1. The Middle East is once more hot in the news, and surely enough Islam is once again getting smeared by many ignorant Westerners and by certain Middle Easterners who have used the holy religion of Islam for very sick ends. First there was the Israel-Hamas killings; then ISIS (and there was Syria and Iran and Iraq!) There is no simple answer or explanation for what is going on there–certainly not on the political or social or economic level. Any solution that comes simply from that level alone I think will fail miserably. Consider Gandhi’s experience in India, how he addressed the problems there from a much deeper level than any of these three. And yet also how he can be said to have “failed” in a certain sense–today’s India is not the India of Gandhi, and it’s not because of “inevitable progress and change.” Not many could follow Gandhi’s path after he was assassinated because it involved the depths of the heart. Well, the Middle East, or to be more fair and accurate, no country in the Middle East has had its own Gandhi to light a way that is different from this kind of slaughter and violence. Imagine if the Palestinian people took the path of Gandhi in their grievances against Israel ( and there are plenty of those grievances), the State of Israel would be totally shamed and exposed to the whole world for the brutalities that they commit. Instead you have Hamas, and you have an “eye for an eye” mentality. (Incidentally, Gandhi said that such a view would make the whole world blind!) On our part here in the good ole’ USA there is absolutely no understanding of how to deal with these situations in any other way except bombing, arms, endless war, “peace conferences that sell people out,” more killing, exploitation of natural resources, etc. But there is the rare voice of a rare clear-eyed person who is able to get underneath the ugly and opaque surface and reveal the true tragedy that all this flows from. Here I would recommend again Chris Hedges: “The Brutalized Become Brutalizers.”
- Speaking of our situation, is it possible that we could be more dysfunctional than we are now? Well, yes! In fact some there are who see us in such a downward slide as a society and as a people that the end is in sight. I tend to agree–especially with such acute observers of our situation as Noam Chomsky, no darling of the mass media or of popular opinion. Chomsky does not help you to slumber in this consumer nightmare:
- Somebody pointed out that this year is the 50th anniversary of Marcuse’s famous book, One Dimensional Man. It came out in English about 1964 and caused quite a stir. As social criticism it went far beyond the usual Marxism of the Old Left. Merton read it carefully and absorbed a lot of its views into his own monastic critique. You can even see it in that famous last talk he gave in Asia just before his untimely death. Here’s a few quotes from an article in Truthout celebrating this book:
“His basic argument is that false consciousness, Marx’s concept, has deepened in post-WWII capitalism, diverting people from their alienation and manifesting in false needs. Shopping both soothes the soul and produces profit as we shift from saving to spending in what John Kenneth Galbraith called the “affluent society.” One-dimensional thought is episodic and sticks to the surfaces of things. It is short news cycle thinking, jumping from the missing Malaysian airliner to nude photos hacked off celebrity cellphones. One-dimensional thought accepts the status quo, even loving fate (Nietzsche), a deepening of false consciousness achieved through the various culture industries of radio, television, film and now the internet. We pierce such thought by imagining utopia, ever the desideratum of left thought beginning with Marx’s early writings in which he anticipates self-creative work or praxis.”
By Ben Agger
“Marcuse in ODM urged the Great Refusal, a break with conventional thinking about politics, economics, the self. His book ignited the imagination and sparked revolt, even as he drew upon recondite European theory reaching back to Hegel and Marx. I took my freshman course on them well before the internet. Hegel in the Phenomenology might have been describing the internet and social media where he characterized idealist reason as “the bacchanalian whirl in which no member is not drunken,” whereas Marx in the Manifesto anticipated laptop capitalism wherein “all that is solid melts into air.”
By Ben Agger
Recall Merton in that famous last talk when he mentions that he was challenged by the student revolt leaders of 1968 when they said that they were the “true monks.” Merton appreciated that and saw that they had an intuitively correct sense that monks should be people who are truly “refuseniks” in this mad society, and that perhaps the standard religious monks had sold out and become supporters of the dysfunctionality of the establishment. Of course Merton also pointed out that the “refusal” or “revolt” of the monk comes from a deeper place than any critique of any social or economic order. But monks should be “friends” of those who are nauseated by this state of the State and perhaps they can provide some kind of foundation for a deep and real transformation of society. But this is probably too idealistic!!
- On a happier note, every once in a while you run across some person who really and truly impresses and inspires you even as their lives embody interests, inclinations and paths that are not yours. Recently I found such a person: naturalist Derham Giuliani. Mostly unknown, he lived in “my neighborhood”–the Eastern Sierras. Born near San Francisco and educated in mathematics, he found the outdoors and the wilds totally irresistible. In his 20s he moved to the small town of Big Pine on Hwy 395 in the shadow of the Sierras. He lived there for 40 years studying the natural world in the White Mountains–the range on the Eastern side of the Sierras. He died at the age of 79 in 2010. From a eulogy: “Giuliani lived by himself for some 40 years in Big Pine, in a small house on the land of a good friend. He lived simply, with no phone and few family connections, spending every spare moment outdoors…. He spent most of his life tramping through the Whites, accumulating a vast knowledge about the wild rugged range.” I think he is an example of one of Merton’s “secret monks”–and a self-taught naturalist!.
- The Dalai Lama. He recently made the news when it was reported that he had said that he was going to be the last Dalai Lama–the end of that line. It turns out that he may have been misunderstood and/or misquoted but the fact is that he has hinted at that possibility. He also has hinted that the next Dalai Lama could be a woman! Might even be elected! He is a most remarkable person who is also trying to shake up and wake up some of his own people. He has worked hard to change the world’s image of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture from one of exotic and esoteric magic and powers to one of nonviolence, compassion, and deep wisdom. When an interviewer mentioned to him that there are reputedly highly realized lamas who can skip from mountain top to mountain top, etc., the Dalai Lama laughed very loudly. He then said, maybe that’s the way for him to go back to Tibet! He has often said that he does not have any great realization, but that he works assiduously at study and practice in order to grow in compassion, selflessness, and wisdom—these are the truest signs of deep spirituality. The Dalai Lama has labored tirelessly to make manifest the fact that the goal of the complex and elaborate Tibetan Buddhism is something that in itself is utterly and transcendently pure and simple and resulting in unspeakable compassion and transcendent wisdom. One of the Dalai Lamas favorite figures and a source of his teaching is Shantideva(8th Century Buddhist monk and scholar and a true holy man). The main work of Shantideva that the Dalai Lama teaches from is: Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life or sometimes translated as Entering the Path of Enlightenment.
When the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize and gave his acceptance speech, he concluded with these words of Shantideva:
“May I be the protector of the abandoned,
The guide for those who wander the path,
And for those who yearn for the other shore,
May I be the vessel, the ferry, the bridge;
May I be the island for those who need an island,
The lamp for those who need a lamp,
The bed for those who need a bed;
May I be the wish-fulfilling gem, the vase
With great treasure, a powerful mantra, the healing plant,
The wish-granting tree, the cow of abundance.
As long as space remains,
As long as beings remain
May I too remain
To relieve the sufferings of the world.”
- And let us conclude with these wise words from another wise teacher: Eckhart:
“If a person thinks he will get more of God by meditation, by devotions, by ecstasies or by a special infusion of grace, than by the kitchen stove or in the stable—that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak around his head and shoving him under a bench. For whoever seeks God within any special way gets the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it. But whoever seeks God without any special way gets him as he is in himself, and that person lives with the Son and is life itself.”