Friday, July 30, 2010

Going Beyond

What's a materialist to do?  After denying the reality, even the very possibility, of the supernatural and the metaphysical, there is still the human condition.  Living is messy, mostly out of control, and often painful.  Of course there's more to life than atoms in motion.  Unlike the less-evolved biological species, we can remember, make predictions that occasionally come true, and form intentions that lead to actions which sometimes achieve the result we wanted.  Is this enough?

Well, no, not if you're still tempted by the religious impulse (or is it an instinct?).  For a couple of weeks I've been grappling with the thoughts of Karen Armstrong, reading and heavily underlining her latest book, The Case For God (my copy published in America lacks the British subtitle, "What Religion Really Means").  For this ex-nun who has written over 20 books on the topic, religion has been since the cave painters of Lascaux a practical discipline that leads to compassion for others which results in an "apprehension of transcendence."  Somewhere around the beginning of the modern era in the 16th century, religion took a wrong turn and now we have fearful fundamentalists of every stripe and superficial atheists who each interpret scripture literally, consider "belief" to mean assent to dogma, and imagine God as a being like us, only Supreme.  Armstrong, who calls herself a "freelance monotheist" and says her prayer is scholarship, wants to reinstate compassion and transcendence at the center of every religion.

"Transcendence," however, sounds metaphysical and mystical, and seems to imply a dualistic separation between body and spirit.  And yet it also seems to offer a non-theological alternative to ground the hunger and yearning for something absolute that appears to be universal.  What if, for example, we use the word poetically and mythically?  In the glossary to her book, a rare treat, she defines the transcendent as "that which 'climbs beyond' known reality and cannot be categorized."  Transcendence can be apprehended but cannot be known as a piece of information (the modern hubris).  One of Armstrong's major arguments in The Case for God is that until the triumph of science and reason in the 16th century, the only way ultimate reality could be approached was through the "cloud of unknowing."  Only apophatic statements -- "not this, not that" -- and silence, together with the practice of rituals and morality, could produce a transcendent awakening such as that experienced by the Buddha.
Religion's task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: morality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.  Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage.
That's her core claim in a nutshell.  Whether the "God" pointed to by various religious symbols was true, real, or exists, only became a preoccupation of theologians and nonbelievers after the Reformation and Enlightenment.  Armstrong wants to recapture what has been lost, what she calls the "knack" of religion, a learned skill that could lead to "an ekstasis, that enabled you to 'step outside' the prism of ego and experience the sacred."  In the glossary, she defines this Greek term as "going beyond the self; transcending normal experience."  For Armstrong, the desire "to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic."

The trouble with these practical disciplines of the sacred (and they no doubt took many different forms) is that in time they suffer from hardening of the spiritual arteries.  Rituals are legislated, the transcendent becomes first a being and then an idol, and priestly castes presume to understand what the common people are too stupid to know.  Politics and economics take over, palaces of worship are built under the patronage of rulers whom the gods support, and morality is replaced by laws.  And then intolerance, the dark twin of compassion, rears its ugly head and believers are ready to slaughter those they consider unbelievers in one of humanity's frequent "Crusades."  For the "new atheists" -- Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris -- the worst of religion's abuses are attributed to all.  Armstrong accuses them of reductionism, of assuming "that fundamentalist belief either represents or is even typical of either Christianity or religion as a whole."  They treat present religion at its absolute worst and engage in remarks "as biased and untrue as some of the religious rhetoric" they condemn.  Besides being theologically illiterate, their "rejection of the Enlightenment principle of toleration is new."  Armstrong believes the danger of a secularization of reason "which denies the possibility of transcendence is that reason can become an idol that seeks to destroy all rival claimants."

Transcendence seems to mean going beyond ordinary reality and the language we use to describe it.  Armstrong uses art and music as examples of transcendence, and explains that "one of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp.  We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence."  Music, she says, "goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything."  Transcendence could be used to speak of the enhanced feeling of being or joy we feel in nature, or at peak moments of experience, say, at a wedding or the birth of a child.  Armstrong speaks of the Catholic philosopher Karl Rahner who taught that when we struggle to make sense of the world, we constantly go beyond ourselves in our search for understanding.  "Thus every act of cognition and every act of love is a transcendent experience because it compels us to reach beyond the prism of selfhood."  This results in a spontaneous feeling of compassion toward another which takes form in action rather than thought.

