Thursday, September 1, 2016
Living As If …
Friends here in the California desert who know something about my life and Carol’s life today often ask the two of us, “When you go into LA to the Pure Land Buddhist temple and school to teach Japanese students visiting from Bukkyo University in Kyoto, what do you teach? Do you teach them English?” They usually are surprised to learn that no, we do not teach English because the students have classes in English during the short time they are here, taught by two well-trained ESL teachers. The answer is that we teach them about God and Buddhism.
We have done this ever since we retired (in 2004) from Pepperdine University, the Church of Christ school in Malibu. We also have spent a semester each year teaching undergraduates and graduates in the Pure Land (Jodo-shu) university in Kyoto, Japan. (Note: “Bukkyo” means “Buddhist” or “Buddhism” in Japanese.) Explaining to Japanese students and American neighbors how East and West are miles apart in almost every way conceivable -- is not easy! We needed help.
The priests/administrators of Bukkyo University Los Angeles (BULA), Rev. Dr. Joji Atone and Rev. Kodo Tanaka have been very kind to us for over twenty years, inviting us to teach these classes in Los Angeles and act as advisors each year to three students from the Kyoto campus who spend a full year at the College of the Desert, near our home. They also have encouraged me to write articles they have published in both English and Japanese for “Light of Wisdom,” the denomination journal.
Our format for sometime now has been to discuss our fundamentally different views of existence first, and secondly to compare everyday cultural traits, such as bathing, eating, rules governing behavior inside and outside of the home, and how schools are run. Our language differences are discussed all the time, in both English and Japanese. For some time Rev. Tanaka and I have worked as a team, trying to get the students to express their own opinions and making sure everything is clear to them. The class is fairly intensive, going two mornings or all in one day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
We always start with God and what we call the “God Story” that all Jews, Christians and Muslims base their understanding of human existence upon. We start by showing them how “In God We Trust” is on every U.S. dollar bill. Then we discuss trust in a Creator Being as an all-encompassing belief that leads to worship. As children whose personal and national identity is found in Shinto and reverence for ancestors, and whose state religion is the one taught by the historical Buddha (whom they will assure you had nothing to do with their birth much less the creation of the world), these kids have no concept of God. At this point some person in the group usually says something like, “Japanese don’t have a religion like that.” And that is true enough.
Yesterday we returned from our latest session with Bukkyo students in LA. This time Rev. Tanaka had the brilliant idea of having the God Story acted out by the students themselves. He chose one male student to be God. Someone switched off the lights in the room, then at Rev. Tanaka’s prompting the student said in a loud voice, “Let there be light!” and the light was switched back on. (Very dramatic!) Then the boy was told to say he would create a person “in His own image” and Adam popped up to stand by God’s side. Then Adam said he was lonely. So the boy who was God took a rib from his colleague Adam’s side (rather roughly) and Rev. Tanaka led a young woman over to stand with God and Adam.
This went on for some time, through a little more Genesis, at which point we asked the students to consider this part of the God Story. Could they believe it? Nobody could. They questioned how anyone could. We pointed out that even Americans who claim not to be religious use the word “God” in times of crisis, as in, “Oh, my God!” And every disaster shown on TV includes survivors who say things like, “This was God’s will” or “God took care of us. We are so blessed.” The idea that some powerful being “in heaven” was looking down on them and protecting some people while others died seemed preposterous and every silly. The students argued that their parents had made them and that any thought of them being made by the God of the Jews, Christians or Muslims was ridiculous.
Asked what they thought happened to us after we die the first response was, “we turn into smoke and ashes that ultimately are scattered on the ground.” Others pointed out that most families have some of their dead relatives’ ashes kept in a jar in Buddhist temples. At that I asked if they believed their ancestors had spirits or souls. Everyone said yes. “In fact,” as one kid pointed out, “everyone in Japan visits the temples where all their relatives’ remains are kept in order to light candles so that their ancestors spirits can find the way back to the human realm for a yearly visit. This is the festival of Obon (お盆), literally, a tray offering for the dead. In Sanskrit the word is ullambana, and refers to prayers and offerings of food prepared for spirits caught in the cycle of rebirth that Hinduism and Buddhism say all beings are subject to. This brought us to the topic of reincarnation. So we asked them about what they thought about reincarnation. That topic is explained differently by different denominations of Buddhism, but it is accepted as a fact.
