Commentary: At Saturday's farmers market, three men asked whether I'd thought about becoming a Catholic.
One turned out to be the son of two close friends of mine from the 1970's. We spoke energetically of our love for them – and of the plane crash that killed them so young.
“At each moment, do not rely on tomorrow. Think of this day and this day only, because the next moment is uncertain and unknown,” wrote 13th Century Japanese zen master Dogen. I first read that while riding on a train through North China. Just then the train lurched to a sudden stop, on a bridge. Outside my window a peasant lay dying, hit by the train. Point taken. I have Dogen's words on a T-shirt.
Constant awareness of our fragility and individual insignificance seems important. Most religions teach the transitory nature of this life, yet organized religious groups pile on the pomp and pompousness their founders eschewed. Sometimes Christian kids fall in love with the pure loving-kindness of the Buddha's words as a refuge from churches' hypocrisy. Sometimes Japanese kids appalled by hypocrisy in temples love the purity of Jesus's words.
Jesus advised us to take the lowest-status seat at the table, not the highest, and let others raise us up if they choose. Too, if you harmed “the least of these my brothers,” you harmed Him.
Patrul Rinpoche lived that way. An erudite and much-admired (Tibetan Buddhist) lama, he wandered the country, dressed in an old sheepskin, not as a lama. When traveling to some great religious event where he or another lama was to teach hundreds or thousands, he walked. Alone. No fine horse. No retinue. Once a poor woman with three children was traveling to hear Patrul Rinpoche speak. A poor stranger started traveling with them, helping her with the kids and sharing food he begged. When they reached their destination, he excused himself. Next day she was shocked to see him on the high platform, teaching mindfulness and compassion.
Were Jesus and Patrul not brothers?
Seems we're all pathetic humans, struggling to make our way. If being part of a group helps, fine! That's not my style, but I can use all the help I can get, whether the words are Lakota, Biblical, Buddhist, or Taoist. Most religious folks are deeply convinced of their Truth, but can't all be right – unless each religion is groping toward describing something none fully comprehend, and being Hindu, Moslem, or Christian is like using the words “moloko,” “leche,” or “milk.” Nothing to fight over.
Most religions teach humility, which atheists learn from their awe at natural wonders. Some teach mindfulness, or even that mindfulness means nothing without compassion, faith nothing without good works. Admirable thoughts. But faith, not reason, brings us to religion. One doesn't learn it from a tract. We can't create it on demand, like regenerating an amputated finger.
Humility and loving-kindness are good, and greed and hatred unhelpful, whether we seek a spot in heaven, a better rebirth, or neither. I think Jesus and Buddha would look askance at good conduct motivated by self-interest.
My guess? Deep inside we sense that we are a small part of something bigger, and would like to preserve it, and our kind. I think we crave harmony; but life erodes our consciousness of that craving. We join religions to revive it – disguising our personal insignificance and muting death's finality.