Follow Your Own Nose

I subscribe to no belief system but my own. And I don’t see why anyone should pretend to be any different. We are all engaged in philosophical pick and mix. People often claim to be Christians, but then trot out some disagreement with an essential tenet of that faith. The Christian churches — the body of Christ — seem to be littered with such heresies. It seems fairly certain that Yeshu would not even answer to the Greek name he has been given, let alone the failure to worship on the sabbath day (Saturday) or, as he did, in a synagogue. He would probably have something to say about the failure to keep Abraham's covenant with God through male circumcision, too.

Mahomet did not hate women in the way that so many of his supposed followers do, either. And he would have been ashamed at the parading of supposed miracles believed in by so many Muslims. He taught that there is one God. That was miracle enough in a sadly divided world.

Sorry, this is difficult ground. When Terry Jones was told that his exceptional film The Life of Brian had upset Christians, he apologised, saying that he had intended to upset people of all beliefs. So here we go: The Buddha believed that every individual should abandon this world for nirvana as if leaving a house that is burning, but most Buddhists follow the Mahayana system, which insists that its practitioners should refuse nirvana until even the grass and the trees are enlightened. Of course, the Mahayanists have nothing to fear from their founder — unlike Yeshu, Gautama has no intention of coming back.

Bodhidharma, who took Buddhism from India to China and then sulked in silence for nine years, refusing to take on any disciples, risked his life by telling a potentate that the first principle of Buddhism was ‘Vast emptiness, no holiness.’ Other people would happily string me up for what I have to say. Be assured, you won’t be the first to wish it. I have been annoying people in my own friendly way for a long time. But my violence has never been more than verbal.

Orthodoxy is the bane of genuine spirituality. The early Buddhists would set up camps and argue doctrine with each other. This seems so much more healthy than slavishly following some other person's interpretation, no matter how sagacious.

Emphasis is so easily put on some trivial aspect of faith. As Jesus said: the law is made for man, not man for the law. Some Puritan believing that he will be welcome in heaven after a joyless existence must be crazy. A grey heaven without dance, or colour, or song. Somerset Maugham wrote a story in which God listens eagerly to the eloquent atheist’s arguments for disbelief while dismissing the tediously worthy to nonexistence.

Novice-expert theory can be found in psychology. Novices insist on the rules they have read. Experts just get on with it. But why grasp meaning when you can righteously split a hair? Lao Tsu cautioned that there is a difference between book-learning and the wisdom of experience. The novice sees everything in black and white, experience teaches a thousand shades of grey, as part of eighty thousand colours. So it is with religious belief. Where I find an odious teaching, I abhor it. Where I find wisdom, I admire it. My sad lack of humility allows me to question doctrine that I find confusing, rather than saying, ‘It must be true, and when I am wise, I will probably understand it.’ When Lao Tsu says that the wise are ruthless, because they know that everyone dies, I hesitate. When justification is made for the genocide of the Canaanites in Exodus, I am horrified. The more subtle arguments for fraticide in the Gita scare me. The Buddhaghosa’s admonition that we should never partake of sleep, but put our thoughts to the fear of death and stay awake alarms me. But when Lao Tsu says to forget ideals and fill bellies, I applaud. And when the Bible tells me that all is vanity, I agree. The Upanishads fill me with admiration, and the Buddha’s condemnation of secret teachings delights me.

I am glad that teachers are human. Krishnamurti’s Savil Row suits and numerous bisexual affairs take nothing from his teaching. Freud loved cocaine, and Jung made anti-semitic remarks. I am not looking for perfect heroes to idealise, I am looking for wisdom to make the way easier and the goal more readily attainable. And the goal, as the Sufis say, is friendship in the way of love.

April 2004