Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Buddha in the Corner: a piece of non-fiction

I.          “When I chant, I don’t know what the Japanese words mean,” he told me, as if this had a special significance had evolved within him slowly.  He uttered it like a badge of pride; it was not some signal of ignorance, but something he thought more profound.
This man offered me his time, his thoughts, for no other reason that so share with me the fruits of his hard won spiritual practice.  He had a legacy to transmit and part of it was passive, the other, active.  When he sat in front of me, his large passive body was in repose;  but his eyes were keen, darting, active, as if ready to squash a fly
He was the Jewish chaplain of a local college, but his predominate passion was Buddhist meditation.  We had exchanged emails, and spoke on the phone.  He had the calm, measured tone of one who sits zazen.  Words came out of him evenly, muffled, like the simple flow of water down a slight incline.  After I explained my predicament on the phone, my near spiritual and emotional breakdown, he warmly invited me to his house.

When I arrived, I could sense reserve.  I have a long, black beard, and a sober, black and tan kippah, zizith flapping in the breeze .  I could detect, in his initial view of me, a tense exchange on the pitfalls of Buddhism as idol worship, as a gross series of infractions to the strictures of monotheism. 
We sat in his garden, his cat rubbing against my bare calf.  He looked again at my beard, kippah and my tired, squinting eyes.  Although his face was placid, he needed to get preliminaries quickly out of the way.
“So, what is your background?” he asked, this a shorthand among Jews.  Did you grow up in an observant home?  What denomination?  How observant are you now?  These questions would define how far he would admit to straying from the strict orthodoxy he suspected I followed.  No doubt he saw in me the new generation of frum, or observant Jews, who had sown the seeds of the mitzvoth which in the care of the previous two generations had become a withered stalk. 
I set him at ease.  I went through my paces, chronically my uneven past, created the failed creature that I am in an avatar that was all but real before him, limping along, lonely, confused, trying to form one solid notion of what it means to connect to God.  This was enough, and his tone, already soft, grew positively lax.   He nodded, an understanding man.  He picked out his words as carefully as a man searching the banks of a creek for precious stones. He said:
“The noise of the synagogue distracted me.  I was always yearning for silent worship.  Of course, this is not the Jewish style,” he laughed.  He had done the 60s circuit of spiritual eclecticism, to finally land in the lap of the Buddha, where he found the quiet focus he so yearned.
“Sitting zazen silenced my mind,” he continued.  “My mind was like a PA system that was always on with no control.  Thoughts came into my mind, repeating themselves, controlling me.  I could not still my mind as Jew.  Then I started sitting, thoughts would come, but I didn’t own them anymore.  They rose like bubbles only to pop.  Now it’s gotten to the point in my practice that I can see myself practicing, the way you would watch someone else doing it.
“Everything is connected,” he continued.  “I don’t believe there is a division between you and me.  When we sit and meditate, we remove the obstacles that form divisions.  Whatever this is,”
he gestured down at this body, “suddenly becomes as invisible as air.  It is important as air, because in a real sense I need it.  But it is not the paramount sense of things.  Am I making sense?”
I asked him to take me to the zendo and teach me to sit. 

II.         At the zenzo, he was kind but solemn.  He spoke about procedures and protocol.  He was adamant that I have the right attitude toward the statue of the Buddha on the far side of the zendo
            “We bow to it,” he told me gravely. “But not because we worship it, but out of respect.  Sometimes, when someone is upset about having it here, we put it in the closet”  He paused, as if to gauge my reaction, to see if I was the kind of person who needed the Buddha in the closet.  I just vaguely smiled.  With that out of the way, he instructed me how to drink the tea, where to sit, and when the time came, how to stand.  We sat on mats alongside a long row of windows and slowly, like shades from the underworld, other people began to file in; they sat on the floor or chairs.  Eventually, the master entered.  There was the banging of gongs, the clapping of wooden instruments.  We were expected to sit quietly and meditate.  All this was undertaken from a stance that was quiet, serious, unspoken. 
            What struck me most was how detached it was from the everyday world of perception and feeling.  We were supposed to sit still, silence the mind, quiet the body, perform all the exercises that would negate what it is to be a human being.  We, these rushed, loud, kinetic creatures, must sit, be passive, allow thoughts that come to simply go.  We must not allow thoughts to find a perch in the mind.  And we must not draw conclusions from even this limited experience.  These things simply happen.  We must not allow them to take hold.
            But what were we, these creatures sitting in silence?  If there was no “I” to experience this experience, no “ego” to feed meditation, only an illusion, what exactly were we doing?  When I say “I am mediating,” I am already telling a fable, as I was told, there is no “I” at all.  What was the meditative experience, then?  The breaking of an illusion?   But that illusion itself was an illusion.   To say “I meditate to get rid of my ego, to join the grand flow of being” is already a false premise.  There is no “I”, there is no “ego,” and you are already in the grand flow of things.

III.       After two hours I was limping toward my car with a splitting headache, knowing that something, somewhere was left undone.  My spiritual shirttails were hanging out for all to see. The world appeared to be a perfectly solid object; my “self “was firmly intact, stubborn, intractable in its claims to all of me.   It was very unhappy with the time at the zendo.  It sent out a beacon of one word: fail, fail, fail.  So who had I failed?  Had I failed him, my potential mentor?  The kind man who had left Judaism for the silence of annihilation?  Or that little statue in the corner, the rounded seated figure of the Buddha, seated, gelid, not so much as a move of even one of its most minor, flacid muscles.   
No, it was God.  My God who was everywhere and nowhere.  A thing, a being, yet no being. Limitless yet somehow contained.  Often angry, jealous, patient, merciful, but also above the churning filth of human passions; not a God written by one writer with a single goal, but from an anthology of divine attributes penned by many hands.
            I had failed my God.  

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