Speaking for Buddha
This article first appeared in Meanjin in December 2006
The first noble truth of Buddhism is that the nature of existence is suffering. But while an understanding of suffering is essential to understanding Buddhism, if you are writing about Buddhism for a general audience, that emphasis can make the religion come across as a bland panacea: Japanese or Tibetan Panadol.
For example. The other night I was riding my bike home in the dark when a group of men in a four-wheel drive followed me, called me a hooker, and pelted me with eggs. I had just been to see William Yang's show at the Melbourne festival, 'Objects for Meditation', so, once I'd cleaned off the egg, I took inspiration from Yang and looked at some of my own objects for meditation. One of these was a photo of objects rather than the objects themselves: bits and pieces of plaster Buddhas that were found after the Tsunami hit the west coast of Sri Lanka, then piled in a corner of a temple in Bentota. There is a combination of resilience and iconography in the image that makes me feel better about the world. They calmed me. Though I can tell you that when I take part in Buddhist rituals, look at images, or read books on the subject, I have a strong sense of connection with the teachings. I usually feel I am being re-minded of something I already know rather than having a belief imposed upon me. It is hard to explain this in a way that doesn't seem superficial. 'You're not religious,' one friend tells me. 'You're superstitious.'
Whatever I am I'm very different from the girl who was so antagonistic towards anything religious that I spent a couple of lonely hours every week in the art room with nothing to do, rather than attend Religious Instruction classes. I can't remember why I felt so strongly on the subject though in retrospect I find it surprising that every other child at Auburn South Primary sat in on the RI classes without question. It was the seventies, after all.
Now I regret having learnt nothing about Christianity. I regretted it the moment I started studying literature at university and realised there was a whole part of my culture that was foreign to me. Studying Milton's Paradise Lost was a mystery. That text, along with C.S.Lewis's Narnia series and, more recently, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, have provided me with the extent of my Christian religious education.
When I was asked what my religious beliefs were on the recent census form, I wrote 'Buddhist' in the 'Other' category. I argued with friends about that. They could see no proof that I was a Buddhist and thought I was pretending to be Buddhist to be cool. They thought I was feeding into John Howard's version of Australia: an Australia where everyone has a religion, an Australia where religion has become a weapon to be used against people. I was contributing to what Gary Bouma, Professor of sociology at Monash University and an Anglican minister, has called a gross overestimation of Buddhist numbers. When I interviewed him several years ago Bouma thought many more people professed vague allegiance to the ideals of Buddhism than were card-carrying members. Buddhism was, he said, 'the religion to have when you're not having a religion'.
I did that interview in early 2001. That was a time when, perhaps, it was cool to be Buddhist. I don't think it's so cool any more. Since 11 September of that year there has been a resurgence of religion as a divisive force and this ugly, undeniable truth is one of the reasons why I find my vague and unformed faith hard to talk about. But there are other reasons it is difficult. In Salon magazine (20 September 2006) the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg discusses the problems inherent in measuring chemical responses in the brains during prayer, meditation and mystical visions: People talk about transcendence as being indescribable or ineffable. And they've tried to use certain kinds of ideas or emotions to describe it. But that's part of the problem. A lot of these experiences are indescribable. It's like trying to explain what love is -- what it means to say you love your spouse or your child. How does one describe that? We can talk about words but it's harder to get at what ex-actly that experience is about.
Faith, like love, like sexual ecstasy, like rage, is an emotion that is very difficult to describe without resorting to cliche. Hard for the journalist to write about. Hard too for those the journalist interviews to explain why it is they have faith. I interviewed a friend, Dick Jeffrey, for the same series of articles I had interviewed Gary Bouma for: a series on Buddhism in Australia that I was commissioned to write in 2001 for the Age. Dick lived in Bodghaya, one of India's most dangerous states. It's the place where Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree more than 2000 years ago and attained enlightenment. Dick was running a school for the Maitreya Universal Education Project, a school with students like Sunman, a girl brought to the school after she was found, dangerously underweight, standing on a box in the local bazaar and denouncing her parents for having kept her chained up. Many of the public schools in Bodghaya are, literally, falling down. The state often fails to pay the teachers and con-sequently the teachers fail to turn up. Hundreds of children walk many kilometres to attend either the day school, or, after a full day's work, the night school. Dick was do-ing amazing work.
