Monday, August 23, 2010

Half a Billion Rotten Eggs

Friday, August 20, 2010

Angry Monk

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The Angry Monk
Shozan Jack Haubner

Zen practice stirs up energy and emotion, and it can be downright ugly

A LOT OF PISSED-OFF PEOPLE WIND UP AT OUR MONASTERY. Th is place has a tractor beam like the Death Star in Star Wars that pulls in everyone within a thousand-mile radius with four-letter words on the tips of their tongues. Her marriage tanked, he’s got an itch in his brain he just can’t scratch, she’s 45 and smells of cabbage and lives in a small studio apartment and nobody ever calls her back. Th ey all wind up here, sold on the promise that Buddhism can alleviate suff ering.

I said “they” all wind up here, but I guess I mean “we.” I recently had one of those moments when, upon the muchanticipated departure of an enemy who, as a Buddhist, I could never quite admit was an enemy, I found myself peering around the zendo and thinking, “Wow, there are no assholes living here anymore.” Whereupon came a sinking feeling: “Wait a minute, there’s always at least one. So if I’m looking around the zendo and I can’t fi nd him—guess who the asshole is!”

Zen practice is good for angry people. Th e form is tight. It squeezes that deep red heart-pulp, pushing up emotions from way down inside you. A lot of stuff comes up when you do this practice. Zen gets your juices fl owing. And with these juices come seeds—the seeds of your behavior, your character, your anger, all fl ushed out into the open for you to see.

In Zen we learn that human consciousness is an eminently natural operation. You plant a seed, it grows. Similarly, when something happens to you on the outside, in “the world,” the seeds of this experience take root within you, becoming sensations, thoughts, memories—your inner life. Conversely, when something arises within you, some inner experience, a notion, emotion, or dream, then the seeds of this inner event are disseminated on the outside, in the world, through your words and actions. Buddhists call this codependent origination: all things arise together in a mutually interconnected and interpenetrating web of being. “To see the world in a grain of sand,” William Blake wrote. Or as that great metaphysician Tom “Jerry Maguire” Cruise put it: “You complete me.”

Sounds romantic. But what if the seeds at the root of your behavior are the seeds of hate and anger?

A year ago I was walking down a bustling city street with my mentor, whom I love. We got into a fi ght about something, and I smacked him. It came out of nowhere and was meant to be light. Only it clearly did not come out of nowhere, and it was not light. I can still hear the thwack of my open palm against his belly. Th ere was a long stretch of silence, wherein I should have begged for his forgiveness. But I couldn’t admit to the violence that had just erupted from within me. I couldn’t tell whether I meant it, whether it was real, where it came from, and how it got there.

I have violence in me, unfortunately. Th e seeds were planted long ago by my father, the poor man. How about all the times he didn’t whack me? Th e time he sighed and let it go when I stole one of his antique fi rearms and ran around the house, or when I sat on a sibling and released a cloud of fl atulence? No, I remember only the three or four moments when his anger broke through.

All it takes is one seed. I’ve apologized, and even sent a cute card. But my blow planted a hate seed in my mentor, and something irreconcilable has grown between us. I can’t seem to reclaim the friendship. I feel like I’m losing him.

Zen practice can be a tricky thing, because if it is done right, sooner or later all the issues and energies you’ve been repressing your whole life will ooze, trickle, and burst to the surface through your tight little smile. And I’m afraid that the practice itself doesn’t necessarily equip you to deal skillfully with these issues and energies.

Th is is one of the big misconceptions about spiritual work: that, applied correctly, it will make us “better people” (whatever that means). Zen is not a psychiatric or therapeutic discipline; it’s a spiritual one. It’s supposed to get energy moving on a deep, fundamental, life-changing level. Its purpose is to orient you Toward the truth/reality, whatever this takes. It’s not supposed to boss you around with behavioral or self-help dictates, or to shoehorn you into the slipper of well-adjusted citizenhood.

In other words, spiritual work isn’t always “instructive”—it’s transformative, and this kind of transformation can get messy.Th e Sanskrit term for this is clusterfuck.

