Friday, April 10, 2009

I'm Not Catholic...But He's Right

Pope Benedict before his Good Friday address.

I was raised as a Baptist for the first 12 years of my life. From there, I began to drift away from the church as many do. By the time I'd turned 18, I was finding great energy from studying Plato and Socrates.

I still had a Christian identity, but my "seeker" soul was telling me that there is more out there.

Later in my 18th year, I found myself jumping out of planes with the 82nd Airborne. I joined the Army and volunteered for paratrooper duty before I'd ever even ridden in an airplane. I had no idea what to expect, of course.

During one particularly bad flight (there were a few), I found myself being airsick. For those of you who have never had the privilege of suiting up with the red berets, you are crammed into the belly of a cargo plane (C-130, C-141, and a few others), and you are treated to every smell, heavy engine noise, and elbows and knees from the men surrounding you.

You don't want to be that guy who throws up during mid-flight. Besides the immediate shame and ridicule you will most certainly endure while heaving your last meal all over yourself, and them, you will also have to be stuck with the smell and wet, sticky results for as long as your mission lasts after you hit the ground. Plus, the mere smell in highly cramped quarters like that will trigger others to lose their dinners, as well.

It's a good way to 'never live it down' in a painful way for an 18 year-old like I was. Simply put, I was terrified of puking.

So I started silently reciting to myself a Buddhist chant which I had recently learned at a Fayetteville temple. I still remember it, over twenty years later: NAM-MYOHO-RENGE-KYO. It came in handy. My mind stopped swimming and the nausea ebbed. Thank God.

My fascination with Eastern thought was heightened a couple of years later, when I was stationed in South Korea for a year. I had been searching and searching the American sources for Buddhist truth and wisdom, but, unfortunately, all I was finding in these "temples" were pamphlets which featured famous actors and other celebrities who were claiming to have enriched their personal finances and career advancement through the practice of Buddhism.

I was definitely young, then, but not too immature to see a bastardization of what I considered to be a true fount of spiritual enlightenment, truth, and wisdom. So my hardship tour in South Korea was something of a blessing to me, I thought.

They work you an extra day in South Korea, simply because there is much more trouble you can get into in this developing nation. (prostitution is quite legal, along with no drinking age restriction for American GI's) I was lucky enough to get one weekend off that entire year. I had been in country for over 6 months at that point, and decided to take a bus tour for a day to see some of the surrounding regions.

To my immediate delight, the guide told our bus that we would be making a brief stop in a remote wilderness area, where a narrow footpath through the forrest led to...a Buddhist Temple! This would not be the "Buddhist Temples" I had been accustomed to in Fayetteville, NC, I gleefully told myself.

No typical American-style concrete building that looks exactly like every other business structure you run into in the US...

No disappointing American-style version of this ancient, Asian philosophy...

No round-eyed American citizen greeting me at the door, shoving some pamphlet in my hand with Richard Gere's mug and self-righteous nonsense quote...

So the bus stopped. I quickly got up, dismounted the bus, and started my walk on the serene, unfinished, footpath to what I had been searching for for years at this point. I had just turned 21.

Lo and behold, after a small crest on the trail, the trees parted, and I saw a beautiful building that looked like it had been built by the monks of the old order. I was SO excited!

And do you know what I found when I got to my final destination after ALL of those years of searching?


There was no one inside the Temple. No spiritual guide to learn from. No Buddhist monk whose brain I could pick. No master from which to sit and learn.

Just some brass urns with incense. And some beautiful colors around me.

I came to realize, after a year or two of pondering on the irony of my long search, that this incident was, indeed, a Buddhist lesson in itself. All of the outwardly searching, the traveling across the world to sit at the feet of masters, all of the effort was something of a...mistake. I was chasing an illusion.

The answer is inside myself. And inside all of us. Just like Christ said 2,000 years ago. And just like Buddha said, also.

I have seen the last 20 years pick up in speed across the world. There is less and less appreciation for the ancient. I feel this, and see it every day in my life. I hear grown men and women openly mock the spiritual journey and its goals laid out by the greats, be it Christ, Buddha, Yahweh, etc. I still cringe when I hear people ridicule Christianity for all of the ill-informed reasons that have become all too fashionable: Judeo-Christianity is sexist, homophobic, superstitious, and laden with every logical pitfall immaginable, as illustrated last year when the enlightened Matt Damon said, with a straight face, that he just wanted to know if Sarah Palin, who simply admitted to revering the Bible and Jesus Christ, "believes that dinosaurs roamed the earth 4,000 years ago."

Yes, yes, I know that Damon is merely an actor. But in my life, I'm hearing more and more of that kind of smug disregard for Christianity and those that seek its answers...from all areas of this country I've lived in for my 41 years. You almost get the feeling that you have to apologize for seeking Christ's message and answers.

My own return to Christianity happened not long after my return from the war (Desert Storm). I came to realize that I was probably a Zen Baptist at heart. I find the life of Jesus Christ particularly inspiring, and have invited him into my heart as my personal savior. I don't walk the life of a perfect Christian, but none of us do, of course. The trick, I believe, is to never lose sight of the goal: salvation. The afterlife of the soul seems to me to be the result of how you passed this test we call Life On Earth.

Eastern thought speaks of it in terms of "nirvana". The way you ponder on your own awareness and being on this plane will dictate your next domain. Reincarnation comes into play, which I depart with as a belief system. Another aspect from which I depart is in how Buddhism doesn't have a God in their framework of cosmic understanding. You are the only God in that respect. Nice thought, but a little too convenient for me.

Are you able to rise above the slings and arrows of this Earthly domain, to remain thankful, balanced, and mindful of a Creator who gave you all? Are you lost? Are you vengeful and chaotic?

As I get older, I seem to see more and more of my fellow human beings who, indeed, seem "lost".

That's why I understand Pope Benedict's Good Friday message. Here's today's story about it:

Pope Benedict XVI last night attacked the rise of aggressive secularism in Western societies, warning them that they risked drifting into a 'desert of godlessness'.

He used his Good Friday meditations to compare deliberate attempts to remove religion from public life to the mockery of Jesus Christ by the mob as he was led out to be crucified.

'Religious sentiments' were increasingly ranked among the 'unwelcome leftovers of antiquity' and 'held up to scorn and ridicule', he added.

'We are shocked to see to what levels of brutality human beings can sink,' said the Pope at an evening ceremony at the Coliseum in Rome.

'Jesus is humiliated in new ways even today when things that are most holy and profound in the faith are being trivialised, the sense of the sacred is allowed to erode.

'Values and norms that held societies together and drew people to higher ideals are laughed at and thrown overboard. Jesus continues to be ridiculed.'

The German-born Pope, who turns 82 later this month, prayed Christians would respond by growing in faith.

'May we never question or mock serious things in life like a cynic,' he added. He also condemned the oppression of women, saying there were 'many societies in the world where women fail to receive a fair deal.'

'Christ must be weeping for them,' he said. (source)

No comments: