Monday, July 08, 2013

Ghosts of Christmas Past

On 12-12-12, I bid farewell to blogging for a while.
Hello again.

Ordinarily, when I see helicopters flying around -- particularly those quiet, black ones with all the antennae -- and when I see squads of Men With Blonde Wives carrying light automatic weapons and wearing face masks, I figure, "Oh well, here we go again."

But, when such things occur in the peaceable realm of the San Bernardino mountains, during the ordinary conduct of a retreat with flexible boundaries, I escalate to, "Oh shit! Here we go again!" Or, as Butch said to Sundance, "Who are those guys?" 

Thus it seemed -- during the course of a memorable period beginning December 12, 2012, and ending  February 20, 2013 -- while I was relaxing, the United States of America was going stark, raving nuts. 

I was haunting the mountains and valleys proximate to Big Bear, California, when a manhunt began for a disgruntled, former Los Angeles police officer accused of going on a murderous rampage. When his truck was found, burning at the paved end of a high ridge road I know so well, the entire region burst forth with gunmen.

There were cops of every stripe and flavor going door to door, cave to cave, outcrop to outcrop. They were armed to the teeth, burning for vengeance, and desperately looking to shoot somebody. They paralyzed the hills and dales, closed trails in and out, and set up numerous roadblocks to stop and search all civilian vehicles. A one million dollar reward was offered for capture, and the sheriff announced, "Most all of the people in these parts have guns and know how to defend themselves," thus providing the unspoken codicil of "dead or alive."

Police fired on a seventy year old Hispanic woman and her daughter, injuring both, because it "seemed as if" the white truck they were driving "might have been" the thirty-something, black male suspect's blue truck. Those women should have known better than to go about delivering newspapers. As a fully trained and experienced former officer, the suspect was hiding in a house across the street from the police command post: easily the best place to be, given the circumstances. 

All of which was not without an even more generous measure of irony, for as my retreat began, America hosted yet another rampaging young man with a gun at a school, leading to the tragic murder of numerous children, and reigniting the ever smoldering national hysteria over gun control. While legislators geared up to ban assault weapons, limit ammunition magazine capacity, and engage in outright confiscation, the Vice President of the United States -- he chaired the "fact-finding" scene of the psychodrama -- advised Americans to go buy shotguns for self-protection.

Meanwhile, gun sales in the country rose to the highest level since the day after Pearl Harbor, way back in the Forties.

Oh, and the North Koreans insulted the Nagas with an underground atomic explosion on Lunar New Year,  and a meteor hit the traditional home of numerous shamans. Maybe the Nagas shot back an aboveground atomic explosion, but their targeting was off.

In the midst of all this, the Pope quit.

Maybe people should set to work on an Ark.

I suppose I could have meditated about all of that, but I didn't. I was in quarantine. Also, that Buddhists meditate "about" anything grossly misstates the case. Somebody might say the early Christians probably made that up. They de-linked meditation, thinking, and watching. They were out in the middle of the figurative and literal desert, suffering from function thirst, searching around for something to do in order to relieve the boredom. They decided to write a book. Lots of people still do that, and for the very same reasons. The early authors de-linked meditation, thinking, and watching so the book would look fatter.

Christians have that one book, which in the fullness of time became so fat it had to get whacked up and abridged. People then wrote commentaries to explain the missing parts. We, on the other hand, are Buddhists. We have thousands of fat books. We have fatter commentaries on the fat books, and even fatter commentaries on the commentaries. Which is a paradox, because we did not de-link anything; instead, we linked everything (interdependence), and then set about to decry the illness of efforts.

Actual un-retouched photo of interdependence.

So, anyway ...

I was in quarantine for the Illness of Efforts, but I called it a "retreat with flexible boundaries," so I could try to practice what I was preaching to myself. That meant I would press the pause button, go visit the dentist, and then go scuttling back to a rock formation somewhere. While I was at the dentist, I tried to be at the dentist. While I was at the rock formation, I tried to be at the rock formation. I thought being in-between might also prove useful. In theory, this sounds great; in practice, this does not go very far.

In fact, this is utterly contrived.

Utterly contrived.

This is America. Nobody is safe from America. Nobody can get away from America. Even you go out in the middle of nowhere, there are helicopters buzzing around and all sorts of peculiar trails in the sky. Even you go to the Third World, you see America on the T-shirts. There is no evasion. If America wants you, America will get you. The American president will fly a drone up your nose.

The best you can do is plop down somewhere, pay due respect to the spirits, and try to relax. It helps if you shut off ordinary social intercourse, mass media, and the internet. You'll tend to bring your own distractions with you. Alone with the sun, moon, stars, wind, and critters, there are not so many distractions. Granted, you might plop down in the back of a taxicab. This is possible but not necessarily feasible. Most people would at least make a show of heading off for the wide open spaces.

You might start off with some mundane observations: I am not safe from America, I am a Buddhist, I have read and heard all this Buddhist stuff, I still don't know how to fit it into myself.
"When brightened by awareness, thoughts can become better companions and can even contribute to meditation." -- Kyabje Tarthang Rinpoche
This is a simple and useful way to begin. All you do, as a beginner, is say to yourself that you will never be closer to the truth than you are right this minute, and then you can set out to complicate your intuition with your intellect. You can take a classical approach to all this -- for Westerners, in particular, it really helps. You can examine matters in terms of gratification, disappointment, and escape.

You think, "If I was safe from America, in my island paradise teahouse with the beautiful things and gracious servants, I could be a real Buddhist, and figure out all this stuff downright easily. That would be my gratification." Then you think, "It isn't going to work because I am not safe from America, the teahouse, the things and the servants are not going to help, I am still me and I still don't know squat. That is my disappointment." Then you think, "If I forget all about these labels and stop taking attitudes about myself -- this passive-aggressive, reverse egocentricity -- then I won't be trapped by labels and sick emotions. I can forget all about religion and remember how to be six-years-old spiritual. That would be my escape." Actually, that would be your escape, the fruit of your escape, and the means of your escape. The injunction would be, "Knock off labels."

If you sit around in the rocks somewhere, cogitating like that, pretty soon it will become automatic, and you can forget all about cogitating. You can move on, as people are fond of saying. There is a really great translation that helps you sort out all the Dharma you ever read or heard: the Nettippakaranam, from the Pali. Unless you feel -- as most Western Buddhists do -- that you can skip everything and jump straight to the sublime Ati -- and this because you heard it was "highest" -- I strongly suggest that you begin with the fundamentals.

The first of the fundamentals is disgust. Worn out disgust. Can't take no more. Hit the wall. Things don't work disgust. Crying in the dust disgust. End of the line disgust. Want to die disgust. Usually you can say "renunciation mind," but I like to say "disgust." Renunciation is a fearsome concept to Westerners: we might have to give up ordinary social intercourse, mass media, and the internet.  The trick is, with renunciation you don't need to "give up" anything. You can just recognize what works and what doesn't. You are then free to be disgusted with what doesn't work, which liberates the whole mess all by itself, naturally.

So, you have your big disgust catharsis, and you wake up the next morning, and nothing has changed. Looks like nothing is ever going to change. Fear sets in, and it turns cold. Cold fear turns to terror. Nothing is going to change and you are going to die.

That's a very good beginning.

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2 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

The world is full of the hubris of gunslingers and death merchants. And the oxen is slow but the Earth is patient.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to shave that beard, Dad.