Consolation of Shifting Perspectives

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Sunday morning was slow and muddled as my mother in law showered and dressed, Ronnie putting on her clothes and eating her toast, and me looking for my misplaced wallet and keys. Church started at 10:30, and I liked to leave early so I can say hi to Eric and Ben before everything starts. The drive itself takes twenty minutes so leaving at 10:00 is no big deal, but I don’t like being late to anything. Yes, there was a ten minute cushion, but I might as well be ten minutes late. Welcome to my mess of clowns and candy wrappers cluttering my brain. The sky was bright with little clouds, and crisp air grazed across my chin like a razor calming me as we got into the van and drove to church. We got there in enough time, and I spent a few minutes talking to Eric and Veronica while Ronnie and Mom talked to each other. The sermon that Ben gave came out of Philemon, and he centered his hermeneutic on social justice and how to follow Jesus in the face of oppression. He hints at the Anti-Christian rhetoric and behavior of the Republican party and many Christians who join in with their inhumane practices, but never says anything blatant. The church is a poor church, but there are many across the political, social, and religious spectrum. Making blatant political statements would divide and alienate, and Ben wants people to come together as brothers and sisters in Christ to talk about their differences to realize their shared spiritual goals.

Ben doesn’t really preach anything new, per se, but he does not offer the usual diatribe I have often heard from the pulpit which is complete compliance to the Republican Party. I would often hear how revolutionary the message of Jesus was, but the pastor would make following Jesus and being a “good” American citizen synonymous. Jesus’ message turned the religious, national, and economic systems on their head. He said nothing about going with the flow of the state or organized religion. Ben’s message transcends party affiliation, and looks to the example of Jesus in the gospels. His message, though, put him in danger when an ultraconservative Trump disciple physically assaulted him in his office. Both Ben and Eric believe the best way to preach Jesus to everyone isn’t through words but radical hospitality. Everyone from different faiths, social backgrounds, skin colors, and philosophies are welcome by them. The point of this hospitality isn’t to sell their version of Jesus or get people to convert to their brand of Christianity, but to be an icon of God’s love to everyone. “Everywhere you go preach the gospel, and if necessary use words” as is attributed to St. Francis. This guy did not abide by that, but gave into fear and hatred. Eric and Ben stood their ground, and through Veronica’s calm demeanor the man left. Ben still preaches that Jesus from the pulpit, and while it’s something I agree with because of my own studies, I’ve never heard that Jesus from the pulpit.

What moved me to the point of agitation was Eric’s final hymn, the hymn that is sung before Ben gives the congregation a blessing and everyone leaves. The song was a prayer calling for Jesus to return quickly. Eric prefaced this song with three kids from our alma mater, Warren Central, who were shot the night before on West 38th St over shoes, and one died. Nothing has changed in that area. When I graduated in 1992, I knew of people in the school who were shooting or being shot over the original Air Jordans, coats with a sports team a particular gang called their own, or cocking their ball cap certain way that affiliated with a gang. Same story, different day. Indianapolis is a violent city, and many of us are weary of it, and Eric poured out his weariness in the hymn. It was a desperate psalm calling for God to come down, otherwise we’re going to kill ourselves, and there will be nothing that can be saved. I feel the same, but things are still getting worse. After Ben gave the blessing, and everyone went downstairs to eat, I went up to Eric.

What I like about going to this church is Ben and Eric make room for me to engage them with real questions and real language, and don’t flinch when my questions cut to the bone and drain the marrow. They understand my contentiousness with Christianity are a mixture of academic and personal issues, and the barriers I face because of my personal issues. I wouldn’t call myself a Christian, but Christian-ish to borrow from Anne Lamott. I’m not really anything, but when I sit down to the table, I’m with Buddha and Jesus. I like both teachers, and the teachings of the Buddha aided me with my academic career to make sense of the Christianity that had been forced down my throat, and the Jesus that motivated such abuses. Something can strike me during the week, or like Sunday, a word or a song will get under my skin, and I need to discuss it in that moment. Both Eric and Ben accommodate my urgency, and I’m grateful for it because, as an elder’s kid, I understand the scattered brained busyness inherent in church leadership.

