Oh what fools: Hotei, and the joy of belief

I read a blog once (from The Dalai Grandma) on ‘the fun-loving Buddha.’ DG muses over the ways people respond when she mentions Buddhism (especially Zen) and ‘fun’ in the same breath. Oxymoronic for most folks, she concludes. Why? Why do people think Buddhism — even more than other religions — is so serious?

To be fair, most religions are seen as ‘serious business.’ Prescriptive, proscriptive. Restrictive…:) But I don’t feel that way about Buddhism. And probably Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Baha’i et al don’t feel that way about their own spiritual paths, either. Most people see their spiritual beliefs, I’d wager, as rewarding, if not ‘fun.’

The difference, at least for me, is that for many Buddhists, Buddhism isn’t really a ‘religion’. There’s no god associated w/ it, unless you create one from history and/or ritual. There’s no real ‘ritual’ or even dogma. Unless, that is, you buy into that package. You can simply follow the Five Precepts — or even the 8 — and be on the path. You may not get there as quickly (there’s a reason the Buddha says you need a supportive community of practice, and practice), but you’ll probably get there eventually. You can be a Buddhist and a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim or a Hindu. That’s not true of most religions’ teachings.

(We’re going to get back to ‘fun,’ I promise.)

A friend of a friend says that all religions are ladders to the same God. For Buddhists, substitute ‘place’ for ‘God.’  That’s always been what I believe. Even as a child, I was pretty rational. Mystic, too, however — I believed that all things made in the image of living things (dolls, teddy bears, stuffed animals) had feelings. You had to treat them kindly, as you had to treat all living things kindly. You couldn’t even kick a tree — it would hurt its feelings. But there was also a kind of child’s logic. I believed in Jesus — after all, wasn’t the Bible like a history book? Wasn’t the family name of Jesus written in the Roman census? — but not, perhaps, God. After all, who could see or really know the author of everything? hotei2

But still, I made bargains w/ God, once I began to believe in a divine force (who was always a lot more like the Indian Great Spirit than a Judaeo-Christian father figure). So hey ~ you do this for me and I’ll do this thing I’m pretty sure you want me to do (if you want specific things for specific people, that is). Okay?

Small girl wishes — please don’t let Grandma & Aunt Bonnie die before I get home. Never realising that once I left, I wouldn’t have a real home for many many years… And I don’t remember what I offered up to that small girl’s deity. Slower temper? More obedience? (Neither were or are my strong suits.) It seems to have been a promise I kept — Grandma and Aunt Bonnie were there to welcome me when I returned.

Despite the seriousness of my wishes, I never felt my beliefs precluded ‘fun.’ After all, what about Hotei? The Laughing Buddha who to this day reminds me of my father? And for Christians, what about St. Francis, who loved all the animals? How can you not play w/ a puppy? Or pull a string for a kitten? And what about whirling, dancing, Dervishes? And funny koans and parables? What about religious riddles and everything the world seems to have ordered up to make us laugh? Like flowers and the fat bees that work them. And birds that perform acrobatics in the snowy outside, one red-bellied woodpecker stretching his neck to reach the suet block above him.

At 10, I would climb into the plumeria tree down the street and sit, hidden in the fragrant white and yellow flowers. The ants would march up and down the twisted branches — like another kind of ladder into heaven — harvesting nectar. Content to perch above the world, a book curled in my lap, I was invisible. Rarely did anyone think to look up to find me. Back then, that 10-year-old girl climbed trees 10, 12, 15 feet up. She twisted like a small monkey princess through the iron bars on the 2nd-floor  window to sit on the roof below it, looking into the villas below. It was a kind of godly vision — impartial, non-judgmental. A quality I seem to have traded for acrophobia.

It was the best of play ~ creative and absorbing and beyond time. It was pure fun.

plumeriaAnd yet it was also a way into believing. Somehow, perched up in the tree, I knew I was part of the ants, the bees, the blue geckos (poisonous, our amah warned us). The bees, apis cerana, would walk with their feathery legs over my arm, while the geckos caught the ants with tongues that flickered like light. I sat with my back against the warm living wood of the tree’s support, cradled and safe. It’s the way I’ve always felt w/ trees: as if they love me back.

