Religion: an Epistle

Part, the First

Religion is when you owe a real apology to an imaginary person. About the only positive thing you can say for religion is gets the best out of architects. To be fair, religion is the midwife of culture: without at least one mid-level god attendant upon the labor there’s a high probability the infant society will be stillborn, or worse, end up like Finland. A good, stout religion with a whiff of brimstone at the back end also serves to keep the proceedings in order thereafter: if the law doesn’t catch up to a malefactor in this life, it will certainly do so in the next. Persons of faith are correct when they ascribe the inevitable decay of a civilization to the failure of its members to honor the founding god or gods: what they don’t quite grasp is that religion is like Santa Claus. Most people eventually detect a human agency behind the divine mystery, and then they have to make their own way, which usually ends in disaster. But self-determinism is a vital part of a healthy human existence. Cultures, like individuals, are nursed on magic and must be weaned to the mundane: otherwise it’s all just a vast game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Which is not to say there is no god or gods. I am partial to Paian Apollo and dark-haired Poseidon, and Athene, Mother of Wisdom; there is power in the great-dugged Earth Mother of prehistoric times, whose image is sometimes found in deep places. The god of Abraham is tedious and vindictive, but there are myriad gods to the East bursting with magic and dance, and in places like Africa and South America dwell gods as wild as Pollock paintings, inscrutable but profoundly alive. Tell me a god lives under that tree, and make it a wonderful tree, and I’ll tip my hat to that god. I grew up in the woods of New Hampshire where great rocks sat alone on hilltops and were so obviously sentient that we placed smaller rocks on top of them so they wouldn’t get lonely. There were churches everywhere, common as picket fences although somewhat taller; what went on inside the churches was mostly reading standing up and singing sitting down, or vice-versa. I could never make any sense of it, but then, I was a dull child.

Perhaps that’s why the god thing never caught on with me. To this day I would rather swim around in a pile of new-fallen maple leaves on a Sunday morning than watch a man behind a dictionary stand skip around in a book trying to convince me to lay my troubles on the bit of whittling dangling on the wall behind his head. It could also be the pernicious influence of my father. The only reason he hasn’t declared himself an atheist is it sounds too much like taking an interest in the subject. One day when I was a mere pup at his knee and he was in an uncommon philosophic humor, he did remark, “without god, idiots would have nobody to talk to.” This was during the heyday of the Nixon administration; his views may have softened thereafter but we never discussed the subject again. I know he likes cathedrals from an aesthetic standpoint so one cannot say the man is immune to godly charms. Or Russian women, for that matter. He is a complex man.

Speaking of man, but not this one particular man, who after all made his living with a quill pen and is not representative of the general run of the breed, but rather Man, or Homo Sapiens (Latin for ‘Man, the Sap’), the thing that distinguishes man (Man, I mean) from all the other beasts is the ability to ask questions. Also, the invention of the rotisserie oven. From this penchant for asking questions springs god: those questions man cannot answer by proof, he must answer by god. After all, what we crave isn’t really answers at all: it’s Truth we want. And where Truth cannot be proved, we must have Faith. That’s where the whole business falls apart. An atheist, if he were quoting this sentence, would tell you that this life, if it is to be lived sincerely, can not be taken as a down payment on the next life. It’s the real thing, and the only thing, and must therefore be experienced with absolute moral and ethical conviction, not to mention gusto. Ironically this means most atheists will behave with the greatest consideration for the wellbeing and keeping of their fellow men, (usually the women also), the world about them, and the refinement of the human spirit. It is all precious, every moment. Waste not. Meanwhile the devoutly religious party, who believes his behavior will be graded after the fashion of an exam, once the bell has rung (or tolled for thee) and the papers have been handed up to the front of the class, will indulge in a lifetime of excesses of one kind and another, sinning one day, penitent the next, and between times damning everybody else for failing to observe proper form. The means justifies the end, because the end is all that matters. The atheist, meanwhile, sees that there is nothing but the means. The end is only the end.

