Noelle Oxenhandler concocts an antidote to fundamentalism
Inextricably intertwined with the practice of not-knowing is the primacy of direct experience. “Don’t take my word for it,” the Buddha said, and also “Seek out your own salvation.” Though there is always room for distortion (“I’ve had an insight and you haven’t!”), the insistence on direct experience is fundamentally an antidote to fundamentalism. For to be genuinely focused on discovering for oneself what is true or not true is inherently different from attempting to conform—and getting others to conform—to someone else’s record of the truth.
Compassion: this is the most important element of all. And here, too, there’s wisdom in the word’s roots, for com-passion, to suffer with, expresses a mutuality, an equality that is a world away from the humiliation that is such a powerful catalyst for terrorism.
Laughter, humor—these, too, belong in the tincture. Once, in an almost unspeakably uptight zendo in southern France, a monk was demonstrating to me and another woman how to enter through the doorway. “Vous entrez toujours avec le pied gauche,” he told us. “You always enter with the left foot.” He lifted his foot over the threshold, and the other woman and I looked at each other. Finally she dared to speak. “Ce n’est pas votre pied droite?” she asked, almost apologetically. “Isn’t that your right foot?” He burst into laughter, and I saw that the monk’s reverence was spacious enough to encompass the right foot and the left foot, the right way and the wrong way. Okay, I thought to myself, I can sit here.
When I look up fundament, the very first word in my dictionary is buttocks—and I feel like giving a whoop of delight! Suddenly, as if I’d fallen through a time-tunnel, it is thirty years ago and I am standing in the central square in Freiburg, Germany, staring up at a cathedral of carved pink stone. My eyes travel up past the saints, the angels, the Virgin Mary to where—high on a spire—I see a very prominent rear end sticking straight out into the sky. It’s a gargoyle, offering not a mouth but an anus as the opening through which evil spirits exit and water rushes when it rains. What a humorous, irreverent way to conduct the unwanted away from the holy place! No judgment, no condemnation: just a drainpipe and a joke.
Humor is a word linked to humid, to what is fluid. In our fear of faltering, of being brought low, we earthbound humans get so identified with our sky-gods, our lofty roofs, our metaphysical absolutes, that we need the fluid of humor to wash away the effluvia of pride, of arrogance, of dogmatic certainty.
From the butt passing rainwater from the spire, my mind leaps to the Zen dog who “outside the ancient temple, is pissing to the skies.” In this image, I see the antidote to a terrible image from the recent past: a U.S. soldier pissing on a cowering Iraqi prisoner. For the dog pissing outside the temple reminds us that the truest reverence is that which doesn’t carve the world up into sacred/profane, faithful/infidel, saved/unsaved—or even myself and other.
Now my tincture is complete. I remember my Zen teacher saying, “The rain falls on all things equally,” and I take this as the fundament, the true Ground Zero: that I alone must see for myself that all things on earth are equally holy/unholy under the holy/unholy sky. Standing with my bare feet on the ground, I vow to drink a glass of water.
Noelle Oxenhandler began Buddhist practice in 1970. Her essays have appeared in many national and literary magazines and have twice been honored in The Best Essays of the Year collections. She is the author of The Eros of Parenthood.
Image 1: © Manuel Rodriguez