Monday, May 23, 2011

good, better, best

In spiritual endeavor, everyone would like a little reassurance. As a result, bookshelves fill up, public talks abound, rituals gain a footing and teachers grow up like weeds.

What made me think about the need for reassurance was a discussion on a Buddhist bulletin board about "mundane" and "supramundane" understandings. I haven't got the energy to look up what precisely this means, but I can remember that it means something in the long tradition of reassurance.

Reassurance -- the kind and articulate expositions that encourage students to press the issue, to keep up a firm, but gentle, effort ... to keep on keepin' on despite the obstacles and fears and delights that swirl like stinging grains in a Saharan sandstorm. Reassurance about what? Reassurance as regards to the question that always arises and sticks its tongue out like some sassy child: Yes, I have made a commitment to spiritual life in one form or another. Yes, it makes some sense as regards my longing for some peace, for something to ease the confusions. Yes, I have done what I could to gather information or practice meditation ... but (and here comes the daunting question), for what?

Oh yes, I can give the snappy answers and cite the relevant texts and quote the teachers who seem so assured. But, but, but ... but peace is not an intellectual or emotional commodity. It is intimate and assured and profoundly personal. It is all-by-myself. What if I follow this course and fall off a cliff? What if I end up in some eternal rubber room? What if there is no company, are no friends, where I am headed? What if it is all an artful scam and, at the end, whatever the end is, all I have is ... nothing? This is scary shit -- this path that I take all by myself, naked as a jay bird and ... and ... what if it doesn't work out?! What if the place I am headed is utterly without reassurance or love? I'm dying for a happy ending but I am not willing to die for it.

Good, better, best. The bookshelves and temples fill up. Reassurance is heaped on reassurance -- from a kind word to a slap in the face. Years pass. Practice progresses. But the sassy child is unimpressed. For what? If libraries and temples assured peace, we'd all be in the pink.

Someone needs reassurance and that someone is me. It is reassuring to kiss one Blarney Stone or another. It is reassuring to munch on the pretzels of the mundane and the supramundane. It is reassuring to be a Buddhist or a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist or a car mechanic. There are hands to hold and god knows I could use the help.

It may be good to start with the good; better to persevere despite all doubts and delights; but what is best? I would like the best and simultaneously it scares me witless ... so I pretend with renewed vigor that I haven't got a clue as to what the best might be. The sky may be blue, the birds may be chirping, the breakfast dishes may need washing ... but I haven't got a clue as to what's best. So I retreat into reassurances that do not and can not answer the sassy question, for what? I retreat into nostrums that sound like, "If there is no abiding ego, who could possibly be reassured?"

And when the edge of the cliff appears, when the door to the rubber room beckons, I turn back to see who might soothe me and encourage me and love me enough to care.

When Ramakrishna put his thumb nail on Swami Vivekanada's forehead and Vivekananda saw the edge of the cliff, he cried out, "Not yet! Not yet!" Not yet. How strange to think we all might recoil at the notion of jumping off a cliff when, in fact, we have already jumped.


  1. I'm willing to bet even lemmings acquire some regret in the course of their lives.