November 26, 2010

Happy Turkey Day

People swirled in an out of the kitchen like leaves riding eddies in a gurgling stream, always moving, never colliding. I sat on the bank, safely out of the way, watching and listening to happy chatter, and wanting to be elsewhere. The stream flowed out onto the large deck, following the food and drink and socializing. People stood eating, balancing cups and plates on the wood railing. Between the mountains in the distance and the international gathering on the deck, green palm trees and arbor vitae jumped above the rolling landscape of concrete driveways and tile roofs. Chinese and Indian food predominated. I sat in a corner and wished in vain that my spiced cider was spiked cider and tried to limit my urge to make inappropriate comments. It was an odd mood that urged me to turn everything into innuendo, a game I’ve often missed (Buddhists are sometimes too ‘nice,’ I think).

I had fun despite myself and due mostly to the infectious cheer of my fellow classmates. I danced the square, four-step dance we all learn in junior high school with Jun and was impressed that Mike managed the twirl and dip without dropping me, not once, but twice! The motley crew of graduate students, young professors, and monks even managed not to fall into obscure religious dialogue. Venerable Kit closed the vertical blinds and set up the projector in order to play Super Mario Brothers, no doubt made more interesting by people still coming in and out through the patio doors.

I rode home as the sun was setting and dove back into the distraction that had captured my attention since rising that morning – Chapter Fifteen. Instead of reminiscing, I chose creating, and managed to rescue one of the main characters from torture and escape in sixty-five hundred words before calling it a night. I called my parents and told them I miss them and love them and Happy Turkey Day, gobble gobble gobble. And I spent Thanksgiving evening watching classic anime on Hulu, teasing my cat, and practicing being thankful for all my good friends here.

I left the whiskey in the cupboard.

November 23, 2010

Riding In Tanks With Men

The world looks different when you’re staring at it down the barrel of an M1A1 Abrams tank. Relative to you, the turret and barrel of the tank is a stationary, solid thing, while the landscape flows by like waves on the ocean. The tank is safe, while everything beyond is potential danger.

The ride is smooth, even over dips and ruts, but when slowing down or speeding up, the gear change kicks like a mule and you’re glad to have that heavy helmet on. Inside the turret is all metal and hard angles. The tank doesn’t roar or growl. From the outside, there is only a low hum and the clicking of the treads on their wheels. Inside is a loud, high-pitched whine and the constant rattle of metal against metal, drowned out by noise cancelling headphones attached to the helmet. Despite that, hearing loss is common among tankers. The tank exhaust is invisible, just a heat shimmer and strong blast, but the dust it kicks up can be seen for miles depending on the terrain.

The gunner’s seat is narrow, with a dizzying assortment of dials, knobs, and buttons closer to your face than most people keep their computer screens. The only way to see the world outside is with one eye either pressed to the digital scope (with range finder and night vision) or the backup optical scope. Every function has a manual backup, so if hydraulics go out, you can still adjust the attitude of the barrel with that control, or if the electronic trigger fails, you can still fire manually with this knob here.

Behind the gunner is the tank commander and to his left, the loader. Each can stand on their seats and be half out of the two top hatches, but the gunner is stuck in the metal cocoon of the turret. Somewhere forward, in the main body of the tank, is the driver, physically and visually separate, connected only by the thin thread of a helmet radio, despite being only a few feet away.

Standing on the loader’s seat, I watched the desert flow by, all dust, scrub brush, and dramatic mountain ranges in the distance. My left shoulder pressed against the mount for the M50 machine gun, now empty. To my right, LT Guerra, the tank commander stood, talking with the driver over his helmet radio and occasionally giving me a thumbs up to ask if I was okay. I was just watching the scenery, enjoying the motion of the solid tank under my boots, and crunching dust between my teeth.

But this isn’t how it would be if they were in the field. There’d be no lazy interest, no idle curiosity. Instead, they’d be scanning the landscape, constantly on watch for insurgents and improvised explosive devices. Kind of like LT Guerra was doing now, for all his relaxed shoulders and innocuous chatter with the driver. His head was still turning slow and steady and I had the impression his eyes behind those tinted glasses were sharp. My own attention suddenly sharpened and I found myself scanning the area ahead and to the left of the tank.

