Although my views fall well within territory that most people consider ultra-liberal, I have never called myself left wing, progressive, or liberal. I think “left wing” and “right wing” are especially deceptive terms. It’s logical to assume that there is some middle ground between the two. But I think left wing is just shorthand—or has become shorthand—for “humane,” while “right wing” now means “philosophically egotistical.” There isn’t any sane middle-ground between those two positions. One problem I see with those of us who want to be humane is that while we invariably support calls for justice at a macro level, some of us are not above taking advantage in our personal, day-to-day dealings. I once rented a room in a house full of Marxists, and one of them was one of the least just individuals I’ve ever met. Yet he regularly marched in favor of justice for the oppressed peoples of this world. If we want peace, it’s essential that we be peaceful. And if we want justice, we have to be just—down to the smallest transactions. I think a lot of people can agree with this easily. But there are always “grey areas.” That’s where we have to be especially disciplined and thoughtful. I think one difference between a “left winger” and a “right winger” is that a “left winger” can read something like this and think it over, while most “right wingers” will immediately scoff…and consider me a fool.
Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category
I started doing this blog shortly after Obama was elected in 2008. I saw better times coming and wanted to talk about where I believed we should go after all the years of Reaganism. It hasn’t turned out that way. First there was the much-deeper-than-I-foresaw racist reaction to having a black male as president. And then there’s been Obama’s inclination toward Reagan-like policies. (Yes, things could be worse—like, say, a McCain or a Romney presidency. But we are still heading toward hell, just at a slower pace.)
Lately, things have gotten so crazy that I find myself constantly conjuring up comebacks to all the negativity in the form of posts that I end up not writing because I’m tired of writing about this stuff. It’s my intention to stop reading and thinking about the violent and greedy egomaniacs in our midst and to start talking about where I believe we should go, or, at the very least, where I want to go. There are solutions to what ails us, and it’s not too late. I don’t think many people recognize what those solutions are, though. We’ve become too frivolous and distracted. But this is where I am going to put my energy now.
Recently, I developed a perception of how many Americans, particularly right-wing Americans, look at greed. Just last night I had my perception confirmed. I think it’s simple and pretty obvious, but we have to make these things clear if we’re ever going to deal with them.
I read an article in the New York Times about some multi-millionaire hedge fund manager who has been on a buying binge. New houses, a painting by Picasso, etc. I and a bunch of others saw him as being an example of the grotesque excess that characterizes those with obscene amounts of wealth today. One person suggested in a comment on the article that it would be a good thing to be able to confiscate some of that wealth. A reader responded to that, saying:
“By what right would you or anyone confiscate the property of another? And how would you decide what is ‘excess’?”
I felt like responding to the response and, in a slightly prickly mood, I wrote:
“In a sane world excess is taking more than you need to live a decent life. Let’s amend the constitution if need be.”
This motivated yet another reader to respond to me:
“Mark, your ‘sane world,’ where those who work to earn are ‘takers,’ must be one heck of a horror show.”
My response, which I’m making only here, is that we are already living in a horror show. And it’s largely because of those “earners.” This is right at the heart of my perception. They say it’s not greed if you’ve earned it. But greed is, precisely, working to obtain great wealth. Morally, no one is entitled to go after as much as they can “earn.” “Earn” is a self-deceptive term here. If you insert the word “get,” the meaning changes. And it’s more honest. You cannot earn a billion dollars. Invariably, someone will ask, “So, how much do you think one should morally be able to earn?” I think enough to make a living, but not a killing.
I’m back out on Santa Barbara Island. Last night around midnight, I went outside to sit and listen and watch. I heard sea lions barking, waves crashing against the cliffs, the peeping of some species of seabird, and the banging of the flagpole rope against the pole. I saw the stars, the moon, the reflection of the moon upon the ocean, and forty miles away the dim glow of Los Angeles. I thought to myself, “I ought to try to write a poem.” And then I thought, “Naw. Nobody reads poetry anymore. Poetry is dying.” A terrible thought, really, and I had to think about that for a little while.
