Today, January 22, 2016, I turn 36. I don’t pretend to be anything close to a “math whiz,” but “36” is the sixth square age I have been in my life (following 1, 4, 9, 16, and 25), and I won’t see another one until I am 49, assuming I make it to that age.
I am not trying to be morbid, for the record, I am just being realistic. I remember hearing in church years ago something like “we are only guaranteed the last breath we took” or something like that, and regardless as to whether anyone literally believes the things in the Bible or any other religious text, well, that statement is true. Life is a very fragile thing, and while I wouldn’t mind living a few thousand years or so, well, there is no guarantee that I (or anyone reading this) will still be here tomorrow. Or an hour from now, for that matter.
And again, that’s not me being morbid, that’s me simply stating a fact.
But to be sure, this sentiment has been echoed in at least a couple religious traditions over the years. In my own, as mentioned, and also in the Buddhist tradition. And not only in religious traditions, but in anti-religious movements as well.
But I don’t really want to write about religion right now. I want to write about myself. And it’s my birthday, and on top of that it’s my sixth square birthday, so that’s what I am gonna do.
If you don’t want to read about me, on this, my sixth square birthday, I would like to remind you that the entirety of the internet is at your fingertips. Surely you can find something to soothe your ennui, if my vain ramblings do not do so. To quote my favorite band from some time between my fourth and fifth square birthdays, “boredom’s not a burden anyone should bear.”
Speaking of that period, there was one particular event that happened around that time that time that sort of, well…just let me tell you about it:
I was a student at the U of A, Fayetteville at the time. Anyways, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks was visiting the U of A. They were on some sort of university tour, or something, and anyways they set up shop (so to speak) in the student union. They were there for at least a few days.
Over the course of these few days — maybe even five days, like Monday to Friday — the monks created an intricate, multicolored, circular mandala entirely out of sand. They had bags of colored sand with little spouts on them, and one little section at a time, they added this or that little design to the sand mandala. I don’t know how many hours were spent making this sand mandala, or exactly how many monks contributed to its construction, but suffice it to say a lot of painstaking work went into it.
I (and a few other people I knew, one of which was letting the monks crash in her apartment on the edge of campus for the duration of their stay) went to see the sand mandala on that Friday, just as the monks were finishing it up. There were at least two — I don’t remember exactly — bald monks in saffron (or were they maroon?) robes, both manipulating the little sandbags with spouts, putting the final touches on the mandala, somehow creating sharp right angles and perfect curves out of flowing sand. It was truly an impressive sight to see; the level of precision was remarkable. “Remarkable” is actually quite an understatement, I just don’t know a better word to use. “Amazing” might be better.
Anyways, the monks finished up the mandala, then turned to the head monk — or abbot, or whatever the proper word would be — and he came over, inspected the mandala — which, remember, was the product of many hours of painstaking work — nodded his approval, then nonchalantly produced something like a shaving brush and smeared the mandala in one stroke from top to bottom, ruining it, mixing all the intricate multicolored designs into a crude gray swath.
The monks — the same ones who had spent the better part of a week creating this beautiful work of art — then proceeded to produce their own little brushes, which they used to sweep the remaining part of the mandala — the parts on either side of the head monk’s crude brush stroke — up into a little gray pile of sand. They then began putting small amounts of this sand into little ziploc-style baggies and distributing them to the crowd of people in attendance.
I gave my little baggie of sand to my academic advisor, I think as a Christmas present. Before I did, I wrote
“Beauty is truth, truth, beauty; but beauty is just an illusion…”
on it. When I gave it to her and told her where I got it, she referred to it as “sacred sand.” At the time, I disagreed that the sand was in any way “sacred.” The whole painstaking process of creating an intricate — and I do mean “intricate” — work of art over the course of a week and then destroying it was an illustration of impermanence, after all.
