Some Social Considerations

A.  Does anyone still remember Marshall McLuhan?  A very important thinker to this day even though he died over 40 years ago.   He was a Canadian professor of literature who analyzed what we call “media” and the ways communication takes place.  He made a big splash in the ‘50s and ‘60s with some ground-breaking and revolutionary ideas.  The two main books he wrote were Understanding Media and The Medium is the Massage, the latter being a play on the word “message,” which was the central thesis of his point: the medium of the communication, the way we communicate,  is more important than the content of our communication.  This was and still is a bit shocking to take in.  A lot of critics popped up to denounce and misinterpret what he was saying.  

Through several decades of writings he abundantly demonstrated how his central thesis worked:  human beings make and shape the tools they use, and then the tools shape them.  It is the latter point which is the least understood and appreciated and has enormous implications.  I won’t go into the details of his analysis, but just consider one special moment and one special example in history:  the invention of the radio and the loudspeaker, the electrical amplification of the human voice at the beginning of the 20th century.  This allowed not just the enhancement of the voice, but more like an amplification and projection of the person.  McLuhan says that Hitler was only possible because of this new technology.  His mesmerizing madness was projected out to thousands upon thousands all at once, not just a small crowd that one voice could reach.  And somehow it amplified its forcefulness.  

McLuhan died before the era of the personal computer and the internet, but his analysis holds here even more.  Would the “Trump phenomenon” be possible if not for the environment created by social media, where anyone and every one can live within their own world of “facts”?  Only that is “true” and accepted which feeds my own prejudices and is coherent with my own fears, anxieties, hatreds, etc.   We have created social media, and now they are forming us into something very scary where rational discourse, objective facts, science, and reasonable persuasion are becoming endangered.

And just think of that key icon of contemporary social life: the smart cell phone.  You see people sitting around a table or walking down the street and each one is “into” his/her own reality.  I have seen young people out on a trail in the wilds either constantly checking their phones for messages or listening to music.  Obviously something is changing in our self-awareness, in our sense of relatedness and our connections to what is real.  

So McLuhan’s point is that a  new“tool” is never simply some additional part in our tool chest or an extraneous entity in our collection of tools, but it becomes an integral part of our environment and this then “ massages” our very consciousness.  McLuhan says that  the one thing a fish has absolutely no knowledge of is water….it is it’s environment and you never can have a true grasp of your environment because you can never step outside it.  Every new “tool” really becomes part of our total environment and we can no longer grasp it’s effects on us.  Decades before McLuhan, Heidegger pointed out that technology now is the “frame” of the window we have on reality, whether it be religious, social, natural, or even personal.  He called it the “enframing” of technology.  We are unaware that what we “see through the window” has been already “framed” for us.  Something to ponder.

A few McLuhan quotes:

“First we build the tools, then they build us.”

“The poet, the artist, the sleuth – whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely “well-adjusted”, he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists between antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power is manifest in the famous story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.”      [Comment:  Think also what Merton said about the monk in his writings in the ‘60s]

“It is just when people are all engaged in snooping on themselves and one another that they become anesthetized to the whole process. Tranquilizers and anesthetics, private and corporate, become the largest business in the world just as the world is attempting to maximize every form of alert. Sound-light shows, as new cliché, are in effect mergers, retrievers of the tribal condition. It is a state that has already overtaken private enterprise, as individual businesses form into massive conglomerates. As information itself becomes the largest business in the world, data banks know more about individual people than the people do themselves. The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”

“In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.”

“Madison Avenue is a very powerful aggression against private consciousness. A demand that you yield your private consciousness to public manipulation.”

“In the Phaedrus, Plato argued that the new arrival of writing would revolutionize culture for the worst. He suggested that it would substitute reminiscence for thought and mechanical learning for the true dialect of the living quest for truth by disc”

“In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.”

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”

B.  And now for something different.  I read recently that the Pope now officially allows women to be lectors and altar girls at Mass.  Women everywhere must be celebrating this “leap” forward!  Excuse the sarcasm, but this stuff is just amazing.  In past years there were some dioceses where females were allowed as lectors and altar servers, but these were exceptional and depended on the “liberalism” of the local bishop.  Conservative Catholics really frowned on this practice, but the Vatican “looked” the other way for a while hoping that would mollify women who were calling for the priesthood.  One feels like it’s still the same old thing:  a theologically based misogyny ….just like there was a religiously justified slavery in past centuries.   One wonders how long all this will last.

Misogyny, this peculiar demeaning of women while speaking a lofty and sublime language while seemingly “elevating” them,  is an age-old dynamic within all of Christianity.   And I am not just picking on Christianity or my own tradition of Catholicism; this unfortunate distortion exists in plenty in all religious traditions.  When you begin to examine this phenomenon across all borders, you begin to get a sense that this is a human, cultural distortion that is imposed and imprinted on the religious matrix of religious symbols, rituals, notions, relationships, concepts, etc.   What is astonishing is how ineffectual each and every religious tradition is in dealing with these distortions.  You would think they would be the most empowered to overcome these distortions.  Here you begin to sense why so many, young and old, begin to shun the religious traditions they were born in.

C.  And this brings up another remarkable “wrinkle” in the fabric of Christianity, all of it, which also alienates many these days:  the bizarre and sick adherence of so many Christians of all denominations to Trump and Trumpism.  White Evangelicals seem to be especially guilty here.  Recently there was this article in the New York Times about an evangelical pastor who really got scorched by believers for not sticking with Trump.  Here is a quote from that piece:

“’Over the last 72 hours, I have received multiple death threats and thousands upon thousands of emails from Christians saying the nastiest and most vulgar things I have ever heard toward my family and ministry. I have been labeled a coward, sellout, a traitor to the Holy Spirit, and cussed out at least 500 times.’

This is the beginning of a Facebook post from Sunday by the conservative preacher Jeremiah Johnson. On Jan. 7, the day after the storming of the Capitol, Johnson had issued a public apology asserting that God removed Donald Trump from office because of his pride and arrogance, and to humble those, like Johnson, who had fervently supported him.

The response was swift and vicious. As he put it in that later Facebook post, ‘I have been flabbergasted at the barrage of continued conspiracy theories being sent every minute our way and the pure hatred being unleashed. To my great heartache, I’m convinced parts of the prophetic/charismatic movement are far SICKER than I could have ever dreamed of.’

This is what is happening inside evangelical Christianity and within conservatism right now. As a conservative Christian friend of mine put it, there is strife within every family, within every congregation, and it may take generations to recover.”

And some wonder why all the Churches are losing support and membership in so many segments of society!

UNCLE SCROOGE AND OTHER ANNOYANCES

1.  Charles Dickens is still being read in high school and college literature classes, but he is hardly a writer of interest in our “modern times.”  He was enormously popular in the 19th century, but either now or then he was and is very much under appreciated and underrated.  Paradoxically, his talent as a storyteller may distract from the challenging vision at the core of those stories.  

Dickens lived and wrote at the height of the Industrial Revolution that ushered in the modern industrial world.  The social and economic effects of all this was very evident in Dickens’ world, and he was deeply troubled by it.  It was a world of unfettered capitalism, one theorized by Adam Smith, considered the “father of modern capitalism.”  It was a world of atomized individualism where every individual pursued their own self-interest in as unlimited a way as possible.  The pursuit of wealth was the point of life, and of course the majority of people were doomed to misery in this scheme.  

This is the backdrop of Dickens popular Christmas story, “A Christmas Carol.”  It is generally presented as a sentimental, “good-feel” story told every Christmastime.  It’s deeper social and religious implications are mostly ignored or overlooked.  Recall the outlines of the story:  Scrooge is the new businessman of the Victorian era, the total capitalist whose overriding focus is on making and keeping money.  It is Christmas Eve and he expects his chief clerk to show up for work on Christmas Day—for him Christmas is just an excuse to shirk one’s duty in the acquisition of wealth.  He considers the poor lazy and trying to deprive him of his wealth.  When he goes to bed at night three spirits visit him in an attempt to convert his heart to something beyond this capitalist obsession: the Spirit of Christmas Past, showing him his own childhood, the pain which he experienced which led him on the road to this state of mind and heart (interestingly illustrating a Buddhist notion of how one bad act creates a whole wave of bad acts that resonate through time); then the Spirit of Christmas Present, showing him the pain and struggles of the people around him now; finally, the Spirit of Christmas Future, ultimately his own death, and the meaninglessness of his own life.  He wakes up in terror but is relieved he can still change the trajectory of his life and so he begins.  So Dickens was showing both the possibility and necessity of this transformation of vision which was dominant in his society.  In this regard he is very similar to his contemporary, Dostoyevsky.  Both point to a deep transformation of heart that is needed to confront the problems that modernity brings, rather than the structural changes that socialists would promote.  Probably both are necessary, but truly the inner change is most essential if anything real and lasting is to take place.  Gandhi understood that very well.

Now, for another, different view, we turn to that marvelous font of humor and satire, “The Onion.”  Consider this headline recently appearing in The Onion:

“Report Finds Majority Of Business Leaders Visited By 3 Spirits Make No Changes To Lifestyle.”  A funny and obvious reference to Dickens’ story, and it does raise some interesting questions.  You have to wonder what it would take to change the vision of one of our billionaires, or the top 1%?  Rockefeller and Carneige, in 19th century America, started massive philanthropy projects to make-up or cover up their deeds of ill-gotten gains.  But they never once addressed the toxicity of this pursuit of wealth.   In fact, then and now, this dynamic is defended as of benefit to all.  It comes across in various ways.  In a recent Wall Street Journal piece there is this:

In Defense of Scrooge, Whose Thrift Blessed the World

In the 1840s, Dickens didn’t see how businessmen like his hero were already lifting mankind from poverty.”

What a different view of things!!  And some of this shows up in what is called “trickle-down economics,” championed by Republicans since the Reagan era.  Supposedly when the rich thrive we all benefit.  But a very recent article from the Business Insider (hardly a far Left organ!) reports:

“A huge study of 50 years of tax cuts for the wealthy suggests ‘trickle-down’ economics makes inequality worse.”

Regardless, the debate will continue.  But you do have to wonder what would happen if the Spirits showed up at the doorstep of our politicians,  if the three Spirits would show up to Sen. Mitch McConnell, for example?  Would his hard, stony heart change?  And what about Pres-elect Biden?  Would his miserly attitude to student-debt forgiveness change?  Or this crazy insistence on maintaining a for-profit healthcare system?  (I read somewhere that hedge funds are buying into healthcare in anticipation of good profits in the next years.)  Regardless…..one can dream.

2.  This op-ed piece appeared in the NY Times:

“The Forgotten Radicalism of Jesus Christ

First-century Christians weren’t prepared for what a truly inclusive figure he was, and what was true then is still true today.”

For those studying the Gospels academically this would be standard stuff, but for the average Christian who has received only a domesticated vision of Jesus through his Church, it can be a bit of a shock.  The article, however, did annoy me in that it seemed to limit Jesus’ radicalness to his “inclusivity” and left out both the theological and economic radicalness implicit in his words  and practice.

3.  Ok, now this has been VERY annoying:  all these Christians (including Catholic bishops) fighting the CDC guidelines curtailing  large gatherings as in churches or prayer groups, etc.  Even fighting the mask mandate.  Here’s a few examples:


Why You Can’t Meet God Over Zoom – The New York Times 

“’Unconstitutional and illegal’: Dozens of maskless Bay Area Christmas carolers protest health order”   from SF Gate

And from USA Today:

“About 100 people organized by former child star Kirk Cameron, many of them without masks or practicing social distancing, gathered in Southern California Tuesday night to sing Christmas carols.

Cameron, 50, a devout Christian, promoted the event, which took place in a mall parking lot in Thousand Oaks, Calif., in advance on social media, just as he did with a previous one on Dec. 13 touted as a “Christmas caroling peaceful protest.”

Cameron, who famously starred in the ‘Growing Pains TV sitcom, organized the event apparently to protest Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest stay-at-home order.

“Have you ever sung Christmas carols by candlelight at a time where your state governor has prohibited you from doing that in America?” Kirk said in an Instagram video posted Dec. 11. ‘If you love God, if you love Christmas and you love liberty, you’re not gonna want to miss this.’

Though his Dec. 13 protest stoked controversy, Cameron told Fox News that people are “clamoring” for community this holiday season.

‘This is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and there are thousands and thousands of people in our community who would rather not suffer in isolation and come out to sing and express their gratitude,’ Cameron told Fox News host Shannon Bream in a clip shared to his Instagram Dec. 18. ‘We believe that there is immunity in community, but there is desolation in isolation, and I want to give people hope.’’

And there are a lot more similar examples, and my only comment is that I feel sorry for their impoverished understanding of God, community, freedom, civic responsibility, etc.

4. Ah, last but not the least annoyance: the major media, like NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, in their reporting on Biden’s new cabinet.  They (and we) are so relieved that the insanity of Trump has been ousted that they seem unable to say anything critical toward Biden (there are the occasional op-ed pieces pointing to a mild worry about this or that).  Particularly I am astonished how Biden’s picks for the cabinet have passed such low level scrutiny, as if nobody wanted to find any problems with any of them.  You have to go to the less-read, more Leftist websites to get a better picture of what is going on, places like Common Dreams, Democracy Now, and Truthout.

