Saturday, August 9, 2008
Not of this world
It's a rainy morning in Shanghai. My hotel window looks out over the brave New World of the Bund, where early 20th-century European architecture (laden with the classical burden of 2000 years of Greco-Roman culture) has been overwhelmed by the bold and often peculiar vision of China's new architects.
One of my friends and readers was remarking about the spectacle of the Olympic opening, which suggested cultural depths we don't understand. I agree with him. It has struck me repeatedly on my trips to China that this is a culture, and a nation, that believes in itself. They contain a commitment (to the external, at least) that we have lost.
At the same time, my overwhelming impression of this culture from an inner point of view is that they have exterminated a great deal of what used to make the wheels turn here. Buddhism has been stamped down, if not out; spirituality is of no great interest to most of those whom I meet. They are dominated instead by an intense interest in getting rich. No one here believes in the idea of putting one's treasure up in heaven; rather, the idea is to force heaven to cough up its treasures here and now.
Of course, that's how we all operate. Throughout human history, spirituality has been dragged down to and contaminated by this level, where everything operates on a "gimme" basis. Instead of considering what it ought to offer, mankind thinks in terms of what it can get.
As I meditate, I see that this attitude contaminates me even at the deepest levels, where surrender to forces I do not want to surrender to is not an option, but an absolute necessity.
It is a very difficult thing for any of us to come to the understanding that nothing -- I repeat, nothing -- that we do or gain in this world of the external has anything to do with our true purpose. We are like larvae that inhabit a pile of dung, and happily believe that the dung is our destiny. We are completely unaware of the idea that metamorphosis might ahead, and that our destiny could be to take wing and fly, not crawl around in the shit forever.
I suppose that's not surprising. To we larva, shit is life.
On the insect level, clinging to this belief is a hardwired instinct. It doesn't make any difference; unless a bird plucks grub from poop, eventually nature will have its way, and a fly or beetle with (perhaps) a magnificent iridescent carapace will emerge. In our own case, however, a bit more is required. It may or may not be that heaven takes care of metamorphosis for us all, in one way or another.
Nonetheless, every great religious tradition insists that the result of our inner metamorphosis is not guaranteed. The insect metamorphoses from a grub into a creature with an exoskeleton. This hard, durable protective cover (it's possible to recover insect exoskeletons from the age of the dinosaurs that still consist of their original chitin) comes with some pretty ironclad guarantees, but it's inflexible.
Man comes from a line of evolution with endoskeletons. That is, his inner structure can be far more durable in substance than his outer coating. At the same time, if his bones are weak, he'll collapse. In my ongoing investigation of the intersection between the inner and the outer, this question of inner structure is paramount.
The more we invest in our attachment to the outside world, the more we convince ourselves that modern architecture, Olympic spectacles, and Krugerrands are where it's at. We don't see how ephemeral and temporary all of this is. I find myself sitting around plotting how I can arrange things more comfortably, get more money, have more sex, be more important. In my own case the ironies are more than redoubled; inner experience has verified again and again that these are not the truly satisfying aims of life. And I find myself in what I might call a pitched battle (a poor analogy) between the demands of the outer life and the needs of the inner one.
The tension arises from the inhabitation of this organism, which is actually a factory with perpetual demands for fuel and stimulation of various kinds. Those demands do not always coincide with what consciousness sees as necessary, and they often exceed consciousness in terms of their motive force. In other words, the mind is weak, and trapped in a position where it seems that it has to spend most of its time shoveling coal into a furnace.
Typically, we call this a struggle.
It is actually a call to value relationship. The value needs to change.
Even when we know this, we resist. Even when we are touched by an inner force that can change us, we say no.
Why do we do that?
Perhaps this is the paramount question we must continually ask ourselves as we stand in front of our perverse, and adamant, refusal.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.