July 13, 2013

The Quiet & the Loud. ~ Anthony Connolly

We are all sojourners.

We are the garden’s Diaspora seeking return. We are innumerable births approaching Nirvana. Taken together, Christians and Buddhists are not the whole of the human corpus, but a part of it.This human body, as Trappist Thomas Merton once described it, is comprised of broken bones.

We are in an age of the broken; the disconnected and distracted. But this is also a time imbued with new freedoms.

For a religious adherent to borrow from the practice of another is not as sacrilegious as it once was, says scholar of religion and historian Elaine Pagels. She advances that belief is not based solely on a set of precepts or commandments.

Rather, it is what we ourselves experience and discover along our way. In the second millennium, perhaps more than in any epoch, spiritualists are seeking solace and truth in various faith pathways, which strengthen their own individual trek.

As the world enters the twenty-first century, we are experiencing boundary shifts. Borders have disappeared, knowledge of the far-flung is increasing of the far-flung, peoples move from birthplace to a new land, religion is no longer geographic, truths and myths are co-mingling and dispersing—the globe is one village.

We are becoming whole, this body, by the sum of its diverse parts.

We are sojourners the Buddhist and the Christian—we yearn the ground of being or self-denying purification our faiths call for. We travel far and wide for these fixes; this prefix to turn longing into belonging.

Be it a mendicant monk yoked to Buddha’s teachings of personal salvation, or a follower whose burden and deliverance is the imitation of Christ, there is much to share in our respective mending. We are both on journeys and we both understand the perils and rules of travel. The “We,” empowers the “I.”

As a Christian, I have wandered through desert of the testaments, perused the interior mansions brokered by St. Teresa of Avila, traversed the dark night with St. John of The Cross and grew disorientated in a cloud of unknowing.

As a Christian I found in Buddhism what I could not find in my cradle faith. Far from the echoes of Roman homily and the cacophony of saints, I uncovered a deep silence within myself.

I sought the Buddhist practices of meditation and mindfulness as means to an end, the end being as Ignatius of Antioch describes, “the silence out of which the word comes forth.” But as a Catholic, I knew that a catechism of sorts was called for, and I found it at a temple where a goddess of mercy stands watch.

In a neighborhood of middle class, blue-collar homes and condominiums, just off a busy Houston suburban thoroughfare, you will find an immense statue of Kwan-Yin. The Chinese deus, sometimes known as the Goddess of Mercy, is the centerpiece of a reflective lotus pond, which fronts the Jade Buddha Temple. Built in 1989, the temple covers almost three acres in southwest Houston and consists of the Grand Buddha Hall, Kwan-Yin Meditation Hall, Youth Activity Center, a cafeteria, a library and several living quarters. In addition to serving its 1,000-plus members, the temple is the epicenter of Buddhist study and research in Texas.This is where I found myself one day as a wanderer.

My way had taken me through a Roman Catholic childhood. I had spent time as a young adult with Lutherans, and over the past few years, moved from a church I adored, but had to close its doors, to the many variations of this blessed faith American pilgrims are all too familiar with. Somewhat cynical, and feeling that I needed a new perspective, I sought out mercy in a faith I’d read about, studied and found spoke to me.

We stumble through nights and days searching for evidence of things not seen, for the substance of things hoped for.

In such wandering, I found the temple on the very day it was signing up participants for a four-day meditation and mindful retreat. I signed up immediately and plunked down the registration fee. The retreat would be silent from Friday evening until Monday morning over a Thanksgiving Holiday weekend. We would be taught how to meditate for hours; to walk and meditate at the same time; to exist in the present; and the noble truth of Buddhism. I would be provided with English translation for the Dharma talks, which centered on the Eight Precepts and Ten Meritorious and Evil Deeds in the Mahayana school of Buddhism. I would prostrate and perspire, chant phonetically in Mandarin and find within me a lotus of serenity that still shines forth. Om Mani Padme Hung…from a small pocket journal, a time at the retreat is recorded.

It is a dark, chilly, five a.m. and I am standing with others beside a water garden of lotus and bulrushes, overseen by the heavy-eye-lidded Kwan-Yin who towers over us the size of an upright Buick. The only sounds are those of flapping arms. I flap, fanning my tai chi limbs in the dark with my fellow tyros. The air smells of rain. Following dawn-breaking exercise, the group moves indoors, prostrating, removing shoes, ever present, quietly. In the incense-perfumed temple of a hundred miniature golden Buddha, I stand before my towel, a white square of terry cloth. A single sheet of paper is resting, just so, on the carpeted floor, within reach. A tiny bell is sounded and we move in unison, picking up our papers. We begin to chant. The words are not my words. The words on the page I hold are phonetic, I say them and they vibrate through my bones. It is guttural; soon there is a musicality that rises in the air.