The critics ask: why do we need to transcend anything?  Isn't this life enough?  The answer, I believe, is because it makes us more fully human.  We are not transcending the body or reality, but the ordinary everyday experience of being ourselves, blinded by our petty, self-centered concerns.  I can remember the peak moments of my life, the joy I felt among friends and lovers, the awe I experienced listening to and playing music, while really seeing a painting for the first time, hiking in a redwood forest or looking down upon the magnificence of Yosemite, or even San Francisco Bay on a gorgeous day.  There is a particularly poignant joy that is felt in the midst of disaster, after news of a friend's death or a diagnosis of cancer, that makes no sense whatever but is nonetheless real and enobling.  Shared tragedy can result in a kindness more intensely felt than a simple pat on the back.  We act out the Golden Rule without thinking about it or calculating the advantages whenever we see another not just as in need but as part of our very own self.  In her many books, Karen Armstrong looks past the sectarian divisions and dogmatic differences to the heart of every religion where she finds compassion and the Golden Rule (traced back to Confucius as well).
Above all, the habitual practice of compassion and the Golden Rule "all day and every day" demands perpetual kenosis [self emptying]. The constant "stepping outside" of our own preferences, convictions, and prejudices is an ekstasis that is not a glamorous rapture but, as Confucius's pupil Yan Hui explained, is itself the transcendence we seek.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On Holiday in Hua Hin

Coming up to the third anniversary of my arrival in the Land of Smiles, I am beginning to repeat myself.  It was a holiday weekend, with people taking off work during the start of what is called "Buddhist Lent," and Nan and I considered our options, the goal being surf, sand and sun.  Ko Samet was our destination of choice, but the owners of our favorite spot had jacked up their prices, creating a "middle season" between low and high for July and adding a 400 baht a night surcharge for the "busy weekend."  Since we'd visited Pattaya recently, where our hotel had been under noisy construction, this time we headed south to Hua Hin to swim and eat.

It was my third trip to the popular but aging beach resort town on the northern end of the Malay Peninsula and the second time for the two of us together.  The railroad came here in 1921 and the station is a national landmark.  King Rama VII built a summer palace which he named Wang Klai Kang Won, "Far from Worries."  That sounded like a good idea.  This time we arrived without a room reservation and the paucity of tourists confirmed my hunch that a continuing State of Emergency and the beginning of the rainy season takes even Hua Hin off the holiday map.  We walked from the bus station down to the waterfront and first looked at Fulay Guest House on a pier over the sea which is recommended by Lonely Planet.  Their cheap room was a closet and the cute "Thai Room" was overpriced.  Not far away we discovered The Fat Cat Guest House owned by a Danish expat about my age and took a lovely recently refurbished room overlooking the water for less than 1000 baht a night.

Our home away from home was close to the seafood restaurants and a short walk to the rock-strewn beach in front of the dominating Hilton Hotel where visitors recline under umbrellas, take rides on one of the many ponies for rent, hunt for sea shells, or venture out to sea on a "banana boat" pulled by a crazy jet ski driver intent on tossing them off.  We dozed and read, sipped our refreshing drinks, paid too much for an al fresco lunch and waited for the clouds to relent and let the sun come out.  It never happened.  Nor did it rain beyond a brief evening shower.  The umbrellas were sparsely populated, mostly by Scandinavian tourists with big families, and competition was keen at each section.  Our chairs were free so long as we bought food.  The frequently passing beach vendors had an air of desperation.  Even wading in the water was not appealing because of the underwater boulders and the sharp shells.  Last year I got a nasty cut on my foot.  So we simply rested, far from our day to day worries.

Shopping was always an option.  I remembered the town's only mall, Market Village, which I'd visited on my first trip there because my guest house was close by.  So on our first afternoon, Nan and I took a songthaew (pickup truck bus) south and browsed through the many chain stores with a few tourists and hoards of students in uniform from the Catholic school next door.  We snacked on gelato atop a waffle, checked movie times at the cinema (unfortunately "Despicable Me" was not playing), and browsed for bargains; July is apparently the month for sales.  Nan found her nirvana at a two-for-one sale and I practiced patience while she selected the perfect outfits. 

