November 25, 1997
NOTE: This continues a spiritual tale.
I returned from Vietnam on a Wednesday morning in mid- September, 1969. When my parents picked me up at Bates Field, they took me straight to Murphy High School. My Merchant Marine voyage had taken longer than expected, and I was late for my senior year and also for football season.
I don't recall talking much with my folks on the drive in from the airport. Already I was beginning to feel strange. It was only upon returning home that I began to realize how much I had been changed by the trip to Vietnam (the original plan had me catching a banana boat to South America). It was only in familiar surroundings and among former friends that these changes could be measured.
I had just returned from four months at sea and in the War Zone; now I was collecting back assignments in History and going to football practice. Both worlds - Vietnam and high school - seemed equally unreal. Two nights later, I was running pass patterns against Vigor. I didn't know the plays and my friend Larry Baynes, the QB, had to tell me the routes in the huddle. Later, there was a fraternity party or something. I tried to blend with all my guffawing, guzzling Delta Sigma brothers, but I was different somehow.
The high school scene had been seriously important to me the year before. I was Junior Class President, in all kinds of clubs, in the National Honor Society, football - all that. Now, against even the little I saw in Vietnam, all these things seemed precious and absurd. We all wake up this way from adolescence, but for me it came fast. At the time, of course, I didn't know what was happening - and this made everything even more strange.
And in fact, everything was strange in 1969-70, which (for Mobile teenagers) was the dawning of the Sixties. My own inner revolution was matched by the upheavals we watched on the Nightly News. Everybody was demonstrating against something, marching, rioting. Even at Murphy, the air was revolutionary and confused. Pot had come on the high school scene and parents freaked, as they did everywhere. Hair became a battleground. The dinner table became a debating podium.
It was in these tumultuous times that I began to seriously ask my first real spiritual questions. My conclusions, after Vietnam: the whole deal about God & Religion is like an adult fraternity system, complete with in- group rituals.
Everyone agrees on a Big Sacred Story that explains Everything and everyone gets together in temples or mosques or churches to feel good about their agreement on how everything makes sense. In short, religion is fine as a social institution, but beyond that - who, honestly, can say? I declared to my mother that I had thought everything through, and that I would no longer be returning to church.
"I am," I announced over the mashed potatoes, "an atheist." "My God!" screamed Mother.
"That's right," I said bitterly. "Your God." (High school atheists are often insufferable.)
So Mother, exasperated and exhausted by my wise-guy debates, arranged for me to go see our minister at Dauphin Way Methodist, a wonderful man named Dr. Joel McDavid. I would go every Friday afternoon and sit in his office for "a little talk." Generally, I would try to enlighten Dr. McDavid about the error of his beliefs, and he would listen good-humoredly. I never managed to convert him to atheism, and he never convinced me about God (though I am not sure he was trying to convince me about anything) so after a few months of "little talks" we called it a draw, though I now know those talks had an effect on me.
For most people, a point comes when the religious instructions and assumptions received unquestioningly since childhood must be tested. We step back and without sentimentality, look hard at the religion of our parents. Sometimes a revelation comes and that religion is accepted at a new level of authenticity. Sometimes it means leaving that path for another more suited to our development. The Sufis express this, as they do everything, with precision ...
"You cannot really believe anything until you are aware of the process by which you arrived at your position. Until you have knowledge, belief is mere coalesced opinions, however it may seem to you. Coalesced opinions serve for ordinary living. Real belief enables higher studies."
... and with beauty:
To those who seek truth in conventional religion: Until college
and minaret have crumbled
This holy work of ours will not be done. Until faith becomes rejection
And rejection becomes belief
There will be no true believer.
Not that there is anything wrong with conventional religion, or that one cannot ascend to the mystic Ultimate through the rites of a conventional religion. It is just that the particular religion, while always honored, must finally be transcended. "It is a wonderful thing to be born in a religion," the great sage Vivekananda observed, "but tragic to die in a religion." Or, as my own teacher used to say, "Where religion ends, spirituality begins."
Along these lines, it is helpful to borrow Ken Wilber's terms "legitimacy" versus "authenticity." A religion that is broadly accepted within a given society is "legitimate." Here in the United States, for example, Christianity (in most of its flavors) is legitimate, as is Judaism. In the Arab world, of course, Islam alone enjoys legitimacy, and so on in other regions with other religions. On the other hand, "authentic" religions are those through which the individual actually connects deeply with the Ultimate.
Thus, a religion that may be legitimate may or may not be authentic. And an authentic religion is not all that bothered by social legitimacy.
In 1970, Christianity and Judaism were about the only spiritual traditions that enjoyed social legitimacy in the United States. In the multi- cultural 1990's, however, one could now perhaps add Islam, and admit to the fringes of legitimacy the ancient wisdom traditions of Buddhism (particularly Zen, with the vajrayana ways of Tibetan Buddhism gaining popularity), Native American and African paths (on the fringes, to be blunt, since they lost), yoga (first as exercise, but now increasingly as a meditative practice), along with other less defined (and, well, flaky) New Age paths. But still, any departure from the orthodox paths of one's parents and family is viewed as suspect. Thus has it always been.
To be honest, what we profess to believe is forever influenced, if not based entirely upon, the place and time we are born into. Most people know little of traditions beyond their own. Only a few Christian Americans, for instance, have even the slightest idea of the great world traditions. Most know little of the infinite subtleties of the ancient wisdom of Vedanta and Yoga, of Mahayana and Theravadan Buddhism, of the Tao of Lao Tsu and Chuang Tsu, of the indescribably rich Tibetan compassion traditions and yogic alchemy, of the great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. To be fair, I have found out first-hand that this limited, limiting, and parochial view of the Mystery is prevalent everywhere, not just in the Deep South Bible-Belt. It is much more so in some parts of the world - but wherever you are and whatever you believe, the infidel is always the "other guy." As Brother Charles Simpson, the great Baptist preacher, used to joke: "Beloved, heresy is what other folks believe."
That said, let me present my tale as an example of certain general, perhaps even Universal patterns of what may happen in the spiritual yatra or Inner Journey. I have been more or less lurching seriously along the Way for about 30 years now. I have traveled in a sort of serial- single-mindedness along some traditional paths. First, from age 19 to about 21, in a primal kind of Christianity. Then, from age 29 to 35, in a Soto Zen tradition. The last five years, in a Raja Yoga tradition, a tradition that for me is even now in transition. (The long gaps in between are when I was goofing off, though even these prolonged pit stops are supposed to be part of the race.)
It's not that the paths I followed and then left are in themselves flawed -- far from it. Nor do I consider myself particularly flawed for moving on. This is, you see, a very intuitive business. There are no rules, really. What is right for me right now may not be the medicine you need, or even that I may have need a year from now.
This yatra or interior voyage has led me to travel outwardly - to the Far East, to South America, Alaska, Europe, and twice to India. But the external travel is trivial, except for the possible fact that it sped up the internal voyage. But this is a tricky voyage, the Buddha cautioned, since it does not begin, nor arrive; nor is there is even a voyager or a vessel. (I think maybe this was his way of saying, Don't cling to your ideas.)
So I offer my story, not that it is anything special. Just some travel notes, some funny stories, and some conversations with several remarkable people I've met over the years along the way. (And still meet.)
Till next issue, then. Stay tuned!