I enjoy reading what scientists have found out about how the universe came out of the Big Bang and developed, life along with it, after zillions of years. Evidence of that development is completely convincing. But then I wonder what led to the Big Bang in the first place. Religions have been the only real source of information about that. I have been pretty clear with everyone about my own understanding of both the God Story and the Hindu/Buddhist notion of reincarnation. Since we have no proof of either theory, I am a skeptic. I simply do not know if God and reincarnation are true. The terms agnostic or atheist are both too strong to apply to me, I think. I am willing simply to live as if the two perceptions of life and death are true. We have a thousand-year-old history of glorious music and art thanks to the Christian version of the God Story. I have been a student of both all my life. And the Zen side of Buddhism has provided me with a means of entering into profound perceptions of selfhood that I would never have reached otherwise. I have learned that I may be an only child but my selfhood is indisputably linked to every being on earth. Carol has always encouraged Japanese students not just to appreciate but to go back to Japan and actually take lessons in the spiritual arts, the “Ways” of tea and flowers, that Zen provides. It is for these reasons that I enjoy living as if Western religions and Eastern philosophies were true.
I realize that such confessions on my part have worked at cross-purposes for my relatives and some friends in Christianity. More and more I am coming to realize that confessing some doubt about the reality of reincarnation may be irritating to my friends in Pure Land Buddhism, too. It is true that I have been quite critical of some religious doctrines and practices in the West, particularly in the Church of Christ that I grew up in. That has resulted in ending many friendships I had as a child. On the Buddhist side, even though I took vows in Japan as a Zen priest in 1968 and have led Zen students through their paces ever since, I have criticized the structure of Japanese Zen and the behavior of many Zen priests at the same time. But to my great delight, I have found priests of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan to be exceptionally willing to explore Buddhist teachings. The great Japanese spokesman for Zen history and culture, the beloved Daisetsu Suzuki (1870-1966), was himself from a family of Pure Land believers in the JodoShin-shu denomination. To my surprise, many of my other Zen teachers in Kyoto were also born into that denomination. I have come to believe that Buddhist scholarship in Japan has come largely from Pure Land backgrounds.
But I’m now sure I am running the risk of alienating Pure Land believers by not treating reincarnation as a fact. I may only be confessing doubt, but for most of the people on earth that is like expressing doubt about the existence of God. For that reason I plan to keep my mouth shut on the subject for the rest of my life, which I hope is not too much longer. I’m dying to find out what happens, really. Last Saturday I tried to get the Japanese students in our class to put into words what they would say about Buddhism to their host-families in Temecula, CA (where they are scheduled to be at this very moment.)
I was prepared to hear things like, “Buddhism is about enlightenment,” or “It’s a philosophy of life,” or even “We Japanese are Buddhists in name only.” We had prepared them to be careful about answering whether or not Buddhists believe in God, because we had one boy last year whose host-parents had him baptized. (The kid thought it was cool.) My favorite moment came when one young woman, who had been more quiet and hesitant to speak than anyone, instead of answering our question, got up and slowly walked over to the blackboard and wrote two Sino-Japanese characters (Kanji) to express what she wanted her host-parents to know about Buddhism. She wrote 利他 (altruism, benefitting others) - I was speechless.
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Now with the DNC in its second day and the RNC behind us, I realize I have been struggling not to use the word “fascism” to describe the structure of the Trump Train. Mainly, I think, because I thought Donald Trump was too shallow to deserve the title of Republican nominee. But then I saw true Republicans bowing to him, largely, I think, because of his huge audience of worshippers, fire-brand nationalists who to me seem hell-bent on dropping out of the world after building defenses against it.
This morning (July 26, 2016) I ran across the word “fascism” in an unlikely place: a review in the LA Times by its formidable music critic, Mark Swed, who was clearly impressed by last Sunday’s performance at the Hollywood Bowl of Puccini’s Tosca directed by our man, Gustavo Dudamel. The Master Chorale, Children’s Chorus, full-throated soloists, and of course the LA Phil received glowing praise. Even the sound system was just right. It must have been spectacular and I wish I had been there.
