Friday, July 10, 2015

Bowing Before Buddha

Carl Jung said that we should keep our religion, any religion, really.  What to believe is arbitrary.  But to believe is empowering.  It gives one a feeling of direction; it molds one.  It doesn't merely take the sting from death, but carries eons of animal and cultural information.  Even a "new" religion is built from the pieces of other rituals and the deep needs of the deep mind.

Religion and its attendant ritual and belief satisfy that deeper mind.  In Jung's formulation, as I understand it, it is part message from our primitive selves, and a reminder of the "numinous."  (That's Jung's word. I had to look it up.  It means divine, or having a divine quality.  Good word.)  It connects us to our non-reasoning, intuitive, emotional, instinctive selves, which surely move us in measure equal to or greater than our rational selves.  Even the great many people who are already well in touch with the emotional part of their natures do not normally recognize the process that moves them. Religion also reminds us of our connection to culture, to humans as a whole, and to life as a whole.

Religion releases one from the gaze of the Censor -- the internal watcher who think's he's in charge but is actually judging and interpreting. Making up stories that make experience smaller and more limited than it really is. Religion is, famously, an opiate, and one can be utterly lost to it as one can be lost to narcotics. But, like drugs, it serves a healthy purpose as well: transcendence of the mundane. Or, in other words, a counterpoint to the story the pattern-recognizing, habit-locked, survival-focused Censor narrates.

I came to Buddhism as many do -- in flight from Christianity. Buddhism offered a safe haven: a religion without dogma. A religion some people claimed was not a religion, but a philosophy! But I came to realize it was a religion. The sect I am involved with also has all manner of ritual and magical elements, in some respects reminiscent of Catholicism (and also theater). The Censor was displeased. This could not be rationalized. This could not be accepted. On the other hand, I was gaining something from my efforts. I felt better after services. I enjoyed them. I enjoyed the mummery. I said: "Censor, there are greater things than you. There is mystery in this universe you cannot penetrate. I will explore this for what it's worth with open heart and open mind and get all I can from it."

One of the hardest and strangest aspects of Buddhism to a novice like myself is bowing. You bow to the priest, you bow to others, and especially you bow to the Buddha. Or Buddha statues. How can this be? Buddha is not God. Buddhism has no God, at least not as the term is commonly used. But I learned you are not bowing to a Lord. You are bowing to enlightenment. You are bowing to his achievement, which is a reminder of its possibility. You are remembering that you are not the ultimate power, and that there is much power in that acknowledgment. And when you bow to others, you are bowing to the enlightenment that is potential in them. You are recognizing the numinous in what you often perceive as mundane.

Do the Right Thing

In order to live properly, one must start by defining one's terms.

One must try to find an objective measure by which to judge the desirability of an action.

On the one hand, objectivity is inherently illusory. Even if you get what appears to be objective data, you introduce subjectivity by measuring it and interpreting it. Obviously you have biases. You would prefer one result to the other. You have unquestioned notions of what is right. Murder is wrong, Altruism is right. Progress is inevitable. There is One True God.

On the other hand, we need rules and assumptions in order to take efficient action. To submit fully to the impossibility of fully knowing is to render oneself superfluous. Nihilism or nirvana. I am not prepared to give up suffering or desire. But I want to limit the harm I cause to others.

So I have taken these things on faith:

That compassion is virtuous.
That slow is usually better than fast.
But not always.
That every living thing is lit by a spark of divinity.
That every living thing should be treated with consideration and dignity.
And probably inanimate things as well.
That all experiences are valuable.

What Went Right

It's been over eight years since I stopped pursuing acting as a profession and started training to be a lawyer. When I think back on that time, I inevitably feel some regret and feelings of "what if"?

What if I had taken that part that I turned down? What if I hadn't gotten drunk the night before that big audition? What if I had put the same effort into building a viable acting career as I did in law school?

It's easy to get lost in that melancholy alternate reality. But that obscures the awesome things that happened during that time.

So instead of wondering what went wrong, here is a brief recitation of what went right.

1. I performed off broadway in a production in which I got to play a political activist and firebrand. It played to hundreds of people every night and was well received.

2. I performed in a two-hander with my best friend to mostly empty houses for weeks. It killed our young theater company. The company was not the only casualty. One night, when we arrived for the first show of the week, we found the theater manager dead in the lobby. I think it was a Tuesday or Wednesday and that he'd been there since Sunday. This is "awesome" in that it is the kind of life experience I wanted so badly when I moved to NYC. We used to sing part of the into to the Muppet Show, in the Waldorf and Astoria parts: "Why do we always come here? I guess we'll never know. It's like some kind of torture, to have to start the show!"

3. I produced and directed a night of Beckett pieces. Directing that show, as well as a Shakespeare production, showed me that I was a director through and through.

4. I found a like-minded director who worked in an ensemble spirit. We created, from a straightforward script, an out-of-this-world abstract movement piece with live cello accompaniment that fully honored the script while adding layers upon layers to it. In this work, I discovered that I was exceptionally good at certain improvisational exercises (and admittedly not so great at others).

5. I got to go to Vermont and Maine to perform. In Maine, I was able to tour the poor and desolate northern part of the state with other struggling actors. We went from school to school. It was the first time I was paid for my craft. My first professional gig after something like four years of feeling such work was beneath me. I learned it wasn't beneath me. It was perfect.

6. I went out again and again, month after month, year after year, seemingly getting nowhere, until I started to build a real resume and real career. 1000s of headhsots mailed. Hundreds of auditions. Until I found that people would in fact pay me for my acting abilities.

7. I shot a couple of movies, one which paid me and one which promised to pay me but never did. I learned that shooting a film is, for the most part, incredibly boring and that the lack of continuity makes it incredibly tough. Theater is the actor's medium, film the director's.

7. After something like five or six years, I finally started to land the leading man roles I had never been able to get before. I realized I could do it. I could be the romantic lead. For a guy who struggled with anxiety and confidence issues, this was no small achievement. I play earnest, arrogant, rock stupid, and anxious very well.

8. Overcame an intense fear of singing in public and having been told by friends when I was younger that I was tone deaf, I learned to play guitar and sing in order to play Pony, the young rock star in SubUrbia. The last audition I went on was for a company that had seen me the year before. They called me because they liked my audition for a particular part so much. Did I give them that? No. But I sang for the first time ever in an audition. To prove I could do it before I gave it up.