Sunday, September 27, 2015

Rock Stars and Spiritual Gurus

"The Buddhas Point the Way"
- in my meditation garden -

Today is the final day of the Pope’s visit to the United States; and I must say that I have been truly amazed at the amount of media attention this event had garnered in this country and in the world-wide press. Over the past six days it was literally impossible to turn on the news, read a paper or browse the social media without encountering some image of Pope Francis, speaking to Congress, preaching a sermon to throngs of people, riding in a parade through Central Park to the adulation of adoring crowds.

Personally I think it’s been pretty great that the media have been so saturated with “pope images” and “pope-speak” for the past days - such a refreshing antidote to the strident, poisonous “Trump-style” rhetoric that has infested the public square in recent months; but there is also a darker side and an underbelly to the kind of pubic visibility rustled up by the visit of this Pope.

Every day, vast crowds of people mass together waiting in line, camping out at a curbside for hours, just to catch a glimpse of the white-clad pontiff as he passes by. He has become a veritable, spiritual “rock star” for many (and not just for Catholics). Over and over again I have heard people on the news who tearfully proclaim that “looking at the Pope’s face is like looking at God and when they see the Pope passing by they are seeing the face of Jesus.”

Interestingly enough, when I read the Christian Gospels and pay attention to what Jesus taught, I discover that Jesus saw his himself as a guide, not a destination point. In Jesus’ own day, many adoring fans came out to see him, to catch a glimpse, to listen to a sermon he delivered to throngs of people assembled on the hillsides.  And yet, never at any time do I hear Jesus ask anyone to kneel down and worship him - instead he asks people to follow him.

Jesus pointed the compass of his life in the direction of compassion, forgiveness, mercy and inclusion and he told all those people who came out to “catch a glimpse” of him that they should go back home, out into their everyday lives, and do what he did by pointing their own moral compasses in the same direction as his.

It is much easier and far simpler to offer adulation to spiritual gurus like popes, priests, rabbis or imams than for each of us to walk the path ourselves. But the sage and guru is only the guide and never the destination.

Many people on various spiritual paths often imagine that their own leaders are worthy of adulation because they are “ordained” people who have somehow earned a degree and achieved greater holiness. And yet, holiness is never something anyone earns, deeper wisdom and knowledge of the truth is never something that comes along with a certificate achieved at the end of a course of studies.

I think of something Alan Watts once said:

I have always found that people who have quite genuinely died to their old false self
make no claim of any kind about their own part in the process.
They think of themselves as lazy and lucky, and if they did anything at all,
it was so simple that anyone else cold have done the same,
for all  they have done was to recognize a universal truth of life.

To the genuine sage, mystic, buddha, enlightened one,
the notion that he or she attained this state by some special capacity of their own
is always absurd and impossible.

Several years ago I visited a very famous Buddhist shrine in South Korea and I was rather surprised (maybe even shocked) to discover that the walls of the shrine were covered with hundreds of “Buddha” statues of various shapes and sizes. When I asked why there wasn’t one central image of the Buddha to be worshipped, I was told that the many 
“buddhas” serve as a reminder that all of us are called to be “buddhas”- enlightened ones who have come to understand that we all belong to one another and that our mission on earth is to treat each other with compassion.

The many buddha-statues in that shrine were images of all of us standing in the shrine- each of us called to be a buddha.

If anything, the Pope’s “now ending” visit to America should serve to remind us all that we are all “buddhas” (enlightened ones), all of us are “christs” (anointed ones), all of us are popes and priests - all called to be enlightened by truth and to make this world a better place.

There is a passage from the Buddhist scripture that I have thought of from time to time these past few days whenever I have seen an image of the Pope passing by:

Everyone must strive, the buddhas only point the way.

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