I was 13 when a friend shared the Tao Te Ching with me, the Stephen Mitchell translation. I’d never seen anything Eastern before–I loved it. I read all those poems again and again. I felt the ideas were important, simple, beautiful. I liked that female-ness was honored and found that refreshing.
Then that summer I went to UC Santa Barbara for a summer program for teenagers. I was friends with some physics kids. I had a boyfriend who loved Buddhism. He loaned me a book by Alan Watts–The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. I never really liked Alan Watts, but it was good to try something new.
Then there was a book of Buddhist writings called The Original Face that I got from the local used bookstore and liked. I read The Tao of Pooh. I was living in an overgrown small town, and the local bookstore in the mall had a tiny philosophy section that I read all of. I was starving for something that made sense to me.
But I noticed that all these books were written by men. Where did I fit in? I was a young, vibrant woman who was into love and art and feminism. Enjoying nature–trying to learn how to be happy. Philosophy class was almost all men and boys except for me.
I signed up as a philosophy minor at UCSB when I went there as an undergrad, then didn’t follow through with the coursework for the minor. I was more of a B student in philosophy than an A student. Not sure what I was doing “wrong.” Seemed like doing it for Bs was pointless, so I stopped taking those classes. I loved ideas, but being the only woman in a class of conceited, posturing, asshole white guys wasn’t my idea of fun. They took up all the space in the room. I felt awkward.
Then I had an older Buddhist friend who told me about the Vedanta temple in Carpinteria, and I went there, to their bookstore in 1998. I liked the books, the nuns, the little statues of Gods and Goddeses. That was my first contact with Hinduism–it ended up speaking to me in a new way, and I started a relationship with Vedanta that persists to this day.
Sanskrit spoke to me in a way nothing ever had. I couldn’t understand the words, but the sound of the words woke up something inside me. I learned how Jesus had been a Jew the way Buddha had been a Hindu. I felt Hinduism was very ancient, and the Goddess worship made total sense to me. The art spoke to me also, the imagery. I liked the customs, Indian food, made friends with a Hindu monk from Mexico, meditated in the round shrine at Trabuco Canyon…
I met John Dobson, the astronomer, and attended a cosmology class he taught at the Hollywood Vedanta temple. I loved that place, the nuns there, and fell in love with the picture of Holy Mother on the wall, wondering who she was.
Well, I’m getting too detailed. My ex husband became a Zen Buddhist–Soto Zen. He had a black zafu and zabuton, meditated every morning facing the wall, drank matcha every morning that he whipped with a whisk. It drove me crazy, the way he seemed cut off from me. It was obsessive in a way that bothered me. Yet I supported his quest for happiness–the rigidity appealed to him, some rigidity Soto Zen had, that he had inside him also.
I went to some meetings of the local Soto Zen group with my ex. They had their costumes, their habits of entering the zendo, bowing this certain way, bowing to the cushion… I did the things–meditated 40 minutes, walking meditation, another 40 minute sit. I kind of hated it. It was too much. Some women were there, but I remember mostly men.
I went to the inter-Buddhist group in Sacramento several times. The people who went there were almost all white people who seemed middle class and comfortable–smug? I heard the Soto Buddhist master Ed Brown talk–I loved what he said. A lot about Soto Zen appealed to me, but the meditation was too much. Felt brutal. I loved being in the moment, being present, the beauty of the gorgeous wooden zendo we visited in Berkeley, lots of the ideas. But I couldn’t do the whole thing.
I learned there are a lot of kinds of Buddhism. I was curious about Pure Land, some Buddhism that felt simplistic and culty. If all you need to do is chant “namo amida butsu” and find enlightenment, seemed very appealing, yet too easy to be possible–what’s the catch? I met someone who had joined a Pure Land group and accumulated a lot of books and other artifacts, then left it completely, upset, and wanted nothing more to do with it.
I would see “zen” used to mean calm and chill, in some vague stylized way–it bothered me. Zen is a real thing people have been doing for a long time, not a marketing term that means a dollar store Buddha head statue, some cliche Japanese art, and relaxing generic Asian music.
I would meet white people who told me they were Buddhist and ask what kind–they would say “no particular kind” and I felt annoyed by that also. Like they had read the first half of the Buddhism wikipedia article, though it sounded cool, bought some prayer beads, meditated once, and decided they were Buddhist. I was like, give me a break.
