Monday, July 20, 2009

"A finger pointing at the moon"

Commuters hear announcements "Waxing Philosophical on the London Underground"; we in L.A. endure canned bilingual static. London's tubeway army meets comic relief, wry wit, and/or poetic aperçus. A quick net search to get the proper hook on that word at an eponymous website lists synonyms: Zizek (I won't bother with Slavic accoutrements), Derrida, Foucault, humanities, and the dreaded "theory." Although I teach the penultimate of these signifiers, I habitually shrink from such academic ossification. Even if radicals proclaim freedom, by such articulation, in written and not oral form per Derrida, we ossify liberation rigid as Lenin's corpse.

One of the quotes suggested for Tube broadcast: "An ounce of action is worth a pound of theory," by Friedrich Engels. Neither he nor Marx may be freeze-dried in Red Square, but even atheists venerate idols. By their little red books we shall remember them. Underground, trapped ourselves in our routine rush, we escape towards an idealized realm.

Reified rabble rousing, spiritual solace, or literary reflection: for not plugged into iPods or unable to understand the language blared, perhaps broadcasts uplift an semi-literate, ever more polyglot, and stubbornly impatient popular front that may not march towards utopia by any overthrow of the capitalist system a century and a half after its two apostles decay, one at Highgate not far from a tube station. Still, on our way to shop and spend and toil, we witness as any good Marxian theorist to the control of our destinies under the cash nexus we find ourselves enmeshed within, across hundreds of city center subway lines. The promoter of inspirational or entertaining messages on the Tube counters that the usual bray's "soul dispiriting." We all need coddling inside, secular or adherent.

I saw a glimpse on t.v. in a show about ossuaries, catacombs, and cadavers that St. Bernadette, of Lourdes fame, herself rests, unembalmed, in a glass casket. Snow White-like, I admired her porcelain beauty in peaceful repose; in life the dim monochromatic daguerrotypes seemed to shadow her upper lip with a mustache. In Stephen Batchelor's "The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism with Western Culture" that I finally found-- although its pages halfway are slightly out of order, so I have to go six-steps-forward, three-steps back in a paginated shuffle-- this oddity of another incorruptible within a story that stresses Buddha's teaching of impermanence only enhances the strangeness of an attenuated narrative.

Batchelor tells of early, often uncomprehending, prejudiced, baffled, or hostile meetings by European friars and Jesuits with the emissaries from the East. They spoke of a faith that frightened Catholics and Protestants alike by its apparent nihilism, confused by its serene tolerance, or discomforted by its apparent imitations of Catholic ritual, vestments, incensed litanies, and monastic chanting. In Batchelor, I also learned of St. Francis Xavier's own body that rests uncorrupted, despite whatever malarial heat off the coast of Macao hastened his early demise as he sought to enter China as its first missionary to Sons of Heaven.

As with St. Francis of Assisi's stigmata, the first such appearance of these wounds of Christ symbolically (for transfixed nails into palms cannot long support a crucified body) imprinted and permeating the flesh, it's strange that such phenomena then engendered others with similar markings, up through Padre Pio, a friar centuries later who in my childhood I recall inspired holy cards galore with him brandishing what looked like enormous mittens, hagiography proffered prematurely by a fervent cult to his canonization as a Son of Heaven.

Whether in ideas or the body-- and certainly contemporary philosophers (many following Marx & Engels) have inspired countless dissertations among my more theoretically-addled peers to the point of exhaustion, trivia, and parody-- the idea that we seek to outwit mortality sustains our investigations into the sanctity of theory, the body, the soul, and the patterns we all try to tease out of what we see. We long to find, as in Rathkeale, Co. Limerick now, a Marian imprint in a tree trunk, or Jesus on a screen door or Mary in a tortilla. Daniel Dennett in "Breaking the Spell" finds the roots of religion in our primitive urge to make stories out of nature, as with the shapes we find in the clouds. Perhaps such patterned narratives inscribed themselves into the flesh, willed by its ascetic devotees who wanted, by breaking their body's spell, to release its spirit. They aspired to be crowned a Son or Daughter of Heaven while still on earth within the prison of their carnal cell.

Saints remain pure in their torn flesh even as they sought in Catholicism its utter rejection, scourging (see my recent review on this blog and Amazon US of Valerie Martin's harrowing re-telling of Francis' mission in "Salvation") the flesh to an early grave or at least mortifying it by an ashy diet, disciplines materially inflicted (the old whip beloved of "Da Vinci Code" pulp), and austerities demanded, long nights without sleep, without nourishment, without ease. Rigor mortis following such mortification, ironically in some cases preserving the same body that, beaten, starved, and scorned, persists without the chemicals applied to Mao or Lenin in their secular mausoleums, shrines to another world credo once captivating billions, despite its denial of a salvation outside the dialectical process and class struggle.

Buddhism, as Batchelor certainly would support in his "Buddhism Without Beliefs" book (see my review), seeks the middle way of moderation. Red Buddhists under B.R. Ambedkar contemplated an alliance of Marxism with dharma to rally their mass conversions of the Dalits or untouchables midway through last century; this manifesto and that on "dictatorial socialism" urged by a Thai activist can be found in the excerpts of a book I reviewed last week, "The Modern Buddhist Bible" edited by Donald Lopez. I wonder how the Tibetan cause, nearly beyond hope now, will fare after the death of the current Dalai Lama. Will radicals unite with activists to arouse a somnolent world? Or, have we all submitted to Chinese hegemony? Full of the messianic age of global capital, PRC crap on every stuffed shelf market after mall.

