I've been trying to estivate in the desert beyond my cabin, a skill Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster taught me last summer- a form of social distancing, I guess- but I'm too restless to get into it. The idea of sleeping through this critical, historic moment, as tempting as it is, seems a betrayal of my species. This is humanity's deadline. Either we figure it out now or not. Or just not.
Uh-oh, that sounded cynical. I promised myself I would cut down on cynicism in my writing, but it's challenging to keep that promise because "cynicism" is hard to define. The Cynics were 3rd Century BC Greeks who held that people should "have contempt for ease and pleasure" (American Heritage Dictionary). Since you can't show much more contempt for ease and pleasure than to sleep in a dog house, and that's what Cynics recommended, they were called "cynics," meaning "doglike," (Greek: kuon, dog). Today a cynic is "a person who believes that people are motivated purely by self-interest," a situation necessarily leading to some dysfunction. A modern cynic's attitude is summed up by the statement, "[Someone or something] is going to hell in a handbasket."
How am I supposed to cut down on cynicism in any of those senses? You might as well cut down on breathing. Nevertheless, I did rouse myself from desert slumber and sought Betty the Coyote Creator Goddess, hoping she could suggest a more productive and positive endeavor. She could and did:
Harry, I have a great idea for you! Would you like to meet Buddha and spend some time talking to him?
Yes, that's the Buddha I mean. He's in Pismo Beach, up the coast from Santa Barbara, chilling in a sea cave. I showed him some of your writings and described your ascetic lifestyle....
...Yes, dear...at any rate, the Buddha was intrigued and has granted you an audience. Would you like to travel with me today to Pismo Beach, and meet the Buddha tonight?
One positive thing about my lifestyle is that I can respond to just about any magical thing that happens- there are no strings to hold me back. Of course the problem is the paucity of magical things, but talking to the Buddha, well, if that's not magical, what is?
At sunset I was riding atop Betty. We took ridge trails in the Los Padres National Forest, came down along the 166, then veered north to Pismo Beach. As the miles went by the border spirits of Northern California observed us from a polite distance.
I used to go to Pismo a lot in the '60's, my Bay Area days. There was a roller rink two blocks from the pier that gave the town a rowdy teenage vibe. The rink was torn down and Quality Inns added, but the rowdy teenage vibe remains. Families and friends from all over the coast and inland come to Pismo for the local weather system (cool and overcaste even in summer), lovely pier (the third, after the first two were destroyed by storms), soothing endless beach, Coney Island type town, ancient sea caves, and flocks of pelicans huddling comfortably close to humans atop the bluffs, or swarming the pier when sardines or anchoves circle the submerged posts. If I were Buddha, I would definitely sojourn in Pismo.
When I ride Betty we are invisible, so it was not a problem when, around 11pm, we arrived in town, galloping down the gentle slope of Price Canyon Road.
In 1769, Gaspar de Portola and his expedition, seeking land for Spain, docked near the current pier and marched up the same slope on its way to Price Canyon, which Portola had heard yielded natural tar, used by the local Chumash to caulk their boats ("Pismo" is Chumash for "tar"). En route to the canyon the expedition noted several Chumash villages. When Portola set foot on Pismo Beach, his was the first European step in alta California. Modern Pismo Beach has about 8,000 residents; 2.9% are Native American.
At the pier, Betty leaped onto the sand and we trudged north up the beach for a mile or so, to the sea caves.
There were scattered stargazers and undefined people on the sand in the cave area. We walked to the far end, where the beach is blocked by rock, to a particularly dark and isolated cave, its entrance streaked with white (tuff, 20 million year old compressed volcanic ash). The tide was coming up towards its entrance. We stepped inside and light appeared, from flickering candles that lined the sand path.
The cave seemed to have been prepared for our comfort. The rising tide was held back by some sort of field.
At the end of the cave, seated on a stone covered by a large blue cushion, smiling at us, sat, I assumed, the Buddha. I had to assume because he looked like a middle-aged high school teacher, with an air of continually regenerated confidence. The Buddha wore a blue button-down shirt, brown slacks and blue socks.
Hello Betty and Harry!, Buddha exclaimed, gesturing for me to sit on another (green) cushion-covered stone. Betty sat on her haunches and spoke:
Hello, Buddha! As you've surmised, this is Harry. I think he was expecting you to be fat and kind of naked.
It's great to meet you, Harry!
Nice to meet you too, Buddha! I replied. Betty is overly concerned about my reaction to your appearance. I understand you take many forms, that you are the latest of 24 Buddhas. Or is it 24 avatars?
Actually 24 avatars and 28 Buddhas, the 28th being Gautama, Buddha explained. Some were fat; some laughed. All were wise, of course. My form tonight is an adaptation of one of the traditional avatars, modified so that I am Regular Human Buddha. I still have all the wisdom and what have you.
