Saturday, September 08, 2007

I'm taking a break for awhile, probably 4-6 weeks. I could go on about why, but I'm not sure I even know. so ................. more later.

Auntie BeaN

Somebody shut me up
So I can live out loud
-Toby Mac
Reading Merton also helped me define some of what has been so helpful to me about Buddhism over the past four years or so. I've been reading about Buddhism for a lot longer than that-- I read Natalie Goldberg's book on Zen Buddhism Long Quiet Highway at least ten years ago, I know, and a few others along the way, too--like the Dalai Lama's book on happiness and an odd book about sheep and Buddhism called the Barn at the End of the World (I think). But I didn't really take an interest in Buddhism for its relevance to me personally until about four years ago when I ran across The Wisdom of No Escape, by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun who is the director of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. I've picked up from reading the various reviews on that she is considered something of a lightweight among certain buddhists, but she has been more helpful to me than I can say. I never underline in books, but almost without thinking about it, I grabbed a pen and underlined half of practically every paragraph in the first few chapters of that book. I think I've read four of hers now, and listened to a number of her teachings on CD, too. Then last year I listened to The Teaching Company's lectures on Buddhism and I've read a few other authors, too-- Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, a little of Chogyam Trungpa and Thich Nhat Hanh, and a bit more by the Dalai Lama.

If that sounds like I'm bragging, it's meant to be the opposite. One of the reasons it has been hard for me to talk about how important Buddhism is to me is that I don't feel qualified. I've done all this reading, but I know it's minimal compared to what's out there. Unlike my history with Christianity, I've never lived as a Buddhist for an extended period of time, I've never even been on a Buddhist retreat. When talking about Christianity, I know it from the inside, I've lived it and breathed it. Of course I don't speak for all Christians, but there's no doubt in my mind that my upbringing was representative of a certain type of Christianity and I can speak about it with some level of comfort. But when I start talking about Buddhism, I'm way out of my league. But I can't talk about where I am now without bringing it up. So I guess I just wanted to make it clear that my understanding of Buddhism is that of a beginner. Very beginner.

So anyway. All that to say: while reading Merton, it struck me how similar the Christian practice of denying the self is to the Buddhist practice of No Self. I know that theologically there is a big difference-- I could go on for pages on the difference between "dying to self so I can live for Christ," "being broken so that Christ can shine through," and the Buddhist idea that the self is a construct that exists in our head that has no other meaning. But in practice, the way you live this out without thinking about what it means, I think they are more similar than different. The idea is to let go of the belief that your wants and perceived needs and desires have any significance at all. Merton talks about how the all the striving after the "desires of the flesh" keeps you from finding what is really important. Pema Chodron says when our minds are spinning with cares and worries and problems, to let go of the story line and see what remains, what is underneath. (I love the Buddhist definition of ego: Ego is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.) The two ideas are not the same, but in terms of how I put them into practice in my life, they're pretty similar. And reading about the Buddhist take on this has breathed new life into an idea that had become extremely stale for me.

enough already.

Friday, September 07, 2007

My working definition of faith, which is borrowed verbatim from Sharon Salzburg, a Buddhist writer and teacher, in her amazing book Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience:

"Faith does not require a belief system, and is not necessarily connected to a deity or God, though it doesn't deny one. This faith is not a commodity that we have or don't have-- it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.... No matter what we encounter in life, it is faith that enables us to try again, to trust again, to love again. Even in times of immense suffering, it is faith that enables us to relate to the present moment in such a way that we can go on, we can move forward, instead of becoming lost in resignation or despair. Faith links our present-day expereince, whether wonderful or terrible, to the underlying pulse of life itself." (I could also have just excerpted the entire book here, but that would be a bit impractical.)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

I had originally planned to do quite a bit more reading of current evangelical Christian thinking before moving on, but I was so burned by Blue that I've decided to move on, at least for the time being. I have a Brian McLaren and Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, and I may still read them at some point, but it will be sometime in the future.

So what I've been thinking about recently is- exactly what does it mean to have faith? The analogy I think of most often goes back to a math and chemistry fair that I attended when I was in high school-- so (clears throat: ahem), obviously this was a long time ago. We went off to a huge high school a couple of hours away and attended various classes on interesting things (and I really did think they were interesting, which tells you exactly how much of a nerd I was then)(and still am). The only one I remember was about fractals, imaginary numbers, and chaos theory. I will tell you my memory of it because it's relevant to my point and then tell you what I found out when I went back to fact check this afternoon.

