Plastic Buddha

When I was about 16-years-old, I had a biology teacher named Miss B…well, lets just call her Miss B. so I can be completely free with my recollections.  Thin, with a salt and pepper pixie hair cut, Miss B was prim and grimly disapproving of the secular culture of public high school.  School legend had it that she was such a religious fanatic that her fellow nuns had drummed her out of the order for being too severe and literal in her understanding.  One day I swung open the door in the plastic anatomical torso we had in class, to find a huge cavity in the lower section.  I asked Miss B. where the missing organs were and she snapped that they were gonads and that she had locked them in her desk drawer because she wasn’t being paid to teach pornography.   Iwas a bit of a smarty pants in those days but I managed to resist the impulse to ask her why she was so testy. But I couldn’t resist asking her if she really thought it was serving knowledge to lock up these parts.  She suspended me from her class for being a smart-mouthed hippie (I was secretly thrilled to be an outlaw!).  Under pressure from the administration, I was allowed to return and because I happened to be good at taking those tests where you filled in circles I got a perfect score on a New York State biology achievement test.  The only one in my school.   Miss B was very chagrined, and so was I, for a different reason.  I knew I wasn’t really a budding scientist.  What had that test really measured? I was full of a kind of questioning I could not articulate.  What did it mean to really know something, to not just repeat what others have told you, not just to be good with words, but to know something?

I was one of those kids who believed she had been born in the wrong time and place.  I was full of longing to find my way to my true home.  I read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.  I would sit in the art room and make little clay meditating figures and stare out the window at the woods on the hill behind the school,  dreaming about going on a journey of awakening like that long-ago young Brahmin.  For those of you who haven’t read this classic quest tale, Siddhartha leaves his home and family and becomes a Samana, a wandering ascetic.  He meets the Buddha (this is confusing for many people because the Buddha’s birth name is Siddhartha.  It’s like a young man named Jesus meeting Jesus of Nazareth).  Siddhartha believes the Buddha Gotama is unlike anyone else he has ever met.   He sees that the Buddha is awake to life, yet he cannot become a follower.   He tells the Buddha that his doctrine is perfect except in one place–the place of Buddha’s own liberation.   In other words, this did not come about by following the teaching of others but by the Buddha’s own seeking, his own meditation, his own direct knowledge, his own enlightenment.   Hesse portrays the vertical leap of awakening as a gap in the horizontal stream of cause and a effect:  “through this small gap there streams into the world of unity something strange, something new, something that was not there before and cannot be demonstrated and proved….”  In other words, a voluntary action–a voluntary suffering is necessary.

In other words, the Buddha could not really convey by words and teachings what happened in the hour of his enlightenment.  The teachings conveyed many good and wholesome things, but what is essential cannot be taught.  At least not to Siddhartha, and not to me at 16-years-old.  I often thought the same was true–infinitely more so–for Jesus.  How could his experience be known by us?   Siddhartha set out to discover the truth for himself and after many adventures he found his own way to a first-hand knowledge of the unity and goodness of life.  And me?  At middle age, I’m back to realizing how mysterious it is to be here, to be given a body (not plastic one) and a life.   I still want to know what it means to to know.

And after all these years, I discover that the Buddha taught in the Satipatthana Sutta that the direct path to liberation was the four satipatthanas or foundations of mindfulness:  “What are the four?  Here, monks, in regard to the body a monk abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.  In regard to the feelings he abides contemplating feelings, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful…In regard to the mind he abides contemplating mind…In regard to the dhammas (phenomenon of all kinds) he abides contemplating dhammas….”

The Buddhas advises us to contemplate the body, the feelings, the mind, and all everything that arises “internally…externally…internally and externally.”   To watch the arising and passing away of sensation, feeling, thoughts, to be independent, not identified yet to be with our own experience.  This is what we’ve been talking about here lately, about not seeking to escape from our own lived experience, about surrendering to our true broken state, being with it.  The nanoseconds I manage it, it can bring a kind of grace.


14 thoughts on “Plastic Buddha

  1. What do all those little circles test anyway? What a wonderful truth: all those measurements, all those bemchmarks, all those secrets and hidden parts within other parts of the body – what do they really measure or test?

