Tag Archives: Buddhism

Diverse Colors

After a warm snap, we’re not at peak color here in New Jersey. Some trees have changed, yes, and leaves have begun to fall, but green prevails. While on a walk with my wife—a luxury only available on weekends with my commuting schedule—I spotted a bit of red amid the leaves on a local stream. Litter, and not just the leaf kind, is a bit of a problem in Jersey, but this splotch of red seemed intentional. It was taller than it was wide. It was standing in the middle of a shallow brook. Its placement looked intentional. What couldn’t be discerned from the bank is just what this was. It might be a Buddha. It might be Ganesh. It does seem, no matter how it’s reasoned out, to be religious.

Archaeologists often find objects with no known utility. If an artifact has no practical function such an object is generally deemed religious. For much of human history, before the madness of capitalism, people owned only the necessities. Life was hard and lifespans were short. Accumulating stuff as an end in itself was a luxury only for kings and priests and the relatively few merchants in urban settings. An object found from that time, then, with no known function, must somehow be religious. An object of cultic devotion. Those of us trained in the history of religions would sometimes laugh at this predisposition. Religion is the basket for anything that can’t be otherwise explained. So it seemed with this red statue—it was clearly human-made—standing in the stream. We were walking by a ritual site, perhaps. Maybe it was just a joke.

Then I recalled Ganesh Chaturthi, the ritual submersion of Lord Ganesh that transpired in late August this year. It is a numinously charged season, this descent into autumn. My Jewish friends have just celebrated a new year. Pagans made proper observation of the equinox. Preparations, at least of the commercial kind, are well underway for Halloween. They are all colors. Although spring’s first buds are welcome after a monochromatic winter, soon we transition into the green of summer. We miss the benefits of many colors. At moments like this on the banks of a brook with yellow and brown highlighting the green that remains on the trees, I’m again reminded how wonderful diversity truly is. I am in the presence of a god. It may not be my deity, but I’m not threatened by the difference. Nature is a patient master for those willing to attend to the lessons.

World Stories

worldofstoriesAlthough I’ve not formally studied it, Buddhism has long been part of my thought process. Like Thomas Merton—and this may be the only point of comparison between us—I find little difference between the contemplative worlds of Buddhism and Christianity. Mindfulness knows no denominations. I suspect David R. Loy’s book The World Is Made of Stories would cause anxiety for some. Those not comfortable, for example, with paradox. Or those who believe that only the literal is meaningful. Separated by the vast land mass of Asia, eastern and western ways of thinking about the world—telling their stories about the world—diverged widely in antiquity. There was a kind of “rediscovery” of south and east Asian thought in the late nineteenth century western hemisphere. Since then occasional famous explorers such as the Beatles, or professional practitioners such as the Dalai Lama, have brought Buddhism’s ideas to the mainstream, but because they coexist well with Christianity there has been no cultural reason to displace them.

I found Loy’s world compelling. All is narrative. That’s the way human brains work. If you’re reading this right now, you’re following my narrative. If you’re not really paying attention, another narrative has gripped you. Science is a narrative just as religion is. It is the way we think. The internal monologue. Consciousness itself. Stories. People will follow a story quite naturally, which is one of the reasons it’s such a shame so few people read for pleasure. We can watch our stories (what is a sporting event but a narrative playing out before a fan’s eyes?) and many people do. The written story often, however, takes us deeper.

Contemplation is an endangered species. Although I found the enforced quiet days at Nashotah House (such as Ash Wednesday) to be an onerous rule, I would arrive home with little to say in any case. The world of busyness that we’ve made our business can choke the meditative spirit. Although some workplaces offer yoga sessions (themselves based on Hindu spirituality) they hardly encourage meditating at your desk. It seems the natural enemy of productivity when, in reality, it increases it immensely. Who doesn’t work better after a vacation? The business world often presents the religious life as one of indulgent non-productivity. I remember being made to feel stupid asking for one Good Friday off while working my first full time job in retail. When cash transactions grew to be too much I’d find a church on my lunch hour and just sit. Now I only find time to read Buddhist books on the bus on the way to work. Look deep enough and there’s a story in that.

