Thursday, September 19, 2013

Suzuki meets Swedenborg

It is not immediately apparent why D.T. Suzuki, the great scholar of Japanese Buddhism, would translate (and write a book on), the great eighteenth century Swedish scientist and visionary mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg. Though Swedenborg was both a pathbreaking scientist and one of the most original of theological minds (and deeply influential on nineteenth century artistic culture), he is undoubtedly (and unforgivably) obscure. His status as a 'heretic' might make him appeal to Suzuki's questing mind to find affinities between Christianity and Buddhism but (like Meister Eckhart until recently, on whom Suzuki also wrote) it is not one likely to elicit a mainstream cultural or theological response from 'the West'.

However, closer inspection reveals that the affinities are striking and deeply suggestive.

First, even though couched in the language of visitations to heavens and hells, Swedenborg retained his empirical bent. Everything he wrote about was tested on the anvil of his own interior experience. Heaven and Hell are 'inward states' that constitute our world and its potentiality: they describe possibilities of consciousness and the quest for freedom. This is precisely the statues they occupy in Buddhism: real because inward.

Second, in spite of the apparent ethereal nature of 'vision', Swedenborg was strikingly concrete. All that he described was rooted in a recognition that all understanding tended towards deepening our practice of love and compassion, here and now. Zen is expressed in washing the dishes or, as Swedenborg would say, a tendency towards love would be revealed by the care a cobbler repairs the shoes entrusted to him or her.

Third, everything is trending towards unity, the One, in which our liberation is found. The more deeply we are bound in joy to and with one another, losing our self-centredness, the freer we become. Our ego shed, we discover our selving in a binding of love and wisdom at the heart of life.

It is absolutely true that Swedenborg's language is Christian - much of his writing is a revealing of the inner meaning of Scripture - as Suzuki's was of Buddhism - but both are explorers of the empirical nature of our inner lives that are unfolding from a deepening unity and as searching accounts of human frailty and abundance have deep commonalities.

All of this came back to me in reading Wilson Van Dusen's 'The Presence of Other Worlds: the findings of Emanuel Swedenborg' which is a remarkable book in its own right. Written from the perspective of a clinical psychologist and student of Swedenborg, it acts both as an illuminating introduction and a challenging act of thought to consider Swedenborg seriously as a master of the inner life. This, I think, he was.

Simply to consider his foundational insight that we are drawn to the outer states that we most inwardly love is to bring us face to face with the question: what is it that I love? The answer can be humbling if you can get behind your egotistical assumption and quietly sit with the realities revealed in the contours of your daily life. What do I truly value for this, in a radical sense, will determine the unfolding of my fate, one that rests wholly in my hands dependingon how I respond to the divine offer of freedom?

No comments:

Post a Comment

In Our Time - the best of radio

One of the consequences (after a retinal tear in the eye) of being told to read less (advice that was happily overturned by a more senior d...