Conversations with Myself:
Time & The More It Changes:
Work as Play:
Buddhism & Science
The Discipline of Zen
To be continued…
I’ve been immerging myself in Alan Watt’s talks lately, plunging into his words and thoughts, and I seem to have reached a point in which, so to speak, my cup is about to overflow. In other words: his teachings, I suppose, are beggining to bear fruit in my inner gardens, and I’ve been wondering with myself, under Alan’s inspiration and spell: why don’t I open the gates to others to come and taste these fruits, even though they’re still in a process of ripening? What starts here, right now, is an attempt to write about my pilgrimages through Eastern Wisdom. Not from the perspective of an historian who looks at it like dead curiosities in a museum of ruins, but as something alive and kicking, which still has many possible lessons to teach us, the “Modern Times”. This is certainly a work in progress – but after all, is there any work that isn’t necessarily in flux, embarked on the cosmos’ ever-moving stream, and thus fated to wander and ramble on, constantly on the move?…
I cherish a lot Alan Watts’ attempts to teach to the Modern Times the keys to the unlocking of the treasures of Eastern (and ancient) Wisdom. Maybe he deserves to be considered alongside figures such as Aldous Huxley or Heinrich Zimmer as a very important figure in the history of bridge-constructing between the so-called “East” and “West”. A famous Zen proverb – quoted often in popular culture (in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amélie Poulain, for instance) – states: “When the wise man points his finger at the Moon, the fools regard his fingers.” Alan Watts’ uses words in order to get beyond words, to point at the stars and moons, at the waters and the rocks, at the breezes and the streams, in order to invite us, invoke on us, depict for us, a way of experiencing the world in which we inhabit Nature instead of feeling alien (or alienated) from it.
I don’t listen to Alan Watts like he’s an irreproachable Awakened One, who has all the answers and final solutions, to be worshipped on my knees, but rather as some sort of pilgrim of wisdom, of witty beatnik poet, of “spiritual entertainer” (as he himself jokingly called himself). He demands of us, his listeners and readers, not credulity or obedience, but rather creativity and singularity. A guru who is deeply anti-gurus and who repeats to us: “Don’t respect any authorities or gurus without criticism, try to think and experience for yourself!”
Stuff like Nirvana – or other sorts of Ecstactic Awakenings and satoris and unio mysticas – aren’t fully describable in words. They are truths of lived experience rather than statements of representational verbal language. “Words are too clumsy”, Alan Watts loves to say, and he underlines frequently the simple fact we tend to take for granted: the mountains aren’t made with words, and neither are the stars. Do words flow in rivers? Do we breath words in the air? Does it rain words on our umbrellas? In our cosmos, words seem to be a very small part of it. As far as we know, it’s a recent extravagance of certain lliving organisms on a little corner of the Universe called planet Earth…
My plan is to begin a series here in Awestruck Wanderer’s vast cyber-spaces (I see plenty of room to keep on expanding it!) in which I’ll try to share some footprints of my own wanderings in the realm of Eastern Wisdom. The aim is not only to register a journey, but to invite others to add their own discoveries and different perspectives to this journey of quest for Nirvanic enlightenments and dispellments of burdensome illusions.
I enjoy very much the concept of Buddhism not as a religion, with fixed dogmas and rituals, unquestionable and always worthy with blind obedience, but rather as a collective effort, extending over several generations, to discover ways to transform states of consciousness. Sidarta Gautama, some may argue, is the world’s first great psychotherapist. The word “religion”, perhaps, doesn’t fit well when applied to Buddhism – Alan Watts calls it, rather paradoxically, “The Religion of No Religion” – cause Buddhism it’s the poles apart from Christianity, Judaism and Islam, to restrict ourselves to the world’s most popular monotheisms.
My perspective on this radical difference between Buddhism and the three major monotheistic religion is this: there’s a radical difference between concepts such as Nirvana and Samsara and concepts such as Heaven and Hell. Samsara and Nirvana are existential states, are different ways of experiencing reality, are ways to inhabit the world; Heaven and Hell are mythological places, imagined to be absolutely transcendent, alien to this world, supernatural, outside Nature. Samsara and Nirvana only have meaning inside the realm of life, considered as journey of transformation; Heaven and Hell are thought to “reside” in a separate territory, outside the Physical realm, and the access to it is granted only after the body’s death.
It would be quite absurd for someone to say: “I’ll reach Nirvana when I die” – such a statement would probably provoke a zen master either to hit the person with a stick or to laugh his lungs out, joyously aware of how nonsensical that pretension is. But it’s perfectly “normal” for a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim to say: ‘I’ll get to Heaven when I die” – and such a statement would be considered normal, trivial, in accordance with the predominant discourse of their particular communities, faithful to the main cultural trend.
Heaven, of course, is a place quite different from Earth: it’s imagined to be a place of pleasure without pain, life without death, existence without change (no disease, no decay; no old-age, no new-born-baby…). Buddhists look at this Heaven dreamed by the Monotheisms and say: your Heaven is but a phantasy and an ideal impossible to attain. The way of liberation, a Buddhist will state, lies not in dreaming another reality, “purged” of all the elements usually called evil, ugly or sick. The way of liberation lies in understanding the inter-dependency and inter-relateness of the fabric of reality in which we exist, each one a part of the same whole.
This I’ve learned from Alan Watts (and, indirectly, from the masters from which Alan himself has learned from…): in reality, there’s no eggs without chickens, no fingers without hands, no brains without stomachs, no planets without rocks, no black without white, no pleasure without pain, no life without death. I could go on forever: no seas without salt, no tears without eyes, no mind without matter, no life without bodies, no wisdom without folly. When we realize fully that the cosmos is in flux, filled by ever-moving processes, we begin to perceive ourselves not as separate egos, fixed in some sort of enduring permanence, but rather as whirlpools in the stream, interconnected beings in a web-of-evolution, boats embarked in cosmic change. Awakening or Nirvana refers to a state of consciousness in which the ilusion of separateness vanishes: in the Cosmos we plunge. The Whole, the All, Spinoza’s God, the pantheist’s object of adoration, we fill no longer apart from us – we’re in it. We’re one of its constituent parts.
To believe in Heaven and Hell – the first a realm of absolute enjoyment, pleasure, light, delight; the other a realm of terrible torture, un-ending pain, fiery darkness… – is pure folly, a Buddhist would argue, because it denies reality – it’s nothing but a ghost created by the human mind in its alienation from its existential position inside Nature’s bosom. The awakened one is not the one to preach fake promises, but rather someone who aims to free us from the burden of expecting reality to conform to a certain ideal that reality can never fulfill. In Lin Chi’s words: “MY DUTY IS TO BEAT GHOSTS OUT OF YOU!”
