What can a man searching for an experience of the divine learn from Zen masters and Archangels? When the Archangel Gabriel suddenly appears to a simple Zen practitioner, the narrator must reassess what he believes about the potential of human life and the nature of our human reality. In this episode, Clay and Sarah discuss what they have taken away from Stephen Mitchell’s fictional tale Meetings with the Archangel.
In this episode we discuss:
* The way spiritual journeys often take us through different wisdom traditions (in the case of the narrator, through Jewish Mysticism, Zen Buddhism and then realms of the archangels)
* Where the yearning to know God/Truth/Self might come from
* What our world of binaries (good/bad, right/wrong) might look like if we lived beyond such distinctions – the book’s descriptions of the realm of the Angels
* The role of our emotions (joy/sorrow etc.) and the purpose of our whole range of emotions. (Check out the episode of Uplift Podcast – Why sadness is good for you)
* What we might learn from the narrator’s attempts to grapple with Good vs. Evil (reflected in his vision of Hitler)
“There are no opposites,” Zen teacher Sumi-Sahn tells the narrator, “Things are just as they are.”
The attempt to understand the deep truth of nondualism is the most pervasive theme of Stephen Mitchell’s book Meetings with the Archangel. This story charts the narrator’s journey to learn from both Zen masters and from his surprise visitor the Archangel Gabriel, about the nature of the divine, the One, the place where self and the vastness of the universe merge. Here there is no good or evil, no right or wrong, and where things are not defined by their opposites.
But of course this is not an easy journey. Particularly when the narrator, who is Jewish by birth, has a hallucinatory experience where he is looking through the eyes of Hitler and feels the same potential for evil also in himself. Grappling with this experience – how can he as a Jewish person have looked upon another Jewish man with such contempt and hatred? – takes him to the very edge of sanity. He feels he must understand why God allows evil to exist. Why terrible things (like the Holocaust) happen to innocent people. And how he could have possibly conjured up the feelings of Hitler, even if the experience was induced by drugs.
Eventually he finds a Zen teacher who agrees to train him. When the narrator first comes to Sumi-Sahn he tries to explain, “I think I’ve come because I’m unhappy. It’s not that I have anything to complain about, truly. I’m married to a woman I love, I have a good job, good friends. But I don’t understand life.” Sumi-Sahn replies, “It will be all right. You are just homesick for your original home.”
It is only when he begins work with a second Zen master called David who is also Jewish by birth that the narrator reveals his experience looking through the eyes of Hitler and the deep spiritual pain he continues to feel. Trying to give insight into the narrator’s question, David says, “The whole question is false when you state it as, ‘Why does God allow evil?’ The problem isn’t theological. It’s human. There is no Supreme Being standing outside the universe and allowing anything. And there is no evil… We get caught up in such a huge metaphysical dilemma when we use that name. But when we look at our situation more clearly, we see that what we call ‘evil’ is simply selfishness and the result of selfishness, clinging and the result of clinging…”
The visit from Archangel Gabriel gives the narrator an actual experience of true unity. Understanding the perspective of the angels, where all is One and the Self is vast, limitless and includes all things, is another piece of the puzzle that the narrator tries to put together on his spiritual journey.
Although it took me a bit of time to get into the book (all the angel stuff felt a little ‘fluffy’ at first), I was hooked by Chapter 2 and ended up finding so much in this book to ponder, I know it will be one I reread (and will get more out of it the next time).