A promiscuous assembly



The book is the only material object that a leftist liberal does not have to consider as an actual object. Diamonds, gold, furs, TV’s, bric-a-brac, lamps, furniture, houses, cars: all these are material possessions, and as such are loathed and rejected by the enlightened and overly educated. But books, well…. To cut through the artifice, books are an intellectual’s genitalia.

Wait a minute, . . .

And yes, ladies, I believe that metaphor applies to both genders.

Are we talking about size, or quantity? I’m confused.

11081293_10100592273121740_3157732303638231290_nWe want shelves and shelves of books. Old books. New books! Books by classic authors upon whom civilizations are founded. Books by current popular authors upon whom actual enjoyment is expounded. Large books full of images of far off lands and fabulous art. Large books full of endless words and scenes which we point at and say, like a quarterback points to a recently deflowered cheerleader, “I read that. I read the shit out of that, and I made that book call me daddy!”

So maybe you mean that, for leftist liberals, books are like sexual conquests?                    (Oh, dear. What will the Bishop say?)

We casually host parties in the rooms our books are stored and hope passionately, yet silently, that attention will be paid to them. The couch is worn and torn, the curtains are grey and moth-eaten, the silverware is thrift store and the fork does not match the spoon. But my Mark Twain is flawless, and I have a first edition of the complete letters and speeches of Oliver Cromwell as edited by Thomas Carlyle. Please, do not trip on my intellectual penis.

In this instance, I’ll grant you the analogy.

But I got divorced once. And I had to cull my books. I had to leaf through my ego and decide what was important enough to keep and what I would offer to the Osiris of values: the used bookstore. Buddha smiled as I took $14 for two boxes of self worth. He grinned as I took $17 for one box of pride. Then I smiled as I refused $10 for two boxes of memories. I remember the moment still, at the resale window, “I can offer you ten dollars.” And realizing, no, and Hell no! These were worth more than that, much more! That amount was an insult to my life, my passion, my good taste! No sir, and good bye! But I would have taken thirty dollars.

My heart breaks.

Now the question of books as objects, as objects of value rises again. Now I am a Buddhist, and now I am mixing my books into the books of my wife. We’ve been married a year (two years if you count the civil ceremony) and been together for three years and only now are we mixing our books. We have done things to each other that defy description and will remain undescribed, you jealous bastards, but until now, the covers of our books have never touched each other with any intimate intent.

(You know how insufferable newlyweds are. Particularly we mid-aged ones. Bear with us.)

And now they must mingle, in full literary and literal congress. Now the most intimate things she owns will touch the most intimate things I own. Although we have been man and wife for a while now, I discovered a new form of intimacy staring down from our bookshelves. It’s not just that her things will touch my things, her ideas will be touching my ideas. It’s that the things touching will be the only truly intimate things we own—and I will repeat that, as I think italics are cheap—intimate things that we own. I have been intimate with these things, these books. I have held them, observed them, been faithful to them for them sum total of their existence. As their Dharma is to be read, I have fulfilled their dharma.

It’s true. This man has the most passionate relationship with his books. Some are one-night stands. Others are long-term, comfortable affairs, appearing on a regular basis on the back of the toilet. Still others are like the high school sweetheart, or the chivalrous knight’s far-off lady: read and pondered at key moments because they changed his life.

I have left coffee and tikka masala stains on some pages and have underlined and highlighted sentences of others; intense caring and happy carelessness have marked them.

(You should see how he has devoured Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume The Story of Civilization: as my prayerbook says, he has “read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested” them. And typed up his margin notes and favorite quotes.)

They have not betrayed me as others have, or as I have betrayed others. They are precious to me, free of sin, free of wordly corruption. But they are still things, objects, lifeless chunks of stuff. And Buddha says I should not be attached to such things. But here is my rationalization . . . no, I will be brave. Here is my reason that books—the unculled books, the surviving tomes—are not a violation of the Dharma of the Buddha. They are my rosary. Each book a bead. Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain is the first book in which I underlined passages. It was the start of me as a thinking, judging person. Then, P.G. Wodehouse as a primer for humour. Hunter S. Thompson for passion, The Durants for discipline, Shakespeare for poetry, Brautigan for beauty, Batman for perseverance, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City for subimity, Will Eisner for heroism among the grime of life. Each book is a bead in the rosary, and as it stands on my shelf, I pray through each tome I’ve read by simply looking at the spine. I refresh and remind my soul of the giants who have come before me and bathe in those silent past hours of exultation, quiet communion with people I have never met who wrote words my soul will never forget. So. If I can have a Buddha statue to aid my meditation, then I can have Lizard Music by Daniel M. Pinkwater as an aid to my mental struggle. These are objects. But so am I. If they pass from this earth, as I know they will, as I will, I will not be lessened Attachment? Am I attached? To Mark Twain? To P.G. Wodehouse. To Shakespeare. To Willian and Ariel Durant, to Richard Brautigan, to Hunter S. Thompson? To Alan More? To Kurt Busiek? You bet your ass I am. And Buddha’s okay with that. Because they’re not things, they’re me. And I am more than the sum of my library.

