2. The spiritual struggle within oneself against sin.
-The Oxford English Dictionary
Funny thing how I learned about ISIS. I was channel surfing one night when I came across this Saturday Night Live skit parodying a Toyota commercial. A father drops his daughter off for what looks like her first day of college, only he's leaving her with a jihadist training group. "Take care of her," dad tells the bearded man wielding a machine gun. "Death to America," the man sternly replies before speeding off amidst screeching tires and gunshots. Of course the skit sparked outrage and inflamed online protests against the tastelessness of the current comedic landscape. I thought it was rather funny. The daughter, played by Dakota Johnson of Fifty Shades of Grey fame, is white, just as I am white. Call me naive, but I always thought that, just like you needed to be black in order to be a member of the Crips or the Bloods, to be an extremist I'd need to be an Arab. And I'm a half-Argentinian Jew. But I was wrong. In the world of radical extremist terrorism, all are welcome. All one needs do is apply.
So I hop on social media and get myself recruited to an extreme group here in New York. I went to a few meetings down at that abandoned church on Park Ave. They treated me well, which was very Muslim of them. When they found out about my custodial work here at the studio their wheels started turning. Honest Abe Baumbach, my boss, is a very outspoken anti-Islamist who wastes no opportunity to paint the members of our religion as insane reactionaries bent on exterminating all infidels. This is untrue. Such extremists make up a minute portion of the Muslim world. And even the jihadists aren't that violent. These men have families, big families, in some cases with more than one wife, though polygamy is much more rare than you'd probably believe. Like most heads of households, they don't have the time or the energy to hatch a world-destroying master plan. What you see in the news is what the media wants you to see, just so they can sell air space and keep you locked in fear. Masked Arabs running around in a desert wasteland wearing camouflage, toting machine guns and firing obscenities at the camera? Please. These are an infinitesimal few.
But like most people, extremists love to talk, and to boast, and to take credit for other people's deeds. Like 9/11. If you are among the Arab-haters who believe the World Trade Center attacks were perpetrated by "towel heads," watch some documentaries on the subject, which prove the catastrophe to be an inside job perpetrated by America's wealthy class, including members of the US government. The truth is that like followers of other religions, Muslims are basically good people. "Honest Abe is giving us a bad rap, so it's time he gets what's coming to him!" screamed one man I met at a meeting. "Time old Baumbach gets bombed back!" This phrase, uttered by a diminutive Arab with a lazy eye and a limp, quickly became a crowd favorite. Cheers all around and a second helping of punch, because the brothers don't drink alcohol. Things started becoming raucous. I don't like crowds. So in the end I opted out of the ISIS cell. I told the brothers I'd gotten fired from Honest Abe's show, so ISIS let me go with these words: "Wage jihad wherever you go, brother. If you are unable to build a bomb, find an infidel in your area and crush his skull with a stone. Slaughter him with a knife. Run him with your car!"
I don't drive, I tell them. Okay, they say. Still you are welcome to come back any time and pray with us. I never do. I'm not sure why. I guess I favor my alone time. But the experience of praying together is a beautiful one, with its ritual and its pageantry, even with a highly disorganized bunch such as the brothers I encountered. I couldn't imagine how many of them it'd take to change a light bulb. They were worse than the Polish people are supposed to be, in the joke. But that's a stereotype. I have never met a Polish person who wasn't very exacting in speech. But if you haven't prayed with a Muslim, I suggest you give it a try. There is no experience like it. And not just because all experiences are unique. All bodies move as one. It's really very touching. In the end I didn't get much out of my involvement with this radical bunch, but the bit about building my own bomb did give me ideas.
I got into Islam on account of a girl. I was working campus construction at the local city college when I saw this girl walk inside the building's auditorium. This was 15 years ago. I was in my mid twenties at the time. It was my lunch break so I followed the girl inside in my jeans and work boots and bright shirt. The room was packed with teenagers, but I sat as close to her as I could. She never looked at me. I was not deterred. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the next 10 weeks, from 12 o'clock until one, I'd eat my lunch in that classroom while the teacher gave his lecture, sitting as close to her as I could. As the semester progressed I made my way along the row until finally we were seated next to each other. This was week five, I think. The course was on the Semitic religions, but mainly it was about Islam. And the instructor was great. Big baritone voice. Such passion from such a little man. I never had a teacher who inspired me the way Mr. Hawass did. In grade school they mostly just made me feel stupid. I was never much of a student. Only made it as far as the tenth grade before I left high school to work full time, menial jobs mostly - construction, gardening, custodial work - so I could help my mother pay the bills. But this teacher really inspired me. I even sprang for the required textbook and did all the readings. My not being officially enrolled didn't stop me from completing the assignment, a term paper comparing Eastern and Western religious views. I didn't have access to a computer but a coworker lent me his typewriter so I hunted and pecked out three pages, the longest thing I'd ever written by two and a half pages. I didn't think my essay would even get read and I debated with myself about turning it in, but I didn't want to keep my hands in my lap when the teacher's assistant came around, or else my sweetheart would think I was a slacker. So when the TA reached our row, I folded my homework in half and handed it over. I remembered afterwards that I had forgotten to write my name.
A week later before Professor Hawass had the TAs give the papers back he read aloud excerpts from some of the better ones. My heart leapt into my throat as I recognized my own words he was reading. At that moment I had a revelation. If as a young man I could feel so exhilarated by the interest one old gentleman had shown in me, what a change if I really knew myself to be loved by God. I wasn't sure God even existed, there are so many definitions it gets quite confusing really; but the girl breathing beside me was flesh and blood real, and I'd take her love over some imagined hereafter any day. It didn't matter that we still hadn't spoken to each other. I knew she was Muslim because Muslim women wear a veil that covers their head and chest. It's called a hijab and sometimes it also covers the face. This is supposed to curb lust in the onlooker but everybody knows it's the mystery that makes men mad with desire. And regardless, even the most concealing veils don't cover the eyes, so what's the use. Everybody knows the eyes are the windows to the infinite. And this girl's eyes, boy. The loveliest green eyes I had ever seen! Her name was Aisha. She was from Syria. We spoke during week nine, around the start of spring. And later that same year she became my wife. How did I win her heart? One word: persistence. Studying together became talking over coffee after which she allowed me the pleasure of walking her back to her apartment. Months went by before she would let me take her out on a real date. I would simply not take no for an answer. This is not to say I was ungentlemanly, only that I impressed upon her with one hundred percent certainty my promise that as long as we lived I would never leave her side. In the most poetic words I could think of, I asked her only one thing: Let me love you, I said. In the end she consented. And not a day went by until the end that I didn't remind my wife, in a rendition of a phrase made popular in the movie Jerry Maguire, which happened to be one of our favorite films, "You had me at Allah." This always made her smile.
I am Muslim in name but universal by nature. I have followed Buddha's Way. I have lived Christ's words. I have studied the Hindu's ideal. I appreciate perhaps more than the others the wisdom and simplicity of the Tao. All religions hold immense beauty. But there is not a single teaching in any sacred book that cannot already be found in other literature. And so I champion the Koran because I have always been partial to the underdogs, and though Islam is the second most popular religion in the world, with over 1 billion adherents, it has fallen on hard times. Most people in the West do not know what Islam stands for, but that does not stop them from hating it. We're to be smoked out of our holes, in the parlance of former president George Bush. Ask your average citizen about Muslims and he will tell you that we are behind every terrorist attack, that we let our beards grow wild and have multiple wives and mistreat our women who wear veils. He will be able to tell you little else. But he has not met me. I defy the general conception. I am not Middle Eastern. I was born a Christian Jew in New York. I can't grow a beard, though Lord knows I've tried. I can't even manage a full goatee. Detractors will mumble something about mosques, the more knowledgeable will say something about Allah or Muhammed, a few will even name-drop Mecca. Most do not know that the word Islam comes from salam, which means peace, and also surrender; so the religion itself is one of perfect peace that comes from total surrender to God.
The Muslim's God is Allah, who like the Hebrew's and Christian's Yahweh created the first man and gave him the name Adam. Adam is similar to the Hebrew word for Lord in the Old Testament, Adon or Adonai; the name is similar to the Greek's Adonis, a central figure in many religions. Many don't know that like the Jews the Arabs are a Semitic people, descending from Shem who was Noah's son - Noah of Ark fame. And from Abraham, whose sons were Ishmael, born to Hagar, and Isaac, son of Sarah. Here the tribes diverge. Ishmael goes to Mecca according to the Koran and his descendents in Arabia are Muslims. Isaac remains in Palestine, and gives rise to the Jews. The Jews and Muslims have been fighting over the territory ever since. Muslims even fight against Muslims. There are Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims. I won't go into the difference. The differences confuse even me. My point is that Muslims, descending from the Jews, are therefore closely connected with our Hebrew brothers. We share a common father. And so it is with Christians, since Christ also was a Jew. And we are one family, though most do not know this; even many Muslims are unaware. And until I met my wife, I didn't know that it is around my name that the three religions unite.
