Wednesday, February 01, 2012

About Vipassana (part 3 & 4)

As I pulled back the curtain in the kitchen I could see that it had rained last night. I set out some food and tried to remember if I heard the rain falling, half asleep. Around five the cats come into the bed to get warm and also wake me up. I don't really ever get a solid nights sleep but I don't mind so much when the black one paws at the covers and eventually after a few turns finds a place on the pillow to set his head. The brown one is only interested in food but that's her job as the female component of the pair, to do the hunting. In this case, the hunting consists of getting me to open the refrigerator and dig out half a fork full of cold chicken pate. It hardly seems worth it but I'm not a cat and I don't really like to eat cat food. On bad days I curse her and throw her off the bed. On good days I get up when I wake up and don't spend much time dwelling on how much sleep I'm not getting.

Today I wanted to continue writing about Vipassana, leaving off from yesterday when I finally remembered what it was I wanted to write about: the conflict between a meditation practice and adopting some kind of religious practice. On the one hand, it's kind of like talking about the merits of different cooking shows instead of cooking and tasting the actual food. But when I speak to my friend Aaron he sometimes calls me a Buddhist and I say no I'm not, all defensively, because I have some negative associations with being anything vaguely religious. I grew up entirely secular, though my dad did take us to a non-denominational church for a little while, and the very large majority of friends and people that I knew wouldn't call themselves religious or believers of any faith. It's kind of a dirty word, one that implies a blind faith or didactic ignorance about science, or social policies that make moral discriminations from an unintelligible logic.

As the course was ending and the "noble silence" was lifted I had a long conversation with a guy named W, who had a mustache and a build that reminded me of the bass player from Do Make Say Think, and I sat across from him during lunch on the last day. We were talking about the course, it was his first time, and were talking about what we felt were the most difficult parts of the last ten days. I spoke specifically about the sixth day, how I was going a little bit nuts thinking about things I'm not going to write about here on the blog and literally trying to figure our reasons to present to course management so that I could go home. On every course I usually have a moment like this, sheer panic followed by a ton figuring out the best way to justify this panic, like a philosopher using his rhetorical powers to justify why the dishes don't need to be washed.


W talked about his problem with the meditation, that during the hour long discourses we listen to in the evenings the teacher says many times that Vipassana is not a "rite or a ritual" and is not an "organized religion." But there we are, following a strict a set of rules and practices. To boot, there is chanting at the beginning of some of the hours, and there is a call and response that happens sometimes as well. At first the chanting put me off but eventually I came to not mind it, and even enjoy it because at the very least it gave me something to "do" (listen) asides from paying attention to what was going on with myself. W asked me how long I had been practicing and I told him, three and half years, three ten day courses, two three day courses and on most days I sit an hour in the morning. That sounds like a religious practice he said, and I have to agree with him.

W came from North Carolina and his family is Christian in the Southern Baptist tradition, a faith that, even though he doesn't go to church anymore, he still feels has relevance. As a person who actually has a lot experience with organized religion, he knows what he's talking about. Taking it a little further, we talked about similarities between Jesus and Buddha and more contemporary leaders like Gandhi and Malcolm X (note: not between Christianity and Buddhism) and the idea, referred to above, that to have a religious identity is generally considered a bad thing. Why is that, and it comes back to how we see ourselves. That any question of I don't want to be this, or be that, is really a question of how we perceive other people, and more broadly, how we see the world. That instead of accepting things as they are we're drawing lines and separating ourselves, (a skill that I am very good at).

At any rate, a more useful distinction might be in the realm of semantics, as in, what exactly is a religion in the first place? One could argue that the gigantic evangelical megachurches are better described not as religions, but as businesses. In the history of the world at large, religion has mostly been used to justify wars and economic expansion. One thing to be said for the communist revolutions in Russia and China is that at least they didn't hide behind ideas like "spreading democracy" and "nation building." Which is the thing: if religion is no more than a belief system one acts upon, then we should consider what exact "religion" the hedge funds and lobbyists and politicians are practicing when they make decisions. In a sense, we are all "religious", some of our beliefs open and on the surface while some of them hidden even from our own eyes. Regardless of what we say we are, it's useful to make a study of our own actions, to know what it is we actually believe.