But this robs a fellow of the satisfaction of getting at the Truth, and what fun are mere answers? To accept that there is no God is to accept that life has no Truth behind it, or to put it another way, no meaning. And if there’s no point to life, why not go around raping and pillaging, whooping it up in a lifetime of aimless debauch and wastrelry like George W. Bush? Why even worry about the future and the environment and people and all that other rubbish the Republicans gave up on years ago? I’ll tell you why, but it’s a secret, so don’t go around spilling the being to just anybody. Get it? Spill the being? Like ‘beans’, kind of an alliterative gag there? I slay me. Here’s the deal: whether or not there is a god, the bad news is, we can only believe. We can’t know. Just like we can’t prove there is life after death, or Heaven or Hell. Now believing is almost as good as knowing, and in fact most people can’t even tell the difference, just like they can’t tell the difference between Velveeta and cheese. And you can get pretty far on believing, just as you can get pretty far on a lucky guess. Entire civilizations have been founded (see above) on sheer faith.

Then again, historically speaking, every single human civilization has eventually collapsed into rubble, its citizens have been slaughtered, and its omnipotent gods have been reduced to a cameo in Bullfinch’s Mythology. And some of them failed immediately, particularly the varieties that discourage procreation and the occasional restaurant meal. Not to worry, though. There’s always a new civilization coming along, always borne on the back of a new religion. It’s human nature. We’re crazy for the Truth, answers aren’t enough. It is for this reason I don’t pick on new religions, such as Scientology, for example, any more than I pick on old religions such as the Catholic Church: there’s always a fresh approach coming down the chute, and it will generally be of more utility than the earlier model because it uses contemporary metaphors instead of stuff that resonated best twenty centuries ago. Let’s face it, the Bible has an awful lot of injunctions against the theft of livestock. L. Ron Hubbard mentions purse snatching. In a thousand years it will be tampering with the radiation detectors in a public cave. But I digress. I was going to tell you why we are called to nobler behavior than our base natures might suggest, and hence to some meaning, some Truth that validates our brief walk-on parts in the endless soap opera of human existence.

Here it is: the big question that underlies all other questions (except strictly utilitarian questions such as “is it safe to eat if it’s still pink in the middle” and “what happens if I push the big red button”): What Is The Meaning Of Life? That’s quite a question, especially as it appears to be (and has so appeared since it was first asked probably fifty thousand years ago) unanswerable without recourse to the divine. Why unanswerable? Because there is a kind of default answer that comes along with unanswerable questions, and that answer is negative. You remember I grew up in New Hampshire, right? I remember it, and I think I mentioned it before. Let’s take it as mentioned. There’s an old joke in New Hampshire, it just gets funnier and funnier until you think the next time you hear it you will have to hammer rail spikes into the eye sockets of the person that says it; this joke is hauled canard-fashion to bear whenever someone asks for directions somewhere the Yankee doesn’t know how to get to. After much hemming and hawing, squinting at the sun, stroking of grizzled chin-beards, hooking of thumbs into armpits, and suspender snapping, the answer is inevitably “you can’t get there from here.” Let it never be said the New Englander lacks wit. Unfortunately this is also more or less the only plausible answer to the Big Question.

Life, one would be forced to acknowledge based upon the evidence assembled over the last quarter-million years since the first Homo Somebody-Or-Other came along, is completely meaningless. Futile would not be too strong a word, except for some excellent art and music that has survived the millennia. But certainly ’empty’ would not be an epithet out of place. Life is Empty and Meaningless. Golly. That’s kind of heavy for a scrivener of light amusements such as myself, but I’m just the unmessenger, if you will. Look: we can keep beating our heads on the rock of the Big Question (things just keep getting capitalized, that shows you how Important they are), or we can accept that there’s something inherently wrong with the Question itself. What if the Question was a gag, like asking for directions to Nubia from a guy in Antrim, New Hampshire? Bazingo! If there isn’t a Meaning of Life, ipso factotum, that means life has No Meaning. Luckily for us, there’s a religion that addresses this particular conundrum by the horns, or takes it. You know what I mean.