The lookout isn’t just responsible for their own life, maybe even hardly concerned with it at all, but his buddies in the tank crew depend on his vigilance. Maybe they’re part of a convoy, and the tankers and truckers behind them are depending on him too. That brings everything into very sharp focus, or so I could imagine. Spend a day in the field like that, or even half a day, and then try to just turn that kind of hyper-awareness off. I can’t believe it’s easy. I’m just a silly little girl who’s hardly seen a lick of danger in her life, but I am grateful if I gained even ounce of understanding from that twenty-minute joyride.

The soldiers of the 1-185th Armor Battalion of the California National Guard were good to me during my time at Fort Irwin. Delta Company let me tag along during driver training. Headquarters Company welcomed me in as a fly on the wall to their staff meetings. No one seemed to mind as I stood shadow to their chaplain candidate, learning a little bit about what a military chaplain does. They were all real happy to hear I was considering military chaplaincy. Some of them tried to talk me out of it when I mentioned Navy, but others were encouraging. There were enough old sailors in the unit with wisdom to share.

“I used to be Navy. With the Navy you get to be out doing stuff, putting your training to use,” Sergeant Scott told me. “The Army is like Nascar. It’s like you’re a mechanic and you’ve spent thousands of hours working on this car and making it fast and perfect, but then you never, ever get to drive it.”

The 1-185th has deployed overseas twice during the most recent conflicts. “When a tank shows up, the action just stops,” one soldier told me. The insurgents know they can’t tangle with an Abrams, but who knows how many they’ve wounded or killed before the tank arrives. The last time the 1-185th deployed, they left their tanks at home.

I followed Chris around as he went from company to company, from one small group of soldiers to another. “Ministry presence,” he called it, just being available to the troops if anyone should have an issue. A few times a soldier would pull him aside for a personal issue or he’d just shoot the breeze and get a feel for overall morale.

“I’ve lost four since we got back,” the Command Sergeant Major said around his cigar. He shook his head as he ticked them off on his fingers. “Two motorcycle accidents, one car crash, and one suicide.” He didn’t say it, but his tone made it the regret clear. Here they were supposed to be safe. Then he made a crusty old joke and the guys laughed.

There was a Lieutenant in Fox Company who reminded me so much of the cadets I’d worked with at the ROTC, a handsome young man with beautiful cheekbones and a square jaw, hair trimmed short. He looked like LT Wellensiek, who got himself blown up and put back together with bolts and rods. Or LT Gaspers, who died.

By the end of the first morning, my green boots were caked with the tan desert dust. In the afternoon it rained. The wind was always there and I was glad I’d brought my stocking cap and gloves. The guys kept asking me if it was too cold, or too wet, or the food was too bad, or the work too daunting, or the sleep too little. The truth is, it wasn’t that bad. It’d be hard to do everyday, but I think if I were in proper military trim, I could manage it. Though I can see why the Army runs on coffee. Saturday night I still had enough energy to sit up and write postcards to my family. The guys teased me about that, but they approved of my choice (it had a tank on it). On Sunday morning, I woke up hungry. That has literally never happened before and I took it as an encouraging sign.

I can never convey enough thanks to the soldiers of the 1-185th AR, especially to LTC Murphy for allowing me to tag along, LT Guerra for the ride, and, of course, chaplain candidate 2LT Chris Mohr for setting the whole thing up and taking such good care of me while we were out there. I highly recommend this kind of experience to everyone going into the chaplaincy field, whether they are contemplating military chaplaincy or not (and whether they get to ride in a tank or not). Watching Chris work showed me a highly fulfilling career in which the dharma is being put to immediate use for the benefit of many people.

To the men and women of the 1-185th, I can only say “Hooah!”

Not Home for the Holidays (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 23, 2010

I’ve never missed Christmas. I missed Thanksgiving once. I saw my whole family together the day before, but on Thanksgiving itself, I hopped on a plane to Boston to attend Shambhala Training Levels IV and V at Karmê Chöling. But I’ve never missed Christmas with my family, even though I haven’t been a Christian for longer than I was.

Our family traditions are simple. On holidays, we get together for a big dinner either at my folk’s house or Granny’s house. We sit, we eat, we visit. Later, there will be football and usually we’ll go out to a movie in the afternoon. Then we all come back and take a nap. The biggest change in the last few years has been the addition of April, my sister-in-law. Sometimes she and Brandon don’t stay as long because her family is also getting together, but they always still manage to come over.