I was born a Jew and raised a Christian. My father's parents were German Jews with a Turkish Gypsy influence, which explains his dark skin. They gave him the name Abraham. He and my mother were star-crossed lovers. I was their malign star. Because from the moment my father found out my mother was pregnant he vowed never to speak to her again unless she aborted the fetus, and never to speak to me if I was born. To the best of his knowledge he has kept his vow, and it has now been over forty years since he made it. My mother, whose name was Salome, was born in Argentina and raised Catholic. She received all the sacraments except Holy Orders, which as the name suggests is given only to priests. As a girl it was Mass every Sunday, and twice on holy days. Even though my father played no part in my life, my mother insisted I know that I was part Jewish. Which is doubly odd considering that Jewish people commonly trace their ancestry on the mother's side since there is no guarantee that who you think is the father really is the father. But my mother was always faithful to my father. After he left her she never even dated. A fact I could never understand. She said that even though they had never had a ceremony or signed a piece of paper saying so much, they had sworn their undying love for each other and numerous times, had promised to be buried side by side, so to her they had wed in God's eyes, a contract never to be torn asunder, because the vow of holy matrimony is for life, and Amen!
But she didn't like the fact that I looked so much like my father, the more so the older I became, sharing his dark skin and curly hair and, after puberty, his aquiline nose. She couldn't do anything about the former two traits, but once my nose was full-grown, around the time I turned 18, she insisted I see about getting it "fixed." She had been saving up for the procedure since my father's departure. Somehow she'd always known that I would inherit his honker. And with my new nose, slightly slopey and perky, I look a lot more like her. Or how she used to look when she was alive. "Cutting the ties that bind," was how she put it. Castrating my father in a way she never could, is what I like to say. Because my father killed my mother when he left her. Sure, it took her another 25 years to die, but he inflicted a mortal wound the moment he turned his back on us.
My father had his ambitions, you see, and he would not have them stifled by another mouth to feed when his career had not yet lifted off the ground. My mother served him like a king, waiting on him when he came home at night, preparing his meals, laundering his shirts, cleaning up after him, all of which she did with eager affection, and he would not be "dethroned" even by his own son. I cannot understand how a sane man could abandon a woman he truly loved, so my father must not be sane. And really, he meets all the criteria for narcissism, which psychology textbooks define as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, with a need for admiration and lack of empathy." (Check.) An exaggerated sense of self-importance. (Check.) Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited power. (Check.) Believes he is "special" and can only be understood by other special or high-status people. (Check.) Has a sense of entitlement. (Check.) Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends. (Check.) Shows arrogant behaviors or attitudes. (Check.) See, textbook narcissism! I know this despite never having had more than a single conversation with the man. I simply go by what my mother has said. And she was probably biased in his favor, so intense was her admiration for him! And I also read his book, a best-selling memoir published not too long ago. And the travel diary he left behind on a bookshelf filled with books he left for my mother who didn't like to read. Narcissism is a far cry from insanity I realize. The DSM categorizes it only as a "personality disorder," one of many that many specialists believe everyone in modern society suffers from to some degree. But these personality disorders, and narcissism among them, are treated by psychiatrists, which proves my point that the man needs help.
Narcissists usually can't be bothered with children. They are too much into themselves. So I give the guy credit. He did after all send my mother money throughout my childhood. Mailed it to her in cash. Small bills mostly. Without a return address. It was not enough for us to do any better than a one-bedroom apartment, but his monthly payments helped with things like lunch money and doctor's visits. I have him to thank for the cavities caused by Halloween candy as well as the fillings the dentist put in afterwards. It must have been the Jew in him. Generally Jews take care of their own. But my father forsook his Jewish heritage when my mom became pregnant and declared himself an atheist. So I knew in advance that there was a limit to how far his Jewishness would take me, and when I was 18 he cut me off. No forewarning. No easing up on cash disbursements. On my eighteenth birthday no more bills. And a few months later I cut him off, or the plastic surgeon did; and I'll wear his work on my face forever.
My father and I never saw each other all those years. My mother told me she didn't know his full name, and though I knew she was hiding something I never pushed her. I figured there was a reason she didn't want me to know anything about the man that sired me. She kept up the lie till she was diagnosed with cancer, at which point she revealed as many details as she could remember. So I wrote to my father informing him of mom's condition and asking for help financially. I signed the letter your son. A week later his assistant wrote back saying he didn't have a son, that I must have gotten him mixed up with another "sperm donor." My mother couldn't work, the cancer having already spread to her bone by the time they detected it, so she lost her insurance, and my measly construction paycheck couldn't cover her doctor bills. Without the necessary treatment the tumor spread like wildfire. It was a matter of weeks. A month after she died I met my wife or else I'd probably have gone with her.
Ironically it is to this self-proclaimed atheist (my father) that I owe my spiritual aspirations. During my parents' several-year affiance, he had amassed a library of books on world religions. Stacks of books. Like many city-dwellers in the late 60s, early 70s, my parents had been hippies. They smoked a lot of weed. Had a lot of sex. And talked a lot of metaphysics while smoking weed and having sex. They met in Brooklyn at a barber shop where my mother worked as a manicurist. My father was working at an advertising agency and he liked to come in now and then for a clean shave and a clear coat of polish, which was the thing back in those days (before they became hippies, obviously). While my mother was doing his nails he squeezed her hand. He was getting a shave at the same time so his eyes were closed. He later claimed he mistook her for a different manicurist, a coworker of hers he had been flirting with for some time, and that he didn't even find my mother all that attractive, but the more they chatted the more he liked her and eventually they started seeing one another socially. What they used to call dating, and what I still do. My mother didn't find my father all that attractive either, is what she told me. To her he was "a short, stocky man with glasses." And she had been dating multiple men when they first met. Breakfast, lunch and dinner dates, sometimes after dinner drinks, every day of the week, and too many guys to count. There were regulars, and my father quickly became a regular. Like me, he was persistent. One night he called to ask my mother to dinner, but she was getting ready to go out with some other fellow, and she told him so. He hung up on her without a goodbye. Such a blow to my father's fragile ego would have ended the budding romance, if not for the fact that the very same night my mother had one martini too many and while swerving home got pulled over and cited for a DUI. My father knew everyone in the city, so she called him to refer her an attorney. He got her the best in town, and took care of the fees without asking to be paid back. For the next two months my mother took it upon herself to visit his office every week to give him manicures, as repayment, because she never liked to own anybody anything. Each time when she'd finish he'd take her out for dinner and then home without making a move. It became their routine. She trusted my father more than any man she had ever gone out with, she said. A month later they were living together.
My mother always said that what she liked most about my father was his open-mindedness. To think he was once open-minded! (He does still call himself a liberal.) She told me that once she took him to see a psychic when her other male friends had no interest. The psychic, a great big fat lady named Elizabeth, on meeting my father said that in a former life he had been a great spiritual leader, an Indian holy man, a guru is what they are called in those parts, but that he had fallen from grace, pursued the way of the world, been seduced by my mother, who back then had been a fairy princess. Once he had given her his heart she had abandoned him for another chap with more promising prospects. And so this lifetime, the story went, was his chance to make it right, as in stay the path, which he could do while married to my mom, as long as he behaved. Or else? She didn't say. Was there hell to look forward to? My father didn't believe in hell. He didn't believe in anything. Back then he called himself an agnostic, or a nihilist, depending on his mood. But the thought of being a great master piqued his interest, and he decided to test the lady's claims. So she directed him to the Vedanta temple and had him browse the section of spiritual texts. Afterwards she sat him down in her kitchen and made him undergo an automatic writing session, instructing him to write anything that came to his mind, without thinking about it or second-guessing himself. Just put pen to page, she told him. When he showed her what had flowed out of his pen spontaneously, in a fevered rush, she went over to her bookshelf and liberated a certain book, Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness. She opened it to a particular page and showed him a passage that was nearly identicial to what my father had just composed. Did this mean my father had been the author in a former life? he wanted to know. Bucke was no Hindu. The man had lived in Canada in the beginning of the 20th century. No, the psychic said, only that he had tapped into the cosmic consciousness, which she believed was the next step in evolution. Just like the men Bucke had written about, men the world over in various ages, men like Christ, and Buddha, and Moses and Muhammed and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and Whitman, Tolstoy, Balzac and Emerson. This did it for my father. Put a narcissist in the company of these household names and you have his undying allegiance.
