Monday, July 28, 2008

Where God Is, and Where God Isn't

A few thousand years ago there lived a prince named Siddhartha who sat down under a bodhy tree to meditate. Sometime later, under that same tree, he attained enlightenment and people started calling him Buddha. Maybe you've heard of him?

Anyway, a decendent of that bodhy tree still stands in the same plot of ground today, behind a temple dedicated to Buddha. And even though Buddhism is pretty much dead in India, it is still alive and well almost everywhere else in Asia. So there are monasteries from all those other countries here in this tiny town dedicated to Buddha's enlightement. That, I suppose, is why I am here: to learn something about Buddhism and meditation, about life and its purpose. About myself.

Someone once asked Michael where God is. His answer was “I dunno...everywhere?”. No. Wrong. God is not “everywhere”. God is in YOU. Or, at least that is what the Tibetan master told him. And when the master told him that, Michael had a flash back to when he was a five year old boy in the suburbs of LA and he fell down in the street. There was a moment, very short, when he was neither standing nor falling but just hanging in the air. And now Michael realized “Oh my gosh, nothing has changed.” He saw, in that strange experience, that there is some part of him that is unchanging, some small bit of awareness in him that is not just a reaction to the world around him. Something constant, something more real than the street onto which he fell. Something Divine.

And so, a few decades later, he is in India trying to understand that divine something that, even now, is unchanged within him. He has been searching in ashrams and meditation retreats in Nepal, India, and Tibet for about eighteen years now. He looks like it, too. He has one of those long, scraggly, mostly gray beards hanging off his face. His long hair is coiled into a bun at the point of his head (which, if we are honest, kind of makes him look like a small animal pooped up there). He wears all white, very simple, with a strand of wooden prayer beads around his neck. When I met him he was sitting next to the afore mentioned bodhy tree, legs crossed in 'lotus position', smiling at the universe in general.

Nearly twenty years in India is a long time. Four months in India is a long time, so I can hardly blame him for being a little “spacey” after eighteen years here. But I thought I would share a few of the things he told me as we sat together in the shade of that ancient temple and sacred tree, contemplating the meaning of life and who exactly was this Buddha figure

There is no “you” there is no “me”. Seeing a definition between self and other is the root of all suffering. We must eliminate suffering by eliminating the self.

When meditating, let your mind lose all distraction until you reach the center of awareness. The mind is like a monkey, continually jumping from branch to branch. The purpose of meditation is to let that all go and reach to real awareness, beyond self and time.

Let your heart shine within you. Let it radiate compassion until everyone around you can feel it and see it in you. Sometimes at night, you wake up and you can't sleep. Let your heart radiate compassion in those moments. Compassion is the expression of wisdom.

Some try to live their lives in avoidance, renouncing the world by not taking part in it. Others live through the world and renounce it by not becoming attached to it. The former will ultimately spend too much time dreaming of the world they have renounced. The later plays with fire, but at least they know what the fire is and what the fire isn't. They do not dream of fire.

Michael told me a lot of other things in the hour and a half we spent together. But these are the things which I liked or disliked the most. So, having given you his ideas, let me explain my ideas about them.

I am me, you are you. We are not the same consciousness, awareness, soul, brahma, call it what you will. And because I am not you, I cannot control you. Sometimes I cannot even control myself. And there is suffering. But there is also joy. I take the suffering with the joy. I take you with me. I take it all. And it hurts, but it's worth it. I cannot be empty, so I will be full.

My mind is a monkey, or an FM radio without an off switch. I spent an hour doing “zazen” meditation at the Japanese monastery here the other day, and never did achieve real quietness of mind despite the gongs, drums, and mystical chanting going on around me. I did manage to redecorate my hotel room in my mind, though. And I had a good long chat with the gold plated statue of Buddha in front of me about inflation in the US. But as far as real meditation goes, it was not a success. But then there was that time in Coimbatore:
Once about a month ago, I was just at the bus stop in Coimbatore, the city near the village we lived in for two months. Busy people all around me, buses coming and going with horns blaring the whole time. The ubiquitous smell of over ripe fruit and urine mingling in my nostrils. Women in sarees, college aged girls in salwars, and men in doties and western slacks passing in rapid blurry succession. I was alone, going home after a long day in the city. I sat on the corner of a tiled waiting bench, knowing it would be about half an hour until bus 96 came blaring into the fray, oozing people like a fresh wound and taking them in again just as fluidly. So I sat, and for no particular reason closed my eyes. I think I intended to say some kind of prayer about getting home safely or something, but before I had even formed the prayer in my head it happened. As soon as my lids closed on the scene around me I was surrounded by the Spirit. As though God had been waiting for me to pay just enough attention to Him, just enough peace in my mind and WHOOSH there He was. Not shouting, not warning, nothing urgent or mind blowing. Just quiet knowledge that He exists, that He is there, and that He is intimately aware of my every thought and feeling.
It happened again by the bodhy tree with Michael yesterday. He started talking about meditation and, trying to be obliging, I closed my eyes. And that was all it took for something to open up inside of me, like a direct line to Heavenly Father. Again it was not a warning, it was not a spiritual confirmation of anything Michael had said. It was just there, like God just couldn't resist talking to me now that I was in a quiet moment. Not because He had anything particularly pressing to tell me at that moment, but just because He could. That's all. I was quiet and still and listening and He was just...there. Like this weird wordless conversation “Hello Jenny. I'm here. I see you. I love you more than your mind can possibly understand and want you to be happier than your imagination can possibly comprehend right now. Just thought I'd say Hi.” and my response “uhhhhhhhh, Hi?”
So if that's meditation, sign me up.

Yes, let your heart shine within you. Compassion is lovely. But, rather than “shining your heart” when you can't sleep at night, DO SOMETHING COMPASSIONATE. You know, love someone, see something divine not just in yourself but in others as well, give something, see a need and fill it. Our capacity to love, and love deeply on a personal level is not an attachment that draws us further from God. Our capacity to love comes directly from God, and embracing that makes us more like Him, not less.

I neither play with fire, nor dream of fire. So...I'm neither a closet pyromaniac nor covered in third degree burns. Where does that put me?

Overall, I like Buddhism for its emphasis on finding out who you really are outside of your reactions to the world around you. I like the idea that I am more than the sum total of my fears and wants, my likes and dislikes. I also like meditation, on a strange level, and I fully intend to work on that skill. I don't want Heavenly Father to have to raise His voice at all to get my attention, so I figure I'll give Him more quiet time. You know, I'll just shut up for an hour or two everyday and see if He has anything to fill the silence with. What I don't like about Buddhism has mostly to do with its view of relationships between people. And that's okay. I don't have to like every aspect of it. Which is another thing I've learned here: I don't have to like it.

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