The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 48: Visual Lessons

One of the most enjoyable (and sometimes confounding) parts of writing these devotionals is finding royalty-free art to share with you that fits the theme. This is challenging when the theme is something abstract, like “non-attachment,” but is often surprisingly challenging when the theme is something obvious.

It is especially difficult to find inclusive art that fits these themes in the public domain. Since I don’t have a budget to pay for good art produced by minority artists, I draw heavily from Wikimedia Commons.

As I’ve looked back over these devotionals, though, I find that there are visual lessons to be learned. Since I’ve just written about Arjuna’s vision, I thought this might be a good place to pause and engage our right brains a bit.

Part of the lesson of enlightenment is that our narrative brain needs to hush. Not everything can be explained with words. Sometimes it just needs to be seen.  So I’m going to recap some of my favorite visuals I’ve used over this series. Look at them. Pause over ones that seem to speak to you. Practice Visio Divina. (Click the images for the associated blog post and source info). 

Prayer:

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 42: A Hymn to the Divine

 
Sagrada_Familia_March_2015-10a

The ceiling of Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Barcelona, Spain, by Alvesgaspar, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Chapter Nine of the Bhagavad-Gita is a hymn to the divine. Listen to some of these verses by reading them out loud, and compare them to some of the poetry of the Bible. I’ll use italics for the Gita, and plain text for the Bible:

All creatures find their existence in me. …They move in me as the winds move in every direction in space. (BG 9:4 & 6)

For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said. (Acts 17:28)

I am the goal of life, the Lord and support of all. I am the only refuge, the one true friend; I am the beginning, the staying, and the end of creation. I am the womb and the eternal seed. (BG 9:18)

I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me… Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one. (Isaiah 44:6-8)

I am heat; I give and withhold rain. I am immortality and I am death. I am what is and what is not. (BG 9:19)

The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. (1 Samuel 2:6-7)

I look upon all creatures equally; none are less dear to me and none more dear. But those who worship me with love live in me, and I come to life in them. (BG 9:29)

I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34-35)

There are some important differences in these passages, of course, especially when we examine them in context. But many of the metaphors and images we use for God, regardless of religion or culture, are similar. They express some intuitive truths: God is omnipresent and we “move inside” of God. God incorporates the beginning and end of creation. Life and death are part of the same process, and both belong to God. God pours out God’s love indiscriminately, and accepts those who seek God. God is both transcendent and imminent.

Prayer:
Beginning and End of All Things, root me in your life; bring me into your presence.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 32: Meditation Posture

 

Amitabha, Tibet, 145 CE. Photo by David Barnhart, taken at the Encountering the Buddha exhibit at the Smithsonian

 

Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass. Then, once seated, strive to still your thoughts. Make your mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified. Hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering. With all fears dissolved in the peace of the Self… sit in meditiaon with me as your only goal. (BG, 6:11-14

Krishna shifts to telling Arjuna some specific steps in meditation.

I share this section because there are two truths about meditation posture: the first is that your exact physical posture isn’t important. The second is that your physical posture is very important.

If you go to a meditation class or speak to people who have practiced for years, you’ll learn that most practitioners have options: cushion, bench, or chair; walking meditation or lying on the floor; hands clasped, open, or in mudras; eyes open or closed. It was in watching a video of an old woman meditating near a stupa that I finally realized: just do whatever works. She was sitting on the ground, leaning on one arm. The other rested across one raised knee. Her eyes were fixed at a middle distance on the ground. She was smiling softly. She looked comfortable but alert, something I rarely achieved in my own meditation posture. But she wasn’t hung up on having her legs in the lotus position or her arms just so.

There’s a balance here. Once you understand the purpose of meditation, posture may not be so important. But for the novice unlearning a lifetime of bad posture habits, physical position can be a hang-up. We are physical beings and how we orient out bodies in space can help or hinder our mental and spiritual experience. If our attention becomes fixated on our comfort, seeking the least distracting position can become a distraction itself. This is part of what hatha yoga is intended to do: prepare you for meditation. You move and stretch your body because sitting still in meditation is hard work!

Yesterday I said Easwaran’s translation in this chapter feels a bit too focused on willpower. Listen to the active verbs he uses in the above passage: strive, hold, keep. I think these verbs reinforce “achievement” spirituality. Compare it to the Feuerstein translation, which has only one active verb, sit:

Holding trunk, head, and neck even, motionless, and steady, gazing [relaxedly] at the tip of his nose and without looking round about, [with] tranquil self, devoid of fear… he should sit, intent on Me. (6:13-14).

The trick in meditation, as with life, is to find the balance between effort and relaxation, active attention and passive noticing. For me, it’s not so much stilling my thoughts as letting them play, like active toddlers, until they come to rest naturally. It’s not helpful when my achievement-oriented brain is yelling at them, “RELAX!”