    It is as if the ego is a horse with blinders on, moving always in the same direction but seeing so little. Yet sometimes the blinders are removed if but for a moment and then there is this panorama of awareness, this spaciousness for seeing.

    Perhaps when Copernicus realized that the perfection of God could not be mathematically possible in a geocentric universe, he caught a glimpse of that spaciousness; he caught a glimpse of that truth. But to see what is true can be a dangerous enterprise and so, Copernicus waited until he was old enough to die before publishing his heavenly treatise.

    But as for Hesse’s Siddhartha, I’ve always like the faithful friend, the one who was not quite as beautiful or blessed or charmed as Siddhartha. I don’t know but I’ve always had a thing for the racehorse coming from behind, the victory always sweeter the more unlikely the winner. Blame it on the Greeks and their victory over the Persians – Unlikely but Nike!

    So, as always thank you. Your blog is a window into that wonderful spaciousness that is always present but so hard to see. Your blog is a glimpse into that panorama.

    1. I never thought of great break throughs that way, but you are right. They are moments of extraordinary spaciousness, clarity, a seeing of how the parts must fit in a greater whole (as opposed to the parts that Miss B. didn’t fit–or weren’t fit for public view).

  2. The human body is first and foremost a mirror to the soul and its greatest beauty comes from that. – Auguste Rodin

    Unfortunately for her, your teacher didn’t know this.

    I read your post several times and do respect your sincerity and your need. You wrote:

    What did it mean to really know something, to not just repeat what others have told you, not just to be good with words, but to know something?
    I know the rules of chess as well as kasparov does. Yet he could beat me every game we played. He knows chess and I know chess. Why should he beat me? He “understands” the game. The board and its pieces live for him as a unified whole at a quality far greater than they live for me.

    I think it is that way with our being which consists of a plurality. I believe I can “know something,” play the game, when my parts can experience the external world as a unified whole rather than as the scattered parts they do now.

    I respect your need and the need of others that hunger for truth above what the “world” offers. It is why I want to have a day next year for Simone in honor of the purity and dedication of her search for truth that allowed for her transition from a brilliant atheist and Marxist admired by Trotsky and to die a Christian mystic all from the need and willingness to experience objective truth. Does it mean anything for us? How do we honor it? Are we capable of such a quality of search?

    Along with introducing Simone, I’d like to arrange for several speakers capable of relating with sincerity as to how they struggle with the human condition as it exists in us and how Simone’s purity resonates with them. Perhaps you may want to contribute. You are obviously genuine.

    I don’t know if you ever received my email but as I once said, I am writing something now that deals with a legend I am related to by heredity and fine art that Parabola may be interested in. One of its meanings depicts our personal inner Armageddon, the struggle between truth and fantasy in ourselves: conscious affirmation and acquired denial. It also explains the lawful means for the vertical leap you mentioned:

    “Hesse portrays the vertical leap of awakening as a gap in the horizontal stream of cause and a effect: “through this small gap there streams into the world of unity something strange, something new, something that was not there before and cannot be demonstrated and proved….” In other words, a voluntary action–a voluntary suffering is necessary.”
    Simone welcomed this struggle for herself as well as others as few could ever do: She wrote

    “Every time that I think of the crucifixion of Christ, I commit the sin of envy.”

    Of course we do not see with her clarity so do not seek escape from the human condition as do those like her. But their efforts do arouse needed personal questions for ourselves if we can open to them.

    I was listening to this video when I read your post. Perhaps you may appreciate it. The Armenians are an ancient race and much comes through them.

    You seem to have the potential to be the eagle described below:

    A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat on his strong golden wings. The old eagle looked up in awe. “Who’s that?” he asked. “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” said his neighbor. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth – we’re chickens.” So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.”Anthony de Mello(1931-1987) Jesuit Priest

    Perhaps we long for the eagle’s perspective that connects the sky and the earth: as above, so below.

    1. I like the distinction you make between knowing and understanding–very helpful. And the story about the eagle raised to be a chicken–well, it puts a new spin on the old expression “I’m no chicken” (or “I’m no spring chicken,” which I’ve been repeating too much lately). It’s like a koan in a way–is one a chicken who dreams of being an eagle or an old eagle who has lived with her/his wings folded?

