1. THE OTHER ISLAM—that is the title of a fascinating book by Stephen Schwartz, a journalist and executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.
The story Schwartz narrates covers a lot of ground both in time and place, but his primary concern is to relate how the Sufi movement fares today around the globe. Islam as a whole, as a great world religion, is quite a varied phenomenon, and Sufism as well is not a uniform movement. The story tells of saints, of holy people, of good people, and alas it also has its villains, and among the chief “bad guys” is the Wahhabi movement centered in Saudi Arabia among the Sunnis. Powered by the oil wealth of the Saudis, the Wahhabis emerge as the nastiest and most virulent fundamentalist movement in all religions. It is from them that the Taliban and Al-Quaeda have been born and a host of other lesser known violent religionists. Westerners might not know it, but the Wahhabis hate Shia Sufis more than even the Jews or the Christians. That’s how crazy things can get. They forment all kinds of violence in their fanatical religious zeal—even against their fellow Moslems, and the sad fact is that most Westerners do not understand the nature of the problem. The U.S. is, afterall, an ally of Saudi Arabia, so our national media hardly points out that most so-called problems with “fanatical Moslems” comes not from Iran or Iraq but from Saudi Arabia.
What is really interesting is the presentation of the various kinds of Sufi presence in the Balkans in Europe(where fanatic Christian Serbs murdered so many of them), and in far-off and “mysterious” countries like Uzbekistan and Turkestan, where paradoxically some of the most progressive Sufis live. Not to mention the Sufis of Iran, and perhaps the most surprising, the Sufis living in Israel.
2. John Daido Loori, an American Zen teacher: “So, what is the self? What is it that sits here? What is it that thinks and feels? What we usually call the ‘self’ is this bag of skin; we consider everything inside the bag of skin to be ‘me’ and everything outside of it to be the rest of the universe. When we separate ouselves from the rest of the universe, then, obviously, everything we need is out there, outside our self. And so, the consequences of the illusion of self are desire, thirst, craving, need–which in turn form the roots of suffering.”
The essence of advertising and the main engine of what drives our economy is based on this “disease.” So what would happen if the majority of people were liberated, enlightened?
3. The post-election blahs have begun. The Republicans are as crazy as ever and border on extinction. Anyone who thinks the Dems have answers to our problems simply are not listening to their language carefully enough. The future is not very promising as long as our political discourse is limited to what these two parties have to say.
A new movie out—Zero Dark Thirty—ostensibly tells the story of Bin Laden’s killing. Notwithstanding that it is by a talented woman director and makes a big point to show a woman CIA analyst as a chief character responsible for finding this villain, the fact is that this movie is a horrible piece of propaganda. In an almost off-hand way it justifies the use of torture—apparently an important piece of information was obtained that way—and so the move is a propaganda piece for torture. Anything to keep us “safe.”
Again some of the best commentary on our current social situation comes from Noam Chomsky—as in this link:
4. The recent shooting of the children has provoked various kinds of responses. Although the call for greater gun control is quite understandable and certainly a good cause (afterall why does anyone really need assault type of weapons?), the problem is that this provides only a diversion, a diverting from what really ails us. You can see it also in the way the story is told: “Evil has visited us.” The problem is “something out there” which threatens us. Never mind our drones that kill quite indiscriminately in addition to their so-called target; never mind the insane wars in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, women and children included. These are, of course, killings out there somewhere where our supposed threats lie in wait to destroy us. It comes as a shock(mostly to white, well-to-do folk) when the killings emerge from within “our world.” Who could have guessed we are capable of this kind of thing. Surely the person is a deranged anomaly, something we can put a “fence” around and contain as we go on killing other folk. We supposedly can fix “the problem” with a bit of gun control. Unfortunately “the problem” is that we are “killers” and have been so from the beginnings of this country. To borrow a phrase from the ‘60s: killing is as American as apple pie. From the landing of Columbus, when he pillaged, raped, enslaved and murdered thousands of Native Americans, to the Pequot War right in Connecticut around 1638 where a bunch of English colonists and some Indian allies butchered a whole Pequot village of women and children—they actually burned them to death, and the Indian allies of the English abandoned them in disgust because they had never seen such blood-lust. And then, to Wounded Knee, when that brave American cavalry gunned down a whole village of Lakota in the 1890s. And so it goes…. Richard Slotkin has written a masterful trilogy documenting our national obsession with guns, with killing “the other” who poses a “threat.” The first book was titled Regeneration Through Violence. In detailed fashion he analyzes the spirit of “violent solutions” that became the driving force of American colonization and expansion. He goes on in the next two books The Fatal Environment and Gunfighter Nation) to explode the myth of the West. Of course these are social and psychological views of “the problem” and while badly needed and helpful they do not push all the way to the heart of the matter.
5. An obscure but significant story showed up in the National Catholic Reporter a while back. It appears that there is this spirituality center in Wisconsin, a retreat center of sorts, a place of prayer, run by two Catholic sisters but with a clear ecumenical identity. They are open to people of all religious traditions and incorporate various prayers, sayings, and teachings from all these traditions. Now it is reported that the Catholic bishop of that area has written a letter to all Catholic institutions telling them not to participate in the spirituality of this center. In other words Catholics should not make retreats there, and whatever these sisters publish about prayer or spirituality should not be used in any parish, and the sisters are not allowed to give any talks in the diocese. And so on. Interesting. This is almost beyond comment. This kind of bishop and this kind of church can exist and go on for a very long time, but it will be lifeless and dead and simply exist through a kind of external “wall-building”. And there are many people who psychologically need these kind of walls in order to affirm themselves. But to borrow from Robert Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
6. Modernity invades a country and the culture changes and it doesn’t look good for contemplative monasticism. Old story; new setting. Here is the link to the New York Times with the sad details:
7. Let us end with one of my favorites, Han Shan (“Cold Mountain”):
What is the saddest thing in the world
the rafts of sin people build to reach Hell
ignoring the man in the clouds and cliffs
with one thin robe for the shores of his life
in autumn he lets the leaves fall
in spring he lets the trees bloom
he sleeps through the Three Realms free of concern
with moonlight and wind for his home.
Cold Mountain owns a house
with no partitions inside
six doors open left and right
from the hall he sees blue sky
wherever he looks it’s bare
the east wall greets the west
nothing stands between them
no need for anyone’s care
he makes a small fire when cold comes
cooks plants when hunger arrives
he isn’t like the old farmer
enlarging his fields and sheds
creating nothing but hell-bound karma
once begun it never ends
think this over well
think and discover the key.
Idle I called on an eminent monk
amid ten thousand mist-covered mountains
the master himself pointed the way home
the moon held up its lone lantern.
(all translations by Red Pine)
Lesson: do not mistake the finger “pointing the way home” for the home!