Tuesday, March 23, 2010


The word "exempt" is partially defined by an Internet dictionary as:

▸ adjective: (of persons) freed from or not subject to an obligation or liability (as e.g. taxes) to which others or other things are subject

And perhaps it is understandable that those who choose to take up some spiritual endeavor or belief system would hope to become somehow exempt from things like "hell" or "greed, anger and ignorance" or other ravages of uncertainty or sorrow. The notion that something or someone might confer an exemption from unpleasant circumstances ... well, isn't that a function of hope?

Utterly understandable: No one ever took up spiritual life because they were so damned happy. And it's a short step from longing for freedom or peace to imagining the chosen vehicle for attaining that freedom or peace would or could provide some sort of exemption from the 'bad old days,' however they are defined.

Exemptions remove difficulties and pains.

But I think that the totally understandable exemption point of view in spiritual life is a mistake. Imagining that 'good' people are exempt from 'evil' activities or that 'evil' people are exempt from 'good' activities ... this is comic-book spirituality, suitable for beginners and believers, but not for those who choose to take things seriously.

And where the yardstick may be inappropriately applied to other 'saints' and 'sinners' with little or no effect, it is even more confusing when individuals apply the exemption point of view to themselves ... imagining that because they have taken up one spiritual approach or another that therefore they should not be angry or jealous or stupid or hurtful or any of the other stuff that does not fit into some improved format or goal they have laid out for themselves.

How come I am such a lousy Buddhist? Probably because I imagined there was such a thing as a 'good' Buddhist...someone exempted from attachment or delusion or any other walking-around idiocy.

For my money, this (unavoidable?) mistake rests on the idea that spiritual life slams the door on what is unpleasant or evil. But spiritual life is in the business of opening doors, not closing them. Closed doors means there will always be some doubt as to what lies behind them ... and spiritual life is not in the business of creating more doubt; it is in the business of erasing doubt.

From the pulpit, there may be many lyrical descriptions of what causes evil or sorrow. And perhaps such lyricism -- in texts and tomes and out of the mouths of one guru or another -- provides some encouragement. But the heart of the matter lies in the individual, exemption-seeking heart, the heart whose doors are never closed.

Greed, anger and ignorance -- no exemption.
Evil and ugliness -- no exemption.
Kindness and decency -- no exemption.
Unity and understanding -- no exemption.
Courage and cowardice -- no exemption.
Birth and death -- no exemption.
Intellect and emotion -- no exemption.
Alms and parsimony -- no exemption.
Purity and filth -- no exemption.
Sickness and health -- no exemption.
God and man -- no exemption.
Pick your poison -- no exemption.

But where there is no exemption, there is also no inclusion. This life is neither something anyone could lay claim to nor is it anything they could escape.

This is the benefit of spiritual discipline -- to settle matters once and for all, to see into a doors-open life and the principle that infuses it.

Personally, I have given Zen Buddhism and its seated-meditation practice a try. I like addressing thought, word and deed in toto. It is a world in which closed doors are not an option ... however much I may kick and scream or praise and extol.

I too have sought endless exemptions with endless ruses ... but Zen practice won't put up with that nonsense. I have sought exemption through discipline and sought exemption through free-spirited hot air ... and none of it works. It's a good practice, one that, fortunately or unfortunately, has the key to every door.

I don't know if other practices can be equally effective, but I imagine they can: After all, no one's got a lock on life...no one is exempt from life.

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