Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tattoos, Wine, Cloth, and Nirvana

     As I've mentioned before, I like symbolism. I enjoy reading symbolic literature, or occasionally watching a symbolic movie, and making out what the symbols represent. And if it's a good story, and a rich allegory too, with almost everything in the story ingeniously representing something else, then so much the better. For example, Golding's Lord of the Flies—the novel that is; forget the movie, which botched the main point of the story—is almost entirely symbolic: It's not really about little boys stranded on an island, it's about humans on planet earth; the boy called Piggy represents Science; his glasses represent Technology; the signal fire on top of the hill represents Religion; adults represent Angels; the epileptic boy who is murdered by the rest because they consider him to be "the monster," despite the fact that he is the one who has figured the monster out, represents Jesus of Nazareth; the conflagration at the end represents the end of the world; and the monster itself, of course, represents the Devil, Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. Movies like The Matrix, Tarkovsky's Stalker, and Synecdoche, New York are also leaning in the direction of not just containing symbolism, but being parables, philosophical allegories.
     One of my favorite works of symbolic fiction is Flannery O'Connor's short story "Parker's Back." It portrays a shiftless bum of a guy named Parker, who, whenever he is restless or depressed, cheers himself up by getting himself a new tattoo. He marries an ugly, foul-tempered, and very religious young woman (who I believe symbolizes his conscience) for no better reason than a strange compulsion that he himself does not understand, combined with the idea that marrying her would be the only way to get into bed with her.
     One day, while desultorily working as a farm hand somewhere, he spaces off and accidentally wrecks the boss's tractor. Figuring that he'll be fired for it, and that he'll catch hell for it from his wife also, he flees the farm and goes into town to avoid the storm and get himself a new tattoo. As he flips through the pages of his favorite tattoo parlor's design books, he finds an image of Jesus taken from a Byzantine mosaic, standing full face and with big, staring eyes, and he suddenly has an inspiration: He can treat himself to a new tattoo and pacify his religious wife at the same time! He tells the artist that he wants the Byzantine Christ. The artist says he'll clean up the image by removing all the little mosaic squares, but Parker wants it just the way it is, little squares and all. The artist tells him it will take a few days, as the tattoo will be an elaborate job. One interesting problem is that Parker has so many tattoos already that there's only one place left on his body that has room for a large tattoo: the middle of his back. He'd never had a tattoo put on his back before, since of course he can't see anything back there.
     So Parker eventually gets his new tattoo, and after it is presentable he takes it down to the local pool hall to show it off to his friends. He walks in, gets their attention, turns his back, lifts his shirt…and they stand in awed silence, staring at Christ's staring Byzantine eyes on Parker's back. Parker considers this to be an excellent sign—if his low-minded, vulgar friends at the pool hall are this impressed, then the tattoo will completely bowl over his excruciatingly religious wife. He finally goes home, in good spirits.
     Parker's wife (and symbolic conscience), his better half, so to speak, greets him with angry glares and accusations, saying she knows all about the tractor fiasco and that she supposes he's been in town all this time with his worthless friends, and that he probably wasted what little money he had on booze and a stupid new tattoo. Parker replies that yes, he got the tattoo, but that she'll like this one. He turns his back, lifts the shirt, and…. His wife is thoroughly unimpressed, and doesn't hesitate to let him know it. Parker, rather taken aback by this, asks her, "Don't you know who that is?" She replies, "Of course not. I've never seen that person before in my life." Then Parker, surprised that he must introduce his fanatically Christian wife to her own Lord and Savior, exclaims, "That's God!" The wife's eyebrows go way, way up; her eyes attain their maximum size; and presently she shouts, "Idolatry!!" She then assaults him with a broom, driving him out of the house with a crashing thunderstorm of blows. The story ends with Parker sitting on the floor of his front porch, crying like a baby.
     In the symbolism of the story, Parker's tattoos, I think, represent his accumulated views, opinions, and attitudes, and the general composition of his life. His final and biggest mistake, from the perspective of someone who is deeply religious, like maybe his own deep-down conscience, is that he attempted merely to add spirituality to the heap, instead of letting it change his life profoundly, and allowing it to take precedence over the rest of his mass of worldly junk. 
     It may seem inappropriate for a monk who is Theravada Buddhist, more or less, to discuss Christianity and Christian symbolism on his (my) blog; but after all, I'm a Western monk, one of the relatively few, and Western literature and culture are much, much more influenced by Christianity than by Buddhism, or by any other religious/spiritual system. Besides, Christianity historically may have assumed the outward form of most Western spirituality, but the essence of the spirituality itself, and the wisdom, is applicable to all systems. It is universal. And also, of course, Jesus of Nazareth, although maybe not fully enlightened (whatever that is supposed to mean), was undoubtedly an extraordinarily evolved and wise person, and much of what he said, especially if it is translated into non Judeo-Christian terminology, may be of value to anyone. 
