September 19, 2014

Among Other Things

Among other things, 9/11 turned me into a news junkie. It's all my fault. From September to May, every day started with a quick look at the Associated Press web site, followed by visits to CNN, the Washington Post, the BBC, and that black sheep of journalism, the Drudge Report. Sometimes even those weren't enough. I bookmarked the web pages of newspapers from Sacramento (The Bee) to Boston (Globe and Herald), not to mention the Christian Science Monitor and Pravda. The News is not the Dharma, yet I couldn't stop reading it. What's the latest body count? How many missions did we fly today? And where the hell is Osama? Gotta know, gotta know...

My practice was shot to hell.

Catastrophes put a strain on one's religious certainties, unless one is very, very good. I am not. What really wrinkled my robe was the voices-this cacophony of voices babbling opinions, attitudes, advice, admonishment, praise, pardon, puns, hate, hectoring, love, litotes, theory and speculation, dogma, data, and damnation coming from politicians, pundits, generals, jerks, lawyers, liberals, conservatives, communists, columnists, cowboys, mullahs, mambo kings and Richard Gere. Taken all together, it sounded about as intelligent as the noises my granny's pullets made when I chased them around the farmyard as a boy. Every single clucker was absolutely convinced that the world was coming to an end, and just as convinced that his particular noise was the One True Squawk.

Being of the religious persuasion, I tended to seek some sign of Truth and Goodness amid this racket,. Who knows what's right?. With all the hapless fryers scampering around pointing pin-feathers and crowing "Evil!", just where, exactly was the evil, really? Did it reside in a cave with Bin Laden, in the Knesset with Sharon, or in a bunker with Arafat? Was this evil nurtured and protected by the FBI, the CIA, the Military Industrial Complex, AmeriKKKa? The Freemasons? Ozzie Osborn? Circus clowns? Everyone seemed to have a favorite culprit. Everyone could pick the true perpetrator out of a lineup. But nobody seemed able to make a convincing case for the prosecution.

All these experts chattering. What if they were right? What if they were wrong? What to do, what to do? Don't discriminate. Take a subtle, nuanced approach. Address the underlying causes. Ask why they hate us. Or send in the Marines, kick the hell out of the true perpetrators, and scare everyone else so badly they'll never try it again. Either one should work. Which one was right?

I had my own reactions, inevitable given my pedigree. As a military brat, I lived in the bosom of the Military Industrial Complex for twenty years. This experience gaveme a Military Industrial Complex. As a brat, I can tell the good guys from the bad guys in an any military conflict. As a thinking person, I can't tell who's right. As a priest, I would feel better if I knew, definitively, and without reference to Richard Gere, whether a Buddhist is obliged to be a pacifist or a defender of the faith, anybody's faith. Am I, a priest, morally bound to write letters to my congressman demanding an immediate halt to war in the name of Avalokiteshvara? Should I be out on the street protesting? What about all those poor dead Afghanis? What about all those poor dead New Yorkers? What about every damn thing? It's all so terrible, after all...

I looked to the Dharma to cut through the noise. Evidently, Buddhist ethics are supposed to be simple. Just look up the rules: "What now is Right Action? There someone avoids the killing of living beings, and abstains from it. Without stick or sword, conscientious, full of sympathy, he is anxious for the welfare of all living beings."i But try telling that to a man whose family is about to be murdered by guerillas or government hit-men. Would a sane man, a Zen man, protect his family by force in exchange for a few karmic demerits? Would a soldier protect his country? Would a president?

So many voices. So many questions. I concluded that the saddest thing about 9/11 was not that it happened. It was that nobody seemed to know what it meant. I should have known what was happening. Samsara has a voice, and I had heard it. In the words of Michael Corleone, "Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in…"

One day, still glutting myself on the latest news and still utterly confused, I came across an AP Wire photo of an Afghani balloon guy. In the middle of a desert village, with death and rubble and unexploded ordnance everywhere, a little boy walked along the road with a rainbow batch of shiny, helium-filled balloons. He was smiling. The people were buying. There would be food on the table tonight…

There in the middle of Hell was one person who knew what he was doing, who knew the answers, who knew what was right. He was selling some balloons. He was spreading a little happiness and earning a couple of Afghani coins so he could feed himself and his family. He was not an example of Taliban oppression or American imperialism or Muslim victimhood or any other manufactured version of right and wrong offered by the collective Babel of the experts. I realized that the world of Afghanistan was not the same as the world constructed for us by the voices. Here to prove it, with his small bounty of color and joy, was a little Zen man-unpredictable, contrary, individual. He was HE.

In "Experience," Ralph Waldo Emerson says: "Objections and criticisms we have had our fill of. There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection. The whole frame of things preaches indifferency. Do not crazy yourself with thinking, but go about your business anywhere. Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy."

Or, as a Zen master once said: "Miraculous! I fetch wood! I draw water!."

I'm not reading much news these days. It appears that reality-Zen reality-is not to be found in articles, editorials, press releases, or propaganda. It's not a story with built-in assumptions of good and evil. The news media kept me well-informed about the latest doings in Samsara. By believing in their version of reality, I put my practice in jeopardy. Better to be blind than to let someone else see for you.

So let the parade of history roll on. I'll be somewhere among the spectators, chuckling quietly to myself. And maybe I'll be holding a balloon.

i Dwight Goddard, "A Buddhist Bible." 1994 Beacon Press. Page 44.