Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Slaying the Buddha

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

-St. Macarius

The story is often told of the celebrated Buddhist monk, Lin Chi, who by all accounts was the founder of the Zen school of Buddhism. It happened that, once, when the venerable monk was in the midst of his meditation, a young disciple of his rushed up the hill where the sage sat in rapt concentration. The pupil made a mad dash for the master, and in a jubilant tone, loudly exclaimed 'Master, I have achieved nirvana!' The pupil was glad, for one, because he who was a mere novice had actually met the Buddha himself on the road.

Master Lin Chi sat still, hardly paying heed to his disciple's excitement. Suddenly, the venerable sage opened his mouth, and calmly proclaimed, 'If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.' Confused, the disciple waited around for his master to add something, anything, to that vague piece of information. When no further word followed, the disciple left Lin Chi, sulking back to his niche in the lower places of the hill.

The story is easy enough to understand: the pupil, in his mad desire to achieve enlightenment too fast and too soon, unconsciously desired nirvana, that he eventually became attached to earthly desires, and succumbed to human nature. The Buddha he encountered was merely an illusion brought about by his fantasies-- thus, he had not reached nirvana at all. In Buddhist thought, nirvana does not mean 'enlightenment' so much as a 'snuffing out'-- annihilation, basically. To achieve enlightenment, then, is basically to 'desire' to de-exist.

As a Catholic, I simply do not, and cannot, agree with this notion; Buddhism it basically too pessimistic and nihilistic a religion for me to even take seriously at all. If that is what it takes to achieve enlightenment, then I would much rather remain in the dark, and remain human. However, I think one thing that I can agree with Buddhism on is that we are all searching for answers here in the world. As I've learned, it is the simplest questions that can become the most difficult, and also the most profound. A simple query from a child, like 'Why do we die' has prompted many an adult to search for answers-- unfortunately, not always the right ones.

I live in the city-- I eat, sleep, and breathe the noxious fumes, the incessant cacophony of noise, the perpetual humdrum of the work place (in my case, the university), the non-existent smiles on people's faces-- all of these are a common sight, as I am sure it is for many. There is something about the city that tends to choke the life of someone, especially if he is not used to the hustle and bustle of 'the big life'. In time, I've found that this cocktail of smells and noises has ingrained itself into my system that I even yearn for it. Too often do I find myself thinking about things while listening to an imaginary recording of honking horns and heavy equipment pounding into asphalt. In the library, where I usually stay, I find myself listening to the drone of photocopy machines and subsonic whispers. Even when I think, it seems that I am always doing something.

Of course, it is very hard to put the blame on any particular person or reason. I also cannot blame myself, or any other person 'suffering' from the same things, if he chooses to leave the city for good. Admittedly, city life is dehumanizing-- it is no wonder many choose to live in suburban areas, where the traffic and pressure are relatively better. But then, one has to wonder: these areas do not provide any protective blanket from the problems of the world. At most, they provide a veneer of comfort and ease, but I've known far too many suburban families with dirty secrets of their own. I think we have forgotten far too well that God favors so specific places: He always is everywhere, filling all things.

It is very easy to be carried away into this way of thinking; no doubt, affluence plays a large part in shaping this mindset. With wealth comes clout, and it is this which allows many people to think that a small piece of land, for example, duly secured from all sides by walls and fences, can become a safe haven, a tower of refuge from the problems of the world. With wealth also comes a certain view which basically equates living a good Catholic life with studying in the best schools or knowing the right priests or worshiping at the right churches. The wealthy basically pick and choose, and consequently define, what is in or out. This is potentially a dangerous way of thinking; to wit, fascism, liberation theology, liberal theology, and ultra-dogmatist theology are just some of the products of this way of thinking.

I don't claim to know the proper Christian response to these problems are; I, too, am one who seeks answers to these questions. What I say in this blog are just my opinions, after all. But if I may be so bold as to offer a 'solution' to this problem, it would be to place it in God's hands. We city dwellers have become too embroiled in the business of city life that we assume true religion can only exist outside its confines. But that is simply not the case. If we follow this logic, then Rome and Constantinople would necessarily have had 'false' churches, on account of the sin and decadence of their residents. It would also seem to follow that the papacy was a sham, given the number of malefactors who have wormed their way up St. Peter's throne (I know a former Catholic who cites this very reason why he left the Church).

I mentioned in my last post that conversion is not a one-night deal. Of course it's not! You do not transition from infant to boy to man in a couple of nights. Similarly, starting off with a riotous amount of trivia about Catholicism will not get you anywhere. The biggest problem with this way of thinking, I guess, is that it rationalizes the things which are beyond reason into overly simplified 'facts'. Honestly, what good does knowing how many tassels a dalmatic may have or how many rites there are in the Western Church,have? I hate to say it, but this kind of bourgeoisie Catholicism is only a simulacrum of the real thing.

I guess the biggest difference between traditionalist Catholics and Catholics by tradition (meaning, those who grew up in a Catholic environment) is that the former 'came' to the Church via an intellectual assessment, while the latter, born into the Church, believe in Her as a matter of faith-- more akin to a mother's tender caress than anything. I have met many traditionalists who unfortunately think more like Protestants than Catholics, in that they view their conversion as the 'end' of the process. Thus, perhaps, why many are quick to assert how most cradle Catholics are really just Catholics by culture. The cradle-born have a sense of the supernatural that is glaringly absent from the clean book traditionalism espoused by traditionalists. It is this mixture of vice and piety which fascinates me, and so many others. It is something I know I can never fully answer, and I rejoice in this fact, because then I know I am fully human.

Are we really busy? Are we really free? It is interesting to note that it takes a housewife the same amount of time to clean her house one hundred years ago as today. Of course, the inevitable protest is bound to come up: we have more tools today than yesterday, surely there is a mistake? I think the answer lies in the skewed priorities of much of society today; we are giving ourselves more and more things to do which are not really priorities to begin with. A drink with friends or a shopping trip in the height of noon become more important than maintaining the order and dignity of a household or the cleanliness of its floors. I'm not saying we should not do these things-- but I am saying that we have to be answerable to ourselves.

One thing which I think most of us have forgotten is that the path to holiness is straight and narrow. It is not bridged overnight, and we must not expect to; to do so would simply be laughable and ridiculous. Therefore we should not hurry this process to the point that it exacerbates us to the degree of impatience. I cannot stress the point enough: many heresies have been birthed from the impatience of numberless men. Like a towering Gothic cathedral, faith is built, heap by heap, on smaller stones. To expect such a monolithic growth in our own expectant time would be the greatest misfortune we cannot afford.

Have you seen the Buddha on the road yet? Be careful-- you are never too sure if it is the Buddha himself you are now about to kill with your sword, or just another simulacrum, drifting along empty corridors like a phantom.


Anonymous said...

i love this exposition of part of my treatment i was seeing a psychoherapist who had buddhist leanings..a very nice man..but so misguided..but also dangerous for sick people...

Archistrategos said...

I agree, Mrs. Parkes-- Buddhism can potentially be a very 'dangerous' path to take. I have a friend who is seriously into this Zen thing; he has not cared to go home to his family in a long time, for fear of losing his enlightenment. He definitely needs our prayers!

Az said...

Just one last point, there is a good book on Buddhism and Catholicism called 'The Unexpected Way' by Paul Williams, an internationally known authority on Mahayana Buddhism. Before his conversion to Catholicism he had been a practicing Buddhist for some decades. He currently holds a professorial chair in Buddhist Studies at my alma mater, the University of Bristol, UK.

Archistrategos said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Az, I'll try to look for it soon :)