End games


In every collection of poems, essays, or tales, there’s one poem, essay, or tale that I don’t finish. An avid reader, like an ardent lover, must never fall prey to the delusion that s/he has completely comprehended the object of her/his attentions. Some mystery must remain. A map with no blank spots never tempted an explorer.


Suppose you wanted to hire an end-of-life coach. What qualifications would you look for?

Perhaps the question sounds absurd. But show me an authentic teacher who is not, in effect, an end-of-life coach.


Despite being more or less a secular humanist, I often describe myself as religious, too. The semantic janitor in me insists that the fashion for calling oneself “spiritual but not religious” simply muddies the cistern of public discourse. Moreover, using the word spiritual might imply belief in the literal existence of spirits, whereas religious implies nothing more than religiosity, which can include behavior as basic as showing respect for the dead.

True, the universalizing religions — Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and so forth — advocate profounder shifts in the inner lives of their adherents. But most religions that have ever existed have been altogether less ambitious and more circumspect about such questions as the possible end and meaning of life. The universalizing religions propose to teach humility; village and tribal religions actually model it, to some extent. And it’s this kind of existential humility, rather than the adherence to any particular belief, that seems most characteristic of true religiosity.


“My parents were so uptight,” she said, “they wouldn’t even utter the word ‘breast.’ And of course they sent us to Catholic schools, too.

“My brothers and I had no idea what to call those unmentionable things on a woman’s chest, so we made up our own word: puff-outs. We used to go through magazines together, laughing at all the pictures of women with their comical puff-outs!


“Human females are unique in the concentration of fat deposits in breasts and buttocks. Although breasts develop in some primates in first pregnancy, human females are further distinguished by breast development during puberty, usually several years before pregnancy.

“Humans have been interested in breasts and buttocks, in one way or another, for a long time, as illustrated by the so-called Venus figurines of Upper Paleolithic Europe. More recently attempts have been made to explain the evolution of the unusual anatomical features. Here I present an integrated hypothesis, proposing that breasts and buttocks evolved to signal a female’s nutritional state to males, in the context of facilitating female choice of mate. High male parental investment is critical to this point of view. I reach the conclusion that humans stand out against a general background of sexual selection wherein many animals exhibit male ornaments to attract females.”

–John G. H. Cant, “Hypothesis for the Evolution of Human Breasts and Buttocks,” American Naturalist, Vol. 117, No. 2 (Feb., 1981)


The buttocks are at once the humblest and the proudest feature of our anatomies. In Buddhist meditation, the buttocks may appear to adopt a subservient position, only to return to prominence during prostrations. “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” as George Clinton once said.


Christian fundamentalists remind me of straight guys who are into anal intercourse. Both seem to be missing the point, somehow. They are idolaters, for whom the well-formed text or body with all its comic superfluities is merely the means to an end. And of course the end can’t come quickly enough, as far as they are concerned. It was to help these kinds of people that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass.

19 Replies to “End games”

  1. Dave, I’m lost. In what sense is Buddhism universalizing, and in what way do the universalizing religions — by which you mean their various clergies, I guess — seek control over the inner lives of their adherents? I’m not trying to be confrontational or argumentative or smart-ass here, I’m just really completely at sea. Missing something.

  2. Sorry, I guess my attempt to get around the term “world religions” sowed more confusion than it sought to avoid. These religious systems are universalizing because they propose universally applicable truths and praxes, something that local traditions aren’t much interested in doing. They also advance ideologies that suggest that individuals are in need of salvation, and that such salvation is obtainable only if the individual believes certain things, purifies his/her intentions, attains nirvana, etc. I don’t think I’m making any controversial claims here! I’m not saying that any of this is ipso facto bad; I merely want to point out what an abberation the “world religions” are from the general pattern of human religious behavior down through the ages. Most people who describe themselves as anti-religious cite examples from the universalizing traditions exclusively, and in my opinion are guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. I just updated the post and rewrote the line about the inner lives of adherents to try and make what I was saying a little clearer. I do think that “universalizing religions” should be sufficiently clear from context, though.

