Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sugary Sweet Spirituality

Barry over at Ox Herding made a good point I'd like to comment on a little more. First he asks a question worthy of consideration for all of us: "What do we hope to discover when we set out to discover ourselves?"

Doesn't it seem important to know what you think you want, so that maybe you can move past that, or not cling so hard to it? And if you don't know what you want at all, it's probably very helpful to at least have some direction. Contradiction here? Maybe. I keep thinking of Dogen's instructions to the cook to prepare for the next day, but let it all go because the next day is completely unknown. There's direction, or intention, and there is also a dropping off of all desires to pin it down.

After Barry poses his question, he then writes the following:

Turn to most any spiritual magazine and you'll find articles by authors who have discovered bliss, love, compassion and other wonderful states of consciousness.

How's that working for you?

I'll never get published in those magazines - my practice feels more like archeology, like the excavation of some ancient rubbish midden. No one wants to hear about that.

I subscribe to a few of those magazines: Yoga Journal, Shambala Sun, Buddhadharma. All of these have definite merits, and I'm grateful to have them around as resources. But sometimes, the shiny, happy people on the covers, and the stories/articles linked to those people just don't do much for me. They seem almost like slices of cake: sweet, crumbly, and filling in the wrong way. In some ways, these particular magazines at least aren't presenting as squeaky clean imagines of people and their spiritual lives as, say, books of Catholic saints do. Even so, I often find the most compelling and useful for my practices the writings where the shit of our lives is examined thoroughly, and no pretense is made by the author that they have somehow moved beyond it all. Every one of the magazines I mentioned has had writings like this, and yet I wonder if the editors sometimes feel they need to include something more cake-like to feed our collective sweet-tooth?

I actually think Barry is selling himself short at the end of the quote. When someone can write about their rubbish in a way that presents it as it is and transforms it into a possible teaching for anyone who connects with it, that's gold. I, for one, want more of that, and less of the sugary sweet spirituality that gives a quick hit of good feeling, but does little to tap the deep well that sustains us.


Barry said...

Nathan, Thank you for your thoughtful exegesis on today's Ox Herding.

A few minutes ago I read a piece by John Tarrant, Roshi, in the current Shambhala Sun. Now there's a teacher who can turn shit into gold. Or, perhaps more accurately, there's a teacher who sees that shit *is* gold (and gold *is* shit).

Thanks also for your engaging and committed work on Dangerous Harvests.


ZenDotStudio said...

I love Barry's use of the word "excavation". For me there are 2 things that are so helpful in reading about other people's excavation. One is I often imagine that everybody's life is great and mine is a heap of Dukkha. And the other thing is that reading these personal tales shows me how to work with my "stuff" because the details may be different but it's often the same essential Dharma content.

Genju said...

Good points, Nathan. I used to enjoy several magazines that explored Buddhism and now find I can't get through any of them. In our sangha, I'm curmudgeonly known to call it "revival tent dharma in flower child lingo."


Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

I get your point (I think) but I wonder if you could be a bit more specific?

I mean, from my reading of these magazines (admittedly very limited as I don't have the money to buy such things and just manage to borrow a copy every now and again) and from my looking at them on the websites, it seems that those "shiny, happy people on the covers" actually DO go through the hard work processes that you and Barry are describing.

I've just clicked over to the Shambala Sun website...

... and the lead article is by Susan Piver and is about heartbreak.

A little lower down the page there are links to articles on the Dharma in prisons and Zen teacher John Tarrant and others on guidelines for taking advantage of life's crises and surprises.

Steve Flowers, drawing from his experiences bullied as a child, talks about overcoming chronic shyness and anxiety, and there are articles on divorce, the personal experiences of younger Buddhists, and so on and so on.

So I'm not entirely sure what you are asking for from these magazines? There has been a lot of Buddhist magazine-bashing on the blogs recently and most of it is, in my opinion, misdirected.

Okay, I haven't yet seen the latest issue of Shambala Sun for myself, but judging from the website and from my reading of past issues, it contains just as much real substance and sustenance as sugary cake.

Wishing you well,


spldbch said...

I for one find it more helpful to read about how other people are dealing with their shit -- maybe it'll give me some direction on how to deal with mine.

The other stories are probably there to give us hope:-)