Sometimes Aunts and Uncles and cousins will come to spend the holiday with Granny or Granny will go out to spend the holiday with them, but my family usually stays home. Traveling in winter in the Midwest is always an iffy proposition and likely to change the day of. Granny can leave days in advance, but those of us who must work don’t always make it out ahead of the snow. Last year, we had intended to go out to my mother’s sister’s ranch in central Nebraska for Christmas, but we ended up snowed in for five days in Omaha.

I am very lucky in my family. We all get along. We comfortable, like old shoes. Sure, we disagree and we argue. But we don’t yell or shout (too often) or slam doors. Mostly we just hang out. Visiting is a family sport. When other families get together, they have activities, card games, charades, Pictionary. We just sit around and visit, often for hours. People break off into groups. Someone will go take a nap or read a book. The sports fans will watch the game. The moms will sit around and talk about Melinda’s new baby. Eventually, I’ll go out for a walk by myself, even in knee-high snow, just because I like to be outdoors every day.

We almost always go to a movie on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, whatever the big new blockbuster is that week. We might stop for ice cream on the way home. No one leaves the house on Black Friday. None of us like crowds or shopping that much. On Christmas, we’ll come home and watch more movies, because someone always got a DVD (or two or three) in their stocking. Christmas morning, I always handed out the presents, probably because I was the youngest and least patient. We wait until everyone has a present in their hands and then all unwrap and ooh and aah. Mom takes pictures and Dad makes goofy faces.

I’ll miss all that this year and I’m not sure how that will affect me. On Thanksgiving, I’m going to Shakya’s house for a dinner Mike has organized with about fifteen other family-less students. It sounds like a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to it. I’m not sure how Christmas will go. Like the rest of my family, I’m pretty pragmatic, so no wailing and weeping. But still…

One of the great teachings of Buddhism is that we will eventually lose everyone and everything that we love. The three marks of existence are suffering (or nirvana if you read Thay), impermanence, and non-self. It sounds like a very dreary teaching, but it can also be incredibly empowering. It points right at the Second Noble Truth, which in turn brings up the Third Noble Truth. Suffering is caused by desire and suffering can end.

For the most part, I don’t think it’s fundamentally a problem that I want to be with my family on Christmas. I think that’s healthy and good. It’s up to me to decide if that desire is going to make me miserable because I didn’t get what I want, or make me happy because it reminds me of all the love we share.

I don’t know if I’ll quite manage the later, but we’ll see.

November 22, 2010

Religion & Relationships (MDIV 555)

Journal November 18, 2010

Where in my spiritual formation does another person fit? I’ve been dating recently. This is a new experience. I’ve never really dated or had a serious, exclusive relationship, but a few months ago, I signed up with an online dating site. I’ve met three people and exchanged emails with a dozen more. None of them are Buddhists. The only one with whom I’ve discussed religion was a mildly hostile (to theism, not me) atheist.

Women look to the future. It sounds cliché, but when we meet a guy we size him up for deal-breakers. “Oh, he’ll be bald someday. Can I live with that?” You eye his hairline over your coffee cup. I find it ironic, considering I’m not really the settling down type, but the programming must be genetic. And now I’m wondering, what if he’s not Buddhist? Can I live with that? What if he’s Mormon? Muslim? Mennonite? Could I live with that?

I’ve seen some great Buddhist couples and some not so great. I guess, living in Nebraska, where Buddhists were so thin on the ground, I just got used to the idea that if I wanted to date, it would naturally be across religious lines. The idea of finding a Buddhist partner was about as likely as winning the lottery.

But I’m not in Nebraska anymore. So I have to wonder, why am I going out for coffee with these non-Buddhist guys? Surely, if I can find a Buddhist partner anywhere, it would be here.

And yet, does it matter? Some of my best religious friends aren’t Buddhist. If I wrapped their brains and their theology up in a single, mildly-attractive, age-appropriate male package, could I live with that person? Sometimes I think I could.

Then I think of the two years I worked for the Military Science Department. I was surrounded by handsome, young Army cadets whom I respected, but I never once considered dating. To serve in the military was to accept the premise that sometimes violence is the solution. That was a deal breaker.