But then, Swed’s phrase “the attraction of fascism” jumped out at me like a bullet shot out of the middle of the article. Just on the face of it the phrase makes sense. Mob rule is attractive! People who feel fear and hatred of anything they can’t understand, the easy thing to do is circle the wagons. They kill the Indians but cannot see the nuclear holocaust up ahead. Their battle cries become ecstatic in a swell of human emotion that gives them comfort and a sense of purpose. Ironically, Swed’s use of the phrase elevates to the highest level both Puccini’s opera and Dudamel’s masterful musicians, becoming in Swed’s mind somehow “a telling indictment of the attraction of fascism.”
Does that mean we use the crowd’s clamor against them? I don’t know. Maybe our situation calls to mind Napoleon and his troops, Scarpia and the other villains, Mussolini, Hitler, ad infinitum. (Please add your favorite.) They are the ones who cause all the trouble until true love finally has the last word, even if it means stabbing evil and jumping off a wall. Sorry for the melodrama, folks. But life is an opera. And Shakespeare had it right: “Man is a giddy thing & much ado about nothing.”
Sunday, July 24, 2016
From my vantage point at age 80 it seems I have spent every waking moment of my life trying to (in the words of the Oxford Dictionary) “analyze [the Laws of God] into workable parts and describe their syntactic roles.” “Parse” is the word usually linked to that definition (rather than “God”) and it usually is limited to looking carefully at a sentence or a text (often but not always a religious text.) I know I am not the only person in history who has been so obsessed, and I also know that most people find such an obsession strange.
Very early in my life I became so confused by the contradictions and anomalies of Biblical texts that I was ready to kill myself. It is then that I started parsing, or if you will, finessing the Will of God. I knew very well the warning that Paul gave the Colossians, namely, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy … according to the elemental spirits of the universe … [rather than the teachings of] Christ” (Col. II, 2:10-12.) In other words, human reason, including the latest findings of scientific exploration, does not help anyone (or at least any Christian) know God.
To the point, I wanted to know what happens after we die. I learned that every monotheistic form of religion (i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam) said we would spend eternity in heaven or hell after death. But to this day I do not know if that is true, or even if heaven and hell exist. Nor do I know anyone who does. And yet all wars and acts of terrorism, in the past and now, are fought over that unanswered question. Who is right? Who is to say if it matters? I adore religions for their narratives, which teach us about the human condition. I also love the gigantic body of music and art that has come out of the Christian Church for over 2000 years.
If I ever see him I will be the first person to tell the Apostle Paul that I have not heeded his warning. For sixty-three years I have been thoroughly captivated by Buddhist teachings regarding intensive meditation, leading to a perception of myself as not separated by anything on earth (or in heaven, for that matter.) However, I cannot say that the Hindu/Buddhist notion of reincarnation is true, either. I can say, as a Zen priest (and on a good day, when I’m not ranting at people for not going my way), that with my last breath I will extol the Peace of Christ.
For this reason, I am sympathetic to the Democratic nominee for Vice President, Tim Kaine, who has also parsed his childhood Catholic faith. He clearly is a man of very good will. He is a Roman Catholic educated by Jesuits. Sen. Kaine can waffle on the Church’s teachings on adultery, abortion and homosexuality because he also favors following laws that promote human rights. At the same time he uses his faith to fight against killing and racism. He seems to have been born with a heart that wants justice and liberty for all. He has fought and won cases against corruption wherever he sees it. He will not fight Dear Bernie’s revolution, but that, I believe is a good thing. Even the word “revolution” would put Mr. Trump in the Whitehouse for sure.
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
CONSERVATIVE OR LIBERAL
OK. I have to admit something. If you consider yourself to be liberal, progressive, enlightened, etc., please listen to me. If you are conservative, right-winged, anti-everything-Obamaesque, conspiracy-obsessed, this is for you, too.