I asked Dick what had led him to Buddhism and subsequently to leaving his life in suburban Melbourne in order to live in a part of India that makes the wild west look tame. Despite the intensity and vibrancy of his chosen life, his answers were pretty dry: I quickly found Tibetan Buddhist philosophy aligned with other ideas and understandings I had picked up. It became relatively easy for me to adopt Buddhist practice and ideal to be able to do so within a community of practitioners and where there is access to teachings from an authentic Buddhist master. I interviewed dozens of people for my article, many of whom have been leading lives with Buddhism at their centre, since I was hanging out on my own in the art room more than thirty years ago.
By and large though, while the people I spoke to could remember very clearly the teachings they heard that shifted their world-view, they were much foggier on their personal circumstances at the time. Dr Nick Ribush took ordination in 1974 (he has since disrobed), was a founder of Wisdom Publications and is now the director of the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, a collection of thousands of teachings by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who pioneered the teaching of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. When I spoke to him he could not bear to retell his story, and instead sent me a wad of articles with gee-whiz headlines such as 'The merry monk' and 'Trendy doctor found peace in a cave'. To talk to Nick was to talk to a man who had left his former self along way behind. (It was also to talk to a man exhausted by the range of cliches journalism had thrown his way.) Like many of the people I spoke to, the trigger for his initial interest in Buddhism now seems irrelevant. Perhaps Buddhist teachings about living in the present had fundamentally changed Buddhist's relationship to their past. The past had become, in L.P. Hartley's famous words, 'a foreign country.'
I originally filed three stories, to be published in conjunction with the Dalai Lama's visit to Australia in May 2002, but the general consensus at the Age was that the stories were boring. I was asked to whittle the articles down to one. My abilities as a writer have to take some of the responsibility for this outcome, but there were clearly other problems. Journalism can't work with a series of quotes about the abstract experience of being moved. It needs to hear that people had a problem with drugs or with their relationships. It demands a narrative in which religion saves people from lives lived in disarray. But Buddhism is interested in non-attachment, and that means non-attachment to moments of high drama. There is also less interest in individual experiences.
Paul Auster, in a wonderful essay on Charles Reznikoff (published in Auster's collection The Art of Hunger ) has written about the necessity of erasing, as far as possible, one's own involvement in a story: Even as he becomes a part of the landscape he was entered, he continues to be an outsider. Therefore, objectivist. That is to say - to create a world around oneself by seeing as a stranger would. . . There can never be any movement towards pos-session. Seeing is the effort to create presence: to possess a thing would be to make it vanish.' (p. 39).
Like Buddhism, I believe good writing demands the erasure of ego. Yet our culture (and employers) reward a strong voice and sense of personality in writing. I often write myself into my pieces as I have in this essay and while this is, in some ways, a response to that demand, it is also a strategy I use in the hope that I am giving my readers the space to take up their own position. My struggle as a non-fiction writer is to develop an intimate 'I' as a way of relating to my audience, without making all I write about me. My struggle as a fiction writer is to develop a style that is engaging without drawing attention to itself in such a way that it detracts from the subject. A constant striving towards disappearance behind the presence one writes.
I find Auster's suggestion that writers needs to write about their world as a stranger would compelling. He is encouraging the development of a critical eye, an eye that allows a sense of perspective and gives readers a chance to see into a world that is foreign to them. There is a skill in maintaining distance from a subject as you also immerse yourself in it perhaps one I did not have when I wrote my articles. I have chosen to become less involved with Buddhism while working on my novel, 'Dharma is a Girl's Best Friend' (it's about a fifites socialite who becomes a Buddhist nun) in an attempt to cultivate that distance.