One especially good and historic choice was Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior.  She is a Native American of the Pueblo Tribe, and the Washington Post caught the significance of this choice in a very good story:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/12/24/native-americans-haaland/

However, so many of all the other choices leave so much to be desired it is really sad—another opportunity for change blown.     Biden almost never ventured outside the Clinton-Obama crowd, and in some cases clearly rejected a more Left approach…like in rejecting AOC a seat on the Energy Committee in the House because of her vigorous advocacy of the Green New Deal.   All you can do is hope, but that may be another delusion.  Here is the sad catalog of appointees as narrated by Chris Hedges in Common Dreams:

 

 

  “The list of new administration officials includes retired General Lloyd J. Austin III who is being nominated to be secretary of defense. Austin is on the board of Raytheon Technologies and a partner at Pine Island Capital, a firm that invests in defense industries and also includes Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee to be secretary of state.  Blinken, who was deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state, is a strong supporter of the apartheid state of Israel.  He was one of the architects of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and a proponent of the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, resulting in yet another failed state in the Middle East.

Janet Yellen, former Federal Reserve chair under Barack Obama, is slated to be Treasury Secretary. Yellen as the chair of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) and later as a member of the board of the Federal Reserve, backed the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which led to the banking crisis of 2008.  She supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). She also lobbied for a new statistical metric intended to lower payments to senior citizens on Social Security.  Yellen backed “quantitative easing” that provided trillions in virtually no-interest loans to Wall Street, loans used to bail out banks and corporations and engage in massive stock buy-backs while the victims of financial fraud were abandoned.

 Former Secretary of State John Kerry is to become a special envoy for climate. Kerry championed the massive expansion of domestic oil and gas production, largely through fracking, and, according to Obama’s memoir, worked doggedly to convince those concerned about the climate crisis to “offer up concessions on subsidies for the nuclear power industry and the opening of additional U.S. coastlines to offshore oil drilling.”

Avril Haines, a former Obama deputy CIA chief, is to become Biden’s director of national intelligence. Haines oversaw Obama’s expanded and murderous drone program overseas and backed Gina Haspel’s nomination to be the head of the CIA, despite Haspels’ direct involvement in the CIA torture program carried out in black sites around the globe. Haines called Haspel “intelligent, compassionate, and fair.” Brian Deese, the executive who was in charge of the “climate portfolio” at BlackRock, which invests heavily in fossil fuels, including coal, and who served as a former Obama economic adviser who advocated austerity measures, has been chosen to run the White House’s economic policy.

Neera Tanden, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, has been picked to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden, as the head of the Democratic Party’s thinktank, the Center for American Progress, raised millions in dark money from Silicon Valley and Wall Street.  Her donors include Bain Capital, Blackstone, Evercore, Walmart and the defense contractor Northrup Grumman. The United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, also gave the thinktank between $1.5 million and $3 million. She relentlessly ridicules Sanders and his supporters on cable news and social media. She also proposed a plank in the Democratic platform calling for the bombing Iran. “

There’s more, but enough is enough.

Not to end on a note of annoyance during this Christmas season, let me end with something unusual ( for Christmas, that is):  a favorite quote from that marvelous Sufi, Rumi:

“There came one and knocked at the door of the Beloved.
And a voice answered and said, ‘Who is there?’
The lover replied, ‘It is I.’
‘Go hence,’ returned the voice;
‘there is no room within for thee and me.’
Then came the lover a second time and knocked and again the voice demanded,
‘Who is there?’
He answered, ‘It is thou.’
‘Enter,’ said the voice, ‘for I am within.”

And this is a REAL Christmas message if you know how to read it!

 

 

                                                              

Readings

Not too long ago I read in a mildly liberal outlet, the National Catholic Reporter, a rather vigorous criticism of AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), my favorite congresswoman.  Now I would never claim that she (or anyone on the Left) is flawless or beyond criticism—far from it.  But this put-down of AOC manifests a certain ignorance and several persistent problems and some interesting pitfalls of interpreting texts.  

It appears that recently AOC had said to the National Catholic Reporter that one of her favorite Biblical pericopes was the one about Jesus chasing the moneychangers from the Temple.  The critic said that this manifests a certain anti-Semitism and plays into an age-old use of that text in Western Christianity in order to persecute Jews.  Some of this is very true.  But that AOC’s liking of this pericope shows a clear sign of anti-Semitism is seriously mistaken and obscures a real problem:  religious scriptures can be used and have been used to justify all kinds of positions, sometimes very contradictory, sometimes monstrously evil.  Think about it:  the Bible has been used to support slavery, monarchy, exploitation of the earth, subjugation of women, death penalty, war, even torture, accumulation of wealth, class systems, intolerance of difference, etc.; but also, liberation, revolution, classless society, debt forgiveness, nonviolence, equality of all, etc.   Very much the same holds for the sacred scriptures of the other great religions.  As sophisticated interpreters have been pointing out now for decades, what you get out of the written word depends quite a bit on what you bring to it.  But there is a deeper way of approaching the problem:  it is only when you begin to realize your true identity (for the Christian, in Paul’s terms, “in Christ”)  that the scriptures unfold their truth and you can begin to separate the “wheat from the chaff.”  But truly there is a “chicken and egg” dilemma here….which comes first.  Well, lets just say that the scriptures can help you to begin this journey of discovery.  Once you begin to realize a deeper sense of who you really are, you begin to see the Scriptures in a deeper way and that in turn unfolds a still deeper realization of self.  And so on.

(Consider the transformation of the religious murderous Saul of Tarsus to Paul, beginning with an experience of a radically new sense of identity to a complete reworking of the Hebrew religious ethos.)

Now lets backtrack to this pericope and this criticism of AOC.  The logic of the critic could imply that his criticism would also apply to Jesus of Nazareth (truly a Jew!) and Paul (albeit a “changed” Jew).   And such an attitude and view leads people to accuse any critic of the State of Israel as anti-Semitic.  To be fair, I won’t say that this is the position of this critic, but it is an underlying sentiment like that which leads to such views.  But lets consider two other kinds of reading of this pericope.   

The first reading flows along traditional lines.   We note that the pericope is present in all 4 Gospels, making it significant by not being left out from any of the Gospels.  Also, the pericope is always situated near the passion account in the Synoptics and near the beginning in the Gospel of John….and considering that the whole Gospel of John can be seen as the Passion account—so much of other Synoptic materials left out—it is still very much tied to the Passion narrative.   Now the “moneychangers” in the Temple refers probably to the folks doing currency exchange for the sacrificial  animals that were being bought and sold.  So the Gospel writers are emphasizing the replacement of the old ritual with something more sublime and transcendent.  Animal sacrifices are external to our selfhood and obfuscate our relationship to God and who we are.  Something much greater is needed for that.  There is also the added point which some scholars point to:  the Temple was a repository of much money which the Temple authorities loaned out to the poor who lost their land when they couldn’t repay their debt.  

Another reading could be a more symbolic approach:  whatever be the historical incident, the “Temple” is the “meeting ground” of the human and the divine, and so the “Temple” can mean the heart or even the whole cosmos.  You can take it from there, then, the deeper impact of this pericope.

Something else I read not too long ago is another sharp criticism of a history book studying the full extent of the massacre of Native Americans in California.  Scholars who have examined this period of our history have used the word “genocide,” not without some controversy.  This critic did not seem to be a scholar but just someone somewhat angry that his European ancestors were being singled out as especially murderous, racist, and intent on  “ethnic cleansing.”  His basic argument was “Everyone was doing it.”  He seems to be saying that there was nothing “special” or “racial” about this wiping out of whole populations and then gutting out their culture and pushing the survivors into abject poverty.  It was simply the universal felt greed that drove the Europeans to grab the gold country for themselves.  To a certain extent he is right:  Native Americans, both in North America and South America did commit various atrocities upon each other; there are signs of cannibalism and human sacrifice in the Americas as well as all over the world; the Hopi, for example, massacred one of their own villages when it seemed they might become Christian or something else; African Blacks sold their own people into slavery; the hordes of Genghis Khan killed indiscriminately, etc., etc.   All this proves is that the universal human condition is very bad off and always has been.  But it does not take away the “specialness” of each of these historical moments and tragedies.  The reason why many Americans have a hard time accepting what our ancestors did both to the Native Americans and to the Blacks who were enslaved is that we are all enjoying the benefits of their dark deeds.  One should ponder this a while.

Another book I have read recently:  What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t).  This is a collection of essays by a group of American Zen teachers  presenting a critique of the modern secularized “mindfulness” movement in our society.  Here’s a few quotes from the Introduction:

“Now it is mindfulness’s turn to be appropriated by Western culture as the philosopher’s stone.  Sometimes idealized as a cure-all and sometimes vilified as a New Age pablum, it has spread into society at large and, like Zen, expanded beyond its original training venues, religious practices, and cultural contexts.  “Mindfulness” is becoming a generic term whose meaning becomes less clear in direct proportion to the hype it generates.  It can be found everywhere; corporate retreats, medical centers, sports facilities, and even the military have adopted it as a way to decrease stress and improve performance.

Mindfulness has indeed entered the marketplace in the West, but it is questionable whether its hands are always bliss bestowing; there is even a danger of them becoming as grasping as all the other hands to be found there.  This is not because mindfulness’s proponents are greedily chasing after money—though sadly that seems to be a not-infrequent phenomenon—but because the movement seems to be preoccupied with results….  The Heart Sutra, a text at the very core of Mahayana Buddhism teaching, proclaims there is ‘no path, no wisdom, and no gain.’  ‘No gain’ is the very antithesis of spiritual materialism; it rejects any means-to-an-end conceptualization or use of meditation.”

Another quote:

“Zen in America has itself been subject to three powerful destabilizing trends: secularization (taking practice out of its monastic context with its associated religious rituals), instrumentalization (for example, using meditation as a ‘technique’ for realizing personal self transformation), and deracination (extracting Buddhist practices from their cultural and historical roots).  All of the authors in this book are concerned, though, that the mindfulness movement sometimes carries these trends to extremes.  Removed from its rich—and rigorously ascetic—Theravada Buddist context, mindfulness has been imported to the West as a fully secularized technique that can be learned and practiced over the course of a few weeks or even within the confines of a weekend workshop.  This consumer-oriented, quick-fix approach to meditation, which has come to be dubbed ‘Mc Mindfulness,’ has raised serious questions in our minds about the trends of which we are a part.”

I recommend this book for anyone who has significant Buddhist connections or interests.

Right now I am presently reading a truly wonderful, beautiful book:  The Chinese Painter as Poet by Jonathan Chaves.  It is a most marvelous presentation of that whole artistic tradition, and it invites you into some very deep places!

The website Hermitary had a list of favorite poets for times of solitude and reclusion.

The five favorite poets are: 1. Hanshan, 2. Hsieh Ling-yun, 3. Saigyo, 4. Ryokan, 5. Shiwu (Stonehouse).

Yup, a good list….no disagreements here.  Maybe I would put them in slightly different order, but truly  the incomparable Hanshan is #1!

Ok, this is going to be different!  But considering the political turmoil and insanity of our days, it is appropriate.

One of the truly great speeches in American political history was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech in 1936 right before the election.  He had been elected in 1932 during the height of the Depression, things were very bad and desperate.  Much, much worse than today.  Banks were failing one after another, people without jobs losing all their savings.  FDR was willing to try anything and everything to turn things around.  He didn’t care about labels like “socialism,” etc.  But the Republicans really hated him because even though he himself was from the upper classes, he attacked their upper class economy.  They tried to block him every way they could.  (Incidentally, Republicans hated him so much that much of their agenda from the ‘30s to the Reagan era was mostly about dismantling “the Roosevelt thing.”  Sadly, a wing of the Democratic Party in the ‘90s, led by the Clinton faction, began to change the orientation of the Party toward being more friendly with Big Business.)

In the speech he fully faced their animosity, their obstructionism, their attacks on him.  In one of the more famous lines he went on to list the enemies of peace and prosperity:  “ business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.” He went on to claim that these forces were united against his candidacy; that “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”  Basically he said to the Republicans in our slang, “Bring it on!  I am going to defeat you.”  He won huge majorities in Congress and was able to push a lot of his program through.  

Here you can read or listen to this great speech:

https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/october-31-1936-speech-madison-square-garden

(By the way, his acceptance speech at the Convention just a few months before was also magnificent:

 https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/june-27-1936-democratic-national-convention

This is what political greatness is all about, and when we measure today’s crowd against this, it’s kind of sad.  And also, Roosevelt dealt with a great majority of people who were so desperate and so in need that they were open to listen to him.   Alas, today, it seems that almost half the American populace is lost in delusion, blindness, ignorance, paralysis, etc.

Every Christmas I reread this meditative essay by Thomas Merton in his collection Raids on the Unspeakable:   “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room.  It is the best reflection on the Christmas story that I have ever read, and it shows it is not some sentimental account which is window dressing for our Christmas festivities.  While you have that little book in hand, touch base also with another beautiful essay:  “Rain and the Rhinoceros.”  It doesn’t get any better than this!

