Category Archives: Buddhism

Sometimes it pays to listen to your spouse: Dead Cold by Louise Penny

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Dead Cold

By Louise Penny

When I first heard about Louise Penny I was very surprised. She had been an unexceptional host on CBC radio in Winnipeg. As a regular CBC listener, I listened to her nearly every day. I heard she had moved to Quebec. Much to my surprise she wrote a book called Still Life. It was a murder mystery that took place in a small fictional village in the eastern townships called 3 Pines.  I found it a little difficult to believe that she could be any good. How could a young woman from Winnipeg be a good mystery writer? That prejudice shows you how stupid I can be. Later I learned she was on the New York Times bestseller list. That did not seem improbable; it seemed impossible.

Sometimes it pays to listen to your spouse. Chris became a Penny  fan and suggested I read her too. It took me a couple of years to follow her suggestions. Funny, how suggestions from a spouse are the last that are followed. And Chris says, “Should be the first to be followed. As a matter of fact, since Chris is a big mystery fan, when I learned this Winnipeg woman was an internationally respected mystery writer, I suggested she read her. Now Chris has conveniently forgotten my suggestion to her! Funny how that happens!

Eventually I read her first novel and concluded Penny is indeed a very good writer. Chris was right. Again I have to admit that.  I have started to read her series now. Chris has read them all. This year I read the second in the series, Dead Cold. This convinced me that Penny is an exceptional writer.

One of the great pleasures of the series is Penny’s description of this small town in Quebec and it’s many fascinating inhabitants. This is how she describes the small town in her second novel:

“Three Pines had what she craved.

It had croissants and café au lait.It had steak fries and the New York Times. It had a bakery, a bistro, a B & B, a general store. It had peace and stillness and laughter. It had great joy and great sadness and the ability to accept both and be content. It had companionship and kindness.”

         There was one outstanding incident in Dead Cold that I want to mention. It involved Clara, a recurring character in the series. Clara is an artist. So far she has toiled without success. She does not know if she is any good or not. Naturally she was insecure. She asked CC, who Clara wrongly thought was a friend, to introduce her art to a Montreal art critic.  Then one day she encountered CC on an escalator in a Montreal department store, and CC, her erstwhile “friend” pretended to be talking to the critic as she was travelling down the escalator and Clara was travelling up.  She led Clara to believe that the critic had dismissed her art as “amateur and banal.”  It was cruel gesture and entirely deflated Clara. Clara was “murdered by words.” She “knew” her art was crap.

A few minutes after this painful incident,  Clara encountered a homeless bum on the streets of Montreal. The bum was lying on the ground covered in vomit and excrement. The bum was an old woman. Clara intended to give her a bag of food. She almost stopped; the smell was so bad. Yet she continued and placed the bag beside the old woman. Amazingly, the old woman turned up to Clara and said, “I always loved your art, Clara.” How could that be?

For some reason, Clara was convinced this bum was God. The shit-covered bag lady was God!  She thought she had met God. In my opinion Clara was wrong. She had not met God; she had become God. By offering food to the bum she became God. The Buddhists say that we must learn to become the Buddha. This is what Clara had done, and in the process she was redeemed. This is what we should do; we should become God. I believed that this is what genuine religion is all about. Religion leads us to the God within.

All of this in a mystery novel. Funny how that happens.

Religious Experience

 

As I said before,  I find Buddhism in many ways to be a surprisingly congenial religion.  Partly this is because it is very different from most other religions, especially the three severe monotheistic religions that were born in the Middle East.

For one thing, Buddha, unlike most religious leaders always wanted the members to think for themselves rather than relying on a charismatic leader. He expected his followers to exercise their own critical judgment. This reminds me of what Nietzsche said, “You repay a teacher badly if you always remain the pupil.”

Buddha believed that he became enlightened when he awoke to the truth that he had found embedded in the deepest structure of existence itself.  He found that truth in himself, and believed that anyone could do the same.  In fact, he believed it was necessary for each individual to experience that himself or herself or the experience would not be genuine. That is why, again unlike other religions, the Buddha did not try to elicit faith. He did not want faith.  He wanted each of us to experience the truth ourselves.  He would be willing to help or guide us to this experience, but he could not tell us the truth.

