Monday, January 29, 2007

A Commitment

For a long time I have resisted calling myself a Buddhist, even though I have been following a Buddhist meditation practice for more than ten years now, and have attended a number of retreats under the aegis of several different teachers. For a while, I was the primary reviewer of mostly popular new Buddhist books for the Los Angeles Times, and I have read fairly widely in this literature. I still feel, however, largely ignorant of the religious aspects of Buddhism, and have in all honesty shied away from this deeper knowledge.

There are a number of reasons for this. The first, and surely the predominant, is the fact that I was brought up in a Christian home, the son of an Anglican country priest, and was sent from an early age to schools with a strongly Anglican bent. In part this was because my father could not afford the steep fees commanded by private schools and, in choosing a private school education for his son, opted for establishments that allowed respectable discounts to the sons of clergy. The story is unhappily a familiar one--almost, really a cliche: boy gets overdose of religion in his tender years and adolescence, and vows to chuck it all in as soon as he achieves the independence of his majority.

That's what I did. From the age of six I was a choirboy, a server, an acolyte. Religious services, at my school, were compulsory twice a day and three times on Sunday. When I left "public" (read private) school and went to Cambridge University, I lost all interest in religious matters, particularly those having to do with going to church, singing hymns, kneeling down to pray, and receiving wafers at the communion rail. No matter that the kindly Dean of my college took a friendly interest in this son of a brother clergyman, I avoided his sherry parties and never once, I think, set foot in the glorious college chapel.

Along with that cliche came another: the rejection of religion on philosophical grounds. I was a teenager in the 1950s, a student of French literature--and indeed of everything French. I gobbled up Jean-Paul Sartre hook, line and sinker. I dressed in existentialist black and smoked Gauloise cigarettes. I forgive myself. I was a youngster. I was angry for a variety of reasons--perhaps most angry for having been sent to a "good" school and exposed to all the cruelties inflicted in that environment on a sensitive young man who hated sports and wanted to be a poet.

I was also an ardent socialist. I realize that this has become a dirty word in the country of my adoption, but it was a political attitude that I inherited from my father--in compensation, perhaps, for the religion I rejected. I was leery of the communism embraced by Sartre and his ilk, since enough was known already at that time of the unconscionable, inhumane, and even murderous manifestation of that political philosophy in the Soviet Union. But a good socialist concern for social equality and justice seemed unquestionable to this lad of privilege who had received the best of educations at public school and Cambridge and who spoke with a very nice upper middle class accent.

Religion, then, was intellectually beneath me. I was too smart, too worldly wise, too sophisticated to bow down to somebody's idea of a God who lived up there in heaven and ordained the doings of the world. I rejected not only the Christianity of my father, but all religions, attributing to them most of the injustices and sorrows of the world. The Holocaust, a fresh memory in those days, seemed to me--as it did to many others--conclusive evidence that if God existed he was pretty much a disaster as an overseer of events here on earth, deserving more of scorn than abject worship.

So I abandoned religion, and for more years than I care to count dismissed it from my life. I have still not reconciled with Christianity. Nor have I, indeed, acquired a great deal of respect for any of the Gods who seem to inspire human beings with the most despicable of words and deeds. It was not until the sixth decade of my life that I began, for the first time, really, to give serious thought to these matters.

I am just now back from a silent meditation retreat in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The first entry in what I intend to be a series in this nascent weblog (see below,) consists of direct quotations from our teacher, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, scribbled down by myself as he spoke extemporaneously. Those little "poems" will give, I hope, some sense of the depth of his wisdom, his humanity, and his humor. Along with the rest of the experience of those three days, they have inspired in me the intention to change the direction of my writing practice.

In the past three years I have been preoccupied with a very different weblog, "The Bush Diaries," which I have described as a daily, somewhat irreverent "conversation" with the current occupant of the White House in our nation's capital. Needless to say, I have been less than delighted with his performance, but I have tried to be guided, in what I write, by the spirit of compassion that is a great part of Buddhist values. This journal will be different. This one starts with the simple admission that I embrace the teachings of the Buddha, and will explore the implications of that embrace in my daily life and practice. I do not promise to write in this journal every single day, as I have done with The Bush Diaries. But I do set the intention, as of this date and time, to make it a regular part of my life's work.

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