Monday, December 10, 2007

The Acme Discourse

"Makin' up things to do...
Not runnin' in all directions tryin' to find you...
I'm just rollin' with the flow...
Goin' where the lonely go."
----Merle Haggard

I saw this in a cartoon once, so it must be true.

Aladdin is working for this old guy who goes around the quartier, hollering "New lamps for old... new lamps for old." The old guy gives the used lamps to Aladdin to polish. Aladdin sits around polishing lamps all day, and this is the basic routine. Except one day, Aladdin polishes a rather singular sort of lamp, and a genie pops out. Seems this genie has been trapped for centuries, waiting for somebody to release him by means of rubbing the lamp.

You with me so far?

Naturally, the genie is grateful to Aladdin for rubbing the lamp so he decides to grant Aladdin three wishes. Why his gratitude is limited to just three wishes is something nobody knows. Speaking personally, if I was imprisoned in a lamp for centuries and somebody let me out, I would be good for more than three wishes. However, maybe this is a genie thing and I am missing some subtle, internal logic or higher symbolism. Maybe three wishes is par for the course in these circumstances. You also have to wonder why Aladdin didn't make his first wish for more wishes. Maybe he didn't want to use up all the wishes. Maybe he wanted to leave some wishes for others. Maybe the three wishes are a euphemism for the three jewels.

It's up to you.

Anyway, Aladdin gets three wishes, after which he has all sorts of adventures, the moral of which I forget. In my mind, this cartoon sort of runs into the one where Mickey Mouse steals the sorcerer's wand and winds up with brooms carrying buckets. I mean, it's the same sort of message: don't tinker with the force unless you know what you're doing. Just stick to polishing lamps or sweeping up after the sorcerer.

I know that I don't entirely approve of the premise but I do understand why, in postwar America, it became necessary to subliminally beam messages like, "Be content with what you are." You had guys coming back from Europe and the Pacific who had been and done; they had flown with the Angel of Death, they had walked with the Grim Reaper, they knew the combination to the lock, and they knew where to find the warm center. All of a sudden, these guys were back on planet earth and they had to go work in soda fountains.

Nevertheless, the message had an unintended, secondary effect, because it reaffirmed our basic delusional belief that you can swap old lamps for new lamps and all your dreams will come true.

So, this is what we do. When things are not to our liking, then instead of working with them, we just swap old lamps for new lamps and start wishing. This is observed to perfection in what passes for an interpersonal relationship in this society. If the "significant other" doesn't work out, we just say, "Oh, well... time to move on," and then we start rubbing and wishing with somebody else. The thing to understand, however, is that nothing is going to w
ork out. Every meeting is destined to end in parting. Every hot obsession is destined to end in icy indifference. It snows in the desert, don't you know? Sooner or later, the blush is always going to leave the rose.

That is certainly one way to look at things, and if you are into labels, you could even say that is a "Buddhist way of looking at things." Except, you would be incorrect. There is no "Buddhist way of looking at things." There are, in fact, 84,000 categories of Buddha's teachings, and each one is an absolutely truthful and foolproof means to permanent happiness. People ask me all the time, "What do Buddhists think about this, what do Buddhists think about that?" I never know how to answer them. The moment we let our view harden, we lose whatever truth may have been originally implicit in that moment. We lose the spontaneous wonder that is inherent in those 84,000 categories.

Be this as it may, I still sit and ponder about the lamp refurbishing business that is the subtext of our desires. I wonder why we let ourselves get trapped into thinking next time is going to be different. Different how? More importantly, different why? And I am not speaking about relationships now... I am speaking about the fundamental misconception that there is something called enlightenment and that it is right around our corner... the fundamental misconception we have that eventually colors everything we do as Buddhists: the thing I call the "it."

If we meditate, we will get "it."

I saw so-and-so Rinpoche today, and he really had "it."

We went to a puja, and I really felt "it."

The new-for-old thesis subsumes an "it" which becomes the locus of who we are, where we are, and what we are. For example: tomorrow, you are sitting in a coffee shop when in
strides the Dalai Lama and he suddenly proclaims you the 10th incarnation of Billy Bob Rinpoche. Ten minutes prior, you were just Billy Bob, but now you are a living saint.

Well, that certainly explains a few things... and just wait until those kids who laughed at you in the 4th grade read the New York Times.

Life is now very, very good. People are flocking to you in droves, you can spout off whatever nonsense jumps to mind, and people will actually take it seriously. Scholars will be having discussions like, "Well, I think what Billy Bob Rinpoche really said was...," and "I disagree... I think the Tenth William Robert Rinpoche's essential thesis is..." People
will be kissing your ass for sunshine and calling it guru yoga. People will be calling you the sole refuge because they're too scared to think for themselves. And there you are, sitting on the brocade cushion, thinking you have "it" all under control, except your stomach is churning. You don't have "it" under control at all. You are still plain vanilla Billy Bob, with 4th grade laughter ringing in your ears.

You can't authentically trade some hypothetical status predicated on the past for the reality of spontaneously present actions. Really, the only thing you can do is come to some realization about the nature of mind that no longer allows for the ideations of "it" to be a factor in your view. Or, to put this another way: just take "it" out of the equation.

