An interfaith, Buddhisto-Christian, consequence of Pentecost


An interfaith, Buddhisto-Christian, consequence of Pentecost
A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation.


“And, when the day arrived that completed the fifty after Passover [hence pente-cost], [Matthias and the eleven Apostles] were all gathered together in one place; And suddenly there came a noise like a turbulent wind borne out of the sky, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting, And there appeared before them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest, one each upon each one of them, And they were all filled with a Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them to utter” (Acts 2:1-5, trans. David Bentley Hart).

Now, within religious communities that continue consciously trace their founding back to Jesus — who, remember, was never a Christian, let alone God, and was always and only a faithful, if very radical, reforming, first-century Jew — this story is taken as the mythopoetic moment when the movement that originated around Jesus self-consciously coalesced into something that only many decades later became known as Christianity. For that first not-quite-anymore-Jewish-but-still-not-yet-quite-Christian group of individuals, although Jesus had been taken away from them by imperial execution, the coming of the Holy Spirit — symbolized by the tongues of fire accompanied by something like the sound of a turbulent wind — filled them with what they felt was the same animating, Spirit they believed they had seen in Jesus — i.e. nothing less than the Spirit of Life or, if you will, the Spirit of God. And in that mythopoetic moment of speaking together in different languages, using different modes of expression, that small group of people suddenly experienced a new self-understanding of who they were and how they should now be living in the world. True, they remained separate individuals with their own individual voices, unique stories to tell, and different understandings of in what consisted their new faith and how the world is, but now they also knew, somehow, that they were genuinely one in Spirit.

But one, absolutely key, thing thing to realise here is that this highly allusive, mythopoetic moment in which the first disciples experienced an overwhelming sense of their unity in diversity, this was not something that delivered to them a single, simple new religion that would, in time, be able to trace an unbroken and unproblematic line from that small, upper room in first-century Jerusalem to any of the huge, competing modern Christian churches, whether they be Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant or independent. These later forms of Christianity might like to claim this simple lineage exists and leads straight to them and to no one else, but they are wrong, profoundly so. This is because the roots of the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of God, that sent out a new shoot into the world on that first Pentecost, are always-already sending out into the world an ever-extending mass of roots that continue to this day to send up into the world new communities of the Spirit, now here, now there, as at wills. I think it’s helpful to remember at this point that Jesus himself is said to have taught that “the spirit blows (or respires) where it will, and you hear its sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; such is everyone born of the Spirit.”

It is this vital, free, nomadic quality of the Spirit that reveals to us that the Spirit’s roots are best thought of as being rhizomatic. The word rhizome simply means a “mass of roots” and these kinds of roots are capable of sending out ever more roots and shoots from its nodes as it grows. For those interested, examples of plants with rhizomatic roots include, Lily of the Valley, Flag Iris, various ferns, Alstroemeria, Chinese lanterns, Ginger, Turmeric and Rhubarb. Drawing upon, and extending this biological image into the realm of philosophy, in 1972, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggested that a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (A Thousand Plateaus, p.27). Consequently, whether speaking about plants, philosophy or religion, we may say rhizomatic structures resist the arboreal (tree-like) chronologies and organizations favoured by many religious traditions — especially Christianity — and, instead, favour complex, entangled, nomadic systems of growth and propagation.

When mindfully paid attention to in the context of Pentecost — and in the light of Jesus’ prayer found in the Gospel of John (17) in which he expresses his desire that his followers understand that all of them were one with him, each other and God — it becomes possible to see that this kind of unifying understanding of the Spirit has, throughout the ages and across the world, inspired certain people and communities to shoot up into the light and develop amongst themselves an increasing awareness that we simply are not discrete, disconnected beings or communities that have grown from a single seed and along a single line of development. No, we are, instead, always-already entangled, rhizomatic, nomadic beings and communities who, in truth, have no beginning or end, who are always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.

Now, with this thought in mind it becomes possible, I think, to glimpse something of the wonderful, complex mass of entangled, nomadic, rhizomatic roots that have consistently sustained and inspired the local, liberal, free religious community where I minster throughout its history, from its mythopoetic beginning in that upper room in Jerusalem two-thousand years ago, to the shoots that are breaking surface in the community at the moment, born witness to, for example, by last week’s visit to us by Thich Nhat Hahn’s Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism as we shared together a practice of mindfulness meditation.

You see, I find it very telling that in 1987, fifteen years after Deleuze and Guattari used the term “interbeing”, Thich Nhat Hanh also chose to use it to translate the Vietnamese words “tiep hien” where “tiep” means “being in touch with” and “continuing,” and where “hien” means “realizing” and “making it here and now” (p. 3).

The term first appears in published form in his book “Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism” (Parallax Press, 1987, [second reprint, 1997]). And the second guideline or precept of which reads as follows:

“Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.”

As I hope most of you will immediately realise, this is an insight that, since the sixteenth-century, has been absolutely central to our own liberal, free religious, Unitarian tradition, an insight I hope you can now appreciate is possible to see being mythopoetically expressed in the multiple voices of inspiration talked about in the Pentecost story.

But, to reiterate, it’s important to realise that nothing really began two thousand years ago at the first Pentecost. Nothing really began with Jesus’ insight that we are all one, or when Shakyamuni Buddha experienced an awakening beneath the Bodhi tree. Nothing really began when the first Unitarian communities shot up into the light in Poland and Transylvania four-hundred-and-fifty years ago. Nothing really began when Deleuze, Guattari and Thich Nhat Hahn started using the word “interbeing” to describe in English what it was they had intuited about how the world is and our place in it.

The thing to see is that when we fully understand the entangled, rhizomatic, nomadic nature of the mystery and miracle of life itself — which is really what I’m really talking about here — we suddenly experience reality as having no beginning nor end because it is something always-already in the middle, always-already between things, always-already interbeing, always-already intermezzo.

And so, lastly, today, I want to leave you with the thought that the Day of Pentecost is not in the past (or perhaps in the future) but is always-already potentially any and every day of our entangled, nomadic life together when we come realise our unity in diversity, in which “all things in the world are one, and one is in all things” (John Toland, Pantheisticon, 1751, London, S. Paterson, p. 70).