Friday, 25 July 2014
This is a Joke: The Middle Way
written by Denis Kurmanov
This will not be an exposition on the varieties of “middle ways” that are in Buddhism: substantialism and nihilism, hedonism and asceticism, monastic life and lay-life or any other “ism” and its polar opposite. I’d rather talk about life and how we ought to live.
The word “ought” is detested in much of Zen literature but we ask it anyway because this question drills within our brains and hearts and wreaks chaos in the streets of the wealthy and of the poor.
How ought we live?
The brilliance behind the contempt that Zen (and other forms of Buddhism) has for the question is precisely that answering this question is impossible. We’re given all the conditions, qualifications, thought, cognition and are susceptible to an extensive amalgam of experiences that range from basic hair being blown in the wind as we drive down the street to the most tragic trenches that war has ever conjured. We are given everything. We are given life. Yet we can’t answer the question of how we ought to live through the mazes.
I have tortured myself reading books that fully acknowledge the difficulty of this question but then attempt to somehow systematize theory, method, facts, histories, etc etc into a neat concerto that “promises” the answer.
Some of these fantastical and fantastic works bring forth full orchestras and choirs who stir up all the right feelings and emotions and whose tonics, keys, mood and so forth are all aligned quite well with what we can call “common experience.” Some are not so good. They give us scripted codes of conduct or even reject logical thought entirely and appease to the chaos of existence. They claim that we’re isolated from each other and are in infinite regression when it comes to understanding this world and how we fit into it; they toy with our histories as if it was all some kind of game.
Life is not a game, but it is a joke. Life can be a good joke or a bad one depending on the circumstances.
The whole purpose of this post is to discover a route to which we can believe that life is a joke that doesn’t have infinite regression but infinite progression—for there is no other way. The Middle Way is the only way because it is our context and there is no going back to anything, it’s too late for that. In fact, I can’t even go back to the same person that I was when I began writing this sentence.
So what the hell am I talking about? In one way I am talking about ethics and in another way I am talking about ontology. Remember my friends, this is the Middle Way, and there will be some of everything within.
How are you, my friend, who is reading this post now, going to lift yourself from the screen and walk your next step; how are we all together going to walk hand in hand in this paradoxical, illogical, and all those other things that confuse us thing we call Life.
Some say that we should focus only on ourselves for if we focus our efforts strictly inward then all societies will flourish because each is, if not capable of taking care of someone else, is capable of taking care of oneself. This way of thinking is evil and I will not spend time debasing this argument and belief.
Some say that we ought to give ourselves up entirely to the community, that solidarity’s price is ourselves but is the only way to achieve peace. If we annihilate our own desires and approach the next step with only the desires of all then there will be peace. This way of thinking is evil and I will not spend time debasing this argument and belief.
The middle way between those two striking polar opposites is where we really begin our discussion because we know that the only way is both ways.
I must take care of myself while I take care of others. Most of us have heard the argument that when we take care of others we take care of ourselves and I certainly show sympathy to this argument but it’s truth is not quantifiable. This is an emotional ideal that perpetuates itself through those we call “good.” Another question to ask regarding this view is what is the consequence of such a life? The conditions vary moment to moment so the consequences of this life can be deeply tragic and also deeply moving. What we want to do now is to find how we can make this sort of way of life moving but also not annihilating ourselves to some ideal that might only be within our heads.
This is why I say that life is a joke. If we take our ideals too seriously they fail because laughter, humor, love cannot exist in some scripted system that “promises the answer.” We laugh because there is joy and disaster. I am certainly not saying that we laugh at disaster but rather in the face of disaster. It is an undermining of precisely the predicament we are in: Life. Jewish humor is well known and is extremely funny—but do Jewish communities have anything to laugh about given their histories and current circumstances? Certainly, they have life. The absurdity of life should bring laughter and not despair (as so many existentialists believed). We are all going to die—we will not experience anything more for the rest of Time, our bodies will decay and we will probably be forgotten. Our sleep will be dreamless, eternal, and final. We can respond to this in a few ways: we can despair regarding this given, we can reject it and live hedonistically, or we can acknowledge the fact and then begin to laugh.
