Saturday, April 3, 2010

Nightstand Buddhists, daytime reading


I used to boost my baby sons up to peek into a Chinatown shrine. We'd see a Buddha surrounded by gilt and fruit, lit in orange, behind the front window, across from Mon-Kee Restaurant in downtown L.A. I wondered, and still do as I've yet to step inside a temple, what it looks like inside. That always locked-up "Cambodian Ethnic Chinese Association" lacks a website or even an photo on the net, so Spring Street's secret remains. Like its image, it remains impermanent-- at least outside my reach. My Buddhist interest stays arm's length, yet my hand beckons me to library books now and tapping away about it at this blog.

Thomas Tweed defined (see my review of "Westward Dharma") a "nightstand Buddhist" as one curious about the dharma but who keeps to one's self. My little table next to my bed does have volumes borrowed on Tibet, the Silk Road, and Buddhism. I have bought very few, for I lack income and space now, but my visits to the stacks, and interlibrary loans, keep apace. I find my research into Irish literary culture also searching for the admittedly sparse, spare, spurious or spiritual intersections with the East as it enters Erin.

This trek gradually accelerated. While as a child I loved reading about the Himalayas, I've matured still hazy about Buddhism. Two springs ago, I found myself finding out, after a long time wondering but never quite searching, about questions I had regarding Buddha's teachings. Outside of a course taken that rushed past comparative religions (my report was on Zoroastrianism) when I was in high school at fifteen, I lacked much more than anybody in L.A. might gain by osmosis. I stayed apart from it as I had from that viewpoint in Chinatown. It was all around me, like that district five minutes drive (if no traffic) from my house, but I still needed to go there myself, so to speak, and look around actively.

My wife had asked me what I could not answer. So, I checked out two books from the library for Easter weekend in Joshua Tree appropriately. I read them, starting in the car (as passenger) eastward to the low desert Karen Armstrong's decent Penguin Lives contribution on "Buddha" and coming back to the smoggy city via Damien Keown's excellent Oxford UP's Very Short Introductions entry on "Buddhism."

I reviewed the latter book two years ago this weekend. I watched my first Easter sunrise ever, getting up and shooting photos as the desert roused. Not sure if any revelation happened. No stones rolled, no tombs opened, not even a Mary Magdalene touched. But awakenings "ex oriente" may slow, unlike a resurrection's burst. I remain more eclectic than even before, to my wife's perplexity, I confess.

As a Californian, I've suspected many who took up Buddhism as charlatans, deluded by superficial cravings they masked as profundity rather than platitudes. I figured most of this persuasion around my State bought into and/or peddled romanticized, unsubstantiated, self-help nostrums. They may have been well-meaning, at least some, but I witnessed in my 1970s Catholic formation, I imagined slack beneath the stance.

Atop the slope a mile from our house rises the world center of one Eastern-influenced, Asiatic eclectic, sort of Buddhist, sort of Hindu, sort of yogic, all-American organization. Like many New Age sects, twice it's split into squabbling factions. We neighbors fought off a slick, rather underhanded, attempt by this h.q. to cart the tomb of its founder up there to create a tourist attraction. Elvis had once been entranced by this eclectic group, but he died before he could have given his royalties to it; I shudder to imagine what that influx of Graceland wealth might have erected on the modest summit. Still, they host Halloween for the neighborhood (most years) and their monastics seem genial enough in yellow and maroon robes behind the gates of their hilltop estate, which they took over in 1925. It had been a quail-hunting lodge where Charlie Chaplin and pals retreated to with mistresses, if only half-an- hour's drive from Hollywood studios and their wives in mansions.

My reaction growing up in L.A. tended to be distancing, as I'd kept away from New Age prattlers. Yet I suspected that core Buddhist teachings-- if they could be freed of their Westernized distortions-- might penetrate even my cynicism. Recently, my interest with how the dharma has begun to be transmitted to our West intrigues me.

As a son of cross-cultural influences within a blended religious milieu, at the crossroads in this city of every other culture around our world, I remain enchanted if not spellbound by beliefs, ideologies, and manifestoes. I also if as a child (literally) of the '60s expect countercultural, naysaying, skeptical challenge to any slogan, chant, or assertion. Some of the friends I respect most disdain any religion; others I am close to respect manifestations that may mesh with their childhood Christian or Jewish upbringing. Still others equally sincere espouse pagan, magical, Eastern tendencies they have grown into as they left the Church. These all tangle, as my blog interests drew me into an circle of disparate thinkers, into my own academic research as it tangles with my personal searches.

I blogged last entry about "Juniper: Buddhist training for modern life". That precedes a series of book reviews this month about Buddhism's places and practices. Many have been sent to Amazon US over the past few months as I finished each title, but I saved them up for here. So, even if you're skeptical, check out Juniper first and maybe you'll return here; if you're up for the lineup, stay tuned every other April day. Whatever your perspective, I think you'll find out more than you expected from my nightstand's stack.

P.S. A fine place to begin: "PBS: The Buddha: a film by David Grubin. (Two-hour documentary with innovative animation and design, this premieres April 7th.) The PBS site's crammed with resources. See the episodes via "You Tube". I liked this review, by Paul Knitter from a Christian perspective in the Jesuit magazine America. Also check out a decent book list-- even if at the "Puffington Host" (sic) -- c/o Waylon Lewis. "Best Buddhist Books".

Photo: Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

3 comments:

Fionnchú said...

If I may, from a friend of mine via FB: Harry Robert Harper commented on your note "Nightstand Buddhists, daytime reading":

"I remember walking into a Buddhist temple in Singapore and seeing a thirty foot tall sitting Buddha in the front and with two older grey haired chinese women kneeling, looking up at it, with tears streaming down their faces and intense emotion and devotion beaming from them. It reminded me of altar calls to accept Jesus. Exactly like it. It unnerved me. I had thought of Buddhism as beatnik and coolly detached, and here was hausfrau zealotry... all these wells dug to the same river I guess."

Tony Bailie said...

We went to visit the site at Anuradhapura when we were in Sri Lanka a couple of years ago. Also went a couple of monasteries and temples which didn't enchant me as much as the ones I went to in Bangkok in 2002. I remember one set close to a busy street which was filled with clocks - large ticking ones with pendulums - but there was real feeling of tranquility in there, heightened by its location and the city chaos that lay just outside.

tamerlane said...

Just remember that if you ever meet the Buddha, kill him!