For the question of ‘religious affiliation’, I like to say I am “pan-religious” – name a group of people from any culture talking about the integration of divinity into the life of mankind, and I’m there. A friend who is a kundalini teacher agreed and said she is also pan-religious, and said her term was “seeker of truth”, and I added “friends of the universe”. Being a nomad for work, I’ve lived in a different city every year for the past five years, so my actual spiritual community varies based on the people around me, but for my best year, this past year, I’ve been practicing Buddhist chanting with the Nichiren Buddhists, (SGI –Soka Gakkai International), as I have in four different states now, and I find these to be some of the happiest and most positive people wherever I go, Buddhists always the most welcoming; I’ve also enjoyed a very similar community that don’t call themselves Buddhists at all, called CSL, Center for Spiritual Living; my take on that is it’s the ideas of Hinduism with a patina of Christian thought, they call it “new thought”, I’ve seen similar things like “Course in Miracles”, and again these are some of the happiest and most welcoming people everywhere, and I call them Buddhists that don’t know they’re Buddhists.
SGI and CSL are my two humanist projects. I also was a member of a Dao temple in Dallas, something called Yi Guan Dao, which apparently is very big in Thailand; I practiced bowing and chanting and feasting on vegetarian Thai food in a house temple, or “illumination hall”, that I only found out about because a friend of a friend heard I was translating Daoist scriptures and posting them on the web. That translation is the spiritual project I default to when alone, but I always try to expand out into a community, my ideal being to walk in harmony everywhere.
Though few would call it a religion, I spent the summer taking a class with a turtle, his name was Glistening Forever, and he taught a class called “turtle clarity” in an artificial lake in the office park where I worked last year. The class had a test, “wise vacation”, and when I completed it to the turtle’s satisfaction he started a new advanced class he called “turtle destiny”, that light, that clarity, that destiny being the one effulgence that all the world’s religions look into and try to re-radiate, something the Daoists just call the Dao, the “Way” or Path, and that I recently found described in a great translation of a Dzogchen scripture (Tibetan Buddhist mysticism called the “Great completion or the Great Perfection), as “utterly insubstantial evanescence arising as uncrystalized ubiquitous effulgence”.
I’ve read a lot in my life, now 52 I’ve spent almost 35 years studying religions and philosophy, and I plan to quit all reading and writing in 3 more years and walk off into the world beginning a kind of ministry, working with kids. My perspective is one of a mystic, for whom all the religions congeal into that one clarity at the upper level; while at the lower level they are each about cultural identities and exclusivity, at the mystic level they are all about the same light that is all creatures and the thing that wears reality as it’s earings, my friend the universe, that one thing we all are.
When people from the lower level of any of these religions tell me to “watch out” for that “other” one, I tell them I go to SGI and CSL and the Dao temple, I enjoy Reiki sessions and kirtan chanting with the Hindus, labyrinth walks with friends from CSL and the Catholic mass with my sister’s family, but what I don’t do is outsource my spirituality. I’m a shaman, and have been for about 25 years, the pope of my own religion, someone who builds and maintains his own relationship with divinity; My project is “boundless universal salvation”, and the trick is, a sage saves the universe, by saving the universe inside himself. The universe calls me charlie5, because I look through the five elements to see the heaven all around me; when I was mortal, I used my father’s last name, but when I became enlightened into my immortality, I realized that identity was misleading, as if I were something unique, something my father, or his father’s father, had invented, something finite, something that could be lost. Five, on the other hand, is nowhere, and everywhere, solidly unreal, an integral part of the universe, from before and after heaven and earth. I often tell people that I don’t believe in reality. I see it, I think it’s beautiful, and I cultivate it, like a garden, (my time-garden), but I don’t believe it has anything to do with who or what or where I am. My friend the universe likes to take the form of a white elephant in shamanic visions, where he wears two earrings of five colors, the five directions/ five elements / five lots-of-things of Daoism, and those two earrings are mandalas on a wall that are all many people can see; but if you look more closely, as mystics of all stripes invariably do, you can see the elephant who wears the earrings. That’s my friend the universe; and a Buddha has three bodies: a Dharma body, which is the dharma he is enlightened to, a reward body, which is the wisdom he is rewarded with for his work helping people, and a manifest body, his Bodhisattva body-in-the-world. That elephant who wears reality as his earrings is my Dharma body. Five is my wisdom body. Charlie5 is my manifest body.