     So continuing with this idea, I will observe that "Parker's Back" is clearly reminiscent of two of Jesus's parables in the New Testament of the Bible: the ones concerning wine bottles and the patching of old cloth. He said that putting new wine into old bottles (or wineskins) doesn't work, as the old bottles will burst and be ruined; and that mending an old robe by cutting off a piece of a new one to patch it with doesn't work either, as in addition to the old cloth tearing and making a bigger hole, the new robe also gets a hole in it. Like O'Connor's story, these parables also are symbolic references to the attempted addition of spirituality to the already existing heap of one's worldly beliefs and attitudes. Jesus apparently placed a great deal of emphasis on being "born again," and of seeing the world as a child sees it—that is, without the encumbering baggage of acquired worldly prejudices and cultural conditioning. 
     Many people, including Christians who read the Bible, may consider these parables to be more or less inscrutable and simply pass over them, like some of the strange similes concerning the Kingdom of Heaven—for example the ones comparing the Kingdom to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a large bush, and to a small amount of yeast that leavens a large lump of dough. I suspect that Jesus considered himself to be, in addition to the Jewish (not Christian) Messiah, a sort of spiritual "seed crystal," and believed that he was opening the door to a world in which "the faith of a grain of mustard seed" would make God the center of a new world order, and miracles a commonplace. He was apparently mistaken with regard to this, at least in our version of the universe, and the Kingdom turned out to be a "flash in the pan" that was degraded into little more than a more or less worldly and non-miraculous Church. But I digress.
     Anyway, the pouring of new wine into old bottles, or rather the pouring of eternal or timeless wine into established contemporary ones, is alive and well, even if the Kingdom of Heaven is not, in Western Buddhism as well as in Christianity. In fact it's probably more alive and well now in the Far West than it was 2000 years ago in the Near East. Even though Jesus was not a Buddhist, he was a sage, and in this case, at least, he was right.  
     It appears that most Westerners who try to follow and practice Buddhism are trying to patch it onto a context of worldly materialism, adding it to their accumulation of samsaric "stuff" rather as though it were a Byzantine Christ tattoo. Most of us value worldliness and a material orientation too much to let go of it, or to make it secondary in importance to Spirit. The same is true of Christians and almost everyone else; but many in the West, ironically, are attracted to Buddhism in particular because they perceive that it requires almost no faith at all in anything, and thus is not in conflict with their deep faith in modern worldliness, or Samsara. It may even be that some Western Buddhist dislike the mere mention of Christianity, especially by a Buddhist monk, because it smacks too much of the faith and religiousness they're trying to avoid.
     Simply adding Dharma to one's worldly point of view as a way of enhancing its (the point of view's) value may really enhance its value, in a worldly, samsaric sense; but it stops being genuine Dharma in the process, in the sense that it stops being a system or practice specifically leading out of Samsara and into complete liberation or enlightenment. This is especially true if it is added as part of a system that categorically denies the miraculous, since a worldly point of view leading to enlightenment would itself require a miracle. For that matter, enlightenment itself may be called a miracle. It transcends empirical cause and effect, and determinism. Miracles can happen, though.
     Buddhist Dharma was not designed by the Buddha to be a mere hobby; it is a profoundly radical method for maximizing one's chances for full enlightenment. It is a method which is so radical that it lies beyond the reach of most laypeople, because it practically starts with renunciation of a worldly life, and of worldly attitudes. Renouncing the world is practically Step One for a serious practitioner of Buddhism. Christianity used to be similar, with Jesus emphasizing the idea that one should concentrate on Spirit, and have faith that God would provide the necessary support. One must be "born again," not just affected with a new feeling of religious sentimentality. "Sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and follow Me."
     The traditional Burmese are born into a Dharmic world view, and accept it without question, at least the villagers do, so they're not just patching it onto a spiritually comatose cultural system ("comatose" because Spirit can't really die out completely in the human heart). Most of them freely admit that they are not ready to seek enlightenment in this life, but they don't reject the emphasis on renunciation, and don't reject the idea of spiritual transcendence, considering it an impractical pipe dream or superstition, either. Largely because of this, they feel inspired to support those who they consider to be really giving liberation a serious shot. (Speaking of Spirit's inability to die, my own experience suggests that most manifestations of genuine lay Dharma in the West are more a natural result of innate human goodness than of a guiding system. Most of my non-Asian supporters in America, almost all of them, seem to have supported me more out of natural generosity and friendliness than out of any desire to live up to Buddhist ideals. About half of them weren't even Buddhists. The Buddhist system itself tends to be too rudimentary and incomplete in the West for it to be of much effect in that regard.)
     Anyway, if you want to realize Dharma, you very probably won't succeed if you insist that it be in accordance with a non-Dharmic way of seeing the world, and of functioning in it. It just doesn't work that way (especially if you don't accept the possibility of miracles, as mentioned above).
