Friday, July 27, 2012

Embracing Samsara

The Peasant Dance, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1568)
Bruegel celebrated life in his paintings, although he occasionally descended into demonic realms like his major influence, Hieronymus Bosch. While both were under the spell of the otherworldly Christianity of the Reformation and its fascination with hell, Bruegel could find beauty in everyday life. This is my practice as well.

Son lights his father's funeral pyre
All religions create scenarios of the afterlife probably because their major task since the beginning has been to make sense of death.  As I learned during my long apprenticeship as a Roman Catholic, this infatuation with the future can result in a denigration of the present.  Despite the emphasis on love of neighbor and the Gospel call to feed and clothe the poor, Christians in my experience are too focused on the possibility of reward and punishment after they die, on Judgment Day when they meet their Maker.  They seek the good not out of compassion for the sufferings of others but because it is defined by God in their scriptures and teachings, and the penalty for disobedience is the Devil's fiery furnace.  This argument was never persuasive to me.

Buddhism, I thought, was different.  There is no god, the teacher is not divine, and his teachings offer a treatment for suffering that can be individually tested rather than needing to rely on assurance by authority.  At least so it seemed to me when I first encountered the Westernized Buddha back in the U.S.  Living in a Buddhist country for the past five years has opened my eyes to other aspects of the 2,500-year-old religion.  Good and bad deeds have consequences not in a heaven or hell (although Buddhist artists have their own interpretation of hellish realms) but in the next life.  Although strictly speaking, there is no "self" in Buddhism, something non-physical is apparently transfered after death to another being in a womb waiting to be reborn.  Tibetans have developed an elaborate methodology to find and verify the identity of reincarnated tulkus.

To me this is otherworldly Buddhism.  And although I'm curious about the metaphysical beliefs of Thai Buddhists in spirits and ghosts (some see this as a holdover from animistic practices), the otherworldlyness of reincarnation is a put off.  Some prefer to interpret it symbolically as a playing out of the drama of cause and effect which Buddhists term kamma/karma.  There is even a Thai TV program that dramatizes karmic effects from bad actions that occur in this life (it pretends to be a "reality" show).  But there is no doubt that all Thais look forward to rebirth and hope that it will be fortunate.  The primary practice of Thai Buddhism is tam boon, "making merit," and it involves everything from charity toward beggars to feeding monks on a daily basis during their morning alms round, even on Bangkok streets.  Accumulated merit is believes to guarantee a good rebirth.

Buddha instituted the sangha of monks, and the robbed acolytes with shaven heads can be seen in all Asian countries, and are present in token amounts at Western Buddhist monasteries.  Their goal is to renounce the pleasures of everyday life, samsara, to follow the 8-fold path and pursue nibanna.  Thailand accepts temporary monks who ordain for specific short-term purposes, like obtaining merit for a parent or relative, or getting an education.  But many remain monks for life.  Only the forest monks renounce everything rigorously, and I'm reading a fascinating history of them in Kamala Tiyavanich's book, Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand.  These guys are spiritual athletes, wandering through the jungle without purpose, sleeping in caves, and depending on the charity of villagers who sometimes have never seen a monk before.  The Buddha set down rules of conduct for all monks in the Vinyaya and they can be (but not always) very strictly interpreted (it doesn't stop my monk students from owning mobile phones, computers and TV sets with DVD players).  No matter how you slice it, monks are top dogs in the Buddhist universe and renunciation of samsara is the rule.

Samsara, in my view, gets a bad rap.  Buddhists believe it is beneficial to be born a human being, given the alternatives, but that living in the world brings suffering, from birth to sickness, old age and death.  The endless wheel of birth and death is particularly painful and the goal set by the Buddha is to stop the train and get off.  Different buddhisms describe the end of the process different, but the word "enlightenment" comes from the Pali word to extinguish the flame.  Many early students of Buddhism in Europe saw this as pessimistic and nihilistic.  There is certainly none of the "God created everything and called it good" attitude to be found in Buddhism.

