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Monday, November 29, 2010

Religion To Identify

As human beings, it is in our nature to form relationships. We do this so that we can identify ourselves; we all want to “be somebody.” As we grow up, we are subjected to all types of people, groups, styles, cliques, political parties...etc. We are conditioned to believe certain things about each, and we decide exactly how we want to portray ourselves. Basically, we are all just playing a role. Then our lives are spent trying to uphold that image of ourselves, as we are cast in the play of life, according to the script. If you think about that, it’s exactly correct.

Religion is just another form of identification, another character trait. This one, in particular, displays morals. Being a member of a church says, “I am a good person, or at least I’m trying to be; you could tell by the fish symbol on my car or the cross around my neck.” or “If I was a bad person, would I be walking to Temple wearing a small hat.” (If this type of rhetoric is offensive to you then I’m sure I will be adequately punished by your loving God.....unless of course, my God has a say in the matter.)   

This is not a conscious decision, necessarily, unless you are purposely trying to cover a certain lifestyle or purifying your image in the eyes of, say, a judge or a parole board or a possible mother-in-law. Most church-goers attend mass in accordance with who they think they are or want to be. The antithesis, I suppose, would be joining a biker gang. (Please don’t tell me you could be in a biker gang and go to church, too.) I caught a glimpse of how this took place with Christianity, as it became an organization known as the Catholic Church, when I first began to attend a Buddhist Zendo in West Palm Beach, Fl.

The congregation, when at full strength, consisted of only about 20 people, with a “pastor” and a handful of devotees. The practice of sitting in meditation is called Zazen, which is much different from the political rallies known as “mass” in the Western world. It took place inside a church of some Christian denomination, who compassionately leased the space to these poor souls, who would obviously never reach eternal happiness by worshiping a Chinese god (which is not at all what was happening). Besides the obvious violation of their number one rule, clearly set aside for the parishioners and not the governing body, whose duty it is to maximize profits, the arrangement is a no-brainer.

Actually, small Buddhist gatherings like this take place all over the country in rented areas that provide adequate cover. They are simply a group of aspirants who are looking for the salvation and truth that they aren’t receiving from their religions, which are all based on the same “rules” and all insist that their God is more loving and more peaceful than the next, while they murder each other to prove it.

(Looking for alternatives, Islam has positioned itself as an evil religion in the eye of the West, although it is about politics, not God. Islam is a perfect identity for those who oppose, or feel slighted by, the US, such as African Americans, but it is only a different spin on the exact same story.)

It wasn’t until the latter part of the twentieth century, when a guy name Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi brought Zen Buddhism across the Pacific to the United States. When Suzuki arrived in San Francisco in the 60’s, there was only one place where Zen Buddhism was practiced, an old Jewish Synagogue, no doubt allotted them through some financial arrangement.

He started igniting much interest throughout the beatnik community, especially after being mentioned in Alan Watts’ writings. It spread quickly, considering Suzuki’s fear that the mind-set in the West is not prepared to receive it.  Although I have no doubt as to the validity of the teachings, I must believe that the majority of these new, hippie-Buddhists saw this as yet another identity for those who opposed government views.

(I’ve outlined the allure of Buddhist teachings, which seem to trim the fat and leave out the stories that have been manipulated over the centuries. It was this idea of God as a principle, a source of life and true love, and the essence of everything that attracted me to the teaching, but I made the same fundamental mistake of identifying myself with it. When asked my religious affiliation, I would proudly answer, “Buddhism,” as if I had found something they had not. That is the ego.)

Now, I’ve described the lure of this practice many times before; it is certainly a less mysterious and less confusing path to eternal life, for those who are serious about finding it, but then again, so were the teachings of Christ compared to the Old Testament, as we see by Jesus’ consolidation of ten laws into only two. Of course, once removed from those who were truly touched by Him, Christianity became only something to identify with. People began to declare proudly that they were Christian. There’s the ego again. So, I guess I’m comparing the emergence of Zen Buddhism in California to that of Christianity in first century Jerusalem. ( I won’t go as far as saying that Suzuki is  Jesus Christ, although it would fit the analogy. Both brought a new way to connect with God to a region that had been previously misguided, coincidentally by the same book.)

