(from Embracing Each Moment: A Guide to the Awakened Life, by Anam Thubten)
There are many theories on how to achieve happiness. As you know, people are constantly developing techniques and theories about how to achieve it. The truth is the only way you can achieve unconditional happiness is by knowing how to tune in to this truth, this subtle and pervasive truth, the sacredness of everything. Then your relationship with people becomes alive and filled with reverence and love, and you no longer objectify people. Finally you know how to feel unconditional love. Then you may feel that this world is your home, even though it sometimes has a lot of imperfections. It is still your home. You may feel that this world is heaven. Not heaven as you thought, but heaven with lots of imperfections. Then you may feel this spirit everywhere in the world of nature, in the trees and animals. You may feel a deep reverence and heart connection with everything that exists. You’ll find that you are a modern mystic. You’ll be a mystic whose heart is drunk with love. In the end, the emptiness you felt as a terrifying condition and tried to get rid of by all kinds of creative means turned out to be sacred, a doorway to your aloneness that was always perfect and lacked nothing.
Everybody knows, or should know, that music is one of the most powerful ways of generating compassion, of remembering it. I’ve been singing to myself the song embedded below a lot lately, as I think of this unspeakably precious suffering world, as I think of the Buddhist community I used to be a part of — now imploding (deservedly) in scandal — and as I work with (or try to) my own pain.
Ordinary compassion in Tibetan (vajrayana) Buddhist circles seems to be too easily forgotten in the climbing of ladders, the hope of being seen as an “advanced” practitioner. It’s an endlessly sobering thought to me that virtually all of the most heartless people I have known have been Buddhists. Something so deeply wrong there.
Well, I’m still a Buddhist, at least at the core. But it’s clear that some major work needs to be done in reforming systems which were transplanted more or less wholesale from one culture to another, extremely different one. The extent and depth of the scandals we are witnessing are going to require a lot of wisdom and diligence to properly understand, and heal.
One thing always needed: the experience of ordinary old compassion. Nothing tricky there, no cleverness or “advanced” practices required. Just that automatic human ache in the face of suffering. That almost unbearable longing to remove something so intolerable. This is where we start, and it’s our middle, and it’s our end.
Sade’s “Pearls” is such a beautiful and pure expression of compassion. On a deeper level, it is about the truth that any of us could have been, could be, anyone else. “She lives a life she didn’t choose…”
there is a woman in Somalia
the sun gives her no mercy
the same sky we lay under
burns her to the bone
long as afternoon shadows
it’s gonna take her to get home
each grain carefully wrapped up
pearls for her little girl
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
“Ten Thousand Flowers in Spring,” by Wu-Men (tr. Stephen Mitchell)
The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry
Harper Perennial, 1993
The Chronicle Project site, a tribute to the life and teachings of the extraordinary Tibetan Buddhist lama Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, has a “quote at random” feature, and the other day when I visited this one came up (from “One Stroke” in Dharma Art, page 100):
Genuine inspiration is not particularly dramatic. It’s very ordinary. It comes from settling down in your environment and accepting situations as natural. Out of that you begin to realize that you can dance with them. So inspiration comes from acceptance rather than from having a sudden flash of a good gimmick coming up in your mind….Inspiration has two parts: openness and clear vision, or in Sanskrit, shunyata and prajna. Both are based on the notion of original mind, traditionally known as buddha mind, which is blank, nonterritorial, noncompetitive, and open.
No comment necessary.
“Only a single person was created in the beginning to teach that if any individual causes a single person to perish, Scripture considers it as though an entire world has been destroyed, and if anyone saves a single person, Scripture considers it as though a whole world had been saved.” — Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
“Lashon ha-ra” literally means “bad tongue,” ie gossip. Buddhism views it quite seriously as an infringement of harmful speech, but I especially love this Hasidic story used to illustrate it in Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy. Here’s the first part of the entry:
The biblical commandment forbidding gossip is probably the most widely disobeyed of the 613 laws of the Torah. Leviticus 19:16 teaches: “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people.” This basic principle forbids saying anything negative about another person, even if it is true, unless the person to whom one is speaking or writing has a legitimate need for this information (for example, in submitting a reference for a job applicant).
