Confessions of a Failed Ascetic

I’m more like the guy on the right than the one on the left….*

I have a girlfriend now, myself, which is weird, because I’m probably gay based on the way I act and behave…. I think like in heaven they build like three-quarters of a gay person, and then they forgot to flip the final switch. And they just sent me out, and it was like, “You marked that one gay, right?” and it was like, “Oh, no–was I supposed to?” and they were like, “Oh, man–well, this will be a very interesting person!”

–John Mulaney, New in Town

Mutatis mutandis (a fancy Latin phrase meaning “All appropriate changes having been made), I have sometimes thought this applies to me.  Change “gay” to “ascetic” or “monk”, and it strikes me as appropriate to an extent.  In heaven, someone made three-quarters of a monastic and then forgot to flip the final switch and just sent me out.  I did turn out to be a very interesting person (or “eccentric as hell”–take your pick).

As regular readers know, I grew up as a non-churchgoing cultural Protestant in small-town Appalachia.  The only churches I even knew existed until I was nearing my teen years were “Baptist” and “Methodist”, and I was none too sure about the differences.  I remember seeing some nuns outside the Catholic hospital in the next town south from my hometown.  Nuns, let alone a Catholic hospital, were anomalous there; and this random memory must be from when I was no older than six or seven (1969 or 1970), since most nuns abandoned habits by the early 70’s.  In any case, aside from that one sighting, nuns–and monks–to me were mostly something you saw in Robin Hood stories or histories of the Middle Ages.  I didn’t have any clear concept as to what they actually were, nor did I have more than a vague notion of what the Catholic Church was.  In fact, as I grew older and learned a bit about the Middle Ages and the Reformation, I developed a mild, somewhat genteel, anti-Catholic attitude–the “I have nothing against the Church, but it’s good that the Reformation swept away all that superstitious Medieval folderol!” type.  In any case, the point of all this is to note that, far from having a vocation to monastic life, I didn’t even clearly know what it was, let alone having sympathy for the church with which it is most closely associated.

That makes the following somewhat bizarre.

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Quote for the Week

We don’t have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it.

–Douglas Adams, speech at The University of California, videoed by UCTV (May 2001); courtesy of Wikiquote.

Relaxing Psychedelic Space Rock for the Weekend

Slightly belated, but enjoy, anyway!

Confessions of a Pseudo-Buddhist

A few years ago I was shopping in the local grocery store.  As I was walking down the aisle, I passed another guy, whom I noticed was looking at me.  He called me by name, and I recognized him–he’d been my best friend’s roommate in college some thirty years before.  It turned out that we both lived in the same small town now.  We talked for awhile, catching up.  At one point, I mentioned in passing that I was a member of the local Catholic parish.  He looked at me somewhat askance, and then said, “I always thought you were Buddhist!”  I don’t remember how I responded to that at the time.  Thinking about it later, though, I decided, upon looking back, that I probably did come off as a Buddhist in those halcyon days of yore.  Since then, I sometimes describe myself at that point as a “quasi-Buddhist” or a “functional Buddhist”.  Maybe “Buddhist fellow-traveler” would be better.  Best of all, perhaps, as with the title of this post, “pseudo-Buddhist”.

I’ve discussed here how reading the Dhammapada caused me to become interested in Buddhism.  I read voraciously about Buddhism in the sources available to me at that time–principally books on Zen, though there were some others, as well.  In particular, I read and re-read D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, a book I need to write about in detail in the future.  In conversations I’d often quote the Buddha or refer to Buddhist concepts.  I can easily see why my friend thought I was, indeed, Buddhist.  On the other hand, there was no real depth to it.  Except for brief attempts on maybe one or two occasions, I never really tried meditation (much later, after I became Catholic, I’ve done Buddhist and other forms of meditation relatively extensively).  I certainly never took refuge, the official way of converting to Buddhism.  I was vaguely aware of a Buddhist study group in the city were I was living at that time; but for reasons of which I’m unsure even now, I never made contact (I did do mediation at their meditation center many years later, once more, after I came into the Church).  You might say that such Buddhism as I exhibited was all saffron and no substance.

