[Here are the basic talking points I used in a talk I gave yesterday in Kyoto, Japan.}
First, may I express my gratitude to Shinnyo-en and the Global Peace Initiative of Women for sponsoring this important gathering and for inviting me to Kyoto to participate in it.
Second, let me offer two warnings. Warning one: Judaism has no fixed or official theology. What we have are the experiences of Jews articulated through the limited medium of words which leads to a culture wildly divergent in its philosophies and beliefs. As we put it: “Two Jews. Three opinions.” What you will hear from me is simply my opinion.
Warning two: words are maps and never the territory they claim to represent. Whatever we say about the soul, Atman, or Buddha–nature is only a finger pointing to the moon and never the moon itself. More importantly, from my understanding—personal as well as Jewish—there is no moon at all, only mooning, as I hope this brief talk will explain.
Each morning observant Jews recite this short affirmation: Elohai neshamah sheh natatabi t’hora he: “My God, soul manifesting as me is pure.” It is not a prayer, but a statement of fact. I am not thanking God for my soul, I am reminding myself of the nature of soul.
Notice, as the ancient rabbis did, that “God” is qualified by the word “my,” but “soul” is not qualified at all. Why is this? We speak of “my God” because God in and of itself cannot be spoken of or about. As Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao te Ching: The tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao.” Any god about whom we can speak is not God. In this prayer when we call out to “my God” we are to realize even in the moment of our calling that our idea of God is insufficient. In the Book of the Prophet Micah something similar happens when we are told to “walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In other words we should not cling to any theology, especially our own, but hold all such notions humbly, lightly, for no notion of God is God.
No such qualifier is attached to the word “soul,” however. Why? Because, having admitted the limitation of language, we are now challenged to step beyond language into the state of pure transparency, t’hora, a state beyond all words and concepts. When we know soul is t’hora, we know that soul—my very sense of “I”— is pure, without conditions, without limits, without boundaries, without anything that would in fact make it “me” or “my soul” at all. When I understand that soul is pure, my sense of separate and conditioned “I” dissolves for a moment, and there is a knowing (though not an “I” to know it) we call da’at d’vekut, a knowing of the nonduality of all in all.
A simple word–play found in kabbalistic or Jewish mystical teaching will, I hope, make this a bit more clear.
The Hebrew word for “I,” the first person singular, is ani—aleph, nun, yod or “a,” “n,” “I” in English. The Hebrew word for the formless and yet ever–forming God is Ain—nothingness, sunya— is comprised of the same three letters in different order: aleph, yod, nun or “a,” “i,” “n.” The fact that both words are comprised of the same three letters suggests to the Jewish mystic that “I,” “soul,” “self,” and “God” are different expressions of a singular dynamic, an endless dance of birthing and arising, and dying and dissolving that is the very nature of reality.
Focusing on the letter yod or “i” which stands for the Hebrew word yadah, attention, the Jewish mystics teach that when our attention is focused outwardly—when the yod/i is at the end of the word as it is in the word ani,—we have a sense of distinct self and soul. When our attention is focused inwardly—when the yod/i is in the middle of the word as it is in the word ain,—our separate self or soul is seen to be transparent, pure, t’hora, and thus empties into a greater reality we call YHVH.
As I understand it, the unity of Ain and Ani is a teaching similar to that of the Prajna Paramita Hrydaya Sutra (Heart Sutra): “form is emptying, emptying is forming.” Again I avoid the use of nouns in this translation to help free us from any notion of permanence, even a temporary one. God is, if you’ll pardon the paradox, permanent impermanence. God doesn’t change from one moment to the next, God is the changing moment this moment and the next. And, again, we call this process YHVH.
The soul, the self, is the extending of YHVH the way sunlight is the extending of the sun, and a wave is the extending of the ocean. I am not saying the soul is an extension of YHVH as if the soul were a thing, but that the soul is an extending of YHVH, an activity of YHVH, pure activity.
This word YHVH, sadly rendered as Lord, is a verb and not a noun. YHVH is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” YHVH is a dynamic process and not a static something. In the biblical book of Exodus we are told that YHVH is Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, not the static “I am that I am” of most translations, but the dynamic “I am becoming what I am becoming,” of the literal Hebrew. God is not a being, or even a supreme being, but the endless process of being/becoming itself. And because we are YHVH extending, we are this process as well. There is no fixed “Rami,” only YHVH “rami–ing.” And the realization of this is the promise offered by the chanting of Elohai neshamah sheh natatabi t’hora he.
My chanting does not make this so, it only awakens me to what is already so. D’vekut, the unity of ani and ani, of self and God, is not achieved or earned, it is a given. The wave cannot be other than the ocean. The awareness of what is we call da’at, knowing. My chanting of Elohai neshamah creates nothing new, it only opens my eyes to that which is always and already there.
Though the goal of Jewish contemplative practice is to become aware of this dance, to achieve da’at d’vekut the knowledge of what is already so, we can say nothing of the moment of knowing or awakening because at that moment that is no one to experience it, and only experiencing itself. At the moment of knowing there is no ani, there is no ain, there is only the ineffable happening we call YHVH.
While we cannot say about this experience, we can sense that something happened. Somehow we are less afraid, more loving, more just, more compassionate. In Hebrew we call this reshimu, the fragrance of something no longer present but something no less real.
Imagine purchasing a bottle of expensive perfume, removing the stopper, and allowing the oil to evaporate over time. Eventually the perfume is gone, but even so the fragrance remains. I suggest that while none of us can articulate the deepest truth beyond language, we are all smelling the same fragrance, the aroma of the dynamic dancing of YHVH that arises as ain and ani over and over and over again.