Saturday, October 29, 2011

Some light on me

Since I'm writing under a pseudonym, maybe it's a good idea if I tell you a little about myself and how I reached this wonderful end point of being a bewildered beginner at Zen.  Well, I was born in Calgary but never really lived there.  I lived in England but I'm not really from there.  I study ancient Greece from hypermodern California.  And I know a thing or two about Augustine and Aquinas but couldn't really tell a Dogen from a Hakuin at this stage.  Despite that, there are two main things that have apparently made me well-suited for a Buddhist practice: being a Christian and being in pain.

What kind of Christian was I?  Several.  My first great teacher was my mother, who seems to know nothing about Christian doctrine and cares even less.  My earliest memories of organised religion are of stuffy churches in army barracks that we went to as a family every Sunday as an obligation.  But once I remember we were swimming in the lake outside our family cottage, the sun was laying down a line of light on the water like a blurry path, and my mother was telling me that this was what was wonderful about Christianity, that it wasn't about any particular God but just enjoying being in that light.  Even then the comment struck me as pretty obviously false, but I sensed that behind or beside it was something interesting.

When I moved to England I went to a traditional Anglican boarding school where we were made to go to Chapel three times a week, sometimes four.  There was also an optional candlelit mass on Friday nights that I would go to.  I remember sitting in a pew at one of these and looking up at the light falling on the stone arches opposite me.  At some point the Reverend asked us in Theology what being a Christian was all about.  We suggested love, kindness, going to church, but all those answers were wrong; apparently the core of the faith was to believe that Jesus redeemed our sins by dying on the cross.  I decided that I either didn't understand that or did and didn't believe it, so I must not be a Christian.  It didn't make me sad, because I was sixteen, but later I'd miss that moment in chapel.

Near the end of my first year of university I started feeling pain in my face.  The doctor told me I needed to relax, so I went to Italy for the summer, drank lots of red wine, and started meditating after reading an article about it on the internet.  I did it in secret and pretended I was doing something different if someone caught me in the act, like wanking.  After a while my facial pain got better and I felt like something interesting was just behind or underneath the light falling on the wall in my room.  Then I got hit on the head playing rugby, and have had a headache ever since.  I stopped meditating because it scared me to think of what might be happening to my concussed brain.  I tried exercising three times a day, not drinking tea, drinking a bottle of wine every night, switching girlfriends.

And somehow I was still meditating, not every day or every other day, but occasionally.  I joined a group the term I did my final exams at Oxford and didn't like it much, but felt lighter walking home hugging my cushion.  I went to a temple in London and didn't like that much either, but remember once noticing the way the light was falling on a tree outside and kind of enjoying it.  When I moved to California, I found myself studying what I loved with a group of close friends in a land of eternal sunshine, but for some reason I was still suffering.  I tried taking more pain medication, using anaesthetic patches on my neck, getting a tooth removed.  And somehow I kept meditating, off on and on, and then suddenly on and on, every day, with a new technique another grad student taught me.

I still use that concentration practice, but there was something about it that pushed me more towards discipline than freedom.  I spent a year being unhappy but calm and wondering if I was simply calm but unhappy.  When I walked into Wind in Grass I found a bunch of nutcases in party hats who seemed neither calm nor happy but keen on wondering.  I didn't take to some of the traditional koans - I couldn't care less about whether the dog had buddhanature, whatever that was.  I didn't like the liturgy, especially when we chanted about people like Guanyin - who was he?  But every so often I'd find myself sitting there, wondering at the pain and the play of light, and I'd be in the lake with my mother, the chapel in England, and also no other place but here, after all this time the only real place to be.


  1. Ahoy hoy -- most people who know both of us would find it hilarious that your attraction to Buddhism(as you describe it here) is primarily perhaps an aesthetic one and, if I may use the word, sensual (NB: one is aware of the slight difficulties involved with the word 'sensual' when it describes an attempt to escape, or rather deal with, continuous pain....) Surely I'm not making too egregious a misreading? Compare this with my own embrace of Catholicism, on the other hand, which has very little to do with light, feeling, or concentration, and might be seen as grimly focussed on the Word, the Gospels, and the very thing that seems to have repelled you, to a degree that might even make a Protestant blush. At least both of us have the same approximate experience of being turned off by Anglicanism, though my experience was presumably a lot wishy-washier and even less rigorous than yours -- there never was a bluntly provocative statement such as your chaplain made -- had there been, Heaven only knows where I'd be now. A Trappist monastery, a brothel, or both.... I wonder if it's relevant to anything that a majority of the Buddhists I know are ex-Anglicans who still like the music. Your best line in this post is the one about your being afraid of being caught meditating -- which coincides with my view of a lot of meditation, in fact (or the reasons for its current vogue in rich countries) -- and that's less of a jest than you'd think. Almost. But look whom I'm telling -- you're the one who lives in California....

  2. You're exactly right, as long as you just give your words the opposite meaning to the one you meant for them. My nostalgia for Anglicanism, and indeed Christianity in general, feels primarily aesthetic and sensuous (to pick up the non-judgmental Miltonic coinage), while I became interested in Buddhism, like many in the West, because I mistook it for a rational faith (whatever that is).

    I do still hanker for a whiff of incense, and miss the days when I could belt out hymns with 700 boys who had no choice but to be there. But there are many reaons that I'm also glad that's all in the past. Meditation in the West (until you get to California) does sometimes feel like furtively masturbating in a closet, and perhaps that's one reason I'm writing this blog - I've heard that SF is a good place to come out in, so, Mom and Dad, I think I'm a Buddhist.