self-sacrifice – or any type of morality, any "thou shalt" or "thou shalt not," is a lie.  It is the enemy of humanity.  As he says in the last quote above, he regards the tendency toward brotherly love as a weakness.  He will not bow to the idol of an ideal, a moral concept, a God. 

While he might seem to be the exact opposite of a contemplative from any spiritual path, in a sense, I feel like Nietzsche is looking for the same thing as all the spiritual giants – complete and total freedom.  They are just freedoms of a different sort.

The freedom of the spiritual master is freedom from all the things of the world which tie us down and hold us back from spiritual joy.  Freedom from vanity.  Freedom from bondage to material comfort.  Freedom from self.  When one is finally freed from the chains of self, they are open to simply be a channel of the Holy Spirit.  From an Eastern perspective, a Buddhist seeks freedom from all attachment and thus the ability to live with loving-kindness toward all things.  

Spiritual freedom is freedom from self.

Nietzsche's freedom is a freedom toward self.  Nietzsche's ideal sets up the self against anything that claims to have power over it.  His "superman" is one who has cast off conventional ideals so that the self becomes the measure of all things.  The superman can do what he wants.  And what he most wants is power over all. 

Ultimately, Nietzsche's life ended in literal madness.  He believed that the world had not received his message because it was not ready.  In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche's madman, declaring the death of God, comes to the realization that his time has not yet come:

"Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment.  At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and broke it and went out.  'I have come too early,' he said then; 'my time has not come yet.  The tremendous event is still on its way, still traveling - it has not yet reached the ears of men.  Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard.'"

Thus far, Nietzche's proclamation of the death of God has not been fulfilled.  Perhaps the decline of organized religion, but the death of God, of spirituality, of morality, of ideals, hardly seems immanent.

Perhaps, to the masses, the spiritual vision of freedom from self is just more appealing than Nietzsche's vision of freedom toward self.  


Siddhartha: Review

In Siddhartha, we follow a spiritual seeker through his wandering, Enlightenment, and finally, through his entrance back into the world.  The seeker, Siddhartha, is placed in the time of The Buddha and actually meets The Master himself, hearing his teachings first hand.  Surprisingly, Siddhartha chooses not to become a disciple of The Buddha, but instead attempts to attain the Ultimate Goal on his own.  Siddhartha finds what he seeks and then returns to civilian life, living among ordinary people as an "enlightened one."  Throughout, the reader finds themselves immersed in the world of Hindu and Buddhist thought.  

Overview:  The book is divided into two sections.  In Part One, Siddhartha seeks and attains Enlightenment, and in Part Two, he re-enters the world.

Part One:  Siddhartha begins his journey as part of his society's upper class, a Brahmin.  Echoing the life of The Buddha, Siddhartha seemingly has everything he could want – wealth, beauty, and power – but finds himself discontent with the best life has to offer:

"Within himself Siddhartha had begun to nourish discontent.  He had begun to feel that the love of his father and the love of his mother and even the love of his friend Govinda would not forever after delight him, soothe him, satisfy and suffice him.  He had begun to surmise that his venerable father and his other teachers, that these wise Brahmins had already conveyed the majority and the best part of their wisdom, that they had already poured out their plenty into his waiting vessel, and the vessel was not full, the mind was not satisfied, the soul was not calm, the heart was not stilled.  Ablutions were good, but they were water, they did not wash away sin, they did not quench spiritual thirst, they did not dissolve fear in the heart.  Sacrificing to the gods and invoking them was excellent – but was this all?  Did sacrifices bring happiness?  And what was the nature of the gods?  Was it really Prajapati who had created the world?  Was it not the Atman, He, the Sole One, the All-One?  Were not the gods representations, created as you and I, subject to time, transitory?  Was it therefore good, was it right, was it a meaningful and supreme act to sacrifice to the gods?  To whom else was one to sacrifice, whom else was one to venerate, besides Him, the Only One, the Atman?  And where was Atman to be found, where did He abide, where did His eternal heart beat, where else but within one's own I, deep inside, in what is indestructible, borne within every individual?"

With a spiritual desire that can't be quenched by the things of the world, or even his traditional religion, Siddhartha, again echoing the life of The Buddha, leaves his security behind to become an ascetic religious seeker – a shramana.  

As Siddhartha develops as a shramana, mortifying his passions and harshly disciplining his body, he eventually finds his way to The Buddha himself and encounters his teachings.  Although Siddhartha finds little wrong with The Buddha's teachings, he realizes that the teachings themselves are not what he is looking for.  No body of teachings can ever encompass what the Buddha experienced – Enlightenment.  

