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Unexpected Jewels

January 14, 2008 1 comment

A few years ago, a friend of mine got into the habit of stopping by my house once a week to talk about his new interest in Eastern esoterica and mysticism. A devoted practitioner of several meditative disciplines, he liked to tell me about his new discoveries, insights, and practices. Since I used to practice yoga, meditation and have had the opportunity to study some of the lesser known aspects, he felt that he could talk to me about what might be termed the spiritual aspects, knowing that I wouldn’t think it was too (forgive the technical term) “woo-woo.”

One day we were chatting about something and he asked me about a particular point, to which I answered that I didn’t remember much about it. He was surprised. “I figured with all the reading you’ve done, you’d have some opinion on this. ” He then confessed that he thought it was odd that I didn’t quote back to him some of the authors that I’d read, or refer to some of the older, classical writings.

I explained that some years earlier I had given away just about all of my books on Taoism and Zen, and hadn’t been inclined to pick up any more. He really didn’t understand this, so I had to explain to him what led to this decision. A long time ago I began picking up books and literature and read almost incessantly on the writings of Lao-Tze, Chang-tzu, and other authors with “z”s and dashes in their names. I picked up old books – translations written in the 1800s and early 1900s – and I picked up new books. I tracked down out-of-print books, the more esoteric, the better. I meditated, I unblocked some of my chakras, and managed to contort parts of my body into odd shapes, the better to allow the kundalini energy to flow.

At some point, I realized that as much as I studied and meditated, I was merely reading about Taoism, and not actually practicing Taoism. In fact, the reading, the meditating – the constant searching for meaning – was getting in my way. I gave away almost everything that I had bought, keeping only my favorite Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao Teh Ching, and a couple of other older volumes. Instead of picking up yet another book, I decided that my time would be better spent trying to live up to all of the ideals that I had been reading about.

If this were a Zen parable, this is the point where I’d write “And at that instant, my friend was enlightened.” Unfortunately, that’s not quite what happened; he continued to argue with me, convinced that I was crazy. I’m sure there’s some ironic lesson in all this somewhere…

Anyhow, I’m writing this because the essential point – that at some time you need to put down the books and work with what you know – is not limited to Eastern philosophy. One of the great things about Masonic blogging is the unexpected jewel that you happen across while looking for something else. Earlier last week, I saw that MMM over on North Eastern Corner also came to a similar understanding. After mentioning the time he had spent collecting all sorts of books about the fraternity, he writes:

“It has been my bad habit of buying every book someone mentions on their blog or website for well over a year now and I have come to a decision that it must stop.

“Not because I haven’t gotten anything from any of these publications, but because recently I had an epiphany about books on Freemasonry and a hammer. [. . .] If you do an Amazon book search for “hammer” you come up with 183,470 books associated with hammer as a subject or somewhere in its title.

“I could read all 183, 470 books associated with the hammer and not even come close to what you learn in just ten minutes using a hammer. “(italics mine)

He gets it.

I wonder if this isn’t part of the reason that some Masons roll their eyes when somebody brings up the term “Masonic Education.” Our craft has inspired hundreds, nay, thousands of excellent books and essays on the nature of the craft, morality, on what it means to be a Mason, on the comparisons between Freemasonry and various other philosophies, on the evolution of thought, on the importance of religion or spirituality, and on just about any other subject that you can imagine being tangentially linked to the craft. The excellent website Pietre-Stones itself has more fantastic writing than the average Mason could read, the Philalathes Society has even more, and anyone with access to Google can read about any aspect of Freemasonry until their mouse finally drops from their nerveless grasp.

Here’s a good question: Is there – or should there be – a minimum requirement for some kind of Masonic Education? How much of this should we, as Masons, be reading? Should all Masons be expected to read Pike’s “Morals & Dogma“? Should we all be handed, along with our aprons, “A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry for Dummies“? Should our brethren have a mandatory subscription to “The Tao of Masonry“?

