What can one say about Aurora, Colorado that hasn’t been said?
Rather than reflect on the less-than-wise, and unwise, words of media pundits, gun-slinging-lobbyists, politico-pontificators who turn with the weather vanes… I prefer to ponder ancient Eastern wisdom and see how it may be relevant today.
Buddha, like Christ, taught with parables. One of my favorites goes something like this:
This guy walks into a “primitive” campground—he just wants to escape the craziness of life. Suddenly, he’s poignantly aware of global climate change—a derecho is blowing up out of nowhere—lightning combusting Ponderosa pines like match-sticks. He’s running for his life, branches whipping his face, his heart racing with the elk and bears, screech-owls and God-knows what passing him–panting and screaming. A flash of lightning illuminates a cabin—and somehow the door isn’t locked, so he enters, closes the door against the howling wind as another flash of lighting shows him matches and an oil lamp which he lights… and the storm passes.
Just as he’s falling asleep in the cabin’s cozy bed, a demon enters, dragging in a corpse. The camper cowers under the covers. In the dull moonlight, he barely sees the demon prop the corpse in a corner and leave. Pretty soon, another demon enters, sees the corpse and starts gnawing on an arm. Then, the first demon returns.
The demons argue over who has the right to devour the corpse. They’re about to eviscerate one another with their claws when the man yelps in fear.
Now… these are surprisingly reasonable creatures—for demons!—and they decide to let the man determine which of them has the right to the corpse.
Which besets our camper with a bit of cognitive dissonance! He well understands that however he decides, he will enrage the losing demon. Nevertheless, the camper’s head—like most of ours—is full of good, old notions like, “Honesty is the best policy,” and he says truthfully that he thinks the first demon has the right to the corpse.
This infuriates the second demon, who starts to tear the camper limb from limb—and eat the limbs! The first demon then replaces each torn-off limb with a corresponding one from the corpse. Both demons join in this fun until they have replaced the camper’s limbs and torso and head with those of the corpse. Surfeited, the demons leave in good, demon-fellowship.
Everything that he was, everything that his parents had given him, every scar and wound of body, mind and heart, has been devoured and our camper is left with the body, mind and heart of a dead stranger. He runs through the dark dawn of the forest, branches lashing his putrefying flesh, until he stumbles upon a hidden monastery. He tells his story to the mortified monks, asking them who he is now… and they answer: What is the Self?
It’s a central question of Buddhism, and, since William James, Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, of modern psychology. But, asked all too infrequently in our contemporary, intersecting spheres of politics, sociology and economics. And, by extension we must wonder: What is the Nation? What is our Economic System? What is Virtue–a good man or woman?
Thoughtfully considered, we’re a hodgepodge of moribund and dead ideas: we cling to myths of whom we were—heroic forefathers fighting John Bull in the wilderness (because, uh, he dared impose a tax on tea to pay for “The French and Indian War” and our “fortifications” against the “Indians”! What gall!) We are supposed to feel a great affinity for our own colonial land-grabbers and slave-owners who declared “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for White Men and didn’t have the good sense to inquire. What really do we mean by “liberty”? And, for that matter, What really is “happiness” and how should we pursue it?
These “forefathers”—themselves a hodgepodge of Enlightenment revolutionaries like Paine; Adam Smith-capitalists like Hamilton; and brave souls and cowardly—bequeathed us a rather murky, raveled Constitution which every POTUS since then has sworn to uphold (whether he’s unraveled it, read it, and understood it or not!).
Surely, the most exacerbating feature of that document is the 2nd Amendment of the Bill of Rights (1791). It’s clear enough as far as it goes… and it goes far enough for the 18th century; viz. (again),
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Which surely made a lot of sense in an age of muskets that “couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn,” and when everyone knew who the town crazy was (and if he took it into his noggin to dye his hair bright orange and run around with his musket hanging out of his breeches—they’d wrestle him over to the pillories! That was the “surveillance state” back then: you knew your neighbors and you watched out for them—watched out in both senses!… and it worked pretty well—back then, in a dispersed, incipient “nation” of some 3 million souls—less than 1% of our crowded land now!)
And, by the way, where are these “militias” that are supposed to be protecting us? Why aren’t the gun-slingers organizing themselves into militias to protect us from the tyrannical government rather than allowing every frustrated grad student to buy assault weapons and endless rounds of ammunition to mow down “Batman” afficionadoes?
