Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai--and Beyond

This Mumbai thing has me thinking, once more, about death. A father and his thirteen year-old daughter sit at dinner at a restaurant and death comes crashing through the door in the form of madmen with assault weapons, firing at random among the tables. He's a former art teacher, a long-time meditator, visiting the country of the Buddha's birth in search of spiritual enlightenment. She is, well, just a teenager. Barely a teenager, who came along on her father's quest because she thought the experience would give her good subject matter for an application essay to qualify for entry to a private school. The last thing either expected was this encounter with violent death. So, too, the rabbi from Brooklyn and his young, attractive wife... And dozens of others like them.

And then... five human beings set off in a SUV for some unknown purpose and drive off an overpass somewhere in Colorado, crashing forty feet to their death on the concrete below; a store clerk leaves for his job at a Walmart store, and dies shortly after the store opens, trampled to death by the stampede of post-Thanksgiving shoppers...

It's not only the randomness of these deaths, and the countless others in Mumbai, that got me thinking: it's the seeming finality that accompanied them. As an atheist and a not-quite Buddhist who finds the whole notion of multiple lives too hard to swallow, I read about these deaths with little to comfort me. I would like very much to believe that this one life is not all there is, and I do have some inkling that the life-force or the energy that I feel within will persist in some form after my death. My struggle really is with the ego part, the ME that clings to the peculiarly human individuality that is the current manifestation of my being and on which I hang the story of my life. I am hung up by that face I see in the mirror, and by which others recognize me for who I seem to be.

I realize that my meditation practice has not yet brought me to the point where I can let go of these appearances. No matter how much I may "understand," up here, that clinging and aversion bring with them equal suffering, that understanding fails to register with the same power in the heart and the gut. The fact of the matter is that I really like being who I am, and the thought of not being me any more is a painful one.

Readers of The Buddha Diaries will perhaps remember that other little problem I have with death: I'm really hung up on the story, all stories, any stories, and I have a lot vested in knowing the end of them. Thw father and daughter started their dinner that evening in the full expectation that they would get up and leave the table at the end of it, continuing their journey. The store clerk, perhaps, had had a row with his girlfriend the evening before, and went to work in anticipation of the opportunity to repair the damage before the day was out. As for me, there are multiple strands of story going on in my life right now, and I realize there are many whose end I will not know. I'm absurdly grateful to know the end of this past election story--especially since it ended in precisely the way I would have written it, had I been so empowered. But now I have to wonder how much of the continuation of the political story I'll be given to know; and it's unlikely that I'll ever know if the planet we live on will survive the abuses we have inflicted on it. That this particular and current story should even have a foreseeable end is pretty scary. Then the events in Mumbai come along to remind me of the fragility of our global balance and the real possibility of human history ending in a forest of mushroom clouds.

In this context, of course, my own little life seems small indeed... but I cling to it none the less for the knowledge of its relative insignificance. So this morning I sit and try to bring my wandering attention back to the breath. For too few moments, I manage to bring my mind into the present and breathe past the gravitational mass of my own body. I acknowledge the unique wisdom of the Buddha and the path to happiness he has laid out for those of us who try to follow it. And yet I find it impossible, today, to reach anything that comes near serenity...

10 comments:

mandt said...

Powerful thoughts Peter, ones which we all share. It often occurs to me when in the ego vice that serenity is not a thing obtained, but that which contains.. Peace MandT

carly said...

P: Your post is reminiscent of the angst and existentialism of the Twentieth Century. And of "Where did I come from? Who am I? and Where am I going?"

I think that as we learn to live more completely in the moment, the turmoil of life becomes no longer a source for those questions, also, no longer a need for mental constructs. Like Maude, in Harold and Maude, said to the angst-ridden Harold, obsessed by death, "You've got to live, live, live until you die, Harold." And about the stories she said, "Otherwise, there's nothing to talk about in the locker room."

To me, that's all that meditation and enlightenment are, really, concentrating on the moment. And the practice consists of doing what is right. Poo on those who don't know what "right" is, because they do know, but don't want to go with it. (another topic).

Concentrating on the moment and doing what is right, it's so easy. That's what the sublime is, easy, natural. That's what living in the moment is, natural. All the cares and woes of history run counter to this principle, glory, desire, struggle, etc. All deny the moment in favor of flimsy emotions to grasp the unattainable. Other animals can remember and think ahead and learn from experience. But they don't try and be something they are not. They are much better at living in the moment. And if they kill for food or die, it's completely natural, within a sublime scheme. They don't depravedly plan mass murder for glory or emotional fervor.

As for unknown purpose and randomness, that is simply man's errors played out. Neither unknown nor random, the overpass, the Walmart sale, the rampage of executions, are fully integrated in the cause and effect of man's systems. They are all a result of man's errors, his design vs. natural design, his ego and id vs. natural plan. A forest fire in nature is a good thing. Virtually all of what man labels "catastrophe" in the natural world is of benefit to the planet. But instead of working to channel nature to further its yield and control those forces, man creates his own separate systems prone to catastrophe, highways that are unsafe, policies that are unstable. No, there is nothing random about any of it. It's expected results, based on natural principles, and the ills of man's feeble constructs.