For an hour, I walk in a square. I edge the square with my steps, careful not to clip the heels of the person in front of me. The walk begins slowly: Lift the heel, bend the knee, move the foot, without much space between it and the ground. And repeat. Hands cradling one another with my thumbs imperceptibly apart held waist-high. Eyes not downcast, but slightly ahead, as if looking at the present, not the future. For an hour. With the sound of a bell the pace quickens, or slows. Round and round we go smoothing the sharp edges of a square: A whole, as one, unbroken.

Over a meal, in blaring fluorescent light, I ask, quietly, “Vegetarian?” Amid the din and clatter of utensils, plates, chairs on linoleum, my voice still manages to rise to the attention of the nuns who shush us. Across from one another, we greenhorns smile and nod our heads. It is the worst food I have ever tasted and I eat every piece of it. Outside the meal hall, I sip a cup of tea. No sugar, no milk. The day is about over for me, and the sun is an hour down for its nap.

Tomorrow will be my third day. For three days, I have not spoken at any length. For three days I have prostrated before one hundred tiny Buddha. For three days I have flapped my lily-white arms beside a lotus water garden; for three days I sat for hours meditating or walked in silent meditation, smoothing out a square. For three days no one has spoken my language, dharma lectures are facilitated by translation. On work schedules, my name is the only one that is not Chinese. For three nights I have slept on the hard linoleum floor of an abandoned classroom and awoke to the sound of knocking wood. For three nights I have missed my wife, my home, and our pets.

There is a day to go, and I can hardly wait. This is a temple to which I do not regularly attend to worship. This is not a religion to which I adhere. This is not my hometown. This is not my country. No one standing with me in the dark, flapping his or her tai chi limbs looks like me. I have a tattoo on my left arm which reads “i Dia tá gach anon rud.” It is not the only mark on my body, my soul; it is but the visible one.

I am marked with the fissures of modernity; with the soul tattoo of Christ and with a new silence, growing inside me. Over my stay, in this silence, I find manumission, an acceptance of flux and broken chains. I see the face of my loved ones, rising from that place between being and non-being; I see my ancestors, my dog and my soon to be dead brother. Jazz climbs the air and disperses, poems I’ve written and discarded, forgotten conversations, belief statements as cirrus, mountains stumble, houses sink into the loam—all vie, but die.

Soon, there is nothing. The baggage a cradle Catholic feels an obligation to haul fell away. To learn, I had to dump all the things I had been told and prescribed. I had to slip past the canonical hours and into infinity. The silence takes me deep in safe passage, and I find peace there in my fractiousness, the shattered sky above, and the trembling ground beneath.

Within me, lushness, my flora, a shining forth core that does not change, but remains my constant companion. Om Mani Padmé Hung. There, nothing derivative, everything pure and for me it is God.

On the fourth day I climb into my 1985 red Ford truck, with its battered, rusty body, bad breath and lousy transmission. I wonder what they think of my “Free Tibet,” “Amnesty International,” and the yellow on blue equality symbol of Human Rights Council bumper stickers as I leave the temple parking lot. I wave goodbye.

Of course the world outside assails me; the city is loud, and messy; the city is dangerously chaotic—but then anything would be after fours days of mindful meditation and a Buick-size goddess of mercy. I drive to a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop. There is a long line for sugared sustenance. I know I can wait. I know I can stand in that line for as long as it takes to smooth sharp edges, to sing Tantum ergo and Om, to see that through the cracks comes the light. I know the man, with a bracelet of worry beads on his wrist, ahead of me staring just ahead, can wait too. And the one with the crucifix tattooed on the back of his neck.

I feel at peace that whatever assails me, whatever is ahead, and what I need to bring from the past, I can yoke. There is a musicality. It vibrates in my bones as it might for them, fellow travelers, and perhaps others.

We are the quiet and the loud.

We are all products of causal chains of varying strengths. A results in B, which produces C and so on. My distinction, I believe, is that my chain is more fractious. It places me in a tribe of disorientated (some would say emancipated) twenty-first century denizens. We can profess no home, grew up with few spiritual or cultural traditions, have lived in several countries, assimilate well, are highly tolerant and are the children of one Diaspora or another. Where others could look back to see the links to their past, I glance at gaps and broken circles and see further still down the line some hazy chain mail.

My being, like so many others, is forged to the here and now. As our patron saints Buckeroo Bonsai and Jon Kabat-Zinn had long ago proclaimed,we find that wherever we go, there we are. There is an inherent, ironic freedom to this chain dragging, but also a sense of being untethered to the point of discombobulating apple carts, baby carriages and life cycles. We become embodiments of determinism and find free will to be somewhat a game of chance. We’re of the “life is a box of chocolates,” mantra. And as such, as the late great George Harrison so aptly put it, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” We don’t know where we’re going partly because we don’t know exactly where we’ve been—but at least we always have ourselves for company, the constant of our particular faiths, and fellow sojourners to ask of the road ahead and what can be hoped for.


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Assistant Ed: Andie Britton-Foster/Ed: Bryonie Wise


{Photo: via Pinterest}

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