Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Company on the Road

Paula wrote:

I cling to Graham Greene's image in Brighton Rock of the homeless, toothless crone saying the rosary in a wintry alley, glimpsed by the long lapsed Catholic anti-hero of the story, a young murderous punk who is strangely unsettled by the sight. I posit her against hierarchies of brocaded clerics, obsessively defended liturgies and the salvific claims of various personal pieties and devotions ( Morning and evening prayer from the 1979 prayer book ? I prefer the pre-Conciliar Breviarum Romanum. In Latin, of course. ). I posit her, even, against the trans-religious contemplative claims -- that union with God, that enlightenment, that realization is reserved for the handful who master all the practices, who make it through all the gates and who play by all the rules. That's simply a sophisticated version of the Rapture.

I take some deep breaths, and resolve to resume meditating and go back to my sangha -- or some meditating community -- once a week. It's been a long time, and I'm glad I stepped away from it. I had a lot to try and to settle. But it's time to go back. And these moments -- these pause-at-the-diving-board-ladder moments -- are a good time to review what the hell you think you are doing.

One thing I am not doing is seeking enlightenment, that “sophisticated version of the Rapture.” I don't believe the process of meditation has, or should have, an endpoint, and I think Paula's point is well-taken: there's a smug elitist streak in institutional Buddhism (as in all human endeavors), and it reaches its highest concentration in the notion of enlightenment and perfect masters. And while I've always been grateful for Buddhism's calm, practical recognition that a well-ordered state and a working economy make religious life easier -- that's why so many prayers express gratitude for not having been born in a border country, where life is nasty, brutish, and short -- the flip side of that is a hopeless structural confusion of secular and spiritual ambitions. If you get extraordinarily lucky, someone like the present Dalai Lama appears at the top, which could give you the impression that this whole system is guaranteed to work. It is not, and I don't endorse it. Of course I'm devoted to the Dalai Lama: who wouldn't be? But I'm not devoted to the office, nor to the structure that supports it. My Protestant background, with its radical democratic ethos, its distrust of of authority, its conviction that a lot of smug people are going to be pretty damned surprised on judgment day, won't let me be any more than a fellow-traveller with Tibetan Buddhism.

But if they're willing to have me, I'm happy to put my Canterbury pony alongside theirs, and jog along, sharing stories on the road. I could go find one of those radical Vipassana outfits, who eschew story and ritual, the modern-day puritans of Buddhist practice, and be more intellectually at ease. But intellectual ease is not what I'm looking for: I'm looking for a practice that lessens my suffering and increases my clarity. And for company on the road.

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