We are at home anywhere that we can live by the spirit — thinking some more through "no-position"

The sylvan nave at Wandlebury

'As [the disciples] were going along the road, a man said to [Jesus], "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head' (Luke 9:58; cf. Matthew 8:19-20).

From An Unorthodox Lecture by Paul Wienpahl reprinted in Manas, Vol. IX, no. 24, June 13, 1956

As I see it, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.) If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. 
  To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment. 
  [. . .]
When one says that he is a man without a position, does this mean that he is without direction? Perhaps. But this is misleading. For it means too that I have a direction and that direction is my own. It will come from within rather than being imposed from without. It means that I will guide it, I will give my life its form. And consciously too. Which seems to be hoisting one by one's bootstraps, but is not. It is just difficult. 
  Being without a position also means that I cannot judge others. I have said that I have come to see what people mean by saying that there is evil in the world. In fact, I can see this thing. To be unable to judge, however, seems tantamount to believing that there is no evil. I seem, therefore, to be saying contradictory things. But the contradiction is apparent only, for I think that what people have called evil is simply the recalcitrant, the unmanageable. 
  [. . .]
I have been thinking that I want to get away from knowing to living, from trying to understand and classify things to the things themselves. 

From Norbert Fabián Čapek's (1870-1942) lectures called “Kazatelna” (The pulpit) translated by Petr Dolák Samojský 

The Liberal Religious Fellowship is the first organised expression of Czech religious revivalist efforts [that are] in harmony with today’s level of scientific and ethical evolution of humankind. God’s throne [is] removed from the celestial mists to the human soul; the centre of worship is focused on the down-trodden human; sect and racism yield to humanity. Religion ascends from the grave of churchism, emancipates itself from service to avarice, and becomes a pioneer of a just societal order. The foundation of a religious society is not a common faith anymore but rather a common intention to be good and to do good. Instead of the old cultivation of negative mental states and dogmatic chains, a religious society is a bearer of a positive views of life and creative streams of free thinking. An adviser of the Liberal Religious Fellowship expresses merely his or her personal conviction and does not make it binding for anybody. The highest authority for a human is one’s awakened conscience; all truth and only the truth creates the new bible; all good people are saints; all of humankind is the target of redemption; the whole of nature is a cathedral; the kingdom of love is the effort and ideal of daily life.




Just before Christmas I had lunch with a friend of mine during which the conversation came round to Japanese philosophy and religion because he had been reading online my various addresses over Advent in which, in addition to Henry Bugbee, I’d just introduced you to Nishida Kitaro and Tanabe Hajime.

By chance he had just been doing some research into the indigenous Japanese Christian “No-church” movement founded in 1901 by Uchimura Kanzō. I remembered that back in 2011 I’d written an address that made mention of them and when I got back to my study I sent it on to him. Given that what I wrote back then seems not entirely empty-headed and that it also makes reference to the same passage from Paul Wienpahl I placed before you last week, I decided to dust it off, make a few revisions and additions, and to offer it up to you again for your consideration today.

Wienpahl, a very accessible philosopher who, for many years, taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara before his death in 1980 wrote about and offered up interpretations of two of my own favourite thinkers, Wittgenstein and Spinoza as well as writing a couple of engaging and useful books on Zen. One of them, entitled 'Zen Diary’, recounts his personal experiences during a six-month spell in a Japanese Buddhist monastery. Wienpahl was much admired as a teacher because it seems he was able to communicate to his students that, although philosophy was a scholarly discipline, much more importantly it was also a spiritual discipline of personal liberation.

An early expression of this may be found in a moving, personal piece he wrote in the mid-1950s just before going to Japan entitled, 'An Unorthodox Lecture’. In it he explored the consequences of a pivotal moment in his own personal spiritual/philosophical journey. I found in it many helpful remarks and pointers that since 2008 have come significantly to shape my own thinking. It has been, and continues to be, so useful that in recent years I’ve even privately taken to calling it (with a gentle smile), “The Wienpahl Sutra”. You heard the relevant passage earlier.

In this passage one phrase that particularly resonated with me, both then and now, was Wienpahl's claim to be “a man without a position.” It is, however, easy to be misled by Wienpahl’s claim  because it can sound, as he realised, as if this might be to say one is “without direction.” Perhaps, he says, it can sometimes mean this but Wienpahl stresses that for him it means that he most definitely does have a direction and that this direction is his own. He continues by saying this direction,

“. . . will come from within rather than being imposed from without. It means that I will guide it, I will give my life its form. And consciously too.”

Back in 2011 I happened to be re-reading Tolstoy's presentation of the well-known gospel story in which Jesus talks about foxes and birds having homes and I noticed a connection between his take on the Gospel story and Wienpahl’s thought.

Tolstoy reflects Jesus' teaching back to us in the following form:

'And a certain man said to Jesus, "I will follow you no matter where you go." At this Jesus said to him, "There is nowhere to follow me. I have no home, no place where I could live. Only animals have lairs and dens, but man is at home anywhere that he can live by the spirit' (Leo Tolstoy, The Gospel in Brief, Harper Perennial, 2011, p.66).

Tolstoy's whole understanding of what it means to follow Jesus can, I think, be summed up by saying that it is to be invited into a flexible, journeying, way of being-in-the-world such that you become a person without a position in the sense Wienpahl was talking about. To remind you, Wienpahl thinks this is actively to be in reality in a direct way, seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling it as you actually live it. It is to respond to an invitation to experience reality’s wholeness as a multifarious thing, as now one, now many. It is to begin to get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things of the world themselves. It is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, an atheist, a Christian, a skeptic or an agnostic. Lastly, it is felt that this way of being-in-the-world should open the door to detachment.