One of the best visual representations of Eastern Wisdom is the Yin & Yang dancing diagram. It means not only that black implies white, and figure implies background, but much more: it depicts reality’s eternal movement, in which are cointaned all differences. Just like it’s impossible to take a magnet and separate its North and South poles (if you chop off any of the poles of a magnet, Alan Watts explains, you won’t ever manage to get rid of polarity), it’s impossible to sever reality in separate chunks. Reality comes like this: all mixed stuff, intermingled beings, connected in inter-relationships and webs. Just like the apple-tree bears fruit, the Cosmos has made Earth it’s life-tree: our planet peoples, our Earth bears the fruits of life, and life bursts from the Cosmos not as something created by Transcendece but as a product of Immanence. Earth or Gaia, this flying sphere of multiplicity beyond words, locked in the embrace of solar gravity, dancing in the Universe’s immense dancefloor, has life as one its fruits. The Cosmos is doing each of us just like a tree is doing apples or the oceans are doing waves. Life: We must cherish it, enjoy it, love it, but always aware that Life is dependent on Nature, involved in it, part of it, plunged in it. Lives in the cosmos are like fishes in seas.
Alan Watts explains this beautifully in several of his talks and lectures – here’s one of the best of them: 1960’s Buddhism and Science, part of Watts’ TV-series Eastern Wisdom & Modern Life:
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You might also enjoy this South Parkianesque video
(it could be nicknamed Alan Watts For Dummies):
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“Man as an organism is to the world outside like a whirlpool is to a river: man and world are a single natural process, but we are behaving as if we were invaders and plunderers in a foreign territory. For when the individual is defined and felt as the separate personality or ego, he remains unaware that his actual body is a dancing pattern of energy that simply does not happen by itself. It happens only in concert with myriads of other patterns – called animals, plants, insects, bacteria, minerals, liquids, and gases. The definition of a person and the normal feeling of ‘I’ do not effectively include these relationships. You say, ‘I came into this world.’ You didn’t; you came out of it, as a branch from a tree.”
“The special branch of science which studies the relation of living beings to their environments – ecology – shows beyond doubt that the individual organism and its environment are a continuous stream, or field, of energy. To draw a new moral from the bees and the flowers: the two organisms are very different, for one is rooted in the ground and broadcasts perfume, while the other moves freely in the air and buzzes. But because they cannot exist without each other, it makes real sense to say that they are in fact two aspects of a single organism. Our heads are very different in appearance from our feet, but we recognize them as belonging to one individual because they are obviously connected by skin and bones. But less obvious connections are no less real…
Civilized human beings are alarmingly ignorant of the fact that they are continuous with their natural surroundings. It is as necessary to have air, water, plants, insects, birds, fish, and mammals as it is to have brains, hearts, lungs, and stomachs. The former are our external organs in the same way that the latter are our internal organs. (…) The sun, the earth, and the forests are just as much features of your own body as your brain. Erosion of the soil is as much a personal disease as leprosy, and many ‘growing communities’ are as disastrous as cancer. That we do not feel this to be obvious is the result of centuries of habituation to the idea that oneself is only the envelope of skin and its contents, the inside but not the outside. The extreme folly of this notion becomes clear as soon as you try to imagine an inside with no outside, or an outside with no inside.”
(ALAN WATTS. “Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality.” New World Library, California, 2007. Pgs. 20 and 36-37)
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A box of comments, in the Blogosphere, may well be used as a bridge [a meeting place, a cyber-symposium…] between humans interested in Wisdom Sharing. Anyone? “Hello… Hello… Hello… Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me… Is there anyone at home?”
Eduardo Carli de Moraes, Awestruck Wanderer
Toronto, 13/08/2014 (my last week in the Twenties!)
Few figures were as influential as Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley in popularizing experiments with psychedelic drugs and Eastern religion in the 20th century. Watts did more to introduce Westerners to Zen Buddhism than almost anyone before or since; Huxley’s experiments with mescaline and LSD—as well as his literary critiques of Western technocratic rationalism—are well-known. But in a countercultural movement largely dominated by men—Watts and Huxley, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, etc—Huxley’s widow Laura came to play a significant role after her husband’s death.
In fact, as we’ve discussed before, she played a significant role during his death, injecting him with LSD and reading to him from The Tibetan Book of the Dead as he passed away. In the interview above, Laura speaks with Watts about that experience, one she learned from Aldous, who performed a similar service for his first wife as she died in 1955. The occasion of the interview—conducted at Watts’ Sausalito home in 1968—is the publication of Laura Huxley’s memoir of life with her husband, This Timeless Moment. But talk of the book soon prompts discussion of Huxley’s graceful exit, which Watts calls “a highly intelligent form of dying.”
Watts relates an anecdote about Goethe’s last hours, during which a visitor was told that he was “busy dying.” “Dying is an art,” says Watts, “and it’s also an adventure,” Laura adds. Their discussion then turns to Huxley’s final novel, Island (which you can read in PDF here).Island has rarely been favorably reviewed as a literary endeavor. And yet, as Watts points out, it wasn’t intended as literature, but as a “sociological blueprint in the form of a novel.” Laura Huxley, upset at the book’s chilly reception, wishes her husband had “written it straight.” Nonetheless, she points out that Island was much more than a Utopian fantasy or philosophical thought experiment. It was a document in which “every method, every recipe… is something he experimented with himself in his own life.” As Laura wrote in This Timeless Moment:
Every single thing that is written in Island has happened and it’s possible and actual … Island is really visionary common sense. Things that Aldous and many other people said, that were seen as so audacious – they are common sense, but they were visionary because they had not yet happened.
Those things included not only radical forms of living, but also, as Huxley himself demonstrated, radical ways of dying.
- Aldous Huxley’s Most Beautiful, LSD-Assisted Death: A Letter from His Widow
- Aldous Huxley Reads Dramatized Version of Brave New World
- Leonard Cohen Narrates Film on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Featuring the Dalai Lama (1994)
FAITH & DOUBT
by Jean-Marie Guyau (1854-1888)
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“Doubt has long enough been accused of immorality, but the immorality of dogmatic faith can be equally maintained. To believe is to assert as real to myself that which I simply conceive as possible – sometimes as impossible. This is seeking to build up an artificial truth… At the same time it is shuting one’s eyes to the objective truth, thrusting it aside beforehand without knowing anything about it. The greatest enemy of the human progress is the presupposition… Faith from that point of view becomes indolence of thought. Indifference even is often superior to dogmatic faith. One who is indifferent says: ‘I do not care to know.’ But he adds: ‘I will not believe’. The believer wants to believe without knowing. Therefore, whatever may be the question, doubt is better than the perpetual affirmation, better than the renunciation of all personal initiative, which is called faith. This kind of intellectual suicide is inexcusable, and that which is still more strange is the pretension to justify it, as is constantly done, by invoking moral reasons… “The dignity of believing!” – you reply. Man has too often, all through history, rested his dignity upon errors… The truth is not always so fair as the dream, but its advantage is that it is true. In the domain of thought there is nothing more moral than truth; and when truth cannot be secured through positive knowledge, nothing is more moral than doubt. Doubt is dignity of mind. We must therefore drive out of ourselves the blind respect for certain principles, for certain beliefs. We must be able to question, scrutinize, penetrate everything…”
JEAN-MARIE GUYAU (1854-1888).