I was exasperated with Eric saying, “Lord Jesus, come quickly.” People have been speaking of Jesus’ return since the time of the apostles, and those same apostles had to tweak some of their teaching because Jesus was not returning as quickly as they assumed. Instead of returning and restoring, Jesus is absent and many of his followers are set to destroy the rest of us and the world for a quick buck. “I’m not like the people mentioned in 2 Peter ridiculing the followers of Jesus by dismissing the return saying the world has been going, and will continue to keep going. If his return is literal then where the fuck is he? It seems to me that all he did at his first coming was to give us a different flavor of opiate.” To Eric’s credit he knows when I’m antagonistic and picking a theological or philosophical quarrel, and when I’m speaking out of disillusionment. Eric offered his insight on the matter. He believes in a literal second coming of Jesus, but he also believes that the church is the body of Christ on earth—a preface to the actual return. In his own life, he becomes a second coming in his neighborhood, the people he meets when he’s out running errands, when he has dinner with his wife, or when he’s talking to friends such as myself. He’s presenting Jesus until Jesus presents himself.

I took in his words, and I came to the conclusion that I have approached the idea of Jesus returning from an immature perspective. I was looking for a deity to come in and solve the problems I created–like the pampered pet mentioned by Boethius in his “Consolation of Philosophy” instead of an adult owning the consequences of their choices and how those consequences affect the world around them. I’m not taking responsibility for being the second coming in my own home, in my own community, or when I’m behind the wheel raging at other drivers. How can I be the shadow of restoration that is to come? How can God establish salvation when I hinder the process with my arrogance, condescension, and broad brushing? I’m speaking for myself, but there are other people who also thwart the process. The reason this world continues to get worse is because of you and because of me, and it gets better when you and I take the little moments given to us to love. I am reminded of something G.K. Chesterton wrote in response to a question in a newspaper. The writer asked, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton wrote his response, “Dear, Sir. I am.” When we love, God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven, and God’s justice flows like a river. The author of Psalm 8 says human beings are a little lower than God, and our divinity shines when we own our world and become the answers to our prayers.

Looking For Jack Kerouac

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The ninth century Zen Master, Linji Yixuan once made the statement, “If you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a ghost, kill the ghost.” The saying is harsh, but a deeper examination reveals more about the observer of The Buddha instead of The Buddha himself. Killing The Buddha means killing the fixed idea you or anyone creates about a person, a place, or an object. The relationship is not based on anything real, but on the interpretation of the matter. When the reality is experienced there is still that buffer between the new interpretations creating the tension with the old. People of all creeds and backgrounds do this, confusing their own ideas as fact; and when a person is offended by irreverence expressed towards their sacred cows their anger only increases when reminded it is the mere idea of the cow insulted and not the cow itself—whatever that cow may be. The interpretations we conjure with our experiences help us confront whatever life has given us in the moment, and aid us in our next step. Think of the coping mechanism of the child reaching for a teddy bear or a blanket. The child realizes they are in an unstable universe filled with monsters they cannot hope to beat without any help. The teddy bears and blankets are tangible reminders of a hand holding them and guiding them. Eventually, as the child becomes older the need for teddy bears and blankets decrease. This is similar to what some Eastern Orthodox monks will communicate concerning a Christian’s need for liturgies and prayer ropes. When the saint has reached perfection the familiar tangible approaches become more of a stifling restraint than actual help. At this point God can be realized without any preconceived notions and moves freely to and fro as in a dance—enjoying God as God instead of killing God with our dogmas and hierarchies.

This is the approach Barbara Shoup has taken in her novel, Looking for Jack Kerouac. She kills the legendary Kerouac people have formed by reading his popular books, On the Road, Dharma Bums, and Desolation Angels, and introduces us to a man who is an alcoholic spouting off racist, hateful, and right wing remarks, but also brimming with compassion and love. People don’t want Kerouac the man, they want the twenty-something, road-going hipster whose life is one big adventure filled with Jazz, women, sometimes men, booze, and drugs. People cannot fit in to one main category, and will asphyxiate in any box they are forced into for the convenience of a fantasy. Jack Kerouac was a human being, beautiful and scarred like the rest of us, and he was just a Catholic kid trying to find God roaming across America. He never found God, though, instead he came face to face with his own devils as The Buddha faced Mara under the Bodhi Tree and Jesus faced Satan in the desert. Where they overcame, Kerouac was consumed. He was neither timid nor weak in faith, but he was a gentle and sensitive person who did not consider the steep price he would pay in his quest for God. Kerouac was a merry saint overwhelmed with grief, who needed to be loved as the flawed human being he was. Shoup gives us the gift of Jack Kerouac in this book.

