William Stranger | My Last Workshop

Having spent my entire adult life in an intensive spiritual practice that is utterly absorbing and complete, I’ve never felt a need to play around in the world of life-enhancement seminars and workshops (not even when not to have done Est! was considered to be a serious faux pas).

The first time I took the plunge was six or seven years ago when I wanted to learn state of the art pedagogy so I could improve the seminars that I teach. A close friend, who had spent years in the so-called “growth movement,” convinced me to take a version of the venerable old Lifespring seminar called “I-Impact”. I-Impact turned out to be a full on three day challenge which I found to be enormously worthwhile. It forced me to relinquish qualities of loveless aloofness and condescension of which I had been unaware. Even more, seeing the wonderful skills of the seminar leader, a baseball playing ex-cop named Jim, raised the bar high for my own future performance. I went on to phase two of their process, at a cost of even more days and about twice the money. Midway through I-Impact II, however, I had to walk out. The self-help component of the program had strongly kicked into the gear and I was being asked to make little vows (trivial in retrospect, but still vexing) that just ran against my grain. I’m fine with having to clean up my own act and become trustably responsible to love one and all.  I draw the line when being sold the idea that the goal of life is to become a healthy, productive, autonomous ego who can sign people up to his or her own program. I know all about that ego. Even the smilingest of them (that is, of us) is haunted by death and sorrow.

My last such outing was about a week ago, when I found myself in a room with two very decent gentlemen primed to tell a group of not so very young white people how to go about doing a business that is doing the world some good. Or at least that’s what I thought I was going to learn. I’d had come there at the invitation of my buddy Eliot, with whom I am starting a new policy institute. Eliot had met one of the seminar leaders at another event.  With a forthcoming book on the subject of entrepreneurial do-gooderism to burnish his own impressive business and marketing credentials, the fellow certainly appeared well-qualified for his task, and so why not? His partner also a strong background in human resource development and was a relaxed, credible presence. My five hour roundtrip to the benignly sybaritic fields of suburban Marin county would be worth the trouble if I truly did learn something of great practical use about how to do benign business in the world .

The event was held at an amazingly well-maintained community park building surrounded by lightly misted, morning sunned athletic fields. Already at this early hour those fields were home to flocks of eight year old boys proudly warming up in their professional baseball uniforms. I noticed that were nearly as many adult coaches for the boys as there were players on the field, a demonstration of fatherly commitment that I suspect few parks in the red states were likely equaling that morning. Man, wouldn’t a game of baseball be fun right now! Anyway, it was upstairs to the room and the beginning of the seminar.

Twenty or so of us sat in a large semi-circle of chairs facing a butcher papered blackboard. The event began with a warbly projection of the opening crawl sequence from the original Star Wars movie, “Long, long ago in a galaxy far away . . . ,“ that famous Saturday morning matinee call to arms that that no 16 year old boy or girl will ever be able to resist. Having spent the better part of a lifetime learning the requirements and costs of authentic self-transcendence, however, I was more embarrassed that they should show this than I was moved to visions of personal glory. “I didn’t know we were going to watch a documentary,” I quipped to the seminar leader.

What came next moved me on from my slight embarrassment to a real annoyance that I had no choice but to conceal. The seminar leaders advised us we were all on a journey traversing the sequence that Joseph Campbell outlined in his famous Hero With a Thousand Faces, filtered through his interview with Bill Moyers on that very subject. The hero, we were informed, passes through four phases: (1) the call to destiny; (2) renunciation; (3) the struggle with obstacles; and, (3) a great Awakening. The only problem I had with all this is that the exemplar of this sacrifice that they presented to us was Gautama Buddha, a man who actually is one of my revered heroes and who literally did make his life all about Awakening. Did they seriously intend to compare the small levies upon our life and energy required to perform our worldly do-gooderism with the utter self-relinquishment demonstrated by the Buddha?

The answer was, yup, they sure did. They even told the foundational story of what occasioned Buddha’s renunciation, the one event that his parents had done everything in their power to prevent—his apparently chance observation of a sick and dying man. Buddha, of course, immediately realized the triviality of the princely destiny held before him. In the face of the death and disappearance of all that you love, what’s the point of pursuing any destiny whatsoever?  Hence Buddhism in all its multiple glories, including the Advaitayana Buddhism that claimed my heart, as well as all the other serious spiritual teachings and paths in other traditions that likewise see through the beguilements of our worldly commitments.

