elephant in the meditation hall

For the past year or so I’ve been absorbing the scandals which have been rocking the worlds of Tibetan Buddhism and yoga. A great many people have had to rethink their allegiances to one organization or another. Many feel deeply betrayed. Too many have been harmed.

I’ve been thinking about our relationship to spiritual communities for a long time, but more recently I’ve been pondering the question: what, specifically, do we tend to bring to them of our own? If the teacher is mature, genuine, they will not encourage students to treat them as a spiritual dictator. Their purpose is to uplift the student, after all, not to dwell above them. But at the same time why should we expect — in the spiritual supermarket which extraordinary economic prosperity and the free flow of all the world’s information inevitably has brought us — that spiritual communities would not inhabit the same full spectrum of integrity as everything else? In other words, banally, power corrupts. Safeguards are always needed.

I think two areas of work must be engaged with. The first is to call out genuine abusiveness where it has been shown to exist, and help all who have been afflicted by it. The further educational need here is this: Asian religious traditions retain an aura of exoticism and unfathomable depth in the West, while at the same time very few people actually know anything about them. This means: a very human situation, in which insufficiently critical seekers long for meaningful spiritual community, and certain others come along to exploit them. The latter group seems to fall into two different categories: those who know what they’re doing all along, and those who become corrupted by power. But the point is that it’s an interdependent situation: without naivety/uncritical thinking, the exploitative teacher doesn’t succeed. So I think we need to focus on both sides.

The larger point is a truism which is nonetheless true: we’re all just human beings in the big human soup together. Our mistake lies in thinking that anyone teaching something “spiritual” dwells above or outside of that soup. Of course, some might profess some kind of enlightenment (personally, my own reaction whenever I hear this is the opposite of what might be intended), and straightforwardly build a power structure from the beginning. But more usually abusive communities hold together as a result of a number of other people silencing in good faith some nagging doubt in their minds — again out of the very human fear of losing their world, their friends, the warmth, the certainty.

Serendipitously, I just thought of a late poem of Allen Ginsberg’s called “Elephant in the Meditation Hall.” It begins by referencing all the religious scandals of his time, then continues:

… And New Left carried psychedelic pictures of Mao, Che Guevara &
++++Castro up and down Empire State’s stairways
A scandal of the sixties! …
What US president hasn’t sponsored war, Lumumba’s assassination, an
++++H-bomb, …
Scandal hundreds homeless under Brooklyn Bridge freezing Xmas &
++++New Year’s Eve! Millions homeless in America!
Who’ll gotta pay for 500,000 U.S. boys & girls visiting Arabian Deserts!
Who’ll cough up billions for Iraq War to save a President’s face?
Twelve Billion dollars mickeymouse the year’s drug wars?
El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala we paid death squads for decades
Nobody does anything right! Gods, Popes, Mullahs, Communists,
++++Poets, Financiers!
My own life, scandal! lazy bum! secondhand royal scarlet ties & Yves St.
++++Laurent Salvation Army blazers …

“Mercy Mercy Me” at the White House

As unbearable as it is to think about the man who currently dwells in the White House, fouling the office he holds to a degree no one could have begun to imagine, and every single day, it’s good also to remember another time. Here was one: Usher getting “Mercy Mercy Me” so very, very right that Marvin couldn’t have been more touched. In the presence of the Obamas and their guests: this is who we are.

it really is all on the line

Two Novembers ago we definitively left what now seems like a quaint old world where Democrats and Republicans shaped our governance. I refer to a time where a certain percentage of the populace psychologically tilted towards broadly “progressive” values, and another group psychologically tilted towards broadly “conservative” values, but they could have respectful conversations about their respective affinities. They could touch common ground — quite a lot, in fact, if the listening was really attentive — beneath the different choices they made.