Serpents, Foxes, Abbey, Camus, Orwell & Other Sundry Folk

There was a recent piece in the New York Times about President Trump’s relationship with his father when he was young.  It explains, or tries to, the abysmal lack of empathy that he displays.  Everything always seems to be about himself.  In fact, when Trump gave the eulogy for his deceased father years ago, the authors point out how some were shocked that it was still more about himself.  Others who were there were not surprised.  It turns out that his father was a hard, driven man out to make as much money as possible in real estate and others were simply a means to that end.  The son did not rebel against his father, but totally absorbed his mindset and more.  Now this illustrates, at least a little bit, a Buddhist notion of our interrelatedness and interdependence.  The “sin” of the father infects the son.  A bad action reverberates through time causing other bad actions/results…..it can be called karma, or “the fires of hell,” or whatever, but everything we do and say goes out into the environment and leads either to more good or more bad, either to ourselves or to others.  Fr. Zosima in Brothers Karamazov (one of my spiritual fathers!!) said that if you even look mean or angry at a child, do you know what waves of anxiety, fear, resentment you send through that young heart and how you influence their future development and what they will do?

Another kind of story:  very few people know or remember Robert Byrd, a senator from West Virginia for over 50 years.  He started out as a segregationist, and welcomed the support of the KKK when he ran for office around 1960.  However, he somehow managed to radically change over the years.  By the time of the 1990s he vigorously denounced racism, championed civil rights,  and was one of the very few in government to oppose the Iraq war (Sanders also, but neither of the Clintons).  We must resist freezing people in their current blindness but try to create a transformative space….very very difficult to do.  Gandhi was especially adamant about this.  You might say one of his “commandments” would be:  Thou shalt not demonize the other.

I have always liked Albert Camus.  If you want something warm and cheery to read during the pandemic try his novel, The Plague!  Only kidding!   It is anything but that.  A good novel, not great, but truly thought-provoking.  Situated in the French Algerian city of Oran during a mysterious plague that kills people, it tells of several people who respond in different ways as the whole city is locked down and quarantined—nobody can enter and nobody can leave.  The Plague can be read either allegorically or realistically, but what you see is the human heart responding in various ways to the intractable human condition.

A few favorite Camus quotes:

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion

Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.

We all carry within us places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others

When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.(A touch of Buddhism in that quote….)

Just today I saw an op-ed piece in the New York Times by of all people, Pope Francis.  Really good; worth reading.   I have been very critical of him many times, but here he hits a bullseye! Link

Another author I love is Edward Abbey.  Recently I was looking at one of his books, The Serpents of Paradise.    Not one of his best works but I do find that title very interesting.  Abbey had a passionate love for the wilderness, especially the desert.  You have to read Muir for mountains and forests; but you definitely read Abbey for deserts.  His passion for the wilderness was not superficial; he had a deep intuition for the role it played in deepening our humanity.  But what he witnessed over the years was an increasing exploitation of the wilderness in a mindless pursuit of wealth and “fun.”  He reacted with the same passionate intensity, like an Old Testament prophet, condemning all, whether they be ranchers, miners, corporations, the U.S. Government, city folk who breeze through the wilderness as a theme park, etc.   Abbey was not a traditional believer, but I think he understood well the opening chapters of Genesis.  What was the problem in Paradise?  There was a serpent inviting us to be “godlike” and “take and use” as our own what the wilderness offers.  This has been the Western ideology for centuries both in Christianity and in other religions, this “mastery” over nature.  Instead of seeing it as a gift which we cherish and tend, it is simply a resource for our use.

Abbey quotes:

“I have been called a curmudgeon, which my obsolescent dictionary defines as a ‘surly, ill-mannered, bad-tempered fellow’. Nowadays, curmudgeon is likely to refer to anyone who hates hypocrisy, cant, sham, dogmatic ideologies, and has the nerve to point out unpleasant facts and takes the trouble to impale these sins on the skewer of humor and roast them over the fires of fact, common sense, and native intelligence. In this nation of bleating sheep and braying jackasses, it then becomes an honor to be labeled curmudgeon.”

. Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell

 “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

“If people persist in trespassing upon the grizzlies’ territory, we must accept the fact that the grizzlies, from time to time, will harvest a few trespassers.”

“High technology has done us one great service: It has retaught us the delight of performing simple and primordial tasks – chopping wood, building a fire, drawing water from a spring.”

As I write all this I am awaiting to hear whom will Biden pick to be Secretary of the Interior.  Progressives are hoping it will be this Native American woman who is a congress person from New Mexico.  It would be historic.

Speaking of the new appointments, Erin Brockovich writes that the “fox is in the chicken coop.”  She is referring to Biden’s appointing Michael McCabe, a chemical industry insider who worked for Dupont to help them ward off lawsuits, to a post on his Environmental Protection Agency transition team.  Truly not a good sign.

Then there is the problem of Biden’s appointment of Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence.  She had been a deputy director of the CIA  and was instrumental in formulating the drone-assassination policy during the Obama years and then in helping to cover up our torture programs.  Here is the story from Common Dreams:

https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/23/feminismnotmilitarism-peace-groups-blast-bidens-dni-pick-over-links-drones-torture

We’ll see where all this goes, but so far I am, alas, not surprised….thanks to Chris Hedges!   The thing to do with Biden as with all politicians is pay special attention to what they really do, not so much their words…..

Now we turn to another favorite of mine whom I had forgotten about in recent years:  George Orwell.  What a remarkable man whose writings from half a century ago still feel incredibly futuristic in their insight….a nightmarish future toward which we are hurtling, a dystopian society which seems more and more just around the corner.  With the election of Biden we might be led to believe that we are ok for now, but don’t be fooled….be watchful,,,be aware….

 Orwell understood in a very deep way how the abuse of language, the portrayal of the situation by obfuscating its reality in a smokescreen of lies and half truths, how all this can be a key symptom of the cancer that lurks at the heart of that society.  (Merton was very interested in this area of social diagnosis—especially how modern advertising has corrupted our ability to communicate truth and reality to each other.)  His writings have given us neologisms that are very much still pertinent:

“Big Brother”, “Thought Police”, “Two Minutes Hate”,  “memory hole”, “Newspeak”, “doublespeak”, “unperson”, and “thoughtcrime”.

Orwell wrote only two novels:  Animal Farm   and   1984      Still best sellers and still relevant.  But he also wrote numerous essays, op-ed pieces, book reviews, etc. in which we see his passionate, acute and prophetic insights.  I was surprised at the sharpness of his analysis of Gandhi’s autobiography.  Merton has a deeper sense of Gandhi’s religious roots, but Orwell has a much better insight into the complexity of Gandhi’s personality and his various actions.  He does not idealize or idolize Gandhi, but he deeply appreciates the man.

Orwell spent over a year living among the poor and homeless of England to learn what they were experiencing directly.  He knew the ravages of war first-hand, and the abuses of British colonialism.  He witnessed the rise of Hitler and the era of Stalin.  He was rejected by the conservatives of his time, and many leftists had disdain for him when he excoriated the Left for promoting an alliance with Stalin in order to defeat Hitler.  He was not institutionally religious and he did not spare the wealth-loving Christians of his time with his sharp mocking.   Here he is translating the New Testament in their terms:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of  angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. … And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.

Seems like a very apt view of our own American brand of the “Prosperity Gospel.”

Here’s a bagful of Owell quotes:

Spending the night out of doors has nothing attractive about it in London, especially for a poor, ragged, undernourished wretch. Moreover sleeping in the open is only allowed in one thoroughfare in London. If the policeman on his beat finds you asleep, it is his duty to wake you up. That is because it has been found that a sleeping man succumbs to the cold more easily than a man who is awake, and England could not let one of her sons die in the street. So you are at liberty to spend the night in the street, providing it is a sleepless night. But there is one road where the homeless are allowed to sleep. Strangely, it is the Thames Embankment, not far from the Houses of Parliament. We advise all those visitors to England who would like to see the reverse side of our apparent prosperity to go and look at those who habitually sleep on the Embankment, with their filthy tattered clothes, their bodies wasted by disease, a living reprimand to the Parliament in whose shadow they lie.

Politicallanguage — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

  • War against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it.
  • Every war, when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defence against a homicidal maniac.
  • The essential job is to get people to recognise war propaganda when they see it, especially when it is disguised as peace propaganda

(This was so true during the Vietnam and Iraq eras….both Dems and Republicans are guilty)

 Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war.  Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war.  There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.

I have always thought there might be a lot of cash in starting a new religion

  • The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable”. The words democracysocialismfreedompatrioticrealisticjustice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriotThe Soviet press is the freest in the worldThe Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: classtotalitarianscienceprogressivereactionarybourgeoisequality.

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection

And to conclude, something very different.  A beautiful You Tube video of some young people hiking one of the great trails of world, the John Muir Trail in the Sierras.  I have camped by that trail in several spots so I can attest to its beauty.  You can see why Muir called it “my cathedral.”  

The young man who made this video experiences a lot of pain and struggle but comes through it and I think he has gained a lot for it.   In any case, the wilderness speaks for itself.

Whose Empire Is It Now? Some Reflections on Recent Events

Do you know who Paul of Thebes was?   Very interesting character, but obviously not very well known….at least in modern times.  Some scholars believe he was a totally made-up figure by Jerome, the only early Christian writer mentioning him.  Jerome seems to be well-acquainted with that early desert scene in 4th century Egypt and Palestine, so maybe Paul is not fictional.  Whatever be the case that story has some very significant and interesting points.

Jerome presents the young Antony, the future legendary hermit and father of Christian hermits, meeting this old bedraggled hermit out in the desert.   Jerome tells us that Paul has lived a very quiet, undramatic life in his solitude—this seems to be deliberately depicted in contrast to Athanasius’ picture of Antony and his epic struggles against the forces of darkness.  In any case, Paul, meeting a human being for the first time in a long, long while, gently places a few interesting questions before Antony:

Tell me, how fares the human race?
Are new houses being built in the ancient cities?
Whose empire is it now?
Do any yet survive, snared in the delusions of demons?

With this as our “background music” we will now move on to some reflections on our current situation.  First of all the pandemic is raging again.  As I write this, Pfizer has announced that the first results on their vaccine are positive—they say “there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”  Unfortunately this tunnel may be much longer than anyone knows.  There are still a lot of unknowns about this virus and this vaccine.  One scary possibility is a mutation that would make the virus more virulent as it passes into the mammal world and then back to the human.  That’s why they killed millions of mink in Europe when it was discovered that a number of them were infected with the virus.  The mink was a perfect “petri dish” for the virus.  But apart from all that there are the Trump people!  Things could get very ugly in the next few months, and this brings us to the election.

Ok, so Caligula (oops, I mean Trump) was defeated.  But, as a number of commentators have pointed out, we are still stuck with “Trumpism,” which shows no sign of going away but is growing.  Ok, so I am relieved that we have rejected that paragon of narcissism, that malevolence, that supporter of white supremacy and the gun totters, that propagator of lies and fantasy, etc., but just think, about 70 million people voted for him, almost half of the electorate.  They are not about to go away.  The country is deeply, deeply divided, and I fear the situation is going to get worse.

Some of the people who voted for Trump are lost in all the bad stuff I just mentioned, but a lot are also basic folk who are themselves very badly deluded: Catholics and Protestants, a surprising number of Hispanics, poorly educated simple white folk who feel like they have been trashed by the system of which Biden is a supporter(and they are not so wrong), and so many others.  You have to read this essay from the NY Times about a farming community in Nebraska that voted strongly for Tump:

The title is “He Already Saw the Election as Good vs. Evil”—I can’t get to the story a second time unless I subscribe—you get one free read if you give your email!  Anyway, it was Nov. 1, 2020 in the Times and quite revealing.  Another story that I was able to get to and along similar lines.

Next on our list of headaches is the Republican Party which has gotten very nasty and just as delusional as their now leader.  Vilification and polarization, fear and division, these have been their tactics in the recent decades.  And the problem is that they have gained in this election.  They have made inroads in the House and look like they will still control the Senate—the two run-offs in Georgia won’t take place until January.  They potentially could prove to be supreme obstructionists—and of course there is the “packed” Supreme Court.

But we must not be fooled.  All this chaos and turmoil and political and social thrashing about is only the symptoms of a deep and long-term problem.  The political divide (and the economic divide, the income inequality) are only the pimples on the communal body.  Hard to say; harder still to believe; but we are in much more trouble than any election can cure.  

Someone who digs underneath the surface of our popular news and culture and scares the willies out of most people in his dark vision ( or else they just ignore him like Jeremiah and Cassandra….he can’t get published in any of the major media even though he was a Pulitzer Prize winning newsman once with the New York Times).  Here are two recent op-ed pieces he wrote; the first one before the election, the second one after the election.  Hard to digest these but I think he is mostly right, but even he doesn’t get deep enough in his diagnosis.

