Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Mr. E: A Very Personal Encounter

Mr. E: A Very Personal Encounter

Peter Clothier

I have been watching the recent agony and embarrassment of the Catholic Church with some personal interest, for reasons I will soon explain. It is now several years since the issue of priestly sexual abuse surfaced, though it has likely persisted for centuries in the dark corners of the vestries and the shadows of the cloisters. And, sadly, is likely to persist so long as the Church insists on clinging to the absurd requirement that its priests be celibate. Human beings are, after all, human beings. For now however, the Church seems intent on digging itself deeper into the mire, and I think a part of the problem has been its inability to see the issue other than through its medieval lens of sin and redemption. Those in authority seem not to have accounted for the significant social changes that have taken place in the past few decades, or for the fact that the vast majority of us now see the issue in a quite different light: not the actions themselves, but the harm caused by these predators and the sometimes devastating consequences of their actions.

You will understand why I have been thinking about these things when I tell you about Mr. E. Mr. E was a teacher of mathematics at the private boarding school I attended in the south of England from the age of six until I was twelve years old, when I moved on to “public” school. He was a small, ordinary-looking, bespectacled man with thinning grey hair, an earnest mien, a ridge of wrinkles across his brow, and the smile of a benevolent uncle. With a white dog collar and a black cassock, he could easily have passed for a Catholic priest. Outside of school, in his regular life, he happened to have recently inherited a farm not far from the Hertfordshire village of Braughing (say it like “laughing,” with an American accent) where my father was, at the time, the vicar of the parish. Learning of this felicitous proximity, and needing to spend a weekend away with my mother at a diocesan conference, my father gladly accepted Mr. E’s offer to put me up for a night while they were gone.

They drove me there in my father’s sporty grey Armstong-Siddeley automobile and left me off in Mr. E’s charge. I was, as I remember the occasion, at once reticent and excited. It felt odd, certainly, to be staying with one of my teachers, but he welcomed me kindly and we spent the afternoon exploring the farm-yards and the barns, discovering in one of them an ancient, upright motor car with dusty, decaying leather seats and brass lamps for headlights, now dulled with age and neglect. Mr. E let me sit in the driver’s seat and pretend to drive this magnificent relic from the early days of horseless carriage vehicles. There was much else, too, of similar vintage to be discovered and explored, and the afternoon passed quickly.

Then it was dinner in the cold, bare, stone-floor kitchen… and time for bed. I was eleven years old. Nothing, as yet, had alerted my body or mind to the advent of adolescence, but I was aware of a certain discomfort as Mr. E helped me into my pajamas and tucked me up in a bed adjacent to his own. I lay there without sleeping for the longest time, listening to my teacher’s movements in the darkness as he prepared himself for bed. I was aware, too, of his breathing, his awakened state, and I think I may have held my own breath—in fear, or anticipation of I knew not what. Until he spoke… and there was a strange hoarseness to his voice.

“Are you awake?” he asked.

I barely managed a whispered, “Yes.”

“Are you cold?”

It was, in fact, cold in that big old house. I was shivering.

“Would you like to come into my bed?”

I recognized that this was not an invitation. It was an instruction, coming from my teacher. I had been taught to do as I was told. And, really, I knew of no possible evil intent.

I did know, however, that what ensued was not right. Imagine my shock when his head slid down under the covers, breathing heavily, and took that part of me into his mouth. I felt the response, felt a strange and—I knew—forbidden but still intensely pleasurable sensation that I tried simultaneously to resist. It was not right for Mr. E to be dong this. I could not imagine what it was all about, but I was quite sure that my father would not approve.

After some minutes down there, engaged in this peculiar activity, my teacher re-emerged, and I was left with the clear impression that there was something that remained incomplete, something that had been expected of me that I had been unable to fulfill. There followed more movement down there, the sensation of something strange and hot and fleshy pressed up against my body, along with a dangerous, musty smell that was entirely new. Then I heard Mr. E say--coldly, I thought—“You can go back to your bed now.” And I did, appalled by what had happened, yet shamefully excited in a way I could not understand. Back in my own bed, I felt suddenly alone, dismissed, and with the feeling that I had somehow proved a failure…

My father came to pick me up the following day. On the way back home in the car he chided me for having seemed rude and ungrateful when we said goodbye. He, too, was disappointed in me: he expected better manners from his son. I said nothing. What could I have said?