First, you conservatives. You believe that the world is filled with corruption. Even the person next to you cannot be trusted. You believe that God created the world, with you in it, and that there is evil here but that goodness will prevail. Star Wars. Your beliefs and actions you try to keep under control, find out what is true and what is not, seek the good and avoid the bad. You believe that God is protecting you. Bad is really bad. It can be found everywhere. Your enemies are bad. Especially those Muslims. They do not believe in God the way you do. They are part of the evil that lurks around every corner. Hilary wants to abort all babies regardless of their age in the womb. And same-sex couples make you want to puke. You believe people should be free, but only if they want to do what you think is right, like buy AK47s without a full criminal check. You want to rise to the top of the human heap. “Work hard and reap the harvest.” That is your motto. You are willing to give to the poor, but they must keep their distance. All these street people could be as wealthy as you if they just worked hard. But they don’t. So no public fund of money should be wasted on them. Certainly taxing good people to support bad people is not good. Christian teachings seem to accept the status quo, but only if you are wiling to treat others the way you want to be treated. You are willing to say one thing (wage war) but do another (go to church). That’s confusing to me. I do not like conservatives. I am not one.
Now, you liberals. You are living in a fairly comfortable, exalted world. You have met people, probably, who believe (and will tell you) that you are going to hell. Not “to hell with you!” but you are going to hell. But you do not believe in hell and you doubt that Jesus (or one of the prophets of Judaism or Islam) is the true voice of God. In fact you reject monotheism, but you love the narratives in its religions. You consider people who believe in traditional explanations of life and death to be misguided. You yourself have gone beyond religion and seek the answers to life’s mysteries in history, literature, art, music and studies of the mind. Science is your religion. “Prove everything and keep looking,” that is your motto. You have met others who are brighter than you, who know infinitely more than you do, and who will take humanity into realms that you cannot dream of. But you know you are intelligent. You are well-educated, and look down on people who betray their lack of education by the way they speak and behave. You trust people but are pretty sure only bright people should make the rules. You may support religion but seek the answers to life’s mysteries in history, literature and studies of the mind. If this fits your perception of the world you are a liberal.
I am a liberal. I have perceived a self that I call me who is more than himself. I am the world. I am all that I can see, hear, feel, know or imagine. I have discovered that through my study and practice of Buddhism. Specifically, that is the existential proof I have discovered in zazen, the particular form of meditation that Japanese Zen priests engage in, as I have for 60 years. I now know that everything I love and everything I hate is me. Anger and jealousy are as much a part of me as the most forgiving and altruistic feelings I may have. At 81 my sense of myself as a tiny, lonely, frightened, defensive, potentially vicious little boy has been swallowed up by the me of all being. That makes me kind, loving, helpful, thoughtful, forgiving, and socially responsible. My job is to be still enough to see myself in the body and heart of every person, animal or plant that I encounter. That is very hard to do. It does not come easily, especially for an only child.
Which brings me to Donald Trump. God help me. I am Donald Trump! Every childish thing he does, his desire for winning, making lots of money, seeing himself as the greatest person on earth, lashing out at his critics, drawing distinctions between himself and others, demonizing them, dismissing things he doesn’t understand, etc. All of these characteristics belong to both of us. The only thing that worries me about this is the harm we can do to the world if we have our way. As someone I admire very much has said, governments are necessary to prevent people like us “from pursuing naked self-interest all the time.” In his brilliant piece this month in The Atlantic (“What’s Ailing American Politics” July/August 2016), Jonathan Rauch warns that all of us – “politicians, activists, and voters” -- have “become more individualistic and unaccountable … [because] Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.” Our naked self-interest has brought us where we are today. “Chaos becomes the new normal – both in campaigns and in the government itself.” “Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry… [whereas the] core idea of the Constitution was to restrain ambition and excess by forcing competing powers and factions to bargain and compromise.” Rampant individualism may actually bring down our republic.
I am still savoring Rauch’s article. It will require several readings for me to fully digest it. I think every teacher in every school in the country should make it required reading for bright students. Certainly it should be a must-read for all our representatives in Washington. It is succinct and clear, but it flies in the face of much that I had believed was going on, with me and my country.
- GTW at home in Palm Desert, July 6, 2016
Monday, July 4, 2016
Fear and Religion
July 4, 2016
Today, once again, Islamic Jihadists killed people in the name of their religion … out of fear. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – the three “Religions of the Book” --- teach us to fear death. Each of them teaches the same basic truth: that after we die we will either feel untold joy or we will endure untold pain -- forever. The simplest, most extreme motivation for deciding which of these outcomes we ourselves will experience is fear, our fear of others who will threaten us with their unbelief, or our fear of ourselves because we may not be able to live up to the demands of goodness.
