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Buddhist Church Ladies

I used to be a very private person, some would say secretive. I rarely shared my feelings and kept my opinions largely to myself. Today, my family would laugh at this self-assessment because I was pretty argumentative at home; but even then, the only stuff I let out was what was under too much pressure to keep in; the rest simmered beneath the surface. I spent my childhood and early adulthood in a state of suppressed rage. When I lived the withdrawn lifestyle of a monk, my buttons were pushed less often and I managed to portray an illusion of tranquility that, for a while, seemed real. Only after many years of psychotherapy and mindful reflection did I internalize some of that calm. There’s no quick way around mind training; it takes practice.

My quest for privacy ended nine years ago when I moved to small-town Hudson, hung out my shingle and became part of the community. Here I wrote—and last year published—a pretty revealing memoir. Now, here I am blogging my heart out to the world at large. Nobody’s been more surprised than I to discover that I’m a naturally sociable person, even though I’m still hopeless at small-talk. I admit it: I’ve become a happier person.

There’s a price to pay for my public life, however; not all attention is welcome. Don’t get me wrong, I love a critical debate. What makes me sigh despairingly is being accused of impurity. I get this from people who identify themselves as ‘Buddhists’ or ‘spiritual’ in some sense or another. Let me make it clear—as if it wasn’t already obvious from my websites, blog and biography—I really don’t care for purity, don’t believe in it, and consider the very notion of it inimical to mindful reflection.

For example, a couple of months ago, while comenting on a journalist’s site, I was assailed by a third party called ‘GnosticMind.’ He was interested in The Novice, but horrified that I was trying to sell it, as if there’s something unBuddhist about making a living. He then discovered that I charge a fee for my mindful reflection workshops and hit the roof, quoting vinaya (community rules) at me and threatening me with aeons of horrible rebirths. When I pointed out that Buddhist ethics are designed for self-reflection and not for judging others, his response was an endless, accusing rant.

And then just yesterday I received a webmail message via schettini.com advising me to “leave endless debate to younger souls” and entreating me to devote my “remaining hours, days and months to the proven accomplishments of the great masters of our lineage.” I politely pointed out that I was not a member of any lineage and suggested he must have mistaken me for someone else.

And people ask me why I no longer call myself a Buddhist! Please understand, some of my best friends are Buddhists; I have the greatest respect for them and wouldn’t dream of trying to talk them out of it. I also go to the Buddha with my toughest questions. What saddens me, after having fled the hypocrisy by which I was surrounded at birth, is to see the same sanctimony couched in the guise of good Buddhism. It brings to mind the Church Lady character of vintage Saturday Night Live comedy.

Nevertheless, the word ‘purity’ comes up time and again in the Buddhist scriptures. With perhaps a little too much freedom of interpretation for most believers, I take it to mean “doing one’s best,” or having achieved something to the extent that it’s achievable—but no more.

The Buddha himself built an inescapable caveat into the very structure of his teachings with the insistence that the dharma, the path and even awakening itself are not absolute in any way, shape or form, and that clinging to them, just as much as clinging to chocolate, fame or a loved one, binds you most certainly and unceremoniously to the vicious cycle of samsara. Yes, you have to be good, but you also have to be balanced. In my case, that means making a living from what I do in order to maintain my independence from the institutes and chattering classes of the Buddhist establishment, and I’m fine with that. Yes, I can sleep at night and yes, I am fiendishly compelled to challenge commonly held truths. I always tired my elders by insisting that nothing should be beyond question.

Chandrakīrti, the foremost student of Nāgārjuna (aka the Second Buddha) made the following observation about Buddhism’s key concept:
Emptiness is not a property, or universal mark, of entities … it is a mere medicine, a means of escape from all fixed convictions.” (Prasannapadā 12)

One commonly accepted take on this thought (not just my opinion) is that the path (i.e the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path) is just a means to an end (awakening) that, once completed should be discarded. There are times in life when it’s fitting to take a new direction and turn your back on old ways, even though they may have served you well. This is a question of personal discernment—a decision no one can make for you. Those who presume in all piety to do just that should be resisted at all costs.

And once again I turn to the Buddha on this one: “Wander forth, O monks. Let no two go the same way.

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