Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Noodling on Nirvana

I've dabbled in the study of Buddhism for a few years now - NOT its cultural accretions (gongs, statues, chanting, allowing ants to bite me unimpeded, and other useless rituals), but the pure underlying philosophy. 

From http://srilanka.tourism-asia.net/buddhism-in-srilanka.html

An organized ritual is depicted here.  From http://english.cri.cn/6909/2009/06/24/1601s495996.htm

But just as Christianity is not fundamentally about the Vatican holding billions of dollars in real property and investments, or Protestants squabbling over which of their factions has the fastest track to heaven, true Buddhism is not about who's got the biggest gold statue, the most vibrant robes, or the shiniest head.
I had been thinking all this time that I wasn't getting very far in my perception of Buddhism.  One of the big access barriers to Buddhism concerns the relative inability to form analogies. In order for us to learn new things, we have to be able to associate the new information so that we can incorporate it into our existing framework in its appropriate context.  There has to be some kind of jumping-off point, a recognizeable similarity to SOMETHING that already exists, for that mental integration to take place. 

But even the most accessible practitioners of Buddhism will tell you that the pivotal act of "seeing" as Buddhists define it isn't really "like" anything else at all (and by this I mean the awareness itself, not the Eightfold Path associated with it). There is no, "it's as if you took [this] and made it into [this]..." type of story can be told in relation to it.  The basic assertions of Buddhism are simply foreign to a western way of parsing information. To make matters even more challenging, Buddhist awareness is sort of an all-or-nothing thing: you get it, or you don't. 

Perhaps nobody illustrates that more clearly than Zen priest Steve Hagen, a teacher upon whom I chose to focus in part because he's American and white - and therefore I figured that I'd have a better chance at comprehending his brain-bridge than I would one of those shiny-headed Asian dudes in the bright orange robes.  But not even Mr. Hagen could explain the heart of the matter in a way I grasped.  I'm sorry, but I found Buddhism Plain and Simple to be Elusive and Difficult.  Mr. Hagen says that to step on the path is to arrive at the destination (once again, you get it, or you don't).  Well, I have never been convinced that I was even oriented toward the correct trailhead. 

It took the Buddha himself six years of full-time, epic struggle during which he nearly physically killed himself, before he found his perspective.  What hope have I, who contemplates the resulting philosophical discourses when I can steal an hour of free time here and there?

But today I think I might have gained a bit of ground, because I finally see an analogous practice in the western world:  professional detachment, especially that which is practiced by medical doctors. 

For thirty bucks, you, too, can have a set of these utterly objective triage tapes.  But seriously, who sees more injustice and pain in this world than medical doctors?
Doctors (and to a much lesser degree, environmental consultants) both work in conditions of physical (and legal, and emotional!) extremis.  They know how easy it is to get sucked into the event-vortex and made an involuntary part of the wretchedly unfair situations to which they are routinely exposed. 

Doctors also know that they can't let their own emotional reactions and personal biases interfere with their actions. If they do, the resulting disequilibrium will cause them to fail outright in their duties.  And so doctors train in an appropriate skill of personal removal that we call "professional detachment". 

Can you imagine what would happen if they did not do this??  Picture this: a little child is brought into the emergency room with her leg blown off by a terrorist's car bomb. 

I could have picked a far more graphic photo than this one, but it would have been difficult to keep reading if I had done so.
From http://www.cardinalseansblog.org/2007/08/03/catholic-social-justice-at-work/

The doctor, overwhelmed by the tragedy and injustice of the situation, sinks into the nearest chair, head in hands, and sobs uncontrollably as he contemplates the inescapable horror and brutality of this world.  Meanwhile, the child bleeds to death. 

The Awakened know that the whole damned world is basically like that emergency room scene - the only question is degree.  And they know that if they get mentally and emotionally entrained in all of the world's problems and their own problems, they haven't got a chance of EITHER being happy OR in making a positive contribution - they'll fail on BOTH counts.  As the Buddha told the confused man who came to see him, we've ALL got 83 problems.  The only problem that can be resolved is the most important one - our 84th problem, which is our desire to make the other 83 problems go away. 

In the example above, the doctor does not focus on the problem.  Instead, he focuses on the needs of the situation and he saves the child's life. 

It's like the Buddhist perspective takes professional detachment, generalizes it, deepens it, and elevates it to an existential level for the purposes of maximizing awareness and promoting both personal effectiveness and peace of mind. 
From http://www.meditationguidance.com/tag/mindfulness-meditation
This process of awakening, which requires a type of healthy detachment, is sorely misunderstood in western culture because so many people believe there's only one appropriate response to injustice.  Whatever the situation, if we don't jump on that bandwagon and participate in the group hysteria over "the problem" however it is defined at that moment, we are IMMEDIATELY called cold, or cynical, or selfish. 

But the doctor is not selfish for failing to react emotionally over the bombed child's loss of leg.  The doctor is NOT uncaring.  On the contrary, the doctor cares very much - in fact, he actually cares far more than the righteously-indignant reactionaries that surround both him and the child.  The doctor cares enough to transcend his own reactions, to abandon his own identity so that he is then free to give of himself to the child. 

The wailing reactionaries contribute less than nothing to this situation.  The reactionaries only make it worse for the doctor by distracting him.  The reactionaries only make it worse for the child by increasing her level of terror.  And yet they would call themselves morally superior by being the ones who truly "feel" the event.  The REAL tragedy is that those reactionaries actually believe in their own bullshit.  So it is in this example, and in every other example of life in which "reactionaries-to-problems" want to call the shots. 

Awakening is certainly not exactly the same as professional detachment, but it's similar to that idea. 

This I now perceive.  Yes, I perceive - I don't understand.  There's nothing to "understand" here, just that incremental slice of reality to be seen

This is not a full view of this reality - but it's a beginning.  I intend to keep my eyes open so that I might be able to see bits of the rest.

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