     Most human beings simply do not see the luggage of basic assumptions, most of them not only non-Dharmic but also quite irrational, that they have assimilated and accumulated from their surrounding culture. In one of Richard Gombrich's earlier books on Theravada, he makes the statement that, for the sake of unbiased objectivity, he will adopt in his discussion an attitude that is "metaphysically neutral"; then he goes ahead and adopts throughout his discussion a modern scientific, academic, humanist metaphysic, apparently oblivious to the fact that he wasn't being metaphysically neutral at all. He didn't mean any harm by it, and is sympathetic toward Theravada, but still. There really is no metaphysically neutral attitude, except perhaps in theoretical skepticism and practical mysticism—that is, in pure suspension of judgement, one way or the other. Otherwise, any attitude has implicit metaphysical assumptions, whether we realize this or not. We may not examine our beliefs very deeply, and even if we do for a time, like Parker, we wear our perceptual tattoos for so long that we hardly even notice them any more.
     In very early Buddhism, and later on in much of Mahayana philosophy, view, diṭṭhi, is considered to be a major hindrance to liberation; and this applies not only to religious heresy or philosophical "wrong view," but to any adopted belief system. Thus it is certainly not necessary to believe in a flat earth floating on water, in Sakka, King of Gods, in the Buddha's alleged "twin miracle" of levitating into the air and spraying water and fire simultaneously, etc. But of course even believing the silliest fables is not as much of a hindrance to enlightenment as firmly believing that Nirvana is impossible, or, what amounts to essentially the same thing, that Nirvana is an objectively verifiable, and thus samsaric, state. So be careful about what you believe, especially if you follow along with what appears to be obviously true.
     The practice of Dharma, then, requires a certain suspension of judgement with regard to what Reality is and is not. It may also require the humility to acknowledge, if it happens to be true, that we are not willing to do much more than scratch the surface. So many in the West are hardly doing more than that in Dharma, yet nevertheless calling themselves "Sangha" and seeing no point in advocating anything beyond it. (It is true that plenty of monks, Eastern and Western, aren't doing much real Dharma either, but that's a different story.)
     What all this ranting amounts to is that vehemently insisting upon a spiritually comatose world view, even though it may endorse a worldly kind of fairness, equality, nonviolence, etc., is simply not conducive to Awakening, or to real happiness. The Buddha apparently taught this, Jesus apparently taught this, and plain common sense implies it as well. Good luck in your practice.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Word Insanity

"Sticks and stones may break my bones…so please, please don't throw sticks and stones." —Gilligan
     I'm the sort of person who reads dictionaries. I don't just look into one when I want to know what some word means, or how to spell it, or whatever; I can sit there for an hour looking around at etymologies, advice on word usage, and biographical and geographic entries. I figure if one is to speak, write, and especially think in the English language, then one should be as proficient in it as possible. I have lived for twenty years in Burma, among Burmese monks and villagers who speak little or no English, and I never stopped thinking in American English.
     Anyhow, recently while reading the dictionary I came upon the warning that to refer to a man from China as a "Chinaman" is offensive. He is from China, and he is a man, but it is bad and wrong to call him a Chinaman. Why would a Chinese man be offended by this? Is it because in 1850, in California, Chinese men were called Chinamen and were despised as sly, devious foreigners who were trying to earn the money that good white Americans ought to have? (Ever see the old TV show "Kung Fu"? In most episodes some hick cowboy or California miner with a gun would say something like, "Chinaman, Ah'm gonna blow yo hayd awf.") I'm not sure about this "Chinaman" thing. 
     For that matter, I've learned that to call a person of East Asian ancestry "Oriental" is also considered to be offensive, in many cases at least. Why? Well, the New Oxford American Dictionary says:
The term Oriental, denoting a person from East Asia, is regarded as offensive by many Asians, especially Asian Americans. It has many associations with European imperialism in Asia. Therefore, it has an out-of-date feel and tends to be associated with a rather offensive stereotype of the people and their customs as inscrutable and exotic.
Well, what's wrong with being inscrutable and exotic? I like being inscrutable and exotic. Oddly, though, the word "oriental" simply and literally means "eastern." Why would a word that means "eastern" be seen as objectionable? Would a person of European ancestry be offended if he were called "occidental"? It might be that most Americans wouldn't know that the word means "western," so some might be offended and respond like, "Heyyy…are you makin' funna me?" Besides, the more fashionable and politically correct term "Asian" is much less descriptive, considering that it includes Indians, Iranians, Arabs, etc., who are not of the Mongoloid race—ah, but "Mongoloid" also is offensive.

