[from My Neighbor Totoro]
I. My Stretchy Hand-Me-Down Religion
I grew up knowing Christianity was a flexible religion. It had to be, to incorporate all my ancestors. My mother's grandfather, born during the American Civil War, was an evangelical preacher in the hills of Kentucky. My father's grandfather worked at the Catholic Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily, with this Christ, left, before he emigrated to the United States in 1905.
My parents left their respective religions and raised their kids on Art History. Pictures of martyrs and virgins and god, oh my! I loved it.
I guess it'd be untrue to say I had an easy time becoming a Catholic Christian, but that was largely because of the politics, not the plot and the cast of characters. Once I got into it, I didn't have trouble seeing Jesus manifest in the world--at the bus stop, in a hamburger. I relate to all sorts of images, from majestic Byzantine mosaic Christs to plastic-laminated laughing Jesuses.
It's my religion--I inherited it.
Like other stuff from my family and culture, it doesn't always fit me and some of it I threw out. Some of the worst things in my life happened to me at church, and some of the best things.
At any rate, I know it pretty well. I can usually tell the true stuff from the accretions of human puffery. Of course, other Christians might not agree with me, but I'm comfortable with that.
I know how to bend with the religion, and I know where it bends--or, anyway, I know where I'm not sure how much more either of us can take--like family.
II. Don't Touch the Saffron Robes
Buddhism is different. In some ways, it fits me better; but I don't know how to relax in its presence. It's like a cool but very formal neighbor, and I get all overly reverential around it.
I've read a bunch about Buddhism, over thirty years. Films, tapes, took a class. A few years ago, I sat zen a few times with a group I didn't feel much at home with.
They were mostly Episcopalian-types, wearing hand-dyed fabrics they'd bought while hiking in Tibet. I feel more comfortable when there are a few folks in the congregation wearing pink Disneyland sweatshirts.
But Buddhism in white America isn't really at that stage, at least not as I encounter it here in the Midwest.
Mostly, I just try and incorporate some of the practices (breathing) and the general outlook (give small gifts) in a hit or miss way in my life.
Buddhism generally isn't big into images--well, Zen isn't anyway--but some Buddhist teachings suggest you choose your own image of Buddha, one you relate to. Could be a rock, could be a gold-leaf statue. Seems like calligraphic black-ink circles are popular, or publishers think they are. I've looked at tons of Buddhas, and they generally feel too sacrosanct or too abstract. I want an image I can put on a keychain.
Hinduism--now there's a religion with wonderfully garish sacred toys. But the sort of stripped-down Buddhism I like doesn't usually have gods that look like pulp-art octopi.
Or so I thought.
III. My Cute Buddha
This week when I was looking through other people's film blogs, I found this really cute picture of Godzilla. I'm not a monster-movie or horror-flick fan, and I've never seen any Godzilla films. I had no idea the monster is so cute! I saved the picture, just cause I liked it a lot.
And then yesterday at the library I picked up a book I'd never seen before:
Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, & Dogen's Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye, by Brad Warner, former punk bassist and current Zen priest and Japanese movie-monster fan. He even blogs on Blogger:
The cover, which I gather he helped designed, shows a Buddha punk riding Godzilla.
I haven't read much of the book yet, and maybe I don't need to; it's main impact was that the author treats Buddhism as if it's flexible, like I'd treat Christianity--like Play-Doh you can stick up your nose, like a Slinky that gets wrapped around the dog, like a yo-yo that bounces back and maybe hits you in the eye. All these things you can misuse, break, and twist out of shape, but they are the toys you felt comfortable with.
American Buddhism is evolving. I haven't followed it closely--I want to stress this--but I've seen it manifest among granola-eaters; the urban chic who'd pay $5.95 for a Living Simply magazine; and a lot of other sincere, good-hearted people. They've always seemed to have the same reverential, talk-quietly-and-bow-to-a-flower attitude I had.
The only American Buddhist I've really related to is Pema Chodron, who has a wicked little laugh. Of course, she's a major force, so that's not a little thing.
OK, so I want to repeat, I haven't been exactly plugged into American Buddhism, but I've glanced in now and then, and I haven't seen a raucous Trekkie Budddhist from the heartland--till now: Brad Warner's from Cleveland, and here's his blog post "Spock Thoughts".
When I saw that, Geez! I thought. I had my Buddha in sight all along, after all.
Maybe it's not exactly Godzilla (I'd have to watch the movie to be sure). But it's certainly a relative. Someone like Totoro (picture at top of post), the benevolent Japanese ...um, what is Totoro?
Totoro is a wee bit too sweet, so I'm wrapping the two together:
Child of Totoro and Godzilla.
That's my neighbor Buddha. Not the elegant neighbor who glides silently in a cloud of incense, but the one on the other side--the big fat beer-drinking one, who's a lot of fun and would breathe fire on people who beat you up and help you get that Play-Doh out of your nose when you pushed it too far in.