There are, however, two ways to look at our future. Give in to the joy that is promised by each of these religions, or fight the war against evil that all of them abhors. Most Jews, Christians and Muslims live in between these two extremes. We’re in between joy and fear. Few of us actually follow the letter of the law. Only when our fear of each other makes us take up arms do we fight. Social concerns rather than ideological ones determine what we will do every day. This is true for young ISIS fighters, too, I think, just as it was for cavemen.
If you were raised in a household that is only nominally Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or if you were raised (or have become) not religious at all, then your social concerns of freedom, tolerance, justice and non-discrimination far outweigh any abstract notions of goodness and evil, right and wrong. If that is you, then you may be susceptible to religion. Your appetite for an answer to the unknown may be too strong. If you already have the answer you want in religion, then you already are on the warpath. Most Americans seem to be that way.
Something in the human brain seems to demand simple answers to the mystery of life and death, and if you find them in the radical side of religious doctrine, you become (in my opinion) a danger to society. The question becomes, “What does society do about protecting itself from you?” The same question pops up for dharma-caste-conscious Hindus, as well. They have been at war off and on with Muslims for centuries, but at least they produced a rebel some 2600 years ago, the historical Buddha, the world’s first pacifist, who slammed the door shut on retaliation against anyone for any reason. In theory, at least, Jesus of Nazareth was a pacifist, too. (Sometimes I disagree with both of them on this issue, but that’s another story.)
At issue this very moment is, “What do we do about people on the most radical side of Islam?” ISIS and other terrorist groups are angry that the Christian-dominated Western world defeated the vast military might of the Islamic world in 1922, after 1400 years of fighting, and helped Jews establish Israel after WWII. More recently, we invaded Iraq and other parts of the Islamic world. The Kor’an says that if your enemy attacks, you can retaliate, even by killing.
Well, according to radical Islam, we in the West (and any people who do not follow the letter of Sharia law the radicals follow) are the enemy. We are the infidels, the unbelievers. That’s the simple answer to the “Why?” that so many Americans are asking. The question remains, “What do we do?” Do we bomb them, more than we have, and kill civilians in the process? Shall we assassinate their leaders? Can we convert the young men and women who believe in the radical Islamist cause to some other form of religion or more humane system of living? If so, where do we begin? Should we pull back our military entirely? Build a wall around our country?
Right now we seem to be doing almost all of those things, but with little success. In addition, our leaders are telling us to pray for our dead and their loved ones. We are also blaming all Muslims for not speaking out and doing more to stop the carnage going on in the name of their religion. In November our nation will elect a new president. Right now we have two candidates, a woman with perhaps more experience in democracy than almost anyone on earth, and another with no experience in anything except making money for himself and lashing out at his critics. At the moment most Americans seem to hate her and prefer turning over the country to him, hoping he will make them wealthy, too. I dread what comes next. I’m not sure God is even looking at us.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
The War on Stupid People
“We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority. … Smart people should feel entitled to make the most of their gift. But they should not be permitted to reshape society so as to instate giftedness as a universal yardstick of human worth.”
This is the conclusion drawn by David H. Freedman in his article in the latest Atlantic (July/August 2016, p. 13-14.) I happened to see Mr. Freedman on a TV news show yesterday, where the discussion was about “experts” and “elites” who may have unwittingly brought on the recent onslaught by “stupid” people against progressive politics and politicians. I have said openly that I am terrified of Trump and his followers, as though they were barbarians at the gates of my world, or playground, as Freedman has it. Suddenly I see that I am one of the elites who consider Brexit and Trump supporters to be unbearably stupid. But wait. I’m a Zen priest and Bible scholar (see the rest of this essay on sugoisekai.blogspot.com.)
I am convinced that we all are inextricably connected to each other (Buddhist wisdom) and must treat others the way we ourselves want to be treated (Christian wisdom). The pivotal word here is “we”: who exactly are we? Zazen and prayer are supposed to turn us into creatures of loving kindness (in very different ways, of course.) Whether someone (including myself) has reached a deep level of perception, or is sinful or sinless, is not my concern.
