Noelle Oxenhandler concocts an antidote to fundamentalism
Fundamentalism is one answer to the human fear of faltering. It answers this fear through appealing to the fundament, a word that derives from the Latin fundus, or “bottom.” The fundament is the base, the bottom layer—and that’s where all the trouble begins. For one man’s base is another man’s pinnacle; one man’s pure, absolute, divinely revealed and unshakable foundation is another man’s leaning tower of stories.
I first learned to meditate in a basement in Ohio, when a monk from Thailand came to my college. Sitting with my rump on the floor and my legs crossed, I was struck by the way the practice trained my attention downward: to my lower abdomen where the breath went, and lower still, to the level of hems, ankles, feet, baseboards, and outlets. Often, when the bell rang at the end of the sitting, I would feel a rush of affection for these lowly things.
Think of Jesus, at the Last Supper, washing his disciples’ feet: this is tending to the lowly, an ancient way of expressing devotion, of practicing humility. Humility: the word contains the same root as the word humus, which refers to soil, earth, the ground. It is also linked to the word human, for we are earthlings, we are creatures whose feet touch the ground. When I am able—even for one moment—to drink a glass of water without being preoccupied by the leaning tower of stories, the elaborate edifice of me, me, me, then I am refreshed by an experience of true humility, I am restored to simple humanness, I know where I stand.
Though they share the same root, how different humiliation is from humility. For if humility is a state that blossoms from within, a state of true affection for and kinship with the lowly, humiliation is a state that is imposed from without. To be humiliated is to be brought low, to feel ashamed of being one-downed, of being made to “eat dirt.” The combination of humiliation and religious fundamentalism is, as we have so grievously learned, one potent formula for terrorism. Nowhere is this more apparent today than in our encounter with radical Islam and its immense resentment of Western power—stretching all the way from the Crusades, through French and British colonialism and the creation of Israel, to American support for corrupt regimes and its current occupation of Iraq. In the deadly blend of humiliation and religious fundamentalism, two permutations of the bottom layer—humus and fundament—rub against each other like tectonic plates, releasing an enormous pent-up pressure.
One of the things that is remarkable about terrorism is its economy. For a small dose—a single act of brutal, unpredictable violence—easily becomes pervasive. It spreads like dye in a bowl of water. In the face of this lethal economy, I find it very heartening to remember that the Buddha, too, was a great believer in the small dose. Look how a drop of water, over time, can wear away the hardest rock, he said. So it is that a moment of awareness, rekindled again and again, can wear away the hardest rock of ignorance.
And so it is that I pose this question: If we were making a tincture, and using awareness as the base, what other ingredients might we add to create the small dose, the remedy for this terrifying time of clashing fundamentalisms? If the opposite of spreading fear is spreading courage, then how can we make a medicine to en-courage?
First, taking to heart the injunction “Physician, heal thyself,” it seems important to search inside oneself for any susceptibility to fundamentalism, wherever it manifests as an attachment to particular forms, a tendency to mistake the finger for the moon. When I think, for example, of the sort of militant oryoki that I have witnessed at more than one Zen center, I feel grateful for my two left thumbs. Were I more dexterous, I could easily have joined the ranks of those who glowered at the poor clods who hadn’t perfected the art of bowl-wiping, as if they were infidels. And how many times have I caught myself in the supreme paradox of arrogant bowing? (What a good bow-er I am! she said to herself, So much better than that woman over there, who hasn’t got the rhythm down and whose sash is unwinding. )
While staying alert to the many forms that arrogant bowing takes, we can mix in the other ingredients of our potion. Of these, the first and foremost is not-knowing. Buddhism is fundamentally a path of inquiry, a practice of looking at the mind’s tendency to cling, to adhere to opinions, beliefs, memories, emotions, moods. This is a remarkable foundation, because it’s fathomless. For as every moment gives way to the next, we come face to face with an infinite freshness of experience—a freshness that, if we have truly surrendered to the practice, cannot be solidified into a doctrine.