Friday, February 26, 2010

The Gnostic Discoveries

It seems that in this blog sofar, I have effectively discussed all the books I've referred to in Closing the Circle except this one. So it's time to correct this oversight. I think it is healthy to begin to realize the shift in perception that the discoveries at Nag Hammadi are bringing about, even though they are still very slow to become generally felt. Evidently the Christian construction of Jesus has staying power, because it has become so culturally dominant, but perhaps more importantly because the Christian concept of Jesus as the vicarious savior lets us off the hook - we can have our cake and eat it too - while the original teachings of Jesus ask us very pointedly to take responsibility for our lives (take up our cross), and follow him. Evidently the Christian model has much greater appeal.

The trap presented by the whole thing is that from the Christian fantasies of Jesus, we are then liable to move into a "better informed" position on "the real historical Jesus." We will then have accomplished nothing, merely shifted from one picture of Jesus to another picture of Jesus, which equally serves as a substitute for the experience of him. A careful reading of the Thomas Gospel, and even the canonical gospels, and most certainly A Course in Miracles,  makes it clear that Jesus is not about theology, but about practicing his teachings and applying them to our lives.
Seen from that point of view, the value of the Nag Hammadi discoveries lies in the mere fact that they upset the applecart, and the symbolism of that is absolutely precious. The books were buried by some priest in an out of the way monastery right at the time that the Canon of the New Testament was decided on, which was a highly partisan selection process of what literature was considered "proper" for Christians, and much else was prosecuted, banned, and often destroyed. And then 1600 years later, after a major world conflagration, and about 20 years prior to Vatican II, where Catholics were set free in the area of Bible studies, voilà this treasure trove turns up again.

Meyer gives a very readable and in depth account of the history of the discovery and the impact of the books. For anyone who wants to understand the context, this is a very helpful introduction, and Marvin Meyer is not too biased in the traditional Christian mold, though I would suggest he has a little too much of a gnostic bias to my taste. Jesus was not a gnostic, even though he did say numerous things which were later expanded upon in the gnostic tradition, and to that extent, he often sounds more gnostic than Christian, but that does not make him a gnostic per se, just as much as he was not a Christian.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Year's Reunion with Lao Tzu

This last Sunday was Valentine's Day, and it was also Chinese New Year.

I found myself at a New Year's celebration in Flushing, Queens, the town I always joke is named after me (The English called it Flushing, but it was founded by the Dutch as Vlissingen), the birthplace of American ideals of religious freedom (see Remonstrance of Flushing). The event was held at a temple, the Happy Buddha Precious Temple, devoted to the cultivation of the Dao, our true nature, our true Self. This is an outpost of a global movement which was founded some sixty years ago, but claims roots in the oldest Chinese wisdom traditions of Daoism and Confucianism, while also integrating Buddhism and the understanding that Jesus was an enlightened teacher like Buddha. It is an interesting movement, which takes an a-religious posture, although it does incorporate some ritual, but in essence it sees the Dao as the most abstract vision of the Source of all Being, and hence their movement as the root of all religious traditions, so that their view is that their system of belief does not need to conflict with any particular religion you think you belong to. In other words, there is an interesting sort of tolerance here, and an expression of the one behind the many.

I was fortunate to participate in their rite of the transmission of the Dao, which they equate to the opening of the wisdom eye. It was very simple and beautiful, and the old gentleman who performed the ritual was excited to learn that I had been a student of Lao Tzu's Tao Teh Ching ever since I was about ten or eleven years old. As it was my acquaintance with Chinese culture started with the discovery of Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee series, and then after that I got interested in playing Go, (Chinese Checkers, as van Gulik calls it in the books), and gradually also in Lao Tzu, and to a lesser degree in Confucius. Over the years it always seemed to me that Kung Fu Tze was to Lao Tzu as Aristotle was to Plato in the West. In any case the old gentleman immediately speculated that maybe this rite would be a reunion with my old teacher Lao Tzu for me, and that was surely what it felt like, and in a funny way it was yet another circle closing in my life, for Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Quan Yin, and Jesus are really all one. Much like the Thomas Gospel the Tao Teh Ching has this quality of being more an invitation to the contemplation and the pursuit of truth, much more than being prescriptive or concerned with form. Of course Lao Tzu, just like Jesus or the Buddha did not found a religion, that's just what the followers made of it.

Along with the ceremony, which was optional, there was also a lovely New Year's meal, where all the members of the community prepared a dish.

All in all, this was a beautiful way of celebrating the Chinese New Year, and a new year in general, reminding me to recommit myself daily to the Course's notion of: Make this year different by making it all the same.

This is the time in which a new year will soon be born from the time of Christ. I have perfect faith in you to do all that you would accomplish. Nothing will be lacking, and you will make complete and not destroy. Say, then, to your brother:

I give you to the Holy Spirit as part of myself.
I know that you will be released, unless I want to use you to imprison myself.
In the name of my freedom I choose your release, because I recognize that we will be released together.
So will the year begin in joy and freedom. There is much to do, and we have been long delayed. Accept the holy instant as this year is born, and take your place, so long left unfulfilled, in the Great Awakening. Make this year different by making it all the same. And let all your relationships be made holy for you. This is our will. Amen. (ACIM:T15-XI.10)

See here for a video commentary to the above passage by Kenneth Wapnick:

Monday, February 1, 2010

Moving Money in Haiti

The following is is a press release from Fonkoze, dated January 25th, 2010, and it is an amazing story.

Fonkoze filled in the gaps, where the banking system was mostly useless, to get money to the people. Even money transfers were useless if there was no way to pick up money, and Fonkoze made it all work, in an unprecedented collaboration with the US Army and UN. I am passing the story along word for word, it bears repeating.

