a perspective from outside the contemporary political and religious “encampments” of our day

In our ugly and injurious present political climate, it has become all too easy to justify fear-filled and hateful thoughts

a perspective from outside the contemporary political and religious “encampments” of our day

November 2, 2020

The title of these Letters from Outside the Camp is a reference to the many usages of “outside the camp” in the Hebrew Bible. In this series, we are using the phrase to signify a perspective from outside the contemporary political and religious “encampments” of our day.

These letters are addressed to those of you who are sincerely and devotedly trying to camp elsewhere than in any political party or religious denomination and outside the world of strongly held opinions. We know full well that we must now avoid the temptation to become our own defended camp.

As always, we want to inhabit that ever-prophetic position “on the edge of the inside,” which is described by the early Israelites as “the tent of meeting outside the camp” (Exodus 33:7). And even though this tent is foldable, moveable, and disposable, it is still a meeting place for “the holy,” which is always on the move and out in front of us.

In our ugly and injurious present political climate, it has become all too easy to justify fear-filled and hateful thoughts, words, and actions in defense against the “other” side. We project our anxiety elsewhere and misdiagnose the real problem (the real evil), forever exchanging it for smaller and seemingly more manageable problems. The over-defended ego always sees, hates, and attacks in other people its own faults—the parts of ourselves that we struggle to acknowledge. We do not want to give way on important moral issues, but this often means we don’t want to give way on our need to be right, superior, and in control. It is our deep attachment to this false or manufactured self that leads us into our greatest illusions. Most of us do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.

The Heart Sutra (sometimes called The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom) is considered by many to be the most succinct and profound summary of Buddhist teaching—surely it must have something to say to all of us. It ends with a mantra that is considered “the mantra beyond compare” because of its daring proclamation of the final truth that takes our whole life to uncover and experience. It is enlightenment itself and hope itself in verbal form. It is the ultimate liberation into Reality.

Here is the Sanskrit transliteration of the refrain:

Gate gate pāragate pārasamgate bodhi svāhā!

Here is how it is pronounced:

Ga-tay, ga-tay, para ga-tay, parasam ga-tay boh-dee svah-ha!

Here is the meaning:

Gone, gone, gone all the way over, the entire community of beings has gone to the other shore, enlightenment—so be it! [2]

This is not meant to be a morbid or tragic statement, but a joyous proclamation, in its own way similar to Christians saying “Alleluia!” at Easter. It is liberation from our grief, our losses, our sadness, and our attachments—our manufactured self. It accepts the transitory and passing nature of all things without exception, not as a sadness, but as a movement to “the other shore.” We do not know exactly what the other shore is like, but we know it is another shore from where we now stand and not a scary abyss.

I would like to offer you a short and inspired litany, and encourage you to make your own additions. The response in every case is a shortened to “Gone, gone, entirely gone!” (for the sake of brevity and impact). It might be called a Litany of Liberation or Detachment:

All the centuries before me:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All the nations of the earth:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All kings, generals, and governors:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All the wars, plagues, and tragedies:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All human achievements by individuals and groups:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All sickness, sin, and error:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All our identities, roles, and titles:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All hurts, grudges, and memories of offense:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All enslavement, abuse, and torture:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All disease, afflictions, and lifetime wounds:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All rejections, abandonments, and betrayals:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All human glory, fame, money, and reputation:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

Your logical, educated mind may say, “Oh, but these things continue in human memory, consciousness, and the standing stones of culture,” which is true and good. That is not the point this sutra is intended to communicate, however; this is ritual and religious theater, not rational philosophy. In terms of all those who preceded us, these things are indeed “Gone!” (Buddhism also uses the word “Empty!”) It takes just such a shock to encourage the ego to let go of the passing self, the false self, the relative self, the self created by memory and choice.

All comforts, luxuries, and pleasures:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All ideas, information, and ideology:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All image, appearance, and privacy:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All our superiority, self-assuredness, and expertise:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All human rights, ambitions, and fairness:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

All personal power, self-will, and self-control:

Gone, gone, entirely gone!

This is the spiritual art of detachment, which is not aloofness or denial, but the purifying of attachment. It isn’t often taught in capitalistic societies, where clinging and possessing are both means and ends, accumulation is the primary measure of progress, and personal power or self-will is both the foundational myth and supreme idol.

In our world, detachment itself can become a kind of EXODUS, an abandoning—whether forced or chosen—of the very things that give us status, make us feel secure or moral, and oftentimes that pay the bills.

In his book No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton discussed the spiritual link between detachment and hope. Yes, hope! This connection may seem a bit counterintuitive at first, if not contradictory. Yet, as he explains,

We do not hope for what we have. Therefore, to live in hope is to live in poverty, having nothing. . . . Hope is proportionate to detachment. It brings our souls into the state of the most perfect detachment. In doing so, it restores all values by setting them in their right order. Hope empties our hands in order that we may work with them. It shows us that we have something to work for, and teaches us how to work for it. [2]

We live in a time of great hostility, and the temptation from which we must defend ourselves is to pull back from others, deny our shadow, and retreat into our own defended camps or isolated positions. This temptation is not detachment, but the giving over of ourselves to the illusion of separation. True spiritual action (as opposed to reaction) demands our own ongoing transformation, often changing sides to be where the pain is, as Jesus exemplified in his great self-emptying. Rather than accusing others of sin on the Left or the Right, Jesus instead “became sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He stood in solidarity with the problem itself, and his compassion and solidarity were themselves the healing.

Therefore, “let us go to him, then, outside the camp, and bear the humiliation he endured. For there is no permanent city for us here, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13–14).

Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

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