It was thus that my father became a Vedantist. He taught himself to read Sanskrit, the ancient language in which the Hindu scriptures were composed, so that he could better appreciate the authors' subtle meanings. He devoured everything about spirituality he could get his hands on. He had my mom call him satchitananda, the Sanskrit description for God's essence, translated as existence-consciousness-bliss. By day it was three-piece suit, by night he pranced around the apartment they shared in a white robe and beads, with a coterie of followers - mostly his old high school buddies who looked up to him for landing such a fox as my mom. He had become a man obsessed with finding truth. Meanwhile, his client list at the agency dwindled. His employers were concerned. But not my mother, who supported these antics with the devotion of a woman who is deeply in love with a man who in her eyes can do no wrong. She didn't know where his self-discovery process would lead but was committed to the ride, because it was an adventure, and the drugs were out of this world. My mother was in a minority of one, however. Even Elizabeth (the psychic) who had created this monster stopped giving my father readings. The holy man is not judged by the clothes he wears, nor by the company he keeps, nor even by the scriptures he can recite, but by his thoughts, words and deeds. These were the psychic's final words to my parents. My father's ego was bruised. Eventually he grew tired of the whole charade, hung up the robe, shelved the books, and went back to working overtime, branching out to journalism. Even doing some comedy routines, riffing on his personal foibles. My mother thought it was blasphemy, making fun of ancient truths for the sake of a laugh, but he was on a roll, and his desire for an audience was stronger than his desire for truth. Besides, he was better at stand-up than he was at playing guru. He didn't find what he was looking for in books, but my parents still shared a love for weed and sex. It was around this time I was conceived, the beginning of their end. For a practicing Catholic an abortion is out of the question. When my mother wouldn't budge on the issue, and despite her teary-eyed remonstrations, he packed his things and blew out like a candle in the wind long before the song. Left her with me and with his books. It was around this time he declared himself an atheist.
There wasn't much for me to do growing up in 80s Brooklyn. My mother worked full-time, sometimes two jobs, so I was one of those latchkey kids. You know, go up to the apartment straight after school and lock the door till mom comes home, hopefully by dinner. In the meantime, find something to do! We didn't own a TV. I needed to occupy myself and the bookshelf was free entertainment. My mother, who only read the books with my father and for his sake - she had found her religion, and her God was love, a fact which she needed no proof of other than what she felt in her heart - was happy the books were getting some use. She had been meaning to call Salvation Army and have them pick up the whole lot of them. Luckily for me my mother was a procrastinator. For a time my father had been a great lover of world religions. His copy of Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy, which delineates the thread running through all the major doctrines, was heavily highlighted. Practically every line was underlined, commented upon, and in several different colors of ink. His mind was like a shark, always moving, ravenous, indiscriminate and cruel.
At around the age of 12, I started reading his books. Randomly at first, picking up whatever caught my eye. And they all had ornately drawn covers. As the months gave way to years I studied them systematically, an hour here, an evening there; soon I found reading preferable to playing in the park. I'd focus on one religion exclusively before going on to the next, starting from oldest and moving to the newest: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism and Christianity. Sometimes I'd neglect my schoolwork to finish a particularly engaging book. My grades suffered, but I had no delusions of going to college. We couldn't afford it, and really the scholarly life wasn't for me. Not as a vocation. This reading of mine was just a hobby, relating as I was to the man I had never met. And that is how I became an auto-didact, a term I love. I have sometimes put it on job applications, under employment history. After all, I read these books ten hours a week at least for my entire teenage life! I became deeply acquainted with these men who were the founders of the world's religions. Each teacher pointed in a definite direction, but proved by his individual life that there are at least as many paths as there are masters. Christ disappeared at 13 only to reappear at the age of 30 for a ministry of three years before he was "crucified, suffered death and was buried," as the Nicene Creed puts it. Fifteen hundred years ago Confucius, who had failed political aspirations, constructed a set of rigorous social standards by which all of China judges herself to this day. But I felt the greatest kinship with Taoism. Interesting story. The religion's founder was this mysterious character who may or may not have worked as a bookkeeper. As legend tells it, in his old age he grew tired of civilization and made for the mountains. The guard of the city he was leaving asked him to write his philosophy of life and so he retired for three days and returned with this short book called the Tao Te Ching, which means "The Way of Divine Power" and can be read in a sitting, or several times over a lifetime. And then there is Buddha, who did not believe in a personal God nor in an individual soul. He achieved enlightenment at an age (35) when Christ was already dead, and he spent the next 45 years preaching along the dusty Indian roads a message he knew in his heart to be true. Just like my mother, only without as many followers.
I read, and I reflected, and I practiced what these men preached. I learned to cultivate stillness, to sit with a blank mind, to become a perfect receptacle for the basic power of the universe to flow through me. To radiate a healing, harmonious psychic influence while doing nothing overt or dramatic, remaining completely anonymous. For it is on these individuals the Tao says that the community owes its health. Without us society could not function peacefully. And as invisibles we go unnoticed, unthanked. The corresponding individual in Hinduism is the sannyasin. One who neither hates nor loves anything, the sannyasin remains a complete nonentity on the surface so as to be joined to all beings in his depths. He "has nothing further to do." Growing up, these prototypical individuals were my idols. If we had owned a TV my heroes would instead have been Hulk Hogan and maybe He-Man or Homer Simpson. I am glad I never had a TV.
Instead I became an expert in the practice of alert waiting, attuned to the harmony between my mind and its cosmic source. The ancients say all you need to do is let your actions flow spontaneously from stillness free of conscious effort. Meditating on the Yin-Yang symbol of Tao, which turns and bends back upon itself until it comes full-circle, revealing that at center all things are one, helped me understand the universal secrets better than any volume of philosophy. How could my father have missed these truths when there they lay an arm's length away? Was he merely a collector of scriptures rather than their earnest student? It is doubtful given the heavily annotated margins of these books. I have wondered if perhaps he purchased the books used. Were there second-hand bookstores back in the 70s? Since there already was a Salvation Army, there may have been. I always wanted to ask my father why instead of becoming an atheist he didn't just convert to Zen.
I came to share my father's appreciation for Hinduism. The Vedantists believe in one God, whose essence is pure joy. They recognize the thread of truth tying together all major religions, which are like rivers flowing into the same ocean (of happiness). If they still had a club I'd join it as did my father. But the Vedanta temple closed down. After the Hare Krishnas with their weird hairdos, dancing around like lunatics, Hinduism sort of got a bad name.
How has all my spiritual seeking served me? At times it has merely made me confused. I am emblematic of the age that way. In seeking to transcend myself I fear I have become more self-absorbed. Like that Old English poem, "The Wanderer," I am a man without a home. A queer mixture of East and West, out of place wherever I go, at home nowhere. Like the Jews, and the Muslims and the early Christians and other pioneers. I am in good company.
But it was my father's diary, composed on a trip to India with my mother shortly before I was conceived, that really shed light on his process of self-discovery. One entry consists of nothing but the following phrase, written over and over again: "I am not the body, I am not the body." Another of his favorite maxims: "Do not seek to become. Simply be." Another: "I am not the doer, I am not the doer." Repeated endlessly. This was obviously inspired by Krishna's words in the Bhagavad Gita, when he says that the Lord of the Universe is the Master Puppeteer, and each individual made to dance to the celestial tune, as if on strings. I think my father was trying to kill his ego or at least tame it, like the psychic had urged, but his desire for name and fame overpowered these modest efforts and he gave in, or in her words, failed. He was trying to be like Christ, in whom the human ego had disappeared completely, leaving his life so completely under the will of God that it became perfectly transparent to that will. Perhaps setting such a high standard dooms a person to fail.
The Hindus say to go through life saying neti, neti. Another of my father's favorites. It means that God is not this, nor that. God is nothing in particular. What remains at the end of life is God. My father hasn't found God. He left religion because he asked the question that has no answers, and finding no answer, he became dismayed. He asked how, if God is One and perfect, as is presumably his creation, we see the world as many and marred; why if his soul was united with God throughout eternity, he saw himself as separate and bounded by time; and why did God create the world? The only plausible answer is that the world is God's plaything. That is after all what Hinduism says. As an artist spontaneously creates, the Divine Maker weaves this world of wonders. But this answer, poetic though it may be, did not satisfy my father, who refused to believe in a cruel God, so he chose no God at all. From his highlights and notes in sacred books from around the world my father chalked up creation to some primordial ignorance and willfulness which began nobody knows how. And if indifference to a personal creator is atheism, then an atheist he'd become. But if I could sit down with him I'd ask, What about the impersonal God, immanent and transcendent? Even Buddha recognized this, called it Nirvana. In the end, reason just doesn't cut it. Reason must yield to another mode of knowing that can grasp reality far more accurately, it simply must. To what must it yield? Simple: To intuition. To surrender. To faith.