French philosopher and poet.
In: “Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction”. Pg. 62. SHARE.You might also enjoy:
COSMOS – A SPACE-TIME ODYSSEY
It seems to me quite ironic and ambiguous that a band named Nirvana was actually the living and struggling embodiment of what Buddhists call Samsara. As if he was bound to the wheel of craving and suffering, Kurt Cobain screamed his guts out just like I imagine Prometheus (so beautifully depicted in Rubens’ painting) screamed day after day as the eagle devoured his liver. Nirvana is perhaps the most tragic rock and roll band there was, seen from the perspective of Cobain’s death, but it ‘s also one of the most exciting pages of rock history in the 1990s. It inspired us, with its punkish courage, to take mainstream culture by assault. Off with commercial shitty kitsch! He wanted art to be undiluted expression of raw and true emotion, communicated through the means of songs bursting with juvenile energy, suicidal tendencies, drug experiences, Beatlemania, and an up-bringing in what he called “a punk rock world”.
He violently departed from us, 20 years ago, in April 1994, by blowing his brains out with a shotgun on his 1-million-dollar mansion, chez lui on Trigger-Happy America. When he chose suicide as a way-out-of-the-Samsarian-mess, his daughter Frances was 20 months old and couldn’t possibly understand anything about the struggles of a heroin addict with his condition as an international pop-superstar. Singing as if he was a tree rooted in dark angry soil, his voice seemed to arise from an abyss of suffering, especially located in an intense point of pain inside his belly. That invisible wound made tremendously audible by his music rang so true and filled with authenticity, in an era of poseurs and fakers and hair-metal yuppie cowshit. Lester Bangs once wrote that “expression of passion was why music was invented in the first place”, and Cobain also seemed to believe in this – and he wasn’t ashamed to put his “dark” emotional side, from depression and paranoia to sociophobia and alienation, to craft the punk-rock hymns that turned him unwillingly into The Spokesman Of A Generation. Extraordinarily capable of expressing his feelings, Cobain’s heart poured out of himself like lava from a volcano, letting us peek through a sonic keyhole into the labyrinths of an anguished life seeking release and craving for pain to end.
Cobain’s musicianship was spectacularly exciting and innovative – even though he borrowed a lot from a similar heavy, distorted and fast guitar-sound, similar to the one invented and mastered in previous decades by Johnny Ramones and Mick Joneses – he created out of that something that was distinguishable his own. Cherishing intensity rather than complexity, and emotional catharsis more than rational self-controlness, Nirvana’s music carried within it some much power that the whole thing mushroomed into one of those rares episode in music history when a band becomes History, defines an Era, before burning-out instead of fading-away. I call them “The Exploding Stars”. I would argue, If you permit me to trip a little bit on some stoned hypotheses, that Cobain’s voice spoke to millions, and his music stirred up such an intense commotion, because of the authentic and desperate artistical expression that he was able to create out of his Samsarian suffering. In 1991, the kitsch of American pop culture – from Michael Jackson to Guns’N’Roses – was suddenly kicked in the butt by the 1990s equivalent to MC5’s Kick Out The Jams to the 1960s and Nevermind The Bollocks, Here’ The Sex Pistols to the 1970s.
And here we are, 20 years after he took a shortcut into that land which no voyager ever comes back from (like Shakespeare’s Hamlet said), discussing his legacy and trying to understand his life and his death. Violent deaths occur every day and all the time, of course, and why should the death of a rock star be made so much fuzz about? The thing is: American Culture is deeply influenced by the realm of Pop, which is a money-making-machine mainly, of course, but sometimes explodes out of control and becomes a cultural force that manages to transcend the markets. It becomes something to be dealt with by Art History, by Sociology, by Philosophy, by Anthropology, by Existential Psychology etc. Or do you perhaps think that the more than 60 people who committed copycat suicides after Cobain’s demise in 1994 related to Cobain only as consumers do with manufacturers of products? Could we possibly say that the more than 5.000 people who went to his funeral, and joined in a candlelight vigil, were merely mourning because they had lost one of their hired entertainers? What about more than 50 million records sold (how many billions of downloads, I wonder?): did all these listeners heard Cobain just as a manufactured commodity? No! Cobain had an authenticity arising from the trueness of feeling underlying his music, and this set him apart from everything that was going on in “Mainstream American Culture” in that era.
Nirvana kicked the door to the ground for Underground America to step into the spotlight in 1991, “The Year that Punk Broke” (when Sonic Youth signed to a major; when Pearl Jam and Soundgarden skyrocketed to the top of charts; when Seattle’s scene became “The Big Thing” in a process juicily conveyed by Hype! , the documentary). Violent and untimely deaths happened all around Cobain while he experienced and interacted with people from the music scenes of Aberdeen, Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle. Prior to Cobain’s suicide, there had been other tragedies in Seattle Rock City: for example, Mia Zapata‘s cold-blooded murder in July 1993, when the singer-songwriter of The Gits (one of the awesomest “grunge” bands that never made it to the Mass Media…) was raped and killed after leaving a bar in Seattle. Or the fatal-OD that took to an early grave Andrew Wood, singer in Mother Love Bone (whose remaining members went on to build Temple of The Dog and then Pearl Jam).
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TWO GRUNGY TRAGEDIES BEFORE COBAIN: MIA ZAPATA’s murder (watch below the full The Gits doc) and ANDREW WOOD’s fatal OD (listen below to the tribute album by Temple Of The Dog, wich contains the grungy-hymn in which Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell share vocal duties, “Hunger Strike”).
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Suicide is common currency in rock’n’roll mythology. The Who had screamed in the 1960s, for a whole generation to hear: “I hope I die before I get old”. Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My” stated that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” – a phrase later to become one of the most quoted from Cobain’ suicide letter. The Dead-at-27 Club had already a plentiful of members – Hendrix, Morrison, Janis… – when Nirvana’s lead singer joined them on this fraternity of bones. His originality was in his means-of-death: he was the first of them to have commited suicide. But did he really choose to leave life in order to become myth? Or such ambitions were not the case for someone craving to escape a labyrinth of angst, rage, stomach-aches, annoying fame, never-ending tours and chronical dissatisfaction? To get back to my point in the beggining of this trip: isn’t suicide, in Cobain’s case, an succesfull attempt simply to blow to smithereens the whole damned Samsara? After all, this man was an extremist not only in art but also in life, and it’s quite possible he entertained extreme notions about what Nirvana was all about.
