faure, falling down, & the living hagiography

I can’t remember which Bernard Faure book it was. Maybe The Red Thread. At any rate, in one of his books, Faure makes the point that the lives of saints (“hagiographies”) in the East Asian tradition are eerily and exceptionally lacking in human characteristics, the trials and temptations, the despair, the deep self-doubt, that are often prominent features of Western Christian hagiographies. I found myself fascinated with his suggestion, that hagiography in East Asian Buddhism frequently presented a sanitized—indeed, inhuman—portrait of the saint. Which may explain why, for the most part, I can’t stand reading any of the “classic” hagiographies of East Asia. Record of the Transmission of the Lamp, selections from The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, and so on: I don’t find myself, messy and perfectly human, obviously flawed, in those patriarchal portraits.

It began as a private joke. I wrote it on my shoes, living hagiography (we were always required to put a unique mark on the toes of our shoes at school, to distinguish your pair from amongst the hundreds). A reminder that “dead” hagiographies, the stories written by pious students eager to make a point or hoist a banner of tradition or purity, probably had less to do with the living person as he or she was before someone’s ideas encased them in wax and rendered them fit for hagiography. If the lives as lived of the saints had been written, maybe those lives would look more like mine. Not that I’m a candidate for sainthood, but the idea of a living hagiography to counterbalance the dead ones that litter the so-called tradition absorbed me. I was raised Protestant but I’ve always been drawn to the Catholic doctrine of God-made-flesh in Jesus Christ: I need a god who cries out and weeps, a saint who doubts and despairs. I need a living hagiography, so that I can learn how to live and accept myself as I am, faults and all. Not to wallow or despair, but, like someone looking in a fridge with nothing but a few wilted carrots and onions and some beans, to stop longing for a five-course French meal and get to cooking with what I have at hand.

I’ve named my private journals for as long as I can remember. For years, I wrote to someone, in the form of a monologue or a soliloquy, “Dear —.” Later, blogging came naturally because I had always written for an audience. It was simply a matter of which audience. I no longer start my journal entries with “Dear —” but I do continue to name them. For roughly nine months of my 31st year, I wrote a journal entitled “Analog 31.” “Analog” reflected my feeling that it would be a year in which I learned to slow down, switch modes of engaging and feeling, returning to the circle, like an analog watch, away from discrete and easy-to-count digital units. A year that moved in ambiguity and question, that gave the gray areas space instead of trying to define them as white or black.

A shift occurred at some point in the late winter, and I realized I needed a new journal title to reflect a new question emerging in my spiritual life. Graduation just around the corner, preparing for full precepts: what kind of a monastic was I going to be? Not that I had any answers; but I realized I would need to begin discerning. It all seemed too heavy, though, so as a joke I named my private journal “Living Hagiography,” a reminder to not take myself too seriously and not get too caught up in the idea of either monasticism or practice, but to remain responsive, sensitive, attentive to the natural shape of my life. It’s easy, especially in the monastic world, to get caught on ideas of what you and others “should” be. That’s dead. Life is full of what we cannot anticipate or easily categorize. Chris Clarke’s sonnet Systems Analysis became an anthem:

There is no natural taxonomy
that is internally consistent, no
consistent organizing scheme that fits
the world that is. All your clever rules,
all of the frameworks on which you hang
your understanding of this fractal world
fall short, and do so unpredictably. …

When I started this blog earlier this year, I knew I wanted to stay tongue-in-cheek about my life. It’s too easy to take myself seriously, to over-think things; and it’s easy for others to do so, as well. I resist even the label “monastic” at times because it conjures up ideas that have little to do with the material reality of my life (in particular) or the messy internal landscape that I deal with. If by “monastic” you mean “human being dealing with things within a specific framework;” why yes, yes, that’s me. And nothing more. So I carried the private joke into the public sphere, and started using the “living hagiography” category for anything that had anything to do with mundane life. Trips. Particular days. I don’t actually write a whole lot about my every-day life, because I don’t really want to make that the subject of this blog.

Another example of a living hagiography would be Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s post, “The Rabbi And…” Say “rabbi” and you probably imagine one kind of person; say “mother of a toddler” and you’ll imagine another; where you see overlap is the degree to which you’re free from stereotypes of rabbis who spend all day over Torah and moms whose entire lives revolve around their children. (The latter is a more common stereotype from my childhood and also Korea, even today.) Join the two real pictures, not the stereotypes of either alone, and you have the living hagiography of a Rabbi And.

I always meant to explain the living hagiography joke in a post, but never got around to it. Today, I got caught: a brother of mine, quoting the definition of “hagiography,” said, but isn’t it a bit haughty? Well, I never meant to imply I was a saint; maybe I’ve taken too many liberties with the idea of sainthood, and perhaps I’ve been a bit too liberal with my sense of humor, but I find the idea of a living hagiography to be immensely humorous. The point is that no, my daily life, and me in the midst of it, doesn’t qualify as hagiographical because it’s too mundane, too ordinary, too unsaintly.

I don’t know how many people have read the tag “living hagiography” as a serious case of hubris, and how many may have suspected that I’m just pulling my own leg. But here it is, my full confession: nope, I don’t consider myself a candidate for sainthood or the contents of my life fit for a compilation. I do find myself laughing more and more at my own ideas, shedding preconceived notions and loosening up, opening up, to just trying, day in, day out, to be myself and to actualize the Dharma. I fall down way more than I stand up; but Zen Master Seung Sahn, who is one of my root teachers, always said, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Well, here I am, falling down again. And laughing, while I get back up. That’s life. That’s living.