Brad Warner’s “There is no God and He is Always With You”–an incomplete review, notes and rambling

I started writing this a few months ago. Then I had other things to do. It’s too much work for me to complete it as the book is OK but not great and I’ve got a lot of work to do right now.

I likely wouldn’t have read it if the publisher hadn’t sent it to me. Probably wouldn’t have bought it either because I don’t give much of a fuck about God concepts. I think they’re crutches at best and obstacles in general. But it was interesting enough to merit +4K words. So fathom that paradox.

The Review Part of This Post. Also Called The First Part of This Post.

This part is to satisfy the requirement of the email “contract” with the publisher to review this book in exchange for a copy of it.

There is no God and he is Always With You is Brad Warner’s latest book. The reviews so far, some of which are listed at the bottom of this post, are pretty good. Having read them it leaves me wondering what is left to say that has not already been said review-wise. (Plenty actually) So I’ve decided to give the book the “close read” treatment and this post will be mostly to respond to some of the matters brought up within the book.

There’s stuff I liked about the book and stuff I didn’t like.

In short form, I’m taking this from some of his blog posts about the book because they are summaries of some of the positions presented in the book. Note that emphasis. I’ll get to some of the specifics of the actual book in the second part of this post. [OK no I won’t but will discuss the concepts broadly in the third part of this post]

Who the book is for? Brad writes in this blog post, NE Tour Summary & Who I Wrote My New Book For:

So maybe I wrote the book for people who wondered if there might be another way to look at this idea of God apart from True Believers who insist their view of God is the only one and True Non-believers who insist that anyone who believes in God is stupid. After going away from the book I’d like my hypothetical reader to know that there is another way and to understand that she can experience God for herself outside of belief or non-belief….

OK that’s not me. But even though it isn’t a book for me, sometimes it’s good to read such things because it forces one to clarify one’s own viewpoint and objections. That’s often a useful exercise.  I personally don’t care about God-concepts in any form because they tend to get in the way of dealing with life. I do find them interesting in terms of their power, like any ideological construction, to influence people and societies however.

From the same blog post.

I feel like Zen Buddhism has allowed me a way to approach the subject of spirituality without having to view it through the lens of religious dogma and belief. Zazen offers a chance to quietly experience for oneself the deeper layers of human experience both spiritual and not-so-spiritual.

This is the ideology of “no religion”. There is no ideology (religion) here. God-concepts are ideology, non-god concepts are ideology, modified God-concepts are ideology. For ideology we might also use the word “imaginaries”, that is the specific contents of consciousness, collectively or individually. We all have imaginaries. Some of them include God concepts and some of them don’t.

[I’m referencing the word imaginaries in two ways. First in the sense that philosopher Charles Taylor used it in On Social Imaginary [full text] which derives it from Habermas as it pertains to society but also in the Lacanian sense, as it pertains to an individual, not as a fiction but as an ideal construction that has real effects and therefore is very much is or is a part of or at least impinging upon the “real” in Baudrillardian terms or rather like virtuality in Deleuzean terms. I dedicate that sentence to obscuritanist aficionados everywhere. :-D]

Too often in works about God and religion, religion is never defined. I couldn’t find any sort of definition for religion in this book so I don’t know what the author is referring to. It’s some taken-for-granted thing that floats about like a balloon and everybody thinks they know what it means but few ever define it. If they do it’s usually from a reductive perspective that projects a narrow version drawn from a limited experience or exposure on to the entire subject.  It’s like saying “I hate fruit” having only eaten raspberries in childhood. I will write about definitions of religion and the “special case” of Buddhism in the next part.

From the blog post What Do Most People Believe About God?

I was kind of excited when I saw Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. Because I thought it was going to be a scientific look at why human beings believe in God. I thought he’d go into the evolution of religious thought or the neurological research into how and why human beings started creating religions in the first place. I though it might talk about why religion was apparently selected by evolution as a useful trait in human beings. It seems to have been strongly favored by evolution. All societies have some kind of religion. Why? Evolution only selects what helps an organism survive and reproduce. How does religion do that? That is interesting to me.

All that stuff is the realm of Religious Studies and/or sociology and/or anthropology, not Dawkins field of expertise which is biology. Also neurology is not biology. There’s no reason for a biologist to know anything about socio-cultural structures that are based on shared ideologies. Religion is not an evolutionary trait. Eye color is an evolutionary trait.

The publisher’s material sent with the book included a quote from Publishers’ Weekly:

Buddhism has long enjoyed baffling ‘crazy wisdom’ teachers and paradoxical koans, and Warner’s punk iconoclasm fits in nicely.”

That’s a fairly common viewpoint about Brad it seems, and it is to some extent true regarding his reported lifestyle, him not being an uber-capitalist type etc [which I will address near the end of this post], but in terms of teachings and the doctrine/commentary he presents to the public in his books, on his blog, on social media and in video talks [I have read/seen ALL of them] it’s pretty conservative stuff. Not much deviation from the official line. Dogen, for example, is presented at face value. It’s not really anything like ‘crazy wisdom’ but pretty straightforward Shobogenzo based Soto Zen Buddhism.

In this book he compares and contrasts various Christian motifs to Buddhist ideas to demonstrate their similarities and more importantly their differences. It’s a recounting of sorts of the development of his own Buddhist education. That could be useful for some people.

One thing I did enjoy a lot was the travel stories throughout the book. He writes very vivid portraits of the places he’s been and the people he’s met. There’s a lot of detail and it’s quite lively writing. The writing about Dogen is pretty interesting and it’s clear Brad has done a lot of study of Dogen. The writing about Christianity seems a little forced sometimes. The discussions of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris) cover what is common knowledge about them (Harris meditates for example) and the criticisms of them are the usual ones they are often subject to.

The ideas are not that well organized and some of it is repetitive because of that, but the majority of it is interesting reading.

That is my review.

Now the rest of the response to Brad’s argument as contained in the book.

The Close Reading of the Book Part of This Post. Also Called The Second Part of This Post.

These are notes I started to take as I read the book. They are impressions, points of interest, things that made me raise my eyebrows, things I disagree with and things I liked. Take it as you will. Once I’ve completed these, I will discuss the main point of the book, the God and Religion part. It will be comprehensive. There is another small issue regarding transcendence and immanence which I’m tempted to discuss here but I already have another post in the works on it, so will incorporate some comments about Brad’s book in that one on that particular subject.

[The notes will not be comprehensible to most people so I’m excluding them]

The God and Religion Part of This Post. Also Called the Third Part of This Post.

Definitions for the God and Religion Part

Maybe I should have phrased that subtitle the other way since I’m going to start with the religion part and then tackle God. [I’ll probably hurt him when I do.]

I’m putting a bunch of quotes of other people and only a little commentary because they’ve said it better than I could.

Here’s a bunch of stuff about ideology and religion and philosophy. It’s a soup. Terms need to be defined. Brad doesn’t do much of that in the book but for taking a run at the term god and even then it’s either transcendental or immanent or something in between or both. Reads like a rendering of Nagarjuna’s methodology.


  1. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader
  2. A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices 
  3. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion


  1. A set of ideas or beliefs relating to a particular field or activity; an underlying theory
  2. Any system of belief, values, or tenets
  3. A system of values by which one lives


  1. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena
  2. A belief or principle that guides action or assists comprehension or judgment
  3. An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.



  1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
  2.  A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.

