Monday, April 2, 2007

A Perfect World--and the Insanity Donut

Interesting talk, as usual, at yesterday’s sangha—beginning with a passage read from the Tao Te Ching which included the proposition that “the world is perfect; we can do nothing to change it.” (I’m paraphrasing the translation here, though I hope without distorting it. My memory is not so trustworthy these days.)

So is it? Perfect, I mean. My argument was that it depends on the way you look at it—and on the way you understand the words. On the other hand, some of our group proposed what I understand to be a karma-based vision: that everything results from actions whose consequences are not always foreseeable, but which offer lessons from which, if mindful, we can learn. No matter how dire, and no matter whether we approve of them or not, events in the world may prove to be a part of its “perfection.” Perhaps this perfection can be understood as the necessity of the cause-effect continuum.

Which sounded uncomfortably Panglossian to me. Pangloss, remember, was the peripatetic mentor of that simple-minded literalist Candide, the hero of Voltaire’s merciless mockery of the philosophy that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” I myself have trouble accepting the agonizing death of millions of human beings as the result of war, disease, and famine as a part of some cosmic vision of a perfect world. I don’t even think that it’s perfectible. The enlightenment of the Buddha himself, after all, arose from the perception of the inevitability of suffering—manifestly in the form of aging, sickness and death. I doubt that he could have envisioned such present-day scourges as genocide and man-induced global warming.

It also seems to me dangerously close to trivializing the suffering of a vast number of human beings to see it, essentially (and I realize that this is to put it far more crudely than it was meant) as a teaching offered to our species. Okay, we should doubtless be learning from these dreadful outcomes of our unskillful actions and behaviors. But doesn’t it seem callous to attribute the suffering of all these innocent victims of their fellow man’s indifference and cruelty to some kind of karmic outcome of unknowable past actions?

On Than Geoff's monthly visits, after our meditation hour we join in chanting the Sublime Attitudes, a lovely litanyy that reminds us that “All living beings are owners of their actions, born of their actions, heir to their actions, related through their actions, and live dependent on their actions.” I see the wisdom in these words, and kind of grasp the concept behind them. But somewhere at gut level it remains a conundrum for me in the light of these troublesome thoughts. Which suggests to me that I have work to do before I more fully understand it.

Meantime, there's what one of our number felicitously calls the "insanity donut." In the middle is what you can actually be responsible for, surrounded by everything you somehow feel responsibility for without being able to control it. That's the part that's not so good for you, I assume. Nice metaphor, anyway. I recalled Than Geoff’s earlier responses to my questions about political and social responsibility: do what you can, he suggests, and have the good sense to recognize what’s beyond your capabilities. Know the limitations, and acknowledge them. Don’t waste time and energy on those things that you can’t hope to affect. And be aware that even the small things matter in the grand scheme. As the chaos theory has it, the beat of a butterfly wing in one corner of the globe can result in a tempest in another.


Fred said...

What I gathered from the "perfect world" discussion was that the world's karmic engine works "perfectly". Things are as they are as the result of the accumulated actions of all of us, not that the state of suffering (wars, famine, disease, etc.) is perfect. In other words, horrors in, horrors out.

carly said...

I've spent all my time studying Lao Tzu, so I know next to nothing about Buddhism. Buddhists spend all their time studying Buddhism, so I would imagine, except for B-scholars, they know the same about Taoist thinking (not Taoism, the post facto religion, a lesser thing). Lao Tzu contributed the Tao Te Ching, which Confucius and others expanded. My copy is open before me, as I read your blog. Serendipitously, The page open reads,

If someone is not as he should be,
He has misfortune,

Likewise, if man is not as he should be, he suffers disaster. Lao Tzu was no Pollyanna, and did not say, "the world is perfect; we can do nothing to change it", so far as I know. He said we could do everything to change it. He said, the superior man takes care to further the work of the Heavens and Earth in order that all men may benefit. And that everything serves to further and in time all things change "ching" into their opposites, indeed all things create their opposites. (universal law of circularity). He also says that what is ruined by man can be made good by man. One need only know one's place in the scheme, which is " as it should be", self-perpetuating, and self-evident. (No gods) Perhaps that is where the misquote comes from.

Lao Tzu knew man brings on disasters. Learning from nature we see that so does nature bring disasters. It all applies to clean air emissions and all else. And the new arises from the decayed. If man completely ruins the environment, something will survive in the universe. Man will watch from Mars, or worst case for our descendants, man will vanish, bugs will inherit Earth. But nature, being eternally perpetual, will go on. Maybe man will evolve into some sort of bug-man. He's more than halfway to being a cockroach anyway!

But Lao Tzu taught non-action, which, he explains is not idly standing by, but furthering the fundaments of nature in a wise way, not making "activities", but doing like nature does, letting things develop. If man does not learn this, he could perish, and he damn well knows it. Full well did LT know that nature gave man such a strong will to survive, that even on the brink of extinction, some will have prepared for it as he instructed, and indeed propagate, proliferate. Remember the book/movie, On The Beach?* We must remember, we are not very far along in the game of maintaining civilizations. If thousands die due to the blame attached to some wrongdoers, LT notes this is as it must be. Until man learns to put a stop to it. He himself fled a nation going down, for, as a sage he 'knew the seeds'. I think he was the first to write that.

To become free of the greatest good man can do, says LT. But he has many teachings about the weak, the foolish, evil, the ruinous, etc, and how to deal with it all, and how to avoid it all. But to quote him, "For all that man has ears, he does not listen".

So Peter, "Don't worry. Be happy!"


carly said...

P: What traslation of the IChing did you read from? There is only one good one. The others paraphrase.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Carly. It's good to have the Taoist view--and the excellent bottom-line advice. As for the translation, I really don't know. The text was brought in by another sangha member.