So. No God. And yet a yearning, for me, to somehow "make sense of it all"--for a bigger context in which to place this tiny manifestation of life which I'm given to live out. It pleases me to think that there is more than just this being born, growing old, and dying, and having no greater significance in the process than any other fragment of organic matter. I know that others find this form of consolation in their God and, some, in their conviction that a good life, free from pain and suffering, awaits them when they leave this world. Usually, for believers, this is "heaven." The other place is reserved for... well, others.
My own parents shared this belief--not perhaps so much in eternal damnation, but certainly in a return to their God's loving arms. Their ashes now lie side by side in the graveyard of a tiny church overlooking the sea in a small village in Wales. It would be nice to think of the two of them wandering, ageless and at peace, hand in hand through the fields of paradise in their Christian heaven. But I think that's fantasy. Is it any more or less reasonable to believe in their return to another cycle of life on this earth, in some other form? My mother, particularly, was very fond of birds. (Birds. Hmmm... some Freudian reverberations here? I wonder...)
I think it's the suffering that all of us experience in this life that drives our need to imagine a "better place" to go to when we're finally released from it. Enter the Buddha, who learned through hard experience and shared with us his wisdom about suffering. His four noble truths teach us that suffering is unavoidable, since we are all subject to aging, sickness and death; that the origin of suffering lies in our attachment--whether to the desire for those things that please us or the avoidance of those that don't; that there is an achievable end to suffering; and that there is a path we can follow to achieve that end. Unfortunately, it does involve some work, some sacrifice, and an awful lot of honest self examination.
It was certainly a period of acute suffering in my life that led me in this direction. Since early manhood, I had drifted through life with relative impunity: youth tends to get you out of a good number of scrapes, and allows you to bounce back up with relative ease when you've been knocked down. I managed to breeze through it all quite nicely--as some of us are privileged to do--without God, or thoughts of God, or serious consideration of my own mortality, and without more than the average share of suffering: a broken heart now and then, the occasional worry about jobs or money... Until life slapped me with a challenge I couldn't easily brush off, or sidestep, or ignore. The story is no longer important here, though I have written about it in unsparing detail elsewhere. What matters is that I needed the kind of help for which some people turn to God. I found Buddhism.
At least, it was the form of Buddhism that was close at hand--the form practiced by a friend who offered it to me in a spirit of generous desire to help. I had known in a general way about meditation in the past--especially in the 1960s and early 1970s, when there was a surge of interest in Eastern religions and philosophies--but had never seriously entertained the idea of trying it myself. While I admired those who had the patience for it, I simply assumed that my head was too busy to tolerate a prolonged period of silence. What my friend offered was something I saw as a possibility to keep me busy while I meditated--and that something was a repeated chant: nam myo ho renge kyo. Not only could I chant, I could chant for something--the end to my suffering, for example--and would be rewarded with results.
Many will recognize this as soka gakkai Buddhism. I chanted for a year and a half. It was my introduction to practice. And it did bring results. It took me a year and a half, though, to fully realize my discomfort with this kind of goal-oriented practice, and to realize that I did not, in fact, need the chant as what I eventually came to see as a diversion for my mind. I discovered that I could sit in silence. Fifteen minutes, at first, seemed like a very long time, but those early fifteen minute sits opened up the door for a practice that has proved an invaluable guide to life's vicissitudes for, now, more than ten years. And to a growing familiarity with the teachings that support it.
No God, then. No belief. Not even a willing suspension of disbelief. No Oz. No curtain. Just an increasing understanding of the value of mind-fulness at each and every moment along the way, and of how the mind creates its own suffering by attachment to its causes. The notion that I determine my own karma through my actions and their consequences is more reasonable to me, and somehow more comforting, than the belief in stories that have no discernable basis in the only reality I know through my lived experience.