Sunday, July 11, 2010

Endlessly Searching

They call me "The Seeker"
I've been searching low and high
I won't get to get what I'm after
Till the day I die
--Pete Townshend, The Who

Much of my life I've described myself as a seeker, on a journey or pilgrimage in search of capital-T Truth, wisdom, salvation and enlightenment. In the "About Me" section of this blog, I have been calling myself "a spirit-seeking citizen of the world."  I've sought sainthood as a Roman Catholic, a vision of the divine as a Hindu devotee, and nibanna as a Theravada Buddhist (although not as a monk like this Cambodian exploring an ancient stone text at Angkor Wat).  I've prayed, sung, chanted and meditated in monasteries, churches, ashrams, sanghas and temples around the world.  And the end result of all this searching, on the eve of my 71st birthday, is: nothing much.  I think it's time to lay this label to rest.

Focusing on nowhere
Investigating miles
I'm a seeker
I'm a really desperate man

Seekers of whatever hue share with each other a dissatisfaction with the present world.  "Is this all there is?" they unhappily ask.  "I want something more."  It should be said that seeking Jesus, God or Krishna is preferable to seeking forgetfulness and oblivion through alcohol or drugs and other destructive behavior because of a dissatisfied life.  Religious seekers, however obnoxious and self-righteous they may become about having the only true answers, do little obvious long-term damage.  But what are the consequences of denigrating and denying this life and the bodies we inhabit for something better somewhere else, like after we die?  

These thoughts have been prompted by reading two amazing books by Don Cupitt, a professor emeritus of philosophy and theology at Cambridge and a retired Anglican clergyman.  Sometimes books come to us when we need them to articulate our incoherent thoughts.  For years I have been dissatisfied with otherworldly religion, both Christian and Buddhist, that promises salvation or an advantageous rebirth after death.  This physical world dominated by Mara is a veil of tears which we should despise and our material bodies, the realm of flesh, only hold us back from achieving our true reward.  Monks and nuns, both Catholic and Buddhist, flee worldly temptations by trading their possessions and fashionable finery for robes and a lifetime of denial.  Sex, the act that keeps humanity going, receives the most severe denunciations and in most spiritual disciplines men and women are kept rigorously separate.  The upshot of this is to make ordinary people think their everyday lives are insufficient and somehow wrong.

For Cupitt, the fatal assumption is that our life is a riddle to us.  We are exiled from our true home.  And we want to know the Meaning of Life and the Point of It All, two BIG questions that Cupitt notes are ridiculed beautifully by comic writer Douglas Adams in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and also by "Deep Thoughts" on "Saturday Night Live"). For me, the guiding questions have long been: Who am I, and what am I to do in this life?  Under Cupitt's withering critique (and remembering some of the cautions made by Wittgestein when I studied his writings 20 years ago), I can now see that these puzzles are only linguistic and lead nowhere.  Even the Buddha advised against asking metaphysical questions in favor of practices to relieve present suffering.

Nietzsche, recalls Cupitt in Emptiness & Brightness, called Catholicism "platonism for the masses."  It was Plato who theorized that what we see is only a representation of the metaphysical reality that our senses cannot see.  We see through a glass darkly, and it's what's on the other side that's important, not the dirty glass.  On the contrary, says Cupitt, nothing is hidden and we must give up the idea of a knowledge available only to the elite.  He calls his philosophy "anti-realist" to deny that life is static and ready-made before humans entered the picture in order to discover it.  "The world of life is beginningless, endless, outsideless, and in ceaseless change," Cupitt writes.  Reality is "never more than provisionally constructed within an endless open conversation."

I can barely explain how liberating this feels.  We only have this life to live and when it's over we're fertilizer for the plants, a memory in the minds of our friends still living, nothing more.  We're animals with language, the possession of which is very important for Cupitt's argument which lists three aspects of life: Be-ing, Language and Brightness.  The last attribute means "the world's vividness and beauty in our (and only our) conscious awareness of it."  We humans are embedded in language, reality is a consensual story produced by linguistic communities, and we constitute each other through language which, in fact, precedes thought. In a more recent book, Above Us Only Sky, Cupitt writes:
You can have more-or-less anything, provided only that you understand and accept that you can have it only language-wrapped -- that is, mediated by language's secondary, symbolic and always-ambiguous quality...We just are our lived lives in our life-world, and our life is lived within our living, moving language.  You are what you say: you are your part in life.
This echoes Wittgenstein who said that "meaning just is use." A word means not what it refers to but how it is used.  It also recalls pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty who argued against the idea that the mind somehow can represents nature, which pulls the rug out from under metaphysics.  "The old idea of a metaphysical self, an immortal infinite spiritual substance, is dead," claims Cupitt.  "The self is radically linguistic and historical.  And with the concept of the soul dies also the belief in the saint or genius."