11214028_10100592273156670_944910788126848526_nI love this man.

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Karma and Dharma—Is there room for grace?

This is a direct response to John’s post on Karma and Dharma.

Karma, as John notes, is one of those “easy” Buddhist concepts—and, outside of Buddhism, often misused. There are analogous references to it in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.* Things like “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and their children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18:2) and “But just as all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the Lord will bring upon you all the bad things, until he has destroyed you from this good land that the Lord your God has given you.” (Joshua 23:15) But there are also challenges to that idea of “what goes around, comes around.” The book of Ecclesiastes is an existential meditation on the world not making the sense we think it should, and the book of Job is the classic, pretty much unresolved/unresolvable, meditation on the inherent unfairness of life. (The Jews and the Christians don’t have a concept of reincarnation, so any analogy to karma is kind of stuck either in this lifetime, or is passed through generations, which, it occurs to me points to what is for me a surprising individualism in Buddhism.)

Dharma could find its analogue in the Jewish law or, more essentially, in the covenant that God makes with the Hebrew people. It is that covenant that defines their being in the world and the expectations laid on them and on their God. I’ll admit, however, that this comparison is a bit of a stretch.

The thing, however, that sticks out for me in the reflections on Karma and Dharma is that I keep longing for Grace. Grace is a term that Christians throw around far too lightly, and it is far more scandalous than we allow it to be. Our instincts say that justice means balancing the scales (and the command “an eye for an eye” is meant to be just that kind of balancing retribution) and that evildoers must get their comeuppance. Grace, however, means that love is always waiting for us, that forgiveness is always possible, that nothing cannot be redeemed. To proclaim this in a world of senseless suffering is scandalous and those who are paying attention should always hear the word with some skepticism. For Christians, this grace proclaimed by a God who knows suffering, by a God who chose suffering, who chose to experience a finite, physical human life, and who paid the consequences of attempting to enact love in a specific time and place. Grace does not mean that we are not accountable; grace does not mean that we do not have to face our sin or denounce injustice; grace does not mean that we don’t have to do any work. Grace simply means that the door is always open, the light is always on, our supper is always ready and, as a profound theological treatise* says, it’s still warm.Maurice Sendak - Where The Wild Things Are-22

**Where the Wile Things Are, Maurice Sendak.

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Revenge of the Dharma

Being a Protestant Buddhist is not easy, but this is par for the course for me. I have chosen the difficult path so many times that, when the going gets easy, I get nervous. Often I have taken the road less travelled out of self-loathing. You see, that path is often less travelled for some damn good reasons. At the time, I did not see it as such. I thought I was being brave, noble, adventurous. I was being an idiot.

A few of those turns were positive choices, made from an honest desire to make me and the world better.

But not enough of them, and my Karma has been tainted by it.

Karma, succinctly defined, is the “sum total of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fates in future existences.” It’s probably the easiest term in Buddhist/Hindu philosophy to understand. It’s commonly used and surprisingly infrequently abused, unlike many other Buddhist concepts such as non-attachment and suffering.

Dharma, though it rhymes wonderfully with karma, is harder to understand. Firstly, the term is often spelled as Dhamma ( the Pali version, as opposed the Sanskrit Dharma). Beyondly, it has several meanings: the state of nature and the world as it is—not people’s own personal feelings about the world but the actual laws of nature that we learned and then forgot in Science class. Also Dharma can refer to the actual teachings of the Buddha to end suffering, which the Buddha said were gleaned from the state of the world and its nature (the first definition of Dharma).

Karma is the shit or shiny of your personal life you have made for yourself. Dharma is the background and stage for where you made the shit or the shiny.

The Buddhist must be true to Dharma, in both of its definitions. We have a duty to be true to the Dharma of the Buddha as well as the Dharma of the world. To not do so, to flout the laws of nature and the teachings of the Buddha, will assuredly lead to unhappiness for yourself and cause you to make others unhappy which creates bad Karma.

I have stored up a pile of bad Karma, and all my present goodness will not vanish it. It will take the same effort to change it as it did to create it. How do I know this? Dharma. Energy is never created or destroyed. This is a law of science. I can change this energy, but the work to do so must equal the work spent to turn the potential energy of good karma into the kinetic energy of bad karma .

