Mortal, Eat This Scroll!



Late morning, just before lunch, one of Lin Chi’s monks comes up to him half-crazed, out of his mind with ecstasy, babbling about Buddha. Says he’s seen him. Says he was just walking down the road when suddenly: Buddhamind. Enlightenment. Nirvana. The big payoff. The monk can’t stop talking about it. Lin Chi strikes a match, lights his pipe, takes a long drag. Leaves the monk hanging, waiting for his reward. Instead, Lin Chi blows a cloud of smoke, reaches out, and smacks him.

“You meet the Buddha on the road,” Lin Chi says, “kill him.”

Imagine the monk’s face. Better yet, imagine your own: You’ve been to church, you’ve gone to the zendo, you took your bat mitzvah money and ran. You’re an atheist, or you’re an agnostic, or you’re an orthodox believer without a cause. Maybe you’ve tried not to think about it. You’ve opted for sex, drugs, and electronica, you’ve opted for a career; you’re poor and you never had any options. You’ve run away from your family, you’ve started a family, you’ve given up on God, Family, and Nation. And then, when you were minding your own business, getting on with things, you stumbled upon — something. Him, Her, a Higher Power, Buddha, Jesus, the Shekhina, Shiva. The mysterium tremendum, the big white whale. And even though you’re no seeker, you weren’t looking and you didn’t ask to find, you had to admit: God is Great. Allah Akbar! Holy Ghost Power.

To which Lin Chi says: Super. You found it. Now you can kill it. The Buddha you meet is not the true Buddha but an expression of your longing. If this Buddha is not killed, he will only stand in your way.

When Lin Chi contributed the idea of deicide to his godless religion a thousand years ago, he was talking not just about a long-dead teacher who had come to be known as Buddha but about the dominant ideologies of his day: One True Path, One True Story, One True Anything. The preachers and the gurus, the Christian Coalition and the secular masses, the heart that wants what it wants and the mind that always thinks better: These are the Buddhas we meet on the road, the Buddhas we know and love and listen to, the Buddhas we all are. Faced with modern-day atheists or fundamentalists or guys who thump thousand-year-old Zen aphorisms hard as any Bible, Lin Chi would probably say the same thing: Don’t be a chump. A single story never explained anything.

What do you say about yourself, for example, to explain the things you do? Forget the hypothetical — let’s start here, with this book. We had more reasons for making it than there are words between the covers. One of us is a Jew raised by a Pentecostal Hindu Buddhist, one is a son of a Catholic priest and a former nun. The priest kept the vestments in the front hallway and held mass in the dining room; the Hindu Buddhist asked Charismatic Christians to pray over her as she lay dying. Between us we’ve lived in monasteries, warehouses, hermit shacks, luxury condos. We’ve worked as truck drivers, casino hands, carpenters, court-martial reporters. We met when we both worked at a Yiddish library, for which we pulled books out of attics and Dumpsters, dragging artifacts of the old world into the new.

That’s more or less what we had in mind when we began talking about killing the Buddha, and about what a Bible filled with heresy might look like, and about what Bibles and Buddhas, killings and heresies, had to do with each other. We had lost faith in the way faith gets talked about in America, the way it’s seen as either innocuous spirituality or dangerous fanaticism, perfume or mustard gas. After years of writing about religion, for newspapers and magazines and in letters to each other, we’d come to think that it is almost always both: Show us the truth and we’ll show you a lie, prove God is dead and we promise a resurrection.

Right after Lin Chi told the monk to kill Buddha, he said: “And burn all the sutras.” He wasn’t talking about bonfires and he wasn’t the kind of guy to ban anything. He probably would have been thrilled had the monk torched the holy scrolls and then written them all over again, sentence for sentence, every mantra a revelation, the word made strange. All he’d have to do — all we did — was look around.

Like everyone else who knows how to read or count the stars, we’ve spent our whole lives studying scripture. When we were kids it was the story of Apollo’s chariot pulling the sun, and Bilbo Baggins with his ring, and Harriet the Spy writing her own Book of Revelation. Later, there was Marx on money, Darwin on your mother, Virginia Woolf on each minute passing. There were also the Batman comic books we read in the first grade, the Challenger explosion we watched a few years later, the Penthouse magazine we found down by the river in junior high. There was a billboard that read, “Jesus Christ, King of Newark”; a paperback copy of the Koran we stole from our high school library; a letter from Einstein we found pressed between Yiddish pages. Not to mention the texts we share with everyone: strange desert flowers and rain making streams in the gutters, headlines of nuclear threats and the most up-to-date mass murders; the lines that cross our palms, the creaking reports of our bones, everyone’s X rays, interchangeable.

So many sutras. We made this book not to replace the Bible but to light it and its successors on fire; when you’re done with it, you should burn this book, too. Or you could make like the prophet Ezekiel and eat it.

There’s a certain risk in making a book that involves America, a car, and talk of the Buddha. All we can say is that had we owned a Cessna, we’d probably be wincing whenever someone mentioned Saint-Exupéry. The fact is that this book is about America because America has good roads, and we drove on those roads not because they’re sacred veins of the land or paths into the mystic heart of the nation (three words to be wary of: mystic, heart, nation) but because they’re paved. Such was our methodology: Drive south then west then north and back in search of homegrown heresy, belief in the raw. We had no itinerary, but that didn’t matter, because nearly all the people we spoke to told us it was no coincidence we’d showed up in their church, their temple, their compound. America is a nation of experts in predestination. In comparison we’re amateurs. Our criteria for forward motion were these: the leading of the Holy Spirit; nice weather; rumors and accusations. We were looking not so much for a sacred show-and-tell as for a holy-rolling striptease, revelation as an end in itself.