A casual reading of my remarks to this point would suggest that I align myself with the godless atheist or the goat-sacrificing heathen, but this would be incorrect. I am a man of faith, and about as devout in my spavined way as one can possibly be without adopting the tonsure and saffron robe. I’m a Buddhist. All humorists are Buddhists, whether they know it or not, and the funnier, the more enlightened. Humor is the joy of disaster. This certainly explains political humor and uncontrollable giggling at funerals (I can’t be the only person with this affliction. It’s ghastly, like spastic bowel in a bathyscaphe, blasting away at Jacques Cousteau half a mile beneath the sea). Here’s the essential nugget at the core of Buddhism: Life is ­ wait for it ­ Empty and Meaningless. Bazingo once again! But wait­ how can you have a religion founded on accepting that there’s no reason to have a religion? This is where the whole thing gets ticklish.

The background of Buddhism, back when Buddha (née Siddhartha Gautama) was a pup (during the Cleveland administration or even before then), was your basic reincarnative Hindu binge with about fifty million deities of assorted colors and limb arrangements engaged in a ten-thousand-year contest to see who could show up in the most forms, with second prize going to the god with the most heads. Runners-up all got epic poems. Wat ho! Anyway by the time S. Gautama came along, the proceedings had drifted pretty far from the original existence-confirming purpose of religion generally; it was all you could do to keep even the most obvious deities straight in your head, and none of it helped to answer the Big Q. It just made people go around feeling guilty all the time. To keep his princely son (S.G. was a prince) from feeling this terrible sense that there was an unanswered question hovering around in the back of life making it seem pointless, Pops (for that is what Siddhartha called his father, and his mother ‘Mags’) set out to hide all evidence of human suffering from the lad’s life. To this end he had all persons afflicted with age, disease, death, premature baldness, etc. banished from the vicinity. But the prince was no fool, or his horse wasn’t, and before you could say “Jack Robinson” (which took a very long time to say in anno 563 BC India because Jack Robinson hadn’t been invented) Gautama ran up against these very aspects of the human condition, and probably goiter as well (Jack Robinson invented iodized salt).

“Wait,” cried he, only in Sanskrit, “You mean we all get diseased and old and poor and wretched and die? Dang! Then what’s the point?” Next thing you know he has renounced his worldly goods and a wife with the finest tomatoes that side of Reykjavík and after a few years of malnourishment he’s sitting under the Bodhi Tree, although any tree would have done, he was only trying to keep out of the weather. He sat there for weeks, by the end of which time he probably looked pretty much like the old guy with a farshlepteh krenk that opened his eyes to human suffering in the first place. Now whether he sat there for forty-nine days or three hours isn’t really the point. There’s just as much hokum around Buddhism as there is around any old-school religion: people like to know there were a few miracles and extremes of endurance and suffering so forth. If somebody’s going to achieve redemption for mankind, they’d better have earned it. How Buddha achieved enlightenment isn’t the point, anyway. It can hit you on a train or brushing your teeth. He proclaimed himself the most worthless of creatures, so folks wouldn’t fixate on the messenger instead of the message, which they promptly did. It’s not about him, it’s about us. Each of us, one at a time, which after all is how we have to go through this life business anyway.
What Buddha (he changed his name at this point­ call him the Ascetic Formerly Known as a Prince) figured out was that Life is Suffering. Pretty obvious after the first couple of hours under the tree, I would imagine. To this astute observation he added that Life is Empty and Meaningless, which is what he was worried about in the first place, but ­ and this is the kicker ­ that’s a Good Thing. Why? I mean doesn’t it kind of suck that life is suffering and pointless on top of that, like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie? (I met Jerry Bruckheimer one time. We talked about Kentucky horses. Just goes to show it’s a small world.) Here’s what’s so great about this apparently bad news. I’ll make a list, for the sake of clarity.