A definition of ideology which is pretty close to what I go with:

– a set of explicit and implicit, even unspoken, ethico-political and other positions, decision, choices, etc., which predetermine our perception of facts, what we tend to emphasize or to ignore, how we organize facts into a consistent whole of a narrative or a theory.

~Slavoj Žižek in Some Bewildered Clarifications

Also important to the discussion of ideology is values. Here’s a take I agree with.

Values have a history.  It is this history which produces them as values.  One of the effects of ideology is to mask the fact that abstract values are born out of immanent historical and material conditions.

~Value, Genealogy, and the Task of Philosophy on Fuck Theory blog.

In the second lecture, Circumscription of the Topic, of the series of lectures that makes up his The Varieties of Religious Experience [free, multiple formats], William James writes:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us THE FEELINGS, ACTS, AND EXPERIENCES OF INDIVIDUAL MEN IN THEIR SOLITUDE, SO FAR AS THEY APPREHEND THEMSELVES TO STAND IN RELATION TO WHATEVER THEY MAY CONSIDER THE DIVINE. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow…

~ p. 42-43 (pagination is from a print edition)

As far as definitions of religion go that one is broader than most. The concept of divine though is pretty loaded and something of a value judgment.

We escape much controversial matter by this arbitrary definition of our field. But, still, a chance of controversy comes up over the word "divine," if we take the definition in too narrow a sense. There are systems of thought which the world usually calls religious, and yet which do not positively assume a God. Buddhism is in this case. Popularly, of course, the Buddha himself stands in place of a God; but in strictness the Buddhistic system is atheistic. Modern transcendental idealism, Emersonianism, for instance, also seems to let God evaporate into abstract Ideality. Not a deity in concreto, not a superhuman person, but the immanent divinity in things, the essentially spiritual structure of the universe, is the object of the transcendentalist cult. In that address to the graduating class at Divinity College in 1838 which made Emerson famous, the frank expression of this worship of mere abstract laws was what made the scandal of the performance.

~ p. 42-43 (pagination is from a print edition)

That he mentions Buddhism as well as both the transcendental and the immanent perspectives is useful. I will touch on this briefly now but discuss the whole dichotomy in another post.

Brad rejects the religious label for Buddhism yet accepts the god label. My viewpoint is the opposite in that I accept the religious label for Buddhism [religion somewhat defined above] and reject the god label.

This is the same kind of argument people use when they talk about “culture”. “Those people over there have culture but we don’t.” The spiritual but not religious thing has been discussed to death so I don’t want to take it up. The rejection is either one of rejection of superstition, rejection of alien cultural form (with all it’s implicit racism), rejection of alternate values, rejection of institution, rejection of personal historical trauma by projecting that elsewhere, and a bunch of other things. More often it’s a knee-jerk reaction to one’s own received knowledge concept of what religion is done without investigation or necessary critique to make it a rational choice. The statement “spiritual but not religious” is irrational in the extreme in that way.

Here’s a good point that I agree with.

From sociologist Robert Bellah in an interview in Tricycle magazine (HT Rev. Danny Fisher for posting the pointer on FB):

"The way ‘spirituality’ is often used suggests that we exist solely as a collection of individuals, not as members of a religious community, and that religious life is merely a private journey. It is the religious expression of the ideology of free-market economics and of the radical ‘disencumbered’ individualism that idolizes the choice-making individual as the prime reality in the world."

~The Future of Religion

Yeah that.

Whatever then were most primal and enveloping and deeply true might at this rate be treated as godlike, and a man’s religion might thus be identified with his attitude, whatever it might be, toward what he felt to be the primal truth. Such a definition as this would in a way be defensible. Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion? Total reactions are different from casual reactions, and total attitudes are different from usual or professional attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree everyone possesses. This sense of the world’s presence, appealing as it does to our peculiar individual temperament, makes us either strenuous or careless, devout or blasphemous, gloomy or exultant, about life at large; and our reaction, involuntary and inarticulate and often half unconscious as it is, is the completest of all our answers to the question, "What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?" It expresses our individual sense of it in the most definite way.

~p. 45 James

Primal truth=numinous.

Numinous, taken from the Latin Numen, and used by some to describe the power or presence of a divinity. The word was popularised in the early twentieth century by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential book Das Heilige(1917; translated into English as The Idea of the Holy, 1923). According to Otto, the numinous experience has in addition to the tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling, a quality of fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality, in that the person feels to be in communion with a wholly other. The numinous experience can lead in different cases to belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy and/or the transcendent.

~abridged from the Wikipedia entry for Numinous

Rudolph Otto was one of the guys who did a lot of writing about the numinous. 

Otto was one of the most influential thinkers about religion in the first half of the twentieth century. He is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion. He calls this experience "numinous," and says it has three components. These are often designated with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is "wholly other"– entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious.

Outline of Otto’s concept of the numinous

"Mysterium tremendum et fascinans" (fearful and fascinating mystery):

  • "Mysterium": Wholly Other, experienced with blank wonder, stupor
  • "tremendum":
    • awefulness, terror, demonic dread, awe, absolute unapproachability, "wrath" of God
    • overpoweringness, majesty, might, sense of one’s own nothingness in contrast to its power
    • creature-feeling, sense of objective presence, dependence
    • energy, urgency, will, vitality
  • "fascinans": potent charm, attractiveness in spite of fear, terror, etc.

~from Rudolf Otto’s Concept of the "Numinous"

Even the New Atheists give credence to the idea of the numenous. The numenous is to be distinguished from the supernatural. See video here:


I don’t care for any of these guys because they all became so infatuated with themselves they became insufferable, but in the discussion here, from 6 years ago they’re not so bad. I agree with a lot of what is said in the first 5 minutes, but a lot of the rest is bullshit [another post I don’t have time for].

Calling the numenous “god” isn’t necessary and I don’t think it’s even helpful. I think it obscures more than clarifies.

I was reading quite an analysis of some poetry not long ago and came upon some terms that seemed to me helpful in delineating the numinous experience from the ordinary experience.

Shifting experience from Erlebnis, to Erfahrung

… German, which distinguishes between Erlebnis – or experience as the undergoing of events, one’s mere capacity to register what happens – and Erfahrung – or experience in the emphatic sense, experience from which it is possible to learn and perhaps gain wisdom.It is the latter that Benjamin thinks is destroyed in modernity – and it is no doubt this that Agamben has in mind when he claims that modern man [sic!] is wearied by a jumble of events that cannot be translated into experience.

~Matthew Abbot, The Poetry of Destroyed Experience in 3AM magazine

The first instance is what a lot of Buddhism has become in the context of dominant global culture. Meaningless. It leads to special case Buddhism or Buddhist exceptionalism. Rev. Danny Fisher has a superb post that deals with this.  Rejecting Scientistic and Post-Religious Buddhism

Try to think of the Kalama Sutra as a plea for rational thought rather than either rejection of anything other than the personal phenomenology or an anti-fundamentalist critique of blind faith. I don’t think it’s either of those. 

Or in other words:

credere est cum assensu cogitare
“to believe is to think with assent”

~Thomas Aquinas

Some other reviews online:

Book Review: ‘There is No God and he is Always With You’ by Brad Warner by Tanya McGinnity on Full Contact Enlightenment blog

Review: There Is No God and He Is Always With You by Barbara O’Brien on

A Review of Brad Warner’s There is No God by James Ford on Monkey Mind

Brad Warner’s book by Adam Fisher on Genkaku Again

Reviews and discussion from the Treeleaf Forum

Reviews of There is No God and He is Always With You on Goodreads


Statement of Disclosure and Some Comments About Publishers:

The publisher sent me this book for free to review. They asked me to review it. I did not request a review copy. I agreed because I find Brad’s perspective interesting in general even if I don’t agree with portions of it.