Dharma defines the quality of Karma, for either bad or good.

Once again that fat, dead Bastard Buddha was completely and totally right.

There are people, two of them, in my life whom I love and want to love more. There are also two people, who don’t want me to love and who seek to make all things around me, in the most basic and uncolorful term, unpleasant. To confront those who oppose my love is feckless, as they seek confrontation and are adept at manipulating conflict to further hurt those I love. So I am doomed to be patient, and forced to not react as my passion would have me do.

It is the perfect revenge of Dharma.

It is the hardest thing for me to do.

And it is what I deserve.

Acting from passion, from the will of the moment caused me to hurt others, hurt myself and to become blind to my personal Dharma. And now, the only thing I can do to restore good karma in my life is the one thing that I consistently failed at, which earned me bad karma.

There’s a reason the symbol of Buddhism is a wheel.

Karma is a bitch, and so was I. But Dharma is a switch, and I will accept its lashes for it is but pain, and that is far preferable to suffering.

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Why I’m Not a Buddhist

It’s been interesting to discuss the differences between Christianity and Buddhism with John. As much respect as I have for the Buddhist path and for those who walk it, it’s not for me. While the conquering of ego is part of the Christian tradition (and, in my mind, of pretty much any religion tradition worth its salt), I need to begin with the reality of the individual and of a personal God. For me it is by going down deep into God’s very being as Love (one of the reasons the relational nature of the Trinity is so compelling to me) and into God’s love for me that I find the strength and courage to look at the ways that my ego gets in the way, tempts me to sin*, and separates me both from God and my neighbor (and even, paradoxically perhaps, my best self).

It has been essential for me to spend time in God’s love: God’s delight in my existence, the fact that God not only loves me, but LIKES me. This was a crucial part of doing the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises this past year. My students hear me preach about this all the time: we are beloved, unstintingly, irrevocably, joyfully. Only by trusting that love do I then feel strong enough to face down my demons: the ones that tell me I’m lazy or prideful or worthless or too awkward or unwelcome. Only by hearing God’s voice chuckle at my foibles—that laugh that is full of forgiveness and patience—can I know that it is possible face down my sin, that I can look into my own abysses and not die of shame or fear.

My individual self and God’s unfathomable personal nature** are essential to my ability to live and thrive in this marvelous and horrifying world. And yet, there are echos of John’s path in my own, particularly in Jesus’ call to die to self and in the strange, circular language Jesus uses in the Gospel of John (“[B]ecause I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” John 14:19b-20). I love that the paths are so close that they call out to each other, yet will never be the same path.

*Sin is one of those baggage-laden words and a concept I think is crucial. I’m sure we’ll be talking about that one before long.

(**I mean, really, the idea that the force behind this infinite cosmos—and the multiverses we now suspect exist—interacts with me individually and uniquely is kind of ridiculous, if you really, REALLY think about it.)

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Jesus and Buddha Walk into a Bar

I had a lot of hesitation in the last entry concerning the comparison between Christianity and Buddhism. Partially because I don’t want to enter in a debate about which is superior, but I think mostly because I have been hanging around University of Chicago stujc_angelheadofapindents. These guys will not only debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but what type of material they should have on their feet to provide the best molecular cohesion to the head of the pin and where such shoes can be purchased from Ethical, Free Trade and Organic providers.

Now I do understand that this is the nature of any academic life, and it is necessary to dissect and discuss and dissect again, and that there is a joy in discerning the minute details of minute-er topics. But it drives me up the friggin’ wall. Especially when matters of Faith and Art are concerned. Art is subjective, and it can be whatever you need or want it to be. To debate it is feckless. Is religion and theology subjective? In an academic sense, yes. But in truth, in the purpose of it, in the need of it, no. There is an objective need in the human life that religion fills.

When I think about writing on the differences between Christianity and Buddhism, I hear the students start to debate me. Refuting and clarifying, adjusting and delineating obscure points. I have seen this often done. And when all this is done, the original point has been swept under a huge carpet of rhetoric and ego.

The ego is one of the main enemies of a life without suffering. The idea that we are an individual, and individual that is unchanging and permanent, leads us to wants and desires that bring us suffering. In the intellectual pursuits, the Ego is rewarded and encouraged and fed as much as it is in any other pursuit. You win, you are smart, you are better, you are right. And to be proven wrong is the worst thing ever! Some rise above this, but many get lost in the sea of the need to achieve, a necessary navigation in a world that must be funded by grants and scholarships.

