A Rare and Precious Thing: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Working with a Spiritual Teacher by John Kain, 2006, Crown Publishing Group, 2006, 288 pages, $23.
Call me a religious skeptic, but the only people I really believe answer to a higher authority are the good folks at Hebrew National Beef Franks. They make some damn fine wieners. But God or gods, in whichever hand you hold them, are a whole different bag of buns.
Since humans invented gods, we’ve been busily inventing winding (the way sure ain’t straight), torturous (and I don’t mean “tortuous”) and exquisitely devious (dare I say “twisted”?) ways to worship, acquire, attain, entreat, berate, and/or access whatever is in charge and/or beyond control of the universe we so lazily center on ourselves.
Knowing this, tour guides have emerged at the various trailheads we know as religions. We call them gurus, Buddhas, priests, shamans, saints, abbots, many unprintable names and, my personal favorite, spiritual advisors. If the behaviors of people who claim to follow these paths to the peak are reliable evidence, many of the tour guides are failures or impostors and the paths need considerable clearing to be passable.
That brings us to John Kain’s A Rare and Precious Thing, a book that is astonishingly accurately named, for, indeed, it is. Kain introduces eight teachers from different spiritual disciplines, including an adept in Ahmsta Kezbeh (which is some sect of Sufisim); the bearer of the sacred bundle of the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Nation; a Benedictine abbess; a rabbi; a Buddhist monk; a Hindu Vedanta reverend mother; a Zen abbot; and a Zen renegade (if that’s possible).
Kain introduces a bike-riding Zen dude called Adyashanti, whose picture reminds me pleasantly of a 30-something Charlie Brown. His words are even more pleasant: “I don’t want to be in the role of ‘wisdom guy’ all the time… I mean, who wants to sit around talking about the Truth for any longer than is absolutely necessary?” I heard that, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve wished somebody would say it.
Now, somebody has, and Adya (as he is known affectionately to his friends) has other stirring things to say. My favorite: “Most spirituality is a construction project,” he says, “But enlightenment is a demolition project.” I like this guy’s approach to teaching. Step one: stay out of your own way.
Chief Arvol Looking Horse is the 19th-generation keeper of the sacred bundle and, for a guy with so much responsibility, he seems circumspect and thoughtful, unlike so many charged with such duties. The chief finds himself in a difficult position. Pledged to protect his religion, he cannot profit from ceremonies related to it nor can he live off the reservation. As a result, he finds his income limited, and unfortunately, like truly religious people anywhere, he finds that the poverty his office requires is not eased by the people who benefit most.
But he has a sense of humor and that seems to sustain him: on his mission of peace to South Africa, government officials refused to allow him to leave the airport without an armed guard. As part of his sacred office, he cannot be around guns, and he refused. The officials insisted, so Arvol responded, “All right, let them have their guns but take the bullets out.” His confidence and creativity is enough to endear him to anyone.
Sister Joan Chittister is a Benedictine with a radical streak as wide as 30 books and as profound as a stream of ink. I found her thoughts provocative: “I really think that religion at its best is when it moves us beyond religion. We do make a God out of religion, but the function of religion is to move us beyond itself.”
I found her spiritual questions intriguing, and I’d like to e-mail them to every one of the self-selected godly: “If we’re still in a state of ongoing creation, what are we helping to create?” Try that one on, Oral. And if you are interested in the knots religion can set in your shoelaces, you should read this book just to find out why Chittister likes to tell the old Hindu story “about the master who tied up his cat during prayer time.” Good stuff.
For me, this book was as bracing as a dive into a Sierra stream, eye-opening and moment-inducing. I enjoyed the clear vision of the teachers looking at themselves, their pursuits, and their students, which was so ably conveyed by the author, and I recommend these pages to anyone who needs to step up or step back from a spiritual pursuit, for whatever reasons, real, imagined or fabricated. If you want to follow up, the book also includes a reading list of the works of the teachers Kain interviewed.
Good luck with your own spiritual quest, and I’ll see you in the next life. Tonight, I’m grilling some hot gods. I mean, hot dogs. MTW