I was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966, the son of a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest who’d been practicing in the priesthood and teaching theology for 20 years before he met my mom and left the priesthood to raise me and my three siblings after me. My mom grew up in El Paso and met my father at Fordham University where she was a philosophy major in my dad’s theology class. I am atleast a two-generation project, standing on the shoulders of both my parents to reach in to the heights of mystery that I have achieved. It was a difficult road that they launched me onto by being the seekers they were, challenging and dangerous, and it was a difficult middle adulthood; my mom grew up with her grandmother who was an Aztec sorceress, my dad a German and his mother formerly Ashkenazi Jewish, so sometimes I say I’m Aztec and Ashkenazi. It was a weird track, different from everyone else around me growing up in the Bronx, in an Italian neighborhood; when I found my way to a shaman teacher 25 years ago, she said my spirituality was unusual, the spirit world ‘right up in my face’, ‘the veil between the worlds is thin for you’ another shaman said; my teacher said there are other people like me in Brazil, where the German missionaries met the Brazilian women, and that it was an ‘earth religion and a sky religion crashing on the same genome’. It was a challenge to integrate it, but the success that burst through as a luminous spirituality on the new moon in November when I was 47 years old, is a glorious reward that was worth all the suffering and striving that preceded it. During that earlier period, I was diagnosed as schizotypal on a good day (someone who has odd ideas), and downright schizophrenic, bipolar, schizoaffective, etc, if I came in with manic complaints about itching and extreme allergies and general confusion about my mental world, with graphic depictions of the ancestral spirits of what science would call my subconscious.
Though the average modern adult may be said to ‘grow up’ in the first 20 years or so, I took longer to cook. I grew up by 47. So I grew up not only in that initial Bronx New York city of the 70’s with the knucklehead kids that were so different from me as to be just about completely irrelevant to my development, other than possibly a minor obstacle, through the 80’s when I married my first wife and started trying to tuck away spirituality and live a modern adult life, through a divorce in the 90’s and the discovery of that kind of despair in life to the 2000’s where I moved to Bay Area California for an IT teaching job that came with some great friends and an expansive and freeing life, where I eventually married a second wife that was a more advanced kind of relationship but still didn’t last past five years. It was after the second marriage had dissolved that I got my own place, built an altar that became a temple as it grew outward, communed with the universe, and became five. I learned about the mundane world and consensual reality, but it never had much effect on me, because I was never very impressed with it. My parents had subtly conferred their spiritual seeking onto me, and I never really accepted the limitations of mortal life with its separation and struggle. I raised myself, in the bookstores and libraries of the United States, where, though you wouldn’t know it from our culture, the treasure storehouse of fifty centuries of wisdom sits available to anyone.
The Catholicism I was raised in had only minimal impact, as I knew my parents both were constantly striving beyond its doors into every new idea that became available to them. I went to church on Sunday and went to Catholic school where ‘religion’ was a subject side by side with math or science. But one thing in Catholic high school made a profound impact. It was ‘world religion’ class, where in senior year, in a Jesuit high school, they told us there are seven world religions, each of them ‘valid’, and that we should research each of them. At 16 or 17 I was too young to really comprehend their wealth, but it was the green light to go looking. At 52 I look back on that direction as a great gift. There was something else, a comment at the end of 12 years of Catholic school. The teacher said ‘you’re going to forget a lot of what we’ve taught you about Christianity after you leave here, but if there’s one thing you remember, let it be this: Be like Christ’. Nominal Christians later in my life have balked at that summation, but it resonated. For me, Christ is a Buddha, a sage, a mystic, and I later learned there are many other ‘Christs’ in many other religions, and that, as a leader at CSL recently said one day, ‘we see Christ as a great example, not the great exception’.
With my Thai friends in the Yi Guan Dao temple, we go to the temple to do the bowing and chanting on full moon, half moon, and new moon, and we fast for 9 days in the fall when the people in Thailand practice the same thing. With the Nichiren Buddhists there are no special holidays, Buddhism being more about an ideal of level equal everywhere, and somewhat beyond the mundane world, but we get together as often as possible, usually a couple of times a week, in eachothers’ homes, to chant “Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo”, and at the end to say a silent prayer for the happiness of all beings while the bell is rung in what might be the sweetest tone I’ve ever experienced, maybe because of the magic it carries outward. Other than that, there is very little external trapping to my spirituality, I’m an undercover sage;
It’s 般著無知論 “pan zhuo wu zhi lun”, the “you can’t know what he’s like” theory, can’t tell by his speech or his moves or his tricks or his appearance, or his “spots”, ‘cause he’s magical, you can’t judge a sage by his form, he’s not revealed by his manifestation; you can’t read a sage by his cover -his magic is invisible, it’s the void, it’s the “can’t detect the void” theory 不偵空論.
