Monthly Archives: January 2015

Life or Death

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying Him, and holding fast to Him; for that means life to you and length of days….” Dt. 30:19

Normally I don’t like to comment on current events–mostly that is a trivial exercise in futility. However, I have on occasion felt like saying something about this or that in the news. Recently, with the tragic events of massacres before our eyes, I feel a need to put some thoughts in writing even if just to clarify my own thinking. Needless to say I cannot depend on the mass media to help me in this clarification–it is more a vehicle of distortion, illusion, manipulation and propaganda to the nth degree. But here and there I find voices that articulate a vision and a more truthful analysis that is helpful in understanding at least something of what happened. And understanding is very important lest we react in a way that simply exacerbates the evil and enhances the darkness of these events. Avoid the simplistic and misleading language of the mass media and most political leaders at this time–don’t be fooled by those clever, manipulative phrases: “war on terror,” “attack on Western freedom of speech,”etc. Let me begin with a quote from my favorite commentator, Chris Hedges:

“The terrorist attack in France that took place at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was not about free speech. It was not about radical Islam. It did not illustrate the fictitious clash of civilizations. It was a harbinger of an emerging dystopia where the wretched of the earth, deprived of resources to survive, devoid of hope, brutally controlled, belittled and mocked by the privileged who live in the splendor and indolence of the industrial West, lash out in nihilistic fury.”

(As I write this a report came out, from Oxfam I believe, that the top 1% in the world own 50% of the wealth of the world. That leaves the other 99% with the other half.)

We have to be very clear in our words: this murderous act was evil; it can never be justified by any circumstance; the murder of anyone is not to be tolerated, condoned or brushed off as “inevitable” or “necessary.” We also need to acknowledge that ISIS and Boko Haram are as bad as it gets. But once that is said, we need to reflect on the unimaginable darkness, turmoil, pain and delusion that roils within a heart that resorts to such acts. Calling them “terrorists” does absolutely no good except giving us an excuse for killing them…and if you think that solves the problem you are as deluded as our leaders…. But here we need to see this situation and these people with the eyes of Santideva, the great Buddhist teacher of compassion centuries ago. With Santideva we need to seek the healing and liberation of all human beings (indeed of all sentient beings) from the darkness and suffering within them. If we are with Santideva, we will seek this more than our own well-being. (In this regard Santideva fulfills the teachings of Jesus more than most Christians.) If we are to do this truly and realistically, then we have to understand the context and history that created the ground of this madness and nihilism. For this we turn again to Chris Hedges for a full survey of what led up to these murders and the obscurantism of the Western press and Western leaders who seem to have no inkling of a true and real way out of this situation except by more killing:

And for an added voice in harmony with Hedges, there is Mark LeVine, a professor of Middle East History at UC Irvine:

And for a more acerbic analysis of Western reporting and analysis in the Western media, a truly powerful and biting look at what was said about this event, look at Noam Chomsky’s write-up that appeared on the CNN website (a miracle in itself!):

Among the things these men are pointing at is our utter hypocrisy. If you want to get a good close-up look at a terrorist, Mr. Westerner, just take a look in the mirror. We in the West have been perpetrating terror on other populations quite extensively over the centuries. We practiced terrorism and genocide against Native Americans, just as the British have against the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and the French have against all kinds of Islamic people but especially against the Algerians in Algeria where thousands were tortured and killed. One has to wonder, what made us do all that? What kind of madness has been driving OUR society? Killing civilians? Heck, we’re experts at it. The British and Americans fire bombed Dresden during World War II and hundreds of thousands of civilians died horrific deaths–an act that was meant to terrorize the German people into surrender. Heck, I won’t even mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Never mind the more recent, less dramatic, killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind that we torture people now as a matter of state policy of sorts. (Incidentally, the two brothers who killed all those cartoonists gave indications that what really pushed them were the photos of Americans torturing and humiliating Iraqi men in prison–the photos that were released and made the world papers.)

But here I would like to touch an aspect of this murderous event that has become a very hot topic of contention: the “freedom of speech” that a magazine like Charlie Hebdo has. For many in the West this was the key issue; for liberal and conservative intellectuals, media people and politicians, what was being attacked here was the right to make fun of someone’s religion, in this case it was Islam, and there are all those “radical Islamists” who can’t deal with Western freedom of speech. (And for some of the even more misinformed, it is all Islam that can’t stand freedom of speech.) Well I am all for freedom of speech, but things here are not as simple as all that. A number of Islamic writers have pointed out the hypocrisy here too of Western people.

