Spiritual life is such a wispy, ephemeral and yet compelling pastime that there is something arrogant and offensive about mentioning it. Your mother was probably right: Never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table.
But for all the sage advice, somehow I am less worried these days about a topic that has played a consuming -- if sometimes ridiculous -- role in my life: Spiritual adventure. Perhaps it is just advancing age: If you're old enough (and I'm 73), being a fool is not as foolish as it once seemed.
What interests me nowadays, after forty or more years of sometimes enormous effort, is the fact that spiritual adventure, to the extent that it can ever fulfill its promise, must fade away in the same way that dolls and toy guns once took their leave. Beating a dead horse really is not the point, however swift and wondrous that horse once was. Or anyway, that's my view.
Chronologically, my interest in spiritual life began in about 1970 with an interest first in Hinduism and then in Zen Buddhism. My father, who taught at Smith College, was understandably infuriated by religion. His father, a Presbyterian minister, had forced him to memorize great hunks of the Bible by candle light. My mother, a writer who was smarter than my father, was willing to consider religion as a part of the human potential she stitched together with words. But her intellect convinced her in a way that the surrender implied in religion could not. Both my mother and father, in different ways, worshipped at the altar of the intellect, an altar on which human sacrifices -- as, perhaps, their child -- might be made. I grew up smart.
But, as with all smart realms, the question was bound to arise: "If I'm so smart, how come I'm not happy?" And when I tripped over spiritual life in 1970, that question gained force. So I read books about spiritual life. And I went to talks and learned philosophies and ... got smart.
Later, I would ask my Zen teacher, a fellow who ran a monastery in Japan, what role hope and belief played in Zen. "For the first four or five years of practice," he replied, "belief and hope are necessary." And after that, I wondered. "After that," he said, "they are not so necessary."
Zen practice rests largely on seated meditation (zazen)-- the literal, physical, sit-down-shut-up-and-focus-the-mind activity that provides an experience which trumps hope and belief. No one who knows how to ride a bicycle does so while believing or hoping s/he can ride. Smarts play no very informative role. Smarts are possible, not imperative. Riding a bicycle is just ... well, it's just riding a bicycle. This is not to say that practice isn't necessary or that bumps and bruises and tears and failures don't mount up.
My bumps and bruises and tears and failures mounted up until sometimes I thought I might drown. True, there were bright openings as the days and weeks and years passed, but by comparison to the flubs and glitches and outright errors ... well, there was no comparison.
I practiced. I went to retreats of between three and seven days. I entered a monastery ... and flunked out. I tried to be a 'good' Zen student. When I moved from New York to Northampton, I built a small meditation hall in the backyard and called it, with a grand mysteriousness, "Black Moon Zendo." I hoped others might join me in my noble pursuit. Now, by contrast, I hope they will not... or rather, I won't turn them away, but I can't imagine why they wouldn't rather exercise some common sense and sleep in. There's no door prize in Zen -- no heaven or hell, no virtue or misdemeanor -- there's just practice.
When my three children were growing up here, they got used to the old man heading out to the zendo in his robes. None except the youngest ever expressed any interest in what was going on and he came out to sit with me just once. At home, there was never any heavy-duty discussion about Buddhism. What I hoped for my kids was not that they become good Buddhists -- I just wanted them to become good people, which, from my point of view, they have indeed become.
And what I hoped for my children, I guess I am now willing to offer myself as well. Perhaps that is why a knock-down-drag-out approach to spiritual life has simply dwindled like campfire smoke disappearing into the evergreens above. All that effort was good enough in its solemn times, but what honest and peaceful good has solemnity ever wrought? The only thing separating man from God is "God."
That was Zen, this is now.