Shoup divides the two approaches to Jack Kerouac with the characters, Duke Walczak and Paul Carpetti, two young kids from East Chicago, IN who wanted more out of life than working in the mill. Duke’s approach to Kerouac’s On the Road was one of fantasy and a naïve romance because he wanted to be a writer influenced by Kerouac with the desire to surpass him. Duke believed in the urgency of Sal Paradise’s desire to get on the road and follow Dean Moriarty to Denver, CO, and, eventually to meet his friend Remi Boncoeur in San Francisco for work on a ship that never manifested. Paradise wandered across America, bouncing from town to town, and dive motel to dive motel, never knowing where the next meal would come or if there would be a bed that evening. Kerouac did not mention the dangers he faced on the road but focused on the different people with eyes of complete wonder; but there are dangers, and there are people who seek to harm another. Duke ran into naked hostility and racism when he and Paul were in southern Tennessee as they procured a ride from an older black man. There were boys the same age as Paul and Duke with a confederate flag on their car yelling for these “Yankees” to go back home, and called them “n****r lovers.” Duke wanted to engage them, but Paul convinced him to get in the black man’s car and leave. The boys chased them, throwing beer cans at the car, speeding up and slowing down, driving along side of them, and eventually sped away. The driver apologized to Duke and Paul when he dropped them off outside Chattanooga, but he knew the country better than they, and if they stayed with him, all three might find themselves lynched.

When Duke and Paul finally arrived to St. Petersburg, FL they spent a few weeks living out of a YMCA and restaurants asking about Kerouac to annoyed locals. The irritation had nothing to do with the questions but how Duke related to them in the bars and diners treating them as a means to an end. He was also writing down notes and observations, and, whether intentional or not, Duke objectified the people he talked to. He had a predetermined box to force upon people, and eventually at the Tick Tock people responded to him and Paul with violence. There was an old drunk spouting off his bigotry and right wing politics all in a slur. Duke took on the man by reminding him of the constitution, and perhaps he should take time to read the document before spreading such hateful words. The drunk tried to take a swing at Duke, but fell over himself. He was picked up by a good friend and other people in the bar surrounded Paul and Duke. They all knew Duke and Paul were looking for Kerouac, and the men pointed at the passed out drunk, “There he is.” Duke’s idealism had been shattered as he and Paul were beaten, and thrown out of the bar. Duke decided to leave for California to get his next fix from the next person, but Paul opted to stay in St. Petersburg.

Paul Carpetti, though, is truly a Beat character who is wholly dissatisfied with life, but he is trapped by his own confusion—he doesn’t know what he wants, but he knows what he doesn’t want. While on a class trip to New York City, Paul finds a copy of On the Road, and is instantly drawn to the rougher area of Greenwich Village to experience the Jazz and poetry of Kerouac’s longing. His girlfriend, Kathy, is suspicious of his attraction to On the Road, and when Paul invites her to read the book she dismisses the book because their priest said it was offensive; and that was good enough for her. After they had returned from New York, Paul’s mother is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and dies the following spring. He passes through high school numb and disaffected, and gets a job at the local mill instead of going to college as his mother intended. Kathy moves in and becomes the care taker for Paul, his brother, and father; and after a few months begins discussing marriage. He saw himself ten years in the future still working at the mill, but trapped by marriage and four kids. He felt he had no way out of his life until he met Duke.

Paul found a kindred spirit when Duke roared Kerouac’s love of the mad ones to coworkers deriding his Polish ancestry. The two friends would spend their breaks discussing the deeper issues of existence and what they wanted in their lives; and this was a point of contention with Kathy because Duke was leading Paul away from the standard formula of living. Duke did no such thing. Paul was unhappy and quietly desperate, and in Duke he found a companion who would join him in his search for God knows what. One day, Duke excitedly approached Paul with the news that Kerouac’s sister had died, and the Kerouac’s were currently living in St. Petersburg, FL. After a fight with Kathy over Duke and marriage, Paul finds Duke, and they leave for Florida that evening. Duke proved to be a tiresome pilgrim with women, alcohol, and his tall tales, but the breaking point came when his idealization of Kerouac caused him to mistreat people by harshly judging them—something Kerouac never did because he sought the diamonds in the street. One particular person Duke loathed was Chuck, a college student who worked at the YMCA where Duke and Paul had rooms and the library to pay his way through school. The two become fast friends, and Chuck brings Paul into his adopted family as Duke makes his way to San Francisco.

