Thursday, May 17, 2012

spiritual specialties

Two articles addressing facets of Buddhism showed up in my emailbox this morning. One concerned the ethical necessities of Zen Buddhist organizations. The other was an essay on "non-discriminating faith" in Shin Buddhism.

I read both with what attention I could muster. Both were serious and thoughtful in their own ways and I am happy that someone should care enough and muster enough energy to shape and ponder aspects of what might be called spiritual life.

But both of them sent me off on what may be a tangential set of thoughts:

Organizationally, spiritual efforts require some public relations, some good-news invitation to those who have not yet actualized the 'good news.' OK -- that seems to be the way things work. And a good many of such invitations are based on what others have said or written in the past. OK ... what other intellectual or emotional option is there?

Christians cite what Jesus was said to have said. Buddhists cite what Gautama or some other well-regarded teacher was said to have said. And what such expositors are said to have said sometimes takes on a deeeep or paradoxical or multi-faceted meaning in the midst of the PR effort. These guys were cookin' with gas -- wise beyond ordinary meaning. How inspiring.  How very special.

For example, the Zen teacher Ummon (ca. 862 to 949) is sometimes quoted as saying "every day is a good day." Latterday students or teachers may take this saying as a springboard for essays or talks of the sort I received in my emailbox this morning. Ummon was a profound guy expressing a profound truth that the less profound among us are implicitly invited to understand in the deepest (tr. not yet achieved) ways.

OK. Which of us could not use a gentle or swift kick in the ass? PR has its purposes and not all of them are vindictive or self-serving.

But what if it were true ... what if Ummon or Gautama or Jesus or your grandmother were just talking plainly? Nothing special, just their experience and truth. No longing to convince or wow anyone. What if they were speaking as one friend might to another: "I visited the Grand Canyon. It was really beautiful." The speaker does not expect the listener to see what he saw or feel what he felt. The speaker is reporting plain fact which the listener is free to find compelling or not. It's just a gesture of conversational friendship. If the listener is inspired to visit the Grand Canyon, fine. If not, fine. It's just conversational friendship, light as a feather, something that might easily segue into a discussion of who won the fifth race at Santa Anita or the quality of Nathan's all-beef hotdogs.

I see nothing wrong with public relations in spiritual life or elsewhere. It happens every day, all the time. But I do think that being convinced by your own PR is a risky business at best.

Ummon made it to the Grand Canyon.

You had an all-beef hot dog.

Isn't this the basis of friendship? Honest-to-god nothing special and yet pleasant in its passing?

In the spiritual realm, I always have liked the tasty hot dog that Huang Po/Obaku once dished up in passing -- "I said there was no such thing as a Zen teacher. I did not say there was no such thing as Zen."

Relish and mustard are purely optional with tasty hot dogs.

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