Friday, February 20, 2004

Patrul Rinpoche at some point in Words of my Perfect Teacher (which I just finished this morning) describes the horror of being in the womb, the dark, the slime, the suffocation, the stink of it -- and then the culminating torture of being wrung through the birth canal, and the sudden intolerable glare and noise and confusion of birth. A terrible ordeal, from start to finish.

I've read these descriptions before in Buddhist literature. Such a different fantasy than the typical modern Western one, of floating serenely in the comforting amniotic sea, and then surfacing blissfully into a higher consciousness at birth. So ingrained is this fantasy that the Tibetan fantasy comes as a shock, even an obscenity, to a Western mind. It's so different. So obviously wrong.

And our birth fantasy is echoed and supported by our Eden myth, of course. That lovely, rather unintelligent song of Carly Simon's, a few years ago, that plaintively reiterates "we are all born / innocent" -- is just restating thousands of years of Judaeo-Christian-Muslim conviction. The human race started pure. Each person started pure. Everything that's gone wrong with the human race is contained within historical human time, and everything that's gone wrong with each individual person is contained within his or her lifetime.

And so you get the characteristic Western extremism. If human society went wrong inside of historical time, it can also be put right in historical time. Things went to hell only a few thousand years ago, so it's only optimistic -- not demented -- to think a few generations could serve to put things right again. Likewise the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim insistence on having a single life to work out one's salvation, to put things right with God. It all went wrong in this lifetime, and it all has to be put right in this lifetime. The Dalai Lama, when he visited Merton's monastery, was most struck by the urgency there, the desperate seriousness of people who know they have only this life, only this one chance, to repair the damage of their lives and re-establish a relationship with God that they themselves, in this very lifetime, have wrecked.

The myth of Eden has transferred smoothly to secular humanists and neo-pagans; without missing a beat, they too have adopted original innocence and purity -- of humanity and of human individuals -- as articles of faith. (Weirdly they try to characterize this as a rebellion against the J-C-M faiths, when in fact it's a direct inheritance from them; I've never quite understood this).

A standard prayer in my tradition of Buddhism asks to be released from "the ocean of suffering -- the stormy waves of birth, old age, illness, and death." When I first met this foursome, the first seemed bizarrely out of place. It wasn't till I understood two critical things -- one, that birth was thought of as a deeply painful trauma, and two, that it wasn't thought of as the beginning of our consciousness -- that I could make any sense of it.

But once I'd thoroughly understood those two things, I could look backward at my own unexamined assumption of original -- and recent -- innocence, and see how much it contributed to my own intolerance and fanaticism. The people who were ruining the innocent world were still walking around in it, unpunished! Innocent children were being warped and depraved before my very eyes! The desperation and urgency of my poltical convictions stemmed largely from this convicton of recent innocence -- which is purely fantasy. Nothing in my own memory of childhood suggests that I was innocent and unsuffering at any time in my past. Nothing in the historical or archeological record suggests that human beings used to be one happy un-neurotic family. (Those who get all dewy-eyed about the supposed reign of the Goddess would do well to note that evidence of the cult of the Goddess generally appears alongside evidence of human sacrifice.)

The Tibetan idea of what the experience of gestation and birth are like may well be all wrong. But it's founded on no less evidence than our idea. Maybe on more. Babies sure don't look or sound like they're having a lovely serene awakening when they're born. They look and sound anguished and terrified.

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