Thursday, April 20, 2006

Soldier Of The Dharma, Part I: Suffering

"Snow on pine branches
Melts and runs away with spring.
Truth is evergeen."

--S. M.

I was raised Catholic, but on my dogtags I'm listed as Buddhist.

I know what you must be thinking, but trust me, it's not really as strange as it sounds. I've always been an intensely spiritual person. I was raised in a strong Catholic family, and though it's been years since last I took Mass, to this day I respect the solemnity and quiet grace of those childhood Sunday rituals.

I went to several churches and Bible schools as a child, but nothing in my youth affected me more than staring at the old Irish and Polish women sitting up front, clutching their rosaries, silently mouthing the words to each and every sacred litany. By comparison, Sunday mornings at church with my Protestant friends seemed to amount to little more than "Grape Juice and Graham Crackers With Jesus." It's discomforting to think that organized religion ropes today's children in with snack food. No, from an early age, my impression of spirituality was one of devotion, introspection, and silent contemplation of the Divine. These days, I tend to think that that idea has been lost.

I was a fairly inquisitive kid, the sort in whom spirituality often takes deep root. I was also very bright for my age; by 8 years old I'd taken to reading the works of physicist Stephen Hawking. Like many boys that age, I had an intense fascination with dinosaurs, but unlike most boys, this fasination led me to an almost fanatical study of the natural sciences. Paleontology, Archaeology, Biology, Geology; by the time I was 10, I'd read an entire set of 1974 World Book Encyclopedias, cover to cover.

Of course, in the hands of a ten-year-old, such natural curiosity tends to spell the death of blind faith. So it was with me. As I grew older, I continued to attend church off and on, but aside from a few brief "revivals," I came to view the ceremony and piety of Mass somehow lacking. Time and time again, I read through the Bible, but the answers I found within those pages didn't match the questions that I was asking. It wasn't that I stopped believing in God, by any means. Rather, the view of God that I found in the Bible came to seem strangely narrow and short-sighted. In high-school, I asked my mother how God could be anything other than flawed or limited, when His Word--said to be transmitted in its entirety--was communicated by flawed human hands, and its teachings interpreted by limited human minds. She couldn't respond, but instead tried to direct me to the local priest. I wasn't having it. I started attending Mass less often, and by the time I had graduated, I had more or less abandoned my Christian faith.

As I began to slowly shed the spiritual vestments of my upbringing, I sought to fill the vacuum with a philosophy that might more easily align with the world I saw around me. I studied a number of different religions, each as hollow as the last.

Evangelical Christianity? Too creepy and apocalyptic.

Islam? No mosques in my area. I doubt that God has the time to condemn me for eating a pork chop.

Judaism? See Islam. Besides, it's so hard to find a nice Jewish girl these days. Ask my old roommate.

Paganism? Too heavy on the religious symbols, plus male practicioners are kind of a minority. The ones I knew tended to carry heavy emotional baggage.

Scientology? Don't think so. L. Ron Hubbard couldn't write science-fiction worth using as toilet paper, and I'm not going to let a writer that crappy dictate how I live.

Atheism? Too trendy. All style, no substance. I doubted that Nietschze really got laid that often.

As one can imagine, after a while I started to get depressed. Faith and the intellectual mind tend to make for uneasy bedfellows. Along the line though, starting at around the age of 15, I started examining various shades of Eastern philosophy, and as I moved into college, I found myself slowly coming to embrace Buddhism.

I had always found Buddhist thought compelling, for several reasons. For one thing, rather than drawing its teaching from a MORAL code--which dictates that the basic good is laid out by a Divine authority (see Augustine, Aquinas, Kant)--many Buddhist sects, I discovered, drew their teachings from ETHICAL mandates. That is to say, they focused on a greater good centered around basic human kindness and social dynamics. Buddhist philosophy assumes that people don't need to be bribed or threatened in order to behave themselves. Score one point.

Moving on into my studies, I came to notice that Good and Evil--two flawed concepts deeply woven into our cultural perspective--were virtually ignored in Buddhist philosophy. In Buddhist thought, good and evil are value judgements. Instead, human extremes are weighed in terms of Suffering, Attachment, and Compassion. Everyone suffers, everything dies, and everyone struggles in vain to hold onto that which inevitably fades from memory. The only way to escape Suffering is to simply let go of those things, and show all living things the same level of Compassion that they equally deserve in this Life. As for details like Reincarnation and Karma, those are concepts whose importance varies wildly from one Buddhist school to another, an idea I'll get into here shortly. But I digress.

I spent a few years researching Buddhism, off and on, but for all the ways that it appealed to my particular worldview, I found that for a long time I could never fully embrace it. For one thing, I worried that people might see me as being flaky or "New Age;" never mind the fact that Buddhism is fully five-hundred years older than Christianity. For another, it was hard for me to find a place to begin studying. Buddhism, particularly Japanese Zen Buddhism, is a philosophy which really depends on the relationship between teacher and student. Buddhist philosophy teaches its followers to achieve the same level of spiritual attainment as the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gauthama, a Hindu prince-turned-wandering-ascetic born in the kingdom of Sakya, in what is now modern-day Nepal. Without someone to guide my initial steps, it would have been nearly impossible to even find my place on the path, let alone walk it to the very end.

And then I came to the Lake Superior Zendo.

To be continued...

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