That’s why I am not dancing in the street over the seeming Biden victory.  Oh yes, he will have a more rational approach to the pandemic, and we won’t have to listen to all that bombastic narcissism; but do not ignore or underestimate the problems and issues that Biden’s presidency will bring.  Progressives who hope that he can be nudged in that direction will most likely be disappointed—after all half the country doesn’t “want” medicare-for-all or any other “socialist” program.  Joe does not seem like FDR, leading the country into a new vision, but more trying to hold the thing together by compromising and paying off various groups…and maybe alleviating a little bit of the misery….  He has such a bad record in the past that it’s hard for a progressive to feel comfortable with him.  I voted for him because there was no choice.  (Actually I almost wrote in Paul of Thebes but then I realized the old guy would not have appreciated such an awful suggestion!)

There is a scholar, Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist by training who has written an intriguing book:  How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart?  Interestingly enough there is a whole field of study now devoted to studying civilizational collapse…you can see a long Wikipedia article about it.  Tainter’s main thesis: “Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things.   Nearly every one that has ever existed has also ceased to exist, yet understanding disintegration has remained a distinctly minor concern in the social sciences.”  He says he’s alarmed at all the signs of disintegration that he finds in the complexity of modern society.”  

The agents and causes of decay and collapse are on the one hand internal to a society, in the increasing human confusion which we see co-existing with and perhaps riding within  the increasing complexification.   And on the other hand the causes of collapse can also come externally, so to say, in an “enemy force,” or more likely from Mother Nature herself.  Climate and geology have played a big, big part in the end of many civilizations.  (By the way, Biden’s announced plan to reconnect with the Paris Climate Accords sounds good but according to many climate experts the Accords are way too weak to put a brake on the catastrophe down the road.)

But there is still another critical point to consider.  More than one political philosopher has pointed out that a society disintegrates when it can no longer produce a leadership adequate to its problems.  You can have leaders boasting of their own greatness and/or boasting of the greatness of their country, and this is very common certainly in our history….America, the greatest country on earth.  Here I would like to turn to a poem by Shelley:  

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The poem speaks for itself.   As Paul of Thebes well knew, the “demons” delude us all into thinking our institutions and structures, our power and wealth,  are a permanent reality.

But our reflection is not through yet….there is still another poem and even a more dire insight.   It is a poem written by the great Yeats in 1919, “The Second Coming.”  The poem was written when the world was traumatized by the slaughter of the first world war and the insanity of it all happening among these supposedly “civilized” nations who were also professing Christianity.  Yeats saw deeper and expressed his nightmare eloquently.  Here is the poem, and afterwards I borrow, word for word, a section by section commentary written by a dear friend…it is so insightful:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Commentary:

Yeats begins his meditative poem by looking heavenward.

He sees not unity of God and human, but a real-time dissolution occurring before his very eyes.

The falcon, he says, is gyrating, meaning, having left his hands, and soared high into the sky, it is now turning in circles and whirling down and down, further and further away from the falconer.  That trajectory was how a bi-plane would have traced in the sky toward its impending crash once hit by machine gun fire in WWI. 

So, the date is 1918.

A year when war was seen not as romantic and heroic, but indeed a “blood-dimed tide.”

And the dissolution of heaven and earth has begun.

That is what Yeats means by “anarchy.”

Now in Homer, the analogue of all Western warrior-culture, blood is also what feeds the spirits of the fallen.

And Yeats, classically educated, fluent in Greek, would have known that analogue.

Of course, that analogue of Homeric blood is filtered thru a knowledge also of the Roman World as the first world empire, whose land was gained by countless human battles, and the later claim of Christianity to have invoked by its writings a world of peace, overcoming that world of Roman war, a peace which spread “everywhere”—”pan” in Greek. 

But Yeats sees something different now—a world coated in blood, blood everywhere, and he divides people into two classes—the people who have a realization of how horrible the whole situation is—those who “lack conviction” in the prosecution of war, and those who are “full of passionate intensity,” in other words, brimming over with passion. 

The implication is that behind the warrior is merely the beast, and Yeats will expand on this in the next half of the poem. 

Yeats considers the beast-warrior-man to be a revelation.

Yeats pretends to look “upward” for a “revelation”—a “Second Coming”—and he mocks himself repeating it for a second time.

And now, like Paul or one of the Prophets, Yeats has a mock vision—not of heaven—but of earth, and what he has really been seeing all the time. 

Yeats sees no “new Adam” who is coming—no prefiguration of Christ—the “Spiritus Mundi” of which Yeats speaks is a creature of the earth, and a creature—even more primitive, as a “spiritus,” than the warrior of Homer, the battle-line agmen of ancient Rome, or the ascetic of Christianity in the desert mimicking Christ.

Here is the “spiritus”—it does—like Christ at his baptism—come from the desert—but it is clearly animalistic—it is more like the Sphinx, and not at all like Christ, and this “spiritus” has no human or God-like characteristics, but looks at the world and evaluates it through a beast-mentality. Yeats writes:

“A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”  

   Yeats further defines the spiritus beast as the physical embodiment of the passion he had mentioned earlier in terms of its “slow moving thighs, and like a Greek auger, Yeats sees that the birds now gyrate and “reel” around the beast. 

   Are the birds being commanded by the spiritus beast—or are they ready to eat the dead—of WWI and its following “pan-demic”—of H1N1, that also killed 50 to 100 million people, we are left to guess. 

   The is the world of an even deeper darkness than Homer.  

   Death is everywhere.  Affecting all peoples—as in “pan-demic.

   It is a world transformed. 

   That was the point of Yeats’s vision. 

    And looking at this world of pandemic death, Yeats’s vision via Greek augery brings us back to the beginning of Western Civilization, which appears to be the theme of his meditation —that is, to give all of us a second look at the origin of Western Civ—what we would call today, “Year Zero.”  

   And in the last four lines Yeats’s poem comes, we see Yeats’s not only thinks 1919 is bad, but that he knows 1919 is bad because Year Zero—and the very origin of Western Civ – is bad and not what we thought at all.

    According to Yeats, in the 20 centuries of sleep, we slept as beasts—we had a “stony sleep,” the sleep of the “spiritus mundi.”

   And in order to unpack the events of 1919—in a way better than any newspaper editorial—Yeats tells us that we had been looking at something all along, and yet not really believed our eyes at what we were seeing.

   We are seeing who we are—for the first time. 

  We were baby beasts being rocked into a nightmarish existence for the past 20 centuries, and all that Christianity and Judaism did for Western civ and human beings within its framework was to “vex” us awake and help us grow into our true beast-nature, earth-bound killers who live as our own pitiless sun, that’s our “darkness dropping” on the earth.

   We are the beast, whose birth hour has come, moving beast-like to the birthplace of the man in the desert, who had no affect on us whatsoever. 

And that is 1919. 

In 2020. 

But somewhere out there is a lonely but peaceful hermit, under the starry sky, with a wolf and a squirrel in his neighborhood, listening to the wind in the trees, and silently wondering, whose empire is it now and how fares the human race?

Some Random Thoughts

  1. As I get older and reflect back on my life it sometimes astonishes me how really right I was about certain things, about certain decisions, about certain ideas….  Then again I inevitably have to face the many mistakes, the many times I was miserably wrong in my understanding of something or someone or in this or that decision or choice.  Alas, those times very much outnumber the former!    For better or worse, both resonate through one’s life with various consequences.  But such is life….
  1. In the Gospel of Matthew (11: 28-30) we find the following saying of Jesus:  “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Very simple words but very profound stuff is being conveyed.  Sadly these words are too often made into pious sentiments…their depths concealed under “holy thoughts.” 

 We are called upon to lay down one kind of “burden,” one which makes life itself a burden of sorts; and we are called to pick up another kind of “burden,” one which is unspeakably light, which actually frees us.   What is this “labor” and what is this “burden”?  And what about that “rest”  (makes you think of the “quies,” and “hesychia” of the Desert Fathers)?  How do we lay down “our burden” and “take up that yoke” which is so easy and light?  May I suggest that we are here at the doorway of a kind of Christian Rinzai Zen…meaning that these questions are not solvable as rational, conceptual puzzles.  With their koan-like challenge we stand at the gateway to the mystery of our very identity.

  1. Stalin said, “It’s not who votes that matters; it’s who counts the votes.”  This made me nostalgic for my childhood home in Chicago, where I grew up way back when in the Mayor Daley era.  I swear Stalin must have gotten his training as a precinct captain in old Chicago!!  Those guys pioneered  “counting votes.”

Speaking of elections, this is going to be a very, very messy affair in November.  There is a very real potential of a lot of turmoil.

  1. One candidate, President Trump, had and still has the overwhelming support of evangelical Christians.  Anyone puzzled by that needs to read this clarifying (and depressing) story from the New York Times.

What’s equally dismaying is that in 2016 about 50% of the Catholic vote also went to Trump.  Perhaps not this time….  The pollsters say these are the key points for the Trump Base:  MAGA, abortion, 2nd amendment, stopping socialism, country on edge of chaos (meaning Blacks are getting “uppity” again), and illegal immigrants taking over the country.  I think I might want to check out the “how to” page on moving to Canada….not that it is any paradise either.

What else to say about this mess?  Well, I am not thrilled by the Biden-Harris ticket, but the other choice of the sociopath president is simply not possible as even a consideration.  Both Joe and Kamala have a lot of baggage from their past that makes me worried about them.  Also, they pretty much represent the “great center” of the Dem party though they have moved to what seems like leftward due to the pressure of the movement generated by Bernie, AOC, Warren, and others.  It is really funny that these folks are labeled as the “radical left” by the Republicans, by the media, and even by many Dems; but by European standards they would be considered “centrists!  It is also interesting how AOC, a real possible future leader of progressive Dems, got only a bit more than a minute speaking time at the convention whereas someone like billionaire Michael Bloomberg got a big chunk of time.  

Alas, even as I vote for this crew of Dems, I am with Chris Hedges in believing that elections will not solve our real problems.  They are much, much deeper than what any party has to offer.  It will relieve us of the immediate insanity of the present situation, and simply give us a “kinder and gentler” corruption  and a miasma of competing self-interests where we get a few crumbs off the table while corporate interests and the 1% flourish.  Also, given the past record of the Dems, don’t count out some egregious sell-outs like the Bankruptcy Reform Act under Clinton (brainchild of Biden), and the Criminal Reform Act also under Clinton.  I won’t bother with Obama Care.  By the way, none of these people spoke out against the Iraq/Afghan war; in fact endorsed it.  

But I would also disagree with Chris Hedges in his belief that what is needed is a revolution of sorts.  Nothing totally external, nothing that is just an external rearrangement of social/economic parts will be adequate to the task of tackling our real problems.  Only insofar as the “revolution” will be in the heart will we be able to deal with the challenges ahead.   Yes, I can abstractly name the social programs that would make us a more decent, humane society….things like Medicare for All, a universal basic income, forgiveness of all college debt, free education for all who want it, etc….but none of these programs can be implemented in a social fabric so divided as we are, so riddled with delusions about each other and hatreds for each other, so dysfunctional, so mesmerized by the pursuit of narrow superficial goals, so ready to reach for the gun, meaning violence of any kind….   Alas, I am not very hopeful about the future of this country.  I wonder if the people who vote for Trump see what’s coming down the road toward all of us….   A lot of them are simple people who are afraid and confused and don’t know where to turn; a lot of others are much more troubled, and with these we have a lot to worry about….

  1. And now for a bit of classic philosophy:  Here is a quote from Aristotle:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” 

This line of thought was followed by Thomas Aquinas and most of the West until modern times.  The idea gets expanded like this:

Some goods are subordinate to others

The highest goods are intrinsically good –not subordinate to anything.

If something is the highest good, then it is good in itself, and not merely because it leads to something else.

Good in itself  is called an intrinsic good. 

Good because it leads to something else is then an extrinsic good.

Now, what is good for X depends on the function of X

The function of a knife is to cut.   Thus, a “good” knife cuts well.

The function of an eye is to see.   Thus, a “good” eye sees well.

The function of a tree is to grow and flourish.  

A good tree grows and flourishes.

Any living thing can be said to “flourish,” which is to say that it is living well.  But living well for a tree and living well for a human being  are different things, because they have different natures.

Ok, this is where it gets interesting. 

  This whole tradition tells us that the true and ultimate human good is our ultimate happiness.    So, we are built as it were to aim for our good.  And we aim for our good in everything we do, in everything we reach for, in everything we think, etc.  All the “little goods” we reach for are a kind of sign of that total, absolute good that our whole being reaches out to in everything we do and want.