In the last few years, I’ve read and heard some people complain about the sad state of Masonic Education, and about the dearth of great Masonic thinkers, and about the lack of modern books on Masonry. My brothers are, naturally, entitled to their opinions. My own opinion on that topic is that the internet has made available more excellent Masonic information than any of our ancestors would have dreamed possible. My own education on Masonry – the education that I have found to be the most valuable – came less from books, and more from conversations with knowledgeable brothers in person and in various online forums. Back when I joined, several of the brothers told me that “the real Masonry happens after lodge.” I didn’t understand what they meant for the first few months, but soon it became obvious – we had relatively short business meetings and then went downstairs for fellowship. Over coffee or whiskey (whichever a brother preferred, and nobody was pushed into anything) we would talk about how the Grand Lodge works, why a certain brother gets certain accommodations, talk about various aspects of our ritual and ceremonies, learn why this or that lodge runs the way it does, and dozens of other trivial-seeming topics that didn’t start coming together for me for almost a year.

Yes, I read a lot of books. I learned many aspects about the history of our craft, the evolution our our ritual, and saw how our symbols dovetail with symbols and teachings from long ago. But I also learned why it was important to have Caffeine-Free Diet Pepsi for WB Roger, and to always make a few low-cholesterol dinners for WB Julian, and to have coffee ready for WB Bob before and after the meeting, and . . .

Reading and acting. From which do you suppose I learned more about Masonry?

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Looking for a Lodge

February 28, 2007 2 comments

The Master of the lodge was working in his studio when a young Fellowcraft was brought to him. After offering him refreshment, the Master asked after the young man’s purpose.

“I have been traveling in search of work, and I stopped here when I saw the lodge.”

“How can we be of help, brother?” asked the Master.

“I would like to settle down someplace. Perhaps you can you tell me what the people are like here?”

The Master thought for a moment. “What are the people like where you are from?” he asked.

The Fellowcraft snorted. “They are a most unpleasant bunch. They carp and complain, and are rarely helpful.”

“I see,” said the Master. “Well, I am afraid that you will find the people to be pretty much the same way here.”

The Fellowcraft nodded. “I expected as much. I thank you for your time.” He then picked up his tools and went on his way.

Some time later, the Master was working in his studio when a second Fellowcraft was brought to him. After offering him refreshment, the Master asked after the second young man’s purpose.

“I have been traveling in search of work, and I stopped here when I saw the lodge.”

“How can we be of help, brother?” asked the Master.

“I would like to settle down someplace. Perhaps you can you tell me what the people are like here?”

The Master thought for a moment. “What are the people like where you are from?” he asked.

The Fellowcraft beamed. “Oh, they are usually pleasant and friendly, and happy to help out a brother.”

“I see,” said the Master. “Well, I believe that you will find people to be pretty much the same way here.”

The second Fellowcraft nodded. “I expected as much,” he replied, “and if you would have me, I would like to join your lodge.”

Categories: Freemasonry, koans, zen

The Real Freemasonry

August 6, 2006 3 comments

A Master Mason was sitting in the shade of a large old tree when he was approached by three travelers dressed in jewels and fine robes. He heard them bickering among themselves as they walked along the twisty path in the hot sun. They stopped as they reached the tree under which he sat, and regarded him with curiosity.

“I am the Grand Master of Freemasons,” said the first traveler, who wore a purple apron with many ribbons and gold jewels, “and I have ten thousand masons serving at my will and pleasure. We raise millions of dollars, we march in parades, and our brotherhood spans the globe. Come and join with me, and we will be the greatest fraternity in the world.”

“Feh, you call that Freemasonry?” scoffed the second traveler. “Your group is nothing but a shadow of our Freemasonry. I am the Grand Master of the real Freemasons; we acknowledge the importance of thinkers and philosophers, and we respect the origins of our craft!” And with that the second Grand Master, in his apron decorated with various insignia, proceeded to recite the rituals of the degrees without missing a word.

“Oh please, that is so tiresome!” said the third Grand Master, a woman wearing a robe embroidered with esoteric sigils and symbols, “Only we truly understand the real Freemasonry. We have studied the Wisdom of the Ancients and have divined their hidden meanings.” Waving her ceremonial athame, she magically lit three burning tapers around herself and asked “What does your Freemasonry have to compare to ours?”

The Master Mason shook his head and said “I am sorry, but my own Masonry has nothing so grandiose, nor anything so esoteric, nor anything so mystical.” He rose to his feet and pointing to his 24 inch gauge and his gavel said, “Please excuse me, but my time for rest is almost finished, and I have a long way to go before I have smoothed my ashlar.”

And with that, he picked up his tools and went back to work, ignoring the bickering of the three Grand Masters as they walked away in the hot sun on the twisty path.

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Categories: Freemasonry, koans, tao, taoism, zen
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