Some people, for example, seem to be born angry. Not me.I was born a coward. So when the energy gets moving through Zen practice and I suddenly become angry rather than a quivering eunuch, this can feel like an improvement—or at least a new way to be screwed up rather than the same old patterns of screwed-upness. A sharp word suddenly tastes good in my mouth. Anger takes on the illusion of upward spiritual mobility in comparison with my habitual cravenness. In reality, however, it’s a lateral move—to an adjacent room in the same hell.

None of this happens in a vacuum. Zen is a group practice, but the thing about groups is that they’re made up of people, and we all know what people are like. So not only does Zen practice fl ush your issues out into the open, it does so within a certain context; it fl ushes them into the “container” of your relationships with fellow monks and nuns. Energies and issues that had no discernable dimension within you are externalized and embodied with the “help” of your peers, one of whom, say, unwittingly takes the form of your stepmother who once bullied and humiliated you.

Meanwhile, to this peer you represent the weakness and stupidity within himself that for more than 30 years he has felt the compulsive need to stamp out, as his father once tried to stamp it out of him. (In beating ourselves up, we usually pick up where our parents left off .) Only neither of you realizes (at least initially) that the other represents something within yourself that needs to be dealt with, for it is only in the dramatic playing out of your interactions that these powerful patterns and deep psychological dysfunctions are brought to light.

I defer to Carl Jung, who spent a lot of time in either a nuthouse or a monastery. “Th e psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate,” Jung said. “Th at is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the confl ict and be torn in two opposing halves.”

It’s amazing to watch sometimes. Th ese monastery battles royal can be downright epic. Forget about what happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force. What happens when a weenie who’s sworn off his cowardice meets a monster who can’t help himself from bullying?

“First law of thermodynamics: Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It simply changes forms!” So went the mantra of an erstwhile Zen peer, one of those quasi-scientifi c mystic types forever trying to link quantum physics with whacked-out spiritual mumbo-jumbo. It you ever disagreed with him, he trembled, his jowls purpling: “Th at’s . . . Just . . . Your . . . Ego!”

A regular fury farmer, this sower of hate seeds was one of those unfortunate American Zen sangha fi xtures whose respect and admiration for the teacher is in inverse proportion to his resentment and suspicion of his peers. Once, a fed-up nun, ornery and pugnacious in her own right, shot back: “Listen, you! In a universe that wastes nothing, where does the butthead energy go when you lose your temper? What form does it change into?”

In about a week she got her answer. One morning, this troubled monk we’ll call “Tirade-san”—towering over six feet, girthy, garbed in his turquoise stretch pants and a T-shirt with a picture of the cosmos and an arrow indicating You Are Here— exploded at the densu (monastery greeter) when she forgot to fetch a student from the airport. She in turn barfed a curdled remark upon the tenzo (cook) aft er he misplaced her laminated chant sheets. Th e tenzo then went Vesuvius on the shoji (zendo mother) when she innocently swung through the kitchen door to brew some green tea.“

Knock before entering!” the normally mild-mannered Pisces roared.

“Have a fucking cow!” the grandmother of three and parttime caregiver blasted back.

As shika (head monk), I felt like Bill Paxton in Twister, chasing the tornado of devastating emotion as it touched down from one end of camp to the next.

Later, when I pushed through the sutra hall’s great double doors for the monks’ nightly meeting, I could feel T-san’s glare frying the hairs on the back of my neck. Turns out, I had forgotten to give the densu the fl ight details in the fi rst place, the oversight that set off the whole Great Hissy Fit chain reaction that day. T-san bent his body language my way, trying to get my eye, like a boxer intimidating an opponent before the opening bell.Unable to meet his gaze, I studied my toenails—which, to top off the shameful matter, were badly in need of a trimming.

Per meeting protocol, we circled up, bowed, and took turns voicing the various petty and passive-aggressive concerns that arise when a group of people with anger issues decide to engage in a practice that deprives them of sleep, comfort, personal Space, protein, and even their hair. I nodded with great interest and jotted these concerns in my head monk notebook, where they languish unaddressed to this day.