And the same is true with the body. I begin with an awareness of my body, because until I become intentionally aware of my body and appreciate its posture, it will become a persistent distraction.

Prayer:
Embodied, Incarnate One, you made, for me, a body; You made me as a body;
You made me more than a body.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 31: The Will and the Self

 
530-520 BC

Hydria with Depiction of Quadriga, Charioteer and Hoplite, Workshop of Lysippides Painter, 530-520 BC. From Wikimedia Commons. The Bhagavad-Gita describes the human person as a chariot, with the will as the driver and the Self as the lord who rides along.

 

Reshape yourself through the power of your will; never let yourself be degraded by self-will. The will is the only friend of the Self; and the will is the only enemy of the Self. (BG, 6:5

This is a place where it’s worth doing some language study. The above translation is from Easwaran, which I have used for most of these devotionals. But I think it’s important here to compare it to the Feuerstein translation:

He should raise the self by the Self; he should not let the self sink; for, [as] the self is indeed the friend of the Self, [so also] is the self indeed Self’s enemy. 

As I’ve said, I don’t know Sanskrit at all. My Hebrew is pretty thin, and my Greek is only slightly better. I rely on language experts and multiple translations to help me wrestle with ancient scriptures. The issue in this passage is the various creative ways atman is used.

Easwaran chooses to make this a distinction between the will and the Self. Feuerstein instead goes with “lower self” and “higher Self.” Either way, the notion is that the part of us that is truly divine and eternal, that aspect of our consciousness that retains a connection to the Lord of Life, is the real higher Self. But in our confusion, we often think of the part of us that decides and has agency as who we really are. This is the lower self, or as Easwaran interprets it, our will.

The reason I prefer the Feuerstein translation in this instance is that in the next few verses, Krishna is going to talk about meditation, and I think our Western way of thinking about the will, and willpower, and self-control, and achievement often poison our understanding of meditation. People will say, “I’m no good at meditation,” because they’ve been taught that it’s about controlling your thoughts. It’s a paradox present in so much spiritual growth, that we have to learn how to relax. People sit down to meditation with the idea that they are going to grit their teeth and really focus. Through effort and intense concentration they are going to still their thoughts.

It’s like trying to pick up a towel while you are standing on it.  

We will look more, eventually, at the different components of the self, this thing I think of as I. But for now, let’s rest with this truth: There is part of me that is pure consciousness (Self), and there is part of me that has agency and makes decisions (lower self, or will). The part of me that has agency can facilitate my knowing my Self, or it can obscure it. Deciding to decide in favor of my Self is one of the most important decisions I can make, and yet I often choose distraction. I procrastinate on enlightenment. Paul expresses something similar: “I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate” (Romans 7:15, CEB).

My self can be an ally of my Self, or it can be an enemy. Do I have the courage to explore why?

Prayer:
Master of my Self, help me master my self.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 30: Pleasures and Treasures

 
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Detail of a botched “restoration” of a painting of Mary by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. News story here.

 

Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. The wise do not look for happiness in them. But those who overcome the impulses of lust and anger which arise in the body are made whole and live in joy. They find their joy, their light, and their rest completely within themselves. United with the Lord, they attain nirvana in Brahman. (BG, 5:22-24)  

Yesterday I pointed out that like the Sermon on the Mount, the above quote singles out the passions of anger and lust as particular traps. It also connects to Jesus’s words in another way:

“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them.  Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, CEB)

Earthly treasures have this in common: they end. We value them for a time because they bring pleasure to the senses, but when they end we feel sad, or angry, and we long for more.

My mind goes to news of the recent botched painting restoration in Spain. Of course we want things of beauty to be preserved, and we want great works of art to last so that they can be seen by future generations. But nothing lasts forever, and sometimes our efforts to preserve our pleasure actually lead to ruin. This particular amateur “restoration” left the Virgin Mary looking hideous and goofy.

Yes, the ruin of a beautiful work of art is sad and outrageous, but I can’t help laughing when I see these photographs. Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. Sometimes we try to “hold on” to an aesthetic experience of great art by possessing a painting, as if owning it will let us own the feeling of it. We put art in museums (to visit occasionally) or on our walls (where they become simply more furniture). Sometimes artists, like Banksy, try to draw our attention to the strange relationship between art, temporality, money, and ownership by destroying their own art.

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Banksy released a video of the “rehearsal” of his prank. Excellent in-depth news here.

Our desire to possess, to keep, to hold on, all of this is attachment. We get angry because our attachment is threatened. We covet and lust because we want to own. We want to preserve this moment of pleasure or comfort and carry it into the next one, and the next, which is an impossible task.

