Sunday, March 02, 2008

More Questions Than Answers -or- Decide How Much You Want to be Offended Now...Then You May Proceed

Today, being Sunday and all, feels right to delve into a topic that has been simmering in my head since we started seeing "Jesus Loves You" billboards in Tennessee. Actually, I think "Jesus Loves You" billboards are fine, as far as they go, but I did have some questions about a billboard, or rather a series of billboards, that we saw in Alabama. We saw a couple of them that were clearly made by the same person or group, who were not identified anywhere on the billboard. They were all black with white lettering on them, and here is what one said:

Why not stop by my house
on Sunday before the game?
- God

I guess here might be a good place to mention that, as a Zen Buddhist (why do I think that by writing that I have just made myself not a Zen Buddhist?), I don't believe in God. Buddhism is a religion that believes that the idea of a god is yet one more separation between the sentient being and their full realization of the true nature of things. So billboards purporting to spout the casual conversations of God to others should not be a big concern of mine. But something about this little group of them really confounded me. Is it ok for someone - who? - to do just that: to decide to write little snippets of casual conversation and label them as coming from God? And then print them out and put them on highway billboards? What, exactly, is the purpose of this?

I was brought up as an Episcopalian in Massachusetts. My mother's family is full of Anglican ministers and even a bishop somewhere in there, in Newfoundland and England. My dad's family...well...not so much. But the long and short of it is, this is not your "go tell it on the mountain" crowd: stiff upper lip and all that. Of money and religion we do not speak. In fact, when I was still searching for a teacher and a sangha, I went to hear Sogyal Rinpoche give a two-day talk. At the beginning of the first day, his assistant gave a little speech that was along the lines of "you may hear some things here that will resonate with you strongly. Do not go out and tell all your friends but let them sit with you quietly." I loved it. Don't go tell it on the mountain!

But back to the billboard. Here was someone who was inventing the word of God. Isn't that supposed to be frowned upon?

Also, I was reading this book titled "Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert on the road. Out of some kind of reverse snobbism, I had avoided it since it was so popular but I was desperate for something to read at one point in Dallas so I bought it and was immediately sucked in. There is a lot of conversation about God in that book. Her description of God as the ultimate in unconditional love, not tied to dogma or really tied to anything except the willingness to be open to it, sounded good to my peacenik, anti-instituitonal ears. One of the main ways she goes about getting closer to God is through meditation, which sounded good to my zazen practicing mind/body. So I am all grooving on this book where this person who is about my age is going to all my favorite places in the world and having these mindshaping, life changing experiences, and then "why not come by my house on Sunday..."

And I was offended. There, I said it. It pissed me off, me: the non-believer, the student of Zen.

I still am not exactly sure what about that billboard that struck a nerve with me. Was it the casual tone? Was it the notion of someone pretending that God is out there recruiting people to visit him/her/it/them? Was it all of that? Also, I thought about if someone put a quote from Buddha on a billboard, would that make me angry? Well, there is a huge difference. For one, "the Buddha" meaning the historical Buddha was a real person, like Jesus. You are quoting Buddha and you are quoting a real person. God is an idea, a concept, or perhaps a phemonena beyond description. You are quoting...what exactly? That billboard made this idea/concept/phemonena of "God" into a person who wants to hang out "before the game"?

Maybe it made me angry because the people I know who are closest to being bodhisattvas on this earth are ones who have worked very, very hard to get there. They move through the world in what seems like an effortless way now, but I know their paths were full of doubt and facing up to all their personal flaws and weaknesses, and full of just plain hard work. This damn billboard seemed almost to be mock all they have done, as if dropping by church before a game was all it takes.

But as I write this, I am reminded of something that the teacher at the Zen Center said as we started a three-day sesshin last spring. He asked us if it mattered what people called us - is one really better than another? More accurate in its description of who we are? He started out with his name, then his darma name, then "teacher... my love...asshole...jerk" Does it matter? Which one do we cling to? And which one trips us up?

Like I said, more questions than answers.


Patti Blaine said...

This is way more judgey than I'm comfortable getting, but those signs piss me off too. They imply a rather arrogant presupposition on the part of those who've put them there. That is, "We know god better than you--in fact, him and me? we're best buds--and he's at this particular house, and as we haven't seen you all there, we're pretty sure you're off watching football and drinking beer on Sundays. Shame on you." I like neither football nor beer... :)

I'm more of the Elizabeth Gilbert bent, the almighty is ineffable, and plain bigger than all that. God is not contained in a "house," nor is god someone with whom I can "hang." I can't even use pronouns! My limitations in understanding are parallel to the glaring limitations of language to describe this great other.

God in a box. That's what they've got goin'. Not interested.

p.s. I have a long tradition of preachers and lay leaders in my family too and my uncle was a bishop. All Free Methodist though... I've slid far from that tradition and am wallowing deep in Episcopalianism (family would read: sin) instead. Talk about god in a box!

island sweet said...

ideally we're all being called in some way to a place of contemplation. more and more i see it's all really the same. whether we're looking inside or have to look outside before getting inside...
i just find i'm puzzled by that (the roadside) approach to spirituality...