But every idea, every advancement, every new discovery exists on the back of a thousand other discoveries, and that new idea is dependent on them. The link in the chain should never think itself greater than the chain. But we are forced to do just that by the business of academics. Often In the same breath I have seen academic resources praise the eternal selflessness of the Intellectual life while extolling the “singular” gifts of a individual person. Can you have it both ways?

Of course you can. Especially when you realize that you have nothing.

Welcome to Buddhism.

Buddhism acknowledges that we live in a world full of distractions and pain, but it insists that we can rise above it. At no point, however, does the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) say it is easy. There are many aspects of Buddhism that contradict themselves, as there are in the Christian faith as well. Comparing these contradictions, I have discovered the truth that paradox is necessary for enlightenment. For the ultimate truth for all spiritual matters is that the Whole of the universe is greater than the sum of its parts. This is a paradox that even an atheist must accept. But to get to the truth of it, we must blast away at the “parts” in our minds and lives, to achieve the “sum” we wish.

I used to mock Christianity for what I deemed ridiculous paradoxes (or “hypocrisies,” as my atheist self loved to shout), like the Trinity. Then I found similar ideas in Buddhism. I get it now. You don’t have to understand a thing to achieve an understanding of it, and sometimes the best definitions are those that are undefined. Not because the truth behind it is ultimately unknowable, but because the truth behind it is eternal and infinite, and we will spend a joyous lifetime discovering the knowable unknowable and the undefined definition. Let us not place limits on that joy.

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Guess What I’m Thinking?

This has been a very hard post to write. But beginnings are important things.   I am not sure how much to share with the world my own Journey with the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Each of us must find his own answers, and to dictate my experiences might color your own. Each of us is an amalgam of a thousand thousand causes and effects, and these result in the illusion of an individual that must be tackled and brought to Nirvana in its own way. My path is not yours, should not be yours and can never be yours. Our guide may be the same. But the Guide himself taught us that if, while on the road to Nirvana, we meet him, kill him. We do not share a path with even the Gautama Buddha himself.

Also in a less spiritual vein, I do not want to bore the shit out of you with another interminable blogessay about how great I art and how wonderful Buddha is and isn’t it wonderful that Stacy and I share so much. Though we do, and we love to be insufferably in love with each other, almost to the point of sinning. Almost.

I will work this out, but as a first post I would like to talk about the strength of weakness. The power of distraction, the mountain of the individual that exists within us by that cause and effect thing I talked about earlier, as it led to an interesting conjunction between Stacy’ s prayer life and mine.

In her Ignatian practice, she is led through a narrative which gives her insight into her spiritual life. For me, I am trying to rid my mind of narrative, and to discover the essence of what I am, the irreducible element that cannot be changed or altered. As I meditate, numerous distractions fly at me from numerous directions. As I attempt to clear my mind of nothing but my breath, daily chores distract me, things I have to do distract me, hopes for the future distract me, small sounds around me distract me. But most interesting have been the MindPlays.

I have achieved some success in calming my mind. And when I do, with my eyes closed, these MindPlays start to assert themselves. I am not dreaming, I am not asleep, and yet these scenes take place that are not any of the mundane distractions. They are visceral and carry a strong feeling of reality. An old woman will come to me from her oven and hand me a plate of fresh cookies. A little girl will approach me needing me to pick her up. A old man will need help folding a sheet and hold out one end to me for my assistance. There are other scenarios, but the end desire of these MindPlays is that I physically get up, that I reach out, that I open my eyes: that I break the position of my meditative stance.

I have had a . . . difficult past. I have led a wrong life, and this path is deep and rutted. It fights me as I try to break out of the gouges in the dirt road my actions have made for me. So much so that it will make these word plays whose only purpose are to break me out of my meditative state.

But this manifestation has sown the seeds of its own destruction, for it has made itself known to me, and that means I can kill it. I can see it fighting, I can feel its presence in a way I could not before. It has also shown its fear of meditation, and this revelation has been a joy to witness.

I have a long way to go, but I now have a way.

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Never say never

So a middle-aged divorced mother of two, who also happens to be a priest, despairing of ever finding a partner who isn’t freaked out by one of her modifying adjectives, signs up for OKCupid. She goes on a few dates with some guys who are all good, decent folk, but there’s no spark. One day she gets a message that someone has rated her profile 4 or 5 stars! She goes back to read his profile with more care, nodding as she goes at his interests, his wordplay, his handsome face, only to find, at the very, very end, this sentence: “No theology students.” So, with a little trepidation—she didn’t usually out herself as clergy in the first email—she writes him, saying that yes, she had been a theology student but that she had mastered divinity and had the paper to prove it. Was he still interested? He was. They had coffee. They went to a blues club. They debated theology and culture. They danced. And so began a strange adventure . . .

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