First of all, there is no such thing as an “absolute freedom of speech.” You cannot jokingly yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre for example because the consequences could be very bad for all. You cannot joke with an airline stewardess about a possible bomb in your suitcase; you won’t end up at your destination I assure you! So there are limits and boundaries to free speech, but where to draw those boundaries is a constant struggle that engages us all, as a people and as individuals. It is probably true that governments should draw as few boundaries and as few limits as possible to free speech, but as individuals maybe we should exercise some discretion in our self-expression (even if we are “politically free” to say something) and ask ourselves what is really behind what we are saying and expressing, what is our real intention and goal, whether we are choosing Life with our words or death. It is that serious sometimes.
When I took a look at some of the stuff Charlie Hebdo was publishing, I began to wonder. There is such a relentless anti-Islam feel to so much of what they presened. From the time of the Arab Spring when Egypt was irrupting with revolution and many Egyptians gave their lives in hope of a change, there is a cartoon of an Egyptian Moslem full of bullit holes, bleeding, and his words are: “The Koran is shit. It can’t stop bullets.” Or how about when they present one of the French government officials, a dark-skinned Moslem woman, when they portray her as a monkey. There’s a feeling here of more than satire but of racism and hatred. And really it is one thing to poke fun at living leaders, politicians, current events, pop figures, etc. mostly they deserve it and it serves a common good to see their foibles exposed. But it seems one should be more sensitive with the key religious symbols of a group of people. So you wonder about that constant relentless barrage of presenting Mohammed in very degrading ways, as if he were responsible for ISIS and Boko Haram. Wittingly or unwittingly they were “pouring gasoline” on a fire, the fire of degradation, poverty, oppression, subjugation, exploitation, etc. Yes, they had “freedom of speech” but really is that all that is to be looked at when you open your mouth to say something? Lots more to be said here, but here are two Moslem commentators saying it much better than me:

I will conclude by giving Brother David Steindl-Rast the last word. He is a very well-known figure in Catholic monasticism and a true voice for peace and nonviolence in the Gandhian tradition. First of all recall from the movie Gandhi a scene late in the movie where he is fasting and almost dying during the great religious strife between Hindus and Moslems in India. Massacres were taking place regularly, hideous murders, unspeakable acts of outrage all around in the name of religion. Gandhi’s only weapon was to fast. At one point where he is almost dying from the fast, a Hindu comes in to see him trying to persuade to stop his fast. He confesses to Gandhi that he has killed a Moslem child by bashing its head in because Moslems had killed his child. He admits to Gandhi that he is “going to hell” for this act. In one of the truly great moments, Gandhi tells him, “I know a way out of hell……” If you have seen the movie you will recall this amazing scene. If you haven’t seen this movie, no description of mine can do justice to what is communicated there….you have to see the movie! In any case, we too faced with the horrors of our time have to find “the way out of hell” for all concerned. We have to find the right language, the right things to say and what not to say, to choose life for ourselves AND for our brothers and sisters everywhere and not to choose death over and over again. So now let us conclude with some wise words from Brother David:

“Accusations achieve nothing unless they go along with sober self-assessment. Our task would be: to face the decadence of our society, to acknowledge it, and to commit ourselves to restoring among us the essential human values we have lost. These three steps are a pre-condition for dialogue with Islamic culture. And only through dialogue, never through polemics or repression, may we hope to prevent terrorism and achieve a peaceful future.”

Special People

We all have “special people” in our lives, people we look towards because their lives carry some critical significance for us. Now, of course, I am using the word “special” in a very special way! Certainly not in the terms of our pop culture. You will recall that famous quip by Andy Warhol decades ago, “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” Truly a prophet of our consumer culture where absolutely everything, even nature, becomes a commodity for our exploitation and “consumption” and self-enhancement. For this pop culture “fame” is the main constitutive ingredient of “specialness,” and it is truly insane how this shallow fame is so worshipped and is so much a part of our social existence.

