Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Glory, God and guts

Sometimes, I suppose, the sheer desperation when seeking out the good and benevolent might make anyone immune to the malignancies lurking just off-stage.

This morning, I read an elegant and crystal-clear essay by Brian Victoria about the ways in which spiritual endeavor has been used to enable all sorts of bloodshed. Fact by fact, incident by incident, name by name, century by century ... religious constructs used to facilitate and encourage enormous killing sprees ... all without guilt or a moral backward glance. Glory, God ... and guts. The very quietness and care of the essay (which I would reproduce if it were open for Internet usage) left my mind glum.

Glum and glad.

Those who despise religious approaches might delight in a fact-based compendium like Victoria's. But to my mind, caterwauling enemies are small potatoes: It is the friends who pose the greater threat.

Having been steeped in Buddhism as my spiritual endeavor of choice, naturally I paid attention to Victoria's dissection of "compassion" and "emptiness" and "no (abiding) self" and a variety of heavy-hitting sutras used to support and encourage bloodshed. Oh look -- there's Zen Buddhism! oh look -- there's the Dalai Lama! oh look, oh look, oh look. This was serious scholarship Victoria offered and as someone who admires and employs aspects of spiritual endeavor, I felt duty-bound to read and heed.

And there's the rub: Duty-bound. As sure as the cyanide pills given to the CIA-trained Tibetan guerrillas in the 1960's, without acknowledging the downside of things, the upside looses any real substance and becomes a trinket hung around a whore's neck.
Bapa Legshay, one of 259 Tibetan guerrillas trained by the CIA in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, explained how he felt at the time he and his fellows parachuted back into Tibet: "Thanks to Buddha, even if we were to die, our spirits were high. The CIA had given each of us a cyanide capsule to take in case of capture."
A part of me writhed within as I read this essay. I don't much care for bad news and in general I would prefer to think that spiritual life has some seriously -- and not just air-head -- good news to offer. But how good could my good news be if I would not or could not address some very palpable and quite nasty fallout? I'm talking about a no-excuses embrace, not some mealy-mouthed, analytical bobbing and weaving.

A part of me hated Brian Victoria ... and lord knows there are plenty of people who feel the same for somewhat different and self-serving reasons.

But another part of me rejoiced. Without an embraced confession, where would spiritual endeavor be? Can anyone live a substantive spiritual life by relying on the likes of "Mr. Rogers?" Can anyone skip over the bad bits and extol the good as a means of wooing more and more needy customers? How honest is that? And, in the end, how kind?

Well, everyone figures it out on their own time and in their own way.

My own half-baked response is this: It's not just the good bits and it's not just the nasty bits. But it is something that might be called all the bits, each of them offering potential for decency and deception. And in general, it is better to heed words attributed to Gautama -- really take them to heart:
It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern.
It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern.
Let others 'defend the Dharma' or revere the relic or marvel at an unbridled joy. If you must shed blood in some noble cause, shed it honestly within, not standing beneath another's flag.

In this regard, as a practical matter, I think zazen or seated meditation is a worthwhile pursuit. But I could be wrong: As Victoria points out, that too has enabled devotees to do harm.

It's all pretty confusing, but I would rather be confused than assured. Nailing things down never works very well.


  1. Link to Victoria's essay please . . .

  2. Bob -- As I tried to indicate, I would have linked it, but it has not yet become available on the Internet. I realize that writing about it is undermined by the lack of supporting evidence, but the essay got under my skin enough to make me want to blow off emotional steam.

    Your request is warranted and I certainly don't expect anyone to spread their credulous legs for my appreciation of what is not available for others to appreciate. Take it as an emotional outburst ... though I will say the historical evidence is pretty compelling.

  3. No problem, didn't catch your mention of its current unavailability. Maybe a heads-up when it is, Thanks Adam!

    Btw, I would probably qualify as the choir when the preaching turns to the historical evidence for the corruption of religion . . . .

  4. Bob -- In Hinduism, there is the mythological tale of a swan that can sip a single drop of milk from a vast ocean... a nudging image suggesting that anyone not be satisfied with mere praise or mere blame... or anyway that's how I hear it.

    Is there any beloved or despised organization that does not invite/require investigation and a willingness to take responsibility? I'm not saying it's easy or pleasant, but I do think them's the cards. The road to hell is paved with good intentions; the road to heaven is paved with evil bricks. Read 'em and weep ... something like that. This hand of cards is this hand of cards ... let's own it.

  5. Ah, what occurred to me in that story, especially in terms of the context here, is that single drop of milk is the one true thing in the vast ocean of religious belief. What is that one true thing, and why are the great Realizers in the Hindu tradition sometimes called "Paramahansa" (Great Swan)?

  6. Bob -- As regards the "Paramahansa," I wonder: 1. What do these men and women call themselves and 2. How does anyone know such people are in fact Great Swans? Is the appreciation of others enough to assure "the one true thing?" Is belief really enough? It sounds wobbly and doubt-stricken to me.

  7. I'd think a swan is as likely to sip salt water and claim milk as anyone else. Delusion is central to the nature of belief/faith. There's pretty encouragements, and then there's the rubber on the road. And i'm inclined to believe there's no car pooling in such matters, just your own brand of poison.

  8. Those who met Ramakrishna and spent a little time with him had no doubt that he was indeed a Paramahansa. Even years later, his presence continues to enlighten and inspire. Read Lex Hixon's account (Great Swan), for example.

    As for the one true thing, when you directly apprehend it, you will have no doubt or wobble. Nor will it be a matter of faith or belief, anymore than recognizing one's own face in the mirror.

  9. Bob -- I have more books about Ramakrishna and his 'offspring' than I would care to think about -- all gathering mold in the basement. A wonderful and influential force, for sure. And I have no doubt that many were touched ... though whether they "had no doubt" I am in no position to judge. It does occur to me that if, in fact, they had no doubt, I wonder why they kept hanging around with Ramakrishna.

  10. The company of saints is sweet, or as Dante wrote:

    “The love of God, unutterable & perfect,
    flows into a pure soul the way that light
    rushes into a transparent object.
    The more love it finds, the more it gives itself;
    so that, as we grow clear and open,
    the more complete the joy of heaven is.
    And the more souls who resonate together,
    the greater the intensity of their love,
    and, mirror like, each soul reflects the other."

  11. Was that the same Dante who invented the very-particular hell later adopted by Christians?

    Oh well ... hallelujah!