« Dukkha and the View from the Center »

So far, since my birthday last Tuesday, I have been reading Gandhi's autobiography which he calls his Stories of Experiments with Truth; watched a bit of PBS and read a bit on Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and works; read up on Buddhism in Huston Smith's book, The World's Religions; had a beer and burger with a young fellow from work who perhaps sees the world vastly differently than I do (he's quite conservative and in the Marine Reserves but has dared to sit and talk with a guy of my interests) and watched the movie Platoon.

Kelli and I went together to church today. Usually we don't go to the same church anymore, so it is unusual when we do. Still, my ongoing "project" at church is to allow myself to be restless and to retain autonomy so I don't get entrenched into anything. I never sit in the same pew on consecutive weeks, and sometimes I actually sit in two or three places during the service itself, choosing to do so because it puts me in contact with more people, and keeps things from stagnating. Today I went a bit further and went to another isolated meeting room with a couch (and naturally lit space from skylights) and read The World's Religions which I have had in that room for months and periodically pick up and read. Today, I skipped out on worship to go read about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. I've been enjoying getting to know bits about Buddhism in recent years, albeit at a snail's pace. It is quite refreshing to see the parallels with Jesus' story, his methods and lessons. In Smith's book, he likens Buddhism to a protestant version of Hinduism, eschewing the layers of formalized religious trappings and tradition that kept people from the vital lessons and transformation that sits at the core, the ones that are open to all peoples. In that, Buddhist spirituality is quite like the essential messages of Jesus, that all people can tap into the same well of truth, without the help or interference of a priestly class or other layers of religiosity that separate truth seeker from the truth. The message is, go inward and know for yourself, and then check that against the messages from everyone else with their clamoring and noise.

In 2007, when I worked at Scantech, the always-rushed print house, the people were frantic. But there was one guy, a gay Mexican who practiced Buddhism after a spell of Hinduism and probably a background of Catholicism. This Juan Sandoval was the most balanced guy in the place, honest like Abe Lincoln, and in the midst of this swirling mess of activity, just-in-time delivery, and chaos, he would sometimes come into our driver office area for a pause. A number of times he would pontificate on meditation, relinquishing the need for perfection, and a number of other lessons that seem to be the only way he could be such a calm figure in that messy world. At lunch, he'd retire to the lawn outside by the road where we drivers came whipping in and out. He'd have his prayer stool which let him be bent of knee while seated upright. In the midst of the chaos of Kearny Mesa, there he was under the tree, contemplating. I found him the most appealing figure in my time there, as he lived and urged a quest for a richer life. I never heard his story in any depth but I can imagine the types of questions he had to sort out in the process of facing who he was in a culture that has a hard time with men who don't live out the machismo expected of them. The enthusiasm he had in his voice when talking about the practices and insights from Buddhist practice was clear.

In some ways, I have become Juan at my job now, though perhaps by a tedium that sets in when just talking shop finally exhausts a person. There is only so much talk one can make about potatoes, fussy chefs, or routes that are too overloaded or that don't have much at all. I got my mind on other things, and so I found I needed to just start conversations that incorporate that. For a while in the spring-summer, with some of the then-new guys and a few others I thought might participate, I just began to ask if they'd prefer to talk politics or religion. A few were ready to roll, so even as this shop is as busy if not more so than at Scantech, somehow tidbits of this kind of talk get tucked into short periods of passing, or waiting for dispatches, or loading trucks. Right now there are about four guys who seem to play along with this. Finally, this one fellow, Tom, asked to take it outside after work so we didn't have to hide from the cameras in the effort to complete a thought.