"To no one, o most Venerable One, will you be able to speak and convey in words what happened in the hour of your enlightenment!  The teachings of the enlightened Buddha encompass a great deal, they teach much, how to live righteously, how to avoid evil.  But one thing the teachings, so clear and so venerable, do not contain: they do not contain the secret of what the Exalted One himself experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands."

Siddhartha thus leaves The Buddha and his community to seek Enlightenment on his own.  The Enlightenment eventually comes, seemingly from nowhere, and the experience is described in a manner similar to Satori.  

Part Two:  In Part Two of the novel, Siddhartha returns to civilian life, working for a simple merchant and falling in love with a beautiful woman, Kamala.  As he begins his re-entry into normal living, Siddhartha "plays with life."  He has the ability to engage in relationships, in business, in pleasure, without gaining his life from these things:

"'He always seems only to play at business, it never gets into his blood, it never rules him, he never fears failure, losses never bother him'...If he had profits, he pocketed them with equanimity; if he met with loss, he laughed and said: 'Oh, my goodness, this has gone very badly!'"

But after some time, Siddhartha is again overcome by the world, becoming attached to the things he had once freed himself of:

"Belongings, assets, and wealth in the end had captured him, this was no longer play, these were no longer frills, rather they had become a burden, and he was chained to them."

Siddhartha has re-entered Samsara, and is unable to keep himself from being overtaken by it.

The remainder of the book narrates Siddhartha's continued relationship with Kamala, his reunion with Govinda (his friend as a youth), and his ongoing spiritual struggle.

Reflections:  Siddhartha was kind of an odd book for me.  I thought Part One was brilliant and immediately immerses the reader in Hindu (and to an extent, Buddhist) thought.  I would have loved it if Hesse expanded more on the "Enlightenment experience" of Siddhartha.  He seems to be describing what is often spoken of as "Satori," a kind of transfiguring of reality in which everything is "as it should be," or everything is "as One":

"Blue was blue, river was river, and if the one and the divine also lay concealed in the blue and in the river and in Siddhartha, it was just the nature and meaning of the divine to be yellow here, blue here, there sky, there forest and here Siddhartha.  Meaning and essence were not somewhere behind things, they were inside things, in everything."

Part Two, in which Siddartha re-enters the world, eventually becoming engrossed in what he had once left behind, was kind of confusing to me.  When he initially comes back, I thought it was a good picture of how one who has become "unattached" can then live a regular life, but from a different view – engaging in the things of the world, but remaining inwardly detached from them.  But Siddhartha seems to alter between states of "re-finding" his enlightenment, and then losing it again, and I am unsure how to interpret the ending of the book.

Personal Takeaways: I think my biggest takeaway from Siddhartha is a question: Can someone who experiences Enlightenment, or perhaps a monk who believes they have reached the Unitive Stage (say St. John of the Cross), be again captured by the things of this world?  I'm not even sure that it makes sense to speak of a person who has reached this stage and would make that claim (I tend to think that Enlightenment or the Unitive Stage are best thought of as archetypes – ideals to strive for), but this is the question that stays with me after this book.  I feel like my experience is very back and forth.  At times I have felt tastes of what I feel are the fruits of contemplative practice, more peace with life as it is, less attachment, less striving.  But then I'll get caught up again.  This is what I see from the character Siddhartha, and in the novel, he has already achieved Enlightenment.  It just makes me wonder...

Overall, I think the main value of Siddhartha is gaining an understanding of some of the major themes of Hinduism and Buddhism in narrative form.  It's a short, engrossing read, but one you'll want to take your time with.  

The Perennial Philosophy: Review

Drawing from primary texts across the spectrum of the world's religious traditions, in The Perennial Philosophy Aldous Huxley synthesizes mystic thought in a variety of areas.  Beginning with what the mystics believe about the nature of reality, Huxley goes on to show how this "Perennial Philosophy" plays itself out in their lives.  A fantastic springboard for exploring primary contemplative texts, there is no better book for an introduction to world mysticism.  

Overview:  Huxley begins by defining the "philosophy of the mystics," what has been called, since Gottfried Leibniz, the Perennial Philosophy because it shows itself in religious traditions across the ages.  In Huxley's words:

"Philosophia Perennis – the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing – the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being – the thing is immemorial and universal."

Huxley's definition brings together Western personal/theistic thought and Eastern, mostly non-personal, thought into one statement.  To speak roughly in the languages of West and East: 

In Western terms: (1) There is a God who is the Source of existence, (2) God dwells at the core of each human soul, and (3) our ultimate destiny, if we choose it, is union with God.  