Nirvana’s music was not Zen at all – it was the sound of fury delivered in packages of Beatlesque melody and punkish attitude. When, 20 years ago today, he chose utter self-destruction, this was hardly a surprising ending for someone who had talked openly about suicide for years and years, and who had previously attempted it some times before, and who almost named the follow-up to Nevermind with the phrase I Hate Mysef And I Want To Die… Not surprising, but still mysterious and fascinating and hard to fully understand. Some writers and interpreters see Cobain’s suicide as something despicable, and criticize him for being a sell-out who couldn’t enjoy his success, or a kid who couldn’t stand his “tummy-ache” and chose some dumb radical medicine. In his article “An Icon of Alienation”, Jonathan Freedland writes, for example, about Cobain’s Last Days (also portrayed in cinema by Gus Van Sant):
“Generation X-ers are meant to be the slacker generation, yet here was the slacker-in-chief living the yuppie dream: married, padding around a $1.1 million luxury mansion with a garden for his baby daughter to play in, and Microsoft and Boeing executives for neighbours. It proved to be no refuge for Kurt Cobain, the boy who had come from blue-collar nowhere and made himself an international star and millionaire. Holed up inside the house overlooking the perfume-scented lake, he pumped his veins full of heroin, wrote his rambling suicide note, and did so much damage to his head that police could only identify his body through fingerprints. Dental records were no use, because nothing was left of his mouth.” – JONATHAN FREEDLAND, An Icon Of Alienation.
Some say some sort of suicide gene or tragic curse ran in the Cobain family: three of Kurt’s uncles had killed themselves. But the picture, of course, is much more complex than the “family tree” explanations wants to admit. It’s well known that Kurt Cobain was deeply pained both by stomach-aches and by childhood traumas (he was, every journalist repeated to exhaustion, the “son of a broken home”). His heroin-addiction, which he justified as a means of self-medication, it seems to relate also to some frantic need to numb his existential discomfort and disgust, to reach periodically some “artificial paradises” similar to the ones experienced by Baudelaire, De Quincey, Burroughs, Ken Kesey and tons of other artists and mystics. But no explanation of his bloody choice of escape from life can be convincing without a discussion about Celebrity, Fame, Success. As Will Hermes wrote in Rolling Stone magazine: “The singer-songwriter, who wrestled with medical problems and the drugs he took to keep them at bay, was also deeply conflicted about his fame, craving and rejecting it.”
That’s what makes Nirvana so interesting: a punk band kicking out the jams in Sub Pop records turns into the highest-selling band in the world and becomes rich on the payroll of a major record company – Geffen. I would like to attempt to reflect briefly upon some of the reasons that explain Cobain’s suicide, but without venturing to give a comprehensive biography of the man or his band – a job already done brilliantly by Charles Cross’s Louder Than Heaven, by the Nirvana bio written by Everett True, or by the documentary About a Son by A. J. Schnack.
Let’s head back to 1991, when Nevermind exploded into the mainstream pop arena and became a cultural phenomenon of huge proportions. This landmark album wasn’t only a big commercial hit, destined to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide. It wasn’t only one of the greatest rock’n’roll albums ever made, with songs so powerful that Simon Williams describes them as “savage indictments of the rock ethos, eye-bulging, larynx-blistering screamalongs”. It wasn’t only a passing fancy of youngsters who would completely forget about the band when the next wave of pop novelties came along. Nevermind was an era-defining masterpiece of epic proportions, the most important album of the whole grunge era, the record that stands out in the 1990s as something unique and unsurpassed. It kicked out the jams with its raw power and heartfelt catharsis, and finally punk rock aesthetics and ethics became common currency and were delivered to the astonished masses. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a song named jokingly after a deodorant, and in which Cobain said he was merely ripping off The Pixies, took MTV by storm in 1991 and buried for awhile the Disco-Yuppie-Crap and the Hair-Metal-Bullshit. It kick-started the Grunge Era and opened the gates wide open for the Seattle scene to become immensely influential through Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, The Screaming Trees, and many others. For the first time ever in the U.S., it seemed like Punk Rock was gonna win its battle and inject rebelliousness and dissent into the veins of American suffering from a hangover after the Reagan-years in Shopping Centerish Yuppie America.
“Nirvana have also been seen in sociological terms: as defining a new generation, the twentysomething ‘slackers’ who have retreated from life; as telling unattractive home truths about a country losing its empire and hit by recession; as representing the final, delayed impact of British punk on America. They have also shocked people by trashing male gender codes: kissing each other on the national network show Saturday Night Live, appearing in dresses in the video for their single ‘In Bloom’, doing pro-gay benefits. We may be more used to this in Britain, but America is a country with much more machismo in its popular culture. A sensational appearance on last year’s globally broadcast MTV Awards, where they smashed their equipment and mocked rock competitors Guns N’Roses, sealed their status as America’s bad boys…” JON SAVAGE, Sounds Dirty – The Truth About Nirvana
Nirvana wasn’t political like The Clash, but yet they certainly did a political statement with their career. Kurt Cobain shoots himself in the head and his brains get splattered all over the American Dream – that thing that, George Carlin said, “you have to be asleep to believe in”. Nirvana was much more about a provocation, à la William Burroughs (Cobain’s favorite writer), on the despised Square Society of White America. It’s punkish agression against Yuppie bullshit. It states that music shouldn’t be seen only as product or merchandise, and that it can convey emotions that can “infect” large portions of society with its groove, its stamina, its mind-expansion and energy-raising powers.
Kurt Cobain could be described by psychopathologists as clinically depressed or bi-polar – it’s known he had familiarity with Ritalins and Lithiums and other creations of the Pharmacological Industries in Capitalist America. But Nirvana’s music is not only a downer – on the contrary, Nevermind cointained so much power that it seemed like it was capable of awakening a whole generation out of its lethargy and inaction. But Cobain couldn’t and wouldn’t be the “leader of a generation”, the preacher telling in the microfone for the converted masses which way to follow. He wouldn’t become a parody of himself (“I hope I die before I turn into Pete Townsend”, he said), he wouldn’t be a happy millionaire smiling for the papparazzis, he simply wouldn’t conform to letting Nirvana become a sell-out act of merely market-wise relevance. With his death, he turned Nirvana into a symbol for decades to come, a band never to be forgotten.
