Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Zen Atheist Cat's Got My Tongue

"If the facts prove Buddhist tenets are wrong, the tenets will have to be changed."
—The Dalai Lama

. Sean J. Vaughan headshot by Sean J. Vaughan

I have gotten swept up in the new Atheism wave. And yet I remain Zen Buddhist. Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" has outspokenly helped put Athesism back into the global consciousness where it needs to be. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Barker and others are respectfully and reasonably showing the merits and logic of embracing atheism. And I love it! I'm enthused!

However, I have had a deep challenge figuring out whether I can remain Zen Buddhist and at the same time embrace my Atheist roots and understanding. Something as serious as religion best not be taken on faith.

I'm tired of trying to justify the great zen master saying that the cat burgler made the tofu rise to the top of the pot with its mind bullets. (The story: tofu was being stolen, the zen master meditated all night next to the tofu pot, a cat watched the pot until tofu rose to the top, the cat ate the tofu). Sure, the cat indirectly showed the zen master the enlightening fact that the water/tofu temperature inversion can cause tofu to rise in water. But if you don't grasp this temperature inversion, you're not listening to the cat, Mister Master.

And, I'm sorry but there is not a hungry ghost in the plumbing. I don't mind cleaning every speck of food out of my bowl, believe my 250 pounds. But don't tell me any remaining specks going down the rinse are going to choke a hungry ghost.

And as for the zen master enlightening a general by making a river run backwards: THAT'S quite a Mystery Spot. Don't make me go crazy trying to justify craziness.

Many might find me a bit childish for taking the stories so literally. Can I no longer even enjoy secular art, movies, books and such? Well, I usually enjoy those things. I guess giving up all fiction in pursuit of truth might be more difficult than going along with, gasp, faith. Maybe I just need to lighten up. The Middle Path and all. Honestly, though, nobody had a smirk on their face when they told me about the hungry ghosts. What I need, then, is some clear indicator for the important stories. From what I can tell, they're all basically jumbled together.

Good, there is an indicator. When it comes to stories and beliefs, science comes first and the rest come second, or not at all. Our words are not the realities they point to. At the same time, humans have a very basic sense for learning about reality through storytelling and metaphor. This sense is quite possibly more intuitive and refined than our sense of reason at this point in our evolution. Through storytelling, religion can provide an artistic and intuitive way of understanding complex reality just like learning about ourselves by watching a good movie. And, these stories can help us until we need to understand the more complex scientific foundations behind the stories or, more directly, reality itself.

Just don't lead me to believe the foundations are an old white-bearded man out there everywhere pulling the string theories. Or that there's a big bad boogie man (not a God, mind you!) that wants me to do his brand of evil so he can torment my soul for the rest of eternity. Or that cat huffing is imbibing the flying spaghetti monster's body. Or that legendary zen masters could make rivers flow backwards before our eyes. Puh-leez.

I discussed my personal zen athiest dilemma with the abbot of my zen center and he didn't banish me. Phew, what a relief. He noted that zen comes before God, before Atheism, before Buddhism, before words. HUT! Just this. Clean perception mirror. Oh, yeah!


Anonymous said...

"If the facts prove Buddhist tenets are wrong, the tenets will have to be changed."
—The Dalai Lama

Exactly so! No Buddhist teaching is to be accepted on faith or authority.

G.I. Gurdjieff also asserted this. Everything must be verified by the practitioner.

May-Tzu, I think ...

dharmabruce said...

Sometimes the verification takes so much energy. Waking up is a lot of work. Necessary, though, necessary.

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Solomon said...

Amen! Much has been made of how Buddhism will adapt and grow as it continues to put down roots in the West--gender equality, social engagement, a lay majority, et al.--and I think this is one of the big breakthroughs that we might be able to help precipitate. If truth is truth, and if zazen can help us see it for what it really is, the Dharma has nothing to fear from relinquishing old superstitions and embracing sober, empirical observation.

Anonymous said...

You look like you are sitting on the toilet.
But don't worry: enlightenment can occur anywhere. :)