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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, September 07, 2007

not afraid

In yesterday's post I talked about Who Are We?, a nonfiction book project that I work on as a kind of hobby apart from the fictional opus that is the (supposed) subject of this blog.

But I have other projects on the go as well. They might not actually be developed enough to be termed projects, but I have them on the go in any case. Within the folder labeled Writing on my PC, for example, one of the subfolders is labeled Thinking. In this folder I have set up a number of Word documents, each devoted to a topic area--things that I like to think about, at least sometimes. One of these is Identity, of course, but there are others, things like Evil, History, Purpose, and Story.

What do I think about these things? What do I believe?

Here I record my thoughts, mainly sparked by material that I read. In a sense these files are my way of entering into dialogue with the authors I read.

Where are all these files going? I don't know. They represent what William James called "thought in movement"--the thinking process of the mind seeking the stillness of "thought at rest", the condition of knowledge or belief that can serve as the basis of action. (I've talked about this in previous posts, such as this one.)

I think one function of religion is to put an end to such questing. Rather than being suspended in uncertainty, unknowing and therefore unable to take action, we click into a belief system that seems to work for us. A revealed, worked-out religion provides a backstop of belief: answers to the basic, most searching questions.

If it's a religion that we are not raised in, then it can't be just anything, of course: a chosen religion has to suit our outlook, has to be "believable". In my late teens and 20s I searched hard for this believable faith, and eventually found it in Buddhism--more particularly in the Vajrayana Buddhism that I discovered (or was led to) in my quest.

I would not say that I've left that faith altogether behind. But my relationship with it has changed. There are a number of reasons for this, or factors in my decision to distance myself from the practice of those teachings. An important one, as I've expressed before, is the realization that I felt I could not be fully free as an artist so long as I held a received faith as my truth--my final "belief". I can hear my Buddhist companions expressing dismay that I could make such an elementary mistake: to regard Buddhism as a "faith". As one Western teacher of Buddhism put it: "I became a Buddhist because here no one ever asked me to believe anything."

That's true--but only up to a point. It's certainly true that our training was never to accept anything merely on someone's say-so, not even that of our teacher or the Buddha, but to test the words against our own experience. In this way, Buddhist practitioners become realized people--people whose knowledge of the teachings may be slight, but is nonetheless genuine and practical. They are not mere parrots or Bible-thumpers. (I had a couple of these appear at my door yesterday--two attractive young women asking me whether I read the Bible. Yup, read it.)

But there are aspects of Buddhism that must be taken on faith. One is the doctrine of karma and rebirth: that we continually experience the results of actions we've made in the past, including an infinite series of previous lives. (Interestingly, while many Westerners struggle with both karma and rebirth, I have no problem with either and believe in them both.) Another, of course, is that there is indeed such a thing as supreme, perfect, complete, great enlightenment and that the Buddha attained it. This is made easier by being in the presence of an authentic teacher or guru, such as Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche (whom I never did meet or see in person), who is a living example of such enlightenment.

Furthermore, over the centuries and millennia Buddhism has accumulated a great deal of elaborate doctrine and what amounts to a theology of enlightenment, Buddha-realms, bodhisattvas, and so on. It's said that very advanced practitioners experience these things directly--but I wouldn't know.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not criticizing these teachings, which in my own experience I can say are profound, powerful, and extremely effective. They have survived for a reason, and have caught hold in the Western imagination for a reason. But as an artist, I saw, only very gradually, a need to go my separate way. Even in a great world faith, I found I was in it, but not truly of it.

I may have made a very big mistake.

So be it. As an artist I find my credo not in any sacred text, but in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in the words of his hero Stephen Dedalus speaking to his friend Cranly:

You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.

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