Spirit In The Sky

“The prayer of the monk is not perfect until he no longer recognizes himself or the fact that he is praying.”

~ St. Anthony[1]

 

When I look back on the first half of my life I can point to a few things that have short-circuited my growth into the man that I could have been. One thing that stands out is the complete lack of faith. I didn’t have faith in the people around me. I didn’t have faith in any religion. I didn’t have faith in myself. As I type these words I don’t know if I’ll have the wherewithal to finish this.

I was raised in a broken family. I could go into all the reasons why this screwed me up, but I am done placing blame on others for my shortcomings. I was confirmed into my church about a year before my parents split up. I stopped going to church shortly after confirmation and never looked back. I have always had my doubts about Christianity. It wasn’t that I doubted there was a God. I had my objections with the very institution of the church. I had a problem with the fact that churches sponsored wars and crusades. I had a problem with the fact that churches always seem to be in need of money, despite the huge cathedrals and the sleek Town Cars that the minister always seemed to ride around in. I had a problem with the hypocrisy of a church that would erect a pulpit in the bedrooms of the faithful, and then hide the fact that their forcefully celibate priesthood was prone to deviant and criminal acts. Indeed, the very rule of a celibate priesthood is unnatural and seems readymade for disaster.

Over the years that I was away from the church, I communed with God in times of trouble. God was kind of like the dentist. I only went for a visit in times of extreme trouble. I had my fair share of those times. In my later years my beliefs tended to look to the east. Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism seemed to have a truer ring than the monotheistic religions that sprang from the loins of Abraham. These religions are so close in doctrine that they could only speak of the same God, yet innumerable lives have been lost under the banners of cross, crescent and star. I cannot fathom a God that would encourage this. I know that this might make me your enemy. Just know that I will never reciprocate. Life is too short for such animosity.

Whenever the subject of religion came up, my answer usually defaulted to Taoism. I identify with the earth and the environment more than any set of manmade doctrines that are obviously designed to control the hearts, bodies and minds of the faithful. But I never really took it any further than that. Sure, I would quote Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi and the like, but my study was superficial at best. When I came to my tipping point last year, career switch, health problems, relationship imploded, it was time for me to reexamine all of the beliefs of my life.

I started reading all of the classics. I found a website that broke down one hundred of the greatest books of philosophy and psychology of the last 2500 years. I read about Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita, Rumi, Joseph Campbell, the Tao Te Ching, and many others. I took a long hard look at myself. With my eyes wide open, I decided that Buddhism most closely resembled the values that I hold closest to my heart. That done, I started to transform myself by doing the things that a good Buddhist does.

The great thing about Buddhism is that it is more of a philosophy and practice than an actual religion. There is no restriction on what you can believe or disbelieve. There are many Buddhists who believe in Christ, as well as Jewish Buddhists and many others. There are certain guiding precepts that are meant as suggestions on how to attain enlightenment. They resemble the Ten Commandments but they are not considered laws. Since there is no hell in Buddhism, then there is no palpable punishment for breaking them. That is the essence of Buddhism. You are only accountable to yourself, so you are the only yardstick to your success.

There are a lot of different forms of Buddhism. There are Buddhists like the Tibetans who believe in reincarnation. The 14th Dalai Lama is believed to be the latest in a line dating all the way back to 1391. There is convincing evidence that these Lamas are an unbroken succession of reincarnates. I’m withholding my belief on that one. I believe only in the possibility. I fall into the Zen camp of Buddhism.

There are three main schools of Zen. The Rinzai school is known for its use of rigorous training methods and koans, riddles or mantras, to attain nirvana. Ōbaku Zen is a monastic sect follows the precepts much like Commandments, and has very strict rules governing its practice. The Sōtō sect is much more freeform, perfect for a slacker like me, and revolves around a practice called shikantaza, or “just sitting.” The goal is to meditate on the very essence of your being. The more that you mediate, the better you understand yourself. Eventually you break through the barrier that separates you from the universe. This is the Sōtō form of enlightenment. I have my doubts that I will ever show the discipline to make that happen. But that is not my goal.

My point in assuming this line of practice is that it closely resembles my personal values. I am a peacenik. I believe that there is no good reason to take another person’s life. In this week of the death of Osama bin Laden, my stance is a controversial one. Somehow I am less of a patriot because I can’t rejoice in the murder of a murderer. Alas, different strokes and all that jazz.

Above all the Buddha preached mindfulness. It is the ability to submerse yourself totally in the moment, whether you’re doing the dishes, taking a walk in the park, or making love to your darling darling. Use all five of your senses to be the moment. Taste the air, smell the grass, feel the texture of the ground underneath your feet, hear the wind whistling through the trees and see the vibrant colors of the vegetation and flora. A distracted moment is a moment you will never get back.

Another convention of Buddhists is vegetarianism. Once again, this is a suggestion and not a law. A lot of good Buddhists eat meat. I choose not to, both for common sense and health reasons. If I was going to live to be one hundred, I needed to change my eating habits and start exercising more.  So I got rid of the car, got the bike on the road, and started cooking my own meals. I finally broke through the Mendoza (waist) Line. I’m at two hundred pounds and dropping.

The first precept that Buddha gave his followers those many years ago was this: “I undertake to abstain from causing harm and taking life (both human and non-human.” I choose to follow this with open eyes. I am not an animal rights activist, but I do not support the mistreatment of animals to produce food. Factory farming has gotten out of hand. I will not contribute to it or two grocers who contribute to it. So I downsized. I shop local and independent every chance that I get.

Who am I to tell you what to believe in? All I ask is that you believe in something. Have faith in your God, your family or your country, or all of the above. But have faith. It’s entirely possible that I will go to hell when I die, but based on my Gandhi versus Manson rule, that might be where I belong. Even the various sects of Buddhism can’t agree on the right way to practice. The best thing that you can do is live in the moment. Be in touch with yourself and your environs every minute. Attack your practice with all of your being. Take a bite out of life before it takes a bite out of you.


[1] St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) Portuguese Franciscan Priest

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