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?