Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible

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9780743232760: Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible

"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet are the founding editors of the online literary magazine KillingTheBuddha.com, winner of the Utne Independent Press Award. They began working together at the National Yiddish Book Center, at which Peter designed exhibits and Jeff edited Pakn Treger, an award-winning magazine of Jewish culture. Peter studied religion and literature at the University of Massachusetts and Boston University. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jeff has written about religion and culture for numerous publications, including Harper's Magazine, The Washington Post, The Baffler, and Salon.com. He lives in Brooklyn

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: GENESIS

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked...
Genesis 3:7
By A. L. Kennedy

In the beginning, it's simple, all very clear -- you are and then know that you are and that's enough. But not for long. Eventually, you need an explanation.

My explanation starts with certain facts: that I was conceived in Australia, then born in Scotland at 3:57 A.M. on October 22, 1965 A.D. These are facts that I take on faith -- I can't remember anything about them.

Beginnings are particularly hungry for our faith. Our communal starting point -- too monumental to imagine and eternally out of reach -- can seem the hungriest of all. Without it, we lack definition, but it continually proves itself impossible to define. We can't even fix a date for the opening of time. According to James Ussher, once archbishop of Armagh, God began to create our heavens and our earth and everything herein on the evening before October 23, 4004 b.c. (Which would mean that my birthday perpetually commemorates my ability to just miss key events.) The Eastern Orthodox Church didn't specify a day but set the Year of Creation at 5508 B.C., while ancient Syrian Christians were sure it was 5490 B.C. A variety of the faithful of many religions have made a variety of other calculations, in cyclical and linear time, in order to pinpoint the birth of everything. Modern physicists are less precise -- they propose a moment of singular significance, expanding from an infinite temperature and into potential life somewhere between 20 and 10 billion years ago. With ourselves and our surroundings as our only tangible evidence, we assume that we and our world, our universe, have come to be: How this has happened we take on faith -- we can't remember anything about it.

We are unsure of our inheritance, the traits we may find emerging in our blood: We need a cover story, an alibi, the consolations of a family tree. It's troubling, to be so rootless, to discover such uncertainty when we look for our ultimate home, to find echoes of this amnesia in our lives -- we lose ourselves, after all, quite easily. The moment when we fall asleep, the one when we come back, fully awake -- they both escape us. And the point when we first became aware that we were ourselves and other things were not, were separate -- that slipped right by us, too. This is perhaps because awareness seeped in gradually, our knowledge nudged along by a particular burst of hunger, or an unusually pleasant touch: a sound, a movement, that we didn't make, couldn't make: something arising from somewhere beyond our will. Or perhaps it came in suddenly and complete -- ourselves announced to ourselves, the earliest intimate visitors to our minds, erasing our first entrances, even as we arrived. Either way, it's impossible to recall. And when did we start to be knowingly dissatisfied, unhappy, or uncomfortable, wicked, good, afraid? Once again, we're not sure: There is only a muddle of incident, like a bundle of random family photographs: poignant, irrelevant, stilted, intense.

For me, there's the discomfort of chicken pox, my fear of the waiting spider in the fern beside the gate, a sad story about a green dress, my parents' shouting, the day when I cut my foot open, mumps -- and that time when I slapped a comic book experimentally toward a fly and actually hit it. For a brief while, I was triumphant and then could do nothing but watch, stricken with guilt, as the fly lay where it dropped, apparently dead and my fault. Then, remarkably, a wing twitched, the legs next, and it recovered itself, filled up again with whatever constituted its tiny life, and flew away, resurrected, as if my wishing could have made it so.

Which is part of the story I'd tell you of me, the way I'd explain myself and how I came to be, even though I'm missing any knowledge of my first 3:57 A.M., of all those initial sunrises and nights. I tell my story, at least in part, to make up for this lack -- and like any other piece of autobiography, it is a blend of memory and reported fact and the way that I feel I ought to have been and hope that I am and wish that I will be. It is an exercise of will. I make myself in my own image, what else do I have?

The knowledge of a Will above mine? I couldn't say when that particular awareness first announced itself -- I only know He was there early, my God, a personality outside what people told me, beyond religion and the usual prayers.