Meanwhile, Evil Monk would soon have the fl oor, and I imagined him with a little toothbrush mustache, howling in German. I would get a chance to rebut him because the head monk speaks last, and believe me, I had every word—every last syllable—planned. You can only take so much shit for so long!I trembled inside, my sphincter clenched about as tight as the hydraulics in those machines that make artifi cial diamonds.

Finally, it was the man-ape’s turn to speak. I turned and bowed to him, and for the fi rst time that day I looked him dead in the eyes—half expecting to see two hollow black holes, brimming with the souls of dead children. And wouldn’t you know it, he was smiling. He laughed lightly and bowed that mammoth wrecking ball atop his shoulders, indicating that he had nothing to say.

In that moment the hate seed fell out of me, dead like a stone—petrifi ed in its own uselessness like an insect fossilized in amber. He put his great meaty hand on my back on the way out of the room. Th at’s all it took for me to break down sobbing in my cabin 20 minutes later, alone but warmhearted.Desperate, gushing, cleansing sobs. It was the kind of moment that buys you another fi ve years of patience with, and passion for, monastic life. It’s one of those breakthroughs of the heart.

People ask what is the hardest thing about living at a monastery.Is it no sex, cardboardy food, zero sleep, 80 bucks a month pay? Is it the isolation from society, the heinous robes, those bone-crushing 19-hour days spent in the zendo or in the blistering sun or piercing cold?

Th e hardest thing about living in a monastery, I tell them, is working with people with whom you have nothing in common save spiritual desperation. We monks shave our heads, I continue, because if we didn’t we would surely tear out all our hair in despair from having to live and work with one another. Anyone who’s ever been married or had kids, or coworkers, for that matter (work and family—those other group practices), probably knows what I’m talking about. It gets real when the illusions drop away, doesn’t it?

Yet nine times out of ten the reason we get so irritated with the people who are closest to us is that they show us that we do not in fact correspond with the ideas we have of ourselves. We are meaner, weaker, dumber, and less interesting, tolerant, and sexy. In short, we are human, which typically comes as extremely disappointing news. You just cannot keep telling yourself how spiritually with it you are when every time you sit down to read that Eckhart Tolle book the monastery cat jumps on your shoulders and claws your bald head and you fl ing it halfway across the room and scream, “Goddammit, I’m trying to read about patience and equanimity here. Can you at least wait till I’ve gotten past the ‘Pain-Body’ chapter?!” Not that I, of course, have ever done that.

I used to imagine that spiritual work was undertaken alone in a cave somewhere with prayer beads and a leather-bound religious tome. Nowadays, that sounds to me more like a vacation from spiritual work. Group monastic living has taught me that the people in your life don’t get in the way of your spiritual practice; these people are your spiritual practice.

Th rough each other we discover that if we have the heart— the willingness, the strength, the courage—we have the capacity to plant the seeds of kindness, compassion, forgiveness; seeds of a laid-back humor, a sense of letting go. But your heart must be quicker than your mind. Trust me, that organ between your ears is always spoiling for a fi ght. Its job is to divide and conquer. But the real fi ght is taking place inside you, within the “dharma organ,” the heart, where the challenge is to unify and understand; where the seeds of love and compassion are struggling to lay roots.

Lend this struggle an ear. Just pause for three seconds. One banana . . . Two banana . . . Three banana . . . . Pause and listen.Pause and breathe. Pause and gather your scattered, wild energies, your shattered soul . . . Before you fl ing that seed of hate into the wind.

Mark my words, times are tough and the ground is fertile.
Th at seed will grow.