As a matter of fact, as I left the student union, and for probably a week or so after that, I contemplated how all of the buildings on campus, some of which had stood (and still stand) for over a hundred years, would one day be long gone and forgotten. Many people — architects, construction foremen, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, bricklayers, interior designers, etc. — contributed to the construction and maintenance of these buildings (just as the monks made their individual contributions to the mandala), and many students and professors and others enjoyed the fruits of their labor (just as many students and professors and others enjoyed looking at the intricate designs of the mandala), but one day, all those buildings will be gone, and soon after that, no one will remember their ever being there. It’s not really a question of “if” that will happen, it’s a question of “when.”
And to be sure, I hope that doesn’t happen for a really long time. Barring World War III or something, I don’t anticipate that happening in my lifetime or even another generation or two after I am rotting in the ground.
But just as I am only guaranteed the last breath I took, well, the point is nobody knows what the future will hold.
Although, I have to admit, at various points in my life, I have experienced what the French call déjà vu, and one of those experiences happened to involve Buddhism.
Before I go on, let me unequivocally state that I do not believe “déjà vu” is anything more than an illusory sort of sensation, and that my mention of it with regard to “knowing what the future will hold” was done out of literary convenience and nothing more. I needed a transition, so I used it as such.
Nonetheless, a sensation of déjà vu accompanied another notable experience I had with Buddhism. This sensation was most likely brought on by emotional stress, and anyways without further ado I will relate it here, briefly:
This experience with Buddhism was not from the Tibetan tradition, but rather from the Korean tradition. I am not sure exactly how these traditions differ from one another, although I am fairly certain there are differences.
I had been living in South Korea for two years at that point — I had only left the country twice during that period, once for a two week trip home over Christmas and once for a week-long trip to Japan — and was about to return home in less than a week. A Korean friend of mine, someone who I had been very close to at one point — died unexpectedly. My other experience with Buddhism was a memorial service for this friend.
This ceremony was at a small temple in a fairly secluded area. I was one of maybe twenty or so people in attendance, and I was the only person there who wasn’t Korean.
We were all seated on one side of the room, on the floor on little square pillows — I don’t know the Korean word for these pillows –and on the other side of the room, two monks in robes conducted the ceremony, which consisted of one of them banging on a big gong and reading Hanja from a long scroll, and the other one was doing other things, lighting candles, bowing to the large Buddha statue on a shelf in the middle of the opposite wall…it’s been nearly eight years ago since I attended that ceremony, and I don’t remember many details, other than time seemed to be flowing at an odd rate — I honestly have no clue how long the ceremony lasted; it seemed to last both a really long time and hardly any time at all, if that makes any sense — and that I had an odd feeling of déjà vu the whole time. Which was most likely attributable to emotional stress, as I have already mentioned.
Again, for some reason I can’t quite recall the color of the robes the monks were wearing. Most Korean Buddhist monks wore gray robes, at least when they were out in public, eating ice cream at Lotteria, begging (I gave a monk 10,000 won [approximately ten dollars] once when he approached me, bowing and asking for money, and in exchange he gave me a little parchment thing with a picture of Bodhidharma on it that I hung on my bedroom wall), or doing whatever monks do, but for the life of me I can’t recall if these monks at the memorial service were wearing gray robes or saffron robes or maroon robes or what.
I do remember that the food they served us afterwards — vegetarian Korean cuisine — was fantastic.
As you may be able to intuit, my deceased Korean friend and her family were/are Buddhists.
Am I a Buddhist? No. Anthropologically speaking, I am a Christian, more specifically Protestant, more specifically than that Southern Baptist. That is the religion my family brought me up in, and as I have neither formally renounced it nor have I converted to anything else, I am still a Southern Baptist, at least in the anthropological sense.
“In the anthropological sense” means that if an anthropologist a hundred years from now were to study Lawson, Arkansas, its former inhabitants, and their culture, she or he would likely discover that there was (or maybe still is) a Southern Baptist church in the middle of Lawson, and would from that deduce that most if not all of the inhabitants of Lawson during my lifetime (and for quite a while before and presumably after my lifetime) were Southern Baptists.
Do I believe all of the teachings of the church I was raised in, literally speaking? No. Not literally. I do believe that there is a lot of value in Jesus’ teachings — especially “love thy neighbor as thyself” — and I do try to follow teachings like that one, even though I don’t literally believe all of the things taught in the Southern Baptist tradition.