Kornfield mentioned relationships in passing, usually noting how someone who isn’t a well rounded individual and hasn’t dealt with their own psychological problems is unlikely to form a healthy relationship. Assume that isn’t the case, assuming one can form a healthy relationship, how precisely does that contribute to each partner’s spiritual development? What role does relationship play? And what happens when your partner’s spirituality is quite different from your own?

Is it enough if that person is as critical with, thoughtful about, and committed to their spirituality as you are about yours? Do you need to share certain fundamental doctrines like compassion or charity? Is more needed, like compatibility of belief on specific subjects such as God or enlightenment? Can a diversity of opinion enrich both partner’s lives? Or are the differences likely to push you apart? Or is it utterly a matter of the two individuals involved and completely different for each couple?

I attended three weddings during the summer of 2008 and they could not have been more different. The Lutheran minister stood before the alter talked about how the happy couple was now “one person” in a triumvirate marriage of husband, wife, and Jesus Christ. The Buddhist teacher sat in the stupa and talked about how we are all fundamentally alone even in (especially in) marriage, where we think we’re supposed to have someone who understands us completely when no one ever really can. The third marriage was just a whispered exchange of secret vows between the couple in a flower garden. Each of those couples were in fundamental agreement on matters of religion. But what if the Lutheran had tried to marry the Buddhist or the non-religious, or any other combination?

Is religion always important in relationships?

November 17, 2010

Trust & Doubt (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 16, 2010

There has been a long debate throughout the history of Christianity as to the nature of God and how he can be understood. Some theologians and traditions maintain that God is a mystery, a paradox, and cannot be described using words or concepts. That He is beyond concepts and both outside and other than but also permeating the physical world. Others assert that understanding of God can be achieve by human reasoning, thought, and logic. He is both knowable and describable.

I wasn’t really surprised at these two interpretations. They sound a lot like Buddhism. There are some forms that are esoteric, hidden, designed to open the mind like a flash of lighting. Then there are forms that are systematic, categorical, logical, designed to cultivate virtues and mental qualities over decades, if not lifetimes. We could only discover whether one is better than the other by following both paths over the course of many years, which is practically impossible. The only way to really evaluate them is to look at their more immediate effects, look at the people walking ahead and behind. Are they good people?

So that leaves us with the question of what makes most sense for us personally. Of course, where I use ‘sense’ other people will use ‘heart.’ They’ll follow the tradition that speaks most strongly to their heart, the one that feels right. This is, most likely, why I cannot follow Trungpa’s teachings.

On page 114, he writes about the moment you experience secret drala. “It does not contain doubt or disbelief at all,” he says. But I cannot trust what I cannot doubt. The idea that “you experience a state of mind that is … free from hesitation and disbelief” seems very dangerous to me. After all, history is full of dictators who were certain they were creating a better world while slaughtering thousands, millions of people.

Reasoned doubt is what keeps us balanced, on the right path. If a blind person steps forward with certainty that the path will be there, they may fall right off the cliff, whereas, with a little doubt, they will question first, moving forward slowly and catch themselves before pitching into open air. If someone tells me not to question, I immediately distrust them. If a teaching cannot stand up to questioning, what good is it? If someone tells me I will feel complete trust (i.e. as an experience of secret drala), I am skeptical. How do they know what I will feel?

But let’s go back to that earlier statement: I cannot trust what I cannot doubt. Think about that. I cannot trust what I cannot doubt. That whole statement seems to preclude any possibility of enlightenment, doesn’t it? Seems to me there is a place, a state of mind, of existence, that is beyond trust and doubt, beyond ‘I,’ where one sees truly because one is no longer invested in what is to be seen.

“We can only tell the truth when we cease to identify with the part of ourselves we think we have to protect. ... I can never be straight with you if I need something from you,” Ram Dass wrote in Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita.

I think we can only go beyond trust and doubt when we no longer have anything left to lose. I don’t mean that in the cynical, hit bottom sense, but in the powerful, self-less sense. When we have gone beyond ego, beyond conceptions of ‘I’ and ‘other,’ then there is nothing left to lose and nothing left to gain. We have nothing and have everything.

This started with a discussion of means. One path is mystery. One path is reason. It’s not that mystery requires trust and reason requires doubt. In order to walk the path of reason, we must trust our own mind is up to the task. In order to walk the path of mystery, we must be comfortable accepting doubt, accepting what our heart doesn’t know. I can make no claims that one path is better than the other or that they are equal.