1. If Life is Empty and Meaningless, we can fill it with any meaning we wish.

Actually it’s not much of a list. But that’s the beauty of the thing. It’s so simple. And it makes sense out of our sad little lives, once you get your head wrapped around it. Say you’re a big NASCAR fan. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re not, but let’s honor the memory of Fred Rogers, who was also a Buddhist in his way, and make believe. You just love to watch those Nas cars zoom around and around and read all the names of the sponsors on the hoods, or whatever one does at these events. People like me might sneer at this simple-minded pastime. In fact I am doing so, and pretty openly, too, which isn’t at all fair of me. But actually what I think about it is irrelevant. You have imbued your life with meaning. Somehow, the contest of mighty engines and manifolds and things down there on the track is a metaphor for your life, a religion of sorts that invests your days with purpose and vim. When the drivers get all the chicks, in a way you are getting all the chicks too (or the drivers, if you are a chick, or if you are a chick driver, suit yourself). You’re not getting all the chicks in the way I prefer, maybe, which is in person, but in a way. Life is suffering, right? That said, never miss an opportunity to score. But I digress. The meaning of life is what you bring to it. And it can change all the time. Buddhism is full of this kind of thing. I’ve never been able to stump it, logic-wise.

Say you are a big NASCAR fan and all of a sudden a huge boulder falls across your legs, pinning you down in the middle of a forest fire where a large number of starving wolves have gathered, and by a twist of fate you are covered in hot dog condiments. And you have sciatica. Life sure is suffering. How can you possibly derive meaning from NASCAR racing now? You don’t have to! You can derive meaning from the very situation you are in! It’s easy. All you have to do is accept that your situation is what it is, and it isn’t anything else. That is the meaning of your life. Does this mean you like it? No. Does this mean you’re glad of the opportunity for spiritual growth that wolves tugging your entrails out will provide? No.

It just means that rather than having to say, “Gosh, this is such a meaningless death I’m suffering here,” you can perish assured that your death is perfectly meaningful­ just as meaningful as the death of my Aunt Ada or Jesus Christ or Abraham Lincoln or that fat lady that stuck to the couch and they had to saw the wall apart to get her corpse out of the apartment. Why? Because you gave it meaning simply by living it. You could dedicate your demise to J.J. Yeley, it doesn’t matter. Even if you don’t come up with anything and you die an insensible gibbering maniac, that is the meaning. But for extremely clever people, you can move beyond meaning altogether. Which is lucky, because as you can see from the above example, there’s not a heck of a lot of consolation in the meaning of things when an animal is dragging your still-beating heart out of your shattered ribcage.

See, investing life with meaning is a lot of fun and it will definitely improve your chances of retiring with a decent nest egg, especially if you make the meaning of your life about watching Chinese capital movements in the European bond market over the next 18 months. But we’re only throwing all this meaning stuff around because of that persistent Question of ours. Buddha really got out in front of this issue. If Life is Empty and Meaningless, we can fill it with the meaning of our choice, like those self-serve beverage fountains at the 7-11. But even better, we can leave it empty! Don’t do this at the 7-11, though. There’s a whole heck of a lot of empty around, right? Like, that’s all there is. So if we embrace the emptiness, each moment of our lives becomes perfect in its way, regardless of how we suffer during same. Timothy Leary got this, and thus made pure, died of the ravages of agonizing cancer in the most beatific manner possible. Even the pain was life. Even the onrush of death was life. With nothing to clutch at, there’s nothing to let go of. He died without any LSD in his system, according to witnesses. His last words were “why not? Yeah.”