But am I an “atheist”? Well, in the sense that I don’t literally believe in the things “theists” are supposed to believe in, I suppose I am. For instance, I don’t literally believe that “God” is a conscious entity sitting up in Heaven passing judgement on everyone. To my view, if that were the case, God’s “will” goes, more often than not, directly against the teachings of Jesus: if everything that goes on in the world is literally the result of a conscious entity sitting up in Heaven controlling everything, then rape, murder, child abuse, torture, hatred, racism, sexism…if “God is in control,” as many religious people like to say, then these terrible things are not the result of the actions of terrible people, they are the result of the “will of God.”
This (heretical?) line of thought is an extension of the age-old question “from whence cometh evil?” It’s not a new line of thought by any means.
And if you believe God created everyone with their own special attributes and their own purpose, do you believe God created me and my inquisitive nature?
Do you believe God would punish me for asking questions, when it was God’s will that I be born with an inquisitive nature?
Perhaps you do. I don’t, but you might. And as long as you don’t take it upon yourself to enforce what you believe God’s will to be — people have been executed for less heresy than what I have just written — I have no problem with you believing that.
I was fortunate enough to be born in a country where religion is not forced upon anyone. And out of respect for the concept of “freedom of religion,” I don’t require anyone to hold any set system of belief (or non-belief) for them to be my friend. As long as their belief (or non-belief) makes them a nicer, more humane person, I really don’t give two rotten farts what they do or don’t believe.
But before I get into that, I would like to back up and further explain my position regarding “atheism”:
In the sense that I don’t literally believe in the things mentioned above, I suppose I could be considered one. But the fact remains that I don’t quite consider myself to be one.
What do I mean by that? I will attempt to explain:
Language is only a representation of things in reality. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but people have told me from time to time that they think I am a “good writer.”
Let me tell you the secret of being a “good writer,” one I learned from Mark Twain, George Orwell, Joan Didion, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others:
It is not necessary to use five-dollar words to be a “good writer.” It is not necessary to use a thesaurus to express yourself clearly through words.
And even though all of those writers used metaphors from time to time, none of them beat the reader over the head with them…if you understand my metaphor.
What you should understand about language — all language, written, spoken, grunted, whatever — is that language itself is a metaphor.
Let’s examine a sentence:
“Michael threw a rock through a window.”
Literally speaking, I did not do this (at least not today), but suppose I did.
Suppose you and I are walking down a sidewalk in any city or town anywhere in the world. Pick one.
Suddenly, I pick up a rock, throw it through a store front window, then run away, arms flailing, laughing maniacally.
You stand there, perplexed. Just a second ago, you and I were having a pleasant conversation about literally anything but throwing rocks through windows and laughing maniacally and that sort of thing.
Your phone rings. You answer:
Your friend: “Hey. What are you up to?”
You: “…um, nothing, really.”
Your friend: “You sound weird…is something wrong?”
You: “I…I dunno, something weird just happened.”
Your friend: “What happened?”
You: “Well, Michael and I were just walking down the sidewalk, having a nice conversation, and…”
Your friend: “And what? What happened?”
You: “Michael threw a rock through a window.”
..and so on.
Your hypothetical friend in this situation is likely to be just as perplexed as you are.
But that isn’t really the point I am trying to make, though it’s in the same ballpark.
In this hypothetical situation, you saw me, with your own eyes, abruptly pick up a rock, throw it through a store front window, and run away, arms flailing, laughing maniacally. You heard the glass shattering, you saw the wild look in my eyes, you heard my insane laughter as I ran away, and you watched my arms flailing and my legs propelling me on down the sidewalk.
You can explain all of this to your friend over the phone, or you can tell your friend in person later, after you call the authorities and have me arrested, or you can write this story down for future generations to ponder.
But here is what you should realize: no matter how accurate you are in your descriptions, no matter how much detail you put into the story, no matter how open and honest you are in describing your emotions during this bizarre incident, there will always be a certain amount of difference between what you attempted to describe and how others interpret your description.
The scene you pictured in your head a few minutes ago, of me behaving like a crazy person, is not the same scene I pictured in my head as I was describing it.
