Isn’t it interesting that American Buddhism, in some flavors, talks about space a lot? America pioneered the space exploration program. America is a vast country, one of the biggest. Americans like their space. Americans like personal space. Try just walking in Chinatown. You won’t get as much personal space. If you think it’s racist to associate norms of body language with a culture, generally, you’re way off.
Anyway, space is important, both for Buddhists, and for Americans (and American Buddhists, if that label works).
Somehow, “big” or “bigger” space seems like a goal of some kind. There must be drawbacks to that- it can’t be as simple as getting more.
Veering away, maybe later back to, the space talk, I want to rewind and cover some of the ideas I’ve already brought up. I have this tendency to run away from sustained hard work, if I can, and when I write these things, I end up saying “That’s interesting, I’ll have to come back to that later,” and then “forgetting” it. Of course, forgetting is often a very convenient thing for me.
At the same time, I write shortish posts, so I can’t come close to completing any investigation I start. So here is a list of some ideas I want to harp on a little bit:
1. The structure of teachings
2. Expectation and concept
3. The long run
5. Little parts to things
6. Discovery and awareness
7. Creepiness and death
8. Self, consumer culture, and permanence
9. Long life
11. Differences in interpretations over time
And I want to talk about these in light of impermanence.
First is the structure of teachings. I don’t think I can say much that’s valuable in this area, but I want to mention it. Buddhist teachings have a structure, or maybe, various complex structures.
On a basic level, and this one is not even easy, there are what are known as Ground, Path, and Fruition. There is a basic idea, how it works and plays out, and how it reaches completion, an end point. That’s a basic structure used in teachings (and even that I find hard to use or understand many times). At the same time, as any teacher or student knows, there are a million more or less ingenious teaching “techniques” to communicate ideas, capture the attention, plant seeds of future understanding, inspire, infuriate, and so on. Those are there in Western education, of course, and in the Buddhist tradition too. Everywhere, I’m sure. It’s a little overwhelming to think about it (and interesting that, at the same time, teaching is teaching- there’s something essential and basic about a teacher, classroom, and students listening).
That’s a tiny bit about ground, path, and fruition. There must be other basic structures used to organize ideas in Buddhism. I find it frequently amazing that the teachings keep offering more and more: what I thought I understood a year ago, or more, comes back, offering a new insight into human nature, or the way things are. The teachings all seem to connect together, strengthening and deepening each other. As someone who teaches English in a sort of haphazard way, it should be humbling to me that there is a system so profoundly integrated in itself. I can sit around and plan a class, and maybe make it decent, if I spend enough time on it. But it never comes close to the dharma in terms of internal logic and integration (which shouldn’t be that surprising- the tradition is over 25000 years old, there’s been a lot of time for trial and error).
Next, there is expectation and concept. I suppose a well designed teaching accounts for these (somehow incorporating the audience’s myriad expectations and ideas).
I used to live in New York City, and practiced at the New York Shambhala Center. It is a wonderful place to see a talk, meditate or take a class. I became friends with a man there named Greg, who was always full of brilliant ideas and well-formed analysis of the state of things in the world at present (and also a college professor).
One thing he said at one point is that people, in his youth, were expected to come up with well thought-out opinions about the world, about current events. That is, according to him, no longer the case. People, especially younger people, are no longer expected to form strong thought out opinions. I think that’s true (in America right now). Isn’t that odd? I include myself in that- I don’t spend much time trying to form a coherent worldview. I have my ways, my ideas, but I don’t try to make a whole lot of sense of it. I see taking political sides on things totally suspect and confused, so I end up not coming to an opinion about many issues, or not taking either side seriously.
Expectations as to how people should think and hold ideas change.
It’s possible to use this perspective to distance oneself and continue not forming opinions, and I’m not promoting that. At the same time, being completely partisan or dogmatic seems obviously stupid. To think that everyone from a certain group is wrong or a bad person is so stupid that it seems amazing that people actually do think that way, on a large scale.
Being a “bleeding heart liberal” is a put down in the US. Liberals are also said to be guilty, often, people with unreasonable guilt. I don’t consider myself a liberal, exactly, but I think a sense of responsibility to others is important, and feeling guilty that you can’t do more to help, that you’ve done so little to help, might be a good thing. Maybe that’s wrong. Maybe guilt is just bad. Maybe it serves no purpose. Maybe it serves to make the guilt-experiencer feel oddly at peace (if I can’t do something, I can at least feel bad).
There’s some feeling that, without guilt, I’d become a more hardened person, a more callous person. I think that’s true. It’s good to be reminded that in terms of living situation, a lot of people in the world have it much much worse than me, and could use some help.
It’s interesting, because I want to be able to donate some money to charitable causes. America gives lots and lots of money to charities. We raise a lot of money. Sometimes I think that the merit generated by this is fueling the country in some way.
Of course, being generous is good. Helping is good. But I also want to shore up the foundations of my self. I want to have a solid foundation. If I can get to the point where I’m donating, helping, being good, enough, then… I’m not sure. I’ll be safe? I will have a workable thesis. That’s how I think of it. This is the negative side of forming a well thought-out opinion that I mentioned before: setting up a life in which guilt and fear and confusion are assuaged (setting up a life in which things really make sense).
It’s not that things are nonsense, or awful chaos. It’s that having a securely decent life is an illusion. This is because of impermanence. The foundation being built there has no foundation.
But somehow you should form opinions and try to make sense of things, and try to help, too? This taking action, putting yourself out, investigating, in spite of groundlessness? It seems almost like the kind of “ironic” joke that’s popular with some people: it’s funny because it’s not funny. It’s serious because it’s not serious. You should piss on something because it’s not perfect (or, conversely, you should worship something because it’s a piece of garbage, and it’s all garbage anyway).
That’s a tough quandary: why bother to make sense and have a shred of responsibility if things are so unstable and hopeless anyway?
I think bravery has some value at that point (which is to say, cowardice). There’s a kind of cowardice to avoiding understanding by way of groundlessness. Impermanence and insecurity are not drugs, or sedatives. They’re more like coffee. They wake you up, and help you go to the bathroom (to eliminate waste). My point, convoluted as it is, is that if one says that finding meaning or helping are pointless, due to the ungraspable and changeable nature of things, this is a matter of fear. You can still understand things and be of service, even if it’s done in the midst of a very chaotic, sharp, pushy realm. Of course, by the same token, if creating wise theses and being compassionate become too solid, that’s a matter of fear, too. That should be worked through, also.
In general, I think I tend to wallow in the impermanence, shying away from solid understanding, and solid benefiting of others. So that’s something to work on for myself. Time to do a little cleaning.