I’ve been sitting here for a bit wondering what any of this has to do with Buddhism or, more precisely, what it has to do with my being a Buddhist. And then it occurred to me that the best answer I’ve come up with is something I wrote recently in an email to a friend up in Portland. (I’ll paraphrase and re-write so as to give the illusion of something more original.)
How do people respond when I tell them I’m a Buddhist? Well, since I live in the SF Bay Area, usually folks are open to it. But that they wear their presuppositions about Buddhism so close to the surface always makes me smile. Most people assume some combination of the following: (1) I sit in meditation all day, (2) I’m going to become a monk, (3) I don’t drink, (4) I don’t eat meat or (5) they have no idea what the hell Buddhists “do” or “believe” and therefore make up some random questions from their own experience with religion, whatever that might be, that are usually really weird and out of place and pretty meaningless for me.
What I love about the first four assumptions, however, is how deeply rooted in our culture ideas of the “monk” are, how most people assume that Buddhism is some weird hybrid between Yoda from Star Wars and David Carradine from Kung Fu. The truth of the matter, for me at any rate, is that Buddhism forces me to think deeply about what it means to be a human being inextricably connected to everything else in the universe and therefore we ought to act accordingly. If there’s a bit of you in me, then how I can act out of cruelty or malice? How can I go blindly through my day without taking into consideration how my actions may impact someone, or something, else? And conversely, of course, how can I make the arbitrary distinction that there are things in my life that are “Buddhist” and things in my life that are “not-Buddhist”? If we’re all of the same stuff, then everything I do is in some way a reflection of my status as Buddhist. Or, at the very least a very good lesson pointing back at myself and my relation to the world at large.
Then I tell people that I have a deep and abiding faith in the immediacy of the Buddhas as a transtemporal force in the universe which provides my life with meaning and direction. But, at the end of the day, I’m probably still going to hell. But, what’re ya gonna do? I love the reactions I get to that particular statement of faith.
Radical secular materialism and individuality is the heart of most problems facing the modern West right now. But a radical rejection of all those things by loosing oneself in a “blissed-out” moment of “Eastern” spirituality isn’t going to solve the problem. If anything, people who casually sit in meditation because it’s relaxing or do yoga as exercise without any attention to the deeper spiritual meaning are simply engaging in masturbation. It feels good, and you’re gonna look good naked, but at the end of the day, you’re still going to be a self-centered egotist. On the other hand, using spiritual practices (or religious practices for that matter) from any tradition to probe deeply important existential questions is always a good thing, though often unsettling, uncomfortable, and painful. But, like momma always said, whatever don’t kill you only makes ya stronger.