My father insisted he must know the answer to life's greatest mysteries. Finding none, the man who had begun his search for truth as an agnostic became an atheist, proving that just like the ancient Chinese symbol, all things come full circle. And I started my search with hope, and to this day, though I cannot claim to know anything with certainty other than perhaps that I exist, I go to bed each night with these words on my lips: "I dedicate my acts to you dear Lord. Thy Will be done. It is not I, Lord, but Thou through me." I still hope someone is listening. But if nobody is, I hear me!
The only religion I didn't discover on my father's bookshelf was Islam. He did not think to own a copy of the Koran. This is perhaps because he didn't read Arabic, and Arab speakers swear that the book is not readable in any other language, that if translated its poetic essence is lost. But in my father's copy of Cosmic Consciousness I did read of the life of its author, Muhammed, who I instantly related to. There are a lot of parallels between the life of the prophet and my own. Islam's founder, Muhammed awakened to the voice of the Lord and spent 23 years writing the Koran. He married when he was 25. I married when I was 25. One of his wives was named Aisha, which was also my wife's name. And Muhammed was 40 when the Lord started speaking to him. I am also 40.
The prophet never knew his father, who died a few days before he was born. After his mother passed away when he was six he went to live first with his grandfather then with his uncle, for whom he worked as a camel herder. He was pure-hearted, beloved, sensitive to human suffering, always willing to help others. Nevertheless he kept to his own out of repugnance for the barbaric society of Mecca, plunged in chaos as it was, with tribes constantly at war. At twenty-five he entered the service of a wealthy woman whom he later married. When he became a prophet his wife always believed in him, remaining steadfast by his side. During a time of preparation and spiritual communion, he was drawn to Mount Hira, within which was a cave. And there he spent time in solitude. Through vigils lasting all night, Muhammed grew convinced of the supremacy of the deity Allah, whom he began to praise with the words La ilaha illa Allah! There is no God but Allah. And Allah commanded him to preach this message, which Muhammed did for the remainder of his life.
Thenceforth the prophet's life was not his own. In an age charged with supernaturalism, he appealed to man's reason. Who needed miracles when the incredible order of the universe was itself proof of God's existence and power? Amidst polytheism he preached unity. In a society rent by class distinction, he taught that all men are equal. At first Arabs were hostile to his message. To them he was merely a half-crazed camel driver. But with his wife at his side, and emboldened by his faith, he lead his followers out of Mecca, a migration regarded by Muslims as the turning point in history, and the year from which their calendar begins. Afterwards Muhammed melded together conflicting tribes, absorbing many Jews with sympathy and tolerance, and these formed one confederation, something no other Arab had been able to do. Throughout these years the prophet, who was practically illiterate, pieced together on scraps of parchment the holy Koran. Four-fifths the length of the New Testament, it means "to read," which is fitting, as it is the most read book in the world. It is grammatically perfect and a poetic masterpiece.
As far as religions go, the basic theological concepts of Islam are virtually indistinguishable from Judaism and Christianity. It strongly resembles other Eastern faiths, particularly Hinduism. God is one and all is God. By God's grace the world is one of joy. Between God and man stands nothing. "Is He not closer than the vein of thy neck?" says the Koran. "Thou needest not raise they voice, for He knoweth the secret whisper, and what is yet more hidden." God's revelation to man proceeds through four stages. Monotheism (God's oneness) revealed through Abraham. The Ten Commandments, through Moses. The Golden Rule, through Jesus. All three men Islam recognizes as great prophets. The final stage brings the answer to the question of all questions: How best to love one's neighbor? Muhammed provided the answer, but his people do not always listen, and in this regard we are no different from the followers of other faiths.
In the long centuries of Europe's Dark Ages, Muslims philosophers were the ones who kept alight the lamp of learning. Muslims are known for their charity. The haves share with the have-nots. This includes strangers and wayfarers, not just blood relatives. Fasting and pilgrimage are common but not necessary. But the kinship felt by members of the Muslim family is real. The basic objective in interpersonal relationships is that prescribed by Jesus and other prophets: brotherly love. Through Muhammed, marriage became sanctified, and the role of women was elevated. Divorce is countenanced only as a last resort. Koranic law is in favor of monogamy. And there is absolute racial equality among Muslims.
But as in our attitude toward women, we have been misrepresented in their stance on the use of force. The Koran teaches forgiveness and the return of good for evil, but we are not doormats. "Defend yourself against your enemies; but attack them not first: God hateth the aggressor." Wrongdoers suffer punishment corresponding to the injury they inflict. From this derives the jihad, or holy war in which the martyrs who gain entry to heaven. I do not believe in heaven. Islam still stirs with the strength and vigor of youth because we are tolerant. The Koran says: "If God had pleased, He would have made you all one people of one religion. But He had done otherwise. Wherefore press forward in good works. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion. Wilt thou then force men to believe when belief can come only from God?" How far does tolerance reach? Does it stop at blasphemy? One of God's unanswered questions. When I address my father I will say to him, "Salam alakum." Peace be upon you.
There are many famous people who have converted to Islam. Malcolm X. Kareem Abdul Jabaar. Mike Tyson. Muhammad Ali. Cat Stevens. Dave Chapelle. I did not know this when I entered the faith, but telling people makes the religion seem less frightening. I have said so much to Andy. Andy is my coworker. Although there is a lot about the Koran that does not suit my personality, Islam satisfies my urge to fit in. All are accepted. All you have to do is proclaim Allah as the One true God. Say it aloud with conviction and understanding just once in your lifetime and you are part of the Muslim family. I first said it to my wife on our wedding night. I do believe that God is one. I don't believe that God has a particular name, since giving the limitless a name would circumscribe God and make him finite. Even referring to God as He limits the limitless. But for the sake of simplicity and in the name of brotherhood I am pleased to refer to the immanent and transcendent Source as anything you'd like. So Allah will do. Because Muslims are generally really good people. I've rubbed elbows with those practitioners of other religions. Buddhists can be cold, haughty, stand-offish. The Jews can be too absorbed in ritual, and at times quite materialistic. Catholics are prudish and judgmental. But Muslims share their wealth, embrace believers as family, live simple lives. As for the zealots, there are fewer of these individuals among Muslims than there are Christians who believe Armageddon is upon us and the Antichrist is living in our midst. Who's crazy now? If intolerance is the issue, we can just as easily bring up the Christian Crusades and Spanish Inquisition, and all the bloodshed that the barbarous hordes caused in the name of spreading their religion. My friend Junaid is an example of Muslim charity. After my wife died, he opened his home to me. We prayed together. He asked nothing from me in return, treated me the way you'd treat your own sibling. The Muslims treat all like-minded individuals with love, and the Koran says to extend it to everyone. They live the Biblical message propagated by Christ who said, "Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done for me."
I stayed with Junaid until I started working here.
My wife died giving birth to our stillborn son. It is my fault. We didn't get the best care. I should have implored my father's assistance. But I was reluctant, wary of rejection, timid, shy! Instead I watched as the doctors messed things up. My wife was never healthy. I tell you her constitution was not strong. Still I should have tried! Instead I applied for the custodial position here. I used my father's last name on the application, knowing that by emphasizing my Jewishness I could only increase the slim chances of getting hired. Nobody is completely immune to the sway of nepotism, least of all the Jews. So outwardly I'm a member of the tribe, whose numbers are small. You could call Judaism an exclusive club. There are ten times as many atheists. It makes me wonder why my father didn't stick with the Talmud. Narcissists love being elite. Anyway I can't understand atheism. I know atheists are big believers in the power of the mind, and hold reason above faith. But thinking you can unravel the mystery of existence with one little mind and its limited perspective is like trying to pick up the Rock of Gibraltar while at the same time standing on it. You don't need reason to know it can't be done! Reason is all fine and well for solving algebra equations and planning your day. But to understand the immortal ground of being? Not so much.