Jesus says our real treasure is “in the heavens,” or the skies. Krishna says it is within ourselves. I think there is little difference between the two.

Prayer:
God of Time and Timelessness, of the Eternal and the Finite, help me to find my treasure in you,
in the sky, in myself.

News That is Good

I know the news seems bleak,
and some days seem without hope,
which makes it hard to remember
that everything in the universe is made out of love;
everything is held together by love;
and the end and purpose of everything is love;
and when it’s time to tally the scores,
we will be full of laughter
because the points have always been irrelevant
and the only thing worth keeping track of
is love.

Good Friday

Christ_and_the_Abbot_Menas_Louvre_E11565_n02

A friend who attends First United Methodist Church in Dallas said that at tonight’s Good Friday service, anti-LGBTQIA protesters gathered outside their church to condemn the church for being an inclusive congregation. He said it felt appropriate, and I agree. But I also felt moved to write the poem below, made up almost entirely of scripture references.

Good Friday

Jesus said his yoke was light
But you make it look too easy
Galloping with joy, entirely too unburdened.
So we said you were abolishing the law
Instead of fulfilling it. 
We tied up heavy burdens for you
That we did not have to bear.
We locked the kingdom of God to you,
afraid to go in ourselves.
We crossed land and sea to make converts
And told them to write unjust laws and oppressive decrees
To kill the gays in colonized lands.
We made your yoke unequal to ours;
While we enjoyed every permitted pleasure
Of marriage, family, divorce, and adultery,
We laid our sins upon you,
And pierced you for our transgressions
Insisting you take up a cross that was never yours,
A yoke none of us had to bear,
Of celibacy, of mortification, of violence,
A circumcision not of the flesh or heart,
But of the soul, of the brain.
You bright and shining ones, Children of light
Who dared to love because God is love,
We called you gluttons, and friends of harlots and drunkards.
Even our own children we smashed against the rocks,
Exiled them to strange lands
And stifled their songs,
Sacrificing them to our angry gods
Though it never entered Her mind to do ask for such.
(How could She forget her nursing children,
or show no compassion for the children of Her womb?)

The pastors among us
Talked of welcome without affirmation,
Betrayed you with kisses,
Said “peace” when there was none offered,
And dressed your wounds as though
They were not serious.

Yet wisdom is proved by her children.

You did not accept a cross
Foisted upon you by unbelievers,
You refused to be the sacrificial lamb,
To give us the catharsis we wanted,
You opened your mouth to say a mumblin’ word
About dignity
And humanity
And love

And eventually
We began to find
Jesus.


 

scripture references (roughly in order of appearance, though I may have missed some):

Matthew 11:28
Matthew
 5:17
Matthew
 23:4
Matthew
 23:13
Matthew
 23:15
Isaiah 10:1
2 Corinthians 6:14
Matthew
 5:32
Isaiah 53:4-5
Acts 15:10
Romans 2:29
Ephesians 5:8
1 John 4:8
Luke 23:26
Matthew 11:19
Psalm 137
Jeremiah 19:5
Isaiah 49:15
Luke 22:48
Jeremiah 6:14

The Captain Marvel I Remember

The Captain Marvel I remember was a black woman. I started collecting the Avengers comics in the mid-80’s. In 1987, Monica Rambeau (as Captain Marvel—she later became “Photon”) was chair of the Avengers. I remember Storm being leader of the X-Men. And in the New Mutants (my favorite team), Danielle Moonstar was the leader. As an adolescent white dude in the mid-80’s, comics were about the only pop culture media in which I remember seeing women of color in leadership.

I stopped collecting for awhile, and I missed the major Carol Danvers story. So “Captain Marvel” for me has always been Monica Rambeau. If I were to pick a superpower for myself, it would have been her ability to transform into multiple kinds of energy. When they introduced Monica as a little girl in the recent Captain Marvel movie, I couldn’t help elbowing my wife and whispering “she’s going to be badass.”

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Captain Marvel gets nominated to lead the Avengers — The Avengers 279, May 1987, page 5

I’m not in any way saying that this deprogrammed me or counteracted the enormous implicit bias I was trained to have. Nor am I dismissing all the sexism and lookism and tokenism that comics geared toward adolescent boys often reinforced. BUT these stories embedded themselves in my imagination and subconscious. 

IMG_1941

Doctor Druid and Thor showing their fragility.

I’m sharing this because I remember this stuff from my childhood. It reinforces the importance of representation in our imagination and the stories we tell. Superhero movies, as Mr. Glass says, are our modern myths—they tell us who we aspire to be. When we are doing science fiction or fantasy or superhero stories, we’re engaged in subtle acts of resistance to the dominant narrative. We’re imagining that the world could be otherwise.

