Thursday, November 19, 2009

Things I Wish I'd Said

As I said, with every book there's always something you think about after it's too late to add it. Your head is in the "space" of the book for so long that thoughts continue to occur to you long after the writing is done. Perhaps that's even more true for Buddha on the Backstretch, because it's really a book about my philosophy toward life, and that will continue evolving and expanding.

In the next post, I want to talk about surface meanings, mid-level meanings, and deep meanings, but if I included it this time, the blog would be too long. So I'll just say that I see many things as having at least three levels of meaning, and I want to explain one quote in the book through that lens.

In Buddha on the Backstretch, I explained the concepts of nirvana and samsara this way:

Nirvana is enlightenment, sometimes thought of as a place that enlightened beings go. Samsara is its opposite, the world of striving and suffering, greed and envy. However, for Buddhists, such sets of opposites are examples of "dualistic thinking." By freezing concepts into "either/or," we fail to see the possibilities of "both/and." We do not realize that what we think about the concepts, such as "these are opposites," can never be as big or as all-encompassing as the concepts themselves (in turn, the concepts are never as big as reality itself). Instead, Buddhists think in terms of interpenetration, the idea that one concept goes through and into another. To put it as the Buddha did, samsara IS nirvana -- because without the reasons to practice that samsara offers us, we would never find nirvana. Moreover, once we gain some level of realization, we understand that although the world might be samsara, we can hold nirvana in our minds and embody it in our actions and words, thus filling the world (samsara) with nirvana. Or, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's charming phrasing, "Earth is crammed with heaven."

When my friend John read the manuscript, he said he didn't completely get this passage and asked if I was trying to repeat the adage that we can't truly know joy until we've known pain. That's not exactly what I wanted to say, but at the time I couldn't think of a better way to describe it.

What I meant (and what the teaching "samsara IS nirvana" means, at least as I understand it) is akin to taking a glass of fresh water and adding salt to it grain by grain. When does the glass become a glass of what we would call salt water? Not with the first grain, which would be imperceptible. At some point, you have ceased to have fresh water and begun to have salt water, but no one knows exactly when that happened.

Along the same lines, one Buddhist teacher took his students outside and placed a grain of sand on the ground in front of him, asking "Is this a hill?" He kept adding grains and asking the question. Every pure, unselfish act is a grain of salt or sand, a grain of nirvana. We add grain after grain, and eventually, this suffering world of samsara has a hill, or a salty taste. At some point that we may not recognize, the suffering world has nirvana in it. You won't know when the change occurs, but you will realize suddenly that, hey, nirvana is here, in this world. You can point to it, taste it, let it run through your fingers. Nirvana has interpenetrated samsara.

So when it comes to the teaching "samsara is nirvana," the surface meaning is a paradox. The two seem to be opposites, so saying that they are the same is a paradox. That is the case with a lot of Buddhist teachings. Because they are paradoxical on the surface, you must look deeper to find a meaning. What I just described is the mid-level meaning, the idea that our actions can bring nirvana into the samsaric world.

The deepest meaning is that once you are enlightened, then anywhere you are is a manifestation of nirvana, because you will see the inherent enlightenment (the nirvana) in everything. To an enlightened being, then, nirvana and samsara are exactly the same thing. They are both an ocean. The hill is always there.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Welcome to my inaugural blog post! The Southern Buddhist blog exists primarily in support of my book Buddha on the Backstretch. You can order Buddha on the Backstretch here, or ask your local bookstore to order it.

Buddha on the Backstretch is my first book, and it was published in October 2009 by Mercer University Press in Georgia. This is how the publisher describes the book:

By using Buddhism as a lens to examine NASCAR racing -- and NASCAR as a means to illustrate Buddhist teachings -- Buddha on the Backstretch provides a unique new perspective on the field of sports and spirituality. Not aimed solely at either Buddhists or race fans, the work's message of self-improvement via popular culture serves as a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for a new generation. Buddha on the Backstretch considers mindfulness, handling setbacks, patience, discipline, heightened awareness, impermanence, equanimity, and how we face death. The work looks at why we need heroes and how we can take a hero's story and use it for our own growth. Like an anthropologist, the author can take a story about loose radiator bolts and red North Carolina clay and tease out of it three different Buddhist elements of mindfulness. The aim is to show readers how to examine all facets of culture and all the people around them, and be able to find, in seemingly unlikely places, profound lessons on how to live. If the student is truly ready, then a NASCAR driver can be as profound a teacher as a guru in robes, and a serene Buddhist teaching as lively and colorful as a weekend at the track. The first work by an imaginative and quirky new author, Buddha on the Backstretch will alter the way you see the world, help you see wisdom everywhere and find the joy in the daily spiritual practice that is Life.

Of course I'm thrilled to be a first-time author, and Mercer was a delight -- everyone there is dedicated, helpful, bright, and genuinely kind. They did a great job with the book, but the process of writing, editing, designing, proofing, and printing stretches out over roughly a full year. In that time, I naturally thought of a couple more things I wish I'd said.

That will be the subject of the first couple of posts. After that, anything goes. I plan to write about whatever has become my interest of the moment. You can expect to hear about NASCAR and Buddhism, of course, but also Futurama, poker, Shakespeare, grad school, history, my favorite quotes, and various random brain storms, drizzles, and farts.

Thank you for reading. Onward and upward!