I just don’t know.

November 09, 2010

A Dharma Cowgirl is Willing (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 9, 2010

For four months in 2007 I lived in the Colorado mountains, most of that time in a spacious green Army tent on the side of a steep hill amidst the ponderosas. I was working at Shambhala Mountain Center. I had a little office in the maintenance shop, near the sewage lagoon. It was stuffed full of files, maps, and plans, almost eaten up by a large drafting table, but it had an east facing window from which I could see the ducks and a bold chipmunk who would come in to visit me. I was usually on in it half of any given day. The other half, I could be anywhere in the valley, marking down the location of utility poles, transformers, tent platforms, water valves, and new buildings.

When I first arrived, there was snow on the ground, even though it was already May. It snowed the night we were to move into our tents. They had to be collapsed and re-raised the next day. My hair was long and the wind would often howl through the valley, so I wore it stuffed up beneath a tan wool newsboy-cap, but as the summer moved in to stay and I became accustomed to the warm high-altitude sun, that wouldn’t do. I bought two hats, one nice to wear to teachings and events, another for everyday to keep the sun out of my eyes.

The second hat turned out to be more important than I could have guessed. It was a simple straw cowboy hat, made in Mexico, one size fits all. I wore it with a kind of familial pride, pulled low over my eyes. I dressed in jeans and sandals, my feet soon acquiring a brown layer of permadirt. I was never without my rosewood mala and often also wore a denim, cowgirl-cut jacket, complete with rhinestones and silver snaps. So they called me dharma cowgirl.

It wasn’t a title I’d earned, of course, but I didn’t discourage the nickname. I didn’t identify with it precisely, but something about it pricked at me. I didn’t know much about the dharma and I never was a cowgirl, not like other women in my family were and had been. But it was an idea, like ‘warrior’ or ‘bodhisattva’ or ‘stream-enterer,’ that just wouldn’t go away. It was different though, somehow the wisdom of the East conflated with the West. Here, by West, I don’t mean the Western hemisphere, the United States and Europe. I mean the Western half of North America, the rugged country settled by pioneers and outlaws around a hundred-fifty years ago. That kind of West is a horse of an entirely different color, but it has a wisdom of its own.

I wrote about it, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, but I stumbled on what I was looking for by accident. Seems rather poetic, when you think about it. This idea, this ‘dharma cowgirl,’ isn’t about courage or compassion or wisdom, though those are in there too. It’s about will, about being willing, and about comprehending one crucial thing – it’s up to you. No one else can do it for you.

This should not be confused with the classic fantasy of solitude or ultimate independence. Even in the middle of a crowd, surrounded by family, friends, and teachers, this truth remains. It does not violate emptiness or interdependence or inter-being. But as much as those things are true, so is this. There’s even an appropriately cliché Western saying, something about a horse and water. We need others to help lead us to the water, but only we can drink. To do that, we must be willing.

It’s not a new idea, of course. It’s all over Buddhist teaching, Western (i.e. Greek) philosophy, Abrahamic religion, and common wisdom. The idea of dharma cowgirl (or cowboy) simply reframes it in light of new myths.

For a little while, in the mountains of Colorado, I lived those myths. I wandered the valleys and ridge lines, listening to the wind, soaking up the sun. I rode a strong black horse through the trees and beneath the full moon, searching for empty country. It was no rugged tale of survival, but a quiet journey that took place within the mind and perhaps the soul, if such a thing exists. I did a lot of thinking that summer and a lot of simply paying attention.

But the time I valued most was not sitting in meditation with the others, vision curtailed by the white walls of the shrine tent, facing the image of the Rigden King. No, I much preferred the bench in the courtyard, beneath the ponderosa trees, near the rock garden, where I could watch the changing sky, the chipmunks and the magpies. Or the stone in the aspen grove along the trail, where I could hear the water. Or high on the bouldered peaks where I could see the snowy mountains to the south. It took me a long time and a lot of attention to realize I was seeking exactly what those sitters in the shrine tent were seeking three times a day.

We are all willing to seek it knowing we might never find it because no one else can ever show it to us – that’s a dharma cowgirl (that, and a hat).

