Friday, October 7, 2005

About King George

Comedy lovers of the over-40 set will recall the great Flip Wilson and his "the devil made me do it!" gag. Now we have the same story from a slightly different angle.

Actually, of course, this is very old news: we've known for years that the Sacred Cow of Crawford gets personal orders through the heavenly chain of command, telling him to kill, attack, slaughter, torture, occupy, and oppress. That, after all, is the way God works—you could look it up, it's in all His books.

The only major religion of the Big Four of our world that is at all reticent, ambivalent, or downright negative about the notion of God as an anthropomorphic, boss-in-the-sky Presence is Buddhism. Curiously, it is also by a long stretch the most peaceful and internally consistent of the Big Four, in terms of its adherents living according to the tenets of compassion and humility.

I was reminded of this by a curious coincidence from last weekend. I was taking a walk with my daughter, and we discovered that a lady named Jennifer in Windsor Terrace had put some old books out on the curb—this is the characteristic New York way of saying "whoever wants them before the garbage men get here can have them." Well, I never walk past such a deal, especially when it involves books; and I came away with a small treasure trove from this find. Most notable among these was a copy of Alan Watts' classic, The Way of Zen. Since I hadn't read it since I was in high school, I knew this discovery was a message to me, and I dived in the next day. Here's what I found on page 11:

The West has no recognized institution corresponding to Taoism because our Hebrew-Christian spiritual tradition identifies the Absolute—God—with the moral and logical order of convention. This might almost be called a major cultural catastrophe, because it weights the social order with excessive authority, inviting just those revolutions against religion and tradition which have been so characteristic of Western history. It is one thing to feel onself in conflict with socially sanctioned conventions, but quite another to feel at odds with the very root and ground of life, with the Absolute itself. The latter feeling nurtures a sense of guilt so preposterous that it must issue either in denying one's own nature or in rejecting God. Because the first of these alternatives is ultimately impossible—like chewing off one's own teeth—the second becomes inevitable, where such palliatives as the confessional are no longer effective. As is the nature of revolutions, the revolution against God gives place to the worse tyranny of the absolutist state—worse because it cannot even forgive, and because it recognizes nothing outside the powers of its jurisdiction. For while the latter was theoretically true of God, his earthly representative the Church was always prepared to admit that though the laws of God were immutable, no one could presume to name the limits of his mercy. When the throne of the Absolute is left vacant, the relative usurps it and commits the real idolatry, the real indignity against God—the absolutizing of a concept, a conventional abstraction.

Watts goes on to point out that the problem with the cult of tyranny is not that it leaves the throne of the Absolute vacant—that in itself, after all, is the natural thing to do. The reality, of course, is that there is no external Absolute and there certainly is no throne: as my friend Carol Anthony likes to point out, there can be no natural thought of a "higher power," because the cosmos operates neither through hierarchy nor through power. The problem is in a culture that leaves no room for a personal experience of the Absolute.

The early practitioners and teachers of Zen Buddhism (before it too became institutionalized) knew that this direct and unmediated sense of the ineffable, so absent from ideological traditions, was the only spiritual experience properly worth the designation. Their insight was the experience of the universal in the actualization of the personal, the individual. Their path was a continual turning-away from commandment, forced order, and divine intervention in the affairs of men.

Thus, they were led to appear crazy: they carried bowls on their heads; they slapped, hit, and whacked one another with sticks; they ran around naked; they scribbled three-line poems that appeared to say nothing; they would shout amid their monastic silences, "KILL THE BUDDHA!"

Could you imagine sitting in church on Sunday and hearing someone screech "KILL JESUS!" in the midst of Communion? What would be the social and political effect of such a Christian religion? Would it be less likely to breed such characters as Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Tom DeLay, or George Bush?

Perhaps it might. But here at Daily Rev, we see the need for a further step beyond Zen. For the fact is that Zen itself fell under institutional control; it bred its own brand of bookish ideology, its own cast of hall-of-fame kingpins whose very shit was ice cream to the devoted followers of later centuries. It also attracted some political and proto-corporate sponsors who were themselves petty tyrants on the model of George Bush and his cronies.

So as deeply as I value the contributions of Taoism and Zen Buddhism toward an evolved spirituality, I would ask that we each of us look further within and discover there the way clear—unique to everyone who seeks it—of all the marks of institutional detritus. It is here that I would suggest a clarification of Watts' insights.

The guilt that Watts writes about is indeed real, and, as he says, "preposterous." And though it may be "ultimately impossible" to deny one's own nature, it is in fact what the Bushes of our world attempt inveterately to do: they try to "chew off their own teeth." This is the pathology of anxiety disorders and paranoid delusions caught in a single image: gnawing inwardly at oneself until there is only a dead husk remaining—a pool of arid gums and caked blood. It is where tyranny always ends, after first prophesying the rise of a pan-Jihadist state stretching over half the globe ("from Spain to Indonesia"), and killing everything in sight to ultimately make exactly that consummation occur.

I tried to capture this in a small poem the other day; I'm not sure if I succeeded.

Depravity and excess reign
A cold green poison sickens the air.
I and thou are buried, not dead:
Us and them have power but not life.
The bush will burn again
And the past will be clearly foretold.

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