And in everything we do and in everything we aim for, etc., we are then reaching for our happiness.   And in every “small,” relative, contingent happiness, what we are really reaching for is our ultimate, absolute happiness.  But this is where we leave philosophy and turn to religion in its deepest and truest sense.  Both Buddhism and Christianity, for example, would say that this dynamic gets frustrated and fouled up because we do not clearly see what leads to happiness and mistakenly choose only that what appears to be a good.  There’s a kind of metaphysical “sleight of hand” that takes place in the depths of our being, and so we begin to act against our very nature.  We are fooled in a profound way.  And this is a total and comprehensive problem.  Granted, there are degrees of affliction; a person could be extremely warped  and have a totally distorted sense of their “good,”  but really that person is still acting/seeking their happiness but in a completely blind way, totally distorting the nature of their “good,” and so causing themselves and others much harm.  But we need to emphasize that everyone is afflcted to one degree or another; the human condition.  Our seeking of happiness gets lost in trivialities, in hedonism, in egoism, in wealth,  even in religion, etc., etc.  In the Gospels the devil is called the ‘father of lies,” the “deceiver,” and Jesus is tempted by Satan precisely in this way:  What is your good, your happiness, Jesus of Nazareth?  And Buddha is tempted by the demonic Mara right at his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.  These mythologies are extremely deep and important for our consideration.  Now Buddhism and Christianity both provide a diagnosis of the problem, but of course with some degree of difference; and both point us in the direction of a “cure” or better, a “liberation” from this condition.  May I suggest at this point that the reference to the Gospel pericope about the “burden” and the “rest” has a lot to do with this issue?  Jesus’ invitation to lay down that burden is an invitation to this liberation, because we are truly weighed down in life by the illusory nature of what seems like our good.  The “burden” of a kind of falseness deep down in us is an enormous burden and weight which we carry.  We labor like Sisyphus in the Greek myth, who is condemned to roll that stone up the hill but it gets heavier and heavier as he seems to get higher until it rolls down again and again and he tries again and again.  Or like a thirsty man drinking salt water to quench his thirst.   Or again in Gospel language, we seek “treasure” which moth and rust devour; we build our house on sand.  

  1. I have ranted here before about how much I dislike the Catholic practice of canonization, how I think it badly misleads people about the nature of religion in general, and even how it just adds to the ambiguity of the institutional church itself.  Not too long ago Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, not one of my favorites for sure.  But who am I to say what this is all about.  It is interesting, though, to see the varied responses this produced.  A balanced, thoughtful op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times. This is the Link.
  1. The conquistador Cortez said to the Aztec chief, “We have a disease of the heart, and only gold can cure it.”   After this the Europeans proceeded to massacre, rape, and pillage (and yes, enslave), but one suspects that this “disease” was not cured.  In any case, Cortez was partially correct…he and his men did suffer from a “disease,” and some would say that it was pathological greed or something awful sounding like that.   But just think of this in terms of what we said above…..  These men are just like all human beings seeking happiness in seeking what is the good….the only problem is that they are pathologically deluded in what constitutes their good and so they are hopelessly incapable of achieving real happiness.  What transpires in their lust and greed and murderous rapacity is a brief mirage of  a superficial satisfaction.  They are merely an awful blow-up of the enslavement to maya in all human hearts one way or another.  Buddha and Jesus and some others seek to liberate us from the “hell” that these delusions lock us in.  Buddha even uses the imagery of fire: the imagery for a person lost in his desires, seeking his/her happiness in that which can only produce more unhappiness…..he portrayed it as a man whose house is on fire but he won’t/can’t leave.  Recall Gandhi’s words to the Hindu who was all devoured by a murderous rage toward the Muslims, “I know a way out of hell.”  Indeed, there is a way.
  1. Two books written almost 60 years ago are very timely these days:  Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Destruction and Faith and Violence.  Readers of these works in the last few years have posted some reviews that expressed surprise and shock how timely and prophetic the essays were.  

Here is one reviewer’s observation:

“We no longer communicate,” Merton said. “We abandon communication in order to celebrate our own favorite group-myths in a ritual pseudo-event.” He wrote that in the Sixties, but he could have been describing a Trump rally, which, in the absence of substantive content, is mostly a ritual acting out of a group-myth, reaching its crescendo in the anticipated expulsion of protesters. As Rachel Maddow showed in a recent montage of those expulsions, Trump repeatedly asks the crowd, “Isn’t this exciting?” Roughing up protesters may express anything from personal rage to fascist methodology, but it is also entertainment. As Neil Postman has noted, Americans like “amusing ourselves to death.” When the anti-Trump signs come out, the crowd gets happy, knowing the real fun is about to begin.

This is all contemptible and sad. But I wonder: how do protestors avoid becoming unwitting collaborators in Trump’s entertainments? Even if they don’t hit back or give the crowd the finger, how do they escape complicity in a political Punch and Judy show? How do they avoid getting their own group-myths stuck in the futility of an endless ritualized dualism of “us versus them”?

From this blog site:  https://jimfriedrich.com/tag/thomas-merton-faith-and-violence/

  1. Saw this on a t-shirt:  You can’t change stupid.  Maybe you can quarantine it.   

Reminds me of my all-time favorite worn by a Native American:  Resisting Illegal Immigration Since 1492.    I almost offered him $20 for the shirt off his back!

  1. Eliot Deutsch, a philosopher who was very conversant with Asian thought, commenting on a famous rock garden at Ryoanji, a Zen temple in Kyoto:

“The concept of yugen teaches us that in aesthetic experience it is not that ‘I see the work of art,’ but that by ‘seeing’ the ‘I’ is transformed.  It is not that ‘I enter into the work,’ but that by ‘entering’ the ‘I’ is altered in the intensity of a pristine immediacy.”

We in the West have very little sense of the “why” and the “how” of the “I” needing to be transformed.  Even in our various religious traditions somehow this “I” gets put on a pedestal of sorts.  Even when we “punish” ourselves for our “sins,” it is the “I” behind the mask of a superficial humility, another badge that it wears proudly!  What is needed is a kind of transformation, which is, in Gospel language, an unburdening.  What we don’t realize is the “heaviness” of this “I” that we bear through our daily lives, a sense of identity that constantly needs to be worked, maintained. (The best of the Desert Father tradition knew this well.)  Sometimes you can even see this “burden” in peoples’ faces, and I don’t mean the suffering that life sometimes brings but rather the “heaviness of life” felt in upholding some identity based on fleeting credentials.   

 Of course a radical “unburdening” takes place when we die; death comes like the ultimate thief to steal everything that is stealable, including even the sense of who you seem to be.  We invent various myths to console ourselves…portrayals of the afterlife…, or else live in total denial of “the end.”    An icon of this “unburdening” is sannyasa…the initiate plunges totally under the water, symbolically and actually dying to all social identity.  You would think our Baptism would have the same meaning—our identity now is uncovered “in Christ” and it should have the same sense as the Zen person of “no-rank,” of “no-account”—meaning it is not just another credential to wave at people to tell them who we are.  (The Gospel does say, ‘Not everyone who shouts ‘Lord, Lord……’) 

But even sannyasa is a kind of credential.   There is something beyond that, but this is not on any map.  And so our identity is always transcendent to what we can point to….because it ultimately is in the One we call God.   Let us end with the prayer from the Upanishads:  From the unreal, Lead us to the Real.

From India

I am taking a break from all my Chinese Zen materials and doing a bit of dabbling in metaphysics and returning to India for a while. The main reason for this is that I want to do a bit of renewed reflection on spiritual nondualism.  And India is certainly rich in that tradition.  However, we westerners should not forget our own possibilities and our own resources for discovering in the depths of Christianity and Islam a true nondualism.  Perhaps some day I will spend some time with that, but here and now I want to touch base with perhaps the greatest, most profound of India’s proponents of nondualism or advaita; and that is Sankara, and I would like to also touch base with two westerners who came to India and found themselves deeply challenged by Sankara and deeply inspired and profoundly influenced both in their spiritual and in their intellectual lives:  the Belgian Jesuit Richard De Smet and the English nun Sara Grant.

 Metaphysics is not everyone’s cup of tea, quite understandably.  In fact, in the spiritual life, it can be quite detrimental if one gets lost in a lot of abstractions that facilitate one’s disconnect from life as lived.  Probably most people can go a long way without any explicit metaphysical language; but all human beings have an implicit metaphysics—it is their explanation/understanding of what constitutes reality.  The moment you put together subject and predicate in a statement you imply a metaphysics—whether it has to do with some reality or whether it is a delusion can be determined by some kind of inquiry.  In any case, metaphysics, rightly understood, can be a help in the religious life in various ways…especially in keeping our religious language from succumbing to superstition, infantile sentiment, simple narrow-mindedness, etc.  Nondualism has both a religious/theological component and a philosophical component…if we are going to think about it and talk about it and not just mouth pious formulas that we picked up somewhere.  That means an authentic metaphysics will have a real role in examining what we mean by nondualism and its implications for our spiritual journey. 

Now if you want the “real thing,” genuine metaphysics, you will have to go to classical and medieval Europe…OR…classical and medieval India!  For certain you will not find the “real thing” in modern academic philosophy departments, at least not to any substantial amount.  Long ago I had a great classics professor who was an expert in ancient Greek.  He told me that every once in a while a young student who was studying Greek with him would ask his advice whether he should transfer to the philosophy department because he/she wanted to think about the meaning of life.  He told them that from his perspective that was probably the last place he would go to in order to explore the meaning of life.  Same thing for advaita….you will not find the proper tools to explore this deepest of all spiritual treasures in modern philosophy departments, alas.

India had and still has a very rich and complex religious culture.  But when you think of metaphysics and theology in the Hindu context, or, better, the sanatana dharma, then one cannot help but first think of Adi Sankara (sometimes spelled differently), the great religious thinker from 9th Century India.  Sankara became THE voice of advaita Vedanta, the radically nondualist religious vision of reality.  I won’t get into the complexities of his thought and writings here—that calls for a lot more than just a bit of blogging!  But I have found several things about him fascinating and intriguing.  

  1. India’s religious culture cannot be reduced to advaita Vedanta, nondualism—Westerners who feel liberated from the dualisms of Western religious thought are prone to see all of India through this optic of advaita. The picture is much more complicated than that.  There are some very different schools of thought and practice in India.  In fact there are six major religious schools of thought in India, and most of them are dualistic to one extent or another—nondualism is not even the majority position in Indian religious thought but you might think otherwise if you just read Abhishiktananda…he became such a passionate adherent of nondualism that you don’t hear too much about all the other folks!  For example, there is the whole religious stream emanating from Ramanuja, an 11th century figure.  He is a very important figure for devotional Hinduism, bhakti,  and he was the proponent of what became known by scholars as “qualified nondualism.”  This was not the austere, pure, absolute nondualism of Sankara; it claimed a real plurality and a true distinction between Atman and Brahman and this left the door open for devotional piety, for giving value to religious rituals and religious sentiments, etc.  Ramanuja followed the tradition of the Tamil Alvars, the poet-saints of South India who were the great exponents of bhakti devotionalism, but his exposition was not simple dualism but rather something that tried to hold the values of both lines of thinking and also more accessible to the householder.  He believed in devotion to a personal God (Vishnu) which then led to liberation and ultimate union.  Sankara was much more intellectual—but not in a modern academic sense and also purely “monastic.”  But then there was also dvaita (strict theistic dualism), the philosophy of Madhvacharya.   This is a religious sensibility that would be very familiar in the non-mystical Western Christianity…you become devoted to a personal divinity, etc.
  1. It is interesting to me that not even Abhishiktananda felt comfortable with Sankara.  In part, he seemed to be “too intellectual” for Abhishiktananda.  This is not an uncommon attitude among people who are deep seekers and of mystical experience.  Their fear that what their life is all about is being truncated by the limitations of concepts, words, intellectual manipulations, etc.  This is not an illegitimate fear, the problem is truly there; however, if we drop the effort to express  what is in the depths, or worse accept any and all formulations, then we will surely succumb to fundamentalism, pettiness, manipulation by our own delusions and feelings, etc.  So an honest philosophy and theology is to be welcomed as an aid on our journey.  In any case, Sankara is anything but a superficial thinker trapped in his own words and concepts.  Furthermore, he relies on his own Scriptures, the Upanishads, and he explicates the profound and mysterious depths he finds there using the tools of a high level rationality.  But  on top of that he is thoroughly oriented to an existential realization of the Truth, not just verbal formulations.  But I think that the main reason that Abhishiktananda found Sankara difficult to swallow is that he accepted or assumed a certain common interpretation of Sankara that later was shown to be mistaken(but still maintained by many both in India and in the west).  Even today there is a widely held belief that Sankara’s presentation of Advaita is pessimistic, world-denying…the world we experience as illusory, monistic, devaluing of the human person, etc.   Abhishiktananda tended to read Sankara along those lines, reading Sankara along the lines of certain authorities,  and that’s why he was not comfortable with Sankara.  Bettina Baumer, scholar, friend and adherent of Kashmir Shaivism, later pointed out that Abhishiktananda, without being aware of it, was much closer to the kind of advaita of this path than Sankara’s because it valued the world in its multiplicity more truly and it seemed less intellectual in its presentation.
  1. India is afflicted with many social and cultural problems, among which are the notorious varnas, the caste system which structures society in an unjust way.  While not quite as bad as slavery in the history of the U.S., this ossification of human society into predetermined segments has taken a terrible toll on India’s poor.  Also, just like slavery, it has received a large amount of religious rationalization and support.  Modern Indian thinkers have often seen a solution to this problem outside their religious tradition—they are especially critical of the monastic-like advaita Vedanta path.  Many Indian reformers have been influenced by prophetic westerners, and  also by the spirit of modern western liberalism.  Some of this has had a salutary effect on India; some of it has deformed the Indian spiritual sensibility very badly. Figures like Gandhi were able somehow to hold both in his heart.  As he saw it, India had more than one critique of such religious distortions of the human reality in its own ancient tradition.  It’s not much, but it is striking and powerful….especially when you see it among the advaita folk!  There is an ancient story from the time of Sankara which reminds you of Gandhi; whether it depicts an actual incident or not, the important thing is that there is this story:

“In Kashi on an occasion while Sankara, accompanied by his disciples, was going towards the Ganga for a holy bath and prayers, he saw a paraiah…coming across his path and shouted to him: ‘Move away! Move away!’  But the paraiah replied: ‘When hundreds of Upanishadic texts speak about the unique, pure, relationless, indivisible One Reality of the nature of Truth, awareness and happiness, your imagining difference is surprising.  Some wear dress of recluses and act like them; without any real knowledge they deceive householders.  When you shouted ‘Move away,’ were you addressing the body or the self?  All bodies are made of food, they are all material, and do not differ from one another.  As for the inner witness Self, how is the consideration of its difference in a paraiah and a brahmana appropriate?  As there is no difference in the sun’s reflections in the divine Ganga and toddy, so there is none among the One Self’s reflections in various bodies.  Neglecting the one perfect, eternal and bodyless Person in all the bodies, why this false apprehension, ‘I am a pure brahman, O Dog-eater, get away’?  Surprised and deeply shaken, Sankara immediately recognized the truth of this and replied, ‘O You best among the embodied, you have asserted what is Truth.  So because of the words of you who are the knower of the Self, I am at once abandoning the notion ‘this is an outcaste.’  Sankara at once broke forth into five verses each ending with ‘he who has such steadfast insight is my guru, whether he be an outcaste or a brahmana.  This is my firm understanding.’”

