Some of the feedback I received on the first draft of the book suggested that a final chapter, a sort of capstone to tie it all together, might be useful. I've been banging that idea around for a bit, and I think this week I got the core of it down: nothing really new of course, but I do like the variety of sources I'm quoting, and thanks to Amy Wilde for the first Dale Carnegie quote.
The religions that have been inflicted upon us for centuries have declared that this life is nothing but a preparation or a test for some eternal, non-physical life to come. It's certainly a useful idea for maintaining hierarchical power structures: if you're getting the short end of the stick now, hey, relax, no need to work for equality or anything crazy like that. Keep quiet and you'll get your Eternal Reward in the Great Beyond.
But more than that: in putting forth the existence of some more important supernatural realm, these religions have denigrated the physical world, calling it "mere matter" -- as if there were anything "mere" about atoms forged in the heart of an exploding supernova, slowly organizing into complex forms, pulling on and being pulled by every other particle in the Universe through the mystery of gravity; as if the stuff that makes you and me and whales and diamonds and the rings of Saturn and the Orion nebula, is deficient, worthy of contempt.
Why? Largely because it changes: it cycles around, it is subject to birth and decay. And rather than accept that is is our desire for changelessness that is at fault, mainstream religions -- as well as Spiritualism and many "New Age" beliefs that derive from it -- have held the Universe guilty for not being what we think we want.
But in contrast, the naturalism out of which Paganism emerged tells us that this world and everything in it is a wonder; in Whitman's words, "a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars".
And a famous Zen koan tells us that the Buddha-nature is present even in the lowliest objects. The story goes that Master Yun-men was just coming out of the outhouse when a student asked him, "What is the Buddha?" As it happened, the master happened to see the paddle used to spread the outhouse manure into compost piles, and answered, "Dry shit on a stick!"
It's all about this world, here, now.
And I mean now! Here! Wherever you are, reading an electronic copy on your computer screen, or sitting with a dead trees version in the library, or outside under a tree, or inside on the crapper. The dust on your keyboard, the ant crawling on your foot, the annoying guy talking too loud, the shit stain in the toilet bowl, that funny smell, the ache in your knee, the ache in your heart, this is IT, the dance of atoms, the net of jewels. There's nothing to wait for. The universe has a billion billion billion tellers, no lines, no waiting, instant service. Enlightenment? "You're soaking in it", as an old TV commercial for dish soap said.
To quote no less square a source than Dale Carnegie, "One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon -- instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today."
But apparently Dale couldn't understand that concept in the biggest picture, for he also wrote that "If religion [more or less meaning Christianity, to him] isn't true, then life is meaningless. It is a tragic farce." Poor Dale didn't see that the belief in some magical rose garden in heaven, shouldn't affect his enjoyment of the roses here and now.
An old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon puts it well. Calvin asks, "What if there's no afterlife? Suppose this is all we get?" Hobbes looks around for a moment, and then replies, "Oh, what the heck. I'll take it anyway."
It is no easy thing to keep this simple wisdom in mind. The Universe is beautiful, yes, but it is also terrible, full of the suffering that the Buddha perceived. But rather than look for this suffering to end when we reach some magical rose garden over the horizon, the Buddha's prescription is, again, for here and now.