In the Talmud, the rabbis greatly elaborated on this biblical verse, arguing that destroying another’s name is akin to murder (Arakhin 15b), and like murder, the deed is irrevocable. The impossibility of undoing the damage done by harmful gossip is underscored in a Hasidic tale about a man who went through his community slandering the rabbi. One day, feeling remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness, and indicated that he was willing to undergo any penance to make amends. The rabbi told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man did so, and returned to notify the rabbi that he had fulfilled his request. He was then told, “Now go and gather all the feathers.”
The man protested. “But that’s impossible.”
“Of course it is. And though you may sincerely regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it will be to recover the feathers.”
The books of Alan Watts – to whom several websites have been dedicated (here, here, and here) – were an early inspiration to me. It was nice to rediscover him recently through some of the large number of audio recordings of his talks that can be found at the linked websites and on YouTube.
Earlier in life an Anglican priest, he evolved into a teacher of a highly original mix of Zen, Hindu, and Taoist thought. And unlike so many freestyle teachers out there, he had no interest in becoming a guru and didn’t enrich himself at the expense of those who came to hear him. He was an especially powerful communicator and catalyst of a bigger way of seeing.
In a three-part talk called “The Nature of Consciousness,” of which Part 1 is embedded below, he describes our predicament as caught between two untenable models of reality, which he calls the “ceramic” model and the “fully automatic” model. The “ceramic” model posits that the universe and world and all living beings were and are literally made by a Potter/Artificer who somehow stands utterly apart and outside of His/Her/Its creation. The “fully automatic” model arose out of Science throwing out the “lawmaker” (as superfluous to the process of making and testing predictions), but keeping the “law.”
This has been the dominant paradigm of our culture for several decades, its foundational assumption being materialism:
1) only what we can perceive with our human physical senses and measure with our technologies really exists;
2) beings and things are autonomous, separable from one another and their world;
3) there is no such thing as mind or consciousness;
4) we are machines, directed by chemistry;
5) various combinations of genes produce not only everything physical about us but our unimaginably complex emotional and behavioral lives too;
6) they do this via neurochemistry.
The common use of the concept “scientism” is more recent than the 1960s, when this talk was given, but Watts well and characteristically insightfully describes this View – again, the default View of our culture – at the deeper psychological level. I’ve transcribed portions of the talk.
…because what we really believe is the fully automatic model. And that is our basic, plausible common sense: “You are a fluke, you are a separate event, and you run from the maternity ward to the crematorium and that’s it baby. That’s it.”
…the people who coined the fully automatic theory of the universe were playing a very funny game. What they wanted to say was this: “All you people who believe in religion are old ladies and wishful thinkers. You’ve got a big Daddy up there and you want comfort and things, but life is rough. Life is tough, and success goes to the most hard-headed people.” That was a very convenient theory when the European-American world was colonizing the natives everywhere else. They said: “We’re the end product of evolution, and we’re tough, see? I’m a big strong guy because I face facts, and life is just a bunch of junk, and I’m going to impose my will on it and turn it into something else, you see. And I’m real hard.” See that’s a way of flattering yourself.
And so, it has become academically plausible and fashionable that this is the way the world works. In academic circles, no other theory of the world than the fully automatic model is respectable. Because if you’re an academic person you’ve got to be an intellectually tough person. You’ve got to be prickly.
There are basically two kinds of philosophy. One’s called Prickles, the other’s called Goo. And prickly people are precise, rigorous, logical. They like everything chopped up and clear. Goo people like it vague. For example, in physics, prickly people believe that the ultimate constituents of matter are particles. Goo people believe it’s waves. And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists and goo people are idealists. And they’re always arguing with each other, but what they don’t realize is that neither one can take his position without the other person. Because you wouldn’t know you advocated prickles unless there was somebody else advocating goo. You wouldn’t know what a prickle was unless you knew what goo was. Because life is not either prickles or goo, it’s gooey prickles and prickly goo.
But however, you see, this whole idea that the universe is just nothing at all but unintelligent force playing around and not even enjoying it is a put-down theory of the world. People who had an advantage to make, a game to play by putting it down, and making out that because they put the world down they were a superior kind of people. So that just won’t do. We’ve had it. Because if you seriously go along with this idea of the world you’re what is technically called alienated. You feel hostile to the world. You feel that the world is a trap. It is a mechanism, it’s electronic and neurological mechanisms into which you somehow got caught.
