I enjoyed an excellent lunch yesterday in the gardens of the Huntington Library, up in San Marino. Well, the lunch itself was… cafeteria, okay. But the company was excellent, as was the conversation. Long-time readers may remember, back in July, when Ellie and I hosted a party for a dozen or so Caians—alumni of my old college at Cambridge, Gonville and Caius, who happen to be living now in the Southern California area...
My host for yesterday’s lunch was one of these, a distinguished professor of philosophy and religion, scholar, editor, writer, and activist in the field of interfaith understanding. Indian-born and educated by the Jesuits in his native country, he embraces the wisdom and the cultural history of both East and West—he calls himself a “Buddhist Catholic”… or was it a “Catholic Buddhist”?—with a blend of infectious passion and curiosity. A great talker, he proved also a good listener and, despite his outstanding credentials and the breadth of his learning, a comfortable conversationalist. It’s rare, these days, to be able to sit down for a couple of hours and penetrate some important and difficult issues in a shared language of understanding and compassion.
We talked first about politics. Not surprisingly, we found ourselves in agreement: for the good of the country, this is a must-win for Obama. My friend had read “Dreams From My Father,” I had read “The Audacity of Hope,” and we agreed that the man is an excellent writer—one who writes from the heart as well as from a wide grasp of the political and historical moment in which we find ourselves. We agreed on the steady mind and the firm hand. We agreed that the alternative would cast a great pall over the future of the planet.
But the real meat of our conversation came when we turned to more broadly philosophical questions about religion and its role in the contemporary world. My friend is a man of thoughtful faith, who deplores the excesses of extremists, no matter whether they be of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or any other origin. He dedicates a good part of his life to the promotion of tolerance and understanding between religions, and is a board member of Parliament of Religions--an organization for which he serves as the program director for a 2009 conference in Melbourne, Australia. Being attached to no faith, but rather a skeptical follower of the teachings of the Buddha, I was glad to be reminded that the meaning of the Greek origin of the word “skeptic” is “inquiry.” It’s about asking questions, which I personally believe to be the business of religion, and it dismays me that so much of the religion that is practiced inn the world today is about providing dogmatic answers.
Speaking of the intolerance that pits religion against religion, my friend asked what I thought was the source of that intolerance. Without reflecting any too deeply, I came up with the answer: fear. It’s that old, instinctive fear of the unknown, fear of the “other,” fear of encroachment by inimical forces on our camp site, the fear that what we “have” may be taken from us. If that’s the case, he asked me, what is the antidote? And again without too much reflection I answered: self-examination, a study of the fears that can determine the direction of my life unless I understand them and observe how they function. And what’s good for the individual is good for the institution. Religions, too, would benefit from honest, fearless self-examination. We need to understand when fears serve us—as they sometimes do—and when they serve only to stand between us and those who share our humanity but may have different views.
It was good to be prompted gently into some useful and productive thoughts. I see no way, for myself, to come back to the religion with which I was brought up, and which I abandoned as a young man. I do believe that the intellectual and spiritual roots it provided me then continue to ground me in ways unseen and, perhaps wrongly, unexamined. I value that religious education much as I value having learned Latin and other, living languages in my youth; I would be less well equipped as a writer without that solid foundation of etymology and syntax, and I judge that such humanity as I possess is meaningfully informed by the spiritual training I received. I was much more cavalier about discarding it as a young man than I am now. What I learned about Jesus, though, as my friend and I discussed as we ate our lunch in the shade of some very lovely trees, differs very little in substance from what I learn from the Buddha much later in life: the good part is all about love, generosity, and the spirit of compassion—a part that unhappily seems to have been forgotten by fundamentalists and extremists on all sides.
After lunch, we took a pleasant stroll through the gardens to the new (since my last visit, years ago) Chinese garden, with its beautiful pagoda, green ponds and walkways—refreshing even in the current Southern California heat—talking of professional experiences, and personal matters, and books we love. A very civilized way to spend the afternoon…!
(As a philosophical footnote, a new subscriber wrote to remind me of Gary Snyder's dictum: "Just because you're a Buddhist, doesn't mean you have to be a good Buddhist." Hmmm...)
(And, for good measure, as a political footnote, check out this Rap for Obama