November 07, 2010

The Cat Is

I have this cat. Her name is Isis. She is very unremarkable in most respects, a little black and brown tabby, except for the manner of her sheer presence. When she occupies a space, she makes herself the center of it, no matter where she is sitting. Not a moment goes by when she is not directly in one's field of vision or one's hearing, if not in actual physical contact. It is not what she does. It is just what she is - she is here.

So naturally, when she is not here for longer than a few moments at a time the absence becomes very glaring. It may sound silly to say that if I do not see her for five minutes, I go looking, but it is simply such a rare occurrence that it naturally causes concern. It's like suddenly noticing that you've stopped breathing or that your foot has fallen asleep. You immediately feel the need to do something about it. So when she is not here, and doesn't respond when called, nor is she in the bathroom (where her litter box is), nor the dining room (where if food dish is), nor the living room where Harry and his buddies are watching basketball, something is certainly wrong. She is not a cat who hides. If she is in a room, any occupant of that room will immediately know it.

The house is not that big, so it leave only once place she could be. That place, unfortunately, is very big. Since moving here, she has had the habit of sitting in front of the screen doors, smelling, listening, and watching. Frequently, I hear her complain and turn to see her at the door, tail all puffed up, hissing and cussing. There is a big black cat that comes around, to silently look in from the darkness. She does not like him one bit. Despite that, she has recently decided she to be a brave creature.

Tonight was the third time she has escaped the house. She has never gone farther than the driveway between the two houses and has always deigned to be slowly herded back inside. Tonight I had to play the slow, wandering game round and round until I could reach down and grab her front leg where she sat under the bumper of Tek's giant truck. She protested loudly as I swung her up and tucked her under my arm like a football, one hand gripping the nap of her neck. She hates that. It pressed on her kitty off-switch and makes her legs all rubbery, but she didn't struggle as I carried her back inside, where she immediately announced her return to the guys gathered around the giant flat screen in the living room.

I try not to worry about her, not to let fear get the best of me. Truth is, if she gets out, she gets out, and there's really very little I can do about it, especially if it should happen when I'm not home. She's small for a cat, under eight pounds. She has no front claws, so it's unlikely she'll get herself stuck up a tree. She hates other animals, so she'll probably try to stay clear of the other stray cats, but that doesn't mean they'll stay clear of her. I worry most that they'll drive her off and she'll be unable to find her way back, or she'll get in a fight or struck by a car.

For now, she's safely home, lying on my desk to the left of my computer monitor, complaining when I reach out to pinch her ears. Harry knows to keep and eye out for her and shoo her away from the door. My worry makes me sad more than fearful. She's such a little bundle of personhood, a very powerful and reassuring presence. I miss her when she's gone.

If she gets out, she gets out, and there's no much I can do.

November 06, 2010

Those Left Behind Ghosts

I often think of the ones the stories left behind. What would it be like standing beside them watching what I’m watching? James and Lilly Potter. John and Mary Winchester. Gilraen. If they could see their children as I have seen their children, would they want to, knowing the trials and troubles they would go through? They’re fictional, of course, just like the stories are fictional. I think about them anyway.

If I were ever tempted to write fan fiction, that is what I would write. Not about the heroes themselves, interesting though they might be, but about the people they left behind. About those people somehow still watching and participating in the lives of the ones they loved so deeply. Maybe this thought is where the idea of heaven comes from? I feel so strongly that those people died with questions unanswered, that they would truly want to know what became of their children.

But the stories always move on. Obi-wan falls and the story moves on, though his voice stays with us. Lilly Potter’s dying grace protected her infant son and destroyed the darkest wizard the world had ever known. John Winchester traded his life and his soul to the demon who killed his wife in order to preserve the life of his son. Wouldn’t they want to know? Not that it was worth it, precisely, but what all parents want to know about their children. Would they cry for them, be proud, scold them?

I also often wonder what figures of the past would think about this world. What would Martin Luther King Jr. have to say about Barrack Obama? Don’t you think he’d want to know? Would Miyamoto Musashi even recognize Japan today? Would he hate it or love it?

I don’t know why I wonder such things. I only know that I always have. Ever since I was a small child, I have imagined a person of the past walking beside me, seeing what I see, reacting in their own unique way. I explained the layout of the solar system and rotation of the moon to Galileo. I discussed atomic physics with Newton. I told Emperor Meiji about the second World War. They say teaching is the best way to learn something, so I taught ghosts in order to understand things myself. Often, the ghost and I wouldn't interact at all, but I would still imagine them there, flaberghasted by automobiles and miniskirts.

