Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Parable of the Unjust Steward

And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. 

This Parable is generally considered problematic because it seems like Jesus is praising a selfish person. This is one of my favourite parables but I have never seen or heard the way that I interpret it. Here it is, please let me know if you have seen this interpretation elsewhere:

In the parable the steward acts in a good way for a selfish reason. However, most of the good things that get done are done for selfish or partly selfish reasons. Consider someone who gives to the poor in order to get into heaven, that is selfish, they are no different from the steward. Even when a good deed is motivated by true compassion it is extremely rare that it does not contain an element of selfishness as well. The fact is, more good gets done through selfishness than pure compassion. In relation to this the Dalai Lama has referred to the quest for enlightenment as enlightened self interest. It is vanity to believe that you can do anything without an element of selfishness. However, we have many religious, institutional, and cultural mechanisms to encourage us to do good works for selfish reasons. Ultimately, these structures are motivated by true compassion, but in an indirect way. What this parable is saying is that a good act is good in and of itself, independent of the motivations of the actor. We are all like the steward, we are all selfish, but when we do good things it is to be commended. We tend to make a distinction between people who have internalized systems to make them do good, and people who do good because an externalized system has caused them to do it. Really there is no difference. The saints knew this and this is why, despite their many internally motivated good deeds, they did not see themselves as any better than your average sinner


Hope is a bad thing in Buddhism because it is an attachment. Hope is considered a good thing in Christianity but the true meaning is not to hope for particular things, rather, hope refers to what Buddhist call motivation. Motivation in Buddhism is based on the hope of achieving enlightenment. Likewise, Christian hope refers to the hope of becoming One with God. So really hope and motivation refer to the same thing. Importantly this type of hope is not an attachment and is not selfish because in order to achieve it the self must be destroyed. At the same time, hope is a vision of good place that can be reached

Compassion is not an emotion

Compassion is not an emotion. It is a way of being that has it's own set of emotions, which have been categorized by both Buddhist and christian monks and mystics. Compassion can be applied to another person or to yourself. True compassion does not know the difference. Religions often focus on helping strangers or enemies because this is likely to arise only from true compassion. Helping friends or ourselves can arise from compassion or from selfishness. Because it is easy to get confused it is best to understand compassion through compassion to strangers and enemies. However, compassion applies to everyone, including ourselves

The fruit of silence is prayer

Here is something short by Mother Theresa. I found it really profound. Below is my attempt to draw out its meaning

The fruit of silence is prayer
The fruit of prayer is faith
The fruit of faith is love
The fruit of love is service
The fruit of service is peace

Real prayer, or deep prayer, comes out of silence, or emptiness as the Buddhists call it. This has to be experienced, it cannot be described. So the starting point for both Buddhism and Christianity is the experience of silence or emptiness. To the best of my knowledge and experience, the most efficient way of attaining more than a fleeting experience of this is through meditation.

Prayer is the expression of the insights arising from the experience of silence. The outward expression of prayer is a representation of the insight. It is usually in language but can also be visual, musical, etc., or an action. Often we are guided by the representations of others who have been there before us. Doctrine, theology, religious beliefs, are, when properly understood, meant to provide a framework for us to correctly represent and understand the insights from emptiness. Without a framework to help us it is unlikely an individual could progress very far in their lifetime. These frameworks are a scaffolding built over many generations and containing guidelines for representing deep insights developed by individuals who both achieved these states and had the genius to effectively represent them to others (but even these geniuses stood on the shoulders of giants, and the collected representations of generations)

Faith, as described elsewhere, is a confidence that your beliefs are true. True faith can only come from direct experience arising from emptiness. When this experience corresponds directly to a representation, then one may develop faith in that representation. However, confusion can arise because the experience from within silence can move very quickly to a representation, causing the person experiencing it to develop faith in the representation instead of what it represents. In Buddhism this insight has been represented in a number of different ways. One is someone who mistakes a finger pointing at the moon for the moon. In Christianity it is expressed through the often misunderstood idea of idolatry. Today, many Christians commit the sin of idolatry by believing that the bible is the word of God. God speaks only through silence. The bible is a collection of representations that have been useful for some people, at some time, in a particular context. It can continue to be useful if properly understood, but believing the bible is the literal word of God is idolatry and a terrible sin (ironically, this is all in the bible)

If everything has gone well up to this point, the fruit will be love or compassion. That is, the unfolding of emptiness in our lives leads directly to compassion. From a Buddhist perspective this is due to a reduction of ignorance, which is what prevents us from living in accord with our experience of silence. Ignorance also prevents us from having experiences of emptiness so as we lift ourselves out of ignorance we experience more, we gain more insight into our representations and are more confident in them. Fewer wrong representations and greater confidence in the right ones lead us to act more directly out of emptiness, which is to love. The expression of silence is always love.

Service to others and to ourselves (through our practice) is the natural and outward expression of love. The result of living in this way is peace

Fitness and the narrow path

The narrow path to God is the same as the the Buddha's middle way. Like some Christina monks, the Buddha practiced extreme asceticism but found it did not work because it made him too weak. In my view there are two aspects to this. The first is the case of creating extreme weakness. In this case your brain cannot function properly and you will not have the mental strength to focus. The second case has to do with compassion. If you are too weak you cannot help effectively in a difficult situation. A weak person cannot carry a sick child or go for days without sleep in an emergency. The middle way can likened to the path of a body builder - they must eat enough of the right foods to be strong, but not so much that they gain fat. The middle way, in my opinion, involves not acting out of hedonism but tending what your body and mind need to be healthy. This is an act of compassion toward others (so you can help and not be a burden) and to yourself (so you have the mental and physical energy to focus your practice). Of course, helping others benefits your practice just as your practice makes you more effective at benefiting others. In my opinion, modern asceticism should outwardly be similar to an athlete in training; that is, discipline in diet, sleep, and exercise, but the goal must be different- not to win or to look good. Therefore, one should not engage in any sort of competition or boast and one should dress down. The Buddha said, take food as medicine. By this he meant to be healthy. Taking food as an example, the narrow path exits between indulging in desire and showing off, whether that involves being proud of looking good physically or (as the monks caution) being proud of your ability to starve yourself. The middle way strives to be empty of these things. The goal is to be truly empty

Zen, Christianity and Abiding

As in Christianity, there are different forms of Buddhism. Zen is a form of Buddhism that emphasizes direct experience over all else. In Zen they say, Kill the Buddha, or, the Buddha is a piece of poo. This is because they want pracitcioners to focus on their immediate experience and not get caught up thinking about any aspect of the religion. In Zen, one deals with one's internal struggles by sitting with them, neither accepting nor rejecting them. In this way one is released (ideally) from the pointless suffering of desiring the moment to be different from how the moment is, allowing one to transcend the problem while still experiencing it. Here are some quotes from Shunryu Suzuki, one of my favorite Zen authors

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.
Shunryu Suzuki 

Preparing food is not just about yourself and others. It is about everything!
Shunryu Suzuki 

The world is its own magic.
Shunryu Suzuki 

When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.
Shunryu Suzuki 

Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer.
Shunryu Suzuki 

In Christianity this idea exists as well and is sometimes referred to as abiding. Here is a good quote from Chapter 7 of The Imitation of Christ:

it is God's to give and to console, when He will, and as much as he will, and whom he will, as it shall please Him, and no further

In Buddhism the seemingly arbitrary ups and downs are attributed to fluctuations in Karma rather than to the mysterious topic of what pleases God. In either case, one thing is clear, there is no moral or ethical formula that brings reward. However, abiding in the moment, in mental silence, brings a transcendent reward, and it is out of that silence that truly moral and ethical actions arise.