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“this mystic business”

August 22, 2010

“The Supreme Grand Master smiled in the depths of his robe. It was amazing, this mystic business. You tell them a lie, and then when you don’t need it anymore, you tell them another lie, and tell them they’re progressing along the road to wisdom. Then instead of laughing they follow you even more, hoping that at the heart of all the lies they’ll find the truth. And bit by bit they accept the unacceptable.” -Terry Pratchett, from his novel “Guards! Guards!”

Wisdom can be found in odd places. “Guards! Guards!” is one of many many satirical fantasy novels that are part of the Discworld series. Terry Pratchett weaves excellent plots, characters, heart, humor, cutting insight together in his stories.

The paragraph I quoted is one I read awhile back – I just read this book a few months ago. I am already re-reading the book again. For whatever reason, that paragraph did not have any memorable impact on me.

Today it did.

I wish it hadn’t.

I have been struggling with religious seeking, very painful obsessions, confusion, and much much rapid changing of the mind due to my various mental difficulties.

Last night, I unexpectedly found a listing for a Buddhist meeting – a genuine Tibetan monk (I don’t just mean a monk who is practicing a Tibetan form of Buddhism, I mean a monk born and raised in Tibet) is coming to the the city where I live next month to lead a day and a half seminar. I was looking for various clubs groups or whatever on craigslist. Craigslist has a deservingly bad reputation, but most of the folks on craigslist, or at least half of them (I hope), are not running a scam or seeking clients for prostitutes. Plenty of other folks place ads for various reasons. I was looking for something interesting to do, or a volunteer opportunity.

I surprisingly found, at the very top of the page (which means it was the most recent post in the “groups” section), a notice for this Tibetan meeting.

I don’t live in one of those coastal California cities where Tibetan monks and other unusual spiritual teachers drop by every week, or live full-time. I wish I did. I have been to such cities, and had found myself to be feeling so much more at home than where I live. This feeling drives me a bit mad if I let it.

In the city where I live, there are very few Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, etc. The religious folks here – well, it’s pretty much like the rest of America – just about everyone in this entire country is Christian of some form or another – Catholicism, myriad Protestant denominations, and the two spinoffs which I don’t consider Christian – Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. All these faiths based on Christ. The populations of mainstream Protestants and Catholics are the most numerous.


There is one “official” sangha in this city. I use the word “official,” because this sangha is lead by people who have received Dharma Transmission – an ordination into the Zen priesthood. There are all sorts of rankings and lineages and that, and the people leading the Zen sangha are affiliated with other teachers who have studied under D. T. Suzuki, who of course came from Japan, and was rather a big deal in the Zen community in the States (that’s putting it mildly) while he was here.

The only other sangha in this town that I was aware of is run not by a priest but by just some dude who likes to meditate a lot. His thing is also zen, and the sessions he leads aren’t a whole lot different from the official Zen group.

The city I live in has at least 200,000 people in it. In the official sangha, if the itinerant head priest makes her once a month or so visit to our city, there might be 15 people who show up to a meeting – otherwise, almost never more than 10, out of a population of over 2oo,000.

The other sangha might not even be in existence anymore. The few times I went to that one – less than 10 people there.

This new Tibetan sangha – 4 members – none of them with any official lineage, dharma transmission, whatever. 4 people.

Nevertheless, they have somehow managed to get a Tibetan teacher, a “Geshe,” (I don’t know if “Geshe” is junior to a “Rinpoche.” Both are teachers and terms of rank) to lead a seminar. He might even get a good turnout -the seminar is being held at a church that is part of an ultra-liberal denomination called “Congregational” It’s a fairly common denomination, though not nearly as popular as Baptist or Presbyterian or Assemblies of God, for example. To give you an idea of how liberal the Congregational denomination is, at this particular church, they have had a lesbian pastor for many years. Now THAT’S liberal Christianity!

People at liberal churches are much more open-minded about other faiths. The Zen sangha meets in a tiny room of a more liberal than usual congregation of Church of the Brethren – another denomination. Since people from liberal churches, including the one here where the seminar will take place, are open-minded about other faiths, it is quite likely there will be enough of a turnout for the event to actually happen instead of be canceled.

And, I am excited about the event!

I had been thinking a lot about Zen, and reading about it, going to a few Zen meetings this past year – see the umpteen other blogs I’ve already written about Buddhism. I wrote the first one on this subject almost a year ago – on September 8th. By the way, the one year anniversary of this blog is tomorrow, August 23rd.

Zen has just seemed so strict, un-colorful, rigid, unpleasant in some ways, so hung up on paradoxes. Some people love it, but I feel it’s not for me. I have thought perhaps another form of Buddhism.

I’ve been reading these fantastically-incredible novels set in Thailand, by John Burdett. His characters, being that they live in Thailand, are Therevadan Buddhists. The only exception to this being some characters in his forth novel, which is partially set in Nepal. Some of the main players in that story are Tibetan Buddhists.

