Read Part 1
There is much that is beautiful about Buddhism. I have heard some very wise Buddhists argue that the world is not illusion, that the problem is that because of our enculturation and our ego, we do not see the world in all its pain and beauty. Simply because much of what we see is illusion, they say, does not mean that nothing exists: it just means we do not see clearly. I love that. As my friend George Draffan says, “Meditation methods are ways to help us see more clearly, to dismantle our emotional and perceptual projections, to become more sensitive to what’s actually going on….Meditation itself is an ingenious collection of tools, spiritual technologies for dismantling habituated patterns and projections.” To dismantle habituated patterns would be more than welcome. I could argue against none of this.
But Christians, too, can point to a theoretical Christianity that does not attempt to express “dominion” over the earth and its inhabitants, that does not give other humans the choice of Christianity or death, that does not cause the hatred of women, children, life. Capitalists, too, can express fantasies of how some ideal capitalism can bring peace, justice, and happiness to all (humans). And scientists have their own technotopiae that they, too, use to urge us all onward.
But we have to ask ourselves how these religions are expressed on the ground, in the real world—I mean both of these literally—how they play out in the lives of living breathing human beings and others. What have been the effects of Christianity on the health of landbases? Has biodiversity thrived on the arrival of the cross? How has the arrival of Christianity affected the status of women? How has it affected the indigenous peoples it has encountered? We can and should ask the same questions of Buddhism, science, capitalism, and every other aspect of our or any other culture. Not how they play out theoretically, not how their rhetoric plays out, not how we wish they would play out, not how they could play out under some imaginary ideal circumstances, but how they have played out.
Just as Christianity has so very often been on one hand a tool of empire—as when Emperor Constantine went forth to conquer under the sign of the cross, and as when George W. Bush went forth to conquer because “God told me to”— and on the other hand a tool of subservience to power and escapism by the powerless (or those who believe themselves powerless), as I’ve described these last few pages, so too Buddhism often becomes yet another means for the traumatized to rationalize escaping the physical world. I cannot tell you how many Buddhists have said to me—attempting to sound serene, but instead with an odd combination of smugness and brittleness in their voices—that salmon and other creatures are just shifting patterns of energy and are therefore not “real,” meaning concern about their fate is not only folly but a barrier to enlightenment. A longtime pacifist activist said to me during an interview, “There are no salmon on one level of existence. There is only the movement of God’s eyebrows. I’ve had the experience of transcending all duality. There’s only this kind of rush of consciousness, and a part of that consciousness becomes salmon, and a part of that consciousness becomes time. And the salmon thrive for millions of years, and they go extinct. There’s all this momentary burst of consciousness.” Because, the story goes, these creatures are nothing but a part of this illusory earth—a “movement of God’s eyebrows”—it doesn’t matter so much if these creatures are driven extinct. In fact, I’ve been told, there can be no extinction because the salmon don’t exist in the first place, or if there is extinction, then it is God’s will, God’s dream. Further, there is clearly something wrong with me because I remain attached to these creatures. This would be a good opportunity, they say, for me to practice detachment. How can I ever achieve enlightenment if I remain attached to this world?
I have many times experienced my own version of what this interview subject called non-duality, and what I call an uninterrupted state of grace. It has sometimes gone on for months. But for me it does not involve detachment from the world, or perceiving the world as a “rush of consciousness.” Instead it is the opposite, a falling deeply into the world, an immersion, until I can feel how trees, insects, rain, soil, humans, the body of the earth, and my own body work together and in opposition, and my response is to say, “Oh, the beauty. The beauty.” It is to experience and comprehend complete and joyous participation in the dance that is this extraordinarily wonderful world.
At one recent talk a Buddhist objected to my discussion of violence, saying, and I’ve heard this one a lot, that there can never be any reason for any form of violence. I did not ask whether she eats. I asked instead what she would do if she saw someone standing in front of her, beating a child.
She said, “I would bear witness to the child’s suffering.”
“You wouldn’t intervene?”
“While using violence to stop the perpetrator might seem helpful in the short term, it would simply throw more violence into the universe—make the universe a more violent place—and in the long run would lead to more violence. I would not intervene.”
I responded, “That’s all theoretical. If after the show I happen to be walking by an alley, and happen to see that someone is beating you to death with a two-by-four, I strongly suspect all your fancy spirituality will rightly fall by the wayside as you beg me to not simply stand by and bear silent witness to your suffering and to your murder.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“I don’t believe you.”
She talked over me, “And it’s the same with salmon. In the long run they’ll go extinct anyway, and in the end the sun will burn up the earth, so it doesn’t really matter . . .”
“Just because everyone in this room will someday die,” I responded, “doesn’t mean it’s okay to torture them to death now. That’s absurd. If this is where your spirituality leads you, I want no part of it.”
Still other Buddhists tell me I must never act from anger, and must act only from a place of compassion and lovingkindness™ toward oppressors and abusers. I get this shit all the time. Just a couple of days ago I received an email from a stranger attempting to point out errors in my thinking. “As a writer there is only so far you can go with hostility and still be effective. In your upcoming radio interview, why don’t you talk about you, how are you dealing with your health problems, what did you see or feel recently that inspired you (rather than what made you angry)?” This was a woman, which was sort of odd: usually intrusive men try to tell me what’s wrong with my work while intrusive women try to fix my life. But this woman also wrote, “How is your sex-uality/sensuality being affected by your increasing mental aggression against forces over which you have little control [sic]. How does the anger affect personal relationships. Are you still hugging trees or do you now have a human in bed with you?”
