Saturday, July 9, 2016

gold star award

I never was much good at awarding myself gold stars. I just wasn't trained for it any more than I was trained in bull dancing. The result of this lack of training means that of late I have waked up in the morning wondering in quasi-sadness what I had accomplished with one effort or another. The answer came back ... well, not much.

Forty or fifty years of interest in spiritual life for example and ... well, not much. Spiritual life may be marginally better than (in the wry words of a friend) "kicking baby robins," but not by much. I don't regret the time and effort expended, but it hardly warrants a gold star, a notch on my pistol grip, or a medal in a glass case. It would be nice to have a gold star, to feel that something had been accomplished but, well, I wasn't trained for it. Gold stars require a belief in the substance of someone else's belief and I learned early not to put much credulity in the applause of others. Still, I too would like one of those whining, life-has-meaning stamps of approval ... a pat on the back ... a "good job" where "good job" makes me cringe.



This morning, an old memory floated to the surface and seemed to qualify for gold-star status. Or, at least, I was willing to accord it that status.

At a time when I was hip-deep in Zen Buddhist practice, there were a couple of six-month gigs teaching basics to newcomers who wanted to join the zendo or Zen center I attended. Each week, once a week, a group would gather and we would practice chanting or bowing or other ritual that was part of the zendo's tableau. And it was during one such training period that I became chums with a young woman whose face had "Irish" all over it. Bit by bit, we got to know each other outside the confines of the training period. Damned if I can remember her name.

Anyway, bit by bit, she told me that she was at the zendo in part because she felt cut off from the Roman Catholic church she had belonged to for so many years. Somehow she felt stifled and thereby apostate in a religion she loved in a church she loved. She hoped that Zen practice might fill in the empty spaces she felt. I think she may have hoped I would lay out some Buddhist enthusiasm she could embrace, but I did the reverse. "Why don't you just go to church and take from it what you want? This is your life. The church is for you, not the other way around."

At first, she seemed shocked at the notion I put in front of her. The church, after all, was enormous and empowered where she was small and powerless. How could she assert herself in the face of such a force, such an institution, such a golden history? But bit by bit and repetition by repetition, I just kept saying the same thing: This is YOUR church and your love and no one can take that from you. Take from it what you like and leave the rest to whoever wants it.

She wriggled like a worm on a hook. I couldn't possibly be right. That's not the way her church ran. What the fuck could I possibly know? But she listened ... over and over ... again and again ... bit by bit.

At the end of the six months training at the Zen center, students in the class were welcome to sign on as full-fledged members. Most did not, but some did. Either way, the zendo was closed for a month or so for vacation and after that time newly-accepted members could return. By the time the zendo reopened, my Irish chum was no where in sight. I had instructed enough similar classes not to be either surprised or, especially, disappointed. Spiritual life is a personal quest and each has his or her own needs. It is not a cookie-cutter world.

Time passed. I forgot about my Irish chum until one day, walking down a Manhattan street, I saw her walking towards me. Our eyes connected and it was clear we were going to stop and say hello. But instead of just hello, she threw her arms around my neck and gave me a big hug. She probably said other things, but the thing I remember her saying was, "You helped me to return to the church I love."

And I felt like a million bucks. It was a gold star I could live with and credit. I was aware of the ironic possibilities -- busting my own butt on behalf of Zen Buddhism and the sole accomplishment I could point to was sending someone back into the arms of Rome -- but wasn't that more Zen Buddhist than my cookie-cutter versions of Zen? I think it was.

"Huffing and puffing Zen student gives Vatican a hand up."

Well, at least I accomplished one thing in 40-50 years.


  1. Good for you. Gold star, yes!
    (Except you gave HER a hand up, not the Vatican.)

  2. I relate to your conflicted self congratulatory piece. It makes me wonder (yet again) if "Be a lamp unto yourself" requires a hell of a lot more work than just "Pick and choose what you like and ignore the rest." I'm a lot less flexible these days and it's getting harder to stick my head in the ground much less up my butt.