What is poetry? When it functions correctly, it’s a people’s expression of its deepest convictions and insights. The universe has a constant poetry going that sometimes we see in the form of coincidence. Not accident, but coincidence—where things mysteriously coincide, that is, the workings of karma. Those levels are always there. So, poetry, or the poetic, never dies, but a people’s awareness of it can. We can lose our convictions and insights. If no one is paying any attention to poetry in America these days (perhaps you could even say the modern world), I have to think that it’s the culture that’s dying, not poetry.
A greedy man who piles up wealth
is like an owl who loves her chicks
the chicks grow up and eat their mother
wealth eventually swallows its owner
spread it around and blessings grow
hoard it and disaster arises
no wealth no disaster
flap your wings in the blue
Translation by Red Pine
A reader, Lynn B., asked me to post a list of spiritual books that I recommend. In the last decade or two a lot of the really valuable works have been obscured by new translations of the classics as well as newly written books, both with the “modern-day seeker” in mind. In short, they’re New Age, and from what I’ve seen, most of them are useless. What follows are the books that I’ve actually read and value most. There are certainly many others worth reading; but these are the ones I actually know:
Tao Te Ching: The fundamental text of Taoism. There are many, many translations. I have two favorites. One is the version by Richard Wilhelm and the other—my current favorite—is by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo. The original work is extremely terse. Most English translations have a lot of added verbiage in order to help the Western reader better understand the ideas. The Addis/Lombardo version retains the simplicity of the original text. Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with the lengthier translations, but I find this book clearer and easier to understand than any other version. It’s also more enjoyable.
I Ching: In some sense a Taoist text with heavy Confucian influences, the I Ching is really its own thing, that is, it has its own tradition. This is the book I know best. I’ve been studying it for nearly 40 years. To my mind, the only translation worth getting is the Wilhelm/Baynes version. One note of caution: A lot of people approach the I Ching with the hope that it will help them get what they want. It doesn’t do that. The I Ching is a book of wisdom. It’s a good idea to treat the oracular aspect with much caution.
Cold Mountain Poems: Han Shan (or Cold Mountain) was a Chinese religious hermit who wrote poems on the rock walls around his cave, 300 of which were collected after he disappeared. He spoke the language of both the Taoists and the Buddhists. I love this book. He can be very funny! My favorite version is by Red Pine.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind; Not Always So; Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Three books by the Japanese Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki. I love these. They are tidied-up versions of talks he gave and are especially useful because he knew that the people he was talking to were new to the subject. This doesn’t mean that they’re easy to understand. They’re not. It took me many years to even begin to understand any of Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. But they speak to a level that most Westerners can attain if we try.
Crooked Cucumber: This biography of Shunryu Suzuki, or Suzuki Roshi, was written by David Chadwick, a former student. It’s a wonderful book—humorous and well-written—and I recommend it highly.
Monday Night Class, The Caravan, and Amazing Dope Tales (aka Haight Ashbury Flashbacks): Stephen Gaskin was one of the hippies who, back in the 1960s, used LSD as a tool for spiritual exploration. He helped to develop the groundwork for what might be called Acid Religion, which is virtually identical to Taoism, Buddhism and true Christianity. (I’m not sure that “virtually” is actually necessary. But I’ll let it stand.) I like all of Gaskin’s books, but only a few of them are available today. Monday Night Class and The Caravan are currently out in annotated versions (done by him). He’s one of us and he’s talking to us.
The Gospel of Thomas: One of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, this is the only Christian text I bother with nowadays. One reason I like it is that it lacks the usual Christian mythologizing. It consists solely of the sayings of Jesus, many of which don’t exist in the standard Bible. It presents a Jesus who speaks with the voice of a sage. I only have the version by Marvin Meyer (The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus). For all I know, there may be better versions. But this one seems fine.
Finally, three books I haven’t yet gotten into deeply, but know that I will get into deeply in the future: The Diamond Sutra, The Platform Sutra, and The Heart Sutra. Red Pine has done translations of all three. I don’t speak or read Chinese, so I can’t say how good he is at that level. But I like his work. He studied for years in a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. I’ve never read any negative comments about him.
Sunday I was reading the news and came upon a link to watch the live video feed of the skydive from 24 miles up by Felix Baumgartner. I’m generally negative toward this kind of event, seeing it as little more than kitschy spectacle. The silly “mission control” set reinforced my feeling. Nevertheless, I got pulled in and I stayed to watch. I realize that the man had put a lot into this effort and was risking his life. But if he’d died, I believe that it would have been for nothing. I respected him for admitting his fear afterward. I could hear it in his voice on the way up. He said that it was much more difficult than he’d expected.
