20 January 2010

Picnicking with Buddha in the Stacks

I am a late-blooming gal, finishing an Hons. B.A last June from McMaster University at the age of 40. Previously, in my fundamentalist Christian youth, i completed a Bachelor of Religious Ed. - a bit of a mis-nomer as it may be more accurate to call it a Bachelor of Christian Superiority. Which is too bad really.  Other "world religions" studied in this program were not given their due, were not honoured, were seen to be "bound by culture" - funny how that worked as they never saw Christianity to be bound by culture - only everyone else. Though I do think that it is hard to see when you are immersed in a culture. But none-the-less, the "other" religions were only studied for their redemptive cracks - the place where Christianity could put its long white finger.Notice I am not including Jesus in all this. He didn't even HAVE a white finger.

I now feel badly for those who ascribe to this  - for they are missing out on the richness of humanity - in the world, and indeed in themselves.
So this "bible-belt" degree  - only recognized in the wide bible belt running down the middle of America. It prepared me to be either a mosquito bitten white-man's-burden type foreign missionary or a youth programs director in a church big enough to have a large youth faction.  I chose the latter after a bout of Malaria was about as close to the guiding voice of God as i could find. I enjoyed my youth work, the youth in particular, and found ways to get around the long white finger, and yet sometimes I was the white finger. This started to change in the last church i worked in - gave me lots to think about as it was the curious combination of high, medium and low Anglican.

 I needed to go further in my spirituality but felt i had hit a wall - but there was no way to go further. With my faith alarmingly waning, I gave my last homily, on the only truth I knew, my gaping doubt. The priests gathered me into the inner chambers after the service and I received both their surprise and their compassion. They had no designs to fire me but to allow me to explore this desert for a while, as liberal Anglicans are wont to do. But I realized this was more than a 40 days-in-the-wilderness type thing, it was a fork in the road. And the tong I was going towards would only hinder my effectiveness in this job. The kids at least deserved someone who has come back from the desert and could tell a good tale about it. I chose to go through the desert and come out on the other side, wherever that was.

I was also clinically depressed. I know why. To tell my family, my community, my friends about this would be like coming out of the closet - and I knew that from that point, I would be on my own. At least in the closet I was surrounded by my people.

For five years I slowly climbed out of the closet and decided to finally turn the page. I started to work on my degree, taking courses in English, Cultural Studies and Peace/Conflict studies part-time over a span of 5 years at McMaster. I loved and appreciated the precious freedom to pursue ideas - which often took the form of wandering through the stacks in the Humanities library. I would pick up random books off the shelf whose titles had a certain appeal - "Christ was a Communist",  "Blue and Pink: symbols of Gender management", "Fashion and Faux-pas: Students and  Profs tell eachother what not to wear", "Jesus and Buddha Meet at Last", "Hijab or not to Hijab: Muslim women give the dirt on head covering",  "Lesbians don't do it: lessons from the queer side of life", "Mickey Mouse and Nazi Ideology", "Derrida and Batman: unrequited love".

After a while, I got to know all the primo spots in the library, like spots for Making-Out or whatever they call it now (or rather the annoying observation of it while trying to get work done), spots that had a desk, a plug-in for your computer and a view of outside (rare). Spots close to the stairwell but well-hidden in a no-mans-land alcove, so you can leave all your stuff but your wallet and go for a quick coffee (rarer still). Stacks can get awfully claustophobic after 5 hours. To find a book, a spot, an alcove  - to be in the library in any floor above the first floor, was pretty much an individual pursuit, unless of course you were getting cozy in the MO stacks.

The 5th floor held most of McMaster's religious collection. I would be drawn to this like a dutchman to coffee-time, or as one Anglican priest loved to point out to me, glass in hand,  like a dutchman to rum. I needed to get a better hold on my state of lost religion, maybe find others who wrote about a similar thing (they did and I found them) and perhaps put my rumbling past to bed. Wandering over to the  BS section on the fifth floor I was intrigued to learn it held books on Christian Theology. As I hadn't read one Christian word for more than 5 years, I decided to see what i might be missing.

"Learning to be humble when Christianity Kicks Everyone's Ass", "Difficult passages: How to interpret Jesus' parables without loosing your (tailored) (Italian made) (5,000 thread count) (Egyptian massaged cotton) shirt" and "How to send your son's butt-less-chapped-butt into Gay Re-hab."  There were also the yawn-inducing theology titles that no one touched , not even the theology students, and some refreshing titles that involved compassion and creativity which restored my faith in Jesus' core message of compassion, love - which happens to be the core message for most of the universe's religions and spiritual quests. Funny, that. I walked through all the religious aisles, spending endless hours between classes eating books that had nothing to do with the paper I was researching. I think i was very hungry for a new way to see. And eager to get the line-up of old bearded patriarchs, and some people's white fingers, far behind me.

I remember the Buddhist section on the fifth floor, it was a long row of stacks at the end, with a window. I and a number of students - a variety of ages and ethnicities, all of us strangers - would sit against the wall facing the Buddhist stacks, and read little tiny buddhist texts (most of them were indeed small), spreading out our stuff  -  a picnic of books and coffee and take-out noodles. And we were quiet. We whispered "excuse me" when we reached or stepped over someone to pull a book off the shelf, and whispered back "no problem".  Sometimes people would fall asleep with their coats as pillows, lying prone in the middle of this Buddhist picnic while pages were softly turning, all becoming one in the single mindfulness of reading, eating or sleeping. Minding the inner rythms of the soul. This practice nourished me over the years, the picnic was always waiting for me, taking me in as soon as I sat down, wordlessly, as if expecting me.

I believe that if i had sat and read these texts one stack over, i would not have absorbed the strange new seeds of the Buddha as i did in the stacks of the human picnic. Like the seed of connection - the inter-connection of all sentient beings - this much was clear from the wordless connection we strangers had to eachother, but as i spent days and weeks in and out of the picnic, I knew interconnectivity extended far beyond, and i was not willing to go there just yet, I was still indulging in the bad habit of harshly judging others whose religious beliefs I had rejected  - a habit i learned from them that I needed to get rid of - it was poisoning my soul.
As I looked into it further, I realized that Interconnectivity went past all the human containers  - the hard and fast categories of faithful and faithless that I was taught at an early age, the labels and library cataloguing systems we endeavor to place everyone and everything in. It even reached all my reject categories, all the ones I'd rather not picnic with in the stacks. We are connected in this web of life and yearning.

Then it occured to me, in the sinking-heart fashion of defeat and irony, that this interconnectivity also extended to all the bearded patriarchs I loathed, and the guy who wrote " How to be humble when Christianity kicks Everyone's Ass". I may not agree with this superior mentality, but instead of judging them to be inferior, I could see through it to find that familiar human insecurity that needs to be "right", to be superior, that writes others off.

We are all one, we, this teaming mass of energy and humanity, we all seek the same things at their core, we all have an inner seed for compassion and violence, and can choose to feed one more than the other. We all have containers for others - and then there are the flexible containers, open, floppy containers that allow the human to move and breath...and jump out !

I came alone to meet Buddha in the stacks. And found everyone else there too.
I am glad for it for I am free from having to judge or condemn - what joy!


  1. This is an amazing piece. I can really feel that you are coming into yourself in this piece of writing. I love it! I just posted about living in harmony with all people regardless of their country culture or faith. Thanks so much for being a follower on my blog, I'm following you now too. I hope you will leave comments and I am happy to do the same here. Peace to you, Kathy

  2. Thanks Kathy ! look forward to our future blog connections!