Brad doesn’t have a big organization with a publicity department and a cadre of volunteers to raise funds and he makes a living from what he writes, unlike many other Buddhist teachers who have other, often lucrative professions such as being psychologists or college professors or doctors or magazine editors (yes lucrative compared to waiting tables at a truck stop for example), or well heeled friends in Silicon Valley or at the Oprah show or Davos, nor does he have a spouse (as far as I know, haven’t inquired about that, not my business really, though I think he’d make it known if that were the case) who works to help supplement his income and share expenses so he can write books and make music and art, etc.

Also I appreciate Brad’s anti-capitalist approach to his work, and his dharma practice, even if he has not characterized it in that political kind of way. He does what he does, and if people like it they support it. What he makes goes back into doing what he does rather than buying himself a gilded temple, a couple of Harley motorcycles, a tropical “retreat" spa and meditation center and cultivating a bunch of slathering sycophantic followers. That’s pretty fucking hard to do anywhere and that he does it in Los Angeles is both humorous and makes quite a point if people bother to pay attention to that. It is the same kind of ethic that Henry Rollins uses for his work. He’s not stepping on anyone smaller to make his way in the world, not using people by proffering unrealistic dreams to fill his bank account, not setting himself up as somebody else’s authority. It’s trying to conduct one’s economic affairs symbiotically rather than parasitically. It’s an ethic that goes back to the DIY punk days (and much further back really). So I’ve got some respect for that.

Publishers. Well. I’ve had enough of them.

This is the last book I’m going to review at a publisher’s behest. I’m tired of publishers and their representatives (not only this one but many others) thinking bloggers are their own personal army of free labor just sitting around waiting to do free advertising for them. We’re not. Ease off on the demanding emails.

Some publishers give locked down, time limited, access to un-proof-read books and demand a review be written in the 2 week timeslot they allot. You can’t even copy/paste from these if you want to include a quote of your choice. Some fill your inbox with pages and pages of copy, complete with interviews and talking points to cut and paste into a blog like you’re just supposed to copy it all and stamp “Good” on it. Sorry I’m not your stenographer (unlike the mainstream press). If you just want people to write what you say when you say and mostly regurgitate your copy, pay them. If bloggers have got an audience it is because we have taken the time to develop that. If bloggers have any integrity or believability it is because we don’t simply regurgitate other’s talking points but write original works with original thoughts and often a fair bit of research. So no, you are not doing us a favor by offering books for review. We are doing you a favor if we agree to review one of your books. In this case I consider that I’m doing Brad, not the publisher, a favor.

And no, a free book is not the same as pay. A $15 (retail—wholesale is considerably less) book doesn’t even cover the cost of the time it takes to read the book. If it’s a book you don’t particularly like it’s even worse. Some I’ve been sent I could barely even get through as they were tripe. Didn’t bother doing a review after those and declined works from those particular publishers. Now I’m declining solicited reviews from all publishers. Not a member of your personal PR corps.

I’ll still do reviews when the mood strikes, on books I choose, whether I get them from the library or buy them or receive them as gifts or whatever, just not at the behest of publishers any more.

Jesus was a death row prisoner


I’ve decided to declare a Prison Justice Day on my social media on this Easter Sunday. Seems apt.

Prison guards lack ‘common understanding’ on basic respect for inmates: survey

Comments on prison stories always interesting. "You don’t know the kind of people guards have to deal with!" How does the commenter know?

They watch too many episodes of Law and Order & think they "know how it is".

Drugging Aggression Behind Bars

“Proper forensic psychopharmacology does not begin with a marginally trained prison employee popping a pill into an inmate’s mouth, although that is the rule rather than the exception in many if not most jurisdictions.”

When you search "prison" in YouTube & you either get reality TV shows or video from game "Prison Architect" The reality of it has ceased #spectacle

Free after 42 years? 

42 years in prison. Wrongly convicted.

The "othering" of prisoners. Othering is the opposite of belonging.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Shame of Three Strikes Laws

“While Wall Street crooks walk, thousands sit in California prisons for life over crimes as trivial as stealing socks”

This is the result of mandatory sentencing. The crime and it’s punishment become disconnected. All crime becomes equated with all other crime regardless of it’s seriousness or effect. There is no room for discretion. “A crime is a crime” becomes literal.

Young man faces paralysis in eye-for-an-eye sentence

“Saudi Arabia, beloved US/Western ally, is going to surgically paralyze someone who has been in prison since age 14.”

Many more news items could be included here. The distortion of crime and punishment by way of what is often called “the prison-industrial complex”, now with a lot of help from an occluded media, by way of fervent views that skew towards absolutist ideological systems, by way of social atomization massaged by a bombardment of fear based messaging, by way of anomie based on the erroneous belief that a “just world” exists for individuals, by way of manipulation by distant political and corporate interests… has reached a point where neither prisoner nor keeper remains human, nor can remain human. They are characters or rather caricatures.

The connection can no longer be made, although it is true: Jesus was a death row prisoner.

Some useful reading:

Biopower (as Biopolitics) and Thanatopolitics– the politics of power exercised over living bodies (ie in prisons, the use of torture and capital punishment)

The Mass Psychology of Fascism by Wilhelm Reich [PDF]

The Necessity of Judas

The eve before Good Friday one television channel was playing the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. I first saw that movie when I was pretty young and impressionable. It is one of my favorite movies, partly because it’s about one of the great narratives of human history, which continues to influence events today, despite the many proclamations of secularism in Christian influenced cultures, and partly because it contributed to my turning away from Christianity as a religious belief system. The actor, Ted Neely made Jesus seem to be a human being to my young mind and this to me both removed a lot of the mystification of divinity I grew up with regarding the Jesus figure and made the story far more interesting as a part of human mythology.

By Christian influenced culture, since many wish to try to deny this, I am talking about the symbols of and allusions to Christianity as well as the stories, themes, interpretations and meanings derived from Christianity. Rather than write a whole essay about that I’ll just take one clear example–popular film if chock full of Christian imagery. The essay The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-figure  by Anton Karl Kozlovic in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, gives a lengthy outline of just how deep this thematic stream goes. It also outlines 25 structural characteristics of cinematic Christ figures which one might want to apply to films that range from Bad Lieutenant, The Matrix and The Truman Show to Superman and Star Wars. Those are some of the films cited to demonstrate the author’s point.

David Loy wrote a piece called Jesus and Buddha as Stories? in which he examines some of the psychological necessity of collective human mythologizing as well as it’s social utility. Mythology gives meaning to what might otherwise appear to be a collection of random events.

Jesus Christ Superstar, is of course an obvious interpretation of the Christ story. I watched the movie as I wrote the outline of this post during the commercials. I also following along with the libretto (script) which is a lot shorter than you might think. I like the music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice respectively, the way the characters portrayed, the actors, the costumes, the sets, the cinematography, Norman Jewison’s direction…pretty much everything about it. I’ve watched it every year since I was a kid. I like it because it always gives me something interesting to think about. Not necessarily Christian things per se, but aspects of life’s questions.

So the question that is striking me this time is about the absolute necessity of Judas in the story. I’m talking primarily about this movie version and not solely about the story as it is told in the biblical gospels allegedly through the memories of the apostles.

