During the break at the talk ('Only Connect') I gave the other day to a group meeting at Schumacher College, one of the members came up to me and said 'I'm surprised you follow a Buddhist path. I'd have thought Hinduism was more up your street? Buddhism has always struck me as such a cold and detached religion.'
I always enjoy being prompted to question myself and my ways. It can bring a freshness, and a letting-go of outdated ideas or habits, and an opportunity to see what something looks like from another's perspective.
We had about two minutes, and I couldn't start to explore it all with her there and then. I said, rather lamely, that it wasn't Buddhism per se but Zen specifically (and its emphasis on mindfulness) that underpinned my spirituality (alongside the teachings of what is commonly known as the Western Mystery Tradition), and that I saw Zen more as a methodology, an approach to living, than a 'religion'.
There is nothing, and also far too much, to say about Zen.
Had I wanted to try what I might have said, had there been time, was that 'religion' requires a set of (usually divinely revealed) beliefs, and especially a belief in a divinity; and whether monotheistic or polytheistic, there's normally a hierarchy that one needs to invoke, pray to or propitiate (I'm of course over-simplifying here). And there's something about such a hierarchy, and the idea of a (usually male) mediating élite as well as Top Guy, that turns me off. (Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing.)
My path, both/all aspects of it, is one of gnosis: direct knowledge or insight through direct experience. I could summarise it by saying it's about waking up.
What I love about Zen is that it's about cutting through: cutting through all our preconceptions, our ideas about, our opinions, our habits, our intellectual posturing, so that we may see reality, the clear pool, the 'ground of being', beneath it all.
Zen doesn't require that I believe anything, it has no ultimate God (and no set of beliefs in relation to one), and we don't worship the Buddha (who as an enlightened being offered us teachings in relation to the way out of suffering, that's all).
Zen, like most schools of Buddhist thought, is more a psychology, really, than anything; and its central premises can be tested out by anyone: that most of our suffering arises in our relationship to transience, our inability to live in the only reality we can actually experience, right here, right now, and how hard we cling to ideas of the separate self, and what it needs, desires and dislikes.
Growing as it did out of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, Zen (in Japan) or Chan (in China), counsels that Buddha-nature resides in everything: this flower, that slug, that rat in the compost bin, this raindrop, this human being; and that waking up consists in seeing that, and in seeing the ultimate unity that forms and dissolves and reforms in everything.
It is true that Buddhism in the West very often seems to come across as a cerebral, detached, passionless practice. I've known a great many practitioners – often, although not exclusively, men – who come to Buddhism (as far as I can tell) because it suits their personalities/fears/predilections to remove themselves from the messy emotional realm of the human passions, and a misunderstanding of Buddhist teachings (in my humble opinion, of course!) can seem to justify that as a more 'spiritual' way of being. That's a form of denial, and a repressive rationalisation.
I don't buy it. Eros, the desire-nature, is not only part of our makeup but crucial for living a vital, creative, engaged life. Passion is not to be repressed; rather, it is our light, and also our servant, and only becomes a problem when we become its.
What Buddhism can do is remind us that anything to which we become enslaved – or conversely anything which we hate and push away – takes us off the Middle Way and into more suffering.
So it's more correct, and an essential distinction, to say that Buddhism counsels non-attachment – warm engagement, but with an open heart and an open hand, aware of transience and impermanence, aware of the follies of trying to hold on to anything, even life; and aware too of what a gift it is to be alive.
I'm reading psychiatrist and Buddhist Mark Epstein's book Open To Desire (it's a wonderful and clear-sighted book on living with the apparent contradictions of being human).
In it, he quotes international Buddhist teachers, Stephen and Martine Batchelor (who were originally teachers here, close by, at Sharpham when it was a Buddhist community and college). Martine uses the image of the hand and the coin: we can either clutch the coin tightly in our fist, or we can allow it to rest on our open palm. Both ways are ways of holding the coin; one more 'skilful' than the other. The opening of the fist is not passionless, but trusting.
'As the bee tastes the essence of a flower and then flies on without destroying its beauty and perfume, so let the sage wander in this life', says the Dhammapada, one of my favourites, an ancient Pali text (Juan Mascaro's translation, but amended a little by me).
Epstein says 'Desire is the crucible within which the self is formed.' The problem is in our thinking that desire can ultimately be fulfilled in any of the ways in which we usually try to assuage it, and the restlessness of being forever driven by that need.
So I guess I come back to a metaphor I come back to over and over: it's important not to mistake the pointing finger for the moon.
Desire, yearning, can be one of the most profound experiences of human existence. It reminds us of hugeness, of vastness. And it may also point the way ahead.
It may be that yearning itself that teaches us that it cannot ultimately be found in any one thing, person, place or situation, and that our work may be to transform both ourself, and our desire, into something more awakened, more enduring and actually more present. And then we stand a chance of moving beyond our separateness (for that, really, is the aim of desire) into true unity-with-everything.
My friend Jo once said to me, as we were leaving the Isle of Iona where I lead a writing retreat each year: 'I wish you passionate equanimity.' That has become a kind of mantra for me, exemplifying exactly that harmony of living with eros from out of a quiet centre.