I woke this morning and somewhere between my orange and my cereal remembered it's Christmas Day. This has been a hard Christmas. The woman I loved without limit is gone and I'm seventy-seven years old. It's raining and will rain all day. It's warmer than yesterday and the rain and the snowmelt will cause flooding. My friend Beth is spending her first Christmas without her suddenly deceased husband. Reality Winner--don't you love her name--is spending her fourth Christmas in prison for being a whistle blower. I learned yesterday that they are withholding her mail. Hundreds of thousands of people have died of COVID19 and thousands of others are ill. The Republicans, who claim so loudly to be Christian have withheld the COVID relief package. Right wing militias who also claim to be Christian are threatening violence.
I am not a Christian, and although I do a Buddhist meditation practice, am not a Buddhist. I suppose I am spiritually eclectic, and what is wrong with that? I take a little from this religion, a little from that. What I hear in all religions is an anodyne for suffering. In Christianity it is faith. In Judaism it is the daily revisiting of the human disaster as depicted in the Torah and its wonderful, argumentative practice of Midrash. In Islam it is the epic poetry that can be warrior-like or as tender as a spider web grown over a cave to protect a prophet. In Buddhism it is the recognition that we suffer because we can't have what we want, and are deluded that if we got what we want we'd be happy. A new car may please us for a few months, a year, until it begins to age as we do. The rush of romance lasts a few months, a year or two, and then we're back with the basic discontent of our lives. There are two rivers in Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, both begun in India. Without noting their many differences let me settle on one: Theravada is binary and there is that which is wholesome and that which is not. Our unwholesomeness is other. It is something we can set aside and work on and prevent backsliding into it. Mahayana is not binary; what is wholesome and unwholesome are mixed in us. It is our daily condition. The loving acceptance of the whole mess is what begins the work of transformation. The Mahayana tradition appeals to me more because all my attempts to run away from suffering--my former drinking, my rage, my rampant and irresponsible sexuality, romance, the promiscuous pursuit of belief systems, or buying things--haven't worked. I return to these once a day:
The Five Remembrances of Buddhism
I am subject to aging. There is no way to avoid aging.
I am subject to ill health. There is no way to avoid illness.
I am going to die. There is no way to avoid death.
Everyone and everything that I love will change, and I will be separated from them.
My only true possessions are my actions, and I cannot escape their consequences.
Some people will find these realities depressing; but when they become undeniable facts we either accept them or we get drunk, kill ourselves, or behave badly. Much of our culture behaves badly; I do not exclude myself, but I behave less badly than I did fifty years ago. Our casino capitalism, which is delusional and creates suffering both for the haves and the have nots, is presently almost as bad as it can get. We are poised at the cusp of change with one toe over the abyss.
There is a Tibetan practice called Tong Len I am finding helpful this morning. In Tong Len we breathe in the suffering of others and breathe out happiness and peace for all sentient beings. No, this is not an "affirmation;" it came from a culture of existential uncertainty and suffering. It is an invitation to be compassionate. I don't mean pity, which always comes from a condition of privilege, but a co-ownership of the difficulty of being human. This will help me get through this not happiest of days. I believe compassion is at the core of all religions. Given the amount of religious violence in the world I hope they return to it. But it can be known at the personal level.
My mother had a friend, an Episcopal priest, who was especially helpful during her time of sickness and dying. He was a good man and didn't proselytize or judge. I told him I was a corpsman with a marine rifle company in Vietnam. I told him I will never get over the killing and maiming I saw, both of the combatants and the civilians. In my difficulties with faith I once talked to him about people who had stepped on mines, had lost their limbs and genitalia and who then spent the rest of their lives in that condition. He said to me, "I see Christ on the cross." That perhaps is the Christian version of Tong Len.
Now, I have had my coffee and am ready to get on with my day. I'll begin by reading wonderful poems by the Korean American poet Monica Youn.
Addendum by William James
From Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James:
"Our normal waking consciousness....is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application....No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question....They may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality."