Extremism is Required

A year or two ago I read the teachings of Jesus and discovered that they were nothing at all like Christianity. That they were much better and more profound than anything the Christians in my life - including two years Christian schooling and my father's life-long Seventh Day Adventism - had ever led me to believe.

Aside from being an unflappable peacenik, Jesus, it turns out, was a rabid anti-capitalist. Who knew? Certainly the Christians didn't know. Not by the looks of their opulent homes and driveways full of consumer toys. Not according to the contents of the church parking lot, for sure.

I was so overwhelmed with the image of a spiritual leader who advocated the development of -- can you believe it? the spirit! over the stock portfolio... over the body or even the mind, that I decided to take this Jesus fellow up on the challenge.

He said to forgive everyone, so I did. He said to love everyone. I made a best effort at that. It wasn't easy but it wasn't quite as hard as you'd think. He said to sell off everything and give the money away: Done. "Take up your cross and follow me." Right-o, where we goin'?

This isn't the time or place for my story, but what I gained from doing as Jesus taught was a life rich with challenge, suffering, and most importantly, reward. I gained a life where the world was a game, at some points a sad and desperate game that could still fill the players with despair, but always a game. Life was innately foolish, and yet I was indeed living it. I was a participant! I was alive. And I realized just how often that hadn't been the case.

I eventually lost grip of the fundamentals that led me to the road and kept me in good spirits and good stead throughout my asceticism. When I look back I can see a number of personal weaknesses, challenges I failed to overcome, that eventually amounted and chased me back to our present ease of death. But one of the most surprising deceptions that led me from the good path was the very self-deprivation prescribed.

Maintaining my own lack of goods became itself a distraction from my goals. The struggle to remain poor in the face of opportunity and the good-will of a community became an impediment to the cultivation of my spirit, much as capitalism had been before it -- though surely to no equal degree. I felt guilty when I had more than ten dollars in my pocket and when someone offered me work I regressed into intellectual capitulations. This guilt-laden inner turmoil served only to shrink my otherwise expanding outer awareness back down to the blind, pin prick of self; quite the opposite of my intent.

I've read tales of 'Bud' the Buddha and 'Sid,' Siddhartha. Both end in the same conclusive phrase: "The Middle Path." I hate that term. Maybe it's the phonetic resemblance to "middle class" or "middle ground," but the verbage seems to me to lend itself the air of an enabling device; of a justification for lethargic conformity. It turns my mind to the bourgeois: that race of men who've made a whole from one third chastity, one third sin, and one third vacant opportunism. "The middle path" is so easily misconstrued that the phrase itself may be to Buddhism what Christians are to Christianity - a red herring.

One of my favorite books is 'Siddhartha' by Herman Hesse. Hesse's Siddhartha isn't a prince, but simply a well to do young Brahmin. You might say he's an upper middle class kid at the top of the pyramid, ready to go far in his family's aristocratic circles. But he quickly realizes that the path he's on doesn't go anywhere. Accruing all knowledge, as is the practice of his peoples, hasn't led any of his elder counterparts to true enlightenment, and his own studies have done little to soothe his aching soul. So he heads into the wilderness and joins those who seek enlightenment through suffering; who pursue their inner peace by numbing both body and mind to all the world's woes. They think every thought, suffer every pain, deprive themselves of all comfort until no misfortune can move them one way or the other. Of course, Siddhartha soon decides that for all his pains he is grown no closer to enlightenment and that any relief he has found in these practices, be they of his father or of the wild monks, is merely temporary. He muses, most entertainingly, that he can see no difference between such lofty meditative methods of silencing the ego and drowning his soul's confusions in a bottle of rye. Both Brahmin and drunkard awake the next morning to meet their pains renewed.

His path is long and wild and soon enough he decides to taste the richness of what he calls the child's life, embracing the more common paths of sexuality and commerce. It begins as a game and it is very entertaining and fulfilling when played as a game. But these worlds slowly infect him. He starts to take them seriously and they lose their charm. After some time he awakes to find that he is nolonger pursuing his goal of enlightenment but that he's been indoctrinated into a cornucopia, an orgy of the self -- exactly what he first set out to overcome.

In Hesse's 'Siddhartha' the key is not the middle path, but the fullness and wideness of the Buddha's life that enable his enlightenment. By old age he has seen so much of samsara - the endless cycle of life and it's worries - he's walked through so many of it's layers that he finds his final peace in embracing it all. All is samsara. All is life. All is death. All is suffering. All is joy. All is ignorance. All is wisdom. All is hate. All is love.

It is not the moderation of some middle path that brings Siddhartha home to eternity, but the sheer extremity of his existence; the breadth of his life. In the end he knows compassion and understanding for all men because he has walked a day in every shoe. He finds freedom from want by having embraced the wants of all; by knowing the sincere pursuit of every foolishness; by knowing all samsara to be a necessary elixir that must be tasted in full.

From my personal journey I've learned the greater happiness there is to be found in the absence of the comforts modern existence demands. To those who seek it deprivation is a comfort to the soul, for what's sake they are wise to let the body rot. But where deprivation ceases comfort it becomes penance for uncommitted sins. It is pain for pain's sake and there is no rationalizing it.

Between opulence and destitution lie a better way, perhaps. But it is surely not an equidistant. Extremism is required.


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