Shozan Jack Haubner has been a Zen Buddhist monk for several years. He writes under a pseudonym in hopes of remaining a monk at his monastery. Reprinted from Buddhadharma (Summer 2010), which presents stories and teachings from many diff erent Buddhist traditions.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Baldwin and Shakespeare

Excerpt: 'The Cross Of Redemption'

The Cross Of Redemption
The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings
By James Baldwin
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price: $26.95

Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare

Every writer in the English language, I should imagine, has at some point hated Shakespeare, has turned away from that monstrous achievement with a kind of sick envy. In my most anti-English days I condemned him as a chauvinist ("this England" indeed!) and because I felt it so bitterly anomalous that a black man should be forced to deal with the English language at all — should be forced to assault the English language in order to be able to speak — I condemned him as one of the authors and architects of my oppression.
Again, in the way that some Jews bitterly and mistakenly resent Shylock, I was dubious about Othello (what did he see in Desdemona?) and bitter about Caliban. His great vast gallery of people, whose reality was as contradictory as it was unanswerable, unspeakably oppressed me. I was resenting, of course, the assault on my simplicity; and, in another way, I was a victim of that loveless education which causes so many schoolboys to detest Shakespeare. But I feared him, too, feared him because, in his hands, the English language became the mightiest of instruments. No one would ever write that way again. No one would ever be able to match, much less surpass, him.
Well, I was young and missed the point entirely, was unable to go behind the words and, as it were, the diction, to what the poet was saying. I still remember my shock when I finally heard these lines from the murder scene in Julius Caesar. The assassins are washing their hands in Caesar's blood. Cassius says:
Stoop then, and wash. — How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
What I suddenly heard, for the first time, was manifold. It was the voice of lonely, dedicated, deluded Cassius, whose life had never been real for me before — I suddenly seemed to know what this moment meant to him. But beneath and beyond that voice I also heard a note yet more rigorous and impersonal — and contemporary: that "lofty scene," in all its blood and necessary folly, its blind and necessary pain, was thrown into a perspective which has never left my mind. Just so, indeed, is the heedless State over¬thrown by men, who, in order to overthrow it, have had to achieve a desperate single- mindedness. And this single- mindedness, which we think of (why?) as ennobling, also operates, and much more surely, to distort and diminish a man — to distort and diminish us all, even, or perhaps especially, those whose needs and whose energy made the overthrow of the State inevitable, necessary, and just.
And the terrible thing about this play, for me — it is not necessarily my favorite play, whatever that means, but it is the play which I first, so to speak, discovered — is the tension it relentlessly sustains between individual ambition, self- conscious, deluded, idealistic, or corrupt, and the blind, mindless passion which drives the individual no less than it drives the mob. "I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet...I am not Cinna the conspirator" — that cry rings in my ears. And the mob's response: "Tear him for his bad verses!" And yet — though one howled with Cinna and felt his terrible rise, at the hands of his countrymen, to death, it was impossible to hate the mob. Or, worse than impossible, useless; for here we were, at once howl¬ing and being torn to pieces, the only receptacles of evil and the only receptacles of nobility to be found in all the universe. But the play does not even suggest that we have the perception to know evil from good or that such a distinction can ever be clear: "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones . . ."
Once one has begun to suspect this much about the world — once one has begun to suspect, that is, that one is not, and never will be, innocent, for the reason that no one is — some of the self- protective veils between oneself and reality begin to fall away. It is probably of some significance, though we cannot pursue it here, that my first real apprehension of Shakespeare came when I was living in France, and thinking and speaking in French. The necessity of mastering a foreign language forced me into a new relationship to my own. (It was also in France, therefore, that I began to read the Bible again.)
My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.
In support of this possibility, I had two mighty witnesses: my black ancestors, who evolved the sorrow songs, the blues, and jazz, and created an entirely new idiom in an overwhelmingly hostile place; and Shakespeare, who was the last bawdy writer in the English language. What I began to see — especially since, as I say, I was living and speaking in French — is that it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience. The structure of the French language told me something of the French experience, and also something of the French expectations — which were certainly not the American expectations, since the French daily and hourly said things which the Americans could not say at all. (Not even in French.) Similarly, the language with which I had grown up had certainly not been the King's English. An immense experience had forged this language; it had been (and remains) one of the tools of a people's survival, and it revealed expectations which no white American could easily entertain. The authority of this language was in its candor, its irony, its density, and its beat: this was the authority of the language which produced me, and it was also the authority of Shakespeare.
Again, I was listening very hard to jazz and hoping, one day, to translate it into language, and Shakespeare's bawdiness became very important to me, since bawdiness was one of the elements of jazz and revealed a tremendous, loving, and realistic respect for the body, and that ineffable force which the body contains, which Americans have mostly lost, which I had experienced only among Negroes, and of which I had then been taught to be ashamed.
My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past. Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a flower opens at morning, but more probably the way an atrophied muscle begins to function, or frozen fingers to thaw.
The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it. I think it is simply that he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably connected; but he trusted that connection. And, though I, and many of us, have bitterly bewailed (and will again) the lot of an American writer — to be part of a people who have ears to hear and hear not, who have eyes to see and see not — I am sure that Shakespeare did the same. Only, he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.
That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people — all people! — who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.
Excerpted from The Cross of Redemption by James Baldwin Copyright 2010 by The Estate of James Baldwin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Camus v. the Bourgeoisie

