Tuesday, October 16, 2012

paying homage to the self

Where would Buddhism or other similarly-inclined spiritual endeavors be without the "self?" My guess is "up shit's creek without a paddle." Without this source of so-called greed, anger and ignorance -- without this whipping boy in one sense -- the whole house of cards would collapse... and what may be much-revered and much-beloved would blow away like woodsmoke on the wind.

And if this is true, then I think any Buddhist in his right mind would do well to pay homage to the self s/he might seek to clarify or despair of. Imagine that ... a fantasy paying homage to a fantasy ... how fantastical is that?

But of course intellectual or emotional observations only reach so far. They only have limited use.

Before World War II, the German general staff would sometimes scoff behind cupped hands about the "little corporal" and his political machinations: Anyone so uncouth and ill-bred as this "little corporal" could not be taken seriously by men of breeding and expertise and power. By the end of World War II, the German general staff and the rest of the world would be awe-struck by the millions who died at the hands of the "little corporal," Adolph Hitler, and his political machinations.

Just because something is a fantasy doesn't mean its cruel fallout cannot be very concrete indeed. With good fortune, those willing to reflect come to know the cruel and sometimes wondrous fallout from the attachments of the ego, the political machinations of the "self."

Endless cruelty, endless wonder ... day after day, week after week, year after year. Intellectually and emotionally, the little corporal is ludicrous: Since everything changes all the time, the self-important notion of an abiding self is clearly off the charts in reality. But intellectual and emotional kool is not the same as saying that the problem is solved and millions won't die.

In recognition of this fact, the ethical altruisms and restraints of various religions gain a foothold. The little corporal of the self requires a counterbalance of decency and selflessness and goodness. Many spend a lifetime keeping the little corporal within socially-acceptable bounds ... God/philosophy says so ... nuff said. It may not be perfect but it's better than the alternative, which is, to borrow from Hobbes, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

And so the self gets a choke hold on the self. The payoff to this approach -- keeping the little corporal in check -- is the promise that when you drop dead, things will be better.

But the payoff is also that the more anyone throttles the little corporal of the self, the more the self asserts itself and the dog ends up endlessly chasing its tail ... keeping failure and cruelty at bay by positing ever more failure and cruelty.

The good thing about the so-called self -- the fantasy that can create so much concrete chaos -- is that it is capable of recognizing its canine foolishness, endlessly circling in pursuit of what is endlessly unattainable. The recognition is selfish, perhaps, but it is useful as well. Woodsmoke in pursuit of woodsmoke is a pretty strange notion and the hopes of stilling a mass murderer by killing more people ... well, it doesn't seem to pan out, however good the intention.

And in recognition of its tail-chasing, perhaps the fantastical self is willing to go back to ground zero, to begin again, to find a better mouse trap. When friends prove unreliable and enemies don't make much sense ... what then?

Well, there's always the self to fall back on -- the fantasy that is a fantasy and yet is capable of so much no-fooling-around anguish. Buddhism, among others, suggests that a fantasy life, a self-ish life, is bound to create problems, but when the self is all anyone's got, how could they help but say thank-you-very-much and then exercise the capacity to watch? Just watch. Not judge. Enough with all the talk of "good" and "bad," "pure" and "impure," "enlightenment" and "delusion."

When enemies are recognized as enemies but are no longer enemies, when friends are recognized as friends but are no longer friends ... well now, isn't that a bit lighter? Being an altruist is as possible or ludicrous as being a self-centered little corporal.

And it's all thanks to the self that was once so exalted or demeaned.

Hats off to the self ... assuming anyone can find their hat ... or their self.

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