Tuesday, September 21, 2010

busted buddha

earlier this year I was introduced to a webcomic called darwin carmichael is going to hell. the titular hero lives in a polytheistic universe where mythical creatures like minotaurs and muses exist and karma is a regulated essence. he's damned because he's responsible, through his inattention, for the mental retardation of the current dalai lama. in the most recent storyline, he comes face-to-face with his victim and is, if not exactly forgiven, given reason to hope for his redemption.

the current issue of uu world, the unitarian universalist magazine, carries an essay by meg barnhouse called "the broken buddha" that touches on exactly this theme. when I was in sesshin, buddhist retreat, decades ago--when I first shaved my head--I had gone there because I'd done an uncharacteristic act of violence and wanted to atone for it. the abbot and my fellow sesshinists helped me to understand that atonement wasn't necessary; what was necessary was my acknowledgement of what I'd done and acceptance for its result. I couldn't turn back the clock so it was as if it had never happened and I could never make up for it but I could behave better. no one said it in so many words but I've come to understand this teaching as "we aren't responsible for our situation but we are responsible for how we respond to it." as barnhouse writes, "sometimes agony is appropriate...life is not neat."
for me, the image is not only of a broken buddha but one that's busted by both the state of being broken and by being found out. one day in my second in sesshin I went into dokusan with the abbot to tell him I had acheived enlightenment. his response: "I'm so sorry." enlightenment meant I had begun to notice the effect I had on existence and my responsibilities toward it. the busted buddha reminds us of the imperfection not only of the people we're responsible to but the okayness of our own recognized and accepted flaws. in 80s terms the busted buddha feels the fear and does it anyway.

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