Thursday, August 8, 2013

On Taking Refuge

Two weeks ago, Rhonda and I were up at the Ten Thousand Buddhas Summit Monastery, a secluded and beautiful site about fifteen minutes from our house in Corydon.  We were there at the invitation of the Reverend Thich Hang Dat, at a luncheon in honor of Mayor Greg Fischer's visit to the monastery.  For those of you outside our area, that's the Mayor of Louisville,  Rhonda's ultimate boss in Louisville Metro.  

We were at the event independently (i.e. not part of the Mayor's entourage) but we sat at the same table with him and Rev. Hang Dat—very pleasant company among two engaging and intelligent community figures.  Rhonda knows the Mayor, of course, and though I can't claim more than a passing acquaintance, I think he's a good man and a good mayor.  Before things settled in for the luncheon, he asked us, "Are you Buddhists?"

And hence the subject of the blog.

Rhonda gave a longer and very thoughtful answer to the question.  Like a good Catholic girl (and I mean that description in the best sense possible) she said that no, we weren't Buddhists, but that we were drawn by the spirituality and kindness of the tradition, especially as we saw it in display among the people in the Summit Monastery's community.  We've been there a few times, she informed the mayor, and always come away with a sense of welcome and hospitality.

There was nothing in that answer with which I disagree.  Mine would have been shorter: to the mayor's inquiry as whether I was a Buddhist, I would have to say, simply, "Not yet."

As I understand, to become an "official card-carrying Buddhist", one "takes refuge" in  1) a belief in the Buddha's enlightenment and example to those who seek their own enlightenment, 2) a belief in the dharma (the basic Buddhist teachings), and 3) an embrace of the sangha, the Buddhist community of faith.  As of now, I'm inclined toward taking refuge, though I'm spending some time in mindful consideration of what is an enormous spiritual step.

The meditation I've been doing, under the guidance of Rev. Hang Dat and (of course) on my own, is a practice that is already bearing enormous psychic rewards: if I go no further into Buddhism than simply meditating morning and evening and being more mindful in the way I pass my days, that alone will make this experience worth my while in abundance.  I am very new to meditation, but already notice an equilibrium and focus that I've experienced only at moments before, and certainly never in a daily, sustained fashion.  I have a feeling that if I am observant, I'm pushing the second heart attack out of the way and enabling emotional and physical health.  Those are good things.

The rest of the bargain I'm puzzling through.  And here are some of the issues.

I've never been a believer in a personal God, which is the kind of deity that most of my Christian and Jewish friends profess.  I tried to be for fifty years, because I can remember distinctly not believing when I was about four or five, feeling awful then as though something was really wrong with me, and masking the disbelief with excuses, compromises, false professions of faith.  Folks, I did this for half a century—partly because I feared facing the distance and disfavor of some people around me, but not so much that as something else: a kind of residual fear like the one in the old Blood Sweat and Tears song…to myself, I swore there was no heaven and I prayed there was no hell.  I respected and even envied the faith of some of my friends, especially when I saw it give life and breath to their actions, and even more so when I saw it emerge from an intellectual and emotional vigor I respected.  That faith was apparent to me in a few of the people I knew, and it was probably at work where I didn't see it in others.  I always respected it (except for about a 3-year period in late high school and early college, but nobody respects anything at that time, so I apologize to you and forgive myself in one fell swoop for that particular irreverence).  

Buddhism has a wide range of belief on this issue.  The Buddha himself never talked much about metaphysics, and there's that wonderful metaphor of the arrow in one of the sutras, which in short says that if you're shot with a bow, the first thing you think of is how to tend the wound rather than who made or fired the arrow.  I really understand this: metaphysical ultimates are so far beyond my grasp that I have to leave the jury out.  If you know the essential truth and ground of your being, again I envy you because I don't.  What I do know is that it makes sense to live the happiest and most mindful life you can, for yourself, for those around you, and for the community of living creatures at large.  When the time comes to answer for that, I hope to do so without regret or reservation.  It's making a beautiful thing of the here and now, tending to the well-being of others as well as of yourself.  I think that's the heart of the good life in most religious traditions: if we learned it from some divine and ultimate source, evolved it as an idea of the best way to live with each other, or whether it was a combination of these things or something else entirely, I have no idea. 

But I do know this.  If you believe in that kind of living and don't subscribe to a Christian theology, then you're pretty much out to lunch with many Christians.  If you don't buy the metaphysics, you fall grievously and eternally short.  In other words, if you swear there ain't no heaven, you get the hell you've been praying all along doesn't exist.  It's clear cut, either/or, and it still scares me.  Not that I've found out what to do with that fear.  But Christianity tells me that what I should do with it is to believe something I don't believe.  The idea of hell scares the hell out of me, I know it's residual from childhood when it was stoked by being afraid that I couldn't believe what everyone around me seemed to believe, and it's strange how something so early and primal stays with you, like the tattoo you got when you were drunk.  

Is such a fear a sign that somewhere, deep down inside me, I believe some early teaching I have since forgotten?  Maybe or maybe not.  I don't believe that a fear of hell is the only thing on which I can base a worldview, because a worldview born out of fear strikes me as brittle, miserable, and ultimately weak. So is a worldview born of exclusion, and as much as I love the commitment and dynamism of some Christians I know, I get a little exasperated when others circle the wagons.