Our problem now is that, like the horrified camper, we no longer know who we are! We’ve been hopped up on high fructose corn syrup for so long, we no longer know the taste of corn. And it’s an extremely corny and silly Empire that we consist of now—bloated with mythologies and fabrications, rotting within and without. Truth to tell, Batman, The Godfather, and Family Guy have more to do with how we perceive the world now than Poor Richard’s Almanac or Adams and Jefferson’s correspondence.
Buddha also lived in a time of rot and change: the syncretism of Hinduism’s advanced cosmogony and a maleficent caste system was rupturing and the masses yearned for a higher purpose than serving the elite Brahmins and the bellicose Kshatriya. The former Prince Shakyamuni suggested we contemplate the Four Noble Truths of human existence. First: Impermanence: everything changes; friends come and go, lovers split, family members die, we get old and get sick. Second: Impermanence causes suffering. Third: We can’t escape suffering, but we can get through it with greater understanding. Fourth: The way through it is The Eightfold Path.
Through the ages, millions of pages must have been written about suffering. But I doubt that anyone has written a paragraph about it—capturing Buddha’s spirit, whether he intended to or not—so fine as Arthur Miller:
My argument with so much of psychoanalysis, is the preconception that suffering is a mistake, or a sign of weakness, or a sign even of illness. When in fact, possibly the greatest truths we know, have come out of people’s suffering. The problem is not to undo suffering, or to wipe it off the face of the earth, but to make it inform our lives, instead of trying to ‘cure’ ourselves of it constantly, and avoid it, and avoid anything but that lobotomized sense of what they call ‘happiness’. There’s too much of an attempt to think in terms of controlling man, rather than freeing him… defining him, rather than letting him go! It’s part of the whole ideology of this age, which is power-mad! (Spotted on Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self.)
So, not to circumvent suffering, but to plow through it, we have The Eight-Fold Path. Not to “move on”—that facile, loathesome neo-phrase, but to integrate—or make whole—the fractured pieces of ourselves, the broken fragments of mirror that reveal the many-faceted, greater wholeness.
My own mnemonic device for The Path is this: Know it; Think it; Say it; Do it; Work it; Energize; Be mindful; Contemplate.
It starts with Right Knowledge; i.e., knowing about the impermanence, the myths, the shadows, meeting and parting, communion and disjunction. Knowing, too, that knowledge is power, and the power-brokers will always try to restrict knowledge, shape it and distort it to suit their purposes.
Second, Right Thinking: Don’t just “know it,” but think about it; think it through, “connect the dots,” the consequences. You’ve got to get the process of thinking right! It takes mental discipline and training. If you “know it” because you’re miming someone else’s words—it doesn’t count!
Then, Right Speech: Say what you think. Share it. Change the world with the gift of language. (But, remember, the Old Testament tells us that the tongue is a rudder that can steer us astray. And the Psalmist’s warning is as cogent now, in this season of false prophets and a presidential campaign, as it was in the time of Goliath: “For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is destruction; their throat is an open tomb; they flatter with their tongue.”)
Fourth, Right Action: Act in accordance with what you know, think and say. Have the courage of your convictions—because you’ve pondered, reviewed and revised.
Fifth, Right Work: Cultivate right actions so that they are habitual and that becomes your work, your profession! It doesn’t matter if you’re a butcher, baker, candlestick-maker or computer geek: you’ve known it, thought it, spoken it and acted it. To borrow from Laotze—you’re in line with your Tao.
Sixth: Right Efforts. Energize! No slacking! Put the right energy into your work, into your life. Steady, appropriate efforts.
Penultimate: Right Mindfulness. You’re not on automatic pilot—because you’re not an automaton! Be mindful/alert about what it means to be human.
Last: Right Contemplation. Think it through again and again. Correct course. Fine-tune.
None of the above will bring back the lives wasted by a madman, nor the millions more lives that are devastated by a culture of hyper-consumption, gratuitous violence, pharmaceuticalized “tranquility,” hyped “heroes,” and celebrity jerks. As with all the great spiritual teachings, they are but guideposts on our journey—to help us prevent the lurch towards madness in this dark dawn of a foreboding Age.
In the July, 2012 issue of Scientific American, Harvard professor of biology and mathematics, Martin A. Nowak, avers, “Instead of opposing competition, cooperation has operated alongside it from the get-go to shape the evolution of life.” As Rodney King plaintively asked: “Can we all get along?”
In the presence of tragedies large and small, we ask: Towards what end? Towards what are we evolving? How shall we get there? The answer to the monks’ question–What is the Self?–is one that will perplex, challenge, and define us from now on.