Saturday, September 08, 2007

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.

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