Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Stumbling Response to Stumbling Towards Enlightenment by Geri Larkin

I read about a third of the way through John Piper’s God is the Gospel recently. My best defence of his work is that it’s kinda like Zen Buddhism. So why am I not reading some Zen Buddhism then I asked myself?
I was once very into Zen. By which I mean I read a couple of Zen books and told people at parties that I was into Zen. I grew disillusioned by the mostly male aloofness of its ideal practioner and the smarminess of all them koans. Strangely for what is a supposedly minimalist anti-superstitious anti-authoritarian tradition I found it needlessly obscure and drifted off. Also way too much sitting.
Zen Buddhism is (according to a book I read!) a hybrid of Buddhism and Chan – the Chinese religion that is born of Taoism. Aha I thought. Taoism is the part of Zen I want, I’ll go reading there. Oh you poor Western boy. The book of Chung Txu still taunts me. The Tao Te Ching on my phone teases me. I have periodically visited these texts over the last two years. They are brilliant but I have only dew on my hands to show for it. And I’m thirsty.
Although I have my reservations about its trappings the most thirst quenching spiritual stuff I’ve ever read has been Buddhist. As a father, Buddhism for Mothers is awesome. So now I’m back to Zen reading Stumbling Toward Enlightenment by Geri Larkin. She’s a once uber-powered executive who started meditating to get rid of an eye twitch. Over twenty years later she’s founded a Zen Buddhist temple, been their guiding teacher and written eleven books on the subject. And she’s not an aloof male. Should be good.
The first three chapters are like water to a parched throat. It’s not that I think Buddhism is so much better than other philosophies/religions. The real difference is that I can use it. Buddhism teaches that the right ideas about the world are realised by spiritual practice so its first emphasis is on the things you need to do. Basically to translate Buddhism for Christians it is heavier on the “forgive those who trespass against you” rather than “Jesus is God”.  Most (though not all) Christianities I bump up against say “Grapple with this metaphysical question first.” or “Pray and wait for an answer.” Buddhism says “Do.” (or Don’t Do, there is no Try – no wait that’s Yoda). I can do things, sure.
And so I read and I do a little more Buddhism. I pay a little more attention, try and stay open to wonder, cling less tightly to my expectations. The effect on my life is truly instantaneous. I notice ways I behave that actually contradict what makes me happy but that I keep insisting on doing (holding back on giving for one thing). I work on these things without an all or nothing attitude. I’m like an old guitar. There’s no point smashing me up in a big drama because I’m out of tune. There’s no point despairing over my love of distraction or my addiction to fear either. Just tune me up.
Interestingly I find the more Buddhist I get in my attitude the more keen I am to hang out with some very cool local Christians. I think my teensy bit more Buddhism is enough to help me see what’s coming from myself and my history with Christianity and distinguish that from what these people are actually doing in the community. I actually listen to what these folk say and do rather than expecting and thus hearing the typical atonement based Christianity I’m used to. Their theology is radically different and inspires great compassion. I’m a student so I head to where the teaching is good.   
I also got hit by a pretty hard wake-up call. A mother I know from playgroup was visiting a community centre where I was using the internet. I was actually working on this blog – looking for a pic for the post on How we create. She was there to obtain some material aid. Things were tough for her obviously and I’m pretty sure she had tears in her eyes. We chatted briefly. I could have offered to buy her a coffee or seen if she needed a lift. Instead I tried to finish what I was doing on my blog. When I next looked up she was gone. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
I needed to confess this before I posted anything else up here. It feels more than a little hypocritical to post away about spiritual growth without showing how much I fall short of the most basic attentiveness and compassion. It’s worth noting that here was a situation where the blog actually competed with actually doing the right thing. It shouldn’t win.
But this is really what I find so quenching about Buddhism. Its feels crap actually to notice other peoples suffering. It certainly sucks to consider it your concern. But there is guidance regarding what to do about it. Best of all, this practical stuff comes first. Through interacting compassionately with other people around you is how you realise the metaphysical stuff after all.  
Then I hit Chapter four of Mind Games in Geri Larkins’ book. Ugh. It reads like management psycho-babble bullshit. The Buddhist notion of “All is Mind” is a great challenge to understand and an even greater challenge to communicate. When people fall short of that challenge they often produce something like this chapter. Basically it’s that old chestnut, “Johnny thought the world was against him and so he picked fights with other people and then in the end lo’ the world was against him.”
Sure we can all accept that this has some truth to it but once you universalise it so that “All is Mind” it starts to smell a little. For example one of those people Johnny picked a fight with might have been an optimistic Buddhist who looked innocently at Johnny for a moment too long. Furthermore when Johnny is facing court he might want to know what “mind” will get him off. I doubt Geri Larkin could tell him. If “All is Mind” means you alter reality to match your perceptions then it should really be “Some is Mind”.
I’ll have a crack at explaining it differently (really briefly as it’s probably a post in itself). When I misplace my keys- which happens regularly- it may well be an act of mind in that I fail to consider it important where I put them, but thats not what is meant by “All is Mind”. That’s just the karma of thoughtlessness. Instead when Buddhists say “All is Mind” they mean that no event such as the loss of keys occurs independently of our mind. Basically we interpret the event- we choose to let it ruin our day and inspire an argument with our partner. Alternatively we can use the event to remind us of all the times we didn’t misplace our keys. We can use all the anxiety and trouble of losing our keys to reflect on how rocking it was when we didn’t misplace them yesterday. And we took that for granted until now. Wow. It’s almost a good thing we lost our keys so that we stop missing all that joy right under our noses, eh. See, all is Mind.[1]
Anyway chapter four is only one bad chapter and it’s not all bad. There are self-fulfilling mantras in my head that warrant a look at anyway. Those teachings are useful too. I’m more than willing to get back into “Stumbling Toward Enlightenment”. Chapters five to ten are sweet. I read and I apply and things feel good. Some of the magic is gone though. I’m suspicious of Geri Larkin now. When will she next piss me off? See those self-fulfilling mantras.
Chapter Eleven; Preparing for Death. Yep, that’s the one. Once again not all bad but I’ve got to swallow reincarnation to get through it. And I can’t. Reincarnation is deeply counter intuitive to me.
A central tenet of reincarnation says that your next life is somehow influenced by this life which was influenced by your previous one etc. Now it might be incorrect to say “your” next life or it might not be depending on how you understand the way the “I” and “you” can be understood across lives. There are different opinions on the matter within Buddhism. But the gist remains that how many congenitally blind street kids there are compared to how many Buddhist monks there are is supposed to reflect cosmic demand for those lives. That just doesn’t seem to be how the world works to me. How do you explain the doubling of the human population? Are there alien souls wanting to be here or new souls being made. Doesn’t there seem to be a supply-side causality  rather than a demand side one to population growth or decline? Doesn’t it feel like we can mostly control if we have kids rather than taking metaphysical orders? Screw reincarnation.[2]
So that’s where I’m at. I’ve snuck a peak at Chapter 12 and it seems good but I’m losing my enthusiasm. I’m sure I could finish something I found useless easier but because I want to rely on this Buddhist stuff those two chapters I’ve choked on have stopped me in my tracks. At this point I’m looking at other Buddhist books more fondly than Larkin’s. I have “Invoking Reality – the Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen” by John Loori tempting me. I might even go back to John Piper though I doubt it. Or what do you reckon?  Should I keep reading Larkin? Is it just my Mind stopping me?

[1] This is what I understand. Buddhists feel free to please correct any misunderstanding or miscommunication.
[2] Okay, I’m seriously open to correction from anyone on this, particularly Buddhists.

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