Monday, December 22, 2008

Mountains and Molehills

I know an individual whose problems seem insignificant. Often I look at him and think, You just don't have a clue how easy you've got it. His microcosm is secure, his wants and needs provided. Danger is non-existent. His life, from my point of view, seems to consist of nothing but whimsy. Whatever he wants to do, he does (within certain parameters of reason) and what he does not wish to do, he does not.

Yet, I'm quite sure that he feels differently. The absence of danger doesn't necessarily translate into content. (Just ask President Bush.) He is a creature of some habit. His habitual lifestyle, which seems to me to be a study in self-satisfaction, is a way of life that, to him, is paramount. If his routine is frustrated even slightly, the tectonic plates shift, and he is shaken. Yet I don't believe he is to be faulted for this. From his perspective, the trauma generated by an invasion of his comfort zone is no mean bother. If his world is all he knows, what blame can be laid upon him if a disruption of that world (constituting, perhaps, nothing more than the excitement caused to the nerves of a fish when an aquarium is tapped) causes self-pity, and fear?

I have seen him frightened by shadows and hiding from nothing more than a ridiculous perception of danger. I have even told him how silly he is. Reasoning with him, I point out his misconceptions. But I suspect my reassurances are lost in translation, and he hears nothing but gibberish, and sees nothing but wild gesticulation.

If his world were expanded, would some of the unknown be absorbed into his enlarged sphere, or would the unknown expand in direct proportion to the known? Is there a set number of unreasonable fears that can be diminished by facing each one? Or, for every fear deposed, does another spring up to take its place? If he is of such frail constitution, wouldn't a greater disturbance to his larger environs be of the same quality as the lesser disruptions of his smaller world? Fear is not absorbed by relief, it is only displaced. In fact, if his mindset remains the same, each terror vanquished might very well heighten his fear, as he becomes cognizant that, although this particular thing is not as big as he feared, that could only mean that there are other things awaiting him so enormous that they have heretofore escaped his consideration. Experience magnifies the scale. Every time a bigger problem presents itself, he becomes aware that, for that problem to be rendered insignificant in relation to the size of the world, the world must be larger still, and thus hold even bigger problems. So, instead of expanding, his world implodes, and he grows more frightened still. So long as he is satisfied with the smallness of his world, better to let him continue in his ignorance.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Fool Me Once

How credulous are we to be as Christians?

There seems to be some no man's land in between serpents and doves. Is the fusion of the wisdom of one and the mildness of the other an astronomical accomplishment? Is this one of those commandments that teaches us to strive towards, and not be discouraged if we fall short?

I'm speaking of our attitude toward the president-elect, by the way.

I know part of the difficulty lies in maintaining a strictly spiritual perspective when it comes to politics. Observing light through a prism breaks it down for us, but without the prism it just looks like light, so practically speaking, light is light and not a combination of the colors of the rainbow. Analogous to our hopes and dreams for the new president, do we take the trouble to watch his every move and appointment through the prism?

The editor of World Magazine in an article subtitled Nobody should want to destroy a presidency, but many do editorializes so: "Never let it be legitimately said that our main goal is to destroy our opponent or his presidency."

So is it cynicism that prompts me to sneer when Obama chooses a pro-life, pro Prop 8 pastor to offer the inaugural invocation? Beyond striking some nebulous new tone, might he be open to the views of Rick Warren? Prism aside, just looking at it with the naked eye, nothing is visible besides shrewd political pandering. And I confess, the effort required to divorce myself of an us vs. them mentality is often more than I put forth.

So where's the line between Christian credulity and naivete? Has Warren found it? Is offering a prayer at the outset of an ungodly administration sanction? (I do feel that in addition to the principle of hating the sin, loving the sinner, a high-profile pastor should be leery of such associations, be they saint or sinner. Such relationships did not edify Billy Graham.

Yes, I know that many evil OT kings called upon prophets of God. Whereupon they proceeded to pronounce doom, death, famine, insanity . . . And that was sheer diplomacy. One such tactless man of God started hacking off heads.

Will Warren call fire out of heaven? I admit I was surprised and impressed at his posing of the abortion question to candidate Obama. (And appalled at Obama's answer.)