“The sleeve of Nevermind shows a baby swimming underwater towards a dollar bill on a fish hook. The intended meaning is clear: the loss of innocence, the Faustian contract that usually comes with money. Take it, but if you do, you’re hooked for life. It’s a parable of Nirvana’s current dilemma: they’ve taken the bait, but the contradictions of their success are threatening to tear them apart. How can the members of Nirvana retain their integrity, which is very important to them, in a situation which demands constant compromise? How can they sing from the point of view of an outsider now that they’re in a privileged position? How can they suffer relentless worldwide media exposure and still retain, in Grohl’s words, ‘the spontaneity and the energy of something fresh and new’ that has marked their career?” – JON SAVAGE
“Teenage angst paid off well, now I’m bored all old”: that was the statement that began In Utero’s sonic ride. In it, Cobain wants to take us with him on his downward spiral, never afraid to let the songs show his inner confusion and Samsarian suffering. He didn’t believe in a loving God acting as a Daddy up above on the clouds, looking out for their pet-children, but rather was seduced by Buddhist notions, for example that of Karma. Nirvana’s music seems like some sort of ritual of Karmic cleansing, in which Cobain attempts, through a visceral outpouring of emotions, especially the ones that are burdensome, to attain some release.
But he didn’t arrive at no Enlightnenment – not even plain and simple piece of mind. In Rome, March 1994, he attempts suicide with more than 50 pills of Roipnol. He couldn’t stand the never-ending tours, the stupid interviews, the persecution by papparazis, the fans acting like Neanderthals, the need to repeat for the thousandth time “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – even in those nights when we didn’t felt like doing it. He simply wasn’t able to “enjoy” the ride of popstardom inside the Commercial Machinery of Profit Seeking Corporate America. When Rolling Stone did a cover issue with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt that read: ‘CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK’. Even tough he hated Corporate America, he was immersed in it, and it had the means for him to take his message to larger audiences instead of limiting himself to the narrow world of punk-rock and indie concerts where you only preach to the converted. Nirvana never did corporate rock, but instead they did dangerous music that the industry soon discovered that resounded with millions of people worldwide. To call them “sell-outs” is narrow-mindedness. They tried instead to deeply transform Mainstream culture by taking it by storm. This is one of the most influential bands in the history of rock because it inspired us to reclaim the airwaves out of the hands of those fuckers Terence McKenna talks about in “Reclaim Your Mind”:
He never felt at ease or at home under the spotlight of mass media, gossip magazines, commercial TV shows. Always a punkish outsider and underdog that never quite fitted into the mainstream’s machinery of popstardom, he identified himself with feminists, oddballs, weirdos and other non-conformist and eccentric individuals and urban tribes. He despised pop icons like M. Jackson or Axl Rose, and loved The Pixies, The Raincoats, Young Marble Giants, all sorts of lo-fi and low-budget underground “indie” stuff. Even tough proto-grungers such as Husker Du’s Bob Mould, Black Flag’s Henry Rollins or The Replacements’ Paul Weterberg done something similar to Cobain both musically and lyrically, neither exploded internationally like Nirvana to wide-spread impact on thousands of lives.
I remember him as punk rock kid from a fucked-up town filled with macho-men rednecks, and who expressed his rage against mainstream American culture with extraordinary talent. I remember him as an aesthetic extremist who loved William Burroughs’ stoned literature, and who entertained himself in his Aberdeen years with peculiar fun such as watching Faces of Death after eating hallucinogenic mushrooms. I remember him also as a sometimes sensitive and tender guy who had pet-turtles in his bathtub and hated in his guts all sorts of homophobia, misoginy and Neanderthal stupidity. I remember him as a music geek that loved underground music and did everything in his power to invite his audience to listen to his favorite “indie” artists (like Pixies, Breeders, Meat Puppets, Vaselines, Daniel Johnston, Beat Happening, Flipper, Bikini Kill, Half Japanese, Billy Childish, Butthole Surfers…).
David Stubbs, in his article “I Hate Myself And I Want to Die”, writes:
“Rock’n’roll mythology is fed and defined by its occasional deaths. Usually, these are due to some excess or other – driving too fast, getting too high, taking too much, going too far, the romantic pushing back of life’s envelope, testing the limits, wanting too much, wanting it now, forfeiting tomorrow in the bargain. Rock’n’roll mythology dictates that its heroes die because they wanted to live too much. Kurt Cobain, however, didn’t want to live. He wanted to die.”
It can be said that he’s the most perfect embodiment in rock music of Nihilism, that cultural phenomenon which Nietzsche predicted, in the 19th century, that would become wide-spread. Cobain radically acted upon his nihilism, towards his self-destruction, what sets him apart from other famous nihilists, like Emil Cioran or Arthur Schopenhauer, who died of old age and so-called “natural causes”.
The man died, but his deeds are still with us, haunting us like Prometheu’s scream as he’s being eaten by an eagle, inspiring us like a Punk Monument to raw power in an age of slumber, provoking us like a tragic character which awakens us to a life that ain’t no picnic. There’s reason to mourn and get the paralysing blues when we considerer Cobain’s suicide, but there’s also reason to cherish and celebrate a life that has left a legacy that millions of us feel that have enriched our lives. Cobain struggled in Samsara and that makes him a member of a brotherhood called Humanity. Nirvana always sounded to me like the music of a brother, expressing what we, his brothers in suffering, also experienced but were unable to express so powerfully and unforgettably as he did.
“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.
To define force – it is that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was there, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.
Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths…
Such is the empire of force, as extensive as the empire of nature.”
SIMONE WEIL (1909-1943),
Iliad: Poem of Force, pgs. 3-4-10.
Simone Weil reads the Iliad as if she is witnessing before her compassionate eyes those occurrences evoked by the poet’s verses: she doesn’t turn her face away, refusing to see, when the horrors of war are depicted in Homer’s blood-soaked pages. The war between Trojans and Greeks offers infinite occasions for us to reflect upon Force – especially in its deathly effects. What results from the battles is always men laying lifeless on the ground, “dearer to the vultures than to their wives”, and Simone Weil stresses that even the greatest heroes – Hector or Achilles – are frequently reduced to things by the enemy’s force. “The bitterness of such a spectacle is offered us absolutely undiluted. No comforting fiction intervenes; no consoling prospect of immortality; and on the hero’s head no washed-out halo of patriotism descends.” (WEIL: p. 4)
If there’s a lot of tragedy in the Iliad – and it surely has, even tough it was written centuries before the Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides) were born – it’s because force often is employed with tragic effects. It’s clear to me that Simone Weil uses the concept of “force” to denote something she morally condemns, and in such a manner that one might fell she has affinities with Eastern wisdom, especially Buddhist ethics. For example, D. T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhist philosopy, in which he opposes Power and Love and describes them as hostile to one another. Force/power is imposed upon a subject in order to reduce him to a thing, either by killing him (and thus forcingly throwing him back into the inanimate world), either by violating, humiliating, opressing or harming him in such a way that the person is still alive and breathing, but is no longer an autonomous subject. “A man stands disarmed and naked with a weapon pointing at him; this person becomes a corpse before anybody or anything touches him… still breathing, he is simply matter.” (WEIL: pg. 5)
A difference or imbalance between the forces of two individuals are excellent evidence of the onthological presence of Simone Weil’s force or Suzuki’s power among all that’s human. Trivial examples abound. Someone with a bazooka overpowers someone with a knife. A knifed man forces an unarmed woman into carnal processes she wouldn’t unforcibly agree to. And there are hundreds of movie scenes, especially in westerns and action blockbusters, that tell stories about this battle of forces and powers. But for millenia before cinema was invented human history cointained in its bosom duels, rivalry, competion – and one of the most ancient of literary monuments of the world, Homer, has blood of battle soaked all over his pages. To speak like a Greek, human history is filled with ágon and húbris.
