Monday, December 27, 2010

are we here yet?

Sometimes I think that one of the tricks of the trade -- a trick I would like to brand on body, mouth and thought -- is the ability to go back to the beginning of things ... and never imagine it is a beginning.

Yesterday, out of the ether, I received an email from a high school student who said she had to do a paper for a religion class and she had picked Buddhism and wondered if she could come here to gather information for her paper. The request somehow took me back to a time when I too snooped the edges of spiritual life under cover of intellectual improvement.

Of course this young woman may never find spiritual endeavor anything more than an intellectual or emotional asset, but still ... there are beginnings and those who have been around the block a few times really do need to be comfortable and assured in realms that were once entrancing, but now gather dust in the mind's attic. When I find myself imagining that something is too simple or too basic or too unworthy of my expertise, then I know that my expertise is faulty.

I once had a friend who was a determined tennis player. She loved the game and wanted to be really good and once dragged me to see a women's competition at Madison Square Garden. I don't remember who was playing, but I do remember they were big guns -- the top professional women of the time. The players were pretty wow and yet some time later, when I suggested to my friend that she and I might sometime play tennis together, I could feel her emotional and intellectual muscles tightening up: I was not worthy of playing with her. I was not good enough. She only played with people who were as serious and determined as she was. And the diplomatic but firm no she delivered made me think: A good player or a good thinker should be capable of playing with the worst -- and not just the best -- opponent. A bumbling tyro (I was a medium good, though not professional, player) is a true challenge to the expert because it requires that the mind set on expertise do double duty, maintain the standard in the face of an ineptitude that had no agenda. Playing with the best is easy. Playing with the least is hard. And my friend was not up to it. She could not surrender her acquisitions, her expertise.

I wrote back to the young woman who sent the email and said she was welcome to come by. I also sent her a little one-page cheat-sheet I had written about Buddhism for another teenager who had visited at the behest of her church -- a church that wanted her to learn 'tolerance.'

But as I considered the blithe assumption that Buddhism was a religion ... well, it took me back to a time when I was snooping the spiritual terrain, when I felt very unsure of myself, and when I really did want to find others who agreed with me. Without that agreement, I was out on a limb, very unsure of my footing and wondering if I wasn't out of my mind by following some bizarre path. To be part of a "religion" meant I could claim the comfort of other people who were likewise religiously inclined. It felt authenticated to be among others who supported my travels and opinions and judgments: We may be crazy, but at least we have company. And the greater the crowd, the greater the authenticity.

With the email staring me in the face, I realized I hadn't thought about religion in a long time. Not that I was against it like some knee-jerk atheist ... I simply hadn't considered it. It was as if a man changing a flat tire had been asked to consider the delights of chocolate ice cream. What in heaven's name did ice cream, however delicious, have to do with trying to remove lug nuts?

But the email made me think. I have a lot of sympathy for people who embrace religion. Not that I don't recognize the capacity for nitwits and massacres and not that I want to be trapped in some great hall listening to solemn utterances based on some book, but still I have sympathy: Everyone wants to be happy; everyone has his or her uncertainties ... so religion, like tennis, is a perfectly OK starting point. The central difficulty with religion is that it posits something else -- some god, some heaven, some state of mind, some goodness, some evil ... some something or other else. And there is sometimes little willingness to investigate where else anyone could possibly be.

There is a sitcom on television called, "Are We There Yet?" a line used by bored children forced to travel with their parents to grandma's or elsewhere. For me, if Buddhism were a sitcom, I think the title would be "Are We Here Yet?" ... and there would be a lot of canned laughter.

So, OK -- maybe for the moment Buddhism is religion. What the hell, Buddhism has people saying words like "enlightenment" and "compassion" and "Nirvana" and "emptiness" and the minute you utter such a word, you're off and running in the world of something else. But where else could anyone begin if not in the realm of something else -- some religion or tennis match or flat tire?

I don't know if the email young woman will show up or not. I haven't had a response yet. But I do know that she made me stop and think and get a glimmering ... if you can't be at ease with the beginning, there is no chance in hell you'll be at ease with the end. And there's no room for bullshit -- none of that "sharing is caring" crap. Kindness be damned!

Are we here yet?


  1. Thanks for lots of food for thought. At our dojo a senior student recently suggested that I also might not give newbies enough of that starry-eyed promise of something else, something "religious". I admit, when I started with Zen that was exactly what I was looking for and what kept me going through all the pain, etc. But for some reason I can't muster the empathy to give anybody any similar hope. I just shrug and, quoting Brad Warner, say that "Zazen should be like brushing your teeth".

    I'm changing lug nuts (diapers actually) and the students want chocolate ice cream. What to do?

  2. Chris -- Go easy. Just be yourself ... until that wears out its welcome.

    Ah diapers! I can't help the thought that pops up in my mind: Better you than me! :)

    All best wishes to one and all.

  3. Reading your post on religion brought to mind an interview with Joseph Campbell, Professor of Mythology and Comparative Religion.

    One of his comments that has stuck with me is, "How to live a human life with decency under any circumstances...a myth with give you that."
    Another thought, from the local Vedanta temple, "Hinduism is not a religion; you cannot convert to Hinduism. It is an approach to life that is followed by the Indian people; you can adopt that approach."

    It's a bit like saying, "You can't convert to Chinese, but you could follow the teachings of Confucius."
    In India, Buddhism is considered to be an unorthodox school of Hinduism. It is unorthodox because it does not entirely accept the authority of the Vedas; it is non-theist (as opposed to a-theist).
    So when does any of this become a "religion"? Hmmm...well. Perhaps it becomes a religion when the system of thought is codified and exported.

    Or perhaps it becomes a religion when the entire line of thinking must be adopted, in order for the system to be effective.

    Or it becomes a religion when it is imported and then grafted onto the indigenous system of thought.

    In the West we tend to define a religion as including a god, but that is because we have adopted the beliefs of the Near/Middle East.

    Anywaaaaay. I too have not thought about 'religion' in quite a few years. As you have pointed out a number of times, zazen is no liar.
    Lastly, from a google search on Campbell:

    Services of myths
    1) Mystery - opening the world to a dimension of mystery - if you lose that you don't have mythology - mystery underlies all forms
    2) Cosmological - mystery as manifested through all things so universe becomes a holy picture, always addressed to the transcendant mystery
    3) Sociological - validating and maintaining a certain society - Values, ethical laws, laws of life in society Yahweh's pages of rules - this is what we have left of myth - has taken over of society
    4) Pedagogical - how to live a human life under any circumstances