Saturday, October 01, 2005

Paths not Taken

Moose asked -- Dale, if you're up for it, I'd be interested to hear about how you came to choose Tibetan Buddhism. I mean, of the various paths, why that particular one?

I've been trying to answer this question, and finding it surprisingly difficult. I've been jotting down bits and pieces of an answer all day, but it hasn't come together very happily. There are two answers, really, a historical one and a theoretical one. The historical answer is simple -- I just happened to fall in with Tibetan Buddhists, and since they provided everything I was looking for in a religious tradition, I looked no further. I don't -- I can't emphasize this too strongly -- consider Tibetan Buddhism to be superior to other kinds of Buddhism, and and I don't consider Buddhism to be superior to other religions. But there are of course reasons beyond historical accident for my having landed here.

One of the things I noted down was a list of the other contenders -- other paths that have caught my attention at various times. This may serve as the beginning of an answer to Moose's question. There's a kind of cartoon-style here that I cringe at a bit, but I suspect it will convey a more accurate picture of how that paths appeared to me than a more sophisticated version. So herewith a survey of paths not taken.


Theravadin Buddhism. It was a Theravadin, Walpola Rahula, who turned me into a Buddhist. I read his book, What the Buddha Taught, and found it overwhelmingly convincing. In many ways, I remain grounded with the Theravadins. Their simplicity and humility appeals strongly to me. I am confused and suffering and I want it to stop. It may not be grandly noble, but on the other hand, it's a hard foundation to build arrogance on. Ignorant Mahayana practitioners, and even some who should know better, fault the Theravadins for not cultivating compassion. This is nonsense, on a level with saying that Jews don't value forgiveness. Had I happened to encounter an inspiring Theravadin teacher or community I would probably have stayed with them happily.


Zen Buddhism. Zen appeals for many reasons. It's cosmopolitan, the product of a several very sophisticated civilizations. (As opposed to Tibetan Buddhism, which is the product of two rich but rather isolated, provincial, and culturally unsophisticated ones.) Much of the greatest Buddhist literature and art is Zen. Zen shrines are beautiful. Tibetan shrines are gaudy and clashing and rococo and -- not to put too fine a point upon it -- ugly. You will look in vain, in the Tibetan tradition, for a poet of Basho's stature or an artist of Hakuin's.

Zen has spent centuries sharpening its intellectual claws on Taoist and Confucian philosophy. I like its insistence on the moment, on enlightenment not as the end-goal of an orderly training program, but as something that might come along and whup you upside the head at any moment. And I like the austerity of its practice tradition. Tibetan Buddhism has thousands of different kinds of meditative disciplines -- Zen has basically one.

There are also things I don't like about Zen. There is sometimes, to my nose, a whiff of machismo to it. Sometimes a tinge of contempt for people who are intellectually weak or fearful, which appeals strongly to a certain sort of academic, but appeals to me not at all. (This is not something I've seen in Zen teachers or longtime Zen students -- not that I've known many -- but Zen seems to be particularly appealing to young men with something to prove.)


Taoism. Taoism is in some ways a strong contender, and always has been. I was sixteen when I was blown away by the Tao te Ching (or Dao de Jing, or whatever transliterators would like us to say, nowadays.) My reading of Lao Tzu was my first encounter with a contemplative, and a formative one. I didn't really know the difference between Buddhism and Taoism then, and I still today discover bits of Taoist poetry and philosophy mis-shelved in the Buddhist section of my mind, where they have been shedding light and causing confusion for decades.

I find its insistence on original innocence and the rightness of the natural world both very appealing and very problematic. It shares the Eden myth with Christianity, and I don't much like the Eden myth, for a few thousand reasons. But my real problem with Taoism is simply that its contemplative tradition isn't available to me. Whether it's died out, I couldn't say, but I do know that I've never encountered a Taoist master or a Taoist institution that appeared to me to hold the accumulated lore of its meditation tradition. As far as "what" and "why," Taoism can hold its own with any other tradition, for me, but when we get to "how," it doesn't offer much.


Catholicism. Catholicism never really had a chance with me, because I didn't even really know it had a living contemplative tradition until I was pretty well steeped in Buddhism. I think all my readers, including my Catholic ones, will understand why someone who wasn't born Catholic would find taking it on a rather tall order, especially for someone who doesn't (I think) believe in God. Now what would have happened had I read Thomas Merton at age sixteen, rather than Lao Tzu, we can only speculate.


Protestant Christianity. Or what, for me, could reasonably be called C.S. Lewisism. This is my cultural home, and largely my emotional and intellectual home as well. But there's a hitch to it. You have to subscribe to the belief that Jesus is God (in a way that the rest of us are not.) It's not enough to say, "well, I don't see why he couldn't be." Probably no one has had more influence over my religious habits of mind than C.S. Lewis, but we just don't agree on the facts. (There's another hitch, to wit, that there's no contemplative tradition to go with it, beyond free-form improvisational prayer.)


(Later.) I've hesitated several days about posting this. There's something horribly arrogant about shopping for a religious tradition -- "How does this fit? Does it go with my shoes? Is Jesus good enough for me, or do I prefer the Buddha?" But a lot of us find ourselves in this position willy-nilly, having been raised in no religious tradition, or in one that we revolted against, or in one so tentatively held and vaguely defined that it simply went away with childhood. We end up shopping whether we like it or not.

Paths that aren't on this list -- which are far more numerous than the ones that are -- aren't there simply because I never had a meaningful encounter with them in my formative years -- not because I examined them and rejected them.

I guess this list forms a negative portrait of what I was looking for. I didn't want to roll my own religious path -- I don't feel smart enough or strong enough. Anything I made would be too rickety to hold my weight. I wanted something ancient, for several reasons: in large part, I have to admit, just because I love ancient things, but also because an ancient tradition has had to accommodate lots of different personality-types and different cultures; it's less formed by the fashion of the moment and generally more roomy and comfortable. I wanted something with a living contemplative tradition -- I knew I wanted to meditate, and, with uncharacteristic sense, I recognized early that meditation was not something best learned from books. It's an art, and an art is best learned by a) doing it and b) studying with masters. And finally, I wanted an inspiring teacher. I wanted someone who was a living demonstration and reminder that it's possible to have a life that is not submerged in fretting and craving. I found all those things seven or eight years ago, improbably enough, at a Tibetan Buddhist center in Portland, Oregon. That I suppose is another post.

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