Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Great Books

Class V: The Dhammapada (Buddha)

How odd, to be writing of far off spiritual path, in the shadow of the most recent election.  And yet, when do we need this kind of perspective more, than at a time when the world "out there" seems to have definitely slipped into a "mondo cane" (world gone to the dogs).  The perspective afforded by our afternoons in the Dixon Place lounge grows ever-more nourishing in the face of such events -- and necessary. 

The Dhammapada is a short work of aphorisms, statements and exhortations.  It did not leave an intellectual mark on our memory, or fill our head with memorable quotes and statements.  It did, however, leave a gentle impression.  And idea of how to cleanse the thought process, step back from the mundane, devote oneself to a healing of the spirit and the muddy waters of conscious sludge (thoughts).

Although the work seemed like a re-hash of other ideas, though definitely more austere in its vision (advocating a relentless retreat from sensuality and society), it still offered a soothing counterweight to our frenetic, advertising-driven culture.  The message of the Dhammapada is not about winning and losing, or accruing the most toys before dying, but about ignoring the hysteria of external reality and diving into the internal eternity, the quietude, the universal "naught."  It represents, as one participant noted, the ultimate "counter-culture" message, perhaps even moreso than the 50s Beatniks or 60s Hippies.

We discussed why this message has so little resonance within our culture.  After all, I noted, America was built from Type A personalities -- the exact opposite energy from the contemplative, inward-looking mystical world view.  Every one of us -- other than Native Americans or African Americans -- is descended from a forbearer who had the wherewithal to leave everything known behind, often with only a few pfennigs in their pocket, to embark on a journey to the unknown.  And this "journey" was almost never the an interior exploration of the eternity at the heart of their being.

This anti-mystical attitude is literally part of the American DNA.

But how then, might we keep the ideas of which we read -- of renunciation and dedication and selfless love and a wide-angled perspective -- present in our life?  Even in this mystical tract, the idea of rewards and punishments pushed in through the gentle exhortations.  Is this the only manner of moving toward spiritual health?  To do so out of fear of retribution?  After all, the words "heaven" and "hell" appeared in the text on more than one occasion.  

We discussed the need to remain busy.  After all, in NYC, everybody is sooo damned busy.  It is, I proposed, one manner of burying or channeling the anxiety of being.  After all, the Dhammapada exhorts us to turn into the anxiety, master it, and through concentration and meditation, overcome it.  Sand it down.  All our post-modern hysteria does is channel it into a bunch of smaller and smaller tasks, obligations, deadlines, meetings and wispy dreams (I wish I could buy that new pair of shoes I saw!).

Mysticism is indeed a manner of dealing with the anxiety of being (an anxiety rooted in the fact that we've been given enough of a consciousness to know that something is going on here, but not enough to figure out what the hell it is).  But it takes marginalizing oneself from the mainstream, from general society, to do so.  And we are social beings, after all . . .

We do, indeed, live in a culture of "winners" and "losers" (made all-too evident in the results from last night's election).  What is the culture of Buddhism?  A culture based in acceptance (of the world on its terms; of the limits of a human life; of the ability for aggrandizement etc.).  Buddhism is a yearning for stillness and quietude, regardless of the cultural vessel in which one lives.  It is a working as hard as you can to achieve piece, instead of working as hard as you can to never be quite good enough, never have enough "stuff," never be satisfied.

In this spiritual vernacular, what is the responsibilities to others?  Is it simply a narcissistic voyage into the psyche of the self?  I, personally, have sometimes felt that mysticism of this sort (as opposed to legislative, socially engaged mysticism of the sort that Marcus Aurelius proposed) was the ultimate selfish act.  Can the cultivation of internal peace lead to better interactions with the world around you, from that homeless person we see everyday in Union Square, to friends, enemies, family etc?  We think it can have that effect, through expanding our understanding of ourselves, and of our ultimate "goals."

One of us proposed that giving in to the messages proposed by the Dhammapada was like surfing, riding a wave, loose and in control at the same time.

We discussed giving.  Getting to the point where we can give without it being transactional.  One of use told stories of their father, who would help out his family with monetary aid, yet never ask how the money was spent.  Could we do the same with a homeless person?  Is it different in terms of our giving if they spend it on whisky instead of bread?  When we receive a paycheck, no one ever asks how we are going to spend the money.  Do people have to "earn" the right to be given to?  Can we remove our ego from the giving equation, and give solely for the sake of giving?  After all, the Dhammapada proposes that we should give to everyone who asks -- even if we are only able to give a very little.

We returned to the internal experience of mysticism.  What is attention?  This idea is much spoken about in Buddhism.  Does this mean to not be influenced by either internal or external stimuli?  Not caring what other people think?  Is it the opposite of mental "carelessness"?  Or simply attention to the moment.  The Sufis note: "The true Sufi's thoughts never move faster than his feet."  Wakefulness to the fullness of the experience of living in that particular moment -- its smells, sights, sounds -- not thinking about what has to happen by next Tuesday.  To be embedded in your moment.  

What is the practice which would lead to such a state?  Is meditation the only way?  After all, searching for this elusive "attention" is usually thought of as inward looking, individual, solipsistic.  Can it involve sharing?  Cooking?  Interpersonal interaction?  Or some aspect of the mundane?

We finished by discussing the motivation for mysticism.  I proposed that it was the pain of being -- and looking for an antidote.  But pain is such a powerful teacher.  Without pain, there would be no human consciousness.  There would be no conception of God . . .

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