And even if we die suddenly like my Aunt Ada, shot in the head at Ford’s Theatre during a performance of ‘Showboat’ with a bullet intended for Abraham Lincoln, if we live each moment without investing it with all kinds of meaning and importance and plans for next Wednesday and anxiety and so forth, if we just live in the moment, to be incredibly trite, then every single instant of our lives is a fine time to die, no preparations or famous last words required. You know what Ghandi’s last words were? “He ram,” which means “oh, God”. The sort of thing he probably said every time he ran out of spinning wool or barked his shins on the table. It doesn’t matter! He lived every moment as if it was the first moment of his life, and the last moment of his life, too, and in the latter instance of course eventually he was right. Again I’m talking about death when the subject is life, but there’s so much more death than there is life, whatever your belief structure, it has to get mentioned. Religion, after all, is an insurance policy taken out on your soul.

Life is ultimately a brief interval in what would otherwise be an eternity of death. This explains the appeal of reincarnation and also paradise. But spending eternity in even the nicest place imaginable would eventually get so boring you’d be pining for a weekend in hell. Only life offers a soul-juicing orgasm one moment and a crushing blow to the skull from a falling bust of Voltaire the next. The sheer variety of human existence is its delight and its curse. By existing in a state of perfect emptiness, for which one might profitably substitute the related term ‘openness’, we can experience everything on its own terms: now raped by Cossacks, now snuggled by Basset Hound puppies, the extremes of human existence are complete unto themselves, never compared to something else but experienced as if nothing else exists, which let’s face it if it happened last week or in a month from now, it doesn’t.

It is the failure to grasp this concept that has us laboring in the orchards of Melba with a Tantric nymphomaniac (I was all about death before, now it’s sex, I must see a specialist) and all the while thinking, “I’ve had better,” or “I hope to god Rabbi Schwartz doesn’t find out,” or “I think I’m gay,” and so on. If we exist in an empty or open state, if we accept the ‘what is’ completely, not only do we have a much better time, chances are we will be so open to the moment, so not-blinded by anticipation and performance anxiety, we will without prompting move the bust of Voltaire off the shelf over the bed when we see with the clarity of the truly seeing eye that the damn thing is likely going to fall after a few good thumps on the wall. Worse, it is the failure to grasp this concept that means we’re too anxious even to call the nymphomaniac up in the first place, tormented by imaginary things like the past and the future and whether we’re good enough or deserving. All rubbish. Then again if you’ve really got the empty and meaningless thing going on, you probably won’t need sexual conquests at all, because pleasure is fleeting, blinding, makes us greedy for a moment among moments. I didn’t say I was a particularly effective Buddhist. Which brings us back to society.

What is the noblest work an empty and meaningless person in a life of suffering can do? After all, he or she is all set. What to do? Lift the suffering of another. In other words, love your fellow man. Can I get a bazingo, people? There was a guy towards the end of the Bible that delivered this exact message, and predictably he got nailed up for it. Peace is what? The absence of suffering, or deliverance from it. Quiz:
Jesus was the Prince of

1. The Jews
2. Van Nuys
3. Peace

That’s right, he was the Prince of Peace. His message, finally, was much the same as Buddha’s message, which was that if we become truly empty, truly open, we become like light. We illuminate the lives of others. We cease to obsess about the self, all our opinions and worries and inflamed plantar tendons, and we become beings that help others to transcend their own suffering. Buddha did this. He became a teacher (second grade and remedial math) and so thoroughly overcame the torments of the self (which is what suffering is, duh) that he was able to bring peace to millions by his example, even millennia after his death. And the punch line is that in so doing he didn’t end up being some antisocial old shriveled bearded guy sitting in front of a cave with no pants on­ he became the most joyous, happy being one can possible become. Not because he was laughing all the time and cracking wise, not at all, if anything he was a bit of a stiff, but because no suffering came from him.
You’ve met people like this and wondered why they were so great to be around, other than picking up the check every time. This is why. You hang around with somebody that is empty and meaningless, you find yourself being funnier, more charming, more interesting, more vital, a sense that you’re carefree and gay (Homo Sapiens) and that no matter how awful things are, you wouldn’t trade it all in for this one minute of time with this person. I mean I hope you’ve met someone like that. They’re rare, but you can still find them around. Robert Benchley, the early 20th Century humorist whose boots I am unfit to lick, was one of these people. In his biography, friend after friend attempts to remember one witty, wonderful thing he said, and can’t come up with anything. They just remember how witty they felt when they were around him, and how wonderful that was. That’s a man getting his Buddha on.

