Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Unwelcoming Faith

Although we don't live in New York, the New Yorker arrives in our mailbox on a weekly basis.  It's just such an excellent read, consistently engaging and thought-provoking.

This last week, it included an amazing article about a Japanese Buddhist priest, whose entire focus has become confronting and resisting Japan's suicide culture.  Ittetsu Nemoto works with individuals whose cultural and social isolation has brought them to the brink of self-annihilation, in a culture where taking one's own life is viewed as honorable.

Though there are many things to commend the article, one thing that struck me...hard...was the description of Nemoto's spiritual community, the monastery that formed and shaped him.

It was absolutely brutal.  Evangelism?  Feh.  If you want in, show up at the gates, and they tell you you're an idiot, and to go away.  Then you prostrate yourself there at the doorstep.  You do so for two or three days with no food or water, during which time a monk will repeatedly come out and berate you for being an idiot.

Persistence gets you in, and earns you years of hellish mockery and servitude, as shouting and beatings either 1) instill a deep sense of focus and discipline or 2) drive you away in tears.  Most folks take door number two, which is why the community stays small and deeply focused.

Though I'd read of the rigors of Zen initiation before, it had been a while.   What struck me, among other things, was how utterly unlike American faith communities this is.  There's no welcoming.  There's no inviting, or outreach.  If anything, it is the inverse.  The process is utterly unforgiving, to the point where not only would I not be able to enter such a community, but I'd be unwilling to inflict the rigors of such a discipline on another being.

And yet there was in this a paradox.  From this utterly heartless, brutally disciplinarian community life are shaped monks who are calm and deeply compassionate towards all...all but those who wish to join their number.