Now, having argued that new-lamps-for-old is a flawed approach, let me reverse the premise and argue that it is perfection.

Just as the lotus arises stainlessly from the mud, so does the wish-granting quality that lies implicit in the lamp of awareness respond to the application of effort wherein one seeks to removes the dust of mistaken beliefs.......

(ah... ahh... ahhh.... ahchoo! )

Excuse me? Did we just red-line the bullshit-o-meter?

I think Popeye Rinpoche put this succinctly: I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam.

That would have been in the root tantra, mind you.

Remember when the Bluto Demon attempted to deconstruct Popeye Rinpoche, inspiring Popeye Rinpoche to perform the Spinach-Eating Rite and liberate the living snot out of the Bluto Demon, thus securing the one-pointed absorption of the activity mudra Olive Oil Khandro?

Yeah... I liked that one, too.

However, to continue with our earlier example, let us now imagine that one fine day you get a call from Gotso Sharpie and he says, "Hey, Billy Bob... got bad news and good news. First, the Dalai Lama is terribly sorry but he made a mistake. You're not the Tenth Billy Bob Rinpoche anymore. We're gonna' lay that one on a relative, instead."

You ask, "So what's the bad news?"

Gotso Sharpie says, "The bad news is he can't make mistakes, he's the embodiment of love, and love means never having to say you're sorry. Nepotism is one thing... but tough love is quite another... Billy Bob, you're on your own."

Now, all of a sudden, you have to stop relying on your hypothetical status predicated on the past and start relying on actual ability. You are no longer artificially enabled; rather, you are inherently enabled. All the concepts that seem so charming in the abstract must now become an ever-present, self-arising potential... an authentic possibility, if you like to put it that way... wherein you accept the responsibility without trying to control the experience.

In 1959, when Tibetans started trickling across the border, nobody knew who anybody was anymore. Heaven and earth really changed places. A little less than a decade later, when the first Tibetan teachers started coming to the West, there was no way to judge who was who. Now, with benefit of hindsight, it all seems so easy, but at the time anybody could say anything about anything.

So, not knowing that we should immediately dash ourselves on the ground in full prostration, sell the family farm and make offerings of gold, we simply listened to what these guys had to say. I mean, how could anybody take anything on face value? On face value, Trungpa Rinpoche was a frequently intoxicated poet--- a sort of religious Dylan Thomas, raging at the dying of the light. On face value, there were a bunch of other guys who couldn't speak a word of English but who sat on thrones and rang bells, and later went on shopping sprees.

We listened, and we thought about what we heard, and we did a little research here and there, and we arrived at our various conclusions. We didn't really look at the messengers. We listened to the message, and we liked what we heard well enough to let it shape our lives.

Our lives can be over anytime.

It is like packing for a trip.

What will we take with us?

What will we believe?

What will we hold dear?

What do we keep?

What do we discard?

Among my greatest lamas
I include a butcher,
a prostitute, and a bandit.

-----Kyabje Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche

This big cartoon about Tibetan Buddhism with its philosopher cats and dogs, and magical mice and ducks, and birds (and rabbits) is not the feature film, but it is still sometimes useful to watch it as if it were the feature film.

We have all been to the movies. We have all sorts of reasons for going and we have all sorts of rituals such as parking, walking to the theater, buying popcorn, etc. We settle in, and sometimes what we see makes us laugh, sometimes it makes us cry. We get on the edge of the seat for the action scenes. We get ideas from the romantic scenes. We yell at the characters, " out for the gun!"

We have this entire "experience" predicated on illusion, and when we leave the theater, we can have impressions and ideas and so forth, but fundamentally, we understand that all we have done is go see a movie. We may buy the t-shirt, dress up in drag and watch Rocky Horror one zillion times, but we can still say, "It's just a movie."


New lamps for old means going into the multiplex, watching a few scenes of the first movie, then jumping up and going
to the second screen for a few scenes. We believe there is this guy or girl...this us, or this it...who is moving between the screening rooms. It means being trapped in the dialectic of seemingly going to the movie, or even having the movie come to us. It subsumes a focality to which reports are being made and by which decisions are being made.

But, when we watch cartoons on Saturday morning, we don't think like that. We see the coyote feel the pain from Acme, but in the next second he's up again and chasing the road runner. We think, "Aw, that's just a cartoon... that stuff ain't real." We don't care if it is this cartoon or that cartoon. We watch without watching.

And then we go about our business, maybe eating Cheerios or listening to Merle Haggard, going where the lonely go.

It was snowing today and I wandered around, thinking about you. I would say that I miss you, except that is like saying I want to replay the same scene in the movie over and over again. I guess I forgive you, except there is no subject requiring faith. I still think of no other besides you. Here, there are no new lamps for old. There is only what seems to happen frame by frame, and that stuff ain't real.

Up in the hills I turned my back to the sun and watched my shadow. I looked in the sky and saw the shadow appear there, as well, and then I looked around at all the empty mines.

I thought about miners who dig in the wrong places.

I thought about all the gold they never find.

I do not understand why such misunderstanding is possible, when treasure is so clearly in evidence.

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