(a Chinaman)

     I also learned from the dictionary that the term "Hottentot," referring to a race of aboriginal people of southern Africa, is offensive now, and "should always be avoided." They are more correctly referred to nowadays as "Khoikhoi." "Hottentot," however, doesn't mean anything bad—it doesn't really mean anything at all, apparently, as Dutch settlers called them that in imitation of the sound of their (the Khoikhoi's) vocalizations. Whether the Bushmen, a group related to the Hotten— eh, Khoikhoi, have started being offended by being called "Bushmen" or not I don't know. There is a trend, however, toward preferring the name "San." Possibly if women of the San have been enlightened by feminist missionaries, they may be offended by the term "Bushman," preferring the more egalitarian term "Bushperson."
     One interesting case of this nature is with regard to the Eskimos. The very same dictionary claims that "Eskimo" is now offensive, AND that it is the only really applicable word for these people in Alaska. Political correctness has decreed that the proper name for them is now "Inuit," but only the Eskimos of Greenland and Canada call themselves that. The Eskimos of Alaska and Siberia speak a different language; so unless we want to call them "Yupik" or "Inupiaq," which almost nobody would recognize as referring to anyone in particular, "Eskimo" really is the most applicable term. Yet, at the same time, it is considered to be offensive, largely because one possible etymology of the word means "eater of raw meat," which of course is what Eskimos traditionally are. Hmmm.
     Meanwhile, the American Indians do not consider "Indian" to be offensive, even though they don't really come from India, or the East Indies either. Many of them freely use the term with regard to themselves. To give just one example, the college on the Lummi Indian Reservation near Bellingham, Washington is officially named the Northwest Indian College. It may be that there is some better term they could come up with ("Native American" is inferior because it includes Aleuts and Eskimos, who are not technically American Indians), but I am glad that they are not positively offended by being called "Indians." Maybe if we explain to them that they ought to be offended…. Anyway, for the time being, three cheers for the equanimity of American Indians.
     The king of all offensive racial terms in the English language is very probably "nigger." The term is derived from the Spanish word "negro," which simply means "black." (And "black," of course, is the most acceptable term nowadays.) "Nigger," like "negro" and "colored," was not always considered to be offensive—it used to be just a word that was used, like "Eskimo," "Hottentot," or "Chinaman." I've read quite a lot of "classic" English fiction, and I am struck by the remarkable fact that so much of it contains the word "nigger." Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad (who wrote an entire novel entitled The Nigger of the Narcissus), Stephen Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Bret Harte, Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway, etc., used the word without compunction. These writers were intelligent and (with the possible exception of Hemingway) sensitive people, yet they saw no compelling reason to use some other term, like "black person." In Sherwood Anderson's great story "I'm a Fool," the protagonist brags about the fine nigger that he had for his best friend. A rather thick anthology of short fiction could be compiled (but certainly won't) entitled A Golden Treasury of Classic Nigger Stories. I used to wonder, with political correctness taken as seriously as it is, if Twain's Huckleberry Finn has been censored in the American school system—since, of course, one of the main characters is called Nigger Jim. It is considered to be one of the greatest of American novels, so I wondered. Very recently I discovered that as early as the 1950's, in the state of New York, school boards had debated this very issue, that is, whether or not to censor Huckleberry Finn. At the very least, teachers who have their classes read the book feel powerful urges to explain that Twain didn't mean any harm by it, and maybe didn't know any better. 
     But is the modern term "black" for a person of sub-Saharan African ancestry really any better from a linguistic point of view? The word "black" has plenty of negative connotations (black magic, a black heart, blacklist, black mass, black flag, blackmail, etc., etc.); and all but maybe the darkest Nigerians aren't actually black, but only darkish brown, at the most, like coffee. Many people called "black" are only medium brown, or even light brown. "Colored person" would seem a more positive and accurate term…but I'm pretty sure that has become offensive. 

Are these people really offended to be called Hottentots,
or do politically correct white people volunteer to become offended on their behalf?

     Verbal offensiveness is not restricted to race, of course. Some gender-related terms are also offensive now. Using the word "he" for anyone in general is seen as something that "should always be avoided," even when avoiding it results in awkwardness or bad grammar. (On the other hand, referring to a baby as "it" is still OK, possibly because infants are too young to have learned to be offended by it.) In America, some feministically-oriented people consider dividing women into the categories of "Mrs." and "Miss," while men stay lumped together as "Mr." to be discriminative against women, and therefore something to be offended about. On the other hand, in Burma, where women are traditionally considered to be inferior to men, men have three categories for "Mr." while women have only two categories—which might also be viewed as offensive discrimination against women. Whichever way it goes, it may be viewed as discrimination against women, and something not to be tolerated.
     Ironically, this same political correctness mania has begun favoring the use of specifically male terms for women, like "actor," "governor," "poet," "hero" (instead of "actress," "governess," "poetess," "heroine"). So lumping women into a grammatically masculine category is sometimes offensive, and sometimes the opposite. I don't pretend to fully understand this.