So what does a fellow do to get to this state of enlightenment, all empty and meaningless as an inflatable newt habitat? Zen Buddhists have made some progress in this area. You have probably heard of a ‘koan’, which is not an Australian marsupial or small Russian coin but in fact a kind of riddle that points the way to enlightenment. Certainly you’ve heard David Carradine ask “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” That is a koan. It is a paradox, just like “what is the meaning of life”. But it isn’t really a question with no answer. There are tens of thousands of koans, and the answer to all of them is exactly the same, if expressed in many ways. The real nut of the thing is that koans have no answers; the answer therefore takes the form of a mental shrug. Because in Buddhism, an especially Zen Buddhism, the only reason to pose such questions is to demonstrate the futility of questions in the first place. What is, is. But it’s still kind of fun to see how the thing works. The longest and greatest koan is Douglas Adams’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. He was a Buddhist too. I nominate him. If you don’t want to know what the Big Answer is, do no read on, but skip a few lines. Because the longer you spend trying to figure it out, the more of a hammer blow the realization is when you finally get it. Let it not be said that you weren’t warned. And please be aware it took me twenty years to figure this out, so don’t go around saying it’s so obvious. It isn’t, until you get it, and then nothing could be more obvious thereafter.

Here are some short koans:

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Is the glass half full, or half empty?

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? (It’s not just Buddhists)

How can I be both ignorant and enlightened?

Yes or no?

These sound like nonsense questions, and in a way they are, just like “what is the meaning of life”. And many koans are more like shaggy dog stories. But the answer in any case is the same for all of them, and here is that answer, envelope please:

The sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping.

The glass is half full or half empty.

As many angels can dance on the head of a pin as can dance on the head of a pin.

And with variations like “how can I be both ignorant and enlightened” and “yes or no”, the answer is even simpler: in the first case, the answer is “yes”, and in the second, “exactly”. Or something to that effect. You could also say “fresh figs” or “elastic drawers”. Get it? Asking these questions is stupid. Trying to answer them is even stupider. What is, is. Or isn’t. Meanwhile, life is happening.

The cynics among you will immediately note that this is all a complete cop-out and koans are little more than a bit of aimless word-play. So what? It’s also the only absolute, irreducible Truth. Ask yourself, “Why must I suffer?” The answer, according to this formula, is “because I must suffer.” Or for that matter, “Jerry Garcia”. It’s not the answer that is the problem, it’s the question. “Why are you hitting me?” “Why do I love you?” “Why am I a Mormon?” Because you are, because I do, because I am. What, folks, is the Meaning of Life? The meaning of life is the meaning of life. In other words, the meaning is the meaning. That’s all it is. If meaning is your bag, that is the meaning. If NASCAR is where it’s at, NASCAR is where it’s at. Now if this has left you confused, petulant, or slightly bilious, take your time. There is no hurry. It still makes me glassy-eyed. But once you get the concept, everything flies into perspective in an almost frightening way, like putting on eyeglasses for the first time and discovering trees have leaves. If you don’t wear eyeglasses, try remembering the first time you rode your bicycle without training wheels. It’s like passing through a mystery. This may explain why one of the major Buddhist magazines is called ‘Tricycle’, but probably not. I think they were just being quirky.

There are koans that address other aspects of the subject, too, such as whether anything can be said to exist if it is not observed; for example, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears, does the tree fall in the forest? The answer to that one is “if the tree falls, the tree falls”. Get it? If the tree falls, which implies that you are aware it did so, it can be said to have fallen. Or, it just falls, whether or not you know it did so. It makes no difference. Also, be aware of falling trees whenever you’re in a wooded area. It’s just good sense. In the end, this koan and others like it are variations on the first: it is what it is. Once you get this, it also becomes a lot easier to extend your love to other people, Jesus-fashion, because you are invested with the power to accept that what is, is.