If we couldn't enjoy sunny weather, we could at least eat, and the seafood cuisine in Hua Hin is justly famed.  On our first night we returned to The Moon Terrace, with its sign advertising "Where the Romantic Begins," and ordered a whole fish and several appetizers.  It wasn't the same; the original magic we recalled was not repeated.  Last year it rained and we couldn't sit outside on the pier, so we were given a candlelit table with rattan chairs inside.  It was just us and the fish by dim light and it was memorable.  From where we sat this time we could see several other restaurants on piers and the following evening we chose the one most crowded, Chao Lay.  It didn't disappoint.  The fried sea bass, squid in garlic and lemon sauce, baked scallops (called hoi like all members of the clam family) and the shrimp appetizers were incredible.  The restaurant was packed on a Saturday night and the customers were mostly Thai.

After dinner we aided our digestion by walking up to Hua Hin's Night Market and there found all the missing foreign tourists.  Food and clothing booths predominated and we were on a mission to find the perfect vacation tee shirts.  Nan wanted them to say Wang Klai Kang Won or some variant.  We found hers at a stall where customers oohed and aahed over the owner's cute baby.  My shirt was discovered not far away, but we rubbed shoulders and elbows all the way up to the end of the market and took in its delightful sounds and smells.  We ended the evening with a refreshing honey lemon drink and cheese cake at our favorite Vietnamese cafe. 

Hua Hin is a short three-hour bus trip (at a cost of about $5 each way) from the southern terminal near our apartment.  The island of Ko Samet is about the same, but the bus leaves from the eastern terminal an hour away.  Still, Samet has a nicer beach, more inviting surf and fewer (none?) Scandinavian, Danish or German restaurants.  I'm always on the lookout for a cheap and uncrowded beach destination where I might live out my final days undisturbed with a clear view of the sea.  Ko Lanta at the end of the slow season came close.  It's not quite the same, but my 9th floor window which overlooks the dramatic and cloud-entangled skyline of Bangkok provides hours of contemplative enjoyment. Nan's mom is buying more land in her northern village in the hope that it will tempt us to live there when our time and money run out in Bangkok.  Of course Nan must finish school first and then she'll probably find a better paying job in the city for a woman with a college degree in business and computers.  I kept busy in Hua Hin by reading two Lee Child mysteries, and now back home I'm pouring over Karen Armstrong's wonderful book The Case for God which I recently finished.  She has the knack for capturing the changing face of religion in words.  And she makes the human yearning for the transcendent seem so natural and shows with remarkable clarity where religious writers in the last two hundred years have gone off the rails by competing with science and focusing on propositional belief rather than discipline in compassion.  I've still got students to teach and many mysteries to explore, and so I'm not yet ready for that beachside dénouement. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Two-Cake Birthday

After 70, what's to celebrate?  Nonetheless, I casually mentioned one day to my students that soon I would turn 71, and during the last class before the Khao Phansa holiday (described as the Buddhist "Lent"), they turned out the lights and brought me a cake with many candles.  I had to teach them the proper way to sing "Happy Birthday" (they have the tune down but just repeat the words "happy birthday"), and said a few words about how I'm still 18 in my heart until I look in the mirror.  I was very moved by their kindness. 

On the actual day of my birthday, I stayed at home and watched three movies ("The Ghost Writer," "Aching Hearts" and "Fish Tank"), and in the evening after her English class Nan brought me a lovely cherry and chocolate cake with white icing and many candles that contained the inscription "Happy Birthday Will 71st."  Her love keeps me young.  As birthdays go, it was a very sedate affair: no cards, no presents, no other friends or family, a couple of email good wishes.  When none of my friends on Facebook sent greetings I checked to discover that on my new page I'd neglected to make my birthday public.  Once unchecked, the greetings came in a rush from friends old and recent, near and far away.  I am now beginning my 72nd year.  In Thailand, where birth dates are calculated by a solar calendar and the 12 zodiac animal signs (I'm a rabbit), the first and sixth cycles of 12 years are most important.  My natal anniversary next year will be most important. 

