A Skeptic's Heaven — The Sequel

skepticBack in April of 2014, I published a "Skeptics Collection" post about a deeply transformative experience I underwent at my father-in-law’s memorial service in Hilo, Hawaii, that caused me to pause and reevaluate my conception of what a Christian might call “heaven” and the availability of the experience of heaven (even? especially?) to skeptics like me. I took, and to this day still take, that experience very seriously as revelatory of … well … of … something-or-other … partially because other people, both conventionally devout and otherwise, have undergone similar experiences. In fact, I alluded in the post to Thomas Merton’s experience in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander standing on a street corner in Louisville, KY, in 1958. But I could also have cited Blaise Pascal, St. Augustine, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, Walt Whitman, William James … any number of people – by no means all saints, tzaddikim, and sages – from multiple cultures and historical periods. (This is what Richard M. Bucke does in his now-classic Cosmic Consciousness.) But the most salient reason I take my experience seriously is because of a sequel to that original experience that I am only now sharing with you because I have achieved enough distance that I can talk about it coherently. As I said in the original post back in April, make of the following what you will …

Hilo Buddhist Temple

It is still September of 2008. Diane and I are still in Hilo, Hawaii, where she was born and grew up. Her dad’s memorial service is not quite a week in the past. We are preparing to return to Seattle. In fact, I think we left the day after the following events. I don’t know about other strands of Buddhist tradition, but the Pure Land school practiced at my in-law family’s hongwanji (Buddhist temple) in Hilo has a practice whereby, when someone dies, the deceased person’s death is commemorated at increasingly long intervals as their death recedes into the past. But my father-in-law’s death was so recent that his passing was commemorated after only a week. So Diane and I were present to participate in that observance, along with several members of the Big Island branch of her family. (Family from the other Islands was there for the original memorial service, but taking an inter-island flight to the Big Island from, say, O’ahu for an hour-or-two-long  commemoration was just not practical.) There were perhaps a dozen people, plus Diane and me, gathered in Diane’s parents’ house around Mom and Dad Iwashita’s home shrine. The service was very small, very intimate, and very elegant in its simplicity. I remember it as an enchanted time, a time of intimacy with the others gathered at the Iwashitas’ home, partly because of the commemoration itself, but also, and even more so, because my consciousness was still resonating – still “humming” like a struck tuning fork – from my … well … what do I call it? … enlightenment? … kensho? … satori? … all such terms sound terribly pretentious … of the previous week – which had still not faded into “the light of common day”. But the experience was distant enough that I had begun to very cautiously reflect on it with my discursive intellect, albeit with feather-on-the-back-of-my-hand tentativeness. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was like being hit over the head with a club … made of feathers … and I was casting about for some way to understand it, to “frame” it.

feather_on_handThe senior sensei (teacher and, in this context, pastor) of the Iwashitas’ Buddhist temple, Rev. Bruce Nakamura, obligingly provided that frame, and by doing so unknowingly and inadvertently re-energized the original experience. And he did it with a story. Sensei Nakamura is a virtuoso storyteller, and I cannot hope to recapture the sheer wonder and magic of his narrative. I could not do so verbally and in real time, and least of all in print. But here goes, anyway … In the very earliest days of the Buddha’s ministry, before his teachings had crossed the mountains from India into China, the Buddha and a group of his disciples were gathered around a campfire at evening … chatting, making small talk, discussing the events of the day, perhaps eating dinner. The Buddha notices that one of his disciples has suddenly fallen quiet and is gazing at him (the Buddha) with something approaching rapture on his face. Think of Rudolf Otto’s classical term for the experience of the Holy – mysterium tremendum et fascinans, “the tremble-inducing and attractive mystery” – as a facial expression, and you will be close. The Buddha smiled at the disciple and asked him “My brother, why do you stare at me with such fascination?” The disciple stammered, in an awestruck whisper, “Lord Buddha, your face is glowing and radiant!” I imagine the disciple was thunderstruck by the Buddha’s response: he leaned back and laughed uproariously, saying “Of course my face is radiant, my brother! So is your face! So are” – a gesture to the others gathered around the campfire – “all your faces! Before me there were many buddhas [“awakened / enlightened ones”] and after me, there will be many buddhas. Their faces will shine, also. The face of anyone is radiant whose buddha-nature even briefly shines forth!” When Sensei Nakamura got to the end of the story, I felt my knees turn to water: fortunately, I was sitting down at the time, because I could not have stood up at that moment, even if the house had caught fire.

As the service concluded, I was close to tears, and gazed intently at my knees, careful not to meet anyone’s eye, lest I should go over the edge into actual weeping. Suddenly, it all made sense. Immediately after I did the eulogy at the memorial service a week earlier, and continuing through the ensuing week leading up to the one-week commemoration, the family had treated me with … not deference … not reverence … not as if I were on any “higher” plane than they … but I felt – if this were possible – even more a part of their community. In fact, I think that, at bottom, this feeling was not a matter of how they treated me, but of how I thought of and viewed myself as a part of the family. Literally from the moment I met them, everyone without exception in Diane’s family had welcomed me, had celebrated me, and had never thought of me as anything other than just one more co-equal member of what I affectionately call “Iwashita Nation”. They still feel this way.  I'm just one of the gang -- which is all I ever aspired to be. I never felt judged. I never felt evaluated. Still don’t. They really just wanted me to crack open a beer, grab some sushi, sashimi, and potato salad, haul up a lawn chair, sit down, and laugh and talk and get to know me. To this day, they even laugh at my jokes. Even my puns. But somehow, in the wake of the memorial service and of the just-concluded one-week anniversary, I felt even more a part of that community. I believed that what happened to me, what happened to us, was essentially the same thing that happened to that small band of disciples gathered around the campfire with the Buddha so long ago:   each of us had glimpsed the others’ buddha-nature. In particular, they had glimpsed mine. In particular, I had glimpsed mine.

Diversity_Matters_photo_without_wording__1I was on the verge of weeping because I felt privileged. I imagine I felt much as St. Peter did after the miraculous catch of fishes when Peter fell at the feet of Jesus and exclaimed “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” … except that my feeling was not based on any perceived moral turpitude and least of all was it a confession of inadequacy, least of all unworthiness. It was sheer … I guess you could say … “ontological privilege” … at being included. It was also an astounding sense of sheer gratuitousness. For please understand this above all else: I did nothing – utterly, absolutely, categorically nothing ... "nothing" as in "zip, zilch, nada, bupkiss" – to “make” this happen, regardless of whether “this” refers to the original experience or that of the one-week commemoration. “The wind blows where it will, and you can neither tell where it is coming from or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the spirit.” Yes. Exactly. Precisely. Right to a googolplex of decimal places.

But I also wept for another, and much more personal, reason.  I wept because I felt absolutely, unreservedly, beyond all question, and without qualification accepted.  Now, before I go a single jot or tittle farther, I want to emphasize:  the following is my experience of God in particular and of monotheistic religion in general.  It may not be, in fact, I expect it is not, the experience of everyone.  It is my experience.  Nothing more, also nothing less. But in my particular case and speaking only for myself, being a communicant of monotheistic religion had always felt to me like I imagine it must feel like to live in North Korea:  always judged, always evaluated, always walking a knife-edge of failure, catastrophe, and damnation. (I remember a years-ago Kathleen Parker interview with Christopher Hitchens in the Washington Post in which Hitchens said that he was glad there was no God, because living in a universe with God would be like living in a cosmic version of North Korea.  I can relate!) This sense of always having to perpetually prove myself, to measure up, sometimes drove me to acts that, in a few cases, led to levels of anxiety and clinical depression that could have precipitated suicide. The last and most notable such flirtation with the black hole of near-self-immolation was Diane's and my near-catastrophic time in Boston in pursuit of the PhD, followed by a likewise near-catastrophic time at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry in pursuit of an MDiv ... both of which were motivated by a felt need to "bust a gut for Jesus", and thereby -- hopefully, but one can never be sure ... and that's the helluvit -- earn His approval and respect. I did not want a place in the sun.  I wanted a place on the Cross.  And I very nearly got it.  Note to self:  be careful what you wish for!


I found balm in Gilead when the whole world, and especially the people in it, seemed to "stand in glory, shine like stars, appareled in a light serene" in the wake of both Dad Iwashita's memorial service and at the conclusion of Sensei Nakamura's dharma (the Buddha's teachings) talk at the one-week commemoration. (After Dad Iwashita's memorial service the week before, I sometimes speculated, only half seriously at the time, that perhaps Dad Iwashita was a bodhisattva, i.e., someone who could escape from the Wheel of Rebirth, but who, out of sheer compassion, freely chooses to return to earth to help others along the way.  After Sensei Nakamura's story, I had occasion to wonder if perhaps I should have said that in complete seriousness, instead of only half seriously.) With my last breath, I will continue to insist that this bo-tree moment, this flash of enlightenment, had nothing to do with God.  It had, and has, everything to do with human love, compassion, community, inclusiveness, solidarity, respect, and dignity. On occasion, human beings do relate to each other this way.  And on those rare occasions when they do ... Something ... Happens.  In the Manger of the space between us and from the virgin Womb of sheer spontaneity completely unalloyed with human effort, something -- Some ... Thing -- is born, not a time-warp, of course, but a -- for want of a better term -- a "moral warp", a "spirit warp".  And yet it -- or rather, "It" -- is not Something we create.  Least of all is It Something we control.  It simply and sheerly ... just ... happens. Spontaneously.  Gratuitously.  Graciously.  Altogether without compulsion.

And "you cannot tell where it is coming from or where it is going".

James R. Cowles


  • James,
    Beautiful, beautiful post. Thank you.

    Your comment: “. . . this flash of enlightenment, had nothing to do with God. It had, and has, everything to do with human love, compassion, community, inclusiveness, solidarity, respect, and dignity. On occasion, human beings do relate to each other this way.”

    For me all our “flashes of enlightenment” have everything to do with God. I believe that all human love, compassion, community et.al. come from God. Our egos simply get in the way from experiencing the “flash”. I firmly believe that all fear, sadness is ego-based. Can I transcend my ego? Don’t think so, but I can be aware and make corrections as best I’m able.

Leave a Reply