It was a year or so later that my father came up to my room in the vicarage one evening, before I went to sleep. He had received a telephone call from the headmaster of my school, to let him know that Mr. E had been sacked for “playing around” with boys. Had anything happened, my father wanted to know, that night I had spent with Mr. E on his farm? I acknowledged, yes. A grave silence. Did I want to talk about it, my father asked? I said, no. I would not have known how to talk about it. And my father said, alright then, and quietly left the room. Closing the door behind him. I think he was simply too embarrassed, too ashamed of having misplaced his trust and exposed me to this abuse, too devastated to know what to say himself. We never spoke of it again.

So, yes, it was a wound. Yes, I was abused. Yes, it went deep, and yes, there is a reason that the memory has stayed with me so clearly. There is a scar. I could attribute to the experience some of the inhibitions and reactive patterns that remain with me to this day: my reticence, my guardedness, my distrust of authority, my aversion to what I perceive to be any invasion on my privacy… Such explanations belong in the realm of therapy, and I do not discount their significance or value. It is possible, our culture has discovered, to repair such damage by means of bringing it to the surface and examining its effects.

In so far as I understand Catholic dogma, to sin is to require confession and absolution—which is perhaps a kind of personal therapy. Sins can be “washed away” by “the blood of the lamb.” But such putative redemption for the sinner fails to address the harm brought down upon the victims of his actions, for which actual reparations may be needed. This is the piece that is missing in the response of Church authorities. It’s not just about finally holding the wayward priests accountable and protecting the Church they betrayed, or even about preventing such behavior from occurring in the future. (I have my doubts as to whether that would be possible); it’s about the harm that persists, and festers in the lives of those who have been abused.

The strategy of the Catholic Church has done little to resolve the issue. Rather, it has left the whole thing bogged down in guilt, recrimination, anger and defensiveness. The missed opportunity is for the make-up—not the words of regret or apology, or the breast-beating, but the action that lays out the plan for more skillful behavior in the future, for Church policies that unflinchingly and publicly recognize its responsibilities to its flock, particularly its children.

But what, I ask myself in retrospect—and with regard to my own experience—would be the Buddhist view?

Let’s not excuse the inexcusable. I have no wish to be what Thanissaro Bhikkhu jocularly calls a “Buddhist doormat.” I’m not sure that it helps, though, to write Mr. E off as “evil.” His behavior comes in part out of ignorance, in part out of misguided concupiscence, in part out of the man’s inability to control his appetite. All “unskillful,” to say the least. Mr. E must surely by now be long gone from this world, but there are millions like him; and if we are to take the Buddha’s teachings seriously, they are all deserving of compassion. That is not the same as tolerance, nor obviously of approval. It’s simply the recognition that I do myself more harm by clinging to the offense than by acknowledging it, and letting it go.

To extend goodwill, to wish for the true happiness of such creatures as Mr. E is not to excuse them, then, but rather to extend the wish for them to see the harm they cause to themselves and others by their actions. I believe, too, in this aspect of karma: that their actions are inevitably followed by proportionate consequences, and that they bring as much suffering on themselves as they do on those they harm. I see the likes of Mr. E not as monsters, but as desperately unhappy beings, condemned to live out a life of torment unless they find in themselves the capacity to change. Society, of course, must act to protect its young from such people. If that involves locking them up, so be it.