I know, I know…Buddhism (or some Buddhism, or most) has the whole thing of reincarnation.  Something that a skeptic finds a little out there, a little hard to believe as well.  But here's the thing about that.  The life Buddhism sets before one who takes refuge may have a past, but it is not contingent on the past—whether your own or a previous life you've lived, or even whether you lived that previous life in the first place.  It's about the mindfulness of now, the intensification and deepening of the time you have, and of finding a way to share that kind of poetry with others.

This time next year, if I see the mayor and he asks that question again (as well he might, because when you meet so many people, how can you keep track of what you've said to each one?) my answer may be the one Rhonda gave, the one I give in this writing, or something altogether different from both or either.  It will be, however, the fruit of thought and mindfulness and meditation, and of the gratitude for brushing against a tradition every bit as ancient and profound as the one that I've never quite grasped, even though I wanted to.  It took fifty years to find Buddhism, and whether it's a destination or a way station on the road, I wanted my friends to know I'm spending some time exploring the surroundings.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Game of Thrones: So far, so...far?

Like the late arrivals we often are, Rhonda and I are just now watching the first season of HBO's Game of Thrones.  I happened to luck into a remarkably bargain-priced set of the DVDs at our local Joe's Records, and picked them up because many of you have recommended them, because they're high fantasy, and since I started my writing career working in that genre….well, you know the rest.

My reaction to the show has been mixed favorable.  The acting, the production values, and the Northern Ireland sets are, to my way of thinking, pretty wonderful.  I've liked Sean Bean for ages, it seems, and having him anchor the cast is, to me, one of GOT's  principal strengths. 

But hold on a minute.  Does he really anchor a cast or is he just one among a helluva lot of people—so many that I'm finding myself looking at the guide in the DVD set because I can't tell the players without a scorecard?  Baratheon mingles with Stark and Lannister (there are also the blonde ones whose name eludes me—super-entitled wicked brother, gradually empowered sister) until  I find myself stopping the disc, tottering on the edge of lost until I piece together who's who, the image frozen on the screen.

This is digital narration rather than the television or the film I grew up with, so I am forced to scramble a little—not a bad thing for a budding geezer.  It's the kind of "cast of hundreds" you can pull off if your last name is Tolkien or Tolstoy, the leniency of prose fiction allowing the reader to backtrack and cross-reference.  But I'm not as used to it in film or video, and GOT is asking me to access the story in a way that's relatively new to me.  And I'm grateful for that gauntlet being thrown down, for something asking me to venture into unfamiliar realms of "reading".

Having said that, I'd really like to see the elements of the fantastic more in play in the series, fulfilling some of the stark (pun intended) promise of the first few minutes.  We're on the eighth episode, and it seems to be returning, but that's a long time to wait.  The preternatural lurks at the margins of the narrative, and we glimpse moments of it, but it's almost as though it's an afterthought, a kind of hood ornament on the far-ranging Byzantine intrigue.  Whatever one can say about Jackson's Lord of the Rings (and I've heard ranging opinions, from loving to loathing), the fantasy is integral to what happens on screen.  I also found it far easier to tell one character from another, but I'm not reliable on that, since I know LOTR better than any book other than my own, and leaned on that knowledge as I watched the movie.  People who were introduced to Tolkien via the Jackson films might well have found some rough going in growing acquainted with all the characters, but the film (and Tolkien's novel) have the advantage of convening the whole bunch at the Council of Elrond, so that their dispersal becomes easier to follow in the last two books of the trilogy; GOT, on the other hand (at least the TV series—I can't speak for the novels, though I suspect they do the same) moves its characters from distant sources toward convergence, so that the advantage of contrasting one dirty-haired Boromir-type with another goes clean out the window, and I've been looking at them as family members rather than individuals in order to tell them apart.

Something else, though, has always set apart fantasy from other modes of storytelling—especially the high fantasy version of the genre.  We often laugh about how many high fantasies involve the "rag-tag group who save the world from ultimate evil" but they do this because high fantasy deals in the Big Idea, the quest, the important issue, and rests on the premise that ultimately, the world is worth saving.  Martin's Westeros is up for grabs, and I have yet to get a sense of what's at stake beyond raw plays for power, and I am, as I said before, eight episodes in.  That's 4/5 of Season 1.

And this bothers me.  In high fantasy, the stakes should be high for everyone involved, and I get the feeling that these intrigues at the uppermost levels of fantasy politics will make little difference to those who live day by day in Westeros, something you wouldn't have said about the events that take place in Middle Earth or Earthsea.  Maybe it's high fantasy with the postmodern turn of "no grand narrative"?  If that's the case, I suspect I'm going to feel cheated ultimately, like in so many postmodern stories: shimmering surface gives way to a kind of self-referentiality, a kind of brittle thinness.

All in all, the attempt to set down the War of the Roses or Jacobean intrigue in the midst of an alternative world may or may not end up successfully; I'm suspending judgment and enjoying the sumptuous visuals, the neat suspense of the self-contained episodes, and not yet worrying my pretty little head about a more nagging concern: the lack of a grand thematic design of the whole work (so apparent in Tolkien's books and in Jackson's film version of them).  Grand design is something I like in heroic fantasy, just as integral to the genre as the preternatural mythic stuff; however, I'm beginning to fear that, once you get beyond the dark visual beauties of George R.R. Martin's Westeros, it'll end up being kind of like Gertrude Stein's Cleveland, in that "there's no there there".