Meddlers. Men are meddlers. Especially Americans, today's colonizers. They are busy setting up shop on another man's land. Selling religion, wares, ideas, anything they can make money on, evangelize, or spread their word. It's no wonder at all that the natives come around and slay them. What's so hard to understand about that?

I just spent some time in Thai and Cambodian villages - to learn - not to convert, capitalize upon, stir up catastrophe. To live in the moment of their lives, that I may better my own. And you know what? I saw many happy faces, fully integrated in their environment. The ones on motor-scooters, who were coming and going from the town (of man-made design)....THEY were jaded, less happy, a lot less happy. Noticeably less happy. The "townies", commuters in the villages, were in the early stages of suffering. My hypothesis, suffering is the result of unnaturalness, being out of the moment.

Contemplation of the moment and the forces it bears with it brings enlightenment and the path to success. Plus, it's a beautiful and nourishing way to spend each moment in time we have. The moment of death is another in a string of moments for which we are thereby prepared, because a life well-spent has no regrets. The moment after death is an unknown, except for the stories one hears and may chose to believe. I for one choose not to let hope and fear explain to ignorance the nature of the unknowable. Atheism is just another religion.

Honoring the ancestors is education. And moments spent learning the past are invaluable to savoring each moment life has to offer. If they choose to tell stories about lives well-spent, all the better. Man's love of the stories is completely natural, therefore beneficial.

John Torcello said...

Dangling participles...Leftovers in the fridge...aging smelly socks...a kiss put off til tomorrow...the end of the campaign...all stopped short, too soon.

No apparent reason...unknown...out of our control...Seems to beg for a 'get it while you can' attitude...

But no...it's in the context, the situation, our experience, that we recognize the value, savor the flavor...hope it never ends; but know, in our hearts, it will; that's what makes it precious...

Not so much because we live in paradise...but because we are anxious about our unknowing about what lies ahead...

citizen of the world said...

I don't know that we are meant to just accept senseless deaths with equanimity. I undersatnd the concept of letting go of attachments, but we are human and deaths (especially those that come too soon) are sad.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I have accepted the concept of reincarnation since I was very young, yet I am at this point still attached to my present persona, and would really like to be this "me" forever.

It seems important to know how it all turns out, but I also know on a deep level that when the time comes for my entity to transform itself yet again, I will accept it with equanimity.

The very sad events in Mumbai confirm for me that I am more afraid of a violent death than I am of the actual dying, though.

carly said...

Hopes, fears, sadness, desires, anxiousness, melancholy, personas, entities, karma, randomness, actions, senselessness, darkness, the end - these are all things the sage sees through as he savors each moment in time.

He need not vest his moments in hope, fears, being sad, desiring, feeling anxious, or melancholic. He needs not a persona, to see himself as an entity, to be reborn. He understands the intricate plan of "randomness", the futility of actions, the purpose behind "senselessness", the light that banishes darkness, the finality and peace of the end.

carly said...

Last note: alienation. an important word in understanding Twentieth Century angst.

alienation 1 : a withdrawing or separation of a person or a person's affections from an object or position of former attachment :

A sage lives each moment deeply, is attached to it, is linked with sublimity and love.

carly said...

"Boyah, the pirate leader, said that the piracy began because traditional coastal fishing became difficult after foreign fishing trawlers depleted local fish stocks. Traditional fishermen started attacking the trawlers until the trawler crews fought back with heavy weapons. The fishermen then turned to softer targets, unarmed cargo ships farther out to sea." AP

Prime example of how primitive tribal people are being pushed up against a wall by foreign interests who are basically invading and plundering their lands, waters. Of course they are going to strike back. It is predictable. But all we hear is that they are ruthless, godless killers, because the west has a blind eye for global injustice. Therefore it appears like random violent hatred and senseless, when it just may be justified revenge in the minds of the weaker side. What does the capitalist elite expect poor people to do, lay down and take it? And they sure don't want us to know the truth. They want us to feel fear.

carly said...

Taken together, the definition of alienation and the violence brought on by simple people taking up arms in desperation against the West, brings up quick understanding of terrorism and how it is reported.

Right now, we don't need philosophies which preach disconnecting with reality. We need the opposite, attachment to everything and love. Those who want to disconnect and sit quietly by escaping the realities at the roots of suffering, are either too tired or sadly on the wrong path. People with that tendency are alienated and impotent. In Thailand I saw many monks holding their begging bowls in sumptuous ceremonies, and they fly first-class, shop at antique markets, and videotape each other like tourists, while true beggars crawled the sidewalks helplessly.

We need many more people like Ghandi, who see how action or non-action can change the world and relieve suffering rather than just reacting to it. And that they do it without the mantle of religion, in true modesty.

khengsiong said...

Also in the Mumbai victim list were a Malaysian woman and a young Singaporean lawyer...

Read this quotes somewhere...
Cheer up! The worst is yet to come.