At that age, of course, I had no need for anything beyond the usual prayers. Nothing about my personal life was large enough to bother God with in any official way: I pushed up the words I was told to use almost as if I were reciting a poem, something formal for a distant and habitually invisible relative. I knelt, as required, and asked that God should bless my mother and my father and my grandparents -- both sets -- no playing favorites, God should be told about everyone. I may also have mentioned unfortunate strangers, illnesses, that kind of thing.

And, in the beginning, I went to church, and that was simple, too. For a while it made sense that I should sit beside my mother in my least comfortable clothes while she made sure I stood and sang and sat, opened and closed my eyes at appropriate moments, and was put in the way of a gift I believe she had come to regard with some ambivalence. Trained as a Methodist lay preacher, she had studied the Bible enough to find its inconsistencies: the dubious spaces between words that were, in themselves, the products of translators and interpreters, political massage and cultural theft. Add this to the fact that my mother was often trapped by the bewilderment of a good person living an unreasonably painful life and you can understand that hers had become an, at least, unpredictable faith. Still, she put me through the motions of conventional worship, and together in the pew, we could look up and see my father -- the evangelical atheist -- perched high with his back to everyone and playing the church organ. Unbeliever or not, you'll end up in church if you want to play the organ with any kind of seriousness. He would operate its mystery of pedals and stops, glancing now and then into the carefully angled wing mirrors that made the instrument look like some huge moored vehicle, helplessly straining out music as it fought to race away with the building, drag us off to who knew where.

So there I was, a work in progress, with no way of knowing if I would ever be as frightened as my mother, or as violent as my father. What image would I be made in -- the one of a woman who stayed in a marriage to give her child a father, or the one of a father who terrified his child? Of course, I didn't know, and for quite some time, this didn't concern me -- my life was my life, without questions. I also thought very little about the contradictions of our family's religious observances. If I considered them at all, I simply assumed that God understood our situation and was entirely satisfied by our dressing oddly and then singing or speaking to Him. I assumed that He found the sermons as boring as I did. I assumed that He was He and not a She -- I always have related better to men. I assumed He wouldn't be offended when I didn't think of Him as a Father. I assumed that He didn't mind when we moved house and no longer visited His church.

By the time I was five or six, our attendance, or rather lack of it, rarely occurred to me. I had the feeling that I was alone in wanting any more to do with God and made a little cross out of dry spaghetti bound up with green gardening tape -- these being the only materials that came easily to hand. I used to bring out the cross when I prayed. And then my prayers became more personal and more plainly ineffective. And then I lost the cross. And then I didn't pray.

Until the next beginning -- the one that means you're adult, fully responsible and powerless -- until the sour, scared opening: "Please, God." In this beginning your requests are always personal and brought to God because you have nowhere else to go. Your pressing requests will vary: Let the sick not die, let the loved not leave, or the love, let the pain fade, the fear diminish, or let whatever mess I've made for myself be somehow lifted clear away. And because you've worked out that He isn't Father Christmas, isn't a Father with only you to love, then this is when the bargains start -- when you promise you'll be good, or you'll be sorry, or you'll speak to Him more often, dress better, never do whatever you shouldn't have done again. But who are you talking to and how did you get here to be with Him, being you?

Which brings us back to our official beginning -- Genesis -- one of our species' more famous attempts at outlining its inheritance, its bloodline. This is the story we tell to each other, the way we explain ourselves and how we came to be, even though we're missing any knowledge of all those initial sunrises and nights. This is what and why we are, with those opening lines that are so quoted, so authoritative and so elegant, no matter in what version. With the lovely simplicity of poetry, physics, faith, here is the record of chaos being divided into forms. And we know this undoubtedly happened, one way or another, and here we are and why not cut and paste (rather badly) a number of slightly contradictory creation tales together and say this was, definitively, The Way? The best current guesses of science have the same simplicity and beauty, along with that prudent dash of justifiable awe.

Whatever the reader's level of orthodoxy, Genesis represents an attempt to catch the Almighty in letters. In the beginning is the word, because we justify our existence, our every action, in words, in stories, and why not do the same for our world, for God? In the beginning was the word, because it was natural to make our making in our own phrases, music, images, to recite it in the desert evenings like a spell. In the beginning was the word, because that's all that we could grasp.

