Saturday, March 10, 2007

Buddhas made of stone

Today I took a long walk through the streets of Shanghai. I was walking towards a shopping area that generally has a lot of good antiques. This time I took a direction that I have not taken in the past, and accidentally stumbled through a little bit of what remains of old Shanghai.

Shanghai is a city in transition. In the last 15 years, an explosion took place which erased a great deal of the old city. Shanghai today is like Manhattan. Back then it was a lot like it was in the 1930s, or earlier.

What I found on my walk was narrow streets; low buildings, only one or two stories tall. Old and dilapidated, fa├žades made of wood, paint peeling from them like dandruff. The balconies and windows were festooned with laundry, no garment too intimate to conceal from the eyes of passersby. On the streets, Saturday morning market was in full swing. Everywhere there were vendors selling roots, vegetables, and fruits, straight from blankets spread out on the street, with no pretensions whatsoever. Things were dirty and earthy and real. In this world, Target and Kmart and Wal-Mart were just fairy tales of corrupted temptations. No gleaming aisles, no rigid regiments of perfect products here; instead, swinging stainless steel basins served as gongs and empty plastic bottles as mallets. In this way, one mother and her child became a Dragon Festival parade.

It was a community. People knew each other; there was bargaining and arguing and laughter. In the chill, damp morning air, an exchange was taking place as ancient as civilization itself.

Our modern culture has sterilized this, and is stamping it out as ruthlessly as a man crushes an ant beneath his shoe. Supermarkets and supermarts de-humanize the entire process of commercial exchange. We pay a little less; we get a lot less. We have become fixated on the idea that making something cheap makes it good, when all it really does is cause us to value it less. In the end we rape the planet as we talk about how great all these low prices are.

I walked through the crowd a little grateful for the fact that markets like this still exist. The low buildings reminded me of the adage from the Tao, "in dwelling, be close to the earth." And the market reminded me that the food we eat comes from the earth, raw and untamed. The miracles of our technology may be able to change the way cells grow and divide, but they cannot initiate it. In the same way, our technical skills may change the landscape and alter the ways that culture arises within cities, but it cannot create the culture itself.

What does it mean to dwell within a culture? In this brave new world where we deconstruct cultures and paste them together again with websites and broadband and advertisements and production lines, the process has become an object of worship, and the end result a moving target. We call it the information age, but what is being formed inwardly? Everything is outward. It is only in the vestiges of what used to be, in the small, narrow, and dirty streets that seem so unappealing at first glance, that we find what it means to still be human. We are forgetting what it means to be in community; it worries me. In the end, I suspect the result of it will be that we will just find it that much easier to kill each other.

And we are good enough at that already.

Every human contact I had today had nothing to do with technology. I spoke in my very rudimentary Chinese, bargaining and arguing and cajoling. At one shop, a plump, red-faced lady grabbed me firmly by the arm as we haggled, allowing no escape. Locked in the ancient art of hand-to-hand retail combat, we both cheerfully insisted one was robbing the other blind. Elsewhere, art-eyed cynic that I am, I picked up things that have been buried for thousands of years and decided I didn't like them; perhaps, I think, they should have remained buried. I bought other, improbable things that weighed far too much to take home, put them in my knapsack, and walked all the way back to the hotel (a long long way) with an appreciation of my body and of gravity, worrying about how I was going to pack them and get them back.

Perhaps none of this seems to convey any higher spiritual truths; it is just about ordinary humans in an ordinary world.

But if we are to find any higher truths, they reside within this ordinary world; they are born within the hearts of stone Buddhas, they draw their first breath in the soil and the sunlight, and they spill their blood into the biology of the planet, where one cell feeds another, and all of us -- from the smallest to the largest organism – are in relationship both in life and in death. Those truths make their way to stalks of celery on a city street; they find their place in pieces of cushioning foam wrapped around bicycle baskets; they sing to themselves, and all of us, from woodland thrushes, caged in city parks, where old men do the slow dance of Tai Chi, as though trying to freeze time and allow themselves just a little bit longer on this planet. They take to the air in plastic bags floating between skyscrapers and they dissolve in water splashed from buckets that pours across pavements, seeking a return to the roots of the planet through the sewers.

Every impression is a stone Buddha: one immutable truth after another: resolute, irrefutable, eternal.

Take the time today: celebrate this life. Celebrate every moment; celebrate every breath; celebrate every contact, every person, every sight, every sound, every touch.

Go with God, and may God bless each and everyone of you today!

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