In a paper entitled The Messiah vs Jesus Christ Superstar [pdf],  Prof. Richard Vaggione OHC writes:

The author of the libretto, Timothy Rice, rejected the persona of Jesus familiar in
the Bible stories. In an interview he admitted his fascination with Judas, without whom, he said, there would be no Christianity. It was Judas who directly caused Christ’s martyrdom, creating a tragic heroic figure around whom a whole religion would coalesce. To make his Judas come to life, he portrayed a different kind of Christ; an imperfect flesh and blood martyr. In fact, in materials sent to radio stations in both recorded and printed form with the original album of Jesus Christ Superstar, he said "The idea of the whole opera is to have Christ seen through the eyes of Judas, and Christ as a man, not as a God. And the fact that Christ himself is just as mixed up and unaware of exactly what he is, as Judas is."7 Therefore, Rice created Jesus as a fallible human.

Judas, the disenchanted disciple, sings some interesting things in the movie. His viewpoint sounds very similar to disenchanted disciples and confused spiritual seekers today.  At the very beginning of the movie he sets up the story line to come. From the libretto:

My mind is clearer now –
at last all too well I can see where we all soon will be
If you strip away the myth from the man
you will see where we all soon will be
Jesus! You’ve started to believe
The things they say of you
You really do believe
This talk of God is true
And all the good you’ve done
Will soon get swept away
You’ve begun to matter more
Than the things you say

The interplay between Jesus and Judas is portrayed very much in the vein of teacher and student. A case could also be made that their polarity in terms of good and bad, which is far too oversimplified in popular glosses, represents the psychological interplay between all kinds of forces:

  • confidence, doubt
  • ideal, obstacle
  • hope, fear
  • loyalty, disloyalty
  • strong, weak
  • accepting, rejecting
  • emotional, rational
  • sacred, profane

Yet all of these aspects are present in both of the male characters. Each of them, from their particular perspectives felt they were doing the right thing in the circumstances. Both ended up dead through violent means. Judas hung himself and Jesus was crucified.

The montage of classical paintings of the crucifixion just prior to the arrest in the garden of Gethsemane during the solo of Jesus talking to God is one of the most powerful moments in the film. It’s like a glimpse into the mind of the man who knows he is condemned. Then the quiet kiss on the cheek Judas gives to Jesus followed by Jesus’ words:

Will you betray me with a kiss?

This moment, as brief as it is, not only seals the fates of both men whose paths have been intertwined until that moment.

Political elements

Judas was a reactionary force. He wanted something more from his life but wasn’t prepared to violate the status quo.  Jesus was revolutionary anti-capitalist and finally seditious traitor to Rome if one gives a political reading to the texts. The chief priest, Caiaphas, who would have been in charge of all the temples, including the one where Jesus threw out the money lenders and other profane people, arranged much of this. The account in Wikipedia is the shortest explanation I could find:

Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas by marriage to his daughter and ruled longer than any high priest in New Testament times. For Jewish leaders of the time, there were serious concerns about Roman rule and an insurgent Zealot movement in Beit Shammai to eject the Romans from Israel. The Romans would not perform execution over violations of Jewish law, and therefore the charge of blasphemy would not have mattered to Pilate. Caiaphas’ legal position, therefore, was to establish that Jesus was guilty not only of blasphemy, but also of proclaiming himself the messiah, which was understood as the return of the Davidic king. This would have been an act of sedition and prompted Roman execution.

Christianity is very much a religion founded on the political. This is because the area at the time was a central focus of political and imperial expansion of Roman territory. The political aspects of life included the occupation of the region by the Romans, the collaboration of certain sectors of the local population with the occupiers, the threats from outsiders, the continuing quests to expand Roman territory through the Middle East and into North Africa, the growing insurgencies within territories, the incursion of Latin language and Roman symbols as emblems of class status, and the constant reminders in daily life of that occupation. For example, Jesus was reported to have said, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s." Matthew 22:21, same passage is also in Mark 12:17 ,  Luke 20:25 and Romans 13:7 which was written by apostle Paul. An aside: This is an interesting passage on it’s own as it illuminates a dichotomy between the material and the spiritual. It also points to a transcendence  that often gets injected into much English language Buddhism which, in my view far more favors the immanent, which is quite evident in the Heart Sutra for example, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form…” with the final mantra being not one of transcendence and separation from the material, but a statement of  immersion in understanding wherein such distinctions are meaningless.

It is my postulation that we who have been brought up in Christian influenced cultures continue to enact elements of this passion play on our various stages around the world. It goes something like this:

humble origins —> talent, ability, ideas beyond the ordinary discovered or noticed –> antagonisms emerge —> mistakes/delusions/betrayals —> downfall —> redemption

Not only Jesus but even Judas fits this scenario. Both are redeemed by death.

How many others can we name that fit that scenario? And how intense is the fascination with their lives? In popular entertainment culture this narrative with somewhat different characters is what puts sales of the National Enquirer into the multi-millions.

Variations of this story play out in our lives on a daily basis. Hence Buddhists have things like the Paramitas (Perfections) and Christians have things like the Virtues to help manage the enactment of that particular narrative and others.

In terms of spiritual understanding it may not serve us well to do away with the Judas bits of our psychological personas too readily. Skepticism has some value particularly when there are a lot of potential or wannabe Messiahs on the horizon, as was the case in history at the time Jesus was alleged to live and as is the case now. In times of political instability we are often asked to confront situations that would cause us to question our beliefs or to sell them out to maintain our own comfort. It is a good idea to know where our own moral limits lie. Which lines are we willing to cross and which will we not cross? Who would we betray and why?

But there are other reasons not to reject Judas out of hand. His role was one of the questioner. He questioned himself as well as others. That he couldn’t answer the questions, except by his own death demonstrated the limits imposed by his own character and his own fear and guilt. Guilt and fear are two of the most powerful motivations for tragic events.

The most meaningful questions, all in the same vein, are repeated throughout the gospels. They are posed to Jesus, by Herod, by Pontius Pilate, by his own disciples, and within himself when he attempts to confront God. By implication they are questions all of his followers had to answer one way or another. Judas couldn’t live with it. Thomas doubted it. Peter denied it. Others embraced it.

If we decontextualize those questions for a moment and use the words from the movie,  consider how familiar they look to Buddhists as well.

Who are you? What have you sacrificed?

Do you think you’re what they say you are?



Every time I look at you I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand
You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned
Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?
If you’d come today you would have reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication
Don’t you get me wrong – I only want to know

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar
Do you think you’re what they say you are?

Tell me what you think of your friends at the top
Who d’you think besides yourself’s the pick of the crop?
Buddha was he where it’s at? Is he where you are?
Could Mohammed move a mountain or was that just PR?
Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake or
Did you know your messy death would be a record-breaker?
Don’t you get me wrong – I only want to know

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar
Do you think you’re what they say you are?

What’s Happened to Original Sin? It’s Become Unhealthy


Sin and Death by Francis Hayman, 1749 from ILLUSTRATING PARADISE LOST part of Darkness Visible:A Resource for studying Milton’s Paradise Lost. Cambridge University.

Romans 6:23 “the wages of sin is death”

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, he gave his one and only son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

This post isn’t about Christianity per se. It’s actually about secularism and beyond that about some basic concepts in Buddhism. But Christianity is mentioned since some central concepts of Christianity still remain strong cultural themes even in the very secular and scientific arenas.  And increasingly this undercurrent is presenting itself in various Buddhist arenas.