But I have considered stupidity to be somehow separate from any of the other things that distinguish us. The last thing I (or any progressive) would do -- as Freedman points out -- is to discriminate against others on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, love-life, religion or physical disability. But their IQ? How often have I called people stupid? Many times! Now as never before, religion and politics have seemed to me to be overrun with stupid people. Anti-abortion, anti-gay Christians and tea-party Republicans drive me crazy with their stupidity!
You don’t have a university degree? Or you have one from a Podunk college? Forget it. I know what you think and will say (and VOTE on) before you do. As a Japanophile I enjoy telling Americans that in Japan married couples do not have babies unless they can afford them, raise them and send them to college. Pregnancies that don’t meet that test are aborted. My listeners (especially Catholics) never quite get over the shock of “are aborted,” so my general point (“look how smart the Japanese are”) is completely missed. That is sad to me. I’m even left speechless by people who use double-negatives and don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re” (something that linguistics departments are accepting nowadays, more’s the pity.)
As my own son, Reg, has said to me (and that I repeat, but only in jest), “Dad, you are a snob!” The fact of the matter is, I am. I secretly maintain a deep prejudice against pop music and sports. “Artists” on rock and country western stages and big-time stars on the basketball court, baseball, football and soccer fields are idolized beyond reason and paid outrageous amounts of money; whereas real (i.e., classical) musicians, singers and dancers (real artists) struggle to make enough money to live on, even before retirement. I am insulted beyond anything I can express in words.
So what do I do now? I can stop insisting on proper English usage and ignore pop music and sports. But there are weightier matters here. A Zen student asked his teacher, “How should a Buddhist regard ISIS?” (Hello, James Kenney.) This is the question of our age. My knee-jerk response (the same one that stupid people have) is, “Kill the bastards!” That is not the response I as a Zen teacher would let slip. (As a Christian soldier I might.) But I do believe that when I feel deep anger I need to be angry. I need to face anger head-on, just like I need to go into my feelings of hatred, fear, resentment, disappointment or even love when they appear in my heart.
Is the answer then, “Ignore ISIS” or “Let the Muslims sort it out”? I don’t think so. We all must do something. I happened to be in Llasa’s Jokhang square in 1980 when a demonstration by Tibetan nuns was put down by Chinese authorities. (A documentary of it was made sometime later by Western filmmakers who were there and who interviewed some of the nuns who escaped to Dharamsala, India.) I was proud of the nuns then and still am. They sacrificed their lives. Many were tortured and many died. Tibetan Buddhist priests have generally taken the position that each person can react to such brutality in whatever way they choose. Many have decided to follow His Holiness the Dalai Llama to India, others have immigrated to the U.S. and Europe. There may have been no alternative. I’m sure the Chinese were ready to annihilate the entire clergy if they had actually staged a revolution. They have done a good job of wiping out Buddhism in Tibet as things stand today anyway.
For me there is, in fact, no answer to what should be done today about the Chinese Communists -- who now feel religion can be practiced but only under tight surveillance -- or about ISIS, which considers its interpretation of Islam to be the only correct one and that other Muslims (and any unbelievers in any part of the world) deserve to be killed. I saw public executions in Beijing in 1970. We all have seen beheadings and stonings by ISIS zealots on TV. I draw the line at killing. Any killing. But for any reason? I’m not sure.
The latest ISIS bombing in Istanbul may be a frantic act of a group of people under attack by other people, including us. Should we have gotten involved in Kuwait and Iraq in the first place? No. But what is happening now, as a result of that incursion or not, is happening. Careful, skillful, shrewd political maneuvering is necessary to prevent a mass killing on a scale to which not even Hiroshima and Nagasaki can compare. It is a global issue. We ARE the world, even if xenophobes in this country think we are not. Or that global warming is not real.
My understanding of reality, my perception of it, can be liberating enough to me that nothing actually matters. And nothing, no one thing, not even everything, does. We all die eventually. But there is something called “skillful means” that all of us can use. Real skill comes out of deep meditation (samadhi). Let’s work together. This is an existential crisis. We don’t have to exist. But we can, at least temporarily. Shall we?
