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We Want What We Think – And Think What We Want

Shakespeare gives us a fine image of good intentions gone awry: to his own detriment, a fellow so eagerly tries to mount a horse that he jumps clear over it. Just so, Macbeth, pondering his plan to murder the king, worries about his “…vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.”

In the cause of separating church from state, we seem to have o’erleaped ourselves or, to use a more homespun metaphor, to have thrown the baby out with the bath.

As a member of a minority religion, I’m hardly in a position to denigrate the value of religious freedom. It’s a sacred right and the more vigorously it is preserved, the better off we all are.

But religion and spirituality are not the same thing. In trying to protect the interests of the former, we have all too easily sacrificed the latter. In banning spiritual expression from our public schools, a great chunk of what was once an integral part of American heritage and culture has been placed in escrow or some sort of trust account to which a few executors have access and a privileged few may derive whatever moral benefits can accrue to those who gain at the sorry expense of others.

Recently several events brought the problem into focus and clarified, without resolution of course, at least some of the pertinent questions: What have we lost and why did we lose it and what will happen to us if we don’t recover it? Something is terribly wrong.

On July 20th, l969, during the Apollo 11 Mission, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first men to walk on the moon. We earthbound citizen taxpayers were well informed about the lunar excursion and could track the whole adventure. To discuss the details of this scientific achievement, we learned a new vocabulary: lunar orbit insertion burns; lunar module docking and undocking; PDI (powered descent initiation); and a whole litany of terms. We knew how the crewmen urinated and what they ate. This was knowledge in its finest hour and NASA wanted us to know everything… except… well… not the fact that Buzz Aldrin celebrated Holy Communion before he and Neil Armstrong went down that ladder. That we weren’t allowed to know. NASA didn’t think it prudent to inform us that something spiritual was happening on the moon, that men of science could also be spiritual. Of course, we did know that the astronauts were religious men. They had to be religious. We wouldn’t have sent atheists to the moon or even let them into an astronaut training program.

But just a minute here… the Miracle of Transubstantiation on the moon? Somebody partaking of consecrated American bread on the moon? No way. Six years before the lunar landing, the Supreme Court had declared its “no prayers in public schools” version of the Constitution’s separation of church and state and that separation extended even to government-sponsored events on the moon. So NASA drew that religious line in the lunar sand. Why weren’t we allowed to be told about this lunar Communion? Not until a quarter century after the fact did word leak out to puzzle those of us who heard it. Something was wrong here.

Then last September in Boulder City, Nevada, at Grace Church’s interfaith meditation session, Gard Jamison, while speaking about Christian meditation practices, tried to rustle up some audience participation – always a dangerous venture – and referred to the Sermon on the Mount. Hoping to elicit a little feedback, he quoted Jesus, saying, “‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall–‘” and then he waited expectantly for the assembly to shout out the answer as to what the pure in heart could expect, but nobody said anything. There was this great silence as Gard, eyebrows raised and mouth open, sat poised to hear the vault of sound break open and the precious answer issue forth… but all he heard was a faint echo of his own voice. It was an awkward moment and I turned to Richard Smith, the Pastor of Grace Church, who, as you might expect, was groaning with his hands over his face; and I quizzically whispered, “See God?” Could it possibly have been something else? Again I asked, “Don’t the pure in heart see God?” “Good grief,” said Richard in perfect agony, “My flock sits there dumbly while a Buddhist knows the Beatitudes.” Well, in all fairness to his flock, his flock was a pretty young flock and this Buddhist was a pretty old Buddhist who happened to have learned the Beatitudes from hearing the Bible read every morning in Public School in Philadelphia.

But we Americans are not allowed to hear the Bible inside our public institutions any more. There’s a line between church and state and that line is drawn between the citizenry and one of the most beautiful presentations of spiritual truth the world has ever known. Nearly an entire generation of Americans have never heard the Beatitudes because the only voices that ever uttered them have been silenced. Teachers can’t teach anything spiritual. And where shall this generation learn? In most American families, Mom and Dad both work and are understandably too exhausted or too hurried to begin each day with a thoughtful Bible reading. And on Sunday mornings, Jesus can speak from the Mount all he wants, but he’d better be calling NFL play action if he intends that his voice be heard in American homes.