Wow, that's wonderful! Isn't there also a Hindu sect that includes you in its pantheon?
Yes, the Vaishnava Puranas consider me the 9th incarnation of Vishnu, the main Hindu god, who by the way has four faces.
The Buddha watched me quietly for a moment, then continued:
Harry, I know the multiplicity of divine identities can be novel for a Westerner. Feel free to probe the subject if you're curious.
Thank you, Buddha. It does seem that there is a huge divergence in dogma between Eastern spiritual tradition and Western.
Indeed, said Buddha.
For instance, I continued, in Judeo/Christian tradition, the dogma explicitly states that there is a single god in the universe, creating and running all of it. Western tradition includes angels, saints, demons, prophets and apostles- with varying degrees of spiritual power- but there is only one central god in all of the universe. Buddha, I'm hesitant to ask my question about this.
Go ahead, Harry. I can handle it.
Ok, well, I wanted to ask, if there's only one god in the universe, then what exactly would be your relationship to him/her? Oh my god, I can't believe I asked you that!
I heard a yelp of delight and turned around to see Betty leap into the waves. Buddha responded to my question:
Harry, this alleged competition is only a problem for humans. It's all subjective on your part. Honestly, we don't care at all about that stuff. Whether I embody this or that, or how many of me there are, or whether I can share a universe with your god, those questions don't even mean anything. My colleagues and I just enjoy the perks of divinity, and try to share them when humankind permits.
How about the question of what gender our god is, a point of some contention these days? Does that question mean anything? Is this something you have to deal with?
My life's an open pronoun chart, Harry. I don't spend any time fretting about gender.
Because you know what yours is?
Rather...because gender to us is like emotion to you- it changes all the time.
Then why are you presented as male?
You're asking me?
I decided to move on.
Buddha, here's something else I wonder about. In the magazine cartoons about people seeking enlightenment, the meme is a haggard guy climbing a mountain to ask the sage who lives on top what the meaning of life is. What I'm getting at is that it was easy to get here, to speak to you. Isn't it supposed to be really difficult?
Great observation, Harry! Enlightenment is actually no big deal. Most people have moments of enlightenment without trying at all.
I guess what I'm talking about is the idea of being enlightened all the time, which is what we think you are.
Nonsense! No one is enlightened all the time, god or not. You'd never get anything done. For instance, before you arrived here I spent considerable time trying to figure out the mechanism that holds back the tide from this cave. The thinking involved was no more enlightened than figuring out how to install an ink cartridge in your printer.
Hmm. That's reassuring, Buddha. But then...what is enlightenment?
It's when you view the big picture. For instance, imagine you are installing a new ink cartridge. It turns out you purchased the wrong size. As you try to force the cartridge into the holder, you hear a piece of plastic break. You realize that you are now in the thrall of the Geek Squad, at the mercy of their terrible judgment of your ignorance, of their fury at the intolerable life they lead dealing with people like you. Then, out of nowhere, you become enlightened.
Buddha paused, then continued, "Actually, I'm not sure. I may have picked too extreme an example."
That's ok, I have an idea what you could say.
You could say, I think, that when you are enlightened you leave the immediate world, in which you have fallen into a pit of Geek Squaders, to soar above, to see the eons before and after you, the eventual decay of your printer, of its elements, into the soup of the world. What did I need to print, anyway? Some useless crap that no one will read. Is that what's meant by enlightenment, Buddha? Am I close?
We were quiet for a while, listening to the waves hit the forcefield at the cave entrance. Suddenly Betty splashed back in, her fur soaking and dripping onto the sand. She shook herself vigorously, then beamed at us, looking completely dry.
How's it going, guys?, asked Betty.
Terrific, said Buddha, Harry, let's hear some more questions.
I thought for a moment, then remembered two questions that had puzzled me for years.
Buddha, I said, I'd like to explore the "wheel of life" idea attributed to you, that we are destined to remain trapped in endless cycles of birth and death, of pain and incomplete existence, until we...until we what?
Until you live in another direction.
Live in another direction?
And think in another direction. Stop thinking like someone doomed to the wheel. Think like someone who can command the waves to halt, who can perceive pain as a bully, who can think thoughts that were not prescribed when your brains were new.
That's one theory. Another theory is that you if you passively blend into things it all works out. "Go with the flow," that sort of thing. It kind of depends on the person.
Hm. Well, my other question is about some nations where the national religion is based on your teachings, where people are as busy hating and killing each other as anywhere else. Are those people Buddhists?
I'll answer that question with another: What are you?
Yes, Harry, but what are you?
Well, I'm an entertainer, or used to be. I performed telepathic acts in nightclubs, in Frisco, in the Haight.
No, I mean, that's what I did.
That's not what you were, or are?