Another kind of “specialness” is one that people acquire by some extraordinary activity or accomplishment. This is not unconnected to the above shallowness because “fame” is still the “name of the game.” No matter the accomplishments, they are merely adornments for that insubstantial façade known as the ego self. It is amazing how much effort and energy (and also talent) can get expended in pursuit of this kind of “specialness.”

Now the “special people” I am referring to are the ones who manifest the Divine Reality in one way or another. You might say that actually every person is “special” in this sense, and of course you would be right. But occasionally you run into someone whose life speaks of that divine reality with extraordinary clarity or very urgently or in a very mysterious way. And this “specialness” is truly noteworthy when it is unselfconscious, when the person himself/herself is not aware how the Divine Presence radiates from their being. It is not the person who says “mirror, mirror on the wall, how holy will I be when I do such-and-such….”–no, it is not such a one who becomes “special” in this sense. That’s why most of my favorite “special people” are hardly religious folk in religious orders. With a few important exceptions most are either on the fringe of the religious/monastic path or people who even do not recognize the reality of religion in its formal, social sense at all. For a lot of folk “specialness” is manifest when they affix the word “saint” to your name, and I grant there’s a few of those that are very special. But mostly, for me personally, like I said most of my “special people” with a few exceptions will not be found “in church.” Even if they become “well-known” what makes them special in this sense is something often concealed in pain and suffering, confusion and chaos, bewilderment and frustration, failure and darkness,—as Merton was fond of pointing out about that famous icon of a bedraggled desert hermit, “Kissed By God”—are you sure you want to be “kissed by God”?! This is the true hidden life!

Over the years of doing this blog I have written about my “special people” at one time or another–or at least some of them: from Han-shan to Abhishiktananda. I think I have four more possible candidates to join the list. To say they are “different” is quite an understatement, and I don’t expect anyone else to agree, but I see what I see….

A. First Candidate: Alexander Grothendieck (1928-2014)

Grothendieck, who died just a few months ago, was probably the greatest mathematician of our time and one of the greatest of all time. His achievements in the field of mathematics are almost beyond description except to those who inhabit the realms of the highest and most sublime areas of mathematics. What Einstein was to physics, Grothendieck was to math; but he is a total unknown except to high level mathematicians working in this field. A decent obituary can be found at this link to the New York Times:

But this is not at all what is important or significant about him for our purposes. He was a man who had a passion not only for mathematics but also for justice and truth and someone who could not tolerate the “social lie” in which we all live and participate in. Long before it was fashionable he worked to found a radical environmental group to bring European attention to the trashing of our natural world. He opposed the war in Vietnam and in protest went to Hanoi to teach mathematics to North Vietnamese students while American bombs rained down on Hanoi. He refused to receive a medal and cash award from the Soviet Mathematical Society in protest what the Soviet government was doing to dissidents. But all this was only the beginning. Around 1970 he discovered that the French institute in which he was teaching was receiving funding from the French Ministry of Defense, from the military basically. (This is standard fare in the United States where the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Agency fund and support all kinds of scientific research and if it has any kind of military applicability it is immediately appropriated. Thus even the so-called “pure sciences” are part of the war machine.) Grothendieck walked out of the Institute (In which he was the preeminent figure), and he was hoping his colleagues would join him in protest. But absolutely not one joined him in the boycott–after all they have to pay for their nice homes and cars and support the nice lives of their families…. So, to the astonishment of all, at the height of his mathematical powers, at age 42, Grothendieck dropped out! Dropped out of the academic world, and then dropped out of the whole social world, living a reclusive life in a small village in the Pyrenees.

One has to stop a moment and think to realize how staggering a gesture this was. We are not talking about someone doing a “career change,” or a young person who hasn’t done much but “drop out.” Grothendieck was at the height of his powers and at the top of his profession–even other great mathematicians stood in awe of him. This is a man who if he had come to the U. S. would have gotten some endowed chair in some prestigious university paying him a million dollars a year and who would have been solicited by every major corporation and the Defense Establishment with rewards and perks that boggle the mind. He would have been “SOMEBODY!” But no, Grothendieck became a nobody so to speak. He apparently still filled thousands of pages with mathematical work–it was after all in his blood to do math–but he published nothing in the usual manner. Like the Desert Father who burned the baskets he wove, Grothendieck on his deathbed asked that all his papers be burned. Fortunately that was not done!