     Furthermore, there are a whole slew of more "correct" terms that have arisen over the past few decades. A mailman is now a letter carrier. An office secretary, or so I've been told, is now an executive administrator. A prison guard is no longer a prison guard, but is now a corrections officer; and if you happen to mention a prison guard you may be interrupted and corrected: "No, he's a corrections officer." Airline stewardesses are now flight attendants (except on East Asian airlines, where they are emphatically still stews; and if they stop looking like stews they are pulled from the planes and have to sell tickets at the airport). I don't know what the correct term for meter maids is now, but I bet they're not called "meter maids" anymore, not correctly anyway. And I will simply pass over all the new names for old diseases and mental dysfunctions. Gaffes regarding such terms are less offensive than with racial and more blatantly gender-oriented words. I don't know if any flight attendant would actually be offended to be called a "stewardess"; although she might condescendingly correct the guilty philistine's barbarous choice of language.
     Long ago I read Thorstein Veblen's classic book The Theory of the Leisure Class. It may be the only economics book I've ever read. In it the author gives a fascinating theoretical explanation for why people behave in public the way they do—it even offers explanations for why Western people grow grass in their yards, why butlers dress and act like prime ministers, and why the Pope wears a funny hat. According to Veblen's theory, after human beings developed urban civilization, in which everybody did not know everybody else, or their relative social status, as they used to in small tribes or villages, people began advertising their social status in various ways (and also began faking a higher status than they actually had). Thus in poor, agricultural societies to be pudgy and white-skinned is indicative of relatively high social status, as it implies that the bearer of these characteristics is not a manual laborer, turned thin and brown in the fields, and so in these societies people try to look pudgy and white; yet in industrial societies where poor people are more sedentary and tend to be pudgy and white themselves, to be thin and brown is a status symbol, as it indicates that such an individual has the leisure time to exercise and loll in the sun. Anyone who has looked at Renaissance portraits of nobles and wealthy merchants may have noticed the bizarre, outlandish clothing that they wore in those days: their costumes flaunted their wealth and status not only because poor people could not afford to wear velvet, satin, jewels, and gold, but also because the wearer of such manifestly impractical clothing obviously couldn't do a lick of manual labor while wearing it. These are just a very few examples of the theory in action; its scope is very broad, and includes everything from 19th-century Chinese foot-binding and the regalia of bishops, to dance trends, to the knowledge of, say, what wine goes with what meat, and which fork to use when eating the crab salad. Even basic manners like "please" and "thank you" may be explained in accordance with the theory. People may take such things very seriously without comprehending exactly why they do so—other than wanting very much to follow along with almost everyone else.
     Considering this, it seems to me that the ever-changing "correct" terms for racial groups, females, and diseases (etc.), some of which mutate like a virus (not the diseases, but the terms), and also even being offended if one is called by a name no longer in fashion, can also be explained in accordance with Veblen's theory. It's hardly any different than scrupulously learning the "proper" way of eating a banana in public. "Oh, I'm supposed to be offended if I'm called that? OK…I don't want to seem like a low-class ignoranimus…" 
     The very fact that two people can be sitting right next to each other, and both hear someone refer to a woman as a "broad," "chick," or "snapper," and only one of them becomes offended, is a pretty clear indication that the mere word itself was not the true cause of the offense. Virtually all of it is a matter of personal reaction, or the lack of it—a matter of conditioned attitude.
     A person who uses politically incorrect, potentially offensive language is really at fault in an ethical sense only if his or her intentions are hostile, that is, if he or she is deliberately intending to cause offense and unhappiness. It is true that a person deliberately trying to be offensive is more likely to use words like "nigger" or "dyke," or maybe even "Chinaman," but really, words are just words, having no intrinsic meaning of themselves other than what is imposed upon them. It may even be that if a person knows that certain words will probably result in someone being offended but says them anyway, to the extent that his or her intention is positive or neutral, he or she is still off the ethical hook, at least from a Buddhist perspective. Such people may still be dismissed as uncultured philistines, or insensitive jerks, by society; but sometimes it may be better to be dismissed than accepted by an inherently insane system.
     In conclusion, please remember that if you are offended by anything, it is really your own choice, and your own doing. Don't let social mass delusion spoil your present moment, let alone your day, year, or life.
(found in a Google images search for "oriental")

Appendix: An Excerpt from Tom Sawyer Abroad, by Mark Twain

     In this scene Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Jim, and a crazed balloonist are flying over the eastern United States in a hot air balloon, with the plan of circumnavigating the earth. Tom has just begun to notice that the clocks on church steeples below are running an hour faster than his own pocket watch (his "turnip"). Huckleberry is narrating the story.

     "That's funny! That clock's near about an hour fast."
     So he put up his turnip. Then he see another clock, and took a look, and it was an hour fast too. That puzzled him.
     "That's a mighty curious thing," he says. "I don't understand it." 
     The he took the glass and hunted up another clock, and sure enough it was an hour fast too. Then his eyes began to spread and his breath to come out kinder gaspy like, and he says:
     "Ger-reat Scott, it's the longitude!"
