June 15, 2013 @ 3:19 pm
Sitting at the library outside their tiny MangaCon, where my son is taking his first tentative steps into his particular branch of fandom. I don't use tentative to imply a lack of enthusiasm. He fashion-hacked a bunch of Ohio State gear to make himself a Red costume (Ash Ketchum is from the show, not the manga). I mean tentative in that he's cautious in new social situations. Which is understandable; I'm not much of a joiner myself. I'm sitting out here blogging instead of mixing with the manga geeks (who are not all children).
I've already seen several people peeking in but not hanging out. I haven't heard anyone say "This is lame," but that's the body language vibe. To me small is better. You get to talk to people. Even the line at Free Comic Book Day is longer than I like, but this year there was a super-duper science comix bonus to waiting in that line. Maris Wicks, who drew the graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, has agreed to be on the show! Two of the subjects, are already famous, but I've never heard of the orangutan lady before. I will have to ask about her, particularly how many levels she has in her machete skill.
I spent last weekend at a meditation retreat, organized by the Charlotte sangha of Thich Nhat Han’s Order of Interbeing. A sangha is kind of like a church, except that most seriously practicing Buddhists are not all that concerned with gods. One can be a practicing Buddhist and a Christian at the same time, for instance. One can also practice meditate without taking any specifically Buddhist vows of ethical behavior (which is also a practice, if you think about it). That has been my approach for the past 15 years or so, since I started meditating at the Rochester Zen Center occasionally. I’ve recently intensified my meditation practice to help me deal with work stress in a healthier way, but I have not “taken refuge” or “received any teachings.” I like eating meat, and I like drinking beer.
The retreat was held at the Catholic St. Francis Springs Prayer Center outside Stoneville. Lots of sanghas borrow or rent space. The Deep River Sangha that I have spent the spring practicing with meets on Wednesdays at a Quaker church here in Greensboro. In any case, it was a very pretty space, and except for a request for us to keep our shoes on (which most of us were happy to oblige), there was no friction between the two groups. Actually, Franciscans and Buddhists apparently agree on having reverence for wildlife and green spaces. They’ve built nature trails through the woods that we used for walking meditation. They’re working on chapels and hermitage spaces tucked away back into the woods as well.
Their library contained several books by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who lived at Gethsemeni in western Kentucky and who wrote about the similarities and differences between Christianity and Buddhism. From their bookstore I picked up several well-worn used books, which I’m working my way through, and which I’ll post about as the summer progresses. Also a surprisingly delicious blueberry-lime jam. The citrus tang makes it really nice. . .
In any case, what I’m really getting to is the feature of Buddhism that makes it a religion, according to DS Wilson’s definition. No, it’s not a god. No, it’s not priests either. It’s the ethical code designed to increase cooperation. This was most obvious during the ceremony on Sunday morning where a half-dozen people received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which is TNH’s specific mutation of the same general ethical principles that most Buddhists and most other religions follow. The aspirants (those who aspire) promised to follow these principles in their lives, and, very importantly, to reaffirm their commitment by repeating these trainings in public view of the sangha within three months, or the certificate (yes, an actual piece of paper) would be null and void. In other words, the sangha is expected to monitor one another’s behavior, as well as their own. Also note the concrete and practical sanction if the aspirant is falling down on the job. This is an important element. Being tossed out of the sangha is the most severe version, but there are intermediate sanctions, feedback to convince the person who is not cooperating to increase his or her efforts.
The Buddhists themselves are not necessarily conscious of this function. The dharma teacher of the weekend said, “This is not a performance.” I think I know what she meant, that she did not want anyone to consider what they were doing as empty ritual, a formality, something that didn’t really matter. But, as I was sitting there, on the sidelines, I realized that there was nothing to prevent me from taking the vows internally. If so, what was the point of a public ceremony? Exactly. The public nature of the ceremony is a way of creating accountability. It’s like a contract that the aspirant is signing, and that the sangha is supposed to enforce. It reminds me of an Episcopalian wedding that I attended many years ago. The service included language that required the community to keep this couple together. In other words, it spread the responsibility beyond just the couple, which as a twentyish American I found creepy and intrusive. I still find it creepy and intrusive, to be honest, but as I get older and learn more about humanity I’m beginning to see the necessity of those kinds of structures for maintaining any society with more staying power than a manga convention.
There are people who make their living on the convention circuit, hopping from one to another, just like musicians on tour, engaging in large numbers of individually shallow social interactions. That's always seemed like a strange life to me, but there are certain benefits to it, I suppose. It's difficult to be disappointed or betrayed by people you hardly know, except in the criminal sense.
I grew up in a rural area like the one described in Triad Stage's new production Tennessee Playboy: a Redneck Romance, where people know one another much better than convention-goers, but that knowledge is a double-edged sword. People tend to remember bad interactions even better than they remember good interactions. As in the story that inspired the book that inspired Episode 62
I was perfectly familiar with the nature of the rare villages in that region . . . Families, crowded together in a climate that is excessively harsh both in winter and in summer, found no escape from the unceasing conflict of personalities. Irrational ambition reached inordinate proportions in the continual desire for escape . . . There was rivalry in everything, over the price of charcoal as over a pew in the church, over warring virtues as over warring vices as well as over the ceaseless combat between virtue and vice . . . There were epidemics of suicide and frequent cases of insanity, usually homicidal.
The play was a whole lot funnier than that description, but where the story ends on a hopeful note, the play ends much more cynical about the difficulty of creating a society that is both stable and flexible enough to survive long-term, let alone the perfectly harmonious society that religious groups like the Order of Interbeing imagine.
Gonna go check on the boy. From the yelling out of random facts, the shush-ing, and the squeals of joy, it sounds like they're playing anime trivia.