For myself, I am not condemned to allow this past abuse to cause me perpetual suffering. I am blessed with the ability to choose the path of freedom. For those men and women, boys and girls who have been the object of similar abuse, I wish the same. From the work I have done with men like myself, I know they are more numerous than most of us can possibly imagine. The deeply human gift of sexual desire and the equally human joy of sexual experience can all too easily be perverted. For those so dreadfully cursed in their lives, I wish the release of enlightenment, which would be a gift to us all.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Supernatural

(Cross Posted at Reformed Buddhist)

Perhaps I've been naive about just how different some schools of Buddhism are when compared to each other. After reading through the comments of this post Barbara made, I was surprised by not only how literal some read into the sutra's, but also how a few of them put a lot of faith in credit in some kinds of mystical supernatural attainments. After digging around a bit, I did notice there is quite the following for this type of belief in the supernatural powers of a Buddha. As I understand it, the esoteric teachings of the supernatural and metaphysical, or as they are sometimes called the siddhi, pre-date Siddhartha Gautama, and have roots deep within Hindu mysticism. (I realize I am a bit out of my depth in the understanding of these esoteric teachings, so feel free to correct me if I am off base.) They are apparently broken into two parts:

Ordinary Supernatural - which just means attainment, success or accomplishment within life in general.
Supreme Supernatural - which seem to have several layers of different powers one can obtain as a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Some examples would be levitation, mind reading and seeing the past and future, etc.

In the Tantric traditions, these all seem to revolve around the concepts of a kind of tabulation of positive and negative Karma and a literal rebirth. I stumbled across this site that explains this understanding as taught in many of the Tibetan traditoins a bit more in-depth.
Do Buddhists advocate supernatural powers? Actually, this is not a matter of advocating or not advocating. Rather, supernatural powers are that which everyone who is accomplished in the dharma possesses. Such powers are the manifestation of realization achieved through cultivation. They are phenomena that exist in the course of cultivation but are not the goal of cultivation, which is liberation from the cycle of birth and death. They are by-products that arise during one’s practice. These by-products called supernatural phenomena naturally exist in all liberating paths within the Buddha-dharma. Becoming attached to these by-products and regarding them as the goal is heretical supernatural powers. Applying these by-products in a free and unattached way and regarding them as illusory is treating supernatural powers based on the correct Buddha-dharma view.

Sakyamuni Buddha manifested supernatural powers and also was against supernatural powers. Each of those two tacks reflects different underlying karmic conditions. To those with higher vehicle (Mahayana) faculties, the Buddha spoke of supernatural powers as enjoyment resulting from incredible realization and the free and unattached application of samadhi. Examples of this are in the Lotus Sutra, the Samyuktagama Sutra, and other sutras. To those practitioners with low faculties, the Buddha spoke of not being attached to supernatural powers in order to reach the goal of realizing emptiness. An example of this is in the Shurangama Sutra.

Anyone with low faculties who wants to become a Buddha must go through the stage of cultivation corresponding to those with high faculties. In one’s course of cultivation, this is analogous to going from one city to another city. If one does not travel along the pathway between the two cities, one will not reach that other city. When one is walking toward that other city, one will certainly see and encounter all of the phenomena that are on the way. This is like the supernatural phenomena that arise in the course of one’s cultivation when wisdom is being opened. If one does not experience such phenomena that arise during the cultivation process, then one will not reach the other shore of liberation. Because one has not traversed the path of the Buddha-dharma leading to liberation, one cannot encounter phenomena that occur while traversing that path. That is why such a person has not experienced the stage in the process whereby wisdom is opened and supernatural powers are realized. Thus, all Buddhist who become accomplished in the dharma must go through the stage of supernatural powers.

Is it true that the authentic Buddha-dharma does not speak of supernatural powers? If that were the case, then why did the great leader of Buddhism, Sakyamuni Buddha, manifest supernatural powers everywhere? Why did he even manifest great supernatural powers right before entering nirvana? What crazed and demonic person would dare say that Sakyamuni Buddha did not practice the true Buddha-dharma? Just think. If someone with great accomplishment in the dharma did not have any supernatural realization powers, what would be the difference between that person and an ordinary person who had not learned Buddhism?
The Mahayana branch of Buddhism has obviously splintered into multiple and varied paths over the past 1,500 years, given the vast differences between sects such as Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren and the esoteric traditions. While the above does emphasize removing expectations of these powers being the goal of an esoteric practice, this explanation certainly lays the foundation for a student to view their Buddhist practice as a much more abstruse, abstract and mystical pursuit.

