On the Wheel of Babylon (see the Home Page) there are two types of religion: Muppet Religion and Diva Religion. The former is usually at war with the latter, or at least at loggerheads. Muppet Religion is extremist, fundamentalist, radical, revolutionary. It includes Jihadi fighters, Puritan iconoclasts, even Jacobins and Bosheviks. In all cases, whether the religion be theistic or atheistic, the destruction of traditional religious buildings and artifacts and the execution of priests and other representatives of the religious establishment is encouraged.
Diva Religion is the establishment. It is a complex hierarchical structure of religious scholars and ecclesiastical authorities. The Vatican is the nerve-centre of the largest of these, manned by thousands of religious professionals working around the clock to keep the show on the road. Sometimes this type of religion is separate from the State, sometimes it is intertwined, as was the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, and as is the case in Iran and North Korea today. In the modern examples, what was once a revolutionary Muppet Religion has been institutionalized as a Diva Religion (although they are probably better characterized as hybrids).
In any case, what these two types of religion have in common is that they exist on “the Wheel of Babylon”. There is a third type of religion, however, that exists beyond the Wheel. In all traditional depictions of the Bhavachakra or Tibetan Wheel of Life (on which the Wheel of Babylon is based) there is a solitary figure of a Buddha, usually standing on a cloud at the top right of the picture. This suggests that the Buddhist Way somehow transcends the world altogether.
This need not be an otherworldly, metaphysical claim, however. It can be understood on a straightforward psychological level. The six realms of the Wheel represent six distinct ego states. Throughout our lives, we transmigrate between them, one or twice or multiple times. Thus the Wheel of Life can be understood as a psychological typography of human identity. But who are you when you are not a Muggle, Muppet, Diva, Victim, Addict or Demon?
In a sense, you are “nothing” or “nobody”. In another sense, you are expressing your essential human identity beyond all ego states and ego games. You are expressing your Buddha Nature. The Buddhist claim is that we discover, or uncover, our original enlightened consciousness not by doing anything in particular, but by undoing everything.
In other words, when you step off the Wheel, you are automatically a Buddha. Or in the Christian tradition, you “put on Christ”: you have the mind of Christ or Christ Consciousness: you can say (with St. Paul) “Now not I, but Christ lives in me”. Further, you have “the body of Christ”, which is the resurrected body. The Christian death and resurrection motif is just a vivid way of expressing the ego dissolution of the whole bodymind, expressed in the Buddhist tradition by symbolically stepping off the Wheel of Samsara into the freedom of Nirvana.
Which is not to say that Buddhism cannot itself be a Diva Religion, or even sometimes a Muppet Religion. Diva Religions work by creating a persuasive simulacrum or copy of authentic mystical religion, what I am calling The Third Religion. As with all worldly religions, you can work your way up the Buddhist hierarchy through “good works”, by honest (or dishonest) hard graft, by passing exams and currying favour with those in power. This kind of religion is really all about paying homage to Buddha, or worshipping Buddha, and maintaining the requisite infrastructure and paraphernalia. It is rarely (except occasionally and accidentally) about being Buddha.
Zen is the direct challenge to this institutionalized fake religion of false prophets. According to Zen, until you step off the Wheel, you’re just playacting. The “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye” cannot be found in the Vatican vaults or even in Eihei-ji. It can only be found in the spiritual awakening of ego death, by stepping off the Wheel of Life, by dying in the flesh and being reborn in the spirit.
You can point to Zen, just as you can point to the moon. But if you want an actual trip to the moon, there comes a time when you need to stop pointing, stop “prattling about God” and get on with it. The monk said, “Atop the hundred foot pole, how can you step forward?” Ye of little faith! Just do it.
Easier said than done, of course. The apophatic, mystical path (often called the Negative Way) is a steep one. But there is a gentler ascent, using traditional Diva Religion as a vehicle. In Eastern high antiquity, the ride is represented by an ox. In the West, it’s represented by a donkey. Both are beasts of burden, but both are slow and plodding and a bit stupid.
Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem on a donkey? The conventional answer is found in Matthew’s gospel:
All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying,
Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.
Matthew 21: 4-5
Jesus didn’t enter the Royal City on foot, symbolizing his own perfect self-reliance. He entered in a way that would conform to the religious tradition he belonged to, fulfilling scripture, but at the same time allowing himself to be carried by a symbolic “vehicle”. This vehicle can be understood as religion as such.
But isn’t “religion as such” a fake religion full of false prophets? Isn’t is Diva Religion? Yes and no. It is Janus-faced, one side facing the mundane world of getting and spending, social advancement, power and status, or “spiritual materialism”, the other side facing a spiritual world that transcends all that.
The meekness of Jesus suggests that, although he is a king, he is a spiritual king, not a temporal one. He is facing the Kingdom of Heaven, not the Kingdom of Muppet Politics (represented by the Zealots) or the Kingdom of Diva Religion (represented by the Pharisees).
If the Third Religion is the apophatic, “Negative Way”, the Fourth Religion is the cataphatic, “Positive Way”. In the former, all the attributes of God are denied in a thoroughgoing negation (neti, neti: “not this, not this”) since anything we say is insufficient to capture the ineffable transcendence of the divine. In the latter, God is imaginatively conjured up through a suggestive, impressionistic superfluity of positive attributes.
Where the Third Religion is explicitly mystical, the Fourth Religion is implicitly magical. The various expressions of religion, which ultimately traces its genesis back to the authentic spiritual expressions of its founders, are pointers that can magically transport us back to the Source. However, the Fourth Religion must include the Third Religion if it is to maintain its connection and allegiance to the transcendent Source, which is the immaculate eternal present, Here and Now.
Religion is like a donkey we can learn to ride. And the only way to ride it is through faith, which means that you genuinely believe that it can and will take you beyond the material world. Without true faith, religion quickly degenerates into Diva Religion, which pretends to spiritual authority for the sake of worldly gain. With faith, however, the donkey becomes a magical beast.
Religion has come a long way since the time of Jesus, not least in the extraordinary development of its sublime expression in music and art. This imaginative flowering of religious sensibility, coupled with the power of magic plants, which are available to ordinary people on a scale never seen before in human history, means that we no longer need to plod up the mountain on a donkey. We can fly up on a unicorn.