Portrait from New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, 1957

The Anti-Bourgeois
by Rosette C. Lamont

In his Preface to the 1958 edition of L'Envers et l'endroit, a group of essays written by Camus at the age of twenty-two, the author asserts his life-long need for the state of availability, "disponibility" as
the French say, a total freedom in regard to ideas, sensations, experiences
quite incompatible with the patterns of bourgeois living. Now,
in 1960, as we look back upon the work of Camus, we see it bear witness
to the writer's struggle against "les idees reques." In the tradition
of Cartesianism Camus questions our values and our institutions, and
his hero, be he victim or rebel, wields the weapon of his clear consciousness
against a society ruled by convention.
Camus despises comfort and well-being, qualities inherent to a culture
of "'Thomme sensuel moyen." The emphasis on cuisine, the greed
over inherited pieces of furniture, silver and linen, regulated sexual
behavior (outside the bonds of marriage as much as within), ritual family
relationships too often turning ties of blood into "viper knots" of
avarice and suspicion-these are some of the features of French life
which according to Camus serve to shield the individual from the
realities of the human condition. Camus' anti-bourgeois feelings do not
stem from the scorn of one born into this class like Flaubert or Baudelaire,
nor does he seek as they did to amaze the bourgeois. A workingman's
son, marked in body and soul by early poverty, yet possessed
by an unquenchable thirst for life, he denounces a way of thinking
which blunts consciousness, robbing one of terror but of lucidity as
well, a way of feeling which substitutes sentimentality for sentiment,
and small pleasures for joy.
Camus is not a pessimist. Simply for him there is no love of life without
the knowledge of despair, no fullness without "ce gouit du nuant"
(L'Envers et l'endroit, p. 99). However, he welcomes the adventure of
flesh in its encounters with nature (the sun, the sea), and with the flesh
of another. In his respect for desire he is not only a Mediterranean
but an Ancient Greek...
(the essay is 14 pp.)

Coming to Terms with My Bourgeois Psyche

Le Promenade Bourgeoise
Woodcut, 1910

Ever stood on a high cliff or bridge and thought what a thrill it would be to leap? That is akin to the feeling I have today as J. P. Morgan Chase has started the foreclosure process against Darryl’s and my townhouse. “Let them have the house; who cares?”  Thus the young, hippie, post-Beat, independent, anti-capitalistic core of my soul screams. Fuck big banks, conformity, and the materialistic establishment. Leap into the realm of those who have experienced foreclosure and give up being a property owner. Get back to your philosophical roots. Say yes to Marx, Camus, Ginsberg, and Beatitude.