Growing Up

WakingUpI am in two minds about Sam Harris’s Waking Up. Literally. I haven’t read Harris since The End of Faith, and I have to admit that I found Waking Up to be a very engaging book. I can’t agree with everything Harris writes—that’s an occupational hazard of acquiring advanced degrees—but to have a scientist, an atheist no less, praise spirituality felt incredibly genuine. Spiritual experiences happen. I’ve had a few doozies over the years. I’ve also read a number of scientists who tell me they’re all an illusion. Harris admits that consciousness is a mystery. His use of “mind” instead of “brain” won me over from the beginning. I discovered that the atheist can also be a seeker. Dogmatism, of whatever stripe, is the enemy.

Harris has considerable experience meditating. This is no activity for posers or wimps. It is, despite minimal physical demands, hard work. Throughout the book we get the sense that Buddhism is among the least objectionable religions, when divested of its myths. I do wonder, however, if demythologized Christianity was ever given a fair chance. From my own experience, some of the selflessness advocated by Harris can be found in taking aspects of Christianity seriously. I understand, I think, Harris’s objections to religion. It can, and does, lead to horrors both obvious and subtle. Yet, every once in a perhaps great while, it does offer redemption. Meditation, for example, has its roots in religious practice. It is this that Harris calls spirituality. And it is good.

A Guide to Spirituality without Religion is an apt subtitle for this brutally honest and open book. Harris’s knowledge as a neuroscientist endows his ideas with great authority. He opines, and he is not alone, that meditation demonstrates that “I” is only an illusion. This loss of self will haunt me for some time. For decades I is all I seem to have. Still, I am pleased to find an open-minded scientist on this same path I tread. Raised to be both spiritual and religious set the trajectory of my otherwise logic-driven life. You can’t go back and change all that, but you can grow up. To read of Harris’s spiritual experiences in the geography of great spiritual masters as well as in the laboratory instill in this reader a profound hope. Whether or not this reader is merely an illusion. There may be morning after this long night, after all.

June Bugs

On my way to work yesterday, I came upon an overturned June bug clawing at the air, trying to regain its feet.  I’m always in a hurry getting to or from work, but I decided to stop, offering the insect a leaf to grip, and turning it back over.  I knew, as I spied birds flying overhead, that its chances weren’t good.  In the course of nature, insects are radically overproduced because so many get eaten.  In my apartment they can even be a source of sudden terror when they find their way inside.  I knew the June bug was probably nearing the end of its short time on the earth, but as I held out that leaf to it, I knew that in the act of struggling we were one.  That sounds terribly Buddhist of me, I know.  Insects and humans share, on the most basic level, the desire to survive.  Who likes to feel vulnerable—soft, unprotected underbelly exposed to the air?  Defenseless and helpless?  Certainly not this poor beetle.

Photo credit: Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons

Stepping off the bus in New York City, I began my daily power walk to work.  The bus had arrived a few minutes late, and my anxiety level about clocking in works as if it’s on steroids.  I have to buzz past the interesting things happening in the city, the people who merit a second look, the architecture that has an unexpected amount of detail, only to be lost in the overwhelming number of buildings.  Big buildings as numerous as bugs on a summer morning.  Then I saw a box pulled up on a low sill outside some swank bank.  I often need boxes at work, and I can’t help stopping to appreciate how this unbroken expanse of paperboard would be useful.  Then I noticed the feet sticking out the end.  There was life in this box, not so different from the beetle I’d stopped to help an hour and a half ago, in its exoskeleton, grasping for some kind of salvation.