It should be obvious by now exactly how Zen Buddhism became popular in the U.S. It came at a time when Americans were actively looking for anything to identify with that was anti-establishment, or just plain different. They needed God, as we all do, but to succumb to religion of the evil empire, which was causing massive bloodshed for apparently no reason, was unacceptable. Remember, this is also the time when Scientology was popular, a radical religious cult among the Hollywood personnel, so it’s no surprise that Buddhism, endorsed by the most influential beatnik writers, would catch on.

I’m afraid Suzuki’s fears may have been warranted. I think perhaps Americans, and most people in the First-World today, have been far too hypnotized by their egos to truly accept Buddhism as a whole. Of course, I am not suggesting that those who have picked up where Suzuki left off and who write, teach, and practice zazen in the U.S., as taught by Buddhist monks in the East, are frauds. In fact, I know this isn’t true. It is the idea of Buddhism as a religion that I’m skeptical of. Buddha’s instructions are simply philosophical principles, called “metaphysics,” which morphed into the term “science” when testing methods became stronger and more verifiable, around the 17th century with our pals, Newton and Galileo. A religion is just a group, with which one could identify--another group.

I’ve seen it. After about 3 months of my own zazen practice, which basically consists of sitting meditation, some walking meditation, and chants, I started to become recognizable to the rest. It was a very nice connection, by the way. There isn’t much chatter within these congregations; nobody is adamant about telling you who they are or what they do or why. Nobody asks either. The alliance is formed in silence, so much so that it was almost surreal to go out into the everyday world with them, as if that Orthodox (or whatever) church that was paying dividends to the landlord on the religions off-time was a porthole to ancient China.

That’s how I felt when they asked me to follow everyone to the bagel shop up the road for some light breakfast and small talk.

Back to the practice, quickly, because I was new to the whole thing, I had great difficulty quieting my mind and inviting myself into a meditative state. I was understanding the principles and experiencing some decent moments of insight, but to stop the incessant complaining, worrying, planning, calculating, and daydreaming will all but impossible. I was fixated in the past or the future and could not stay in the present, and even though I understood when they said things like: “observe yourself...,” when your mind won’t shut up, that all sounds like rhetoric. Still, it was therapeutic; it was necessary. Of course, though, in my mind I was the only one, out of the six who came to sit that day, who couldn’t achieve a complete state of oneness with the Divine. (Yeah, right.)

Because it was such a small group, including the Master (the main guy who had the key to the place), I was attending this breakfast with the inner circle of the Zendo. Besides the Master, Doshin, there were his number one and two, both women, a couple of zendo regulars, one of whom was writing a book and who taught me to sit with the correct posture and some new chick. I had never seen her before, but apparently she knew everyone well. By the time we got to the bagel place, I realized that it was her cell phone that had gone off repeatedly during the half-hour of silent Zazen. She must have forgotten to shut it off.

Listen, she was a nice enough lady for sure. It’s just how quickly it dawned on me that we weren’t going to have a deep discussion about a chapter in Suzuki’s book at a table for six at Joe’s Bagels. (Suzuki is revered for bringing Buddhism to the West) These were very much normal people and more so, normal Americans. They spoke of their small congregation and the plans they had in store for it. I detected nothing but sincerity, but I could see that the new girl was not “into it.” She was anxious, often going outside to use the phone. She claimed she was in a rush and was constantly checking her watch.

I don’t want to sound self-righteous. I wasn’t expecting her to be some sort of sage, but she was ordained as a priest! I know this because she flaunted it proudly, as if her team won the trophy in the bowling league. Let me put it this way, she spoke about Buddhism like it was a social club, gossiping about the members of her “new” congregation, where it was obvious that she was involved in the see? Politics, again. Add to this, the classy business suit, her rudeness to the waiter, and her overall persona which screamed out, “I’m avant garde from New York City, and I’m very worldly. In fact, I’m an ordained Buddhist!”and I saw a socialite who caught on to something with which to identify.

Now, this woman isn’t hurting anybody, and like I said, she is a nice person all in all. It just shows how the Divine principle becomes a group, and lost souls (all of us) long to identify with groups. They are attracted to it; they want to express themselves in it; government loves to “gather” constituents, and there you have a religion. Only God isn’t involved anymore. 

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Thanks for reading that. Please add some comments, give an opinion, ask questions, disagree. I would love a healthy discussion on this, not to find a winner in this debate, but to find the truth.

- Professor Plume

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