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2 Sep, 2003

   

 

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Is Religion the Problem
?
by William R. Stimson

The meditation retreat was the first I'd attended since the Islamic
terrorists piloted the passenger jets into the twin towers of the World
Trade Center. I settled onto the cushion for the morning’s very first
meditation. My whole body was a knot of tension. "How to continue
writing about the religious when this is what the masses distort
religion into?" was my quandary. My writing had ground to a halt since
the terrorist attack. As I sat there, I felt at a loss for a way to
proceed. Suddenly, out of the blue, something a woman had told me years
before sprang to mind — "It takes a long time to settle the body; then,
even longer still to settle the mind." I'd seen that woman sit
cross-legged through several meditation periods in a row without getting
up to stretch in between. When the retreat ended, I'd marveled at her
ability to do this. She'd given me that reply. It seemed strange the
woman's words would so suddenly pop up now, years later. I realized
this was my cue. I resolved to sit through the stretch period and on
into the next meditation session.

Immediately I began. I was startled to discover right off that this
method didn't call for me to do anything. The doing came from some
agency outside myself. I hadn't exactly ever meditated like this
before. It didn't feel quite Buddhist, but almost Christian. I had a
tightness in my jaw, my throat and my upper chest. I didn't concern
myself with remedying the situation. I did nothing. I sat there quiet
and immobile feeling like a Teresa of Avila doing her prayer of silence,
faithfully awaiting the miracle. Attentively, I followed the patterns
of tension in my body as they collapsed and flowed into new and
different designs. I watched the tightnesses subside, gradually and of
their own accord. I discovered how quickly a blockage can vanish and
completely open up so that, moment by moment, I was not in the same
condition anymore. A pain in my leg vanished by itself. After a time I
was surprised to note the tightness in my chest and throat was gone.
The bell rang, signaling the end of the meditation period. I didn't
move as the others around me got up to stretch. I sat through into the
next meditation period.

Well into the next period, it dawned on me at one point: my whole body
was calm and relaxed. I shifted attention to my mind. Hardly a moment
passed before I found it overrun with a complicated train of thought
about Islamic terrorists and the military operations against them. I
didn't try to stop thinking or redirect my attention towards physical
sensations or the breath. I did nothing. I sat absolutely still and
observed the thinking. The rapid train of thoughts gradually flowed
slower and slower. In the end, just one single thought remained in my
mind, like a still frame in a reel of film that had stopped moving.
Then, that last thought shattered and burst open. An almost
hallucinatory aliveness broke through from within it or behind it and
flooded me. I sat there totally and completely at peace. An exquisite
repose filled the room. I felt at one with everything and everyone all
around.

Religious experience is a direct and transformative encounter with the
unconditional. Religion is conditional — the opposite. This one here,
that one there; this one for us, that one for them; this one believes
one thing, that one something else. Every religion undertakes to
condition its believers to hold certain things true, not others; to
behave in one way, not another.

A religious realization is alive — a creature of the timeless instant.
It comes like a lover’s unexpected touch, informs us of something we
could not possibly say, and then is gone. Each world religion is a
failed attempt to say what cannot be said, understand what cannot be
understood. Extending all around us in every direction is a terrain
where we might at any moment find ourselves standing in the light. The
religions are merely maps, pieces of paper in our hands — ridiculously
antique; museum pieces. Useful — yes, but in the way things in a museum
are useful: to show us where we can go, what terrain great souls in the
past have tread.

As often as religion delivers us into religious experience, it performs
the opposite function. This is true of all the religions. Preaching
peace, the Christian nations wage war. For divine love, Muslim diehards
seethe with virulent hatred. In the name of the law, Jews shamelessly
disregard other peoples. To impart wisdom, Zen Buddhists resort to
indoctrination during their meditation retreats.

How a religious experience gets distorted into is opposite is not hard
to imagine. A lone individual in the distant past is illumined with
the religious dimension. He comes away with love, compassion,
understanding, tolerance and a fervent desire to help others and protect
and serve all living beings on earth. In an attempt to convey to others
the inexpressible, he resorts to metaphor, much like a poet does. Those
who write down his words and pass them on into history are hardly
illumined to the same degree. They reify the metaphor into narrative.
In doing so they turn divine truth on its head. The metaphor of a
Promised Land, used to convey the way the world all around feels when
one leads an enlightened life, is mistaken for a geographic locale. The
metaphor of the “Jihad” or Holy War, used to describe the relentless
confrontation with the selfish ego necessary if one is to find his true
nature, is mistaken for the butchering of innocent practitioners of a
different religious tradition. The metaphor of walking on water, used
to illustrate the ease, peace and repose with which the selfless one
moves with such a light step, so unburdened of himself, wherever he
goes, is taken literally as an example of a supernatural miracle that
happened in the historical past.

Religion is all about belief. Yet so much of what we believe,
especially about the unfathomable religious dimension, is a mistake — a
mistranslation, a reification. In international New York, I see more
and more evidence every day that this is being realized by people from
all over the world. In America, in Europe — in the East and the West —
the old thought constructs of the religions are falling away and out
from underneath them is coming the light that gave rise to these
traditions in the first place and caused them to touch people's hearts
and spread across the globe. This illumination is real, more real than
the religions themselves, and it unites all the traditions and all
mankind into one single brotherhood.

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