Thursday, May 13, 2010

Losing Control and Loving Life

A good friend with serious age-related physical problems bemoans that “it gets harder and harder to keep control--health, money, body, sanity.I fear death. But more I fear being immobile, flat on my back, unable to move, paralyzed for some reason.” Without being in control of our lives, he seems to say, we are little more than a lump of meat, subject to the whims of others. Freedom is movement under our own steam. I responded that, “in many ways, I'm more fortunate than you. I may be long in the tooth, have prostate cancer and arthritis, weird skin growths and heat rashes, and I may be overweight with sagging pecs, a knee that threatens to blow, high blood pressure that reddens my face, and a libido that needs chemical assistance, but I still can walk and am fairly mobile.” Nevertheless, I too experience the suffering and anxiety that comes from a lack of control over my life.

Daily existence in Bangkok is good practice in living out of control. Uncertainty -- learning to live without knowing what comes next -- is the norm when the lingua franca is strange, street signs are unreadable, and cultural values go against the grain. I’m continually off balance at my university where the bureaucracy seems inefficient and Byzantine, and my requests for information are often ignored or misunderstood; only in the classroom with my monks eager to learn English do I feel at home. This is the time of year for gathering documents from the school to renew my working papers and I still don’t know if I’ll make the deadline on time.

In addition, I may be forced to make a quick trip to California to resolve financial and legal issues that threaten my retirement income, something I mistakenly believed was perfectly safe. This comes only a couple of weeks before the start of the new term and this year I’ve agreed to teach both 3rd and 4th year undergrads, four classes a week at two different locations. Preparation will be the key to making everything run smoothly. On top of all this, I was invited to serve as secretary for a panel on “Global Recovery through Buddhist Ecology” at the 7th United Nations Day of Vesak celebration co-sponsored by my university, which begins in 9 days time. Even though Thailand is currently having a heat wave, with temperatures as high as 40 Celsius/104 Fahrenheit, I feel like I’m skating on thin ice.

The idea that it couldn’t be otherwise, that existence is inherently uncertain, is strangely consoling. If total control is an impossible dream, then we can’t be faulted for failing. The Buddha taught that impermanence -- the fact that nothing created can last -- is one of the three characteristics of life. “At the heart of Buddha’s awakening,” writes Stephen Batchelor, my current favorite Buddhist teacher, “lies a counter-intuitive recognition of human experience as radically transient, unreliable, and contingent.” Accepting that this is so is nirvana, the blowing out of the fire of existential discontent. “Embracing contingency,” explains Batchelor in Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, “requires a willingness to accept the inexplicable and unpredictable instead of reaching for the anesthetic comfort of metaphysics.”

Metaphysics” is a code word for Batchelor which represents the view that pleasure can be prolonged indefinitely, pain can be avoided, and the eternal soul within and the omnipotent god without are all that matter. It is the fantasy of a non-contingent reality where truths are eternal and absolute. The Buddha’s awakening, he writes, “is only intelligible as a response to the diabolic contingency of the human condition.” Batchelor once called the absence of metaphysics agnostic and/or secular, but now confesses that his Buddhism is atheist in a new book with that title, and describes his interpretation as “theology without theos.”

The other two characteristics of our experience, the Buddha taught, are the all-pervasiveness of suffering and the absence of a self. Suffering ranges from the natural (birth, sickness, death) to the self-imposed, particularly the pain we feel when our hopes do not come true or when our life spins out of control. The self that Buddha denies is the metaphysical self, the eternal soul separate from the physical body that incarnates briefly and survives death. But rather than dismiss the self as a fiction, he presents it as a “project to be realized.” Batchelor describes this as a “performative conception of self” which allows for freedom of choice and hence an ethics. “The self is thus neither nonexistent nor eternal but created by one’s acts,” he writes. It’s not a fixed thing or personal essence, but “a tentative and confused story hastening towards its conclusion,” what Batchelor calls in his more recent book a “functional, moral self that breathes and acts in this world.” And one of its acts that can result in awakening to the non-metaphysical truth of existence is to embrace that very lack of control that seems to declare our impotence.