The Buddha himself was well aware that his message could never be a popular one. He was at first disinclined to teach. It was only when he came across several serious ascetics who were obviously both available to and in great need of his instruction that he began the compassionate teachings that we treasure today. And it is so that to this day no aspiring Buddhist can be spared the very same crisis faced by Gautama. We either yield all to the Divine or we continue to design—these days we say “script”—our lives of ego-selfhood. The truth is that when we actually hear the Dharma, we realize that our lives are no longer our own because we were holding on to something unreal to begin with.  Gautama himself likened it to be seized by the jaws of a lion:

     ‘Monks, the lion, king of beasts, at eventide comes forth from his lair. Having come forth from his lair he stretches himself. Having done so he surveys the four quarters in all directions. Having done that he utters thrice his lion’s roar. Thrice having uttered his lion’s roar he sallies forth in search of prey.
     Now, monks, whatever animals hear the sound of the roaring of the lion, king of beasts, for the most part they are afraid: they fall to quaking and trembling. Those that dwell in holes seek them: water-dwellers make for the water: forest-dwellers enter the forest: birds mount into the air.
     Then whatsoever ruler’s elephants in village, town or palace are tethered with stout leather bonds, they burst and rend those bonds asunder, void their excrements and in panic run to and fro. Thus potent, monks, is the lion, king of beasts, over animals; of such mighty power and majesty is he.
     Just so, monks, when a Tathagata arises in the world, an Arahat, a Perfectly Enlightened One, perfect in wisdom and in conduct, wellfarer, knower of the worlds, the unsurpassed trainer of those who can be trained, teacher of Gods and of men, a Buddha, an Exalted One; he teaches dhamma: “Such is the Self: such is the origin of the Self: such is the ending of the Self: such is the way leading to the ending of the Self.”
     Then, monks, whatsoever gods there be, long-lived, lovely, and become happy, for a long time established in heavenly mansions; they too, on hearing the Dhamma-teaching of the Tathagata, for the most part are afraid: they fall to quaking and trembling, saying: “It seems, sirs, that we who thought ourselves permanent are after all impermanent: that we who thought ourselves stable are after all unstable: not to last, sirs, it seems are we, though lasting we thought ourselves. So it seems, sirs, that we are impermanent, unstable, not to last, compassed about with a Self.”
     Thus potent, monks is a Tathagata over the world of gods and men.’

(Anguttara-Nikaya [Book of the Fours], trans, David Maurice, from The Lion’s Roar: An Anthology of the Buddha’s Teachings Selected from the Pali Canon)

This is not a message built to please beings who are busy congratulating themselves for being alive. Even some practicing Buddhists seem surprised to learn that they need the Buddha not only for the kind of fierce, clear admonitions we read above, but for his own Blessing Grace—an attitude that has come down to us all courtesy of some very mistaken nineteenth century European historiography. The truth of the matter is unequivocally stated right on the jacket of noted Pali scholar Peter Masefield’s landmark Revelation in Pali Buddhism:

[S]alvation in early Buddhism depended upon the saving intervention of the Buddha’s grace and . . ., contrary to the now commonly accepted view of Buddhism as a rationalistic philosophy of self-endeavor, the picture that emerges from a careful examination of the canonical texts is one of Buddhism as a revealed religion in every sense of the term with the Buddha as every bit the divine guru.”

The pop Buddhism my seminar leaders were inflicting on their audience certainly was no worse than what is being replayed thousands of times every day across America. I’m sure that some of the people in the room felt served by the occasion. Who cares that Joseph Campbell died a famously miserable death, the painful fruit of a life spent overfilling the mind and dining on roast beef and scotch? In any case, I was sufficiently engaged by the people around me that when they had us close our eyes and select three small stones from a basket, thereafter to do some kind of imaginative, invocatory prayer, I had no trouble playing along. Even so, I could not help but think, “Ah, if they only knew the Siva Lingam!,” which is the truest, deepest meaning of stone. But that’s another story.







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