Monday, February 01, 2010

Nothing's Sacred

But as I mentioned earlier, all these prostrations, chants, incense offerings and the rest have an undeniable psychological and physical effect. Even though we may not know where our need for this kind of action comes from, we need to acknowledge it exists. It's just as strong in any atheist as it is in any religious fanatic. Atheists want to throw away everything about religion, including the stuff that clearly fulfills a real human need. That's never gonna fly. We need certain aspects of religion to make us feel right.

Brad Warner, from Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate

As the philosopher Bugs Bunny said on numerous occasions: He don't know me very well, do he?

I like Brad's writing, even if his gonzo metaphors sometimes stray a little too close to Doug Gilesian territory (though obviously Brad is not a three-quarters insane, hypermacho fundamentalist closet case, so the similarities end there), so I'll forgo my usual umbrage-taking at being authoritatively told by someone else what I really think, deep down in my heart of hearts, and calmly rejoin: No. The religious/spiritual force is not strong in this one.

He doesn't elaborate, so I have to presume he means what most apologists for religion mean; that even if you don't literally believe in the old deities and myths, simply going through the rote motions keeps you from killing yourself and others out of boredom or nihilistic frenzy. But what is this "real human need" stuff? Going out on a limb again, it would appear he means "good" things, like a need for comfort, reassurance, companionship, etc. But I would point out that the need to belong and find purpose among kindred has a flip side, and the urge to dominate, destroy, and otherwise violently distinguish yourself from others not of your tribe is just as "real" and widespread a need as any other value we naked apes hold. I'm sure he would agree that we don't need those urges to be cemented even more firmly in place by elaborate metaphysical justifications, as religious belief has been known to do a time or two.

And let me state for the record that despite being human, all-too-human, I do not need "certain aspects" of religion to make me feel right. Popular music, photos, scented candles and books also have "an undeniable psychological and physical effect" on me. What? Does that sound vaguely insulting, that I would trivialize profound religious experiences by comparing them to ordinary objects and activities, harrumph harrumph?

Well, good. That was the intent. But it was actually only the first step! The follow-up to that is to point out that this false distinction between the profound and the ordinary, the sacred and the profane, is itself a problematic illusion.

Yes, that's right. I'm saying that this belief, this religious faith, that certain activities and thoughts and feelings are somehow more valid, more meaningful, more elevated, is nonsense. We mistake relative for Absolute. This attempt to set those things above and apart from the rest of existence represents yet another instance of the strange human desire to prove that we aren't just another kind of animal, to create and hold some kind of stasis where we can have the things we like while shunning the things we don't, like trying to have the blooms of flowers without the roots.

Contemplation is not the willed stillness of the mystics but a willing surrender to never-returning moments. When we turn away from our all-too-human yearnings we turn back to mortal things. Not moral hopes or mystical dreams but groundless facts are the true objects of contemplation.

- John Gray

You don't need special robes and particular chants and elaborate rituals and traditions that have been passed down over centuries to cultivate and maintain an awareness and appreciation of the literal interconnectedness of all life. You don't need to treat anger and sadness and all the other "deadly sins" as obstacles preventing you from fully enjoying life. In fact, you'll probably enjoy it all the more when you realize that while they may adversely affect your ability to achieve specific goals, they are not inherently wrong. You don't have to enter a special state of mind in special surroundings to realize some special secret. All you have to do is wake up in this moment, as other Buddhists like to say, even if it finds you unshowered and unshaven, naked in front of the computer, and scratching your left asscheek.

Sacred mountains and groves are no closer to the heart of life than carrion and offal. Anyone can find the spirit of life in a flower or sunset. When you can find it in a dungheap, though...ah, that's the trick.