Now if you ask of psychology just how and why aims that were peripheral become at a certain moment central, psychology has to reply that she is unable to account accurately for all the single forces at work.
--William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
I have always tried to be honest when it comes to spiritually-based matters. Even when it makes me look crazed or stupid. This time, however, has been especially difficult.
It seems I don't have the right words, the proper references, the easy approach. On some level, I find Westerners who claim Eastern religions to be pretentious and silly; tourists of the soul. And yet... I wrote about my beloved George Harrison for a reason. I made the case for him and people like him.
Of course, I realized I was also talking about myself. I knew this could all apply to me at some later date.
The date and time arrived, without any preparation, rather like an old rusty sundial that nobody pays much attention to. Time's up. The clock struck the hour, and as the book of Matthew tells us, no man knows the day or the hour, not even the angels in heaven.
I hesitate to call it a conversion. But I am stuck with Western words--words with their roots in Christianity. As I said in the George Harrison post: they don't do it like that, we do it like that. But then, I am talking about ME, right?
I do it like that.
My study of Buddhism has grown extensive. And just like those numerous TV detectives (or Greg House), I was in the middle of something else entirely when it happened. In a series of realizations, everything coalesced, made sense, lined up. I tried to fight it, because I knew what it meant. (I briefly wrote about that here.) I am frankly terrified at the idea of "leaving" the Church, even psychologically. (Physically, I have no trouble staying away for months at a time.) A creator God is an idea I can't overcome and can't shake; an idea that seems etched somewhere on my cerebellum. In addition, my deep love for the saints and the Blessed Mother is a palpable and real phenomena in my life. I don't want to change, I protested inwardly, I don't want to.
Then why are you reading all of this stuff? Why have you steadily prayed for compassion?
It was the graveyard. I asked the spirits of the dead to speak to me, and tell me what they know.
I decided to take photos of the German graveyard in Fredericksburg, Texas. These immigrants are the people my grandchildren descend from, my son-in-law's family. They came thousands and thousands of miles, to these hills that must have seemed so hot, so inhospitable, so strange. They left the "old country" and arrived in the land of coyotes and cactus. I thought of what it was like, never hugging one's parents again, crossing a huge ocean and knowing that you will never again see the place you came from, the land that nurtured you and formed your imagination.
I saw the gravestones, some of them the graves of babies. The whooping cough, polio and other diseases these babies likely died from, have been largely eradicated in the West. And yet, our pain, our suffering, does not diminish. We have all kinds of modern conveniences that these Germans would have found incredible, the answer to any number of daily problems; even a telephone would have been an amazing innovation in their very primitive, pioneer way of life. But what does the modern proliferation of phones bring us? I thought of the woman seated behind me on the plane, arguing on her cell phone in controlled tones... arguing with who? I tried to figure it out and could not: Husband? Boyfriend? Best friend?
I thought of the juxtaposition of the arguing passenger, and the German immigrant (lying here in this cemetery?) of the last century, who would have been so overjoyed to hear that her husband was merely late, not hurt or harmed on his long, muddy trek home by horse-drawn wagon. Telephones were once used only in similar emergencies, to notify Atticus Finch there was a rabid dog outside, and other scary stuff like that. But now we all carry one, like talismans to ward off the problems of modern life that materialize seemingly out of nowhere. And as a result, omnipresent telephones have also helped to multiply our distress.
I thought about my newborn grandson, my nearly-five-year-old granddaughter, and the pain I have experienced, not being able to see them as often as I want to. I know they will not die of these old diseases, causing me great pain, but I do feel the intense pain of separation, the same crushing pain these German immigrants felt. In that sense, nothing has changed. Our common humanity is the same, and we feel the same, even after the passing of a hundred years.
We have improved our lot, we are living longer, I thought, but we are still sad.
And tellingly, graveyards have not changed. We have not changed the fact of death, the end of our earthly existence.
I entered that area of the cemetery in which the names have worn off the stones. Who are these people?--I thought. Please talk to me. There were gothic-appearing cages surrounding the oldest stones, some very rusty. To keep the grave-robbers out? Frightening. (One might also say, to keep the dead people from escaping, if one were sufficiently spookable.)
I could always get through the first two Noble Truths pretty easily. I mean, come on, who can argue?
The Nature of Suffering (or Dukkha):I would even agree with the third one, but I just wasn't sure it was for an amateur like me:
"This is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering."
Suffering's Origin (Dukkha Samudaya):
"This is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination."
Suffering's Cessation (Dukkha Nirodha):And finally, the fourth, the stumbling block. Aye, this is the rub.
"This is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it."
The Path (Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipada Magga) Leading to the Cessation of Suffering:Yes, it folded in on me, very simply and honestly.
"This is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration."
This is The Truth, and I have found it, after much seeking. I am now ready to accept it.
And there it was, one of the most intense moments of my life, strikingly similar to my two other conversion experiences, which have brought me to this point. (I love trinities; these kindsa things should happen in threes.) I then saw the gravestone that said "Our darling" (photo at left)--and that was it. I started to cry, right there in the old German graveyard, for the suffering of all beings. And I wanted so much, with every fiber of my being, to end it.
I reached out and touched the words: Our darling. I felt the keening, the tears, of the mother who asked for those words on the gravestone. I am so sorry, I sobbed, I am so sorry.
I promise not to turn this into a Buddhist blog. I wouldn't know how to begin, in any case. I am merely reporting the incident and the shift in my sensibility. My sense of peace and new sense of mission, has not abated in the slightest, and has only increased. I know this means I have to go further. It will be my task to correlate my old beliefs with the new ones, and to figure out what I need to do to fulfill these new convictions in my everyday life. This is called dharma, a word I don't use easily. As I said, the feeling that I am some kind of religious tourist, or worse, a cultural imperialist, is overwhelming, probably fallout from too much leftism. Still, I hope this feeling will keep me honest. And as I seek out a path for myself, I hope my spiritual reticence will prevent me from bloviating nonsense!
In the short run, the change in my life has been enormous. The truth shall set you free!
As always: Stay tuned, sports fans. :)
:: I loved Kloncke's recent posts as Feministe, and highly recommend her blog.
:: And as we speak so honestly of suffering: While I was gone, a sometime blog-reader and good friend passed away. He was one of those very generous, sweet-tempered Christians who embody the Word, and would gladly give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. Rest in Peace, generous and loving soul, Gregg James Farrier 1947-2010. The fierce and beautiful kindnesses you left on the earth, stay behind to remind of us of what we are capable of becoming, if we try.
:: Non-Beatles fans might wonder: blog post title is from George Harrison's Blue Jay Way.
After all of these years, I finally understood the phrase.