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.


Janet Brown said...

A man I once worked for, a former Jesuit, once told me to eschew recommending Philip Pullman as a children's writer because of his "controversial opinions." I no longer work for that man.

I'm often horrified by the way Catholicism twists intellects and how its effect linger well after the faithful have left the church. I'm also saddened by how much Christian dogma pervades American Buddhism--tolerance? Oh hell, burn the witches, crucify the friend. And be sure to nail him up on his birthday.

Please know that your good will is cherished,that looking over past history reveals that this political situation is a hard frost, not a harsh winter, and that your lively and loving mind will always keep your horizons soaring into the future. Happy 72nd--thank you for providing an example worth watching!

Roxanne said...

[tolerance? Oh hell, burn the witches, crucify the friend. And be sure to nail him up on his birthday.]

Tolerance is the key issue, isn't it? A quick query to Google found these definitions for "tolerance": Permissiveness: a disposition to allow freedom of choice and behavior;
willingness to recognize and respect the beliefs or practices of others." Exactly. Tolerance is my personal dogma.

Goodness knows I don't always agree with everything you write, Will. (Do we ever agree all of the time with anyone?) But I respect your right to (express) your beliefs and opinions.

Nan seems like a lovely young woman and I am glad that you have been able to (re)create family for yourself. Now there's a wonderful birthday present: someone who remembers your birthday--and even brings a cake.

Many happy returns, Will.

Tiff said...

Another thoughtful post, Will, and Happy Birthday! Sounds like you had a lot to think about and to be thankful for on your day.
I have not been successful in attempts to discuss religion or ideas with most of my family, and some friends. I've let the issue go in recent years and am at peace with my atheism, not currently seeking and therefore not currently trying to explain. That doesn't mean I won't resume such explorations or conversations in the future - just that I am tired ;)

Anonymous said...

Try to find a personal relationship with God.

I stay away from organized religion.

Let the Word be living truth in how you live your life. We should be building each other in love, not breaking people down.