Sunday, December 9, 2007

Grinding the pigment

...I'm off!

Another ten days in front of me in China... and, as a kickoff to the trip, another in my ongoing series of posts from the business class lounge at the Incheon airport in Seoul, Korea.

I was reading a wonderful article in Shambhala magazine by Sylvia Boorstein yesterday that got me thinking. Basically it was all about learning how to treat people well, according to the precepts of Buddhist thinking. Like much of the Shambhala material, a real feel-good article, with both emotion and substance.

Most of the “inner technique” she describes appears to be a process of using reasoning from the precepts and sutras to see how compassionate practice is the right way. I sense and taste the value of what she offers... I applaud the merit in her offerings, her work, and her ideas...

And at the same time, it strikes me there is much more to the question of inner development than a clever... or heartfelt... application of ideas.

Is this approach what Zen masters were referring to when they maintained that one cannot attain enlightenment by skillful means?

You cannot know God with the mind.

It’s worrisome. While I liked her take on things and feel sure she’s delivering quality and value to her readership and following, I’m not sure this kind of approach is any different, in the end, than another form of psychology, dressed up in more exotic clothing, and served a bit less clinically.

Our work is not about some kind of cleverness which repeatedly attracts us, or the way we think ourselves to a more creative, more compassionate meaning within life. It is about developing an organic sense of being—an inner life, a place where we lay our treasures up in heaven.

It is about wearing the robe—investing ourselves, clothing ourselves within the ideas so that we do not think them, we live within them. In such a state the ideas, the precepts, are innate, inherent. They don’t need to be thought, and no lists or scorecards need be kept. The essential compassionate principles of Christianity, Buddhism, Yoga, and so on, simply come to live within our action, as naturally as fish swim in water. Fish never need to think to themselves, “here I am; I’m in water, and there is a need to swim in it thusly.”

They just swim.

In most organized religious practice, there’s an inevitable tendency to default back to the interpretation of the practice as it applies to external life, and the application of the concepts to the problems external life presents us with. In conventional Christianity, as in Buddhism, practice is understood as an outward-turning motion. If we practice outwardly--using the tools we have been given by our conventional intellectual (and emotional) understanding of our religious beliefs, then we’ll be achieving what the religion—or God—intends for us. Our interaction with the outward world is, in conventional Buddhism, what earns us merit, just as in Christianity, saintly deeds of charity will earn us a place in heaven.

It’s too facile to suggest that all of us believe in this folksy and simplistic an interpretation, but we do collectively fall prey to the idea that practice is supposed to affect the external, which will then transform the internal. Our practice “should” ultimately make us happier, more tolerant, more patient. That is how we are “supposed” to be, and our external behaviors feed, and determine, the level of our spiritual development.

All the religions teach us that we can achieve happiness through external “observation of the precepts”—adopting a set of good-hearted rules and following them. Even the Gurdjieff work presents this dilemma. We may get trapped in the very act of Gurdjieff’s “primary rule of conduct"— self observation—and run in intricate circles, creating beautiful patterns that repeatedly fall back into themselves.

Every form that presents itself to man works on this premise—there is a set of rules, and if you follow them in external life, things will work out in a predictable manner. All of this follows from the fundamental intellectual premise that we live in a universe ordered by law (whatever kind of law you want, just as long as one agrees there is law) and that things generally proceed according to cause and effect. (See tomorrow's post for a discussion on Gurdjieff's law of accident, which will touch on this question.)

Here's my latest metaphor for the situation:

In exoteric religious practice, one is handed the equivalent of a beautiful Chinese menu, printed with a group of ideas and rules--a cuisine--in various columns. Column “a” may be Judaism; “b” is Hinduism, “c” is Buddhism, “d” is Christianity, and so on. The seeker picks their preferred cuisine—or even, like the new age movement, cherry picks from various columns—in the expectation of being (as advertised) delivered the foods and flavors that the menu offers when the dishes arrive at the table.

The customer eats, so to speak, the impressions he has ordered. As in any restaurant, if there are issues with the food, one either pretends it’s fine anyway—or complains to the cook-- and, if the meals ultimately fail to satisfy, finally one switches cuisines, or even quits going to restaurants.

In esotericism, or in gnosticism, everything starts before the menu. Happiness can’t be ordered from the eating establishment. Instead we understand thusly:

...we are the eating establishment...

and the search for what to eat begins before the menu. It begins before the conceptualization of the meals; it begins before the paper, or even the ink that is printed on the paper.

It begins with grinding the pigments for the ink.

This is, as Gurdjieff maintained, a profoundly chemical process; there is a question of the fineness of the pigments: where they are found, how much attention goes into their preparation, the way they are colored. The requirements that one faces when running the restaurant oneself go much deeper than those of the customer who drops in to be served. To paraphrase Sartre, esotericism is a restaurant where we serve ourselves... although, inevitably, we only serve ourselves in order to serve something higher than ourselves.

A tension arises here. As the author of the cloud of unknowing well understood, “actives”—those who devote their understanding of practice to the achievement of external, or worldly, deeds—will always tend to disagree with “contemplatives,” those who seek a more profoundly inner understanding. For actives, the relationship with the world, rightly ordered and conducted, produces satisfaction. For the contemplatives, the root of satisfaction lies deep within, at the heart of the soul.

With age, I increasingly understand that the origin of happiness, as well as negativity, and every other quality of Self that is experienced, begins before I touch the world or the world touches me. If I want to know any real quality—whatever it is and whatever it may be—it has to begin with a connection to the root source of Being.

I feel we have to go much deeper than learning how to think pleasant thoughts and be nice to other people. All of that is good.


Ultimately, every mask has to be removed, until we stand naked in the searing light of a force much greater than ourselves. And this is an inner voyage that has nothing to do with our outer life, until after the fact.

...and finally, speaking of the food of impressions, and finer versus coarser foods, go see the pixar movie "Ratatouille." It's positively delightful.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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