Pray for the president. Pray for his soul. Pray for his salvation. Wish to see him in heaven.

Pray for the failure of his current policies.

And, in the interest of maintaining the inexplicable peace of God, stay on the other side of the prism.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Further Down the Path

The beginning of my last blog was perhaps poorly put.

(Devan read it and said, "Babe, nobody really wants to know why you want to be a Buddhist.")

Devan is big on putting things in nutshells.

The fascination the study of this particular religion holds for me has something to do with the seeming reason of its core beliefs, or, the Four Truths as revealed to the Buddha underneath the Bo tree.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. I left Buddha in rags at the edge of a forest. That's no place to leave a sage. Guatama, being the Hindu he was, first set out to find two of the highest brahmins in the land and partake of their wisdom. He learned all he felt he could and apparently found that particular path a dead end, for he then took up with a band of ascetics.

This is telling to me. Asceticism developed self-denial to an end in itself. This tells me he was something of a legalist. If the answer could be found in denying your body or your mind any sensual pleasure, then Guatama's search would have ended here. If asceticism is the extreme of self-sacrifice, then Guatama became twice removed from indulgence. Possessing unbelievable willpower, he took to the spare lifestyle with characteristic intensity. One of his fasts put him on a diet of six grains of rice a day. Why bother? When he would reach to feel his stomach he would feel his spine. This went on until he grew so weak he fell into a faint, and if it hadn't been for a passing good Samaritan and a bowl of rice gruel (that sounds good, I think I'll go whip me up a big bowl of rice gruel) he likely would have died. What an epiphany that must have been. You're on the verge of discovering the secret of existence and you come to with a cowgirl spooning gruel into your mouth. "How came you to be lying in this field?" "I have fainted." "Why have you fainted?" "Well, it may or may not have had something to do with what I ate." "What was it you ate?" "Well, for breakfast I had. . .rice, two grains, for lunch I had. . . .uh, rice again, and supper, . . .I ate . . .rice." "And why, O skinny sage, would you try to exist on six grains of rice a day." "I'm a very wise man and I am on the verge of discovering the meaning of life, and if you hadn't started shoveling this-what is this, anyway, rice? Okay, that's all, brother."

I'm willing to bet he swore off of rice for a while. At any rate he discovered the inability of asceticism to bring enlightenment as well as the inability of six rice grains to sustain the body.

I'd like to draw a parallel here with a philosophical movement that confronted Paul, or rather, that Paul confronted, on Mars Hill.

The Epicureans were to asceticism what a modern Neo-Calvinist might be to a Puritan, or, what your average Bible Methodist (Ohio Connection) might be to a hard-shell Bible Missionary (Louisiana District).

My, my, aren't we glib today.

Epicureanism, oddly enough, is considered a form of hedonism, while implementing some milder forms of asceticism. This is what is known as eating your cake and having it. It is hedonistic in so far as it stresses pleasure as fulfillment, and ascetic because pleasure, as defined by Epicurus, is somewhat less sinful than you might expect. He defined pleasure as abstaining from bodily desires. Speaking for myself, I think he may have had that a little backwards. But, as with all doctrine or philosophy set apart from Jesus Christ, Epicureanism was rooted in pride and so blossomed into a non fruit-bearing humanism.

The Dali Lama is a Tibetan Buddhist. You may have recently seen a headline in which the esteemed lama proclaimed physical intimacy, monogamous or otherwise, to be nothing more than a distraction to one seeking enlightenment. In our sex drenched culture, this is nothing if not going against the flow. But any points given for resistance to the over-indulgence of sex are quickly stripped away by the stodgy Apostle Paul who considers forbidding of marriage a "-doctrine(s) of demons", fomented by "the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron." Paul, another big nutshell encapsulator, goes on to prophesy of "men who forbid marriage, abstaining from foods which" now hear this, "God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing (emphasis mine) is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude;"

Abstinence, of the sort promoted by the lama, is ascetic, and asceticism feeds on a monstrous spiritual pride, a vice that spans the entire spectrum of religious and secular humanity. Through self-denial, through your own efforts, you may become good.

