Archive for June 2009
The number of things I can’t remember is fortunately much larger than the number of things I can’t forget.
Among the events of my life I can’t forget is one that took place when I was around eight years old. I had a friend named Billy who lived across the street with his grandparents. His grandmother was a woman who laughed easily and smiled even more easily. His grandfather rarely laughed or smiled. Every time I saw him he was lying on the sofa reading a well-worn Bible. Every Sunday the grandparents got dressed up and took Billy, also all dressed up, to church. Since my family did not go to church (unless someone was getting married or buried), I could rarely find any playmates on Sunday morning. I had to wait until Billy got home from church and got out of his dressy clothes and into something that he could risk getting dirty in the course of the rough play that delights males aged eight.
One day—I can’t recall whether it was a Sunday or some other day—Billy and I came indoors for a drink of water and found several very serious-looking adults sitting around formally in the living room. Even Billy’s grandfather was sitting up with the Bible on his lap, rather than lying down reading it as was his wont. Billy was told to sit down, and I was briskly ushered out of the room and asked to wait in Billy’s room while he talked with the adults. Accustomed as I was to the strange behavior of adults, I was nevertheless taken aback by the unprecedented urgency with which the adults seemed to require Billy’s company. The atmosphere in the house indicated that something terribly serious needed attending to. Since Billy had already suffered the misfortune of being forced to take piano lessons, I knew that could not be the urgent business at hand. I could only imagine that some favorite aunt had died, or that Billy was going to be whisked away to an orphanage.
Billy had a collection of enviably good toys in his room, and normally I could have amused myself for hours in the absence of Billy and in the presence of all those toys. On this occasion, however, I could not bring myself to play. I just sat on his bed and felt the tension rise in the form of an accelerating heartbeat and a prickly feeling at the back of my tongue of the sort I got when I was quite sure a monster was hiding in my closet at bedtime. My shortness of breath assured me that something terrible was afoot.
After what seemed a very long time, Billy came into the room. He looked very shaken, pale in the face and trembling. Then he began to sob. I asked him what was wrong. He told me that the adults were from his church and that they had come to examine him to determine whether he had been saved by his faith in Jesus Christ. The diagnosis was not positive. He had shown no signs of the kind of faith necessary to save a lost soul. The prognosis was uncertain. If some sign of salvation should appear, then there might be some hope. Otherwise, it looked pretty much like an eternity of damnation for poor Billy.
As Billy told me about the cross-examination he had undergone in the living room with all those dour adults dressed in dark clothing, I found myself struggling to find a frame of reference in which to put this story. I lacked any of the indoctrination necessary to help me interpret it. Every aspect of the story was so unfamiliar to me that understanding was out of the question. All I knew was that my friend was sobbing and terrified and at least temporarily beyond any form of consolation that an eight-year-old friend could provide. I had no idea what to do or say.
Billy was apparently not saved from eternal damnation, but I was saved from the temporary discomfort of witnessing his unconsolable fear. The very adults who had cross-examined him and found him wanting came into the bedroom and told me I should run along now. I knew that “Run along now” was the default command issued by adults who wanted children out of the way but could not think of an explanation for why the current situation required the absence of children. In this case, I should hasten to clarify, the absence of children was not required so much as the absence of one child, namely me, and the presence of the unfortunate Billy.
Confused and bewildered, I hung my head (and would have put a tail between my legs if I had had one) and somehow got myself through the living room and past all those unsmiling adult inquisitors before they could determine the no doubt sorry state of my own soul. I fumbled the living room door open and bolted out into the fresh outdoor air and filled my lungs with it as someone might do after being trapped for days in a collapsed mineshaft.
Billy and I never spoke about the incident. No mention of it was ever made again. The next time I saw Billy’s grandmother she was smiling with her indomitable good nature. The grandfather was back on his sofa, lying down as he read the Good Book and took in its good news, his face relaxed into its natural scowl.
Unable to talk about the incident with anyone else, I was left to figure out for myself the question that would not leave my mind: What kind of people would do this to a kid? Who would tell a charming, freckle-faced boy with a room full of wonderful toys that he was probably facing an eternity of damnation?
The question remains with me to this day. Unanswered.
For a couple of decades I gravitated toward organizations that had a feature I wished could be eliminated and replaced with something closer to my idea of how organizations ought to be. The feature I wished to eliminate was a warp in power, an exercise of authority that was usually presented as spiritual wisdom but was more often than not just a manifestation of what Nietzsche called the Will to Power. The idea I had of how religious organizations ought to be run was forged by my experience in early adulthood with The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I kept wanting to find something like a Buddhist group run along Quaker lines. What I repeatedly found was Buddhist groups run by megalomaniacs surrounded by fawning sycophants.
There is no point in naming names or dragging reputations through the mud. Nothing of value can be gained from that exercise. Let it suffice to speak in generalities about the sort of thing one can find in the several traditional religious organizations coming from Asia.
There are teachers to be found whose life experiences consist mostly of being taken care of by adoring disciples. There are teachers who spend the last forty years of their lives never so much as cooking a noodle, washing a dish, laundering an undershirt, ironing a robe, planting a seed, pulling a weed, lifting a burden, carrying a load or pushing a cart. They are surrounded by people who do all those things, and to those people who do the work the teachers offer what they call spiritual advice. But of what use to a person who must toil like a slave is the spiritual insight of a master whose only work is to tell slaves what they should do to keep him happy?
There are teachers who have immunized themselves from all forms of criticism and feedback. They do not have conversations. They deliver monologues. They do not listen. They speak, often at great length and with little regard or consideration for the time of those who must listen to them. Ironically, a favorite theme of such teachers is that worldly time is an illusion and that being aware of time is a sign of attachment and ego. Anyone who feels that his time is being wasted is immediately made to feel ashamed for being worldly and small-minded.
The Quaker William Penn once observed how much time is lost if one rises to speak in a Quaker meeting and says more than is necessary. Suppose sixty people are present in the meeting. If the speaker continues speaking for one minute more than was necessary to say what needed to be said, then one human hour is wasted. If a minister delivers a dry and lifeless twenty-four-minute sermon to a congregation of sixty people, he wastes one entire human day. (Not long ago, I calculated that a very repetitious and uninspiring talk I was listening to had wasted about two and a half human days. By giving ten ninety-minutes talks to forty-five hearers, this teacher could waste almost exactly a human month.)
There is no doubt that a good deal of time can be consumed by a group of thirty or sixty equals trying to arrive at a decision. What is the difference between a group of equals consuming time by trying to arrive at consensus (or Quaker unity), and a minister consuming time by delivering a monologue to which his congregation is a captive audience? There are several differences, but the principal one is that there is very little of the master-slave dynamic in a society of equals, whereas in the authoritarian monologue there is very little else going on but the domination of a group by an individual bent on exercising his will to power.
George Fox and other early Quakers used to walk into Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and Puritan church services and challenge the preachers. The Quakers were often repaid for this kind service by terms in prison. Drawing attention to the imbalance in power between clergy and congregation in this dramatic way was no doubt as excessive as it was effective. That notwithstanding, I do find myself wondering why it is that people allow themselves to be held captive. After all, all one need do when a preacher goes on beyond his light is to stand up and walk out.
Slaves, get up on your feet and walk away from your masters in whatever form they take: swami, guru, lama, priest, bishop, cardinal, presbyter. I recommend it. I predict you will not regret being without an all-too-human lord and master. You will, to be sure, make a few mistakes. But they will be your own, and they will be a small price to pay for the freedom of finding your own light in your own way.