Archive for January, 2009

Motiveless Seeking, Loving the Barren

Posted in Intention on January 14, 2009 by lushangxinku
“…for the man who chooses knowledge for its own sake will above all choose what is most truly knowledge…”

Metaphysics, Book I, Aristotle

from "The Buddhist Monastery" by M. N. Rajesh and Thomas L. Kelly

from “The Buddhist Monastery” by M. N. Rajesh and Thomas L. Kelly 

“Ritual drawings of flour, believed to drive away evil, are made on special occasions like the annual festival.”

I want to mark a relation between choosing knowledge and choosing people. Aristotle, though often wrong and arbitrary, struck this point well; knowledge and people both yield and share a different set of harvests when sought after or loved for their own sake. Knowledge sought for status, for position, title, personal gain, or superiority, is a separate harvest from one gained through simple, straightforward love, exploration, and curiosity. The free and open bounty that responds to the lover of knowledge for its own sake can’t be contained or commodified. It crosses boundaries, withholds superficial value judgments, and is not sought for any ulterior motives. This has worth. But what wisdom can be gained by warping and twisting knowledge into a tool for personal advancement?

One of the comforts I find in the idea of evil being disembodied is that it can’t be labelled or attached to any single person. Although the ritual itself may hold a certain placebo effect, its message is clear: do not look for evil or deliberate malice in individual people. This is not the source. No one person is constrained or defined by their own short-sighted selfishness. Mencius said this well when he spoke of a barren hill, once wooded thickly, now stripped bare and devastated. He stressed that we should remain mindful that this hill was not naturally barren- that it was heavy-handed cruelty and abuse which led the hill to its present state. Things weren’t always so. When dealing with people capable of glaring selfishness, greed and mean-spirited attitudes, I am trying to keep this in mind: it wasn’t always so. By doing this, I refuse to believe that the hill was always barren, or that the heart was always hard and bitter, cold and shut down. And although I have ample flour to ward off evil, I must trust that these thoughts are enough. That no one is cruel simply because they are evil. I find it easier to accept that evil is a disembodied force that passes through and feeds on the selfish, without owning or defining them. I would even venture to say that if someone just gave them a true chance to be the kind of person who could be appreciated and loved for their own sake, many would rise to the occasion. For their own sake and for the lives they touch, if I am right only partially, I am grateful.

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Countless Lions

Posted in Psychache on January 13, 2009 by lushangxinku

“I waited for her, but she did not come.  Everything was a lie!  The boundary line between the future and the present, the present and the past, vanished, and I thought that I must have always been alive, or else never have lived at all.  And always, before I lived and when I began to live, she had ruled over me, and I felt it strange that she should have a name and a body and that her existence should have a beginning and an end.  She had no name, she was always the one who lies, who makes eternally to wait, and never comes.”

The Lie, Leonid Andreyev

from "Flanders Fields" by Leon Wolff

from "Flanders Fields" by Leon Wolff

A destroyed muddy forest near Gheluvelt, Belgium, November 1917 

There’s an old song from World War I that I heard once called “The Ol’ Barbed Wire.”  The song ridiculed the class divisions that so glaringly defined the massive casualties of the Flanders campaign in late 1917.  “If you want to find the general, I know where he is/he’s pinnin’ another medal on his chest/if you want to find the private I know where he is/he’s hangin’ on the ol’ barbed wire.”  The massive apathy, arrogance and blunders of the leaders of that tragic war led one historian to call it “lions led by donkeys.”  Military commanders traded yards of uninhabitable territory for unheard-of numbers of cannon fodder.  And it seems to me that the whole thing wasn’t really structured around winning anything.  It was about rank, and class, and how comfortable and popular the higher ranks and classes were.  It was about exploiting wasteful perks at the expense of those lower on the totem pole.  A vaulted position not based on leadership, guidance or trust, but on dominance, cruelty, abuse, fear, disregard, and negligence.

As a laborer I saw this same tired hierarchy again and again- where management was more about regarding slackness and irresponsibility as privileges and not weaknesses, where brown-nosing and slavish, unearned reverence was bestowed upon peacocks who obviously were doing the least, caring the least and capable of the least of anyone else around them.   Some may say a certain degree of hierarchy is inevitable- but if it must be there, can merit enter into the equation somewhere?  Must it all be about shmoozing and snuggling up to power and hierarchy?  Or can we simply do what we do without cronies, without kissing up, without deferring to people obviously more selfish and cruel than us, without clamoring to ride the coattails of some elite somewhere, and see where that leads?

I wonder, as French troops seized and beat up their own generals, as British and German leaders were totally oblivious to what was actually happening in Flanders, as strikes and riots broke out in 58 divisions, is it possible to look at this as a lesson in hierarchy, in elitism?  Why do lions find themselves led by donkeys?  And is there a way to transcend this with dignity, while still fulfilling duty?