It would be pointless to discuss here how literally you choose to take the Bible's word. Do you find God in gravity (unmentioned in Genesis) but refuse to see His hand in evolution -- do you accept the workings of time but not of genetics -- do you pick and choose amongst the rhythms of nature? What do you find in the word? Does it offer an Eden of the mind, a garden for the spirit, a beginning shared by Muslims and Christians and Jews, or the literal four rivers and Edin in Western Iran, or each one of these and more? Whatever the story and its origins, we needed to come from somewhere. Subject to grandiose hopes, to occasional feelings of loss, abandonment, we seem to have needed to feel our true home had once been Paradise. So we told ourselves we were the children of perfection, born in beauty -- and, as what could have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, it had promise. We gave ourselves a bloodline touched by angels, the gift of everything, there and ready for us before we could ask.

But we can also be lost, even in Paradise, and the ambivalence of the gift is there in Genesis, too. Among the fruit trees and the fertility, the admiration of prose style and our elevated origins, the arguments over heresies and textual analysis, we can miss the terrible truth in the loveliness of the book's initial verses -- a truth far more immediate than expulsion from a garden we never quite knew. Here we are told that chaos was shaped into matter by God. However this came about, our universe is, indeed, filled with separate objects, among them our earth, which is, in turn, busy with substances and shapes and various forms of life, among them Homo sapiens, female and male. Which means, delightful though the earth can be, that we are ourselves and other things are not. We live in a universe of numberless solids that can kill and injure us. Our bodies are subject to damage and decay. Our present home is a place of drowning, crushing, burning, earthquakes, lava, diseases, suffocation, and unexpected blows. Measured by the scale of Genesis, conjured out of its spell, we are less than tiny and fatally at risk. Even left in each other's care, we are shown to be frail, and -- no matter how we act and how long we last -- we do all die. Even in Paradise, we never had eternal life -- each of the beauties around us would have an end. And, written for the descendants of the fallen, the expelled, this version of our origins makes it clear that we will be harmed and killed by the natural laws which rule us. Nature -- God resting behind it, His job done -- insists that we and all we love must be hurt and then cease to be. Genesis offers no alternative creation, no other choice.

Equally, it makes plain that we are condemned to a further, intimate separation of male from female, of lover from love, that other ghost of Paradise. It tells the tale of a time when there was only one pair: one love and one beloved: made for each other. Adam, the man named for red earth, and his wife, the woman of bone, have to be with each other, and they consider nothing else -- that awkward other woman, Lilith, banished to other legends. They weather remarkable trials, unseparated: They love, make love, betray and blame, feel ashamed and hide from God together. However sexist the archaic spin, the world's first marriage is recognizable to any human who has ever loved. And, beyond this, there is no thought that Eve and Adam could be possible, or fully functional, alone. With or without the knowledge of good and evil, inside or outside the garden, Eve, her husband, and her children are never entirely solitary. The only pain absent from Genesis is that of loneliness. The whole book retains that particular mercy of Paradise, that flavor of nostalgia and loss unaltered by faith or doubt -- the faint aftertaste of a home where we were never lonely.

But we're far from home now. Dwarfed by our surroundings, torn apart from all that is not us, we can hardly be surprised that we sometimes call out for a help that transcends us, that breaks and makes our rules. The beauties and, more often, the horrors of Creation can drive us toward the Creator and prayer. Genesis, after Eden, has its fair share of laments. Naturally, the human mind can't be expected to produce anything like a coherent or comprehensive picture of what a supreme being might actually be like. For the unbelievers this is obvious -- a nonquantity cannot be described. For the believers (myself among them) it seems equally obvious that the finite will fail to grasp the infinite. The more literal-minded and devout will, of course, demand an omnipotent, omnipresent, omnicognizant God who can also be rendered easily in print by generations of variously qualified scribblers. I tend to find -- no matter how divine the available inspirations -- that the assumption this might ever be possible cannot be anything other than ludicrous, if not insulting, to the deity concerned. And, of course, the Kabbalists have (who knows quite how) calculated the dimensions of God and are among those who are happy to totemize each of the Bible's words -- to say nothing of their numerological values -- in the sure and certain hope that God is literally in the details and accessible if only stared at hard...

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