Certainly the terminology has changed.  And the determination of many to throw off what has been sometimes perceived by some people as the shackle of an authoritarian and restrictive religion is certainly in evidence in many media these days. The tone set by some of the New Atheist Sect, can leave many believing that Religion, with the capital R, in the Abrahamic sense, is well on it’s way out. We have overcome!

But what if that is not the case? What if some of the core concepts of the Abrahamic religions, in particular Christianity, still lurk under the bright shiny technological badges of secularism?  What if they have only been transformed and incorporated into the secular matrix? There are lots of concepts that can be examined in this framework such as Commandments ( Law and Order-tv show and political platform), resurrection (resuscitation, cryogenics), grace (Deus ex machina, Ghost Whisperer), messiah (Obama, Lady Gaga) and many others. 

The two concepts that I want to examine in this regard are those of original sin and redemption.  These are the very heart of Christianity and the center of Euro-American* culture. The central question then is–Has the deep impact of “the great imperfection” of humanity actually declined with the advance of secularism? Or has it simply taken other forms? And how is this affecting the shape of Buddhism among convert communities in Euro-America?

From the blog Stuff Christians Like the author Jon takes issue with the many euphemisms for sin that appear in the Christian community in a post called #494. Sin Synonyms – Pretty ways to say an ugly word.

But when Christ died on the cross He didn’t do so because He wanted to shift my paradigm. He didn’t come to help me realize my full potential and unpack my baggage.

He died because my sin was so great it separated me from God. He died so that my sin would die too. The big ugly, gross pile of sin, sin, sin, I was carrying around. Sin is one of those words intricately tied to my salvation and I don’t want to mute it in a sea of spin off ideas.

I am not particularly interested in refuting Christian doctrine in this post. What I am interested in with this particular quote is the characterization of sin, and especially Original Sin. The idea that we are, from birth, wrong, bad, incorrect, misshapen, flawed, broken, guilty and in need of correction is rather interesting. The doctrine of Christianity, the Old Testament, book of Genesis to be exact, explains the reasoning for this. And the Gospels of the New Testament explain the redemption part. (the little Bible quotes at the top of this post summarize the basis of Christian doctrine-oh I feel the wave of reductionism accusations approaching already)

From Original Sin to Original Sickness

It is interesting to note that many of the synonyms for original sin or sin in general are very similar to those that are illness related. Consider the examples below. Can you tell the difference between those that connect to sin and those that connect to illness?

affliction malady breakdown weakness deficiency imperfection trial
break sickness frailty blight misery injury defect
flaw pestilence tribulation pain broken diseased, ill lacking
impairment torment curse infirmity fault unwholesome reversion
failure condition unsound dirty impure something that causes hurt suffering

Now that I’ve gone and mixed them all up I can’t either. But I assure you that about half are in the sin pile and half are in the illness pile, although a number of them are in both piles.

With concepts of sin and illness having such overlapping definitions it is not surprising that Euro-American culture, with rapidly escalating technology and emphasis on rationality and science is moving away from the sin model into the sickness model of the original face of humanity.

To be unhealthy is becoming the New Original Sin.  Secular scientific and particularly medical models are becoming the modality to happiness as the numbers of “sick” increase every year. Although “cures” seem to be less and less forthcoming.

Where Aristotle indicated and Keats stated,  “Beauty is truth and truth is beauty”, now it seems that Health and Beauty is not just a department in the drug store but also indicative of secular Ultimate Truth. Healthiness as well as cleanliness has now replaced godliness.

The New Holy Grail is eternal youth, clear vision, perfect health, ideal heart rate, athletic ability, glowing skin, firm buttocks, lustrous hair, perfectly arched feet, plump moist lips, straight white teeth, globular breasts/solid pecs, optimum weight, regular bowel movements, firm calves, dense bones, 6-pack abs, well-focused attention, cheerful mood, calm abiding, creative expression, serene countenance and abundant happiness all brought about by (and a guarantee of) the material comfort of technological secularism. Sounds kind of like heaven or, more cynically, the ideal of a eugenics program.

4147127258_84aa98f571A great deal of current physical “sickness” is related to the technologically driven lifestyle. Increases in weight, for example, can in some part be attributed to various combinations of the increased availability of  transportation, entertainments that do not require physical participation, foods that do not require much physical labor to acquire and more jobs that require less effort to do.

The body has become something to ignore, pamper, tolerate or sometimes obsess about. It can be seen as an impediment, a prison, a point of social conflict (think racism), a vehicle for “me” (If I see Descartes on the road I’ll shoot him with my cross-bow), an extension of the mind, a possession, a toy, an interconnected network of self-mobile sensory apparatus, meat and bone, a shell, a physiological machine. Whatever the case it is the material manifestation of the conglomerate we identify in space and time as self.  Physical desires, comforts and enjoyments revolve around doing less or having someone else do the more grueling physical work on our behalf. And where physical work is required or even desired it is preferably on the terms that it be an enjoyable experience. (gardening vs. toiling in the field, hobby boat building vs working in the shipyards).   Necessity has it’s limits, even in the gym.

We have our skin exfoliated, feet pedicured, teeth veneered, noses straightened, eyes lasered, colon cleansed, ears candled, hormone levels checked, body hair waxed, sinuses neti-potted, muscles massaged, bones chiropracted, eyebrows plucked, prostate probed,  scalp treated, fingernails manicured, blood sugar tested, joints physical-therapied, boobs lifted, bowel colonoscopied, blood grouped, face tightened, cholesterol levels verified, cervixes papped, ears acupunctured, hearts ECG-ed, bodies scanned and brain waves measured.

The effects of changes in physical conditions within the culture are quite obvious. However these changes, when taken up in the psychological realm are a little more amorphous in terms of effects.

Technology promised an easier and more enjoyable lifestyle. The media in the 20th century depicted many of these rosy possibilities with the assurances that as soon as we had the right technologies in sufficient abundance all our problems would be solved and life would become an experience of unending enjoyment. We would be as shiny and bright on the inside as we were on the outside.

But things haven’t quite worked out that way.  Many people have everything they want in almost unending supply yet there is discontent.  The feelings of emptiness, unrealized expectations, disappointment, even nervinebetrayal abound. And these feelings have become pathologized and more notably taken to mean that there is something wrong with us rather than the cultural environment we are creating around us.

We have our moods adjusted, thoughts realigned, creativity enhanced, attention recalibrated, imaginations re-engineered, minds refocused, lives counseled, paradigms shifted, feelings analyzed, habits deconstructed, personalities typed, diagnoses suggested.  We are all, if not at the moment, then in the past and certainly in the future somehow unhealthy.

There is a new revision of the DSM-Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association in the works. Many categories have been expanded and some new “pathologies” have been suggested. How about excessive laziness or just plain old anger as a diagnosis category? That ought to get pretty much everyone that has so far escaped, into the clinic.

Will the psychological juggernaut continue until everyone can be labeled “sick”?  What will the transformation of Original Sin to Original Sick bring with it in the future?

A great deal of time and effort is now spent to rectify the illnesses of discontent. Devoted confessions are made to counselors of all types. Miracle cures are gulped down several times a day with the fervent prayer to wellness. Pilgrimages to wellness centers are made and donations are offered to obtain relief. Medical clergy, and their suppliers offer absolution in the form of the next new mood pill, on nightly television commercials. Satisfied parishioners show up on talk shows to laud the miracles that have relieved them of the heartbreak of psoriasis or their re-oriented methods of attraction for malfunctioning lifestyles.

