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Eagle Coffin, by Paa Joe

The BBC recently posted an essay about the possibility that religion is an essential human need, like food and water. There are pedestrian objections to that: we need to believe in a life after death so that we aren’t afraid. We need something “to give our lives meaning.” Or, stupid or weak people need an “imaginary friend.” Or, we need a way to explain the world’s horrors, or hurricanes. We need a way to protect against evil. We need a way to accommodate human suffering.

Of the above, the last, about human suffering is the most interesting; it involves the necessity of compassion and investigation of the source of suffering.

Mystery, Wonder

Then there is the ontological mystery: why is there something rather than nothing? Who am I? Heidegger described the human condition of “thrown-ness;” we are born into the world without reason. Sartre argued there is no a priori meaning and we must make our own. Their contemporary, Gabriel Marcel, although an existentialist, left room for wonder.

Wonder; those moments where we are astonished by being alive, by being surrounded by natural beauty, of being humbled and silenced by say, The Grand Canyon, at least in the days before there dozens of charter flights over the canyon and the continuing noise of planes and helicopters diminished what silence brought to the experience.

I’ve been to the Canyon three times. The first time I saw it, when I was very young, I was almost unable to see a third dimension; and then I realized it was a mile deep. Initially it was like a painting. It took me a few seconds to actually see its depth. The second time I saw it I was with a group of people who’d taken peyote. I remember on the way there I saw bits of desert that seemed to breathe, one grassy mound looking like a woman’s vagina. The Canyon itself was rich in color and magnitude, although I was equally delighted by a large group of Japanese tourists departing a bus. My perceptions were not the same after the peyote. Since, I’ve been able to observe things entirely differently; there is layer of memory that includes the animated molecules of all things. I was studying Hindu philosophy at the time and my professor cautioned me that she would not accept papers that explored the mysteries suggested by the religion, especially regarding drug experiences and hippydom in general. I would be expected to think logically. I dropped the course.

I have always had a capacity for mystery. My later understanding (or misunderstanding) of Kant convinced me we do not see the thing itself but what our mind has made up about the thing. Reality, properly seen, is luminous. If the doors of perception were cleansed, Blake and Huxley, etc. If I say this to a reductive person they will scowl, but I still believe it. I suppose that is why I’m a poet. Later, I studied phenomenology and balked at the jargon, grinding my way through Husserl. I concluded poetry is a better way of seeing the world. It makes things brand new that have been over-described and catalogued, or numbed by theology. I think this is why Sufis, like Rumi and Hafiz, prefer it.

Here are some of the subjects I want to reinvestigate (and have reinvestigated with poems):

Belief: I don’t think it means anything to say “I believe,” in a god, etc. I believe people practice spirituality for another reason; it is as necessary as breath.

Faith: I don’t think faith is about believing in this or that god and then being rewarded in the end. I think faith is about living, opening to reality, sensing what is extraordinary right in front of my nose. It is also the idea that if I practice, say, meditation, I will become more aware of what influences my mind, and learn about how I am the cause of much of my suffering. I think faith is about seeing more deeply into myself and others and knowing there's something worth seeing. I think Buber’s practice of Thou-ness offers a way to be with others without all the crap that usually comes between people. I think faith is knowing that if I practice certain things I will become more open to the condition of being human.


Sufis in particular talk about a longing for God. They speak of God as the beloved. Kabir speaks of God as a friend and Rumi of God as a lover. Human love is an allegory for divine love. And I think, by extension, loving another human being is the door to finding a larger meaning for our love. I don’t talk about God. I mostly don’t use the appellation. For a while, I substituted “the universe” for God, but I don’t even do that anymore. Poetry allows me to speak of extraordinary things without labeling them.

Anger is admonished against, and yet the Jews of the Torah argued with God, believed and disbelieved in him, ran away from him (Jonah) and came back. And of course the Torah, like the Quran, is bloody. The new testament and the Gospels tell us to turn the other cheek. There is a later interpolation into the New Testament that suggests we can transcend the things that have always troubled us if we only follow Christ, although I don’t see Christ saying this anywhere. We return, like dogs, to our vomit. By studying the vomit, we learn.

And anger is also inappropriate in the cultures that gave birth to Buddhism. A Buddhist teacher recently said to me, “Anger is to Buddhism what sex is to Christianity.” This is where repression comes into play. Regarding anger, we can’t just go around killing everyone who offends us. Nor can we go around having sex with anyone who appeals to us, although in the nineteen-sixties some of us tried. See Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents. He wasn't wrong about everything.

Notice I have moved away from the word "religion." Religions have the annoying tendency to turn against the very things they supposedly embody: love and mystery; and it too often substitutes cruelty and a mental straight jacket. What is required to continually rediscover religion's initial responses to wonder?

Wonder suggests to us that what we think is ordinary is not. Wonder reminds us things are not what they seem and what we believe to be etched in stone may very well not be. Human suffering, particularly the kind we inflict on ourselves through ignorance, is something we can address through our attachment to things that are impermanent; and there is a way to compassionately hold its truth. And finally, there is longing, which is the motivating factor in spiritual practice. The Buddhist word for this is "Tanhā." Our hunger for these things should not be suppressed, either by the rigidities of certain religions, or the wholesale dismissal of religion as a lie. (Islamists, notably the Taliban, have murdered hundreds of Sufis.) This is a lot easier to talk about without the word "religion." It is also a lot easier to talk about without the word "spiritual" that has become too new-agie. Let me recommend the word "breath," and a simple thing like a lemon tree in blossom.

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