So you see, all I’m trying to say is that the basic common sense about the nature of the world that is influencing most people in the United States today, the fully automatic model, is simply a myth. If you want to say that the idea of God the Father with his white beard on the golden throne is a myth, in the bad sense of the word “myth,” so is this other one. It’s just as phony and has just as little to support it as being the true state of affairs.
Why? Let’s get this clear. If there is any such thing at all as intelligence, and love, and beauty, well, you’ve found it in other people. In other words it exists in us as human beings. And as I said, if it is there, in us, it is symptomatic of the scheme of things.
We are as symptomatic of the scheme of things as the apples are symptomatic of the apple tree or the rose of the rose bush. The Earth is not a big rock infested with living organisms any more than your skeleton is bones infested with cells. The Earth is geological, yes, but this geological entity grows people, and our existence on the Earth is a symptom of the solar system, and its balances, as much as the solar system in turn is a symptom of our galaxy, and our galaxy in its turn is a symptom of the whole company of galaxies. Goodness only knows what that’s in.
But you see, when as a scientist you describe the behavior of a living organism, you try to say what a person does. It’s the only way in which you can describe what a person is: describe what they do. Then you find out that in making this description you cannot confine yourself to what happens inside the skin. In other words you can’t talk about a person walking unless you start describing the floor, because when I walk I don’t just dangle my legs in empty space. I move in relationship to a room. And so in order to describe what I’m doing when I’m walking I have to describe the room. I have to describe the territory. So in describing my talking at the moment, I can’t describe this just as a thing in itself, because I’m talking to you.
And so what I’m doing at the moment is not completely described unless your being here is described also. So if that is necessary, if in other words in order to describe my behavior I have to describe your behavior and the behavior of the environment, it means that we’ve really got one system of behavior. That what I am involves what you are. I don’t know who I am unless I know who you are. And you don’t know who you are unless you know who I am.
There was a wise Rabbi once said “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.” In other words we are not separate. We define each other; we’re all backs and fronts to each other. You know, you can’t for example have two sticks. You lean two sticks against each other and they stand up, because they support each other. Take one away and the other falls. They interdepend. And so in exactly that way we and our environment and all of us and each other are interdependent systems. We know who we are in terms of other people; we all lock together. And this is, again and again, the serious scientific description of how things happen, and any good scientist knows, therefore, that what you call the external world is as much you as your own body. Your skin doesn’t separate you from the world. It’s a bridge through which the external world flows into you, and you flow into it.
Just for example as a whirlpool in water, you could say because you have a skin you have a definite shape, you have a definite form. Right? Here is a flow of water, and suddenly it does a whirlpool, and then it goes on. The whirlpool is a definite form, but no water stays put in it. The whirlpool is something the stream is doing, and exactly the same way, the whole universe is doing each one of us, and I see you today and I recognize you tomorrow, just as I would recognize a whirlpool in a stream. I’d say “Oh yes, I’ve seen that whirlpool before, it’s just near so-and-so’s house on the edge of the river, and it’s always there.” So in the same way when I meet you tomorrow, I recognize you. You’re the same whirlpool you were yesterday. But you’re moving. The whole world is moving through you: all the cosmic rays, all the food you’re eating, the stream of steaks and milk and eggs and everything is just flowing right through you. When you’re wiggling the same way, the world is wiggling, the stream is wiggling you.
But the problem is, you see, we haven’t been taught to feel that way. The myths underlying our culture and underlying our common sense have not taught us to feel identical with the universe, but only parts of it, only in it, only confronting it: aliens. And we are, I think, quite urgently in need of coming to feel that we are the eternal universe, each one of us. Otherwise we’re going to go out of our heads. We’re going to commit suicide, collectively, courtesy of H-bombs. And all right, supposing we do, well that will be that, and there will be life-making experiments on other galaxies. Maybe they’ll find a better game.
[Edit (1/22/15): embedded video removed as it is no longer online, alas. Hopefully it can be reuploaded at some future point. I will check periodically.]
My candidate is interdependence.
