Many people start out on a spiritual path seeking wholeness, integration, inner peace. And why not? Turmoil, suffering, and hardship are often catalysts that drive us to seek answers to life’s deeper questions. And most religions address the problem of suffering, and how to overcome it.
The problem is that many people approach religion as way to escape the reality of suffering, instead of a way of transcending it. We want our pain to end. We don’t want to have to struggle any more. We don’t want to feel lonely, frustrated, afraid, or disappointed.
Spirituality and religion, as they are packaged in today’s market-driven society, often promise such an escape.
The title story in Meg Barnhouse’s new book Broken Buddha: Stories You Can Dance To (Outlaw Hill Arts, 2011) addresses this issue head-on. You can read the title story “Broken Buddha” on the UU World site.
Barnhouse describes church people, and even people in the therapy community, who live in the delusion that they have reached a plateau where their lives and their attitudes are spot-on, while they subtly (or not-so-subtly) look down on those who are still conscious of pain and struggle:
This particularly crappy combination of sweetness and meanness had been coming at me from church people since I was eight years old. There was a line to toe; there was a circle of approved thoughts and behaviors within which to stay if you were to be a member of the group in good standing. If it looked as though you were about to stray, the enforcers descended with that exact tone. “Oh, you don’t think that,” they would say with a tinkling laugh. A spiritual person was supposed to be “victorious,” triumphant in the conquering of life’s difficulties, praising God in the midst of any circumstance, grateful for whatever came, peaceful in the heart, always. If you didn’t feel it, by god you should just act as if you did, or it would spook all the other horses in the pasture.
Barnhouse uses a broken, chipped statue of the Buddha as an empowering metaphor:
The broken Buddha says I don’t have to be scared of being the way I am.
Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha) saw brokenness as part of the maya (illusion) of earthly existence, but he also recognized that suffering is provisionally real enough that it needs to be taken seriously. His “middle way” included empathy, compassion, and working to alleviate suffering instead of denying it.
The rest of the stories in Broken Buddha are filled with humor, insight, and unrelenting humanity. Barnhouse packs an incredible amount of wisdom into a few pithy sentences. Even more important, she teaches us the healing quality of being able to laugh at ourselves, gently and with love.
Meg Barnhouse is a Unitarian Universalist minister, storyteller, and singer-songwriter. Broken Buddha is her sixth book.