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Mar, 2004

 Home Sweet Home


by Odysseus the Wanderer
March 31, 2004


Being in Arizona for the last couple of weeks has provoked a lot of recollection and reflection. Monday night Tara and I went out for dinner on Mill Avenue in Tempe, where we long ago began the romantic relationship that sparked thirty years of lawless conduct. We are quite different now, as is Mill Avenue. Where once waterbed shops competed with headshops to sell more India print bedspreads, and a biker bar featured bands that played for beer and abuse, commercial interests have spread their tent of mid-rises and bright lights, creating a thronging spot complete with familiar trademarked bookstores, restaurants, banks and ice cream shops.

We chat with a flautist playing for spare change, reminiscing how I once did the same. He's actually a little older than I am, with a head of neatly-clipped grey hair, and a high-speed delivery of complex good-humored jive that sort of all fits together. Said he toured with Aretha, and did a Herbie Mann-style rendering of "Summertime" that was a little too breathy for my tastes, but had plenty of verve and exhibited fingerings far more skilled than I would venture. Think of what I could have mastered if I hadn't gone to law school.

We reminisced about the days when we ate at a restaurant called Earthen Joy, where the food was all named after characters from Lord of the Rings. There was a Gandalf burger (swiss cheese melted over a little steamed spinach). The warm carob cake with hot carob sauce was addictive, made from a secret recipe that was never successfully extracted from the owner's wife. Tara and I ate there regularly, we remembered, always with her money. She had money; I didn't, but we never discussed whose money was getting spent. We agreed, last Monday, that it had all sorted out fairly well for her, thirty years later.

In those days, we rode our bicycles everywhere in Tempe, a couple of three-speeds that were perfect for the long, flat walkways that paved the Arizona State University campus where we met. At the south end of the campus, the carob trees filled the air with the scent of fresh nitrogen, which smells like male generative fluid, and always made us laugh. The come trees, we called them, so comfortable with our grownup knowledge of the ways of life. Three minutes farther south, by bicycle, was the house my folks loaned us for a couple of years, while we tried to get our life together started.

But like little cuttings that never seem to get rooted, we never did much but take classes, hang out with hippies, and imagine a perfect world.

Eventually, we went to India to fulfill our longing for a real guru, real spiritual teachings, and a way to avoid work forever. Not that Tara was afraid of hard work. She just didn't want it to separate me from her. I, on the other hand, was deathly afraid of work. I wasn't afraid of effort or exertion, but I was afraid of bosses. Dictatorial men who towered over you and disapproved of your attitude. Angry men who thought I wasn't a good worker. Not their fault, either. I wasn't much of a worker. Kinda like if someone had tried to get George W. Bush to wash dishes. It'd be a mess. But our great Fuhrer had the sense to learn useful stuff like flying private planes, and was able to pick up degrees at Yale and Harvard without too much effort. I didn't want to pick up a degree, because for starters, I'd have had to pick a major, and the Education department had explained, politely, I wasn't really teacher material. So what's an altruistic, aesthetically minded guy to do? Get enlightened, I figured.

So at the ripe old ages of twenty and nineteen, respectively, Tara and I made a beeline for the Wisdom of the East. Assuming, of course, that the bees hitchhiked from Tempe to New York, hopped a flight to Luxembourg, hitched to Munich, trained to Istanbul, and bussed through Trabzon, Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, Rawalpindi, Swat, and Amritsar, eventually buzzing into Benares, the City of Shiva, and built a little hive on a houseboat moored on the banks of the Ganges.

That was a long ways from Tempe, and the rhythms of tabla drums, the whistle of bonsuri flutes, and the drone of sitars and vinas were magical and exciting. The bazaars were full of carvings, brassworks, and sweetmeats. The cobblestone ways were narrow capillaries feeding the city's stone flesh, conveying streams of pilgrims and holy men on sacred errands that all seemed to lead down to the burning ghats, where bodies burned night and day. We weren't welcome in the Hindu temples, we discovered, and fell in with western Buddhists, mostly Aussies and Brits, who were getting into the mindfulness path of Burmese Buddhism. But it was the romance of India, of the transformative vision of Shiva, that held my fascination.

Sitting in our houseboat, with Tara pounding out the tabla rhythms that she learned with remarkable ease from her amazed teacher, watching the boats float down the Ganges, we felt more at home than we ever had in our own country. The pace of life was infinitely slow. The poverty, astonishing in its gravity, nevertheless settled like shit to the bottom of the river, leaving the surface strangely serene. While the Indians could drive you crazy with their begging and irrationality, it was comforting to be in a place where a million gods and goddesses jostled for recognition from generations of devotees, where beliefs as ancient and grimy as the banyan trees with their innumerable roots and branches nevertheless maintained unquestionable vitality. There was beauty in ignorance, I realized, a beauty that the learned, well-informed westerner would never glimpse. Ignorance could indeed be bliss, if it was ignorance of the particular, annoying specifics of concrete reality that obstructed the fine inner vision of the interior heaven of the heart.