As Paul stays and works at a local crab shack, he learns that Chuck is friends with Jack Kerouac and his mother. Chuck invites Paul to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play against the New York Yankees in the World Series at the Kerouacs. There were times during these visits they had to leave because no one ever knew which Jack would come out while he was drunk—alcohol was a dice roll for the appearance of Dr. Sax or Mr. Kerouac. One evening, Paul is sitting under Kerouac’s window listening to him type when he is discovered. Paul apologizes profusely for imposing, but genuinely wanted to hear him work. Mamere, Kerouac’s mother, invites Paul in to chicken and noodles, and as he eats, both Kerouac and his mother weep for the loss of his sister, Nin. His brother Gerard died almost forty years prior and the wounds of that loss were reopened. Paul blurted out that he lost his mother earlier that year, and that is when he made a connection with Kerouac the man. Kerouac told him, “And you will never get over it. It’s not meant for us to get over that kind of sadness.” Kerouac’s remark awakened the human side of grief in Paul who had been told that he will soon get over his mother’s death, that the sadness was temporary, and life would get better. Later, he wept in the arms of his friend Ginny, and felt he could continue.

Since I finished this book, the constant word I have for it is “beautiful.” Shoup took away the mystique of the road going legend who sought for the beauty in others and in the roads he walked, but never saw the beauty in himself. He was Jean Val Jean who died never accepting the God who loved him and had mercy on him; but was generous to a fault to the people in his life. Jack Kerouac lost his brother and his sister, he abused drugs and alcohol, he was promiscuous, struggled with accepting his own bisexuality, misogynistic, a devout Catholic, a Buddhist who embraced the sacred hearts of Mary and Jesus, an estranged father, and a bum. How he saw life came out of his experiences, and he saw nothing but suffering. He wanted to seek God, and find out if there was more to life than pain; or at the very least why we have pain. He had belief in God, and still followed Jesus, but his spiritual path was unapologetically messy. His path was honest, and it was human. Shoup put on her gardening gloves and opened the thorny covers of Kerouac’s exterior to see the roses he carried within himself. Kerouac does not deserve our sympathy or worship, but our love. He is our companion in this elegant mess, and an icon pointing us towards that holy road.

Pererin Pt. 3 The Buddha

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In my late teens, I heard the saying “You can’t go home again.” and thought to myself that a person could never reclaim the feelings of safety before they left. I still agree with my youthful conclusion, but only in part. Two years after I returned to school, I transferred to a small liberal arts college in central Illinois, and after graduating and getting married I continued west. My travels were romantic because I recognized I drove through the same towns as Kerouac when he first traveled across America. I believed myself to be Neo-Beat who had, in the bottom of his soul, the same dissatisfaction as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty looking for IT in the rocky, bristly landscape of the youthful frontier; but they didn’t find IT, and neither did I. I still had the same dissatisfaction with no release, but my perception changed in Wyoming when I forgot my phone at a rest stop and a driver met us in Rawlins, WY to return my phone. After four years on the road going across country and meeting different people, I returned to Indianapolis to reconnect with friends I had not seen. I came back to familiar surroundings, but I was not home. People had not changed, I had changed, and I had outgrown many of those old relationships including family. Other relationships took on a new dynamic, and increased in richness.

The country from Nevada to Cheyenne, WY on I-80 is desolate with sand and salt except for the sprinklings of Reno, Salt Lake City, and Evanston, WY. There is no illusion of safety reinforced by concrete and Starbucks, and without kindness from others a person can die from solitude. I felt that same kindness as I joined in the chants, meditation, and teaching at The Shambhala Center in Portland, OR. For me Kerouac’s words came to life as I talked over tea and fruit with people who met him and Allen Ginsberg. The Dharma these people put to me was the same simple approach Kerouac observed through the eyes of Ray Smith wandering across the American landscape living out of his rucksack like the incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha, known as Budai. Budai was a poor, Zen monk who traveled around China in the 10th century C.E. He was also an eccentric monk who carried nothing with him but his mala beads and whatever could fit into his bag. Smith received kindness and gave kindness, and survived his trek across the country by living in the stripped down religion based on loving others as he loved himself. This spiritual practice, though did not prepare Smith for what he would face as a fire watcher on the American/Canadian border in Northern Washington. Smith came face to face with himself after his vision of Avalokiteshvara, and all romance disappeared. I went through a similar deconstruction, but I was in southern Idaho with my wife when we almost died from hitting a deer.