While I fully respect those that take these mystical parts very seriously and literally, as a student of Zen, this all seems to be rather extra, very extra. In Zen, we would say their is no abiding self to attain these things, and, to put it mildly, de-emphasizes any special qualities of attainment. In a lecture Dogen gave called Fukanzazengi, he directly addresses this issue of the supernatural;
The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the Dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the koan realized, traps and snares can never reach it. If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains. For you must know that the true Dharma appears of itself, so that from the start dullness and distraction are struck aside.

When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. In surveying the past, we find that transcendence of both mundane and sacred, and dying while either sitting or standing, have all depended entirely on the power of zazen.

In addition, triggering awakening with a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and effecting realization with a whisk, a fist, a staff, or a shout - these cannot be understood by discriminative thinking, much less can they be known through the practice of supernatural power. They must represent conduct beyond seeing and hearing. Are they not a standard prior to knowledge and views?
As I understand it, what Dogen is saying is, it is not important whether or not mystical or supernatural abilities exist, it is very much besides the point of practice. He goes on:
You've got what you need, the treasure of this body and birth, so don't waste your time. Keep to this as the basis of the Way of Awake Awareness. Don't be attracted by just a spark from the flint. Anyway, your body is like dew on the grass, your life a flash of lightning; vain for a moment and then vanished in an instant.

You who are in this excellent lineage of Zen, don't blindly grope only a part of the elephant or fear the true dragon. Put all of yourself into this Way which directly presents your own nature. Be grateful to those who have come before and have done what was to be done. Align yourself with the enlightenment of the Awakened Ones and take your place in this samadhi-lineage. Practice in this way and you'll be what they are. The doors of the treasure house will fall open for you to do with as you will.
So I guess the questions could be asked; Can Zen be seen as just picking and choosing the parts of the Buddhist tradition that fit its dotrine, as it was handed down over the centuries? Or are the esoteric traditions reading the sutra's too literally, and obscuring the point that the Shakyamuni Buddha was making 2,500 years ago?

Friday, 23 July 2010

Prison Monastery

Shackled and chained

Desire is Imaginary

Cravings extinguished

Meditation fills the dawn

Dharma fills the mind

Tested daily on the yard

Shots don’t see me

Whistles don’t hear me

Shanks don’t feel me

Silence amongst the noise

Calm within is mine

Can’t take my peace

Drama rises and falls

Like everything else

Let it pass and it will

-Metteyya Brahmana

On Jikoji Pond

On Jikoji Pond

Swinging in a hammock on a pond covered in duckweed,

hanging from three oak trees, I reflect on the beauty of no reflection

and the stillness and motion captured by the five senses.

Taking it all in, yet breathing it all out – I’m freed.

The duckweed’s cover is frosty like lime ice cream,

surrounding floating green islands of baby lilly pads.

Two-tailed yellow butterflies dance with the dragonflies,

and a wild boar’s midnight mud bath shimmers in the light’s gleam.

In the distant trees, a woodpecker rat-a-tat-tats, a barn owl hoots,

and gray-tailed squirrels belch from their nests in the tree tops.

Steller blue jays play a happy chorus while a red-legged frog croaks

and a baby red-shouldered hawk toots.

The odor of freshly burned oak fills the air

and the piney smell of pinecones dotted along the shore.

Scents of mossy bark and fresh mildew are strong

but perfumed smells from tiny wild flowers are also there.

A cool breeze bristles the skin as the hammock swings

and tickles each toe dangling through the sandals.

Beads of sweat gather and gently roll down the skin

to soothe the many places where the mosquito stings.

Eating fresh picked huckleberries that grow nearby

and chaparral currents hidden in thickets in the tree groves.

A cool drink of freshly squeezed lemonade quenches

and so do the plums, cherries, and homemade apple pie.