Carl Jung said that religion was invented by man as self-defence against divine experience.  That sounds shocking.  And it is. Divine experience is hard.  We have to be strong to take it.  As Robertson Davies once said, “most of us are absolutely terrified of a genuine religious experience.”  We would not know what to do with it.

We can have a religious experience anywhere. Even in a church or synagogue, though I would suggest there are much better places, like a forest or a bog. Unfortunately too few of them are experienced in institutional churches these days.  Too often religion interferes with the experience rather than facilitating it. That we have to guard against.

Buddhism: A Better Way

 

I recommend a wonderful little book written by Karen Armstrong called Buddha.  I love good small books.

I find Buddhism in many ways to be a surprisingly congenial religion.  Partly this is because it is very different from most other religions, especially the three severe monotheistic religions that were born in the Middle East.

For one thing, Buddha, unlike most religious leaders always wanted the members to think for themselves rather than relying on a charismatic leader. He expected his followers to exercise their own critical judgment. That is unlike almost all religious leaders.

Buddha believed that he became enlightened when he awoke to the truth that he had found embedded in the deepest structure of existence itself. He found that truth in himself, and believed that anyone could do the same.  In fact, he believed it was necessary for each individual to experience that himself or herself, or the experience would not be genuine.  That is why, again unlike other religions, the Buddha did not try to elicit faith. He did not want faith.  He wanted each of us to experience the truth ourselves.  He would be willing to help or guide us to this experience, but he could not tell us the truth.  He could not tell us how to find it. That was our job.

Only then would each of us could become a Buddha.  That is what enlightenment is.  One becomes a Buddha.  For the same reason one should not revere the man, the Buddha, it was rather his teaching, the dhamma (or sometimes dharma)that was important.  The word is used in multiple Indian religions. In Buddhism, dharma means something like  “cosmic law and order” but is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha.  Reverence for the man would just interfere with one’s ability to experience the truth.

Similarly, one would not be able to get any help from the gods. Unlike other religious groups again, the Buddhist cannot expect any supernatural help to achieve enlightenment. Buddha believed that these truths embedded in existence were entirely naturalto human beings and could be experienced by any genuine seeker free from distraction.  Buddha therefore refused to make belief in a Supreme Being part of the creed.  One could believe in that if one chose, but it was not a necessary part of the enlightenment.

One of the beautiful aspects of Buddhism that really attracts me is this expansiveness or inclusiveness.  It is willing to accept that there is more than one way to enlightenment.  To someone brought up in the Christian religion that seems impossible. The Buddha just says how heachieved it. There might be other ways.  It is up to each of us to achieve and experience the way on our own.  If belief in a Supreme Being helps us to experience enlightenment so much the better for us.  If it is not necessary that is all right too.

What the seeker sought was peace free from all the travails of life. As a result “the new religion sought inner depth rather than magical control. The Absolute could be found in everything, including oneself.  Buddha was within each of us, all we had to do was find it in ourselves.  As a result, again, unlike many less congenial religions there was therefore no need for a priestly elite.  We are expected to experience the enlightenment directly, without an intermediary.  In fact, that is the onlyway one can experience it.

Prior to Buddha the religions of India were generally extremely ascetic.  One was expected to renounce all pleasure and desire.  In fact according to some sects one was expected to seek out suffering and pain to help achieve enlightenment.  While Buddha realized that often in life we were distracted by our desires and our search for personal pleasures, he did not preach asceticism.  That too could become a distraction.  Instead he advocated a middle way between the two extremes.  We must be free from domination in order to find enlightenment. We have to be truly free.

What the enlightened one would have to achieve would be a genuine compassion for others.  Complete fellow feeling for all creatures of the earth, not just humans. Selfishness would have to be overcome. Concern for others required in other words a complete subjection to the Golden rule.  “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  This is exactly what I have been saying about religions.Especially for laymen who had not experienced yoga training one could not expect that they lay aside all concern for themselves. I would suggest it is impossible in event and not desirable.   However they would be expected not to be imprisoned by self interest.  One would be expected to have genuine fellow feeling for others.  One would have to have the ability to empathize and sympathize with the plight of all other creatures.

To me this is a very congenial religion.