My wife and I left Riverton, WY about 3:00 p.m. MDT, and the gps calculated a nine and a half our trip to Boise, ID. Most of the trip would be on a vacant state highway passing through sleepy towns and mountains until we reached I-84 to get to our hotel in Boise. Almost six hours in to the trip we stopped to get gas in Arco and snacks, and proceeded on our way. We were driving along the mountains, and my wife pointed out to some deer on the side of the road. Three of the deer were lounging like cats on the shoulder, and two were standing next to the lounging trio; but one was dancing with indecisiveness. I slowed down to forty, and the deer made a decision. He jumped in front of us. My peripheral vision went black as if I were staring through a cardboard tube holding paper towels. I saw the deer’s body fly up with the hood as the airbag expanded in front of my face. I felt the rumbling of the suv, and I knew I was off road. My foot was pressing on the brake, burying it into the floor, and the only thought in my head was my wife’s safety. Fortunately there were people on the road who helped us and called EMT’s and the local sheriff. After being treated, the sheriff took us to a local motel, and when we woke up, I went outside to see King Mountain across the street. My wife and survived with our bodies intact, and with no distractions or words, I understood the Buddha as I returned to my room full of gratitude.

 

The Buddha

 When Kerouac went up to Desolation Peak to live alone for sixty-eight days as a fire watcher he believed he was due for a vision from the divine—to come face to face with God where he would learn why we live, why we die, and why we suffer in between the two. Kerouac wanted to touch what the Buddha touched under the Bodhi tree and to be ministered by the same angels who ministered to Jesus facing his own devil after forty days in the desert. Kerouac did not take into account the psychological price Buddha and Jesus paid to earn their divine revelation, and how those encounters transformed them. This is the same with the ancient Desert Fathers of Christianity’s early monasticism, and the demons they had to encounter to be fully connected to God—or divinized. Without the distractions of people and wandering, Kerouac had no escape from seeing himself as he was; and the encounter would leave him shaken until the day he died. This shrinking back did not reveal any kind of moral or spiritual weakness of Kerouac—though he had many—, but his need to make up an internal lack with an external substance—even if that substance is an interpretation of Buddha or God. The end of Dharma Bums, though he captured his divine need through the vision of Ray Smith.

Kerouac encountered the tremendous dread as spoken by the theologian Rudolf Otto, and there was nothing safe to protect him under the naked sky. His soul roared the skull breaking words of God to Job bereft of suffering and demanding answers. In all fairness, Kerouac was a mystic and experienced visions of Jesus and The Blessed Mother throughout his adult life. These visions were irrespective of places, and he saw The Blessed Mother while living in an opium den in Mexico City and sleeping with a prostitute. Three years prior to going up the mountain as a fire watcher, Kerouac discovered Buddhism, and the teachings of the Buddha gave him insight to his Catholic background. He studied Buddhism relentlessly putting out his non-fiction work, Wake Up: The Life of the Buddha and Some of the Dharma published posthumously in the 1990s. By changing his perception, Kerouac hoped for the deeper vision explaining all of life and finding a place of peace for his restless heart; and that desire determined whom he met on the mountain one evening.

During his annual nightly meditation, Smith has the sought after vision, the attending angel and Bodhisattva, Avalokitsevara whom he calls the “hearer and answerer of prayer.” In this vision, Avalokitsevara tells Smith, “You are empowered to remind people that they are utterly free.” Smith takes this to heart, begins by reminding himself of his freedom; but this is a freedom he understand superficially, and is forgotten in Desolation Angels. This freedom is not a thing limited to wonder, hope, and no restraints; though, freedom includes those things. Freedom is terrifying, and the ideas and things formed can hide us from the terror of Tillich’s “ground of all being.” There stands God and The Buddha’s teachings empty of our preconceived notions and unrestrained by how we think they should be. They are dangerous because they cannot be controlled or formed by our arbitrary doctrines, and what is horrifying is we don’t know if we can trust them. Run into the buildings and find a dry space in dogma—religious or secular—and never venture out to life’s fullness. In the end Kerouac lost himself in the familiarity of the bottle and the crucifix, and both killed him because he could not reconcile the tension between his own anxieties with a God who cannot be tamed. Like Kerouac or his alter ego, Ray Smith, we are not guaranteed any kind of stability should we take the leap of faith into Desolation, but what is certain is the ground we are standing upon is crumbling and our house is on fire—eventually, we will have a smoldering rubble of impermanent things we forced into permanence. The lessons we take from Ray Smith finding refuge in the Dharma, the sangha, and The Buddha is we are not bound to anything, we need very little to enjoy life, and we are reborn from one moment to the next.