Broken Buddhas

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For Nicholas.

I, as you most likely know, am a Buddhist. I am a very bad Buddhist: I drink, swear like a sailor, and until recently was a very happy ethical omnivore. I make my amends, though, and one way I do that is through routine meditation practice. As an offshoot of that, I have a lot of boddhisatva statues around my house. They’ve been on my mind lately – probably because, in the recent CLEAN ALL THE THINGS push, I’ve handled each of them to wash, dust, and reposition them.

From where I’m sitting on my bed, I can actually see four statues: a Green Tara, a Kuan Yin, a weeping Buddha and my yard gnome Buddha.1 There are at least another two Buddhas in other areas of my home. And what struck me about them is that they all, with the exception of the weeping Buddha, are broken.

The Green Tara on my nightstand is missing a lotus and what looks like a naga. The Kuan Yin in my bathroom is missing a hand. Another is missing lotus petals. My yard gnome Buddha is probably the best example of this, though: during a move, many moves ago, he tipped out of the chair he was being carried in and the back of his head shattered across the ground. Concrete meeting concrete is never a pretty thing.

It was my ex-husband who dropped the yard gnome Buddha, and I very distinctly remember him bracing for what must have seemed like the inevitable explosion. That I stood there thinking for a moment, and then laughed, was certainly not the expected response.

Looking back on it, it was one of those moments. Everything slowed to a crawl as I watched the Buddha tip over and shatter, and then there was a bit of a sideways shift while practice clicked and tumbled in to place. The yard gnome Buddha became, in one swan dive, a very nice, very literal embodiment of non-attachment.

I’d like to say that since then I’ve reached some serene, zen-like state, closer to enlightenment, but the reality is I have my good days and the bad. I’d also like to claim that having a set of largely broken Buddhas decorating my house was an intentional choice, but instead it is more serendipitous. A reminder about how messy life is, and how broken we each are, and that life is often about finding the beauty in the broken, and the people whose shards match your own.

  1. So named because I found him as garden statuary in a garden store. []

why “but buddhism is a philosophy” is obnoxious

Earlier today, my Twitter buddy Tauriq Moosa retweeted a link to Martin Pribble’s lastest blog post, titled What’s the Harm in Religion? I find a lot of the atheist blogger output to be interesting, and trust that anything Tauriq retweets will at least be thought-provoking, so I clicked and read.

And sure enough, thought-provoking is one way to put it. Right in the first paragraph is one of those things that has me gritting my teeth and rolling my eyes, hard:

And herein lies the problem with religions; they, by their nature, encroach upon the non-religious areas of life and influence decisions on a social and political level.

Uhm. Okay. And from there, Pribble goes on to make some pretty gross generalizations about religions, period, which of course, by virtue of being gross generalizations, are wrong. And being irritated and pre-coffee and armed with Twitter, I fired off a quick and admittedly snide reply, figuring that if nothing else, another day spent doing very little in order to not aggravate my exceedingly unhappy lungs would be brightened by a brief fiery debate with a respected atheist voice.

And while I did engage with Mr. Pribble, I should note that he was at all times exceedingly respectful, open to my criticism, and conceded points. (I was, to say the least, surprised. Clearly Mr. Pribble doesn’t know that you are supposed to attack internet opponents with pitchforks and fire.) But there was one deviation that just stuck in my craw, as it were, because it’s something that I hear a lot: Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy.

For all the things out there that irritate me – and you don’t need to be the most eagle-eyed reader to realize it’s a relatively long list – one of the ones that gets under my skin faster than about anything else is the insistence that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. This is, as I noted to Mr. Pribble, obnoxious. Why? Because it’s a way of invalidating a data point that doesn’t agree with the point or argument that the person – generally of an anti-religion bent – is trying to make. And if you can’t support your position without ignoring the deviations that invalidate the position being argued, then you need to consider coming up with a new argument for that position.

