Wednesday, October 01, 2008
Joan of Arc: The Power of Deep Practice?
I just finished re-watching The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. I was drawn back to this excellent movie by way of a renewed interest in the Middle Ages and their talismans, via the TV series Witchblade (as opposed to its anime sister series, which is also great in its own right). I'm also reading Spear of Destiny by Trevor Ravenscroft, a faintly fantastical account of Hitler's journey into dark magic, especially with regard to the Spear of Longinus, which I haven't quite decided how to take yet, except as account of spiritual practice gone badly wrong. And while I'm at it, I have to mention the book that brought me to the magic of the late Middle Ages, particularly the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, years ago, Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, surely the most readable and fascinating history book I've ever come near, which I heartily recommend.
The Messenger is a film by Luc Besson starring Milla Jovovich, surely one of the most underrated actresses of our time. Milla's performance is entrancing; if you've only seen her as Leeloo in The Fifth Element and as Alice in the Resident Evil movies - both of which are fine performances - you owe it to yourself to see her as Kat in .45 and in The Messenger. The most intriguing thing about this latter movie (although with excellent performances by John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman and Milla) is that the source of Joan's visions is left ambiguous. Do they come from God? From the Devil? From some sort of schizophrenia, from Joan's own unconfessed ambition, or from some other source.
It appears to me that in the movie, at least (the historical facts are too vague to even speculate), Joan is entirely convinced (at least until the end) that the voices come from God, and I don't doubt that they did. Which sounds like a strange thing for me as a non-theist to say, but it is obvious that Joan has a profound conviction, of which she was dead certain, which turned out to be true and accurate and led her to great victory.
You have to remember that Joan of Arc was an ignorant (in the non-pejorative sense of the word; she could of course neither read nor write and had no education at all beyond the indoctrination of the fifteenth-century Church) peasant, and any experience she had was solidly in the context of the deep Christian fear in which she would have been raised. I think even modern Christians would have to admit that the Church of the Middle Ages, although the only source of political stability in the Western World before the rise of the nation-state, was a dreadful entity. It occurred to me, thinking about this fictional depiction of Joan, which I think expresses deep truths, that the experience of direct communication from God, of which she was absolutely certain, was virtually indistinguishable in context from the direct perceptions of absolute certainty one can have after a few years of zazen, or perhaps any other direct and deep practice. And thus I can empathize.
I have dedicated myself to the practice of zazen only for about four years, a pittance of time compared to some of my friends and fellow Zen students, but I can tell you (those of you who don't already know) that there are moments of insight at which time the defensive barriers with which we surround our non-existent (though all too apparent) selves drop away, and one for a moment is clearly able to see what is, or what things are, to eschew Zen terminology for a bit. Certain things can be seen as absolutely true, and if one can bring back an accurate enough perception or description of that moment, even to oneself (because the event has to be interpreted and to some extent verbalized to be stored in the "mind"), those clear truths can be made the basis of right actions.
As adamant as I am about my practice of zazen, and my constant battle against what I see as a watering of the practice by those who value the context more than the content, please don't think I think everyone needs to be a Zen Buddhist. First, it's just not a path that's going to appeal to that many people. It's hard work, the promised rewards aren't much in comparison to what most religions promised, and the only ones who find the true practice are those who come looking for it. Which is why I get really annoyed when a bunch of metaphysical crap is passed off as Zen, because people will encounter that, realize what bullshit it is, and go away disappointed. This is why I won't be involved in the Nashville Buddhist Festival after this year; most of the people who come there are seeking some sort of comfortable delusion, and it's a violation of the Fifth Precept to sell it to them.
Zen is definitely the place for me, but if you're one of those people like me who, from the first realization of your human existence, have demanded to know the answer to the question: What is this? then I really want to believe that over time your quest will lead you through the illusions and obstacles to some form of deep practice which will enable you to perceive things directly and truly. In between my Zen periods, I tried other things. Strangely enough, the chanting of the Nichirens was a very powerful practice for me, although the context was absurd enough ultimately to drive me away. Conversely, my brief flirtation with Tibetan Buddhism left me with nothing but a distaste; it is a devotional practice based on illusion, not much different from what I perceive the Black Arts to be.
But there are experiences outside religion or spiritual practice that can take you there; although I wouldn't advise anyone to try it because of the inherent risk factors, drugs can blow open those doors of perception; I know a lot of people with deep current practices and development who got their first glimpse of reality without filters this way. Unfortunately, drugs, like occult practices, can leave the door open for a bunch of other stuff you don't want. Having those doors opened without proper guidance can take you to some strange places. Madness and egotistical delusion spring to mind. Some of us were lucky to come through as intact as we did, and to this day I question my own sanity, as defined by the modern world.
There are probably a lot of other things that can kick those door open: hunger, trauma, all sort of privations. Anything that strips you of your social context and removes you even for a moment from consensual reality can, I think, enable you to see things as they are. But the failing of asceticism is that without context, either from yourself or a mentor of some sort, these experiences can't be brought back into "everyday life" once participation in such is regained. Some are prepared, and some get lucky. Personally, I feel like some of the nasty experiences I've had have enabled me to remember, even when things seem fine, that there are no guarantees. You'll die alone, and things will be about like they are right now. Sorry.
The experience of Joan of Arc led her to reject the Church, the only voice of authority in her day, and the only context she had ever had, in favor of the content of her own experience, which to her was the voice of God. This is of course the common factor of mystical experiences throughout the history of the world; they do not come through organizations. A teacher can be helpful to get you there, but once you have the experience, you must rely on your own truth. But how to know truth, whether seen as divine communication or just direct perception, there's the rub. Because you won't know it until you see it. You will know it when you do see it, but you can be fooled by all sorts of stuff before you get there. There are logical problems with this proposition, I see all too well, but they're just artifacts of the language, and remember, you have to get beyond language to see what's real.
As a footnote, in Soto Zen, a "mystical revelation" or "moment of enlightenment" is seen as just another experience not to be dwelt in. At worst, they are seems as delusions; at best, they cannot be grasped and held onto and should be let go just like any other perception or experience. When Joan's voices stopped, she carried on doing what she thought had been the last command of the voices, and wrong-headed herself into downfall. It's the moment we have to act in, not a great experience of the past, which is where so very many mystics go wrong, so enraptured by their experience that they can't let go of it.
So I understand the experience of Joan of Arc and I think she did hear the voice of God. Because the power of understanding comes not through grasping, but through letting go.