“Critics have accused me of ‘cherry picking’ Buddhist sources…To this objection I can only point out that it has ever been thus. Each Buddhist school that has emerged in the course of history has done exactly the same. Chinese Buddhists selected the texts that best fit their needs as Chinese, just as Tibetan Buddhists chose those that best fit theirs. If Buddhism is a living tradition for you, one to which you turn for clues about how to lead your life here and now rather than for cold impersonal facts, then how could it be otherwise?” –Stephen Batchelor CONFESSIONS OF A BUDDHIST ATHEIST 2010.
Indeed, every Western Buddhist,—if not every Buddhist period—regardless of his or her affiliation with a school of Buddhism, is practicing this kind of approach by virtue of being an individual autonomous resident of planet Earth. The sum total of a up-to-the present lifetime of experiences, the idiosyncratic method of acceptance and rejection of those experiences, and the ongoing decision making process based on the observation and memory of those experiences make each and every living being unique. The subjective awareness of oneself on these terms can bring everything about predilections for choosing a spiritual path to bear upon a romantic notion of God or no-God.
I grew up a mid-westerner who followed the pop-cultural trends of the sixties including closely watching The Beatles every move. When they went to India, my interest was peaked, and at the ripe old age of thirteen I read the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s just-released trade paperback entitled Transcendental Meditation and started “meditating.” Shortly after that I ran across Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” and Alan Watts books on Zen and practiced my own version of their idiosyncratic “Zen Buddhism.” I remember sitting chanting to myself Om Mani Padme Hum which I thought meant “Amen, the Lightening Bolt in The Void” after Gary Snyder’s open translation he described as being symbolic of “yabyum”—a tantric sex act. Of course I was all for “yabyum,” and the fantastical concept of that fueled an often otherwise flaccid sitting practice.
College life brought on a more bohemian approach to no-God, as a literature and art student, I explored Baudelaire, Poe, Rimbaud, Strindberg, Munch, and all of the German Expressionists. In wine, women, and song I found my own experiences of yabyum everywhere and in every way “spiritually” satisfying…
After marriage, I entered into a mystical Christian “re-union” with all that I had originally rejected about the Church, wringing out every last drop of meaning from scripture and commentaries through contemplative prayer and meditation. A lot of the initial interest came from reading Thomas Merton, but I’d had a round the bend conversion experience after studying and practicing Magick through the writings of Aleister Crowley. One grimoire in particular, the Sacred Magic of Abremelin the Mage interested me, probably because it was regarded as one of the most dangerous. In the preliminaries of working this ritual, the aspirant is asked to throw open a window in his sanctuary (in my case, an upstairs art studio) and pray with all his/her heart. At some point in the process, I gave up the desire of becoming an all-powerful magician and surrendered to a new-found love in my heart for all things earthbound and suffering.
After my mother’s death, I was still following a syncretic Christian mystic’s path, letting the Spirit move me, doing soup kitchen volunteering and following all kinds of altruistic pursuits. One day I was driving along and quite unexpectedly found myself at the door of a mosque. It was early 1992, during the first Gulf War. I was admitted with suspicion, even after explaining that my heart had led me there. Within weeks I “reverted” to Islam (one reverts to the “original” religion in the eyes of some Sunni shayks). One year later I could fluently read Quranic Arabic, make the Call to Prayer (in Arabic), and had been chosen by popular vote to head the Islamic education department.
But something happened that Spring of 1993. In Santa Fe, New Mexico I met some Sufis. I was initiated into an ancient Sufi order and remained a solid practitioner for nearly 20 years. Meditation in this tradition consists of prayers and sitting in the dark in a group with eyes closed listening to a brief lecture and then about 45 minutes to 2 hours of beautiful impassioned singing (typically poems of various mystics like Hafiz, and Rumi) accompanied by stringed instruments, drums, and ney flutes. A mantra, or zikr, is imparted from Master to student during initiation, and this is repeated with every breath. The attributes of Existence are breathed in, while the Essence of the Absolute is returned to the ineffable with the out-breath. In this way, union, and re-union is established.
My Sufi teacher understood my shotgun approach and led me to explore many other paths along the way, including Alchemy (of the practical laboratory type), Voudoun, Shamanism, Tantra (specifically Aghora and other “renegade God” types of extreme Hinduism), Qaballah, Freemasonry, Martinism, Tibetan Buddhism (Lamrim, Dogzchen, and Mahamudra), and Advaita Vedanta. I was very much taken with Ramana Maharshi, and later the teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj.
During the last phase of “searching” and discovering non-dual approaches like that of Nisargadatta and the Maharshi, everything interesting about researching and practicing traditional approaches to spirituality in general disappeared. Identification with personality and form dissolved completely, there were no limitations left, no restrictions or bonds to be freed from. No labels applied.
Now, I sit in what could be considered “Soto Zen” style, without an object for meditation whatsoever, with eyes open and ears open to ambient sounds. Not for any particular reason, it just feels natural.
Everyone has their own “shotgun approach” that may be more or less eclectic than what I have described here. All paths are variations on a theme, no matter how closely they try to adhere to a tradition. We pick and choose all of our lives, and the variables eventually reveal who we are. If we’re lucky, they’ll also tell us who we aren’t. And what is left is truly indescribable.