That country has been fraying at the seams for some time. But two years ago a guy unambiguously, not to mention ferociously, declared war on it, and hasn’t let up for one day since. It took me a little while to come up with a single word which comes close to encapsulating the governing “ideology” (if that is the proper term) of our current rulers. The so-called president’s behavior is so uniquely nauseating in so many ways — the delusions and continuous lying, the viciousness, the proud abysmal ignorance, the self-adoration: how to get a handle on it all? But I suggest that we do, it turns out, have a term that gathers together all of these qualities, and it is nihilism.

What we are seeing today emanating from the White House and all its abject apologists in Congress, from the media sector which is driving us over the cliff and all those who swallow that agenda entirely uncritically, is a rejection of values themselves. Which makes it, of course, the precise opposite of conservatism, because it is purely destructive — destructive even for its own sake. It is the pursuit of pure naked power, at virtually any cost. All of the genuine conservatives saw through it from the very start (and they have been amongst the most eloquent and impassioned dissecters of this madness).

There truly does appear to be no decency at all in Trump’s mind, no connection whatsoever to the notion of truth, no sense of constraint to speak of. He is only for himself, and in the crudest, most vulgar way at that. He is precisely the sort of person who should never be given any power over others. And yet he managed to con about 28% of the voting-age population sufficiently to acquire as much power as anyone on the planet has. And they continue to believe the continuous lies he tells on a daily basis — a full 80 in one day a week or so ago. They believed him when he told them they would get a tax cut before election day, despite Congress not even being in session. They believe him when he tells them his wall is being built. They believe him when he tells them that a group of poor, unarmed men, women, and children seeking to apply for asylum in this country entirely legally, coming here on foot, and still 800 miles away, constitutes an “invasion” of disease-ridden Middle Eastern terrorists.

They believe literally everything he tells them. He could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, and his media minions would call it a fake story, and they would believe it.

I’m so exhausted having to inhabit a culture which has become untethered from reality itself. I have not wished to fill this website with daily testaments to just how exhausted I am by it all. How utterly disgusted. And heartbroken. There is something truly poisonous here which needs to be thoroughly defeated. I’m not talking about the triumph of progressivism over conservatism. Again, what we are facing is the antithesis of conservatism. True conservatives and true liberals really do have a lot more in common than many in each grouping often realize, and they can speak to each other, respect each other, and find areas of shared understanding. I’ve had many such conversations online. We need to be under no illusions about the fact that the choice on our plates at this point is between a (certainly flawed) republic, and the triumph of nihilism, with an accelerating cascade of horrors to come if it is not stopped in its tracks, and reversed. It’s that stark.

When (for my own mental health I have to think “when” and not “if”) the delirium breaks and we can return to some kind of basic sanity, then lesser differences can, and should, resurface. At that point Democrats can continue the full range of debates on how they conceive of their party. But now … there is only one party which even recognizes climate change, for heaven’s sake! There is only one party that appears to believe in press freedom! An independent judiciary! An unequivocal right to vote! The full humanity of immigrants! I could go on, but I don’t need to. Vote for the survival of this country — and the greater health of the world. It’s certainly imperfect, but it will get massively, unrecognizably worse if we don’t counter all the poison that has been released into the body politic in recent years.

Simply retaking the House is only a first step, but it would restore at least some measure of divided government. We would still be in a very perilous state, but it’s where we have to start.

I’m not an uncritical fan of Bill Maher, but I do occasionally catch a clip and find that he is capable of saying certain kinds of things well. As he does here. We don’t have the luxury at this point, unfortunately, of insisting upon pure voting choices. The fate of voting itself — among so much else — is on the line. The Republican Party has become a fascism-enabling party, and it seems clear that unless it is repeatedly pummelled in elections it will not edge away from the abyss. So on Tuesday we must pummel them.

Douglass Truth — “This Human Project”

Awhile back I attended a week-long retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche in upstate New York, and the guy I ended up sharing a room with turned out to be this brilliant painter, writer, and creator of theatrical events called Douglass Truth. He has a new show coming up, with performances so far only out west, but with any luck there will be some East Coast dates at some point, because the trailer is so much fun. Check out his artwork here.