Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Buddha in Pismo Beach

I've been trying to estivate in the desert beyond my cabin, a skill Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster taught me last summer, 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 widespread dysfunction.  A modern cynic's attitude is summed up by phrases like, "(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 attempted estivation 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?

You mean, the Buddha?

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....

It's not by choice!

...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?

Sure!

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 a few miles 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 lovely pier, the soothing endless beach, the Coney Island type town, the ancient sea caves, the flocks of pelicans that swarm the pier when sardines 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 charged 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, a few wearing masks against the coronavirus.  We walked to the far end, where the beach is blocked by large stones, to a particularly dark and isolated cave.  The tide was coming up towards its entrance.  We stepped inside and light appeared.

The cave seemed to have been prepared for our comfort.  Soft candles illuminated the sand, which was dry.  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 an accountant.  He had short-cropped hair and was wearing a button-down shirt and beige slacks.  There was a ballpoint pen in his shirt pocket.  

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 again, 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 concerned over my reaction to your appearance, but 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/Muslim 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.

I see, 
I continued, wondering if I did see. 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 a 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.

How?

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.

Yes?

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?

Close enough, Harry.

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 understand that part of your message is that we are trapped in the "wheel of life," of endless birth and death, pain and incomplete existence, unless we...unless we what?

Unless 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.

Can that be done?

Form follows thought.

It does?

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?

I'm...non-denominational.

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.

That's what you were?

No, I mean, that's what I did.

That's not what you were, or are?

No, not really.

What are you?

I'm...how about this, I'm an American.

What does that mean?

It means I was born in the territorial U.S. and am a citizen, with a sense of shared community and identity.  

Is that what you are?

I see what you're getting at.

Yes?

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?"

Correct.  

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 uh...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.  Can we cover reincarnation a bit?  Is it true that we have to live one short, brutish life after another for millions of years until we figure out how to escape?  That sounds like the Christian concept of purgatory, or even hell.

That's a valid comparison, Harry, but don't be discouraged.

Why not?

I'll give you a hint.  The single greatest obstacle to human progress is the difficulty of understanding the human condition.  

How so?

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.  

Yes, I said.

Since your life is fraught and uncertain, Buddha continued, 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.

Harry, Buddha continued, I recommend dropping the requirement that meditation must always produce peace and serenity.  Meditation can produce cacophony and chaos too.  Its output is from its input.  Its purpose is to produce a work of art that depicts your existence.  You should not try to block the noise from this work of art, because it is part of the work.  When you meditate on a real image of your existence, you learn who you are, or at least you learn that you don't know who you are.  Animals, unless they are trapped in a zoo, don't need to learn who they are.  They just are.  But humans must meditate in order to be.

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 the coyote and the accountant.  The cave filled with joy.  We said our goodbyes.  

It was clearly another stellar trip to Pismo Beach!

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