William Gibson in 1993's "Virtual Light" in near-future San Francisco imagines there immigrant Mongols driven westward by such political and cultural convulsions, as the newest surplus labor, bottom of the ladder for huddled masses. We all need our slaves for our own materialist empires today, under cleric or capitalist. Perhaps out of diasporas future odd strains of Buddhism, finance, searching, and beliefs will mutate. Translations we cannot imagine. Stalinists changed the Mongolian language, by the way, overnight in 1944 to a Cyrillic script so Buddhist tracts could not be deciphered by the young; similarly, Tibetan is forbidden to be taught in Chinese-controlled territories. As with Basque, Breton Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, and Welsh, one recognizes how cultures become eradicated as memory fades.

Wrapped up in causes championing oppressed minorities and endangered species, Westerners can turn, as with the Derridean deconstructionists, Foucauldian social constructivists, or nearly any Marxist perhaps with the exception of bewildering Zizek (see my review of his "Violence"), well, risible, redundant, reductive, and, if you can catch the gist of their often impenetrable discourse, risible. It's hard to decode the messages from the past when we change to catch up with our daily future. Wiping out nature, bulldozing beauty, we all scurry to hoard our riches.

We're great at romanticizing class warfare, ideological revolution, or mass uprisings that promise an end to such getting and spending and wasting what we cover. Until the films get made decades later, reality's not much different than the agonies of the Tube, mass movements made mass transit and mass chaos. At least we're spared the labor camp at the terminus. North Korea radios, in a nearly Orwellian simulacrum, have a volume control only, but no off-on switch, nor any channel control. Some feel God transmits to them on a similarly reliable, constant frequency.

Out of such veneration of the Voice, we perform obesiance as we wish lethal effects on defiant foes. No Two-Minute Hate, but the rote decrying of the designated traitor does wonders to cow or protect or anesthetize any hesitant individual, within a city's bustling crowd. On L.A.'s MTA or London's Tube, we all try to burrow into our iPod, our detached gaze, our careful distance despite the jolts and affronts of municipal transport by default if not always by choice. The messages broadcast appear to be London's, if not L.A.'s, campaign to return civility, humor, and a modicum of value added back into the automated babble bubble within which we whir.

Any political or religious power, perhaps, cannot control for long without such manipulation of its citizens, slaves, and/or commuters. We want to preserve our version of the paradise, the status quo we know, the dictatorship of the proleteriat, Goldman Sachs, the Democratic National Committee, Kim Il Sung, or your Chosen People's Party. No creed's safe from our sins. Batchelor does not ignore the tortures inflicted by Japan's xenophobic Tokugawa Shogunate around 1600 upon Jesuit, mendicant, and lay martyrs (see Shusako Endo's remarkable fiction such as "The Samurai" and "Silence"). Yet, he does note fairly that Buddhism can be blamed for far fewer outrages-- and very few in the cause of the dharma itself, the lusts for control exerted by its rulers professing an inevitably corrupted version of its creed-- than Christian, Mongol, or Islamic foes decimating its Asian heartlands.

Ironically, as Batchelor's cover shows, the Greeks left behind by Alexander to run Bactria (today's Afghanistan) and India's frontier memorialized the smiling, serene, enigmatic Buddha in stone; earlier followers did not, preferring an eight-spoked wheel, a tree, or a footprint. The Greeks modelled their figure of Gautama nearly five hundred years after his death, after Apollo. We all create our gods, out of stone or silicon, to look up at as they soar above our launch sights. We count holy days by the moon still in the faiths that sprang out of nomads staring up at the sky. We delight in the coincidence they feared of an eclipse, the sun and moon looking the same size from our planet's perspective. We celebrate as they did festivals and stories about the gods and goddesses we create out of sun and moon, male and female, light and dark as our oldest opposites that we love to join.

We substitute a flag or a missile for a giant Buddha in an Afghan canyon, but even the iconoclastic Taliban worship their own Kaaba, their own stone-moon goddess transformed into a monument to monotheism, behind the protective veil. Their ancestral sun-god many across the Middle East commemorated as Phoebus. We deify his rule over the light, forty years after Apollo's eleventh mission landed on the moon.

We come out of the underground shelter eventually. We're not meant to stay in caves. Even if our commute takes us, as mine has, before dawn into the subway and after dark out of its compartments, we when departing at night after a long day's work aim naturally to tilt our eyes higher. As for millions of years, like moths to the flame, we aim for the place brightest to us above, not the sun but its reflection.

Buddhists talk of their teaching as a finger pointing to the moon-- we're meant to focus on the goal, not the means to it. Above, on that dead satellite, whose glow we continue to imagine as its own, and not a reflection of the absent sun each night, we make our own myths. Progress has impelled us to set foot that far now, but we hesitate today to conquer the universe. Maybe getting there four decades ago humbled us. Up there, we still see a fabled expanse free of commutes, communication, or contention. There my nation's flag's frozen in the vacuum of space, stiff, unfurled, as yet out of range of territorial grasp, from our yearning, explosive rockets.

Moon & flag photo via "Unpacking Images: Material Culture"

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