Think about this my friends, it’s rather important. We are “living dyingly” (to steal the brilliant phrase from Christopher Hitchens). We’re doing both. This isn’t a puzzle that we have to solve or a game that we’re playing through to reach the pot of gold at the end, this is ongoing life that we’re trying to make our way through. In each moment we become more alive and in each moment we die a little more.
How ought we to live?
Humor and laughter alone cannot conquer war, hunger, discrimination of every kind, death, or life. I like to believe that when we are born, we are so overtaken by existence that we are fully alive and completely dead in that moment. We need to cry and despair over certain things because only then can we begin to laugh. After we laugh, we begin to cry. Tears of joy and happiness are never very far apart.
So how you live from this moment on in the Middle Way? You can look up into the sky and start bawling your eyes our begin laughing hysterically and some do, but I caution, doing so can often spark strange reactions.
You can have an emotional solidarity with the people around you in pursuit of the next step of the infinite progression of love, compassion, mercy, and justice. You can abandon solidarity to your kin entirely and begin your own work of Art. Painting, writing, drawing, screaming at the top of your lungs at the top of a skyscraper, singing into a microphone etc is a way to express the freedom that the joke of life gives us. Ought we choose between the two? Emotional solidarity versus an artistic freedom that abandons the world around you (in non-dualistic, co-originating ways of course).
We cannot choose because the separation of emotional solidarity and personal freedom is not possible. There are certainly distinctions between the two but one cannot function without the other. To be in solidarity is to respond and to continue step-by-step in your understanding that everyone around you has the same freedom as you do. To be free is to live a particular life and because you are you—you have a name, you have a body, material, thought, history, emotions, conditions is to live in solidarity with all others. You could not be an “I” (which in some ways you’re not [we won’t talk about that here now]) without everything and everyone else. This is certainly nothing new.
How ought we to live?
We must continue in equilibrium of the two via an understanding that This World must strive for humor, love, peace, and justice and that separating those is never ever possible. We must push forward to communion with each other and “ourselves” in shared laughter in comedy clubs (emotional solidarity) and through journal writing in code that nobody but one person can understand (personal freedom).
Can we systematize and give a script for this? No. Many have given advice on how to conduct ourselves in personal situations and in “public” situations. Sometimes the advice overlaps but sometimes it doesn’t, leaving us having to choose when our experience is “public” and when it is “private.” I said we must continue in equilibrium and I say that because the distinction between the “public” and “personal” are like the waves of an ocean. We can tell each wave apart but that wave is not separated from the rest of the ocean. It’s actions influence the rest of the ocean and the rest of the ocean influences the action of that one wave on the beach. Storms take place and waves cram up upon each other and destroy landscapes, but, without a little wind, no waves would be possible in the first place.
This is the middle way. A perspective, a method, a laughter and despair that we have about life that overwhelms us on occasion, and also gives us utter confidence and understanding of the world around us and ourselves. To continue to do this is to live in particularly ethical ways (which I will leave for the ethicists). To deviate from this path is to enter something that will not be fulfilling, will destroy, and abandon you on the beach as dead seaweed is left to rot.
This is all I can call it as well, a path, a path of living dyingly in which each moment is filled with the question: How ought we to live? And the answer In This World.
I did not define freedom because I don’t believe it can be defined precisely, it can only be lived out and experienced.
The idea of emotion is similar to sentiment but rather than stating that it’s an obstacle, I say that it is an equal player in how we discover moment by moment how we ought to live.
I an aware that nation-states and all sorts of other communities are faced with very particular dilemmas and my argument is that an understanding of life accordingly will thus spring forth an ethic that is centered around love, compassion, mercy, and justice. I do not provide these ethics because I am too unfamiliar with cultural systems and sentiments, political schematics, and all the variables that go into play when deciphering a more “precise” way of living.
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