  4. Divinity, shapes ends, etc. You really must set harder exams, Professor Dave. This is getting too easy.

    As for universalizing religions, may the Trickster God never make it my fate to keep the bathwater with the baby. Eshu forbid it!

  5. I’m also lost, but(t) for a different reason than Dale is. Since when does the ass virtually disappear when Buddhists sit? I’m afraid my nether puff-out is larger (more Bodhi-licious?) than my top ones, so sitting on a cushion only makes me seem more rather than less callipygian. ;-)

  6. Teju –


    Bless you!

    Lorianne – O.K., so “virtually disappear” might’ve been a poor choice of words too. Geez, you guys are a tough audience tonight!

  7. O.K., I changed that, too. Good excuse for a gratuitous Funkadelic reference. I think your use of the term Bodhi-licious might’ve had an influence on that…

  8. I guess I see. I don’t know whether the those claims are controversial in general — I don’t get out much. But they’re controversial to me. I wouldn’t accept any of them as describing the Buddhism practiced at my sangha.

  9. Perhaps, Dale, your point about your particular sangha is exactly Dave’s point. I think (?) Dave’s point is to contrast “world religions” with local or tribal religions: native practices that center around a particular sacred spot and thus can’t be transported, much less exported, to a different locale. (I guess the Roman practice of having household gods would also apply, as would ancestor-worship: the god of my house or family isn’t the god of your house or family.)

    The four noble truths presumably apply to all people, everywhere, not just to inhabitants of the area where the historical Buddha was born (for instance). The fact that Bodhidharma was able to transport the Dharma from India to China points to Buddhism being a “universal” religion, at least according to Dave’s terminology (I think!)

    But the practice of your individual sangha, Dale, might be more localized in focus, something that is relevant & applicable only in a small “tribal” setting rather than being universally applicable to all. So perhaps your sangha, Dale, minds its own mindful business rather than spreading the Dharma to all that wish to hear it…I think it’s this latter “evangelical” approach that Dave is saying alienates lots of people.

    Or maybe I’m misreading everyone…

  10. Dale and Lorianne – Thanks for the comments. I wasn’t trying to be obscure, honest! But Lorianne seems to have figured out what I meant pretty well. Local cults and tribal religions often don’t address what we think of as ultimate concerns at all, or only obliquely, through initiation and death rites. One might even prefer to view the average shaman or diviner as something more akin to a modern psychotherapist. But to me, it’s more useful to turn it around and look at the universalizing religions in an evolutionary context, from the perspective of the original world religion — shamanism — and realize that what religion is about more than anything else is healing, making whole, reintegrating the individual and/or the tribe into the cosmos. (My fascination with Judaism above all other traditions stems from the fact that it retains many tribal aspects, such as a passionate attachment to particular places, while also being intensely bookish and cerebral.)

    I’m quite willing to believe that Dale’s sangha doesn’t teach that the Buddha dharma is the only, or even the best, way. If anything, I think, American Buddhists have been perhaps too shy about promoting their own views. But I have been annoyed by the tendency of some Buddhists I’ve run across in the blogosphere to put down other religions, especially Christianity, evincing the same kind of hauteur that I see in many of my fellow anarchists: “How can any reasonable person possibly disagree with us, since our system is so self-evidently correct?”

  11. The astrophysicist Piet Hut is a favorite thinker of mine, and I like what he has to say on the subject of religion and spirituality:

    “…the very terms `religion’ and `spirituality’ I find deeply problematic and, frankly, I wish I could avoid using them altogether. Instead of using those lightning rods, I would prefer to focus on an authentic attention for what it means to live a life from a deep respect for the full human condition, with head and heart and guts and all our faculties, in a fully integrated way. Most any culture has placed the cultivation of a full and all-round form of personhood at the top of their agenda. In China for example, Confucianists and Taoists alike, notwithstanding all their differences, focused on the cultivation of our full humanity, the former starting from our societal embedding, the latter from the way we are still part of nature. Our contemporary western culture is strangely lacking in this respect…”

    I agree, completely.