This is not the first time I have encountered Tibetan Buddhism in texts. I have an EXCELLENT book called “The Accidental Buddhist,” by Dinty Moore, in which Mr. Moore (why he has the same name as a famous brand of beef stew, I do not know) tells of his exploration of the many types of Buddhism and how they are practiced in America.

That wasn’t the first time I heard or read about Tibetan Buddhism, I cannot tell you the first time – I’ve been reading about other faiths since the mid-nineties.

It turns out there are several Tibetan forms (I just learned that yesterday), but that all of them are at least in some degree influenced by the Tibetan religion called Bon, which pre-dates the birth of Siddartha. Tibetan Buddhism is vastly different from Zen, as far as I know – more magical, more like Hinduism in some ways perhaps, and maybe, for me, lots more interesting.

I’ve been jazzed since yesterday evening about this Tibetan Buddhist seminar coming up, and I received an excellent email from a woman who is organizing the meeting. She really took some time and wrote me one of the best, most thorough emails I’d ever gotten.

And here, this afternoon, while reading one of my favorite Discworld novels, I happen upon the passage I started this blog with.

As I read that passage, I had an image of a razorblade cutting into my brain, cutting through any mystic belief or teaching. This is the blade of Science, and of No Hope. It is a double sided blade – the one that came to me in an image – a blade you can buy in a pack and use with a safety razor. I have had these blades on my mind recently because I have been doing research into buying a safety razor, what blades are best to buy, shaving brushes, cream, all of that – had been obsessively reading about that stuff a couple weeks ago.

So I get this image of this double edge razor of Science and No Hope that cuts into my grey matter.

Why do I pair science and no hope together?

I don’t know much about science, at all. But, I have read, most hardcore scientist types are atheists, debunkers of all religions and all mysticism. Removing all faith and wonder with their tools of deduction and dissection.

I do not subscribe to the empirical scientific world view that everything that cannot be figured out scientifically is therefore categorically false. But it still troubles me.

The fact is, there is massive disagreement in the religious and/or spiritual communities. Disagreements between those of different faiths, and disagreements within each group or denomination. The majority of mainstream Christians, Catholics, Mormons, etc., as well as Muslims and some Jews, are all hardliners – each one claiming to have the ONE TRUTH, being a member of the ONE TRUE FAITH.

No way to prove anyone is wrong or right, even though some folks will ostracize others, even members of their own families, and some folks will kill other people in horrific ways because of these disagreements over things that cannot be proved.

In this “mystic business,” as Mr. Pratchett puts it, how does one know the truth?

That passage I started this blog with – it is how cults work – start with a lie, add another, encourage, continue.

That’s how some religious teachers operate, too. How else could people be convinced to move to a different state and go around in uncomfortable uniforms, riding bicycles in the rain and bothering people, and others, who strap explosives to themselves, and chant the name of their god when they blow themselves up, and kill many others besides?

The thing is, I think most religious teachers and purveyors of faith instruction believe what they teach. They are not attempting to base things on lies, and many of these people are good-hearted and not trying to manipulate others.

But still, they might be teaching lies, and following the exact playbook that Mr. Pratchett so incisively describes.

Which cuts into the happy feeling I have, and induces skepticism into my brain, in the image of a razor of science and no hope.

Makes me think maybe nothing is true, that maybe the Tibetan teachings are also just lies. There is no way to prove them, perhaps.

Perhaps all religious experience is subjective, and that is the only way it can be? What works for some certainly does NOT work for others – for example, Christianity being a blessing to my parents and other relatives, and it being mind poison for me.

If it works for you, it works, but please don’t oppress your neighbor by insisting that what works for you MUST work for him or her too!!

The Tibetan form of Buddhism might really work for me, it might not.

Maybe putting up prayer flags for the wind to blow through, and spinning prayer wheels and chanting mantras somehow spiritually magically mystically makes the world a better place. Maybe it just makes the people who do these things feel better. Maybe just these people feeling better makes the world a better place. I think it is true.

And what’s wrong with having beliefs that cannot be proven by science? Am I a dope because I actually am feeling I believe in mantras and prayer flags?

There is an old saying, “You can either be right or be happy.” Maybe the scientists are “right.” They are right from a hardcore empirical, materialistic standpoint, maybe.

But they take away hope and wonder, if others of us subscribe to their viewpoint.

I don’t know what is true. I plan on attending the Tibetan Buddhist seminar. I will try to be open-minded, at least somewhat, instead of just sitting there, thinking “bullshit bullshit bullshit..!!” That would be a waste of 20 dollars! (That is a super-cheap price for a day and a half seminar, by the way, even though meals aren’t provided).

I feel the need to believe in something. I feel the need for a spiritual life.

Maybe not all teachings are lies. Maybe “this mystic business” isn’t all bad.

I want to believe and experience something spiritual, so I will enter once more into this mystic business.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2010 4:56 PM

    can u tell me, how do it?

    • tomschronicles permalink
      August 22, 2010 11:49 PM

      How to do what? Meditate? Learn about Buddhist teachings? Have a mystical life? I’m not sure what you are asking.

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