It’s probably pretty close to the same, but it’s not the same.
What city were we in?
What were we talking about, before I went nuts for no reason?
On what side of us was the street, and on what side of us was the store front window I smashed?
What kind of store was it?
And so on.
Getting back to the point, I would venture that a “good writer” acknowledges that language is merely a representation of reality, and that what is important for “good writing” is that as many people as possible will understand it.
The more one ventures into the realm of five dollar words and abstract metaphors and similes and that sort of thing, the more one limits the number of people who are going to understand what you are trying to say.
But I have gone off topic somewhat. And to be sure, in continuing my point about atheism, I am delving into semantics, which is the opposite of what I have just advised “good writing” should be.
But as to the question of whether God exists…it depends on what you mean by “exists.” If you mean a literal guy in a literal Heaven and all, that’s one thing.
But what about things done in the real world in the name of God (or any other deity), or people whose lives have been turned around by religion, or people who make generous contributions to charity in the name of their own God…or for that matter people who fought wars in the name of God, or blew themselves up in the name of God, or any other deity…
My point is that despite there not being any way to scientifically prove the existence of God or Allah or any deity, these deities — even if they can only be scientifically proven to be ideas — have had and continue to have a profound effect upon our world. Both a positive effect and a negative effect.
So from this point of view, the question is not really “Does God exist?” From this point of view, the question is “What is God?”
If this line of thought is interesting to you at all, I would advise you to delve into the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche . I will leave this sort of thing up to him; he put a lot more thought into it than I care to.
There’s another conception of God that I would like to briefly outline before wrapping this up, and it has to do with both my own “Western-white-guy-studying-Eastern-religions-on-a-superficial-basis” phase I went through a while back, and also with what I have been led to believe is the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, two institutions I don’t have any personal experience with but have read a decent amount about in a novel by one of the very few authors I have read whose use of five-dollar words is entirely justified.
My touristy exploration of Eastern religions led me to a couple of texts from the Hindu tradition, the Bhagavad Gita and the
(My theory that the Bhagavad Gita was written as a cultural response to the rise of Buddhism in India may or may not be expounded upon later; I just wanted to mention it here on my blog.)
I would rather mention a recurring theme in the Upanishads: the idea that “Brahmin is all, and all is Brahmin.” This idea is that all things are interconnected, and that every one of us is part of a whole, and not just every person but also every animal and every plant and every non-living thing.
This is only a metaphor, of course. I appreciate this idea as a metaphor, not as a literal description of the universe.
But I think it’s a fitting metaphor, considering that everything in the universe consists of the same set of elements. I mean, didn’t some famous astrophysicist say that we’re all made of stardust or something? I appreciate the Upanishads on that same sort of level. Call me a religious nut if you want to, but the fact that we’re all essentially made of the same stuff and “connected” to everything else in that sense, well, it reminds me of the idea of omnipresence. Maybe one could conceptualize the universe itself as being “God,” and each one of us being a set of God’s “eyes.”
One could conceptualize God that way, if one wanted to.
The other aspect of this conception has to do with the concept of a “higher power” utilized by AA and NA and other such institutions. As I understand this concept, one does not have to believe in God in the religious sense to take part in this program, one simply has to acknowledge that there is a “higher power” that exists above and beyond one’s own self.
And pardon my being hippy-dippy about it, but if you happen to be reading this, whoever you are, whatever you personally believe; if I were forced to describe what my “higher power” is, well, my “higher power” is you.
And not just “you,” as in “you personally,” anyone and everyone who reads this, anyone and everyone I talk to, anyone and everyone I meet or pass on the sidewalk…
Also animals I interact with, birds singing in the trees, the snow that fell last night that is quickly melting…
The books I read, the movies I watch, the music I listen to…
All are proof that there is a universe outside of me, one that was here for a really long time before it produced me, one that will be here a really long time after I am gone.
So anyways, if you took the time to read this, thank you. For future reference, it was composed entirely on my Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone on my 36th birthday, from about 6 am to a little after noon, Central Standard Time.
Have a nice one.