Sunday, July 20, 2008

We make the world with our thoughts

I came across this reflection from (The) Buddha: "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world." It reminded me in typically tangential fashion about a response posted by "Lorax" to my response to my wife's response to my Obama response on her blog. Clear enough?

The point made by our Seussian avatar: isn't it better to vote for the liberal version of the conniving pol rather than the alternative, come November? Relating this practical decision to my concerted attempt to finish-- not yet-- Francesca Fremantle's "Luminous Emptiness," which rekindled my interest in scholarship on the liminal afterlife states combined with my own efforts to rise out of despondency by my own powers-- I will try to wrestle with this logical question.

The wonderfully named British advocate of Buddhism, magistrate Christmas Humphreys, concisely defined this dharma as
a system of thought, a religion, a spiritual science and a way of life which is reasonable, practical and all-embracing. For 2,500 years it has satisfied the spiritual needs of nearly one-third of mankind. It appeals to those in search of truth because it has no dogmas, satisfies the reason and the heart alike, insists on self-reliance coupled with tolerance for other points of view, embraces science, religion, philosophy, psychology, mysticism, ethics and art, and points to man alone as the creator of his present life and sole designer of his destiny.

Humphrey's remarks stuck with me when I first encountered this condensation in Damien Keown's "Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction" a few months ago (reviewed here and on Amazon by me). Today I found it repeated on an Amazonian who cited it in her review of an Tibetan Buddhist explicator's accessible works by an American nun, Thubten Chodren. I've finally figured out that one barrier to my understanding of Buddhism, at least in its Himalayan-situated elaborations as opposed to its Zen, has been all those deities, all those peaceful and wrathful spirits, copulating and gesturing. One reviewer on Amazon compared, in looking at Bruce Newman's "Intro to Tibetan Buddhism," that form as Catholic compared to Zen's Presbyterian simplicity. That's on the mark. It also allows an analogy that clarifies what intriguingly differentiates Catholicism from Buddhism, as Humphrey suggests between his lines.

Humphrey concludes: "man alone as the creator of his present life and sole designer of his destiny." Compare a frequent TB Amazon reviewer, Neal J. Pollock, quoting Chodren's book about the devi: "Although we seem to be praying to Tara, we are invoking our internal wisdom and compassion." (57) Similarly: p. 37:
"Like a child who dresses up and pretends to be a fireman, thereby developing the confidence to become one, we image ourselves to be a Buddha who relates to people as a fully enlightened being does-without ignorance, hostility, or clinging attachment and with immeasurable wisdom, compassion, and skill...Identifying ourselves with our Tara-nature, we gain invigorating confidence that spurs us to make our life more meaningful."
p. 56: "Tara is not a self-existent, independent deity or god. Like all persons and phenomena, she exists dependently and is empty of independent or absolute existence."

How does this relate to the presidential race? Many who back Obama come from a mix of the old New Left, of Hillary's youth, and Obama's own wired generation: both cohorts wish to foment a more humane world, less beholden to capital, more open to caring. During the past forty years, many Christian and perhaps even more Jewish people have migrated into Buddhist practice as a non-theistic method to realize their inner capacities, while aligning their own evolution with social transformation.

Fifteen years ago, my wife and I heard a former Berkeley radical, who in the late 80s founded Tikkun. In the 90s, he became a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement. Michael Lerner, Layne and I agreed, might have had the right message although we thought due to his own evident self-aggrandizement he appeared the wrong messenger. His heart may have been genuine, but for me, his own promotional drive, from his labor organizing and SDS formation, appeared to overwhelm his ethical articulation. Still, he emphasized for many of his peers who might have been more likely to listen to a American-born Buddhist nun, the ways in which "tikkun olam", the healing of our world, could energize ourselves from a more mature understanding of Jewish moral teachings that amplified Eastern dharma.

This approach intersects with others who in the West strive to teach us about the East. Obama represents the hopes of many who listened to Lerner, SDS, Tikkun (we gave a good chunk of change to it to keep it going when ML's deep-pocketed wife left him!), or the likes of the only political candidate I approved my deep-pocketed wife to keep his campaign going around the same time, Jerry Brown. To many, such efforts appear quixotic, or stereotypical. The New Jersey firebrand made good in the Bay Area's coddled mix of appealing to our better nature fueled by our discretionary income to Save the Planet. Tikkun's fund-raiser at a mogul's Hollywood Hills gated community BigMacMansion, found its leader celebrating his soundbites with Hillary. Fifteen minutes of the "politics of meaning" registered in a pre-blog, pre-Move On, pre-Huffington Post era of the Clinton boom.