The Beatles, in tune with the later 1960s as a whole, sang that all we need is love, but what “love” are we talking about? Clearly not that espoused by, say, the Westboro Baptist Church, or other fundamentalist groups. The trouble is that it’s been a highly amorphous word for a long, long time. We could say we mean something like “selfless, unconditional, universal compassion,” but most of the time in our culture the word is tied to the realm of romantic relationship, which itself tends to manifest in a definitely un-radical, however desirable, direction (cf. D.H. Lawrence calling the cult of the Couple “égoïsme à deux”). In any case, it’s simply not going to wash calling the subject of one of the silliest major holidays of the year – ie Valentine’s Day – the “most radical word!” We must try again.
Others might opt for justice, but I think we’re moving even further away here. For one thing, the concept is still so steeped in a retributive mindset, and the notion of punishment seems precisely one of the most literally reactionary impulses we have. Even were we able to move more fully in the direction of a restorative approach, I believe by that stage the word “justice” itself would probably have dropped off. In fact, this is already occurring within the field, which has been evolving into the more expansive notion of “restorative practices” – see here, here, and here for further information on one of the most enlightened developments going on today. (And take a look at this wonderful interview with the founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, which fully complements these approaches.)
Still others might say freedom is the most radical word. I have a little more sympathy with this choice, because it is said of the fully realized state that it’s one of complete freedom: no sense of compulsion, no anxiety, no personal concerns, no agonizing over decisions, no regret or fear. But again, in our culture the dominant meanings of “freedom” are nowhere near so radical, tending to be confined to the political realm. And here we see the same lack of clarity and degree of contestation too: both “left” and “right” employ the word often and centrally, but in some exceptionally divergent ways.
Shifting gears, I can imagine that some of those who are religiously identified might claim God for the most radical word. Or perhaps a buddhist might nominate the dharma, meaning roughly “the way it all is/the nature of reality itself.” A taoist might prefer the tao, meaning the same thing although emphasizing the notion and practice of “nature’s way” specifically. But it doesn’t take more than a moment of gazing at our world to realize that the word “God” in its various translations has also helped bring about an awful lot of disharmony and violence. The God of Pat Robertson or of his counterparts in the Jewish and Muslim worlds bears almost no resemblance to the God of Rumi or Hafiz, say, or Thomas Merton, or Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
Photo credit: “Reb Zalman greeting the Dalai Lama at the Naropa Institute” (Foto di Vita, 1997) – from The Yesod Foundation’s Reb Zalman Legacy Project
Interdependence has a number of things in its favor as a nominee for “most radical word.” For one, it is both a “wisdom” word (pointing to the nature of reality) and a “practice” word (directly indicating how we might actually see and live our lives). It’s also an inherently non-sectarian word, one which anyone can use. Most especially – as would befit a truly radical word – as we delve more and more deeply into it, it affects our relationship with everything. With:
our bodies and understanding of health
our minds, each other, animals, and the natural world
business and the economy
all the institutions we create
the building of community
the communal/political process
situations of conflict and harm
climate change and other urgent global challenges
Another excerpt from the commencement address recently given to Brandeis University by Leon Wieseltier, long-time literary editor at The New Republic:
Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic [one].
Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behavior that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology. It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules. Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance.
So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man…. You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it…. [You] are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.
So keep your heads. Do not waver. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward, then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because – whether it knows it or not – you are.
I’m not terribly familiar with Leon Wieseltier’s writing – he being the literary editor of the New Republic. But I just came across a commencement address he recently delivered at Brandeis that is about as rousingly superb a defence of the humanities as I’ve ever seen.
An excerpt (and one more in the next post):
For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience….
The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.
In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch-–that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method. And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists, in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control.
I’m very grateful for the new book by the 17th Karmapa, The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out.
I first became aware of him via his “Aspiration for the World“. Not long after, he issued an edict mandating vegetarianism in all centres within the Kagyu lineage – of which he is the head. (Many people assume buddhism to require vegetarianism of its practitioners, but this isn’t so, particularly within Tibetan buddhism.) These statements appeared when he was twenty or so, around 2006.
The Karmapa lineage is one of the oldest reincarnating lineages within Tibetan buddhism, older than the Dalai Lamas by a couple of centuries, and the current Karmapa’s immediate predecessor – the 16th – was one of the most revered buddhist teachers of modern times.