Savoring each moment while knowing it won’t last;

enjoying the full engagement of the senses

on a pond full of beauty, joy, and bliss,

while letting go of each once they have passed.

-Metteyya Brahmana

Thursday, 22 July 2010

If you see the nice buddhists on the road, run over them with your tank

It ain't cute
You know the Buddha was keen on the idea of the middle way. I say that, and in that way, because I think he meant it generally, conceptually, as the likely best way to go when confronted with a spectrum of possibilities.

Buddhism in its Western incarnation - let us face it - has been mostly about being nice, and, me, I’m not really into “nice.” I never would go out of my way to see Mary Lou Retton or Alan Alda or Mary Tyler Moore on TV. I consider perky to be a character flaw. And bubbly to be a bad thing. I think that cute isn’t.

So, now, allow me to put the two paragraphs, above, together: On a spectrum of awful-to-nice, I think Buddha recommended the middle. And I think that Buddhism in America is often sticky, cloying, gagging, “Hello Kitty,” sugary, diabetes-causing nice. And that we should disembowel this nice thing we’re on with a chainsaw and garden shovel and spray it with a few left-and-right passes of Uzi machine-gun fire.

The United States headquarters for the Defense of Buddhism is Nice! [DOBIN] is Tricycle magazine. a place of “rainbows and unicorns.”1 Its magazine articles overflow with the usual sugary articles and smiley faces from the usual suspects, the one or two dozen people that are professional Buddhists and write 99% of Trike’s articles and defend each other to the hilt. And to defend against encroachment into their mob of dharma writers-slash-security police, Trike prints stuff like “Dharma Wars” that accuses the wrestling-with-reality Buddhoblogosphere of being primitives and louts, that engage in "full-on dharma smackdown”s that draw scores of “partisan” comments.

Until recently, this Trike mob cohesiveness was in force until a blow up last Saturday at a party poolside at Robert Thurman’s mansion in Connecticut where Sharon Salzberg and Pema Chodron got into a bit of a tiff. “I’m nicer than you are, bitch!” said one. “You won’t seem so when I bust your teeth in, Lard Butt,” said the other. Next thing you know they were in where the petunias were going to be planted, covered in mud, pulling hair, ripping blouses and gouging out eyeballs.

Perhaps we’re at the beginning of the end of Western Buddhism’s Dharma of Sunnybrook Farm period. I hope so. This era of entrapment in the Gulag of Nice has been a long, long dispiriting thing, with the cabal of Tricycle Buddhist Professionals competing ever more for the Nicer-than-sticky-nice-is-possible Championship, with an ultimate prize of being lifted to paranirvana on a purple polka-dotted crane while huge royalty checks from Shambhala Publishers rain down like confetti.

Here a sucky quote, that I’ve spanked out of the internet, written by one of today’s (and Trike's) syruppity Buddhism pros:
Learning how to be kind to ourselves, learning how to respect ourselves, is important. The reason it's important is that, fundamentally, when we look into our own hearts and begin to discover what is confused and what is brilliant, what is bitter and what is sweet, it isn't just ourselves that we're discovering. We're discovering the universe.
My comment: It might appear to be cosmic-consciousness inspiring, or gleefully universalist, but it’s really just brain-soothing reader-scamming drivel. Thinking of yourself IS NOT a sure-shooting direct, guaranteed line to rising above the trees and seeing things as they are.  What crap the idea expressed is! Compare the stickiness above to something real in that realm: Thomas Merton’s Vision in Louisville that was printed in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which ends, beautifully, thus [The ellipsis is Merton's, not mine, btw]:
It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
Truly, I feel I know that Merton is writing from what he knows. Is there loft and poetry in Merton's writing? Yes. But it is there to convey, as best he can, an ineffable experience, not to snooker the reader.

[Btw, I, of course, snarkily looked for an over-ripe to-be-damned quote by Sharon Salzberg that I could rip apart and snarl at in this blogpost, but instead ran into some wonderful stuff! I think that's kind of nice, but not in a nice way, if you know what I mean.]