On the morning of my actual birthday I received a "fuck you" letter from someone I've known for over thirty years.  We met on a job and discovered a mutual fondness for discussing philosophy and religion over lunch.  Calling himself a "Zen Catholic," he introduced me to the writings of Thomas Merton and took me on my first visit to a monastery which would influence my intellectual and spiritual path for some years.  At the time I was an atheist who was excited by the philosophical implications of quantum physics, and our conversations were frequently heated.  I respected his knowledge and experience if not always the scrupulosity of his moral views.  A few years ago we found each other again on the internet and have resumed our dialogue via email and Facebook.  He had expanded his spiritual horizon to encompass Tibetan Buddhism without leaving Catholicism and he explored both traditions in depth with the intensity of a scholar and the fervor of a true believer.  Intelligent and articulate, he bombarded me with information, an extended monologue on the virtues of multi-faith practice.  I encouraged him to write a blog which he tackled with manic glee.  My views, however, did not engage him.  He was open to neither criticism nor skepticism, the present coin of my realm.  When I praised on Facebook Philip Pullman's retelling of the Jesus story as the "real deal," meaning it compared with Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" in its perceptive critique of the institutional church, he commented that to say this was "stupid" and "a lie."  Now I'm sensitive to being accused of lying, and I sent him what I thought was a very polite email saying that since he had no interest or respect for my views, perhaps we should stop talking for now.  His response was a long, angry, and vitriolic "fuck you" that attacked me from every direction.  He even quoted my son from a recent blog post who said I was the most self-centered person he had ever met.  There was a conspicuous absence of either compassion or kindness, the marks for me of a real Buddhist.

Since this is the second letter this year like this from someone I once thought was a friend, I should give it some credence.  Both accused me of hostility to religion and put me in the category with its currently popular despisers: Hawkins, Hitchens and Harris.  Both are serious Buddhist practicioners and are offended by any criticism or skepticism about their faith or their teachers.  One was angered when I wrote that a monk's talk he liked was not inspirational and the other apparently took offense at my linking of feudalism in Tibet with that country's ritualistic and hierarchical religion.  This blog has chronicled my evolution in matters of the spirit, from a determined acceptance of the Catholic faith based on its teaching about social justice to a rejection of the Ratzinger Church and all metaphysical views that privilege the next world over this one.  In Thailand I am learning about an all-pervading and deep-rooted popular piety and the multifaceted relationships between Buddhism, animism and superstition, not as an objective social scientist but as someone looking for a satisfactory and dignified way to live out the years I have left.  I have always tried to own my criticism rather than to judge the practices of others, and in my writing I have done my best to be gentle and generous.  But obviously my words have also pushed sensitive buttons and I must accept the consequences.

Thank God I'm not Mel Gibson.  That man has some serious issues to deal with, not least that he's become the laughing stock of the internet.  I finally succumbed to the barrage of stories and listened to some of the tapes of phone conversations with his wife on YouTube.  Christopher Hitchens has an interesting diatribe on Slate in which he blames the actor's sexist, racist and etc-ist rants on his extremely right-wing Catholic faith.  Gibson's father, known for his holocaust denials, founded a schismatic group in Australia to the right of an already conservative Pope.  The younger Gibson's bloody "Passion of the Christ" was an advertisement for these anti-Semetic fundamentalists.   According to Hitchens, for whom ALL religion is anathema, Gibson's "every word and deed is easily explicable once you know the single essential thing about him: He is a member of a fascist splinter group that believes it is the salvation of the Catholic Church."  Hitchens has criticized Pullman's fiction of Jesus and his twin-brother Christ as the work of a "Protestant atheist" because his book raises the possibility that "Christianity can be salvaged from itself, or at any rate from its later accretions, by a sort of 'back to basics' revisionism."  But nothing can save Christianity in Hitchens' mind.  Pullman's science fiction trilogy, His Dark Materials, is acknowledged as a strong attack on the Catholic Church.  But "this latest attempt to secularize Messianism," Hitchens writes, "is a disappointment to those of us who can never forgive the emperor Constantine, not just for making Christianity a state dogma, but for making humanity hostage to the boring village quarrels and Bronze Age fables that were drawn from what remains the world’s most benighted region."  Now I would never be so harsh about the stories and fables that provide meaning to the world's million who do not happen to be intellectuals or online critics.