In the predawn hours of Saturday, January 23, an unprecedented joint NGO-military operation delivered money by helicopter to ten locations throughout Haiti for payouts of money sent from
abroad and to permit Haitians greater access to their savings. The dramatic operation, which involved the U.S. Military and United Nations to complete the delivery, used disguised boxes of money airdropped across Haiti. In the wake of the earthquake on January 12, Fonkoze was the only financial institution in Haiti able to stay open for customers making withdrawals and receiving money transfers, but within days Fonkoze grew short of cash. Unable to access its commercial bank account in Haiti, Fonkoze reached out to its partners to get money into the hands of desperate earthquake survivors.
In less than 24 hours, Fonkoze was able to secure approval to send $2 million of cash from Fonkoze’s accounts in City National Bank of New Jersey to its 34 branches that had not been
shut down by the earthquake. The cash was packaged in Miami and transported aboard a military C-17 to Haiti. Below is an abbreviated timeline of the mission (the full timeline is
available upon request).

Friday, January 22
4:52 p.m. – Operation is cleared by U.S. State Department, United Nations, and the U.S.Military
9:25 p.m. -- Boxes with cash separated into 34 packets successfully delivered to Homestead Air Force Base in Miami.
10:15 p.m. – A military C-17 is diverted from Langley, Virginia en route to Port-au-Prince to pick up the cash.

Saturday, January 23
3:30 a.m. – Military C-17 plane arrives in Port-au-Prince with boxes of cash.
1:30 p.m. – Military helicopters complete dropping off boxes at designated points across Haiti and return to Port-au-Prince.
“This was an absolutely tremendous experience for all of us – military and civilian, government and non-profit alike,” said Anne Hastings, CEO of Fonkoze Financial Services. “Our branches
have been working since the earthquake to pay the money transfers our clients so desperately needed to begin to put their lives back together.”

“As people continue to migrate from PAP, Fonkoze's branch network will become even more essential. Probably most important, unlike the commercial banks, Fonkoze has re-opened many of its branches and has continued to pay out remittances using its cash on hand,” said Jennifer Harris from the U.S. State Department.
The earthquake on January 12 left many, especially the poorest Haitians, unprepared to cope with disaster. Along with the immediate effects of the quake, many had no money in their
pockets, had had their assets and resources destroyed, and lost key family members. After the earthquake, all Haitian commercial banks closed cutting Haitians off from money sent by their
family and friends in other countries. Despite suffering severe damage to its headquarters, Fonkoze quickly re-opened 34 of its 42 branches, including its Port-au-Prince branch.
Within the first week of re-opening the branches, Fonkoze delivered more than $1 million in remittances and savings to Haitians. It then worked quickly to bring in an additional $2 million
from its account at the City National Bank of New Jersey, working through a unique collaboration of the United Nations, USAID, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of
Defense, Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank and City National Bank.

The migration of people out of Port-au-Prince to other areas will mean that Haitians will need infrastructure and financial services in some of the most rural, remote areas of the country,
which Fonkoze has been serving for over 15 years. “After the earthquake it became evident that with large numbers of Haitians migrating from Port-au-Prince to the provinces, Fonkoze, as the
only MFI that pays remittances, would have to play a major role in providing Haitians with access to cash in order to be able to buy food, water and shelter,” said Julie Katzman of the
Multilateral Investment Fund.

Fonkoze, Haiti’s alternative bank for the poor, is helping the most vulnerable Haitians stabilize their lives by opening its doors so that they can access their savings and their remittances from
friends and family abroad. Fonkoze has the deepest reach into Haiti’s rural areas and already has built a remittance network that would take years to create from scratch.

Quick Facts About Fonkoze
Fondasyon Kole Zépol (Fonkoze) is Haiti’s largest, most innovative microfinance institution with over 200,000 clients. It operates 42 branches across Haiti and in every province of the country,
including many towns and villages where no commercial banks operate. It is the institution on which Haiti’s poor relies, especially during crisis. Microfinance helps unlock the entrepreneurial potential of the poor with small loans and other assistance they need to lift themselves out of poverty. Fonkoze provides micro-loans and micro-insurance services and other social programs to poor Haitians and also offers remittances and savings accounts for more than 200,000 people. Overall, Fonkoze directly touches the lives of more than one million Haitians.
Fonkoze targets the poorest of the poor in Haiti. As of 2007, 79 percent of Haitians were living on less than $2 per day and 55 percent were living on less than $1 per day. More than 99
percent of the people receiving Fonkoze loans are women and the average size of Fonkoze’s basic loan is just $172.
Fonkoze pioneered micro-life insurance in Haiti with its Haitian partner Alternative Insurance Company. Families who make claims receive relief from their loved one’s debt and $125 to help
the family cope with the financial shock. Fonkoze has its own remittance service and is also a vendor for MoneyGram, CAM and Unitransfer.

Among others, Fonkoze partners with the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank, Partners in Health, USAID, World Vision, Whole Planet Foundation (Whole Foods Market), Grameen Foundation (Alex Counts, Grameen Foundation President, serves as chair of Fonkoze USA), Oikocredit, MEDA, CGAP and other major development agencies and
With over 95 percent Haitian senior staff and a highly-skilled, Haitian-majority management team, Fonkoze is building the foundations for democracy and sustainable development.
Fonkoze and Anne Hastings, CEO, Fonkoze Financial Services, have been recognized worldwide for their innovative approach in helping the most vulnerable build better lives in the
Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
You can find the latest information and updates following the earthquake at

Anne Hastings
+1 305-420-6192 (Tele)
+509 3701-3910 (Haiti tele)

Leigh Carter
Fonkoze USA
+1 202-628-9033 (Tele)
+1 202-746-7053 (cell)