Sunday, February 15, 2015
In late October 1970 my father died, age 83, in the Comanche County Hospital near Lawton, Oklahoma. Carol and I were in Kyoto, Japan, where I was codirecting a six-month program for students from the University of Washington. Our sons Burke (age 9) and Reg (age 3) were with us. I had said goodbye to my father earlier in the year, before leaving the States. When the news arrived of his death, Carol stayed in in Kyoto with Reg, and Burke and I flew to Lawton for the funeral. Today I received the typed eulogy I gave standing next to the casket, from a friend of my parents. I had lost track of what I said, so reading what I wrote brought tears to my eyes. I loved him very much.
(In Memory of Robert Oscar Webb, by Glenn Taylor Webb)
He talked a lot – too much, I thought, until I understood a basic fact that he had driven home for me: words are magic costumes of seemingly endless colors and designs, for ideas. Like real costumes they reflect the reality behind the disguise; but more so, since the reality of an idea is indiscernible apart from its disguise of words.
Ideas. He loved them and collected them even after the age when most people close the mind-door and say, “No more ideas for me, these are enough!” He knew that one human being could never get enough of the ideas human beings have had. (“Son, I figured out that it would have taken me 969 years just to take all the courses offered in my field at the University of Oklahoma back in 1928!”)
Of course, he didn’t approve of every idea, in terms of its truth and usefulness, but I don’t think he ever discarded any idea as insignificant, either. Even the most repulsive idea was important to him as an idea, the most immediate indicator of the human condition. For a man who believed earnestly in the truth of the ideas attributed to Jesus of Nazareth and who belonged to a group of dear people (the Church of Christ) who also believe in that truth but tend to fear other ideas (or even the same ideas in unfamiliar word disguises), my father’s respect for ideas seems especially remarkable. It made him appear strangely tolerant and understanding among his friends.
That’s not to say he looked around with a patronizing smile and didn’t criticize. He had a sharp tongue, and it stung. But anyone who felt that sting and still thinks of him as a tyrant has missed the point. He was smiling, and his love for you was not in danger of being withheld just because he didn’t like what you did or said. (To the words “tolerant” and “understanding” the word “compassionate” can be added to the disguise of this idea.)
I am pretty sure that nothing irritated him more than a display of ego. He himself was virtually without one. He was not particularly introspective and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he thought of himself as little as possible. Again, it was ideas that interested him. I think he found it awkward to put bodies on ideas. (“Thou shalt not kill,” as part of a beautiful idea, was one thing; it was quite another to apply it to the circumstances of living in a military town where the most devout Christians – and the few Jews, in whose heritage the idea originated – were finding justifications for killing.) His solution was simple: keep the ideas and circumstances separate – even the ideas of patriotism, anti-fascism, anti-communism, etc., that lay behind the circumstances that justified killing. In a word, my father was polite.
It amazes me that he could hold such strong beliefs (i.e., be deeply attracted to certain ideas over others) and not force those beliefs on others (which most people do by denying their love to a dissenter, saying, in effect, “You do not exist because you have strange ideas.”) His path was argument-without-the-slightest-loss-of-honor-to-my-opponent. Since for him ideas were longer-lived and thus above the men who happened to play with them, I doubt if he ever thought of himself as having honor, much less of losing any.
Equally amazing was my father’s ability to maintain a relationship with a friend who professed the same beliefs he did but behaved, as it were, contrarily. The idea, for example, of “Seek ye not the things of this world …,” of being actively un-attracted to material wealth, was a real favorite of his and of most of his friends. He honestly didn’t put “undue” store in things. But friends who did can never say he criticized them for it; if anything, when they expressed feelings of guilt for their love of money he tried to give them encouragement, to find a way for them to be comfortable in both their belief and their desire. His beloved repertory of ideas made him a magician of reconciliatory powers.
Such powers no doubt enabled him to have confidence in people in spite of everything. R. O. Webb seemed to be as sure of any person as he was of himself. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Rock he built his life on was the Christ, to be sure. It is therefore no wonder that the human condition – seen through ideas as words – was his passion. But as an epitaph my father probably would prefer an un-dramatic “you can’t get along in this world without friends,” or better yet, “I meant no harm.”
P.S. I don’t believe in horoscopes, but in the LA Times today, Feb. 15, 2015, my sign (Sagittarius) reads as follows: “Your father. That’s where the day focuses. The things your dad did to influence you will be apparent, for better and for worse.” What are the odds of this prediction coming on the very day when I decided to share and post this remembrance on Facebook and my blog? - GTW