Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Everyone has a light", part deux

[this is a continuation of an earlier post]

Master Yunmen said, “Everyone has a light.” Really? Even if that is true, the fact remains that we walk through this world as if we were in constant darkness. We pollute, commit acts of violence, accumulate wealth while others starve, etc. We constantly feel lonely, angry, betrayed, abused, etc. None of this is news to anyone. But sometimes, miraculously, this darkness is pierced by the light – and no amount of being told that the light is everywhere all the time can substitute for the actual experience of seeing the light for oneself. More specifically, even though everyone has a light it is a very rare experience, a great treasure, when we see that light coming from someone else. In her song “Pulse” Ani Difranco refers first to an artificial light (“the hallway light”) and says that “this is nothing compared to the dawn” - but then she goes on to say that even the light of the sun is “nothing compared to the light which seeps” from her beloved lying asleep beside her. And as she sleepily and lovingly bathes in that light Ani feels that she would be willing to give her own breath, her own pulse, for the sake of the one that she loves.

Love - whether it is the love of friendship (that is, true, deep, loving friendship), or the more romantic, sexual variety - is a great mystery. In fact it is the ultimate mystery of our very existence – the mystery of self and other. To experience true love, true intimacy, even one time, even fleetingly, is to taste what the Buddha called anatman - “no self”. In that intimacy the friend/lover finds her true self in the beloved other – and in that same instant self and other cease to exist as neatly separable beings. It is not just deep friendship and romantic love that have this quality of dissolving the boundary between self and other. Perhaps more than any other relationship that of parent and child also pulls back the curtain to reveal the emptiness behind the veil of self. But all of these relationships are universal (or very nearly so) to all human beings. In that case most of us have seen the light. And yet. Even having experienced the deepest of intimacy, the greatest and highest of spiritual treasures, the ego still exists. Grasping, loneliness, envy, anger, despair – all still exist. Love does not “fix” the ego, but it does provide a light that shines the way – a different way. As the old Buddhist cliché tells us – it is a finger pointing to the moon.

Ganto and Seppo had a friendship like that: a deep friendship that was, in a sense, based on nothing whatsoever. Unconditional love is just that – not conditioned by anything. This is not some far-away unattainable goal. Newborn infants are able to survive only because of unconditional love. True friends who will do anything for one another – despite all their faults as human beings – have that kind of love. Even a horny love-struck teenager gets a taste of it.

The story of Seppo's great enlightenment experience is often explained in terms that are decidedly “dualistic”. For example – Ganto is enlightenend and Seppo is not. Or – at the beginning Seppo is not enlightened – and then later he is. The word dualism gets thrown around a lot, so let me state, as clearly as I can, how I mean this term. To me, dualism means the idea that there is something in the universe, or, more specifically, something inside of us, that needs to be gotten rid of. Any kind of world-view that seeks to identify, and then eliminate, all the “bad stuff” - that is what I call dualism. Enlightenment is not like that at all – it is not something that Ganto has but Seppo lacks. Much less is it something that Ganto can give to Seppo. The enlightened mind is nothing other than the mind which does not seek to get rid of anything at all.

What is Ganto up to when he pokes fun at his friend? “You look just like a road-side shrine, sitting there like that.” Some commentators even go so far as to assert that Ganto and his teacher (who is also Seppo's teacher) have contrived this whole trip just to bring about Seppo's enlightenment! But there is nothing calculating at all about either Ganto or Seppo – they are both of them unimpeachably just being themselves. And, as true friends, Ganto is even more Ganto when he is with Seppo – and vice versa. This is the opposite of how we are with anyone else, anyone who is not a true friend. With anyone other than a true friend we constantly betray ourselves – we hide our light. Of course, being human, we are also capable (all too capable – as Nietzsche might say) of betraying ourselves even with those who love us – but at least with a true friend we are more likely to relax and naturally be just who and what we are (whatever that is).

Another “dualistic” interpretation of the story of Ganto and Seppo is that Ganto's way of living is somehow superior to Seppo's. Ganto, according to this analysis, acts the way an enlightened person is supposed to act – carefree and spontaneous. Seppo, on the other hand, acts the way an unenlightened person acts – he is neurotic and uptight, his “mind is not at rest” as he himself puts it. As is often the case with dualism, there is some truth to this. Sure, Seppo and everyone else might be happier if he lightened up a little. But Seppo's great virtue is that he cannot lie to himself. He cannot pretend to “be cool”. He is already being true to himself.

The worst possible misrepresentation of this story would be to think that Seppo changes into something else as a result of his awakening. And here is the other great mystery, alongside that of self and other. The mystery of returning to your true self. This is the great mystery of coming back, coming home, to the human realm; a journey that is only possible within the human realm itself.

