Saturday, August 31, 2013

The End of an Experiment


     Now the sneaking serpent walks
     In mild humility.
     And the just man rages in the wilds
     Where lions roam.     
               (—William Blake)

     Go alone like the horn of the rhinoceros. (—the refrain of the Khaggavisāṇa Sutta)

     By quoting the first verse above I'm not necessarily implying that I'm a just man, or even a lion.
     In scientific circles they say that there is no such thing as a failed experiment—at the very least one learns what doesn't work. Also they say that a successful experiment is a result of the experimenter making an even number of mistakes which cancel each other out. My experiment with living in the West as a "free range" bhikkhu is thus not exactly a failed experiment, but it seems that an odd number of mistakes were made. Anyway, it seems to be pretty much over for the present. Around the beginning of December I'll probably return to Southeast Asia, and there's no telling when I'll come back for another go.
     Since my return to the West from rural Burma in May of 2011, I've been struck again and again by the seemingly bizarre fact that it is difficult for a veteran bhikkhu to survive among Western Theravada Buddhists. There have been times, especially during my first year in Bellingham after returning from Burma, when it seemed much like the following scenario: A veteran surgeon moves into a small town with no doctor, but with an organization which teaches first aid. Some of the teachers of this organization have a kind of first aid certificate, while others no not, and some know relatively little about the practice of medicine. The doctor makes himself known to this organization, offering to help teach some more refined aspects of doctoring—and is given the cold shoulder, receiving disdain from some of the first aid group, with tinges of resentment from some, and being largely ignored by the majority of them. This was a surprise, partly because I had come from probably the most devout Theravada Buddhist country in the world, where even doctors and school teachers, let alone monks, may have people literally bowing on the ground before them, out of respect and gratitude. America is a brave new world.
     Of course, some who have read my recent post "Let This Be a Lesson" may say, with or without vitriol, that I am unworthy of support anyhow; but upon arrival in Bellingham in 2011 my rascality was pretty much a non-issue. If it is used as an excuse for non-support by some folks in Bellingham it is used mostly retroactively. In fact I was still relatively very strict in my practice upon arrival. I could have been a saint for all the local insight meditation society cared. So the main reason for my relative non-welcome, aside from the subjective fruition of my own karma, was something else entirely.
     A major reason, methinks, was my relative lack of social graces. After all, I've been essentially a recluse for most of my adult life. I do not wish to be dishonest or hypocritical, and one manifestation of that is that I generally don't say "I'm sorry" if I'm not sorry, "I'd like to, but I can't" when I can but just don't want to, "It's nice to meet you" when it's really not very nice, and all the other polite little lies that are required by the "civilized society" that I renounced. Also I lack tact, and call things as I see them, even if it is politically incorrect to do so. (For example, at my very first Dharma talk in Bellingham I was indignantly heckled by a young American woman for stating that America has a superficial, greed-based culture, and that the Burmese, despite their material poverty, are generally happier than we are.) I read a textbook on military strategy long ago which says that a direct, frontal assault is the very worst way of conquering an opponent; and my confrontational tactlessness often has the effect of such an assault. People tend to feel threatened and uncomfortable when their point of view is challenged, and challenging points of view is my specialty. Consequently, making people uncomfortable is also my specialty, which is nowhere near to being the path to popularity. 
     I've spent years developing my mental faculties in an atypical direction that most people develop in a haphazard, desultory manner, if at all; and I have largely ignored other directions which are seen as basic to worldly existence. People in the Western world especially have little or no appreciation for the results of my strange efforts, partly because it's clean off their radar. Spending many years living in caves and gazing at blank walls appears to count for little in the West. The results of that kind of behavior are not always obvious, or are seen negatively.
     It seems to me that, as a general rule, human beings buy into a system, and identify with it to some degree, considering it to be the "right" way. So if somebody else comes along who doesn't buy into that same system, it seems to be human nature to disdain or even resent that person. To make matters worse, I was a Theravada Buddhist who obviously didn't buy into a system that people in Bellingham were calling "Theravada Buddhism"; this, I suppose, bred disdain or even resentment among some of the Bellingham lay "sangha." The trick for me is not to fall into the same tendency, and to resent those not buying into my preferred system. If others perceive that I actually disdain what they cherish, whether it be Western-style Buddhism or Western materialistic humanism in general, it amplifies the intensity of the predicament.
     Anyway, the "great experiment" in Bellingham was pretty much finalized by three events, all of which occurred within one week: the aforementioned recent blog post, the third annual forest fast, and my last public talk at the local Dharma hall. The blog post manifested first, but its major effects came last, so it will be discussed after the other two.
     The Pacific Northwest of the United States seems like a perfect place for meditation-oriented hikes and camping trips, with a multitude of excellent forest areas practically devoid of anything dangerous (like venomous snakes or anopheles mosquitoes); and from my arrival in Bellingham I wanted to set up something like this. But my efforts met with indifference, and the only such events to actually happen were the annual forest fasts. We would go out into the remote foothills of the North Cascades Mountains and meditate and fast for three to four days, living on nothing but air and unfiltered mountain river water. The rule stating that high-tech water purification systems were not allowed resulted in considerable disapproval and some complaint; but the rule itself was a filter of sorts, filtering out materialistic Westerners who have more faith in high-tech water filters than in Dharma. (If you look after Dharma, Dharma looks after you.) This filter worked very effectively. Anyway, for this and many other reasons, including busy-ness, lukewarmness, and the acceptance issues mentioned above, the total number of people who went on the fast in 2011 was three, and in the next two years, two.
     This year a friend named Steve and I went out and fasted in the woods for 3½ days, finishing the last half-day in town largely because Steve had to work the last day. One of the highlights for me was that on the third day three large birds, apparently juvenile turkey vultures, circled overhead, I assume to see if Steve and I were dying. Another highlight was on the very first day when I was collecting firewood: I experienced a rush of consciousness in which I became peculiarly aware of the movements of my body as I walked, and more aware of the process of consciousness itself, in an almost psychedelic experience. (This sort of thing is much more likely to occur in Burma than America, although being in a remote forest was a suitable opportunity for it.) The fast has always had a good effect on my disposition, and although it was somewhat uncomfortable, and although we were rained on one day, I came back expanded and "chilled out." 
    The day after the fast ended I gave my last talk at the Dharma hall, on the topic of the two main orientations to spirituality: heart and head, feminine and masculine, religion and philosophy, or "faith and reason." (I won't summarize the talk here, but probably will in a future post.) The attendance was perhaps larger than usual—about 15 to 18 people—and it went relatively well, partly because I kept losing my place in the notes and was required to speak more or less spontaneously. I actually approached my idea of a "good" Dharma talk by going into a mild meditative state while speaking, almost doing what New Age people would call channeling. The talk was well received, and several people came up and thanked me for it afterwards.
     This was about five days after the publication of the controversial "Let This Be a Lesson" post on this blog; and although there was some anticipation of trouble at the Dharma hall because of it, I guessed, and rightly, that almost nobody in the meditation society except for a few friends reads this blog anyway. Consequently, there were no complications at the talk because of it. But complications were in the works.
     I was informed afterwards that the same person who had sent me a kind of "hate email" on a previous occasion (quoted in the Special Anniversary Issue, 1 June 2013) had for some unknown reason read the soon-to-be-controversial post, and began agitating some senior members to have my talk cancelled. (I would prefer to assume that someone else had told him of it, rather than that he was simply prowling the blog looking for something to use as a weapon.) The senior teachers knew of his antagonism toward my association with the meditation society, and didn't pay him much heed. It was only after the talk was given that his persistent agitation urged other members to read the post. One senior member considered it to be uncomfortably, excessively personal, and then ironically sent it out to all of the teaching staff of the meditation society. Some of them apparently used the post as retroactive justification for never having had much to do with me in the first place. The one who circulated the post, who incidentally is a very conscientious and likable person in my opinion, went to the extent of contacting me to request that I remove the post from the blog. I refused, saying that too much truth makes people uncomfortable (as T. S. Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality"), and asking him to consider the following question: What is the purpose of the local insight meditation society—Is it a truly spiritual organization where the members take a hard look at the truth, even if it is uncomfortable, for the sake of waking up? Or is it mainly just a social club where people go to relax and feel good about themselves? I personally feel that the second description is more accurate than the first; but such an opinion, if perceived by the members of the "sangha," is not conducive to popularity at all. I would guess that the second description is more accurate with regard to most Western meditation groups, as well as to most Presbyterian church organizations...probably to most Western societies that are intended to be spiritual.
     Anyway, the teachers of the society discussed the possibility of discussing whether or not simply to ban me from giving talks at the Dharma hall in future. On the other hand, having a relatively senior member (the aforementioned agitator) whose behavior is sometimes obviously motivated by hatred seems to be swept under the carpet by a presumably spiritual organization. I see this as ironic.
     So, to make a long story even longer, I am now residing at a little Burmese temple in the San Francisco Bay Area of California again, anticipating a return to Asia after my rains retreat is finished. The Internet connection is good here, which is a plus; and people are happy to feed me every day, which is another plus; but I am rather sedentary and get little exercise, and I don't really fit in here so well. Consequently, I'm not sure when I'll return to the West, and if I do return I don't yet know to where I will return. Maybe to stay in Asia would be best for me, as America can take a lot out of a guy.
     If I do return, it may be up to you, dear readers. What I would like most of all is to find people who can appreciate my peculiar brand of radical cage rattling—people who can appreciate having their point of view, and their "comfort zone," challenged. As I've already said, that seems to be what I specialize in. I know you are out there (this month, according to my stats page, this blog averaged more than 90 "hits" a day). I derive little satisfaction from trying to teach people who just want to feel comfortable, or who are trying to sew new patches onto old cloth, to use a Christian metaphor. If they are beginners mainly trying to de-stress and find some balance I can certainly help them with that, and am happy to; but if they've been at it for years and their concept of Dharma practice still doesn't go much beyond that, then it just doesn't seem worth it. There are plenty of other teachers out there who specialize in that sort of thing. 
     I have found that to be appreciated in what one has to offer is invaluable. It is a great encouragement, and without it one may easily lose one's inspiration and enthusiasm, as I have sometimes done here in the West. The inspiration and encouragement between a teacher and a student goes both ways. And to have someone believe in you is one of the greatest supports and blessings there is in this world. It is almost as important as believing in yourself (not egocentrism or narcissism, but knowing that your potential is literally infinite, and that Divinity is already to be found in you). But I can get along without that kind of support, if necessary.
     If I am to be supported, I would naturally prefer to be supported for being "myself," and for doing what I do best. I refuse even to try to live up to what other people think I should be like, especially if they are worldly-minded people who don't even know me. To use a New Age catchword, let us be "authentic." I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I'd rather die than knuckle under to politically correct public opinion, and the mandatory emasculation of spiritually-oriented Western men. I'd rather go down fighting; better to die in battle than to live in defeat. As the Pali idiom has it, "I wear muñja grass." Maybe what America needs is a kind of spiritual Fight Club.
     Anyway, one experiment that is not yet over is this blog. I intend to continue with it for as long as I can—hopefully I'll have Internet access in Burma. 

     
     


Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Stalker as Holy Fool: Analysis of a Soviet Russian Spiritual Parable


     "The artist seeks to destroy the stability by which society lives, for the sake of drawing closer to the ideal. Society seeks stability, the artist, infinity."—Andrei Tarkovsky

     I love symbolism in art, and working out its meaning. Which is ironic, since I consider Samsara to consist of symbols: Symbolism is Samsara, in a manner of speaking. So loving symbolism is practically like loving Samsara, which of course is not so good for a good Buddhist, or even for a mediocre one.
     But still I love interpreting symbols. I feel satisfaction in understanding why Dostoyevsky's The Idiot starts in November, and why important events therein often occur at around eleven o'clock; that K.'s crime in Kafka's The Trial is essentially questioning the legitimacy of existence, and especially of modern Western "civilized" existence; and that Apocalypse Now represents a journey into the darkness of the human heart, with Do Lung bridge, which is destroyed every night and rebuilt every morning, representing the boundary between the conscious and subconscious minds. And if a story is a profound and fascinating one as well as being symbolic, then so much the better, naturally.
     Anyway, I recently watched Andrei Tarkovsky's great work Stalker (which may be watched for free on YouTube, at least until it becomes otherwise), which is one of the profoundest, most thought-provoking motion pictures I've ever seen. And since it is a very spiritual and philosophical movie, with the director claiming that its main theme evokes the Far East, I consider it fair game for a post on this blog.
     It resembles Apocalypse Now in a number of ways, most importantly in symbolizing a journey into the depths of the human heart. Also, it was released in the same year, 1979. Also, during the production of both movies one of the main participants suffered a heart attack—in fact the filming of both movies was plagued by difficulties, not the least of which for Tarkovsky was that almost a year of filming was practically nullified when the film was botched by the developers. Although the Soviet authorities gave permission to make the movie, it turned out so spiritually oriented and such a profound condemnation of materialism, both Eastern and Western, that it was suppressed in the USSR.
     One way in which it emphatically does not resemble Apocalypse Now is that this is not an action movie. In fact, not much actually happens at the physical level. Profound changes occur within, which is not always obvious. One young critic on the website Rotten Tomatoes said that watching the movie is like watching a boring person watching a PBS documentary about how slugs fall asleep in the winter. Then again, he was probably jaded on Hollywood blockbusters with plenty of explosions and multimillion-dollar special effects. Most critics love it; in fact it is considered by many to be one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.
     Entire books have been written on this one movie, a recent one being Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer (Canongate: Edinburgh and London, 2012). I haven't read any of them, but I have looked at some of the many articles on the Internet.
     If you haven't seen this classic, perhaps you might prefer to watch it before reading this, as I'll describe how it ends, thus ruining the surprise. On the other hand, if you've already seen it I hope that this attempted analysis will inspire you to see it again. Those Buddhists who are put off by words like "soul," "God," and "desire" would do well to lay aside some rigidity for awhile, or else spend the evening with a copy of the Dhammapada.     
     Stalker is loosely based on a science fiction story, Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky; but the movie has been transmuted into a spiritual parable transcending genres. Nobody in the movie, with the possible exception of a silent bartender called Luger (or Lüker—Looker?), has a real name, for example—which is par for the course with parables. The original science fiction story is about people infiltrating an area strangely affected by an alien visitation, but the movie was adapted to be more mysterious. All we know here is that something dropped from the sky and caused something mysterious and inexplicable, which the worldly establishment is either ignorant of, or fears. At the beginning these words appear on the screen, by way of introduction:

          ...What was it? Did a meteor fall?
          Was it a visit by citizens of the vast space?
          So or otherwise, in our little country appeared
          the greatest miracle of miracles—the ZONE.
          We sent troops there immediately.
          They did not come back.
          Then we surrounded the ZONE with police cordons...
          And, I suppose, that was the right thing to do...
          Actually, I don’t know, I don’t know...

     The tale of the movie is centered on the Stalker, whose profession, or calling, is illegally leading clients into the forbidden and dangerous Zone, where the impersonal laws of physics are frequently broken, and are more personal. In this Zone, it is said, there is a room where one's most cherished dream, one's heart's desire, is realized. This is why people want to go there. Stalker apparently has recently been released from a term in prison for following his vocation, and is still suffering from some kind of abuse he received. His wife desperately wants him to find a normal job. His daughter is a kind of mutant, who cannot walk and, in the movie at least, never speaks aloud. He and his wife and daughter live in a shack by some railroad tracks, not far from a huge power plant. 
     The Stalker is awakened one morning by a passing train which shakes the entire house, causing a glass on a tray to rattle and move about. (Also on the tray are medical supplies, apparently because the Stalker is unwell.) He gets up quietly, thoughtfully trying not to wake his wife and daughter, and prepares to meet his new clients. His wife wakes up too though, and after a bitter, futile attempt to talk him out of leaving on his next journey, she falls to the floor and writhes in hysterical anguish as another passing train starts everything rattling again. I suspect that the shaking of the house (their world) as a result of the trains (the onward rush of mechanical civilization) is symbolic.
     So, I suppose, is the fog that swirls all around. It suggests an intellectual, cultural fog, resulting from the mistakes people have made in the past. A barely noticeable drizzle falls on an industrial, unnatural landscape.
     The Stalker's two clients are a physicist, simply called Professor (or Scientist, depending on the translation from Russian), and a successful popular writer, equally simply called Writer. The Stalker doesn't want to know their legal names. These men represent the two strongest forms of spiritual death in the modern world: The Professor is an emotionally undeveloped, perhaps slightly neurotic intellectual with firm faith in scientific method; and the Writer is a cynical, self-indulgent, refined and jaded hedonist. He shows up for the journey half drunk, accompanied by a young, stylish woman whose name he doesn't know. (Stalker quietly tells her to go away, and after cursing his rudeness she drives away with Writer's hat on top of the car. I don't quite understand the part with the hat.) Writer's first words in the film, directed to the young woman before she goes away, are:  
"My dear! The world is absolutely dull, and that is why there’s neither telepathy, nor ghosts, nor flying saucers...and there cannot be anything of the kind. Iron laws control the world, and it’s intolerably boring. And these laws, alas, cannot be violated. They don't know how to be violated." (Then, a little further on:) "However, in the Middle Ages it was interesting. Every home had its house-spirit, and every church had its God...People were young! Now every fourth person is old. Boring, my angel, oh how boring."   
He says he's entering the Zone because his inspiration has dried up. A little later he admits that he doesn't know what he wants. Professor has a secret reason, secret partly even from himself. The three men are rather like the Brothers Karamazov going on a quest: The stern yet meek, spiritual Stalker, the detached, dissociated, intellectual Professor, and the emotional, sensual Writer—except in this case, unlike the Karamazovs, the emotional sensualist is the cynical one.
     The three tensely run the barbed wire gates of the Zone and the police open fire with automatic weapons. They slip in behind a train loaded with huge electrical insulators, and some of this insulation is (symbolically?) destroyed in the efforts of the police to stop the three men. Before they reach the affected area the whole world is shown in sepia monochrome: not quite in in black and white, but not quite in color either; but upon their attaining the depths of the Zone all appears in bright colors, especially green, indicating that the Zone is somehow more intensely real and alive than the "outside world." The world turns to color when they are near some old electrical poles shaped like crosses, but leaning and dilapidated, as though the primary way in which this greater reality is manifested in the world is no longer with these symbolic shapes. A crossbar on one breaks off as Stalker brushes past it. When they arrive in the Zone Stalker joyfully exclaims, "Home at last!"
     Water is the universal symbol for Spirit, and seems so in the movie; and although it is all around even outside the Zone (for example the Stalker cleanses himself with water before leaving the house), by the time the men reach their destination they're fairly sodden with it. It is mostly stagnant and polluted. When it falls from the sky it's presumably pure, but as soon as it hits this earth of ours it becomes contaminated. It's still real water though, naturally.
     Upon arrival in the Zone, Stalker excuses himself for a little while and goes off alone to look at the building which contains the mysterious Room. He gazes upon it in the distance and falls to his knees, then lies down in the weeds, feeling who knows what, while a small insect crawls on his hand. While he's gone the Professor explains some things about the Zone to the Writer, and mentions that the government has closed off the area, the Room, to guard against people having dangerous wishes come true. This kind of scenario might be more poignantly understandable to Soviet Russians, but it is still applicable there and here.
     After Stalker returns, they pass by wrecked military vehicles from the doomed and futile army expedition, and what appears to be human remains. Writer is nervous and worried, although Professor remains detached. Stalker directs them to within plain sight of the building, telling them that the Room is just inside and to the left, but that direct routes are practically forbidden in the Zone—"the longer the route, the safer"—and that they'll have to go around by another way. Besides, it simply doesn't do to arrive at a Holy of Holies by turning left. Writer, stressed and irrational, finds this ridiculous and marches straight for the entrance. As he approaches the open doorway the wind picks up, there is a sound like a flock of birds taking flight, a mysterious voice calls out "Stop! Don't move!", and a wad of cobwebs, like a veil, falls across the entrance. Writer loses his nerve and returns to the others, more willing to follow Stalker. Or rather, more willing to go ahead of Stalker, as the guide usually goes behind, merely directing the way.
     Stalker warns them about the strange rules of the Zone. He says, 
"The Zone—it’s...a very complicated system...of traps, let’s call it, and all of them are deadly. I do not know what happens here when humans are away, but if people appear here, everything starts moving. Previous traps disappear, new ones emerge. The safe places become impassable, and the way one moment is simple and easy, the next—it turns insuperably complicated. This is the Zone. It may even seem that it is capricious, but in every moment it is such as we made it ourselves...with our inner state. I will not hide, it has happened that people were forced to return empty-handed from halfway. There were also such who...perished on the very threshold of the Room. Nevertheless, everything that happens here, depends not on the Zone, but on us!" 
Fog obscures the building now, and a cuckoo calls in the distance. 
     The next scene begins with water splashing in a deep well, and Stalker praying within himself: 
"Let it come true what has been planned. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions; for what they call passion is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their soul and the outside world. And above all, let them believe in themselves, let them become helpless like children, because weakness is great and strength is worthless...When a man is born, he is weak and supple; when he dies, he is stiff and insensitive. When a tree grows, it is tender and pliant, and when it is dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are companions of death; suppleness and weakness express the freshness of living. That is why what has hardened will never win."
     The Professor shows much attachment to a knapsack he has with him, more than once refusing to part with it. When the three move on, the Professor announces that he has left his knapsack and must go back to retrieve it. But retracing one's steps on this journey is forbidden—one must continue moving forwards (this has been the case even since before entering the Zone). The Professor goes back anyway, and the other two leave him behind and enter a dark tunnel.
     When they come out the other end of it though, there is the Professor leisurely drinking coffee from his thermos. Stalker asks him how he overtook them, and Professor replies, "What do you mean? I came back here to fetch my knapsack." Stalker looks around and sees that they've ended up where they were before, and that furthermore they exited a tunnel marked as a trap by Stalker's teacher, a previous stalker called Porcupine who attained his heart's desire in the Room and shortly thereafter committed suicide. Stalker is shaken and frightened by these strange occurrences (Professor breaking the rules and remaining unharmed, the other two unknowingly coming around in a circle, and exiting through a trap), and insists that they rest before continuing on. Fog and polluted, foaming water are all around them.
     At this point in the movie, symbols runs rampant. As Writer and Professor bicker, the camera looks into the water for the first of several times. Under the water in these scenes we see assortments of ordinary human objects: hypodermic syringes, metal containers, guns, coins, bits of printed paper, electrical wire, a piece of a broken mirror, machine parts, white tile, a Christian icon, and much else besides, including some live and apparently trapped aquarium fish. These are all part of the three men's world—money and print for the successful Writer, for example—common objects from the outside world. But here, saturated in the water of spirit, they lose their validity and value, and become worthless debris. In one of these shots the last object to be seen is Stalker's hand in the water, shown in monochrome.
     There are a number of times in the Zone when the film returns to sepia-tinted monochrome, three of them during this dreamy (un)rest by the water. Each time the only human shown in the shot is Stalker, apparently when his faith begins to falter. In the first he's lying face down, yet when Writer calls to him he's suddenly face up, and in color again. In the next, a few minutes later, he's lying on his side on a tiny island surrounded by water and stagnant muck, when a black dog, a perhaps unclean denizen of the Zone, approaches and lies down next to him. In the third he's still lying down, but viewed from an angle that makes him appear upright, with a dreamlike recitation going on, seemingly by his wife, of part of the Book of Revelation describing the end of the world.




    During their restless rest there is a scene showing a rippling field of dirty foam which looks like rippling ground, with dust swirling over it in the air, the foaming river behind, and something that looks like snow falling. (This snow was not real snow, nor was it a created special effect; it was in fact some kind of chemical waste blown from a factory near the place in Estonia where the filming took place. Most of the crew experienced health problems, and at least three of them, including the director himself, died of a kind of pulmonary cancer years afterward.)
     After the recitation of the Apocalypse, Stalker gets up, in color again, and recites the scene from the Gospel of Luke describing the two men walking to Emmaus and being joined on their way by the resurrected Christ, yet somehow not recognizing him. When he finishes, Writer and Professor are wide awake, scrutinizing him, and he says to them, "Are you awake?" At least they look awake. Stalker, like all Holy Fools perhaps, definitely has some Christlike qualities.
     Shortly after this they arrive at a place called "the meat grinder," the most dangerous place in the Zone. Stalker is unabashedly afraid; Writer is scared and angry because he's been chosen to go first; yet Professor, as usual, remains impassive. Writer begins his long, solitary walk through a long, echoing tunnel littered with ice and wet, broken glass, walking deeper and deeper into the unknown depths. In a moment of panic he draws a pistol, which Stalker in the distance franticly begs him to throw away, as the Zone will certainly not permit it. Who would he shoot at anyway? Writer drops it, reaches the end of the tunnel, wades through shoulder-deep stagnant water, as though going through some kind of baptism, comes out the other end, and wanders to a deep well (the same one that begins Part Two, seen when Stalker begins his prayer? Who knows.). He drops a rock into it, and more than fifteen seconds elapse before a splash is heard; he sits briefly on the edge of this profound abyss. Here things are unpredictable: Stalker, not far away, tosses a machinist's nut with a streamer tied to it, and it bounces strangely. A bird flies over the sand, suddenly disappears, and then flies over again. When the other two catch up, they find Writer lying in a puddle near the practically bottomless well, wallowing not only in the puddle, but also in a profound existential crisis. Writer lies there in tortured despair, questioning his own value as a successful writer, and as a human being.
"…Who is going to get pangs of conscience? Me? I do not have a conscience. I have only nerves. Some scoundrel scolds me—a wound. Another scoundrel praises me—another wound. You put your soul in it, you put your heart in it—they will devour both the soul and the heart. You extract the baseness out of the soul—they devour the baseness….And I did think earlier that somebody must become better because of my books. But nobody needs me! I will die, and in two days they will forget me and begin devouring somebody else. For I wanted to remake them, but I myself was remade! In their own image….They do not want to know anything! All they know is how to devour!"      
But he survives this inward meat grinder. Stalker is hugely relieved, praising him, saying many do not survive. But Writer is angry and resentful because he's the one who had to go first into it, and maybe also because the other two were present when he was baring his hateful, tormented heart.
     At the far end of the meat grinder they enter a strange little room with an ordinary-looking house window, a floor of planking much like the floor in Stalker's house (yet with water visible beneath the planks), a bare lightbulb that flares up and goes out, also like one in Stalker's house, and a bottle of sleeping pills—also like in Stalker's house. Writer, incensed, is complaining, accusing, and sneering. But then, oddly, a telephone starts ringing. Writer finally answers it, and it is a wrong number: He says, "Yes? No, this is not a clinic!" and hangs up. Odd, but they are creating the rules of their reality here, and they needed an interruption from the tense unpleasantness. 
     The Professor then impulsively picks up the phone and calls his laboratory. He tells a colleague there that he has found what was hidden, and that he intends to use it. The colleague accuses him of wanting to do this "vileness" out of spite at him, simply because he slept with the Professor's wife twenty years previously. Professor hangs up on him, and then in an unusually emotional, agitated state begins rationalizing why the Zone must be destroyed. Scum yearning for world conquest, or for who knows what monstrosities, will come to the Room to have their dreams come true…Strange crimes and super-diseases are already occurring, no doubt because of that Room….
     Writer, in cynical typicality, retorts that nobody has such universal love or hate, that all people want is sex and more money, plus maybe some petty revenge, like the death of their boss—and then Stalker, who's been mostly quiet, observes, "There cannot be happiness at someone else's expense." This one sentence in the movie has stayed with me more than any other. It is profoundly true. Or so it seems to me. But Stalker tends to be dismissed as a naïve ignoramus by the other two.
     Writer sarcastically makes a crown of thorns and puts it on. Why? Merely to show that wearing a crown of thorns doesn't necessarily mean anything? I don't know.
     At last they find themselves at the threshold of the Room. Near the doorway are two skeletons, one male, one female, locked in a lovers' embrace. They obviously didn't quite make it. Perhaps their attachment for each other, apparent even after death, somehow hindered their access to the Holy of Holies. The black dog is still with them, and whimpers. It lies near the skeletons, as though it's on their side; perhaps this dark spirit fears the Room, or the idea of the men entering it.
     Here Stalker delivers a little speech:
"I know you will be angry…but anyway, I must say to you...Here we are, standing at the threshold. This is the most important moment of your lives; you must know, that here your most cherished wish will come true. The most sincere one! The one born of greatest suffering!  You do not have to say anything. You have only to concentrate and try to remember the whole of your life. When people reflect upon the past, they become better. And, above all, the most important is...to believe! OK, and now you can go."
But nobody is eager to go in.
     By this time Writer has perceived that one's inmost wish may not be one's conscious wish; that an ugly heart is bound to have an ugly heart's desire. He declines.
     Finally, Professor agrees to enter. But first he pulls an apparatus out of his cherished knapsack (the knapsack the Zone allowed him to break the rules by retrieving), and begins fiddling with it, explaining that it's a twenty-kiloton nuclear bomb. "This Room will never bring happiness to anybody," he says. The Room must be destroyed, for the good of society.
     Scientific materialism tries to eradicate Mystery. The "Enlightenment" movement of a few hundred years ago combating "superstition." Marxist governments banning "the opiate of the masses."
     And he decides to annihilate the Zone with a nuclear bomb largely because somebody slept with his wife twenty years ago. See the danger of emotionally undeveloped intellect. 
     Stalker leaps at him, trying to tear the bomb out of his hands, but, surprisingly, it is Writer who fights him off again and again, eventually bloodying Stalker's face in the process. This surprises even the Professor. Finally, Stalker sits on the wet, debris-strewn floor, sobbing, his heart broken.
     Through his tears he says, "There’s nothing else left for the people in the world, is there! It’s the only...only place where one can come when there’s no hope left. You came here, didn’t you! Why are you destroying the faith?!" He wants to throw himself upon Professor again, but Writer flings him away.
     The Writer exclaims, "Shut up, you! I can see right through you! You don’t give a damn…" etc., etc.
     Then Stalker gives one of the most moving monologues in the story.
"It’s not true! Not true! You...You are wrong!" (He kneels in the stagnant water, washes tears and blood from his face, crying.) "A stalker must not enter the Room! A Stalker...must not enter the Zone for any ulterior motive! He must not; remember Porcupine! Yes, you’re right, I’m a louse, I haven’t done anything in this world and I cannot do anything. And neither could I give anything to my wife! And I do not have any friends and I cannot have any, but you cannot take what’s mine from me! Everything is already taken from me, there, on the other side of the barbed wire. All I have is here. Can you understand! Here! In the Zone! My happiness, my freedom, my dignity—everything’s here! For I lead the same as me here, unhappy ones, suffering. They...They have no other hope left! And I—I am able to! Can you understand? I am able to help them! Nobody else can help them, but I, the louse, I, louse, am able to! I am ready to shed tears of happiness that I am able to help them. That’s all! And I want nothing else."
Then, sitting there on the wet, filthy floor, he lowers his face to his knees.
     Such a heartfelt speech cannot but move the other two. The Professor changes his mind about using the bomb. But still neither wants to enter. The intellectual Professor may be, deep down, simply afraid of what he can't understand intellectually. On the other hand, Writer says,
"What is in accordance with your nature, your essence, is what comes true here. That essence that you have no idea about, but it sits in you and rules you all your life! You understood nothing….Porcupine was not overcome by his greed. He crawled on his knees in this very puddle begging for his brother [who died in the meat grinder]. And he got a lot of money, and couldn’t get anything else. Because a Porcupine gets everything that’s porcupine-like! Render unto Porcupine what belongs to Porcupine! And conscience, throes of the soul—it is invented, it‘s brain work. He understood that and hanged himself. I will not go into your Room! I do not want to spill all the trash that has accumulated inside me on anybody’s head, not even on yours, and afterwards run my head into the noose like Porcupine did. I’d rather drink myself to death in my mansion, in peace and quiet."     
There is truth in this. Most people simply are not ready for such a gift. They lack sufficient purity of heart to wish for or realize what is best, or even very good.
     The three men sit there together, at the threshold of the Room. Stalker is still quietly sobbing. The phone rings again, offering some distraction, but they ignore it this time. The Professor slowly disassembles the bomb and throws the pieces into the moving, stagnant water. The Zone can be neglected, and polluted by the rubbish of mankind, but never destroyed. Everything fades toward monochrome again. There is brief yet heavy rain, spirit falling from heaven through a hole in the roof. Really, it was not a meteor or an alien spaceship which caused the Zone to be, but Spirit which rains upon the earth every day, and flows through it. 
     There is one last view into the water: A large fish inspects a piece of the bomb above the ubiquitous white tile, and then something dark and reddish—apparently either oily sludge or Christ-like blood—covers the water and obscures the view, to the sound of another train. All becomes darkness.
     The journey through the Zone goes from outdoors to indoors, outward to inward. We never actually see the Room, the Holy of Holies, the Inner Sanctum which grants our heart's desire. Of course not! How can we see Nirvana, or God, or any absolute summum bonum? It's too inward to see. 
     Despite this climax, the movie isn't finished. By the time the train has stopped making its noise the scene is back in the barroom, with the men in the same positions they were in before they left (suggestive of the nonphysical nature of their journey), except now they're exhausted and covered with muck, and the Professor has also finally managed to lose his hat. The goblinesque black dog has followed them, and Stalker feeds it. Stalker's wife comes with Monkey, the silent, crippled daughter, and cheerfully greets them, asking if anyone wants to take the dog. Writer says he already has five (dogs or dark spirits: take your pick). Stalker leaves with his family. Professor seems simply exhausted and blank, but Writer, although tired, appears satisfied and thoughtful. He seems to smile while watching Stalker walk away with his family, his crippled daughter riding on his shoulders. 
     The movie's director has written: 
"The arrival of Stalker’s wife in the café where they are resting confronts the Writer and the Scientist with a puzzling, to them incomprehensible, phenomenon. There before them is a woman who has been through untold miseries because of her husband, and has had a sick child by him; but she continues to love him with the same selfless, unthinking devotion as in her youth. Her love and her devotion are the final miracle which can be set against the unbelief, cynicism, [and] moral vacuum poisoning the modern world, of which both the Writer and Scientist are victims." 
Maybe she is the reason why Writer smiles at the end as he watches them walk away? There may be some hope for him; his journey into the Zone seems not to have been totally in vain. He is less cynical now, and more humble. He has begun looking in a new direction.
     Suddenly, the world is in color again: It is a closeup of the girl Monkey as she rides solemnly on her father's shoulders. Nobody else is shown in color outside the Zone.
     They go home, trudging past a cooling pond near the power plant, and lots of mud. The wife gives milk to the dog (spilling some), and Stalker lies down next to it on the floor, in agonizing despair. His wife gently comforts him, and helps him to bed. Ironically, when the wife coaxes Stalker to bed, she tells him he shouldn't lie on the floor because it's too damp—after he's been wallowing in a swamp all day long. A cuckoo clock in the house makes its cheap, artificial little call, a shabby imitation of the cuckoo calling in the forest of the Zone. Wisps of something like cottonwood fluff float around inside the house, reminiscent of the snowy fallout in the Zone. The clear suggestion (as with the room near the Room with the house window, the plank flooring, the flaring light, and the pills, as well as with all the common objects lying underwater) is that the Zone is actually just a more real version of the everyday world—which, however, we fail to experience fully through cynicism, materialism, and spiritual bankruptcy, among other things. 
     Also ironically, one finally sees that in Stalker's bedroom is a wall covered from floor to ceiling with bookshelves, and well-used books. This implies that in addition to being a simple-hearted Holy Fool he is actually more intelligent, more cultured, and more civilized than the two leaders of society who had considered him such an ignorant wretch.
     Stalker's wife continues to comfort him, very different than before he left in the morning.
     He: "My God, what kind of people they are…"
     She: "Calm down...Calm down...It’s not their fault...One should pity them, and you’re getting angry."
     He: "Haven’t you seen them? Their eyes are empty!"
     His wife gives him a pill, then, holding his head, makes him drink some water from a glass. Then she strokes him and wipes his face. He is crying, and closes his eyes.
     He: "And they're thinking every minute how not to be sold too cheap, how to sell themselves for a higher price! So that everybody pays for every movement of their soul! They know that they are "born for a purpose"! That they are "called upon"! After all, they “only live once"! How can ones like this believe in anything?"
     She: "Calm down, stop...Try to fall asleep, ah?…Sleep…"
     He: "And nobody believes. Not only those two. Nobody! Whom should I lead in there? Oh, God... And the most terrifying thing is that nobody needs it anymore. Nobody needs that Room. And all my efforts are worthless!"
     She: "Why are you saying this. Don’t."
     He: "I will not lead anybody in there anymore." 
     She (with compassion): "Well...If you’d like, I will go with you. There. Do you want that?"
     He (opens his eyes, looks at her): "Where?"
     She: "Do you think I have nothing to wish for?"
     He: "No...You mustn’t…"
     She: "Why?"
     He: "No-no...And what if suddenly you will not...succeed either."
     Stalker closes his eyes again and turns his face away, a track of tears now visible across his dirty cheek and neck, and clearly showing the (roughly heart-shaped?) patch of white hair above his left ear. His faith is so shaken that he fears even his wife would fail. Perhaps if his faith were completely sound, that black dog wouldn't have followed him home. Stalker is no Buddha or Christ; he has his own struggles to deal with. And of course, outside the Zone he's always monochrome.
     His wife sits down on a stool and lights a cigarette, plenty of white tile behind her, and for the first time someone talks directly into the camera, looking the viewer in the eye, further incorporating him/her into the alternative reality of the movie, which is the reality we are creating.
"You know, my mom was very much against it. You must have, I suppose, realized he is blessed—'God’s fool.' The entire district laughed at him. And he was a blunderer, such a pathetic fellow… And my mom said, 'Isn’t he a stalker, isn’t he a condemned man, isn’t he a perpetual jailbird! And children. Remember what children stalkers get.' And I...I even...I didn’t even argue...I knew all this myself: both that he is a condemned man, and that he is a perpetual jailbird, and about the children too…And what could I have done? I was sure that I'd be happy with him. I knew also that there would be a lot of grief, but sorrowful happiness is better than...a grey and dull life." (She sobs, then smiles.) "Or perhaps I thought all that up afterwards." (She stands up, then moves to the window…) "And then he simply came up to me and said: 'Come with me,' and I went. And I never ever regretted after that. Never. And there has been a lot of grief, and it was frightening, and it was shameful. But I have never regretted and I have never envied anybody. It's just our fate, our life. Such are we. And if we hadn't had our misfortunes, it would not be better; it would be worse. Because then there would be...neither happiness, nor hope. That’s it."
He called her like Christ calling an apostle, and she had to follow, with love being her primary motive in life. Hence the miracle at the bar.
     Meanwhile, the little girl, Monkey, is in the kitchen, shown in full color, wearing her golden scarf. She sits at the table and reads a book, then putting it down, without moving her lips, recites a love poem by F. I. Tyutchev:

          "Your eyes I love, my darling friend,
          Their play, so passionate and brightening,
          When a sudden glance upward you send,
          And like a heavenly lightning
          Take all in from end to end...
          But there is a stronger spell I admire:
          Your eyes when they're downcast
          In bursts of love-inspired fire,
          When there through the lowered eyelashes
          Burns a somber, dim flame of desire."

The heart's desire. Her recitation of it may also signify her precocious (spiritual) maturity.
     Then, as the dog whimpers somewhere out of sight, she moves three glass vessels on the table with her mind, under the power of her gaze, so to speak. A hard-headed devotee of Scientific Materialism might insist that it was caused by the vibrations of yet another passing train. 
     She is crippled and dysfunctional in a worldly sense; but being the child of a dedicated stalker has its advantages too. 





Select Webliography

YouTube, The Movie Stalker with English subtitles
Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYEfJhkPK7o
Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUHBgqx8YP8
(You may have to turn on the English captions.)

Transcript of the Movie Stalker, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and Andrei Tarkovsky, translated into English by Kirill Zimin

The Guardian, "Danger! High-radiation arthouse!" by Geoff Dyer

"Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia for the Light" by ???

East-West Church Ministry Report, "Tarkovsky's The Stalker: A Christian Allegory Set in the 'Evil Empire'" by Gregory Halvorsen Schreck

nostalghia.com, "Stalker's meaning in terms of temporality and spatial relations" by Greg Polin

nostalghia.com, "I'm interested in the problem of inner freedom…" by Andrei Tarkovsky, Jerzy Illg, and Leonard Neuger

nostalghia.com, "Tarkovsky at the Mirror" by Andrei Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra








Sunday, August 18, 2013

Alienation as a Way of Life


     Recently I received in my inbox, from Paul Lowe's Inspirational Mailing List, an email with a strange message:

     7H15 M3554G3 
     53RV35 7O PR0V3 
     H0W 0UR M1ND5
     C4N D0 4M4Z1NG 7H1NG5!
     1MPR3551V3 7H1NG5!
     
     1N 7H3 B3G1NN1NG 17 WA5 H4RD,
     BU7 N0W, 0N 7H15 LIN3,
     Y0UR M1ND 1S R34D1NG 17 4U70M471C4LLY
     W17H0U7 3V3N 7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17.
     
     B3 PROUD!
     0NLY C3R741N P30PL3 C4N R3AD 7H15.
     PL3453 F0RW4RD 1F U C4N R34D 7H15. 

     To my 'select' strange-minded friends: If you can read the previous paragraph, forward it on to your friends with 'yes' in the subject line. Only great minds can read this. This is weird, but interesting!
     
     If you can raed this, you have a sgtrane mnid, too.
     
     Can you raed this? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can. I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in what oerdr the ltteres in a word are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is that the frsit and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it whotuit a pboerlm. 
     This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe.
     Azanmig huh? Yaeh, and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! If you can raed this, pealse forwrad it
     
     FORWARD ONLY IF YOU CAN READ IT. Forward it & put 'YES' in the Subject Box

This message was forwarded with a brief commentary added, I assume by Paul Lowe:

     It may have a much greater significance than is realised.
     It is an example of how the mind, in most instances, 
     does not need to register details. 
     It draws the details from the stored memory.

     So here is what is significant about it:
     It is the same when you meet someone, or look at an object.
     The mind registers just enough detail to access the stored
     information there, and then that mind fills in the details—  
     with the dead past.

     That is one of the reasons it is very rare to actually meet someone— 
     you are both just accessing the past, and not this actual moment.
     (And that is only just touching on the subject.)

     These observations seem to apply to the nature of the human race in general, from Stone Age hunter/gatherers to university-educated urbanites of the Information Age. In fact it seems to me, after living among villagers in a rather simple, traditional culture, that simple-hearted hillbillies are more alienated from their surroundings, in a way, than we are. I observed that Burmese villagers living in remote, rural areas saw their surroundings in relatively narrow, stereotyped ways, and were less likely to take in something with which they were not familiar. If something unusual happened, it would often fail to make an impression.
     For example, once I was living in a remote area of northwestern Burma in a large cave. In the cave with me were from forty to fifty paper wasp nests, and during the rainy season the nests became dangerously large, and the wasps dangerously aggressive. I learned the hard way how to share the cave with them, but visitors often were stung. Once during the rainy season a group of village ladies came to visit me, and I called out to them, "Come in one at a time, and come in SLOWLY." They all got a confused, blank look on their face, like "Why would he say something like that?" and all marched in together at normal speed…and they were swarmed, and all of them were stung. It was only after such a drastic lesson that the warning registered.
     Another example of this phenomenon is a myth, perhaps, that when European sailing ships first appeared off the coast of Central America, the native Americans couldn't see them at all, as they were so unusual as to fail to register at all—there was no stored information which could account for them, so they were blotted out of the field of perception with a sort of selective blindness. A shaman who was somewhat more openminded and less conceptually shackled could see the ships, however, and was able to prepare the others sufficiently that they could see them too—which demonstrated the great mystical power of the shaman.
     Modern Westerners experience this kind of perceptual limitation too, however. We glance at a dandelion long enough for the perceptual association of "weed" to arise, and then we stop taking it in. It's not a flower, much less a miracle, but a weed in the yard, and maybe a damned nuisance besides. 
     Small children, though, may still see dandelions as beautiful flowers, even as something wonderful and mysterious. This is a big reason why some people claim that very small children are enlightened beings: They haven't yet stored up enough memorized associations to glance at something just long enough to have their eyes glaze over. They take in their surroundings much more than their parents do; they absorb everything more as a present "this," and thus are, in a sense, more awake than are most adults. 
     But, as the Pali texts point out (see, for example, Suttas 64 and 78 of the Majjhima Nikāya), small children aren't really enlightened, because they have the underlying tendency (anusaya) to become like us, and learn to be like us quickly and eagerly enough, in accordance with their own human nature, and reinforced by the example of their parents and others. They learn from adults, for example, that dandelions aren't lovely flowers, much less miracles, but just weeds.
     Whether nonhuman animals can be said to have these latent tendencies is questionable though; and there are some, like Eckhart Tolle, who claim that animals too are naturally enlightened. In fact, according to him, all beings on this planet are enlightened except us, plus a few domesticated animals on whom our neurosis has rubbed off. I won't tackle that issue here, however.
     Getting back to humans, I have found that, even though simple villagers may be more alienated from their environment than we are in some important ways, we "civilized" Westerners (plus Westernized Easterners too nowadays) are obviously, painfully more alienated from each other. In a traditional Asian village, everybody knows just about everybody else there; there is more of a feeling of us than is experienced in a modern Western community. If somebody's house burns down, for instance, the neighborhood freely chips in and helps build them a new one. They have more of a group mentality. We in the West may have a broader, more variegated kind of alienation from the world than simple villagers have, but our alienation is more isolating. We are more cut off from everyone around us. We may see fellow human beings much in the same way as we see dandelions.
     I assume a major reason for this is the Western emphasis on individuality, and the idea that as we become more civilized, society becomes more atomized, no longer centered on the race, the tribe, the clan, or even the family, but on the individual person. Add to that the fact that in modern culture we are exposed to a variety of points of view, so that modern, Westernized people no longer share a Weltanschauung the way people in traditional cultures do. Everyone is different; and so our neighbor is not so obviously on the same side as us, and not so obviously to be trusted. And add to that the facts that consumerism and relative wealth and privilege have made us fussy, hard to please, and worried about potential threats to our property, and that Scientism has allowed us to see human beings as machines made of spiritless meat, and we wind up with a society of isolated, unhappy individual atoms that don't fit into molecules very well.
     This is evident in the nature of romantic relationships in the West. They tend to be less stable than in simpler cultures. It's harder to find someone compatible, with a compatible point of view. In traditional cultures marriages are often arranged, with the bride and groom hardly knowing each other before the wedding; and it has been observed more than once that such marriages tend to be more stable than marriages for love. I suppose that in a traditional culture, where everyone shares pretty much the same outlook on the world, it's easier to find a mate with whom one can get along.
     Many years ago in Burma I happened to come across a book for people learning English as a second language, and one of the little essays for study was the following excerpt from a book entitled Through Brown Eyes, by Profulla Mohanti, an Indian architect and artist who studied and worked in London. Here is the essay, in its entirety:

     "When I returned to my room, I sat by the window, thinking. 
     "Although I had stayed in England for over a year, it was difficult for me to understand the British mind. Travelling to the office every day by train I watched people hiding their faces behind newspapers. They rarely talked to one another, occasionally lifting their eyebrows to look at their fellow passengers. But when I started a conversation under the pretext of the weather I found many had a natural gift for gossip. They would go on telling me all about themselves and their families. Sometimes I was even given their telephone numbers and asked to look them up. At first I took their invitations at face value, but when I rang and heard the surprised tone, 'Who?', I felt embarrassed and pretended I had got the wrong number.
     "I had to learn to say 'please', 'sorry', 'thank you', whether I felt it or not. Once, while buying tickets at Waterloo, I forgot to say 'please'. The man at the counter was offended and would not give me the ticket until I had said 'please'. When he handed me the ticket he said, 'Say "thank you".' As I was getting into the train, an Englishwoman pushed me with her shoulders, said 'sorry', and hurried inside to take the only empty seat. 
     "On the way to the office one morning a man collapsed in my compartment. At Waterloo everybody left, but I stayed with him until the ambulance arrived and was an hour late getting to the office. I was told it was not my job to look after strangers.
     "I found that many did not even look after their own parents who were old and helpless. In India, it is the duty of the children to look after their parents and old relatives. While serving a meal, my mother always gave food to the old relatives and children first and ate whatever was left over. The old never felt isolated. They lived with their families and contributed to the happiness of the house."

     We in the West have tried to compensate for our alienation from others with a veneer of polite friendliness, which extends deeper in some than in others. Because our lives tend to be rather superficial, because we don't introspect so much, we are often deceived by our own superficial togetherness. I assume most of us have enthusiastically shared phone numbers with people who, deep down, we had no intention of ever contacting, or have made generous offers in a glow of outward friendliness that we promptly forgot afterwards, or made excuses for backing out of, after the glow cooled and the friend was no longer in sight.
     Around the same time that I first read the above essay by Mohanti, I also had some learning experiences in Rangoon with a thoroughly Westernized young Burmese woman. Her father had been educated in the West, she spoke fluent English, she worked at a Western embassy, and she was a devout convert to Western Superficialism (without identifying it as such). She seemed to have little idea of what Burmese Buddhism was about, and didn't "get" Dhamma. Anyway, she repeatedly invited me to her house for a meal, really gushing with polite friendliness, like, "Oh, I'm so glad you're in town! I'm so much looking forward to your visit!" Yet after making these statements she would seem to forget them almost immediately, as she never followed up on them. She turned out to be always preoccupied with other things, and the actual date for the invitation stayed in limbo, and the thing never happened. It seemed that she had learned to be very warm and hospitable at the surface, was very good at it, and considered this surface to be what was essential; but it overlaid a deeper level of indifference, or perhaps of unwillingness to disrupt her involved "life story" by fitting something incongruous into it. Anyway, it just goes to show that even Burmese people may become Westernized and "civilized" someday. 
     Kipling's "White Man's Burden" of civilizing the undeveloped world had early colonial governments (and Christian missionaries) pretty much eradicating cannibalism, headhunting, and human sacrifice, among other things. So although it's politically correct nowadays to disapprove of pre-21st century European and American colonialism, it certainly wasn't all bad. Now economists, multinational corporations, and humanitarian organizations have taken up the torch and are helping the underprivileged masses to become alienated, superficial consumers with a strong sense of personal entitlement and self (in Pali, attā), for their own good and for the good of the world, supposedly. 
     This kind of alienated individuality makes for success at the superficial level, and is not all bad; but it is one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual development in the Western world. And it doesn't make people happy, which would seem to be the most important thing. It is rather a dilemma, as everyone conforming to a single world view, especially a relatively spiritual one, is more conducive to togetherness than is independent thought; yet it also is more conducive to closed-mindedness and institutionalized mediocrity. People who can break free of the institutions, Eastern or Western, and not become hermits, outcasts, and/or lunatics are relatively very few.
     So what can we do about it? Learn from small children, I suppose.   


Taraxacum officinale


     Although I can criticize it, I also am alienated (partly due to years of deconstructing my experience into observed mental states, partly due to Western cultural conditioning, and partly due to "default" human nature). However, I am aware of this, and am investigating the matter. 

     POSTSCRIPT: Here is an excellent example illustrating normal, everyday alienation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWSxSQsspiQ    

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stone Age Spiritual Poetry (sort of)


The Feather of Leban, by John R. Reynolds and Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu

I, member of the Deegyu Tribe, to be a Weejee man
     Once made a spirit journey for the blessing of Leban—
Leban, the mighty warrior, who lives upon the peak,
     Upon the sacred mountaintop whose name one never speaks;
Leban who makes the thunder roar, Leban who makes the rain,
     Leban who topples mighty trees, then makes them grow again.
So like my father's fathers, like the ancient ones of old,
     I too took up that journey to the peak of mist and cold:
To swim the mighty river, then to cross the burning sand,
     And then to climb the mountain, to become a Weejee man.
It is a journey many try, of which none lightly speaks:
     A solitary journey up that solitary peak;
There are no maps to guide one's feet, no signs to point the way;
     No stories told to help one on that most auspicious day.
The only thing the wise men told was, when I met Leban,
     I'd get the eagle feather marking me a Weejee man.
The lodge house of the spirit council's at the village center,
     Which lesser men who failed the test can never hope to enter;
The Great observe the flights of birds, and count woodpecker strokes;
     They learn the language of the water, and of campfire smoke;
They're brothers to the eagle, know the secrets of the wind;
     They mingle with the animals, and talk and sing with them;
They know what days the geese will fly upon their journey South;
     And no untruth is ever, ever spoken from their mouth.
They're taught the magic chants, and how to dance the Spirit Dance;
     And nothing in their discipline is ever left to chance.
My father and his father too were each a Weejee man
     Who knew the many sacred things no low man understands.
     I had to climb that mountain for the blessing of Leban.
I'd walk tall through the village then; I'd pity lesser men;
     I'd bear with quiet dignity the homage paid by them.
One must await the Omen though—one chance is all one gets:
     I ran, I swam, climbed hillsides, that would keep me strong and fit,
Walked barefoot through hot ashes to prepare me for the sand,
     And felt that all I needed was that Omen from Leban.
I waited all the Summer, and I waited all the Fall,
     I watched the river freeze with ice, and snow soon covered all;
     (Could it be I would cross on ice, the desert would be cool?)
Leban won't make it easy—it was in the early Spring;
     I watched the ice begin to break...and heard a bluebird sing;
I could not be mistaken: for it surely was the Omen;
     My mother begged me not to go (She was a tender woman);
At least my father understood; he was a Weejee man,
     And gripped my shoulder, nodding: "It's the Omen from Leban."
He gave his warmest blanket and a flint for starting fires;
     My mother gave her blessings then, and tears were in her eyes;
She clutched me tightly to her breast and said, "Please understand
     That I will always love you if you stay a lesser man."
I wrapped the fire kit in the blanket—had to keep it dry;
     Then waded out, through grinding ice, to make that single try.
I placed my bundle on a floe and pushed it on ahead;
     I'd make it to that far off shore, or I would soon be dead.
The ice pack ground around me as I fought the numbing cold— 
     Perhaps I'm not as worthy as the Weejee men of old?
The thought of failure robbed my strength as I strove for the shore;
     The numbing cold got in my bones, and I could swim no more.
I drifted with the ice floes, and I scraped along the sand,
     And then I knew that I would die a lowly lesser man.
But then I heard a raven croak—it sounded close at hand,
     And with what courage I could find I clawed toward the land:
     Because I knew that raven was an Omen from Leban.
I lay there on that rocky shore too weak to even crawl,
     My body shaking, blue with cold; I'd lost it after all.
The raven perched upon a stone; I saw him cock his head:
     He looked at me as if to say, "Come on now, you're not dead!
You puny little lesser man, how dare you think you can
     Wade little trickles, much less climb the mountain of Leban?
A clod like you is yearning for the feather of Leban!
     You've not the strength to build a fire—do it if you can!"
The raven laughed and flew away. My anger made me warm;
     I built myself a fire, and a shelter from the storm;
I made a bed of spruce boughs, had to build my strength with sleep;
     The burning sand was still ahead, the mountain rough and steep.
Next day I rolled my blanket up and chose a sturdy stick;
     (All round the burning desert was a forest dense and thick
     Of black and twisted thorny trees that rip and tear and prick.)
So then I came upon the desert plain of burning sand
     Where swirls of fire and burned-out ash danced all across the land;
The smoke was dense and burned my eyes, my throat was swelling shut;
     The ground was cracked and fissured where the flames came gusting up;
It seemed like an eternity since I had seen the sky,
     But when I saw the sun again, it was just midway high.
I fought a thorn patch with my stick, with torn and bloody hands…
     Till at my back there lay at last the thorns and burning sand.
I'd frozen, burned, and bled; and now, before my half-blind eyes
     Arose the mystic mountaintop that reached up to the skies—
The mountain Weejee men must climb to get their eagle feather
     From he who makes the thunder, and manipulates the weather;
Leban who makes the ice break up, makes flowers in the Spring;
     Who speaks sometimes with raven croaks, or ways that bluebirds sing.
I rested there a little while, and then I started up
     To where the mighty Spirit Man was resting at the top.
My feet were torn and blistered; and my body ached with pain;
     I slipped and slid and picked me up, and started up again.
I was close to the timberline when night began to fall;
     That night I slept upon a ledge, my back against the wall;
Beyond was where the timber stops; beyond that was the snow 
     Where screaming wind howls through the crags—the place where I must go
To get the eagle feather from the hand of Great Leban;
     Then I could walk with dignity, a tall, proud Weejee man.
I waited for the dawn to come, was eager for the light;
     For this would be the sacred day I'd longed for all my life.
The ledge was hard and narrow, and I didn't get much sleep;
     The grey dawn found me struggling up through ice and snow and sleet,
     Behind me bloody footprints left by my two aching feet.
And as I saw I had it made—my prize was in my reach—
     I stumbled on some ragged hides, and heard weak, plaintive bleats!
     There was an old and near-dead crone a-lying at my feet.
She looked me squarely in the face, she pleaded with her eyes:
     "If you choose not to help me, Son, then I will surely die."
Before me was the summit there, where dwelt the Great Leban;
     Behind me was the poor life of a lowly, lesser man.
This trip I had to make but once; there'd be no second try;
     Yet if I left this ancient crone, then she would surely die.
I knew that I must leave her in this frozen, lonely place—
     And knew that I could not ignore those tears upon her face.
I wrapped her in my blanket, and I rubbed her frozen hands,
     And knew that I would never wear the feather of Leban.
When going down the mountain slope she showed an easy path;
     I built a cheery, warming fire when we were down at last.
She asked, "Which is the better, Son, to lay pride on the shelf,
     Or be a haughty Weejee man who does not like himself?"
I pondered on this thought awhile, and then began to see
     That even as a lesser man I was glad I liked me.
She took a soothing ointment out and rubbed my aching feet;
     The stone I sat upon felt like a downy, cushioned seat;
The firelight made her hair shine, made her eyes look young somehow:
     She rose and stood before me—strong and straight she stood there now.
     She pulled my head up to her lips, and kissed me on the brow:
"You've learned your lessons well, my Son, you've grown up brave and true.
     You've tempered strength with mercy, and Leban will walk with you."
She reached up to my headband then, and with a steady hand
     She placed the eagle feather there that marks a Weejee man
Who'd crossed the frozen river, and who'd conquered burning sand,
     And climbed that awful climb and learned the lesson of Leban.
She stepped into the fire, and in a puff of smoke was gone;
     I think she rode the East Wind back to where we had begun,
     To greet the next aspiring youth who'd be a Weejee man.
So now I chant the Spirit Chant, and dance the Weejee Dance;
     And nothing in my discipline is ever left to chance;
I'm brother to the eagle; I send prayers upon the wind;
     I also help the fallen ones to rise and walk again.
If I feel proud and haughty I remember Great Leban
     Massaged the sore and bloody feet of a lowly lesser man.