Saturday, December 24, 2011

rag time

I don't know that I have it straight in my mind, but nevertheless the story/myth is stuck there on some mental 3x5 card. True or untrue doesn't matter much ... I just find it tasty and in some sense useful:

After the Buddha (meaning Gautama, the one most frequently credited with being the founder of something called Buddhism) 'attained enlightenment,' he got up from under the Bo tree where he was sitting, had a bit to eat, and then fashioned himself some clothing -- a robe made of 28 rags he found here and there. Having cobbled the rags together, he went about his business and taught others one thing and another for 40-plus years. What he taught is of interest to some. But this morning, I'm interested in the rags.

In "A League of their Own," a 1992 fictionalized movie about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that sprang up during World War II when many of the male players were fighting the war, there are dribs and drabs of interesting stuff. It's an OK movie. And at one point in that movie, the central male character chastises the central female character who is complaining about how demanding -- personally demanding -- the sport is. The central male character snaps,  "Of course it's hard! If it wasn't hard, then everyone would do it."

I am content these days to take my spiritual encouragements from B movies. The rags work well enough for me. They slip in without all the sturm und drang of reading spiritual texts whose arabesques and story lines are often solemn, repetitive, and 'important.'

Spiritual practice is hard. Of course it's hard. If it wasn't hard, then everyone would do it. And in one sense not everyone does it ... run around in their minds espousing and repeating and trying to live up to one bit of wisdom or virtue or another. And on top of all that, there's a meditation practice, perhaps ... that really can kick the stuffing out of anyone. It's hard and not everyone does it ... in one sense. And in the sense that not-everyone-does-it, there is factionalism and friction and posturing and sometimes bloodshed.

"If it wasn't hard, then everyone would do it" ... it's just one of the rags I've cobbled together to cover and warm this body.

And associatively, that line brings to mind another fortune-cookie bit of encouragement: "Your life is so difficult that it has never been tried before." That refrigerator magnet of a saying is simultaneously warming and pedal-to-the-metal daunting. Warming in the sense that perhaps I can afford to be a little less hard on myself, a little less surprised at what a doofus I can be. But daunting because it posits a responsibility that throws praise and blame and relying on others in the trash basket. This life is utterly sui generis ... never been tried before, never will be, cannot be compared ... and here I am in the middle of it all, searching for a few rags to cobble together, something to keep me warm, something to cover the 'unmentionables,' something to make me pleasing to myself or others.

When I was a kid in the 1940's, there would be a variety of street vendors who passed by the apartment building I lived in. The most riveting, from a kid's eye view, was the organ grinder who would stand outside on the sidewalk, accompanied by a monkey dressed up like a bellhop. He would play his instrument and the monkey would dance around and people would throw pennies out their windows to him.  I always secretly tried to bean the organ grinder himself with my donations, but it was harder than you'd think. But there were other street vendors as well: A man offering to sharpen knives, an ice truck for those who still had literal ice boxes and, finally, a collector of rags. What he ever did with those rags I had and have no idea, but I do know he came around, offering to take the snips and bits and worn-out cloth collecting unused in people's closets. What was unused by one was mysteriously useful to another, I guess.

And the Buddha had no trouble finding bits and snippets to create the 28-piece robe in my mind. Everyone wants to be warmed and protected and to some extent defined. Me too. I gather up rags from movies or holy texts or Chinese fortune cookies. Effortlessly, I stitch them together and from within them I greet my friends and enemies. "Good morning," I say, without ever a thought to my effortlessly stitched robe. And they greet me in return from within a compilation of silk brocade and old socks and worn dish rags. 

It's hard sometimes ... just plain hard. But if it wasn't hard, everyone would do it -- live this utterly singular life. In one sense we are alone and sometimes struggling because it is so damned hard. Spiritual practice is hard. But even when it is not 'spiritual practice,' still it is hard. Or, if you prefer, easy. Hard and easy ... same difference, same rags, same laughter, same tears. Each of us rises from beneath the Bo tree every moment and seeks out the rags of circumstance and cobbles them together. It's hard work -- forever cobbling together bits and pieces ... endlessly reaching into the ether for some new bit of protection or warmth or connectedness or wisdom or ... well, reaching for 'me.'

In a sense, not everyone does what is hard. But in a more important sense, I think, everyone does it. There is an endless supply of rags -- enough to dress all of us -- and we reach out and reach in moment by moment. It's hard and everyone does it. Whether 'everyone' is convinced by or attached to what s/he cobbles together is a personal choice. Sometimes wondrous raiments are truly convincing. Sometimes the cold wind blows up our skirts. Everyone ... everyone ... everyone ............. always.

But for my purposes, there is a good teaching in movies and refrigerator magnets and Buddha's 40-plus years of dress-up. It's not the rags that cover the 'unmentionables' or the much-beloved, but rather the essence that expresses itself in action. Gautama was a teacher. That's nice. Tom Hanks is an actor. That's nice. Movies and holy texts provide rags aplenty. That's nice. Old, young, tall, short, woman, man, joyful, grieving ... these rags are no joke. They are not some airy-fairy theory. They are real and close.

But are they really "different?"

If everyone does or doesn't do it, who is "everyone" and what is "it?" 

The rags of circumstance are available to everyone, all the time. It's the action -- the uses to which those rags are put -- that counts.

Rags to riches ... who's kidding whom?

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