And when I watch films, television shows, and read books, I feel their ghosts looking over my shoulder, the unwritten characters who died too soon. I don’t mind. It is an old habit. I often wonder if it comes from a desire for attention myself, but usually I am the one who is fascinated by imagining observing them, watching the watcher. They are less imaginary friends than imaginary bystanders.

When I was very young, I would pretend that everything humans could imagine actually existed somewhere out there in the wider universe. We were all just looking through windows at each other, or, even more fantastic, that the imagination itself had the power to create whole worlds. Of course, my imagination never managed to create a world where I didn’t have to go to school or got to stay up an hour later.

Some stories lend themselves more to pondering the left behind than others. Harry Potter is one of those. The images of James and Lilly come to me forcefully every time a new trailer comes out. As much as I am looking forward to seeing the movie myself, I am fascinated by what they would think of it. We’ll never know, of course, not unless J.K. writes a companion to the novels. I doubt others are as interested in such questions as I.

And I don’t know why, but I’ve never told this to anyone before, at least, not anyone who was real.

November 04, 2010

Friends We Need (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 4, 2010

I met Jake at the Daily Nebraskan. The DN is the independent student newspaper of University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Jake is a young man with a wide, cheerful face, unruly brown hair just a bit too long, and the air of a young history professor, complete with glasses and questionable fashion sense. We were both became opinion columnists the same year, but we never encountered each other until Jake became an assistant section editor. Later, Jake would become opinion section editor and I his assistant editor. We edited each other’s columns for a year and a half.

Jake always wrote as a Christian about Christianity. He might also talk about politics, lifestyle choices, or environmentalism, but it was always from that viewpoint. He wasn’t above printing scripture in the otherwise staunchly liberal and slightly irreverent newspaper. It was our policy to give our columnists their head and recruit a diversity of viewpoints, so Jake and I were no exception. I wrote from the standpoint of a cultural critic, and if there was Dharma in my columns, it was only ever subversive.

It was our duty, as an editor, to make our writer’s columns the best they could be. Jake and I spent hours critiquing his argument against premarital sex so that it didn’t come across as sanctimonious or religiously repressive.

“So God wants people to refrain from sex until marriage?” I typed into Google chat. Jake and I had conflicting schedules, so we couldn’t edit in person.

“Right,” he typed back.

“So what’s God’s motivation? Why does he want that?”

“God’s motivation? Well, I suppose…”

Our conversations, both in person and via chat, could last for hours. Jake was a student of religion, philosophy, history, journalism, and literature, but knew nothing about Eastern philosophy. It wasn’t taught at UNL at that time. My viewpoint was much narrower by comparison, so there was a lot to learn.

“So Buddhists are existentialists,” Jake typed once.

“I don’t know. What’s an existentialist?”

Jake sent me a link to an essay by Sarte. Together with the dead philosopher, he set about explaining existentialism.

“I suppose you could say Buddhists are existentialist, to a certain degree, at least in regard to mental concepts. But Sarte seems to have a nihilism Buddhists don’t agree with,” I replied.

“Why not?”

“Well, because…”

Now Jake and I are even more separated, but our friendship has survived, partially because it already had a strong online presence. He’s in Minneapolis, working in a wine shop, attending a wonderful church where his close friend is pastor, and contemplating his ThD application to Duke. I knew it was only a matter of time until he went back for an advanced degree, despite his own misgivings about graduate schools.

We both blog and Jake has a set of loyal commentors, mostly personal friends from within his Christian circles – and one Buddhist who delights in tossing philosophic grenades in from left field.

“I enjoy your comments at the blog. You mess with the theists and the atheists. It's awesome,” he told me via Facebook today. He once told me he thought I was a good Christian, which made me laugh. I often tell him he’s a better Buddhist than I am, which makes him smile. We don’t always agree with each other, but we find joy in the disagreements.

These are the kinds of friends we all need.

Siddhartha & Samsara (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 2, 2010

Years ago a friend gave me a copy of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. It even made the trip to California with me, when many other books did not, despite being just a possibility on my shelf. After reading the quotation of Siddhartha’s final realization in Kornfield’s book, I was curious enough to finally pick it up. I skipped lunch and felt my tummy grumble pleasantly through the last few chapters, but I managed to finish it in an afternoon.