The power relations inherent in that bloody campaign can also be looked at on the personal level.  Andreyev said it so well.  Abandonment, dishonesty, deliberate, undercutting ambiguity, are powers used in intimate relationships, often to enforce a dominant-submissive situation that exploits and abuses love instead of honoring it- a situation of two, created by one, the other blackmailed into compliance.  Love is definitely a power unto itself, but an illuminating one, that is eventually snuffed out if used as a tool or weapon.  Could there be a love without a hierarchy?  Without threats, bullying, intimidation, deliberate games of withholding affection or affirmation?  A love celebrated and honored without either beloved being exploited or used, objectified or put down, to get there?  A love that’s more than just one person basking in the attentions of another, to feed some shallow egotistical craving?  Sadly enough, like the WW I generals and the apathetic management, sometimes those in dominant roles are there to do nothing but feed off the energy, life, attention, and dedication of others, without any grounding in merit.  And the lions led by donkeys march into intolerable pain and loss, neglect and abandonment, the absurdity and selfishness of it echoing across time, repeated every day, in every situation poisoned with power, hierarchy, and bitter disillusionment.  Will honor, merit, love, or duty ever change any of this?  Or is the structure itself beyond their reach?

Stumbling Into Hells, Running Into Caves

Posted in Monasticism on January 12, 2009 by lushangxinku

“I cannot rightly tell how I entered there, I was so full of sleep at the moment when I left the true way…”

Inferno, Canto I, Dante Alighieri

“…and thence we came forth again to see the stars.”

Canto XXXIV

from "When I Find You Again It Will Be In Mountains", trans. Mike O'Connor

from "When I Find You Again It Will Be In Mountains", trans. Mike O'Connor

Ancient hermit caves at Hua Mountain, Shensi Province, 1989.
Building new dough starters at the bakery tonight, I remembered while passing the bin of organic spelt flour how this grain was mentioned in one of the more curious parts of the Inferno– that a soul would drift slowly and lightly into the Forest of the Suicides, like a spelt seed.  I think it conveys a certain sense of abandonment and weightlessness, a casting of the oars to let the elements do what they will.  The torture he describes later seems malicious and mean-spirited…haven’t these folks been through enough already?  But such was the judgment in his day.
I remembered this analogy because I try to remain mindful of just how ancient the practice of bread-baking is, how rich its lineage down through the centuries.  Dante’s ancestors munched on loaves of spelt sourdough, a recipe that’s now my brother’s favorite.  The builders of the Great Pyramid at Giza drank beer and ate loaves made from the yeast the brewing produced.  The act of digging hands through light, chalky spelt flour may actually be older than the concept of hell itself; but probably not torture.
I also like that at the end of the Inferno, Dante exits a place of confinement out into the open, with the stars above him.  Often when I walk home from the bakery I pay close attention to the sky and treeline, almost reassuring myself that they didn’t leave while I was gone.  And although it seems awful convenient of dear Dante to blame his wandering on sleep deprivation, I can identify with his confusion.  Do I know where I’m going, or am I just delirious from lack of sleep?  How can this be fixed when the journey itself holds me there, in the dark?  And what in the world is a true way anyway, D?
The pronoun shift is another consideration; he started alone and emerged with a guide.  Looking at these little old caves etched into the side of a mountain, I wonder if those Chinese hermits had guides, or if their journey into that level of isolation was made and maintained alone.  And what really drove them to their extreme monasticism?  Maybe an inner hell that they needed to face, or an external one they may have been hiding from.  Such withdrawal strikes me as reactive, not proactive, however beautiful their struggles and practices were.  It could’ve been a manifestation of feeling deeply detached from the world, or perhaps a perceived antidote to being entirely too attached. 
Modern America doesn’t view such lifestyles in a very positive light.  Hermits are thought of as unlovable Unabomber types, paranoid survivalists, primitive extremists, Bin Laden boogie-men planning new attacks, or just simply cowards.  I remember asking the Abbess of an American monastery why go, and smiled when she said that “monasteries are for people who need ALL the help they can GET.”  Maybe the same holds true for those such as myself, who can’t seem to fit in or belong anywhere, whose social isolation paints itself into a self-fulfilling corner.  But I wonder- if I had spent the past year in my familiar isolation, my little cave, would I be in any sense better off?  I would be safer, but that’s not the same thing.

Communication With The Immediate

Posted in Psychache on January 11, 2009 by lushangxinku

“…alternation of night and day,

and the changing of the winds, and the clouds which remain

obedient between earth and sky,

are surely signs for the wise.”

– Al-Qur’an, 2:163; Ahmed Ali, trans.

from "Hungry Ghosts" by Jasper Becker

from "Hungry Ghosts" by Jasper Becker

“In the communes, peasants were made to work day and night and often slept in the fields.  These peasants from Xianyang county in Henan province are engaged in deep plowing.”

It occurs to me more and more that the rhythms of the existence around me intertwine with symphonies of cyclical, grounded music that pulses through the sound of my feet hitting the ground.  A blast of wind, a cloud pattern, a full moon at dusk, and I relinquish this furtive drive of mine to engage in mental, emotional and spiritual “deep plowing.”  This was a disastrous Maoist technique to attempt to force the soil to produce astronomical crop yields, a hubris contained in the notion that through manic human effort, the obedience of the soil to these perennial cycles could be redirected- issued a new marching order by some outside divinity; or through the inner effort to “deep plow” things beyond our control.

I feel most of the pain I’ve been going through at the level of the psyche is due to the desire for deeper roots and higher spiritual yields from a soil that inevitably falls short.  Like the clouds in the Qur’anic Sura, I should not just learn to obey my present state, but to communicate with the signs available there.  This may be the key to returning to a balanced inner plowing, no longer in the throws of delirious folly, but more thoroughly in tune with the pulses of sky and ground.