By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
I grew up in a rigidly hierarchical socialist society, where I was happy, where there was no want—save for the scarce commodity of money.
If I was sick, I went to the hospital. If I needed a pair of shoes, I went to the field house and they would give me a free pair of Converse All-Stars.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, but I could find myself in Monterrey Bay one year, and the Bavarian Alps the next year. Ours was the most culturally and racially integrated society ever, and yet we were all the same. The schools were incredible. No one bullied anyone in school in this society, because if you did, the principal called your dad’s boss.
It was there, and later, in my experiences in my Marine unit, a village in Sri Lanka, the Mikasookee Indian Reservation and in my sangha, that I had glimpses of what spirituality really is.
Spirituality is a common thing, an interpersonal thing, a community thing and it is communal.
Sure, there is spirituality to be found in solitary pursuits. But it is most profoundly found among bands of brothers, in places where it is very important that one feels welcome above all things, between the closest friends and lovers and spouses, and between parents and children. I found it often in my relationships with the people I served over a 20-year career in social services. The three summers that we provided a camp experience with the Burmese refugee kids (who are now young American adults) was amazingly spiritual.
Appreciating the spirituality of relationship paves the way for a less acquisitive life.
But in the U.S., the squeaky wheel gets the grease—especially lately, especially now. I am so sick and tired of squeaky wheels that I tend to prefer the societies in which the nails that stick up, get pounded down. The simplicity of the indigenous villages and the regimentation of the monastery and the Marines gave me time to think for myself.
Selfish time is for meditation, reading, bathing and going to the toilet. Otherwise, if you ascribe to the Buddhist notion of no-self, to quote the Beatles, “I am we as you are he as you are we as we are all together…” (0r whatever the fuck they said).
You do yourself a disservice to seek spirituality when it is readily available to you. You don’t have to go anywhere or buy anything. Spirituality doesn’t make you special; it makes you ordinary. It is a sublimation of ego so that you can appreciate that you are a part of something bigger and more important than yourself.
The “New Age” spirituality hucksters, on the other hand, don’t offer anything for free—their capital is the gullibility of the spiritually confused: You will find your place in the universe if you hold this crystal between your ass cheeks…
As per the Three Approaches to Spirituality, scholarship ranks high in all religions. It’s why there are imams, and rabbis, and theological seminaries. In America, it’s also why Buddhist publishing exists.
Once again, self-consciously feeling like Bruce the Shark in Finding Nemo, as a Buddhist author I am a mindless predator among smart, gentle people (I felt this the first time during my long tenure on the board of directors of Interfaith Paths to Peace). I have my champions, even Buddhist intellectuals like Linda Blanchard, Daniel Aitkin and Andy Francis, and Buddhist populists like the people at The Tattooed Buddha. If the world of Buddhist publishing was like one of those intelligence-distribution bell curve graphs like in Psychology 101, my book exists way on the left-hand side of a curve that skews heavily toward the right. My work is a blithering idiot in a world of geniuses.
Buddhism, Inc.’s business model is to take a perfectly simple philosophy and render it so inscrutable that it makes honest people scratch their heads.
It’s like they’re talking in illusions, as if existence itself doesn’t exist. And then there are the bloggers, who haven’t caught on that Buddhist practice is the way out of their miserable lives. A quiet mind is the ultimate revenge.
I shouldn’t complain. Obviously there is a market for all sorts of Buddhism books, or publishers like Wisdom Publications in Boston wouldn’t exist. And more power to the authors, translators and readers who maintain the smallish industry that is Buddhist publishing in America. I would read them myself if I could. But by and large they are too dense for me. I am but a simple dumb-ass who learned the dhamma the same way the monks did 2500 years ago.
Buddhism is like Popeye’s spinach. It makes you strong enough to fulfill your real mission in life as a Buddhist: to help alleviate the suffering of others.
Trust your own instincts, is what I’m saying. As the American Buddhist community grows, opportunities increase for people to find sanghas that do meet their needs. A lot of my tougher friends lean toward Soto Zen and other forms of Japanese Buddhism (NOT SGI, however, unless you’re into chanting… and chanting… and chanting… ).
As Stephen Batchelor puts it: Buddhism isn’t something to believe in, Buddhism is something to do.
Editor: Dana Gornall