In Eastern terms: (1) There is a Spiritual Ground of existence, (2) the core of each human soul is identical with the Spiritual Ground, and (3) our ultimate destiny, if we choose it, is absorption in the Ground.  

Huxley spends his first two chapters, That Art Thou and The Nature of the Ground, expanding on this definition.  In true mystic form, the nature of the Spiritual Ground which lies at the core of each created being is a mystery.  

"What is the That to which the thou can discover itself to be akin? To this the fully developed Perennial Philosophy has at all times and in all places given fundamentally the same answer. The divine Ground of all existence is a spiritual Absolute, ineffable in terms of discursive thought, but (in certain circumstances) susceptible of being directly experienced and realized by the human being."

In other words, God can't be defined, He can only be experienced directly.  That, my friends, is mysticism.  The God whom the worshipper may have "known" through their religious texts, doctrine, and faith tradition, suddenly becomes "unknowable."  The mystics are concerned almost exclusively with direct experience of God and how that experience transforms them; theology becomes a secondary matter.  This has, historically, often put them at odds with the official religious institutions they come from.  

After defining and expanding on the core philosophy of the mystics, Huxley spends the rest of the book looking at how this plays out in their lives.  I'll briefly look at three of these chapters:

Mortification, Non-Attachment, Right Livelihood:  The way to find God is to die to self.  The goal of the mystic is simply to become an empty vessel through which God may work.  Instead of identifying with the ego, the "I", the normal sense of self, the contemplative identifies with the divine "not-I," what is called the "Higher Self" in some traditions.  The life of the contemplative is thus a life of self-denial, not because self-denial is a good in and of itself, but because it is the ego, our self-will, that separates us from a life of union with God.

The Miraculous:  Here Huxley explores the existence of "miraculous events" and their connection to the mystics.  These type of events – supernatural healings, psychic powers, etc. – are often associated with contemplatives.  Surprisingly, their attitude towards the miraculous is one of indifference and can be summed up by a quote with which Huxley introduces the chapter:

"Can you walk on water? You have done no better than a straw. Can you fly in the air? You have done no better than a bluebottle. Conquer your heart; then you may become somebody."

– Ansari of Herat

It is salvation, deliverance, nirvana and how that experience can be lived out in the world that the contemplatives are interested in, not the cultivation of supernatural powers.  

Contemplation, Action and Social Utility:  The contemplatives believe that contemplation, the direct experience of God, is the ultimate end for which humanity is designed.  Action in the world (good works, etc.) may prepare the soul for contemplation, but action is not an end in itself.

"In all the historic formulations of the Perennial Philosophy it is axiomatic that the end of human life is contemplation, or the direct and intuitive awareness of God; that action is the means to that end; that a society is good to the extent that it renders contemplation possible for its members; and that the existence of at least a minority of contemplatives is necessary for the well-being of any society."

Ironically, it is also the contemplative, the one who has purified himself of self-will, that will naturally perform true positive action in the world:

"...action that is 'taken away from the life of prayer' is action unenlightened by contact with Reality, uninspired and unguided; consequently it is apt to be ineffective and even harmful."

In other chapters, Huxley delves into personal temperament and how it affects religious action, spiritual exercises, the role of ritual and sacrament, and various related topics.  

Personal Reflections:  Some critics think that Huxley finds too much commonality and not enough diversity in world mysticism, that he "makes the pieces fit" what he believes is a common core.  While there is certainly diversity in these traditions, I think Huxley does show that, while the mystics might not speak with one voice, they do often speak in harmony.

This book was life-changing for me.  As I was coming out of conservative religion, it helped me hang on to the belief that religion may, in fact, point to something real.  That even if all of my tightly held theology had been stripped away, I might still find God.  Nihilism works for some people, but it clearly wasn't going to work for me.  And that's where I would be if I hadn't found the contemplative versions of faith that are represented in this book.   

One of the more fascinating ideas that I come back to from The Perennial Philosophy is the idea that "knowledge is a function of being."  If we change ourselves by consciously "dying to self" and becoming selfless, we can change our "knowledge" or experience of the world.  Instead of interpreting the world through the tainted lens of our own needs and wants, our self-interest, we begin to see the world with different eyes.  And the mystics insist that if we can truly cleanse ourselves of our self-interest, the fruit will be a life of love, joy, and peace.  

I can't recommend this book, or Huxley as an author, enough.  If you are interested in world mysticism, start here.