Now, Epicureanism is ascetic, and Buddhism is technically not, but, in my mind, the two are lumped together in a class of philosophies that are characterized by those unable to hope in a benevolent Almighty, and/or unwilling to accept that Almighty's unconditional demands on their own will.

Which brings me to another Greek philosopher named Zeno.

More later.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Path To Enlightenment?

Confidentially, if I weren't a Christian, I would probably be a Buddhist.

No, I'm not flirting with another way, not ranking religions in order of preference, I am stating a fact based on a passing knowledge of Buddhism and observations of my own personality. If Christ were not, I would be drawn to Buddha. That said, I remain cautious in my study of it, as a criminal psychologist might approach a charismatic sociopath.

But there is something curious about it that sets it apart from other non-Christian religions, even Hinduism, which it very closely parallels in many ways.

The Buddha, born Siddhartha Guatama in modern day Nepal, is claimed by Hinduism as a Hindu reformer. His quiet revolution was a reformation of sorts of the corrupted Hindu caste system. To Hindus, he was, in many ways, to Hinduism what Martin Luther was to medieval Catholicism.

The Hindu brahmins, comparable to Catholic priests, or Celtic druids, had a rigid, gratuitous system set in place, an exclusivity so very similar to the arrogance of Tetzel and the Pontiff of old. Theology was a science studied only by the priestly caste, thus hoarded by the brahmins and doled out, sold out, actually, at exorbitant rates to the lower castes. The similarity grows sharper when we learn that the ruling class insisted that the holy writ remain encoded in Sanskrit, a language not read or spoken by the unwashed masses.

Guatama was astute enough to recognize the nakedness of the emperor, and bold enough to point it out, so endearing himself to the common people, much as Luther, or, as is often pointed out, Jesus Christ.

You may know the damning generalities of his path to enlightenment. As I have mentioned before, he left a wife and child to find his inner peace, an odyssey that in today's parlance, suspiciously resembles the irresponsible freedom of a deadbeat dad. There are, however, extenuating circumstances to be considered in the case of the future Buddha.

He was born to luxury, the son of a feudal lord, a very handsome man according to many historical accounts. (yes, I too had trouble reconciling this little known fact with the fat little icon in the Happy Dragon Buffet)

Legend, of course, obscures much of the reality, understandable for the history of a man born in 563 B.C.E. (an ignominious irony, might it not be said he was born upon 0 A.B.?) However, Buddha would no doubt have cast such as ignoble pretension, for he claimed not godhood, angelic perfection, nor even sainthood.

But, upon the birth of little Saddhartha, according to legend, fortune-tellers were consulted by the eager father. It was agreed that this was no common birth. (It occurs to me that if you were a seer summoned by a king upon the birth of his son, you would be well-advised to come up with some more promising future besides rice-picker or dung-shoveler.) Greatness was read in the leaves, the palm, the crystal, the cards. However, the fortune split into a duality contingent upon the path chosen by the boy. Were he to seek things of a corporeal nature, he would become India's greatest king. Were he to set his mind on things transcendent, however, he would become world redeemer. Apparently the fortune-tellers decided to shoot for the moon. His father decided to pave the path for the arguably more modest fate and determined his son should be the ruler of India. Nothing was spared the prince-to-be. He was lavished with luxury and expectations. When he was of age, a wife was found of uncommon beauty and the probable result of such a promising union soon followed; a beautiful baby boy.

All was as it should have been, but somewhere in the idyllic existence a monkey clambered upon Saddhartha's back. According to legend, it came about as a result of a chance encounter with an old man. His father, it is said, went to every extreme to spare his son the distasteful realities of life. Saddhartha was never to encounter any physical or mental deficiency or deformity or anything that foretold death in his goings forth. On this particular occasion, however, one octogenarian was overlooked and the poor young prince was hazed into reality. And his initiation into the real world was only just beginning. On three consecutive journeys he encountered a sick person, a corpse, and finally, a monk. (I hazard a guess that a few of his father's servant deeply regretted these revelations.) Being the thoughtful young man he was, he could not dismiss these aberrations. They became a cancer attached to his contentment. He began to brood over the temporality of life and reflected on the passing of the seasons, the fading of the flower and such.