And the reason it causes so much backlash among fragile white dudes is that they correctly sense that it threatens the status quo. In the above panel, Doctor Druid and Thor both react in predictable ways, questioning Monica’s ability. Later on in the story, She-Hulk confides to Black Knight that she prefers a less hierarchical and more egalitarian form of leadership, and she hopes Captain Marvel will step up to lead the group. 

The comics I collected seldom mentioned race as part of the storyline. Danielle Moonstar’s Cheyenne heritage in The New Mutants is far more explicit than Monica’s blackness in The Avengers. In that sense, my favorite comics promoted the false narrative of colorblindness. But it also shows Monica talking with her parents about sidelining her desire to start a business. The story gives her a past, a family, and an internal life.

IMG_1942

Internalized oppression is a thing. Monica feels she needs permission to lead because she’s a woman. (The fact that she’s black is never mentioned).

It’s a comic book from the 80’s, so there are some dialogue choices and storyline choices that make me cringe. But I remember that these comics expanded my imagination in ways that I only now can appreciate. I am looking forward to seeing the Captain Marvel that I grew up with transform into a living beam of light and burn a hole through steel.

Women of the Bible (Lyrics)

http://www.wga.hu/art/v/valentin/judith.jpg

I don’t actually have a verse about Judith (in the picture above), but I should write one. I’d envisioned this with a sassy lounge jazz tune, minor key for the verses, major for the chorus (so the chorus sounds a bit like “Jesus loves me.”)

I was inspired to write it because the main thing people know and want to discuss about Bathsheba is whether she was David’s victim, seductress, or paramour; but one of the most fascinating stories about her is how she and Nathan hoodwinked the Old Man into making her son the heir to the throne. I was trying to figure out how to disrupt and refocus the narrative in the fewest words possible, and that led to this song.

Bathsheba
Very pretty
Know her story?
Just a little bitty:
Pulled some strings and she got her son
Sitting on the throne; now he’s king Solomon.

Miss Naomi
Was a widow
Taught Miss Ruth
How to use eye shadow
Instructed Ruth in feminine wiles
Now she’s singing lullabies to her grandchild.

[Chorus]
Strong women, these I know
For the Bible taught me so
Mothers, sisters; royal, tribal
Don’t you mess with the women of the Bible.

Queen Esther
In her palace
Had to deal
With ethnic malice
Saved her people from Haman’s plans
Now he’s swinging from a rope tied by his own hands.

Martha and her
Sister Mary
Education
Was primary
Now they’re sittin’ at Jesus’ feet
Buddy, make yourself a sandwich if you want to eat.

Chorus

Listen up now
brothers, sisters,
We got to have some
strong resisters
You don’t have to take any more malarkey
The day’s gonna end for the patriarchy

Chorus

SaveSave

Dear Jephthah

Alexandre_Cabanel_-_The_Daughter_of_Jephthah_(1879,_Oil_on_canvas)
You thought perhaps
it would be someone else—
a servant, or a servant’s child,
or a child’s pet.
You would trade
in someone else’s grief,
while you made sad eyes
and talked about a greater purpose
and collateral damage
and breaking eggs to make omelettes,
and the cost of discipleship
and each of us bearing our cross
and sacrifice.

 

When she ran out of the door,
smiling,
breathless,
almost as tall as you,
long limbs (where does the time go?)
covering the ground in half the time
(where does it go?)
as your wife,
and the servants
and their children
and their pets,
first through the door,
because she was faster than the wind,

 

I saw your face crack;
I heard your heart break.
Only last month
(or was it last year?)
she asked for a story every night,
followed by a song,
followed by a prayer,
and I hoped you would have the sense
to know that God has no need
for anyone to prove their righteousness.

 

When you swore your oath,
to sacrifice the first creature
who ran out of your door
in exchange for victory,
the chance was slim,
you thought;
and if it did so happen
that it was your child,
then you saw yourself as faithful as Abraham.
In your head,
you were already composing the story,
and you were the hero
because you sacrificed so much.

 

(Do not bring God into this.
Your idea
never entered God’s mind.)

 

You told her to go into the mountains
and bewail her virginity, and so
that is what she told you
she did.

 

I heard what she bewailed:
She bewailed a world
where men trade their children
for the image of their own virtue,
where they prize abstinence and virginity
more than life,
where legislators
and preachers
and pundits
and generals
bereave parents again and again and again,
where people in authority
make foolish oaths,
and stupid laws,
and empty promises,
that keep taking the lives
of queer kids,
and straight kids,
and any child
who sprints out of the door,
full of hope, and excitement, and love.

 

Jephthah, God is tired;
tired of parents grieving
so you can prove
how worthy you are
by sacrificing their children
for your holy war.

 

Jeremiah 7:31
Judges 11:29-40