An entire industry of self-help is devoted to identifying the “weaknesses” of the human heart and mind, and for a fee, offering to help manage those chronic disturbances. Why are so many so willing to believe they and their lives are flawed, incomplete and unmanageable? I

Quackery is often as believable as science if presented with enough zeal and the perfect tone of righteousness especially by someone well known.  A celebrity endorsement without any valid scientific backing can cause millions to lose their common sense and replace it with hysteria. (see recent elephant journal reprint of an article regarding vaccinations and autism for an example)

My caveat. There is certainly legitimate science, medicine and psychology and it has a definite purpose and demonstrated validity. But you’re not going to find that in Rolling Stone magazine or on Oprah or in the ads of their advertisers.

Testimonials to “bad habits” that have been overcome also abound. These are encouraged in order to demonstrate repentance and atonement and to make way for forgiveness. Many 12-step programs function on this basis. (12-step is beneficial to many people. I am just pointing out this characteristic.) Just like in the revival setting, the crowd shouting “Testify!” and the contrite parishioner begins his tale of woe and redemption. That’s part of the treatment to resolve the flawed human perspective.  Things like alcoholism, gambling, excessive indulgence in sex and the like are now seen as a disease rather than a vice or sin. There are very few of us who cannot come up with a good tale of contrition and the price paid for sins of commission or omission.

No need to forget the self-confessed Bad Buddhist in this area as well. Catalogues of failure, ignorance, distraction, lapse, bad behavior, missteps, errors, overstatements are fairly common.  It is as if these are some price to be paid or some kind of admission of failure in order to begin a redemptive process. It is as if we need an excuse to become Buddhists. It is as if we have to admit to some original “badness” to be worthy of what Buddhism offers. I think that’s bullshit.  

Science and in particular medicine and psychology comprise the new church in the secular culture. Where physical ailment is not sufficient to identify the particular tribulation of an individual, the psychological disciplines can provide definition of the area of frailty quite handily.  And for some, the non-Christian spiritual realm as well is being beset by this metaphor of illness/unworthiness. so we have psychology sneaking in the backdoor of the Buddhist temple as well.

I came across this rather profound revelation on someone’s blog a while back:

It just occurred to me that there might not be anything wrong with me

What if that is true for all of us? What does that mean in terms of self-esteem and other aspects of the psychological framework?  Suppose we are not originally flawed, wrong, misshapen, bent, ill-formed? What does this mean in terms of larger culture? What does this mean in terms of spirituality? What does this mean in the way we live our lives?


The metaphors of illness do appear in Buddhist texts. But they do not carry with them the hopelessness of the born bad, inherently evil, perpetually atoning individual. In other words they are not accompanied by an unending burden of guilt.  There is not so much the need to redeem the human in the sense of physical, mental, spiritual existence as there is to assist him in simply seeing what he really is. There is no need for redemption, and it’s implication of the fallen being in Buddhist practice.

Unfortunately though the psychology of original sin is well entrenched in Euro-American cultures. Mixing the image of  “fallen man”  into the Buddhist endeavor simply turns Buddhism into either a form of psychology or a Judeo-Christian endeavor with a different costume and terminology.  It becomes about redemption rather than about enlightenment. They are not the same thing.

Robert Aitken wrote:

Many Zen Students and even a few teachers think Zen is a kind of psychology. This is a little like thinking that persimmons are a type of banana. The Zen master is more like a flea than he or she is like a psychologist. More like a cool breeze. More like a mountain peak. I am not exaggerating or being fanciful.

via A Gift of Dharma for 4.9.10 Rev. Danny Fisher

There are many posts on this blog about Buddhism and psychology. (list here) I don’t think it’s a good mix for a variety of reasons. Two of the major reasons are:

1. Psychology and Buddhism have different objectives. Psychology attempts to heal egoic suffering. The ego is intimately involved in that process. It is a process of ego engaging with itself as a discrete entity, a closed loop that does not seek to look beyond. Even in psychological frameworks such as family therapy it remains egos as fixed entities engaged with each other.  Buddhism attempts to relieve suffering by moving far beyond the notion of individual ego to the point of transcending or realizing the insubstantial nature of the ego itself.

2. Psychology and Buddhism have different initial views of what constitutes the inner foundation of the human being. Psychology posits ego. Buddhism posits Buddha nature.

Ego and  Buddha Nature are somewhat at odds with one another until one has looked at it though the dharmic eye. The Buddha Nature is not in any way, shape or form (indeed formless!) the same as the ego. To the Buddhist way of thinking the ego as it is, is the neurotic element. It cannot be “fixed”. Efforts to that end may relieve certain samsaric difficulties and give a more comfortable existence but they will not reveal Buddha nature. That is not their purpose.

Psychological redemption allows people to feel better about specific issues for varying periods of time. Buddhist redemption, although I find that term misplaced in Buddhist context (and no I won’t use the word soteriological), isn’t about such specifics. The difference here is between the relative and the absolute.  The difference is between redemption and enlightenment. Redemption makes what was bad good. Enlightenment simply shows what is. Redemption changes the participant to some degree although they remain with the same set of original core beliefs in the solidity of existence. Enlightenment shows the participant who they really are. Good and bad are irrelevant. They are completely different orders of experience.

Another reason I find the term redemption misplaced in the Buddhist context is that it implies first that there is something to be redeemed and second that to redeem is to save (ie. our souls) from some less than desirable circumstances. Both of these insert a lot of needless notions into the process. There is nothing to be saved and the only circumstance actually available is reality.  One can try to escape reality for a time or make some kind of dualistic peace with it but one cannot be saved from reality.

Basic Sanity

In Buddhism there is a completely different way of looking at human’s basic nature. That is the Buddha Nature.   In some schools it is related to or called “luminous mind”, tathāgata-garbha, suchness, essential nature, ultimate reality, the source of all, Buddha Essence, the ground of all things, Dharmata or the mind of Buddha. There are many variations and descriptions of what it entails. (If indeed one were to label Shunyata an “It” and thereby reifying the unreifiable-but that’s for another discussion) To describe the indescribable takes a lot of description.

For the purposes of this discussion, because we are dealing with the original nature of human beings as well as psychology, I am going to take up Trungpa Rinpoche’s term “basic sanity”.

Sanity by general definition can be called a state free from delusions. Sanity is characterized by reality contact, that is knowing what is and isn’t real.

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche discusses the term “basic sanity”:

[Trungpa Rinpoche said] “You could have a basic sound understanding of the logic of things as they are without ego. In fact, you can have greater sanity beyond ego; you can deal with situations without hope and fear, and you can retain your self-respect or your logical sanity in dealing with things.”

Basic sanity in Trungpa Rinpoche’s thought represents the attitude of enlightenment, which is free from hope and fear. The implication here seems obvious enough: the attitude of ignorance, if it can be put that way, dominates our deluded, samsaric mind through the inveterate afflictions of hope and fear. In the idiom of Trungpa Rinpoche’s teaching style, this would be termed neurosis.

from First, the Bad News in Buddhadharma Magazine Spring 2006

The awakened state of mind, of which basic sanity is the hallmark, and the discovery of this natural-born state is discussed by Trungpa Rinpoche in the Introduction of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism:

According to the Buddhist tradition, the spiritual path is the process of cutting through our confusion, of uncovering the awakened state of mind.  When the awakened state of mind is crowded in by ego and its attendant paranoia, it takes on the character of an underlying instinct.  So it is not a matter of building up the awakened state of mind, but rather of burning out the confusions which obstruct it. 

