Hopelessly Devoted to You
(Dharamsala, August 2009)
I used to be a spiritual person, but I’m not anymore. Years ago I joined all the religions, lived in India, bowed to everything. I suspect it was a kind of hysteria, frankly. Madness runs in my family – or, rather, it gallops, and it doesn’t miss anybody.
I used to be religious and India was all that mattered to me, especially Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives. All I ever talked about was freakin’ Dharamsala. I would have driven you out of your mind, I swear.
But I got over that. I don’t believe in any of it anymore. It just melted away. I live in Tokyo. I study ecology and literature. I’m as spiritual as an old carpet in an adult movie theater. And that suits me fine. I’m not the sort of person you’d want your son around, if he was cute and impressionable and below the age of 70.
Yes, I’ve come back to India a few times, but I don’t join cults and I don’t go to Dharamsala. In fourteen years, I’ve never once been back, not until the day before yesterday.
Now that I am here, I understand why I avoided it for so long. Trying to maintain one’s atheism here is like trying to stay sober in a shot bar.
It’s beautiful, this spiritual stuff, especially the Tibetan variety. It’s a valuable cultural artifact and we ought to help them maintain it. It’s lovely, but it’s not true. I don’t just want consolations, you understand, I want something that’s factual and proven, like penicillin, or global warming.
For a really spectacular and lively take on Indian spirituality, you must read Wendy Doniger’s new book The Hindus: An Alternative History. She shows, for example, how the idea of karma arose parallel to the idea of money. Doesn’t that make sense? There are clear societal and practical reasons behind various religious beliefs – and they’re often about keeping folks in line. It’s not magic in other words. It didn’t just bloom in mid-air when Guru Rinpoche snapped his fingers.
I have explained this to myself, repeatedly, but in Dharamsala that has absolutely no effect. I am suffering profound lapses in non-belief. It appears that I am wired for bowing down. I am obviously severely devotion-prone.
Of course I assure myself I don’t believe any of this stuff. I’m just circumambulating for my health. Prostrating for upper body strength. Nonetheless, I fear my atheism could not be detected by even the most sensitive instruments. Last night, in an unguarded moment, I nearly bought offering bowls.
The fact is, despite considering myself fully cured, I am obviously suffering from an outbreak of Buddhism. All over my body, even inside my mouth. And don’t reassure yourself that it will stop there. Because in 48 hours I could be in Vrindaban chanting Hare Krishna. It has happened before. Far gone on a bhakti bender. Basically, if devotion were herpes, I would be in the hospital now.
What can I do? Would it help to visualize Christopher Hitchens (author, God Is Not Great) or pray five times a day in the direction of Richard Dawkins (author, The God Delusion)?
It’s not that I’ve suddenly become fond of theology, or find the idea of rebirth any more convincing. It’s just that – how can I say it? – the sacredness of the world becomes forcibly apparent and I want some way to participate in that, to respond to that. Just walking around with my ordinary mind I can see that the trees, the mountains and the faces around me are (oh damn) holy. It’s obvious, I mean, this sacredness. It’s downright pushy. Things glow.
Yes. You are right. I did stop taking my medication. But my drugs are all for anxiety and I haven’t felt afraid since I left Tokyo.
This morning I was sitting in the main temple in front of the image of Tara. I wasn’t praying. I was just tired after all the circumambulating and prostrating and needed to sit down. I may have been accidentally reciting the Tara mantra. I was given this mantra long ago when I was just eighteen. It’s not my fault if I still recite it sometimes, in spite of myself. Think of how hard it is to stop smoking. Modern medicine has not yet developed a patch for the goddess Tara.
When I was a religious person, I was smitten or, rather, afflicted, with both Buddhism and Hinduism. Tara is a goddess in both faiths. I visited her fierce Hindu aspect in West Bengal once, in Tarapith. A poor and ragged place. And nonetheless radiant. (This is precisely the kind of fuzzy thinking I abhor.)
I'm a Tara devotee. I mean, I was. But I wasn't a devotee in the sensible Western Buddhist way, wherein they remind themselves every minute that she's just a symbol of their own inner wisdom. No, I was a swooning, bhakti-ridden "Oh Mother of the Universe" type. It smacked of Hinduism. I got in trouble with the Buddhists for my Hindu sympathies. The Hindus didn't care. I mean, I was white and gay. I was already literally beyond the pale.
Anyway, a group of Indian tourists traipsed into the temple where I was sitting. Dharamsala is unmistakably on the middle-class Indian tourist circuit now. They all troop in chatting, stare at the monks, take pictures with their cell phones, their kids run all over the place, and then they troop out again. Buddhism, remember, is not an Indian thing anymore, it was wiped out here around the 12th century. I guess a lot of the Dalits became Buddhists in the Fifties but I’ve never actually seen Indian Buddhists myself.
Well, this group comes in -- the women are in gorgeous saris, really high class. They sashay past Shakyamuni Buddha and the wrathful deities, walk up to Tara and suddenly their hands are over their heads, the little boy too, and they’re hitting the floor, prostrating over and over. An old Tibetan woman is standing there too, beaming, saying “Tara Devi! Tara Devi!”
I’m sitting there in back and in my mind the words appear: this is how the Buddha returns to India. And I bawl. Dumb screwed-up foreigner in his torn gay bar camo pants and Moosehill Reunion t-shirt, tears rolling down his face.
It’s a shame I don’t cry fresh water. They could send me to Yemen to solve the problems caused by global warming. Lately I cry so much, I’d reverse desertification. Those Yemenites could all have green lawns. Big leafy trees with ferns growing on them.
If worse comes to worse, I’ll start hanging out with devotees. Western Buddhists. Have you met these people? Watch out for them. Yipes. I was one for years. I went to America’s only Buddhist college, Naropa, where I was permanently cured of usefulness. Of course, I’m sure some Western Buddhists are fine people. I’ve heard those Insight Vipassana people are actually quite sane, but in my experience, most of the time, you could hardly meet a nuttier, more uptight, disapproving crew. Dick Cheney does not take himself more seriously than the Western Buddhists I knew.
In the early nineties I lived above McLeod Ganj at Tushita Meditation Center. The Era of Angry Nuns, I call it. Anytime I saw a foreign nun, I took off in the other direction. Because those nuns were always in a rage and you did not want to get in their way.
As for the rest of us, we boasted about how early we got up and how many prostrations we did. There were people in long-term silent retreat whose entire spiritual practice consisted of stomping around and scowling at people.
People had umpteen high higher highest beyond high tantric initiations. And everyone appeared to be obsessed with some kind of special cheese that could only be bought in Delhi. Or a very special rice paper lampshade that was just perfect for their meditation hut.
In those days, all I talked about was wanting to become a monk. You see, I wanted more than anything to be one of them. I wanted to be good.
I see now how brave they were, those Western Buddhist monks and nuns. They didn’t have much in the way of role models or support. The minute anyone donned robes, the rest of us basically expected them to levitate and never fart.
We all tried so hard. And it didn’t seem we wound up any more loving or enlightened, just uptight. I remember how we disapproved of those who’d given up their vows, stopped being monks. “He DISROBED!” people would say in a voice hushed and aghast, as if the guy had been waggling his private parts in a schoolyard.
And I remember how those ‘fallen’ monks and nuns seemed to have a special grace about them, when they came around in regular clothes with their new boyfriend or girlfriend. It seemed they’d learned something very special – to pursue truth as themselves, and not as holy people.
Anyway, I’m ashamed to admit that, whenever I was pissed off while living in a religious community, I used to take a very quiet passive-aggressive form of revenge. You see, I got angry and self-important, when I saw the very most pucker-faced, disapproving devotees -- the ones who never ever spoke except to tell me what I was doing wrong – those same prickly devotees often turned into warm gushing piles of goo whenever a rinpoche was around.
When this happened I’d go off by myself and, in a low and evil voice, I’d sing Olivia Newton-John, “Hopelessly Devoted To You”. Remember that syrupy insipid song? I adore it.
But, now, there's nowhere to hide,
Since you pushed my love aside. . .
I'm not in my head,
Hopelessly devoted to you
I used to sing that song and take quiet revenge. And it serves me right now, if people sing it about me. Because me atheism has been severely compromised. Actually, I guess it was basically found Dead-On-Arrival in Dharamsala. It’s possible it was never particularly hardy.
I chant, I circumambulate, I bow down. I write. (Writing is the worst of all.) Because there is this radiance, this very pushy sacredness, and I want to participate in it. I want to respond to it.
I opened my door at the Green Hotel this morning and thought, “I get to be here all day.” (Presuming that I continue to successfully dodge the homicidal Maruti tourist vans.)
How wildly grateful I am to return to Dharamsala, to see it again with my own eyes while I am still alive.
What a pity I can’t cry fresh water.
My head is saying "Fool, forget him",
My heart is saying "Don't let go"
Hold on to the end, that's what I intend to do
I'm hopelessly devoted to yoo-oo-oo-ooo
Hopelessly devoted to you.