Batchelor’s Buddhism sets the doctrines of karma and rebirth aside and focuses on living this life, awake and aware. This is an approach I like despite his critics who cry: “Heresy!” “Rather than seek God – the goal of the brahmins, “ according to Batchelor “Gotama suggested that you turn your attention to what is most far from God: the anguish and pain of life on this earth…To embrace the contingency of one’s life is to embrace one’s fate as an ephemeral but sentient being. As Nietzsche claimed one can come to love that fate.”

“Heresy is the way to salvation!” In Batchelor’s recent book I learned of the British Anglican clergyman and retired Cambridge professor who makes this startling claim. “I have a greater affinity with Don Cupitt than with any living Buddhist thinker, Batchelor wrote in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. I’ve just finished Cupitt’s slim 2008 volume, Above Us Only Sky: The Religion of Ordinary Life, and it’s a bomb thrown into the heart of institutional religion. “The only religion that can save you,” Cupitt writes, “is one that you have made up for yourself and tested out for yourself: in short, a heresy.” He adds, “On the day this book is published, I call finally and sadly terminate my own lifelong connection with organized religion.”

Cupitt the ex-priest, more than any other thinker I’ve read, brings religion down to earth. The task of religion, he writes in Above Us Only Sky, “is to give us the courage and strength to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to life. Only we create the world, and only we can redeem it. By solar love of life we can inject meaning and value into life for everyone.” What he calls “solar living,

teaches us to accept one-way linear time, life’s contingency, and death, without complaint. Instead, we should cast ourselves heedlessly into the flux of existence. We should burn, burn and burn out with love for life, a love that tries so far as possible to be everywhere affirmative, and nowhere allows itself to be turned into disappointment, resentment and hostility.

I will leave aside his devastating critique of the world religions, which he believes rely on metaphysical fantasies to keep their followers in chains, and just briefly mention the 27 brief slogans in 7 sections that preface the book, Cupitt’s “short systematic theology of the religion of life” which he claims is already in place (he hints that it might be what was once called “The Kingdom of God”). He says it’s what people the world over, and particularly post-Christians, already believe. Despite “The Limits of Life” (section 3), “we should simply love life and say Yes to life until our last day.”

My friends and I are suffering the inevitable indignities of old age and are fearful of the vagaries of events. I haven’t even mentioned the troubling political conflict in Thailand that threatens at any moment to spin out of control into civil war. “There is no stable real world and no enduring real self,” Cupitt says, and “our world is our communal, partly-botched work of folk art.” Despite this apparent nihilistic view, “this situation is not one for despair: it offers us the freedom to remake ourselves and the world.”

I know that this is true, that creative expression in the service of loving life can lift concern over losing control of the consequences of our actions . I find my outlet in writing this blog; my friend with the severe physical disabilities continues in spite of them to write brilliant short stories, essays and books, his fertile imagination constantly at play. Cupitt is right: “Continuous letting-go and renewal creates joy.”


Janis said...

I especially find comfort and familiarity in the last paragraph.
Thank you for this reflection.

michael said...

Great stuff Willie. You are satsang writing maverick! Be well my friend.

ian said...

Permanent impermanence, aka entropy?, to accept or not accept? On one level yes but on a (lower) daily level no lest we adopt a mai pen rai attitude to "karma" which results in unwarranted deaths through lack of maintenance of routine systems. Too many of these in Thailand.

"Engleby" by Sebastian Faulks has the intriguing conclusion that life has no meaning but it does have value. Maybe there's a discussion here.

Manit Sriwanichpoom and Ing K ask why Buddhist books on suffering are usually aimed at the poor. "What sort of books are the elite reading?" seems a legitimate question.

Anonymous said...

An interesting and thought provoking post made all the more interesting by some excellent pictures. Thanks for this. Great stuff