Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday Reflection: Exorcising the Hungry Ghosts

Hey, what happened to all our Buddhist readers? I figured there had to be a few of you out there, and that you'd have a pretty good idea of who might be the source of our banner quote of the week.

Buddha, Sangha, Dharma. Self, Community, Teaching: the great tripod of the Buddhist world-view. The universe, and everything that can be known or taught about it, are contained within the self. There is no need to go outside oneself to discover the primordial light that glows, perfect and complete, within you.

It's just that it's more fun, not to mention more practical, to do it with others, to share it. Illumination is not the private possession of one God or Doctrine or Church or Government; it is common to us all, even if its manifestation is unique within each individual.

This is the core teaching (to my mind) of Buddhism. It is a simple and deeply intelligent perspective that lacks the arrogance, aggression, intransigence, rigidity, and stupidity so often found in the dogmatic creeds of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Some of the more perceptive and truly spiritual teachers of the modern era have come from or been influenced by Buddhism. Among these are Thich Nhat Hanh, Peter Matthiessen, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the Dalai Lama himself (though I think that much of his insight has been blunted by his putative standing as a God-King), and the author of our banner quote this week, Sogyal Rinpoche.

Our quote is from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1993), and is one of those books that, once you have it in the house, you'll pick up again and again. My copy is worn ragged and scribbled over throughout. It is, to my mind (and with apologies to the fans of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross) the greatest single work on the subject of death ever written.

Part of the reason for that is because this book is so full of life. It is a clarion call back to life, made to the people of Western cultures that have aligned themselves with death—inner death; the only death worth fearing. Here is one such call, which consists of a warning:

Western laziness...consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so that...our lives seem to live us; to possess their own bizarre momentum, to carry us away; in the end we feel we have no choice or control over them...Modern society seems to me a celebration of all the things that lead away from the truth, make truth hard to live for, and discourage people from even believing that it exists.

Sogyal's book is sprinkled throughout with ancient and modern stories; personal anecdotes; character profiles; and commentaries on modern life that are so salient and incisive that you will find a single paragraph of this man's work as instructive as an entire volume (or an entire blog) from another. You will also start seeing "demigods" and "hungry ghosts" during your daily commute and at the office; but most significantly, within yourself. Those you can do something about; as for the ones in Washington, we'll have to keep working on them together.


Sogyal Rinpoche is one voice, one teacher, among many social commentators, from both the spritiual and secular domains. I feel that there needn't be any particular separation between them, in fact. Nevertheless, such divisions exist in our culture. A woman wrote to me recently, saying that she found very few enlightened people currently alive (she was recommending me to her own new teacher, who she believes is one such enlightened being).

My response was to say that I find a great deal of illumination among many ordinary people and animals that I meet quite regularly; and that there is another entire class of people who, in my experience, would merit the designation "illuminati." They are known as children.

It is, to me, a mark of considerable cynicism to claim that there are only a few enlightened beings today. Granted, we live in an iPod culture, where many listen to music, but few make it. We live in a time where peace is on everyone's lips, but in seemingly few hearts. We are in a moment when the search for truth is the stuff of book tours and appearances on Oprah; yet so few appear able to seek truth within themselves.

Perhaps what my correspondent meant to tell me is that there are no perfect beings, and very few indeed who are worth following.

I say there are none. You can't consume wisdom the way you eat a slice of pizza or purchase electronics. You can only be touched by someone's inspiration to discover the wisdom that resides within yourself. As I have mentioned in one of my books, there are no Masters in the way of Nature; only guides. We are meant to hear their voices and then turn within, where we all find our own unique wisdom.

One of Sogyal's core messages to Western people is that we have overstuffed our lives with activity, diversion. "The pace of our lives is so hectic that the last thing we have time to think of is death. We smother our secret surrounding ourselves with more and more goods, more and more things, more and more comforts, only to find ourselves their slaves."

I had an object lesson in this during my morning commute one day this week. A man was sitting on the train, with one of the tiny new iPods clipped to his jacket, and the ubiquitous white earbuds plugged into his ears. He was meanwhile pressing away at the keypad of a cell phone (playing a game, probably, since we were underground); and then he pulled out a Blackberry and started compulsively flipping the dial on the thing, staring into it as if it were an oracle. This was a man owned by his gadgets—and that assessment comes from a fellow who is no enemy of gadgets himself.

But we have to ask what we are doing with them, or whether they are doing something to us that we had not intended. It "saves time" to have these things, we reason; and the more of them we have—even of such redundant objects as cell phones and Blackberries—the more time we will save; the faster life will progress, and the farther will we go toward whatever we imagine is our goal.

Yet I find that when we speed forward, we tend to regress. When we rush to be first, we are caught inevitably in the crush of the crowd, the middle of the pack. Speed only blurs experience; foreshortens and distorts accomplishment. Was there ever a forward step taken on a treadmill?

Our leaders in Washington have shown us, with painful clarity, what happens when action is fueled by arrogance, policy by hatred, and response by mindless impulse: disaster upon agonizing disaster. A true leader never panics. Let your life be led, not driven from one cataclysm to the next, nor from one act of occupation, takeover, or consumption to the next. When your action is led by clarity; when your expression is led by reflection; when your relationships are led by respect, then you become a guide to others, and an inspiration for them to recover their own inherent wisdom.


Cycleman said...

Brian, when you write I find a great deal of illumination among many ordinary people and animals that I meet quite regularly, I am so glad to hear you include animals.

My former wife and I had a dog named Apollo Sun-Warrior. And from him I learned what a Sun-Warrior truly is: A being who has come to this planet, whose sheer presence banishes the forces of darkness.

He was "just" a dog, a golden retriever in the classic mode--full of joy at living.

Being a Sun-Warrior...he could illuminate.

Brian Donohue said...

Thanks for the comment, cycleman. The cat who does some of our "blogging" here is another example of a four-legged illuminati. She has taught me more about meditation than all the many Zen roshis, yoga instructors, and human illuminati I have met over the years. Animals have levels of awareness that most people have suppressed within themselves long ago. Anyone who has known animals or lived with them knows the depth of their heart-wisdom.