In researching that novel I have been struck by the repetition of the tropes Tibetan Buddhists use when describing their individual stories. If you have seen Martin Scorcese's beautiful film Kundun you'll know the kind of thing I mean: small boys living in isolated areas who are presented with a series of tests in the attempt to establish whether they are a tulku (reincarnation) of a recently deceased senior Buddhist monk. This ritual of the objects is centuries old and when the story of the items placed before a boy is told it can sound frightfully repetitive. At first I found these repetitions simplistic, as if they denied the individual at the centre of them the complexity of their own narrative, but then I found that such stories gathered a mythological force, an impersonal iconoclasm, the more often they were told. I came to see that what lay behind such generic tellings was deeply personal. The story being told was about the point when a Lama's new body met his former life, the moment where he stepped into a story a thousand years old and turned it into his own.
I did find some stories with a traditional dramatic shape when I was researching my articles five years ago. Venerable Thich Quang Ba, the Abbot of the Van-Hanh Pagoda Temple in Canberra, told me that one of his nuns was on a boat coming out in 1989 when its engines collapsed: The boat [floated] like that for one and a half month, nearly two month and forty-six people boat person die, only sixteen left, one of them is her. When the boat was rescued by Philippine boatmen all the sixteen in unconsciousness, she has to spend a few months in hospital in Philippine camp to recuperate, and these story happen every day. The number of people who die for that kind of reason the number is three to four hundred thousand, then the round figure that UNICEF people gives is five hundred thousand died. Not a pleasure trip.
There was also the story of the fashion designer Jenny Kees a story that can now be read in detail in her new biography, A Big Life Jenny Kee. In 1977, Kee and her baby daughter Grace were traveling from the Blue Mountains to Sydney when their train was crushed under a falling bridge at Granville. Eighty-three people died, many of them in the same carriage as Kee and Grace. For the first time, Kee felt that in order to recover she had to find something bigger than herself. Christianity didn't feel like the answer. Instead, she tried meditation and she tried Siddha Yoga. In 1986 she met a Buddhist monk, Ajahn Pongsuk. 'If one has a spiritual awakening I had it in the bush,' Kee told me. In 1997 Kee and her partner Danton Hughes restored a dairy farmer's cottage in the Blue Mountains. It is an extraordinarily beautiful house that looks out across the mountains, the regenerating bush and a sea of waratahs. In 2001 Hughes, who suffered from depression, committed suicide. 'The pain of his death was like an explosion,' Kee said, a year after he died. 'That pain opens your heart; shock does that to you ... You ask me what bought me to Buddhism? Suffering. Suffering and great pain.'
I included these stories in my article but was very concerned that it might lead readers to assume that faith was something only the damaged need. That it is about a closing down, rather than an opening out. By and large the articles I've written over the years on Buddhists and Buddhism have been about people who live communally, meditate regularly, and travel to countries like India where they built schools and nunneries. For 'colour' I can add details in which these people occasionally lash out by buying a bad bottle of red wine, then hide the bottle under the table because alcohol, in many Indian restaurants, is illegal. But that is about racy as it gets. When I finally filed my vexed article, a few days before the Dalai Lama spoke to tens of thousands of people at the Rod Laver Arena, four years ago, I was deeply grateful for an observation of broadcaster Sandy McCutcheon, who described his Buddhist faith in a way that was accessible to a general audience. He did what I, what all writers, need to do. He found the right image: Years ago, at three in the morning, I heard a car coming down the drive. I thought, Oh someone's coming, and went to stoke up the fire. It was wet and misty and cold and I looked out the window and coming across the paddock in a nightie, holding a kerosene light, was a young lady called Chrissie. 'There are people coming,' she said. 'I thought they might be hungry.' That, to me, is the spirit of Buddhism.'