1 From a comment by ProgBud's own Kyle Lovett, at Trike.

Note: The title of this post is a nose-twist on the old Zen saw "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him." What does that old saying come from? and what does it mean? you might ask. Sam Harris explains:
The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.
This is not to say that Buddhism has nothing to offer the world. One could surely argue that the Buddhist tradition, taken as a whole, represents the richest source of contemplative wisdom that any civilization has produced. In a world that has long been terrorized by fratricidal Sky-God religions, the ascendance of Buddhism would surely be a welcome development. But this will not happen. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Buddhism can successfully compete with the relentless evangelizing of Christianity and Islam. Nor should it try to. 

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Mundane

No one is coming to save us from the grace of the mundane.

There is no help on the way. Eternity is all just more of the same. Novelty is a red herring: the last refuge of that dream that is my ego.

There is no escaping the minute specificity of repetition required to move anything (in anyway) from here to there. There is no escaping the minute specificity of repetition required to keep anything (in anyway) from moving from here to there.

(From here to there is nothing but tolls and every toll must be paid. Squatting invites its own taxes.)

Again and again, I must lift this foot then that one. Again and again I must open this book, then close it, then open that one. Again and again, I must read this student paper and then that student paper and then the other one and assign them grades, checking off each and every box in the rubric. Again and again, I must stop for lunch, pause at the water fountain, stop at the restroom, and use the key to open my office door.

Congratulations, you've just done the dishes. Do it again! Congratulations, you've just run ten miles. Do it again! Congratulations, you've just had a good night's sleep. Do it again!

Tonight my eyes will close and in the morning they will open again - then I'll blink my way through another day.

Again I'll breathe in. Again I'll breathe out.

Breath: the mark of the scrupulous and saturating specificity of the repetition that is being.

Breath: the raw iteration of life itself.

Life is nickels and dimes. Every moment, ten thousand points of iterated resistance, ten thousand paper cuts, ten thousand pressing irritations, ten thousand pleasures and ten thousand pains.

I dream of the frictionless, of floating in zero-G. I dream of that symmetry breaking moment when everything will shift into the adjacent possible, my tax refund having finally (and definitively!) arrived. I dream of that "end" at which all of my (spoiled) actions aim.

Thank God such ends never arrive!

Don't mistake me - novelty can and does come. (In some ways, there is nothing but. And in some ways it is desperately needed.) But that novelty, even while freshly salted, will not bring what I hoped.

The fellow fancies a new job. He gets it. But he still must drive from here to there. He still must drink and pee. He still must fill the car up with gas and sit on the seat and turn the wheel and use his turn signal and check his mirrors and tap-tap-tap his fingers to the tune on the radio and wait mile after mile after mile. He still must breathe - inhale again, exhale again, repeat!

The fellow wants to fall in love. He gets it. The paper cuts don't end. How could love, however fresh, be anything other than the buttoning and unbuttoning of a shirt, the tedium of smelly socks, the asynchronicity of libido, the cough of a child, the bruise of a height differential, the sale at Walmart, the tangential pressure of a flirtation, the pull of another piece of cheesecake? What else would such a thing be made of?

The fellow wants to be rich and famous. He wants someone else to do the work, make the effort, wash the dishes. He gets it. Now there is nothing but the scrupulous and saturating specificity of the repetition that is sitting around and waiting for others to do things for him: he flicks through the channels, he gets tangled in the late morning sheets, he crosses and uncrosses his legs on the couch, his BMW still has to stop at stop signs, he still has to check his mirrors, stop and pee, etc., etc. This particular plane of possibilities, like all other planes of possibility, is just as definitively mundane as any other.

Novelty is a red herring. There is no place to go. You won't find what you want over there. You're still going to have to breathe - again and again and again. Repeat. Again and again and again. Repeat.

At every step in the problem, life demands that we show all of our work. No credit is given just for getting the right answer. There's no skipping ahead.

It's groundhog day every day.