I am spending way too much time in disappointment these days, disappointment that my good will is misunderstood, that my financial affairs are in disarray, that I can no longer maintain long-distance relationships, that teaching is a joy but dealing with school administrators is a headache,  that Thailand's brief democratic spring is turning into an authoritarian winter, that my horizons are shrinking as the years pile up, that metaphysics remains a temptation despite my materialist goals, and disappointment that I am not as grateful and loving as I long to be.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Family Values

"If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
--Luke 14:26, New American Bible

I was raised on family values in the 1950s that were best exemplified by the Nelsons, the Andersons, the Cleavers, the Stones and even the crazy Richardos, those perfect families that we watched on our black-and-white TV while eating dinners in the living room on TV trays. My brother and I should have been Ricky and David, or even Wally and the Beaver, but my father was a pale imitation of Robert Young's Jim Anderson, and mom was no Donna Reed (sometimes she more like Lucy at her craziest).  Though we were outwardly the ideal nuclear family of four living in a California ranch-style house with an orange tree in the front and a swimming pool in the back yard, I felt like I was living with aliens.

There's probably a good reason why Jesus seems to hate the family.  Maybe it was because he had an absent father, an over-protective mother, and siblings whom he refused to discuss.  Christian apologists work hard to give this verse a positive twist.  But when he went to preach in the temple of his home town of Nazareth he was driven away by an angry crowd that could only conceive of him as the poor son of a carpenter.  "No prophet is accepted in his own native place," concludes the passage from the book of Luke.  In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is seated in a crowd of people and someone comes to tell him,  "Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you." He replies, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

Blood ties matter here less than friendship and appropriate actions.  It's hard to see how conservative Christians could turn these words of Jesus into instructions about family values and a creed that praises the nuclear family and condemns working mothers, adultery, feminism, premarital sex, abortion, and gay and lesbian relationships, to name only a few of their no-nos.  Despite Dan Quayle's condemnation of the non-traditional family values of single (TV) mother Murphy Brown (which he claimed were a cause of the 1992 Los Angeles riots), western politicians continue to praise the family as the primary source of moral values and the foundation for democracy and freedom in the world.  They have apparently forgotten that western civilization begins with the Biblical story of Cain, the farmer, murdering his brother Abel, the hunter-gatherer. It's been all downhill since then.   In history as well as myth and fiction, parricide, the killing of a parent, is common, from Oedipus and Norman Bates to Lizzie Borden and the Menendez brothers. Children are not infrequently killed by their parents (Singer Marvin Gaye was shot by his father and Peter the Great of Russia tortured his son to death).  Clearly there is a dark side to family values.

Let's not forget Rosemary's baby and all the other celluloid spawns of Satan.  There's a misguided notion that genetics must dictate familial relations, a modern update of the blood tie myth.  In the debate over nature vs. nurture, the jury is still out.  Identical twins are not clones and frequently turn out to lead very different lives.  It's impossible to raise children on an assembly line and often siblings from the same background turn out to be Cain and Abel redux, or, as, Yogi Berra put it, deja vu all over again.  There is no accounting for families, except in the blog world where we must try to explain why we felt like aliens growing up and why we are estranged from our families.  Despite conventional wisdom, they are NOT the ones who MUST love you.

Our father was a traveling salesman, a big man not given to many words.  After coming home late from work with a strange smell on his lips, he would fall asleep in his big easy chair while watching Lucy or the Ed Sullivan Show.  Mom kept to her kitchen which was off limits to the men of the house, so I never learned to cook or wash dishes.  Sometimes we would hear her screaming in the bedroom at our father, hysterical nonsense words behind a closed door, but the storm would soon blow over.  My father built things in his garage workshop, a cabinet for the TV and a whole cabaña for the pool, but nothing was ever completely finished and he didn't teach me how to use his tools.  I was forced to share a bedroom with my younger brother, an indignity beyond words, until our grandfather died when I finally got some privacy.  The kid was scrawny and surly and our father spent more time with him because "he doesn't have your personality."  After he started lifting weights and going out for sports, he outgrew me.  Our mother read Reader's Digest condensed books and our father listened to a recording of the Warsaw Concerto, the only music in our house until I discovered rock and roll.  I was mortified by their plebeianism, and moved out of the family home just as soon as I was able. 