In the process of burning out these confusions, we discover enlightenment.  If the process were otherwise, the awakened state of mind would be a product, dependent upon cause and effect and therefore liable to dissolution.  Anything which is created must, sooner or later, die.  If enlightenment were created in such a way, there would always be the possibility of ego reasserting itself, causing a return to the confused state. 

Enlightenment is permanent because we have not produced it; we have merely discovered it.  In the Buddhist tradition the analogy of the sun appearing from behind the clouds is often used to explain the discovery of enlightenment.

In true meditation there is no ambition to stir up thoughts, nor is there an ambition to suppress them.  They are just allowed to occur spontaneously and become an expression of basic sanity.  They become the expression of the precision and the clarity of the awakened state of mind.

There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom.  This egoless state is the attainment of Buddhahood. The process of transforming the material of mind from expressions of ego’s ambition into expressions of basic sanity and enlightenment through the practice of meditation – this might be said to be the true spiritual path.

from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa

There’s not any mention of guilt or the like in these descriptions. And it is fairly clear in the first paragraph that whatever paranoia we may feel, be that in the form of incorrectness, incompleteness and unwholesomeness is a function of the ego and not generated by the basic sanity of the individual.

A Buddhist’s View of Original Sin

In a most interesting interpretation of the Original Sin narrative, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, in speaking to a Western audience, describes it as follows:

In people language, “to die” means that the bodily functions have stopped, which is the kind of death we can see with our eyes. However, “die” in the language used by God has quite a different meaning, such as when he spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden telling them not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:17). Eventually, Adam and Eve ate that fruit, but we know that they didn’t die in the ordinary sense, the kind that puts people into coffins. That is, their bodies didn’t die. Instead, they died in another way, in the Dhamma language sense, which is a spiritual death much more cruel than being buried in a coffin. This fate worse than death was the appearance of enormous sin in their minds, that is, they began to think in dualistic terms–good and evil, male and female, naked and clothed, husband and wife, and so on. The pairs of opposites proliferated making the pain very heavy, so much so that their minds were flooded by a suffering so severe that it’s impossible to describe. All this has been passed down through the years and inherited by everyone living in the present era.

The consequences have been so disastrous that the Christians give the name “original sin” to the first appearance of dualistic thinking.

from NO RELIGION by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

[I’d like to examine this telling a little further but the post is already quite a length. Consider the references to God, the cruelty of being buried in coffins, inheritance, minds flooded by suffering and the appearance of dualistic thinking as definition for original sin in bi-cultural terms for a start. I also wonder how much is the translator’s imposition on this narrative.]

Starting with the premise that the Buddha Nature is the foundation of the human being rather than some flawed being with an ancestral burden of anguish gives a considerably less dour view of human existence. That there may be blemishes or imperfections caused by ignorance, rather than such flaws inherent in every being, paints a somewhat more optimistic set of possibilities for people. These flaws, or accretions simply comprise an impression of solidity. Where these accretions congregate or aggregate might just be mistaken for a thing in itself. That is, we might mistake aggregates (skandas) for a solid thing such as an ego.

The portrait of the sin filled individual eternally bearing the Sysiphus-like burden of the ages, always on guard lest his original nature return, being punished for crimes he did not commit and waiting until death for some relief, strikes me as a rather onerous way to live.

On the other hand the Buddha Nature scenario says, “We can get over it.”


*Euro-American means Europeans and Americans, Americans (North, and to some extent Central and South) of European descent, those who’s culture is predominantly European based at present or historically and is still practiced to some degree, in short Euro-American means mostly white people with Christian origins.

Musical Accompaniment- The Doors-Break on Through

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Suffering and Saetas

“An artist wears her art in place of wounds.” -Patti Smith

Art has long been identified with personal, creative and sometimes anguished expressions of suffering. The tortured artist and the suffering writer are veritable cliches. We can think about such people as Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Curt Cobain and Ernest Hemingway. Comedy is another area that has been associated with the tragic creative as well. Here’s a Top Ten Tortured Artists list. Many such lists could be created for any field of creative endeavor.

While not all creative people can be called tortured by any means, much art has been produced by the identifying with some form of suffering. Art is a often a process of sublimation. Sublimation is when some feeling, impulse or thought is expressed by displacing it into some other form. It occurs “when displacement “serves a higher cultural or socially useful purpose, as in the creation of art or inventions.”  Sublimation has been called a psychological defense mechanism and in many cases it is. In the case of aggression for example sports may serve as a viable outlet or channel .

In the case of expressions of pain, anguish or other extreme emotions there tend to be two major areas where these can be sublimated  or expressed successfully in a socially sanctioned way. Those areas would be religion and art.

In the religious context this sometimes becomes expressed directly by self-inflicted injury. Devotional acts of bodily-injury may be used for commemoration of the suffering of others, as demonstrations of belief in divine powers to overcome suffering, as redemptive acts, as pledges of faithfulness, as marking of major life passages or as collective expressions of social discontent or anger.  They become in fact rituals.  Rituals can have many purposes and symbolize many things. They are both socially and psychologically useful.

The penitents of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, the commemoration of Asura by certain portions of the Shia Islamic community, the Hindu practices at Thaipusam festival which includes a Kavadi ritual in which people pierce their skin,  Native American Sun Dance ceremonies which have sometimes involved piercing and suspension by flesh, tribal rites of passage in Africa and South America and Polynesia which often scarification or tattooing, all speak directly of physical suffering as symbolic and expressive. Physical suffering in these contexts is symbolic of numerous psychological and social transitions, hopes, expressions of sanctity, social cohesiveness and group solidarity.

When the elements of suffering are taken to the mental realm, rather than being expressed in physical practices and rituals sometimes the expressions that occur can become art.

el_greco_pietaIt is not surprising, with most religions containing certain elements to both address  suffering and to provide some form of comfort, salvation, redemption or transformation that much religious art deals with this topic of suffering.

It is from Christianity that the most numerous expressions of  suffering emerge. The great Pietas of artists such as Michaelangelo and El Greco (image source) are one such example.

Suffering in the Christian context is inevitably tied to the crucifixion of the Christ. And most religious art of suffering in Christianity depicts aspects of this as well as aspects of the suffering of various saints as they attempted to fulfill their divine missions.

At Easter the final week of Lent is called Holy Week. This week is marked in Spain particularly by large processions of religious people carrying icons through the streets of their cities and towns. During these processions there are particular stopping points which symbolize the stopping points of Christ along the Via Dolorosa as he carried the cross to his crucifixion.

In southern Spain in particular the moments of these processional stops are marked by the singing of a particular type of song called a Saeta.

What is a Saeta?

A Saeta is an a cappella (unaccompanied) song of a religious nature from Spain that is sung during Lent and may also be sung during other occasions of religious significance. At times it has also been sung in prisons when Catholic religious groups visited prisoners.

Saetas are also known colloquially as “arrows to the heart”.

Origins of the Saeta

There are a number of theories as to the origins of Saetas. Some say they are derivations of sung Psalms and others consider them to be descended from the ancient Jewish chanting.

The Sephardi Jewish community has a long history in Spain as does the Christian community. The Moors conquered Spain in the Middle Ages so there is also the possibility of the Islamic/Arabic music being somewhat influential in the development of Saetas.

There are numerous styles of Saetas. Some have rhythms that resemble Gregorian chants, Islamic calls to prayer, Jewish recitations as well as Arabic musical ornamentation. In all the Saeta is often referred to as the “song-prayer“.