     I says, considerably scared:
     "Well, what's been and gone and happened now?"
     "Why, the thing that's happened is that this old bladder has slid over Illinois and Indiana and Ohio like nothing, and this is the east end of Pennsylvania or New York, or somewheres around there."
     "Tom Sawyer, you don't mean it!"
     "Yes, I do, and it's dead sure. We've covered about fifteen degrees of longitude since we left St. Louis yesterday afternoon, and them clocks are right. We've come close on to eight hundred miles."
     I didn't believe it, but it made the cold streaks trickle down my back just the same. In my experience I knowed it wouldn't take much short of two weeks to do it down the Mississippi on a raft.
     Jim was working his mind and studying. Pretty soon he says:
     "Mars Tom, did you say dem clocks uz right?"
     "Yes, they're right."
     "Ain't yo' watch right, too?"
     "She's right for St. Louis, but she's an hour wrong for here."
     "Mars Tom, is you tryin' to let on dat de time ain't de same everywheres?"
     "No, it ain't the same everywheres, by a long shot."
     Jim looked distressed, and says:
     "It grieves me to hear you talk like dat, Mars Tom; I's right down ashamed to hear you talk like dat, arter de way you's been raised. Yassir, it'd break yo' Aunt Polly's heart to hear you."
     Tom was astonished. He looked Jim over wondering, and didn't say nothing, and Jim went on:
     "Mars Tom, who put de people out yonder in St. Louis? De Lord done it. Who put de people here whar we is? De Lord done it. Ain' dey bofe his children? 'Cose dey is. Well, den! is he gwine to scriminate 'twixt 'em?"
     "Scriminate! I never heard such ignorance. There ain't no discriminating about it. When he makes you and some more of his children black, and makes the rest of us white, what do you call that?"
     Jim see the p'int. He was stuck. He couldn't answer. Tom says:
     "He does discriminate, you see, when he wants to; but this case here ain't no discrimination of his, it's man's. The Lord made the day, and he made the nights; but he didn't invent the hours, and he didn't distribute them around. Man did that."
     "Mars Tom, is dat so? Man done it?"
     "Who tole him he could?"
     "Nobody. He never asked." 
     Jim studied a minute, and says:
     "Well, dat do beat me. I wouldn't 'a' tuck no sich resk. But some people ain't scared o' nothin'. Dey bangs right ahead; dey don't care what happens. So den dey's allays an hour's diff'unce everywhah, Mars Tom?"
     "An hour? No! It's four minutes difference for every degree of longitude, you know. Fifteen of 'em's an hour, thirty of 'em's two hours, and so on. When it's one o'clock Tuesday morning in England, it's eight o'clock the night before in New York." 
     Jim moved a little way along the locker, and you could see he was insulted. He kept shaking his head and muttering, and so I slid along to him and patted him on the leg, and petted him up, and got him over the worst of his feelings, and then he says:
     "Mars Tom talkin' sich talk as dat! Choosday in one place en Monday in t'other, bofe in the same day! Huck, dis ain't no place to joke—up here whah we is. Two days in one day! How you gwine to get two days inter one day? Can't git two hours inter one hour, kin you? Can't git two niggers inter one nigger skin, kin you? Can't git two gallons of whisky inter a one-gallon jug, kin you? No, sir, 'twould strain de jug. Yes, en even den you couldn't, I don't believe. Why, looky here, Huck, s'posen de Choosday was New Year's—now den! is you gwine to tell me it's dis year in one place en las' year in t'other, bofe in the identical same minute? It's de beatenest rubbage! I can't stan' it—I can't stan' to hear tell 'bout it." Then he begun to shiver and turn gray, and Tom says:
     "Now what's the matter? What's the trouble?"
     Jim could hardly speak, but he says:
     "Mars Tom, you ain't jokin', en it's so?"
     "No, I'm not, and it is so." 
     Jim shivered again, and says:
     "Den dat Monday could be de las' day, en dey wouldn't be no las' day in England, en de dead wouldn't be called. We mustn't go over dah, Mars Tom. Please git him to turn back."   

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Eleutherophobia (Fear of Freedom)

     "A stable social system is necessary, but every stable system hitherto devised has hampered the development of exceptional artistic or intellectual merit. How much murder and anarchy are we prepared to endure for the sake of great achievements such as those of the Renaissance? In the past, a great deal; in our own time, much less. No solution of this problem has hitherto been found…." —Bertrand Russell (who overlooked exceptional spiritual merit, although it is equally applicable here, perhaps even more applicable)
       "I say, let's evolve and let the chips fall where they may." —Tyler Durden, in the movie Fight Club

     They say that history repeats itself. As far as I can tell, computers and cell phones didn't exist in any of the classical civilizations of antiquity, or internal combustion engines or machine guns either, but still, certain human themes tend to be repeated over and over; and it appears to be human nature not to learn very much from these repeated themes.