So, I began to take note of him. However, honestly it had been some time since I’d been able to feel hopeful about institutional Tibetan buddhism. Long story, but suffice it to say, for those lacking experience in this area, that power does seem to corrupt everywhere, and the greater the power, the greater the danger of this. So even a certain amount of despair had set in with me regarding the question. (Cf. even the Karmapa controversy itself, there being two rivals – though all of the lamas whose teachings I’m acquainted with, including the Dalai Lama, recognize this one, whose name is Ogyen Trinley Dorje.)
I must say, though, that this book truly heartens me. I feel that with the 17th Karmapa we have our first fully 21st-century lama. Have a look at some of the chapter titles: “Social Action: Caring for All”; “Environmental Protection: Cultivating New Feelings for the Earth”; “Food Justice: Healing the Cycles of Hunger and Harm”; and, most startlingly from a Tibetan teacher, “Gender Identities: It’s All in the Mind.”
Of course, it’s not a political book, reaching far deeper, but the point is that the Karmapa represents the first Tibetan lineage holder I’ve come across whose mind seems fully at home in the ecological View, who sees our predicament and understands that there is no room anymore for any kind of duality between personal practice and practice for our Earth and for the world.
The talks in this book in fact came out of meetings with American college students. It’s funny to remember too: back in 2006 I participated in a week-long program with the great Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and one of the things he said in one of the question-and-answer sessions was that powerful teachers manifest and develop in particular ways in the world in part due to our aspirations, so that if, for example, we yearn hard enough for “an ecology buddha” (his words), someone who will be of special benefit in this way, we might get one. And it was around this time, in fact, that the 17th Karmapa began to come into his own distinctive voice as it were.
I remember hearing somewhere also that Thrangu Rinpoche, his personal tutor, said of him around this time that he’d thoroughly mastered everything he had to teach him. And within Tibetan buddhism this is an extraordinary thing to say of someone of that age, given the immensity and depth of philosophical learning on the one hand, and actual practices on the other.
My feeling, and that of many others, is that the 17th Karmapa may well become a world leader in the decades to come, comparable to the Dalai Lama today. Judging by this book, which I am about halfway through now, he has much to say that we desperately need to hear and work with.
Over a long period of time now, without even particularly realizing it, our culture has been increasingly devaluing the practice and study of the humanities. Whenever the President gets up and talks about education, the areas he mentions which need greater funding and promotion are always specifically “science and technology.” These areas do, it goes without saying, need sufficient support.
But what we’ve forgotten is that it is in fact the humanities which give value in the first place to everything else, very much including science and technology. The humanities contain the purviews, set the parameters, point to what is needed – and what is not. What is sane and nourishing, and what is not.
Recently I came across Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which paints a sad picture of the state of things now and even more so of the direction everything is going. Her book was written as an urgent warning call, and it’s hard to argue with its basic view.
Our dilemma is that a secular culture still needs a source and foundation of values, of wisdom, and science and technology simply can’t provide these. It is the humanities and the arts which do so.
The study of language, philosophy, and religion teaches us how to think clearly and how to assess what is important, and why.
History is among other things a vast set of teachings on the million ways human beings can deceive themselves and cause unspeakable harm, as well as on how progress too arises in the world.
Literature and the arts open the mind and heart; generate greater empathy and understanding of other people and ourselves; teach us how to see more expansively and profoundly; bring all kinds of beauty and new human possibility into the world; and also … make everything else easier to bear.
But as Nussbaum shows, all over the world we are to varying degrees devaluing these the very sources of value itself. In favor of measurable economic growth, pure instrumentality, efficiency.
In so doing we’re losing our way and losing our soul.
(continued from below)
And the results of that unfolding can only be experienced elementally. Earth yields and collapses, water expands and engulfs, heat/fire is generated and consumes, wind overpowers and destroys. Living through an actual earthquake we suddenly remember earth, real earth, not the chemical composition of soil. Maneuvering through turbulent sea or sky we remember, in our bones and blood – not “H2O” but real water, not a mere list of gases with approximate compositional percentages but real air. Our very emotions, kinds of insight, styles of personality, along with all our bodily processes, correlate remarkably beautifully and profoundly with these fundamental qualities of energy – symbolized for example by the five colors of Tibetan prayer flags.