I became a father by accident on a trip to Europe with my young wife at a bed-and-breakfast house in Scotland.  Several years later it happened again and my second son was born at a 7th Day Adventist hospital in Los Angeles where I had to go outside to smoke.  The only model I had for parenting was my father so I didn't say much and laid down the rules as the boys grew up.  But my wife was even more hysterical than my mother and I left her with the children because I thought she might kill herself without them.  Big mistake.  My second family was more intentional.  After a long courtship we created a daughter which had been my strongest desire at the time.  For five years she was the apple of my eye, until she discovered rebellion and we began a struggle that remains to this day.  Our second child was a gift to my wife who felt single children were deprived.  But after he was born, she resigned as a lover to become a full-time mother and I was cut adrift.  Silent, rule-giving fathers were not appreciated in that house.  I tried to change, to become a sensitive man during that age of women's liberation, but early imprinting was too strong.  I gave my youngest son the most time of any of my children, but he grew to see me as always angry and ineffectual.  When push came to shove, I lost it.  This time, however, at least I stuck around until the kids were almost out of the house. 

My family skills haven't improved much since then.  During a brief hiatus in the 1970s, my brother and I got along, perhaps because I was working in the music business and we had similar tastes, more from the zeitgeist of the time rather than genetics, I expect.  He grew up arguing about sports with our father and became a lawyer who raises his voice to make a point.  After the death of our mother, we argued bitterly over every facet of the estate settlement.  I tried to develop close relationships with my children but I just wasn't very good at it.  As I grew older and they grew up, any respect turned to disdain and I felt constantly apologetic.  I was closest to my second son, probably because we both made serious mistakes the others criticized; when he died of alcoholism last year I was left alone.  One of the many reasons I moved to Thailand was that I didn't want some day for my children to have to care for me.  Trying to establish a long-distance relationship from here with them by various technological methods of communication is difficult but the results are the same as when I lived in their neighborhood.  Mostly silence and disinterest.

I'm reluctant to blame my parents for not teaching me, or providing a good example of, parenting.  Most of my friends have terrific relationships with their children, even when living far away.  And I don't want to blame my children for their lack of compassion toward me or interest in my admittedly strange life as an expat in Southeast Asia.  My oldest son's last message to me was, "You are one of the most self-centered people I will ever know."  I resisted mentioning that it ran in the family, but only said "I won't bother you again."  I left him and his brother at an early age and deserve his accusations of abandonment.  And I resigned inwardly from my second family when my wife, a supermom, left me little to do because she could do everything better than me.  I found my curiosity and passion at the university and was reborn as an academic scholar.  And if the marriage hadn't ended at my wife's request, I never would have traveled the world and found another life here in Thailand.  For all of that I'm thankful and have few regrets.

But family, aye, there's the rub. 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Endlessly Searching

They call me "The Seeker"
I've been searching low and high
I won't get to get what I'm after
Till the day I die
--Pete Townshend, The Who

Much of my life I've described myself as a seeker, on a journey or pilgrimage in search of capital-T Truth, wisdom, salvation and enlightenment. In the "About Me" section of this blog, I have been calling myself "a spirit-seeking citizen of the world."  I've sought sainthood as a Roman Catholic, a vision of the divine as a Hindu devotee, and nibanna as a Theravada Buddhist (although not as a monk like this Cambodian exploring an ancient stone text at Angkor Wat).  I've prayed, sung, chanted and meditated in monasteries, churches, ashrams, sanghas and temples around the world.  And the end result of all this searching, on the eve of my 71st birthday, is: nothing much.  I think it's time to lay this label to rest.

Focusing on nowhere
Investigating miles
I'm a seeker
I'm a really desperate man

Seekers of whatever hue share with each other a dissatisfaction with the present world.  "Is this all there is?" they unhappily ask.  "I want something more."  It should be said that seeking Jesus, God or Krishna is preferable to seeking forgetfulness and oblivion through alcohol or drugs and other destructive behavior because of a dissatisfied life.  Religious seekers, however obnoxious and self-righteous they may become about having the only true answers, do little obvious long-term damage.  But what are the consequences of denigrating and denying this life and the bodies we inhabit for something better somewhere else, like after we die?  

