Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Buddhist Tragedy

Paula spoke with God recently, on Prospect Hill. He, living up to his reputation as a tetchy God ("Chatting like this really chafes my numinosity", he complained) concluded by asking, "-- WHAT THE FUCK -- PARDON MY FRENCH -- ARE YOU TRYING TO TRANSCEND ANYWAY ????"

Which, Paula says, is a good question.

I'm sure it is a good question, for her. For me, it's not a very interesting one, because the answer is up-front and obvious. I want to transcend unhappiness.

I never understand why nobody faults Buddhism for its devastating practicality, its drab utilitarian worldliness. People will fault it for all kinds of odd things -- the late Pope chided us for our pessimism, of all things, and a great many people take us to task for being impractical. Which I really can't fathom. What could be more optimistic than thinking that all sentient beings are capable of achieving omniscience and bliss? And what could be more practical than unwinding all the perplexities of the world, and bringing them down simply to -- "Why am I unhappy? And what's to be done about it?"

No, what people ought to complain about is how stubbornly quotidian and self-interested we are. Christians are Warriors of the Light; we are Applied Scientists of Cheerfulness. Well, sure, we want to establish all sentient beings in lasting happiness: but that's just because we've concluded that their happiness and our own happiness is one and the same thing. There's nothing noble about it. Enlightened (as they say) self-interest.

There is no such thing as Buddhist tragedy. It's simply not possible. Without Great Souls, and Death as an End, and Final Judgement, how do you even conceive tragedy? When Claudius and Hamlet get together in their next lives and work out their little differences, and Hamlet's father and mother, brother and sister now, beam at them and bring them hot chocolate. When Macbeth admits it was a horrendous miscalculation, and Duncan tells him not to mention, it -- we all make mistakes -- and Desdemona puts together a powerpoint presentation detailing the exact progress of that dratted handkerchief, so as to clear it all up for Othello, while Iago chimes in and explains how his own suffering moved him to generate more suffering and the idea was that at some point his own suffering would go away, but it just never worked out that way -- well, you get the picture. Hard luck on Shakespeare that the Dharma hadn't shown up in the West yet, but a stroke of good fortune for us.

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