The host of the show chooses all new hires, from personal assistants all the way down to us toilet-scrubbers. I say janitor but my coworker says custodial technician. He's a card, is Andy. Former football stud. And frat brother. Excuse me, fraternity (Andy says you don't call your country a cunt, do you?). Votes Republican or would, if Donald Trump were nominated. Married his high school sweetheart. Patronizes strip clubs. Is a member of the gun association. Eats a ton of red meat. Hits the driving range on weekends, but only as an excuse to drink beer. Andy always tries to engage me in debates. He comes off as an arrogant chauvinistic racist asshole, but deep down he's got a great heart. He used to be in the military, and though I only met him last year I can honestly say that he'd lay down his life for me if it came to it. Not that he'd ever need to. If anything, I'd be the one to stand up for him. Andy is always offending others, but he can also be timid. He says I'm his brother. And that would be true even if I told him I'm a Muslim, a religion he despises with an irrational hatred (as though there were any other type). His only run-in with the law came when he was a teenager and verbally abused a liquor store clerk who was wearing a turban. Turned out the guy wasn't even Muslim. He was a Sikh. No I won't tell Andy I'm Muslim, but when we argue about religion, I try gently but firmly to help him see the side of Islam that goes unrecognized here in the West. The side I've tried to show you. The beautiful side. My efforts have not been met with success. A couple times now we have almost come to blows. I could hold my own even against Andy, who went through Navy SEALs training. As a teenager in Brooklyn I myself dabbled in gang life. Just searching for a family, somewhere to belong. The Latino gangs let me join their ranks for a time. A life of petty crime followed until I met my wife, who was all the family I'd need. Luckily I didn't do time, or I'd never have gotten this job, since Honest Abe does a background check on all prospective hires. I didn't put down I was Muslim, obviously. I needed this job. This job has become my calling.
The Honest Abe show is very anti-religion in general. It's the host's claim to fame. Self-styled disbeliever, producer and star of a documentary exposing the inanity of organized religion and its primitive views of a creation in 7 days, etc. But above all else, he criticizes Islam. The show bad-mouths everything that is not liberal democratic, but Muslims especially. He's very disrespectful to Muslims. And now that ISIS is regularly featured in the news, Abe is having a field day. He takes the actions of a few extremists and generalizes it to the millions of Muslims across the globe who are peaceful law-abiding citizens. I tell you again he is having a field day. The show routinely has as guests media personalities and authors who disparage Islam and paint a picture of a fanatic people intent on suppression by force until global domination is achieved or world destruction, whichever comes first. Very disrespectful, and simply not true! It's a politics of fear. America always needs an adversary. And without Bin Laden, or Hussein, or Sarah Palin, ISIS is the new public enemy number one.
Recently Abe had Ben Affleck on the show. He was supposed to be promoting the new Batman movie but instead he took on the guest-star Sam Harris, an atheist and in Affleck's eyes an Islamist sympathizer. He raked the poor scholar over the coals on national TV! And Abe sat back and gloated. It was then I began to realize I'd need to take matters into my own hands. Still, I was waiting for the last straw.
When my mother said I had a great destiny, that the world had been waiting for me, I am sure she didn't consider the prospect of my taking a life, whether another's or my own. Suicide is looked down upon by followers of many religions. Certainly among the Catholics. And yet there is not a single line of scripture, Old Testament or New, which prohibits a person from taking his own life. Unless you take the Decalogue's "Thou shalt not kill" as applying to oneself. But that is up to the individual. How does the sanctity of life gel with society's endorsing killing everywhere you turn? Whether with the death penalty; during wartime; in self-defense; or when a person is terminally ill or in a permanently vegetative state, death is everwhere! It just doesn't mesh. If killing animals for food is not a violation of the commandment, then taking your own life isn't murder either.
Really, Christ's crucifixion was a quasi-suicidal act. The Savior could have avoided death had he chosen to do so. Had he just fallen in line with authority. Instead he chose to act from love. But suicide is selfish, they tell us; a sin. Suicide is a free act, I say. Each of us is at liberty to choose his own death. What about the fear of dying? Blind superstition. (As if there is any other kind.) Philosophy is an antidote to superstition. To the philosopher, the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than, say, the life of a clam. Philosophy teaches us to live as long as we should, not as long as we can. The big mistake most people make is in assigning so great an importance to earthly existence, to personhood. As if my existence depended upon being in a body, as if death were a total annihilation. Don't all the religions preach an immortal soul? Have you not gotten a jot from your Sunday school study sessions? But most religious persons are not philosophical, and since most of the world's population follow one or another of the major creeds, the world cowers in slavery to the grossest superstition. So theologians tell us to stoically endure the evils of this world, and make a sacrifice of our sufferings. This view is not shared by the Japanese, who with their honorable suicide would rather quit life by their own hands than die ignobly. As for Islam, media portrayal would have you believe that suicide bombings are the norm. But there is a chapter of the Koran that expressly forbids a person to kill himself. This is where the great religions differ, where they contradict themselves. To kill oneself or not, that is the great question. Only I have the answer. Not that I entertain any fantasy that what I do will change the tide of public opinion. If anything it will only further the anti-Muslim agenda. But this man must be stopped. Honest Abe must be shut up because he is dishonest and irreverent. And words are like knives, and verbal abuse is violence. I have no voice or outlet in which to be heard. So if I must die with him, if this is God's will, then so be it.
It is true that by killing myself I will be doing exactly what the Christian theologians, Augustine and Aquinas, expressly forbid: I will be exercising dominion over my life; I will be assuming the power that they say belongs solely to God. For I am merely God's property. That is one view. A philosopher would counter that suicide is the only way a person with nothing to live for can be useful to society, by serving as an example which if imitated preserves the slim chance of happiness. And altruistic suicide is a special breed. Killing myself in order to bring attention to the injustice perpetrated on this show is not unlike the self-immolation practiced by Tibetan monks. I sacrifice the self for something higher: a cause. There is no alternative. As I see it, when I quit my body, I will only be laying aside an inconvenient habit. To live longer than forty years is bad manners. It is vulgar and immoral. Only "fools and worthless fellows" live past that age, to quote Dostoyevsky. And the author was not alone. The painter Edouard Leve wrote a manuscript entitled Suicide ten days before he hanged himself. He was 42. Albert Camus wrote about suicide in his Myth of Sisyphus and died at 46. Fools and worthless fellows...
But I tell you that the capacity to die voluntarily is what makes us human. It is what singles us out as such an exceptional species. No other animal self-destructs. There is some ineluctable beauty inherent in the capacity to terminate one's own bodily existence, wouldn't you agree? If you do not, we can argue when we're dead. Until then, please listen to me. Allow for the allure of suicide. If death is long sleep and sleep is short death, as the Hindus believe, then the end of earthly existence brings the serenity of eternal slumber. Nothing bad about that, so what's there to fear? Greater individuals than I have come before me. Mark Antony stabbed himself with a sword alongside his beloved Cleopatra. The author Hemingway offed himself when he'd had enough of living. As did Virginia Woolf. And Vincent van Gogh. And Adolf Hitler. I don't have much to live for. My loved ones have preceded me to the hereafter. But this is not to say I do not wish to live. Because such a wish would itself be a desire. Not to want to live is to want to die. And my father's books have taught me to be desireless. The Bhagavad Gita, for instance, cream of the Hindu scriptures, in whose 18 chapters are strung the pearls of the highest wisdom, Lord Krishna discourses on "nishkama karma," which translated means dispassionate action, working without a concern for the fruits of one's labors. I have a mission. The psychiatrist Carl Jung said he never met a patient over forty whose problems were not at bottom attributable to the fear of death. He never met me. I am not afraid to die. The world can take everything from me. It already has. It can forbid everything. But no one has the power to prevent me from erasing myself from the face of the earth, and that man with me.
The Bible tells the story of Adam and Eve. By voluntarily disobeying God's order not to eat the forbidden fruit, Adam sinned. To sin is to sunder. Sinning is a form of estrangement. We as individuals are strangers to one another, by our selfish wants and egotistical agendas cut off from those around us. We are alienated when we should be a family of humanity. This is why we feel jealously rather than pleasure when other people succeed, anxious in another's presence, ill at ease in society. In sin we are sundered from the life of love. If God is One, and God is Love, then Love is all, and without brotherly love we cannot be said to live, or else we are living a lie. By his self-serving behavior Honest Abe is promoting this lie. This is not as it should be.