Weil writes about the Iliad being a French woman in the industrial-commercial age, and surely her experience in Renault’s factory, where she went to work in order to experience in the flesh the fate of the proletariat, informs her reading of History as a whole. The factory’s of the 20nd century are a force that dehumanizes and turns subjects into things, Weil dennounced on her writings La Condition Ouvrière, and she can sense a similar process mirrored in The Iliad.
“There are unfortunate creatures who have become things for the rest of their lives. Their days hold no pastimes, no free spaces, no room in them for any impulse of their own. It is not that their life is harder than other men’s nor that they occupy a lower place in the social hierarchy; no, they are another human species, a compromise between a man and a corpse. The idea of a person’s being a thing is a logical contradiction. Yet what is impossible in logic becomes true in life, and the contradiction lodged in the soul tears it to shreds. This thing is constantly aspiring to be a man or a woman, and never achieving it – here, surely, is death but death strung out over a whole lifetime; here, surely is life, but life that death congeals before abolishing.” (WEIL: p. 8)
In the epoch of the Trojan War, it was destiny of a conquered enemy to become a slave, that is, to be turned into a thing, deprived of autonomy, and Homer describes in some occasions how people are forced into ships, taken away “to a land where they will work wretched tasks, laboring for a pitiless master” (HOMER. Iliad. Apud WEIL: p. 9).
A person enslaved is being treated like a beast, like a horse on reins. 12 Years A Slave, Scott McQueen’s film, is a fresh reminder of these horrors. Simone Weil denounces the inhumanity in human affairs wherever she sees it: be it on a Greek epic-poem or in the factories of the car industry. In this we can see how Simone Weil joins hands once again with Buddhist ethics: she denounces the ways in which misused force, or tyranny, disrespects sentient beings by treating them as if they were inert matter.
What Weil and Suzuki denounce in the workings of Force and Power is that lack of compassion which Buddhist ethics, by dissolving the ego, aims to cure ourselves of. Enlightnement or Nirvana, in Buddhism, can’t be achieved without compassion. It may also be argued that French philosophy in the 20nd century has few voices more compassionate than Simone Weil’s.
“Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. In the Iliad there is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force.” (WEIL: p. 11)
There’s no simplistic dualistic division between the forceful and the forceless in Weil’s philosophy – of course one can be a slave for a whole lifetime, and one can be a master and tyrant from birth to the grave, but force isn’t something a human being can only exert upon others. Nature itself overpowers tremendously each and every one of the sentient and living creatures in its bosom, in such a way that even the most powerful among humans is still a frail thing – and always mortal, transient.
Let’s remember that the Iliad begins when a heated controversy is dividing two very powerful Greeks, Agamemnon and Achilles. This fight for supremacy is all around Homer’s poem, everyone wants to increase his power, and this can’t be done by any other way than at the expense of others. The result of this mad rivalry is huge bloodshed. “He that takes the sword, will perish by the sword. The Iliad formulated the principle long before the Gospels did, and in almost the same terms: Ares is just, and kills those who kill.” (p. 14)
Certainly inspired and influenced by the philosophy of one of her dearest teachers, Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier, 1858-1961, author of Mars ou La Guerre Jugée), Simone Weil is a passionate apologist for philosophy’s powers against inhumanity – because “where there is no room for reflection, there is none either for justice or prudence.” (p. 14) And, she argues, the horrors and tragedies that Homer depicts can also be understood as results of lack-of-reflection, of hastiness to act, of an incapacity to refrain from agression. “Hence we see men in arms behaving harshly and madly. We see their sword bury itself in the breast of a disarmed enemy who is in the very act of pleading at their knees. We see them triumph over a dying man by describing to him the outrages his corpse will endure. We see Achilles cut the throats of twelve Trojan boys on the funeral pyre of Patroclus as naturally as we cut flowers for a grave. These men, wielding power, have no suspicion of the fact that the consequences of their deeds will at lenght come home to them – they too will bow the neck in their turn.” (WEIL: p. 14)
What’s astonishing about these last words is how closely Weil gets to the Buddhist idea of karma. And what’s also touching is how compassionate Simone Weil truly is when she describes those numerous occasions when we fail to treat ourselves as “brothers in humanity” (WEIL: p. 15). But Weil is no Buddhist, and in the text we are following she’s interested mainly in the Greeks and how they also had a concept similar to karma, some sort of “retribution which operates automatically to penalize the abuse of force”. She claims this is the “the main subject of Greek thought”:
“It is the soul of the epic. Under the name of Nemesis, it functions as the mainspring of Aeschylus’s tragedies. (…) Wherever Hellenism has penetrated, we find the idea of it familiar. In Oriental countries which are steeped in Buddhism, it is perhaps this Greek idea that has lived on under the name of Karma. The Occident, however, has lost it, and no longer even has a word to express it in any of its languages: conceptions of limit, measure, equilibrium, which ought to determine the conduct of life are, in the West, restricted to a servile function in the vocabulary of technics.” (WEIL: p. 16)
In André Comte-Sponville’s philosophy, especially in his Short Treatise Of Great Virtues, Simone Weil’s ethical legacy lives on, and it’s enough to read his wise chapters on “temperance”, “prudence” or “love” to get convinced that France is keeping alive the flame of these virtues, or at least hoping to spread them by inviting more humans to practise them. “A moderate use of force, which alone would enable man to escape being enmeshed in its machinery, would require superhuman virtue, which is as rare as dignity in weakness.” (WEIL: p. 20)
In Simone Weil’s ethics, moderation of force, care for the feelings of others, awareness of alterity, are virtues to be practised by those who see themselves as brothers and sisters in humanity. But when we look back at History we have few reasons to be optimistic. And besides, as Simone Weil points out with irony, we still live in times where “there is always a god handy to advise someone to be unreasonable.” (21)
Simone Weil’s writings frequently denounces inhumanities commited by humans. She spreads awareness of our common humanity by showing how frequently we treated ourselves in a subhuman fashion. And it’s not true that only the slaves are turned into subhumans when they are forced into slavery: the master also loses his humanity when he enslaves. And war and slavery are dehumanizing forces because they work towards destruction and death, “yet the idea of man’s having death for a future is abhorrent to nature. Once the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment, our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face.” (WEIL: p. 22)
Is Weil, then, simply a pacifist, a Gandhian? Or did she approve armed uprisings against the Nazi occupation of Paris, for example? Her condemnation of war, and not only on “moral” grounds, but in a much broader sense, in an existential level, would necessarily lead her to a practice of non-resistance? The answer is hard to give, considering that Simone Weil, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), enlisted to fight against the fascists, and can be seen in a famous photograph with a shotgun in her hand, quite willing to add a little bit of force to the Anti-Franco militias. But Simone Weil was no brute – on the contrary, she was gentleness incarnate, and her personal favorite in the Iliad is “Patroclus, who knew how to be sweet to everybody, and who throughout the Iliad commits no cruel or brutal act.” (WEIL: p. 26)
The possession of a fire arm does not imply the right to brutality or cruelty. Being armed isn’t a license to act with mad húbris. When I think of Simone Weil armed with a shotgun in Spain, willing to fight against Fascism when she saw it dangerously spreading through Europe, I can’t be simplistic about pacifism, as if it was some kind of ethical absolute. I don’t believe it is – and neither did Simone Weil back in the 1930s or the Zapatistas under the guidance of Marcos in Chiapas, Mexico, nowadays.