The entirety of taoist practice and Chinese medicine, too, emerges out of elemental sacred vision and experience – again five energies, as it happens, though seen and worked with in somewhat different ways from the Indo-Tibetan. I know very little about other systems than these but enough to say that wisdom traditions in every continent seem to have arisen out of this kind of awareness.
By contrast, what does a purely scientific – that is, fundamentally conceptual and analytic – way of understanding what is “elemental” have to tell us about ourselves? About how we actually experience our lives, day to day, moment to moment? Copper, phosphorus, bromine, praseodymium: these truly are abstractions utterly disconnected from our bodily human reality. They take their places within an elegant and revelatory periodic table, yielding crisp, pristine, purposeful answers to a multitude of material concerns. And at the same time … they have nothing to say to us as we meet, personally, the phenomena of our inner lives in every instant.
I’m as much a product of my times as anyone and I’ve been experiencing Sandy, yes, as a rational phenomenon that can be “explained” via translation into meteorological language. But at the same time … there has been something, no not sentient, but in any event truly, fully alive taking place in “her.”
Today while walking, for instance, I couldn’t help but sense the closer presence of the storm. Vastly weakened from its peak, it is now passing about as close to us here as it will, and somehow this truth registered despite mostly gorgeous mild weather this last day of October. It announced itself in astonishing cloud formations and in the smell of the air, a sense of something mighty, commanding complete respect, having been discharged, of release and decline. Of the return to harmony after so monumental a display of power. Uneasy reprieve (those clouds belonging, after all, to the very same system that pulverized NJ and NYC), a feeling of some giant gliding past, all of us tip-toeing and holding our breaths as it were, hoping to avoid notice, lest maybe this Sandy character might change its mind and decide to go out, after all, with just one more bang…
Ultra-clever apes as we can be, we “developed” Westerners have seen fit to banish all elemental/energetic understanding from our universe. All “ordinary magic,” all sacredness.
We “know” that earth, water, fire, and air are not “real” elements but rather incoherent, primitive categories of “developing,” pre-scientific cultures. We know that there is only one possible way of understanding the elemental: conceptually, via thoroughgoing analysis. In fact, really, we can’t any longer conceive that there could be an alternative mode of seeing.
We know that the universe is really made up of Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium and so on, all the way up to … Flerovium and Livermorium now, it looks like. It never occurs to us that these too are actually human creations, abstractions. Except we also know that at the sub-atomic level all that solidity breaks down in very peculiar ways difficult to conceptualize. In fact at that point it all looks rather like what the buddhists call space – their fifth element, the non-material one of accommodation/complete openness which makes all form and phenomena possible. Which makes all combinations of the other four possible.
And yet, how interesting it is that for example we also give our hurricanes names. Human, mortal names, as befits a would-be democratic age, but names all the same. How is this so very different from the practice of cultures all over the world in naming deities of Ocean, Thunder, Fire, particular territories of the earth, the animating spirits of individual animals or plants? We no longer say Briareos but rather Sandy or Irene, but the impulse is the same, isn’t it?
The objection of course will be: ah but we don’t actually believe there’s a sentient being in there somewhere, animating that storm with purpose. This is true, but also not quite the point.
An energetic or sacred understanding of reality is not at all antagonistic to a scientific one as such. The two modes of perception simply operate in different registers, different realms in a sense. Side by side with all the explanations of why this storm was so unprecedented and powerful, with the hourly projections concerning trajectories, timing, wind speeds, rainfall, surge heights, another form of experience could yet be sensed within the discourse, dimly but unmistakeably. Underpinning the assumption of pure rationality lay, in fact, an attitude of awe, and fundamental incomprehension. Something like the “beginner’s mind” of Zen.
With all of our knowledges, we will never capture a storm in the pure abstraction of concept. We know, too, that we cannot master a storm. We may split atoms in a kind of ultimate display of techno-analysis, but even the terrifyingly murderous weapons that can be produced from such cleverness are still no match for an “entity,” that is to say a process, like Sandy. So we may only sit, and watch, and wait, as something far bigger than what our comprehension can encompass … unfolds. In its own sweet time.
(to be continued)