I had had enough. I finally grew tired enough of my solitary, syncretistic spirituality to actually do something different. My personal practice, up until quite recently, consisted of intermittent attempts at meditation while streaming Gregorian chanting on my laptop, engaging with the Centering Prayer during bus rides to work, sporadic forays into Catholic Masses and Unitarian Universalist worship services, thoughtful meals with kindred spirits, and mindful walks in the woods.
I am an ex-pseudo-inevitable-Catholic, frustrated by the oppressive and hierarchical aspects of my birth religion, but now much more aware that self-worship isn’t a great solution, either. (What good is it to replace a tyrannical, triune God with my tyrannical, multiple self?)
After years of amateur spirituality, of simultaneously thinking too much and being too lazy, I had finally come to the conclusion that I wanted to find a stable context for my spiritual practice, to be a part of a larger community that shares some like-mindedness (or at least like-mindfulness); I wanted to find a religious “home.”
So I started attending my local Zen Center a few weeks ago. And perhaps it’s really no surprise: it, too, is not immune of the trappings of hierarchy. There are specific robes for newcomers, there are specific robes for residents, and there are special garments for those who’ve taken vows. There are guidelines and rules, delineating clear rank: the central rows are meant for teachers, while beginners are to sit closer to the altar. And we all bow to the golden Buddha statue upon entering the room where meditation and lectures occur, the Dharma Room–bow to the Buddha! Who does that guy think he is?
Life is suffering, say the Buddhists; the world is fallen, say the Catholics. “This is my heritage. I am stuck with it. I cannot shake it off. And it hurts,” says Athalya Brenner, regarding her relationship to gender issues in the Hebrew Bible. Hierarchy is everywhere: in exclusionary language, in who gets to say what and when (and who doesn’t get a voice at all), in our bodily orientation toward specific icons and images and individuals, and not towards others. Does this mean we throw up our hands and resign ourselves to these structures?
What else can we do but acknowledge their existence and keep going, working within these problematic systems and schemes?
That’s a misleading statement-in-a-question: some hierarchy is clearly more harmful than others. There are real power structures out there that deserve to be challenged and reconfigured. (The oppression of women and gay people by the Catholic Church hierarchy comes to my mind.) For me, though, being drawn to the complexities of activism as well as the complexities of mysticism, I’m compelled by the political in the personal. I keep returning to the Renaissance alchemists who loved to say, “As above, so below.” By extension, perhaps: as you, so I; as I, so we.
There is hierarchy everywhere in part because there is hierarchy in ourselves; in our ranking of our own attributes and ideas, in our vying for power over others, and in our writhing when we feel we’re ranking low. Social and religious hierarchies persist, but so do the ones in our thoughts and emotions; let’s fight against those tyrants, too. And, paradoxically, might the structures of religion, the ones that seem too rigid in certain lights, help us mitigate our own authoritarian impulses?
It’s true for me, at least. So I’ll bow to the Buddha in the Dharma Room. It’s not just a portrayal of power, of categorical rank, of rigid rule. It’s rebellion, too–against the tyranny of my isolated self.
Sarah Rich is a bookish geek who specializes in early Christian literature, environmental news, and pop religion. While she works as a freelance editor and writer, in her spare time she may be found cooking foods, taking walks, or drawing figures. Sarah lives in Connecticut’s Naugatuck Valley with her loving husband and their rambunctious border collie puppy.
You can read more from Sarah at findmomentum.wordpress.com