There are times, many times, in our lives when we rely completely and desperately on those that we love and who love us. But there is great reciprocity in that reliance. The parent who holds a helpless, completely dependent child against his body is brought to life by that connection. The light is not diminished by shining. And two friends who travel together, like Seppo and Ganto, will see and do many things that they would have never experienced on their own.

[the pic of ani difranco is from here]

Should the Pope apologize to Pagans?

Is the Pope Catholic?

Does a bear shit in the woods?

Is Britney Spears stupid?

Is Bill Gates evil?

Was Oscar Wilde gay?

Do fish swim?

Is Kathy Griffin freaking hilarious?

Plato's Ion and Hippias Minor, Part One: Ion

"The secret to acting is sincerity. Once you learn how to fake that, the rest is easy."
[George Burns]

The very short Platonic dialogs named Ion and Hippias Minor are in many ways mirror images of each other. This is nowhere more true than in the title characters of each dialog. Ion and Hippias are both famous men who think very highly of themselves. But Ion is completely without guile, and he readily sees and admits to his own limitations, whereas Hippias is vainglorious to a fault, and aggressively defends his inflated self-image against any perceived slight or criticism. Both dialogs end "aporetically" - that is, having raised many questions while answering none of them with any certainty. This is not an uncommon way for a Platonic dialog to conclude, and is meant to reflect (or even, it might be hoped, to catalyze in the reader) a state of greater open-mindedness and readiness to learn - resulting from the realization that one does not know as much as one had thought. Ion is led quite easily and even gently to this "aporia" - whereas Hippias is dragged kicking and screaming all the way.

Ion was a "rhapsode" - a professional performer in classical Greece, whose artform consisted of publicly reciting epic poetry, especially Homer. Ion was highly skilled at his profession, and the dialog opens with him recounting a recent victory at a rhapsodic contest in another city (in honor of the God Asclepius). Socrates congratulates Ion on his recent success and then adds that he hopes Ion will win an upcoming contest in Athens (in honor of the Goddess Athena) as well, to which Ion responds "And I will win - if the Gods will it."

It's a small thing, Ion's quip about the will of the Gods. It is the type of thing that any pious (or even not so pious) Pagan might say without attaching any real thought or importance to it at all. But the subsequent dialog between Ion and Socrates confirms that Ion is a man characterized by an abundance of sincerity and openness combined with a complete lack of artifice. And yet Ion's chosen profession is, in a sense, the essence of artifice. For rhaspodes, at least award winning ones, did not just stand there and passively read Homer's poetry in a monotone - they enthusiastically "acted out" what they were reciting.

In fact, Plato's Ion is the single most important source we have for information on the craft of rhapsody and the artists who performed it. The following excerpt from the dialog gives a good feel for what rhapsody was and who these rhapsodes were:

Socrates: "When you produce the greatest effect upon the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam,- are you in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem?"

Ion: "That proof strikes home to me, Socrates. For I must frankly confess that at the tale of pity, my eyes are filled with tears, and when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs."

Socrates: "Well, Ion, and what are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in holiday attire and has golden crowns upon his head, of which nobody has robbed him, appears weeping or panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him;- is he in his right mind or is he not?"

Ion: "No indeed, Socrates, I must say that, strictly speaking, he is not in his right mind."

Socrates: "And are you aware that you produce similar effects on most spectators?"

Ion: "Only too well; for I look down upon them from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances when I am speaking: and I am obliged to give my very best attention to them; for if I make them cry I myself shall laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of payment arrives."

What is the key to Ion's success as a famous rhapsode? Ion himself believes his own deep understanding of Homer as a poet is what makes him so successful. But Socrates undermines this position by asking whether or not Ion is equally skilled when it comes to understanding the works of other poets. Ion readily admits that he has no interest in any other poets - in fact they put him to sleep! Socrates insists, and Ion agrees, that if Ion were an expert on poetry in general then he would be skilled in interpreting all poets.

But even once Ion admits that he apparently (according to Socrates' argument) is not an expert on poetry in general - he reminds Socrates that "the world agrees with me in thinking that I do speak better and have more to say about Homer than any other man." It is characteristic of Ion's guilelessness that he does not seek to defend his own self-image (that he is an expert in understanding poetry) but only what is objectively true (that his recitations of Homer are extremely popular). And it is equally characteristic of Ion that when faced with this apparent paradox (that he is no expert in poetry, and yet he is a very successful rhaspode) he looks to Socrates to help him sort it out: "Tell me the reason of this."

Socrates' explanation is that Ion's success is not due to skill at all, but rather to inspiration: "there is a divinity moving you".