“Save Money. Live Better.” I am in a large store, and I see these words on a sign, very prominently displayed. These words appear In a number of places in the store. They are obviously meant as an important statement in this place, and in fact they express a foundational principle of the founder of this company. In a sense these words are a trivial truism, and certainly there is nothing wrong with “saving money.” However, in that very moment when we nod our assent to this truism, we slowly succumb to a corruption of our vision and our understanding. The phrase conceals that with an innocuous truism that appeals to our “everyday selves” but which in fact poisons our ability to discern what might be the nature of this “live better.” But this is what advertising is always doing by filling our mental, emotional and even spiritual environment with slogans and phrases that keep us from thinking and seeing the “nature of the beast.” So….I propose an alternative phrase for the store: “Buy Less, Have Less. Live Better.” Come to think of it, the Gospels would prefer this sign: “Give up your possessions. Live Better.” See what I mean?
Many, many years ago, when I was in my late teens, one summer night I was sitting on a porch, chatting with a lovely girl for whom I had developed quite an infatuation. Anyway, suddenly above the trees there rose this incredible full moon. It was so amazing that for a while we just looked at it in silence. Then, out of the clear blue, I offered it to her as a present….. I said, “It’s absolutely free; it’s all yours as a gift.” She just laughed, and she was a bit puzzled. I can’t say that I knew what I was saying, but it just seemed to sum up my own inner self somehow and I was trying to find something deeper between us. As we chatted some more it was clear that she found no meaning in this beautiful moon being “free,” and if she could not take it back to her room it was not much of a “gift.” It was only years later when I became a monk that then I began to understand what I felt at that moment.
Recently I saw this minor little story on one of the news sites. It caught my eye because it mentioned a “neighborhood” I lived in for a number of years: Big Sur. The story was about Ventana, a luxury resort in the storied mountains of Big Sur along the central coast of California, an incredible place. The news story mentioned that it now costs about $2000 a night to stay at Ventana. I was amazed. Wondered what you get for that…. It is the essence of capitalism that a “fair” price is determined by the “market.” That means you can charge as high as you want as long as someone is there to pay it. A full discussion of that would take us far afield and perhaps unnecessary. But anyway, why would anyone pay that amount? Just a few miles down the fabled Highway 1 there is a monastic community that invites people to stay with them a few days with basic accommodations starting at $135 a night. Still a bit steep for me, but I do appreciate what’s involved. In any case, that slogan does apply here: Save money. Live Better.
Do you remember “Big Yellow Taxi,” a fun song from long ago by Joni Mitchell? One line from the song stands out: “They paved over paradise and put up a parking lot.” Actually there is quite a lot packed in that one sentence, but I would like to focus on just one word: paradise. On the first and obvious level it refers to the awesome and beautiful natural world around us. It is the vision of John Muir and Edward Abbey, among many others. The line refers to the destruction of that “paradise,” exploiting it for profit, making it into a commodity. But the word “paradise” also resonates with meaning far beyond what Joni probably initially intended. It immediately connects us to the Biblical myth and its many echoes and re-echoes through the ages. Recall the Book of Genesis, how it begins with the creation story, and by chapter 2 we are with the first human beings, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, their home. It is the natural world in harmony. Adam and Eve are created in the “likeness of God,” and in Semitic terms, “they walk with God as with a friend,” meant to live in his Presence all their days…as the Psalms keep repeating. But they screw this up; “they pave over” this Paradise. They want this “likeness” on their terms, as a “my possession,” not recognizing it as a gift, not grasping the nature of the gift. They become unable to experience their world as originally intended, as Paradise, and the Bible is very concrete in what that entails for them. They have committed themselves to what the Buddhists call “dukkha,” that insatiable and seemingly endless grasping for satisfaction (recall the Rolling Stones’ song, recall Sisyphus rolling his big rock up the hill). Both personal and social life become very problematic…as the Bible slowly unfolds. But I want to bring in a modern voice to illustrate a contemporary, unvarnished view of this deterioration: John Lennon, just before his death. I remembered this quote of his from one of my early blog postings back in 2014:
“Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.”
Echoing some Desert Fathers….and the legendary Chinese hermit, Han Shan…..
Lets jump ahead in the Bible now, all the way to the New Testament, to the Gospels. Recall Jesus’s words to the thief crucified alongside him:
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23: 43
Implying that there is a way of “returning to Paradise.” (Reminding one of Gandhi’s classic words: “I know a way out of hell.”) Indeed, there is a whole Patristic tradition of Easter homilies and writings in which Christ is portrayed as having “descended into hell” (what later theology calls “limbo”—a place of illusory separation from God) at his death, and in his Resurrection he led all the people who were there into Paradise. So, there is this aspect of this mythic language about “paradise” and a “return to paradise,” and you can kind of see what it’s getting at. However, it can also be seriously misread where paradise is something outside you, after you die, a “container,” if you will, of your life, an environment that is pleasant, etc. This is one of the dualistic pitfalls within Christianity. A modern Orthodox holy man, St. Innocent of Alaska, points us in the right direction of understanding this myth: “ In brief, Adam was in Paradise, and Paradise was in Adam.” When we became alienated from this Paradise within, we no longer could see the world we live in as Paradise, and so like fools we turned it into a “parking lot” and our lives became vehicles of dukkha.
