Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sign I've Been Waiting For?

In the haste to clear our dinner table, my father unintentionally placed the Buddha water fountain my brother got for Christmas in front of our manger scene, obstructing the view of little baby Jesus. Now, if I was a superstitious man...

I've talked about it before, and I think it's annoyingly obvious to anyone who reads my blog, but I find myself always teetering on the edge of succumbing to serious piety. I feel a strong religious impulse, but I can find no reasonable avenue for catharsis. A few days ago, I had another small panic attack while I was contemplating my mortality --and what a nice feeling it was as I stepped into the shoes of a truly narcissistic believer for a moment, drank the koolaid, and hoped for immortality! Maybe I should give this whole religion thing the old college try...

Then I turn on the television and land on the history channel which, curiously, features a program on the Bible, the council of Nicaea, and the historical Jesus and I think, "This is all so silly! And painfully transparent, like Joseph Smith and the seer stones or L. Ron Hubbard and Tom Cruise! And who is this pale, European, long-haired fellow everyone is worshiping and placing in picture frames? That's not what Jesus looked like! And what does it matter if I believe in Jesus? Isn't it better to exalt what he stood for rather than obsess about how he was born, what magic tricks he performed, and how he died? Do I really have to celebrate a human sacrifice from the bronze age, or is there something more profound? And what's the deal with the Catholic Church? There seems to be a monster hiding in every nook and cranny of that old battleship. Hooray, the Church is responsible for the success of the printing press --but wait, that success was born out of the printing of indulgences, little pieces of paper, Catholic monopoly money, that you could buy to get out of purgatory. Hooray, the Church is charitable and helps the poor --except, the misappropriation of wealth is disgusting (upset about Sarah Palin's clothes? Wait until you get a load of the Pope's gold threaded duds!) and there is something sinister about coercing emaciated children into a belief system with a little food. Hooray, the Church supports science --except, only when it is a means to its own ends at the expense of truth...and so on...

Then I think about the Buddha, about the flexibility of the religion, and the strange Zen koan, "If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha," and wow, I love that irreverence.


SuiginChou said...

(personal take; zero "authority", so take with a grain of salt; coming from Chinese history classes, readings of Mencius and whatnot, my own shallow studies of Buddhism, etc.)

The saying simply means that no man is perfect and any man who claims to be is a false prophet. In the Buddhic terminology, this would be a bodhisattva, a reincarnation of the Buddha himself, and in some branches of the religion (e.g. Zen Buddhism) held to be a "separate Buddha" (because, after all, the one true Buddha ought to have achieved nirvana and thus be beyond the reach of reincarnation, no?), thus creating a pantheon of deities. Because the Buddha can be reincarnated, many men have claimed over the centuries to have been Buddha reincarnate; and so the saying was necessary to alert good-intentioned-but-stupid followers of the faith to not be fooled by charlatans.

Oriental philosophy thrives on (imo wonderful) paradoxes. One of those is one which I reached independently through my studies of biology: "if someone is perfect, then they are not." In biology (as I myself have perhaps tiresomely restated over the years), our nearly-perfect-but-still-imperfect biological systems are themselves "perfect", in the sense of the word meaning "best" or "supreme"; and a truly perfect system would be incompatible with supreme (or "perfect") life. But in the Buddhic sense, what is simply meant is that the Buddha himself, held to be the most perfect of all living beings, was abashedly imperfect. He sought perfection until his dying breath was taken, but he knew at every step of his enlightened life, "I am not perfect." And that, paradoxically, is what made him perfect.

So, running with that thought process, we have generations of Buddhists who believe that "the Buddha was perfect [because, paradoxically, he recognized he was not perfect yet strove to become perfect anyway]." So if somebody else comes along and claims to be the Buddha (i.e. claims to be "perfect" in society's eyes), it paradoxically rules him out. Someone who claims to be a Buddha-like character cannot possibly be; the only way to be like the Buddha is to deny that you are the Buddha.

So, the saying "If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha" is not a call to arms, Jay. It's not asking you to pick up the gun and point it at the man you believe to be worthy of your worship. Rather, it's saying point it at the man who claims to be worthy of your worship. In other words, "Anyone who claims to be the Son of God is not the Son of God." This can also be applied to the sage saying, "Those who are best suited to rule are least inclined to." In short, modesty is a virtue, and modest men do not claim to be worthy of worship.

SuiginChou said...

As for Chinese philosophical paradoxes, I'll leave you to research Taoism/Daoism all you like, but it can be summed up as follows:

"Those who care most care least."

It is a philosophy which preaches that only through apathy can a man achieve the perfect life; yet paradoxically you cannot want to achieve apathy (because then you are being pathetic instead of apathetic, you are wanting instead of not wanting, caring instead of not caring)!

Very interesting, Daoism. Also (imo) very wrong. XD But who knows.

matt said...

Loads of questions that deserve explanations, but let's start with the fact that you ought not to believe everything you see on television. I didn't see the the Discovery Channel's piece on the "Historical Jesus", but if it's anything like their previous pieces in the same vein, it's full of conjecture and deliberate presentation of well-known crazy dissidents as educated experts.

RE: indulgences. What you've said is a common misconception. The sale (and consequent printing) of indulgences was an abuse dreamed up by one of the worst Popes ever, Leo X (a Medici of course), and was really brought to its extreme by that bugbear of Luther, Johann Tetzel. What they did was neither in accord with Church teaching on indulgences nor morally licit in any way, and the worst part of it all was that Tetzel was a Dominican, but he was basically the anti-St. Dominic. For a full explanation of what indulgences are and are not, see Indulgences in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

RE: wealth. Yes, the Vatican owns many centuries' worth of priceless liturgical art; some of these are garments which are worn during mass. But this is a real boor's complaint, when you think about it. Would you castigate the Louvre or the Met for not selling their art and donating the many millions that would result to charity? No. Because there does need to be something of beauty in the world, something uplifting, especially in worship. People want this at all cost: St. Patrick's cathedral in New York was built with the pennies of serving girls, as Dorothy Day noted. When the Church does as much as it does worldwide to alleviate suffering by charitable works, complaining about the Pope's historical liturgical garments sounds especially petty.

However, if the wealth of the Vatican is really too much for you to swallow, there is no reason this ought to be an argument against Christianity. There are plenty of Christians who worship in the simplest of structures and own little to no wealth.

Now to what I think is the most important question, And what does it matter if I believe in Jesus? Isn't it better to exalt what he stood for rather than obsess about how he was born, what magic tricks he performed, and how he died? This question, I think, is predicated on a misconception of who Jesus is and what he came for that is pervasive even among Christians.

Perhaps you see him as a teacher who just taught people to share and be nice, but this view is not upheld by the Gospels themselves any more than the common idea that Jesus supports war and America and capitalism. Jesus did not come to make us moral people nor upstanding citizens; He came to raise up the dead. He came to restore us to our proper end, our telos which is union with God, the reason we were created, which we deny ourselves by our sin. Through His great love he redeemed us, and that is why believing in Him is literally the most important thing in the world: because to believe in Him is to understand yourself as a sinner before your Lord, and to repent of those sins, to accept the grace freely offered. To believe in Him is to choose love, to choose God, and to to choose the eternal life which was always intended for you.

I encourage you to read through the Gospels in the next couple of days. Just read John, if that's all the time you can spare. I think you will find there the radical simplicity that you seem to thirst for.