Something like a half a million people were said to have turned out in Puttaparthi, India, for the burial of the guru Sai Baba, a revered Hindu holy man whom some considered a god and others called a fraud who indulged in sexual excesses and dubious financial maneuvers -- another spiritual hooligan. Even the Indian prime minister paid his respects.
Who could fault the all-too-human desire to gather and be warmed? Whether in spiritual endeavor or any other, there are gatherings in which the uncertainties and sorrows of the individual are given hope and relief. Who could fault it? It is human and suffering is no joke. The agreements found in a group anneal the sense of floundering or loss or confusion or sorrow. In the company of others, the slings and arrows of outrageous individualized fortune are in many ways warded off. And it is a ... blessing. Would you not comfort a sorrowing friend? I know I would.
But the comfort and relief of gatherings -- the solemnizing of rite and ritual and philosophy -- are not without their inherent difficulties.
I am trying to find a nice way to say this -- a way that will not seem disdainful of the very-human longing for comfort and release. Gatherings are a wonderful starting point, a situation in which the confusions and tears can be gently stemmed. But as a long-term diet, I'm afraid they lack what it takes to go the distance. People don't join groups in order to find the blessing of others. They join groups in order to find their own blessing, their own assured home, their clear and compassionate understanding that is content even in the loneliest of times. Simply put, the comfort of a gathering or a gathered philosophy or religion cannot bless anyone who finds himself staring at the bedroom ceiling at 3 a.m. You cannot talk yourself out of yourself and no warming solemnity can change that.
So, for my money, the gathering is a means of inspiring individual courage to address what is an individual matter -- your life, your blessing. Someone else's life or blessing will not do ... or perhaps it will do, but it is bound to fall short of the blessing anyone might rightly think they deserve.
The Zen teacher Rinzai once built a fire under his monks -- goading them, prodding them, begging them, lashing them. Rinzai said, "You do not understand. Your whole problem is that you do not trust yourselves enough." Outsiders might hear such encouragement as an invitation to ego tripping. Insiders might quibble and dither about a self that has no abiding reality. But I think Rinzai was right on target. Find your blessing come hell or high water.Go the distance. Be grateful for gatherings but know them for what they are -- a tentative expression, not a nesting place.
Isn't it one of the central human discomforts -- knowing that we cannot share experience? That is one of the messages conveyed by the bedroom ceiling at 3 a.m. We cannot share experience and yet we gather in groups, sharing experience and hearing others extol that "sharing." It takes some daring to investigate what is already perfectly clear -- the bedroom ceiling... very God of very Gods.
In summertime, there are suburban pool parties for those lucky enough to afford a pool. Friends gather in the sunshine to eat and talk and swim. One by one, they take a turn on the diving board. All may see the fun others derive from the bounce-bounce-bounce-leap and yet there is no comparison between the delight of others and the bounce-bounce-bounce-leap that is your own. This is sui generis -- comparable to all that has gone before and yet utterly incomparable. A blessing as wide open as the sky. It belongs to no (wo)man. It belongs to you.
Do a cannon ball!