Rules are fine. Except when they aren't.
For me, one of the most enjoyable things about giving up on the ridiculousness of religion is no longer having to comply with rigid rules, dogmas, commandments, rituals, and such.
Every religion has its own peculiar absurdities. Of course, what is absurd to an outsider will make sense to an insider. At least if the insider doesn't think about what's being required too much.
Here's an example: the mystical meditation path I followed for about thirty years demanded that followers be vegetarians. This wasn't a problem for me, since I'd stopped eating meat before I learned about Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), an Indian spiritual organization led by a guru who was considered to be God in human form.
At some point in the 1990s, I believe it was, the guru decided to raise the bar on vegetarianism. Now animal rennet, a frequent ingredient in cheese, was a no-no. So RSSB followers were supposed to make sure that cheese they ate didn't contain animal-derived rennet.
Now, even though I was a strong believer in not killing animals for food, it was a stretch for me to accept that eating a minuscule bit of forbidden rennet in a pizza, say, was going to be a big drag on my spiritual evolution.
But since at that time I was a devoted devotee of the guru, I did my best to eliminate cheese with animal rennet from my diet. RSSB followers put a lot of work into compiling lists of "good" and "bad" cheese brands. Eating out at a restaurant, though, often required some decidedly awkward encounters with serving staff.
"Does the cheese on this veggie pizza have animal rennet in it?" us rigidly obedient RSSB'ers would ask a hapless waiter. Not surprisingly he'd say, "I have no idea." "Please check," we'd say.
The poor guy would be forced to disappear into a backroom and try to read the label on a cheese container. Or at least he'd pretend to do this before returning to our table with some sort of answer. Which often was "I couldn't tell for sure."
We felt that we were acting in accord with God's will, since the guru's edict against eating animal rennet supposedly had a divine foundation, given his status as God in Human Form (akin to a living Jesus). I'm not sure what the waiters and waitresses who had to deal with our no animal rennet! demands thought about us.
"Crazy religious fanatics" would have been a reasonable assessment, one which I now agree with.
Today I was browsing the online New York Times opinion page and came across a piece by Stephen Asma with a great title: "Was Bo Diddley a Buddha?"
If you don't know who Bo Diddley is, this probably means you're a lot younger than I am. Here's a video of him from 1965, when I was a junior or senior in high school.
Asma relates how he used to play guitar with Bo Diddley, and what this taught him about improvisation. Asma now is a philosophy professor, so his piece has some depth to it. It's nicely written, so I invite you to read the whole thing. Here's some excerpts:
Before my first gig with Bo, I spent a full week of intense preparation, learning and rehearsing his songs. On the opening night, he arrived to the venue five minutes before showtime. As he walked onstage in front of 500 shouting fans, I tried to tell him all the songs I’d prepared.
He just looked at me blankly through his Coke-bottle glasses, plugged into his amp and launched into a loud, rhythmic riff on his trademark rectangular guitar. He never bothered to tell me what song we were playing, what chord changes were coming, what key we were in, or anything. But, as every blues and jazz musician knows, that’s how it goes.
After the first tune, he realized that I could follow him, and he cryptically shouted, “This monkey is tied, now let’s skin it!”
Bo and the other greats I played with often worked this way, and it was a hair-raising on-the-job education. These musicians never told me what was coming next, partly because they didn’t know themselves. They were masters of the art of improvisation.
...Improvising, in music, is the act of composing and performing simultaneously, and it is difficult to master. But it is also universal, and despite the powerful human impulse to plan and program, integral to nearly every aspect of our lives. No matter who you are — a welder, philosopher, a guitarist or a president — you are in some sense simultaneously making the map of your life and following it. It is not an exaggeration to say life itself is one long improvisation.
...In music, at least, improvisation sometimes gets a bad rap, usually from the precincts of classical or other formal Western styles that rely on notation. It is sometimes looked down upon with a “my kid could do that” kind of dismissive attitude. But the ability to improvise is not just “winging it.” It is built on foundations of study and practice that prepare the improviser for the moment of action.
“Wu-Wei” is a Chinese word that is often translated as “non-action” but more accurately means “natural action,” or action in accordance with nature. The idea, dominant in Taoism and Zen, is that one should try to find the natural way of doing something and then simulate, or align oneself to it, as opposed to forcing it.
For example, the butcher should carve the animal at its joints, not in arbitrary locations. A carpenter should work with the grain of wood, rather than against it. A martial arts master should find the most economic use of his energy, and turn his opponent’s own force to his advantage, and so on.
Finding this natural way is not effortless, but requires great practice. Once it has been mastered, however, it is possible to find a unique presence of mind in these activities. The mundane actions are turned into artistic and even spiritual expressions. Playing a musical instrument, boxing in a competition, and even folding your laundry can be Zen-like improvisations.
Zen Buddhism and Taoism focus more on the method of your life rather than the content of your life. It’s not so much who you are, or even what you do in life. Rather, it’s how you do it. Since, in these practices, the present moment is ultimate reality (albeit usually obscured and hidden in regular consciousness), all one needs to do is shut off the babble of discursive thought and sink into one’s present activity.
According to this view, the meaning of life is not found in rules, formulas, commandments, categorical imperatives and cultural norms.
Obsessing over eating a few specks of animal rennet that are part of the cheese in a vegetarian pizza is rigid religiosity. Laughing about whether the cheese has rennet -- who gives a shit! -- while taking a big bite would have been flexible improvisation.
But I didn't know that at the time.
So, accept my belated apology, all you waiters and waitresses who had to check cheese ingredients because my friends and I were in the grip of playing life as if every note on the guru's music sheet had to be followed exactly.
Which, as Bo Diddley and Stephen Asma knew, goes against the grain of an improvisational understanding of life.