The one moment that really grabbed me was the one in which he jumped. Later, I was thinking of the image: a man standing against the backdrop of the cosmos and taking a great leap. As I’ve come to understand it, it describes what the sage does when he seeks enlightenment: He climbs as high as he can with his reason until there comes the moment that his thought won’t take him any higher. Then he has to let go of everything and take a great leap into the unknown. This is what Buddha, Christ, Lao Tzu, and all the other true sages accomplished. One big difference between Baumgartner’s leap and the leap of the sage is that the sage can’t get into position to make the leap unless he or she is willing to do it for all of humanity. It’s not a personal show or the act of a daredevil.
I think that ultimately we all have to take that same leap at the moment we die. Reading the spiritual books, it becomes apparent that, for some reason, it’s regarded as a noble thing to do before one’s actual death. Few ever consider attempting it, though—especially in this era of materialism.
While my primary interest is spiritual, I don’t consider myself part of any particular religion. I always say, “There is only one true religion and it doesn’t have a name.” There are religious traditions, however, that grow out of a time and place where people tried to connect with the one true, nameless religion, and those efforts have names: Taoism, Buddhism and so on. Most of my own study has grown out of the tradition known as Taoism.
I’m reading a book called Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by Bill Porter, also known as Red Pine. China has an ancient tradition of religious seekers going off to the mountains to live solitary lives. Porter is fluent in Chinese and in the 1990s he went to mainland China to see if there were still religious hermits living in the mountains. At one point he meets the abbot of a Taoist monastery who lived briefly as a hermit. I am particularly interested in the Abbot’s response to these two questions.
Porter: Do you have problems in teaching people Taoism nowadays?
Abbot: To find people who truly believe is the biggest problem we have. Taoism teaches us to reduce our desires and to lead quiet lives. People willing to reduce their desires or cultivate tranquility in this modern age are very few. This is the age of desire. Also, people learn much more slowly now. Their minds aren’t as simple. They’re too complicated.
Porter: What’s the goal of Taoist practice?
Abbot: Man’s nature is the same as the nature of heaven. Heaven gives birth to all creatures, and they all go different directions. But sooner or later they return to the same place. The goal of this universe, its highest goal, is nothingness. Nothingness means return. Nothingness is the body of the Tao. Not only man, but plants and animals and all living things are part of this body, are made of this body, this body of nothingness. Everything is one with nothingness. There aren’t two things in this universe. To realize this is the goal not only of Taoism but also of Buddhism. Everything in this world changes. Taoists and Buddhists seek that which doesn’t change. This is why they don’t seek fame or fortune. They seek only the Tao, which is the nothingness of which we are all created and to which we all return. Our goal is to be one with his natural process.
One of the greatest difficulties in finding agreement on what to do about the problems facing this country is our idea of “freedom.” The great majority of Americans have the simplistic idea of freedom meaning “I can do whatever I want to do”—some adding “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” In practice, “I can do whatever I want to do” really means “I can do whatever my ego wants to do.” And that’s not freedom. That’s slavery—to your ego. The ego is wild and doesn’t give a damn about others. It wants what it wants and it wants it right now. I’m familiar with this territory. When I left home my aim was to be free to do whatever I wanted. And I pursued that goal for several years—into a great, lonely emptiness. Fortunately, I was also interested in what is true.
At this point in my life I see freedom as being free from delusion and uncontrolled desire. You have to have that interior freedom before you can really be free in the world. A man who keeps shooting up dope because he can’t make himself stop is a slave. And I think a lot of what we do in our day-to-day lives is much the same as what that dope addict is doing. Each of us is unique and we have to be who we are. But I also believe that the universe is a cosmos and when you be who you really are, you’re brought into community with others being who they really are. We’ve got to junk this idea of each of us having our own stuff, that we’re entitled to all this stuff because we worked for it. The earth can’t take it anymore. Humanity can’t take it anymore. We have to find a collectivity that is graceful and true. It can’t be enforced from the outside; it has to come from the inside. But we do have to find it. We’ll do ourselves in if we don’t. And that’s the truth.