Can you bear it? Can you root out that secret wish for the banality to end? Can you cut the cord to this secret wish, the secret wish that animates your basest fantasies, your most ordinary chores, and your most authentic spiritual longings? How many disguises does this wish - this wish for an end to the paper cuts! - have? Have many faces does it wear? How much life does it suck from the color of your cheeks?

If you think I'm being bitter, you've misunderstood. I'm being compassionate.

There is no help on the way. Eternity is all just more of the same. Novelty is a red herring: the last refuge of that dream that is my ego.

No one is coming to save us from the grace of the mundane.


Nothing could be more merciful.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Resistance & Availability

I want to propose two generic criteria for the real.

In order to count as real, a thing must (1) put up resistance, and (2) be available for relationship.

If a thing doesn't put up resistance (be it material, mental, emotional, temporal, spatial, etc.), if it doesn't require work or produce friction of some kind, then it isn't real. Similarly, if a thing isn't available for relation (to humans, or nonhumans - it doesn't matter), then it isn't real.

In short, resistance and availability are necessary for relations. If a thing doesn't put up resistance, I can't enter into relation with it. It would just be subsumed. If a thing isn't available, I can't enter into a relation with it. And if a thing cannot enter into relations, then it isn't real.

Relational interdependence, as structured by resistant availability, is the mark of the real.

At one level, the problem for human beings is simply that we're real.

That is to say, at one level, the problem for human beings is that our relationship with the world is marked by both the world's resistance to us and our availability to it.

Experiencing the world's resistance, our goals are frustrated. Experiencing how the world entrains us in projects and trajectories not of our own choosing is also frustrating. We're tossed about on an ocean of resistant availability that slips through our fisted fingers like water even while it sweeps us along with tidal force.

Being alternately resisted and entrained by the world, we rebel! We ramp up the contest by reflexively shifting up a gear, by greedily resisting the world's resistance and fearfully resisting our own availability.

We generate a lot of additional smoke and friction by increasing our own resistance and all this additional smoke and friction make it hard to see things clearly. In particular, all the additional smoke and friction makes it hard to see our selves clearly. By ramping up our resistance, by putting up a bigger fight, we seem to make our selves more real - after all, resistance is one of the things necessary for the real! The more I resist my own resistant availability, the more real "I" seem to be.

But this is only half the truth because the real depends just as much on availability as on resistance. Resisting our own resistant availability, we inevitably burn too many bridges and withdraw too abruptly from too many entrainments - in other words, we reduce our own availability and, thus, the overall strength of our connection with the real.

The key is to learn how to sit with this resistance (both our own and the world's) and this availability (both our own and the world's). Just sitting - spine straight, attention sharp, body supple - we are neither too resistant (we work with rather than against the world's resistance) nor too available (we are not broken and swept along by whatever happens to come over us).

Neither too resistant nor too available, we neither conquer the world nor get trampled under by it.

It may be possible to stop resisting our resistant availability. (Or, at least, it may be possible to stop improperly resisting our own resistance to this resistant availability!) But I do not believe it is possible to be done with the resistant availability of the real itself, either in terms of the world's resistance to us nor in terms of our resistance to the world.

Western mythologies have long dreamed that the resistance of the world could be overcome. But the coming of such a frictionless heaven would destroy the real itself.

Similarly, Eastern mythologies have frequently dreamed that our resistance to the world could be entirely overcome. But the coming of such a cessation would also destroy the real itself.

Both are modulations of the same fundamental fantasy. Both fail to receive the ordinary, inescapable resistance of the world and our availability to it as the gift that they are: life itself.

Real life.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Empathic Society

According to recent scientific research, human brains are wired for empathy. When humans, chimpanzees, and some other mammalian life watch another animal’s express emotion, the brains of both creatures exhibit the same neurological activity. This is called “neuron mirroring,” and it indicates that humans evolved to feel empathy for other creatures. It is for this reason that author Jeremy Rifkin states we are actually “softwired” not for aggression, violence, self-interest, utilitarianism, but for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship, and belonging – the empathic drive. He suggests that this drive “when repressed by our parents, education, business, and government” leads to the narcissism, materialism, violence, and aggression that we all know too well. [Entry continued below.]
[If you have ten minutes and forty seconds to spare, treat yourself to Jeremy Rifkin’s lecture and the wonderful animation that accompanies it.]