War turns us into subhumans beasts killing themselves in mad rivalry, but how on Earth are we to build a planetary community in which war has been banned, and ample dialogue and mutual enlightnement between cultures reigns? For thousands of years, war seems to follow humanity, always on its trail. That ideal sung by John Lennon in “Imagine”, the Brotherhood of Man, remains to be futurely made flesh. In Homer’s Iliad Simone Weil sees nothing to be optismistic about, just “a picture of uniform horror, of which force is the sole hero.” (p. 27) But what’s sublime about Homer’s art, the lasting artistic value of ancient epic poetry, lies in the poet’s capacity to portray suffering befalling all – both Greeks and Trojans. Thus it points out to the fact that we’re all brothers in sorrow, and that’s an excellent reason for peace and compassion, as a Buddhist could put it.
“However, such a heaping-up of violent deeds would have a frigid effect, were it not for the note of incurable bitterness that continually makes itself heard. It is in this that the Iliad is absolutely unique, in this bitterness that proceeds from tenderness and that spreads over the whole human race, impartial as sunlight. Never does the tone lose its coloring of bitterness; yet never does the bitterness drop into lamentation. Justice and love, which have hardly any place in this study of extremes and of unjust acts of violence, nevertheless bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent. Everyone’s unhappiness is laid bare without dissimulation or disdain; no man is set above or below the condition common to all men; whatever is destroyed is regretted. (…) Whatever is not war, whatever war destroys or threatens, the Iliad wraps in poetry; the realities of war, never. (…) The cold brutality of the deeds of war is left undisguised; neither victors nor vanquished are admired, scroned, or hated. An extraordinary sense of equity breathes through the Iliad. One is barely aware that the poet is a Greek and not a Trojan.” (WEIL: p. 30 – 32)
For Simone Weil, the poet who wrote the Iliad acted with marvelous impartiality, and sang about the misfortunes and losses, about the victories and triumphs, of both sides of the conflict, in such a way that Greeks and Trojans are shown as co-participants of a common process. “Attic tragedy, or at any rate the tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles, is the true continuation of the epic. The conception of justice enlightens it, without ever directly intervening in it; here force appears in its coldness and hardness; (…) here more than one spirit bruised and degraded by misfortune is offered for our admiration.” (p. 34) The enduring existential value of such art lies in this: to be aware of human misery is “a precondition of justice and love”, claims Weil. (p. 35)
When Simone Weil affirms that “misery is the common human lot” (p. 35), she’s once again approaching a landscape familiar to Buddhists: one of the Four Noble Truths enounced by the enlightened Sidharta Gautama is “all is suffering”. From this awareness springs compassion. Love, justice, compassion, can’t arise without the clear perception of our brotherhood in suffering. However, it’s clear as water that, even tough she was born in a Jewish family, Simone Weil is deeply suspicious of the doctrines and dogmas of Judaism:
“With the Hebrews, misfortune was a sure indication of sin and hence a legitimate object of contempt; to them a vanquished enemy was abhorrent to God himself and condemned to expiate all sorts of crimes – this is a view that makes cruelty permissible and indeed indispensable. And no text of the Old Testament strikes a note comparable to the note heard in the Greek epic, unless it be certain parts of the book of Job. Throughout 20 centuries of Christianity, the Romans and the Hebrews have been admired, read, imitated, both in deed and word; their masterpieces have yielded an appropriate quotation every time anybody had a crime he wanted to justify.” (p. 36)
Belief in gods is seen as highly problematic in Simone Weil’s philosophy, even tough it would be an exageration to call her an atheist, considering the intense mystical impulses that she manifests so vividly in her ouevre. What Weil can’t stand is the arrogance of those who use religion to falsely believe they are superior to the rest, that they are immune from evils that will only befall others. When religion leads to the denial of our common humanity, Weil rejects it: “the only people who can give the impression of having risen to a higher plane, who seem superior to ordinary human misery, are the people who resort to the aids of illusion, exaltation, fanaticism, to conceal the harshness of destiny from their own eyes.” (p. 36)
We still have a lot to learn from the Greeks, including its great epic poet, and Simone Weil admires Homer’s Iliad so much that she claims that
“in spite of the brief intoxication induced at the time of the Renaissance by the discovery of Greek literature, there has been, during the course of 20 centuries, no revival of the Greek genius. Something of it was seen in Villon, in Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, and – just once – in Racine. To this list of writers a few other names might be added. But nothing the peoples of Europe have produced is worth the first known poem that appeared among them. Perhaps they will yet rediscover the epic genius, when they learn that there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate. How soon this will happen is another question.” (WEIL: p. 37).
These words also sound, to my ears, in tune with Buddhist ethics, especially for the praise of compassion for the suffering of others. And of course that within the realm of The Other we should include Life-As-A-Whole, and not only human life. The Buddhist notion of “sentient beings” is such a great idea, methinks, because it describes something much vaster than Mankind, something that, without being a god, certainly transcends the individual self. Dogs and cats, lions and owls, sunflowers and worms, they all belong to the great family of the living, they are all sentient beings, even tough the degree of self-cousciousness greatly varies.
