Sunday, July 07, 2013

Why Zen? Why not? Part 1: Early factors

I’ve been asked more than once how long I’ve been a Buddhist, and even more frequently, what is means to follow Zen Buddhism. The answers are at once simple and complex, much like Zen itself. So, for the benefit of anyone who cares to know the answers (good luck on the latter!), keep reading.

Looking back, I have to acknowledge that I was a follower of Zen long before I ever heard the word; probably all my life. I grew up in the Baptist church, and was regularly regaled with the story of a loving Creator’s promise of eternal torment if I failed to recognize and publicly acknowledge the singular divinity of the Father/Son/Holy Spirit trinity. This was enough of a paradox to raise questions in my mind; questions that were amplified by the pronouncements of people who implied that they had an intimate relationship with that Creator, and were therefore qualified to pronounce “His” judgment via proxy.

Like the deacon who caught me smoking a cigarette behind the church and pronounced that my descent into hell was inevitable. My expletive-enhanced response to him elicited a “visitation” with me and my parents in our home that very afternoon. Thankfully, my mother withheld the inevitable punishment long enough to ask me why I had said such a terrible thing… to a grownup, and a deacon, no less. When I told her, she not-so-politely challenged the deacon, and invited him and his fellow elders to leave her home. I got punished for my response, of course, but the greater lesson was learned from her defense of her child.

What really sealed the deal and convinced me that I did not belong in the church was when a Sunday School teacher informed me that only humans had souls, and therefore that my beloved dog would never be in heaven. Looking in my dog’s eyes, I could clearly see the falsehood in the teacher’s words. And though I was later to be baptized in the church, it was, to be honest, an attempt on my part to be thought of as something other than a wayward child who was beyond redemption, which was how most of the grownups saw me. But the baptism didn’t take. I was still the wayward child, and my sinful acts were still dutifully reported to my parents, most reports beginning with, “That Ronnie… Bless his heart…”

I never could accept that a creature as loving as my dog was soul-less, and I knew that no matter what he did, I could never intentionally inflict upon him even a moment’s anguish, much less, an eternity of it. And if there was a God, he would have to be nicer than I, or I (and a lot of other people) would have been smote with that fire and brimstone a long time ago. In truth, even as a small child, I couldn’t accept the assertion that a divine being was so emotionally needy that “he” required absolute agreement, much less universal adulation. And for a time, I guess I’d have called myself an atheist, had I been aware of the word. I just didn’t believe anything… except, of course, my own unworthiness. That lesson had been driven home quite effectively. Unfortunately, the belief that I did indeed deserve my forthcoming descent into hell lingered, unspoken, but ever-present. And with that knowledge, I figured that what I did no longer mattered. What was important was that I not get caught. Hell would come later, so I’d best enjoy whatever I could get away with now. The only inhibiting factor was my own aversion to hurting others… unless I believed that they deserved it. I became my own paradox – a sociopath in training, albeit with a vestige of a moral compass. The perfect perspective upon which to build a happy childhood.

And yet, there were moments when I felt a certainty – deep within me, and in spite of outward appearances – that there was more to existence than the cynical picture I could envision. Those moments, spent in solitude, listening to the whisper of a breeze through the branches of the trees, or gazing silently into the sky and turning the clouds into galleons or benevolent ghosts, were my transport from the bleak world I had come to know. It would be many years before I would learn that those moments, which I sought out with the ardor of a starving animal, were called Meditation.

~ To be continued (eventually) ~

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