Monday, March 08, 2004

The trouble, you see, is that I don't know what's what. Or maybe it's that I don't want to know what's what.

There's a piece of just plain dumb anti-clericalism. I am Presbyterian by culture, Atheist by upbringing, Puritan by temperament. So when my Sangha gets serious about fundraising for a retreat center -- a place where we can raise our own lamas -- I get all twitchy. It's so -- so -- Catholic, you know? We'll be importing a church hierarchy (the Presbyterian shudders), formalizing a leap of faith (the Atheist recoils), and depending on external forms to work internal changes (the Puritan winces.)

Then there's the piece of pure jealousy. Goodbye to being in the inner circle. Already the people who go annually to India to do retreat with the lineage-in-exile have gradually superseded me and Martha as core members of the Sangha. Or so it seems to Martha. I can't tell. But when half my spiritual community disappears for November, and comes back wearing their new blessing cords and sharing a history I'm not part of, I feel a little woebegone. And now some of them will disappear for three years into a cloistered retreat. How wide a gulf of unshared experience will that open between us?

Then there's the Zen piece. Doing anything special is suspect, one more form of entertainment. All this business about raising money and buying land and building buildings is just one more way of not practicing. Of not facing up to the horrors of the ordinary. Of being unable to face the blank wall and be alone with our minds. (Calling this Zen, my Zen readers no doubt will recognize, has little or nothing to do with Zen, which has a very strong retreat tradition itself, and everything to do with the way Tibetan practitioners stereotype Zen practice as stern, no-nonsense, and iconoclastic.)

Then there's what I think of as the American pragmatic "good-works" tradition. What you do is what you are. Actions speak louder than words. Who cares about sitting in a box thinking generating perfect generosity? Compassion is only real if it manifests in the world. One person who shares his sandwich with a hungry dog is worth all the pious mala-twiddlers in the world.

Now, I have perfectly sufficient -- in most cases, slam-dunk -- intellectual answers to all these. They change my mind, but they don't succeed so well in turning my heart.

Ironic, maybe, that my volunteer work for the sangha has largely been for this project (I keep up a database for it), which I've never been able to raise enthusiasm for. We've bought the land -- beautiful land in Central Washington. We've already put work into it -- my daughter planted scores of trees; my wife took down old barb-wire fencing, I lugged slash to burn-piles -- and we were very minor workers, every once in a while. Other people have poured their lives into this work.

For one evening, early last week, I was on a fund-raising strategy committee. I bailed in panic. And I keep pushing to understand why. It's plain to me that I keep inventing reasons why I shouldn't support this project, or this committee, and that they are remarkably stupid reasons. What's the real resistance here? Is it just the dread of having my free time absorbed? Of having time commitments to the Dharma and to Martha finally come openly into conflict? Or am I simply afraid that at some point I'll have to ask for something, actually call somebody on the phone and ask them for money? (At the mere thought that, my heart shrivels.)

One thing is plain: there's a failure of courage in this, somewhere. I know this feeling intimately. It's the sensation of cowardice, the most horrible sensation I know.

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