Once, years later, my life was falling apart, as lives have a tendency to do periodically. Kind of like when your computer crashes. I felt as if nothing in the world would ever be good again. Each day, as I walked from my small apartment close to Grandma & Aunt Bonnie, I would reach up and touch the branch of a Southern mimosa that hung over the sidewalk, scratching out a life in the dry scrabble earth of an apartment building shoulder. I swear the branches hung down just for me. And long into the late fall — November, I’m sure — there were the soft sweet feathers of its blossoms for me to smile at. It bloomed its heart out for me, knowing how very much I needed it.

Every time I passed beneath her, I told that mimosa thank you. Sometimes, when I needed her love as a talisman, I broke a blossom from her ferny branches, and carried it with me, inhaling the light fragrance. The mimosa didn’t seem to mind. She may have known it made my difficult life a bit more manageable.

I can’t say my life then was ‘fun.’ In fact it was dead awful — my folks were overseas. My boyfriend had left me for a friend. My dog had to be given back to the breeder because he bit people (not me). I was living on $350.00/ monthly, working at the university library. Even way back in the Stone Ages it wasn’t enough. Life was definitely NOT fun.

But the relationship between the mimosa and me….that was wonderful. It wasn’t religious. Or even ‘spiritual’ (the lovely catch-all term that we use when we mean we don’t go to church regularly…) But my love for the mimosa, the plumeria, the ants and bees and lizards and later the biting dog and the unfaithful boyfriend and the three-room apartment that caught fire and infused all my belongings w/ acrid ash and smoke? Those were all wonderful…the fool

If you check out the etymology of ‘fun’, you find some interesting contradictions: it now means a diversion, an amusement. But it used to mean ‘cheat’ or ‘trick’ — from the Middle English fonnen, ‘befool.’ I imagine the shift is because it was fun to be fooled — the old shell game. The magician’s sleight of hand. So of course no one today would see any congruency, any overlap in things spiritual/ religious and things ‘fun.’ And certainly no one wants any whiff of ‘shill game’ about religion :).

And yet… And yet… That isn’t a bad thing. Old religions — the far older religions of Wiccans, pagans, and animists, for instance — hold fools/ tricksters as holy. Coyote is a trickster. So is Br’er Rabbit in the old Uncle Remus stories. And the Fool, in the Tarot Major Arcana, is the journeyman on a trip of discovery.

But here we are again at what I believe. Not perhaps what others believe, but it’s all connected. And it’s only one way (of so many) I know that everything is part of a/the web. The mimosa, an outsider like me. The bees, working to make honey from the plumeria that was my sanctuary. The ants, who fed the small geckos that slid like ribbon through the branches. The sky above, the earth below. And me on the twisted Middle Path between. Usually having a lot of fun.

2 thoughts on “Oh what fools: Hotei, and the joy of belief”

  1. I have a tendency to distrust people that take themselves too seriously, and I heartily agree with your thoughts on the old faiths. As a culture we’ve started to demonize tricks and fun in supposedly “serious” subjects. I blame the puritans and the inquisition. All of the old trickster gods were branded devils (think of Pan, or Loki) which I’m sure didn’t help with people trying to emulate them.

    To anyone that says that religion can’t be fun I ask, have you ever been to a full moon party? They are some of the biggest parties in the world, and you see them all over. Most people wouldn’t say that these are not religious, but revering the moon is one of the oldest religions humans have. If you haven’t danced around a fire with your friends on the full moon full of wine and moonlight trying not to fall in, you’re missing out on a huge amount of fun.

    On the more Christian side of things, I went to a Christening for a friends granddaughter in India. I ended up having drinks all night with an old Indian man that seemed hell-bent on getting me to drink all of the whiskey in India. My friend who had the granddaughter was dancing the entire afternoon with family and friends and had a smile that might not have been the biggest I’ve ever seen, but is in the running.

    The ceremony was beautiful, and the church was probably the nicest building in the entire village. I love the idea that people will come together to build a beautiful place of faith even if they won’t for their houses. I think it speaks to a sense of community that makes my soul happy.


    1. And look what we’ve done to the moon, and the idea of full moon beauty: luna-cy; luna-tic. Mooning over. We’ve found ways, yet again, to somehow diminish (at least verbally) this old old bastion of dance & joy. What is more incredible than a big fat orange moon breaking over the horizon? Well, maybe a big fat moon — yellow or orange — breaking over the ocean…


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