As for whether or not Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, I was in a philosophy program for a couple of years. I still regularly talk to philosophers. And while some might be forgiven for thinking wine is our sacrament, philosophers as a whole don’t have ritualized ceremonies, meditations, or any great need to burn incense while talking shop – no, not even us odd Continental philosophers. Buddhism, on the other hand, can have almost as much pomp, circumstance and flash to it as Catholicism, which, when you think about it, is saying something.

Being religious is not synonymous with theism. It’s understandable that atheists would be most vocal against the Abrahamic, theistic religions because those are the dominant religions in the world. But this is still positioning in opposition to a specific subset of religion, rather than all religions. And if atheists mean truly being a-theistic, then they need to leave room to embrace those who are religious and atheistic, as well. And if the atheism movement’s problem is with all religions, rather than the theistic ones, then they need to come up with a better word to express that concept.

And any which way, people need to stop attempting to negate the fact that, uncomfortable as it may be to some people’s world views, it is entirely possible to be atheistic, non-proselytizing – and religious.

Katharsis

While my copy of Poetics has apparently gone walkabout, it seems like a general reminder of the meaning of katharsis might be timely. Why were people celebrating in the streets that bin Laden is dead? Because they feel this overwhelming catharsis, and that’s the only way they know how to express it.

It often surprises people to learn that a cathartic is any substance that purges feces from the body, or that the original Greek phrase specified the purging of menstrual fluid and semen. In fact, that’s why Aristotle snagged the term for Poetics – he wanted that medical association of purging, because he saw catharsis as being an emotional cleansing, purging, or evacuation.

In Poetics, catharsis is the extreme change in emotion that happens for character and audience after strong emotion, something that is achieved often through opposition – laughter set against tears, death that comes immediately after success (Whedon, I’m looking at you), and so on. It’s the release of pent up energy and emotion, or as Karen Armstrong summarizes in her book A History of God, tragedy effects a “catharsis of the emotions of terror and pity that [amount] to an experience of rebirth” (37).

A Bad Buddhist’s Thoughts on bin Laden’s Death

How can you be a Buddhist, and celebrate someone’s death? Isn’t that contradictory?

I’m sure the question is going around. I’ve seen quite a few people already make the broader and more vague “could never be happy anyone has died” – to which I say, really? Really? I realize that World War II ended 66 years ago, but really? You would have been sad Hitler died? I just question the sentiment, that’s all.

And before anyone wants to tell me that I’m Godwinning things from the outset, let me say that Hitler is actually relevant to the conversation, at least in regards to being Buddhist and finding the deep relief and release of joy that comes from that, from bin Laden’s death. How is it relevant, aside from the synchronicity in dates of death?

Well, most of the conversations that exist with the Dalai Lama regarding violence and the deaths of someone so horribly evil do revolve around Hitler and the Nazis, for somewhat obvious reasons.

The last time I saw His Holiness speak, someone asked him whether violence was always a bad thing. He clarified that, like all things, it depends. Swiftly smacking someone to bring them out of shock – or to bring them to sense – is certainly an act of violence. But it can also be seen as an act of compassion. And it’s possible to extend that out – sometimes, the most compassionate thing to do might be to end someone’s life.

But, you would be right to point out that the scenario here, with bin Laden, and even the theoretical with Hitler, is not able to be spun as a compassionate gesture for that individual (unless you want to go very theoretical and talk about karma and such, which is just beyond relevant for now). Then what?

In Beyond Dogma, the following question is asked of His Holiness:

Would you have also refused to take up arms against Hitler?

His Holiness had the following response:

I don’t know. We have to go into a bit of detail. At the time Nazism was taking root and beginning to gain strength and importance, I would personally have made every effort to stop it, if I could have at the time.

Not long ago, when I was in Poland, I visited the camp at Auschwitz where thousands of innocent people were exterminated. I stayed for a moment in the gas chamber and when I saw the crematorium I was filled with profound sadness. The worst was when I came upon the piles of shoes and human hair. In the middle of all those shoes were little children’s shoes; they had been patched, the shoes of a poor child. I asked myself why did they kill these people? Why? Let us imagine that at the time there was a small group of SS on one side, and a large group of Jewish prisoners, French and Polish, on the other. If the possibility had really existed that by eliminating those few SS men all the prisoners might be set free, who knows? If I had had a weapon, and were really sure of being able to… I don’t know, it’s very hard to say. Whatever the case, this is mere speculation, so it doesn’t do much good to talk about it. I think that if you had been there, you would have sided with me.