I found six copies of the Bhagavad Gita among my father's books. The message is simple. Fight. The story takes place on the battlefield, as a dialogue between God and a man, Arjuna the soldier. He is reluctant to enter the fray, because on one side is his family, and on the other his friends. God tells him the outcome has already been decided, and Arjuna must do his duty as a warrior and fight. Who he really is can never die, nor can any of the other soldiers, for man's nature is eternal. I've read every translation I can get my hands on. The wisdom of the Gita is imprinted on me. And the message is not exclusive to this book alone. It is a universal truth that every act done without thought of the small self diminishes self-centeredness until finally no barrier remains between you and your true nature. Zen teaches the practitioner to perform his daily duties however large or small with the understanding that each is equally a manifestation of the infinite in its particular time and place. Until one can do this, the business of religion remains unfinished. In the cosmic scheme, killing Honest Abe is no more or less significant than cleaning the toilet.
As a janitor it is easy to do my duty, in the Gita sense, for my duties are simple. Empty waste bins. Mop floors. They tell me to concentrate on the studio bathrooms, because the staff are a bunch of pigs who can't hit the toilet with urine and leave paper towels in the sink. So I spend most of my shift in the bathroom. I have a preference for the large men's bathroom just off the stage. It's scented and the acoustics are good. I can hear the whole show in real time as it airs. And that is where I have encountered Honest Abe. He uses the facilities several times a day. The man must have a bladder the size of a pin cushion. I know, because I do too. I can count on him going once before the show airs and again immediately after the credits run.
You know what I think? This just came to me. It may be that as a seeker my father was fed up with trying to fill the lack in his life with words and concepts instead of experience. And so, putting the books down, he finally decided to live. First as an alcoholic, then as an incorrigible womanizer drunk on his own power (if you believe the bombast of his autobiography). And in this respect we are alike. I'm not a drinker or drug user, nor am I promiscuous. Since my wife's death I have practiced strict continence. But I am no longer interested in theories about enlightenment. Instead I wish to plunge into it headlong. To be enlightenment's practitioner. Does my action matter? What statement will it make? Will it silence the detractors, shame the infidels, or will it only further uphold Islam's reputation for being wildly intolerant and crowded with extremists. I won't know, because I won't be here to find out. I simply must do my duty. To right a wrong. Actions speak louder than words, and up till now Honest Abe has proven himself to be hot air. I will decisively act. And yet I wonder how to reconcile revenge with the commandment not to kill.
Our story begins and will have its end today, Friday November the thirteenth. It is the day appointed for the taping of the Thanksgiving Special, a double segment devoted exclusively to religion. Honest Abe's guests: a Christian, a Jew and a Buddhist. The special guest has not yet been named. Even the show's producers don't know who he is. It is Honest Abe's secret.
Before the show I chat with my coworker. Andy is such a simple man. He is nervous, because he has chosen today to ask Honest Abe for a raise. Of all days! But Andy is impulsive. He simply must do it today. He has just found out his wife is pregnant with their first child, and he cannot afford the medical bills and a third mouth to feed on the New York minimum, which as it stands is $8.75 per hour. Like I said Abe uses the bathroom before and after every show, and Andy has determined that this will be his chance. Precisely five minutes before the show's opening monologue begins, Honest Abe appears at the door. He doesn't acknowledge Andy. He stands at the urinal relieving his bladder. Andy approaches him. The exchange is pretty predictable.
Honest Abe: Not now. Can't you see I'm pissing?
He doesn't even look at Andy. Although he hired him, hires everyone, he surely does not remember his name.
Andy: Please sir, can I have a raise, for my unborn child. A boy. The wife and I just found out.
Honest Abe: I'm happy for you. But you missed a spot.
Abe turns to face Andy, urine still streaming out of him. And soils Andy's shoes.
Abe: Now get back to work.
And he leaves. Andy hangs his head, looking pathetic. Then he trudges out, too embarrassed to address me. I come out of the stall where I had been cleaning the toilet, with the door open a little so I could watch the exchange. Poor Andy. I've had enough. Today will be the day I put my plan into action.
Abe: Our show today is about (surpise) religion. ISIS is once again in the news. France is under attack. Stadiums are being bombed. My favorite rock bands are being taken hostage. Flights are being diverted. Business as usual if you're a radical. So, religion. Because what else can you expect from a man who produced a documentary on the subject - for those of you who don't know this, and how can you not, because the film was a best-seller that has been called 'hellishly hilarious' (said Rolling Stone magazine), 'Nothing short of brilliant' (NBC) and 'One of the funniest and most offensive documentaries ever made' (New York Post), and I take special pride in that last bit - it's called Religiosity, starring me. Enough about me, the DVD is on sale here so you can get it on your way out. And just as I took a pilgrimage across the globe on a mind-opening journey into the ultimate taboo...
(these words he delivers in a monotone, as if reading from the back of his DVD)
...and questioning religion, meeting the high and the low from different creeds, asking about things like faith and God, and why do you wear those funky-looking turbans, today I'm going to take it a step further. I've assembled experts in the various faiths for your viewing pleasure. Today we have a priest, a rabbi and a monk. And a guest to be named later. And to my guests I will pose this question: 'What if Christ contented himself with the practice of carpentry, Muhammed with herding camels, Buddha remained just a prince and Moses kept doing whatever it is Moses did before carrying on a conversation with the burning bush: Wouldn't the world be better off?' Before we meet our guests, I'd like to answer the question myself. The answer is yes, we would be better off without these eccentrics and the religions they manufactured. Because without religion, there would be no religious wars, no child-molesting priests, no orders of monks wasting their lives in the mountains doing whatever it is monks do. No millions of Jews for Hitler to exterminate. Maybe he'd have taken on the Arab extremists we now have on our hands.
Which gets me to 9/11. There would have been no 9/11, and none of the conflict perpetually going on in the Middle East. If all this bloodshed is what religion has brought us, if terror is the result of man's quest for the divine, we should be pretty pissed off. I know I am. Do we really need religion to have morality? Because if you ask me we are pretty damn amoral, even with religion. All the members of the Mob are practicing Catholics. We should wonder what's the point. What's the point what's the point what's the point of religion when, and I quote an authority on the subject, the aim of all the major creeds is to bring the disciple to the point where 'he can see even sex, meat and wine, things which had formerly appeared as the most formidable barriers to the divine, as but varying forms of God.' Sex, wine and meat are God? We don't need religion to equate sex, wine and meat with God. We have been doing that long before Moses climbed the mountain. We do it today. Just ask any corner store butcher, liquor store drunk or Central Park hooker. Who needs to seek out God when 'he is present in every house'?
Let's meet our panel. First, a parish priest from a Catholic church in of all places Beverly Hills. A Monsignor, actually, who received his title directly from the pope. Apologies to members of other Christian denominations, the Eastern Orthodoxers and the Protestants. But hey, I needed to choose somebody. A Jewish rabbi from right here in New York, who I found out just before the show is related to Woody Allen. So he has contact celebrity status. Not really. I don't have much more to say about the rabbi. But if he's Jewish I'm sure he can gab. Please welcome Rabbi Schlemiel.
(laughter and applause)
From the Eastern side of the globe hails our Zen Buddhist friend. Before the other Eastern religions chime in about how you are left out, this man - whose first name I can't pronounce because there are too many consonants, but who's last name is simple enough, Suzuki, like the motorcycle - told me just before we went on that 'Hinduism of India filtered through Taoism of China becomes Zen of Japan'. Is that a boast? I can't tell. So if the Hindus and Buddhists in the audience don't like it, you can go join the Protestants!
Lessee, am I leaving somebody out? Oh yes, the Islamists. We've seen the news. We can let their actions speak for themselves. Besides, there aren't any Islamists in the room because we'd know by your foul odor!
Thanks for joining us, panel. I'm sorry guys, but you gotta admit, this has the makings of a bad joke, doesn't it? Did you hear the one about the atheist who sat down with a rabbi, a priest and a monk?I can't wait to hear the punch line. It's gonna be a real blast.
So let's begin. I'll reiterate. Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed. Imposters who have hoodwinked humanity by imposing their silly notions of God and teaching the gullible to believe without critical examination. True or false? Let's start with our Jew."
Abe: (interrupting) Not because I'm partial to Jews, being Jewish myself. It's because I hate silence and I know you guys have a lot to say. So speak up, meshugana. Wouldn't the world be better off without organized religion, and that includes the Hebrews?
Rabbi: In the beginning--
Abe: You're not going to quote the Bible now are you?
Rabbi: In the beginning the Jews were merely a small band of nomads wandering around in the Arabian desert, just like the Muslims.
Abe: Careful who you align yourself with, Rabbi. It's early, but we don't want it to come to blows.
Rabbi: And now, one-third of Western civilization bears the marks of Jewish ancestry. We feel its force in the names. Adam, Noah, Isaac, Rebecca, Sarah, David, Woody. Your name, Abraham.
Abe: It's Abe, Rabbi. Honest Abe. Your point?