If both Simone Weil’s philosophy and Buddhist ethics are worthy of our attention, study and discussions, methinks it’s mainly because of the imminent ecological catastrophes that will quake our future and will shatter the current “Western Way” of dealing with Nature. Or, to put it in another words, it won’t be possible for the West to continue in its industrial-commercial path, on its productivist húbris, in its crazy consumerism meddled with egotisticall individualism, simply because the Earth’s biosphere won’t stand for it – and if we keep on going in the same direction, we can only expect mass-scale tragic consequences arising from so much atmospherical pollution, fossil-fuel burnings, deforestations, oil spills… A wiser relationship with Nature urgently needs to emerge from the cultural slumber of destructive capitalism – or else we’re damned.
“Westerners talk about conquering Nature and never about befriending her. They climb a high mountain and they declare the mountain is conquered. They suceed in shooting a certain type of projectile heavenwards and then claim that they have conquered the air. (…) Those who are power-intoxicated fail to see that power is blinding and keeps them within an ever-narrowing horizon. Love, however, transcends power because, in its penetration into the core of reality, far beyond the finiteness of the intellect, it is infinity itself. Without love one cannot see the infinely expanding network of relationships which is reality. Or, we may reverse this and say that without the infinite network of reality we can never experience love in its true light.
To conclude: Let us first realize the fact that we thrive only when we are co-operative by being alive to the truth of interrelationship of all things in existence. Let us then die to the notion of power and conquest and be resurrected to the eternal creativity of love which is all-embracing and all-forgiving. As love flows out of rightly seeing reality as it is, it is also love that makes us feel that we – each of us individually and all of us collectively – are responsible for whatever things, good or evil, go on in our human community, and we must therefore strive to ameliorate or remove whatever conditions are inimical to the universal advancement of human welfare and wisdom.”
(D. T. Suzuki, The Awakening of Zen, “Love and Power”, pg. 70)
WEIL, Simone; BESPALOFF, Rachel. War and Iliad. Preface by Christopher Benfley. New York Review Books Classics, 2005.
SUZUKI, Daisetz Teitaro. The Awakening of Zen. Edited by Christmas Humphreys. Boston: Shambhala, 1980.
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(Article by Eduardo Carli de Moraes, at Awestruck Wanderer,
Toronto, Canada. March 2014.)
“This course is a survey of the history of Buddhism from its origin in India in the sixth century B.C.E. to contemporary times. The course is meant to introduce students to the astonishing vitality and adaptability of a tradition that has transformed the civilizations of India, Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, and has now become a lively component in the cultures of Europe, Australia, and the Americas.
To understand the Buddha’s contribution to the religious history of the world, it is important to know the problems he inherited and the options that were available to him to solve them. In ancient India, before the time of the Buddha, these problems were expressed in the Vedas, the body of classical Hindu scriptures. The Vedas introduce us to scholars and ritual specialists who searched for the knowledge that would free them from the cycle of death and rebirth. The Buddha inherited this quest for knowledge and directed it to his own distinctive ends.
“Born as Siddharta Gautama into a princely family in northern India about 566 B.C.E., the Buddha left his father’s palace and took up the life of an Indian ascetic. The key moment in his career came after years of difficult struggle, when he sat down under a tree and “woke up” to the cause of suffering and to its final cessation. He then wandered the roads of India, gathering a group of disciples and establishing a pattern of discipline that became the foundation of the Buddhist community. The Buddha helped his disciples analyze the causes of suffering and chart their own path to nirvana. Finally, after a long teaching career, he died and passed quietly from the cycle of death and rebirth.
After the Buddha’s death, attention shifted from the Buddha himself to the teachings and moral principles embodied in his Dharma. Monks gathered to recite his teachings and produced a canon of Buddhist scripture, while disputes in the early community paved the way for the diversity and complexity of later Buddhist schools. Monks also developed pattern of worship and artistic expression that helped convey the experience of the Buddha in ritual and art.
The Buddhist King Asoka, who reigned from about 268 to 239 B.C.E., sent the first Buddhist missionairies to Sri Lanka. Asoka left behind the Buddhist concept of a “righteous king” who gives political expression to Buddhist values. This ideal has been embodied in recent times by King Mongkut (18 October 1804 – 1 October 1868) in Thailand and Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent resistance to military repression in Burma.
Buddhism entered China in the second century of the common era, at a time when the Chinese people had become disillusioned with traditional Confucian values. To bridge the gap between the cultures of India and China, Buddhist translators borrowed Taoist vocabulary to express Buddhist ideas. Buddhism took on a distinctively Chinese character, becoming more respectful of duties to the family and ancestors, more pragmatic and this-worldly, and more consistent with traditional Chinese respect for harmony with nature. During the T’ang Dynasty (618-907), Buddhism was expressed in a series of brilliant Chinese schools, including the Ch’an School of meditation that came to be known in Japan as Zen.
Since the end of the 19th century, Buddhism has become a respected part of life in countries far beyond the traditional home of Buddhism in Asia. The teaching that began on the plains of India 2.500 years ago has now been transformed in ways that would once have been unimaginable, but it still carries the feeling of serenity and freedom that we sense in the image of the Buddha himself. In its 2.500-year history, from the time of the Buddha to the present day, Buddhism has grown from a tiny religious community in northern India into a movement that now spans the globe. It has shaped the development of civilizations in India and Southeast Asia; has had a major influence on the civilizations of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan; and today has become a major part of the multi-religious world of Europe and North America.
In the following lectures (watch the videos below) we’ll explore the Buddhist tradition as the unfolding of a story. It is the story of the Buddha himself and the story of generations of people who have used the model of the Buddha’s life to shape not only their own lives but the societies in which they live…”
Professor Malcolm David Eckel, Course Guidebook.
INFO ON THE AUTHOR: Professor Malcolm David Eckel holds two bachelor’s degrees, one in English from Harvard University and a second in Theology from Oxford University. Professor Eckel earned his master’s degree in theology at Oxford University and his Ph.D. in the Study of Comparative Religion at Harvard University. He held teaching positions at Ohio Wesleyan University, Middlebury College in Vermont, and the Harvard Divinity School, where he served as acting director of the Center for the Study of World Religions. At Boston University, Professor Eckel teaches courses on Buddhism, comparative religion, and the religions of Asia. In 1998, Professor Eckel received the Metcalf Award for Teaching Excellence, the university’s highest award for teaching. In addition to writing many articles, Professor Eckel has published two books on Buddhist philosophy: “To See the Buddha: A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness” and “Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places”. – www.thegreatcourses.com
to be continued…
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