These thoughts have been prompted by reading two amazing books by Don Cupitt, a professor emeritus of philosophy and theology at Cambridge and a retired Anglican clergyman.  Sometimes books come to us when we need them to articulate our incoherent thoughts.  For years I have been dissatisfied with otherworldly religion, both Christian and Buddhist, that promises salvation or an advantageous rebirth after death.  This physical world dominated by Mara is a veil of tears which we should despise and our material bodies, the realm of flesh, only hold us back from achieving our true reward.  Monks and nuns, both Catholic and Buddhist, flee worldly temptations by trading their possessions and fashionable finery for robes and a lifetime of denial.  Sex, the act that keeps humanity going, receives the most severe denunciations and in most spiritual disciplines men and women are kept rigorously separate.  The upshot of this is to make ordinary people think their everyday lives are insufficient and somehow wrong.

For Cupitt, the fatal assumption is that our life is a riddle to us.  We are exiled from our true home.  And we want to know the Meaning of Life and the Point of It All, two BIG questions that Cupitt notes are ridiculed beautifully by comic writer Douglas Adams in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and also by "Deep Thoughts" on "Saturday Night Live"). For me, the guiding questions have long been: Who am I, and what am I to do in this life?  Under Cupitt's withering critique (and remembering some of the cautions made by Wittgestein when I studied his writings 20 years ago), I can now see that these puzzles are only linguistic and lead nowhere.  Even the Buddha advised against asking metaphysical questions in favor of practices to relieve present suffering.

Nietzsche, recalls Cupitt in Emptiness & Brightness, called Catholicism "platonism for the masses."  It was Plato who theorized that what we see is only a representation of the metaphysical reality that our senses cannot see.  We see through a glass darkly, and it's what's on the other side that's important, not the dirty glass.  On the contrary, says Cupitt, nothing is hidden and we must give up the idea of a knowledge available only to the elite.  He calls his philosophy "anti-realist" to deny that life is static and ready-made before humans entered the picture in order to discover it.  "The world of life is beginningless, endless, outsideless, and in ceaseless change," Cupitt writes.  Reality is "never more than provisionally constructed within an endless open conversation."

I can barely explain how liberating this feels.  We only have this life to live and when it's over we're fertilizer for the plants, a memory in the minds of our friends still living, nothing more.  We're animals with language, the possession of which is very important for Cupitt's argument which lists three aspects of life: Be-ing, Language and Brightness.  The last attribute means "the world's vividness and beauty in our (and only our) conscious awareness of it."  We humans are embedded in language, reality is a consensual story produced by linguistic communities, and we constitute each other through language which, in fact, precedes thought. In a more recent book, Above Us Only Sky, Cupitt writes:
You can have more-or-less anything, provided only that you understand and accept that you can have it only language-wrapped -- that is, mediated by language's secondary, symbolic and always-ambiguous quality...We just are our lived lives in our life-world, and our life is lived within our living, moving language.  You are what you say: you are your part in life.
This echoes Wittgenstein who said that "meaning just is use." A word means not what it refers to but how it is used.  It also recalls pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty who argued against the idea that the mind somehow can represents nature, which pulls the rug out from under metaphysics.  "The old idea of a metaphysical self, an immortal infinite spiritual substance, is dead," claims Cupitt.  "The self is radically linguistic and historical.  And with the concept of the soul dies also the belief in the saint or genius."

The two small books of Cupitt's I've recently read, a small sample of his large corpus devoted to delivering a message not of atheism but of a decidedly this worldly religion, are filled with the eloquence of a secular preacher.   Calling his writings "an induction course -- as training in religious thinking," he says the message in each book is the same:  "give up the quest for objectivity, give up the antediluvian idea that 'the truth is out there', and give up the desire for timelessness.  Instead, say Yes to Be-ing, Yes to pure contingency, Yes to life, and Yes to the life-world as a self-producing, self-renewing work of art that forms in us and pours out of us."  If this sounds closer to Buddhism than to Christianity, it is.  He calls Buddhism "the most intellectually formidable and challenging of the faiths," but he also has harsh words for institutional Buddhism "with its emphasis on loyalty to the sangha and obedience to an authoritative teacher from a sound lineage."  Tradition, he adds, "is not the only way to truth and religious truth is not always hard to grasp.  It can be blindingly easy."

