Monday, April 5, 2010


Strange to think that those with an education can sometimes wring their verbal hands over the ability/willingness of others who may be less informed to forget the great efforts or great disasters of the past. As George Santayana noted with what smells to me like a certain pomposity, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

It smells pompous to me because no one can honestly remember the past and so, in point of fact, I would say we are all doomed to repeat it in one form or another. Veterans and Holocaust survivors 'remember' their horrors. Jesus and Gautama are 'remembered' for their successes. And closer to home, individuals 'remember' the great efforts or emotions they themselves have brought to bear in matters of love or construction or deal-making or revenge.

But everyone remembers from a distance and with their own interpretation. This is not to demean or dismiss memory, it is just to note what actually happens. Evidence of great horrors or miraculous wonders can be pointed to as, perhaps, having happened but the distances and separations that create horror or wonder imply in their being a certain falsehood and a certain inability to remember in fact.

Socially, this may be kind of interesting -- great beer-and-chips material for the classroom or think tanks or gossip circles -- but what interests me is what it implies for individuals and the memories that may play such a forceful role in their activities.

Buddhists, for example, may 'remember' that Gautama attained enlightenment, whatever that may mean. The efforts of this one man are retold with a storied reverence as a means of encouragement to those who wish to remember. This is not a horror remembered with tears and shudders, but rather a wonder and a delight to those inclined.

But like any horror or wonder ... are we not doomed as well to repeat the efforts about which we may speak and opine and yet have no experience? And even those who have the experience under their belts are left with hazy or well-confected memories ... perhaps horrific, perhaps delightful, but in neither case really accurate.

Memory as a tentative encouragement, one taken with a grain of well-founded salt, strikes me as sensible and useful. But memory as hardened fact strikes me as dangerous and stupid, a foundation for little more than bias.

Zen Buddhists, for example, practice zazen or seated meditation. Memories of Gautama or other generously-tinted teachers, spur students on. And after a while, their own memories spur them on ... this makes sense, this works, this is a good thing in my life. And so they practice.

But in the midst of that practice, history, and the memory on which it is founded, falls away. Even during a lousy session -- one when a particular sorrow or joy clouds the scene -- still it is right-now and in-your-face. Reasons and meanings recede in the face of a right knee that burns like fire. History evaporates as, in a sense, we repeat it.

I do not like the word 'doomed' very much. It sounds utterly negative that we should have to repeat the horrors of war or famine or some other great sorrow. But aren't we 'doomed' to repeat the fireworks of wonder and joy as well? Isn't it just human nature to seek out experience as a means of confirming what is remembered? And, having sought it out -- whether good or bad -- aren't we 'doomed' to have to repeat it yet again, despite all of our experience? Isn't this our practice/

In Zen there is a saying, "Do not do what the master did. Know what the master knew." Copycats can't hope to attain what is most sought after. But are those who are not copycats somehow exempt. It you were to attain anything, wouldn't that just be a memory ... an encouragement, perhaps, but not really what is most sought after.

The only thing I can think of is to rest easy among the memories and not hold too tight. Be advised, but not convinced or overly concerned, by the past. And once knowing what the master knew, hurry up and release it, if what is most sought after is to be attained. Meeting the Buddha on the road, meeting the memory on the road, meeting the encouragement on the road ... what other choice is there for the serious person but to 'kill the Buddha?'

Books remember, sooth-sayers remember, the horrified remember, religions and philosophies remember, individuals remember ... but there is no reason to be swept away by half-truths or well-garnished approximations.

Remember to live.

Or perhaps better, since it is inescapable, just live.

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