Then, a few weeks ago, during an email discussion of the cosmic Dharmakaya with Chuan Zhi, the webmeister of our Nan Hua Zen Buddhist Page, I quoted Psalm 8: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Our webmeister, trained in nuclear physics, emailed me back, awestruck, “That was so beautiful! Where can I find more of those Psalms?” Now, Chuan Zhi is a profoundly spiritual man, a candidate for Buddhist ordination, a man who happens to appreciate the finer things of life: the saxophone of Stan Getz; the poetry of Rumi; Nilsson singing the Liebestod; but he grew up under the new interpretation of a separate church and state; and though he had been apprised of the secrets of atomic power – the boast of a proud nation, nobody had ever so much as hinted to him that it was possible to stun a man with the beauty of one of David’s songs. Something is wrong here.

Is this what the Founding Fathers intended?

As I write this, a neighbor is washing his car to the accompaniment of a boom-box that is dispensing Gangsta’ Rap by the decibel. In this lyrical exultation of free speech, we, the men, women, and children of the neighborhood, are permitted – indeed, we cannot avoid – the brute machismo celebrations of obscenity, violence, racism, drugs, the defiance of elected authority, and the abuse of women and families. Did the Founding Fathers intend that the State may not deprive us of the pleasure of hearing Gangsta’ Rap on our city streets and through our open windows while at the same time must protect us from hearing the Psalms of David in public institutions of knowledge and learning.? I may not have phrased it well, but it is a good question.

What are we really discussing by “knowledge” and “religion”? Certainly not wisdom and spirituality. No, wisdom is to knowledge what spirituality is to religion. They have a relationship but they are not kissing cousins.

To me, knowledge is information and shares this in common with religion: it is organized and disciplined; it is vocal and literal, it is something disseminated, broadcast, discussed. Knowledge wants to be known and seeks a forum’s setting just as a church, if nothing else, is an auditorium. What is a class to one is a congregation to the other.

While knowledge and religion are shared experiences, wisdom and spirituality are not. Nobody can participate in another person’s wisdom or intercept his experience of God. Wisdom is a quiet thing and so is spirituality. However much it’s sought, wisdom doesn’t seek. The wise don’t proselytize – that they are wise makes them know better – and the spiritual more than anything appreciate solitude. Wisdom looks inward and it looks deeply enough to see in itself the essence of all others. And that, of course, is what spirituality does. It retreats into the Void to see the ubiquity of God. Wisdom and spirituality are unitive. They see sameness. Knowledge and religion see and profit from differences.

Where Wisdom is recorded, the libraries of the world’s diverse religions keep the sacred books. And here we may perhaps find at least part of the source of the problem.

Who, ultimately, is responsible for the removal of sacred literature from the classroom? Were we acting to protect the atheist from being subjected to wisdom’s spiritual expression? Or, rather, when the issue first presented itself did we succumb to religious haggling and parochialism, masquerading bigotry as patriotism? Rather than risk having some doctrine of fairness applied, of having to expose our children to wisdom contained in other libraries, did we prefer to remove our separate versions of wisdom from the bargaining table, to secrete them in fortresses – the private schools and other institutions – where followers could flaunt their uniforms of exclusivity and privilege? Did we prefer to hoard our Truths rather than share them and accept a share of others?

If it is true that we have privatized Wisdom, is it not curious that though we insist upon our domestic separation of church and state we have no such requirement for those nations we consider allies? Americans who quite literally could be jailed for reading Proverbs before a public assembly of citizens may be asked to fight on foreign soil in support of governments which have, de facto if not de jure, state-sponsored religions and which, for that matter, may actually be intolerant of the religious views of those American servicemen and women who have come to defend them. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to foresee the possibility that the same fellow who commits a criminal act by reading Proverbs before an assembly of American school children would also commit a criminal act if, when drafted into military service, he declined to fight for the sake of any foreign government which mandated the reading of specific religious literature to its school children.

We are not so naive as to suppose that our government has separated church and state in any meaningful way. Religious institutions are tax exempt just as religious schools, in one way or another, are financially subsidized with state and federal revenues. While the children of the rich or of the righteous hear the scriptures and are nicely groomed for positions of authority – astronauts or politicians, the children of the poor and of the disaffected all too often become street-wise or discover the beauty of Truth by some chance utterance.

