Sunday, November 10, 2013

spiritual life article

I submitted what follows to the local newspaper the other day. The paper has a weekly segment entitled "First Person" and somehow the bug bit and I writ. Since Internet communications seem to be shot through with an unwillingness to respond and since the subject matter is a bit airy fairy (and perhaps impolite) and since I have received no response from the paper pro or con, I thought I would just put it here:

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.


  1. Thank you very much for this post. How people view important things at various ages fascinates me. This was the kind of post I am coming to expect from a 70-year old. I do not mean to diminish your view at all. Perhaps errorneously, I see such views as yours more a product of your particular age and stage of life than anything else.

    I am reminded of an earlier post of yours:

    The Tale of Grumpy Gautama

    Looking forward to reading you view on Zen over the next few decades. Especially -- Do spiritual concerns get rekindled and all fired up again in on'e later years?

    Perhaps you will become a wandering non-mendicant like retired Hindi teacher Patibandla Venkatapati Rayalu. Who for over 15 years traveled around India, Nepal and Bhutan on foot. He started when he was 84.

  2. Patterns of Change -- I have no way of gauging whether my point of view is a function of age or not. Is or is-not, still I am stuck with the farm. As a conversational matter, I do wonder of those who are older aren't more likely the cling with a greater -- rather than lesser -- ferocity to what might roughly be called religion. I mean this in the sense that religion in general tends to hold out some 'answer' to death. And, since death is more in-your-face for the elderly and since getting older is no guarantee anyone might feel less fear of death, the tendency might be to hold on to religion's offerings with ever more insistence... "I don't want to die, therefore God/heaven/hell exists" ... that sort of thing.

    Whatever the truth of the above, still I have a very strong hunch that, old or young, anyone interested in spiritual life will see it slip away before its experiential realities can come to fruition.

  3. "Whatever the truth of the above, still I have a very strong hunch that, old or young, anyone interested in spiritual life will see it slip away before its experiential realities can come to fruition."

    I have serious doubts. about the universality of this. But I am not saying it is a false view either as it seems to be true for you.

    There is a 'scientific," "evidency base" theory which may shed some light on ideas about the effect of aging on one's spiritual quest. It is called, appropriately, "The Theory of Gerotranscendence." One aspect is, evidently, that western notions about aging can come into conflict with the natural process of changes in one's spiritual views as one ages.

    Coming at it from another angle, I have never read or heard anywhere that at a certain age one should stop cultivating bodhicitta.he mind that strives toward deep awakening and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings.

    But I am not really sure that this what you are saying....