Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One Starting Out Confused
Sometimes I stand in front of my little altar at home and have to shake my head in astonishment. How could a nice Jewish boy from Nebraska grow up to have an altar filled with these "graven" images? There's no golden calf on my altar, but there is a statue of the seated, meditating Buddha from India; a wooden head of the Chinese laughing Buddha; a picture of the Hindu goddess Kali; a wooden statue of the Native trickster coyote; a Thai potency amulet; and various nature fetishes. Also, on my computer is a statue of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant deity who brings good fortune.
Other images and pictures get shuffled onto my altar and desk from time to time, and I admit that sometimes I get confused. For instance, Hinduism, one of the sources of my mythological melting pot, has designated different gods and goddesses to deal with different human dilemmas. So what if I call on a deity who doesn't work on the particular problem I'm having that day? This confusion would not arise with Jehovah, who is an all-purpose God.
Speaking of Jehovah, as I was looking at my altar one day, I realized that I may simply be in recovery from monotheism. I grew up with a very strict God-the-Father, creating a somewhat dysfunctional mythological family, and that may be why I have become spiritually promiscuous.
Looking at my altar, I recognize also that most of these deities are illegal immigrants: none of them has a green card to work in America. Many have been smuggled into this country, and mostly by people like me, citizens of empire who traveled around the colonies, looking for new ways of being and praying.
Still, why did this same Jewish boy begin studying Buddhist meditation, a practice that involves sitting on the floor rather than on a nice soft couch? The Jewish people let their forelocks grow as a sign of piety; the Buddhists shave their heads. Jews wail and beat their breasts in front of their God; Buddhists sit silently in cool detachment. Of course, it is impossible to know for sure why anyone gets called to mystical pursuits. Some sages say that such a calling is the result of past lives and accumulated good karma. Scientists may eventually discover that it has something to do with genes and that people attracted to mysticism have a weirdly twisted double helix shaped like a yin-yang symbol. All I know for certain is that some mixture of circumstances pulled me around to the other side of the planet, back through the centuries, and into the lap of the Buddha.
Like many members of my generation, I have been somewhat obsessed with studying myself and have spent a good deal of time and money trying to discover the roots of a lifelong sense of alienation. Just being alive in this time of rapid change is enough to make anyone feel disconnected, but each of us has our personal stories to help explain the condition.
For a while, when I was a young boy, there were just enough Jews in Norfolk, Nebraska, to keep a little synagogue going above the local bakery. As I remember, you walked around behind the bread ovens and up a flight of wooden stairs to a large room with wood-slat walls. At one end of the room stood the Torah and, facing it, a few benches. I can recall the bakery smells wafting up to this makeshift synagogue on Friday nights and making it very difficult to fast on Yom Kippur. In the early 1950s, two of Norfolk's Jewish families moved away, which left too few Jewish males in town to form a minyan, the minimum number of ten who must be praying before God will listen. The synagogue over the bakery had to be closed down.
In order to prepare me for my bar mitzvah, my parents hired a traveling rabbi, a Jewish equivalent of the circuit preacher. His name was Rabbi Falik, which may partly explain why he did not have his own pulpit and congregation, was relegated to travel by Greyhound bus through the small towns of Iowa and Nebraska, ministering to the lost Jewish tribes of the American Midwest.
Once a week, the bus would stop right in front of my house, and out would come Rabbi Falik, who looked as though he belonged in a European shtetl, wearing long forelocks and a big black hat andovercoat, even in the summertime. I didn't want my friends to see this medieval-looking man coming to our house, so whenever he was due I would lure them away from the neighborhood and then make up some excuse to run back home just in time to meet the bus and rush Rabbi Falik inside.
My bar mitzvah lessons exemplified my early spiritual confusion: I was memorizing long passages of transliterated Hebrew script that made no sense to me in preparation for joining a Jewish community that in my hometown did not even exist ...
Hang on for a Wild Journey through the Political and Spiritual Adventures of the Baby-Boom Generation
Join Wes "Scoop" Nisker as he takes us on a hilarious, wild ride through the heyday of the Beats and the Hippies and the birth of the modern environmental movement, and the surge of Buddhism in the West.
About the Author
Wes "Scoop" Nisker, author of the enduring classic Crazy Wisdom and the widely acclaimed Buddha's Nature, is the editor of the Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind. An enduring San Francisco celebrity, having been on Bay Area radio for more than twenty-five years, Nisker is a teacher of Buddhist meditation and philosophy, and is located prominently in the group of our country's most influential voices for spiritual transformation.