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The Jungle Book

Awhile back I discussed how as a child my absolute favorite book–books, actually–bar none were the Alice books of Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson).  They reign supreme in my childhood literary pantheon.  Second after the Alice books, though, and not extremely far below them, is The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.

As with the Alice books–Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass–the Jungle Book should be plural.  Kipling published The Jungle Book in 1894 and The Second Jungle Book the following year.  Both books are often published together in a single volume nowadays.  In any case, the books are collections of short stories mostly written about animal protagonists and largely (but not exclusively) set in India during the British colonial period.  Many of the stories, such as “The White Seal” and the well-known “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” are standalones.  The best-known stories of the two Jungle Books, though, are the Mowgli stories.  These follow the life of a human child raised from infancy by wolves in north-central India and his adventures in the jungle as he grows to adulthood.

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Quote for the Week

You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.

–Erma Bombeck, as quoted in 50 Ways to Stand Up for America : Put the Spirit of July 4th Into Everyday Life (2002) by W. B. Freeman; courtesy of Wikiquote.

Two Hours of 80’s Music for the Weekend

In recognition of the third season of Stranger Things, which dropped yesterday, enjoy a blast from the past with some 80’s music!

An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

I have written previously of the profound influence the Dhammapada had on me when I read it at about the age of eighteen.  That resulted for me being for a considerable time what I’ve described elsewhere as a “pseudo-Buddhist”.  During that period, I read pretty much anything about Buddhism I could get my hands on.  This was actually much less than you might think.  Because of immigration from China and Japan, there had been Buddhists in the United States as far back as the mid-19th Century.  Pioneers such as Nyogen Senzaki had even begun to teach Buddhist practices, particularly meditation, to non-Asians by the turn of the 20th Century.  Still, it wasn’t until the post-World War II era that relatively large numbers of Americans began to study Buddhism in earnest.

As these early adopters of Buddhism gradually completed their studies, becoming ordained in some cases, and setting up schools of their own, a trickle of books started to become available in the 60’s and 70’s.  It wasn’t really until the late 80’s and early 90’s, though, with the increased visibility of and interest in Buddhism, partly because of awareness of the plight of Tibet and high profile advocacy by celebrities such as Richard Gere, that the trickle of books became a flood.  One can find Buddhist books and magazines even in bookstores in relatively small towns these days.  Back in the 80’s, even though I lived in a fairly large urban area, the pickings were much slimmer.

My initial interest, for reasons I’ve explained before, was in Theravada, the tradition of Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Thailand.  As noted, though, the pickings were slim, and most of what was available at that time dealt with Zen.  Philip Kapleau’s classic The Three Pillars of Zen was all over the place.  I tried to read it more than once, but I never could get very far in it.  It struck me as boring and irrelevant, and didn’t answer specific questions I had.  I actually bought a used copy of it a couple of years ago and tried to read it again.  Thirty years later, I still found it pretty much as unreadable as I had as a twenty-something, and I passed the book along.  In any case, at some point in the mid-80’s–probably around ’84, though I’m not sure–I came across An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by the famed Japanese scholar of Buddhism D. T. Suzuki.  That book clicked with me immediately, and I reread it time and again.

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Quote for the Week

The most powerful prayer, one wellnigh omnipotent, and the worthiest work of all is the outcome of a quiet mind. The quieter it is the more powerful, the worthier, the deeper, the more telling and more perfect the prayer is. To the quiet mind all things are possible. What is a quiet mind? A quiet mind is one which nothing weighs on, nothing worries, which, free from ties and from all self-seeking, is wholly merged into the will of God and dead to its own.

–Meister Eckhart, as translated in A Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Western Mysticism (1985) by Patrick Grant; courtesy of Wikiquote

They Might Be Giants Tiny Little Desk Concert for the Weekend