Some of this type of talk that I've been making came about when I got driver trainees and after we got the basics down. The fact is, I can teach the ins and outs of the job in no time, and it is nearly useless when one takes another job so I have been oddly persuaded to instruct along other lines. I've found the driving work, out and about in a city of diverse population and cultures, to be an eye opening course in humanitarian studies. I've said before that it is not uncommon to see homeless people congregating at the bases of the towers in town, the 5 star hotels and restaurants where businesspeople and politicians strike up deals that affect people they will never meet. If it is only an introduction, my time training guys includes a bit of that. Or now, back in the warehouse, that same kind of thing informs some of the things I say. Shit, we spend 40 hours at work every week. It needs to count for more than a paycheck. I like to report on some of the things that the routes have taught me about life and people.

Twenty years ago I first envisioned myself as a teacher of life. A pathetic idea then, but one that I am growing into, either in the context of the church young adults group, or this side project at work. One reason that the story of  Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, resonates with me is the story of his youth and his awakening. I feel quite a kinship with the story, not just because of the overall narrative of being raised with a hyper-protective father assuring a prince's life if I remained blind to a life on the outside (and then discovering that life outside the castle walls involves the discontented and unsettled parts of life that is known as dukkha), but also that the age relationship between me and Siddharta is the same: asleep till 30, then taking till 35 to have learned the crucial lessons by spiritual inquiry of all sorts that would finally empower him to step back into the world with a message for others. And yet it all revolves around the inevitability of suffering/discontentedness and what to do in the face of it.

My own findings arise from all that you've read in this journal for the years since it has been going: the suburban life is a troubled one that I can't expect to last, and the lifestyle that accompanies it is one that needs to be kept in perspective and wherever possible, stepped away from. It was yesterday's dream. It was someone else's dream. These days, I don't see much in the general culture at large that reinforces a complete enough message like that. There are left leaning movements that try, and bravo for them. But they are not enough because they don't seem rooted in anything. On the right, there are idiotic movements back into the dark ages of John Birch conservatism, racist and classist policies, pushes against social programs meant to do people good. Neither is meeting anyone's needs. The center has become the place to be while the polar opposites are racing farther and farther apart, nearly converging on the other side of the circle in their loathing and hatred for one another, and in their uselessness.

Day after day, we face the incremental collapse of this nation. It doesn't look that way, but that is what is happening. This is why I turn to the ancient stuff—to look to something not so ephemeral as nation-states and economic philosophies tied to a certain historical period blessed by a party-inducing energy supply that is going to be a matter of history in my lifetime. How to live a human life in a time of disappointment, suffering and upsetting change, that is my lesson to teach anyone who might have ears. Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, King are all excellent teachers because each stood before an imperfect world and pointed a way for others by getting to the radix, the root of things—the downward and inward journey that reveals enemies and things of hate inside, where all the work needs to be done anyway. They are teachers of relinquishment of the world's values. This is the only thing that will soften the blow that is hitting us in slow motion and that will continue for all my lifetime and for a while after that. It is wisdom that neither the left nor right seems to possess right now, blinded by wishful thinking for the good old days that really can't come back, nor would we be wise to wish for them to return. Being a voice of integration or reconciliation is always a dangerous thing; coaxing people out of their foxholes of political perspective is not easy. I guess my message is one of trying to disabuse people of the unreality of what we can expect from our political process while not questioning our own part in things—questioning how we contribute to the mess while pursuing what has come to be a normal life of rushing about in trivial pursuits of goods and power.

So I watched Platoon, a movie I saw when it came out and appreciated it because I was a young 13 year old who liked military movies and literature, and building models of military gear. I was so far from understanding the movie's treatment of the effects of war, and the internal fight to remain human in the face of it, not to be turned into a monster even in monstrous circumstances. Life may be suffering, but war is needless suffering (hasn't a century of war made that clear?). Racism is more of the same. Hate crimes more still. Economic violence at the hands of out-of-control banks is another form of violence causing still more suffering. Much as I'd like to anticipate otherwise, I soberly anticipate more of this for the rest of my life. So this week has been one short period of arming up with the great voices of how to face suffering and disappointment in a humane way and sharing what I find as I go.

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