  12. That is a good quote — thanks for sharing it. And it’s true that the beliefs and practices of tribal peoples cannot be so easily divided into religius and non-religious, or even (pace Mircea Eliade) sacred and profane. I am not urging a return to pre-modern religiosity, but I do feel that learning about non-Western and non-Eastern ways of thinking and being-in-the-world can be enormously enriching.

  13. I wonder whether tribal traditions, rather than being tolerant or self-consciously local, often simply don’t regard people outside their own community as people at all. They may think all their taboos and rituals are required and effective for all *real* people; what the heathens do in the way of worship or ritual is not criticized, not because it’s just as pleasing to the significant higher powers, but because the significant higher powers don’t give a damn what non-persons do. In that sense I think that the three religions you mention are indeed universalizing, and that in some ways, it’s a good thing. They insist that all people are in fact people, just as capable of pleasing or displeasing God, or attaining enlightenment, as any local, no matter what language they speak or what race they are.

    No one dislikes missionaries more than I do, but I think that our intercultural sensitivities and openness derive — often very directly — from the universalism that drove (and drives) missionary activity. The first step is to concede that Others are real people. After that you can concede that their spiritual practices and pieties may be as meaningful and valid as your own. But the second step can’t really happen without the first.

  14. Dale – There are certainly areas of the world where people have something approaching that view (though it would be more accurate to translate their words for outsiders as “sorcerers” rather than “heathens,” I think), but there are many others where people have enthusiastically traded sacred songs and dances between tribes. In many cases, I think, there has been a potent mixture of both impulses, because everyone knows that the stranger’s medicine is more powerful than one’s own.

    The first step is to concede that Others are real people.

    No doubt. We are indeed fortunate that our own thinking, sometime in the late 20th century, finally approached the broadmindedness of the average 17th-century Iroquios. I’d be happy to suggest a reading list of good, accessible works on tribal and village-based religious traditions, if you’re interested.

  15. O.K., Dale, here are some titles that should keep you occupied for a while, in no particular order. These are all books I enjoyed, in most cases because the writing was top-notch.
    Richard Katz, Boiling Energy: Community Healing Among the Kung
    Peggy Rockman Napaljarri and Lee Cataldi, Warlpiri Dreamings and Histories
    Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn
    E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer Religion
    Will Roscoe, The Zuni Man-Woman
    Victor Turner, Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual
    Matthew Dennis, Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America
    Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca
    Marcel Griaule, Conversations with Ogotemmeli
    Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache
    Richard K. Nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven
    Ruth Murray Underhill, Singing for Power
    Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
    Barbara G. Myerhoff, Peyote Hunt: the Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians
    Barbara Tedlock, The Beautiful and the Dangerous
    Philip M. Peek, ed., African Divination Systems: Ways of Knowing
    John Pemberton III, Insight and Artistry in African Divination
    Tom Lowenstein, Ancient Land, Sacred Whale

  16. The true universalizing of religion is to practice the extremely simple concept of LOVING Self, & others unconditionally…Unfortunately; Easy to say, Hard to perform!
    In truth to express Love IS the universalizing of us all. Transecending ALL religions.
    For the true glory of love allows the Jew to marry the Hindu, the Muslem to marry the Christian, etc. It happens. Sure not much, but it has been cited many times.

    Indeed some would say that even describing the term Love in itself is limiting… Many seers just describe the ‘is-ness of being’.
    However most would conceptually accept that love is a product of our heart expressing itself or What I call the ‘heart-mind’ which is the centre of a trinity linking us to the now, the eternal now(that is-ness of being).

    One of your contributors above quotes Piet Hut referencing; “I would prefer to focus on an authentic attention for what it means to live a life from a deep respect for the full human condition, with head and heart and guts and all our faculties, in a fully integrated way”

    Might we totally concur his concept of describing ‘Head, heart & gut’ to enlarge by saying that to accurately describe a human MUST infer a trinity. To-wit Piet’s
    Head, heart & gut becomes our model of being Human; the Head-mind, heart-mind & Gut-minds.
    To view this concept more graphically please the diagram at our Spiritual
    nutrition page.

    Models help us humans rationalize ‘occult(hidden) concepts’.

    Warmly Glen F Rees BSc, ND

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