On the other hand, spending time with people, sitting and listening, and smiling, and sharing love, whether at the trampoline park with nieces and nephews or over beers with friends, that unworldly effulgence is always prominent and often appreciated. I have a simple two step program for my spirituality – to raise my own life state and to get out among the people to share it.
Being a nomad for my work in the Information Technology (IT) field, my actual day to day spirituality varies greatly depending on what’s available. But after reading all my life with a special focus on the rules different religions use to become ‘magical’, having inherited the ten commandments but finding them unchallenging and somewhat inadequate for the destiny of a sage or a mystic spiritual leader, I eventually decided to summarize everything I’d learned into the “five salvific pursuits”, a set flexible enough to be implemented anywhere whether with lots of free time or very little:
- Ritual and Altar
- Cultivation and Practice
- Blending Purity and Stillness (or “marching forward in the snowfall of non-action”, or “contemplating the beauty of oneness in stillness”)
- Pursue Inner Nature and Destiny
- Search for Mystery and Wonder
The core is number three, which all religions will focus on, and many agree it could stand alone as a spiritual practice; numbers 2 and 4 are an outer shell, the “pattern, temple, and road” that both contain and reveal that central effulgent light that is what the turtle called “turtle destiny”; and 1 and 5 are the light of heaven as it reflects off that shell that is a temple.
One common misconception about practicing multiple religions is that they are mutually opposed. As I was describing before, that’s only at the first level. I think of religions and philosophy as a bunch of storefronts on the main street of culture, with lots of people standing outside arguing about which things are available in which stores and what the competing prices are; but a mystic walks into any one of them, and finds his way to the back room, where there is a stairway that leads upstairs, to a giant cafeteria that spans all the storefronts, it’s the mystic level, where a sage feeds on the treasure of heaven, and the people haggling downstairs look kind of silly.
But I’ve also learned that it’s as inappropriate to go down and drag those people upstairs as it is for them to try to drag me down stairs and outside.
There is a character in chinese that means the outer two horses of a four-horse carriage, 驂 cān, and these horses in a battle are the ones who protect the inner two horses; i think our culture is like this carriage, but the numbers are off; it’s like a one-hundred-horse carriage, with one inner horse, protected by the outer 99, who do the hard-headed materialist outlook, atheist scientists creating a world for the inner dreaming horse that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Those horses know their destiny, and there is no sense in the inner horse or horses trying to change their role, and likewise no sense in the outer horses fretting about the dreamy ideation and religiosity of the inner horse or horses.
Those horses know their role and their place, they can’t change their destiny and their religious ideation; they are not necessarily a problem because of the popular imagination of the outer horses that religion equals violence. their ideation has to be groomed, there are laws about killing, defenses of religiosity should be irrelevant to those laws; the violence can be managed as any other violence is, and the ideation should not be policed.
i agree that many horses in the carriage don’t realize this differentiation of roles, each assuming the others should be in the same, assuming they must see things the same way, and i think that’s just a poverty of vision; there’s a yiddish phrase in new york, about all the different types of people there are – “that’s what makes horse races”;
The tree of life that crowns the altar of reality has to have its foundation, the branches and leaves that show up in the scientific eye, grown from the nourishment of roots that are buried firmly in the real; once this foundation exists, there is another, deeper taproot that penetrates deeper than the soil of the real, into the underground river of the numinous, and it is this deep mountain nourishment that then produces the fruit of saints and sages on the tree of life, glowing with prayers for all beings, invisible to science, not foundational but a symbol of wholeness and completion and pure beauty that is not like the leaves, not for the purpose of something, it’s like the sun and the moon and the wind, shining, going out, disappearing.
Or it’s like our culture is an Eagles’ nest, with lots of eggs, some that have hatched, and others that haven’t. The ones still in the eggs yell at the fledglings like me, “what’s all that squawking about the ‘beauty of the sun and the moon’ or the ‘danger from the hawk in the sky’? just quiet down and stay in your egg!”, or some of the newer fledglings might peck at their siblings in the eggs and yell “why can’t you SEE? Come out of your SHELL!”. I think both paths are misguided; there’s no sense in frightening the chicks still in their eggs, they will surely hatch in their own time; and there’s nothing wrong with coming out of the egg, after all, escape-driven cracks complete the egg. But I don’t think we fledglings should abandon our egg siblings, either. My practice is to occasionally sit quietly by the egg, and sing a soft tune about the sun and the moon and the hawk and the tree and the sky, while they each in their own time develop the magic of hope that will be required of them before they can come out and face this world and eventually take flight through it.
And I think it’s the practice that the mother Eagle, whose children we all are, would agree with.
One lesson I’ve learned is that although I’m a mystic, with an ego of the number five, non-worldly, I still have a human heart and mind, and it requires connection in order to be a healthy root, and it’s the Buddhist path of a Bodhisattva to return from heaven to the people left behind and try to be helpful to them, and also bask in their companionship. And in this modern world framework, many of my friends are isolated at the end of the day, even as we spend time together every week or so. We’ve been talking about renting a house together and building a kind of community that way, which I think would be a great healing for all of us.
The Buddhists I spend time with got together at the end of the year for beers, and each of us discussed what kind of a year it had been and what the next one would be like. And I said I’d had a great year, but when I repeated that to a materialist friend later he said ‘well Charlie I don’t know how you can say that, you have nothing, no car, no house, no wife, no kids, you live paycheck to paycheck, you have nothing to show for anything you’ve done’; so clearly I don’t define my ‘success’ by those modern cultural norms. I recently realized during a conversation that, I’m never gonna be rich, ‘cause I give away whatever I don’t need and insist on living paycheck to paycheck, as by the way every religion advocates, but I will always be happy, because what I study is love, compassion, the happiness beyond birth and death that is intertwined with compassion. And that’s not such a bad path.
I wouldn’t call my ‘beliefs’ beliefs, that seems too strong, I’d call them “theories”, and I hold multiple theories on the mysteries of life and religions, even if I tend to prefer some to others. I prefer, for philosophy, the ideas of the Hindu Upanishads, the LingBao Daoists whose scriptures I translate, and the Tibetan Buddhists of Dzogchen, these being the highest peaks of human mysticism I’ve ever encountered, and all in agreement that so-called ‘reality’ is an illusion, “Maya”, a delusion created for us by a god who loves us for our enjoyment, but not what’s really going on.
I wondered, then, as I learned to stare at that one light that is everything, that wears ‘reality’ as its five-colored earrings, what is this world we share, what’s going on here, is it the fruit growing on a tree? Is it the transient flame on the outside of a divine Buddha?
And I found my favorite answer so far just a few weeks ago in a Dzogchen book. The appearance of reality is just a “wide open door for every imminent quality”.
And I spent yesterday afternoon, before my sister got here with her two kids and we went to the trampoline park to play, translating something I’d found in ancient Daoist scripture called the nine virtues, and it sums up the LingBao Daoist ethic that I know well and strive for; my translation is:
“From the esteemed book “Gao Tao”, the “High Riverbank-Pottery Kiln- Plan for Practice”, “There are nine virtues to be practiced: Like a tiny chestnut seeing out through the grasses onto the broad and vast spaciousness, / soft, supple, yielding, and standing established, / with honest resolve into respectful courteous humble simplicity, / reverent, honest, and bright, knowing the urgency of righteousness in the insubstantial evanescent uncrystalized chaos and offering the gift of respect, / a festival of ambitious unshaken resolve that crowns the heart and mind with its slow moving chief, / upright, fair, and warm with compassion, / simple, pure, and uncorrupted, like moonlight peeking through a door,/ benevolent and brave, strong and firm like the teeth of immortals to stop up the gaps and plug the loopholes,/ with the striving that strengthens into vigorous vitality and the ancient dignity of righteousness; these are the manifestation of the eternal, to highlight the past and study the future, auspicious, lucky, and fortunate!”
And last year was a great year of learning from my friend the turtle, Glistening Forever. His 15 item to-do list is my answer for when people who hear that I plan to quit all reading and writing by age 55 ask me, “but Charlie, what will you DO ?!?”
“Light the silent candle, sparkle like the wind, raise the blessing storm, dream the ancient goodness, harmony the tune, collect the sparks of mission, glisten with aware, park the moving scene, settle in the sound, future the curve, smile the gleam, twinkle the darkness, pattern the profound, be the humble prayer, happy the forever”.
And so on marriage, divorce, abstinence, abortion, afterlife, mourning, ghosts, burial, as well as voting, for a person who doesn’t “believe in reality”, it’s all just a dream, and what I think is important in this dream, one that I also think is a birthday present for my friend the universe, is harmony, and so my ideal is to walk in harmony with everyone around me, following their practices and smiling with them in brotherhood as they live their lives, all the while radiating the warmth of compassion.
cha li wu