The two small books of Cupitt's I've recently read, a small sample of his large corpus devoted to delivering a message not of atheism but of a decidedly this worldly religion, are filled with the eloquence of a secular preacher.   Calling his writings "an induction course -- as training in religious thinking," he says the message in each book is the same:  "give up the quest for objectivity, give up the antediluvian idea that 'the truth is out there', and give up the desire for timelessness.  Instead, say Yes to Be-ing, Yes to pure contingency, Yes to life, and Yes to the life-world as a self-producing, self-renewing work of art that forms in us and pours out of us."  If this sounds closer to Buddhism than to Christianity, it is.  He calls Buddhism "the most intellectually formidable and challenging of the faiths," but he also has harsh words for institutional Buddhism "with its emphasis on loyalty to the sangha and obedience to an authoritative teacher from a sound lineage."  Tradition, he adds, "is not the only way to truth and religious truth is not always hard to grasp.  It can be blindingly easy."

With Cupitt's help, my seeking days are over.  Giving up the metaphorical journey is not easy, however, since it's the story I've been telling myself about who I am for a good fifty years.  When I left California six years ago to see the world, I did it as a pilgrim, and everywhere I went, from Guatemala to India, it was with the unseen in mind.  Where could I find it, the elusive butterfly of spirituality?  My friends on that journey may find this new story disturbing.  Have I given up?  I see it differently.  The challenge now for me is to say Yes to this life, the only one that I have made.  There is no point in going back over it with a magnifying glass to see where I might have made better choices.  What's done is done (my mother use to love that cliché).  I resolve now to be as present as possible to those I am in conversation with, my lover and my friends. 

And life, in my experience, is nearly always a roller coaster, or perhaps a rigged contest like the episodes of "Wipeout" I have been watching with Nan, a "reality" show in which slipping on a a banana peel becomes an even lower art with the aid of technology.  And, excuse me, but it's always hilarious to see an ambitious person fall on their face.  The monsoon rains have arrived in Thailand and most evenings we are treated to a spectacular son et lumiere show outside our 9th floor window.  Nan is loving her university classes three nights a week, and I've taken on a new English class on Monday and Tuesday evenings at my university's campus in Wang Noi near Ayuthaya, an hour's commute out of the city.  At our first meeting last week, I had eight students, three monks from Burma, two from Laos, and two nuns from Vietnam, as well as a layman from Thailand who works at the Jaguar automotive factory.  Over half are in the international Master's program in Buddhist Studies where classes are taught in English.  I am using the New Headway Pre-Intermediate textbook from Oxford Press and have the leisure to spend nine hours per chapter rather than the rushed three hours I give my Wednesday students, all of whom are majoring in English.  Next month I will teach a special four-Saturday course for graduate students in Public Administration at an MCU campus east of Bangkok with Dr. Sman, a Thai teacher my age who has been helping this old farang find additional work.

I am now a part of Nan's family, and she keeps me informed of their drama.  Her sister Ann is determined to get a boob job, the dream of every flat-chested Thai woman and gender-challenged ladyboy.  I try through Nan to convince her otherwise.  Even in Thailand it's expensive, about the equivalent of $3,000.  If it's not breast amplification, it's whiter skin.  Thais are definitely dissatisfied with their image, and the shapely white-skinned models in advertising and on TV feed that unhappiness.  Fortunately, Nan seems reassured by my compliments; she is perfect just as she is.  This morning her cousin Bo called to say she was back in Phayao, no longer working as a bar girl in Bangkok.  She did not say if she is still pregnant.  Today Nan is playing with her new toy, a Blackberry mobile phone (although in her case it's a whiteberry).  She was quite envious of all that my new iPod Touch could do, and now I've been effectively one-upped since what it can't do is make phone calls.  Last weekend we went to see the new "Twilight" franchise, "Eclipse."  She loves Robert and I loved the cheese popcorn and big Coke.  I've tried to follow the FIFA World Cup 2010 matches but unfortunately the finals are telecast at 1:30 am Bangkok time so I satisfy myself with reading news stories about the games the next morning.  Go Spain!  And, finally, it's also time for the new season of Academy Fantasia, the 7th year for the spectacular Thai TV talent show.  Everything is delightfully over the top, costumes, lighting and staging, and the contestants are overly made up and not entirely talented, but wonderfully eager.  The audience is filled with fans waving neon cards with their favorites' names and numbers in different colors.  Nan tells me we can get tickets to one of the weekly Saturday evening extravaganzas before the top prize is won in six weeks, and I'd love to go.  I will be the only one of my kind in attendance.

What I probably will not be doing, at least in the short term, is writing much about politics in Thailand.  I continue to make comments and share stories on my Facebook page, but the current situation is not open to critical perspectives.  The State of Emergency continues in Bangkok and much of the country and the jails are filling with critics and opponents of the military-backed royalist regime, increasingly more authoritarian every day.  The future event which cannot be discussed is a dark cloud over the current phony blather about "reconciliation."  Those whose voice is being left out of the national conversation have yet to make known their future plans.  The rest of us watch the World Cup and Academy Fantasia 7.


Janet Brown said...

Red dust, Will--not so bad. (No political connotation there) Happy Birthday!

Anonymous said...

Another interesting post. I enjoyed the use of the Townsend lyric.

All the best, Boonsong