  3. Back in 1991, I took a Psychology of Women class at the University of Houston, where the professor asked us to read this book: Women’s Ways Of Knowing: The Development Of Self, Voice, And Mind 10th Anniversary Edition. It’s a great book, I still have my copy somewhere in our library at home.

    The part that open my eyes is how we move through different Ways Of Knowing, from Received Knowledge to Constructed Knowledge, to a place where we may construct our own knowledge and worldview. It was an unexpected introduction to epistemology; it was also a lesson in how we may move from faith & belief, into a knowledge of the divine mystery or should eventually.

    People of faith make ‘I believe’ statements all the time, without it seems, any intention of moving beyond belief into a direct knowledge of the divine. At least, they do not frame it in those words.

    But, I always makes me stop and think, what if we said I know instead of I believe. What would that do to our own worldview. What powerful mental seeds, karma, would that plant.

    Think about this …

    I know “God is love and they who abide in love, abide in God.”

    I know that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, helping to heal the world, to make it whole.

    I know God is more than we may imagine, God is this more, but God is also personal.

    I know God dwells in me and in others.

    If you take some of the old creeds, with your eyes wide open to the social, cultural, and historical use of language, and then used the word ‘know’ intentionally, instead of believe, what would that do for you? Is there any value there for you? There was and is for me. It’s an interesting question, one you have to think about for a while perhaps.

    Of course, something does happen to help you make that shift in consciousness from belief to knowledge. Where I have encountered these moments is in community, prayer, sacrament, and meditation. And it doesn’t even have to be deep prayer, it can come in a simple single moment of mystery that opens the heart, our most powerful spiritual instrument.

    You can learn it from a sage or even a child, like the child of Christmastide born in a manager of Bethlehem, whose mother Mary teaches us that we too may give birth to God’s love.

    Peace on a Monday morning …


    I’ve been reading a new book lately that takes a look at “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, by Cynthia Bourgeault.”

    It too is a paradigm shift in consciousness.

  4. I read Ron’s story as suggesting a different quality of life on the earth. I read Anthony de Mello’s story as contrasting life on the earth to a perspective that appreciates it from a higher, more inclusive perspective.

    I may be reading Tracy wrong but she seems to be expressing that old idea of being in the world but not of it. These people seem to “need” something that doesn’t initiate on the earth but rather enters into the world from a higher more conscious, origin. It brings meaning to life IN the world.

  5. now and now again. and nows from now until it’s over. now with heart, conscious body and head piece moving inexorably through the modes of life. unafraid of the real. an authority on being.
    i liked your little story very much. but we are still looking out the window aren’t we? at what? it’s like some better world without suffering; and it’s a world of not knowing…. or something.

    1. yes, scott, i couldn’t resist the pun. I think we–or at least I–am still staring out the window, imagining some different better life without suffering. Even though I know there is no there there.

  6. Yes…..I remember reading “Siddhartha”……and “Goldman and Narcissus”….and “Steppenwolf” by Herman Hesse….and being the comtemplative at the end of the bar or rather the table in the corner….it was all so fun…..twas a time of youth and enlightenment…….but NOW I believe that NOW is where it really is…inside and now…..although …correct me if i am wrong….that is what “they” were all saying….loved ur story…love intimate recollections in general….poor Miss B…..a hollow cavity where the locked up gonads belonged…..or rather where the gonads longed to be…..Namaste’

  7. What a vivified dispensation Tracy ! I share in the utmost kindredness the sympathies you elate here — having encountered Hesse in that particular way, in a similar classroom setting, albeit, under the ministrations and cares, of a devout Christian sophiste , one , Mrs . K – a woman who ought be imbued with a sprite of exhalation in contemplating your lines . The scan tron bubble tests were truly some conceit to duel with in those days — ah ! , i recall, by the way of a rejoinder, whence i once – in pursuit of True Knowing, driven by the spontaneous inner mechanisms through an Algebra test, sketched out the relational probabilities inhering to the transmigrational aspects of the Soul . . . Overlooking the ” Test ” in this manner constituted a secular profanation i must adventitiously interject . . . haha !

    With Love and Gratitude ,
    Yours Very Truly ,
    Alexander , MSMA .

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