     One theme is that a nation becomes strong through love of freedom, even through a fierce insistence upon it. Its citizens value freedom more than they value their own lives. This resulted in a few Greek towns, led by Athens, miraculously defeating Persia, the most powerful military superpower in the world at that time. It resulted in the ancient Romans growing from a village of shepherds and farmers into a much greater superpower than Persia ever was, struggling against hardships and enemies again and again, and repeatedly avoiding destruction by sheer refusal to give up. It resulted in England, a relatively small country without a great many natural resources, developing into the largest empire the world has ever seen. America also began as a nation of tough pioneers who valued freedom much more highly than they valued security, comfort, or wealth.
     But the Romans, for instance, became fabulously rich and powerful after winning the Punic Wars, and the seeds of their destruction were planted. They eventually reached the point where desire for comfort and security outweighed desire for freedom, and they traded in their Republic for a thinly veiled totalitarian state. Their decline took several centuries to reach its end, and sometimes it seemed outwardly that they were even more prosperous and powerful than before, in general, but they lost their free spirit and became demoralized slaves—the masses enslaved to a corrupt, oppressive government, and the aristocracy enslaved to luxury, status, privilege, and myopic greed. Eventually they became too weak and selfish even to defend themselves; and whereas their ancestors would not have seriously considered surrendering to the likes of the Goths and Vandals, the degenerate Romans of late antiquity fled before them like sheep. It wasn't so much barbarian invasions that caused the collapse of Rome; it was more a matter of internal moral decay, a loss of backbone.
     Similarly, America became a world superpower, militarily, economically, diplomatically, and culturally, after being on the winning side of both World Wars, and the seeds of American decline were planted with this very success. We Americans became the richest, most powerful, most privileged people in the world (with possibly a few exceptions), so we began having more desire for security in order not to lose the comforts and conveniences that we had won. As the seeds of decline sprouted and took root, we outwardly became even more powerful and successful. But the spirit of freedom was becoming maimed, possibly mortally wounded. Imperial Rome came very near to destruction a time or two long before it finally collapsed (for example during the reign of the emperor Gallienus in the third century), and America may still pull through the impending troubles it is heading into; but the historical theme of material prosperity leading to luxury, weakness, demoralization, and internal decay is repeated. And ironically, increased peacefulness, civilization, and feminization tends to hasten collapse, since these righteous principles are too often used as an excuse for weakness, and for increased anxiety for safety leading to increased law and order, and thus to decreased liberty. The more laws there are, the more crimes there are, and the more crimes, the more criminals. With increased law and order for the sake of security, the country becomes more polarized with "free" criminals on the one side and good citizens enslaved to the system on the other. It is no coincidence that "The Land of the Free" has, or so I have read, by far more prisons and more imprisoned criminals than any other nation in the world.
     But the purpose of all this ranting is not political commentary or even historical reflection. I'm leading up to a phenomenon that I noticed during my return to America recently, and which has really struck me from time to time. It appears to me that most Americans are not only less free than they were twenty years ago, they're also more opposed to the very existence of genuine freedom, generally without realizing this fact.
     The situation arises largely due to a very human character trait that I've already mentioned, i.e. a dread of losing what one has. This is called macchariya in Pali, and in Buddhist philosophy it is considered to be an unskillful mental state, or "bad karma." (Incidentally, macchariya does not signify only stinginess, or a "dog in the manger" attitude, as is often taught; it represents an aversion for any kind of perceived loss, including grief at the loss of a loved one.) So from this angle increased wealth almost necessarily leads to decreased freedom, as people try to protect what they consider valuable, putting up stone walls and restrictive laws to protect it and themselves. Thus freedom automatically becomes less valued. Freedom becomes practically the enemy.
     One little example of this involves the new mandatory health insurance in America, which may easily result in lesser freedom for US citizens to do anything dangerous, since other people paying for (mandatory) health insurance don't want to pay for the mistakes of daredevils that they've never even met. "Why should I have to pay for other people's lung cancer, when they were foolish to smoke cigarettes in the first place? Better to outlaw tobacco, so people won't have to spend their hard-earned money unnecessarily helping reckless strangers." (This is a rather alienated attitude, but perhaps not so alienated as that of political conservatives opposed, as a matter of principle, to any mandatory charity at all—which implies that contributing a fair share to help the poor is more than they are willing to contribute.) 
