Tuesday, March 20, 2007

No God

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.

3 comments:

carly said...

Wales?! My mother's family was from Wales. Wouldn't it be perfect if our ancestors knew each other?

Well, there we are again, down to purpose and creativity. And why did we invent all these religions? Partly, because some men want only to destroy, indeed driven to it, by their weaknesses and ignorance and desire for power over others. As if it were a freedom they must have to create chaos (and show it in their films). Freedom is so-o-o overrated and always an illusion!

Why they don't choose the freedom of creating to further things is a complex discussion. Making and doing things to please ourselves is very worthy. But the forms have blinded men as to the content. Example: bad art selling for millions.

Just as a beard on the chin is an ornament, things should not be seen as ornamentation. For that always shows a person's vanity, a desire to be above others.

And too, in pain and suffering, is not creativity there to alleviate it? Mental pain or physical, science and art again answer the call, but for our desire to give it a human face in religion, as if suffering was not understood as a consequence that strengthens, a necessary part in the plan of nature. Pain is the trigger of correction. "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger". Just as it takes a lot of zazen for a Buddhist to make a painting, it takes a lot of suffering to make a sage.

Any chant, if applied correctly, will work. I chant Beethoven. I hum Coltrane, A Love Supreme is a very easy and powerful tune to chant which he did in the recording. I listen to the sound of Beethoven in my head in silent concentration. The sounds are so direct and primal. They say Beethoven loved trees more than people. I can hear that, contemplate it. His purpose was to further through creativity, and soothe my spirit. Moonlight Sonata does that.

The indifferent little shits who sell weapons, who steal resources, who like to inflict pain and suffering, and all other people doing bullshit, expressing their precious freedom, are to blame for the rest of it. And it is impossible to be free of them. Perhaps when society comes closer to being civilized, the weak will evolve into the strong and resolved, sages - and creatively bypass the Ones to Blame. Creativity linked with purpose, the primal antidote for myths and gods.

carly said...

Speaking of all that, check out:

SPIRITS IN THE WOOD
by N.F. Karlins

http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/karlins/karlins3-20-07.asp

"I can’t understand the full meaning of these pieces, but I can understand and appreciate their visual impact. Singly and together, they express a commitment to living in the natural world, whether in fear, awe or delight, or in some combination of all three".
N.F. KARLINS-a New York art historian and critic.

"Vintage Aboriginal Bark Paintings," Feb 13-Apr. 14, 2007, at Molloy Tribal Art, 594 Broadway, Suite 205A, New York, N.Y. 10012.

Eli said...

Hey Peter. I really love your past few posts, but since I haven't been to the site in a few days, I'm going to comment on both of them here.

I identify stongly with your statement about the absurdity of people believing in silly supersitions so fervently, like the Creation myth. Though a Christian, I realize that Jesus taught almost exclusively in parables, and that it's completely legitimate that the rest of the Bible could be parables as well. It saddens me to see people so afraid that they have to cling to the teachings literally, but I don't know how to help them, and most of the time I feel that there is no helping them: either they will learn for themselves one day, or they won't.

Along the same lines, I understand that the difference between our modern-day Bible and the one read during its infancy is very likely to be vastly different. I have a book of poetry/verse of pieces I find all over the place, and on two facing pages I have the Lord's Prayer, once from the King James, and another translated from the original Aramaic. The difference is such that you almost think that the two versions are completely at odds, but after several readings you begin to notice the similarities. Because of these differences I try not to take anything said in the Bible literally, but rather look for the greater, more applicable truths hidden within.

In defense of Christians everywhere however, I feel many times that what is being practiced by the fundamentalists of the world today is not an accurate representation of what Christianity is about. I think that fundamentalists (though their churches often number in the thousands) are a very vocal minority, controlling the church like an oligarchy. It may be that I'm wrong, but I have to believe that the truly devoted majority of Christianity is much more like myself, and only has a sense of humility too strongly developed to speak up on such matters.

In the same way I think that many Buddhists aren't portraying their religion the way it ought to be. I know a friend of mine who has a hard time accepting Buddhists because of the vocal minority of Buddhists who look at the faith as a way of being a modern thinker--without reliance on a deity--without caring to apply or even consider the true tenets laid down by Gautama Buddha. Being objective in situations like this can be extremely difficult, but it's me trying to apply the Buddhist concept of compassion to my Christian lifestyle, and I think it helps to develop a much more balanced existence from which everyone could benefit.

I don't have as much to say about your most recent post except to say that I'm grateful. More than the teachings and philosophy behind any religion, I love to hear the personal stories of people devoted to their faith, and what it is about their faith that makes them follow it.

As with all things I love to apply two of Buddha's teachings. "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it--not even if I have said it--unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense," and his last words, "all compounded things are subject to decay. Strive with diligence!" I first heard his last words as "all conditioned things are impermanent, work out your own salvation with diligence!" and I really feel that was the crux of what he was trying to teach. Even though he shared his revelations openly with his followers, Buddha saw the system and how it didn't work, and went out to find his own system that worked for him. I love that, and I think that the personal cultivation of faith is what Buddha tried to instill in the hearts of everyone he met.