The person of Christ in the Gospels, his death and resurrection, means there is a way to “return to Paradise.” But instead of a locus, a place, “out there” beyond me, this Paradise is my very being, in which this human being and God “walk together as friends.” Here I would like to point out a wonderful work from ancient Christianity, a Syriac text which is a collection and translation of various Desert Father traditions from Egypt, from Palestine, from Syria, and from Iraq; and it is marvelously entitled: The Paradise of the Holy Fathers. Herein you will find the landmarks of the Paradise within: humility, poverty, simplicity, silence, peace, compassion, mercy, and above all, purity of heart.
Let me conclude with a few quotes from Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima, the holy monk and spiritual father in The Brothers Karamazov. One who certainly “returned to Paradise.”
As a young man Zosima is a military officer with a servant. One day he strikes his servant on the face and then on top of that also challenges somebody to a duel:
“Why is it, I thought, that I feel something, as it were, mean and shameful in my soul? Is it because I am going to shed blood? No, I thought, it doesn’t seem to be that. Is it because I am afraid of death, afraid to be killed? No, not that, not at all…. And suddenly I understood at once what it was: it was because I had beaten Afanasy the night before! I suddenly pictured it all as if it were happening over again: he is standing before me, and I strike him in the face with all my might, and he keeps his arms at his sides, head erect, eyes staring straight head as if he were at attention; he winces at each blow, and does not even dare raise a hand to shield himself—this is what a man can be brought to, a man beating his fellow man! It was as if a sharp needle went through my soul. I stood as if dazed, and the sun was shining, the leaves were rejoicing, glistening, and the birds, the birds were praising God…I covered my face with my hands, fell on my bed, and burst into sobs. And then I remembered my brother Markel, and his words to his servants, and his words to the servants before his death: ‘My good ones, my dears, why are you serving me, why do you love me, and am I worthy of being served?’ ‘Yes, am I worthy?’ suddenly leaped into my mind. Indeed how did I deserve that another man, just like me, the image and likeness of God, should serve me? This question then pierced my mind for the first time in my life. ‘Mother, heart of my heart, truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.’ ‘Lord,’ I wept and thought, ‘can that possibly not be true? Indeed, I am perhaps the most guilty of all, and the worst of all men in the world as well!’ And suddenly the whole truth appeared to me in its full enlightenment: what was I setting out to do? I was setting out to kill a kind, intelligent, noble man, who was not at fault before me in any way, thereby depriving his wife of happiness forever, tormenting and killing her.”
So….Zosima doesn’t go through with the duel in a truly incredible way…he lets the other man shoot at him, the shot misses, and he refuses to fire back and throws the gun away. He has this “enlightenment” moment, and I am sure that many modern readers will be put off, misunderstand, and misread all that language about “guilt” and “being worst,” etc. It is a kind of code language for a reality that they don’t know how else to express. Zosima (Dostoyevsky) is speaking in traditional Desert Father/mystic language which does not lend itself to modern sensibilities about self-image and self-regard. This particular language here does not point to a pathologically sick self-awareness. The modern concern about people with self-destructive self-images is valid, but this is a completely different dynamic. For the people that Zosima represents, the issue is not good self-image vs. bad self-image, but it is this enlightenment/illumination that in effect explodes the very notion of a self-image and leads to a completely different self-presence. It is also at the same time an unveiling of our profound interrelatedness and interconnectedness.
As Zosima’s military comrades castigate him for his “failure” in the aborted duel, he responds:
“’Gentlemen,’ I cried suddenly from the bottom of my heart, ‘look at the divine gifts around us: the clear sky, the fresh air, the tender grass, the birds, nature is beautiful and sinless, and we, we alone, are godless and foolish, and do not understand that life is paradise, for we need only wish to understand, and it will come at once in all its beauty, and we shall embrace each other and weep….’”
And then when he is an elder monk, teaching:
“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love…. My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds; it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now. If only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you. Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin. Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.”
There is then this mysterious encounter. Old man Karamazov comes to the monastery with his three sons to have one of the Elders arbitrate a major dispute between them. The old guy is a buffoon, an egomaniac, a thorough liar, a lecher, etc. (Kind of makes one think of a certain modern day figure in politics.) When the Elder Zosima comes into Karamazov’s presence and looks at him, he prostrates himself before the old buffoon and scorner. Then he gets up. There were a number of people in the room, and everyone is mystified about what has happened. No one understands the gesture. I know that there are quite a few people who would object to such a gesture before such a man; there are some more who would totally misconstrue the gesture and turn it into something superficial; and there are a few who might catch a glimpse of the meaning of such a moment. Fr. Zosima is teaching about Paradise not just with words, but just like a Zen Master, with a gesture that becomes a continual echoing koan.