Legend aside, the fact is that upon approaching his thirtieth year (the ill herald of an early mid-life crisis, perhaps?) he came to a fateful decision. He would sever all relational and financial connections (distractions, he called 'em) and sally forth to discover the meaning of life.

Now, my inherent bias notwithstanding, this decision may or may not have been an agonizing one. It is not beyond the realm of reason to suspect that this was simply a very curious and emotionally stunted man, having been brought to thirty inside of a bubble. However, by all accounts, Saddhartha Guatama was an unfailingly compassionate individual, so, the benefit of the doubt would lead us to surmise that the night he left all behind was a torturous one, unless he had not yet come into his gift of compassion. He bid his sleeping wife and child a silent farewell, stridled his magnificent white horse, and ordered the gatekeeper to accompany him to the forest, where he dismounted, changed attire with the gatekeeper and sent him back to the house with a message for his father.

Tell my father that there is no reason he should grieve. He will perhaps say it was too early for me to leave for the forest. But even if affection should prevent me from leaving my family just now of my own accord, in due course death would tear us apart, and in that we would have no say. Birds settle on a tree for a while, and then go their separate ways again. The meeting of all living beings must likewise inevitably end in their partings. This world passes away and disappoints the hopes of everlasting attachment. It is therefore unwise to have a sense of ownership for people who are united with us as in a dream-for a short while only and not in fact.

This early creed of sorts of the budding Buddha is pregnant with philosophical conundrums.

He is to be forgiven in stating that against all wishes in due time death would sever their attachments. Let us look at Buddha in his proper historical and cultural context and recognize that although we have a hope and promise of reunification with our loved ones who pass on in the Lord, the prospect of Heaven, properly so called, would have been a giant hurdle for a nominal Hindu, not to mention an entirely novel belief, a gargantuan Abrahamic leap of faith.

So, upon agreeing with his fatalism only for the sake of argument, can we accept his conclusion? That of course, depends on his motivation, upon which we can only speculate.

Was it the prospect of the pain of future partings that led him to take an early leave of his loved ones? Reasoning it out, it might make sense to live in the moment, but might it have been a preemptive personality glitch not dissimilar to the view of the atheist who, faced only with miserable perpetuity, takes his own life?

Or was it clinical dispassion he felt as he looked in on his sleeping wife and boy? Maybe the resignation of a mad scientist intent upon his spiritual experiment or the mental disconnect of a man who kills his family because he is about to kill himself. Whatever the reason, it is a curiosity born of situational ethics that we seem predisposed to forgive a man the desertion of his family if it is for any reason other than monetary irresponsibility.

Moving on, we find a sort of Buddhist exegesis of yin and yang in his word picture of the birds and following conclusion that all that comes must go. This is paramount in Buddhism. Hold nothing dear. Possessions, pride, family, distractions all.

You may be familiar with a well known cinematic epoch promoting stealth Buddhism. In the final episode of the popular movie series Star Wars, the young man who is to become the villainous Darth Vader is moved to villainy by his refusal to disconnect himself from all distractions. Reading from a Focus review, Anakin Skywalker, the future Vader, tells his mentor, Yoda, of nightmarish visions of his wife's death. Yoda's response is as follows: "The fear of loss is a path to the dark side. Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force." Continuing in his structural pig Latin, Yoda instructs, "Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose." It is worth noting that in this case as in the Buddha's, it is his wife he refuses to relinquish, and heedless of the little Jedi toad they call Yoda, Skywalker takes matters into his own hands. Then in a deft New Age twist, the movie combines shades of traditional absolute morality and truth with the wisdom of the Jedi. Hearkening unto the Dark Lord's promise to protect his wife, Anakin Skywalker chooses to believe, with the Dark Lord's urging, that there are many truths and the Jedi view of the Force is only one among many. He chooses what you might call the dark side and begins his descent into monstrousness.

Not to get sidetracked, but this storyline attempts to unite two opposite fundamentals; the detachment of Buddhism with objective morality, a concept Buddha rejected. As regarding absolute truth, Buddhism holds that the only absolute truth is that all truth is relative.

So nothing must take preeminence in our lives. There is an obvious parallel in Christianity. Christ demands absolute fealty, to the diminution of all else we hold dear. What we formerly held dear we must count as loss, and count nothing greater than Him. But that's only half the story.