Now this is a remarkable story, over a 1000 years old!  Among various things, it points to the fact that spiritual authority is not based on being part of some group or having some credential—several Desert Father stories along the same lines.  But for our purposes here, the main point is that amazingly it manifests the social implications of advaita, nondualism.  Sadly, there is very little  in the history of India that shows that this lesson was fully understood or accepted.  But lets step back a little bit from the obvious implications of this story and glance at the deeper insights it points to.

All of our ordinary daily life is structured along dualistic lines.  This is the fact of our normal experience.  Whether it be intellectual, biological, psychological, social, religious, material….  The subject-object relationship is the basic paradigm; “I” am the subject and the “other,” whether it is “God,” a friend, a stranger, a loved one, a thing, an animal, a concept, etc., is the “object” out there, apart from me.  (Incidentally, in the modern West society is built up on an economic foundation of atomized individuals bound to each other in some contractual form, and the handshake is really  a symbolic expression of that situation.  Note in India, classically you put your palms together, bow slightly and say “namaste,” and both in China and Japan, classically you would bow to another person—all this suggests some other kind of relationship.)  So, the dualistic structure of our everyday experience deeply shapes our sense of our relationship to the Divine Reality.  It takes some doing to break out of that conceptual prison!

But if you somehow awaken just a bit from this rigid dualism into some awareness, no matter how dim, of an Absolute Ultimate Reality, no matter what you call it, you begin an incredible journey into nondualism—all dualities then are relativized…they are seen as insubstantial as wisps of cloud…they are seen as both truly “real” and as truly “unreal”—-because that duality itself is now undermined also!   The Absolute Ultimate Reality cannot be just another “object” out there among all the other objects for you, the subject, to behold or relate to, not in any ultimate sense anyway.  

Think of the Buddhist novice, he/she starts out with an awareness of samsara, this is the stage on which our lives unfold, and which explains that deep suffering which the Buddha diagnosed as the driving engine of most of our problems.  The Buddhist begins his journey toward nirvana, his liberation “from samsara.”  The problem is that this seems to lock him/her into another dualism: samsara and nirvana.  Nirvana seems to become another kind of “object” out there for me to realize, to achieve, etc.  But the real Buddhist awakening or enlightenment begins with the realization that samsara = nirvana!  Mind-boggling for westerners especially, impossible to intellectually grasp, seems like just word-play, a kind of spiritual sleight-of-hand trick….!  But as the Zen people put it, before enlightenment mountains are only mountains, during enlightenment mountains are no longer just mountains, after enlightenment mountains are just mountains again.  In nondualism you do not “leave” the world of experience, you simply see it in a radically new way, and you see your identity within that world in a radically new way.  As William Blake put it, you will see infinity in a grain of sand, and eternity in a moment.

Now consider the Christian context and the world of sex, the dualism of male and female.  Christianity does seem like a very strongly dualistic religion, and on the surface of things it truly is that.  It’s mystical tradition, which is not generally taught to people, suggests otherwise.  Consider the realm of sex…surely the dualism of male and female seems solid; but sexual expression in the union of male and female has served as a powerful symbolic reenactment of the human divine union, and Christian mystics have drawn heavily on the rhetoric of eros in such writings as the Scriptural Song of Songs to point to a realm of identity that is far beyond such facile dualism—and this is true in a number of other religious traditions.  

Now consider conservative traditional Catholic theology and its view of the Mystery of the Incarnation.  It puts a heavy emphasis on the maleness of Jesus, and this has serious repercussions in various ways, among which is the exclusive maleness of the priesthood.  What many don’t realize is that this is possible mainly because of a deep-seated, thorough and solid dualism of this theology’s vision.  The ultra strong dualism of male and female is then superimposed on the maleness of Jesus.  Behind all this is of course the untouchable dualism of the human—divine reality in terms of creator—creature.  What is downplayed is the language of St. Paul when he asserts there is no longer male or female in Christ…there is only Christ who is all in all.  This is all pushed into the eschatological future, a distant reality somewhere out there…another dualism.  This theology seems to be ignorant of what many mystics experienced, best expressed by Dostoyevsky’s Fr. Zosima, that “Paradise,” “heaven” starts right here, right now if we have the eyes to see it.   Finally, it is interesting to look at the very identity of Christ through this lens.  He is in traditional doctrine both fully human and  fully divine.  Teachings that were presenting a dualistic Christ as it were, as if these two natures were two separate entities put in “one container,” were considered heretical.  The traditional doctrine says that, yes, there are two “natures” in Christ, but there is only one person, not two persons.  The personhood of Christ suggests a profound nondualism that cannot be rationally explicated.  It only remains to say that once we say that we are “in Christ,” and Christ is “in us,” what we have is the beginning of a truly Christian nondualism.

Well, we have gotten far off track, but I just wanted to ponder some of the issues, implications, and consequences once we discover advaita!

Now to turn to the next person “from India”:  Richard De Smet, the Belgian Jesuit.  At age 16 in Belgium the young De Smet reads his first article on advaita.  He is captivated by this reality, almost totally unknown in popular western Christianity.  He was fortunate to have a good Jesuit teacher who shared his interest in Indian spirituality.  At 18 De Smet joined the Jesuits and after finishing his initial studies he got to go to India, to Calcutta specifically because the Belgium Jesuits were assigned that area of India as their “mission territory.”  He studied Sankara and was deeply impressed by this great Indian teacher.  One day he heard a lecture on Sankara by the renowned Hindu scholar Radhakrishnan.  In this lecture Sankara was portrayed as a purely rational philosopher, while De Smet’s intuitive sense of Sankara was very different.  De Smet decided to investigate Sankara thoroughly for his Ph.D. dissertation, and it proved to be a real groundbreaker.  Through the years, the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s  and ‘80s De Smet lived in India and became a top Sankara scholar, so much so that even many Indians regarded him as THE expert on Sankara.  

De Smet’s reinterpretation of Sankara was enormous in scope and implication.  He showed how Sankara was more a spiritual theologian than a rational philosopher, yet without diminishing the metaphysical depth of his thought.  He showed how Sankara primarily depended on the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, that his thought was no more than an in depth exploration of the advaita doctrine in the Upanishads.  According to De Smet, Sankara starts from spiritual experience and all his explications are meant to lead to ever deeper spiritual realizations.  In all this De Smet can’t help but compare Sankara to Thomas Aquinas.  The two are surprisingly close in their methodology and much closer than ever suspected in their substance.  Furthermore, De Smet explored in great depth the notion of personhood in Christian thought and in Sankara’s advaita.  It had been thought that these were totally irreconcilable until De Smet showed the matter was far from clear and that the notion of person in Aquinas, for example, was quite coherent with Sankara or at least there could be a real dialogue between the two traditions.  Finally, De Smet rescued Sankara’s view of the world and the notion of maya from very negative interpretations—the world of our experience is not simply illusory.

A final thought here:  De Smet and Abhishiktananda lived in India and had their best years at about the same time.   However they seem not to have really connected.  For his part, De Smet truly admired both the writings of Abhishiktananda and the person.  They were very different people with very different backgrounds, and it does seem that Abhishiktananda resisted getting to know De Smet more.  They were both present for several of the interreligious gatherings that Jacques Cuttat had put together to create an atmosphere of interreligious dialogue even before the impact of Vatican II had unfolded.  But it turns out that Abhishiktananda did not want De Smet at the first meeting because he thought this would make it into too much an intellectual, conceptual dialogue.  To the other meetings De Smet was invited.  He also was acquainted with Bede Griffiths and was invited to give talks at the Shantivanam Ashram.  But most interestingly, De Smet was highly regarded as an expert on Sankara by many spiritual Hindus.  On one occasion he was invited to give a series of talks on Sankara and advaita at the famous and historic ashram in Rishikesh, Sivananda Ashram.  There were gathered many Hindu spiritual figures and leaders and De Smet was warmly accepted.

Another figure “from India” that I want to I want to touch base with is a student of De Smet’s, the Catholic nun and theologian Sara Grant.  She is another one of those Europeans who was drawn to India out of spiritual need.  She became a nun at age 19, went to Oxford studying classics and philosophy, and at age 44 came to India to teach philosophy at a Catholic college.  She also found her spiritual home in advaita and did a doctoral dissertation under De Smet on Sankara.  She made her home in India and engaged in academic work and in ashram living.  Being a student of De Smet’s she promoted the new interpretation of Sankara which was generally well-received by Hindu followers of advaita, as for example when she lectured on several occasions at the famous  Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh.  She was good friends with Abhishiktananda and described herself as a “non-dualist Christian.”  Here is an interesting quote from her in an essay that was written as a tribute to De Smet:

“Anyone familiar with the thought of Aquinas…may be tempted to ask at this point if the challenge of advaita cannot simply be reduced for Christians to an exhortation to return to the study of St. Thomas with a greater alertness to the non-dual and apophatic dimensions of his theology.  From my own personal experience, I do not think so.  I have found and still find, that the advaita of the Upanisads and of Sankara challenges my Christian ‘faith seeking understanding’ in at least three ways….

  1. By its uncompromising insistence on and spelling out in detail of the demands the theological quest makes on a human being: one cannot ‘do’ theology as one may ‘do’ mathematics or history or any other branch….  Unless our lifestyle and value systems are in harmony with the Truth we are pursuing, we cannot hope for real enlightenment.
  2. By the starkly apophatic character of the Upanisadic teaching regarding the supreme Reality, a dimension which has been heavily overlaid in Christian tradition in recent centuries and yet appeals so strongly to people today, starved of transcendence and mystery.  The keen sense of this transcendence and the relative non-being of all created things which the so-called ‘advaitin experience’ opens up can shatter our comfortable self-assurance….  We badly need a reminder that, as Paul well knew, ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered upon the heart of man,’ what God has in preparation for us.  A firm and trusting admission of a healthy agnosticism might go far to stem the tide of disillusionment created by taking for granted as sufficient for people today the myths and symbols which satisfied older and less sophisticated generations than our own, who moreover recognized them for what they were—myths and symbols which had to be accepted in simplicity to reveal the hidden treasure they enshrined.
  3. By the Copernican revolution which would be brought about in our theological expression of our faith if we adopted as basis ‘God’ as the immanent yet transcendent Self instead of the ‘God up there’ or ‘out there’ of traditional imagery to whom modern humans find it increasingly difficult to relate….  Formulations of faith which we can recognize as perfectly valid in terms of the universe of discourse of the generation or culture in which they evolved frequently do not speak to a later age or different culture, and may even be blocks to the communication of the living message of the Gospel.  I think, and I speak from a fairly considerable experience, that the non-dual tradition of Hinduism can provide us with a universally effective means of transcending the cultural and religious barriers that divide us without destroying the rich treasure of our diversities….  The Gospel radically lived leads straight to advaita, or, from the other angle, that the perfect practical handbook for living out the Gospel is advaita.”

I Live Now, Not I…. Some Reflections

From Galatians 2:20:  “…nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me…”  This is from the old King James Version.  I prefer the old translation over all the modern ones in this case.  They are mostly ok but not as clear and succinct, and  it seems to me that there is a kind of muffling of the impact of the whole statement.  And in some cases a whole new layer of interpretation is put on that the reader can barely sense.

The Pauline writings are central to all authentic Christian theology, spirituality, and mysticism.  Galatians is a key moment in those writings, and Chapter 2 is absolutely essential here.  There is a complex argument laid out in Galatians and Chapter 2 especially, and we find a profound display here of what might be termed “the Christian vision of human existence.”  Traditional Biblical theology, both Catholic and Protestant, does a good job of explicating this vision within the parameters of “the Tradition.”  That means that this takes place within the Greco-Semitic sensitivity to the human-Divine relationship.  But what if we approach these verses having been inspired, informed, illumined by the great Asian traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism?  