With Cupitt's help, my seeking days are over.  Giving up the metaphorical journey is not easy, however, since it's the story I've been telling myself about who I am for a good fifty years.  When I left California six years ago to see the world, I did it as a pilgrim, and everywhere I went, from Guatemala to India, it was with the unseen in mind.  Where could I find it, the elusive butterfly of spirituality?  My friends on that journey may find this new story disturbing.  Have I given up?  I see it differently.  The challenge now for me is to say Yes to this life, the only one that I have made.  There is no point in going back over it with a magnifying glass to see where I might have made better choices.  What's done is done (my mother use to love that cliché).  I resolve now to be as present as possible to those I am in conversation with, my lover and my friends. 

And life, in my experience, is nearly always a roller coaster, or perhaps a rigged contest like the episodes of "Wipeout" I have been watching with Nan, a "reality" show in which slipping on a a banana peel becomes an even lower art with the aid of technology.  And, excuse me, but it's always hilarious to see an ambitious person fall on their face.  The monsoon rains have arrived in Thailand and most evenings we are treated to a spectacular son et lumiere show outside our 9th floor window.  Nan is loving her university classes three nights a week, and I've taken on a new English class on Monday and Tuesday evenings at my university's campus in Wang Noi near Ayuthaya, an hour's commute out of the city.  At our first meeting last week, I had eight students, three monks from Burma, two from Laos, and two nuns from Vietnam, as well as a layman from Thailand who works at the Jaguar automotive factory.  Over half are in the international Master's program in Buddhist Studies where classes are taught in English.  I am using the New Headway Pre-Intermediate textbook from Oxford Press and have the leisure to spend nine hours per chapter rather than the rushed three hours I give my Wednesday students, all of whom are majoring in English.  Next month I will teach a special four-Saturday course for graduate students in Public Administration at an MCU campus east of Bangkok with Dr. Sman, a Thai teacher my age who has been helping this old farang find additional work.

I am now a part of Nan's family, and she keeps me informed of their drama.  Her sister Ann is determined to get a boob job, the dream of every flat-chested Thai woman and gender-challenged ladyboy.  I try through Nan to convince her otherwise.  Even in Thailand it's expensive, about the equivalent of $3,000.  If it's not breast amplification, it's whiter skin.  Thais are definitely dissatisfied with their image, and the shapely white-skinned models in advertising and on TV feed that unhappiness.  Fortunately, Nan seems reassured by my compliments; she is perfect just as she is.  This morning her cousin Bo called to say she was back in Phayao, no longer working as a bar girl in Bangkok.  She did not say if she is still pregnant.  Today Nan is playing with her new toy, a Blackberry mobile phone (although in her case it's a whiteberry).  She was quite envious of all that my new iPod Touch could do, and now I've been effectively one-upped since what it can't do is make phone calls.  Last weekend we went to see the new "Twilight" franchise, "Eclipse."  She loves Robert and I loved the cheese popcorn and big Coke.  I've tried to follow the FIFA World Cup 2010 matches but unfortunately the finals are telecast at 1:30 am Bangkok time so I satisfy myself with reading news stories about the games the next morning.  Go Spain!  And, finally, it's also time for the new season of Academy Fantasia, the 7th year for the spectacular Thai TV talent show.  Everything is delightfully over the top, costumes, lighting and staging, and the contestants are overly made up and not entirely talented, but wonderfully eager.  The audience is filled with fans waving neon cards with their favorites' names and numbers in different colors.  Nan tells me we can get tickets to one of the weekly Saturday evening extravaganzas before the top prize is won in six weeks, and I'd love to go.  I will be the only one of my kind in attendance.

What I probably will not be doing, at least in the short term, is writing much about politics in Thailand.  I continue to make comments and share stories on my Facebook page, but the current situation is not open to critical perspectives.  The State of Emergency continues in Bangkok and much of the country and the jails are filling with critics and opponents of the military-backed royalist regime, increasingly more authoritarian every day.  The future event which cannot be discussed is a dark cloud over the current phony blather about "reconciliation."  Those whose voice is being left out of the national conversation have yet to make known their future plans.  The rest of us watch the World Cup and Academy Fantasia 7.