Sunday, August 28, 2011

the talisman effect

Finally, like some long-awaited in-law, Hurricane Irene arrived at 5 a.m. more or less on the dot. So far it is just rain with occasional gusts of wind. The gutters are filling, but the street lights are still on, so how bad can it be?

For days, forecasters have been warning the tenderfoot East Coast -- home to so many of the well-heeled media that purvey such warnings -- to be prepared; this is a biggie. The blimp races on Long Island were canceled and when New York and Boston and Philadelphia chose to shut down their transit systems ... well that's serious, so I went to Walmart to buy tuna fish. Naturally, the tuna fish, like the bottled water, was sold out.

The uncertainty that built up and built up and built up as Irene landed and then headed north was interesting. The storm was something about which no one could really do much: Read 'em and weep. But the desire to do something that would assure safety welled up. You could sort of see how and why the ancient farmers would create and elevate the gods of a blistering sun or a flooded field. Religion as talisman ... when all else fails, when nothing else can be done, when the inlaw-visit is inevitable and horrid... quick! grab a god, any god!

Is it any wonder that so many of the world's spiritual efforts are talismanic -- a shield and a hidey hole and a waver of wands? If you sacrifice enough virgins or put enough money in the plate, don't you deserve something, some protective benevolence, in return?

Even Buddhism, which encourages a willingness to see things as they are, is not immune. Buddhism is just people and people are sometimes uncertain and afraid. Who has not wished things might be better and then applied to their philosophies to spare them ... only to find that what is inescapable is simply inescapable? Bad news cannot be averted by intoning "good news."

And because uncertainty is so frequently in evidence, who could be unkind about the talismanic fervor? On the other hand, when talismanic applications prove uncertain in their own right, what then? Sacrifice another virgin? Add five bucks in the collection plate? Pray harder? Do whatever it takes to wring a bit of benevolence from a talisman that is not entirely reliable as a savior?

Where even the gods lose their footing, what is this poor farmer to do? Blessing and cursing talismans hardly seems worth the price of admission. It's diverting, but what is brooks no diversions.

It takes a bit of something -- courage and practice, I am tempted to say -- to set aside or see through or be at peace with our talismans. In torrential times, it is easy to think such things over. But when the rain stops and the last virgin's corpse is laid to rest, the rebuilding begins and the tattered talisman's luster is renewed.

Christian's can rain down opprobrium on "golden idols," but I think they might be better off directing their vexation towards the wily talismanic idols of the mind. Gold is at an all-time high these days, so at least you could get some money for a golden idol. But talismans are worth precisely squat at the local pawn shop.

It pays to be aware of what has no value at all.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't there a koan about the wooden/golden/stone Buddha? I forget which long dead Japanese master did it, but he refused to create a Buddha hall. There was only a Dharma hall at his monastery. Monks were prone, in his mind, to start worshiping the Buddha if there was a hall in his dedication.

    Monks or laypeople, we set up idols. The trick is to bear witness to this inclination. The rub is that this bearing witness can even become an idol. In zen, we could often say the opposite of what we just stated as the truth and be equally correct from either side. Still we blunder on.