Consider the full verses of Galatians 2:19-20:

“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.  I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”   (This from a standard modern translation.)

And this from an evangelical internet source, BibleRef:

“This much-loved verse is quoted, printed, and repeated often, most especially the first half of this statement. This is also Paul’s grandest declaration yet about what exactly happens when someone is saved or justified by placing their faith in Christ. In a very real sense, Paul’s argument is that we become so closely attached to Him that we die with Him and He begins to live in us. Paul has been emphasizing that faith, and faith alone, is what saves us—adding any requirement of good deeds or rituals is contrary to the gospel (Galatians 1:8–9; 2:16).
Christ was crucified for our sin. By faith, we trust that His death paid for our own personal sin. In that way, we are crucified with Him, our sin with him on the cross. That sinful “us” dies, replaced by the resurrected Christ “in us.” We continue to live in the flesh, of course, but our lives are now directed not by our sinful selves but by our faith in Christ. Paul expands on this great truth powerfully in Romans 6:1–6.
For the first time, Paul mentions Jesus’ motive for giving Himself for us: love. Christ died for us because He loves us. Unlike the unyielding system of the law, Christ is a person motivated by His love and concern for us.”

This is very standard language that could be found in Pauline explication in any of the Christian communities with possibly a few different kinds of emphases. But let me be bold enough to suggest that such explications are inadequate at best and can even be misleading.  There are two special instances where this becomes apparent.  If you are a person approaching this Pauline text from an Asian perspective, we will not only be puzzled by the inadequacy of the explication, but our own experience of Ultimate Reality will probably seem so much more real and deeper(Abhishiktananda found this to be so, and it caused a faith crisis in him for many years).  Secondly, if we are simply an intelligent modern person who reads things with a critical sense, we certainly will be puzzled by the explanation because it leaves in question the meaning of so many key terms.  This person, to his/her chagrin, will discover that the Tradition only speaks in “this language” and there seems to be no room for another way of looking at this dynamic.  

Let’s take a look at some of the key terms in both the Pauline text and the explication:

Law

 What does this word mean?  One obvious reference is the Jewish Law of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament.  This refers to a whole complex of practices, rituals, requirements, privileges, do’s and don’ts, institutions, and official status given to certain people, etc.  It reflects the Semitic cultural mindset.  This complex defines for the devout Jew his/her relationship to the Divine Reality…provides a kind of access to the Divine.  Otherwise one is an “outsider,” in the darkness of not knowing what is ultimately true.  This complex is considered to be a Divine given in a very real sense.  Now for Paul the “Law” was very important, but it is radically replaced, all of it, by this one reality, Christ.  What defines his relationship and gives him total access is now Christ.  The Law is then opposed to Christ…becoming one of these polarized pairs…Christ/Law…faith/works, etc.  Now what about all those people who are not burdened by this Law (most of the world)?  Paul says, no problem as long as they have faith in Christ the Law is totally useless.  And those who do not know/experience/accept Christ as the “gateway” to the Divine Reality are relegated to a kind of foggy existence that traditional theology does not know what to do with (fundamentalist theology relegates them to “hell”…that is completely cut off from the Divine Reality.) Modern theology, especially modern Catholic theology, prefers to see the Presence of Christ even where that presence is not recognized or acknowledged…like in Rahner’s notion of “universal salvation.”  “Salvation” is another one of those words that badly needs exploring, but here lets just say that it means knowing and realizing our relationship to the Divine, not being in the dark.  But Buddhists and Hindus might object to this view of them, and those Christians like Abhishiktananda who penetrated very deeply into that religious consciousness find that view inadequate.  After all easily a Buddhist could also say to us that all you Christians are really Buddhists but don’t know it….everyone after all has Buddha nature!  So how does the Law/Christ dichotomy work in the situation of very deep religious traditions that are outside the Hellenic-Semitic circle?  

Incidentally, for many conservative Protestant religious thinkers this “Law” represents all human religious structures that supposedly mediate or “stand between” you and God…like an institutional Church, rituals like the Mass, sacraments, the priesthood, etc.  Needless to say any non-Christian religious structures and practices would be even more “the Law.”  Catholic theology obviously would not agree to that view!  It has a way around that argument which we won’t get into here, but let’s just say it is not a very satisfying argument and it also leaves much in question.  But from an anthropological viewpoint that position is very interesting….it points to a human need and bottomless desire for utter transparency and total immediacy to the Divine Reality. Recall that Paul says that nothing, absolutely nothing stands between us and God.  And Augustine’s, God is closer to me than I am to myself.  Now this is very, very interesting, and it creates some openings for a genuine encounter with the authentic Asian traditions (and Islam also).

Flesh

  Now this one is easy compared to the previous term!  This word does not mean the meat on our bones.  The Greek word that Paul uses is “sarx,” and in older translations and more traditional ones that comes out as “flesh,” and in more modern ones it often becomes “body.”  Very misleading.  Sarx really refers to the human condition, its existential limitations….the transiency of life, the dynamic toward entropy in our physical and mental existence.  We grow old, we experience disintegration, we die.  There is a built-in instability in our existence, nothing lasts; we experience the tendency toward a chaotic cloud of desires and emotions that affect our vision of reality.  We seem to have a bottomless thirst and hunger for something “just over that hill,” but that leads just to more desire, and so on.  This is what the Asians call “samsara,” “maya.”  The Buddhists especially understand this human situation well.  Our house is on fire and we don’t seem to know what to do about it…some of us try to put the fire out by tossing gasoline on it.   There are also various “solutions” or “escapes” from this situation provided in the religious world.  (The non-religious world, whether it be social, economic, political or intellectual, calls this condition “natural” and says “simply go with the flow.”)  Some of these proposed paths of “salvation” are deep and profound, like the realization (satori) of Zen; others are more like the “snake-oil of the soul” which can be found in every tradition.  The things which ensnare you ever deeper in being blind to anything but samsara.  Paul tells us the following:  “The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God….”   He correctly tells us that in this life you do not leave THE human condition, but now you live in it with a realization of wholly different sense of who one is….!

Christ died for us/Christ crucified for our sins/crucified with Christ/His death paid for our own personal sin

Now we are getting to the “nitty-gritty” of Paul’s language and theology.  Those of us who are Christians, who grew up in the Christian thought-world, are so used to these words that we might not be sensitive to the difficulty they present.  If we ask what these words really, really mean and not just mouth religious clichés that we heard since childhood and never questioned, then we run into a kind of wall.  What does it mean that someone has to “pay” for our “sins”?  Let’s step back a bit…look at such language from an anthropological perspective….  In all human cultures and civilizations in the ancient past human beings have struggled to grasp their relationship to some form of Transcendent Reality that explains all there is, that makes sense of their experience, that establishes a ground for order against a constantly threatening chaos and disorder….the ever-present dynamism toward entropy.  So….a common occurrence is the notion of “sacrifice”;  the Divine Reality transcends the human condition and pretty much runs “the whole thing” according to a certain sense of order and human beings need to know that sense of order and abide by it.  If they don’t then they “offend” the Lawgiver and a “fine” must be paid…reparations of sorts, etc.  This will involve rituals, mediators, rites of sacrifice, where symbolically something important to us is “sacrificed” to make up for our transgressions.  This usually involves the whole or partial destruction of what is precious to us to placate the “injured” Divine Order.  Unfortunately, in all parts of the globe there is evidence that ancient human beings believed that in some cases what needed to be sacrificed are other human beings, even children.  When people experienced a threatening drought, for example, there might be a perceived need to re-establish a “friendly” relationship to a deity and even the slaughter of children might be seen as necessary for the well-being of the whole group.  We have supposedly advanced beyond that view, but if you stop and think about it all wars have resulted from our divinizing the State or a nationality and then sacrificing millions of lives in order to restore some kind of social order.  (Also, the so-called “honor killings” in some parts of the Middle East and India even today are a remnant of this mentality.)

Interestingly enough, the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Hebrew Bible is an attempt to at least eliminate child sacrifice and “spiritualize” the whole notion of “sacrifice.”  However that basic dynamic still remains; we still have a “debt” to pay for “transgressions” or to restore some divinely given order.  So when we get to the New Testament we have to see the story of Jesus’ life and death within the context of this language and this universal dynamic, which is especially strong in the Middle East.   Paul’s insights, intuitions, and vision of Jesus’ life and death are profound, revolutionary in that context, and transformative, but his language and his ability to put into words is limited by that worldview.  (Incidentally, all the other major religions have their own kind of interpretive problems.)  If we take these words literally, we are faced with a God who  stands out there somewhere and demands “payment” for our “transgressions.”  There was a “debt” to be paid, and the crucifixion of the Son of God “paid the debt.”  The whole New Testament is riddled with this language to one degree or another, but we also have to notice that there is more than one layer of language in the New Testament.  We see that mostly when Jesus presents a view of the Absolute Transcendent Reality which he calls “Father,”  “Abba”—very intimate designation, it is a reality that is absolute and universal love and that our lives are totally enveloped and infused with that Love.  It is our Source and our Destination and our Everything in between.  Paul’s other language firmly emphasizes that vision, it is this layer of language that needs to become the foundation and interpretative principle of the other language.  We need to discover and interpret the life and death of Jesus as somehow changing our own vision of reality and empowering us to live by a principle that is not mediated by cultural limitations….and that brings us to the next words…..

The sinful “us” dies, replaced by the resurrected Christ “in us”

These words are just a hint at the most important and most central idea in Paul’s presentation: the Resurrection.  Let us again emphasize that “resurrection” in this context is not “resuscitation” or some kind of continuation after death of life as now lived.  Unfortunately a lot of religion and spirituality is lived in the imagination…meaning it is limited severely by our abilities to conceptualize and form images in our mind.  This can keep us from deep realization and inhibit abiding in those depths in our daily existence.  For Paul, the Risen Christ is totally beyond any kind of concept or image and totally beyond our capacities to grasp such a reality.  That’s why for Paul the chief “practice” for a Christian is faith; and this is not some “act of the will” or some kind of inner imagining to make yourself believe some concept is “true,” etc.  It is more like this, and I choose this example realizing that I seem to be in very different territory.  The quote comes from Wu-men, a most remarkable Zen master from 12th century China.  Whatever activity a student proposed as his religious practice, Wu-men rejected…his goal was to block every path and challenge the student into a new awareness…he was the proponent of the “gateless gate”:  “If you follow regulations, keeping the rules, you tie yourself without rope, but if you act any which way without inhibition you’re a heretical demon. … Clear alertness is wearing chains and stocks. Thinking good and bad is hell and heaven. … Neither progressing nor retreating, you’re a dead man with breath. So tell me, ultimately how do you practice?” This is much closer to Paul’s mindset than you might think.  This is much closer to what Paul calls “faith” than you would ever guess.  Simply because for Paul this “faith” has replaced “Law,” the structure and concepts and all evident “ways” and “gates”  that are posited as standing “between” us and the Divine Reality.  This “faith” is now the “gateless gate” for the Christian.  It is the foundation for the ultimate koan, if you will, in the Christian context; something that certainly is way beyond some feeling or notion or wish…something that will actually “crack open” the superficial layers of awareness that we walk around with.

Now consider again those key words of Paul:  “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”  This has to be the ultimate Christian koan…unless of course you water down these words to a trivial sentiment.  It is a sad fact that too much in Christian preaching all this Pauline language –“Christ in me,” etc.—gets treated as if it were merely metaphorical/symbolic, or it gets turned into an abstract new principle of activity and life…we “imitate” Christ, or related to that it is simply an ethical call to live by another moral code, or, worst of all, with that little preposition “in” the picture that is presented is a kind of radical dualism where somehow there are now two principles of life …there is your identity and then there is Christ somehow attached to this identity as an addendum.  Whatever grain of truth there is in all these positions, they all fall very far short of the Reality Paul is pointing at.  And THAT points to a Christian nondualism.  One could say that Augustine summed up Paul in these words:  God is closer to me than I am to myself.  It is only here that we can even begin to appreciate and encounter the deep mysticism of the other great religious traditions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, etc.

What I Did During the Pandemic, Or How I Try to Make the Titanic Great Again

Ages ago when I was going to elementary school, when we came back from summer vacation, it was customary to write a short essay describing how we had spent the summer.  That was not an enjoyable or easy exercise since mostly in my old neighborhood in Chicago we did nothing…just play a little ball and sit around and think of different ways we could be mischievous.  For some reason I felt an obligation to report on what I have been doing and thinking during this very unusual period of history—perhaps also trying to be a bit mischievous!  So, let me follow this illuminating tradition and begin.

First of all, I have been practicing self-quarantine with the exception of several visits to the store for supplies.  Considering my age probably a good idea even though I don’t have the usual underlying conditions that can lead to serious consequences if the virus hits you.

Reading my old favorite Chinese poets…in translation, alas….T’ao Ch’ien, Hsieh Ling Yun, Meng Hao-Jan, Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Meng Chiao, Po Chu-I, Stonehouse, and of course my beloved Han Shan, the fool of Cold Mountain, and a few others.