Leaping from ownership into bankruptcy and the credit void would hardly be death. Perhaps it would build character. Chase has done nothing to deserve my loyalty, misleading us repeatedly over the past year, and starting foreclosure the very day after I told an executive that we can repay the loan and want a repayment plan. The entire loan modification plan started over a year ago by the Obama administration and managed by the Treasury Dept. has failed completely, causing people to fall deeper into debt rather than saving homes. The promise of a modification,  for which we ought to be eligible, has eluded us as the bank devised plan after plan that increased late fees and got us so far behind in past due amounts that it is a virtual miracle that we now have funds to reinstate the loan—assuming Chase does not throw in yet another road block.

We always seem to be the exception to everything. While most people have large first mortgages, we have a huge second mortgage or equity line twice as big as the first mortgage. Yet our payments on the second is one third of our scheduled payments on the first. And now, with Darryl’s new well-paying job, we have more than enough income to pay both easily after we are able to eliminate the past due balance and the needless (in my mind) attorney fees involved with stopping foreclosure.

For now, we shall keep the house, bring the loan current, pay the unfair fees, and continue to be bourgeois. My goal, nonetheless, is to attain retirement in the near future and to be free of debt and home ownership—unless we move to an eco-friendly cottage in Hawaii or similar home near the sea.

"Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, for the people and by the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master...Let the bloodhounds of money who have dogged us thus far beware."

- Mary Elizabeth Lease, 1890


Saturday, August 07, 2010

Iceland: Land of the Free and Gay

Story of the day-- Maybe we should move to Iceland!

Reykjavik mayor opens gay pride festival in drag

Jon Gnarr (left) poses with the director of Reykjavik­ Gay Pride festival, Heimir Mar Petursson (5 August 2010) Jon Gnarr's buxom alter ego said the mayor was too busy to attend the party
The mayor of Reykjavik has dressed up in drag to mark the opening of the Icelandic capital's gay pride festival.
Jon Gnarr, a top comedian who became mayor in June, appeared on stage on Thursday night in a floral-print dress, blonde wig and bright red lipstick.
"The mayor unfortunately could not attend himself," he told the crowd.
Mr Gnarr's Best Party won the council elections after running on a platform that included free towels in swimming pools and a polar bear for the zoo.
Promising "sustainable transparency", its campaign videos featured candidates singing to the tune of Tina Turner's "Simply The Best".
Mr Gnarr said at the time that the victory signalled the mass discontent with politicians for their role in the country's economic crisis in 2008.
Addressing the opening ceremony of the gay pride festival on Thursday, his buxom alter ego said the mayor could not make it because he "was busy, even though he promised to be here".
"What might he be up to? Maybe he is visiting Moomin Valley," Mr Gnarr said, referring to the fictional setting of a series of Finnish children's stories that feature a family of white hippopotamus-like trolls.
"This is what we get for voting for a clown in elections," he added.
In 2009, Iceland became the first country with an openly gay head of government, when Johanna Sigurdardottir became prime minister.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Birthday Buddhism

With my birthday arriving tomorrow, as I contemplate another year at my school, BFA, what better way to face the days ahead than to meditate on Siddhartha:
Here is a perceptive essay I'd like to share and remember:

Is Buddhism a Religion?

  Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Posted: August 6, 2010 06:58 AM 
We often talk about Siddhartha, the young man who became known
as the Buddha, as if he were a god. The fact is that he was just a
simple Indian guy, a human being like you and me. We think of him as
some kind of super-genius for having attained complete spiritual
awakening, but in fact his real genius was in showing how any one of us
can attain the same awakening as he did. We describe him as a prince and
a member of the elite royalty of his time, and we think that must have
given him an advantage over us -- but the reality is that most of us
today are probably better off, in material terms, than Siddhartha was.

We talk about his kingdom and so forth, but what the prince Siddhartha
had was really no more than what you might find in any middle-class
American household. He might have had more wives, but you've got more
gadgets, more technologies and comforts and conveniences. Siddhartha
didn't have a refrigerator, and you do. He didn't have WiFi, or a blog,
or Facebook or Twitter. He might have had more houses and land, but
you've got a more comfortable bed than he had. Maybe you even have one
of those new, space-age Tempur-Pedic beds. Think of how much time you
spend in bed, and how important your bed is. I guarantee that Siddhartha
had a worse bed than you have.