I think of people who have been writing poetry for 50 years but won’t call themselves a poet, not wanting to claim something important and serious for themselves, and then on the other side of the spectrum are these jackasses who are toying with a religion as if it’s their plaything, whatever they want it to be, and calling themselves Buddhist when they’ve done almost nothing. I like experimentation, eclecticness, trying new things from different places, but it seems disrespectfully appropriative.
Then again, who made me the Buddhist police. People can do whatever they want, I guess. All different ways to be a jackass, in this world. There are Christian jackasses too, plenty of them, atheist and agnostic jackasses, all that.
The other day, Ming and I were talking about how he converted to Judaism when he was young, and I was doing a sect of Hinduism from a similar age. We both went to the root, in some way. And then when we got older, it no longer served us as well, and we had trouble with the way women are treated, but we had a hard time finding something better.
Hippies talk a lot of crap about religion. Dogma, fundamentalism, people being controlled by fear of hell, people needing to be told what to do, needing rules. Scams of religion taking lots of money, a pope on a throne while kids starve. Talking crap about ritual.
I’ve always found ritual very beautiful, especially Hindu ritual with its flowers and ringing of bells, speaking to my soul in a way that’s beyond words. Some people say it’s meaningless and a waste of time. It doesn’t work for them, so they judge anyone who it does work for, and I can’t help them feel the sacred connection to God that I feel. That’s fine they don’t feel it or need it, but I wish they would let me do what I need to do.
They say it’s stupid, a waste of time and resources, hurtful even. It seems like a failure of the imagination, to me, and closed off to the experiences of many many people who are different from them.
The other day my friend mentioned how the Catholic church shouldn’t exist. I felt he was getting a quiet dig at me–I’m not at all Catholic, but because I’m a Catholic Worker, people think I’m supporting Catholicism. I felt he was trying to slightly hurt me, like I should be punished for supporting the crusades and child molesting priests? He thinks he knows a lot about religion and the harm it’s done, but hating a whole institution seems too easy to me.
An easy target. The way I might make fun of football, or did long ago–look at those big, young strong guys in tights running around with a weirdly-shaped ball and a million people watching them, for thousands of dollars–smug atheists and agnostics make fun of religion, and it makes them feel better, I think, for being considered damned by many, or they resent being left out. Yeah, if you don’t get the appeal, it does seem like quite a waste, and sure, many people are probably doing it as a performance or to fit in, not really feeling it.
Buddhism has many aspects I enjoy that make tons of sense to me, and some of its ideas have nourished me. But I’ve never understood the void at all. I don’t really understand non-self either. I like koans and confusing stuff. I like beauty and nature, how water is, flexibility of young trees, yin-ness.
But mindfulness has become big business. People are using it to be more productive at work, you know? Meditation for productivity–taking a real, deep thing and using it to make more money. De-stress so they can stay healthy while abusing their body and soul in an office.
Also, I don’t get detachment–I’m a love-creature and very attached to Ming and other friends and family. It doesn’t seem wrong. I feel like a mother without kids–I want to nurture everyone, and my life purpose is trying to help people not fall through the cracks.
The idea of attachment has been used against me, to chastise me for having feelings and needing people to be kind to me and follow through with what they say they’ll do. Not having feelings and needs is much more enlightened. Well, fuck that. I’m going to have all the feelings. It seems related to gender. The more I’m like a man, the better, according to some. I don’t think benefitting from the comforts and support of relationship while demanding freedom is a way to live, and I’m done with men who take advantage of my love, proclaiming the weakness of relationship while benefiting from my support, materially and emotionally, every day.
The Buddha said not to worship him, yet many people do. Extremist men who go off into a cave and meditate till their legs rot off and ants live in their hair–is that really a good thing? I know the appeal of being a hermit and renouncing the world. But I’m going to stay here and keep doing what I do, probably. I’m the lady making a pot of food for the devotees, not the man going into samadhi for 12 hours over and over again, needing others to take care of him.
Well, I wanted to talk more about Buddhism as an idea thing. Also, I could say a lot more about gender in religion, craziness in religion, the flack Hinduism gets, people making fun of the multi-arm thing. I talked more about religion’s social aspects and some about my own journey. My good friend asked me to blog about Buddhism–thanks for asking.