I have concluded, over the years, that all the real changes in life come from seeing other people accomplishing the goals to which we ourselves aspire. For example, in 1988 I decided to become a trial lawyer after I watched a couple of lawyers for about a half-hour trying a simple auto accident case in LA Superior Court. I realized, watching the judge, the lawyers, the expert witness on the stand, that they all put their pants on one leg at a time. The very phrase appeared in my mind -- "one leg at a time." I too put my pants on that way. I could do this. And sixteen years later, although I like to think I try cases better than the average lawyer, the essential insight that enabled me to move from "litigation" to "trials" was simply realizing that the job of "trial lawyer" was one that many perfectly ordinary people had already mastered.

Similarly, in 1976, back in Benares, I had realized that I could be a "spiritual householder." Richard Alpert and a whole slew of Swamis -- Satchidananda, Shivananda, Vivekananda, Yogananda, Etceterananda -- they all had told me about this "householder" path that led to "liberation." Ahhh, what a fine idea. But until we left Tempe and landed in Benares, it wasn't real. I had never seen people like the saffron-robed sadhus, with long hair, greying beards, carrying ceremonial spears, pursuing a career of renunciation. Somewhat like Siddhartha, who had heretofore seen only the artificial loveliness of the palace where his father had imprisoned him, Tara and I also traveled beyond the castle walls of our homeland. And while many would have seen in India merely the horrifying triple curse of poverty, ignorance, and corruption, my eyes found inspiration in the renunciates who managed to screen out all of the horror, fixing their eyes instead upon the inner horizon of Liberation, seeking union with Brahman, Shiva, Lakshmi, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

While these renunciates had no pants to put on one leg at a time, I learned that I too could wear a skirt. I bought a few waist-wraps and soon became accustomed to wearing the native garment. I bathed in the filthy Ganges, certain that the slime of human offal would not infect me. I ate the native food, and learned to show respect to whatever deity showed itself in my path. All this in just a few months. I am a fast learner.

Wordsworth said of children that "their entire vocation is endless imitation," and we can only imitate what we have seen. Originality is a rare quantity, the equivalent of mutation in biological terms, which manifests in novel forms, unseen before. Original things present a risk of failure, and mutations often are lethal. Stick with the tried and true, our parents teach us, and with good reason. The dumping grounds are full of failed innovations, and the pauper's graveyards are rich with the rotting brains of inventors and self-announced geniuses. So also, the Tibetan lamas teach that the second level of faith, after mere enthusiasm, is "the faith of emulation," and Thomas a Kempis wrote a spiritual classic called The Imitation of Christ. Not being a student of Islam, I can't point you to an appropriate text on imitating the saints of that tradition, but I am sure they abound. These are the "safe" spiritual paths, those trodden by the Wise Ones of the Past, who, we are assured, have reached the bosom of spiritual comfort in Amitabha's Pure Land, Jehovah's Heaven, or Allah's Perfumed Garden.

Of course, none of these Wise Ones have brought back even one pebble from the heavenly realms they so accurately describe. The only token of their achievement has been their "supernal calm," their "dispassionate clarity," their "selfless compassion." Their tales of the great beyond tell of a home beyond time in a realm where death is a forgotten memory. A few years back, I thought these personal qualities of transcendental wisdom were a sufficient warrant of saintly authenticity, at least sufficient to justify my reliance upon the Buddhist doctrine in an uncertain and frustrating world. But now, I want to see them really walk the talk.

If a person is supposed to have supernal calm, derived from knowledge of deathlessness, then that calm had better be imperturbable, without valium, demerol, alcohol or other stimulants to prop it up. If that dispassionate clarity is real, it should never lead to gross errors of judgment like those displayed by every guru currently walking this earth. If selfless compassion has been attained, then it will have to manifest as a real contempt for wealth, and a love of the poor and destitute. The gurus of this time meet none of these requirements.

While it may well be safe to imitate Christ, or Buddha, none of the celebrated Buddhist and Christian teachers of today are worthy of imitation. They pander to the crowds like politicians, collect money like stock brokers, and feather their nests like hardcore materialist accumulators. They measure each other's status with the size of their temples and the number of their adherents. Far from being a safe path, following these individuals leads only to the temple of self-delusion.

So where to worship? Who to imitate? How to find the role model, the example for our highest spiritual strivings? Perhaps, as one holy man who never made a dime advised, right here at home, in the human heart. While it is a humble abode, it is where we began, and the Source of all our resources. Seeking no support outside yourself, no guide but the compass in your own center, may be the only safe path. Your own baby-struggles to achieve integrity, honesty, and dignity may not seem as safe as imitating an established guru, but there is no point in becoming a copy of a counterfeit, and we can all put our pants on one leg at a time.

With warmest wishes that each of us may find our way back to our own personal Ithaca,

Odysseus the Wanderer