How to Believe in God Whether You Believe in Religion or Not by Clark Strand. Doubleday. 237 pp. $24.95
Clark Strand—to say the very least—can’t make up his mind. You probably know the kind of spiritual seeker who keeps trying different things; Strand is that person on steroids. For a while he wanted to be a Buddhist monk in the Rinzai tradition, and more or less completed the training; they were ready to let him begin teaching, but something didn’t seem right. He hadn’t found what he was looking for. So in an act of real bravery, for which he was excoriated at the temple, he quit. And he looked elsewhere.
“In the years following 1990, when I stopped being a Buddhist monk, I devoted myself to literally dozens of different spiritual disciplines, from Jewish meditation to the Muslim practice of calling on the ninety-nine names of God. At one time or another, I taught A Course in Miracles; practiced the Catholic rosary with all its various prayers and mysteries; combined the ancient words of the Jesus prayer with my breathing, then my heartbeat; said the nembutsu (the name of Amida Buddha) as many as thirty thousand times a day until, as with the Jesus prayer, eventually it came to say itself. I rose from sleep to do hitbodedut, the Hasidic practice of free-form meditation performed out of doors in the middle of the night by speaking aloud to God. I recited the Psalms, the Qur’an, and the Lotus Sutra, and memorized portions of each so that I could say them anywhere, at any time.
“And that’s just the beginning.”
I knew Clark Strand for a number of those years, though we never actually met; he was an editor at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and I wrote some articles with his guidance. I remember when he told me he was writing a book about writing haiku as a spiritual practice, then later told me he was writing about meditation, “real meditation, the kind that anyone can do.” He asked at one point if I would like to write a chapter for a book in which various writers wrote about Bible passages from a Buddhist perspective; I did that, and sent him my chapter, only to be told some months later that it hadn’t worked out, he was writing a book himself.
I’m not at all sure the man is finished. He recently published a group on the Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai, and I fully expect in a few days to hear that he has started a Sufi spinning group and is looking for people to join. He’s deeply devoted to whatever practice he’s doing. And though this whole history can seem lame—every teacher I’ve had has said to pick one thing and stick with it—it has given him a unique perspective. He doesn’t write about different practices as someone who had read about them. He’s had the experience.
I think that How to Believe in God is the book that Strand wrote instead of publishing that anthology of various writers. He had formed a Koans of the Bible study group in January of 2000, and this book was the fruit of those discussions. He said the group included “practicing Jews and Christians (in roughly equal proportion), in addition to Buddhists, Sufis, and the followers of half a dozen different Indian gurus. There were ex-Catholics as well, and former Orthodox Jews. There was even a former Unitarian and, yes, even a former Jehovah’s Witness.” One could ask with this group, why read the Bible? Why not read any number of scriptures? But Strand says that the Bible is a part of any Westerner’s spiritual background, and that at some point we all need to come to grips with it.
I found the title goofy. I have always, despite my decades long devotion to Buddhist practice, believed in God (though that is a dangerous thing to say in a zendo. Any discussion of that topic brings heated discussions, from people on both sides). “Believed” isn’t quite the word. I’ve just always had a feeling God exists. It seems so obvious that there doesn’t seem to be anything to talk about. Strand acknowledges that feeling, in a passage that I especially appreciated.
“It is important to understand up front that, when it comes to belief in God, no one develops much beyond the age of three or four years old. Our spiritual beliefs may evolve, becoming more complex or sophisticated, but that most basic, most singular belief—in an eternal reality beyond the reaches of the self—does not develop. It’s a simple mechanism, like a life jacket or a ladder. The effort to develop or systematize it nearly always has the effect of obscuring it in the end. That is why Jesus advised his disciples to become like little children if they would enter the Kingdom of God, and the reason why the Japanese saint Honen once said, ‘The moment a scholar is born, he forgets the Buddha’s name.’”
Strand is interested not so much in the question of belief or non-belief as he is in the reliance on self-power or other power. That is a question that shows up in Buddhism; a practice like the Rinzai Zen that Strand once practiced seems to rely on self-power, while the Pure Land school that Strand also practiced (when he recited the nembutsu) seems to rely strictly on other power. But as I have said before, the most basic teaching of Buddhism is that there is no self, so one can hardly rely on something that doesn’t exist. Even in the fiercest Rinzai school, it is when the meditator gives up and admits he can’t solve his koan that something rises up in him and give him the answer. Strand believes that all true spiritual practices include as their basis an attitude of surrender. I certainly think that true meditation is a practice of surrender. And he feels that all true religions include everyone. When we start splitting people up into the saved and the damned, people who believe the true thing and people who believe the false one, we wander from the path.
There were chapters in this book that I appreciated more than others; I sometimes felt Strand drifted into obscurity. What I really appreciate is his overall attitude, the understanding (finally!) that the particular practice doesn’t matter, what matters is that you throw yourself into it and that it takes you out of yourself. I especially appreciated his mention of the “Chinese Zen master who embodied God’s presence more than anyone I have ever met,” a man named Deh Chun who was an important presence in Strand’s second book, The Wooden Bowl (the one that was supposedly about true meditation. I didn’t think it was any truer than any other kind).
In the midst of his Zen studies, Strand met this little man who actually lived in, of all places, Monteagle, Tennessee. He occupied a little shack behind the Dairy Queen, lived on almost nothing, bought his clothes from Goodwill, meditated every morning by sitting up in bed and putting himself in the Lotus position, no robes, no bells, no incense, no nothing. Deh Chun was the man who had reduced his religion to complete simplicity, who really taught nothing but presence, which is the deepest form of love. Deh Chun knew what it was all about, just like the grandmother of one of my students who chanted the name of the Lotus Sutra every morning from 4:00 to 6:00, my friend at the Y who gets up at 4:00 every morning because “I’ve got to thank the Lord.” Strand left Deh Chun to study at that Rinzai temple for years, then to try every spiritual practice known to man, when the example of all he needed to do was sitting right there in Monteagle, drinking tea beside an old wood stove. He could have never left.
But sometimes we have to take a long journey to get back to where we started.
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