I arrived at work agitated. I had been able to help the beetle, but what could I do for the sleeping human being in his box? I had no money in my pocket, and even a twenty would stay the exposed, raw human on the city street for no more than a few hours. To care for a person takes commitment, long-term willingness to make sure that those who fall on their backs are set again on their feet, given the resources, the opportunities they need to get along in a world where those circling above are far more dangerous than the birds in my neighborhood. I looked at my calendar. June is nearly over. The June bugs will soon disappear. And yet I couldn’t erase the image from my mind. How much relief seemed to show on that inexpressive June bug face when it could finally crawl away from the center of the sidewalk. Something was terribly wrong here. And a man was sleeping in a box just two blocks away. In the act of struggling we are one.

Fleeting Meaning

Just a year before I had been unceremoniously dismissed from a fourteen-year teaching job at Nashotah House, devastating everything I thought I knew. I’d found a temporary job at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and the head of the department encouraged us to go see the mandala that some Buddhist monks were constructing in Oshkosh one weekend. My family came up and we breathlessly watched as the orange-draped, shaven monks meticulously tapped brightly colored sand into an intricate pattern of incredible beauty. My daughter, quite young at the time, wondered what they would do with it when they were done. We’d been told, in the department, that the sand would be safely flushed into a local waterway, as Buddhism teaches about the transitory nature of life. My daughter was upset at the thought of such a nice piece of art being destroyed. But that’s part of the point of a mandala. As the Buddhists say, too many people concentrate on the hand pointing at the moon rather than on the moon itself.

Photo credit: Kamal Ratna Tuladhar, WikiCommons

Photo credit: Kamal Ratna Tuladhar, WikiCommons

I’m no expert in Buddhism. It is a complex way of thinking, and, like many religious systems, it is not unified into one particular thought-structure. Nevertheless, one of the main teachings of Buddhism is that life is, pardon the crass translation, suffering. We experience desire and we will continue to experience desire until we die. Then we’re reborn to experience desire all over again. Those who are enlightened may break out of this system into Nirvana, or a kind of non-existence where desire can no longer afflict us. There is an appeal to this way of thinking in a universe that science tell us will eventually burn out so that we’re all just a bunch of cinders in infinite, but expanding space. Almost Buddhist in its conceptualization, actually.

So when this morning’s New Jersey Star-Ledger had a front-page, below-the-fold, story of a mandala incident in Jersey City, I had to read. This entire past week, three monks have worked on a mandala at City Hall in Jersey City, for up to ten hours a day. Having watched this work, I know it can be backbreaking, and it is incredibly meticulous. Yesterday, after four days of work, a three-year old, while his mother was distracted, jumped on and ruined the mandala. A mayor’s aide, horrified, had to show the monks what had happened. A mandala is all about the transitory nature of life. Its fleeting moments are, after all, suddenly swept away. Despite the drama, the monks repaired the mandala and one of them quipped that perhaps the child’s action had underscored the lesson the mandala was intended to teach. Indeed. Many religions recognize that children know something about life that most adults simply forget. It’s the moon that’s important, not the hand.

The Plague

Plagues&Peoples Sitting on the bus next to some guy with a consumptive cough may not be the best place to read Plagues and Peoples. But William H. McNeill’s book is considered a kind of modern classic, and since the Middle Ages have been on my mind, I persisted anyway. I did wrap my scarf around my face, though. Plagues and Peoples isn’t just the story of the Black Death, however. It is a sweeping account of pandemic and endemic outbreaks and how they form recognizable patterns with human populations. Perhaps the most striking aspect of McNeill’s study is how determinative plagues have been for many decisive aspects of human history, including religious ones. Indeed, religion keeps cropping up in the book. One reason is because of the roles religions play in human suffering—to be more precise, I should say in trying to alleviate human suffering. (Yes, some religions definitely cause it as well, but that’s a story for another time.) McNeill even suggests that fear of disease might have led to the parting of the ways between Swiss and German Reformers, playing a role in the divergence of what would become the Presbyterian and Lutheran flavors of Protestantism. The spread of some religions was facilitated by the ravages of disease.

During the period of the spread of the Plague, however, McNeill notes that those cultures attended by Christian and Buddhist institutions managed to fare better than irreligious, or, perhaps more accurately, folk-religion ones. Once people figured out Plague was contagious, they sensibly kept away from the sick, but the moral teachings of Christianity and Buddhism compelled the religious to tend to the ill, with the result that more people in those religious traditions survived. That’s not a universal declaration on McNeill’s part, but it is a fact worth bearing in mind. The risk to self paid off when more individuals cared for each other rather than just heading for the hills when the Black Death came along. On the other hand, religions frequently insist on behavior that spreads disease as well. The great pilgrimages to Mecca or the Ganges often brought great crowds together where disease could quickly spread. The passing of the peace in some churches is more like the passing of the plague.

In ancient, pagan times, disease had its own deities. In ancient Ugarit, Resheph, the archer, was also the god of pestilence. Pestilence frequently accompanied the horrors of warfare, and even Apollo opens the Trojan War by firing his arrows at the Greek troops. Gods are the source of disease. One of the ancient truisms, which may not be taken as true today, is that the force that wounds is also the force that heals. Instead of ignoring Resheph, you pray to him, make offerings to him. He can slay, but he can also heal. In the monotheistic and even non-theistic traditions McNeill mentions, the focus shifted to the care of those suffering rather than the offering of sacrifice to unhearing gods. Even the Romans were impressed by Christian care for one another. Of course, that was well before Obamacare offered the hope of medical treatment for those cut off from lucrative employment. The Christian response now, it seems, is to complain about others taking advantage of my surplus cash made over to a program to prevent illness in one’s fellow citizens. Take the bus to work, you’ll see what I mean.

Atomic Girls

GirlsofAtomicCityRay Bradbury. Ray Harryhausen. Radioactive dinosaur loose in Manhattan. What’s not to like? I was inspired to watch The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms again for a single line, where Dr. Nesbitt informs the marksman his grenade has “the only isotope of its kind this side of Oak Ridge.” You see, I had just finished reading Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Atomic City, in this context, is Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city built almost overnight with one objective: to produce uranium for the atomic bomb, then under development. The employees, many of them women, were not told the nature of their work and were not allowed to speak about the little they knew, putting many strains on marriages and human relationships. It is a captivating story, especially since Kiernan doesn’t pull any punches—the facility was in a segregated south, women scientists were belittled to their faces, and the end result was thousands of people incinerated in Japan. It is like the end of Eden, the loss of humanity’s innocence.

Growing up in the 1960s, I had heard of Oak Ridge. I knew it had something to do with nuclear stuff, but my understanding only went as far as the planetary model of the nucleus of an atom. I feared nuclear war. The height of that fear in the 1950s may have passed, but I was born just a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis began and all through the Reagan era that veiled threat of total, mutual annihilation hung heavily in the air. The religious had claimed God had created all this, but human hubris threatened to erase it all. On the eve of a friend’s wedding I sat across the Susquehanna River, eyeing Three Mile Island for the first time. Just six years earlier even those of us hundreds of miles to the northwest wondered if we would succumb to its radioactive glow. The power of the atom, as Kiernan demonstrates, was considered to be the basic power of the universe. And it was not divine.

When the war was over, a symbol of peace was erected at Oak Ridge. The International Friendship Bell was challenged as recently as 1998 by a local claiming that ringing the bell endorsed Buddhism, and it was therefore a religious symbol that had no business in a public place. For those who believe, ringing the bell is a form of Buddhist prayer. For others, it is a sign of goodwill between nations that have put their differences to rest. It is easy, sixty years after the release of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, to laugh smugly at Harryhausen’s famed stop-motion animation and the incessant worry about atomic fallout. But near the beginning of the movie, George Ritchie says of the atomic blast they’ve been monitoring, “You know, every time one of those things goes off, I feel as if I was helping to write the first chapter of a new Genesis.” Indeed, at least as far as chapter three. With the dawn of the atomic age, we had outgrown our need for the final chapters of Revelation as well.