If the temporal leader of Tibetan Buddhists, when faced with the possibility of saving lives in the face of abject evil, gives credit to the possibility that violence may have been the answer… I’m not entirely sure why I, an admittedly very bad Buddhist (witness, please, the glass of wine I’m nursing as I write this), would be expected to have any different a reaction.

Was bin Laden the “same kind” of evil as Hitler? I think whenever we get into trying to quantify evil, it becomes a game of splitting hairs to some other ends. What is important to me is that bin Laden master-minded events that had horrific loss of life Sept 11, 2001, and his continued presence was a rallying point for likeminded people who see America as the Great Satan. If one man could outwit this great nation, how great a nation could it be?

And yes, America has flaws, from how it handles foreign relations to how it’s handled everything involving the post-9/11 world, from our individual freedoms to the way we treat people in overseas countries.

But it was only through blind luck and hitting snooze a few times – very much “there but for the grace of God” – that my family at the time did not lose a very dear member, who was supposed to be in the WTC that long ago September morning. My father was flying that day, and I spent hours not knowing where he was – what part of the country, what airline he had been on, if he was alive or dead. I lived within blocks of the Seattle WTC, and no one knew at the time who was still in the air or what the other targets were. It was a terror unlike anything I had ever experienced.

I was lucky enough to not lose anyone that day. Many people I know were not so fortunate. In the years after, I did lose people to the aftermath. A dear friend is a veteran of that war, and although he is strong and stubborn, that war left a deep impression on him, and it’s something he will always live with.

I am a Navy brat, from a long line of servicemen who proudly served our country. I have had at least one relative in every conflict on American soil since there was such a thing as American soil. I take my ability to be fiercely critical of my country as a requirement of being fiercely patriotic in a way that goes beyond pomp and circumstance, and instead speaks to being deeply committed to the political process and participation within it. Aside from having the certifications saying that I should run towards a disaster to help out, I also seem to have this moral code that demands it – and I recognize a kinship in those people who died, and those who worked at the sites for so much longer attempting rescues, and then recovering remains.

And I know what this death will mean. I know what it will mean for our terror alerts and the threats of retaliations. I know that it will function as a martyr to the cause, and a rallying point for people who need an excuse. And my Buddhism comes to play here, as I feel nothing but deep sadness and compassion for people whose lives are so bad that death in the name of jihad is a better prospect than living.

But I also know what this death will mean for the people who have made sacrifices. I know that this helps to validate those sacrifices – the lost lives, the permanent disability, the nightmares and PTSD. It was not in vain. And that is a powerful message as well.

How can I be a Buddhist and find relief and the concomitant joy in the news of the death of bin Laden? Because I am not a Buddhist first, I am a human being first. A deeply flawed human being who’s just tripping one step at a time along this journey called life, trying to navigate the rapids as they appear and keep my head above the water as best as possible.

Or perhaps it does go back to that deeper idea of the most compassionate thing you can sometimes do is a brief, violent act; as my maternal grandfather would have said, sometimes, all you can do is shoot the rabid dog.

strange hopes

There are strange things to hope for in life. Being woken up by my sister, so she can tell me Mom has died, is probably going to top the list for a long time. But it’s true, it’s what we’re all hoping for. She’s been semi-comatose all day, and we’re pretty sure she just checked out completely while the chaplain was attending to her. She has gone from being agitated, talking, trying to move, get water, wanting to hold our hands with desperate grip, to being curled within herself.

Mother, that which is called death has now arrived. You are leaving this world. But in this you are not alone. This happens to everyone. Do not be attached to this life! Do not cling to this life! Even if you remain attached and clinging, you do not have the power to stay. Marianne, beloved child of Christ, beloved wife and mother, dear friend, the time has now come for you to seek the path that will lead you away from us. Like the moon reflects on the surface of the water, you will always be reflected on the surface of our hearts.