Rabbi: My point is we are a people. Not a doctrine. Not a creed. And yet our message is spreading.
Abe: And what would your message be?
Rabbi: We have brought the Ten Commandments, haven't we?
Abe: I'm glad you brought that up, because I was going to mention that the commandments exist in some form in every major religion.
Rabbi: Ours came before the rest.
Abe: Come on, Rabbi. Let's not be naive. You think people don't kill because the Bible, or Buddhism, or Christianity says not to? Or because it's the law? Without laws, there'd be more violence, with or without your heaven and hell or a God to send you there. Morality and religion have nothing to do with each other.
Rabbi: We are--
Abe: No, let me make this point before we go any further in this discussion. Does everybody know the difference between morals and law? Morals and laws are two methods by which society urges its members to behave properly. Morals strongly encourage. Laws compel. You can't say that religion has ever promoted morality. Just the opposite. Immorality has been most widespread in ages of religious domination. Sensuality, drunkenness, greed, deceit, theft, all types of violence were rampant in the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church was in its ascendency. The papacy was a political tool. And the priests with their bogus relics and dubious miracles were crooks. The Church fomented religious wars in France and Germany while hardly doing anything about slavery. Does history support a belief in God? Not if by God we mean a supremely kind and intelligent being. In nature, natural selection rules. It is survival of the fittest, my men. When we add all the storms, tornadoes and tidal waves to the crimes, wars and cruelties of man we get an impartial fatality behind it all, not some dear Lord. There is no good and bad in nature. There is only that which survives, and that which perishes. I am not the first to say that God is dead. And religion, I am happy to add, is on the way out.
Monsignor: Says who? There are more Christians than any other religion. Twice as many Christians as your atheists, Abe. And many are Catholics because Catholicism appeals to the imagination, gives hope. Its mythology brightens the plight of the poor. It wins converts from souls wearied with the uncertainty of your almighty reason, Abe, and from the hope that the Church will always successfully stem disorder both within its ranks and throughout the world.
Abe: Are you saying the Pope has something up his sleeve against ISIS?
Monsignor: Please, Abe. I won't fall for your tricks. You remind me of the joke. Don't wrestle in the mud with a pig, they say. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.
Abe: So, who's the pig?
Monsignor: I'm saying that if another great war devastates Western civilization, the destruction may leave the Church the sole hope and guide for those who survive. Just like in AD 476, when the Roman Empire fell.
Abe: Here we go. For once I'd like to have a discussion with a Christian where the Apocalypse wasn't brought up.
Monsignor: If history teaches us anything it is that religion has many lives. Many times God and religion have died and been reborn. The Paris of 1793 saw the atheistic worship of the Goddess of Reason, thanks to Voltaire; a year later Robespierre set up the worship of the Supreme Being. Here in America, the Founding Fathers with their rationalism gave place to a religious revival in the nineteenth century. You can't kill what's immortal.
Abe: We're talking about concepts, Monsignor. God is a concept. Concepts don't exist except in the mind.
Monsignor: I'm not here to engage in philosophical debate.
Abe: Because never the twain shall meet, I know. But in humanitarian movements that alleviate the evils of our time, philosophy takes the lead.
Monsignor: Nevertheless there are millions whose hopes are tied to the inspiring imagery that religion affords, and that's why these doctrines persist, because they offer hope.
Abe: And religion is the opiate of the people.
Monsignor: That was actually said about Communism. You who call yourself a socialist should know that.
Abe: Do I call myself a socialist? I wasn't aware. I drive a Tesla. Call me a liberal philosopher. That will do until I come up with something more catchy.
Monsignor: Philosphy and religion will never reconcile until philosophers recognize there is no substitute for the moral function of the Church.
Abe: And by implicitly insulting the intelligence with Creation myths and hocus pocus miracles the Church can't stop shooting itself in the foot by denying its sane members (and there are few) their intellectual freedom. I think we've let our feelings get us off topic. Let's get back on point. I'm saying-
Abe: What about the Communists? They not only divorce government from all churches, most of the citizens don't even practice religion. China, for instance. Over 85 percent of Chinese people are classified as not religious.
Buddhist: That's not precisely true. The 'not religious' category includes Taoism and Confucianism. The number of Chinese citizens practicing some form of folk religion is actually around 70 percent. That's nearly one billion people.
Rabbi: This would put the non-religious Chinese at closer to 15 percent.
Abe: For those of you at home who aren't good at math. Thank you, Rabbi.
Rabbi: Communism will never replace religion as the vendor of comfort and hope. Not as long as there is poverty.
Abe: And everybody knows, the Jews are not poor, right Rabbi?
Rabbi: Nor are we violent.
Abe: A nonsequitir.
Rabbi: This is to your earlier remark about morality. We are nonviolent not because we have to be, not because the Lord says so. You cannot name a war that the Jewish people have started. If anything we have been the brunt of brutality, as you pointed out in your monologue. It is in the Hebrew makeup not to physically harm others.
Abe: So you're special, is that it? Or maybe just weak.
Rabbi: I'm not saying, the point I'm trying to make--
Abe: It sounds to me that Judaism supports separatism. Doesn't the Bible refer to the Hebrews as the chosen ones? And isn't that what Hitler was about when he tried to extinguish the Jews. Promoting a master race?
Rabbi: We see ourselves as a family and recognize that the human race is a larger if more diverse family. Hopefully one day we can all unite and just get along.
Abe: Can we all just get along. Something you didn't read from the back of a bumper sticker, please.
Rabbi: You're being glib, Abe.
Abe: Said Tom Cruise.
Rabbi: Small peoples, like small persons, are always getting pushed around. But we Jews have a passion for meaning. We have made it our business to take account of the Other.
Abe: The other? You mean...
Rabbi: God. It's okay to say it. Our basic contribution to the religious thought of ancient man is monotheism.
Abe: If there were a Muslim in the room he'd disagree.
Rabbi: We were monotheistic long before Muhammad invented Allah.
Abe: Careful your choice of words, Rabbi. Charging the Muslims with inventing God is rather harsh. Of course as an atheist I believe every religion is guilty of that, but don't single out the one without a member here to defend it.
Rabbi: Moses came down from Sinai in 1500 BC.
Abe: BCE, I think you mean.
Rabbi: I am trying to reach everyone in the audience, not just the Jews. Muhammad lived in the 6th and 7th centuries of the Current Era. Islam came thousands of years after the Jews.
Abe: For those of you at home not good at math. Okay. But Rabbi, with all this contentiousness about who came before whom and said what when and where, you're proving my point. Religions start wars. You may not take up a sword, but the pen is mightier. I think a Jew wrote that.
Monsignor: It was an English author, in a play about Cardinal Richelieu. Who I might add was a Catholic. Not that I'd mind if he were Jewish. Or for that matter Protestant.
Abe: Well played, Monsignor.
Rabbi: Our forefathers said, 'There must be a singleness to the Other, who if bounded by something else would be finite, and subject to decay, and this won't do, not for God, who is omnipresent.'
Abe: Of course.
Rabbi: Thus our central affirmation is, the Lord is One.
Buddhist: The Jews were certainly not the first to assert the Oneness of the Supreme. That is a concept descending to the present from the mystics of India, and Zen is its most perfect expression. As our host said, the Hinduism of India was distilled by Buddha and when filtered through the Tao of China made its way to Japan as Zen.
Abe: I may have said that, but I was quoting you.
Buddhist: Zen is the highest form of religion. And allow me to say something else. There is a parallel between Christ and Buddha that few are aware of. Christ was a Jew himself who reformed Judaism into something new and refined. He turned aspirants away from blind authority and temple materialism in favor of a religion of love. In so doing, Christ destroyed Jehovah!
Rabbi: There are 14 million Jews that would disagree with you there, I'm afraid.
Buddhist: Let me finish. First by saying I agree with you, Abe, about religion losing its place in a world where laws and science prevail. Religion must evolve or it will die. Survival of the fittest, like Abe said. And it is. Buddhism is. Buddha who was born a Hindu, single-handedly reformed a religion that had been plagued by orthodoxy and corruption. Buddha turned Hinduism into something that appealed to the reason, while at the same time retaining a certain numinous essence.
Abe: For those watching at home, numinous means?
Buddhist: (pause) Sublime.
Abe: Everybody knows that. Why didn't you just say so!
Buddhist: To these two great masters, Buddha and Christ, we owe two new religions, but it is to the institutionalization of religion, mainly as Christianity, we won't go into Islam until our guest arrives - presumably he or better yet she is Muslim? - it is from the Church mainly that sprung all the bloody battles waged in the name of spreading Christianity. Christ's message was love. The Church's message has been bloodshed and money. In essence, blood money.
