Recently I read that the Buddhist concept of enlightenment simply means “understanding.” This took me by surprise, not that I didn’t recognize the obvious truth of it (it was like the “whack on the side of the head,” to quote creativity guru Roger Van Oech, delivered by a Zen master with his bamboo stick to a sleepy, meditating monk); but because “enlightenment” is such a coveted mental state, if that’s the right way to convey it, and if nirvana were a car, it would be a Rolls Royce–and yet, understanding feels like something far more banal that’s within reach to anyone willing to put his or her mind to it.
The trick, of course, is sustaining it. As self-help author David Viscott says, “You can either be happy, or be right.” Happily, he’s right about that. Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, and writer Thich Nhat Hanh says that of all the attachments spoken of in Buddhism, attachment to views is the hardest to overcome. The word “views,” however, can be misleading, as you need to “view” your own way of seeing things, at least as far as I can gather from my limited experience in contemplative sitting, as objectively as possible, before you can overcome your attachment to it and them.
The goal of meditation, if it has a goal, is to achieve relative peace of mind, although that’s a side benefit that springs from the more altruistic, three-fold goal of accomplishing the following feats: attention, empathy, and compassion. That’s the logical order in which to “obtain” them (sorry about all the quotation marks; it’s just that when you’re talking about Buddhism, words sometimes become more slippery than usual); a nice mnemonic for the three rewards is A. C. E., even though they’re not quite in the right order that way.
The reason it’s so hard for many of us Westerners, perhaps especially Americans, to achieve what would appear to be no big deal, is that we are overly attached to our own opinions. I certainly am. I realize that in building an edifice of letters I risk murdering certain people with words, and for that I stand accused and am profoundly sorry. My ego at times gets the best of me, as it did yesterday when I broke the head off a vacuum cleaner in a childish fit because it kept rising up at an angle off the floor, as if it had something against inhaling dust bunnies for a living or suffered from a God-given allergy. My wife, to her credit, asked several times, “Why are you so angry?” and I couldn’t answer her. I was stressed out about money, not getting enough action, feeling a lack of control over my own destiny, the usual bullshit known in Buddhist circles as dukkha.
Yesterday while having dinner with an old former student, he told me he was eager for his son to get married and reproduce so that he, the student, could be a grandfather like so many of his friends and neighbors. This struck me as patently unfair since, as an American, I’ve been raised to think everyone is an individual and, as such, is free to choose his or her own destiny inasmuch as possible. It also reminded me how motivated people are in their actions and choices by what other people might think of them; this seems especially to be the case here in Korea.
Granted, I suffer from the same affliction; I’ve always prided myself on being something of an outsider and a nonconformist, but I can’t deny my own outstanding mediocrity and overall ineffectiveness as a human being, particularly considering how hypocritical I am, the more so for pretending to be morally superior to people I hardly even know.
My wife Jina is attached to her own (if you can call it her own) view that Jesus is the son of God, that he’s coming back, that his essential message is “my way or the highway,” and that those of us who can’t be bothered to believe in him or who would prefer the creative burden of asking questions and thinking for ourselves, will be condemned to the fiery pit like a bunch of everlasting marshmallows, blackened by the flames, shriveling and turning to ash, then being reborn only to have it happen all over again, repeatedly, ad nauseam and ad infinitum.
Her belief insofar as I can see seems to be predicated on fear (of annihilation or torture for not getting it right in God’s ledger) as much as it is on love (of Jesus, the man, the legend, along with his abusive, crazier-than-thou father).
A big part of my role in our marriage has been as the reactive critic, the cynical skeptic by default, the agonized agnostic, the naysaying atheist. It’s exhausting having to expend so much energy on reacting, as if I were Wonder Woman deflecting bullets with my silver bracelets, and maybe I should just play dumb and pretend I agree with her to grease the wheels of our creaky relationship. If anything, it’s made me more dogmatically reject religion in general, throwing out the baby shampoo with the bathtub, instead of acknowledging its benefits for countless people who can’t accept our less-than-scintillating collective fate.
Who was it who said, “(Hu)Mankind can’t handle much reality”? I think it was Socrates, but I’m probably wrong. I’ll look it up for yuz later (if I remember to–and that’s a big if).
Last night while riding the subway to the supermarket after dinner, I was slightly appalled by the sight of so many people engaged in virtual coitus with their handheld gadgets and contraptions. Out of about thirty passengers on my subway car, ten of them were involved with their cellphones or wee screens. One man was quaintly writing something in a notebook with a pencil or a pen; one woman was reading a real newspaper; another was reading a paper-based book. (I don’t mean to give trees a hard time though; I guess I’m just old-fashioned.) The rest of the passengers either stared off into space or slept, no doubt knackered by the weight of their beleaguered lives.
It struck me how so many people could be so beholden to these little machines when they’re in public, and how disrespectful it is to shut out their fellow human beings in such a way, how masturbatory, and how degrading (not to equate masturbation with degradation; if you’re a man, it’s a great way to temporarily elevate your semen; and if you’re a woman, it seems to be as relaxing as any yoga pose that comes to mind). Don’t people want to connect with the people around them? Don’t they still want to be human? Or are they onto something? Is this kind of antisocial electronic attachment the secret means to enlightenment?
I beheld even more people caught up in these perverse rituals when I got off the subway; the harder I looked for them, the more of them I noticed, as if they were multiplying before my skittish, twitching eyes. It made me glad I’m not much longer for this world, as I don’t think all of this collective solipsism is a fad. If anything, I only expect it to get worse.
Naturally, I sincerely hope I’m wrong. I usually am, so that’s some consolation. And, as a prophylactic against self-righteousness, let my epitaph be: “Just Kidding.”
God or gods bless you or, if you’re an atheist, enjoy the void while you can. Fellow agnostics, remember that continually shrugging your shoulders will spare you from tearing your rotator cuff.