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Cult or Culture (part 9)

March 28, 2012

Fast forward 7 years.

I had been married, divorced and was living on my own for the first time. Determined to make a solid fresh start, I sought out my old Culture Center Clutch. Maybe I hadn’t put my whole heart into the practice, the last time. This time I would. I was determined I would be happy by-George just as the cheerful woman told me I would be many years earlier. Once again, the old faces were delighted to see mine, and the new faces were just as delighted. The cheery chanters really did seem to have an effervescent happiness that always seemed to elude me. I decided I would be a serious “Buddhist” this time. If all the other Culture Center Clutch people could be happy, and it appeared that they were, then I was going to be happy too goddamnit and I was going to learn exactly how to do it this time!

I upgraded my butsadan, from cardboard with Velcro closures, to a sleek black wooden number with brass doorknobs and a gold foiled backdrop – there was a butsadan that had an electric light inside to illuminate the Gohonzon, just like the little art lamps you buy to light a painting, but I couldn’t afford that one just then but I would get it just as soon as I could…because you know, how you keep and care for your Gohonzon represents how you keep and care for you own life…because you know, your Gohonzon is a mini replica of your own life…so if your Gohonzon is living in a cardboard box it’s basically the equivalent of your life being stuffed inside a cardboard box…and who wants that?

I joined the Culture Center’s Byakuren, who were a group of young ladies under 30 who wore lavender colored uniforms and functioned the way a church’s usher board functioned. They greeted guests, maintained crowd control, fetched the senior leaders covered glasses of water to drink when they spoke at the podium, they answered phones and even cleaned the center if that was what they were asked to do.

However, my stint as a byakuren didn’t last very long. My last day of service was the day I was told I would be responsible for bringing the guest speaker a glass of water covered with a white tissue, while he spoke at the podium. A good byakuren is to quietly approach the stage, after the leader reaches the podium, place the covered glass of water on the podium shelf, then bow and exit the stage.

A no brainer, right? But then something about the whole byakuren water bearer production began to bug me. It wasn’t the actual bringing of the water – a speaker having a glass of water makes sense. If you are going to talk for an extended time you may need a sip of water. It wasn’t the tissue – that made sense too. Who wants dust and sediment settling into their drink of water? It wasn’t even the bowing part – that was Japanese tradition and the Culture Center Clutch was steeped in Japanese tradition. What I couldn’t understand was if Mick Cluckskey knew he was going up to the podium to talk for several minutes why couldn’t he bring his own dang glass of water with him? Me personally, I would have wanted to be responsible for my own glass of water…but that’s just me.

Backstage moments before Mick Cluckskey was about to approach the podium to deliver his speech I was assembled with the other byakuren to procure the honorable glass of water. I had the water – ordinary tap. It was covered with a tissue. I was good to go. But then I noticed Mick Cluckskey was standing right there within arm’s reach of the glass of water I held on a tray for him. So I asked one of the other byakuren, “Hey, since he’s standing right there can’t I just hand it to him now?” Oh my goodness, why did I ask that? You would have thought I said something like, “Hey, instead of burning incense today, what if we light flaming bags of dog poo on stage…how about that?”

All the other byakuren thought I was crazy and told me that I had to wait until Mick Cluckskey was on stage at the podium THEN bring him the water – that’s just how we do it! And of course that turned me into a five year old who would not stop asking WHY? But why? No, but really, why? Satisfied with none of the answers I was given, another byakuren gingerly snatched the covered glass of water from me and proclaimed, “I’ll do it!” She considered it an honor – a great cause toward the effect of her happiness. I wanted to laugh but it just didn’t seem like the right time. Was this why happiness was eluding me? Actually I was pretty happy right at that moment, if for no other reason than I had finally had the nerve to ask a real question. No one gave me a real answer but at least I asked.

OK, so the byakuren thing didn’t quite work out, but I went to lectures and study meetings where I learned more about the man with the glasses and the man who had mentored him and the man who had mentored that man – although I had yet to learn anything about the Buddha. I offered incense, fresh fruit and water to my great and powerful Gohonzon each morning and I cleared and cleaned my Gohonzon’s plate each night. I chanted the magical mystical words everyday – twice a day. And most importantly of all I told others about the benefits of chanting and encouraged them to try it – by my personal conviction, by passing out pamphlets like the one I was given in my youth or by dragging them if by the hair on their head to any one of many, many meetings.

Finally, I was a practicing “Buddhist”, by the Culture Center Clutch standards. I also worked three different jobs seven days a week but could barely keep a plate of fresh fruit on hand for myself to eat. The happiness had yet to kick in. In fact, my life was pretty sh*tty but I convinced myself this was the road to enlightenment…TO BE CONTINUED.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe Isuzu permalink
    March 29, 2012 11:06 am

    Nice story. Looking forward to the rest. I cracked up at “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is Shakyamuni’s highest teaching.” I did not know he spoke Translationese!

    Believers speak of the Mystic Law like it’s Newtonian, which it is not. If it was then it would work regardless of belief and that would negate the need for people to gather in support; “Rouge doesn’t believe in the strong nuclear force so stick out your foot, trip her, and maybe she can give an experience at the next meeting.” And when things don’t materialize as promised the special pleading kicks in. Usually something that cannot be proven one way or another such as “it’s your negative karma” or “you’re not really trying”.

    That question “why” really is a thorn; both cult and culture will hunker down, pull the wagons into a circle, and defend to the last unsubstantiated dogma. Usually it’s the heretic that is most dangerous to the cult or culture and not the apostate because the heretic is still technically part of the group and the apostate is a non-believer. The heretic is portrayed as the parasite in the lion’s bowels, which as I think about it, is like the pot calling the kettle black. The question “why” is very dangerous to those who know the answer will not conform to what has been arbitrarily created out of whole cloth.

  2. rougebuddha permalink
    March 29, 2012 4:32 pm

    Thank you Joe for your comment! The story continues… and BTW I’ve been borrowing your quote, giving you the credit of course – I just love love LOVE “Don’t let being alive ruin your day.”…love it!

  3. March 30, 2012 6:20 am

    Thank you for this great and honest story! I love your way of writing. Keep going on. I stay tuned!

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