We all want the generation of citizens which follows us to have more opportunities than we had. Whether an illiterate man does or does not want his children to learn to read, we insist that his children shall at least attend school and be given the opportunity to learn.. That man, regardless of his desire, is unable to teach them; and we, therefore, supply by law the means of their education. But a religiously disaffected man, who is likewise unable or unwilling to impart traditional moral values, may raise, to use a Biblical quote, “a generation of vipers” for all anybody cares. We’ll simply build more prisons, a Constitutionally permissible solution.

No, we cannot be certain that the children who are denied access to scriptural wisdom will never occupy positions of authority. Power is no respecter of persons. We have had our fill of godless dictators just as we have also had a surfeit of religious fanatics whose fervor was never tempered by spirituality, or by anything resembling universal love and tolerance. Nothing in recent years has broadened the horizons of such persons. If anything, their vision, thanks to our turn towards separatism, has further narrowed to an on-edge knife blade’s. All proclaim One Virtuous Fatherly God but limit God’s legitimate offspring to the members of their particular society’s brotherhood.

What are the real ligatures of religion? Are they not those lines of Truth, those sutures, those Scriptures and Sutras and Suras that bind us to God? Those Sacred Lines of Thought which infuse knowledge with wisdom, which impart conscience to science, which inform fact with meaning and give significance to event? And do they not also tie us to the mystery of life with awe and reverence? For two hundred years the Republic flourished, enriched by freely stated spiritual expressions. Where was the problem that required judicial redress? The definition of prayer could perhaps have been clarified, but the system wasn’t broke and it didn’t need fixing. In repairing what was not broken, in tinkering with the freedom of expression, the Court created an instrument which no longer operates with any common sense. Gangsta’ Rap versus the Beatitudes… and Gangsta’ Rap wins? Is the quality of any American’s life improved by this?

Perhaps when public “prayer” was first suppressed we began to flatten the moral landscape, the topography of divine providence and individual responsibility. We no longer seem to walk resignedly through the Valley of Death or to climb the Path of Righteousness to reach self-discipline’s heavenly summit. We seem instead increasingly to be mired in a swamp of torts and government programs which compensate the consequence of immoral or self-indulgent behavior. Nobody is responsible for his own choices and mistakes; and were it not for the error of others, we should all live a thousand sybaritic years.

I recall no instance in a public classroom when a teacher used the Bible in an attempt to further his own religious agenda. Teachers, the educated among us who serve all too often as surrogate parents, were, in my recollection, invariably circumspect in their Biblical selections. Perhaps a professional pride made them respect their roles as being not merely purveyors of knowledge but as instruments of wisdom. I, for one, miss hearing that I could lift up my eyes unto the hills to find some needed strength and being reminded that though I spoke with the eloquence of angels if I didn’t have love in my heart, I might as well shut up.

And so we silence the voice of Wisdom; and many there are who, strangers to its resonance, will one day mediate the great issues of science and law, of genetic engineering and organ transplantation, of zoological experimentation, of weaponry, of interplanetary decorum, of privacy, of worldwide electronic communication, of censorship, of ethics, fairness, and political responsibility, and who will supply their generation with a definition of human decency.

The fourth event that led me to consider this problem was reading a poem by Wislawa Szymborska, the Pole who recently won the Nobel Prize in literature. Szymborska, too, seems to have been considering the problem of knowledge without wisdom. She, too, came of age when Communism had succeeded, admirably in its terms, not only in separating church from state but in replacing church with state and, of course, in eradicating spirituality altogether from its Manifesto of political ideology.

Meaning and Significance, Reverence and Awe were sent into exile, leaving Knowledge behind, alone, grim, and quite bewildered.

Her poem “Going Home” was sent to me by a thoughtful friend, Father Mark Serna, a Benedictine Abbot who knew how troubled I had been about NASA’s censoring the news of Buzz Aldrin’s lunar Communion.

I’ll leave you with Szymborska’s poem which has been translated by Baranczak and Cavanagh:


He came home. Said nothing.
It was clear, though, that something had gone wrong.
He lay down fully dressed.
Pulled the blanket over his head.
Tucked up his knees.
He’s nearly forty, but not at the moment.
He exists just as he did inside his mother’s womb,
clad in seven walls of skin, in sheltered darkness.
Tomorrow he’ll give a lecture
on homeostasis in megagalactic cosmonautics.
For now, though, he has curled up and gone to sleep.


Humming Bird


Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:

Originally published in 1996 titled, A NOBEL PRIZE, LUNAR COMMUNION,

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