I attended a Zen service Sunday. The temple is nearby, and I had long been curious about it though discouraged by the requirement that new people arrive at 8:00 a.m. for orientation. This Sunday I was up anyway because Peggy had to work, and I’ve become motivated by more than curiosity about Buddhism because of the pain that is ever with me.
I sat in a chair (most people were on cushions) in the geezers’ row, and was completely lost despite the orientation. We would sit, then stand, then bow from the waist, then sit, then stand, then bow with our faces to the floor. Meanwhile, there was a gong banging outside, bells ringing up front, bells ringing in the back, various hollow objects being struck, chanting in English, and chanting in Japanese. I had a chant book, but everyone else knew the chants by heart, and I had no idea where to find them. I was finally able to locate one of the Japanese ones for all the good it did me. I couldn’t talk fast enough to say the strange words, and there wasn’t even a translation with which I might console myself.
After everything else was completed, we sat perfectly still for forty minutes with our chairs (me) or cushions (most of them) facing the wall. The other thirty people were barefoot, but it was 50º F (10º C) outside, the room was unheated, and a window was open. Everyone else knew enough to wear jackets, but I was in short sleeves and would have gone home before I would have gone sockless.
When the bell rang to end the sitting meditation, about a third of us filed out while the remainder did a walking meditation. We were supposed to reassemble afterwards for a dharma talk by the resident priest. During the whole time I had been there, I had been cold, lost, and ignored by everyone but the lady who showed me around. None of this inspired me to want to know more, and hanging around to see whether the whole shebang was as bad as what I had already experienced just didn’t seem like enough of a reason to stay. It was only 10:15, so I went over to First Christian for its second Sunday school. There, I found a warm room, friendly people, comfortable furniture, pastries, and coffee.
I’ve been asked why I go to church when I don’t believe in Jesus. I’ve addressed this at some length, but the bottom line is that I value a shared spiritual dimension to my life, and I enjoy studying the Bible. I had actually rather go someplace other than a church, someplace where I could fully belong, but there simply are no such places. For several months (this was ten years ago), I attended the Self-Realization Fellowship, and liked it very well, but the more people accepted me, the more they talked about different things that their leader (Paramahansa Yogananda) was doing for them. Since he was DEAD, this weirded me out a little. Sure, a lot of people at First Christian believe that Jesus is present in their lives, but they don’t usually claim that he takes care of such minutiae as arranging bus faire to California.
There is also a Bahá’í group here. I visited it years ago and might go again someday, but in all candor I don’t fit in there either. The main difference between Bahá’í and Christianity is that most Christians believe God has already said pretty much everything he wants us to know (despite the fact that we’re killing one another because he failed to make it clear), whereas Bahá’ís think he’s still saying it. I differ from both in that I don’t believe God can help us out with our little problems because God doesn’t even know we exist. There are no perks to worshipping the god of pantheism aside from the worship itself.
I’ve also been to Sufi and Hare Krishna groups. You might say I’ve gone to damn near everything I was ever close enough to go to. Even when I lived in Mississippi, I attended fifty Christian denominations and a synagogue (the synagogue and the rabbi's home had been firebombed by the Klan a few years previously). To my surprise and delight, the people at Beth Israel just thought I was another Jew.
My lily-white Buddhist orienteer said that the priest had renamed her Yoetsu (pronounced Yo-Et-Sue). I thought it sounded like a sexual reference in Spanglish, but concluded that it probably had something to do with cranes or lotus blossoms. I used to tell myself, “Snow, you’ve got to start honoring this diversity crap,” but I never did. I look at it this way. When people take on foreign names, use foreign words, eat foreign foods, and wear foreign clothes as part of their religion; they can talk all they want about openness and inclusiveness, but are you going to believe their words or their actions? If you believe their actions, their goal is the rejection of their own culture in favor of someone else’s culture that is presumably more spiritual. They are, as it were, pointing their middle finger at the rest of us poor schmucks who don’t even know enough to pretend we’re from the Orient.
Sunday’s Buddhist group wasn’t that extreme. They had their funny names, and they dressed in clothes the color of leaf mold (this distinguishes them from Tibetan Buddhists who wear bright colors—god forbid you should get the two mixed up). These things separated them from most of America somewhat, but they were also separated within their own group by the black bibs that hung around the necks of the more advanced. Bigot that I am, I interpret such advertisements as plain old run-of-the-mill pride. There were other things too. For example, one man seemed infatuated with a piece of white cloth that he solemnly laid atop his head for awhile, but I had no idea what it meant. Again, bigot that I am, I just thought he looked rather stupid standing in the middle of the floor worshipping a handkerchief.
I’ll tell you what I want out of life. It’s simple. I want to be completely present. That’s it. How hard could that be? Well, I find it a little like trying to maintain good posture. Peggy sometimes tells me that I need to straighten up, so, I straighten up—for about two minutes. Then I forget about it, and I slouch again. Sometimes, I think that what I really need to do is to devote my every waking hour simply to staying straight until it becomes second nature.
Being present is like staying straight only a lot harder, because there’s nothing about good posture that precludes steely self-absorption, whereas being present means being truly open to what’s inside and what’s outside, and this requires that I relax my defensiveness. If I were less defensive, maybe I would feel compassion rather than contempt for the more outlandish religious groups I’ve visited.
After my surgery in March, I went through a period of feeling terribly hurt that people hadn’t been there for me in the way I thought they should be. Then, for some reason that I don’t remember, my heart opened. If you’ve ever taken the drug ecstasy, you know how I felt. It was like the lightness I used to feel as a boy when I set someone down after carrying them piggy-back for a few minutes—like I was walking on the moon. I didn’t think I had arrived exactly, but that I had made a quantum leap in that direction. I actually thought the feeling might last, or that I could at least remember my way back to it. Then, poof, it was gone. Again, it was like the drug ecstasy; you think you can hold onto your new enlightenment, but you can’t.
When I’m with people, I feel tense. It’s not that I anticipate them disliking me. It’s that I anticipate them (a) not really listening to anything I have to say, and (b) not really caring if I live or die. At best, I anticipate them seeing me as a rather uninteresting diversion. I also anticipate being annoyed by them, because I feel bored by most people. You might say that I feel about them the exact same way that I don’t want them to feel about me, but think they will.
I try to counter this by facing them full-on, looking into their eyes, and listening to what they’re saying instead of waiting for my turn to talk. None of this works very well though, and it’s not even that rewarding when it does. Like with good posture, I don’t really have it; I’m just faking it in the hope that someday I will really have it. But I lack the discipline to even be a good fake, and I’m not sure that discipline is the answer anyway. I suspect that what I need is a change in attitude rather than a change in resolve, but I’m at point A, and my new-and-improved attitude is at point B, and point B might as well be on the top of Mt. Everest.
Oh well, the good news is that I’ll die before too many more decades and won’t have to worry about all this anymore. And you thought I was a pessimist. Silly you.