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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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To be is to do

October 22, 2007 Leave a comment

To do is to be. – Plato
To be is to do. – Aristotle
Scooby dooby do. – Sinatra

(Graffiti rumored to have been discovered
on a bathroom wall in the ruins of Pompeii.)

A few years ago I was talking to a friend who, at the time, was very interested in yoga, Zen, meditation, and various other “Eastern” style teachings. Once a week or so we’d get together and have discussions about teaching styles, philosophies, authenticity, and how far he thought he happened to be along his own spiritual path. One day ha asked me about a particular Taoist author, to which I responded that I couldn’t remember anything about him, nor did I have the books which he mentioned. He seemed stunned. “But that’s one of the most well-known books on Taoism,” he exclaimed, “how could you not have them, let alone not remember them?”

“It’s simple,” I explained to him, “I spent years picking up every book I could find on Taoism. I amassed a decent library, I read all the volumes, I cross-referenced authors, and even made an attempt to study Chinese, with the hope of being able to read them without the quasi-poetic translations into English as is so often seen.

“And one day, amid all of the books and charts that I’d picked up over the years, I was struck with a realization: that for all the books I had, and for all the years I’d researched, all I had been doing was reading about Taoism; I hadn’t been practicing it at all! So, I gave away the books and charts and made a point to stop reading about it and to start being, that is, living what I’d read about.

See, reading about something isn’t quite the same as doing it. Anyone who doubts this should pick up a book on learning to ride a bicycle. You can get any number of the principles inside your head, but some of them need to be internalized in your gut in order for you to receive the full impact.

Some years later, I discovered that I was doing the same thing with my new-found interest of Masonry. I had picked up any number of books, ranging from Mackey to Pike to Robinson, and quite a few others. Even before I became a member, the guys on the interviewing committee said I was the most well-informed candidate they’d ever seen. Every night found me combing the web for more and more information, from Usenet groups to Anti-Masonic websites in search of more Light in Masonry. I applied myself to learning the rituals, to understanding the symbols, to the metaphors and allegories of the Craft. I made it a personal mission to be knowledgeable about Freemasonry.

And then, somewhere in the midst of – appropriately enough – my year in the East, I suddenly realized that I was not practicing Masonry, that is, I wasn’t making a point of internalizing the concepts that I’d spent so much time reading about. So, at some point during this past year, I stopped reading Pike (just as well, it was my third try at getting through Morals & Dogma), I put away all those books on Masonry (except for Freemasonry for Dummies, which is still on loan to someone, and A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry, which spent some time in the Tyled Room) and made a point to cut back on my internet time. I spent more time with my lovely wife and precious daughter. I took some time to work on my own temple – my body – because it’s the only one I’ve got to work with, and I’d let the building maintenance crew slack off for too long.

When I had that conversation with my friend, I pointed out that Taoist meditation is unlike what we normally think of as meditation; it’s simple and practical, and often performed while in the midst of doing some useful, physical labor, such as plowing or cutting wood. One learns to become “centered” as it were, by utilizing normal, everyday activities. In much the same way, however, can we, as Masons, smooth our personal ashlars by the proper application of friendship, charity, and brotherly love. We can debate the symbolism of Masonry for so long, that it causes us to lose sight of the fact that Masonic morality is not meant to be merely some esoteric concept, but a real, practical lifestyle.

Remember; the root of “practical” is “practice,”which has two connotations. One is the habit of doing something, and the other is the repetition of that habit. Can we really be true Masons without doing, that is, practicing our Masonry in our everyday lives?

Welcome to The Tao of Masonry

October 24, 2006 Leave a comment

Welcome to The Tao of Masonry on WordPress.

Yes, I know I’ve got another blog called The Tao of Masonry elsewhere. This is just going to mirror that blog, at least for now. I’ve noticed that there is not much of a Freemason or Masonic community on WordPress, so perhaps this will help to get one started.

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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