C.S. Lewis, channeling Screwtape, wrote that whatever God takes away from a man with one hand he returns with the left, that when a man is completely His, he is more himself than ever he was before. God is "a hedonist at heart."

As Abraham was willing to sacrifice what was most dear to him, God, in effect, received the sacrifice and then returned it.

Buddha held out no such hope. By lowering his instinctive expectations to zero, he aimed to transcend the agony of grief.

More later.

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Black Friday Indeed

I came one step closer to fear on Black Friday.

Economic malaises will come and go, darker times than these current have perhaps fallen on our nation and others. We have been disappointed by elections before. We weathered eight years of a spineless pathological liar and adulterer.

And how long has shameless commercialization overshadowed the holiday season?

People have been trampled underfoot by mobs before this.

2003, almost exactly five years past, an instance similar to the one that marred this past Friday occurred in Florida, also at a Wal-Mart, also killing a man.

1979, The Who concert in Cincinnati opened its doors for general seating to a thronging crowd that claimed the lives of eleven fans.

2000, fans of Pearl Jam killed nine in a crush in Denmark.

2004, 244 people died on their pilgrimage to worship Allah in Saudi Arabia.

And the morbid list goe on.

So, the death of a Wal-Mart seasonal in Long Island is nothing if not tragic, but nothing to get all prophetic about, right?

Realistically, yes, the death was an anomaly. The early morning rush on the Friday after Thanksgiving is traditional, if increasingly frenetic in the past few years, and similar crowds mobbed retail outlets all over America on Friday morning without the tragic results.

The Long Island incident wasn't precisely what disturbed me, however. Only one tragedy marred this particular crush of capitalism, but the scene enacted all across America at 5 and 6 a.m. is worth a second look, if you don't mind being depressed.

A visit to YouTube will grant you all the evidence of consumer mania you wish to observe and then some in this depressed economy. And it is this sociological phenomenon that gives me pause.

It isn't so much the over-commercialization, the greed, if you wish, of the retailers or consumers, nor is it the weird groupie behavior of the campers on the sidewalks outside Best Buy and Circuit City and, of course, Wal-Mart. It is what happens when the doors open.

I've no doubt that many who actually stepped over the body of Jdimytai Damou felt a pang of guilt, if they noticed, a fleeting distraught moment of panic as they wondered if they should stop, help.

I don't know what they felt. But I know what they did.

They kept going, and went shopping.


Food, medicine, warm clothes to keep out the cold?

The devil will be in the credit card receipts, but I'm willing to bet the mob wasn't lined up outside for markdowns on potatoes and blood pressure medicine.

It was for Wii's, flat panel TV's and X-boxes.

And what's most disturbing is this: The death was a statistical anomaly, but the herd mentality is not.

And to the point, if people behave such in search of non-essential Christmas gifts, how is it they will behave in something like a food shortage, another Depression, or a nuclear attack?

I think there can be little doubt.

To brush this off as an abnormal tragedy you must ignore the implications of it.

New York may be a strange place to most of us in fly-over country, but in reality the people who line up outside Wal-Mart in Long Island are not a whit different than those lined up outside Best Buy in Lexington, KY.

This mob that savagely trampled a man to death to buy a television is a cross-section of America. There is no reason to believe that any other crowd in any other city or state would have behaved any differently. You can tell yourself otherwise, just as you may view the Holocaust as a German moral deficiency, or even turn-of-the-century American eugenics as simply an appalling but abnormal chapter in our nation's history, but the truth is that you live in a country where abortion is legal, safe and common.

I don't for a minute believe that even one of that mob wished death upon a retail employee they had never met, nor do I believe they didn't care, but the momentary pricks of conscience were soothed by the actions of every one of their peers. Nobody else is stopping, it must be okay.

What is the likelihood of mob rule in the event of a national crisis?

Yes, I know, Y2K and all that.

But nothing actually happened on Y2K.

I'm not predicting anything, but I am saying that if a crisis ever comes that deprives the people of this country of essentials it is naive to expect anything but savagery.

And by the way, happy Thanksgiving.