Wednesday, June 16, 2004

An Inarticulation

There is something not quite articulated -- or possibly just wrong -- in the relation between this odd unexpected resurgence of my youthful utopianism, and my Buddhist conviction of "basic goodness."

I've seen people shipwreck in just this way. The Buddhist hope for transcendant happiness gets muddled with ambitions for worldly happiness, and in short order the fact that Buddhism isn't fixing the world is taken for evidence that the hope is foolish. It's a good way to ruin a Buddhist practice. And it's for that reason that I take a rather dim view of "engaged Buddhism." I'm all in favor of political engagement, and I'm all in favor of Buddhism, but that doesn't mean that I favor mixing the two.

I've been sloppy, or at least vague -- and speaking in personal shorthand. Il buon tempo verra -- what does that mean to me?

The unrepentent radical Shelley, in Italy, had it inscribed on a ring that he wore. "The good time will come." And its message for him, was more or less the same as the message of his Ode to the West Wind: my success or failure in life is not to be judged on whether I bring tyranny low and establish universal brotherhood in my lifetime -- because I certainly won't. I may not even be read in my lifetime. My lifework is to plant seeds, which may well lie dormant for generations. But someday, the things I have planted will come to fruition.

Now, this is an idea that slips easily into a number of unpleasant forms. It easily becomes contempt for all these backward apes who are living in the present, while we are living in the highly-evolved future. It also easily becomes a complacent sojourn in a fantasy world in which none of our ideas need ever be tested against reality, or even against other ideas. And in any case it's a perfect example of granting conceptualization priority over perception. An invitation to "be there then" rather than "be here now." As such any Buddhist might look askance at it.

But there's another way in which it can dovetail with a Buddhist view. We're urged to view every sentient being as a Buddha. Exhorted to remember that any one of them really might be. What does a Buddha in the form of a grocery checkout clerk look like? Well, like a grocery checkout clerk, is my guess. Treating any old person you meet with the respect, affection, and devotion you'd accord the Buddha -- probably nothing in the world, not all the practices or rituals or philosophical understandings ever invented, will ever work more powerfully to evoke the Buddha in that person.

We can view the social and political world with the same eyes, the same expectation. This is a "pure land" -- it's just one that does not yet know that it is. The political and social structures of our world don't have to be viewed as horrible impositions -- they can be viewed as structures of liberty and justice that just haven't flowered yet. Obscured and confused, certainly. Capable, as is any unenlightened person, of inflicting enormous suffering. But if any Jerusalem is ever to be built in England's -- or America's -- green and pleasant land, it will be built of these materials. There's nothing else to build with.

Well. I'm not at all satisfied that this has been a successful raid on the inarticulate. I haven't entirely convinced myself, at any rate.

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