From El Camino de Santiago: Christianity Consists of Far More Than Inner Experiences

I was swept away touring the Cathedral at Burgos. I do not remember experiencing so much beauty in one place, a beauty that lifted my spirit to commune again with everything I have really loved since my childhood. How I spend the rest of my “one, wild precious life” (a phrase in Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”), in as much as I shall have a choice in future circumstances that I cannot foresee (personal illness, the needs of others whom I love, etc.), is being determined by events, both interior and exterior, that are forming my experiences on El Camino de Santiago.

Yesterday in León, sitting in front of the remains of St. Isidore of Seville, in the Church that bears his name, I prayed for the courage to allow myself to accept the validity, if only for my own life, of all that I have loved in Christianity and monasticism. El Camino de Santiago is teaching me to speak again  to myself of my love for God that “dares not speak its name”.

This morning, as I participated at the noon Mass at León’s Cathedral, my mind blew more than once.. As the priest appeared from behind the chapel altar, I was shocked at how much he was the image of Patrick Hart. my mentor at Gethsemani. Not only did the priest look exactly like him, but his facial gestures were the same, and his way of being in his body was the same. What does Patrick Hart’s “double” celebrating this Mass mean? [BOOM!]. And then the first reading from Ecclesiasticus: “For everything there is a season, a time to love and a time to hate, a time to be born and a time to die…” What season have I entered perhaps to last until my end? [BOOM!]

I thought of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk
a thousand miles in the desert repenting.
You only have to let your soft body
love what it loves.”

I am experiencing again the force of the symbols that have more moved my “soft body” through my life more than any others. These Spanish cathedrals are reconnecting me to the world of all those who have come before me and who will live after I have departed from my “hard body”.

Stephen Batchelor has explored Buddhist temples and lived in them. An Englishman who became a Buddhist monk, and who later put off his robes to marry a once Buddhist nun, is a writer of great clarity and insight. My favorite books of his include Buddhism Without Beliefs and Living with The Devil: A Meditation on Evil. In the passage below Batchelor reflects upon all those unseen folk who contributed to Buddhism’s culture and civilization. These hidden folk were not the intellectuals, the makers of laws and movers of money that are the subject of historical investigations. These are the nameless ones to us. They their own spirits by transforming rude and raw “things” into beautiful tabernacles of what is best in the world in which we move and have our being. One has only to substitute “Christianity” for “Buddhism” in Batchelor’s reflection to apprehend the same realities mirrored in the beauty unknown artisans have created for and bequeathed to all of us who are their heirs “in Christ”.

“As a culture and a civilization, Buddhism consists of far more than inner experiences. It is known through buildings, gardens, sculptures, paintings, calligraphy, poetry and craftwork. It is present in each mark made by artists and artisans on rocks, clay votive tablets, fragile palm leaves, primed canvases, hand-pressed paper, wooden printing blocks, raked gravel, and paper lanterns. On my visits to monasteries in Tibet, the polished furrows in the rock, worn into the mountain by centuries of passing feet, moved me far more than the shrines to which they led. ….Who were the men and women who made them? ….We don’t know.

“These forgotten people are my fellows. They are the silent ones on whose behalf I want to speak. I know nothing of their religious beliefs or spiritual attainments. Their understanding of the subtleties of Buddhist doctrine is irrelevant. They left behind visible and tangible objects created by their own hands: dumb things that speak to me across the centuries in a language that no text can reproduce. Irrespective of what Buddhist icon a painted scroll may depict, it embodies the intelligence and imagination, the passion and care of its creator. I feel an affinity with the makers of these things. A Zen garden can say as much about what the Buddha taught in the most erudite treatise on emptiness.

“Just as a farmer irrigates his fields,” said Gotama in the Dhammapada, “just as a fletcher fashions an arrow, just as a carpenter shapes a block of wood, so does the sage tame the self.” This is an odd statement. Rather than encouraging the renunciation of self, here, if we follow these metaphors, the Buddha seemed to be encouraging the creation of a self. To “tame” in this context means to pacify the selfish and unruly aspects of oneself in order to begin forging a more caring, focused, and integrated character. The examples he used are of working people: farmers, fletchers, carpenters. Just as he compared practice of mindfulness to the way a skilled woodturner uses his tools, here he admired the work of those who till the soil, make arrows, and carve wood. Their handicrafts served to illustrate how to nurture, fashion, and direct the raw materials—sensations, feelings, emotions, perceptions, intentions—of one’s self.

“Rather than dismiss the self as a fiction, Gotama presented it as a project to be realized. By “self” he referred not to the transcendent Self of the brahmins, which, by definition, cannot be anything other than what it eternally Is, but the functional, moral self that breathes and acts in this world. He compared this self to a field, a potentially fertile ground that, when irrigated and tended, enables plants to flourish. He compared it to an arrow: a wooden shaft, metal head, and feather fletcher which, when assembled, can be projected on an unerring course to its target. And he compared the self to a block of wood, something one can fashion and shape into a utensil or roof beam. In each case, simple things are worked and transformed to achieve human ends.

“Such a model of self is more pertinent to a layman or laywoman living in this world than to a monk or nun intent on renouncing it. It presents a very different sort of challenge. Instead of training oneself to achieve a serene detachment from the turbulent events of this life, it encourages one to grapple with these events in order to imbue them with meaning and purpose. The emphasis is on action rather than inaction, on engagement rather than disengagement. And there are social implications too. If a person is the result of what he or she does, rather than what he or she is, than any notion of a divinely ordained system of social identity breaks down. Gotama said, “By action is one a farmer, by action a craftsman…”

[Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (NY: Spigel & Grau, 2010: 151-152)

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