And, I admit, I observe such efforts with my own coddled mix of impressions. These irritate my spouse no end, as any reader of her blog (or mine!) can follow. Part of me, the intellectual, understands them and supports the progressives. Part of me, the boy who never had the clout or the connections or the cash to aspire to the tenured, trust-funded, terminally-hip milieu, stays skeptical, selfish, or severe.

Serentity eludes me, but Buddhists appeal to a Westerner's (and the doubled nature in California) determination to kick over the tired system, the karmic accrual of samsaric debt, the mired routine. The Tikkun foundation sought to galvanize aging hippies and hipsters with rabbinical morality, self-actualization, ecumenical outreach, and sophisticated transformation into a more equitable society. Part of my ingrained Catholicism resides, both to say go for it and to sigh, yeah, right.

The sub-title of "Blogtrotter" echoes the Irish Proclamation of Independence in 1916, which addressed "her exiled children in America." This reverberates from an appeal in the rosary prayer "Salve Regina": Wikipedia notes that (in Europe, "mourning and weeping in this vale of tears" is the more traditional form of the 5th line)
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

My conception of life persists always as an exile from somewhere we were once, and to which we long to return. Buddhism sounds as if it beckons us back into a primordial condition, beyond time or space. I always wondered if we do not return to a place where we where before our lives, a Platonic, Wordsworthian, or pre-created fulfillment. Perhaps that's why I've long studied the literary idea of purgatory, and why I suspect that this earthly system can be truly renewed. Eden feels unattainable on this planet. But, the Jewish tradition tells us that the messianic renewal can build here New Jerusalem. And, plenty of aspirants wish to be anointed its king. This disturbs me, but it may be why Jewish radicals rather than such as Irish revolutionaries have been better at edging us closer to a fairer society.

Obama's followers, funded often by those in sympathy with such social transformation as Lerner's, bring this decade's version of the New Media into the Beltway. The media cheers on with posters of "Hope" and "Believe" a rather two-toned Obama, who unlike Lerner, has coffers, charisma, and suffrage to rule a fair chunk of the world if he gets, as I predict, the vote. Like the Buddhists who urge us to look away from the sky if we want to save the earth, to reach out to others while we conduct our own self-renewal, to recognize that the deities only emanate from ourselves rather than any external welfare state on high, there's a very Jewish anti-nominalism within the common ground where JuBu's congregate.

I'm not sure if we've glimpsed the Promised Land. Although there's an eagerness to tear down one idol, another's being erected. Obama's image, nobly lording itself over us from loft balconies, postcards pinned up in cubicles, and stickers in the corner of tinted car windows, irritates me. It violates my First Commandment.

The people snapped in his crowds look so optimistic, clean-scrubbed, and polished, legacies from Harvards and valedictorians to Berkeleys. Whatever their complexion, immigrant or preppie, they exude a creature comfort I cannot embrace. They express a "noblesse oblige" sense of entitlement excluding temperamental me. The one who hangs out on the fringe, watching, listening, meditating, but finding my own company, or that of a book, better than enduring the pitch from an earnest proselytizer no matter my interest-- on paper perhaps-- in his or her cause.

I never like it when we have to circle around our chairs to face each other at some mandated meeting. The analytical side of me wrestles with my intuitive bent. My linear organization collides with my trains of thought. Solutions never solve it all.

I'm also the legacy of generations of Irish Catholics-- who battered by another form of social transformation coupled or raped by religious fanaticism and political chicanery-- tend to be a rather cynical lot. Are we setting up a liberal graven image to worship in our globally warming, desert wanderings? Or, are we tearing down the Golden Calf of brazen conservatism? Must we follow leaders as our only way to exit our vale of tears, nationally and as a species?

This makes for an intriguing, and certainly curiously Californian, melange. It turns me half in sympathy towards everyone around me who supports Obama and half away in my own tendencies towards distrusting elected authority. Perhaps such restlessness characterizes one of the few common ties between three failed theocracies where past imperial rule complicates present religious unrest: Éire, Zion, and Tibet.

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