Give and Take: What does not being a Buddhist mean to you?

Tricycle’s Andrew Cooper chats with Rafi Zabor, the author of "The Bear Comes Home", which received the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1998 as the year’s best American work of fiction. His book “I, Wabenzi” is due out in the fall of 2005.

© Susan BaldwinWhy aren’t you a Buddhist? Mostly because I can’t sit still that long. I appear to need a spiritual practice that engages me physically and actively. When I first encountered the Sufi practice of zikr—a very energetic form of chanting, let’s call it, that is meaningless without the highest possible degree of absorption in the contents of the chant, which is almost exclusively composed of names or aspects of God—it fit me to a T. The fact is that if I had been seeking a spiritual tradition to join up with, it would have been some form of Buddhism, no doubt, because it was most in accord with the values I was comfortable with and even espoused: a reliance on personal experience rather than dogma or emotional belief, a realistic attitude toward the basics of human experience, an emphasis on pacifism and compassion, and a reliable bedrock of praxis. What happened instead was that, at the beginning of the seventies in California, I joined up with a looney-tune but innocuous pseudo-Gurdjieff group, despite an almost total lack of interest in Gurdjieff or his ethos of willful struggle. Within a year this led me to a hippy-dippy Sufi funny-farm in England that was nonetheless quite substantial at its core. The fact that I wasn’t interested in Sufism, and was the opposite of interested in anything that originated in Islam, had little to do with this course of events. The connections that led me there were happenstance and personal and turned out to be something like predestined, and my personal taste rebelled all along the way, even after decisive spiritual experience tipped the scales and confirmed the direction my life had taken. Thus I missed my chance at being the Buddhist I might have preferred to be.

What is the best thing about not being a Buddhist?
Not having to sit still for so long, though things will have their revenge. As a writer of long books I have to sit still quite a lot these days, and it’s true that after I do my other spiritual practices I sometimes manage five or ten seconds of actual meditation, which seems to be my natural limit. (The prophet Muhammad is recorded to have said that one second of meditation is worth 50,000 years of prayer, and I’ve found that a useful, reassuring rule of thumb.) I also turned out to be the sort of person, much to my surprise, for whom the idea and reality of God is centrally important, and I am happy not to be deprived of the lover-beloved relationship so beautifully hymned by Jelaluddin Rumi, among others. I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons I turned out not to be a Buddhist is that I lack the requisite capacity for impersonality. This turns out to be a liability in the higher reaches of Sufi gnosis too, but you can dodge the necessity a little longer.

Is there a single annoying trait you often find among Buddhists that makes you want to just give them a big pinch?
No. I don’t have a problem with Buddhists. Actually, I expect them to be better—more conscious and intelligent—than Sufis or Hindus or acolytes of other traditions, and I’m much less suspicious of their motives. At the same time, I’d prefer them not to be too presentational about it—too Buddhist—unless, you know, they come from the East and the presentation is part of their culture. I don’t need the Dalai Lama to wear a T-shirt for my sake. It’s just that I’d prefer the spiritual affiliation to be inconspicuous, and for the human evidence to be what it is, without signposting. The same goes at least double for Sufis and such. Back in the Sufi funny-farm, the only person on the property who didn’t act like an egomaniacal idiot was a Buddhist, and he didn’t know what he was doing there either.

What do you think of so many celebrities being Buddhists?
It’s okay with me, and it keeps them out of Scientology.

Maybe you can provide a fresh look at a question I’ve been struggling with lately: Does a neoconservative have Buddha-nature?
Moo.

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