But getting naked isn’t as simple as it sounds, and it’s hard to say when an idea is really in the nude. The very word heresy, after all, hints at the belief it supposedly displaces. Strip off the heresy, and beneath there’s orthodoxy, which turns out to be nothing but another heresy got up in drag. Kind of like one of those Russian dolls, the ones where you twist open a babushka only to find another one inside. The heresy of our title doesn’t so much refute belief, in fact, as confirm its value, if not its current terms. Heresy is as old as it is new, the naughty secret and the fresh coat of paint. It’s the pasties beneath the hair shirt as much as it is the new age robes thrown over it all. Put a tune to it and you get cacophony, not harmony, a song that’s part punk, part country, part gospel, part death metal.

We wanted to hear it all played together, multiple turntables spinning at the same time. We knew where to find the sheet music — we’d take the Bible apart, scatter its pages in the wind, and put it back together again. Creation via apocalypse: translation with a dynamite pen. To light the fuse we needed new stories to scratch the flint of the old. We asked thirteen writers to provide them. We offered each one a solo, a single book of the Bible to be remade, revealed, replaced, inverted, perverted, or born again, however the spirit so led them. We gave them directions and waited for their improvisations; the stories we tell in this book are the questions we put to their answers. This book is not an anthology, it’s a call-and-response. It’s not so much a collage as it is a Frankenstein’s monster — which is to say that despite the fact that it doesn’t so much have seams as it has scars, it’s some kind of scripture.

Why use the Bible as a blueprint for a project that takes its name from the Buddhist tradition? Because in America, the first nation founded on secularism, the Bible is always there, the book waiting for a sweaty-palmed rendezvous in every motel room. There’s no refuge from the Bible’s reach. It’s there in the movies you like and the books you don’t. It’s on our money and in our courts and in our classrooms, everywhere at once, whether you want it or not. Consider its stories — Adam meets Eve, Jonah meets whale, Jesus meets a bad end — you’ve heard them all before. The Bible is in your bones before you crack its binding.

For our part — for this Bible’s Book of Psalms — we traveled for most of a year. We rode the range, went to jail, called down the moon, ate dirt with a crowd, and generally inserted ourselves into the lives of complete strangers, who in turn treated us as confessors, or confidants, or possible notches in their I-saved-this-many-heathens bedposts.

People always figured one of us for a believer, one a skeptic; or imagined us as members of dueling doctrines, the Catholic and the Jew. We played the roles assigned us, mystic and cynic, good cop and bad cop, Laurel and Hardy; Ishmael and Ahab, Lenny and Squiggy, Tweedledee and Tweedledum and I’m the one in charge. Yeah, but who’s the “I,” smart guy? We became “we” because it seemed like the only answer both of us could agree on. No matter how long we drove, neither of us by himself was able to get where he wanted to go, and the more we drove the further away we got from wherever that was. There were times when we drove in the wrong lane, times when we dodged drunk drivers, one time when in our rusty Ford we flew above the desert and beneath the moon; that time, we hollered. Two people, one voice, the “we” that is the author.

But One Voice is no more true than One God. Every day we argued over which stories to chase and which holy souls to believe and which of us was more of a charlatan and whether that was good or bad. In Tennessee we called each other liars, in Alabama we kept each other honest, in New Mexico we came to blows, in Colorado we loaned each other shoes. We’re not sure, but we think that’s how you make a Bible together.

Like the original, this Bible crosses freely between genres, between history and prophecy, confession and myth. Seven of the contributors responded to our call with nonfiction: Genesis, Exodus, and Ruth as personal investigations; Leviticus, Job, and Isaiah as critical riffs; Song of Songs as a love letter. Six responded with fiction: one book of biblical history is revised (Samuel), the rants of three prophets are translated and improved (Ezekiel, Daniel, Jonah), and books of the New Testament (the Gospels and Revelation) are entirely made up. Threaded through the chorus of our makeshift choir are our own counterharmonies, thirteen postcards from our trip across this strange, godless, pious land: not so much walking the Bible as stalking its shadow. Every one of these psalms is 110 percent true, pure American revelation.

Which is not to say that we vouch for the visions of the hermaphrodite angels, apocalypse ranchers, storm doctors, corporeal manifestations of the divine, or the electric chair gospel choir we encountered in our travels. They are all real human beings, and the names we call them in this book are the names they gave us. The miracles they describe, perform, and deny are just as real, the signs and wonders of people who want to know why they’ve been abandoned by God, people who think they’ve found God, people who swear they’re going to wring His neck when they get a hold of Him. What follow, our contributors’ chapters and the stories with which we knit them together, are songs sung by and to people reading tea leaves, people kissing crosses, people breaking windows, people wrapped in flags; people ducking for cover or looking to the skies, as if everyone was his or her own personal Moses and the whole world was one great burning bush, jumping with flames but not yet consumed.

Such was the world when we set out to find the source of the fire.

Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau were co-founders of Killing the Buddha. Together they wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible.