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 Buddhists 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.

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