What I remember most is the explanation of imaginary numbers. An imaginary number is a number whose square is a negative number. Got that? Since a negative number times a negative number is a positive number, this shouldn't be possible. For example. The square of 4 is 16, because 4 times 4 is 16. The square of 3 is 9, because 3 times 3 is 9. But what number squared is -9? If you multiply -3 times -3, you still get 9. (hmmm. So is the square root of 9 also -3? but I digress) If you multiply 3 times -3, you get -9 but it's not a square.

BUT. the interesting thing is this: if you allow for the existence of these seemingly impossible imaginary numbers, you can do all kinds of neat things with them in equations that describe phenomena in the real world and help mathematicians and scientists solve real world problems-- I think particularly in electronics and the mechanics of turbulence and fluid dynamics.

And that's how I've come to think of faith. It doesn't have any objective existence in the real world. There is no real, tangible, sensory evidence that you can produce for why you have faith. There is no reason to have faith, it shouldn't exist. But if you accept that faith exists and you work with it, it changes things; it adds dimension and understanding to my life that would otherwise be impossible. If you act as if faith exists, it becomes true, and leads to all kinds of practical, useful corollaries.

Interesting analogy, isn't it? But when I went to wikipedia this afternoon to read read about imaginary numbers to make sure I had the idea right, I found out that the math behind imaginary numbers is more mind-boggling than I knew. It turns out that all numbers are abstractions that are only useful in context. (you can read the wikipedia entry on imaginary numbers for more on this topic. it's really interesting.) So even though imaginary numbers are called "imaginary," they are no less real than what we think of as "real" numbers. So maybe my analogy doesn't hold up too well to close scrutiny, but I'm giving it to you anyway, because I just found that out this afternoon and I haven't had time to think of a new analogy yet.

but you know......... maybe that makes it an even better analogy. I think it needs to be late at night and half-a-bottle-of-wine-gone to follow this train of thought, at least for the non-mathematically inclined, like me.

Sign me boggled.
Aunt BeaN

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

In Which Aunt BeaN Revisits the Contrast Between The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, and Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller. The latter had been recommended to me by several people as an example of the new, innovative thinking coming out of the evangelical Christian community, and that was reinforced by the reviews on But I couldn't get through it. I'd even say it was downright awful. I objected to it so much that I don't even really want to write about it, because the strength of my response suggests that it is more about my own personal axe-grinding than it is about the book itself. To me, it was a maze of circular reasoning, bad logic, and poor analogies. But obviously it has been very meaningful to a lot of other people, witness the reviews on amazon.

I'll just say this: I have no patience with anyone who can dismiss a major world religion with 300 million followers as a fad, as Miller does with Buddhism. I admit I didn't finish the book, so maybe he makes up for it at the end. But I put it down in disgust after the 2nd time he referred to someone who was interested in Buddhism as only wanting to look cool and trendy. I'm sure there are people who are interested in looking cool and trendy who are also interested in Buddhism. But about four or five years ago, it was awfully trendy to be involved in a conservative Christian church, too, and you don't hear him complaining about that. and anyway, what about the hundreds of millions of people for whom Buddhism works just fine? Oh, I wasn't going to rant and I can just hardly help it.

Well, OK, you twisted my arm so I'll keep going. Somewhere toward the beginning, he talks about his big crisis of faith, which was resolved while he was still in college, so he was probably hung up in this big crisis for what, a year? Anyway. the way he was able to resolve it was through an analogy he made in a literature class. Since the Christian faith has all the classic elements of a story (as defined by his literature professor), that means it's TRUE! Really! I'm not making this up, that was what resolved his crisis of faith. It was so silly that it was several days before I could pick it up again.

I do think there is some innovative thinking coming out of the Evangelical community, there is no question about that. And Miller is probably more representative of that than I want to admit. But as long as they hang on to their exclusivist theology-- that only the people who are Evangelical Christians are going to "heaven" (if that even has any meaning)-- it just isn't enough of a change for me personally.

Which is what brings me back to Merton. Merton is equally sure of the exclusivity of salvation for Catholics, so why didn't it bug me the same way that Donald Miller did? Is it just because he's a better writer? (would I forgive anything for art?) or because there seems to be more intelligence behind his passionate embrace of the Catholic faith? or because he's not evangelical, so I don't have such a big chip on my shoulder when I'm reading? I suspect it's all of that and also this: Merton is so fearlessly passionate about his embrace of the Catholic faith that you can't help but admire him and his willingness to put everything on the line to pursue it-- and that is literally everything, since he spent the rest of his life as a Trappist monk. Next to that, Miller's plays on words and riffing on the traditional themes of the protestant faith seem lightweight at best.

Aunt BeaN