So Grothendieck refused to participate in the “social lie”(or the “noble lie” as Plato might have put it), and he was willing to pay the price. He was willing to give all up–it is amusing to think how really very little the rest of us “give up” when we enter monastic/religious life. Needless to say this was not warmly received by the rest of the intellectual establishment. There’s a lot of nasty things about him on the internet–that he went mad, etc. Living in a hut in that village in the mountains, he refused to see people who came to visit him–his only contacts were with a very few of his close former students and some former associates by mail. One of them, a German mathematician, Winfried Scharlau, has written a biography of him and it is being translated into English. She says, “Don’t believe most of the things you read on the internet about him!” Some want to make his actions look like the work of a madman. The fact that he slept on a wooden floor, ate only vegetables, studied Buddhism, searched his dreams for a proof of God’s existence, thought that the whole scientific world was totally corrupt…..I guess that seems like sheer madness to some….. No matter. I have no difficulty believing that in fact he might have been mentally affected toward the end of his life….like a number of saints and holy people…. Someone with as sensitive a heart as his, with a mind as keen as his, is bound to experience some kind of “inner rupture” from the pain of living within the “social lie.” He is certainly not the classic “saint” or “holy man” but then those are not always my favorite kind of people; the “church approved” people are not necessarily the ones most truly manifesting the Divine Reality. In any case here’s a few more elaborate links about him:

B. William Rivers Pitt
This one is a lot less dramatic! William Rivers Pitt is a writer about whom I know very little. But there is a special quality about his cogent observations pertaining to that strange concoction of distorted religiosity and perverse national ideology, producing a most toxic brew–but this poison is covered over with all kinds of sweet stuff and promises of all kinds of secular paradises and heavenly rewards. Again, only a person with a truly sensitive heart can see what he sees. He has been writing against these distortions all along over the years, like some Old Testament prophet, railing against our sick patriotism and our fake religiosity. And like with the words of those Old Testament prophets, there is a Presence behind their words that demands we hear them… Here was Mr. Pitt’s Christmas message:

C. Rory Fanning
Another very unusual person. Rory was an Army Ranger, a top-notch soldier who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. He came back finally as a conscientious objector and a war-resister. He experienced war; he saw war with a clarity few soldiers seem to have. There are many soldiers who experience the horrors of war but they internalize the horror and it eats them up psychologically. Most soldiers seem incapable of admitting the wrongness of what they are involved in. They are not capable of saying simply: This is wrong. I was lied to. Our policy, our country is wrong. I was wrong. I was manipulated into this nightmare. I was fooled into doing horrible things. Etc. That kind of vision is actually quite rare. So there is a special quality about Mr. Fanning’s war resistance and his words about that whole experience. They come from a deep place.

Rory wrote a book detailing his conversion to a wholly different view of life, but the book is also about a trek he took across the country, on foot, on behalf of a dead friend, a fellow-soldier in Afghanistan, Pat Tillman–that’s quite a story in itself. Here is a good review of his book in the Chicago Tribune:

D. Vyacheslav Korotki
This one is my favorite. A truly haunting figure. Vyacheslav spent over three decades in a solitude that would make a Carthusian monk seem like a “party animal”(hey, they do have a recreational walk every week). Vyacheslav was sent by the Russian government to a remote Artic post where his job was to monitor weather conditions and report them via radio. He has been there for decades, all alone except for periodic trips “to town”-about a 100 miles away- –for supplies. Not too long ago a Russian journalist and photographer went out to visit him thinking there is an interesting story there. You can tell that what she found was beyond her words but she managed to capture some of it in her photographs. Here is a link to her original presentation:

I love her concluding words:
“I came with the idea of a lonely hermit who ran away from the world because of some heavy drama, but it wasn’t true. He doesn’t get lonely at all. He kind of disappears into tundra, into the snowstorms. He doesn’t have a sense of self the way most people do. It’s as if he were the wind, or the weather itself.”

This sounds to me that he’s more like a Chinese Taoist hermit rather than your classic Christian hermit, but no matter, I like what I see! Speaking of which, the photographs on the above link did not load for me properly for some reason, so here is another site with the same photos, and they are truly haunting in a way that is impossible to formulate: