Although 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.
Posted in Books, Consciousness, Memoirs, Posts, Sects
Tagged Buddhism, Dalai Lama, David R. Loy, narrative, Nashotah House, The Beatles, The World Is Made of Stories, Thomas Merton, yoga
I 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.
Posted in Books, Consciousness, Posts, Science
Tagged A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, atheism, Buddhism, Consciousness, meditation, neuroscience, Sam Harris, spirituality, The End of Faith, Waking Up
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
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.
Posted in Art, Current Events, Higher Education, Memoirs, Posts, Sects
Tagged Buddhism, Jersey City, mandala, Nashotah House, New Jersey Star-Ledger, Nirvana, Oshkosh, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
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.
Posted in Books, Classical Mythology, Deities, Holidays, Natural Disasters, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects, Ugarit
Tagged Apollo, Black Death, Buddhism, Christianity, Obamacare, pestilence, Plague, Plagues and Peoples, Resheph, William H. McNeill