The point is, we shouldn't mythologize Siddhartha's life and think that
his spiritual awakening was due to his special circumstances. Most of us
today actually live in conditions very similar to Siddhartha's, in
terms of our material situation.

Siddhartha was a truth seeker, nothing more. He wasn't looking for
religion, as such -- he wasn't particularly interested in religion. He
was searching for the truth. He was looking for a genuine path to
freedom from suffering. Aren't all of us searching for the same thing?
If we look at the life of Siddhartha, we can see that he found the truth
and freedom he was seeking only after he abandoned religious practices.
Isn't that significant? The one who became the Buddha, the "Awakened
One," didn't find enlightenment through religion -- he found it when he
began to leave religion behind.
The Lure of Religious Trappings
A lot of people prefer to think of Buddhism as a religion. It's easy
to see why, when Buddhism abounds with religious trappings: the rituals
and the chants and the golden statues sitting on the shrine. Buddha
himself never wanted to be deified in any kind of icons; at the
beginning, he told his students no icons, no worshiping. But it's said
that he had a very devoted student who kept pestering him, requesting
his permission to make a statue of him, until finally the Buddha gave up
and allowed the first image to be made. And now we have all these
elaborate golden icons that look like they were dug out of an Egyptian
pyramid. It's nice to have these reminders, but we must remember that's
what they are: reminders of something, an example to be followed, not
idols to be worshiped.

If our goal is to turn Buddhism into a religion, that's fine -- in
America we have freedom of speech and the Bill of Rights. We can make
Buddhism into a religion, or a branch of psychology, or a self-help
program, or whatever we want. But if we're looking for enlightenment, we
won't find it through relating to the Buddha as a religious idol. Like
Siddhartha, we'll find real spiritual awakening only when we begin to
leave behind our fixed ideas about religious practice. Seeing the Buddha
as an example and following his example -- recreating, in our own
lives, his pursuit of truth, his courage and his open mind -- that's the
real power of Buddhism beyond religion.
Truth Has No Religion
Siddhartha actually became the Buddha through his failure at
religion. He saw that the ascetic practices he'd been engaged in were
not leading him to true liberation, and so he left them behind. But he
had five colleagues who continued their religious practices of
asceticism, and they regarded Siddhartha as a failure. From their point
of view, he just couldn't hack it, and that's why he gave up. Later,
after he attained enlightenment and became known as the Buddha, they
became his first five disciples; but at the time when he left behind
their religious program, they regarded him as a failure. I find that
very encouraging. As spiritual practitioners, we should be open to being
a failure. We can take heart in the fact that Siddhartha found
enlightenment not through his great success at religious practices, but
through his failures.

As Buddhists, Siddhartha's example is the most important one for us to
follow. He was a great explorer of mind and its limits. He was
open-minded, seeking truth, with no preconceived agenda. He thought,
"Okay, I'll do these religious practices and see if I can find the truth
that way." He did the practices, he didn't find the truth, and so he
left the religion. Like Siddhartha, if we really want spiritual
enlightenment we have to go beyond religiosity. We have to let go of
clinging to preconceived religious forms and ideas and practices.

Religion, if we don't relate to it skillfully, can trap us in another
set of rules. On top of all the ordinary rules we are already stuck with
in this world, we pile on a second set of religious rules. I'm not
saying there is anything bad about religion or rules, but you should be
clear about what you're seeking. Do you want religion and a set of rules
to follow, or do you want truth? Truth has no religion, no culture, no
language, no head or tail. As Gandhi said, "God has no religion." The
truth is just the truth.

If you are interested in "meeting the Buddha" and following his example,
then you should realize that the path the Buddha taught is primarily a
study of your own mind and a system for training your mind. This path is
spiritual, not religious. Its goal is self-knowledge, not salvation;
freedom, not heaven. And it is deeply personal. Without your curiosity
and questions and your open mind, there is no spiritual path, no journey
to be taken, even if you adopt all the forms of the tradition.