To which do spiritual aspirants owe a greater debt -- the good stuff or the bad? I'm not entirely sure that this isn't a bogus question, but, for this morning, I'll put my money on the bad ... the flaws, trip-stones, fall-downs, failures, and other much-examined mistakes.
There Be Dragons," a B-ish tale whose narrative threads wove through the Spanish Civil War and included the enacted person of Josemaría Escrivá, a priest later canonized as a saint by the Vatican. From the movie, a viewer might gather that this founder of Opus Dei was full of brimstone on behalf of the suffering masses. Historically, he seems to have been a company man. In either event, the character was portrayed as invariably good and thoughtful and occasionally plagued by doubt ... which he overcame with a movie-smooth courage. A good and virtuous man ... a man worth emulating if you listen to the Vatican or the movie. And saints or even more ordinary virtuous people do have the capacity to call out to others, to inflame their hearts with hope for a similar decency and kindness. "The better angels of our nature" are aroused and pleased and inspired.
But an unremitting reliance on the depiction of goodness wears thin. It calls out, perhaps, but does it really open anyone up to more than a mouthful of praise? Doesn't a constant diet of treacly adoration cloy and perhaps offer a hideout as life comes and goes? The Zen teacher Ta Hui once quoted someone else (too lazy to look it up) as saying, "'Too much virtue makes people crazy,'" or something similar and I agree: Adoration and praise are tiresome and, worse, can impede spiritual growth in their warming, feel-good realms. Who wants, whether within or without, to be constantly reminded of what s/he might be when s/he is forced to cope with the daily and sometimes-messy adventure of what is? I think I would argue that this question finds substance in the Christian reliance on the public relations provided by Dante Alighieri and his oh-so-precise depictions of oh-so-precise sinners in oh-so-precisely-defined rings of hell: It opens the daily-life heart to hear about the fuck-ups. The church may use this as a means of holding its dues-paying members in thrall, but I think the tactic is good in human terms: The bad boys and girls are more like me.
A number of years ago, I went to visit an acupuncturist for some arthritis in my neck. Dr. Chou was born, if I recall correctly, in Taiwan. His father, a well-to-do businessman, moved to Sweden and it was from there that Chou returned to Taiwan to study both for a medical degree and training in acupuncture. Dr. Chou was not your latter day smoothie acupuncturist. His training came at the hands of monks who had transmitted the tradition long before diploma mills and sweet talk were in vogue. And Chou, a bouncy bigamist with two wives and two children by each spouse, was not treated kindly when he first found himself among the monks. They beat him, he told me as I lay on one of his tables and felt the needles being inserted. They beat him because they recognized the arrogance that growing up in a well-heeled family can impart. Arrogance, whether in its more recognizable daily life format or in the magical-mystery-tour descriptions that can wow customers these days, was not part of acupuncture. The monks beat him and over time, Chou learned a little something: The patient and restoring that patient to a healthier state were the issue. He did what he did and that was that. He was wide open as a barn door -- peppy, honest and serious without being solemn. He charged money for his services but, because of the ancient ways, he would also treat patients for free: Such was the imperative of acupuncture... to help, to cure, to assuage irrespective of all quid-pro-quo arrogance. Between us, no topic of discussion was out of bounds, whether it concerned his two wives (how the hell did he manage that and why?), his weekly dancing sessions in the basement of his office building, or when the hell my arthritis would go away. We were part of a compact as it seemed to me ... giving and receiving without any guff. Well, the arthritis dissipated, but I felt as if I had learned a lot more: I am who I am and you are who you are and isn't that fun?
One of the greatest teachers revered in Tibetan Buddhism is Milarepa. I'm not sure if he qualifies as a saint, but he certainly was and remains a towering figure. Others will have a more refined appreciation of Milarepa, but my own interest and inspiration comes from a time before he became a heavy-hitter. When Milarepa's mother and father died, his uncle stepped in and stole the family inheritance. A penniless Milarepa was pissed. He saved his nickels and dimes and then went off to study black magic. On his return, he used his newly-acquired talents to rain down vicious hail storms on his uncle's wealth-providing crop fields. In raining down destruction, he spared one small plot of land owned by a woman who had given him shelter. It was, all in all, well-calibrated revenge that he took. Later, he went to study with his teacher, Marpa. As the monks had seen arrogance in Dr. Chou, so Marpa saw the dark places in Milarepa. Marpa busted Milarepa's balls, ordering him to build impossibly difficult towers in different, rocky locations. The story takes varying twists and turns thereafter, but concludes with what might be called a happy ending ... a much-revered teacher.
An arrogant Dr. Chou. A vengeful Milarepa. These are guys with characteristics my heart knows and opens to. Their eventual goodness, if I can call it that, is very nice, but I feel more at home with the connections -- honest, screw-the-pooch connections -- to my everyday life. These connections are something I really do know about and really can acknowledge. I may hope for goodness, but I am viscerally convinced by the peppy malfeasance life can offer up. Too much virtue makes me crazy and when not crazy, it inspires the laziness of the uninvolved. Too much virtue, too much goodness, a constant diet of how saintly anyone might be ... all of this may be inspiring and warm, but it cloys and stands at a distance (hope and belief) from my occasionally vengeful and arrogant daily life.
Anyone practicing spiritual discipline has known a time when the vast array of difficulties can seem overwhelming. If it's not one thing, it's another! Pride, jealousy, irreverent horniness, anger, theft passing as business ... the list is endless. And just about the time one thing is clarified, another murky characteristic rises up and and demands attention. Where, in heaven's name, is the happy ending?! Moments and days and weeks and years pass by and everyone does what they can -- focusing, watching, delving, investigating. These things are intimate ... and daunting. All those characteristics anyone might long to be free of ... free so as to be free.
The bad stuff.
In one sense, the bad stuff is a wonderful spur to spiritual discipline ... sort of like sitting in a graveyard threatening yourself with death and the fear it arouses. Get thee behind me, Satan! Institutions can play this card endlessly ... all the horrific ways you will burn and scream if you don't take up a virtuous course. You can sort of see why they might do it ... under cover of goodness, you threaten someone else and receive money for doing so. But even leaving aside institutions, individuals can do the same to themselves, threatening one damnation or another if you don't get anger or whatever under control.
The bad stuff doesn't cloy. It inspires heart-felt action, perhaps. No one wants to lie down in a world of hurt when they might lie down in a world of yum.
But I have a hunch that there is a deeply-known reason why anyone might focus on the bad stuff -- bone deep and beyond all cloying belief in and hope for what is good. That knowledge lies at the inside of all of our buffeting insides. And that knowledge is that the bad stuff -- the day-to-day comings and goings and confusions and fires of any individual's quite personal and arrogant and vengeful and loving and living life -- is and must be the home of all peace. There is no icing this knowledge, this cake. To be at ease in hell is the only heaven that makes any bone-deep sense. It has nothing to do with virtue or praise, which may have acted as tentative spurs. There is no return home when you are already at home ... at home with all the bad stuff and perhaps a souvenir sign reading, "Bless this mess."
Inspiration from the good stuff and inspiration from the bad. It's all so inspiring until the need for inspiration seems to dissolve into a cup of coffee or a rousing symphony or a well-aimed left hook or a kiss behind the tree.
Bless this mess.
So to speak.