My first thought was to respond that whether my anger at the dominant cul-ture’s destruction of the planet affects my sex life is a question to which she will never know the answer.
One of the main problems with her questions (apart from the fact that my personal life is none of her goddamn business) is the premise that because I’m angry at the culture I’m angry at my friends. That’s just plain silly. My anger is not a shotgun. I’m angry at the things that make me angry, and I’m not angry at the things that do not. What a concept.
But, and this is very important, from her perspective it’s probably not silly at all. And that’s the problem. The central point of R. D. Laing’s great book The Politics of Experience was, so far as I’m concerned, that people act according to the way they experience the world. If you can understand their experience, you can understand their behavior. This is as true for the criminally insane as it is for capitalists. But once again I repeat myself.
He cites a description of a pathetic lunatic, given by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin: “Gentlemen, the cases that I have to place before you today are peculiar. First of all, you see a servant girl, aged twenty-four, upon whose features and frame traces of great emaciation can be plainly seen. In spite of this, the patient is in continual movement, going a few steps forward, then back again; she plaits her hair, only to unloose it the next minute. On attempting to stop her movement, we meet with unexpectedly strong resistance; if I place myself in front of her with my arms spread out in order to stop her, if she cannot push me on one side, she suddenly turns and slips through under my arms, so as to continue her way. If one takes firm hold of her, she distorts her usually rigid, expressionless features with deplorable weeping, that only ceases so soon as one lets her have her own way. We notice besides that she holds a crushed piece of bread spasmodically clasped in the fingers of her left hand, which she absolutely will not allow to be forced from her. The patient does not trouble in the least about her surroundings so long as you leave her alone. If you prick her in the forehead with a needle, she scarcely winces or turns away, and leaves the needle quietly sticking there without letting it disturb her restless, bird-of-prey-like wandering backwards and forwards. To questions she answers almost nothing, at the most shaking her head. But from time to time she wails: ‘O dear God! O dear God! O dear mother!,’ always repeating uniformly the same phrases.”
Laing says, “If we see the situation purely in terms of Kraepelin’s point of view, it all immediately falls into place. He is sane, she is insane; he is rational, she is irrational. This entails looking at the patient’s actions out of the context of the situation as she experienced it. But if we take Kraepelin’s actions (in ital-ics)—he tries to stop her movements, stands in front of her with arms outspread, tries to force a piece of bread out of her hand, sticks a needle in her forehead, and so on—out of the context of the situation as he experienced it and defined by him, how extraordinary they are.”
From within the context of industrial capitalism as those enculturated into industrial capitalism experience and define it, destroying one’s landbase (and then everyone else’s) to increase the size of one’s bank account makes sense. From within the context of civilization, as experienced and defined by the civilized— those who consider themselves in the most “advanced state of human soci-ety”—the destruction of all other cultures makes perfect sense. When you are bombarded from birth on with images and stories that teach you to perceive women as sexual objects, it should come as no surprise when you treat them as such. Likewise, when you are raised in an abusive household or an abusive culture where relations are based on power, and where those in power routinely use violence to terrorize those they wish to subjugate—when that is your experience of the world, when that is how the world has been defined for you—it may make sense to you to try to gain power over everyone you can. Or, and this brings us back to our discussion, anger may unduly frighten you—when those in power became angry, you suffered.
To be clear: All of this stepping away from anger—the presumption, for example, that anger toward the culture would lead to displacing that anger toward your friends—makes sense if you are afraid of your own emotions (or if you yourself displace your anger), if you are afraid of anger because you have been abused—made powerless in the face of “forces over which you have little control”—and realize in your body that the anger you feel only highlights your own impotence.
The point, it seems painfully (and beautifully) clear to me, is to not eradicate anger, but to try to be clear about when and why and at whom I am angry, and to be mindful of my anger. When appropriate, to let anger inform and even possess me so long as it does not consume me, as I can, when appropriate, let love or fear or joy inform and possess me so long as they too do not consume me. To aim my anger, not displace it, just as I would hope to aim and not displace my love, fear, or joy. I do not mind when someone expresses anger at me for something I have done to him or her. I do, however, mind when someone expresses anger toward me I do not deserve. The same can be said, obviously, for love and other emotions.
My dogs sometimes fight over their food dish, even though there is another a few feet away and even though they love each other even more than they love me. Every time they fight, minutes later they’re once again cozying up to each other. This may seem odd, but I like it when I see this process, because each time it reminds me again that anger is just anger—I learn the same lesson each time I hear songbirds scold each other, or see bees tussle, or I snap at my mom or she snaps at me—and I’m reminded that outside the context of an abusive relationship, anger is nothing to be frightened of. Anger is just anger.
Attempts to “transcend” anger emerge from this fear, and also from the same old body-hating traditions that want to rid us of all of our “flawed” animal nature: transcendent spirit (cosmic consciousness, God’s eyebrows, and so on), good; animal nature/emotion, bad.
Outside of this abusive context, of course, none of it makes any sense at all.