The influences of the people of the Romani (also known as Roma, Roms or Gypsy) culture, with speculated origins to have been in India, are seen in the music of the Romani of Spain, of which Saetas are but one small part.  The Romani are the principle singers of Saetas as well as the originators of much, if not most, Flamenco music, dance and other related art forms.

Modern Saetas take further elements from Flamenco music to adorn the mournful notes.

Context of the Saeta

Capirotes in the Holy Week in Valladolid Spain-image source  Wikipedia-Holy Week in Spain

A common feature in Spain is the almost general usage of the nazareno or penitential robe for some of the participants in the processions. This garment consists in a tunic, a hood with conical tip (capirote) used to conceal the face of the wearer, and sometimes a cloak. The exact colors and forms of these robes depend on the particular procession.

from Holy Week in Spain

Holy Week Processions of the confraternities, which are brotherhoods of lay Catholics, present a moving spectacle of devotion.

Participants generally wear special costumes as they carry iconic images if Jesus and Mary as well as saints on palanquins through the streets. This is accompanied by performances, incense, prayers and music all following a prescribed pattern.

In Spain part of the performance is the singing of Saetas during short breaks in the procession.

Processions of Christians during Holy Week can be found all around the world including in Italy, Israel, Guatemala, France, Mexico, Peru and the Philippines.

The Performance of Saeta

Singers will often address the iconic image of the Virgin Mary as she suffers the loss of her son as well at to the Christ image itself.

As the performance continues the singer digs deeper inside with an aim to bring it out the emotions of suffering such as loss, anguish, pain or compassion and transform it into song. And through song a psycho-emotional connection is made between the singer and the image to which he sings. It is an expression of the symbolic.

Expressions of compassion are most prominently identified with the crucifixion of the Christ. Words of the Saeta are poetic and deep. Here are a couple of examples:

Carry him little by little,
Foreman, in short steps
Because he smothers himself in sorrow,
and carries his eyes low
from tears like pearls.
They lowered him from the plank
And in sheets they put him,
His body faded,
His Mother asks to the Heavens:
What crime has he committed?


The night had fallen
The darkness covered us
When that beloved, perfect pledge
In Mary´s arms
Corpse, they turned it over to her.
(the Jailer of Solitude)

from Saetas: Prayer from the Heart

How I Came to Have Interest In This Topic

My mother’s side of the family is Catholic from Europe and some of those relatives have been monastic (Sisters of St. Benedict) so it’s not such a stretch to appreciate the rituals from that perspective. And I’ve always liked the artistic aspects of Christianity, especially Catholicism, even if the message just didn’t connect.

Beyond that, about 12 years ago I took up Flamenco dancing. I had done some research, while studying anthropology years before that, on the Romani people and had started to develop interest in the origins of their culture. I had taken extra courses on South Asia even though my interest at the time was in East Asia and China, particularly Buddhist aspects of culture in Asia. Inevitably that would lead to study of India and my interests started to shift towards migrant populations and cross-cultural contact.

It was because of contacts I had made studying Flamenco that I ended up in India a couple of years later.

And it was from Flamenco more recently, that I met my roommates/house sitters in Canada for the past 5 years. They are a family of immigrants from Spain with some Romani heritage. So when I visit from time to time and stay with them (we share the apartment I own) I get to hear some fine Flamenco music and eat some fine Spanish food. And I cook Indian food for them. A couple of times some of their family members have come to visit when I was there and even with a crowded house it was a lovely time. So I’ve learned a lot more about Flamenco and life in Spain than I did on any of the visits I’ve had there.

That’s given me more of a perspective of the art of Flamenco and about Saetas and religion as it is practiced in Spain.

The emotions that appear in the Saetas are both expressions of personal suffering and compassion for the suffering of the Christ, his mother, the saints and more broadly all who suffer. By transmuting those feelings from a personal, social and psychological detriment into an expression that all can connect with, it gives a sense of relief as well as social bonding and recognition of the suffering of others.

This reminds me, in some ways of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen which is part of Lojong training. In Tonglen practice there is a cycling of the breath wherein suffering is transmuted into compassion. The suffering is taken in with the breath and using the heart-mind, compassion and peace are emitted with the exhaled breath. The breath is used as a powerful vehicle controlled for focusing and transforming. This just reminds me of the breath-work of any singer. The exhalation contains the results of the inner alchemy of taking emotion, suffering, identification with another and giving back something that is cohesive, recognizable and the result of generosity of the heart.

Tonglen practice in many ways is also a method of sublimation of suffering. Not an artistic expression but it does share a religious context with the practice of the singing of Saetas. It too can be deemed a form of prayer if prayer is defined as an invocation. An in the Buddhist sense this invocation can be towards the indwelling bodhicitta.  (see Nathan’s great post called Buddhist Prayer to get an idea of the context)

Here are some further description of Tonglen.

from The Stream of Nectar, Pith Instructions for Cultivating Twofold Bodhichitta by Ga Rabjampa Kunga Yeshe

This mainly refers to the practice of alternating the two sessions of visualization outlined above. [taking and giving] In order to grow more familiar with this and make the practice more stable, we can consider that as we breathe in, we take in others’ negativity and suffering in the form of black smoke, and as we breathe out we send out our own happiness and virtue, so that it ripens on others.

-source Lotsawa House|Mind Training-The Practice of Alternating

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says :

To be able actually to transfer one’s happiness to others and directly take their sufferings upon oneself is something only possible on very, very few occasions; it occurs when both oneself and another individual have a very special type of relationship based on karmic affinity, stemming perhaps from a previous life. Why does one cultivate this attitude? Because it leads to attaining great strength of character, courage and enthusiasm; and improves one’s own practice of developing bodhichitta
-source Tonglen – Rigpa Shedra Wiki

From that which is painful something extraordinary and meaningful can emerge.  Something which includes rather than overlooks. Something which unites rather than divides. Something which can be a healing of wounds.

Examples of Saetas

In the first video Diana Navarro sings in a concert type atmosphere. She is a well known flamenco cantaora and part of the New Wave of younger flamenco singers who are both bringing back older styles and incorporating new musical elements from places like Cuba and South America. She was nominated for a Latin Grammy award.

Saeta Diana Navarro El Cautivo

During Holy Week the streets are filled with people observing the processions. At the various stopping points singers in the past would spontaneously begin a Saeta.  The next two videos capture performances done by a man and then a woman.  Whether they are spontaneous or planned is unknown but the passion of the singers is unmistakable.

Saeta al Cristo de los Gitanos

Saeta a la Esperanza Macarena

The young Maria Carrasco appears on a television program and sings a Saeta. She is a member of the well-known Carrasco family who are renowned for their flamenco singing.  The singer Diego Carrasco is one of my personal favorites.

Maria Carrasco saeta

Gil Evans – Saeta (The Salton Sea soundtrack)

Theme from the movie The Salton Sea, instrumental performed by Terence Blanchard. There is also a version of this done by Miles Davis on his Sketches of Spain album.


Saeta (flamenco)-from Wikipedia. Gets into some of the more technical aspects of the music and it’s relationship to other flamenco styles.

Flamenco-Saeta – from Gives some history and background about Saetas as well as listing some of the most well known singers.

Saetas: Prayer from the Heart – from An interesting article that outlines some of the history and context of the Saeta

The Structure of the Saeta Flamenca: An Analytical Study of Its Music– musicologists have produced numerous studies of many types of Flamenco music. Here you can read the abstract of this particular article

Saeta performances– Youtube has many performances of Saetas by popular Flamenco performers as well as amateurs.