I'm...how about this, I'm an American.
It means I was born in the territorial U.S. and am a citizen, with a sense of shared community and identity.
I see what you're getting at.
A U.S. citizen is not what I am; it's where I was born, where my documents say I belong, where I recognize communal affinity.
What are you gleaning from this conversation, Harry?
I'm gleaning that there is no answer to, "What are you?"
Does this pertain to my question?
Probably. Let's see...do you identify with the Bill of Rights?
I agree with the thinking behind the Bill of Rights. I don't identify with the Bill of Rights, however. It was written by a group of men before I was born. I am not them. I am not what they wrote.
And do you ever find yourself desiring to violate one of those bills, for instance by opposing someone's free speech because you hate the sound of their idiotic voice and their stupid ideas?
I...well...it's been known to happen.
And sometimes you feel like if you had the ability, you really would shut someone up?
Well, maybe in an extreme case.
Then you see, Harry, you violate the Bill of Rights even though you are an American. You violate your American religion, yet you remain an American.
Thanks, Buddha, that's helpful. Would you mind if we covered reincarnation a bit?
Not at all, Harry, my next appointment isn't for 10,000 years.
I chuckled, wondering if it was a joke.
Thanks, Buddha! So...the wheel of life is supposed to be progressive, with some personal will involved that can determine whether you come back as a wise and advanced entity, or maybe a dog turd. Yet the idea that we have to live one short, brutish life after another for millions of years until we figure out how to escape or evolve sounds like Christian purgatory, or even hell. How do we know if we're making progress in a particular cycle?
You can't tell during the process, but don't be discouraged, Harry.
I'll give you a hint. The single greatest difficulty humans have is understanding the human condition.
You humans are out of your element, out of any element. You wonder why your brain expanded. It expanded to keep you from dying when the earth expelled you. You still have not found your home. You are so separated from your planet- forever tending the life-support systems of your cities- you might as well be struggling on some other planet already.
Yes, I had to agree.
Buddha continued, Since your life is fraught and uncertain it is difficult for you to reach a contemplative state, one in which you can meditate as a way to understand your existence and distance yourself from the wheel. You are in a desperate hurry to protect what you have, so understanding your existence must take a distant second to surviving the next week. But sooner or later, if you don't try to understand your existence you will cease to have it.
Buddha, I thought you said enlightenment is easy.
It is easy. What's difficult is finding ways to benefit from it.
So...beyond putting you in a thoughtful state of mind, should meditation teach you specific things?
Etymology reveals the truth, Harry. "Meditation" comes from the Latin root "metiri," which is also the root of "measure" and "metrics." In the 16th Century, "to meditate" became "to contemplate something that has been identified." Modern culture turned this contemplation into a feel-good haze of joy, rather than a reckoning with one's existence. When you reckon (from Dutch "rekenen" = "to count") with your existence, you naturally have ideas about how to take care of it.
Buddha, as an aside, is there anything wrong with feeling good?
Of course not, Harry! Your derogatory adjective "feel-good" describes a state where one feels good for no reason, or insufficient reason, aka a "false sense of euphoria."
I know it well!
At any rate, the modern take on meditation is a distortion, and I might add that it's a sad day for any culture when "feel-good" has a negative connotation.
I nodded sagely, I hoped.
Therefore, Harry, Buddha continued, I recommend dropping the requirement that meditation must always produce peace and serenity. Meditation can produce cacophony and chaos too. If you edit that out, you edit yourself out.
I meditated on that for a moment, until something odd drifted into my field of vision. The magic or mechanism at the cave entrance that had kept the tide out seemed to have collapsed with Betty's return. I watched the ocean's edge move across the floor of the cave, then stared at my submerged shoes. They were not wet.
Thank you, Buddha, I said. On another subject, it's pretty cool how your "mechanism" can control the effects of water, but what does performing these kinds of tricks, which all gods seem to feel is necessary, have to do with their ideas?
They have nothing to do with the ideas, Harry. As you suggest, gods do the tricks because people won't believe us otherwise.
That doesn't make sense, Buddha! Ideas should sell themselves. I should adopt what you say about enlightenment because I know it's true, not because you make water not be wet.
Right, huh? Yet that's what people expect from "the wise." No one believed Jesus just because he was wise. When he walked on water and brought a dead man to life, then everyone believed his ideas. Go figure.
Betty rubbed against my side and murmured, Let's head home, Harry, and give the Buddha a break.
Stay as long as you wish, Harry, said Buddha.
I had a sudden thought.
Wait, Buddha, I said, Betty is a deity too, she's the Coyote Creator Goddess. Are you two actually faces of each other?
Much laughter ensued between Betty and the Buddha. The cave filled with joy, and we said our goodbyes.
It was clearly another stellar trip to Pismo Beach!