Ascending and Descending Spirituality

I have just finished the initial book tour for my new book, “Untangling Karma, Intimate Zen Stories on Healing Trauma.”  The book seems to be a gift to me that just keeps on giving.  Combing once again through my personal hurts and writing them down was a gift of release.  I realized perhaps for the first time that each hurt was also born from the systemic history and culture in which I live.  This produced a real sense of interdependence in a manifest and personal way.  The second gift is giving public book talks.  This circumstance allows me to unabashedly be who I am over and over in public – both as a Buddha and as a woman of this time period.  Because of my forthrightness, I am receiving healing waves of acceptance over and over.

Both as a Buddha and as a woman of this time.

This is what I mean by ascending and descending spirituality.  In my view, real integrated spirituality has both these aspects – ascending and descending, or in classical Buddhist terms, the absolute and relative completely intertwined and co-arising.

Ascending is the felt sense experience of the expansive beyond-the-ordinary consciousnesses that are normally not seen or experienced.  Buddhist practice is magnificently calculated to open that larger universal perspective, crack the world open as I sometimes say, and allow us to see beyond our self-centered ego narratives of our life.

Descending spirituality addresses the importance of the task of untangling our karma – or understanding and releasing our narratives.  How do we do that?  How does this disentanglement concretely happen in manifest reality?  Thich Nhat Hanh, Daiosho (late honorable one) writes:

“The fruit of looking deeply is understanding the many causes and conditions, primary and secondary, that have brought about our anger and afflictive emotions.  We reflect like this until we have some insights into what has caused our suffering.  With insight, we know what to do and what not to do to reduce our suffering and change the situation.”

Having been in the Buddhist community for 50 years now, my experience has been that there is a bias towards ascending spirituality. It seems to me that many teachers have a condescending attitude towards the path of descension.  Our narratives are dismissed as “delusions” and we are told to “just let go of them.”  I learned in my training that my personal needs were not that valuable or important and that the needs of the community supersede everything else. A person who has let go of her ego would simply conform to the communal ritual and needs.  I gave and gave in my service to the community and ended up depleted.

In most Buddhist teaching, we are told to non-identify with our stories. Paradoxically for me, the way I finally achieved non-identification was by doing the opposite – going directly into the causes and conditions of my suffering, emphasizing the stories that make up my psyche, and in the end, coming out the other side. Through writing these stories down, understanding their relationship to the external systems, history, and culture, I was able to digest and release my stories and their concomitant pain. At the bottom of this pit of dukkha, I found Avaloketeshvara, the goddess of compassion.  This is what I am describing as descending spirituality.

In my book tour, I felt there was a resistance in some people for my use of the word “descending”.  No one wants to descend.  Like Persephone being abducted into hell.  When we think in non-dualistic terms, ascending and descending work mutually together, cannot be separated and are like one whole magnet with attracting energies.  And Persephone also ascends.  The Queen of the underworld becomes the Vegetation goddess as in Springtime, the seeds which have been buried underground, sprout and rise up.  She has become synonymous with the shooting forth of life and then the withdrawal back to earth.  The great rhythm of manifest life itself.

My descent into the hurts of my life became my great freedom, finally disidentifying with my stories and putting them to bed.

Another layer of understanding for me is that the patriarchal religions (nearly all the current religions) lean towards the ascending view of spirituality – transcendence, emptiness as the highest value, and non-emotional rationality.  Many of the feminine qualities and intrinsic conditions for women have been dismissed. But women simply can’t afford to “renounce the world” as the early Buddhists recommended. These early doctrines are some of the karmic seeds for the traditional teachings that still influence Buddhism today. But women can’t abandon the manifest reality, as we birth and raise all people, buddhas and bodhisattvas.  Women’s spirituality includes the messiness of the world, the blood, birthing, noisy children, families, life, conflict, creativity, love and sexuality.

I believe we are in a period of remedial work on balancing the feminine and masculine archetypal energies.  The feminine, the one that has been ignored by our history and culture, needs for a while to be exaggerated and explored in order to restore our equilibrium.

I wrote a book about stories: sexuality, racism and anti-Semitism, children and childbirth. I was inspired to deeply look at my karma, my stories, and the causes and conditions of my suffering in order to redress this unbalance.  I descended into the pain of my stories in order to be reborn in a new spring.