Saw a lengthy, multi-part BBC video on China…Michael Wood….history, geography, culture….very good but sadly weak on the special gifts that China has.  Pathetically little on the poetry, the art, the incredible history of the hermit movement, very inadequate on the Taoist and Buddhist traditions in China, a superficial take on Confucius….but still it was interesting and informative.    I admit to a kind of infatuation with China….I know it has some very dark and unpleasant corners in its history, as do all cultures, so I am not idealizing it….but some aspects of “the mind of China” are more interesting and much deeper than anything else I have encountered…it is after all the birthplace of Zen!

Pondering “being” and “doing”…the role of solitude and silence in life and culture.  All cultures, all societies have valued both being and doing, but the emphasis placed on each can be very, very different.  Our society is very much a “doing” thing…and in a hurry…and this would be true for the whole modern West.  We not only value action to an exaggerated degree, but we have also almost completely forgotten “being”….we have lost sight that authentic action flows from who we are in the depths of our personhood.  While it is also true that what we do forms us into who we are, nevertheless at the deepest level who we understand ourselves as determines the nature of our actions.  Chaotic activity, spasmodic actions, dysfunctional lives, self-destructive attitudes, distorted relationships, downright evil, spiritual blindness and social delusion, all this and more flow from a distorted view of our being or a total ignorance of who we really are in our depths.  As one of my theology teachers once said talking about John of the Cross and detachment, “Some people are only as good as their last cup of coffee.”

All the major religious traditions have this, but unfortunately all of them also have a plethora of obfuscations that lead not only to superficiality and superstition but also to all the same distortions of human life.

Among the practices and structures that lead to a deeper sense of being are solitude and silence….the hermit life….monastic life in general.  Normally the overwhelming number of the population pays no attention to these realities, but now with so many pushed into self-quarantine and isolation and feeling cutoff from others and regular human interaction, well, solitude and silence is something that has at least brushed the lives of many…and instead of being an opportunity to discover the depth dimension of our being it simply is another challenge to find something to do…activities that fill our space….thank you, internet!

In a sense this brings up the “chicken/egg dilemma”…which comes first?  Does solitude and silence uncover the depth dimension of life, or is it that it is only when we encounter our depths that we can begin to live at home within solitude and silence….and journey ever deeper….?  The answer is of course….Both!!  

Solitude and silence can be hard…I get that.  It is never very easy unless you are exceptionally in the depths already.  But instead of running away from it we should use this opportunity to learn something from whatever bit of silence and solitude we experience.

One of the things that we can learn in solitude and silence is to what degree we are a relational being and to what degree we are a reactive being.  Sadly, too many people are mostly reactive….”as good as that last cup of coffee”….dominated by what is our latest stimulus.  If something rubs us the wrong way, the spontaneous reaction is inevitably anger and more….But with the help of solitude and silence we can paradoxically uncover the relational nature of our being and we can relate to someone else’s negativity in a positive way instead of just reacting all the time.  By the way, this is at the heart of non-violence.

On several occasions I listened to Gov. Cuomo of New York giving a daily update on the crisis in New York.  Don’t know too much about him, but he seems like a decent person and a good governor.  At one point he mentioned how New Yorkers have a reputation for being tough.  Yes, he said, we are tough, but tough should mean being smart, being resourceful, being united, being caring, loving.  Very good, Governor!  On the other hand our national leadership is just a total embarrassment (and even dangerous).  I can hope for a change in November, but that is probably just dreaming…I fear the Dems will somehow manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory…..and regardless of who wins and who rules we show no sign that we are aware of what our real problems are and how deep they are.  The Ship of State is sinking.

As I write this, over 70,000 people have died in the U.S. due to the virus.  That’s more than in the whole Vietnam debacle which spanned about 7 years.  Karl Marx once wrote: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”  Marx was referring to Napoleon I  and decades later Napoleon II.  Here this saying would apply to Lyndon Johnson and Trump.

Speaking of which, the pandemic has shocked the sensibilities of many people, especially here in the good old U.S.A….exposed some of our vulnerability.  We have a very poor sense of the “larger picture” of who we are…very vulnerable mammals who have been here a very very short time in the grand scheme of things, and civilization and our nation…hardly a blink of the eye.  We seem to forget or ignore or simply not be aware that all this can go “poof” like a soap bubble floating in a breeze.  Modern life and especially modern technology creates this illusory sense of living in this invulnerable cocoon….dominance of nature, manipulation of our environment, the hubris of “we can do anything,”….etc….all this feeds our illusions of our permanence.  All civilizations and societies eventually fall apart and crumble…both from their own internal incoherence and even more so from external, natural forces….the ruins of the Anasazi in Arizona and New Mexico show a culture wiped out probably by a vast century-long drought.  And note this recent headline about a newly released study:

Billions projected to suffer nearly unlivable heat in 2070

We live within this incredible natural environment that has its own rhythms, its own laws, its own time scale.  The mountains we love to gaze at did not spring up like a flower…they rose through unspeakably enormous forces at work that shaped and reshaped our landscape over millions of years.  And so much of our beautiful, natural landscape is due to enormous collisions with these visitors from the far reaches of the cosmos which seemed like apocalyptic catastrophes at the time.  To be sure our civilization, our society is not a permanent fixture on this planet!!

Speaking of which, I have also been pondering the “rivers and mountains” school of Chinese art, poetry and painting.  Very profound folk….for them the wilderness was an icon of the Mystery of the Tao, the mystery of their own being….  It was never a landscape to admire or a place of recreation.  There have been a few in the West who have approximated this sensibility….like John Muir who spoke of the Sierras as his “cathedral”…like Ansel Adams who tried to capture this spirit in his photographs of Yosemite…like Edward Abbey whose heartfelt passion for the desert was so evident….and a few others.

Let me conclude with a few lines from my Chinese poet friends and Edward Abbey, some words to accompany us during the Pandemic:

From T’ao Ch’ien (translated by David Hinton):

I live here in a village house without 

all that racket horses and carts stir up,

and you wonder how that could ever be.

Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself

a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums

at my east fence, I see South Mountain

far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight

returning home.  All this means something,

something absolute: whenever I start 

to explain it, I forget words altogether.

From Li Po, aka Li Bai (trans. by Hinton):

You ask why I’ve settled in these emerald mountains:

I smile, mind of itself perfectly idle, and say nothing.

Peach blossoms drift streamwater away deep in mystery

here, another heaven and earth, nowhere people know.

From Li Po again (trans. Unknown):

“The birds have vanished into the sky and now the last cloud drains away. We sit together the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.”

And from Edward Abbey:

 I choose to listen to the river for a while, thinking river thoughts, before joining the night and the stars.  

 

The Circus

I mean, of course, the political circus, the presidential campaign which is upon us even in the midst of all the other problems around us now.  Normally I would not be worked up by this political spectacle, but there are some deeper and more serious implications here that not many are paying attention to.   First of all, it does appear that Biden, the darling of the Democrat establishment, will be the candidate of the Party to go against one of the worst presidents in history—but I think he is tied at the bottom with a few dozen others!!  The Democrat establishment has jumped all over Bernie to defeat him, not that he is perfect—actually he is simply a watered-down version of where we should be at, but still he is pointing in the right direction.  Can’t say that about ANY of the others.  What a depressing situation!  But like I said there’s some much deeper issues than this or that political candidate.  The whole vision of who we are as a country is sadly visible, no more masks, and in fact our view of the human reality is also very much exposed.  Let me hit some key points and then get to some underlying themes.

Let’s go back in time a bit.  

Martin Luther King is sitting in a Birmingham jail.  It is Eastertime, 1963, and a group of white clergymen have called on him to become “more moderate” in his demands and tactics.  MLK writes a letter to them from the jail explaining his disagreement with them.  This is from that letter:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Fast forward to this month and the primary season.  Nina Turner, a Black woman who is co-chair of Bernie’s campaign, invokes this message to counter Biden’s appeal to older Black people and other Dems with a message of “We don’t need a revolution”(Biden’s actual words), to counter that sneaky addiction to “moderation” that ultimately leaves people with the illusion of change.  She was immediately challenged by a white spokeswoman from the Biden campaign who said that Nina had “no standing”! to use MLK in his critique of moderates.  Interesting!

Recently Bernie got the endorsement of Jesse Jackson.  He also has reasonable support from young Blacks and intellectuals and artists in the Black community.  However, unfortunately older Blacks overwhelmingly support Biden (as do older white people but for different reasons).  In part that is understandable.  Think of this:  for centuries your people have been enslaved, abused, degraded, spit upon, pushed down, etc.   Then suddenly one day one of your people is elected president.  This has an unspeakable impact on your psyche.  Now the man who is running for president was his “sidekick,”  “had his back,” etc.  You are going to be “loyal” to him no matter what.  I get that; I can see the pull that would have.  However, it is still a mistake.  Furthermore, it is only a partial answer to the problem.  Bernie has a particular language and analysis of what is the core problem in the U.S., and the key word in that is “class.”  Black people would prefer to see “race” as an equally critical component of the analysis—they see racism as the driving force of negativity in their lives because it is so “in your face” in their lives.  The class thing is more subtle, more disguised, and much more pervasive.  In fact, it partially enables the racism.  But Bernie’s language has not made that clear enough for this segment of voters.

Then there are all the “moderate” white voters.  These are the ones I don’t get at all.  They don’t want any substantial change, or they are afraid of that or something.  Perhaps they only want a “little less corruption” with Biden than with Trump.  Lets get this clear:  both Dems and Republicans are rife with corruption.  Biden seems like a “kinder, gentler” corruption.  However, his track record is incredibly bad, and it is amazing to me that the Dem electorate is ignoring this—of course the national media is all in on him so you won’t see that in their presentations.

I will let others state the case more thoroughly—here are two very good ones:

https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/03/democrats-you-really-do-not-want-to-nominate-joe-biden

Now I see this headline in Common Dreams about a Biden interview on MSNBC:

Hiding Behind False and Misleading Claims, Biden Refuses to Commit to Signing Medicare for All Bill as President

Incredibly Biden doesn’t seem to want to sign a Medicare for All bill even if it were passed by Congress!

I will let Chris Hedges have the last word on this election—his commentary is titled:  The One-Choice Election:

“There is only one choice in this election. The consolidation of oligarchic power under Donald Trump or the consolidation of oligarchic power under Joe Biden. The oligarchs, with Trump or Biden, will win again. We will lose. The oligarchs made it abundantly clear, should Bernie Sanders miraculously become the Democratic Party nominee, they would join forces with the Republicans to crush him. Trump would, if Sanders was the nominee, instantly be shorn by the Democratic Party elites of his demons and his propensity for tyranny. Sanders would be red-baited — as he was viciously Friday in The New York Times’ “As Bernie Sanders Pushed for Closer Ties, Soviet Union Spotted Opportunity” — and turned into a figure of derision and ridicule. The oligarchs preach the sermon of the least-worst to us when they attempt to ram a Hillary Clinton or a Biden down our throats but ignore it for themselves. They prefer Biden over Trump, but they can live with either.

Only one thing matters to the oligarchs. It is not democracy. It is not truth. It is not the consent of the governed. It is not income inequality. It is not the surveillance state. It is not endless war. It is not jobs. It is not the climate. It is the primacy of corporate power — which has extinguished our democracy and left most of the working class in misery — and the continued increase and consolidation of their wealth.”

So much for all that.  But what is at the root of all this social dysfunctionality.  To get a grasp on that is probably the most important thing you can do—more important than voting or protesting or complaining or trying to look the other way.  We are laboring under a dysfunctional vision of human life and human identity.  Age-old problem; universal problem.  But there is our variant of this disease.  

From the beginning Americans have always put “the individual” on a kind of conceptual pedestal.  We see ourselves as these atomized entities of selfhood, each with his/her own self-interest.  When there is a “group” it is as if it were like a bucket of marbles, simply rubbing against each other.  But there are also the inevitably more organic groupings based on race or nationality or religion—and these can also splinter into subgroups.  However, given the underlying and dominant paradigm of our vision, these groups become focused on their self-interest.  The whole social fabric becomes a struggle of competing self-interests.  Capitalism is built on this foundation and exploits it thoroughly.  Modern political theory from the Enlightenment onwards has been about the management of competing self-interests.  When someone runs for office today, whatever it be, he or she  needs to satisfy a whole bunch of conflicting self-interests.  

At the other end of the pole is a vision of goals not built on self-interest but on what is called “the common good.”   This is a term from Catholic social thought.  Interesting that this is close to Buddhist insights about our essential interrelatedness—we are not “marbles in a bucket,” seeking to maximize our own gain in a conflict of interests.   Interesting also that a Jewish politician is closer to Catholic social teaching than a Catholic one!

What ALL human beings share very clearly is a seeking of happiness, but authentic well-being and happiness is not achieved by “me” but by “us” because we are pure interrelatedness or as Catholic teaching puts it, “the Body of Christ.”  This has tremendous practical implications in the political and economic life of the nation.  For example, universal health care free for all or a for-profit health care for those who can afford it are stem from such fundamental difference in vision.  If we have a distorted view of the human reality, we will have a dysfunctional and distorted economy and politics.

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