     However, another cause for loss of freedom is even more universal, common to practically all conscious members of the animal kingdom, yet no less unskillful; and this is, in its broadest sense, xenophobia, or fear of the unknown. Even if we humans aren't satisfied with what we've got (and few of us are), we still tend to fear letting go of it in order to reach out for something else…mainly because we're afraid that what we get may be even worse than what we already have. So we're not content with what we have, yet we're afraid of what we might have instead, and of what might not even exist. This kind of fear seems to be growing in the USA. After being out of American culture for almost twenty years, upon my return it occurred to me that Americans in general are more conformist now, including young Americans. Young people may conform to a politically correct counterculture like New Age, and they may have pink hair, tattoos, and pierced nipples, but still, on average, they seem to rebel less, to be more "clean-cut," and to be more conservative in their approach to life. My guess is that the world they live in has become so out of their control and so potentially dangerous that they feel they have little choice but to go along with what they're told, even though, deep down, they know that it isn't really working. The lives of modern humans are largely governed by herd instinct reinforced by anxiety. This results in more demoralization, which contributes to the overall decline. Fear of the unknown becomes a kind of moral paralysis.
     The trouble is, though, that Ultimate Reality is unknown. Nirvana is unknown. Any wisdom that we don't have yet is unknown. "God" is unknown. The future is unpredictable, not predictable with any certainty anyhow. Thus all of these things, including true wisdom, are potentially very scary.
     Which leads to an interesting point that I've been considering lately. A truly free person is unpredictable, and therefore unknowable and scary. Freedom is, almost by definition, unpredictable; and what is unpredictable may easily be seen as a threat to security. An actively free person, who to the extent that he or she is free is also a wise person, does not conform to a confining system; and thus free people and wise people may be seen by the masses as threatening. A person who follows his or her conscience in preference to the established system is distrusted, because people, particularly those in the modern West, seem to trust the artificial system more than they trust individual conscience, human nature, or human wisdom; and this same confining system is what is causing human conscience, compassion, generosity, and wisdom to grow flabbier and more mediocre. It's no wonder that so many spiritual innovators in history have wound up being persecuted or martyred. People are more inclined to trust Joe Schmoe, the alcoholic grocery store manager who cheats on his income tax and is unfaithful to his wife, yet is predictable, than to trust a strange, unpredictable saint or sage. 
     Common people distrust a really free person, especially when they are unfamiliar with that person, largely because of that person's unpredictability—even if that person is obviously spiritually oriented and has harmed nobody. This is probably the case, to some degree, in all cultures, including the freest ones, because it is simply human nature. People may fear their own insecurity so much that any really free person who doesn't properly play by the rules may be seen as a threat. (This may be a valid interpretation of Kafka's The Trial: Society, "the system," turns against Joseph K. because he has begun to grow skeptical of it and to exhibit some independent thought and behavior.) 
     In a sense, anyone who refuses to play by the rules of society, even if it is an insane society, is viewed as a criminal, or as insane, or both. Thus society regulates and maintains its own anxious mediocrity. Radical non-conformists are arrested and jailed, with lesser cases at least belittled or ostracized. To some degree this is necessary, since no rules at all leads to completely unstable chaos, unless everyone were wise, of course, and everyone obviously isn't. So a wise, free citizen who sees higher than the status quo of society is poised between the horns of a dilemma: Which do you choose, enforced mediocrity for the sake of getting along, or liberated ostracism? Or, if your spirit shines too brightly, maybe even liberated martyrdom? If your understanding is mediocre, or below mediocrity, then by all means follow along with the majority. Follow their fashion trends, take their political correctness standards seriously, base your life on their principles, or lack of principles, use the correct fork for your salad. Pay your dues. But if you are more evolved than regulated mass mediocrity, then you would be better off following your own heart, even if it results in you being lynched by a howling mob, or simply being left alone and ignored.
     Another no wonder is that enlightened spiritual teachers tend to encourage the most serious seekers to drop out of society, for their own good. It's no wonder that the Buddha and Jesus advised their most dedicated disciples to renounce worldliness and live in vagrant poverty. In addition to the worries and distractions of lay life, there is also the plain fact that excess of liberty simply is not tolerated in that world. Even completely harmless, spiritual liberation may be seen as potentially dangerous, largely because it is not understood—it represents the Scary Unknown.
     So what America needs right now, and no doubt what the whole world needs, is more freedom; and since freedom requires deep courage, more courage also. Plus sufficient wisdom and vigilance to bear that freedom and its resultant unpredictability without devolving into the law of the jungle. What we need is more faith in truth and spirit—and in each other—than in material gadgets and laws and insurance companies that don't give a damn about us. The only way to be truly happy is through conscious freedom, not through security. Maximum security is found in prisons. Or, if you prefer some paradox, the highest security is in absolute freedom, which is no security at all. The greatest security against poverty and misfortune is a willingness to accept them. The greatest security against death is not to fear it, even when it comes. Fearlessness is the highest security, and it comes from a willingness to face the unknown, not from hiding from it, or outlawing it. Freedom, especially freedom of mind, with danger—danger to one's body, that is, not one's spirit—is far, far more beneficial than enslaved safety. So go out and break a stupid, unjust law. Share what you have, and don't worry about being rich. Be a radical heretic. Follow your inmost heart. Wake up.