See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Fierce Grace

I had an interesting weekend. I spent it with some friends from the Circle of Friends, in a really beautiful setting so far out into the Tennessee wilderness that I could hear banjos playing for the last hour of my drive; I hope to tell you more about it later, when I have a bit more distance and hopefully a picture or two. But for the moment I'm thinking about one of the movies I saw, Ram Dass: Fierce Grace.

If I want to see someone who's had a stroke agonizingly move about a room, and learn to walk and speak again, I just have to look at my eighteen-year old cat, Ms. Johnson (for those of you who are friends of hers, she is still kicking. And stumbling and shedding and eating and shitting; she sends her regards). Of course, being a cat, she's tougher than we are. Watching a human is a bit more painful, as well as tedious, and that's a lot of what you have to do to make it through this movie. I never would have made it through the first fifteen minutes of this if I hadn't been trapped on a couch in a room full of people and it was almost my nap time.

Having said that, the movie picks up speed when it finally gets around to the bio of Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Baba Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now, which was at one time the third best-selling book in the English language. Even if you weren't born til after the sixties or slept through them, you've seen this book. Ram Dass was probably the biggest importer of Hinduist mysticism into Twentieth Century pop culture, together with George Harrison. Alpert's story is a Sixties story, to be sure. Born rich, he got his doctorate at Stanford and became a professor of Psychology at Harvard, where he had the fortune (whichever way you look at it) to office with Timothy Leary, who of course introduced him to LSD and got them both summarily fired. The two went on to introduce literally millions of Americans to acid, and without them the culture change that hit this country in the 60's would have been a lot different.

I won't spend my time right here on acid. If you haven't done it, don't do it now. Likewise if you have done it. But if you did it back when there was a cultural context for it, you may have learned something. Richard Alpert sure did, and to his credit, with a lot of help, he finally got over it. He developed mystical inclinations, which is easy to do on acid, and had the money and freedom even without the Harvard position to go to India and find himself a guru, Maharaj-ji. Given the abundance of gurus who arose in India to meet the Western demand for them in the same time period, Alpert lucked out and found one who didn't suck him dry for cash, but in fact taught him some really good stuff. Thus blessed, Richard Alpert returned home and became Baba Ram Dass, New Age icon.

I wouldn't really advocate Hinduism for anyone; it seems to be that if you feel the need to practice a devotional religion, there are others nearer to hand. Christianity, for example. Or Tibetan Buddhism, but that's another story. But for many of us who grew up with a stupid, repressive form of Christianity, Hinduism was an outlet, and an exciting, exotic and musical one at that (thanks to the aforementioned and sadly missed George Harrison). But never forget there are stupid, repressive forms of Hinduism as well. Ever heard of the caste system? And look up sati.

Anyway, Fierce Grace is a film by Mickey Lemle, a longtime devotee or fan of Ram Dass. As all the review say, it is geared for New Agers, but become accessible and meaningful to a wider audience, because if you can make it through the slow parts, and especially in the slow parts, Ram Dass shows the endearing humanity and intelligence that made him a survivor in the Guru Wars, and chronicles the tempering of his spiritual steel in the flame of his 1997 stroke. Seeing the wisdom Ram Dass has developed in handling his own inevitable traumas and counselling others, I can sympathize, much more than usual with exponents of the "all paths lead to the same door" rationalizations of human spirituality. It certainly makes me want to listen to Ram Dass without all the editing (although this film needed more of it). He certainly is, or has become a wise man.

But the problem with all these religions and Deistic philosophies, even of the Mystical variety, is that they can take you to the door but they can't push you through. It certainly can be argued that even some of the "lower" forms of Christianity come down to a personal relationship between Man and God that surpasses in some way the written form of the teachings. However, essentially, to understand Reality, you have to become One with it (to be as mystical as I can get and still eat my breakfast). When I have a relationship with God, there are at least two extraneous entities involved in the relationship. And it seems that even for the most highly developed mystics of the devotional schools, this last barrier of conceptualization is nigh insurmountable.

Ram Dass repeatedly speaks in the film of the moment of his stroke. In what appear to be later discussions, he speaks of his continued awareness of the Beloved, etc. But the most telling moment comes early in the film, in which he admits that at the moment of his stroke, he had no spritual thoughts. No visions of God. To paraphrase, he says (with the characteristic humor that makes him so endearing): "Here I am, Mr. Spiritual. And all I can see is the pipes above my head."

He seems sad. "He says, here I am, and I failed the final test. I did not see God in what could have been the final moments of my life. I just saw the room I was in." Hello! Of course I'm thinking, here you are, after this lifetime of illusion, and at your final moment despite all that, Reality comes and kicks you in the head and You Don't Get It! You Missed It! And you went back to duality, looking to see some God.

My friend Eric says that he's seen somewhere on the internet that Ram Dass later repented that passage, saying that he was just being in the moment. As of course, we always are. And as far as I know, we only have this one moment to figure that out.

Friday, February 08, 2008


Gudo Nishijima, the Japanese Soto Zen master from whom Brad Warner received dharma transmission, is also the author of the most widely circulated (now) and most comprehensible translation of Dogens' Shobogenzo, which is surely the greated Buddhist book ever put together. If you come to other translations of the Shobogenzo, even with a degree in Philosophy as I did, you're likely to be put off by its apparent impenetrability. But in his intro, Nishijima
explains the structure of his translation, which he says is also in the original. Each section is structured as a Hegelian dialectic between idealism and materialism, leading to action and thus to reality. If read in the light of this four-stage structure, passages which appear incomprehensible in the Cleary translation become illuminated, with the aid of course of a good bit of zazen.

And in fact, Nishijima's teaching (embodied very succinctly in A Heart to Heart Chat on Buddhism with Old Master Gudo) makes a very good case for the description of Buddhism as the Middle Way. Often, this description is taken as an admonition to moderation; and while that may be desiriable, Buddhism is obviously a lot more than that. Nishijima posits that the action required to reach the reality found in Buddhism is to find the middle way between idealism and materialism. This is why many passages of the Shobogenzo seem contradictory at first reading; one is from the viewpoint of idealism, the next from materialism. The action needed to synthesize the two in order to perceive reality is zazen. The bringing together of the two cannot be done in the mind; the rational mind yields only opposing statements. Only the larger intuitive mind -- the "Buddha mind" -- can comprehend both. And this is brought about not by thought, but by action. Thus Nishijima and others posit Buddhism as the philosophy of action. I heartily concur, of course.

Of course, if the only benefit of hours and hours of zazen over the course of years were to enable one to understand relatively obscure works of philosophy, it would definitely not be recommended for everyone. The actual proof of the validity of the teaching is in the real world. This came to me the other day while I was watching a campaign commercial for Barack Obama.

Obama's masterfully conducted campaign has brought him from a junior Senator to one of three remaining White House hopefuls. By appealing primarily to idealists, including first-time voters, outsiders, new voters with no long education in political realities, he has become a very viable contender for the Democratic nomination. And I have no doubt that Barack Obama is a very well-intentioned man. Hey, he has to be a whole lot smarter than me. He was the editor of the Harvard Law Review, and he didn't get there by being a legacy kid. I knew the editor of the Stanford Law Review when I was there, and he was definitely a genius but not probably someone you wanted in your house. These people are geeky smart to the nth degree. Go back and read the comments about Obama written by clintonfan, one of Obama's Harvard Law classmates.

But then please read this article, which I ran into just before the primary this week, and which embodied and verbalized some of the fears I was having about the Obama candidacy. The reality of the situation was brought home as I watched him win in red state after red state (Tennessee, which has been retro and Republican-stupid for so long I've given up on my fellow citizens, being the surprise exception and backing Hillary this time). Are crossover Republicans and remnants of the organized voter fraud of the last two elections helping naive idealists propel Obama into the Democratic candidacy, to set him up for a campaign crushing by the Republican propaganda masters? I don't know.

It is obvious that not much can come out on Hillary Clinton between now and November; it's all been done before. Monica Lewinsky? Old news. But Obama is grist for the mill, and he may in fact, and due to no fault of his own, be a perfect stalking horse for John McCain. He is set up to be the Black Kennedy, I think, and in fact may be the next John Kerry.

So it's time for everyone who really wants to make America better, and if you haven't given up already, to save the world, to really work to make Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee. And yes, I'm at least a week too late. So now we just have to cross our fingers. Clinton's campaign ads make one most salient point; we need a new President who can hit the ground running. There's no time for training wheels in the White House right now. Maybe in eight years, it'll be Obama's time.

Of course I'll vote for Obama if he's the Democratic candidate! Are you kidding? John McCain will keep us in Iraq forever. But it's time for reality. Hillary Clinton can start to address the real needs of reality in the real world. So come out of the clouds for now and vote for her. And by the way, check out Jackie Fox's pre-Super Tuesday blog here. Good stuff from a very versatile mind.