At the last BuddhistPsychos meeting, held at a French restaurant in Silom, I tried to sir the pot by arguing that Buddhism seems to aim at transcending the world rather than affirming it.  I quoted Donald K. Swearer, the leading academic on Southeast Asian Buddhism, who writes that, "From its very beginning some 2,500 years ago there has been within Buddhism a tension between the this-worldly and the other worldly."  I mentioned Bhikku Bodhi's 2007 challenge to Buddhists to "stand up as an advocate for justice in the world, a voice of conscience for those victims of social, economic and political injustice who cannot stand up and speak for the selves."  He was promoting the now established movement of Engaged Buddhism which comes down decidedly on the side of this-worldly practices.

But the discussion failed to take off because my fellow Psychos were Westernized Buddhists who practice meditation for stress-reduction and attend Buddhist retreats to practice mindfulness and the possibility of becoming an arahant (enlightened being). They do this in the midst of a busy life in which sitting and retreating help them maintain their worldly balance.  Their teachers are often monks who advocate the mini-renunciations lay people find possible but do not claim their privileged role is the purview of all.  Engaged Buddhism, co-founded by Thailand's own Sulak Sivaraksa along with the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, would be a mystery to the average Thai who feeds the monks and visits the local temple regularly to make merit with flowers, candles and incense.  In Mahayana (northern) Buddhism, there is the idea that one should renounce full enlightenment until all beings may be enlightened; but in southern (sometimes alled Theravada) Buddhism, this charitable gesture is not supported and individual enlightenment is promoted.

My Buddhist-tinged goal is to love life and live it to the full.  As a Catholic, I flirted with the idea of becoming a monk and living at the Hermitage in Big Sur, California, with its high hillside view of the Pacific Ocean.  Later I was attracted to Shantivanam, the Catholic ashram in Tamil Nadu, India.  But, to tell the truth, I was never quite ready to give up passion and sex.  The monks I met and admired were either teachers, out in the world trying to help the spiritually adrift, or academics, like the secular renunciates I had met in the university, professor who lived in an Ivory Tower of ideas with little thought for their families or personal hygiene.  Every time I contemplated a withdrawal from the world that often battered and bruised me, something pulled me back.

The Buddhists are right when they say that living involves dukha, sometimes translated as "suffering" but also as "anxiety."  We are animals with a large brain that somehow resulted in consciousness and what we call "mind" (neither of which is been properly explained by the philosophers or scientists).  We remember, often poorly, and we can imagine both possibilities and impossible fantasies (which are sometimes conflated).  Our bodies are wonderful machines with obsolescence built in; it hurts when they age and break.  Our minds let us imagine that we can avoid pain and prolong (forever?) happiness, but we fail again and again.  Friends and lovers rejects us, or die.  The news is full of tragedy.  The power of positive thinking seduces us into believing that optimism and health and productive, when, in fact, it is little different from pessimism.  Samsara sucks!

And yet, I love it.  My body and my mind have brought me endless wonders.  Even the tragedies invariably contain hints of humor and transcendence.  I treasure the memories (and photographs now) I have of witnessing momentous events and beholding physical and natural beauty beyond compare.  Every encounter in love has left an unforgettable tattoo on my metaphorical soul.  The drama of my life has been a movie in which I've starred as both the hero and the bad guy.  Even the failures bring ah-ha! moments, lessons in living.  Pema Chodran teaches us to "lean in" to our pain and suffering, for this acceptance, and even encouragement, is far more enlightening than running away from what ails us.  Meditation is difficult for me for many reasons, not the least the regret I feel for checking out of the lifestream if only for an hour or so, and the fear that I might miss something wonderful.

Nietzsche had an idea that he called "eternal return."  As I interpret it, this means to live in such a way that you would repeat your life endlessly, not because it was perfect but because it was your life. In The Gay Science, he wrote:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'
Another way to look at this is to love your fate.  Nietzsche explained:
My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary—but to love it.
Samsara, the source of all our trials and tribulations, is also the source of beauty and wisdom.  I have no desire to leave it until it's my time, and then I hope to depart with grace and dignity.  The only rebirth I expect is in the memories of those I love.


Bob Vaughan said...

Will, you're the most thoughtful person I know. I realize that condition doesn't necessarily bring happiness to the thinker, but it certainly leads the rest of us toward some kind of understanding of ourselves.
Bob V

Anonymous said...

Nice title;)