Abe: Like the Mob.
Buddhist: Buddhism as put forth in the original texts, the Buddhism of the Pali Canon, bears such a resemblance . . . you mentioned the Tao, Buddhism so resembles the wisdom of the Chinese Tao and for that matter the Hindu's Vedanta, which sees the Oneness behind the many and recognizes the same theme uniting all religions. The resemblance between Hinduism, Buddhism and Tao makes them virtually indistinguishable. It becomes impossible to verify which religion first said what and when. We don't try, because it doesn't matter. It is the message, after all, and not who said it first that counts.
Abe: Though points often go to who says it best. You heard it here, ladies and gentleman.
Abe: So let me see if I understand you. Zen is best. Is that what you're saying?
Buddhist: Not best, but most effective in ending conflict and establishing unity. Zen is hardly a religion at all really. Religion is too confining. Like politics, religion is too partisan. Whereas Zen is a way of life. A philosophy. Even, a psychology. A metaphysic. A panacea for all the world's ills, if I may be so bold. And if I may say, Abe, Buddha denied a personal God, even an individual soul. Which practically makes him the founder of modern atheism. You should give Zen a try.
Abe: In other words, Zen is best. Okay fine. I don't even need to be here. Because you guys are doing my work for me.
Here's an idea: How about I just go take a piss and you can settle the matter of who has the longest proverbial penis for yourselves, preferably with fisticuffs.
I'm just feeling sorry for myself. We haven't heard from our parish priest in a while. Thoughts?
Monsignor: I'm stupefied. Why are we arguing? In the Bible's Genesis, a book recognized by both Christians and Jews, and for that matter Muslims, doesn't it say: 'God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good'?
Abe: It's all good, I think is the phrase. Nobody said God wasn't hip.
Buddhist: These words of your Old Testament Lord's are nearly identical to what is found in the Hindu scriptures, which actually predate the Bible by centuries.
Abe: Wait, I thought the Bible existed from the beginning of time.
Buddhist: A profound optimism sweeps through all of India's mystical writings. This is probably also the case with the Koran.
Abe: Probably. The Koran, or Muslim Bible, plagiarized the Old Testament, passed it off as their own and thinks nobody noticed.
Rabbi: Muslims have their creed. Judaism does not. There is no doctrine which must be intellectually accepted if you are to be regarded as a Jew. It is observance. Regarding all of life as sacred. Sitting shiva, for instance. Which we do at death.
Buddhist: Shiva is the name of the third part of the Hindu trinity. The destroyer. Shiva the deity. The Buddhists do not believe in deities. Or for that matter--
Abe: Or for that matter in God. Yes, we covered that. Moving on.
Rabbi: The only doctrine Jews uphold is that all men are members of a single family, the Muslims should thank us for that.
Abe: Should they? What about the rest of the world? Because the extremists are trying to convert the infidels, until we're all one Muslim brotherhood or the world is destroyed, whichever comes first. And I can tell you it won't be the former, because I'll be damned if I let them take me!
Not that ISIS hasn't tried. It is no secret that the Internet provides a virtual space for these extremists to operate with impunity. So far in 2015, more than twice as many Americans have been linked to radical Islamic plots than the year before. And thousands of Europeans have been enticed to join these crazies. Should we be concerned? ISIS is after all a very clever recruiter. They use social media to attract and indoctrinate. They spend hundreds of hours with a single target, tailoring the message, seducing the individual. The message being join us and kill your enemies before they kill you. If you are some loner in an American suburb, say in Brooklyn - I mean no offense, I was brought up in Brooklyn; it's a good place to be "from" - the fellowship of a movement of strong Muslims can be pretty appealing. For the sentimental dreamer, the promise of a return to Islamic greatness is often too much to pass up. The message has gotten through. So far citizens of 90 nations have been drawn to ISIS. A growing number are urged to wage jihad at home. The numbers are still small. Fewer than one hundred at last tally. But, should we in America be worried?
Rabbi: It depends.
Buddhist: Quite possibly.
Abe: And before we really get into ISIS bashing, I wouldn't be a dutiful Ddemocrat if I didn't get a little GOP-dig in where I see the opportunity. Because we must remember that ISIS has its roots in the Bush Administration. We went in there, upended Iraq's establishment, left the country in disarray and without a government to take its place. The extremist movement developed as a retaliation against our own thoughtless bravado. America created ISIS! But since extremism gives not just Islam but religion all over the world a bad name, I'm okay with that. See how I can argue myself in a circle? But we have to draw the line somewhere. Because as a revolutionary political movement, ISIS is gaining affiliates from lunatics all over the world. The objective is a global caliphate ruled by extreme religious views. A redundancy, if you ask me, because all religion is extreme. But, should we be afraid?
Now, if I were on the stage with Abe, perhaps as the guest speaker, I'd inform the audience that in all important aspects, all religions are the same. They all contain some version of the Golden Rule. They all point to human self-centeredness as the source of all troubles, an ego which needs to be purified before the individual can access a universal Divine Ground from which everything springs.
I'd use the lead given by the Zen monk about Buddhism being like atheism, so as to entice Abe, and the audience with him. I'd mention the Zen koan, a paradoxical statement that confounds the intellect, serving as a kind of alarm clock to awaken the sleeping mind locked in the confines of its reasoning. But I cannot remember a single koan! And so I will be a koan. I will shake him out of his stupor of denial and disbelief. It is time for the show's guest star to appear. I wait and wonder who it will be. A Muslim perhaps, in order that a member of the world's second largest and fastest growing religion may defend himself? In light of the ISIS attacks, too risky. But it is ratings season, and I don't put anything by old Abe.
While the audience waits, I get ready. Anyone with access to the Internet or whoever has scrubbed a toilet or seen Fight Club knows that a powerful explosive can be easily made from a concoction of common household cleaning products. My job as janitor has given me access to all I need to prepare the weapon of my choice, which happens to be a pipe bomb. Had I had enough forethought I could have stocked up last Fourth of July and combined various fireworks to produce the explosion necessary to acheive the desired effect. I wait for Abe to make his customary visit to the bathroom. I strap the bomb to myself. After igniting the fuse, I will embrace Honest Abe, and before the bomb detonates I will say, Salaam Alaikum. Peace be upon you.
And at this moment Honest Abe walks into the bathroom. And with the show still airing. This has never happened before. I guess he really is fed up. Or the guest didn't appear. Or he just has to relieve himself really badly.
We stare at one another because I block his passage to the urinal. There is something I must get off my chest. All the world religions have an ideal, I tell him. Though the name each gives to this ideal differs, the ideal itself is basically the same. To confront reality. To master the self. To be free. It is a solitary journey. Shankara, founder of the Hindu school of non-duality, called the path the lonely purity. Historically few individuals have achieved the great feat of self-transcendence, and their names have been immortalized in time. Christ, Buddha, Mohammed were all examples of perfect individuals. Each man represents in his own unique way the answer to the oldest question: What would God be like if he became man? As you know, the Hindus call this individual the jivan-mukti: liberated in life. We in the West have arrived at the crossroads which the thinkers of India reached centuries before Christ. We want being. We want to know, to be aware. We want joy. All of these to an infinite degree. We want satchitananda. In a single word, we want liberation. These men who you say should never have existed have shown that what we already are is bliss. We are free.
I have known pain (I say). I have known frustration. My desires have been thwarted. I have known boredom with life. I wish to see under the aspect of eternity. I know it is the same with you. There is something within us that never sleeps. We dwell with this something, this something that is deeper than either the body or the personality. This something is constant in the midst of incessant change. I visualize myself as seen from a distance, as you see me here, a modest man addressing his boss. I drive a wedge between who I think I am and who I really am. God. To transcend the smallness of my finite self for the impersonal Absolute Self at my core. This is what it means to be Buddha, Christ, Allah, the jivan-mukti. It is because of what I feel, that I know they have not lived in vain.
I approach Abraham Baumbach with open arms. He must see the pipe wedged in my belt, for his eyes read alarm. I embrace him, hold him tight. Salaam Alaikum, I say. Peace be upon you. Father.
I once read a letter in which the author urges his disenchanted friend against suicide. Whenever you are tempted to take your life, the letter goes, do at least one good action before you die. If this consideration restrains you today, the author writes, perhaps it will also restrain you tomorrow, and so on. Well, okay. So be it. There is tremendous power in having at my mercy the life of the man who gave me life, and choosing not to take it. Let this be my good deed for the day. I feel better already. I can kill myself whenever I wish. Only tomorrow I must see about finding another job.