When you walk into a room full of strangers, a million thoughts fly through your mind, viz. is my fly buttoned, am I attractive, are they looking at me, is my friend here, is this the right room, and if you’re me, probably also: am I in the correct city? You may think, I hope this goes well, I don’t want a confrontation, that man has a hideous necktie, where is the buffet, please don’t talk to me, or please do, did I turn off the oven, and so on and so on. Equipped with the simple Zen approach to things, the thoughts still arise, but are met instantly by the absurdity of such thoughts and therefore settle back down and wait for the drinks tray to go by. If something important comes up, you can recognize it. “Did I leave the oven on?” is more important than “Is there spinach in my teeth?” But by allowing the thoughts to arise and meet their right worth, the ones that do not come off all silly become the thoughts about which you concern yourself. Which makes all kinds of sense. So you call home to check on the status of the oven, or you evaluate the odds that you left it on (if it even works, mine takes forever to heat up and never gets above 300º) and you then allow a new group of thoughts to arise, such as “Am I satisfied that if the house burns down I will not miss it as much as I will miss this party”, and you let the answers to these thoughts arise with them, such as “I am not satisfied” or “I could use the insurance money”. And then you can proceed, completely free from doubt, on the appropriate course of action, never regretting what you chose to do, because what you chose to do is what you chose to do.

Who knew religion could be so much fun. Of course Buddhism is also a religious philosophy, just as Christianity used to be a religious philosophy; that is, it’s an approach to spirituality based upon religious custom, but not requiring participation in the religion itself. In Buddha’s case it was Hinduism, but what he came up with was so sparkly people decided to start all over again beginning with him, and the same thing happened to Jesus, who was just trying to build a better Jew and overdid it. Mohammed experienced exactly the same phenomenon, and Abraham, who I mentioned briefly a while back, preceded Jesus and Mohammed likewise. One’s faith does not require deeper understanding, necessarily (just look at Pat Robertson), but is made deeper by exploring the philosophy that comes with it. The primary difference between a religious philosophy and a religion is the difference between a tool and a weapon: one is aimed at spiritual attainment, the other at spiritual domination. I mean according to this iconoclast, at least.

Many people take great comfort in the rites and rituals and laws and dogma and codes and ethical constructions that brace a religion all around, with proscriptions against everything including murder, arson, theft, jealousy, questioning the holy scriptures, and eating lobster. Also tithing bothers me. If your religion is compelling enough, I will give you some money. If, despite speaking the Word of God in his very House, invoking the living presence of the Divine, you still have to pass the hat, there is something wrong. I always buy candles at Chartres Cathedral, for example, and stick them on the stand thing; as the candles are outrageously overpriced I assume they’re pulling down a profit. But I don’t mind! It’s a nice cathedral. It feels like God would hang out there when He was in the area. I would, in His shoes. When I walk into the cathedral known colloquially as ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’ in Liverpool, England, I don’t get quite the same kick. It has the feeling of a pump room at Hoover Dam, only with stained glass. So they don’t get my money, although the crypt, designed by Sir Thomas Lutyens, is worth a visit. But I digress again. What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Next week: how to achieve complete spiritual enlightenment with no effort whatsoever.

So we’ve gone briskly through what Buddhism is more or less about, if it’s about anything at all, which of course it isn’t because it is empty and meaningless. I’ve noted that it is as much a philosophy as a faith.

BEN TRIPP is an independent filmmaker and all-around swine. His book, Square In The Nuts, may be purchased here, with other outlets to follow: Swag is available as always from http://www.cafeshops/tarantulabros. And Mr. Tripp may be reached at











We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005


Ben Tripp is America’s leading pseudo-intellectual. His most recent book is The Fifth House of the Heart.