Sunday, October 2, 2011

Coda 6: A look back

An earlier version of this essay was more of a manifesto. I came to doubt that this was the right the way to approach it. I tried writing another, "Buddha's Ladder," but set it aside, because it felt derivative of Stephen Batchelor's Alone with Others. Still, I took something away from it: an interest in the Buddhist perspective that was sharpened when I read a book by Hee-Jin Kim. In Dogen on thinking and meditation, Kim considers Eihei Dogen as a philosopher, emphasizing his radical non-dualism and non-linear approach to language.
    Dogen founded Soto Zen, so many of his writings pertain to monastic life. My brushes with Soto Zen are relatively few, but I've been struck by its penchant for formal rules and gestures. They seem to obscure the simplicity of his take on Zen's essence. No doubt monastic life benefits from an imposed structure and a defined way of being, but my own interest in Dogen's Zen is philosophical.
    In Alone with Others, Batchelor addresses what I've previously called the quantum nature of human life. As individuals who are also social creatures, saddled with biology and traditions, we live with some basic dilemmas. They can make it feel like the glass into which life flows is too small to contain it. It's not so much that the glass is half empty or half full, but that we see our potentiality flowing past us.
    "Hungry ghosts," the Buddhist call this. I think it's a gloss on ego, the "self" that we put together as toddlers to defend us from a world we couldn't fathom or control. This is what A.H. Almaas's book on narcissism, The Point of Existence, asserts. Reading it, I saw that what was tearing at me was a breaking through to another self, less armored than the one I constructed as a kid. It's tempting to call this "the real self," but it's not like the ego goes away - you're just more aware of it. What gets in our way reflects these traits, which Claudio Naranjo, following Oscar Ichazo, calls our character flaws: strategies we pursued, believing they would compensate for our vulnerabilities.
    In taking up this essay again, I've tried to set down my observations about three overlapping relationships - marriage, family, and friendship. I've noted that it would be helpful to have new traditions that serve us better by being closer to the reality of human existence. My sense of these new traditions is tentative. Each of us contributes to their evolution anyway by grappling with the life's conundrums. The beginning of the acceptance of another that each of these relationships entails is our acceptance of ourselves. For purposes of living in the world, we shape our behavior to fit in, but as we get older, we realize that life's river is as Heraclitus described it. This essay is about living with the implications.

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