In Tolstoy's hands this  unusual way of following Jesus (one that is not based on belief about Jesus' divine status) is, it seems to me, one helpful, secular and naturalist way we may interpret Jesus’ teaching about the foxes and the birds.

Another good illustration of what I mean comes in the form of the well-known 'Parable of the Raft' told by the Buddha.

The Buddha tells a story of how a man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. On this side there is great danger and uncertainty and on the far side is safety. However, there is no bridge crossing the river nor is there a ferry; so what is the man to do? Well, he gathers together a number of logs and vines and uses them to build a raft that can take him across the river. Then the Buddha asks a question: 'What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river thought to himself, "The raft has served me well so from now on I will carry it on my back?"' The Buddha's audience replied that it would not be at all sensible to cling to the raft in such a fashion. The Buddha continued 'What if the man lay the raft down gratefully thinking that it had has served him well but, since it is no longer of any use I can leave it here on the shore?' His listeners replied that this would be the proper thing to do. The Buddha concluded by saying to them 'So it is with my teachings which are like a raft and are for crossing over with not for seizing hold of.'

In Tolstoy's eyes, and in mine, Jesus' own teachings happen to be the materials which, for our Western European culture anyway, are those ready-to-hand and with which a good and serviceable raft can be built. It's a helpful, practical vehicle to help us begin to travel through this astonishingly complex and beautiful world. But, as the parable of the raft suggest, we must not become overly attached to this (or any) particular, temporary structure and, as Jesus' parable suggests, we mustn't start to think of it as our true and final home, den or lair, or as Wienpahl suggests, a position.

When we avoid this kind of attachment it is, as Tolstoy felt Jesus taught, to realise that we find our home anywhere in reality that we can live by the spirit.

This necessarily has an impact upon what we understand to be “our church”, or “our religious community”, because it can no longer be anything simple, single and fixed but only something beautifully complex, multifarious, living, ever moving and unfolding.

Now, where do we find the best model for what this “church” might look like — a church for those with direction but holding to "no-position"?  Well, of course, we find it in the natural world, something that is clearly far from being simple, single and fixed because we can see everywhere that it is always-already something beautifully complex, multifarious, living and ever moving and unfolding.

It should come as no surprise that our cathedral naves borrow their impressiveness by wearing the form of the great sylvan naves found in our woods and forests. As you heard, one of our own great figures, Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942) said, “the whole of nature is a cathedral”.

The sylvan nave at Wandlebury
Indeed, these days, I find myself increasingly agreeing with him and, today, my home cathedral is to be found in Wandlebury woods just a few miles from where we sit — a picture of it’s fine nave is to be found at the top of this post and to the right.

I know of no better, compact expression of this thought than that penned by Uchimura Kanzō, the founder of the radical lay-led movement called 'No Church' (無教会, Mukyōkai). They have no set liturgy, sacraments, nor ordained clergy and, although there will be much about this movement’s underling metaphysical beliefs that we would struggle with here, I think the following words written by Uchimura speak eloquently and attractively to us of what a “No Church” looks like:

'Its ceiling is the azure blue sky, adorned [at night] with bright stars. Its floor is the green pasture, dotted with flowers of infinite colours. Its musical instrument is the boughs of pine trees and its musicians are the birds in the forest. Its altar is the mountain peaks and its preacher is God Himself. Such is the church for all of us who believe in the "No Church"' (cited in Uchimura Kanzō and His 'No Church Christianity': Its Origin and Significance in Early Modern Japan, Religious Studies, Vol. 23, No. 3, Sep., 1987, pp. 377-390).

All the above words help me say to you that I have come to feel  that, these days, it is better to think of myself as a person who simply has a sense of direction but no-position and who, by attempting to follow the example of the human Jesus (at least as it is expressed by Tolstoy) is trying to be without a lair and den and at home anywhere that I find I, and other people, can live by the spirit.

In the light of the increasing tendency of our world to be slip into fixed religious positions and clearly defined religious lairs and dens — something the Charlie Hebdo attacks have so painfully revealed — I’d argue that something like this non-sectarian, this-worldly way of being religious (one already so powerfully expressed back in 1920s and 30s by Čapek) is even more important to pursue than it was only back in 2011. But that, in the end, is for you to decide.

Since writing the bare bones of this piece back in 2011 I have discovered something of the thinking of the philosopher Herbert Fingarette, a friend and colleague of Paul Wienpahl's On the opening page of his book ”The Self in Transformation” (Basic Books, New York, 1963) he makes a comment that I gently paraphrase now as my own concluding words to this address:

In making the journey that has led to this address, I have had no aims. This piece is an outcome rather than a realised objective. It is an intellectual footprint, not a blueprint. The hearer or reader will, I hope, eventually identify their shape and dimensions to their own satisfaction; they will find their place on the intellectual map and the existential position in which they point.


Anonymous said…
Beautiful post! I'm almost crying here.

When you talked Tolstoi's understanding of following Jesus as journeying, I remembered the saying of Jesus on the Gospel of Thomas: "Be passersby". I really love this saying.

And that Buddha's parable is simply amazing. Where is it?

Thank you for the amazing text.
From Brazil,
Adair Neto.
Greetings Adiar,

Many thanks for your kind words.

The story about the raft comes from a Pali text called the Alagaddupama Sutta. A quick internet sear will bring up a few online versions. And yes, it is a great story isn't it.

Best wishes and thanks again.