One of the most intriguing ideas presented in Rifkin’s work is the historical extension of family groups of blood ties to the theological and national level. Naturally, as someone working for the betterment of the world, he presents the possibility of the extension to all humans and to all life with the acknowledgment that Earth is our home. This is a wonderful idea, but how are we going to bring that about?

We must start by remembering that each of us is a biological species in a community of biological species. Humans (or at least civilized humans) have the tendency to think of themselves as above other species and above nature. We are and have always been a part of nature, the Earth, and the cosmos at large. Reject speciesism – “the widespread discrimination that is practiced by man against other species”. Instead, embrace the principle of Deep Ecology that every life-form has inherent value. Then work to shift the consciousness of every person you can to this new awareness by creating art, giving lectures, writing and blogging, writing on bathroom mirrors, biking across the country, pasting signs, spray painting walls, megaphoning in the street, and simply talking to everyone you can. I’m sure there are more –and better– ways to bring about this shift in awareness, but as always, it is up to each of us to do what we do best.
[What do you think are the most effective ways to bring about the empathic society? Please comment below.]

Friday, 9 July 2010

The Root, The All

I'm interested in dukkha (suffering) in its broadest sense. In particular, I'm interested in the Buddha's claim that all phenomena are marked by dukkha.

Glenn Wallis, in Basic Teachings of the Buddha, cites the following passage from the Sabba Sutta in the Samyuttanikaya:
This was spoken by the Buddha at Savatthi. I will teach you the all. Listen to what I say.
What is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and scents, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and thoughts. This is called the all. (27)
Here, the "all" is said to consist of the six senses (or six foci of consciousness) together with their correlative objects. What does this description of the "all" have to do with the universality of dukkha?

In its broadest sense, dukkha is a constitutive feature of every sensation. Every time contact is made between a sense and its sense object, this contact will entail suffering. This is true whether the sensation is pleasant or unpleasant. And it is true whether the receiver is enlightened or not.

All sensory contact entails "suffering" because all such sensory contact unavoidably involves our passive reception of whatever object is given. (This is literally the meaning of the Greek term for suffering, pathos, that belongs to a whole constellation of related words like passive, passionate, patient, pathetic, etc.) The given object will affect us, shape us, and in-form us. We, of course, contribute in complex ways to how the object is received but, however it is received, we must suffer its imposition.

In short, sensation is suffering. Sensation takes place only when a sense is affected, stimulated, irritated, perturbed, or pressed upon. We see only when light perturbs the eye, we hear only when sound perturbs the ear, we think only when thoughts perturb the mind.

It is in light of the constant, relentless pressure of sensation in all its modalities that life is suffering.

Another way to say this: all phenomena (i.e., "all" that arises in experience via sensation) bear the mark of the "three characteristics":
1. annica, impermanence
2. dukkha, suffering
3. anatta, no-self/no-substance
Why do all phenomena bear all three characteristics? One reason is that these three characteristics make sensation (i.e., the "all") possible. Or, in more philosophical language, they are collectively the condition of possibility for sensation.

If sensation didn't constantly fluxuate, then our senses would never register any information about the objects at hand. Information in this sense depends on the constant production of difference and variation.

If sensation did not press and perturb, then no connection would be made.

If our senses weren't open, conditioned, and interdependent systems, then they would not be available for sensation.

Here, dukkha, in its broadest sense, is the condition of possibility for experience itself. It cannot be expunged.

Waking up depends not on expunging this kind of dukkha but on no longer producing all the smoke and friction that result from our baseline resistance to the passing, pressing, and impersonal character of all experience.

Waking up depends on our welcome and willing reception of all three marks of existence as the condition of possibility for life itself.

In this sense, the Buddha was right to say that "birth is suffering."