Tuesday, February 24, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — My friend Brian Victoria, a Zen monk and author of “Zen at War,” is a pain in the patoot. But because he is a pain in the patoot, I know him as a friend I value even though the two of us have never met.
At 75, Brian hangs his hat in Kyoto, but his background is littered with academic credentials that show he has been at home elsewhere around the globe. Through whatever confluence of events, Brian has taken to sending me rough drafts of sometimes academic, sometimes popular papers he is due to deliver or publish. He asks for my opinion and whatever corrections I might care to offer.
The “pain in the patoot” part arises from the fact that Brian always writes about the same thing. Over and over again: Same thesis, different venue. How I wish sometimes that his emails might contain some reference to a fiery romance with a pole dancer or a newly acquired affinity for worm farms or almost any other topic — any topic other than what he does write about ... the dishonesty and hypocrisy that can adorn religion like a halo.
From where I sit, Brian’s closely researched pieces are as patient as I am impatient. “OK!” I sometimes want to scream. “I agree! I get it! Now what else is new?” I’ve tried to say this to Brian — tell me about the pole dancer! — but he drones on like Jiminy Cricket, the voice of conscience in the fairy tale “Pinocchio.” What a pain in the patoot! At a time when I am slowly disengaging from 40-plus years of interest in spiritual life, Brian calls me back. It’s like getting home to discover you have stepped in dog droppings while out for a walk. The smell lingers.
Once I too stepped into formalized spiritual life — practiced hard, flunked out of a Zen monastery, wept in sorrow or frustration, meditated for hours on end, waxed ecumenical, was blindsided by insight, believed until believing no longer applied, swooned, felt blessed, lived through sex scandals, was lifted up or cast down, and laughed when common sense kicked in. I am not sorry for any of it.
But now? Well now there’s no escaping the lingering and annoying aroma of a past whose latter day conclusion is more or less that human beings are often uneasy and suffer and deserve a helping hand. But to imagine that that helping hand is faultless is a fairy tale I decline to subscribe to, not because it’s “wrong,” but because it doesn’t work.
And it is at this intersection that Brian and I meet and, I think, agree.
From 1937 to 1945, the Japanese invaded, occupied and enslaved large portions of China. After the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941, the invasion of China was largely folded in to what became World War II. And it was during this time that Zen Buddhism showed itself — contrary to its own precept against killing — as a willing ally, cheering on the imperial reasoning whether indirectly or directly.
“Buddhism,” Brian says implicitly again and again and again, “needs to own up to its involvement with and support of Japanese militarism. And Buddhism is hardly alone.” Though Brian’s observations often rely on the past, they are clearly relevant in the present.
No spiritual persuasion wants to be accused of the very misdeeds its creed decries. The result of attempted denials, whether in Zen, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam or any other persuasion, is some pretty fancy footwork as a means of eluding the lash of dishonesty or hypocrisy.
This is Brian’s arena. It is an arena whose seriousness I applaud because my own view is that if religion — by which I mean personal and intimate and experience-based conviction — cannot shoulder the “bad stuff” to which it is party, it has no honest business laying claim to the “good stuff,” the “holy stuff,” the “ineffable stuff.”
For my own purposes, the bottom line is, “All religion is a lie. Its sole value lies in the truth individuals can personally discover and actualize within it.” But of course it’s not easy to acknowledge a complicity in the bad stuff (the killing, lying, cheating, stealing, etc.); it’s not easy to agree with and commit to the old cartoon character Pogo when he observed “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
It’s not easy or polite to wonder that a military chaplain might swear allegiance to country first and God thereafter or to flinch at the notion that God might be on “our” side. It’s not easy to embrace the fly in the ointment and yet, without the fly, what good is the ointment?
Brian’s repetitive drum beats, backed up by far more meticulous arguments than my own, are a pain in the patoot. I will read his pieces, however cranky they make me. I am happy to have him as a pain-in-the-patoot friend. Luckily, he seems to have heeded the words of an old Zen teacher who once encouraged his students “not to be too virtuous: Too much virtue makes people crazy.”
Brian offers the facts and generally sets aside the anointed posturing. As Jiminy Crickets go, Brian is not half bad.
But laziness sometimes overcomes me and I do wish he’d tell me about the pole dancer.
Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at email@example.com.