It’s frickin’ brilliant.

No doubt is has been critiqued and criticized sufficiently since 1922, some of it deserved, some not. That’s beside the point. Here in a short 152 pages is a succinct description of the main Buddhist teachings presented in the guise of a story, told from the mind of a character about whom the reader can truly care. It is pared down, with lavish description of context and landscape spared and spent instead on mental states, philosophy, emotion, and realization. It is a novel of the mind.

On page 75, the chapter called Samsara begins, in which Siddhartha spends twenty years as a merchant. He becomes accustomed to luxury, acquisitiveness, and gambling. I believe this, of all the chapters, is one to which people can relate most strongly.

A friend recently said that he didn’t want to have much in way of possessions. He liked to live in a simple home, take public transit, not have a lot of things to be responsible for. To some people this sounds like cowardice, fear of life, fear of “growing up.” It may be partially so, but to me it sounds very wise.

The summer after I graduated high school, my parents moved out of our house. My brother, two years older than I, and a group of his friends moved back in. Our folks bought a townhome nearby, something smaller than the five-bedroom ranch, where they didn’t have to mow the yard or shovel the snow. A year later, my brother and I bought the house. We continued to rent out three of the bedrooms.

I remember how proud I was of being “independent,” being a homeowner, even in a home I couldn’t really afford unless it was shared with strangers. I was always trying to “improve” my home, because that’s what homeowners do. I wanted a new rug for the dining room, new curtains for the living room, a larger television, flowers for the yard, to repaint my bedroom, remodel the bathroom, remove the dying tree. Beyond just the necessary maintenance, I wanted more than I had. I put a lot of money into these tasks, probably more than I could afford. There was an entire list, and by the time I had completed everything, I would have undoubtedly added a dozen more things I wanted.

Looking back now, I remember that mindset was permeated with a kind of misery. Outwardly, I had everything I was supposed to – a house in the suburbs, yard with the dogs, a car, a good, white-collar, nine-to-five job at the bank, financial independence, and an ongoing college education that kept me in class until ten o’clock four nights a week. When I was home on Friday and weekends, I cleaned, mowed the massive yard (which I came to hate), did repairs, watched too much television, read novels, and did laundry. I wasn’t really unhappy, but life was permeated by dissatisfaction.

Brandon moved out to live with his girlfriend, now wife. I rented his room. My close friend, Melissa, moved in. We remodeled her bedroom and bathroom. I went part-time at the bank and returned to the University full-time to study architecture. I worked two or three jobs on the side. We took out a second mortgage to pay for my first year back in college. My mother took out a parent’s student loan to pay for my second year. I ran up my credit cards to fill in the gaps. One of my dogs died. And I did the budget and did the budget and did the budget, until I realized I just couldn’t afford this massive, five-bedroom, mortgage in the suburbs.

I was never so happy as when I lived in Lincoln. We sold the house at a loss of three-hundred dollars, but it was finally gone. I gave my furniture to Melissa, who rented an apartment with two of our former housemates. I found a little, one-bedroom condo in an old building next to the State Capital on foreclosure sale in Lincoln. My parents bought it outright using the equity on their townhome. I paid my mortgage to them.

It took a while to get out of the mindset of samsara. I wanted to endlessly improve even my little condo. But the credit card payments drained my extra income and eventually I learned to be happy with what I had. I honestly got over the need for new curtains and rugs and televisions. I was delighted when I found a set of shelves left out by the dumpster. I stopped shopping in retail stores and bought my clothes second hand. Eventually, my closet shrank to a third its original size, and I didn’t mind. I didn’t drive my car everyday and I didn’t buy gas more than once a month. I learned to enjoy walking and riding my bicycle everywhere, being in the world rather than travelling through it wrapped in glass and metal. Eventually, I let the credit cards default and then declared bankruptcy, finally letting go of the last pretense of financial “independence” and “responsibility.”

Siddhartha walked away from his wealthy life as a pampered merchant and went to live as a ferryman in a small hut on the edge of the forest, growing crops, tending the orchard, weaving baskets, and listening to the river. Such a dramatic transformation is unlikely these days and I am no Siddhartha.

But I get it, and I think other people can get it, too, if they’re looking.